Discipline overdue to stop attorney’s unprofessional behavior

Dear Ms. Lloyd,
I am really in a bind as to how to deal with an employee, and I would appreciate your insight.  I am a team leader in a legal office.  One of the attorneys on my team, "Becky" has been in the office for over 12 years.  She is a good attorney, however, her temperament and personal life are greatly clouding her colleagues' view of her work performance.  She is very demanding in regard to getting time off when she wants it, and for long periods of time (she thinks nothing of expecting four weeks at a time, when no one else in the office expects that).  She will leave work unfinished as she is flying out the door for her vacations.  After her four week trip, I assigned her several cases.  She was so furious at me for giving her work when she was first back that she refused to speak to me for two weeks, treating me poorly in front of the other attorneys.  I talked to her about her behavior, but did not formally reprimand her.

The other issue greatly clouding her work performance is her personal life. She was married when she started working in our office, and went through a divorce.  She went through a series of men, and then started dating a man who comes into the office for business.  

She was married to him for three years, divorced him, and took up immediately with another man, who also comes into the office on business.  That ended very badly, and she immediately took up with someone, to whom she is engaged to be married. Thankfully he does not have business dealings with our office.  

It is difficult enough that she is on the outs with two business acquaintances, but she thrives on the drama of telling everyone and anyone about her personal life.  This is seriously taking time out from work, not to mention she is becoming somewhat the laughingstock of the office, although she does not see in that way.   

She has also gotten into the habit of vocally judging everyone else - telling people it's not right they are living together, telling divorced coworkers who have not remarried they are "losers", etc.   

I am really at my wits end here.  How much of her personal drama do I allow?  And how do I tell a 41 year old woman to stop with this childish gossiping?  I know I have let this get out of hand, and I don't know how to turn it around.  Thank you.

Answer:

Like with any spoiled child, who has to be reined in, you have a battle on your hands. However, if she threatens to leave in the process, you should show her the door. In fact, after you set new expectations, she may end up getting fired anyway. It may be too late to salvage this.  

Let’s separate the issues:

  • She gets more time off than anyone else, which is unfair for all the other attorneys.
  • She leaves work unfinished, which puts an undue burden on her co-workers.
  • She is insubordinate when she doesn’t speak to you (for delegating work) and being disrespectful in front of the other employees.
  • She is disrespectful and inappropriate toward her co-workers, calling them “losers.”
  • She is wasting time gossiping and revealing things about her private life. 

What are you afraid of? Why have you allowed her to set her own rules and tell you what to do? I doubt she is the only one who is resented in the office. You need to earn back your own respect with the rest of the team and stand up for what is right and fair for all involved. 

Call her in and say, “There are some new expectations that I am setting that I wanted to make you aware of.” Then let her know what your zero-tolerance areas are, as well as setting new expectations regarding unfinished work and time off. 

In other words, under no circumstances is she to call any co-worker a name, or judge their behavior with others. Also, you should never tolerate her insubordinate behavior—the silent treatment and disrespectful treatment of you in front of others. 

Other areas that are grounds for future discipline include leaving her work unfinished. If it is unfinished, she is going to have to stay until it’s done, or not leave. If everyone pulled what she does, you would have chaos. 

The time off issue is something you are accountable for. In the future, treat her like everyone else. No special deals. 

If she is held accountable for completing her work, it should have a positive impact on how much time she has for personal chatting. In this meeting, you don’t need to add that to the list.  

However, if she continues to spend excessive time gossiping, and it is disrupting other’s ability to get their work done, you have every right to call this to her attention, as well.  

Be prepared for a hissy fit. You will need to stand firm. If she violates the zero-tolerance rules, fire her. If she dumps her work on others, coach her or discipline her, depending on the situation. In short—don’t give her much rope. You will need to be consistent and hold her—and yourself—to a new standard of behavior.


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, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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