did I make a mistake by reprimanding my direct report’s employee?

A reader writes:

I’m in a senior management position at my workplace and I supervise a handful of managers. One of these managers (Sarah) is currently dealing with a challenging employee (Ava). Ava has started having lengthy, loud personal conversations in the open office area, which is a problem. Sarah has addressed this with Ava several times. I have zero problems with how Sarah has been handling the situation, but Ava doesn’t seem to be getting the message.

Ava’s desk is right outside my office. Recently she had another inappropriately lengthy and loud personal call at her desk, while I was in my office with the door open. I was messaging with Sarah and basically said, “You should say something to her, unless you want me to, just to see if that gets the message across a little more emphatically.” Sarah agreed that this might help, so a little while later I asked Ava if we could talk and basically said, “This is still a problem, I know Sarah has talked to you about it, I wanted to say something today because I noticed it happening, and I want you to realize that Sarah isn’t the only person who’s aware of this and it’s something you need to get serious about addressing.”

At the time, Ava seemed fine. Later, she complained to Sarah that she was upset that I would talk to her about something like this I’m not her manager. She was apparently incredulous that Sarah didn’t immediately agree with her and is still frustrated that I would speak with her directly about it. Based on all the problems we’ve been having with Ava, her grasp of professional norms doesn’t seem to be the greatest, but now I’m second-guessing whether I committed a faux pas.

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 to get buy-in for an unpopular change
  • How to ask a coworker not to eat onions in the office
  • What does “not enough applicants” mean?
  • I need to book work travel but am waiting on a job offer

{ 182 comments… read them below }

  1. Lilo*

    The one comment about the onions letter is everyone is going to know LW is pregnant if she says she’s temporarily sensitive to smells due to a medical condition. If LW wants to keep it close to the chest, she’ll need to say something else.

    I myself popped an altoid or ginger mint to help in these situations (sensitivity to onions is pretty common for pregnant women).

    1. WellRed*

      Yes, a woman saying she has a temporary medical condition that will resolve shortly but meanwhile makes her sensitive to smell might as well just shout “I’m pregnant!”

      1. Calliope*

        Yeah, in that situation I’d be more inclined to tell the co-worker in question I was pregnant and swear them to secrecy for the next six weeks.

    2. Accounting Gal*

      This was my thought as well. People will for sure assume it’s pregnancy since it’s such a common side effect.

      1. Suzy Q*

        Yep. I might say I was temporarily on a medication that made me sensitive to odors.

      2. pancakes*

        I would hope that a person who is thinking “she’s probably pregnant” would also think “she doesn’t seem to want to tell me she’s pregnant yet.” Making that assumption and keeping it to oneself isn’t terrible. Prying would be.

    3. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Although, I can’t be around any of the onion smells or mint smells or ginger smells when I’m feeling like I’m going to get a migraine. It’s a bugger however since if I even start to look nauseous people at work assume ‘woman+feeling ill=pregnant!’ which is really annoying.

      (Also, I can’t tolerate menthol smells at all since they put me on new epilepsy meds. Biology is fun)

      1. Justme, The OG*

        I also have a huge sensitivity to smells when getting a migraine. Especially lavender (my normal favorite) which is so often used in relaxation aids.

      2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Same. It’s been close to 26 years since I was last pregnant, but the lingering smell of onions would give me a migraine 100% of the time.

      3. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Seconding/thirding the strong odors and migraine triggers. Onions by themselves wouldn’t normally do it – but those never to be sufficiently dratted “scented oil air fresheners” will set one off every time. Biology truly can be the worst of pits.

        Please think of the folks around you and ask before using any strongly odored product, and keep foods with strong odors in a kitchen.

        1. urban teacher*

          Patchouli gives me migraines and working in education seems to attract people who drench themselves. I’ve had to sit out in the hall for meetings.

    4. JSPA*

      call it a “hormonal issue that’s being dealt with.” Not a lie, but at least muddies the water by nodding at some of the other issues that can cause this sort of reaction. Addisons and MS can also cause hyperosmia, FWIW; fertility treatments and (for some people, some stages of perimenopause, or treatment for same), ditto.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        True point. I’ve got early menopause and I just noticed I can smell peanut butter from the other side of the house now (hate the stuff, husband eats it downstairs).

    5. Dino*

      I knew a coworker was pregnant before she did once. One day she started talking about a smell, super strong and almost rancid near our workspace. I could smell it too but it just smelled like the normal food in that aisle. I told her so, then offhandedly said “maybe it’s pregnancy” with a laugh. A week later she told us all the news.

      That was at my first job and I had no sense of when to STFU. Nowadays if a coworker told me Alison’s script I’d have a good guess but would not comment to them or anyone else, ha!

      1. Sleepless*

        Yeah, I was the supervisor to a young woman who greeted me with, “I might have to go home. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. I keep feeling like I’m going to throw up, but I can’t throw up, and every smell is just super strong to me.”

        I blurted out, “Oh, my. I know what was bothering ME when I felt like that.”

        A couple days later she was like, “Um, so guess what…”

    6. Selina Luna*

      That was my thought as well. And it’s one of the reasons I told my boss I was pregnant as soon as I found out. I was somewhat sensitive to foods, but I teach and I was EXTREMELY sensitive to the body spray that 12-year-olds sometimes use rather than regular bathing…

      1. Sleepless*

        Oh gosh, 12 year olds and Axe body spray! My son was in a scoliosis brace when he was 12, and it trapped all those 12 year old boy smells. He would spray Axe all over it and call it good. One time he sprayed it all over his laundry. I went in behind him and sprayed the laundry room with Febreze. Good times.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Nooooo! Ugh, worst memory from college involved Axe body spray. It had just released to the market (yes I’m dating myself that this was almost 20 years ago now), and Student Affairs and Housing got huge boxes of trial sized aerosol cans as promos. A few really immature Male RA’s got into an Axe spray war in the employee area of the student affairs building with a few similarly maturity-challenged employees of Club Affairs……..
          The building was unusable for two days and about ten people went home sick with migraines. It was really not good (however we didn’t see a single roach or palmetto bug – or any evidence of them – for six months after this episode, which in FL is unheard of…..other use for the disgusting Axe sprays?).

          1. TardyTardis*

            There was a very funny SNL sketch with Leslie Jones being frank with her high school class about why covering everything with Axe body spray was *not* cutting it.

    7. TWW*

      I think it’s OK to just lie and say strong smells give you a headache or something like that.

      Your officemates will probably thank you. A lot of people don’t like smelling other people’s lunch. Personally, even if its a food I usually like, I don’t like smelling food that’s not for me to eat.

  2. Penguin*

    You’re not her manager, but you are her coworker trying to work in your workspace right next to her loud personal conversation–you’re allowed to say something!

      1. MechE*

        I’m not sure how Ava doesn’t get that OP is her boss. If A manages B and B manages C, A is the manager of C.
        Quasi-transitive property.

        1. Knope Knope Knope*

          Yeah if I were the OP I would pull Ava and her manager in for a conversation and explain how chain of command works, explain that they have full faith in Ava’s manager, and the fact that performance or behavior issues are making it up to the chain to OP is a very bad sign for Ava then lay out some clear next steps or consequences.

          1. Joan Rivers*

            ANY time a peer is being loud and disruptive in the office when you’re trying to work, it’s OK to ask them to keep it down. No matter who you are.
            We don’t know if she was angry or boisterous but it doesn’t matter.
            Not to toss in a gratuitous “generation war” comment but in this case it seems to apply: She sounds very entitled. She thinks she can be loud on her phone AND she doesn’t grasp the concept of authority.

            1. Skittles*

              For all we know, Ava is the same age or even older than her manager or grand boss so I don’t think age necessarily comes into it. I have managed some employees that were older than me that were surprisingly naive about, or unwilling to follow, some very common cultural norms.

              1. Nayo*

                My first job out of college I had a coworker berate me AT LENGTH for asking her to stop singing because I couldn’t concentrate on my work. She was a 50-something mother of 3 and I was 24 years old. Age has absolutely nothing to do with it, in my opinion.

                1. Princess Trachea-Aurelia Belaroth*

                  Yeah you might be more likely to get it in young people (of which I am one, I’m not shitting on millenials/Gen Z) just because people new to the workplace need to adjust, but once you have a year or two experience or have been to a couple workplaces, those who still do it are going to continue to their dying day (it feels like).

        2. James*

          There are structures where this doesn’t hold true. Famously the Germanic feudal system gave the king power over only his immediate inferiors. The people who were under the authority of those lords were not under the authority of the king. The effect was to divide Germania into a slew of small states, ostensibly under one ruler but in reality operating nearly totally independent of one another. The issue wasn’t resolved until the leadup to WWI.

          I’m not entirely sure how matrix management treats this….I worked for an organization that practiced matrix management for ten years (I still work there, they just changed management styles), and I have never figured it out. What I found worked for me was to find a project manager or program that had a sensible management structure and stick with them. The whole thing was just odd, and I like the new system–with actual managers, who are actually responsible for people–much better.

          1. Sue D. O'Nym*

            It’s not expressly stated in the letter, but I’m guessing that the letter writer is not in a Germanic feudal work environment.

            1. James*

              I gathered that. It’s a fun bit of historical trivia. But the reason it happened is the relevant bit here. Germanic lords basically forced this system on their king as a way to restrain the power of the crown, thereby increasing their own. That sort of thing is hardly limited to Medieval Germania. I’ve seen a few companies where the managers (especially store managers) were left to fend for themselves, and the manager’s managers had so little to do with the employees that they had no real authority over the employees. The managers tended to work quite hard to keep it that way, too. It was THEIR store, blast it, and no Corporate stuffed shirt would push THEM around!

              I agree that that’s not how we should view the hierarchy. For my part I prefer a well-defined hierarchy, where I know my position. But that’s how it is in some places.

              1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

                I actually enjoyed that bit of historical trivia! I’m a history buff, but there are gaps in my knowledge, especially when it comes to 19th century Europe. From reading about Queen Victoria, her ancestry, and her offspring and their marriages, I gathered that Germany seemed to be made of multiple small kingdoms prior to WWI, but I never knew why. Now I do, so thank you!

    1. NerdyKris*

      Technically she is in her chain of command though. The LW isn’t just another coworker.

      1. Artemesia*

        The question that jumped out at me was ‘why isn’t this woman fired for ignoring the guidance of the manager and continuing to be an annoying twit.’ And now she is dissing her grandboss. She needs to be on a PIP if necessary and let go asap barring an unlikely transformation in her behavior.

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, absolutely. My office is in an old building that was built in the era when pretty much everyone except maybe those in the typing pool had their own office. Most of us sit in 2, 3 or 4-person offices, with a few larger ones. There’s an issue with voices carrying when someone who doesn’t want to disturb their own office mates goes into the corridor and ends up disturbing pretty much everyone in that corridor, because voices carry.

    2. Jean*

      Yeah I don’t see what the issue is there. LW even cleared it with her direct report ahead of time. Seems like Ava’s dysfunction is throwing off EVERYONE’s sense of what is and isn’t acceptable in this workplace.

      1. Properlike*

        This. More reason to fire her if she can’t even wrap her brain around the “grandboss” concept. One of those people who will litigate ANY perceived loophole. Ugh.

      2. EPLawyer*

        THIS right here.

        Ava doesn’t get the concept that if your boss talks to you about something and YOU CONTINUE TO DO IT, the next person you hear from may be the grandboss. Of course that conversation may be, Your boss told you to knock it off, you didn’t, today is your last day.

      3. Dust Bunny*

        Man, if my grandboss were talking to me about something I would scared stiff. The only person who would seem out of line here would be me for not shaping up until somebody above my supervisor had to say something to me!

    3. KateM*

      I would have felt like putting my head out of door then and there and yell “hey, could you tune that down?!?”

    4. BRR*

      But the LW still has standing to say something as Ava’s grand boss. If anything, you’re not always going to be able to say something as a desk neighbor but you can almost always say something as someone’s grand boss.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, this. I guess I’m just happy to work for a fairly non-hierarchical employer and here it wouldn’t be an issue. My 2-person office is next to the kitchen, and one day our President came to get a cup of coffee. He was on a call with him speaking and after about 10 minutes I just closed the office door. When he’d finished the call he knocked and apologized for distracting me, which I really appreciated. My coworker usually came to work later than I did, and when we still worked mostly in the office, I used my mornings to work on stuff that required high focus.

  3. Anon for this*

    Coworkers who cannot handle certain smells are completely understandable. As someone who loves garlic, the best part about working from home is no one cares how many cloves I use per dish (naturally I will dial this back down when it’s time to return to the office). To me, not eating foods that cause problems for a coworker is just common sense, and the fact that this is temporary makes it even more common sense.

    1. HotSauce*

      One of the best things about working from home is the ability to eat curry for lunch. I would never bring it into the office, but lord, I worked with a woman who would microwave a big bowl of broccoli with garlic oil every afternoon & stink up the entire office. That smell made everyone gag, but she was completely oblivious. When the office manager finally spoke to her after many, many confrontations and complaints she basically told her to pound sand! She wasn’t about to adjust her diet because people are too sensitive. UG.

      1. Pennyworth*

        I’m really opposed to people having ‘smelly’ food in the office. Even if it is a smell I like, such as onions, I don’t want my work space smelling like that. Many of the foods I love to eat I would never bring to work because they have such a strong aroma.

        1. allathian*

          Me too. That said, when I’m at the office I usually eat either at the office cafeteria or bring in a salad or soup that doesn’t have a strong smell.

        2. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

          Ditto. I felt that Alison’s script was weirdly apologetic given that OP really just needs her colleague to stop introducing pungent smells into the shared office space. And asking the colleague to stop should not be on a temporary basis either.

          Fish in the microwave, anyone?

  4. voyager1*

    I am blown away that Ava thought complaint to Sarah was a good idea. If my boss’s boss said something I would be feeling really embarrassed.

    1. Construction Safety*

      Yeah, there’s a whole ‘nother level of cluelessness going on there.

    2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      RIGHT? Also, how completely unaware can you be to go to your manager and be like “Can you believe the gall of your boss to have the temerity to tell me what to do?”

      1. fhqwhgads*

        Worse. “Can you believe the gall of your boss to have the temerity to tell me to do the thing you already told me to do multiple times?”

    3. ENFP in Texas*


      Ava is the one who made the faux-pas here, not the OP. The OP shouldn’t be second-guessing themselves.

      1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

        It makes me wonder if OP has much management experience, despite being in a position wgere she manages other managers.

        Also, I was surprised that OP has no issues with how Sarah is dealing with the Ava problem – given that Ava is ignoring Sarah and the problem is not being resolved.

        Another indicator to me that OP may lack experience in this type of role.

        1. Princess Trachea-Aurelia Belaroth*

          It sounds like a small(er) office to me, where they might not often get much practice managing behavior. My sister works in an office that has been overrun with boundary-destroying, inconsiderate, productivity-hampering behavior because for years the manager was used to a calm, drama-free environment where he could concentrate on the managing of operations. If this office were larger, I would imagine my sister’s department would have their own manager, akin to Sarah, and the person who is my sister’s manager now would be the grandboss. But it is a small office, and the roles are done by one person.

    4. A Poster Has No Name*

      Right? If Ava isn’t fixing a really obvious, easily fixable problem she’s been coached about, and then has the nerve to complain to her boss that she was called out on it by her grandboss, I’m thinking she has no intention of fixing the problem.

      1. TWW*

        Right right? Without speculating on what might be going on with Ava to make her so oblivious, if she has so much trouble grasping simple workplace norms, maybe she’s just not cutout for that type of job.

    5. Tuesday*

      That’s some expert-level deflection on Ava’s part. Now people are talking about how they addressed the problem with her instead of staying focused on the problem.

      1. Also Amazing*

        Right? She’s well on her way to distorting everyone’s sense of normal. I imagine if she had shown this level of obliviousness earlier on in her position there would have been less questioning of the appropriateness of the response she got from the OP.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        I’ve found that it is surprisingly common with repeat offenders to pull the same thing Ava did – you want to get them to agree to refrain from the problematic behavior and they want to nitpick how, when, and by whom this information is delivered.

      3. Ellie*

        Yes, Ava reminds me of the last person I had to let go. I outlined the problems on multiple occasions, I coached him through it, and all he wanted to talk about was why they weren’t really problems, or why they were unfair, or how the conversation should happen, or where it should happen, or who should be involved, or why the rest of the team weren’t having these conversations (because they were performing and he wasn’t? Duh) It’s super annoying to have to argue every little detail, and its a derailment tactic, whether its intended or not.

        Personally, I think it warrants another conversation with Ava, where you go through what the term grandboss actually means, and how her loudness affected you, and everyone else in the room, but I doubt it would do any good. I’d just move right along with a PIP and then firing.

    6. Littorally*

      Right, that’s baffling to me. If my boss’s boss told me my behavior was a problem, I’d be profoundly embarrassed to have come to high attention in a negative way.

      But then again, I’m accustomed to working in very hierarchical offices and it sounds like Ava is not.

      1. Observer*

        I don’t think it’s an issue of hierarchical offices or not. Pecking orders show up in a LOT of places. And anyone who has gone through k-12 has had first hand experience of one.

    7. Guacamole Bob*

      Especially about a behavioral issue! I can imagine going to my boss and saying “Grandboss told me we should be doing X on the Smith project, but I think he might not be aware that we chose to do Y because of Z. Can we loop you in to this feedback process to help figure this out since you have both the big picture and more detailed context?”

      But I cannot imagine ever complaining to my boss that my grandboss told me my office behavior was inappropriate! I’d be mortified!

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        This I can totally understand, and have done a version of in the past. Clarifying directions if you get conflicting ones should be acceptable (as long as your are polite about the clarification), complaining that the manager’s boss told you to do something isn’t ever okay.

    8. Lacey*

      Yes! That’s wild! I’ve seen people who were fairly insubordinate to their own boss suddenly step into line because the big boss is around. That’s how this works!

      But also, literally any coworker could have had a conversation with her about how loud she was. I had an intern ask me if I could be quieter about something and I was not offended. I was being noisy, I just didn’t realize anyone was around.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        I once asked my *manager* skip to stop singing along with the music on her headphones. She apologized and did so. Ava was way out of line… I have now added this to my wish list of people to come back and give us an update in December!

    9. BRR*

      Yeah someone needs to tell Ava that complaining to her boss about her boss’ boss saying something about her ongoing performance issue isn’t the argument she thinks it is.

    10. Saberise*

      It’s almost like she doesn’t know that they are her boss’s boss. It’s like she thinks it’s just another co-worker

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        And she doesn’t realize that even coworkers are allowed to (politely) ask for non-work noises to stop. It’s not like Ava was asked to stop returning customer calls, or making photocopies, or discussing the TPS project with coworkers.

  5. JelloStapler*

    It reads that you are Ava’s grandboss? I think you handled it well, you asked Sarah first and got her permission to bring it up- you talked to Ava privately (I assume). It seems to me that Ava is in denial about this being an issue or does not want to deal with it.

    1. Drago Cucina*

      This was my thought. LW didn’t barge into the middle. She checked with Sarah, got Sarah’s support and hope that this will help, and then addressed it one-on-one with Ava. Ava has repeatedly ignored Sarah and now thinks that it’s inappropriate for grandboss to address a problem? Ava is seriously out of step.

    2. goducks*

      Wholeheartedly agree. This is a case of the LW backing up the manager, not subverting her.

      1. Joan Rivers*

        She’s lucky someone didn’t grab that phone out of hand. It would be tempting.

    3. DKMA*

      Agree, and for someone with this level of lack of awareness of professional norms, it’s actually important for her to realize that she needs to be aware that it’s not just her direct manager, but everyone who she needs to behave appropriately for.

      Most others will filter through her manager to deliver the feedback, but pissing off anyone from your boss’s peer to the CEO can be bad for you. The grandboss is perfect for conveying this message without really undermining the direct manager.

    4. MCMonkeybean*

      Yes, I really agree. I get Alison’s point that sometimes it can undermine the manager but some issues just have to be escalated to someone higher and it seems like OP did everything super reasonably. Especially since in this case the issue was directly affecting OP.

  6. MoinMoin*

    I’m incredulous that someone doesn’t understand that it’s a big deal that their grandboss has to correct them. It seems like such a basic thing, it’s hard to imagine someone that doesn’t understand that being able to make the progress they’ll need to.

    1. Cat Tree*

      I suspect she does understand it, but is raising this complaint to distract from her own issues.

  7. Aggretsuko*

    Uh, my grandboss has talkings to to me ALL THE TIME. It’s not inappropriate. I don’t enjoy it, but that’s not out of order, especially if the lady continues to keep being loud outside your space.

    1. Database Developer Dude*

      May I say that I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE your handle?? I enjoy watching Aggretsuko immensely. I want to turn her pig of a boss into the bacon he so richly deserves to be.

    2. Ferretygubbins*

      My grandboss turned up at my house a few weeks ago to talk. Admittedly he lives a couple of streets away and he dropped in to deliver a card and flowers following a bereavement (also to say that I should take off as much paid time as I wanted and he’d expect it to be at least 6 to 8 weeks before I went back).
      That said if I was acting like an arse next to his work desk I would fully expect him to have words. Probably short, loud, ones particularly if the issue had previously been raised and I would do the same for my minions and grand-minions

  8. Lucious*

    The grand boss by all accounts acted reasonably. It also means Sarah has more justification for aggressive action if Avas behavior doesn’t change.

    The fact Ava holds unusual views about workplace hierarchy is beside the point.

    1. Artemesia*

      This. No one needs to explain this to her. This is defensive. She needs to be told she is out of line, put on a pip and fired.

  9. Harvey JobGetter*

    The problem with the script for OP3 is that it will 100% lead to the response “you’re pregnant! congratulations” and OP doesn’t want that.

    1. Keener*

      Common courtesy dictates that despite your suspicions you never comment on a woman being pregnant until the news is officially shared with you. So, while many people could figure it out from the script, my expectation is that it is something you would keep to yourself an not mention to anyone else in any form (including making it general knowledge that OP3 has a temporary medical condition that makes her sensitive to smells).

      I live in wine country and had an out of town friend visiting who is normally a big wine fan that turned down my offer of some wine when she arrived and expressed far more interest in any activity but wine tasting when we were making plans. It was obvious she was pregnant, but I didn’t say a word and waited for the official news a couple of months later to congratulate her. (At which point we had a good laugh about her pregnancy being obvious on her visit. She appreciated that I accommodated it while pretending I didn’t know what was going on.)

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        You made me think of an old Dave Barry comment; ‘You should never say anything to a woman that even remotely suggests you think she’s pregnant unless you can see an actual baby emerging from her at that moment.’

        I agree with you that people should keep their thoughts to themselves, but some folks think they are the exception – friends, family, or ‘Oh, you know I’m nosy’ types. Also, a lot of people make and expect public announcements (Facebook, IG, TikTok, etc.) of the most minor life events, and probably don’t even think twice asking about the same of their friends.

        1. Magenta*

          I recently announced my pregnancy at work, one colleague asked how and another asked if it was planned. People have no filters when it comes to pregnant women! I’m just thankful we are still remote so at least I get to avoid people wanting to touch me!

        1. SarahKay*

          Getting on for 20 years ago now, a manager once told me how she’d bumped into an ex-coworker of mine (and ex-report to manager) who’d left after her first baby. Manager wasn’t thinking and said to ex-coworker “Oh, you’re pregnant again, how lovely.” Ex-coworker snarled “no, actually, I’ve just put on weight!” and stalked off. Manager was mortified and I decided there and then to never, ever, ever comment on possible pregnancy until I was specifically told by the pregnant person that they were.

      2. Mental Lentil*

        You are absolutely correct. Unfortunately, common courtesy, like common sense, ain’t always so common.

        I always make it a personal rule that unless someone says something specific, “medical condition” means MYOB and KYMS.

      3. I should really pick a name*

        Years of reading advice columns has taught me that there are always people who don’t follow that common courtesy.

      4. Alanna*

        I didn’t even call out my best friend when I visited her and noticed she wasn’t drinking and was suddenly snacking a lot – like, packing snacks on short car rides, which she had never done in her whole life, so I was pretty sure – but being best friends, I knew she’d tell me when she wanted me to know. You just don’t do it!

      5. NotRealAnonForThis*

        Granted, my experience in this is now dated by a dozen or so years, but it was a freaking fight to get people to knock it off on the public announcement of their suspicions, whether their suspicions were accurate or not. It was at work, it was socially, it was everywhere.

        No idea who raised this broad swath of people who were lacking manners, either.

      6. Shut It Down*

        Unfortunately, if you’re expecting people to keep their suspicions of pregnancy secret, you are almost certainly going to be disappointed. I usually love Alison’s scripts but this definitely risks outing the LW in their workplace.

        1. Still Annoyed*

          Absolutely. When I was pregnant, I did not tell anyone until after the first trimester and some days. I had been quite sick, however, and I was not surprised that no one was surprised when I made the announcement. What DID surprise me was people telling me how much they were all talking about my suspected pregnancy behind my back.

          Apparently, it was THE topic of conversation for over a month. What was deeply uncomfortable for me was everyone telling me that a major component of the conversation among my coworkers (and boss and grandboss and great grandboss) was the change in size of my chest.

          So, YES, people will talk a LOT about possible pregnancy and violate all sorts of professional boundaries.

          (And this was an academic workplace where everyone had advanced degrees, not your local mechanics shop with a Snap On Tool calendar on the file cabinet. Believe me, if that environment had apparently hours of conversation on changes in my bra size, then it is quite common for boundary crossing on pregnancy to happen.)

    2. irene adler*

      Our CFO cannot stand the smell of onions.
      She will ask you to remove the offending food if she detects the scent of onion. And she will request that you do not bring that food again. She’s not rude or mean when she makes this request. So we try to comply.

      FYI: she’s 75 years old. Preggers is definitely off the table.

      1. Artemesia*

        I am very sensitive to onions and the smell makes my stomach spasm — it has gotten worse with age. I don’t dislike them — they make me sick. Very strong smelling foods don’t belong in the workplace outside the breakroom.

        1. Kevin Sours*

          The problem is that there is no objected standard and a whole lot of implicit cultural bias there. Maybe the answer is that food doesn’t belong in the workplace outside of designated areas — but I’m not sure that solution is going make a lot people happy either.

  10. DarthVelma*

    OP1 – It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO or the lowest paid newbie, if someone is having a loud personal conversation right outside your office, you have the right to tell them to knock it off.

    That she went to her own boss to complain about her grand-boss doing so shows a real lack of understanding of professional norms (to go along with not understanding professional behavior).

    She’s been warned multiple times. Fire her ass.

    1. Mental Lentil*

      Yes. She’s not changing her behavior because she is not experiencing any consequences other another stern talking to. Put her on a PIP so she can’t complain that she wasn’t warned, and then get her out of there if she doesn’t straighten up.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      I think the OP said exactly the right thing to lead into a PIP: (paraphrasing) Sarah isn’t the only one who thinks this is a problem, it’s obvious to a larger group that includes me, your grand-boss, and it IS a problem you need to be fixing ASAP.

      Sarah’s next move should be create that PIP with a short time window, document what happens, and then manage Ava right out as will likely be necessary.

  11. PT*

    I am picturing Ava as Sheryl from Archer. “I don’t report to you!” *continues to be wildly inappropriate and stubborn*

    1. EvilQueenRegina*

      After having watched Legends of Tomorrow last night, I’m now picturing that show’s Sara and Ava!

  12. Richard Hershberger*

    LW1: I was expecting from the title that the middle manager was unhappy about being taken unawares by her boss. It turns out the problem employee is unhappy about being reprimanded by her grandboss. Umm… So what?

    1. hbc*

      I was thinking more along the lines of OP stepping into something that looked wrong but then finding out that Ava was just following her manager’s instructions. But reinforcing something that has been discussed many times and even a random peer would have a right to complain about? Ava, please.

  13. jaybh*

    Another thing that I feel adds to the letter writer’s justification in talking to Ava is that this is an issue that Sarah has already raised with Ava (multiple times, even). This feels more like the letter writer backing up/reinforcing Sarah’s management on the issue than going around Sarah. If this was an issue that Sarah had not addressed with Ava previously, I would definitely go to Sarah first to avoid the appearance of undermining or sidestepping her, but it sounds like the letter writer and Sarah are on the same page on this issue.

  14. boop the first*

    3. Wait, is coworker eating at their desk? Maybe they wouldn’t have to change their diet at all if there was someplace where people could take a proper break.

    1. Ray Gillette*

      You’re certainly not wrong, but it falls under the category of “good luck getting the company to change that.”

      The best thing about working from home is I can eat whatever I want without inflicting the smell on coworkers. Pass the fish sauce!

      1. Aquawoman*

        Fish sauce is especially weird in that it tastes good but it smells terrible.

      2. Renata Ricotta*

        Maybe, but every office I’ve ever worked at has multiple places where I could eat, including my desk. I often prefer my desk so I can browse columns like this one while eating (which I am doing from my home office right now). If OP follows the advice and asks it like a favor, likely the coworker’s first choice will be to just eat in another area, if that’s easier than eating different food.

      3. Marillenbaum*

        I work in a Muslim-majority company, and right now it is Ramadan; every year, the senior management sends out an email reminding those of us who are not fasting on any given day to please restrict meals to the canteen, out of respect for our colleagues. It’s never been a problem (except for right now, because the canteen is closed due to the pandemic, so the few people who do have to come in eat outside or go home for lunch).

        1. LabTechNoMore*

          See, when I’m fasting I don’t mind being around people who are eating. Partly because I don’t feel comfortable imposing on people like that (I’m choosing not to eat, it’s not like I’m food-insecure), and partly because so many social gatherics revolve around food that my choices during Ramadan are a) be around people who are eating or b) not see any friends for a month.

    2. AutoEngineer57*

      Honestly, I almost always eat at my desk. I usually read on the Kindle web browser app while I eat.

      Maybe I’m just anti-social :(

      1. doreen*

        Yeah, there are two breakrooms in my office – and I still eat at my desk. And did so pre-COVID- because it’s way easier to eat at my desk and read AAM on the monitor than it is to eat in the breakroom and try to read on my phone.

    3. James*

      I always eat at my desk. I got into the habit on jobsites–I’d spend lunch catching up on emails and such, so I didn’t have to deal with them in the evenings. At the office I generally work while eating. You can read a report and eat a sandwich at the same time, after all, and since I have fairly flexible hours this lets me go home earlier. None of this is unusual in my office. We have places to eat, we just don’t tend to unless there’s a reason.

  15. Ms.Vader*

    I am going to be in the minority but honestly I’d have a hard time accommodating the onion request completely (bacon yes) mainly because most of the foods I like to eat have onions – sandwiches, casseroles, soups etc. I can see limiting times but to say absolutely no onions for like 3 months is a lot to ask. I would offer though to eat elsewhere if that was available or advise when I’m eating so they are prepared.

    1. Mental Lentil*

      Well, yes. Compromise is usually what it takes to get along with people and your suggestion is a good one. As someone else pointed out, there should be a dedicated space for eating so that people don’t have to eat at their desks.

    2. Essess*

      I didn’t read it that the coworker had to completely give it up. Just not bring the foods into the area when eating them.

      1. Chilipepper*

        How do you eat foods but not bring them into the area?
        I have never encountered folks having problems with food smells but I see it fairly often here – like I have never experienced the level of garlic or onions it would take to cause enough smells to bother someone (not pregnant).

        It is not just me, it has just never come up in any place that I am working. And I see people eating at their desks, in the breakroom, all different places.

        1. Anonymous friend of accounting*

          One of our VPs banned takeout Chinese and other garlicky dishes in his section of the building. His team loved him otherwise so they shrugged and went to eat in the break area.

          1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

            I can relate to not being crazy about the smell of garlic, but banning ALL Chinese food seems kind of harsh, lol. There are loads of Chinese dishes that contain zero garlic.

            Be that as it may, he’s the boss,, so I would of course obediently eat my sweet and sour chicken in the break room. I might mutter under my breath a little, but I’d do it.

    3. Aquawoman*

      I was assuming they were raw onions. I wouldn’t describe things that are cooked with onions (soup, chili, whatever) as smelling like onions. They smell like soup or chili. Also, cooked onions have a very different scent than raw.

    4. Littorally*

      Really, you couldn’t make sandwiches without onions for a few months? That seems like a strange hill to die on…

      1. Pennyworth*

        That’s what I was thinking. When I first started working there was a manager who used to have raw onion on his sandwiches. Fortunately he had his own office, but the smell was powerful and lingered, so no-one ever took work in to him after lunch.

      2. Jackalope*

        It depends on what the “no onions” means. If it’s “no raw onions” then that would be easier. If it’s “no onions, period”, then that would be much worse. My lunches are almost 100% leftovers, and almost everything I cook has onions or garlic in it, so no onions or garlic for 6+ months (since the employee was in her 1st trimester) would be a big imposition on my eating habits.

      3. Ms.Vader*

        I could absolutely give up onions on my sandwich but to have no onions in any of my foods for 3 months or longer? No, I don’t think I could and it isn’t reasonable to ask. I stated that I would try to not eat around that person though to limit the impact – that to me is a fair compromise. I hate cooking and live alone so then trying to come up with a totally new menu isn’t really feasible.

        I have a life threatening allergy to a very common food and I do not ask others to limit their consumption to prevent contamination of communal goods – I make do. I think compromise on both ends is warranted.

    5. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I absolutely reworked my whole meal prep around the fact that I and everyone I worked with were routinely eating at our desks. Now that we are fulltime remote, I can go wild with microwaving broccoli and frying fish for lunch. Back when we were in the office, those foods were reserved for dinner at home. None of us brought raw onions or heated cooked onions at work, either. And none of us were pregnant, in fact I was the only woman on my team – it’s just really not great to have to sit in the onion smell for the rest of the day after lunch.

      1. Adultiest Adult*

        I might go down in history with my recently-departed group of interns as someone who taught them what a cruciferous vegetable was–as in, “You do not microwave cruciferous vegetables at work!” And you especially don’t microwave them, eat them in the office across from mine, and then leave for the day, leaving me with all the smells! LOL

    6. Orange You Glad*

      I think the biggest issue is the smell. There are plenty of dishes where onions are hidden in there somewhere but the overall dish doesn’t smell of onions. The LW may be better off addressing strong-smelling foods in general instead of focusing on the ingredients.

  16. Workfromhome*

    #1 Transparency is good but honesty is better. These employees have been overworked (and likely not paid anymore) for some substantial amount of time before this new manager arrived. The people who are making the decision to change this process (and possibly put even more work on overworked people) are the same people who made the decision to overwork them in the first place.
    Unless you as a new manger have been able to impact some major change in the time you have been there these employees have no reason to believe that you being there will lead them to being any less ovwerworked than they were before.
    I’d be very hesitant to tell them “So we’re going to take on X and try to make it work. However, we’ll keep a close eye on how it goes, and if Y or Z do become a problem, come talk to me and we’ll figure out how to handle it” unless you have a realistic commitment that if X does end up making even more overworked than they already are that management will be at all open to changing things. Its not good enough to say we will talk about it if management has a pattern of not listening to their concerns.

    The best you can do is be honest. You probably need to make a choice between towing the company line or telling the truth. Because if the truth is this change is being made and no matter how bad it gets your choice is go along or get out then employees will see right though smokescreens.
    These people are jaded and if you soft pedal this and then it goes bad they will see you as no different than your predecessor.

    1. Alice*

      Yeah, the line about “the dreaded ‘I don’t get paid enough for this’ ” — are you sure that they do get paid enough?
      The specific concern about the unpopular change — that the new duty will take up a significant amount of their time — seems like it can be addressed. Either they are right that it will take up a lot of time, and your role as manager is to work with your manager to figure out what existing task can be dropped/streamlined to make room for the new duty, or how to hire new people to keep the load manageable… or they are wrong that it will take up a lot of time, and the problem will resolve itself.
      If OP is a new low-level manager at an organization that just wants OP to somehow do more with less, that’s going to be rough — and not just because of grumpy staff.

  17. Just Here for the Free Lunch*

    I’ve only had to talk to a “grand-employee” one time, and it was done at the request of their manager to reinforce a behavior correction that just wasn’t taking. When your grand-boss has to talk to you because you’re still doing the-thing-that-your-boss-told-you-not-to, it’s a BIG DEAL. You didn’t do anything wrong, Grand-boss. The fact that Ava thinks it’s inappropriate shows just how out of touch she is and that it might be time to free her up to pursue other opportunities.

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      Out of curiosity, how did that conversation go? Did the employee correct their behavior?

  18. Workerbee*

    My first thought was, you’re speaking to a subordinate—in your own org chart hierarchy!— about her disruptive personal calls, and when she has the gall to be upset with you about it and in an unprofessional manner, you’re actually second-guessing YOURSELF?

    She needed to go yesterday.

    1. Frank Doyle*

      Yeah, Ava is very effectively changing the conversation away from her behavior, to how the criticism was communicated. It’s irrelevant. Has she stopped with the loud, long personal calls? And all of the other issues? That’s where your focus should be, don’t let Ava distract you from what’s important here.

  19. SomebodyElse*

    Just to add the grandboss in the letter did this the correct way in reinforcing that she was repeating what the direct manager had said.

    “This is still a problem, I know Sarah has talked to you about it, I wanted to say something today because I noticed it happening, and I want you to realize that Sarah isn’t the only person who’s aware of this and it’s something you need to get serious about addressing.”

    This was a great way to reinforce Sarah’s position and authority.

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      I agree. I might even have added something like “keep in mind that Sarah is keeping track of whether you are acting on the feedback she’s given you. I feel obliged to let her know I had to talk to you about this, so she’s aware that you are not consistently following through on the changes you agreed to make.” That kind of drives home the idea the just because Sarah doesn’t see it, doesn’t mean she’s not going to find out about it, and that Sarah is the one holding her accountable.

  20. learnedthehardway*

    OP#1 – it is PERFECTLY fine for you to take an escalated role in managing a second line employee’s behaviour / performance, particularly when you have already got the agreement of the direct manager that escalation is required. Now, ideally, you AND the manager would have that conversation with the employee, but that is to show that the manager is the manager (ie. is being supported as manager, not overridden) and has brought their grandboss into the issue as it is serious enough to require a more senior level response.

    The employee is totally out of line for complaining about being disciplined by their manager’s manager, and their own manager should point out that you and she are in complete agreement that the behaviour is unacceptable, and that the employee needs to cut it out, figure out professional norms, etc. It would be a good idea for the manager to point out that something that gets their manager’s attention is VERY SERIOUS, and that the manager WILL be getting cooperation on this issue, or the employee will be exited from the organization.

  21. learnedthehardway*

    OP#5 – I would contact your prospective employer’s HR and let them know that you are awaiting the offer letter and that the delay is getting awkward as you need to book travel for work that would overlap with your start date. Can they speed up getting the offer to you, and what can you do to help things move forward (eg. they may want to start referencing and background checks. Caveat – don’t offer current employer references before you have the offer in writing, if you can possibly help it).

    If they think there is going to be a continued delay, I would proceed as if the offer was not forthcoming and go on with business as usual. Book your travel, tell the new company if/when the offer comes through, you’ll likely need to adjust the start date, etc. etc. Until you have the offer in hand, I wouldn’t do anything that jeopardizes or reduces your performance in your current position.

  22. Sled dog mama*

    The grand boss was reprimanding Ava in the moment for something she knew Ava had already been disciplined for and it was still happening. Absolutely in the right and made it clear that you were addressing a new instance of a behavior that had already been brought up by the direct manager.
    This is very different from the time I was reprimanded by grand boss over the same instance that boss had already raked me over the coals for. The whole incident was humiliating. I fell asleep at work 1 time due to a new medication which my doctor promptly took me off. But getting a severe talking to from two people about my falling asleep at work was humiliating, especially because I was super stressed out about how sleepy the med made me and was trying to stay awake. The letter is not that situation.

    1. Mx*

      To me, that seem a justification to give you a sick day, not a reprimand. Your boss is unkind.

  23. NonProfit Survivor*

    I spent 8 months in chemo existing in a constant state of low-level nausea. I carried a cotton ball soaked in peppermint oil around in a little pill bottle, and when a smell was unavoidable, held it under my nose. The mint effectively blocks out all other smells and (for me) did not cause additional nausea. (Also, as a happily child-free woman who is sick and tired of being asked when I will churn out babies, there was a certain surge of joy at being able to shut down those prying jerks who implied that my nausea = pregnancy with “It’s from the CHEMO.”)

    1. allathian*

      Ooh, I’m so sorry about the insensitive jerks in your vicinity who keep prodding you about pregnancies. Glad you found a way to deal with the chemo nausea, though.

  24. Database Developer Dude*

    This is common sense. Ava is a ditz, and the OP needs to stop doubting themselves as Ava’s Grandboss. If not fired outright, Ava needs to be put on a PIP so she understands how badly she screwed up.

  25. Atlantic Beach Pie*

    I had a coworker once (named JK) who didn’t get along with the Head Honcho (HH). We were in a regional office and HH was based in the home office, but flew out fairly frequently. We had a Regional Office Director (ROD), who reported directly to HH. JK did not report to ROD, her supervisor was based in the home office. JK’s supervisor reported to Division Head (DH), who in turn reported to HH. Despite this structure that technically made HH the great-grandboss, JK argued frequently that she was not in HH’s chain of command because she didn’t report to ROD. JK’s attitude towards HH eventually got her written up for insubordination, which she vigorously defended herself against, saying, “you can’t be insubordinate to someone you don’t report to!” This was someone whose title was Director of Llama Grooming, Northeast Region, while HH’s title was Vice President of Dromedary Affairs.

  26. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    Hey, sometimes it takes the higher up to get the point across if the immediate manager can’t. I’ve seen it happen. The fact that Ava is so indignant about being spoken to is only a defense mechanism to cover embarassment. She knows she’s been talked to before, she just doesn’t want to HAVE to do anything about it or thought her immediate boss was not serious, joking, or not to be taken seriously. I’ve worked with too many Avas to know about their weird mindsets work.

    1. Lana Kane*

      Yes. Ava knows this wasn’t good, so she’s turning the tables. Effectively, it seems!

  27. twocents*

    Man, Ava’s got you trained that you’re second guessing whether your totally normal actions are normal. I can’t imagine one of the grandbosses at my company tiptoeing around like this.

  28. Anonymous Hippo*

    I wonder if the employee is more upset by the fact that clearly the problem has been discussed from her boss up to her grandboss. Now obviously that would be the appropriate thing to do, especially if grand boss is coaching boss on how to handle the issue, but I’ve seen people take this as “tattling.” Ie , this was an issue just between us, and now you’ve brought it up to other people. For that reason, I’d probably not addressed that I knew it was an issue that her boss was already working through with her, but presented it as if I’m coming across it on my own, and that it’s enough of a professional red flag to be brought immediately to her attention.

    1. Anonymous Hippo*

      There is nothing wrong with the way you handled it, but sometime people can write off something like this as “stupid boss convincing people that I’m a problem” when “uh-oh, multiple people have come to me separately on this” might actually work.

      1. Kevin Sours*

        If people write it off that way you have to really ask yourself how much effort you want to expend to keep them employed. At that point the effort is probably better spend on recruitment.

    2. Observer*

      but I’ve seen people take this as “tattling.” Ie , this was an issue just between us, and now you’ve brought it up to other people. For that reason, I’d probably not addressed that I knew it was an issue that her boss was already working through with her, but presented it as if I’m coming across it on my own

      I disagree. That kind of attitude needs to be nipped in the bud. Of course, someone with sense would still recognize that if GrandBoss is coming to them over the issue, regardless of whether it’s something they also noticed on their own or they say “I noticed this and I know that your boss has been working with you on this already”, they should be VERY careful. However, pandering to this childishness and some utterly unrealistic idea that boss is “not allowed” to bring this to their boss does no on any favors.

      1. Boadicea*

        Yeah, if Ava were me I imagine I would feel exactly this way. But I have a couple of brain cells, so I’d realize that my feeling like that is just about pride, and actually boss and grandboss are totally in the right.

    3. Kevin Sours*

      I can’t disagree enough. That approach would absolutely undermine Sarah’s authority The only line available the the grand boss is “I know Sarah addressed this with you and I’m at a loss to understand why that wasn’t sufficient”.

      At the level that the grand boss feels the need to step in Ava’s tender feelings are not really much of a concern. Shocking her into realizing the seriousness of the situation before she gets fired is the point.

      1. Anonymous Hippo*

        Hmm, I don’t see why this would undermine her authority, since the grandboss is saying the same thing. But then I’ve never worked anywhere where the hierarchy was that strict. My grandboss and even his boss comes directly to me and gives me work and assigns me to things and no doubt would have discussions with me if there were issues. It wouldn’t occur to me that my boss somehow lost his authority because his boss came to me with something.

        1. Kevin Sours*

          The issue is that Ava is ignoring Sarah, which is as least as much of a problem as the original behavior being addressed. By conspicuously avoiding addressing that in the interests of offending Ava’s misguided sense of propriety you are sending the message that this behavior is a problem because *I* say it’s a problem, not because Sarah said it’s a problem. If you are going to step in as grandboss after the direct manager has addressed the issue you have to do it from a perspective if “I shouldn’t even need to do this but here we are”.

    4. allathian*

      That’s just a way to undermine Sarah’s authority,or at the very least, not supporting her authority. The LW sounds like a wonderful grandboss who cares about supporting Sarah’s authority.

      If anyone takes this sort of action as “tattling,” they’re just doubling down in their determination to be insubordinate.

  29. PspspspspspsKitty*

    If I were Sara, I would have been like, “Wait, you were having a loud personal phone conversation after we discussed that this needed to be stopped?”

  30. Ellena*

    Oh I don’t agree with the overly apologetic approach suggested by Aliso in the onion situation. This implies that one has to be overly sensitive and pregnant for this to have to change i.e that she is the problem. And what is once she’s back from maternity, this person gets to bring smells again because now the “problem” (sensitivity) is lessened?
    I am not saying to be argumentative or not to use the sensitivity as argument, but the result – removal of the smells – should be permanent, not dependent on the pregnancy.

  31. Lemon*

    I have to admit that Q3 doesn’t quite sit right with me. I’m Indian and a lot of the food that I eat is strong-smelling or pungent. If I was asked to stop bringing in the food I’ve grown up eating, I would be pretty unhappy.

    1. Minerva*

      I share this discomfort with a lot of the food advice. Would it make sense to avoid heating and eating meat because I’m sure the lifelong vegetarians can smell it? What is smelly and what goes unnoticed is very culturally specific, and I really don’t think barring allergies it’s a great look to forbid people from reheating leftovers from last night’s dinner. Especially since every work cafeteria I’ve seen serves thing like beef with broccoli and some kind of curry with onion garnish.

      Food smells, what is strong or unpleasant is not universal.

  32. Former Employee*

    OP#2: There’s 2 possibilities. Either Ava doesn’t understand or Ava doesn’t want to understand. Anyone who has ever worked at almost any sort of job would know that their bosses boss has the right to instruct or reprimand anyone in their reporting hierarchy. Is Ava that dim or does she think that if she complains about how the supposedly wrong person told her something it makes it not count? It sounds as if Ava needs to go on a PIP ASAP. I suspect that might make it clear as to whether Ava really doesn’t understand workplace norms or she just doesn’t believe they apply to her.

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