how to manage a difficult employee who does good work

A reader writes:

I manage a four-person team. One of my staff members is incredibly hard to work with. She’s negative, combative, and resistant to feedback and direction and doesn’t get along with the rest of the team. But her work is good, and so I don’t have grounds for letting her go. What’s the best way to approach managing a high performer who’s bad on “soft skills”?

Well, first, let’s revisit that definition of “high performer.” While the product your staff member produces might be good, she not performing in the way that you need — far from it. She’s not a high performer if she’s chronically alienating her coworkers and making it hard for you to give her guidance about her work.

“Soft skills” like getting along with team members and being generally pleasant and professional aren’t an optional add-on. They’re as much a core part of what you need from a staff member as, say, strong writing or expertise with a particular software, and it’s just as reasonable — and, in fact, necessary — to make them part of the bar for the role. After all, an employee who is abrasive, unable to get along with others or otherwise difficult to work with can be as disruptive as one who falling short on “hard skills,” like missing deadlines or turning in shoddy work. And so it’s perfectly reasonable to treat these issues just like you would any other performance issue.

So it’s time for a serious conversation with your staff member — one in which you lay out your expectations not just for her work product but for how she approaches her work. Sit down for a talk. Be specific about where she’s falling short and what needs to change. For instance, you might explain that maintaining good relationships with other team members, a willingness to explore new ideas and being open to feedback are key requirements for performing in the role successfully. And you should also be direct about the possible consequences of not meeting your expectations in these areas — including that her behavior is jeopardizing her job — because it’s only fair that she understand how serious the problems are.

From there, continue to treat these issues the same way you would any other behavior that you asked a staff member to change. That means that you should offer positive feedback if you see an improvement (“I really appreciate how open you were to hearing my thoughts on this”) or address it in a progressively more serious manner if you don’t see the improvement you need (“We talked a few weeks ago about how I need you to be open to hearing feedback about your work, but you’ve continued to seem adversarial”).

However this plays out, the key is to lay out a clear and specific bar for the behavior you expect to see — both in your own mind and for your staff member.

This post originally appeared at DailyWorth.

{ 114 comments… read them below }

  1. Annon*

    I think the advice that you give here is solid, but it seems like it might be difficult in cases like this to avoid subjective judgement. What is the official bar for “adversarial”? Does that mean the employee screams and throws a tantrum whenever advice is offered, or is it one of those things where she thinks a simple “Okay” is a reasonable response while the manager interprets it as dismissive? The reason I ask is that I’ve had issues with this when working with my managers in the past. I have a very quiet, reserved, demeanor during personal interactions and tend to use as few words as possible because I have confidence issues about the way my voice sounds. So I’ve been in a few situations where a manager will give me feedback that I inwardly take very seriously and am glad to have in order to improve my performance, but my outward response is usually monosyllabic or a simple nod and smile. Later the manager will tell me that he’s worried I’m not taking him seriously, and at that point I’ll open up a little more and ask him to look critically at my performance since he gave me the advice, and after looking into it, he sees that I’ve implemented his suggestions. He had just assumed that I wasn’t going to because of the way I responded when he first told me.

    1. fposte*

      But that’s something that I as a manager would actually address with you–I’d like a response that clearly indicates you’ve been taking this feedback on board. I wouldn’t necessarily insist that you give me a paragraph in response, but I could see requiring something other than just a simple nod and a smile.

        1. fposte*

          I’m so torn here, because I want to disagree, but I want the compliment! What to do, what to do…

          (Actually, I just manage the easiest staff in the world.)

          1. Damion*

            Speaking as someone with that type of disposition… Even though I am told that I do great work, I feel like there is resistance on the other end.

            Ironically, I am now in a job in which I am overqualified, and that is getting in the way of doing my job. I am fighting a ‘ditch and run’ mentality, for I am underpaid, underutilized, and unscheduled.

            If you confront her directly, you may cause her to straight out quit. Instead of being confrontational, I would try to talk to her on a casual level. Get into her mind a little, so that you know what she is thinking.

            You would be surprised what happens when you dig deeper.

    2. ExceptionToTheRule*

      “I understand and I’ll work on that” is a easy & brief response that conveys you’re taking him seriously.

      1. Development Associate & Event Coordinator*

        I agree.

        Another option would be to send an email follow up to the meeting to your manager letting him know that you heard and understand his points and that you will be implementing changes accordingly.

          1. Lorena in LA*

            Sometimes in full knowledge that it is a stop sign. Passive-aggressive behavior has been a management tool for as long as I’ve been in the workforce, and that’s a long time now. I wish there were a way to safely call them out when they pull such nonsense, but I’ve never found one.

    3. Jamie*

      I think it’s good you’re looking at this – because it can be an issue. Although at least you say something and nod.

      I have dealt with someone who doesn’t report to me overall, but does in some things. When I tell him he needs to stop doing very bad thing that he’s doing it’s non-negotiable. I explain it’s against policy, why it’s against policy, and what will happen if it continues.

      Stares at me. Flat affect, no reaction whatsoever. Says not one word. When my lips stop moving the person walks away.

      Did he hear me? There isn’t a language barrier, unless I lapsed into Klingon unbeknownst to me. I truly don’t know if anything registered at all – I get nothing.

      I had to go higher and ask if there were issues I needed to know about…there were…so I dumped it in their lap and said I need XYZ followed and if not I’ll be holding you accountable since there is no plan in place to address the inability to have a conversation with words and a reaction.

      I don’t get it – this is someone who is capable of talking and even being snotty…so the hell? Oh and if he’d just follow policy these conversations he hates so much would stop – just saying.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I’m inclined to think of a mean girl who stares at you when you talk as if you’re a bug, and then goes right on with what she was doing as if you didn’t exist. It’s a diss. He’s dissing you.

        He’s an ass.

      2. Vicki*

        Perhaps he had a manager who told him that when he talked, he came off as snotty, so he’s taken that advice and decided not to respond.

        I had a manager who told me that I asked “the wrong kinds” of questions in meetings and he didn’t like the way I interacted in meetings. For a long while after that, I simply didn’t open my mouth in his meetings. Because, seriously, trying to second guess his opinion of “the wrong way” wasn’t worth the effort.

        1. Jamie*

          I can understand that, and tbh would probably have become very quiet, too, if that had been said to me. But when someone is asked a direct question and there is no response at all – not even an eyelash flicker or a nod?

          It’s eerie.

          1. Luna C.*

            Yeah, it is, but I’ve also been in conversations (both professionally and personally) where I strongly suspected that any response I gave was going to be badly construed, and not reacting at all seemed like the safest option. There was no winning move except not to play.

          2. TL*

            Yesterday I told the doctor I thought was going to be my PCP that my mom had just gotten back a positive routine test – and not a good positive – and there was no response. Not a facial expression, not a verbal expression, nothing.

            There are times when there really needs to be a response.

      3. Annon*

        Haha, I don’t think I’ve ever been that bad. Also part of it is that I don’t think on my meet very well, so sometimes it take a while for me to process what my manager has told me and I can’t do it in the moment and therefore don’t really know what to say. I think about my work processes very carefully, like a well-tuned script, and can’t make last minute edits before show time. So a lot of the time I can understand why I would come off as immediately dismissive because it’s impossible for someone else to see the wheels turning ten minutes later.

  2. Emma*

    I’m also wondering what negative, combative, resistant to feedback and doesn’t get along means in this context. I’m not being obtuse and I’m not asking for a play-by-play of this coworker’s behavior …but I am asking what the major behaviors are that earned this coworker this reputation.

    She might be behaving in a reasonable manner but the office culture expects something different (any questions = resistant to feedback; not being a bubbly unicorn 40 hours a week = negative; not immediately dropping her work to accommodate a coworker’s = difficult to work with).

    Detailing what the rep-ruining behaviors are AND some expected responses would be helpful. Like Anon mentions above, maybe she’s not sure how to respond to feedback? So a manager saying “I would like you to say something like ‘I understand and I’ll do X/Y/Z to fix the problem’ so that I know you understand the issue and are thinking of ways to proceed.'” would be very helpful.

    1. fposte*

      I think there’s only so far you can go to make the problem something other than the worker, though, and if she’s not meeting cultural expectations, that’s still a legitimate problem.

      1. A Bug!*

        This is a good point. I think sometimes “cultural fit” can be used as an exclusionary tactic, but when it comes to the attitude you’re expressing in the workplace it’s very relevant.

        If your coworkers give you cavities and they all think you’re a sourpuss, then that absolutely is a cultural fit issue that speaks to your suitability in that position.

        It doesn’t mean your attitude is objectively wrong, but it can mean that it’s not the right attitude for that workplace. If that’s the case, something needs to change, whether that happens by way of an attitude adjustment or finding a job more suited to your personality.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      I got the “negative, combative, resistant to feedback” thing from my ex-boss too. The thing is, he was a manipulative Bully Boss, so nearly anything I would say to defend myself against his abuse was taken as “negative, combative, and resistant to feedback.”

      Not saying it’s the case here, but when managers have it out for a certain person, everything that person says or does will be viewed poorly.

    3. Vicki*

      I had a new manager come on board. When I started reporting to her, she told me that she had been told that “some” team members found me to be difficult to work with, sarcastic, etc, etc.

      No details.
      No names.
      No dates.

      When I approached a few of my co-workers, they expressed surprise. They didn’t react in the way I would expect someone to react if they’d been the people who made those accusations. They expressed what appears to be honest surprise and confusion.

      So, let’s ask the question that is often asked in a situation like this: Does the rest of the team agree with the OP? Perhaps the OP’s mindset is part of the problem? Perhaps “incredibly difficult” is in the mind of the beholder / a cultural bias?

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        Grrr. This happened to me once too, in my performance evaluation. When I asked who had complained about me, he said those people had come to him in confidence. Okay, fair enough. So I asked what, specifically, they had complained about, and he said that if he told me, then I’d be able to figure out who complained.

        So, no examples, no context, nothing. Gee thanks. So helpful.

        1. Annie Laurie*

          No specifics tends to equal total BS to me. If you can’t tell me what to change, how can I change it? This sounds like office politics running rampant.

          1. Esra*

            Yea, that reminds me of a manager I had who would claim his own complaints came from other people. He got caught on the spot a few times with it.

        2. tcookson*

          I’ve had this happen to me before, too. I’m an admin in a university department with the best faculty in the world, and reports of their complaining about me started when we got a new dean’s assistant (she was reporting to me that my faculty were complaining to her about me). Neither my boss (the department head) nor my other boss (the associate dean) had ever heard a bad word about me from any of the faculty or staff.

          Fast forward three years, and the dean’s assistant has been run out of the school. Turns out, she was bullying everybody in the whole school in the same way (spreading negative performance rumors about everyone to everyone else in order to feel important herself). It all came to a head during our search for a new dean, when we brought the finalists to campus for interviews. All at once, nearly everybody in the school realized that this assistant could potentially ruin our new dean before he ever got a chance to know any of us. So the department heads all go together and spoke with the interim dean. I don’t know what happened after that, but she resigned within a week of the conversation.

      2. Cassie*

        We have one supervisor who likes using the phrase “some people” as in “some people have complained that you spend a lot of time in someone else’s cubicle” and the like – she really means “I don’t like that you spend a lot of time in someone else’s cubicle” but she hides behind “some people”.

        I could get it if it was a confidentiality reason, but it’s not – it’s just because she can’t act like a grown-up.

        1. Jeanne*

          I had a manager who did this all the time. After awhile I just assumed she was lying. It’s pathetic and immature. Eventually I started saying that I would really like a chance to apologize to this offended coworker either alone or in front of my manager. Watching her try to get out of that was even more pathetic.

  3. Calicok*

    I’m not hostile, but it’s pretty clear in on my face I’m not happy at my job. What should I do if my manager’s advice to me was smile more?

        1. fposte*

          I don’t like telling people to smile, but doing so isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility, is it? From your own statement, your unhappiness at work is visible, and it’s affecting your work.

          My guess is that it’s not simply a case of you not smiling enough, it’s that that’s the only way some people can talk about demeanor. Are you sighing when people address you, moving slowly when it’s time to come to meetings, stuff like that? Can you cultivate a neutral face rather than a gloomy one?

          I presume you’re job hunting already.

          1. Calicok*

            I’m very civil with everyone I work with and I’m an extremely high performer. I’m not passive aggressive; just sullen. I think the advice about smiling stemmed from the fact that I used to be very sociable to pretty much withdraw and quiet. I tried out my boss’ advice when I initially received the feedback, but it looked so forced that my office mate said it was worse than a sad face.

            I’ve pretty much been job hunting since I started my current job.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Sullen is … a pretty big deal. In many offices, they’re not just paying you to do the work; they’re paying you to be reasonably pleasant while doing it.

              1. LAI*

                I have to agree with this. It’s very important to me that my coworkers are pleasant to be around, since I spend at least 8 hours a day with them. Dealing with a sullen coworker every day would be an issue, so I think it’s in the employer’s interest to care about this for the sake of preserving their other good employees.

            2. Jamie*

              I have a weird little trick that works for me – because I really resent being told to smile and when I do it because I have to I feel fake.

              When someone comes to my office my initial response, in my head, used to be “what now?” if stressed. Even though I was always civil and never said it out loud – it was on my face.

              I trained myself to say hi. Now I say “Hi” before asking what they need. It sounds so stupid and basic, but for me it works. When I say hi, even to the most annoying of interruptions, I smile automatically and I can feel it in my eyes. I’m not talking about giant grins of “look how happy I am!!” Just a little smile and a greeting and it changes the tone.

              Earlier this week in my crisis from hell I overheard people talking about me…about how hard I was working to get it fixed, how bad they felt for me, and what a great job I was doing. I am 100% positive that while the work and the result would have been exactly the same, without being communicative and approachable those comments would have been far less kind.

              It’s weird this came up today because I was just thinking yesterday I finally turned a corner on this where it’s natural and not something I have to consciously remember to do.

              Oh, and not to break my own arm patting myself on the back, but my husband was picking me up and my boss told him he had an amazing wife because I just hit what’s pitched, no matter what, and I don’t get shaken. If they had any idea of the stress in my head I’d have been committed. Perception is everything.

              Maybe not everything, but a lot.

            3. Artemesia*

              Wow! Sullen shouts ‘I am a child’ and you can make me work but you can’t make me like it. Really and truly unprofessional behavior. At the very least one should cultivate an amiable and pleasant exterior while searching for a better fit.

              Everyone else has the right to not have to work along someone who is unpleasant and sullen is unpleasant.

              1. No name this time*

                I hate the fact that we are expected to essentially lie to our co-workers in circumstances like this. We work to get money; I don’t feel that I’m under any obligation to like my job or my co-workers, and I get really tired of being a hypocrite eight hours a day. Do I work very hard to make sure no one can tell how I really feel? You bet I do. That’s why I’m still employed.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Except it’s not being a hypocrite to make an effort to be pleasant to be around, particularly to people who have no choice but be around you (your coworkers) and people who are paying you (your manager). You can dislike your job while still being a pleasant presence.

              2. Ella*

                I like to believe that politeness is our moral duty in all circumstances. As for a manager/subordinate dialogue it should come from either side.

        2. K-Anon*

          Sorry. For the record, I can’t really imagine just saying “smile more” to an employee. But if the question is simply what to do should your manager say it, that’s what you do. It’s not worth making an issue out of it.

          Beyond that, look into why he\she might say that and try to address the core issue. I have a German background so my neutral face is a frown. I look serious and grumpy all the time. I do make an effort to smile more because of this, but I also address it with the tone of voice. Once I get someone engaged and comfortable I can let the smile fall and just have a conversation.

            1. Manda*

              I find this casual racism offensive and I come from the UK which, similarly to the US, is not squeaky clean when it comes to world domination…….

              1. De*

                I am German, and I at least thought that the gold digger’s comment was funny, because it showed why K-Anon’s comment really made me go “WTF?”.

                Being German now means a certain facial expression? Huh? What kind of comment is that?

          1. De*

            “I have a German background so my neutral face is a frown”

            I am German. Does that really come with a certain facial expression? I am not seeing the causal relationship here.

            1. Expat in Germany*

              Germans were always telling me how scheinfreundlich (pretending to be friendly) Americans are. I’ve stopped smiling and people have stopped making comments. Maybe resting bitch face (from the American POV) would still be considered perfectly okay here.

    1. Frances*

      I’ve been in your shoes — at an old job, I was completely overwhelmed with work and my panic at trying to keep up apparently gave coworkers the impression I didn’t want to help them. I have kind of a “bitchy resting face” anyway and it makes any mood that’s even mildly unhappy look about 50% angrier. I’ve learned to cultivate an “interested” look when I’m not feeling very smiley — sit up straight, raise your eyebrows slightly, tilt your head a little and/or nod as people talk to you. What most “smile more” people are really looking for is that you are engaged with what they’re saying and don’t make them feel like they’re imposing on you by even daring to speak.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        Goodness! I make all kinds of “bitchy” frowny faces at my computer all day long! Usually, it’s become I’m just concentrating on the pixels or fine tweaking typography… but often the software or something is buggy. Grrrr!
        It doesn’t mean I’m not happy.
        But I definitely would NOT be happy if the Sunshine & Rainbow Police told me to look happier.

    2. A Bug!*

      If it’s clear on your face to others that you’re unhappy while you’re at work, to the point where it’s been explicitly noted to you, then it is a problem and it’s something you need to address.

      I realize you’re not happy with your job, and I feel for you, but you also need to understand that, no matter the reason, it sucks to have to work with a grump who makes it clear that they’d rather be anywhere else but there.

      So yeah, maybe you do need to smile more, if you want to stay in that job. How you make that happen is up to you.

      Find a picture of something that cheers you up, and put it next to your monitor. Wear underwear with superheroes on them. Dwell less on the stuff that makes you unhappy.

      If you have a sarcastic or snarky internal (or external!) monologue, try to rein it in because that sort of thing has a tendency to reinforce the things that make you unhappy so you’re less able to recognize and appreciate the positive stuff.

      Flip side to the previous paragraph, make an effort to look for things you can appreciate. Even just the smallest things. And when those things you can appreciate are other people, tell them. Be specific in your thanks wherever possible – “Thanks for the quick turnaround on this, Joan”. When people feel like you appreciate them, their overall impression of you will become softer and more generous, and they’ll be less inclined to interpret “not smiling” as “frowning.”

    3. Vicki*

      I think what you’re looking for is known as a “rictus grin” (def: It is a grimace or smile usually regarding a pained and unnatural smile.) Bare your teeth!

      Hubby and I call this a “snile”. (from snide x smile)

    4. Mena*

      Being told to smile more is annoying (I remember a period in my life where I was hearing it quite a bit – problem was that I had good reason that wasn’t anyone’s busines).

      But, at work you want and need people to believe you are approachable, that you want to work with them, that you are accessible. So, in that context, perhaps try to be a bit mindful of how your demeanor comes across. If people are not comfortable working with you, this will hurt you in the long run.

      1. Julie*

        I like Jamie’s suggestion of saying “Hi” at the beginning of each (appropriate) interaction. I think that would probably help a lot.

  4. BadPlanning*

    I’m also wondering if she’s yelling and screaming at people and freaking out or is naturally a “half empty glass” person and hasn’t learned to use it constructively.

    I’m naturally a half empty and sarcastic person and sometimes that doesn’t work well in an office. So I try to keep the sarcasm light (or endeavor to avoid it with some people) and use my negative nelly for good — aka constructive criticism — (and remember to stop to think of the positive aspects of things even if my gut reaction is “it’s bad!”). These are all conscious choices…so the OPs worker has to be willing to recognize the need for change and try to do it.

    I was able to take two seminars recently on “soft skills.” One was learning about your personality type and some other basic personality types and how to adjust your interaction to work with and better understand others — this is quite interesting stuff to me. I learned some of it the hard way on the job, but it was nice having it all bundled into a class. The other was general advice on working with your coworkers and then strategies to deal with “difficult coworkers” (after awhile, I started to think that I was the difficult coworker!).

  5. Mike C.*

    This post is a great reminder that being a good employee doesn’t mean finishing your own work or being top of the sales chart. As much as I hate the more political aspects of a job, you have to be able to work with other people.

    1. Yup*

      I’m not into office politics either, but I genuinely don’t think of interpersonal skills as playing politics. If someone hoards information, rejects feedback, or shuts down lines of communication, that’s as real as if they unplugged the network server or left unlabeled hazmats lying around the office.

          1. Jamie*

            Yeah – weird, huh?

            Key my car and my husband takes it in to the body shop and I drive a loaner until it’s fixed. Inconvenient and annoying…sure. Personally offended – absolutely – I would call for capital punishment.

            But unplug one of my servers? A hard boot truncating services, transactions, leaving my databases in a chaotic mess and session files left open just hanging there, for hundreds of users….I am getting all nervous just thinking about it.

            And this is why there is a lock on my door. :)

            1. Natalie*

              The server closet at my old office would have given you apoplexy. It was an open closet off of an unlocked office. I’m honestly surprised it was never messed with, either accidentally or intentionally.

        1. Adam V*

          What if I key your car, and while you’re outside looking at the damage, I hit the big red button in the server room and power down all the servers?

          /runs out of Jamie’s range

          1. Jamie*

            Well then someone should write me up for leaving the building with either my office door open or letting a vandal like you have the combination to my door lock!

        2. Vicki*

          Jamie – I once worked with a guy who, within the same week:
          “borrowed” a (running!) hard disk from the computer in two different co-worker’s cubes (i.e. unplugged it and walked away with it)
          “borrowed” (for his own use) the /usr drive on our team server.

          My cube was near the server room. We all gathered ’round the door to listen to our manager “discussing” this with the co-worker, who was told to take some of his accumulated vacation _that day_.

          Oddly, he wasn’t actually let go for another two years.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I agree with you, Yup. There is a difference between having a civil working relationship with people and playing politics. One way to think about this is “what is the goal of this person’s actions/words?” People who are interested in getting the job done and done correctly act far different from people who are out to promote themselves and their own agendas.

  6. MaryMary*

    Even if your dfficult employee is someone you don’t want to let go, there are other ways to motivate change. If she’s not receptive to your feedback, you can let her know not making changes will impact future raises, bonuses, and/or promotions. You need to follow through with what you say, but if your employee sells the most widgets or programs the best code but can’t work in a team, then she’s not your best performer and won’t be recognized as such. If money isn’t her primary motivator, maybe it’s flex hours or working remotely. And remember that you can take a carrot or stick approach (or both).

  7. Jamie*

    This can definitely be learned, too.

    I tend to get really quiet and inside myself during a crisis. This can make me somewhat unapproachable to those who don’t know me well.

    I had one this week, through no fault of my own, where a system problem resulted in hundreds of help requests between Monday and Wednesday. I wasn’t mad at any of my users, I felt bad that this issue was causing them frustration, so I went out of my way to make sure they knew that. When they apologized for bothering me I said it was no bother, and that I needed them to tell me everything wrong so I could get the root cause.

    I wasn’t perky, because it was a serious situation, but I did smile and I was extra encouraging and it made a nightmare much easier.

    Once I stopped assuming that people knew I was on their side, understood their frustration, and wanted to get them sorted as quickly as possible and actually started telling them this my relations with people took a drastic turn for the better.

    Some people who only interact with me when there is something wrong come into it being kind of intimidated, so I’ve found that even in a crisis a smile or a kind word goes a long way.

    And then I head to the bathroom to roll my eyes 100x and make faces – not at my users – but at the stupid problem so no one would see me and think I was annoyed with them.

    Even small changes in this area make a big difference.

    1. A Bug!*

      A good comment, the best comment!

      You don’t have to coddle people to make them feel at ease around you, and it doesn’t have to mean changing who you are; it just means changing how you communicate who you are.

    2. TL*

      I close my eyes and roll them when I absolutely can’t hold it in anymore.

      I try to make it look like I’m taking a moment to contemplate a serious thought about fixing the problem.

      1. tcookson*

        A coworker and I go into each other’s offices to “check the ceiling for spiders” (roll our eyes). It is therapeutic, and laughing about the need to roll our eyes makes the problem more bearable.

  8. Not So NewReader*

    Uh. Any job I have had being “negative, combative and resistant to feedback and direction IS grounds for dismissal. Any one of those stands alone as grounds.
    If all four employees behaved this way, then what would happen?
    I find it amazing that anyone is able to tell her what her job assignments are.

    Just because a person is outstanding at their job does not mean they can trample over everyone else. It’s not trade-offs where people who are average HAVE to be civil but outstanding people don’t have to be civil.

    Her actions could cause your entire team to quit, one by one. Her overall demeanor and approach is creating a toxic work environment. You might want to think about bullying behaviors to see if your company could be vulnerable to complaints or lawsuits.
    And lastly, a manager who does not address these type of things with a subordinate undermines her own authority, because employees feel that one individual is allowed to get away with unprofessional behavior.

    1. Artemesia*

      I know a business situation like this right now. The employee is in a key role but not one that could not be easily replaced if they let her go. She is resistant to every change, meddles in every decision, picks a fight over incredibly trivial issues that don’t go to the core of her work, tries to hijack decisions that are not hers to make and is hell on wheels if given feedback. I can’t imagine why the boss hasn’t let her go and hired someone who will be a more positive force on the team.

    2. Cassie*

      Theoretically, it probably is grounds for dismissal at my workplace to, but in reality? Nope – someone who is a downright bully is essentially given a pass because she’s a) high up on the totem pole, b) who can do her job if she leaves?!; and c) nobody else will speak up because they’re all afraid of her. So even though administration knows what she’s like, based on some feedback from coworkers, and also because they’ve witnessed it themselves – nobody will do anything.

    3. Wonderlander*

      This is so my life right now. We have one co-worker on a team of 4 whose demeanor is unpleasant and creates a toxic environment. She never says thank you. She sighs heavily whenever anyone interrupts her, whether it be a telephone call or another co-worker asking her a question. One day she actually gritted her teeth and essentially growled at me to “put her print-offs in her inbox, not on her desk!” My managers are wonderful people and so honest, open, and professional, but it makes me really question their judgment & authority for allowing this woman to work here for so long and behave this way. She’s in her 50s and keeps saying “I have 10-15 years left!” and I keep thinking ohmygod, I have to deal with this for 10-15 YEARS?!

  9. EngineerGirl*

    She’s negative, combative, and resistant to feedback and direction and doesn’t get along with the rest of the team

    All of these are judgments, not behaviors. That means you’ve already told yourself a story about the employee, without bothering to find out the “WHY”. That’s really bad management.

    Is the person that way because she’s compensating for poor performance of the entire team without any acknowledgement or compensation? Is the path forward technically incorrect and the employee the only one that sees it?

    You need to sit down with the employee first and find out what’s going on. Combative is a very negative word. Why is the person acting that way?

    Then, and only then, can you legitimately tell the employee that their behavior is inappropriate. Even if it means telling her that yes, she is carrying the load for the whole team. At which point she will polish up here resume and leave. Problem solved.

    1. fposte*

      I’m not going to agree with this, because I think when writing in to an advice column, you’re not presenting evidence for court; telling a story is exactly the task at hand. It’s not reasonable to expect the letter-writer to itemize behaviors or to assume that she’s failed in some way in management if her letter doesn’t reflect her exact management steps.

      1. EngineerGirl*

        It’s clear that the OP hasn’t talked to the enployee about this but is already seeing it as entirely the employees problem. It’s possible that the emloyee is a bad apple. But bad apples are rarely caring about their work. This indicates something else is going on. A good manager will always try to find root cause before stating shape up or ship out. Only in a true time critical crisis ca the leader say just do what I say – NOW.

        1. fposte*

          But I think even the “bad apple” phraseology is misleading, because all us apples do things for reasons that make sense to us; similarly, having reasons and caring about your work doesn’t automatically make you a good apple. It’s whether or not you’re working in this pie. (Okay, I’m letting the metaphor go now.)

          You’re making it sound like the OP said “I hate my employee and how do I deliver an ultimatum to her?” And that’s not what she said–she articulated that the employee is difficult, noting ways that many of us have seen in other people, including high achievers, and aren’t hard to imagine here. And while we do sometimes query AAM letters, I don’t see what you’re seeing here that makes you seem to think that there is a bad apple and it’s the manager.

      2. EngineerGirl*

        To put it clearly, the manager has already passed judgement without first seeking information. That’s bad management.

        1. Artemesia*

          We don’t know that. The world is full of people who are combative and won’t take direction. I have fired a handful of them myself. I’ll bet anyone who has managed for any length of time has had a few like this. In any particular snit, they may be right — but they are still unpleasant and adversarial about every darn thing whether it is important or not. It isn’t about the brave employee who is the only one who has a clear vision of the problem — it is about a personality type. One skill we all have to learn is when to hold them and when to fold them.

        2. Anon*

          Those are not judgments, those are observations.

          It would be passing judgment if the manager observed, then without seeking further info or offering feedback declared the person a jerk with no place at that company.

    2. Anon_4_This*

      Thank you for saying this. In my last position, at EVERY review I had–including my very first one at just six months–I was told that my coworkers “found me unpleasant.” It was never explained to me what that meant. I was never given examples, so that I could assess the situation and fix the way I interacted with certain people.

      In those same reviews, I would also be told that I was “very sweet” or “pleasant and easy to work with.” Well, which one was it? That contradiction let me know it was just a personality clash, but again–without information, I couldn’t fix the problem or make apologies or whatever needed to happen. It was demoralizing and confusing, and I ended up just relieved when they let me go.

      OP, please talk to this employee, but when you do, PLEASE give her specific examples, so that she knows exactly what the problem is. Don’t set her up to fail, the way my employer did.

  10. Elizabeth West*

    Some people are that way because they just are, and at certain jobs, they can get away with it. Maybe at a previous job, she intimidated everyone to the point where they didn’t want to make waves (or lose sales) by either dealing with her or letting her go.

    This brings flashbacks of one coworker I had at a very short-lived job who brought in excellent sales and was great with customers, but she was a nightmare to work with. She was rude, mean, critical, and backhanded. She harassed one poor salesman so badly he quit after three days on the job (she didn’t want the competition, I’m guessing). Because it was a family business and she was in the family (I don’t recall if she was a member or had married one), they let it slide.

    Her daughter was just like her; once when I was answering the phone, she called and I put her on hold to page her mom. She hung up after a half a minute. She called back a bit later, I transferred her to her mother, and forgot about it. Then her mother came up to me and IN FRONT OF A CUSTOMER, reamed me out about how her daughter had said I hung up on her!

    I did stand up to her, calmly telling her that no, her daughter had broken the connection, that I never hung up on ANY caller, and please do not talk to me that way again. She backed off, but it was still nerve-wracking to be in her presence. She’s one of the reasons I quit and I won’t even go in there to purchase the product they sold. Nope, not gonna do it. I had never actively hated a coworker, until I met her.

  11. Cat*

    I’m surprised so many people are assuming the manager is at fault. Have y’all not had that one coworker who has been allowed to scream and hurtle abuse at people for years because they’re stellar a particularly valuable technical thing? This is not a rare thing, in my experience.

    1. fposte*

      I did think it was kind of interesting that the question about an employee who pushed back too much elicited so much pushback :-).

    2. Artemesia*

      Exactly. I once inherited a team with a vital function for the organization that was held hostage by someone like this. I was given the team to reform its processes which were a disaster for the organization. I soon discovered once I sat down with each member, that ‘Fred’ was the only one who knew how to manage a key technical aspect of the job and thus had everyone dancing his tune even when it was not productive for the organization. (the function if not fixed would have doomed the organization — it was absolutely critical to its revenue stream)

      The first thing I did was insist the director of the unit learn the technology of the desired process upgrade. The second thing I did was make sure we had everyone cross trained. The operation was so siloed that some people twiddled their thumbs while others were overworked as there were huge seasonal differences in the task burdens of various roles. The third thing I did was fire Fred after making several attempts to help him become a team player and not information hoarder. What nailed it was his insubordinate attempt to foment pushback on the cross training among his peers. Once he was gone the unit was transformed and productivity what it needed to be. It literally saved the business.

      1. tcookson*

        Wow. Was Fred the one who initiated all the information-hoarding surrounding his one critical role (perhaps in an effort to cement his job security)?

  12. Wapunga*

    I think you have to ask yourself a few things; first is she really, really despicable or say just abrasive?

    Example: There have been a few times when I have had to deal with a particular female coworker and have found her to be grumpy. However, I sometimes ask myself “If this was a man acting the same way, would I consider the way he was acting to be particularly grumpy?” Sad to say, I often find that many, many times I wouldn’t have thought anything at all about said behavior if it had been a man.

    The second thing you have to ask yourself, (if she is truly awful) is her attitude causing her co-workers to not be as efficient at their jobs. In that case, she may actually be causing a “net loss” to your business.

    Example: I used to work at a government job with a woman that customers loved. No hyperbole here, they LOVED this woman. There wasn’t a week that would go by where she wasn’t getting a box of doughnuts, or cookies or cake or candy sent to her from some customer. Come the holidays our office would be swamped with things sent to her.

    To her coworkers she was psycho. I truly believe she was a sociopath. Screaming, throwing things, getting with in two inches of their face, saying the nastiest, vilest things you could think of. She would do everything short of actually punching her coworkers in the face.

    When she finally let go (after 18 years of work and after consultation with lawyers on how to fire her-btw she had about a two inch thick file of coworker complaints on her) the customers were really sad. Each workers productivity went up between ten, twenty and in a few cases thirty percent.

    1. LCL*

      We have one of these people too. Y’all questioning the OP need to know that people like this are +10 in charisma. They have to be, to live their life like that. Higher management will know all about their past record, and they will still escape consequences because they are so persuasive. And, it’s looking like we just hired a second one. I will be practicing my documentation skills…

  13. Sharm*

    The first person I ever managed was this type of “brilliant jerk,” and she turned me off from management entirely. I felt so burned from that experience, I keep seeking positions that are a level below my capability, and it’s not been good. I’m working on building up my confidence again to be able to deal with a situation like this whenever I do take on a manager role (although I hope I don’t have to).

    It wasn’t until I left that organization that I realized what my own manager kept telling me all the time was true. We all knew my coordinator had major behavioral issues, but she was such a stellar producer, I kept saying, “How will we ever function without her?” My manager said, “No one is irreplaceable.” And it’s true! My manager from the time is still working there, and I just checked in with her, and she says the environment is so much better now that the trouble employee is gone. The work got done; there were other ways to do it. But now people are happier that they don’t have to walk on eggshells around her, or witness my coordinator blowing up at our senior DIRECTOR at a staff meeting, or her revealing every detail of your personal life to anyone who would listen… it goes on.

    The funny thing is, I fixated so much on what a horrible experience it was managing her, I overlooked other coordinators I had who were just wonderful to work with. They’ve both gone on to great things, and I’m just so glad that you don’t always have to be a brilliant jerk to get ahead. I was worried for the longest time I was doing something wrong because my interpersonal skills were top-notch, but my production capability wasn’t as good. I see now that there’s definitely something to be said for being a colleague people WANT to work with.

  14. Peredur*

    I think was was that employee at some point in the past. I tended to be not just resistant to management but I would often fight my colleague’s battles with management on their behalf. But I was kept on because I was very good at what I actually did. Management didn’t like me much and I complained about something to AAM. Alison pointed out in a nice way that I couldn’t really expect management to be nice to me when I was actively obstructing them. I think she thought they should fire my ass or at least talk to me seriously about my behaviour.

    That got me thinking, if I was skilled enough that management overlooked that I was trouble in the workplace, how worthwhile an employee would I be if I were just as skilled but at least neutral in the workplace. So I tried that, it didn’t work because too much had already passed under the bridge but I moved sideways into another organisation where I could reinvent myself as a positive and supportive team member. It worked this time, getting promoted within a few months and the confidence to go for another job that I start soon.

    If you know deep down that you should be fired but management clearly don’t want to lose you, it might be because you’re underselling yourself. Try reinventing yourself in the same workplace if it’s not too late, another employer if it is and you might be amazed at what you can do.

    1. fposte*

      “That got me thinking, if I was skilled enough that management overlooked that I was trouble in the workplace, how worthwhile an employee would I be if I were just as skilled but at least neutral in the workplace.”

      That is a piece of maturity and logical growth that I’m not sure I could have managed. Good for you, and for coming back to tell your tale!

  15. HR “Gumption”*

    We had to tackle the problem employee this past year. Much of what the OP listed were issues he shared resulting in distracting many from our essential core functions.

    The argument (and justification) to keep him was he was the #1 sales person. I pointed out he was paid as the #1 sales person, but asked what sales are we not making because of him?

    Second month after his term we had record sales that have continued to stay higher, resulting in a record sales year.

  16. HM in Atlanta*

    The OP needs to lay it out for the employee – that no matter how good she is at one part of her job, she’s failing in other parts. This discussion should use concrete examples, as well as what would have been a better way to handle the situation in the example. Descriptive phrases without examples leaves room for misunderstanding.

    Too often, we don’t hold people accountable for all of their jobs. We don’t hold the manager accountable for the people management part of her job because her team meets their metrics. We don’t hold people accountable for behavior expectations.

  17. No smiling fool*

    Oh please, there are all sorts of people in the world. Cultural differences, life experiences, dispositions…. Life would be hell, or more hellish, if everyone was a smiling ass. Nothing worse than blabbering optimists who try and force themselves on the sane sober.
    I worked with someone who seemed to barely speak, react…guess what she’s reserved, shy and a really good, honest worker. Maybe management should concentrate on the work, not the fluff.

    1. Positivity Boy*

      There is a dramatic difference between being quiet and reserved and being “negative, combative and resistance to feedback and direction” as described in the OP. A quiet coworker is fine as long as they can still contribute. A negative and argumentative coworker who doesn’t seem to want to change can be absolutely toxic for the workplace and bring down other good employees. I have one of these coworkers sitting next to me and I basically have to ignore him when he speaks unless it’s to answer a question, otherwise I’d be engaging in his bitching and excuse-making all day long. It’s absolutely exhausting and it makes it hard to make progress in your position when someone you work with is only interested in pointing out what’s wrong and bad and not providing any solutions.

  18. Hmm...*

    I think there are many variables here to which we don’t have a clear line on whatsoever.

    Honestly, if someone is combative at work that sounds like a very hostile environment so I am having trouble seeing how others are able to work around them and how that would remain permitted by management. And if others have trouble working around them, surely a conversation would have taken place to diffuse the hostile environment.

    Someone earlier mentioned it, but combative is a very strong word. If the OP used it out of context we can’t really know for sure. I will say that in my work experience, it’s common for others to project their negativity, bad attitude, etc onto someone else. As someone who is reserved at work, not because of shyness or lack of confidence, but rather to observe and assess I know that – being reserved – is generally ascribed as a weakness, which some coworkers tend to try to take advantage of. When they cannot, that is when the labels (negative, combative, etc) start to fly.

    1. No smiling fool*

      Yep. Fine line between reserved and wimp. Shocks some when you push back. I go to work for pay- I make pleasant small talk and work my ass off. It’s not enough, apparently I have to celebrate others personal lives and beliefs.

      The real problem is employees who don’t have personal lives or developed enough personalities that they need validation every where they go like toddlers.

  19. Jeanne*

    This kind of letter is so difficult because these issues are very subjective. I was once told to “work more happily.” Manager refused at first to give any details on her expectations or how we would know if I was doing better. Finally she said to say good morning to my coworkers. My team was NOT friendly. I tried it every day for a month. They all refused to say anything back but my manager said they didn’t have to respond to me.

    I think it was cultural. She wanted me to act the way she did as a Chinese woman. Instead I was an American woman who brought up issues in team meetings and expected us to try to solve problems. That made me negative.

    The departments that were my customers liked me and always came to me when they needed something done. I did the most and best work in my dept. She was allowed to ruin my performance review and working environment for a cultural difference and I had no recourse.

    I wish we had more details for this letter.

  20. Art Official*

    I just skipped to the end and read the last post and must comment: NO ONE in my office says good morning EVER unless the Prez walks by…………..In my entire life I have never worked in an office like this – and – I am looking.

  21. Rey*

    Wow, what an amount of feeds. Truth is we, as managers, usually want a more or less extensive response to feedback, especially when it’s about a difficult-to-work-with employee; if the reply we get reduces to monosyllables it’s perfectly normal to feel the other party is just giving us the bird.

  22. CC*

    I had this very same issue with an employee recently. Management spoke to him without me being present (I am HR) a while back. But the attitude continued. We sat him down yesterday and talked to him about his negativity, unwillingness to work as a team, etc. And we found he was very bored (ie: unhappy) which was great to know! He said he wished he had more challenging work. Luckily, we get new projects a lot, so with this in mind we are going to start looking for new things for him to work on. He is a developer and they really like to be able to be creative and work with new technologies. He just didn’t feel like he was able to do either of things on is current projects. I am hoping he will turn his attitude around and continue to let us know how to cater to his interests. From what I am told he is a good developer and I can tell he has a passion for his field so hopefully we can keep his skills growing and he will be much more pleasant to work with.

  23. Rocco*

    This article does relate to me. I am a good worker. But, I am introverted plus have a negative mood. I do have a hard time socializing or connecting with others. I think that my solutions are:

    1. trying no matter how difficult or awkward it may be

    2. finding a particular employee/employer I can talk/connect

    3. being honest with myself and others

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