how do I warn new hires about a toxic colleague?

A reader writes:

I recently switched departments within a large company. My new role is similar to my old one, and I still work with some of the colleagues I got to know during the last few years; luckily, however, my new projects do not involve working with the one truly toxic colleague I encountered during that time. This is a very senior, essentially untouchable person. (She has a unique and very specialized skill set that is vital to the success of the many projects with which she’s involved. She’s also on a totally different part of the org chart from, but definitely senior to, my current boss and even my boss’s boss.) While superficially very friendly, this person consistently tried to undermine me and blame me — to my former boss — for her own failures to complete essential tasks on time. Luckily, I am somewhat anal about keeping old emails and was always able to back up my claims that I had provided her with all the required information and that I had sent her several reminders of the upcoming deadline, and standing my ground did seem to make her back off a little over time. I’ve heard informally that at least two other employees have had very similar dealings with this person.

In my new department, a new hire who is completely new to the organization, younger and less experienced than me, very nice, and seemingly very shy, has been assigned to a project that involves working with this toxic person. I have also met, and like, my replacement in my former position, who is obviously going to be in a similar situation. My question is, how can I subtly warn them both to watch their backs while working with our toxic senior colleague — to get everything in writing and to keep all old emails for backup, that sort of thing? I don’t want to poison their own relationships with this person before they’ve really had a chance to meet her (after all, maybe she’ll be fine with both of them), or to seem too negative and cynical to people I barely know. 

Avoid characterizing your coworker to them, but do recommend specific actions they should take.

In other words, don’t tell them that the colleague is toxic, untrustworthy, or difficult to work with. That’s for them to conclude on their own, and you don’t need to be seen (to them or to others) as someone who badmouths coworkers.

But do say something like, “In working with Jane, I found it’s really helpful to put everything in writing and keep an email trail of the information you’ve provided her with, any deadline reminders, and so forth. In the past, she sometimes was on a different page about those things, and it was very helpful for me to be able to point to specific emails I’d sent.” Say this in a neutral tone, like you’d use to give advice on any other part of the job — don’t use a tone that conveys “Jane is a jerk” or roll your eyes or anything like that.

The key here is to sound neutral and agenda-free — or at least as if your only agenda is making sure that work goes smoothly. Present this the same way that you’d present tips on working with the temperamental copy machine or getting along with a particularly tricky but valued client.

Of course, none of that will help if your coworkers aren’t willing to stand up for themselves and push back against Jane when necessary, but you’ll have at least armed them with the tools they’d need to do it and given them a hint that they might need to at some point.

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Jen in RO

    I was in a similar situation a while ago – my new coworkers were supposed to be trained by a more senior, but somewhat incompetent coworker. I couldn’t straight up tell them “don’t listen to her, she has no idea what she’s saying”, but I tried to make myself available to them for all questions. After a while, they realized that the coworker in question should be ignored in most matters. I do feel a bit guilty though – before I could “insert” myself in their (informal) training process, they did have a couple of shitty weeks with the coworker…

  2. Chinook

    I too have been in a similar situation with numerous new coworkers and did what Allison recommended. But, I also invited them for lunch outside the office a few weeks later to see if they had any follow up questions. By being out of the office, I found that I could ask “how are things going?” and give them a chance to ask about tips when dealing with said colleague. I could tell if they are having issues and be able to confirm that they are not being oversensitive about the issue a day give a few more tips. When asked by them why I didn’t outright warn them ahead of time, I would reply that I wanted them to come their own opinion and not have it colored by me. And there were a few people who would get along with her, so it worked.

    Luckily, said toxic coworker eventually retired.

  3. Steve G

    Oh I wish I had taken this advice in the past. I felt an obligation to help a new hire by divulging all of my past dealings with 2 of our toxic employees. Turns out he himself became toxic so all I had done was start the drama between the new hire and the 2 toxic ones sooner.

    I toned it down with our last new hire but still should have toned it down more. I said something like “Mr toxic (one of them had left we only had 1 now) sometimes likes to make other people look bad for no reason, or especially when his team isnt doing great. He also likes to dump work on other people and just “oversee” it even though his equivalent in every other market does the actual work.”

    This seemed ok in my head, but of course it led to a thousand WHY questions and the new hire knew everything the first week.

    I guess for the next new hire I’ll just say “if Mr. Toxic sends you something that doesn’t seem like your job, or you don’t know how to respond to something he said or emailed, get me involved.”

  4. Not So NewReader

    I try to tell new hires, “If there is something you feel I might be able to help you with, please feel free to hunt me down and ask me.”
    Sometimes appearing as the one who offers “little helps”, (such as finding more paper for the copier, or letting them know “We are all outta here by 3 pm on Christmas eve”) opens the door for more meaningful conversations in a while.

  5. Ariancita

    This is good advice, but I would make it even more neutral and not mention Jane’s name at all. I would say something like: “For our projects, I’ve found that it’s useful to……” Or, “In my past experience, I found it very helpful to/noticed things really run much smother when….”

    1. Ariancita

      Oh, and if they ask why as per Steve’s experience, I’d answer, “It’s always a good idea to document and keep track of everything. You’ll be juggling a lot of priorities and it helps to have a paper trail to help keep track of communications and changes.”

    2. Diane

      +1.

      I think neutral and factual is the best approach.

      Plus, it’s always a good idea to document regardless. You may find yourself producing that documentation with new management, for an audit or in preparation for your departure or leave.

    3. fposte

      I think it can be okay to give names–otherwise you end up with the equivalent of the email to everybody about a policy that only one person is following. If Jane’s expectations and needs aren’t reasonable, then the new employee shouldn’t be instructed to do that for everybody.

      But I totally agree that you stay out of commenting on anybody’s character, and in fact the talk about ways to work with Jane can be part of a broader discussion about various colleagues’ working habits: “I’ve found that Claire doesn’t email much but responds to phone calls, and since Terry’s still learning the ropes I sometimes check with Thanh if I’m not sure about an answer,” etc.

    4. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’d still recommend making it specific to Jane, because otherwise the coworker may think, “Well, that’s Ariancita’s way of keeping track of her projects, but I have different systems that work well for me.” Whereas if it’s clearly connected to working with Jane, the coworker is more likely to understand that there’s a real problem that that advice will ameliorate.

      1. Ariancita

        Yes, I thought of that. But it would only take one or two run-ins with Jane to put two and two together and then be equipped with how to handle it, which is a lot better than not being equipped at all. Also, maybe it’s because I work in a small office, but any kind of naming names, even if it attempts to be neutral, would be received as loaded and even passive aggressive. Perhaps that would be different if it were in a large office. But in my office, that would be a major no no, no matter how you tried to couch it. The way it’s phrased above doesn’t sound neutral at all if I were to envision it in my office situation. It’s clear what’s being said. It sounds Slytherin. :)

        Also to fposte’s point, I think it’s different than a company wide email because it’s a pulled aside one-on-one conversation. It leaves it open for the person to come back with questions and assistance. It’s personal. But I do like the name added with others.

  6. Elizabeth West

    I love how Alison’s advice is so polite yet so sneakily “Heads-up; this person is difficult.” I had a job once where I was flat out warned that a certain colleague was nasty. I was told that Toxic Tina (not her real name) actually drove a salesman away–she bullied him so much that he walked off the job, never to return!

    It was my hope that I didn’t have to work with her that much, since I was only supposed to sub for the receptionist one day out of five. But the receptionist bailed so much (who could blame her!) that I ended up working with Tina three or four days a week. She was nasty, vicious, lied about stuff, and was the only coworker I ever had whom I actually hated. I ended up losing that job after a couple of months because it was more sales-oriented than they told me and it wasn’t working out, but I basically was ready to quit anyway. It was not what they said it would be, and I could not tolerate working with Tina any more.

  7. Rob

    Also keep in mind that nobody is irreplaceable. I’ve noticed that several writers over the last few months, perhaps in a way to justify a colleagues actions, state that X person is the only person who can do A, B and C tasks. That is absolutely false, as that person someday will either quit/retire or be fired. At that point, someone will have to pick up those tasks.

    However, these people may be ‘untouchable’ as the owner of the company is blind to that persons actions – but that is a different problem altogether.

  8. Employment lawyer

    It entirely depends on how dangerous Toxic Tina is, which depends on how she harms people.

    If Tina is just openly nasty, then a new hire will find out in a day or two, and will adapt to suit (or not) as they are able. A warning isn’t necessary, and probably does not justify the professional risk.

    On the other extreme: if Tina is the type to save up issues until 9 months later at the year-end review, and then start blaming everyone, then you really should warn people ahead of time, so that they don’t get blindsided by it.

    One other possible solution is to refer your colleague to someone who is willing to speak openly about Toxic Tina: “I think Larry has some experience working with Tina; you might want to talk to him about what works.” This only works if Larry is willing to be up front, but it further removes you from any retaliation. It’s a good move if, for example, Larry is also untouchable.

  9. OP

    Thanks for the great answers – this has been very helpful!

    “Present this the same way that you’d present tips on working with the temperamental copy machine”

    HA! That is both hilarious, and great advice. I’m going to be at an off-site event this week with both of the at-risk-of-toxic-shock-syndrome colleagues, so I’ll have a word with each of them then (separately) – I think being out of the office will make the conversation easier.

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