the office clerk I supervise is out-of-control

A reader writes:

I have a co-worker who is using my job title to make herself look more important. I am an Executive Assistant to the VP at my organization. We have a part-time worker in our department, I’ll call her Suzy. Suzy was hired initially as a temporary part-time office clerk while someone in the department was on medical leave. Suzy was going to move in 6 months – perfect timing for us.

In 6 months, Suzy’s move was delayed indefinitely and we are stuck with her. She has used the title Executive Assistant many times:

– In her email signature
– In an unauthorized interview in the local newspaper (I put a stop to this – the Director is the only one who needs to speak to the media)
– In her LinkedIn profile
– On business cards (don’t ask how a temporary part-time office clerk finagled business cards)
– On the phone
– In letters to customers (I put a stop to this and explained that the Director is the only one who can sign these)

I am her direct supervisor; she is also under the direction of the Director. The Director is my supervisor by default since the position of VP is vacant. Otherwise, the Director would be a co-worker and rank above me, but would not be my supervisor.

The Director and I have spoken many times about Suzy’s bad work qualities:

– Insubordination
– No discretion on the phone to customers
– Does not accept correction or instruction

Suzy has some good qualities but her negative qualities are quickly overcoming the positive. Now everyone in the office is focused on her bad traits and she is becoming a liability in my opinion. She could easily be replaced by a less-qualified, part-time employee. She is overqualified for her position and it must rankle her to remain in the job she holds. I am also overqualified for my position, as I recently graduated with my Masters degree. I plan to stay in my current position until I accept a full-time position elsewhere. I’m sure Suzy wants my job when and if I leave; I am pretty sure she would not get it.

My questions are; do I address the issue of Suzy stealing my job title? Do I begin to document Suzy’s insubordination even if the Director has not instructed me to do this? I plan to apply for an additional position in the same organization – one that I would do at night, online. I don’t want my lack of action in dealing with Suzy to be seen as weakness. On the flipside, I do not want to be seen as a whiner and complainer.

Um. You are Suzy’s manager. So manage her.

Her using your title is the least of your problems, and also the most easily addressed. Say the following: “Suzy, I noticed that you’re using the wrong title in your emails, on your business cards, and elsewhere. Your title is office clerk. Please make sure you’re using the correct title from here on.”

But that’s really the least of the issues here. A part-time office clerk gave an interview to the media on the company’s behalf?  She’s writing to customers when she’s not authorized to? She’s insubordinate, doesn’t take feedback or instruction, and handles customers poorly?  Why is she still there?

You are not “stuck with her.” You are her manager, and you need to start doing your job (and so does your boss). And that doesn’t just mean documenting these problems — it means having a serious conversation with Suzy in which you tell her clearly that her job is in jeopardy if she doesn’t make immediate and dramatic changes in how she approaches her work … and then replacing her if she doesn’t make those immediate and dramatic changes. It is not “whining and complaining” to set and enforce standards for people working under you and to hold them accountable for meeting them.

Now, I suppose it’s possible that you don’t have firing authority over Suzy, even though you’re her direct supervisor, but what does supervising mean if not setting a bar for performance and assessing how well she’s meeting it?  You need to start exercising the authority of your position. At the same time, talk with the director about the problems you see and how you’re addressing them. Be candid that you think Suzy might not be the right person for the job and that you’re giving her some time to improve (weeks, not months) but that she ultimately might need to be replaced.

You and the director both need to stop complaining and wringing your hands, and start actually handling the situation.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. Nate*

    I am under the impression the writer isn’t used to managing people – which is why she is using the phrase “stuck with her” along with the overall tone of the post. Either that, or her role in supervising Suzy isn’t official (she probably inherited responsibility over Suzy due to being a senior peer).

    To address this, I would have Suzy, anybody with any official managerial authority over Suzy, and the writer sit down to discuss these issues. I get the impression that these issues have not been addressed as of yet. It seems that Suzy hasn’t been given any formal structure in terms of the responsibilities and expectations of her position, or else she would not be overstepping the level of authority expected for the position. This would need to be brought up in a meeting with her.

    Basically, I would sit down and go over concrete details about her position and the expectations involved. If she is insubordinate after clearly defining her role (on paper as well as in person), then you have good reason to let her go.

  2. Star*

    I’m also confused as to how you were “stuck with her” when her move was delayed. Why didn’t her contract terminate then and there? Given her egregious behavior, why hasn’t she already been fired?

  3. Bob G.*

    I think the more telling statement is that she wants your job and you are “pretty sure she would not get it”. Her flaws are “insubordination” and “does not accept correction or instruction” and you are only pretty sure she wouldn’t get your job?

    Since you are saying she does not accept correction or instruction then it sounds like you’ve already addressed some of these issues which means its time to fire her. If she truly has been insubordinate then it is definitely time to fire her, no second chances.

  4. Richard*

    You’ve basically just listed a number of reasons as to to write her up. You should have already approached her and told her how badly she’s messing up, and that you may have to let her go if she doesn’t shape up.

    Otherwise consider letting her go. Seriously, she’s been consistently unprofessional in her conduct with customers and the press, and in the meantime is fraudulently claiming to hold a position at the company that she does not. Why do you think that you’re stuck with her?

  5. Suzanne Lucas*

    I’m pretty cruel and heartless when it comes to temps. “suzy, thank you so much, but your assignment has ended.”

    Not that I don’t know that temps are real people, it’s just that when you sign up for a temp job, it’s just that–a temp job.

    And I suspect that since she’s overqualified for the position, she sees her actions as “going above and beyond” not “seriously overstepping boundaries.” Why? Because no one has spoken to her.

    Seriously. The management caused this. She probably thinks she’s doing a fantastic job.

    1. CallMeAl*

      “I’m pretty cruel and heartless when it comes to temps.”

      Newsflash: All positions are “temp”. Whether it’s six months or sixty years, you’ll be leaving your position someday.

      I’ve worked with many highly qualified temps and contractors that get treated poorly solely because they are temps. Have a heart.

      1. Marie*

        I agree with CallMeAl. Suzanne, your elitist attitude proves how asinine the business world can be.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It’s not cruel and heartless to point out that temp positions are structured to have a built-in easy ending point, in a different way than non-temp positions. Of course all positions end at some point, but Suzanne’s point is well-taken. If a temp is having so many performance problems, it’s hard to imagine why the temp assignment isn’t just wrapped up.

          1. Marie*

            True – it’s puzzling that the OP of this thread hasn’t contacted the temp’s employment agency. It seems to me there’s no reason for her to be “stuck” with Suzy if should would just notify the agency about their insubordinate temp.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              It’s possible that there’s no temp agency involved, but rather than the OP’s company hired Suzy on a temp basis. Hopefully the OP will weigh back in and let us know the answers to some of this!

        2. Suzanne Lucas*

          It’s not elitist. It’s a reality. When you agree to take a temp job you do so with the understanding that it is going to end. It’s not like a “permanent” job (yes, I know there is no such thing), where you have an expectation that you’ll have a job tomorrow. A temp job is just that–a temp job.

          In fact, companies that use temps need to be very careful that they treat their temps as temps and not as employees. If a temp job extends too long (general guideline is one year), the temp can argue that he really was a de facto employee and it can be a very expensive legal mess.

          I have even been known to counsel managers to call the temp agency when there are problems and let them explain to the temp what those problems are. This is not because of managerial wimpiness, this is because you don’t want anyone to come back and say, “My manager was trying to develop me, just like the other employees. Therefore I was an employee and now I am entitled to benefits available to employees.”

          You can call it elitist, but it’s all tied up in legalities. And for the record, I owe my career to a temp agency. I learned HR by starting at the bottom–as a temp admin in a comp and benefits department. And you know what? When the assignment ended, I was out of there and on to the next job.

        3. Liz in a library*

          I didn’t read her comment that way at all. I read it as a joking acknowledgment that both sides of a temp contract understand that the nature of the job is different than a typical permanent position. I think it was meant to be humorous, not de-humanizing.

      2. Jamie*

        Of course there is no such thing as a “permanent” job – but in the vernacular it’s used to differentiate employees who are on the company’s payroll from those on the temp agencies.

        When temping you work at a company – but your employer is your agency. Yes, it means the company can get rid of you with a phone call – they pay the labor mark-up so they can do just that…tailor their staffing to meet fluctuating needs or to try people out before adding them to the roster.

        I don’t think it’s heartless to let a temp go when it’s a bad fit – because unlike letting a permanent employee go the second that call comes in they are back in rotation.

        The obligations a company has to temp/perm employees are very different.

    2. Anonymous*

      I was a laid-off HR professional who found her current job through temping. When I signed up for the job, it wasn’t “just a temp job” – it was an opportunity to show an organization how well I could work. And what do you know? They hired me as a full-time employee.

      Your view of temps are outdated, to say the least.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think you guys are missing the point of Suzanne’s comment, which is that it’s extremely easy to handle a situation like this when the person in question is a temp — you can simply end the term of their temp work, rather than going through all the steps you might take with a non-temp employee. So it makes it all the more confusing that nothing has been done here.

  6. bob*

    – Insubordination
    – No discretion on the phone to customers
    – Does not accept correction or instruction

    Fire her before she turns into a bigger psycho.

  7. Liz*

    I agree with Suzanne, the employee is probably trying to go above and beyond and be impressive, and for some reason, I don’t trust this letter writer either.

    I’ve felt very competitive with people I was training to take over my position (leaving voluntarily) – and she sounds the same way I did. Everything is vague and overblown, “Insubordination, unauthorized to speak to customers…” If the employee has directly refused to follow an order that’s one thing, but then why not say so? Why put a dramatic label on what sounds like a personality clash? And the media interview is pretty easily explained as a reporter calling around looking for quotes or people to feature, probably completely unrelated to the company/non-profit in question.

    The letter just sounds very trumped-up and drama-ey to me. Who runs to the boss to complain about an attitude problem from a temp? The job gets done or it doesn’t. The employee knows what she should do or she doesn’t. And if the employee REALLY won’t “accept correction,” you terminate the contract. (But I’ll bet that’s not exactly what happened). Regardless, what’s there to talk about? The nature of the problem should END the gossipy confabs, not generate them.

    1. Wilton Businessman*

      Yeah, I think Lifetime. In the end she sleeps with the Director and blows up his Audi…or something like that.

  8. Wilton Businessman*

    I love this part:
    “I am also overqualified for my position, as I recently graduated with my Masters degree.”

    Um, OK, sounds pretty much like an entry-level job to me.

    1. Anonymous*

      She’s not at entry level if she’s been working while completing her Master’s degree. You don’t know how much experience she has. Relax.

  9. Jamie*

    I’m confused by the business card issue.

    I am assuming these were issued by the company and she didn’t have them printed up on her own. If that’s the case, quite frankly, I don’t see the issue with her using the title.

    If the employer printed up and gave her cards with a title – then that’s her title – so it would make sense that she would use it on her sig tag, linked in, etc.

    Even if it’s not what your understanding of her title is – it seems the issue is more miscomunication than with her inflating her own position.

    Personally – people get my title wrong all the time and I couldn’t care less. If someone introduces me as the IT Manager or just IT I don’t correct them – I simply don’t care (and I think it would be ridiculous to insist on formality when the point that I’m the one with the access to the servers is clear). But officially on my business cards and personnel file it is Director of IT – so that’s certainly what I use on my resume, linked-in, etc.

    1. Liz*

      That’s a good point. It’s not exactly nefarious or unprofessional to accept business cards from your employer, but the letter writer appears to have found this to be a breach in boundaries and/or protocol. Weird.

      1. Anonymous*

        My employer paid for my business cards with a purchase order, but I got to order them myself from a list of approved vendors. I could have put any title I wanted on them… If this is the case with the OP’s employer, the temp could certainly have done something nefarious or unprofessional.

    2. Dee*

      At my org business cards are a big deal — HR must sign off on titles, degrees if listed, etc. When I was new they busted a lot of people inflating/overstating titles.

  10. Interviewer*

    As an office clerk, she may have had the opportunity to order her own cards, or indicate to someone who didn’t know any better that cards should be ordered for her.

    Has the person she was hired to cover for returned from medical leave yet? That may be your golden opportunity to end the assignment. Her move being delayed should have nothing to do with the length of her assignment. It’s the needs of the business, not her.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “Her move being delayed should have nothing to do with the length of her assignment. It’s the needs of the business, not her.”

      This, among many other things in OP’s letter, surprised and enraged me…

      1. Jamie*

        The mark-up on temp labor is quite high – typically about 35% in my region for clerical positions. The cost combined with the ease one can let a temp go with no repercussions (no unemployment, severance, etc.) I wonder why they opted to keep her on.

        Bad management can make bad decisions – and it happens a lot – but if she’s truly as problematic as was stated in the post someone has really dropped the ball in allowing this to continue.

      2. Erica B*

        If her assignment was to last only 6 months then why wasn’t she let go at that time. If the person for whom she was filling in for has returned and there isn’t a need to have her there, then she shouldn’t be there. Period.

        The job title thing, in my opinion, is minor unless she was be malicious in doing so. Technically my job title is “Research Fellow” but it is extremely vague and determines my spot on the pay scale (I work at a university).

        She is most likely overstepping her job description, like other posts have pointed out, because she is trying to impress and get another job within the company down the road.

        This whole post left me confused as to why these items haven’t been addressed. Many people like they are unable to do things if it requires stepping on toes and need their hands held in the process, but if she is screwing up her job then she needs to know. I have the kind of boss that only gives me feedback when I do something wrong, and I have been here for 7 years. She needs to know that she is doing things wrong.

  11. Dawn*

    As Interviewer said, the office clerk may be in a position to place an order for the cards herself. Many people don’t question what they are signing off on so it’s possible that whoever approved the order just assumed it was OK.

    Or, she may have had them printed herself, like on an inkjet printer or something (it’s not clear from the OP’s post), in which case I definitely see something wrong with this. If she’s representing herself as someone she’s not (in terms of her title), that’s an issue.

    It may be true that there’s confusion as to what her title is (management’s fault) and she is making an innocent error, or she may well know what her title is but isn’t satified with it.

    1. Jamie*

      Agreed – if she did this on her own then that’s a big problem.

      From the limited information we have it just seems this is really above board – using it in her sig, the cards, the press – etc.

      It’s unusual for someone to be so upfront about shady behavior – so it reads as if it could be a mistake and she actually thinks it’s her title.

      If it is a case of her really trying to impersonate a higher title, I guess I can’t understand why there would be a dilemma as the first time it popped up in a sig tag I would imagine the powers that be would have quashed it immediately – and confiscated the business cards.

      It’s just extremely brazen if it’s done with malicious intent – not that it can’t happen – but the boldness is pretty rare and the fact that it was allowed to continue one minute after it was discovered at least opens the possibility that there are other factors at play here.

      1. Liz in a library*

        I think the possibility that she is truly unaware of her job title should be considered further. The writer never says that she has directly stated to Suzy to stop using that title–has that happened?

        If not, I agree with Jamie; why wasn’t this handled the first time? It would have taken a simple, “Suzy, in your business communications, please make sure to use your official job title of Office Clerk.” The conversation is going to be far more loaded now that it’s gone on so long.

  12. Phyr*

    The first thing I saw was in the OP’s first sentence. She said “my co-worker” and not “my employee”. I think this shows that there is not a clear chain of command. she also mentions talking to the director a lot, so they might be the real person in charge.

    Next her frustration could have come out in this letter not just because she has been dealing with this for over 6 months but also there is a comfort in sending an e-mail to AaM. She probably didn’t realize or couldn’t explain it in a better way at this point.

    It sounds like the director is the one that would fire the other peoson. The OP said that they talked frequently with them which explains why they are worried about sounding like they are complaining.

    I think she should document everything and schedual a meeting with her, the director/manager/designated-person-who-fires-people and the problem co-worker. Then there should be a follow up and if that person has not changed, or they found that the contract is null, then they should be let go.

  13. Kelly O*

    I’m still unclear why you’re “stuck” with someone who is clearly a temporary worker. Status of her personal move or not, if it’s a six-month assignment, then it seems relatively easy to say “thank you, the assignment has ended, wish you the best of luck” and move along.

    And having said that, it seems a bit of a no-brainer that if you’re having those sort of issues with a temp, it’s even simpler than if it’s a “permanent” employee – like EHRL said, you again simply say “we’ve chosen to end your temporary assignment, thank you” and move on.

    Although something does seem a little strange in the OP’s email. I’ve worked in lots of situations where I basically spoke on behalf of another person. In my situation it was clearly not using that person’s title, but often “Kelly O, assistant to the Director of Widget Production” or whatever. Sometimes you do have to throw a name around to get something done. Also, you speak of this as insubordination, but it doesn’t seem clear that you’ve talked directly with Suzy and outlined what is incorrect about her behavior.

    Granted, I really think this could easily be dealt with, sans drama, but it’s a bigger-picture issue that you as a manager need to learn from and try to prevent from happening again.

  14. Snufkin*

    I’ve been on both sides, as both a manager and as a contractor/temp. I just worked on one project in an organization that was going through periodic layoffs and that resulted in one of my project colleagues (who’d just come back from FMLA) being very hostile towards me and the other contractor. It wasn’t personal, but she got upset about my job title supposedly being at a higher ranking than her – I figured it had to be insecurity over the layoffs and having two young tech savvy temps in there doing some of her long-time job responsibilities.

    While I can see the point that maybe it’s not entirely the temp’s fault, I’ve also been a manager and you need to set up expectations with your staff. At the very least, she needs to directly talk with this woman and state that this is not going above and beyond, but taking liberties. Especially in talking with the local press. Talk with both her and the agency that she’s actually working for – you need to give feedback. At worst, you have documentation for why you ended the contract. At best, she may be clueless and overenthusiastic and could learn from this feedback.

  15. Anonymous*

    Does the original poster sound to anyone else like Emily Blunt’s character “The Devil Wears Prada”?

    1. Cruella*

      Does the temp sound a lot like Laura Flynn Boyle’s character in “The Temp”?

  16. Joey*

    I always ask managers this question when they tell me they don’t know what to do: “if you owned the company and this persons salary came out of your pocket what would you do?” Funny how that one question changes their perspective completely.

  17. OP*

    Just wanted to give an update since my post this weekend. Suzy came in this morning and asked for an extended leave to review her life and plans for the future. The Director told her that her contract time had expired and it had been nice working with her.

    We also discussed some missing petty cash from a big fundraiser. Suzy had access to this along with me, the Director and two volunteers. It was a small amount (probably occured while someone was making change) and is only meaningful since the Director brought this up along with some of the other issues in my post.

    Thanks for your constructive criticism, it is helpful to see all sides of an issue.

    1. Robyn*

      This is even more suspicious than the original post.

      Awfully convenient that she suddenly decided to leave on her own after nearly every person on here told you to let her go.

      I am really wondering if *any* of this was true.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        What I think is odd is that the OP’s updates haven’t responded in any way to the issues that were raised in the posts or the comments.

        1. Robyn*

          I’m actually beginning to wonder if the OP is the temp and was let go when she announced she wanted to take leave and wanted to know if that was ‘legal’.

          Also, handy that theft has suddenly come up in the OP other update post.

    2. Anonymous*

      So was everyone who had access to the cash questioned or just Suzy? If she wanted to, she could turn that into a messy issue. Since it’s meaningful, I think all of you–volunteers, Director, and you, sweetheart–should be questioned by HR about the missing cash. Or maybe your legal department.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Hmmm, I don’t know that there’s a legal issue there if she was just questioned.

        I think we might all be getting a little too hard on the OP.

  18. OP*

    I just saw the post asking for clarification on Suzy’s temp status. She was not from a temp agency but hired as casual labor while someone else was on medical leave. As casual labor she can only work 19 hours per week and must take 1 month off every year. Her term has extended well beyond the original 6 months. Suzy’s original plan was to move to her husband’s hometown after their wedding. At the wedding, Suzy informed us she’d had a meltdown and together they decided she would keep her house and her job while they decided where they would live. We knew we had a big fundraiser coming up and it would be helpful to have an extra pair of hands. Today, she announced they have put both their houses on the market and will decide where to live by which one sells. I think it is good that they are moving on with plans to live together; I hope this will make her happy and I know she can find full-time employment elsewhere.

    1. Mike*

      I’m sure Suzy will appreciate this information, completely irrelevant to your original post, being broadcast.

      I sincerely hope that as I continue my job search your office never comes up. Suzy is lucky to be out of a toxic, gossipy, cloak-and-daggers environment.

      1. Mike C.*

        Completely agree, and frankly it appears that the employees they hire are well deserved.

      2. Dawn*

        Glad to see I’m not the only one who is confused by the additional, irrelevant information.

        Not sure why the Director couldn’t say the contract ended way back when. I’m glad it worked out in the end, though.

      3. anon*

        lol weird indeed..Now I wonder if people write updates claiming they are the OP, when they are not.

  19. Anonymous*

    What the heck? What temp would even has a business card for a company that they are TEMPing with?!? That;s just weird. Yes, way too much drama, and at least the person is now gone.

  20. I.Aaronson*

    If I as a department head or supervisor were treated in the manner which Suzy seems to be treating you I would batten down the hatches and fire her before her storm of incompetance does you in! You are her boss not her yours. You’ve been working your job for a long while and this girl is a danger to the stability of you company. Ditch her now while you still have your job and a sense of security and superiority. It’s not a complex but she has and is one. Be firm and careful!

Comments are closed.