Webinar presenter Dr. Jeff Fox, PhD answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Creating and Maintaining a Professional Workforce: Managing Difficult People and Dealing with Negativity in the Workplace. Here are just a few of his responses.
Audience Question: How do you address negativity with your team when the source of negativity has documented mental health issues. How do you work around the Privacy FMLA and HIPAA laws when addressing this with teammates?
Dr. Jeff Fox, PhD: But your teammates might already have an idea that there’s an emotional issue there. That’s a tough one. But you must ask yourself, what kind of safety of security do we have and the type of job that a person has? If it’s a bona fide mental health issue, that’s a one on one, you get HR involved. You are really going to have to document, you’ve got to really document how this affects their work just because they have a mental health issue. Maybe they suffer from depression if that so and they have to admit it we don’t care we want to help them but we want to help them as a person and have to also help them as a part of the agency to make sure everybody’s safe and secure and their doing their jobs. There are two ways of looking at that but as an HR issue, so you’re not going to share much with your team on that you’re going to have to deal with that. If it’s affecting their job or the work then you’re back to work with them to see if there’s something we can do after you’ve documented it and you show this is impacting work because there’s a lot of protection there that is at play and we have got to do something. Is there some sort of mental health treatment they can get? Maybe there’s counseling, maybe a medication. If it can’t be corrected just because they have that doesn’t mean that they’re entitled to that job. In other words, is there a danger that they can’t be doing that job especially if it’s a badge and gun job. I don’t want to get too deep into it but that’s one of the big concerns we have across the country with the gun laws and mental health as we want people to seek out help when they are depressed or whatever and post-traumatic stress disorder when they have all these issues, but we don’t want to stigmatize them. So, we have got to be careful of that too. So that’s a very delicate one. Is it job-related, is it affecting their job, first of all? Sounds like it might be a bit you have got to be able to document that you got to be able to show that. You might still have to handle as improper conduct. You still may have to handle it as a disciplinary issue that their defense might be that I have a mental health issue. Well, okay, that’s okay, but still doesn’t mean you should be in this job unless we can do something to fix that. I hope that makes sense. You really can’t share too much because it is a personnel issue and it’s a HIPAA issue. You have got to look out for your whole team, too.
Audience Question: How do you motivate a negative employee who is meeting base expectations? Thank you, Margaret, for asking that question a really good one.
Dr. Jeff Fox, PhD: They’re meeting expectations, but they’re negative. So, they’re getting the work done. So, I guess my question would be how is the person being negative? Is it how is it being reflected? Are they getting complaints? I’m going to give you an example. I had a person like this quite frankly in my problem area. He wanted to get me arrested because I was telling them to enforce of law, he went to the assistant County attorney and she agreed what I said was wrong. It wasn’t. So that’s not a good feeling when your sergeant calls you up and says, well, I got a letter here and he wants to get you arrested. Oh my, the guy hated my guts, but he actually did his job. He was an older fellow, he made mistakes and stuff and he was always very negative, very derogatory, very negative, very disrespectful and he’d been allowed to do this forever. Nobody had ever challenged him. He got complaints once in a while, but he was smart he knew how to do his job. He was a satisfactory employee, but he had that exact attitude you talked about and I started documenting things. My bosses didn’t grasp it until he started being negative towards them then they didn’t like it very much. And it was just usually in written comments he would make, just super negative. So, what I did was I had pages and pages of this, and I had talked to him a couple of times. So finally I decided to give him a written notice, and I had my sergeant meet with me that morning before we did this, we went up the street to a restaurant and I sat there and I drinking a Pepsi and my sergeant was sitting there drinking a cup of coffee and his hands were shaking. He was an older fellow about 10 years older than me and I said, so and so I said we’re going to have to meet him in a few minutes and I said you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to but if you say anything it needs to back up what I’m saying. So we went in there we sat down and this guy had been so disrespectful, insubordinate, he sat down and nobody had ever done this to him and I gave him his letter and I said, I want you to read this. It was seven pages and laid out all the different examples I had and then it laid out the standards of conduct he violated, and it laid out what we’re going to do next. And I said, “I want you to read it. I don’t want you to say a word until you’re done. Unless you have a question.” So, he was reading on and he got ready to say something I said, is that a question? He said no. I said wait until you’re done, and it seems kind of hard, but this is what I’m saying. You got to deal with people. We got to the end. And I said, do you have any questions about what you just read. He said “No,” and I said “These are all the things you’ve been doing; it’s not going to be tolerated. You’re going to be respectful. You’re not going to be insubordinate anymore. And the next time you do it, I’m going to put you under the standards of conduct. I’m going to recommend you have time off.” I said, “Now this is a new day when we get done here and we walk away from here, that’s in the past. But if you do it again, this is what’s going to happen. I’m not going to tolerate this one more time from you. It is over with.” He stood up. I said do you have any questions. He said no. I said now, “I’m going to shake your hand,” I shook his hand and then we parted ways, and I didn’t have more problems out of him. Several years later, they divided the areas after that. I went away to school several years later. I was a lieutenant and I was in charge of the academy and he had been down there doing firearms instructing and he was really a great firearms instructor, students loved him. I was reading the comments about him and I saw him in the hallway, and I walked over to him and I shook his hand, I put my hand out. He didn’t know what to do and I shook his hand. I said, “I wanted to tell you I’ve been reading the students’ comments about you. You’re a great instructor and I appreciate it,” I didn’t enjoy doing that quite frankly. The guy wanted me arrested but I wouldn’t lower myself to how he was. You’ve got to document. You’ve got to put things in place. You got a point to where is this wrong? Is it something I could put my hat on? Really, sometimes it’s very difficult to do that. It’s very difficult. You can’t go off on a rumor and innuendo you got to be able to document and build a case. I’m a big believer of informal discipline and progressive discipline and we reach that point and I was quite frank with him one more time and I would have thrown the book at him.
Audience Question: How do we combat negativity, when your co-leader, is negative the majority of the time it can’t ever seem to have a good positive day? How do you keep the workplace upbeat in this kind of situation?
Dr. Jeff Fox, PhD: There are three ways to deal with that, one is to try to get that co-leader on a better sheet of music with you, where you both play off the same sheet of music. And you can do that in subtle way and maybe you can do a little more directly just depends on the personalities and how you get along. You might be able to say hey, this is what we’re trying to do, this what I want to do. I would always try to spin it in a positive direction. That would be my first thing. You can tell him this is the impact that just happened. Another thing is to continue to be even a more positive influence on the employees below both of you. Now if he’s doing things that are harmful in a way you can point to you might have to say something to the supervisor above you all. So, one is with him directly. Two is I would even do more with my people to show a positive attitude and they could see the difference between positive and negative and hopefully they’ll follow your lead. The third is if you’ve done the second, first thing especially about trying to work with him directly, as you might have to go to the next level up. I don’t like doing that, but you might have to go to that next level up. I would hope that next level up is already aware and should be dealing with it. So, you know, it’s usually all of the above type an answer and there’s a lot of little nuances in there. We used to have a situation where every year we would rotate our sergeants. You have a different sergeant of every year. When I came back there as a first sergeant I said, “We’re not going to keep rotating sergeants. That’s ridiculous. You’re going to have the same sergeant and we’re all going to be on the same sheet of music.” Because what they would do is sergeant shop. They knew one sergeant was going to be harder than the other one, they will wait for another sergeant. Me, as a sergeants’ leader was saying no, we’re not doing that. You’re all three going to be the same. They’re going to have different personalities. You can’t help that. They are going to have different ways of dealing with things and you got to allow for that. But we’re all three going to follow the rulebook the same way. We’re all three going to be doing that.
Audience Question: What do you do to help you stay calm. What works for you in this kind of situation?
Dr. Jeff Fox, PhD: That’s kind of what I’ve done my whole life is having to be involved in the bad stuff. So, it’s something I condition myself to is where you just got to stay calm. You just have to put it in the head you guys stay calm. If you’re a person who’s in control, you got to be in control. And it’s something you’ve got to be prepared for. You might have to practice that. It is not as easy for some people as for others. A lot of people are arguing and discussing things you might step in and go let’s just take it down one notch or maybe sometimes humor will help. I’ve always found that humor works well. You want to deescalate. You always want to move like water. You want to move to the path of least resistance and you always want to escalate. If you have that if you don’t think you’re comfortable doing that I would read about it. I would practice that, I would visualize that, I would play it through in my head, and I work on that and just try to get better and better at it. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen a lot. It does happen, and it’s something that you have to almost be trained for and just prepared for at work. But that’s how I work. I just know that’s how my mind works. We’re going to deescalate; we’re not going to let this get out of hand. We’re going to take a chill pill. We’re going to go to our corners and we’re going to talk nicely and one of my rules was I never cursed a violator. I never said anything bad to a violator, and I don’t let them do that to me. Normally, that would work. Someone back at my car might be ranting and raving and cussing and screaming, I would very calmly say, “Sir, have I done something to make you upset with me other than stopping you?” and they would usually say something like no. They would calm right down, and it never helped me to start screaming or yelling back at them. Rarely did I ever have somebody do that to me as a supervisor. Once or twice and that was it. I was on vacation once and my boss called me, he was screaming and yelling at me. I had my family right there and I was like if I could reach him on the phone, I would have choked him. Once back in the office I walked up to him. I said you will never ever do that to me again. You understand that? I’m not going to tolerate that from you, and he knew he was wrong and when they know they’re wrong usually they will back down, but that’s the best I can do for you right now.
Audience Question: How do you balance the desire to identify the root cause with the reality that managers are not therapists?
Dr. Jeff Fox, PhD: good question and you’re not a therapist, but it really depends on what type of job you have. My job was always policing. So, you know, I was a student of human nature it was my job to understand human beings and that’s what I dealt with. So, it’s a little bit difficult in some jobs, but really doing what you doing here attending this webinar, I would highly recommend you read those books mentioned. You’ve got to throw yourself into it. There’s a lot of good TED Talks and YouTube’s out there. Immerse yourself into it and almost become an expert at it. Then the other part of it is, you know, they call it practicing law and practicing medicine because that’s really what this is practicing it and sometimes a doctor will try one thing and that doesn’t work so let’s try another thing. We will try one approach to another approach. It’s getting to understand, getting to understand your people and trying different things. We don’t want to do harm. We only want to do good. So maybe a slow approach is best. We talk about, get your evidence together, and find out the facts. You got to know your people. You got to know the patterns. You got to know who they are, and it goes back also to that hiring process. You don’t want to hire a hothead; a person who’s known as a hothead or a hot dog. So, some of that you may have no to control, maybe if you didn’t have any decision in that and now you have them you have got to get to know your people. They got to get to know you and then the human nature thing. It just requires all those things we talked about.
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