Undermining behaviour is any action intended to make another person feel less significant than oneself, such as gossip, passive-aggressive remarks, or even direct criticism. In some cases, undermining management can constitute insubordination, which may result in a disciplinary procedure being pursued.
For managers, it is vital to recognise these behaviours and learn how to deal them. Being undermined at work is not only potentially distressing for the individual recipient of that unwanted conduct, it can also have a knock-on effect on overall morale and the workplace culture as a whole. It is therefore essential to put a stop to this at the earliest possible opportunity and to take steps from a management perspective to help avoid this.
In this guide, we look at examples of undermining behaviours at work, and how to deal with them through positive and effective management.
What is meant by being undermined at work?
Being undermined at work, often formally referred to in the context of the employment relationship as insubordination, refers to any type of scenario in which an employee is disrespectful or disobedient to a more senior member of staff. In broad terms, undermining behaviour essentially involves an employee either saying things or acting in a way that makes others question the professionalism, knowledge, abilities or work ethic of a manager, supervisor, team leader or any other person in a position of authority within the workplace.
Undermining behaviour can also include conduct designed to criticise or put the recipient down in some way, even if this cannot be overheard by others at work.
Undermining behaviour can be difficult to identify as one specific action, as this is often a combination of many small actions by a more junior employee that builds into a pattern of negative behaviour towards a more senior individual or management generally. As such, in many cases, insubordination will be a course of conduct over a period of time, while in others, being undermined by a subordinate could represent a one-off and isolated incident.
Examples of undermining behaviour
Insubordinate behaviour does not come in a one-size-fits-all box. However, some of the most common examples of undermining behaviour towards a manager, supervisor, team leaders or anyone else in a position of authority within the workplace can include:
- being interrupted when speaking, either publicly or privately
- being challenged in a negative or personal way, either publicly or privately
- being spoken to in a disrespectful way, either publicly or privately
- being contradicted, especially in front of others, but also in private
- having any mistakes or errors purposely highlighted in front of other staff
- having jokes made about them, their work and/or their expertise
- being mocked, mimicked or gossiped about behind their back
- having their work ethic or values in the workplace criticised
- having things said about them to make others question their ideas and authority
- having simple instructions, orders or warnings ignored
- having reasonable requests disobeyed or workplace rules deliberately flouted
- experiencing displays of a negative attitude, including critical or cynical comments
- experiencing displays of negative behaviour, such as eye-rolling or deep sighing
- having rumours spread about them or even false allegations made against them.
In extreme cases, a manager or other person in a position of authority may find themselves the subject of a malicious grievance, where false allegations are made against them by a more junior member of staff, deliberately designed to cause trouble for that individual.
Impact of being undermined at work
For managers and supervisors, dealing with everyday conflicts arising around the priorities and expectations of different members of staff is just part and parcel of the job, where the opportunities for misunderstanding and misalignment are endless. Still, even though some level of conflict is inevitable in the workplace, if a senior member of staff is being consistently or seriously undermined by a subordinate, this should not be tolerated. Being undermined at work can not only be detrimental for the person on the receiving end, but can have a serious impact on others, creating a toxic workplace culture for everyone.
The most obvious consequence of an employee undermining a more senior member of staff at work is a breakdown in that working relationship. However, this kind of behaviour can also create an inaccurate depiction of the recipient of that behaviour which, in turn, may damage their reputation at work and even damage their professional relationships with others. This is because an insubordinate employee, whether through direct influence or by example, can affect how others perceive or behave towards a more senior member of staff.
From the perspective of the individual manager, supervisor, team leader or other person in a position of authority, it is important to remember that they too are human. As such, where undermining behaviour starts to make that person feel undermined or affect how they are actually viewed by others at work, or where this type of unwanted conduct results in unacceptable levels of conflict and confrontation, this can easily lead to work-related stress. In turn, this can impact that individual’s performance at work and could even result in the loss of a valuable member of staff and the risk of a claim for constructive dismissal.
Employers have a duty of care to ensure the health and wellbeing of all members of staff, regardless of their seniority or position within the business. This means that if reasonable steps are not taken to address the unacceptable conduct of a more junior member of staff at work, any senior member of staff, who may not be coping well, could feel forced to resign.
Does undermining a manager count as misconduct?
Being undermined by a subordinate can be a serious matter, especially given the potential for this to damage working relationships, sabotage organisational authority and impact wider team or workforce morale. Still, whether or not it is appropriate to formally discipline an employee for insubordination will depend on the circumstances involved.
In theory, disciplinary action may be warranted where there has either been a course of insubordinate conduct over a period of time or a single isolated but serious incident. However, this is fact-dependent and must be construed in the context of what has happened and the effect the conduct has had on both the recipient and any witnesses to this conduct.
For example, if an employee vocalises derogatory or abusive remarks about their supervisor during a virtual team meeting, not realising they are unmuted, this would almost certainly warrant disciplinary action. This is because an employee has been openly critical of a more senior member of staff, comments which were heard by the wider team and could easily cause reputational damage and damage to team morale, even if the junior employee did not intend for those remarks to be made public. However, where a member of staff is caught secretly rolling their eyes having been asked to do something by their team leader, but no other members of their team are witness to this, unless this part of an ongoing course of unacceptable conduct, this is perhaps better dealt with by way of a quiet chat.
In many cases, where insubordination is relatively minor, the conduct may warrant only a verbal warning, without the need for more formal disciplinary steps to be taken, in this way helping to maintain positive working relationships by dealing with the matter informally. Very often, an employee may be unaware of behaving in a negative way or the impact of their behaviour, where a quiet word can be enough to help prevent this from recurring.
However, where there is a clear pattern of insubordinate conduct over a period of time, or the conduct is especially serious, formal disciplinary action, including dismissal, may be warranted. In very serious cases, even a one-off incident could justify summary dismissal on the basis of gross misconduct. This is where employment is terminated without notice because the matter is so serious that following a finding against the employee in the context of disciplinary proceedings, this would then justify instant dismissal at this stage.
Taking the example of the virtual meeting where an employee is inadvertently heard making derogatory or abusive remarks about their team leader, depending on the seriousness of those remarks, this could potentially amount to gross misconduct. This could be where the remarks are homophobic, racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory.
Other serious insubordination that may justify summary dismissal could include where a finding is made of false allegations against a senior member of staff resulting in a malicious grievance against them. However, the employer would still be bound to investigate any formal grievance made by an employee, regardless of the seniority of the person against whom allegations have been made. The employer would also then be required to hold a formal disciplinary hearing to allow the more junior employee to defend any deliberate attempt to get their manager or supervisor into trouble, before deciding to dismiss.
In less serious cases, such as where an employee is found guilty of disrespectful or disobedient conduct over a course of time, perhaps arguing and answering back in meetings having been verbally advised not to, this would warrant a much lesser disciplinary sanction, such as a first written warning. However, if this warning did not have the desired effect and a further disciplinary hearing proved necessary to address an ongoing course of conduct, this could result in subsequent written warnings and eventually dismissal.
How to manage undermining behaviours
Once it becomes apparent that an employee’s conduct is designed or having the effect of undermining a senior member of staff, this should be immediately addressed. The more this type of conduct is excused or left to escalate, the more likely it is to create rifts, conflict and a toxic workplace culture. However, the way in which this is handled will all depend on the severity of the conduct in question and how long this has been going on for.
In those cases where disciplinary action is not yet warranted, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken to help deal with the matter, including:
- Not to take it personally: being on the receiving end of insubordinate behaviour can feel personal, and for the insubordinate employee, it very well might be. Still, as hard as it may seem, the manager or supervisor should try not to take it personally, instead seeking to separate themself from the disrespectful and disobedient conduct.
- To document the incidents: if a senior member of staff is starting to notice insubordinate behaviour, it is important to document this in the event that the behaviours persists. By writing down key dates, participants and even witnesses to the incident, this will help to support any formal disciplinary action that may need to be taken at a later date.
- To help re-build the working relationship: one reason a coworker may undermine a senior staff member is that they feel undermined themselves. While a manager or supervisor may not have done anything to give them this impression, it is important to try to diffuse this problem. Various simple things could be done to improve the relationship, including making pleasant small talk, such as asking how the employee’s weekend went, offering to make them a coffee or even approaching them to collaborate on a project. By remaining friendly, despite any negative behaviour, this may result in a positive change in attitude.
When conflict or challenging relationships arise in the workplace as a result of being undermined by a subordinate, it is crucial that the person on the receiving end takes reasonable and decisive action at the earliest possible opportunity. However, it is also important for steps to be taken by the employer to avoid senior members of staff being undermined in the first place, in this way minimising any adverse impact that this can have on both them and others.
The following best practice tips can help managers, supervisors, team leaders and other staff in positions of authority to avoid being undermined at work:
- Make sure clear boundaries are communicated, where an organisation’s code of conduct and staff handbook should be clearly accessible to all employees;
- Conduct regular workplace training sessions around respect at work, in this way helping employees to understand the impact and consequences of their behaviour;
- Implement inclusive leadership, where senior members of staff should lead by example. By investing in inclusive leadership skills, this can help more junior members of staff to feel respected themselves and therefore less likely to undermine management.
DavidsonMorris’ HR specialists provide expert guidance to employers on all aspects of positive workforce relations, such as delivering training to enable managers to deal with difficult personnel and situations. Contact us for advice.
Undermined at work FAQs
What does it mean to be undermined at work?
Being undermined at work, often formally referred to in the context of the employment relationship as insubordination, refers to any type of scenario in which an employee is disrespectful or disobedient to a more senior member of staff.
What are the signs of workplace sabotage?
Common signs of workplace sabotage could include managers and team leaders being interrupted or challenged when speaking publicly, or being mocked behind their backs. More serious sabotage could include incidents of spreading false rumours or bringing a malicious grievance.
What is considered undermining?
Undermining behaviour can be difficult to identify as one specific action, as this is often a combination of several small actions by an employee that build into a pattern of negative behaviour towards a more senior staff member.
Is undermining intentional?
Undermining behaviour is often deliberate, although it can include unintentional conduct, for example, where an employee is openly heard making derogatory remarks about their line manager during a staff virtual meeting, but where they were inadvertently unmuted.
Last updated: 2 August 2023