columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I manage a small group of long-term staff. One employee who has worked with me for years ("Jane") is very talented, and I helped her develop professional skills beyond the typical level of someone in her position.

I am now having a major problem with Jane's attitude, which has deteriorated dramatically. She is openly disrespectful of me, disruptive of our team, complaining all the time, and almost combative towards me about many decisions. I am curious how this could have been prevented, and if there is anything I can do about it now other than firing her, which is probably what I will do soon.

A couple years ago, Jane started becoming more rude and less professional in interactions with me, openly expressing frustration both when we met in private, in her emails to me, and also in our general meetings. I thought maybe she was experiencing a temporary personal crisis or something like that -- it was so unexpected. So I tried to respond mostly sympathetically and work through it. I met with her often to check about her complaints and was supportive of hearing her concerns, etc. But I also haven't been a cream puff -- I had some tough meetings with her and made clear that certain behaviors (such as refusing to do projects that I asked to be done) were simply not OK. No matter what I did, the behavior continued and has gotten worse with time.

The most confusing thing to me has been that her bitterest complaints and battles with me have been about decisions that I would obviously have the final say about. She gets white-hot mad at me when I do not take her exact advice or preference on things, even though she knows she does not have much experience in these areas. I try to be sensitive to her feelings and say that I appreciate her input, and then I carefully explain the reasons behind my decisions. But it doesn't work -- she just stays mad and continues to think I am wrong.

It feels like such a ridiculous situation that I have to keep arguing with a junior employee about these things. Any suggestions?

Green responds:

Fire Jane. Like, this week.

You've been way too tolerant, and it's time to end this. It's not OK for someone who works for you to be openly disrespectful, disruptive, rude, and combative.

It's great that you've tried to be supportive and sympathetic to whatever might be going on with her, and that you've tried to hear her out and respond to her complaints. But only up to a point -- once someone's behavior is openly rude and disruptive, it's time to sit the person down and say, "This is how things are going to continue to run here, and I need you to decide if you can work here and be reasonably content knowing that, or not. It's not an option to stay and continue being combative and disruptive."

It sounds like you're long past that point.

But you have had meetings where you've told her these behaviors weren't OK, which is good. She's continued them anyway, which means that this is now the part where you say, "We've discussed in the past that I can't have you work here and continue to do XYZ. Those behaviors have continued and even worsened, and so I need to let you go."

I suspect you've let this go on as long as you have because you've been trying to understand it, and if there's something you can do that will make her behave differently. But at a certain point, and you're long past that point, it doesn't matter why someone is being disruptive and inappropriate. It only matters that they are, and that you can't have that. You've told her that, she's ignored you, and now it's time to follow through.

You asked about preventing this again. The key is to call out inappropriate behavior early on, make it clear what you need the person to do differently, be clear that the issues are serious ones, and then impose natural consequences pretty swiftly if they continue. One of the problems with cutting people slack over and over is that while it can feel like you're being kind and accommodating, you train them to believe that they don't need to take you seriously when you tell them something needs to change. They can even end up blindsided when you eventually do fire them -- not that they should be blindsided if they've been warned for months/years that their behavior is unacceptable. But your actions have contradicted your words (because you're saying, "this isn't OK" while letting it happen over and over).

The best thing you can do is to be really upfront and transparent when you need someone to operate differently, and then mean it.

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