(Illustration by Jefferson Miller @ARTOFJEFFERSON)

Dilemma of the Month: Why Is My Coworker So Grumpy?

Back Article Jan 3, 2024 By Suzanne Lucas

This story is part of our January 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

I’m the HR director of a company. The director of another department, Steve, has been “grumpy” towards me; however, I quickly de-escalated the situation with him. I didn’t see it as an issue at the time, but another director, Carla, came to me and reported that Steve often responds to her with hostility. Her employees have pointed out Steve’s lousy behavior. I now see this behavior as a pattern. Steve, Carla and I all report to the company owner. As the HR director, what should I do to address the behavior of a peer?

First of all, what a testament to your skills that you can de-escalate a grumpy or perhaps hostile person and not be bothered by it. Pat yourself on the back. De-escalation is a complex skill to learn, and you have mastered it.

This is both a professionalism and communication problem, which will have to be addressed, but I wonder if it’s a gender thing. Does Steve behave with the same amount of hostility toward his male and female peers and employees? If not, he may be guilty of sex-based discrimination, which is illegal. 

You don’t want to jump into an accusation of sex discrimination, but you do want to investigate the situation, as that can turn from “Steve’s a jerk” to “Steve is violating the law” quickly. Here’s what you should do.

Talk to the owner 

Because you and Steve are peers and you report to the owner (as does Carla), you need to give the owner a heads-up about the problem. It’s the owner’s prerogative to disagree with what you say about Steve, but your job as the HR director is to explain why addressing the issue is important.

Steve’s behavior must stop even if he’s an equal-opportunity hostile jerk. It damages company morale and will cause an increase in turnover and a decrease in productivity and engagement. It’s bad behavior.

Once you have the owner on board, you’ll need to convince the owner to do one more thing: Shell out some cash.

Do a “soft” investigation 

No one has complained about Steve discriminating because of sex, but it’s worth looking into. Don’t start a formal investigation that involves Steve at this point, but simply meet with Carla’s direct reports about the incident Carla described and move forward from there. You will or won’t do a formal investigation, depending on what you find out.

If you find out his behavior is worse than occasional grumpiness and communication problems, then you will need to tackle that, which may include a recommendation to the owner that they terminate Steve.

Conduct coaching 

If Steve were a lower-level employee, you could conduct the coaching yourself, but because Steve is an executive and your peer, you need this to come from the outside. The coach needs to understand that solving bad behavior is the goal, not just refining Steve’s public speaking. If Steve has a communication problem or is grumpy, executive coaching can help him improve. If Steve is hostile to coaching and doesn’t want to change, you’ll need to continue to work on his behavior.

Follow up

As Steve’s peer, you must set boundaries for your relationship with Steve. Carla needs to do the same. And if you can get the owner on board, that’s even better. When Steve begins his hostile behavior, put a stop to it.

No, you can’t just set a rule and then proverbially slap his hand when he breaks the rule. You set the boundary, which is how you respond when he is rude, hostile or just grumpy. Use phrases like:

  • I’m sorry, you seem upset. Let’s have this conversation when you’re feeling better.
  • Please don’t speak to me with that tone. If you continue, I’ll walk away. 
  • That is inappropriate. Please leave my office and come back when you can speak to me in a professional manner.

After you’ve said something like this, follow up with action. If he doesn’t immediately change his behavior, you walk away. Staying just tells Steve that he can do what he wants and you won’t do anything. That’s worse than just ignoring it, as it lets Steve know he’s being a jerk, but his behavior has no consequences.

As an HR director, your most significant responsibility is to the people in the company. Stopping executive jerks will do the most to help the people in the company. 

Send questions to evilhrlady@gmail.com.

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