Disagreement is Fine, Disrespect is Not

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.

A business owner from Kentucky called me the other day to talk about a recent interaction he had with one of his key managers.  Like most successful companies, this landscaping organization has an impressive capitalistic bonus program that allows managers to augment their income with a significant amount of money if certain key performance indicators (e.g., revenue, gross margin, employee retention, job retention) are met for their respective business portfolio.  Naturally, at the beginning of each season, the business owner dutifully presented the panoply of monthly and annual business goals for the company, each division, and every manager’s portfolio to the eligible employees.  

At the time of quarterly bonus distribution, one manager did not receive the amount of money he thought he had earned.  Everything then went sideways.  

The disgruntled employee rushed into the owner’s office, immediately confronting the owner with a litany of unforgettable profanity, damaging hostility, and ad-hominem accusations (e.g., “you are a liar,”  “everyone knows you are skimming from the employees,” “your family is nothing more than a bunch of greedy %#[email protected]&”).  Caught off guard, the unsuspecting business owner tried to calm down the hysterical employee to the point where dialogue and discussion could begin.  

That didn’t work so well.

In response, the employee dramatically escalated the attack, elevated his voice to the point of yelling, underscored by violent non-verbal behaviors (e.g., finger pointing, invading the owner’s personal space, bulging eyes).  After about 15 minutes of this uninterrupted diatribe, the employee left the owner’s office vowing a return.

During that hiatus, the owner called me to prepare a response.  I told the owner the manager should be terminated immediately.  To that end, I told the owner that he must continually identify and reinforce boundaries that define acceptable and unacceptable actions that manifest a results-based team-oriented company culture.  While strong-willed discussion should be encouraged, and passionate disagreement can be tolerated, there is no place for personal disrespect in any company of stature: not on the job site amongst field employees; not in the corporate office amongst administrative staff; not in the executive offices amongst leadership team members.

Get Aretha Franklin on the phone.

There is no substitute for respect.  Regardless of the person, the issue, or the context, all employees must present themselves with a sense of professionalism predicated upon genuine personal respect for others.  Without that premise, the organizational culture is weakened, aggression is emulated, and trust is lost.  

The owner disagreed with me and decided to suspend the manager for one week without pay.  As I explained to the  business owner, his recommendation of unpaid suspension now establishes a precedent that those aforementioned actions can be replicated by others without fear of termination; they are de-facto acceptable practices in this company, his company.  That begs the question, what would the manager have had to say to warrant termination, either this time or the next time?

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.