Office insurgents are people who use aggression, threats and conflict to prove that they’re exempt from the company’s rules. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert continues his five-part series on dealing with these difficult employees with the story of a bloke who entreated his company’s executives to protect him from the consequences of his own bad decisions.
In my first ‘office insurgents’ case study, I introduced a fellow who tried to intimidate new people as soon as he met them in order to establish his dominance. Last week, I discussed a fellow who terrorized his co-workers with threats and temper tantrums, but made sure to operate below upper management’s radar. This week, I want to introduce an office insurgent who went to great lengths to co-opt executive management because he was absolutely convinced that he was The Most Important Man Alive.
The setting is the same as last week’s story, although it took place in a different department. We’ll call this fellow Clyde since he wasn’t a real boss. I inherited Clyde from the previous head of IT. He’d been a senior manager once, but had been relegated to a supernumerary position long before I took over the department. It didn’t take me long to figure out why that was. Clyde was nothing but trouble for me from the moment I arrived. He complained about everyone else in the department every chance that he got. He’d yammer on for hours about how everyone else in the company was an idiot, and how only he knew how to save the department. The man was exhausting to be around.
Structurally, I could only keep two senior managers on the payroll, and I already had men with greater seniority in both of those roles. Clyde needed to move on to another position, but wouldn’t; he was convinced that he should be running the entire department (owing to his superior intellect) and that everyone who failed to recognize his genius should be demoted or fired. Since I didn’t immediately acquiesce to his demands, he decided that I needed to be fired too. According to Clyde, my refusal to acknowledge him as the lord-of-lords over all lesser men made me unfit to rule.
We carried on like this for three miserable fiscal quarters. Eventually, a huge production surge from one of the operations-side divisions required all of the support teams to add second and third shifts. I assigned Clyde to head up one of the night crews – partially, to give him a chance to prove his worth, but mostly so that I didn’t have to listen to his constant whinging. The night shift’s work wasn’t demanding. That left the night workers with far too much free time. As expected, my idle malcontents didn’t make good use of their opportunity; they spent most of their shifts complaining, and left all of the actual work untouched for the day shift to clear up. This created a ton of resentment between the teams.
Things came to a head one morning during shift change. Clyde was handing over the outgoing team’s unresolved work to the incoming shift leader – let’s call him Dave – and an argument broke out. As best I could reconstruct from witness statements, Clyde condescendingly turned over a week’s worth of untouched trouble tickets and ordered Dave to get them all wrapped up. Dave furiously demanded to know why the night shift hadn’t even an attempt to resolve any of the work. Clyde called Dave an incompetent and impertinent fool for daring to challenge a superior. Things got very loud after that. From the look of the two men’s faces, one or more punches were thrown.
I was running a meeting and had to halt the discussion because the noise was loud enough to rattle the office door. I could see the problem as soon as I opened the door: Clyde and Dave were both red-faced and bellowing at each other in the middle of the thoroughfare linking the workers’ cubicles to the department’s break room. The junior techs were gathered around watching instead of working. The two senior men were nose-to-nose, and looked ready to grapple each other. 
I separated the two, parked them in different offices to calm down, and interviewed some of the observers. Once I had a lock on the situation, I brought the two combatants together and offered them a deal: ‘Y’all have both royally screwed up here. You’ve acted thoroughly unprofessionally in front of more than two dozen witnesses,’ I said. ‘If each of you apologizes to the other, promises to never do anything like this again and shake hands, then I’ll consider this done. Keep your noses clean for a year and we won’t have to “go to paper”.  Or, we can skip over the rehabilitation attempt and go straight to a formal reprimand. What’ll it be?’
I didn’t give them time to stew. We needed the incident handled swiftly while it was still fresh in everyone’s minds. The line workers needed to see that the senior employees were held to the same professional standards as everyone else, and that misconduct would get handled decisively.
To Dave’s credit, he thought the problem through quickly and agreed to reconcile. He said that he hated the idea, and he hated Clyde, but it was the right thing to do in order to preserve good order in the department. He’d swallow his pride and publicly apologize. I nodded and turned to Clyde.
Clyde was aghast. He incredulously demanded that I punish Dave for daring to talk back to him. I explained that both of them were equally guilty of violating their written performance standards; if I punished one of them, then I had to punish both of them. Clyde shook his head and refused. ‘I don’t care,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to see Dave punished. I’ve got to pull that trigger.’
Everyone else in the room was left gobsmacked. Clyde’s self-destructive and irrational spitefulness was astounding. I smiled, thanked the two men for their time, sent them both home, and called the legal department to initiate the formal reprimand paperwork.
Later that day, I issued each fellow his respective disciplinary package. In it, I warned each fellow that he would be ineligible for promotion for the maximum period allowed under his respective contract. For Dave, that meant a year; Clyde was on a different employment contract, so his ban was set for two years. He said that he couldn’t believe it. He tried to refuse to sign it. He asked legal to tear it up. In the end, it went into his personnel file exactly as-written.
Clyde did nothing to improve his foul attitude over the next two years. I didn’t stumble onto any more violent altercations in the cubicle farm, but I also didn’t see any signs of rehabilitation. If anything, Clyde’s megalomania got worse. He regularly failed to accomplish his assigned tasks, and consistently acted like an insufferable git to everyone else in the department. I amassed a stack of complaints about him, but I never had sufficient evidence to terminate him. So, a year before his contract ended, I gave Clyde formal, written notice that his current contract wouldn’t be renewed.
Clyde was – as you’d probably expect – furious. He raged at me and haughtily informed me that I couldn’t deny him a contract renewal… because he wanted it renewed. Therefore, I was somehow ‘required’ to give him whatever he wanted. If anything, I should instead fire everyone that displeased him and make him the head of IT. Then I should resign in disgrace because I was unfit to serve around someone so clearly superior. I smiled, thanked Clyde for his input, and told him that nothing he said or did was going to change my mind. He’d had his chances, and He. Was. Done.
Clyde couldn’t accept the news with anything resembling good grace. First, he submitted promotion paperwork on himself to HR. HR kicked the package back because I hadn’t signed it – and also because I knew nothing about it. When that didn’t work, Clyde sent a promotion package on himself to the Southern Regional HQ. When the head of the personnel board asked me why I hadn’t signed the endorsement, my explanation made the personelist apoplectic with rage. That attempt failed, too. Thwarted but undaunted, Clyde tried to intimidate the junior HR clerks into extending his contract. HR sent me the papers to sign and I kicked them back with a polite refusal. It never stopped.
Every time that Clyde pulled one of these shenanigans, I’d take the evidence of it to my boss – we’ll definitely call him Bob – along with an employee termination request. Each one of Clyde’s stunts constituted sufficient grounds to immediately end his employment. Every time I presented my request, my smarmy weasel of a boss grinned at me and refused to endorse it. The was because Bob was an avowed sadist. He didn’t give the slightest damn about maintaining good order and discipline in the workgroups; he got off on watching his underlings suffer.  So, he gleefully blocked all of my attempts to get Clyde under control. The situation was infuriating.
Somehow, Clyde got wind of the fact that Bob was subverting all of my attempts to rein him in. This emboldened Clyde: he decided that Bob must be enlightened enough to appreciate his natural superiority. Therefore, it only made sense to bypass the chain of command and entreat Bob directly to take up his noble cause. One morning, after I’d ordered him to go visit an upset customer to resolve a ticket, Clyde left his customer hanging and went to see Bob to complain about me instead.
I heard about this after the fact and it made me see red. Skipping levels in the management chain was forbidden in our company; if I’d done it to Bob, I would’ve been cashiered on the spot. That Bob was entertaining this gross violation of protocol was petty, mean-spirited and utterly unprofessional. Unfortunately, Bob was a ‘golden boy’ with the executives so I had no recourse. 
I found out what had been said through my spies in the division. Clyde came to the Bob with a litany of complaints about how I was a terrible director, how everything was going wrong in our department and about how only he could set things right. Bob allegedly ate it up; Clyde’s rants may have been obvious nonsense, but they were also just what he wanted to hear in order to justify the things that he already planned to torment me with. Bob (I was told) had sneered, nodded, and encouraged Clyde to bring him more ‘evidence’. Clyde agreed, relieved that he’d finally found an ally.
Later that day, I brought Bob another request for disciplinary action on Clyde since the man had abandoned his post and had been missing from work for nearly an entire day. Bob leered at me and handed me Clyde’s four-page long, handwritten, single-paragraph manifesto that accused me of being The Devil™. I wasn’t just a bad boss; I was (according to Clyde) Lucifer himself. As the devil taking human form, I was (Clyde said) un-righteously holding him back from achieving his predestined greatness. I laughed and asked Bob what he intended to do with Clyde’s insane manifesto.
Bob patronizingly explained that he’d be conducting his own ‘investigation’ into Clyde’s ‘serious allegations’ of ‘abusive treatment’, and would decide for himself if Clyde should be allowed to take over the department. I countered that Bob was exceeding his authority; interfering in departmental administrative action without first allowing the chain of command to handle things was wholly inappropriate and unwarranted. Further, Glock-blocking an obviously-necessary termination order was quite beyond the pale: letting an office insurgent like Clyde run around unchecked would inflict massive disruption on the rank-and-file for month. Bob just smiled and told me that he’d summon me when he was finally ready to discuss the ‘issue’.
As promised, Bob sent me a meeting invite a few days later with the subject of ‘RE: Clyde’s poor leadership concerns’. I was pretty sure that I knew what was coming: Bob was planning to jack with me. I also noticed that Clyde’s name was listed on the invitation. That was completely inappropriate; performance and disciplinary counselling between supervisors could not legally have other personnel beside legal representatives or EO observers present. Bob’s willingness to ignore company regulations was exasperating, but there was nothing I could do to stop him.
I dutifully set out to let Clyde know that he was needed in Bob’s office. As per usual, Clyde wasn’t at his desk and wasn’t where he’d been sent to work. I eventually caught up with him down at Executive Row… where I overheard him through an incompletely closed office door vehemently sharing his tale of persecution… with the COO. Oh, my…
I tried to keep the smirk off of my face when I reported to Bob’s office. Bob was furious with me because I’d shown up without Clyde. He ranted that we couldn’t start our meeting without him. I innocently asked if he’d like me to go interrupt Clyde’s meeting with the COO… and Bob went ballistic. He completely lost his professional composure: he turned scarlet, started shouting and flailed his arms. I let Bob get through a few loud refrains of ‘How dare he do this to me?!’ before I calmly pointed out: ‘Clyde demonstrated that he was willing to do this his direct supervisor, so why on earth did you think that he wouldn’t do the exact same thing to you?’ It was one of the only times that I ever left Bob completely speechless… it was delightful.
Bob threw me out of his office. Later on, he transferred Clyde out from under me to another division, without my prior knowledge or agreement. I’m tempted to say that Bob did it to screw over the other division, but I doubt that Bob ever thought that far ahead. I’m fairly sure that he did it just to get rid of someone who had once made him look like a gullible fool in front of the executives.
As for Clyde, he made a bunch of grandiose promises to his new executives when he transferred out IT… and then immediately broke them. First, he repeated his stunt of submitting himself to HR for an unauthorized promotion. When that backfired, he jumped ship to another branch of the company behind his supervisor’s back. I don’t know where he eventually wound up; once he was off my books, he was no longer my problem. Besides, I still had Bob to deal with. Bob was enough.
Before he fled, Clyde inflicted significant long-term damage on our office culture. He discredited the senior supervisors’ tier with his public antics. He undermined management’s reputation for swift enforcement of professional standards when Bob wouldn’t let us fire him. He inspired several other malcontents to try to solicit help from the executives to pursue their own anti-authoritarian agendas.
The only two positive takeaways from the experience came from Bob and Dave: Bob was burned so badly by Clyde’s betrayal that he never again allowed any of my problem children to ‘buck’ the chain of command. As for Dave, he straightened up and earned an assistant director job in another branch of the company… with my endorsement. He may still be working there today.
Compared to most other office insurgents, Clyde was a rare case. He had no respect for anyone else. Everyone above him was an idiot for not acknowledging his brilliance; everyone below him was a worthless dirt-bag for not immediately obeying his every command. Anyone who defied him was an agent of evil, and likely part of a grand conspiracy to suppress his amazingness. He was so overcome with his own megalomania that he thought nothing of levelling wild accusations, of screaming at people in public and of getting physically combative. Since he didn’t like anyone, Clyde’s delusions and lack of self-control made him a dangerous person to have on the payroll.
The good news is that Clyde was guaranteed to punch someone eventually, and it was probably going to happen long before he became truly dangerous. He was so hot-tempered that it was highly likely that his first act of prosecutable workplace violence was going to happen long before he thought to bring a weapon to work. As predicted, Clyde’s outburst was a spur-of-the-moment bout of childish rage. If we’d had a real leader instead of a petty sadist, we could have been rid of Clyde on the spot. Instead, we had to suffer though several more months of his presence.
Given Clyde’s temper, it’s a toss-up whether it would be better to isolate an insurgent like him to minimize his chances of harming a co-worker, or to engineer an encounter that would anger him enough to take a swing. Both routes present significant risk of someone getting hurt, and that’s not really acceptable in the modern white-collar workplace. I’d prefer to administratively separate an office insurgent like Clyde as swiftly as possible, before it reached the point of needing handcuffs. Bring the hammer down on hard on his bad attitude and unprofessionalism early on, and be rid of him before it escalated.
 If only one of them would have thrown a punch. It would have been so much easier to resolve the situation if I could have hauled the both of them off in handcuffs.
 ‘Going to paper’ was slang in our organisation for entering an official reprimand in an employee’s personnel record. Written evidence of wrongdoing could be used later on for a termination package.
 This particular boss is profiled multiple times in my book In Bob We Trust: Lessons Learned From Horrible Bosses.
 His special status evaporated about two years later, and he was run out of the organisation himself.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.