you’re probably irritating your employees

If you’re like most managers, chances are good that you have at least some habits that irritate your employees. And if you’re like most managers, you might not realize what they are.

Over at the Fast Track blog by Intuit QuickBase today, I talk about 10 of the most common ways that managers frustrate and annoy their employees — including changing your mind about projects when they’re partway through, not dealing with problem employees, complaining about your own boss to the people below you, and more. See if you recognize yourself (or your own manager) in the list, which you can read here.

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. danr*

    10.. All of the other faults can be forgiven when a manager publicly thanks his staff for projects well done. Too often it’s done in reverse.

  2. Anon*

    I would like to add a couple: Not keeping confidences. Playing favorites, and not even doing it based on work performance. Being Dr. Jeckyll, Mr. Hide, with wild mood swings and personality changes. Not having a good work/life balance and using that as an example for your employees.

    1. Kelly O*

      Especially if you tell every single person that comes in your office that you are “not like” other people, and then proceed to do exactly the opposite of what you said, trying to play people against each other, and clearly having favorites. So basically anything that is said comes back to haunt whoever said it, even if it’s perfectly innocent.

      And, while I am on the soapbox, please be careful of how you treat other people – for example, completely ignoring those who report to you. As a more detailed example, if you are introducing a new group, please remember those who will actually be working with the new group. It is not a good feeling when two people are introduced, and the other two, who are standing RIGHT THERE and who you had to walk right past to get to the two you are introducing, are completely ignored. Especially perturbing/embarrassing when the two people you ignore are the two people who will actually be working with the new group.

      1. A Bug!*

        For me, I find that when people offer self-descriptors apropos of nothing (especially in the format “I’m not like These People who do these Terrible Things, I hate that stuff”), the reality is usually the opposite.

        It seems to me that if those things were true they would be self-evident and wouldn’t need to be said.

  3. Anonymous*

    +100 on all of them. Sadly my current boss does about 8 of these things…which is why I have one foot out the door.

  4. Yup*

    #9 – complaining about higher ups – is an interesting one. I agree that it’s so uncomfortable when the boss is kvetching to you about another department’s dysfunction or what a doofus the VP is. But I also think it’s incredibly refreshing when a manager is forthright about the bad stuff and doesn’t act like everything is great when it obviously isn’t: layoffs, budget cuts, internal mistakes, areas where the organization just isn’t doing a good job. I guess the difference is about tone and constructive attitude. Complaining is unhelpful and awkward. Acknowledging reality in a “we need to fix this” way is valuable because you know you can count on this person to see clearly and tell you the truth, not just speak the party line.

    1. Anon*

      I agree with this. Complaining seems more gossipy, but everyone appreciates honesty. At least I do. I like my manager, but in the back of my mind, I think of him as a “Company Man.”

    2. Kelly O*


      But I do also agree there is a difference between complaining and acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. A positive attitude about how we can fix this without going the full Eddie Haskell is a nice thing.

  5. Jess*

    My boss is not an easy person to work with, but she is by far the best boss I’ve ever had, and the reason she’s the best is that she does not do a single one of the things on this list. I’m very, very lucky.

  6. Jamie*

    Lord knows 8 will never be a problem for me.

    Regarding #1 – huge pet peeve of mine when people don’t ask for clarification if they are confused. I try to communicate as clearly as possible, both written and verbally…and I ask to verify that everyone understands project X, both what they are required to do and the deadlines. My door is always open for clarification – why do some people still prefer to stress and guess? I don’t get it.

    1. WorkIt*

      I worry that I’m interrupting someone to ask about something I should already know. Plus, some bosses act like answering a question is a huge inconvenience. One of my former supervisors didn’t always respond to direct questions, she just kind of grunted.

      1. Jamie*

        Sometimes I think decent managers get punished because people understandably carry over behaviors they’ve developed as defenses against those kind of managers. If you get pissy about answering a direct question than you deserve for your projects to derail for lack of communication.

        1. Jazzy Red*

          Yes, you’re right about that! I’ve known way too many managers whose favorite phrase is “Don’t Ask Questions, Just Do It!!” When I have questions, I always go to a co-worker first. It’s kind of sad, but I absolutely do not trust any manager any more.

      2. anon, obviously*

        When your boss tells you to quit asking so many questions – tells you that it’s annoying – then you get a little paranoid.

        I have tried to change how I ask questions, but my boss hates details and doesn’t want to discuss them, but unless he tells me I have absolute authority to make whatever decision I want, I need to let him know what’s going on and ask him to tell me what he wants.

        (Which goes back to unclear objectives.)

    2. Been There*

      They “prefer” to stress and guess because they have more than likely been shamed by previous bosses who don’t like to answer questions, particularly difficult ones. The reality is that most supervisors say you’re free to come to them, but they really don’t like it.

  7. WorkIt*

    Can we add “not make employees perform in awkward skits for the boss’s birthday video?”

    1. Jamie*

      That should be illegal. I’m generally opposed to additional legislation but the thought of that…wow.

    2. Natalie*

      I think I would have to suddenly come down with food poisoning or vague “female troubles” if I was asked to do that.

  8. VictoriaHR*

    Ugh! I had a manager who was remote to our office, so we only saw him once a month or so. He quickly developed a relationship with the head gal in our office and determined that she was the best of all of us (not having gotten to know any of us except her) and that she would be in charge. Which was fine since she was an excellent employee.

    But I’d been the de facto office manager for 2+ years, and moved our office twice during/after a flood, and he totally dismissed all of my hard work to that point and said that Head Gal would be the office manager going forward. So I gave her my keys, assuming he wanted me to turn over the mail administration, etc. The next day he accused me of not being a team player and told me to take the keys back and keep doing the grunt work. Ass.

    1. Anonymous*

      From your description, it sounds like he was not clear in what it meant for HG to be the office manager and you made assumptions about what he meant without clarifying. Seems like a misunderstanding on both parts.

  9. twentymilehike*

    Between my two bosses, I think we have the list completely covered. Now how on earth do I get them to read this … ha.

    Yup, above, mentioned #9 being an interesting one. I think that you don’t truly understand how aweful this is until you are right in the middle of it. I work directly under the president and CFO, who fight like cats and dogs, and one day last week they spent an entire day yelling at each other. In front of everyone. And then when the other one isn’t around, they just complain about each other. They will each just walk into someone’s office and just mill around being pesky and annoying and gossipy for HOURS. I know all about their personal financial troubles, their relationship issues, legal problems, the company’s troubled finances, and every personal disagreement about how to run a company.

    It is truly, horribly, terribly agonizing.

      1. Jamie*

        I would love that – but I think my secret identity would be outed quickly. Especially since I use my actual name and my avitar matches the toy on my desk…

        Every so often I do an AAM search on my own posts to make sure I didn’t say anything career ending if one of my bosses discovers the joys of AAM. I think I’m okay.

      2. DA*

        There is this service out there. If I wasn’t doped up on DayQuil, Nyquil and every other OTC thing, I’d look it up. I’ll try and remember later and see if I can find and share with everyone.

      3. twentymilehike*

        YES!!!!! :) I think we’ve had such a similar discussion in the past … it makes me chuckle when I think about it. It reminds me of a singing telgram or something … now THAT would be a great service! Singing telegram managment advice!!

      4. Sarah G*

        This! It wouldn’t work for me, since I’m one of only 4 people under my manager, and have also mentioned your blog. But awesome idea nonetheless!

    1. Yup*

      Ugh, that’s so unprofessional of them. I feel for you. I worked with two VPs who loathed each other and would have passive-aggressive territorial subtext fights in project meetings. “The teapots should be painted blue.” “No, they should be painted red.” “Isn’t red a bit… gauche, for our clientele?” Can you two work out your issues elsewhere so the rest of us can get back to work? Serenity now.

    2. JLL*

      You have not seen workers practically SPRINT out of an office so fast until the co-owners of the business decide to divorce. THE most toxic environment I’ve ever worked in my entire life. They clearly hated each other, the daughter sided with the father (she did…something…? whatever it was, she had an office for it), and they fought to the point where they’d all be screaming down the hall at each other, at which point the mom would walk around or outside in tears, looking like the world’s unhappiest elf.

  10. Gobbledigook*

    Oh man. It’s a sad day when you nod your head “Yes,” to every one of these for your boss. A sad day indeed.

  11. Anne*

    This makes me feel a bit bad for wanting to leave my current company. My manager is great and does not have any of these problems. But I’m so underpaid for what I’m doing…

  12. Editor*

    A couple of things I have encountered that made me resent one boss, who was otherwise very good:

    Encouraging an employee to get training in new skills, and when the employee brings back all the new technological ideas, telling the employee all the reasons that they shouldn’t be used. Ignoring some attempts to put new procedures into place. Praising young employees who use that new technology two years later.

    Continuing to assert that annual performance appraisals matter even when employees haven’t had raises in three years. Ignoring the goals set forth in the appraisals except when writing the next appraisal.

    1. twentymilehike*

      Continuing to assert that annual performance appraisals matter even when employees haven’t had raises in three years. Ignoring the goals set forth in the appraisals except when writing the next appraisal.

      At least you have goals … I’ve been trying to get a job description for the last 7 years.

  13. Carrie in Scotland*

    Oy… My manager does 3, 5 & 9 with a bit of 1 thrown in there (the lack of communication). My manager is lovely but she is NOT a manager – she doesn’t have the confidence and as her employees, my team suffers, I think.

  14. anonymous*

    Don’t call pointless weekly meetings where you make everyone go around the room and tell everyone what their Thanksgiving plans are.

    Fight for your people, when possible. If someone above you thinks one of your employees made a mistake, find out what happened before you throw your employee under the bus.

    1. JLL*

      Whenever I see “Roundtable” in a meeting agenda, I instantly know it’s going to be long for absolutely no reason.

      1. Jazzy Red*

        You also know to be very careful about what you say, even though it’s stated that there “will be repercussions”.

      2. Jamie*

        Roundtable, yes. Also “Brainstorming.”

        My brain prefers to storm alone and then meet with others for collaboration and to see what everyone has come up with. Expected to storm on the spot with no preparation in a room full of people. My brain is nothing but sunny weather and clear skies.

    2. Waiting Patiently*

      Oh wow this happen recently to me. I got a call from boss saying “oh im not sure who filled out the paperwork but Bob says it been wrong since the beginning of the year” I say “I fill out the paperwork, it seems a bit much for it to be done incorrectly everyday and this is the first time ive heard about it. Can I have a copy so I can see the discrepancy and how it should be done.” My boss then say “I don’t have anything, I was only told it was wrong.” Needless to say I. had to go resolve the issue with Bob and let Bob know to please inform me (esp not my useless boss) sooner if paperwork is incorrect.

  15. Sascha*

    Don’t call a meeting with every person in your department in order to edit a document, line by line.

  16. JLL*

    10- Ugh.
    I worked for a company where the manager was NOTORIOUS for taking credit for other people’s ideas. The only way to combat it would be to somehow approach the VP who assigned the information and request “clarification” on their request, so they were aware someone else was involved, otherwise she’d keep getting credit for work we’d actually be doing.

    1. Editor*

      Getting around someone who takes credit or behaves badly in other ways is a pain, but I was amused by one secretary I knew early in my working life.

      At the time, I worked at a library at an Ivy League university. The library director and various department heads had offices all together around the outside of the end of one floor (offices with windows), and there was a secretarial pool in the center. The director always had the senior secretary, and other secretaries were assigned by seniority. The HR guy for the libraries was a total sleaze and tried to hire by appearance, but he went on a month-long vacation one year and a secretary who was all business got hired. She and I worked in different departments but were part of a group of 20-somethings who ate lunch together.

      The topic of sleazy HR guy came up, because she had rotated into being his secretary a couple of months before and there were rumors the director wasn’t so happy with Mr. HR. Turns out that when work product came in from Mr. HR, his new secretary circulated a memo saying who’d done it and what stage the product was at before Mr. HR could claim credit (she sent him the memo, too, on top of the draft report or whatever, but she cc’d everyone, which the previous secretaries hadn’t done). She left the office door slightly open whenever she was with him so if he tried to grab her she could mention the door was open and in so doing, escape.

      In addition, Mr. HR was prone to back-dating letters; if people complained about a late response, he blamed the secretary. His previous secretaries had filed the letters by the date on the letter — all the administrator’s letters went into one huge notebook so anyone in the office could consult recent correspondence (another copy got filed). New secretary noted the actual date of typing on the back of the letter and filed it according to when it was typed. Mr. HR called her into the office to rant and rave about how she was supposed to file them by the date he told her to put on the letter, but she had as usual left the door open a couple of inches and the whole office heard the rant.

      This was all in the 1970s and seems very dated in so many ways now. All the secretaries were women, all the department heads of the library system were men even though female librarians did head up libraries, and people still asked married women about their plans for starting a family when interviewing them.

  17. Lora*

    Oh crap. I have done #9. Seriously, I should not have done that. I know at first I realized that I should not have done that but after a while it became hard to keep poker-faced when my reports would tell me, “department X said we are supposed to do Dumb Thing when I asked them…” and I would get an instant scowl and snarl, “I shall TALK to them about that because that is NOT COOL.”

    Also memorable at my last job: The day the Marketing department unilaterally decided that we should have a TV crew film a story on renewable fuel the day we were scheduled to start up a new plant that had not been tested yet. (Note: new chemical plants have a tendency to…ummm…*explode* when started up for the first time, so publicly capturing a video of how flame-blasted craters in the ground come to happen, probably not good PR. Just saying.) My boss ran around the construction trailer, screaming and banging his head into the walls. I am not kidding. I burst into hysterical laughter for about 30 minutes and shouted, “hey, Other Company is hiring! It’s OK boss, Other Company is hiring!” Witnesses to this episode have since quit, I can’t imagine why…

    1. BeenThere*

      as of former project engineer that worked on sites with zone 1 class 1 classifications I have to say…

      where is the footage??? why hasn’t this gone viral?? I would love to see this!

  18. anon, obviously*

    1. Talking smack about people who have quit, especially when they were good employees. What do you say about me when I’m not around?

    2. Asking me if I can’t just “put it in a spreadsheet.” It is in a spreadsheet! But you want me to report in a completely different format from what accounting sends, so I have to do an hour’s worth of calculations, then key the data into powerpoint, then double and triple check to make sure it all adds up.

    Telling me you did something in a spreadsheet the other day and it didn’t seem that hard is not helping.

    I also have to take the time to remove all sales to North Korea and figure out where they really go because customer service keyed in Korea, Peoples’ Dem Republic, instead of Korea, Republic of. 1. It’s illegal for us to do business with N. Korea. 2. Why is N Korea even in the dropdown list for customer service?

    3. Asking me to throw together a powerpoint slide with sales by product line since 2008. That shouldn’t take that long, should it? You need it in 30 minutes.

  19. Henning Makholm*

    #1: Here’s a useful test: If your employees were each asked what is most important for them to achieve this year, would their answers match yours?

    With the timeframe adjusted for the particular job and industry, hopefully?

    I doubt either I or my manager could give any more than very fuzzy answers about what I will be trying to achieve just six months from now. There are some long-term projects on my plate that may or may not succeed in receiving priority this year, if nothing more urgent comes up. Which it tends to do often — I doubt our sales people have even made the initial contacts with the customers whose feedback and needs will eventually inform which projects I’ll be working on in August and September.

    And I like it fine that way, because I know the company’s ability to pay my salary is directly related to our ability to react to market demands with less than 12 months planning lead.

    But I do wonder each time I see you write about “goals for this year” whether that’s a phrasing that assumes a particularly stagnant/constant position, or it’s my reality that’s insanely fast-paced compared to the rest of the world.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, with the timeframe adjusted for whatever makes sense for your industry/context. I use “year” because it’s easier than writing “year/quarter/whatever makes sense.”

  20. Anonymous*

    Not sure if this was mentioned but–lead by example. And don’t be a walking contradiction.
    I had one manager text me sonething work related when it was clear (her addendum to the employee handbook) that texting wasn’t not an acceptable form of communication.
    Or While its ok for me to work without an assistant for 3+months because she cant/wont hire someone because of budgetary problems, when she had to cover my day off she pulled an assistant from another team to help her out for the day.
    Failing to give proper credit so commonplace at my job its ridiculous. We have people who provide one to one services and some parents don’t even realize no Sally worked with your kid for x number of hours to achieve that gold.

  21. Sarah G*

    Great list. #9 (Complaining about company or higher-ups) is interesting, as someone else mentioned. I wouldn’t want my manager bitching to me about personal issues with her supervisor, but at the same time, I find it very validating that she’ll speak up on occasion when something’s amiss, and that she’ll let me know she’s advocating for me. She doesn’t hesitate to express frustration and anger that despite the fact that I drive up to 600 work miles a month , I get crappy, way-below average mileage reimbursement b/c our 6-figures-salaried president says he doesn’t want to help employees cover vehicle maintenance.

  22. Katie in Ed*

    So glad this for this post! I’m new to management, and while I think I’m well suited to it, I haven’t had any training and I know I am making lots of mistakes. I appreciate having the most common ones enumerated.

    I probably struggle the most with 1 and 2, mostly because I work in an environment that’s constantly changing. I’m comfortable with that kind of ambiguity, and the company owner and I are usually on the same page with things, but I realize that’s not a reasonable expectation for an entire workforce. Still, it’s hard to maintain clear expectations for reports when those expectations change regularly.

    If anyone else has worked in this kind of environment and knows some good ways to make expectations clear amidst the fog, I’d very much appreciate it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      One thing to do is to be very clear with people that that’s going to be the case — both in hiring them and in setting expectations for a particular project. When someone knows that’s probably going to happen — and that it’s a deliberate decision you’re making — it’s easier to field than when they aren’t prepared for it or think it’s the result of bad planning.

      1. Katie in Ed*

        Yes, I suppose that’s the best we can do. I make that clear when I hire, but I think it’s worth affirming again. Not knowing what’s expected of you can be nerve wracking, particularly if you’re the kind of person who succeeds in a more structured environment.

  23. Ursula*

    I guess I’m pretty lucky – the only one my manager is guilty of is #6, and he eventually realizes what he’s doing after a bit and goes away. He just became a manager a year ago, and our company has extensive new manager training. It seems to work, although I think individual personalities and awareness have a lot to do with how well people manage.

  24. IronMaiden*

    Then there is the “nice person but not a very good manager”, who has all sorts of tricks to sort of cover their butt, but causes a lot of frustration. I work on the opposite shift to my manager and don’t see her for months, so any concerns I have are emailed. Her response to most of these is “Oh but it’s not like that”, when I am reporting to her that it IS like that. I feel dismissed and invalidated. She also accused a colleague on my shift of “Aggression” for emailing concerns in point form. She doesn’t follow up on our concerns, either.

  25. Been There*

    Oh God, number 5!!! In 30 years, I’ve never had a boss who knew the difference between a five-minute project, a five-day project, a five-week project, and a five-month project.

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