Workplace Culture

How to Manage Ultimatums in the Workplace 

January 9, 2024

Managing Ultimatums in the Workplace

“If you don’t give me a raise, I quit!”  

“I swear, if this happens one more time, you’re fired!”  

An ultimatum is a last resort option involving a threat of extreme action unless certain conditions are met. Workplace ultimatums involve situations where either an employer or an employee threatens to do something extreme unless the other takes specific actions. When an employer delivers an ultimatum, often it is to address employee misconduct. Employees typically resort to ultimatums when they feel mistreated by their employer. Situations like these usually arise when communication channels have broken down, creating the false belief that extreme measures are the only option. Note that the ultimatums discussed here do not include instances of harassment or threats of violence, which are illegal and should be dealt with according to your workplace violence and harassment policy and local laws. Responding to incidents of violence and harassment is important, but it’s also essential to take a proactive approach. Download our free Guide to Proactively Addressing Workplace Violence and Harassment. In this guide, you will find tips and advice from our HR experts on how to create a safe workplace for all your employees. 

Are Ultimatums Effective in the Workplace? 

Not necessarily. Even in the rare instances where ultimatums are successful, they usually create resentment and frustration for everyone involved. Ultimatums pose considerable risks and can lead to several negative outcomes. Because they are usually emotionally driven, ultimatums cause people to consider extreme measures in the heat of the moment. Strong emotions can vanish quickly, leaving people stuck negotiating amidst the aftermath of their threats. For instance, an employee threatening to quit on a Friday afternoon might reconsider by Monday morning.  

Despite feeling necessary in the moment, extreme reactions like issuing ultimatums deteriorate working relationships. Moreover, insincere ultimatums that are essentially empty threats invite awkwardness and place blame when the other party refuses to yield. Before delivering an ultimatum, consider this question carefully: are you prepared to follow through? 

Alternatives Ultimatums in the Workplace: 

As an employer, avoiding ultimatums should always be the goal, but that is only feasible if you have alternatives. Effective performance management that involves regular 1:1s between managers and employees can go a long way in building relationships and strengthening communication channels. And if employee performance isn’t where it needs to be, or you’re dealing with cases of misconduct, you can use performance improvement plans or progressive discipline, as the case requires. Progressive discipline pairs corrective actions with the severity of the misconduct, reserving harsher measures for egregious conduct or repeated offenses.  

By aligning disciplinary actions with the gravity of the situation, the progressive discipline approach not only enhances effectiveness but also ensures fairness by establishing a transparent link between actions and their consequences. A progressive approach is a more measured approach to discipline and is less likely to be perceived as unfair punishment. Adopting this approach also fosters a culture of accountability and fairness within the organization. 

How to Implement Progressive Discipline Plans: 

Implementing a progressive discipline approach helps establish what’s permitted and what is not if an ultimatum is issued. It’s important to remember not to issue any ultimatums that alter terms within the employment contract, such as changes to compensation, work hours, location, supervisory duties, and so on. Imposing such unilateral changes could amount to constructive dismissal in certain circumstances, which may have significant legal and financial repercussions.  

Consulting our experts through our Live HR Advice service is a great way to help avoid any missteps regarding progressive discipline practices. It is crucial to understand effective methods for addressing misconduct while steering away from ineffective ultimatums (and potentially unlawful practices). Effective progressive discipline measures ensure consistency, transparency, and a more amicable workplace environment. 

How to Deliver Appropriate Ultimatums 

Ultimatums can serve a legitimate function when issued within the parameters of progressive discipline. In effective progressive discipline plans, ultimatums often take the form of disciplinary notices culminating in a final written warning. Regardless of its label, the purpose is to inform the employee that further related infractions will lead to termination with cause.  

While it’s common to associate ultimatums with heated arguments and rash decisions, their effectiveness hinges on each party’s clear and mutual understanding. If you decide to issue an ultimatum to an employee, ensure absolute clarity regarding the expected actions that need to be taken and negative behaviors that need to be corrected. Transparency, written documentation of expectations, and obtaining the employee’s signed acknowledgment are the pillars of successful progressive discipline plans. An effective ultimatum is calm, clear, and deliberate.  

How to Respond to Ultimatums in the Workplace 

Just as you would document the steps in the progressive discipline process, it’s important to document any situation where employees present an ultimatum. An employee’s primary leverage is typically the threat of resignation. Regardless of how serious their intent to quit might seem, obtaining the resignation in writing is imperative. 

Ultimatums are frequently given impulsively, often stemming from a sense of desperation rather than an actual intent to resign. For an employee, threatening to quit is often a cry for help rather than a firm decision. Requiring written confirmation of resignation and allowing time before requesting it introduces a deliberate slowdown or cooling-off period. Providing time to explore less extreme options and thoughtfully assess the situation is a valuable step often missed by unprepared managers. 

If the employee is genuine about resigning, ensuring that it is documented safeguards against potential wrongful dismissal claims. Conversely, if their intent is not to quit, discussing their concerns is pivotal. While it’s always best for dialogue to precede the ultimatum, approaching it as an opportunity to learn what went wrong holds far more value than disregarding it as an emotional outburst. 

How to Create a Workplace Culture Free from Ultimatums: 

When employers and employees proactively identify and resolve issues together, the need for ultimatums diminishes. Encouraging transparent and frequent communication between workers and leaders so that they can identify issues before they escalate is the key to avoiding hastily made ultimatums. Our performance management tool enables leaders to check in with their employees regularly through 1:1s and updates, while tracking employee sentiment scores, goals, progress, and more. Fostering and sustaining a healthy workplace culture demands ongoing effort, but the long-term benefit to an organization is undeniable. This approach necessitates a readiness to listen to employees when they identify problems and outline actionable steps to resolve them.  

How to Prepare for Ultimatums  

Receiving or delivering ultimatums is not fun for anyone involved. The best approach is to have other processes in place to avoid them and cultivate a culture where ultimatums are unnecessary. However, circumstances might arise where ultimatums become unavoidable, usually when employees feel they have no other recourse. When ultimatums do arise, readiness is the key to a swift resolution. Maintain composure, acknowledge the employee’s concerns, and document everything meticulously. Focusing your energy on developing robust performance management processes, including progressive discipline and performance improvement plans, will prove invaluable and allow you to navigate ultimatums with minimal disruption. 

If you’re interested in learning how our HR training courses or tools can help develop a workplace culture free of ultimatums and the disruption they can cause, book a free demo with our experts and start planning today.