I have to manage the office jerk

A reader writes:

I’ve been at my company for over five years and have been in several different positions, but am just taking on my first supervisory responsibilities. The trouble is that one of my direct reports, Tim, is someone I do not get along with (and that’s an understatement).

We used to work in the same position and were very good friends for a long time, but I ultimately found his friendship incredibly toxic. Based on the intimate knowledge of his life that I acquired when we were friends, I really believe that he needs therapy. When he used to come to me for advice, I suggested this a few times (and explained that I’ve turned to therapy for assistance in the past and found it helpful), but he has refused to seek professional help because he sees himself as a victim in all situations and always believes he is in the right.

To keep things professional and cordial at work, I have maintained a basic, superficial relationship with him since purposely drifting out of our close friendship. I am polite in the office but avoid all personal interactions as much as possible. This has worked surprisingly well – until now.

My new role as his boss was not a surprise, and things have been very rocky since he saw it coming. He has behaved very rudely towards me on some days – shouting to get my attention, interrupting conversations I’m having with other coworkers, telling me that I don’t know what I’m doing, etc. On other days, he has been so cavity-inducing sweet and polite that I cannot help but get frustrated at the level of his passive aggressiveness.

I am incredibly nervous about managing a group of people for the first time and I do not know how to tackle this additional challenge. I generally try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but I gave him a lot of chances and now he makes my skin crawl every time he opens his mouth. I find it hard to see any redeeming qualities he might have on a personal or professional level. The majority of our office feels the same way about him – he has been around for longer than I have and has offended almost everyone because of his attitude.

How can I approach being his manager? I know I need to be removed and impartial. I know I need to try to help him improve the way he interacts with other people in our office because a) it will help him improve professionally (he desperately wants a promotion and feels personally attacked that he has been passed over for everything he’s applied for, even though he’s been told multiple times that his attitude is his number one barrier to more success) and b) his pettiness can really bring down an otherwise happy team culture. But I am so distracted by my personal feelings that I don’t know where to begin with him or how to start to overcome this.

I do not feel comfortable going to my boss or new peers about this, because the level of my feelings would make me look like the unprofessional one. I have heard from his past supervisors that he is a nightmare to manage – and most of them used to be his friends, too!

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 143 comments… read them below }

    1. Electric Hedgehog

      Did your office jerk dress up as a religious figure as a joke just before the holidays, and you’ve been avoiding him since to try to figure out how to handle the issue? Because that would indeed be epic.

  1. I'm Not Phyllis

    Spot-on advice. OP I hope you deal with this swiftly and aggressively, as it can really effect the way people see you as a manager. That kind of behaviour really isn’t ok (I’m surprised he hasn’t already been let go) and it’s your job to shut it down. It’s toxic to everyone around him.

    1. starsaphire

      It really is surprising that Tim hasn’t been fired. It’d be a really good idea to find out if he’s been warned before. Have there been previous PIPs or other actions? Does the boss have some insight on why Tim’s still around (i.e., maybe he’s someone’s relative)?

      In fact, that might be a good way to bring it up with the boss. Rather than “I don’t know what to do about Tim,” you can say, “I’m trying to get a handle on Tim’s behavior, and I need to know what disciplinary actions if any have been taken before. What can you share with me?”

      1. MillersSpring

        Came here to say this. OP definitely needs to find out from HR and her boss if previous disciplinary steps for Tim have been documented. This is info she wouldn’t have had as his coworker.

        And you definitely can come across as proactive and professional to your boss if you list Tim’s offenses factually, discuss them without emotional comments, and present your plan for dealing with him. Don’t leave your boss wondering if or how you’re dealing with Tim. They may be aware more than you realize.

      2. Jeanne

        As a manager, you get access to Tim’s personnel file which should have any write-ups or plans as well.

  2. Application Development Manager

    This happened to me in my first managerial role as well. Hell of a toxic guy, darling of a few upper managers, hated by the others. The guy did an ok job, sometimes good, but was hailed as ‘he does such an awesome job’.

    One situation turned into too many and toxic guy one day shoots through his mouth in a meeting and throws out nasty stuff about some other managers and team members ( not me). Things escalated after that and went to HR. Our useless HR person was “too scared of firing him”, lest he sues the company My manager, though aware of the situation, didn’t give me enough power to anything.

    This was my “ex”-company. Need I say more than its an “ex” company?

    So OP, beware of the possibility of not getting enough support from your upper managers. Sometimes HR and leadership is way too scared of these toxic type people.

    1. MillersSpring

      Yeah, I once had a toxic condescending team lead who was a darling of upper managers. They saw her as someone who got things done. But they had no idea how rude and curt she was with her colleagues to get that work accomplished. After she publicly berated me on a conf call (lots of witnesses), I reported her to HR.

      1. Application Development Manager

        Did anything come of it?

        The toxic guy ultimately left the company. But not before spreading a bunch of poison and false accusations and maligning a lot of names (me being one of them).

        I left soon after. I decided not to work at a place that doesn’t have the guts to handle problem employees.

      2. MillersSpring

        HR followed up with questions. Then it went nowhere because of mass layoffs. The huge international company eventually was broken up and sold.

    2. Life is Good

      I totally feel your pain. I became the manager to an extremely toxic employee at my old dysfunctional company. She was so offensive at times, that other employees would be left in tears. Other offices asked often why she was allowed to get away with some of the things she would pull. In fact, the owner often said “she’d have been fired long ago if she worked for any other firm.” What? The company was sold a few years ago, and the new folks seemed like they really wanted to create a good working environment. They acted like they were on board with getting this lady in line with their culture, but when push came to shove, they were just as blind to her abrasiveness because she was a production machine and would not let anything happen to their “superstar”. Ugh!

  3. NonProfit Nancy

    I’d also say stick to clear, measurable goals as much as possible, and take the emotion out of it. Your being promoted is a reset on your relationship and you have to start fresh, be clear about what you need from an employee, and hold him to it. Try to get away from things like you want him to being generally “nicer” or even “pleasant to be around” – those things have wiggle room in them, chances for him to see it one way and you another. Stick to, “answers questions appropriately in meeting,” or ” responds to emails in a timely and professional manner” – things you can prove he’s either doing or not doing. (“In today’s meeting, in answering Gerald’s question you were rude when you called him a smeghead. I’ve expressed that I need you to answer questions in a polite manner”). What do you NEED from him in order to succeed? Keep that in mind and lead with those things. If he fails to deliver on clear and established needs, you will have a clear path to firing him.

    1. Cassandra

      I now have Kryten saying “you’re a sm… you’re a smeeeeee… you’re a smeeeeeeeeee…” on repeat loop in my head…

          1. JB (not in Houston)

            My family still says “But what IS it?” (usually followed by “It’s a white hole”) on a regular basis.

              1. Turtle Candle

                We’re wandering well off-topic, but if you remind us in the open thread, I or someone else can probably hook you up. :)

        1. NonProfit Nancy

          Guys the thread is going to get deleted for being off topic – don’t be like the Mean Girls thread the other day!

    2. TootsNYC

      “I’d also say stick to clear, measurable goals as much as possible, and take the emotion out of it.”

      this is really easy to say–but it’s especially ahrd when the problem is not that clear or measurable.

      “Don’t be a jerk” isn’t measurable (though each instance of being a jerk is), nor is ‘treat people professionally.”
      The sorts of goals you describe are opening the door to rules lawyering, which is particularly hard to deal with, especially for someone who is new to managing.

      And emotions are the core of the problem.

      I don’t want to argue against all of your advice–just want to say, “this sort of problem very specifically isn’t as simple as that.”

      I think it *is* clear enough to say, “be professional, be pleasant.” And then be specific when he messes up.

      Honestly, grownups know what “professional” and “pleasant” mean; they don’t need “answer questions in a respectful tone.”

      And so the OP has my sympathy.

      1. NonProfit Nancy

        This discussion about how to deal with lawyering continues below FWIW. My own personal feeling, is that it’s both: you need to give concrete examples of the outcome you require for the job (like, “respectfully answer questions”), and try to be specific about the problem – but also yes of course, don’t engage in endless rulemaking: “you said I couldn’t call him a smeghead, but you *didn’t* say I couldn’t call him a complete and utter git, so I didn’t do anything wrong!” My original point was, I don’t think it helps to get sidetracked with the goal of making Tim an altogether nicer, more pleasant person all around, as I think this is both unlikely and too vague. Focus on what you need from the role, make it clear – both to yourself and to Tim – and enforce that.

  4. Angelinha

    Not the point I know, but why name him Tim if you’re not going to refer to him by name ever again in the question?

    1. Lily in NYC

      She probably started off giving him a fake name without realizing that she wasn’t going to use it again (or what Gadfly wrote). Do you really care either way?

  5. wrafreru

    You’re actually doing it a favor by tackling this, regardless of the outcome, although he’s not likely to see it that way.

    Years ago, a former boss lamented about problems with a brilliant jerk on the team and I remember him saying “I wish he’d been fired at some point.”. I took that to mean my boss wished the jerk had already learned that not every place will tolerate bad behavior regardless of what you bring to the table. Sadly, I think that’s a lesson some need to learn the hard way and the earlier in their career, the better for everyone.

    1. Liane

      Probably wouldn’t be wise unless you have a “Way Better Than Even the Original Kirk & Spock Relationship” with the boss, but I’d be sooooooo tempted to reply, “**This** could be that ‘some point.’ Just make it so.”

    2. A Day at the Zoo

      Did anyone ever read “The Last lecture”? In one chapter, the author (Randy Pausch, but I am probably miss-spelling that), who was brilliant and visionary, said that one of his mentors said something along the lines of “I hate to see your talent being devalued because you act like a jerk”. Again, not an exact quote, but something like that.

  6. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks

    To the OP: Congrats on your new Role! But sorry you have to deal with a toxic person. AAM gave you great advise. The Key point being have a One to One with this guy about his behavior. Do not address his behavior in a group meeting as this will only neutralize the seriousness of the situation with him. Please give us an update on this situation.

  7. NotSoNewManager of Tim like Person

    So, what about the worker who is obnoxious, but not obviously “toxic”? The worker who can be difficult to deal with, who may have moments of bad behavior semi-regularly, but more often is perfectly reasonable. Maybe even the worker who is out performing others in the office?

    Do you strike a zero tolerance for bad behavior and move them out? That seems unrealistic and potentially demoralizing. How much bad attitude is too much? It seems that there is a really wide area of gray between “superstar” and “toxic.”

    1. neverjaunty

      No, there really isn’t. And it isn’t demoralizing and unrealistic to pull someone aside for “semi-regular” bad behavior. Good performance doesn’t cancel out being a jerk.

      Tim is learning an important lesson about the work world: you should be decent to your co-workers, because you never know when you’ll cross paths with them again. Or, as the saying goes, “Be kind to the people you meet on the way up, because you’ll be seeing them again on the way down.”

      1. Crazy Canuck

        I like “The toes you step on today may be connected to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow.”

    2. AMT

      I’d calculate it based on how severely his behavior is affecting your department’s performance and morale. Maybe there’s been more turnover than normal because people don’t want to deal with his bad behavior, or his communication style stops critical processes from moving forward, or other staff spend a lot of unnecessary time dealing with conflicts he’s caused. In other words, it’s possible that his stellar performance isn’t actually making your department any more successful on balance than an average performer with a more pleasant personality would.

      If that’s the case, I wouldn’t think firing him would be “unrealistic” unless his field is so specialized that finding someone to replace him would tank your productivity for months. It’s unlikely that it would be demoralizing, either — in fact, most people find it demoralizing when clearly incompetent or obnoxious people get to stay for years!

      1. AMT

        Just to add, if it WOULD be that difficult to replace him, then that’s its own problem — as Alison says, what if he got hit by a bus?

        1. John

          The moment you realize someone is too important to replace is when you know you have a problem. You then have to make it a priority to figure out how you can living without them.

          1. I'm Not Phyllis

            Yes – I completely agree, not just for the company’s sake but for the employee’s as well. I have heard too many times that people feel they can’t call in sick because nobody knows how to do what they do.

      2. Lance

        All of this. It doesn’t matter how good someone is at their job, because the fact is, there’ll still be others who can do the job. If their behavior, when it happens, is harmful, talk to them about it; if you can’t get them to show any signs of improvement, be prepared to lay down consequences.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      Well, the first thing is that you talk to them about it – you name what they’re doing that’s not okay, and you tell them it needs to stop. If it happens again, you follow up on it and again explain it’s not okay. Honestly, a lot of times just being direct and assertive will stop a lot of it. If it doesn’t stop even after that, then it’s really a much more serious problem anyway, no?

      1. TootsNYC

        this! Each time. He yells across the room at someone, and you say, “Tim, can I see you for a minute?”

        And you close the door and say, “Tim, yelling across the office instead of walking over and talking to people is one of the behaviors you need to stop. It’s disrespectful and disruptive. Don’t do it again.”

        1. paul

          As someone who’s had that (almost verbatim) directed at me: do this. Particularly if it’s the first time its being brought up (and more so if they’re new tot he working world) they might not realize it’s rude. Say explicitly “X behavior isn’t OK.” Sometimes people really *don’t* know that work norm.

    4. Observer

      Maybe he’s outperforming others because he is sabotaging the rest of the staff, whether directly or indirectly. I don’t mean that he’s going into people’s desks and throwing files out, or something like that. More like making it so difficult to get information from him that people waste time trying to get information elsewhere because it’s quicker; being so rude to people that they hesitate to loop him in to something that he really needs to know about; failing to share important information; etc.

      1. Turtle Candle

        I’ve known that to be the case in a number of situations where there was an asshole who was tolerated because he was a “rockstar.” Sometimes his assholitude was making him seem like way more of a rockstar than he really was–as you say, he was sufficiently obstructive that he slowed everyone else down, or he took credit for other peoples’ work, or he horned in on projects that were going well right toward the end purely so that he could claim some of the success as his own, he had more time for his own projects because (even though helping out on other projects was part of his job) he was so unpleasant that no one else wanted to ask for his help, stuff like that.

        Once in a while it was even self-fulfilling–people saw what a jackass he was and went, “Well, if they tolerate him behaving like that, he *must* be really good at his job!”

        It’s part of why I’ve been increasingly skeptical of the “asshole rockstar” thing in general.

        1. Application Development Manager

          Exactly.

          I’ve seen it over and over again. “We can’t afford to have this guy leave. The project will stall….there is no one as smart as him….it must be others who are inciting him to behnve this way….maybe he is just too stressed out”. The list of excuses goes on.

          I call BS. No one , and I mean, NO ONE should be indispensable. Just the fact that work places develop so much reliance on a singular person reeks of unhealthy work environment to me.

    5. Not So NewReader

      Just my opinion but any time I have had to figure out which way the wind was blowing today in order to work with someone, I’d start thinking that maybe they are toxic.

      I should not have to guess what mood a person is today or this moment.
      I should not have to survey cohorts to find out if I will get my head bit off for saying “good morning” or asking a work question.
      I should not have to put up with being called a jerk one day and the next day it is like nothing happened.

      Sorry but there are twenty people reading here would would take this job and be even-keeled in personality day in day out, year round.

      I hang on to what my first boss told me. Part of what we are all being paid for is our willingness to get along with others. If a person cannot get along with others then they have failed to do a major component of the job.

      You do not need to do zero tolerance. The person DOES need to apologize when they offend someone. It’s the inability to realize that one is offending others and the inability to apologize for it that you are targeting.

      We all slip and have words come out wrong. What is the thing most of us do?
      “OMG. I am so sorry, that was not what I was trying to say.” There’s a momentary expression of shock/dismay followed by an immediate apology.

      So while his comments/behavior maybe sporadic, that does not mean they cannot be described in words. Just my opinion but the guy sounds like a potential gas lighter and potential workplace bully. Bullies are nice one day, nasty the next. Everyone hopes to stay on the good side of the bully and everyone fails to stay on his good side.

      You get a handle on this guy and you may find you have more super stars than you realize.

      1. seejay

        This. I’ve had an ex-coworker that was the office bully that no one would deal with who was sweet as could be if she needed something to you, but an obnoxious horrible person every other time you interacted with her, especially if you needed something from her. Sure she was totally great to work with if it was something that benefitted her or made her job easier, but did it mean I wanted to deal with her any other time? Not in the least. In fact, most of the time I wanted to kick her where the sun didn’t shine because I hated dealing with her due to how she made me feel.

        And we’re currently dealing with another guy who’s having weird as heck mood swings. He’s not being outrageously toxic at the moment but depending on how the wind’s blowing, he’s being cooperative and helpful one day, a twat on other days. I’m tired of the whiplash of dealing with him, so I’ve resorted to just *not* dealing with him unless I absolutely have to, which isn’t the ideal situation but it’s keeping me sane. I have other coworkers that need my help and are much more pleasant to deal with, so it’s his own fault that he’s fallen to the bottom of my priority list at this point.

        Part of being an adult is behaving like one and treating others with basic human decency. Sure, we can all have bad days, say the wrong thing at the wrong time because we sat on a tack or whatever, but the response is to apologize or at the *very least*, not make that our default behaviour and do it again. Not force everyone else around us to tiptoe, be afraid of us, or ruin their day just for the sake of being a wank.

    6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I think most cases of bad behavior fall on a spectrum between “occasionally a jerk” and “raging nightmare.” If someone is a “raging nightmare” level jerk, then zero tolerance to the point of firing should be on the table. If they’re further down the spectrum, you fall back to a progressive discipline model depending on the behavior, how you’ve communicated with them about it, and the progress (or lack thereof).

      But I also think you should read The No Asshole Rule. I firmly believe that a person cannot “outperform” their peers if they are difficult to deal with, misbehave semi-regularly, or are otherwise awful. Right now, your toxic employee is probably demoralizing everyone they work with. Better to have one person feel slightly demoralized (assuming they’re capable of feeling that way—most real jerks I’ve met feel indignant, persecuted and self-righteous when called out) than an entire office. And also remember that if they feel demoralized because you call them out on unacceptable/unprofessional behavior, that means that they created the circumstances leading to feeling demoralized, not you.

  8. Engineer Girl

    I’m going to disagree partially with this advice. I take issue with the words “professional”, “polite”, “appropriate” because they are so non-specific. Someone with this level of cluelessness doesn’t know what those mean.
    Instead, I would frame them in to very specific actions:
    – it is impolite to yell at people
    – it is insubordination to tell the manager “you don’t know what you’re talking about”. Instead, frame it as “I have a different viewpoint” and then calmly and rationally list your reasons (knowing the manager still has the authority to override).
    – “Please don’t interrupt. That is rude and unprofessional”

    These are clear and specific.
    You may even want to suggest a Dale Carnegie course.

    1. the_scientist

      Something that I often struggle with too is that some jerks can be very manipulative and lean heavily on plausible deniability. For example, they’ll say something with a snarky, sarcastic tone and then when called on say “gosh, I was just joking” or “you’re reading things into my behaviour that aren’t there”. I tend to find that difficult to deal with because the last thing you want is to get into a circular argument where the jerk starts rules-lawyering you.

      1. orchidsandtea

        Luckily, if you’re management, you have the power to ignore that rabbit trail and say, “Regardless of what you intended, xyz came across as rude. Going forward, I need you to commit to abc.”

        1. Turtle Candle

          Yes yes yes. “I didn’t know that was over the line!” > “Well, now you do, so I expect you to not do it going forward.” “I was just kidding!” > “Regardless, now that you’re aware that that kind of comment is likely to be perceived as rude, I expect you to refrain.”

          Even if you’re 100% giving someone the benefit of the doubt that they don’t know professional norms well or don’t realize how their jokes are coming across, once they’ve been told, you can and should expect them to not repeat the behavior. It’s not like “I didn’t know my ‘jokes’ would hurt pepoles’ feelings” means “so since I was ignorant once I now get to keep doing it forever.”

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Very much this. Remember, the toxic employee doesn’t get to impose their perspective of whether they were an ass or not onto others. You and your other employees get to decide if the behavior was assholish.

      2. Bigglesworth

        I would think a response to those comebacks would be saying something like, “It doesn’t matter what you’re intentions were, I am asking you to stop this behavior immediately.” Yes, intentions do matter, but that shouldn’t be their defense for acting like a jerk.

      3. Artemesia

        You don’t argue. No JADE after you have made yourself clear. Jerks love to get into debates where they weasel words and parse grammar and explain why what is obviously the case isn’t so. Don’t justify. Reiterate the point and shut them down.

        It is of course vital to have the ducks lined up with upper management. I would do as Alison suggests and sit down with your boss and clearly explain the kinds of behaviors he exhibits with other workers and with you very specifically. Note that this is undermining the team and that you plan to insist it stop but that you need to escalate it to firing if necessary if other measure don’t work. Get clear on the steps in the process of progressive discipline or whatever the procedures are where you work. Have an answer to the ‘but what would we do without him question.’ Sometimes a decent worker who is toxic causes more harm than productivity and many roles are fairly easy to replace with people who are not toxic. Wear your authority with confidence and get the ducks lined up before proceeding.

      4. TootsNYC

        I agree with this.

        And frankly, I don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t understand these words and what they mean. If they don’t understand this vocabulary, they don’t have the skills I need. If they do understand and won’t do it, they don’t have the attitude I need.

        I don’t want to spend time teaching someone that “rude and unprofessional” encompasses “interrupting people.”

      5. neverjaunty

        The trick to dealing with rules lawyers is not to get sucked into debating at all. A wise friend of mine, when dealing with her teenager (a natural rules lawyer), used the “Nevertheless” technique. That’s where you let them rant and argue, and then just say “Nevertheless,” and repeat what it is you told them the first time.

        “Gosh, I was just joking!”
        “Nevertheless, Tim, you need address other team members by their names, instead of calling them by insulting nicknames.”

        “You’re reading things into my behavior that aren’t there!”
        “Nevertheless, I expect that you will be civil when others are speaking at the meeting and refrain from rolling your eyes or snorting. If you can’t do this, it is going to affect your status here.”

      6. Not So NewReader

        Not sure if “your jerks”, scientist, are peers or subordinates. I am going to go with peers because that is harder in some ways.

        Jerks: “Gosh, I was just joking.”

        You: “Well, it’s not funny to me.”
        OR
        You: “Okay, you were joking. I am asking you to stop making jokes like that.”

        Jerks: “You’re reading things into my behavior that aren’t there.”

        You: “This is why it is so important to make sure our words and actions are not ambiguous.
        OR
        You: “Everyone gets a different read on things. We do not get to pick how people interpret our words/actions.”

        With this one your main point is “Not everyone thinks the same way you do. And you don’t get to tell me what I think.” Although you won’t say it like this, this is what is standing behind your responses.

        If you want to toss a couple more of these one-liners at me, I don’t mind, I will help you think of things to say. I will check for you tomorrow.

    2. Leatherwings

      I actually think it’s important to lay out big picture expectations AND provide details and examples to back that up. Because then when he calls someone an idiot, he can come back and say “You said I couldn’t yell at people, you didn’t say anything about name calling.

      A manager wants to be able to say “You need to be professional, and that includes both yelling at people and name-calling”

      1. TootsNYC

        But I want to say, “Don’t give me that. You know that calling people names is rude and hurtful and unprofessional. Let’s not play games with semantics here. If you truly don’t know that, then you are not experienced or skilled enough to have this job, and we need to set an end date for your employment on the grounds that you’re out of your depth.”

        My mother didn’t let me get away with that bullshit (“you said I couldn’t speak to my sister in a snotty tone, but you never said I couldn’t call her names”). I’m not going to do it as a manager, and I’m not going down any sort of “don’t interrupt” “don’t call people names” “don’t criticize people unfairly” rabbit hole.

        I might bring up the specific examples *after* as examples of the overall problem, but I’m not going to list out all the specific ways someone should “interact professionally and civilly.”

        1. Parenthetically

          YEP. “But you never saaaaaid I couldn’t do thaaaaaat,” is eight-year-old stuff. I won’t tolerate it from my students, and I would absolutely not tolerate it from a grownup. Be respectful, be courteous, be professional. These are all things adults should have no problem understanding.

        2. Trix

          Man alive, where was this thread three years ago when I first started managing? This is so incredibly helpful. It makes such perfect sense when it’s said, but it’s not the sort of thing that came intuitively for me (or for a lot of other new/not so new managers, I’d bet).

        3. neverjaunty

          I really like this approach. What are they going to say – it is TOO okay to call people names?

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Yeah, don’t argue by trying to come up with a more inclusive definition—that’s a hallmark way that jerks try to bog people down in rules lawyering. I mean, you probably didn’t tell your employee they need to shower semi-regularly or wear clothing at work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a normal professional expectation that should not require a manager spelling it out before an employee complies.

      2. Not So NewReader

        “You said I couldn’t yell at people, you didn’t say anything about name calling.”

        Me: You are expected to know and follow workplace norms. I am not here to micromanage everything you do. People who work here are expected to understand and use cooperation with others all day and every day. If a person cannot do well with managing their own working relationships with others then their ability to do this job will be called into question.
        You are right. I did not say anything about name calling because I expect people to know not to name call and I expect them to act accordingly. If you need that level of supervision, we do not provide it here. Are you willing to do what is necessary to maintain positive working relationships with others?

    3. Marche

      The more concrete the required behaviour changes are, the harder it will be to wiggle out from not doing them.

      1. fposte

        Sort of. It’s good to have concrete illustrations, but you don’t need to get sucked into the rabbit hole of only considering things insubordination if you’ve named the behaviors. This is about being reasonably informative, not about having an unwinnable argument, because it’s not an argument. I get to discipline Tim for calling somebody a smeghead even if I only said “Don’t call people stupid,” because “You didn’t say ‘Don’t call people smeghead'” isn’t a shield against reasonable management.

    4. Ask a Manager Post author

      Also, too, though, it’s reasonable to decide you need someone in the role who doesn’t need a detailed list of all the rude behaviors they can’t indulge in. I agree that the more specific you can be, the better (especially if there may be cultural differences in play), but I also don’t want managers to think they can’t at some point say, “Look, I need someone who gets along well with colleagues and doesn’t leave people feeling disrespected” without having to provide a bulleted list of everything that prohibits.

      1. TootsNYC

        I agree.

        I think it works to say, “The blanket problem/rule is this: Interact professionally, respectfully, and civilly. Here are three very recent examples of when you screwed this up, and this is the proof that this is a problem.
        “I need you to interact professionally, respectfully and civilly. Your job is on the line, actually.”

        But you shouldn’t feel you need to teach someone the basics.

        He knows. Believe me, he knows.

        People who just flat-out don’t know don’t have people hate them. Because it becomes really apparent that they’re just awkward, or they blurt out whatever’s in their head first, and they don’t hold onto criticism (I worked w/ someone like that–once you’d worked w/ her for 3 months, you realized you didn’t need to get offended if she criticized you, bcs it wasn’t an attack and she’d praise you in the next sentence. So, not completely professional and certainly annoying, but truly not a morale problem for the organization.).

      2. seejay

        I’d think if you have to provide a bullet list of everything that someone can and can’t do, just to behave civilly in a work environment, you’re better off suggesting they go back to kindergarten and learn how to play well with others. :|

        I mean, isn’t that where we learned how to share, play nicely, and not call others names? Technically???

        1. seejay

          (And I mean this outside of social issues arising from Aspergers, Autism, and whatever others might lead to some social behaviour that isn’t the norm that people would learn through regular interactions)

    5. NW Mossy

      I grappled with this issue by framing behaviors as effective/ineffective and then saying, “This is not the entire universe of behaviors that don’t work. I’m not going to be able to give you the entire universe of behaviors that do work either. What I can give you is swift feedback on which is which to ensure you know the difference and can be more effective.”

      Worked really well, actually. It segues nicely into an accountability marker for the employee, who you can then charge with coming up with their own effective behaviors and implementing them consistently.

      1. Jeanne

        I like this a lot. It also shows you are working with the employee rather than setting up something completely adversarial. I think you get better results that way.

  9. not so super-visor

    I inherited a “Tim” when I took over as supervisor as well. Unfortunately, ever time that I have tried to manage Tim’s behavior, Tim goes to big boss. Then I am told by big boss that I clearly don’t value loyalty since Tim has been here a very long time and does a large amount of work and blah, blah, blah… I do value loyalty, but I value employees being able to do work without biting off coworkers’ and customers’ heads too. I’ve discovered that past supervisors did not manage Tim since this is what always happens. I’m starting to think that it’s a lost cause.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Your boss is more of the problem than Tim, so yes, as long as he remains your boss, it’s probably a lost cause (as is your ability to manage your staff while this guy is your boss, unfortunately).

      1. not so super-visor

        I’m stymied a bit by our organizational structure and the fact that I’m a supervisor and not a manager. For most departments, the structure is supervisor-> manager-> big boss -> grand boss -> president. For my department, it is supervisor -> big boss -> grand boss -> president. While I have 26 direct reports (the largest department by far), I’m only listed as a supervisor. I’m still expected to do the hiring, training, track progress, coach as necessary, give employee performance reviews, and advise on employees, but I’m not able to fire or even put on a PIP without big boss’ approval. Fortunately, because I can give the employee performance reviews, I was able to provide plenty of documentation for Tim’s extremely low performance ranking this year.

        1. Zombii

          That sounds awful. At least now that he has a low performance ranking, that’s hopefully something you can point to next time he goes to Big Boss and Big Boss tries to defend his competence/loyalty/whatever? Keep giving him low performance rankings as long as he deserves them, eventually you’ll have enough ammo to get rid of him.

          Either that or your Big Boss is so incompetent that you’d be better off elsewhere. If that point comes, recognize it, and take action.

          Good luck. :)

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          This is the definition of a nightmare management scenario, not so super-visor. I’m really sorry you’ve been put in this position, particularly because your boss sounds like a crazy person. I’m not surprised he said what he said—I sit on a Board and have an E.D. who has lost over 10+ superstar employees because he refuses to address toxic behavior of “old timers” because he “values loyalty” (even when it undermines the organization’s long-term growth and success). But given that your boss is not likely to undergo a shift in thinking on this issue, I think your options are now to either grin-and-bear-it or to try to move on to a new employer.

          1. Lance

            And there we have textbook examples of bosses with a terribly skewed view of what ‘loyalty’ is. Actual loyalty is not the amount of time someone has been there; rather, it’s the amount of faith and dedication they show during what time they are there, and how much they show respect to those around them.

    2. Delta Delta

      This Tim has figured out how to game the system. He knows to get what he wants all he has to do is go around you. Not cool on behalf of the big boss to second guess your management abilities. I worked with this Tim-type situation. The big boss loved Tim until one day Tim treated the big boss the way he treated everyone else. Then Tim got fired within 20 minutes. Yargh.

    3. John

      That’s why you need to be discussing his behavior with the big boss from the moment it becomes a problem. Let them know that you have a serious issue that is undermining your team.

      If it were me, I’d go back to Big Boss and tell him you’d like to follow up on his comments about Tim and wanted to share some of the things Tim has done to see how he’d have handled it.

      1. Lance

        Exactly. For now, at least, stop going to Tim; that’s clearly not accomplishing anything. Start documenting, see if you can learn anything from people who’ve been in similar shoes as you if they’re still around… and go to big boss yourself and lay down the issues. Especially point out that what Tim is doing is not loyalty; regardless of how long he’s been there, he’s very blatantly being insubordinate.

    4. animaniactoo

      “I do value loyalty, but I don’t think I’m going to get it from Rachel and James who do excellent if I don’t do anything about a co-worker biting off their heads. I understand the value that Tim brings to the company, but I am concerned about the effect of potentially losing Rachel and James and whoever comes after them if Tim keeps on with the way he spoke to them. The fact that he does a lot doesn’t mean he never does anything wrong either.”

      Alternatively….

      “You clearly don’t value loyalty”
      “Boss, would you say that it was okay for any employee in our company to be told they’re a sloppy and lazy person who probably couldn’t find a date if it walked up and bit them on the ass, but maybe if they lost 30 lbs they’d manage it?”
      “Of course not”
      “Okay, how do you suggest I handle it when Tim does that? Because that’s what he said to James.”

      1. TootsNYC

        “You do realize that the reason Tim has been here longer than other people is that he drives them away by being nasty to them, right? And that the reason he stays is because he knows that he can get away with his rude power plays here, whereas he might get disciplined or even fired elsewhere?”

        Also–find ways you can make Tim’s life more miserable that don’t involve firing. Give him all the crappy work. Ride his ass; check his work, make him fix every tiny little error. Save up all the boring but necessary stuff (like inventory, or whatever) that needs to be done eventually, and make him do it every time he’s rude to someone. Call him into your office every single time he’s rude to someone and tell him, “That was really rude. And this is why you are going to get the lousy assignments–because you are mean. When you start speaking politely to your colleagues, we’ll go back to spreading them around.” Draw the line for him.

        Firing isn’t the only tool you’ve got, and some of the things you can do will not need the boss’s sign-off.

        Sometimes all the “negative consequence” you need is that you call him into your office and give him a talking-to.

        1. Liane

          “Also–find ways you can make Tim’s life more miserable that don’t involve firing. Give him all the crappy work. Ride his ass; check his work, make him fix every tiny little error. Save up all the boring but necessary stuff (like inventory, or whatever) that needs to be done eventually, and make him do it every time he’s rude to someone.”
          This sounds like 1 of my amazing mother-in-law’s management techniques. Before she retired, she was a GS14 in a Federal agency & she sometimes told me stories about it. MIL, who didn’t take anything off anyone, had to deal with her Problem Reports during the long-but-doable process of getting rid of them. This was in 70s-80s and there was a big file room right across from her office, great line-of-sight. So she assigned her Problems to file/file/file every day, under her eyes, for as long as it took for them to shape up–or her to ship them out.
          Thanks for the smile.

          1. Crazy Canuck

            This sounds like constructive dismissal to me. Try that in Canada and you’ll probably end up paying up after losing in court for wrongful dismissal. I’m not sure about it’s status in the States, anyone here know?

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              It’s not illegal in the U.S. If it were shown to be constructive dismissal, the person could probably collect unemployment benefits, but there’d be no recourse beyond that (assuming it’s not based on race, sex, religion, etc.).

    5. Trout 'Waver

      This is the worst, especially for new managers. You need your big boss to ask the chain-of-command question: “Have you brought this up with your manager?”

      If your big boss is reasonable, you can say something like, “You’ve trusted me to manage this team. I need you to redirect any issues my team brings forth to me directly, unless there is a really good reason to keep me out of it. If one of my reports brings an issue to your attention, can you please redirect them to me so I can find a solution for them?”

      I had to do this at a previous job and it mostly kinda worked.

    6. MillersSpring

      I like organizations that have a code of conduct spelled out somewhere. Then managers and workers can just point to it. Doesn’t matter how loyal Tim is or how much good work he does–we don’t put up with jerks, either jerkiness to managers or to fellow employees.

    7. tigerStripes

      Someone who is regularly “biting off coworkers’ and customers’ heads too” isn’t being loyal to the company; he’s making the company look bad.

  10. Clickety-Clack

    I had to confront two people I managed about some bad behavior, and I feel for you — it’s nerve-wracking. (I shared an office with these two, to boot.) Because I didn’t think I could make it through the whole conversation without getting flustered or upset, and because I wanted to be sure I remembered everything I wanted to say, I wrote down every single bit, from the beginning to the end of the conversation. It opened with “I’m sorry we need to have this conversation, but …” and went on to list the specific problems, link them to specific points on our evaluation plan, and then list the improvements I expected from them. Then I took it to my boss and told him, “Here’s what I plan to say to A&K, but I wanted to touch base with you first.” He read it and said, “I want you to change one thing. Take out the ‘I’m sorry.'” The whole thing sucked, but I got through the meeting, and things eventually improved. Good luck to you.

  11. Thomas E

    Honestly, I think that before you attempt to manage Tim you need to find out the lie of the land with your boss.

    Is your boss willing to have your back? Can you put Tim on a performance improvement plan or even fire him?

    My feeling is that Tim may need to be fired or moved to another department. Although it’s possible that Allison’s advice is sound it seems likely that Tim may already have received these kind of warnings in the past.

    1. periwinkle

      Not another department! I hate it when toxic or incompetent coworkers who don’t improve get shuffled elsewhere in the org instead of being managed out. My department (and really, the whole function we supported) had been stymied by a toxic control freak whose manager acknowledged the problem but refused to do anything. The manager messed up her own reputation in protecting the toxic person. During a recent layoff that person was on the list but somehow wound up being transferred to another department. Not my problem anymore but I can’t imagine she has magically transformed into a stellar employee.

      Just because you’ve hidden the boiled lima beans under the mashed potatoes doesn’t mean they’re gone. They’ll emerge again. Eventually you’ve got to scrape them into the compost bin.

      1. Zombii

        Sometimes moving people to a different department can be a good decision (frex: someone who interacts awkwardly with customers being moved to the back room to work inventory), but it’s terrible when used as an all-purpose-solution-style management tool.

        I’m sorry your department has become the mashed potatoes for your company’s lima beans.

  12. Anna

    I’m wondering. The OP says “I know I need to try to help him improve the way he interacts with other people in our office because a) it will help him improve professionally (he desperately wants a promotion and feels personally attacked that he has been passed over for everything he’s applied for, even though he’s been told multiple times that his attitude is his number one barrier to more success) and b) his pettiness can really bring down an otherwise happy team culture.” Considering what they know of Tim and his attitude (and that it’s been bad for a long time), do they really “need” to help him in this way? I assume unless the OP is in a crazy workplace, that’s been tried already and clearly failed.

    1. NW Mossy

      Yes. A manager’s job is to get results from her team, and to act swiftly and surely in managing people in that direction. That means that you tell people when they’re underperforming, and you specifically name it as “you are underperforming and you are at risk of losing your job if you can’t or won’t come up to scratch.”

      There are also a couple of elements that I think are particularly important when you’re newly managing someone. The change in relationship is a significant modification to the employee’s environment, and that in itself can dramatically change their behavior. The manager I replaced told me that Fergus would be “my biggest headache,” but I’ve never had an issue with him because I treat him with the basic respect he never got from the previous boss. For me, his performance is solid.

      Also, it’s not fair to the employee to fire them immediately based on what you’ve heard third-hand or inferred from what’s externally visible (i.e., that he still works there). You give them the fresh start and then base your decision to coach/fire on your own observations. You don’t have to take forever (and shouldn’t) in doing this, but you do need to give yourself enough time to make your own judgment rather than absorbing someone else’s. And frankly, if the past managers stunk and left no paper trail of their efforts to get the employee to shape up, you need the time to document the poor behavior to get HR to support your decision to terminate.

      1. TootsNYC

        And, he’s also started displaying this behavior aimed at her since her supervisory status was established.

        1. NW Mossy

          Perhaps I misread, but I got the impression that the OP’s new role had been announced but she hasn’t started in it yet or has only been in it for a few weeks. As such, I assumed that she hasn’t yet had the come-to-Jesus meeting with Tim yet in her role as his boss. If she had, I’d be more concerned, but if I wouldn’t assume it’s a lost cause before that conversation (and the “you haven’t done what you need to” follow-up) has taken place.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

            Based on the tense, it sounds like OP has already transitioned into being a supervisor, and the comments about her not knowing what she was doing, or yelling at her, all occurred after she became his manager.

  13. Channel Z

    I agree with all the advice given. Additionally you are worried about how your actions might be viewed given that you used to be friends. From Tim’s perspective, he sounds toxic with jealousy. Don’t be surprised if this tough conversation doesn’t go well. As for the friendship, it’s over. You owe him nothing. Treat him as you would any other employee. I don’t think people will view your frustration as something personal, it sounds like he is universally disliked.

    1. Jeanne

      I think the friend thing isn’t an issue since it sounds like they haven’t been friends in a long time. I doubt Tim will say “but you’re my friend, how can you do this to me?”

    2. Not So NewReader

      I think that is the problem here, Tim’s former bosses were also friends and they felt conflicted about what to do here.

      OP, don’t let your former friendship cloud your view. Most certainly Tim is not allowing it to cloud his, as he is continuing to be “Tim”. There is no friendship left here, OP, you can go ahead and be a boss to Tim. It’s fine.

      A good rule of thumb is say to yourself, “If someone else did this or that, what would my reaction be?” And that is the baseline reaction you should give Tim. In Tim’s case, since you know his MO, you can step it up a bit.

  14. animaniactoo

    I would try a “Day One” approach with Tim.

    “Tim, I wanted to address this at the beginning both because I’m aware of your reputation within the company and due to the way that you’ve treated me since you found out I was going to be your manager.

    I want to start by setting clear expectations with you, so that we can both consider this a fresh start. As far as I’m concerned, this is your Day 1 – I won’t hold what’s happened before against you, but I will be paying attention to what you do from today on and I expect you to act in a professional manner and work to get along with your co-workers.

    Understand – I’m not asking you to like everybody or to make everybody like you. All that I expect is that you treat your co-workers civilly and politely. There’s a middle ground between rude and disrespectful, and kissing someone’s butt. I need you to find that middle ground and occupy it.

    That means that from now on, I do not want to see you shout to get someone’s attention, interrupt someone’s work-related conversation, or talk down to them by doing things like telling them they don’t know what they’re doing. If you want to talk about how I’d like to see you handle those situations instead of doing those things, I’m available to talk about what I see as reasonable approaches.

    Those are just some examples, there are others, and if something else crops up, I’ll pull you aside to talk about it. I expect you to use your discretion to figure out what kinds of situations would have me pull you aside and do your best to avoid them. If something is frustrating you and you can’t figure out how to approach it without stepping over that line, come talk to me and we’ll figure it out. Okay?”

    1. animaniactoo

      Oh, a freebie from my vault of “things I say to my kids”, because you are sure to come up against “But I didn’t do blah blah blah which would be much worse!”: “The fact that blah blah blah would be worse doesn’t mean that this is acceptable.”

      1. Trix

        I love this whole thing. I’ve definitely worked with my fair share of people who will argue specific wording, or look for any way around a particular line, or take it (intentially) way too literal and narrow. This is clear and specific without handing someone room to argue.

      2. Not So NewReader

        “I should hope you would not do blah, blah, blah. And if I had to explain to you not to do blah, blah, blah, we would also be discussing if this workplace is an appropriate match for you.”

    2. MillersSpring

      I would not give Tim a clean slate. Maybe everything he divulged when they were friends should be forgotten, but not recent bad behavior to coworkers or to the OP since she’s been his boss.

      OP really needs to find out Tim’s HR disciplinary history.

      1. animaniactoo

        If you want Tim *on your side* and to feel an investment in acting differently “for you”, than he has for anybody up until now, you have to give him an incentive that is to his benefit. A lot of times, that’s in the framing of a “clean slate” Also, the fact that I as his manager won’t hold his past behavior against him does not mean the company or his co-workers won’t. It means I’m establishing this now as part of *my* new dynamic with him as his supervisor in a place to interact with him differently than I did before – and I’m being careful to say it in a way that is clear that I am paying attention going forward so it doesn’t mean he’s just “off the hook” for it.

      2. NW Mossy

        If you don’t give him a clean slate, you’re basically saying, “Tim, I’ve already decided you’re worthless to the company and I don’t care about trying to help you be effective; I’m just here to document until I can tick enough HR boxes to fire you.” Tim has exactly zero incentive to make any effort at all under those conditions, because you’ve admitted through your behavior that it would make no difference to you if he shaped up because your mind is made up.

        And as a new manager, it has a whiff of seeing your first big challenge and running from it rather than addressing it. If you retreat behind past discipline, it implies that you don’t trust your own ability to assess his behavior or manage him into better behavior. Part of being a manager is learning how to coach someone who’s struggling, and perhaps even struggling profoundly. This is a good opportunity for the OP to build those skills. Besides, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that the disciplinary history is slim to non-existent – weak managers tend to do a bad job of documenting too.

        I faced it myself with my own Tim, and I decided to make a last-ditch effort to coach even though I had low expectations that it would help. Turned out that my employee would, could, and did change for the better, and I ended up building not only skills for myself but credibility with my management team by showing them that I could handle a tough situation and get a good result.

        1. MillersSpring

          I would never let a Tim think that recent bad behaviors are okay and water under the bridge. Tim needs to be on a PIP just based on his behaviors since the OP became his manager. That’s not holding a grudge or making up your mind about him, and certainly not avoiding an opportunity to coach him. A well-structured PIP could be exactly what Tim needs to right himself and do his own internal reset. The OP should emphasize that she hopes he emerges successfully from the PIP.

          But I don’t see the value of giving him a pass on his egregious recent behavior. Otherwise a Tim will see his new manager as a pushover and feel no accountability for the crap he’s already pulled with her.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          But this really depends on whether he’s been disciplined before or been put on a PIP. If he has, then it doesn’t make sense to reset and pretend that prior discipline didn’t happen.

          1. Chinook

            But there is a middle ground between clean slate and holding everything against him? When working with teens, I often told them that I had a horrible memory and only remembered past behavior if I was given a reason to remember it. So, if all is good going forward, I forgot their past behavior but, if they messed up, all past offenses were remembered and considered relevant.

  15. Liane

    How old is the computer/monitor in that picture. I own my age most of the time, proudly, but gee I almost feel embarrassed to admit that I remember those, and was probably in high school when they were new.

    1. Knitchic

      Needs it’s bright green DOS promt. I remember learning how to use a computer on one. That’s a serious trip in the wayback machine.

  16. OP!

    Hi all – OP here! Thank you Alison (and everyone) for all the solid advice. Shortly after I took on ole Tim, the team expanded/rearranged and he actually got reassigned to another manager. She’s more experienced than I am (though that wasn’t the reason for the shift, it just had to do with our difference specialties). I am still a manager in his department though, so occasionally I need to still lay down the law a bit. He’s not particularly better but his new manager has a pretty low BS tolereance so I think he at least knows he can’t get any worse without consequences. Luckily he’s off my plate for now but this is all still helpful advice if this ever happens again.

    Our office is not adverse to firing, but it usually is reserved for more performance/skill issues than attitude issues. And of course Tim is better-than-average at his job. When he’s not making up his own rules for things, he’s smart and reliable (just also a massive jerk). He pushed his boundaries too far recently and almost got demoted but firing didn’t seem to be on the table.

    1. OP!

      I should also mention that my boss has actually been really supportive. Even though she’s friends with Tim outside of work, she sees the kinds of problems he creates in the office and definitely has my back/has the other manager’s back when it comes to setting guidelines for appropriate workplace behavior.

      1. Jeanne

        “Even though she’s friends with him outside of work.” Well, at least we know why no one dealt with Tim. Friendships like these between a higher manager and an employee often result in problems.

  17. KittenLittle

    I work with the office jerk. Things are so bad a coworker and I are both currently looking for employment elsewhere because we are fed up with her bad behavior and the bosses won’t do anything about it. Thanks as always for the post! There are so many times I check your blog and think someone from my workplace wrote to you. You help my colleagues and me make it through some rough days. :)

Comments are closed.