my boss trash-talks my coworker to me

A reader writes:

I graduated college last May, and I am new to the corporate world, so your podcast has helped me learn how to deal with many workplace issues that I have encountered. However, I have a pretty big issue that has been bothering me for months regarding the dynamic of my job.

I work in a large corporate law firm. There are only three of us in my department. The past few months have been exceptionally busy. My manager (Eric) and I work at a quick pace and are able to get a lot of work done in a short amount of time. However, the other member of our department (Tracey) works at a much slower pace. She is very social at work, and won’t hesitate to put aside her work to chat with coworkers who stop by our department. She also gets frustrated easily, and physically huffs and puffs when work gets a little hectic. It can get a little annoying, especially when I feel I shoulder some of her workload, but since I’ve only had this job since August, and Tracey has worked here for decades, so I don’t speak out about it.

The real problem is stemming from the way my manager is handling the situation. Whenever Tracey huffs or puffs, or states that she needs more time to complete an assignment, Eric will text me at work. These texts are usually something along the lines of “I can’t believe she hasn’t finished that yet. You and I would have been done hours ago.” Or “Why can’t she stop talking and just finish her work? This isn’t social hour!”

It puts me in a very awkward position. I don’t appreciate that as a manager, he is badmouthing one coworker to another, but I also don’t want to snap back at him and say, “That’s completely inappropriate. Please don’t text me about her” out of fear of his reaction. I have tried to ignore his texts, but then he just waits until Tracey is gone on her lunch break and will comes over to desk to say it in person. It is uncomfortable beyond words.

In the past few weeks, it has come to the point where he is explicitly asking my opinion for how he should deal with Tracey. He asked how I thought Tracey would respond to being placed in a different department. When I told him I was not sure, he busted out laughing and said, “That probably wouldn’t go over well. She’s been here for 30 years.” He also informed me that he spoke to HR about her, and they told him they basically cannot do anything unless she is a real threat to the progress of our department. Again, he is divulging information to me that I am not sure I should be hearing.

Eric just started managing in June, a few months before I got this job, so I think his inexperience at managing combined with his laid back nature is causing him to think he and I are “friends” before anything. I feel like I’ve dug myself into a hole because I haven’t said anything to him, but I really just don’t know what I would say. Help!

Yeah, that’s obnoxious.

Managers shouldn’t trash-talk employees to other employees for a bunch of reasons:

* With power comes responsibility. When you’re in a position to evaluate people’s work and make decisions that will affect their livelihoods, you need to show discretion, maturity, and an ability to manage your own emotions (including frustration) — or you’ll seem unfit for the role.

* Managers need to be seen as objective. If they appear to personally dislike someone they manage, or to be regularly frustrated by them, they’re no longer going to be perceived as fair or impartial.

* It puts the employees who hear the trash-talking in a really uncomfortable position. They’re hearing info about coworkers they might rather not hear (or might even disagree with) but the power dynamics mean they might not feel comfortable pushing back. Plus, what do they say? Agreeing will feel awkward, and disagreeing will too.

* Employees will wonder if the manager is going to be indiscreet about them too, if they ever do something that annoys the manager.

* Managers who trash-talk their employees look incompetent. If there’s a problem with an employee, the manager is the one with the power and obligation to address it directly with that person. If they’re just complaining instead, it’s like wearing a big sign reading “I’m not doing my job.”

As for what you can say when your boss does this, you have a few options.

1. You can ignore him as much as possible. You’re absolutely right to ignore those texts — going forward, just never respond to them. But when he comes over to repeat himself in-person, you can use really non-committal responses: “Oh really” … “Hmmmm” … “Oh, I don’t know” … “I didn’t see.”

But he’s also asking you directly what to do, so that brings us to the next option.

2. If you want, you can tell him what you think, maybe framing it as questions. I wouldn’t do this unless you know it’ll go over okay, but for example, when he’s complaining about Tracey talking instead of working, you could say, “Have you talked to her about it?” (In other words, “Have you done the obvious next step here?” but worded more politely.) Or even, “Has she been receptive when you’ve talked to her about it?” (which would presumably force him to admit that he has not, which might be interesting). And then, “Hmmm, it sounds like you probably need to talk to her about it.”

You might not want to use this option because it’s not your job to explain to him how to manage people, but hey, he’s asking directly for advice, so you can answer him if you want to. A big caution here, though: Don’t do too much of this. It’s fine to do it here and there, and if it’s mostly confined to just “Have you talked to her?” that’s fine. But you don’t want to get into long conversations with him where he strategizes about how to do it and what to say. If it starts going in that direction, you can say, “Whoa, this is above my pay grade! I don’t think I can help, but maybe ____ could.” (Fill in with the name of his own manager, or possibly someone in HR).

3. The third option is that you could tell him directly that you’re not comfortable with these conversations. Again, whether or not to do this depends on your sense of how he’d take it, but with some managers, it would be fine to say, “I feel pretty uncomfortable hearing about Tracey, since she’s my peer and I know she wouldn’t want to think she’s being discussed with me.” Another, possibly softer version: “I feel like I probably shouldn’t hear this stuff — I should bow out, I’m sorry!”

Also, more generally: Be aware that you’re probably going to see (or are already seeing) more inappropriateness from Eric. The fact that he’s so new to managing combined with his obliviousness to boundaries and inability to mange Tracey effectively says there are more problems to come. Since you’re new to the work world, try to just observe from a healthy distance — but maintain some private, internal skepticism about Eric.

{ 175 comments… read them below }

  1. Angwyshaunce*

    “In the past few weeks, it has come to the point where he is explicitly asking my opinion for how he should deal with Tracey.”

    Send him here!

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        I don’t know what he told HR, but it seems to me that if they didn’t recommend some type of PIP or documenting with the goal of creating a PIP, then all he did was tell them what he told you.
        “She’s so slow and I can’t get her to do anything.”
        She doesn’t do her work?
        “Yeah, but so much slower than OP. It’s just ridiculous how much faster he is.”
        So yeah, they showed him the door because that’s not a real thing.
        That’s him venting.

        1. Psyche*

          It also seems like he is jumping straight to wanting her fired or transferred instead of coaching her on time management and making it clear how long certain tasks should take. Why vent to the OP that she is socializing instead of going over to her and pulling her away to meet. Then in a private meeting explain that her productivity is low and she is spending too much time socializing and that needs to change. He doesn’t have to helplessly watch her not work.

            1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

              Minutes from THAT meeting:
              Well we we have two very experienced, long time employees who could move up to management and then we’d keep the institutional knowledge.
              Ok, who are you thinking?
              Tracey or Eric.
              Oh, well, Tracey is kind of social I’d be afraid of her trying to make friends with all the staff instead of managing them. Let’s talk about Eric, he has, let’s face it, more years to work and he seems really driven to get things done. He’s not about making friends.
              Narrator: Well, not with Tracey.

          1. Skeeder Jones*

            Let me socialize with you to complain about how much she is socializing.

        2. Annie*

          The LW says that Tracey is extremely unprofessional and doesn’t do her work because she chooses to use her work hours to socialise and chat instead.

          Obviously Eric has boundary issues but Tracey is clearly a nightmare employee who needs to be fired, and it’s a shame Eric’s hands are tied.

          1. Jen*

            The LW doesn’t go that far. He just says that Tracey takes occasional breaks to chat with coworkers and works at a slower pace than LW. A little bit of chitchat is expected in most jobs, and building relationships with coworkers can actually be a productive use of your time.

    1. Nicelutherangirl*

      My first thought, too. “Hey, I’ve learned a lot from this blog! You could get some good ideas from the archived columns about being the boss.”

  2. Lance*

    To all the Erics of the world: please just talk to your employees. You’re wasting your own time and mental energy venting about this sort of thing to one of your other reports, you’re making yourself look like you don’t know what you’re doing (which, indeed, appears very much to be the case), and you’re making yourself look very insecure in your authority. So talk to them, lay out expectations, figure out what you can reasonably expect.

    And I’ll be honest, part of me thinks he’s hinting that he wants OP to just take over Tracey’s work, which isn’t fair and/or reasonable to any of them.

    1. RandomU...*

      Agreed with you on this. Honestly this is a recipe for disaster all around… Eric hasn’t learned the finer points of managing and sees the OP as a peer. HR is being less than helpful to what sounds like a new manager. Tracey sounds like a less than stellar employee. OP is stuck in the middle of all of this.

      If I were the OP I’d combine options 2 and 3 and go with “Hmm… I probably shouldn’t be hearing any of this about Tracey. You should probably go to her with your concerns or maybe (Insert Peer to Eric’s name here) has some ideas on the problem”

      Then I’d change the subject. One word of caution OP, don’t find yourself falling in the trap for covering for Tracey.

      1. Observer*

        Well, you don’t really know what HR actually told him.

        He clearly doesn’t have a lot of sense, so it’s really possible that they gave him the information he needs and he’s not getting it or doesn’t want to do the work. Or he came with vague “she SOO annoying! She talks too much!” kinds of complaints, to which it’s reasonable for HR to say “Is this posing a real problem? Is she keeping work from getting done? That’s the thing we’re interested in.” I think that this is very likely.

        1. RandomU...*

          I’m going off of what the OP said in the letter. Since he seems to be pretty open to discussing the matter it would make sense that he accurately shared what his discussion with HR was like.

          1. hbc*

            I’m agreeing that he was open with OP, but his *impression* of what HR told him might have borne only a slight resemblance to what HR thought they said. “Well, it sounds like she’s a problem, but we’d want to see some documentation of how her performance is affecting your department before we simply fire her.” He registers that as an insurmountable hurdle, while I would have an email together by the end of the day.

            1. Working Mom Having It All*

              Orrrr…. Tracey’s behavior doesn’t really affect the department that much, which becomes apparent when the facts are laid down in black and white.

              It’s usually a good thing that you can’t get fired for being mildly irritating and not the theoretical best possible employee who could ever exist.

              1. Southern Yankee*

                I’m definitely stealing the theoretical best possible employee that could ever exist as a concept – it’s very helpful sometimes to point this out to people with unreasonable expectations!

            2. M&Ms fix lots of Problems*

              Or maybe HR asked him what HE had tried to address the issues he was reporting to them and he had to go, “UMMMM.”

            3. Annie*

              I don’t understand why people are defending Tracey. She’s clearly a terrible employee (and IMO choosing to spend work hours socialising is basically stealing from the company).

              There are many, many industries and organisations where people cannot be fired unless they do something that endangers lives or is illegal.

              1. DerJungerLudendorff*

                We’re not defending Tracey so much as raising many eyebrows at anything the boss has to say.
                He’s already shown himself incapable of discretion and effectively doing his job. Without any real evidence as to how bad Tracey’s behaviour is, or the impact of her behaviour, we only have the boss’s word and OP’s observations to go on.
                The former isn’t exactly reliable, and the latter is only mildly condemning and limited in information.

          2. Observer*

            Well, no. It makes sense that he shared what he THOUGHT they said. But that’s not necessarily the same as what they actually said.

        2. Liz*

          Agreed. He may not have told the entire story TO HR or given then info necesary for them to suggest how to proceed. Vague statements will get you nowhere (if that’s in fact what he said). He probably should go back with specific examples and ask for suggestions as to how to handle them.

        3. Yorick*

          Right, and sometimes people hear the process that it takes to fire someone and think, “they won’t ever fire anyone so we’re stuck with her,” when all you have to do is take the proper steps and do some documenting.

        4. Hey Karma, Over here.*

          I wrote the exact same thing above. There is no action they can take to: “OP is so much better. She’s just not up to his level. She doesn’t do as much and she can’t do it as fast. It’s a real problem.”
          It’s a real problem for Eric, not for the company, that he has one super employee and one OK employee.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I agree with you here.

      If you do need to vent, which is natural, you take it out of the office completely. My partner hears a lot of my petty gripes and grouchiness so that I get it out and it doesn’t actually enter the office, outside of my mental twitching at some behaviors that cause me internally. Then I scratch that itch and stay away from internal gossip/poisoning others against someone who I know on a logical level is fine enough.

    3. TurquoiseCow*

      Yes! You’re a manager – manage!

      I had a few visibly lazy coworkers. One of them was just slow to do tasks that took the rest of us no time at all. A few of them were on the phone all the time and obviously goofing off. What did my boss do about it? He complained to me about how much they were goofing off. “Oh, there’s Lucinda on the phone with the bank again. What is she doing?” “Did you see Jane spent three hours on that task? She was thinking about it and taking notes. It should have taken her five minutes!”

      These were all the sort of gossipy conversations I’d have with other coworkers, and that was fine (to a point) because none of us had the power to do anything. But my boss DID have the power. He could have taken Lucinda aside and told her not to conduct so much personal business on the phone all day when she should be working. He could have told Jane that she needed to focus on improving speed. Or he could have done nothing if he felt these weren’t problems. Talking to me about it was not helpful and I ended up getting really frustrated with him for not having a spine.

      He was also a micromanager who refused to delegate while complaining about how busy he was and blew off all our one-on-ones because he didn’t think they were necessary.

    4. OP*

      I really do love this advice. I wish he would just talk to her. To give a little more insight, Eric was Tracey ‘s co-worker in this same department for about 15 years prior to being promoted to manager. I think his fear of speaking to her might stem from the recent shift in power, but that is no excuse for him to talk to me about her. After all, he is the manager now…

      1. RandomU...*

        I was wondering if this was the case.

        It’s very usual for a new manager promoted within the same team to struggle with two things. 1- changing the dynamic from a peer relationship to a manager/employee relationship and 2- Figuring out how to address work issues with peer turned direct reports.

        I say this not as your issue to solve, but more of a general observation. This is why I say his boss and HR are not great in this situation either as they should be coaching him through coaching her. I think the combination of options 2 and 3 are going to be most effective for you in this situation.

      2. singularity*

        Oooh, that’s good to know. They were coworkers before he was promoted *and she wasn’t.* If she has more years of experience, there could definitely be a feeling of being ‘skipped over’ from Tracey’s end.

      3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Ew. He’s not young like I was assuming. He’s been working with this person for 15 years and cannot growup and talk to her.

      4. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        I bet there’s some residual BEC there, too. He worked with her and knew how she operated. It got on his last nerve, but what could he do? Now that he’s in charge, he’s turning her into a broken stair. And you are the stair that gets stepped on harder.

    5. Guacamole Bob*

      Yes, to the bit about making yourself look incompetent and insecure.

      I had a boss who would ask me for my opinion about how to handle things, and it was clear that it was because he was out of his depth and I was more competent and better equipped to answer the questions. It always felt weird and awkward and while he’s a nice guy, I don’t respect him much as a manager.

      My current boss also asks my opinion, but it’s clear that he is in control of whatever the situation is and just values my input as a fellow professional whose subject matter expertise in certain niche areas is greater than his. He may take my advice, or not, or somewhere in between, but the way he asks doesn’t undermine his authority at all. It’s a world of difference.

    6. Falling Diphthong*

      It’s like an ongoing sketch of how Eric will treat you, his hapless sympathetic ear, when he’s annoyed with you. And that’s never reassuring to know.

    7. CoveredInBees*

      It seems like half of the letters to advice columnists boil down to some variation of, “I don’t like that this person is doing something, how can I make them stop (without a direct conversation)?” Be it a colleague, partner, child, etc. we’d all be better off if we stopped expecting people to intuit our needs and wants. Sometimes people write in with a question on the best way to initiate a conversation they don’t know how to have, which seems pretty healthy to me. The toughest part is deciding to actually have the conversation at all.

      To be clear, I’m referring to Eric in this situation. As AAM noted, the OP is in a tough position here to make Eric stop saying these things to her and make Tracey focus on her work more.

  3. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I once had a boss who complained to me about everyone in our department as well as her bosses. I have to admit hearing her complain and gossip was awesome because I got so much information. It was worth knowing she complained about me too…

    Until the day my coworker frustrated my boss so much that my boss openly asked, “Do you know what X does around here? I don’t. I haven’t given her work in months, but she always looks so busy.” Then I wanted to explode because my boss made double my salary to manage people!

    1. Transplant Gal*

      That’s how I was with my new boss! Just joined a new company and group here – boss is very (too) open with her opinions and whatnot. I admit at first I felt like I was in the “in” group, part of the clique, etc. Then I realized all the gossiping and judgement she was doing to other people in front of me … well she was saying things about me to other people. I stopped being as open and talkative at that point and had to introduce a healthy amount of distance. I’m a flaming liberal in the midwest and she thought I was just like her. Definitely not, but at least the rants about abortions and how she perceived democrats to be communists stopped when she saw my Bernie bumper sticker.

      166 days until I can transfer out…

  4. Linda Evangelista*

    I’d be curious to know what the gender dynamic is here, considering the general nature of a lot of large law firms.

    1. OP here...*

      My co-worker and I are both female. Our manager is male. I am twenty-two, and she is in her early fifties. My boss is in his mid-forties.

      1. Ms. Taylor Sailor*

        Mid-forties?? Like, I get being new to management has its hurdles, but with however many years experience he must have, I’m just incredulous that he’s behaving this way and is asking YOU how to handle this!

        1. Ms. Taylor Sailor*

          Side note, this kind of reminds me of the letter where the OP’s grandboss asked her to manage the workflow of her department since her boss couldn’t be depended on, even though the impetus should’ve been on grandboss to actually manage the boss when he wasn’t doing his own job. I’m sympathetic to the difficulties of managing, but the responsibility to manage reports needs to be on the actual manager and it’s astounding how many don’t seem to get that (at least based on what I’ve read on AAM).

        2. AKchic*

          With that added information, I am assuming that he is talking to LW *because* of the gender dynamics. He wants “a woman’s insight” on how to talk to Tracey, or is hoping LW will talk “girl to girl” with Tracey to do his dirty work for him, and is hinting at it, rather than outright asking, in hopes that someone else (LW) will do his job of managing Tracey’s annoying work traits for him. He probably found these things an irritant while he was a coworker and didn’t have the power to do anything about it, and management didn’t care. Now that he’s a manager, he’s finding the new power shift doesn’t have the power he thought it did, and he’s scared to actually use the limited power for this issue when other managers may actually *like* Tracey and not care about it like he does (probably because she’s “so nice” when they come around).

          It’s manipulative. If he wants something changed, he needs to do this himself, and he needs to use his own words.

          1. Old Biddy*

            I think it’s because of the gender dynamics, but I’m not sure if it’s because he wants OP to manage Tracey’s work traits. It may be an attempt to pit OP against Tracey.
            I was on a team of folks in their mid-30’s and it had a ‘boy’s club’ mentality since the boss was close buddies with a few of the male team members. It wasn’t great but worked ok because the women weren’t outnumbered too badly, and we produced more results than the guys. A few younger women were hired (late 20s) and a couple of the guys really tried to get the younger women on their side by gossiping, bad mouthing the senior women, etc. Their strategy backfired after a few months because the new hires didn’t fall for it.
            I’m sure it was not a conscious thing for the guys, more like they thought the new hires were cool, non-threatening and fun to hang out with (which they were!) but pitting women against each other is pretty common, unfortunately.

            1. AKchic*

              Very much so, and if you get the new hires (women or not) on your side, then it makes the “old guard who makes you look bad” look like the Bad Guys all along. They may not consciously recognize the game they are playing, but they are still playing it, nonetheless.

              And I agree about the potential for the Missing Stair theory that was posited above.

              Ultimately, if Eric wants Tracey to do better, he needs to outline exactly what he wants done. Does he want less socializing? Okay. How much socializing is she actually doing? Is it really socializing, or is it socially managing interdepartmental personalities so she can ensure a harmonious workflow with other people? *Can* it be cut back a bit and still be effective? Can she pick up her work speed in any way? Just how much of her work “slack” is being picked up by LW and Eric? If they stopped picking up her slack and held firm to her deadlines for a month, how much of her “socializing” would stop? If the socializing decreased, how many unknown benefits to the department decrease? I.e., would the supply requests not get ordered as quickly, would deliveries not be so prompt, would the cleaning be less than perfect, would the copier not get serviced on time, etc.? Tracey’s “socializing” may very well have real-world value that Eric has never realized before, simply because he’s never had to put in the emotional labor of making and keeping those social connections.

              1. Tempestuous Teapot*

                Not to mention, Tracy is one person completing what OP and Eric are doing together (if I read that correctly)? If Tracy did not have the business/personnel relation maintenance duties and also a person working alongside her, what would be her turn around speed?

        3. Liz*

          Agreed. I’m in my early 50s and have never managed anyone. however, if i ever was put in the position to do so, I’ve had enough bad managers myself, and work experience to know what to do and what not to do, and also to look for and ask for help if I get stuck.

      2. Not A Manager*

        Another possibility is that he’s pressing personal boundaries with the LW. Having a common “enemy” that needs to be talked over a lot creates a kind of intimacy. It’s forced teaming.

  5. Probably Nerdy*

    What if you have the opposite problem? I had a boss who would negatively compare me to other employees and gush about them to me.

    He did have massive other behavioral issues….

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      If someone is demeaning you, you ask them to stop and escalate to HR if necessary for a formal complaint. If nobody puts a stop to it, you leave. You will be beaten down and destroyed by accepting abuse. Always stand up for yourself, sadly unless you’re extremely lucky nobody is going to do it for you.

    2. Lance*

      In that case, I’d draw a similar conclusion to the fact that OP’s boss should really be talking to Tracey: you could ask the boss how you might be able to get to that level. Where the biggest improvements might be made, what you might have to learn. No promises that you’ll get good answers from a boss that’s already being inappropriate, but I think it could at least be worth a try, if you ever find yourself in that sort of situation again (which I should hope not, but you never know).

  6. Me*

    My boss does this and I hate it. The only reason I tolerate is because he is a terrible manager so I use it as an opportunity to encourage him to try a functional and helpful management tact.

    Example – Jane did x because she said Tom told her too. Boss went to Tom and was told Tom asked Jane is she had time to do it, would she mind? Boss comes to me and complains about Jane lying. I gently suggest that it was unlikely and outright lie but more of question of how she came to the understanding she did, and how to make sure she’s clear on things in the future.

    So if you’re comfortable managing up go for it – your coworker(s) would probably be grateful to be treated decently. If not, just tell him it makes you uncomfortable.

  7. Cynthia Raza*

    I was in this boat about 15 years ago and took option #3. My boss was kind of shallow and he was unfairly critical of my older colleague (and friend) and would say things about not just her work but make comments about appearances. It was gross but when it came to gossip, he always acted like he was one of the group instead of a leader.

    One day, he came into my office and started badmouthing her and I said flat out, “It makes me uncomfortable when you talk about my coworkers to me. It’s going to make us not trust you, and wonder if you are talking about us behind our backs.” He was flabbergasted but he stopped coming to me with that.

    Not saying this would work for everyone, but I’m not shy and was tired of being put in that position. Not surprisingly, I left that job after he lost his temper with me (there was some door slamming and fist pounding) and I didn’t mince words with HR on my way out. My colleague also ended up leaving and doing so much better once she got out of there.

    1. Rhiiiiiiannnnnnnon*

      I also experienced the same type of male boss who was fixated on an older female employee, and badmouthed her personality and appearance to me. I also chose option #3, by first saying it was inappropriate, and then when he tried to argue with me that it wasn’t, I said: “I will not be a sounding board for meanness.” That put the kibosh on it, although he was upset with me for a bit. I don’t regret it. 10/10 would do again.

      She’s retired now but he’s still a jerk about her. Recently he replaced an old picture of her in a presentation with a tortoise. Just so juvenile and unkind.

      1. Light37*

        Yikes. That’s pathetic. I would see that and think very badly of him, especially since she’s now gone.

      2. Cynthia Raza*

        “I will not be a sounding board for meanness” was the perfect way to say it – shuts it down and calls it out for what it is. I can’t believe he did that, in a presentation no less. So unprofessional and clueless and only makes him look bad.

  8. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Yikes, he’s failing so hard at management and I’m relieved to see he’s new at it at least…I truly hope he can grow into his role or remove himself before someone else decides to do it for him, which can be an ugly thing to go through.

    I think he’s the sort of person who needs to be told directly that you’re not comfortable with the situation. “I’m not qualified to assist with management decisions, this sounds like something you should really speak with Jane about directly.”

    This reeks of underlying age discrimination issues and it’s making me clinch. I’m glad you’re not engaging and know this is inappropriate behavior, others in your position may feel pressured into joining in on his roasting of this woman and that’s toxic behavior that fixes nothing and hurts morale.

    1. Auntie Social*

      BUT–Eric could tell Tracey he notices lots of chatting even when she’s behind on projects, talk to other staff and their managers about “Sue, can you not stop and chat every time you come back from the break room? we don’t need distractions”, just stay and observe how long it takes Tracey to do something–does it take her forever to get started?, is she on IM all the time, etc.

  9. Jennifer*

    The OP is right to be wary. Whenever someone gossips inappropriately with me, I always wonder what they say about me when my back is turned, and to whom.

    I think the direct option is best. “This is making me really uncomfortable. I feel stuck in the middle.”

    1. M&Ms fix lots of Problems*

      Yup. My thoughts is be all business and no personal. Become the boring person, they’ll still complain but if you aren’t involved it’s less damaging for you if the department goes sideways.

  10. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    Ugh, this unfortunately doesn’t surprise me for a BigLaw firm. I think OP may want to go with option #3 and explain that this is putting OP in a difficult situation.

    It sounds like Eric is venting because he feels powerless to remove Tracey from his team and cannot articulate the business case for why he wants her gone. At a minimum, he should mention the productivity and overly socializing problems to Tracey. But I think it’s fully within OP’s scope to tell Eric that the complaints make it difficult for OP to be as effective.

    1. government worker*

      It’s not just big law firms. I worked at a very small firm and had a boss just like this. Generally speaking, attorneys suck at management.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        It’s not just attorneys, although I can see how the skills that make a good attorney are pretty much NOT the skills that make a good manager, because management is about soft skills.

        Regardless, management is a skill that needs to be taught. Just being senior enough, or just being really good at the task — neither of these is qualification for management. Team lead, yes, management, no.

        1. government worker*

          Sure, there are lousy managers in all professions. From my experience I’ve found that attorneys are particularly inept at it. Have you ever worked at a law firm? It’s…unpleasant. Big personalities + arrogance + rampant substance abuse + ambition + high stakes and stress is a perfect equation for disaster.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Of course. Law is very egalitarian about managerial incompetence.

          1. StaceyIzMe*

            My brain just pictured lizard scales falling like random detritus from an iguana-like creature. Perhaps I need more coffee.

            1. Seeking Second Childhood*

              I now cannot forget the idea of the “lizard scales of justice” …oh for the ability to draw well.

      3. Marion Cotesworth-Haye*

        Having worked on both the staff and lawyer side of BigLaw, this sounds like a staff manager to me. Incompetent management is very common among attorneys, but the constant texting of a staff member, size of the team, and frequent interaction of a single manager with an entry-level staffer reads like a paralegal/project assistant relationship, not an attorney/staff one.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          That was my read, as well. Especially because OP notes that this is their first job out of college (not out of law school).

      4. Slow Gin Lizz*

        My last job was a consulting firm that did project management training for lawyers and it was very well received by the attorneys who did the training. OldBoss literally wrote the book on legal project management. Well, one of them, anyway. There are only a few, though.

  11. Guacamole Bob*

    Kind of a side note, but I’ve worked in a number of departments like this, and I’ve come to understand that there’s sometimes value in the Tracys of the world. Not the huffing and excess socializing, but in having employees who will stick around and aren’t looking to move up. I’ve always been OP or Eric, where I was early in my career and worked quickly, but I would get bored and move on or excel and be promoted pretty quickly. But some of my colleagues whose performance was more middling had been there a long time and stuck around, and that can have real value, especially in my current agency that has a lot of arcane government bureaucracy that we’re legally obligated to deal with and having people who’ve figured it out makes things go more smoothly.

    It can be hard to decide what’s worth putting up with from these long-tenured employees – how slow is too slow? – but in some jobs you won’t get a lot of bright, fast-working people who will stick around. It can be a genuine management challenge to determine what counts as good enough performance for a given role and whether it’s more useful to have stability in a department or to use it as an entry-level position with a lot of turnover. I doubt Eric is capable of being particularly thoughtful about it, though.

    1. Jennifer*

      I agree with you. Those long-term employees are the ones you can go to when you have questions and they usually have their ears to the ground and know when a big change is coming. Plus they’ve seen a lot and can give you some perspective about how things are done. Departments with a lot of turnover can be tough because no one has that kind of knowledge.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Totally true. To go even further, there’s value to each employee who does a job, unless they are actually inept, careless or straight bad at their duties!

      I think it’s critical for all managers to realize you’re always going to have a spectrum of abilities and personalities, the main reason someone should stay employed is that their job is getting done with accuracy and within the reasonable timeframe that is mutually agreed upon. Loyalty and dedication to the program/organization has a lot of value that should be respected [but not to the point of determent, which is why you have to make sure everyone is at least pulling an appropriate amount of weight, sometimes people need more assistance but it’s to be expected]. Unlike the people who get bored and restless and need change every 3-5 years, these are your core worker bees, it’s so much easier in life if you’re not stuck in a cycle of training that worker-bee position as people move in and out of it.

      A dedicated employee who is slower than your rockstar or yourself is perfectly acceptable as long as they’re not causing true problems with work product quality or disrupting the flow. Which is why HR is like “We aren’t going to transfer her just because she’s slower than you, bro.”

    3. M&Ms fix lots of Problems*

      So agreed, Tracey is a wealth of institutional knowledge. Some of the socializing you and boss see may be people asking her for help, do you remember how this had been done, etc. I would love to have that at my current job, but we are a completely new department that has only existed for 10 months. We’re all still learning.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        A VERY good point. If boss sees her “socializing” for more than 5 minutes, he needs to go over and ask what’s being discussed. Because maybe it’s the specific things she knows will sooth ExtremelyBigClient(TM) and keep them from threatening to take their business elsewhere.

    4. Southern Yankee*

      This is so true! I was also the fast rising where’s-the-next-challenge employee and it took me a while to recognize the value of the steady, stable set. Many years later, I can say that whether I was managing three people or thirty, a mix of rising stars and stable contributors is a very good thing to have. Unfortunately, you usually have a few problem employees that will suck up your time like an industrial vacuum. Depending on the job/industry/etc., it can be common to have a majority of people in the “dependable, do their jobs well, but can’t rarely think outside the box” set. They can look slow or less than amazing when compared to the stars, but oh my, once you have a few employees with major issues that suck all your time, you are so grateful to have those stable folks that just make sure the work gets done no matter what.

      OP, this may not help you in this specific situation, but it’s a very helpful thing to know as you advance in your career. If Tracey is the steady, not speedy, but still valuable type, being a good co-worker and understanding what makes her tick will probably help you identify and understand others like her in the future.

      1. Working Mom Having It All*

        Also… OP might become a “Tracey”, in the future. And that’s completely OK!

  12. Holly*

    I’m taking OP at his or her word that Tracey is not performing as well as OP is, in terms of how the manager would like the department to function, so I am not accusing anyone of discrimination here. However, Eric is really putting everyone in a bind here if OP is also younger and/or also a man. He’s creating a sort of “in group” with Tracey in the out group. If she ever decided to file a complaint, they could get the texts that talk about how “slow” she is compared to OP… it could be a big mess!!!

    1. Grace*

      “However, Eric is really putting everyone in a bind here if OP is also younger and/or also a man.”

      OP mentioned this upthread – Eric is in his mid-forties, Tracey is in her early fifties, and OP is a woman in her early twenties. The gender dynamics are less of an issue, then (in the sense of two men against a woman), but a middle-aged man pitting a younger woman against an older one definitely has dynamics at play, in my eyes.

      1. D'Arcy*

        Yes, but when the younger employee is performing dramatically better and the older employee is visibly wasting time on a constant basis. . . it’s totally justified to “side with” the younger.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          But IS she? With a manager who’s not going over there to interrupt and — you know–manage, I have to agree wtih the comment made above that there’s a chance she’s actually doing some unofficial in-house training.

          1. Jaydee*

            And maybe that unofficial in-house training (if that’s what’s happening) is really a distraction from things that Tracey should be doing or is a much lower priority than her other work. Maybe there’s a much more efficient distribution of tasks. But if Eric isn’t actually talking to Tracey about what he wants her to do, how long tasks should take, etc. then she’s just going to keep on keeping on. Regardless of what’s going on, this comes down to Eric needing to get in there and actually *manage* Tracey.

      2. Working Mom Having It All*

        I don’t know, I think OP being a young woman in her 20s makes the gender dynamics more of an issue. It’s a different dynamic, but it’s one that is probably worse for OP than she thinks.

      3. Holly*

        Thanks for pointing this out, I posted before OP responded I think! That still really isn’t great at all. Eric is being gross for trying to be buddy-buddy with a much younger female report and complain about an older woman!

    2. Interviewer*


      I’m sure Tracey has already observed Eric connecting more with OP than her. It wouldn’t take much for her to connect the dots.

      Maybe you can meet with HR and show them the texts. Seriously, this whole things gets my HR spidey-senses tingling.

      Meanwhile, it’s definitely not fair to you, OP, to have a manager without any management courage and a coworker who doesn’t have to work. Maybe you should be the one considering a transfer to another department.

      1. AnonAndOn Original*

        I didn’t refresh my browser before posting and missed the other responses.

  13. Goes On Anon*

    Anon just for this, but a bit ago my boss asked me to do a special meeting where I tell people not to clip their nails at their desk because she didn’t know how else to get my coworker to stop and it was grossing her out.

    I was thinking internally “I mean, even if you weren’t her boss you could probably just ask her to stop? But you’re her boss, so tell her to stop.”

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Oh please give us an update. How did THAT go? Wishing I could have been a fly on the wall.

    2. Life is Good* my old company, the owner would clip his finger AND toenails at his desk. And….when you were consulting with him on something, he’d often take a paper clip and dig out his ear with it, checking out the goop that he got out all the while talking to you as if it was the most normal thing in the world. I do not miss that guy.

      Do update us, GOA!

  14. singularity*

    If he’s talking to someone like the OP about his frustrations, he’s probably talked about other inappropriate topics to various other employees. How frustrating for Tracey! Eric is clearly playing ‘favorites’ here and as Alison suggested, he’s supposed to remain objective. Tracey has no doubt noticed this dynamic and it could be contributing to her slow pace –she’s anxious whenever Eric comes around.

    1. Auntie Social*

      Or it’s a slowdown, conscious or otherwise, because Tracey thinks SHE should be the manager, given all the years she’s had with the firm. I don’t think much makes Tracey truly anxious, and she knows she’s not fireable.

      1. singularity*

        Very true. If I were in Tracey’s position, the idea of being managed by a former co-worker with less years of experience than me would definitely put me on edge.

  15. greenbeanies*

    I’m really glad someone asked this question as I’ve been a similar situation for a few years. When I first started, my manager told me what was wrong with each of my co-workers. It was one conversation, and she went down the list: “Jenny is prickly. Bob is a weak writer and always needs extra help. Lane is really sensitive.” And like others above have pointed out, it makes you wonder how the manager will label you (because you know you’re not getting left out!)

  16. Parcae*

    I had to have the “please don’t trash-talk my coworker in front of me; it makes me uncomfortable” conversation with my very first manager when I was 16. I was scared to bring it up, but to my manager’s credit, she apologized and stopped doing it. It was a great learning experience, honestly.

      1. Parcae*

        Well, my manager really, really liked me (maybe unreasonably so, when I think about my skills at 16, ha) and I trusted her not to blow up or do something crazy. Eric may or may not be that reasonable.

        The real lesson was in watching how my coworker handled it. She definitely knew she was being put down, but she never mentioned it to me or responded in kind. And then she went out and found another job! Life goals, really.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Hmmm that depends on the 16 year old really and how they’re raised. Many are really great at challenging authority.

        I know I had even less control over my mouth as a teenager because you don’t think of the consequences and assume you’re untouchable.

    1. OP*

      That’s great. I will try this approach. I’m a quiet, more introverted individual, so it will be harder for me to just say it like that, but I think it has come to the point where I need to.

      1. Parcae*

        I found it easier to have a single, serious conversation about it than to respond to it in the moment, actually. I practiced what I wanted to say first and that helped.

  17. StaceyIzMe*

    It sounds to me like you’ve become a surrogate emotional whipping post: your boss won’t deal with your coworker directly, so he vents to you (and vents, and vents, and vents…). The look for your department isn’t good for anyone. Maybe one of the reasons your coworker is slacking off is that she is burned out, or has a health issue, or is just counting the days until she retires. I’d ignore your manager’s attempts to involve you and stay out of the line of fire. Because if he’s willing to grouse about her to you, who’s to say he isn’t grousing about you to her? You don’t know. I hear just a touch of judgement in your tone about pace and how well you work with your manager. If you drop that undertone and focus on the work, you’ll be perfect. You might also find that your coworker has a few things to teach you about the organization. It might be worth it to watch her network and also listen to some of her stories. You can consider it free intel/ backstory. It could reveal where some of the organization’s less obvious power centers are and give you some insight into any number of things, over time. I wouldn’t answer your manager’s “ask” with respect to what he should do. He’s making a mess of managing two people and you really want to stay out of any fallout from that, in my view. His motive for dumping on you isn’t good in that he’s at least clueless/ oblivious and possibly a real drama llama. Be Team You, not Team Manager or Team Coworker, and navigate this mess as neutrally and as adroitly as possible.

    1. OP*

      I definitely do not mean to judge Tracey, but understand how you picked up on a underlying judgmental tone. The whole situation has frustrated me for months, and that probably come across in my letter to Alison. I respect Tracey’s years of experience as well as her credibility and reputation here at the firm. She has been nothing but kind to me and has given me meaningful insight into the firm and our job, particularly. The issue of “pace” that might come across as judgmental comes into play because the attorneys at our firm want to get the “OK” on representing new clients or undertaking new matters as quickly as possible, so our department can really be on a time crunch to meet deadlines. I don’t feel that I work better with my boss OR work better with Tracey. In fact, we all work pretty independently for a department that is intertwined. It is the constant “We get things done so much faster than her!” texts/conversations with my manager that makes me assume him and I work at similar speeds. We all sit in an enclosed area where we can see each other, so we can visibility see each other’s progress, if that makes sense.

      1. Kitryan*

        We have similar jobs! I also do new client/new matter processing at a law firm! Different department makeup, so I know we don’t work at the same place :)
        I am de facto team lead and my fellow team member has all of Tracy’s disadvantages and lacks most of her advantages (they don’t have institutional knowledge or particularly strong relationships at the firm but they are a nice person).
        I don’t have much to add to the advice on how to deal w/Eric but I do have lots of sympathy for the Tracy situation. I have to listen to my colleague take personal calls and watch them futz around all day while we’re under the gun w/attorneys breathing down our throats. It’s frustrating as all get out.

  18. cmcinnyc*

    I got a new boss (internal transfer) and he immediately took me out for coffee and began trashing one of his VPs. She was senior to me, and had a good reputation in the company and I had no reason to think badly of her. My only response to him was “She’s well-liked and has a solid reputation here at Teapots For All.” Which shut that down. So he moved on to complaining about one of the people he reported to! After that I refused all coffee 1:1s, made sure out check ins were in the office, and in the open. 18 months later I transferred out of his department because you know the complaints were starting about me, right? His staff is in perma-churn, loves to fire people, he can’t keep an assistant, and he’s incapable of being on time/being accountable. He will probably never be fired.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      If your employer is as big as I suspect… take that to HR. You’re no longer in his chain of command so you are someone who CAN make a difference for the people who are stuck working for him — or getting fired by him.

  19. Jennifer*

    Also, when it comes to Tracey, there can be value to socializing and building relationships with other employees. That could be why she’s lasted there so long. If she’s getting the work done, but just isn’t as fast, that’s something to think about.

  20. Hannah*

    This is extremely unprofessional.

    One reason people do this sometimes is that they want to feel closer to the person they are venting to for one reason or another. Maybe they want to set up a dynamic of “good one” and “bad one” just for its own sake, or maybe they have a bit of a crush (romantic or platonic) on one and use the other one to boost the relationship with the favored one. None of this is OK and I would be on the lookout for other signs of manipulation in this way. For now, I would try to just not participate in the dynamic as much as possible. It’s so easy to get sucked in to this so kudos to OP for recognizing that it is not a good way to operate.

    1. RandomU...*

      Both of those seem like a stretch and there doesn’t seem to be anything in the letter to support that.

      That being said I agree with this…
      “For now, I would try to just not participate in the dynamic as much as possible.”

      1. Working Mom Having It All*

        Ehhhh, this seems like the classic star pupil vs. bad egg dynamic that some managers tend to create. I’ve worked with a few people who do this, and it jumped out at me immediately. I will say that I’m not sure there’s any nefarious intent here, and that it’s possible Eric isn’t doing it consciously. Like, I don’t think Eric is thinking “aha! by framing Tracey as a bad employee for sometimes taking a personal call during work hours, I have OP perfectly in my thrall!”

        But it’s definitely a thing, and this is a textbook case. It’s also not particularly beneficial to be in the “star pupil” role, either.

  21. Princess prissypants*

    The always popular head tilt, raised eyebrow, “Why are you telling me this?”

    Tomorrow, same but, “Why are you still telling me this?”

    1. singularity*

      I like this response, but depending on Eric, it might invite more unwanted sharing. “I’m telling you this because…!” If he’s especially clueless and doesn’t pick up on the implied, ‘you should be talking to her, not to me’ message.

  22. R.*

    My former boss did this to me constantly and I never worked up the courage to ask him to stop. He recently left and I didn’t even realize how big of a toll his gossiping/venting was taking on me until he was gone. It was constant emotional labor to listen to him complain, offer reassurance or advice, and then absorb that negativity myself. I definitely think this type of behavior has a gender dynamic — it often seems to be men emotionally dumping on women.

    One tip that I picked up, and it sounds totally stupid, from a book for “highly sensitive people” (I am one) was the bubble visualization. When your boss starts venting, imagine a bubble surrounding you and protecting you from the weight of his words. This actually did help a little! I also would sometimes just make excuses to remove myself from the situation: “Hey, I’ve got to go take a call,” or whatever.

  23. M&Ms fix lots of Problems*

    I will combine a few points in my answer.
    1) can you make it really unrewarding to vent to you? Like constantly saying I need to get back to X.
    2) I don’t want to be a part of this then delete the texts. This way if they get grabbed later there is evidence you attempted to get out of it.
    3) every time they ask you what to do about co-worker, “I’m not the person to ask that question of, try _______ instead.” Redirect manager to a person at least on their level.

    Also, OP do you have have a person in the company other than manager that you can ask for help from so that there is a trail that you don’t want to be involved in what manager is doing when this more than likely blows up?

    1. M*

      One disagreement here – I wouldn’t delete the texts. If it’s ever investigated, deleted texts can just look like you tried to cover it up when you knew it was being investigated. Leave them, and just let the fact that you never replied speak for itself.

      1. M&Ms fix lots of Problems*

        Fair point. I think the texts are something that could easily go both ways. I just know that I can sometimes accidentally grab the wrong message and have a tendency to delete trails when I’m done with them to prevent that.

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        I suspect that’s a typo because that’s exactly what the second half of the comment implies!

  24. LaDeeDa*

    My boss is literally trash talking a colleague to me right this very second in IM to me. It is a constant. I try to respond neutrally; “oh, that’s odd.” “I wonder where that is coming from?” “oh wow.” “I can see how that would be frustrating”
    When I really want to say “go talk to that person and be a f-ing leader!”

    Sadly, it is part of what I have to do to maintain a relationship with her.

    1. Princess prissypants*

      I would do what others have suggested – “What did she say when you tried to talk to her about this?” of course insinuating that’s exactly what the boss should do.

    2. OP*

      That’s exactly how I feel. I play neutral or don’t respond, but that hasn’t led him to believe I’m not interested in speaking about it.

      1. LaDeeDa*

        I understand. I know my boss well enough to know that I absolutely cannot tell her to stop, and if I don’t play along… well she is vindictive and two-faced. I have to do this for my own sanity and to stay in her “in-crowd”

    3. Psyche*

      I have had more luck with responding positively about the person. “She seems to know a lot about X.” “She helped so much with Y. I don’t know what I would have done without her!” My boss did not want to vent to me anymore. That doesn’t work when your boss is vindictive though.

      1. boo bot*

        Yeah, I do this socially. Clearly it’s not always possible at work, but it always makes me feel better about the interaction to stick up for the person, even if I secretly kind of agree with the gossiper.

        The other thing I do socially is sort of empathizing with the behavior, when it’s undeniable (e.g. if Tracey really is way too slow):
        Eric: Tracey is so slow and huffy!
        bot: Sometimes I get stuck on a particular step and it slows me down.
        Eric: She is huffy!
        bot: It’s hard to focus when I’m huffy. I like to take a walk outside.

        Obviously this has problems at work, like implying you have issues that you don’t have, but it can be satisfying in other contexts.

  25. AnonAndOn Original*

    Eric is putting you in a tough spot. I’m sorry to hear about what you’re going through.

    Bosses like that are passive aggressive. And if he’s gossiping to you about Tracey he’s likely gossiping about you to someone else. It’s so unprofessional.

  26. animaniactoo*

    “I understand that you’re frustrated and are looking for someone to vent to. If possible, I would really prefer that I not be that person. She’s my co-worker and I need to maintain a good working relationship with her as long as she is here. Hearing about your frustrations directly from you makes me feel very uncomfortable, it makes me feel like I am in the middle of the situation without the ability to do anything about it. Would it be possible for you to find someone else to vent to?”

    Absolutely you could combine that with pointing him towards AAM for advice on how to manage an underperforming employee/transitioning from team member to employee, and so on. “I don’t know if it would be of use to you, but I follow a website which I think has really good workplace advice for managing difficult situations for both managers and employees. Have you heard of “Ask A Manager?”

    1. LaDeeDa*

      But don’t direct him here for a month- so the OP’s question falls off the recent post list. ;)

  27. Sally Forth*

    I think the OP needs to be very careful about being part of these exchanges. They could be used by HR as evidence of how Tracy was isolated in the office by the manager and the OP.

  28. Coldbrewinacup*

    It’s sad that this type of poor management is so common.

    I am dealing with a similar situation, as my boss does this also, but not that much to me. He has two favorite employees who he gossips to and with, and those two are his spies. Anything you say can and will be used against you, and my boss eats up the drama. He loves talking trash about us. It’s a nasty, negative workplace.

    Sounds like these bosses need to read AAM.

  29. Onions*

    Oh man…reminds me of a supervisor I had who would complain to me that another worker was playing video games all day. Like…you’re his boss…give him more work to do!

  30. Working Mom Having It All*

    I always assume managers who trash talk other coworkers to me are trash talking me to other coworkers. It’s an immediate red flag of someone I don’t want to work with long term.

    Also, one thing that seems odd about this whole situation is the idea that Eric is at “going to HR” level with Tracey because she huffs and puffs when things are hectic. Like… so what? She’s been working there for decades, so unless something has changed with her recently, it sounds like whoever she was reporting to for the years before Eric managed her was fine with her work. There are SO MANY worse traits in an employee than “annoyingly over-broadcasts that they are stressed out when work is, indeed, stressful.”

    I also have to bring up: is there a big important (actually real life important) reason to work faster in these instances? Is Tracey meaningfully bringing down the overall performance of your team? Are these life or death emergency situations where a client is going to lose millions of dollars, or the governor isn’t going to be able to issue a stay of execution to save a death row inmate’s life? Or is it just, like, this week’s TPS report gets filed at 3:56 instead of 2:15? Because, honestly, life is too fricking short. Which is probably something Tracey knows, having been there for decades.

    I had a very toxic manager once who both bad-mouthed other coworkers to me all the time and also would create these dynamics where there was always a runt of the litter on the team who wasn’t pulling their weight and it was a Big Problem. When that person was doing fine, and it was fine. They just were that little bit slower, or did things in a way the manager didn’t think was 100% optimal, or there was some minute area of room for improvement that didn’t actually have a big impact for the team overall. Working for that person ratcheted up my anxiety tenfold, to be honest, and I’m still un-learning some of the toxic ideas she planted in my head.

    TL;DR: I don’t think Tracey is the problem on your team.

  31. OP*

    LIVE snapshot from OP with a glimpse into our department dynamic…

    I’m currently on my lunch break and sitting at my desk (which is why I’m able to write this comment.) Eric just came over to my desk and showed me a printed email he got from HR about my upcoming 9 month performance review and hinted that I might get a raise before giving me a thumbs up. (Isn’t that supposed to be confidential?) I smiled awkwardly and nodded without saying a word. Tracey (who is not on her lunch break) is sitting in between us and has been the phone speaking to someone about how her nephew’s car got towed for the past 10-15 minutes. Eric did not say anything to her before returning to his desk, but looks irritated.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Telling you about your up coming performance review and cluing you in that he’s giving you a good review to them isn’t sketchy. However he needs to drop the hints of you getting a raise if he’s not the one in charge of those that leads to issues if you don’t get a raise, you may feel disappointment and therefore start getting that itch to leave due to that kind of mixed signals stuff.

      But yes, he’s horrible and needs to bite the dang bullet and tell Tracey to limit her socializing because it’s to the level of disrupting work flow. You shouldn’t be a tyrant about that kind of thing, a personal call every so often is normal and fine but given her track record, he continues to just let her drive the ship without even trying to take control of the team. Ick. I really hate this guy.

      1. OP*

        Thank you for the advice and insight. This will be my first performance review, so I’m not sure the standard protocol, but figured since I was not included on the email that I was not supposed to know the details. The raise thing did strike me as odd. I think it’s important to note that Tracey’s socialization/outward projection of her frustration doesn’t bother me unless it is directly affecting my work, which it only does if I have to shoulder some of her project load. I am more introverted and keep things close to the chest, and she is more extroverted, so it makes sense for her to be more outspoken with her frustrations. However, the socialization/outward projection does seem it just seems to bother Eric, and that is when he usually approaches me about it instead of speaking directly to her.

        1. Batgirl*

          My read is that he’s so insecure in his leadership that he’s overreacting to everything as personal. So, you’re doing well and he can’t wait to bask in the glow of reflected glory as your mentor.
          Tracey’s having a skive and he sees it as personally disrespectful. So much so he doesn’t even expect her to listen.
          The truth is you’d both be performing just as you are without him.

        2. Working Mom Having It All*

          Eh, in my experience it is fairly common to know going into your review that you’ve met or exceeded expectations and will probably be getting X, Y, or Z standard rewards for that. (At my company we get raises and bonuses, the size of these being merit based though I assume you get at least a cost of living raise if your performance was merely adequate.) These things are all highly structured, and assuming all is well there’s really no big secret about it.

          I, too, was told by my supervisor to expect good things going into my annual review. I didn’t get exact numbers or a 100% confirmation of the specifics, but similar to what Eric shared with you. That the news would be good and to expect the full merit based raise and bonus.

          I would be more concerned if this were being shared with other people, whether behind my back (for example if Eric told you that Tracey isn’t getting jack this year because her performance evaluation was poor), or if my boss said casually in front of other coworkers that I would be getting a raise at review time. But privately/semi-privately from manager to direct report, this seems normal to me.

    2. M&Ms fix lots of Problems*

      Oh boy.
      The name of the game with you boss needs to be disengage and be all work all the time. Do not let him make you a part of the “in group” because that way spells disaster. Just do your best to be the most professional you can and keep out of the chaos.

    3. Working Mom Having It All*

      Yeaaahhhhh, you think this is good for you, and the reality is that it probably isn’t actually that good for you.

      1, I cannot tell you the number of times a (usually not very good) manager has strung me along that I’m about to get some big raise or promotion or the like, when it’s actually not something they have any control over, nor is it in any way guaranteed. Also to be frank, a lot of these turned out to be “Charlie Brown kicking the football” situations where the raise or promotion didn’t happen, or worse, I was low key promised a raise but what actually happened was that there were surprise layoffs that my manager almost certainly knew were coming but still strung me along that something good was about to happen. There’s a solid chance Eric is telling you this to make Eric sound good.

      2, A lot of companies package annual cost of living raises alongside your performance review. If you’re honestly earning a raise through your hard work, that’s great! But also… it kind of sounds like Eric might be using something that is relatively standard and probably not directly inspired by him (even if it’s a merit raise) to make you feel like you are in his debt somehow, or allied with him against Tracey.

      3, If #2 is correct, Tracey may also be getting a raise. You have no way of knowing. It’s also to Eric’s benefit for you to see this as a “dance, monkey, dance!” situation where you toiling away to the point of burnout gets you in his good books, while Tracey is the team bad apple who can be made an example of. That’s the whole purpose of creating this dynamic: Tracey is unlikely to face any real consequences for her behavior, while you absorb the message that your boss only likes you when you’re busting your ass, and that what are probably routine raises are entirely dependent on you staying on his good side.

    4. LQ*

      Yeah, I think that while the way he did it sounds a little awkward I don’t think it’s bad to get a kind of heads up about the performance review and even a preview of you’re doing well to help make it so you aren’t stressed about it. The hint of a raise…eh it depends. I think if it’s within his power it’s fine to hint at it, or even if it’s in the works. Though that feels a bit much because it can feel more like a promise than he has the power to make it.

      But that you have an upcoming performance review isn’t, or shouldn’t be confidential at all. It does make me think that you may have trouble with the “is this normal” thing which is really common when you have a bad boss. Bad bosses (especially inappropriate ones) sometimes do perfectly normal things, but it gets colored by the fact that they behave badly so often that you can’t tell what’s normal. Very much a thing to be aware of in this job and in the future!

    5. Seeking Second Childhood*

      How do you *KNOW* Tracey is not on her lunch break? A lot of us have days when we “graze” , don’t eat a single big lunch, and take our lunch breaks right at our desks!

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        And honestly, you’re not in a position to know if she’s working a different start-time than you, taking long or staggered breaks, or working at home in the evenings. That’s your manager’s job.
        What you *CAN* do is pop your head over to her line of sight and say “I don’t know if you realize it, but if I’m not wearing headphones I can hear every word you say.”

        1. LQ*

          But OP isn’t the one who is irritated with the coworker, the boss is. It’s the manager that’s the problem here, not the OP. The OP wasn’t complaining about the lunch break, they were describing what the boss’s behavior was.

      2. OP*

        We have to tell each other when we take our lunch breaks because there are only 3 of us, so 2 people have to manning the department at all times. That is how I knew…I, too, am a chronic “grazer.” Lol.

  32. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

    Hmm… I’m kind of worried that two of my trainees might think this is what I’m doing. I’m not *trying* to gossip or demean one to the other, but, I’m training two employees (I’m not their manager, but in a vaguely supervisory position) who are in a different office from me. Their actual in-office manager isn’t involved in our work at all, and doesn’t know how to do our tasks, so it’s down to me to train them. Being not physically there with them makes it very difficult to observe their processes; so when I do spot that one has done something wrong, I tend to point it out to both of them individually, to demonstrate how it should have been done differently. (Like: Oh, Alice, have you been documenting X information at the start of each assignment? I just realized Beatrice wasn’t documenting that until the end, and it really needs to be done at the start because ABC reason, so wanted to make sure you’re aware of the policy.)
    I suppose I could just leave out the references to Beatrice when explaining something to Alice, but in some cases, it’s difficult to explain clearly & concisely what I mean without a concrete example; and if there’s no example, it also might feel like I’m nagging by randomly reminding them of something I have already told them.

    1. Psyche*

      I think tone and frequency matter. If you are saying it in a way that makes it sounds like a stupid mistake, then it is not good. It it is matter of fact, it is probably fine. However, if you are doing it all the time and the same person is always the one making the mistakes, I would try to leave the reference to the others work out whenever possible.

    2. Working Mom Having It All*

      I think this is par for the course in training settings like this. As long as you don’t single anyone out or use an insulting tone, it’s probably fine. If the dynamic is that Alice is the “star pupil” while Beatrice always furnishes the negative examples, this could be a problem? But otherwise, yeah, the benefit of training in a group is that you each get the benefit of making mistakes and getting feedback. (Also presumably they are expected to make mistakes and not know, right?)

    3. Seeking Second Childhood*

      The way you phrased that, it sounds to me more like you’re learning how to train them than criticizing one over the other.
      Are you putting a training guide together as you go? Or getting them to do it? Having a written document is always helpful as a new employee!

      1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

        They do have a written training guide, and have been operating semi-independently for a couple weeks now; my role at this point is overseeing their work, providing guidance, and course-correcting when needed. They’ll hand their assignment in to me when finished, I’ll look over their materials and suggest changes, rinse & repeat. Actually, one of the frustrating problems has been that Beatrice doesn’t seem to refer to the training materials often enough – she errs in ways that are specifically addressed in there, repeatedly. I do end up getting frustrated with that, but I have no idea if she even knows that, since I’m in a different country than she is and don’t respond until I feel less irritated. The tone thing is also really hard – generally I’m talking to them via email, which makes it difficult to even know what tone they’re reading into it; we only have phone chats if there’s something rather complicated to demonstrate for them. I try to keep matter-of-fact, but they both have a tendency to respond in the defensive, which is completely unnecessary.

        Hopefully they don’t feel like I’m doing this! But yeah, from my experience here – there are definitely ways in which a supervisor/manager might do this kind of thing without intending to badmouth one employee, just trying to prevent the other from making the same mistakes. (Does stretch the imagination a bit to ponder how one would be quite so rude & sarcastic as OP’s boss without meaning to, though.)

    4. Close Bracket*

      Leave out the references to Beatrice. Just say, “This came up recently, and I wanted to check in and make sure you knew.”

  33. ShwaMan*

    I like playing a little dumb and just answering questions with questions. e.g….

    Boss: “What do you think I should do about Tracey?”
    Me: “What do you mean?”
    Boss: “How do I get her to do more work?”
    Me: “Is she having trouble with the productivity goals you set with her?”
    Boss: “I didn’t do that because I didn’t think she could do it.”
    Me: …
    Boss: “Why can’t she do her work the way you and I do it?”
    Me: “How did she do with the productivity tips did you gave her about you work?”
    Boss: …
    Me: …

  34. Bostonian*

    Or even, “Has she been receptive when you’ve talked to her about it?” (which would presumably force him to admit that he has not, which might be interesting).

    Ooooh yes. Do this! Do this!

  35. Megasaurusus*

    That Tracy has been at the organization for 30 years, and both the OP and the manager are relatively new to their positions suggests that perhaps Tracy has a much better grasp of the office culture when it comes to work-flow and socializing than those two do.

    Additionally, faster isn’t always better. I work with older people and they all work with technology in a slower and more methodical way than younger folks, but truth told, they also do a more thorough job and don’t make as many input errors because they are so focused and attuned to what they are doing and never are on auto-pilot with those kinds of tasks. Perhaps Tracy knows her own working limits and works within them so as not to burn out. There’s an assumption in the OP’s letter that Tracy is underperforming, but after 30 years is it possible that she just knows that slow and steady wins the race?

    1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

      It’s true that this is also a possibility; I know a colleague of mine was recently reprimanded for moving through her assignments *too* fast, beating her deadlines by *too* much, because she was making mistakes – the embarrassing kind that weren’t caught in our normal QA, and were only caught by the client.

    2. Working Mom Having It All*

      Yeah, my first thought here is that OP is new to the workforce and doesn’t understand that burnout is a thing. That, paired with probably being eager to prove herself and perhaps more ambitious than Tracey, means it’s not a surprise that she works faster.

      But working faster or harder isn’t necessarily working smarter, and working more slowly than someone else isn’t a fireable offense.

    3. Hekko*

      It could also be that OP is really outstanding at her job and can produce high quality work fast, while Tracey is just old plain good/adequate. She’s slower than OP, but so is a majority of people.

      It took me several temps (who I trained on overlapping duties) to realise that no, they are not all incompetent – I just have an unusually steep learning curve and a skill set that fits my position. We aren’t very likely going to hire someone better and I need to lower my expectation.

    4. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      The first time I had a manager who was younger than I am, she called a meeting with me after several weeks to discuss her “complaints” (her word) about me. Her complaints were: I kept calm when the heat was on and I worked in a methodical fashion.

      Over time, she was very likely to call out on days when there was a deadline no one else knew about, or some other issue that needed to be handled or a meeting our department needed to be represented at. She’d throw it to me in spite of my own looming deadlines, and I always handled it–calmly and methodically.

      That was quite a few years ago, and she’s not the only younger manager I’ve had. One thing I noticed in a lot of them: If the heat was on, they’d get in a tizzy and thought everyone who wasn’t also in a tizzy (usually the older, seasoned workers with a solid toolbox of skills and experience for handling emergencies) just didn’t understand what was going on.

    5. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      Yes. When I started working, I came from a very shoulder-to-the-wheel background and didn’t understand that reasonable “chitchat” with coworkers taught you which departments and individuals did what, the bigger picture of what the firm did, and forged relationships so that when questions or needs arose, you knew who to go to.

      1. TardyTardis*

        After over a decade at ExJob, I knew who I could count on for favors and Desperate Need For A Copy Of Something, because I was good at helping them, too. This is a very good thing at times.

  36. Samwise*

    Eric is already talking about you to someone at work. He may not be complaining about you (yet), but I’ll bet this year’s PTO that something you that was confidential is not.

  37. Alexis*

    This is timely. My boss (director of organization) does this with myself and 3 other managers (one of which also does it). It’s helped fuel an already toxic & unprofessional environment. I’ve tried being assertive about it, ignoring it, making it into a positive “they need to work on XY, but they’re good at ZA”. Nothing seems to change their behavior…they either defend it, get defensive or try to manipulate others into agreeing.

  38. Who Plays Backgammon?*

    I wish I had the nerve to send this post to my boss, even anonymously, so she’d know what she’s sown among our team. She does all of this and it has the described affect. Especially the part about backbiting her reports to others. We don’t sit around talking about her–everyone is more cautious than that–but remarks have been made, and long-timers were making them to me from my early days here.

    Boss is being moved off the team soon–officially, the PTB have divided a very large territory and she’ll remain a manager, but with a group of lower-profile clients. I’m a little worried about the impression of me that she’ll leave behind for my new manager. This is such a problem with bad managers–they really do have the power to poison somebody’s standing with the employer. I hope my new boss will meet me with fresh eyes, get to know me for themselves, and make their own judgments.

  39. Who Plays Backgammon?*

    OP, your boss is pulling you into something that’s not your business. He’s using you as a sounding board, at best, for things you shouldn’t hear. You can’t stop him from talking, but try not to get sucked into saying things that aren’t your call, especially given your own lack of eperience. And don’t be so sure that this means you and Eric have some special bond that excludes Tracey. She might be flavor of the week today, but just because you and Eric are more contemporaries in age and newness to the firm doesn’t mean that tomorrow the tables won’t be turned and he’ll be dissing you to her.

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