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

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 problem employee was telling coworkers the letter-writer (her manager) was unfair to her? Here’s the update.

An update on the situation with Sally, who was badmouthing her boss – me – while she was on a performance improvement plan.

Sally was let go at the end of her performance improvement plan. Despite being given clear feedback throughout the process indicating that it wasn’t going well, she was absolutely shocked to be let go. The sense of entitlement she displayed in that conversation showed me that she would never quite understand that, actually, you need to perform to hold onto your job. (A choice quote: “Okay, so I’m not very good at my job, but I contribute so much more than just that!”) I’ve heard she’s very happy with her new job – more on that in a moment.

When I wrote to you I was worried that our colleagues would think I was an unfair boss – after all, that was what she was telling everyone. I memorised your lines before I sat down with members of my team to tell them that Sally was no longer working with us. But I soon found that everyone understood perfectly well why Sally was let go – it was a case of “she doth protest too much”. I was really impressed by how maturely everyone handled it: they made up their own minds by observing my management style versus Sally’s scattergun protests and dodgy work. In fact, her two closest work friends reached out to me and said “We understand why she was let go, and please don’t think we think poorly of you”.

Sally loves her new job – this I learned after she drunkenly cornered one of my teammates at a party and raved about how much bigger her salary is. “You’re earning way less,” she said. Yikes. It’s also come back to me that she’s been caught very publicly badmouthing colleagues at her new job. It seems some people will never learn.

Thank you so much for your advice, Alison. I’ve found so much helpful wisdom in every single one of your posts. Ask A Manager should be compulsory reading.

{ 113 comments… read them below }

  1. Amber Rose*

    I wonder how long she’ll be able to love her new job, with that attitude. :/

    But well, that’s none of my business or yours LW. You handled things the way you should and it worked out the way it should with everyone being adults about it, and that’s a solid happy ending if I ever heard one.

    1. Mel_05*

      Not long.

      I worked with one of these. She was delighted with everything at first, and very fun to be around, but after a few months she knew how everyone else should be doing their job (but was never great at her own), exactly how the company should be run, and had something nasty to say about everyone as soon as their back was turned.

      She left in a blaze of fury after being told she couldn’t call her daughter in law (also an employee) and gossip about coworkers on company time. She called her daughter in law and demanded that she quit too (she did) and yelled out that it was no wonder the company was failing (it was not) because no one had the balls to do what needed to be done, before flouncing out the door.

      1. Lemon Zinger*

        I worked with one too! Last I heard, she was harassing her supervisors to let her work from home permanently. She lives five minutes from the office and her job is 75% people-facing. It cannot be done from home. She was exhausting to be around.

      2. JSPA*

        Feel kinda bad for DIL. Whether she believes charismatic MIL or whether she knows how painful it is to be on her bad side. That’s not someone any family member should demand of another.

    2. MK*

      If she even likes it now. I would be very, very suspicious of drunken protestations of great jobs and huge salaries. Especially when couched in super-professional phrases like “you are earning way less”.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        This so much. We had a guy working on my team at OldJob that nobody liked, for too many reasons to name. He found another job and left. (I had a celebratory drink the day he put in his notice.) Two weeks after starting the new job, I heard it through the grapevine that he was telling people “I am now a manager like (friend of mine, who wasn’t even a manager – he was a PM) and OldJob never gave me the opportunity to be one.” Six months after he left (and moved to another state for this new job, mind you) he was asking if he could come back. (He was told no.) Which makes me really doubt it that he was ever a manager at that new place to begin with. (First of all, no employer’s judgment would have been bad enough to have put that guy in charge of leading other people.)

  2. Gazebo Slayer*

    “Okay, so I’m not very good at my job, but I contribute so much more than just that!”

    If you ever write satire or a work-sitcom script, OP, I think you have a ready-made character!

      1. Lily Rowan*

        I’m not sure where this comes from, but sometimes in my family, we’ll describe someone as “decorative, not useful.”

        1. The Original K.*

          There’s a line from Scandal in which the President describes the First Lady as “ornamental, not functional.” Maybe a paraphrase?

          1. CM*

            I think that’s lifted from Sondheim, where a hypermasculine character in “A Little Night Music” describes women as “insufferable, yes, but gentle — their weaknesses are incidental — a functional, but ornamental race.”

        2. Marthooh*

          In Little Women, Jo tells Laurie at one point to make himself useful, since he’s too big to be ornamental.

        3. Forrest Rhodes*

          LOL. Whenever my dad wanted to galvanize us kids into action, his favorite line was, “Make yourselves useful as well as ornamental!” Even though he’s no longer on the planet, he’s with me every time I use that line with my own kids.

      2. Wintermute*

        This can very much be a thing, in some jobs, but I can’t imagine it’s common. Remember that guy from Mad Men? “we fire him, we lose our connection to the Hamptons”

        Sometimes someone brings with them access, a connection to an important VIP, knowledge of the way the sausage is really getting made inside a government body that you bid on contracts with, etc.

        Sometimes they’re only okay at their job taken as a whole but great at one, critical aspect– they are excellent at soothing upset clients, they are great at sales pitches, when things blow up they keep a level head and can put them back together again.

        Sometimes they bring intangibles or are good at peripheral things around the office that aren’t a core part of their job but still need doing.

        There’s lots of reasons someone could be “not great” but still bring a lot of value to the organization.

        1. pamplemousse*

          It’s kind of a thing at my workplace, but it’s definitely the boss’s determination to make, not the employees’!

    1. irene adler*

      I think I would have asked her to elaborate on this thought. Might be interesting to hear. And, would add more fodder for that sitcom script, I daresay.

      1. SS Express*

        It reminds me of “The unfair thing about working in sales is that your salary is almost all commission. So if you suck at sales you make almost no money.”

    2. Claire*

      Especially considering that it doesn’t seem like she’s a very nice person or helpful for morale—you get some allowances for being bad at your job if everyone likes you and you get some allowances for being a jerk if you’re good at your job, but she seems to be neither.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        This – as my dad used to say, “she’s batting a thousand – in the wrong direction.”

      2. MBK*

        “She can’t sing, she can’t dance, she can’t act. She’s a triple threat.” ~ Cosmo Brown, “Singin’ in the Rain”

    3. MegPie*

      Ha, I totally said this to my boss at a previous job. “Yeah maybe I’m not good at managing projects but all of our clients really like me.” I ended up actually improving my pm skills and staying at the company for 5 years, so I redeemed myself, but my boss and I are good friends now and he’ll bring it up every once in a while just for giggles.

    4. ENFP in Texas*

      Maybe she’s got a couple thousand Instagram followers and considers herself an “Influencer”?

  3. londonedit*

    A positive update for the OP, that was very nice to read! Sounds like everything worked out well from their point of view. I think Sally needs to learn the phrase ‘pride comes before a fall’, however…

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      Exactly. She’s miserable; not because of the new job, but because she’s miserable inside and where ever she goes, there she is. I feel just a tad, tiny, little bit sorry for people like that, and then I have to deal with them and all empathy just evaporates.

      1. somanyquestions*

        I’d feel sorry for them if they all had to go live on asshole island, inhabited only by people just like them. If we have to live with them, though, I just feel sorry for us.

  4. !*

    The sad part is that she may have in fact found a place where her style of working works! It’s never ceased to amaze me how people like this succeed in life by remaining averse to any feedback and digging in deep to their own perceptions of their *contributions*.

    1. Mainly Lurking*

      If, as LW says, Sally’s already badmouthing colleagues at her new place, I’m not sure how well she is “succeeding” …

      1. Elenna*

        Yeah, I strongly suspect that Sally is doing just as poorly and being just as annoying at the new job, but LW can’t tell because they’re only getting Sally’s perspective, which we already know is more twisted than the Mad Hatter.

        1. Heidi*

          And in the original letter, Sally seemed to be a good fit for the job AT FIRST. It was only later on that OP discovered that she was not doing well. People can hide their incompetence for a little while.

          1. LunaLena*

            Especially since one tends to give new hires a little room to make mistakes, because they’re still adjusting/learning/whatever.

      2. WorkIsADarkComedy*

        And, given Sally’s impervious anti-reality armor, there’s no way she is doing her new job well.

        If her new boss is not as able as OP she may be able to stick around for a while, or bounce from slot to slot, but Sally will always be Sally.

    2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I don’t know that I would really be interested in knowing what Sally thinks she contributes – she seems fairly divorced from the reality the rest of us work in.

      1. pope suburban*

        Bingo. We’ve got a Sally in my office, and the less I know about what’s in her head, the better off I am. She’s got her own preconceptions, and while they’re horrible, they’re also my province. All I can do is work around them as best I can, and be kind to the other people in the office (Sally is, unsurprisingly, a morale-ruiner; who’da thunk that treating everyone around you with naked contempt would not win you friends and improve the collective mood?). It’s maybe a fun question as an idea, but don’t go there- there be monsters.

      2. Oranges*

        I would be interested in what’s going on in her ming in a purely detached kind of way. Like a nature show about interesting parasites. When you’re watching it the topic is fascinating, it would be a different story if you were infected.

  5. Librarian of SHIELD*

    It’s just so strange to me that someone can hear very specific instructions about what they need to do or stop doing in order to keep their job, make zero changes at all, and then be absolutely astonished when they’re told their employment is over. I’ve worked with a couple of Sallys in the past, and I’m still gobsmacked at this reaction.

    1. Hornswoggler*

      Maybe it’s the “oh but that doesn’t apply to ME” attitude. It’s like people who don’t really think the rules of the road apply to them, and then get all surprised when they’re hauled over for exceeding the speed limit or not wearing a seat belt.

      1. Iris Eyes*

        In part it is probably a conditioned response. The vast majority of the times they slack off or do wrong they aren’t caught and reprimanded right then they see other people slacking off or breaking the rules who don’t get caught and face consequences right then. So when these little transgressions add up or they happen to be in the right place at the right time it feels unfair that “all of a sudden” the rules actually do apply.

        It would be interesting to see how that factors into their risk/reward thinking and if there is a common parenting style that disproportionately leads to such attitudes.

        1. pope suburban*

          It could also be this (I am actually certain it is this, at least in part) plus feeling that they are more clever/competent/experienced than everyone around them, titles and seniority be damned. I think that we’ve all, unfortunately, met someone who’s convinced that they’re number one at work, or in just about every respect. Once you’re at that point, the filter that distorts reality is powerful, and little to no criticism gets through.

          1. TardyTardis*

            I had a co-worker who thought she was my supervisor even while I was training her. She was *special*.

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Our “Sally” managed to be surprised when injured in an accident caused by exceeding the speed limit while not wearing a seat belt. That was after she left here (shortly before she would have been let go after a failed PIP) but before I lost touch with her.

    2. londonedit*

      If she’s determined to see everything as ‘not her fault’ and ‘the boss not giving her a second chance’ or ‘holding her to unfair standards’ then I can imagine her convincing herself that it’s ‘just her evil boss being mean to her’ and she’ll be fine, the rules don’t apply to her, everyone else does XYZ and they haven’t been fired, etc etc.

    3. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      To paraphrase a line from an older song, “[they’re] the queen of denial.” And most good employees will figure those people out, but only eventually.

    4. Uranus Wars*

      I am dealing with someone like this now – she is not a direct report of mine but uses a service my department provides. She has been given several verbal warnings by the manager of that area (who reports to me) about abuse of privileges and inappropriate behavior. Her response is “you aren’t the boss of me, I don’t have to listen to you”. After 4 different violations with the same response and no behavior change we terminated her ability to use the service.

      Her response? “I don’t understand how you could do this without talking to me first.”

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Sounds just like a group I dealt with in college. I worked in the office that reserved space in the student union for clubs and Greek life events. We eventually had to ban one club from using any indoor space for repeated violations of building rules (but never the same rule twice). They also claimed to not have been “talked to about this” despite multiple warnings that this behavior is becoming an unsustainable trend.

          1. Librarian of SHIELD*

            “If you continue to do X, Y will happen.”

            *Continues to do X*

            *Y happens*

            “Why didn’t anybody warn me?!?!?!?!?!”

              1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

                Yup – the dean of student affairs came and told me (because I was the head scheduler, and the outcome of their complaint meeting was reported to me) that the club told him almost exactly that, “I didn’t think you were serious about banning us from using indoor space…..”. The dean backed the reservation office completely on the ban, and it was fully enforced until the group of student members who were the focus of the problem graduated and new members who would follow facility rules took over.

      2. Observer*

        This is why you document. It is SOOO much easier to deal with if the person tries to complain to people who are not involved in the situation.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          This. in the club breaking rules that I mentioned above, we had written emails from other employees in the building of what they had seen as contemporaneous documentation of the broken rules, and also a follow up email from the person who supervised clubs documenting what had been discussed in the meeting about that broken rule. It was a big part of why the Dean was so willing to back us up in banning them from using space.

    5. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      It’s typical of someone who blames everyone and everything for their problems and refuses to take responsibility for their actions. She lives in her own alternate reality, and unless she’s found a job in a toxic environment that accepts her behavior, will continue to go from job to job never thinking that she’s the problem.

      1. annakarina1*

        And likely will just call every place they work at “toxic” while not addressing their own issues or making excuses for them.

    6. You can't fire me; I don't work in this van*

      Yes, denial can be strong for people when they get dumped by a job or a partner.

      When I was unemployed, I spent a lot of time reading relationship advice subreddits. I noticed a pattern of OPs saying their partner broke up with them “out of the blue” and/or “for no reason at all”. 9 times out of 10, the OP would either post the actual reason their partner said they were ending things that they didn’t think was legit or post a wall of text describing a relationship with a ton of struggles, like daily arguments, that would each be a good reason for someone to want to end a relationship.

    7. BRR*

      I wonder if part of it is because being direct is not overwhelmingly common. We discuss being direct to others but there’s the flip side of how you receive things if people haven’t been direct with you. Combine that with someone who seems to be naturally oblivious and here you go.

    8. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      They never draw the line from cause to effect. Every single event in life is random and unconnected to any other thing. Things that happen, just…happen; there isn’t any way to avoid bad things so they can’t be blamed for them. And there isn’t any connection between doing good things and getting a reward — everything is just luck. People who succeed through hard work, thoughtfulness, or sacrifice — they just got lucky and are “fake” for claiming otherwise. If you try and draw the line for them, you’re just victim-blaming them. It’s like a religion.

  6. Casper Lives*

    Glad this worked out for you, OP! I’m reminded that there are coworkers you can like as people who aren’t good as coworkers.

  7. Rainbow Roses*

    This is the reason the funniest standup comics and sitcoms are those that are based on real life. You don’t have to make things up when crazy is all around you.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      An author friend reads some of these stories and says “if I put this in a novel, no one would believe it.”

      1. Observer*

        Yes. Which is why when I talk to my (young adult) kids about some of this stuff, I specifically talk about court cases – especially the ones where the defendant actually admits to whatever it is but claims that it’s really OK.

      2. LunaLena*

        This is actually exactly why I love reading (good) advice columns like AAM: I get to learn about all sorts of people and situations that I never would have believed exist otherwise. It makes me realize that it truly does take all kinds to make up this funny ole world.

  8. Elenna*

    I can’t help but wonder if she really loves her new job and is doing well there, or if the same pattern is going to start over again in a few months… anyways, good that you’re rid of her, OP!

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I’m going to wager that the pattern will repeat, OP has heard Sally is already badmouthing new coworkers, it may be just a matter of time before the Sally-shuffle to a new department starts again.

    2. Uranus Wars*

      I am guess she thinks she is doing great, much like at this job. This is a hilariously believable story.

    3. londonedit*

      I reckon it’s pretty much guaranteed that the same pattern will start again. I re-read the original letter and part of why OP wanted to hire Sally in the first place was that they’d heard all of Sally’s tales about her previous terrible bosses who were so awful to her, and wanted to give her a chance at a better job. Turns out, Sally always ends up with a ‘terrible boss’ who is ‘so unfair’.

    4. Jaybeetee*

      IME, there’s an inverse relationship between how frequently/loudly someone declares something, and how true the thing actually is. People who are happy don’t feel the need to constantly tell people they’re happy. Nice people don’t feel the need to tell people they’re nice. People who are kicking ass in their new jobs aren’t usually drunkenly cornering ex-colleagues at parties to tell them that (and crap on that colleague’s salary).

      1. Artemesia*

        Applies socially too — ‘renewing vow ceremonies’ especially if they are buy attention seeking celebrities are usually a prelude to divorce.

        1. Iconic Bloomingdale*

          Heidi Klum and Seal are a good example. I always wondered why they felt the need to have an outlandish vow renewal ceremony on/around their wedding anniversary every year. It used to make me roll my eyes. lol

  9. Spidey Cents & Sensibility*

    To all the comments saying this is sitcom material, add my whole hearted agreement, also, Tina Fey should be head writer!

  10. Just J.*

    +1 for Ask a Manager should be compulsory reading.

    Thank you for your update. I’ve worked with a lot of Sallys who seem to linger forever and never get fired. Thank you for rekindling my belief that somewhere they actually are.

  11. Abogado Avocado*

    OP: Loved this update! If I could enshrine only one thing in gold leaf, it would be your statement: “I’ve found so much helpful wisdom in every single one of your posts. Ask A Manager should be compulsory reading.”

    Recently, a young manager in my organization came to me and said, “How do I be a better manager?” After discussing internal management training programs that our organization offers, I also recommended that he put Ask A Manager on his RSS feed and listen to every episode of Alison’s podcasts. Flash forward to this morning, when the young manager poked his head in my office with a huge smile on his face and said his anxiety about managing has dropped considerably due to Ask A Manager. He added that, in fact, he’s been reading the archived posts because he so appreciates the commonsense advice. Which means, Alison, that your advice really is life changing in more ways than you know.

  12. Kes*

    I agree with the others that she’s definitely still protesting too much about how much she loves her new job, and the cycle will likely repeat there.

    The one thing I would suggest to OP is to do some checking of your own on her claims that she’s making way more and her coworkers remaining there are making less – not to take her word as gospel, or even to specifically check on her salary, but generally to validate that your salaries are at or above market average. Even if her coworkers don’t necessarily totally believe her, that’s the type of claim they may be likely to check out since it impacts them, and if they find they can in fact be making more at her company or elsewhere, you may find yourself losing more employees than just her.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      One of our Sally’s did move on for more money — but he wasn’t there long. Because what his (our) “micromanaging, demanding manager” had been “demanding” from him was simply the basic deliverables that everyone else was already doing. (He was last spotted driving for an airport car service — and although that’s not the corporate career he claimed to want, I bet it’s a lucrative match for his personality. He is so darned interesting a conversationalist I could see people requesting him as their regular driver.)

  13. CoffeeLover*

    Do we know how old Sally is?

    In my mind I can’t decide if she’s:
    1) A young person with a total lack of understanding of the real world; or
    2) An older person that’s used to push-over managers and getting her way.

      1. LunaLena*

        I dunno, I can totally picture a young person being like this too. In particular the ones who have always been at the top of the class or are used to being praised for everything, even if they put in minimal effort, or have never had to face real consequences for their actions. I had a college roommate like that – she came from a well-to-do family where she was the youngest child and only girl, so she’d never had to share anything and was used to everything being handed to her. She never talked to me, our room was a perpetual mess because she couldn’t keep things on her side of the room, and at one point she hauled me into a RA meeting without warning to cry about how I was such a terrible roommate. To be fair, I probably wasn’t the best roommate either, especially since I gave up trying after a while, but even so it was astounding how much she thought I was so unfair to her and wasn’t considerate enough of her needs. This after almost a year of my having to turn off her five alarm clocks (yes, she needed five alarm clocks that went off at 10-minute intervals in order to get up every morning) every time she went out of town because she never turned them off herself, amongst other things.

        1. IvyGirl*

          Valid, but there’s being oblivious because you’ve never been exposed to something/learnt, and then there’s the knowing/learning over time and still choosing to have an utter lack of self awareness anyway.

        2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I had a few of those roommates in college. One was a very late in life surprise that her parents had coddled into helplessness (she had never in her life done either dishes or laundry – boy was I glad to get a new roomie for sophomore year – our old room stunk – fortunately my RA realized he problem was her and not me, so I didn’t get in trouble at moveout from that room.
          Sadly, two years later I had a second roommate who also had never done laundry. Even sadder, this girl was 21, and convinced because all her other roommates had done her laundry, so would I (she couldn’t believe it when I said nope, but I will show you how to do laundry). I really wonder how some of these over coddled princes and princesses survive in the real world after college.

  14. WellRed*

    This letter is an example to all the managers out there who hesitate to deal with a problem employee. Other employees generally know what’s going on and they probably like it even less, especially if they are good at their jobs.

  15. Observer*

    If her work friends actually reached out to you to tell you that they understand why she was let go, then she was REALLY toxic. That’s a fairly unusual thing to do.

    1. Ama*

      Makes me think some of those “work friends” were more like the people who write in to Alison wanting to know how to tune out a coworker who has latched on to them only to complain all the time.

    2. Cartographical*

      This. I think it was kind of them to do and I’ve been there. You can really like someone on their own merits but loathe working with them. Maybe Sally is a surrogate mom for some of them or a pillar of the church or the kind of woman who could hang out a shingle as “Whole Man Removal Services, Dumpsters Provided”. I’ve known a couple people who were nightmares to work with but, if I was ever in real trouble, I’d grab them like a fire extinguisher and point them at the problem.

    1. CM*

      I had an instinctively negative reaction to this comment because I’ve heard it used so often against women expressing an opinion, and had it used against me more than once. “Gee, I bet you’re fun at parties.”

      Then I looked at the letter again and saw that we actually know what Sally is like at parties — she corners people and tells them she’s making more money than them! So, OK, not so fun at parties.

  16. Sara without an H*

    Congratulations, OP, this sounds like the best possible outcome. When I went through this process with my own Sally, I, too, wondered if her reports would think I was persecuting her. Once she left, it turned out they were kind of relieved to have her gone.

    From your description of her behavior at that party, I suspect that Sally is the sort who is terrific at interviews, then flames out as soon as they’re asked to actually do some work. I take it her new employers never contacted you for a reference?

  17. theelephantintheroom*

    She sounds like my brother. Doesn’t own his mistakes, bad mouths people publicly the SECOND he’s not getting what he wants, and then says the manager just has a problem with him if he faces any repercussions (like when he talked trash about his boss and company, publicly, on Facebook, and tagged all his coworkers. And was SHOCKED he was fired).

    He’s been that way since middle school and now he’s in his 30s. People like that don’t learn.

  18. BerkeleyFarm*

    Oh, “Sally” sounds so familiar. I was run out of my old church where I had been very active (ex board member, etc.) by a “Sally” (although she would never have admitted she wasn’t good at her job, to hear her talk, she is always the only competent one there and the glue that holds everything together) who found a powerful protector/enabler. So she is happily busybodying everyone, stirring shit, and causing drama. “Sally” had actually been eased out of her previous church by having an important-to-her program eliminated. “Sally”, when on the board, publicly trashed the then-minister on social media and was TOTALLY SURPRISED YOU GUYS that someone called her on it.

    This “Sally” has learned an in-demand consulting skill so has managed to learn how to fire herself before she is gotten rid yet again. But she still thinks it’s anyone but her why she used to get laid off so much, or flamed out of other social groups where she didn’t have a protector. “Sally” just thinks they “don’t like strong women!”.

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