my problem employee is telling coworkers I’m unfair to her

A reader writes:

Is there anything I can do to stop a resentful employee from complaining behind my back?

Here’s the situation. I have an employee, Sally, who was moved to my team around six months ago. While I didn’t arrange for the transfer, I thought at the time that it was a good thing: Sally and I were friendly, and for months I’d heard her tales of woe about her bad managers. They were treating her unfairly, she said, and gave her unclear feedback and set unreasonably demanding expectations.

Her role in my team has fewer responsibilities. I thought that with some coaching, she would be able to rise to the demands of this position. I have given her clear feedback on her work, pointing out repeat problems. I have set clear expectations, gone over these with Sally several times and put them in writing. I have run workshops and coaching sessions that sought to address some of the issues with her work. And yet Sally’s work is very poor, requiring several rounds of corrections; she hasn’t shown any of the growth I need to see for her to meet the expectations of the role. On top of that, she responds to feedback poorly – she sulks or snaps or tunes you out entirely. She has been moved onto a performance improvement plan, which is a requirement in my company – otherwise I believe the best thing would be to let her go sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, Sally is telling colleagues that she is being treated unfairly, that other people have been given chances and opportunities that she hasn’t been given, that the standards being set are “subjective.” I know she is convincing – because I was fooled myself in the past, and because a number of my coworkers have come to me, saying “Sally says she’s trying really hard” or “Sally says she’s being held to different standards.” Of course, these people don’t have the full picture, because much of the situation is confidential – I can’t go around saying “well actually, she’s a fundamentally poor fit for the role and has had lots of hand-holding.” Some of these people are employees who I manage.

Is there anything I can do to ensure my colleagues and team members don’t think I’m treating her unfairly? Is there anything I can do to stop Sally from this unhelpful behavior?

This is such a good illustration of how people don’t always know what’s going on behind-the-scenes at work, and how the reality can be very different from how a situation might appear.

That’s frequently a problem for managers, who sometimes have information that would significantly change someone’s view of a situation but can’t share it because of their position. Think, for example, of situations where someone seems to be getting a privilege that others aren’t afforded (like flexible hours, a ton of time off, or unusual slack being cut on work performance), and it’s really because of a medical situation or other personal crisis that they’ve asked not to have shared. And of course, it can come up a ton when someone is having performance problems — in large part because the struggling employee is free to circulate their own version of events, while the manager is generally far more constrained in what seems right to share with others.

In fact, manage for long enough and you’ll very likely have a situation where a struggling employee tells other people that you’re the problem — that you’re being unfair or a jerk or your expectations are unrealistic, or you dislike them for no reason — whereas you know the issue is their work. After all, most people won’t tell their co-workers, “It turns out I’m quite bad at my job.”

So what can you do as a manager in this situation, where you don’t feel you can set the record straight without violating the employee’s privacy?

Obviously, the answer can’t be “Just trust me because I’m the boss, and I have information that you don’t have.” There are too many bad bosses who do treat people unfairly for that response to be credible or convincing.

Instead, one of the most powerful ways to combat this is to be very open about how you manage people — and to make sure that you’re consistently demonstrating fairness and transparency in the way you operate. When people see that in their own experiences with you, they’re more likely to be skeptical when they hear reports like the one your employee is circulating.

But the other thing is, you might not be quite as constrained as you think you are. When people come to you about Sally’s complaints and are worried there’s truth to them, you’re not duty-bound to have zero response. You want to respect Sally’s privacy, of course, but you and your employer also have an interest in ensuring people don’t mistakenly believe an employee is being flagrantly mistreated. It’s okay to say something like, “I don’t want to violate Sally’s privacy, but there’s a lot more to the situation than that and I don’t think you’ve heard the full story. I can tell you that in any situation where an employee is running into problems, I’m committed to providing as much feedback and coaching as we reasonably can, and I always hope it’s something that can be worked out.” That’s respectful of Sally’s privacy and doesn’t get into the details of exactly what her shortcomings are, but it lets you signal there’s more going on.

You also asked if there’s any way to address this with Sally herself. You need to avoid saying anything that can be misconstrued as “Don’t discuss your work issues with your colleagues,” because her right to discuss work issues with co-workers is actually protected under federal law. (It’s part of the National Labor Relations Act, which mainly protects workers who want to unionize but also stops employers from restricting conversations about wages and working conditions.) But you could certainly say to Sally, “I’m hearing from people who are concerned that you’ve told them you’re being treated unfairly and held to a different standard than everyone else. Can you tell me what’s making you feel that way?”

You could also say, “If this is your interpretation of our conversations, I’m concerned that you’re not taking my feedback to heart, and that will make it difficult for you to make the changes you need to make to stay in this role.
That’s alarming to me because I want to see you succeed here.” And frankly, given that she used to complain to you about these same things when she was working for other managers, you could even say, “I know you had these concerns when you were working for other managers as well, so I want to ask you to consider that it’s not about managers being unfair to you, but about real concerns with your work that will hold you back no matter who you’re working for.”

Will that get through to her? Maybe, but based on the history you’ve described, probably not. By sharing what you know she’s saying to others and refuting it, you may at least give her second thoughts about so widely misrepresenting the situation to others. Or maybe not! But it’s worth a shot.

Beyond that, I’d focus like a laser on bringing things with Sally to a resolution sooner rather than later.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 170 comments… read them below }

      1. irene adler*

        I had one of these difficult reports. Went to the wall trying to keep her and work with her to conform to the job expectations. Upper management wanted to extend the probationary period because right away they realized she was not working out. NOPE, I said. I wanted to be the type of supervisor who always backed my reports. No matter what. Worked with her for a year, but her behavior and poor performance never improved. I tried hard, thinking that this is how one supports their reports.

        Mistake, in hindsight, I know.

        Management told me to generate the documentation to terminate her. I did.

        So after she was fired, she complained to all that I was the reason she was fired. Said that I hated her. Said that I had asked management to terminate her. I knew this was all face-saving on her part.

        Expect the blame to continue after she leaves.

        1. Sloan Kittering*

          I suspect being fired is kind of like being broken up with, in that people are rarely going to agree that it was deserved or appropriate – they’re always going to feel like it wasn’t fair and wasn’t their fault. Even if you clearly say, “I will have to let you go if you can’t meet these expectations,” and then they fail to meet the expectations, they are still going to feel like they didn’t get a fair shot.

          1. AnonEMoose*

            I think that’s a really good way of thinking about it. The one time I was actually fired from a job (rather than being laid off or leaving of my own accord), looking back, I think it was a complex situation.

            It was a small office, and the admin staff wore a lot of different hats by necessity. That’s a dynamic that this job confirmed for me that I don’t enjoy; especially when I’m essentially the lowest-level person and everything everyone else doesn’t want to do gets sent my way.

            One of the problems was that I had at least 5 people sending work my way, and they weren’t necessarily consulting with each other. No one was monitoring my overall workload or responsibilities…and I didn’t think to ask for that soon enough.

            Along with the admin stuff, I also did some IT support, as there were no IT staff in that office. So I’d have computer guts spread out on the floor, be in the middle of something complicated, and have people telling me there was no coffee.

            It was frustrating, and I didn’t handle that well. There were things I could have done that might have salvaged the situation. On the other hand, getting fired from that job started me on the path that led me to my current job, which I enjoy very much and where I am successful.

            While there are things I could have done differently, I think my supervisor could also have looked at what I was being asked to do in a more holistic way, and we could have maybe figured out some options. So I think there were things that everyone involved could have done differently. But things ended up working out well for me, so I tend to regard this one as lessons learned, and in some ways, I’m grateful for the experience. But that’s with the perspective of years later and subsequent success. If you’d asked me in the immediate aftermath, my response would have been…different.

            1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

              Some jobs set people up for failure, and being fired is not a reflection of you, it is a reflection of the working conditions that caused it. Everything from hiring someone without an appropriate background, bait-and-switching a new hire with an inaccurate job description, assigning a job too many conflicting tasks, providing inadequate resources or support for an employee to do a job, etc., are things I would consider to be the employer set the employee up for failure.

            2. seller of teapots*

              Minus the computer guts/IT stuff, you just described my first job out of college, from which I was also fired.

              1. AnonEMoose*

                On the one hand, it is kind of nice to know my experience wasn’t unique. But I’m also sad that someone else had to go through it! It sucked at the time, but I can say the experience was valuable…it taught me a lot about what to look for in a job, and to speak up before things get that bad.

    1. Argh!*

      I’d agree with this except that she was a transfer into the department, perhaps involuntarily. If she was deliberately transferred into a role she was not equipped for, that would be a set-up. The best option would be finding a place for her elsewhere in the organization where she would be a better fit. It’s not clear from the OP that is what had happened to bring her to LW’s department.

  1. Rather be a Hammer*

    What is up with that unflammatory title on NYM? Their title makes it sound like the manager IS out to get the problem employee.

      1. Tehmorp*

        Me neither unless it’s been changed from something inflammatory to “I’m trying to fire a bad employee and the entire office thinks I’m a bad boss!”

        1. bonkerballs*

          I don’t think it’s inflammatory, just a bit hyperbolic and overly dramatic. OP’s letter certainly doesn’t say anything about the “entire office” thinking she’s a bad boss. Or really ANY of the office (other than Sally) thinking she’s a bad boss. They’re bringing concerns to her, but that’s not an indication they think she’s a bad boss.

            1. Sapphire*

              That also seems to be the editorial style of NYM, at least where the titles are concerned. All of them are written in that similar way.

    1. McWhadden*

      It’s a pretty accurate description. She does want to let the employee go sooner rather than later (which is understandable) and people think she’s the problem for it.

    2. MoopySwarpet*

      I suspect Headline Hype. “my problem employee is telling coworkers I’m unfair to her” just isn’t catchy enough. ;)

    3. PollyQ*

      Disagree, the title doesn’t read that way at all to me, but rather corresponds closely to the text of the letter.

  2. Mystery Bookworm*

    I like Alison’s wording. You really don’t need to give a lot of information to inquiring employees, and simply indicating that there’s more to the story will look better than actually giving details.

    People can figure things out.

    1. Ali G*

      Especially when it seems this is Sally’s MO: Complain about my manager, don’t do any work, It’s not my fault, get transferred. When people see she is finally let go, they will get it.

    2. Je Suis OP*

      I like the wording too. It doesn’t shut down the conversation, just brings it to a gentle stop.

  3. Ann*

    My friend at work always complained about how horrible, unfair, and micromanagery his manager was to him. Then we had a department re-org and I started working for this “horrible” manager. Turns out he’s the best manager I’ve ever had, and is not a micromanager at all. I’ve come to realize my friend was probably a problem employee who needed to be micromanaged.

    1. Radio Girl*

      Your friend has an issue. You are correct.

      I was that person took me years to figure it all out.

    2. Roscoe*

      I will say “horrible” is fairly subjective also.
      I had a manager once, who was probably one of my favorite managers ever. Many people didn’t like how direct he was. Think people used to getting the “oreo” statements for criticism, whereas he would just come out and say what his issue was. I liked his directness because I’m not one to beat around the bush either. Some people HATED working for him. If they told you their stories about why they didn’t like him and he was horrible, they were being honest in how they felt in the situation, but that to me didn’t make him “bad”.

      Likewise, I’ve had managers that I hated and other people loved. Different people react to people in different ways.

      1. Nessun*

        Absolutely agree!! I work with a woman who is a force of nature – you never know where she’s coming from or where she’s going – but I love her enthusiasm and the sometimes out-of-left-field work I get from her. The lady I replaced could not STAND how this woman operated, because it gave her anxiety to get fast-paced crazy requests from all directions at once. I love the role I’ve moved into with my boss, and the lady I replaced was much happier once she’d moved to a new role. Takes all kinds!

      2. Shartheheretic*

        Yep. I had a boss that everyone was “afraid” of because he tended to be really straightforward. After having years of bosses who blew smoke while doing exactly the opposite, it was a relief to me to have someone who said what he meant and meant what he said. If he gave you a compliment, it was well thought out and heartfelt.

        He was sometimes a bit moody, but considering the crap he was protecting us from I could forgive that.

      3. media monkey*

        i guess though, it is a manager’s responsibility to work together with their employees and if people hate directness, you need to be less direct with them!

    3. McWhadden*

      While it isn’t the OP’s situation, there are lots of times where it’s just a bad fit. Or that an employee does have issues but the boss is handling it very poorly.

      Sometimes things are complicated.

      1. Argh!*

        Some managers are not nimble enough to come up with alternate methods of supervision other than micromanaging. It’s too easy to make that leap, especially for managers who have done the job duties personally in the past.

      2. Glitsy Gus*

        Exactly. I also wonder, from the situation laid out in the letter if OP isn’t possibly the victim of another manager not knowing how to deal well with a situation and then essentially having Sally sort of shuffled off onto her, even if the new position is just as bad a fit as the old one, rather than her former manager actually dealing with the situation and either letting Sally go or really looking to find a role in the company she will be able to do well as opposed to just any available role under a different manager.

        That may not be the case, but I’ve seen it happen and it’s very frustrating for both the managers trying to deal with someone who is a bad fit and for the employee who keeps being given work they won’t be able to do well.

      3. MCMonkeyBean*

        Yeah, based on just one example I wouldn’t necessarily assume either person is “the problem.” Compared to in the letter where Sally had a long history of “bad managers” making it more likely that she was the common denominator.

    4. hayling*

      Yeah I had a coworker who would complain to everyone that our boss was a micromanager. She had been re-orged from a “laissez faire” manager who actually just didn’t do any managing. She really bristled at anyone telling her what to do at all.

  4. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP — I’ve managed a Sally before, and you have my sympathy. I like Allison’s “there’s more to this than you’re aware of” script for use on kind-hearted co-workers who are convinced you’re beating up on “poor Sally.”

    One thing puzzles me: you say you didn’t arrange for the transfer, but did you have any input at all in the decision to move Sally? Did you get to talk with her previous manager? When my own “Sally” wanted to transfer to another department, I made a point of having a long talk with the other manager so she would know what the issues were. Your post does give the impression that your organization has moved Sally around before (a lot?), so I’m surprised her reputation hasn’t gone before her.

    1. Je Suis OP*

      I didn’t really have any say in moving her – but I wish I had asked many more questions at the time. Before being moved into her current role on my team, she had changed managers but not roles.

      I wish I hadn’t been so swayed by Sally’s tales before she moved on to my team. As you point out, I should have talked to her manager. Unfortunately I thought the manager was the problem – not realising it takes two to tango.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I wish I hadn’t been so swayed by Sally’s tales before she moved on to my team. ?

        One thing I’ve learned over the years is that people with lots of complaints are often unreliable narrators.
        Actually, I learned that as a KID, when other kids would complain about how unfair their parents were (I’d be thinking, “a curfew of 1 a.m. is actually pretty lenient; calling home to say where you are doesn’t seem controlling to me”).

        I had to learn that sometimes the complainers WERE right, as a young adult, when a friend of mine told me she’d run into her mother and it ruined her day. I was skeptical, but then I went along to the family seder, and I saw firsthand what an absolute WITCH (and yes, I don’t mean the word with a “b,” though some might use that) her mother was to her. Constant attacks.

        But I still have some skepticism about complaints.

        1. WellRed*

          “But I still have some skepticism about complaints.”

          This is as true in real life as it is in online reviews, etc. Grains of salt, people. Grains of salt.

        2. epi*

          I think more than the volume of complaints, it can be illuminating to look at the context and costs of the complaints. Sally’s story stands to benefit her whether it is true or not. That should be a sign to the listener that they may not have enough information to decide if Sally’s claim is true.

        3. AnonEMoose*

          After having spent time investigating complaints at work, and experiences with my volunteer work…I am very skeptical of complaints. I don’t think it’s even necessarily that people are deliberately lying; I think it’s more often because people will instinctively tell the version of the story that presents them in the best possible light.

          Also, sometimes, people have trouble understanding that their own experiences and perspectives aren’t universal. And they maybe assign malicious motives where none are intended.

        4. Emily K*

          I was just commenting somewhere around here last week how the sort of letter that provokes the most “what isn’t being said here”/”what’s really going on here” skeptical responses from readers are always the ones where the LW is 100% blameless victim and the other person is an amoral sociopath. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but most conflict is a joint effort even if one person has a larger share of the blame. When the picture you paint is that there’s some huge over-the-top situation you’re in and you don’t even have 5% responsibility and there’s nothing you could have done to avoid the situation getting as bad as it has, you’re going to set off someone’s BS detector. Better to honestly admit 5% responsibility than claim 0% and have folks suspect it’s really 40% or 50% your fault.

  5. Cordoba*

    I hate it when people say how hard they’re “trying” when they’re not performing to standard. Whether Sally is trying really hard does not matter if she can’t actually do the work.

    I don’t want a surgeon or an airline pilot who “tries really hard”. I just want them to be good at the job I hired them to do. Actually, I’d prefer that they be so good at their job that they don’t need to try really hard, and instead get great results with minimal effort.

    If she’s telling people that she is trying hard and then they’re repeating it I’d take that as a sign that many people (including Sally) are aware of the fact that she’s not doing well.

      1. Emily K*

        Yep. Successful PIPs tend to be related to poor or inconsistent work habits, where the PIP is the kick in the pants the employee needed to realize that they needed to make changes.

        When the problem is a terrible attitude or a fundamental skill deficiency, they are much less likely to end in anything but terminal. This employee sounds like she’s more in the latter camp than the former.

    1. Lou*

      I’d actually rather have great results with medium (or more) effort. Someone who doesn’t have to try really hard will often eventually pay less attention and make careless errors simply because they don’t have to try as hard.

      1. Emily K*

        There is also a documented effect in psychology that people who rarely have to try will give up more quickly and easily when confronted with a difficult problem. They never develop the discipline to keep grinding away at something that doesn’t come easily to them, so the rare time when they can’t solve it right away, they decide it’s unsolvable and give up.

        1. g*

          Ideally your job is 90% within your competency level and 10% challenging. So you’re not struggling with the day-to-day but still get enough practice in solving new problems. I’d imagine a job likely airline pilot would include plenty of non-routine issues to deal with.

    2. a1*

      Yes, I’ve heard this argument before. “They’re doing the best they can”. And I’m thinking So? Yes, they are good people doing the best they can, but that doesn’t mean they are good at what they are doing. And not being good at thing X doesn’t mean they are a bad person, or even bad employee, it just means this is a bad fit. So many people get so hung up on this, and not just as it relates to them. I’ve had this issue with vendors we were paying beau-coup bucks for and the people in charge didn’t want to switch vendors because these were trying so hard. Really? And you’re in charge?

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Yes. I had someone who resigned before we let her go (during a PIP), and I like her so much as a person! And I’m sure she’s really good at other jobs! But she was not good at the job we had hired her for, and she was not getting better with a ton of coaching. She was doing the best she could, and it was not enough.

    3. WellRed*

      I remember reading a Dear Abby or something. The writer had failed the bar exam several times. The original advice was to just keep trying (and taking the exam). That was followed up with suggestions that people maybe don’t want a lawyer that had to take it 27 times.

      1. KayEss*

        On the other hand, there’s the old, “What do you call someone who graduated last in their class from medical school? Doctor.”

        I don’t care what a lawyer’s score on an arbitrary one-time exam was—I want to know that they’ll take my case seriously and do right by me, and that they have a track record of success. The tenacity of trying multiple times even after setbacks actually speaks pretty well of someone, in my opinion… though it’s true I’m not going to go out and pick a lawyer BECAUSE they failed the bar exam at least once.

        1. Burned Out Supervisor*

          I encourage you to listen to the Dr. Death podcast. It talks a lot about someone who continually tries and fails at learning his profession. Lack of effort wasn’t the problem, nor was desire to help. Sure, the Bar Exam may not be indicative of overall skill, because test taking is often fraught with mitigating factors, but if, during the training period, a person doesn’t demonstrate that they are learning from their mistakes and improving their performance when presented with feed back, there’s an issue.

          1. media monkey*

            there were other issues with Dr death tho – how much of what he was doing was deliberate and how much was negligence, but he certainly couldn’t have been thinking he was doing a great job based on the results he was getting. the podcast is brilliant though!

          2. Mongrel*

            “…a person doesn’t demonstrate that they are learning from their mistakes and improving their performance when presented with feed back, there’s an issue.”

            In the UK you’re (or were, there was a shakeup a few years ago) only allowed you to take the exam three times. The thinking being that if you have to have to try that hard to pass then you probably shouldn’t be allowed to be the final responsibility in a Pharmacy, where a mistake can kill people.
            Blind persistence can be a failure of self-judgement.

    4. BethRA*

      Agree that “trying hard” isn’t enough, but if someone’s struggling but they’re trying (and I mean actual effort, not just saying they’re trying), I”m a lot more likely to try to work with them than if they’re struggling but don’t seem to care.

    5. Argh!*

      I’m glad LW was detailed about how LW is “trying” too — I’ve known some managers who claim to be “trying” with an employee, but they really just double down on an approach that doesn’t work, or they just bring down the disciplinary hammer.

    6. Wintermute*

      I’m reminded of the excellent speech from the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross (not found in the play in fact). “nice guy? **** you! good father? go home and play with your kids! you want to work here you have to CLOSE.”

      because at the end of the day being a nice person should just be table stakes in the game of life. ultimately people, especially employers, value you for what you can DO not just being a decent human being.

  6. Sloan Kittering*

    This is how you learn to take other people’s grumblings with a grain of salt. IMO savvy professionals should know that there’s often more to the story and wouldn’t assume you’re a bad manager when an employee – who has been transferred around between departments already – starts to complain.

  7. EPLawyer*

    Definitely have a talk with Sally. Will she take it to heart and change her work ways? no. But will she be on notice that other employees feel comfortable going to you about what she is saying? Yes. She will then know two things, 1) that other employees don’t think you are unfair or else they would not be comfortable raising the issue with you and 2) her sympathy well from them is about to run dry because they will quickly figure out what is really going on. So she will AT LEAST stop complaining to your reports.

    1. Pomona Sprout*

      I’m cynical enough that I’m not sure she’ll stop whining to her coworkers, no matter what. However, if using Alison’s script leads to Sally’s coworkers taking her conplaints with a grain of salt, the change in their reactions would make complaining a lot less fun for her, which would also be a very good thing!

      1. MLB*

        Yeah she won’t stop, unless her co-workers start to become unsympathetic when she complains. This is her MO…it’s everyone else’s fault.

  8. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    Respond to colleagues and employees with, “I am committed to setting clear expectations, giving feedback, and providing resources for my team so that everyone is as successful as they possibly can be. If YOU have any experience that would suggest otherwise, I’m open to discussing it with you further, but obviously I can’t discuss Sally with you.” Let them read between the lines. Also, I want to caution the OP that just because she “fell for it” doesn’t mean everyone else will too.

    1. fposte*

      And I bet there are also people who *aren’t* coming to the OP, because they know that Sally’s not delivering or assume that that’s what put her on a PIP and she’s being defensive.

    2. SarahKay*

      In fact, really spell it out for them “…obviously I can’t discuss Sally with you, any more than I could or would discuss your work with Sally.
      I’ve found people are often surprisingly bad at seeing the implications of me being willing to discuss a colleague with them, until I really put them in their colleague’s metaphorical shoes.

  9. NeonFireworks*

    I have a wonderful friend who about fifteen years ago ended up being the Sally in a whole sequence of situations like this across about four different workplaces. For a while I thought this person was outrageously unlucky, and then a confidential conversation with an accidental mutual acquaintance I trust in an overlapping field clued me in: friend was responding very badly to even gentle management, and there was no way to make that work. Fortunately, friend ended up starting a business and it has done well. It’s thorny. If it weren’t for accidental mutual acquaintance, I would have forever believed that the Sally I knew was excellent on the job just as they are as a friend.

    1. Namast'ay in Bed*

      “For a while I thought this person was outrageously unlucky…”

      I had a friend (possibly better described now as an acquaintance) like that. No matter what, things always seemed to go wrong for her, usually at the worst possible time. I had a lot of sympathy for her, and a lot of our time together was spent discussing all the unfairness in her life. But I eventually realized that a lotttt of it was of her own doing, and when I didn’t want to talk only about the avoidable problems she had created for herself, our friendship fizzled out.

      I’m wary now of people who claim to just have bad luck, especially if it keeps appearing in the same specific ways.

      1. Nessun*

        I eventually had the same thoughts about my sister’s employment. At first, all her luck was awful, she kept finding these terrible bosses, and there was so much she got asked to do that was out of scope for her job and was an intrusion on her time… After several years of careful conversations in which she ignored ever gentle suggestion I had about how to bring things up with her managers, I finally clued in that no one’s luck was that bad – the common denominator was my sister, the bad employee. Once I realized that might be the situation, I asked better questions and learned that yes, she was the problem. (Her idea of a job description was so narrow that no matter what she did, she felt that they were imposing on her to do things “out of scope” – as in, if she was hired as a cashier, she shouldn’t need to mop the floors because that’s a job for a janitor. How perspective changes over time!

      2. Dust Bunny*

        I have a friend like this. String of awful jobs. Bad living situations. But he’s the one who won’t take direction and doesn’t want to learn anything new. I like him, but he’s his own worst enemy.

        1. Artemesia*

          I have noticed in groups of people where there are many people who don’t work, there is also a lot of cheer leading along the lines of ‘they can’t do you like that’, ‘they can’t boss you around’ ‘tell them where to shove it when they keep pushing you around.’ The concept of ‘boss’ seems to elude them and they are getting advice from people who don’t know what it is to succeed in a workplace and what workplace norms are. ‘you can’t tell ME what to do’ is sort of the US national motto and it doesn’t work well in the workplace, where yes, the boss can tell you what to do.

  10. Rachael*

    I was actually just having a conversation similar to this with my 7 year old the other day. She was complaining about “fairness” and how I’m unfair compared to how I treat her brother. She expects to get the same compliment, treat, or privilege to her brother every time he gets one and is quick to call me unfair whether or not she *just* also received said treats, compliments or privileges.

    Sometimes life isn’t “fair”. If you don’t do the work (in her case, good behavior) you don’t get the benefits. I imagine that your employee doesn’t equate quality of work with the reason why others may be enjoying recognition or anything that makes her coworkers feel fulfilled. She is probably saying “how come she doesn’t say ‘good job’ to me” or “why didn’t I get that great project”.

    Maybe talking to her about what she considers “unfair” and going over the work behaviors that warrant these “extras” may put calibrate her fairness-meter. I’m thinking her PIP includes behaviors that she needs to work on, but it might help comparing her work habits with the coworkers (generally, of course) that she thinks gets special treatment.

    (although, if she is like my daughter she will just throw her nose in the air and loudly proclaim “you just hate me”…lol)

      1. Rachael*

        I try my hardest and sometimes I can tell that I over-do the heart to heart talks about the real world. Unfortunately for her, her mother grew up in a very competitive household where you had to work for your privileges and doesn’t believe in lessening someone else’s time to shine because someone else (who didn’t do the work) might get their feelings hurt. Compliment and reward often to keep people engaged, but only do it if they deserve it! LOL.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      Sometimes life isn’t “fair”. If you don’t do the work (in her case, good behavior) you don’t get the benefits.

      Actually, if you don’t do the work, you don’t get the benefits is a pretty good example of life being fair. The lesson one needs to learn is that fair is not the same as equal.

      1. Rachael*

        Exactly! I tried (but will have to revisit with my daughter later) to tell her that the word “fair” is subjective and is skewed to a “everyone gets equal share regardless of circumstance” these days. That is not how real life is and, if it is that way in your environment, all it does is disengage people who put in effort and get the same as those who do not. Her eyes glazed over, but I will try again…lol.

        1. TootsNYC*

          especially in a family, I have always loved the “fair is that everyone gets what they need” explanation. And sometimes you need more, or your brother does. And some brothers will always need more.

          Fair is that everyone feels they could get what they need if they needed it. My mom never financially bailed me out–but if I’d really needed it, she would have.

          And it’s a benefit that you don’t need more, actually.

          1. Ophelia*

            YES! I’m early on in this process, but helping kids differentiate between fairness and equity is, I think, a good skill to have for life!

            1. feministbookworm*

              if you haven’t seen it yet, there is a great cartoon that illustrates this concept. Three people of different heights are trying to see over a fence. Treating everyone equally means everybody gets the same size box to stand on… and the shortest person still can’t see, while the tallest person didn’t even need the box to begin with. In the equity example, the shortest person gets an extra box, the tallest person doesn’t get a box, and everybody can see.

      2. nonegiven*

        You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.
        Marcus Cole, Babylon 5

        1. Nessun*

          You just made me really happy to remember great writing, then really sad to remember Marcus, and then really annoyed I can’t dig all my DVDs out right now and start binge-watching.

    2. Argh!*

      Have you seen the TED talk on fairness that shows an experiment with capuchin monkeys? Apparently equal pay for equal work is an instinctive ideal.

    3. ssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

      ” I imagine that your employee doesn’t equate quality of work with the reason why others may be enjoying recognition or anything that makes her coworkers feel fulfilled. She is probably saying “how come she doesn’t say ‘good job’ to me” or “why didn’t I get that great project”. ”

      Had one of those coworkers. She candidly admitted she was jealous that I was handed a project. Since the project had to done in two languages, I gladly handed her the portion in the language she was stronger in. She got sick; I finished it. We had another project, again in two languages. I put in a bit more effort for a nicer looking document; she was falling behind…then she got sick and I finished it. Whined she couldn’t get ahead. Not with that attitude and poor work, honey, no.

      1. Former Admin Turned Project Manager*

        One of my colleagues had someone in her group with that sort of mindset. During a review, the report said “you never praise me for outstanding work!” to which the supervisor tried frantically to find a non-snarky way to say “That’s because you’ve never demonstrated any outstanding work. I’ll praise you when you actually accomplish your goals.”

  11. Je Suis OP*

    An update of sorts: while Sally has not passed her PIP, my big boss has said that she “provides value in other ways” (no details on what this means, other than that he likes her on a personal level). I’m being told to try and find another, less challenging role for her on another team… and to continue to manage her subpar work.
    I have one opportunity to state my case to big boss about why she shouldn’t be moved to this as yet hypothetical role that would be created for her. Managing her poor work has me at my wit’s end, and I am dreading the thought that it now might continue. Any advice?

    1. SarahKay*

      You know your big boss, and what you can get away with saying to him, but if you can: be really, really blunt! Make it clear that her performance is awful, she is incapable of seeing that she is the problem, and that her discussions and boss-blaming with her co-workers are generating at least some level of friction with leadership.
      Oh, gosh, GOOD LUCK!

      1. irene adler*

        Can you include fact-based narratives from her prior managers regarding the problems they grappled with when Sally was in their employ?

        I’m wondering if the “provides value in other ways” line was used to move Sally to your team? In which case, she’s just going to be passed around until there’s just one manager left stuck with her.

        Big Boss needs to do better!

        1. Totally Minnie*

          I like the idea of gathering information from the previous managers. Can you set up a meeting with the big boss that includes the other people Sally has reported to? It’s possible that if you and the other managers are able to establish this pattern, you may be able to make the big boss see reason.

        2. Decima Dewey*

          My thought is that if Big Boss thinks Sally “provides value in other ways” then Big Boss can be the one to find a role for Sally. And supervise her in this new role.

          The idea that poor performance merits the creation of a new role irks me.

    2. Ice and Indigo*

      Can you bring up that she’s a divisive employee? And/or that you think she has an attitude problem? Because complaining about you to co-workers has clearly caused some issues in your relationship with them, and she does seem to have an attitude problem.

    3. RaspberryTea*

      I would bring as much concrete evidence of her poor performance as you can. I would highlight the facts that she responds poorly to feedback – focus on how, even if she has “other value,” it’s nearly impossible to work with someone who sulks and snaps. no matter how good they are. I would try to keep the conversation focused as much as possible on specific, concrete things instead of just vague stuff like “value in other ways” – try to probe what Big Boss means by this, and ask if that’s worth keeping around someone who is a poor performer with an attitude problem. Good luck!

      1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

        +1 on this. Until you know what “value in other ways” means, you won’t be able to find another role that she will excel in. You can phrase it like that as well, “Big Boss, so that I can best find a position that Sally will excel at and be happy in, I need to know what strengths and value you find in her performance, otherwise, I fear that the cycle of her being moved to different tasks, complaining about feeling unfairly treated and unsupported, and ultimately her failing to meet the lowest level of expectations at those tasks will repeat itself. I am committed to providing resources for my team so that everyone is successful, but from my interactions with her after this PIP, I find that it’s not a lack of skill in the tasks she’s given, but her overall resistance to change and lack of personal accountability, which isn’t likely to change no matter what she’s assigned.”

        1. Dust Bunny*

          I would guess her primary value is that she saves him the trouble of having to hire another body to fill her seat.

          1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

            It sounds like Big Boss seems to think this is a “task” problem that can be resolved by finding the right task…but well at least two strikes have already been thrown (the OP’s team and the previous team) and Sally’s attitude has been consistent, so make him aware that at least that pattern is going to keep repeating. The point is to demonstrate that OP isn’t the unreasonable one.

            1. MattKnifeNinja*

              Honestly, when I’ve had miserable coworkers like Sally, it’s someone really bent the job qualifications/standards to get Sally the job.

              My boss did the, “Sally brings things to the table.” Sally got the job as a personal favor because of someone they both knew.

              OP a little recon work couldn’t hurt. At least you’ll know how hard you can push.

          2. MattKnifeNinja*

            Or Sally’s employment is a favor to someone else. Sally has more job security than you.

      2. Winifred*

        Alison also often has scripts giving concrete examples of how this person’s poor work makes MORE work for you and your team … covering for Sally’s ineptitude or mistakes, taking on her workload to the detriment of your own work, etc., which is also bad for the morale of your team (covering for Inept Sally).

    4. EMW*

      I think as part of the argument you need to bring up her attitude about the PIP – her gossiping and talking poorly about you behind your back. Creating a new position for her would really be rewarding this kind of activity, and that’s clearly not the kind of precedent you want to set on your team. Can you ask your big boss for more specifics in how she provides value? Do you still need someone in her role to manage the work? Will you get an additional head for that? If not, how will it impact deadlines/workload?

      Depends on how much of your political capital you want to spend to get rid of her at this point.

    5. Combinatorialist*

      Are you willing to find a new job if Sally stays? Would you want to? If you are, I don’t know if I would say that directly, but you don’t have a lot of lose by being very blunt in that case. And you could maybe allude to how difficult it makes your job if you can’t manage.

      Also the fact that you liked Sally on a personal level before this is maybe to your advantage. Press him to spell out the “value in other ways” because you don’t see it and if you get something like “well she is a nice person” you can point out that you agree which is why you initially thought the transfer was a good thing. Be ready with the huge disadvantages of not moving out poor performers.

      If you aren’t going to move out one, then are you going to move out none? That is untenable as the good performers will get frustrated as more and more people don’t carry their weight. Are you going to move out others and not Sally? That is asking for a lawsuit down the line. When you start treating people differently based on their personal characteristics instead of their work you are approaching treating people differently where the only visible discriminator is a protected class. And that is really not good.

      Letting people stay who are “like you (or you like)” but low performers does not look any different on the outside than only firing the low performers who are not “like you”

      I know, you are on team “move her out”, OP, but perhaps pointing out the potential issues with keeping some low performers, but not others, you can make headway with your big boss.

    6. Plain Jane*

      Explain to your boss that Sally’s teammates are eventually going to get fed up (if they aren’t already) with either having to pick up Sally’s slack and/or observe that there are no consequences for her underperforming while they work hard to meet expectations and they’ll leave over it.

      Also, your company is actually not doing Sally any favors at all. By handling her attitude and performance issues by shuffling her around, you’re giving credence to her position that she’s not the problem. Eventually a new big boss will be there who will let her go and she’ll be totally blindsided.

    7. rldk*

      If you don’t yet have a clear, detailed list of all the attempts you have made to help her improve her work, that would likely help. And some sort of estimation of time/effort/hours you’ve put into this, along with any projects or other work you have to delay or move around to accommodate working with her.

      Basically: show the negative impact, and hope that outweighs the “value” she apparently provides.

      (That’s such a weird phrase – is she like, the christmas party queen? does she have friends who bring free snacks? is she related to a big boss? what other vague value does she provide?)

      1. irene adler*

        Keeping her allows the Big Boss to feel good about himself.
        A long time ago, we had a CEO who insisted we keep an absolutely useless lab tech. The tech intentionally would not follow direction from his boss. Kept ‘re-vamping’ assay variables without verifying with boss first.

        But the CEO insisted “there’s a place for everyone here.” CEO never had to work with this guy. So in a company of 24 people, everyone has to pull their weight and this one tech gets to slide. Swell.

        When the CEO was fired, the tech, and a few others, were also let go.

      2. Important Moi*

        Actually that may be what her value is. And if it is that or something like that LW may have to resign herself to the situation or move on.

    8. NW Mossy*

      I’ll echo the blunt, and add that the combination of blunt and entirely dispassionate can be really effective in this type of situation.

      I had a Sally at one point in my past, and a big piece of my story was a simple timeline. Each time something of note happened (an error, a coaching conversation, a poor reaction to feedback, etc.), I noted the date and summarized in 1-2 sentences. It looked something like this:

      1/29 – Significant error – customer name – cost customer $X
      2/4 – Feedback conversation – expressed that expectation was “unfair,” reason provided for error was “I don’t know how I missed that”
      2/6 – January metrics published – Y% below expected standard for accuracy and Z% below expected standard for timeliness; lowest production in peer group

      The cumulative effect of weeks/months of these notations makes it easy for you to then express the larger narrative – she’s underperforming, you’re managing that appropriately, and her performance is not getting better. It also makes the point without using subjective language, which can help you avoid the conversation pivoting to a place where it’s about feelings rather than the work.

      1. wittyrepartee*

        Make sure you do out of sight of the employee. I was underperforming in a toxic work environment (like, not the right job for me and also a terrible work environment with extremely high turnover), and was eventually let go. However, at some point someone wrote down on a notebook some mistake that they thought I’d made (I made plenty, she just wasn’t correct about this one), and the woman wrote it down in a notebook and circled it.

        That was a terrible experience. Especially because she didn’t erase it after I pointed out that in this case I wasn’t in the wrong. Everything just collapsed like a flan in the cupboard for me after that.

        1. Glitsy Gus*

          I’ve been in that boat too and it sucks. I was not the right person for the job, but seeing how blatantly people were gunning to take me down just made it that much more miserable.

          It is one thing that makes me wonder that, while Sally’s attitude is bad, no arguments there, if she’s been passed around more than once because Big Boss doesn’t want to fire her for whatever reason some of her attitude may come from frustration at being moved around and time after time being given work that was beyond her skill level. It can start to be super frustrating if it really seems like no matter how hard you try you just can’t win. I don’t want to say this to excuse Sally, but because this may be a piece of the puzzle that has been ignored- if Big Boss is moving her to new jobs over and over just to keep her on, rather than because it’s actually a better match for her, it could be contributing not just to the frustrations of management, but also to Sally’s frustration and sense of being hung out to dry.

    9. katelyn*

      As others have said, go armed with data whenever possible and be blunt. But also, see if you can suss out what “other value” they think she’s bringing to the company.

      I had a similar situation where the big boss’s “other value” was that it showed we had loyalty to our employees (a long tenured employee who had survived by hopping departments whenever they were about to be put on a PIP… they were also always super friendly to Sr. Mgmt…). Discussing the merits of a hit to morale from letting the employee go vs. a hit to morale from retaining a divisive low performer ended with letting that employee go. But until it was laid out as having actual downsides, Management thought they had a perfect solution that was all positives (which is to say no one had to be the ‘bad guy’ and fire anyone).

      So if you can get them to spell out what they are seeing as a benefit you might be able to counter it with your data and evidence.

      1. TootsNYC*

        also, point out that she is actively destroying some of YOUR value to the company. You have to spend so much time correcting her, and teaching her, and dealing with other employees who come to you when she whines at them, that YOU are losing productivity and focus, and YOU are losing the ability to move your team forward, because you’re stuck in one place with this person.

    10. $!$!*

      Would it strengthen your POV to include Sally’s old manager as well in the discussion? Two managers’ complaints should have more weight

    11. Master Bean Counter*

      I’d press Big Boss on exactly what he means by “provides value in other ways.”
      You need this information to find out why she’s valuable and what role might actually suit her. If he can’t provide with that then my suggestion would be that perhaps big boss needs her as his own admin since he sees value in her and you don’t need the friction and stress of Sally on your team.

      1. MJ*

        The “provides value in other ways” could be any number of things. A couple I can think of Big Boss would NOT disclose, and certainly would preclude Sally from working directly with him.

    12. Agent J*

      The above comments offer really good advice. For your sake, I hope she does get moved to another team. Unfortunately, the issues she’s causing will continue to be moved around the company instead of being properly addressed.

      I may just have a sore spot for favoritism in the workplace but “she provides value in other ways” is close to ringing the “Your company sucks and isn’t going to change” bell for me. Obviously, there are options for her to move to other teams but until you know what mysterious value she brings (or rather, what bigger issue they’re avoiding by not dealing with her performance issues appropriately), I would consider how long you want to deal with her and/or this dysfunction.

    13. pcake*

      Can you let a co-worker help her with one or more of her work issues? Perhaps one of the co-workers who A) believes you’re being unfair to Sally and B) is very good at one of the things Sally seems unable to do. That way, when they see that Sally isn’t picking up on what she’s being trained to do, they may develop a different viewpoint on what’s going on. And best case scenario (which I don’t expect at all), maybe Sally listens better to a co-worker than a manager and will learn some of the stuff she’s not picking up from you.

    14. animaniactoo*

      1) Discuss the concept that her value is outweighed by her drawbacks which include an inability to take feedback and therefore ever improve, which will be a problem no matter WHAT role she is in and how “less challenging” it is, and the spread of negativity among coworkers and reputation hits to her managers.

      2) Do some extremely discreet sniffing around and by sniffing, I mean don’t ask any questions, just start observing what you can: Is there any possibility that the value Sally provides is of a personal nature?

      3) Ask what value she provides because you’re not sure what he’s seeing that you’re not. Find a path to get that value covered without Sally or explain why that value is not needed (or not needed enough to keep an employee who has failed a PIP).

    15. ThursdaysGeek*

      If your big boss does decide to move her under a different manager, it would be helpful to give that manager a heads up before the move happens. Ask her previous managers to do the same. If you don’t blindside any potential new managers, you won’t be able to get rid of her yourself, but it will also become more apparent to the big boss that everyone is seeing the problem except him.

      1. sometimeswhy*

        Oh no.

        The last time I was in that particular boat, I got lots of talkings-to because Sally complained to my boss that I wouldn’t help her [do the thing that she was supposed to do that wasn’t even remotely in my wheelhouse but that she was supposed to have complete ownership of and on-paper skills to complete independently] with bonus perceptual elevation of her position because now we both reported to Boss. It was pretty awful.

    16. Argh!*

      “Less challenging” may not be the answer. Perhaps Sally isn’t being challenged in ways that are in synch with her talents and abilities. Dumbing-down a role can backfire when the person winds up demoralized. She’ll never “rise” to a situation when she feels insulted. Perhaps BigBoss would be willing to invest in testing to find an appropriate placement rather than a “less challenging” one. A job you find more challenging could be less challenging for someone with the aptitude for it and vice-versa.

      1. Cassandra Mortmain*

        I’ve definitely seen people be transferred into roles that are better suited for their talents and abilities and be far more successful than they were when they started. (In fact, I’ve been that person — I had very good managers who saw traits in me that would be useful to the company, and changed my role to play to those strengths.) But this situation seems different: Sally is difficult to manage, and she doesn’t seem to understand that she is underperforming even when that’s been made very clear to her. I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for finding a job where those behaviors don’t matter.

    17. Sara without an H*

      Where other commenters say “blunt,” I would say “explicit.” I hope you’ve been keeping documentation on Sally’s performance issues, because now is the time to get it out. You may find an ally in the previous manager — definitely talk with her.

      You may also want to rethink your future with this company. It looks as though Sally will make a career of being passed around from one department to another, complaining loudly at every stage, because your Big Boss won’t hold her accountable. Do you really want to work under that kind of management?

    18. Close Bracket*

      while Sally has not passed her PIP, my big boss has said that she “provides value in other ways”

      I just learned that a former coworker of mine was on a PIP for YEARS and was never fired. His boss wanted to take action, but his grandboss did not. Basically, taking action would have reflected on the (poor) judgement of the grandboss, and GB didn’t want that happening. So there you go.

      FC talked really good game, but when carefully observed, he didn’t really do much. Many people realized this and pretty much resigned themselves to working around him. I’m sorry that’s turning out to be the case with Sally. Is it possible to have another conversation about increasing the duties where Sally adds value and moving the duties where she doesn’t to someone else?

    19. The New Wanderer*

      Another argument you can make is to say that there is no business need to create an even less challenging role on any team. I mean, it’d effectively be a demotion for Sally anyway if the new role’s tasks were selected based on the very little work she seems capable of doing independently… it doesn’t sound like there’s any value-added there (to use jargon the Big Boss might understand).

      Of course, if his concept of “alternative value” is that he just doesn’t want to see her let go and doesn’t care enough that she’s deadweight in any role, that won’t matter.

    20. Qosanchia*

      No specific advice, and this might damage the tone of the thread overall, but if I was in a conversation that included the unsubstantiated phrase, “provides value in other ways,” I would be hard-pressed not to say, “Eeeww” out loud. I get little waves of not-good feels every time it’s repeated below.

      I wonder if you can turn that back on the boss, with something along these lines, “To help find the best role for Sally, would you maybe expand on the “other value” that you referenced earlier? If we can leverage her value in her new role, it will help align her skills and motivations in a way that will help her excel.”

      Something like that. Probably needs workshopped a bit, though.

    21. Blinded by the Gaslight*

      In addition to everything everyone else has suggested (be blunt, provide direct examples, question what this mysterious “value” is, etc.), you might also provide examples of both the opportunity costs and the costs to morale by keeping Sally on instead of replacing her with someone truly excellent. And, depending on your relationship/history with Big Boss, you might ask them if there is a reason why they are preventing you from fully managing your team.

      I had a similar situation (employee was directly insubordinate, passive-aggressive to just straight up aggressive, bad or no work accomplished, and gossiped to anyone who would listen that I was an a-hole), and my boss always had an excuse for him, or would say, “That hasn’t been my experience with him. So-and-so just loves him.” It devolved into her tone-policing me, which he of course loved. By the time he was insubordinate enough to satisfy her (over a year later) so I could proceed with corrective action, he quit in a blaze of glory that included an abusive e-mail about me sent to a dozen employees, bragging about how he’d been deliberately torturing me until he found a new job. My boss’s refusal to support me in this obliterated my trust for her, and our relationship has never recovered–and to this day, she doesn’t get it. All that to say: take note of whether Big Boss supports you here or not (particularly if you have a mountain of evidence for a PIP/dismissal), because it could have implications down the line when other decisions need to be made. All the luck to you–I hope good sense prevails!

    22. Bulbasaur*

      OK. You now have a bigger problem, which is that your PIP process is not working – or more precisely, your managers are not allowing it to work. If people can go through a PIP, fail, and then go on working there as if nothing had changed, then you don’t have a PIP – you have a meaningless process requirement that serves no purpose except to waste the time of everybody concerned.

      I agree it’s cards on the table time with big boss if you can manage it politically. Failing that, if you have a halfway decent HR department I’d be tempted to bring this up with them. The company PIP requirement might be code for “don’t fire anyone ever” in which case he is faithfully executing it, but if it’s genuine then he is in breach of the spirit of the requirement at a minimum, and possibly the letter.

  12. hbc*

    I basically do what Alison says about explaining the process. If the claim is very specific, I might go into detail on my decision process that pretty clearly narrows down the list of possibilities. As in, “Yes, purchasers usually have a corporate card, but if someone runs up personal charges or loses it four times in a calendar year, the policy is to take it away.”

    And once, just once, when someone came in complaining about the completely unforeseeable and unfair termination of a colleague, I gave the boilerplate and then said, “Do you remember the other day in the meeting, when I asked Fergus to do X, and he immediately turned to you and asked you to do X?” It’s like the wheels started turning and he started sharing his own examples of Fergus constantly avoiding work.

  13. scmill*

    This blog needs to come with a choking warning! This make me snort Coca Cola up my sinuses!

    “After all, most people won’t tell their co-workers, “It turns out I’m quite bad at my job.””

  14. Rusty Shackelford*

    a number of my coworkers have come to me, saying “Sally says she’s trying really hard” or “Sally says she’s being held to different standards.”

    “Sally is being held to the same standards that you are.”

    1. Not All*

      well, except from the update at 1:06pm it sounds like “Big Boss is insisting that we hold Sally to lower standards than you are held” is more accurate

      Such a frustrating situation!

  15. Plain Jane*

    Not that it matters, but is going to someone’s boss to tell them they are treating their report unfairly a thing that happens? Like, do you expect a manager who would actually do that to suddenly see the light?

    1. Argh!*

      In a workplace where micromanaging is the norm and people aren’t expected or allowed to solve their own problems, yup. It sounds like the coworkers don’t feel they can say “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I don’t want to talk about stuff like this. Please talk to the boss about the boss, and feel free to talk to me about me.”

    2. Not All*

      Depends on the manager, but yes, I actually have seen it happen. I was the program lead between a manager with a difficult personality who I happened to get along with really well and a technical specialist who also happened to have a difficult personality of conflicting type that I also got along well with. I had a conversation after hours with manager, manager admitted they had trouble being unbiased towards that employee, and we worked out that I would be the intermediary as much as possible going forward. Things got better for everyone.

      I think it’s a pretty unusual situation though and that may well be the only manager of my career I would have felt comfortable having that conversation with!

  16. Hello No*

    FWIW, I find that you should always observe carefully when and how people complain about others, as that is a good indication of what they will say about you as well. Sally complaining about her boss would be a warning sign to me that she’d be likely to complain about me the same way if I was her boss.

  17. WFH Lurker*

    I had one problem employee, who I was given to manage precisely because they were a problem employee and my supervisor knew that I would manage the employee fairly. The employee complained bitterly about me to their peers, but the other employees knew my management style really well, disagreed strongly with the problem employee and weren’t fooled. I never addressed it with the employee in question–I preferred to focus on the requirements of the job, rather than the negative attitude. My feeling is that people are smart enough to see what’s really going on, and they’ll make up their own minds. The employee eventually left the company, and their peers expressed relief after the employee was gone.

  18. MeMaw*

    Did I write this email in my sleep? I have just gone through the firing of an employee exactly like this. Unfortunately I gave her way too many chances so when it was time to cut ties…it was hard. Good luck OP, it’s never fun to feel like the bad guy. But remember to take the high road and continue to act fair as you are.

  19. Didi*

    I have been a manager in a similar situation before.

    Give Sally’s co-workers a little credit – most people can see through a chronic complainer and under-performer.

    Also, be aware that a particularly toxic employee might manipulate a coworker into getting the boss to gossip about him or her, in hopes of having ammo for a lawsuit. I’d err on the side of saying as little as possible.

    1. BethRA*

      I’d give Sally’s coworkers more credit if they weren’t coming to OP to lobby/whine on her behalf. If someone complained to me, and I saw through them, I certainly wouldn’t go up to their manager to plead their case.

      1. Argh!*

        Exactly. I have been in the position of the co-worker and told the whiner not to tell me their grievances. It turns out that he was a suck-up and a snake-in-the-grass behind the boss’s back.

  20. Kickin' It Old School*

    OP– I think you might have better results convincing your manager if you don’t argue about their perception of Sally. Can you quantify the amount of re-work her “trying really hard” activities actually cost?
    For example, she worked 3 hours on a task, and you spent an 1 and half redoing it.
    3 x (Sally’s hourly rate) plus 1.5 x your rate = cost of her lack of results.

    If you can point to, idk, a weekly average or something–that makes the argument more compelling. “Boss, I get that she brings value elsewhere. I’ve calculated this is what she is costing us. What would you like to do?”

    1. Not All*

      I think this is a great approach! I had to take it with a contractor that my boss was really resistant to replacing.

  21. HumanPerson*

    A little reassurance for you OP –

    If anyone said something like that about my boss, or a senior person I had worked closely with, I would be extremely disinclined to believe it if my experience wasn’t similar. I have a teammate now who complains how tough our boss is, and my experience with her is that she is beyond fair and clear in her expectations. If his complaints escalated, I would assume the problem was on his end, not on our boss.

    Hope you’re able to get rid of her – she sounds like a pain!

  22. Argh!*

    What should LW say to the coworkers or coworkers’ supervisors? I would think that if people complain about the complaining, telling them to shut it down themselves could help the situation, too. Tell them that they should tell Sally to come to LW or LW’s supervisor instead of them. Venting does feel good to the venter – temporarily. And the coworkers want to be sympathetic, but they aren’t therapists and their time is valuable.

    The PIP documentation should clarify expectations, and LW should be reinforcing them. If LW asks Sally “What would help you be more successful in accomplishing xyz,” it’s possible that Sally may actually have an answer. If not, then at least some agency has been granted to Sally, which may ease some of the feelings of powerlessness that are being turned into gripes.

    I’m a little troubled by the description of the transfer — Sally has fewer responsibilities, which she may see as a demotion. But then there are training issues? So she was taken out of a job where she could reasonably be expected to understand and be able to do the essential job functions and put into a job with new duties & put on a PIP immediately? That could indeed be unfair. It seems like the onus to handle Sally should have been on the previous supervisor, not LW.

  23. Namey McNameface*

    You have my sympathies OP. I could have written this myself. It’s tough to have people unfairly complain about you when you can’t defend yourself as openly. In my case my Sally was great friends with everyone, most of the team had worked there together for years….and I was a newbie. So it didn’t matter what I said; of course they would believe their close friend who claimed they were the victim of unfair and poor management.

  24. Trinity Beeper*

    I have a question – what if you’re a coworker to Sally? I have a Sally-lite in my office (she’s a good employee but has been making some mistakes), and she often comes to me for sympathy when our manager is upset with her. I’m not really sure how to handle it.

  25. Dagny*

    I have a lot of opinions on this, having heard ongoing tales of woe from people who never seem to have anything work out, and having also encountered some rather terrible and abusive people in my life.

    IMHO, people in the latter category tend to have many colleagues who recognise the high quality of their work product, even if one particular manager does not; other workplaces with great relationships with managers; long runs at some companies; progressive advancement, etc.

    In interpersonal matters (and, sometimes, in workplace matters), you look to see how everyone in the situation fares in general. For example, X says that Y is abusive; Y says it’s overblown, or things are the other way around. Well, in other circumstances, do other people have a problem with X, or with Y? Is one party only making these allegations when people who could corroborate are not around? Can someone point to harm a third party has suffered at the other one’s hands to show that this person has a pattern of behaving this way?

    Alison’s script is perfect. This is something to consider if you hear someone talking about a bad manager, to help determine if it’s a Sally or if it’s a #MeToo.

  26. I'm A Little Teapot*

    I worked with a lovely girl (yes, I’m deliberately using that term despite the fact she’s an adult – her immaturity was a big art of the problem), who thought she was great and all the managers were horrible. Granted, managers weren’t perfect, but the project I worked with her on she was a complete disaster. She’s oblivious.

  27. pony tailed wonder*

    Have you ever noticed that this pattern is in their off work life too? I worked with a Sally and she complained about ho unfair her bosses were to her at work and then she complained how unfair people were to her in her private life as well. And it extended itself to her kids too. One son was in jail many times and she would loudly proclaim each time it was because the police just liked to pick on him, even the time when the son kidnapped a woman in broad daylight and she escaped to get help. The son was caught with drugs many times, and it was because the police didn’t like him. It went on and on.

  28. Still Mostly Lurking*

    I’ve worked with Sally’s before! Extra frustrating people! They moan and groan as to how hard done by they are, they are bounced from department to department, and still spend all their time doing internet shopping!

    I’ve carried a Sally for several years as management wouldn’t/couldn’t deal with them. I picked up their slack, and fixed up their mistakes, all the time documenting it, but as I was a peer, not a manager, nothing was ever done about it. Another Sally ended up with a promotion that I was in line for (the ball had actually already started rolling on it), they moved sideways from another department as big boss wouldn’t do anything about the paperwork to get rid of them.

    Both Sally’s ended up being targeted in departmental restructures, however, they were rewarded with very generous redundancy payments as incentive to leave.

    Morale is low at work, the crap workers get rewarded with promotions, the good workers cant move as they are too good at their jobs to move upwards. We have a new big boss in the last few months, things are changing, but slowly!

  29. media monkey*

    there were other issues with Dr death tho – how much of what he was doing was deliberate and how much was negligence, but he certainly couldn’t have been thinking he was doing a great job based on the results he was getting. the podcast is brilliant though!

  30. prudencep*

    I don’t have any suggestions but just wanted to give you a show of solidarity! I had a staff member (who was being performance managed) do this to me, and some of the people he complained to he showed really poor judgment in talking to! One I the things I found hardest was not being able to defend myself because the performance management was confidential. It was one thing for HIM to break the confidence, but I wasn’t able to. The one thing I did try was further explanation of why it was a confidential process. But ultimately his decision to take this approach really just summed up a whole lot of his behaviour. He even left with a defamatory email using the company email account, which I passed on to legal (although decided not to pursue). So hang in there and I hope it gets better soon!

  31. Squeeze of Lemon*

    OP, I have managed a Sally, too. I believed she had charmed everyone and that people would think I was an ogre for letting her go.

    I have learned in the years since then that actually a lot of people were a lot more clued in than I thought. They also worked with this person, and they had come to similar conclusions.

  32. Narise*

    When I was a semi new supervisor (a few years into my first leadership role) I had employees telling me that no one else was ever written up and they were the only ones being written up and other employees were so much worse. During a meeting the subject came up and I saw too many people sitting around the table agreeing with the suggestion that the ‘right’ people were not being held accountable. I stopped the meeting and said I would discuss with HR what form they would need to sign so their personnel files would now be made available to everyone on the team. Their write ups, their reviews, their merit increases..everything so that it would be completely transparent. You could feel the air leave the room. Suddenly everyone was quiet. I passed around a notepad and told everyone that if they added their name their files would be public and they would have access to those who signed up also. Of course no one did and it wasn’t the best way to handle it but I can’t tell you how much I wanted to scream at people ‘You don’t know what you don’t know. Stop acting like you know everything that is happening in the department.’

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