how to address a problem you hear about secondhand

A reader writes:

I have had a number of members of my team come to me lately with concerns about another employee, Jane. They say she takes long breaks, leaves early (she’s got a job where she needs to be in the office at set times), and spends too much time socializing. This came as a surprise to me as her output is within the normal range for my team.

I’m not in my office enough to observe these things myself, but I was concerned that I was hearing this from so many people so I brought it to Jane for discussion. She was clearly completely blindsided, felt betrayed by her colleagues, and didn’t know what may have caused the perception or how to resolve it. Because she was so upset after our initial conversation and we weren’t getting anywhere with coming up with solutions, I deferred a follow-up meeting for a couple of days, but I’m not sure how to address this. I did put forward some suggestions based on my observations and feedback from other team members, but she didn’t seem to be taking any of them in. If I have to continue to performance manage her I will, but her surprise was so extreme that it made me worry that maybe the issue is with her coworkers, not her.

Of the coworkers who have reported these problems, I have varying degrees of trust in them. I heard from four people about this — two have my absolute highest trust, one is newer and I’m cautious but think they have good judgment, and one has a tendency to stir the pot. The two who I trust the most brought forward concerns that were verifiable, but not as severe. The pot-stirrer brought forward the most egregious concerns and ones that were harder for me to assess (in particular, that Jane has a tendency to leave the office early as soon as I’m gone for the day).

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 113 comments… read them below }

  1. A Kate*

    Checking work logs is the easiest first step, followed by surprise calls.

    If either of those things doesn’t clarify, bringing in another senior person to watch from afar is good, too–either you have one employee slacking off and bringing down the team’s morale, OR you have a team of people bullying someone/lying about their behavior. Either is a problem, but using Alison’s ideas will get you a better sense of which problem you have.

    1. Chinook*

      A third party would also have the advantage of minimizing observer effect because, if the boss is in the room, odds are good people are on their best behavior.

  2. Helen J*

    If the OP alters her schedule to be in the office and try to observe, could Jane stop what she is (possibly) doing because she notices OP in the office? If OP could get a senior peer or manager to do the observation that might be less noticeable IF Jane is doing anything. Of course, Jane may stick to her schedule because she knows it’s been noticed.

    1. Snow globe*

      At this point, since OP has already talked to her about the issue, if Jane was doing what the things she was accused of, she’ll likely change her behavior anyway now (at least for a while).

    2. Dave*

      Parking lot drive by’s can be helpful if it is a matter of an employee leaving early. (Verify you see the car before you leave and swing back by an hour or so later.) The late Friday drop in can also accomplish the same thing.

      1. Yvette*

        Just keep in mind that the car could have been moved during lunchtime so it might not be in the same place as it was in the morning.

      2. Josh*

        Do adults really require a “parking lot drive-by” when they are getting their work done? What on earth? This is a level of babysitting that simply isn’t appropriate for adults.

        1. C M*

          I had an internship in college with a supervisor who was an extreme micromanager. One time he took half a vacation day and left at noon, and completely unprompted he warned me that he might do the drive-by to make sure I didn’t leave early. I was an ambitious overachiever and I would have never even considered leaving early. They also got a fancy new computer monitor for a piece of equipment (15 years ago when that was impressive), and he warned me that if it went missing he would assume I stole it because young people like those things. Again, completely unprompted.

          Anyway, at least I learned what to avoid in future managers.

          1. Ann*

            I once worked in a convenience store where the manager accused me of stealing her pen! And the owners sent in people as “customers” to report to him what employees were doing or not doing in his absence. It was a very uncomfortable place to work, and I quit as soon as I could.

        2. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

          I agree except for OP saying “she’s got a job where she needs to be in the office at set times”.

          But I’m curious to know what that means. Usually if a job requires you to be there at certain times, it’s pretty obvious if you aren’t – without your colleagues spilling the beans.

          1. Not a dr*

            I do wonder if she is perhaps something like a receptionist or security guard at a company that has few walk ins (or few walk ins close to closing) so she leaves 15 minutes early knowing the chances of someone stopping by are slim to none?

            Or something along those lines.

            I think we have to trust OP when she says the employee needs to stay at the site.

      3. NotAnotherManager!*

        Is this really something people do? (And this’d never work in a major metropolitan area where the only parking is underground and public transit is a thing.) Surely in 2020, we’re beyond driving by to see if someone’s home?

        I get the office drop-in as a follow-up to the conversation they had, but covert cruising the parking lot is a little gotcha-y for me.

      4. DireRaven*

        Unless the employee carpools or vanpools with someone else/takes public transport or another alternative form of transportation, up to and including walking to work because their apartment is 2 blocks away. ie, the employee arrives at work by means other than a personally owned vehicle.

    3. Kes*

      I was thinking checking in with a senior peer or manager who is in the office more (if such a person exists) to see if they’ve observed any of the issues mentioned might be a helpful first step. And getting them to observe going forward on OP’s behalf would avoid the risk of ‘Jane changes behaviour when OP’s not around’

      1. Helen J*

        I agree. I would assume IF Jane is doing something, she would at least temporarily change, but may go back to the behavior if they think the matter is settled. Having someone else in the office do the observing is less noticeable.

  3. Daria Morgendorffer*

    This feels like a mismatch in expectations/work culture between the Co-workers/Jane/OP. It is also not clear from OP what the expectations are from them regarding hours/working patterns etc and what is actually needed for the job. On one hand, they say Jane’s output is within normal range for team but then say Jane needs to work set hours. If Jane can get her work done within her hours and OP didn’t notice leaving early etc, then surely there is some argument that there doesn’t need to be set hours?

    1. Snow globe*

      I’ve had jobs where I needed to be in the office at specific times because I needed to be available to clients. My work output was significantly higher than my peers, and likely would have been even if I left an hour early each day, but that would mean that I wouldn’t be able to respond quickly to clients. Volume of work, and need to be in the office at certain times are not necessarily the same issue.

      1. Littorally*

        Yeah, this.

        My job has both piecework and hours coverage. If my piecework is where it needs to be, that doesn’t mean I can slack on availability.

      2. Daria Morgendorffer*

        Definitely agree. But OP may need to consider (if the concerns turn out to be true) whether they’ve been clear as they should have been that it is a set hour role.

      3. Mel_05*

        Same here. I work a job that can be super slow at times. And when it is slow I’m free to shop online, read AAM or whatever. But, I have to be available to drop all that and start working on a project at any given point during my work day. If I wasn’t, it would slow things down. And while I could probably catch it all up the next day, it would be annoying for the people waiting on me.

        1. micklethwaite*

          Yeah, even in jobs with no client contact where I picked up a telephone maybe once every few months, it wouldn’t have been OK for me to just get through the tasks I’d planned for that day and then skip merrily out of the door. I was supposed to be there because I was part of a team and someone might need to assign me something during the afternoon, or ask a question, or call a meeting, or… If I’d left early on the regular then my personal output might have still looked OK to someone who wasn’t in the office, but I’d have been slowing the department down and pissing people off.

    2. Wintermute*

      That question comes up each time issues of time come up, but it really boils down to YES there are some jobs where when you arrive and when you leave (and how many breaks you take and their timing) matter immensely regardless of your productivity between. NO these are not just entry level customer-contact jobs that need someone to answer a phone or handle walk-ins but even high-level senior roles in IT operations, finance, HR and more. Especially IT, where you are working from a queue all day long but that queue is sorted by priority levels and you typically have an agreement with other important internal clients that you are held to that you will respond to each severity-1 issue within (typically) 15 minutes of presentation.

      I think you really just have to take the letter writer at their word that they have thought this over and yes the job really does require a butt in a seat and they’re not demanding that for the sake of it, and there are loads of legitimate reasons that may be required.

  4. Risha*

    I’m going to put my money down that the truth is somewhere in between. Something like, Jane a fast worker and maybe slips out a little earlier sometimes, small enough intervals that she genuinely is surprised to be called out on it and doesn’t think that anything so small could count. The trustworthy coworkers mildly resent her walking out the door at 4:55 when they’re always there until 5:15, and inflate how often she does it in their minds, then start sniping about it to each other. Add the pot stirrer who overhears them talking, mix, bake well for a few months at 350 degrees.

    1. SallyJ*

      I agree with this assessment.

      But the only way to know is to investigate. I hope OP writes back in though. These stories of complaining coworkers never seem to end the way we think they would! Like that our superstar workers are actually evil online trolls or our work-skipper is actually dealing with a very personal medical issue that she thought wasn’t be noticed, but was.

    2. Seal*

      That would be my guess as well. Assuming the OP eventually discovers there’s nothing to the original complaint, I suspect the coworkers will find something else to call Jane out for. Having been Jane earlier in my career, that’s the real concern and the thing the OP should keep an eye on.

    3. GothicBee*

      I thought based on the last couple lines in the letter that the pot-stirrer is the only one saying that she’s leaving early, which makes me slightly more inclined to think that she might not be leaving early at all. If the pot-stirrer heard other complaints regarding Jane’s time (long breaks, etc.) from the more trustworthy workers, it’s possible she added on based on flimsy evidence like walking by at 5:05 and Jane’s not at her desk, so she must have left early when in reality she went to the bathroom or something.

      It’s also possible Jane has a tendency to do some tasks right at the end of the day that require her to leave her desk or she just runs to the bathroom 10 minutes before leaving every day and it looks like she’s leaving early. Which could be worth pointing out that the optics aren’t good.

      1. tangerineRose*

        “that the pot-stirrer is the only one saying that she’s leaving early” I was wondering about this too. It would help to know what the trustworthy people were saying.

    4. I'm just here for the cats*

      I was thinking something like this too. Or maybe that Jane has to run to the copy machine so she’s not at her desk at 11:30 when coworkers happen to go by. She takes her lunch at 12:00-12:30 and afterward coworkers see her coming back so think that she took a long lunch.

      Also, the “too much time socializing” could be seen differently. Maybe one of the coworkers who tattled thinks talking for a few minutes is too much. Or maybe they see her at someone else’s desk and think that she is just chatting but is really talking about work stuff.

    5. Kes*

      That’s true, and I’d certainly take anything from the pot-stirrer with a grain of salt, but the fact that four different people, two of them highly trustworthy, have raised concerns with OP, makes me think something is going on. I wouldn’t expect trustworthy employees with good judgement to be going to the boss with concerns because Jane leaves a few minutes early – they’d just grumble to themselves. It makes me think there probably is a problem, though not to the extent described by pot-stirrer, but at a level that Jane thought she could get away with and is surprised to be called out by her boss and coworkers, either because she didn’t think anyone would notice or because she thought nobody would go to the boss and as long as OP didn’t see or know, she’d be fine.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        But I think it’s a little weird that 4 people came to the OP about something like this. Most people only ban together to push back on really egregious things – I wonder if there is something else they don’t like about Jane.

        1. Tired of Covid-and People*

          I’m sure it is. This kind of unwarranted pettiness and unauthorized supervision by proxy is typically done by coworkers who simply don’t like the person they are reporting on. Often, jealousy is at play.

          OP, I would shut this nonsense down, full-stop. This rises to the level of just tattling, as you have no problem with Jane’s work. Now you are wasting your time trying to catch Jane in minor rule infractions, to what end? I would make it clear that this kind of juvenile backbiting is unacceptable.

          I have never understood why some people watch others so closely, or how they can tend to their own work while doing so. None of these people have to pick up any slack from Jane, so what is the real problem? I have been on the receiving end of this type of childishness and it becomes a major distraction and source of friction.

          This is one reason I have absolutely loved working from home for years now.

    6. Massmatt*

      I think a big part of the issue is that the LW says she is not in the office very often. If attendance and schedule adherence is an issue, then she should be there to enforce it more. Likewise, if there is friction and resentment among the staff (and a pot-stirrer) for some other reason, the best way to address it is to be there to observe things firsthand.

      Not saying LW is not on top of her job or a bad manager, but a frequent refrain in many letters we get is “my coworker is awful and my manager is never here so he doesn’t care”.

    7. Katieinthemountains*

      If she leaves an hour early, that could mean that her coworkers have to answer more client calls (slowing them down on their other work). But if she works fast and hardly anyone calls after 4:30, she might have figured it wouldn’t be a problem. OR if she’s so busy earlier in the day that she eats at her desk and doesn’t take a lunch break, then she could be leaving 30-60 minutes earlier than close of business and feel fully justified.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Perfectly plausible, I used to do the same. But if she were doing that like that, she’d have explained it rather than open her eyes wide from incompréhension?

  5. Autumnheart*

    Hmm. There are multiple ways to look at this.

    Assuming there are core hours and everyone has to be in the office and available from 9-4:30. If Jane is leaving at 4:15 because she knows OP won’t be in the office before quitting time, then that’s a problem, even if she’s efficient at her work. If everyone else is staying until 4:30 even though they too have finished their work for the day, then that’s not fair to them.

    When OP says Jane is within the normal range for work output among the team, what does that mean? Consistently at the upper end? The lower end? High on some days and low on others? As long as it’s not consistently on the low end, then I agree that I wouldn’t consider that a problem.

    I think the next step is to monitor Jane’s activity through a means other than reports by her team members. If there’s that much of a question about whether the rest of the people on the team can be trusted to report legitimate issues without being taken as a pot-stirrer (and it seems like there is), then OP needs to figure out a way to be there herself, or check Jane’s activity, or ask someone in the office (another manager?) to do a casual walk-through now and then.

    If, finally, it just happens that Jane works quickly and has more time to socialize because she got all her work done, and whose output is in line with everyone else’s, well…then it ain’t broke. One way that a lot of managers deal with this is to assign a Jane more work. That’s not exactly a good motivator for a worker to be more efficient, though, unless there’s a reward tied to one’s output. Otherwise you’re just working more for nothing. But if there’s a space to create some kind of “extra credit”, as it were, where one could stretch their skills by working on an outside project, or earn a bonus because they got 10 extra billable hours done that week, or something of that nature, then you can properly motivate workers to get more done during their time in the office, but you’re not demotivating someone for working faster than their peers.

  6. Tiara Wearing Princess*

    OP says jane’s job requires her to be there for set times. The OP being in the office more may not reveal if she’s leaving early, since the reporters said she leaves when boss isn’t there. I agree with Alison – checking computer logs is a good place to start (assuming her job entails being on the computer).

    If this isn’t true, I feel for Jane. OP needs to get to the bottom of things.

    1. Tired of Covid-and People*

      Computer logs don’t tell the whole story. There are meetings, and some folks never log out (I don’t). I’m just totally against monitoring professional adults like this who are performing well.

  7. Richard Hershberger*

    Why does she need to be in the office at set times? If it is something like covering the phones, then sure. But given that her output is within the normal range. what exactly is the problem? If her socializing interferes with others’ work, then sure: you have a problem. But it looks to me like the problem is that she works more quickly than her peers and doesn’t choose to take on extra work (for no extra pay, I suspect), nor does she cover her efficiency well.

    1. What's in a name?*

      Some of the disdain from her not jumping in to help others might point to why this is being reported. Not that Jane should have to, but I understand the reasoning.

    2. AthenaC*

      The one question I had is if it’s one of those jobs where if you get your work done “early,” you’re generally expected to spend your excess capacity helping out with others’ workload. Yes, in practice it means that some people do more than others, but if you recognize the high performers with raises and monetary rewards, and everyone is putting in the same time and effort, that’s a fairly equitable situation.

      1. The Bad Guy*

        Not if someone would rather have their time back instead of those other incentives. Unless someone is interacting with customers or doing physical labor, no job should require butts in seats. If you can’t see a performance difference between someone who is reportedly leaving early and those who aren’t, it seems like this is just a butts in seats policy.

        1. Autumnheart*

          Every job has a certain amount of butts in seats. When your business has operating hours, there’s a requirement to be *available* for work, even if no work is happening right then. They’re not just paying you for the time you’re actively doing work, they’re paying for availability.

        2. LQ*

          I don’t understand this idea. If you have to say…go to the DMV and everyone happens to have decided that they don’t want to be there that day that it’s totally fine for no one to be there to help you because no job should require butts in seats? Nearly all jobs require interacting with a customer of some kind. Sometimes you get lucky and it’s an internal or business to business customer and you can get away with not being available for your customers, but I do not get the idea that no one should have to be available because that’s what butts in seats is, it is availability to the people who are the reason you are employed. That’s all a customer is. Sometimes it’s your boss, sometimes it’s the person coming in off the street to buy groceries, sometimes it’s a patient, sometimes it’s another business client.

        3. Wintermute*

          I beg to differ, there are external customers and internal ones, and many jobs have “internal customers” that have expectations of response time, either formal (service level agreements, ticketing queues) or informal (if I call HR on a friday afternoon as I’m wrapping up my own work they can still answer a benefits question).

        4. AthenaC*

          As I said, it depends on the nature of the job. There are jobs where X quantity of work needs to be done, and to make things administratively easier, we initially divide the work among the team members. The work as a whole is everyone’s shared responsibility. So when someone gets done first, they are expected to pick up tasks from other folks (rather than just going offline) so that the overall effort across the team is roughly the same.

          But yes – if you have someone who regularly gets more done than everyone else in less time, it’s a good idea to throw some recognition their way.

          1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

            This type of allocation of tasks (not specifically aimed at you AthenaC, but just the pattern in general) just leads to a gradual reduction in productivity over time. It’s easy to see why — if you have, say, 4 people and 100 “units” of work to be completed, and so assign 25 “units” to each person, and Jen who completes their allocation first just gets ‘rewarded’ with 5 additional units of work that Bob hadn’t managed to complete — over time, how likely is it that Jen will continue to work at the same pace vs reduce her pace to match the others?

            The only time I can see this being legit is if they are in a abnormal/emergency situation where everyone has to pull their weight to meet a deadline or something like that, rather than just the ‘ongoing’ flow of normal workload.

            It does need a careful eye on quality, though. I worked near (as in, I wasn’t part of their department but was sat physically nearby so I heard what went on) a team where they had the individual targets and allocations of work. There were a couple of people who rushed through, let’s say they had to paint 5 lines on each teapot, and they realised that they could get through them faster by only painting 4 lines on every alternate teapot. They made a game out of who could finish painting their allocation of teapots fastest, which, due to the deliberate lapse in quality, resulted in all their teapots having to be re-checked!

            The answer to the teapot painting problem above though isn’t a shared pool of work, it’s a culture of keeping people individually accountable.

            1. Not playing your game anymore*

              For a different context. We are a library. Each staff member works a certain amount of time at a service point. If you know you have the 2-5 slot you HAD BETTER be there. A long lunch will delay the person waiting for you to get back so she can go have her lunch. It doesn’t matter how much or little you get done… Your butt needs to be in that seat. Additionally even if you’re not the one at the desk, if you have several people show up all with urgent questions, the person backing you up needs to be available even if all of the tasks that they had on their plate were done by noon. You need to be there.

              The evening I stopped in to pick up my bad and found my night staff person had slipped out to go to a thing, was the evening I filled out the PIP paperwork I’d had on my desk for her. While I covered her shift.

            2. AthenaC*

              The system I described works best when your “units” are not identical, interchangeable tasks, and often you don’t know until everyone starts working exactly how long and exactly how difficult all the tasks are going to be.

              So if I assign Staff A all the audit procedures over Property for all 20 files we’re working on, and Staff B all the audit procedures over Expenses, I might expect ahead of time that they should take roughly the same amount of time. But, say, when they start working, the Property sections have no activity and a super helpful client contact, whereas the Expenses all have crazy fluctuations and a difficult client contact (read: much more documentation) … then yes, we’re going to be in a spot where Staff A just gets done first. That doesn’t mean Staff A just gets to go offline while Staff B drowns; Staff A needs to help Staff B.

              I know not all jobs work like that, but I’ve definitely dealt with my share of staff that say, “Well my stuff is done – I can leave for the day, right?” ….. No.

            3. AthenaC*

              But to add – in the situation you described where the 100 “units” are all fairly identical, and Jen always completes more than Bob, then Jen should get a bigger raise come performance review time.

      2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        Yes, in practice it means that some people do more than others

        I’m struggling to put my finger on it and find the right words, but something about the situation is hinting at a personality conflict. I’m wondering if Jane approaches things differently which is helping efficiency or alacrity, something incompatible with how others are doing things?

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          As noted elsewhere, we’re drifting off-topic.

          I like Alison’s advice. Trust can only carry so far; verification has to figure into the equation. A personality conflict or differences in approach/technique are things I would want to investigate as part of that verification.

      3. DireRaven*

        What I’ve seen happen in those cases is that Dawn and Mary Anne spend all day slacking off while Kristy, Mallory, Jessie, and Stacy are diligently working. At about closing time, Dawn and Mary Anne have nearly a day’s worth of work each to be done, while Kristy, Mallory, Jessie and Stacy are wrapping up their final tasks for the day. So, then, in a panic, Dawn and Mary Anne foist as much work as they can on their coworkers. Jessie and Stacy are nonexempt, so they dip out, as overtime was not pre-authorized. Soon, Kristy and Mallory also develop commitments to prevent staying late. Their boss, Claudia, walks by and thinks the group is “just so diligent, especially Dawn and Mary Anne for staying late”
        (Then later, Dawn and Mary Anne are no longer with the group, no replacements are hired, so the remaining coworkers absorb their work – and they are still leaving on time with the work done properly and to a high standard)

    3. Lifelong student*

      We take letter writers at their word- if the OP says she needs to be in the office- that is the standard. There is a huge tendency on this board for people to ignore the fact that management may have valid reasons for requiring people to be available to do and to actually do work tasks during set hours!

      1. shoutouts*

        Hard agree. The OP wasn’t asking whether their expectations of Jane were out of line; it was about how to handle second-hand information about work habits.

      2. Snow globe*

        Yes, the LW states specifically that the employees need to be in the office at certain times. It is not helpful to speculate that maybe that isn’t true.

      3. AnotherAlison*

        It’s also worth remembering this is a pre-COVID question. WFH solutions businesses bought into for standard office jobs during COVID weren’t as prevalent a few years ago. That said, my company worked from home for 6 months, but we were then then required to be back in the office. Surely we can do our jobs from home and hours don’t matter, right? We proved it. Yes, but it’s not our business model and we’re a large, multi-location company. Our work teams don’t have the authority to say we can change what the higher ups want, which is people on site.

    4. AnonPi*

      Management may not always have a choice in deciding if its ok employees cut out early when their work is done. It may be the company requires they be there during set hours regardless, to be paid for that time. I can’t leave early and charge time for it, I’d get in trouble, if not eventually fired (there’s not a lot that his has happened to, but it has happened, mainly for repeat offenders). We have someone in our office that cuts out early, disappears for an hour or more daily (just wandering around, chit chatting, getting water, etc), and yeah it makes the rest of us mad because they get by with it. Because none of our managers (all 4 of them) can’t be bothered to follow up on it, this person at best has been chastised about watching their time. The rest of us heaven forbid if we are seen to be a few minutes late, you’d think we’d just cheated the company out of an hour of work.

    5. Massmatt*

      “nor does she cover her efficiency well.”

      LOL you are making me think of guys who’ve been in enlisted men the military. Right up there with “never volunteer” is the mantra “always LOOK busy, even if you’re not”.

    6. Tired of Covid-and People*

      If her socializing interferes with others working, those others should tell her they have to get back to work. Or those people should be going to the manager, not the childish coworkers. This whole situation is ridiculous.

  8. Phony Genius*

    The letter says that Jane was upset to hear it. I wonder how they initially raised the issue with her, and if there’s a good way to do so if it is based on secondhand information. Having been at Jane’s end of something like this once or twice, it’s usually asked of me “do you know why they’re saying this?” or something similar.

    1. I'm just here for the cats.*

      I can understand Jane being upset. She probably feels like her co-workers are judging her and micromanaging her time.
      I can especially understand because something similar happened to me. I had taken a day off and gotten sick on Friday and was sick over weekend and didn’t come in on Monday. My boss sat me down and said there was the perception from my team mates that I’m.always calling off the Monday after I take a vacation day. The way it was brought up to me made me feel like shit. The boss did say that they looked at my time off and it only happened one other time. And that was because of snow. It had snowed so much that we couldn’t get out of the ally and I had tried to walk to catch the bus, but snow was up to my hips in areas and I couldn’t manage it.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        This happened to me once and it was awful. I took a Monday off to go out of town, ended up getting the flu, cancelling my plans and had to take the whole next week off of work. My manager, luckily, was a “meh, it’s your time and your fine” but my co-workers made snide comments for weeks about me extending my vacation and them having to pick up the slack.

      2. Que Syrah Syrah*

        I’m always confused about situations like this. The boss took a look at your time off, saw that it had only happened one other time, and felt that it was necessary to “sit you down” and tell you about the team’s perception?

        I’ve had this happen once or twice to me over the 15 odd years I’ve been working, and have heard about it happening to others, and it seems like the boss/supervisor always tries to present it as “*I* know this isn’t a problem, but just FYI, the perception on your team is (insert critique here).”

        To which I always ask: “if you know it isn’t a problem, did you stick up for me? Did you tell my team that it’s not their job to manage my time, and that you have no problem with my work/attendance, and that they don’t need to concern themselves with it?”

        9 times out of 10, crickets. And that’s how I know that the manager actually DOES have a problem with it, because if he/she didn’t, she would’ve shut it down when she heard the complaints. If your manager feels the need to bring it to your attention, it’s because on some level, even if she doesn’t realize it, she agrees with the perception of your teammates, or at the very least gives it some credence. If she were truly confident in your performance in whatever issue was being discussed, she’d have gone to bat for you. I’ve NEVER seen an employee who a manager believed was a truly high performer not be defended by their supervisor in such incidents.

        But for some reason, there’s this weird tendency to not own their opinion on it, and hide behind the “your teammates think…” explanation. It comes across as though they want you to change what you’re doing, but they don’t want to be the ones to ask you, so they put it on the “perception of your team” instead. Which is so weird, because they’re your boss! They’re allowed to ask you to change how you’re doing something! And you’ll be much more likely to implement the feedback from your manager than you would from your peers, no?

        And if the manager truly DOESN’T have a problem with it, then this is a good sign that they need to step up and do their job and back you up. Part of a manager’s job is to filter stuff like that. When your manager saw that you had only done it one other time, she should’ve gone back to the group and told them that, and told them that if there was ever a worry about your attendance, they could trust her to handle it. Honestly, you would’ve been well within your rights to ask her to do so.

        Bottom line, same old cliche of actions speaking louder than words. They may SAY they don’t have a problem with it, but if they’re bringing it to your attention…they do. Even if it’s just in a “I don’t want to have to deal with managing other employees’ perception of this even if it’s wrong” way.

    2. Tired of Covid-and People*

      There is never a good way to raise issues based on malicious anonymous gossip. it is hurtful and always a bad idea to do so. I would be upset too! It’s obvious why these things are being said, they want to get Jane in trouble. Sounds like the clique just doesn’t like her.

  9. Job Carousel*

    I’ve been on Jane’s end of things once, but instead of a thoughtful approach of “here are some things I’ve heard secondhand — can we discuss your take on them?”, the secondhand observations were presented as irrefutable facts with the worst possible motives on my part assumed. When I presented my own facts refuting the observations, my boss was unwilling to consider them, telling me that “perception is reality.” It really ruined my relationship with that boss. (In retrospect, I think she was gaslighting me and trying to push me out of the organization.)

    1. All the cats 4 me*

      Yes, this is real, (and I empathize because I have been on the losing end of that discussion), but I think we have to assume the OP framed it as a discussion (per her description), and also because we assume a positive action over a negative action without specific grounds to do otherwise.

      1. Job Carousel*

        Oh, I wasn’t commenting on Jane’s experience specifically. I was just remarking that it’s refreshing to hear about a conscientious boss handling a similar situation with open-mindedness and not immediately presuming all the concerns she’s heard secondhand about Jane must be 100% true.

    2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

      Yes, I’ve been on the receiving end of this – with the added bonus that the ‘manager’ (I put it in quotes, as they couldn’t manage to find their way out of a paper bag in fact) put to me that “John has said x about you and additionally Sarah has said y, this is unacceptable and can’t happen going forward” etc.

      One of two things is possible and I’ve never really figured out which — John and Sarah did legitimately say that and boss didn’t know how to be any more discreet than just passing it on verbatim, or they didn’t say any such thing but boss was too conflict averse to say it was actually him who had issue x and y. I do know though that he said something to another colleague that “behaviour z has been noticed and passed on to me” when I know for a fact that he was the only one who could have observed the ‘z’ in question!

      1. Job Carousel*

        That sounds so frustrating — I’m sorry!

        In my case, my boss flat-out refused to tell me who had passed along concerns, though I asked directly. I told her that these concerns didn’t ring true to any experiences I’ve had, so I needed more information about who complained and why to be able to improve, and she still refused. It literally felt like I was being accused of doing behavior XYZ while on a work assignment to Paris, when I’ve never been to Paris. But I guess I was perceived to be in Paris, so I must have actually gone there.

    3. hbc*

      Ugh, people who use “perception is reality” like a weapon drive me up the wall. I’ve had a manager tell me that his reports’ bad opinion of another department didn’t need to be based on actual performance to be a problem. I was like, “Well, it’s a problem, in that you need to stop rewarding your guys when they throw tantrums about fake problems.”

      1. Job Carousel*

        I hate that so much too! It’s possibly my least favorite expression in the English language.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Me three. I cannot be responsible for the distorted pictures of reality in someone else’s head.

  10. Middle School Teacher*

    Super unprofessional on the part of the colleagues. No wonder Jane was blindsided. Work is getting done? Yes. Is she making more work for other people (they can’t progress until she does her part)? Not in the letter. Spend some time investigating, but I would also spend some time reinforcing professional norms in the office.

    1. Kes*

      I don’t think that’s fair. It sounds like it was worth talking to the pot stirrer who was probably exaggerating and trying to cause trouble. It does sound though like the others were bringing up legitimate concerns they saw that OP wouldn’t have been aware of, which is a reasonable thing to do if for example she’s distracting them with socializing while they’re trying to work, or they see that clients are often asking for Jane and she’s not available because she’s taking a long break.

      1. Tired of Covid-and People*

        These concerns are not legitimate. Coworkers need to mind their own business, that would solve everything. They are the problem, not Jane, OP is on the right track with that. I think Alison’s response is giving the nasty coworkers too much credence, and I don’t care how reliable some of the complaining clique is. Ugh. Poor Jane.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          From the update to the original letter it sounds like *some* of the concerns were indeed legitimate.

      2. Middle School Teacher*

        Well, in a lot of professions that are regulated by a code of conduct, any employee who complained to the boss first before addressing it with the employee in question would find themselves disciplined.

        Also, in the update the OP said there was pretty much nothing to the complaints except a couple of minor things. Certainly nothing as egregious as what was being suggested. So I stand by my original comment. The coworkers were unprofessional and the manager should look to working on professional norms in the office.

    1. Lady Meyneth*

      Is this a tongue-in-cheeck suggestion? Some reference I’m missing? Because otherwise, it’s frankly terrible!

      1. 7310*

        Tongue in Cheek. Several letters last few months about managers expecting such and how to push back.

  11. Most definitely anonymous for this*

    I am a firm believer in taking the writers at their word, but I’m wondering if some of this issue is a disconnect in what the expectations around ‘set times.’ Perhaps there are core hours that you absolutely must be in the office, e.g., between 10 am and 4 pm. Let’s say that most employees get there around 9 and therefore, do not leave until 5. Jane gets in at or before 8 am and therefore, leaves a bit after 4. In Jane’s world, she’s in the office during core hours and is putting in her required 40 hours. In the world of her co-workers, she’s leaving before the “company standard” 5 pm.

    My company has this issue on the other end: some people start at 6 am and sarcastically greet the 9 am crowd with “good afternoon.” In their world, someone who rolls into the office at 8 am is “late,” even if their manager specifies the set time as 8 am to 4 pm. Basically, company culture overrides what the manager says.

    1. LizM*

      Yes, I’ve experienced that. At my last job, our core hours were 10-4, you could come in earlier or stay later, but it was expected you’d be there and available during those hours. Most people got in by 8, but due to issues with my daycare drop off, I usually didn’t get in until 8:45 or 9, sometimes as late as 9:30. I always worked a full day, and my supervisor was fine with this schedule. But I definitely got push back from some of my coworkers. Some would suggest that I probably left as soon as they did (and told me that’s what they would do, if given the chance). Luckily my supervisor would tell them to mind their own business when they complained about my schedule. I did make a point to send him a couple emails around 5:30 or 6 a couple times a week so he’d see I was still working.

      1. Former Employee*

        I guess it would have been tempting to say something about how actual adults don’t need to have Mommy watching in order to do what they are supposed to do.

  12. LQ*

    Pot-stirrers can be really dangerous, they are basically the boy who cried wolf and they will occasionally see a wolf but if they’ve lost confidence it’s so hard to tell and you have to spend a lot of energy to sort out the real wolves from the fake wolves. I wonder if anyone’s gotten a hard core pot-stirring drama loving wolf crier to fully stop? I work with one and she will cut back a lot but it always comes back.

  13. Arctic*

    In my experience, when you chat (purposely avoiding the word gossip) about co-workers transgressions in your mind they sometimes become bigger than they really are. I don’t mean any of the co-workers are lying. But if you are really nitpicking someone to death with your co-workers and there is a group text “Jane’s late AGAIN” every time whether it’s 3 mins or half an hour it just becomes a much bigger issue in your mind than in reality.

    Given both Jane’s reaction and that you haven’t detected anything in her work output (I understand that’s not everything as she has to be there but if she was this big of a problem you’d think you’d notice something off) I would guess this is what’s happening. That there are issues the co-workers have picked up on. But that they’ve also unintentionally exaggerated them by hyper-focusing on Jane and not everyone else.

    Doesn’t change the advice, of course. But keep an open mind and don’t assume anyone’s lying. Not Jane nor the employees.

    1. mf*

      “In my experience, when you chat (purposely avoiding the word gossip) about co-workers transgressions in your mind they sometimes become bigger than they really are.”

      Yes, this is totally a thing. I’ve had things that irked me about a colleague, but when I, um, chatted with coworkers about this person, I found the issues getting bigger and more frustrating in my own mind. If these four employees are talking about Jane together, they might be feeding each others frustrations.

      1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        Yes, I worked with a pot stirrer drama llama who used to do this ALL the time. Let’s say Fergus was putting the TPS reports into the STP folder even though he had been reminded to make sure he put things in the correct folder before.

        She would turn it into, “Fergus put the TPS reports into the STP folder AGAIN. I am ALWAYS having to clean up Fergus’s messes. It creates SO MUCH more work for me when I need the TPS reports and they are in the STP folder. It takes a ton of time off other tasks and Fergus doesn’t care and our boss doesn’t care. This is disrespectful to us and our time because WE do our jobs and Fergus can just keep doing whatever he likes and then I have to redo all of his filing for him when I’m already busy with MY own work, no matter how many times I’ve asked for this to be fixed!”

        Suddenly she’d blown up a minor inconvenience (having to check two folders instead of one once in awhile) into a big one (having to check two folders AND reorganize both folders every day) and a personal attack by both Fergus and the boss. And by venting, she’d drawn everyone on staff’s attention to minor things like this that they were otherwise shrugging off because they’re battles not worth wasting capital on, and helped them frame them as personal attacks of disrespect.

        It was exhausting.

    1. I'm just here for the cats.*

      Thanks for this! I was kinda thinking that maybe there was some workplace bullying too

  14. Girasol*

    That raises the opposite question in my mind about something I saw long ago. I went to my boss to tell him that John liked to come tearing into the shipping dock on his forklift, jam on the brake, and put it into a spin on the slick floor. I just listened for him coming and strolled out of the way without looking, thinking that he was just trying to get a rise out of the women dock workers and he’d quit if he didn’t get a reaction. One of the new employees had seen a coworker hurt in a forklift accident in her last job, was freaked out, and begged me to tell the boss. The boss said, “I can’t just do something on your word. I have to catch him in the act.” I showed him the bent-up roller that John had skidded into, but that didn’t prove that John was the one who broke it. And of course, John didn’t do his thing if the boss was near. We ended up having my coworkers work another area and me work the danger area until John got tired of me and quit. That was good, but I felt like there must have been a better way. Was the boss right to take my complaint with a grain of salt, thinking that I might just be stirring up trouble out of spite like Jane’s coworkers probably did? Or was he wrong to risk a workplace accident in his attempt to be fair?

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      Was the boss right to take my complaint with a grain of salt, thinking that I might just be stirring up trouble out of spite like Jane’s coworkers probably did?

      Your concern was a safety concern, so I feel like the boss had an obligation to the company to investigate it, even on “just your word,” to avoid a lawsuit, OSHA violation, etc.

    2. Kes*

      I think your boss was definitely in the wrong, especially because you were raising a safety concern (and you had proof there was a safety concern. Boss might not have evidence to discipline John, but he should have at least had a conversation with him about safety.

    3. Clorinda*

      There’s a qualitative difference between an office worker leaving fifteen minutes early every day and a forklift driver doing donuts in the warehouse, though.

    4. GothicBee*

      There’s a lot of ground between writing off a complaint because you haven’t seen it happen and immediately assuming every complaint is 100% true. In this case, I would think your boss could have talked to your coworkers who could corroborate the story and provide enough evidence to prove there’s a problem without the boss being there to observe what was happening. I do think it’s worth investigating a claim, rather than taking it at face value, but “investigating” doesn’t mean “Ignore it until you see it happen”, especially with a safety concern that puts people in danger.

    5. C M*

      Wow, if that resulted in an injury that would be bad enough. But if an investigation found that the boss was warned and didn’t address it, that is so much worse.

    6. LizM*

      Managers have to be able to act on things they didn’t specifically witness. I’m assuming there were other witnesses. If an employee brought something like that to me, I’d talk to the other people who were there, and if there was any “there” there, I’d talk to John and go from there.

      There have been times employees brought something to me and even though I probably would have said something had I witnessed it, it wasn’t worth looking into so I let it go.

      But you’re describing a major safety risk. That should be addressed and employees should feel like they can raise safety concerns and have management act on them.

  15. TimeTravlR*

    I had some folks who arrived at the office quite early and I was led to believe that maybe they weren’t accomplishing much in the hour or so before I arrived. One day I had to go to the airport so I arrived at work about 10 minutes after them. I walked in and everybody that arrived at 6 (about 6 of them; only 1 from my team) were cokin’ and jokin’ in the break room… until I walked in and suddenly everybody had someplace else to be.
    From then on, I made it a point to come in at weird times just to keep them on their toes.
    I didn’t make a big thing of it because they always got their work done, though.

  16. Anonnie*

    Please send us a follow up! I would love to know how this situation ends. I’m really curious as to whether Jane may be getting bullied or what happened here. Also wondering if the context is pre or post COVID, where client facing roles sometimes have less live clients than previously. Thanks!

  17. Judy*

    Of course Jane acted surprised and denied it. That’s what guilty people do. Do we think she was going to say “Okay, you got me”? Four complaints sounds like fed up.

  18. Essess*

    Make sure to pin down exact incidents from the complainers, rather than hearing “always” and “everyone says”. We had a ‘stirrer’ in our office that escalated an issue because “everyone is complaining about X constantly leaving early”. We pinned her down by asking for exact names of “who” was complaining… she had to admit it was only 1 person, not “everyone”. Then when we talked to the person, THEY had not been complaining, they had just listened while the ‘stirrer’ had been doing the complaining. Then when the ‘stirrer’ was pinned down to name specific dates the person left early, the ‘stirrer’ was finally forced to admit it was 1 day. So “everyone complaining about it constantly happening” was just the original ‘stirrer’ about 1 time which had actually been approved by management.

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