How to Handle a Sniper

A sniper is a staff person who attacks from the weeds. They criticize the manager, but never face-to-face. Instead, they make rude and inappropriate remarks under their breath. Sometimes they whisper to a neighbor that the manager or other target is a jerk, or worse. Sometimes it’s criticism veiled in bad humor such as, “Where did you get that outfit?” And sometimes it’s a cruel remark made just loud enough for the target to hear.

The purpose is to shake the target’s confidence and maybe even get rid of him or her. Snipers believe they are right and everybody else is wrong, but they don’t do anything constructive about it.

To deal with snipers, force them into the open. Shine a light on them, or smoke them out with a question that demands an answer. Don’t accuse them of anything. Instead, ask them a question. Then stomp hard.

Suppose the manager hears the sniper say to another staffer, “Watch out, I guess she’s coming over to see if we’re working hard.” Come back with a question about what that person just said: “What that statement says to me is that you don’t like working here. Is that what you meant?” Most of the time the answer will be “I was just joking” or “Can’t you take a joke?” And then comes the stomp: “I didn’t consider it a joke.”

Or suppose that during a meeting the sniper says (just loud enough to be heard), “Be prepared for another useless edict.” Stop the meeting and address the sniper head-on: “[Sniper] has just said you should be prepared for a useless edict. Can we get consensus on the matter? How many of you think this requirement is useless?”

There’s a slim chance the rest of the staff will agree. If they do, revisit the matter. The sniper may have a point. Most of the time there will not be a response. Then stomp: “Well, [sniper], it looks like you’re all alone on this one.”

If a remark is over the top, rude, or otherwise inappropriate, call for a 10-minute break and clear the room. But tell the sniper to stay. Say, “I need to talk with you. That was an inappropriate comment. It contributes to a breakdown in unit cohesion.” Or you might say, “It violates our values.” Then ask, “Is that how you meant it?” This works because the sniper has to hide behind something. Once pulled into the open, the protection is gone and the game is over.

There is one caveat to this process. Don’t do it in public unless the sniping is done in public, as in a staff meeting. Do it in private. A public put-down can make the sniper even more hostile and perhaps aggressive, which will worsen the situation. The goal is to convince the person that the manager carries the big stick and is not a passive target.

A showdown is necessary. When a staffer is that obnoxious or aggressive, the only solution is taking it on. Most management problems won’t go away through neglect; they usually get worse.

If the sniping continues, treat it like any other disciplinary matter. Give a warning: “[Sniper], it is unacceptable to make hurtful or inappropriate comments. Our office has standards and expectations for professional conduct. Continue this behavior and further disciplinary action, up to and including termination, will result.”