can difficult employees change their ways?

A reader writes:

I would be interested in your opinion on how/if employees can improve and change their ways personality-wise. My colleague is very difficult to say the least, regularly throws tantrums, and believes that the world revolves around her. She seems to be convinced that she is the best thing to happen to this workplace.

Our boss says that this is just the way she is and that we will have to live with it. I don’t agree with this, I think this is just a cheap way to park the discussion. In my opinion, the manager has a responsibility to try to resolve issues that create a difficult and toxic workplace. To me, it actually looks like my boss is scared of confronting the employee and also seems to be willing to put up with a lot of stress to avoid her leaving – she is actually quite good at her job, but certainly not irreplacable.

Some employees can and will change, and some won’t. But it’s hard to predict ahead of time who can/will and who can’t/won’t. Sometimes people surprise you. I’ve had employees where I thought, “There’s no way this intervention is going to work, but I’m going to try it because it’s only fair to” … and the person made a complete 180.  I’ve also had employees who I thought would easily be able to take feedback and make needed changes, and they didn’t.

But you know what you can predict with 100% certainly? They absolutely won’t change if no one tells them that they need to.

So yes, your boss is at fault here, more than the employee herself.

A good manager in this situation would have a serious conversation with the employee and explain that she needs someone in the role who doesn’t display behaviors X, Y, and Z and does display behaviors A, B, and C. And a good manager would to make it clear that she’s going to measure this person’s performance accordingly, and that the employee’s job will be in jeopardy if the problem behaviors continue. And then she’d stick to that.

Your manager is actually doing a real disservice to this woman by not addressing the problems and allowing her to think that it’s okay to act that way. Of course, it’s possible that she can’t change — but you can’t know that until someone actually tells her there’s a problem that needs to be remedied. By not doing that, your boss is allowing her to continue down a destructive path that isn’t doing her any good. It’s actually a really crappy thing to do.

Now, maybe your boss has already tried this and it didn’t work, and that’s why she’s convinced that the person can’t change. But if that’s the case, then it’s time for your boss to step up and do her job, not just wring her hands like it’s out of her control.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    To my knowledge, my boss refuses to stand up to my coworkers who take days off like it’s their job. Maybe he refuses to because he thinks they’ll make a harassment case against them or, if they quit, he won’t be able to replace them due to a hiring freeze.

    But like what you said, AAM, he is doing them a real disservice because they will learn the extremely hard way when they move onto another company and suddenly come to the realization they cannot take off on a whim or a bunch of days in groups without proper permission. Better yet…someone else will have to teach them the word NO, and Lord only knows how they’ll handle that.

  2. Joey*

    It sounds like the boss has determined at least for now that the trade off in performance is worth the headache. So I’m not sure much will change until the boss starts seeing some consequences that tip the scales in the other direction. When I’ve seen managers do this they usually put up with it until a superior steps in or the threat of losing too many other top performers becomes a reality.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It definitely sounds like the manager has concluded that — although I’m betting she’s concluded it wrongly. There are very few times when it’s really worth tolerating chronic behavior because the person is truly irreplaceable.

      1. Joey*

        I’ve seen high performing executives exhibit this kind of behavior, but because they bring so much to the table it’s condoned. The turnover for his admin staff is so horrible that no internal employee would dare transfer so he only recruits externally and screens for people that can put up with his assholeness.

        1. Anonymouse*

          ^ Same. The most incredible artist I ever knew was like this. I hate to admit it, but he was that worth it now that I look back on it (and I was one of the people he treated like poo poo).

          In fact, I guarantee 50% of people here have seen his work.

          1. Ry*

            Ugh, were his initials D.C.? I’ve worked with a lot of these people too, but some are more famous than others…

            OP, there’s someone exactly like you describe at my current job, and my manager, though I respect her very much for other reasons, is (non-) responding in the same way as yours. We (the rest of the staff in the same job class) have documented how the employee’s behavior affects us. We’ve had meetings with our manager. We’ve had meetings with HR. We’ve had meetings with our union rep. The last time I sent an issue with this employee to our manager, the manager told me she “hope[d] [I] could perhaps feel less harrassed.”

            I like my job, so in my particular case, I avoid contact with the employee with the problem behavior – if she doesn’t have access to me, I do, indeed, “feel less harrassed.” I know this is not a good solution for those who work in close quarters with their ‘problem children.’

            I’m telling this story for two reasons, I think: To tell you, OP, that you’re definitely not alone in your frustration, and to tell managers reading this to please listen to AAM, because if you take her advice, your other employees who do work hard and collaborate together will respect you more, which will make much of your work life easier!

  3. R*

    I’d like to make the point that it’s possible that OP’s boss is doing something, but that OP just isn’t aware because he/she isn’t management. When I became manager, I was very surprised about the amount of stuff that went on behind the scenes that I wasn’t aware of.

    I have an employee like the one mentioned above: very difficult, convinced that she’s the best thing that the company has (which she denies when called on it) and that we’d fall apart without her, takes negative feedback very defensively and sometimes cries. I am managing her, but it would not necessarily be easy for other employees to see. Ironically enough, she accuses me of overlooking other problems, and I have to tell her that just because she doesn’t see me dealing with something, doesn’t mean I’m ignoring it (and now lets get back to you).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes — although in this case the boss is telling the OP that this is just the way it is and they’ll have to live with it. I’m assuming that if the boss were actually doing something behind the scenes, her response would be somewhat different (although without giving her specifics, of course).

  4. Tim C.*

    It is also possible the manager is not present in the department to observe such behavior. Then it becomes hearsay . I would have a difficult time firing someone on hearsay alone. The OP could also ask (diplomatically) for this person to turn it down a notch. I have been accused of the opposite; I am too quiet and do not smile enough. I will admit I am introverted and I do not engage in small talk. This appears as though I am aloof and unfriendly. I have had to resort to bringing in food/treats once a week to improve my reputation around the workplace. I did not change any behavior, but the perception did change.

    1. Jaime*

      Do you ever watch the tv show Dexter? He brings donuts to work to improve/maintain his rep at work too.

      lol, i’m not accusing you of being a serial killer, it was just the first thing that popped into my mind when you mentioned bringing treats.

          1. anon.*

            Tim C – you kinda sound like you do rock!
            You realized how you were perceived and did something about it – something you were comfortable doing. Your co-workers now feel like you care (even if you don’t do small talk).

            1. Anonymous*

              The OP was asking if difficult could people change. I just pointed out I did not change but perceptions about me did. The difficult person described may have a low emotional intelligence. Pointing this person towards self improvement may help the situation.

    2. JT*

      You don’t have to fire someone based on hearsay, but you sure should act on it, but going to the person who is reported as causing trouble and asking him/her about it. Or talking to other people. We use hearsay all the time in work and life as the basis for other decisions and actions.

  5. Anonymous*

    I have two friends like this, and I’m concerned about both of them. Although they truly don’t see it, I believe each is at the top of their respective employer’s layoff list. When I try to gently remind them that, no, even though the person next to you is clipping their nails (to use a completely fictional example), it is still not okay to go all dramatic, and really really not okay to post scathing comments on Facebook, they still firmly believe that every day they are “knocking it out of the park.”

    I just tell myself we are each captains of our own ships. What else can I do? Any ideas greatly appreciated!

    1. Also anon*

      Generally, it’s the okay employee who think they are doing much better than they are. I know people who would be on facebook all day, but because they get their projects done by deadline, they think they are the best employee in the company.

    2. Joey*

      Too many bosses aren’t forthright enough about problems and even water down the reasons for getting fired. As a result people don’t realize they are the problem until they work for a good boss or start asking themselves “why do I keep getting fired.”. When alison says managers are doing a disservice what she is saying is its unfair to allow an employee to believe they are doing everything right when they’re not. It’s a lie. How can you expect an employee to fix something when they don’t even know there’s a problem? It’s really hard to tell a friend they’re screwing up when the boss is sending a different message.

    3. Anonymouse*

      Be direct. And know that there’s only so many times you can give advice to a person who won’t take it. With my shoulder and ear comes my mouth, as it were.

      The most phenomenal thing a colleague/friend ever did for me was tell me (very calmly and privately at her home) how I was really perceived in the workplace (I mistook my acerbic sarcasm for wit). It was incalculably humiliating to hear, but that day – and 20 years hence – it’s made a helluva difference in my career and life.

  6. KayDay*

    Just out of curiosity, what is it specifically that makes you think this employee is “convinced that she is the best thing to happen to this workplace”? I ask because, as a (formerly) very shy person, there have been times where people thought I was stuck up or snobby, when in reality the opposite was true and I was terrified of some social situations.

    Also, I think it is important to focus on specific actions and behaviors (and the why behind those actions), rather than on assumptions. So, your boss definitely needs to talk to her about why she is throwing temper tantrums (specific action) and how to resolve those issues in a more professional manner. However, it is much more difficult to ask an employee to “please stop thinking you’re the best thing to happen to this office.”

  7. Jaime*

    Periodically, we’ll have problems with managers not wanting to tell people they’re doing something wrong but still getting mad at the person for it. For instance – “I walked by the guy 3 times and he was still smoking, I shouldn’t have to tell him he’s taking too much time on his smoke break if he sees me walk by 3 times.” – actual words said about a NEW person, who couldn’t possibly know, who was just doing what the other smokers were doing who really did know better. Not to mention, different time requirements for different departments, so until he knows they’re not in his department (or even that different depts operate differently on that) he doesn’t know he shouldn’t follow their lead. I kept trying to tell this manager that he needed to say something, because the message he sent instead was that he walked by 3 times without saying something so it must be okay because wouldn’t a manager say something if you’re not doing something right.

    Just a management idiosyncrasy I’ve found that there are just some things managers don’t think need to be said. I certainly agree at times, but when the undesirable behaviour doesn’t stop then it’s clearly time to deal with reality and what you think should be happening.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      At my last job, I put the following sentence in the handbook I wrote for managers. In bold.

      “If a manager has a problem with an employee and the employee doesn’t know about it, the problem lies more with the manager than the employee.”

      This should be carved into the walls of managers’ offices everywhere.

      1. KellyK*

        I love that! Employees are not mind-readers, and standards vary dramatically from boss to boss. (It also depends on the job–I’m sure there are artists or marketing people who do their best thinking on their smoke breaks.)

        Plus, every time you walk by and don’t say anything, you’re sending the silent message that it *is* okay.

  8. Anonymous*

    Alison, as a manager, what do you do if all the “bad” things you hear about the employee is hearsay (but most likely true)? How do you approach the employee?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You’ve got to just be straightforward and say, “This is what I’m hearing.” You may not be able to avoid keeping the other person’s name out of it, but you can be clear that it’s not going to be okay for the employee to take it out on the person who talked to you about it. If the person denies it but you’re pretty sure it’s true, you can say, “Look, I can’t prove this, and if it’s not correct, I really apologize, but I need to make it clear that this can’t happen again.”

      I once managed someone who was a complete jerk to others but all sunshine and roses whenever I was around. I talked to him several times about what I was hearing and he always acted shocked by it. But I heard it from so many sources, including people who I really trusted, that ultimately it didn’t matter that he kept denying it.

      1. Anonymous*

        Ha! My old boss is like that (a complete jerk to everyone below him, but the most positive, helpful, go-getter to everyone at his level or above). I’m so glad to not be working for him anymore.

  9. KellyK*

    I definitely agree. People change their behavior when they feel like they need to–which usually happens when there are consequences. If their boss and coworkers tolerate it, there are no consequences, and therefore no motivation to change.

    I think that in really specialized fields, it might be worthwhile to tolerate an amazingly talented and experienced jerk, but I think that in a lot of cases there are non-jerks who are just as talented. And once you figure in the actual costs of employing a jerk (lower morale, higher turnover, possibly dampening of creativity and innovation), you could probably pay a higher salary to replace the jerk and still come out ahead.

  10. Mabel*

    I have to say, I was that person (though not at the OP’s work). I got pulled up short with a PIP last spring and indeed, it did change my outlook. I realized I would get fired if I didn’t curb my bitchiness. Although I wanted to leave, I didn’t want to do it like that. They were disappointed in me and so was I. The meeting did give me a chance to say some of the things that were bothering me, however, which I did because I figured that would be my only chance.

    The company did ultimately lay me off, a couple of weeks ago. But it wasn’t for cause. I wasn’t the only one; mine and the marketing person’s positions were eliminated pending what I suspect is a merger, and I’m sure we won’t be the last. I have the satisfaction of knowing that 1) I cleaned up my act and learned something about what I will and will not put up with, and 2) I don’t have to be ashamed of why I left.

    So it is possible to be a jerk and turn it around. BUT–the managers do indeed have to be involved. And like Alison says, they have to say something because if no one does, everyone, not just the complaining employee, will think the manager doesn’t care. I don’t want to work for a manager who doesn’t care.

    1. Jamie*

      Thank you for posting this. I know I’m not alone in thinking sometimes PIPs seem to serve the purpose of documenting issues and CYA rather than actually helping.

      It’s nice to know that it sometimes works in practice as well as theory. And you’re to be commended to taking the opportunity to change, that’s as admirable as it is (seemingly) rare.

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