She seemed like any other employee, but she wasn’t. She was an employer’s worst nightmare. Within a three months period, four employers called me reporting run-ins with “fatal attraction” employees. In each case, the store plays out like a television drama.
Said one, “This employee literally turned on me. We’d had a good work relationship and I’d pretty much allowed her to define how she’d handle her office management job. I trusted her with everything. Then, when she didn’t get her way on a minor matter, she turned it into a royal battle. Suddenly I could do nothing right. I was the worst manager she’d ever seen. We agreed she’d leave but she begged to have two last weeks here. What I didn’t know until later was that during those weeks she copied every file and every disk. She later concocted a bogus lawsuit with the material she stole.”
Said another, “It was pure vengeance. I couldn’t get her out of my life. She’d been my assistant for a year, and done a good job, but I needed to expand my business and she couldn’t handle any other employees in her “space”. When I told her she had to work with a second employee, she created an ugly scene and resigned. Then things got weird. It was as if she obsessed about me. She called every former employee I’d ever supervised to see what “patterns” she could find. She even followed my car when I drove home from work.”
Although none of the four managers who called me agreed to be identified or taped, all agreed to answer questions. After conducting hour-long interviews, I learned each scenario shared similar features.
In each case a single, attractive female employee with good job skills and few non-work interests worked for a charismatic manager. In each case, an intense, productive work relationship founded on mutual support became “a little too close” until it ended with a pivotal event that the employee considered a betrayal.
Each situation contained an element of perceived “possession”. Said one employer, “this employee seemed to feel she “owned” me in some unhealthy way. When I didn’t do what she wanted, she got really cold for a day or two.” Said another, “she acted as if I was obligated to act as she dictated.” Said a third, “She obsessively criticized any other employees who were loyal to me. She drove other employees away.”
According to each manager, they’d ignored initial trouble clues. Said one, “I was uneasy about how much time and energy she needed from me. At the same time, I was so grateful for everything she did that I felt I owed her that time. It wasn’t until later that I realized her needs were out of line.” Said another, “She was obsessed with her physical appearance. Even though she worked long hours, she exercised for at least three hours daily. She dressed exquisitely well yet occasionally showed up in an outfit that was risqué.” Said a third, “She vacillated between judgmental and servile behavior toward others. She was hardworking but a touch “off” around others.”
If you would like to avoid starring in a made-for-television workplace drama, try these guidelines.
Instinct – hear it and move fast
Trust your instincts. If you feel uneasy about an employee, investigate. While most successful managers possess a keen intuition, the ones who called me reported that they hadn’t listened to their intuitive feelings that things were soured beyond redemption. Instead, absorbed in other business matters, they’d looked the other way. Says psychologist Tom Robinson, “Ask questions from the beginning of a potential problem. Don’t wait for a major deterioration. Uneasiness needs to be discussed”. Delay can cost managers money, the loss of crucial files or other employees, and sleep.
Too much of a good thing
Exercise caution when you supervise an employee for whom personal and work life becomes totally meshed. While initially an employee’s excessive overwork benefits an employer, such a situation may contain the seeds for later disaster. An employee with no life other than work may try to get all his or her personal needs met at the office. When these needs aren’t met, the employee may feel betrayed and hold the employer accountable.
An obsessive work focus can contain the side of violence. If work is the only calm in the storm of an otherwise lonely or unstable life and the employee’s and employee’s “life” is threatened or taken away, this undermines the very essence of the employee’s identity and the employee or ex-employee may resort to violence.
Remember any ex-employee with a computer can sue
Remember that any ex-employee with a computer and an attitude can sue. Follow employment laws to the letter. While termination may be the only way to end an employee relationship that contains revengeful or obsessive-compulsive characteristics, if the termination isn’t done in a letter-perfect manner, it results in the ex-employee’s revenge mechanism.
Because Alaskan laws require employers to operate in good faith and fair dealing, managers should follow consistent and fair steps when or terminating any employee. When dealing with a ‘fatal attraction type’ employee, remember your employee may know those policies better than you, and may be looking for one slight careless mis-step to exploit. Before firing the employee, document in writing the actions of the employee that justify the termination.
Avoid the final two weeks of destruction
If your termination policies now require you to give two weeks notice, consider a change. If you have objective reasons to terminate a genuinely vengeful employee, you may want them out of the office immediately. Establish a policy allowing you to pay the employee instead of termination notice. Once the employee is out of the building, change your locks and your computer passwords. If you have a remote access computer network, modify it.
Establish a policy that prohibits employees from removing confidential documents from company premises and provides for termination for violations of the policy. If the ex-employee files a lawsuit protesting termination, and the employer learns that the ex-employee violated the policy, the employers policy may limit what the ex-employee can use.
Don’t become a dead statistic
Finally, don’t assume the situation won’t get worse, and fast. Employers dealing with obsessive ex-employees or employees need to take action immediately. If you feel the police need to be called, do so.
Would you rather not become the target of an obsessive former employee? Listen to your intuition – if a situation doesn’t feel right, it often isn’t. If you sense a working relationship beginning to sour beyond redemption, ask questions. Exercise caution in any work situation that breeds unrealistic expectations. If you sense, the potential for violence, take precautions. Learn and operate according to the letter of all employment laws – so that if an employee becomes vengeful, you’ll be able to protect your rights.
© 2020, Lynne Curry Lynne Curry is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016) and “Solutions” (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com). Send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.