how to manage a combative, negative employee

A reader writes:

I have an employee who I would really like to succeed, but her attitude makes it difficult for her to get ahead. She has an us vs them mentality when it comes to management and often takes a combative approach when discussing employee issues, policy changes, updates, or general feedback. It makes other departments shy away from her, and she misses out on promotional opportunities due to her attitude. I appreciate her involvement in the department and employee issues, but she is so against management that is makes it hard to work with her (and out of all the jobs I have had, I’ve never worked for a place that cares more about its employees and ideas for improvement). She constantly butts in when it’s really not her business and stirs the pot when there is no need for it.

She has confided to me that she would like a promotion because of all the years she has worked here. How do I impress upon her that promotions are earned based on skill and not longevity?

If an opportunity presents itself, I am not sure her computer skills would be up to par and, frankly, her attitude makes it difficult to promote her. I do not want to spend my days with somebody who constantly complains in a non-constructive way. If she could couch her opinions more constructively, I feel like she would get further ahead. I’ve had talks with her before, but it doesn’t seem to sink in. Any advice? Or is that people don’t change and I need to let the chips fall where they may?

I answer this question — and four others — 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.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • How much should I watch what I say around a coworker with financial worries?
  • Everyone wants to know why I’m not eating at office food events
  • I’m being asked to help out at the job I was laid off from
  • Should my company pay to fly me back from a business trip for a funeral?

{ 104 comments… read them below }

  1. rachel morgan*

    I know it sucks being the person with food allergies (celiac here, so nothing is to be trusted!). I’ve taken the completely opposite approach. I cheerfully say, “Sorry, looks wonderful but I’m allergic.” It didn’t take long before colleagues stopped commenting. I still participate in events (birthday parties etc), and there’s no questions.

    1. Sam.*

      This would be my recommendation, too. I think you could throw in the, “Oh, it’s boring,” + subject change if someone wants to ask follow up questions you’d rather avoid, but personally, I think refusing to answer why you’re not eating is going to raise far more questions than providing the simple answer, even if you decline to go into details.

      1. irene adler*

        Agreed. Folks love a mystery.

        I use the “I have some food sensitivities…but let me not bore you with the details.” Then change the subject.

      2. Exhausted Trope*

        As a person with food allergies, I’ve been in this person’s work shoes. It sucks. Conversations at company food events usually go like this :
        “Wish I could but food allergies. Looks tasty though.”
        “What kinds of allergies?”
        “The usual ones. Boring stuff. Did you try the ham loaf? Barb always makes it so good!”
        “So, what happens if you eat something you’re allergic to?”
        “It’s really nasty but nothing I should discuss around food.”
        Then I leave the room. Some people just can’t take the hint.

        1. Breadhater*

          This is 100% true, I myself have fielded these very same questions so many times! However I agree that it’s best to respond with vague answers about allergies and the resulting bodily issues than to just allude to a mystery. Saying it’s something boring and attempting to change the subject will almost always result in infinitely more questions than if you had just said it was a food allergy! As a bonus, if you’re lucky, I’ve often found there’s another person nearby who jumps in and LOVES to share all the gritty details about a diet they are on or a food allergy they or someone they know has, which then takes the focus off you. Win-win :D

        2. Selina*

          I kind of took the opposite tack. I become violently ill if I eat bell peppers, and I describe precisely what that looks like to people who won’t leave “I’m allergic” alone.

    2. Alison*

      I really wish we could all just stop talking about our food choices. Like, I have zero food allergies and sometimes I don’t eat at work events because I…don’t want to? It’s so weird when co-workers scrutinize what we eat! Like sometimes the answer is “I’m not hungry”, other times the answer is “that does not look appetizing”, or “I don’t like cherries”. Whhhy do we do this to each other. Asking why someone isn’t eating is almost as bad as “omg I can’t believe you are going to eat that” or “xyz is so unhealthy” or “oh I wish I could eat like you” or whatever.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        This. I don’t eat at work because I don’t eat in front of other people at all. Ever. (Combination of an old ED and hating everyone criticising my food because I’m fat).

        So I’ve used ‘not hungry’ or ‘not really my kinda food sorry’ a lot.

        People need to stop making comments about what people are eating/not eating at work. It’s truly nobody’s business.

        Unless it’s hakarl in which case go eat it in the car park please (stinky food)

      2. Not So NewReader*

        It took society a looong time to stop offering alcohol after the first “no, thanks”. People would just push and push and push. We can still do better on this point.

        I think the food problem is an variation on that theme. I went to a friend’s house for dinner. Since she was a savvy friend, I explained what I would be able to eat. I dunno what got lost in the translation. She was totally shocked that I was not able to eat most of what she had. She walked away muttering something about it’s rude to refuse other people’s food. I shrugged, oh well.

        Because I did not learn the first time, I went through a similar thing at a family member’s house. We got there and it was all deli meats and cheap rolls. It was interesting to watch a highly educated person whine, “I don’t UNDERSTAAAAND! What do you mean you eat a lot veggies? This is too hard, I can’t figure it out.”
        That one was just way too sad to watch.

        1. Red Boxes and Arrows*

          Wowwwwww to your friend.

          If one of my friends had explained their food limitations / preferences to me and I’d gotten it wrong, I would have been *mortified* and unable to stop apologizing. And would be racing to the store or taking us all to dinner at a place with the right foods immediately.

          Holy moly, I sure as heck wouldn’t tell my guests that they’re *rude* (???) to refuse to eat. . . well, anything.

        2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Unfortunately I’ve had that experience as well. And my relative was a NURSE who should have been educated enough to understand.

          I left her house after about an hour, my brother and one Uncle left with me to go and get me a dinner I could actually eat. My parents didn’t because they were busy running interference with the rest of the relatives (with the assistance of my grandpa) as to why my leaving to go get food elsewhere was the only option, no I wasn’t an ungrateful teenager, bad yes you as the almost 70 year old are being ridiculous right now.

          My uncle didn’t bring me back until about 5 mins before it was time to leave for the hotel for the night.

      3. Catladyintraining*

        Exactly! I’ve been made to feel bad when I turn down maybe I don’t feel like cake or I had a big lunch and I’m full. Or maybe, I don’t like ice cream cake, especially mint chip ice cream cake!
        Oh and I’ve also been made to feel bad when I order a salad. Geez! Maybe I’m not super hungry, maybe this place does good salads!

  2. Cordoba*

    I’m unclear on why LW really wants this employee to succeed.

    It sounds as though she’s actively making everybody else’s workplace worse AND she’s lacking in the basic skills for the next-level job anyway. That’s not a recipe for success.

    I wouldn’t waste 1 more second thinking about getting her a promotion, and would instead focus on explaining to her that she needs to fix her behavior or find another job.

    1. RC Rascal*

      I had this though as well. It’s possible the focus on this employee could have a negative effect on OP as well. OP could be perceived as a poor judge of talent and unable to effectively develop employees.

    2. starsaphire*

      I know this is a “from the archives” letter, but honestly, I’d be tempted to question the employee on why she wants to move upward in the company if she is so bitterly against the management. I mean, if the mean girls are so mean, why do you want to sit with them anyway?

      I would be willing to bet that this employee eventually either left or was managed out, but I suspect we’ll never know.

      1. Catladyintraining*

        Yes! If someone always complains about the management, why would she want to stay at the company?

    3. SheLooksFamiliar*

      Seconded. It could be the OP really wants the employee to understand why she hasn’t been promoted, but the words ‘We want our employees to succeed’ have become part of the narrative for every development discussion and issue. It’s an easy habit to fall into, I’m guilty of it myself.

    4. Richard Hershberger*

      Yup. There isn’t even the traditional “She’s great at her core functions!” bit. I suspect that the bit about how much the company cares about its employees is code for it never firing anyone.

    5. Anon for this*

      We have one of these as in No. 1. Everyone decided to be really nice to them, and give them three promotions. Now they mistreat everyone, and the only people with more power than them are those who are too scared to do anything to poke the bear. I am job searching.

      1. Colleague’s Dog’s Viking Funeral*

        That was my takeaway. Employee does have an us v. them mentality and when she becomes “them” she will mistreat “us” the same way she felt she’d been.
        Like I’ve seen in the comments here where women or POC will be working for asshats, and the words from people who should be mentors, or at least sympathetic if not supportive, are along the lines of, “yeah, when I worked there, I had to put up with harassment, too.”
        Not, let’s change it, instead, “earn your bones.”
        Cuz that’ll work.

    6. Chilipepper*

      We had that person working for us and several levels of managers cared so much that they took great care of this person to the detriment of everyone else. It has really hirt morale and eroded our trust in management.

    7. Argh!*

      When an employee isn’t succeeding, it’s at least partly due to the manager doing something wrong. I think that is probably the case here — wanting to know what could be done differently. Several comments here have made some good points about feedback and expectations.

    8. LGC*

      I mean…I kind of get where LW1 was coming from – I just had an employee like that who was really combative with me. And honestly, at least some of that was my fault – she’s really blunt (and probably overly blunt), and I felt a bit threatened by it. So I think I probably escalated her bad behavior at times instead of de-escalating it.

      I mean, I wouldn’t think of promoting her (Lord have mercy NO), but I still want good things for her even if she got on my last nerve at a lot of points. And I think that’s what LW1 meant by saying that they really want this employee to succeed – not that they want her to advance in the company, but that they want to see her do well. (Not only that, LW1 explicitly says that they don’t think this employee should be promoted anyway!)

  3. Bostonian*

    In addition to addressing the unconstructive complaining, it really needs to be made clear what the expectations are for achieving a promotion, and that years of service alone does NOT cut it.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yes. I am fighting this battle with someone now who keeps insisting that we’re very unfair to not have promoted them to the same positions as a number of their peers, and no matter how much we talk about what, very specifically, needs to be done to meet the promotion criteria and offers of assistance on how to get there, they always come back to “but I’ve been here just as many years as Jane!” – which is true, but Jane has a much broader skill set, does more billable work, manages complex project logistics, and mentors entry-level team members, all of which this person either cannot or will not do (nor attend training for) until they get the title they want.

          1. Marillenbaum*

            No need to apologize–it might be mean, but it was also the funniest thing I’ve seen all day!

      1. CatLadyInTraining*

        We have people like that at my office and it’s quite annoying. They know exactly what they need to do to get a promotion (actually be considered for one), but they don’t do it. And yet they still complain! Come on! You know what to do, either do it or don’t do it and quit complaining!

        1. KRM*

          I had a colleague who was complaining about not being promoted. So I had (what I thought was) a nice and serious talk with her about how I thought maybe she should tell her manager that she wanted to be promoted, so they could come up with a plan of what she should do, things they needed to see from her, etc. Instead she never talked to me about promotions again. She also didn’t do anything different and did not get promoted for 4 further years (and ultimately did get promoted in large part because she got a new manager and did all the scut work he foisted on her, so he didn’t want to lose her).

    2. Argh!*

      Exactly. When the process is clear, when the expectations are explicit, and when the feedback is honest and constructive, employees left behind won’t be bitter.

      Putting 100% of the blame on the employee is tempting, but the manager needs to give some thought to those things. At the very least, the employee needs to know that being anti-management disqualifies someone from being in management!

  4. Former call centre worker*

    #2 I used to work on a team where the next lowest paid team members earned more than 50% more than me. The only thing that wound me up was when they complained about not having money. It was sometimes a bit like, yes, your salary isn’t a lot of money – after you’ve spent it. I wasn’t bothered about them having more expensive stuff, not that I really noticed. You are definitely overthinking the haircuts thing, since haircuts don’t come with a visible price tag and generally go unnoticed by colleagues anyway.

    #3 I also have food intolerances so I have the same problem and I go with “it’s boring” when asked for details. I haven’t yet found a more effective way of getting rid of questions. It’s one of those things like having an unusual name, where people don’t realise that they aren’t the only person to ask about it and that it’s boring to have the same conversation with everyone you meet.

    1. Absurda*

      Totally agree with your comments about #2. I remember being the lowest paid person on the team early in my career. My coworkers always had expensive things and took expensive vacations I could never afford. Most of it never bothered me because I understood it was mostly due to my stage in life and role in the company.

      What did bother me was when my boss (who made gobs more than me) complained that she couldn’t buy the very expensive custom couch she wanted. When I first joined the company I slept on an air mattress for months until I could save up for a twin bed, so I had no sympathy. If she’d just bought the couch I never would have thought anything of it.

      1. Some dude*

        Yeah, hearing a person who earns much more than you complain about money is grating.

        The other thing I’d add is be super mindful what you expect them to spend on work-related but not compensated things like company gifts (shudder) or happy hours or going out to lunch or whatever. This is where the difference in finances can really matter – it might not be a big deal to you to spend $50 on after work drinks and appetizers but would be her weekly grocery budget.

      2. Dandy it is*

        This happened over 20 years ago. I was working as a receptionist at an executive recruiting firm that only placed people making more than six figures. I was making 22k and dress code was business professional (yesh!). One of the head recruiters dressed up as Santa at our holiday party. I was riding up the elevator with him and asked him if the costume was his. He told me he did not have that “type of discretionary income.” He was making at least $250k. I just thought I can’t afford my work clothes.

        1. TardyTardis*

          Santa suits don’t cost that much–especially if you buy them the night of Christmas itself (they were 75% off when my husband bought a very good one for an extremely reasonable price).

      3. Lizzo*

        At my first job, I had colleagues who were a handful of years ahead of me and a couple pay grades higher, and they spent a LOT of time talking about shopping for designer clothes and other things that I simply couldn’t afford with my entry-level paycheck.

        Turns out they were racking up a LOT of credit card debt to acquire those things. Pressure to “keep up with the Joneses”, I suppose. Once I realized they were spending money they didn’t have, it became a lot easier to shrug my shoulders and move on to things that mattered…like doing a good job at the actual work.

  5. Madame Defarge*

    If she’s worked there for years, why doesn’t she have the skills to advance? Was she not offered a chance to learn them, or did she choose not to?

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      I wonder if part of her not having picked up those skills is related to being disconnected from the “unwritten” priorities of management. If you have that adversarial of a relationship with your org’s leadership you’re probably not going to make an effort to understand or internalize what they see as important for advancement.

      1. Madame Defarge*


        I was just wondering because I’ve been in the position of literally *begging* for additional training and not getting it. And I don’t have an adversarial relationship with my management.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          I think we need more information to determine that. I’ve had a few coworkers who refused additional training that they didn’t feel they should need, and then complained when they didn’t get moved up. Yes, that makes no sense to me, either. My best guess was that their need to knee-jerk refuse anything their supervisors suggested overrode their common sense.

          These were also the people who made fun of the fact that I had a college degree but did the same work they did, which didn’t require one. But I was the one who got promoted after six months and eventually moved on to a much better job, so . . .

            1. fhqwhgads*

              That’s true, but it can’t be both with one person in particular. Like, if you say to them “you need to have skills in X to get promoted” and then offer them an X training, and they decline, and they also continue to lack X skills and complain about not getting promoted, that’s a them problem. If they decline the training, learn X on their own and still can’t get promoted, it’d be a different story. But they can’t simultaneously use “lack of training” as a reason for lack of skill if they declined the training.

              1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                Oh, certainly. If the training is germane and the skills needed, one is writing their own rejection by pushing back on it.

                That said, I’ve also seen training scheduled to make HR look good, where the classes are as useful as “Llama Husbandry for Teapot Salespeople.” Just because an employee pushes back on some training doesn’t necessarily mean the training was good and the employee was wrong–but when it is, the employee has written their own fate.

                1. Wintermute*

                  Training costs money, in most functional businesses you need a business case to justify spending money. I have rarely, if ever, seen training that was totally useless, but I’ve seen a LOT of people that assume it will be and decline or outright resist, and then are mystified why their skills are out of date and why they are baffled by the new hot trends in the industry.

                  They have such a narrow conception of what useful is and what their job is they just don’t see how the industry is shifting away from where their skills lie and in new directions, decline training on what they presume are skills they don’t need because they’re such experts in The Old Way, and then are confused when they’re laid off because their skills are no longer relevant to the organization and its direction is headed away from where their talents lie.

                2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                  I’m envious your time has never been wasted by HR personnel trying to make themselves look good.

        2. Argh!*

          Same here. Turns out I was working for people who wanted to be surrounded by people who were like themselves and had no use for diversity of viewpoint, experience, culture, etc. Once I realized that, it was easier to watch them huddle in meetings together, knowing that they were probably wasting their time validating each other rather than raising legitimate questions.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      Sometimes, people choose not to take advantage of training or mentoring. I have a longtime employee who has a mid-level skill set and is upset that they can’t get a senior-level job title based on years of experience. We have discussed repeatedly what specific skills and metrics need to be achieved for promotion. We’ve networked them with people and projects to learn these skills and get the appropriate experience. We’ve asked them to do smaller versions of the high-level work with support. They won’t do any of it until we give them the job title. They do a perfectly serviceable job in their mid-level role (and won’t leave because they won’t make their salary elsewhere without upping their game significantly), but we’re at an impasse on promotion because we can’t promote them without their being willing to do senior-level work, and they won’t do senior-level work until we promote them.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Uh, I don’t think you mean it this way, but this reads that they refuse to work above their pay grade unless they are paid appropriately. I have seen this one play out often. Does the employee realize how long or how much they will have to do to prove themselves and then receive compensation? Can they get some small additional compensation for doing the training?

        Many companies (not necessarily yours) are well known for using people in this manner. It sounds like the employee does not trust the company to uphold their side of the deal.

        1. Allonge*

          And that lack of trust may not be unreasonable based on bad experiences, but in a lot of places will result in not being promoted, trained etc. In healthy companies, (relevant, necessary) training is already a benefit. And not showing trust in the system is seen as problematic, especially for someone who would be put in charge of managnig others.

          1. Wintermute*

            Maybe it’s because it’s super normal in IT to get trained, denied a promotion and just leave for someplace else, but I still don’t get why you would do that to yourself. So you don’t trust them, fine, then take the work, put a few lines on your resume, maybe get them to pay for some training and proudly bounce on out to your new higher-titled and higher-paying job. Unless there’s very limited job mobility in your field, you’re being given a chance to grow your skillset and take on higher-level work, it’s always, always to your benefit.

            Because it comes with an implicit threat there, “I am now a senior engineer, pay me senior engineer wages or someone else will”.

        2. NotAnotherManager!*

          This person has been with the organization for decades (longer than I have, actually), and all of their peers have earned the promotion they’re asking for. There is a strong culture of internal development and promotion, and we have longer-tenured employees than average. The job descriptions are maintained and thorough, and promotion criteria have been provided via the job description, in verbal feedback, and on performance evaluation goals. I honestly don’t know how much clearer we could be about it.

          I’m not talking about doing a higher-level job for the same pay, I’m talking about refusing to learn the individual skills needed for the higher-level position or do even a single higher-level project as a one-off prior to promotion. For example, to do SrJob, you have to know how to use a particular research tool, for which training is provided by the org. This person won’t take the training in the research tool until they are promoted to SrJob. They are also complaining that people with fewer years of experience are being promoted over them, but it’s because those folks read the requirements and take advantage of the training and project work provided to them.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        To me it reads as if the employee is unwilling to learn the things they need to get the promotion unless they are granted the promotion first. It’s jumbled a bit- but it’s similar to a person who wants to be handed the college degree before they complete the required coursework. Now they could be refusing what they see as an attempt by the company to abuse their work (which yes does happen), but it could just be a person who thinks time in job means you have to promote me – whether I have the skill to do the next level up job or not.

      3. CatLadyInTraining*

        I’ve seen both situations. Some where the company and management didn’t help the employee get extra training and expand their knowledge to move forward. I’ve also seen when employees won’t do any of the required or recommended training to move up and then they moan about it. I’ve seen the second scenario much more often and it’s quite annoying.

  6. meep*

    Does the advice to the last LW would change if the funeral isn’t where LW’s home is? Eg if LW works for a company based in OH, is on a business trip in CA, and needs to attend a funeral in WI? Then would the LW be responsible for figuring that flight out on their own? Would it be reasonable to ask the company to cover any increase in cost for a CA-WI round trip vs. an OH-WI round trip?

    1. Heidi*

      This is a good question. I have to admit that if I were away on business and needed to come home for a funeral, it would not have even occurred to me to ask my employer to pay for it. They wouldn’t pay for funeral travel if I were at home, after all. But I can see the logic that the LW wouldn’t even be in California if it weren’t for work. If they balk at the expense, maybe the LW could pay for the leg to Ohio but ask the employer to pay for the leg back to California?

    2. Ali G*

      The company should pay to fly her back home early and then she is on her own to get to the funeral. The real need is to change the current ticket so the OP can get home sooner to attend the funeral (on her own time/dime).

    3. Rayray*

      One thing I’m thinking about, the LW is in a tough spot because they’re on a business trip. If they were not on this business trip, it likely wouldn’t be a major hassle to get a plane ticket or maybe even drive their own car to the funeral since they would already be at their home base. Being on the business trip (that they probably didn’t ask to go on, but had to for work/business obligations) makes their travel to the funeral much more complicated.

    4. AcademiaNut*

      I had something similar, and what happened was that I paid to get from the conference to the funeral (the conference was actually much closer to the funeral, and was most quickly reached by bus), rebooked the original ticket for a later date, and then went from the funeral site back to the conference site. Mind you, flying back to my home city, then to the funeral, would have taken a minimum of 48 hours and two trans Pacific flights, assuming I could have gotten convenient last minute flights.

    5. agnes*

      I was surprised at Alison’s response as well to this question. It never occurred to me to ask my employer to pay for a flight back for a funeral. I guess it depends on what kind of company you work for. My company provides paid funeral leave but I doubt they would pay for a plane ticket home.

    6. MCMonkeybean*

      My first thought is no, but I’m not feeling 100% about it.

      They wouldn’t need to get any flights at all if they weren’t on this trip for work so I think asking them to fly you home and back is reasonable. But if the funeral is in another state then they would have to buy flights regardless. And if you’re just comparing flights within the 48 contiguous US states then the difference in prices is usually not going to be that much.

  7. RC Rascal*

    #4– if they are willing to pay you there may be some value to the shut down work. I knew someone who was in this situation and they not only learned a lot , but it helped them network for their next role. People wanted to meet with them and learn more about the business failure and dissolution. ( In this case it was pretty high profile local business failure).

    1. Wintermute*

      My Uncle was the last company employee at a major auto plant that was mothballed, then shut down, and then put into crazy legal limbo (couldn’t be sold for redevelopment because of potential metal contamination of the soil) and now I think it’s either going to be “mothballed” and basically left to rust or formally written off and torn down. And while a big industrial shutdown is very different, it was great for his career, he got to see sides to the business he hadn’t dealt with before (he was an industrial process engineer, not a facilities engineer, so interacting with maintenance and upkeep was a new skillset for him), he earned a lot of goodwill from his bosses it put some useful lines on his resume about responsibility for large capital assets and overseeing contract work, and he made contacts with the vendors and contractors while keeping a paycheck coming in and having a long time to look for an ideal job (eventually they moved him back to base and he stayed with the company though)

      This situation isn’t like that though, there’s no chance of being brought back to the home office, there’s potentially no paycheck coming in, but it could still add lines to your resume and give you a chance to network. It really depends on how bankable you think the boss’ goodwill and any contacts you make will be calculated against how much you think it will interfere with a job search.

      my advice to the LW would be: Make a clear tabulation of exactly what you expect to get out of it and how much that’s worth to you, and work up to that level and no more, the moment the value proposition starts dipping south of acceptable wages to you, feel free to decline to do any further unpaid work. just say “I was willing to help out because I am proud of the work we did, but I’m finding that the amount of commitment and time required is getting in the way of finding my next paying job, and I can’t continue to do that without hurting my career, so either I’m going to need to be compensated or I will have to cut back to [insert amount that makes sense here, including none]”

  8. FrivYeti*

    For #2, I used to work as a long-term temp, which often meant that I would be on four to six month contracts with people in the same job who were paid twice what I was making. Sometimes they would chat about vacations, new tech, or the like, and that never bothered me. The only time anything like that did bother me was when our manager came in showing off the $3,000 watch that he’d bought with his Christmas bonus. (My Christmas bonus that year was a $10 Dairy Queen gift card that had been in a gift basket delivered to the company which the managers didn’t want.)

  9. Person from the Resume*

    I hear what Allison is saying in the 5th letter, but I work for the government and they would not pay for such a situation. Oddly enough, though, I think if you were to fly home and not continue your business trip, they would pay for it because it’s the return trip part of the approved trip, but paying for flying you home for the weekend in the middle of a business trip is not their responsibility.

    Meep makes an excellent point too that if the LW’s life situation were different, the LW would have to pay to travel to the funeral distant from where he/she lives.

    1. Rayray*

      I bet the LW would be fine to take on the costs of travel whether flying to or driving to the funeral from their home. They’re at this business trip because of work obligations. They aren’t there for fun, they are there because their work has mandated they be there away from their home base. The business trip has complicated their travel so it does seem fair that they help out in some way.

    2. JF*

      Yes, I wonder what the reaction would be if LW had said, “if I can’t be reimbursed, I can pay the change fees for the return but I can’t come back to California next week.” That seems reasonable to me, but I don’t know how that would go. It’s a quick turn around and I would be happy she was even willing to go back so soon after a funeral!

      1. Hazel*

        You can’t plan for a funeral, so it just makes sense that the company should pay for the OP to attend the funeral and then get them back to California. And not for nothin’, but this person is risking their health to travel by plane to California (where the virus is everywhere! – and that’s not a slam against CA. I’m from there, I love it, and almost my entire family lives there).

        It might be slightly different if the funeral was someplace very far away from CA or from their home base, but even in that situation, I would hope the company would at least offer to pay for some of the travel because, as Alison said, the OP wouldn’t have been in California if they weren’t sent there by their job.

        I don’t understand the speculation about “what if the situation were different.” Is that because people are thinking this is too much to ask of one’s employer? Or some other reason? Maybe I’m just very practical – and anxious – and don’t want to worry about something that isn’t the actual issue. I have plenty of other things I could worry about that I probably also shouldn’t worry about.

  10. AthenaC*

    #2 – Agree with Alison – you’re way overthinking it! The biggest difference between the disposable income you and your colleague have has more to do with stage of life than the fact that you make more money than your colleague. Those of us who are breadwinners are fully aware that our entire paycheck is spoken for before it even arrives in our bank accounts, and those of us who are well-adjusted are totally fine with that. I’m not resentful when I see my peers have nice clothes, vacations, expensive highlights, etc. – they’re not feeding and housing a whole family with their money so of course they have more flexibility with their spending!

    1. Usagi*

      I came here to say this. I’m of the second category: despite being peers with or even senior to most of the people I work with, I live paycheck to paycheck, because of my family situation: two kids (one newborn and one in private school) and my wife is in medical school so I’m the sole income and when I’m not working I’m 100% with my kids. It’s the life I chose, and knew I was getting into, so I’m not bitter about it at all.

      Meanwhile, my coworkers all have SO’s that work, and several don’t have kids, so they have way more disposable income. Despite what you may think, I enjoy seeing them getting new techy gadgets and travelling abroad and stuff, because I can live vicariously through them. They’re all great people and I know they’re not bragging or showing off, so there’s no hard feelings or anything.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Some where I read a list of what not to say regarding money to employees.
      I wish I could remember where I saw it.

      One of the things on the list was never make jokes about the size of a paycheck- not their paycheck and NOT your paycheck.

      One place I worked did not pay much. One day it had snowed and we had freezing rain. I fell in the parking lot on the way into the building. One management person looked at my feet and said, “Get boots!” I fired back, “GET SAND!” Then I filed a complaint with my own boss, who patiently explained to the management person that “We don’t pay our people enough to afford new boots! YOU need to get off your lazy butt and throw down sand before we get sued. And quit telling people how to spend their money!” My boss also showed him the (published) list of pay rates so that the management person could see, “Yep, people in X role probably aren’t going to be buying new boots.”

      There were other pointers on the list of things not to say about money. It was an impressive piece of advice for how specific it was.

  11. Long torso*

    Re: the advice to the laid-off nonprofit worker, in some jurisdictions in the USA there are laws about how current nonprofit employees can volunteer for their employer–volunteer duties need to be substantially different from your regular work, so if you’re an accountant, you can volunteer to clean the toilets, but if not if you’re the custodian.

    I believe there are also similar laws that restrict recent former employees from volunteering to do their former jobs. Especially if you have been laid off, doing more than answering a question or two about the password/location of X file etc could both jeopardize your unemployment funding and put the nonprofit at legal risk (for which the board is legally and fiscally responsible–even if it’s dissolving/dissolved).

    1. Annimal*

      There are also local laws that could actually bar the organization from laying off an employee, then paying them hourly to do the same work. I know most people in that situation will suck it up because they need the money, but it’s something where people should be aware of the laws and ethics of the situation.

    2. Jessica Fletcher*

      Came here to say the thing about jeopardizing your Unemployment! You generally have to report to UC any income you earn while on UC. Your UC can be reduced depending on how much you earn. Which is ok, usually. If you only work PT for PRN, your UC funds will last longer since you’re supplementing them.

      But you also have to report where you work. The Dept of Labor will be very interested to know why your company can pay you to work now, when they just laid you off. Sounds super risky.

  12. 3DogNight*

    LW1 Please make a direct effort to explain what you’re seeing. She may genuinely not realize what she is doing. Some people don’t understand the indirect cues they get, and go by what the read or see in shows to know how they are supposed to act. IF this is the case for her, in her mind the reactions she is getting only affirm what she thinks she knows.
    I say this because I was this person until someone had this conversation with me. It will be uncomfortable for both of you. But, if she can and is willing to change, it’s a conversation you will both be grateful for. If not, then you know what you need to do.

    1. Batgirl*

      I think it’s worth saying to her that her attitude is not only counting against her promotion chances but that it’s a common reason for firing people when it can’t be turned around. But if OP has already put it this bluntly, there’s nothing else to do but let consequences teach her. Some people do get bizarrely hung up on popularity and tenure; they truly don’t understand that jobs are actually about skills. If this is the case she may not be well socialised enough to understand OP’s advice, let alone implement it.

      1. PT*

        That was the whole plot of Death of a Salesman, and how old is that play? (It’s all about personality, not skills!)

        Admittedly, there was more to the play than that, but that particular thread didn’t go over well in Honors English.

      2. CatLadyInTraining*

        Well said and very true! I’ve seen that happen, where people don’t realize that their attitude is counting against them!

    1. The Rural Juror*

      Hahaha yes it is! There’s a happy medium, the OP has just gone a little too far past it.

    2. Jennifer*

      Yes! I would be horrified if I found out my coworker had stopped getting their hair done because they were afraid of offending me. I mean she’s not putting diamonds in her face and asking if she can afford it.

  13. Natalie*

    In regards to the financial woes: Avoiding a haircut is way overthinking things. I would avoid excessive discussion about new cars, going on a lavish vacation, buying designer clothes etc. Expensive tech is borderline, but because they work in the tech industry it’s more reasonable.

  14. staceyizme*

    LW1 frames her combative employee in terms of the dynamic, but I’d be curious to see how much improvement might be occasioned by managing her tendency on a per occurrence basis? In other words, start spending the time and the energy to call out when she is crossing the line in terms of her style of communication and in terms of inserting herself where she doesn’t belong. If the organization is caring towards its employees, then part of that care should include the feedback needed to perform adequately in their roles. How many instances of bad form or bad decision making has this employee engaged in without feedback, correction and repercussion? Maybe it’s a culture issue in terms of the organization? But the greatest kindness isn’t niceness, it’s truthfulness. That doesn’t obviate compassion, weighing the timing or the content of the delivery. But employees at all levels need to be held accountable to standards of work quality and good corporate citizenship. If they aren’t, then what does that say about the “caring” organization that employs them? Nothing good, in my view.

    1. Argh!*

      Yes. The manager is supposed to be in charge, so how is this happening? If nothing is said to the contrary, how would the complainer know that the complaints are counter-productive? Silence is compliance in this case.

      If this organization promotes conflict-averse passive, compliant personalities, then the environment may indeed be terrible and unproductive. Not that it isn’t obnoxious for someone to be a complainer, but if the culture has low workplace standards and there’s a silent agreement that nobody talks about the elephant in the room, the one person who talks about the elephant in the room will be met with resistance rather than action or constructive criticism.

      (Yes, I’ve read “Dare to Lead”)

  15. H*

    I can relate to that employee (the chronic complainer). I would say there is likely more to the story here. 1. I am guessing she is at least competent at her job. 2. In my experience (though I know nothing of the environment) there are usually 1 or 2 employees who will stick their necks out and say what MANY other employees have said behind closed doors but they are too afraid to speak up because they know they will be labeled and problem and complainer.

    1. AcademiaNut*

      I’ve known a few chronic complainers, and they were annoying to their coworkers too. The problem was that they they were easily annoyed by fairly routine things, had no concept of picking their battles, tended to approach confrontations with the assumption that the other party were maliciously incompetent, and were completely unwilling to see other points of view (ie, how decisions/policies affected people who weren’t them). They saw themselves as warriors for the light, bravely battling against incompetence and stupidity, and then wondered why they weren’t getting promoted/hired for permanent positions.

      Meanwhile, there was this constant background of Fergus complaining about something and never being happy – you could give him a cheque for a million dollars, and he’d complain that the choice of font was stupid, and the taxes were too high. So when Fergus had a valid point, no-one was listening, and he couldn’t get allies to speak up in a group because colleagues didn’t want to be associated with his reputation.

      Also – if he resented everyone in management and thought they were all incompetent assholes, why was he so eager to get promoted to be one of them, rather than looking for work somewhere less painful?

      1. CatLadyInTraining*

        Good point! I work with someone like this and it’s really annoying. They constantly complain and have an attitude and aren’t very nice. They also go on and on about they get no respect. Well, maybe act respectful and get a better attitude! Then people might respect you!
        Oh and quit airing your dirty laundry in public..that doesn’t help either!

    2. Argh!*

      Complainers complain too much if they don’t feel they’ve been heard. A management that ignores legitimate concerns and isn’t honest with people about expectations or deliver actionable feedback is going to have unhappy employees. Even worse — the possibility that one or more of the peers who got a promotion aren’t really that great. It’s really common for managers to be promoted based on their skills for their current job, not their potential as managers. Someone with the skills for management who isn’t great at word processing would be overlooked in a lot of organizations.

      1. H*

        And in my experience, I have seen many people get promoted who are people who “don’t make waves” even when it might be warranted and once they are management they don’t fight for their staff unless their staff push them. There is a reason “Yes” people or people who never say no seem to get promoted more and liked a lot by management.

    3. some fake name*

      I have been labeled a complainer because I dared to question my manager. He had us use this system that he invented to manage a huge project, but it was so inefficient that we spent about half of our time maintaning that system. Everybody on the project complained about it, but nobody said anything to the boss. So I made a list of the issues with suggestions of how we could streamline it so that we could focus more on delivering a successful project. Had a chat with the boss, and was told to stop complaining and do my job. And suddenly I wasn’t no longer involved in any decision making and only got to help out with the crappy tasks. None of the others backed me up. No, suddenly they all thought the system was amazing and wonderful and perfect.

      1. H*

        Exactly. I would love to hear the side of this “chronic complainer”. In my experience (again I don’t know the situation at this workplace) there are other employees with concerns saying the same stuff who are too afraid to come forward and won’t back that person up.

        1. CatLadyInTraining*

          True, but we don’t know what is going on here. And there is a difference between brining up valid problems in a mature, professional manner and being that person who moans about everything, gives people attitude and throws a tantrum. And yes, some workplaces are toxic where employees can’t bring up problems. If we could get more background on the situation that would be nice.

  16. Just @ me next time*

    If LW2 is concerned about financial woes of their colleague, it would probably be more constructive to donate to a local organization that helps struggling families, get involved with lobbying the government to improve affordability, or use what social capital they have at work to push for better pay or benefits for lower-level workers. Skipping a haircut or pretending not to have a new tablet only serves to make LW2 feel less uncomfortable about their own (relative) wealth. It doesn’t do anything to concretely address income inequality.

  17. Mystic*

    I was once asked about why I wasn’t eating, my work had free breakfast. I…had been told that unless I contributed, I couldn’t partake. But it was by someone else.
    I’m also one of the people who would eat at work parties constantly, free food is extremely useful.
    But why is there an obsession with other peoples’ diets?

  18. Workfromhome*

    I wish more companies would just step up and give these “long timer negative people” a put up or shut up ultimatum. You have been here for 10 years, never taken an training and constantly have a negative attitude. You seem like you are very unhappy here. What would it take for you to be happy here because if its not something that can happen its time for you to move on.

    Most smaller companies and even many larger ones have at least one of these Judy/John that have been with the company 15 years, who have never advanced very far and just drag everyone down. Often relics from bygone days where people stayed at a company their whole career and feel their seniority makes them some how above everyone even people with superior skills or are above them in the org chart. Most newer employees are afraid of them even if they have a higher tile because they have created this perception that they know everything due to tenure. Ive been through several of these people that were horrific but due to little past management or oversite HR wouldn’t let them go because there wasn’t a proper paper trail of waring coaching etc. These people don’t change. To the OP this employee wont change and will continue to be unhappy if they are not promoted. Let them go and put someone in the position that wants to do the work to advance.

  19. SwampWitch*

    As someone who was labeled with a “bad attitude” and “pot stirrer” and I definitely got “combative” for pointing out a big cornerstone of a huge pet project was based on and relied on us doing something illegal (think non-medical staff acting in a medical role or capacity) I’m always fascinated by the perspective that this person is a terrible employee or mean or whatever . My experience has been that good employees become “combative pot stirrers” after being gaslighted, ignored, bullied, or scapegoated.

  20. CatLadyInTraining*

    I think it depends on the situation. In your case, it sounds like maybe you were working in a company, where people can’t voice valid concerns. That isn’t good. I think employees should be able to complain, as long as they do so in a polite, mature, professional manner.

    We had an employee at our office who was mean and had ahorrible attitude. They also complained and threw little hissy fits about every little thing….needless to say no one really listened to them, even when they did have a valid complaint…

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