my employee is overwhelmingly emotionally needy

A reader writes:

I am a department head for a medium-sized nonprofit. I have eight direct reports and I report directly to the CEO. I am at my wit’s end with one of my reports who needs constant validation to the point of obsession and disruption of my own ability to work and direct my department.

I have been this person’s manager for almost two years. I thought once he knew he could trust me, he’d let up on this all-consuming need for reassurance that I won’t scream at, discipline, or fire him. Multiple times per day, he asks if he’s doing a good job. He insists on finding me to dissect every single customer interaction he has, because he believes every customer who is less than joyous will demand I fire him. If he makes a mistake, he apologizes over and over for several days and sometimes weeks, occasionally via voicemail after hours. He will often interrupt conversations I’m having with other coworkers to do this. When I try to help him correct the mistake, the apology flood starts up again. If someone else makes a mistake, he assumes it was really him and the apology flood starts. If I am frustrated with literally anything, from managerial issues to an unsatisfying lunch, he assumes I’m angry with him and again — apology flood. If he sees me talking to other managers or the CEO, he needs to know if I was talking about him. Teaching him new tasks is nearly impossible because correcting him sets off the apology flood. I cannot pay him a compliment without him saying something about his parents never saying nice things to him.

Last week, he asked if I still felt he was as good an employee as I did when I promoted him to a full-time position a year ago (his quality of work is very good). I am exhausted and becoming uncomfortable. And if anything, this neediness has gotten worse over time, despite me promoting him, consistently calling out his accomplishments, never yelling, asking him to trust me, and telling him he doesn’t need to tell me about every customer interaction.

There are some underlying issues outside of his control that are not my things to tell even anonymously, but this isn’t sustainable and I cannot be his therapist even if I were qualified. How do I tell him this has to stop right now without setting off all of the above actions? My boss is aware of the issue, but only peripherally, and he is very hands-off about how his managers manage.

Oh my goodness. This sounds awful for him and awful for you. More awful for him, probably, but it’s pretty unworkable either way.

I wouldn’t be surprised, too, if this is playing out in similar ways with his colleagues. Assuming you’re not the only one receiving these apology floods, it’s likely affecting his coworkers’ work lives too, and may be keeping people from working with him. For example, are people hesitating to ask him routine work questions or reluctant to give him feedback on a project because they’ve learned to dread the reaction they get? The impact on you on its own is reason enough to address the situation, but the likely impact on others is impetus too.

It does sound like there are some mental health struggles here, but you’re right that you can’t be his therapist. And as sympathetic as you might be to what he’s dealing with, you’re right to be concerned about how disruptive this is. It’s also asking a huge amount of emotional labor from you (and probably others).

I thought this would be a interesting one to consult with an actual therapist on, so I talked with clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, who for 15 years wrote the mental health advice column “Baggage Check” for the Washington Post and is the author of the book Detox Your Thoughts, which uses clinical stories and personal examples to illustrate the mental traps that are most associated with unhappiness. She kindly agreed to weigh in on this letter, so I’ll let her take it from here:

I can only imagine how much distress this guy goes through every single day. It makes my head spin, and I also can only wish that he would get some help. You mentioned the underlying issues outside of this control that are clearly significant, and as a therapist it’s impossible for me not to hear screeching alarm bells that if he doesn’t work on these things soon, he will end up sabotaging himself at work irreversibly. My guess is that it’s already doing a number on his personal life, which probably creates a vicious cycle in terms of his self-doubt. My heart aches for him.

But he is not the one writing in; you are, and I empathize with how difficult this is for you as well. And you’re right—you certainly can’t be his therapist, and your role in urging him to make an appointment (despite the fact that one would be helpful like, yesterday!) gets tricky as well.

But it’s time for a real conversation—one that is planned as a sit-down, not just a response in the moment to his apology flood. The overall goal should be to focus on concrete, objective specifics in a matter-of-fact way. Show empathy, but not so much that it buries the lede: his job performance is seriously suffering because of his doubts about his job performance. (Interjection from Alison: “Show empathy, but not so much that it buries the lede” is such a good way of framing this!)

Explain how his need for reassurance is slowing down productivity, creating extra work, making him less autonomous and self-reliant, and undermining his otherwise solid output. Try to depersonalize it as much as possible; make it not about his anxiety or his personality, but about the quantifiable actions that detract from the work. Enumerate examples not by sounding like you’re a prosecuting attorney, but by giving him very clear particulars to understand that he needs to take action on changing. If you need a starting point, here’s a basic sample script:

“It’s time that we had a conversation about something that is getting in the way of your doing your best work. As I have conveyed to you many times, the quality of your work has generally been very good. We are at a point, however, where you check in with me about your performance with such frequency that—ironically—it is detracting from your work, and mine as well. Yesterday, for example, you did it three different times. I know this may be hard for you to hear, but I need you to take it seriously. I am concerned that you are sabotaging your own performance by constantly checking in with me, apologizing too much, and requiring me to reassure you on a daily basis. This pattern is a real problem, and it’s no longer possible for me to sustain my role in it. It doesn’t seem helpful to you either. I want to support you in any way I can, and breaking this cycle is a crucial part of that, for the good of all of our work. Can we have a real conversation about how to chart a new course here?”

It’s very likely that he will be horrified by this, and begin his apology flood anew. But you can gently use that as its own example. “I feel like you are doing right now what I am trying to talk to you about. An important part of work performance, day to day, is being able to take feedback and act on it constructively to move forward. I feel like you get stuck in it, like right now, and it obscures the solution. I want to help you in this before it does permanent damage.”

As meta as the whole doubts-about-job-performance-are-affecting-job-performance thing is, at some point it should be like any feedback at work. Document that you gave it, set actionable goals for him to work on, and check in with him about his progress. If it’s something that he just can’t bring himself to make inroads on changing, then, sadly, it’s like any other employee bringing down the ship with their own dysfunction. Ultimately, if he were to lose his job for this and you made it clear that was the reason, maybe it might finally motivate him to seek the support that he deserves.

I think this is excellent. Be kind, be empathetic, but be clear that what’s happening now can’t continue, ask how to chart a new course, and support him as you can. Then you need to hold him to that like you would any other performance expectation, but by setting clear expectations and boundaries, you’ll give all of you the best possible chance of a good outcome.

{ 314 comments… read them below }

  1. Doctor is In*

    And after that discussion, do not reward continuation of the behavior. “We talked about this, I will not give feedback/listen to your self doubts/ etc.” Best wishes, sounds tough.

    1. Joan Rivers*

      There’s nothing better than saying, “THIS. What you are doing right now is your one problem.” Say it right then so he knows exactly what you’re talking about. So he can hear and feel it in the moment. Talking about it later isn’t nearly as good as saying it in the moment it’s happening, so he can connect his emotional state to the problem. And connect what he was telling himself to that emotional state.

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I wonder if it would be helpful (or appropriate) to come up with a code word that OP could use when he is starting to exhibit this behavior.

      1. Pants*

        I love that idea! Plus, if you pick a funny one, it might make him smile. “Wubbadubba, dude.”

      2. Boo Radley*

        I think it would be more helpful to ask him what he’d like you to do when you encounter it. Some people would respond to a code word (as suggested below), a direct interruption, a follow up at the end of the day and then you could follow up on how effective this strategy has been at arresting this behavior.

      3. SimonTheGreyWarden*

        In a personal relationship (so, very different from this), I have one of these. I’ve got an alphabet of things that means I have a LOT of negative self talk (better now with medication) and intense reaction to (sometimes just perceived) rejection. I have worked on it for YEARS and I’m a much better mammal than I used to be, but my partner and I have a “code” from a video game if it starts to happen. It isn’t the nicest comparison but I’m the one who came up with it as the character it references sometimes feels like the best fit for my mental health struggles. It doesn’t always mean I hear it and stop immediately, and sometimes it briefly makes me feel angry, but it also forces me to realize I am spiraling.

        But I wouldn’t ask my boss to do it. However, the person here might respond to it so YMMV.

    3. Cat Tree*

      This advice is correct. Obviously I can’t diagnose this employee, but it’s clear that he’s struggling with something. My brother is the same way (although he has a diagnosis but is afraid to treatment for it). It is definitely tough for an outsider looking in, especially when your main focus is empathy.

      I can identify a lot with OP. It’s really frustrating to watch someone who is in distress and not be able to help, especially because he otherwise does good work. But you have to change your goal here. The goal can’t be to convince him that his work is truly good. It’s just not possible the acheive. It’s really hard to accept that and took me quite a long time, and I still occasionally find myself trying to reassure my brother. But it ends up just feeding on itself.

      Also OP, it’s ok to value your own mental health. If his reassurance-seeking is taking a toll on you, it’s ok to stop the behavior solely for that reason. It’s great that you want to help him, but it isn’t callous or selfish to protect your own health if it comes to that.

    4. Anne O.*

      The phrase “Asked and answered” (offered kindly but firmly) has been useful for this kind of thing for younger people, transitioning quickly onto a task or topic that they need to be focusing on instead. Not sure how that might translate to a work context, but maybe a similar reinforcement in the moment?

      1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

        Also, I use this with my almost-4 year old (along with, “what do you think the answer is”) to stem some of the repeated questioning (“Can I have a sucker?” ad nauseum).

    5. MusicWithRocksIn*

      Maybe set up one standing meeting a week to discuss his performance that week or any other issues he has. A meeting that will, as part of his job performance issues, discuss how many times he tried to disrupt you to discuss his job performance. That way every time he tries to talk to you about it you can say “We will discuss this on Wednesday”. On Wednesday you can assure him his work is doing well, except for the X number of times he brought his concerns to you, when he knows that it is disruptive. Keep it short, maybe 10 to 15 minutes, which he should know ahead of time, but that way he can have a time to focus on and hold out for, which might keep him from melting down entirely.

      1. Little Pig*

        I was thinking the same thing. It can even be a daily 15 minutes, at first, because this is a big behavior to train away. Two weeks later, it goes down to 3x/week, etc.

      2. Code Monkey, the SQL*

        I think this is a workable solution. The employee, I’ll call him Dave, (hopefully) will feel like his concerns are still going to have a chance when they can be addressed, but the LW will have a set time where Reassuring Dave is contained to. Plus, limiting the reassurance will probably mean that some of the concerns will start to group, hopefully to be dealt with in one fell: “Yes, you handled the interactions with Client well this week”, vs. a check-in after each phone call or visit.

        I had a roommate who was an overthinker and excessive apologizer, similar to how Dave sounds, and it really does mean that after a while, you start to feel exhausted and even mildly offended. Was my affirmative answer not good enough the last ten-fifteen-twenty times? Did you think I was lying when I said you never needed to worry about [xyz] being an issue? How many more reassurances are you going to need before the message takes, and can you please ask someone else for them?

        I really hope the LW can help her Dave in a work-appropriate and boundary-respecting way. And I hope Dave seeks some help for whatever is underpinning all this, because it sounds stressful and exhausting for him too.

        1. Megan K*

          This reminds me of something I think I read on here once that was kind of going the other way, where a person’s manager didn’t trust them and never had. Someone in the comments pointed out that for this kind of thing, trust is a decision on the manager’s part – that no amount of proving oneself or jumping through hoops will help if the problem is that the manager has decided not to trust them.

          In this case it seems like it’s the employee who doesn’t trust, but the person he doesn’t trust is ultimately himself. No amount of the manager reassuring him will really make an impact, which is why the last ten-fifteen-twenty reassurances didn’t stick. Until the employee makes the decision to trust themselves, they’ll keep looking for external validation and wondering why that doesn’t reassure them. Obviously this isn’t the only thing going on, but it might be a useful way to look at this behavior.

          This sounds awful for both parties – so sorry you’re dealing with this, OP.

          1. Roci*

            Exactly. It’s not about trusting the manager/outside person. It’s the inner critic’s voice that says “They’re just saying that to be nice. You are actually doing everything wrong.” There is no outside voice that can drown out the inner voice–Dave will have to do this on his own sadly.

      3. KitKat2000*

        I think this would be a useful approach, creating clarity on the forums for him to have different types of conversations while also limiting the number of hours per week you actually spend on this stuff.

        “We can have X type of work-specific, non-disruptive conversation any time, as needed. Y content, related to direct performance feedback, needs to be confined to our weekly check-ins, where I’ll be happy to uphold my side of the bargain by being direct and clear about your performance and any concerns. Z content (excessive apologizing, discussion of family history, excessively dissecting customer interactions) needs to stay out of our conversations going forward so we can focus our time on work-related topics. This might be a tough transition to manage, and unfortunately my role needs to be limited to specifics of how this impacts our work together, but we do have EAP resources than can help you talk about this more holistically and come up with some strategies to get used to the change.”

        Being concrete with examples of each of these types of conversations will help you establish and then hold him to a standard. It’s empathetic while drawing a line that will hopefully help him recognize where he needs more appropriate support.

        1. DJ Abbott*

          If OP’s workplace doesn’t have an EAP, maybe she could have a number or web site to get help with mental health? I see ads/billboards for such things. In case he asks.

    6. Keymaster of Gozer*

      As some here know, I suffer from schizophrenia which can sometimes make me extremely paranoid. I have literally done what that employee is doing.

      What got me to finally seek treatment was being told, flat out, that my behaviour was totally abnormal and couldn’t continue. That nobody had the responsibility of assuaging my fears 24/7 and I had to learn how to manage my own emotions because nobody else there was going to do it for me.

      It was not a good day. Hearing that really hurt. But…I realised I had to do something, even if it was going to the doctors to get a note that said I was perfectly normal and the boss was wrong (I seriously thought I’d get that!).

      Of course the doctor listened to how much of my life was being taken up by paranoia and immediately referred me to a psychiatrist. I’ve been on antipsychotics ever since.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        If it’s any comfort at all,…. an acquaintance went through a bizarre set of circumstances leading to his needing to prove that he was in good mental health. He was for all intents and purposes a fully-functioning human being, but somehow it proved impossible to acquire a clean bill of mental health, no doctor was prepared to do it.

    1. SophieJ*

      Oh, and….and you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No one would understand it anyway.

      1. Drafter*

        Do you also listen to Call Your Girlfriend? That’s where I heard it this week :-)

    2. Been there*

      Yes, please. Poor guy sounds like he has experienced emotional or verbal abuse.

      1. DJ Abbott*

        I agree. I was emotionally and verbally abused by my parents and had similar off-the-charts anxiety. His mentioning his parents seems like they might be the cause.

      2. Self Employed*

        I agree.

        Also, I’ve been in situations where bosses would give feedback in ways where the words were the opposite of what they meant and I was supposed to get the true meaning from their nonverbal signals. I am not good at reading nonverbal signals and can’t tell the difference between “seems unhappy” and “seems unhappy about what I just said so I should assume their words are a polite fiction.” That can really warp your sense of whether or not people mean what they say.

        I don’t agree that it’s more polite to tell people something is OK when it is not (and expect them to pick up on hidden meanings). There are definitely gradations of polite between pretending something is OK when it needs to be done differently and being abusive or rude. It’s polite enough to say “We can fix it this time, but please do Y instead of X in the future.”

  2. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    OP, you have far more patience than I do. I would have snapped at some point in the last 2 years.

    1. MusicWithRocksIn*

      Maybe it would be worth it to check in with the people he works closely with and see how much of this behavior they have to deal with. He might need some coaching on how not to put too much of this on his coworkers or everyone is going to be at a bitch eating crackers place with him pretty soon.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I’m pretty sure I would already be there. I try to be kind to people, but I do not do well with the kind of neediness described in the letter; it would make me want to run the other direction and would make my skin crawl. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t feel for him, I would, but the behavior would really not go over well with me.

      2. RagingADHD*

        Yes, this is an important point. As Alison pointed out, it’s likely this is pouring out on them as well, and it can have negative impacts on their own work.

        Besides being completely emotionally exhausting to deal with. Everyone I’ve ever known who works at a nonprofit already has an emotionally draining job in one way or another. Having to meet a coworker’s constant demands for attention and validation is just a pile-on.

        1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

          Well, not all not-for-profits fit that description. Museums, arts organizations, recreation… not saving lives, just pleasantly enriching them. They do not have the same stressors as organizations serving the homeless or ill.

          1. RagingADHD*

            No, but culturally everyone I know who works for any flavor nonprofit is always trying to do too much with too little, has to deal with crap from donors, or has problematic people on the board who must be catered to or manouvered around, etc.

            It’s not always that the org’s mission is inherently an emotional labor, but the work always seems to be, in a way that the private sector isn’t.

          2. YYBottom*

            Just because a non-profit doesn’t save lives doesn’t mean that its workers aren’t stressed. I agree with RagingADHD – I know lots of people that work in the “other” types of nonprofits you listed, and most are emotionally drained and challenged by their job.

      3. Loosey Goosey*

        Totally. He is sucking up all the air in the room, so one part of addressing this needs to be focused on all his teammates who have been impacted, as well. (And even if he isn’t directing this behavior towards them – which seems unlikely – it’s still bad optics for him to be getting such a huge share of the manager’s time, on a team of 8 people.)

      4. GreenDoor*

        Came to say the same. You need to look for clues/information/outright complaints from his co-workers and help them set boundaries, too. I’m dealing with an employee who either has a mental health issue or some kind of addiction issue going on (not sure which, he hasn’t disclosed). But I’ve had to repeatedly tell his well-meaning coworkers that: telling me he’s been at lunch for 2 hours or came back acting weird is not tattling, it’s reporting information I need to know; they need to stop doing his work for him, stop offering to cover his meetings and weekend hours; it’s OK to tell him that you’re frustrated or mad that you had to pick up his shift at the last minute, etc. If I, as the manager, am the only one setting boundaries and not turning a blind eye to inappropriate behavior, all that teaches him is that he can just finagle a way for his coworkers to cover for him and continue to get away with behavior I’m trying to correct.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I have to confess, this sort of thing would have been very tough for me over the past year. I am so emotionally thin just dealing with my own family and own feelings that I don’t have a lot to go around for people who I’ve already told they are doing solid work. I have an employee with whom I have a biweekly meeting because she’s lonely and feels disconnected, but she’s not an emotional vampire that needs constant reassurance.

      I would not be unkind and would do my very best not to just suddenly snap (for me, that means addressing something before it’s on my last nerve), but I was exhausted just reading this letter and am not the sort of person who can offer therapy with management.

  3. TWW*

    It was a mistake to hire this person in the first place. But understandable, since the issue would not have been known at the time.

    But, after the issue became apparent, why was the mistake reinforced by promoting him?

      1. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

        There are plenty of annoying, mean, petty, angry, weepy etc people in the world. Plenty of them have jobs.
        I agree that OP needs to deal with this disruptive behavior, but shouldn’t someone who does excellent work be able to grow and change?
        Why was your first instinct to get rid of him?

        1. Unkempt Flatware*

          But TWW didn’t suggest firing or getting rid of him. TWW asked why he was promoted.

          1. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

            You’re right, TWW didn’t say that. Thanks for the correction!

            I still stand by my original point though, or the spirit of it anyway. Why shouldn’t he be able to be hired or be promoted? If no one took chances on employees, a lot of us would be in deep trouble.
            I’m not saying the employee isn’t disruptive and I agree his behavior needs to be addressed. I’m just saying there are more nuances here than the employee is not worth a chance at all or he needs to be treated with kid gloves. But I think it’s better to be emphatic and try to help someone who does good work. It’s better to err on the side of empathy.

            1. Great Company you should trust*

              True, until it becomes EXTREME like this. Depending on the new role, I could never have someone who acted this way in leadership and mostly promotions include working more independently, which he seems unable to do because he needs to interface constantly. And when you tell someone to stop doing something and they keep doing it…its a problem no matter how much empathy you have.

            2. Ace in the Hole*

              Empathy is not the same thing as promoting someone beyond their capabilities. And frankly, if someone can’t do their job without a emotional distress to this degree, where it is seriously impacting their coworkers as well as overall productivity… then they are not capable for the job.

              An empathetic way of handling this would be to coach the struggling employee on how to appropriately/professionally handle their emotions at work, refer them to resources like an EAP when possible, and wait to promote them until they’ve got the problems under control.

          2. Blue Eagle*

            Which is an excellent question. Why promote someone with whom you have a known problem without addressing the problem prior to that time? I had the same question.

              1. BubbleTea*

                They may have believed that the expression of confidence which is inherent in a promotion would solve the problem. It didn’t, because the problem is that his need for affirmation is a bottomless pit (or there is a leak somewhere that needs external support to plug) but it wasn’t a wild assumption to make.

                1. Allonge*

                  I don’t think that giving the promotion was a mistake, I think that promoting this person without discussing a serious performance issue was a mistake.

                  And I am not saying that this makes OP a bad manager or anything – we all make mistakes, the more you know and all that. I thankfully don’t have experience with this level of anxiety; I might well have made the same mistake in the same situation. I still think it’s a mistake.

                2. Mockingdragon*

                  I just love the imagery of a leak somewhere that needs a plug. That fits very well with my experience.

                3. Princess Trachea-Aurelia Belaroth*

                  @Allonge, it’s entirely possible that the problem got significantly worse after being promoted, and was not at the level of an extremely serious disruption before that. As someone frequently afflicted with imposter syndrome (though not to this extent), it gets worse the more ‘successful’ I am. When I worked part-time in a restaurant kitchen, I only had doubts that I was not cool enough to be friends with my coworkers, but I was generally quite confident in my work. When I was a paralegal, I was so uncertain in my authority that I had panic attacks over calling doctors’ offices to follow up on subpoenas, something I did several times a day. Reassurances did not help.

        1. Allypopx*

          Yeah, managing employees isn’t easy, some need extra attention. He’s not going in and deleting her emails, he’s taking some emotional energy. Managing him is part of her job. This needs to be addressed but it doesn’t undo the fact this is a capable employee.

          1. Allonge*

            This person does not need extra attention, he needs therapy. It’s not his fault, but he is the only one who can get it.

            Wxpecting his manager to just spend a bit more time with him is like expecting the manager of a person who broke their leg to just accept they will be slower, instead of getting them to a doctor. It’s not going to solve the issue, for one, and is not part of the job of a manager.

        2. Lance*

          Yes, he has an issue. Yes, he’s being disruptive. But, per the letter, he is doing good work besides that.

          Sure, it’s not a great scenario for the OP to be in, but the answer really doesn’t have to be ‘so get rid of him at all costs’.

        3. Noncompliance Officer*

          I think it was implied in the letter that LW thought through coaching, positive reinforcement, and even a promotion to full-time that the employee would build up confidence and learn to trust the LW. This is not an unreasonable assertion! Unfortunately here it seems the situation is deeper than just a lack of confidence at work

      2. Allonge*

        He is not doing good work. Part of the job is to get along with others, and that very much includes not driving your manager to distraction.

      3. justcourt*

        Receiving feedback and fostering good relationships with coworkers/management is also part of job performance.

    1. ...*

      This is cruel, and possibly illegal given that mental health issues could be at play. Are you suggesting that people who deal with issues like this should be forever unemployed?

      1. Joan Rivers*

        Are you suggesting that the mgr. should say nothing and thus enable this behavior? Forever?

        What if an employee does good work but feels the compulsion to physically harass others? Is that OK if it’s a mental health issue? No.

        1. ...*

          Saying something is quite different from refusing to hire someone or firing them. That’s quite a jump.

        2. Julia*

          Can you please not lump abusive behavior and someone clearly being anxious together? Thank you.

      2. TWW*

        I’m suggesting that if a person cannot stop annoying his boss as described in this letter, he should not be employed in that particular organization.

        This is about behavior, and the impact of that behavior. I know nothing about his mental health.

          1. Warlord*

            Being annoying is not a protected class, and the LW didn’t mention unions at all, so it is totally possible that the employee could be fired for being annoying.

            1. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

              Sure, in at-will states.
              But I think most of us have some criteria for why someone should be fired. (I mean really fired, not just let go when business is slow.)

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                49 states in the U.S. are at-will. The point is there’s not really any such thing as “fireable” here in the legal sense. Anything is fireable as long as it’s not a specifically illegal reason (such because you’re race X or religion Z). You’d want to be sure you’re not violating the ADA if there’s a disability involved, but repeatedly disrupting the work environment like this and not being able to take feedback efficiently isn’t usually going to be a required accommodation. That’s why you manage it like any other performance issue — lay out what needs to change in a kind and respectful way, support him in doing that, warn him if it’s at the point of jeopardizing his job, but ultimately be willing to part ways if it continues to disrupt the office.

                1. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

                  Sorry, I was unclear. I wasn’t being sarcastic when I said that.
                  I know there aren’t fireable (got that spelling right in my fourth try )
                  I meant from a moral/common sense perspective.
                  But I see that wasn’t clear in my post, so thank you for the clarification.

          2. boop*

            HAHAHAHA

            Sorry, had to get that out of my system.

            Believe it or not, 49 out of 50 US states are at-will employment states, so they could fire him for wearing a blue shirt if they so chose. There isn’t any mention of disability so this wouldn’t be discrimination either, nor is there mention of a union. Literally anything is a fireable offence in all states except Montana, for anything that doesn’t fall under a protected class. Being annoying isn’t protected.

            1. StudentA*

              Better than taking two months of red tape to fire someone or not being able to fire someone at all (see TheProblemWithEyes*’s post below). Just recall all the letters this site gets for people with terrible employees but the managers have to put up with them.

              Various scenarios occur frequently in American companies. Let’s not pretend companies feel that comfortable with at will firings.

              1. At-will law doesn’t mean companies don’t try to justify their firings. Often they unfairly campaign against some (often unjustly) employees.

              2.) Yes, many employees get fired unexpectedly.

              3.) As we see on this site, plenty of managers or companies feel they are stuck with employees for a variety of reasons.

              1. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

                We‘ll have to agree to disagree.
                I favor strong unions and collective bargaining, even if that means one bad person keeps their job if it means another 10 people are able to put a stop to 12-hour shifts without bathroom breaks. (I feel the same about cheating to collect disability too.)
                And I’m pretty right-wing by my country’s standard ;)

                You don’t have to agree with my views on employment law. That’s fine by me. Who knows, it might turn out that I’m completely wrong.

          3. Allonge*

            Annoying, not. Taking up, over a long period, what sounds like 3000% of your managers’ time that is reasonable allocated to any one staff member however…

            1. Amaranth*

              That’s at least partially on the manager though, because they’ve apparently taken a softer, long-term approach in hopes that “building trust” will cure their employee’s anxiety and imposter syndrome. LW never mentions counseling their employee that the behavior is unacceptable and disruptive, but indicates trying to offset with positive feedback — and *repeatedly allowing the behavior*. There is no one-stop solution for anxiety, but it might help a great deal for LW to set very clear cut ‘rules’ of what is acceptable. I think the suggestion above about limiting feedback to a weekly meeting and pointing out whenever the employee gets bogged down are terrific. I’d probably try to lead the employee towards contacting EAP if they have one.

          4. SomebodyElse*

            It can be if it raises to the level of disruptive.

            I’m not saying that is what should happen with this employee. But it could if the pattern and behavior doesn’t get fixed somehow. Even if it is a MH issue at the root, reasonable accommodations likely don’t include “Manager spending 2 hours a day reassuring employee”

          5. Student*

            In the US, being annoying is absolutely a fireable offense. There’s no such concept as “fireable offense” in most of the USA. Managers have broad discretion to fire somebody for any or no reason. There are exceptions, from laws that protect you from being fired due to membership in a couple of protected classes (usually gender, race, disability, a few others). But you can get fired because the boss was having a rough day, because you annoyed the boss, because the boss doesn’t like the beach pictures you posted to Facebook while on approved vacation time, etc.

          6. hbc*

            It is for me, and I’ve done it. If you are disruptive to people at any level in the organization through your actions, you may have more time to get yourself under control if your work output is strong, but you eventually need to change your behavior.

          7. JSPA*

            In the US (montana and those protected by union contracts or other agreements aside), ANYTHING that’s not specifically protected is a “firable offense.” Including, “I don’t enjoy seeing you walk in the door.”

            But

            a. firing someone who’s both clearly able (anxieties aside) of doing excellent work, and deeply committed to doing excellent work, is something managers and companies should reasonably avoid.

            b. once the problem is perceived or understood as being medical in nature–whether or not this is true–and becomes in and of itself, disabling–which, as a catch-22, if it causes one to risk losing a job, it’s reaching that diagnosable level–then we may be talking about firing on the basis of a perceived disability, without first engaging in a process of accommodations.

            It would be easier for all if the employee had mentioned something medical, so that OP would be mandated to bring up accommodations. It’s possible they can still suggest the EOP (if they have one or subscribe to a service), while avoiding explicitly medical or disability talk. “Suggestions on how to address communications patterns,” perhaps? I have the sense that there are entry points into discussing CBT (or having work pay for CBT sessions) that don’t presuppose a medical issue or diagnosis, only a “counterproductive pattern”–could someone who has a better understanding of this chime in?

        1. ...*

          I think it’s important to be very careful here, because his “annoying” behavior COULD BE linked to something protected by the ADA. So that really needs to be considered.

          1. hmm*

            you keep saying that, but again you don’t seem to understand that it. does. not. matter.

            1. JSPA*

              Per the ADA, “perceived disability” discrimination is illegal. That’s for a “current or past” perceived disability.

              If the employee is perceived as having “disabling” anxiety, that seems very likely to rise to the level of a “perceived disability.”

              The issue then becomes whether there are treatments the employee can try and accommodations that the employer can make, that render the employee employable, despite the (real or perceived) disability.

              It’s awkward, because it’s a multi-part dance:

              Employer: “this is interfering with your otherwise excellent performance to the point of becoming a bar to further employment. We are eager to retain you, if there is any way to help you get a handle on the issue. We are not, however, allowed to suggest specific strategies. May we put you in contact with the external EOP, who may be able to help you strategize?”

              Employee: “No, I’m just a horrible screw up, I don’t need help, I’m the problem.”

              Employer: “Again, the EOP exists to work with people who feel like they are horrible screw ups who don’t need help, and don’t see a path to feeling otherwise. It’s literally one of their main jobs. You would be making them happy by giving them a chance to do their job, whether or not you feel it is likely to be helpful.”

              Employee:

              ….well, this script can still go in any direction, for better or worse, of course.

              But, “there are people who exist to brainstorm a path around, over, under or through whatever is blocking you from being the person you want to be at work” is a useful message.

              It takes the parts which should not be a “manager problem” and puts them in a different framework, leaving the manager free to manage.

              1. fhqwhgads*

                No because it’s not the “perceived disability” he’d be fired for. He is being demonstrably disruptive. He wouldn’t be let go for “seeming to have crippling anxiety”. He’d be let go for constantly interrupting his boss’s workflow. He will have been told to stop. Letting him continue is not a reasonable accommodation. His option is basically just to stop it.

                1. allathian*

                  Yes, this. And surely it’s possible in some cases to make contacting the EAP and getting treatment a condition of employment?

                2. JSPA*

                  People are not necessarily expected to stop on a dime, if there’s a treatable medical condition that takes some time to resolve. That depends on the severity of the condition and the level of disruption, of course! But there’s a lot of ground between, “fire the person” and “put up with their current behavior.”

                  That’s why the best message is,

                  “the behavior absolutely must stop. We’re open to supporting you as you take whatever steps may be necessary to make it stop. Whatever you’re currently doing to address the issue isn’t working. Here’s the contact information for our EAP, with a strong suggestion that you start there. Again, to be clear, we 100% value your skills and would prefer to keep you if this issue can be addressed. But behaviors X, Y and Z are beyond what we can reasonably accommodate.”

          2. AnonEMoose*

            I’m honestly not entirely sure how that works. Wouldn’t he need to actually request accommodations for a disability (if he has one)? If he chose not to request anything, and didn’t indicate anything was due to a disability, would anything be required of the company under the ADA?

            1. allathian*

              From reading this blog it’s become clear that the employer is only required to provide reasonable accommodation. Taking up unreasonable amounts of the manager’s and probably coworkers’ time due to a constant need for reassurance is not a reasonable accommodation.

          3. Crabby Patty*

            From the ADA website:

            “Myth: The ADA protects employees who have difficult or rude personalities or are troublemakers.

            Fact: Improper behavior in and of itself does not constitute a disability, and having a disability does not excuse employees from performing essential job tasks and following the same conduct standards required of all employees. The courts have consistently ruled that ‘common sense’ conduct standards, such as getting along with co-workers and listening to supervisors, are legitimate job requirements that employers can enforce equally among all employees.”

      3. Caroline Bowman*

        It’s not ”dealing with it” that is causing the issues. The trouble with promoting someone who is evidently struggling badly, even though they are clearly a very competent worker and generally good person, is that the problems tend to escalate. Not always, but often.

        Now the OP is dealing with a never-ending tidal wave of self-abnegation, unable to offer the slightest insight, or indeed focus on anyone else, without having to deal with an emotional vampire. The kind of person who entails that sort of input is not particularly employable generally simply because it’s not sustainable in the real world.

        1. Krabby*

          I don’t think that’s very fair to OP. She had no way of knowing that things would get worse, and I think MOST people who hadn’t dealt with this behavior before would think, “Jon is a great worker but he is wracked with self doubt. His work definitely qualifies him for a promotion, and that will hopefully reinforce that I know his work is good and he’ll need less reassurance.”

          Most people assume everyone is reasonable until proven otherwise. OP was proven otherwise, and now she’s asking for help.

          1. Cordelia*

            yes I think OP’s actions were reasonable (and kind), promotion of a good worker can increase their self-confidence and reduce their need for further validation. She didn’t know he would get worse – it also sounds like there are things going on outside work for him that might also have got worse. Trouble is, reassurance given to an anxious person only ever works short-term. He sounds like he’s really struggling, and I think the suggestion of a referral to EAP is a good one, perhaps phrased as “help working on these patterns of communication”, if he is not labelling this as anxiety himself. But what a difficult situation for OP, her employee, and also the rest of the team

          2. Elsajeni*

            I also think this is the kind of behavior that it’s very easy to think “okay, this time Tom is reassured once and for all– okay, that was a different topic, but for sure today will be the last time I have to reassure him about this topic — okay, today I’m trying a different tack and definitely this will be the last time we have to have this conversation–” about over and over, and lose perspective on how long you’ve actually been dealing with the general problem of Tom Needs Constant Reassurance. (I’m not sure what to call this — it’s not exactly the sunk cost fallacy, but it feels related, right?) The OP says they thought Tom would let up when he learned he could trust them; it just took a while for them to realize, okay, if he doesn’t trust me by now he is never going to, so that can’t actually be the solution here.

        2. ...*

          I definitely agree that it needs to be addressed. I never meant to imply that it shouldn’t be.

          But jumping to the “let’s just fire him” seems extreme to me. Lots of people are scared to mention that they suffer from mental health issues, and a little compassion could go a long way.

      4. hmm*

        It’s not illegal if the employee never alerts their manager to their mental health issues and requests ADA accommodations. Are you really suggesting that employers should treat annoying employees differently than everyone else on the off chance that they *might* have mental health issues? That would also fall under discrimination, I would think.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes, and it would create a lot of legal liability for the employer because once you regard someone as disabled (even if they’re not), the ADA kicks in.

          1. ...*

            Asking out of curiosity, not to start a fight: could suggesting therapy to an employee be considered as regarding them as disabled? Obviously not everyone who uses therapy is, but could the employer risk that assumption from the employee if they pointed them to EAP counseling? I know employees can assume whatever they want about anything, but how potentially risky is that for an employer?

            1. fposte*

              The EEOC guidance says not necessarily (“It is unlikely that a mere referral to an EAP, by itself, would be sufficient to establish that an employer treated an individual as having a substantially limiting impairment.”) but that it could (“a referral to an EAP in combination with other relevant evidence could raise an inference that the employer regarded the person as having a substantially limiting impairment”). Link in followup.

                1. Self Employed*

                  Interesting!

                  My takeaway from it was that an employer would be inferred to have regarded the person as having a substantially limiting impairment if they:

                  Discussed specific information that makes it clear they know or suspect a medical/psych impairment

                  Offer the employee the option of getting treatment or going to EAP to avoid disciplinary consequences for their performance/behavior issues

                  Possibly others, but this would be clear-cut.

        2. fposte*

          And even if the employee has mental health issues, the employer isn’t required to retain them if they can’t do the job properly; it may be that there are accommodations that would be helpful for the employee to do his job, but constant reassurance by the boss isn’t something the law is going to require as an accommodation.

    2. High Score!*

      If he does good work, it was not a mistake to hire him. It is a mistake to go along with his self doubts and listen to multiple apologies.

    3. StripesAndPolkaDots*

      I also wouldn’t have promoted this person without first dealing with this issue.

      1. twocents*

        Yes. I really feel for him, but this is unworkable. He’s literally untrainable because of his reaction to any course correction. I really hope he can get it together, because it may be so much harder for him in the future now that things have worsened. I used to train new hires, and I can’t imagine my old manager putting up with a new hire that needs so much additional training time just to console them.

      2. Amaranth*

        I agree. It sounds like LW thought it was deserved *but* that proof of their approval should resolve the need for reassurance. I don’t think LW needs to be his therapist, but I do think they have a somewhat simplistic view of how anxiety works. If LW wants to keep him in the department, they might find it helpful to talk to EAP themselves and ask for some suggestions on how to manage him.

    4. Dust Bunny*

      “And if anything, this neediness has gotten worse over time, despite me promoting him,”

      It sounds like it wasn’t as bad at the time he was promoted.

    5. Smile Time*

      I understand the sentiment here, but it’s entirely possible that whatever is causing the person to behave this way was not present at the time of his hire, nor the time of his promotion.

      Yes, people can have diagnoses and conditions, but mental health doesn’t have to work as an inherent or immutable trait. It’s entirely possible that there was an inciting incident or series of inciting incidents that congealed into this behavior and self-concept. It might even have a basis in reality – like a termination or near termination in the past.

      The bottom line is, this behavior is dysfunctional and needs to be addressed for this employee to be successful there, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t deserving of employment or advancement.

  4. treeway*

    This poor guy, I can only imagine how stressed out he is constantly, it must be hell. Your patience and kindness with him is wonderful, but not being upfront and honest with him is really going to hurt him and you long term. If it’s not sustainable for you to maintain what you’ve been doing, eventually you’ll snap and it will surprise him out of nowhere, whereas if you talk to him now, at least it’s not a total shock and you’ve given him a real chance to break feel of this stress cycle.

      1. Jack Straw*

        Agreed. I love solo-Alison, but I also geek out when it’s an Alison + collaborator answer!

    1. Snazzy*

      Also if there is a restructure or the OP gets another position right now most people would not be a overly patient with the employee. The Op needs to set boundaries now on what is appropriate in a professional setting.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        This was my thought. It will be best for employee in a future career/work environment as well!

  5. voyager1*

    LW,

    He is very insecure. Something probably bad happened to him at some point in his life to make him this way. He needs a therapist as you say. I hope he can turn it around, but dang this would be exhausting. You sound very empathetic to me LW and you have done more then many would.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      He said his parents “didn’t say nice things to him”, which might be a gentler way of saying they were hypercritical, and if that was the case this is hardly a surprising outcome. But, as my grandmother would have told him, it might not be his fault but it’s still his problem.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Or as I have reassured a child who accidentally broke something– “It’s not your fault, and it’s not a problem as long as you admit it and clean it up….how can I help with that?”

        1. Marzipan Shepherdess*

          That’s an excellent approach to take! Come to think of it, that should also work very well with an employee. You sound like a terrific natural leader!

        2. SimonTheGreyWarden*

          We tell our son “we aren’t mad; this isn’t a punishment, but it is a consequence of X choice/action.”

    2. Troutwaxer*

      I really want to amplify the “this guy needs a therapist” talk, because this guy needs a therapist. So we need to be advising the LW to suggest that this guy get a therapist because he really, desperately needs therapy!

      1. SomebodyElse*

        No we don’t need to be advising the LW to suggest therapy, that would be totally inappropriate for a manager to do.

        A manager should be pointing out the problem in a clear way, setting appropriate standards, and providing feedback as needed. A manager can remind employees about EAP where it exists but that is the extent of what they should do.

        1. OhNo*

          I think managers can require therapy (or at least use of the EAP) as part of a performance improvement plan in some places. It’s not something I’ve ever seen firsthand, but it’s been mentioned here in the past.

          I’m not sure if this situation rises to the level of requiring the employee to seek help, though. I hope they at least have the option of using an EAP, and it might be worth it to the LW to have that info, or any other options for that, ready to go for this meeting.

          1. EmKay*

            Really? In the US with a for-profit healthcare system? And crappy, super expensive insurance? If you’re even lucky enough to have insurance?

            That’s… crazy. My flabber is gasted.

            1. Ann Perkins*

              Also only from what I’ve read here: It’s usually associated with the EAP – employers can require a “course” of therapy, provided within the bounds of the EAP, i.e I get 6 or 8 free sessions that can be set up through the EAP, and that’s what they require (and the EAP verifies it’s been done, and that’s it.)

          2. You bet I'm anonymous for this*

            In the early 1990s, my father, who was one of the C-level employees at the small manufacturing company where he worked for most of his adult life, was put on a performance improvement plan by his boss, the CEO, which entailed my father’s going to psychological counseling.

            CEO essentially said to my dad: “You’re tough on yourself, you’re tough on everyone else around you, and nobody wants to work with you anymore because they don’t want their heads to get bitten off if they have a question. You’ve got to get a handle on this.”

            My dad saw a therapist. I honestly think it did him a lot of good. He was a lot easier to deal with at home, he kept his job (he retired from the place), and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have pursued therapy if his job hadn’t been on the line. I’ve heard that depression in men often shows up as anger and/or irritability (these being socially sanctioned emotions for men to express), and that would seem to be the case with my father.

            The company’s CEO was a WASPy attorney who did *not* appear to be one of the world’s more … empathetic and warm humans. However, he did have a surprising amount of compassion for mental health struggles. The CEO’s son has suffered* for many years from bipolar disorder, and I think that undoubtedly contributed to the CEO’s willingness to work with people rather than write them off.

            * I don’t use the word “suffered” lightly. I have a diagnosis of depression, and I wouldn’t say that I “suffer” from it. It does make my life more difficult, but it’s under control, and I can recognize the signs of a flare up and take steps to short circuit them.

            But the CEO’s son, who would be in his mid to late 40s now if he’s still alive, is suffering. The last thing that I heard of him (early 2000s), he was living on the street, washing himself in library restrooms, and not taking his medication. I hope he is doing OK but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he has passed away.

        2. Marzipan Shepherdess*

          The LW could start by mentioning to the employee that he seems to be under a lot of stress and that this must be really difficult for him – perhaps he could run this by his doctor and get some ideas to help him feel more relaxed and put ordinary workplace discussions in perspective. “Running it by your doctor” is very often much more acceptable to people than “you need to see a therapist” which can lead them to jump to the conclusion “you think I’m crazy!” Of course, the doctor may well recommend therapy to this employee, but such a recommendation is usually better taken from an MD than from someone who isn’t in the role of clinician vis-a-vis the person hearing it.

      2. JSPA*

        Doing it in so many words would be a way for the LW to be fired. We had a good column on Employee Assistance Programs just the other day.

        Unlike the person’s own manager, the EOP can work with the employee to talk through options that people getting a certain sort of feedback from their managers can find helpful. They can touch on issues from every angle, and if the employee is ready to consider the options, they can generally refer to anything: talk therapy, a medical workup, meditation, suggestions for accommodations (a twice-daily scheduled break to call an affirmation line? Two weekly phone counseling sessions? An unmonitored line and “time outs” that can be used to call a hotline?)–none of these being suggestions that can come from the manager.

        1. Troutwaxer*

          I think we can advise the manager that the employee needs therapy and expect the manager to know how doing that would happen most appropriately within their organization.

    3. EchoGirl*

      That was my read on it as well… he probably spent some significant portion of time with someone who criticized his every perceived mistake. The reference to parents suggests that the parents are the likely “suspects” in this particular scenario, but I could see the same thing happening with an employee who at one time worked with a toxic boss.

      That’s not to say that OP should be forced to solve it, but I’ve noticed there’s a tendency in society right now to jump to explanations that assume the worst of people, so it’s worth spending a little time on the (very likely IMO) possibility that this is trauma-informed behavior, because all too often the first reaction is something like “he’s doing this deliberately, he’s being manipulative”, which helps no one (including OP) in a situation like this.

  6. Princess Deviant*

    This is such lovely and excellent advice, but I would also add not to let him interrupt you until you’ve finished speaking. Or to put it another way, don’t let his apology flood stop your flow of words. Hold your hand up, tell him to wait until you’ve finished speaking (the “I know this is hard for you to hear” is great!) and don’t justify his apologies. You don’t want to be counteracting any apologies because it takes away from the conversation at hand. Good luck.

    1. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

      I might even be tempted to “ban” apologies for a few months. No punishment obviously, just interrupting when they start in an off handed manner and move on.

    2. Yogurt not yoghurt*

      Yes. This. The holding up your hand and even saying “stop.” Kindly, but making sure the apology torrent doesn’t stop your message.

    3. singularity*

      Emphasizing the importance of *listening* to understand rather than listening to respond as well, because I’ve known people like this before and if he’s in some sort of shame/apology spiral, he may not even really be listening to everything OP says because he’s trapped in the habit of trying to come up with more apologies.

      1. Filosofickle*

        Great point. I’m a veteran shame spiraler and it really does keep you from hearing what you need to hear.

      2. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

        I really like that. I hadn’t heard that expression before but it’s certainly given me a lot to think about.

      3. OhNo*

        A very good point. I wonder if it would be helpful for the LW to use the old “repeat what you heard back to me” tactic to make sure that he’s fully integrating the information. Like you said, it’s so easy for folks with this issue to miss what’s being said because they’re overwhelmed by shame or the desperate need to get an apology out. Sometimes that is a good tactic to help pull a person out of their own head and help them focus on the information at hand.

    4. Double A*

      I also think the LW should be prepared that they might it make it through this meeting, and that she might need to end the meeting early and regroup, or even send him home for the day. This meeting will seem like all his worst fears coming true. I would be surprised if he could make it through without his defenses going to 100 and maybe maxing out. At the very least, he will need privacy and processing time after it’s over.

    1. Anonym*

      Yes, I was thinking the same – “You may find some good support in this effort by contacting our EAP” or something along those lines. Poor guy, he would really benefit from that support, and he certainly deserves to have it.

      1. Anne of Green Gables*

        I was thinking that too, and though an EAP is not really set up for on-going counseling, which is sounds like is needed, they probably can help find a long-term therapist.

    2. QuinleyThorne*

      I feel like is EAP is available this is an ideal solution, especially with the mention of issues in his personal life that are beyond the scope of his control, but nevertheless affecting his job performance. It also might be helpful–or even validating–to get that support and reassurance from a trained ear instead of OP. OP doing it is good and speaks to her patience and abilities as a manager. But at the end of the day, she’s still his boss and it could be that the power dynamic is playing into his insecurities–especially if a previous manager lost their patience with him.

    3. BRR*

      I had a manager once say it to me along the lines of “we do have an EAP available if that is something you think might help.” I thought it was a helpful and kind statement.

      1. Kathryn*

        I really like your manager’s phrasing on this, perhaps OP could use it or something similar.

    4. WantonSeedStitch*

      Totally. “I’m concerned that this issue seems to have you really stressed, and I wanted to remind you that our EAP might be able to provide you with some help in dealing with that stress if you contacted them.”

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

      I think that’s the tricky part, legally. The OP needs to consult HR or legal or both before addressing anything beyond job performance. It may help to give him a list of what he’s no longer allowed to do, and a list of what he is allowed to do instead.
      No longer allowed: Interrupting any conversation, ever
      Allowed: Set up an appointment for a weekly or biweekly meeting (the OP has let this go on for 2 years, so she should be prepared to wean him off gradually rather than yank the rug out. That will really cause a disaster.)
      No longer allowed: Dissecting each customer interaction
      Allowed: Set a goal for customer satisfaction surveys

      1. Sparrow*

        I was wondering if it would be helpful to suggest to him an independent outlet for post-gaming customer interactions. Instead of interrupting OP, maybe he can document the interaction in writing for himself. I imagine in the immediacy of the moment he feels the need to discuss it right away, so this would give him a way to process it himself in the immediate aftermath and use the opportunity to reflect on how the exchange went, double check everything was handled correctly, consider whether there was anything that should do differently next time, etc. without demanding energy from anyone else. He might even sit on his write-up until the end of the day or the next day when it feels less urgent and he can look back over it with a clearer mind.

        I obviously don’t know what would help him, specifically, but I used to do work that involved customer-type interactions, and this was a common thing for newer staff (and those who were generally more anxious) to do to help reassure themselves about how it went and to identify when something was genuinely unusual/concerning and should be raised with a supervisor. Because yeah, we definitely would’ve been cut loose if we felt the need to discuss with our supervisors every interaction that wasn’t 100% pleasant.

        1. Kathryn*

          At OldJob, we had a weekly meeting we called the Good/Bad Meeting where we discussed customer and vendor interactions of the previous week to identify what we were doing well (so we could continue doing it) and what went badly (so we could determine how to better handle similar situations in the future).

    6. Velawciraptor*

      Absolutely recommend EAP if that’s available. I make it a regular practice to remind employees (both in general and if they seem to be struggling) that EAP is available to them. It’s a good practice to periodically put that reminder out there these days anyway–people can forget that it’s ok to still be struggling with the pandemic and that it’s ok to ask for help.

  7. Guacamole Bob*

    This strikes me as an excellent time for an EAP referral, if your company offers one, as part of a larger conversation.

    1. TPS reporter*

      Yes! My EAP office advertises specifically to managers for help with exact thing which is the personal issues affecting work performance.

  8. NYC Taxi*

    I loved Detox Your Thoughts. It really helped me neutralize thoughts, feelings and interactions that I had ascribed meanings to that were for the most part not even there. I feel bad for the guy, but just as bad for his coworkers. It’s exhausting to be around emotional vampires. I would kindly refer him to EAP services if available.

  9. Aquawoman*

    I think the advice is great and the one and only thing I’d add/ask is whether the LW might suggest the EAP if they have one.

  10. Allypopx*

    I have a friend like this. He was so caught up in being a burden and apologizing just for his existence and any perceived inconvenience he had on others, and the only thing anyone disliked about him was the constant apologizing and self-degradation! We had a really good talk about implicit emotional labor – how, while I understood where it was coming from, the apologizing was putting a real emotional burden on others. Regardless of intent he was asking them to constantly reassure him, and creating the very problem he was afraid of. I offered that he could come to me, privately, if he needed to talk while he worked on it, but he did need to work on it.

    Having it framed that way worked really well! He came to me a bit at first, but ultimately decided to get a therapist and while the habit isn’t completely broken, he’s much better about not apologizing all the time. Obviously you shouldn’t be that kind of emotional support for him as an employee, but a frank conversation to frame the problem will hopefully do him a lot of good, and be a wake up call. How he deals with the emotional adjustment is his to navigate, but, as difficult as it might be I think this conversation will do you both a world of good.

    1. T*

      I have a work friend who does something different, but the impact was pretty much the same on me. Rather than being constantly negative about herself, she would just constantly complain. After a simple “Hey, how was your weekend?” she would launch into a talk about how tired she was (for no identifiable reason, sometimes I would have arrived to our city on a delayed flight that got in at midnight, when she’d gone to sleep at 10pm), how annoyed she was that another friend wasn’t texting her back, that she didn’t like the office chair. The constant negativity, on any topic, can really bring you down. I imagine if it’s an expression of self doubt, it’s almost particularly hard, because you have to get over feeling like an asshole for even being bothered by it in the first place. I ended up just leaning back, and turning this friend from a close work friend to a casual acquaintance (helping by us both leaving our old company).

      1. Allypopx*

        “it’s almost particularly hard, because you have to get over feeling like an asshole for even being bothered by it in the first place”

        Yeah and then it becomes this awful cycle of no one correcting the behavior – but maybe acting a little annoyed by the person even if they don’t mean to. And the person picks up on that, and doesn’t know what to do besides keep apologizing. It really gets out of hand quickly if someone doesn’t intervene, but intervening still feels icky because of exactly your point. I feel for both the employee and the OP, it’s tough.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      I’ve had friends who did this. They already know I’m good at boundaries, so I’ve pointed out to them that I don’t do things I think I’ll resent, so if I offer to do something for them or agree to their request for a favor, then I am already OK with doing it and they don’t need to spend any more energy worrying about it. They also think I’m really nice. I don’t think I’m nicer than average but maybe I seem nice because I don’t get annoyed when people ask for something from me (because I already know how to not feel put-upon)?

      1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        It me. There was a … comment, I think, rather than a top level post, on Captain Awkward about this that I loved — basically, if I offer to make you a sandwich, it’s not a trick question, I’m not going to give you the last piece of bread and then hate you for it, I’m not going to put rat poison in your sandwich because you had the gall to say yes, just tell me if you want a sandwich so I can get on with making it and we can get back to whatever we were doing. I know a lot of people who have apparently a history of trick sandwiches in their past, either real or perceived, so I regularly remind folks that it’s just a damn sandwich and I don’t do trick questions, please take me at my word.

    3. Filosofickle*

      My mind was blown the day a friend told me that people liked ME fine, what they didn’t like were the symptoms of my social anxiety (which of course was based on thinking people didn’t like me). That’s quite a knot.

    4. MsSolo (UK)*

      I think your approach was very kind and effective. There is something quite selfish about this kind of anxiety, both in assuming that everything is about you (example in the letter, that every time lw talks to their boss employee assumes it’s about them) and making everyone else manage the anxiety for them. It’s hard to fight the temptation to bluntly point out that the person just isn’t that important – people just don’t care enough to be constantly talking about them being their back!

      1. Uranus Wars*

        It took me a long time to get to the “selfish” part when I really struggled with acceptance of others. A lot of it was rooted in my upbringing and I still see in it my mom especially when we go out.

        The reality is that no one thinks about me as much as I thought they did – but when you are in those thoughts its not as easy to see/understand that you are actually giving yourself a lot of credit for being THE PERSON everyone cares about.

        This guy definitely could benefit from someone who can help him unpack why he feels this way and give him some exercises to reframe his thinking. I still struggle with acceptance but it’s much shorter lived and much more fleeting – I no longer spend hours obsessing or worrying about what people might (but most likely aren’t) saying about me.

    5. else*

      I’m so impressed with you and with him! I have known a few people like this, and it’s absolutely ennervating and exhausting to me to be around them. It takes a lot to redirect them, and I’m afraid I’m not very empathetic about it past a certain point.

  11. Web Crawler*

    Idk if this is feasible at work, but my partner and I have a “one mistake, one apology” rule because I had a problem with apology floods. (And if my partner feels like I’m apologizing on reflex as a “you can’t be mad now because I said sorry” kind of thing, she calls me on it. I’m pretty sure that’s not replicable at work though.)

    1. Anonym*

      Could still be a potentially helpful tip for him “A friend once told me a helpful tip for remembering: one mistake, one apology! Which also means no mistake, no apology :)”

      1. Web Crawler*

        On the “no mistake, no apology” front, I had to learn how to ask whether something was a mistake before leaping into apology mode. Now that was a tough one.

        I think the moment it clicked was my partner telling me that it hurt her when I immediately started grovelling, especially when my partner said there was no reason to. Because it meant that I had assumed:
        1. She’s lying to me about her feelings (by assuming she’s secretly mad)
        2. That she’d want me to grovel (aka “sorrysorrysorry”) instead of talking to her like an adult when I messed up (aka “sorry, I ate all your breakfast food- I’ll go to the grocery store tonight”)

        1. T*

          That’s a good lesson to learn. The groveling rather than fixing is such a relationship (friendship, romantic, whatever) turn off.

      2. SomebodyElse*

        I’ve had this discussion with an employee.

        I framed it in a way that told her she is undermining herself and her credibility when she apologizes for things she is not at fault for. By apologizing for it, she is telling everyone that it is her fault. (She’s a chronic apologizer)

        She of course apologized right away :) and I told her to knock it off (with a smile of course). She’s getting there, slowly! I think she’s having a tough time finding her balance between being assertive and being liked.

  12. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Does your company have an EAP? Because I would suggest that when you have that sit down conversation with him, you strongly encourage him to contact them.

    In fact, if there is one available, you may want to contact them yourself for further advice on how to broach this conversation.

  13. Lacey*

    This is such a difficult situation. I haven’t dealt with it at this level, but I’ve known people who are a more toned down version of this and that’s already hard.

    I have no advice, because I’m not a therapist, but I hope this goes well for you.

  14. Bernice Clifton*

    What really stuck out for me was the employee asking the LW, after he sees her to talking to Leadership, if they were talking about him. I’m sure that is coming from a place of fear, but that’s not something he has the right to have an answer to necessarily.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      It also makes me wonder if he was treated terribly by a former employer.

      1. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

        Sadly, I can think of many explanations for this type of mindset. :(

      2. Allypopx*

        This was my first thought too. This is a trauma response – maybe personal, maybe work related, maybe complicated, but he’s been through something.

        1. Threeve*

          OP says that he’s mentioned his parents never saying anything nice to him, which may be an exaggeration or another example of his warped perception of how other people view him, but if it’s factual that is pretty horrifying.

        2. AnonymousToday*

          This, and it’s hard for me to even read. This was Young Me, and I know now exactly how it came about. It manifested primarily in romantic relationships, though; never more than minimally (that I can recall /am aware of looking back) in the workplace. I think I was extremely lucky in retrospect to have worked agricultural/restaurant jobs early on, where that stuff would get shut down and ridiculed, and I sensed it and kept my mouth shut. And then my first professional job was as a lone technician training under a pretty serious academic side-by-side in the lab all day, and if I screwed up, I didn’t have to wait to ask if I had screwed up- I’d hear about it as it was happening, lol. But he was kind about it. So… very very lucky, and thankful for a good mentor.

          I do not envy Employee one bit… he is suffering. He DOES need to work on his confidence by working through whatever caused it to be destroyed. That being said- Work is not the place to do it, and he’s going to apologize himself into fulfilling his own dire prophecy. So he needs to knock off at least the most outward manifestations of his unhappiness; i.e., the bizarre apologetic intrusions, NOW.

          OP, I hope you can navigate the balance between empathy and workplace level coaching-but-more-detached. I love the ‘one mistake, one apology’ suggestion above, and the idea of a conversation setting boundaries/goals for moving forward. I think that would be a great time to tell him about the EAP- this is a two-pronged pitchfork of a difficult emotional state, and poor understanding of acceptable workplace behavior, and what a ‘normal’ interaction between a boss and an employee looks like, since his development of workplace norms is clearly severely stunted. In fact, I’m wondering if this is his first job, ever.

          One last thing- I’m not sure if you think he might respond well to a weekly meeting where you can visit with him even briefly and give him feedback and next projects, and answer questions, while kindly reinforcing patterns of professional communication- and restricting it to ONCE per week; all other communication shall be via email, barring actual work emergencies. Whether or not he seeks outside help is his choice, and you can’t keep him forever if he continues to self-sabotage, but having a kind, firm, consistent boss (which it sounds like you are), who really makes sure he understands boundaries, is a gift he will have for the rest of his career. I am saying this as someone who was given that gift 20+ years ago. Still working on the emotional scars that caused the insecurity, but hey, at least work is going great- and that fact in and of itself is making the healing process go a heckuvalot faster!

          Sorry this has a) become a novel and b) therefore should have probably been a whole new reply, but… phew. It’s an emotional topic. I hope that OP and Employee both come out of it happier and more relaxed at work!

          1. Penguin*

            Thanks so much for sharing this, this was difficult and also helpful to read as a person with some similar issues.

      3. EvilQueenRegina*

        That was my first thought – OP, do you know what his previous manager was like?

        1. pancakes*

          I’m not sure it matters much. Even if his former manager was terribly unkind about mistakes or relentlessly critical, etc., the employee can’t go on behaving like this, and the behavior seems to be getting worse rather than better.

    2. Danish*

      I really empathize with this guy because I have felt that way – In one of my first post college jobs any time my manager would go into a closed door meeting with someone else I would basically break out into a sweat, heart racing, complete distraction. It’s not like I was doing anything wrong! My performance was great! But my brain was convinced that if it was a conversation that couldn’t be within earshot of me, it must be ABOUT me, and my entire day would be ruined until I got some kind of confirmation that I was fine.

      The biggest help for me was seeing a therapist and being medicated for anxiety. The other was just generally getting a better understanding of normal office policies and what kind of things usually get spoken about behind closed doors between managers – usually pretty boring and nothing to do with employees at all, actually.

      This guy sounds like he’s far enough into his career that the second one shouldnt be as much of an issue. I hope he can get help for his outside issues, because it really is an awful feeling to be on the verge of panic all the time

  15. LCS*

    A few years back, I could have written this – I had an employee who behaved very much the same, in spite of his high caliber of work. I got drawn into the therapist role way more than I should have, even though I tried to encourage EFAP. For a variety of reasons, some related to his emotional struggles, he ended up moving on and it was like the sun came out from behind the clouds. It had been such a slow burn with him that I don’t think I realized just how much practical and emotional bandwidth myself and the team had been devoting to supporting him by the end.

    In retrospect, not cutting this off sooner and more aggressively (without being a jerk about it obviously, but I am not and cannot be a therapist) was a big mistake. Not only did I sleep better at night, but
    – I was a better manager to the rest of my team, because I had something left to give to them when it wasn’t all being drained by one person
    – He ended up better off; a dramatic change in the structure of his day prompted him to get some actual formal help vs. just leaning on his informal support network
    – And while we missed the output and quality of his contribution in the short term, we got over it. We did hire a backfill but some of the other folks’ productivity increased when they weren’t being pulled constantly into his spiral either.

    I know this is so very hard, especially when you like the person, have compassion for them, and see them struggling. But if I was facing it again I’d draw a much firmer line, sooner, with harsher consequences if the behaviour continues so that it doesn’t end up with everyone being the proverbial frog boiling in a pot scenario.

    1. Allypopx*

      Thank you for sharing this experience. I think when it’s emotional, some managers get very gunshy about addressing it. The risk of becoming a therapist, the risk of making it worse, the risk of handling it objectively Wrong. But it needs to be addressed before it overwhelms everyone.

  16. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

    Poor fella.
    I wonder if he actually gets some genuine relief from the reassurances or if he just feels like they’re reassuring lies/traps. (A way of thinking I can relate to.)

    I’d love to hear an update on this. I’m trying to recall other similar questions with updates, because I’d really like to know how someone in the employee’s situation actually reacted.
    Good on you , LW, for doing your best and giving him opportunity to grow.

    1. Guacamole Bob*

      I have some people in my life with anxiety, and generally the reassurances provide temporary relief of the emotional distress but do absolutely nothing for the underlying issue and have no impact in the long run. Cutting it off and being unwilling to endlessly rehash the topic of someone’s anxiety is actually kinder in the long run, I’ve found, at least with my particular family members and their issues.

      1. Metadata minion*

        As someone with anxiety, cosigned! It’s really hard to untangle that reassurance-seeking impulse, but when I get reassurance, that just emphasizes to my brain that this was an appropriate thing to do. Having someone say “no, really, you are in general doing just fine; please stop checking in after every little thing” will result in a certain period of my brain going “NOOO we have FAILED AGAIN” but then I can remember that “hey, you’re doing fine” conversation whenever I start doubting myself.

        Unfortunately, it sounds like the employee here doesn’t have that level of self-awareness and/or general life stability that he can recognize the impulse as coming from anxiety (small-a anxiety here; not sure if he has Clinical Anxiety(TM) or is just…anxious…for whatever other reasons) rather than a real probability that this customer conversation is secretly terrible even though it went about like the last ten conversations.

        LW, one slightly out-of-the-box suggestion — it sounds like customer service interactions are one area he feels particularly shaky on. Are there any free/cheap training courses you have access to that he could take as a refresher? I have no idea of his anxiety works anything like mine, but sometimes it helps me to work through a best-practices document or a webinar or whatever and have the rules all nicely laid out. If it’s something that I’ve mostly learned on the job, there’s often this weird nagging fear that some day I will discover that I’ve secretly been Doing It Wrong, even though my supervisor has in fact been watching me and has said I’m fine.

      2. fposte*

        With several kinds of anxiety, experts in fact discourage external reassurance because it makes people more reliant on it and even less able to self-soothe. It’s kind of like an addiction that way.

        1. AnonymousToday*

          That’s an excellent point that I’m so glad you brought up. Before I got this behavior under control in my own relationships, it ABSOLUTELY felt like fiending for a fix… desperately, viscerally, nauseatingly anxious; also pushy, irritable, unable to sleep if not satisfied, the whole mess… and then if one was provided, AHHH. But the moment the temporary relief wears off, it’s back on the cycle of looking for the next one. But even the addict can often learn to hide the outwards signs of addiction if it means maintaining employment. So it goes back to the combination of treating the ‘reassurance addiction’ and keeping some semblance of professionalism while working on the underlying cause.

        2. onco fonco*

          Definitely this. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. The reassurance helps but only briefly, so the anxious person goes back for more. Which doesn’t mean you should never reassure an anxious person, but if you start to find you’re having the same conversation again and again and again and AGAIN, it’s no longer helping them and it’s a huge weight on you.

    2. Ground Control*

      I have the checking form of OCD and when I’m not on meds I need reassurance for everything all the time, but the responses from other people don’t matter because I can never accept “you’re doing fine” or “I completely forgot about the comment you made last year that you’re sure offended me and that you’re still obsessing over” – I had to keep asking to make sure it really was fine. It’s like when I check to make sure I turned my oven off before I leave the house, then get to my car and wonder if I really checked the first time so have to go back, then have to go back again because I can’t be sure I checked the first two times, and on and on and on until I’m completely stressed and late for work again. There’s no amount of assurance that could have stopped me from checking anything over and over.

      1. pancakes*

        I saw a tip on a travel site for people who worry about the oven: get in the habit of taking a photo of the oven dials with your phone just as you’re leaving. If you find yourself worrying, you’ll have it there, with date and time info, to refer back to.

  17. AndersonDarling*

    Would it be possible to give the employee some low stakes projects to build some confidence? There’s a chance that the employee may get even more nervous, but if they do good work normally, then I’d think they could handle a few special tasks on their own.
    Putting together a presentation or two would build some self esteem and may help them realize that they can perform well on their own.

    1. ThatGirl*

      That might work for someone who just needs some encouragement, but it sounds like by all accounts this person is well past that and has plenty of evidence to support that they actually are good at their job.

    2. Anononon*

      I don’t see how this would be useful. The employee has already been promoted – if that doesn’t show him that he’s capable, I don’t think a special project would, especially if it’s just for the sake of boosting his self esteem.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        I forgot that the employee was already promoted. Yep, if that doesn’t make a difference, then a project won’t help.

  18. LadyHouseOfLove*

    As someone that experiences anxiety disorder, I want to mention that it is good for me to read the perspective of someone witnessing another’s person’s severe anxiety. It makes consider how to watch myself and how to not let my dark thoughts get the best of me. I did a lot of self-sabotage during the last semester as an undergraduate. While I recovered, I wish I could have still got back in time and have a talk with myself.

    I’m sorry he is dealing with this, but letter-writer does not deserve to get the brunt of his anxiety.

    1. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

      Solidarity fistbump!
      I have a tendency to do this too.

    2. Bob's Manager*

      I’m so sorry you’re going through that. As someone with some perspective on OP’s employee’s situation, are there any words or actions that would have been helpful to you when you were struggling as an undergrad?

      1. Web Crawler*

        I’m not LadyHouseOfLove, but what helped me most in school were clear expectations and a way for me to self-check how I was doing. I loved teachers who let us do practice tests, for example, and couldn’t handle teachers who would tell me I was doing fine with no specifics (and inevitably, my anxiety would make me self-destruct in those classes and there would come a time when I was no longer doing fine, and sometimes those teachers would continue to tell me that everything was okay). I did best with teachers who identified as strict, and worst with teachers who tried to be friends with the students.

        Outside of classes, my partner dragged me to therapy in college and that was the best thing she could have done. Another friend helped me navigate the college’s messed up system to get antidepressants.

      2. LadyHouseOfLove*

        Thank you for your kind, empathetic comment. I realize that I had posted before double-checking my comment. I meant to say that this happened when I was an undergrad four or so year ago. I am thankful to be in a better place now.

        I second everything Web Crawler says. Clear expectations and checking my own progress really help me go above and beyond. I was also one of those students that adored the strict teachers others were not fans of.

  19. LinesInTheSand*

    If you haven’t already done so, it wouldn’t hurt to also lay out clearly how he’d know if you weren’t happy with his performance, or when and how you’d deliver constructive feedback if you needed to. Then when he approaches you with more feedback requests you can say “We talked about this. What did I say I’d do if I needed you to change your behavior? Am I doing that? No? Then don’t worry about it.”

    I remember being borderline neurotic after college because I went from a scholastic environment that constantly told me I wasn’t doing well enough to a job where I was doing well and my boss had no criticisms for me, and it was really unsettling for a while. I was worried he wasn’t brave enough to tell me the truth.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      This is a great point! As long as people aren’t regularly fired on the spot at the OP’s company, it would help to remind the employee that if they weren’t doing well then there is an established process. Serious discussion, HR Intervention, PIP, PIP Review, Final Warning…whatever their process is.

    2. Brooks Brothers Stan*

      > If you haven’t already done so, it wouldn’t hurt to also lay out clearly how he’d know if you weren’t happy with his performance, or when and how you’d deliver constructive feedback if you needed to.

      This is exactly what my current supervisor and I do. We are very much “if there’s a problem I’ll let you know, but until then if I’m not saying anything you’re doing a good job” type of people, and by communicating this directly we were able to remove a lot of unneeded anxiety from our day to day lives.

    3. OtterB*

      I don’t know what OP has in terms of regular check-ins, but it seems like you could combine this suggestion with a regular checking. Tell him that if there’s a major problem, you will tell him immediately, and for any other feedback you will talk at your next one-on-one.

      1. fposte*

        And if OP isn’t doing those with other reports, that’s a good nudge to get those set up across the board. They’re important for everybody.

    4. Sara without an H*

      I was coming here to say something similar. OP, it might help to build some more structure around how you interact with this employee. Schedule regular one-on-one sessions and lay down a rule that he may only ask you to comment on his work during those sessions.

    5. Damn it, Hardison!*

      I did something similar with an intern (not her first job, just the first in this field). She apologized a lot, and seemed to be harsh on herself when she made a mistake or didn’t know something – which was expected of an intern. Once I realized that, I made sure to explicitly say when something was not a big deal (none of her mistakes were), and if she kept circling on a mistake, I would gently point it out to her and reaffirm that it wasn’t a big deal. I had told her all of this when she started (expectations, mistakes were ok, and that I would always be honest and constructive) but she needed to have it reinforced a lot. By the end of her internship she wasn’t over apologizing and seemed a bit more resilient when receiving feedback.

      1. Jay*

        I had a trainee who apologized constantly. Instead of saying “excuse me” when she wanted my attention, she’d say “I’m sorry.” When I asked her to do something she’d say “Sorry! I’ll do that right away” where I expected “sure” or “OK!” or some other acknowledgment. I spoke to her about it after a week because I felt like she was looking for reassurance. She (of course) apologized, and then said “I’m British. This is how we speak.” I’m in the US. Now, I have no idea if this is generally true – I haven’t worked with anyone else from the UK – but in the moment it was helpful. I stopped trying to reassure her. She never stopped apologizing.

        1. Not an Architect*

          This is not universally true, but is definitely a very common pattern of speech over here!

        2. armchairexpert*

          “Sorry, can I just check you wanted the Teapot Report” or the examples you mentioned are British, yup. Apology floods aren’t.

        3. onco fonco*

          I’m British and definitely get people’s attention by going, “Ooh, sorry Wakeen, can I just ask you…?”

        4. Media Monkey*

          We do apologise a lot in the UK and it becomes a bit of a reflex. “i’m sorry” instead of “excuse me” means more like “sorry to interrupt” rather than “i think i’m doing something wrong”. it doesn’t mean we need more reassurance than anyone else, just a manner of speech!

          1. T*

            This, excuse me sounds very formal out of my English mouth/mentality. “Hey, sorry, can we speak about X now?”, is not me apologising for speaking or thinking I’ve done something wrong, it’s more like “hey, sorry for taking a moment of your time, can we speak about X now?”.

    6. Dust Bunny*

      I second (third, whatever) this. I tend to be a bit anxious but I also know that if I mess up my supervisor will come to me promptly with a respectful correction. I know she’s not stewing over ongoing mistakes and there won’t be any unpleasant surprises weeks or months down the road.

    7. Chilipepper Attitude*

      Excellent point, LinesInTheSand!

      I think every employer should spell out how you will know if things are going well or if they are not going well. Communication really is key.

  20. Casper Lives*

    I’m cringing at this letter. It’s sounds like me before I addressed my anxiety or close enough. I was exhausting. This guy sounds exhausting. He’s an emotional vampire when people have enough going on in their own lives.

    I’m shocked that OP has let this go on this long. If I were his coworker, I’d avoid him if at all possible after the second flood of apologies and paranoia. How could I work with him without being drawn into being his emotional crutch to be sucked in by a vampire? Especially when I saw his boss did nothing to fix it, instead giving in to his unhealthy headspace?

    I say this with a lot of sympathy for him. You’re not helping him by going along! This conversation could push him to get the help he deserves. Sometimes it takes someone to lay out the big picture for that push.

    1. Ground Control*

      Same – this sounds like me before I got treatment for a mental health condition (that I won’t name because I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to diagnose him). I feel so bad for him because I know how exhausting it is when your brain works like this. In hindsight it actually would have been helpful if people had called me out on the constant “checking” behavior when I was doing it. It wasn’t anyone’s responsibility to help me, but I may have sought treatment sooner if I’d realized that I was affecting everyone around me in addition to hurting myself.

  21. anonymous for this*

    I don’t know if this is helpful, or if it’s wise for you to refer him anywhere, but I know what he’s going through because I have the same types of mental health issues that he does and I’m in a program that addresses these things. It’s for OCD-based anxiety and it’s through Rogers Behavioral Health, which has locations all over the U.S. Would it be worth pointing him in that direction?

    Also, bless you for being so kind, OP! I’m sure this drives you up the wall.

    1. AnonymousToday*

      As helpful as that may be (and I’m actually going to look into this myself; thank you for sharing it), I think the very best that an employer/supervisor can ever do is make a general referral to the company’s EAP, without suggesting any specific ailment- just “hey, we have this team of professionals available by phone who are here to listen and guide you in the right direction”. Beyond that would be a pretty serious overstep.

  22. Lunchtime Reader*

    I had a similar direct report like this in the past, so I have so much empathy for this LW. My report ended up leaving on her own, but one question I always wondered about: could documented anxiety (particularly about work performance) be covered by ADA? If so, what would be accommodations the manager could make for this?

    1. Anononon*

      If you google Ask JAN along with anxiety, you’ll get a very helpful page about this. I would link it, but I don’t want it trapped in the filter.

  23. foolofgrace*

    > Ultimately, if he were to lose his job for this and you made it clear that was the reason, maybe it might finally motivate him to seek the support that he deserves.

    Unfortunately, that might be too late if he loses his health insurance if he loses his job.

    1. Anononon*

      I mean, it’s a terrible situation, but it is not OP’s fault if that happens. OP cannot force the employee to get medical care. I’m not sure the purpose of your statement beyond trying to guilt OP.

      1. foolofgrace*

        I didn’t mean it that way at all! I was putting myself in the employee’s place; I’ve experienced having (barely enough) money to get therapy but no time (single mom here), and losing my job, needing therapy, and no money. It’s just an unfortunate happenstance.

  24. Sled Dog Mama*

    I feel like I could be the LW’s report. I have this kind of anxiety over if I’m doing something incorrectly partly due to an early job where I was fired for poor performance after zero feedback. It’s taken me a long time to stop assuming that the only feedback I’m going to get is bad and I’m pretty sure I pestered the next supervisor for feedback. The flood of sorry’s, I think we condition our children for this, my daughter frequently apologizes for things that have no relation to her and I can’t help but feel like by forcing her to apologize for things, I’ve conditioned her to apologize for everything. The other day she apologized to me when I broke a piece of glass, I had to stop and explain that it had nothing to do with her but there are adults who have been conditioned to see everything as their fault.

  25. Pam Poovey*

    As someone with anxiety, OCD, ADHD*, and a childhood full of bullying from my peers, I feel for this guy SO HARD. I still have to stop myself and reassess my knee jerk desire for constant feedback and reassurance.

    I don’t have any advice for LW’s role in this. It was something I had to figure out for myself and choose to address with my therapist. Someone suggesting it as a problem would have just triggered the issue further. It’s a crap circus.

    *which comes with a super-fun symptom called rejection sensitivity dysphoria

    1. Mental Lentil*

      Yep. I really feel for this guy and all involved. The anxiety and trauma response he’s showing makes me think his life is a living hell. I hope he gets the help that he needs.

    2. AnonymousToday*

      Absolutely everything you just said. Especially the outside suggestion of “there’s something wrong” being irrationally triggering bit… and I have never heard that term before and YES. Which makes navigating it an extra minefield for LW to handle.

  26. Sami*

    This makes me so sad. This guy is struggling so much. On one hand, his anxiety (I’m guessing) is so entrenched, it’ll take a huge switch for him to change. OTOH, he just cannot keep going on with this at work and probably in is personal life too.
    Hopefully there’s an EAP- “You seem distressed about this. Perhaps/Do you think it would be helpful to talk about this with someone?”

  27. SheLooksFamiliar*

    ‘I cannot pay him a compliment without him saying something about his parents never saying nice things to him.’

    I apologize for sounding like a diagnostician, but this sentence hit me hard. My parents were physically and emotionally abusive people, and their love was very conditional. When my sister and I were just children, we went into panic mode whenever we did something wrong (beatings and worse), but also when we did something right. Our parents didn’t believe in praising us for doing what we were supposed to do as obedient children. Doing as we were told never got us a thank you. Doing something very well – going above and beyond – resulted in complaints (or beatings) because we didn’t behave like that all the time. Occasionally I got a compliment because I was a straight-A student, but those moments were so rare I can’t recall how I felt.

    In my first 5 years in the workforce, I had moments where I behaved a little like the OP’s direct report. If I made a mistake, I was sure I was going to get fired. If I did something well, I couldn’t enjoy the moment because I was sure the other shoe would drop somehow. I didn’t ask for constant reassurance, but I felt like I needed it. I finally found a therapist for the other childhood issues I needed to deal with; even so, it was a time before I could manage my reactions in a healthy way.

    OP, I feel for your associate, and for you. It’s so sad he feels the way he does and I can’t help but identify with his comment. Regardless, his behavior can’t continue. I hope you can help him find a way to address his behavior and possible underlying issues.

    1. woof*

      This!! It is exhausting and paralyzing to be bad at setting boundaries or feeling so empty and unkind toward oneself that you need constant validation. I can feel the letter writer’s pain on trying to deal with this. This employee needs to take time off STAT and go get help. There is a lot to learn about emotional management, boundary management, expectations management, that this person hasn’t learned up until this point that frankly parents/guardians should have taught but failed.

      As manager, I would firmly suggest to this person that you can see they’re suffering and they need to spend some time to take care of themselves – I did not take time off for myself because I did not see it as a serious issue, and it was only when my manager really mirrored it back to me/confronted me about it that it helped me feel empathy enough for myself to take time off. The same time off that they would do if they had a serious physical injury: they couldn’t possibly work through that, right? You can see the monumental amount of suffering they’re undergoing and they need to stop underestimating the toll it’s taking on them. Reassurance is a short term and time limited fix, the mental health equivalent of going to CityMD, and no one can be expected to do that every day multiple times a day at the drop of the hat. CityMD is not there for intensive and managed ongoing care, and neither are your friends and colleagues.

      They should start with EAP and then begin interviewing for therapists. Short term disability leave is absolutely something that can be used for mental health. Stress that you totally support them taking time off to take care of themselves. Get advance thoughts from HR about what resources the employee can pull on here. Emphasize that this current situation is such a bone in their current work that it is imperative they take time off to take care of themselves so that they can produce the good work you know they are capable of and give them the skills that will help them succeed at work. You can’t possibly expect to show up at work when you’ve suffered from a car accident, and it is going to be extremely difficult to come to work when you have massive unresolved childhood trauma and a total dearth in emotional and self-management skills.

  28. Blue Eagle*

    Bravo OP for recognizing this problem and asking for help in dealing with your staffperson. So many managers don’t know what to do when encountering this type of staffperson issue and just fire the person or reach their boiling point and explode with yelling, just wanting to make the apologizing stop. There are several good ideas written above and I hope that one or more of them work for you.

  29. cwhf*

    That poor guy. I have empathy for him. I also have huge empathy for OP; the emotional labor she is having to exert here is tremendous and not okay as well as completely unsustainable. EAP is definitely a resource to offer for sure but tough love and setting clear expectations, with focused discussion in the moment (kindly but firmly) to identify and head off the behaviors. It sounds like this person needs a lot of counseling. Hopefully your conversation with him will help him see how much this is impacting him as well as his coworkers and take that step. He may think things are ok, because his coping/self-soothing methods are “working” (for want of a better word) for him. Sitting down and being kind, clear, and firm with him is so important. I hope we get an update of on this. Best of luck, OP.

  30. Robin*

    So much sympathy on both sides!

    I don’t know if any of this will help, but… I am a professional editor, which means a large part of my job is finding and fixing mistakes, and also that I feel considerable pressure to never make mistakes of my own. But I am here to tell you that mistake-free work isn’t physically possible. You can get close, but there’s always going to be something you could have done “better”. Sometimes my clients find something I missed! While I super get the temptation to launch into a flood of apologies, I have learned to say “Thanks! Great catch, I will add it to my list of things to watch for” and move on.

    It’s important to send the message that perfection is a goal, not a standard. Making mistakes is a normal part of life. You learn from them and you move on. Ultimately we are all working toward the same goal. It’s also important to be able to distinguish between big mistakes and minor goofs, and it sounds like OP’s employee is having a hard time with that.

    1. Allonge*

      I like your second paragraph, with one caveat: I don’t think perfection should be a goal. At least in my world, goals need to be achievable and perfection is not.

      Totally agree on the mistakes being part of life though, as you can imagine.

  31. TootsNYC*

    And if anything, this neediness has gotten worse over time, despite me promoting him, consistently calling out his accomplishments, never yelling, asking him to trust me, and telling him he doesn’t need to tell me about every customer interaction.

    When my kids was being treated for OCD, one of the things that we were instructed on was that anxiety will grow if you feed it.
    The more you wash your hands (example), the more you will need to. Only by refusing to indulge that feeling can you weaken it. The more we, as parents, explained why the handwashing was unnecessary, the stronger the anxiety/impulse got.
    We were also instructed not to criticize him over the handwashing, or even to talk about it much–we were to say, “That OCD is really being unfair to you” and move on (so as not to make the “argument” become “us vs. him” and let it remain “him vs. OCD”).
    (the book they gave us to use was “Talking Back to OCD”)

    I wonder if the OP would benefit from some of those “bystander” tactics. Not that he should diagnose, but that kind of guidance would help him disengage.

    1. BubbleTea*

      This is really interesting and reminds me of how I approached dealing with my dog’s separation anxiety and fear of, well, everything. A little bit of exposure at a time to being alone (at first, just closing the bathroom door stressed him out!) and a slow increase as he got less overwhelmed by it. Keeping him away from things that scared him seemed to make it worse when he inevitably encountered a wheelie bin or a flying piece of rubbish or a small child.

    2. Shan*

      Yeah, I have GAD. When I was married, my husband was very supportive and very indulgent, and it honestly just encouraged my anxiety to build and build. Then we divorced and I had to do everything myself, and now it’s just a program running quietly in the background.

      Not saying it’s as simple as all that, but feeding into it with constant reassurance and (possibly) inflated praise, etc., likely isn’t helping things.

  32. meyer lemon*

    This fits into a small category of letters here from people who feel obligated to give their coworkers unreasonable amounts of support and lenience at work. Many of them seem to feel trapped because it feels so cruel to deny their coworkers this support.

    I can see how in the moment it feels like the kindest thing is to provide the reassurance the employee is so desperate for, but as Andrea Bonoir says, it really does him no favours in the long run. It just reinforces the negative pattern and gives him less motivation to find a way to cope with his anxiety and uncertainty on his own. I hope that if the LW has a conversation with him about the pattern, he’s able to break this cycle.

  33. Mel*

    This sounds like me 15 years ago – constantly apologizing and accepting fault for anything automatically. I still struggle with certain aspects but I found that taking the emotion out of things is very helpful.

    The bosses I worked best with were bosses who stopped engaging me when I had these panic attacks (for lack of a better word) and remained calm and DIRECT.

    Me: (emotional response to me making a minor error)

    Them: You do great work but that is not what is in question right now. [pause] and then repeat the issue.

    I found bosses who spoke to me via text and used “:)” helped me see that it was not serious. I would obsess if someone responded with “K” for example or ended their short sentence with a period but this was my issue but I think it was important for me to learn to be independent.

    I wish I had useful advice to give but there really is none. For me, I realized that the reason I was almost behaving like a dog who wanted to please their owners was because my childhood home was extremely abusive, both physically and emotionally.

    Askamanager has helped me SO much in the past 5-7? years. I genuinely feel like it gave me so much insight and hope. This is for sure the place where I learned the most (thank you Alison!).

    I no longer have a hard time with this and I wish I could give out the recipe but it’s such a giant combination of trial and error. Even if it does not work out, OP, the person will surely look back and realize you were being kind by giving them permission to stop caring about emotions and focus on taking pride in their work.

    This is not something you can help with apart from remaining calm and direct IMO.

    Best of luck to you both!

  34. Bob's Manager*

    Oh no…sounds like Bob came to work for you. I had a really similar employee working for me a couple of years ago, and I ended up working through my interactions with him with my therapist. She gave me a good piece of advice – reassurance is seldom reassuring. She advised me to be empathetic, to validate where possible, but to also cultivate a little professional detachment by refusing to get sucked in to the constant need for reassurance. I love what Bonior wrote above about treating it like any other feedback item by documenting that you discussed it and providing some specific action items.

    In my case, I set some pretty firm boundaries around what support I would provide. For example, one on ones with him were at a consistent day and time and NEVER were moved or changed unless one of us was out for the day. Work instructions were very structured and clear. I asked him to send me his questions and concerns via email as much as possible, since I think his anxiety was lessened when he needed to write out specific concerns.

    Sadly, my employee had so much going on mental health-wise that eventually he needed to go out on leave, and ended up leaving our company without a clear path to another job. I really feel for him, but at the same time the external manifestation of his anxiety and self-esteem issues was disruptive and negatively impacted the productivity of the entire team.

  35. chicago wolf mama*

    Honestly, I would suggest being direct about the extent of the freaking out issue, but not offloading your own annoyance about having not resolved it by now onto the conversation as that will almost certainly make things worse.

    I have been in many situations where I was expected to “read between the lines” a lot as an employee and did not receive any positive feedback or reassurance. So I think it’s important to say something like – “Going forward, I want to set a tone of not running ourselves down at work. I’ve noticed that you are really concerned about the quality of your work product and keep asking if things are acceptable. Have I done something to give you the impression that we’re worried? We’re glad to have you here and don’t have issues with your work itself, but your constant apologizing is really going to dominate what people perceive about you and overshadow your great work. How can we make sure you’re getting the support you need on your work?” and also talk about career goals, etc.

    But definitely listen to find out what is going on behind the scenes. There could be some toxic element that you’re not aware of because you haven’t been direct enough up front to elicit that information. Also, it would help in the future if you shut this kind of thing down right away before it becomes a tension for you. I would tend to say “No, that’s ridiculous, things are good” (with a smile) or “I hope this isn’t more apologizing because I have no time for that, just solutions” (also with a smile) or other stuff to push back from the beginning. Or even, “Are you sure there’s actually a problem here?”

    1. mf*

      “I have been in many situations where I was expected to “read between the lines” a lot as an employee and did not receive any positive feedback or reassurance.”

      This has happened to me many times too. I’m good at taking direct feedback but not so good at picking up on subtle queues from others when I need to do something differently. Could be that the employee really isn’t picking up on his manager’s annoyance and needs the manager to directly say: “This behavior is a problem. It’s negatively impacting your work and it needs to change.”

  36. Robin Ellacott*

    I went on a few dates with an otherwise great guy who did this. After every encounter he spent the entire next one apologizing for things I hadn’t even noticed. No amount of kindness in response seemed to help, and it was exhausting, so I stopped seeing him pretty quickly. This poor man must have issues all over his life. My date self-identified as a Highly Sensitive Person, though from what I found online it doesn’t always manifest that way.

    If there is EAP available maybe OP can suggest to him that perhaps they can help him with tools for receiving feedback and reducing anxiety at work? That sounds less like “you need help with emotions”, though he obviously does.

  37. LabGirl*

    I would encourage the OP to have their report come up with some actual substitutions for “I’m sorry” in the discussion. Showing them that there are other much more acceptable responses and even having them say the word(s) out loud could really help.

    If the report hasn’t been able come up with this on their own before, they need someone to point them in the right direction with a script. If the report can’t come up with anything on their own try to supply a couple of substitution phrases at that original meeting to give them. Then when they apologize in this first discussion (because they definitely will) have them use one of the phrases they thought of or that you gave. Things like “OK” or “I’ll work on that” or even “Thank you for telling me that”.

    Report: I’m so sorry you had to talk about this with me again. I’ll try to get better but I’m really sorry. Please don’t fire me.
    OP: (hand up) This is the perfect time to practice what we’ve been discussing. How can you express that you’ve heard me and will work on this without apologizing?

  38. Archaeopteryx*

    Oh gosh, I’m surprised this has been able to go on as long as it has! This is at the point of “No, his work output is not good”, any more than if he were a glowering jerk to everyone. It’s obviously more sympathetic than that, but this is totally unsustainable and I’m sure your other staff members are dying for you to shut it down.

  39. Juniantara*

    I just wanted to offer a couple of minor technical notes for the “big talk”
    1: pick a day when you don’t need anything urgent for this person
    2: Leave plenty of time for this, and you may want to consider toward the end of the day so the person doesn’t have to go back to work. They may even need to go home or have a day off afterward.
    3: If your company has an EAP, it’s time to reccomend it if you haven’t already
    4: Don’t let them talk about why they do this or personal stuff, always refer to the “behavior” that needs to change, not them or their feelings

  40. Dan*

    I’m going to focus on one very specific statement and probably take it out of context: “He insists on finding me to dissect every single customer interaction he has, because he believes every customer who is less than joyous will demand I fire him.”

    In the US, there’s been somewhat of a culture shift toward upset members of the public trying to get people fired for “punishment” of a perceived slight. And there are employers who go with it because they don’t want to deal with it. So, I get where this guy is coming from, even if he’s blowing lots of things out of proportion.

    I *do* think employers in general should have a documented process and policy about how they will handle complaints, what rises to the level of immediate termination, what gets handled by a progressive process, and when the employers will back the employee and tell the complainer to screw off.

    1. C Average*

      Having worked a lot of customer- centric jobs, I can’t agree with this enough. Some employers will back up their employees when a customer is clearly gunning for them, but quite a few will at least make a show of coming down on the employee to keep the customer satisfied.

    2. EchoGirl*

      Good point. I don’t think that’s the source of it, but if this is already an anxiety trigger for him, the cultural narrative that anything that upsets a customer=employee should be fired is likely to exacerbate that.

  41. I Was That Guy*

    While I wasn’t as “bad” as the OP’s guy, in a previous position I was pretty similar. A lot of it was related to a fairly toxic work environment, but– a lot of it was un-diagnosed anxiety disorder that I knew was there but didn’t quite have a word for it. I was in therapy, which did help a little.

    What really helped was meds, and that’s why I’m pretty successful in my current role, because the meds REALLY help. I used to think that they were for other people because I wasn’t… whatever… enough to quality, but really all I had to do was ask my doctor.

    Of course, the OP can’t even suggest to their report that he might need/want medication, so really I’m commenting to say that ANYONE reading this who identifies with this employee even a little, help is out there, meds really help, and the bar to get them is lower than you might think. Anxiety is exhausting.

  42. Great Company you should trust*

    I have had many times when I was basically paralyzed by fear every time I got an email from my manager, basically assuming she was coming for me. She was a little nasty too, and I had huge imposter syndrome and had worked out all the ways I could cope after I was fired on a daily basis (I’ve always been a super high performer) but I never NEVER let her see me sweat or show this. On my reviews it actually read that they appreciated my confidence (I laughed so hard at that.) I get this guy’s anxiety, but…at the same time, he IS being a disruptive employee due to this, and I’m sure he wants to be a good employee. And it is not fair to you. It’s really important that he learns – maybe through therapy – that he may not be able to stop his anxiety, but he has to not let it affect his relationships and work.
    There were plenty of times when I would call a friend and they wouldn’t pick up and I would immediately jump to “they hate me! What did I do?” and while it was killer waiting for them to call back in the sense I literally couldn’t relax until they did, I absolutely never called repeatedly or constantly asked for confirmation of our relationship. So, he may continue to have this anxiety, but he has to get his behavior under control.

    I also had a direct report who wasn’t this bad, but did have to tell her that the door was open for concerns, but she had to keep coming to apologize for things that didn’t need to be apologized for. And also, that while I was understanding, her next boss would probably not be and it would cause a lot of doubts in that person’s mind and for her own career (of which she was worried about) it would be better for her to deal with this.

  43. sb51*

    You’re not his therapist, but, reading between the lines of “there’s some other stuff you can’t go into” — if this is an ADA accommodation/you know he has a therapist/other resources, can you ask him to work on strategies?

    Like, some time when he is NOT spiralling/anxious, ask him what would help him avoid this pattern. What would help him set the default to “no news from OP is good news”. Like, maybe some sort of dashboard that is all-green unless you actually have an issue you need to talk to him about that he can go look at (that he sets up, and you commit only to actually flagging stuff there if that’s a problem). Or maybe that’s not helpful for him, but he has some other idea. Etc.

    Because he almost assuredly knows he does this, and knows its a problem. (If he doesn’t, you have a different problem, but I’m guessing anyone who’s been working long enough to be promoted has at least that basic knowledge.) So work with him on a solution, rather than pointing out something he’s already aware of.

  44. Elenia*

    I’m a manager and I managed somebody like this. It was hell. It kept me up at night. It was stressful. I couldn’t sleep. Every time I gave her an assignment, tears and anxiety if I didn’t hold her hand. Every time I said something remotely critical, and I mean like, “Next time could you please add the date to this document?” Full on meltdown. Volunteers would email her and say “Hey, while you were on vacation, I needed this, so this other person helped me.” Cue her coming to me SOBBING about how this person hated her so much. I

    I hated managing her. And like the manager above, when she finally quit, I realized how much mental space she had been taking up and how draining it was. I hated managing. I hated my job.

    She never told me she had any kind of issues. But the second she quit she started talking about wrongful termination because I hadn’t respected her anxiety. which she had never disclosed.

    I know people want to be kind, but I wanted to share the manager’s perspective. It is exhausting and mentally draining to manage someone like that. Not only that, she exhausted and drained her team too. They came to me after to talk to me about how stressful it was.

    Never again. This person needs help I am not qualified to give.

  45. First Time Poster!*

    For this type of employee who feels that any one thing could get them fired, I think it would also be helpful to outline with them the official process of letting someone go. I think this would outline for them that firing them is not going to be the result of your emotional whims or suddenly turning on someone. “To reassure you if you ever did something wrong that would risk your job, there would be several conversations, 3 warnings, and it would show up on 2 performance evaluations before we would ever get to the point of letting someone go. You have received no warnings and your job is not going to be taken away from you for X error. Unless it is something serious like X, Y, Z, you would have plenty of notice and time to work on any problem. I want you to feel that letting someone go here at X company is a long process and that you are doing very well.”

  46. Bella*

    This man needs help. For crying out loud, help get him to counseling as fast as you can. If HR needs to do it or whatever. He’s having a massive trauma response. Eff “work performance.” Be a human.

    1. fposte*

      Even if he were a friend and not an employee, though, you can’t *make* him go to counseling.

      1. fposte*

        Moving back to the workplace, though, I do concede that there are such things as mandatory EAP referrals (and they are, if done right, legal). But they’re kind of a nuclear option and workplaces prefer to avoid them.

    2. NerdyKris*

      How exactly does HR force someone to go to counseling? That would be a massive boundary violation, aside from being impossible.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      It’s not an employer’s place to do that (in the sense that it’s a massive overreach of their authority over an employee’s life). To make sure he knows about an EAP and make it clear to him that this is a performance issue, sure, but they cannot insist that he address it as a psychological situation.

    4. Bob's Manager*

      Yeah, I’ve been a manager to someone like this and you can’t just flatly say “You need professional help. Get therapy.” I would have been fired IMMEDIATELY if I’d done that and rightfully so.

    5. Anonosaurus*

      I think this is a little harsh on OP. She is being human -she is not demanding this guy pull himself together or considering firing him, she is being concerned and empathic. I agree the employee needs help but only he himself can make the decision to go to therapy.

    6. empyraa*

      That’s not a realistic expectation in general, let alone in a workplace. You can’t make someone get counseling, and it’s totally inappropriate for a manager to cross boundaries in that way. It’s the LW’s job to deal with the obvious performance issues here, not be her direct report’s social worker and take charge of his mental health. It’s not really fair for you to chastise LW and imply that she’s being “inhuman” for writing in here; she’s clearly concerned and wants to help him, but she (rightfully!) wants to stay within her boundaries *as his manager,* too.

  47. RagingADHD*

    I have empathy for the direct report who is obviously in distress, but there’s also something going on that LW needs to think about, that may make it easier for them to set and hold a boundary here.

    This employee is demanding your attention in intrusive, excessive and inappropriate ways, and expecting you to manage his emotions for him.

    That’s not okay. That’s just not an okay thing for an adult to do to anybody. It’s not okay in a marriage, in a friendship, and most especially it’s not okay at work. Even if you were literally this guy’s actual therapist, you would set boundaries on how many times a day/week he can contact you, and set the expectation that he would use more appropriate ways to deal with his feelings.

    1. onco fonco*

      This is a really important point – even therapists do not provide therapy on demand multiple times a day! They provide it in a very structured and boundaried way. LW and her employee are stuck in a loop that genuinely isn’t good for either of them.

  48. NerdyKris*

    It’s not mandatory to remind people that you don’t like our labor laws every time they come up. We’re not wayward sheep desperately seeking a savior to point out problems in the laws.

    1. (No Longer) Some Sort of Management Consultant*

      You’re right. That was unpleasant of me and I apologize.

  49. Longtime Lurker*

    I worked with a guy like this and it was E X H A U S T I N G. You couldn’t ask him for anything, because it would turn into him basically apologizing for 15 minutes for not reading your mind, and God forbid you actually had to say anything remotely critical to him. Every time I spoke with our boss he thought I was complaining about him. Every time our boss talked to HIS boss he thought they were complaining about him. He went into every meeting — even regular weekly ones — in a flop sweat, convinced he was going to get fired, and angsting all over the rest of us. This is a burden on your employees as well as you, and you need to do what you can to fix it.

    1. empyraa*

      I’ve worked with someone like this too–couldn’t ask her to do anything new because she’d freak out over not having done it already, couldn’t offer any feedback because she’d start going on about what an idiot she was for showing me such a “terrible mistake” in the first place, couldn’t offer any praise because she’d start criticizing her own work, couldn’t praise anyone else because she’d take that to mean her own work was awful in comparison, etc etc etc.

      I felt terrible for her, because she was clearly really unhappy, but it was hell to deal with. I had to work with her on a regular basis. Conversations that should have taken five minutes easily took 45, because she cried at the drop of a hat and required endless hand-holding and reassurance. Honestly, I started bending over backwards to avoid her towards the end of my time at that company. I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.

      LW–please, please, please address this. It’s clearly a problem for you, your employee is obviously unhappy, and it’s probably a terrible burden for his coworkers, too.

  50. C Average*

    This might be kind of obvious, but also make sure you reiterate that if you’re not satisfied with some aspect of his work, you will make him aware of it via the established channels for that sort of conversation–informal chat or email, corrective action for serious stuff, etc.–and that in the absence of such feedback, he can assume he’s on track and you’re pleased with his work. In other words, barring something egregious, he’s not going to suddenly be ambushed by a firing, and that he can consider no feedback good feedback aboutday-to-day stuff.

  51. RWM*

    Ahhh, two of my favorite experts in one place!!!

    This advice is so empathetic and direct; I love the “can we chart a new course here?” part. I hope this guy hears it as the gift that it is and gets the help that he needs to be able to do his job without so much self-doubt.

  52. Marthooh*

    It’s not mandatory, no; but sad to say, failing to shake your head appropriately is a fireable offense in 49 states.

  53. Not A Cat*

    I’m not sure if anyone else has said it (I didn’t have time to read all the comments – but it could also be a good idea to bring up your EAP in this conversation – providing your company has one.

  54. TeapotNinja*

    This is imposter syndrome on steroids. What wonderful advice from Andrea, but I can’t help but wonder if your employee isn’t aware of imposter syndrome, if talking about that would also be helpful.

  55. bopper*

    Other thoughts:

    1) If you have an Employee Assistance Program at work refer him to it. Tell him you would think it would be beneficial for him to talk to someone about his lack of confidence in his work….you are confident in his work but he is not. Perhaps he had a boss before that yelled at him.
    2) Tell him that you want to stop going from a “Pull” model to a “push”…instead of him asking if anything was wrong you promise to tell him immediately.
    3) Tell him to keep a journal of his thoughts and then you will have a weekly check in.
    4) If he, like anyone else, does make an occasional mistake you want him to apologize ONCE and that is it. If he wants to apologize again he should journal about that too (after hours).

  56. Malarkey01*

    One thing I did with a young, needy employee who was seriously anxious she would always be fired was to talk through what that process would look like:
    For example, Jane I would not fire you out of the blue for a performance issue. The first step would be a conversation which I would document with an email. We would have regular every 2 week check ins where I will raise this if it’s a co to using issue, then you’d receive a formal PIP. If I have done none of those things you are not being fired.

    It really helped her. At first she’d say am I going to be fired and I’d say Jane has any of the three steps started, no? Then do not jump to your anxiety. After a month of this she’d start saying out loud we aren’t sitting down to talk so I’m okay, and then that become her internal checklist and all was fine. Knowing what to expect let her do her own gauging of the situation.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      This is actually really good advice too.

      OP, how does your org handle terminations? Have there been other people who were fired that may have appeared to come out of the blue that could be feeding into his anxiety?

    2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      This is really good advice. Something that might be worth adding when dealing with anxious employees is a commitment to letting them know about potential issues early and often, so that you’re not allowing concessions to their anxiety determine whether you’ll raise a performance issue with them.

      Something that people who come across as anxious sometimes experience is being on the receiving end of critical feedback later than a less-anxious person would first hear about it. Obvious anxiety means that people might handle you with kid gloves out of kindness from the outset. No one flags minor issues with the anxious employee early on, so those issues can continue to fester until they’re in BEC/PIP territory. This cycle can easily feed someone’s anxiety to the point that they’d struggle to trust a reasonable manager.

    3. Jaybeetee*

      I’ve had this sort of anxiety, and my government career has been in itself extremely helpful for it (particularly once I got out of my probation period – I still couldn’t be fired out of the blue during probation, but it’s *easier* to fire during that time).

      Anyway, there are the usual jokes that it’s impossible to fire a government employee. In fact, it *is* possible, but there are a number of steps and processes involved. No one’s walking in to find their passwords locked and a box on their desk. So when those fears did come up, I’d remind myself that zero of that process had happened yet, and I’m fine.

  57. Data Analyst*

    Ugggh I had to go to a special partial inpatient anxiety treatment program, and work anxiety was one of my main problems. I was never this bad because I mostly knew to keep my need for reassurance to myself, but I spent a bunch of time doing those spirals in my head, writing and rewriting all my emails, etc. It was definitely painful. And it makes sense that giving him plenty of reassurance hasn’t helped over time – it feeds into the cognitive distortion of “if I can control my environment [get reassurance, or whatever other behavior to get rid of anxiety] I will feel better and everything will be okay” which means you never just learn to SIT with your discomfort and you end up just needing more and more reassurance. I had a manager who was pretty good at not engaging with a spiral, and one of the best methods is, when the apology flood starts, don’t even say anything, just wait for it to end, and then ONLY respond to the information that is relevant – “okay, so can you have it fixed by Friday?” A complete refusal to engage with the anxiety yammering can help shut it down. (This situation may be too far gone to deal with this way, but it can be a good strategy when someone starts spiraling on you and you haven’t yet reinforced to them that they can keep doing it.)

  58. learnedthehardway*

    One thing that may be helpful is to tell your report that he needs to limit his check in on performance and his apologies to a a set number of times per week. Eg. he can have one performance check on Friday. If he apologies for something, tell him that’s his one apology, no more will be allowed.

    That may really help him manage the expression of this anxiety he has.

    (It’s also the strategy my son’s teachers took with his obsessive need to ask questions when he was a small child. Giving him a limit to the number of questions he could ask taught him how to restrain himself from impulsively asking questions, and also taught him to prioritize which ones were most important. He had a limit of 10 questions per week, that were outside the curriculum. He got really good at managing his budget of questions, and it eased his anxiety to be able to have some questions and responsibility for managing them.)

  59. Case*

    It might also be a good idea to schedule this talk near the end of the day or before lunch, because he is going to come out of it rattled. It might be easier and he may get more out of it if he can go take a walk around the block, sit in the park for a bit and mull over what was said instead of going right back to his desk, and in particular he won’t have to worry if he needs to cry a bit.

  60. Spotted Kitty*

    I feel for this employee. I suffered from something similiar (although not *quite* to this extent), and it took several months of therapy for me to get to a good place with it. My favorite piece of advice was “Have you messed something up in the past? Did you get fired over it? Okay, then why do you think it’ll be different this time?”

  61. ThePear8*

    Just want to say, my sympathies OP. This is difficult for you and especially for him. I have had people like this in my life and it’s never good. The advice here is great and some I wish I had a long time ago haha, compassionate but still asserting boundaries.

  62. Betteauroan*

    OP should sit down with this employee and lay out the issues exactly like the therapist described. It’s not a bad idea to set aside 15 minutes or so every week or two to discuss any issues he might have or want to go over with her. This kind of constant hand- holding is not sustainable and the way the therapist lay it out is a kind and compassionate way to solve the problem. He does good work, so working with him to calm him down and get him producing independently is a worthwhile thing to do.

  63. Tex*

    Many other people have mentioned an EAP, but a career coach may also be an answer and a more ‘legitimate’/safer answer for a manager suggestion in a direct report.

  64. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

    Many sympathies OP, and also a kudos for being a caring manager. There’s a lot of great suggestions so far, but one I haven’t seen mentioned is having your employee take some continuing ed leadership training courses at a local college?

    Regardless of what the employee’s diagnoses might be, it sounds like he’s really struggling with applying a variety of personal effectiveness skills like conflict resolution and relationship management. It might be that he never really learned these skills, because anxiety and difficult prior experiences can get in the way of developing good interpersonal skills by osmosis. Will taking some soft skills courses cure whatever’s going on with him? No, but they may give him more self-efficacy in handling challenging situations without your reassurance.

    As a manager, it’s totally within bounds for you to suggest some continuing ed in that vein as part of your yearly performance management plans, especially if there’s some budget for PD. It’s a way for you to address the situation as a matter of developing job competencies rather than wearing your therapist hat, which helps reinforce that this isn’t 100% about his emotional needs and that soft skills are a huge part of professional growth. Maybe he needs to be in a slightly better place mental health-wise before this suggestion would work, but it could be great for him in the long run.

  65. Long time lurker*

    Is there a way to refer this person to an EAP or is that crossing a boundary in some way?

  66. Notherenotthere*

    Just FYI – Andrea Bonier did not write that column for the Washington Post for 15 years. It was only a year or two. I believe she wrote for 15 years with another publication, but not for the Washington Post (loyal Washington Post subscriber here of my entire life, who enjoyed Baggage Check for the too-short time it was there!).

  67. Bob*

    Its a good idea to explain what mental help resources are available, hopefully part of his health benefits to help get through this. And if you can authorize time off for daytime appointments its a good idea to remind him of this and that you are willing to do so and it would not negatively affect his employment.

    Remind him that you want him to succeed and are willing to help him do so but the current pattern is unsustainable.

  68. Pink Geek*

    When people are this clingy in their personal lives Captain Awkward often recommends scheduling the next content before ending the last one. I wonder if that would be helpful here too.

    After the script from Andrea above you could propose: “To start with, let’s have one 10 minute check in at 4:30 every day. In a month I’d like us to move to only discussing your performance as part of our regular 1:1s or in project debriefs.” Or something like that.

    Then you can interrupt the flood with, “let’s talk about this at 4:30 / at our next 1:1” or something.

  69. Tofu pie*

    I feel exhausted just reading this letter. OP, you sound like a kind and patient manager, but you are not responsible for your employee’s insecurities and emotional needs. If you do address this issue and give him a reasonable chance to change to no avail, please know it’s okay to take things further including dismissal.

  70. Bean*

    I knew someone like this and it turned out to be a symptom of OCD. I hope he gets the help he needs.

  71. ElleKay*

    Can you make it clear to him that his schedule can be adjusted to accommodate therapist appts? I know at least one former colleague who’s weekly appt was at 330pm on Wednesdays so she left early that day and came in early on… Tuesday, I think it was.

    If he’s working regular 9-5 M-F hours it can be really hard to find a therapist, who he likes, that has available appt times. Being told that work will accommodate this schedule could make it easier and more practical for him to pursue help

  72. chewingle*

    OP’s employee sounds EXACTY like my sister-in-law and this is SUCH helpful advice in handling that.

  73. Rebecca1*

    LW1: Your dad shouldn’t call the principal, but he can totally call your great-great-grand bosses: if you and he are in the same state, he can call his state legislator and/ or state senator to advocate for funding to hire more teachers in your area. If not, he can call his Congress member and Senator to advocate for more teacher-hiring funds at the federal level.

    (I’m in the education field too. I advise people to do that for all sorts of complaints that ultimately result from state and/ or federal policy. Don’t know how many of them follow through, but at least they quit bothering me about things I have no power to change.)

  74. OP*

    First, thank you so much Alison, Andrea, and everyone who commented. I’ve been taking notes on applicable paths of action. I don’t have an update, but I wanted to clarify a few things. The big thing is that we do not have an EAP and our HR is outsourced, so I don’t have those tools. Early on in my time with this nonprofit, I said something to my boss about my staff member and mental health, but I was told (and I understand this 100%) that I can’t make health related assumptions no matter how obvious the issue is. I can’t even imply. But as a person who is on the autism spectrum, I tend to be able to identify my own people. I’m not a medical professional, but what’s going on with him is beyond standard anxiety, beyond my ability to help, and beyond my responsibilities as his manager.

    A number of people were confused as to why he was promoted. First, he does good work. He’s thorough and entirely dependable – he’s always where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there, and work done by him is always done timely and well. And, despite his fears, he’s well liked by many of our customers. He’s also great with teamwork – always offering to help others in our department and willing to take extra shifts when we’re short staffed. The rest of our department does get frustrated, but also see his value and generally like him. And aside from the regular grumbling that we all do about the parts of our jobs we don’t like, he never complains. I promoted him because I felt he deserved it, but I did also think this would give him the confidence boost he needed excel. It was only after I was proven wrong on that assumption that I realized this was beyond me, beyond the job, and apparently all consuming.

    I have empathy for my staff member. I want him to succeed not just at this job, but in general. But I wrote in because I’m also starting to feel resentment and that’s not good. This isn’t his first job. We are both in our 30s. He has worked here a few years longer than I have. And the gender element of emotional labor in the workplace is very much getting under my skin. I keep wondering if he would be this way to a male manager. I have also been assertive with him in the moment when he’s in a shame/fear spiral. I also told him in his yearly eval that he has to be more self-sufficient and that I can’t have the same conversations with him over and over again, which of course started another spiral. Nothing I can say or do will make him less afraid – I know that now, and I need to internalize that.

    Thank you again! I hope to have a positive update eventually!

  75. agnes*

    I think I used to employ this guy’s older sister! . The advice was so spot on–I wish I could have handled my employee as well as this advice suggests. Managing her was exhausting and frustrating and I finally let her go. I told her that she needed more supervision than could be provided for her position. I didn’t even challenge her unemployment–I would rather pay that than have to keep her on.

    As difficult as it may be for you to approach the problem this directly, , it could be one of the best things a boss will ever do for him. If you can help him stop this behavior, you will have given him a new future.

    You might suggest he seek a mentor in your organization if that’s a possibility and encourage him to seek their guidance on some of these issues. He may be less needy with a peer than with a boss.

  76. Bob*

    I’ve been this employee before and it’s honestly embarrassing to look back on. Besides mental health care (and plenty of it), the thing that ironically helped me the absolute most was my boss telling me something that I needed to work on improving (very directly, and kindly). It was really what I needed to feel like I could trust her saying I was doing a good job because I could trust she would tell me if I wasn’t (and it wasn’t just a hypothetical “don’t worry, I’ll tell you if anything needs addressing.”). I’d always gotten positive feedback and occasionally it was more the result of conflict-avoidant bosses than universally amazing performance on my part. You can’t really trust a ‘yes’ from someone you never hear a ‘no’ from. In that sense, framing this as a performance issue might have some positive impact on the cause of the behavior – not that it’s your responsibility to ‘fix’ his suffering, but you’re not doing him any favors if you are anything other than direct). My therapist gave me a tip once for communicating boundaries with someone who tends to have kind of amplified emotional reactions and it’s been effective for me – keep it BIFF (brief, informative, friendly, and firm). Good luck with this – it sounds exhausting.

  77. Small houseplant*

    Oh man, is this guy my mom? I wonder if I can get her to read that book. It’s exhausting. Wanna hear apologies for that mistake she made five years ago? How about calling someone to apologize for something someone else said in a meeting she runs? Not enough? Add a handwritten card. Bump into someone? Multiple minute apology fest.

  78. Retired(not really)*

    Many years ago at my first job right out of college I had been there a couple of years and we added a second shift. Several of us ended up working as the experienced ones/trainers for this shift. One of the new hires was an older lady whose husband had passed and this was either her first job ever or a different kind of job from the one many years ago. She was very much a perfectionist which made it difficult for her to be sure that everything was right on each thing she did. After a period of her double checking with one of us every time she did anything, we came up with a “cheat sheet” for her to compare her output to the correct format for the specific spots she was having trouble remembering what order which items were to be placed. Obviously this is a totally different setting (nobody codes things for keypunch anymore!) but having an outline or a checklist for the expected way things should be done might be helpful. Then ask him to compare how he did whatever to the outline or checklist before asking anyone else if it was ok. This serves to help put him back in control of determining whether it really is ok and also gets him off your back significantly. It may take a little while for him to transfer to this but if you consistently ask him whether he checked this before coming to you it did work with my coworker back in the day.
    Wishing both you and him success!

  79. Special 10 minutes just for him*

    One possible goal:

    I am setting aside 10 minutes at the end of each day for you to bring me concerns, questions, and other comments. We can discuss your work then as well as during the usual 1-on-1’s. Other than at those times, I expect to have you bring to my attention situations X, Y, and Z. If you interrupt my work for other reasons, I will remind you not to and to keep a list of your concerns for the end of the day. After a week, the unnecessary interruptions should have been eliminated almost completely. Is this plan something you can follow?

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