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Disrespectful Coworkers & Job Burnout

The Black In HR (TM)'s weekly column with Ayesha J. Whyte, JD, SPHR is an opportunity for our readers to ask questions important to them to a skilled and experienced HR executive and attorney. Ayesha is a strategic human resources leader and seasoned attorney who has served in leadership roles at The Walt Disney Company, Amtrak and WeWork. This week, Ayesha provides guidance and answers questions important to our readers on topics related to burnout, insubordination and conflict of interest.


Question: I have an employee who has been acting extremely disrespectful and antagonizing towards me since writing her up. She also keeps making these bogus claims about me in emails to me or to my bosses. I can’t terminate her for her behavior because we work in the public sector and she has a permanent status. How do I manage this toxic employee who is difficult to manage and cannot accept feedback?

Ayesha: It seems like you are in a tough spot here. You have an employee that is upset about a written warning you issued and is now acting out; that definitely happens.


You have to try to get in front of this situation and at the same time exercise leadership by choosing the high road. First, you should keep a record of the things she is doing to undermine your work and team progress. Then schedule a meeting with your boss(es). During the meeting, concisely share the false claims she has made and the challenges in managing her. Let your boss(es) know that you are committed to leading the team but the employee's demeanor and her leveraging false claims makes it extremely difficult and you would like their guidance on how to proceed.


In the interim, only email assignments to her and try to keep your 1:1 interactions to a minimum. Above all else document, document, document as permanent employees in local/state/federal government can be terminated for gross misconduct and sustained poor performance, although it is much more difficult than in the private sector.


Question: In an environment where you do all things HR (I am a generalist for a big franchiser), how do you avoid getting burn out?

Ayesha: Burnout is real especially during this during this pandemic. There are a few things that can help:

  1. Put your mask on first - you are not good to anyone if you fizzle out. Prioritize sleep and eating well over everything else. If you can, be sure to get fresh air everyday and get at least moderate exercise three days a week. This is HARD but necessary. Also, use your leave even if it is just to stay home on the couch for a mental wellness day. If you are good to yourself you can give your best to others.

  2. Recognize what you can and cannot accomplish - there are some things that you will not be able to accomplish either due to your role or due to bandwidth shortage during global pandemic. Know that is ok. The company will continue to run and you do not have to have to place everything on your back (or on your to do list). Do the things you can do well and let everything else go.

  3. Lean into the work you like - try to focus on projects and parts of your job you really enjoy. If you are not yet an expert in those areas, make it your goal to become one. Leaning into parts of our role that we like leads to more fulfillment and less burnout.

Question: I work for a small company with a husband and wife executive team. I am the sole Generalist and we have an HR Assistant. The President/owner has hired his friends, military buddies from decades ago who aren't qualified to be in there positions and they have turned our very frequent meetings into a rowdy reunion. Since they are not qualified they are overburdening the staff they have been placed over to manage. Sometimes I feel like I'm on set at The Office. How do I address the constant HR issues we are seeing in a way that gets us back on track when these friends are seemingly untouchable. One of them is even asking women to smile during meetings. I wasn't at that one but these HR issues are frequent and ongoing. Please Help!

Ayesha: This is a tough situation and one that I think a number of HR practitioners can relate to. As a HR generalist with the ear of company leadership, your primary role is as a trusted advisor. With that being said, you should schedule a meeting with the husband and wife team and share the concerns as you know them. Be prepared to be very specific about the issues/behaviors and their potential consequences. For example, when explaining the issue of asking women to smile in meetings, speak about how that can be perceived as sexual harassment and you would like to make sure the company is insulated from the risk of having a complaint placed with the EEOC or a lawsuit and the best way to mitigate risk is to have leadership address the issue head on. The same can be said regarding the rowdy meetings potentially creating a hostile work environment and exclusively hiring buddies can be seen as disparate treatment of applicants.


Broach all of these areas in one conversation, speak in a role of an advisor that is looking out for the best interest of the company. I understand that you are also acting in a role as an advocate for employees but approaching it from that standpoint during your conversation will not move your company leadership to act. After you give them that facts and potential consequences, see if they make any changes. If they do, you are golden and they will continue to rely on you for advice and appreciate what you bring to the company. If they do not, you will be able to tell that they are not looking to change the company culture and you should earnestly begin a job search.


From Ayesha: Advice & opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

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