New manager faces long-term abusive employee

Dear Joan:
I have recently taken over as Operations Manager of a small power station in the UK. I have one employee who is aggressive and abusive to his co workers. I have discovered this has been going on for years but nothing has been done. Finally I have received a written signed complaint about him. How do I deal with this?
There’s plenty that can be done, but it will take concerted effort and persistence. First, two disclaimers: 1. Since you are in the UK, your organization’s Human Resources practices may be different when it comes to termination, so I will share my perspective, and I suggest that you check out my response with an HR professional, or attorney. 2. I assume you don’t have a union, or you would have mentioned it. Union contracts typically include an agreed upon process for dealing with performance problems and terminations.
  • You are the new manager and it’s your responsibility to set your standards in the power station.
If you haven’t already, hold a meeting, or several meetings if there are multiple shifts, and explain your goals for the operation, describe your management style, and then lay out your expectations for performance and behavior. For example, goals might include increased output, reduction of errors, or improved safety. About your style, you might say things such as, “I have an open door policy, and I plan on involving all of you in coming up with ideas for solving issues.” Regarding expectations, you can explain that you will hold them accountable for treating each other with respect, working as a team, resolving conflicts face to face and obeying work rules (among others).
  • Now that you’ve laid the foundation for what you expect, you will need to hold them to it. 
Since you have a written complaint, you must act on it. If your power plant is a part of a bigger system, call the leader of the Human Resources department and ask the person to send an objective third party in to investigate. If that option doesn’t exist, you may want to hire a consultant to conduct the interviews. Typically, an investigator will confidentially question all the employees involved, to uncover what the issues are. If you can’t afford an outside resource, you can do the investigation yourself but it’s not ideal.
  • Depending on the results, you can terminate, mediate or legislate.
If you confirm that the employee’s behavior was dangerous or illegal, you may be able to terminate him immediately. However, it’s more likely you will not be able to prove who did what. In that case, make it clear (legislate) to the problem employee that this behavior will not be tolerated in the future and could result in his termination. In addition, any retaliation for the complaint will result in immediate termination. Document this in writing and give a copy to the employee. Finally, mediate between the two if they both share responsibility for the problem, and come up with an action plan both must act upon, such as basic cooperation and civility.
  • Monitor the situation closely. 
This is a long-term problem that has never been addressed. You can expect the abusive employee to be angry and retaliatory toward the complaining employee, as well as toward you. If you are intimidated, you lose—forever. He will gather power if you don’t hold him accountable. You must draw the line and not let him cross it. For example, if you hear he is badmouthing you or rallying support from his cronies to get even with his coworker, call him in immediately. If you gave him a written warning (outlining the behavior you expect from him, or risk losing his job), don’t waste time enforcing it.
From experience, I have not seen many cases where this kind of long-term, abusive employee has turned things around. Typically, they are bitter and unable to sustain acceptable behavior. If you find that is the case, don’t waste time with second chances. If and when he is finally fired, you will have a steady stream of relieved employees thanking you.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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