update: my colleague won’t stop trash-talking herself

Remember the letter-writer whose coworker kept saying she had no idea how to do her job, and who would  text our letter-writer things like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about” while her boss was talking with her? Here’s the update.

I did take your advice and talk to Hank, my coworker’s boss, and let him know the things my coworker Samantha was saying and doing. He was really confused by it and surprised. But he appreciated that I told him, and agreed that he would make a concentrated effort to make sure his communications with her were clear.

Three weeks or so after that, Samantha and I were working off-site (Hank was not there; he was in another location), and I could hear her complaining to one of her peers about a certain issue. As she was walking out of the other person’s office, I heard her exclaim, “F*ck it, I have no idea, I’ll just throw crap in there and let Hank deal with it.”

So I went over to her office and asked what’s going on. She acted like nothing was wrong, so I said, “Samantha, I heard you talking, I know something is wrong.” She said she didn’t want to talk about it. And I told her that if she’s having issues, if she has questions, etc., I would appreciate if she would bring them directly to Hank, or, in his absence, me. And if I hear her saying things like “F*ck it”, etc., she can bet that I’m going to ask what’s going on because that’s my job. She then burst into tears and ran out of the office.

Because our offices have very thin walls, I figured he’d heard it, so I went to my boss’s office and gave him a rundown of what had been happening. Later that afternoon, he then went to Samantha and tried to talk to her, and got about as far as anyone else does.

Later she was very upset at me for talking to my boss, and in that conversation I told her I had also talked to Hank and Hank was making a effort to change his approach to her, and she was very upset about that as well. I explained that I have a responsibility to Hank to communicate things I know that impact him.

Anyway, nothing has really gotten better, but now that she knows I will tell Hank what she says about him, she has pretty much stop complaining to me. I don’t think she’s any happier at work though.

{ 57 comments… read them below }

  1. Rubyrose*

    Wow. A lot of time and appropriate attention is being spent on this woman, and no change. So sorry. Time for feedback on a performance review about communication skills?

    I was in a bit of a similar situation years ago, where a worker thought he could talk trash about other coworkers and it would not get back to anyone. He was totally unnerved when I spoke to him about it.

    Fortunately for me, he was brand new, still on probation, and his performance was the lowest of low. Yes, he was back on the job market sooner than he had planned.

    1. AMG*

      I second this being discussed as part of the performance evaluation. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them ‘fake it ’til they make it’…isn’t that the analogy? ;)

  2. Arbynka*

    Well, I must say this update is bit depressing. But you know what they say about leading horse to water… OP’s co-worker was given a chance to work on her issues but she chose to be upset. I can understand being upset initially but after that, what a wasted opportunity. But getting rid of negative mindset is not an easy thing and the person in question definitely has to want to do that – and OP’s co-worker clearly is not in that place.

    1. Chickaletta*

      +1. I don’t know what else to say other than maybe this isn’t the job for co-worker. It seems to be beyond her abilities and she’s not willing to work on the challenges it presents for her.

    2. Liz T*

      A lot of these updates are depressing. Most of them are either “nothing has changed” or “nothing has changed—but I got a new job!”

  3. "Computer Science"*

    While it’s disappointing that you weren’t able to improve your coworker’s situation, I think it’s super commendable that you were able to flex some important skills, like communicating and showing leadership during a stressful situation. You’ve done what you can for her, and I really hope she takes you and your boss up on the offer.

  4. Sketchee*

    You’ve handled this amazingly, OP! You’ve done your part and made it clear that you will continue to do so

  5. KMS1025*

    Another emotional vampire at work…keep calling her on her negative stuff and she will change, keep it to herself, or move on to the next unsuspecting workplace…she needs to want to stop with her own internal drama…good for you for trying OP.

    1. eplawyer*

      Yep. She can do the job just fine. She prefers to play the victim. If you call her on it, she goes victim even further and runs out crying. When she found out you weren’t going to feed into her victimhood but actually address it as a work issue, she got upset at her little drama being interrupted.

  6. TootsNYC*

    Someone who works for me is a bit like this. It’s really draining.

    I’m big with the compliments–I give lots of positive feedback, and I’ll even get a little conceited here and say that I do it in a very credible way.

    But she gets off on these “I’m not very good” jags, and it’s really draining.
    Sometimes I just decide I’m not going to bother responding, and let her live with her insecurities, but it’s hard on everyone else to hear it as well.

    So now and then I take her aside and say, “Here is the evidence that your skills are respected here. And I need you to believe that, and more important, to stop announcing that you aren’t. Because it’s hard on other people, and it actively undermines the morale building that I am consciously doing for everyone in the office.”

    She tones it down for a while, but it always comes back. She *is* particularly skilled, so I don’t really want to cut her loose; she’s a freelance worker, so I could, quite easily–but I like having her around except for now and then.

    OP, when you said your colleague was texting you, “I don’t even know what he means,” I was thinking, “Well, if you’d shut up for a minute, and stop focusing on not understanding, you might actually figure it out. If you could get away from that noise in your head, and be open for a moment or two, I bet it would make sense.”
    She’s spending so much energy complaining that she isn’t leaving herself much mental room to actually learn.

    1. MillersSpring*

      “noise in her head” <— exactly right

      This young woman has an anxiety problem that needs medical treatment. She is beset by her own self-doubt, crying, complaining, f–k-it attitude and storming out of rooms. OP should point her to the EAP if they have one.

      1. AcidMeFlux*

        As I once heard someone say….no matter what song is playing, the only note she knows how to sing is “MEMEMEMEMEMEMEEEEEEEE….”

          1. Grapey*

            I totally disagree. I have bad anxiety and impostor syndrome like this and that statement really nails it. I actually laughed and nodded in agreement when I read it. It’s one thing to say it to someone’s face in a sneering tone to put them down (which would actually be terrible), but quite another to use it to describe why there is so much anxiety around ruminating thoughts.

            In fact, I may use it as an example of what I want to overcome at my next therapy session.

        1. Panda Bandit*

          That’s nasty and it’s the least helpful thing you could ever say to someone with anxiety.

            1. Riri*

              I don’t think you are qualified to make that judgement. And nonetheless, the post you replied to was raising the possibility that is is, so your response remains rude and unhelpful.

          1. Grapey*

            I disagree that it is nasty. I have anxiety and am in therapy for it, and it has been difficult to describe what I wanted to achieve until I read that joke. It has inspired me to work towards a healthier mindset AND it made me laugh. People with anxiety aren’t a monolith and can sometimes take a little bit of deprecating humor.

        2. Green*

          This may be a nesting problem, but this comment isn’t really appropriate in response to the one about anxiety.

    2. Lizabeth*

      OMG…you just found a missing piece of the puzzle for someone I have to deal with at work. Thank you for writing this.

    3. neverjaunty*

      “Other than THAT, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

      I mean, I get that this person is talented, but surely you can find a freelancer whose total combination of skills + not screwing up morale + listening to her manager is better than this one? You’ve repeatedly told her to cut it out, and she does for a while, and then drifts back into it.

  7. LawBee*

    Ugh. Oh, Samantha. I say well-done OP, and keep on keeping on. You’ve informed your boss and her boss also knows, so it’s out of your hands now. Let her suck someone else’s energy.

  8. Blurgle*

    All through this I kept wondering when one of you would twig onto the fact that Samantha isn’t trash-talking herself, she’s trash-talking Hank. She’s adversarial and passive-aggressive.

    1. Blurgle*

      Just to add: I say this because she’s not actually calling herself stupid. She’s moaning that Hank is incomprehensible. It’s all about how Hank makes no sense.

      1. AcidMeFlux*

        Yes. I especially enjoyed “I’ll just throw crap in there and let Hank deal with it.”

        1. Blurgle*

          “He isn’t making any sense. I’ll just guess and see if I got it right. What an idiot.”

        2. hbc*

          Yep, anything like “I don’t understand what he’s saying” is a toss-up as to whether she’s down on herself for not getting it or down on Hank for being an incoherent rambler. That line was where she went to “it’s him, he sucks” or at least decided she was tired of dealing with her own feelings of inadequacy and would make them someone else’s problem.

  9. drivesmenuts*

    My new coworker is exactly like Samantha. I am pretty sure she acts like this to get attention. It must feel nice to whine about your worthlessness and have the people around you say how awesome you are and that you really are great. I have gotten tired of her constant self-berating so now I tell her she needs to discuss this issue with our boss. She’s terrified of him, so she won’t say anything. This is another one of her attention getting techniques. She tells everyone about what a hard-ass our boss is so she can get sympathy. He’s actually pretty cool so I know she’s just looking for attention. I also just agree with her self-insults and that shuts her up too. It’s mean but effective.

    1. Eta*

      I’m not going to disagree that there are people out there who complain about their worthlessness to get attention, but there are other people (like me) who get so overwhelmed by anxiety and bad thoughts that we have to voice the thoughts and have someone tell us we’re wrong and we’re not worthless because we start going nuts believing the bad thoughts are true.

      1. hbc*

        But I would say it’s still an accurate description of the anxious behavior, no? “Attention” = “positive feedback”. It’s probably a matter of whether we generally like the other person (or it’s us) that determines whether we put that sympathetic spin on it.

        So while I might remind drivesmenuts that the demand for compliments and affirmation comes from a sad (rather than aggressive) place, I’d tell Samantha and the coworker that it’s not their colleagues’ jobs to solve their anxiety issues, on company time no less. You either pick a job you can do in your sleep or you come up with anxiety-management techniques that don’t involve bad-mouthing your boss or taking regular time from your coworkers. Or at least give your coworkers a heads-up that you’re aware how you’re coming off–self-awareness goes a long way to getting sympathy.

      2. Sarahnova*

        I sympathise with the driving impulse, but getting other people to take the burden of managing your anxiety by reassuring you is not a workable solution, and an unfair burden. You need to find another way to cope at work.

      3. neverjaunty*

        But venting randomly to co-workers isn’t the best way to manage that anxiety. If you’re concerned you’re screwing up or worthless, why not schedule a check-in with your manager to go over your performance? Your manager telling you in concrete terms that you are doing fine on X, or helping you if you’re struggling with Y, is a good way to address issues that are the source of real anxiety. If it’s unrealistic anxiety and feelings of worthlessness, then you can’t really expect your co-workers to fix that by replying to self-harming statements.

    2. Former Retail Manager*

      YES! I feel like these people are the same as the “I’m so fat, I’m so ugly, I’m so broke (when I drive a brand new BMW)” people. It tends to be an attention seeking behavior where they want people to compliment them and boost their ego. Perhaps they really are insecure or anxious but I DON’T CARE and it isn’t my job to constantly reassure you about your job performance, weight, appearance, or financial situation. I have encountered a couple of people over the years who I personally believe did have some deep seated issues leading to feelings of inadequacy, both professionally and personally, and it’s pretty easy to suss out those people compared to the attention seekers. While I felt for them, and tried to be supportive, most co-workers simply cannot offer the type of support that people in those situations need which is CONSTANT reassurance. It’s simply exhausting to be around them. And it also seems to become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the ones that are legit and not attention seekers. The two that I recall ultimately left their positions after a relatively short time.

  10. voyager1*

    I worked with a Samantha, honestly the job was more then she could handle and the manager let it go. Well when the manager left and the team got a new one, “Samantha” was gone a few months later.

    Sometimes people are not willing to admit when they are truly in over their heads and actually do something about it.

  11. Not So NewReader*

    “What steps have you taken so far to deal with [current upset]?”

    That usually annoys the heck out of people like this.

    It is attention seeking in a way, but it can also go into heath issues, because no one can go around that upset all the time and remain in good health- I’d expect to see on-going stomach aches, head aches and so on.

    It looks to me like no one ever showed her how to keep a job and what goes into being professional. I think that at least 50% of the people out there go through their workday saying “oh, crap” to themselves at least every half hour all day long. It can be very helpful to think about this point, a lot of people put everything they have into their jobs just to get through their day.

    You know what might be interesting to do some time is a thread on “what does a bad day at work look for you or someone you know?”

    1. Shell*

      I think that at least 50% of the people out there go through their workday saying “oh, crap” to themselves at least every half hour all day long.

      Really? That’s a relief. I’d definitely count myself among that number, though I do have a bad habit of talking to myself so sometimes my cubicle-mates would hear me mutter “oh crap” or “F me” here and there, but I had no idea most people operated this way. (I don’t think even I’m saying this every half hour, but maybe you’re exaggerating for effect here…)

    2. Julie Noted*

      I started a new job last month. Manager in a big government department with a high-profile program. Not my first managerial gig, but my first job in this particular field (I did a lateral move from another portfolio).

      I’m really enjoying the challenge of such a steep learning curve, but every day I feel like CJ in The West Wing when (spoiler) she became Chief of Staff. I have a little notepad of things I need to learn more about, and it’s basically everything :)

      1. AnonyMouse*

        This has nothing to do with the original post but I had to comment when I saw the WW reference. Love the show and have watched the whole thing several times so I knew immediately the scene you were referring to!

        (The entire series streams on Netflix for those who haven’t caught up.)

    3. Anon Accountant*

      What steps have you taken to deal with “issue” is awesome way to get someone to concentrate on solutions. I love when this is used and gets the other person to realize they may know more about solving the issue than they realize.

    4. Blurgle*

      Thing is, you have to be careful. “What steps have you taken” can come across as “it’s all your fault, you idiot” or even “liar liar” when the issue isn’t self-created.

      1. fposte*

        If you say it nastily, sure. But the idea is to find out how far along the person is toward a solution, not whether the person was responsible for the situation in the first place; if somebody takes the question amiss when it’s asked normally, that’s a warning sign about that person.

    5. Anonsie*

      “What steps have you taken” has to be used correctly, I would caution– when implemented poorly, it sounds like a dig meaning either “you created this problem” or “you could solve this problem if you wanted to but you don’t want to, you just want to complain.” Which may very well be the case (especially here) but if someone is busting their hump trying to make something work and you apply this question improperly, it feels like an invalidation of the whole issue and is very frustrating. This is one of those things that’s very useful but has to be delivered just right.

      You know what might be interesting to do some time is a thread on “what does a bad day at work look for you or someone you know?”

      I would looove to read that!

  12. The Other Dawn*

    I don’t even know what to say about this update. Perhaps it’s time for a performance review and a PIP. This employee is just very unprofessional and a drama queen. I’d be finding a way to manage her out.

  13. Accountant*

    This letter was a bit of a wakeup call to me in terms of thinking about how I talk out loud about my own insecurities, and how I really need to stop. It’s one thing to ask a question when you’re unsure on something, and its another to say something negative about yourself all the time. I don’t think that was entirely the issue with “Samantha”, but just a good reminder…

  14. mander*

    Wow, there has to be something going on in her personal life that is causing her stress. I know I’ve acted like this when I was in the middle of a major depressive episode and struggling with some other issues (all exacerbated by a lack of access to any kind of health care).

    I hope she gets some kind of resolution.

  15. KR*

    I have seen that where people get really hard headed that they aren’t good at something and its almost like they’re determined not to make it work and try and fix it. You told her Hank was actively trying to help her and make his instructions more clear and it made her even more upset (when i)I personally would be greatful that a manager was ignoring my rude behavior). It’s almost like she’s thrown in the towel, has made up her mind that this is confusing work and does not want to get any better.

  16. Afiendishthingy*

    Think you’ve done all you can on this one, OP. I’m honestly a little surprised Samantha hasn’t left voluntarily yet. Doesn’t sound like this job is the right place for her right now.

  17. Jessen*

    Just a note – your ads (the ones between the article and the comments) are making noise again.

    1. Lady H*

      I believe that in order to fix it, Alison needs to know the URL the ad points to so she can report it. :(

  18. OriginalEmma*

    I had an Eeyore for a friend, which is who OP’s coworker is. It was demoralizing to be his friend for a bit because, for example, you praised his amazing photography skills (and they were wonderful!) but you’d get a “meh, I’m not very good” for your efforts. Thankfully he grew out of it and now sheepishly accepts praise for his talents but it took time.

  19. Anonsie*

    The fact that she does this but her work is high quality makes me think she may have some other things going on outside work that are sponging away her patience and energy here. Like she’s using all her capacity to perform on her actual work and is running on fumes for dealing with everything else. I’ve definitely been there (though with no running away in tears, admittedly) and this sounds awfully familiar.

    I know “refer to the EAP” is the way to go on this but during my running on fumes period I tried calling our EAP, which has free brief access to counselors by phone and referrals to see someone in person, on a particularly bad day. The counselor was garbage and made me feel way worse, and I really deeply regretted calling because I was even more thrown off for the rest of the day than I already was. I’m always kind of curious what other companies’ EAPs do, because ours can help you find referrals for services like attorneys and elder care (sometimes with a discount) and apparently hook you up with the world’s worst counselors, but for most normal life issues it’s not like they can just fix it for you or handle something for you that you need help with. They can’t make your divorce easier or your sick relative well again, you know? Shit is hard and distracting sometimes in ways no one else can help.

  20. BeetsBearsBattlestargallactica*

    I have a completely different theory on this.
    I too, struggle from imposter syndrome and severe anxiety. I was Samantha in my current job. My boss recommended the book Presence by Amy Cuddy to me. That helped me to understand what was going on. Then I had a conversation with my talented aunt who is a very big deal in her company and has lots of experience mentoring people. I am a very emotional and insightful person by nature and she knows this. She worked with someone similar to me and suggested that the issue is actually a processing one. I know, for sure, that I am a slower processor than most but none the less very intelligent. I just need time to gather and organize my thoughts about a problem. When a boss is coming to me asking me to do a more complex task, immediately my anxiety flares up – “what are you talking about? I don’t know how to do this” – because I haven’t had time to organize my thoughts and tell myself I’m very educated and skilled in my field. But what I learned from my aunt is that not only do I need to work on changing the tapes in my head about what I tell myself, I need give or take five minutes to collect myself and then I can whip out an innovative and intelligent response.

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