Seven steps to take as a small business owner in conflicted employment relationships with passive/aggressive employees.

One of the most difficult parts of being a small business owner is when personal relationships with an employee goes south. When conflicts arise, it is in everyone’s best interest to have the conflicts resolved swiftly in a win/win scenario. But what do you do when you don’t know a conflict exists until the relationship is so damage that it’s unrepairable?

Believe it or not, this can happen.

Some employees are so passive with their anger and so choreographed in their behavior around you that you, as the owner, can be caught unaware of the employee’s true thoughts and feelings. As a small business owner, what should you do? I offer some advice from my own experience of owning a business.

#1: Focus on what you can control

You can’t control another person’s attitudes or actions. And you certainly can’t control what they think about you, what they say about you or any coalitions they build against you. What other people think about you is not your business and since you can’t control it, don’t focus on it.

But you can control your own attitudes and actions. You can control how you interact with that employee.  And you can control how you react and learn from the situation.  So, focus on controlling yourself.  That’s step #1.

#2: Assess the severity of the conflict and if necessary, take immediate, responsible steps to protect yourself and your business

When you first learn that an employee is not being honest with you about a conflict s/he has with you, assess the severity of the conflict and, if necessary, take immediate steps to protect yourself and your business.  In this vein, be sure to document how you learned about the conflict, who told you what and so forth.  If the conflict leads to a termination, you’ll want to be sure you’ve documented what you said and did after learning about the conflict in case the employee brings a legal action against you.

If the conflict represents potential legal action, be sure to take steps to protect yourself and your business.

#3: Control your tongue

When you find out about the conflict, you might be deeply hurt, very angry – or both.  When emotions run high, sense runs low.  So do whatever you have to do to limit your “venting” to those who are trusted advisers.  Be very careful about venting to other employees, even if they enjoy your full trust. It’s just too risky. Save your “venting” for your trusted advisers.

#4: Look back and learn what the warning signs were – then learn to recognize them moving forward

In nearly every case where I had an employee leave on negative terms, there were warning signs that I either discounted or ignored. Learn what these signs are and then pay attention to them. I offer some here for your consideration:

  • Irritation: The employee gets overly irritated or annoyed with you about small things
  • Distance: The employee talks to you less and less
  • Coalition Builder: The employee spends more time with other employees who start to act negatively toward you
  • Productivity: The employee’s productivity goes flat or diminishes
  • Enthusiasm: The employee’s enthusiasm becomes muted or dampened
  • Gossip: The employee openly talks negatively about you or your business
  • Displacement: The employee gets openly, overly angry with other employees in excess of the situation as a way to displace their anger toward you

There might be other signs, the types and variations are nearly limitless.  The point is that you need to be aware of the quality of your relationships with your employees and be aware of the danger signs that your relationship is deteriorating probably due to an unresolved conflict.  You also need to be aware of some feeding off the negativity of others and take steps to nip that negativity as fast as possible.

#5: Use your experience to improve your hiring practices for future candidates

Learn from what went wrong with your former employee and then look for those elements when you interview others. Get your radar “up” high – very high – and walk away from those who will impress you during the interview, but who also have the potential to cause you real pain and agony. They are not worth it. Star employees can achieve much but also do significant damage to your organization and cause you a truck-load of pain.

I recall a time when I interviewed a top-performer candidate for my company. She came with serious credentials and references to the interview. She was (is) smart, disciplined, focused, goal-oriented and willing to work hard until she achieved results. She’d made other owners millions of dollars. She’s ethical in her business dealings and her customers spoke highly of her. After 20 minutes, I ended the interview. I didn’t hire her. Why? Simple:  she can’t resolve conflict. In the first 20 minutes of the interview, she gave me three different examples of when she had quit – each time because she had a conflict with the owner and couldn’t get it resolved in the manner and form she expected.

It was her way or the highway. She couldn’t handle getting “no” from an owner and then adjusting to a decision with which she disagreed.  Moreover, she made two different comments about her need to have people do things her way in the sales and business development process or “there will be problems”. So I ended the interview early and told the referring person that I wasn’t interested in her candidacy.

The referring individual was literally stunned and didn’t see my point. That’s OK. She will go from job to job, owner to owner, business to business, cycling through each one every 1-3 years, never resolving the most important conflicts that she faces and never learning from her own mistakes. My decision was to protect my company. I’ll take less in revenue and profit in the tradeoff. That’s an easy decision.

In another interview, my gut told me we should not to hire this individual. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I just felt an unease about it. But since the final decision belonged to another person on my staff, I gave my input and let that individual make his decision. The candidate was hired. It took less than six months for us to start noticing a passive-aggressive behavior on the part of this person. We found that the closer one worked with this individual, the less cooperative this individual was. “I forgot” was a common phrase. “That’s not how I do things” was a persistent theme. Finally, staff members came to me – individually and confidentially, one-by-one – to tell me that they couldn’t work with this individual anymore. Even though this person was doing a terrific job with our customers, this individual was clearly damaging internal relationships and our culture. I wish I had been more assertive at the beginning – insisting that my instincts were right and that this individual should not be hired. Lesson learned.

Take a cue from me, if you even have a whiff of unease about a candidate – regardless of the reason – don’t hire them. In the long run, you’ll find that it’s not worth it.

#6: Assess Yourself. 

Take time to assess how you handled yourself in the entire scenario. Run it by a trusted advisor – your personal coach or someone else.  Recount all of the details – including anything you said or did that helped cause the problem – and get their input and advice.  It would be wrong to assume that in these types of conflicts that you were not a contributor to them.  Have the humility to look at yourself and see what you can do to improve your performance and interpersonal skills.  If you have wronged your employee – even if you’re terminating their employment – have the maturity to admit to him/her and yourself and apologize. It will do you both good.

#7: Improve your “soft” reporting processes so that these types of passive conflicts are surfaced more quickly

Use regular surveys and other tools to surface the conflicts your employees might have that they are not talking about.  Do what you can to ensure that conflicts are not festering and causing damage on your team.  Use your experience to improve your company’s ability to surface conflict and deal with it in a mature, straight-forward manner.

By following these steps, not only will you be doing what you can to resolve and/or manage the conflicted situation as best you can, but you’ll also be increasing the likelihood that you won’t be hiring passive/aggressive people on your staff in the future.

Bill English, MA, MDiv, LP, CPBPM
The Platinum Group