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Age-related disabilities bring out the bullies

Dear Office-Politics,

I was a successful executive in high tech companies for 15 years. About 7 years ago I started my own small company which now has 4 employees. As a small company we can’t afford to pay the highest salaries, but I try to create a great work environment with great benefits and lots of flexibility.

One of my employees, John, (who is also a friend) is in his early 60’s and has a variety of aged related health problems and disabilities which he did not perceive or disclose at the time he was hired 3 years ago. For example, although he was hired for his IT and technical support skills, he can’t read the type on a computer screen unless the font sizes are turned WAY UP. All the windows and blinds in the office that he is in have to be closed or he can’t see the computer screens (causing coworkers to complain bitterly since we don’t have private offices). Arthritis makes it difficult for him to pick up a computer himself or bend down to adjust cables.

Over time, I have shifted his duties to focus more on providing technical support to clients over the phone. He does a great job with that and is willing to come in at 6:00AM in the morning to cover the least desirable technical support shift. John is great on the phone and has the maturity to deftly handle the most irate and irrational customer. John is ill and out sick much more often than other employees, which requires others to fill in for him on technical support. When John is not on the phone, he does spend too much time talking to other employees. Despite encouragement he does not take the initiative to learn new skills thatwould help out the team.

My problem is the hostile attitude that other employees have developed toward John and they use his lower productivity to justify why they shouldn’t work hard or be responsible for high levels of quality. At least one has told me he has complete contempt for John and that I should fire him and get someone more productive. No one at my company is overwhelmed by stress and work. I don’t think it is a big deal for John to ask a healthy 35 year old man to help him move or pick up a computer. One employee sends me emails “will you ask John to do this”, “will you tell John to do that”. I have had to have uncomfortable conversations about how I expect team members to be able to talk to each other and resolve routine issues without my intervention.

I have a legal responsibility to make reasonable accommodations for a disabled employee, but I also feel an ethical responsibility not to put a friend out of work when I know it will be difficult for him to find other work and impossible for him to get health insurance that he and his wife desperately need. John isn’t the most productive guy, but I also don’t pay him that much either. I do get my money’s worth.

How do I deal with the politics of the more able employees who think “Everyone should pull their own weight”. It seems like they are turning into a gang of bullies. I feel like I am dealing with children. Help!!!!!!!!!!!

Boss not Mommy


OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON AND DR. MARTY SELDMAN

dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Boss not Mommy,

You are truly in a difficult situation compounded by the fact that your company is small and needs to be a cohesive team. It sounds like you are clear about how you want to treat John and given your values it seems like you are comfortable with that decision. We are not going to try to talk you out of it but we do have some suggestions. Your team is in the early stages of a vicious cycle which has the potential to drain your energy, waste your time and distract the team.

As with all vicious cycles it is important to deal with it as soon as possible because it will get worse. We suggest talking with John first. While you seem to be working around his limitations and satisfied with the output you are getting it is important for him to know that he needs to be sensitive to impressions. When his peers see him talking and not working it is hurting you and the team. They may be immature in their reactions, but given that you are being considerate of him we would suggest asking him to help you by being as productive as he can at work.

This will help you in your discussions with the other employees. We suggest meeting with them one on one and explaining that you have spoken with John about being productive, while allowing for his difficulties in completing some tasks. Then remind each of them that you are a small team and need to maximize how you use your time and energy. Ask each of them to think about their comments and trust you that you are trying to do what is fair to all concerned and will monitor John’s behavior.

We think this is about all you can do. If any of them still persist in attacking and doing things that hurt the team then you probably need to have a tougher conversation and factor in their overall impact on the team. Hopefully appealing to their sense of responsibility to the team and mission, combined with your talking with John will get them to be a little more mature and you can spend less time being Mommy.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Sincerely,

Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success


cover of Survival of the SavvyRick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.

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  1. One Answer to “Age-related disabilities bring out the bullies”

  2. Feedback from Boss not Mommy

    Thank you so much for selecting my letter for discussion. With regard to Drs. Brandon and Seldman’s advice. It was VERY helpful to understand that the situation… was a CYCLE and it was going to get more and more VICIOUS. They were right that it certainly was draining.

    The response also made me understand that some of my employees do not understand or share my values…so I need to do a better job of expressing them.

    This experience has made me realize bullies need to be called on what they are doing when they are doing it. I need to make it clear, it is NOT okay to make jokes at other team member’s expense whether or not they can hear it. Deriding other people is vicious. That’s leadership issue I need to step up to.

    I took your advice, Franke, and asked the person (let’s call him Paul) who is the major aggressor against ‘John’, whether he would want some empathy if something happened to his ability to perform…his answer was really revealing. He said of course he would want some accommodation until he got better, but he saw John’s situation as different…. John is only going to get worse, so we should just face facts and get rid of him now…or if I want to keep John around, I should hire someone else to perform the office IT support so it isn’t a drag on everyone else. Paul is happy to help younger employees who need the afternoon off for child care or need who everyone to be quiet because they have a hangover from staying up all night playing in a rock band and drinking… but he was not willing to signup to help someone with a permanent condition. I asked him to realize that not everyone gets paid the same here so not everyone is expected to perform the same. I recalled didn’t see any hostility toward that incompetent intern we had here a couple of years ago (of course she was 21 and very pretty). I asked Paul to trust me to be fair. He said “It is not fair for John to ask me to move around computers every few days…I’m a programmer not a janitor.”

    “Well Paul, how many times have you seen me pick up a computer or a monitor, or crawl around on the floor checking out wires? I can answer that for you…ALL THE TIME”.

    To let you know how this all ended…. Paul’s wife got a job in another state, so he is leaving at the end of the month… I’m not sure his level of empathy is improved, but I can rest assured time will eventually make him understand John’s position.

    I have decided that I need to restructure John’s duties so that he is only required to do things that he can do really well….so I have contracted with another small company to take over their telephone support and that keeps John busy 100% of the time AND makes me money J . I thinking about having John telecommute so that he can completely control his office environment in terms of light, noise etc….

    In the end, I think it will be a happy ending for all concerned. I definitely got to learn some things about managing people I wouldn’t have learned if I had stayed at a Fortune 500 company. Thanks again for your advice and support.

    By Letter Writer on Jun 19, 2007

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