update: my junior employee won’t stop sharing his “expertise”

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 junior employee wouldn’t stop sharing his “expertise” with people despite not having the actual expertise to back it up? Here’s the update.

Thank you for your excellent advice, which was both the script framework and spine-stiffening I needed.

“Bobbin” and I had a conversation very similar to what you suggested not long after the letter ran. I stuck to a dry, fact-based approach, but he still looked like he wanted to vomit on the conference table during our check-in. We got through it, though, and he clearly took the criticism seriously; I heard through colleagues that he later texted his fellowship cohort’s group chat in a panic, asking for advice to fix his behavior. (Mass texting coworkers about a negative performance review is unfortunately representative of his judgement overall.)

His personality is closer to over-eager than directly condescending, but yes, he did “help” women in the office more than men. I mentioned this as part of our conversation and again, I think he took it seriously. (Honestly, he seemed terrified of most of the men there. Now he’s terrified of me too, but there are worse outcomes.)

Several of the commenters guessed correctly that my supervisor didn’t really support any kind of disciplinary action against Bobbin. She’s conflict-avoidant, very close to retirement, and didn’t want to “break his spirit,” so she treated every day in which he did not literally break the law as a sign he had made lasting and substantial improvement. Still, as I mentioned, Bobbin’s performance issues were widely known, so through regular check-ins with my manager and detailed documentation, I was able to build a case to recommend the probationary board review his employment (review still pending).

The story has a happy ending for me, though! I rotated out of the job this summer into a much better-managed section, where I supervise fewer, more professional employees and report to responsive managers. Also, partly because of how I handled my managerial challenges over the last year, I was promoted this cycle! Raise also still pending – that’s the federal government for you – but once it kicks in I’ll drink a toast to you and all the AAM readers.

{ 79 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte*

    Bobbin is such an excellent name for this person. Hats off to you, OP, for that, and congratulations on your promotion.

    1. Ice and Indigo*

      In the UK, saying something is bobbins is … well, it is to a popular word for testicles what ‘flip’ is to a popular word for sweet lovemaking. A thing to know when you travel!

  2. Cookie Captain*

    Speaking of sexism, I wonder if the conflict-avoidant grandboss would be as worried about “breaking the spirit” of a young woman with an obnoxious, unprofessional habit as she is about a fragile-ego’d young man.

    1. CoveredInBees*

      As a young woman who was probably obnoxious (but usually professional) I know of bosses who delighted in trying to break my spirit.

      1. Fikly*

        Your experience in not being discriminated against does not mean that no one in that position has been discriminated again.

          1. Fikly*

            Benadryl brain, I worded that badly. What I meant was, the argument that men are largely protected from the consequences of violating workplace norms while women are not is not voided simply because one person had a different experience.

            1. Red Wheelbarrow*

              True! It’s just a little puzzling here because no one in this thread seems to be describing a different experience.

              1. Fikly*

                CoveredInBees said that as a young woman she had bosses who delighted in breaking their spirit, and the comment above questioned whether bosses would hold back on doing that to women, or only men, yes? Or did I misunderstand?

                1. Eliza*

                  Cookie Captain’s comment speculated that bosses *wouldn’t* hold back on doing that to women, and CoveredInBees’s anecdote was a case of bosses indeed not holding back on doing that to a woman. Seems like they’re in agreement rather than disagreement.

                2. Happy*

                  I think you misunderstood the exchange — the original comment was about someone going out of their way to avoid breaking a man’s spirit, so the covered’s response was never meant to be a counterexample.

    2. Chili*

      Honestly, many bosses (and coworkers and random passersby) are extremely unconcerned about “breaking the spirit” of female employees over habits that are neither obnoxious or unprofessional but just personal preferences (smile!!!).

    3. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      I jumped to that, too. Such an eager young man. Such a nice young man. He’s going to have a long career, you can’t derail it.

    4. Asenath*

      People put it differently when they want to do the same thing to a woman – she’s too fragile to take criticism; I can’t tell her what she’s doing wrong because she won’t be able to handle it. Same basic process – a refusal to correct an unprofessional habit being excused on the basis that the target can’t handle correction.

      1. Oh So Anon*

        Yup. To add to that, oftentimes they’re not talking about the sort of fragility they want to protect – there’s an undertone of “she’s too defensive/difficult and I can’t be bothered to actually deal with her”.

  3. DoctorateStrange*

    I’m glad you were able to get it to him straight. It’s a shame that he ended up panicky about the whole thing (and sent a mass text to his coworkers, GAH). Whether or not he still works there, I hope that he’ll learn something out of this. Maybe someday.

    Congrats on the section change!

    1. Minocho*

      It’s a shame about the mass text, but I think the response of looking ill does mean he wasn’t doing it consciously, and it also was better than a defensively angry reaction – it means he has a good chance of being willing to try to correct. Maybe his future coworkers will have a much more pleasant work relationship with him thanks to the hard work OP did.

      Greate job! I wish you the best, and honestly, Bobbin too!

  4. CouldntPickAUsername*

    ok i do wanna say that yeah mass texting the group chat wasn’t great but at least it was “how do I fix this” showing he’s at least going in the right direciton.

    1. A*

      Ya, this might not be problematic depending on the dynamic of the group chat. While I haven’t reached out to colleagues specifically as a result of a performance review, I have reached out for general constructive criticism/feedback at times when I’ve wanted to do a check-in on my own or felt I had areas needing improvement that I was unaware of. If there had been existing group chats at those times, I would consider using them for that request. Why not?

      1. Observer*

        Because it’s the wrong audience, for one thing. This is not the group that is most likely to have solid, sound advice for him.

        For another, broadcasting a bad performance review is generally not a great idea. Unless you think that the bad review was unfair and you want to “let everyone one know”.

        Also, unless the group is really intended for support, if you are really looking for help, it’s asking a bit much of people at this level to help pull you out of this kind of mess. The rest of them have their own stuff to deal with.

        So, not terrible, but not great judgement or professionalism.

      2. Jules the 3rd*

        Because people are unlikely to give helpful, constructive advice in a public forum like that. They’re most likely to soft-pedal and say, ‘it’s ok, you’re fine’.

      3. Oh So Anon*

        I dunno, it comes across as a touch attention-seeking (and possibly manipulative) and puts people in an awkward position, especially in a group/quasi-public forum. Reaching out individually to a trusted peer or two is probably way more effective and professional.

      4. Avasarala*

        How do you respond to something like that? You’re new at your job, someone blasts the chat with “my boss says I’ve been screwing up, how do I fix it?” Do you really dig into it in a group chat in front of everyone “yeah actually you have been sucking”? Do you try to make him feel better “aww I’m sure you’re doing ok”? Do you say nothing and hope it goes away? How do you handle this knowing that your peers are watching?

    2. Ann Onny Muss*

      Yeah, it’s not the greatest but at least it was “How do I fix this?” vs. “OP doesn’t recognize my greatness and is a jerk.”

      1. Massive Dynamic*

        Yes but also, I assume OP gave him some clear “cut these behaviors out ASAP” guidelines during the meeting and he what…. didn’t listen? Didn’t understand? Why is he asking the group chat about how to fix this with OP when she told him. He sounds exhausting. Hopefully the group chat thinks so too now.

        1. your favorite person*

          Bobbin was probably looking for commiseration rather than advice. He might not have understood, either, as even direct critiques on something like a character flaw can be hard to digest.

          1. Oh So Anon*

            The challenge is that when someone comes looking for commiseration but really needs to hear some harsh advice, things get awkward for everyone involved.

        2. Amber Rose*

          Eh. Being told “cut these behaviors out” is a little different from getting concrete advice from people on how to catch yourself before you do something that you’ve always done. I can see where he might want some guidance along those lines but not want to ask the LW for it.

          1. yala*

            Yeah, I’ve gotten that kind of feedback before, and it’s just like…how? Like, sometimes yeah, it should be obvious, but for some stuff, it’s so engrained or automatic that the idea of just *not* doing a thing in the moment is almost like asking me to fly. I needed to reach out (not via group chat. To a counselor etc) to find concrete actionable steps.

        3. designbot*

          right, that’s what’s weird about this to me. He just got told how to fix it, and he’s reaching out to other people to go ‘how do I fix this?’ Maybe it’s just his way of venting the stress of it though, as it can’t have been easy to hear.

              1. Dragoning*

                Kind of, but something like this might be very hard for him to notice he’s doing, and sometimes you have habits you want to break but aren’t sure how to.

              2. Blueberry*

                That’s true, but he might have been having trouble visualizing what to do instead. Even though what to do instead in this case is, well, nothing, he might not have known how to keep his mouth shut and his eyes on his own work. At least he realized he needed to learn, I guess.

        4. Close Bracket*

          “didn’t listen? Didn’t understand?”

          Didn’t actually get very good guidance from OP and wants clarifications and ideas?

          “Why is he asking the group chat about how to fix this with OP when she told him.”

          Bc development is an ongoing process that requires more than one conversation to effect positive, lasting, constructive change?

        5. SimplyTheBest*

          Where in the letter do you see these clear guidelines you’re assuming he didn’t listen to or didn’t understand. You’re making assumptions on what the OP said that just aren’t there. It’s just as likely (quite honestly, it’s *more* likely) OP simply pointed out behaviors that needed to be changed and said cut it out. So he went to his cohort for support to make sure he did change those behaviors. Considering OP then said “clearly took the criticism seriously”, it seems to me like he listened and understood quite well.

          1. Fikly*

            But cut it out is the clear guideline. He’s not needing to replace the bad behavior with a different behavior. He just needs to stop.

            1. Yorick*

              It’s more complicated than that. He’s doing a thing that’s good in the right circumstances and bad in the wrong circumstances. He shouldn’t just stop ever stating facts that he knows or giving his opinion. He has to learn when it’s appropriate and helpful and when it’s not. That might take more than one conversation to get.

              1. Oh So Anon*

                …except not doing the thing at all if he doesn’t know how to calibrate it might be a good option at first, so he can spend more time observing his team’s norms and getting a sense of what tends to be effective.

            2. Chili*

              Some of them are things he just needs to stop flat-out (e.g. quizzing coworkers), but a couple were things that seemed like maybe he intended them to be innocuous office behaviors but he botched them and made them super aggravating. Like saying he “actually agreed” with LW– he probably (giving benefit of the doubt) wanted to show interest in the topic and initiate a conversation but he bungled it. Crowd sourcing ideas of how to non-obnoxiously initiate conversations is not the worst idea

        6. Jack Be Nimble*

          I want to give Bobbin some benefit of the doubt, here — I know I’ve been told “you do [Behavior X] and it’s obnoxious, please stop” and panicked because I usually don’t even realize I’m doing Behavior X in the moment. A big part of growth for me was learning to recognize that my “enthusiasm” often took the form of interrupting or over-explaining. I can definitely see a version of myself reaching out to a group chat to ask how I can figure out how to cut back on the irritating behaviors!

          1. embarrassed at my continued failures*

            I keep thinking about something that I’m working on within myself: Not being Defensive.

            I don’t always realize I’m doing it — I think that I’m explaining my thought process — how I got to the act/decision that I got to. Instead of Acknowledging the hurt that I may have caused and apologizing for it.

            This is something that I’m working on in my personal life, but I know it bleeds into work life too.

          2. Ann Onny Muss*

            I was thinking the same thing. Bobbin may not be aware of some of his behaviors or views them differently than OP. He may have turned to his peers to ask for their help. Still could’ve been handled differently than a group text but it comes across as he took the conversation seriously and he wants to try to do better.

        7. Chili*

          Being told to cut something out is enough instructions for some bad habits, but not for all and especially not for actions that had some sort of purpose behind them. This employee has basically been told much of the way he interacts with his coworkers is condescending and obnoxious. He can’t just not interact with coworkers anymore, so I think asking other people for clarity/ tips on how they would express similar sentiments in a less obnoxious manner is understandable.

    3. Tera*

      I feel like I’d do the same thing if I was new to working. I‘d coming from a ‘I Fucked up really badly and pissed off my manager and have been doing it for ages without realising help!’ Type thing. Not necessarily about what I need to do or what I’ve done wrong, but in (as OP says) blind panic.

  5. AdAgencyChick*

    “(Honestly, he seemed terrified of most of the men there. Now he’s terrified of me too, but there are worse outcomes.)”

    This made me chuckle. A lot. Well done, OP.

    1. kittymommy*

      Yep. I have a (somewhat) running joke with my co-workers that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to cultivate a little fear in your colleagues.

      1. CM*

        I 100% agree, and I’m not joking at all.

        And I also think people are more likely to be scared of, i.e., more concerned about looking stupid in front of, men than women. This extends all the way up to the executive level where I hear people saying about execs who are at the same level as each other, “Let’s ask Jane, she will help us,” versus “Let’s not bother Roger until we’re absolutely confident in our proposal.” So I was even more annoyed by Bobbin who graces his female colleagues with his expertise while being terrified of the men.

    2. Sometimes Anon*

      I will never understand the mindset of a manager who takes delight in their reports being “terrified” of them. If one of the managers who reports to me exhibited this behavior, it would be the manager whose head would potentially be on the chopping block, not their reports.

        1. Sometimes Anon*

          An effective manager achieves results without relying on fear. Nowhere in my response did I say that there should be no consequences for poor performance/behavior.

      1. Hrovitnir*

        I don’t think it’s at all fair to characterise that comment as meaning the OP wants her reports to be afraid of her. Being OK with being intimidating to someone with poor professional boundaries isn’t wanting to terrorise your staff.

      2. Scarlet2*

        Honestly, I fail to see how making an egotistical and overconfident guy a bit “afraid” is a problem. He seems to have no middle ground between fearing people and trampling all over them. If he cannot respect people without fearing them, that’s his problem to fix.

  6. Amber Rose*

    Aww. I feel kinda bad for the guy. He just reads as very young and very inexperienced from the details in these letters.

    But then, I have the advantage of not having to work with him. Good job LW on laying out the facts for him, he clearly needed someone to do that. His growth from here on out is up to him. I wish both him and you the best of luck.

    1. Close Bracket*

      Yeah, that’s what I think, too. And based on the description of his response to the feedback, he might not very experienced in hearing requests for changes to his behavior. Yeah, he’s needy and will require a lot of oversight, but ya know, needy employees are a part of life and if you can’t handle it, don’t be management?

    2. Amy Sly*

      Yeah, I’m getting really strong “textbook Dunning-Kruger patient gets hit with his social ignorance” vibes. No doubt he’s annoying as hell for all his surrounding victims, but not malicious. I was this kid myself: I knew a lot, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. (One of the reasons I hate the term “mansplaining” is that being a condescending but ignorant know-it-all is not gendered behavior.)

      Once he can get over his insecurities and the behavior that hides them like the Emperor’s New Clothes, he’ll be fine.

      1. Close Bracket*

        (One of the reasons I hate the term “mansplaining” is that being a condescending but ignorant know-it-all is not gendered behavior.)

        No, but there is a particular gendered flavor of the behavior that is well described by the term “mansplaining,” and for that reason, I love it.

        1. voyager1*

          As a white male, just wanted to say. I can count on one hand with one finger how many women “condescending know it alls” I have met in my life. I don’t have enough fingers on both hands for the men.

          But being a condescending know it all isn’t the same as mansplaining to me. Mansplaining is way more destructive because men do it show control/power over a woman. At least IMHO.

          1. Blueberry*

            Well said, and my observations agree with yours. But/and, I think the concept of ‘splaining can be expanded in other ways. The majority of the condescending know it all women I have met, for instance, were White women telling me why my concerns as a Black woman are irrelevant and/or Feminism 101, and the majority of the remainder were fellow Black women who were my elders, telling me I knew nothing about my life because I’m their junior. In another example, in a couple of recent discussions on ASM we’ve had a lot of ‘straightsplaining’ where straight people told queer people what our lives are and aren’t like despite what we said about our lived realities.

            From what I’ve seen, ‘splaining combines condescension, information that is unnecessary and/or wrong, and a power differential being exploited by the ‘splainer. Mansplaining is the type species.

            1. Close Bracket*

              Have you read the essay that coined the term, Men Explain Things to Me? In it, the author describes having her own work explained to her by a man. It took her a couple tries to get through to him that she was the author of the book he was going on about. To your list, I’d add in the assumption that the target can’t possibly know the subject that well even though it’s their own field/expertise!

              1. Blueberry*

                I *love* that essay, and it definitely put into context some times in my life when people who thought they necessarily knew more than me due to demographics badly explained things to me they should have known I already knew.

              2. Amy Sly*

                I have. And my thought was “Here’s a grown woman who doesn’t know how to look a man in the eye and say ‘Shut up and go away.'”

                Seriously. There are so many “women’s problems” that would go away if the put-upon women just treated obnoxious men the way decent men treat obnoxious men: straighten your spine, square your shoulders, speak in authoritative tones, and tell them to fuck off in as strong of language as the situation allows.

                1. Blueberry*

                  In my experience obnoxious men often see other men (at least those of their own class and/or race) as equals to back down from, but women as horribly rude and deserving of punishment (ranging from yelling to murder, depending) unless we do what they want. I think your advice above edges into victim blaming territory.

        2. Quill*

          Mansplaining: most common when a woman with a degree in a field meets a man who watched a documentary on it one time and remembers half of it.

      2. Blueberry*

        “One of the reasons I hate the term “mansplaining” is that being a condescending but ignorant know-it-all is not gendered behavior.”

        Mansplaining is more narrowly defined than just ‘ condescending and ignorant know-it-all-itude’, though, as Close Bracket points out. There are a few other components in play.

      3. Fikly*

        It’s not limited to one gender, but if it happens with way more frequency in one gender than another, and particularly from one gender to another, it is gendered.

    3. Ele4phant*

      I don’t know that I feel “bad” for this guy. More like, it is what it is.

      He was behaving in a way that absolutely needed correcting – both for the benefit of his coworkers, but ultimately, he needed it for his own benefit.

      It sounds like the the LW laid that out as fairly and objectively as possible, but clearly.

      He’s young, if he’s listening he has time to correct things and stop letting this tendency impede his potential – which, unclear how much he has, given it sounds like there are other issues. But this at least won’t be an impediment, if he can take it to heart.

  7. Quill*

    Unfortunately, “over-eager” doesn’t always translate into “eager to learn manners and decorum.”

    Usually it takes more than one workplace or more than one reminder to get it through to dudes who are determined to be That Guy.

  8. Sara without an H*

    Hello, OP — You did the young man a favor. Whether he’s able to fully process and learn from what you said remains to be seen, but your execution was flawless.

    Congratulations on your promotion, and happy 2020!

Comments are closed.