my employee sulks when his work is questioned

A reader writes:

I am a manager of several remote workers in states other than my own. I have one worker who acts in a way I consider to be childish. Our work environment is fast-paced and can be stressful at times. When I or any of my supervisor staff calls to ask questions about his work, he gets so sensitive about the inquiries that he takes offense and doesn’t want to talk to anyone anymore and puts himself out on an island. He’s doing his assigned work but doesn’t return phone calls because his feelings are hurt by this and constantly needs to be handled with white gloves.

It’s getting annoying and frankly I consider not returning phone calls to be insubordinate. I understand that if he’s busy he may not be able to get to the phone right away, but I’d expect to call back in a reasonable time frame. Thoughts?

You can read my answer to this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

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{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. esra

    Boo, boo cutting back on flex time. Boo.

    Really though, I can see times when it would be necessary to cut flex. I’ve just seen too many instances of it being cut because someone wants butts in seats. I’ve never seen it cut where it actually positively affected workflow.

    Reply
    1. Murphy

      I agree. I think flex time is the best thing I can offer my staff in a time of fiscal restrains when raises are off the table and our vacation time is set by policy and not negotiable.

      I will admit, I was also a little turned off by the statement that she thought the original flex time arrangement was “too generous” which leads me to believe this isn’t a productivity issue, but rather a perception one (manager doesn’t like flex time. Full stop.) And that makes me wonder what other things she may be overly rigid/cranky about (it’s something I’d think about if I were her employee).

      Reply
      1. Portia

        I wonder if they’re just cranky that the employees aren’t using their vacation time to take vacations and feels they’re getting too much paid time off. Because that’s a personal issue that they need to deal with, not make others suffer for. And it’s not like getting extra time off if they work longer hours to get that flexday.

        I also don’t understand the reasoning for not liking moving around flex days to extend a holiday weekend. Using flextime like that makes total sense to me. I do that all the time to avoid taking all my annual leave to visit family over holidays, or take weekend trips. In fact, a combination of holidays, flex days, and my few accumulated days of leave was my only way to get enough time off for my honeymoon.

        Reply
        1. Mike C.

          I also don’t understand the reasoning for not liking moving around flex days to extend a holiday weekend.

          Yeah, this reeks of some childish, “they’re CHEATING!!!” schoolyard crap. Sure, let’s ignore the fact that there’s a huge difference between taking a Wednesday off and a four day weekend or that there are fixed costs to travel regardless to length of stay (plane tickets!).

          Ugh, just stick with productivity. It’s a concrete reason that allows employees multiple paths to success and you can end up with solutions that make everyone happy.

          Reply
        2. Roscoe

          Exactly. Some people have a mentality of when things “should” be used. Example a sick day. My boss now doesn’t care why I take a sick day (although I wouldn’t tell him I’m doing it to go to the beach). However some bosses are so particular they want to make sure you are home all day and require a doctors note. This manager sounds like the 2nd type

          Reply
          1. Lee Ann

            Sounds like the sort to get upset at the old joke that 40% of sick days are taken on Monday or Friday.

            (40% of the M-F workdays *are* Monday and Friday!)

            Reply
            1. esra

              The sad/funny thing is even though that’s a joke, I’ve heard more than one director bring it up as a reason we shouldn’t have work from home.

              Reply
              1. Vicki

                I was a contractor for a group that was able to work from home one day a week, but not Friday, never Friday. In the manager’s words, “3-day weekend no way!”.

                Just because he wasn’t going to do any actual work if he “worked from home” on a Friday didn’t mean other people had the same plan. When I work from home I _work_… from home…. and more productively from Cubeland.

                Reply
      2. Afiendishthingy

        I was just very confused by the letter- nothing about productivity, just that approving the days is “annoying?” Just the vagueness and word choice makes me think the LW doesn’t have a concrete reason to get rid of the flex days.

        Reply
      1. The Cosmic Avenger

        Well now, they had the wisdom to write to Alison for advice, so they can’t be all bad! ;)

        It could just be that that manager came from a previously dysfunctional job, and they were trained that normal perks and benefits are doled out parsimoniously as rare rewards for outstanding work. Or there could have been one or two abusers, and rather than properly manage, management did away with those benefits completely, and now that OP is overly vigilant about allowing that to happen again.

        Of course, neither of those positions justify their attitude, but the important thing is whether they’re willing to give it a go and let go of their preconceived notions for a while.

        Reply
        1. Roscoe

          That logic is ridiculous. I often know I’m being a jerk, but ask my friends about it, hoping that they will talk me out of and saying I’m being too hard on myself. They never do, and it just confirms what I thought. So yes she asked, but yes, she also seems awful to work for.

          Reply
          1. TootsNYC

            how is she different from you? You know you’re a jerk, even. This manager may not even know she’s a jerk–she’s writing in to ask.

            Reply
    2. Mike C.

      Yeah, I’d love to work from home but that means I can’t be used as a security blanket by managers that aren’t mine. Heck, there are times I’ve had to come into work on the weekends (luckily I’m paid for this!) “just in case” when I’ve done nothing useful.

      Reply
      1. esra

        managers that aren’t mine.

        Flames, on the side of my face, for how many times I’ve encountered this. What it is with managers from other departments just needing to see random staff members at their desks?

        Reply
        1. nofelix

          It’s possibly because they don’t want their staff to be jealous. The Manager of Dept A will start griping that Dept B clearly has too much budget/staff if they are not working hard all the time. It’s then easier for the Dept B Manager to just keep bums in seats than fight to explain how it’s the result of flexitime and productivity is still high.

          Reply
    3. Artemesia

      This. Cutting flexibility should only occur when there is a positive reason to do so — people are NEEDED butts in seats at particular times or there is a productivity problem of the particular person who is abusing the flex. Cutting it for productive people is just a way to give them an incentive to look elsewhere. It costs nothing to give this benefit and it has high value for the employee; it comes across as just poor management to cut it because of some rigid juvenile notion of the need to dominate and force conformity. And if someone is abusing it and by that I mean, working less and being less productive, not extending their weekends, then deal with THAT PERSON not the policy. That is what good management is.

      Reply
  2. Snarkus Aurelius

    And women are supposed to be the overly emotional, passive-aggressive ones who can’t handle criticism.

    Ugh!

    Reply
  3. Argh!

    I have dealt with a pouter. They are very annoying!

    In this case I got to the root of the problem when he said what he was feeling rather than just look annoyed for hours. Later, I questioned him in a similar situation and found the same response.

    He felt I was “insulting” him. Well…. if you do sub-par work you don’t get a pat on the back. I explained that as his supervisor it’s my job to hold him to a standard and it’s nothing personal. Seriously, he just didn’t understand that he’s not entitled to go through life without criticism when he puts in minimal effort and does half-arsed work. His work has improved minimally but he’s not pouting about corrections and attempts at coaching like he used to.

    Reply
    1. Ella

      I worry that I look like a pouter, because I know I go quiet after criticism. Part of it is that I want to concentrate on my work (especially if I’ve just been told I’m not doing it right), part of it is just not feeling super social and bouncy right after being told you need to improve on things, and part of it is that I have an emotional reaction to criticism that I’d rather process on my own rather than talking it through with my boss. It’s not my boss’s concern if her criticism is making me feel frustrated or sad; her job is to make sure I’m doing my job, and my emotions are mine to handle. But I totally go into my own head when I’m processing criticism. If it looks like pouting, well, I don’t know what to do about that.

      Reply
      1. MAB

        I wouldn’t call that pouty. I would call that buckling down and getting your shit done. If you respond in a reasonable amount of time, are pleasant to work with and don’t take your emotions out on your coworkers, as a manager I appreciate that.

        Reply
      2. Meeeeeeeee

        You could try to give some appropriate verbal responses even if your non-verbal response is ‘pouting’. Like, “Thank you for the feedback, I appreciate you pointing this out to me, I will do to do better” or something. I think that would go a long way.

        Reply
        1. Sarahnova

          Yes, I agree. I’m happy to give you space but I do appreciate hearing that you understand the feedback and will work on it. Being able to take feedback is a super important skill IMO.

          Reply
  4. MissDisplaced

    #5 I’ve seen a number of companies do this. They can’t really afford to bring on a employee full-time or permanent, so they just keep hiring temps or “interns” to fill the void: over and over and over again. To get bodies in the door, they make a promise of the position going to full-time and it never does. Pffft!
    I’m always wary when I see or hear this in interviews or job postings. Unless of course all you want is part-time work.

    Reply
    1. Snarkus Aurelius

      My very first internship had more unpaid interns than paid staff.  Fifteen people total with only five regular paid staff.  The interns would work nights and weekends while the paid staff were gone at 5 PM and had no weekends.

      It was the same deal as in this letter.  There was always a reason to not turn an unpaid internship into a paid job because it was DC and therefore a bottomless pit of unpaid interns to choose from.

      Now that I’ve been through a couple of recessions, I always get a kick out employers saying that hard economic times don’t allow for raises, new hires, bonuses, etc., yet when the economy turns around those benefits never return.  Or at least I’ve never seen them return.

      If you literally can’t afford to pay your workers, then you’re a poorly run business and shouldn’t exist.  (I realize that’s more aspirational than realistic.)

      Reply
      1. MissDisplaced

        Yup! And the minute one of them starts questioning about wanting to go full-time, they get rid of them and re-post the position. Or sometimes they just regularly post the position every 6 months.
        I used to work for a guy who would always post job openings for his assistant that were “Temp to Full-Time.” Always around the 5-6 month mark he would suddenly begin to find fault with them and do it all over again.

        Reply
    2. Ruffingit

      Yeah, I too was always wary when I saw “Potential to be full-time” in a job ad. What they always seem to mean is “Will pay you crap wages, if any at all, and will dangle carrot of full-time employment until you are fed up and leave.” It’s like when a real estate ad describes a house as “needs a little TLC.” What that translates to is “Will take all the money you have and still will not be livable.”

      Reply
  5. Kelly

    Yep, I have a 45 year old woman in my office that literally TEARS up and CRIES whenever I question her about anything – even if it turns out that whatever happened or is incorrect wasn’t her fault. It’s so beyond annoying.

    Reply
    1. Sascha

      Ack, our receptionist is like that. She’s very defensive and thinks any kind of question is a personal attack – especially if she doesn’t know the answer. She’ll go on a teary tirade about how it’s not her job and she is just doing her best and trying so hard and it’s all unfair, if you so much as ask where the printer paper is and she doesn’t know.

      Reply
      1. Mallory Janis Ian

        We had a receptionist at OldJob who would go home sick every time she was questioned, challenged, or didn’t get her way about something. And if she went home ‘sick’ in the afternoon, she’d usually call in ‘sick’ for the following day, as well. On the morning following a day where she’d gone home mad, the rest of us would sit around and wait for her call-in voicemail, then we’d all be like, “Called it!!”

        Reply
    2. Pennalynn Lott

      It’s not work, but I’ve got a 22-year old woman on two of my teams in college (two different classes, same woman) who cries if anyone asks her to edit her contributions. For instance, we were assigned a 3-page paper with five sections. Each of us took a section and wrote a two-paragraph response. But this woman’s response for her section was THREE PAGES LONG, the maximum length of the whole paper! How on earth she thought that was okay, I’ll never know; but when we told her it would need to be cut back to just a couple paragraphs, she burst into tears and said she felt we were ripping her apart as a person. (Whaaaa–???)

      Every time she does something like this [histrionics over something pretty neutral] I keep thinking, “Man, the work world is going to be a cold, painful, shock for you.”

      Reply
    3. Stranger than fiction

      Ha at an old job, we used to have “cry Wednesday” for a lady that cried every time she got stressed out about a customer so her boss said to cut it to one day a week and just let it out.

      Reply
      1. Afiendishthingy

        What? Was this successful? I get teary from frustration from time to time at work. It’s super embarrassing sometimes and I can’t do it on command! If she had enough control to only cry on Wednesdays couldn’t she just confine it to home?

        Reply
    4. msbadbar

      I totally get how it’s annoying and hard for managers. However, I suspect that some people really can’t help it. A friend of mine managed someone who would tear up during her year-end review while saying “please just ignore that” (the tears). I don’t cry, but I sweat like crazy during reviews–we’re taking rivers of sweat like I’m in the finals at Wimbledon. I have pretty bad social anxiety and it’s part of it. I hate it. Also, I’m aware that it makes others uncomfortable which further feeds the shame cycle.

      Reply
      1. Blurgle

        I’m feeling defensive about these people who wrongly and cruelly think crying is some kind of manipulative control device that one can turn on and off at will. That simply isn’t how it works, not for me and not (I suspect) for most people.

        Reply
        1. Alienor

          I’ve been in a relationship with someone who thought that. If I cried when he was yelling at me, he’d get angrier and yell “Crying’s not going to get you out of trouble!” Yeah, I’m not crying because I think it’ll make you stop yelling at me, I’m crying because YOU ARE YELLING at me.

          Reply
          1. the gold digger

            “Crying’s not going to get you out of trouble!”

            What? How do you get “in trouble” with a romantic partner? This would be a dad thing to yell, not a boyfriend. (And even then, it’s probably not a good dad strategy.)

            Reply
            1. Alienor

              We were married and had children together, so he just had one default yelling mode that he used on whoever he was mad at. He had a lot of good qualities, but that definitely wasn’t among them.

              Reply
        2. Sarahnova

          I definitely don’t think that, and I have for sure cried at work. But you HAVE to be able to cope with your boss saying, “this doesn’t work, can you redo it in X way please.”

          Reply
        3. Elinor

          Some people just seem to have this perception of certain behaviours as manipulative and it’s almost impossible to break them of this. (I wonder if it’s some sort of emotional imprinting from early dysfunctional family relationships.) My significant other has been like this with a couple of things – he’s absolutely convinced that people yawn not because they’re tired but because they’re bored and don’t care if you know it (so polite people who are bored hide their yawns) and tears in an argument were ‘crocodile tears’ unless it was something really obviously sad that he personally sympathised with. He finally got over the latter but it took YEARS of emotional work. The yawn one is still his knee-jerk reaction.

          Reply
      2. Myrin

        Of course there are people who can’t help it but it’s usually very obvious whether that’s the case or whether someone just uses tears and emotional breakdowns to manipulate others into feeling bad and thus doing there bidding lest they upset the crier even more. (As you said, your friend asked the manager to ignore the tears, which is what people who can’t help it usually do [or you just generally realise that they’re embarrassed about it]. That won’t happen with those who use it as a device.)

        Reply
      3. Cafe Au Lait

        That’s me. Due to my birth control (IUD) tears are always lurking beneath the surface. I hear/read a happy story, and I cry. I hear/read a sad story, I cry. I hear/read a story where people disagree, I cry. My boss likes something I did, I cry. My boss wants me to change something I did, I cry. My boss asks why I’m crying, I cry more.

        I’m the pregnantist non-pregnant person I know right now.

        Reply
    5. Nervous Accountant

      Depending on my mood, I either feel sick or laugh at all the times I cried at my current job, some of htem in front of others. Usually it was because a client was being a jerk, or I was getting written up and afraid of getting fired.

      Reply
  6. Spunky Brewster

    I’m dealing with being overly defensive right now myself. It’s due to getting a new supervisor. Previously, I hadn’t had many questions at all on my work and the new supervisor makes me feel stupid. It’s sooo frustrating!

    Reply
    1. Bailey Quarters

      I have been there myself! It’s good that you see it and are working on the problem. It’s still very frustrating, but I think in time you’ll see the benefit as I did. :-)

      Reply
  7. voyager1

    Some folks just don’t internalize criticism or feedback or whatever you want to call it in a healthy way. We shouldn’t marginalize how they feel though. One doesn’t know why they are that way, it could be they have had life experiences that causes them to be overly sensitive etc.

    I personally do not handle criticism super well at times. I get anxious about reviews as well. For me what helps is telling myself that a manager can tell me what to do but not how to feel. For me that helps.

    Reply
    1. The Bimmer Guy

      Exactly. Even something like crying is really more of an annoyance than an impediment. If someone is crying particularly hard and I’m in the manager giving her constructive or necessary feedback, I’ll hand her a box of tissues and ask if she needs a moment, then continue.

      Angry outbursts or complete unresponsiveness immediately after the feedback are things that aren’t okay.

      Reply
      1. Afiendishthingy

        Yes. I had a report who got super sulky after corrective feedback- arms crossed, wouldn’t respond to direct questions. It was maddening. This includes when the feedback was “I need you to respond to feedback in a more professional manner.” She has essentially been demoted and still works for the agency but is no longer my problem.

        Reply
  8. Roscoe

    For the pouting I have to question how this “questioning his work” is going to really know what to make of it. Tone can make all the difference in something as simple as “Can you explain how you did x, y, and z?” Said one way, its just understanding the thought process. Said a different way, its basically saying WTF were you thinking. IF its said the 2nd way, and he is pouting, while its still not good, its understandable, especially if it happens often.

    Reply
  9. VX34

    1) Would love to know more context on how said employee is questioned. If it’s an AAM-style response that is assertive, but not aggressive, it sounds like the employee has a real problem. But if said employee is being “ambushed” about their work, and they feel on the defensive all the time…perhaps there’s something there?

    2) Without a discernible, tangible impact on workload or productivity, I think the flex-time manager needs to, you know, let the flex-time be flexible. If someone is extending a vacation a day…so what? If they get their work done, and don’t adversely impact the team…too bad?

    Reply
  10. Rubyrose

    I worked remote for 7 years. My company had set standards for returning phone calls and responding to instant messages and emails. You can’t just drop off the face of the earth because you are busy or upset. And as their manager, you have the right to interrupt their work, so their being busy is no excuse. If you can’t connect with them within your time frames, someone may take advantage of that and just not be working. May be watching TV in the other room, or running errands. Figure out a time frame for responding to requests for communication, announce it to all, put it in writing, and enforce it.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      It’s not even really about whether they’re “taking advantage of that and just not be working.”

      Their absence from the office is affecting the productivity of the people IN the office.
      If your work-from-home arrangements negatively affect the folks IN the office, then you need to be in the office too.
      Sure, someone who’s in the office may be in a meeting, bathroom, etc. But you know they’re around, and can find out a vague idea of when they’ll get back to you.

      Reply
  11. nofelix

    Do managers normally have to approve use of flexitime? I thought the whole point was that you just had to work X number of hours a week and be present at core hours. I’ve never been in an office that offers it though. I could see how having to approve everything would get very annoying.

    Reply

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