should I warn my work friend she might get fired?

A reader writes:

I have worked with a very quirky soul (let’s call her Paula) for a decade now at a small company. We have a new CEO and he’s doing an excellent job. He’s respectful, careful, and thoughtful, but not afraid to make tough decisions. Recently, he fired some very problematic people who were good at their jobs with clients, but absolutely awful colleagues. Now most of us see a new, much brighter future here, and we’re really excited about making changes.

The problem is … Paula. She is considered difficult to work with by many, including me. She’s extremely negative about work, and sometimes downright venomous. She’s really good at the creative side but very protective of her work, to the point where she’s even started stamping her documents with her name in order to send a message to the rest of us. It’s just not that kind of company and when she refuses to share helpful information, it really upsets colleagues, though they tend to not confront her. She’s very passive-aggressive but gets everything done on time; she leads teams well, but only takes them so far; etc. If she were anyone else, I might be done with her.

However, I know a lot about Paula personally. I know she’s estranged from her family … entirely estranged. She had a horrible, neglectful early life (no dad, mom was an addict), and overcame it outwardly, with advanced degrees and a very committed work ethic in her own small sphere. She’s been working on herself in therapy off and on for many years (I know, because I recommended her most recent therapist, who is also mine). She’s really prickly, but sometimes when she drops her guard we can actually connect. I feel for her. She’s finally gotten to a place where she feels safe and she’s holding onto that with all her might, in her way. But the ground is shifting in our company, and she doesn’t appear to be shifting with it.

If my instincts are correct (and they have been spot-on so far, as firing and other dynamics have gone) I think she might be on the chopping block in the coming year. I have no concrete evidence, but I just wonder if I should gently … say something? Point a few things out? I’ve told her point-blank, twice over the years, that she seems really unhappy on the job, and I asked her if she’d ever thought of starting fresh somewhere, because it worked well for me (said in the kindest, most neutral way I could muster). She immediately rejected the idea.

It’s not up to me whether she stays or goes. I find her a trial to work with at times, but I’d feel terrible for her if she was let go. As a sort-of friend who cares what happens to her, is it worth it to warn her of my worries on her behalf? And if I did, what might be the best tack?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 194 comments… read them below }

  1. HotSauce*

    I really hope we get an update on this one. I feel for people in this situation, I can have a somewhat difficult personality and I’ve appreciated when people have pointed things out to me instead of avoiding me.

    1. PolarVortex*

      Same same. I am hoping the best for Paula, it sounds like she’s doing all the right things to move forward in her life otherwise (therapy, eg) so I am hopeful that she will be able to transition that work to also focus on the professional side of her life. Good luck OP, and good luck to your coworker too.

      1. OP/LW*

        Hi there! OP/LW here. Alison, thank you so much for responding to my question! I read your reply at The Cut, and it’s so very good. I’ll go back and read it again, but I’d like to read and respond to some of the comments here as well. I’m looking forward to the community’s advice! Thank you! Here goes….

  2. HannahS*

    I have no advice, but I’m really impressed with the OP. I think they’ve beautifully illustrated the balance between understanding and having compassion for Paula while still understanding that her behaviour isn’t acceptable.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I think that “threading the needle” is a really apt analogy.

          Paula does sound in some ways as if she is still reacting to the hectic nature of her past, but unfortunately work isn’t the right place to work through those issues. I think the best thing you can do is be kind but firm with her – and I wouldn’t hint at all. With hints there’s too much risk it will be totally ignored.

    1. BRR*

      Also shoutout to the LW for recognizing with the fired people that getting along with your colleagues IS part of your job. That’s often been overlook on AAM in the past.

      1. Miss Muffet*

        By other letter-writers, I assume you mean? Not by Alison. I think she’s very consistent about the ability to work in a team/with others is a significant part of pretty much any job and should be evaluated as such.

  3. Ooh La La*

    Alison’s advice is excellent for a reasonable person, but I would worry that Paula might turn on the LW and suspect LW of having an inside track to management, badmouthing her, sabotaging her, or who knows what. I have compassion for her struggles, but a person who is “venomous” in a professional setting is not someone I’d stick my neck out for.

    1. RabbitRabbit*

      This. Only the LW may know for sure about Paula, but people often turn on the bearer of the bad news.

        1. Momma Bear*

          I’d be leery, too.

          If I did anything, I would address items in the moment when they cause a problem. “Paula, when you did x, it was very off-putting to the rest of our team. Can we work together to improve this?”

          You can both be understanding of someone’s situation and not allow them to bleed all over everyone else.

          1. OP/LW*

            Momma Bear, that’s very good advice, and a strategy I have used from time to time with Paula. Part of my investment in this whole situation is trying to figure out for myself how to be a better colleague – how to accept criticism, how to confront people, how best to communicate. I think my handling confrontation has to be judicious, especially as I am not a manager.

      1. cmcinnyc*

        Yeah, I said a word to my Paula and she took it…very not as intended, going so far as to try to get MY job and eventually kicking up a tornado of dysfunction before she waltzed out with some kind of severance just to leave. (I can’t go into details.) I always felt guilty about judging “Paula” having had some of the same issues myself in the past. But she was not a safe place. I hope OP can let go and let Paula find, or lose, her own way.

        1. Fran Fine*

          Well, to offer a counterpoint – I worked with a “Paula” up until my recent promotion. She started a month after I did at this company, but was clearly the odd man out in terms of company culture. She was also (and still kind of is) incredibly brash with little to no filter, so she would bulldoze conversations she had no business being apart of and alienate people we had to work with in the process. She was also always super negative about everything, which got on our then-grandboss’s nerves. It was to the point that he let me know in an informal capacity that if something didn’t change in her approach to people, he would let her go because he wouldn’t have her dragging down the team’s morale.

          I pulled her to the side and told her that if she didn’t find a better way to communicate with not just our team (and grandboss, whom she just couldn’t stop butting heads with), but with the teams we worked cross-functionally with, she would ultimately be let go because no one would want to keep someone around who’s an Eeyore. She was upset about it and pushed back (at first), saying everyone else should be trying to meet her where she is and she shouldn’t have to change to fit in, and I kindly told her that she’s old enough to know that that’s not how life works. She could make this her hill to die on, but she’d be out of another job, something I knew she didn’t want to happen because she’d already been through four layoffs in the span of a decade.

          Now she’s getting along much better with everyone, and she and then-grandboss – now main boss – are thick as thieves. She’ll probably be promoted at some point too. So it can help to have someone close pull you aside and lightly check you, but the person has to want to do better. OP’s Paula is in therapy, so I think she does.

          1. Ace in the Hole*

            One of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve gotten professionally was this:

            “Over your career you will run into things so shitty you can’t back down, and when that happens you should absolutely say ‘this will not happen while I work here, so either it stops or I quit.’ Make it your hill to die on. You might lose your job, you might get them to change, either way you won’t ruin your professional reputation. Just remember… you only get a few of those hills in your whole career. If this is one of them, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong or say you shouldn’t do it. But think carefully because you only get a few.”

            I think it’s very good advice because it applies to so many things, and removes the question of objective truth. Something doesn’t have to meet some external standard for it to be intolerable to you. Ultimately it doesn’t matter… whether you’re right or wrong, you can only demand so much before people will decide they’re done with you and push you out the door.

          2. EPLawyer*

            Telling to act like an adult was absolutely amazing advice. So many people are exactly as she was, why should SHE change, why couldn’t people accept her as she is. Because no one should have to accept someone being annoying at work. Because we are not 4 years olds anymore and we can control how we interact with people.

      2. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I WAS Paula, although it took a very ‘shape up or we’re firing you’ talk from my boss and my husband agreeing with him to get through to me. Honestly can’t remember if any coworkers warned me because I didn’t pay much attention to anything but my own struggles/pain.

        (Still quirky but far less venomous these days)

    2. Threeve*

      I would definitely not try to call out her behavior. I might give her a heads-up at some point that she might want to start looking at other positions, and in a very broad “a lot of people have been let go recently, it probably wouldn’t hurt for all of us to start keeping an eye out for other roles” kind of way.

      The odds of her reacting badly to criticism are fairly high, and the odds of her actually making enough meaningful changes to change how she’s perceived in time to avoid being fired are minimal.

      1. Former Child*

        If they talk privately she could bring up the firings but NOT dole out advice. Just ask what she thinks, what she’d do, and share what LW would do herself. That’s typical.

        But if LW doesn’t realize people see people whispering at work and looking like allies, then now is when she needs to realize that. It can tarnish her own reputation and do it no good to be seen as buddies w/this woman. She needs to focus on her own job now more than ever, and not on Paula’s job. Paula could end up relieved to be let go, LW doesn’t know. Or she could be un-teachable.

        1. Lizzo*

          If LW gets along with the rest of the staff, what harm would it do to LW’s reputation to be friendly with Paula? I would think the ability to get along with someone who is difficult would be a positive attribute in a team member.

      2. feral fairy*

        I would not suggest that the LW mention anything about how they should all be applying for jobs. Paula sounds unpredictable, and she might end up telling management that LW is looking for another job and on their way out. LW should either be tactful but direct or not say anything at all. Also, Paula seems to ignore or not understand social cues, so I have a feeling she wouldn’t take the hint.

    3. No more crappy coffee for me.*

      Agreed. Personally a better strategy might be a bit underhanded but…. to ask her how she feels about all the firings and recent changes.

      If she reacts negatively and acts like they were totally unfair and unreasonable, she’s not going to react to feedback well.

      If she opens up and shares she’s concerned about it or something similar, then proceed with Allison’s pitch.

      If she feels like all the changes are bad and unjustified, there’s that much less likelihood of getting through to her… at that point I’d just mention something non committal about always keeping my LinkedIn updated as a hint-hint.

    4. Annony*

      I agree. The LW said that “She’s finally gotten to a place where she feels safe and she’s holding onto that with all her might.” She may react very badly to having that feeling of safety taken away. I’m not sure I would feel comfortable saying something just based on speculation. If she reacts badly and isn’t fired, the LW could have a more difficult time working with her.

    5. Dust Bunny*

      This.

      LW, I know you mean well but a) you don’t actually know for certain that Paula’s on the short list and b) you can’t do anything about it if she is. If she were going to do a personality 180 at work it needed to have happened already.

      I have a friend who overcame a . . . not as bad a childhood as described here, but her parents were both immature an self-centered and completely checked out of raising a family, so my friend learned to do everything for herself. Her drive has done a lot for her in life, but the flip side is that she’s almost as self-centered as her parents were and always “knows” how other people should conduct their own lives. I’ve stopped telling her anything personal, and I feel sort of badly for her husband, whom she seems to punish for the transgressions of her previous husband (who wasn’t awesome but wasn’t abusive or unfaithful or anything really awful. They grew apart and he was probably depressed). So . . . she’s made a lot of progress and we’re still friends but she’s still a difficult person and I frankly would not want to work with her. And she’s not going to listen to me because she already knows how everyone should run their lives.

    6. Archaeopteryx*

      I can’t see that conversation going well. If she does get fired she’ll think you had special access or forewarning, and either way you could become the bad guy on her mind.

      She’s able to see who else was fired as much as you are. I wouldn’t risk this conversation based on just being able to read between the lines.

      1. OP/LW*

        A few thoughts on this sub-thread — thank you all for your good advice —

        Our context is a bit special in that we are expats, and our company has “old-timers” who have been in-country for, say, seven to twenty or more years, and then the other, smaller group of expats who cycle out after five years or less. Paula and I are both old-timers, so there are all these other factors at play concerning expat “survival.” The circle is small and you step up when you’re needed kind of thing, even if you don’t like people much. And I like Paula, even when her work-quirks drive me crazy. I can’t quite give up on her. And *good* job options are kind of limited where we are. She would never want to leave this country.

        About my standing at work: it’s good. A friend in middle management told me that the CEO told her that he hopes I won’t leave any time soon, and if I make noises, for her to let him know. I’m trying to not get a fat head about it it… but when I think of it, it does put a smile on my face. More to the point, it makes me want to work better and harder. The man knows how to manage people. :)

        I don’t think rubbing elbows with Paula will lower my rep in this context. She’s quite distant at work, actually. And when I have confronted her about work conflicts, she backs off/goes silent/circumlocutes. She’s been known to cry in meetings (not effected by me — as far as I know). Her venom is the venom of the helpless, if you know what I mean.

        Unfortunately, I have actually had some forewarning re: Paula’s situation. I expressed concern to the same middle-management friend about Paula, with whom she is also friends (like I said, small community!) Middle Manager carefully but definitely *implied* that Paula is being looked at, and it was also suggested that there’s a specific grace period in mind. I would never, ever, tell Paula any of this. Middle Manager also was of the opinion that you cannot change people and that this is better left unaddressed. Therefore, any proceeding I would do would be with the utmost caution for my own position, my own trustworthiness, and with only the most general advice, as many commenters have suggested here (“Yikes, some firings, I think we all should be doing our best to follow new protocols… don’t you?”)

        Thanks to all for shedding your light on the situation!

        1. Chilipepper Attitude*

          Could you ask her if she has noticed any pattern to the changes and in who has been let go?
          In other words, ask questions to lead her to her own conclusions so that you are not the one to “confront” or directly point things out to her?

          1. OP/LW*

            I like this round-about approach. Paula can be conned on for intelligence and understanding in these circumstances. Good call Chilipepper; I’ll ponder that.

        2. ten-four*

          I feel like Middle Manager is dropping the ball here! How is Paula supposed to improve in her secret grace period if no one tells her what needs to change?

          OP you’re a good person for trying, and I hope it works out.

          1. Carol*

            I agree–secret trials where no one is clearly communicating are in no one’s favor. Honestly, even in very egregious examples of, say, verbal abuse, that person needs to be told what behavior to stop. I think the exception would be fraud, crime, etc…

            (not to say Paula shouldn’t know better or should get infinite chances or anything…but I do think they’re skipping a step here that could, who knows, actually improve things and stave off a firing)

            1. OP/LW*

              Welp… Middle Manager doesn’t oversee Paula and is not in that chain of command. But Middle Manager is privy to a lot of information, which is why I ran this scenario by MM. MM needs to watch their back/protect their interests also.

  4. Crabby Patty*

    “Recently, he fired some very problematic people who were good at their jobs with clients, but absolutely awful colleagues. ”

    Sending vibes to my boss about my co-worker, Bettina, because whether to retain someone should go well beyond that person’s particular set of skills. (The main focus of the OP’s letter isn’t lost here, but it’s so refereshing to read about a boss who is willing to stand up to awful, horrible employees).

    1. Heffalump*

      This. I wish some of my employers had had what it took to fire toxic employees even though the employees had good technical skills.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        This. I wish some of my employers had had what it took to fire toxic employees even though the employees had good technical skills.

        It’s not just “fire them”; it’s “fire them right.” Having a plan for the loss of institutional and tribal knowledge, a plan for how much transparency impacted clients have a right to expect, etc.

        The Captain may be a glorious ass, but shoving him out the window at 30,000 ft doesn’t guarantee the passengers’ survival of the inevitable landing.

    2. Jam Today*

      I was just having this conversation with a colleague this morning, we were both recounting some really awful encounters we’ve had with colleagues recently, and I said that nobody is so smart or talented that they can’t be replaced. The world is filled with smart and talented people who aren’t a-holes, go hire one of them instead. That should be Management 101 (but alas it isn’t).

      1. Dagny*

        This is my mantra: you can always find someone else to do the same job and not be impossible to work with. Phrased differently, being a decent human being is also in the job description and someone who is making everyone miserable is failing at a core part of their job.

      2. EmmaPoet*

        Allison did a post a while back on managing a “brilliant jerk” which I think should be required reading for managers- after the ones who fall into that category get replaced, that is!

    3. Pocket Mouse*

      If OP isn’t comfortable having a direct conversation with Paula (see above about blaming the messenger/resistance to feedback) then this is a key excerpt to lean on. OP can talk about this theme she’s seeing from the new CEO and how a) it’s a good thing to make decisions to ensure a positive, collaborative environment, and b) it’s making OP look more closely at her own behavior because she wants to be a part of this change for the better, with the knowledge there may be some things she’ll have to change to keep her role/reputation/relationships.

      This kind of discussion, not focused on Paula but clearly inviting her to consider the same, could be effective (or just as effective) as a conversation focused solely on Paula, and could be better for their personal relationship.

      1. Anonym*

        This is wise advice. I’ve found similar strategies to be useful at keeping the conversation open (person not shutting down).

      2. OP/LW*

        Pocket Mouse, yeesssssss! I hadn’t seen Paula in some time, and invited her over for a small dinner last week with another friend. Sounded her out a bit on the recent firings and voiced some opinions. She didn’t have a lot to say, but she’s smart and aware, if not always very self-aware. I know she’s pondering the recent changes.

        (Hope this doesn’t sound arrogant; I have my own work baggage. Just trying to stick to the spirit of the original concern of my letter).

        1. Chilipepper Attitude*

          I commented above but it fits here – can you ask more leading questions so that Paula comes to her own conclusions about the pattern in how management is changing things and the pattern in who is getting let go?

          1. OP/LW*

            That will probably be step two, Chilipepper. Asking her opinion on things is a good way to give mine in turn. I would never tell her I was worried about her position, but I might say I was worried *in general*.

  5. Me*

    What an incredibly gracefully worded script for a difficult situation.

    Nothing to add, just kudos to Alison.

  6. OrigCassandra*

    I am so, so grateful for people in my life willing to tell me when I’ve gone off the rails while still believing I have a way back onto them.

    I’ve needed that… and I’ve improved because of it.

    Alison’s wording is good. In my very worst days, I would have responded well to that.

    1. mreasy*

      As a person who is currently afraid I may be going off the rails and nobody will tell me, hear hear.

    2. Gumby*

      Yes, everyone needs a Get a Grip friend. (And not just to tell you that the shirt you are wearing is see through in bright light.)

  7. Tracy*

    I can’t get access to the article so I don’t know Allison’s answer.

    This really seems to be an interesting situation to be in. The coworker seems like they need a very direct, firm communication to actually get the message. I’m not sure I’d be willing to try to get a message across in that manner.

    I did have a coworker that I could see would not last at their job, she had many great qualities but just wasn’t a good culture fit, and I tried giving subtle hints. “Oh be careful, sometimes management decides people aren’t good fits and boom, you’re gone.” “Lots of people lose their jobs, it is a normal part of life in the office world.” Always got a response of something like “that will NEVER happen to me. Ever”.

    It was the shock of her life when it did happen. I mean from her head down to her toes, she was stunned. That is how some people learn, sadly … not that I want any one to go through that.

    1. SheLooksFamiliar*

      I also had co-workers like the OP’s and yours, Tracy. Hints and suggestions didn’t register. Carefully-worded concerns were dismissed with a wave and ‘That’ll never happen to me, I’m too valuable here.’ Really blunt comments about my own exasperation with their behavior got their attention for a moment but nothing changed. Direct warnings from their managers mattered for maybe a week. Department meetings with new senior leadership to learn about our ‘new’ ways of work were laughed off as ‘kumbaya sessions.’

      When those people were let go, they were stunned. I know this because they told anyone who would listen how their firing came ‘without warning’, was ‘totally out of the blue’, they had no idea anyone expected them to behave differently, etc.

      I don’t want anyone to go through that kind of thing, either, but some people cannot – will not – learn unless the lesson really hits them hard.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        I’m guessing no one in management sat down for a one-on-one talk about their behavior. I’ve seen it happen, & not just with attitude but all sorts of stuff.

        1. SheLooksFamiliar*

          You guessed wrong, sorry! As I said, managers gave direct warnings to these folks.

          For brevity’s sake, I didn’t say that this included ‘in the moment’ warnings, discussions during regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings, and specially scheduled meetings to discuss concerns about poor behavior and attitudes. Also for brevity’s sake, I didn’t say that those department meetings with new leadership were very specific about his/her business philosophy, and acceptable and non-acceptable behaviors in our new Way Of Work. I didn’t say these ‘launches’ included acronyms and slogans about the ‘new’ department direction and style, and the kinds of workplace behaviors we were expected to at least model, if not actually possess.

          The only way those poor performers wouldn’t have known about their attitude issues is through willful ignorance. In my case, each one of them felt that, because they were hard workers and technically met their deliverables, they were untouchable. They were wrong.

          Hope all that makes sense!

          1. Sasha*

            Yes, one thing I have noticed with poor performers is that they think that meeting the minimum requirements of the job is a major achievement that should be rewarded, and not the bare minimum to avoid being fired.

            There are jobs where employers just want bums on seats, but those are not generally professional level jobs.

    2. I should really pick a name*

      To be fair, if the warning is as you described, it doesn’t give them any reason that they’re more likely to be fired than someone else.

      1. pbnj*

        For something serious as firing, they really need to be blunt and crystal clear that the behavior needs to change asap. I’ve only worked for large companies, but they generally issue a formal warning or put someone on a performance plan before they fire someone, unless something major happened. I would hope Paula’s manager would at least say something to her about how her behavior needs to change or she won’t have a job there any longer.

    3. anonymouse*

      But you didn’t say what a “good fit” was. And I’m not saying you should. I just think that when you make a broad statement about “people who don’t fit” few will see themselves.

    4. Carol*

      I think this is a really, really good point. What’s the level of directness Paula needs to get the message, and can LW deliver that safely?

  8. velomont*

    Though I wasn’t able to read Alison’s response because of the paywall (completely understand and not a complaint btw) I think that you OP should say nothing. If I was in an office with someone who was like Paula (who I would think of as toxic or anti-social AFAIC, regardless of reasons) because someone gave her a heads-up I would be extremely upset. This would be even worse if Paula was someone who regularly impacted me to the extent that I thought that management was about to give me and my coworkers a respite by firing her, and then suddenly didn’t.
    Please don’t do it OP.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      Isn’t the point that LW wants Paula to change her behaviour? So nobody will be stuck in an office with her?

      I can see what you mean about toxic people getting second chance after second chance, but if she actually changes so she’s pleasant to be around and collegial and cooperative as well as competent, then that’s good news for everyone, surely?

      1. velomont*

        I would agree if I thought that an OP counselling session would change the behaviour. I just don’t think that it would be likely.

        1. ecnaseener*

          Then there’s no harm done to the people who want Paula gone. OP has no say in whether she stays, the outcome either way will be that her bad behavior is gone.

      2. Former Child*

        But LW has no STANDING to be advising P. and if she doesn’t get her head in the game and work on her own image, she could end up in trouble.

        1) Don’t look too “chummy” in front of others, as if you’re allies. It can rub off. If the boss is scrutinizing weak links, he could look at Paula and see you there.
        2) Focus on your own job.
        3) Don’t presume to “tell” peers they could get fired, it can backfire.

        1. Renata Ricotta*

          What? LW certainly has standing to gently say something — they have a friendly, semi-personal relationship and know each other well enough that LW understands the backstory Paula is coming from. And the proposed wording explicitly asks Paula whether she would like to hear LW’s thoughts. That’s not demanding she change or acting like she’s an authority figure or staging an intervention or anything.

          And there’s nothing in the letter that suggests LW is externally appearing too close to Paula, distracted from her job, or otherwise failing to project that she has it together both on the work-skills and soft-skills side. I don’t see how a single conversation with Paula would blow all that up.

    2. OP/LW*

      Good sub-thread here, good advice….

      I hear you, velomont.

      Because some people don’t share an office with Paula (and I have, for a long time) others often see her better qualities in greater concentrations. She doesn’t actually impact all others to the degree that I have described here; just some of our mutual teammates who have rubbed rough edges with her. Your advice is noted!

      Former Child, you do have some very valid points, but in my case, I’m not quite so worried about them, based on some context I explained above. And I would never be direct about telling someone they might get fired. Very dangerous territory for multitudes of reasons.

  9. Wisteria*

    This is a good conversation to have, but don’t have it at work. If you are in the office, ask her to lunch or something outside of the office. If you are WFH, set up a zoom/skype call that is separate from the work day. I would break up Alison’s script to include more lead in. Something like,

    {start with small talk or whatever conversations you have with each other}
    “Coworker, I really asked to talk to you about some things that I am seeing at work. Can I tell you more?” And wait for her to say yes. If she says yes, give her a warning that she’s not going to like the conversation. Something like, “I wanted to talk to you about some of the stuff you do that can be a little hard to work with at times. Is that ok?” And then launch into talking about the new CEO and how you are afraid she might be on his radar. Basically, give her a chance to brace herself for what’s coming.

    Good luck.

    1. OP/LW*

      Thanks, Wisteria. I don’t think I could even be that direct, but I’m still considering how best to drop hints. I won’t be working directly with Paula next year, so I think a little distance will help.

  10. KHB*

    Is there any way you can help Paula turn her ship around without (or in addition to) raising the prospect of her being fired? From what you describe, it sounds like she feels frustrated that her work isn’t being recognized or rewarded, and feels threatened by her coworkers as a result. I’ve fallen into that pattern of thinking sometimes, and it’s hard to dig myself out (and I had a great childhood). But not impossible.

    Does she know that you think she’s good at (at least some aspects of) her job? Could she stand to hear it from you more? Helping her feel more secure about what she’s doing right could be a step toward fixing what she’s doing wrong.

    You’re not her therapist, of course, and this isn’t your job. But in your role as a concerned coworker, it seems like this could help her.

    1. OP/LW*

      You are so right, KHB. I think you’ve nailed it — Paula doesn’t feel appreciated. And she does have some very well-recognized aspects of her work that she’s known for, so there’s that — but honestly, it doesn’t seem to be enough for her. Her sense of proportion is out of step with our institutional norms, and it’s a problem. In team meetings, a sense of groveling and almost timed praise seemed to become the norm this year, and it was driving me crazy. Paula generally structured meetings to show us how hard she was working as team leader, and what she was trying to do, but (*big sigh*) people just weren’t answering her questions. Cue the “thanks so much for all you do, Paula.” She really works to elicit this group response that she’s really doing her best *in spite of everything*, and hence all the virtual stroking, murmured thanks, sighs of commiseration, flattery….

      What happened next is that, as a long-termer with the company, the new people on the team started contacting ME individually and asking for help and answers to questions. We need up meeting a few times without her over the course of the year, and it was easy to do, because we were working remotely. Not the best solution, but it solved some problems.

      In short I don’t know how much positive affirmation would ever be enough.

  11. Nobody special*

    I think the compassion here is great, but as someone with an similarly terrible home life growing up — you can have all of that AND be a decent colleague. Everybody is different, naturally. But there’s nothing determinative about Paula’s background that says she can’t help being hard to work with, or that she can’t change. People overcome that stuff every day.

    My background isn’t the kind of thing I would ever share at work – but if I did, I would hope the people I shared it with wouldn’t decide I needed to be handled with kid gloves because of it. I’m a grown-ass adult and if I’m screwing up at work, I want to know about it clearly and immediately – preferably before my termination paperwork has been started.

    But is it really OP’s job to deliver that news? I just don’t feel like it is. That’s on Paula’s boss, and there’s no way to know if that info just hasn’t been communicated yet, or has been communicated but not accepted and acted on. Personally, I would stay out of this.

    1. anonymouse*

      OP, you can’t care more about Paula’s job than Paula does. She’s seen the same things you have. If she’s choosing to alienate herself from coworkers, be “venomous” to coworkers and to think that she deserves more attention and better treatment than everyone else at the company, then you’ve already done the best thing and the most you can do which is direct her to a therapist.

      1. Former Child*

        Also, don’t care more about P’s job than you do about your OWN!

        You can’t change people.

        1. laser99*

          I agree wholeheartedly. After a certain age, people don’t really change. I read above that you have no intention of directly stating the threat of firing. Please don’t weaken and change your mind about this, it will come back to bite you.

          1. Antu-ageism*

            “After a certain age, people don’t really change.” One hopes you aren’t in HR (unless one is a plaintiffs’ lawyer,of course).

      2. Mental Lentil*

        She’s seen the same things you have.

        This is not necessarily true. They may be in entirely different positions in the company and thus privy to entire different events.

        1. Miss Muffet*

          or she may know that people got fired but not know them well enough to have seen that their behavior was a factor – and then have the self-awareness to draw that line to herself and her behavior

          1. anonymouse*

            I think the last part of your comment is the most important. I feel she is not self-aware.
            I guess there is some chance she is self-aware and is actively choosing poorly.

      3. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, this.

        The bottom line is, if she needs the job, she needs to act like she needs the job, and that includes not being a possessive jerk to her coworkers. If she’s not down with making this effort, the LW can’t save her.

    2. Harper the Other One*

      I think this is important to remember. OP, it’s wonderful that you feel empathy for Paula – you’re obviously a kind person. But for all you know, there are other people in your own office with similar backgrounds who are not behaving this way. Heck, some of them may even struggle because some of Paula’s actions could be confronting for people who had abusive family members in their past.

      That’s not to say don’t be kind, it’s just to reinforce that troubled background does not automatically equal tough coworker and it’s important to not let your empathy for Paula the person outweigh what she’s like as Paula the colleague.

    3. JohannaCabal*

      I wish I could up vote this. I grew up with poor social skills thanks to a mentally ill, alcoholic parent who successfully isolated me from my peers (not helped by the fact that my parents were born in the mid- to late ’40s and grew up in rural parts of the state…this gave them a very old-fashioned view of life that also kept me apart from my peers). Thanks to my background, I’ve had to teach myself proper social skills through college and my working life. But that’s on me to fix not anyone else. I can’t be inflicting the damage from my past on others.

      1. Despachito*

        What a noble thing to say. You are perfectly right but not everyone is able to own it as you are.
        As someone with quite poor social skills at the beginning of my life, I was lucky enough to meet some people later who gently helped me to do better. But boy was it difficult before that. I felt there was something I was doing repeatedly wrong and saw it alienated people but I had no clue what it was. (If I can armchair diagnose myself, have a hunch that possibly I might be an Asperger, never officially diagnosed though).

        The most difficult thing was to acknowledge that certain behaviour is not OK but at the same time feel that although I do a stupid thing X, it does absolutely not mean I have no value as a person.

        LW is very kindly able to acknowledge this distinction. I do not have enough hands to applaud.

    4. meyer lemon*

      I think the valuable takeaway is to keep in mind that a lot of people who act badly are struggling in some way and lashing out. That doesn’t mean that they should be given free reign to do whatever they want, but it does help to treat everyone with as much empathy as you can, within reason.

      1. Despachito*

        Absolutely this.

        I think the world would be a much better place if we were more able to distinguish these two.

    5. Delphine*

      *I think the compassion here is great, but as someone with an similarly terrible home life growing up — you can have all of that AND be a decent colleague. Everybody is different, naturally. But there’s nothing determinative about Paula’s background that says she can’t help being hard to work with, or that she can’t change. People overcome that stuff every day.*

      And people also don’t. As you note, everyone is different.

      Just generally, I’m exhausted by this tendency to sanitize things like trauma and mental health issues by putting the folks who have overcome their struggles and become socially acceptable at the front and center of every story. Any time we hear about a person whose behavior or reaction is not socially acceptable, we pull out this narrative that if they just tried hard enough or “chose” to do better, they could be like the rest of us “good” trauma survivors or mentally ill people. The only thing this does is reduce our ability to be compassionate and increase the stigma faced by folks who have “messier” struggles.

      1. Harper the Other One*

        I think your point is valid, but I also think we shouldn’t infantilize people with tough backgrounds/mental health issues/etc. by assuming they’re going to be unpleasant to others. It’s a tough balance to strike! I feel like Nobody special tried to hit that balance by acknowledging that everyone’s experience is different while also saying those experiences are not destiny.

        1. Zzzzzzz*

          +1 Harper. Delphine, I see your point generally- but no one can be venomous to coworkers. They just can’t. Regardless of who is getting centered in which stories, you can’t be actively harmful to people, even if you got dealt the worst hand.

      2. Jackalope*

        There’s also the fact that many people who are the “good” trauma survivors will say things about how they really struggled for awhile but finally made it through. Which, translated, can mean an awful lot of messiness. I know someone who is one of the kindest, wisest, best co-workers now, but has shared about their younger days, and they acted AWFUL. Which they fully admit now. But I’m sure the people who knew them back when might still remember them as a jerk.

        1. OP/LW*

          As a person who has acted like an a$$ on more than one job, made a fool of myself more times than I can count, and probably should have been fired more than once in my thirty years of work history, I get what folks are saying here on this sub-thread. One of the people recently fired had her share of dysfunction, but was flat-out cruel and went past the point of tolerance and teachable moments. I don’t think Paula is that person; hence my dilemma.

          1. Khlovia*

            Like Tracy above, I too am unable to get Alison’s advice, because whenever I “head over there” they want me to give them all my money. So I risk that the following advice will mark me a total fool or jerk. Here goes anyway: OP, You are uniquely provided with a third-party channel, which it might be ethically acceptable to exploit. What about giving the therapist you share with Paula a link to this post and discussion, and allow her to take on the burden of deciding when and how and what to communicate to Paula; and of deciding what and how much gentle guidance to offer. if nothing else, this would at least give the therapist a head’s-up that one of her other clients might be about to experience a crisis or at least a setback. And it would get you out from under and allow you to back all the way off, with a clean conscience. Therapist is being paid to help Paula manage her behavioral issues; you aren’t.

  12. NotAnotherManager!*

    Oh, boy. I almost wonder if OP knows one of my friends, who sounds very, very similar, right down to the challenging family background. In this case, my Paula DID get included in a layoff, and I’m sure it was because of how difficult she could be to work with, not because she was terrible at her job. (Being difficult did impact her job performance because it required communication and collaboration, and it’s hard to do that effectively if you’re interpersonally challenging.) And, the worst thing was that it didn’t even occur to me that she would be included in it, even though I’d had to select two staff members to include in the layoff and knew it was coming. I knew she got on poorly with her boss and that he would be asked to select two people as well… I just didn’t put two and two together to see it coming.

    Ultimately, she is doing just fine. She took a few months to get additional professional certifications and take some time off, and she is now working somewhere much better aligned with her strengths. When I talk to her, she still has some of the same tendencies that make her hard to work with, but it seems like her current position minimizes those.

    1. OP/LW*

      In the end, I think your story is the most common story for people who are fired or laid off; it’s cyclical, isn’t it? It’s just life, in the end. We have our good and bad jobs, and sometimes, a firing can be a blessing in disguise. Or a bad fit on the job can teach us so many things we would never have learned about ourselves, otherwise. Even if Paula were to leave the company, she would survive….

  13. anonymouse*

    OP, if the optics of you aligning yourself with someone who is a bad colleague don’t dissuade you from spending energy and capital to protect Paula from herself, that’s OK. But remember other advice that we see here from time to time, “Don’t can’t keep someone warm by setting yourself on fire.”
    You are the one writing in. Paula is the one with the problem.
    You can be a friend. You need to separate the from work more.

    1. KHB*

      I’m very glad never to have worked anywhere that “the optics of aligning yourself with someone who is a bad colleague” was ever a concern. That sounds a lot like a “shunning culture” to me. People are allowed to like (or at least have compassion for) people who others dislike, and I’d think a healthy workplace would understand that.

      1. Former Child*

        You can be friends outside of work all you want, if Paula wants to — sounds like she’s not that friendly to LW.
        But at work it’s not a good image to forgive unprofessional behavior, because you can end up looking like you agree w/her.
        It’s not shunning to act professional at work. Outside of work do what you want. At work, don’t lower your standards just because someone you “like” isn’t professional.

      2. Mental Lentil*

        Agreed. This sounds very much like middle school behavior with all the evil kids in their own little clique.

        I just can’t image how offering some friendly advice to a coworker is equal to “aligning yourself with someone who is a bad colleague”. FFS, the fanfic is always off the rails in these comments.

        Paula has some issues. She’s not a bad colleague. She has both pluses and minuses. Good lord, I think I’d rather work with Paula (who is at least out in the open about how she feels) rather than with some of the incredibly judgmental commenters I’ve seen here.

        1. PT*

          I find it tricky too. I’ve always aligned myself with people who are good colleagues. Usually the bad colleagues get promoted and the good ones get shunted away.

      3. turquoisecow*

        I think calling this shunning is a bit extreme. I agree with anonymouse that hanging out too much at work with a bad colleague is not a good look. If she’s rude to people and talks over them, LW being friends with them makes it seem, not only to management but coworkers as well, as though she condones this behavior. If I worked in this space and found Paula to be rude and demeaning, and then found out that LW was friends with her, I’d do my best to give both of them a wide berth – not because I’m “shunning” them but because I don’t want to deal with those negative behaviors any more than I have to.

        1. anonymouse*

          thanks! I’m really not trying to be cliquish or shunning here. Your last sentence was exactly what I was getting at.

      4. anonymouse*

        Paula, by OP’s own letter “acts venomous” and people avoid working with her.
        OP is friendly in the office and out with Paula. That’s fine, I agree.
        But it’s naïve to think that nobody at all will question OP’s judgement regarding Paula’s behavior in the office and think that OP thinks it’s OK that Paula works that way.

        1. OP/LW*

          These are really valid concerns, but luckily, I don’t think they apply in my situation. I’ve called Paula out in public before, gently but firmly, and gotten a few thumbs-ups for it after the fact. I think people see our roles as discrete. We’re peers and I tend to speak out more than she does.

          Also, the work/social relationships are a bit more blurred because, as I mentioned above in a different sub-thread, we’re expats, and in a non-English-speaking country. That’s taken into account when people observe each others’ social interactions and relationships.

  14. agnes*

    If you do it just be prepared that it is just as likely to result in a falling out between you and Paula as it is to result in her changing her behavior or thanking you for helping her keep her job.

      1. OP/LW*

        Yes, yes it is. That’s the dilemma: how to do what I can for this person in this situation, and also still maintain friendly relations. It ain’t easy threading a needle.

  15. Emma Dilemma*

    I have a difficult family background and am estranged.

    Doesn’t give me the right to treat colleagues like crap.

      1. Fran Fine*

        And Paula is in therapy and working on this.

        That part. She’s in therapy because some part of her knows her behavior’s wrong and she wants to fix it.

    1. Delphine*

      I don’t think anyone believes Paula has the “right” to do anything. But it doesn’t hurt to try to be understanding.

    2. Renata Ricotta*

      Of course not, and it doesn’t give Paula the right either. But people process things in different ways (and are at different stages of the working-through-it journey than others). Nobody is saying that it’s totally cool that Paula acts this way because she has a “tough childhood” pass, but OP is empathetic and sees the whole person who is in the midst of a growing process. If a gentle conversation works to help Paula along that process in her work life, and OP wants to do that, wonderful. If it doesn’t work because Paula isn’t in a position to hear it, then let the chips fall where they may.

  16. Michelle Smith*

    I just really don’t think Paula’s job is really any of OP’s business and that she should stay out of it and focus on her own work. Paula is an adult and OP is not her manager.

    1. Spot the Tiger*

      SO much this!!! Unless the OP has some intel about the CEO’s “firing list”, they would be wise to on concentrate on their own position. The people that were let go may have been terrible to work with, but they also could have been less stellar at their actual duties than anyone knew. Instinct is wonderful and a useful tool, but it’s not totally reliable in knowing exactly what direction the “housecleaning” will take next.

      Being territorial, obstructing workflow and alienating colleagues with her terrible attitude are not quirks so much as serious issues Paula’s manager should address (perhaps they have.) I’m not so sure how you would talk to a coworker about these in a “friendly” way.

      1. Former Paula*

        This. Obviously LW knows her Paula better than we do and may actually have some pretty good insight on the situation. That being said, I’ve been a Paula and I’ve worked with a Paula. Neither of the ‘Watch out for X or else’ conversations turned out well.

        When I was the Paula, it’s not that the criticism was invalid but it was given without full context. Yes, I was stressing out but it’s because a project the criticiser wasn’t working on had gone horribly off the rails and I was basically spending my entire working day getting in back on the rails, all while criticiser was standing there tutting, ‘So, I guess you won’t be doing any work on our shared projects AGAIN?’. Got to tell you, when she told me I’d be fired if I carried on acting stressed out, it really did not help. Ended up speaking to my line manager about it, who assured me I was doing a great job and criticiser got taken to one side to be told she needed to back down.

        When I worked with a Paula, it’s not that I actually told her she’d be fired (in fact, I think I explicitly said I DIDN’T foresee her being fired from our current company). More that she was behaving in a way that I’d seen other people be fired for elsewhere in the industry so it might be something she wanted to concentrate on. Went down like a lead balloon. She visibly crumpled and I felt awful. She then spent the rest of the time we worked together making petty complaints about my work. Turns out, ‘Paula’ had a very particular and in-demand skillset which I wasn’t seeing in the work we did together. She wasn’t getting fired any time soon – in fact, she’s now several rungs above me career ladder-wise!

    2. Mental Lentil*

      This is cold hearted. OP is one of the few people that Paula has managed to connect with and OP wants to do Paula a kindness.

      A lot of the letters posted here concern coworker issues. If the only response is “your coworker is an adult and you are not their manager” there’s not much point of people writing in and asking for advice.

      1. ecnaseener*

        Agreed. Nothing wrong with going through life with a “if I can help, perhaps I should” attitude rather than “if I’m not obligated to help, I won’t.”

        OP isn’t Paula’s manager, true enough. But they care about Paula, so they’re considering attempting one (1) conversation. That is not actually a bad thing.

        1. Former Paula*

          I agree the attitude of “if I can help, perhaps I should” is better than “if I’m not obligated to help, I won’t” but I didn’t necessary read Michelle Smith’s comment like that – I read it more as a ‘stay in your lane’ reminder and, quite frankly, overstepping your lane – even in the name of being helpful – has the potential to backfire.

          I think a conversation along the lines LW has suggested above (“Yikes, some firings, I think we all should be doing our best to follow new protocols… don’t you?”) is fine. I think, given the friendship between LW and Paula, a conversation along the lines of “Sometimes when you behave like X, you come off as Y” is fine.

          But I think linking behaviours to a firing – so “If you keep behaving like X, I’m worried you’re going to get fired” – is where it cross the line. That’s more akin to a management warning and that’s not LW’s to give. I mean, what happens if Paula makes the change but gets fired anyway? What happens if Paula doesn’t change but doesn’t get fired?

          As a side note, reading OP/LW’s comments above, company’s ‘silent grace period’ strategy is really terrible and Paula’s manager should really be sitting her down and spelling out what needs to change.

  17. Former Child*

    I think the fact that she says nothing about being confident about her own work is a bad sign here. She’s so focused on another she may not be creating her own best image to the boss.

    Now, after some firings, is the time for LW to be on her own best behavior and not focus on someone else’s. It does her no good to be seen as chummy w/her.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      It doesn’t sound to me like the OP is chummy. Just concerned for a fellow human being.

      I’ve known people like Paula. Not always easy, but if you know their background, you can have more understanding of why they are the way they are.

      1. Former Child*

        I said “SEEN as chummy.” Image isn’t always reality but coworkers and bosses see more than we realize sometimes.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          Sounds to me like the OP might be one of those people who gets along with a wide range of coworkers, so I’m not sure this is an issue.

          Also it sounds like the new CEO probably isn’t the kind of person who thinks that a person is somehow suspect because they are able to deal with a coworker known to be difficult. Some would see that as having excellent people skills.

    2. fposte*

      I did wonder about that–that the OP is so focused on Paula that she’s not seeing how she fits into the frame as well. It might be a good plan to say truthfully “We *all* need to be on our toes these days,” especially since the OP’s take is strictly conjecture and could be mistaken.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      I didn’t read this as the OP not being confident in her own work so much as discussing her own work wasn’t the objective of the letter.

      1. ecnaseener*

        Yeah, it would be weird to randomly mention their own work performance in this context. Plenty of the letters on this site don’t mention the LW’s work performance, because it’s not always relevant!

    4. Librarian1*

      I just assumed that OP doesn’t have any reason to think she’ll be let go. I think it’s more likely she would have mentioned it if she were concerned about her job.

    5. Delphine*

      Why would she discuss her own work? The letter is asking a question about something very specific. We don’t know one way or another how OP feels about her own work. It’s not particularly relevant to the matter at hand.

      1. Mental Lentil*

        Some people just like to write commentary fan fiction. They also like to be judgmental AF in the comments.

        I agree. LW is asking about how to help Paula. Her question wasn’t “I have a terrible coworker who may be fired and I don’t want to get booted along with her—how do I avoid that?”—because the answer to that question is pretty damn simple.

        1. OP/LW*

          As a response to this whole general sub-thread — I do engage in substantive, regular conversations with the CEO. He’s very clear that he’s pleased with my work and my role in the organization. But you know what? It’s good to hear some warning voices and some perspectives from another angle. Complacency and over-confidence doesn’t do anyone any good. Thanks all!

  18. The Starsong Princess*

    You can try but it will likely make no difference. Paula is who she is. You might end up making her freak out entirely. I have a friend who is very prickly and black and hire at work. She mostly flies under the radar and isn’t currently on the chopping block but if you look around, it could be possible. But if I even gently suggest positioning herself to ensure that she changes as the work changes or take additional training or build relationships- basically work to future-proof herself- she completely freaks out and is convinced she is being fired. She certainly doesn’t take any of the steps I recommend so now I just keep my mouth shut.

  19. Frenchie Too*

    OP has a big, kind heart. But my concern is that if she tries to help Paula, Paula will turn on her. I would hate for OP to become a target of Paula’s venom.

    1. OP/LW*

      Your concerns are appreciated. Paula’s venom is generally not given any credit. Most people see it as inappropriate steam-letting. And Paula does not like confrontation and has been known to cry publicly over it. I’m know as a person who doesn’t shy from confrontation, and who generally handles it fairly well (bar a loud shouting match with one of the people who was fired last year).

  20. JillianNicola*

    I can empathize with Paula’s position and difficulties, and I agree with Alison that it’s a great kindness to try and talk to her. If she were to be let go, and lose that safety/stability (for her), what might happen after that? It’s definitely hard to think about those possibilities. But be aware that in the end, there is only one singular person on this earth that gets to decide if she’s going to sink or swim, and that’s her. Do what you can to get through to her without compromising herself, but you must leave the rest in her hands, as difficult as that can be.

  21. AMT*

    I know the point is probably moot by now, but as a therapist myself, I’m side-eying LW’s therapist for agreeing to work with Paula, assuming the therapist knew they were coworkers. Seeing two clients who know each other and see each other every day is almost always a terrible idea. For one thing, it makes confidentiality much tougher. The therapist is essentially being asked to keep track of which client told them what, which can be tough, even for a therapist with a great memory. One slip-up, and oops, Paula knows something the LW was trying to keep a secret, or LW knows Paula’s secret. Or maybe the therapist didn’t slip up at all, but LW or Paula interprets something the therapist said or did in a session as a confirmation of something they already suspected about the other person. It’s also possible that LW might want to bring up Paula’s behavior in sessions, and knowing that the therapist is also Paula’s therapist might complicate that. LW might wonder if the therapist is looking out for Paula instead of them, for example, or that Paula has badmouthed them to the therapist. So not a great situation overall, and I’m hoping for the LW’s sake (not 100% clear from the letter) that Paula is no longer seeing this person.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Just wondering, how would an ethical therapist deal with that situation? Assuming Paula didn’t tell the therapist who recommended her — after who knows how long, the therapist eventually figures out that Paula and LW work together. Does the therapist just pick one client to dump?

      1. AMT*

        There are a ton of ethical and logistical considerations that I won’t go into here, but generally, if I felt it was unethical to keep seeing both clients, I’d prioritize the client who saw me first. I’d tell the other client that there was a conflict of interest (without going into detail about what the conflict was, since that would risk breaching confidentiality) and refer them to a new therapist. Unfortunate for the client, but not as unfortunate as finding out that your therapist to whom you’ve been complaining about your [roommate/mom/boss] is also that person’s therapist!

      2. Adultiest Adult*

        Chiming in to say, it depends on the extent to which their issues overlap. We encounter some of the same issues in our agency because there is usually only one therapist assigned to a particular school and we often see siblings. If the sibling is mentioned occasionally in passing and the focus of the therapeutic work is really on something else, we continue. But if a therapist is seeing two siblings (or colleagues) who hate each other and have significant conflicts that dominate the therapy time, someone needs to be transferred, and usually the person who started first stays with the therapist.

    2. OP/LW*

      Oh, hm, I had not thought of that. We’re in a country where it’s hard to find an English-speaking therapist, and this was all pre-pandemic and Zoom therapy, and very little concurrency in any case. At least five people from the company have worked with this therapist. It was my first time and I hadn’t realized the potential ramifications. As far as I know, it was all handled very professionally….

      1. AMT*

        The fact that she’s the only English-speaking therapist around does change things. It’s still ethically difficult to pull off, but a lot of therapists would make an exception to this rule in a small community where people would otherwise be going without mental healthcare.

        1. allathian*

          That’s a fair point. I saw an occupational health therapist through my employer’s EAP when I was stressed out and had a conflict with a previous manager. She was also seeing the same therapist at the same time, and we also had pair counseling sessions with the therapist and my manager to learn to communicate without conflict with each other. But this was a special case and I never felt that the therapist favored either one of us over the other. Very professional.

  22. Susie Q*

    Honestly, I don’t think Paula deserves a warning. She’s not someone who made a few little mistakes or a pleasant person who doesn’t understand part of her job well. She’s a “venomous” person who ignores and stomps all over other people for her own gain. So what if she has had a difficult upbringing? Plenty of people do. Doesn’t give them the right to be toxic and cause a difficult work environment. Paula seems like the type who won’t take your warning seriously and you could end up looking aligned with such a toxic presence in the workplace. It is not your responsibility to try to save her.

    1. Archaeopteryx*

      I’d say she does deserve one warning- from her manager. From OP, it would be an overstep.

    2. Not Today Satan*

      I’m going to disagree with this. The behavior is inappropriate and needs to change. It’s not Paula’s background, but good management that makes a warning needed.
      1. A sit down discussion that this type of behavior isn’t appropriate and needs to change.
      2. A formal counseling memo if it happens again.
      3. The firing.

      My question is, how much did the new CEO try and correct and how much was just sweeping people out? Just sweeping people out may seem good at the start when there have been problematic people. I’ve seen it quickly lead to CEO whims rather than sound management.

      1. OP/LW*

        Not Today Satan, you make some good points here. Department management is pretty terrible and the current head was sort of drafted into the position. Our department seems to be on a five-year overhaul plan, and the CEO has said as much, though I am not sure that he has said to to everyone. He is a good manager; the folks in between, not so much. So the department is in significant disarray, greatly complicated by the pandemic. But things are looking up….

      2. Susie Q*

        Some people aren’t worth the efforts of trying to change. Paula, by all accounts, is a toxic person and a terrible employee. She’s not someone who has made a few mistakes and needs a little coaching.

  23. BRR*

    I think Alison’s reply is one acceptable answer but I also think not saying anything at all is an acceptable answer. If you take Alison’s advice, I think you should have very low expectations and keep your observations short and on the vague side. Approach this with the expectation nothing will change.

    “If she were anyone else, I might be done with her.” It sounds like everyone else though IS done with her. And she just might not be able to come back from this.

  24. Delphine*

    For me, a big part of the equation would be how well I know Paula and what our relationship looks like. If the worst thing Paula might do is ignore the advice, then I would talk to her. But if there’s a chance that speaking to her might seriously damage our work relationship, then I’d hesitate to say anything concrete.

  25. TennisFan*

    A couple ideas: Bring up only that you noticed that the recent people let go were awful colleagues to work with and see how she reacts. Potentially speculate that there could other similar personnel changes in the future, but don’t connect it to her directly. If she shows any amount of introspection or curiosity, you’ll know better whether the door is potentially open for further conversation (but I’d try to make said conversation feel as organic as possible, and not like you’d brought this up with an ulterior motive). If she seems unconcerned or uninterested, I’d personally not say anything, because I imagine she’d find the idea threatening, and likely blame the messenger.
    Another idea could be to bring it up with your own manager (confidentially), who could then approach Paula’s manager. Frame it only in the guise of work productivity, not around your personal concern for Paula. Approaching it this way is highly context-dependent (e.g. to Allison’s point about what exactly the manager situation is), so certainly may not be feasible.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Your second idea, do you mean LW should say to their own manager that they’re worried Paula will be fired?

      If so, I think that’s too likely to backfire. The manager’s takeaway would be “Paula’s coworkers think she’s abrasive enough to be fired.”

    2. OP/LW*

      Re: idea #1, done. I hadn’t seen Paula in some time, and invited her over for a small group dinner. Basically did as you described, and she did seem to be doing some thinking. She’s always very concerned about job security, but she’s not always very self-aware about what are graciously referred to as her “quirks.” I think the mission, or step one of the mission, was accomplished. Further steps TBD….

      Thanks, Tennis Fan.

  26. twocents*

    I’m sympathetic to the impulse, but going around telling people that they might be fired sounds like a good way to get some negative attention on yourself. If the new CEO is firing people who are bad for morale, someone who tells others they’re getting fired is bad for morale! Don’t put yourself at risk to save her job; Paula needs to save herself.

  27. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    I had a warning from a co-worker once – that I was going to be fired because my boss had offered him my job, which, he didn’t want.

    It enabled me to be “shields up”…. and fend off what eventually didn’t happen.

    Why did he give me a heads-up? I saved his ass from a firing some years before when we worked together at another place.

    Yes – you should give a warning to your friend. It might come back to help you out someday.

    1. OP/LW*

      Yes, I take such situations into consideration.

      I was very nearly fired from a toxic job (legendary in our professional circles and in the country) but managed to walk out on my own two feet, in part thanks to a heads-up from a colleague/friend. It felt good to short-circuit that boss’s evil intentions. A lot of good people got mown down in that operation (including the friend who warned me!),\ and that company still hasn’t recovered, ten years on.

      Schadenfreude is unattractive, but I cop to it.

  28. Carol*

    I think it’s tough to know what to recommend here without knowing more about Paula. Will she take your honest thoughts to heart or could she blow up and turn more of her bad behavior on you?

    I think the impulse is a really kind one, but I would really question whether Paula will actually hear what you’re telling her, or if she does, whether she will react badly and treat you worse at work.

    I wish people everywhere communicated more openly about issues like this, but it’s tough because from what you’ve described of Paula, you have no indication she’s going to handle it appropriately. (oddly thinking of reality shows where people had great “epiphanies” but as soon as the cameras were off, they reverted to their old behavior…people this deep in dysfunction for this long don’t seem to often change)

    And, truly…it’s not your role, I don’t think, at least formally. Management always fails when they let behavior like this go by without addressing it.

  29. Meep*

    Paula might actually need the nudge to leave and could thrive elsewhere. Some people are negative and toxic because the environment has beaten them down and is toxic for them. I recommend being there for her in spirit and encouraging her to find something else she is passionate about. Especially now that she is getting help.

  30. ..Kat..*

    Hi, OP. I recommend having the talk be as private and low key as possible. Can you go out for coffee or something?

    As someone who has struggled with personal interactions, I want to say thank you for doing this and I hope it goes well.

  31. Lobsterman*

    I had a suspicion that as the conversation continued, it was going to be clearer and clearer that Paula is gonna do what Paula is gonna do, and there’s not much for it.

    The expat thing throws a wrench in. I know how close-knit these communities are. I just can’t see trying to help Paula going well.

      1. :(*

        I’d happily pay a fee for a subscription to Ask a Manager. But I can’t pay for a subscription to a different site that I don’t frequent at the same rate.

        1. anoni*

          Then you won’t read this one article out of many other free ones. Complaining about the host promoting her paid work is tacky.

  32. NYWeasel*

    Reflection #1: The most productive way a manager talked to me about a prickly situation was to say “I know you aren’t bad with X, but that’s the perception of you right now, so we should dig into why they have that impression since it’s not accurate.” Framing it as a “them interpreting things badly” issue helped me take in the feedback and work on it. In my case, 2 years later I got a promotion bc I was “so good at handling X”

    Reflection #2: I was working with a Paula who was trying to change her stripes, but we found that some vocal people viewed all of her actions as negatively as possible, so even when she sent out perfectly innocuous notes, people would complain about her, and our manager did nothing to shut it down. When layoffs were looming, Paula asked me point blank if I thought her role was in danger, and I felt I needed to be straightforward with her, so I said that unfortunately I thought the complainers were not putting her in a good position, and that I feared her job was at risk. Sure enough, Paula got laid off. There was a month or two before her last day, and I tried to offer her help bc I really valued what she had brought to the team, but Paula made it clear that she didn’t want to talk with me. It felt very much like my early warning was perceived as me having actual info, and I think she thought I didn’t speak up on her behalf, though even my Grandboss had very limited input on who was let go. (Ie they provided a prioritized list, but didn’t decide on the final numbers). I don’t regret speaking up—I think the way the conversation unfolded, she would have been mad if I didn’t say anything too, bc she clearly thought I had info/influence on the situation. But just keep in mind that you may sound like you have specific info when you’re just sharing your observations.

  33. Lamisl*

    OP, you sound nice, but tbh I think it’s a doomed effort. If Paula is widely disliked, and she’s being “silently evaluated” by management, she probably won’t be able to turn things around, even if she suddenly changes completely (and she probably won’t improve on all fronts immediately, lbr). If anyone even notices the change, the managers will just think that you spilled the beans about your convo with the middle manager.

    Also, as someone who has worked with a Paula in a similar situation, consider that you might not even be seeing the worst of it. In my case, I knew that my Paula was more respectful of me than of most other people at the office (like you, I was senior and reasonably outspoken). I thought that it wasn’t great, but that she could improve with some coaching. What I didn’t know was how actually rotten and vile she was when I wasn’t looking. Since that time, I have a zero tolerance policy for Paulas.

  34. MCMonkeyBean*

    It can be hard to have a conversation like this without the other person feeling super attacked and lashing out in defense–my first thought would be to maybe try just one thing to mention at first. I’d probably go with the information hoarding. Say something like you’ve noticed a culture shift toward more knowledge sharing, and that you know a lot of people like to hold on to what they know as a sort of job security it can end up having the opposite effect in this environment where not being seen as a team player can get you fired. Maybe add something about how her work is great and if she is willing to share it more with the team then it often makes a person *more* valuable rather than less as she becomes both a good producer of work and also an excellent resource for others to rely on.

  35. TootsNYC*

    I might not make it quite so directed at her, but simply keep putting the bug in her ear that layoffs and firing, or separations, are happening alot, and everyone should be ready to job hunt, etc.

    I might make observations about the people who were let go, pointing out that there were indicators. And observe that the CEO seems to be willing to let people go if they have a lot of conflict with colleagues.

    Basically making sure that Paula can’t miss the same signs the OP is saying–but letting her draw the “I might be one of those people” conclusion herself.

    It would be more powerful.

    Even in the moment, when Paula has created a tense situation, then say: “The CEO is laying off people who don’t resolve conflict well.” Let her be the one to say, “Oh, I’m one of those people.”

    Kind of like in the book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen”: you say “milk that’s left out will spoil” instead of “you left the milk out, you need to put it back.”

    You state an objective fact, and let the other person draw the links to themselves. Because it’s more powerful for them.

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