my toxic former employee is still spreading negativity on my staff

A reader writes:

Ten years ago, I got my dream job as the head of a community-based organization. My job consists of running the show: hiring, firing, and supervising at least 25 employees, as well as keeping fiscal affairs in order. My direct report, who acted as a sort of assistant director, was an older man, who, along with at least a third of the employees, pre-dated my employment there. “Bob” didn’t seem to want my job himself; his own position was part-time and he was semi-retired. The tightly knit team working under Bob had a close relationship with him. When the current head of operations trained me, she warned me about him, saying he was good at appearing loyal, but was a snake in the grass with loyalties only to the long-time employees who worked under him.

Sure enough, we had some rocky moments as I was making my way along a steep learning curve. From the start, he made it pretty clear that he didn’t think I was up to the job. I had to lean heavily on him as I learned, but I eventually made my way through to clarity after the first year. All the way through, I used my judgement as the final arbiter of issues. He and I eventually came to have what I thought was a functional working relationship, but it was still strained. Why, he never told me. I tried to find out by gently questioning, or making a comment about my own style here and there, but he never fessed up. It was just a general attitude of faintly sour disapproval, which was strange because the program improved and expanded under my leadership.

Now, I am not a micromanager. I trust that my employees, especially the ones who have been there way before I got there, will do their jobs and serve our clients to the best of their abilities. When I hire, I make decisions that take the needs and preferences of my staff in mind. I always had Bob in on any interviews I gave. As with most things, we agreed and disagreed. When I had to fire people, which was rare but happened, it was a decision path I thoughtfully followed, again keeping his feedback in mind. These strategies have enabled me to keep the staff I have with me over the years. I value their experience and their commitment.

In the last six months we worked together, he became rather obstinate. I had to pry his opinions out of him, which was annoying, since he and I had always engaged in discussions over day-to-day issues, which helped me come to an informed decision. At least three times, I made it very clear that his take on things mattered to me, and that I considered his input part of his job description. It didn’t matter whether he disagreed with me or not, which he often did. I would take his feedback very seriously. Because he was so consistently withholding in the last year, our relationship soured. Eventually, to my relief, he decided to completely retire.

What I didn’t know then was that he was undermining me at every turn, and behind my back would openly sniff and sneer at me in front of other employees. I think that part of it was that my style was to build consensus and discuss things, which he interpreted as lack of confidence, when really I valued his and other employee’s feedback as a touchstone for staff and client needs. I’m sure that for him, there was far more for him to pick away at in terms of what he thought I should do better, i.e. do his way, and not mine.

I replaced him with a very talented employee who did a beautiful job, smoothing out workflow and advising me in the same ways he had. I realized how entrenched his work had been; he had basically been running an expanding program as if it was still small. I have been very happy with the way things are operating since his departure.

This leads to the crux of the problem. Bob has been meeting with some of my employees and trying to stir up trouble for me outside the office. When I had to make a decision to change some strategies in relation to our clients, my long-time employees got very upset. There were no cuts, but staff had to change their traditional way of doing their jobs for a period of time, which led to much dissatisfaction. They met with him outside work, and he stirred them up. He still calls his friends from the office and pumps them for gossip about me, which they then spread around to others on staff. It’s a very weird and fairly abusive dynamic. It definitely undermines my work.

I am comfortable making unpopular decisions. I know I’m not there to be liked, but I am there to make sure that the jobs they do are supported as much as they can be, and to help them grow as much as I can. The things Bob is doing, encouraging gossip, backbiting, and general negativity, which I hear from a few staff members who are still in touch with him, are definitely downgrading my reputation in the eyes of the staff who worked with him over the years, even though he has left. It’s almost as if he’s on a personal vendetta, for what, I honestly do not know. What can I do?

How very frustrating. When you have the vantage point that you do, it can be really difficult to see someone being a toxic influence on people who don’t have the same broader vantage point that you do and who don’t realize things like “this guy actually wasn’t doing his job well” and “we’ve been getting much better results since he’s been gone” and “sometimes there are better ways to do things than the same way we’ve always done them.”

It’s also bizarre that Bob is still this invested after leaving — and usually when that happens, the person is mired in some serious toxicity. You’re right to be worried that he’s spreading that toxicity to your staff and undermining you. It sounds like both are true.

Managers in your situation are often tempted to do things like explain to staff members why they shouldn’t listen to the former employee or even trash-talk him. This rarely works and often backfires. It comes across as petty — people will want you, as a leader, to hold yourself to a higher standard, even if they’re not holding themselves to that standard — and it risks entrenching Bob even more deeply as your adversary and increasing the us vs. them dynamic you’re already dealing with.

Instead, double-down on the kind of culture you want. Commit yourself deeply to operating fairly and transparently, and be an aggressively superb manager: set clear expectations and goals and help people meet them; give lots of positive, sincere feedback when people do well and clear, actionable feedback when they should be doing things differently; meet regularly with people one-on-one to debrief recent work and problem-solve; address problems forthrightly; be kind but hold people accountable; talk to people about their own goals for their work and themselves and help them put together plans to achieve them; solicit input and give it a fair hearing; share your own thought process and how you’re making decisions; and talk explicitly about the kind of culture you want and enlist people in sharing their ideas about how to build it.

People who belong on your team will see this and respond to it over time. For them, seeing you operate like this will be the best possible antidote to whatever Bob is saying and will drain most of his power.

But there may be other people who prefer his version of events, no matter what evidence they see to the contrary, and who stay mired in gossip and negativity and continue to be a drain on the work you’re trying to get done. That doesn’t make them bad people, but it does mean that you probably can’t keep them around. With them, you’ll need to talk with them one-on-one and lay out what how you expect them to operate. Do this without mentioning Bob. For instance, “I welcome hearing your perspective even when it’s different from my own, but once a decision has been made, I need you working with me toward it, not against me.” And “when you do X and Y, it makes people’s work environment much less pleasant. I need you to do A and B instead.” Include language like “I want to be clear that my concerns are serious ones, and I need to see these changes in order to keep you in your role.”

But if it continues, you may need to put different people in their roles — people who haven’t been poisoned by Bob. You can’t manage a team that’s undermining you and spreading toxicity, and if you’ve given their concerns a fair hearing, laid out your expectations, and nothing has changed, at that point you’d need to replace them with people who are on board with the work you’re doing and who will operate the way you need them to.

{ 265 comments… read them below }

  1. Myrin*

    OP, I don’t have anything to add to Alison’s advice but can I just say that you sound like an awesome boss? You come across as very level-headed, reasonable, realistic, and fair, and if you are like that in real life, worthwhile employees will indeed recognise and appreciate that. All the best!

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*


      This sounds like an incredibly frustrating situation, OP, but you are handling it the best way you can and even though I know it will be hard, I hope you find Alison’s advice useful.

      Please update us in a few months and let us know how things are going!

    2. Hills to Die on*

      Yes, you sounds like you are doing all of the right things. I work for someone like you, and I really value it. Manage these Bob followers up or out and don’t look back! Except here–to give us an update!

    3. I GOTS TO KNOW!!*

      I completely agree, but toxic employees often can’t see that because they have a warped view of things, unfortunately.

      OP, I agree with Alison that you need to continuously make clear the type of culture you are trying to create. But I think you also might need to explicitly state what won’t be tolerated. Explain that you are available and absolutely welcome feedback on things that are making employees unhappy, but ongoing gossiping and griping without taking the issue to you won’t be tolerated. Things have changed and will continue to change as the org grows. If change is an issue, you need to know so they can be moved into a role that won’t be as impacted by change. But the org won’t stall or stop trying to grow because they don’t want to deal with change. You are open to ideas and suggestions for making life at work as smooth and pleasant for everyone as possible. You know there will be bad days and it isn’t that complaining isn’t allowed, but pervasive whining without suggested solutions solves nothing and hurts morale, so it cannot and will not be tolerated.

      I don’t know how you get that across without coming off like a totalitarian. Maybe there isn’t a good way to phrase that toxic whining won’t be tolerated so this isn’t possible. But if there is a way to make it clear this is the culture we want and these actions actively harm that so won’t be tolerated, I think that should be done.

      1. Live & Learn*

        My boss is very open to suggestions and feedback but has a rule for a lot of things like this: Come to me and tell me what’s wrong or what you’d like to change, but come prepared with a suggestion or solution. Gossiping and whining are not solution oriented, they are time wasters that bring down morale. But come with a view to improving things and your opinion will be very respected even if she doesn’t end up following that suggestion. It forced people to think about what they want out of complaining, and if being heard complaining is all they want, then that’s not a good use of her time.

    4. Laurelma_01!*

      Feel for you. Hope he doesn’t start showing up in the break room at lunch, or stops by to visit his friends at work. That would top the crazy cake for you.

  2. Trout 'Waver*

    Honestly, I would just clean house of Bob’s people and be done with the mess. Bob’s tight team knew what he was doing the entire time and participated in it for a decade. That’s a fireable offense in my book.

    1. Mike C.*

      Yes, holding basic employees responsible for the actions of their bosses, that sounds like a winning strategy.

      1. Snark*

        More like holding employees responsible for undermining you with negativity, pointless bitching, and sandbagging.

          1. Murphy*

            I would imagine it ends with the people she employs. I’m not sure how you leaped to going after their future employers.

          2. Snark*

            …it would end with breaking up the chronic knot of underminers and hiring new people. I really have no clue what you’re talking about with “future employers,” but it’s probably fallacious.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Could we not introduce people’s arguments from other unrelated posts? Just because you’d apply them to this situation doesn’t mean Snark would, and I think you’re setting up a straw man here and it’s going to derail the discussion. Thanks.

              1. Mike C.*

                I never said what Snark would do, I asked. Furthermore, people have done this repeatedly to me and you’ve never said a word so I’m more than a little surprised that it’s an issue now.

                Furthermore, I’m really getting tired of you ignoring the dog piling, personal attacks and nitpicking when it’s directed towards me. It’s been happening with a pretty regular frequency and it’s becoming tiresome.

              2. Trout 'Waver*

                @Mike C.

                Have you considered that your posting style is to blame and not the commentariat or moderation? Your initial response to me in this thread was sarcastic, dismissive, and intentionally mischaracterized what I was suggesting.

              3. serenity*

                I’m sorry to ask you to tone police, Alison, but can you please ask Mike to tone it down? He has responded combatively to multiple people here, as he has before, and it’s an incredible turn-off and not in the spirit of the commenting guidelines. Does this need to happen every single time he comments? Jesus.

            2. President Porpoise*

              And if you are going to continue an argument from a previous post – can you at least tell us which one so we can read back and get some context?

          3. serenity*

            It’s Mike’s stock in trade, and I find it so unhelpful in cases like this (a thorny one, and not easy to solve).

            We’re here to help letter writers solve problems. Snapping at fellow commenters and putting words in people’s mouths is the opposite of the good community-building which Alison and others have worked hard to maintain over years.

            1. Persimmons*

              Ah, it’s A Thing. Got it.

              In that case, it ends with their lineages wiped out and the graves of their ancestors salted. Of course.

              1. serenity*

                I’m not speaking “for you” I’m commenting on your general combativeness, which is most definitely a thing.

              2. Mike C.*

                serentiy, stop following me around. It’s creepy, it’s personal and it’s gross.

              3. serenity*

                Don’t ever tell me what to do, especially after you respond to an OP as confrontationally as you did downthread. Dial down the combativeness. It’s a problem that a lot of people have observed and commented on. Knock it off.

              4. Les G*

                There’s this phrase I’m thinking of…elocution tomcats? Fusion stomachs? Ah, right, persecution complex.

          4. BethRA*

            It ends when they walk out the door of the organization. OP isn’t responsible for their actions at future employers, but she does have control over her own organization.

          5. Mike C.*

            I’m not going to respond to everyone on this, but it’s something that Snark has discussed in the past.

            1. Snark*

              In a different and unrelated situation involving possible ethical concerns relevant to that future employer and which don’t apply here. Little detail you ignored, there.

              If you can’t make a point without being disingenuous or leaning heavily on fallacious arguments, it’s not a point worth making.

          6. Kms1025*

            Perhaps when giving references to potential new employers it would come up but other than that I don’t get your point???

          7. Yorick*

            Huh? This isn’t what we’re talking about today.

            But to consider that possibility, I might have to fire them because that behavior hurts the team. But in this case, the toxicity came from the broader culture, so I wouldn’t necessarily assume that they wouldn’t be able to work well anywhere. I wouldn’t bring it up myself during a reference, but of course if they specifically asked about such behavior I would be honest.

        1. Les G*

          Point taken, my dude, but wanna try that again without the casual misogyny? Just ’cause you know a word doesn’t mean you gotta use it.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Please don’t nitpick language here, per the commenting rules. There isn’t yet widespread recognition that “bitching” is misogynistic and I don’t read the remark as made in that context (although there’s a letter about “bitch” coming tomorrow so we can all argue it then).

            1. Annoyed*

              It implies that there’s something essntially, repulsively feminine about complaining. Because women, as opposed to males are complainers and “feminine” is undesirable.

              1. animaniactoo*

                I disagree that’s the implied standard as I see and am aware of men bitching just as much as women. To me, all the word “bitching” implies is “extensively negatively complaining”.

                However, let’s do as Alison asked and save any further conversation for tomorrow’s thread where we can argue about it to our heart’s content.

            2. Anonyduck*

              Hey, Alison, I’m just a lurker so I know my words don’t carry that much weight, but can you maybe rethink grouping in someone calling out potentially bigoted language with “nitpicking”? Someone saying “hey, can you maybe not use this word that some people find harmful, since there’s other non-controversial words you can use?” is a lot different than nitpicking things like tone and innocuous word choices like, say, “justice” or whatever (true story, I once had a “friend” who ripped into me because my interpretation of the nuances of the term were slightly different than his. good times.).

              I’m not saying that words like the b-slur should automatically be banned (although it would certainly make it easier for me to continue reading here, since if I’m in the wrong state of mind it can potentially trigger nasty flashbacks to my first relationship which was super abusive and consisted very much of that word in its many forms being used to destroy my self esteem but I’m just one person so wev), but rather that potentially harmful language should be considered a bit of a “gray zone” where it’s not gonna get your comment deleted but someone saying “hey, can we not?” will also be accepted because being respectful of people means listening to people when something makes them uncomfortable and making reasonable accommodations where possible.

              I know it sucks when someone tells you that a certain word you’re used to using that fits exactly what you’re trying to convey is harmful/bigoted/etc, believe me (“queer” encapsulates my sexual identity super well, but I know it makes some people uncomfortable because of its bigoted roots so I avoid it in most cases now). But sometimes being excellent to each other means making compromises and I, for one, would like to know that if someone uses a term that hurts me that I would be able to speak up without being accused of nitpicking.

              I apologize for the length of my comment, but this issue is something that I do have a personal stake in so I felt like I should speak up. Moderating a space–especially one of this size!–is a huge, thankless task and I do appreciate all the hard work you put into building and maintaining a strong, welcoming community. I know you’re busy, but I hope that you’ll be able to read what I’ve written and spend some time thinking it over. Thank you again for your space and all the time you put into this blog and its community.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Thanks for this thoughtful comment, and you make good points! I’ve traditionally been fine with a “hey, FYI some people find this word harmful,” but I didn’t think that was quite the tone of the comment in question here. But you’re right that “nitpicking” isn’t the right word for it!

          2. Snark*

            Wanna try that again without the overly precious, performative wokeness and giving me the benefit of even a shred of doubt?

      2. Antilles*

        How is it “holding them responsible for the actions of their bosses”?
        Bob is not the boss any more. Bob no longer works there and has been gone for some time. Bob is not holding a gun to their head and forcing them to spread negative gossip about OP or undermine their boss. At one point, this was a Bob issue, but he’s gone – at this point, the real issue is that individual employees are choosing to bring his negativity into the workplace.

        1. Mike C.*

          Bob’s tight team knew what he was doing the entire time and participated in it for a decade. That’s a fireable offense in my book.

          Right there you’re holding them responsible for what Bob, their boss, did over the past decade.

            1. Mike C.*

              So you don’t think the fact that those employees worked under Bob, with Bob as the manager, might have something to do with that?

              1. Trout 'Waver*

                Why are you trying so hard to excuse the negative gossipy coworkers’ poor behavior? The fact that they continued to do so after Bob was no longer in the organizations shows their true colors.

                1. Dust Bunny*


                  Bob. Is. No. Longer. There.

                  They have no further obligation to humor him because he’s their boss. He’s not their boss. He has zero say in how the department and/or organization is run. If they choose to keep giving his opinions weight, it’s now on them and they are responsible for the consequences.

                2. Detective Amy Santiago*

                  We don’t know how long it’s been since Bob has left and that matters.

                  If it’s been a few weeks, well, human beings cannot change on a dime and they need time to adjust to the new paradigm.

                  If it’s been 6+ months and they are still behaving this way, that is a different story.

                3. BethRA*

                  I agree that how long Bob’s been gone matter, but we know Bob’s been gone long enough for OP to have hired his replacement, and for that person to have made substantive positive changes. Long enough to justify cleaning house if OP chooses to do so.

                4. serenity*

                  I agree with Beth. It seems as if Bob’s departure was more than just a month or two ago.

                5. Mike C.*

                  You’re shifting the goal posts. Your original post, which I’ve quoted to you says, and I’ll quote again, “for a decade”. Your post talked about firing them for what happened in the past, not for what’s going on now.

                6. Snark*

                  So one is obligated, at MikeCo, to ignore an employee’s entire performance history and focus only on the most proximate issue?

                7. Detective Amy Santiago*

                  Come on, boys. Either whip them out and measure or take this petty squabble elsewhere.

                8. Detective Amy Santiago*


                  FIVE YEARS?!

                  I’m really sorry to say this, but I think you have seriously missed the window for resolving this issue.

                9. Trout 'Waver*

                  @Mike C.

                  Stop nitpicking my posts to try to find something that isn’t there. Please try and take them at face value. The “for a decade” comment indicates that I’m including both past and current behavior.

                10. Observer*

                  Five years?!

                  That changes stuff. Firstly, this means ONE conversation, and one conversation ONLY.

                  How is it that you’ve allowed this kind of poison to go on for 5 years. Sure, you wouldn’t necessarily know what Bob was doing, but the attitude and behavior of your staff should have been something you dealt with. Why didn’t you? If you didn’t know about it, I think it’s worth thinking about why and how you missed something this serious. I’m not excusing the comments about you – that’s a problem all on its own. But the rest of the behavior you described is problematic on its own.

                11. i am the OP*

                  yes, five years. Social media, and his regular dinners with the Bobettes have enabled him to do damage. I did not know that this was all taking place until the last 6 months. And I actually thought most of the toxicity radiated from a particular administrative employee who I replaced within the last year. Not so. Yes, I have allowed the poison to seep in. But the truth is, I didn’t know how pervasive it really was.

                12. Turtle Candle*

                  Yikes, “So what have you been doing for five years?” is really aggressive to someone who came here for help.

                13. Observer*

                  OP, the fact that you got rid of a toxic person makes this easier for you to deal with. Firstly, it means that people will have to take you seriously when you make it clear that their job is on the line. Secondly, you don’t come off anywhere near as clueless about the problem nor complacent or acquiescent.

                  I still do think that it’s one conversation per person (each one done in private) ONLY.

                14. Mike C.*


                  It’s asked in a tone of “how did you manage dealing with five years of this poor treatment”.

                15. Turtle Candle*

                  @Mike C — ah, good to know! I read it as “Seriously? What kind of manager are you that you didn’t notice or do anything about it for five years?” Glad to hear that that’s not what you meant.

                16. RUKiddingMe*


                  “Bob no longer works here. He is not “the boss,” nor was he when he did work here under my management. We do not do things “Bob’s way,” we do them my way. You have X amount of time (like a week tops after all this time) to get it together. If you can’t get fully on board and do things the way management wants them done, you are not a good fit for this job. If you don’t see that happening then I suggest you go ahead and resign right now.”

              2. NotAnotherManager!*

                It did while he was their manager; however, Bob’s gone, and, if his employees continue to be resistant to and negative about process changes that the boss needs to implement, they need to be counseled about and, ultimately given the message that their jobs depend upon, their ability to participate in the workforce positively, professionally, and in accordance with protocol or find another job.

              3. Jadelyn*

                Employees don’t lose the ability to say “no” just because they have a boss. Even if you can’t push back directly, you can quietly stay out of the fray most times, and I say that as someone who has kept to the fringes of these kinds of political tug-of-war situations before, while in very junior positions where I didn’t have much capital to say “no” to anyone.

                And, as others have pointed out, Bob is gone! They’ve actively continued to perpetuate his type of behavior. THAT is the problem here, and frankly I do think it’s a firing offense.

          1. Antilles*

            See, I don’t think it’s about what happened in the past decade. I don’t care about what happened in the past decade while Bob was boss, I care about what they’re choosing to do *Right Now*.
            Their current behaviors include spreading negative gossip, openly questioning management decisions even after they’ve been made, and undermining the boss. Not Acceptable. You’re a professional adult; part of that is that I expect you to act that way in how you treat managers.
            Maybe it’s worth giving them one last sit down discussion and a final chance (depends on just how bad they’re being, how they’re affecting the other employees, how long it’s been since OP has been in charge, and also how they react when you sit down to discuss it)…but no matter the history/rationale/etc, OP is under no obligation to allow this to continue. Further disrespect/insubordination is on the current employees for perpetuating it, not an ex-employee.

          2. Yorick*

            No, Trout Waver is saying the team also engaged/is engaging in the behavior, so addressing it is not holding them responsible for Bob’s past actions.

      3. LSP*

        They wouldn’t be let go because of Bob’s actions. It would be because they are continuing to bring Bob’s level of negativity and toxicity into OP’s workplace, even after Bob has retired. Now that Bob is retired, he can say whatever he wants, but if OP’s employees are taking what Bob says as gospel and are not on board with OP’s policies and strategies, then OP needs to remove them from her workplace.

        1. animaniactoo*

          OP needs to first attempt to convert them to her side through the tactics listed by Alison (I posted below – I would start the convos with the Bobettes now). Because otherwise, it doesn’t matter what anyone says – if she just goes for the wholesale clearing, it will leave a bad impression on those who remain. Even if most of them notice that things improve afterwards.

          It can be “justified” now – but OP needs to put in more work for it to be seen as “justified” by the rest of the employees. Especially as OP likely WILL be able to get some of the Bobettes to stop participating in it which will highlight the insubordination of those who continue and will end up out the door.

          Apart from the fact that perception on this stuff matters, you don’t just toss employees – particularly not longstanding ones – because they’re doing something wrong without trying to address what they’re doing wrong and giving them an opportunity to improve.

          1. LSP*

            Of course! I don’t mean to say that OP shouldn’t do her best to bring these folks around to seeing how destructive their behavior is, only that firing needs to be an option for those who don’t shape up pretty quickly.

            1. i am the OP*

              I really can’t fire all of them. Let me amend that to won’t. They, to a man/woman, are really good at their jobs, I mean who wouldn’t be after over ten years? And that benefits our clients. Frankly, I value their experience, it’s unique, and not easily replaceable. If I can narrow it down to a ringleader, though, that person is gone.

              1. Antilles*

                They, to a man/woman, are really good at their jobs, I mean who wouldn’t be after over ten years?
                This reminds me of an old Chinese proverb. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.
                If you’d fired them six months ago when you first found out, then *today* you’d have non-jerk employees with six months’ of experience and training serving your clients. But since they’re still around, you’re in the exact same position now as you were six months ago where your new employees will be new…and as long as you keep using “well they’re good at their jobs” as a reason to let it slide, you’ll stay in the same position 6/12/18/etc months from now.
                Especially since it’s been *five* *years*. Maybe since you just found out about it, it’s worth one last Firm Warning discussion, but…I think you’re well into “they suck and aren’t going to change” category.

                1. i am the OP*

                  yes, you do have a good point. I can start with one who I think is the chief Bobette. Whatever I do, we are a glacial organization as someone pointed out below, so I need to move carefully. I think I will start with some one strategy sessions to get people united and then continue with a more focused review process.

              2. pcake*

                Have you told each employee that – that they’re really good at their jobs and that benefits your clients? That you value their experience, it’s unique and not easily replaceable?

                Btw, OP, do you have HR where you work?

              3. Totally Minnie*

                I’m a little late to the party but if you see this, OP, I’d like to recommend shifting your viewpoint on what these people’s jobs are. They are good at the technical aspects of their jobs. But that is not the be all and end all of what it means to have a job in an adult setting. You also need to behave in a manner that is respectful and courteous toward ALL of your colleagues. Your employees are failing spectacularly at this metric.

                I’m not saying you should fire them all tomorrow. But I am most definitely saying that you should not take firing off the table entirely. You need to hit the reset button. Your problem employees each need to be made aware that they are engaging in workplace behaviors that are unacceptable, and that if those behaviors do not stop within a certain time frame you will take disciplinary action up to and including termination.

                There are people in the world who would be good at the things your staff are good at, but who would not be undermining and backbiting and gossiping and turning your workplace toxic.

              4. Safetykats*

                OP – I think you will find that if you can identify just a couple of ringleaders and let them go – while delivering the message that there are, as an old manager of mine used to say, no prizes for predicting rain or complaining about the weather, there are prizes only for building boats – you will find that the rest are smart enough to straighten up and fly right. There have apparently been no consequences for this bad behavior for a long time, and that is a big part of the problem. You can fix that by making it clear that there are consequences.

        2. Mike C.*

          It’s a strategy rooted in petty vindictiveness. Alison’s advice takes a long term view by building employees up in a way that isn’t disruptive to the business. Firing them punishes people for picking the wrong political horse and only helps in the short term.

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            Nah. It’s a strategy rooted in not being jerks to your teammates. Gossiping and negativity are toxic to a team functioning well together.

            This isn’t a political struggle between two rivals. This is one person acting in good faith and another working in bad faith to sabotage the other.

            1. Specialk9*

              Exactly. They’ve proven that they can’t behave appropriately and are actively undermining OP. Time to clean house of toxic people.

          2. Dust Bunny*

            No, it’s not. They don’t need to be removed because they worked for Bob. They *may* need to be removed because they can’t let go of Bob and his influence. The difference is that one was a past problem and the other seems to be an ongoing one.

              1. Specialk9*

                This feels really nitpicky, and fightpicky, of a statement that isn’t inaccurate or inappropriate.

                1. Specialk9*

                  And more to the point, it’s a big derail, in a way that doesn’t help the person who wrote in today.

          3. Jadelyn*

            Actively continuing to spread toxic and undermining gossip from a manager who is NO LONGER THERE is not just “picking the wrong political horse”. You’re trying to cast these employees as poor blameless victims despite their active and continuing participation in the problem, and it’s not even remotely an accurate depiction of the situation.

            1. Mike C.*

              And again, Trout was very clear to post that he’d fire the employees for what they participated in with Bob for the past decade, not what’s going on now.

              1. Jadelyn*

                And again, it’s not just that they happened to be there and reporting to Bob while he was being an adversarial jerk – I got the sense from the OP that they actively participated in it during that time. Which Trout specifically mentioned as the reason to let them go; not just presence, but participation.

              2. Trout 'Waver*

                Dude, no. Stop misrepresenting my comments. By Bob’s people, I meant people that are still loyal to Bob. Not everyone who had ever worked for Bob.

          4. Turquoisecow*

            Yeah, if you just fire people because they trusted Bob, it’s not going to come off good, long term. If I never even liked Bob that much, but now you are firing people who worked for him and continue to be friends outside of work, that’s going to rub me the wrong way if I don’t have any backstory.

            OP should sit down with each person and address behaviors as they come up. “You did/said X” (something negative/gossipy, perhaps) “and that’s not acceptable behavior because I need everyone to be on board with how this company is going. You’re free to disagree, but I still make the decisions, and you need to either accept that or move on.” Don’t even mention Bob. Talk about *behavior* and why that behavior is unacceptable.

            If the behavior doesn’t change at that point, then go ahead and start firing. But these are people who worked for a long time in a negativey, gossipy environment, and learned from that experience that this is how workplaces function. Spell out for them that this is unacceptable, and give them a chance to improve, and to see that this is the new normal. If they’re not willing to change, then ok, let them go, but at least explain to them that you need the change to happen before you fire them for not changing.

            1. Anonymeece*

              Agreed! I was just thinking that. I agree with Alison that it looks petty and territorial and would make LW look insecure if she addressed it directly in the context of Bob, but she can address the behaviors that are inappropriate. Some things will probably cause tension but she won’t be able to address it – like general discontent and snide comments out of earshot, but if it’s something like actively arguing against decisions or something, then she definitely can address that without mentioning Bob.

          5. Susana*

            Well… it’s the Bobiets who are being vindictive, from LW’s letter. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that this or any new manager simply fire everyone who worked for a previous manager – no matter how disruptive and destructive that previous manager can be,. OP has been there awhile now, and they are STILL behaving as though the deposed king will come back and behead his successor. The point is, their behavior and attitudes are unacceptable no matter what Bob’s instigating role is. Managers change. There’s always an adjustment period, but if some of the Bobiets see their new roles as undermining their new boss – then they should go. Frankly, I din’t understand why they haven’t quot, if they’re so lost without Bob.

          6. Anonymosity*

            You put standards in place for the employees, and if they refuse to work to those standards, then you fire them.
            There may be some Bobettes who respond well to Alison’s suggested strategy, but others will not. I predict there will be some firing involved if they can’t control their undermining behavior. It wouldn’t be petty under those circumstances.

          7. Indie*

            I think there’s value in having employees who are a) not easily led and b) who know professional norms about gossiping. However the OP does have the option of using a) to her benefit to coach them correctly on b) if she really truly wishes. I would recommend getting in some new blood, at least though. I am a new employee in such a situation and it has certainly disrupted the clique and delivered the message that ‘longevity is not power ‘

        3. Detective Amy Santiago*

          There is no indication in the letter how long it has been since Bob retired though.

      4. Jadelyn*

        If OP had fired those employees back when Bob was around, you might have a point. But Bob is gone, and these employees are actively participating in undermining their boss with Bob’s help. This isn’t about his actions anymore, this is about their actions in enabling his continued toxicity.

    2. JokeyJules*

      I don’t think that’s really the best way to handle this from a business or managerial standpoint. It might send the wrong message, and it seems like you’d be trying to fight fire with fire.

      1. irene adler.*

        Depends. IF the employees, after being asked -repeatedly- to be supportive of the OP’s decisions, fail to change their ways, then there may be no other recourse. Also have to think about the work environment for those who are affected by these folks.

    3. Darcy Pennell*

      I’ve seen departments do this, “clean house” by firing everyone who was loyal to some powerful person who got ousted, and it never goes well. Even if every single one of the fired people deserved it, it looks terrible to coworkers who don’t have the full story. The message they get is “if you build a relationship with someone high up and they get sacked, you’ll be sacked too.” Really demoralizing and leads to employees not wanting to get close to leadership to protect themselves.

      1. Clare*

        Yes, I’ve worked places where this has happened and it is bad for everyone, even those who were not part of the rogue group. Very demoralizing for all staff. Also, in my personal experience the people who do this are not very good managers. A good manager would be able to win people over, even if it takes time, by doing what Alison advises and showing employees that they are good at managing and running the company.

        1. Trout 'Waver*

          It’s entirely possible that they were hired by Bob because they are like Bob. In which case, you wouldn’t be able to win them over.

          1. Totally Minnie*

            Possible, but not a foregone conclusion. I’m in favor of telling them what needs to change and giving them time to transition before making any permanent staffing changes.

            1. Specialk9*

              Agreed in general. But I’m this situation, after 5 years, with them still actively undermining OP, for someone who retired half a decade ago, I just don’t think these people can be redeemed. Sometimes breaking up a clique lets each of them behave better.

          2. Observer*

            Sure. But neither you nor the OP knows that. So, it becomes important to make a good faith effort.

            The point here is not to take firing off the table. But going straight to firing is generally the act of an incompetent manager.

      2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Agree, first thing that came to mind after I saw the suggestion to fire them is what it would look like to everyone else on the team. “OP and Bob had a conflict, OP won, and is now firing all of Bob’s people and replacing them with her people”. Very anxiety-inducing.

      3. NotAnotherManager!*

        I’m not a fan of complete housecleaning; however, I have found value to giving a team an opportunity (after the departure of a toxic supervisor) to get on board with the new program but also not tolerating continued bad behavior. It’s often not the entire team that is the problem, it’s usually one or two people who can’t shake their loyalty to the old boss/old way. Removing people who remain persistently negative and difficult can actually boost morale of the team that is trying to do good work because they don’t have to be around the sourpusses any longer.

        I did a 5-month embed with a team in this situation once, and, as soon as the hypernegative King Bee left, the rest of the team had more room for growth and became more focused on solutions rather than complaining. It still took them months to realize I was there to help them – King Bee had told them I was an HR plant there to clean house, which could not have been further from the truth – but I rolled up my sleeves, helped, learned the ins and outs of their day-to-day, and (I hope!) demonstrated I cared and valued their input. It was difficult, and I know that not everyone liked me personally when the embed was over, but there was at least a grudging respect and I continued to get calls from those people to ask for help with problems after I left the team.

      4. The other Louis*

        Yeah, I agree that firing everyone who is/was very loyal to their previous boss says that you see loyalty as a zero-sum game, crucially important, and, well, that you expect that kind of loyalty to you. I think it’s a very bad move.

        I appreciate Allison’s advice a lot. I’m in a similar situation (previous boss undermines me with one particular employee a lot). Previous Boss told current employee that she didn’t have to worry about accurate paperwork, for instance, despite what I was saying. Current employee acted on that belief (and other advice), and it got pretty unpleasant. I think it’s gotten cleared up, but none of it would have had to happen if Previous Boss had stayed out of it.

        1. Jules the 3rd*

          You might have an opportunity to take that up with Previous Boss, though – a ‘Hey, PB, you and I have different styles, so please send my employees back to me if they have questions.’ (not enough details to know, but barring other political considerations, it’s a path I would look at). OP def doesn’t….

    4. Lora*

      Bob wrote their reviews and decided on their raises. They had a very direct vested interest in supporting him and keeping him happy. People mostly act according to the environment you put them in, so as a manager it’s up to you to create an environment where doing the right thing is the easiest, best-rewarded course of action and doing the wrong thing is difficult and not reinforced or rewarded.

      1. Working Hypothesis*

        By five years later, they’re not responding to what Bob required when he was their manager. They’re responding to what they see in LW, who is managing them today. I don’t think this is as much about Bob as the LW thinks it is, even if Bob is the trigger factor. Bob’s malice would be ineffective on employees who were seeing what they need to see in their own leader.

    5. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I think this depends on how long it has been since Bob has left. If his departure is still recent, then I think those people deserve an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to the OP and that they are willing to get on board with the program.

      1. Lora*


        Bob was there a long, long time. It will take a long, long time – at least a year – before the people under him un-learn everything he taught them, and then only with a sustained, intense effort to undo the damage. If it has not been that long, or the effort hasn’t been particularly intense, then you can’t realistically expect them to un-learn everything.

        Also, since things have been improving and changing, however grudgingly, it sounds like they are at least starting to come around a little. I would reward the heck out of the changes as they happen (probably out of proportion at first), and specifically reward the people who change the fastest, publicly, so everyone can see what the new reward and recognition looks like and what they have to do to earn that. In many previous years, they were rewarded for doing Bob’s bidding and keeping Bob happy. Now you need to reward different behaviors.

        1. Temporarily Anon*

          July 25, 2018 at 1:33 pm
          OP here: Bob has been gone for five years.

          Five years is more than enough time for them to let go of Bob’s toxicity, even if they loved him.

          1. Clare*

            So yeah, that’s pretty bad. It also makes me wonder if the LW is focusing too much on Bob and giving him way too much credit here. After that long, the employees have had plenty of time to get to know the LW and form their own opinions. They wouldn’t still be spending time with Bob if they didn’t at least partially agree with what he is saying. It doesn’t make the situation any better; but I don’t think this is a Bob problem, this is a more general toxic work environment problem. That’s much more difficult to fix, and short of firing every single person that works there I don’t know that there is much the LW will be able to do about it.

            1. Specialk9*

              Oh that’s an interesting thought. That maybe OP is attributing dissatisfaction to Bob, but it may not be coming from him?

              1. Clare*

                Yeah, exactly. At one of my previous jobs I was pretty good friends with several people there, and we all continued to hang out even after about half of us had left. All the current employees wanted to talk about was work drama. The rest of us weren’t stirring it up or egging them on (kind of the opposite really), but they wanted to complain because they were dissatisfied and we could understand what and who they were talking about in a way that non coworkers can’t. So kind of a chicken and egg scenario- they didn’t have a bad attitude because they were meeting with us outside of work, but rather part of the reason they were so interested in seeing us is because they were using us to vent their frustrations to.

                1. I'm Not Phyllis*

                  Yes to this. My last organization was so toxic and as a team we really went through a lot together, so we formed strong bonds. Now, of my closer-knit group, two remain out of eight of us … yet still when we get together those two tend to dominate the discussion talking about the toxic environment that they’re still working in (after all of the “how’s the family” discussions have died down). To be honest, it has made me back off of those relationships a bit because I no longer care to engage with that place, but still when they call me I listen and sympathize. I’m in a good work place now and I have (finally) let go of all of that, but I totally understand where they’re coming from and I think that makes me easy to talk to about everything that’s going on.

                  Like others have said, the issue is that they’re bringing it into work. I’m assuming/hoping that they aren’t releasing any confidential details of your work to him, but in the end after five years (!) you can’t really blame him anymore. And also you can’t control what he does … they’re the ones who work for you and have employment agreements with you and they’re the ones who need to cut it the hell out.

              2. Observer*

                Well, the OP responded to that and said that they originally thought that the problems were coming from a particular person that finally got fired, but now it’s clear that this is a real issue.

    6. AKchic*

      If, after taking Alison’s advice, the employees don’t come around; yes, that is probably what should happen.

      Bob sounds like he wanted to be offered that position and he wasn’t. Whether it was because he was part time “retired” or because he wasn’t a good fit for the role, it really does sound like he had been bitter about not having that role for a long time (he was adversarial with the previous person in that position as well). It wasn’t mentioned that he’d applied for it, so I’m assuming that he wanted the company to see how “good” he was and just offer him the position (I had a boss who was like this… he reminds me so much of Bob, and there were many character flaws) and when his pipe dream didn’t happen, he got bitter and started working against everyone with his chosen few.

      Bob isn’t going to just go away. He is retired and has time to spare now. LW will need to grey rock him, but the whole company needs to as well. It will be harder for the company to do it because it seems as if his chosen favorites are still encouraging him and are willing companions. Their behaviors and attitudes will need to be dealt with, as Alison outlined. If they can’t see the light, then yeah, they will need to be shown the door. They need to be given a chance first. Otherwise, you’ll have more than just Bob out there trying to tarnish not only the reputation of LW, but of the entire company since LW is at the helm of the company.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        Absent other informations, I would agree. But, it appears that the OP has acted in good faith for over a decade and any action they took would be viewed in that context.

        Honestly, If I put myself in the shoes of one of the OP’s employees that wasn’t participating in the gossiping and negativity, I would welcome seeing such coworkers get fired. If someone’s trashtalking someone else to me, it makes me wonder what they say about me to other people.

        And honestly, if someone’s trash-talking the boss behind the boss’s back, it’s pretty reasonable for them to be fired.

        1. Lora*

          Okay, but OP also didn’t show these people publicly that she disapproved of Bob’s behavior – in fact, she kept him on until he retired. As far as Bob’s employees know, OP was 100% fine with whatever he was doing – after all, if OP thought Bob was a problem, surely she’d have done something about him? It’s going to look like now ALL OF A SUDDEN everything that was peachy-keen for ten years is a firing offense.

          I’m not actually against cleaning house. I’ve seen the salted-earth tactics work beautifully in certain circumstances. But the stakes have to be really, really high: ethical or legal violations. And it has to be 100% transparent to everyone why you’re doing it, and they knew about it and were specifically trained NOT to do the thing and did it anyways.

          1. Susana*

            Well, except that being “fine” with what Bob was doing isn’t the question here, because OP outranked Bob when she came in as manager. I totally agree that any “cleaning house” wold look like some sort of palace purge. BUT – if this has gone on awhile (and sounds like it has; wish we had a more precise timeline), I think OP should call in (separately) the ringleaders and say, look, you seem unhappy here. I think you’re a great member of the team and I value your input. But you seem to be having a hard time adjusting to my approach to running things. That’s’ valid, but as I am the manager, the final decision is mine. So – is this just something that’s going to make you more time to adjust to? Or is this not the best place for you anymore? I’d like you to stay, but if you can’t accept my authority here, it’s just not going to work out.

            1. Lora*

              That’s exactly what I mean though – OP outranked Bob and let him go around being a pain in the rear and didn’t discipline him, put a stop to it, or otherwise insist that Bob’s actions were unacceptable. OP had all the power in the world to change how Bob operated, and didn’t. That looks like approval from where the Bobinos are sitting, all the more so because OP has been nothing but open and friendly to folks rather than publicly saying, “Bob, I was done with this behavior five minutes ago.”

          2. i am the OP*

            OP here: Lora, I didn’t know at the time that Bob was sneering at me behind my back. It was later, after he was gone, that employees (other than the Bobettes) told me.

              1. i am the OP*

                Yes. Within the last 6 months. He has little get togethers with the Bobettes twice a year. And they call him if they’re feeling like complaining. I would venture to guess half of it is drama seeking/boredom and half of it is that I’m not running the program the way they’d like to see it run. We have a lot of restrictions that I have nothing to do with. I explain that to them, but for some reason, the Bobettes seem to think I can fight City Hall. Also, I’m sure, knowing Bob, that he’s established himself as the expert on How to Handle the Boss.

                1. Lucille2*

                  This is an interesting post to follow for me because I recently changed jobs and after resigning Old Job, in my perspective, was made to feel very unwelcome by some of the managers. I’m not Bob, and I’m not on any campaign to discredit anyone from Old Job, but a few coworkers came out of the woodwork to tell me how unhappy they are after I resigned. A couple of people whom I managed at Old Job, have even reached out to get my advice about how to handle their manager. I’m very careful not to trash talk based on my experience, but now I wonder what happens after those discussions without my knowledge. People generally hear what they want to hear, even if the message is carefully crafted to be diplomatic.

                  To be fair, I don’t believe my experience is the same as your situation with Bob or his friends. But I don’t think your problem is really with Bob anymore. This does have me reflecting on my own actions.

                2. Working Hypothesis*

                  OP, I’m sorry to say this and I’m really trying hard not to jump on you. I want to help. But I’m a little concerned by just *how* deep the discrepancy runs between your certainty that you’re managing these people really, really well, and their dissatisfaction.

                  They’ve had *five years* of seeing with their own eyes how you run things when Bob isn’t there. They aren’t buying it. You are blaming their not buying it on the fact that Bob “gets them riled up,” but I don’t think that it’s possible for somebody who’s no longer in power over them to get them riled up without their active, willing participation. Certainly not for anywhere near this long.

                  Which means that they are active, willing participants. That, in turn, returns us to the real issue: however you’re managing, they aren’t buying it. Michael Lopp (author of the Rands In Repose blog and the book Managing Humans; Alison references him sometimes) has a lot to say on what’s involved in a staff deciding to buy into what the manager is doing, but it is basically up to the manager to sell it to them in a way that lets them see why it’s the right way. You’re not responsible for getting everyone to come around, but you’re responsible for earning their trust. And since you don’t seem to have it at all, I’m wondering whether there’s anything you can look at on yourself and see what they might see, which would help you understand *why* you do not have their trust, instead of blaming it on outside interference. It’s easy to blame the outsider… but if they were seeing in you what *they* want to see in their director — as distinguished from what you think they *should* want to see! — his comments would not have had the power to affect them for so many years after he left.

                  Something here is about what they see in you, not just about what they hear from Bob. And your dismissive language in talking about their distrust makes me think perhaps it’s related to that. If they don’t feel that your urging then to be open with you about their opinions and concerns is backed up when they tell you about opinions and concerns which are not the ones you think they *should* have (for example, the opinion, “we shouldn’t be changing X even if you have to go to bat with all your political capital for the right not to!”) then of course they won’t want to tell you what their opinions are. Lopp again, in one of his bluntest pointers: “If they don’t trust you, they’re not gonna tell you s**t.”

                  YOU have not won their trust. Start there, and leave Bob aside; if you do win their trust, he can’t hurt you. What are they seeing from *your* behavior which might reinforce the beliefs about you they inherited all those years ago from Bob? Your own descriptions have shown me a few possibilities:

                  -Dismissive attitude when faced with employee concerns you think are foolish

                  -Uses spies to poke into their off-hours activities

                  -Out of touch enough to take years to recognize a serious problem with morale

                  -Very self-satisfied about your management technique, to the point of scapegoating others for your own shortcomings

                  I’m not saying you actually do all these things; I’m saying that someone reading just the words from you that I’ve read could easily come to that conclusion without being stupid or having had to be manipulated by an outsider in order to do so. How much easier, then, is it for your staff to draw conclusions which may be very different from how you see yourself… without needing anything except your own words and actions to lead them to those conclusions?

                  You’ve been treating this as being all about Bob, and it’s not. It’s about a major disconnect between the way you see yourself and the way your staff sees you; and I promise you, your staff’s opinion of you is based FAR more on what they’ve seen you do over the last five years than on anything Bob has told them. You may not be doing anything wrong, per se (although in your shoes I would still try hard to be a lot less certain of that, and go over my own choices with as much of a different lens as I could achieve)… but whatever you’re doing, it isn’t working for your staff. The conclusion may still be that you have to keep doing it, and fire them because you need a staff which *will* buy into your way of doing things. That happens sometimes.

                  But it’s worth thinking a whole lot about the direct relationship between you and your staff, and about what *they* see in your management style… not just what you see in it. Because that’s where the problem lies. Bob is a red herring. If your people were seeing in you the kind of manager you believe yourself to be, he would have zero power.

                3. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Working Hypothesis’s comment is really, really good.

                  My original answer would have been really different if I’d known it had been five years, and I hope I would have written something this good!

                4. i am the OP*

                  I think your point is a good one, working. I have a few former employees that I can explore this idea with and I can certainly work on this idea over the next few months. Thanks for the very honest feedback, it is appreciated!

                5. fennris*

                  This information makes it all seem much more severe than in the letter.

                  My first reaction is honestly to draw some blood. Axe the top contender for ring leader, then start trying to change things. Some people take a consultative approach as a sign of weakness, and you have to show them it’s not before you can get back to business in a friendly fashion.

                  Ongoing leaking of dept information to an ex employee is not on. Also how did it take this long for the people not in the thick of this to inform you about Bob’s actions?

            1. Cathy Gale*

              Sorry about some of the other comments. I think it is very possible for you not to know how deep it went for 4 of the last 5 years, until you were told. Particularly since being the boss, you need to set a certain level of decorum and distance, and are probably juggling many things.

              If this helps, I think the “kill them with kindness” advice really works. A friend of mine managed a mentally ill employee who made threats, and lied about her behavior to people in the community. She documented, and showed transparent, caring behavior. My friend is a former clinician who has psychological training, so when she says this person had a mental illness you can take it to the bank, it’s not an armchair diagnosis. By being transparent, and patient, one of the employee’s friends came to her and said, “You need to know what she is saying about you, and the claims she’s made.” That’s how she eventually found out.

              It took time for her to build that level of trust with many people. It sounds like you are well on your way. Your work sounds really commendable, and I thank you for sharing your experience with all of us.

      1. J.*

        Even if they’re just following the memo that said employees must NOW use offensive language? ;)

        1. Mongrel*

          If you’re OK with salty they have the uncensored outtakes for that episode on Youtube

    7. Jule*

      This would continue the cycle by proving that “loyalty” is more important than doing good work. If the OP wants to discipline and/or fire people because of tangible, specific offenses they make now, then sure, so long. But creating another generation of “if you’re on HIS team, then you’re not on MY team” haters vs. followers is not going to help anyone.

  3. Amber T*

    It is so, soooo tempting to go “Yeah, well Bob’s an even bigger poop face!!!” And even if it’s true (which it sounds like it is), it doesn’t matter, you’re the one in charge, and you have further to fall. You’re the one your employees see 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, so even if he’s still annoyingly present in some of your employees’ lives, it’s not as much. Your newer employees, whom have never worked with Bob or have limited experience with him, will hear these comments from other employees about him and go, “Wait, what? That’s not how I view OP at all.” Eventually, some of the older employees might even realize that this dude retired, why is he still sticking around, go relax on a beach or fish or do anything other than bother your old work place. There will probably be one or two employees who will always be on Bob’s side because loyalty and whatever. But they’ll leave eventually. While I do believe there are good reasons to not always take the high road, this is a good example where it’s important to stay there.

    (By older, I mean employees who have been there the longest and have worked with Bob.)

    1. JokeyJules*

      I agree. OP, you’re doing great, and you seem like a great manager.
      Continue being great and they’ll stop or leave or get bored.

      1. Isben Takes Tea*

        Right…to ignore it completely means to ignore any active harm the current employees are doing. Alison’s advice is spot-on: address problematic behaviors individually, outside the scope of Bob.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          Yep – ignoring BOB is totally fine. Bob doesn’t work there; Bob shouldn’t have a say. Ignoring the behavior of employees that are argumentative or refusing to follow managerial direction is no good. The current employees cannot be ignored if they are continuing to perpetuate Bob’s issues back into the workplace. Bob doesn’t have to be a subject of conversation – it’s, “We’re going to do X this way now, can I count on you to do X going forward?”, “We talked about this. I need you to follow X protocol.”, etc.

        1. Specialk9*

          Yeah, it’s like, uhhhh is this your first time on AAM?! We’re all here to become better workers and managers (and to gossip).

      2. Cat Herder*

        Right, and it is no doubt driving crazy more recent hires and people who want to do good work and people who didn’t like Bob — people in any of those categories. BTDT. A good manager will work with the Bobettes individually and, if they don’t get with the program, send them on their way. Such a relief when the Bobettes leave and one can work without unprofessional behavior and negativity swirling around.

        1. i am the OP*

          Yes, I think this is a good answer. Dealing with them individually, and continuing to listen and be a stellar manager is the strategy I need to follow.

    2. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Ignoring a bully is the worst thing you can do. Doing nothing means they have complete control and have no boundaries.

      1. BRR*

        I think in this case doing something about it is giving him control though. By not taking noticeable, direct action the lw is not letting him have control.

        1. Frankie*

          Yeah, I think there’s an important part of this strategy that amounts to robbing a conflict of its power/fuel by not overtly acknowledging it, and starting to play by different rules. It doesn’t mean ignoring it completely or taking no action, which would be very bad. I’ve seen baiting/bullying that works like this and part of how it thrives is on manipulating the target of the bullying into performing the conflict in front of others.

      2. Old Admin*

        In the light of the fact that the negativity continued for *five years* (see comments by OP as “i am the OP”), Snarkus’ point has been 110% proven.
        By inadvertently ignoring the bully, the OP let Bob continue do his damage with impunity and full control! *shudder*
        I have the impression the Bobettes *now* need very clear boundaries, a single warning, and probably replacement. This horrific culture is way too deeply ingrained.

        1. Cathy Gale*

          Yes, and once that happens, she can get on with the good work. I do think it’s going to take a little finesse, but it’ll be possible to clean house soon.

    3. I'm A Little Teapot*

      I just left a job where management seems to be doing the “ignore it and move on” approach. They’re very quickly getting to the point where everyone in the (small, connected) industry knows about the problems and people don’t want to go there. At some point, they’re going to have to do a massive housecleaning of the management team to even start to fix it. After that, it’ll likely take YEARS.

  4. Caroline*

    Ouch! This sucks OP, I’m sorry Bob has turned out to be a weed with well-established roots. Alison’s advice is brilliant, though I admit the ‘what not to do’ option is exactly what I would have done!

  5. MuseumChick*

    OP, I have seen this dynamic play out a number of times. People in general have a real problem with change, Bob and his little fan club seem to be an extreme of that. I agree with Alison the best thing you can do is be aggressively good at your job. If you are not already try doing this: In staff meetings give hard metrics that show the improvements that are happening: “Regarding Program X, Jane has been working really hard at making improvements to the over all management of it and I’m really please to report that because of those changes *insert positive things*”

    1. nonymous*

      Also be heavy with praise. I’m not suggesting gold star for showing up at work stuff. But definitely acknowledge that the change being asked for is pushing people out of their comfort zone.

      LW talks about how they come to a decision after soliciting feedback from multiple sources; their staff doesn’t have that perspective, so they also don’t get the benefit of emotionally processing that the change is coming. Plus it sounds like part of the staff is on the very resistant end of the change spectrum. So basically, LW is asking people with fewer resources (time, information, inclination for change) to do the same emotional pivot. rinse and repeat. And if that wasn’t part of the culture before, it is a huge ask and needs to be acknowledged.

      The one area that is unclear to me is how LW is preparing their staff for changes. If the culture was pretty stagnant before simply due to market forces, it may be that LW needs to provide some expectation-setting. Before presenting a pivot due to changing client needs, prepare them by showing how the market is affecting clients, or how the org’s product fits a different client base now in 2018 vs 1998, or what their competitors are doing. Not that the org has to follow every new trend, but there’s a point when surviving trends become the new normal and staff may be naively unaware.

      Could some of this may just be the org’s natural inertia? In my workplace it’s pretty common for upper management to play musical chairs every few years and the shift always seems to come with a reorg or a new value statement or whatever. But our daily work still needs to get done and when all the self-congratulatory ppt and emails have died down, not much has ultimately changed in the trenches even if incremental improvements are made. Bob’s retirement and people including LW in the grapevine makes me wonder if the org is moving at a glacial pace, but it’s just slower than LW expects? That’s a bigger cultural shift than just dealing with Bob-who-won’t-leave.

      1. designbot*

        Agreed. Or maybe it’s not praise for everyone, because not everyone responds to that. But identify a few people who you think have influence, and find a way to make things better for them. Put them on a project type they’ve been pushing to learn more about, find a way to alleviate a kink in their workflow, get them help if they’ve been underwater… but find a way to turn them, where nobody could argue against the fact that you have directly improved their situation.

        1. i am the OP*

          I think there’s room for some of your advice by establishing a best practices sharing program. This is something I can do, at weekly meetings, have staffers share quick short tips and strategies and discuss with all of us how we can utilize these ideas to help alleviate the workload. I’m totally into that. And yes, nonymous, organization moves at a glacial pace, but I was very sensitive to that when I had to introduce the latest project. You’d think a volcano erupted and spewed lava all over their homes the way the Bobettes reacted.

          1. Old Admin*

            … and there’s your answer if you can *really* work with these people long term.
            No, you cannot.

  6. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    First off – well done on being so self aware and working hard to be an awesome manager.

    Secondly – Bob has a personal vendetta because he does. People who thrive on chaos and negativity always have it out for someone. You were an easy target because you were younger and came in years later. Don’t engage with what he’s doing. That’s what he wants. And there is no winner there.

    1. J.B.*

      There is definitely a type of person who creates drama in order to save the day. It is no fun when such people become managers.

  7. Amber Rose*

    Man, some people just do not have anything better to do with their time than be nasty and bitter. LW, he’s already a sad, sad little man. You don’t need to do anything about that except be the best at your job you can possibly be (which it really sounds like you already are). And if he’s created some little weeds in your team, well, you have the power to root them out if they don’t behave. Don’t be afraid to use it if you need to.

  8. Crystal Smith*

    I agree with Alison’s advice, and what’s more, I think you should take it as a good sign that people are telling you what’s going on with Bob! I had a coworker who *loved* gossiping (and frequently flat-out lying) about coworkers, including me, and I found that the only way to handle it was to just endeavor to do a good job and not engage with her. I knew it was working because every once in a while, someone would approach me and tell me things my other coworker was saying about me, and that they had believed her at first but after having worked with me for a while no longer did. It was frustrating as heck, but at least I knew what she was up to and that people disagreed with her!

    1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

      Yup. I have a coworker who does the same – especially with new people in our department. It’s obnoxious. (Although, I’ve turned it into a fun game to watch when new coworkers come to their own conclusions.)

    2. Let's Talk About Splett*

      Yup. I had a Bob, too, and this is the only way to handle it. Don’t get into a pissing contest with a skunk.

  9. HarvestKaleSlaw*

    I’m willing to bet that in the little knot of toxic lifers, there is one person who is the main conduit to/from Bob. Someone who likes to get him riled up and is feeding off continuing the drama. If Bob’s not there in the day-to-day, he just isn’t in a position to fuel this thing all on his own.

    It’s not going to necessarily be obvious which person is the real Captain Drama – expert instigators are like ninjas and like to hide behind some loudmouth who will appear to be the main problem-causer – but I bet if you locate and shitcan the key person, things will improve rapidly.

    1. I'm A Little Teapot*

      yes. When there’s one or a few people really KEY to the toxic environment, removing them will have a very quick impact. It may not fix everything, but it’ll help a lot. Identifying them is the hard part.

    2. SunshineOH*

      100%. Someone is keeping Bob informed about what you’re doing – probably for no other reason than to sit back and enjoy the drama. Find that link and put a stop to it.

    3. Polymer Phil*

      Excellent point about expert instigators being like ninjas. I’ve seen this happen before with office drama, where someone trying to start rumors/drama feeds information to a known gossiper, then stands back and enjoys the show.

    4. Tangerina Warbleworth*

      That’s what I was thinking. There may be a leader or two who are doing most of the damage, and others who are too cowed by them or too junior to go against them.

      Maybe it’s time to hold those leaders to a very high standard and boot them if they don’t improve…?

    5. i am the OP*

      I think you might be onto something here. I need to have a little discussion with my source (s), lol.

      1. PersonalJeebus*

        Crossing my fingers that your source isn’t part of the problem! Letting you in on it at this late stage would be a good way to feed the drama that they’re getting off on. I hope you can clear things up soon.

      2. Working Hypothesis*

        I worry a bit about you and your “source.” It sounds as if they’re feeding into the drama here too, by reporting to you all about what Bob is doing, when it’s really about you and your employees. Bob is not the part which should be concerning you, and having a spy who tells you about employees’ off-hours conversations with friends who no longer work there is not going to look good to your staff (including perfectly reasonable, otherwise contented staff) if they find out. I’m not at all sure you can trust this spy not to play the drama game in reverse by taking to the Bobettes the news that you’re asking them about the Bobettes’ out-of-office social gatherings.

        Be careful about using any technique you wouldn’t want to be caught using. Especially when that involves somebody who’s proven they enjoy moving around information for the purpose of stirring up disagreements.

    6. Specialk9*

      I used to be the loudmouth who Drama Ninjas would get riled up, then sit back and look innocent while I fought to fix their problems. I got burned badly enough that I learned to let people fight their own battles.

  10. Frankie*

    The advice is really spot-on. He’s baiting you and attempting to continue to engage you in the same conflict well after he’s gone. Any formal indication that it’s you vs. him will add more fuel to the fire and gratify Bob, so he’ll feel vindicated and keep doing it. If you take the bait, he “wins,” where winning is whatever internal dominance battle he has to win to feel good about himself and in control of his life. :/

    The people you manage who are still in contact with Bob are also still personally identifying in some way with the conflict and that’s why they’re continuing it. I don’t think you can control this, either, but I do think the only path open is the one suggested–if negativity continues, some direct conversations about it that don’t acknowledge Bob at all and that frame it as a performance issue (which it is) are mostly what you have in your arsenal. Anything else, I’d think, would risk those employees further entrenching themselves.

    1. Totally Minnie*

      And if you do sit down with a problem employee to address the behavior and THEY bring up Bob, shut it down right then and there.

      “When Bob was here…”
      “We’re not talking about Bob. We’re talking about your behavior at the XYZ meeting.”

  11. animaniactoo*

    It sounds like it’s actually already BEEN some time – OP references the last 6 months/year that she and Bob worked together, but not how long ago that was. My impression with the description of smoothing out workflow, etc., is that it’s been at least that long since Bob retired.

    Given that, I would start those one-on-one convos with the Bobettes now to talk about the negativity spreading. However, for this first conversation, I would not go straight to the “I want to be clear that my concerns are serious ones, and I need to see these changes in order to keep you in your role.” State that you see it as a serious issue, yes. But mostly I’d want to avoid the appearance/implication that you might go on a round of Bob-friend firings because you want to clear the office of XYZ – you don’t want that to be the next bit of “gossip”. Hopefully, you end up only having to have the more *serious* convo about keeping people in their roles with a few of the Bobettes which will do a lot to remove any aroma of “wholesale clearing” “treated the old employees badly at the end”, and so on.

      1. i am the OP*

        He left five years ago. I only found out about his little work centered dinners in the last 6 months. I did think that the toxic behavior was reinforced by someone else who I let go, but it wasn’t the case.

  12. Alice*

    I’d really try to avoid using the word “abusive” here. Rude, counterproductive (if he cares about the mission of the organization), unprofessional, unkind — sure. But “abusive” seems over the top and might fit into whatever he is saying about you supposedly being unfair to him.

    1. Myrin*

      This is really interesting to me as a non-native speaker! While I’m now used to “abusive” really only being used when it comes to classical abusive relationships, back when I started learning English, I was taught it also meant something like “scathingly insulting”; in fact, I (weirdly, really, why do I remember that of all things?) remember that the first expression for “swear word” I learned was “term of abuse”. Is that one of these things where there was a shift in meaning over time but schoolbooks haven’t been updated?

      (Sorry if that’s too off-topic, Alison – please delete right away if that’s the case, I can bring it up on Sunday instead!)

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        It’s really context-dependent! There are definitely times when it refers to generally being a jerk — in particular, phrases like “abusing privileges” don’t have a connotation of things like abusive relationhips, it just means taking advantage in an unfair way. We also refer to “abusive clients” or “abusive language” in professional settings to mean being an excessive jerk. But there are also situations where it does have a much more specific meaning, usually to do with domestic or intimate partner situations.

        1. Myrin*

          Aha, I figured something like that. Thanks so much for explaining, especially with the different examples!

          1. RUKiddingMe*

            Lots of words have common usages that we connect them with all the time that nevertheless are perfectly correct when used for situations that are not, or not even close to the commonly encountered situations. For example a while back I told my husband to **”stop molesting the cats.” English is his seventh language. He basically only knew “molest” in one specific context. And a good laugh was had by all as I explained it to him. †

            **He was just playing with them…he wasn’t doing anything wrong…just want to point that out.

            †Then there was the time I was talking to my son about the cats (because of course it was about the cats) and I said something about one of them being particularly persnickety. Husband looked at me like I’d grown a second head and said “is that a real word?” That was about 11 years ago. He’d only been speaking English for a couple years at the time. Today he is effectively fluent.

      2. CM*

        I’ve never heard “term of abuse” or heard “abuse” used in reference to swear words (born and raised in New York). It’s true that you can use “abuse” to mean insults, as in, “I won’t stand for any more of this abuse!” but it feels like an escalation to refer to the exact same behavior as “abusive.” As you’ve noticed, typically “abusive” is not used in the same way and is reserved for abusive relationships.

      3. RUKiddingMe*

        I’ve never before heard of swear words being called a “term of abuse” but I can make that connection sure. I don’t think it’s something that we would use on the regular, but depending on what is being said, and who it is being said to, circumstances, etc., sure swear words cold be terms of abuse.

    2. Teapot librarian*

      See, I read Bob’s behavior very similarly to the behavior of my own “Bob,” who I think truly is gaslighting me, and gaslighting is a classic abuse technique.

    3. Cathy Gale*

      I disagree that “abuse” is an over the top description of the behavior. I believe that Bob’s belittling of OP, and his need to keep this gravy train of cultural indigestion stoked with new coal, is by definition, abusive.

      Secondly, why should she worry about parsing specific words, in situations where the term is accurate? Using plain-spoken terms and not euphemisms also shows that there won’t be any beating around the bush: either the Bobettes get with the program, or they need to find a place that better fits their values.

      This doesn’t mean she has to come to the Bobbettes and say, “Cease your abuse!” But when she describes the culture that they will be part of, saying that certain kind of abusive behaviors will not be tolerated will send a clear message.

  13. DMLOKC*

    This is brilliant and insightful and concise. Thank you, Allison. I am going to share this paragraph again and again inside and outside my work-world, my manager-peers will all appreciate this. “Instead, double-down on the kind of culture you want. Commit yourself deeply to operating fairly and transparently, and be an aggressively superb manager: set clear expectations and goals and help people meet them; give lots of positive, sincere feedback when people do well and clear, actionable feedback when they should be doing things differently; meet regularly with people one-on-one to debrief recent work and problem-solve; address problems forthrightly; be kind but hold people accountable; talk to people about their own goals for their work and themselves and help them put together plans to achieve them; solicit input and give it a fair hearing; share your own thought process and how you’re making decisions; and talk explicitly about the kind of culture you want and enlist people in sharing their ideas about how to build it.”

  14. Formerly Arlington.*

    I’ve seen this happen a number of times, and the pattern usually is that once the toxic person is gone for a long enough time and the manager rewards good behavior/appropriately addresses toxic behavior, the rest of the team figures out where their bread gets buttered and stops caring about the “Bobs” of the world.

    1. Bostonian*

      That’s a good point. Bob is no longer responsible for their raises and performance reviews, so their loyalty should fade over time.

    2. Cat Herder*

      Most of the rest of the team will figure it out. But if there’s still one or two hard-core Bobettes, they are making life miserable for everyone else. They have to get with the program or get gone.

  15. DCompliance*

    You cannot control Bob’s behavior, but you can certainly address things with the employees who are coming to you with things Bob’s been saying and doing. Turn your focus away from Bob and focus on your current employees.

  16. The Doctor*

    As long as Bob continues to undermine you, the best thing to do is to “undermine” him right back — by continuing to be a respectful and thoughtful boss who seeks staff input while keeping the organization’s mission front and center.

  17. Q*

    Alison’s advice is spot on, what Bob is doing is pretty bizarre and there’s no way to fight it except remove the truly bad apples. If the worst offenders are let go it may force the other employees to wake up and stop perpetuating the negativity. It’s amazing what just one negative person can do to an office when you’re exposed to them every day.

  18. cactus lady*

    Alison, thank you for answering this question. I was about to write you with a similar situation. This advice is so helpful.

  19. Contracts Killer*

    OP wondered why Bob is doing this. It’s not an answer, but a comparison. Someone in our office left after less than a year for a job with better hours, more prestige, better pay, really an all around better job. Right before he left, I took over his clients and we disagreed on how to handle a particular matter. From what the client later told me, he didn’t even seem to like the client very much or be passionate about what they do. Fast forward three months and the ex-employee called my colleague to inquire about how I was doing when representing his client and offered to confidentially give him advice if the colleague thought my advice was sub-par. I have no idea why he did this. He seemed completely emotionally un-invested in the job and client while he was here.

    I’m not sure how much this factors in, but at the time I was a female in my early 30s (looking like I was in my early 20s) and he was a much older male. So, my comment is really just to commiserate that this happens and you may never understand why.

    1. Anonymeece*

      Also OP says that Bob retired, which might mean that he’s … well, bored. And he might frame it as “keeping in touch”, but some people get a kick out of stirring up malicious gossip.

      As for your last point – I kind of wonder too. I was in my early twenties when I started as a supervisor, and several of my employees were men in their late 60s. I had the hardest time with getting them to respect me and my decisions (as well as very patronizing, “Well, what you *should* do…”). I don’t know if OP is female, but if she is, I think it definitely could be a factor.

      But honestly? Some people are just jerks. I’m sorry you have to deal with this, OP. It sounds tough and you sound like a great manager, so hang in there!

      1. H.C.*

        Yeah, that’s my read on it too (stirring up crap ’cause he’s bored + an unhealthy dash of “back in my pre-OP days…”)

      2. i am the OP*

        I do think it has to do with a. age difference b. me being a less traditional top down manager than he was used to, he liked authoritarian bosses, and c. I’m just a girl.

  20. ella*

    Kinda random, but when Alison mentioned “draining Bob of his power,” I got a picture of a cartoon villain with some kind of magical crystal in my head. You’re doing a Care Bear Stare, OP! Soon the malevolent spirit shall be vanquished.

  21. Observer*

    OP, I noticed that you are really trying to think about why Bob is doing this. It seems to me that you would be better of not even considering that any more. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.

    It could be that you actually did something to him, but he’s had more than ample opportunity to address that. It could be that he’s just a bitter person who thrives on meanness and pettiness. Or he could be a bigot who has a problem with your age, gender or other demographic. In none of these cases is there anything you can or should do about it.

    At this point your response is the same, regardless. Bob is a persona non grata at your organization, and your discussion with staff focuses on what they are doing (or not doing), not Bob.

    Also, please make sure that you make it clear to staff that sharing confidential information with Bob will be treated with the same severity as sharing that information with pretty much anyone else. Bob doesn’t work there anymore, and all of your confidentiality rules apply to interactions with Bob just the same as if he were some rando off the street.

  22. Bea*

    Retirement or changing jobs doesn’t make your deep rooted feelings vanish into air. So I understand why he’s still thinking and spouting off about things despite being gone. After leaving my toxic job, all my team came together to revisit stories and the massive crud we had trudged through side by side. We swapped war stories and detoxed.

    What’s wrong here is that they’re bringing the negativity to the office and creating a visible divide instead of an internal one.

    I’m hoping time and consistency will be the key for you. You have a good mindset and the crew you built on your side. Work with the Bobbettes and create a relationship with them. They will drift from Bob in time or soften if you’re good at showing them things will become better and the changes to routine will become basic after the “new” wears off.

    Actions are key. When you’re explaining things, you risk too much. Show them Bob isn’t their leader anymore and they are welcome to evolve with you.

  23. OhGee*

    Holy cow, now that I see that OP said Bob has been gone five years, I’m not sure anything but cleaning house will put an end to this.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      And honestly, even doing that, this has gone on for so long that LW may not be able to repair any damage to her reputation.

      1. Cathy Gale*

        Yeah, but I don’t think OP needs to worry too deeply about that, assuming she can keep working excellently. There isn’t an eminent soul that doesn’t have detractors.

        I’m sure someone, somewhere has something nasty to say about Ron Howard or Tom Hanks, but… generally… this is part of what it means to be the boss. Not everyone is going to like you, and often people take that into account when they are told about your reputation.

  24. Delta Delta*

    I can’t really tell how long Bob has been gone from the organization – maybe a few months? I think probably a couple things are going on. First, Bob still has friends there and it’s probably reasonable they’d spend some amount of time together. Second, it might’ve felt like a slow breakup to Bob, and he may feel sad about leaving a place he obviously enjoyed (this is not your problem). Third, the Bob Loyalists still like Bob. They may feel like the organization ran a certain way, OP came in, everything changed and now even Bob is gone.

    But. Bob will fade. He will find new things to do in retirement other than “let’s stir up trouble down at the old shop.” His calls to the Bob Loyalists will lessen. The Bob Loyalists will continue doing their jobs – or not; maybe some will quit. Those who are still there will continue to take calls from Bob but probably less frequently. There may be Bob Loyalists who are Turncoats and who take Bob’s calls just because he calls but who may not even like Bob all that much.

    This has already been suggested, but I’m going to suggest helping to create/continue a culture of positivity and good work in the workplace. The Bob Loyalists may listen to Bob gripe when they meet for coffee, but then come back to work and think, “you know, things are pretty good here.” If people don’t want to be there because of outside Bob pressures, that’s on them. They know how to leave.

    1. Temporarily Anon*

      OP commented that Bob’s been gone for five years. He’s pretty darned invested (and his loyalists are also) in keeping the toxicity going.

  25. Annoyed*

    Alison can I just say that I love how you phrase things? Talking about possibly not being able to keep them in the role… Whereas I would’ve been much more blunt and just said “fire their asses.“ LOL

    1. soon 2be former fed*

      Yep, the house is filthy and needs a deep cleaning. The time for swiffering is over.

  26. animaniactoo*

    OP, based on the information that this has been going on for 5 years – and it sounds like it’s something you’ve been trying to combat since becoming more recently aware of it? Maybe not more than 2 years?

    I’d like to suggest a different approach. This is rooted in the idea that some people may be the unhappy recipients of the toxicity but don’t feel they are empowered to shut it down.

    So depending on what works best for your organizational setup, I think I would try calling meetings either the whole organization at once, or department by department. And be open about what you expect and what won’t be tolerated.

    Discuss the fact that you’re aware that there are some outside opinions coming in and that if people are concerned, you are open to hearing those concerns as your *general* mode of operation is to seek consensus and feedback and this is no different. Talk about the fact that the outside opinions may not have enough familiarity with the current state of the org to form an accurate opinion about what is going on or why (this is key – you want it in people’s heads that Bob doesn’t have all the inside info anymore about what’s going on with the org). Do keep it broad though, because people may be going home and discussing something with a spouse or a friend and even if they’re bringing the Bob stuff there, if that friend or spouse is going “Hmmm, sounds like Bob might have a point there”, then that becomes a piece of the issue.

    Lay out how you want disagreement to be handled – including shutting down the negative trashtalking if one is on the receiving end of it. You EXPECT them to halt the person doing it and state that it’s not productive and move the conversation on from that point. Redirecting the person talking to you to discuss whatever reservations they have if necessary. What you’re doing here is giving the people who WANT to do something about this active permission to do so. While still saying that sometimes – you expect that some decisions will be unpopular and you don’t want people not to be able to voice that. Just that the snarking about it needs to stop. Immediately. Because you take this very seriously and it’s a problem you expected to be resolved by now.

    Ask for feedback now in those meetings – what issues do they have with the way the org/their department is operating currently? Talk about them. Talk about how you came to whatever decision it was. Talk about your future goal and how you see getting there. Talk about what might be immediately possible. Note stuff for future consideration and then make sure you act on at least some of those concerns in the near future.

    Basically – go to war by making it clear that you’re aware of the outside influence. You’re as open as you’ve ever been to feedback and you expect people to be aware of it and coming to you and supporting the work even when they don’t agree with a decision – knowing that it was a carefully considered decision and not a random and impulsive one. But you’re done tolerating the negative outside influence having an impact on the current environment of the org.

    And then you might have some key one-on-one meetings as follow-ups. “Do you think you can commit to working here under the conditions that I outlined in the meeting earlier?”

  27. Jessie the First (or second)*

    OP, Bob has been gone for 5 years??

    See, at this point, I don’t think it can be that just one person is stirring up trouble and one person is spreading toxicity. If it has been 5 years since Bob left and there is still the drama and undermining, then the place is toxic evil bees all over. It’s more than Bob. Way, way more than Bob.

    So I think you may be focusing on the wrong issue – you’re focused on Bob and his need to be a backbiting, undermining drama llama. You are thinking about it in terms of the trouble Bob is causing and how to get it to stop.

    But Bob isn’t causing trouble, 5 years past his retirement. You’ve got a gaggle of *current* employees and *those* employees are the problem. It’s not about Bob, or the gossip he participates in; he’s not stirring things up. You have current employees who are stirring things up.

    1. i am the OP*

      Yes. And I think the Bobettes need a conversion program to help them get used to the old/new regime. Bob is perpetuating trouble, but there’s probably one or two Bobettes in tandem with him, and I’m going to have to root it out and make it stop.

      1. Clare*

        TBH I’m not really sure what you can do about it at this point. Bob and the Bobettes are allowed to be friends outside of work and are allowed to socialize together. When coworkers and former coworkers get together it’s normal for work to be a topic of conversation. You need to be careful not to sound like you are policing their social life. They can get together in their free time with Bob and complain about the boss all they like- that’s not your problem. But they still need to come into work, do their jobs, and behave professionally while doing so. Your focus really needs to be only on the office and work side of things, and not on who the employees spend time with on their days off.

      2. Lucille2*

        I don’t think it’s even Bob at this point. It’s a Bob Loyalist who probably enjoys seeing Bob’s influence get under your skin. I’ve managed people like this before; the type who use manipulation and drama to detract attention from their own issues. Maybe performance-based or otherwise. They’re usually pretty entrenched in an organization and have a lot to lose if managed out. The time has past for nipping this in the bud unfortunately, so it’s a ship to turn around.

        1. soon 2be former fed*

          I agree. It’s been going on too long for anything other than drastic action to stop it. OP is very patient.

      3. Tabby Baltimore*

        OP, I think you mentioned upthread that you are inclined to talk to each person individually. If, in that conversation or in a later one, you mention how–if the unprofessional behavior continues–you’ll have to (re: Alison’s script) “see these changes in order to keep you in your role,” I’d note their reactions. Specifically, I’d note whether the employee’s response includes making what *you* would consider to be an inappropriate play for your sympathy by pleading for her job, or by trying to inspire your pity for her (for whatever reason), as a way to get you to mitigate your seriousness about potential firings. I have to admit that I would view that kind of response as an indicator that I was talking to the Primary Toxic Bobette, especially if all the other employees react *without* trying to make that play. This will be a very difficult thing to discern, and you may ultimately be unable to figure it out. Please do send us an update on how you handled the situation, and what the result was.

    2. Michaela Westen*

      Bob has been gone for 5 years and has nothing better to do than cause drama in his former workplace. How pathetic!
      I have to wonder how he doesn’t have anything better to do. No hobbies or interests? Maybe undermining OP is his hobby!
      But even at that, such a sustained effort makes me wonder what his goal is. Is he trying to get back into the organization? Maybe stage a coup or something? He’s been watching too much TV…

  28. Phoenix Programmer*

    Ohh OP much sympathy!

    I had a similar situation when I served on the board of directors. With someone trash talking me and poisoning new members against me. Even when she left the board she still continued her campaign against me until my term ended.

    Alison is completely right. Trying to explain anything or defend yourself just comes across as petty. Your only recourse is to be awesome and weed out the worst offenders for legitimate, transparent work reasons.

    1. Phoenix Programmer*

      Oh just saw the comment that this has been ongoing for 5 years. I still don’t think it changes Alison’s advice though. Really focus on holding the long time staffers to acceptable workplace culture.

  29. J.E.*

    I wonder why Bob still cares so much? He chose to retire, does he not have anything else to do in his retirement? If I were to retire I’d be so busy with other stuff. I’d be traveling and hardly be home and forget about still caring about what went on at the office. There would be tire marks there from my leaving so fast :-) Bob is what happens when work dominates your life to the exclusion of everything else.

    1. i am the OP*

      You make a good point. Bob needs a life. Even before retirement, Bob always needed a life. Bob doesn’t have any intellectual pursuits that I know of and he’s very smart, so this is what happens when you don’t use your brain. It boomerangs on you and becomes toxic.
      That’s what I think, the truth is, I wish I knew.

  30. Laurelma_01!*

    Would this work? Meet with Bob’s team and discuss what you’re want from them in the future. Do not bring him up. What your employer’s goals are, your goal as a manager is, and what goals you want them to have as a team? Discuss Morale, team building, working as a unit towards a goal, respect, and the role that gossip plays in dissatisfaction, new future, fresh start, etc. Tell them that you are treating them with respect & expect the same. Some of the other readers may have some verbiage that might work for you. Are the various teams group by job titles, duties, etc.? If you want to keep some of them I recommend doing some reorganization and break the group up. Add the to other teams if possible. If you are leaning towards getting rid of them, have a talk with them about their team’s negative impact, etc. Give them the option of resigning if they are unwilling to meet you halfway in resolving this problem. If they continue in being a problem after this discussion, or it becomes getting more underhanded, terminate them. I would document the discussion & who was present, etc. for your files for protection.

  31. PersonalJeebus*

    This is excellent advice, and a good reminder of why it’s important to be a proactively great manager. Doing so will make it much harder for people to undermine you or poison your work environment.

    Reading posts like this one has helped me understand why I was so unhappy in one previous job. My manager wasn’t terrible, and she was very good at the non-managerial aspects of her job. But I came to her after having worked with a proactive, thoughtful, “aggressively superb” manager who made my working life awesome. Going from that to a manager who only interacted with me to (civilly) correct me and had no interest in one-on-one meetings, much less in hearing my ideas or helping me grow, was incredibly demoralizing.

    OP, it sounds like you’re already on the right track, and taking Alison’s advice will likely win you a lot of loyal employees. I know I would have been unwilling to take seriously any poisonous comments about my “aggressively superb” former boss, even though I knew he had flaws.

  32. voyager1*


    Any chance there was a person who Bob wanted to see promoted into the role instead of you? If so, that would put an interesting dynamic into the mix…

    To me if I had to guess there is someone who really hates you and Bob is just fueling the fire.

  33. Patience is a virtue*

    I did have this go on with a person who I had to let go and was extremely well liked by the staff and I couldn’t share the “behind the scenes” issues. Much drama and not understanding how I could do such a thing. I did what Alison suggests. Transparent in every decision and change. Supportive and mentoring for staff professional growth. The toxic ex employee may have continued her campaign. I wouldn’t know. The atmosphere turned around in about 3 months.

  34. Working Hypothesis*

    There’s one key thing you need to remember, LW: You do not have a Bob problem. You have a long-time staff problem.

    Bob is not your responsibility anymore. You don’t have authority over what he does, or any right to interfere with how he tries to conduct his friendships, including with the people he used to work with. BUT: Bob could not successfully stir up trouble on your staff if your staff were not willing to listen to him and bring *their* feelings about what he tells them into their behavior at the office.

    Bob isn’t your business, but how your staff behaves at the office *is* your business. And you have every reason and every right to expect good office manners, a will-do attitude (given reasonable requests), and a willingness to judge their boss on the results that boss achieves and the way that boss treats them, directly. They have the right to judge you, but they should be judging you on what they’re seeing; not on what somebody else tells them they are seeing.

    Now, I would add to Alison’s advice that this might be a good time to do some serious reflection on just *how* sure you are that you are treating them in a way that’s appropriate, professional and kind; and that not only the organization, but the employees themselves are thriving under your leadership. Because if they really are judging you on what they see, and you mistake it for being judged on Bob’s malicious troublemongering, then you will lose good employees to your own blindness. But assuming you are doing this kind of check-in about your own interactions with your staff, and are truly and deservedly satisfied that you’re treating them as well as a leader should, then you have every right to hold THEM — not Bob!! — responsible for THEIR actions at the office.

    Which, I think, is why Alison suggested that your approach to them be to address their behavior as their own performance problem without mentioning Bob… but she was a little bit indirect in saying that you might have to replace them with “people who haven’t been poisoned by Bob.” Bob can’t poison them. They choose to drink whatever poison he is offering, and poison themselves.

  35. Kate*

    The paragraph about being an aggressively superb manager is a really excellent summary of how to be a good manager. It’s one of the best, if not the best, things I have read here, and there’s some pretty tough competition for that title!

  36. ..Kat..*

    OP, I am sorry that you have been dealing with this for so long. Kudos to you for doing your best to make the job a better place. I don’t have any sage advice, just wishing you the best.

  37. Stephanie*

    Wait, Bob left FIVE YEARS AGO, and he’s still trying to warp views at your work?

    This dude missed his calling, he should have gone into politics.

    Have you checked review sites about your company? There might be other underlying problems besides Bob that are causing problems

  38. Ed*

    Hang on, he’s been gone 5 years and only meets up with your employees twice a year? You don’t have a Bob problem. He’s an issue cause you’ve decided to blame him for this. Sorry but this is your problem. He may have created the atmosphere there but you let it continue and grow. I get you only found out recently that your staff are as toxic as they are but that’s on you. You need to have a come to Jesus moment with everyone. Outline acceptable and unacceptable behaviours in the workplace. Let them know the consequences for not demonstrating a change/willingness to change. Follow through. It’s been 5 years of this. Enough.

  39. Polymer Phil*

    Are there changes beyond your control that cause people to associate Bob with the “good old days?” My last company was going through a slow death spiral, which caused the longtime employees to mistrust newer managers who they associated with the good times coming to an end. The newer managers thought they were dealing with a bunch of Bobettes, stirring up negativity and resisting change. The longtimers were rightfully upset to see the slow decline of a formerly great company, and the whole situation caused a lot of mutual mistrust and cynicism.

  40. Maddie*

    Inform staff generally in writing that the runnings and information of the business is proprietary and cannot be discussed with non-employees. This is common knowledge at many businesses. Make it a condition of employment.

    1. J*

      Nooooo. Trying to police peoples behavior and words on nonproprietary stuff, and let’s face it gossip isn’t protected by an NDA, will earn you the label of ‘crazy paranoid boss’. You cannot tell folks not to talk to bob. That’s a position of weakness that will backfire

  41. Indie*

    OP, what are the visible results of this negativity? Is it possible to just tackle the end result rather than the source? Something like: “I need you to positively embrace (change) and contribute x and y. I heard your concerns during the meeting and accounted for them. Now I need you on board with my final decision. Can you do that?” Feelings tend to follow action.

  42. ArtsNerd*

    Me: People who thrive on toxic drama like this are really sad.

    Also me: makes popcorn and obsessively refreshes page for updates.


  43. Laurlema01!*

    OP, please give us an update and let us know how you handled it? if you were satisfied with the results?

  44. Lynne D.*

    I think something else is going on here which has not been addressed in any of the above comments.

    I worked for an overseas American organization for 13 years that had a very toxic culture. Over the thirteen years I was there, most of the staff changed three or four times over; yet the same toxic culture (mostly in communication and backstabbing, and keeping information from others in power plays) remained.

    Ten years after leaving that organization and having spent now two decades trying to figure out what was going on there; AND having done a lot of personal research and reading of books on management and office culture, I have reached the conclusion that a lot of it had to do with the “founder effect.”

    Even though Bob is not the founder of this discussion ‘s organization, the CULTURE Bob established there is continuing AS A FOUNDER’S EFFECT.

    I think the poster of this thread would to well to read up on founder effects and strategies for combating such; however, many excellent suggestions have already been given in the above comments.

  45. J*

    What Amy said! Bob is not the problem. It’s trmpting to imagine it’s him. But your employees who are doing this are t zombies or robots or children. They are actively participating in toxic workplace behavior. Maybe Bob started it maybe not. Maybe he’s still participating maybe not. But if you can locate the active participants you definitely should lay it down that sowing discord is not a good trait. There are proper channels for complaints and folks who aren’t on board need to maybe go. You may have to fire one or two but it will likely have the effect of shutting down the weirdos. If you call this workplace toxicity out, the ones who double firm are not a good fit; it’s not just the performance e of the tasks. It’s morale and professional behavior. They are all requirements for continued employment. Do t feel guilty about that. The participants are jerks. Do try to change the culture but be prepared to let go of the bad apples.

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