We have a manager in our department who is harsh in her dealing with employees; I wouldn’t call it harassment, but it’s close. How do we deal with this without getting into a legal issue?

The line between what is and is not harassment is very thin; Once you’ve crossed over it, however, you generally know it. Any situation that creates a “hostile work environment” is probably a candidate for the classification. If the manager’s conduct makes her staff feel threatened or intimidated, you are probably there.

However, there are many situations, such as the one that you describe, that fall before that line and may not result in legal proceedings. They nevertheless may generate problems in the office and create an atmosphere that is less than ideal. These situations should be addressed; some good managers have shared ideas with me and I will share them with you.

Bob G. says: Discourteous people often are dealing with personal issues that do not surface in the workplace, but impact their attitude. So, get to know the grouch. Have a “How are you doing?” conversation with her and try to understand what her issue may be. Often you will find a road to recovery.

Margaret S. says: Evaluate everyone’s workload. Often an uncomfortable climate is brought on by uneven or poorly distributed assignments. The crabby manager may be trying to juggle too many tasks, or the work is not properly distributed among her people. A redesign of the department may bring fresh insights and attitudes to everyone.

I say: Some people are simply not cut out to be managers. I recall that I once promoted a person to a management position in a classic example of Larry Peter’s “Peter Principle.” She was good at her job so I gave her control of the department; she was a disaster. When this is the case, the best course of action is full disclosure; find a different role for the person.

Any situation that creates a “hostile work environment” is probably a candidate for the classification. If the manager’s conduct makes her staff feel threatened or intimidated, you are probably there.

And then there are certain individuals who are just negative people. It is my belief that in any group of twenty-five or more people, ten percent of them just don’t want to be there. They dislike their job, they dislike the boss, they dislike their fellow workers. But they also dislike their neighbors, they dislike their former spouses and friends, and they think most of the people in the world are just stupid. They are negative people.

At the same time, twenty percent of the people are “disengaged.” They come to work, they do their job in a mediocre fashion, and they go home. They are not interested in improving themselves or the processes, and they do not contribute to the positive movement of the group.

That leaves seventy percent of the people who are clearly running the operation. They are engaged; they will tell you when something is not working well, but they will also suggest ways to improve the operation. They care about their fellow employees and they care about the company. Just like everyone else, they have problems, but they deal with them in an appropriate fashion.

The goal of a manager is to celebrate the seventy percent, convert the twenty percent, and counsel out the ten percent.

I once knew a manager who asked for help in dealing with a sales person who controlled a large and profitable book of business, but was rude and unkind to the clerical staff. He caused problems in the office whenever he showed up but felt he was invulnerable because of his large book. The manager decided to offer him professional counseling and give him ninety days to improve his attitude or she would terminate his employment. He shrugged off the warnings, took no advantage of the counseling, and was ultimately terminated. The book of business was given to a young and energetic salesperson who attempted to save the accounts. She saved every account except one; it seemed the clients didn’t really like him either. The one account she could not save turned out to be owned by his brother-in-law. So, they not only saved the business, but the atmosphere in the office changed for the better overnight.

We simply should not tolerate a person who is a “cancer” in the office; the negative impact on the operation generally offsets any positives that person brings to the table.