my coworker is rude and insubordinate

A reader writes:

I am a manager in a unique position within my organization — I sit on the sales team, but work closely with all operations departments to coordinate requests from my clients. Essentially I straddle the line between sales and servicing, and work with almost everyone in my organization in some way.

Luckily, we have a wonderful team, and everyone works really well together … except for one person in the accounting department, Ella. She is rude and sarcastic, and worst of all, seems to think the whole act is cute. I work with her frequently, and often receive emails demanding “UPDATE??!!?!” and scolding me, saying “I sent you this invoice two days ago, WHERE is payment?!” She also is not very careful in her work, and I often have to send back the invoices to her several times for updates, before I can send them off to clients. Each time I do, she treats it as a burden, when I wouldn’t have to if she had reviewed them carefully in the first place!
Although our organization is not big on hierarchy, as we all have to work so closely together, I am a level above her (and am a manager, whereas she is not). But, even if we were peers, I would never think to write emails this way to anyone I work with — and she and I are not friends, where we might have this level of rapport.

Additionally, it’s not just me! Ella speaks to everyone in the company this way, all the way up to the executive committee. I know my boss (on the exec committee) has addressed it with her once, asking her what the issue was when she was pouting in a meeting, but I’m not sure anyone has ever addressed her overarching attitude. In our one-on-ones, I’ve also given my boss a brief idea that this is an ongoing issue in my day to day, and my boss has offered support if I need it, but I feel like this is a petty issue to get her involved in.

Because it’s not just me getting this treatment, I feel weird to be the one to call her out on it, although I am one of the few who work with her most frequently. But I want to pull her aside and say “Hey! I need you to email me professionally” in a way that doesn’t make things worse — she is definitely the type to hold a grudge/be passive aggressive. What do you think?

Well, Ella sounds like a delight.

But it’s not your job to cajole or persuade her to behave differently, because someone else in the picture has the authority to simply require it, period: her manager.

So where is Ella’s manager in all this? This is something the manager should handle so that you don’t have to. Her manager is the one with the authority to say, “It’s not acceptable to talk to colleagues this way, and you need to cut this out” — and then to hold her to it.

I’m wondering if the problem is that Ella’s manager — let’s call her Jane — doesn’t know what’s going on, or if she doesn’t realize quite how bad the behavior is, or if she knows but for some reason isn’t doing her job.

Step one here is to figure that out, which means having a fairly blunt conversation with Jane. Say something like this: “I want to bring some pretty serious concerns about Ella to your attention. She’s regularly rude and sarcastic — for example, (insert several particularly egregious examples here). She also frequently makes mistakes on her work, and when I need to send invoices back to her several times so she can correct them, she’s rude about that as well. I can share some of these emails with you so you can see them, but I’m at the point where I need you to step in because she can’t continue talking to me or my staff this way.” You could add, “I’d normally attempt to address this with her directly, but her rudeness is so over the top that I don’t think it will help, and I’m concerned it will actually spur her to worse behavior.”

Here’s where you’ll find out if Jane is likely to do her job or not. If she seems genuinely concerned and tells you she’s going to speak to Ella, great. But given that Ella seems to behave like this with everyone in your office, be prepared for Jane to likely say something like, “Ella is just very difficult,” or otherwise indicate that she feels powerless to do anything about this, even though it’s part of her job to manage her. If that happens, then you know Jane is as much of a problem as Ella herself is, albeit in different ways.

If that’s the case, you may need to take this to someone above Jane, if your own place in the organization’s hierarchy allows you to do that. Or ask your boss to have a similar conversation with Jane, and see if her words and her role carry more weight. I hear you on not wanting to use your boss’s time to intervene with Ella — but this is asking her to intervene in a management issue, which is higher-level stuff.

(To be fair to Jane, I should also note that it’s possible she would love to address the problem but has been told not to by someone higher up — like a senior manager who hates conflict or can’t bear the thought of firing anyone, or went to school with Ella’s mother or who knows what. Even then, though, Jane still shouldn’t be totally hands-off about the situation.)

In any case, if none of this changes anything, then you’re left with three basic options. First, you can transfer the pain of dealing with Ella over to Jane as much as possible, meaning that when Ella sends you rude emails, you forward them to Jane with a note like, “This is obviously not acceptable — can you please address?” There’s a chance that if you make it harder for Jane to ignore what’s happening, she’ll eventually be moved to act.

Or you can talk to Ella directly. You can do that in response to specific incidences of rudeness (“Your tone here is very jarring; please don’t send emails like this” — possibly cc’ing Jane if you really want to drive the point home), or you can attempt a big-picture conversation with her (“When you send agitated emails, it makes it much less pleasant to work with you; can you please rein that in?”). Who knows, maybe everyone has avoided dealing with Ella so much that pushing back against her — professionally, but directly and matter-of-factly — will shock her into treating you with more respect. Or, of course, maybe not — and I know you’re afraid of provoking an even more negative response, but really, if she gets even more hostile, it might be easier to make a case for your organization to finally deal with her.

Or there’s the third option: Try to ignore it. If you realize no one in your organization is going to deal with Ella, the least irritating path for you might be to just let it roll off you. Clearly whatever is going on with Ella is about her and not about you. And you might be able to get yourself into a mental space where you just internally roll your eyes when she’s rude and then move on with your day. Hell, it might even be possible to start seeing her as a character in a bad office sitcom and find her bad behavior amusing. But you’ve in no way failed if you can’t pull that off — she sounds legitimately infuriating, and you aren’t to blame if you can’t laugh at that.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 134 comments… read them below }

    1. Chicken Situation*

      You would loathe my work situation then. I have asked my boss and his boss to address blatant rudeness and hostility with a coworker (noting that he doesn’t have to like me; he just has to be professional) and been told, “That’s just the way he is,” [Manager decades ago] allowed it and now that’s how it is,” “there’s nothing we can do,” etc.

        1. Chicken Situation*

          I should also note that both my boss and his boss cited concerns that the problem employee would claim age discrimination, despite the fact that the employee is much younger than both of those bosses.

          So yeah, I am actively applying now.

          1. Bea*

            They’re so…stunted.

            Being over 40 and fired isn’t automatic discrimination. They have to have proof. And proof is not nearly as easy as you’d imagine…

            I’m sorry these people suck and I hope you find something soon.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Yeah, your bosses suck and are not going to change. Any manager who hides behind age discrimination for performance problems (which they also seem to be avoiding having to deal with) does not know how to do their job.

      1. Lance*

        ‘There’s nothing we can do’

        They sound like they’re probably the type of people to not believe in things like PIP’s, or really any disciplinary activity in general. That’ll sure make for a well-functioning workplace…

      2. It's mce*

        I hate to say it but if this co-worker treated your manager that way, the outcome would be different. You shouldn’t have to put up with this behavior.

      3. Artemesia*

        “Well I don’t put up with rudeness, that’s just the way I am, so I am going to send every rude request or poorly drafted product to you to handle, since I don’t tolerate rudeness in the workplace.”

      4. cheluzal*

        Yuck. “That’s just how she is” is what my boss told a brand-new first year in her career peer when she went to her with valid complaints (me assisting) over a colleague. Boss went to school with lady in question, who is SO rude….basically the newbie was asked to change her quieter personality to bully back the rude lady, then got booted from the job site when she wouldn’t do that. I was not happy.

      5. Julia*

        And that’s why I left my last job. Weirdly, after a year of telling my boss about the issues with the co-workerS in question, he was still shocked when I left over it. Some people will never see the light.
        I really hope you’ll find something much better soon!!

      6. Eye for an eye*

        Thing is, if they aren’t going to sack Mr Rude for being rude, they aren’t going to sack you for being rude back either.

          1. RUKiddingMe*

            Particularly the “he was rude but she was rude back so she is the one we are firing” scenario. Yeah…still happens in 2018.

  1. JokeyJules*

    Ella’s manager definitely needs to be involved in this. this sort of behavior is very abusive and toxic. Please document these nasty behaviors and talk with your manager about it. Sadly, I don’t think any critique or suggestion of being nicer would go over well with her at all coming from you. It likely wont be received well by her manager, but that’s their fish to fry.

    Good luck, OP!

    1. Former Doormat*

      If you allow someone to treat you like dirt they will keep doing this. You need to pull them up on their behaviour right away.

  2. Eulerian*

    Count down the days until someone higher up completely explodes at her for insubordination.

    And then toast marshmallows on the embers it leaves.

    1. ElspethGC*

      Schadenfreude smores!

      But seriously, surely one of these days someone higher up will call her out on it. Right? Please say right.

    2. the gold digger*

      That’s what I’m doing with my Ella. I’m waiting for her to be her rude self to someone more important than I am. For now, I’m just whittling my marshmallow stick.

      1. JamieG*

        When I worked retail, I had a coworker like that – just super rude to everyone, including customers. When she got fired 2 days before Christmas, the prevailing theory is that a high- level manager called in and she answered the phone (one of our main jobs) with “what?” as she sometimes did no matter how much I asked her not to.

    3. Julia*

      I just think that many Ellas of this world somehow know exactly who they can be rude to and who they have to schmooze up to to make the complainant seem insane. :(

    4. Hey Anonny Anonny*

      We’ve an Ella, too. She’s been very rude to our boss and grandboss, and nothing happened. However, if I were to say the same words, in the same tone of voice, I’d be written up. Our bosses are so dependent on her they will never deal with her bad attitude since it would eventually get her terminated. Amazingly, she only has a HS education, so it’s not like she has advanced training and would be difficult to replace. Several employees have complained about her, and our grandboss apologizes to them for her rude behavior. She’s even won several employee recognition awards and the Administrative Assistant of the Year award in our state association, even though she acts this way in full view of administrators!

      1. Tom*

        This makes me ask / wonder if your Ella might have something on some higher ups.
        Something that could damage them professionally or personally, or this person is in a relationship with one of the decision makers there.
        Otherwise, I would think no really professional company would allow this going on for longer than 2 weeks.

      2. min*

        While I’m absolutely not defending your Ella or the bosses who excuse her behavior, I do take issue with your assumption that she would be easily replaced because she only has a hs education. What makes a person great at their job often has very little to do with what they learned in college.

        1. Hey Anonny Anonny*

          I agree that a HS education does not mean that someone cannot be excellent at their jobs; we have plenty of people here with a HS education who are great at what they do. Our Ella replaced someone who had extensive knowledge of accounting, and while she is knowledgeable about many areas of our business, does not have the training and theory to deal with problems when they arise. Ella would also regularly interrupt and talk over two other employees with accounting degrees in our department, and the higher-ups would listen to Ella instead–even when people were talking about their own job duties! Hope that makes sense!

  3. Bunny Girl*

    I hope Ella’s manager steps up with this. I’ve had two instances where I brought up someone’s over the top difficult behavior and was told both times that “they are just a difficult person”. Then WHY DO THEY WORK HERE?

    1. Not a Real Giraffe*

      Right – and sometimes the difficult behavior is overlooked when it comes from a top performer whose value to the company is high, but it sounds like Ella is difficult, rude, AND her work output is poor, so I truly don’t get why management would let this slide (unless they are, of course, unaware of it).

      1. Doug Judy*

        We had an Ella at my last job, but she was good at her job so they didn’t do anything about the horrible way she treated people. I hope for the people still working there that she never becomes a manager.

        1. Bunny Girl*

          I still don’t get that. Do people understand that there is someone out there who could be an asset to the position and also be a pleasant human being?

          1. Bea*

            They don’t want to put in the work. I’ve seen businesses struggle to fill roles, so they just plug someone in and deal.

            It takes time, energy and effort to find employees. I’ve known many who simply don’t care enough.

            1. Anon anon so anon*

              Regular going anon here to give a manager’s perspective: Sometimes you also care, and you have the conversations, and you have to have them multiple times before you realize the difficult employee isn’t going to change.

              Then your organization makes you document for weeks or months — the clock for HR starts ticking when the documentation starts, not when the behavior started — before they’ll allow you to fire the person.

              1. Observer*

                But that leads to a change of sort, even if it takes time. And, when that’s the situation (good) managers don’t respond “Oh, that’s just the way she is. She’s just a difficult person.”

                1. Anon anon so anon*

                  Good point. I don’t believe I have said that to colleagues about the person I’m thinking of.

              2. Anon anon so anon*

                oh yeah and the difficulty of replacing the person DEFINITELY factors into it. For one difficult employee’s position, our recruiting team had shown me two resumes in six months. When the applicant pool isn’t large (and yes, I know this may have to do with how much of a salary my company was willing to offer, a decision in which I had no say), you step over a broken stair way longer than you would when there are more potential replacements.

                1. Bea*

                  Oh I dig it.

                  I have hired for many positions in my career. Depending on the position and skills you’re looking for, it can take months to find a replacement. I’ve seen former employers also struggle to find a person for my role prior to my start and long after I leave due to the complexity.

                  A lot of non-management folks see people come and go but don’t see the hiring/firing process close up. We see folks here who struggle to find work and it’s easy to think the employment pool is full of awesome hard working people.

                  I went from a small city of tens of thousands to a city with millions plus all the small cities people commute from. And both have been hard to find solid employees within.

              3. NW Mossy*

                And if that person’s manager changes and the prior manager wasn’t documenting well, you start all over again. I had to do exactly that when I inherited a missing stair from my predecessor, and even with my exhaustive documentation and HR’s full-throated support, my then-grandboss second-guessed me after I fired that employee.

                I didn’t end up backfilling the position and we were fine. Turned out that an underperformer soaks up a lot of their peers’ time and freeing them from that burden was more than enough to offset the loss of that set of hands.

      2. Antilles*

        sometimes the difficult behavior is overlooked when it comes from a top performer whose value to the company is high
        I am convinced that the amount of times someone THINKS this is the case drastically outnumbers the amount of times this is ACTUALLY true.
        Sure, the hard numbers might be good, but after he leaves, you usually realize pretty quickly that his replacement can actually put up pretty similar results in a more pleasant fashion.

        1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

          Yes, this. In fact, sometimes after they leave you realize that the way they did their job was inefficient and needlessly arcane, which was why they seemed to be the only one able to do it.

          1. Artemesia*

            OH soooo very true. The last person I actually fired had literally held the division hostage as he was the only person who could work a complicated computerized system he had developed. My first step when being asked to intervene was to get the division direction properly trained, the other employees cross trained and to have a consultant evaluate the process which we changed to simplify with canned software rather than the rube goldberg patchwork they were using. Everything got efficient and when the difficult employee remained a horses patoot about the changes, I fired him. Blowing smoke about how hard the work is, is a standard tactic of difficult employees.

        2. Ama*

          The Ella I worked with, the “she’s a financial genius” excuse (she did budget administration) got batted around for years — what was actually true was that she did whatever her boss wanted even if the departments she worked with hadn’t agreed to it (boss was a piece of work herself) so she was protected her from any complaints.

          Then boss got demoted after spectacularly and publicly botching a big project and lying to her bosses about it, and no one was there to protect Ella the next time a complaint was made. We got rid of both of them in six months, and suddenly budget conversations got 200% easier.

      3. Wintermute*

        I hate the “top performer” excuse. Presumably the business would survive without them if they got hit by a bus tomorrow (though there are certainly places where that’s NOT the case– that one person has the connections, personal access, is the public face of the company, or holds some vital secret, it’s more often that people THINK someone is indispensable when they’re not).

        The reality is that allowing a toxic person turns your department into a waste dump. People that have valuable skills and perform well, they have options and they know what their self-respect is worth, too. So people that have options leave and you become an accumulator– people that have the ability to get employed elsewhere leave and you’re stuck with people that don’t have options, which means you attract low performers. You become attractive to people that value having a manager that will tolerate bad behavior more than they value being disrespected and mistreated. The sole exception are the desperate, risk-averse or people that don’t realize how bad it is who stick around their morale being drained until the bad working environment turns them into the kind of people that bite co-workers (that letter was a case study on how a toxic environment accumulates bad and ends up changing good workers for the worse).

    2. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

      I hate that response! Being difficult is a choice, not an inherent trait like height or eye color, so why is being difficult considered and excuse to treat people poorly?

      1. Anonym*


        It’s easier for some people than others, but it’s still behavior, not some sort of genetic destiny.

      2. Amy Farrah Fowler*

        It’s not an excuse. It’s a manager abdicating a very crucial part of their role.

        It can be a legitimate choice to say “well X is so good at their job, and we know they have a super rare/unique skill set, so we ware willing to deal with the prickliness” but that should be communicated in some way to the people who have to work with this person…

        1. Lexi Kate*

          and if great worker is doing their work well it is hard to fire them for being rude and its its a larger company getting HR on board to fire someone because they are rude would be a nightmare.

    3. BRR*

      I think often times people don’t realize that they can require their direct reports to at least be professional to their colleagues. That they think to let people go the employee has to mess up (or someone higher up thinks an employee needs to mess up to be let go). I had a coworker who was an Ella and at one point she almost became three people’s manager during a restructuring (including my manager). All three of us were debating if we would quit on the spot if Ella became our manager, she was that bad. Allowing Ellas to stay unchecked can cause others to leave. Ella was eventually fired, in no small part to her rudeness. Other coworkers with poor work quality are still here because they’re nice and liked (although that’s another huge issue).

      1. College Career Counselor*

        Bob Sutton (Management prof at Stanford) has a great book called “The No Asshole Rule” about the toll (turnover, sick days, lower productivity, poor attitude on the rest of the team) that people like Ella take on the department/organization around them. He’s written a companion piece “The Asshole Survival Guide” that may focus more on what to do about them (I have not read that one yet).

        1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

          I love that term. My husband’s work has one, in a key position in accounting. No one wants to deal with her so it’s led to a trickle- down effect where entire teams avoid using the purchasing process she’s responsible for as much as possible. Instead they make purchases on their credit cards and get reimbursed.
          You can imagine how fun that is for organizational internal controls and reporting, not to mention employee household finances.

      2. Bunny Girl*

        We had 13 people leave in 6 months all because of one person at old job. I just don’t understand why it’s more worth it to find and fill the spots of 13 people instead of just letting one go.

        1. Lance*

          And that’s just the thing, isn’t it? For any talk about how difficult it might be to replace problem person… how difficult is it to replace/cover for all the people problem person ends up driving out?

        2. Artemesia*

          I know someone at a company that gets very high ratings as a great place to work; he is leaving for a cool new job. He will be the last person in his group to leave in the last 6 mos meaning 100% turnover because their immediate boss is a jerk. Even good companies don’t seem to manage managers or realize that high turnover is a management failure.

          1. Observer*

            It is a management failure. And it’s a management failure to miss this indicator. It can (and does) happen to good managers, but it’s still a failure.

      3. SamPassingThrough*

        Oh man this exact story line is unfolding in my neighbor department right now! The Ella who uses loud, snide voice to discredit and belittle her teammate actually got a promotion. She is perhaps more cunning in that she is polite to those above her, but openly rolls her eyes at her equals or subordinates.

        Now that she’s gained a step up, she tries to rally all other managers to gang up on those she dislike and “stage whispers” ridicules attacking those people behind their backs.

        I am on my way out already, and a large part is because of the frankly nasty environment and atmosphere the company enables, even encourages this type of behavior. Doesn’t matter if the job is good, it’s not worth it if you step in the office and see managers (managers!) clustering in a group to whine and spread negativity on a daily basis.

    4. Bea*

      Weak leadership is why they still work there. Or they have their claws into someone else in the organization.

      This letter reminds me of the dude who was responding with outrageous comments and “your mom” jokes to his supervisor. Only of course not so egregious of behavior.

      Some “leaders” don’t want to police behavior that isn’t outlandish. They don’t have an eye out for the repercussions of having an Ella around (people leave because of these insufferable coworkers).

      I would take it upon myself to tell her to watch how she spoke to me and I would CC her manager each time.

  4. Ashlee*

    We had an “Ella” at our office. No one would attempt to correct her because she was so unpleasant and the one time her manager tried to speak to her, she burst into tears. One day in a meeting she was was being really rude (rolling her eyes every time someone spoke) and attempted to blame me and another coworker for a huge mistake she made. It was a straw that broke the camel’s back moment. I told her that I was not going to accept the blame for her mistake just because she had temper tantrums and if that cost me my job, well so be it and I walked out of the meeting.

    I had all the documentation that proved she was the one responsible for the mistake, as well as several emails where I explained to her why the format she was using would not work and that I would be glad to show her the correct way. She refused, including an email that stated she stated she knew how to do her job and I needed to mind my own business.

    She never spoke or communicated with me again. I was already looking for a new job and was gone in 6 months. Last time I heard about Ella, she was still working at the same place, in the same job and was as unpleasant at ever.

    1. 1.5 years til Retirement*

      We also had an Ella. She was in purchasing and none of our external vendors wanted to deal with her. Meetings were held, discussions were had, but no one ever fired her….she finally retired.

    2. It's mce*

      We had an Ella at my Old Job. She was gossipy and mean; a trouble maker. When we complained about her, management said that it would be hard to replace her because of the job’s low salary. When our company was purchased by another one, she was let you.

    3. Someone Else*

      Why is it that the rude, dismissive assholes are also so frequently the ones to burst into tears at the slightest criticism.

      1. Tom*

        Rhetorical or not – it still might be useful to answer.
        I believe these ‘people’ do that as a manipulative tactic. Actually this is not so different from your average school yard bully (with which I sadly have plenty experience, as victim).

        There people suck up to the ones in power (bosses or teachers) or otherwise generate a reputation of being vital to the existence of the company. Their asshole side comes out when they are not observed (or they think they are not) and when someone finally snaps back (or says no, or points out an error) then ‘boom’ – instant tears and the innocent victim of some other person being mean to them.

        I have seen this too often – so much so that when my son now does this – i have to hold myself in, bite my tongue etc not to lash out at him. (so far, 99.9% success) – but THAT is the impact these bullies have – and that is why i see them as mini terrorists – and they should be treated as such!

  5. Nanc*

    I have nothing helpful to say except the image inspires me to throw together a 1980s Working Girl outfit and wear it to the office on Halloween. Free giant shoulder pads for all!

  6. MassMatt*

    I found it odd that the letter didn’t mention Jane’s manager at all. This is where the responsibility should lie.

    If Jane’s manager doesn’t want to deal with this for some reason than a higher up needs to be brought in. If someone higher up is protecting Jane then there isn’t much you can do.

    I’d be tempted to be rude and abrupt back to her and then blithely act like you don’t know what she’s talking about when she erupts. Not a good idea, but tempting. This is how offices become toxic.

    1. Liz*

      I found that strange, too, but that made me wonder if the organization structure is a root cause of this issue. The way the OP describes the organization here is very flat — people at all levels work with executives, OP works with everyone across the company in the same way, etc. If that is the case, a chain of command reporting structure might not exist in the way it does in other organizations, so there may not be a clear “manager” of Ella. There might be someone who manages the personnel side of things like making sure she gets a paycheck, but actual leadership and people management could very well be missing. I’ve worked in organizations like this, and it can be great when everyone works well together, but it’s really, REALLY hard to address a performance or behavior problem like this when it does pop up.

      When OP talked to their manager, the manager’s reply indicates to me that they believe OP has some responsibility to address this behavior as a manager in the organization, even if Ella does not directly report to OP. I would probably clarify that in a follow-up discussion with the manager, just to be sure that reading is accurate, but it sounds very much like the manager’s advice was something like, “I agree, it’s a problem — go forth and address it, and let me know if you need help.” To that end, I think Allison’s advice to approach this head on is the best option, as OP’s manager appears to be giving the guidance to do that.

      Another thing that I didn’t see mentioned in the suggestions is talking to HR. We don’t have all of the examples of this bad behavior in the letter, obviously, but it’s possible the behavior in sum total could rise to the level of creating a hostile work environment. I would want this reported to me if I were the HR Manager in the organization, but not all HR is the same, so OP would need to weigh that option against the quality of their HR dept.

  7. Anon For This One*

    I worked with somebody like this once. One time, in a meeting, another coworker called my “Ella” a c-bomb and she sorry if chilled out afterwards when she realized that nobody else really liked her either.

    Not saying that’s the way to go, but it was effective.

    1. New Job So Much Better*

      Also had an Ella at my old job. Her supervisor said something to her once or twice, but had no authority to fire her. One day I got fed up and snapped back at her, and she was stunned and wanted to know why I talked to her like that. *eye roll*

      1. Julia*

        It’s so ironic how Ella can only dish it out, but can’t take even the slightest hint of backtalk.

  8. Anon From Here*

    My own Ella isn’t as bad as the one described, so I’ve been able to just ignore the rudeness and let it roll off my back. I keep my own communications (e-mail and in-person, where everybody can here) completely professional.

    Then I get home and tell exaggerated stories to Mr. Anon From Here and we laugh about it.

  9. Muriel Heslop*

    My department had an Ella for years. She was the departmental secretary and in charge of processing all of our paperwork and scheduling (she also abetted my department chair’s addiction, so we assume that is why she was kept on.) Two years ago who became department head? Me. I told all of my colleagues to document every rude interaction and BCC me on all emails. I also told Ella that she had to improve her behavior and professional demeanor or be replaced. She called my bluff and was gone in less than three months. Not only do I have a nicer secretary who works hard, I gained the loyalty of my department.

    Typing it all out, I can’t believe that actually happened and that we actually got rid of her.

    1. MassMatt*

      The problem with dysfunction that goes on too long is it becomes normal and everyone’s sense of normalcy warps to accommodate. Congratulations on making a difference!

    2. Bea*

      This happy ending made me smile.

      I thankfully never had coworkers like this, a few ones with particular personalities but nothing toxic. But I cleaned house of bad vendors and abusive clients years ago when I was given the ability.

    3. Artemesia*

      When I became division director the same thing occurred. We had a secretary who had been gatekeeper forever and had her own little claque of supporters peripheral to the department. We had a serious theft problem and one issue was that everyone on the planet had keys to the office. We were ‘self insured.’ i.e. not insured and so the loss of computers was a giant big deal. I re-keyed and made it clear in writing to everyone that No One was to be given a key except those who worked here full time. That student interns should work during office hours or be issued a loaner key on specific occasions signed out to them if they were needed for a project after hours and retrieved immediately when need was no longer there. (the keys were non copyable). Temporary workers like contract workers, would also be issued a key on occasions where it was necessary for them to access the space on weekends. (this happened rarely, but it happened) All in writing. All very clear. She immediately gave her favorites their own keys including people who had zero need to access the space at that time. She was gone that day and could not have been more surprised.

      In anothe department I worked in a non-typing receptionist who refused to learn computer skills or to take on tasks we needed done besides being receptionist was protected for years while important tasks couldn’t get done because we could not hire for these new needs. We hired a new senior person who was astounded this was allowed to continue and she was gone in two months. New people sometimes notice those missing stairs.

      1. Bea*

        New people also don’t have any emotional ties to anyone. So it’s like “Woah, this person doesn’t do anything!” everyone else is like “Yeah but Ella has been here for so long, she’s just Ella you know? Her mom used to be the CEO’s assistant so she got hired on to do reception. Bleh bleh bleh.”

        That’s why new people or independent consultants are wonderful at flushing these turds.

        1. Artemesia*

          yup and the drones are remarkably un self aware. We had one person who was very annoying, talked endlessly and was tolerated as she typed the work of the departments most productive member who inexplicably didn’t do his own typing. Then he left. She now had really no function. I actually counseled her about the unmet needs we had in the department due to a hiring freeze and told her that if she would do A, B, or C which would not take too much work to get to speed on, she would guarantee herself a place. Her response was ‘if I have all that extra work, then shouldn’t I be getting a big raise?’ yeah. She was gone in a month because we literally had no use for her and she was unwilling to see that making herself useful would secure her job.

  10. Sara without an H*

    Ah, yes, I actually had a couple of Ella’s once. Let’s call them Ella the Dive-bomber (she made strafing runs on other departments and yelled at my staff) and Ella No (who refused all requests for assistance and implied that you were trying to get away with something every time you ordered office supplies). I told their managers that both Ellas were now persona non grata in my department, and the managers would have to work directly with me from now on.

    This might not have flown in a lot of places, but this was an academic library, with a long history of “compassionate” management (translation: no management), and my own manager had my back. I got away with it.

    1. Narise*

      We handled an Ella in our office in a similar way. We were in manufacturing and she was impossible but always wanted quick responses and then would spend a week arguing that information we provided was wrong and then finally ‘accept it this one time,’ and the next time it was the same issue. The information was always correct. Finally people were so sick of her and no one dealing with it we stopped responding to her emails. She escalated, threatened, bullied, through tantrum’s, most documented in email. Finally she had to give a presentation and did not have the needed information. She went to President and complained and I forward all emails she had sent in the past three weeks and the proof that they were all forwarded to her manager with the request to please address. Finally worked out with President that Ella’s manager would request all data from our team and be the go between. Lasted a few weeks and manager was losing his mind, so sick of having to deal with Ella. He finally went to HR and asked what he had to do to get rid of her.

  11. JB*

    I’ve always heard that managers are more likely to fire the employee who complains about Ella, than fire Ella herself. Especially if you go over them to a higher-up. I’ve heard many stories about people who have been threatened or fired for complaining about another employee. I want to believe that OP’s manager would care, especially since OP indicated the boss has also complained about the behavior. But I’ve also heard too many horror stories to ever trust them to do the right thing.

    1. Observer*

      So what are you saying? That because there are bad bosses, the OP should ignore the evidence that her boss is NOT a terrible boss and let Ella just continue to ride rough-shod over everyone?

      1. It's mce*

        It’s true. I had a colleague at Old Job who had a strong disliking toward me, that she would constantly bad mouth me to our colleagues (we worked in different buildings, but I had a good friend who worked in hers). I complained to management twice about her – even showing them a cruel email that she sent me. Her “friends” caught word and warned her; she lashed out at me. Told me that I was a “big F-king baby and that I needed to grow up.” That “I didn’t have a good name.” Management did nothing in this aftermath. Two years later, the new buyers let her go. Ironically, I found a new job that she applied for. She again found out through our colleagues and apparently notified my new boss about me. It was a very uncomfortable start. I wish I could go back in time and have hired an employment attorney. Now, I’ve blocked her and every person associated with her via Facebook and LinkedIn.

      2. JB*

        Mostly I’m hoping for some ground truth, because – as much as I like Alison and this blog – almost everyone else I’ve spoken to says an employer is more likely to fire the complainer than the offender. And my advice is that the OP realize she is putting her job at risk if she decides to complain to management.

        1. Bea*

          Who is “everyone else”? And how many companies are they familiar with? Certainly you can draw from other people’s experience and that’s good to do but if Nancy has a Toxic Job and only knows her boss fires complainers, of course her story is just that.

          Are these people up management chains? Or who have worked directly with management?

          The stories of “she complained and got fired!!” often come from the individuals who don’t know the story at all. It’s often not because you complained that gets fired. It’s how you handle yourself and if you’re good at your job.

          I’ve had people hyperfocus on Judy not being nice enough and leaving a mess or whatever. When the person complaining is attributing to Judy’s attitude problem because the complainer is making egregious errors and skipping out on duties. So they inadvertently shine a light on their own problems that in turn gets you fired.

    2. Bea*

      Tbh you always run a risk when you talk to someone at work about any problem. You have to know who you’re up against and if it’s worth rocking the boat every time.

      With that respect you take your chances if it’s the matter of “can we fix this Ella problem?” worse case you’re collecting unemployment.

      If your boss has given you no signs to show they’re diabolical and like to fire people for ridiculous reasons, there’s no reason to assume the worst.

      The answer to everything here can be “deal with it cuz you may end up fired!” It’s why people have put up with terrible behavior for all these generations.

      1. Minocho*

        This is true. You can also mitigate the danger by feeling out how a conversation is going as it’s unfolding. If a professional expression of concern over a coworker’s professionalism is met with immediate defensiveness or an attack on you, this informs how the rest of the conversation should unfold.

        I had a coworker who was “Ella-ing” me…and only me. I was new to this workplace, and this employee had been there a long time and seemed to be expected to move to management soon (both in the employee’s own and in others’ opinion, as far as I could tell), and it got very bad very quickly. I knew my supervisor (who was not this employee’s supervisor – this employee’s supervisor was my supervisor’s coworker) was a personal friend, but I had a decent relationship with my supervisor, so I decided to address it – starting off softly, to feel things out:

        “I’m feeling that there’s a change in how [coworker] treats me lately, and I wanted to let you know, as my new supervisor, how I deal with potential issues. My thought is that I’ll wait a bit to see if this is just a phase that [coworker] is going through – maybe something outside of work is bothering him – or if it’s a change in [coworker’s] attitude toward me.” And from there I could judge how seriously my supervisor was taking me, and plant a little bit of a bug in his ear, so hopefully he might notice something.

        My supervisor initially suggested some excuses for my coworker, and I did wait and see a little. A couple of incidents that caused some coworkers to complain to my supervisor about how I was being treated by this coworker ( I was unaware of this, and grateful to find out later!) and then one particularly bad incident in front of my supervisor did finally push my supervisor to step in. I don’t know the details, but the coworker backed off. That was fine with me – all I needed to “win” was to keep my job and be treated professionally.

    3. AdAgencyChick*

      I don’t think this is true. I think the confrontation-phobes who won’t fire an Ella also won’t try to start conflict by going to OP’s manager and trying to get HER fired.

    4. cheluzal*

      Happened at my job: newbie in her career had to work directly with nasty woman who obviously hates life and anyone and anything in it. Newbie was told in no uncertain terms to bully her back and change her personality. Newbie did not, and was let go. Boss went to school with Ella so she was “always this way.”

    5. TardyTardis*

      Every once in a while I have run into an Ella, and deliberately made friends with her, if it was humanly possible (and I have deflected at least one very unpleasant person into a lovely conversation about angels, so I have a few Mad Skilz here)–and alas, received the reward of being the person to deal with her forever after.

  12. Observer*

    OP, I’d like to make an appeal to you to not use Option 3 unless all else fails. It’s too easy for behavior like Ella’s to get normalized into “That’s just Ella being Ella”. Obviously if your other options fail, you need to protect our own sanity. But to the extent you can do something about it, you’ll be making the world a better place.

  13. Greg NY*

    I wouldn’t suggest the third option. Ignoring it is going to drive you crazy and be stressful. Ignoring something that happens occasionally is one thing, but it sounds like this happens a lot.

    1. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

      I agree. And it contributes to a whole messed up atmosphere where new employees see Ella acting like a jerk and getting away with it. The only time I could see doing the grin and bear it is if the LW is in a part of the country where jobs are few and far between and they are in dire financial straits.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ignoring it is, as I wrote in the column, for if/when you try everything else and find that no one in your organization is going to deal with the problem.

    3. MLB*

      Yes ignoring it seems to be what led to the problem in the first place. I would document all of her nasty emails, and keep her manager in the loop, then escalate as needed. Someone needs to step in and actually do something, instead of allowing the behavior to continue.

    4. chickaletta*

      But ignoring it IS an option, sometimes your only one, when management is already aware of everything and in the process of dealing with it. I say this because I have an Ella in my office and I’ve learned that our manager is working with her to learn how to respond to people more kindly. Although the details aren’t known to me, it’s been hinted that her background, previous career, and personal life contribute to her blunt words and jagged communication skills. It’s not an excuse, but anyway, there’s nothing I can do about it in my position but control my OWN reactions, and I’ve chosen to not let her words affect me. Water off a ducks back, baby. It has made a difference and I’m one of the few people in the office who is no longer bothered by our Ella and as a result we can work with each other fairly well.

  14. SheLooksFamiliar*

    I inherited an Ella, a tech recruiter who acted as if doing his job was beneath him and so where the people he had to work with. He complained about how stupid our hiring managers and his peers were, with lots of eye rolling and huffing noises IN FRONT OF THEM. He threw tantrums over stupid things, no matter who was around. When I talked to him in calmer moments, he simply walked out of my office. I chased him down a couple of times before I realized that’s what he wanted me to do. I had to fight my boss, the Dr. of HR, to even talk about a PIP. Never was able to put him on one, though, boss thought this guy was the greatest tech recruiter ever and didn’t want to lose him. This recruiter was still there when I resigned and lasted through 3 new bosses. My former boss protected this guy, making me wonder if there were incriminating photos in a safe deposit box…

    When this recruiter finally quit, I followed his career via LinkedIn. He doesn’t seem to last very long at other companies, so maybe other companies aren’t putting up with him.

    1. LKW*

      Sometimes the first impression is the most indelible. I’m sure there’s some psych term for when a person holds on to that first impression despite all evidence to the contrary or for when a person simply refuses to admit perhaps they were wrong about a person.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        LKW, that’s a good point. I remember reading somewhere that we tend to form an opinion within minutes of meeting a person, and spend the rest of our interaction with them – be it hours or decades – justifying that opinion.

  15. Lucille2*

    Confession time. I was the manager for an Ella once, and I did not manage her poor behavior properly. I was a new manager, and ill-equipped to handle a difficult employee. I did ask my manager for support, but looking back, I don’t think she fully realized how bad Ella was and did not provide good guidance. I thought I was doing everything in my power to coach Ella on her behavior. But looking back, I realize I was trying to correct Ella rather than hold her accountable for her unacceptable behavior. I’m no longer her manager, or with that company. And I’m happy to report I have effectively managed out another Ella who was unwilling to acknowledge the sour environment she created for those around her. However, I regret to report that Ella #1 from OldJob is still at OldJob infecting her surroundings. I was an inexperienced and did not manage the situation well, but neither have the other multiple managers of Ella been willing/able to tackle that problem.

    OP, if someone doesn’t address this issue of Ella, it will get worse and the environment will become intolerable for your top performers. A lesson, I learned the hard way. If only I had discovered AAM years ago.

  16. Mephyle*

    “That’s just the way ze is.” “That’s just Ella being Ella.” “Ze’s just a difficult person.”
    And yet, that ‘privilege’ only goes one way. Imagine reacting to this by saying, “Well, I can’t work with a person who behaves like that. That’s just the way I am.” As JB mentioned above, in a situation where management isn’t dealing with their Ella, if others claimed to “just be like that,” it wouldn’t get them very far, except perhaps far away.
    The badly behaving person gets to be “just like that” but not the ones who have to deal with them.

  17. Mockingjay*

    I would add some stats – time and money – to validate your points with Jane. “Because the invoices have to be corrected several times, they have been sent out late to the clients. This means we aren’t receiving payments on time, which is skewing our quarterly earnings…”

    The idea is to put a dollar figure on the pain Ella causes. Companies can be slow to act on an employee’s behavior until it hits them in the wallet. And as annoying as her nasty comments and pouting are, the lack of proofed, accurate work is a larger issue.

    1. LKW*

      I agree with your point overall and I’m usually the first to suggest figuring out the cost of an issue to get management action. But what if she gets at least that part of her act together? Then the OP still has to deal with a poor attitude. So I’d say add in the amount of turnover and ask if HR received any notable information during exit interviews. If everyone is like “Management knows that some employees are bullies and chooses to do nothing so I’m out” that adds to the cost of not managing this issue. If the exit interviews name Ella specifically, even better.

    2. Tabby Baltimore*

      I think you’re on to something. Not only is it possible to measure some of this, but to compare outputs. What percentage of Ella’s daily or weekly output has to be returned to her for re-processing … 30%? 50%? 70%? More? Even if that average varied day-to-day, or week-to-week, you could still average the averages and come up with a single figure: “On average, Ella screws up processing 70% of all invoices on a weekly basis.”

      Up next is how much time processing these errors and getting them corrected is costing you and the team: How much time does it take to (1) realize you’re looking at a problem invoice, (2) write the email to Ella asking for a correction, then (3) deal with her back-and-forthiness denying there’s a problem before you finally get the correction. Some invoices may only take a few minutes, but it sounds like it’s more often hours or days. Count that!: “The team spends an average of 4 hours trying to get corrective action on every single one of Ella’s problem invoices. This amounts to approximately 40 staff hours per week that the team *could* be spending on audit preparation/conducting sales calls/etc. In terms of salary, 40 hours = $X hundreds, money that should have been spent on (name those other more productive functions here).

      I think you have a shot at solving this problem partly thru some solid numbers, but documenting will be a pain in the neck. But do please let us know what you decided to do. And good luck!

  18. Liet-Kinda*

    OP: you’re a manager. You’re not her manager, but you are above her. You’re allowed to use your words. You are on completely firm ground saying something like “Your tone in your emails and verbal communications with me and others is entirely out of line, and I would appreciate a collegial and professional tone in our interactions,” or something like that. And I think you are entitled to engage her manager, your manager, or anyone else in seeing that progress is made on that.

    1. Ralkana*

      Seriously! I can’t imagine talking to ANY manager this way; even if they aren’t MY manager, I imagine I’d get into major hot water if I tried.

      1. Effective Immediately*

        Some, flatter, workplaces just don’t hold this as a cultural value. My current gig is way less hierarchical than anyplace I’ve ever worked and it’s really been an adjustment. The first time a frontline staff member (way below me in the org chart) called me to DEMAND I EXPLAIN MYSELF over a change I rolled out (that was perfectly within the scope of my job and also was simply a tool, not a mandate) and subjected me to a tirade about ‘you people’ in your ‘ivory tower making changes you don’t understand’, then proceeded to literally mansplain my own job to me, I was so floored, I didn’t even know how to react.

        Luckily, I brought it to their manager and being that this wasn’t the first time it happened, that person was let go shortly after. But this workplace creates a culture where a frontline staff member calling executive leadership to grill them about decisions doesn’t seem weird or unreasonable. In any previous place I worked, the idea of calling senior leadership and demanding they make themselves accountable to you would have been *unthinkable* as a staff member, but that’s not even part of the calculus here. And the response is generally, “Well we want everyone to be happy” and “staff buy-in” and “open door policy”.

        I hear what you’re saying, but OP may very well not exist in an ecosystem where that response will be welcomed, and may actually be received as a power play; or that they think they’re ‘above’ everyone else; or that they’re trying to manage someone else’s staff.

  19. Tuna Casserole*

    My Ella was a part-timer who barked commands at everyone and acted like a manager. She would do presentations at my office, one or two a month, and it was my job to have the conference room ready. One day she stomped into my office and yelled “Why is there no coffee made?” I said I was about to make some, and she yelled that I drop everything and do it right that second. I turned to look at her, crossed my arms and said nothing. “What are you waiting for!” “I’m waiting for you to say please.” She gawped at me for a second, then said quietly “Please.” I made the coffee. She never yelled at me again. She retired about six months later.

      1. Tuna Casserole*

        I guess the rudeness offended me more than the volume? I still don’t know why I reacted the way I did. I doubt I changed anything. She’s probably yelling at someone right now.

        1. DivineMissL*

          I’m inclined to agree with Tuna Casserole. I thought the key phrase in the OP’s letter was “and she thinks this is cute.” It reminds me of that casual restaurant chain (I forget the name) that had the waiters greet customers with “Whaddaya want?!?!?!” and throw straws at the table, thinking it was funny or cute to be outrageous. If an Ella did this with me, I’d just stare blankly with one eyebrow raised, and then walk away or say, “So, as I was saying…”

  20. TypityTypeType*

    Our “Ella” was the receptionist, of all the jobs for a prickly person to have. Anybody she considered an “underling” was Made to Pay if they crossed her — she’d answer the line for someone she knew was out of the office (rather than letting it go to voicemail), then misdirect the call on purpose, mangle any message or refuse to take one at all, or pretend the person was in but just wouldn’t pick up. (“I know she’s in, I just saw her … is there any reason she wouldn’t want to talk to you…?”)

    She’d also be rude-to-hostile to callers and people coming in just because she was in a snit over something that day, to the point that at least one person who came in for a job interview just picked up and left because of it. The Powers That Be laughed it off and told people she was just “colorful” and not to take her seriously, and she didn’t get fired until she got into an argument on the phone with a Very Big Deal in the industry. Abusing co-workers and random people on the phone? Fine and dandy, even kind of hilarious! Getting a big name in the biz mad at us? Out the door. But that place had a lot of weird priorities.

    1. Chocolate Teapot*

      I once had a male Ella who was also a receptionist. He would always be awkward when we had urgent documents to dispatch (DHL/Fedex/UPS) The official deadline was 4.30pm for collection at 5.00pm, and there were a number of occasions when he refused to take something which could only be prepared by 4.31pm, even if you gave him a head’s up to say that said urgent package was on its way.

      The other thing I remember, involved the office fruit delivery. There was a large fruit bowl on the reception desk and we went down as soon as it was put out to take a piece of fruit each. One colleague worked with her husband, so she took an apple and an orange, only to be yelled at by Ella for being greedy. There were clients in reception at the time as well!

      Thankfully, this all came to a head, and Ella was gone in a couple of months.

  21. SigneL*

    Here’s my response to someone who says, oh, Ella/Joe/Zanzibar is like that with everyone! “They may be like that with everyone else, but it is not acceptable to me.” Many years ago, a man I worked with actually grabbed my breast! I complained to his manager and was told, “Joe is like that with everyone” (this was absolutely NOT TRUE), so I said, even if this is true, he cannot GRAB MY BREAST. If this happens again, I will grab a body part that he doesn’t want grabbed.

    Just for the record, I know that Joe was able to control himself around almost everyone else, so it was possible. And after he was told not to grab my breast, he managed to control himself rather than suffer the consequence. But seriously, who needs to be told, “don’t grab women’s breasts.”???

    1. Julia*

      What the what? Surely Joe didn’t grab the breasts of men in the office? And even if he did – which I doubt or he’d be gone – surely sexual assault isn’t a time to shrug and say “Joe does as Joe must”?!

  22. DKMA*

    I scanned through comments and didn’t see this, but I think there’s a 3a option here which is: Ignore the tone, but push back hard and pull in her manager on problems with her work output.

    I think people are generally overly sensitive about addressing personality problems, but are much more likely to manage what feels like a “performance” problem. So if you don’t think actual action will be taken on the attitude issues, you can still require her to provide mistake free work and escalate to her manager on those issues.

    You can also take hidden joy at meticulously crafting cold-as-hell but utterly professional correct emails to her at all time.

  23. Madeleine Matilda*

    At my old job I inherited two Ellas. The first one I converted into a great staff member. She had originally come with our new director as his assistant and she was unbearable, rude, demanding, just awful. When he retired, they needed a job for her and she was “temporarily” assigned to me. She turned out to be great in my office. In this instance I think there was a real difference because the director was gone and his negative attitude which she had adopted went with him. Shew could still be a little brusque at times but never the sort of rudeness from her first couple of years. Of course I didn’t do so well changing the attitude when the next new Ella came along. He had a huge blow up with the new director where he told the director off and then new Ella couldn’t understand why this was a problem. I had a serious talk with new Ella and issued a formal letter of reprimand (the only one I have ever issued). He never accepted that he was in the wrong about the blow up with the director or anything else he did wrong.

  24. Chelsea*

    I like that you said at the end that it’s okay if the OP can’t bring herself to laugh at the situation. I find it so frustrating sometimes when people tell me to just let something go, or laugh it off. If I am genuinely unhappy, I am entitled to my emotions about it.

  25. Effective Immediately*

    Thank you for pointing out that Jane’s manager may have told her not to address this. I had an employee with egregious know-it-all tendencies and poor boundaries that alienated the whole team. They even said to their coworkers, ‘they [management] aren’t going to do anything about it, they need me too badly’

    I coached her on her behavior as much as I could, until it truly became a disciplinary issue. Then I was told by my boss and the boss above him that the staff member was right: they were too valuable to discipline.

    It’s an insanely frustrating place to be as a manager, when your whole team is looking to you to handle something that directly affects their jobs but your hands are being tied. That may not be the case here, but I appreciate the acknowledgement that managers may be perceived as weak and bad when they’re in fact not the one calling the shots ultimately.

  26. kleiopatra*

    I had a coworker once whose favorite way of showing his displeasure was by ‘shunning’ fellow staff members. He would walk past desks without acknowledging, refuse to answer slack or phone messages, etc. I had a gif of Dwight from the Office that I would share: “SHUN! UNSHUN! RESHUN!”

    (Same coworker once melted down superbly and screamed ‘Don’t EFF WITH ME, MOTHEREFFERS’ and our boss told us we should know better than to push his buttons. Ten staff members were reprimanded because we should have known better rather than deal with one not-altogether-great staffer. Okay.)

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