two of my employees have been ridiculing a coworker behind his back

A reader writes:

I’m a young business owner and new manager, and I could use your advice. Here’s the scenario…

We recently had an employee (we’ll call him Fergus) resign to take on a new position. He left on a good note. While I was creating a backup of his company computer, I came across Skype conversations where he and a current employee (Jane) were ridiculing another employee (“Bob”). The conversations were (my opinion) unprofessional and childish. They mocked Bob at a professional and personal level: work quality, lack of knowledge, attempts at humor and social awkwardness, even how loudly he chews, were all targets. Bob does not, thankfully, know about these.

This happened during work hours over many months, on company machines, through Skype accounts set up for work use using work email addresses. Fergus provided us with his password for Skype when he left.

A month ago, Fergus and Jane brought up issues about Bob’s work quality. Some of the issues were valid and we worked with Bob to improve things. Jane has mentioned that she’s seen a difference (but kept on mocking in private). Fergus clearly began looking for a new job. Bob brings a variety of skillsets and value to the business. Other employees seem to value his experience and willingness to help. He’s also stepped up, big time, to take on new responsibilities after Fergus’s departure.

We were already planning to have a conversation with Jane about her communication and treatment of coworkers, which two other employees (not Bob) have brought up. That conversation would have included a discussion about what was happening and why, clear explanations about what we wanted to see change, and an offer to provide tools or training to help her achieve them. Jane is a hard worker and good with customers, but feels underpaid (she was given a large raise) and has said she is looking for work closer to home (for the past six months).

My question is this: Should we bring up the Skype messages? She’ll be mortified that what she said was seen, and I don’t want to make her defensive. That said, and what she did is clearly bullying so I feel uncomfortable letting it slide.

Yeah, I’d bring it up.

They were private conversations, but they were happening on company time using company resources, and in a medium that someone else ended up seeing in the normal course of business. They’re fair game for those reasons — and as her manager, you have an interest in not having your employees trash-talking each other.

If what you saw was just a little venting, I’d let it go — but you’re describing a cruel conversation that went on for months. And apparently there are already concerns about Jane’s treatment of other coworkers as well.

It’s worth saying something. I’d say it this way: “This is awkward to have to address, but when I was cleaning up Fergus’s computer to create a backup of his files, I found conversations between the two of you mocking and ridiculing Bob. I understand that everyone vents occasionally, but what I saw was extensive and pretty mean-spirited. I realize you probably thought you were speaking privately, but this was at work, using work resources, and at a minimum I need you to realize that things you write at work on work computers aren’t private. People aren’t normally snooping in what you write, but there are legitimate work-related situations where someone could come across it, and I need you to conduct yourself with that in mind. Beyond that, I’m dismayed at the cruelty I saw toward Bob in those messages.”

If she’s mortified by this, that’s a good outcome. Mortification won’t kill anyone, and sometimes it’s warranted and useful.

And since this is part of a pattern with Jane, it sounds like you need to lay out very clear expectations of how she will and won’t treat coworkers — and then watch her closely enough for a while that you have a good feel for whether she’s working on reforming or not.

{ 271 comments… read them below }

  1. JokeyJules*

    I agree with Allison 100%, also keeping in mind that Jane’s crummy attitude towards Bob (mocking him and ridiculing him behind his back) are making her a worse employee, either from the distraction of the conversation, it affecting how she works with Bob, or morale for her and Fergus.
    Jane needs to thinking about if there are any benefits at all to this mean spirited commentary. Hint: there are none.

    1. Doug Judy*

      I’ve been the Bob in this situation and I’d say on some level Bob knows. I didn’t know exactly what they were saying about me but I knew they were saying something. They also go away with it because they were good at their jobs and my manager sucked at confronting it. He knew it was happening but “didn’t want to deal with the drama”

      I no longer work there but I was miserable there because of it.

      1. seejay*

        Having had a “Jane” in our office for years, a manager that did the exact same thing, and being on the receiving end of Jane’s bullying (they actually bullied a lot of people in the office and got away with it because they were *super good* at how they managed and covered it up, only getting written up for it once in 4 years), you have all my sympathies. :( I dealt with Jane by limiting my interactions as much as possible within the constraints of my position, which fortunately was feasible, until they finally left for another company.

        (Which proved all the hand-wringing about “we can’t discipline them because we’re afraid of upsetting them and then they’ll leave and they’re too valuable to the company!” was pointless because woops, they left anyway.)

        In short, reprimand bullies for their behaviour, even if they’re not being directly bullying to their targets. Their targets know, it’s toxic to the work environment, it destroys morale, and is detrimental to your employees’ self-esteem.

        1. Doug Judy*

          Unfortunately for me, my Jane previously held my position and sat right next to me. I couldn’t escape her. I can’t be certain but I have good reason to believe she even made fun of my kids. I did tell my boss about that one and he said he’d talk to her. It was better for like a month (only because 12 of those days she was on vacation) but I left the company like two months after that.

          1. seejay*

            I’m so sorry. :(
            It’s terrible when this happens and I realized recently why it’s almost worse as an adult (at least for me personally). As a child and teenager, I actually worked on defense mechanisms for the bullying I went through so I had a lot of things in place to minimize it or at the very least deal with it as best I could. It wasn’t the best way to handle it and it did a lot of damage, but at least by the time I was 17, I had a pretty good handle on most of it. By the time I hit my 20s, it had stopped since I’d moved on and gotten away from the people that were spear-heading it.

            When I started getting bullying at work though, a lot of the feelings and emotions from childhood came flooding back and I realized I had none of the protections and barriers in place to deal with the attacks. I’d lost all the skills to handle it, since I hadn’t had to deal with it in years. My office bully was *exactly* like one of the bullies I’d dealt with in grade/high school and I just didn’t know how to deal with it because… why would someone in their 30s behave like a damn teenager?? It was so mind-boggling *stupid* and I felt powerless because of it. I think a lot of adults wind up flailing like this… it’s childish behaviour that they haven’t seen and experience in years and they don’t know how to handle it. :/

            I avoided this bully as much as possible. The next one that came along, I spoke up about and nothing was done about it for a bit. The manager who suggested I start “rethinking my thoughts so ‘coworker’ doesn’t get upset and have an excuse to yell” got told “so do you tell the woman to reframe her questions so her husband doesn’t hit her?” and that got results. :|

            1. Kately*

              Good grief. I am experiencing this currently, but with a coworker. My only consolation is that they are intermittently sickly sweet and cruel to everyone, and badmouth everyone else behind their backs, it’s not just me I am not in a position of authority, the manager knows about it and just chalks it up to “oh it’s their personality.”

              I know they are going through a rough time outside of work but I still need to be treated politely and professionally while I’m here. It’s a huge drain on my self esteem and I can’t just shake it off, I feel like I’m 13 again.

      2. Brandy*

        I have the same story. I was new to working in an office environment and I was the Bob and my Boss and a co-worker were talking about me and the main boss didn’t want to have to deal with and they really liked the Jane.

        1. The Supreme Troll*

          I’m, sorry; I know that situation is awful. I hope your boss wasn’t a “Fergus”.

      3. ro*

        I was also a “bob” in this situation once early in my career. It absolutely sucks and is completely demoralizing. I don’t care how “good” a worker is, this is crappy behavior you should NOT tolerate it. And if the employee thinks they can flaunt work norms/co-worker behavior in this way and get away with it, don’t fool yourself that they won’t test those boundaries in some other way, regarding something you may care even more about (saying this because too many managers think bullying is just interpersonal stuff they don’t also need to manage or it’s just a case of “personality conflicts” or being too sensitive).

        And about my situation, it was even worse because *I* got to read the horrible e-mails myself. (The idiot manager I was an indirect report for set up access for me to her e-mail because she couldn’t be bothered to handle mundane administrative tasks all employees usually do themselves.) I was too young and had been beaten down by the bullying so I sadly did nothing with this proof. I also arrived to the office early one morning, only to hear this manager and the other employee badmouthing me next to the elevators (they were on the 2nd floor and I was on the first, but we had an open stairwell in the building).

        I wish I could say they got their comeuppance, but only one of them did. After I left the department (internal transfer, they never called any of them for a work reference so they only found out when I gave notice), the one manager bounced around the company. She would get some direct reports and then, not too long after, all of the sudden those reports would just report directly to the division head and not her. It happened 3 times total and for the last decade she’s had no direct reports. I’d say HR finally wised up, but obviously they did not fire her, so I guess not.

        1. Don't Tread on Me!*

          Every bully I’ve ever worked with eventually got what was coming to them, one way or another. In my last situation, one bully got passed over for a promotion she’d been groomed for and the other was forced to retire.

          1. Windchime*

            The bully at OldJob made many people miserable. She was the cause of three people going out on leave for stress and depression, and fired or forced out a half-dozen more (including me). Many of us had complained to HR about her, but nothing happened until another Director finally went over HR’s head and complained to upper management. Finally, the bully got fired. So yeah, she got what she deserved but she spent several years making everyone’s life hell before that.

          2. Jaybeetee*

            Ah yes, I remember my old workplace bully, who eventually was nearly fired for multiple mistakes as well as her “personality conflicts” at work (i.e. she disliked me, and was saying negative things about me to the Director/foisting blame on me for various errors – which apparently was indeed affecting the Director’s opinion of me, until another colleague set her straight on what was going on). She claimed “burnout”, and kept her job, but was basically put on probation, had a written warning, and her work was very closely monitored for quite some time. New structures were also put in place to more easily catch certain of her errors. I eventually left the job for other reasons, she stayed on with them for a few years I think, but I don’t think she was ever happy working there.

        2. London Yank*

          I mean, there’s a lot of discussion here about how much of a “bully” Jane is because she’s discussing Bob’s shortcomings with a co-worker. Does no one here see the irony?

          This is a blog where people often complain about c0-workers and their outrageous behavior. This includes the people who say “I’ve been Bob, and Jane was my tormentor.” (Of course, Jane isn’t here to defend herself. ) Or “my co-worker who eats popcorn is driving me crazy.”

          How is this any different from what Jane is doing in LW’s post? And AAM isn’t a conversation between two co-workers. It’s a blog with thousands, maybe millions, of readers. If anything, it’s much worse.

          (And don’t tell me the difference is that AAM is anonymous. Remember that post about the two co-workers, one married, who were having an office affair? Just yesterday Alison posted a follow-up message. It turned out that that the two paramours read AAM and figured out exactly who the original letter writer was and what company was being discussed.)

          Anyone who’s posting here with stories about co-workers should remember “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Don’t be a hypocrite and complain about bullies if you’re doing exactly the same thing as Jane on blogs.

          1. Fiennes*

            I think the big difference here is that this is NOT in the workplace, and there’s no reasonable expectation that what’s said here will have any effect on the person being spoken of, even indirectly. We the posters/readers don’t know the people involved, and as we do not interact with them, what’s said here cannot color that person’s work experience.

            Some venting here is healthy. Some probably isn’t! But none of it is making the persons complained of feel bad/marginalized/picked on. That’s a HUGE difference.

          2. Lissa*

            Perception is always huge in these situations. I think it is *incredibly* easy to be like “when others talk about me, they are bullies. When I talk about someone else, I am venting” and other, more subtle distinctions. We remember the times we were on the receiving end, but often not the times we participated in it, which is what leads to nearly every person on the internet identifying as a bullying victim in high school – that’s the stuff that sticks out.

            IMO in general gossip does not equal bullying *if* there is no outward sign of it. (That’s not to say it’s good but they are two different things). However this seemed extensive and prolonged enough, and coupled with the other complaints about Jane, that I highly doubt she kept it to venting with one coworker.

          3. lokilaufeysanon*

            Pretty sure the LW updated said that the woman who was sleeping with the married man had seen LW reading the particular post on Ask a Manager and then went to HR. She obviously told her married boyfriend about it, as well. I don’t think she found AAM on her own, she was just paranoid about being found out.

            1. OhBehave*

              Yep. The OP had AAM up on her screen with her letter opened. I believe the ‘mistress’ saw the headline but maybe not the details of the letter. This is what made her fess up to HR.

          4. Ask a Manager* Post author

            This is an advice blog. The point is to get constructive advice. I actually try to discourage venting for venting’s sake here, although I can’t control it entirely.

            That’s an entirely different thing that the toxicity of two coworkers mocking another for months. That seems so self-evident to me that I’m genuinely confused by this comment.

          5. Sunshine*

            Just… what?? I’m with Alison, confused by this comment. By nature of an advice blog, we will always only have one side of the story. That’s absolutely not the same as talking behind someone’s back.

      4. NEW YEAR, NEW ME*

        I was a Bob too, and some coworkers kept me informed about what my version of Jane would say about me. I would tell my boss, and after two complaints made, Jane’s behavior toward me subsided for a while. But then it would start up again – she found out about the complaint and threatened to file one against me – so I just stopped trying to speak up for myself and going to management for help. I focused on my job search instead and left three years later.

      5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yeah. People who are this callous/unkind in “private” conversations often are not good at hiding their contempt when speaking to the coworker they’re (“privately”) mocking. I’m sure this bleeds into how Bob is treated, even if it’s not with the severity or naked cruelty as the Skype chat logs.

        1. Jessesgirl72*

          I started to say to someone below (and then deleted- trying not to come off as harsh at the commenter) that the person doing this is not a good objective judge of how respectful they are actually being to the other person’s face. Jane probably thinks she’s treating Bob well- and comparatively, I suppose it is- but how does it look to Bob, or others? It would be really unusual for that much contempt to not show through.

      6. Unofficial Front of the House Manager*

        Yup. This type of bullying directed towards me is what actually brought me to AAM a few years ago. I was laying in bed in tears Googling various things related to workplace bullying because my coworkers were so awful towards me. It was later confirmed by a coworker that the main woman would trash me to all of the new employees (which I realized right away because new staff would be fine with me until they worked one shift with her, and every shift after that, they’d treat me with contempt, didn’t have to listen to me, etc). It was horrible, and it’s one of many things that has fueled my not always consistent or constant job search. It’s also left me with pretty fragile self esteem, because this is the type of behavior that takes time to dissipate.

        1. Anne (with an "e")*

          I just want to say that I’m sorry that happened/is happening to you. I am sending you positive vibes.

        2. Bridge To Nowhere*

          I am so sorry to hear your story. I hope you are in a better work environment now. I also came to AAM looking for an answer about how to deal with bullying. I did not get any satisfaction from management or the union so I left without a job to go to.
          On the day I left I was asked to an interview, and got the job (I’d had numerous interviews while the bullying was going on and could not land any of them).
          My self-esteeem was also shot, and I truly believe I was going into those interviews and giving off bad vibes. Leaving was the best thing I did, and now I am slowly recovering. I hope you have managed to recover too. It is the most shocking thing to be bullied and I am so upset to read here how common it is.

  2. HR Manager*

    I would also recommend documenting all this in writing and have Jane sign it. I always have the disclaimer of ‘My signature acknowledges the receipt of this correspondence not necessarily that I agree with it’. Don’t just have a verbal conversation. This is egregious enough to be put in writing and in her file.

    1. Shadow*

      Or a simple email summarizing the conversation does the same thing

      I’m not a fan of the whole HR “sign this” routine

      1. HR Manager*

        Good for you.

        HR doesn’t make you sign things because we loooovvee paperwork. It’s because if I do what you suggest, the answer I will get back is, ‘I never got the email’. And then it becomes a he said she said. I’d rather make my case strong than leave it up to chance.

  3. nofelix*

    If Jane humphs and responds with “These were private conversations, I feel violated”, but agrees to treat co-workers with respect in future, is that an acceptable outcome? I wouldn’t bet on her immediately owning the mistake.

    It might also be worth looking at how Bob’s ‘variety of skillsets and value to the business’ is conveyed to colleagues.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s a good opening to explain to Jane that she should never assume stuff on work computers is private — not because people are snooping around for the hell of it, but because there can be legitimate work reasons they might come across it, to say nothing of discovery if there’s an unrelated lawsuit.

      And once you know about it, the fact that she’s creating that dynamic with one coworker about another coworker is her manager’s business.

      1. SamSam*

        A former coworker once accidentally sent me an IM on work computers to me… about me. It was not kind & he tried to cover up by saying he used the wrong emoji (….riiiiight) but it made me feel, pardon my French, like shit. Everyone in the office suddenly and mysteriously started IMing each other over their personal gchat, though I only found out about that later when a new coworker mentioned it innocently. (This was an office full of clique-y people just out of college and in hindsight I’m glad it eventually didn’t work out for me)

        Putting anything in writing or saying it aloud where another coworker can here will eventually make someone feel very unwelcome and victimized. Just do not do it.

        1. anonnyymouuss*

          At a previous job, someone was trying to IM my manager & director about me, but accidentally sent it to me instead. We’d had a big incident where he jumped in where he didn’t belong, made public changes to my programs that he had no information about or no authority to do, undermined me in front of clients, and put all of my live projects in danger. When my manager confronted him, he threw me under the bus for his mistakes. Then HE ended up IMing me saying something like “ugh isn’t she OVER this yet?” with a few other unkind comments. To which I replied, “Since you’re talking ABOUT me, I assume this wasn’t meant FOR me?” and I think I heard his jaw drop across the office. I was SO angry at the original thing he’d done, so angry that he’d been so dismissive about it, talking about me like it was my problem for being upset, and to top it off, IMing me to talk shit _about me_ when he meant to talk shit about me to my bosses and make me look worse… UGH. This was years ago and I ended up repairing things with him just for the sake of working together but not without several months of having to swallow my rage and humiliation just to sit in the same room as him. Be careful when you talk about people, especially in writing! You never know who’ll see it – and years later, they may anonymously comment about what a jerk you are on the internet.

          1. Shelby Drink the Juice*

            The IMing thing happened to me. A coworker I thought of as a friend sent me a shitty IM about me that she clearly meant for someone else. I let her off the hook because I didn’t want to deal with drama, but I keep her at an arms length now. In the IM she was saying I was always goofing off, which isn’t true at all. And I have to say now I can help but notice all the times I see her chit chatting not about work. *rolls eyes*

        2. Tina*

          At my first office job I had a coworker who was terrible at the job and tended to include really long and incomprehensible notes on the projects she did. She was also a pink curlicue font person, to give you an idea. I got this job through a friend and she and I would talk over the company chat program most days. She and I both couldn’t stand working with this other person (who did not work in our office, so we were not privy to any redeeming personal qualities) and would occasionally complain about something she did that we had to deal with when following up on her projects (the work was very collaborative in nature).

          So the way our chat program worked, if you missed an IM from somebody an email would be sent to your personal inbox which would include the whole conversation up to that point, and if you deleted the email it would be sent to the deleted folder in our department’s shared inbox so anybody could theoretically see it. I learned this because apparently one of our other coworkers had a habit of snooping in the deleted folder for personal messages to try to get dirt on people and she found one of our conversations about this woman and showed it to a bunch of people. It wasn’t that bad of a conversation but we were definitely complaining about her in it. I don’t know if the subject of the conversation ever saw it but I wouldn’t be surprised.

          1. SamC*

            I was lucky to learn the “never put anything in writing you would be mortified if an unintended audience saw” lesson from someone else’s mistake instead of my own. I never put anything in an email or work IM that I would be ashamed for a coworker, client, etc to see (except for confidential info as needed for the job).

            1. krysb*

              Judge Milian on the People’s Court says “Say it, forget it. Write it, regret it.”

            2. Windchime*

              This is good advice. In the past, I’ve allowed myself to get sucked up into saying unkind things about people in email or IM. At my current job, I’ve vowed not to go there. Not only can it hurt the subject of the unkind comment, but it just adds toxicity to the workplace. Someone IM’d me the other day saying, “Wow, [boss] is a micromanager.” I replied, “That hasn’t been my experience.” Boom. Instant shut-down of that conversation.

              And the best part of my new policy of not participating in unkind conversations is that I feel better about myself and I feel happier with my coworkers. It really is a win-win.

          2. One of the Sarahs*

            I’ve worked in more than one office with stories of how specific people learned the hard way to turn off IM before plugging in their laptops to present, and the IMs popped up on screen….

        3. Nervous Accountant*

          I wonder if this was my former coworker as well. She IM’ed me saying “NA is such a b*tch and really weird.” Once she realized she sent it to me, she didn’t even apologize, just made a lame excuse that she meant to chat ME saying “(someone else) is such a b*tch and really weird.”

          I was already feeling really isolated and outcast so I didn’t tell my supervisor or boss about it until much later, and I was actually friendly with her until she was no longer at the company but I really wish I had said something, there’s no reason I should have tolerated htat.

      2. Karen D*

        Yeah. My base-level assumption is that everybody bitches about everybody else at some point in any relationship. My best friend has even heard me voice a complaint or two about Awesome!Boss!!! and I know for sure there are nights when he goes home to his sweet wife and says “I came *thisclose* to decapitating Karen today.” Yet I can confidently say that our working relationship is great.

        This ain’t that. This is sustained, vitriolic and possibly part of a concentrated (and acted-upon) campaign to undermine a co-worker. It’s also part of a larger pattern in how Jane treats her co-workers.

        The only thing I’d have to add is that, if Fergus was there, I’d hold him accountable as well, commensurate with his level of involvement. It took two to tango here.

      3. Jadelyn*

        When I onboard new hires, that’s always something I emphasize heavily. ANY data that goes through our systems, including phone, email, voicemail, instant messages, ANYTHING that goes through our channels is considered property of the company and employees DO NOT HAVE an expectation of privacy. We reserve the right to read emails, listen to voicemails, record phone calls, etc. I tell them we’ve never actually *done* so, to the best of my knowledge, but I want them to understand the possibility is there. Which is what I’d suggest telling Jane. If you say it on a work computer, during work time, to a coworker, assume it’s public record.

        1. SamC*

          Such an important lesson for anybody to learn! Even without the company’s ability to access, things get forwarded accidentally, left in the printer, seen over someone’s shoulder… Anything written is public record, and people need to be aware and own what they say.

        2. Karen D*

          That’s a great policy. But … I would stop saying “We’ve never actually done so.” That tends to speed any message on an “in one ear, out the other” path.

          Anyone who’s been paying attention knows by now that ANYTHING communicated electronically – work, personal, whatever – could potentially be picked up and examined, taken out of context, used against them. But they have come to depend on herd anonymity, to some degree because it protects their peace of mind and lets them back off their guard a little in an area where they have a reasonable assumption that they are just a face in the crowd, that nobody is looking directly at them. It’s a very human tendency.

          But you need them to be careful, and on the balance your warning is a great way to drive that into their heads. It’s just that the “We have never done so” is a more comfortable part of your message to focus on. You could substitute it with something like “We don’t do this casually, the circumstances would have to be pretty serious,” which would still counteract any Big-Brother overtones.

          1. CM*

            The last paragraph (“we don’t do this routinely, but we will if we have reason to believe that you have violated company policy”) is exactly what my company does, and it’s very effective.

        3. JustaTech*

          When I started at Big State U one of the first things the lab manager told me was “Never email anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper”, since as state employees all our email was subject to open records laws.
          I’ve maintained that mentality ever since.

          1. Misc*

            Well, that’s just a challenge to write really awesome headlines everytime you send an email.

        4. Shadow*

          there should at least be an expectation of privacy for identity theft and medical info

          1. Candi*

            Medical records can be subpoenaed. Yes, even under federal and state privacy laws.

            You’re more likely to have your data stolen through a data breach or phishing scam then by someone working at a company who, presumably, wants to keep their job.

    2. Observer*

      In addition to what Allison said, if you have a policy, point them right to it.

      And, if you don’t have a policy in writing, get one asap.

      I’ve been told “I feel violated” and I pointed the speaker right to the policy, which she had been given (along with every single person in the place.) She didn’t like it, but it did shut the conversation down fairly effectively.

  4. Falling Diphthong*

    +1 on the value of mortification when things are mortifying. That’s supposed to be the useful effect of negative emotions–they are very unpleasant to experience, and so you change your behavior to avoid feeling mortified/shamed/etc again.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, I loved that. It’s okay for people to feel bad sometimes, and the goal shouldn’t be to make sure they never do.

    2. Kathleen Adams*

      Exactly. Shame over something not your fault? Bad. Shame because you’ve done something of which you should be ashamed? Good. In fact, great. That’s how it’s supposed to work, actually.

  5. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Fergus freely giving up his password vs. extracting all relevant info for you + Fergus not deleting these easily found files + multiple conversations over a long period of time = high levels of cruelty, bullying, and arrogance in Fergus and Jane

    It’s interesting that you only brought up Jane, although I get why you did. (Because she still works there.)

    But I’d seriously rethink Fergus. He doesn’t deserve a pass because he’s gone. I don’t doubt he left on a good note, but he shouldn’t get an overwhelmingly positive reference from you because of these videos.

    And this is stuff you happened to find. It’s not a complete account for all of Fergus’ behavior. Given the intensity of this awful behavior, aren’t you the slightest bit curious about what they said about you and everyone else?

    You remember that dating advice about watching your date to see how he treats the restaurant employees? Same concept here. Fergus isn’t off the hook because he was good to your face. How he treats everyone else, regardless of whether you’re watching, also counts.

    1. Mike C.*

      Fergus freely giving up his password vs. extracting all relevant info for you + Fergus not deleting these easily found files + multiple conversations over a long period of time = high levels of cruelty, bullying, and arrogance in Fergus and Jane

      I’m really confused by this. Handing over a password when leaving is normal, and those files aren’t always stored locally or in a place that a normal user (vs. admin) can access them.

      1. Naruto*

        There might also be a document retention policy in place for various reasons (particularly legal). It’s very possible that Fergus couldn’t delete those conversations, even if he thought of it.

      2. Snarkus Aurelius*

        If I was frequently saying terrible things about a co-worker over a long period of time, I certainly wouldn’t be doing it on work-issued machines, especially if I wasn’t able to delete any files or didn’t know where they went when I quit.

        My point is they were extremely careless. Goes to their state of mind.

    2. Madame X*

      According to the LW, Fergus resigned. Thus, there is not much that the LW can do to address or reprimand Fergus, since he no longer works for the company.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Oh I’m not saying she should. I’m saying she needs to rethink whatever impressions she had of him prior to this discovery. I’m referring to her mention of Fergus leaving on a good note.

        Just because these two weren’t awful to the OP doesn’t mean everything is okay.

    3. OhNo*

      I agree. If the OP thinks they might be a reference for Fergus in the future, it would be worth saying, “Hey, we found these things on your computer. Even though you originally left on good terms, this has cast a shadow on your time with our company. (Optional addition: We would be remiss if we didn’t mention it in any future references we give.)”

      It’s the same as those letters we’ve seen in the past where someone leaves on good terms, only for their company to discover that they were stealing or never did any of their work. You’re allowed to take it into account in your opinion of them, even if you’re no longer in a position to officially reprimand them for it.

  6. Jaguar*

    You should have a discussion with someone else over Skype about how you found them and then let Jane accidentally find that conversation.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      That’s a joke, right? (I don’t mean that snarkily—I’m genuinely curious.)

  7. Mona Lisa*

    Out of curiousity, should the OP bring up the issue with Fergus? Fergus has already moved on, but if he were to reach out to the OP for a reference at some point in the future, this incident might color her opinion of him and his work. Would she only need to mention it then? I’d imagine that might be the case. I’m trying to imagine how that phone call/e-mail would go, and all of the situations seem pretty awkward. I feel like the awkwardness might be compounded by waiting to tell him what the OP knows though, too.

    I hope that Jane is mortified once she finds out what you know because it will probably motivate her never to try something like this again. Once early in my career, I let myself get sucked into a mean-spirited exchange about a co-worker over a company message system, and I immediately regretted it as soon as I sent the message. It motivated me to do my venting with people outside of work and to realize that making fun of someone with co-workers didn’t improve my own situation, which was admittedly pretty miserable at the time.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The OP can bring it up if Fergus contacts her for a reference in the future, but it would be weird to contact him now. Imagine leaving your job and then your old boss contacts you to chastise you about something you did while you were there — it would feel pretty off and you’d be rightly indignant.

      1. motherofdragons*

        Would this be something the OP should bring up if a prospective employer calls for a reference for Fergus?

        1. fposte*

          I wouldn’t mention it specifically unless it was part of a larger picture; it might color how I’d answer questions about his relationship with colleagues, though. I think “Only afterward did we find out” stuff has to be pretty egregious to be worth bringing up on its own.

      2. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Not completely relevant to this letter, but I had a boss, who was also a terrible manager in general, do this. She did call the former employee and “demand” an explanation over something that supposedly fell through the cracks on his watch. It was then she learned that the former employee not only did what he was supposed to but it was his boss who let the issue slip between the cracks. Then he reminded her he was at his new job and couldn’t talk.

        The whole phone call took the wind out of my boss’s sails, and she never did that again.

  8. Fishcakes*

    I feel very strongly about bullying and gossiping at work, so I would personally let Jane go. Just having one person like that on staff can be poisonous for morale. Often managers have no idea that it’s going on because these people tend to be very good at playing the “kiss up, kick down” game.

    1. Managed Chaos*

      I would at least strongly consider this as well.

      When you engage in a prolonged discussion of mocking someone, it tends to make you notice their flaws more and overlook their good work. This totally kills workplace morale. Especially since she has had problems with other people as well, the problem seems to be Jane, not Bob.

    2. Life is Good*

      I agree. My old dysfunctional office was exactly like this. Little cliques that would stop whispering when someone would come into the room. Because the “mean girls” were otherwise top performers, management let it continue. (I know, because I was part of the management team and became so frustrated with trying to enforce the written rules at that place only to be thwarted by someone higher up.) you need to show Jane the evidence and let her a** go.

    3. Serafina*

      Agreed. This at least warrants a strongly-worded reprimand for engaging in workplace bullying (I don’t believe for one second that their attitude didn’t extend to their treatment of Bob and communication with other colleagues about Bob) and a warning that if it happens again towards ANYONE in the workplace, Jane will be out the door for cause.

      1. Liane*

        Given time, Jane is going to find a new Fergus and a new Bob, if OP keeps her around.

    4. llerup*

       OP writes:
      “Fergus and Jane brought up issues about Bob’s work quality. Some of the issues were valid and we worked with Bob to improve things. Jane has mentioned that she’s seen a difference (but kept on mocking in private). Fergus clearly began looking for a new job.”

      While I don’t think Jane and Fergus’s behavior is an appropriate response to anything, is it possible that the issues with Bob’s work quality were affecting Jane and Fergus to a larger extent than OP thought? I’ve seen similar behavior when management was not adequately correcting the behavior of an underperforming employee, causing others to have to pick up the slack and become resentful (perhaps also why Jane believes she is underpaid.)

      Not saying it’s ok and it does sound like Jane has other behavioral issues, but in itself I think it warrants some introspection on management’s part about why these two were lashing out against Bob in particular. Firing based on chats (which Bob seems to have had no idea about) seems extreme. Jane should be talked to and given the opportunity to correct her behavior.

      1. TL -*

        Yeah. I’m struggling with an underperforming coworker right now and it’s really hard to sort out normal quirks and missteps from the “You are the Worst!” feeling I’m struggling with in response.
        It’s not fair to them and I’m doing my best to separate out the two issues but they’re creating a lot of extra work for me and that’s definitely coloring my behavior. (Though I would not spend months talking meanly about them to other coworkers! I try really hard to judge everything I say about them before I say it.)

        1. Candi*

          Alison has at least a few dozen scripts and actions on this site to take if a worker is having problems doing their job. None of them include mocking said worker behind their back for MONTHS. (Many are of the ‘speak up and say something’ variety.)

          Being irritated with a coworker -OK. Being a gossipy scumbag -NOT okay. These things can be handled with professionalism and manners.

  9. PM Jesper Berg*

    I don’t agree with Allison’s advice on this post. It seems that the Skype messages mostly focused on Bob’s performance at work (“work quality and lack of knowledge”), which OP admitted had been an ongoing problem. Bob’s performance may well have hindered Fergus’ and Jane’s ability to do their own jobs.

    The Skype messages may also have touched on Bob’s social awkwardness, which I agree isn’t necessarily the most diplomatic focus for a conversation, but then again, we have no way of knowing how egregious these social faux-pas were. Realistically, it seems problematic, and ultimately unenforceable, to ban all discussion of social graces among co-workers. Certainly on this very blog we see many posters writing for advice on how to handle co-workers with less-than-Emily-Post behavior. Should they should all be condemned for asking for advice on AAM, which (even with names redacted) is a much more public forum than Skype?

    Finally, I’d disagree that the Skype messages constitute bullying. They weren’t comments directed at Bob’s face.

    I would tell OP to delete the Skype chats and move on.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      “attempts at humor and social awkwardness, even how loudly he chews,”

      Those aren’t work performance issues. And if they had problems with his performance, the solution was to address Bob and his managers, not talk smack about him behind his back.

      1. PM Jesper Berg*

        “Those aren’t work performance issues”

        But neither are “Waseem keeps heating smelly fish in the microwave” or “Linda gives off body odor and I feel awkward mentioning anything.” And yet people talk about these kinds of social awkwardness all the time; good luck trying to ban it. If this is some kind of firing offense, probably over half the posters on this site would have to turn themselves in.

        And while theoretically the solution might be to bring the problems up to management, in practice some problems seem too petty to escalate. (“Hey boss, can you tell Miriam to stop chewing her lunch so loudly?”)

        1. AD*

          You seem to be freely interpreting the content of what OP found in the Skype conversations. OP also didn’t go into too much detail but the language she used was “Bob was mocked”.

          We all can get exasperated with co-workers (heck, even friends or family) and need to vent a little, but *mocking* colleagues in a workplace for an extended period of time (and, from what the OP writes, with multiple targets) is not okay and I’m concerned that you’re being tone-deaf to this in your comments.

        2. fposte*

          For me it’s not that Fergus and Jane mentioned once that Bob was annoying; it’s that they had a sustained campaign about the badness of Bob, weirdly interwoven with official complaints about Bob. If they’d done the same kind of sustained mocking over regular lunches, I wouldn’t have had as much of a problem, because it’s not on work time or equipment or within Bob proximity, but I would still have had a problem with it; I just wouldn’t likely have found out about it.

          We’ve all got frustrating roadblocks, but turning denigrating a co-worker into a worktime hobby is poor judgment.

          1. BethRA*

            ” it’s that they had a sustained campaign about the badness of Bob”

            This. Add in the fact that some of the attitude in the chats has leaked into her actual treatment of her coworkers, and absolutely OP should address it.

        3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          The OP stated that the messages were mean-spirited and cruel. What you’re talking about is neutral.

        4. Dust Bunny*

          I don’t think people should be told not to heat tuna in the microwave, for one, and body odor that lasts all day long and affects how clients perceive the business, or is bad enough that it’s nauseating to coworkers affects the business, is, yeah, a problem. Being awkward with coworkers, not so much.

        5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I think that’s a liberal reinterpretation of what OP told us, and we generally credit OPs and give them the benefit of the doubt. If OP says it was a mix of performance and non-performance related snark (which they did), then I think it’s fair to assume that was true. And even if some complaints were performance-related, it’s entirely possible to complain about performance issues in an unprofessional and unacceptable way, which is what happened here with Fergus & Jane.

    2. Jeanne*

      I have to agree with you. Is it really bullying if the other person doesn’t know about it? It might be mean but it’s not bullying. If OP has more public issues to bring up with Jane, then focus on those. These Skype conversations have no more impact on Bob than if Fergus and Jane went out to lunch and said the same things. We can’t ban that.

      1. SamSam*

        As someone who once accidentally got a similar mean message about me sent to me over work IM… they absolutely do affect Bob, or could possibly directly affect him in the future.

        1. Hotstreak*

          In that case it’s being said to your face, which is different from discussing it without your knowledge.

          1. SamC*

            Except that they were discussing it without my knowledge long before the accidental IM. This stuff doesn’t stay as secret as people think it will.
            Oh and by the way – I knew they were saying mean things about me, I just didn’t have any verification until that day. Mocking coworkers is immature, full stop.

      2. Jessesgirl72*

        Except they didn’t happen at lunch- they happened on company time and company resources for months!

      3. N.J.*

        It might not meet strict definitions of bullying in the sense that the victim doesn’t know they are being targeted, but wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that using bullying language even privately, picking on his manners and personality etc. would affect how Fergus and Jane treat Bob. If you have that much disdain for a person and feed it with unprofessional complaining and nitpicking it usually seeps into your attitude and how you treat someone. Not always I guess, but to me you can be a bully without it landing on your target directly, it’s the bullying attitude I guess.

        1. Bess*

          Yeah, it’s the larger issue of how they are treating Bob overall. Pairing off for constant sh*% talk like this creates a little society in which the gossipers have more power, deserve more respect, believe they are always in the right, don’t have to give Bob the benefit of the doubt, etc. Bob doesn’t have to overhear for this for it to be poisoning the well and affecting how he’s treated there.

          Actually there’s a whole subset of covert aggression like this that uses gossip and backchannel communication to dismantle someone without ever having to do anything to their face. It can have serious and pervasive effects on someone’s reputation.

          And think of how one person can egg another on, and how a few negative remarks can paint a very negative picture of someone that colors every interaction with them. So more innocuous venting can take on a more malicious life of its own if there are two people to feed on each other.

          1. Managed Chaos*

            ^Exactly. The more you engage in this, the more it feeds off itself and just turns you completely against the other person.

      4. Doug Judy*

        I’ve been the Bob in this scenario and there’s a good chance he knows that they talk behind him behind his back. He might not know specifics but I knew, especially if it’s been going on a while.

        And whether he knows or not is irrelevant. It’s unprofessional and childish to continually talk poorly of another coworker. If it’s performance related discuss it with the manager and no one else and they can handle it.

        1. sunny-dee*

          Not to totally defend Fergus and Jane … but they *did* bring it up with management and apparently didn’t tell anyone else about it. Presumably they worked closely with Bob or had to use Bob’s output a lot, and the situation was frustrating enough that Fergus left and Jane is talking about leaving.

          Jane definitely seems to have an attitude problem, but just based on this letter, it’s hard to tell whether Jane’s attitude is the source of the problem, or if there are other issues and Jane’s crappy attitude is the *result* of those problems. (Not that a bad attitude is a good thing, but we’re all human and it’s going to happen sometimes or in some situations.)

          I’ve had a lagging coworker before and attempted to escalate the problem to management. Management (who really sucked) did two things: focus on one incredibly minor thing that had zero impact on the actual issue and then also blame me (and apparently time itself) for insisting on deadlines that were set externally. Management came back later and said “hey, did you notice improvement in X?” and yes, I did, but X was kind of irrelevant. They never addressed the core issue and the deadlines were missed.

          If something like that happened with Jane, Fergus, and Bob, of course they saw “improvement,” but possibly the areas improved weren’t the ones that mattered, or the improvement is negligible enough that the problem isn’t truly fixed.

          If Jane were the one writing in, I’d give her the same advice I’d kind of give the OP — it sounds like this is a really bad match and that it isn’t possible for either Bob or Jane to be really effective together on the team. I’d tell Jane to quit complaining and start applying externally (if she hasn’t already). While it’s possible to walk back from this kind of bad attitude, it’s rare and it takes a lot of effort, and it may just be simpler to start over.

          1. I work under a Bob, and it's horrible*

            I currently work under a Bob, who just so happens to be the owner’s brother. He is a terrible manager, does little work, and the work he does is so full of mistakes that it cost me and my coworkers time and frustration. To Bob’s facew e are always respectful, period. It is seriously so demeaning that Bob still has a job, but blood is thicker than water and there is no one to complain to. At least where I work, we’re all very careful to have these discussions away from company resources and time; but the venting is absolutely necessary. And yes, several people have left and others are looking. I love everything about this company, except for Bob, who continues to skate by and do nothing.

          2. Jen*

            Yeah I had a coworker who sexually harassed women but it started off slowly in a way that could have resembled awkwardness (some harassed do this 100% deliberately as cover). We did talk about it behind his back because it was a “gift of fear” kind of thing and management did diddly squat until the women banded together to point out his “awkward accidents” were nothing of the kind. I would be super opposed to a blanket ban for that reason.

          3. Jen*

            Yeah I quit a job once because of a similar nepotism situation and we totally vented. I mentioned above too that venting was how women at one place I worked managed to put together evidence of systematic sexual harassment by a coworker (he was careful not to over harass one person so it was a bit gaslight-y). Venting can be necessary.

          4. The Supreme Troll*

            Yes, I get what you’re saying. Bullying and harassment are absolutely never acceptable. But I think here, Fergus & Jane were, incorrectly, expecting their venting to be private and for them to have a chance to blow off some steam. The OP should address this with Jane, making it clear that demeaning and hostile behavior (towards your coworkers, superiors, and the public) will never be tolerated. And I also think that the OP should, with an open mind, ask more questions of Jane regarding why she was describing Bob in the terms that she was using. This can possibly bring a better perspective to the situation.

      5. LKW*

        It absolutely impacts the workplace. At my company we have a very clear policy on demonstrating respect for co-workers. While such an instance would not be an immediate firing offense, Jane would be counseled that her treatment of Bob and others was unacceptable and if she continued to behave unprofessionally, she could be terminated.

        You don’t have to like everyone you work with but sniping, gossiping, making jokes at a person’s expense does impact the ability of the team work cohesively and constructively. People become dismissive, even subconsciously that makes collaboration harder, ignores good ideas because they came from the “”wrong person” and limits overall productivity.

        1. ECHM*

          Amen! I’ve only been at my job a month and a half but I already want to leave because of this.

      6. Kathleen Adams*

        Bob almost certainly knew. There are people who can maintain a polite public facade while being Mean Girls/Boys in private….but not very many can keep it up long term, and these two kept it up for months. There would have been little whispers and smirks, there would have been unexplained snickering…Bob almost certainly noticed, and he almost certainly suspected what they were up to.

        It’s unprofessional and cruel, and Jan deserves to be chastised for it. And by the way, she also needs to grow up. I assume she’s not a 13-year-old any more, she so she needs to stop acting like one. What’s next -writing something mean on Bob’s locker? Jeez.

      7. Colette*

        Yeah, I don’t think it’s bullying. I do think it’s unprofessional, inappropriate, counterproductive, and mean, and it’s definitely worthy of discipline. It’s just not bullying unless it happens to Bob.

      8. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        No, dude. It’s bullying, and if you don’t want to call it bullying, you can certainly call it inappropriate and unprofessional. Because it is.

      9. Kate*

        As a bullying victim, in school and in one of my workplaces, you absolutely can tell. People aren’t as good at hiding their feelings as they think they are. Someone who is using a smile to cover disdain is very obvious.

        Besides, as others have said, one of the two coworkers involved has had complaints brought against her by other coworkers for how she has been treating them. Clearly she isn’t a great actress.

    3. N.J.*

      The thing is though, writing her at AAM to vent or seek advice allows an OP or the members of this commentariat to maintain their professionalism within their work environments. No one is saying it’s never ok to be frustrated by someone’s work quality or even their lack of social graces or manners, but it is unprofessional to ever complain/comment about it. The professionalism response has always been to evaluate how the behavior is affecting one’s own ability to do one’s job, seeking guidance from your own manager or the offender’s manager for how to handle the impacts to your job or even using scripts like those provided by Alison across a variety of situations to discuss a problem with a coworker in a limited, professional way. Jane and Fergus are extremely unprofessional because who cares if Bob chews in a gross way or is socially awkward? They are required to act politely and reasonably pleasant. We are all given a paycheck to do an effective job in a reasonably pleaasant and professional manner. They violate that by mocking him. The only professional thing they did is go to the OP when Bob’s work performance affected their jobs (if I’m recalling that mention in the letter correctly). We are allowed to dislike people and to vent about that, privately, in our personal lives. We aren’t allowed to do so at work.

      1. PM Jesper Berg*

        “No one is saying it’s never ok to be frustrated by someone’s work quality or even their lack of social graces or manners, but it is unprofessional to ever complain/comment about it.”

        I disagree (particularly when it comes to work quality). That’s a great way to create “800-lb gorilla” problems in the room that everyone knows exist but get ignored. Those are far more pernicious to the business than the risk of hurting Bob’s feelings.

        Let’s suppose, in this example, that Jane, Fergus, and Bob were aircraft mechanics. They know that Bob’s work is iffy — let’s even say incompetent. Ideally they would escalate this problem to the the chief mechanic, who would address it properly, of course. But we all know of organizations where the chief mechanic is conflict-averse, asleep at the wheel herself, or otherwise *doesn’t* address it properly (again, often the name of being “pleasant.”)

        In that scenario, you’d counsel Jane and Fergus to shut up and let Bob carry out the shoddy repair on the vertical stabilizer. With predictable consequences. I’d much rather Jane told Fergus, “double check Bob’s riveting job, please.”

        There’s a reason why aviation and the military very much have a culture of “see something, say something.” It’s because ignoring mistakes in the name of not ruffling feathers (“being reasonably pleasant”) can have deadly consequences. The stakes are perhaps smaller at a teapot manufacturer, but the principle is still there. Most organizations could do much better with a dose of bluntness than without.

        I think a lot of this applies to the social graces point, too. I’m a tremendous fan of Kim Malone’s new book RADICAL CANDOR. The author describes a situation where Sheryl Sandberg advised her to stop interjecting “um” so much when speaking. Kim initially dismissed the advice, so Sheryl openly said “you need to pay attention to this; when you say ‘um,’ people don’t take you seriously.” This story is a great example of where radical candor was much more effective than being pleasant. Most organizations could use more radical candor, not less.

        Finally, yes, social cues *do* matter. (I appreciate that various mental health issues may come into play here, but let’s assume that’s not the case.) If Bob chews too loudly, how do you know you can put him in front of a client at dinner and not offend the client? This is exactly why job interviews often include lunch; it’s to assess the candidates social skills and other soft skills.

        1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

          If there are work quality issues those absolutely should be brought up. But there is never any need to mock anyone. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen or that more people partake than should. But for it to happen repeatedly for several months is reprehensible. That’s not candor. That’s cruelty.

          1. PM Jesper Berg*

            I’ve seen a few responses to my posts that specifically quote the word “mocking.”

            There’s an old writer’s aphorism “don’t tell ’em; show ’em.” OP *told* us that the chats were mocking in tone, but the specific examples she cites to *show* us are complaints about job performance, competence, and table manners. I don’t *inherently* see any of those as “mocking,” since two are directly work-related and the third could well be indirectly work-related.

            Now, *could* they be mocking Bob? Sure, depending on tone. The fundamental problem is that we don’t have the actual Skype chats in question, of course; so we have to make inferences based on the very short description OP provided. I’m reluctant to draw an inference that they were “mocking” Bob, because OP went on to say that Fergus and Jane complained about Bob’s behavior to management, and management admitted that there was a problem. So my inference is that they had legitimate concerns. Again, my conclusion could change with different data.

            Finally, I think there’s a point where it’s just unreasonable to expect everyone to clam up about a person who has atrocious table manners. Again, there’s a lot of nuance we don’t know here. But speaking generally, manners and social norms exist for a reason, and they tend to get policed informally, outside of employee-supervisor relationships. As the Facebook saying goes, “I judge you when you use poor grammar”; the same might be said about table manners. Moreover, I also think it’s conclusory to say that “Bob knew all about the chats.” That’s assuming information we don’t know for a fact.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Wait, please don’t do this. It’s really frustrating for letter-writers when they get criticized for not including enough info to satisfy people and when people want to be “convinced” to believe what the OP has written. I ask people to keep letters reasonably short, and I tell people to take letter-writers at their word. It’s a rule of the site, in fact, so I’m going to insist that we respect that rule here.

              The OP says the messages were mocking, she gave some examples of how (“attempts at humor and social awkwardness, even how loudly he chews”), and that is perfectly sufficient for us to believe her. (Although if you find you don’t, I’d rather you skip over this letter than violate the site rules. Thanks!)

        2. BethRA*

          Aside from it not being fair or reasonable to assume that the OP is “conflict averse, asleep at the wheel…” (particularly when she’s already planning to meeting with Jane about her performance and how she treats coworkers) I fail to see how Jane and Fergus whinging away on Skyle about Bob’s skills as a mechanic will help keep planes in the air.

          Or how gossiping behind someone’s back amounts to “candor.” That’s not candor, that’s being petty, at best.

          1. The OG Anonsie*

            I don’t think this is asserting that the LW is asleep at the wheel, but that if you take the “it’s inappropriate to bring up complaints” note seriously then that will be the effect.

            It’s not gossiping to talk about someone’s performance or difficulty in working with them to other colleagues. It’s gossiping to whisper about their dating life or whatever, but performance and cooperation related issues frequently need to be discussed without the problematic person being involved. This isn’t middle school, there is no “behind their back.”

            1. fposte*

              I’m not finding anything about its being inappropriate to bring up complaints. It’s inappropriate to make your colleague the regular target of bitch sessions. If it’s not generating an actionable plan, it’s a bitch session.

              1. The OG Anonsie*

                NJ seemed to say that it’s not appropriate for coworkers to speak on the issues to each other, only to management, but clarified below that they meant “comment” differently than we were interpreting.

            2. Anon today...and tomorrow*

              It’s gossiping to whisper about their dating life or whatever, but performance and cooperation related issues frequently need to be discussed without the problematic person being involved.

              I disagree with the second part of this sentence. If the conversation about performance and cooperation issues were being discussed without any intention of actually seeking a solution to the issues then yes, they are gossiping about a co-worker. From the OP’s letter it seems that Jane and Fergus only sought out management assistance once, but the conversations about Bob went on for months. At that point it was gossip, and mean gossip based on OP’s report.

              1. PM Jesper Berg*

                Your standard seems to be “we should all clam up in embarrassment when Alan sticks his hand in the clam dip.” Society ultimately doesn’t function that way, though. People who repeatedly violate tacit social norms may get the cold shoulder.

                I agree with the above poster that this is wholly different from gossiping about who sleeps with whom; that’s rumor and innuendo. Sticking your hand in the clam dip in front of everyone is verifiable fact.

                1. PM Jesper Berg*

                  Yikes, I meant to post this in response to a comment below and somehow it got posted twice. Sorry.

            3. N.J.*

              I’m not saying it’s inappropriate to bring up concerns, I’m saying it’s inappropriate to complain or “comment.” By comment I mean make comments or snipe or nitpick. They brought up the impact of Bob’s work quality, that is professional. Harping about it or complaining is unprofessional. Discussing a work issue with your superior is fine. I guess I used the words too broadly. By comments and complaints I mean the negative connotations of those words.

          2. DaBlonde*

            Exactly, Fergus and Jane weren’t discussing how to mitigate Bob’s shoddy work and they didn’t tell him directly how his social awkwardness might effect relationships with coworkers and clients.
            They were not trying to be constructive at all, just petty and mean.

          3. Decima Dewey*

            Jane or Fergus telling a higher up that Bob’s riveting needs to be checked is bringing a problem to management’s attention.. Multiple conversations in text about how Bob’s Mom is ugly and dresses him funny are not.

            1. PM Jesper Berg*

              Your standard seems to be “we should all clam up in embarrassment when Alan sticks his hand in the clam dip.” Society ultimately doesn’t function that way, though. People who repeatedly violate tacit social norms may get the cold shoulder. Perhaps that’s unfair , but that’s how the sinews of society work. Hence you mother telling you not to chew with your mouth full.

              (Again, I’m assuming there’s no Asperger’s or such in play here.)

              I agree with the above poster that this is wholly different from gossiping about who sleeps with whom; that’s rumor and innuendo. Sticking your hand in the clam dip in front of everyone is verifiable fact.

              1. AD*

                You’re reading far, far too much into what OP has shared with us in her letter. I don’t see how the abstract principles of “violating social norms” entered into this issue, or how it has led you to seemingly condone behind-the-scenes ridiculing, mocking, and criticisms of colleagues due to perceived errors or such.

                There is a time and a place for sharing constructive feedback with folks about their work performance, and it is usually the manager’s role to provide that feedback. Making fun of or continually bitching about co-workers in chats or emails with colleagues is not productive behavior in any functional workplace I’ve been a part of. Your comments are disappointing.

        3. Statler von Waldorf*

          Radical candor would be saying this stuff to Bob’s face. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that, but it’s not bullying. This is going on behind Bob’s back, which makes it a totally different situation.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Also, candor doesn’t require cruelty. You can be direct (candid) and kind. Alison models that frequently on this blog and in her scripts.

            I really think people mistake direct communication for unnecessarily antagonistic communication. The former does not require the latter, and indeed, is less effective if it includes the latter. And the insider venting and mockery is just not ok, particularly given the tone of that venting and the length of time for which this went on (while using company resources).

            1. Statler von Waldorf*

              I agree with this, and acknowledge that it is an area that I do need to improve on, which is part of why I keep hanging around this place. Alison really does model that approach well.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I think this reaction misreads N.J.’s comments. N.J. is not saying, as a general matter, that all concerns/complaints about a coworker’s work performance are off limits. N.J. is saying that the specific kind of complaining that Jane and Fergus entertained is off limits. Of course, there are professional and appropriate ways to raise performance problems with your coworker and/or, if there’s not adequate improvement, with your manager. This isn’t about whether there’s adequate candor or lack thereof, and I think it muddies the waters to try to recast this as behavior that is in any way acceptable in a functional workplace.

        5. N.J.*

          You are taking my comment the wrong way, but I understand why you did as I probably spoke too broadly. By commenting/complaining I mean the negative connotations of those words. In your example, I would wholeheartedly support the other mechanics going to their boss and saying they have safety concerns associated with Bob’s work because of x, y, z result. I’m talking about saying to each other “Bob is a shit mechanic! The airplane is going to fall to pieces if he works on it! Double check his work because he is useless!” vs. “Hey Boss, I have some concerns about the quality of Bob’s motor work on the xy job and the abc job. He used inferior parts and didn’t follow the quality checklist after installation of the thingamajig. This will put our customers in danger/this is causing me to fall behind on my own work as I have been fixing his work against the checklist myself etc.”. There is a difference with these examples in sharing a concern vs. complaining or commenting. That’s what I was getting at.

          To the point that social graces matter. Yes, yes the do. It is a violation of manners, which is part of social grace and compartment, to talk shit about someone behind their back. It is also a violation of manners to call out someone else’s lack of a social grace in a manner that is only designed to judge and denigrate a person for this. It is s boss’ job to identify social issues in staff and bring it up in a constructive manner or evaluate its effect on the effectiveness of a set of job duties. It isn’t a coworker’s job to mark about someone’s crappy manners.

          Im not familiar with radical candor. A quick check of the book description says “Radical Candor is the sweet spot between managers who are obnoxiously aggressive on the one side and ruinously empathetic on the other. ” To me, Jane and Fergus’ behavior is over the line into obnoxiously aggressive. Candor is honesty and maybe a bit of bluntness, not gossiping, talking behind someone’s back and ridicule, which is what those asshats are doing.

    4. Dinosaur*

      I’ve worked in places where conversations like what Jane and Fergus were having seriously brought down morale. When people complain constantly without doing the professional thing (bringing concerns or workflow impediments to management for a resolution), a huge amount of negativity can build. If the OP simply overheard Jane and Fergus complaining at an non-work function happy hour or something, I’d agree that it might not be worth bringing up. But when it’s happening at work during work hours, that kind of meanness seeps out into interpersonal interactions and is hard to contain. Add in the fact that Jane has had issues interacting with other coworkers in a professional manner, and it shows that the Skype chats are part of a bigger problem.

      1. Dinosaur*

        And yes, they eventually brought up the concerns with Bob’s work performance, but it seems like they spent a lot of time trash talking him first.

        1. PM Jesper Berg*

          That’s exactly the opposite of the facts stated above, though. The first two items OP mentions in her discussion of the Skype chats are “work quality” and “lack of knowledge.” And OP admitted that Bob had performance issues, so their complaints likely had some basis in fact.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I don’t think it matters what they brought up first. What matters is this from the letter: “They mocked Bob at a professional and personal level: work quality, lack of knowledge, attempts at humor and social awkwardness, even how loudly he chews, were all targets.”

          2. AD*

            You’re really focusing on one aspect of what OP reported to the exclusion of all else.

            And OP mentioned that Bob stepped up big-time to help take on the departed Fergus’s responsibilities, so framing his performance exclusively as problematic is probably not accurate. Maybe we can drop this and move on?

      2. tiny temping teapot*

        This is very true. I’ve had to some degree a similar experience at my office, except the person being ridiculed and mocked is one of the senior people. Who has a visibility disability – literally two of my coworkers were making fun of how a person with a disability ate and cooked. They’ve also said horrible things about her work, her voice, etc. (One said they felt sorry for the senior person’s service animal for having to be with the senior person.) It’s horrible for morale. If Jane and Fergus had those conversations in front of people who work with Bob, they were putting those co-workers in the position of deciding whether to be complicit. (And yes, they tried to get me to join in even though I work directly for the senior person.)

        As I’ve mentioned here, I went to the overall manager and the employees in question seem to be getting talked to? But it’s left a real bad taste in my mouth about these coworkers and their basic humanity.

        1. Gen*

          Yes, plus saying that kind of thing in private constantly and receiving validation for it can lead to the mean people getting bolder. I worked somewhere that the trainer openly mocked a disabled employee in the training sessions but backed up the awful things with stuff like “no on either likes her”, “we’ve all said for years”, “so-and-so said X on Facebook about her”, etc. It made me feel sick to work there, especially since in that case she was excellent at her job so it was all personal/social stuff

        2. LCL*

          When I post that workers shouldn’t really tattle to management for minor stuff, it raises the question what one should bring to management. This kind of conduct is exactly what one should bring to management! Good on you for speaking up.

          1. tiny temping teapot*

            I only did it after my mother, my friend from my old job and another friend were like, no, seriously, that’s appalling. I still ended up saying to my manager I didn’t want to be a snitch, I felt bad because they did parts of their job well, etc, but yeah, again, literally making fun of the way a person with a disability eats is a pretty clear line.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      She said they were basically mocking him and it went on for months. That’s not something you want on your team.

      Asking for advice is different than ongoing mockery.

    6. Lala*

      I’d agree with you if it weren’t for the fact that other coworkers have come to the OP with other issues about Jane’s treatment of coworkers. That means there’s a pattern of Jane treating coworkers poorly, not just a one-off annoyance with an awkward/annoying coworker. The Skype convo might not be enough in and of itself to have a serious talk, but in combination with the other stuff, it’s worth bringing up. It’s an extra log in the bonfire of how Jane treats her coworkers that OP needs to douse.

      Plus, Jane does need to know that those skype chats are not as private as she thought (and the OP/Jane’s manager is well within their rights to say that’s not a kosher way to spend time at work).

      1. AD*

        Sorry, but even with an “awkward/annoying” co-worker (using your words, and that is a very subjective evaluation of anyone even the Bob in this story) you don’t get to mock or make fun of colleagues and this behavior is just straight up indefensible.

      2. PM Jesper Berg*

        “The Skype convo might not be enough in and of itself to have a serious talk, but in combination with the other stuff, it’s worth bringing up.”
        This is a reasonable point. My comments are directed at the Skype chats in particular.

    7. Optimistic Prime*

      Talking about social awkwardness or asking questions about how to work professionally with socially awkward coworkers is completely different from mocking someone about their social awkwardness and other personal traits which, per the OP’s email, is what happened here: “They mocked Bob at a professional and personal level.” They were just giving examples of the kinds of things that Jane and Fergus were targeting in their conversation.

      And here’s the thing though: Why do I, as a professional worker, need to have a conversation with anyone of my coworkers on company time about another person’s social graces? Of course I’ve vented or discussed with teammates when we’re hanging out elsewhere (for the few coworkers I am actual friends with), but I don’t think it’s problematic to hold yourself to a standard of “don’t trash your coworkers at work,” and particularly “don’t trash your coworkers in a written format that’s very easy to come across accidentally.”

      Same thing with the work quality and lack of knowledge: If you have concerns about someone’s work quality and lack of knowledge, talk to them directly or maybe to their manager. There’s no need to discuss it on Skype for months with another coworker who is powerless to do anything about it, even if we assume that this is the most professional and diplomatic of conversations (although I think it’s safe to assume that it was not).

    8. Karen D*

      The OP is the one who saw the messages, and the OP was unequivocal about the fact that they crossed the line. Moreover, they didn’t exist in a vacuum; they were a seamless fit in a larger pattern of bad behavior that involved Jane’s treatment of Bob and other employees.

    9. paul*

      I’d be a lot more inclined to be sympathetic to that viewpoint except for a few things:

      Jane has already been talked to about being mean to coworkers before.

      This was sustained and on company equipment/time. An occasional vent session is one thing, god knows, but if this was happening weekly, and they’re using company resources to do it? Eeh.

    10. Orlando*

      For what it’s worth, I was once at a similar situation as Bob, and, while I didn’t positively know that people were talking about me, I could sense it. There was a hostility in the air that was extremely unpleasant. But I couldn’t pinpoint or prove anything. This may not be bullying by your definition, and I respect that (bullying is a term that’s being thrown around a lot, so it stands to reason that it’s become somewhat subjective.) Personally, though, I would have preferred it a thousand times if someone had come up to me and said “hey, Orlando, we all think you suck because XYZ.” This whole uncertainty and “are people really hostile or am I imagining it, and are they really talking about me and to what extent,and maybe I’m just being oversensitive” was terrible.

    11. Not Today Satan*

      I agree with you. Also, I’m weirded out that the manager went back several months in the chat logs. I’d get it if she uncovered evidence of fraud or something, but trash talking a coworker? If you want to say something, fine, but this doesn’t warrant hours of reading through chat logs imo.

      1. Candi*

        The manager had to go back through the logs.

        One, that is what a good investigation does. It goes through all the evidence.

        Two, the manager had to -as part of the investigation and disciplinary process- establish the pattern and the length and duration of the activity. It affects what comes next when it’s time for the sit-down and administration of consequences for unprofessional behavior and misuse of resources.

        Three, Jane will probably get someone in their ear saying she should sue. (Because there’s always someone, IRL or on the net.) Showing a thorough investigation was done, and the evidence obtained, will genera cool even the most unethical lawyer’s jets. (An ethical one will politely show Jane the door.)

  10. HisGirlFriday*

    I think you absolutely mention what you found on Skype, and I think you make it clear to Jane that this is now a serious pattern of behavior and if it’s not remedied, there will be repercussions up to and including termination.

    If Jane says, ‘Oh, those were private and not meant to be seen,’ I think you push back on that and point out to her that they were (a) on company time (b) using company resources (c) directed to a co-worker about another co-worker and (d) there’s no more expectation of privacy on company Skype than there is on company e-mail.

    OP, you wrote: Jane is a hard worker and good with customers, but feels underpaid (she was given a large raise) and has said she is looking for work closer to home (for the past six months).

    I’d ask you to re-evaluate your estimation of Jane. You say she’s a hard worker, but she’s offended at least two co-workers (who brought it up to you) and you have evidence she was cruelly mocking a third. Is this really someone you want in your organization long-term?

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      I’d also wonder how well she’s treating all the customers. There might be ones she considers as unacceptable as Bob. Depending on the type of work she does (is she working directly with consumers, vs a company’s reps) you might not know about the business she’s losing.

  11. Malibu Stacey*

    I’m actually really surprised at this answer. I’ve seen people suspended and fired for this at every office job I have ever had so I don’t understand why the LW should act all apologetic about finding the IMs.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Where are you seeing advice to the OP to act apologetic? She shouldn’t act apologetic, but it’s worth saying “this is awkward to address” (if that’s the part you’re referring to) because the reality is that people feel weird about their private messages to someone else being seen and discussed.

      1. Malibu Stacey*

        That part as well as the providing the explanation for how the IMs were found – if it was my employee I’d be more concerned with making it clear that I would not tolerate that than explaining how I came across them. Maybe if it were a personal chat program but not a business one.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think it’s important to explain how you came across them, because otherwise you’re going to set off a rumor mill about people’s emails being monitored.

          1. Malibu Stacey*

            Ok? Isn’t it common knowledge that IMs and emails are the property of the employer and subject to review? It’s one thing to make it clear that there’s no privacy on work IM but it’s another to be worried about what other people are going to think.

            1. Lily in NYC*

              There’s nothing wrong with restating the obvious. It’s not like there’s a time limit for the conversation so what’s the harm?

              1. Malibu Stacey*

                Myrin said it better below, but the impression I got is the response is overly worried about making sure Jane knows the boss had a right to read her “private” IMs – because of course she did.

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              It’s pretty common knowledge that they can review them, but in healthy offices, they’re not constantly being reviewed. Making people think they are is going to be fodder for rumors and paranoia.

            3. LBK*

              Eh, I think there’s a pretty big difference between knowing that broadly speaking, your communications aren’t private vs thinking someone is actively monitoring what you say as you say it. It’s not so much about worrying that you’ll be caught saying something bad as it is about worrying what would cause your manager to feel the need to monitor your communications like that. Such tight oversight is rarely a good sign.

          2. Detective Amy Santiago*

            There were actually two people fired at my old job because one of them had their emails flagged for some reason and in the course of reviewing them, IT found conversations between them where they mocked their direct supervisor.

            I mean, obviously this situation is a little different, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing for people to be aware that anything on their work computer might be monitored.

        2. Optimistic Prime*

          In addition to what Alison said, I think it’s also important to impart the knowledge that Skype messages can be *easily* “overheard” in the normal course of doing business. Nothing extraordinary had to happen for the manager to come across this – as simple as someone leaving and them pulling completely unrelated work.

  12. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    Maybe I’m just overly paranoid, but I would never imagine that anything I sent on a work computer was private. That aside, definitely bring it up. As someone who was bullied by a coworker, I wish my bosses had done something. Instead I got a new job because the daily panic attacks and hive breakouts weren’t worth it. Not saying it’s that bad with Bob, but there’s no reason to let it get there. Especially if he is as valuable as you say.

    1. Jeanne*

      I have been bullied too. It was horrible. But how can you be bullied by something you don’t know about? OP is clear that Bob knows nothing about this.

      1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

        Bob knows nothing about the conversations, yes. That much we know. I still think that this behavior needs to be stopped. This wasn’t a conversation over private computers at home after hours. This was at work. If other coworkers are complaining about Jane’s treatment of them, it’s a relatively safe assumption that her behavior towards Bob would seep out in other ways. And if it hasn’t yet, this will be a good opportunity for the OP to take a step towards preventing that.

      2. Karo*

        Bob may not know the content, but there’s no way that Bob doesn’t know about the dislike, and it can truly affect working relationships.

        1. Kathleen Adams*

          I agree. There’s no way he doesn’t suspect at least some of this. It went on for ages, and no matter how careful they were, there’s no way some of that nasty, disrespectful sniping didn’t show up in their face-to-face treatment of Bob.

  13. Jeanne*

    I have never used Skype. I thought the conversations on Skype weren’t saved. Is this something the company would set up or am I just ignorant?

      1. Anon for this*

        But, you can also have them automatically deleted if you change the settings (although that may require an administrator’s permission).

    1. LKW*

      Chat logs can be automatically saved, manually saved and some (many) companies are setting up vaults to save all conversations (not limited to company provided tools) because of issues like this as well as litigation. IM is a very informal communication tool and people are more likely to dash something stupid off and make stupid comments or promises (“You can have this product for 50% off if you let me use your weekend place in the cabin”) that violate company policy, regulatory policy, etc.

      1. Optimistic Prime*

        Mine too, and our conversations are automatically logged/saved and emailed to us in a separate box for conversations.

      2. Lady Bug*

        Same. There is a folder in our Outlook which has all our Skype conversations saved.

  14. LKW*

    If you don’t have a policy regarding using work provided laptops and tools I suggest you do so immediately. Communicate it broadly and with relative frequency. In the US, there should be no expectation of privacy. If you’re in Germany, different case. .

    I would sit Jane down and say that there have been complaints about her interactions with coworkers and that treating co-workers disrespectfully is unacceptable. She can protest and then you can bring up the Skype evidence. Reading direct quotes fro the conversation will highlight some of the more egregious examples of unprofessional and intolerable behavior. You can reinforce that you value her and have given her a raise tbut that her continued employment is highly dependent on her ability to be a professional.

  15. The RO-Cat*

    It’s rare that I disagree with Alison, and this is one of the occasions. As a manager I had to deal with somewhat similar situations (technical details differing), and I tend to be a lot more firm, verging on harsh, when it comes to such things. My experience is that attitudes like Jane and Fergus’s usually seep into their real-world behavior. Although we don’t know for sure, my money is in Bob being in the receiving end of pointed comments or passive-aggresive attacks at least several times. That is why I tend to nip it in the bud or, when too late (like this case) make it very clear that it’s a one-time-is-already-one-too-many kind of thing.

    I’ve yet to meet the person who can completely compartmentalize feelings and behavior and be 100% professional with people they don’t like. This stuff has to cease now or – compounded by other things she said – Jane be gone.

    (Side note: I’m a people pleaser, so me acting on this stuff means it’s BFD in my book).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting that I’m coming across as not firm here — I definitely intended to communicate the OP does need to be firm about this and to keep a close eye on Jane in the future (and to be willing to act if there’s any further evidence of problems). Rereading the post, though, I can see how it could be read as softer than that.

      1. Myrin*

        I think what people are picking up on – or at least what I did – in your proposed script is that there seem to be a lot of… qualifiers (?) in it. Not sure if that is the right word. Disclaimers, maybe? I’ll copy the paragraph and put in italics everything I mean:

        This is awkward to have to address, but when I was cleaning up Fergus’s computer to create a backup of his files, I found conversations between the two of you mocking and ridiculing Bob. I understand that everyone vents occasionally, but what I saw was extensive and pretty mean-spirited. I realize you probably thought you were speaking privately, but this was at work, using work resources, and at a minimum I need you to realize that things you write at work on work computers aren’t private. People aren’t normally snooping in what you write, but there are legitimate work-related situations where someone could come across it…”

        All of the parts in italics (which are in every sentence!) could, in my opinion, be left out completely – they seem much too softening to me, like the OP somehow has to justify her finding out about these chatlogs and that her goal is to convince Jane that she didn’t snoop and only found out by accident and wasn’t looking for anything in particular and that she doesn’t want to give Jane a reason to be upset or question her. I agree with the message in general and I do like the script but I can understand why people feel like it’s not firm enough.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Ah, yeah, I can see that. If I were rewriting it, I’d take out “I understand that everyone vents occasionally” and “I realize you probably thought you were speaking privately.”

          I also think, though, that you can communicate firmness in tone and in the expectations you lay out for going forward. But it’s a very fair critique!

        2. Malibu Stacey*

          Yes, this is exactly what bothered me about the response. You phrased it better than I did.

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yes, I agree. I understand Alison wanting to stave off speculation that Big Brother is Reading All Your Chat Logs, but I do think this is serious enough that it doesn’t require much qualification on OP’s part. And OP should absolutely bring this up with Jane. From my perspective, the problem described is serious enough that it rises to “one warning, then termination.”

          1. Liane*

            In this case, I think it might be helpful if Jane gets the impression that ” Big Brother is Reading All Your Chat Logs.”

        4. The Supreme Troll*

          Myrin, I’m going to disagree with you here. In this case, the softening language has some relevance. Jane (yes, wrongly) expected her conversation with Fergus to be private. While I don’t fully agree with how Fergus & Jane conducted themselves here, they actually were assuming that they were venting, and they didn’t think a 3rd party would be snooping in. Which, of course, yes, was really incorrect to feel safe doing so on a work computer.

          So the OP needs to put that wording in here, because I don’t think Jane has to be punished & shamed for how she felt. But she needs to be admonished for how she conducted herself in interacting with her coworkers on the job.

    2. Cobol*

      Addressing Allison’s point below and this, I agree 100%. I separate bullying and this type of Mean “Girl” behavior (apologies for the gendered term, as obviously it can be men or women).
      I think it needs to be addressed very specifically and explicitly that the comments/behavior are noticed and will counteract rewards/promotions based on good work.
      High performers often don’t address other issues they have, deeming them not integral to the job, and too often managers let it slide.

  16. Say what, now?*

    Oh, yeah. This is a big one for a lot of work places. I had some co-workers who would talk smack about other employees everytime they had a smoking break. It became a huge issue because people would over-hear them and repeat it to the offended parties. The issue was addressed several times and eventually tamped down but the damage was done. The trust was gone between those employees.

    So yes, address this. You might even want to mention this as a potential consequence of these sorts of conversations. You hurt your ability to even function in the group on an equal footing.

  17. What's in a name*

    Lot of interesting comments. But given what has been told about Jane’s and Bob’s interactions with coworkers it appears that there is a chance that Jane is the instigator and Fergus a follower, all be it willingly.
    I have to admit to being a bit puzzled about the raise given to Jane. Did she get because she was underpaid, or because she complained about being underpaid or because you want her to stay? Everyone from the CEO to the receptionist will have complaints of none type or another about aspects of their job. They all should receive a hearing but action should only be taken if there is a legitimate basis for the complaint.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I don’t think whether Jane was the instigator makes a whit of difference. I also don’t think we have enough information to know who the “instigator” was. For all we know, Jane and Fergus are the two Muppet judges who sit in the balcony and heckle everyone, even if they save their harshest nastiness for “private” Skype chats.

      1. Statler von Waldorf*

        For the record, those two muppets judges snarking in the balcony are named Statler and Waldorf. Just saying.

  18. MommyMD*

    In many companies she would be fired for doing this on company time with company assets. In addition to the very inappropriate context.

  19. Zathras*

    Brains are funny things. Even when it’s occasional venting, the negative talk / complaining about a coworker reinforces an ingrained negative attitude toward them. You don’t want to be in a mental space where your brain shortcuts to “Bob is an idiot” every time there is some minor issue in your interactions with Bob, because it will blind you to things *you* need to work on, or ways in which Bob is actually a valuable contributor.

    I learned this the hard way once – I was a team lead and ‘managing’ (without ability to discipline/fire) a guy who was frankly a terrible employee. I vented a lot to other team leads and was generally grouchy about being stuck with this guy. One day he came to me questioning whether a task I had given him was really the right approach. I assumed he was trying to get out of a task he didn’t like, or else just challenging my authority for the heck of it. I told him to get back to work, without really listening to his concern or checking on things for myself. It turned out he was right and we should have changed course – the issue he raised ended up being a huge problem.

    I wasn’t wrong about the guy – he *was* super lazy and obnoxious in general – but particularly at work you need to be in a headspace where you can see the big picture.

    1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      “Zathras understand. .. No. Zathras not understand, but Zathras do. Zathras good at doings, not understandings.”

      1. Statler von Waldorf*

        Yes. Zathras is used to being beast of burden to other people’s needs. Very sad life. Probably have very sad death. But… at least there is Symmetry.

    2. CM*

      This is very insightful.

      Unrelated to Zathras’ comment, I agree with those who say Jane should just be fired. There is evidence that she has made inappropriate comments about three different coworkers, and that’s just the people the OP knows about. I don’t see Jane completely changing in a way that repairs relationships among this group.

    3. BeautifulVoid*

      Agreed. And while you might get there eventually anyway, to me it seems like a really fast track to getting to the BEC* stage with someone, in which they can do nothing right.

      Luckily, I’ve never dealt with this professionally, but I did have to take a giant step back from a friendship when I kept getting sucked into his vortex of negativity, which included complaining about mutual friends. I said some regrettable things, as sometimes it seemed like we were playing a game of “Who can make a nastier comment about X?” We were feeding off each other, as I imagine Jane and Fergus were, and it wasn’t pretty.

      I was also stupid enough to do this over a messaging program, so it’s possible the things I said are saved somewhere. I ultimately wound up ending the friendship for a bunch of reasons, and I’ve wondered if he’s ever passed along what I said to people I’m still friends with. I thought about pre-emptively coming clean, but decided to deal with it only if it comes up, and if it does, own up to what I said and apologize profusely (and accept if my friends are hurt).

      *Since someone always asks, BEC = B*tch Eating Crackers, where “everything this person does annoys you, even something as simple as eating crackers”

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        On a personal level, I learned this hard lesson by losing a good friend at the ripe age of 17, by joining in on one of those nastier comment contests. Because one of the people involved reported back what I’d said (not what she’d said, mind you!) and controlled that narrative. It was a devastating lesson to lose your best friend at 17, but I have to say it’s something that has served me well since then. I am very careful to only say things about people that I’d be willing to accept the consequences for if they were standing behind me.

        I have absolutely applied this at work, and it has prevented me from being drawn into others venting and drama.

    4. Kate*

      This reminds me of a quote I once saw on a poster: Thoughts lead to words, words lead to actions. Or something like that. The gist is the more you think it, you strengthen those feelings, the more likely you are to act on those feelings.

  20. bopper*

    We have a guy who is great technically, but is a loud bulldozer type person. My coworker and I work with the guy, but the way we deal with it is to gripe to each other via IM or we would go crazy. We treat him respectfully to his face but omg he is a lot to deal with.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      You don’t seem to be absorbing the many comments about why that is unacceptable and doesn’t really deal with the problem- only enforces it in your head.

      I sympathize with you, I really do- it’s something I fight against in myself.

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, it’s really tough to get out of that cycle; it really does feel like scratching an itch when you do it. But it’s the kind of itch where scratching it just makes it worse in the long run.

        1. Optimistic Prime*

          Yeah, I think it makes it easier and faster to get to BEC status if you’re constantly griping about someone via IM or other methods.

          1. fposte*

            Yup. And then that’s the habit of how you bond with the other person, and it takes up the space more positive social contact at work could have.

            1. Jessesgirl72*

              Yes, it’s just a circle of negativity! And it breeds. All if takes is a couple people overhearing it to join in, or start griping on their own because it’s “acceptable” now.

              You’re just better off addressing/solving the things that can be fixed, and letting go of the rest- especially if some of it is things like the way someone chews. When it’s gotten to that point, you need to accept that the problem is really you, not them!

          2. Electric Hedgehog*

            You know, I just had a conversation with a friend today about how I think she’s getting to BEC stage with a coworker, and maybe she needs to step back and try to read the emails with a more charitable viewpoint. It’s really hurting interdepartmental relations in that case. I don’t mind people occasionally venting at me, but when all our conversations become ‘Bob is SUCH a jerk’, maybe we should look at the other person in that relationship.

        2. paul*

          That constantly is key.

          Like, an rare every few months vent session about a person that’s annoying the hell out of you? Unlikely to make things worse.

          Every week or every day? Oh yes, very much it’ll make things worse.

          1. fposte*

            And do you talk about other things more often, and are they positive? Or is bitching your only method of solidarity?

            1. paul*

              Those are also relevant, but I can’t picture a venting session with someone I don’t connect with in other ways. I only vent where I feel safe doing so.

          2. The OG Anonsie*

            I don’t think that’s necessarily true. We know it’s probably true in this case because of Jane’s other issues with her other coworkers and the fact that much of the comments sounded like ridicule versus just the issues with performance and cooperation. But I’ve been in plenty of workplaces where there are people or departments who cause constant disruption to my/my colleague’s work, and we can talk about it (and bitch about it) on a regular basis without it being Mean Girls.

            If you’re constantly tripping over someone who’s hard to deal with at work, sometimes going “Oh my god, every time” to someone who understands the same difficulty is the only way to put it aside and keep calmly dealing with the situation. For some people that will just get them more worked up and more likely to be a wad about it, but that’s not universal.

            1. fposte*

              Or you become Mean Girls without realizing it. Or you just make the situation worse for yourself by engraving it deeper.

              I think most people bitch occasionally. But it really doesn’t help and generally makes things worse to make that the automatic response to somebody; if that’s the rut you’ve fallen in, it’s worth trying to make a new pattern.

            2. Colette*

              I’d challenge that idea – even “oh my god, every time” is conditioning you to look for failure, not success. I doubt you remark positively when they come through.

            3. Jessesgirl72*

              Having someone else there to say “OMG” every time just reinforces the idea that you’re right all the time and the other person is wrong. It’s not healthy or helpful. It’s also not usually true.

              Even if you could make a small change, to “I know Bob is really frustrating sometimes. But I’ve found that when I do X and Y, I have an easier time getting him to give me what I need. ” changes it to something that actively helps from something that is just complaining.

              1. The OG Anonsie*

                You misread my comment– I didn’t say you should complain about the person every time, I gave “this happens every time” as a random example of an aggravation.

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yeah, Zathras described this well upthread. Sometimes indulging in these gripe fests reinforces your negative feelings for someone in ways that undermine your effectiveness and ability to harness useful information/contributions from the person that’s your BEC. Overall this isn’t good for teams or organizations.

    2. turquoisecow*

      I used to vent over IM with a coworker about our inefficient and useless supervisor. We had issues with other coworkers not pulling their weight, and when we brought them to him, he would vent along with us and do nothing to insert discipline. The people above him were aware of his defects but also did nothing to insert leadership into our group. Venting was really the only thing we could do in that situation.

  21. LiveAndLetDie*

    I agree with Alison’s advice. I also think that this PLUS the other issues with Jane regarding her communication and treatment of others that were brought up by two non-Bob employees points to Jane being a possible drain on morale. If she was constantly negative/mean/critical of Bob with Fergus, and she’s also getting communications complaints elsewhere, it is highly likely that her tendency to vent unprofessionally with coworkers about each other is not limited to just Fergus, and that she’s dragging others down with her negativity. It is really easy to cause others to spiral into that same negativity with you. My own company had a major morale issue a few years back because a clique of unhappiness formed and when those people moved on (some found new jobs, others were let go), things were palpably different at work. Jane sounds like a toxicity issue.

  22. Naruto*

    Frankly, if Jane isn’t contrite, that’s a good result, too. Because then you have learned something really useful about her and can make the decision to move on because she isn’t a good fit for your office culture moving forward.

  23. blue lampshade*

    For what it’s worth — I was the Bob in that situation, and I was harassed almost constantly on a daily basis. Yelled at. Berated. Emails calling me stupid and worse. Attacks on how my body looked.

    It could be worse than what you just saw.

    1. TootsNYC*

      yeah, actually, I might want to use my employer privilege and go look through back emails Jane and Fergus sent to Bob.

  24. Anon for this*

    Not that I disagree with how this should be handled, but as someone else pointed out, I guess I’m also a little sympathetic to the potential frustration that Jane and/or Fergus must have felt. It is deeply frustrating to deal with someone who you perceive as not carrying their weight due to a gap in skills, etc., especially if you feel that your boss doesn’t notice and/or doesn’t care. And the venting does spiral out and creates a toxic unprofessional environment. But, I wonder what other ways are their to constructively deal with that sort of situation?

    1. SamSam*

      I complain about a couple coworkers a lot – but only about how their performance affects my job (“ugh, Fergus never answers his damn emails. I think he just picks 1 out of 5 emails to answer at random & deletes the rest.” “What exactly does Jane even do around here?”) and only in private situations.
      Once you get into mocking someone for how they carry themselves, their appearance, little things like eating habits that may be annoying but don’t affect your job… that’s so toxic.
      I don’t know how to solve that except with maturity, or making sure the work environment isn’t toxic to begin with (i.e. isn’t breeding this kind of behavior)

    2. Jessesgirl72*

      The OP said that some of the complaints had merit (implicating that some did not), and that those were addressed. Then the OP said that Jane specifically gave lip service to Bob’s improving- because they cared enough to follow up with her to see if the problems were being addressed- while continuing to slam Bob about those things on Skype. That’s not someone who is just frustrated because Management doesn’t care. If she was still seeing problems with these things, they came to her and gave her an opening to address it. She chose to say everything was great, while still gossiping and sniping.

      The constructive way to deal with it is to accept that you’re not always right, and sometimes things are just personal gripes, not something you have a professional right to complain about, and that you need to get over them!

      1. sunny-dee*

        Again, Jane could just be terrible, but it’s also possible that management didn’t adequately address the situation.

        I had a coworker who threw a tantrum in a team meeting — yelling, huffing and puffing, waving his hands on video calls — because he didn’t want to make some process changes that we were doing as a department. And then he quit showing up to meetings or appearing on company IM (we’re a distributed team). I told my manager, and the guy started showing up to meetings again, and refused to say anything. Wouldn’t give status, wouldn’t update work items assigned to him, didn’t actually do any work. But he showed up to team meetings, and sat there — and my manager kept asking me if I had noticed all the “improvements” this guy had made. I mean, I noticed he was dialed into the calls, but that didn’t matter at all to the project. And nothing else was addressed.

        It is entirely possible that there were minimal changes made, but those changes were in areas that didn’t matter or weren’t of adequate quality or whatever, and if management doesn’t seem to care, what can you do? Considering Fergus left because of Bob, my guess is that at least in part, it wasn’t enough.
        (Or again, Fergus and Jane are horrible people, but we can’t know that for certain from the limited details in the letter.)

        1. Candi*

          The LW doesn’t say Fergus left directly because of Bob.

          The LW says Fergus and Jane complained about Bob. Bob was told he had to improve, and the company worked with him on that. And Bob improved.

          Jane agreed to people’s faces that Bob had improved, but continued to snipe about him in private. The context indicates that this was probably in the chats with Fergus.

          Fergus chose to leave about this time. What this may or may not have had to do with Bob, and Bob’s improving at his work, is not clear.

          Bob has stepped up to cover Fergus’ work. ‘Big time’. Other employees like him.

          But Fergus leaving directly because of Bob is not stated, and what implication there might be points to the ongoing insult fest and Bob’s improvements (and therefore, showing he can do better -bullies hate that) as possible motivation for leaving, not Bob’s initial work issues and whatever problems resulted.

    3. Naruto*

      If you’re that frustrated and there’s nothing you can do to change things, BEC-style venting isn’t the solution. Probably the solution is to find a new job. But if not, at least make a real effort to minimizing this kind of venting.

  25. MB*

    There were two employees at my small office that had an ongoing email chain on company email bashing the company and everyone who worked there. It was apparently a very long thread that had gone on for months. When one of the employees resigned, the thread was discovered by the company owner and the other individual was fired. Long story short, do not use company email or equipment to talk badly about your company and coworkers. It will be discovered!

  26. Academia Escapee*

    We had a group of 3 “mean girls” who were using the company chat function to ridicule just about every other co-worker. This was going on for months, and the ringleader thought she was being smart by disabling the log feature on her chat. We had cause to review the chats due to an employee complaint (and surprise – the ringleader’s comments appeared on the chat logs of the other two she was talking to). The three were summarily fired for misuse of company property, company time, and failing to abide by the company mission statement that includes words like respect and integrity. The ringleader had been with the company for 10 years and was shocked that she was being let go, thinking that she was above discipline due to her tenure. If these had been exemplary employees otherwise, a PIP might have been in order. But they were so egregious with their comments and flagrant lack of concern for doing their jobs that it was a blessing to have cause to get rid of them.

    1. Flyer*

      We had something similar where I worked previously with three people involved. They made vicious comments in email and chat about their boss and others. It was so bad that they were immediately dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct. (Two were excellent at their jobs so it wasn’t your company!)

  27. Former Retail Manager*

    You can talk to Jane and I predict that it will be the driving force that encourages her to move on sooner rather than later, which it sounds like OP would be okay with.

    I read this a bit different and I wonder how much OP actually knows about Bob’s interactions with his co-workers day-to-day. You mention that both Jane and Fergus do/did great work you had no issues with either of them (save for Jane’s attitude toward some other co-workers) and admit that Fergus left and it was worded in such a way that I’ve concluded that he chose to do so in large part due to Bob. And Jane is actively looking and feels underpaid. Her big raise seems to support that she was indeed underpaid. So you have two competent employees who do good work who are extremely frustrated with one person to the extent that one has left and the other is looking to do the same. Could the situation with Bob (his knowledge, skills, interactions, etc.) be worse than you think? I’m by no means saying that Bob deserved what came his way, but I think it’s worth examining why one person seems to be the driving force behind two competent employees leaving/looking to leave.

    I also realize that it’s possible that both Jane and Fergus are just jerks. Just a suggestion to consider it from another perspective, if you haven’t already.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      If two other people have come forward to complain about Jane’s treatment of them (and if two came forward, how many are keeping silent?), and the OP has evidence of Jane’s open disdain for Bob, then I don’t think the OP should focus too much time worrying that Bob is the problem here. And the OP specifies that others there value Bob’s skills and willingness to help. The drama is surrounding Jane, not Bob.

      1. sunny-dee*

        That’s one thing I said up above — we don’t know if Jane is negative and causing a bad situation or if she has really mishandled a bad situation and it turned her negative. (Either way, it’s probably time to leave for her.) But for the OP’s sake, this should at least be considered.

        Bob *is* part of the drama because Fergus left because of Bob, at least in part. There are no complaints about Fergus’s personality or interactions with coworkers in this letter and he was a good employee / worker, apparently. Both Fergus and Jane complained about Bob’s work.

        It could be that Bob interacts differently with Fergus and Jane than he does other coworkers. Like, he could be really good at task A (which the other coworkers need) and terrible at task B (which Jane and Fergus need). So, in that sense, the other coworkers’ good opinion is only relevant as far as it goes toward Bob’s core function (and vice versa for Fergus and Jane).

        If it were just the catty messages, that would be one issue. (A serious one, of course.) But Fergus left because of Bob, Jane was apparently substantially underpaid, and Bob had legit performance issues in addition to some really valuable skills. There seems to be more going on than Jane being the jerk of the office.

        1. paul*

          I think those are kind of related-yet-seperate issues.

          Bob may really suck, IDK. But what they’re doing is also toxic. And so is underpaying people. All those issues need to be looked at, but Bob being kind of crappy doesnt’ really excuse non-stop complaining sessions about him either, particularlyw hile people are supposed to be working, and using company resources.

          1. sunny-dee*

            No, it doesn’t at all, but it does change from “Jane is the bad guy” to “there’s a lot going wrong here.”

            Jane is handling this horribly, and I’m not giving her a pass. But I’m saying the OP should look at all of this and address the right problem, not just say “Jane sucks, problem solved!” It may be that Jane sucks and that’s the center of everything. But it’s also possible that Jane was chronically underpaid (making her generally unhappy) and then a coworker was performing badly enough that it was affecting her daily work and management either didn’t respond appropriately or responded too late. In that case, her attitude is still definitely a problem — but there are underlying issues there that are causing or worsening that problem significantly, and if those aren’t dealt with, then there is a good chance the pattern is going to repeat itself.

            1. Biff*

              I agree with everything you said here, and would like to add another possibility. When I was Jane/Fergus at my old job, it was because we had a guy who had been hired because (and I speculate here somewhat) our administration didn’t really understand how federal background checks worked and thought that his position within Jr. Law Enforcement would mean that he’d be an automatic pass. At first, he really seemed like a good employee. But he was a mess, and the coworkers on projects with him realized this long before administration came to understand he was making our lives a lot more difficult than they needed to be. His big ‘skill’ of passing a federal background check was a moot point in the end because we got none of the anticipated federal contracts. Even if we had, a few weeks later he’d get caught discussing illegal activities in the break room and I believe he got a DUI or arrested or something else which made it impossible for him to pass the background check for future projects. And yet, had you asked administration about our “Bob” even two weeks before he was let go, he was valuable to the company, brought in some hard-to-find skills, and just needed some time to find his feet. They were deluded, and we definitely lost morale and productivity after others saw how this guy was protected from consequences. I can’t say for certain that anyone quit for the sake of needing to work with this guy, but I do believe several folks were looking, beyond me.

    2. Jane Frustrated*

      I too wonder how much OP knows about her staff interaction when she isn’t present.

      At my (small, fewer than 10 employees) office, it might look like we have two sets of mean girls. But there is a lot of history that the boss doesn’t know – and has stated that she doesn’t want to know because she doesn’t want to deal with office drama.

      I don’t think our supervisor knows that the baby boomers (there are two) do not respect anyone under 40, except for the one woman who has a baby and came from a position that they find prestigious. The boss has noticed that they chit-chat a lot, but she doesn’t know that they aren’t talking about work stuff. Or she doesn’t and doesn’t care. It’s pretty relaxed around here.

      And yeah, I’m part of the other set of mean girls. The two older ladies are so terrible and disrespectful to us that we often find ourselves being a bit BEC about one of them and just kind of wary of the other. They don’t act like we know anything and are always lecturing. I’ve been at this organization longer than either one (and one is an admin who decided she didn’t want to be an admin and made up her own business cards) and they can’t bother treat me like I’m part of the team.

      1. Former Retail Manager*

        Late to the party in my response, but your first sentence is another point I don’t think I specifically mentioned. If the issues with Bob had to be brought to OP by Jane and Fergus, it leads me to believe that OP is not as in-tune with the interactions between employees as they may believe they are. And I think your own situation is an excellent example of the fact that things are not always as they appear, especially with regard to management’s impression of someone or an overall situation.

    3. Kate*

      And yet OP mentioned that Bob has valuable skills, is a great worker, and that multiple coworkers value him. When you hold that against the fact that Jane is a great worker and has multiple complaints against her *from* coworkers, it’s sort of telling.

      1. sunny-dee*

        So does Bob, though — from Fergus and Jane and those were valid (and work based, not personal, so there is another knock on Jane). Bob is both sides on the work scale — he has some good skills, and he had some performance problems. It is entirely possible that the performance issues are affecting Jane and Fergus and not affecting the other coworkers (and, simultaneously, that she doesn’t encounter his valuable skills). It doesn’t say what their roles are or how they interact, but it’s possible.

        I’m not saying Jane isn’t a problem. I just don’t think she is the sole problem. I don’t think Bob is the problem either; honestly, it feels like there are management issues.

        It could also just be that Jane and Fergus are terrible people and everything is roses when they’re both gone, but it’s worth it to the OP to consider that other factors may be in play.

        1. The Supreme Troll*

          Yes, and I think that, although the OP has said that Bob has made major improvements, this can be somewhat vague. (Maybe in the eyes of Fergus and Jane, he has gone from being an atrocious employee to simply being almost mediocre)? I know that the OP has said that Jane noticed the improvement, but I think it could also be a small change.

          I have, in private with friends, blown off steam against some really lousy bosses and shitty coworkers that I’ve had the misfortune of working under and dealing with, using extremely bright, colorful French. Nothing in writing, just talk, but these were releases that I definitely needed at the time.

  28. Marillenbaum*

    After reading this, I’ve realized I’ve been the Jane/Fergus in this situation lately. Yikes!
    I was a teaching assistant for a professor I did not respect (as an academic, a person, or a teacher) and his admin. I definitely let myself get to BEC stage in the amount of venting I did; while some of it was justified (dude was casually racist, but seemed to think it was cool because we were both POC?), I also needed to just get out of that situation sooner than I did. This is an important reminder.

    1. FlibertyG*

      I admit, I realized the same thing. I have a coworker who consistently vents about a third coworker to me, and I guess I haven’t really done enough to shut that down. It does get really petty and small-minded. If you saw the chats I guess I’d look just as bad as her, although I don’t say much / rarely pile on – but I’m still the other person in the conversation. I’m not sure how I can get away though, she’s really down on this coworker (and her job in general right now) and clearly looks to me to vent at. I might send her this thread and suggest that we need to clean up our act.

      1. Nolan*

        I’ve been a Jane, thankfully, once someone pointed it out to me I stopped. Since then I’ve encountered several more, at my level or higher. If I don’t feel like I can call them out, or if it’s something minor but I want to discourage it becoming habit, I’ll just give really bland answers and that usually shuts the gossip down. So if someone prone to bitching starts up I might just say “I hadn’t noticed” or “oh, I never really found that bothersome”. That usually stops someone who’s just trying to validate their annoyance, and can put it back on them.

    2. Anon today...and tomorrow*

      I have a co-worker that I actively dislike and I know that I can be like Jane. I don’t have any overlap work with this person so all of my complaints about her are personal. For the most part I don’t engage in the IM chat about her because my dislike level hasn’t changed and neither has her personality or disgusting personal habits, but occasionally she does something so annoying that I will send an IM to another rep who worked with her and understands. Overall it amounts to maybe six comments a year, but yeah…it’s not good and I need to work on that.

  29. AnonHere*

    I was the “Bob” in the situation. It was a very toxic and dysfunctional place. They were bullies, but if you could outsmart them or act confident/like it didn’t bother you, they would then back down a little. (It didn’t last long.) In my case, they were both threatened because I had the degree to become their boss and they didn’t want that. They spread rumors about me and people would make fun of me when I walked by or stopped talking, etc. Upper management was friends with them and didn’t want to get involved because they didn’t want to do their jobs and actually manage the situation.

    I tried to act like it didn’t bother me- I never complained, never talked about them, etc. but at the end of the day, it was exhausting. It was me against everyone else and it was a horrible feeling. I was excluded from things and they basically mean-girled me out of the job, but I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Plus I would come home crying every day and started having some really dark thoughts. (I was depressed.) It wasn’t worth it anymore, so I left and took a temp job.

  30. Russian blogger*

    I am from Russia and have been reading Ask a manager blog for several months nowadays. If I may ask, why is it ok for manager to read the worker’s email and Skype in America? We are constantly hearing, that Americans blame the Russians for hacking into emails during your election campaign, and that you want to remove Your president for this. So why it is ok in workplace? I think, that this is the bigger violation of the privacy and that if you are believing in freedom you let the workers have the conversation without informing.

    1. seejay*

      Without getting into major privacy and security details, your employer owns all your work, which includes all your emails and your correspondence, including instant messages, anything that’s done on a work computer, during work hours (it’s different if it’s your own personal computer). This is for legal reasons, such as privacy violations in regards to company secrets, client security, etc.

      It’s assumed that in a proper workplace environment, employees aren’t doing anything sketchy and questionable with their email and instant messaging and email browsing so it wouldn’t matter if their employer goes through their email for any reason (such as backing it up, retrieving data because the employee quit or got hit by a bus, or whatever). In reality, many employees do things they shouldn’t be doing, most of which are relatively harmless or would warrant a finger-wagging or slap on the wrist (surfing Facebook, light complaining about coworkers).

      Or in the case as we’ve seen here, some coworkers engage in full on bullying of their coworkers. When I worked at the bank as a forensic analyst, we pulled employee’s emails and computers to get evidence of them sending client data to their unsecured personal computers, committing fraud, writing up threatening letters to other employees, or sending nudes to another employee. And since as a bank we could have been sued multiple times over for some of these cases, we fully hammered down on said employees for this crap.

      So that’s why employees don’t have the right to privacy on their work computers and their work emails. The company owns it, so they have the right to go see what their employees have been up to since it’s the company’s hypothetical butt on the line.

    2. Kyrielle*

      Any company has at any time the right to access the data *on their computers* and *on accounts they provided for work purposes*.

      They have no right to read an employee’s private emails/messages sent from their private computer to someone else’s private computer.

      My company has the right to read every email I send through their system, every message if I used the messaging, etc. I know that; it’s a given; it’s THEIR tool.

      Anyone NOT of my company reading that woudl be violating my privacy and the company’s also. But the company doing it? It’s their stuff.

      1. Anonymous for this*

        Here in Germany, though, this is not how it works. Employers have much less right to read workers’ email messages than in the USA. The Russian poster has a good point. Why do Americans get to lecture everybody about “Land of the Free” when American employers have the right to engage in sh!tty “Big Brother” behavior like this?

        1. Jessesgirl72*

          If these aren’t unnecessarily negative and political statements, I don’t know what is. Wow.

        2. Mb13*

          Because people have consented to the observatory behavior of companies. And while having access to everything the employees write can be abused, it is generally used for good. Such as in examples when coworkers insult one another or when the company needs to make sure they aren’t doing any violation to having the IT be able to restore a deleted file. Employees are always freee to engage with coworkers in full privacy on their personal phones and computers. And America calls it self the land of the free because its declaration was a result of liberating itself from a former country (it’s kinda like asking why ginger snaps are called that, it’s because they have ginger in them).

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The American concept of freedom is primarily about freedom from the government, not from private entities that you voluntarily engage with, such a particular employer.

      But politics is fairly off-topic for this post.

    4. Mb13*

      For starter comparing a foreign government hacking and involvement in another country’s election process is a false equivalence. Second is that many people when they get the job will sign a permission to have their conversations on work computer/accounts read. People consented to have their messages, work, and email be accessible by the company and it’s employees. If they did not then this would be a clear violation of privacy and the company should be rightly legally reprimanded. Thirdly is that people are calling for the impeachment of the US president not because he was hacked, which is ridiculous this would be the same as arresting someone for having their house robbed. The reason people want to impeach him is that he fired the person who was investigating him (aka obstruction of justice) and has very likely requested that investigation against his staffs be dropped (aka misuse of power), both of thees are illegal in the us. Lastly, I find your comment to be put of place extremely off topic and highly adversarial on a work related website.

  31. The Moving Finger*

    Since I am in this kind of situation myself, I appreciate this being answered here.

    Would it be possible for you to write a post on how managers should handle these kind of situations in general? Especially if it becomes a recurring situation, i.e. the manager told the bully to stop and the bully eventually went back to it.

    But that said: even though it’s been over a month since my last bullying incident, every day I spend wondering when it will happen again, and clearly the coworker is about to burst with wanting to say something nasty to me after all this time. Whee, hostile work environment! Even if she stays shut up forever, assuming that could happen, I still have to deal with working somewhere unsafe all the time waiting for the anvil to hit, and I just don’t speak to my group at all beyond “hi” and “bye” unless I absolutely have to. It really is a cost to the work environment to keep someone like this no matter how good they are otherwise. I would leave if I could to get away from it, but I am stuck.

    1. Candi*

      Tiny nitpick:

      Legally hostile workplace and dictionary hostile workplace are not the same thing. The first is far more narrow in definition.

      But your comments illustrates why even indirect hostility is toxic.

  32. silvertech*

    As someone who used to be victim of such office gossip and ridicule (with other coworkers) I’m glad that you are thinking about doing something to stop people from being jerks. My own manager(s) didn’t do anything, and I had to work with people I knew where thrashing me behind my back.

  33. Giggity*

    My “Jane” is the HR Manager. She is the dirtiest, most conniving person I have ever met. She absolutely hates women, and treats us all like garbage. But, she has the owner completely buffaloed, and lies and lies and lies.

  34. Rachel*

    I’m really disturbed by the number of people who say “I’m Jane,” and who believe this type of behavior is okay or make excuses for it.

  35. wayward*

    Question: Had Bob’s performance issues been creating a problem for Jane or Fergus, e.g., extra work? It’s not clear from the original post whether it was purely mean-spirited bullying, or whether there were some legitimate reasons for resentment that led to passive-aggressive behavior.

Comments are closed.