my manager told my coworker I complained about her work — but I didn’t

A reader writes:

Can I/should I confront my manager for telling my coworker that I complained about her work — when I didn’t?

My manager, Ann, is extremely reactive and has a tendency to focus on one person or project and basically fly off the handle at the slightest thing. At other times, she’s very pleasant and fun to be around. This makes working with her somewhat challenging, since you never know what the mood of the day or hour is.

My coworker, Monica, has some trouble completing projects on time, and the rest of the team has learned to work around it– when Monica’s part of a project is not done and we are reviewing with a manager, we use filler content and tell the reviewer that the real content will be coming soon. It’s not ideal, but we can’t do much else. When this happens to me, I am not shy about asking Monica for what I need, or about making it clear when I am using filler content.

Monica was the most recent target of Ann’s wrath, and Ann was very aggressive about telling Monica that the rest of the team didn’t like working with her. Ann also said that I had complained to Ann and a higher-up about Monica multiple times, and that Monica was not someone I liked to work with.

Except I didn’t complain to either of those people about Monica, and never have. I like working with Monica. Now it’s very awkward between me and Monica, who is one of my friends in the office.

I tried to smooth things over with Monica, but can I speak up to Ann about this? It seems very unprofessional of Ann to bring up my name, especially when I didn’t complain in the first place! I don’t know how to bring this up, especially when I wasn’t there for the actual chewing-out.

You can indeed talk to Ann about it, but you’d want to approach it as “I think there’s been a miscommunication somewhere” rather than “don’t use my name when talking to another employee.”

Managers do sometimes have to invoke other people in order to address performance issues — “Jane has repeatedly had trouble getting X and Y from you,” etc. Sometimes a manager may need to invoke your name even if you haven’t actually complained — for example, “Jane needs to stay late when you miss deadlines.”

That said, some managers may assume that you’re frustrated by something that you’re not actually frustrated by, and it’s rightly problematic when they pass that along as if it’s fact, which may have happened here.

(And certainly Monica’s description of what Ann said to her — aggressively telling her that the rest of the team doesn’t like working with her — sounds pretty bad. But we’re also only getting Monica’s description of it. It’s possible that it was more like “It makes everyone else’s job harder when they’re counting on you for X and Y and you don’t get it to them by the deadline. They need to be able to count on you to come through when you say you will.” That would be pretty reasonable, and Monica wouldn’t be the first person to hear feedback that stings and turn it into something much more harsh in her head. But we can’t really know which it is.)

In any case … the message you want for Ann isn’t “don’t use my name without my okay,” but rather “I think you might have an impression that’s incorrect.” You could say something like this: “I wanted to touch base with you about a strange conversation I had with Monica the other day, because I think there may be a miscommunication in here somewhere. It sounds like she got the idea from you that I had complained to you about her and that I don’t like working with her. I actually do like working with her and don’t think I’ve ever complained about her. I’m not sure if she misunderstood what you said or if you misunderstood something I’ve said in the past, so I wanted to make sure you know that.”

It’s possible that this won’t really clear anything up for you. Ann may say, “Thanks for letting me know” and just leave it that. But it’s also possible that she’ll explain why she had that impression, and then you can correct her if needed.

Hell, it’s even possible that you have said things to her in the past that have come across as complaining about Monica, even if you didn’t realize it, or that you said them to someone else and it got passed on to Ann. It’s possible for “we can’t give you this content because Monica hasn’t turned it in yet” to come across as frustration with Monica, depending on the context and the delivery, as well as the perspective of the person hearing it.

That’s about all you can really do, though, aside from setting the record straight with Monica herself (which it sounds like you’ve already done).

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. Ro*

    Wow! Do we work together? This sounds so familiar- except I am Monica and this actually happened to me, albeit a few years ago. Same situation though- abusive, bully boss who likes to zero in on a victim. And yes, she actually said nobody on the team likes me. Which was clearly not the truth. Unbeknownst to her I was very close to two co-workers and we got together all the time outside of work as friends. Maybe it’s my personal experience (and assuming both parties are female) but I would tend to believe the op’s manager said something along the lines of, “nobody likes you”. Because that’s such a classic “relational aggression” kind of move. Op, I feel for you! Sorry I don’t have better advice.

    1. Dweali*

      When I was a bartender I had my male manager tell me know one liked me and that everyone was saying I was stealing alcohol and throwing parties with it…he actually did this with everyone, enough so that his formula was address an issue valid or not that ‘everyone’ has an issue with but he doesn’t + rumor of the week involving whoever he’s speaking with… then would wonder why people started fighting amongst each other

    2. Jeanne*

      When my boss wanted to tell me something she didn’t like that I did, she would always blame it on a coworker complaint. And it did quickly devolve into no one likes you and everyone hates working with you. I was paranoid for a while until I figured it out. I think it’s the standard I don’t feel good unless I can put you down.

      I say talk to Monica and reassure her you don’t hate her and would like to work cooperatively. You can talk to the boss but it is unlikely to help. You’ll never really know if the boss used you or not.

  2. Sharon*

    “It’s possible for “we can’t give you this content yet because Monica hasn’t gotten it to us yet” to come across as frustration with Monica, depending on the context and the delivery, as well as the perspective of the person hearing it.”

    Yes, I’ve been bitten by this SO many times, now I try to be super careful about saying things that could be even remotely construed as a complaint. I’ve been completely surprised by someone spinning into a criticism something that I intended as a neutral statement of fact.

    1. Artemesia*

      Monica is slow and doesn’t hold up her end of the stick and has to be worked around. If you haven’t complained about her to the boss then why not? And if you have said ‘We will get the Spout Analysis to you as soon as Monica’s material is ready’ repeatedly well then you HAVE complained about Monica.

      1. Kyrielle*

        I can see that argument, though they are not the same thing. Advising the boss that you’re waiting on something, if done in a neutral tone, is not a complaint about that something.

        But even if it was a complaint, “…and that Monica was not someone I liked to work with” is indicative of communication problems somewhere. Or lying, but communication problems is a better assumption.

    2. OP*

      I think you may be right- I do try and use a neutral tone, but it may have been misconstrued. However, I don’t think our manager is good at communicating, and has a tendency to make things personal, which translates to a lot of overreacting, and in this case, bringing some personal remarks in where they shouldn’t have been.

      1. AnonyMoose*

        ….do you know that your photo is showing? Only reason i bring this up is that Ann or Monica could read this and…yah. But at least all three of you would totally be on the same page! ha.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            It’s because your email address linked to your Gravatar. It looks like you’ve removed it from your Gravatar account, but if you don’t want to have to do that, let me know and I can remove your email address from your comments on this post, which will also fix it.

    3. KWu*

      Yeah, I’ve concluded that there are people who assume that directly bringing up an issue means it must be a complaint, even if I only meant to get us on the same page regarding the facts. My strategy these days for handling that are essentially to help people realize over time that I don’t mean anything between the lines, but that takes time and relationship building.

      1. Pennalynn Lott*

        I see you know my boyfriend. ;-) Unless I’m praising him to the high heavens and telling him what a good boy he is, all he hears is criticism and complaints. . . when really I’m just bringing up or pointing out neutral, verifiable facts.

  3. AMG*

    Gosh, that’s a little tricky because there actually is an issue with working with Monica…’I didn’t say that other stuff about. I like working with you but since we are talking about it, could you please get your work in on time?’ is a bit awkward. But you’re friends, and other people’s dysfunction (meaning, your manager’s) tends to come out to the light anyway. Hope it all works out–please let us know!

    1. OP*

      It is a tough conversation! But Monica was aware that we were communicating this way with our manager– that when we had to, we would simply say “this is filler content, here’s my part of the project.”

  4. KWu*

    This is a very good approach, though I would slightly modify “I’m not sure if she misunderstood what you said or if you misunderstood something I’ve said in the past” to something more like, “or if I didn’t express myself very well in our past conversations” so it won’t trigger a reactive person to be on the defensive immediately.

    1. AnonyMoose*

      I think the same! She’s a bad communicator, let’s not give her any ammo to freak out. Use ‘I’ terms only.

  5. neverjaunty*

    Great advice from AAM, but OP, the bigger issue is that you have a manager who 1) ‘reactive’ and flies off the handle, 2) is unpredictable, and 3) doesn’t properly manage Monica, such that you all have to work around Monica’s failure to do her job. Even if you do everything recommended here and that smooths over Monica being upset, your workplace still sucks and there’s likely not a solution other than a new job.

  6. Lily in NYC*

    Ugh, our division head used to do this all the time but at least people caught on quickly and stopped believing anything he said. If he had a problem with someone he would complain to the person but told them that other people were coming to him with the issue. It was total bs and usually hilarious and ridiculously transparent. He told one of my coworkers that no one liked him because he refused to “fist bump” with them. When in reality, it drove him crazy that this guy was not a “rah-rah” cheerleader type of personality and he didn’t have the nerve to tell him. But he got fired and his replacement started Monday and she seems awesome so far!

    1. TL -*

      My boss tends to say “multiple people” when really he means one person, whom is he particularly fond of, has complained one time and thus it is a big issue.

      (about really minor stuff – or better yet, stuff that I told complainer was not something I did… sigh.)

      1. Lily in NYC*

        No, thank goodness! And even better, no more having to see him constantly adjust his manly bits. It was so gross. I admit to fist-bumping with him twice. I felt like such a tool.

  7. hbc*

    If you really think this is all Ann and have every reason to believe that Monica is interpreting and reporting correctly, I don’t think you’ll get any headway bringing this up to Ann. I work with someone like this, and she interprets things in the most negative way possible, and then it’s like her brain changes the memory of events to better match the negative spin. Example: her supervisor said, “Everyone here works hard. Jane works hard, Wakeen works hard, Fergus works hard, I know….” The fact that she wasn’t named explicitly got turned into an insult of her work ethic. (The supervisor was even naming down the row in order, obviously no significance in the names chosen.) Then she slept on it and decided that insulting her work ethic was insulting her as a person, and she came back in saying, “He called me a bad person!” And she fully believed it.

    So if Ann is like this, she believes that you have been complaining, and any attempt to counter that with her will either have her thinking that a) you got bullied by Monica into a false retraction or b) you’re lying in an attempt to make her look bad.

    1. OP*

      I think Monica’s take may have been colored by her own feelings, but the experience that I’ve had with Ann (and others on our team have had with her) is that she does take things very personally, which is one worry I have about talking to her about it.

  8. CaliCali*

    So there are two problems here, even though you’re really asking about a third issue:

    1) You have a Jeckyl and Hyde boss, whose unpredictable whims set everyone on edge
    2) You have a coworker and friend, Monica, who is slow and everyone needs to work around her

    As to 1, having worked for two of these sorts of bosses — there’s no way to set reasonable expectations for unreasonable people. You can explain, document, be coolly logical or vehemently emotional, and it will not matter. You can try and clear the air, but people who use emotional manipulation as a management tactic often aren’t interested in honesty and integrity.

    As to 2, unless there’s an external reason for Monica’s difficulty with completing things in a timely way (illness, family troubles, etc.), I fully believe that while YOU may not be frustrated by her lack of punctuality, others on the team may very well be, and may have voiced their dissatisfaction to the boss (or just in passing, to each other). If you’re work friends, you may not be hearing about it. Your boss could have used your name, but maybe it’s just the name the boss believed would have the most impact (see point 1) due to your friendship.

  9. Temperance*

    I don’t completely understand – it sounds like Monica really sucks at her job and makes life difficult for you. I realize that I’m probably a huge jerk, but I would have taken the opportunity to tell her that yes, she makes me life harder because she can’t meet a deadline.

  10. OP*

    Hi, this is the original question-asker. To follow up on what’s happened since I wrote in, I checked in with Monica again and explained what several people above have pointed out– that my saying “This is my part of the project, with filler content” may have been mistaken as complaining. I do use a neutral tone when it’s something that I have to say, and Monica’s aware that we do call it out when we need to.
    Even though Monica can be difficult to work with, she’s a valuable member of the team– she has a lot of knowledge and just needs to be managed better.
    But, ultimately, Monica is going to give her two weeks notice. Our manager Ann has been increasingly volatile (even more than before I asked for this advice!) and a lot of it is still focused on Monica. Honestly, I’m not sure how much longer many other members of the team will remain at this company because of Ann’s Jekyll and Hyde personality.

    1. Biff*

      I wonder if Monica is slow because she is stressed. I know that when my plate gets overfull or I feel fear, I become morbidly slow.

      1. AMG*

        Same. Sounds like Monica will better off. I just hope none of you replace her as Favorite Target.

  11. Whyblue*

    Once upon a time, I worked on a small team with one coworker and a Jekyll and Hyde supervisor. Coworker and I got along great; divvied up the tasks so that each of us could focus on what they liked to do and still learn some of the other’s skills. So I was shocked when Supervisor told me at review time that Coworker had complained about me. Allegedly, I dumped all the unpleasant tasks on Coworker and didn’t pull my own weight. Received terrible scores on “teamwork”. When I finally got up the courage to ask Coworker about it, his jaw hit the floor. Turns out that Supervisor had spent half of his review time lecturing him that he shouldn’t “help” me so much and should let me “eat the sh$t”. Coworker and I had just figured out that it was most efficient to let the data guy crunch data and the admin lady handle the customers. Apparently Supervisor didn’t like efficiency. Turns out he felt rather threatened that between the two of us, we could replace him, since he kept getting into trouble with the owner of the company. Coworker finally quit, I got kicked out and moved to a different team when I couldn’t take Supervisor’s gaslighting tactics anymore. Best thing that ever happened to me. Still friends with Coworker, too. Supervisor is still in his old role and has since driven away a number of other employees.

  12. Mean Something*

    So I think this might be my first January reading AAM regularly, and I’m wondering–do the petty interpersonal squabbles peak in the questions here in January and February, as they seem to in the rest of the world? :-)

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