When an Employee Gives You an Ultimatum

Nearly every leader will be confronted with an employee who threatens to quit if he doesn’t get his way.

It’s difficult to overstate how vital it is that you handle this situation correctly. It’s a seminal moment. Your response to a direct challenge of your leadership impacts everyone on your team, not just the person who gave you the ultimatum.


I want to assume that the employee’s grievance is not legitimate. That’s a big assumption. If you’ve made a bad decision then correct it.

What I want to address here is that particular situation in which a team member disagreed with your sound decision and has — for reasons of their own — levied an ultimatum devised to force your hand. This becomes a challenge to your leadership and must be addressed.

How Not to Respond to an Ultimatum

There are two opposite yet equally poor ways of handling the situation:

  1. Blow up. This is tempting. The person has directly challenged your leadership and it feels good to respond in anger and levy a few threats of your own. This is a mistake. Remain calm and keep your composure.
  2. Give into the threat. This is especially tempting if the person giving you the ultimatum is an otherwise solid performer. If you’re not careful, your fear of losing the person will cause you to give in to his demands. If you acquiesce then others on your team quickly realize that the best way to get what they want is to issue an ultimatum of their own. You’ve just bought future headaches.

The Best Way to Handle an Ultimatum

There is a better way to address an ultimatum, a way that might make it possible for you to salvage your working relationship with the person.

Accept his resignation while simultaneously giving him time to reconsider.

By accepting his resignation you’ve communicated that you will not respond to threats. This is critical to establishing yourself as a strong leader.

At the same time, you must understand that people who make threats often do so hastily, in the spur of the moment. A strong leader recognizes this and makes allowances for it.

With both in mind, consider saying something like this. It’s important to remain calm. Nevertheless, be direct:

“If those are the only two options you see then you need to go pack up your desk while I contact HR to arrange for your final paycheck. On the other hand, if you are willing to discuss this without making threats then we can talk about it first thing tomorrow morning. In either case, please leave now. I’ll give you the rest of the day off so you can think about your next step.”

It’s important to remove the person from the workplace immediately. Otherwise, the person’s attitude will poison the rest of the team.

When you push the conversation to the next day, it gives both of you time to think things through. Are you still comfortable with your decision? Is there legitimacy to the person’s complaint? If so, make the appropriate change. You may have been wrong. If so, admit it the next day and work toward a better solution.

If after review, you’re still confident in your position then remain firm the following day.

The Big Takeaway

No leader enjoys dealing with situations like this. But it comes with the job.

The most important lesson to take away from this is that you mustn’t allow employees to hold you hostage when you’re confident you made a wise decision. It can undermine your leadership in the future.

Questions: Has an employee ever given you an ultimatum? How did you address it? Were you able to salvage your working relationship with the person? Help others by leaving a comment below.

Author: Greg Lhamon

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