how to survive an awful coworker and management that won’t act

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I probably won’t have time to write a post today, so instead I’m posting this interesting letter from a reader about a frustrating situation with a coworker:

There is a bad employee in my office. He has a long history of being shuffled from department to department, doing little to no work, but filing copious complaints and lawsuits to keep his job (one department fired and rehired him three times due to his lawsuit threats, before finally dropping disciplinary procedures and transferring him). In my department, things came to a head with my Old Manager — there were so many disciplinary procedures started by her and so many lawsuits started by him that the entire department was stalled completely. In a spectacular show of bad management, the upper-level managers decided to send a second manager to our department. New Manager managed Bad Employee and everybody with his job classification, and Old Manager managed everybody else. Both New Manager and Old Manager were generally okay managers, but when there were two of them in one department, they both became terrible managers. It was like divorced parents — one manager gives you an answer you don’t want, you go to the other manager, who will give you what you want to spite the other one. Bad Employee buddied up to New Manager, who was his bestest friend and total defender. Complaints and lawsuit threats from him stopped while she protected him from the consequences of his behavior, which was upper-management’s goal, I assume.

Old Manager left, and New Manager now manages the whole department. As a result, she’s had to deal with the consequences of the Bad Employee’s actions upfront, as there’s nobody else to pass the buck to, and with a bird’s-eye view of the whole department, the pattern of his behavior in all aspects of work became more clear. Bad Employee has started cold shouldering New Manager now that she’s trying to get him to do his work and face consequences when he doesn’t, and she’s generally moping around like she’s been dumped, since he used to act like her best friend (invited her to house parties, had her meet his parents), and now says things like “You betrayed me! I thought we were friends!” when she won’t delete bad reviews he’s gotten from customers, or give him a bigger raise than allowed in policy.

So, the whole situation is very touchy. New Manager is sometimes on board with hearing about Bad Employee’s shenanigans, and then sometimes he shows her a little friendliness and now she doesn’t want to hear anything bad about him in case it starts him cold shouldering her again.

Your website has been invaluable in figuring out how to deal with this. Most of the time, my work doesn’t intersect with the Bad Employee, but when it does, it’s very difficult to deal with (no kidding, the other day he asked me how to access his email — he hasn’t looked at it in 6 months, and forgot how to open it). The urge to tattle is extremely strong, but I’m never sure if New Manager will be in management mode or “I want to be Bad Employee’s friend again” mode, and the last thing I want is to get dragged into a punishing and endless complaint/mediation/lawsuit scenario with Bad Employee, as he tends to do to any employee who complains about him.

So, your little trick of phrasing complaints as a request for feedback has been invaluable. Whenever Bad Employee completely drops the ball on a work task we share, I tell New Manager what happened in non-judgmental language (via email, so she has documentation for the future lawsuit that will inevitably appear) and ask if there is anything I could have done better to get the results she was looking for on the project. She usually tells me no, and whether she follows up with Bad Employee after that, I try to consider it none of my business, since I wasn’t asking about how he should do his job, but just how I should do mine. I feel relieved of the need to do something about him, because that’s not my job, and am able to focus on my work again. So, thanks so much for your very helpful advice! Without it, I think I’d be falling into some very bad, gossipy, angry work habits about now, and I’m glad to be spending this time being generally productive instead (and focusing on gathering skills for a new job search, because you don’t have to tell me that this is not a good place to settle down).

Me again. I’m so glad you’re handling it this way!  However, I can’t resist adding that Old Manager and New Manager are not “okay managers.” They are terrible managers for allowing this to continue!  Someone threatening a baseless lawsuit is not a reason not to fire someone, and the fact that they’re being cowed by that is silly. I don’t know what this employee’s legal threats are based on, but it doesn’t matter how many protected classes someone belongs to: If someone’s work is sub-par, you document the issues, warn the person, document some more, and let them go if they don’t sufficiently improve. There’s no exception for someone who happens to be really litigious; it just means that you might want to be extra vigilant in your documentation — not that the person gets to hold you hostage with fear of a lawsuit.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Not compliments — rather, instead of complaining about something, the idea is that you ask for advice on handling it … which gets the point across without complaining. So, for instance, to a boss who never gets back to you on work she’s supposed to approve: “I get the sense that you don’t always have time to review my reports in the time we’ve allotted for them. Is there another way we could handle this that would work better on your side?” Or for talking to a boss about a slacker coworker: “I’m finding that I’m not always able to get what I need from Joe. I’d love your advice on what I might try doing differently there.”

      Here’s a post that kind of talks about this: http://www.askamanager.org/2008/08/telling-your-boss-about-slacker.html

  1. Original Poster

    Well, yes, they are generally bad managers, I don’t disagree. I’m viewing this relatively, I guess — when they were both here, they were terrors and nothing got done between the sniping and undercutting and and defensiveness and long days of them not speaking to each other (I still cannot believe somebody thought it was a good idea to put two managers in one department — and we have less than 20 people to be managed in the entire department). Now that there’s only one manager, some work gets done competently and efficiently some of the time, which is a huge improvement, and way more than I was expecting from her earlier behavior.

    Unfortunately, only so much can be done by department managers here, no matter how good or bad they are. I work for a very bureaucratic, top-down, authoritative organization, and the bad management starts at the top. Whenever a manager starts making disciplinary headway with Bad Employee, he goes above their head, and above that person’s head, and above that person’s head, filing official complaints all the way, until he finds somebody’s boss’s boss’s boss who he can swindle or scare via lawsuits onto his side. So, it’s rarely ever the department manager’s decision to scuttle disciplinary procedures — they usually get told from above that they need to do whatever they can to make Bad Employee happy. Perhaps I’m wrong, and a truly good manager could make a truly good case to upper-level management, but I suspect that anybody who’s so easily swindled by this guy isn’t a reasonable person who can listen to reasonable arguments.

    So, yeah, they are bad managers, but it reminds me of what you’ve said about being “miscast” — this is such a bad bureaucracy, I think even a “good” manager would end up looking terrible, since taking the actions a good manager normally would (like getting this guy out the door) would cause so much disruption and conflict and retribution that their department would essentially come to a standstill (as mine did under Old Manager, who was not a good manager but WAS trying to hold the line against Bad Employee).

  2. Original Poster

    @Angela: I can’t recall the exact posts, but I went googling on this site for “tattletale,” since that’s what I felt like doing the other day, and found that advice in a few different posts, I believe.

  3. Melissa

    Bad Employee is a bully. Plain and simple. And New Manager (and everyone else) is simply letting the bully run the show. I wish the poster had the power to fire the bully. If said bully were to bring legal action, there would be plenty of documentation, back-up statements, etc. from current employees to refute the claims of the bully. Would it be a long, and perhaps messy process? Sure. But in the meantime, the bully would be gone from the office and everyone could go back to getting some productive work done. Would it bring the department to a standstill? Only if you let it. Yes, there would be disruption, but doesn’t Bad Employee already cause disruption? How could having Bad Employee gone be worse? Sounds like New Manager (and all of the managers above New Manager) need to grow a spine. Seriously. Letting one bad employee strangle an entire organization? Wow! Your statement (“they usually get told from above that they need to do whatever they can to make Bad Employee happy”) speaks volumes. All this said, only OP can really know what it’s like to work there. Those of us looking from the outside in can only speculate on how to solve the problem, as we aren’t there everyday and don’t know the intricacies of the office. Good luck OP! Hope you’ll update us down the road!

  4. Kerry

    I am thinking of starting a new micro-consulting business. You hire me for one week only, no extensions allowed. During that week, I come in and say the crap that your pathetic managers apparently cannot. On Monday, I tell people like this to knock it the F off, and if they don’t, they’re fired. By Friday, when they haven’t knocked it the F off, I fire them.

    Seriously, the ones like this are easy. There’s no nuance. Dude needs to be fired. Prolonging it never changes that fact. I never understand why companies choose torturing themselves for years when they could be done with it quick and fast.

      1. Jamie

        This would be awesome! And if you guys start the taking-names-and-kicking-butt management service and find that you need someone for the IT Division give me a call!

          1. Melissa

            This sounds exactly like what “Tabitha” does on “Tabitha Takes Over” (on Bravo TV). She used to “take over” only hair salons. Now she does everything. She is exactly what this place needs!

    1. Anonymous

      hahaha, I’ve often thought of doing that too. Because every time a friend tells me about some BS going on at their job, I immediately respond with “well, that’s #$^&ing stupid, your company needs to stop doing A and do B, C, and D instead.” How does one get started in this line of work? ;)

      1. Dawn

        I want in too! I get so upset when I hear the crap that goes on where my husband works. He doesn’t tell me much anymore because I grill him about how it’s being handled, tell him how it should have been handled, etc. LOL

    2. Emily

      Your one-week-kick-@**-and-take-names premise has launched more than one reality series:

      makeover the disfunctional salon (Blow Out)
      makeover the disfunctional restaurant (Kitchen Nightmares)
      makeover the disfunctional family (Supernanny)

      Y’all are only missing a producer and an agent :)

      1. ChristineH

        I would’ve included Undercover Boss (makeover a dysfunctional corporation), but their approach is too gentle. lol.

    3. Josh S

      Hmmmm…I’ve been slowly building my experience with business consulting (mainly mom & pop outfits and smallish non-profits). But this seems like it would be a way to make a name and break in to the ‘real’ clients…

      I like it!

  5. Original Poster

    @Melissa: I’m in 100% agreement with everything you said. But, well, you could explain the basic elementary logic with hand puppets and cake and soothing Enya music, and the upper-level managers would still be climbing over themselves to escape the room and accusing you of being disruptive, because you’re suggesting change and change scaaaaaaaaaaaary.

    I can give you my update now! First, Bad Employee gets transferred somewhere else, does the same thing, until he retires. I foresee this in my crystal ball of “Jerks I Work With.” Second, this job has gotten me off my duff and convinced me to apply for grad school. I also saw, in my terrible crystal ball, a long dark future of ending up in places like this and feeling stuck because my skill set, education, and experience isn’t very unique or specialized. So, I’m going to keep pursuing the field I’m in, but give myself the tools I’ll need to be more competitive, so I don’t ever have to feel stuck in a workplace like this again.

  6. Anonymous

    This story sounds unbelievable, but I know of other cases similar to this (having email accounts deleted due to inactivity) yet, somehow, people manage to keep their jobs.

  7. Dawn

    Actually, I can believe this story. My husband’s place of work (security) has to deal with crap like this. There are two employees who have been there for 15+ years and work the 3rd shift. They routinely fall asleep at their post, miss key punches (they have to make rounds of the building and hit electronic keys at certain points), and are generally lazy. No matter how much people complain, HR won’t do anything at all about it. Every time they try to reprimand the guys, they pull the race card. HR is afraid of a lawsuit so nothing ever gets done. They don’t seem to realize that if they document, reprimand, coach, document some more, etc., they can fire these guys. They’d rather just sweep the issue under the rug.

  8. Anonymous

    I believe this. I work in a bureaucratic union environment and we have issues like this. People document bad behavior and try to move forward with getting rid of someone, but the union will usually file grievances up and up the chain. It boggles my mind why the good employees in the union stand up for the bad apples, especially when the good ones end up picking up slack for the others. We had one case that went to arbitration and ended with the problem employee being reinstated who we had let go. This kind of thing is supposed to be confidential, but of course people generally know what is going on. This is discouraging to managers good, mediocre and bad. We have more luck trying to work with people and develop them as best we can. And when positions open, making darn sure that we get folks in who will be all flexible, productive employees!

  9. Nichole

    Provided the (unlikely) blessing that these bad managers are good documenters, I would so love to hear an update saying the big boss called Bad Employee’s bluff, and Bad Employee either a) quit out of embarrassment when it became clear that he has no leg to stand on or b) went through enthusiastically with the lawsuit and got told off by the judge for being ridiculous-and Big Boss gets told off for letting him be so ridiculous for so long. Good luck, OP!

  10. GeekChic

    Between Kerry’s truly awesome sounding one week consulting service and the OP’s “you could explain the basic elementary logic with hand puppets and cake and soothing Enya music”, it’s a wonder I haven’t spit water on my monitor….

  11. Anonymous

    I feel the OP’s pain. I worked at a place that was perfect for me: creative, independent, technology-oriented, but the managers and one employee were AWFUL. Our Bad Employee was a relative of the Big Boss, and a raging alcoholic who constantly made mistakes and then blamed everyone else for not making sure he didnt make those mistakes. He was transferred and transferred and his job duties were cut and limited so much and yet he was still failing. He also interacted with customers while stumbling around and reeking of booze.

    Periodically the manager and Big Boss would talk to him about his problem, but no deadline to fix himself or consequences were ever enforced. Big Boss always used the excuse “We just didnt give him a chance. We have to write a formal warning…no wait we need to get him to sign a contract saying he’ll clean himself up…no actually he should get 3 warnings first just to be fair…” (Despite being reminded that we were in an at-will state). The manager wanted desperately to fire the guy, but felt too guilty to do it because “Bad Employee has a problem and if we fire him he’ll drink himself to oblivion and then probably get hit by a car and die. Plus, he’s the Big Boss’ relative.” Big Boss always told manager he could fire him, and manager always countered back with “no way would you let me.”

    Bad Employee was finally fired when other problems within the company started to erupt and fear of a mass employee changeover was on the horizon. They knew they couldnt keep great employees around if the Bad Employee was getting away with everything AND getting paid more than they did…at the end of my time there, he was delegated ONE job task and still failed at it.

  12. Joey

    It’s a hell of a lot harder to fire an employee when you know their boss is doing such a bad job. I’ve put the brakes on firing a bad employee because a manager did a bad job of managing. To give the employee a fair shake you usually should fix the management problems first. So the real priority is getting a good manager in there. Then it becomes easier to fire the kind of employee you’re describing. Especially if it does get to litigation. Employees don’t usually sue because of the company’s actions they sue due to the managers actions. And you don’t want to have to defend the actions of a crappy manager.

  13. Tech Chic(k)

    Wow. At some point the correct response to “I’m gonna sue!” is “Bring it!”. Even if they did lose a lawsuit to this guy, they’d end up paying what, his annual wage in penalties? That’d be cheap compared to the damage they’ve already let him do.

  14. ChristineH

    I think all of this shines a light on what I think is a very overly-litigious society; as a result, employers get scared and/or don’t want to use precious time and resources. It’s a shame, really. Bad Employee sounds like a piece of work.

  15. Original Poster

    Update! Or, you know, just more of the same.

    I had suspicions New Manager was trying to build up a case against Bad Employee. She was asking me to pull certain reports and statistics — while she was vague about her reasoning, these are the exact reports and stats that show how little work he does. And on her calendar, she had slotted a very large chunk of time (with no subject designated) to spend in a meeting with Bad Employee at the end of this week.

    So suddenly, yesterday, Bad Employee issued official complaints against half the office — most of these people he hasn’t interacted with in a few months, and none of them have any clue what the complaints are about. Our policy requires that complaints are dealt with ASAP, taking precedence over almost everything else. So, now New Manager will have to spend the next few weeks investigating these complaints and having long mediation seminars with Bad Employee and the people he complained about, likely leaving her no time to talk to him about his performance (and I would guess he will try to dump some of his bad performance on the employees he’s complained about, to pre-emptively take some of the meat out of her case).

    I suspect if New Manager tries to pursue whatever she had had planned, Bad Employee will go over her head and tell some higher-up that New Manager is retaliating against him for blowing the whistle on a hostile workplace that persecutes him. He’s done this in other departments, so I’m guessing that’s what’s gearing up here.

    I just tell myself every morning, in a year I’ll be in grad school. And in the meantime, I’ll keep reading the Ask a Manager blog, to make sure I don’t end up like New Manager someday! I feel very sad for her right now, she is going to have a stupid, stupid week. :(

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