When You Fear an Employee

Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.

Advisor Perspectives welcomes guest contributions. The views presented here do not necessarily represent those of Advisor Perspectives.Beverly Flaxington

Dear Bev,

Our office manager is not working out. She comes in late, is irascible to the staff and doesn’t complete her work. Her demeanor makes it almost impossible to talk to her without her reacting in a vicious and negative manner. My advisors are in revolt because they need work done, but they are afraid to give anything to her. They want me to fire her, but I am afraid of a lawsuit. She is so aggressive that I believe she would do something to damage our firm during an exit. Do you have any advice on how we can soothe the savage beast and get her on track?


Dear A.L.,

Words are very powerful. Before we do anything, it will be helpful if you don’t characterize her as beastly. I completely understand the trouble being caused and the reticence to deal with her, but really, she’s just a person. This is not an unusual situation. I have lost count of how many times we’ve been asked to coach an employee who is a problem to the firm or boss. First, I’ll remind you that you are in charge. This is your firm, or at least you are the leader of the firm, and she is an employee. She is being paid to do a job and – from the sounds of it – she isn’t doing it to satisfaction. This is her problem to fix, but you need to make her aware of it and give her whatever alternatives exist.

You will have to schedule a time to sit down with her one-on-one and discuss your observations. I suggest you do the following:

  1. Write down, in detail, what behaviors are contrary to the needs of the role. Instead of things like, “You are irascible to the staff,” explain exactly what she does. “When you are at the front desk and the advisors come in each morning, instead of sitting and staring at your screen, please turn to them as they arrive and smile and say ‘good morning.’” This would be an example of being very specific about what behaviors she is engaging in now that need to be changed, but also what behaviors you are seeking instead.
  1. Talk to the other advisors to understand their concerns. Be careful not to engage in a witch hunt where you are hearing gossip or generalizations. Push your team to give clear examples. If you can say, for example, that two advisors mentioned that she hung up on clients in the middle of a call, it shows that it is not only your impression of what’s happening; other people are observing it as well. Again, don’t be judgmental or overly negative. Just state the facts as they have been given to you.
  1. Talk about impact. “I know it may seem like a small thing to turn and smile at people when they walk in, but it sets the tone for the day. It shows you are on the team, and it is welcoming as people arrive.” If there are behaviors that are specifically listed in the job description, you can refer to that and point out those requirements. If not, explaining why something matters is helpful.
  1. Let her know that people have wanted to give her feedback (assuming this is true), but they have been concerned about how she would react. Don’t use words like “afraid” of her, but rather explain that she may inadvertently put up a wall that prevents her from hearing what she needs to in order to improve.
  1. Have a plan of action. Explain your expectations and then set timelines. “These are the four changes we need to see by end of this quarter” for example. Be as specific as you can, and then let her know the consequences if the behavior does not change. This may be a written warning or even termination.
  1. Check in with her every week or every other week. Give her the feedback about what’s working well and any changes you have observed (if there are any) and let her know where she still needs to modify.
  1. Lastly, remember that you can’t change another person’s behavior. You can create circumstances that allow and encourage them to change, but if you follow the previous six steps and you see no positive results, she may be incapable of doing the job. There is skill and there is will. If you help her have the will to do things differently, you’ll quickly see whether the underlying skill to do them is there as needed.