my boss asked me if she should fire my coworker and then threw me under the bus

A reader writes:

My boss, Jane, is unhappy with my coworker’s performance and asked me in a one-on-one meeting if she should fire this coworker (we’ll call her Sarah). I hold no authority over Sarah, though we frequently work together on projects, and I have been the main person training and giving feedback to her within our department. Sarah frequently needs reminders and direction, which our boss is often unwilling or unable to give, so Sarah comes to me. While it isn’t within my role to provide her the resources she needs, it is clear that she is an asset to our team, and I want to help ensure her success.

So when my boss asked if she should fire Sarah, I told her that I believe Sarah brings a great deal of knowledge and experience to the table. I said that while it’s not my business to know the conversations they may have had thus far, I would choose to coach her as much as possible in hopes of improvement before considering termination. My boss said she agreed. I made a strong case for keeping Sarah at our company that day, and frequently advocate on her behalf.

Today, just days after my meeting with my boss, Sarah emailed me saying: “Jane informed me that you are having concerns related to my performance. (List of factors in play affecting deadlines.) In the future, please address these things with me directly.”

I feel it would be unprofessional to tell Sarah the truth, and am leaning towards allowing her to believe I went behind her back and just issuing an apology (for something I didn’t do). This hurts because I lobbied for her to stay on our team, and now she thinks I’m the reason the coaching is occurring. It is frustrating that my boss chose to say I made these complaints when I didn’t, and I’m worried about the affects this might have on my working relationship with Sarah.

Should I say something to my boss about this? Should I tell Sarah the truth, or simply apologize for something I didn’t do and move on?

So, there are two possibilities here: (1) your boss really did throw you under the bus by taking concerns she shares and presenting them as entirely yours, or (2) there were legitimate reasons for her to share that you, the person who works most closely with Sarah, have some concerns about her work (which it sounds like you do).

Possibility #1 is pretty straightforward: If your boss is involved enough with Sarah’s work to see the problems for herself, she should have shared her own assessment and not attributed it to you — and if she painted this all as your concerns rather than her own, that would be supremely crappy.

But there are a lot of ways possibility #2 could have played out. Most simply, if you said something like, “Sarah does need reminders and direction, and she has missed deadlines, but I think it’s worth coaching her before considering more serious action,” it’s possible your boss didn’t feel she was misrepresenting you since you are concerned with some aspects of Sarah’s work — that part isn’t wrong. And it’s possible the problems you acknowledged are (rightly or wrongly) more important to your boss than the conclusion you personally have drawn about Sarah.

To be clear, in general managers should own the feedback they give, not attribute it to someone else. But if you’re the main person reviewing Sarah’s work, there might not be a way for your boss to talk about the problems without sharing your feedback that she needs frequent reminders and direction. And she might be deeply concerned about those problems without sharing your conclusion that Sarah is ultimately an asset to the team. If so, she’s not wrong to focus on the pieces that she deems serious concerns. And if she just said something like, “Lucinda mentioned you’ve missed some deadlines and she’s still needing to remind you about X and Y” … well, that’s not really throwing you under the bus if it’s true.

Keep in mind, too, that it’s possible your boss did own her own feedback — while also mentioning that you’ve reported some problems in Sarah’s work too. Sarah’s email to you doesn’t necessarily include everything your boss said to her. The mention of you could have been a small piece of the conversation, but particularly stung since you’re a peer.

I assume you’re bothered because you feel like your boss must not have given Sarah the full picture of what you said — that overall you think she’s an asset, would benefit from more coaching, etc. But if your boss doesn’t share that conclusion, she might have felt that framing would have watered down the message she wanted Sarah to hear, which is that she has serious concerns about her work. (And ultimately it’s her conclusion that she needs Sarah to focus on.) I see why that feels unfair to you — you need to keep working with Sarah and don’t want to feel like you were misrepresented. But I can also see how your boss could have ended up there.


To fully understand this, I’d want to know more about your boss and how she manages. Is she someone who’s generally forthright with people when she has concerns about their work? Or can you easily see her preferring to attribute criticism to someone else? If it’s the latter, maybe most of the above doesn’t apply.

Either way, it’s reasonable to talk to your boss and say something like, “Sarah told me you told her I had concerns about her performance, and asked me to talk to her directly in the future. I was surprised because that’s not the message I’d intended to leave you with — I feel strongly that she can be an asset to our team. But now she thinks I raised concerns about her work to you, and I’m worried it’s going to affect our working relationship. If it comes up again, is there a way to address your concerns with her without making it seem like I’m the one driving them, since that’s really not my overall assessment of her work?”

You also don’t need to apologize to Sarah for something you didn’t do. There’s nothing wrong with saying to her, “Jane did ask me to share feedback about your work. I told her that you have some areas to work on, like X and Y, but that overall I think you’re an asset to our team and bring a lot of knowledge and experience. I often speak highly of your work to Jane!”

That’s not saying “Jane threw me under the bus” or “Jane lied to you.” It’s just honestly responding with what you did say to Jane. Sarah can draw her own conclusions.

But also, keep in mind that despite Sarah’s reaction, it’s appropriate for you to share feedback with Jane! You’re not wronging Sarah by doing that, and she shouldn’t be snippy with you about it.

{ 152 comments… read them below }

  1. The Rat-Catcher*

    I know this is framed as how to address this with the bos, but honestly Sarah’s response isn’t great here either. Even if you choose not to detail to Sarah the full scope of the interaction you had, I wouldn’t apologize to her unless there’s more context here that would warrant that (such as you specifically telling her that the reminders and deadlines were not a problem, for instance). Otherwise, you were asked a question and painted her in the best possible light without being accurate, which is nothing to apologize for.

      1. OP*

        Hi there, thanks so much for this response! I did end up clarifying the context of the conversation with Sarah, sans the mention of Jane’s intention to fire. I issued an apology as well, but this comment was really validating, and I thank you for it!

        1. JSPA*

          I’d go with, “Jane asked me for examples of your strengths and weaknesses. This is something many mangers now do periodically, so that they can effectively coach and develop their reports. I made sure to sing your praises in the process. But it would be strange, phony and artificial to claim that anyone was perfect in every way. It also would make my feedback useless for Jane, which would make Jane’s feedback and coaching useless for you.

          I don’t have a problem with you. If I did, I’d bring it to you. But as a coworker, it’s not my job to look into how you perform, synthesize the responses and give managerial feedback. That’s Jane’s job, and it’s normal for her to do it.”

        2. Old Admin*

          To be very honest, I would have told Sarah about the boss’s intent to fire her. Depending on how the boss communicates, this might be Sarah’s *only* clear warning before the axe falls. Guess why I know that…

      1. A*

        Yes thank you for this! I have trained people who were my peers or not my reports, and I would always report back to our boss if things were going well or needed work and might advise my boss to check in with my coworker about X type of issue rather than me giving that feedback. It all depends on the dynamics at play, but I agree that Sarah’s email was a bit OTT.

    1. Calanthea*

      I guess it depends on the wider context though – if it was scenario 1 (bus throwing), and Sarah had thought LW was a peer, and a friendly peer at that, then maybe she was a bit blindsided and this is quite a reasonable response. If my boss came to me and told me that someone I’ve thought I’ve been working with well has gone to them with complaints, I’d be surprised and hurt that they hadn’t raised that with me before escalating it to my boss!

      Quite often the advice here is that if someone is not doing a part of their job and it impacts on you, the first thing to do is to ask them directly, before going to their boss. Perhaps Sarah felt this was the case here. And if so, I can see why LW feel so embarrassed about it – I’d hate to be thought of as someone who goes and complains to a boss rather than speaks to the person first!

      1. TechWorker*

        There’s a difference between ‘going to the boss with complaints’ and ‘giving honest feedback when requested to’ – LW is not Sarah’s boss so unsolicited feedback also may not be appropriate to give!

        (There’s also a difference between ‘constructive feedback’ and complaining about someone…)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes! Refusing to give your boss feedback about someone you’re training because you hadn’t yet shared all your concerns with that person directly would not be cool.

          1. Calanthea*

            Well yes, but the response was about deadlines. So if LW and Sarah had had a conversation about, say, pushing back the date for a webpage going up or a document being sent out, and Sarah thought that was fine, but then LW mentioned this to the manager and it was fed back to Sarah as “LW says you put the webpage up late” then Sarah would be miffed. And LW would also be right to be miffed that that’s how their words were represented!
            Re the asking a lot of questions – at this particular moment in time, I would suggest that asking a lot of questions is not a sign of ineptitude. A lot of stuff has changed, a lot of the nuance you get from personal interaction has gone, and honestly, a lot of people’s concentration is gone. So I wouldn’t want someone I was working with to not ask me questions because they thought that would pseem like they didn’t know what they were doing, I’d much rather they clarify stuff! Again, this depends on what questions they’re asking, but even like, checking what file to save something, or which Dave to ask about the teapot order, or whether the board papers should be in Helvetica or Arial, right now, I’d rather someone asked about it.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            But I would tell the boss that I had not addressed X and Y yet, but I do see where things can be beefed up. And I would say, “I am letting you know so that you don’t think I told her and she is falling down on X and Y anyway.”

            I am wondering why the boss opened with “Should I fire Sarah?” Most times people say, “How’s Sarah doing?” or “What are you working on with Sarah’s training now?” . If a boss asked me if I thought someone should be fired, I would automatically think there is backstory for the question.
            If the boss is known as unreasonable, I definitely would be worried for Sarah.

      2. designbot*

        Agreed in general, though the content of that feedback is relevant. If it’s “she’s still having to ask me a lot of questions about X,” then that’s not really feedback, it’s just a factual statement. Could the person training mention to their trainee, “I’ve noticed you still need a lot of guidance with X and I was expecting you to have a better handle on that by now”? Sure, if that was the judgement she offered the boss. But being honest about facts which are also plainly in view to the trainee is not the same as offering a judgement on it.

    2. Kiwiii*

      If these were things that OP hadn’t mentioned to Sarah at all previously and the boss framed it as a complaint from OP … I totally get where she’s coming from.

      1. Caroline Bowman*

        Yes, that’s fair, though OP is a peer, not a manager, so maybe felt they didn’t have the standing to correct or oversee in any way. I get why Sarah feels blindsided though, but she needs to take action on the clear concerns, rather than parse out who said what to whom.

    3. Artemesia*

      Absolutely do not apologize. And be alert to whether this is someone you really want to coach. Maybe her response was appropriate in the context in which she was counseled by the boss, but maybe she is also someone resistant to feedback. Definitely make clear to her without apology what actually occurred. And ‘of course when the boss asks for feedback, I provide it — that is part of my job.’ No apologies.

      If she continues to be snippy then refer her when she has problems directly to the boss who can deal with her and decide if he wants to keep her on the team.

    4. Scarlet*

      Yeah I was thinking that too. Sarah’s response is snippy and a bit a rude imo. Alison is a better person than me to look at the situation with emotions removed, because honestly I’d be tempted to reply to Sarah ASAP saying something like:

      “Hi Sarah, not sure what you mean – Jane approached me with reservations about your success here at the company, and while I conceded that there were a few areas upon which you could improve, I strongly advocated for you and stressed that I think you’d be an overall great addition to the team. It seems that only the first part of the conversation was shared. Please gather the full context of things before acting on them. Thanks”

      Obviously that is 100% the wrong approach, but it grinds my gears when you do something nice for someone and they end up taking it out of context and getting all snippy with you rather than taking the time to understand what actually happened.

      Agh I’d be a lot more weary of being Sarah’s advocate in the future though, just saying.

    5. MCMonkeyBean*

      OP definitely did nothing wrong, but from Sarah’s POV I think how reasonable her response was depends on exactly what the boss said to her.

      It is very normal and expected to give feedback when asked, and it’s even okay to go to a boss to talk about ongoing issues–but if the way it was delivered to Sarah made it sound like OP just randomly sought the boss out to say “I’m having trouble with Sarah not doing X” then I think it would actually be reasonable for Sarah to ask that things like that be addressed with her first.

  2. The Grey Lady*

    I’m not sure if it’s 1 or 2 that happened, but I would tell Sarah that you only shared your concerns because Jane asked, and that you didn’t address them with her directly because you’re not her manager and did not have the authority for that.
    Generally, if you have problems with a coworkers’ performance, you should go to the manager instead of trying to manage them yourself (unless your manager has specifically told you otherwise) because you risk overstepping your bounds. So, Sarah is kind of wrong about telling you to address things with her directly.

    But if Jane really did throw you under the bus…that’s crappy and even worse coming from a manager.

    1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I disagree. Unless your co-worker’s performance is affecting your ability to do your job, it’s really none of your business. And if it is affecting your ability to do your job, you should talk to them directly before going to your manager (unless there’s fear of abuse or repercussions). So depending on how Jane addressed with Sara, I can understand the context of her email.

      1. The Grey Lady*

        Well, I agree that it’s none of your business if it’s not affecting you. I was only referring to issues that do directly affect you.

        And I only make the point about going to management with concerns because I have seen multiple coworkers interactions play out by someone yelling, “You’re not my manager!” So, to me, it’s easier to skip that altogether and let an actual manager handle it.

        But I’m sure there are situations where it can be resolved between coworkers.

        1. Sam.*

          …I feel like there may be larger issues in the office if people are yelling, “You’re not my manager,” at their coworkers.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          I have never had a trainee say that to me. But if they did, I would report it to the boss. Because to me it’s a red flag that I will not be able to successfully train this person.

          I do think how things are said matters. There’s a big difference between:

          “WELL. You gotta learn to be on time for work!”
          “The bosses really watch our time. So if you want to make a good impression make sure you are keeping super accurate track of your time.”

          Then it’s up to the person to do as they wish. If they ask me further questions, I just tell them how I handle it and again, the ball is back in their court.

      2. Michelle P*

        But, the boss ASKEDfor OP’s opinion. OP didn’t decide to go in and give unsolicited feedback. Perhaps if the manager was properly overseeing/reviewing Sarah’s work and addressing problems, she wouldn’t have to ask OP if she thought Sarah should be fired.

        1. Senor Montoya*

          Asking the person who’s training the new employee IS overseeing/reviewing.

          I’m mentor for a number of our new hires. I am not their supervisor in any way. I give a report to their supervisors — more frequently early on. Major concerns, I may take those to the supervisor first, depending.

          If their supervisors ask me at any time, do you have any concerns, then I share them. Usually, but not always, I have already shared them with the mentee. For instance, if it’s small issues, or if it might be a pattern but I’m not sure yet, I may not have discussed w the mentee.

          Sarah was snippy, although I understand why.

        2. Anonapots*

          Also, a blanket statement about never bringing up a problem with a manager unless you are directly affected by the issues isn’t really correct, either. You can’t bring up everything that happens all the time, but there are issues that might come up that don’t directly affect your work but are appropriate to ask about. For example, a conflict between two other people that might not directly affect you, but is having an effect on the office.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          I think the way the boss asked makes this whole thing awkward. OP feels she has to cover the fact that the boss mentioned firing Sarah.

          The interesting part to me is that Sarah sounds a bit defensive, but she is RIGHT to feel defensive. The boss asked if Sarah should be fired, that’s a drastic question to pop up in thin air. I wonder if she has a gut feeling or if more is going on.

      3. LizM*

        I think there’s a middle ground. Managers can’t be everywhere at once, and sometimes we’re missing info that helps us do our job. And I’ve also seen employees spend months wasting time trying to deal with an issue themselves because they didn’t want to “tattle” to me.

        I don’t really want employees coming to me telling me that their coworkers are 5 min late once a month. But I have had employees come to me with stuff like, “I happened to sit in on a call with the llama grooming volunteers, and I noticed Fergus was very short with them. I know you don’t normally attend those, so I thought you would want to know.”

        A lot of this is a “know your office” thing, office politics really differ on this. But generally, I’d prefer that employees come to me if they see something that’s impacting the organization, even if it’s not impacting them directly. I will shut it down if it turns into busybody gossip.

        1. Aquawoman*

          Fully agree with this. I have a couple really skilled more senior people and a bunch of newer folks. They see them in contexts that I don’t and it’s really helpful to hear their feedback in knowing how to steer/coach my new folks. OP wasn’t actually reporting “issues” she was having but giving a rounded out picture of both strengths and weaknesses.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Sorry, I cringed at your last paragraph.
          I had a boss who did not allow anyone to discuss any sort of conflict EVER. The whole department could not function because no one could say anything to anyone.
          If two people approached the same machine, both with intent to use it, the boss had to be brought in to figure out who would use the machine first. (This was an hours long process, but the two people probably needed the machine for maybe 10 minutes total.)

          I am a fan of telling them when they should come to me and when they should handle it on their own. If they genuinely do not know which to do, or having no success on their own, then it is okay to ask me.
          This looked like: I handle all deliveries. But if you need more X, you are welcome to help yourself to X after I have checked it in. This meant that they would check with me if the saw X just being delivered to tell me they needed asap. And I would get it checked in first.

      4. JSPA*

        A manager can’t coach or manage, if she doesn’t know what her reports’ strong and weak points are.

        A coworker is way out of their lane, if they try to manage their coworkers.

        It is completely normal for a manager to gather performance information from your peers, and incorporate it into her coaching.

        Framing any of this as a “complaint” makes the process needlessly personal and oppositional.

        If your car engine idles high, acceleration is massive but not always smooth, and the car tends to oversteer a little in curves, that’s information about how to drive the car effectively, and what to watch out for. It’s not a complaint. Heck, it’s not necessarily even a flaw. You drive that car differently than one that idles low, drives like greased butter, and understeers a little.

        This is the human equivalent.

        Traits balance out; someone may be excellent under pressure, but not always aware that other people fall apart under pressure, and therefore not automatically prioritize making a deadline with some time to spare, as much as their coworkers might wish.

        You deal with that person differently (or coach them to be aware of how deadlines affect others) than you do with Soo, who has nightmares about missing deadlines, has all their work ready three days early (and in two versions), but will melt down if there’s a last-minute crisis.

  3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Woah, I wouldn’t have jumped to thinking that your boss threw you under the bus but you know her better of course! Does she have that kind of habit?

    I read this as Sarah overstepped. I don’t care if she really did say “Jane told me you’re struggling with /stuff/”, you told her boss, who is to manage her. You aren’t her boss, so it’s not appropriate for you to manage and bring up most concerns with her performance to her directly.

    After that email, I’d stop protecting Sarah and not let it taint your feelings towards your boss. But again, it depends on how much you trust the boss as well. It could be that she has a habit of playing people off each other but I’d trust someone I knew longer than someone who is acting so weird about feedback.

    I’d honestly laugh at someone if they were mad that I told their manager whatever I told them because their manager does their performance reviews and need to know.

    1. Archaeopteryx*

      Yes, in my experience people who get touchy about wanting to be confronted themselves with issues instead of having feedback routed to their manager are people who like to hide their own problems instead of working to improve them.

      1. juliebulie*

        From experience – there are legitimate reasons why someone might prefer to receive the feedback firsthand, instead of getting it filtered from someone who might put their own spin on it.

        1. Oh No She Di'int*

          She is getting the feedback firsthand. From her manager. Which is precisely the person who should be giving it to her. Her manager did her due diligence and researched the situation. Obviously Jane already had concerns about Sarah, so it’s not like this was all a big shock to her. She gathered the information and then as a manager of the entire group, delivered her firsthand analysis and feedback to Sarah.

      2. Trout 'Waver*

        I’m someone who has the same attitude as Sarah. It’s not because of nefarious intent. I strongly believe that you should give someone a chance to fix something personally before escalating it to their boss. That’s just general interpersonal skills.

        It also really sucks to have people talking negatively about you without you in the conversation, regardless of context. Of course there are business reasons for it from time-to-time. But it still sucks.

        1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

          But she didn’t escalate it to her boss. Boss asked for OP’s opinion on Sara’s job performance and she provided honest feedback. OP is training Sara, she wasn’t gossiping about Sara behind her back.

        2. fposte*

          I agree with the others, but I also think that for some people “escalate” isn’t even the word–some people have a strong belief that people on your level owe you loyalty in a way they don’t to management, so that it’s a breach of that loyalty to say anything to management that didn’t already come up with that peer. I think that’s not a reasonable expectation, though, both about loyalty (no particular reason my colleagues should be more loyal to me than to our manager) and about conversations with management (no particular reason they should share all their impressions of me with me, and no particular reason they have to keep those impressions of me from management).

          1. TechWorker*

            Plus LW and Sarah don’t really sound like direct peers tbh – LW is responsible for training her. You can be senior to someone without being in their management line.

          2. JSPA*

            People can get really tense if they know they’re being talked about.

            Which is objectively nonsense, as we all, either explicitly or implicitly, describe each other all the dang time.

            We like it when people meet our needs and know our preferences and make allowances for our issues and praise our skills. Some of us even manage to appreciate being coached on our weaknesses. And yet, we get bent out of shape if we imagine one person we work with talking with another person we work with…about us. Because all of that information is supposed to magically be evident? Or come only from our own self-assessment? Or travel via the ether? Osmosis?

            People use words to pass along information about dealing with each other. It’s part of life, not a nefarious attack on one’s essential self. How others experience you absolutely is a part of how you move through the universe, whether or not it aligns perfectly with how you see yourself. And that’s OK.

        3. fhqwhgads*

          Right but OP did not “escalate” to the boss. That would be the case if OP had this concern, tried to coach, found it not working and brought it to the boss afterward. The boss came to OP and asked, clearly thinking worse of the trainee than OP does. I understand why Sarah might think this was a case where OP escalated, but we know that’s not the case so OP needn’t act like it is.

      3. Artemesia*

        and if you do provide the feedback directly then they are snippy about it then too or even reject it since you are ‘not my boss.’ I’d withhold judgment but be very alert for more of this crap from her. And if there is ANY I would simply not coach her but direct her to the boss.

      4. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Many of us want to have immediate feedback directly because we’ve worked in toxic places in the past where managers save up negative feedback for weeks or months. They bring up the bombshell WAY too late for us to do anything about the issue. Sometimes too late for us to even REMEMBER the occasion. (If that makes me sound like a puppy who’s been swatted with a newspaper many many hours after peeing in the wrong place, well so be it. It makes you just as twitchy.)

      5. Scarlet*

        I had a manager once who would never ever give me anything but positive feedback.. then all of a sudden like a year later it’s “everything is wrong, you need to completely change the way you do things or we’ll have to replace you”.

        I’m still snarly – like just TELL ME when I make a mistake or do something wrong. I kind of feel in that situation like the CEO came down on her and so she decided to shift the blame for everything on me, but still.

        Point is, sometimes you have to rely on your coworkers for feedback if your manager sucks at it.

    2. whistle*

      Agree with all of this.

      In my less charitable moments, I might even think that Sarah is trying to intimidate OP so that she does not give further feedback at all.

    3. Calanthea*

      Do you think so? It’s not that unusual for people to be trained by their peers/people doing similar roles whilst their boss is more hands off. In that situation, if you were the trainee, you’d want the person to tell you when you were messing up, rather than waiting to hear from the official manager way down the line, surely?

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I think it’s split into different areas.

        When you catch mistakes, you bring that up to the person directly and help them do things in the correct way. Since you’re training them to do a process usually.

        But when it comes to deadlines and needing to be coached about time management kind of stuff, that’s not on a colleague/trainee.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          “But when it comes to deadlines and needing to be coached about time management kind of stuff, that’s not on a colleague/trainee.”

          I think by time management you are talking about 2 hour lunches and 15 water cooler breaks?

          I read this twice because when I train I work in a lot of time saving and effort saving advice. I kind of picture you doing the same. But we both know we can’t MAKE the horse drink the water, we can only show the horse that water is available.

      2. Oh No She Di'int*

        Yes, I’d expect someone training me to let me know if I filed the TPS report in Bin A when I should have placed it in Bin B. But if it’s something so pervasive and serious that firing is on the table, then no, that’s not up to a trainer to address.

        1. JSPA*

          Especially if it’s, “You learn some things quickly, listen intently, take good notes and have insight, but it’s been weeks and you still need a lot more hand-holding and reminding in other areas than what I’ve seen before.” Or vice versa, for that matter.

          There’s just nothing actionable at the coworker-trainer level, there. Does the company they have the time and money and ability to train you not only on the job, but on how to learn? Do your good points justify the cost and bother? That’s a managerial decision, not a trainer feedback thing.

      3. Mel_05*

        I would, but I would also expect that my manager might ask them more broadly about how I’m doing and potentially in areas that they wouldn’t have really had standing to say something about, but would still have noticed.

        When I had my 6 month new hire eval last year, my boss specifically mentioned that he asked other people what they thought about my work/attitude and since my coworker was largely training me, that was not a big surprise

  4. Arctic*

    I appreciate your restraint. I wouldn’t have paused two seconds before saying “actually, Jane wanted advice on whether to can you and I talked her out of it. In the future, I will keep silent.”

    I know it wouldn’t have been professional. I’m not advocating it. But I would not have been able to help myself.

    1. Alianora*

      Yeah that is a really tempting thing to let loose, with Sarah getting prickly like that! It’s definitely in the LW’s best interest not to do that, though.

    2. Diahann Carroll*

      This is why people like Alison who always know the exact, tactful thing to say are a godsend because I would have responded the same way, Arctic, lol.

    3. Lexica*

      Or “I told Jane I thought you have potential and could be an asset to our group. I’ll be happy to keep such opinions to myself in the future.”

      (Actually saying this would be ill advised, but it does make a briefly satisfying daydream. Sheesh.)

      1. JSPA*

        So long as you don’t disclose the “Jane wanted to can you” part, I think it’s fine to say what you just said. Or with a tweak,

        “I told Jane that, on balance you are a real asset to our group, and I’d actively like to see you stay, succeed, and progress. Don’t make me regret singing those praises, mmmkay?’

    4. Artemesia*

      I once was in a situation where I saved a guy’s job a couple of times by speaking up for him when the boss wanted to not renew his contract — we had 3 year contracts. I felt that despite some issues that he was on balance an asset to our enterprise. Then he screwed me over a couple of times and threw me under the bus once and so the next time he was up for review, I simply kept my mouth shut and he was let go without an advocate.

      1. Arts Akimbo*

        Now that you mention this, I feel like EVERY single time I have been the lone voice advocating mercy, I have always lived to regret it. Not to say that I let mob rule overrun my critical thinking, but nowadays I am much more likely to think twice if everyone believes in binning a person except me, because maybe they’re seeing something I’m not.

      2. miss_chevious*

        Yeah, I had a colleague who I spoke up for a couple of times because I thought he really had the potential to improve and be successful. Then, as part of a feedback session he had with grandboss, he lied about his role in a project we both worked on and disparaged me (I found out because grandboss came to me with concerns and I was lucky enough to have documentation of the truth). Whoops! His days in his role are numbered, even if he doesn’t know it, yet.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I don’t think the boss was that wonderful either.
      I’d actually have to be seeing the people and the situation. But in this scenario here, I find it easier to find empathy for Sarah than I do for the boss. I mean, my god, does the boss ask other people if they think she should fire me?wth.
      I can count on one hand the numbers of time I have been asked my opinion about firing and in all cases the situation was well known as not being good.

  5. All BS*

    Holy moly. Does everyone just prevaricate with everyone in the business world? Jeebus.

    1. cabbagepants*

      The triangulation in this letter is exhausting! If I were in LW’s shoes and got that kind of comment from Sarah, I’d internally roll my eyes and then forget about it. No way am I diving into it with Sarah OR Jane about what I think about what Sarah said about what Jane said to Sarah that I said to Jane about Sarah. Just no.

      1. Sabine the Very Mean*

        Oh yeah. That message from Sarah would get a, “Sarah, please don’t send me another message like this” and nothing more.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I am seeing lots of misery here and it goes all around.

      The boss lets go with the info that she wants to fire Sarah? And there seems to be NO basis? Since the boss kickstarted this whole drama, I put the responsibility on the boss’ shoulders.

      OP, I actually feel bad for ya. It looks like you were set up as the messenger here and you got figuratively shot. It’s fine to say, “As your trainer I have to report your progress to the boss. I covered things with her that I have not yet covered with you. I considered it was for planning purposes.” OP, it could be the boss said, “Sarah, I wanted to fire you but OP won’t let me.” We don’t know what actually happened there. I have a dim view of your boss for the way she phrased her question by assuming the worst scenario. So it’s fine to stand up for yourself, OP. You did not say anything to the boss that you would not have said to her face.

      Sarah. I’ve been Sarah. I could feel the negativity oozing out of every pore of the boss’ body. And then my trainer rattles off everything I have done wrong- real or imagined and let’s throw in other people mistakes for added measure. (Fortunately, OP you were not this extreme.) Uh, don’t put this stuff in email. Go to the person and speak to them directly.

      All BS, I so agree with you. I def cannot work like this. At all.

  6. juliebulie*

    It sounds to me like Jane pulled a fast one. At the beginning, she wanted to FIRE Sarah. Jane apparently takes no responsibility for Sarah’s performance or development and has put ALL of the responsibility on OP.

    AND Jane tells Sarah that OP is the one who has a problem with Sarah’s performance. WTF? Does Sarah know that Jane wanted to fire her? I doubt it, because if she did, she might not have been so sour with OP who actually went to bat for her.

    Jane wanted to fire Sarah. From Jane’s perspective, OP is saving her from the fuss and bother of having to initiate the termination process. If things with Sarah took a turn for the worse, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jane tried to blame OP for the termination as well.

    And poor Sarah. If I were in her shoes, I’d want to know if my boss had considered firing me.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think the letter supports that! It’s possible, but it’s just speculation. For all we know, Jane focused largely on her own concerns when talking to Sarah but also mentioned the OP’s feedback, and that’s all Sarah took up when she messaged the OP (because there wasn’t any point in addressing the rest of it with the OP).

      1. juliebulie*

        Yes, it’s speculation, but it really sounded to me as though Jane didn’t want to be bothered with managing Sarah. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that she was abdicating responsibility. Because if things don’t work out with Sarah, Jane is still the one who has to deal with it.

    2. The Grey Lady*

      As I’m thinking about it, I’ve determined that Jane and Sarah were both wrong.

      I think Sarah was wrong for sending a mildly threatening email. OP did nothing wrong, especially since Jane asked for her input. And it’s totally normal to share concerns about a coworker with your boss.

      However, I think Jane was wrong for not speaking directly to Sarah about the problems she was having, and Jane was especially wrong for not telling Sarah that she was considering firing her. I know Alison has said a few times that people who are performing poorly should be made aware of that so they have time to improve, and firing someone out of the blue because of performances issues they didn’t know existed in the first place is a jerk move.

      So, Sarah overstepped a little, but Jane is managing badly (and that’s not even counting the possibility that Jane threw OP under the bus. I don’t want to opine on that since we aren’t clear about what happened).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        We don’t know, though, that Jane hasn’t spoken to Sarah directly about her concerns. She very well might have, and this all could have played out this way anyway.

        1. The Grey Lady*

          Maybe. I’m reading it as if Sarah’s been in the dark because Jane just doesn’t want to deal with her, but I could be wrong about that.

          Even so, I’m still going to say that Jane is not managing very well. OP said that Sarah often needs direction and explanation, and Jane has been “unable or unwilling to give it,” so OP has been stepping in. As a manager, Jane should be dealing with this by putting Sarah on a PIP, giving her more training, something. But–based on the OP’s wording–it sounds like Jane is just not doing anything and is leaving OP to deal with most of it. That’s not good management.

          1. Dust Bunny*

            Yeah, that part made me wonder about Jane’s MO here. If Jane had a history of being supportive and invested I’d be less suspicious that she was letting LW take the fall for this.

        2. Anon for this*

          True, but it’s an important distinction. If OP is all, ‘great job!’ to Sarah’s face but is more nuanced and (constructively) critical when discussing Sarah’s performance with the boss, I can see why Sarah felt that OP had blindsided her a bit. If not, then agreed Sarah’s reaction was inappropriately defensive.

          1. juliebulie*

            Alternatively, I wonder if Sarah is one of those people who is told the same thing repeatedly but it never sticks. Then she sees it coming back from Jane and she’s like, why didn’t you say something to me?

      2. Calanthea*

        I don’t think Sarah’s email is threatening? Or am I misreading it? Definitely a “hey, consider this a formal notice of having upset me” style email, but it’s not threateningly worded?

        1. The Grey Lady*

          Eh, maybe not threatening. But if I were OP, I would be annoyed by the email because it’s not like I went tattling to the boss about every little grievance I had with Sarah just because. OP only answered Jane’s questions (though I realize that Sarah doesn’t know that, most likely). There’s a lot of failures to communicate in this letter.

          1. Calanthea*

            Well yes, and I think OP is annoyed! And that’s why they’re writing in, like, I did nothing wrong, why has this happened?
            So if we were making a judgement on AITA, we’d really need to know what the managed said to Sarah – was it “OP thinks you suck, she said you can’t manage your time” or was it “I’ve had some concerns about your work, I understand that you weren’t able to meet X deadline for OP, you’ll need to improve on this?”
            But OP didn’t do anything wrong, and I think it’s telling that they’re writing in about the boss’s behaviour rather than Sarah’s response.

      3. Trout 'Waver*

        I don’t find Sarah’s e-mail threatening at all. It’s a perfectly reasonable request and, I would argue, common decency.

        1. Circe*

          Eh, I’d say it’s common decency to actually TALK to OP if they have a problem. Emails like this always feel passive-aggressive and it’s far harder to understand tone.

          1. Artemesia*

            If I got this email, I would simply stop offering support and training to Sarah but would direct her to the boss if she floundered.

            1. allathian*

              Not necessarily an option, if the OP’s been tasked with training Sarah.
              There’s clearly a lot of miscommunication going on here. Maybe the OP, Jane and Sarah need to sit down and discuss things. When we hired my current colleague, who was an experienced professional and had the core skills needed in the job, and I was responsible for training him in our systems and internal terminology, etc., I gave him some feedback directly but we also had three-cornered discussions with our boss so we were all on the same page on his progress.

            2. Roeslein*

              Seriously? It seems a completely legitimate email to me., but then I don’t really distinguish between written and spoken communication the way some people seem to…

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Sarah’s boss wants to fire her. I think Sarah is doing okay holding it together.

    3. Exhausted Trope*

      What kind of an ineffectual manager asks a direct report whether or not to fire someone?! I’m shocked and appalled.

      1. Mel_05*

        I don’t know that it’s necessarily her farming out the decision as much as getting a reaction from the OP.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Yeah, I am so not impressed with this boss. Alison has long said that bosses should not discuss things like disciplinary actions, firing and such with the cohort’s peers. I can’t get over the boss’ terrible approach here.

        OP, is it normal for the boss to say things like this?

      3. allathian*

        Yeah, that was my reaction too. It’s like Jane doesn’t want to manage and wants to fire Sarah and blame the OP’s feedback for it… Jane should really get her act together and actually manage, even if it means managing Sarah out.

    4. Senor Montoya*

      Not necessarily. Jane may have info from others, including her own direct observations, and that’s when she asked OP and why she then went to Sarah.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        So typically, when I have been asked if someone should be fired there are lead up questions such as attendance, attitude, helpfulness and so on. Even if the boss does not indicate that Bob said this or Shirley said that, I can see that particular points are sticky.
        I just find it off the wall that the boss wants to fire Sarah with no context.

  7. Georgina Fredrika*

    It’s hard to know exactly what is going on here… someone seems to not be a great communicator. My guess is Jane (in the sense that Sarah seems to genuinely think it’s OP at fault, and doesn’t seem aware of Jane’s dislike)

    my guess would be that Sarah fixated on what she could control, and obviously felt thrown under the bus herself.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Agreed. I can’t tell what’s going on here, either, but something seems to have gone off the rails. Did Jane really throw LW under the bus? Is Sarah being retaliatory? Does Sarah even know that Jane solicited LW’s input or does she think LW offered it of her own volition?

    2. TPS reporter*

      Sarah is definitely being defensive and is likely feeling afraid for her job. I bet she reached out to the OP because that is someone she has more of a rapport with (i.e. something she could control) and is therefore easier to be frank with. It’s not fair for her to put that on the OP who seems like they have a reasonable perspective and are willing to coach people through areas of improvement.

      Regardless, OP should try to stay as neutral as possible to not get caught between what sounds like two volatile personalities. OP should continue to give thoughtful feedback when asked and deflect any performance related conversations with Sarah. Be strong OP and don’t let them get you down!

      1. Georgina Fredrika*

        yeah, definitely defensive.
        This is one of those situations I can see from all angles and commiserate equally.

        It’s not really Sarah’s fault for assuming things about the original convo (even if Jane never misrepresented it, just didn’t give unnecessary details). I can also understand why the dynamics might have felt a little weird if it seems like “my co-worker is complaining to my boss, but they’re not even my manager so if they didn’t want to help why not say so!”

        And it’s not really Jane’s fault for trying to give constructive feedback to someone who seems to need it.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Well sure Sarah is worried. If Jane is willing to just cavalierly ask if Sarah should be fired, Sarah has plenty to worry about.
      Instead of Jane taking responsibility for her own words, she threw it back on OP. “Well OP said x, y and z.” Grrr. Be a boss. “In this company you will need to beef up x, y and z. I think you should get together with OP and work on these points.” Such an easy thing to say, but apparently it isn’t.

  8. Trout 'Waver*

    When I’ve been solicited to give negative feedback about a colleague, I go tell that colleague exactly what I told their boss immediately. To avoid this exact situation.

    1. BridgeNerdess*

      This is great advice for maintaining good relationships.

      Even in our anonymous reviews, I let people know “This is BridgeNerdess. These are my comments. I’m willing to discuss if you want to follow up.” If you’re not willing to own it, either it doesn’t need to be said or you’re in a toxic environment and it won’t make a difference anyway.

    2. OrigCassandra*

      This can get a little tricky sometimes.

      I’m in academia. I have a departmental colleague who absolutely does not pull his departmental-service weight. (He misses more meetings than he attends, doesn’t do assigned action items, and dumps work on others.) The thing is, he’s tenured faculty and I’m instructional staff. If I tell him, even very dispassionately and truthfully, what I’ve said about this to the department chair (when the department chair asked me)… he has a thousand little ways of making my life hell, and he’s the kind of person who will use them.

      He’s also unfireable, now that he’s tenured. (I am praying someplace else poaches him. I don’t think he has sufficient stardom for this, sadly.)

      Fortunately, the department chair knows what he’s like and insulates us from him as much as possible. This of course means he pulls even less of his service weight… but honestly, committee work goes smoother without him than with him.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I think the difference is that it’s easier to see Carl is a jerk where as Sarah has not been around long enough to prove herself to be a jerk.

        I definitely do not recommend helping people who do not want help- like the Carls of the world.

    3. AnotherAlison*

      Yup, esp. in a situation like this one where you know this is official.

      I’ve probably had things get back to people that shouldn’t have because I said it in passing. Like, “How’s Carl doing?”, and I say, “Oh, he’s fine, but he’s been late on a couple things.” I don’t think anything of it after the passing conversation, and the situation with Carl is new or developing, but who knows if Carl ever heard that from the 3rd person.

  9. Hmmm*

    I think that Alison’s outline of possibilities is good, but I’m convinced that you need a better response to Sarah than she gave to have a good working relationship going forward. If I were Sarah and heard that response, as someone already insecure about my work, I’d probably conclude that you were lying about your conversation with Jane.

    You probably have two choices. Either you decide you like and trust Sarah enough to tell her more about what’s going on, or you reword what Alison suggested to be more apologetic. I don’t think you did anything wrong, and you should set the record straight that you overall have a high opinion of Sarah’s work, but if you’re not apologetic enough, she probably won’t believe you. She doesn’t have the extra context of the department politics, and she’s at least subconsciously aware of her work problems, so it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusion.

    1. Senor Montoya*

      I would not be apologetic. There’s nothing to apologize for. OP can tell Sarah, Jane asked me, I shared X and Y, and also mentioned A thru G that you’re doing well. When Jane, your supervisor, asks how your training is going, please understand that it’s my job to tell her.

      If OP wants to apologize, I’d just say something like, I’m sorry you feel blindsided by this.

      It does sound to me that OP hadn’t mentioned these problems to Sarah because she didn’t see them a big issue. Apparently they ARE more important to Jane, which is very useful info for both Sarah and OP.

      1. allathian*

        If there’s no reason to apologize, don’t.
        But I would never, ever, ever apologize saying something like “I’m sorry you feel this way.” People’s emotions are their own to manage. “I’m sorry you were blindsided by this” might work, though.

      2. Hmmm*

        Just because OP didn’t do anything wrong doesn’t mean that there is no reason to apologize. Sometimes it makes sense to apologize to express sympathy and maintain a working relationship. The wording that allathian suggested is good. It’s ultimately about expressing that you care about your coworker’s emotions, not about adjudicating who’s at fault in the situation.

  10. I'm just here for the cats!*

    I think Sarah misunderstood what boss meant, or took it too personal. Like if boss said “Lucinda mentioned you’ve missed some deadlines and she’s still needing to remind you about X and Y” . Perhaps Sarah understood it that LW was complaining to boss about her. I would write back and say “I think you are a great asset to the company, which I’ve mentioned several times. Since we work closely together she asked for feedback And I told about x and y but that you could improve with coaching.” I’m hesitant to say sorry because LW didn’t do anything wronfm

  11. BridgeNerdess*

    What I find really interesting is that personal experience heavily influences how people are reading this letter. My work culture has a very conflict-avoidant, passive-aggressive undercurrent and I have seen leaders pass off critical feedback as something someone else said, even if they agree with it. I have also been on the receiving end of someone saying to my face “your work was great, thank you for your help” and then 9 months later in a review, it comes up they took issue with some of my work. It’s definitely crappy. So I get where Sarah is coming from and why LW thinks she was thrown under the bus. Context and culture are important here.

    I would still try to clear the air with Sarah. Step 1: have a conversation in person. Email/text is not the way to go here. I wouldn’t bring up the entire conversation with Jane, but I would explain that Jane asked for feedback. Then I would ask if Jane shared the positives with Sarah. If not, I’d lead with “adds value, asset to the team, etc.” You can still own your concerns, but make sure the positives are repeated. I would also mention that you didn’t seek Jane out with complaints; you were responding to a request.

    Honestly, this feels like bad management but I’m coming from a perspective with historically bad managers.

    1. OP*

      Thanks for your thoughtful responses here, BridgeNerdess. Read them all, and they’re great perspectives.

      I was thinking similar things when reading through the comments section, very interesting to see how lived experiences perception (in general, but specifically here). I put a comment below detailing my actions thus far, and they are almost exactly what you had suggested in your comment above! Had a phone conversation with Sarah and clarified the context, and I feel it even strengthened the working relationship.

      1. Altair*

        I was about to agree with Bridge Nerdess, so instead I will cheeer that you took this step!

  12. JD*

    I don’t think Sarah is overreacting. She almost lost her job with apparently no prior idea that her work performance was that concerning. I’d be pretty freaked out in her shoes.

    1. OP*

      Thank you for your comment! This was a big concern I had as well, which led me to having a direct conversation with Sarah to discuss the greater context of the conversation with Jane. I am a huge empath, and having worked so closely with Sarah, I wanted to ensure I gave her all the information I could to help her understand. I detailed the conversation a bit more in my comment below as well.

  13. OP*

    OP here! I’ll be responding to comments as I’m able, and am grateful for Alison’s perspective, as well as all these excellent comments from readers.

    First, I’ll answer this question from Alison:
    “To fully understand this, I’d want to know more about your boss and how she manages. Is she someone who’s generally forthright with people when she has concerns about their work? Or can you easily see her preferring to attribute criticism to someone else?”

    Unfortunately, our boss (Jane) tends to be a secret-keeper who shifts blame frequently. This pattern has previously created similar situations within our department and company as a whole, though this instance was particularly difficult due to the working relationship I have with Sarah (and how this all played out). I think that’s why my instinct was to feel thrown under the bus, though you made an excellent point that I could’ve been referenced in many ways that I did not previously consider. The passive-aggressive tendencies that Jane tends to act on led me to believe that it was an intentional thing, but you’re absolutely right that there are a lot of factors at play, and I can’t assume that with 100% certainty. Thank you for that reminder!

    Also wanted to update everyone here on how I handled this so far:
    I ended up getting on a call with Sarah to clarify the conversation what I said to Jane, an apologize for anything that might have been shared out of context. I did NOT tell Sarah that Jane intended to fire her, but I did share that Jane had asked for feedback on Sarah’s performance. I elaborated on the brief feedback I gave to Jane, and expressed to Sarah that I felt the larger part of the conversation was me advocating on her behalf and speaking highly of her (as I do, frequently). She thanked me for my honest and direct response, and we both felt better after the discussion. Our working relationship feels even stronger now, which seems like a best-case scenario to me.

    As for Jane, I did not end up following up with her directly, though with Alison’s suggestion on how to address this with her, I might soon approach her on the subject. I was extremely concerned about potential retaliation from Jane, even if I brought it up in a professional and non-confrontational manner, so I chose to clarify with Sarah initially in hopes that we could smooth things over that way.

    HUGE thank you to Alison for this incredibly helpful response!

    1. The Grey Lady*

      Yeah, that’s the sense I was getting. Jane is really not managing very well.

      But I’m glad you cleared things with Sarah.

    2. Susie Q*

      Yikes, this leads me to believe that your boss was trying to throw you under the bus.

    3. revueller*

      I had the same reaction as you initially when it got to Sarah’s email; I used to have a similar, nonconfrontational manager who wouldn’t give me direct feedback. But Alison’s reframing was really helpful. Knowing that it’s normal from good management in a healthy company will probably save me in the future from having the exact same reaction as Sarah, to be honest.

      But it sounds like you did the right thing considering your company’s culture. I’m sorry Jane did that to you both.

    4. hbc*

      I swear I was typing my response before I reloaded and saw this. Nicely done, OP!

      I would probably let it go with Jane if this is her standard practice. She’ll tell you that Sarah heard it wrong or something and then be quietly mad at both of you for…talking like reasonable people.

    5. Tex*

      After working for someone like Jane, all I can say is get out.

      My boss single handedly torched a great team of people by driving wedges between people (exactly like your situation, “so and so said this about you, be careful about who you trust in the group”, etc.), purposefully creating turmoil that made other departments not want to work with ours (so she had limited oversight because nobody wanted to touch a rumored wasps nest), throwing other people under the bus periodically for normal, easily fixable mistakes, so that there was an HR ‘track record’ of bad performance that she could use as an implicit threat to fire people to keep them in line or just outright fire them if it looked like any blame was heading her way.

      1. tangerineRose*

        I also think finding a different job would be smart. Since Jane already is concerned about Sarah, and since it sounds like Jane doesn’t always play fair, Sarah should really be looking too.

      2. Old Admin*

        …and I would warn the OP that now the boss may focus on *her performance* instead.

    6. Senor Montoya*

      You’re tasked with training Sarah? Give Jane regular reports on her progress.

      Share concerns and kudos with Sarah. And make sure she knows that you do give a weekly (monthly?) report to Jane.

      I wouldn’t cc Sarah that report tho.

    7. Calanthea*

      That sounds like a positive outcome for both you and Sarah! I’m so glad.
      Well done on having the conversation, can’t have been fun to start off/reach out.

    8. Remove Worker and Dog Lover*

      Thanks for the update! I’m glad it had a positive outcome for you and Sarah.

    9. Not So NewReader*

      I had a really bad feeling about Jane with that remark about firing Sarah. I always say watch out for bosses who talk about firing or paychecks in a careless manner. And here we are.

      Watch your back here, OP.

    10. Marthooh*

      Hi, OP! I’m glad you had that conversation with Sarah.

      Reading through your letter again, it strikes me that Jane is teaching you to sacrifice yourself to keep her happy: giving Sarah reminders and directions (which isn’t your job), making decisions about who gets fired, being blamed for talking behind Sarah’s back… I think your worry that Jane may retaliate if you bring this problem up with her is spot on. And I don’t think you can trust her to have your back, whether you martyr yourself for her or not.

    11. Old Admin*

      Jane’s secret keeping and blame shifting confirm my belief you need to tell Sarah about the boss’s intent to fire her.
      Again, depending on how boss communicates, this might be Sarah’s *only* clear warning before the axe falls!

  14. hbc*

    It sounds to me like a pretty normal communication problem where at least two people (OP and Sarah) are picking a fairly negative interpretation and running with it. Jane probably noted OP’s observations without making clear that it was solicited feedback rather than complaining, likely not as a deliberate omission but not realizing in the moment that it could be relevant. Jane assumes that “OP says you could use coaching on X” comes from OP seeking out Jane to complain, and instead of asking either person for confirmation, acts as if that assumption is the only possibility. OP, in receiving the snitty email, similarly jumps to a single negative explanation and is looking for help on what to do as if that assumption is fact.

    OP, break the cycle. Tell Sarah, “Hey, it sounds like something got twisted in the retelling. Jane asked for my feedback, and I said that you’re an asset to our team and I want to help with your success, and that you can use some coaching in X. I hadn’t mentioned X to you because [it’s not a big deal/you’re improving there steadily/whatever the reason.] But I can’t *not* give Jane feedback when asked directly or I’m not doing my job. I would expect you to give her honest feedback about me too. But anyway, I’m truly happy to have you on the team, and I’m sorry if there was any confusion about that.”

    You won’t necessarily convince her you did the right thing if she thinks that counts as snitching or something, but a clear statement of fact is your best defense here, whether it’s a bus-tossing or a mistake.

    1. OP*

      Appreciate this feedback, thank you! Very straight-forward, and acknowledging the pattern here in assumptions and communication is helpful. You’re right that breaking the cycle is the only way to hope for a better future. I did end up having almost that exact conversation with Sarah, and felt it helped to smooth things over, and strengthen our relationship.

      1. hbc*

        It’s much easier to type the advice than to execute, so I’m impressed by the way you handled it. So glad it turned out well!

  15. Anonymouse*

    This felt like the biggest management red flag to me:

    ” I hold no authority over Sarah, though we frequently work together on projects, and I have been the main person training and giving feedback to her within our department. Sarah frequently needs reminders and direction, which our boss is often unwilling or unable to give, so Sarah comes to me.”

    So you’re training someone, without having any authority and your boss is dodging their own job of being helpful to this new employee. That already sounds dysfunctional. It makes sense that you would train your peer and provide insight but ultimately shouldn’t your boss be more available? And there should be clearer lines of authority. That sounds rough OP.

  16. Direct*

    By “snippy” did you mean Sarah’s response or how she should act going forward? I have previously, politely, asked coworkers to be direct & address concerns/comnunicate with me in a direcr fashion (no hints or being passive-aggressive), even if directness isn’t in their nature (there are cultural differences, I’m from a culture that values honesty, their culture values politeness/face more than honesty…and before the outrage starts: we are ALL white native-born Americans, just from different regions). This request has generally been made politely when there have been different communication styles or miscommunications, not in situations like this where the manager threatening to fire me or anything. Is that considered snippy by most people? Not going to stop doing it politely, just plan to file the data away if most people dind that snippy. Otherwise I appreciate how Alison framed this response.

  17. mgguy*

    This reminds me eerily of a situation a few years ago that I had with a co-worker(Jane) who reported to the same manager as I did, but was both more senior and technically employed in a “higher” role at which she was woefully incompetent. She would frequently ask me how to do things, but then argue with me that it wasn’t the correct way to do those things and procede with doing them her own pre-conceived half-*ssed way. Her work was delivered other people in the department, and there were enough problems with it that the people who received her work would often ask me to fix it(since they knew that I knew what I was doing).

    Several people complained to our supervisor about Jane, and I also had my own discussion with the supervisor because cleaning up from Jane’s incompetence(when she wouldn’t listen to my solicited feedback) was essentially doubling my workload.

    A couple of days after that conversation, Jane absolutely unloaded on me about how I needed to take things directly up with her if I had a problem with her work. I responded that I’d tried to discuss it with her, but she was not receptive. Her response was that she knew what she was doing and that I obviously didn’t, which of course left us at a stalemate. We sort of patched things up and could at least work together, until another temper tantrum earlier this year lead to her(finally) being let go.

  18. Thankful for AAM*

    Given the behavior from OP’s manager (in comments from the OP), how should the OP handle requests for feedback about other staff in future?

    It does sound like Sarah took it harder than she might have (given the workplace, not surprising). But how should the OP navigate this in future?

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Jane sounds like a toxic boss in the making.

      When I have hit this type of thing, I have told the trainee where the boss’ pet peeves were. “Make sure a, b and c are always covered and you have your ducks in a row on these things because the boss will ask.” In other words, I show them where the common pitfalls are.

      I have told people how to do a bit of extra record keeping to save their future selves. “Often times x info becomes a big deal months later. So write x info down here and when it comes up three months from now, you will have the info.”

      Eh, I have a good boss now. But there are patterns in what she asks for. I get caught once with out the answer after that I implement a plan so that info is stored with similar info and I can readily get it. It’s good practice to keep track of certain things anyway. Most recently I made a reusable tracking sheet. I designed the draft. I gave the draft to the boss, she wrote all over it. I put in what she asked for and, ta-da, we had a tracking sheet before anyone else did. This also shows anticipation, sometimes if we can anticipate what will be needed next and meet that need, even the heart of a bad boss will melt.

  19. Flabbernabbit*

    In Sarah’s shoes, I would also reach out to OP about the feedback, so I would cut her a teeny bit of slack. Only I’d ask in person, not email, about the specific feedback given to learn about what I can improve and try to encourage OP to offer feedback to me directly as well as the boss. Unfortunately, Sarah’s email made it look like a closed topic for her, which was unwise.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      How does it look like a closed topic? She asked OP to speak directly to her from here on. IF anything she is holding the door open.

  20. I Need That Pen*

    It’s possible that the boss told the coworker, “OP said she would be willing to coach you on various items/things” or something completely innocuous like that. Sarah could have just been feeling hurt or surprised or ambushed enough in the entire discussion to twist that into, “Jane told me that you have problems with what I’m doing so in the future please talk to me.” Anyone who has ever come at me like that was someone I never felt I could trust with confidential information – the discussion with Jane is between Jane and Sarah. If Sarah wants to discuss what Jane said, even if it had to do with me, do so constructively, not tattle tale, passive aggressive, get out of the sandbox style. If you want my help based on what Jane said, let’s have a nice sitdown about it. Furthermore, “Should I fire so and so,” would always get a no from me. Make your own decisions, manager.

  21. Luna*

    I would write back to Sarah that there seems to have been a miscommunication. That you have no problems with her work in itself, and are happy that she is willing to ask questions when she needs them. And that, if anything were to happen that would make you unhappy with her work, she would bring it up to her personally.
    Professional, maybe with a hint of passive aggressive regarding the boss, but overall collected.

  22. Jh*

    Your boss and Sarah handled this terribly.
    Be sure to forward that email to your boss. Seems that Sarah feels threatened now and intimidated and may be hard to work with.

    Just try not to get too involved. Put all things related to her on your boss. Don’t help your boss anymore either with her probing questions.

    My boss is the same. She is so wishy washy with my coworkers and I’ve learned to be super diplomatic, smile and get on with things on my own. I’ll be leaving once this is all over most likely.

    My bosses inability to manage causes a lot of friction between staff.

  23. Asaassy*

    Hey OP #3! If you don’t want to use your personal cell at all (which I can understand) and you have an older cell phone sitting around (or the ability to buy one), you might want to try an ultra-low cost Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO), such as Mint, Republic Wireless, Freedom Pop, etc. Depending on what you’re able to afford, this can be super cheap. It’s also a good way to keep work/life balance.

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

    There’s option number 3. Jane didn’t say anything to Sarah about the OP but Sarah knows who she goes to for help so when her performance was questioned/coached by Jane, she drew her own conclusion that OP was the source.

    Also, Sarah doesn’t get to demand “address these things with me directly.” The proper line of authority is for OP, who doesn’t manage Sarah, to address their concerns to Sarah’s boss; playground rules of “no tattling” don’t apply in adulthood. It would be out of line to talk about it with, for instance, the receptionist, in the break room; but completely professional to address it with the proper authority in private. Even if OP was “guilty” of complaining, she still wouldn’t owe Sarah an apology.

  25. Rika*

    I think the fact that Sarah and OP are peers, and that OP isn’t in fact a supervisor, makes all the difference here.
    In my opinion Jane should have just given Sarah the assessment based in part on what she learned from OP but leave OP’s name out of it entirely. I can’t imagine what good could possibly come from telling Sarah that one of her coworkers, someone on her own level, raised concerns about her performance, which are now impacting her assessment. And that’s not even assuming any malintent on Jane’s part yet.

    But maybe I’m a little sensitive, because I’ve been on the receiving end of this. It feels really, really icky. Luckily, unlike in Sara’s case, my boss at the time was very happy about my performance, so what my coworkers told her didn’t have any professional consequences for me, but the relations between me and those coworkers never really recovered.

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