Be Careful While You're Trying to Change the World

I was so excited. I finally got my first HR position. I was going to make my mark. I was going to show people how HR could be done.

There was one employee in my constituency who had a reputation for blowing up on others. The politically correct term was that people felt “poorly treated” by her. She would go from zero to 100 in milliseconds. You wouldn’t see it coming. Her teammates were exhausted from dealing with her. Her manager even seemed intimidated.

Eventually she ended up in my office. Her supervisor had talked to her about her counterproductive behavior. She did not receive it well.

She and I were sitting together at a table in my office. She railed about her supervisor. At one point stood up, moved closer to me and stood over me. I presume she was trying to intimidate me. Nope. The buck stops here. That was not going to happen.

I worked with her supervisor. I worked with them together. I worked with the entire team to clarify roles to create a forum for collaboration.

Nothing changed.

At times when I met with her and her supervisor the supervisor would cave and undermine the plan to hold her accountable.

I was frustrated. I was also frustrated with my predecessors. This woman had been getting away with this behavior for years. It was going to stop under my watch.

Pride Comes Before the Fall

One day I was meeting with her and her supervisor. Something set her off. I responded. She responded by twisting my words. That’s beyond a pet peeve for me.

At that moment it all came together. I knew she could outlast me in this interaction and all others. Nothing I said was going to make a difference. I was in over my head. I started crying.

Her supervisor finally stepped in with a good idea. What if we all took a break? We did. Indefinitely.

I called my supervisor. I went home for the rest of the day. I couldn’t stop crying.

Later I regrouped with my supervisor and his supervisor. We decided my supervisor would take over managing this situation. Within 6 months the employee left the company happily with a severance package.

One of my favorite quotations is:

Sometimes the fool who rushes in gets the job done. – Al Bernstein

In this case, I was the fool. I certainly didn’t get the job done.

What Could I Have Done Differently?

I have strong feelings about those who get away with hurting others at work. I go crazy when I hear, “Oh that’s just so-and-so.” I needed to be clear about my own baggage and how it affected my job.

I also needed to get good advice on a practical response to the situation. To give myself credit, I did ask for advice. I didn’t like the answers I got. It was not being taken seriously enough -- for me. People were going to continue to get hurt. That is all true. And, I didn’t know the depth of the situation with the alleged perpetrator.

The situation needed to be handled with a lighter touch. I couldn't imagine a lighter touch, but I was wrong. When my supervisor explained how he delivered the message that it was time for her to move on, it was clear he handled it with amazing dexterity. I was also amazed that she didn’t over-react. Who knew? Uh, someone other than me apparently.

I’m struggling with the nuance between pride and arrogance to describe my behavior. When I find myself rationalizing I describe myself as responsible. It occurs to me that pride and arrogance can be the shadow of "taking charge." I was over-flexing my responsibility muscle to the detriment of all involved.

I hope others can learn from my humiliating and painful misstep. Though this was years ago, I am still learning.