should I warn my employer about a slacker kiss-ass?

A reader writes:

Our organization is currently in financial crisis, and therefore, we have laid off about two-thirds of our staff, keeping on those positions that are vital to keeping the company afloat for however long that may be. As a result, my position as HR rep has also been cut. It works out for me, as I’m a new parent and will appreciate some time with my new family, and my spouse earns enough to keep us afloat — so want to make it clear that there is absolutely no resentment from me.

The staff they have decided to keep on are good choices and reasonably selected, except for one. He is the most terrible manager — poor communicator, officious, cannot multitask and having a conversation with him is like pulling your own teeth out — I’ve learnt more about his job from google than I have from asking him. But he’s a kiss-ass. Yep, if an exec asks him to do something, he’ll do that particular task very well — only thing is, he puts in 40 hours dedicated to that one task, while the rest of us sit around with deadlines looming, waiting for him to get back to us-and then get half assed replies, inadequate data (if we ever get the data — most times, I go find it myself) and a hard time with it — rudeness, curt replies and moody cloud looms over him.

I, in my capacity as HR Rep and also as his co-worker, have raised this with his manager, who agrees that she knows he is a kiss-ass and a pretty inefficient manager. But his manager believs that he does have a can do attitude, and will get things done — only thing is, we as co-workers know he won’t, because he can’t multitask and only gets things done for those who he needs to kiss ass to. I have had numerous staff complain about him, and they all wonder why he is not being replaced, or why his assistant, who is so much more efficient than him, is not able to stick around instead. Unfortunately, his manager is adamant to keep him on because of her own workload being increased, and also, it’s easier than trying to recruit someone new….all comments I would typically fight against as a poor poor reason to keep such an employee on, but I am conscious that it may appear as though I’m so bitter about my lay off (I’m really not -truly!), that I am sabotaging him (he’s the only manager at my level sticking around).

Is there anything I can say in my last two months here, in your experience, that may open their eyes, or should I leave well alone, and let them figure it out by themselves? My company is a non-profit for which I have a lot of affection, but I am starting to think — hey, you guys will figure it out, don’t say I didn’t warn you…what do you think?

There are going to be a lot of people who tell you not to bother — that’s it’s not your problem, that it’ll somehow come back to bite you in the ass, that you don’t owe the organization anything.

I disagree. As a manager, I’ve been profoundly grateful for a discreet, professional heads-up about problems more times than I can count — and in almost every case, the person tipping me off could easily have decided it wasn’t their problem and stayed silent. Because they didn’t, I was able to ferret out and resolve problems way earlier than I might have otherwise uncovered them, sometimes with significant ramifications for the health of the organization. And at a nonprofit, where what’s at stake can be so important, it’s particularly crucial that managers operate with as much information as possible … let alone during a financially stressed time, where personnel decisions matter more than ever.

Does that mean that every manager will welcome your candor? Nope, absolutely not. But the good ones will. Furthermore, as a HR staffer, you have special standing to raise this kind of thing anyway — and possibly, depending on your exact role, an obligation to do so.

Now, should the manager be able to figure this guy out on her own? Probably, yes. But with mass layoffs going on, it’s possible her focus is elsewhere. It’s also possible that she’s just a bad manager and no amount of insight into this guy will change her actions, but you should still ensure that the organization does know what you know.

So fill in his manager (or, if you think his manager is hopeless, fill in someone above her with the power to do something about it). Be very clear and explicit about why you (and others) see things differently than the manager does. Say something like this, “I don’t have any personal agenda here other than wanting to see the organization succeed. I have nothing to gain by bringing this to you, but I’m doing it because I would want to hear this if I were you — and because I have a different window into something than you have, by virtue of our different positions. I know that in his dealings with you, Bob is responsive and on the ball. He is not that way the rest of the time. He is unresponsive, rude, difficult to deal with, does half-hearted work, and generally is an obstacle to getting things done. I see that he is very different with you and others above him, but it’s important for you to know that his performance is not acceptable when someone above him isn’t watching. You have told me that you believe he gets things done. I want to bring to your attention that this is not the case unless you’re watching. I strongly encourage you to investigate this for yourself and talk to others here, so that you’re armed with the full picture in assessing his performance and in thinking about his tenure. I won’t raise this again, but I wouldn’t have felt right leaving without making sure that you’re privy to this information before I go.”

You say this calmly and professionally, and then you wash your hands of it. You’ll have delivered the information as clearly and bluntly as possible, and from there, it’s up to the organization to decide how they want to respond to it. They may do nothing (which might explain why they’re flailing financially), but you’ll have fulfilled your obligation of ensuring that the information was relayed clearly and that you’re not leaving without sharing information that could help.

Now, I’ve seen enough of how people react to this topic to expect a flood of comments saying you shouldn’t bother, that it’s not your problem, and that you don’t owe your employer anything. And that’s certainly one way to approach it; lots of people choose that option. But I don’t want to operate that way, and I hope you don’t either. In my experience, calling it like you see it and speaking up even when the news is bad is sometimes a harder path, but if you do it right (professionally and with integrity), you will build yourself a stronger reputation than if you just walk away silently. And deservedly so.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Laura*

    Oh, how I wish there was a discrete way for me to leave this post and the one you linked about the manager who won’t manage around my boss’s office.

    I don’t understand how the quest to be ‘liked’ as (or by) a manager trumps all else, or how people don’t see that it creates these horrible situations.

  2. Slaten*

    I’d have to say I wouldn’t bring it up again. You already told this persons manager and they disagree with you… move on.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I took from her letter that she had raised some of the concerns, but hadn’t explicitly said “hey, he’s totally different with you than he is with everyone else and there’s actually a reason that we see this so differently.” That’s the piece I think she should be adding now.

      I also think that if the manager is hopeless, then she should mention it to someone higher up, as a sort of wrap-up of her HR functions before she leaves.

  3. Anonymous*

    I fail to see the clear benefit for the (soon-to-be-former) employee. I’m sure that, as a manager (especially one who is retaining their job) would be delighted to receive this information. That does not make it advantageous to the individual in question. I would especially question the statement “you will build yourself a stronger reputation than if you just walk away silently.” Surely there’s an equal chance of building a reputation as (say) a tattle-tale – not usually considered a desirable trait. Of course, the reputation as a tattle-tale would be stronger than before, thereby technically making your statement correct.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s in how you do it. If you do it in a complaining, emotional, or petty way, then yeah, doesn’t help your reputation at all. If you’re objective, calm, rational, and it’s clear that you’re coming at it from a place of “I’d want someone giving me this info if I were in your shoes, so here it is and do with it what you will,” you can become known as a straight-shooter who’s invested in the employer’s success. At least that’s been how it’s worked for me.

      1. Anonymous*

        The operative word in the penultimate sentence is “can” – and it has somehow gone missing again that this is a former employer. Nor is it entirely “in how you do it.” While the approach described gives the best hope of success, there is no guarantee that the recipient will react in that way. There is a consistent bias here to emphasising the possible benefits (which are only certainly available for the company) and wholesale neglect of equally possible downsides (which apply only to the almost ex-employee).

        1. Kimberlee*

          But OP is not a “former” employee. They said they have two more months there… that’s a long time. They would be negligent in their duty to not raise it one more time. We often have to do things at work that are entirely for the benefit of our employer, while possibly biting us… that’s why we get paid. If OP were leaving tomorrow, I might not feel the same way, but there is way too much time left. If OP is concerned about wording (to make sure s/he doesn’t seem disgruntled) send an email instead. Control the conversation and it will be fine. But even if its not fine, its OP’s job.

          1. Anonymous*

            Put it in an email and thereby make it part of the (company’s) record? Well that will make things sooooooo much better. Email is best used for delivering warnings one must make (and have a record of having made), but prefers to go unheeded.

            As for being “negligent in their duty” …. that would be the duty which the company in question has deemed surplus to its requirements? In any event, one could reasonably argue that the OP’s duty is to implement the decisions made by her superiors, and not to question them.

            We often have to do things at work that are entirely for the benefit of our employer, while possibly biting us…

            You do?

          2. Kimberlee*

            1. I fail to see the problem with email. Even if the warning goes unheeded, OP will be on record as having stated the problem. If the problem is as bad as she indicates, they’ll figure it out anyway. I fail to see the difference between on and off record, other than that I think in general business dealings sh0uld be on record.

            I guess we could have a philosophical discussion on the nature of the employer/employee relationship, but that wouldn’t help anything. Plus, you’d have to reeeeeaaaaaly stretch that whole “implement policy and never question it” bit to have it extend to HR, part of whose role is definitely to resolve personnel issues.

            And yes, I’ve had to do things at work that I didn’t want to do because I’m there for the companie’s benefit, not my own. If I make a mistake, I am negligent in my duty to not point it out and correct it, though my repution may suffer in the process. If my trainee is failing, I may have to bring this to the attention of HR, though it means admitting some failure on my part. It happens. You must work at a very felicitous job to have avoided it all these years.

          3. Anonymous*

            The problem with email is, if the company decides that the OP is disgruntled/whining etc. that will be on record too.

            Plus, you’d have to reeeeeaaaaaly stretch that whole “implement policy and never question it” bit to have it extend to HR, part of whose role is definitely to resolve personnel issues.

            I’m not advocating “implement policy and never question it” as a general approach for anyone. Merely one which the OP would find useful in this case. In any event, it only has to stretch for the remaining two months, which isn’t so much.

            And yes, I’ve had to do things at work that I didn’t want to do because I’m there for the companie’s benefit, not my own.

            I tend to take the view that I work for my own benefit. After all, isn’t the point of “at will” employment that work is a mutually beneficial arrangement between two equal parties? I did worry about making mistakes for a while, but I soon realised that they were simply learning experiences which I got to have on someone else’s dime.

          4. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think some of this comes down to personal style and personal philosophy. I’m someone who has never wanted to stay quiet in the face of something like this, and that trait has served me very well throughout my career. There are other people who strongly don’t want to mess with this kind of thing, and that’s their prerogative too. But the OP sounds like someone who does want to speak up. (I agree that I wouldn’t put it in email, but my reason for that is that this is a conversation that is more effectively had face-to-face.)

  4. Wilton Businessman*

    You’ve raised it to management once. Raising it again will sound like you’re disgruntled.

    1. Anonymous*

      They already sound disgruntled, even if they claim they’re totally not. It feels like an attempt to take the last employee of their level down. Sure, that might not be his motivation, and he might be completely right about the employee in question, but it looks terrible for him to say this now.

      1. Marie*

        You seem to be forgetting the OP of this thread is in HR; therefore, it’s his/her responsibility to call management’s attention to uncooperative, “slacker” employees.

  5. Joey*

    If the op brought this to me during their last two months I would have two major issues. First, give me some specifics. And, I would question their credibility. Why? Because why didn’t they bring up this concern sooner or if they had the power to do something about it.

    1. Anonymous*

      The OP says that they have brought it up before…’I, in my capacity as HR Rep and also as his co-worker, have raised this with his manager, who agrees that she knows he is a kiss-ass and a pretty inefficient manager.’

      Sounds like the manager knows but is burying his/her head in the sand about it because the manager is getting what they want, meeting their targets and doing ok (especially if the manager is not affected by the layoff) and may be expecting everyone else to ‘deal with it’ while the suck up employee helps her agenda. Which explains why the OP is so hesitant to bring this up again, because he/she may be viewed exactly as you have stated…but I do agree, as the manager, I’d want to know specifics – sounds like the OP probably has a few!

      1. Joey*

        I think the difference is in the past they brought it up, but this time the op is trying to make a bigger deal of it-conveniently now that they’re being shown the door. I mean if it was such a big deal why didn’t they do something about it before they found out they were being laid off. Especially being in HR. If a manager isn’t dealing with a problem you go above their head or at least up the HR totem pole. HR has an obligation to help the company deal with managers who don’t manage.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I have long ago learned not to ask, “Why didn’t they tell me this earlier?” People almost always wait longer than they should to raise stuff like this — because they’re afraid the manager won’t want to hear it, or that their motives will be misjudged, or that it’s none of their business, etc.

          1. Joey*

            I agree, but I’m not going to give you much credibility if your only making a big deal of it on your way out.

  6. Kelly*

    In an ideal workplace, it would be expected that management would be see past the kiss-ass and sucking up behavior to see how one dimensional an employee truly is. In reality, none of us work or have worked in an ideal workplace. The reality is that when it comes down to letting people go, some managers will chose to let the seemingly less social person go who may be more productive and do their job better while keeping the social butterfly.

    That happened to me. I was let go two weeks ago due to a decrease in workload. I had more experience and was better at my job than the person they kept. Of course, it would have been a great sacrifice to let the person with the departmental candy dish go. I think that candy dish blinded my manager to the fact she was at best a mediocre employee who made a number of mistakes that were fixable by myself and another person, but took away from our overall productivity. We did that in the name of being good team players, but in retrospect, I should not have covered for her. It cost me my job and if I am able to find another position, I’m still willing to be a team player but I’m going to look out for my own interests first, even if that means letting a colleague take the heat for their own mistakes.

    1. Annon*

      “In an ideal workplace, it would be expected that management would be see past the kiss-ass and sucking up behavior to see how one dimensional an employee truly is. In reality, none of us work or have worked in an ideal workplace…”

      I’m working for a prime example of this phenomenon. My boss is a horrible manager. He treats his employees like children; he doesn’t communicate or ask for input but instead dictates orders to us; he expects his commands to be followed without question and then places the blame on others when things go wrong. However, he is the “social butterfly” and he puts extra effort into anything that comes down from one of his superiors. Thus, everyone above him thinks he’s a superstar while everyone below knows he’s just good a politics.

      His team is so demoralized, most of them can’t wait to leave.

  7. clobbered*

    I agree that the right thing to do is to bring it up in a professional way. The one thing I would add to AaM’s spiel is explicitly the issue of morale. Any decent manager in a downsizing organisation is concerned with employee morale – not only because, well, they should, but because usually downsizing means asking more of people, and only people with good morale are able to give that.

    So I would specifically mention the impact he has on the morale of those around him. There is also nothing wrong with saying “I know managing through a lay-off period is hard on everyone, especially for a non-profit full of dedicated staff. It makes it easier for those who have lost their jobs that the ones that stay are the best possible choice. Person X is not generally regarded as the best choice.”

    PS. I have done this, and the sky did not fall. In fact good managers in this position seem to be relieved to be able to talk these issues with a calm outgoing person who has insider knowledge but no longer a vested interest.

  8. Abby*

    I totally agree with your advice although from experience, I know it isn’t always taken well. I worked at an organization at one time and had submitted my resignation. I hated the job and was desperate to leave but since I was pregnant, I just informed the organization that I was leaving to stay home and take care of my baby. The organization had plenty of advance notice and so hired someone and asked me to train him. It didn’t take me long to figure out that he was terrible. He was rude, arrogant, didn’t listen to what I was saying.

    I did try to gently advise my boss of this but he took it as sour grapes even though I also didn’t have a personal agenda. Anyway, I left, the man took my job and in less than two months had proven that he was all the things I had said and more. The organization called me and begged me to take my old job back.

    I would still do it again unless I was sure the manager was really vindictive or something.

  9. EngineerGirl*

    “He is unresponsive, rude, difficult to deal with, does half-hearted work, and generally is an obstacle to getting things done.”

    Ack! No! These are opinions, not facts! If you want to believed then you need to keep it fact based: “Bob only works one project at a time, which means the other projects are put off. Others depending on his data then can not do their jobs”. “When asked questions, Bob’s response was “What? Leave me alone!””. “I know that you think Bob put together the Jones report. However, Bob’s assistant actually pulled all the data together and formatted it for publishing. Bob only looked at the report and signed it”

    Please keep it fact based. If you don’t it will sound like histrionics.

      1. Dan Ruiz*

        Hahaha! Thanks for adding a little levity to this touchy topic. I almost spilled my coffee.

        Dan

  10. Anonymous*

    You say “I didn’t say this earlier,but now that I’m being laid off let me tell you about this sucky employee. “. I say (to everyone) “we sure made the right decision laying off this disgruntled person”.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Maybe this comes from having seen lots of non-disgruntled people raise issues like this, but I just don’t think a good manager is going to leap to that conclusion (assuming she handles this in a professional manner).

  11. fposte*

    It might help to set it in context, too: “Cynthia, Xiao Ya, and Egbert are great assets to the company, and they’re going to be a terrific help in meeting this challenge. Bob isn’t at their level, and here’s why.”

  12. What the?*

    I agree with the majority of the posts that management has already been made aware of the issues, but sounds like they have bigger problems at hand. While the OP means well and has good intentions, it’s almost like pooping on someone’s doorstep and then walking away.

  13. Charles*

    Normally, I would agree with AAM that this should be brought to manager’s attention. Two things, however, cause me to disagree in this case:

    1: “It” has been mentioned before and the response was “Yea, I know.” Okay, maybe the manager does know about this or maybe she doesn’t; but issues were brought to her attention and she didn’t follow up (or at least a follow up wasn’t apparent to the OP). REPEATING it again does not make the OP look good. No matter how she phrases it this time it only makes her look like a whiner; especially since she is on her way out. I only see it hurting her “reputation,” not helping it.

    2: Maybe the higher manager does know about him and was placating the OP knowing that she would soon be gone. Maybe this “poor” manager delivers what the higher-ups really want and they don’t care about his performance with the other staff as that doesn’t matter to them?

    Arrgh! Office politics is the one thing that I hate about any job. (I am always tempted to , but never do, answer that interview question about “what problems did you have at your last job?” – “Office politics, just leave me alone to do my job!”)

  14. Anonymous*

    It sounds like its a matter of opinion. In your personal opinion, he may be a terrible manager but to others, he might actually be useful. I have worked with managers who I think shouldn’t even deserve a job yet, many others think he plays a vital role to the organization in surprising ways.

  15. Kimberlee*

    Also, A question I want to put out here: maybe the person to raise this to is the employee themselves? Perhaps warning them that you’ve noticed that sometimes they don’t get some projects done, and that with the coming cuts in staff, pulling one’s own weight will be more important than ever? It is obviously the job of the manager to do this, but since it is a staff issue and the manager has shown no intention of doing anything about the problem, maybe the employee doesn’t know there is a problem, or hasn’t been talked to seriously about it?
    I mean, it makes sense to prioritize projects given to you by executives over those given you by your immediate boss, especially if they have been told specifically to do that (which probably happened at some point). Clearly the employee’s problems go beyond that into the obviously intentional, but it could just be an issue that needs to be worked out at the employee’s level? Just a thought. :)

    1. Anonymous*

      I think that is crazy – he’s just going to say ‘OK, why don’t you focus on getting your stuff together and leaving, and let me carry on doing the job I’ve managed to keep…’ If he doesn’t care to be a teamplayer with his co-workers who are still employed, he is hardly going to appreciate them giving him a telling to before they leave….

    2. Anonymous*

      C’mon Kimberlee,
      think about what you just said. Play it out. Do you think a slacker is going to say ” gee thanks for telling me that. I didn’t realize I’ve been slacking. Ill start working on that.”. A more likely slacker response will be “who the hell are you? You’re not my boss. Go eff yourself”

  16. Manager-in-the-making*

    As a person who is currently in a very similar situation, I have to say I applaud your efforts and think your ideas are noble. The problem with lazy, inefficient managers is that they produce a “trickle down” effect. These undesirable behaviors can have a significant effect on fellow co-workers and employees. It may give the impression to some that it is ok to not work hard and to just get by doing the minimum, therefore creating more employees with the same inadequate values and work ethics. It creates work dissatisfaction for others who are dedicated to their jobs and take pride in their work. This will in turn affect employee job performance negatively. I don’t feel your desire and will to inform the organization of his behaviors should be seen as “bitter” or meant to sabotage him, although he might have a different opinion. Your feelings are based on the fact that you have a strong work ethic and believe in doing things based on principle. You’re right! You have nothing to gain from this but peace of mind. However, your friends and former co-workers who will still be working for him might! One of my dear friends and co-workers has decided to assume a new position precisely because we are in a very similar situation. But she will not leave without scheduling an exit interview with our new director. Her sole purpose is to let the new director know exactly why she is leaving and to inform him of the inadequacies of our direct management. She is doing it for herself, but also for us! Be proud of your desire to do what is right. You have nothing to lose.

  17. Smithy*

    The trouble is that when someone is ‘sucking up’ to you, you don’t see it. The person’s manager is getting what she wants so she chooses to disregard comments from anyone else – which sound a bit like sour grapes, especially as the OP is now being let go.

    In a previous organisation, I was in a very ordinary admin position – and the attitude of some people (both senior and not-so-senior) ranged from friendly to neutral to downright hostile. Then I had a sideways move to become the Secretary to the Management Board. Suddenly I was in a position of power (not directly of course, but I worked closely with the board members on a day to day basis). And how those attitudes changed – everyone was lovely to me all the time, produced information as soon as I asked for it etc. I did understand what was going on, but it is difficult to see past obsequiousness.

    To the OP I would say, by all bring your concerns to the attention of the manager, but it doesn’t sound as though she thinks the problem is as bad as you think it is.

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