my employees are afraid they’ll be ostracized after they’re promoted

A reader writes:

I manage a public service department in a public library and have for the past three years. Most of my employees are older than me and have worked together for 15+ years. I have heard on multiple occasions that I am the same age as their children, which is always a fun thing to hear as a new manager. My staff respects me and I deal with challenges as they come up. However, I have recently been tackling some more personal issues between the staff and I’m not sure how to proceed.

A lot has changed about the way we provide service in libraries, and recently we have seen several employees really step up to the plate. I have gained approval to promote these people to either supervisory or full-time positions and I’m thrilled for the library, employees, and ultimately the positive impact these promotions will have for our community. But the two people who I am promoting are terrified of what their coworkers will think when they find out about the promotions. There’s a lot of competitiveness in the department right now and more than a bit of “Why her and not me?” type stuff. I try to deal with it when I hear about it but most often, I don’t hear about it directly. Other staff members tell me but don’t want me to bring it up to the offender. I feel like I need to honor that to some degree but I also don’t want people to be freaked out every time we reward them for hard work!

I’m not quite sure how to move forward. I would like people to be happy for their coworkers because they have worked very hard and earned these promotions. But right now, I have two people who are worried about even announcing the promotions because they don’t want to be ostracized. Any advice?

Well, it’s possible that the two people who are worried about what their coworkers will think about their promotions are overreacting. If it’s a close group, sometimes people do feel weird about being pulled out of a peer group, even when it’s for something good. So if you’re not otherwise seeing many signs of unhealthy competition, and you know these two people to be particularly sensitive to how others might perceive them, it’s possible this isn’t a huge problem that requires much action from you.

But if you’re seeing signs of unhealthy competitiveness yourself, here are some things to try (and conveniently, these are all worth doing anyway, so it’s not like these will steer you wrong if you’ve misread the situation):

1. Transparency. The clearer and more transparent you can be about how you make these sorts of decisions, the better. (Not just with promotions, but anything that might inspire jealousy or competitiveness — project assignments, professional development opportunities, or whatever it might be.) If people understand the factors that go into these decisions, they’re more likely to respond the way you hope they will. In this case, that means that when you announce the promotions, you should make a point of talking about what these employees did that helped earn them.

2. Talk to people one-on-one too. If people are jealous because they want an opportunity or recognition that someone else got, talk with them about what they can do to position themselves as a strong candidate for those things in the future. If you lay out a clear path — and where relevant, explain the gap between where they are now and where they’d need to be to get the things they want — they’re more likely to focus on that (or to realize they don’t want to do those things) than on competing with their coworkers.

3. Coach the people who you’re promoting about how to deal with jealousy or other weirdness. That’s especially important if they’re moving into management positions, where they’ll need to be equipped to deal forthrightly with problematic behavior. Or, if it’s less about outright bad behavior and more about “we used to be friends and now it doesn’t feel like we are” — well, as tough as that transition can be, it can be a pretty normal part of managing. It might be helpful for them to hear that, so that they know this isn’t something about them, but rather the nature of moving into a position of authority over people who used to be peers. If you can help them realize that’s often a normal part of moving up, that might be all they need to be more okay with it.


4. If you hear about people responding inappropriately, don’t let it fester. You don’t need to respond to every “why her and not me?” remark that you hear about secondhand, but if people actually ostracize their promoted coworkers or otherwise behave rudely or hostilely, you’ve got to take that on directly. It’s entirely reasonable to say, “I need you to be pleasant and civil to everyone here” and then hold people to that.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 59 comments… read them below }

  1. Cafe au Lait*

    Fellow library worker here, and Alison’s first point I think is the most important: be transparent. There is a lot of competativeness in library-land currently. The job market is shrinking, there’s a glut of new grads and we’re moving further away from the “traditional” set-up of checking out books. Now libraries are community centers that offer access to technology. Librarians and Circ staffs not only need to know how to check out material, but are often asked how to navigate technology they might never have laid hands on. Having people step up to the plate that are willing to take on those challenges are amazing.

    Right, you already know all that. Being transparent will not only tell the rest of your staff WHY you choose to promote Sally and Jane over Bob and Richard, but HOW Bob, Richard, Meghan and Elizabeth can improve their skill set.

  2. TootsNYC*

    Also–you may hear about a problematic behavior from an eyewitness or from the target. And not see it yourself. That’s the nature of some of this; kids play nice in front of the teacher, but when she leaves the playground, that’s when they do the mean stuff.

    You can still act. Of course you don’t want to rat out who told you.
    And you might not want to make it anything other than a warning.

    But you can say, “I have something I need to pass on to you. It doesn’t require a response, but it’s something I need to be sure you’ve been told, and you’ve heard; it’s only fair to you. I have heard that you have been treating one of your colleagues badly. I’m not making this a job-performance issue. But I wanted to alert you to these things:
    “First, if you don’t intend to be unprofessional and mean, you should be aware that this is how you’re coming across, and do something to create a more accurate reputation.
    “Second, if you are unhappy with something here, I would like the opportunity to hear about it, so I can address it. Either by providing you with ways to make your job more enjoyable, or to explain what’s going on, or to mediate any genuine problems that might have led to this situation.
    “Third, if you are indulging in some petty meanness, you need to stop, because that WOULD be a job-performance issue. I have always thought well of you, and I would hate to discover that these accusations have some basis in fact.”

    1. Artemesia*

      I really like this. It is easy as a boss to let this slide because ‘I didn’t see it’ or ‘they will get over it’ but it is easier to respond quickly and head it off than deal with full blown disaster. It is sort of natural to have one’s nose out of joint when a peer is promoted and a little grumbling is common and not necessarily a big deal, but letting such a person know that this unprofessional and (yes) ‘mean’ behavior is inappropriate and won’t be tolerated can stop it before it creates a very bad vibe in the workspace.

    2. ThursdaysGeek*

      “Fourth, if this whole conversation appears to be coming out of left field, and you have no idea what I’m talking about, know that I realize not everything I hear is truth, and I’ll always investigate something before taking any disciplinary action.”

    3. Ultraviolet*

      I’m trying to imagine being the employee hearing this, and I think I’d find it pretty frustrating that you never ask me directly what’s going on and aren’t even specifying what I did wrong. I’m guessing you expect that an employee who did want to explain something would follow up with that explanation when you’re done speaking, but I feel like it sends a strong negative message to deliver points 1-3 without even asking for an explanation.

      I’d also be confused and frustrated by “I’m not making this a job performance issue” and “it doesn’t require a response” when I’ve also been given an action item (“do something” to change your reputation).

      And this might be placing more importance on one word than you intended, but if you don’t think the reputation we’re talking about is “accurate” then it’s extremely frustrating that I’m in trouble for having it!

      Ultimately, I think you need to wait on the conversation until you have enough info to say something more specific than “treating a colleague badly” and “do something to change your reputation.”

      1. MayravB*

        Yeah, imagining myself hearing it as an employee, and I like that it’s giving the benefit of the doubt, but I would feel horribly anxious if someone dropped that in my lap without specifying what I did wrong and what I might need to fix (i.e. “I’ve heard that you’ve been saying bad things about Jane since she got promoted.” instead of “treating a colleague badly.”)

    4. Library Manager From Post*

      I’m really responding well to the wording of this and thank you SO MUCH for answering. I’m just getting to the point where I’m realizing that people are almost always going to be on their best behavior when I’m around. I like how this gives the person the benefit of the doubt – that they’re not purposefully being mean but possibly not realizing how they’re coming off to their co-workers.

      1. Ultraviolet*

        There are definitely a few posts in the archives here that touch on having to deal with employees’ problematic behavior when you haven’t witnessed it. I’m not sure what the best way to search for them is though.

        1. Library Manager From Post*

          Hey, I’m a librarian. I should be able to track that down! It’s good to know there’s more on the topic.

            1. Library Manager From Post*

              Awesome, thanks Alison! I also just got a copy of your book. SUPER excited to dig into it!

          1. Ultraviolet*

            Haha, I totally forgot that finding those things would be in your wheelhouse!

  3. LQ*

    Is it just one or two people who will they are concerned will be the ostracizers? Or the whole group?

    I think if you’ve got a good group of people then the fear of the whole group might be bigger than the reality. Especially if you focus in on 1 and 2. I was really a bit worried about this (in part because there isn’t enough transparency or one on one coaching on how to get better…well there might be, but I never got it, I always have been told I’m doing well, I’m not sure if there is a problem how that is handled) when I was promoted last year. But even the people who have been here for much longer than I have were all very gracious about it.

    The problem is one person who is bitter, oh so very bitter about it. For the most part I’ve been able to manage that relationship though a lot of work on my part at the start and in occasional bursts when it is needed. It isn’t my fault that she hasn’t done the things I’ve done. She has absolutely had all the same opportunities, she has the “sexier” project on the big scale but hasn’t worked with it or developed it. She doesn’t cultivate relationships. None of those things are my fault. Recognizing that has been extremely helpful for me to not feel bad about her being bitter in my direction occasionally.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Is it just one or two people who will they are concerned will be the ostracizers? Or the whole group?

      This is a really good question. I can think of a bunch of times recently when I’ve been coaching a manager about a problem they’ve described happening on their whole team, and when I say, “Is it everyone or just a few people?” it turns out that it’s one to two people … which is a really different thing than the whole group, and requires a different sort of response.

      It’s interesting how that can turn into “the whole group” in people’s minds when they talk about it.

      1. LQ*

        And if it is only one or two people helping the to be promoted staff identify that might make them a lot more comfortable in the promotion. Because handling one or two when everyone else is fine with it or happy for you? That’s not bad.

    2. Library Manager From Post*

      Hello! I am the person who asked this question! With a bit of digging, I’ve found out that people are really only concerned about 2 people specifically, sometimes a third. So while I’m really focusing on the transparency part of this, the advice I’m really interested in taking is #3 (coaching) and #4 (dealing with the few people).

      Thank you so much for responding!!

  4. Marian*

    Also in a library (though a University one). The pressures on the sector right now are immense and I think a lot of people who thought they knew what their job entailed are uncomfortable and sometimes resentful of how everything is working out. I would third the transparency suggestion and, if it seems like some people are making it a habit to make these remarks constantly over a long period of time, also call out that behaviour. I have seen teams go sour because a core group gets in this habit of reacting negatively and drags the rest of the team down. Good luck and well done to get the hard work of your team recognised!

    1. bridget*

      Between your username and identified profession, I’m going to have The Music Man stuck in my head alllllll day ;)

      1. starsaphire*

        How can I learn
        To live
        With that
        I blame you sadly, sadly, Madam Librarian…

        (Just helpin!) ;)

    2. AMT*

      What makes library culture so damned Machiavellian? I remember when I was a kid and my mom volunteered at our small-town library. There was an insane amount of drama and scheming among the librarians over the pettiest things.

      1. HumbleOnion*

        Former librarian here. In my experience, which was in academia, librarians & library support staff aren’t very respected by the higher up administration. Libraries don’t make money, and in fact, cost institutions loads of money annually. They’re a popular target for budget cuts, because everything’s in the internet nowadays, right?

        So librarians are very frustrated. And, in my experience, will fight tooth & nail over very petty things in an attempt to get recognition from higher ups. Good people (like me!) don’t want to work in that kind of culture, so we leave. The people left behind will get Peter Principled into leadership jobs. The pettiness trickles down, because people aren’t given a model of good behavior.

        I’m sure it’s not the same everywhere, but I had 3 jobs where I saw this nonsense. I’m much happier as a former librarian.

        1. Carin*

          There is an adage that campus politics are so nasty because the stakes are so low. Academia might be less pleasant than public libraries.

        2. R.R.*

          HumbleOnion, if it doesn’t give you away, what field did you move into?? Very curious, as a *current* academic librarian…

          1. HumbleOnion*

            Sorry – just coming back to this! I moved into software development. I was the e-resources librarian & handled the web site. I started in the support department, but I’ve since moved on to being more involved in the development side of things. From my library years, I’m able to speak to both non-tech people and tech people, which was a skill that translated well.

            1. R.R.*

              Thanks so much! Very interesting. I don’t (yet) have the skill-set to be an e-res. or systems librarian, let alone a software developer, but who knows what the future holds. Best wishes to you!

        3. Curiouser and curiouser*

          I, too, am curious what field you moved to, HumbleOnion. Another academic librarian, looking to keep my options open.

        4. DeadQuoteOlympics*

          It’s not just higher ups. Depending on the institution, faculty can be very condescending to librarians — even librarians with faculty status. Librarians with the MLS (as opposed to library staff) on campus can feel a bit like governesses and tutors in Regency and Victorian England — somewhat out of place in the status hierarchies on campus. This can make status competition ferocious within the library. I once worked in a college that had faculty librarians, administrative librarians (those of us with MLS degrees but no instruction duties), and library staff. One of the faculty librarians insisted on having “Professional Librarian” under her name on her office plaque. We used to joke about all of us Unprofessional Librarians across the way in access and technical services.

          1. DeadQuoteOlympics*

            Just want to add that there is a lot of unnecessary unpleasantness in the profession between MLS holders and non-degree holders and it can really affect the culture of the organization. One of the best places I worked had very little of that antagonistic culture — it had other problems (they could have medaled in the Olympics in Passive Aggressive Consensus Foot Dragging) but there was very little of that other nonsense. And the attitude can come from either side — “you can’t do this because you don’t have the degree” and “the only reason she gets opportunities/respect is because she has the degree and I don’t.”

            1. Dust Bunny*

              There can also be a lot of unpleasantness between older MLIS holders and newer ones. (I’m a non-degreed historical archive employee; my superiors have MLIS’s and are Certified Archivists.) Because of the tight job market for MLIS’s, there is very much an attitude that newer degrees have to put in their time volunteering and patching together livings through part-time work before they “deserve” a full-time position. One of the reasons I didn’t go back for an MLIS is that I’m almost better off as an assistant than trying to get a job as an actual archivist with student debt.

      2. Library Manager From Post*

        I actually think my issue is very different from the one described by HumbleOnion. We have a great budget and have been extremely fortunate to not be hit hard with cuts. We are extremely lucky in that regard.

        A lot of libraries have had a lot of staff that have worked together for many years, blurring the lines between professional and personal. I think this aspect of the profession (i.e. someone working in the same place and the same role for 15+ years) leads to the kind of infighting and petty bickering that is often reserved for family. But as a younger manager and someone who has never worked in the same full-time position for more than 3 years, I have a hard time relating to that experience, although I try to keep it in mind. I do think that emotional distance can help me deal with challenging situations but is also makes stuff like what I described above difficult to understand or relate to.

    3. Another librarian*

      Yup. I am not quite in the same situation because I was hired from the outside as full-time, but I then found myself working alongside enormously overqualified part-time, no-benefits library clerks who had applied for my position. It’s so much fun, especially when lunchtime conversation (repeatedly) turns to how no one in this region respects local grads (I moved here for the job), how Clerk X can’t afford to do things because she doesn’t have a real job, and how disappointed she is in how her life turned out.

      I mean, I sympathize because the library job market SUCKS, but it’s wearing me down. But there’s really nothing a manager can do in a situation where there’s no active sabotage or personal insults.

  5. Jax*

    Former public library worker (current academic library)- Are you promoting them just outright, or was there an internal job posting and a chance for everyone to make a case for themselves? It is a lot harder to argue with “this is the best candidate” and also gives the people who are unhappy about the promotions something to work towards instead of trying to make it something personal.

    1. Meg Murry*

      Yes, I wondered about this as well. I think there is a big difference between a promotion (moving someone from Teapot Maker I to Teapot Maker II) or formalizing a position (Jane has already been acting as team leader, so now we’re going to formalize that with a promotion and a title bump) and moving people into new positions like supervisor or from part-time to full time without them having been made public. I’m not saying you should hold sham interviews if you already know for a fact that Jane and Sue are the people who would get the job – but that would be something to think about in the future.

      Also, is one of the people worrying about ostracizing going to be a supervisor, and are they worried about how their new team is going to react to them? Are you sure this promotion to supervisor is something the person actually wants? While having some apprehensions about becoming a manager is ok, moving someone to a supervisory position that doesn’t have it in them to be a manager and deal with difficult employees and difficult conversations could be disastrous. Can you talk to this employee more and see whether it’s just a case of nervousness/imposter syndrome, or whether they really don’t want to be a supervisor over their former peers?

      1. Library Manager From Post*

        Yes, one of the people worrying is moving into a more formalized supervisor role. She definitely wants to move in this direction, particularly since she has been informally supervising and leading our team in many ways without the pay or benefits that come with that! I do think a lot of boils down to transition from their peer to their supervisor. I signed her up for training on making that move, which should help. But I’m really taking the advice of transparency and coaching the employee to heart. I’m hoping that will help a great deal!

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          And send her to this site as another place to learn how to be a better manager. I wish I’d had some guidance when I went from being a peer and friend to being a supervisor.

    2. Also a librarian*

      YES. Making the promotion process transparent goes a long way to gain trust (and making the process more standardized can help stave off this issue in the future). My current organization got a fantastic new head a little over a year ago, and after some drama during the past few years over hiring decisions, her making the process transparent and standardized has done so much to build trust in our workplace.

    3. Library Manager From Post*

      Good question! One person has been informally acting as a supervisor for nearly two years now. We’re finally making her full-time and officially giving her supervisory status. The other person is being promoted to full-time from benefitted part-time status.

      1. Ultraviolet*

        Does official supervisory status mean that this employee will be the manager of the people she’s worrying will ostracize her? (As in, they report directly to her and she has the ability to fire them?) If so, and if any ostracizing occurs, it’s probably she who should talk to the offenders rather than you doing it on her behalf. Though you can definitely coach her on it!

  6. A Bug!*

    “Why her and not me?”

    Where there isn’t a fairly clear case of unsupported favouritism, the inherent negativity of that question is an answer in itself. You’re not getting rewarded because your attitude sucks and it’s probably coming through in the quality of your work!

    “Teacher’s pet” grumbling is toxic to a workplace environment. If employees don’t see this kind of sentiment addressed in a meaningful way, it can have the effect of driving good employees away, or causing them to underperform to avoid attracting resentment from their coworkers. (Or even worse, develop the same negativity themselves!)

    1. Library Manager From Post*

      That’s a HUGE concern for me. I really like the way an above commenter spoke about talking to those people directly.

  7. Emily Lemily*

    I am also a librarian, and read this less as an issue of jealousy and more of an issue of something many libraries experience–a “toxic middle.” There is a culture that is not universal but is in many public libraries among paraprofessionals (especially paras of 15+ years who have all worked together) to be overly resistant to change, outright critical of librarians that supervise them, and damaging to attempts by library management to bring the library into the 21st century. The combination of new programming/concepts + promoting employees that have embraced those concepts might be cuing some grumbling from staff that are resentful of these changes anyway. I agree with Alison’s last point to take people on directly–if they’ve been grumbling for a long time, this might be the first time their attitudes are addressed and it will be difficult, but it’s actually way less stressful to be direct than it is to be vague, hope they get it, and be frustrated all the time.

    1. quiet academic librarian*

      Yes yes yes. “Toxic middle” is what I was thinking of, but the term wasn’t coming to me. I see this at my (academic) library and not at all just among paraprofessionals. I was also thinking “tall poppy syndrome.” Direct and transparent are probably the ways to go.

    2. Library Manager From Post*

      Thank you for your support and answer! That last piece of advice about tackling the dissenters directly is something I’m really responding to and planning on tackling. I really feel like I just needed someone to tell me it’s okay to deal with it! (weird but true…)

      1. Your Weird Uncle*

        And, speaking as someone who came from an academic library with a toxic middle culture deeply, deeply ingrained in it, I want to thank you for addressing the issues with your own staff!

        Unfortunately at my last job, the managers were *great* at their own roles, not so much at managing, and let problems (poor attitudes, dissent, and even downright abuse) fester because they weren’t equipped at tackling the issues.

        It sounds like you are already doing a great job, and I wish you well with this particular challenge!

        1. Library Manager From Post*

          Hey, thanks! In libraries is so common for “good librarians” to be promoted and end up as terrible managers. I’m trying so hard not to fall into that category! I feel very passionate about the need for strong leadership in libraries. It’s vital to our role for the communities we serve!

          1. Sparrow*

            Kudos for being conscious of this! As a grad student, I worked part-time as an archive tech, and the place was a toxic disaster for exactly this reason. If the bosses had the kind of self-awareness that you have, I think things would’ve been much better (and they would’ve been able to retain the good employees, who all got the hell out as soon as they could!)

      2. Emily Lemily*

        Trust me, the fact that you’re even thinking about this puts you far, far ahead of so many managers in every industry. :)

        And for what it’s worth, I work as a solo librarian partially because I do not cope well with doing every little thing by committee and receiving grousing anyway. So you have my respect and admiration for heading up a traditional library department, as well as my well wishes.

    3. Tired Librarian*

      De-lurking for this. I think a lot of this attitudes comes from how paras are treated. They frequently have the same responsibilities as entry level librarians (often more for the long term paras) but none of the pay or respect because they don’t have the degree. Having a library degree doesn’t necessarily mean you should be in charge of anyone, but frequently that’s the only criteria that counts.

      I’ve also noticed that a lack of outreach to staff is a frequent issue. Librarians talk among themselves about how awesome Project X is, and then get mad when the people tasked with implementing it want to point out the flaws.

      1. Library Manager From Post*

        This is such a good point and exactly one of the reasons I fought hard for two years to get one of my employees promoted!! She works so hard and while she doesn’t have a Master’s degree, she is extremely valuable to the organization and a strong leader. I’m thrilled to be able to promote her and now I have the tools for dealing with the possible negativity from the “toxic middle”! That’s a fantastic phrase, btw.

  8. Bob*

    Transparency really is key here. I’ve seen one nightmare situation which was really caused by poor management and a sneaky-employee.

    Long story (kinda) short, there was a massive project that had been going extremely poorly. During this time, there was a key-position that was most likely to open-up because the new employee they had brought in wasn’t performing. There were only two internal employees who were obvious choices to fill the position and it was pretty well known that they were both interested should the opportunity come up. One of those employees had gotten so fed up with how the project had been going that he threatened to leave. Management basically threw the position at the guy at him, and the other one got completely screwed over. The second guy clued in EXTREMELY QUICKLY to what happened and the relationship between the two soured over night. That was about 6 months ago and I don’t think I’ve heard them exchange more than 10 words total since then… I’ll be shocked if the second guy is around for much longer.

    The lesson here?? DON’T PLAY GAMES WHEN IT COMES TO INTERNAL PROMOTIONS!!! Keep the process fair and transparent and everyone will continue to get along. Play games and you’re just asking for a disaster.

  9. Library Manager From Post*

    Hello everyone! I just want to say thank you so much for all the support and information. And thank you to Alison for answering my question. I can’t tell you how helpful this is for me, especially as a new manager who doesn’t want to fall into bad but easy habits. I’m learning every day and this has been really encouraging and also given me confidence. This blog/community is such an awesome resource!!

  10. Library Director*

    I’m a library director and also applaud your tackling this issue. I’ve dealt with some of these issues after becoming director and again recently. I asked for a commitment from department heads and actually had someone step down because she didn’t want the responsibilities. I support the recommendation that you received to help the newly promoted people to receive training. I have sent my department heads to one day seminars on basic supervision. Not a library seminar but a business one. I’ll be sending a new department head to a seminar on transitioning from staff to supervisor. I think looking outside of library world we can learn a lot. A major problem I see in library world (and my husband has seen it in nursing world) that often there’s no real mentoring or support for people with new managerial responsibilities. Dynamics change. Many people in library world don’t like change of any kind. I joke that my staff is all OCD and I take full advantage of it. Sometimes after listening to all the concerns about change I have to say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’ I can say that. The new supervisor needs new communication skills.

  11. Aurora Leigh*

    As someone coming from the didn’t get the promotion side, I just want to say that transparency is the biggest thing. In my case that didn’t happen. Office politics was the only reason for the promotion, and while I have no ill will toward the person who got it (we’re still friends) I left that library and lost a lot of respect for my boss. If she has said this is what I’m doing and why, I probably would have stuck around. It is rough to watch someone else get the promotion that means full time hours and health insurance for doing the same job . . .

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