A reader writes:
Can I/should I confront my manager for telling my coworker that I complained about her work — when I didn’t?
My manager, Ann, is extremely reactive and has a tendency to focus on one person or project and basically fly off the handle at the slightest thing. At other times, she’s very pleasant and fun to be around. This makes working with her somewhat challenging, since you never know what the mood of the day or hour is.
My coworker, Monica, has some trouble completing projects on time, and the rest of the team has learned to work around it– when Monica’s part of a project is not done and we are reviewing with a manager, we use filler content and tell the reviewer that the real content will be coming soon. It’s not ideal, but we can’t do much else. When this happens to me, I am not shy about asking Monica for what I need, or about making it clear when I am using filler content.
Monica was the most recent target of Ann’s wrath, and Ann was very aggressive about telling Monica that the rest of the team didn’t like working with her. Ann also said that I had complained to Ann and a higher-up about Monica multiple times, and that Monica was not someone I liked to work with.
Except I didn’t complain to either of those people about Monica, and never have. I like working with Monica. Now it’s very awkward between me and Monica, who is one of my friends in the office.
I tried to smooth things over with Monica, but can I speak up to Ann about this? It seems very unprofessional of Ann to bring up my name, especially when I didn’t complain in the first place! I don’t know how to bring this up, especially when I wasn’t there for the actual chewing-out.
You can indeed talk to Ann about it, but you’d want to approach it as “I think there’s been a miscommunication somewhere” rather than “don’t use my name when talking to another employee.”
Managers do sometimes have to invoke other people in order to address performance issues — “Jane has repeatedly had trouble getting X and Y from you,” etc. Sometimes a manager may need to invoke your name even if you haven’t actually complained — for example, “Jane needs to stay late when you miss deadlines.”
That said, some managers may assume that you’re frustrated by something that you’re not actually frustrated by, and it’s rightly problematic when they pass that along as if it’s fact, which may have happened here.
(And certainly Monica’s description of what Ann said to her — aggressively telling her that the rest of the team doesn’t like working with her — sounds pretty bad. But we’re also only getting Monica’s description of it. It’s possible that it was more like “It makes everyone else’s job harder when they’re counting on you for X and Y and you don’t get it to them by the deadline. They need to be able to count on you to come through when you say you will.” That would be pretty reasonable, and Monica wouldn’t be the first person to hear feedback that stings and turn it into something much more harsh in her head. But we can’t really know which it is.)
In any case … the message you want for Ann isn’t “don’t use my name without my okay,” but rather “I think you might have an impression that’s incorrect.” You could say something like this: “I wanted to touch base with you about a strange conversation I had with Monica the other day, because I think there may be a miscommunication in here somewhere. It sounds like she got the idea from you that I had complained to you about her and that I don’t like working with her. I actually do like working with her and don’t think I’ve ever complained about her. I’m not sure if she misunderstood what you said or if you misunderstood something I’ve said in the past, so I wanted to make sure you know that.”
It’s possible that this won’t really clear anything up for you. Ann may say, “Thanks for letting me know” and just leave it that. But it’s also possible that she’ll explain why she had that impression, and then you can correct her if needed.
Hell, it’s even possible that you have said things to her in the past that have come across as complaining about Monica, even if you didn’t realize it, or that you said them to someone else and it got passed on to Ann. It’s possible for “we can’t give you this content because Monica hasn’t turned it in yet” to come across as frustration with Monica, depending on the context and the delivery, as well as the perspective of the person hearing it.
That’s about all you can really do, though, aside from setting the record straight with Monica herself (which it sounds like you’ve already done).