HR involvement appropriate / important when dealing with serious employee problem

Dear Joan:

We have looked through your archived columns on your website and we could not find one that relates to the problem my wife has. She works for a retail western wear store where she is one of the department managers. In recent months, on of the employees who works at the store has all but refused to follow direction from my wife and today she started to curse and yell obscenities at her while standing in front of the store manager.  

We are not the type to curse, but maybe telling you what she said would explain the severity of the situation. The cursing that took place was the employee calling my wife a “White B__ch.” My wife at first stood there and tried to talk to the store manager and the employee but decided after several minutes of the employee still cursing and yelling obscenities at my wife that the conversation was not going anywhere. Before walking off, my wife told the store manager that she could talk to the other employee first and that after they were done she could find her in her department and talk then.  

After an hour had passed, my wife went to find the store manager so they could talk only to find that she had apparently done nothing and went home. Now my wife is worried about the hostile work environment that has been created and is not sure what to do now.

My wife has been with this company for over eight years and is not wanting to seek other employment but if the current situation continues, we are afraid that there is no other alternative. The other employee has been with the company for about four years and we are not sure why this has happened. My wife is not the only supervisor that has had problems with this employee, but this employee seems to have the most problems with my wife. The store has a Human Resources Department but we are afraid that if she goes over the store manager’s head, that the repercussions could be just as bad as the work environment. 


This employee’s cursing is unacceptable on many levels. Not only is it disrespectful and insubordinate, it is also a racial slur. In most workplaces that kind of behavior is a fireable offense.  

It’s hard to understand why the store manager would “do nothing” and leave. If this employee has had a history of this kind of inappropriate behavior in the past, as you seem to indicate, she may have discovered that there are no negative consequences. If so, new expectations—and consequences-- should be set immediately. 

It isn’t clear whether the individual reports to your wife or to the store manager. In any event, she needs to be either confronted with her inappropriate behavior and warned about future consequences, or fired now.  

To determine a course of action, your wife should have a discussion with the store manager to outline a plan of action. She should ask the manager if the employee has ever cursed at anyone else (or similar behavior) and whether the employee has received a written warning or other reprimand. If the employee has done similar things in the past, and nothing has happened, you need to establish a clear expectation that another incident will result in immediate termination. During the discussion, tell the store manager that you are going to give HR a head’s up about the situation and ask HR for some help. 

Your wife should also check the employee handbook—it’s likely that insubordination and a racial slur will qualify as a serious offense. Discuss with HR the fact that this behavior may have been tolerated in the past and ask their advice about how to proceed. 

Your wife should ask the store manager to support the action she wishes to take. It will be important to stand united in this situation, or the employee could try to play one against the other.  

It’s interesting that your wife feels that going to HR for advice constitutes “going over the store manager’s head.” HR exists to help supervisors and managers with situations such as this. It’s fair to inform the store manager in advance but the store manager should have no power to stop the supervisor from contacting HR for help. If the store manager gets angry about a supervisor using HR, the store manager is also the problem. If that happens, HR will want to work with the manager, too.

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,, or 
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