update: should I talk to my coworker about her off-putting behavior?

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

Remember the letter-writer asking if she should talk to her coworker about her off-putting behavior, including yelling and interrupting? Here’s the update.

In 2018 I became this colleague’s manager. It was/is my first managerial role. Managerial work is very much not my full-time job; technical work is still my main priority. I am almost a project lead with the responsibility to do things like performance reviews, but stuff like long-term planning, hiring, promotions, etc. are not in my purview.

Anyway, back to Rachel. Obviously this very much became my problem when she started reporting to me. And I took a swing at it. The main problem was the over-chattiness in our open-plan office. When we did check-ins, I would mention that issue to her, usually framing it as needing to allow other people around us to concentrate. And she tried to work on it; I could tell that she was trying. But it was a huge struggle for her.

Things got a bit worse in 2019 when the team immediately next to us in the open office hired a new guy who was the worst Chatty Chester I have ever encountered in 10+ years with the government. Rachel often couldn’t resist jumping in when Chester was off on a tear on some subject about which she wanted to get in her 2 cents. Again, I talked to her about this at check-ins, and she would rein it in for a while, but it was very much in her nature to join ongoing conversations, and she struggled against that nature. I actually had to speak to Chester’s management multiple times because he would talk nonstop and it was tremendously distracting for all of us. Unfortunately his management was slow to act.

It got particularly bad when there was a scandalous event in the news that hurt no one but cast a shadow on people in her personal sphere — think along the lines of, Rachel’s alma mater had an admissions scandal. Chester of course is exactly the kind of person who loves to shoot his mouth off about news events like that, so we were off to the races. Chester was the real problem, but Rachel’s jumping in didn’t help matters. I doubled my efforts to get through to Chester’s management, and they finally stepped in, but it was very much a “yikes” period in our office.

As far as the other problems I mentioned in the original letter, I was at least able to assert some authority when it came to directing meetings and making sure that she didn’t speak over our superiors. I could just say, if she was interrupting when we had a “drive by” by upper management, “Just a minute, Rachel,” accompanied by an upraised hand, and she would zip her lip and let our superior speak. And I had no trouble taking control in meetings and just saying, “I’m going to pause that discussion and get back to item X,” and that worked fine.

But the chattiness thing really plagued us right up to the end. The end was quite recent; she wanted to relocate to be closer to family, so she went jobhunting in a new area. She moved and began a new job right before COVID hit the States. We parted on excellent terms and I wish her nothing but good fortune. I have heard through the grapevine that she is working from her new home and doing well.

I’m not sure what else I could’ve done in this situation. I had no power to implement any real consequences, and even had I had that power, I wouldn’t have wanted to exercise it over something that really bothered me more than it bothered anyone else. (Only one of her coworkers/my subordinates ever complained to me about Rachel’s disturbances, and they weren’t terribly annoyed.) Not to mention, our technical work is the niche-iest of niche things and quite literally impossible to hire for; we have to hire raw talent and train them up. It would’ve been very stupid of me to alienate her over this when I took the managerial role two years ago.

She was fundamentally an immature person in the interpersonal sense, but a very valuable employee. I’m not sure what I or anyone could have done to hurry along her maturation process. I hope I run into her years in the future and find that she’s grown into a more levelheaded person. I think with more years and jobs under her belt, that’s exactly what will happen.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Nonprofit Nancy*

    It sounds like you did the best you could: you did raise the issue and also appreciate when she would take steps to make change. Especially since it kind of sounds like this was partly a personality conflict, I don’t see what you would have done differently. You sound fair and balanced to me. Good job OP!

    1. BW*

      Agree, it seems like partly her fundamental personality was at war with the kind of culture you were trying to create. Probably worked out for the best that she left in good terms.

  2. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP —
    This is a classic example of what I think of as a good employee with a quirk. In your case, you decided that Rachel’s quirk was bearable, as long as you got her to modify it in the most essential situations, i.e. meetings and visits from higher-ups. And Rachel was actually responsive — she reined in her behavior when you asked her to do so, although it was hard enough for her that she had relapses.

    Overall, I think you handled it very well. Chatty Chester’s managers? Not so much.

    1. Littorally*

      Agreed. Sure, the outcome wasn’t perfect — they often aren’t — but it sounds like she was reasonably responsive and was putting in the effort to do better, even if her execution wasn’t all it could have been.

  3. Celeste*

    I love that you have the grace to see her as a good and useful person despite how annoying she could be. You sound like an excellent manager.

    1. WorkIsADarkComedy*

      There are quite a few things that the LW is doing well, such as picking your battles, responding in the moment, and being direct but respectful.

  4. Kiki*

    This was really interesting to read today because my coworkers and I are in the middle of a situation that is sort of similar– a relatively new coworker who is doing work well, but has some habits that are really off-putting. It’s hard to separate what is just someone’s personality and what is something that should be addressed and changed.

  5. Gina*

    This sounds tough, especially since it’s not an easy to quantify behavior-like “Ask Tom and not Bill for those spreadsheets going forward” or “Don’t trim your fingernails during meetings.” Sounds like you did the best you could, OP!

  6. Heidi*

    “I wouldn’t have wanted to exercise it over something that really bothered me more than it bothered anyone else. (Only one of her coworkers/my subordinates ever complained to me about Rachel’s disturbances, and they weren’t terribly annoyed.)” Even though no one else complained, it doesn’t mean that no one else was bothered or that other people’s work didn’t suffer from the frequent interruptions. What you described is a legitimately disruptive problem. I don’t think you should blame yourself for intervening.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      But the other side of this really is, nobody complained because it wasn’t a big deal to them.

      I wish people would stop assuming that people are always suffering in silence just because there are times it happens. To assume discontent and malice is not good management either.

      But it only takes one or two people being annoyed to matter in the end, so the OP still did the right thing.

      1. Avasarala*

        Agreed. I may be bothered by something but choose not to bring it to my supervisor because I, like OP, have decided it’s not worth addressing/it’s a quirk I can bear. It’s not helpful to always assume that people are secretly bothered and annoyed. And I say this from a guess culture.

      2. Paulina*

        There may also have been few complaints because the OP was clearly doing her best to handle it, even if success wasn’t 100%. I don’t complain to my boss about a problem I can see they’re on top of. I suppose in some cases it might be worth my thanking him just so he knows his efforts are worth continuing, but that’s not something that always comes to mind to do.

        Point taken, though, we shouldn’t invent silent complaints either.

  7. Alice's Rabbit*

    “I’m not sure what I could have done to hurry along her maturation process.”
    Honestly, some people are just immature about this, no matter what anyone says or does. And often, they never grow out of it. So don’t beat yourself up for not being able to completely correct the behavior. And least you got her to rein things in.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      I can attest to that! I had a former coworker who was super chatty, had an opinion about everything, had a negative opinion about most decisions made by her superiors and wanted to chat your ear off about it, even when you would try to escape her. It’s like she couldn’t stand silence! She talked non-stop up until the day she retired and packed up her office. When she left we all literally looked around at each other and let out a group SIGH of relief. You’re correct that some people will always have a tinge of immaturity…and can’t seem to take a hint!

    2. m*

      Chattiness, i.e. friendliness isn’t immaturity, and can actually be an enormous boon in certain work cultures. Perhaps the employee just isn’t a great fit for this culture, which, from what i’m seeing, seems super formal

      1. designbot*

        I don’t think chattiness = friendliness. It can be that or partly that, but it can also be a nervous habit, or an absentmindedness. In this case I do think it’s immature that she needed someone to be constantly policing her to remind her to refrain when the situation wasn’t appropriate. Friendliness still leaves room for a situational awareness this employee did not seem to possess.

  8. Brett*

    I’m curious why this group has an open-plan office. At least on the surface, this does not sound like the type of work (technical work that is “the niche-iest of niche things and quite literally impossible to hire for”) that is a good fit an open-plan office. It seems like the worst case scenario layout for exacerbating Rachel’s behavior.

    1. Mill Miker*

      It’s exactly the kind of work that’s almost always put into open offices though.

    2. TechWorker*

      Open offices are (in theory) good for collaboration and when you need to frequently discuss things in person. I’m not sure how collaborative the work is is correlated to how niche or difficult to hire for it is.

      1. willow for now*

        Yeah, I love how open offices are touted as “collaboration-friendly”, but nobody ever seems to think that some jobs don’t require collaboration very much.

      2. Echo*

        I don’t think that’s ever actually been true; it’s just a flimsy excuse to cut real estate costs.

    3. Homebody*

      A lot of technical government offices (I’m like 99% sure I’m in the same field as the LW) started adopting open offices around the time when private offices were realizing that they’re not that great for productivity. They’ll probably be around for a while until the remodeling budgets are available.

      1. The Rural Juror*

        Also, open plan offices are the most versatile in a government setting. My mother, father, brother, and sis-in-law all work for various county, state, and national government offices and they’re all in open offices. In my mother’s case, her team has had to pack up and move to a new room multiple times since the courthouse where they office has to adjust to the needs of the community. It’s only happened once every 10 years or so, but they don’t usually have the budget to remodel their new areas in their 100+ year-old courthouse. An open office plan is what they have to work with, even if it’s not ideal.

    4. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs*

      Employers love open-plan offices because they’re cheaper. I worked at a law office where we were on the phone with clients all day; staff sat at paired desks in an open-plan area. It was terrible, but management didn’t care because they all had offices. It often doesn’t make sense for the work, but someone at the top likes how it looks on the bottom line.

  9. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    This is truly one of those “personality conflicts” in full view. She was a good performer, good at her job and general good employee. But she was loud/had some manners issues, which addressing is ideal and I’m glad you worked with her on it.

    I’m clinching a bit at the idea that we want to label her with things like “immature” though, that’s pretty harsh for a professional woman that is simply lacking volume control and taking the bait of someone blabbering on about scandals that effect her. She sounds fine, she just sounds like she doesn’t ideally fit the environment of somewhere that requires concentration.

    1. Jedi Squirrel*

      The immature thing bothers me too. I’m wondering if it’s because Rachel is a woman, and the stereotype of a loud and chatty female is something like a middle school girl. Except for that and the jumping in and interrupting, it sounded like she really had her stuff together. OP did say she valued her and wishes her the best, which is not typical of the immature people I’ve worked with in the past.

      It really does sound like a personality mis-match. I think OP did a great job overall, though.

      1. Avasarala*

        Well but Chester is described as “the worst Chatty Chester” and “the real problem”. I don’t think OP is being extra hard on Rachel because of her gender here.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think that’s from the original letter:

      “She doesn’t get that when our superiors are trying to talk to us, she needs to show them at least a modicum of deference (i.e., not talk over them). She interrupts people’s flow often, and for the flimsiest of reasons, as though something popped into her head and she just couldn’t control herself. She also seems to be unable to take cues in meetings, e.g. when the rest of us are saying we need to table a topic but she wants to stay on it.”

      1. Swiftly Tilting Planet*

        “She interrupts people’s flow often, and for the flimsiest of reasons, as though something popped into her head and she just couldn’t control herself. She also seems to be unable to take cues in meetings, e.g. when the rest of us are saying we need to table a topic but she wants to stay on it.”
        I can be like this, in my case it is disabling ADHD, though I still do it medicated, and it’s something I’ve had to fight against ALL my life, because despite being disabling, my Executive Function disorders went overlooked & undiagnosed until I was 48.

        I agree that labeling this woman as “immature” is harsh, almost assuredly a deeply hidden gender bias, and has a darn good chance of being ableism as well.

  10. button*

    OP, I think you did a really good job of deciding what hills to (not) die on and addressing the situation without pushing out someone who was actually a good employee in other ways. It’s nice to read an update where there was improvement but things weren’t magically solved, either.

  11. m*

    Is anyone else noticing that this seems mostly like a personality clash? She seems chattier than most, perhaps, but I am finding OP’s level of conviction that the employee is fundamentally immature sketchy at best (she just sounds friendly and extroverted, from what i’m reading), and would urge OP to perhaps reflect on how their personal biases come into play

  12. A Tired Queer*

    The end of this letter is such a gracious attitude to have toward an employee who had issues in the workplace! You sound like an excellent manager, OP. :)

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