my employee keeps complaining to me about a coworker — but won’t let me step in

A reader writes:

I am the manager for our customer service department. This department is comprised of five CSRs who do a great job. Four of my CSRs have been with the company for 12 years or more. One of them – we’ll call her Kelsey – has been with the company for just over one year. I have been with company for almost two years. Kelsey has a cubicle next to a CSR who has been here for 15 years, we’ll call her Lorraine. My issue is that Kelsey and Lorraine seem to get along most of the time, but Kelsey comes to me on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and says that Lorraine does some things in the office that upset her.

Lorraine has a habit of addressing any concerns, issues, or problems she might have with Kelsey or her work to the office at large instead of directly to Kelsey. Rather than tell Kelsey that she didn’t think it was appropriate to bring a flower arrangement to a funeral home for a viewing, she asked the entire office at large if they thought it was appropriate – well within earshot of Kelsey. Not once did she address her concerns with Kelsey directly, and Kelsey does not handle this passive-aggressive behavior well. She takes it very personally.

Each time there is an incident, I ask Kelsey if she wants me to sit down with Lorraine and discuss this with her. She says no because Lorraine doesn’t do this to anyone else in the office, so she would immediately know that Kelsey was the one who had the problem with it. I’m frankly getting to the end of my rope dealing with Kelsey feeling the way she does when she never addresses it with Lorraine at all. I ask her each time if she’s willing to push back on Lorraine, and I’ve even tried coaching her on what she can say (“Lorraine, I am sitting right here, is there something that you want to discuss with me?” and so on…) but she always tells me that she’s afraid that when she says something to Lorraine she will “just go off on her.”

Kelsey is a stellar employee. She got the highest marks out of everyone at her last review. She is never late, she always completes all her work on time, she frequently helps other employees out with work they have, and she has managed her customers that she took on when she joined the company better than the other CSRs did (in a way that is visible to anyone who works for the company). I say this because I think there might be a little bit of jealousy happening, and I also think age plays into this. Lorraine is an older woman in her 50’s. Kelsey just turned 21. Lorraine has been with the company for 15 years, and she’s at the level where her work is decent enough that I have little to complain about, but she doesn’t go above and beyond for anything.

I’m looking for some guidance on how I should handle this situation once and for all. Should I say something to Lorraine about how Kelsey feels about the passive-aggressive behavior, or should I continue to encourage Kelsey to push back on Lorraine when she makes these comments to the whole office? Or do I keep letting the situation go?

You don’t need Kelsey’s permission to address the situation with Lorraine! If Lorraine is doing something that you think is disruptive or causing problems on your team, you can go ahead and address it.

It doesn’t always make sense to do that. If something is small and a minor annoyance, and the person it’s aimed at is asking you not to get involved, it usually makes sense to respect that.

But if Lorraine is legitimately being rude, doing it a lot, and repeatedly upsetting a good employee, there’s no reason you can’t say, “Lorraine, I’ve noticed that if you have a concern about something Kelsey is doing, you address it to the office at large rather than to Kelsey privately. That’s unfair to her. If you have a work-related issue with Kelsey, please talk to her directly — or talk to me if you think it needs to be escalated.” Or if most of what Lorraine is raising isn’t work-related at all (like the thing about flowers at a funeral), you could instead say, “I’ve noticed you talk to coworkers about Kelsey a lot — things like your disapproval of the flowers she sent to a funeral and the pies she baked for the potluck. It’s enough that I’ve noticed it and I think it would bother anyone in her shoes. Can you lay off her?”

That said, this is complicated by the fact that you’ve already asked Kelsey a bunch of times if she wants you to step in and she’s said no. Since you’ve presented it to her as a choice, it’s not going to feel great to reverse that now and intervene despite her telling you not to. Ideally you wouldn’t have posed it as a choice so many times, but since you have, at this point you might need to say something like this to her the next time she comes to you about Lorraine: “I’ve asked you in the past if you want me to talk to Lorraine about this kind of thing, and I think I did you a disservice by framing it that way. Lorraine’s behavior is disruptive enough to you and to our team that I have an obligation as her manager to talk to her, so I’m going to do that. I’m going to present it as behavior that I’ve noticed, not a complaint from you, but at this point I do need to talk to her.”

I’d also ask Kelsey what’s behind her worry that Lorraine will “go off on her” if Kelsey speaks to her about this herself. Has Lorraine done that to her before, or has Kelsey seen her do it to others? If so, that’s something you need to know about and address with Lorraine as well … and you need to tell Kelsey that that kind of behavior would be unacceptable on your team and it’s something you’d handle if it happened (while ensuring she didn’t face repercussions for your involvement). If Lorraine hasn’t done something to make Kelsey worry about that — if Kelsey just has a general fear of conflict — then your message to Kelsey needs to be, “If something is upsetting you enough that you’re talking to me about it multiple times a month, you really do have a professional obligation to work with me to resolve it. I can coach you through how to talk to her yourself if we decide that’s the best approach, but what I can’t let you do is bring it to me over and over without being willing to let either of us address it.”

You can be pretty supportive about this. You can acknowledge that this stuff is tough when you’re early in your career, as she is, and that the age difference between them no doubt makes it feel more awkward. You can assure Kelsey that you have her back and that the actions you’re going to coach her to take (or will take yourself) are reasonable. And you can talk to her about how this is a professional skill like any other, which takes time to build and can feel iffy when she’s first trying it out but which will serve her really well over the course of her career. But do guide her pretty assertively here, or you risk (a) a good employee becoming demoralized over time, (b) a less-great employee driving someone away and/or injecting toxicity into the broader group, and (c) having hours more of these conversations with Kelsey without actually moving things toward a resolution.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 281 comments… read them below }

  1. Sloan Kittering*

    Yeah wow OP, I would definitely step up here. You are Lorraine’s manager and it sounds like you have – independently – observed some things about her interactions with her coworkers that you need to manage proactively. As you’ve said, you don’t need Kelsey or anybody’s permission to do that. Think how you will feel when Kelsey quits because she’s not happy working with such an unpleasant coworker – you’ll be stuck with just Lorraine while your talent and energy walks.

    1. M-C*

      I agree the OP is falling down on their job as manager here if they’re observing bad behavior and not reacting. When Lorraine is trumpeting something about Kelsey (or someone else), immediately ask her into your office and tell her that’s not acceptable behavior. Now I think it’d be interesting to know whether that’s something she does to everyone, and Kelsey’s new so she hasn’t had time to get used to it/dismiss it, or whether she picks on Kelsey particularly because she’s feeling threatened that Kelsey does the job better even though she’s much younger. That could lead to very different conversations with Lorraine, and even stronger wording because picking on one person is outright harassment. But in any case, don’t let an employee misbehave to others in front of you without addressing it. You could well have 3 other exasperated people who’ve simply given up on getting any management action here

  2. Nervous Accountant*

    Ooooo this is a pickle. I’m coming down on the side of Kelsey, passive aggressive behavior is super petty and irritating.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      On the other hand, it’s kind of weird that Kelsey keeps complaining, not doing anything, and telling her boss not to do anything. If I was her boss, I’d put my foot down on that behavior too – nicely.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, I’m not sure what’s going on there but it’s not a good pattern either. A weekly or bi-weekly basis is a lot of “here’s the new Lorraine annoyance,” which isn’t good for anybody. Maybe fold that discussion into existing 1-on-1s with Kelsey to talk about the Lorraine situation generally rather than each new iteration of annoyance?

        1. Sloan Kittering*

          I think when I first started out professionally, I didn’t really understand the boss-employee relationship very well – maybe Kelsey is having that problem. I really thought the boss was there to support me and help me, the way my teachers and parents had been. Maybe I would have thought that talking out my problems or listening to me vent was a good use of their time (okay that sounds like a stretch, but maybe). Now I understand that my boss is there for the company, and will help me in the ways that help the company, but definitely isn’t there to be moral support or sympathy or anything else. The boss in this case might need to work Kelsey around to this POV.

          1. fposte*

            Agreed. I remember a very talented but young and startuppy acquaintance who had difficulty when he got hired by a university department, because he kept wanting to bounce staffing and PR ideas off the dean. Which is really not what deans are there for.

          2. Snark*

            Perceptive, and very true – this person is not long out of college, and I think it’s easy to assume your boss is something like a teacher/professor….and while there’s a bit of overlap, there’s not really much.

          3. KWu*

            Yup, this. I could also see this happening of the OP opens conversations with something intended to be generic like “how are you” and Kelsey gives a too specifically in the moment answer, rather than being more deliberate in what issues she discusses with OP.

          4. SheWoulf*

            I’m the OP. I think you hit the nail on the head when you state that I’m here for the company, not to be her go-to person for venting. On a side note, I will add this: it seems to happen in spurts. Kelsey will come in my office twice in one week about Lorraine, and then she won’t say a word about her for 3 weeks, and I see them laughing in the office. I’ve just noticed that recently, instead of feeling bad for her or wanting to run into the office and save the day, I’ve been feeling frustrated that I tied my own hands by framing it as a question. I’m definitely prepared for the next time we have a “Kelsey-and-Lorraine” conversation!

            1. Lil Fidget*

              TBH I wouldn’t wait for Kelsey to come to you again – I’d act next time you notice Lorraine do something that you don’t like, and I’d frame it as my own judgement.

              1. Anony*

                I was assuming she doesn’t usually see it first hand. It would definitely make sense to call out the passive aggressiveness in the moment.

                1. Zahra*

                  If you don’t, before addressing this with Lorraine, I think you should ask the other CSRs for confirmation about the passive-aggressiveness. Especially for cases like the flowers. Cases like “She was standing behind me!” that you referred to below would be better handled by coaching Kelsey on how to deal with it, unless said standing then leads to passive-aggressive comments later.

                2. On Fire*

                  Seconding Zahra on confirming this behavior with the other CSRs. Kelsey may be 100% telling the truth – or she may not be. Chances are that yes, L is trying to intimidate her and make her uncomfortable. But since I have worked with people who deliberately exaggerated or outright lied for drama or self-promotion, I think it’s definitely worth the trouble of verifying.

                3. First time commenter, age 28,female.*

                  Yeah because she’s the ONLY one targeted I bet, bc she’s the most vulnerable Employee.

            2. RAmountain*

              With the part about how you sometimes see them laughing- just know that this isn’t necessarily a sign that “everything it ok”.

              If Kelsey is afraid of Lorraine finding out that it was her that mentioned the rude behaviors, then she is afraid of the blowback from Lorraine and maybe others. When people feel “stuck” like that, i.e. “I can’t mention anything myself because I will just make Lorraine blow up and then she will make me really miserable I can’t ask my boss to do anything since Lorraine will find out who said something and then I will get the blowback, too” they can resort to just trying really really hard to get along with that rude person… act like friends, try to make them laugh, etc, so that they can reduce the misery in their own life. For a bit it works. And then that person is cruel again and you are back to square one. The obvious answer is that your boss should protect you from blowback… sounds to me like Kelsey is not convinced she will a) be protected by you if she addresses it herself or b) allows the OP to address it.

              Seems to me like a common misunderstanding for people in their younger years. When I was in my early twenties, I was in a similar situation because I didn’t think I had the back-up of my boss, so I just accepted treatment by some coworkers that really did a number on my mental health after a while. I thought that by doing nothing I was choosing the best option in a weird situation. I was afraid that if things “blew up” my boss would think I was the “trouble maker” and fire me and I really really needed that job. Now that I look back, that was half-absurd half-true, since my boss was, in fact, terrible.

            3. First time commenter, age 28,female.*

              Really a boss should care about how employees feel treated, it’s called WORK MORALE. I said Should now reality is a different thing, you seem more upset that Kelsey said anything to you, not that this could be passive aggressive behavior which could drive the ONE VERY SUCCESSFUL NEWER EMPLOYEE AWAY FROM THIS COMPANY, see what I did there bringing it back to you caring about the company. Kelsey is young hence why an older worker would even feel they could get away with those offhand comments, and your saying that what Kelsey’s just a Drama Queen… ? Huh.

          5. LBK*

            And, FWIW, the OP is enabling that mindset by leaving it up to Kelsey whether she wants to do anything. The OP is the one with the authority, she doesn’t need Kelsey’s permission to use it. Someone that new to the workforce is almost definitely going to be conflict-avoidant since they won’t have the experience to feel comfortable standing their ground against Lorraine – I would not be taking the guidance of 21-year-old on how to best address the situation. You’re the boss and the senior employee, should be the one telling her how it’s going to go.

            1. First time commenter, age 28,female.*

              Thank you seriously! I’m not conflict avoidant but I have been in the past, you hit the nail on the head in my 10 yrs of working experience, perfectly. Remember when you could easily get CS jobs right out of HS people and expect to be able to move up in a company at some point, yeah barely me too.(ugh thank god the economy’s swung back in the past 2 yrs especially)

          6. First Time Commenter, Age 28*

            So she should just not say Anything to Loraine, the Manager I mean, honestly if it’s a she vs you situation, I think the she,Lorainne in this case is In for this job until she retires, so Kelsey is probably thinking ok x more years at this job until she is gone, I can take petty, what could my manager possibly say that would change Lorainne’s behavior around me when others aren’t around, or so. Trust me she probably thinks Lorainne has seniority and that it will look PETY TO OTHER COWORKERS if Kelsey complains, ugh Poor Kesley, honestly this sounds like when I worked in a Library and we were all basically customer service reps, and when I went to a Manager once, one step above My own Manager who was absent that day, this Manager told me all about how Person A had actually been with the company longer than I’d been alive and blah blah blah. Then when my actual Manager came back she sided with Me on the issue and regular Manager had to put her tail between her legs for the most part. and coworker B Fake apologized to KEEP THE PEACE. It sounds like Kelsey wants to KEEP THE PEACE at the expense of her OWN MENTAL HEALTH. UHH Do something Manager, bc it sounds like Lorainne’s problems aren’t actual Problems just Jealousy of Kelsey

      2. Jam Today*

        Kelsey is very young and probably afraid that saying anything will make her life substantially worse, since she is the youngest and definitely the newest member of an established team. Having been in environments like that myself, I’d put the probability of that being true at .5

        The manager should absolutely step in since Lorraine is harming the team’s morale in a couple of ways: 1) its hurting the work of one of the rising stars of the team and 2) its letting the other team members know that abuse goes unanswered. I’d bet a small amount of money that the other team members are embarrassed but also not wanting to say anything out loud, either.

        I interpreted the “will go off on her” remark as Kelsey going off on Lorraine, because its been bottled up for so long she’ll just explode the first time she tries to defend herself. If the manager can step in now and make sure Lorraine stops with the passive-aggressive hostility, Kelsey can have a little room to let go some of the anxiety, so that she’ll be better able to handle situations herself if they arise again.

        1. Former Retail Manager*

          100% agreed with everything you said. It can be difficult enough to stand up for yourself, in the best of circumstances. Then add in Kelsey’s age, the environment, and the substantial disparity in seniority among the other employees, and it’s much harder. I’m sure she doesn’t want to be seen as the “new person who is causing trouble.”

          And I totally think that Lorriane is jealous and that is likely what’s driving all of this.

          1. Sloan Kittering*

            It’s interesting to me if that’s true, and yet Kelsey … goes to complain to the boss every week? I think if I were young and didn’t want to cause trouble, I wouldn’t be complaining to OP at all.

            1. MerciMe*

              It can depend a lot. Depending on how the OP frames their advice, they may be sending the – potentially unintentional – message that the manager sees this as “Kelsey and Lorraine being equally part of the problem.” As a junior staffer being openly bullied by an older colleague, it is not at all unusual for Kelsey to be uncomfortable confronting her older peers. In which case, Kelsey may be trying to signal – by drawing repeated occurrences to her manager’s attention- that this is something that needs to be addressed by management because it represents an intentional and repeated pattern of unprofessional behavior, not just as something that “only” Kelsey is really upset about.

              It doesn’t have to be mean jock, lawsuit level bullying to leave Kelsey feeling like the whole team supports Lorraine and agrees with her behavior. That’s a really vulnerable position for Kelsey to be in, especially at the beginning of her career, when she hasn’t necessarily got a long list of glowing references and a reputation for being even keeled to fall back on, if this all goes horrifically sideways.

              Managers do have other business obligations than just supporting and mentoring their staff and I get that. But managers do need to establish a clear and evenly applied business expectation that all team members treat each other with respect, and that’s what I don’t see clear evidence of in the OP. It seems plausible to me that Kelsey could be right to worry about whether she really has her manager’s support if she tries to talk to Lorraine and Lorraine doesn’t take it well. In which case it might help to talk to Kelsey about a fallback plan.

              1. sap*

                Yeah, I was coming here to say this. And I remember me at an extremely competent but fairly socially nervous 21, and if I’d been having this issue and my manager had asked “do you want me to address this,” the message I would have gotten from that being a QUESTION rather than a statement would have been “this seems like something you should be able to handle on your own but haven’t, do you need me to do this for you?” And I would have, of course, said “no” to that… Because the fact that it was a question would have signaled to a Young, Ignorant me that it handling it would be some sort of personal favor. And Young, Ignorant me didn’t want to be so young and ignorant that my boss had to do favors for me.

                But I would have wanted to be able to say yes?

                Since this employee is 21 and just out of school… She might just not feel comfortable saying yes and be really grateful if LW had a conversation about how they needed to address the issue anyway because it’s an employee performance issue (not a favor).

            2. Gadget Hackwrench*

              One thing Kelsey might be looking for is simply reassurance that Lorraine’s words aren’t having an effect on how the boss perceives her. She doesn’t need her boss to stop Lorraine, she just needs to check in now and then and make sure that Lorraine, as a more senior employee who may be viewed as having more sway with the boss, isn’t putting her job in danger by making the whole team (and her boss) think that Kelsey simply has to go, since she’s upsetting Lorraine. It’s very possible Kelsey is just trying to CYA where Lorraine’s words are concerned by pointing out that she doesn’t talk to Kelsey before talking to others and she would totally change her behavior to please this more senior and presumably more important team member if given the chance. It’s very easy for someone new on a job to be frightened that if a person who’s been there longer is hostile to them, the boss is going to get rid of them to preserve the peace.

              The first shift I had with a particular co-worker at current job, (he no longer works here, he quit) he hit the roof at me shouting about how I needed to be more “ladylike.” I’m in IT for crap sake. I am 100% “one of the guys.” But I was terrified anyway, because after screaming “are you or are you not a lady?!?!” in my face a few times, when I wound up replying “no, I’m not a LADY and I never claimed to be” he called our boss! I thought I was going to get fired for sure, after all I was the new one. But instead the boss told him that what he was doing was a form of sexual harassment and I got to keep my job. Probably a lot of people are wondering how I could even have thought I would be the one in trouble, but that’s the kind of thoughts one has when they’re super new and a long established co-worker is being a bully. You figure they’ve been here a long time, and you’re the expendable one. So… that could be part of Kelsey’s reasoning for checking in with the boss so much. Making sure that the boss isn’t going to get rid of her to appease Lorraine.

        2. MCM*

          I read it as Kelsey afraid that Lorraine would go off on her if she stood up for herself. Did I misunderstand?

          1. SheWoulf*

            OP here. Kelsey meant it in the sense that she (Kelsey) would go off on Lorraine due to the bottled up anger. But as I stated above, this doesn’t happen so often on the weekly basis – more often twice a month, but when it does happen, it’s one or two times in that week.

            1. Observer*

              Kelsey may have a valid point, and it’s good that she recognizes that she doesn’t have to tools to deal with this well.

              In other circumstances I would coach her, I think, but here there is good reason for you to be the one to step up to the problem. Even if Kelsey handles a conversation perfectly, there is a real possibility of a dynamic of a new youngster calling out a member of a longstanding team. As a supervisor you have more standing and authority to do this. And you can – should, in fact – make it clear that you won’t stand for cliques. They are NOT good for your workplace.

        3. pope suburban*

          Cosigned. There is a lot of rhetoric out there about young people being lazy, entitled, coddled, and unreasonable, as opposed to just…new to the workforce like everyone is new to the workforce at some point? I feel like it’s gotten worse over the past ten years but I’m not sure that graduating into a recession left me the most impartial judge of that. But regardless, there’s a lot of that crap out there and it can make it really difficult to advocate for oneself in the workplace. There’s this idea that “Oh, this must be okay, she’s been here so long, it’s me who needs to change,” and that speaking up will hurt your future at your job. Kelsey strikes me as unsure of workplace norms and maybe not confident in her value as a person/employee. She’s obviously competent; I think this is just a learning experience for her and I hope she and her manager can get a satisfying resolution.

        4. First Time Commenter, Age 28*

          Thank you, someone with Sanity . Wish they had that at my former work place.

        5. RAmountain*

          I didn’t interpret the “go off on her” comment the same way, but you could be totally right

      3. cutie honey*

        Yeah like what is the point of taking a complaint to your boss and then being like “but don’t do anything about it!” Like…just to vent? To your boss? Kelsey’s behavior sounds really odd to me here, and kind of annoying honestly. Maybe because she’s younger/new to the workforce?

        1. Optimistic Prime*

          I don’t think she actually doesn’t want the boss to do anything. I think that maybe it hasn’t occurred to her that the boss CAN do something without outing her as the person who “told on” Lorraine and thus Lorraine retaliating against her. If the boss could stop Lorraine from harassing her full stop, I’m guessing Kelsey would be on board.

          1. Anony*

            I remember being a kid who was bullied at school (and Lorraine’s behaviour sounds like school bullying to me – grow up, Lorraine!) and I’d tell my mum why I was upset, and she’d say “go tell a teacher” and I would, to make mum happy, but I’d turn down all offers to deal with it because my previous experience taught me that having a teacher deal with it made it worse somehow. (Either through retaliation from the bullies or some kind of awfulness from the school itself.)

            Admittedly, I was like, 14 at the time. But it’s the only explanation I can think of.

          2. Pollygrammer*

            If Lorraine has been making announcements to the office at large…wouldn’t other people recognize it as rude? If OP doesn’t want to press Kelsey to confront Lorraine, couldn’t she present it as something she’s observed herself? “You’re doing this and I don’t think it’s the most appropriate way to object to something a specific coworker has done.”

      4. Snark*

        I can see it, especially with that age group – “but I don’t want to be a tattle and create drama!”

        1. Jam Today*

          Especially if its a gossipy environment. She may have good reason to think that her life will actually get *worse* if Lorraine’s behavior is addressed at a managerial level.

        2. Sloan Kittering*

          Hehe while literally tattling … classic :D (I do know Alison has said there’s no such thing as tattling in a work context, I’m just saying – by the time you’re talking to your boss / teacher / your mom, you’re already there anyway).

        3. Anony*

          Well that would make more sense if she wasn’t bringing any complaint. She is treating her boss like her therapist. That’s not very productive or a good use of anyone’s time.

      5. Matilda Jefferies*

        This is where I land as well. Kelsey and the OP can decide, together or separately, whether they’re going to try to fix the problem or continue to ignore it. Either option might be fine, depending on the circumstances. But what’s not fine, is Kelsey complaining to her boss while also telling her not to do anything about it.

        It’s probably something like Kelsey thinks she’s just venting, but she’s new enough to the professional world that she doesn’t realize that you can’t “just vent” to your boss about another member of your team. It’s not the same as talking to a peer – or even better, someone who’s completely outside the situation, such as a friend who doesn’t work in this office and doesn’t know any of the people involved. That person isn’t obligated to do anything other than listen sympathetically, while the boss actually does have an obligation to do something about it, since it’s a problem that is directly affecting her workforce. If Kelsey really does want to just vent, and really doesn’t need any kind of followup, then she needs to find a different outlet than the OP.

        TL;DR – One of the things that OP should coach Kelsey on, is the difference between chatting with a peer (or an outsider), and raising an actual problem with the boss, and how not to let those boundaries get blurred. Good luck!

      6. DonW*

        I don’t think it’s weird at all, given how green she is. She’s figuring out this workplace and workplaces in general and she’s taking her cues from her manager. Her manager has given her the impression that it’s appropriate to use her as a sounding board/vent and that it’s up to her whether her boss takes action on the matter. Why should she think differently?

        1. Sloan Kittering*

          Good point, I suspect OP should look at their leadership style and see if it could be tweaked to be more effective in this situation.

        2. SheWoulf*

          Op Here. Definitely something I am working on. I probably should have mentioned that while Kelsey is the youngest member of my team….I am the second youngest (at 34). Hence why she might be coming to me on more of a “friend” basis, which I never honestly thought of. I’m very careful not to the blur the lines between myself and my staff – I’m not Facebook friends with any of them, and most of them do not have to cell phone number either! However, I can definitely see that I tied my own hands here, and I am fully prepared to take control of the situation!

        3. Pollygrammer*

          “Ahem,” [speaking to the entire office] “Does anybody think it’s inappropriate to address specific complaints about a specific coworker to the entire office?”

      7. Delphine*

        I agree, with the caveat that the OP shouldn’t put her foot down on Kelsey’s behavior before she has addressed Lorraine’s actions. The OP should not be waiting for permission from a young, new employee to deal with a bully.

      8. Lara*

        I dunno… when I was 21 I would have found it very difficult to confront a much older co-worker.

        1. CarolynM*

          Yeah – this. Lorraine is probably Kelsey’s parents’ age – as a newly minted adult of 21, I would have hesitated to confront a “real” adult old enough to be my mom.

          It can take a while at Kelsey’s age to understand that at work, even if a colleague is older than you, it doesn’t mean they are the boss of you … unless they ARE actually the boss of you! At my last job a very pushy, older (by 20+ years) coworker routinely acted like a bully – in my 30’s I didn’t think twice about confronting her directly, but at 21? No thanks – I would rather just suck it up – too scary! (Funny – after our confrontation, we got along famously! Greek is her first language – she taught me how to swear in Greek and then any time she got in my face I would look her in the eye and say “ai sto diaolo!” (“go to hell” ) She would laugh this amazingly huge laugh, make puppy eyes and say she was sorry and then we would hug it out and go get ourselves a cup of coffee. Don’t miss that job, but I do miss her!)

    2. Taylor Swift*

      There aren’t really sides to take here . . . Lorraine needs to change her behavior and LW, as the boss, needs to address the problem.

  3. Falling Diphthong*

    It’s… a live-action version of the all-office e-mail to address problems with one employee. But without songs.

    I can’t remember the context, but I remember seeing a discussion recently about not griping to the same person over and over about something you refuse to address. If it’s a one-off, sure, some problems do actually go away on their own. Being perpetually annoyed by something, but retaining it as a special thing you can complain about to the same audience a few times a month, gets really wearing for that audience. It’s not a bad thing for Kelsey to learn that ongoing complaints mixed with a request that nothing be done to address the problem isn’t really a workable approach.

  4. Cobol*

    OP is this symptomatic of a problem with the larger office culture? Does Lorraine have the ability to make things hard for Kelsey?
    I work in a company like that, and it causes a ton of problems. If you have any power to push along a change of office culture I think it’s worth doing.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      It’s true, OP might take a few minutes to think through the ways that Lorraine can hurt Kelsey with her seniority that may not be obvious to someone at a higher level. We had this issue at my work – somebody wasn’t a “supervisor” of the person they were bullying, so it didn’t seem to rise to a critical level to the higher ups – but they were friends with supervisory staff, and they had input into assignments based on seniority, and could majorly ruin their colleagues work experience and reputation, so it was as *if* a senior person was doing it.

    2. SheWoulf*

      OP here. Cobol, I would have to say that this is really a very isolated issue. We have several different departments, but I supervise the CSR part of it, and in general I would say that this doesn’t exist anywhere else to this degree. And while Lorraine does display this passive aggressive behavior with Kelsey, she doesn’t do it to anyone else. In addition, the entire office as a whole, including Lorraine, get along fairly well. You have to remember that these are 4 older women who have worked together for over 12 years doing the same job. Then you have newcomer Kasey @ 21 yrs old, and manager me @ 34 years old. I am at least 7-10 years younger than the other 4 CSRs. I don’t feel it’s as noticeable to them as Kelsey’s age is, because I dress professionally and act much older (I’ve been called an old soul my whole life, and my husband, in fact, is 20 years older than I am). Kelsey does dress more trendy (think high heeled work boots) than I do. And I will mention that the group as a whole is usually very considerate with each other – they will communicate with each other when planning vacations and days off so there is no overlap, and they take care of each other’s work when someone is out. Another thought (I’m reflecting on my office culture as I type this reply) is that Lorraine is the office mom. Strange as it sounds, only Lorraine and one other CSR are moms. And Lorraine definitely acts like the office mom – she remembers your birthday, your anniversary, your spouse’s name, etc and she will ask about it. Kelsey recently took her cat to the vet for an eating problem and Lorraine was the first person to ask how the cat was doing when Kelsey came in the next morning. So, I don’t think bullying is the issue, and I don’t think Lorraine will use her “seniority” for anything negative, as suggested below. Also, Lorraine is not really in a position to make things difficult for Kelsey. Kelsey has a specific set of customers she handles, and so does Lorraine.

      1. Jam Today*

        “And while Lorraine does display this passive aggressive behavior with Kelsey, she doesn’t do it to anyone else.”


        ” I don’t think bullying is the issue”

        These two statements are not compatible. Lorraine is singling out Kelsey for hostility. That she is also the “office mom” only means she’s giving herself some degree of plausible deniability, e.g. “oh but I’m so nice, I asked about her cat when it had to go to the vet” and other behavior that will cause people to shrug and look the other way.

        You have to stop this.

          1. Julia*

            Same here. Especially if you’re new to that workplace, it’s really, really hard to push back, even if you are a “superstar” like Kelsey – turns out, the Lorraines of the world hate that.

        1. Strawmeatloaf*

          Yeah, not quite sure the logic in all of that.

          “My employee makes fun of one and only one other employee behind her back/in a passive aggressive way which makes the new employee feel uncomfortable, but it is definitely not bullying.”

          You know why you see the chatting away and “laughing” a few weeks? It’s because the new employee is trying to fit in. What, should she be sulking/crying in the office all the time so that you can be sure that she’s actually having trouble?

          And I would be that your 4 older workers could cause a LOT of problems for new worker, even if it doesn’t seem that way. They could “forget” to send her important things and then blame it on her without you realizing she never got them. They could just start verbally harassing her without you around and she wouldn’t be able to do anything, even if she did go to you, because if you have a talk with them, it will be even worse.

          How to stop it? I would check in more often, and shut it down. Don’t act as if new employee is complaining just to complain, your older staff have a lot more power over her than you think and they could make the workplace absolute he** if they wanted for her.

          1. Zombeyonce*

            I want to echo the concern that Lorraine really can make work harder for Kelsey. Since she’s so tight with the other CSRs, they could easily join her and ice out Kelsey if Lorraine decides she doesn’t like being called out. Even if Kelsey was still able to get her work done, this behavior will probably push her to find another job and OP will lose their best employee so it needs to be fixed now.

            OP needs to not only stop this, but watch very carefully for retaliation later.

        2. Tiana*

          Yes, please, PLEASE say something – it’s all I can do not to cry, every day, at my job because of a similar dynamic. It may be tenable for Kelsey to push herself through now, but after a year (or more?!) of treatment like that, it’d break anyone’s resolve.

          1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

            I hope you find a better job soon. No one should have to put up with that. Sending you all the good thoughts and purrs from cats!

      2. Lynn*

        One of your most senior employees is displaying passive aggressive behavior, singling out your newest and youngest employee for public discussion and riducule… and you think it’s not a big deal because she doesn’t do it to everyone? That’s bullying no matter how often Kelsey talks to her or tries to stay on her good side. And no matter how many times Lorraine asks about her cat.

        Also, you think Lorraine couldn’t make things difficult for Kelsey if she and her “friends” all stopped planning vacation days with her, taking care of her work when she’s out, etc? You’re not thinking this through.

      3. Work Wardrobe*

        Clothing and age shouldn’t enter into coworker relationships at all. We are courteous and considerate to each of our colleagues regardless of their backgrounds. What difference what clothes we wear?

        Oh, and this:?
        “Also, Lorraine is not really in a position to make things difficult for Kelsey.”

      4. Kate 2*

        Based on your info about planning vacations and days off and covering for each other it sounds like there is a LOT Lorraine could do to hurt Kelsey.

        Not to mention I would be afraid to rock the boat if I was Kelsey, everyone except her has worked together for so long, they might become hostile to her if she “gets” Lorraine in trouble.

      5. CJ*

        “And Lorraine definitely acts like the office mom”

        This puts a new slant on it – you still need to put a stop to it, because it’s being expressed as bullying, but it’s at least possible that the passive aggression is an extension of the office momming. Lorraine may think she’s helping Kelsey by giving feedback on her behaviour. (I have a parent with a very similar feedback style.)

        I’m not clear on whether Lorraine is criticising personal/social things or work things or both (were the funeral flowers for a colleague/client or someone Kelsey knew outside work?) but perhaps part of the conversation with Lorraine could be the difference between workplace issues (some of which could be legitimate for Lorraine to bring up, but directly, not to the room at large) and what Kelsey does outside work (not her jurisdiction).

      6. Observer*

        You’ve gotten some good replies.

        I want to point something out. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter what Kelsey wants. *You* need to stop this and do it in a way that protects Kelsey. Otherwise you will have a situation where you are going to have a hard time getting anyone new to come in and stick around, and an even harder time getting anyone GOOD to stick around. Even giving Lorraine the benefit of the doubt (which I’m not so sure you should) her behavior plays up a dynamic of the “team” (the 4 long term employees) vs the permanent newbie outsider who is of so little account that they get to discuss her in front of her as though she were the office goldfish. Oh, yes, the “team” are all “nice” so they’ll do their job and coordinate vacations with her and the like. But, that’s all on sufferance. If she steps out of line, we can just stop paying any attention to her (and that includes things like covering for her and coordinating vacations.)

        If you want to see how wring that can go, I suggest you look at the archives and find the post about the employee who walked out because no one would cover for her when she wanted to go to her own graduation. And her supervisor wrote in to complain about it.

      7. HappySnoopy*

        As office mom, she’s using that role as its own position of authority. Sure it can be nice in a personal interest remembering birthdays, but it’s also bad in the public scolding passive aggressive behavior.

        As I type, I wonder if Lorraine feels threatened by Kelsey, not in the work product addressed above, but in the culture. Your example related to a bereavement gift. Do other issues follow that line, or a change in how it’s ‘always’/Lorraine’s done things?

        This may be more than a Lorraine/Kelsey thing, and you may wnt to address it in that context–making sure everyone’s ideas and suggestions are welcomed and encouraged without judgment (even if you don’t always implement them). The other org vets may have just been used to Lorraine and either don’t care or already gave up and with Kelsey as new, you’re only now seeing the dynamic.

      8. Indie*

        Do you think the mom thing is the source of the offensive behaviour? Like Lorraine sees it as her place to lecture her on correct behaviour, like funeral etiquette, and Kelsey is supposed to know her place, be grateful and pally with her moments later?

      9. Bea*

        It’s not appropriate to be a work mom. It creates a power dynamic where there shouldn’t be one among peers. They all have the same job in the end, this isn’t someone older stepping up as a mentor. Kelsey has a mom and I don’t care if she’s 16 or 66, she deserves respect from coworkers not passive aggressive “mom” behavior.

        I am your age and old AF at heart, I watch CNBC and go to bed early. I have no kids and yet my focus is mentoring young workers and not making them uncomfortable. I’ve had seasoned employees and I’ve dealt with employees doing their first office job. I would never accept someone mothering in a tongue clucking, public shaming way.

  5. AKchic*


    Lorraine should have been spoken to long before now. Kelsey is young and probably afraid of escalation since she has seen that things are done in a passive-aggressive way in this department, and here she is following the perceived norm, and is asking for help, but passive-aggressively saying she doesn’t want help while desperately hinting that yes, she *does* want help, and you aren’t taking that hint. She is only playing the same game she has been modeled.

    Do something.

    1. fposte*

      I think you may be right–that Kelsey was maybe unsure and ambivalent about what she wanted to have happen and expected that to be the manager’s call, but instead it got tossed back into her lap. Which sometimes is okay, but Kelsey is in continued distress here, and assuming her reports of Lorraine’s behavior are all significant and verified, leaving the intervention question to Kelsey isn’t doing her any favors.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        Now that you say this, I’m trying to picture the initial conversation where Kelsey first brought this up to OP … it seems odd to me that OP would have even *asked* “what do you want me to do about this” ? I feel like an ideal manager would listen to the complaint and acted accordingly based on their own judgement, right from the outset.

        1. fposte*

          I can see it if you’re used to staff who handle things like that on their own, and frankly the nature of the complaint is not one that I would initially leap to intervention on myself. But I think (given the full tranquility of detachment here) a better approach might be “Okay, let me talk you through how to work this out with Lorraine, and I’ll check back tomorrow/next week to see if I need to take action as well.”

      2. Jam Today*

        Yes yes yes. Kelsey is too young and not in a position to figure this one out on her own. Part of a manger’s job is modeling good behavior in the office, and running interference for employees who are way too new to an office environment to be able to resolve problems like this. Kelsey should not be hung out to dry like this.

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Excellent point.

      I bet Kelsey is interpreting you asking if she wants you to talk to Lorraine as you not thinking it’s a huge deal, but if she really wants to make it one, you’ll say something.

      1. AKchic*

        I really have a feeling that Lorraine is a queen bee type and is used to being not only the senior one (both in respect and age, but the “rock star”). Now she’s threatened by a younger up-and-comer rock star and is feeling the pressure, so she’s waging a public campaign against her since she can’t do anything about Kelsey’s job performance.

        She might even try to play it off as “I’m only giving her motherly advice” or “advice from one generation to another”. Basically trying to mark her territory and say that she’s the senior person, she’s higher up on the ladder, so quit trying to show her up. In less words: Know your place, Kelsey. Poor woman.

        1. Maggie*

          Yes! This post sounded heart-breakingly similar to my first job out of college where I was a temp to perm CSR and bullied by an older woman who had my same job title but had been there forever. I ended up quitting because my boss never did anything to stop it. Poor Kelsey!

          1. PB*

            I was in a similar position at my last job, although it was somewhat different in that my boss did support me, but her bosses wouldn’t do anything to help her out. Basically, they’d be like, “Oh yeah, she’s awful. Everyone says so. You can’t fire her, though. Give her coaching!”

            Old Bad Coworker chased at least four people out of the organization, myself included. She’s still there.

        2. HappySnoopy*

          This is what I get for replying upthread to poster before reading further down. Yeah, what you said.

        3. Starlite99*

          Long-time lurker here, but I just had to comment on this. I have been there, myself, at my current place of employment. Not a pleasant experience. I used to work with a woman who had the same position/title as I did, but had been at the company for just over a decade. This woman is 15 years my senior, and was very passive-agressive. When I was hired in, I adapted quickly to the environment, and was quick to learn how to do the work. I was doing an excellent job. She noticed this, and got in her feelings about it all. She decided to try to get all chummy and “mother bear” me, but at the same time, compete/play the copycat game with me on all levels. Tried to pry into my personal business. She even tried giving me ridiculously bad advice; advice that would have gotten me sacked if I had listened to her. Constantly talked behind my back. I had already put some distance between us, but she just wouldn’t let it all go. Then she started stalking me around the office, following me around. It got to a point where I had to start documenting everything she did, and finally get management involved in this. They spoke with her (twice), and when they did, she tried to play it all off like she “didn’t realize that she was having this effect” on me (B.S.). She gradually backed off, up until she decided to quit.

          While all this was going on, I continued to put effort into doing my job to the fullest, and keeping a professional demeanor at all times (even though I felt like strangling her). Nothing worse than starting a job, and to have someone there gunning for you.

      2. KWu*

        Hmm yes. If the OP makes the call, then it’s not Kelsey’s fault when Lorraine gets upset about being chastised. Especially if Kelsey doesn’t trust the OP to be able to handle the issue successfully.

        I mean, I sympathize with the OP not understanding why Kelsey hasn’t just stood up for herself directly, but most people are more afraid of confrontation than I am, probably.

        Also seems like could be one of those cases where a manager doesn’t think to intervene because the problem is considered interpersonal rather than the work. But being professional and polite to colleagues should be part of the job.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          I’m not sure she’s afraid of confrontation as much as retaliation. Passive Aggressive people WILL retaliate. That’s part of their MO.

    3. MuseumChick*

      This was my interpretation also. Kelsey doesn’t want to rock the boat and doesn’t have enough experience to understand how this should be handled. I think the OP is in a perfect position to explain this and address Lorraine’s behavior.

      1. SheWoulf*

        OP here. She has not. She is in fact, not even the employee with the most tenure in my department. There were 4 CSRs in this department until I was hired. One of the first things I changed was adding a 5th CSR (they were working 45-50 hours a week and when I asked what what changes they would like to see made, they all – including Lorraine – asked for a 5th CSR to help spread the load of work around).

        1. Observer*

          People are not always logical. They may have asked for this, but still resent the new rising star.

          How are the other CSRs responding to Lorraine? There is a bit of a feeling of they are the team, and Kelsey was brought in to help the team not to be PART of the team. So “the team” gets to discuss the assistant. And since Lorraine is taking on the faux Mommy role, she gets to discuss anything, professional AND personal with “the team” and, of course, Kelsey needs to listen and learn (and still be the assistant) like a good little girl.

        2. Julia*

          I was hired because my former co-monster complained about her work load as well – turns out, she just didn’t want to do any work at all and started hating my guts when it turned out I’d only take over half her job.

    4. Student*

      As someone who’s occasionally brought problems to a manager and been asked an open-ended question like, “What do you want me to do about it?” – it’s always extremely off-putting to hear this, even when I know to expect it.

      I’m bringing you a problem that I think is in your court and pretty sure I can’t personally handle. If you ask me what you should do, it makes it sound variously like one or more of these:
      (1) you don’t know what to do and want me to figure out your job – managing – for you
      (2) you don’t care or don’t see it as your problem – something I am nearly always nervous about already if I’m bringing a problem to you and you’ve just exacerbated
      (3) you are looking to avoid conflict primarily (instead of fix the problem) by figuring out the way to shut me up while doing the minimal possible – you’re trying to get me to take the lowest bid in a negotiation method, like trying to get a new hire to make a low-ball salary offer first out of fear of being priced out
      (4) you don’t seem like a leader at all – you threw control away as fast as you could

      If you want to handle this better while still getting some sort of feedback (unnecessary!), then throw out a couple options that you feel are reasonable for me to pick from instead of asking me to tell you how to solve it. You could say, “Either you talk to Lorraine yourself, brainstorming some phrases with me, and update me in a month on whether that’s solved it (and we do something else if not), or I’ll go chat with Lorraine this week and you update me in a month to see if that’s solved it.”

      1. a1*

        See, and I wouldn’t think this at all. I’d think they’d be asking what outcome do I want – e.g. 1) coach me on how to handle the situation, 2) talk to a problem colleague, 3) get a deadline extended (different problem, obviously for this example), 4) keep an eye on things to see if they see it the same way, etc. You can always say “I don’t know, let’s brainstorm” or “I don’t know, what do you think?” but if I have an issue I also usually know at least something of what I want to change. E.g. “So and So is always dissing me in front of clients” is the issue, I’d know 1) I want it to stop and maybe 2) I don’t want to work with them. So then my answer to boss would be “Make it stop – please talk to So and So” and/or “Remove them/me from this project”. That may not be what happens, but it gives the boss more to go on.

        1. Kate 2*

          Yeah, but if that’s really what they wanted to know – the outcome desired – they should be saying “What outcome do you want?”, not “What do you want me to do?”

          1. a1*

            No, not really, because you could work to the outcome w/o your boss. So they need to know what you want or hope they’ll do.

          2. only acting normal*

            I’m currently trying to teach my boss to ask the question he wants answered, not an approximately related one (mainly for when he’s interviewing – we attract a disproportionate percentage of candidates on the autistic spectrum).

      2. Penny Lane*

        No, Student. If you bring a problem to your manager, YOU should be the one to identify several options and ask for the manager’s help / guidance in selecting one.

        Someone who just dumps problems into my lap is, by definition, not a problem-solver. Life is too short for me to employ people who aren’t problem-solvers.

        1. Jam Today*

          If you’re hiring people who are 21 years old, part of your job as a manager is teaching them how to identify solutions to begin with.

        2. Kate 2*

          No, I, the employee, should not be the one to spoonfeed and “select options” for the manager. That is their job, they were hired to be a manager because they are supposed to have the knowledge and experience to do it. As the employee if I tell my manager another employee is harassing me, it isn’t my job to tell them to tell the other employee to knock it off. That should be really obvious. If they can’t figure out how to handle that, THEY aren’t problem solvers.

        3. Delphine*

          Uh, no. You don’t get to deduct employability points because an employee isn’t sure how to handle being bullied by a coworker.

        4. Student*

          This is dissembling, and makes the manager seem stupid.

          If I tell you that an employee is passively-aggressively insulting me in front of my peers on an ongoing basis, are you really going to pretend that you do not understand what I want? Of course I want it to stop. That’s implied in bringing it to your attention, and you darn well know it. There aren’t multiple reasonable options for me to offer, here. This is basic professional courtesy. This isn’t like a project that’s gone off the rails, where I’m most familiar with the project and the options to fix it. This is someone who is under the boss’s command who’s stopped behaving like a civil fellow employee. You do not get to pretend you don’t understand that and make false comparisons to other, dissimilar, situations.

          Additionally, as a manager over me, I expect my manager might have options or solutions that are unavailable to me or unknown to me. If I already had a proposal to fix things that didn’t require actual boss input, I’d have done it myself, thanks, without bothering the boss. I’m looking for the boss to add value through some form of managerial expertise or seniority experience, not to rubber-stamp my own proposals – I quit from bosses that are just a useless rubber stamp. I can’t imagine a more wasteful use of their time than just bringing them problems that already have a perfectly good solution.

        5. AKchic*

          It is laughable to think that a manager’s job is not to manage her employees. A manager’s job is to be the problem-solver, even if the problem she is solving is the employee’s passive-aggressive bullying tactics against another employee, resulting in lowered department morale.

          To expect the bullied employee to be the one to solve the problem is a clichéd 80’s-90’s after school special trope on bullying. “Befriend your enemy!” “Stand up to your bully!” “Ignore and persevere!” We all know this doesn’t work. That’s why we have (a theoretical, in many areas) massive anti-bullying campaign today. Because it has become such an issue.

          Kelsey should not be expected to solve this problem any more than a kindergartener should be expected to stop a 6th grader from daily punching and stealing her lunch money. That is what a teacher/manager is for. To step in and say “hey, I see this, you know this is unacceptable, knock your ish off immediately”.

          To throw this back on Kelsey as being ineffective at her job, which by all accounts, she is an up and coming rock star in her position (which seems to be the reason for the bullying in the first place), is disingenuous.

      3. misspiggy*

        It’s interesting that there’s disagreement about this. In the UK-based ‘guess culture’ where I’ve worked, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ from a manager almost always means ‘Go away and stop bothering me.’

        I’d definitely want a manager to ask me clearly what outcome I wanted, or put forward a couple of concrete actions.

      4. SheWoulf*

        I probably should have been more clear. I would never ask one of my employees what they wanted me to do about something. First, that’s my job. Second, it’s rude. The first time this happened, I asked Kelsey how she wanted me to handle it – did she feel this was serious enough for me to step in and say something, or did she want to see if she could address the issue herself. Literally, I said to her, “how do you want me to treat this complaint? Would it be easier for you if I addressed Lorraine in a one-on-one meeting, would you like to meet with her with me present, would you like to address it yourself, or is there anything else I haven’t thought of that you think could work in this situation. Either way she knew I was behind her and would coach her through the process. I made sure of this. At this point I would also like to add that usually at some point in any conversation regarding Lorraine that I have with Kelsey, she always says TO ME (not in response to a question) “I don’t want you to say anything to her about this.”

        1. fposte*

          Yeah, I think that would have solved a lot of situations. But it’s just not clear what Kelsey does want right now, and if Lorraine really is being a bully amid the CSRs it’s not entirely up to Kelsey what happens as a result.

        2. sap*

          I said this upthread a bit, but even with the new, more detailed description of your phrasing, a 21-year-old, new to the workforce, (woman) me would have interpreted that as my boss “offering to do me a personal favor because I’m new” and I would have said I would handle it on my own-not because I actually didn’t want my boss to get involved, but because the fact that it was a question rather than a statement would have made me believe it was something I SHOULD handle on my own, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be the weak young thing that needed her boss to make people be nice to her.

          So I wouldn’t worry too much about what Kelsey wants based on her answers to your questions; I wouldn’t have felt comfortable answering them honestly at that point in my life, and she may not be comfortable either.

        3. AKchic*

          I think that if Kelsey has made multiple complaints, it’s time to stop treating the issue the way you have.

          The next time she makes a complaint, be frank with her. Tell her flat out that she has made X number of complaints in X number of weeks (and yes, state it in weeks), with an average of X per week and that she no longer can expect you to ignore the complaints, and that you will be escalating the issue. You are not a place to vent about petty frustrations, but a manager and since she has so many complaints, you need to take care of this, and you should have done so sooner.

          Others and Alison have made some great suggestions in how to handle the actual issues. I couldn’t give you any better advice than anyone else.

    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I agree. I think this is more bullying and problematic than OP realizes. Lorraine’s ability to get along with the others doesn’t mean that her treatment of Kelsey is “non-bullying,” and it’s certainly impacting Kelsey’s quality of life at work. Should Kelsey have to deal with all the passive-aggressive, non-work-related comments that are character digs? It’s pretty hostile if you take a step back to consider what it means for someone older to “ask everyone else” what they think the right approach is after you’ve already taken action.

      Also, when I was 21, I had no idea what I needed to do or ask for to address an issue like this. OP, I would use Alison’s scripts verbatim and take this issue on. Let Kelsey know why you’re doing it, and after speaking to Lorraine, be mindful about retaliation. If Kelsey comes back to you, again, listen to her. You don’t want to create a team environment where a person feels punished for raising legitimate work problems.

  6. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Lorraine sounds like an asshole.

    I also don’t feel too great about the other three people on the team who presumably let this behavior continue unchecked. Maybe I’m just a huge bitch, but if I had a coworker doing this, I’d call them out.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      Right? I feel like they must be responding someway that makes Lorraine feel validated. Even if they were just ignoring her comments or saying “I don’t know” / “that seems fine to me” (for the flowers thing), you’d think Lorraine would get bored with her comments.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Oh no, the Lorraines of the world interpret all “Mmm” “Huh” “I wonder if there’s chicken for lunch” “….” as “Preach it! I agree completely!”

        Come election time, Lorraine will be arguing with the polls because “Everyone I know completely agrees with me about everything, so how come the polls don’t reflect that?” (And I am definitely not giving Lorraine a political affiliation here–she could be an anarchist Whig.)

        1. sap*

          Alternate universe fiction proposal: THE WHIGS ARE IN POWER AND ITS 2018.

          My phone autocorrects “Whig(s)” to “white(s),” which also took all of the joy out of that proposal :(

    2. Wannabe Disney Princess*

      I totally worked with someone like this. I called her out a couple times and she starts crying. Then runs into our boss’s office and shuts the door. I got called in once to discuss my “attitude” because I bullied her. When I pointed out what happened, they called her into the meeting with me and she burst into tears again. Sobbing. The boss ended up consoling her and I just walked out.

      Then for the next few days she’d be a mess at her desk. Crying. Sniffling. Mumbling on how she should just walk out the door and quit.

      Honestly? It was just easier to NOT say anything because the drama was not worth it.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        That would just make me be “meaner” and call her out more.

        … I am not a nice person.

        1. Lissa*

          Ok but if you are saying yourself you aren’t nice then I don’t see why you would not feel good about the other employees not stepping in…. you seem to realize you’re an outlier in how you’d handle it so the others not doing it seems like what most people would do.

          1. Julia*

            I think Amy meant calling her out enough so that she’d quit. Calling someone out on their bullying is not bullying, and bullies know that. I hate people who use tears on purpose, it gives a bad name to those who can’t help crying.

      2. Jam Today*

        I used to work with a woman like that, she took enormous pleasure in making my life a living hell on daily basis. I mean she was gleefully awful to me (and others as well), but boy one person calls her out on her BS and the waterworks come on. I think it helped that 90% of her bosses were male and just crumpled in the face of female tears. I daydream about running into her again, being able to tell her off about what a terrible person she is, and just stand there and stare at her while she tries to pull the crying-woman thing with me.

        1. Adlib*

          There is a manager in my company just like this. I wouldn’t do exactly what she wanted (I don’t report to her) so she literally ran crying to my boss. (She is in her 60s!) He was pretty thrown off, and we worked it out, but she is unhinged. I hope she retires soon.

    3. Former Retail Manager*

      I can be pretty confrontational as well and the “b” word has been used to describe me more than once, but whether the co-workers said anything would depend on a number of factors, including the possibility that they have known and dealt with Lorraine much longer than Kelsey…they may know that she isn’t someone to “feud” with. Or they may also not like the fact that the newbie is outperforming them and hoping to reap the benefits of Lorraine’s actions toward Kelsey. Or they may just not want to put a target on their back from either management or Lorraine/get dragged into the drama. There have been a couple of times in my career when the potential negatives of saying something far outweighed the potential benefit to doing so. I chose to mind my own business and stay out of it and I never regretted it.

    4. Super Anon for This*

      Honestly, I am really proud to call myself “a huge bitch”. In my experience the *only* people who call others that to their faces are people who are sexist cat calling jerks, people who are trying to force you to perform sexist, gendered “niceness”, people trying to take advantage of you, etc. I reclaimed that term for myself and use it as a reminder to stick up for myself.

      Unlike some of older women who have been trained by society to be doormats, and to whom “niceness” is the critical quality, and any random person accusing them of “not being nice” is devastating, cause for immediate course correction. That’s if they ever dared venture near “not nice” territory in the first place.

      I say this not to make fun, but because it is true and very sad and something I want to avoid.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I’m right there with you. The older I get, the less patience I have for tolerating people being jerks and the more likely I am to speak up if I witness something that just isn’t right.

      2. Soon to be former fed*

        I’m an older woman who has never been a workplace doormat. I never gave a rats ass about not being considered “nice”. I have excellent social skills but never have suffered fools gladly or shied away from confrontation when treated poorly. My career has suffered for it, and being a black woman made it worse, as we are viewed as having bad attitudes for our assertiveness.

        So, its not an age thing, it’s a personality thing, pandering to be approved because you are “nice”. Ugh, ugh, and ugh.

  7. EddieSherbert*

    “Kelsey does not handle this passive-aggressive behavior well. She takes it very personally.”

    …because it is personal. Lorraine means for it to personal.

    Definitely step in, OP!

    1. TotesMaGoats*

      Yes, this statement stood out to me as well. She’s taking it personally because it is personal.

    2. Engineer Girl*

      I agree also. That’s the first thing I thought when I read it. All passive aggressive behavior is personal and retaliatory.

    3. Maolin*

      I was going to make the same comment. Kelsey has every right to take Loraine’s disapproving passive-aggression directed towards her personally! In that case, it was personal. I’d be upset in her shoes, too.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      But that’s a problem! OP is Kelsey’s boss. Nobody should just vent to their boss, who presumably needs to spend their time more efficiently than that.

      1. Student*

        In my field, bosses exist primarily as a safe place to vent about work stuff.

        I don’t think it’s a great way to “manage”, personally, but it is a professional norm in some fields, where the manager doesn’t really direct tasks or necessarily lead teams.

        1. Lil Fidget*

          That is so odd to me! I suppose it might be the case in offices where the individual contributors have high level skills, like tech skills or something, and the managers are just to keep them coordinated but just have a management background. I know there are also fields where managers make less than the individual contributors. It just hasn’t been my experience.

      2. Where's the Le-Toose?*

        Totally agree with Sloan. I’m starting my 8th year as a manager and I’m here to solve problems. You vent to your coworkers. Venting to your manager and then telling your manager not to do anything about it is wasting the manager’s time. At least in my industry, you go to your boss when you want action.

        That being said, the fact that OP asked Kelsey whether OP should get involved is strange as well. It’s not Kelsey’s choice. If Lorraine is being rude, anti-social, combative, etc., OP needs to step up.

    2. SheWoulf*

      Yvette, thank you! I think this is exactly the issue! The problem is that while I am her safe outlet, I am also her manager, and I feel a duty to act! But she’s asking me not to! And I don’t want to make her feel worse about the situation.

      1. fposte*

        Though, as discussed, she asked you not to largely because you made this all her call. And if she feels bad that Lorraine gets told to cool it, that’s on her and she needs to work through that, and it’s not a reason to avoid telling Lorraine to cool it.

        It’s like agency is a helium balloon here, floating around and bouncing off people, but neither you nor Kelsey actively grasped the string. Grab the string and take your agency, OP; this situation is yours to run.

      2. Kate 2*

        OP, I feel like you really want to believe this, but Alison and the rest of us all agree it almost certainly isn’t true. Even if it is, your duty is to stop the situation and the disruptive work environment. In the end that is what will make Kelsey feel better. Really if you want to keep a star worker, you need to do something about Lorraine. How much longer will Kelsey stay in the face of a hostile work environment? And if you are afraid of making Lorraine leave, don’t be! You don’t want someone like that anyway, driving off star employees and only doing the bare minimum.

      3. Delphine*

        You can let Kelsey know you’re acting, so she’s aware, but you shouldn’t hold off on doing something about this.

      4. Zombeyonce*

        Even if it doesn’t get worse for Kelsey, you need to realize that she is a great employee and that means she’ll be able to get another job. If she has to keep putting up with this, she’s going to leave and you’re going to lose your star employee.

  8. Matilda Jefferies*

    Also, this is entirely off topic, and not at all relevant to helping the OP manage the situation, but I’m trying to figure out what on earth could be the problem with bringing flowers to a funeral home? I mean, if I squint I can see that someone might see it as an imposition on the grieving family, if they suddenly have to stop and find a vase or whatever…but isn’t that what funeral home staff are for, to handle exactly that kind of interruption?

    I can see it being the kind of thing that isn’t necessarily the norm, but I don’t think it’s a breach of etiquette. And it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of calling the person out on it, publicly or otherwise! It was a kind gesture on Kelsey’s part, and maybe it didn’t land quite right, but it’s well within the bounds of “let it go, we all have bigger things to worry about here.”

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Yeah sidenote – what? He he he. I couldn’t’ figure out if the job involves funerals somehow (social worker / gerontologist? Ooh morgue staff! The people who do dead person makeup!) or if this was incidental to the workplace, but either way – funerals are so weird and charged anyway that it is a very odd thing to be going on about.

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I think most people have flowers delivered to the funeral home, but this also may be another instance of Kelsey being young and not really understanding the norms. If she’s been to funeral homes and seen flowers there, she may have thought that’s how it’s done.

      (And maybe it is done that way in some cultures? I have no idea.)

      1. SheWoulf*

        Actually one of Kelsey’s previous occupations involved working for a florist and she knows the appropriate way to handle a flower delivery to a funeral home – if you arrive after the viewing has begun, you simply find the funeral director and let them know you have a delivery of flowers for the family. And that is exactly what she did.

        1. Fiennes*

          So what was Lorraine’s problem with this, exactly? Even if it weren’t very common to do it this way, it sounds as though it was politely and gracefully handled, and an expression of thoughtfulness that seems completely unobjectionable.

          The fact that Lorraine found fault with *that* of all things makes me really, really wonder about bullying or at the very least some highly odd mind-game stuff.

        2. Observer*

          Wait, Kelsey did something perfectly appropriate, Lorraine turned this into a big issue with the REST of the office, and you think this is not bullying? What IS it then?

          It certainly is not behavior that you should be tolerating.

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          So basically Lorraine is being a passive-aggressive and patronizing jerk about it. That doesn’t sound ok to me.

        4. sap*

          I don’t want to totally side track you because you have an actual problem to solve and I don’t in any way doubt the veracity of Lorraine’s bitchiness…

          But WTF how did she even KNOW about how Kelsey ensured the delivery of condolence flowers? Is your team just overall really interpersonally involved…? Because that might be another thing to address, if the answer to this isn’t just “[workplace mutual acquaintance] died and they were both at the funeral”.

        5. AKchic*

          I am going to second all of the comments to your comment here.

          How did Lorraine know about Kelsey’s personal flower delivery to a funeral? Was she eavesdropping on a conversation (which lends credence to a complaint of Kelsey’s)? Why was it any of the rest of the group’s business in the first place? If Kelsey knew the proper protocols, why on earth would Lorraine feel the need to attempt to second-guess her in the first place, and use the entire department to second guess her (do you not see the bullying tactics at play here?).

          You have allowed Lorraine too much leeway and benefit of the doubt. She has had free reign and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kelsey has been quietly looking for work elsewhere. With such “friendly” co-workers, who needs enemies?

    3. FCJ*

      I don’t have a ton of experience with funerals, but don’t most viewings, etc., already have flowers handled professionally? Wouldn’t it be like showing up to a wedding with flowers? You usually have flowers sent to the bereaved, unless they’ve asked for something in lieu.

      That said, I wouldn’t call it “inappropriate” to bring flowers to a viewing, maybe just “not the way it’s usually done.” I think you’re absolutely right about the scale of “bigger things to worry about.”

      1. Antilles*

        To be honest, it really depends. Sometimes people will call flower shops directly and ask them to send flowers to the funeral homes. Often you can call the funeral home directly and tell them you want to spend $X on flowers for the ABC funeral and they’ll handle it. And people sometimes do bring flowers directly to the family though that’s usually done ahead of time, not during the viewing itself.
        That said, even if she didn’t exactly follow the standard protocols, bringing flowers to say you care is still a kind gesture to help someone in mourning. Lorraine is a total jerk for making an issue of it.

      2. PizzaDog*

        I guess it depends on the family and their background? I know that in the wakes I’ve been to recently (Italian + Catholic), it’s pretty common to send flowers to the funeral home for the viewing.

      3. Snowglobe*

        As someone who previously worked in a funeral home, many people have flowers sent to the funeral home. The family generally pays for the flowers in the casket and maybe one or two other arrangements, but there are frequently a lot of other arrangements or plants that are sent by friends.

      4. bunniferous*

        I used to work for a florist. Funeral homes have staff for precisely this reason, and altho the norm is having florists deliver, I also know it makes no difference who hands the flowers over to staff. What a stupid hill to die on….but I wonder if the older coworker simply does not realize she is being mean to the newbie?

        1. Student*

          How incompetent, on a scale of 1 to 10, does one need to be to realize that this isn’t a nice thing to do?

          Seriously. I’d expect a 15-year-old to understand this social dynamic pretty well, so a 15-year-career woman ought to be able to manage. Maybe we need to start teaching this concept in public schools, if there’s such an epidemic of lost empathy.

      1. Indie*

        I think because Kelsey is experienced in floristry she pushed back against Lorraine’s mom advice and told her of this little known floral ettiquette that most people don’t know about. And that Lorraine is not ok with pushback or any response that begins ‘Actually….’

  9. Red Reader*

    [[but she always tells me that she’s afraid that when she says something to Lorraine she will “just go off on her.”]]

    [I’d also ask Kelsey what’s behind her worry that Lorraine will “go off on her” if Kelsey speaks to her about this herself.]

    See, I read that line in the original as – replacing pronouns with names – “but Kelsey always tells me that Kelsey’s afraid that when Kelsey says something to Lorraine, Kelsey will ‘just go off on Lorraine'”, a la once I start to tell her this is a problem, THE FLOODGATES WILL BE UNLEASHED. But AAM seems to have answered it as if reading it the other way ’round.

    1. Matilda Jefferies*

      Oh, interesting! I read it the way Alison did as well, but this is certainly possible. Could be that Kelsey is just SO FED UP with Lorraine that she’s worried about saying anything at all, for fear that she’ll say too much.

      1. Red Reader*

        Could just be my personal lens too, haha. I’ve definitely been in that position where I’m so fed up with someone’s behavior that it required way too much effort to politely get out even an “Excuse me, need to get past you” or something like that, let alone keep “I think this is yours” from turning into “JESUS WEPT DO YOU SERIOUSLY NEED TO LEAVE A DRIED UP CRUSTY TEABAG IN A DIRTY MUG ON EVERY FSKING HORIZONTAL SURFACE IN THIS APARTMENT.”

    2. Sloan Kittering*

      Someone else thought this too, above – I didn’t doubt that Kelsey was afraid Lorraine would go off, but certainly OP should be clear on this before beginning the conversation.

    3. Jam Today*

      Yeah I read it that way too. I read Kelsey as at her breaking point with Lorraine. OP needs to be a manager and manage this situation, and that means getting Lorraine to zip it or deal with some real consequences. Kelsey is being bullied at work, and not only is she too young and too new to handle this one on her own, I don’t see this as her responsibility. Lorraine reports to OP, Lorraine’s abusive behavior to her workmates is a managerial problem.

    4. Jennifer Thneed*

      And I was wondering who in Kelsey’s life blows up so explosively when asked to not do a thing? We talk here about how toxic workplaces can affect your behavior at the next workplace, and I suspect something similar is going on here. Did Kelsey have a previous job (perhaps in fast food, well-known for unprofessional management) where this happened? Or a horrible older sibling? I mean, she’s saying that she’s afraid that Lorraine will be abusive, really.

    5. Eliza*

      The OP posted something further up confirming that your interpretation is correct: Kelsey is worried that Kelsey will blow up if Kelsey talks to Lorraine.

  10. Close Bracket*

    I wonder if Kelsey wants a sympathetic ear more than she wants anything done. Lorraine sure sounds like a peach, and she really does need to lay off Kelsey already. Before telling Kelsey that she is going to step in, I advise the OP to try just offering sympathy and not help during the next conversation. See how that conversation goes.
    Then after telling Kelsey how hard it must be to listen to Lorraine and how sorry you are that she has been having this experience, tell her that as a manager, it’s your responsibility to maintain a positive work environment for everyone and that you are going to speak to Lorraine on your behalf, not on Kelsey’s.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      I still wouldn’t love an employee going to their boss for sympathetic listening, as a habit. Different fields are different, but in my office, my boss makes a lot more money than me because his time is valuable and he needs to spend it doing company things, not holding my hand.

      1. Close Bracket*

        You don’t have to love what somebody is doing to try to understand it and have empathy for the person. Behavior can be easier to change when you know what’s driving it.

    2. Indie*

      I think its either that Kelsey is working herself up to deal with it herself and wants OP to know she may not handle it perfectly OR she needs reassurance that retaliation wont be tolerated.

  11. MCM*

    I have an additional recommendation, well two of them. I’ve been where Kelsie is, I was younger and better and ended up asking for mediation with the co-worker because it was at harassment level. It made a huge difference. Also … I was told this at my current job … my boss is basically off her rocker with a mean streak, I was told by her boss that they didn’t want to hear any more complaints from me unless I had a mediation. It made a huge difference, but her boss also laid down some rules regarding her behavior that required some serious adjustment on her part. I suspect that she was off medication, because there was a huge change a few months later.

    2nd recommendation, I view this as bullying. I would move some people around so that they are not sitting next to each other. Because if this keeps up, your great employee will quit. If Lorraine gets in a huff over it that’s her problem. To be truthful, I think you should have a serious talk with Lorraine and give her a verbal warning, and document that you have done so. I also think Lorraine should be the one to move. You can also do a major shifting of cubicles. They did it at one job years ago to separate two individuals that talked so much over their cubicles to each other that it was disruptive to everyone around them. They ended up grouping people in cubicles near each other that worked on the same clinical trials. The reason for the moves, the separation of the two, was covered by that excuse. Look at your floor plan and see if some shuffling around would help. Especially if you can separate those two under another pretense if you do not feel up to singling Lorraine out.

  12. Elizabeth H.*

    I really liked this advice from Alison: “then your message to Kelsey needs to be, ‘If something is upsetting you enough that you’re talking to me about it multiple times a month, you really do have a professional obligation to work with me to resolve it.” I think this is a really important piece of coaching/mentoring that Kelsey needs to receive. It’s completely understandable that Kelsey may not realize this, and she’s not the source of the problem but she is eventually going to be contributing to the issue by being unwilling to work with her manager to solve the issue (again, understandably so if she is fearful of a confrontation with Lorraine given their relative seniority!). It’s a really important lesson for her here.

    1. MCM*

      If a manager is spending 1- 2 hours a week dealing with a personality issue in an office, it needs to be addressed. These things bleed out all over an office and people will start working elsewhere.

      1. SheWoulf*

        OP here – I would say it’s really more…..20-30 minutes a week. Sometimes Kelsey will step in my office to tell me that Lorraine was standing behind her. Yeah. I guess I framed my question in such a way that put Kelsey as the underdog and Lorraine as Goliath, but sometimes I wonder….

        In all honesty, I feel, based on the responses thus far, that I might have portrayed Kelsey as a bit more “innocent” then she is. Not to say at all that any of this is her fault, but sometimes her complaints are (scrambling for the right word here) petty in nature. Like, “Lorraine stood behind me and watched me work.” Or “Lorraine listens to me on the phone.” I can’t help but wonder if there really is a problem with Lorraine when she brings up the petty stuff. Like the boy who cried wolf. Other stuff I definitely agree that I need to address it soon, and I will be.

        1. Jam Today*

          Both of the things you describe would annoy the sh*t out of me and when I was 21 I absolutely would have perceived them as being hostile (at the ripe old age of 44 I would probably stop what I was doing, and turn around to stare back at them until they left.) I might ask Lorraine what she thinks she’s accomplishing with this.

          1. fposte*

            Sure, but these are also really siblingesque complaints, and I think they’re more about general annoyance than the evil of Lorraine standing behind her. And right now Kelsey doesn’t know that general annoyance is something she’s supposed to manage herself.

            Now if I were the OP I’d make sure Lorraine is focused sufficiently on her own work, but Lorraine is in the adjoining cubicle, and you hear stuff. It’s really not the end of the world, in neighboring cubicles, to refer to what somebody else said on the phone; if it was a personal call, it really is for Kelsey, not her manager, to say “Lorraine, I know we don’t really have privacy here, but I’d prefer it if you would immediately forget anything you hear my say on a personal call. Can you do that?”

            Right now Kelsey isn’t dealing–she’s fretting, she’s touchy, she’s spending *way* too much of her manager’s and really her own time on some small irritations. Some kind coaching about what a successful relationship with co-workers entails and some insight that it doesn’t mean making them always stop bugging you would be really valuable.

            1. Jam Today*

              These aren’t “small irritations” — they are a collection of passive-aggressive actions being directed *only at her* that have built up into a pattern of office bullying. That is a management problem.

              Kelsey can’t manage this on her own partly because she’s too young to have developed the skills to do it, but also — and importantly — because her own manager has demonstrated through lack of any action, even to worth with Kelsey to develop those skills, that she does not support her own staff in hostile situations. Kelsey is being told to go deal with senior office staff who so far have faced zero repercussions for their crappy behavior, with no assurance that she will not face retaliation (which I can virtually guarantee she will, without management fully behind her.)

              1. fposte*

                Having somebody stand behind your chair is a small irritation. Having somebody who sits next to you hear what you say on your phone is a small irritation. They are also really common behaviors, and they’re not something you have your manager tell somebody not to do.

                I’m not saying bullying is impossible, but I also think it’s quite possible that it isn’t going on here, and that the specifics related don’t make it clear enough to know for sure.

                1. Lynn*

                  We’ll have to agree to disagree. But the original letter said Lorraine had a “habit” of saying passive aggressive things to the office at large about Kelsey. That’s not a one off event about flowers. That’s habitual regular behavior, as described by the OP in the letter. That plus anything else at all is probably going to feel like bullying to the recipient.

                2. Jam Today*

                  The OP is talking about a half hour a week of behavior that Kelsey talks about. That’s a lot.

                  Having someone stand behind your chair and watch you work is not common behavior at all. Listening to people’s phone calls is not common behavior. The only time that is ever expected is if that person is either learning from you, or providing guidance to you, so they can see what you’re doing and how you do it. Just watching someone work for no reason is not normal behavior, and intimidating if being done by the senior person in the department. Add that to the comments she makes about her, in earshot, to the rest of the team, and there is a pattern of behavior that the OP herself says is *only* directed at Kelsey. Its significant enough that the OP has observed this about Lorraine. That makes it the OP’s problem.

                3. fposte*

                  I’m not disagreeing that the OP needs to handle this. I just have had employees where this pattern could be two faces, and where this pattern could be a vase. Right now it’s not clear here which it is.

                4. MCMonkeyBean*

                  Yeah but the bigger pattern of behavior that is so bad it’s noticeable to others makes even the small things notable. If anyone else were doing it it would be nothing or a small irritation. but when it’s someone who is already targeting you in other ways it feels like a continuation of that.

                5. CrunchyBits*

                  Small irritations, or microaggressions? I suppose it’s all in the perception, right? But if it’s the latter, that’s right on the edge of bullying.

                6. sap*

                  I think there are enough specifics that it’s clear one of two things is happening:
                  (1) Lorraine is treating Kelsey unfairly or
                  (2) Lorraine is being weird about monitoring Kelsey’s work and criticizing her in ways that Kelsey sees as hostile because there’s a genuine problem with Kelsey’s conduct that you’re unaware of and that you’re not learning from Kelsey.

                  You don’t monitor someone’s work, criticize their in-office and out of office conduct at a level you don’t critique others, for no reason. Sure, one of those things in isolation, but cummulatively from what Kelsey has conveyed it seems like it’s 2 mountains and 10 molehills which overall is a whole geological system.

                  My bet is that it’s (1), since Kelsey’s work is above-average and Lorraine’s is not, so it seems implausible that Lorraine is unhappy with Kelsey and looking over her shoulder because she thinks Kelsey isn’t pulling her weight. But if it turns out to be (2), talking to Lorraine is going to be a quick way to find that out.

          2. only acting normal*

            I used to stop working and fold my hands on the desk when *teachers* stood over me in school. By 21 I just told shoulder lurkers to bug off (politely… the first few times).
            One of the few work things I did handle effectively at 21!

        2. Wannabe Disney Princess*

          Lorraine is eavesdropping on Kelsey’s phone calls? What could possibly be the benefit of that? Unless *you* have asked Lorraine to follow up or oversee that Kelsey is handling the phone calls correctly that needs to stop. Yesterday.

          I once had someone self appoint themselves to follow up my work. It drove me BONKERS. Granted, I addressed it with her and it stopped. But Kelsey isn’t able to do that yet.

        3. fposte*

          I was wondering about this–it seemed unusual to me that Lorraine could be boss-venting problematic in so many different ways without being problematic to you, and Kelsey being afraid she would go off on Lorraine when she talked to her was at least a yellow flag.

          So definitely coach Kelsey here, too; she needs to start learning to self-soothe and let go when it comes to basic workplace annoyances, and I would help her learn to triage these things by what her manager needs to know. “Actionable” is a really good word here–that something bugs Kelsey isn’t manager actionable in its own right.

          1. Lara*

            Plenty of bullies are able to keep their problematic behaviour confined to their victims. It’s kind of the MO.

            Plus – saying Kelsey should learn to self soothe is like saying that the bullying issue would be resolved if Kelsey was less sensitive. That’s not really how it works. If Kelsey adapts to one behaviour, I can guarantee that a woman like Lorraine will try another.

        4. Lynn*

          At 21, having a senior colleague hovering over me while I work, listening to my calls, and airing grievances and opinions about me to the office would have felt downright hostile. Now, I’d just turn around and tell them that if they didn’t have work to do, I’d find some for them, but if Lorraine is repeatedly doing “petty” things like standing there watching Kelsey work, that’s not normal. That’s a pattern of behavior you ought to be doing something about. Whatever Lorraine intends to accomplish – being a busybody (office “mom”), intimidating a younger co-worker, snooping on Kelsey’s work practices – it’s not her place to do it.

          1. fposte*

            But as described we don’t know if this is Lorraine lurking behind Kelsey’s chair 8 hours a day or if she stood behind Kelsey once waiting for Kelsey to get off the phone. We don’t know if she regularly repeats back Kelsey’s conversation or if one time Kelsey hung up from a call involving a complicated process and Lorraine said, “Actually, there’s a shortcut for doing that.” We don’t know if Lorraine had a really overbearing one-off glitch about the flowers and has been Kelsey’s pal most of the time or if she’s constantly putting Kelsey down. All of these actions could be bullying, or they could be minor annoyances that could use some supervision and that Kelsey isn’t good at smoothing. I don’t think we can tell which it is from here.

            1. Lil Fidget*

              Agree, we can’t know, so OP should use their own observations of how the team is running and how they want it to run, and then manage accordingly. Take both Kelsey and Lorraine with a grain of salt and use your own judgement.

            2. Lynn*

              If they were minor one-off annoyances, they wouldn’t take up a half hour per week of the manager’s time on average, as commented earlier. We’d also presumably be hearing about how Kelsey comes in to complain about the same three old complaints over and over again. The OP is not saying that. Presumably then, this is a pattern of behavior and there are always new “petty” bits of passive aggressive behavior.

              1. fposte*

                You really can’t judge the seriousness of an infraction just by how much time somebody wants to vent about it.

                The OP has given details in the post and in the comments, and the worst thing in all of them that can be managed to be laid at Lorraine’s door is that she announced that somebody was wrong about funeral flowers. That’s not a particularly egregious offense, suggests to me that this may not be simply a “Lorraine is a bully” situation.

                1. Jam Today*

                  The OP explicitly stated that Lorraine 1) has a habit of talking about problems she has with Kelsey’s work *or just with Kelsey herself* with the rest of the team while Kelsey is in earshot, and 2) only does this to Kelsey. Unless you’re asserting that the OP is an unreliable narrator about things she says she has witnessed, I’m not sure why you are so dismissive of the situation.

                2. fposte*

                  Suggesting further exploration really isn’t being dismissive. Seeing things differently than you isn’t being dismissive either; we’re just looking from different experiences and POVs. I think we can respect that; don’t you?

                  It’s not clear to me whether the OP was using direct or indirect discourse when describing what Lorraine has been doing; at least in the original post, there’s no claim that she’s witnessed this directly, so it’s got nothing to do with questioning the reliability of the OP. If she’s out on the floor with the CSRs and is watching Lorraine be a jackass on the regular, she needs to intervene tout de suite; if she’s believing that Kelsey is the only person that Lorraine does stuff to because Kelsey’s the only one that complains, that’s another matter.

        5. Strawmeatloaf*

          You don’t think eavesdropping on people’s phone calls is weird? Same with standing behind someone for no reason (such as wanting to ask a question?)?


          1. Kathleen A*

            But we don’t actually know that Lorraine routinely eavesdrops on conversations. All we know is that Kelsey complained about it. Does Lorraine do this all the time, or did she (as fposte mentions above as a possibility), make one suggestion one time regarding a telephone conversation? Does Lorraine hover behind Kelsey’s chair all the time or does she do it accidentally once/month? We don’t know. We have no way of knowing. My guess – but I confess that it’s only a guess – is that Lorraine does do some irritating and possibly even things that should be put a stop to, but that in addition Kelsey is now irritated/paranoid/ticked off to such a degree that she is now practically looking for Things that Lorraine Does to Annoy Me. It’s very possible that the greater fault lies with Lorraine, but it’s also possible that a little bit of the fault lies with Kelsey, too.

            1. Observer*

              Putting the best spin on Lorraine’s behavior, though, “I wonder if there really is a problem with Lorraine” is just not a valid response. Because the other stuff is still a major problem all on its own. And as the OP admits it is NOT excused by Kelsey being petty.

              1. Kathleen A*

                I actually did not suggest that there might not be a problem with Lorraine. It sounds to me as though there definitely is. I’m just saying that it’s also possible Kelsey is not completely without fault here.

        6. PB*

          It sounds to me like they both might be a problem. Lorraine’s behavior, as described in the letter, sounds passive aggressive to Kelsey. At the same time, it sounds like Lorraine may have strayed into BEC territory for Kelsey, and now she’s bringing every little complaint about her to you. Some of this, you should address with Lorraine. With Kelsey, you might need to do some coaching on what to bring to your boss, what not to bring to your boss, and handling everyday work concerns.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I was going to say this. The passive-aggressive behavior needs to stop immediately. The hovering and eavesdropping are obnoxious, but they’re probably made worse by the passive-aggression. All of that bubbling up inside Kelsey and being suppressed has probably pushed Kelsey into BEC territory with respect to Lorraine.

            That doesn’t mean OP shouldn’t still address Lorraine’s behavior with Lorraine, but it might explain why “petty” complaints are getting mixed in with legitimate ones.

        7. Lil Fidget*

          Honestly (and probably I’m just a curmudgeon) hearing these kinds of complaints, I think Kelsey needs to knock it off. I’m trying to distinguish between actually concerns that are warranted, like bullying the new employee, and petty realities of an open office. She needs to handle minor interpersonal annoyances on her own without venting to the boss and she’s undermining her real concerns.

        8. Fiennes*

          It’s also worth noting that once you become justifiably irritated/upset by someone, it’s almost impossible not to develop a few unjustifiable irritations as well. Maybe Kelsey’s being petty, sure—but maybe she’s been rubbed so raw by Lorraine’s passive-aggressiveness that at this point even minor issues feel hugely upsetting.

          1. Lil Fidget*

            Yeah, it might be a “B* eating crackers” situation at this point. The cure is usually a vacation, and having it pointed out as an annoying thing you’re doing that is hurting you in the eyes of others.

          2. Lara*

            I’ve seen multiple letters on here about coworkers who have taken it upon themselves to monitor OP’s work. Everyone has agreed they are legitimately annoying and that the behaviour needs to be addressed. Why is it different with Kelsey?

        9. Kate 2*

          That really can be hostile stuff though. And why on earth does Lorraine need to stand behind Kelsey anyway? From your letter it sounds like there is absolutely no overlap in their work, except days off. So why is she doing it? Only to annoy!

          1. Kate 2*

            ETA How close does she stand and for how long? Because seriously, this is really inappropriate. Both listening to Kelsey’s conversations with clients and standing behind her. I noted that you wrote “behind” her, which is even more uncomfortable than standing to one side or behind and to the side.

        10. Stellaaaaa*

          Hmmmm…this makes the situation a little more ambiguous. You all work in a call center; of course everyone listens to everyone’s phone calls. Everyone comments on everyone’s phone calls, ideally in a helpful “try this next time you get X type of call.” It’s always weird when you start working the kind of job where everyone can hear you on the phone (like if you’re the receptionist in a fairly quiet office) but most of us get over it pretty quickly. It sounds like Kelsey hasn’t gotten over that weirdness yet, even if Lorraine bothers her in other ways too.

        11. Observer*

          This is a LOT of time for something like this.

          Please stop trying find excuses to minimize Lorriane’s misbehavior. I don’t know if Kelsey is being petty or not about the watching her and listening to her phone conversations. For argument’s sake, let’s say that she is being petty. How does that translate into Lorraine’s behavior being ok? Making an issue of reasonable behavior is NOT ok (the flowers to the funeral home example.) Making an issue of things to the entire office rather than talking directly to the person you have an issue is is also NOT ok.

          You’re putting in a lot of mental effort to reduce the significance of the problem, it seems to me. But, you need to recognize that you do have a major problem on your hands with Lorraine’s behavior.

          I’ll also point out that if the only issue were things like “Lorraine is watching me work” you MIGHT be dealing with something petty – or you might not. But, in this case, it is totally NOT a petty issue. Again, this is behavior that’s directed only at Kelsey, so that alone should get your radar up. Beyond that, though, you also need to realize that, whether she can articulate this or not, Kelsey senses that Lorraine’s watching and listening (not “hearing”) is not neutral or or well intentioned. I’m sure it feels intimidating to Kelsey, and with good reason. Odds are that Lorraine is either trying to intimidate Kelsey, show Kelsey that Lorraine “knows” she can’t be trusted, or is trying to see if she can find something to criticize Kelsey over.

        12. Delphine*

          I’m a little concerned that you haven’t taken any action against Lorraine for what is completely unprofessional behavior—not even trying to talk to other people in the office if they’ve noticed this?—but you keep finding ways to mimimize what she’s doing. You don’t know if Kelsey is crying wolf because you haven’t done anything to find out. Standing behind someone repeatedly *can* be a form of intimidation, and together all of Lorraine’s behavior might really be making things difficult for Kelsey.

          1. Eyes wide shut*

            Agreed! Also, “standing behind someone” should be viewed as any, and all negative/micromanaging/intimidating behaviors by Lorraine. Investigate the situation.

        13. Lynn*

          Skimming through all your replies (and thanks for all the replies to various comments), I’m left with the impression that while you wrote in asking what to do about Lorraine, you don’t actually want to do anything except make Kelsey stop bothering you. It reads like you want to minimize everything – well, she’s young and trendy, Lorraine is just the office mom, she only does it to Kelsey, no one else complains, Kelsey isn’t “innocent” – but the pattern of behavior Kelsey is complaining about could be bullying or harassing, and it’s your job to find out what is actually happening and snuff out inappropriate behavior from both Kelsey and Lorraine. All the various responses you’re getting are speculative, because it could be reflective of a serious problem in your office, but you’re the one with the power to investigate and find out.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Yeah, the language is weirdly minimizing and blame-y. I don’t know if OP realizes that that’s the case, but perhaps there are some implicit experiences that are making OP feel like this isn’t a big deal?

            I can understand how being met with consistent complaints might make someone begin to feel numb to which complaints are actionable and which aren’t. If that’s the case, it’s important not to cast one or both employees as good/evil or innocent/blameworthy. Focus on addressing the behavior and its impact. Lorraine’s behavior is not ok and requires action.

            1. sap*

              Yeah, all of the somewhat minimizing statements here (and I don’t want to jump on OP, thank you OP for being active and you’re not a bad person in anyway) give me the impression that OP may also be communicating that “are you sure this is really a thing?” sentiment when discussing the Lorraine problem with Kelsey, and then asking Kelsey if the Lorraine situation is something Kelsey wants the OP to follow up on.

              Since OP’s question seemed to be “am I violating Kelsey’s confidence if I address it anyway,” this tips me over into NOT EVEN A BIT. If Kelsey is getting the same minimization vibe from OP–whether an accurate read on what OP is trying to convey or not–Kelsey’s preference that OP not address this with Lorraine is probably very unreliable. If someone who doesn’t seem to actually think I have a legitimate problem asks me “do you want me to handle this problem,” even as a confident, assertive, not-newly-working woman, I usually say “no” unless it’s really really serious, because I haven’t typically gotten much benefit from asking people to help me who don’t think the thing I want done should be done in the first place. The 30-minute vent sessions may be Kelsey’s way of trying to convince her manager that Lorraine is actually a problem because she isn’t clear that message has been received.

              1. sap*

                Like, in the world where I am Kelsey and I don’t think OP gets that I have a genuine problem, I’d much rather wait until I can handle Lorraine without calling her names or pointing out something *really mean* that I know she’s insecure about than have OP give a half-hearted attempt. I’d much rather wait 3 more months and put Lorraine in her place (after all, Boss apparently has no problem with petty comments in the pool) than have my boss immediately sit Lorraine down for a conversation like:
                “Hey, so I obligated to raise this with you but don’t worry about it too much. Can you be nicer to sap? I’m not threatening your job or anything, but she’s young and we should all be more welcoming.”

                That second option… I’d worry it would make things worse.

                OP, I’m sure, wouldn’t actually do things that way. But if I had the impression that OP was likely to intervene in THAT form, I wouldn’t want that kind of help.

          2. AKchic*

            Thank you. I came back today to read replies I may have missed and it makes me more frustrated today to read them.

            I wouldn’t want OP as a boss. I’ve *had* a boss like OP a few times already and to be perfectly frank, it was the entire reason I left my last job. I could handle the low pay, I could not handle my ineffective, useless “boss”.

          3. Vacant batter’s box*

            All the various responses you’re getting are speculative, because it could be reflective of a serious problem in your office, but you’re the one with the power to investigate and find out.

            Yes, yes, yes

        14. Student*

          If you don’t want to deal with it and don’t want to hear it, then just tell Kelsey that, and prepare yourself to look for her replacement when she eventually gets sick of putting up with Lorraine’s petty BS.

          And try to find a replacement for Kelsey that won’t be better than all your senior workers, someone more mediocre, so you don’t have to deal with Lorraine picking on too-good employees. It’s clearly too much of a hassle for you to handle managing the inevitable pettiness that happens when a new employee outshines more senior workers, so look for good-enough employees that won’t rock your boat or improve your department’s performance.

        15. Dawn*

          It sounds like it’s getting to a “bitch eating crackers” level. The big infrequent things have gotten to the point that even the small things are a problem.

        16. Lara*

          I wouldn’t want a colleague standing behind me and watching me work either. Especially as a larger pattern of harassment. It’s creepy and demeaning.

        17. E.Maree*

          “Lorraine stood behind me and watched me work.” Or “Lorraine listens to me on the phone.”

          OP, I understand why this seems minor to you but I don’t think you’re considering how it all snowballs. Lorraine l knew about Kelsey’s plans to bring flowers to a funeral in a really weird amount of detail, and I know you haven’t yet addressed how she knew that, but my first thought was that Lorraine must have overheard the call booking the flowers. Would that be right?

          If small issues, like listening in to phone conversations, are feeding into bigger issues like the Lorraine picking on Kelsey’s funeral etiquette… then it immediately makes sense why Kelsey is now unhappy whenever Lorraine starts earwigging into her calls. I imagine these complaints are the result of that jumpy, walking-on-eggshells feeling where you just know something will only get worse and you’re scrambling to stop it from escalating.

  13. ballpitwitch*

    This letter is the story of my life. At almost every office I have ever worked at, there is an older female employee who makes my life miserable because they threatened by me being faster and more efficient – which is mostly just a product of my age and growing up with technology. I actually quit a job because a group of them banded together and got transferred to another department I had no desire to work in. You can’t underestimate how intimidating people who have been at a company for a long time are. They know all the ins and outs of the politics and culture and can make life extremely difficult for people who challenge them. Especially because their tenure tends to come with the support of upper management and executives who have also been there forever. Kelsey probably feels that if she kicks up a fuss about this person’s attitude, she will be the one who comes out worse on the other end. Unfortunately for her, my experience backs up this fear.

    1. HS Teacher*

      I’m sorry you have been through that, but I also urge you to stop automatically assuming you’re more efficient than your coworkers because you grew up with technology. You might be giving off an air you’re not even aware of. I tend to seek out a more seasoned coworker and ask if they’d like to work with me as sort of a mentor. They’re usually thrilled to share their experience and flattered I’d ask.

      1. ballpitwitch*

        I don’t assume I’m more efficient – I am. I only threw in that growing up with technology may have been a benefit so it didn’t sounds as if I think I’m just naturally better than others. The “seasoned co-workers” you mention are exactly the people I was speaking about above. I’m glad you’ve had different experiences than me, but assuming that I am the problem with very little context is presumptuous.

  14. Bostonian*

    Huh. Kelsey doesn’t like that Lorraine isn’t addressing her directly with issues… and then doesn’t address Lorraine directly about it. Ideally, Kelsey would address it in the moment with the scripts that OP gave her, but I can’t say I blame her for fearing confrontation with this woman. Something that should be a short, direct, professional exchange can get built up in one’s head to seem like a “big serious conversation.” For someone who’s passive aggressive, expect deflection and denial.

    1. Close Bracket*

      Kelsey is also young and hasn’t had much time to develop conflict resolution skills. She could benefit from some professional development as much as Lorraine could.

      1. sap*

        Yeah, while I don’t want to be all “young workers deserve special treatment because they don’t know workplace skills like old workers do!” Because mostly they don’t…

        When someone who has decades of experience handling the workplace and professional conflicts STARTED and is CONTINUING a conflict with someone who has literally zero prior workplace experience, probably that younger worker shouldn’t be expected to handle that as well as someone who would be a peer (as far as experience navigating professional norms) would. The thing about hiring fresh workers who don’t have any bad habits yet is they don’t have any good habits either, and you have to teach them both.

  15. Stellaaaaa*

    I see a much more manageable and low-key version of this happening at my current company (which has a customer service/call center department). There are a few solid but not stellar employees who have been there for 15 years. And you know, there’s value in holding onto competent employees who have actually shown up to their stressful call center jobs for a decade. That’s why you hold onto your Lorraines: it’s worth overlooking minor performance issues to retain long-term employees in fields that are inherently high-turnover.

    The thing is, all of my good will goes out the window when these employees start talking about how they’re underappreciated or aren’t getting paid what they’re “worth,” because at the end of the day they’re not actually great workers. So (and I promise I’m going somewhere with this) you need to break through Lorraine’s perceived invincible job security. She can’t get away with whatever she wants just because you appreciate the fact that she’s not going to jump ship of her own accord. You can’t let her haze a younger rockstar employee who threatens Lorraine’s sense of her own abilities, or her sense of how much effort is acceptable to invest in her work. You’re stuck with Lorraine either way, but don’t you want to keep Kelsey too? Because I think that’s the key point here. Lorraine won’t quit, but Kelsey might.

  16. Been There*

    I was in Kelsey shoes at my first job, a coworker was just like Lorraine and I was telling my supervisor about how she was treating me, well my supervisor spoke to her and man, did I regret it. My coworker came back to her desk and starting yelling at me and my supervisor came out of her office and told her to calm down. It made working there awful, I soon left shortly afterwards, it made me weary about speaking up about any coworkers for awhile but I got over it.

  17. Polar Vortex*

    I have a mentor who makes it clear to her reports that she will not serve as a go-between. As soon as Kelsey brought up the issue, she would’ve suggested they bring Lorraine into the room and Kelsey and Lorraine should resolve this with the manager there to mediate. If Kelsey refused that suggestion, then the manager would say the topic is off the table.

    I’m not sure my mediation skills are up to this, but I also have not liked being the venting board or “Don’t talk to Lorraine but here’s what she’s doing” recipient.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Eek I don’t know about that approach – if I had approached my boss with a serious concern and she immediately brought in the person and told them what I had said, telling us to work it out right there, well … I’d be sure never to tell that boss anything again.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        Rereading this, I see that you’re saying it was an either-or suggestion that the employee could choose, so that is better actually. Depends on the pettiness of the original complaint, I suppose.

    2. Jam Today*

      That’s…kind of crappy. There is a 30-year difference in work history between the two people in this situation; one of them has three decades of experience in navigating an office environment, and particularly in managing up, one of them has zero. How would you expect that to work out?

      I read the “don’t talk to Lorraine” but what I understand from it is “I need help but I’m scared my life will turn into a nightmare.” Kelsey needs three things: 1) general mentoring in managing stress and managing coworkers, 2) someone to shut this Lorraine thing down immediately , and 3) demonstrated assurance that she will not face retaliation from Lorraine or anyone else on that team. All three things are the manager’s responsibility to provide.

    3. Julia*

      Mediation works when two people are to blame, but I hate it when managers see one employee bullying another and then expect the bullied employee to take half the blame and apologize for “their part”.

      1. sap*

        I think this kind of approach from managers generally is a serious contributor to under-the-radar discrimination. If, when I mentioned that Stu was making fun of me and watching me work frequently, my manager wanted me to solve that problem by bringing Stu into a conference room and talking about how I had encouraged that behavior, how should I expect that manager to respond when John keeps asking me on dates and telling me I was probably only hired for my breasts, realistically? At least the watching me work thing is ostensibly workflow related and it still gets treated as a problem with My Feelings.

  18. Rachael*

    This kind of situation happened to a director in my office. One of her direct reports (lowest performer) went over to another direct report (highest performer) and told him during conversation that people have been questioning the quality of his work (total fib born out of jealousy). This high performer went to the director and told her about it, but told her not to say anything. However, the director did have to tell the employee that she had to address the situation. The lowest performer had created enough problems with the whole team that it just needed to be nipped in the bud. Basically, the situation won’t stop unless you, OP, address it directly. Alison is right. Lorraine is affecting the whole team when she is picking on one person and it is inappropriate and needs to stop. Kelsey does not have the power to make it stop, but you do.

  19. Kathleen A*

    But we don’t actually know that Lorraine routinely eavesdrops on conversations. All we know is that Kelsey complained about it. Does Lorraine do this all the time, or did she (as fposte mentions above as a possibility), make one suggestion one time regarding a telephone conversation? Does Lorraine hover behind Kelsey’s chair all the time or does she do it accidentally once/month? We don’t know. We have no way of knowing. My guess – but I confess that it’s only a guess – is that Lorraine does do some irritating and possibly even things that should be put a stop to, but that in addition Kelsey is now irritated/paranoid/ticked off to such a degree that she is now practically looking for Things that Lorraine Does to Annoy Me. It’s very possible that the greater fault lies with Lorraine, but it’s also possible that a little bit of the fault lies with Kelsey, too.

    1. Kathleen A*

      So sorry – this post was meant to be a reply to another post. So if it doesn’t make sense, I do apologize! I will repost it where it belongs.

    2. Jam Today*

      The hovering thing is weird, at a minimum, and openly intimidating when coupled with Lorraine’s other habits.

      You do address one thing that I mentioned earlier, which is that Kelsey is at a breaking point because this has been allowed to continue for so long. This is where management needs to step in and stop Lorraine’s more openly hostile behavior. That will give Kelsey some breathing room, so that she’s not so amped up whenever Lorraine is around, and will put her in a better place mood-wise (and with some mentoring on having awkward conversations with people who outrank you) to deal with the less-overt behavior.

    3. Kathleen A*

      But here’s what the OP reported: “Lorraine stood behind me and watched me work.” Does that sound as though she does it all the time? It could be, of course, but it could be that it happened once or twice, in which case, Kelsey is…kind of out of line. I don’t like to say that because I have a feeling that Lorraine was the first one to step out of line, but it really does sound to me as though Lorraine is no longer the only problem here, though it may have started with her.

      1. Lara*

        Nope. One employee is bullying the other. Kelsey is being perceived as ‘part of the problem’ because she won’t just put up with it and ignore it. The problem would be fixed if Lorraine stopped being a bully. Therefore she is the problem.

  20. MommyMD*

    If young employee is truly being bullied by older employee, and she’s told this to her manager on numerous occasions, it’s up to manager to do something. NOT stepping in may create larger problems, including future legal issues.

  21. LiptonTeaForMe*

    Something else you might want to look at doing OP is helping Kelsey develop coping skills when various behaviors are demonstrated by others she works with. If she learns as quickly as you say, then some of the changes she makes in her own behavior will change the dynamics of the office. It will also help her to navigate the office politics and teach her how to think on her feet to deal with whatever is presented. This will help you and your office as well.

  22. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo*

    So after reading the OPs comments, it sounds like both need to have the “Professionalism” talk, each with a different slant. (If I were the LW I’d be annoyed with both of them!)

    Kelsey: Needs to understand that she’s going to work with all kinds of people in her career and she will need to figure out what is normal cruddy behavior and what goes over the line. She is going to have to, in some cases, stand up for herself and in other cases ask for help. Currently she is doing neither. No one should be harassed at work, but at the same time she’s also going to have to learn how to navigate professional interpersonal relationships.

    Lorraine: Needs to understand that times are changing, she’s a veteran in the group and will be looked at to set an example as new people come and go. She also needs to understand that she’s a professional and that conversations need to be maintained at a professional standard. The team counts on her to be approachable and someone who they can use as a resource and her tone sets the tone for the team.

    Both* could also benefit from some professional development. I don’t know if there is opportunity or budget, but if there is the LW should be finding courses or seminars that they could benefit from. Luckily my org does have professional development budget so my team is used to looking for classes that can help them, since they all do it they are used as opportunities and not punishment, but I have been able to recommend classes that target specific weaknesses such as organization, communication, assertiveness and other types of challenges that members of the team have.

    *If professional development is offered/expected correctly, there isn’t a stigma attached and I’ve found that employees are eager to work on things they want to improve. This usually corresponds nicely to areas in which I want them to improve.

    1. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo*

      Sorry left a bit out of the * part.

      Professional development should be for the entire team not just Loraine and Kelsey

      1. sap*

        Kelsey seems to be spending a lot of time on an ongoing basis complaining about Lorraine to her manager, after having told her manager that she doesn’t want any action taken.

        I’m 100% on team OP should have already handled this and Lorraine sounds like a problem, but it’s not really appropriate for an employee to spend significant time, every week, complaining about one of her co-workers to their shared manager if that employee doesn’t want the manager to do anything about it. I have co-workers I hate (because I hate them as people, not because they’re bad coworkers) and I would NEVER discuss that with my boss. My boss is there to talk to about my coworkers when I think:
        -my boss needs to know that they are performing outside the mean (either “astoundingly great” or “doesn’t know anything)
        -my boss needs to know about project status and I am aggregating work on said project
        -I want to ask for input/help from one of my coworkers and for whatever reason think I need to loop them in on that.

        Kelsey isn’t a bad actor here, just an inexperienced one, but she’s bringing an issue with a coworker to her boss and behaving as though she doesn’t think it’s any of those three things. If she doesn’t want the boss involved and isn’t mentioning the issue at the boss’s request (as in, “I don’t need help handling her but since you explicitly asked whether Lorraine has been a successful peer mentor, I would say no, because ALL THE THINGS,”), Kelsey is violating a workplace norm. Not egregiously, but she would still benefit from coaching about what should and shouldn’t be brought to the manager level, and that anything that is brought to a manager is no longer something SHE will be managing in the future.

        1. DCompliance*

          I would also add OP’s behavior indicates a need for coaching. When Kelsey is continuously brining up these issues, I don’t think OP should be asking “do you want me to talk to Lorraine?” Either OP helps Kelsey come up with a plan of action on how to respond and then when it should be escalated or OP directly address Lorraine’s behavior.

          Since Kelsey is inexperienced , she may only be requesting the OP not to interfere because she doesn’t feel like the OP will protect her based on OP asking what to do instead of doing something.

        2. Lara*

          Ah I see! Yes that makes perfect sense. I was concerned that some people seem to see Kelsey as *the* problem. I agree she just seems inexperienced.

  23. CrunchyBits*

    In my personal experience, passive aggressive people, when called out, don’t “go off on people.” They excuse their behavior, they make passive aggressive jokes about being called out, and they slink off and hide – but they don’t suddenly become assertive communicators.

    1. Ten*

      I think you’re generally right, but I have seen some plain-old aggressive people tone it down to passive-aggressive while the boss is around and ratchet back up when they know they can get away with it. If you’re the boss being hidden from it can be hard to know which type you’re dealing with.

  24. Kathenus*

    Lots of great comments already about ways to deal with Lorraine, and I agree that the OP should step in and take action, and as always Alison provides amazing scripts both for Lorraine and for how to speak to Kelsey. I wanted to address a couple of other aspects of this, that have been touched on a bit by others.

    1) A manager can be a useful outlet for venting, but I’ve found it helpful to define what venting is and what it isn’t in situations like this. To me, venting is a release of frustrations/concerns/tension in a safe place that is designed primarily to blow off steam with no expectation that the venting alone will resolve the situation. It might just be a one time ‘get it off your chest before you explode inappropriately’ action, or a way to relieve stress before setting an action plan for fixing the problem. I define the differences between venting and bitching (excuse the language). The former can be a cathartic way to release tension and hopefully is a first step in trying to solve the issue; the latter is when it is done repeatedly with no attempts to improve the situation but simply continuing to complain about and be frustrated about it fruitlessly.
    2) If the OP is coaching Kelsey on how to deal with interpersonal issues like this, one concept that I’ve had success using is something I call ‘bring it up or suck it up’. I had a direct report once who came to me at least weekly complaining about a coworker. She didn’t want to talk to him directly, she didn’t want me to talk to him, and she didn’t want me to facilitate a discussion between them. Finally, after a couple of months, I told her that unless she was willing to take action to address the concerns and improve the situation, I didn’t want to hear about it anymore – she needed to either be willing to bring it up with him or suck it up and deal with it. This was strictly a personality conflict, not something like Lorraine’s situation in this instance, but that phrase has become a mainstay of my management style and coaching ever since.

  25. Beatrice*

    I was Kelsey a decade ago. The mentor I vented to responded by immediately calling my Lorraine into her office (I protested, she insisted, and she was a force to be reckoned with). She chided Lorraine for the behavior I was complaining about, and basically forced us to talk the problem out. In the end, Lorraine and I communicated better directly, and I stopped venting to my mentor about problems I wasn’t addressing myself, and instead chose to either address them or stay quiet.

  26. MiningAccountant*

    I agree, OP needs to step in. I was in a similar situation as Kelsey years go early in my career – an older woman in the office would complain to everyone in the office that I dressed up too much for the office (which wasn’t true, I dressed business/business casual while she often wore jeans & t-shirts – which was totally inappropriate in the finance industry in our city), that she didn’t like how I was scheduling weekly re-cap meetings, that I forwarded industry newsletters about pertinent issues in our industry, etc., yet wouldn’t address these concerns with me directly.

    Because she was passive aggressive enough to complain within my earshot, I just confronted her directly one on one and told her she needed to stop and if she had any concerns about my work performance to bring it up directly to me and my direct manager, and that the way I choose to dress was none of her business so long as it was professional. That shut her up pretty quickly and the comments stopped. I think I had the guts to do this because I was at a pretty rough point in my life (lost a parent unexpectedly and ended a long term relationship weeks later) and I just didn’t want/need any unnecessary drama in my life.

    I don’t blame Kelsey for not being able to do this herself – I was in this situation when I was 30 and my “Lorraine” was mid-50s – I don’t think I would have the guts to tell Lorraine to stop it at 21. I think its appropriate for OP to step in because a) its affecting Kelsey’s work, b) sounds like it is detracting from Lorraine’s work (i.e. she needs to focus on her job duties rather than unnecessarily talking about a coworker on company hours) and c) its distracting others in the office. I hate to use the word bully, but bullies like Lorraine need to be called out and told their behaviour won’t be tolerated – if OP continues to sweep this under the rug I don’t think it’ll stop, and she might loose Kelsey in the process.

    1. MCM*

      If an employee has enough free time to monitor another co-worker’s performance and comment on they do not have enough to do on their own just pound more work on Lorain

  27. Lara*

    I feel like some commenters are giving Lorraine way too much benefit of the doubt. Reframe it this way. Kelsey is 30, and writes in herself.

    “An older colleague makes constant passive aggressive comments about me to the whole office. This includes personal situations up to and including a funeral I attended. Although we are at the same level – and I have better performance reviews – she has begun monitoring my work, peering over my shoulder and listening in on my phone calls. My manager won’t intervene – she just keeps asking what I want to do! I’m concerned about being retaliation if I stand up for myself. What should I do?”

  28. Lara*

    On a practical note, OP, you have three choices.

    1) Carry on letting Kelsey vent.
    2) Tell Kelsey you don’t want to hear it.
    3) Intervene with or without Kelsey’s permission.

    I would urge 3, and also that you bear in mind that Lorraine is the problem here.

  29. Jen*

    I was in the employee’s situation once. My manager insisted we sorted it out between ourselves and that colleague made my working life a nightmare as a result. We ended up in mediation and my manager still didn’t introduce consequences – in the end, I just left.

    If someone is being out of order, I do believe managers should step in *effectively*.

  30. cheluzal*

    Kelsey is young and new to the workforce. You can bet older Lorraine is a bit jealous of this kid coming in and doing better than everyone. Many of us were Kelseys and as we grew, found our voice and would not tolerate it now.

    My first “real” job at a doctor’s office during college had a Lorraine. She was bitter and crabby but we were fine until near the end of my job/graduation. I told her on my last day she was “the nastiest person I’ve ever worked with.” Now, at the ripe age of 40, I would’ve confronted her long ago, and I’d be bellowing back to Lorraine over the cubicle.

    LW: help Kelsey out!

  31. matcha123*

    I’m the same age as the OP, but I feel like her judgement is a bit off, just based on what she’s written in the comments: she calls herself an “old soul,” her husband in close in age to the older coworker, she describes her younger coworker as dressing ‘trendy’, etc.

    It’s almost as if she’s trying hard to show her older colleagues that she’s “above” those other millennials, who are petty and cause trouble. I think the younger coworker needs to ignore stuff like someone standing near her. But, passive-aggressive comments shouldn’t be allowed. This is work, not middle school…

    1. Lara*

      Eh, I think the usual AAM scripts apply.

      “Can I help you Lorraine?”
      “Do you need anything?”
      “Please could you stop looking over my shoulder when I work, Lorraine? It makes me uncomfortable.”

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