is my employee trying to sabotage me?

A reader writes:

I’m the founder of and sole manager at a small retail business with four full-time and a few part-time employees. My first hire was Mary, and I think of her as my second-in-command. She hasn’t been the easiest employee to manage: she’s a little flighty and forgetful, and not always as professional as I’d like her to be with our clients. However, our clients adore her, and she brings a really unique skill set that’s helped us make a name for ourselves locally.

A really wonderful recent hire quit last week, with very little notice. I was disappointed, but didn’t take it personally: sometimes you just get a better offer. But today I received an email from another previous employee (Sarah) saying that she was really torn about telling me something, but she thought I needed to know before it destroyed the business. According to Sarah, Mary is extremely negative about me to the other employees, and the recent hire left because of what Mary has told her. Sarah is worried that anyone else I hire will too, unless I do something. Apparently, Mary spends a lot of time talking about how incompetent I am, that our financial situation is so precarious that we’re about to shut down, and just generally creates drama where there is none and blames it on me.

Sarah moved across the country, but she’s remained friends with all of us, is a strong supporter of our mission, and has no reason to stir up trouble. And it explains a few weird things that have been trickling back to me. Mostly small things, but I recently spent a morning of my first family vacation in two years dealing with a nonexistent staffing issue: Mary sent the other employees a frantic text claiming that I left the business unstaffed except for her, and one of them texted me to ask if she should go in. I was in a place without much cell reception, and spent a long time trying to get in touch with both Mary and the person I’d hired to fill in for me… who had been there all along. I’ve been uneasy about this incident, because there was no good explanation, and Mary’s explanation (that she wasn’t sure what the replacement was supposed to be doing) didn’t make sense. The only reason I can think of to send such a text is to make me look incompetent: she just didn’t think that it would get back to me.

According to Sarah, Mary has supposedly been looking for a new job since January (and telling everyone else to), but I think her skill set would get her hired easily if she were seriously looking. I don’t know if this is something I can bring up with her, particularly without implicating Sarah as the source (Sarah said that she has already repeatedly told Mary to cut it out). I can’t continue to lose good employees because of Mary. On a personal level, it bothers me that she is very sweet to my face, but apparently so angry behind my back. And, mostly, I worry that someone happy to stir up drama amongst our staff would have no qualms stirring up drama amongst our clients, and badmouthing me to them, if she were angry enough.

How should I deal with this?

That’s really sticky! It’s tough to act on information you’re only hearing about secondhand and can’t verify through your own observation.

But in my experience, when there’s smoke, there’s nearly always fire. That doesn’t mean you draw solid conclusions based on smoke, but it does mean that you need to take it seriously, assume there may be a real problem there, and do some serious investigating.

And the fact that Sarah’s information explains some weird things that have been trickling back to you adds a whole lot of smoke. When things feel off and then you hear something that makes it all fall into place … well, chances are good that there’s a reason for that.

That said, the reason isn’t necessarily that Mary is deliberately sabotaging you. Sarah could have wrong information or an agenda of her own. But this is all serious enough that you do need to take action pretty urgently.

Start by talking to your other employees. Especially since Mary is your second-in-command, it’s reasonable for you to periodically check in with other staff for feedback about her and how things are playing out when she’s in charge. In fact, that would be a smart thing to do even if you weren’t having these issues, because otherwise you can end up with a situation where there are huge problems with a manager and everyone is afraid to speak up. So, talk individually with your other staff members and ask how things are going. Ideally you’d take them out for coffee or otherwise talk to them one-on-one in a place where there’s privacy and they’re more likely to feel comfortable speaking candidly. Ask how things are going in general, and ask if there’s anything you can do to make their lives at work easier. Then, if it hasn’t come up on its own, ask how things are going with Mary. You can even say, “What should I know in order to be able to support and coach Mary better?”

Meanwhile, also talk with Mary about the things you’ve seen from her that seem off. For example, regarding that text she sent saying the business was unstaffed, you could say this: “I’ve been thinking about this and I’m having trouble understanding it. Can we talk through what happened when I was on vacation and you texted people to say the business was unstaffed? Since you knew I’d hired someone to cover for me, what happened there?” And if she again gives you an explanation that doesn’t make sense, be direct about that: “That’s surprising to me, because that doesn’t really make sense and sounds out of character for you. Is something else going on?”

If nothing else, addressing these small-ish things will let her know that you’re noticing and she’s not flying under the radar with this stuff. But the conversation will also probably give you more data, even if it’s just “hmmm, something seems really off here” or “I see where she was coming from after all.”

Depending on how this conversation goes, it might also make sense to talk to Mary head-on about what you heard from Sarah. It’ll be awkward — but if you were in Mary’s shoes and you weren’t actually doing anything wrong, wouldn’t you want the chance to clear your name? I know you don’t want to reveal Sarah as your source, but if that’s the only way to resolve potentially serious problems in your business, you may need to explain to Sarah that you’ve got to act on what she told you. You can explain that you’ll do all you can to minimize any repercussions to her (which hopefully should be minimal, since she no longer works there) but that you do need to talk things out with Mary.

It’s also okay to put real weight on what you know of Sarah and Mary. If Sarah has a track record of being honest and ethical and if Mary seems less so, you can factor that in. On the other hand, if you know Mary to be trustworthy, you have to weigh that too.

One last thing that’s going to be crucial: Raise your visibility among all your staff. If Mary is spreading negativity about you, the more people see you operating competently and transparently, the harder it will be for her to have an impact. So make a point of being around more frequently than you normally are, find opportunities to work more closely with people who normally might not have much contact with you, and ensure that you’re being scrupulously fair and open in the way you operate. (Speaking of which, address those financial rumors head-on! If you share information about the business’s finances openly with your staff, you’ll counteract any misinformation they might have heard.) If Sarah is right and people are hearing things that worry them, giving them firsthand experience to the contrary is a good way to protect yourself against any potential bad-mouthing while you sort through what’s going on.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 166 comments… read them below }

  1. KR*

    Oooh, this is a sticky situation. Good luck, OP. I think you definitely have to say *something* to Mary, even if you don’t mention what Sarah said. Check in with her more often, find out what on Earth happened when you went on vacation, and let her know that you’re on to her and you’re paying closer attention to her.

  2. Mr. Rogers*

    This is entirely my read based on people I’ve known, but it’s possible Mary is doing this out of 1. Being super anxious about all these things or 2. Being one of those people who loves/will manufacture a constant state of drama and crisis. I mention it because in both of those cases, she likely doesn’t think for a moment how this is affecting you negatively; the intent isn’t malicious but instead feeding into her own neuroses. You should still look to cut the behavior out, even if that means letting her go eventually, but keep that in mind if she insists in all sincerity she’s not sabatoging you. Good luck! I’m sure you’ll find another superstar if necessary.

    1. aebhel*

      Yeah, some people enjoy creating a crisis so they can swoop in to the rescue; that sounds like it may be what’s going on here.

      1. Tuxedo Cat*

        I knew a manager like this. I felt her behaviors were more calculated and had some negative parts. She did this so that everyone would see her as the most crucial person on the team. For those managed by her, she did this so that nothing would get brought up to her manager even when it would’ve totally appropriate.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        This was my take, as well. It’s also a lot more common (in my experience) than intentional sabotage.

        1. Kathleen*

          That’s exactly how it sounds to me, too. It’s possible that she’s so deeply unhappy that she wants to make sure other people are unhappy too – there are people who, when they’ve quit or are on the verge of quitting, can’t bear the thought that other people can be happy where and when they are not. But I think it’s more likely that she is just so totally enamored at the idea of being The True Power Behind the Throne that she creates these dramas to demonstrate this.

    2. Koko*

      I’m thinking of the update a day or two ago from the biter who had decided her crazy toxic workplace was at least interesting, unlike those boring stare-at-the-wall and talk-to-nobody jobs.

      I could see someone coming out that LW’s workplace warped enough that they’d grown to thrive on the office drama and without really realizing what they were doing, start bringing it into their next workplace out of habit.

    3. ArtsNerd*

      I agree with other people who are alarmed (esp. when it comes to accounting) but I think your point 1 – Anxiety – needs a bit more attention too. Because that’s an absolutely plausible explanation for just about everything in the letter.

      It’s not the only possibility, but I see a lot of people assuming malice or strategy when it might be just runaway anxiety or something else subconscious / unintentional. If so, that something is being handled very poorly and through behavior that needs to be addressed head-on, of course.

    4. Observer*

      It’s worth keeping in mind only insofar as it lets you see what is going on even while concluding that Mary isn’t actually lying to you.

      But whether Mary is being nefarious or her judgement is just being clouded by her issues, this needs to stop. And the OP shouldn’t let the possibility of severe anxiety or whatever keep her from taking the necessary action f it doesn’t stop.

      1. Candi*

        Right. Runaway anxiety can cause harm regardless of intent.

        LW, if you haven’t seen it already, take a look at the story of the person with severe anxiety who got so obsessed with a coworker not saying goodbye to her one day that she ripped into coworker’s paystub after it was left on CW’s desk to get the woman’s address, and went to CW’s home while CW was on vacation, to the point where the CW threatened to call the police.

        It got worse, and that LW’s anxiety-driven behavior wound up costing her her job.

        Even if Mary’s issue is anxiety, the reported behavior needs to be stopped. And if she’s doing it maliciously, it needs to be stopped. If she’s doing it out of a love of drama, it needs to be stopped. For you, your business, your other employees, and Mary.

  3. BeepBoop*

    This reminds me of a similar situation when i was 17. Our manager was horrible and one day the regional manger asked me what i thought about her management style and how things were going at the store. I did not hold back.
    Unfortunately, once my manger got wind of what i said, i was immediately terminated.

    I would definitely talk to your other employees (or even ex-employees) about what is going on, but make sure they know that Mary can not fire them for what they say to you.

    1. Irene Adler*

      But Mary could make things difficult for those who speak up to the OP.
      If the stories Mary tells to the other employees are really far-fetched, then it’s a good bet that she’s manipulated them to keep things to themselves.
      “Don’t tell manager I told you about what’s really going on around here. You’ll just get into trouble if you do. Manager might even ask you about how things are going. Best to just make assurances that everything is fine. “

      1. Master Bean Counter*

        Yeah the last manager I dealt with that said those things got fired for stealing from the company. All the more reason to reach out and ask about Mary. She’s got an agenda and the OP needs to know what it is.

        1. Artemesia*

          I have two friend whose good friends who worked in their business stole the business blind as they were trusted and could do it. I would be giving serious thought to replacing Mary if further observations bare out you instincts. Yes, talk to people, maybe even say ‘I heard a rumor from another employee that there were concerns about staffing and our finances and I was sort of shocked since (whatever you want to say about that). Have you heard this sort of thing or do you have concerns about your role?’

          And they should see enough of you to know you aren’t incompetent. Instead of letting Mary manage staff; you manage them. Have brief meetings weekly about current staffing issues. Before a vacation you should have discussed how you were handling staffing with the staff not just Mary. Be the manager, don’t default to Mary letting her be the gatekeeper.

          And if your suspicions of Mary turn out to be true, replace her.

          1. Working Hypothesis*

            “And they should see enough of you to know you aren’t incompetent. Instead of letting Mary manage staff; you manage them. Have brief meetings weekly about current staffing issues. Before a vacation you should have discussed how you were handling staffing with the staff not just Mary. Be the manager, don’t default to Mary letting her be the gatekeeper.”

            Yeah, that’s the part I zeroed in on. What is up with the OP, who is managing this team, being so out of touch that Mary could cause major trouble between the employees and the OP… without the employees seeing enough of their manager daily to know these claims are ridiculous, or feeling comfortable enough to just ask them about it? I don’t mean to be harsh, OP, but this sure sounds as if you are not behaving toward these people as if YOU are their manager!! You’re behaving as though Mary is their manager and you’re Mary’s manager.

            I know you see this as “Mary’s my second in command, so it makes sense for me to send information to my staff through her.” But no second in command should be the gateway for information most of the time — it should go DIRECTLY from manager to staff. Similarly, you should be making sure that your staff has plenty of easy and encouraging opportunity to talk to you directly about anything that concerns them, and that they’re practicing those skills on a regular basis. That’s what one-on-ones are for. Have each of your employees had regular, frequent times to talk to you in private about anything involving their work that they want to discuss? Has it been an expectation that they use that time? One manager friend of mine has a standing policy that the full time allotted to any one-on-one meeting *must* be used. If the employee runs out of things to say, they’ll sit there in silence until either employee or manager thinks of something else they want to say. But they stick with the meeting until its time is up… because that teaches people to think about ALL the things they might want to say, rather than just saying the first one or two that come to mind and then stopping.

            Regardless of whether Mary is deliberately sabotaging you, or just stirring up drama due to her own issues, or not doing anything purposeful at all and there’s been a mistake somewhere (either from Mary or from Sarah or from the person who quit, or whatever)… no matter *what* the story is with all of that, if this could ever have credibly be supposed to have happened, the OP has not been managing their staff actively enough. That’s got to be done *in person*. You can’t do it all through a deputy.

          2. Anion*

            +1. Great suggestions! Be more visible, op, as much as you possibly can.

            I actually think it’s worth turning what you, Artemesia, suggested around a little: ask *Mary* if she’s heard such a rumor. “Mary, one of our employees seemed kind of concerned about our staffing and finances. Have any of them said anything to you?”

            What she says in reply could give you a LOT of information about what her motives really are, OP.

          3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Totally agreed. This folds into Alison’s “be more visible,” have regular one-on-ones, and just be more accessible. Mary is less likely to get away with retaliation if OP is more engaged with the other staff.

          4. The Strand*

            I’m glad you brought that up. A very much *former* friend of mine embezzled from her partner’s company. All these years later and he still has no clue. These behaviors sound like her.

      2. BeepBoop*

        Exactly. My comment was meant to highlight the fact that the employees may be afraid of retaliation from Mary and will be afraid to speak up. So it is best to make sure they know their job is safe, and are encouraged to speak freely.

        I was young and naive and just went for it. Which did end up working in the end, once other employees heard I was fired for finally calling out the boss, others came out too.

    2. Chaordic One*

      Just to play devil’s advocate, I wonder if there might be a grain of truth to any of Mary’s stories. (Especially the financial condition of the company, which would worry me.) It’s really easy for someone to take something with a grain of truth to it and then exaggerate that situation.

      Even if there is some tiny bit of truth to what Mary is saying, though, she certainly isn’t helping the situation and is making things much worse than they need to be.

    1. Irene Adler*

      Power or control over others. The other employees look to Mary as a leader because she “knows” what’s truly going on. There’s no way for them to check the veracity of her stories so they take her words as true.

      1. Muriel Heslop*

        I think the same. The girls (and their moms) that I see doing this at the middle school where I work usually have this as their motivation. It’s a way to feel powerful.

        Good luck, OP.

      2. AndersonDarling*

        Yep. I’ve seen Asst Managers act like they are running the whole shebang, and they need to convince everyone that the actual Manager is doing a terrible job. It’s just a power trip.
        If that is what is going on, then I bet the OP will uncover a whole bunch of odd processes Mary secretly put in place.

        1. Carpe Librarium*

          I remember a letter from a while back where an office admin at a different branch had written up her own unapproved processes for people at that office to follow (around taking time off or something?)
          I’ll try to find a link to it.

          1. Carpe Librarium*

            Here it is: 2015/08/rogue-admin-has-published-her-own-strict-rule-book-for-new-hires-hiring-a-coworker-to-babysit-and-more.html

            And the update is #3 here: 2015/12/four-more-updates-from-letter-writers.html

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This is the world of retail. No, the owner probably is not able to be there all the time to see this going on. Mary probably stops her behavior when the owner is within earshot or on the property.

      OP, one thing you can do is tell your people that if they have any questions about their job security or the outlook for the business they need to talk with you. The over all technique here is to give them a path around Mary. So this would work with other rumors Mary is dispersing.

      1. Artemesia*

        The owner needs to be hands on and meet with staff periodically and not let Mary be the gatekeeper.

      2. tinyhipsterboy*

        I think it’s really important for OP to let them know that they can go to them with questions. Many places try to utilize open-door policies, to the point where they insist that the employees go to the person in question instead of people above them when there are issues. I know when I worked retail last, my manager was blatantly racist and didn’t like to have to do his job, but when I went to the DM I was asked why I hadn’t addressed it with my manager instead.

        What I mean is that it’s important to make it explicitly clear that it’s okay to go to the OP.

    2. Sara*

      I actually used to work part time in a family-owned retail store that had what sounds like a very situation to this one. There, the owner would work Monday through Friday from 9-5, and also had a team of supervisors who would serve as managers during the evenings and weekends. One of them, who was similarly the second in command and longest tentured employee, would frequently gossip to the rest of us about the owner (and everyone else who worked there, for that matter) whenever she had a shift managing us after the owner went home for the day.

    3. Tuxedo Cat*

      In a former office, which was in academia, I saw some similar behaviors with a manager I mentioned above. The faculty were simply too busy to always be in the office and the manager was quite good at convincing postdocs and grad students to not talk with the faculty.

  4. Lisa B*

    What about other previous employees? What terms did they leave on? If you talk with your employees about why they’re leaving, did anything give you a vibe that there was something they didn’t want to talk about? If any of them left on good terms, you could always think about giving some of them a call. They’re not current employees so they’d have less on the line to be fearful of retaliation. You can let them know that when your last employee left with little notice you realized you hadn’t been proactive enough in getting their feedback before they left. Why did you leave? What kinds of things made you NOT want to leave, but ultimately what were the types of things that you DID leave over? Then you can also pull out Alison’s good questions about asking for feedback on Mary specifically, since it sounds like she was more the onsite supervisor.

    1. 2 Cents*

      Yeah, I’m wondering if reaching out to the latest person who was great, but suddenly quit, would be helpful. That person doesn’t have anything to lose, since they don’t work for the business, and also wouldn’t have an allegiance to the owner OR Mary.

      1. Foreign Octopus*

        I second this.

        It might be incredibly useful to find out. Now, she might have left because she got a better offer, or a family situation, but if she quit because of Mary then ding-dong, there’s your gong.

      2. SophieChotek*

        Yes, my thought also. (And even if they just didn’t personally like Mary, they might still have some insight.)

      3. Samata*

        I kinda wondered if the employee really did suddenly quit with no notice or if Mary told employee they couldn’t work out notice and then told OP something different. I realize this is big speculation but it is right where my mind went to.

  5. High Score!*

    Always ask all leaving employees for an exit interview and be gracious and encourage honesty. In your current situation, I would take out one employee to lunch every week, rotating thru them. Again encourage honesty and give them confidentiality.

    1. H.C.*

      Or if Mary tries to backtrack or just outright lies, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining!”

  6. TootsNYC*

    I would also say–work to diminish Mary’s impact on your business. Get your clients interacting with other people; try to find or develop someone with a similar skillset.

    And be way more involved in things like staffing, etc., both before and after.

    1. Say what, now?*

      Yes, you could always say that you’re just developing your other employees’ soft skills. Definitely, no matter what comes of your investigation, I wouldn’t want to have Mary be the face of your business.

    2. eplawyer*

      Totally agree. You’ve already identified problems with Mary’s behavior about not being as professional as you like and flighty and forgetful. Now you hear this information. Is she really your second in command if you can’t really count on her?

      Investigate as Alison said. But use the other problems you have with Mary to evaluate whether she is all that important to your business or if you can develop others in her place. Ones that maybe aren’t into creating drama.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        Speaking of being flighty and forgetful…these behaviors come out when someone is loosing track of their lies. They can’t keep straight who they told what so they “forget” to follow up.

      2. nonegiven*

        If she is coming off as flighty and forgetful, maybe she is doing that to make it look like you are the one that is flighty and forgetful. She’s telling you she forgot, she’s telling everyone else that you forgot.

      3. No Parking or Waiting*

        Andersondarling and Nonegiven nailed it. She is gaslighting you and she’s not a super genius and gets herself tangled up in her own lies.

      1. TootsNYC*

        yes! I forgot to say, the OP needs to start supplanting some of Mary’s client contact with the OP–the OP needs to take over some of the client contact that Mary has.

        Even if Mary’s not really doing this, the OP needs to start substituting themselves for Mary far more often than they do.

  7. Nita*

    OP – if this has been going on for a while, and you’re just getting little rumors trickling back to you, my suspicion is that Mary is doing this deliberately and being careful to cover her tracks. I won’t guess at what her motivation is, but the thought is worrisome. If this is the case, you don’t know how much damage has been done, and this may be the tip of the iceberg. So… handle with care, and if it turns out that this was more than Mary being uncertain or anxious about things, you may need to be prepared to handle a quick layoff. If she’s really been sabotaging you before, what will she do if she thinks her job is in danger?

    1. Hmmmmm*

      So this is what I don’t understand. On the whole this behavior is very common in retail. If OP was not the owner, and the business was not so small, it would be easy to figure out a spectrum of motivations all leading to “Mary wants OP’s job or to be a regional manager.” But that is literally impossible? In smaller businesses, it usually goes the other way. It would make sense if Mary was undermining OP to the employees in an effort to impress corporate or regional leadership. It would makes sense if Mary was undermining the other employees to OP to build a false sense of dependence and trust. As it is, I just don’t get her end game?

      1. fposte*

        I don’t think it has to be strategic; as people are saying above, sometimes people do this for psychological reasons rather than career ones. I’m betting on that here.

      2. Lissa*

        Creating drama, getting other staff members on her “side” in a huge venting circle, feeling like they are the Only Sane Woman would be my guess. I worked retail for ages and this type of dynamic was weirdly common even when there wasn’t any “stakes” in terms of pay raises, promotions etc.

        Mary is probably getting a weird type of emotional fulfillment from this.

        1. Nita*

          Yes, the “I want to get promoted” dynamic is the first thing that came to mind, but it makes no sense here. It’s possible of course that she wants her boss’s business – clients, contacts, staff and all – and plans to take it all over once the owner folds.

          Or maybe she’s covering up some sketchy financial situation – what about those rumors about the business not doing well? Or maybe it’s just a power trip. Or maybe she’s forgetful enough that she’s starting to mess up – like forgetting who the boss left in charge while on vacation – and this is her way of covering for her slipping cognitive skills. This is all speculation, and maybe there’s some innocent explanation, but maybe there isn’t.

      3. Ego Chamber*

        “As it is, I just don’t get her end game?”

        This is only guessing, but it’s possible that Mary has been in retail/other service jobs long enough to learn “how things work” but without knowingwhy things “work this way.”

        I’ve worked with plenty of people (in fast food, retail, and similar) that sabotage their coworkers, and tell lies about their managers, and also lie about the store in general, and then they refuse any opportunities they’re given to advance—these are usually people who’ve worked similar jobs their whole lives. (This is one of the dangers/side effects of promoting people who use these tactics to get ahead btw.)

          1. Irene Adler*

            I work alongside someone like this. Took me years to see through the lies and manipulations.
            The goal is to hold power over someone-or several someones. Make them do what you want, when you want them to. It can be quite a rush to see folks, whom you don’t formally manage, do your bidding.
            It can also be a way to deflect any actions of wrongdoing on the part of the manipulator.
            In my case, the manipulator would tell me how unhappy my boss was with my work. Boss wanted things done faster. I was putting in whole weekends in overtime just to get things done faster. Yet, boss never said a word to me about my work. Then he would tell me all sorts of things about the owners of the company- how they don’t know how to run things, how stupid they are, how he really runs the company for them, how bad the revenues are for the month, how he had to teach the CFO how to use the accounting software, etc.

            And I bought it all. His intimations were things that I was not about to ask anyone else about- especially the owners.

            Meanwhile, the manipulator was stealing supplies from the company, playing all sorts of bad pranks on people (hijacking my email to send complaints to the owners),falsifying documents, even destroying key documents.

            And to this day he is revered by the owners!

            1. Princess Cimorene*

              I’m sorry, but him taking over your email to send complaints isn’t a “prank” and did you say nothing in defense of yourself? Why are you sitting on your hands about this?! Write Alison, she’ll help you!! LOL

              1. Irene Adler*

                I made the owners aware that I did not send the “prank” email. They believed me.

                And I’m job hunting as well. Not much more can be done in this situation since the owners really like the guy. They are not going to discipline him or let him go.

      4. Anion*

        Maybe she wants to drive LW out of business/open her own competitive business, or something along those lines.

      5. Alternative person*

        At very worst, she’s planning to go into business herself and take a chunk of clients from the LW. It’s unlikely and I don’t think it changes the advice given and there are so many other things it could be, but I’ve seen it happen.

      6. Former Hoosier*

        I once worked with someone who would deliberately lie about things and then tell everyone how she heroically fixed the issue. People would rush to me or call me and ask about a supposed disaster or huge problem and then I would have to tell them it was all a lie.

        Once she emailed our board of directors to say that our exec director was dying and that she was working in the office 24/7 to keep things running. Every word of that was a lie. And she didn’t do it to protect her job. She did it to create drama and get praise. She lied all the time.

        1. writelhd*

          I do think that this can become a completely irrational addiction for some people. Especially if they have a long history of doing this in small ways that never get punished–they get the reward in the moment of the hero-feeling and it is the motivating factor. Similar to how chronic lying can be come an irrational addiction. It makes no sense! It’s clearly self-destructive! Clearly one day they’ll get caught!


    Can you email this one for an update? I would love to know what happened!

    For others in OP’s situation – being present, approachable, and transparent always helps combat rumors. Also, spreading the load onto more than one person. I know that is hard in small businesses, but when one person is the pillar on which the business balances, if that pillar cracks you are screwed. You need multiple pillars, even if that means a little more training for other staff and more involvement on your part. Good luck!

    1. BaristaBandit*

      I was kind of upset that this *wasn’t* an update. I opened a bunch of tabs to “catch up” on the stories in the updates and when I went to close the tab on this story, I wept internally.

  9. Interviewer*

    My mother-in-law was dealing with the middle manager who went off the rails with gossip and power grabs, while the absentee owner was never around to handle it. Constant pot-stirring was this woman’s wheelhouse. She drove away tons of vendors and good employees. Eventually, the owner paid attention and fired her. She promptly burst into tears and claimed she only had the business’s best interest at heart, that no one cared more than her, and that it was bound to fail without her constant guiding hand. Fortunately, the owner stuck to his word and she was out. My MIL got a battlefield promotion.

    Turns out the ex-manager was taking cash out of the register every day, which my MIL figured it out within about 15 minutes of taking over the books. But no one had noticed amidst all the other drama, and the owner thought the store was just performing poorly.

    OP, you might want to pay attention to the rumors Mary is spreading about the business going under. If you have good checks & balances in place, all might be well, but I’d still be reviewing everything very closely, every day – including video footage. It’s a cautionary tale, but encouraging her coworkers to find other jobs may stop them from looking closely at what she’s doing, increase turnover, reduce training, increase your reliance on her alone, etc.

    1. Hills to Die on*

      I also thought a nanny cam would not be a bad idea. You can see and hear firsthand what is going on.

      1. Ego Chamber*

        PSA: Most store security cameras don’t have sound recording because of wiretapping laws, and you’d probably want to let employees know that you’re setting up cameras (although you don’t really have to tell them where). Check your local laws as far as what’s required.

        Personally, I don’t have any issues with security cameras in the workplace, but hidden cameras that no one is told about would be cloak-and-dagger enough that I would assume something really bad was going on that I hadn’t been aware of, and I would get out fast. Tl;dr: keep in mind what your other employees might think.

        1. Observer*

          You don’t really need audio for this to work.

          Tell everyone you’re putting in security cameras, and then do it. This is a good idea anyway, even if Mary is as honest as the sun is bright. And, her reaction to the news might be enlightening.

        2. Anion*

          IANAL, but do wiretapping laws come into play in a situation like this? Or perhaps would telling people you’re setting up cameras cover you even if you don’t specifically say “with microphones?”

          I’m honestly just curious, not arguing.

    2. Huntington*

      Finance also came immediately to mind. A right-hand man at a family business I worked at (twice) was an upstanding, outstanding manager the first time I worked there. And then 10 years later, when I came back, he was clearly stealing from pooled tips (and probably from the restaurant itself). Each wait staff member who dared to even question was run out fast — like, that same day if he could; he’d trump up some small behavior that day (there’s always something in a busy restaurant) but if they quit immediately he’d give them a reference elsewhere. Dangerous territory. No one wanted to say anything to the family because it did in fact seem there was potential danger in how desperate he was, he had to be in deep financial trouble himself.

    3. Former Hoosier*

      Yes. I also once replaced someone who retired but told all kinds of sob stories for why the business wasn’t doing well. He would tell stories all the time. I used to catch him in lies but other people wouldn’t call him out. It took just a little bit of time to figure out that he had been stealing and a bunch of other stuff.

      Honestly, I have worked in some nutty places.

  10. Just An Idea*

    Maybe you could have a friend, someone she doesn’t know, come to fill in part time. This friend could let you know if Mary is really gossiping behind your back or she could ask around to the other employees to see if what Sarah told you is true.

    1. Ego Chamber*

      Oh nooo. If OP already had a good relationship with someone working there, I’d say talk to them and try to get a better idea of what’s going on, but hiring someone specifically to spy on an employee—when there are other, less complicated, more transparent ways to get the same information—is so bizarre I can’t imagine this not having a really bad effect on morale.

    2. SanDiegoSmith2017*

      This is a really really bad idea. The employees are already against the boss thanks to Mary, and adding a “spy” to the mix would just prove the point. I worked at a couple places that tried this tactic, and well, it ended very very badly, especially because said spy was such an under performer that it not only lead to distrust, but frustration as to why the idiot (and they were) still worked at the companies. One boss used his new step son of 2 months (who actually spilled the beans to all of us when dear old stepdad wouldn’t buy him a BMW) and it was one of the reasons that I left as did about 10 others (with a staff of only 30 it was pretty noticeable) in a 6 month span.

  11. Hills to Die on*

    I had a direct report like this. She really upset people with what she was saying about me behind my back. She was eventually fired for being incompetent but not before she did damage to my reputation at the company. Get in front of this and if there is any truth to what Sarah said, fire her quickly. Do not give her a second chance (again, assuming what Sarah says is true).

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I had a coworker quit because of what the boss was saying about me behind my back. Coworker was more disturbed by it than I was. I thought the boss looked like an idiot and I decided to ignore it for the time being. I quit about a year later and the boss said, “Are you quitting because of ME?’ Thinking quickly, I said, “I started job hunting because of you. But I am leaving because I believe I have something better to go to.”

      1. AKchic*

        That was how I ended up phrasing things when I left my last job. Negative co-worker; negative, undermining manager. Both gossiping to each other and complaining about each other. We were all around the same age. Manager knew I would have had her job if I hadn’t turned it down, which was the only reason she got the position in the first place.
        The drama got intolerable so I kept my resume updated in case I heard anything that was interesting but never really applied anywhere. Instead, I was solicited with a great offer and took it.

    2. Nonprofit Chicago*

      This. As already recommended, I would do coffee with your employees, and potentially even calling the employee that left to get their perspective. If it pans out, terminate quickly, and because of Mary’s exposure to clients, I would make sure to have her sign non disclosure even if you have to offer severance. This is a huge business risk if it’s actually occurring and it’s imperative it be handled within the next few weeks. Even if you are burdened with extra work in the near-term, it is much better to get a toxic employee out – especially one in a leadership position.

      1. Ego Chamber*

        “and because of Mary’s exposure to clients, I would make sure to have her sign non disclosure even if you have to offer severance.”

        This is retail though. “Clients” are “customers,” as in “people who shop at the store.” It’s not as high-stakes as calling them “clients” makes it sound. I’ve never known about an NDA surrounding termination existing in any of the retail locations I’ve worked, and severance is rare—usually the best you can expect to negotiate on the way out is a good reference.

        Also, it sounds like OP is already concerned about Mary giving questionable information about her/the business to customers, so that ship may already be ablaze in the harbor.

        1. Super Anon for This*

          Disagree. It sounds like this shops offers some special services (Mary’s “skills”), perhaps alterations or custom hand embroidery, etc. High end shops, like other businesses rely on clients much more than general retail does. You might not have thousands of clients in the area who can afford your store, or who like the products, like a more general place would (Walmart, JCPenney’s, Forever21, etc) but you might have hundreds who each make lots of purchases there. Even in a large city they will be fairly interconnected socially, and that makes word of mouth critical.

  12. Not So NewReader*

    I would start to pull back some of Mary’s responsibilities. If she is in charge of training people, build up another trainer to work along with her or to replace her. I’d choose the training responsibility because this is where trainers can let go of a lot of toxic stuff. The new hire gets the wrong impression right off the bat.

    If Mary has an financial responsibilities such as making the deposit and other things, I would develop a system to review her work on a regular basis, without fail.

    Your first paragraph is very telling. You can definitely start with what you know. See, she tested the waters to see what you would let her get away with and now she is pushing harder. The flightiness and forgetfulness can be addressed as she needs to get more organized so these lapses happen less. The less than professional behaviors can be addressed also. You can say something to the effect that she has been with you for a while so more is expected.

    If you do not have company meetings, now is a good time to start. Have everyone in the same room together. Perhaps give them coffee/tea or maybe snacks. Go over what you would like to cover, new business, old problems, ask them questions. Then ask them what they would like to talk about. Of course, pay them for their time in the meeting. This is a great way to undermine Mary’s campaign if she has one and it’s also just a good business practice.

    I hope you have annual reviews for everyone. And I hope you make sure to tell them when you will be available discuss any concerns.

    She may not be doing this AT you. Some people thrive on drama and upset. She may be one of those people.

    1. RabbitRabbit*

      I’m wondering WHY clients love her when she’s flighty/forgetful – does she tell them stories to make them feel sorry for her? Cut them unapproved deals?

      1. Jules the Third*

        Don’t overlook – who tells OP that the clients love Mary? If it’s coming through Mary, it may be… overstated.

      2. Tuxedo Cat*

        I’m thinking about the manager I knew who behaved similar to Mary- people with whom our office interacted loved her. She was gifted at blaming other people in our office subtly and then fixing the issue or even better, taking credit someone else fixed the issue.

      3. MuseumChick*

        Back in the day I work in a retail store with a HORRIBLE woman. She would enter sales under her name even if a different staff member had actually been the one to make the sale, she was lazy and lied about everything (my favorite was then she claimed to being having issues with her leg. Funny that didn’t stop her from standing in the middle of the sales floor chatting with friends but if she were asked to over the front and great visitors she would exaggeratedly limp to the front and complain she had to go sit down after only a few minuets), she took calls from her adult children constantly (was never anything serious), I could go on and on.

        She had a core group of customers who loved her. Because she 1) Would total focus on them, never mind that meant that other people had to cover her side of the store and all the customers she was ignoring. 2) She was giving discounts to EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE PEOPLE every time they came in. I found out when two of her regulars came in to buy something when she was on vacation and complained that I wasn’t giving them a discount.

      4. tigerlily*

        To be fair, we recently has to let our admin go because she was just that – flighty and forgetful (to the point where she was just terrible about the detail orientated part of her job) but she was SUPER friendly. Our clients just loved her. And yeah, she would lose their paperwork or make mistakes with their registrations, but clients forgave those things because they just liked her so much as a person.

        1. Bryce*

          The place I get my haircuts had a stylist like that. Not spectacular skill (though with the cuts I get you don’t have to be) but an absolute bucket full of sunshine. It was a haircut and an antidepressant in one trip. Everyone was disappointed when she retired.

      5. AnotherAlison*

        There is a specialized motorcycle shop that my husband goes to at least once a week. They had a sales manager that “everyone” thought was great, until he left & they got a new sales manager. My husband likes the new guy better. He still gets a discount, and now the store is organized, customers get waited on, they are making more money, etc.

        If I were the OP, I wouldn’t let Mary’s reputation with the customers keep me from managing her (or managing her out). Customers might like your next hire even more.

      6. fposte*

        I had a co-worker who was a flighty, forgetful drama llama, and she was loved by everybody who didn’t have to work in close proximity to her because she had a warm and charming personality.

      1. AJ*

        In my experience, sometimes clients/customers really like employees who are outspoken, even brash. Probably because it’s nice to to speak to a “real person” whereas sometimes customer service can become too saccharine and robotic. But “outspoken” often borders on cringe-worthy, which I assumed what the OP was describing with “not professional”. It’s important to look into of course, but clients liking her doesn’t necessarily mean she’s cutting them deals. But in my experience outspoken often means not afraid to complain about management…

  13. Zuppa da Clams*

    Haha, I get one of these ladies about once a year. Par for the course with retail/hospitality. I just got rid of one-my most famous employee-but it’s been such smooth sailing ever since.

  14. Anonymous Annie*

    Ooh, I had a similar employee at my non-profit job. In a mere two years, she did a lot of damage.

    She started out fine. Then after a year on the job, she picked a huge fight with another staffer. I had to discipline her for that and many other things. When I took some leave to deal with a seriously-ill spouse and parent, her behavior took a turn for the worse. While I was documenting it, she “retired” but tried to reclaim her job a few years later when I left the organization. Fortunately, she had lied to a board member and that person was able to keep her from being rehired by my successor.

    I never figured out why she disliked me so.

      1. Anonymous Annie*

        Well, I don’t always think of myself as smart, so thank you.

        I should never have hired her, but we were desperate for someone with her skills. She had a very odd work history, but as I said, we needed her. She did very well in many parts of the job. It’s hard to see someone with so much potential be so self damaging…

        1. Else*

          There are some people who just can never get out of their own way, and there’s a subset of those who are trying to drag other folks into the pit with them….

  15. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    I worked with someone who was doing this. It was a fast-food place where I worked during college, and the employee doing the backbiting was a de facto shift lead — ie, the most experienced person there when the owner wasn’t. He also loathed her.

    … Turns out, she wasn’t “a bitch keeping [him] down” — he was a functional alcoholic to whom she’d given many chances, and who was busy blasting through them. She finally fired him when he got caught offering to top up client’s drinks from the vodka bottle in his apron, for an extra $10.

    Where there’s smoke, there’s almost certainly either a fire or conditions that are rapidly escalating toward one.

  16. MuseumChick*

    Ooof. I have no advice on what to do or say to Mary. Something needs to be done, I just don’t know what.

    But, along with speaking one-on-one with your employees it might also help to have more all staff meetings. This would give you a chance to go over things like, “I have some really good news, [insert metrics that show the business is going well. I want to thank you all for all your hard work in making this happen. Now, I wanted to go over a few things, as you know I will be on vacation from X date to X date. Jane, Fergus, and Mary are schedule to be handling things at the shop.” Or whatever it is you have to go over. I think as long as Mary is there you will have to be very proactive with your staff showing the business is doing well and that everything is being handled.

    1. Say what, now?*

      This is great. I always reinforce who I’m leaving in charge when I go on vacation. It helps keep things known and expected and helps the temporary manager to exercise a reasonable amount of power while keeping the Usurper from taking over.

    2. GriefBacon*

      Yep, if there’s one thing I learned as a retail manager, it’s that everything goes more smoothly with regular team meetings. I had to fight with my district manager to have them (we’re talking like 4 times a year, for 30 min, totally fitting into our payroll budget) but I swore by them, especially leading up to the holidays. This was also a great time to put things down on paper — vacation schedules, changes in hours, upcoming sales goals, store policies, etc — and ensure everyone received them and read them.

      Plus, the nature of retail is that you’re never with all of your coworkers at once (whereas, in an office job, you’re probably working with all your teammates every day). Team meetings help reinforce that you are in fact a team, and that the things one person does at work affect everyone else. It’s hard to remember that sometimes in retail.

  17. k.k*

    To build off Alison’s advice to be around more, I would do some of that by popping in at unexpected times when Mary is working. People tend to talk more freely when the boss is around, so building up an expectation that you might be in at any time could help her to be more tight lipped with her gossip.

    1. BroadcastLady*

      This. I had to do this for a while on weekends when we suspected our part-timers, college students, were using our station as a hang out for their friends. They were. While it seems harmless, they were distracted and were missing commercial breaks and that affects the bottom line.

    2. AJ*

      + 1 Change-up your patterns. It will shake Mary out of her comfort complaining zones and make you more visible/accessible to other employees. Chances are you’re going to over-hear something.

  18. QuakerBanker*

    The vacation incident reminds me of a former coworker at a retail job. Any time our manager was out of the store, this coworker would tell me and everyone else about all the things that the manager left undone–how the manager had left all this stuff on her shoulders…blah blah blah. Her complaints were always either untrue or severe exaggerations of stories. This coworker truthfully wasn’t great at her job, and I think that she would do this to compensate, or to make excuses for her work. Mary sounds like a very similar person. My bet is that she knows deep down that she really isn’t all that great at her job, and she is coming up with these stressful, nonexistent scenarios to make herself look better or more competent. I think that speaking to her is necessary….but it might not be a pretty conversation.

  19. Courtney*

    I had a co-worker like Mary once. When I did finally discuss it with the manager, the co-worker turned out to be listening on the other side of the door and burst into the room yelling at me. So…maybe have these discussions on days that Mary isn’t in the store.

    1. Say what, now?*

      Holy crap! Tell me the manager put a stop to that really quick! Listening in on a closed door meeting and then bursting in unannounced… my word!

      1. Courtney*

        He ended up getting fired as a result – there had been other issues leading up to that point and it was a pretty extreme outburst with swearing, insults, etc. So fortunately, that outburst was the last I ever saw of him.

  20. chica*

    I would first add a hidden camera with audio. One for the register, and one for whatever area the trash talking is happening (maybe get some more details from Sarah about when/where most of it happened?).

    And hearing about how she’s talking about the precarious financial situation, I would also take a veerrry good look at the books, specifically thinking about ways she could be stealing or skimming and look for that.

    I also think that talking again to the employee who most recently quit could be very helpful.

    1. Say what, now?*

      Good point, she may be trying to set it up so she isn’t blamed if the financial situation becomes precarious.

    2. Noah*

      I’m not sure this business has a register — usually companies that call their customers “clients” aren’t retail establishments. Also, remember that what you’re proposing is illegal in 12 states.

    3. Observer*

      That may actually be illegal. The hidden cameras are probably going to freak people out if it gets out – and it probably will. And the audio is not legal in a lot of places.

      In any case, it’s not necessary to go that far. If you have video of someone going to the register, for instance, you don’t need audio of them opening it and their evil chuckle when they take the money.

  21. A.N. O'Nyme*

    Also, OP, document your investigation into the matter. If you do end up needing to fire Mary, that documentation will cover you in case she decides to lie about why she was fired and continues to badmouth you. Because let’s face it: if she already badmouths you this badly when you are employing her (assuming the story is true) nothing will stop her from going into overdrive once you are no longer her boss.

  22. Aphrodite*

    I’m also curious about what Mary’s references said about here when you checked. (You did, right? Multiple ones?) If you think back on what they said was there any possible indication that she might have caused drama elsewhere? I wouldn’t expect that it would be clear but rather perhaps in subtle ways that without these problems you now know about you might not have picked up on.

  23. Malibu Stacey*

    I had a Mary, too. I was actually hired as a temp to cover her maternity leave and was training with her before she went on leave. I actually liked her and we had a lot in common – until she started similar pot-stirring. In my case, I think she had outgrown the job. I think her lies/exaggerations were her way of convincing herself she was the only one capable of holding down the fort.

    1. BeepBoop*

      That’s a really good point. Perhaps Mary doesn’t feel challenged with what she is currently doing so she either (1) want to create more responsibilities for herself or (2) show OP that she can handle more responsibilities. Either way, she isn’t going about it in a mature manner. However, I would be interested in hearing what Mary thinks of her job.

  24. Snark*

    It’s my feeling that OP needs to be a LOT more forthcoming with her entire staff about how the business is doing, the business decisions she makes that affect them, and contingency plans for her absences. And my impression is that she’s not as directly involved as a small business owner should be with onboarding new employees, and keeping a finger on the pulse of morale and satisfaction.

    I watched my parents run a small business for 30 years, and employees of small, fragile businesses need constant confirmation that a firm and steady hand is on the tiller and their jobs aren’t going anywhere. They need quarterly meetings, a sense of stakeholdership, and a window into your plans for the future. Mary is a toxic little weed, but those don’t grow without a little patch of soil that can harbor them.

    1. Snark*

      Oh, and fire Mary. Find a right hand that isn’t going to take advantage of ignorance and uncertainty to stir shit. Nobody got time for that.

    2. Stellaaaaa*

      See my comment below. I agree with you 100%. If Mary has access to OP’s accounting, her anxiety might not be unwarranted. I also don’t necessarily think Mary was wrong to be unsure about the role of the “OP replacement” who was only present for the duration of OP’s vacation. OP hired a temp to serve as CEO for a few weeks? That is legitimately puzzling.

      1. Observer*

        Firstly, we take the OPs at their word, and the OP indicates that Mary’s claims about the financial situation are not accurate.

        As for the vacation thing, even if the OP did something weird, Mary’s reaction makes no sense. Why would she be texting the other staff about it, rather than either asking the OP about plans BEFORE they left, or text the OP when she realized that she’s the only one there except for the temp?

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          1) You’re not Alison and you’re not a mod. I know what the commenting rules are.

          2) “The OP says that her company’s finances are solid” and “Mary feels insecure about her individual position at the company” are not mutually exclusive notions.

          1. Candi*

            Your phrasing reads as combative, rude, and dismissive.

            On 1): On multiple occasions over the past several years, many, many long-time commentators have reminded other commentators of the rules, including taking the LWs at their word.

            When Alison has seen it and replied, she has supported such posts. Her only restriction has been to follow “Be nice” when doing it.

            On 2) you have a point, but that is not how what you posted at 3:05 pm reads.

            There is no reason to be rude here when the commetariat as a whole are generally reasonable people willing to talk things out. Even with people who double down or show signs of almost-certain trolldom. See “should I tell my employer about my boundary-crossing coworker?” for a good run of such posts. Everyone managed to remain civil, if with gritted teeth.

    3. Nita*

      Very true. A relative runs a small business, and has to keep a finger on its pulse at all times. It doesn’t prevent problems with employees or partners, but it does ensure that they’re exposed sooner rather than later.

  25. Stellaaaaa*

    Is it possible that finances actually are a bit tight and Mary is trying to guarantee she won’t be laid off by getting other people to quit first? I’ve been in situations where business owners swore the company was doing well – because they could always save things by laying someone off or reducing staff hours. That’s a logical if willfully objective view from the owner’s perspective. From the point of view of an employee, that thought process is terrifying.

    I am NOT defending Mary. Just trying to figure out if there’s a rational starting point for this insanity.

  26. The Supreme Troll*

    “What should I know in order to be able to support and coach Mary better?” I have to disagree with Alison regarding the OP asking this question of his other employees. It is undermining to Mary’s position in the business (after all, she is 2nd in command, so I’m assuming she is in an assistant manager or supervisory role), especially if it does happen to be that these insinuations about Mary are unfounded (which is possible that they are legitimate, but still Mary should not be undermined to her associates).

    But I very much agree with Alison that the OP should not worry about implicating Sarah in this situation. She is no longer with the company, lives across the country, and should have no reason to be scared of retribution from Mary. It is imperative to be able to get a first-hand look at what is going on here, rather that depend on second hand information – which obviously could be biased in one direction or the other.

    1. AJ*

      I disagree with your first paragraph. I cannot tell you how often I fantasize about my boss asking me a question like this. I don’t think it’s undermining the 2nd in command at all. The 1st in command is supporting everyone, and asking questions like this gives reports more confidence in the entire management structure, helps 2nd in command improve, and allows 1st in command to get a better idea of what actually goes on when she is not around, and helps illiminate any signs of trouble/miscommunication. I can see it being undermining if it is not done in the right way.

      1. The Supreme Troll*

        Yes, but the use of the word “coaching” is where I personally see a problem. I know that no big, big boss, manager, or team lead is going to be perfect, but asking for input from Mary’s subordinates in order to help Mary to do her job better could leave an impression with the subordinates that Mary has several shortcomings, and that the OP will be the advocate for those who work under Mary if they are ever encountering difficulties with her. And some of those difficulties could be that the subordinates are not respecting Mary’s position in the company. The OP might not be able to see this immediately.

        I certainly know that this isn’t at all what Alison said nor am I saying that she implied this, but IMO, this is a vibe that can get created.

        1. Lin*

          I completely disagree. When i first started out in a manager role I flat out asked everyone (higher ups and direct reports) what I could improve upon because I WANTED to be better. I recently worked in a retail environment where I was 3rd in command. The manager was abusive and I experienced workplace harassment on the regular, but it was up and down. When manager was in a stable period I would discuss my issues with her and she wouldn’t hear any of it. Even her higher up, when the ENTIRE team quite, refused to do exit interviews with any of us because she was happier NOT coaching and keeping her head in the sand.
          I think a good manager is willing to accept constructive criticism and suggestions, especially from people lower on the totem pole. A really good manager seeks out ways to self-improve. Even if that means seeking advice to become the best manager that they can be. You don’t need to be a bad employee to need coaching

  27. Noah*

    OP pretty pointedly does NOT say Mary’s financial assessment of the company is wrong. Nor does she say Mary is a manager. It is far from weird for a non-managerial employee at a small company to express concerns about the financial status of the company to her coworkers.

    1. Nita*

      It seems to be implied – the OP does follow Mary’s claims that the company’s about to shut down with saying she “creates drama where there is none.” It’s possible that the situation does look worse to Mary than it should for some reason, but if she’s been around almost since the business got started, why is she spooked now? And why go so far as to tell the other employees to bail and look for other jobs, while being sweet to OP’s face and never bringing up these concerns?

      1. Working Hypothesis*

        Well, if she felt afraid of the boss, she might be sweet to the boss’ face and vent when they’re not around. That’s pretty common, actually.

        None of this is an excuse for the behavior — if the stuff Mary has been accused of is actually going on (and I have a hard time imagining that it isn’t, given the evidence we’ve got; I only mention the possibility for completeness’ sake), then Mary is handling things horribly at *best*, and deliberately sabotaging the boss at worst… possibly to cover up stealing or some other felonious behavior at VERY worst. But this doesn’t mean there’s no reason behind her bad behavior… there’s a reason behind almost everything people do. Reasons aren’t excuses, though.

    2. AJ*

      Weird as in inappropriate – yes. Weird as in abnormal – no. In the small family-owned businesses I have worked for it was commonplace for an employee to take on/be asked to take on managerial duties while still a “regular” employee. And then lines would blur with what information was shared between boss-them and them-the rest of us.

  28. Elder Dog*

    If Mary is saying this to your other employees, what is she telling your vendors and customers?
    We’re going under financially will not just make your employees leave.

    What does Mary do in her spare time? Poach your customers for her own rival business?

  29. overly produced bears*

    I can’t add to the rest of it, but I just wanted to point out to “that our financial situation is so precarious that we’re about to shut down”.

    LW, do you have regular staff meetings, like once a month or something? That would be a good time to highlight how things are going! Like, “we brought in X revenue this month, good job, team!” Transparency can help a lot sometimes.

    1. Someone else*

      My concern about Mary spreading that type of info, when it’s totally off-base, is to suspect Mary of some sort of embezzlement or other financial malfeasance. Hence by spreading the rumors that the owner is incompetent, when the crash comes, she can posture that it wasn’t her (Mary’s) fault but the owner’s and kinda turn the thing into bi-directional finger pointing. Of course, if she (Mary) did do such a thing, the police would be involved and she’d probably not succeed…but socially she may be trying to take suspicion off herself.
      I may be projecting based on a previous experience with a business, but that was very much the first thing that popped into my mind.

  30. K.A.*

    Honestly, I’d set up some hidden cameras with audio for a week and use the weekend to go through them (fast forwarding through moments when your employee is not speaking). That may be the only way to know.

  31. LadyCop*

    I just want to say, that I appreciate the comments here being more insightful and productive than in the linked article…I made the mistake of reading some, and -daymn- I thought this group could be harsh, but everyone there is basically “FIRE HER!” “Get a lawyer!” “This is slander!” and a bunch of other ridiculous non-sense.

    Reminder: Do not read the linked article comments

  32. Princess Cimorene*

    I feel like its possible Mary was jealous to not be left formally in charge while you were on vacation and was insulted that you hired someone new in your place? That being said, it doesn’t sound like Mary deserves the role. If anything, it sounds like you need to consider putting Mary on a short leash and be ready to let her go. She is not irreplaceable. You can find other “rockstars” who aren’t actively harming your business like a cancer.

  33. ExecuLife*

    Along with all the issues raised and wonderful advice Alison gave above, I’d be concerned that Mary is trying to assert her position among the staff so that they see her in a more favorable light than you and swing their individual loyalties to her instead of to you. Additionally, I’d be concerned as to what (if anything at all) that Mary is planning: is she looking to leave and take employees she “won over” with her? is she looking to start something up on her own?

    OP – good luck. And please be sure to update us. All my best.

  34. writelhd*

    I am in a somewhat similar situation as a Sarah in the above example, with an employee who has very valued skills and clients tend to love him, but he just can’t seem to stop with creating drama where there is none in a way that I do think has driven other good employees away. These kinds of situations are tricky because a lot of times there’s not one clear, obviously terrible offense, just a lot of little things, that are each kind of borderline, slippery, hard to trace back, but overall, paint a kind of clear picture. So, I sympathize. I do sort of suspect that feeding off of drama is a character flaw some adults haven’t learned to suppress yet–we’re all on a journey after all–and such people are very skilled at stepping up to but not quite crossing the line–but I do try to keep in mind that everybody’s different and my drama llama may not be your drama llama, etc.

    From my perspective as a “Sarah”, I really debated about what to do when my dramatic coworker came to me complaining about one of his new coworkers–the third such in a pretty short time. Dramatic coworker has a pattern of posturing himself in such a way to make these new coworkers look bad to The Boss and to the rest of us established coworkers, and himself the hero. For him I think it’s an addition to being the hero, and wrapped up with some fragile masculinity that’s challenged when there are competent men working at the same level as him, but anyway. I’m sick of it, and he does it to me kind of directly: “just between you and me, but I’m seeing a lot of problems with New Guy’s work, I’m gonna have to end up doing it all again I bet so I can save The Boss all these headaches I see coming, whoa is me, lol” that I debated taking to The Boss, but ultimately did not, because this guy is a bully and if he finds out I spoke up, he *will* turn his wrath on me, and I am not fully convinced The Boss will have my back–they’re buddies. Instead I made the decision to make sure that when I was noticed that New Coworker did things that I could objectively from my position express praise and appreciation for to The Boss, I’d do so. However, speaking to match Allison’s advice, if The Boss made an effort to come to me to strike up a conversation about a pattern he’s sort of noticing some smoke on and asked for my objective input, that would put me enough at ease that he would actually have my back that I would probably disclose that conversation. I wish he would, actually. So I find that good advice.

  35. GreenDoor*

    I’m a big fan of the statement-than-silence strategy. I would simply start by saying, “I was a bit surprised to hear from someone that you feel I’m incompetent. What can you tell me about that.”

    Than say nothing more. First, her initial reaction – mostly body language – will tell you a lot. Does she look confused? Does she blush or look away out of guilt? The saying nothing more is key. Most of us feel tempted to fill the silence so just let her talk. Does she ramble like she’s trying to spin a story or does she look you right in the eye? Etc.

    Good luck – and please give us an update. This is such a sticky situation. Sometimes situations like this are worse than the employee that just does that one epically bad thing…

  36. Arlie Ermy*

    If your business is doing really well, so that you have quite a bit of *excess* money on hand, why not give your employees a bonus? Post a sign in the break room saying something like “Thanks to all of your hard work, the business is doing so well that we can give you all a small bonus!”

    That ought to settle Mary’s rumors about your company being on the rocks.

  37. Mary*

    I just wanted to offer another view point, because I was once accused of sabotaging a boss and it was awful. He was either incompetent or just in over his head, and it was clear to everyone. He would regularly ask me to run meetings or handle reports for him and we had to meet one on one a lot to go over basics he should have known. It was a lot of extra work with no recognition or additional support, and I was visibly stressed out. I suspect that he was getting pressure from above about his performance and needed a scapegoat, but eventually he accused me to his manager of sabotage and wrote it into my annual review. I had been really naive about office politics and others’ perceptions of me, and while I genuinely wasn’t doing anything wrong except being unhappy, I wasn’t doing anything to protect myself and I couldn’t disprove the accusations either.

    It’s not completely analogous, but what seems like sabotage could be similarly unintentional on Mary’s part. She might be feeling overburdened and dealing by doing ill-advised things like venting to the other staff, who may feel more loyalty to her than to OP. Is it possible she doesn’t know you see her as second in command? If she feels like just another staffer, she would think venting is justifiable relating between coworkers. She also might think that putting on a sweet face for her boss is her being professional, rather than being deliberately two-faced. Her position might also give her a different perspective to see problems that aren’t obvious to the OP or things the OP cares about, and the lack of communication around them could look like negligence to her. I think “sabotage” implies some kind of malicious end goal, but being negative, frustrated and unhappy in a job is pretty commonplace. The solution is the same, though: increase the transparency and communication with all staff and focus on the core principles of good management.

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