Practical Advice for Dealing with Difficult Faculty Colleagues

Image of angry faculty being "put out" with fire extinguisher

Most college faculty behave in a professional manner, take their responsibilities seriously, work hard at their jobs, and value their relationships with colleagues.  In fact, a recent survey found that college professors are the fifth most satisfied group of employees in the U.S, following pediatricians, singers, aircraft assemblers, and professional fire fighters.  The flexibility and ability to control one’s time and tasks makes the career very rewarding.

Unfortunately, a few faculty members don’t fit this profile.  They may treat colleagues, staff or students with rudeness or harassment, may shirk their teaching, research or service obligations, and may make life generally difficult for their department chairs, deans, and departmental colleagues.  If such a “difficult colleague” has tenure, many academics shrug and say there is nothing to be done.  That could not be farther from the truth!

Tenure is designed to protect academic freedom, not bad behavior.

Academic freedom clearly gives faculty members the right to conduct research and teach as they choose, within the bounds of professionalism and institutional requirements for curricular content.  But academic freedom also brings responsibilities—to behave with respect toward colleagues and students, to refrain from harassment or discrimination, and to use care in speaking out as a private citizen.  Violating these requirements can subject a faculty member to discipline, and even to dismissal.

So how does the department chair deal with a difficult colleague?

Much the same way that a supervisor or manager in a business organization would—by going through these steps:

  1. Know the policies and rules.  Are faculty required to meet their classes a certain number of times? Keep regular office hours? Attend department meetings? Serve on committees? Advise students? If the difficult colleague is not complying with these rules or policies, he or she hould be confronted with this fact, told what to do, and monitored to ensure compliance. Failure to comply can lead to discipline in academe, just as it does in the business world.
  2. Document the compliance failures and meet with the faculty member to discuss. Are there reasons for this failure? Is there a problem that the faculty member believes needs to be resolved?
  3. Check with colleagues and students to see if the problematic behavior is continuing. Assure both that you will not permit retaliation for their assistance in dealing with the problem behavior.
  4. Monitor the faculty member’s behavior subsequent to your conversation.  Has the behavior improved? Sometimes all that is needed is some attention to a problem—but sometimes the problem does not go away.
  5. Advise the dean or whomever you report to that you are dealing with a problem faculty member and enlist that individual’s support if you determine that some form of intervention or discipline is warranted.
  6. If the faculty member is exhibiting unusual behavior, do not ask the individual if he or she is ill or has a disability. Ask the faculty member about the behavior, not the reason behind it.
  7. If you believe that the faculty member has a mental or physical condition that may be interfering with his or her ability to perform required tasks, seek legal advice before referring the faculty member for a fitness-for-duty examination.
  8. If this is a long-standing problem, you will need to give it some time to be resolved unless it is so serious (e.g. sexual or racial harassment, abuse of students of staff) that it must be dealt with immediately by removing the faculty member from teaching or other responsibilities.
  9. Consider appointing a small committee of faculty peers to work with the faculty member if the problem is with teaching or relationships with students.
  10. If the faculty member’s behavior could be interpreted as bullying, consult state law—you may have obligations to deal with such behavior that come from law as well as from institutional policy and generally recognized academic custom.

If you take these steps, you should be able to reduce the negative consequences of a difficult colleague.  In the unlikely event that you and the institution are sued, it is quite likely that the case will either be dismissed before trial or that you and the institution will prevail.  Judges don’t like difficult colleagues any more than the rest of us do!


Are you a dean or a department chair? (If not, forward this to your dean or chair!) If so, join Academic Impressions and Jeanne A.K. Hey, Ph.D., Dean Emeritus at the University of New England at this webcast, and gain proven strategies and guidance for dealing with difficult faculty colleagues who exhibit unprofessional, unproductive, or even destructive behavior.