Leadership

Dealing with the embarrassing employee


When my son was five, we were in a mall and happened to pass two Middle Eastern women who were wearing their long black coats and full face veils. My son, very excited, and very earnestly, pointed and said, "Look mom! Ninjas!" Needless to say I was mortified. The two ladies looked at me like I was a cretin, like I was way behind in getting my kid up on world cultures. And I did feel bad, even though, heck, the kid was only 5 and I was lucky he was just starting to master kindergarten culture.

When I was managing a team at my last job, I often had that same feeling of responsibility for what my team members said and did. For example, have you ever managed an employee who doesn't appear to have an internal filter? (I call an internal filter the mechanism that sifts one's thoughts and keeps inappropriate ones from being verbalized.) I have managed such a person and I had some pretty uncomfortable moments. First of all, as a manager, you are responsible for many of your team's actions--whether it's a project snafu or a behavior that could be considered sexual harassment. But--and I'm throwing this question out to you guys--at what point does this responsibility end?

Unfortunately, I was born with a heightened sense of Embarrassment-by-Proxy (a term I just now made up to describe the uncontrollable urge to get embarrassed for other people). Let's say that one of your staffers makes an inappropriate comment in a company-wide meeting about some touchy office issue that normal people know how to spin, or makes a quip that involves the mention of a selective body part. Do you think others, and particularly your bosses, expect you to keep this person in line? Is my boss thinking that Mr. Filterless is expressing a shared opinion or that he represents the team as a whole?

I'm not talking about honest, old-fashioned outspokenness. I love outspokenness. I love it when someone has the cojones to "tell the emperor he's wearing no clothes." It's often how change finally gets made. What I'm talking about here is the unnecessary and inappropriate comment that shows the speaker is a cave dweller who hasn't yet mastered the fundamentals of polite society.

I'm like to hear from people who've dealt with someone like this—what did you do, if anything? Do you think your bosses hold you responsible?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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