my employee shouted “F*** you!” at a coworker — but he was provoked

A reader writes:

I’ve been a manager at my company for nearly 10 years, but only with my current team for about six months. My role is hectic, and at the insistence of my own manager I am regularly required to attend meetings and other sessions away from the office, leaving the team to fend for themselves. The team is generally pretty easy to manage, but there are a couple of personalities that cause me some issues.

Ben is innovative and dynamic, always looking to fix things and solve problems. He’s clever and creative and once he’s decided on a course of action, he goes for it with all his considerable energy. He often can’t help himself from saying exactly what he’s thinking, he can sometimes let himself be ruled by his emotions, and he also has a bit of a swearing habit in unofficial conversations (I’ve asked him to stop this and he said he’s trying).

Jane is experienced and knowledgeable but often likes to foist her work onto her colleagues in the guise of “training” (although she’s not advising or helping them, and they’re things they already know how to do). She likes to instruct her colleagues, but is less fond of actually carrying out a task herself. She’s stubborn and resistant to change, and insistent that everything is perfect as it is.

Last week, Jane was on holiday. Ben had a spare afternoon so (with my consent) spent it going through the system we use to track the team’s work and doing some general housekeeping, tidying up our records and closing off tasks that had been completed or were no longer relevant or required (including one that had inexplicably been left open for over a year). When he finished, he emailed the rest of the team outlining what he’d done, and they were fine with it. Several of them thanked him for saving them the job of each individually reviewing and closing their own tasks.

I didn’t witness the following events but they have been corroborated by the entire team and several unfortunate passers-by from other teams.

When Jane returned to work to see Ben’s email, she immediately asked him why he’d thought it was acceptable to close off tasks that were meant for her. He referred her to his email, which explained his motivation, process, and outcome. She said — in a loud, stern voice — that he was interfering in her work and that she couldn’t allow it. She told him to keep his hands out of her work, because it wasn’t up to him to decide whether it was complete or not. He told her (correctly) that we’d struggle to explain to an auditor the reason we’ve kept a request open for a year without any action, and that there’s no point leaving a task open on the system when there’s no further action required. Jane told him that it’s not right or acceptable for him to touch her work, and that he should keep his nose out of her business. When he explained that he’d closed tasks for the rest of the team too and they were grateful, she told him that that was different, she didn’t care what everyone else thought was okay, she wanted him to leave her work alone.

Apparently this went on for several minutes, getting more heated despite the attempts of the team to diffuse the situation, reaching a crescendo of them both talking over each other at the top of their voices, Jane complaining about Ben over-stepping her boundaries by messing with her work, and Ben retorting that she probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, just got someone else to do it for her then taken the credit for it herself. And on and on until Jane told Ben to get out of her sight, that she couldn’t deal with him, that he was impossible to work with, and then…

Ben shouted “F*** you, Jane!” and stormed off.

Jane immediately went to HR, and when I returned to the office I was greeted by the HR manager talking about setting up an investigation into the incident, and several panicky FYI emails from members of the team who had witnessed it.

I’m struggling to decide how to approach this. Ben was obviously in the wrong — there were multiple witnesses to the shouting and swearing, he apologized for it once he’d calmed down about 20 minutes later, and he’s freely admitted that he did it and it was wrong. He absolutely needs to learn to hold his temper, and I dread to think what the repercussions would have been if there had been external visitors in the office.

But I see the cause of the entire incident as being Jane’s out-of-proportion response to what was essentially Ben doing her a favor. Up until the point the discussion descended into shouting and accusations, Ben was in the right. I can’t condone his reaction, but I can understand it.

HR are taking the view that Ben was wrong and we now need to decide what disciplinary action to take against Ben. I agree with that as far as it goes, but I also think there are a lot of contributory factors and that I also need a plan for how to deal with Jane to get her to accept that other people might occasionally need to get involved in her work, and how to deal with the team to stop something like this happening again.

Can you advise?

Discipline them both. They were both in the wrong.

If Jane had a problem with what Ben did while she was out, she should have taken it up with you once it was clear that she couldn’t resolve it directly with him. You need to have a serious conversation with her where you tell her that’s unacceptable for her get into a verbal brawl with a colleague. Acknowledge to her that Ben was wrong as well and that you’ll be talking with him separately, but that you need her to avoid a repeat on her side. Sample language: “It’s absolutely not okay for you to raise your voice to a colleague, or get as hostile as it sounds like you got with Ben during this disagreement. I want to be clear that Ben’s behavior during that conversation wasn’t okay either, and I’ll be talking with him separately, but I need to know that you won’t do that again. If you can’t resolve a dispute with a colleague calmly and professionally, then I need you to come and talk to me. You can’t let it get to the point where you’re openly hostile to someone here.”

By the way, I’m specifically not addressing the substance of the dispute here, because it’s not clear to me whether Ben ever told Jane that you had okayed the work he did in everyone’s queues. If he didn’t explicitly tell her that, I can’t blame her for being annoyed that he messed with her work. If he did tell her that, then she was in the wrong to keep criticizing him for it, and in that case, you’d also want to say something like, “Part of working on a team means that other people might occasionally be involved with your work — whether it’s because you’re out or busy with other priorities or simply because I ask someone to. That’s part of the job, and I need you to accept that with grace when it happens.” You could add, “Of course, if you have a specific concern about how that plays out, I want to hear it — but you should take that up with me directly.”

As for Ben, you need to tell him that while you understand he felt provoked by Jane, it’s not okay to scream profanity at a coworker. Because it sounds like this is part of an ongoing pattern where he doesn’t control his emotions at work, you need to address that too. Sample language: “This was unacceptable, you can’t do it again, and I need you to figure out how to control your temper. You’re creating an environment where people will be afraid to interact with you, and it will have serious repercussions for your professional reputation, even when you leave this job. I need to see you get your temper under control from now on. If something like this happens again, your job could be in jeopardy.”

Beyond this specific incident, I wonder how clear you’ve been with both Ben and Jane about the concerns you have with how they conduct themselves at work. For all I know, you’ve given them plenty of feedback on the broader patterns you’ve described here — Ben’s lack of a filter and Jane’s resistance to change and tendency to foist work off on others — but if you haven’t, that should be a priority. When things blow up like they did here, it’s much easier to address if you’ve already been talking about the issues in play … and they’re less likely to blow up in the first place if people have already been told “hey, you need to stop this.”

{ 470 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    I agree with the suggested language here, but also you might want to consider whether Ben might be getting a bit burnt or needs a holiday. I’ve found when I can no longer mask my hostility for my coworkers (whatever, it happens) it’s usually because I’m just work the heck out and desperately need a couple weeks off.

      1. Izacus*

        People aren’t robots and tend to not always have a “good reason” for an action – especially when they’re tired, burned out or deal with things they care about.

        A good manager must understand that people aren’t rational 100% of time and take action to avoid having drama in the workplace due to burn-out or other emotional issues.

        1. Say what, now?*

          Yes, not robots. That’s important to remind ourselves of. The best and worst parts of us originate with the heart. So it’s best not to expect that people will always be perfect in either the execution of work or maintain a façade.

      2. Katie the Fed*

        I never implied it was. But the swearing might very well be an indication that something is going on. When a good worker starts acting unusually, it’s worth some concern in addition to the stern talk.

        1. Periodically A Table*

          It doesn’t sound like the swearing WAS unusual for Ben, though: “he also has a bit of a swearing habit in unofficial conversations”.

          1. Katie the Fed*

            there’s a big difference between swearing AT a coworker, and just cursing somewhat in unofficial conversation.

          2. Aurion*

            I’m not clear whether his swearing habit was at coworkers or just at situations/inanimate objects. The former is (almost) never okay; the latter has a lot more leeway depending on the work culture.

            1. LuvzALaugh*

              I read that as he swears in conversations not at coworkers or when angry. I was in the Navy and the saying cuss like a sailor was created for a reason. The F word was an adjective a pronoun and a noun. It is like swearing out of frustration. It is just a habit of saying How the He** are you! to a friend v. Just saying How are you!.

          3. Morning Glory*

            There’s a big difference between casually swearing in a conversation and someone yelling a swear AT you during an argument though.

            One is mildly inappropriate, the other is aggressively hostile and very much not OK. I think that Ben’s history of not controlling is emotions at work is far more relevant than his swearing (presumably without malice) in an informal conversation.

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              And I’m not even sure he yelled the f you, sounds like he just said it at the end when jane was walking away.

            2. TootsNYC*

              There’s also the idea of using swear words to express anger at situations, and even that can be upsetting, especially when spoken with vehemence. Beyond any lack of professionalism.

            3. Gadget Hackwrench*

              In the IT cave, language runs pretty foul, but there’s a world of difference between, “the network is fucked,” and “fuck you!”

              1. Koko*

                Yep. People casually swear around my office quite a bit in informal conversations, but we’ve disciplined people for saying things less terrible than “f you” to a coworker.

              2. Jaded and Cynical*

                I’ve heard the F-bomb thrown at several in our IT pit. I think it’s why we’re kept separate from the rest of the company.

          4. KHB*

            General swearing is miles away from swearing at people, though. If Ben’s “bit of a swearing habit” is saying things like “I have so much f’ing work to do today,” that’s not the greatest thing in the world as far as professionalism goes, but it’s not really hurting anybody, either. Shouting “F you” at a coworker is in an entirely different category.

            On the flip side, there are plenty of things that don’t involve any swearing that are just as far over the line in a professional setting as “F you.” If Ben had shouted, say, “Jane, go die in a fire,” I don’t think that would have been any better, just because he wasn’t swearing.

            1. Aurion*

              Yeah, it sounds like Ben runs his mouth off when his temper gets going, and frankly your example of “go die in a fire” is probably worse on the professionalism scale than “F you”. So Ben’s share of the problem is his temper, and not the specific profanity.

            2. TootsNYC*

              “On the flip side, there are plenty of things that don’t involve any swearing that are just as far over the line in a professional setting”


              Perhaps, this:

              And on and on until Jane told Ben to get out of her sight, that she couldn’t deal with him, that he was impossible to work with

              If Ben hadn’t sworn at her, Jane would be sitting there with me saying, “You can’t speak to your colleagues that way.”

              That might be a point I make to Ben: He sacrificed the high ground.

            1. afiendishthingy*

              I love you.
              And yeah, the f-bomb in conversation (and in talking to ourselves) is really, really common with some members of my department, including myself. But while nobody blinks an eye at “Where the fuck are my goddamn post-it notes”, it’s difficult for me to even imagine anyone in this office shouting “fuck you” at a coworker. it’s TOTALLY different.

              1. Snark*

                One time, my officemate and I got an email at the first time that contained a fairly unbelievable notification of major delays and problems. Our convo:

                “What the fuck?”

                “Beats the shit out of me.”

                1. mcbqe*

                  This precise conversation happens on a nearly daily basis between me and my next-desk-mate (usually fairly sotto voce, so as not to offend any delicate ears, not that there are too many of them in our office anyway).

            2. Jadelyn*

              I still remember the first time my manager dropped the F-bomb in conversation with me, in a conversation about coaching employees through performance issues, where she said “You try to be kind and understanding about things when you can, but sometimes you just have to take someone aside and say “Look, motherfucker…””

              1. Amber T*

                The first time I heard my boss curse was the like the first time I heard my parents curse… like, “whaaaat, are you supposed to say that???”

            3. Isabel C.*

              Yeah, this. Swearing at work depends on the workplace–I try not to go to “fuck,” because I’m still relatively but there are a couple higher-ups here who use it regularly, and plenty of folks around here say “shit” and similar–but as a general rule, it’s 2017, and if you’re bothered by not-at-someone swearing, maybe rejoin the convent?

          5. Pineapple Incident*

            I agree with that- I am a sailor in conversation with friends, and swear less but do swear in conversation with coworkers occasionally. I have been in a position where people (a coworker, patients and their family members all at my last job) have gotten in my face, and I’ve had to calmly step away while firmly telling them the conversation had stopped being productive, or hang up the phone on someone belligerent. I think you have to know what you can handle in interactions with other people, and back off quickly when you can’t take it.

      3. TootsNYC*

        I got in massive trouble for yelling at a colleague.

        My own boss told me, “My first reaction was, ‘What’s wrong w/ Toots? That’s so unlike her.’ Of course you were wrong to yell, but I’m also concerned about your stress level.”

        I really appreciated that. It was true. And given that I was a valued employee, her paying some attention to that helped me become a better employee who doesn’t blow up like that.

        Ben sounds like someone who is good to have on the team–except for this. So pointing out that there might be things that make it worse might help him tackle this.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Yeah, I’m more worried about janes behavior in this scenario. While she didn’t curse, she was being unprofessional.

          1. Working Mom*

            I think both Jane & Ben should have the “what’s going on with you?” discussion. They both sound like they could be extremely frustrated and burnt out. Ben we’ve already discussed. But Jane – delegating the bulk of her work and then getting furious when somebody completes a task for her? That is a bit nuts, if I were her manager I’d have that conversation with Jane too.

            1. AMPG*

              I worked with a Jane, and it was just her style – it didn’t have anything to do with burnout. She was both resistant to change and extremely inefficient, so the constant delegation was one of the only ways she could stay on top of her work. She honestly should have been managed out of our team, but last I heard, she was trying to hang on until retirement.

    1. Colette*

      That’s a good suggestion. My first though was that Jane needs to go – not only because of this instance, but because she is resistant to change, guards her work while trying to avoid doing it herself, and won’t take feedback.

      Ben isn’t blameless and also deserves discipline, but I wonder how many people they’ve lost because of Jane,

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        Yeah, that’s my thought too. Especially since HR wanted to punish Ben but not Jane. If I witnessed the situation the letter writer described and saw Ben get punished but not Jane, I’d start a low-key job hunt.

        1. Jesca*

          Me too! Jane has a serious issues here. She has shown time and again that she is an unreasonable person. Ben should have excused himself from arguing further with an unreasonable person. And honestly, this is how I would approach his discipline with him. But Jane. She needs some serious intervention as her issues are systemic and affect the direct work of others on what seems to be a regular basis. And wow what a moral killer she is! I would definitely be searching for another job if Jane didn’t go on a PIP, in all honesty, but that is how I would personally be reacting as someone who witnessed this.

          1. MashaKasha*

            Me three. Yelling at a teammate for fixing your mess that you should have fixed long ago is not okay!!
            And honestly, in a situation like that, I would have assumed that the supervisor had authorized and approved, because I work with adults and that’s how they do things, and also because an email went out to the group and the supervisor did not respond with any objections to the work having been done. So, no, Jane does not get off the hook with me for not having been explicitly told that the OP had OKd Ben’s work.

            1. Aurion*

              Well, Ben emailed the rest of the team but the letter didn’t specifically say whether OP (the manager) was cc’d. If Ben hadn’t cc’d the OP there is an interpretation that Ben did the cleanup of his own accord without OP’s specific approval. Obviously that’s not what actually happened here, but if Ben hadn’t cc’d the OP as “proof” of OP’s approval there could be some misunderstanding.

              I’m pretty squarely in Ben’s corner and think Jane is flying off the handle even if she did misinterpret things. But I’m not sure Ben explained his actions all that well either.

          2. Jennifer M.*

            But if no one has given her any feedback that her work habits are a problem (it’s unclear if she has been given this feedback), then it is not right to fire her without giving her a chance to fix the behavior.

        2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*


          Jane would frustrate me (as a colleague), but Ben would send me running for the hills. At this point in my career, I can easily say no to Jane (or talk with my manager about what to do if that doesn’t work), but I’m not interested in working with someone with a temper problem.

            1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

              Sure, that’s true. I’m inferring from the swearing, the aggression, and the “can’t control his emotions” and “doesn’t think before he speaks.”

              1. Candi*

                The lack of brain to mouth filter can be just cluelessness, but the rest of it… I honestly think half a dozen sessions with a counselor to figure out better coping mechanisms might be a very good idea. (Might also help his soft skills, which to me read rough edged.)

                Jane’s issues need simultaneous coaching and warning. Or if the coaching is ongoing, up the warning.

                Thin ice time here, especially for Jane.

          1. Mookie*

            I feel similarly about the two, as described by the LW, but for different reasons. A stubborn old stodge uninterested in progress but good as a walking encyclopedia to be consulted I can live and work with and navigate around, an optimizer without a verbal editing system who rushes headlong into his own self-aggrandizing projects and steps on my toes to do my work while tooting his own horn for The Greater Good… no. It would work against all of my worse instincts to put up with that, but others’s mileage does vary considerably. Since it sounds like Ben is here to stay in this workplace, Jane probably needs to go for her own good and everyone else’s.

      2. Emmie*

        I agree. Jane’s other issues need to be managed as part of a larger problem with her performance.

      3. fposte*

        Though I’m wondering if the OP likes Ben more than Jane and if that’s a complication. If that’s a straight out reaction to their value as employees, that’s one thing, but it’s good to be self-aware of other impulses that might be at play here.

        1. afiendishthingy*

          ohhh good point. It did read that way. I don’t think we have enough info here to say Jane needs to go, but she clearly needs to make some changes.

          1. a Gen X manager*

            I was also wondering about that! I also wondered if OP avoids “dealing with” Jane / Jane’s performance issues / unnecessary interactions – ? Not an accusation – just wondering where Jane is a nightmare, it’s been going on for a long time, and her performance is well below an acceptable level (according to OP’s description).

        2. Trig*

          Yeeeeaah I read a bit of bias toward Ben here. OP frames him mostly in a positive light, but I think some of his go-getterness would be a bit exhausting to work with. Especially if the single-minded focus comes with a side of steamrolling “this problem is huge and very important and I my solution is right and no other way will do.”

          Dunno if that’s actually what happens, but I wonder if Jane has been annoyed with the way Ben goes about his fix-it projects before and it’s bubbling up now.

          1. LCL*

            Ha. I went to a jobsite with my Ben today. He handed me a flashlight and told him to hit him with it if he started ranting. He knows he has an issue with impatience and is working on it.

          2. serenity*

            Ben’s profanity outburst is clearly a problem, but before we start sympathizing with Jane too heavily did you read this in the OP’s letter?

            Jane…likes to foist her work onto her colleagues in the guise of “training” (although she’s not advising or helping them, and they’re things they already know how to do). She likes to instruct her colleagues, but is less fond of actually carrying out a task herself. She’s stubborn and resistant to change, and insistent that everything is perfect as it is.

            That’s….not good. Not good at all. Jane pawns her work off on her colleagues, is resistant to change, and “likes to instruct her colleagues” which I’m guessing is not well-received by those very same coworkers.

            1. fposte*

              I think you’re falling into the trap of seeing this as who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, when the problem is that two employees have problem behaviors that need to be managed.

              1. serenity*

                Umm, no I’m not. I’m seeing Ben’s lack of filter and profanity outburst as a problem. And I’m also seeing Jane’s performance issues going unaddressed by her manager (the OP). Your comment upthread (and elsewhere on this page) seems to be really downplaying Jane’s attitude so I wanted to counter that.

                I’m also seeing Jane’s comments preceding Ben’s profanity as also deeply problematic and likely hostile:
                And on and on until Jane told Ben to get out of her sight, that she couldn’t deal with him, that he was impossible to work with, and then…

                1. fposte*

                  I wasn’t playing down Jane. I wasn’t talking about Jane at all. That’s only playing down her role if you’re seeing it as a zero-sum situation.

                2. fposte*

                  Sorry, I was in a hurry and that came out brusque. As I said, though, I wasn’t talking about Jane at all, and I think it’s a mistake as a manager to succumb to the mistake Ben and Jane made and treat the employees as vs. each other. They’re not, and you don’t go into this to adjudicate who was right in the argument; you go into this to tell each of them why this wasn’t acceptable and what needs to happen in future.

                3. serenity*

                  Yes. There are two employees who are culpable, in different ways.

                  I just don’t want to downplay Jane’s behavior, which is what seems to happening with other comments here. It’s not okay to say “F you” to a colleague; it’s equally reprehensible to say “Get out of my sight”, which has been ignored by quite a few people.

                  It can be easy to focus on the instance of profanity and miss other problem behaviors.

                4. Not So NewReader*

                  I am agreeing with you, serenity. Ben’s outburst after Jane’s history of x, y and z behaviors probably could have been predicted. It a bad mix, a person who can’t control their temper is working with a person who has work issues. Gasoline and lighted match. Bad combo.

                  There is a theory that people in groups will fight with each other when their real concerns are with their leadership. Jane probably wonders how many outburst Ben will be allowed to have before something is done and Bob probably wonders how many times Jane can have the same problems before something is done.
                  This jumped at me because Ben could have ended the whole conversation very early on by simply saying, “Check with Boss. Boss assigned this work to me.” Instead Ben chose to drag this conversation out.

            2. Trig*

              Oh yea no I didn’t mean to excuse or downplay Jane’s behaviour either. Just that I sensed the OP had a bit of bias in Ben’s favour, so that might colour their take on how/whether Ben should be reprimanded. I’m seeing plenty of comments lambasting Jane, I’m just theorizing what longer-term office dynamics might be at play here. Obviously she’s not in the right either.

              They both need to be managed better.

            3. Managed Chaos*

              The part about Jane not doing much work seems irrelevant to the issue at hand. I mean, it could be contributing to underlying frustration with Jane on behalf of Ben. But overall, it seems added by the LW to explain why she doesn’t like Jane/doesn’t want to punish Ben.

        3. Colette*

          That’s a good point. And certainly if Ben is unable to control his temper (regardless of the language he uses), he needs to improve immediately or be shown the door.

        4. ket*

          This might also be the case with the coworkers. It sounds like several people on the team emailed the OP to give an account of the encounter and essentially defend Ben. What if they all like Ben better too? Or what if Ben is simply a better coworker than Jane, which is another interpretation of what’s described above?

        5. Paul*

          Good point. I do read it as the manager being more sympathetic to Ben. That sympathy might be entirely justified though–some employees are better than others. Or it might not, hard to know from just a snapshot. But I’d definitely have less patience for someone trying to continually manage me when they’re not my damn manager.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          Yeah, this. I want to know what she’s hiding, and I’d bet it’s that she’s not pulling her weight.

          1. Joie De Vivre*

            I wondered if Jane “went off the rails” because of what could come to light due to the clean-up that Ben did.

            OP, it might be a really good idea to look at the data from the clean-up & if there are issues that come to light – make that part of the discussion about Jane’s work performance.

            Regarding Ben – unless he has something like Tourette’s, I imagine if he knew he would be put on leave without pay or loose his job the next time it happened – his language would improve immediately.

        2. Artemesia*

          And if she is not disciplined as part of this event, any further attempt will be viewed as retaliation for complaining. She needs to be disciplined as part of this event and this particular pattern of behavior be identified. Wait till next month and she will claim retaliation.

      4. Curiouser & Curiouser*

        Totally agree. Also, it looks to me that Jane was annoyed because when he closed out her tasks that she no longer “appears as busy” as before. Someone, probably OP shouls take a real look at how much Jane actually does after foisting her work onto others.

      5. BethRA*

        That bit about Jane off-loading her work jumped out at me, too. I know OP didn’t ask for input on that issue, and it absolutely does not get Ben off the hook, but it’s definitely something that needs addressing.

      6. JMO*

        I couldn’t disagree more with the idea that Jane needs to go. I sense the OP favors Ben, in which case Jane’s defensiveness about Ben doing her work is understandable to me. If Ben had leeway to clean up the system, why was that not communicated to anyone until after the fact? I wouldn’t like it if Mr Gung-ho started doing my work, particularly if I thought I was not appreciated by my boss.

        It’s Ben who would be the morale killer for me. And maybe my manager, if favoritism were clear.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          Except sometimes people are better liked for good reason. If he’s a better worker and less condescending, he deserves it.

          1. Paul*

            Exactly. Being a good manager doesn’t mean thinking all your employees are automatically equally good does it?

          2. afiendishthingy*

            True that people are often better liked for good reason, but fposte makes a really good point that the disciplinary measures shouldn’t be based on the relative virtues and faults of Ben vs. Jane. Jane shouldn’t enter into the decision on how to discipline Ben except to acknowledge that Ben’s outburst was not unprovoked.

        2. Former Employee*

          Except it appears that the other team members like Ben better than Jane. They may dislike Jane. I can deal with an overenthusiastic guy who likes to swear, but I’d have a real problem with some officious person who pretended to be training me when all she’s doing is unloading her work on me.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          We had a situation at one place I worked. It landed with me telling my boss that she needed to tell everyone what was going on herself because messages were being relayed inaccurately or with extremely poor timing. (Someone told me to go to a meeting after it was over. I got “in trouble”. I pushed back on that one.)

      7. Paul*

        My mind went there too. If she’s got a habit of foisting her work off on people, but then blows up when someone closes a year old inactive ticket…that combination would get on my damn nerves. I like to think I’d never tell a coworker to f off, but if she’s continually like that I might eventually.

      8. The Supreme Troll*

        Yeah, jumping in here…it seems that the OP’s view of Jane (work-wise) is very similar to Ben’s.

      9. chomps*

        Yes, I was surprised that Jane is still there given that she tries to push her work onto her coworkers.

    2. Simplytea*

      And that’s why I recently went on a cruise! I stopped cursing under my breath when I got back haha.

    3. JamieS*

      I’d agree if this was abnormal behavior but OP makes it sound like Ben has a history of letting his emotions get away from him and cursing.

      I would’ve sided more with Ben if it weren’t for his history. Swearing once under provocation is understandable. Having a history isn’t.

    4. Kate the B*

      I feel like a lot of these workplace tensions could be resolved by allowing people to bring their dogs to the office. It’s not so easy to raise your voice or use foul language when Sparky’s around.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        My dog comes running when I drop an F bomb because it usually means I’m cooking and have dropped something delicious on the floor.

      2. Paul*

        If I dropped the F bomb around Nails (RIP boy :( ) he’d come running to see if whatever I broke/dropped had food

      3. Drew*

        You are CLEARLY not my sister. I’ve been on walks with her and her puppy, and her language is too salty for popcorn. (My sister’s language, that is. The dog’s language is perfectly appropriate. As is mine…but then, it’s not my dog.)

  2. Shadow*

    Jane was not the cause of Bens behavior. Jane was the cause of her behavior and Ben was the cause of his. if either one would have handled it appropriately there would have been no inappropriate argument between them. Pretty simple.

    1. Izacus*

      That’s simple only if you ignore that people working in your office have personalities, behaviours and wishes. If Jane is really as hostile to others in the office beforehand, not dealing this before she managed to provoke someone else is a failure of management.

      Drama like this can quickly end in losing important workers even though they’re technically wrong and you’re technically correct.

      1. a Gen X manager*

        Ya, but they both chose their reactions / words and are responsible for them. It’s not that it isn’t extremely difficult, it’s just part of being an adult / professional.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Jane and Ben both could benefit from stronger leadership. I am reading their behaviors as “I am doing this because I know I can get away with it.”

  3. Bend & Snap*

    Jane sounds like a nightmare, even aside from this incident. Why are you allowing her to push off her work on her coworkers?

    1. Anon Accountant*

      That’s what I was thinking. How frustrating it must be to have Jane pushing her work off to others.

      They both were wrong to have the verbal altercation but I’m concerned Jane is creating resentment with others by pushing off her work.

    2. JB (not in Houston)*

      I was wondering that as well. If the OP knows this is going on, why hasn’t she put a stop to it?

    3. Snark*

      Was going to say this. Jane sounds like she needs a talking-to about her work practices and her ridiculous insistence that nobody can touch her work unless she’s fobbing it off on them, not just about this incident.

    4. a Gen X manager*

      This is a side topic, but I think contributed to the showdown: this reads as though Jane is keeping tasks active to look really busy / important, laziness, or disorganization – ? Any of those three reasons would explain why Jane was so defensive about it, which escalated the situation quickly.

      I wouldn’t want someone else closing out my tasks either, but where these weren’t be recorded and closed out in a timely manner I can understand the approach to Ben’s clean up project. Is there a reason that so many people on the team aren’t be required to close out tasks in a timely manner?

      1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

        You know, I wondered about that. Someone who likes to move work around a lot and seems busy all the time getting angry because another person looked at her tasks in detail, that smacks of someone who is maintaining the illusion of work more than getting her work done.

      2. LiveAndLetDie*

        This was my thought as well. It seems like she was really disproportionally upset with someone closing out open tasks on her behalf even though they are clearly outdated and finished, which makes it look like she’s keeping them open for some reason other than “they need to get done.” This screams “making myself look busier than I actually am” to me, which would explain why she got so fired up about it when everyone else was thankful!

      3. Not So NewReader*

        “Well, Jane, if you can’t close your tasks out in a timely manner than someone else will do it for you. We cannot leave tasks open indefinitely. From now on, I will be checking everyone’s open tasks personally.”

    5. EddieSherbert*

      I’m curious about this too. Obviously the argument itself needs to be addressed (and I like Alison’s advice), but it sounds like, in the big-picture, Jane is a real problem employee.

    6. MashaKasha*

      Yeah, honestly, Jane comes across in this letter as someone who’d make me update my resume and start looking fairly quickly.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        It’s not Jane, though. It’s management’s lack of action on the Janes of the place that makes people walk.
        Ben is probably seriously thinking of leaving and has applications out there.

    7. OlympiasEpiriot*


      That’s a huge failure of management. There is a big difference between delegating and shoving one’s work into others (and then taking credit?!).

    8. WellRed*

      “Ben retorting that she probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, just got someone else to do it for her then taken the credit for it herself.”

      When a comment like this happens, a manager has pretty much failed to manage.

      1. Lana Kane*

        This jumped out at me too. Jane’s been running roughshod and it seems like it’s because it’s been allowed.

      2. TootsNYC*

        yeah, that’s not going to let Jane back down.

        Ben needs to learn that you don’t get anywhere when you attack like this.

    9. LizzE*

      I work with a Jane and these types can be a nightmare to deal with. The worst is when they throw you under the bus for a task they were supposed to complete. However, they frame as if the task was yours – “LizzE was supposed to do it. I copied her on this email to ensure she knows to follow up” – and refuse to take responsibility for anything. If you do not watch your back, your credibility takes a hit. Ugh, just the worst.

      1. Stone Cold Bitch*

        I know this feeling all too well… I have occasionally taken over a task after a co-worker claimed he wasn’t able to cope with his workload. So I did three major tasks side by side, he had one and in meetings he would criticize me for not being thourough enough and for re-using material from previous years (which made sense because we have less funds this year and the material was working well.)

      2. But you don't have an accent*

        Ugh this literally just happened to me. I was helping out on a project for a work week (so, you know, 5 whole days). There was a piece of it that should have been done more than a year(!) ago but that I had an iota of experience in so I said I would help while I was there but that I had my own project to deal with the next week. Come Monday, I get a nastygram about “But you don’t have an accent didn’t finish, she said she would do this, the client needs it done now”. Luckily my manager stood up for me and wrote one of the more polite, “You have crazy unrealistic expectations, kindly step off” emails I have ever seen. But it was still frustrating to suddenly have “ownership” over something that should have been completed long before I got there.

  4. Mike C.*

    Yeah, it sounds like you have a bunch of separate issues here that should be dealt with, just make sure to deal with them within their own contexts rather than treating it as “you’re both wrong, therefore we’re not going to resolve anything”. It’s easy to place this in the context of the initial conflict, but you need to be careful to separate the issues from the conflict that was created.

          1. Gen*

            And deliberately having ‘trainees’ touch stuff when it’s not actually a training point, that’s when work comes back with errors and ‘whoops the trainee is the reason x is wrong’

        1. Mike C.*

          They could be hiding something or maybe it’s complicated and there isn’t time to unpack it or otherwise have it messed with. I mean yeah, I think it’s the former as well in this particular situation, but I’ve had my code passed around, messed with and then I had to spend weeks fixing it again. Giant PITA.

        2. Jaguar*

          I tend to be territorial over my work because I used to have a job where another person would do the same task and those tasks started drying up as we went through the housing crash of 2008. Our manager would get incredible pressure to up his team’s billable hours and that pressure would filter down to us, so billable hours were precious and worth fighting over – it meant, for the period of time you were doing the work, you didn’t have to stress out. Since then, I’ve had strong instincts to protect my work from getting poached by others – if I have plenty of work, I don’t have job anxiety.

          I don’t act like Jane at all and I recognize this is a bad inclination of mine so I make a point of acting reasonable instead of giving in to it. But the implication that it means people are hiding something is kinda slanderous.

      1. Gen*

        Auditors are wondering why work is being left open for a year with no apparent work being done on it, jane is super territorial of her cases but chooses which ones someone else will handle without necessarily having the authority to do so… if this is financial sector there could be red flags pinging up all over the place. All of those could be signs that something is up, especially the endless arguing like he’s mortally offended her by reducing her work load. Seriously if there’s any sensitive data in there I’d review all her files (I know this might sound paranoid but I used to deal with in-house high value loan fraud and those are some of the things we specifically looked for)

        1. Snark*

          Even outside the financial sector, if this deals with financial information or accounts or grants or anything like that, I’d audit all her shit with the quickness, because this is not how someone acts if they’re not going to strenuous lengths to hide something.

        2. Hapless Bureaucrat*

          It doesn’t look great in social services either. Or any sector where success rate with cases may be a factor in funding decisions. If she’s holding on to cases she’s affecting performance measures, and may be affecting eligibility for payments or programs.
          She could just be territorial but yeah my radar pinged, too.

          1. Paul*

            Yeah, if one of us had a client file open but inactive for a year there’d be serious questions. If we haven’t seen or talked to them in 12 frigging months, mark them as inactive.

        3. LawBee*

          I know my friend in the finance world requires her employees to take two weeks off every year so she can look under the hood for just that reason.

          1. hayling*

            I think there was a previous post where it was revealed that this is actually the law in banking/finance. Makes sense!

          2. Bend & Snap*

            I THINK that’s either a regulation or a standard policy in finance. MY XFIL worked at a bank forever and was always required to take 2 weeks at a time so they could look at his books (commercial lending).

        4. Bolt*

          I wonder if she is padding her active cases so that she can goof off most of the day without getting caught. Perhaps they can only have X things going at a time without having new work assigned to them, so by not closing off a handful of old items, she keeps her active workload to a minimum. She would then be so hostile because now she’ll end up with the system assignimg a bunch of new cases to her.

          If there were any legitimacy to keeping those files open I would’ve expected her to have based her argument on the inconveniences he caused, not the fact he touched them.

          1. Tuxedo Cat*

            I had a coworker who padded her workload with “meetings.” Meetings with whomever, that never led to anything new. We’d ask her about these meetings during our team meetings. What she learned, what she was planning on doing with said knowledge. She always talked about so and so being so amazing, willing to share their story, room for collaboration… Meaningless nothings at the end of the day. She always would delegate her work to everyone else, and she’d claim credit for that and shift blame when there were mistakes. She lost her job eventually.

        5. NW Mossy*

          I’d be annoyed for a far more benign reason – aging opening tickets screw up the metrics I use to report on work volumes/timeliness/accuracy. If something’s been open longer than 30 days in my world, I want an explanation as to why we’re keeping it open instead of cancelling it as unworkable. Leaving something open for a year is just ridiculous.

  5. BeckyLynn*

    Both acted badly and deserve a strong reprimand, but I’d rather have a team of Bens than Janes. When management accommodates people like Jane – people who aren’t team players, unload work on others, defend their “territory” too closely, and resist change – stronger, more effective people tend to get really exasperated and leave.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Yeah, me, too. I really have no problem with coarse language. I mean, I work in construction, and my mouth is cleaner than my mother’s, although I do know how to tone it down, so probably my standards are different than others.

      Still, I much rather have a good thorough worker who swears some when frustrated than a sneaky person who likes fobbing work off on others.

    2. MicroManagered*

      You articulated my thoughts perfectly. Ben was wrong, but Jane’s overall work habits and personality (of which OP seems to have already been aware) are toxic. I get the sense that Ben probably just blurted out what everyone else was thinking. (He was totally inappropriate in tone and word choice, but the fact that what he said seems to be TRUE is a different issue and needs to be dealt with.)

      I would think, since this incident was witnessed by the whole team, they’ll be watching to see if OP starts to manage Jane differently. If she’s allowed to continue after this, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear people started moving on.

    3. Bookworm*

      Same. Ben was wrong, but he admitted to it and it does sound like Jane took it a bit too seriously (why not speak with the OP privately instead?) and perhaps something else is going on with why she is so territorial.

      I’ve worked with people like Jane to some extent and have heard similar stories. These types indirectly and/or directly start limiting the opportunities for others by not letting their work go and eventually there isn’t a way to advance because someone is hogging that project(s). People like Ben can also be frustrating in their own way (personally emotionally volatile people annoy me) but if he admitted he was wrong at least there might be a path to him learning to control his emotions better. People like Jane often won’t because they’ve carved out their little kingdoms.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        By the way Op talks about jane, I’m going to venture to guess that she inherited jane when she took the job and that jane has been this way for a long time and everyone has just kind of went “meh, that’s jane” and not dealt with it and now Op has a bigger problem because it’s been allowed for so long.

    4. Helbling*

      Yeah. I wonder if Ben doesn’t have an anger issue, Ben has a surrounded by assholes issue.

      Or maybe, surrounded by one asshole, management that enables her and an HR who slaps down anyone who blows up at her behaviour because, while both of them may have said unprofessional things, Ben used the grown up no no words, so only he should be punished!

  6. Juli G.*

    OP, was it really a spare afternoon that Ben had or did you seize an opportunity to make a change when Jane wasn’t around? If it’s the latter, you probably need to think more about how you’re managing Jane. Just think about if Ben got the right management support on this one (maybe he did).

    Second, Ben can help himself. So can Jane. And they should both start.

    1. Aitch Arr*

      I was going to ask if the OP let everyone on the team know that s/he had asked Ben to do these specific tasks. That would have nipped any misunderstanding in the bud in terms of whether Ben was ‘interfering’ of his own volition in Jane’s work, which he wasn’t.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I agree. The letter reads to me as though the OP didn’t let everyone know ahead of time that this was happening, which may have contributed to Jane’s reaction.

        1. Elizabeth H.*

          Maybe not let everyone know ahead of time but how important is it really? It sounds honestly like a pretty minor change. I have to admit, I am territorial about work too – I KNOW that I am, that it’s a really bad quality and I try to work against it in myself whenever I can. If I got the heads up that someone was going to do this whole cleaning up/closing cases, I might go thru and do it all myself if I cared. But I would certainly accept the result and understand it if someone let me know once completed, like happened in this situation.

    2. a Gen X manager*

      Agree! Ben is supposedly a mature professional – no excuse for this behavior, no matter how he was provoked. He HAS TO get control of his emotions / temper in the workplace, *not* “try” or “work on it”.

      I once had a peer VP tell me to “go to hell” in front of the entire staff and I kept my cool and addressed it appropriately. It can be done even in very emotionally charged interactions.

      1. Snark*

        I don’t disagree, but I find it pretty forgivable assuming it’s a one-off. Like, if he’s apologized and he doesn’t do it again, that doesn’t ping my Big Deal Radar the way Jane does.

        1. a Gen X manager*

          I agree, it’s just that something about OP’s language about Ben working on the swearing didn’t feel concrete enough in my mind. It felt like OP was saying that he’ll try to do better, rather than this can NEVER happen again.

          Also, wasn’t bragging or whatever about handling my situation well, I was just using my experience with a similar situation to say that I truly empathize and understand with Ben’s strong emotions in the moment in response to this kind of NSFW language. Jane can be the craziest, laziest, phony co-worker ever, but Ben is responsible for managing his own reactions and words.

      2. Mike C.*

        This is a bit much. We recognize mitigating factors like provocation all the time in all sorts of contexts. Just because one time you kept your cool in a difficult situation doesn’t change this.

    3. My two cents*

      OP stated that she’d consented to Ben’s additional cleanup work.

      And Ben had forwarded that “consent” email, when he had completed the task. Most of the colleagues thanked him.

      He also referenced the email when Jane angrily confronted him.

      He should have walked away, leaving Jane alone to be the problematic one.

      Also, Jane is the problematic one. Ben was hotheaded in that moment, but Jane is causing problems.

      1. Juli G.*

        I don’t disagree with your assessment. What I’m questioning is did the OP wait for Jane to leave and then have a task done that it was clear would upset her and then left it to known hothead Ben to navigate the fallout?

        1. Juli G.*

          And I’m not saying Jane was right in being upset. I’m saying this was the likely outcome when you consider the circumstances.

          1. my two cents*

            the circumstances…that Jane is a missing stair that coworkers are expected to tiptoe around?

            1. Juli G.*

              Yes, exactly. Ben shouldn’t be expected to tiptoe around her. The manager should manage her. OP should have seen this coming a mile away and set Ben up for a failure and now, discipline.

      2. Jesmlet*

        Obviously what Ben did was inappropriate and unprofessional, but when you’re working with a Jane, it’s as if someone took your fuse and cut all but the last inch off. Discipline both, but manage Jane better/more.

    4. Chinook*

      In Ben’s defense, I have been the person who has been given the task to go in and close work orders on behalf of others once I got the okay from my boss. True, I would go old school and give them a physical list and tell them to highlight which ones I can close, but that was because I know them and what works. My colleagues’ reactions were always to thank me and never once did they ask me if I had permission to do so from my boss.

      If one of them ever reacted like Jane did, I would end up never doing this for her again and leaving her looking bad as she would be the only one with all the overdue tasks. I would also be wondering WTF was going on and/or what she was hiding and I would have let my boss know about it because this is not the behavior of someone who is focused on completing their work for the betterment of the company. As others have stated, these types of open tasks throw off metrics and those metrics are used for everything from bonuses to workload distribution. Being angry and closing off something that should be closed would be a huge red flag.

      And, if she started berating me like she did Ben, I would have probably ended up in tears.

  7. Trout 'Waver*

    I would look a lot closer about why Jane is so guarded about her work in a way that her colleagues aren’t. That’s usually a huge red flag that something inappropriate is going on there.

    It’d be different if Ben was out of bounds in doing what he was doing. But everyone else thanked him for it.

    1. Lana Kane*

      My basic impression is that she foists stuff on people and acts like she’s very busy in order to deflect attention away from her and her work.

      1. Elder Dog*

        I’ve seen people who both foisted off a lot of work and who didn’t like anyone touching work they hadn’t dumped on someone else. It turned out the employee was embezzling. Not that that’s what’s going on here, of course, but I’d be a lot more concerned about why Jane was so upset about her work being touched than Ben’s angry reaction to her inablity to drop the subject.

  8. kittymommy*

    They are both in the wrong, without a doubt, but my biggest question is if you okayed this work by Ben (or assigned him the task) or if he just took it upon himself and you didn’t have a problem with it. That would be a BIG factor in Jane’s favor. Not to say she didn’t blow it way out of proportion, but it’s a relevant piece of information.

    1. Izacus*

      And if Ben took the work himself (without your say-so), ask yourself if you want to have a team that proactively finds tasks and moves goals ahead by themselves or they need to be told every single step. Repremanding Ben for doing things proactively can quickly send a message to your team that you do not value independent work. Which can seriously damage morale, make your teams output significantly worse and push people that actually care about goals of the company to quit.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Well, I think that’s a bit of an assumption. Having employees go haring off to do their own thing isn’t necessarily great either.

      2. JMO*

        Not when “independent” work means barging into someone else’s work without letting them know. And letting them know *after the fact* doesn’t count.

  9. Jesca*

    I feel like this is what happens when you allow problems to continue with employees. An unreasonable person got into a verbal fight with a sometimes hot head. But, people also make mistakes. Sounds like Ben’s was a heat of the moment mistake whereas Jane’s is pretty systematic. I am making this assumption as you have said that *sometimes* Ben reacts with emotion and has only ever *casually* sworn before, where as Jane is pretty much described as always being unreasonable and maybe lacks huge self-awareness. Ben should not have sworn and really should have excused himself from arguing further with an unreasonable person, but he is human. Jane needs some serious remediation and maybe even a PIP, because that crap she is pulling is systemic!

      1. Redundant Department of Redundancy*

        I read it the same as Jesca.

        Although they do both need to be reprimanded. I imagine if Ben was let off, Jane would become even more difficult, and if Jane was let off, Ben would harbor resentment (that may boil over later).

      2. Jesca*

        One is occasional while the other is constant. That is the difference. The OP never states that Ben ever did this kind of behavior before. Jane is an absolute nightmare and is definitely going to push others out the door. I mean there are “perfect scenarios” where everyone is peaceful and happy and manages conflict the correct way every time even with unreasonable people, and then there is real life where have emotions and personalities. Jane is past a personality issue. She is all around a poor performer with a bad attitude to boot who regularly is pushing her work off on others and trying to boss people around. Ben just needs coaching on not arguing with unreasonable people and *maybe* learning how to not take things personally. Do you see the difference?

        1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

          I do see differences, but I’m not drawing the same conclusions that you are.

          First, I don’t really see where you’re getting that Ben’s problems are occasional and Jane’s are constant. Both are described with the same level of frequency (“often” — although there’s an added “sometimes” and “a bit” for other bad behaviors of Ben’s). Also, Ben has received critical feedback (about his swearing) and hasn’t stopped that behavior. There’s no information about what kind of management or coaching Jane has received, so we don’t know what’s happened there.

          Jane does sound like a poor performer who needs stronger management. But I don’t think we know whether Ben “just needs coaching” about this specific situation. He has performance problems of his own: he needs to stop swearing in casual conversations (and, obviously, never swear or otherwise be verbally aggressive with a coworker); he needs to moderate his emotional reaction to work situations; and he needs to think before he speaks. Those are real issues that shouldn’t be brushed away because Jane is also problematic.

          I also disagree w

        2. Myrin*

          I see what you mean and I definitely agree that on a larger scale, Jane is the bigger problem here. However:

          Yes, OP indeed never states that Ben did this exact same behaviour before, but it also doesn’t sound like this is a problem of his needing to learn not to argue “with unreasonable people” and “learning how to not take things personally” exactly. As per OP:

          “He often can’t help himself from saying exactly what he’s thinking, he can sometimes let himself be ruled by his emotions, and he also has a bit of a swearing habit in unofficial conversations (I’ve asked him to stop this and he said he’s trying).”

          That does sound problematic to me. Especially since, as other commenters have remarked as well, the whole letter reads like OP likes Ben better personally, so the “often”, “can’t help himself”, “can sometimes”, “a bit of a habit”, and “he’s trying” in the above paragraph sound mitigating in a way that doesn’t necessarily read as objective to me. Of course it could very well be! I don’t know! But it does sound like this is an ongoing thing and as someone who actually has the same tendencies but usually keeps a very tight rein on them, I’m not impressed by his lame “I’m trying”.

          Again, I agree wholeheartedly that Janes comes off way worse in this scenario and that the problems with her are probably running more deeply and are more aggravating than those with Ben, but it also doesn’t sound like this is a one-off for Ben exactly but rather like this is in keeping with how he usually behaves, just increased tenfold. I’m also not sure that his “swearing habit” really is the “muttering curse words by himself” that many commenters suggest, given that it happens “in conversations” and more importantly that OP has already asked him to stop (I realise that you didn’t say anything about the swearing but I’m seeing some other comments about it and thought I’d just tack it onto this comment regardless).

      3. Natalie*

        Swearing in conversation and swearing at a co-worker aren’t really the same issue though. If Ben had said “screw you” or “drop dead” or something else non-sweary but personally directed, it would be just as inappropriate (IMO) as what he did say, because ultimately the issue is him personally attacking a co-worker, not swearing generally. I would discipline someone for “screw you” before I would discipline them for “it’s fucking cold outside, isn’t it?”

        1. Toph*

          Yes, I definitely think there’s a substantial difference between “swears in the presence of coworkers” and “swears at coworkers”. What he did here was clearly the latter, but if his “history” of foul language is more along the lines of accidentally slams hand in drawer, shouts expletive etc. and not a history of regularly telling people to eff off, then his history (and the “work on it” rather than some more concrete discipline in the past) sounds entirely reasonable to me, prior to this incident.

      4. Snark*

        Hard disagree. Losing your cool when faced with a really unreasonable colleague who seems to be hiding something is pretty understandable.

        1. fposte*

          It’s understandable, but Ben also has a pattern of poor behavior here. I think we’d have to be in the office to know how each pattern really plays out, but I think it’d be a mistake to allow Jane’s consistent poor behavior to exculpate Ben’s consistent poor behavior.

          1. serenity*

            Ben also has a pattern of poor behavior here

            I don’t see the justification for this in the letter, frankly. OP says Ben has been prone to overuse profanity, but not directed at anyone. The incident described is certainly a major one, but I’m not seeing references to continual “poor behavior.”

            1. Myrin*

              I just commented about this above so I hope it’s okay if I just copy-paste part of it here:

              “As per OP:

              “He often can’t help himself from saying exactly what he’s thinking, he can sometimes let himself be ruled by his emotions, and he also has a bit of a swearing habit in unofficial conversations (I’ve asked him to stop this and he said he’s trying).”

              That does sound problematic to me. Especially since, as other commenters have remarked as well, the whole letter reads like OP likes Ben better personally, so the “often”, “can’t help himself”, “can sometimes”, “a bit of a habit”, and “he’s trying” in the above paragraph sound mitigating in a way that doesn’t necessarily read as objective to me. Of course it could very well be! I don’t know! But it does sound like this is an ongoing thing and as someone who actually has the same tendencies but usually keeps a very tight rein on them, I’m not impressed by his lame “I’m trying”.”

              All that does indeed seem like consistent poor behaviour to me!

          2. serenity*

            Sorry, I didn’t read closely enough to see the reference to Ben being “ruled by his emotions”.

            I still feel that Jane’s poor work performance is more troublesome (in a wider context) than Ben’s being thin-skinned, but I’m able to see the problem in both.

    1. Iris Eyes*

      And add to it that Ben is repentant and voluntarily apologized while it appears that Jane still probably thinks that she was always in the right + victim of being cursed at.

      I would lean toward talking through the situation with Ben and having him point out all of the times when he could have de-escalated the situation/walked away.

      For Jane, as other commentor have noted, an audit of her performance and projects in the near future, and a stern talking to about how to complain. She should have gone to her manager if she had a problem with her coworker, and she should have informed her manager of Ben cussing at her (why did she go straight to HR without even informing her manager?)

      For the manager, an audit of why one of your employees didn’t come straight to you with these issues. And maybe some reflection on why your reports got into a conflict like this and what could prevent that in the future. (In this circumstance have Ben send you the email, and you forward it to the team would have probably headed this whole thing off)

      1. my two cents*


        Ben knows he’s had some problems with ’emotional outbursts’ (going with that phrase, as it’s one of my symptoms of adult add and I think it’s pretty good) and is apologetic that he *eventually* lost his cool with Jane.

        What was her end-game in trying to ‘talk’ to Ben about it while their boss was out? Jane knew she had the email chain from their Boss. She knew full-well why he did it, as per the email, and even had a mostly-rational discussion with HotHead Ben before she dug her heels in even harder and he finally popped.

        I’d put $5 on the line that Jane assumes she’s in the right solely because Ben eventually lost his cool and ‘said a swear’ at her, as opposed to her Bad Behavior of heatedly coming at Ben about it instead of their boss.

      2. Lissa*

        Yes, voluntarily apologizing is huge, emotionally, for having a good opinion of someone who messed up. Sometimes if somebody messes up in a relatively minor way and then apologizes part of me then respects them *more*. This can be a problem too of course, like if someone apologizes and keeps doing it and it becomes a pattern, the ‘well I said I’m sorry’ thing. But I think that goes a long way to explain why the OP sounds like she likes Ben more, regardless of what the specifics are.

        1. Chinook*

          And Ben hasn’t just apologized but he recognizes that he needs outside help to reform (see OP’s later comment about Ben telling her to “hit him with a flashlight” if he starts losing his cool). There is something to be said about someone being willing to be self-aware enough to know that they do a “bad thing” and that it needs to stop. It is still wrong but he is at least on the path to fixing the problem

          Jane doesn’t sound like she is self aware enough to realize that what she is doing is wrong. As a result, she won’t be able to attempt to fix it because she doesn’t think there is anything to fix. In other words, she will keep on doing what she is doing with no hope for change in the future.

          1. Ego Chamber*

            That was posted by the OP? Since that commenter referred to their coworker “my Ben” and never self-identified as OP, I thought it was someone else who works with someone who is similar to Ben, not the OP talking about Real Ben(TM).

  10. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    Ben also needs the same basic “you can’t be hostile with coworkers” speech that Jane is getting. I’d add, after discussing the profanity, something like this (taken mostly directly from Alison’s script for talking to Jane):

    “I want to be clear that I’m not only talking about the profanity. It’s absolutely not okay for you to raise your voice to a colleague, or get as hostile as someone as it sounds like you got with Jane during this disagreement. Joan’s behavior during that conversation wasn’t okay either, and I’ll be talking with her separately, but I need to know that you won’t do that again. If you can’t resolve a dispute with a colleague calmly and professionally, then I need you to come and talk to me. You can’t let it get to the point where you’re openly hostile to someone here, regardless of whether you use profanity or not.”

    1. Just another voice in the echo chamber*

      Glad you mentioned this – all the pearl-clutching over Ben’s use of the (gasp!) f-word is really distracting. The problem with him is really his temper. Agreed with many of the other comments also that Jane seems like a giant problem, possibly one that’s not worth fixing. I’ve certainly left jobs because of co-workers who didn’t want to, well, work.

      1. LawBee*

        I haven’t seen a lot of pearl-clutching here (which is, imo, a sexist phrase) – just people saying that it’s really inappropriate to yell profanity AT a coworker.

        If I were the OP, I would be seriously re-evaluating Jane’s continued employment. She sounds like a total bust – unreasonable, unwilling to let things go, doesn’t like to do work, why is she working there again?

          1. Just another voice in the echo chamber*

            Mostly HR’s reaction, yes, though I do think some comments are focusing on the profanity rather than the temper control issues.

            I would have gone with monocle-shattering, but that one doesn’t really seem to have caught on in the vernacular. Let’s make it happen!


        1. Specialk9*

          “Pearl clutching” certainly conveys a ton of meaning. It may be gendered, but I’m trying to think of examples of gender neutral ‘bombastic sanctimonious outrage over inconsequential matters’ and am coming up empty. “Glowering like a Puritan” isn’t really right. The only other examples are current politics, which, come on, is a nightmare and why I’m here instead of CNN. Your replacement phrase?

          1. academic escapee*

            It’s maybe not surprising that in a sexist world, there are few currently-existing gender-neutral alternatives to sexist/gendered phrases. Maybe stepping away from those phrases is the motivation we need to start creating those alternatives.

            I think there’s probably something to work with around “gasping” fwiw.

    2. Ego Chamber*

      “Ben also needs the same basic “you can’t be hostile with coworkers” speech that Jane is getting.”

      — “F*ck you, Jane” = hostile, but Ben has acknowledged that was wrong and apologized for it.
      — Referring someone back to the email that caused them to become upset with you since they don’t appear to have read the entire email yet = not hostile.
      — Talking over someone = not professional, usually confrontational, but not necessarily hostile.
      — Criticizing someone’s poor work habits = confrontational, not necessarily hostile.

      I don’t see a whole hell of a lot that Ben did that was hostile. And I really don’t see a lot that Ben did that was hostile that would have happened if OP had been managing Jane and preventing her from doing everything that’s caused this resentment that seems to have infested the entire team.

      Unfortunately, OP will have to be very careful that 1) Jane’s professional failings are addressed at the same time as Ben’s reprimand, 2) there’s a good excuse for why OP didn’t address before (maybe it wasn’t all so obvious before OP got several emails from the team detailing the incident, probably with a lot of backstory), or else there’s a chance it could look like retaliation. HR may try to push back on coaching Jane because of this. Good lesson about managing problems before they become big problems.

    3. Gen*

      I feel like because Ben has a history of arguing and not defusing situations he’s in more trouble for rising to her language and snapping than she is for shockingly toxic language and behaviour. I mean pretty much any of the follow would have been a right up for Jane in most of my previous roles, let alone all of them when she knows it was sanctioned by management- “she immediately asked him why he’d thought it was acceptable to close off tasks”, “she said […] that he was interfering in her work and that she couldn’t allow it”, “she told him to keep his hands out of her work, because it wasn’t up to him to decide whether it was complete or not”, “Jane told him that it’s not right or acceptable for him to touch her work, and that he should keep his nose out of her business”, “she didn’t care what everyone else thought was okay, she wanted him to leave her work alone”, “Ben over-stepping her boundaries by messing with her work”, “Jane told Ben to get out of her sight, that she couldn’t deal with him, that he was impossible to work with.” Seriously all of that is ridiculously strong terms for team work that IS his business, as it is for everyone in the office especially since it was sanctioned by management. Honestly swearing at someone who impugned his professionalism repeatedly over several minutes would be a symbolic slap on the wrist here while she’d be the one being told to apologise profusely and having her work monitored for a while

  11. Trout 'Waver*

    OP, I think you also need to have a wider talk with the whole team about how to resolve heated discussion. Just as a refresher.

    1. the gold digger*

      Not if Jane (and to a far lesser extent, Ben) is the only one with a problem. Why would you talk about something that isn’t an issue? All that does is make everyone wonder, “Is she talking about me? If there is a problem, why won’t she just talk to me directly? Is there something going on I don’t even know about?”

      1. Colette*

        I think it can be done (in addition to talking with Ben and Jane) if it’s framed as following up on that incident – I.e. As you know, Ben and Jane had a loud argument about a task. I’ve talked with them directly, but I want to be clear that if you have concerns like that and you can’t resolve them calmly, you should walk away and come talk with me about it.

    2. Snark*

      I guess one could do that if their objective was to piss off people who aren’t part of the problem, but if that’d be a bug not a feature, I think having that discussion with those who actively contribute to that issue is the best bet.

    3. S-Mart*

      Please no. If I’m a well-adjusted functioning employee, don’t pull me into a ‘refresher’ training talk because two of my co-workers are not. I’ll resent it.

      Address the problem directly, not with a blanket that covers everyone.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        It’s not an either/or. Obviously, you address the situation at hand first and foremost. Also, I get that if the only response was a group refresher, that would be insulting. But if it is a small part of the response, I think it’s totally reasonable. A refresher certainly wouldn’t hurt anything.

        I also think the manager in this situation must follow up with the whole team explicitly stating what went wrong and what should be done. To just ignore it with the rest of the team would send the wrong message, imho.

        1. Ego Chamber*

          Depends on the size of the team. If it’s like 5 people or less, and everyone was therefore involved to some extent (trying to diffuse the argument and/or emailing OP about it), then it makes some sense to have the conversation.

          I don’t like group refreshers unless the entire group actually needs a refresher. If this has been the only problem, just between these 2 employees, and other people acted appropriately, why would you want to tell everyone else something they all clearly know already?

          (My bias: my last job was a huge fan of group refreshers for the whole team. We’d have meetings about not swearing in front of clients, not having graphic sex talks in the building, remembering to clock in/out, not participating in work gossip, etc—and then management would spend a week telling everyone they didn’t mean you, the reminder was meant for someone else. They never understood the problem with this method, but don’t worry guys good news! they had a refresher about “too many follow-up questions about refresher meetings: if we didn’t talk to you separately, this isn’t about you, but we still decided to waste your time and pull you away from work for half an hour to get the lecture for reasons, and force you to talk about it as a hypothetical.”)

          1. somebody blonde*

            I think the main reason it would be helpful to have a refresher with the whole team is that in this case, the whole team witnessed this incident and several of the members wrote emails to the manager about it. If the manager is sitting there when the incident happens and handles it in front of the whole team, then it’s clear how the incident is being dealt with. In a case like this where it has to be handled after the fact and was so over-the-top, I think it’s best to talk to everyone who was there about it at once to let them know that it is being dealt with.

    4. Jake*

      I hate when issues with specific employees get addressed with the whole group as a “reminder.” It is condescending to those of us that aren’t causing the problems.

      If you want to give a brief rundown of how it’s being handled, that’s fine, but please don’t treat the others like they need talked to about an issue that is clearly with these two

      1. Specialk9*

        Yeah. It frankly sounds like this manager, or someone above the OP, has let this situation get toxic by not actually managing. Jane’s own manager knows she fake-trains her peers to trick them into doing her work (!!!!) and yet she’s still employed and not on a PIP? Manager, you need to manage, or the only ones you’ll have left will be the dregs of your team: a team of Janes.

    5. ss*

      My office had a written rule… you don’t have to like all your coworkers, but you will ALWAYS speak and treat them with professional courtesy and respect. Failure to do so is grounds for dismissal.

  12. Vaca*

    This sounds like a managerial failure, to be honest. Jane has not been doing her job right for a long time. Ben overstepped, and should be disciplined. But the LW also needs to better manage Jane. These things aren’t just happening – she is letting them happen. It should have been made clear that Ben was doing what he was doing at his manager (and Jane’s manager’s) request *and* Jane should not have wandered into finding this out upon her return. Instead, after basic post-vacation pleasantries had been dispensed with, LW should have had a conversation with Jane that went like this:

    While you were out, I had Ben go through doing housekeeping and updating records. What he found, in your case, was that you are not doing a good job of tracking crucial information. In addition, a large number of tasks you had marked as closed were in fact done by others. This is a serious issue and one that is going to impact your job going forward. From now on, here is the protocol: you will finish your own work. You will finish it on time and you will not farm it out to others. You will appropriately mark it as complete. Is all of that clear?”

    Now that this has already happened, LW still needs to have this conversation. But LW’s manager also needs to have a very direct conversation with her about how to proactively manage issues like this.

    Finally, as it regards Ben, there should be a very short and direct conversation:

    There is never an excuse for swearing at a coworker. No amount of provocation, real or perceived, allows for it. We’ve talked about your temper before. You are bright and have good ideas. But you cannot ram things down people’s throats nor can you react in an emotional way. You have a bright future ahead of you here, but one more outburst and you are done. Clear?”

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Can you explain why you think Ben overstepped?

      Because I agree with your point that it was a managerial failure that OP (apparently) did not communicate to the full team that Ben was completing this task at their direction and that Jane has (apparently) been getting away with a lower caliber of work than her colleagues.

      But I don’t see how Ben overstepped when he had approval to do this housekeeping.

      1. JMO*

        I also think it’s an “over-step” when someone does someone else’s work and only informs them of it after the fact. Not cool. And that management (OP) gave the go-ahead is also not cool, in my opinion. “Oh, hey, I did your work for you, and boss said it was all right.” — I would not be happy with that AT ALL.

        1. my two cents*

          but,the well-performing coworkers on the team WERE happy with what Ben had done. Only Jane had any issue with it.

        2. JC*

          I think there’s a difference between doing someone work and double-checking paperwork (or the digital version thereof, what Ben was doing).

          A couple of my reports will occasionally step in and help with task assignment records and such, and that’s quite different than people actually doing the tasks themselves. I’ve always been appreciative of my team in helping keep the records current; but that has not translated into them over-stepping into each others projects or assignments.

          Then again, things in our office move so fast that its difficult for just me to keep up with all the paperwork in addition to all my other duties; we have to work as a team and cover each other. Most of our assignments end up being task rather than project based because of it.

        3. The Supreme Troll*

          But the OP had very valid reasons for allowing Ben to complete this work; she’s seeing it in the big picture perspective. Nothing seemed to indicate that the OP was playing favorites.

  13. DCompliance*

    Obviously, this verbal altercation needs to be dealt with. However, Jane’s behavior needs to be addressed outside this argument.

  14. Mike C.*

    Also, I’m at a loss as to why HR isn’t willing to consider mitigating/aggravating factors within this investigation. It sounds to me like they’re focused on Ben “invoking the words of curse” and ignoring that it was done in the heat of the moment, there was an apology and he admitted to the whole thing, which was corroborated by witnesses.

    1. OhNo*

      My guess would be because Jane was the one who reported it, so they got her side of the story first and foremost.

      1. MashaKasha*

        Yes, I agree, we don’t know what and how they were told initially. (But we can take a guess.)

    2. Myrin*

      Honestly, ever since the “Coworker stole OP’s lunch, became sick because of how spicy it was, and accused OP of wanting to poison him” letter and its update, I’m not surprised by such things anymore (which doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t still investigate what actually happened, of course, but they really do seem to be very set on who threw the first cuss stone, so to speak. It feels quite black-and-white-y to me).

      1. Jesca*

        Plus, if the OP hasn’t been addressing Jane’s behavior all along, they may not be aware of the rest. I mean this whole thing sort of smells like management mistakes.

    3. LizM*

      Our office is in the midst of an anti-bullying campaign, I can absolutely see HR taking a zero tolerance stance for behavior like Ben’s. Not to say they’d be right to do so, but shouting “F*** you!” is a very tangible action they can act on, where considering the mitigating circumstances introduces a level of nuance a lot of the anti-harassment/anti-bullying material doesn’t cover.

      Also, as another poster pointed out, Jane got to HR first, so she created the narrative that they started with.

      1. Specialk9*

        Also it’s a man yelling a bad curse word at a woman. I’m guessing he’s going and Jane is older. Even worse optics for HR.

    4. Shadow*

      “But she made me say it” is a pretty weak defense. And one could argue that owning it and apologizing is part of what allows him to keep his job.

    5. Lisa*

      Probably because, if the sexes do correlate to the names here, a man screaming F you at a woman is a serious cause of concern. Of course HR isn’t going to consider that Jane brought it upon herself, or that he said he was sorry for losing his temper so it’s all fine.

        1. Specialk9*

          Sexes do matter! A young hostile muscular dude is literally able to beat someone to death with just his fists. Most women would need weapons to do the same. And testosterone often causes hostility, even for born-women people. So yeah, threat ofphysical violence is not the place to go all “I don’t see gender”.

          1. Ego Chamber*

            I agree with your general point, but where in “F*ck you, Jane!” (and Ben walking away) is there a threat of physical violence?

      1. TL -*

        Jane did not bring it upon herself. I have had emotionally volatile coworkers who scream profanities and slam doors. They are every bit as big of a problem as Jane’s behavior is.

        You’d be surprised how many people will opt out of working with you if they think screaming is a possible response to conflict.

    6. Chinook*

      “ignoring that it was done in the heat of the moment, there was an apology and he admitted to the whole thing, which was corroborated by witnesses.”

      Not only did he apologize for it, but he did it without anyone having to tell him to! In other words – he recognized his error and, once he was in the right frame of mind not to make it worse, he acknowledged it and attempted to fix it. Isn’t that the type of thing we want to encourage?

      Of course, not making that error in the first place is the ideal, but humans make bad choices and acknowledging that they have been made on our own accord is a good thing.

    7. Gerry*

      HR isn’t tasked to increase profit, but rather make sure employees are in a safe work environment. Yes Ben is a better employee than Jane, there is no doubt about that, but a guy yelling profanity is more of a threat than a slacker.

      It’s hard to get rid of an employee for poor work performance but it is very easy to sack a disruptive employee. It certainly explains why we haven’t recovered from a recession that started 10 years ago.

  15. stitchinthyme*

    Not exactly the same situation, but I once had a coworker who didn’t like anyone else touching his code. (I’m a software engineer, aka computer programmer.) So one day, after he’d left for the day, I noticed a small issue in my own code, and decided to look at his application to see if it had the same issue. It did, so I let my supervisor know and he gave me the okay to fix it. I detailed what I did in an email to the coworker, including the fact that the supervisor had given me the green light, and also let him know that I had not committed the change to our source code control system, meaning that it was local to me only — this was a courtesy so I could let him look at the change before committing, even though my supervisor had said it was fine to commit.

    His response (also in an email) was to accuse me of being a Muslim-hater. I’d actually had no clue that he was Muslim before that, as I don’t inquire about my coworkers’ religions. I forwarded the email without comment to my supervisor, who was absolutely livid (at the coworker, not at me). But nothing came of it — supervisor talked to the company owner and gave a long talking-to to the coworker, and he apologized to me on the coworker’s behalf, but there was never any acknowledgement or apology from the coworker, nor any repercussions from management. But my supervisor did do his best to keep me from having to interact with the coworker again after that — I asked for that, saying, “I know this is a small company and we may not always have the choice, but I would respectfully request not to be on any projects with Coworker. If that’s not possible, I will do my best to be professional about it, of course, but I hope you’ll understand.” (I never did have to work with him again.)

    1. Jesca*

      One time I was managing a certain process, and this one guy was totally unreasonable. Bullying and liked to try to force other people to do the work I was assigning him, myself included. The final straw was when I was called into a meeting that he called to literally throw a temper-tantrum about me assigning him tasks and not “doing enough”. I was blind sided but kept my cool until he started screaming and stood up to get in my face. He was a big tall guy. it was definitely meant as intimidation, which he had tried in the past as well by looming over me at my desk demanding I do additional work for him. I stepped right up to him and yeah I raised my voice. I am not going to back down from some lunatic management is refusing to control.

      My boss covertly slipped in the room and shut the door after the guy realized I wasn’t backing down from him and left. I turned to all the C-level execs he called to this meeting and verbally dressed them down for allowing such behavior. Yeah, I got a slap on the wrist talking to by my (more than humored boss), but that guy got a final warning and a PIP. Now this place was extremely dysfunctional, so I couldn’t pull that off where I currently work, but I could do something relatively the same in a calm manner.

      Moral of the story is: don’t allow poor employees to continue being employees or you will lose better workers over it.

  16. MK*

    OP, are you doing anything at all to address Jane’s frankly toxic work-(non)ethic? Why has she been allowed to “often foist her work onto her colleagues” and “to instruct her colleagues” and avoid “carrying out a task herself”?

    Also, it’s really not wise to encourage Ben to “decide on a course of action and go for it with all his considerable energy”, if that means he steamrolls over his colleagues, especially if he is someone who is ruled by his emotions. And I would advise you to stop making excuses of the “he can’t help himself from saying exactly what he’s thinking” variety; he very much can help himself. And as his manager who has told him to stop this, you really should have a better way to measure whether he is complying than “he says he is trying”!

    As far as this incident goes, yes, discipline them both, but it sounds to me that you have bigger problems that this incident. You appear to admire clever and creative Ben so much that you are not addressing his issues; you also seem to somewhat despise Jane, but you are not addressing her issues either.

    1. Jessie the First (or second)*

      “You appear to admire clever and creative Ben so much that you are not addressing his issues; you also seem to somewhat despise Jane, but you are not addressing her issues either.”

      Exactly. Steamrolling colleagues, refusing to use the filter in your brain and using “oh but I’m emotional” to say whatever you want even if it is inappropriate are bad work behaviors. Address them, even though you think he’s awesome. People who behave this way are not as awesome as they might seem to you.

      And if you KNOW Jane foists work off on her coworkers, you need to shut that down NOW. No one wants to work with a Jane.

      Both of these people may be costing you good employees.

    2. serenity*


      Jane…often likes to foist her work onto her colleagues in the guise of “training” (although she’s not advising or helping them, and they’re things they already know how to do). She likes to instruct her colleagues, but is less fond of actually carrying out a task herself. She’s stubborn and resistant to change, and insistent that everything is perfect as it is.

      Quite aside from this one incident, I’m amazed that OP as a manager isn’t handling Jane’s self-evident lackluster performance. The above quote is not an example of a stellar employee’s work ethic.

    3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      This is a better summation of what I’ve been trying to say in various comments on this thread. Thank you, MK!

    4. Kate 2*

      As far as steamrolling goes Ben asked OP for permission and got it(!) *before* starting the project. Not to mention his colleagues thanked him for it. And when Jane provoked him they rushed to tell OP the truth. Meanwhile Jane has tons of problems, being lazy, stealing credit, not working, etc.

      1. JMO*

        But it’s just professional courtesy to let someone know you’re going to do something to THEIR work. BEFORE you do it. Not after. Why not communicate this? That’s where the steamrolling accusation comes from.

        1. Soon to be former fed*

          Updating a work status report is not the same as doing or interfering in someone’s work. I keep seeing this in the thread and its just not accurate.

          1. Ego Chamber*

            Right. I don’t see why so many people think this was worth contacting someone who was on holiday to let them know about/get permission for.

      2. MK*

        I don’t know, I find it problematic. A brilliant overacheiver has too much time on his hands and gets permission from the boss to basically review and correct his coworkers’ work, then infroms them of the results. Maybe they were glad to have this chore taken care of, and maybe they didn’t feel they could complain when a) the boss ok’ed it, b) the boss seems to think the world of Ben and c) the whole thing revealed weaknesses in their performance. In a situation such as this, I would not be pleased, but I don’t know that I would have the presence of mind to say “I appreciate Ben’s hard work, but I would prefer to be given a chance to do this for myself in the future”. In any case, even if the coworkers are genuinely delighted, I think the boss should prefer each employee handling their own workload; how else can they evaluate them properly?

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I think I saw that some of the tasks were a year old. This means they had a chance to close the task themselves.

          I don’t know. It seems to be maintenance work, like emptying garbage cans. Every so often you have to go through what you are doing an tidy up a bit.
          And then Jane went into meltdown.
          It seems like they are both pretty emotional.

  17. Jessie the First (or second)*

    I am really confused about whether Ben told her that you approved this project. Did he? If he didn’t, why on earth not?

    Would she have lost it the way she did if she knew this was your project, and Ben was simply carrying it out? If so, then Jane is a major problem and I’m not sure why she still works for you. That’s a level of stubborn that is not okay – that’s stubborn to the point of insubordination, and that is a real problem for the team and the company.

    If she did not know this was all with your approval, then this whole situation is much more of a mutual fault situation, and regular discipline/warning seems like an appropriate choice. The way you describe Ben, he gets ideas and then charges forward – so, that’s probably really irritating for someone like Jane, who does not like change. Then he comes in and changes her own task list, she has no idea this was approved by you so she thinks he is just meddling in her work and she is BEC at him anyway – so she loses it. She shouldn’t have been so heated, and should generally try to be more flexible, but it’s less the Really Big Deal it would be if she knew you approved it.

    (Also – Ben “said he’s trying” to not swear? It’s not hard to not swear at work, in an office setting. It’s actually really easy for most people. Are you giving Ben waaaaaayyyy too much leeway to be an asshole?)

    1. Maya Elena*

      If he uses the F word the way others use “like” -as a parasite word- it can take a bit more time to break the habit.

      1. Morning Glory*

        I’ve never heard the term parasite word before, but it is so apt for those kinds of unshakable habits when you speak.

    2. Roscoe*

      Yeah, I think it really depends. I don’t even really realize how often I curse at work. However, when I was a teacher, I made a conscious effort to never do it. I think if you are’t someone who curses a lot, you think a lot of thought goes into it, but that’s not the case.

    3. Amber Rose*

      It depends what his previous experience looks like. For example, I work in an office. My boss earlier had a heated phone conversation, hung up, and then spent five minutes shouting “those f-ing f-er’s f-ed it all up” etc etc. My coworkers curse in meetings. Even I’m falling into this kind of speech. I think moving on to a new more formal office from this environment would be difficult and I’d find myself slipping up for a little while.

      I have never cursed at a coworker though. That one is surprising for me. Using curses as punctuation for frustration with some task is fairly normal speech, but actually using them to yell at a coworker is unimaginable to me.

      1. LBK*

        Yeah, this is very cultural/regional – swearing is not a big deal at my office, especially in casual conversation but even in more formal meetings. I’m in Boston, though, which has something of a reputation for foul language.

        1. Decimus*

          Ditto for New York City. I moved from NYC to a rural Georgia town. It is really, really hard for me to stop using the f-word as a colorful adjective for emphasis.

        2. Jessie the First (or second)*

          Honestly, when OP said swearing, I just assumed it was *at* people or at least aggressively, because swearing just generally, for emphasis or as a “parasitic” word like the commenter above mentioned, doesn’t register as swearing to me. So that is my regional bias showing!

          Though honestly, combined with the OP’s description of Ben as someone who gets emotional and says whatever is on his mind, without filter, combined with swearing, makes me think he does actually have a temper problem, or at least is not as professional as he should be with coworkers.

    4. Elizabeth H.*

      “Ben had a spare afternoon so (with my consent) spent it going through the system we use to track the team’s work and doing some general housekeeping, tidying up our records and closing off tasks that had been completed or were no longer relevant or required (including one that had inexplicably been left open for over a year). When he finished, he emailed the rest of the team outlining what he’d done . . . she immediately asked him why he’d thought it was acceptable to close off tasks that were meant for her. He referred her to his email, which explained his motivation, process, and outcome”

      It seems pretty clear to me from all of this that the fact that Ben did this with OP’s approval was either communicated directly or should have been eminently obvious from context cues. Also, isn’t the default assumption that any task that someone undertakes at work, is done with the approval (or tacit or implied approval) of his or her manager? Otherwise you are just assuming that everyone is acting in bad faith unless otherwise explicitly stated.

      1. BuildMeUp*

        I don’t know, it’s hard to tell whether the email explained that the OP approved it – “his motivation, process, and outcome” doesn’t indicate that to me.

        And to be honest, from the OP’s description it sounds like Ben is the kind of coworker who might do things like this on his own. I can see assuming bad faith if your coworker has a history of taking on projects or making changes just because he really really thinks they need to be done.

      2. Jessie the First (or second)*

        Actually, no, it isn’t clear from this that Ben did it with OP’s approval. We know it, because OP told us. But the email Ben sent around was explaining what he did and why (given his initiative level, his “motivation” may well be “I saw an issue with our tracking system and wanted to fix it so that our metrics were accurate” or something like that – the letter does not read to me as if this were an assignment he was given, but a project he sought out).

        And given how Ben and Jane were yelling at each other, I don’t see how you can think anyone is assuming good faith on the part of the other. In a normal office, yes, but that’s not the situation here. Seems pretty clearly the opposite – Jane assumes that Ben is ramming his ideas down everyone’s throat, Ben assumes Jane isn’t doing any of her own damn work. I mean, they pretty much said that to each other directl.

        So, in all that conversation and yelling, did Ben say explicitly that he had approval? Either way, Jane needs discipline and OP needs to really step up and MANAGE her, because she is clearly a problem. But it seems infinitely more severe an issue if she knew – to the point where if I were her manager, I’d likely give her a “one more problem and you’re out” kind of warning.

  18. David*

    I’ve been Ben, and worked with (and continue to work with) a number of Janes, so my take on this is admittedly biased, but here goes:

    First off, Ben was wrong in using the foul language. If hopes to continue growing professionally, he’ll need to learn to bring that in check. It sounds like he’s aware of it, and that’s the first step to changing the behavior. But let’s consider the situation you’ve described. Ben is innovative, dynamic, clever, creative, energetic and always looking to fix things and solve problems. Jane is knowledgeable, but stubborn, resistant to change and foists work on others. So put yourself in Ben’s shoes. Based on your description, he’s doing what it takes to evolve, advance and improve your organization, and it’s something you apparently foster and appreciate. Meanwhile, she’s an obstacle to the very things you appreciate about him. Ultimately you’re sending a mixed message. You can’t celebrate the drive to change while at the same time accommodating an individual’s resistance to it. It can certainly be managed, but it can’t be allowed to persist. Ben will do himself well by learning that not everyone adapts to change at the same pace, but Jane will need to learn that refusing to change is simply unacceptable.

    I’d also encourage you to give some serious consideration to what value Jane is adding. It’s easy to get caught up in how important a person’s experience and knowledge is, even to the point it’s indispensable. But that knowledge appears to be around things she’s currently comfortable with, and when change is on the horizon the Janes of the world will tend to hold on to the status quo and their comfort. If she can’t evolve, how valuable will her knowledge of things that aren’t what they used to be really be?

    Again, Ben was out of line in how he responded to Jane, but consider that his unchecked emotions may just be a canary in the coal mine, highlighting where you may have bigger organizational issues.

    1. SJPxo*

      This is an excellent response and gives a good insight in to why Ben did what he did and his anger outburst and calling her out on shirking tasks!

    2. Mb13*

      Ehh I think you are giving Ben too much credit. He sounds like a bit of Genius Jerk TM. By the op description he might be hardworking but he also lets his emotions dictate him, steam rolls things that go againts his ideas, and has poor filters.

      Yes Jean is problematic and is behinds the time, so to speak. But if this goes unchecked Ben will probably be closer to a Jean with his bad attitude.

      The biggest culprit here is the OP, as manager she needs to diligently address both Jean’s and Ben’s serious flaws as they are a vortex of toxicity in the office.

      1. Mb13*

        By Genius Jerk TM I mean someone who’s good at their job but lacks all social skills. So they shout, bully, steamroll, and insult everyone around them because they think that they are above their coworkers.

      2. Niccola M.*

        The pseud choice made me think of various Cumberbatch starting roles, so you’re not alone, although I’d go with “absolute diva”. But divas/jerks/whatever can change. They can learn to control their emotions, or at least their emotional expression.

  19. Grecko*

    I’m very confused about the chain of authority here. On what authority was Ben deleting Jane’s tasks? If he just decided to do it on his own behalf then I can see why Jane would be upset. Why is Jane allowed to give other people work and claim it’s training?

    1. Amber Rose*

      LW said Ben came up with the idea and she gave him the OK to go through everything and delete old tasks. So it was approved work.

      As for your second question, I think most of us are wondering that.

      1. Toph*

        A distinction I think matters: it does not say “delete”; it says “close”, which to me sounds like a status change. Everything is in the system, but now indicates it is complete rather than open/pending. Deleting would be potentially much more horrifying. Setting something that has not been active for a year to a status that indicates its inactiveness and/or completeness, to me, is a totally preposterous thing to flip out about.

    2. Myrin*

      OP says Ben did these tasks “with my (= OP’s) consent”, so he was working on OP’s authority (although there are several ways this could have gone down in detail – did OP know Ben had some downtime and asked him to do this? Did Ben approach OP and asked to be allowed to do this specifically? Did Ben approach OP and ask her for anything to do and she assigned him these tasks? We don’t know!).

      And as I understand it, Jane is a peer to the others on the team but more senior and experienced so she gets away with foisting stuff off on others because they’re her junior/younger/inexperienced in X/newer to the company.

      1. Elizabeth H.*

        Why does it matter though? The team manager thought it was a good idea and it would be a good use of Ben’s work hours and good for the team & company, end of story. If she felt that way, it’s not like Jane is more justified in being pissed off at Ben or Ben is overstepping if it was Ben’s idea originally vs manager’s idea, though I get how it ‘feels’ that way.

        1. Myrin*

          Huh? I agree with that, but I was providing an answer to Grecko, saying that technically, both can be true (that it was Ben’s idea originally but OP was happy to approve).

    3. LBK*

      I’ve worked in a few teams where work was distributed from a centralized system, so anyone has access to edit someone else’s items. It’s usually intentional so that you can cover someone’s items for them if they’re out or for cases just like this where it’s easier/more efficient to have one person go in and do a sweep to clean up old items rather than having everyone do that.

      It does seem pretty clear to me from the letter that the OP authorized this, or at the very least knew about it and didn’t have a problem with it, so I don’t think that’s an issue. Although I am confused why at no point does Ben seem to have explained to Jane that this was an authorized activity.

    4. JMO*

      Ben was deleting Jane’s tasks _without anyone (OP, Ben, anyone) telling her that that was going to happen_.

  20. Roscoe*

    This one is tough for me, because Jane reminds me of someone that I work with. She tends to provoke people as it were, but then she plays the victim when it escalates farther than she wants. As an example, her and I had an issue once. I admit that I should have gone into a room to deal with it, instead of having the argument in the open. However she escalated things farther, and then whey I did so as well, all of a sudden she claimed to feel threatened. It became a whole thing, and it was annoying to say the least. Like, just because I’m a guy yelling at a woman, you aren’t innocent here since she started the yelling.

    So while I understand the need to discipline Ben in some way, especially to be clear to everyone that it isn’t acceptable, I think Jane as the provoker deserves the same discipline, possibly more.

    1. Specialk9*

      Wait, so you’re using “she did it first” to justify why it was ok for you to *yell at a co-worker*?! No, dude, the only acceptable way to handle someone yelling at work is to *not* yell at work. As soon as you yell, you are in the wrong.

      1. Specialk9*

        And also your main self criticism with having had a yelling argument with a co-worker was that it was done in front of people, instead of in a room? And the lesson you learned was it wasn’t fair cuz she started it. I’m sorry, that’s very troubling.

    2. Mary*

      >>it escalates

      “it” didn’t escalate – you both escalated. You can have conflict with only one person engaging, but you can’t *escalate* conflict unless both of you engage in it.

  21. Amber Rose*

    If Jane making other people do her work is something you and everyone knows about, and it’s affecting morale to the point where Ben brings it up in an argument and is clearly kind of bitter about it… what the heck? We had a thread a while ago where people were mentioning how toxic and miserable it is for a slacker to get credit for work they didn’t do. And you clearly know this is happening. I’m confused as to why it’s been allowed to continue. Does it matter if she’s experienced and knowledgeable if she’s not applying any of that?

    Ben needs to face some consequences and probably come up with some sort of anger management plan. I think you need to hold him accountable and require him to actively address this, maybe give him a “three strikes” warning for future incidences. His behavior was way out of line, regardless of being provoked. But isn’t this whole thing just a symptom of this larger problem where your workers get away with terrible behavior and you don’t address it? Being experienced and knowledgeable is pointless if Jane doesn’t do her own work and is confrontational with coworkers about minor things. And Ben will never stop having these ragey outbursts if there are never consequences beyond lecturing him.

    1. Maya Elena*

      I didn’t get the feeling from the letter that Ben has an anger management problem, just a profanity problem. That might mean cursing instead of “darn” when he spills coffee or stubs his toe, or using “F—ing” like “like” in every other word. In none of those cases is it actually anger, just extreme informality, like wearing ripped jeans to work.

      1. fposte*

        Maybe, but it sounds like Ben does have self-control problem: “He often can’t help himself from saying exactly what he’s thinking, he can sometimes let himself be ruled by his emotions.” Ben has been, as they say in kindergarten, making bad choices.

        1. Decima Dewey*

          Being professional means controlling what you say to coworkers, provoked or not. It would not be okay for me to swear a blue streak if the public computer reservation station malfunctions.

          It also means taking a discussion that’s getting heated off the floor. So both OP needs to have separate discussions with both Ben and Jane about the shouting match, and their respective work issues.

        2. Maya Elena*

          You have a point, but anger management is a bit far. I mean, it’s not quite Andy Bernard level it seems.

          In any case, I don’t disagree that an F bomb deserves a reprimand, especially since it was such a public affair, but I just can’t summon up the indignation for it.

      2. Amber Rose*

        To swear because you spilled something is one thing. To swear AT a person, to tell them to eff off, that indicates a bigger problem to me. Most people do not get that angry at a coworker, or if they do they seek a manager. They don’t just lose control. While our office has no particular rule against cursing, I’d be smacking the discipline hammer on anyone who swore at someone like that. It’s in direct violation of our rules regarding violence and would be treated as seriously as threatening someone.

        And I say this as someone who uses curse words as punctuation for nearly every sentence. I have only once in my life told someone to eff off, and that was when I was young, and it was a roommate not a coworker.

      3. NW Mossy*

        Either way, it’s very limiting to one’s career to be out of step on how you express yourself in the office. In some regions of the US and some industries, swearing of the sort that Ben engaged in here is just another Tuesday morning. In others (such as the one where Ben actually works), it’s grossly unprofessional and a big to-do for both the disputants and their peers.

        Ben needs the talk that Alison outlined, and I’d go a step further to say something on the order of “I know that you want to get things done here, and a big part of that is bringing people on board with your ideas. When you curse and shout, people won’t sign up for what you want to do, and it’s only going to make you more frustrated.” It took me a long time to learn that the way in which I sold my ideas was as important as their quality, and this is an opportunity for the OP to help Ben learn this vital skill.

        1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

          This is a good point. If OP is counting on Ben to do process improvement (is not clear to me whether it’s part of her expectations for him or just something he does) then she could even add “in order to be effective in your role, you need to learn how to communicate in order to avoid these situations,” and use examples.
          And I also agree with those who said some dedicated hands-on managing time is due here. If I were on a team with a Jane, a Ben, and a manager who was gone a lot on other tasks, I would not have great morale.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            OP can tell Ben to redirect Jane to OP and then walk away.
            I wonder if Jane would express herself in the same manner to her boss.

  22. CBH*

    OP you have received a lot of great suggestions from Alison and Commenters how to approach this. I agree Ben’s behavior as far as loosing his temper needs to be addressed. But as you have said, it appears that Ben was approached. While Ben does need to be spoken to about his behavior, I give him credit for realizing his mistake and apologizing.

    What concerns me most is that despite your approval and enthusiastic “Go Ahead” to Ben, Jane still wouldn’t take a reasonable explanation for Ben’s actions. To me it feels like she is hiding something. Most employees would be thrilled to have a task done for them. Even if she preferred to do this task herself, her constant insistance and lecturing to Ben makes it feel like she overstepped a boundary as Ben’s coworker; she is not his manager. I’m interpreting you letter to mean Jane has a superiority attitude or is truly hiding something.

    As for the future, is there someone in the department that can be an acting manager or a supervisor when you are out of the office. It doesn’t sound like HR will help in these type situations.

  23. LBK*

    Ben retorting that she probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, just got someone else to do it for her then taken the credit for it herself

    I actually think this is the worst part of what Ben said, not the cursing. Emitting an expletive in the heat of the moment is one thing, but this is a pretty personal attack on Jane’s professionalism and job performance, and I’d imagine it was a long-standing frustration that finally got blurted out to her face. Seems like an issue that needs to be unpacked, probably involving talking to Ben about being more direct if he has concerns about a coworker’s work and then also addressing this actual issue of taking credit with Jane, assuming it’s really happening.

    1. Julia*

      Since OP knows about Jane’s habits, but apparently nothing is changing, I can see Ben’s frustrations here.

    2. The Supreme Troll*

      Completely agree with Julia and Kate 2; this seems to be much-long suppressed frustration that exploded over the top!

    3. Alice*

      Look, the manager already knows that Jane does it what Ben said — “often likes to foist tasks.” Ben was accurate — it only comes across as an attack on Jane’s professionalism because Jane is unprofessional. I don’t think Ben needs to unpack his issues with Jane — the manager needs to manage her.
      Though it’s easy for me to say, OP! Good luck trying to get things back on an even keel.

  24. Maya Elena*

    I think it’s extremely telling of Jane’s toxic personality that she immediately went and tattled to HR. Now, reporting incidents to HR is not generally tattling, but I’d say that’s what Jane did. Work norms aside (I’m not against professional norms, or their enforcement buy HR), she kinda deserved the F bomb and – if she was a more reasonable person, she’d probably accept Ben’s apology, apologize for flipping out, and move on. (Of course then she might not have flipped out in the first place.)

    1. LBK*

      Hmm, I’m not sure I agree. This is a pretty serious incident that her boss wasn’t present for, and frankly it seems like the OP just flat out likes Ben more than her which she’s probably aware of, so she might be worried about the OP’s objectivity in handling the situation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with her going to HR in this case.

      1. Kate 2*

        Let’s be honest here, who wouldn’t like someone who actually did their work better than a lazy, credit-stealing person who avoids work as much as possible?

        1. LBK*

          I don’t disagree, but the OP’s preference being justifiable doesn’t invalidate Jane’s concern or mean it’s acceptable for Jane to be subject to personal bias. I don’t think this is a situation where job performance should be heavily correlated to consequences; if the OP hasn’t addresses Jane’s issues up until this point, I don’t think it’s fair to use this moment where she’s already in trouble as an open door to dump a whole bunch of other criticism and consequences on her.

          1. Decima Dewey*

            By dropping the f*bomb, Ben gave Jane an excuse to run to HR, pleading she’s a poor innocent lamb. “All I said was….” Leaving out her inflammatory comments, her tone of voice, and her poor work habits. All of which need to be addressed by OP.

    2. Roscoe*

      I do agree. I don’t know that running to HR immediately was warranted in this case. Especially if this was her first time really having an issue with him

    3. Tuxedo Cat*

      That stood out to me too. However, I also am somewhat projecting. A colleague and I worked together with someone like Jane. My colleague once had a private meeting with our Jane to talk about how Jane doesn’t pull her weight but swoops in to take credit for what my colleague does but would throw my colleague under the bus if there were slight errors. I wasn’t there, but my colleague was always professional even when we talked about how frustrating Jane was with one another.

      Our Jane cried, yelled, and went to HR. Nothing directly bad happened to my colleague, but our bosses were colder towards my colleague.

    4. BuildMeUp*

      Wow, no. I don’t think swearing at a coworker is ever acceptable, and I heartily disagree that Jane “deserved” to be sworn at. While immediately going to HR wasn’t the only option, telling HR that your coworker yelled “fuck you” at you is not tattling.

      1. Maya Elena*

        I deeply disagree that “nobody deserves to be sweared at at work”. Some people richly deserve it; some people richly deserve a slap in the face (think some of the terrible unscrupulous coworkers and managers written about in some of Alison’s letters).

        Those people get a pass because it is better for civil society if we’re not cussing and slapping all the time. And it’s often hard to tell when it was TRULY deserves, though not amways. Therefore we punish instances of cursing and slapping. But when it does happen, we don’t shed too many tears for them.

        It’s like, you don’t lynch a neonazi, but you don’t mind it as much if a freak accident befalls him.

        1. BuildMeUp*

          Wow. First off, I’m not sure where that quote is coming from… I didn’t say *no one* deserves to be sworn at. I said Jane didn’t, and I stand by that. We’re talking about two coworkers, both escalating an argument; they both took things too far.

          I don’t know why Nazis are suddenly coming into play here?? We’re talking about the incident in the letter involving two coworkers.

        2. Maya Elena*

          I’m sorry!!
          I think I answered the wrong comment, except I can’t find it right now, which might mean I didn’t read yours correctly.
          Anyway, the last line would have made sense as an example in my reply to the non-existent other comment. Will be more careful next time.

      2. Alice*

        Did Jane mention to HR that she had just shouted at Ben “Get out of my sight!”? If so, she went as a person who realized the whole team was behaving unprofessionally and wanted to get some outside supervision to clear the air.
        If she didn’t mention that part — well, I wouldn’t call it “tattling” but I might call it “backstabbing.”

  25. Hiring Mgr*

    In addition to all the advice here on this specific incident and discipline, maybe OP can ask her own manager to let her scale back the other commitments to focus more directly on her team for a while?

    1. a Gen X manager*

      THIS ^^^ or someone needs to be the supervisor in OP’s absence. Clearly this isn’t a team that can be left unsupervised!

  26. NW Mossy*

    OP, I think you’re right that your lack of presence in the office is a key piece of this, and it’s something for you to raise to your own boss. If your boss’s expectations mean that you don’t have scheduled, consistent, rarely-missed meetings with each of your employees individually and as a team, that’s a problem. Yes, it’s important for you to represent your area to projects and other “working manager” duties, but if they’re getting in the way of you being able to do the basics for your people, these kinds of come-to-a-head crises will be a standing feature of your life.

    Alison’s advice is spot-on for how to deal with Ben and Jane, but you need to have a conversation with your boss about the importance of dedicated time to build relationships with your team, especially during the first year. When you don’t have a dynamic where you can talk to employees about issues when they’re small and solvable, you lose the opportunity to snuff them out before they catch fire. As you’ve now seen, leaving people to self-manage doesn’t always work well because it creates confusion about who’s really driving the bus.

  27. icallshannanigans*

    I think you need to consider also how this interaction played out for your other staff. I’ve had coworkers get in a yelling match before, cursing and banging their fists on tables. Frankly, it frightened me to the point that I left the building – I didn’t know how much more it would escalate or if it might turn violent. It made me really wary of those coworkers – would they lose their temper like that with me if I upset them? And since nobody interceded and, as far as I know, neither party was ever disciplined, it also made me wonder if other coworkers would start handling conflict like that.

    People shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe at work. I think Ben and Jane both need to apologize to their coworkers and reassure them it won’t happen again.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Really good point.
      Jane can’t be driving her cohorts to the point of frustration.
      And Ben cannot be cussing at people.

      I am having a hard time understanding why OP does not tell them to STOP.

    2. The Voice of Reason*

      “I think Ben and Jane both need to apologize to their coworkers and reassure them it won’t happen again.”
      Do you also think both sides were equally to blame at Charlottesville?

      1. H*

        Um, woah. I think this is a really inappropriate comparison. Being a slacker and a pain to work with and swearing at coworkers are not at all comparable to violent racism.

  28. LizM*

    I like Alison’s advice. I would only add that if Ben’s emotions are getting in the way of professional advancement, maybe include a referral to your company’s EAP when you counsel him. I know ours has several resources for learning stress management, resiliency, and anger management. In addition to Alison’s script, I would add, “This is something you’ve told me you’re working on. If you need additional tools, our company has an EAP. Here is the number if you think it would be useful.”

    Yes, Jane was wrong, and you need to counsel her as well, both on how she handled the conflict and the more systemic problems, but professionals should have the tools to walk away from toxic coworkers rather than engaging in a shouting match.

  29. Grapey*

    Behavior aside, from a managerial POV, stuff like how queues should be handled should come from management.

    Jane shouldn’t have a special “I’m leaving this open because of reasons” excuse when a ticket status should clearly mean something to everyone that looks at a ticket. I administer one of these sorts of ticketing systems and it breaks when everyone wants the workflow to mean something different.

    1. ss*

      I also work with one of these ticketing systems. If there is a special circumstance for leaving it open, that is documented directly onto the ticket.

      1. Decima Dewey*

        Agreed. Jane needs to be called on that. “Why did you still have an open ticket on X Project in August? It was canceled in April.” “You still have an open ticket on Q project, which Lucinda closed in May.” And so forth.

  30. animaniactoo*

    I also suggest that you hoist Jane in her own petard with regards to her foisting tasks off on others.

    “I need to be aware of everyone’s workloads even when I am out of the office. For that reason, if anyone asks you to complete a task for them, please make sure I am looped in before starting on it. If you want to give a project (or part of it) to someone else, please loop me in and wait for my sign-off unless the project is a critical all-hands on deck situation. I am always available by e-mail, so I don’t anticipate any issues with this and if there are we’ll revisit how this is handled going forward.”

    It sounds like in large part, Ben was extremely frustrated with someone who appears to routinely get away with not pulling their weight and some of this argument is boilover from that. Likely exacerbated by his looking for something to do and then getting pushback from the one person who looks for stuff to not do.

    So yeah, discipline them first. But then make this adjustment. It will also make it easier for future for you to give people a head’s up advisory “Ben will be going through everyone’s files this week to… if you have any concerns, please raise them with me as soon as possible and notify him of anything he needs to be aware of with regards to…” which makes it even clearer where the “authority” of the action is coming from.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Perhaps Jane could be removed from training people, which would take away her cover story for not doing her own work.

  31. Observer*

    I think that a huge proportion of the comments you received boil down to “You need to start managing.” Both Ben AND Jane. “He says he’s trying” works for a couple of weeks with a child. Not with a competent adult employee. He needs to either show results or explain exactly how he’s going about “trying” and what the expected timeline here is. As for Jane, how does someone get away with the kind of thing you are describing. Others have mentioned the foisting work onto other people. But the “instructing” people is also out of line unless it’s part of her job description, someone asked for her help or you told her to provide instruction. Otherwise that’s just out of line and disrespectful. There is a reason why so many people sent you emails defending Ben, even though I’m sure no one is a fan of his temper. Also, the resistance to change needs to be shut down. I work with people who are really change averse. But none of them have ever balked at doing what they need to, even if they do some grumbling. Her insistence the NOTHING SHOULD be changed is something you need to shut down, hard.

    Also, I agree with the people who pointed out that her behavior is a red flag for an internal audit. Is she client facing? Does she handle money? Does she certify things and / or sign off on documents or processes? If so, please start an internal audit asap.

    I also agree that you

  32. Ramona Flowers*

    So it sounds like Ben kept fuelling the argument until they both cracked.

    I… hope he never gets a job in change management.

    They were both at fault but I am struck by the way he hammered the same nail over and over.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      And with a hammer that he had no reason to think would work. “Other people thanked me for it!” Yeah, no. No one is going to say “Oh, wait, other people appreciated it? I guess I should too, then.” I’m not saying he was wrong to clean up the mess, just that it lacks a kind of emotional intelligence to not realize that he should have stopped expecting her to respond in one way after several angry rounds of her responding in a different way. He should have said “Cersei approved this, so if you have a problem, take it up with her” pretty early in that “conversation.”

    2. David*

      He factually stated what had happened, including approval from his manager, compliance with audit requirements (thus providing a reason for his actions), and appreciation from other team members (which demonstrated a commonly held, reasonable response to his actions). Now, his way temper aside, I can’t see how he was hammering the same nail over and over.

      1. Ramona Flowers*

        Well no, from what’s been said he went on and on about how other people would be grateful, she wouldn’t have done the work anyway, etc.

        I think David’s comment above this one sums it up really well.

        1. tigerlily*

          I just reread the OPs letter and it doesn’t say anything about him going “on and on about how other people would be grateful, she wouldn’t have done the work, etc.” It lays out the arguments he was making – all solid, valid arguments – and that the argument itself continued until his outburst, but I think you’re reading into it something that isn’t there. There’s nothing really “fueling” about explaining why the work he did was necessary and approved.

      2. MashaKasha*

        Agree. There was, indeed, one person in that argument that kept hammering the same nail over and over (and not a very effectively working nail, at that). But it wasn’t Ben. Ben provided all kinds of valid arguments, from the business standpoint, in favor of why the closed jobs needed to be closed. In response, Jane just kept saying “do not touch my work or else”. That’s not even an argument. I’d consider being on her side if she’d offered some kind of an explanation why that or the other specific task that Ben had closed, needed to remain open. She didn’t.

        1. Ramona Flowers*

          But that is not how you win someone over. What Ben should have done is stop arguing and explaining, and either a) ask why it bothered her and actually listen to the answer or b) tell her to talk to the manager. Continuing to justify and defend and explain was not a good choice as it frustrated both of them.

          Not saying Jane was in the right, but it might have gone very differently if he’d stopped trying to convince her and actually listened. Maybe said something like: you seem frustrated, I suggest you discuss this with supervisor.

          I do not buy that he was justifiably provoked.

          1. Kate 2*

            But Jane kept the argument going too. She kept telling him that he shouldn’t have done it and should never do it again. And when he, reasonably and logically, tried to defend himself she went bananas on him.

            You can’t fault Ben for keeping it going without admitting that Jane kept it going to. If she had stopped telling him off, he wouldn’t have had to defend himself.

            1. Ramona Flowers*

              There’s a reason why people dealing with customer complaints listen to the customer rather than explaining over and over why they did it x way.

            2. BuildMeUp*

              I think the point is that they *both* kept it going; they’re both at fault here, not just Jane. And I’m not sure it’s fair to describe him as reasonable and logical her as going bananas. From the description, it sounds like they both escalated the argument, and if he was angry to the point of swearing at her, it’s unlikely he was being calm and logical about it. Even if someone is making a good point, if they’re saying it in an emotional and aggressive way, it’s not going to get through to anyone.

          2. Aurion*

            The thing is, with reasonable people, the explanations would be enough. Maybe Jane would’ve been miffed at not being given a heads up beforehand, but if Jane were reasonable, hearing the explanations about auditors and metrics should be enough to bring her down to a mild irritation at most, which could be summed up with “next time, tell me first before you start, I don’t like being left out of my own work”. The fact that she completely ignored the very good explanations and went into “get out of my sight” doesn’t speak well for her.

            Ben acted poorly, but he owned his poor behaviour and apologized for it. I don’t see Jane doing the same.

        2. Jessie the First (or second)*

          OP said that “Apparently this went on for several minutes, getting more heated despite the attempts of the team to diffuse the situation, reaching a crescendo of them both talking over each other at the top of their voices,”

          It was both of them, yelling. Not one person explaining rationally and the other digging in and being horrible – two people yelling and not listening and generally causing a scene.

          Ben is not a good guy in this situation. Neither is Jane. Both behaved really inappropriately.

    3. The Other Katie*

      I disagree strongly. It sounds like Jane started the argument in the first place, by attacking Ben for doing her work (which sounds like it was just closing minor issues and/or no-action tickets), and then rejecting every attempt to explain why he did it in the first place and that he had permission to do it. She was the one hammering the same nail, without even attempting to explain why she thought he should have treated her work differently from others. She’s the one who had the problem here.

      1. fposte*

        I’m less interested in the argument than their behavior as employees overall. Both of them are doing shit they need to cut right out.

  33. Katie, the other Fed*

    This was literally me a few years ago. A coworker and I got into an argument over whose project this one project was and it ended with me telling him to “do the f@#king task list then!” I wish my manager had written in to AAM instead of reacted how he did. In the end, I was written up for swearing (when we had an office swear jar (eye roll)), but I definitely learned my lesson. I’m now much calmer and don’t let things bother me personally at work. And I definitely never, ever swear! And biggest step of all, I left that toxic-in-so-many-ways-job in the dust and am at a much more calmer, less stressful job!

    1. always in email jail*

      This. I’ve been in Ben’s position before, it resulted in me saying “This is BULLS***” and stomping off. Resulted in my supervisor making me sit there while she read me a letter about how it made her feel (???) Am I proud of that? No. But I was also inspired to find a new job, and now I can’t even imagine ever getting upset enough at work to do that.

  34. Kimberly*

    Ben did something his boss asked him to do – and Jane without authority over a significant period of time in the office berated him and attacked him verbally. The teacher in me wants a bit more information – did Ben try to walk away? How were they positioned – basically was he in a trapped in a corner type situation where he couldn’t walk away without coming into possible contact with her? Yes he needs to control his temper and have a better way of dealing with a stressful situation – but what she did especially if he couldn’t get away is a continues verbal assult and everyone is going to have a breaking point. I think she should get the more severe punishment and the OP should be looking at setting the groundwork to fire her.

    The description of her work style reminds me of a couple of bullies I’ve known in HS, Univerisity, and work. One tactic they used was to get inside someone’s personal space while berating them. If the person had a physical response to being crowded they would use that against them. For example, I put my hands up shoulder level palms out in a classic back off position when one of them had my back literally against a wall and was standing toe to toe with me*- and I was accused of threatening to strike her. If this type of bully wins (Ben gets punished she gets a slap on the hand or nothing), expect her to amp things up and continue to attack people and play the victim.

    1. Kate 2*

      Yes, this! I think a few people on Jane’s side may be subconsciously reacting to the lone swear word, and not what Jane did.

      1. Lissa*

        I think this is also one of those questions where the personalities feel familiar, so people immediately sub in people they have known, or themselves, if they see them in Ben or Jane! Also some of the details aren’t super clear so it’s easy to imagine one person being completely in the wrong or right and going from there

    2. BuildMeUp*

      They were both raising their voices at each other. They both attacked each other verbally. This wasn’t a one-sided argument at all, and I’m not sure there’s anything in the letter that suggests she backed him into a corner or was physically aggressive. To be honest, it sounds like the personal experience you mention might be coloring your interpretation of the letter.

  35. The Other Katie*

    While not excusing Ben’s loss of temper, this sounds extremely hostile:

    ” And on and on until Jane told Ben to get out of her sight, that she couldn’t deal with him, that he was impossible to work with, and then…”

    It’s not just profanity that makes a hostile workplace. If I were told by a co-worker to “get out of her sight”, I’d consider that something had gone seriously toxic there. Ben should not have lost his rag, but IMO it’s Jane who requires more of a talking to.

    1. serenity*

      That’s an excellent point. Those comments from Jane that preceded Ben’s (unacceptable) outburst are also, in their own way, very unacceptable.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        Worse, in my book. At least a big ol’ FUCK YOU is direct communication. Jane’s comments were at just as toxic and much more indirect.

    2. hbc*

      This is what I came here to say. “Get out of my sight” is terrible and dismissive. I would prefer a big “Fuck you” over that any day of the week–at least that’s kind of generalized anger at me rather than the assumption that I’m an inferior being to be ordered about. After she was the one who picked the fight, no less!

      As far as I’m concerned, she was the one who escalated with that comment. She brought it way, way past the line, and she shouldn’t be off the hook because he joined her there.

      1. Lissa*

        I have to agree. I don’t think her saying that makes his behaviour OK but it doesn’t seem a matter to me of *just* she provoked and he reacted – they both lost their tempers and said really inappropriate things.

  36. Wolfram alpha*

    As someone who has raised her voice at another coworker I can really identify with Ben. I had a co-worker a decade my senior who wanted to be a manager and thought the way to do that was to boss the new folks around, delegate his work etc. He was also a master pot stirrer and instantly identified me as an easy victim. He goaded me into many raised voice disagreements. I am really glad to hear you are not going along with hr.

    My advice for reaching Ben:
    Explain the importance of silently agreeing to disagree. I know when I was younger I wanted the facts to be known and cared very much about truth even if was ultimately wrong.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Ugh, yeah this is hard stuff to work through.
      In Ben’s case, what they are arguing over is done/finished. I guess she wanted Ben do UNdo it so she could do it herself?
      Any place I have worked, if we left work incomplete someone might be assigned to finish it off. This happens. It’s just not the end of the world.

    2. LizM*

      The value of being able to silently agree to disagree, especially with a toxic coworker, is so, so important.

      I had a toxic coworker early in my career. He was a bully and he actively undermined me. He was also extremely passive aggressive and gas lighted me.

      I would get so frustrated trying to convince him I was right, I would end phone calls in tears on a weekly basis. When I finally broke down and admitted to my boss how toxic the relationship had become, he told me to stop engaging, because coworker wasn’t the decision maker, my boss was, so it didn’t matter if coworker agreed with my recommendation. Saying “thanks for your perspective” and ending the call had literally never occurred to me, because my focus was on being right at all costs.

  37. Sarah*

    I’m more sympathetic toward Ben than Jane. The occasional swear word is unprofessional but not the worst thing in the world. Jane, however, does not seem to be the best worker or team player. She would drive me nuts. THAT is a real problem in the workplace.

    Both need to be talked to; she needs to be fired.

    1. MashaKasha*

      She comes across in the letter as a mediocre worker, that was possibly a good worker once, wants to continue presenting herself to others as a good and strong worker, and would go to considerable lengths (but not to the point of actually doing good work!) to maintain this image. Sounds to me like a disaster waiting to happen.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I am finding myself leaning toward Ben because he seems to have some level of awareness.
      I have had to stop myself because OP makes no mention of any attempt to correct any of Jane’s on-going issues. I have seen that into many workplaces, the problem employee does not get spoken to, but everyone else has to keep their behavior in check to accommodate the problem employee.

      I had one job where the boss told me that Problem Employee needed counseling. This stood out like a sore thumb because Boss never said stuff like this. I am long gone from that job and Problem Employee has received numerous promotions. And she is still doing the same thing she was back then. So my experience is jading my view on this situation.

  38. Rachel Green*

    It definitely sounds like a lot of issues have been festering with this team, and I recommend the OP take a hard look at the underlying problems that led to this incident. I agree that both Jane and Ben were in the wrong, but so is the OP if these issues haven’t been clearly addressed before now.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I agree. OP has a pressure cooker going on here. And it is because Jane is allowed to get away with these behaviors. After witnessing Ben get punished for this, I am sure the rumor will go right around that Jane is protected and she can do anything, but anyone else– watch out. I would not be surprised to see resignations roll in.

  39. Akcipitrokulo*

    One thing that stood out is Ben realised was wrong and apologised before anyone told him too.

    I can definitely see Jane’s point of view if she is afraid of something slipping off her radar by its being closed… if system doesn’t send auto notifications, then whoever closes should send an email themselves, and in either case, leave a note on the ticket. Then it’s a stronger case to tell Jane that this may happen.

  40. Student*

    Coming from a work environment where casual swearing (and occasional outbursts at people) happens and isn’t a big deal –

    They both got into an out-of-control argument. One should’ve disengaged, but neither did. That’s the crux of the problem.

    Jane also needs to know that Ben had your blessing to do this work. I can’t tell if Ben told her that or not, but you need to make it clear to her that this was authorized and will happen again in the future; it’s not “her” work, it’s your department’s work, and you’ll reassign it in part or whole to get it done when you need to. There’s a bigger issue there.

    That said, sounds like Ben escalated the out-of-control arguing with swearing. If that’s something Forbidden in your work place, then you have to come down harder on him to knock it off. It’s not that big of a deal in some jobs, and it’s a huge deal in others – so this isn’t the kind of subject where you can get away with assuming everyone has the same standards. Honestly. I know that’s hard for non-swearers to wrap their heads around, but what he said would be considered angry but not over the top in many other environments, more like a “You are insufferable!” than a “Die in a fire!”. He may not really understand how the swear is as big a deal to Jane as it evidently was. You need to drive it home that it is a big deal at this job and it has to stop immediately.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Excellent point for OP to explain to Jane that there is no such thing as “her work”.

  41. A Certain Party*

    My interpretation is that Jane bears more of the blame than Ben.

    I can easily see how frustrated Ben must have been. I’m not as bothered by an occasional F -word as I am by Jane’s behavior.

  42. Allison*

    Lord, I sympathize with both here, I really do.

    For Ben, I appreciate all the work he put into housekeeping and cleaning up the system, because it does look bad when so many tasks are open like that. You’re right, if you got audited there’d be trouble! I see this in my own industry all the time, and it’s a pain to get people in my line of work to be more task and detail-oriented as they plow through their work. So to do all that, and get so much garbage from a colleague, can absolutely cause someone to get worked up.

    For Jane, I totally understand getting mad when someone touches your work, so to speak. It can feel passive aggressive, or just downright invasive! It can feel like a roommate cleaning up your stuff in the common area, someone people might have appreciated it, but you would have totally done that yourself, and now you sorta feel bad they felt the need to do it for you, but you also hate that they stepped on your toes and moved your stuff. That’s your stuff!

    She probably would have preferred a direct request to handle that stuff herself, or at least been given the chance to go through it with the option to have someone clean it up if she didn’t have time, unfortunately she was out of the office when this all happened! It would have been better for someone other than Ben to explain that the records needed to be cleaned up, but you get why she’s upset, and then assure her people will respect your boundaries at work but that she needs to handle her own housekeeping, and there may be consequences if she fails to do so.

    1. Alice*

      Jane had the chance for a year, though. She was out of the office this day, but what about the other 364 days she could have done it?
      I mean, I agree with you about feeling territorial about my work (in the absence of someone asking about or suggesting a collaboration, I mean)… but the flip side is, I do my work; I don’t sit on it endlessly.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I assume Jane knows about the audits and she knows it could cause the company problems if she leaves work incomplete. In this context her overreaction is baffling.

  43. Lady Phoenix*

    I think there is a mix of problems starting from higher up.

    1) Higher up keeps pulling you away on meetings
    2) Because of these meetings, OP can’t take the time to seriously examine and critique on everyone’s work and workflow
    3) This results in problematic behavior from Jane AND Ben, with Jane’s behavior being the worst (slouching reaponsibility and holding up york for at least ONE YEAR)

    And as for who is in the wrong, both are but it sounds like Jane became and agressor that refused to back down and Ben was basically trying to ahut this conversation down and walk away. At least in my case, if someone was not letting me leave, I would take measures to allow me an opening to leave.

    Both need discipline, but Jane needs more for starting the fight and prolonging it, instead of coming to someone higher up.

  44. SJPxo*

    Frankly, I can sort of understand Ben’s reaction… no-one should ever say to someone (really unless you’re a parent of a child really) ‘Get out of my sight’! Like, no matter how heated a confrontation if they said that, well ridiculous, they have no power over you, and have no right to say that!
    Jane sounds like a bore!

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Actually, “Get out of my sight” should never be told to a child either.

      Signed, Someone who had that said to her frequently. I had no choice of where to go. I’d have loved to get out of her sight.

  45. Workfromhome*

    Ben was wrong. He needs to apologize for the F bomb directed at a co worker. He needs to be instructed in no uncertain terms that if it happens again he will be let go. That said everyone even normally level headed people can do this ONCE under the right circumstances. If its their first time and are otherwise a strong contributor (who’s not a known Ahole) then I think they deserve a second chance (with the knowledge that they have had their once chance). They don’t get to try to not do it again. They simply cant.

    That said I think that some of the blame needs to go on past/present management for not dealing with Jane. After all its clearly a know issue that Jane pushes worth onto others and resists change. This appears to have been allowed to go on unchecked for sometime. Its not surprising that this was eventually boil over (again Ben was wrong but this could have boiled over without swearing and been just as big a problem). “people” are frustrated with Jane’s behavior, management knows about it yet it appears nothing has been or will be done.

    Some might argue that Ben or anyone else should have walked away and gone to their manager when Jane spouts off. However it appears that this doesn’t work. If you want people to come to you with these type of issues then you need to take some action when they do. Its possible that this escalated because people have come to managers about Jane before and nothing happened so they figured well if he wont do something I will.

    We don’t have enough information to know but management certainly needs to take a hard look at how they are dealing with Jane if they want to avoid the possibility of this going forward. Letting her get away with this scott free is going to have damaging effects on the rest of the team.

    “she told him that that was different, she didn’t care what everyone else thought was okay, she wanted him to leave her work alone.” She thinks and acts like the rules don’t apply to her and she is somehow above the rest of the team and that’s a problem.

  46. Ask a Manager* Post author

    This is one of those letters where a lot of people are identifying with Jane or Ben. People who see themselves in Jane or Ben (or who have a particular pet peeve around Jane or Ben’s behavior) are reading it through that lens. But they’re really both problematic, and the OP needs to deal with both objectively.

    1. Trout 'Waver*

      Thanks for publishing this letter. I had an immediate ‘Team Ben’ response to this one, which led to some personal introspection into why that was, when it’s clear both parties are wrong. I hope moderation hasn’t taken too much of your time on this one.

      1. Aurion*

        I also had an automatic “Team Ben” reaction, and I feel like it’s because Ben is more easily relatable as described in OP’s letter. The OP paints him as a smart, hard worker, who occasionally lets his emotions get the best of him; compare that to Jane, whom the OP paints in more unfavourable terms: likes to foist off work, stubborn, etc. We’re all the heroes of our own stories, and while OP’s account can be perfectly true, we’re probably also all reacting to our biases for thinking ourselves as more like Ben than Jane.

        1. Decima Dewey*

          In my case, I was put off by OP’s attitude toward Ben’s actions, finding them over the top but sympathizing with him. Jane sounds like a problem employee, no question.

          Going forward, I’d say that OP should establish that the ticket system will be checked regularly, and items finished or no longer required removed. And that the results will go to OP and that there will be discussions of performance issues as needed.

      2. Paul*


        With Ben…it isn’t the F bomb. I mean, that’s not great, but it’s one damned word. It’s the “being run by his emotions” and occasionally steamrolling colleagues (which OP kind of downplayed) that actually sound a lot more problematic, but still concerning.

        I do think Jane really sounds probably worse from a business/coworker standpoint, but Ben sounds like they’ve got definite issues too. Steamrolling your coworkers is not OK. Nor is failing to more or less control yourself day to day. Nor is passing off doing your grunt work as training when someone’s not a damn trainee.

        1. One Esk Nineteen*

          This is the second time I’ve seen you say something like this and I think it’s a) not a good equivalency or comparison, and b) really trivializing what happened in Charlottesville.

          1. The Voice of Reason*

            It’s absolutely a fair comparison. To be sure, the stakes are a lot higher in Charlottesville. But the underlying principle — that a knee-jerk “pox on both their houses” apportioning of blame is grossly inappropriate — is identical.

            Here, we have Jane, an employee with a negligent work history, blowing up (“get out of my sight”) at Ben, a peer who performed work following his boss’ orders. Ben perhaps overreacted — “perhaps” because some corporate cultures are more tolerant of profanity than others. But it’s grossly unreasonable to expect normal human beings to react like Vulcans when being attacked in this way.

            HR (and Allison apparently agrees with this, but I think she’s wrong in this case) took the Trump-on-Charlottesville approach of blaming both sides. This is much more a 90%-of-the-blame-to-Jane situation, if that. And yes, Jane’s reaction is a red flag, particularly if she’s in financial services. This is a textbook example of why Steve Jobs said he’d never met an HR person who didn’t suck.

    2. LBK*

      This seems to happen any time there’s a letter about an interpersonal conflict where the LW isn’t one of the directly involved parties. It’s weird and often frustrating since side-taking is so oblique to good management; you don’t have a specific amount of consequences that must be divvied up in any given situation. Each party’s actions need to be looked at separately and then handled proportionally. If that means you just need to speak to each of them, that’s what you do. If that means firing them both, then you fire both (although I don’t think firing is warranted for either party in this case). You don’t decide who’s “more right” and then crown a winner of the dispute who gets let off the hook while the other person is punished.

    3. Wolfram alpha*

      While I identify with Ben I totally agree with you. I like you overall advice as well.

    4. OlympiasEpiriot*

      I agree. My personal knee-jerk take was that for something to have gotten to this point there had been a true crisis of management and *that* needed to be squarely looked at before something else happened. I mean, yeah, talk to both of these people. Warn them. But, to actually have a solution, there’s got to be some changes above both Jane and Ben. Jane should be managed more closely. Ben needs to change his interaction style but also possibly (until he gets his ‘boiling teapot’ mode under control) needs to be watched for when he’s getting stressed.

      But, the management thing seems to be urgent.

    5. animaniactoo*

      Agreed, as a fairly passionate person who used to land in the “can’t help myself” category… I learned how to help myself. Most of the time. Certainly enough of the time that I’m no longer “out of control” and when I “can’t help myself” it’s rare or mild enough that it’s primarily looked at with either amusement or eyerolls, but not taken as a serious issue.

      Even if his passion feels like a good thing, it comes with a significant drawback and he needs to learn to control it enough to alleviate that.

      Both are feeling a certain amount of “entitlement” in their responses, but neither is actually entitled to what they’re feeling that they are.

      Over on Jane’s side – the fact that Jane is allowed to continue to give her tasks to others when this is a known issue is something that needs to be addressed poste haste so that she doesn’t have that capability so freely anymore. I don’t know what her general relationship is to the rest of the team, but she’s clearly abusing an authority or privilege that she’s gained somewhere along the way.

      I have a few of those that I gained “unofficially” by being the person who could or would do certain things and I am “unofficially” our team lead – but my boss would stop me in my tracks if I started giving my work away to others so I could focus on pet projects or some such. It would never ever ever reach the point of giving it to them as “training” – they can do that training on their own projects with me giving them guidance about this or that.

    6. AFRC*

      I agree. I definitely see myself as Ben, and have a few coworkers who are Janes (their behavior is frighteningly similar). They are also extremely defensive if you call them out on things (no matter how professionally you do it), and that’s even more aggravating. So this post has been really helpful for me to see how it can escalate, and how disruptive and unhelpful it is for the rest of the team. But I TOTALLY agree with others who say that management should do something about Jane’s behavior. Good luck OP!

    7. MashaKasha*

      I didn’t relate to either. I admit I’d rather work with a Ben than with a Jane. But I’ve worked with both and know how to handle both without losing my own mind and the ability to do my own work. (One, assume the other person has the business’s best interests in mind same as you do, and keep asking them questions and asking them to explain their actions until they either do, or talk themselves into a hole. Two, sarcasm disguised as work-related corporate speak is a powerful tool that will help one not snap at people, even when these people are making no sense at all. That’s how I’d handle Jane. As for Ben, the downside of a Ben is that even a Ben can sometimes be wrong. But the upside is that a Ben would have an open enough mind to understand it if presented logically, and would have enough skills to quickly correct whatever a Ben might have screwed up. Between the two, Ben is easier to work with by far.)

    8. Not So NewReader*

      Because of the number of problems running all at once in this story, OP really needs to step in here and get some control over what is going on in her group.
      My first read left me saying, “Jane is allowed to do these things then some one was bound to lose their cool at some point.”

      I am not saying that is right, I am saying it’s human nature. Ben was acting like a boss, because there was no boss available. Jane is running free-range style because there is no boss available.

  47. Elizabeth H.*

    “Ben had a spare afternoon so (with my consent) spent it going through the system we use to track the team’s work and doing some general housekeeping, tidying up our records and closing off tasks that had been completed or were no longer relevant or required (including one that had inexplicably been left open for over a year). When he finished, he emailed the rest of the team outlining what he’d done . . . she immediately asked him why he’d thought it was acceptable to close off tasks that were meant for her. He referred her to his email, which explained his motivation, process, and outcome”

    It seems pretty clear to me from all of this that the fact that Ben did this with OP’s approval was either communicated directly or should have been eminently obvious from context cues. Also, isn’t the default assumption that any task that someone undertakes at work, is done with the approval (or tacit or implied approval) of his or her manager? Otherwise you are just assuming that everyone is acting in bad faith unless otherwise explicitly stated.

    1. Workfromhome*

      I think there is evidence that Jane doesn’t believe that those manager approvals don’t apply to HER because she is somehow outside the rest of the team. This has nothing to do with Ben’s actions. Ben had approval and was tasked to do something that touched Jane’s work by management.

      Jane’s reaction “, Jane complaining about Ben over-stepping her boundaries by messing with her work” is a clear sign of an issue. Jane doesn’t get to set the work boundaries management does. Ben was in effect simply following orders. She wants to shoot the messenger.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Jane skips huge parts of the story.
        I bet she never told HR, “I don’t do half my job. I pawn it off on others. Now they are mad at me.”

  48. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Off Topic Slightly:

    As I read all of your comments, I am vacillating between cringing at the idea of most of you ending up in my office to hear the way we communicate and thinking “Oh, H**L! None of these people could deal with my industry!”

    Rock on.

    1. Rat Racer*

      I’m trying to guess what industry that is – investment banking? Tech start-up? Law enforcement maybe?

      1. Stop That Goat*

        Yea, I’ve heard more than one angry F bomb thrown at eachother around the office. Law Enforcement.

    2. Gina*

      I’m construction-adjacent, and being told to f*** off at work wouldn’t even raise my eyebrows. (To be clear, I’m not recommending it.)

  49. Out of the box thinker.*

    I’d suggest that the OP requests to have some additional time in the office so that she can get to the root of the issues and handle her team. Now, there are two people who exhibited bad behavior though I can understand Ben hitting the breaking point due to Jane’s behavior. The simple thing is you have to have good self control, no matter how much co-workers tick you off. He needs to get his swearing under control right away, whether there are humorous ways that his team can help him. (my dept, there would be the request to bring the offendee the swear jar, usually be the offendee themselves) or using the whole rubber band on the wrist to self correct but he needs to nip that. I would advise HR that this would be a verbal with Ben and then use some of the good tips above for an improvement plan.
    Re: Jane. There are several discussions. including ones about why were those tasks left open. I do like the advise of the request for people to loop you in via email for anytime of task or job assignments. You need a frank discussion with her, and put her on an improvement plan. It needs to be made clear that she needs to do the tasks assigned to her. Honestly if she is foisting off her stuff, what value is she providing to the group? Maybe she can provide alot once she is brought into hand. but behavior like this is unacceptable.

  50. LS*

    I’m having a hard time seeing why OP is blaming Jane for the conflict when clearly they are both to blame.

    She says he was provoked, but seriously, “retorting that she probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, just got someone else to do it for her then taken the credit for it herself” – Ben isn’t provoking Jane? He also added fuel to the fire by defending his actions at length withoutmentioning that OP had okayed all of this.

    I’m picking up major favouritism towards Ben here.

    She also uses language like “can’t help himself”. Yes he can, he’s a grownup. And, “once he’s decided on a course of action, he goes for it with all his considerable energy” – that’s great if the course of action is the correct one and has been agreed with his team / approved by his manager. It’s a really weak trait otherwise.

    Jane’s behaviour is clearly also a problem, but OP needs to remove her Ben goggles and see that they are both a problem.

    (Apologies if this shows up twice.)

    1. MicroManagered*

      Is it really favoritism if Ben is a high performer and Jane is a low performer though? It makes sense to me to prefer the better/more productive worker.

      1. LS*

        Favouritism isn’t about preferring to have someone on your team who’s a better employee. That’s human nature. Favouritism is about allowing your preference to be apparent, and to cloud your judgement, as in this case. As a manager you can’t downplay someone’s weaknesses and cast them in the role of innocent just because they are a more likable colleague.

    2. Amused*

      Don’t you know? Everything is the woman’s fault. She provoked him! I mean, Ben “can’t help himself,” after all, even with ops basic request that he stops wearing.

      If I was hr id be during Ben for his inability to function in a workplace, Jane for poor performance, and op for not dealing with any of this until now…

  51. LiptonTeaForMe*

    I got into trouble at work for the same thing, the F bomb, just slipped out of my mouth. I had to actively work to change it and now say “Fork It” with the same tone of voice. Hearing me say it, you know that is not what I meant, but it doesn’t get me in trouble either.

    1. GermanGirl*

      Yeah, being bilingual can be a real advantage sometimes. In the US people are much more sensitive to swear words than in my home country, so I’ve started to use “oh mist” instead of “oh shit”. The Americans aren’t offended because most don’t know that the German word Mist means dung in English. And in German, Mist is considered a mild enough swear word to be work safe in most places.

      1. Mary*

        I was so surprised when I was a Praktikantin in Germany and heard a co-worker in her sixties say, “Ach, Mist!” This was in the 90s, too, so it was someone born in the early thirties. I can’t imagine hearing a woman of that generation swearing at all in England, never mind in work!

        On the other side, it was hilarious watching my English teachers try to explain to the German teachers on our school exchange that singing “Alice, Alice, Who the Fuck is Alice” wasn’t really appropriate at a school event. :-D

  52. redcybra*

    …..That’s your stuff!

    Yes, that was Jane’s work, but AFAIK she could tell from the email that Ben had permission from THEIR boss to do what he did. (…. his email, which explained his motivation, process, and outcome. ) Jane doesn’t seem to accept her manager’s authority. I can see the following conversation happening:

    OP: Ben had my permission to do what he did.
    Jane: Well, he didn’t have MY permission!

    Also, the interesting reference to “panicking” emails from the OP’s staff about the incident.
    I think the OP needs to get permission to spend a lot more time doing hands-on management with her group. There may be a lot more going on than she realizes.

  53. AW*

    Both of them were wrong. Ben happened to swear while also being wrong but the bigger problem for him is that this was ongoing behavior for him. It wouldn’t surprise me if HR has found out that Ben swears regularly during their investigation. It may even be why they’ve decided he’s the one at fault: if he’s known for not controlling his emotions or his language then he looks like the one who’s the problem.

    Ben, and anyone who’s getting flack from a peer about doing work done by instruction or with the consent with their boss, only needs to say: This was requested/approved by Boss. Take it up with them. Trying to talk the co-worker into liking it is unnecessary. They don’t have to like it, they just need to take their complaint up with the correct person.

    Jane also should have gone to the OP when asking Ben not to touch her work didn’t work. I’m guessing she didn’t because she’s used to being able to give orders to her peers. In addition to making it clear that’s unacceptable, the rest of the team needs to be told to tell her ‘No’ when she tries to assign them her own work or at least let you know immediately afterward so you can speak to her about it. That she doesn’t want to change shouldn’t be a burden on the rest of the team.

    1. Isabel C.*

      Yeees. This all could have been avoided if Ben’s response had been to make it clear that Cersei said it was fine, then to say “Whatever, Jane,” to future complaints and walk away. Jane wouldn’t have been happy–but she sounds like The Worst anyhow–but it’s not something that HR would’ve had to get involved in, or that would’ve upset other co-workers.

      One of the greatest things customer service/retail taught me was a) that some people are not going to be reasonable, no matter what, and talking with them is a waste of time, and b) how to say polite things while mentally making jerking-off motions and planning to talk shit about them at drinks later.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I find myself shifting goals with unreasonable people.
        My goal could become just to get out of the conversation.
        Most times I need them to do X, so that becomes my goal. Get them to do X and we all can move on. The tricky part is I can skate by statements A , B and C because I know they have to do X anyway. “Hmm. The sky is purple with pink dots, interesting. You know we just need to do X and then you can get on with your day.”

        1. Isabel C.*

          I like this way of putting it, yeah. Or, as I’ve said in social activism circles: I’m not trying to change hearts and minds, I’m trying to get people to shut up and sit down.

  54. Aphrodite*

    OP, you have a problem with Ben’s temper but you also have a problem with Jane’s deception. As others above have described, Jane handing her work off to others while keeping her tasks “open” smacks of lying and underhanded behavior. What I don’t understand is why, since you obviously know this, you haven’t addressed it. I have no doubt Ben’s frustration has been building and so perhaps have your other team members anger been building as well. Ben simply said it out loud, and after he did you and the entire team a favor. I see Jane as the problem here–Ben merely being the catalyst, though wrong in his actions–but you as the problem too since you have known about Jane’s non-working tendencies but have apparently chosen to do nothing about them.

  55. Office Love*

    Why does Jane get a pass on this? She used her behavior to provoke a reaction to play victim.

    1. Student*

      We expect that most professional adults can see this kind of trap (or, potentially, genuine but hot-headed response from Jane) and avoid falling into it. Just like we expect adults not to fall for basic toddler psychology tricks.

      We are often disappointed. People (and toddlers) use these tricks because they are very effective.

    2. Out of the box thinker.*

      I hated it when I was growing up and hate when I see it in the workplace.
      But there are times when you push someone too far, which it seems like Jane did to Ben.
      I really dislike everyone who is wanting Jane to get a pass on her terrible behavior because Ben use the F word. -Cry me a river.
      She shouldve been written up long before now due to her work behavior.
      Her going to HR because of one statement sounds more like petty retaliation than actually having a problem. Id personally be putting her on the short list if downsizing is needed.

  56. Amused*

    I wonder what the comments would look like if Jane was an over emotional hothead who can’t stop swearing in professional situations. Ops complete excusal of bens inability to control himself is suspicious, to say the least.

    1. David*

      ” Ben was obviously in the wrong — there were multiple witnesses to the shouting and swearing, he apologized for it once he’d calmed down about 20 minutes later, and he’s freely admitted that he did it and it was wrong. He absolutely needs to learn to hold his temper, and I dread to think what the repercussions would have been if there had been external visitors in the office.”

      That doesn’t look like excusal to me.

    2. Roscoe*

      I think that’s just calling it like it is. Ben was wrong, he realized he was wrong and apologized, but Jane has all sorts of issues of her own and basically instigated it.


    I also think HR should fault Jane. I don’t agree with Ben’s cursing at her, but she instigated the issue.

  58. CAinUK*

    I see a lot of people blaming the OP for not managing Jane (or Ben) better. But she has only been managing this department for 6 months, so I think the most we can say is:

    1. You have observed two problematic behaviors, so now you need to address them (but I can’t blame OP for taking time to understand the personalities at play the first 6 months).

    2. Question if you have a bias toward Ben or against Jane. (From your own description, I’d be inclined toward Ben as well and want to manage Jane out–but you describe both in rather personal terms for only having been there 6 months).

    3. Determine whether you need more time in the office to manage this team, and if so discuss with your won manager how to make that work (compressed meetings offsite, etc).

    1. David*

      Agreed. The OP is still new to this team, but now at least has a good deal of intel on what needs to be managed.

  59. Lana Kane*

    Having worked with Janes, I really feel for Ben (and think that Jane needs some managing STAT.) But Ben absolutely needs to get that temper under control. “I’m working on it” shouldn’t have been enough in the first place, and even less so now.After this incident, I think he is squarely in “there is no try” territory.

    Aside from the obvious lack of professionalism, we live in a time when volatile anger in the workplace can be really scary to people. Even if that person would never do anything violent, there truly is no way to know that for sure (not to mention how stressful that kind of temperament can be for others).

  60. TootsNYC*

    I was a Ben once. I didn’t swear, but I really yelled. (I think I said, “You’re not my father, don’t lecture me.”)

    I got reprimanded.
    And it hurt my reputation, I think.

    Both of which I richly deserved.

    In talking about it with me, the HR rep did something that sort of surprised me, and that helped.
    AFTER she had really let me have it (very professionally), and pointed out the yelling was completely not acceptable, she asked me what had happened. That helped me a lot. I knew I was wrong to yell, and I was really remorseful, but I also didn’t yell in a vacuum; I’m not an angry person, and I normally handle the stresses of my job well.

    I told her that the man I’d yelled at had come to complain that we’d had to make a late change to something we thought as closed, and said, “Don’t you have someone to check these things? Isn’t that your job? Why are you having to make this change now?”
    And that I felt attacked, and that it felt unfair because *I* wasn’t the reason this was such a timing problem (and had worked an 18-hour day before). And that he wouldn’t stop talking at me or listen to the answer. And I wanted him to go away because I had disasters flying past my desk at that very moment.

    Here’s the surprising part: She told me that they’d talked with him first and with others and had heard a similar story, and that they’d told him his approach hadn’t been ideal, and that it was not his place to scold me. And that she understood my frustration and my anger. Then, of course, she reiterated that I had been wrong to yell, and that it was completely unacceptable.
    I totally agreed with her–I had been wrong. But it helped SO much that she’d seen the provocation.
    And it made it possible for me to set down any defensiveness and truly make amends. The guy and I ended up on pretty good terms (I felt like a shitheel when he told me he’d been embarrassed to come onto my floor for days afterward. I still feel like a shitheel.)
    And he did get easier to work with–partly we were determined to be VERY NICE to one another, but I think he lightened up a little on everybody and got less judgmental.

    Another thing that fed into this, tremendously: I already had diminished respect for this guy.
    He already had a reputation of being pissy and overreacting, and he’d jumped down my throat once because I came in late on a day that we were approving the final proofs. Never mind that I’d cleared it with my boss, that I had so little work to do that it was done in 2 hours. I’d been out of the office when he went looking for me.

    That background of contempt on my part made it REALLY hard to control my temper when I felt that he was attacking me. So if Jane has earned the contempt of her colleagues, that’s something that needs to be addressed.

  61. OP*

    Hi all, OP here. Thanks to Alison and everyone in the comments for your perspectives and advice. Sorry for the really long response you’re about to get…

    First, some background – for years, I’ve managed very small teams of generally very experienced, appropriately laid-back, professional people who work well together and generally get on. So I’m a little out of practice in dealing with issues like this! Another manager left the business, and as my role is broadly similar, I was asked to take over her team (initially it was supposed to be temporary, but right now it’s looking like a permanent change). So I’ve been dropped in to manage this team, I’m pretty unfamiliar with the more specific technical aspects of what the team does, and my own boss is pushing forward a high volume of change across the department (due to the way the department works being fairly out-dated and sometimes inefficient), and expecting me to be a big part of implementing it. I mentioned in my email that I am away from the office a lot – what’s perhaps just as bad is that often when I’m in the office, I’m in lengthy conference calls, or at my desk but surrounded by visitors from other departments. The time I have to actually manage my team is minimal – I’ve raised this as an issue to my boss before, but it looks like I’m going to have to do so again, with a bit more insistence.

    The comments about personal bias have really made me think, and I agree there’s some truth to them. I am going to attempt to sort this out in my head before deciding anything, because the last thing I want to do is be unfair to anyone because of my own personal opinions or preferences. I will attempt to give a bit more information about both employees, not to excuse but perhaps to illustrate.

    My first day managing this team, approximately 6 months ago, was also Ben’s first day back at work following a leave of absence as the result of a family bereavement. Almost my first action in the role was to have a meeting with Ben to check up on his welfare and advise him of changes within the team (i.e. that I was am now his manager). It may be that that first, rather sensitive and emotionally charged, conversation resulted in adding an extra layer of sympathy when I’m dealing with Ben. He’s not particularly easy to manage – he does get emotional, frustrated and impatient. He often uses our meetings as an excuse to have a bit of a rant about all of the things that are bothering him – I allow him the space to express himself, then try to work through solutions with him. He gives the impression of feeling restricted by established practices, and that can be tiring to manage, especially in cases where the restrictions are outside my control. But he works hard and he delivers very good results, and in a team that’s in a period of transition, it’s helpful to have someone who embraces change. He’s open, honest and committed to helping the team. For what it’s worth, I’ve never previously seen his swearing in a context that was aggressive or aimed at anyone – it’s always been casual, like a habit. We’ve discussed it and it has improved, although obviously not enough (perhaps I’ve been overly lenient due to being something of a habitual swearer in my own personal life). In the general course of things, he can deal with differences of opinion fairly well – I myself have on many occasions disagreed with a suggestion or opinion of his, we’ve debated both sides of the issue and in every instance either we’ve agreed on a compromise, or he’s respectfully gone along with what I told him to do.

    On the other hand, I have struggled to connect with Jane as her manager. Right from when I became her manager, I’ve been reaching out and trying to involve her in the direction the team is taking, but she doesn’t seem interested. She’s very loyal to my predecessor, and openly compares all of my actions negatively with the actions of her previous manager. Every time I try to arrange a meeting or catch-up with her, she tries to decline the request due to being “too busy”. I thought maybe I wasn’t giving enough notice, so I’ve started booking our meetings a long way in advance to allow her to plan her time – sometimes she still makes excuses, and on other occasions she begrudgingly agrees to come along, but I get very little engagement out of her. She insists that how everything works right now is the ideal solution, and refuses to even entertain the idea of even slight process changes. I ask her what aspects of any proposed changes are causing her concerns and try to talk the ideas through with her – she has many years of experience and it’s perfectly possible that her objections are based on real issues that no-one else has raised. I want her to get involved in the improvements that the team are being asked to deliver, because I want everyone to feel invested in the way the team works, so that the whole team understands and is comfortable with the new processes that are being put in place. But she refuses to engage, provide constructive feedback on suggestions or offer any alternative other than keeping things the same. The rest of the team tell me that this has always been the case – whenever they want to do something a new way, they’ve always been met by a flat out “no” from Jane. When I try to get her involved in change, she avoids me, ignores me or refuses to accept the need for change. When I try to implement change as an order rather than a suggestion, it takes a long time to get her to make the transition, she drags her heels the whole way, and the atmosphere in the team plummets further when she complains, her colleagues try to convince her of the benefits of the change, and then she sulks.

    To clear up some confusion on the incident itself – the clean-up was Ben’s suggestion but he asked my permission to do it. He was already tidying up his own records, and then a newer member of the team asked him for advice on what to do about some outstanding items in their name. After sorting it all out for himself and the colleague who asked, he came to me explaining what he’d done and asking if it was worth him looking at the other records on the system while he had chance. I saw no reason not to allow it when he explained the calibre of tickets he was closing off (there was nothing there that should have been controversial, none of the things he was closing had had any outstanding work on them for a considerable time), I saw it as a way to productively use a bit of down-time alongside helping the newer member of staff understand the method for assessing open items.

    When Ben sent the email to the rest of the team, he copied me in and he also mentioned that I’d agreed he could do it. He attached a spreadsheet with the references for the records he’d updated, and a brief note explaining why. In his email, he included a note to the effect that he couldn’t see any issues with the ones he’d closed off – due to them being out of date, completed, or in some cases work that is completed by other teams – but apologising if anything had been closed incorrectly and confirming the (extremely quick and straightforward) process by which a ticket could be re-opened in the unlikely event of that being needed.

    In my professional opinion, Ben’s actions up to the start of the argument weren’t wrong. He had completely sound reasons for doing what he did, and I gave the authorisation to do it. If Jane wasn’t happy with the situation, she should have raised it with me – or perhaps better yet, had a calm and rational discussion with Ben and the rest of the team about what actions should be taken to stop tickets falling through the cracks and being left open when they don’t need to be. She is the most experienced member of the team and well within her rights to instigate that kind of discussion – I’d have been perfectly happy to have a quick chat or receive an email outlining what the team had agreed to do moving forwards. And once the argument started, either one of them could have stopped it on numerous occasions, but they both kept going because they had to have the last word.

    I know I need to manage the team better. Most of the team tell me that there’s been this sort of atmosphere for a couple of years, and sadly they seem resigned to it. To add another layer of concern, we’re currently in the process of recruiting two new members of staff, and I’m having to look at applicants in terms of whether they have the resilience to deal with the team being like this. My other very experienced member of staff has advised me he’s expecting to have to take on all of the training of the new people himself rather than sharing the responsibility with Jane as he has done before, because last time Jane trained anyone (this was before I joined the team), apparently she had them picking up her administrative tasks for her and learning very little about the actual role. This is particularly galling as I have heard her use the example of that particular member of staff in meetings with my boss to explain why she thinks it takes years for someone to become competent at the role, and thus why her own expertise is so valuable.

    It’s all a bit of a mess and absolutely not helped by the team being left unsupervised so much.

      1. TootsNYC*

        yeah no, “Sorry boss, I don’t have time to meet with you the way you asked” doesn’t fly.

        It is REALLY too bad Ben used the F-bomb. Because if he’d said, “I’m getting too mad. I have to go for a walk,” and left, you could have used this to pressure Jane.

    1. TootsNYC*

      “the last thing I want to do is be unfair to anyone because of my own personal opinions or preferences.”

      Don’t forget that some of those opinions and preferences are going to be shaped by your professioanl experience and standards. In other words, they may NOT be unfair, and they may be professional, not personal.

    2. President Porpoise*

      Well, to be frank, I think you’d be better off hiring three new team members instead of two. Having Jane on staff seems to be detrimental, since you can’t even rely on her passing on the knowledge and experience she’s gathered. It may be time to have a frank and actionable PIP for her, while operating on the contingency plan that she won’t change. She’ been straight up insubordinate to you, and has signaled that she has no interest in being managed by you. That’s fine, but only if she’s willing to be fired by you.

    3. Student*

      What Jane is doing is called “undermining you”.

      It doesn’t excuse Ben’s actions, nor diminish that his issues need to be addressed. But Jane is a much bigger continuing problem than you initially let on.

      Now you’re going to have a hard time using this specific incident as a jump-off point to a larger conversation with her about improving her performance, because of the “both people did wrong” aspect of it. She won’t take you as seriously if she feels she has a legitimate grievance to chew on going into a bigger talk, so address the immediate issue now, and delay the big talk until things have calmed down a bit in a week or two.

      Aside from having spent a lot of time in the job (which is not an achievement worthy of respect and deference in and of itself), what exactly does Jane bring to the team that is good? Does her time clocked in the job translate to actual effectiveness in her main role? You sure don’t make it sound that way.

      1. OP*

        Jane has lots of attributes that are (or can be) beneficial to the team.

        She has a lot of knowledge in the very specific field that the team works in. She remembers the history of certain situations and occasionally when things go wrong or the team don’t understand why something is working the way it is, she’s able to point them in the direction of the original decision or a previous problem. She also has a fair number of contacts and positive relationships both internally and externally – the team has a good network generally, but Jane’s relationships usually go really far back and she is able to point the team in the right direction re: who to speak to about a certain issue, or where the situation merits it she can call someone she’s known for 10 years and get them to resolve a problem for us.

        She’s also very thorough and likes to go through things with a fine-toothed comb, which is really helpful for some aspects of her job, but can sometimes in itself cause problems – I’ve often seen her respond to an email with a huge list of queries and issues, only to be gently advised that the email she’s responding to is a week old, and she’s received several more since then which have covered all the points she’s raised.

        I think the problem I have with Jane is balancing the skills she has with the way her attitude impacts the rest of the team, and also just getting her to actually use those skills to deliver work when she doesn’t feel like it.

        1. Observer*

          These are good skills. But they really don’t balance out the issues.

          I think you need to get your boss on board, but also recognize that you may have to manage her out. Certainly, you need to reign her in much more forcefully. Meeting invitations are not requests – they are work instructions. She doesn’t get to argue about changes you are implementing – if she has a specific issue (eg yellow teapots are popular but if you want to change to the new teapot fabricator, you should be aware that the yellow pigment tends to get discolored in the ink holder.) then she is welcome to bring it to you. Otherwise, this is an instruction NOT request or invitation to discuss. And whatever you give her has a timeline attached. Not “when you get around to it, please start using the new template” but “all teapot designs will be done in the new template by Tuesday the 22nd”. And if she tries to give someone else her work, give it back to her.

          And start documenting every piece of information she has. You will almost certainly lose some institutional knowledge if she leaves, so try to minimize it. But, also understand that people leave anyway for many reasons and in many ways. And that the disruption and misbehavior are outweighing the good she brings to the team. If you can’t cut it down, you need to cut her loose.

          I know what I’m describing is exhausting – I’m exhausted just typing it. But, managing the fall out of NOT getting her behavior in check is going to be even more exhausting.

        2. LS*

          OP, thanks for the additional context. It makes your favouritism way easier to understand ;)

          Alison has given advice previously on how to manage that “great team member who is a bit of a jerk” or the “high performer who is rude to colleagues”. It might be helpful for you to look for those posts. In a nutshell though, Alison says that if you’re a jerk, you’re not a high performer. Jane’s undoubted technical value to the team is negated by her lousy interpersonal skills and refusal to actually *be* part of the team. Everything is on her terms only.

          Also, I’m sorry to say, you are not managing Jane. She is managing you. Refusing to attend your meetings or implement process changes, really?!? You should be able to see with the benefit of hindsight that any slight concession you make to try and get her on board, make her comfortable with changes, or whatever, will be used to undermine you. She has no plans to change. Stop tiptoeing around her. Make your expectations clear and put her on a PIP if she doesn’t conform.

          Or, if you really believe that you need her, change her role so you get the benefits minus the abrasion. Don’t allow her to train new staff unless there’s a structured training programme with defined outcomes and a level of supervision. Use your tracking system to pull reports so that you can see what your team is actually doing all day. There should be no way that she can get away with having other team members do her work.

          But whatever you do, behave like her manager. It’s unfair to your team and detrimental to you to allow her to call the shots.

          Any chance that she was expecting to be promoted into managing this team? It certainly loks that way from over here.

          And btw, your boss is part of the problem here. It sounds as though you’re expected to do a full time job on top of managing transition and a team that has some significant issues.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          Jane needs to go. She is insubordinate in so many ways I cannot count that high.
          You do realize Jane is never going to meet with you, right?

          This is one of the oldest workplace stories, “I can’t fire Bob, he has valuable knowledge, he knows the history, he knows people, etc.” This is classic stuff.
          Meanwhile this department is falling about and no one can figure out why.
          It’s Jane. Take Jane out of there and you will have a whole new work place. Your crew CAN do the work without her. And they know that you think they can’t. I have to say, I know first hand they feel belittled by this. It’s a put down. They have to put up with this obnoxious person because the boss thinks they can’t do the job without her.
          I agree, hire three people. Do not allow Jane to train them. She is toxic. Keep people away from her.
          I can tell you this, if you already know about these problems with her, once you have been there a while, you will find a LOT more problems. Many, many problems.

          You remove Jane from this story and you will be amazed at what happens next.

    4. Detective Amy Santiago*

      It really doesn’t sound like you have the time or bandwith to be managing this team the way they need to be managed and you’re stuck in a really bad spot. You do sound like a reasonable person though and like you want to improve things for everyone and I wish you all the best in doing that.

      Have you documented the performance issues that you’ve encountered with both Ben and Jane (and all the other team members)? If not, I would strongly encourage you to get that paper trail started ASAP.

      1. OP*

        Yes, everything’s been documented as much as I’ve been able to, and I’m going to speak to my boss about making more time to be with the team, handle any issues that arise, and do what I can to heal some of the rifts.

        I know it doesn’t seem it from the dysfunctional nature of this whole situation, but luckily I’ve experienced very few performance issues in the team as a whole. They’ve been delivering huge volumes of high-quality work under enormous pressure for a really long time. They occasionally get a bit fed up and de-motivated, but they just keep delivering. A big part of my role over the next year or so is going to be to help implement all those changes my boss is pushing for, which should reduce the pressure on the team and make it easier for them to do their jobs – I’m hoping that will contribute to a calmer and less tense working environment.

    5. serenity*

      Thanks so much for your additional input, OP. You sound self-aware and very mindful of all aspects of the situation you have been handed.

      You have your work cut out for you, but what jumped out at me amidst all the info in your response is Jane. She seems to be a total liability. Putting aside the heated exchange which prompted you to write in initially, what you describe is a seriously unengaged and almost insubordinate employee (it seems like she does, after a long haul, go along with your directives, but with the amount of sulking and resisting she does it’s arguable that her attitude is nearly insubordinate). There was not one positive thing in your assessment of her. Do you really want someone like that on your team?

    6. David*

      Thanks for the update. It makes me stand behind my upthread comment even more. Having been in the exact same situation managing a Jane, I’m going to be blunt and say it’s time to deliver an ultimatum: either she gets on board or it’s time to cut ties. Don’t underestimate how toxic her attitude can and will be. As managers we sometimes have to make tough decisions, and it looks like you have one staring you squarely in the face. But consider that, based on feedback from your team, Jane is a systemic issue. Ben’s treatment of it is unfortunate, but it does nothing to alleviate Jane’s culpability in holding back the organization as a whole. It’s tough to look towards an unknown future where a known quantity isn’t part of it, but removing Jane from the equation is likely your best option in the long run.

    7. Tealeaves*

      How can someone be “too busy” to meet with her boss? As another commenter said, it’s not a request. From the way you handled Ben, you’re obviously a very sympathetic type of person, and likely also the type that tries not to start conflicts. But if you let Jane get away with her insubordination at this early stage, it will be impossible to reign her in once she’s established her dominance in the office. I vote for giving an ultimatum: Jane has to decide to work with a new manager (you) at this job, or find a new manager at another job. And you have to commit to creating a plan to replace Jane because she could leave anytime by her own will or otherwise (since she’s so experienced, headhunters will have her on their radar). Plus, are you willing to lose the rest of your great team to keep one problematic person just because she has experience? Give it a few years and you can train a whole group of people to reach her level. Keep going like this, and everyone will seek a Jane-free environment elsewhere.

    8. The Toxic Avenger*

      Thanks for this, OP. After reading this, and some other comments, I agree that both of them sound like a real pain in the tail — but Jane sounds like a Grade A jerk that needs to go. Ben’s problems can be tiring, but manageable. Jane will wear you down day by day, your energy will be depleted and the team’s morale will plummet. I’ll bet you my next paycheck that if she left, you would hear a huge collective sigh of relief from the whole team, your recruiting efforts will improve because you won’t have to live in fear of scaring great candidates away, and Ben’s behavior will likely calm down because he won’t feel under siege from an entitled know-it-all. Managing her out will suck, but you can and should do it for your team’s welfare and for your own.

    9. Jeff*

      I’d be interested to know if Ben had these kinds of troubles controlling his emotions before the family bereavement, or if it’s something that’s developed or worsened since then. I don’t want to make assumptions, but it sounds like he’s getting overwhelmed by a lot of feelings, and it’s worth considering that – although of course you should address all the stresses he’s experiencing at work – there might be a little more going on, and he might benefit from the kind of emotional or psychological support that you’re presumably not qualified to give.

      In my experience, some Bens never change. They get bitter and resentful and just keep flying off the handle at every provocation, then they get demotivated because their career stalls and they can’t see that their own actions are to blame. Sometimes they just give up, and you’re left with someone who’s angry and miserable and can’t be bothered to do their job anymore.

      But some Bens do change. They mature, they mellow, and they learn to channel their passion and enthusiasm. They learn to step back, take a deep breath, and stop letting other people’s problems become theirs. They often grow into really good workers, once they work out how and where to direct their energy, and how to get along with the people they work with.

      Ben is delivering results, and it sounds like he respects your authority. I think it’s worth trying to develop him. Firstly, you need to give him the telling off of his life, perhaps along with some sort of written warning. Acknowledge the provocation, but make it clear that provocation is no excuse. Spell it out for him: if this, or anything like it, ever happens again, his job is in real jeopardy.

      Then you need to make changes to your team – they need a manager, so you need to liaise with your boss on how to find more time to be with them. Maybe managing the team and implementing the changes need to be two roles? Maybe your boss, or someone else of your level, can pick up some of the work you’ve been doing? Maybe you can get all of your team more involved in the change implementation, so they’re doing some of that work for you?

      You also need to be really clear with the team about your attitude to change and what the team’s involvement should be. You sound like you want their input and opinions, so make sure you’re asking for them. The team is in transition, so encourage and reward ideas, suggestions and openness to trying new things. If Ben is the right person for this, and he proves to you over the next few months that he can hold his temper, it might be worth getting him more directly involved – if he’s creative and passionate about change, give him a little project. Get him doing some of the smaller elements of the change-related work you’re doing for your boss – that should lessen your workload, get Ben doing what he’s good at, and get Ben some much-needed practice at communicating with the team and canvassing for their feedback and suggestions. You’ll probably need to give him some coaching about how to deal with criticism and overcome objections, and make it clear that if he can’t act professionally, he won’t be allowed to do this project.

      And you need to do something to heal the rift in the team. That means doing all the work I’ve suggested (or something like that) with Ben, but also dealing with the rest of the team, including Jane.

      For what it’s worth, Janes very rarely change. Not once they’ve reached the level of insubordination she’s showing you. So you need to be really firm on this – she needs to take her proper place in the team, doing her work, respecting your decisions, helping her colleagues, using her considerable experience to help implement the changes you’re introducing, and responding in a calm, rational manner to any difference of opinions. These things are requirements for her job – if she doesn’t want to do them, a decision will need to be made about whether or not this is the right job for her.

      If she stays, doing all the things I’ve listed, that should solve a great deal of your team’s problems. And if she leaves, that’ll do the same job.

    10. Irma McClaurin*

      OP, You need a coach, and I’m available. Clearly Ben may be grappling with some grief issues, and so HR should be suggesting he seek appropriate counseling to understand why he is prone to swearing. Are his responses about work or are there some unresolved personal issues that are overflowing in work, or is he someone who lacks impulse control and needs help in learning how to manage his emotions? As for Jayne, you have to take responsibility for knowing she is getting others to do her work and never calling her out! Why haven’t you addressed this with her directly and given her a performance plan? No one should have to work around an employee. Give her one last opportunity to prove she has value by creating an on boarding plan for the new employees. Have her write up the plan, and evaluate her on it with the new employees. If she can’t perform, time to suggest she look for another job because she is not a good fit for your vision of the team you wish to build. But rationalizing your lack of making leadership decisions because you’ve only had the team for six months is weak. Team dynamics were formed within the first two weeks of your leadership and what you did or don’t do set the tone. Clearly you seem to have some doubts about leading people– so get a coach who can help you become a more effective leader in order to develop a more effective team. And what about the other team members who get no leadership love because you are too busy dealing with the problem team members? How must they feel? It’s like parents who constantly pay attention to problem children and ignore those who are compliant. Guess who feels hurt, under appreciated and taken for granted? Time for you to set performance standards for the team, how you expect them to interact, and a timeframe, and Kay out consequences for all of it doesn’t happen.

    11. Sara without an H*

      Thanks for providing more context. You really, really need to make sure your own manager understands how serious the situation is, and that you need to take a more hands-on role with your team. Ben and Jane may be the presenting problems, but right now you really don’t know what other dysfunctions may exist.

      And I hate so say so — I’m notorious for my unwillingness to give up on people — but Jane needs to go. Take a look through the AAM archives. You’ll find plenty of cases in which managers claimed that an insubordinate employee was too valuable to lose. You cannot let your team be held hostage in this way.

      As for Ben, I think Alison and the other commenters have given you plenty of good advice for managing him going forward. But you really need to be in closer touch with the rest of the team. Ben and Jane are just the tip of the iceberg.

  62. Rick Tq*

    OP. Jane should be on a PIP by now for refusing meetings with you and for her toxic behaviors. Liking an old manager is one thing but sabotaging any changes with her sulking and refusing to even engage in the process are not issues you should ignore.

    I would expect Jane will retire or resign rather than change her ways, this is the hill she is willing to die on.

    Ben was provoked by Jane in my opinion, she refused to acknowledge that ‘her tasks’ were reviewed WITH your permission, she clearly thinks you aren’t her manager today.

    1. ArtK*

      It sounds like Jane lashed out at Ben based on her discomfort with change. Ben needs to be disciplined for losing his cool, but it sounds like Jane needs some serious managing from the OP. OP, stop being conciliatory to Jane — he needs to grow up and learn to deal with new management and new processes. Start saying things like “that was then, this is now.” “Ex-manager is no longer the manager. Can you work accept that and work with me?” Put her on the spot to make a commitment to behaving properly. Write her up for missed meetings — “too busy” is not an acceptable excuse at this point. I’d set up a standing (weekly?) meeting with her. Personally, I’d stop deferring to her and asking her opinions of any change — you gave her a chance and she’s blown it. From now on, it’s not “what do you think of this?” but “you *will* do this.” Yes, she will be even more unhappy, but her unhappiness is of her making, not yours.

  63. chi type*

    Someone needs to tell Ben that when you allow Jerky McJerkface to make you lose your cool, Jerky McJerkface wins. His whole response to her tantrum should have been a bemused look and “That project was approved by Boss, you’ll have to take it up with her” repeated ad nauseum. Now he’s the one in trouble with HR instead of condescending slacker lady.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Then again, since Boss is not able to be around, Ben felt he had to defend himself all by himself.

      I might suggest the OP use this as leverage to get the boss to let her slow down and be “home” for a while, to work on this team.
      Sure, they’re producing great amounts, etc., but this is proof that the strain is wearing on them, and they need some attention from their manager.

  64. SechsKatzen*

    So much good advice here that I won’t repeat it. What I haven’t seen mentioned though: is it possible that Jane has become overloaded in her work and so her behavior is the result of burnout? I’ve been in that position before and when the workload is too high, nothing is able to be done accurately or with quality. I will also say that in my situation, it was my boss who went through my entire workload when I was away and pointed out specific dropped balls. With him, I was terrified of losing my job; if it had been a colleague who did that without my knowledge when I was away I would have not only been terrified but furious as well. FWIW, I did end up thanking my boss for the intervention, but it came several days later. I’m unsure of the true dynamic, but perhaps this is the time to reevaluate what made Jane get to this point, and whether it’s always been an issue or whether it could be a general workload/job responsibilities issue.

  65. DArcy*

    If I was in Ben’s shoes, I wouldn’t hesitate to just shut down the conversation: “I was specifically tasked to do this by Boss. If you want to second-guess his decision, take it up with him. I will not discuss this with you further; I don’t answer to you and it’s not ‘your work’ anymore when Boss tasks me to do it.”

    1. DArcy*

      And if I was the boss — unless there’s more to the story than presented in the OP, I’d give Ben a stern talking to about maintaining a professional demeanor, but Jane’s probably getting written up since her actions are far, far more egregious and she’s the only one who is actually creating long-term problems for the company.

  66. Tealeaves*

    I’m not sure if this has been mentioned yet, but one thing you need to do first is establish the fact with your whole team (not just Jane) that you have limited time at the office due to the org changes. Therefore, they need to prioritize and work around YOUR schedule (aside from the fact that you’re their boss so this should be the default and pretty much non-negotiable). After that, if anyone repeatedly says they’re too busy to meet you, you can ask what exactly they’re too busy with so you can delegate the work. You will either get a straight answer of what they’re overloaded with, or some attempt to make up excuses. It’ll give you some solid evidence of what your team is doing and you can take action.

  67. Chatterby*

    Jane’s punishment should address why she felt it appropriate to insult Ben and escalate the situation instead of accepting his explanation.
    This should then segue into a discussion on whether any of Ben’s accusations have basis, and a firm statement that if she has situations of this nature again, she needs to deescalate and address the issue through a manager.

  68. CoffeeCoffee*

    Ben sounds difficult to work with, but coachable. If his technical work is up to speed, some more time dedicated to managing him would really help improve his social skills.
    Jane, on the other hand, seems like a toxic black hole in your organization. She won’t meet with you, she won’t implement any changes you tell her to, she passes off her work to trainees instead of training them properly so she can look special and have more free time, she is engaging in behaviors that could put the company in legal trouble with auditors. Plus what she said to Ben – get out of my sight? You’re impossible to work with?
    Jane needs to be on a PIP, like, yesterday.

  69. Jennifer Thneed*

    I suspect that Ben asked permission for this task specifically to get access to Jane’s ancient records and close them.

  70. Tara T.*

    Ben should be told to restrain himself from profanity in the workplace. He DID apologize and that should be accepted. No need for further action, but let him know he should not use any more profanity in the workplace. As for Jane, there is a way to work around the Jane types in the workplace. A solution might be to simply have the IT consultants set it up so that the overall team check off for tasks is separate from the individual team member’s check off on a particular task. That way, if Jane wants to leave her tasks “open” without being checked off, she can do that. But Ben’s check offs for the overall team on each task can be checked off separately, and only he should have the password to check off the overall team for each task. In the event of an audit, the auditors would be informed that an individual team member’s check off does not matter – only Ben’s matter because they are for the overall team. So, I agree with Isabel C. that Ben, and the overall team, should simply ignore Jane and find a computerized way to ignore her also.

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