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

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose employee (Kelsey) kept complaining about a coworker (Lorraine) but didn’t want her to step in? Here’s the update.

I definitely think that I did not describe the situation especially well in my first letter to you, but some readers (and you!) were able to figure out what was going on. In the nicest way possible, I was trying to find out what’s the best way to tell an employee that they are the problem, not the employee they are reporting.

About 3 weeks after my letter ran, I did reviews with all my direct reports. In Kelsey’s review, I specifically mentioned that some of the things she needed to work on was not taking jokes so seriously (because she got offended that someone said she was making them fat by bringing in delicious baked goods on Fridays), and that she needed to grow a thicker skin, and to remember that in any given situation, she has the power to make changes as needed. We talked about how if she perceives something to be offensive, to bring it up to me so I could help figure out where the issue was. In Lorraine’s review, I gently reminded her to think about what she says before she says it, and to remember that perception is everything – she might not mean something to be offensive, but if someone takes it that way….well, that’s the perception. I also told her that I wanted to be supportive to her, but that I needed her to give 100% at the office every day and show commitment to making the team work, and that included addressing any issue she might have with a coworker either directly with that coworker or with me, not with the team at large.

About 2 months after that, Kelsey went over my head to Big Boss and unloaded a bunch of nonsense on him (his words, not mine) about how the team ostracizes her. One particular complaint she made was regarding a meeting we had offsite. Lorraine asked if anyone wanted to ride to the meeting (about an hour away) together. 2 others from the office joined her. I heard her ask, and I heard the responses. Kelsey didn’t say a word. Lorraine and the rest of the team (me included) arrived at the meeting site first, and choose seats in a particular row together. We left enough room for Kelsey to join us. Kelsey arrived about 10 minutes after we did, and walked past us to sit in another row. She then said that if any of us wanted to join her, we could. Since we had already unloaded laptops and meeting materials, we chose to stay where we were. Kelsey went to Big Boss and told him that we had made her an outcast at the meeting, that everyone else had ridden together (not true) and that we deliberately left her out, and that once at the meeting we shunned her by not sitting with her. After Kelsey went to talk to Big Boss, he sat down with me after and we talked about a path forward. He could see through her as well – this is pretty clearly a case of someone getting offended for attention.

I brought Kelsey into my office that afternoon and was incredibly blunt. I told her that I was in the office when Lorraine asked if anyone wanted to ride up with her. Kelsey’s response was, “well she didn’t ask me directly.” I told her that she was finding fault where there was none, and at this point, the things she was complaining about were of her own making. She then proceeded to tell me a very bizarre story about growing up that didn’t really fit with what we were talking about. Once I steered the conversation back on track, I continued with letting her know that further complaints that are unsubstantiated wouldn’t be tolerated, and that the person who is the problem here is her. I told her that maybe this position wasn’t for her, and that she needed to seriously think about her role here, and how comfortable she was remaining in her role knowing that I was not going to be supporting her complaints anymore. We also talked about why she felt this way and how she had the power to make the changes – she was the one remaining aloof and not talking to anyone. She was the one purposely not entering into conversations with her coworkers. She was the one who did not jump on the offer to ride up with Lorraine. She was the one who chose to sit somewhere else at the meeting.

Alison, I don’t know what this tripped in her head, but she made a complete 180 and is totally different in the office. I walk in now and she is laughing and joking with her fellow employees. She hasn’t been “offended” by anything in at least 6 months or more. She engages in conversations we have as a team, and actively participates in events. I’m surprised, to be honest, but happily so. She has really blossomed into someone different, and I’m so grateful for that!

And in a strange twist of fate – Lorraine is now one of my best employees who consistently gives 150% every day. So all in all – a great update from me!

{ 106 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago*

    This might be my favorite update of the season. Good for you on properly managing the situation and for being honest with Kelsey. I’m glad it worked out well.

  2. Mediamaven*

    I think this is such a great example of how impactful those challenging conversations can be. Great update LW!

  3. Mary Beth*


    I don’t know, it seems kind of weird to me that OP would tell her to grow a thicker skin and not take things so seriously, but in the same conversation tell her that if other people perceive HER to be offensive that she’s the problem.

    1. Dweali*

      It was 2 different conversations. Lorraine got the perception conversation and Kelsey got the thicker skin one

    2. Tzeitel*

      I’m not reading this the same way – no one complained that Kelsey was being offensive. Kelsey just wasn’t being proactive and misinterpreting that as others purposefully leaving her out.

      There was a separate conversation where OP told Lorraine to think about what she says more because people can be sensitive – that’s proactively trying to prevent an issue in the future. Is that what you were talking about?

  4. sacados*

    Such a great update! The OP mentions Kelsey told some story about growing up that didn’t seem to make much sense …
    I would bet this is a case where Kelsey’s behavior was related to/a result of patterns developed based on her interactions with family or friends growing up. Like how an employee terrified of making a mistake or whose first instinct is to lie instead of admit fault is sometimes a result of being forced into perfectionism from a young age.
    And maybe OP’s last conversation, laying things out so clearly one more time, was finally the thing Kelsey needed to be able to see those patterns for what they were and snap herself out of it.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, I agree. Anxiety, grief, sadness, bitterness–I could see any or all of them behind Kelsey’s “I want to be worth clear effort to include, otherwise I feel excluded.” I’ve been there sometimes myself, but work’s not a place to play that out.

    2. Thankful for AAM*

      I was also thinking something like this. We dont speculate here but I do think she brought in the odd story about how she grew up because it seemed related in her mind to what was happening in the office.

      OP, I feel like you said the magic words and freed her!

  5. Jennifer*

    What tripped in her head was looking at bank account and remembering money doesn’t appear there by magic.

    I’m glad she got herself together.

    1. Mimi Me*

      LOL! I used to work a job where I would check my bank account every day just to keep myself from rage quitting. I also made my wallpaper image a photo of my kids just so I’d remember that I wasn’t alone in my impulsive decisions. Best day of my life was walking out the door of that place. :)

      1. Jennifer*

        I used to say, “I need food to live. I need food to live.” Every time someone said something that drove me bonkers.

        1. Mid*

          For me, it’s not feeding myself, but feeding my cat that kept me from quitting a terrible job. I can starve. But my pet can’t.

          1. Jennifer*

            You can’t take care of anyone else – including the cat – if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

  6. BookCocoon*

    Ha, the whole “but she didn’t ask me directly” thing happened to me — when I was in high school, though! I was in a black box theater production and after the show put out a general invite for folks to come over to my house for an informal cast party. One of my “friends” then gave me the silent treatment for six months afterwards, and it turned out she thought she’d been intentionally excluded from the cast party because I didn’t invite her individually. I didn’t even find out what she was mad about until she had a party of her own six months later and invited my new boyfriend, whom she had just met, and not me, claiming there wasn’t enough space to invite everyone. Even as a 15-year-old I found it to be so absurdly petty that I wasn’t even mad. I can’t imagine dealing with that in a professional setting!!

    1. Sleepless*

      I can relate a bit to your friend here. I was a socially awkward kid who was raised by a mother who placed an extreme priority on Doing Things Just Right with one’s social interactions. I probably drove her bonkers, and she made me incredibly anxious. One thing she made crystal clear to me was to never invite myself anywhere. When I was in 10th grade some friends had a huge party and it seemed like everyone was going, but nobody had asked me directly and I assumed I wasn’t invited. I was absolutely crushed. I’m over 50 and I’m still not really sure whether I was supposed to show up or not, and I still tie myself up in knots over stuff like that.

      1. Skeezix*

        Me too!!! “If you aren’t invited, you aren’t welcome” is what she would say. Makes me sad to think of all the lonely summers I had. It never occurred to me to invite a friend over, because she caused me to think that if they wanted to spend time with me, they would be the ones to invite me over. Bull pucky….. But she also had all kinds of weird “social rules” that I still to this day will never understand.

          1. Skeezix*

            If we were at a picnic/family dinner/etc I was not be the first person to cut into a desert (regardless of whether or not it was the item we brought “those are to be shared amongst everyone, let someone else cut the first piece”), and also should not be the one to take the last piece of something (because “someone else might want that”).

            Also, if an event had a posted start and end time, we had to stay until the posted end time. So my cousin’s 1st anniversary/wedding reception (they eloped) where I was crampy and miserable and there were only port-a-johns available and no place to wash hands and I didn’t want to change my tampon in those unsanitary conditions…. nope, the invitation said this goes until 4pm, so we can’t leave yet.

      2. Marion Q*

        Me too! I still assume I’m not invited unless asked directly, but now I also try to find out indirectly if I’m included. It’s exhausting, but I just can’t bring myself to simply join them and risk the humiliating “Oh, um, actually, it’s just for us. Maybe you can come next time instead?”

    2. Amanda*

      Yup, I wouldn’t have gone to this party either. If I had been invited in person, totally! Or even if there was some flier that said “cast of ____, come over after strike!” I would have come. But a “word of mouth” party? I definitely would have assumed I wasn’t invited unless I heard directly from the host.

  7. Close Bracket*

    this is pretty clearly a case of someone getting offended for attention
    This is ironic phrasing given the conversations held with both women regarding perception. I doubt that Kelsey was “getting offended for attention.” Kelsey was getting offended based on her perceptions, but it is *your* perception that adds the “for attention” part.

    1. Jackalope*

      Yeah, that part didn’t sit well with me either. At 21 she’s new to the working world so probably doesn’t have the skills needed to deal with something like this, but assuming she’s reacting to get attention is a bit judgmental in a way I don’t think is helpful.

    2. Cheluzal*

      Blahblah—drama llama got dressed down for probably the first time in her life and has made a good change into a better person and worker! Let’s count as a win and not look for more offenses

    3. Tzeitel*

      I’m not saying we shouldn’t critique OP’s language if it seems unkind, but it’s OP’s letter, not anyone else’s, and that’s OP’s perception of what was going on.

    4. anonymouslee*

      I agree and I’m surprised you’re getting so much pushback. It might not be the most important part of the letter, but it’s not nothing.

    5. voyager1*

      Close Bracket,

      You are taking the sentence out of context, it was written as:

      “He could see through her as well – this is pretty clearly a case of someone getting offended for attention.”

      It short two people felt the individual was being difficult. The LW and the LW’s boss, who by the way Kelsey has gone to over the LW’s head.

      I think the commenters need to trust the LW on this.

      1. snowglobe*

        I would agree that Kelsey is being difficult and was getting offended where no offense was intended. But the ‘for attention’ is not something that OP or her boss could know, and that perception very much colors how the OP views Kelsey as a person, so it’s not insignificant.

        1. LilySparrow*

          But yes, they can know it – because Kelsey was getting offended and creating drama precisely over not getting enough attention paid to her!

          She was complaining of being “left out” and excluded when jn fact she was being treated exactly the same as every other member of the team. And when her manager called her out on her BS, she went to the grandboss and lied about what happened.

          That isn’t unfamiliarity with office norms. That is demanding to be the center of attention in ways that should get shut down hard somewhere around age nine or ten.

    6. NW Mossy*

      In my experience, managers can benefit from putting feedback into sharp terms in their own heads. It’s a useful counterweight to the manager’s nemesis – soft-pedaling feedback to the point where the employee doesn’t get the message.

      All The Viewpoints is a useful strategy for lots of things at work, and it helps on background when you’re coaching an employee on a behavioral issue to maintain a bit of empathy. But you have to be careful with that as a leader, because the line between empathy and enabling is a thin one sometimes – you can’t let charitable interpretation of someone’s motives morph into excusing behavior that hurts the person and the team. Being blunt with yourself about why the employee’s behavior is a problem can help a lot to stiffen your resolve to raise it, and do so in a way that’s direct and clear.

      As the OP’s story shows, too blunt is often better than too vague when giving feedback. Kelsey’s doubts about her standing likely contributed to her behavior; getting a clear line in the sand probably went a long way towards giving her certainty about what she should be doing and helped short-circuit the haywire narrative she had in her head.

      1. Please No More Meetings*

        Oh, this framing is *very* helpful, thank you. I am a manager, and in general I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and use a charitable interpretation, but a few times I’ve soft-shoed around a problem thinking the other person would pick up on cues. They didn’t and then I had to have a much harder line conversation, when that could have been avoided sooner. Thanks for the book rec, as well.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          Oh gawd, “pick up on cues”. This is my nightmare. I have adhd and I think it contributes to this: I can notice some mighty peculiar/interesting/tangential stuff but I completely suck at picking up on social cues. Be charitable by all means, but please be direct! It’s not unkind if you don’t use unkind words or tone of voice.

          Story time: I worked as a trainer in a financial services company, and while I travelled to all the local branches I officially worked out of a specific branch, which mostly meant that’s where I picked up my inter-office mail. One time, I came in on my “paperwork” day, and I was dressed casually — black corderoy overalls – very comfortable and actually fashionable. And I was chatting with the branch manager and she told me that she asked all her staff to dress professionally even if they don’t expect any of their own clients that day. I agreed that it was a good expectation. I never ONCE realized that she was trying to talk to me about MY outfit. I was just running in to pick up my mail! I’d used the back door! I was only there for a minute! Later on, I heard about this from my boss. Apparently the branch manager thought I’d just been blowing her off! When in fact it never once crossed my mind that her message applied to me. It took getting the specific and direct instruction from my boss, and boy did I feel crappy about that.

          (It’s important to note that this incident occurred before my adhd diagnosis, and in fact it was during this job that I received my diagnosis.)

      2. AcademiaNut*

        Yes, this is really important! I see this viewpoint often in the comment section, where some people’s empathy for a person’s struggles (particularly related to past trauma or mental illness) makes them reluctant to do anything about the problems it’s causing to the job (ie, they aren’t doing it) or to coworkers (making them stressed and miserable).

        Compassion is important, as is realizing that people can have non malicious reasons for their bad behaviour, but it’s also necessary to keep the line between being professionally supportive (accommodations, flexibility, good medical coverage) and personally supportive (listening to people vent, diagnosing them, playing armchair therapist, enduring problematic behaviour because the can’t help it).

      3. Miles*


        I just took over a team where the previous boss used empathy as an excuse to get away with all kind of behaviors (because he was my boss as well, I often wonder what he let me get away with). Now that I’m their supervisor, I have to have these blunt conversations with my supervisor to empower me to address behaviors that the team has gotten away with for years. But I still need to have some empathy when I speak to the employees.

        Brené Brown has a quote “clear is kind, unclear is unkind” which has been my mantra lately and how I get over feeling “mean” when I address things.

    7. Jackalope*

      So here’s the thing. I don’t disagree with being blunt or direct. In fact, I’m happy that that approach appears to have worked out beautifully in this case. Win! I personally wasn’t arguing for the OP to soften her language. What concerns me is the dismissal of what Kelsey is saying as just attention seeking. It’s certainly possible that this is correct. However, it’s also possible that as a 21 year old (I might have felt differently if Kelsey were older) dealing with a colleague in her 50s (who until very recently, Kelsey could not have considered a peer in any way) acting in a way that could be anything from mildly annoying to mildly bullying given what little we were told in the first message. The follow up definitely tilts towards mildly annoying rather than bullying (and the car ride was probably an overreaction on Kelsey’s part), but it’s plausible that she didn’t know how to handle it (thus making the direct response of the OP a good way to coach her on handling this). She also might not have known (again, due to inexperience) how to follow proper channels and that’s why she went to the grand-boss.

      The concern I have is that I’ve been dismissed (especially when I was in my early 20s) on serious questions or concerns I have (like for example, a co-worker who yelled at me multiple times while working on a project with me) and downplayed them. This situation sounds like it has been well-resolved, but what happens if Kelsey comes to OP again for a more serious issue (sexual harassment, say), and OP is conditioned to think of Kelsey as an attention-seeking drama llama? That’s the part that could be bad in the future. Given that Kelsey was otherwise (at least from the first letter) a stellar employee, considering it soft skill training for someone new to the work world is likely to be more helpful long-term than drama llama dismissal.

      1. Perpal*

        The attention seeking comment was two managers talking to each other. To be fair, an employee sulking because they got a group invite and not a personal invite, and because they wanted everyone to move and sit with them rather than sitting with the group, is pretty attention seeking.

        1. Zillah*

          I feel like we’ve vilified “attention seeking” as a culture in ways that aren’t productive, though. The problem there wasn’t Kelsey looking for attention – it was the fact that she was being passive-aggressive about it.

          1. Yorick*

            This wouldn’t have been any less problematic if she’d been direct about it though.

            Lorraine: Does anyone want to ride with me?
            Kelsey: Why didn’t you invite me??? Why don’t you like me???

            Kelsey: Y’all can move up here to sit with me.
            Group: Nah, we’ll stay where we’ve set up.
            Kelsey: Why don’t you want to sit with me??? Why are y’all always ostracizing me??

            These wouldn’t have been better scenarios.

        2. snowglobe*

          I disagree that this is necessarily ‘attention seeking’ behavior. As suggested above, it could be that Kelsey was raised to believe that a direct invite is required, and that there could be other formative issues at play that colored her perception of the situation. We can never know for sure. Just because two people think it’s ‘attention seeking’ doesn’t mean that they know for sure that it is – who knows what is going on in Kelsey’s mind?

      2. Mazarin*

        I’m with Jackalope on this. Not understanding the correct way to behave (Not understanding that you are included in a ‘group’ invite, not knowing proper channels for work issues) is Not The Same as attention seeking. Maybe she was attention seeking- but I suspect not, because as soon as things were clearly explained to her, she stopped and changed. If she really Was Attention Seeking then the behaviours would have continued. It is very easy to group and dismiss behaviours as ” attention seeking”. ( I will add- if someone is seeking attention, IT IS Probably Because they Need Attention! That might be a need that cannot be met at work- but even so, Attention Seeking is not something I would ever dismiss)

        1. Anonapots*

          Attention seeking by behaving badly is not something that should be encouraged. I’ve worked with people who created problems for everyone else because they didn’t know how to regulate their need for attention.Being compassionate is a key part of my work, but it can’t be at the expense of all the other people I have to serve.

        2. MsSolo -TW for reference to self harm*

          It reminds me of when a girl started self harming at school, and her older sister dismissed it as attention seeking (and implied their parents felt the same). If someone is actively injuring themself in public for attention, then they very clearly NEED attention.

      3. t*

        If she had come with that sort of complaint when she was drama llama, it might not be taken as seriously. It sounds like she’s building a good track record of being a reasonable employee, so in a good company, she will be taken seriously.

        I’ve seen people turn around their behavior like this, and once they have a record of different behavior, I don’t continue to assume the old behavior will come back. Sometimes it does, and I deal with it, but I try to assume the best in people.

      4. New England clambake*

        I COMPLETELY agree with this and don’t understand why the commentariat, which is usually very empathetic, is so eager to to dismiss Kelsey. I think the letter writer’s behavior is incredibly unkind and can’t ever imagine how it would be appropriate to tell someone to “grow a thicker skin” when they bring up problems. I’m really shocked that Allison would endorse this.

        For instance, is it so terrible that someone (particularly someone introverted or shy) wants an invitation to a social event or carpool to be directed to her by name rather than directed at a group?

        1. Eisbaer*

          It’s not so terrible to want a direct invitation, no.

          It *is* pretty terrible to go to your grand-boss to complain about not getting one and then add in some bald-faced lies for good measure.

          1. Zillah*

            It’s not really clear to me that Kelsey did lie, though – she was incorrect, certainly, but IME, people are far more likely to be incorrect or hyperbolic than they are to pull lies out of thin air.

        2. hbc*

          I would say that yes, in a group context, it’s pretty terrible to get offended if you don’t get a personal invitation. That is requiring extra work of others who are doing favors, and that’s before you get to the obvious problem of who Lorraine invites first. But to then take that wrongness and try to get people in trouble for not catering to your preferences? That’s plain bad behavior.

          I actually empathize with Kelsey, in that there have been group outings where I have not felt confidant enough to just go or ask if I’m really included. But I recognize that as a Me problem and live with my choices rather than casting aspersions on others.

          1. snowglobe*

            Kelsey’s behavior was problematic, sure. But ‘attention seeking’ is kind of diagnosing the problem, which we can’t really do here, any more than you could diagnose a mental health issue.

            1. Yorick*

              I think we can trust OP’s take on this, since Kelsey was constantly in her office to complain about things like a coworker standing behind her.

        3. aebhel*

          I’m introverted and shy and socially anxious to the point that I assume I’m being excluded when that’s really not the case, and yeah, Kelsey’s behavior is absurd here. She was offended by an invitation directed at a group she was a member of because it was not directed at her specifically instead of anyone else (would it have been reasonable for the rest of the group to be offended? Evidently not, but Kelsey appears to consider herself a special case). She was offended that people who were already sitting down and had left space for her to sit with them didn’t pack up and move to sit next to her on the other side of the room. I’m sure she’s very unhappy and *feeling* excluded, but ignoring people and then being upset when they don’t reach out to you specifically is really dysfunctional behavior, and going to the boss to complain about being excluded because of it is inappropriate in a workplace environment.

          It’s not *unkind* to tell Kelsey that these situations are not personal attacks against her and that she needs to learn to deal with these *completely normal* workplace interactions without making every perceived slight into a referendum on Why Everyone Should Bend Over Backward To Prove They Don’t Hate Me.

          She’s probably dealing with some warped perceptions, possibly due to trauma. I’m sure it was coming from a place of deep unhappiness. But that’s something to work out with a therapist, not by expecting her manager to referee every interaction she has with her coworkers.

        4. Yorick*

          In the original, the commenters went crazy to defend Kelsey. When OP tried to explain that her complaints about Lorraine were sometimes “she was standing behind me,” the commenters insisted that standing behind a coworker is UNREASONABLE and HOSTILE BULLYING.

          Now, with the update, it’s a little more clear what was going on.

        5. Yorick*

          This wasn’t a weird word of mouth invitation that Kelsey didn’t hear about. Lorraine literally asked if anyone wanted to ride with her, while Kelsey was in the room. That is clearly meant to include Kelsey, and it’s not reasonable for Kelsey to not understand that just because she’s a sort of young adult.

  8. Eclecticism is a Virtue*

    Can I come work for you/your company? Sounds like a great culture and a fantastic manager.

  9. Budgie Buddy*

    It looks like once her job was on the line, Kelsey found the will to try “fake it till you make it” and then the fake social niceness became genuine as everyone started responding. Glad she broke the cycle of thinking she’s doomed to be left out.

    1. New England clambake*

      Alternatively, she’s realized her manager doesn’t care about workplace conditions, and has taken Alison’s “your manager sucks and isn’t going to change” to heart. She’s decided she can’t afford to quit right away and/or won’t get a good reference and so has decided to suck it up.

      1. Moxie*


        I was bullied in my last job, and my manager used the “thicker skin” comment on me. Until the bully drove three other people to quit, the manager got RIF’d and someone else started managing the problem.

        1. Miles*

          Yes, the thick skin comment bothered me. If a supervisor ever told me that, I’d probably write them off. In my opinion (and I swear I’ve read it on this site), it’s typically a symptom of a toxic workplace.

          I have had a tendency to take things personally or assume the worst in an interaction, and thankfully my last 2 supervisors worked with me on interpreting emails and comments from another perspective. I still tend to react quickly to emails, but have learned the skills to quickly reinterpret them to assume the best.

          I’m also curious about the going over her supervisors head part. How did that occur? Did she find herself in a meeting or a hallway with grand boss and he asked a question that she answered truthfully? And then he was bothered she didn’t use the fake “everything’s great” line?

    1. TimeTravlR*

      It’s amazing what dealing directly with issues will accomplish. I wish more managers would try it. I also wish they’d try it first…nip things in the bud!

  10. Cheesehead*

    I remember being young and new to a job and trying to fit in with a bunch of coworkers who already had their own routines established. I know I took some things WAY too personally when they weren’t personal at all. With some of the examples, it almost seems to me like she was looking for some overtures from her coworkers that she’s wanted/needed/liked. Validation. Like little tests that other people didn’t know about. And she set up instances to try to get that validation, like sitting in her own row at the conference and hoping/expecting that other people would join her. And then it backfired on her. And in her own mind, it probably all snowballed and then she went back through her mind for other things, and she just went off on an (incorrect) tangent and concluded that she was being snubbed, when that wasn’t the case at all. Her own insecurities got the better of her. Luckily she was able to course-correct thanks to OP’s blunt observations. I’m so happy to hear that the bluntness worked, and that she didn’t quit and actually took the advice to heart and realized that SHE could make changes with how she interacted with people. Such a good update!

    1. alienor*

      I mean, I can see not wanting to assume you’re invited to join a group of friends who are already sitting together, even if there’s space. (Too many middle-school experiences of sitting down in an empty-looking spot at a lunch table and being told “exCUSE me, that seat is SAVED,” I guess.) I might have sat in another row too under those circumstances–although I wouldn’t have been offended if people didn’t move to sit with me, I would have just thought my perception was correct and they didn’t want me to sit there.

      1. Anonapots*

        I think a lot of people are forgetting the part where Kelsey then went on to complain over her manager’s head about how she was being treated. This wasn’t a shrinking violet waiting for validation or some sort of secret handshake to know she was “in”.

        1. Zillah*

          I mean… if you feel like your manager is an active participant in bullying you, going above their head isn’t ridiculous. It’s also not clear to me that Kelsey lied – she was certainly incorrect, but that’s different than lying.

          I’m not saying that people are never drama llamas, but I do feel like this could easily be a communication breakdown rather than anyone being intentionally terrible.

          1. Yorick*

            I think what Anonapots is trying to say is that Kelsey (who is fine going to managers and managers’ managers to complain) is clearly not too shy to go sit with her coworkers at a training, or at least ask if that seat that looks empty is taken.

            Sure, in middle school, these things are very hard. But Kelsey isn’t 11. She’s an adult. Yes, she’s younger than the coworkers and many of us and she *might* be new to working (I don’t think we know that), but she’s perfectly capable of figuring these things out for herself.

  11. Myrin*

    I gotta say, this is one of the pretty rare cases where an update plays an entirely different tune than the original letter (where OP herself said in a comment that she thinks she’d portrayed Kelsey as too “innocently” but in this update, Kelsey is actually the one who sounds much more problematic; the fact that OP “was trying to find out what’s the best way to tell an employee that they are the problem, not the employee they are reporting” did, in my opinion, not come through at all in the letter itself).

    I don’t really have anything do conclude from that other than that it’s a highly interesting observation to me. OP herself says that she didn’t describe the situation especially well originally and I’ve experienced this myself in open threads where, because I actually knew all the details and background information involved, I portrayed something in a way that had the potential to make it seem like the exact opposite situation from the truth to an actual outsider. It’s amazing to me that language and perception can work that way.

    But in any case, this sounds like a highly satisfying outcome, OP, and I’m beyond glad that everything is finally going well in your office!

    1. M. from P.*

      Yes, I read the original letter and the update right after one another and was baffled about how different these two descriptions were. Good to hear the conflict has been resolved.

    2. Daisy*

      Yeah, the whole first letter is about how ‘stellar’ Kelsey is and how mediocre, passive-aggressive and possibly jealous Lorraine is! I’m glad it worked out, but not a particularly satisfying update given that it seems to be describing a completely different scenario from the original letter.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I agree. These two letters don’t seem like the same situation at all. And it wasn’t clear that OP “was trying to find out what’s the best way to tell an employee that they are the problem, not the employee they are reporting.”

      2. Yorick*

        I think OP had been hearing all this from Kelsey (she didn’t observe these interactions herself), and at that point didn’t quite understand that Kelsey might not be a reliable narrator.

    3. LGC*

      I’m with you – this was a voyage. From the first letter I thought Kelsey was being bullied by Lorraine, and in this one I thought SHE was just being a drama llama.

      (I mean, they’re not mutually exclusive. But they are basically opposite.)

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        I can see how it could work that way: If Lorraine really was making comments to the room at large *about* Kelsey, rather than talking directly *to* Kelsey (when Kelsey is sitting right there), well, that’s pretty rotten and I haven’t seen anyone in these comments mention it. And if Kelsey started her passive-aggressive behavior in reaction to Lorraine’s treatment, well, she made some poor choices. But then she did some specific things that could be pointed to (like going to grandboss to complain), whereas Lorraine’s unkind behavior is much harder to pin down and much more deniable.

    4. fposte*

      I went back and read the thread and see I was suggesting that Kelsey might actually be the problem, so now I feel kind of validated :-).

  12. Elizabeth West*

    I guess both of them, Kelsey especially, needed someone to be blunt. Sometimes that is all it takes.

  13. Sara without an H*

    I’ve seen way too many situations fester because everybody was afraid of hurting the feelings of a problematic employee. Congratulations, OP! Here’s to the power of forthright conversation and best of luck in 2020!

  14. Teyra*

    She sounds the way I was as a teenager. I was dealing with serious self-esteem issues and an undiagnosed social anxiety disorder. I distinctly remember once when a friend asked ‘anyone want to hang out tonight?’ to a group of us, when I didn’t raise my hand even though I wanted to go. In my mind she obviously hadn’t meant me, because who’d want to hang out with me? It felt arrogant to automatically presume that I was part of the group she was inviting, without being specifically told so, and I didn’t want to force everyone to put up with me out of politeness. So I ended up feeling left out and sad, and everyone else felt like I hadn’t wanted to spend time with them. It took me a few weeks of therapy (this is as true as it’s sad) before I got up the courage to say ‘bye guys!’ at the end of a sports club session in university, because I was so nervous that everyone would deliberately ignore me instead of all saying goodbye back like they did with everybody else. And I’d always try to get to seminars and lectures early so I could sit down first, that way if anyone wanted to sit next to me they could, but if they didn’t they could choose to do that too – and I wouldn’t be forcing my presence on anyone who didn’t want it. The conversation OP had with her was actually pretty similar to some of the ones I had with my therapist, too.

    Not trying to armchair-diagnose at all, I just think it’s a bit harsh to assume that she was getting offended for attention, when none of us really know what was going through her head. Either way, I’m glad it seems all sorted out either way, for everyone.

    1. Anonapots*

      What makes this unlike what happened to you, though, is Kelsey was offended that nobody moved to sit with her when she sat in another row. If it were really about how she thought it was natural they wouldn’t sit with her or that she would be imposing sitting in their row at the event, she wouldn’t have then gone on to complain about nobody moving to sit in her row. I appreciate that everyone wants to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it’s far more likely the people who have dealt directly with Kelsey know best what was going on.

      1. Zillah*

        This feels like parsing to me. No two people behave exactly the same for exactly the same reason, and IME, being hurt/offended could easily look like that.

        That doesn’t make the behavior okay – if Kelsey hadn’t cut it out, she should’ve been gone! It just means that maybe this story doesn’t have a villain, and it’s valid to point that out.

      2. Teyra*

        Pretty much everyone who ‘dealt directly’ with me thought I was being weird, or rude, or that I didn’t want to spend time with them. And fair enough, I had a super unhealthy image of myself, was kind of incredibly self-absorbed and did genuinely rude things to people I cared about. From the perspective of the people around me, I was a rude, unfriendly person. But it came from a place of pain and self-loathing. I’m certainly not saying I know better than OP what happened, because I obviously wasn’t there, and let’s face it I’m definitely projecting at least a little here. I am saying that Kelsey is the only one who knows what was going on in her mind.

    2. Len F*

      I was thinking this, too.

      When I was younger, I got upset about things that would have come across to LW as “being offended to seek attention”, when it was actually that I had shit self esteem, thought everyone was out to get me, and generally my worldview was out of whack.

      What might have helped Kelsey was hearing direct evidence, in no uncertain terms, that she was reading things the wrong way. LW seems to think Kelsey was being deliberately manipulative to cause drama, for attention. I think it’s possible she genuinely thought that’s how things were, because I know first hand that it’s possible to have just such a totally bogus view of the world that you misinterpret things

    3. Yorick*

      But did you complain to the department chair (assuming that’s the college classroom equivalent of the boss’ boss) that you were being excluded during class?

      1. Teyra*

        No, but I can definitely see the ‘logic’ of why I might have, especially in a work context. If someone genuinely was being excluded by everyone including their boss, I think it would make sense to go to the boss’s boss to complain. And if you believe you’re being excluded even when you’re not, you’re going to act and treat the situation as if it’s true. Because to you it is.

  15. Louise*

    It’s wild how often people forget their own agency, and wonderful to see them find that for positive ends.

  16. Wintermute*

    I’ve seen this behavior before, the complete turnaround, a couple of times. I think it falls into one of two categories.

    First, someone who isn’t being intentionally manipulative, they really just have a completely skewed view of the situation. Perhaps due to preconceptions, perhaps due to pattern-matching failure (the human brain is a pattern recognition machine, so we tend to assume similar situations are EXACTLY similar situations), someone they vent to/confide in telling them something, their own mental stuff going on/mental health issues, or whatever else, they decide a situation is a certain way and reality cannot sway them from their view easily. Sometimes a sharp, blunt reminder of reality causes them to re-evaluate those preconceptions and it’s like someone flipped a switch. I saw it working in customer service once, someone was CONVINCED we were trying to cheat them. We weren’t, they signed a contract, the facts were what they were, the hard data left no room for interpretation (usage numbers), our practices were actually more generous than the rest of the industry in that we capped potential costs whereas our competitors would happily send you a bill for several thousand dollars and we hard capped the price (without cutting off your service) at 200 dollars. She came to me as an escalated escalation– she asked front line to talk to the manager, asked the manager to talk to HER boss and I handled those callbacks for my own supervisor so that’s how I got her.

    Well, after about an hour of screaming, yelling, legal threats and more, I was finally more blunt than I typically was with a customer, she kept referencing our competitors so I used the competitors websites and said “ma’m, listen to me, you keep saying your last provider wouldn’t have done this. The reality is according to their own website your bill would have been 1,250 dollars [I’m rounding here I gave her the exact figure to the penny], competitor B would have been 1,300. We are charging you 200 dollars and we already offered to waive half, you know Giant Competitor, you’ve talked to THEIR customer service before I’m sure, and you know their reputation for poor customer service, they wouldn’t give you a dime, you’d pay them their 1.25 thousand or you’d be sent to collections. If you want to cancel I will transfer you to our cancellations department.” It was like someone flipped a switch in her head. She became the nicest woman you’ll ever want to speak to and we had a very amicable conversation about our tools to prevent this situation in the future, she accepted splitting the bill down the middle, I applied some voluntary usage caps on our end (we would never cut off service, for safety reasons among others, we’d just bill for it, but you could request a hard cap applied to your account). I really think she just needed to hear that we were not out of line with our much larger competitors. She needed the realization that this was bad, yes, but we were being generous.

    NOW, where someone IS being manipulative, then this is even more likely. Because if you’re using some tactic, and realize it’s futile, well, you stop. so the realization that they see right through you, your tactics will not work and you are not going to get your way going down this road causes them to turn the bus right around and pick another fork.

  17. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

    You might already know this, OP, so please forgive me if that’s the case, but want to add just in case you don’t realise. Generally, if someone doesn’t like a joke, telling them the other person didn’t mean much by it and to grow a thicker skin will only cause hurt them and make the situation worse. It sounds like this situation is different from the norm, but I wanted to point this out in case you do get another employee who doesn’t like the jokes other people make. The joke-maker’s intent isn’t important if someone is being hurt by their actions.

    It sounds like this situation has worked out for all involved, just wanted to point this out in case it’s helpful in the future.

    1. Pennalynn Lott*

      Hmmmmm. . . I see it slightly differently. If the joke isn’t actually passive-aggressive criticism or harassment or racism/sexism/other-hateful-isms, then it really is a matter of growing thicker skin, developing selective hearing, picking your battles, letting things go, etc.

      I have worked with and been friends with people who were super, super sensitive. They saw literally everything as a slight. I would hate for workplaces to become so buttoned-up that no humor was allowed at all, for fear that someone might get hurt. Case in point: A coworker had a tiny dog that was afraid of people. She took the dog in the car with her to a burger drive-through and the dog let the worker at the window pet him. Coworker was so happy about it that she told everyone in the office the next day. Everyone made appreciative noises and said things like, “That’s so great! Maybe you’ll be able to take him to the dog park one day like you’ve always wanted.”

      But one person quipped, “Well of course the dog let the burger lady pet him, she smelled like french fries and burgers!” Cue coworker saying, “Whatever,” and walking out. Like, out of the building. And then calling in sick for that day and the next because “no one would let her enjoy her dog’s achievement.”

      So should no one ever joke about dogs and fast food again? Or should Coworker develop a thicker skin?

      1. CM*

        It’s still not helpful to tell someone who is offended or sensitive, “Don’t be offended,” or “Don’t be sensitive,” which is basically what “develop a thicker skin” means.

        It would be more helpful to discuss the situation and why it was different than the offended person perceived it to be, or what the person can do besides develop a thicker skin. Like in your situation, the boss could explain that she still needs to maintain professional relationships and come to work even if she feels offended.

        These situations are tricky because they are all about perception, and it’s hard to differentiate between “legitimately” feeling offended and needing to develop a thicker skin. If there is a pattern of bullying or dismissive behavior, someone walking into the situation may see a comment as a harmless one-off joke when the person who is offended sees it as part of the pattern. On the other hand, it may really be a harmless one-off joke. But keeping it about the behavior helps with this issue — you’re not telling the person “don’t be offended,” you’re just saying, “even though you’re offended, you still need to behave professionally.”

        1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

          Thank you, this is what I meant. You’re right that these situations are tricky and can be difficult to navigate. Workplaces are a bunch of strangers who have to get along because they all need money and problems are going to arise. It can take time to find a solution. In OP’s case, it sounds like they had tried to work with Kelsey and this was the last straw. My only concern was that if a similar situation arose again, OP (or others) might be quick to jump to the ‘grow a thicker skin’ line rather than taking a little time to fully resolve the problem.

          If there is a pattern of bullying or dismissive behavior, someone walking into the situation may see a comment as a harmless one-off joke when the person who is offended sees it as part of the pattern.

          Yes, exactly! Microaggressions are often dismissed with ‘you’re being too sensitive’, for example, without understanding how jokes play into making a person feel inferior or unwelcome.

      2. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

        I have no idea about your coworker. It could be that the person who made the quip is always needling her and this was the last straw. It could be that she likes attention. It could be that she’s dealing with grief or another issue in her private life, and really couldn’t handle even a mild joke at her expense. Or any other reason. All I know is telling people they’re too sensitive and to grow a thicker skin is only going to make the problem worse. As CM said, if there’s an issue, it needs to be about the behaviour, not whether a person has the right to be upset or not. Your coworker’s boss should have said, ‘I get that you didn’t like the joke, but you can’t call off sick because of it.’

  18. Nina Bee*

    Had a coworker like this who saw people ‘ignoring’ them when they were the ones who didn’t join in.. it comes from low self esteem and probably how she grew up (overbearing parents, many siblings, who knows).. probably why she went into a childhood story. Glad it all worked out though!

  19. SheWoulf*

    OP here. I wanted to add an update to the update, because I wrote this update over a year ago! Kelsey has since left the company, but on absolutely wonderful terms (she moved with her fiance for his job). Lorraine misses her more than any of us, we in the office all speak highly of her often, and we’ve “friended” each other on Facebook now that I’m not longer her manager. I truly adore Kelsey as a person, and I’m so glad to have known her. If things didn’t work out and she came back looking for her old job I’d give it to her without thinking twice.

    And – Lorraine is still one of my best employees. I think one of the things I struggled with when I took this position 4 very long short years ago was that I walked into an upper management role with an established team, and I had never worked for the company. Now that I’ve been here 4 years, I realize how incredibly RARE that is here – we almost always promote from within. While none of the current team had applied for my position, I was replacing someone they had a ton of respect for (she retired). One of the first things I should have done but didn’t was set expectations for my team. Had I done that sooner, I think that Lorraine would have stepped up earlier. But once I did outline my expectations, and make everyone aware of what was and what wasn’t acceptable, I’ve had literally NO problems!

    And to every single person who has passed along some form of kudos, all I can say is thank you from the bottom of my heart. I strive every day to be the manager I would want, to be good at my job, and your validation that I am is something I will never ever take for granted, and never forget. Thank you all!

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      This is so beautiful and heartwarming! I’m so happy everything worked out so well for everyone and that you’ve created a workplace where people care for and respect each other. Thank you for the update and happy new year.

    2. Susie Q*

      I would never tell an employee to grow thicker skin in a performance review. There are better ways to phrase that feedback.

  20. The Supreme Troll*

    SheWoulf, I think you are a thoughtful and caring manager and you have your employees best interests at heart. Have a Happy 2020; all the best.

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