my employees have been mocking a coworker behind his back

A reader writes:

I’m a young business owner and new manager, and I could use your advice.

We recently had an employee (we’ll call him Alex) resign to take on a new position. He left on a good note. While I was creating a backup of his company computer, I came across Skype conversations where he and a current employee (Jane) were ridiculing another employee (“Bob”). The conversations were (my opinion) unprofessional and childish. They mocked Bob at a professional and personal level: work quality, lack of knowledge, attempts at humor and social awkwardness, and even how loudly he chews were all targets. Bob does not, thankfully, know about these.

This happened during work hours over many months, on company machines, through Skype accounts set up for work use using work email addresses. Alex provided us with his password for Skype when he left.

A month ago, Alex and Jane brought up issues about Bob’s work quality. Some of the issues were valid and we worked with Bob to improve things. Jane has mentioned that she’s seen a difference (but kept on mocking him in private). Bob brings a variety of skills and value to the business. Other employees seem to value his experience and willingness to help. He’s also stepped up, big time, to take on new responsibilities after Alex’s departure.

I was already planning to have a conversation with Jane about her communication and treatment of coworkers, which two other employees (not Bob) have brought up. That conversation would have included a discussion about what was happening and why, clear explanations about what we wanted to see change, and an offer to provide tools or training to help her achieve them.

She’ll be mortified that what she said was seen, and I don’t want to make her defensive. That said, and what she did is clearly bullying so I feel uncomfortable letting it slide. Should I bring up the Skype messages?

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

{ 135 comments… read them below }

  1. Firecat*

    If her reaction is anything other then.

    You are right. That was wrong. It won’t happen again.

    Be prepared to manage her out.

  2. SheLooksFamiliar*

    OP, I don’t think making Jane feel less defensive or uncomfortable is a goal here. She already knows she and Alex were doing something wrong, hence the secrecy. If she feels bad, well, then she feels bad. I’ve seen this kind of thing firsthand and don’t have sympathy for anyone who engages in childish, cruel behavior. I’m glad you’re not letting it slide.

    Also, I think people get so used to a company computer or phone being ‘theirs’ that they forget it isn’t. Just assume everything you do on company equipment is stored and retrievable, and behave accordingly.

    1. JB*

      Agreed. She is going to have emotions about this in some sort of way, and that’s normal and unavoidable – she did something bad (both professionally AND morally) that she (clearly) didn’t realize you’d find out about, and now you have. She’ll likely be embarrassed and upset. There’s really no way around it and it’s not a good reason to avoid the conversation.

      You can take considerations in light of that, though – like having the conversation towards the end of the day so she can leave right after, and making sure you choose a very private space for the discussion. The goal isn’t to humiliate her, for sure.

      But you definitely have to say something. It’s very possible that now that her little clique with Alex is broken up, the behavior would have stopped on its own – but its equally as possible that if you hire someone new and she gets along with them, she’ll draw them in for the same cliqueish, gossippy nonsense, and potentially poison their working relationship with Bob. It’s hard to know (unless you already have a strong sense that one or the other was the ‘ringleader’ here). But if you talk to her about it and make it clear that behavior is unacceptable in your workplace, you’re going to take away that uncertainty.

      1. une autre Cassandra*

        I think this is really well said, JB. No need to gratuitously upset her, and it’s compassionate to be considerate in the timing of the conversation and things like that. But yeah, this does need to be addressed. It really isn’t doing Jane any favors to let it slide.

    2. J.B.*

      I just called an investment house because I was getting obnoxious messages for a former colleague. I don’t have an investor number just make the calls STOP!

      1. Guin*

        Someone looking for babysitting jobs posted my phone number somewhere by mistake, and I kept getting calls from random mommies wanting a nanny.

    3. EmbracesTrees*

      I also hope that, if possible, Alex is not off the hook. If OP thinks that Alex may want a reference, this should be addressed with him.

      What do you think all think OP should do in that situation? Even if Alex was otherwise excellent, I hope OP would be very uncomfortable giving nothing but a glowing review. ON the other hand, tanking a reference seems overly harsh. Should OP contact Alex and let her/him know the conversation was discovered and it is incredibly unprofessional? If not, what? (and why?)

      1. learnedthehardway*

        Oooh – that’s a real conundrum. I mean, the OP isn’t Alex’s manager any more, so it isn’t like he can impose consequences. However, as a potential reference, it sort of feels like the OP should give Alex some feedback so that he can honestly say that there was a problem but it was addressed with Alex. Just like a performance review – it’s not quite fair to say there’s a problem at the end of the year, but not to have brought it up so the person could work on the issue.

        I’d probably phrase it in a reference that Alex has some maturing to do in the way he communicates about colleagues, but that he has been coached about this, and (if he was coachable) was receptive to guidance about how to professionally interact with people at work.

      2. Analytical Tree Hugger*

        Hmm…great question.

        My instinct would be to contact Alex, explain that the company can no longer give a positive reference in light of his active participation of those actions. If contacted for a reference, then the company will be honest: Alex did XYZ tasks well. After he left, we discovered he had ongoing, mocking conversations about a colleague, which has made us question his professional judgement.

        Harsh? Maybe, but I’m not willing to let bullying slide.

        1. Benefits veteran*

          But would any employer in the U.S. actually give such a reference in light of potential legal consequences?

    4. KHB*

      I think it’s worth being very clear about what Alex and Jane did wrong here.

      It’s not wrong to dislike someone, or to think that they’re ridiculous and annoying. It’s not even wrong to voice those thoughts out loud “behind the person’s back.” Part of being an adult is realizing that someone, somewhere is probably talking about how ridiculous and annoying they think you are – and that they have a right to feel that way.

      What’s wrong is when you voice those thoughts in a way that’s not totally private (which work communication never is), and when you let them consume you to the point that it affects how you treat people in person.

      In a thread on this topic a while ago, somebody made the point that venting about people is like eating cookies: In small amounts, it feels good, but in large amounts, it makes you feel very much worse. In Alison’s answer, she briefly touches on a distinction between “just a little venting” and something bigger. It sounds like Jane is way over the “too much” line here – but if she hadn’t been, it would be different.

      1. Artemesia*

        Everybody gossips — but months of ridicule, making a sort of game of picking on one guy — not really in the same league.

        1. Stevie Rose*

          I’d be very curious if Bob is actually ‘as’ the LW describes. Unfortunately, we have a couple of current employees who are terrible (work and interpersonal wise), management refuses to deal with them and everyone else is at their wits’ end. They’ve had issues with everyone in the team, yet still have their jobs. When companies don’t hold everyone to the same standard, expect long term venting.

          1. D.*

            Yes, I think this is an important distinction to make. I still don’t think anyone should be venting on work machines, but I’m also much more understanding if the “victim” is a known problem. A manager in our office has been complained about to higher-ups for years now—and for good reason. They’re insensitive, rude, boorish, sexist, and they have said plenty of things that have raised eyebrows outside our office. Personally, I’ve been on the receiving end of some of their sexist comments.

            Still, nothing is ever done about this person. So, I really don’t hold it against anyone for exploding anytime they have to deal with them. There’s a big difference between venting about someone who is genuine but struggling to find their footing (that I can’t imagine) and someone who is an ***actual*** jerk.

      2. Caroline Bowman*

        Exactly. One nasty or mean bullying exchange – even on company software – could be taken out of context and was a stupid bit of gossip that got out of hand, totally forgotten-about, not a pattern of unkindness… but this is not that. This is months of deceitful meanness to a colleague. Evidently Jane hasn’t exactly been sweetness and light to everyone else either. Alex happens to have left, but I would not worry for a moment about Jane being embarrassed or upset. If so, good.

        I’d pick out a very mortifying exchange and read it out to her and then ask her for her thoughts, and then sit in silence till it gets super-awkward. If she cries, good. That others have complained indicates that Jane is not a nice person at all, and that’s okay. You can be as awful as you like, on your own time. But this is wasting company time and creating a nasty environment. I might not go for actually firing, but it would be a final warning, with clear bullet points on what needs to happen in future.

        As for Alex, I would contact him privately, explain that you will no longer be able to discount what you know about him from any future references, that you will be fair and balanced, but you will not omit what happened. That’s really all you can do.

    5. Snow Globe*

      Regarding your 2nd paragraph, that is important for LW to remember as well. They made a point of saying that they had Alex’s “permission “ to use his password. But as the owner of the business, the LW has every right to view those messages. LW should have a way to view Jane’s messages in the future to make sure this behavior really stops. I wouldn’t advise a business owner to go into their employees’ personal messages on the regular, but there is a clear business need here

  3. Xavier Desmond*

    For me this is close to the level of pack your things and get out. Bullying in the workplace is absolute poison and personally I wouldn’t want people like Jane and Alex working for me.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      Recognizing this is an older level, the manager should have been considering whether Jane is someone to keep on the team at all, and any conversation should be about that.. It sounds like the OP had specific written evidence of Jane’s personal-level mistreatment of Bob, and at least two other employees who have raised issues about her treatment of coworkers that doesn’t involve private messages. Jane is office poison. She *should* feel bad about that, she’s not a nice person to work with.

      1. Coffee Bean*

        I have to wonder if someone like Jane would be mortified about being caught – or – mortified that she engaged in hurtful behavior and has some remorse. If it’s the former, I don’t know if keeping her is a good idea.

    2. EPLawyer*

      My first reaction was “Why does she still have a job?”

      Two OTHER employees have complained about her. She engaged in bullying with another coworker of someone you value highly for their work. The fact they did it on company time with company accounts is irrelevant. If she and Alex had done it on their lunch hour on their private Facebook accounts it would still be the same thing. Bullying coworkers and mocking them is WRONG.

      Like the first commenter said — if she is anything but remorseful about her actions and SHOWS she is willing to change, you need to let her go.

      This is not about her feelings. This is about every other employee’s feelings. This is about not having a toxic workplace.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I also wonder: Alex and Jane brought complaints against Bob. How much of that complaint was fueled by their meanness and dislike for him?
        This info really calls into question how credible they were in their complaints. Or, if how credible their vehemence was (like, maybe they’re right that Bob made mistakes, but maybe they characterized it much more harshly).

        1. Sleeve McQueen*

          When people are bitching to each other to the point where they start feeding off each other, it’s often obvious because they’ll unconsciously use exactly the same phrasing to a degree that seems unlikely to be a coincidence.
          I’ve become more attuned to trying to unpick where the credible complaint lies, but it’s worth listening out for it.

    3. Forkeater*

      Agreed, this kind of behavior is just poison and you have probably already lost good employees because of this. Two people have complained about her already and now you have evidence of a third offense. The best thing to do would be to manage her out ASAP.

    4. Librarian of SHIELD*

      My former workplace fired three people in an incident like this. Employee A went to HR to file a complaint that they were being bullied by Employee B, both in person and via email. IT pulled Employee B’s emails to verify this and found multiple emails between Employees B, C, and D, with content much like this OP describes. Before the week was out, B, C, and D were gone. No warning, just gone.

      Bullying is a big deal, and misusing company resources for the purposes of bullying is also a big deal, and those things need to be dealt with appropriately.

    5. pancakes*

      I don’t agree that saying unflattering things about someone without their knowledge is bullying. The letter writer said they were ridiculing their coworker, which seems far more on-point.

      1. allathian*

        Perhaps, but this was systematic and long-term. I don’t think that every instance of frustration with a coworker that you share with other coworkers, even if you do it in a way that can be tracked on employer-issued devices is cause for immediate firing, but in this case it seems to have been systematic.

        1. pancakes*

          I’m not sure how two people chatting about another in this way, even repeatedly, is systematic? Systematic means, done or acting according to a fixed plan or system; methodical. There isn’t anything in the letter that suggests that degree of planning.

  4. Artemesia*

    oh Wow. You were already going to talk to her about the problem in general of her treatment of co-workers and now you have a really smoking gun here. I would not pussyfoot around at all — bring up the general issue and make clear many people have noticed this and then move to the ‘cleaning up your computer’ conversation Alison suggests. This is more of the same only very vivid and documented. She needs to cut this out and rethink how she relates professionally to others. She SHOULD feel bad about it. YOu can then shift to behaviors that need to change and re-assure her you know she CAN make these changes. But don’t worry about her feelings so that you mute the message. This could be a real turning point in her career. Most of us can look back on moments where we were immature or unprofessional and yet many of us did overcome that and grow up and become more effective and professional.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      Yes – I think this is a teaching moment for Jane. She needs to learn that while you can be legitimately upset with coworkers or feel that they are making mistakes, you need to deal with these situations professionally and courteously. Mocking someone to their face or behind their back is not appropriate, being mean is not appropriate, and devaluing people who have personalities you don’t mesh with or weaknesses or characteristics you dislike is not acceptable. In particular, mocking people’s personal characteristics that they have no control over (eg. appearance, disabilities, social awkwardness, whatever) is repulsive and says terrible things about the person doing the mocking, not about the target.

      Follow that up with an “I expect you to treat Bob in a professional manner – is this something you can do?” And then hold her to it. Also hold her to not retaliating against Bob or other colleagues.

      I’d give her one chance, but that is it.

  5. Dasein9*

    Jane being mortified and feeling bad is the best outcome in this scenario. If she is defensive, rather than mortified, it seems you’ll have some valuable information to make decisions with.

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      Yeah, she frankly deserves to feel mortified. This was not a one-off venting session because she was frustrated with Bob’s work, this was sustained awfulness and there should be consequences for that!

    2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Agreed, if Jane was mortified then I think she could have been retrained. But if she reacted with defensiveness then I think managing her out is probably a best path.

  6. StressedButOkay*

    OP, she needs to feel mortified because what she and Alex did was wrong. My concern is that Bob might be aware of things, even if not everything – you might to check in on him, especially since other colleagues have complaints against her.

  7. Esmeralda*

    Why is Jane even getting a second chance? She’s bad enough that other coworkers are legitimately complaining, and you have a record of her using work resources to slam another employee.

    I know this is an old letter. I hope the OP sent Jane packing.

  8. AuroraPickle*

    Read this and thought since the pandemic caused working from home and my primary method of communication with coworkers is Skype chat, what exactly have I said? Occasionally venting, and sometimes a good zinger that crosses the line.

    If talked to, act mortified and remorseful. Got it. I can’t be the only one!

    1. Nanani*

      1) This is an old letter that almost certainly predates the pandemic

      2) “Act” remorseful is not the point. Actually being remorseful, and NOT DOING IT AGAIN is the goal.

      3) If you’re serious, stop telling yourself everyone does these things to justify your own asshattery. Mocking your coworkers like this is not normal or common. Don’t be cruel.

      1. Gothic Bee*

        Agree. Especially point #3. I do understand some people like to vent (personally I hate venting because it just annoys me even more and I spend even more time thinking about the situation), but I just don’t get why anyone feels it necessary to mock other people or complain about every little thing they do. Isn’t it exhausting to think about other people that much? I’d rather just find something else to do that’s more enjoyable than thinking about Bob.

        1. Chinookwind*

          I am currently a temp at a place where one guy is the person 3 or 4 people mock/complain about in the office and to his face. I have never been more uncomfortable in a workplace and am truly wishing my contract is not extended because of the meanness I see in their jokes that fly around and over me (think open concept workspace).

          The target seems to be okay with this, but could he really be expected to speak up when everyone is already blaming everything on him (despite him being the guy fixing their errors). I know that I dread the days I need clarifications or help.

          OP, if others are overhearing this type of behaviour and have a problem with it, they are either planning their exits or, at the very least, keeping out of the firing line of those who are doing the talking.

    2. Alex*

      Same…I can’t say that everything I’ve said to a work friend in a DM over Slack about our (incredibly incompetent and also complete jerkface) coworker is kind. And while that may be wrong, I’d also advise OP to see in what ways “Bob’s” lack of skills have affected his coworkers (in addition to requiring professional behavior).

      Bullying is wrong, but in the schoolyard, kids are there to learn and grow, whereas in the workplace, coworkers that cause problems and require lots of handholding and help beyond what is reasnoable can have a real negative impact on other employees.

      1. PT*

        Yeah this is something I am curious about, too. Because I worked somewhere where we had a workplace bully, and a lot of people would complain about her, because she was incompetent and a bully. But were those conversations in writing, it would be really hard to tease out who was the bully and who was the victim, because she was very good at playing innocent.

        I do not approve of bullying in the workplace and I think workplace bullies should be punished and ideally terminated. But I also think a good faith effort should be made to sort out who is *actually* the bully, and who are victims who are trying to protect themselves against bullies by exchanging information. Just labeling anyone who says anything negative as a bully risks punishing victims, while the bully (who is often skilled at manipulation) gets to continue on bullying.

        1. Alex*

          This is for sure a thing that happens, although I’m not sure I would go so far as to cast myself as a “victim” in my situation.

          I think it is common that employees say mean things about coworkers behind their backs…for good reason. In my case, “Bob” is constantly making mistakes that blow up and I have to run to his rescue to fix them (which is not my actual job to do), he never takes responsibility for his mistakes, he lashes out at anyone who tries to correct him, etc. etc. I spent two hours undoing his incompetence this morning, which was so egregious it had my grandboss emailing all the managers saying WHAT IS GOING ON?!

          So, should I say unkind things about him behind his back? Probably not, no. Do I? Yes. His incompetence is so well known that his name is a punchline to jokes. That’s probably wrong and immature of those participating, but it is also wrong to have to shoulder the burden of an unmanaged employee (who, by the way, keeps getting promoted for reasons no one can figure out.) It makes me and others feel resentful, and resentful employees grumble to each other.

          1. Cp76*

            I agree with this assessment. Of course, there are people in this world who are just mean. But I think that’s a lot rarer than what others seem willing to acknowledge here. People are rarely mean in a vacuum. It’s usually in response to something. Whether that comes out in healthy ways is certainly fair to critique, but a toxic work environment manifests itself in plenty of ways. And I think, in your case, if you’re constantly shouldering the burden of another employee who keeps getting promoted for work they’re not actually doing, then I really don’t blame you for being resentful. I don’t think anyone could in good conscience.

            1. Despachito*


              I think criticizing behind someone’s back can be out of pure mean-high-school- girl cruelty, but it can also be a desperate action if there is a problem which cannot be resolved directly.

              I once had a boss (Mike) who started to slack (three-hour lunch pauses, mistakes at work – as we found later, he was having an affair). As he was technically our boss but in practice we were all working on the same product and checking each other’s work (each of us made a teapot and then passed it on to any other member of the team to check for mistakes because the maker was never able to see them all). Mike started to make much more mistakes than he used to, which made my work and that of our third coworker, Bill, much more difficult, and our work was judged as that of our entire department, so bad work would reflect on all of us.

              When we mentioned it to Mike (after some time and very politely and carefully, because he could be very short-tempered), he lashed out at us, had us meticulously dissecate any mistake we flagged as such, and told us half of them were not mistakes at all, and was overall quite nasty about that.

              We were at our wits end, because the place was not very functional and if we complained it would have possibly turned against us. So the only thing we could really do was venting between us behind Mike’s back. We were never mean or mocking though, but in my book this is still something which is not done. But we were just desperate.

              I therefore think of this as two separate issues. One is that to do what Jane did is inacceptable even if she had problems with Bob’s work, and she should face the consequences. The other is to find out whether she had a reason to be desperate because Bob was doing bad work, she had to make up for his mistakes, and everything else failed (as in our case above) . Still not letting her off the hook, but this may indicate that there is a deeper issue in the company processes which should be addressed as well.

          2. allathian*

            Yeah, this. While badmouthing coworkers is not a good look at any time, I hope the OP took a long look at whether Alex and Jane had any cause to be so frustrated with Bob’s work product. If they were at a BEC stage with his incompetence, this sort of behavior could be the result. I’m not saying it’s acceptable if so, but it is understandable.

            If you allow incompetent employees to frustrate others for long enough, that’s bad behavior in itself, and you shouldn’t be too surprised if some other employees react in an unprofessional manner to it.

            1. traffic_spiral*

              Yep. When OP says “Other employees seem to value his experience and willingness to help,” he should think about whether 1.) those employees are just keeping their mouths shut because they know OP doesn’t want to hear anything bad about Bob, and 2.) if Jane is the one picking up Bob’s slack in a way the other employees aren’t.

              If you bring me coffee every day I might like you, but if you take an hour-long break every day to go to the coffeeshop and your coworker has to work harder to do all the work you’re not doing because you’re out getting coffee, they’re justified in not liking you.

        2. TootsNYC*

          this brings up another thought I had about Bob.

          There is now a question of whether Alex and Jane’s complaints against Bob were justly done.

          But were I the OP, I’d also be looking to see if Bob really was that incompetent, and leaving open the idea that maybe he was, and maybe this was a reaction to that. Or not, of course, but just because A&J were assholes on Skype doesn’t mean they weren’t right.

          And one takeaway is for a manager to be proactive–to know when someone isn’t doing their job well, and to act swiftly to fix that so that resentment doesn’t build up and create that kind of venting.

          That’s only a possibility–of course a “mean-person clique” is very likely, perhaps more likely.

          But I’d be trying to learn both lessons.

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            But were I the OP, I’d also be looking to see if Bob really was that incompetent, and leaving open the idea that maybe he was, and maybe this was a reaction to that.

            I’ve worked with at least two Bobs and this was the story. Two wrongs won’t make a right and firing the Janes and Alexs wouldn’t have fixed either situation. Both times both issues were symptoms of deeper dysfunction and more toxic environments.

        3. Tau*

          But were those conversations in writing, it would be really hard to tease out who was the bully and who was the victim, because she was very good at playing innocent.

          Really? Because this is what the OP describes:

          The conversations were (my opinion) unprofessional and childish. They mocked Bob at a professional and personal level: work quality, lack of knowledge, attempts at humor and social awkwardness, and even how loudly he chews were all targets.

          I cannot imagine myself acting like this about anyone at work, no matter who they are, no matter how they behave. Complaining about incompetence and bad behaviour is one thing. *Mocking* someone for stuff like how loud they chew, with another coworker? No way. That sort of toxicity doesn’t belong in the workplace, IMO.

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            You’re quoting PT talking about their own vents and wondering if the comments could be taken as nasty if they had written them.
            (To which my answer is a resounding yes, because everything can be taken out of context.)

            1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

              I’m reading Tau’s comment to be along the lines of:

              If PT’s conversations were about an annoying habit like how their bully chews, that crosses the line from ambiguous information exchange to protect against bullies into unnecessarily mean gossip.

              1. Tau*

                Exactly. I conflated the two a little because PT seemed to be drawing an analogy to Jane and Alex (especially given their comments about making sure you identify the correct bully, which I interpreted as saying OP needed to make sure Bob wasn’t the real bully). I found this bewildering because I cannot fathom any situation where the conversations OP describes would be acceptable to have about a coworker. Even if that coworker was a bully. Even if it was verbally and not in writing.

          2. Alpacas Are Not Dairy Animals*

            I’ve definitely ragged on how loudly someone chewed in an open office where I was trying to make calls. It was part and parcel of the general disregard for the space and coworkers that eventually got him fired (which also included picking out tinder dates for lunch on his phone during work hours, playing loud videos, etc.)

    3. Aquawoman*

      I think there’s a difference between frustration-induced work-related venting and an occasional related zinger and having a “Let’s hate on Bob for sport” club. If they’d been kvetching about some work-related thing that was a constant source of irritation, it would be understandable but not ideal, but venturing into his awkwardness, humor, and chewing is way beyond the pale.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, I agree.

        That said, if Bob’s chewing so loudly that it makes talking on the phone difficult for the person sitting next to them, then that’s IMO borderline acceptable to kvetch about.

    4. Analytical Tree Hugger*


      Your attitude of “if talked to, act mortified and remorseful” makes me hope we never work together.

  9. Seeking Second Childhood*

    I’ve actually ran across this letter when reading back through the archives. Some of the commenters had then-current stories of working with their own “Jane”.
    If any of you commenters are here to read this today, would you be willing to give us an update?

      1. irene adler*

        I have a friend from college who was “Bob” in a similar scenario.

        Long story short:
        She FOUND the ongoing comments mocking her.
        She got upset and felt she could not work there any longer (totally understandable!).
        Had the presence of mind to make copies of the comments- including who/when, etc.
        Took the documentation to a lawyer.
        Scored large settlement from the company- the kind one is not supposed to talk about.

        Is happily working elsewhere-not because she has to.

  10. SorryNotSorry*

    Very much agree with the advice given. I would even say this borders on immediate dismissal. I was the subject of bullying like this at an old job, and happened to come across transcripts of the things that were said. It was horrible, and it took a long time (and a whole new job) for me to realize my worth as an employee and even a person. There should be no tolerance of behaviour like this.

    1. banoffee pie*

      It must be awful to come across the actual transcripts! Glad you’re doing better now. Remember people can get sucked in and say worse and worse things because they’re weak and spiteful easily led. Not because you deserve it :)

  11. Zephy*

    I didn’t get the sense that LW was worried about hurting Jane’s feelings as much as I read it as “I’m worried Jane will get defensive and derail this extremely necessary conversation, how do I mitigate that?” And while that doesn’t change the bulk of the advice (her actions are indefensible, she can make all the noises she wants about it, LW needs to hold firm and clearly state the problem behavior and what needs to happen next), I think it’s worth noting that giving Jane a chance to make amends will also require much closer supervision than she’s clearly had up to this point. Maybe she really will turn it around and stop being an a-hole out loud to other people (in writing and on company time and equipment, no less!), or maybe she’ll start a groupchat/Discord/private Facebook group on her own device and keep being toxic until you do actually start losing good people. Maybe LW is willing to invest that time and energy into making sure Jane stays on the straight and narrow, and I know nothing about this role or industry, but it seems to me like it would probably be easier to hire and train two new people than it is to hire and train one new person *and* manage Jane.

  12. Sara without an H*

    I wish the OP would send us an update on how this issue resolved. If I had been the manager in this case, I would have had a very blunt talk with Jane, and put her on a PIP. But even if she’d met the goals of the PIP successfully, I’m not sure I would have ever trusted her again.

  13. yala*

    Gonna be honest, if she’s talking like this about one coworker, she’s probably talking like this about most coworkers. Possibly even you.

    I remember being on my workplace bully’s inner circle before I realized they were the bully. Eeeeeverything anyone on their List did was fair game for mockery. “Oh, she’s always the first to get the free snacks, oh he always wears green” etc. Like, just little things, but it gave you this sense that, y’know. You could easily do something Wrong and be the next target.

    (and I was. Super fun.)

    1. BRR*

      Yeah this is definitely the type of behavior that is almost always worse than what is known. If two other employees have already brought this up, I would bet every penny I have there are a lot more who have also been subject to this.

    2. JM in England*

      It reminds me of an old adage about if someone badmouths another person to your face, they are probably doing the same to you to others behind your back….

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, absolutely. It’s like if you start a relationship with someone who’s married and not in an open relationship, and end up marrying them, you have absolutely no grounds for being upset when they turn around and cheat on you. Cheaters will cheat and bullies will bully, world without end, amen.

  14. Gerry Keay*

    Embarrassment is a powerful and useful social tool and is our body’s way of signaling that we have done something that may damage social cohesion. Jane should be mortified and hopefully that feeling will help her not do this again.

  15. First time listener, long time caller*

    Just to be super-clear, not only is this not “clearly bullying,” it is clearly NOT bullying. Bullying requires some kind of communication or interaction with the person who is being bullied. Alison’s advice is still good, and certainly these messages raise the possibility that their could be bullying going on. But talking behind somebody’s back is by definition not bullying. Let’s stop calling things bullying that are not bullying. We don’t need that “magic word” to address other types of bad behavior, even ones related to bullying.

    1. SorryNotSorry*

      The kinds of comments Jane was making, while not made directly at Bob, would have still had a negative impact on Bob in the workplace even if just causing others to think differently about him. I have to say I really disagree with your stance here.

      1. pancakes*

        The idea that causing others to “think differently about someone” is on par with bullying is quite extreme.

        1. banoffee pie*

          Well I guess they were kind of making him into the office joke, which could be seen as bullying. As in ‘turning people against him’. If he was bad at his job and Alex and Jane had to cover for him, that’s frustrating and I understand commenting/venting about that, but comments about his chewing/social awkwardness just seem mean. Especially if it goes on for months. Eventually I’d be thinking maybe I should get a life, talk about something else ;)

          1. pancakes*

            I don’t agree that private chat between two people is making someone “the office joke,” either. I’m not trying to say that I think these people are kind or spending their time wisely by saying so.

    2. anon lawyer*

      Agreed. If this wasn’t said to Bob, it’s not bullying. It’s bad behavior, but bullying has a specific meaning and this isn’t it.

    3. AndersonDarling*

      I agree. It’s crappy behaviour, and the fact that multiple people were in on the gossip means that there is a big potential for this to leak into bad behaviour IRL. But no one was sabotaging Bob’s work, making rude comments to his face, harassing him, or emotionally forcing him out of his job.
      It is absolutely terrible behaviour, and I’ve seen people fired for making disparaging comments in chats. But it isn’t bullying.

    4. MCMonkeyBean*

      I do agree–this is very bad and certainly a fireable offense but talking behind someone’s back is a different mean thing than bullying is.

      Not to say that Jane is definitely not a bully–it sounds like other coworkers are complaining about how she treats them so certainly this may be one small part of an overall bully’s behavior. But if you talk to her about these messages specifically I would not use the word “bully” just because if you use a word that doesn’t really apply you’re leaving space for her to argue back. Just stick with something more like “these messages are cruel and not appropriate for the office” and that alone is sufficient.

  16. Amethystmoon*

    Never use company resources to say things you don’t want your boss to see. Chances are very good that the boss will see it eventually.

    1. not a great moment there*

      Or your co-workers, especially IT, legal, and compliance. There are entire industries where it’s someone’s job to read everyone’s old emails, to make sure Bad Things aren’t going on.

      On a previous job, after the departure of a co-worker who had been there when I arrived, I ended up responsible for closing out and archiving her emails. Including the ones where she had been making rude comments about me when I was first hired.

      She tried to get back in touch with me a few years later. I froze her out.

  17. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    This is one of the few cases where I disagree with Alison. I would NOT let Jane know her messages were seen; merely, I would keep a close eye on her behavior towards Bob and all of her colleagues. If she is capable of treating them with civility and professionalism, then I would let it go, perhaps dropping a non-specific warning that company messaging systems are not private (although this should also be spelled out in your acceptable use policy).

    At the same time, I might take the opportunity to single Bob out for what he brings to the team, particularly if that involves treating others courteously at all times.

    It just seems to me that one should be entitled to (privately) think poorly of a colleague as long as that doesn’t carry over into how one treats him or works with him.

    1. Annie J*

      Thinking about a work colleague negatively is one thing and May even be justified, but using the employers computer system two write appropriate comments can make the employer liable, if the employee finds the messages.
      as a manager, the OP should be trying to protect the business from unnecessary risks which this definitely is as hostile workplace rules could be put into force if legal advisers are called in.

    2. Chinookwind*

      Wait? Jane gets a chance to prove her character despite her extensive rude comments but Bob gets to have his behaviour deep dived into because of Jane’s mean comments and not anything he has done? This feels wrong but I can’t explain why.

    3. The New Wanderer*

      We don’t know exactly what the two other employees complained about regarding Jane’s treatment of them, but it suggests that she doesn’t treat others with civility and professionalism. It just happens to be in writing where Bob is concerned and we don’t have any info to know whether she’s treated Bob poorly in person. She did seem to target him though, by reporting work issues about him to the boss who noted that only some were legit issues.

      To me, that tips the scales away from just a “Jane, keep your thoughts to yourself” conversation and more of a “Jane, I’ve had specific complaints from X and Y and have personally noted your behavior toward Bob. Here are some consequences.”

  18. staceyizme*

    I’d be inclined to rethink the value that Jane adds to the company. You’ve got two complaints and abundant evidence of unprofessional conduct that is just straight bullying. You’d be well within your rights to either manage her out (three strikes on record as of the 2 complaints plus the record from Alex’s account) or fire her outright. Unless she’s really exceptional in other ways (meaning irreplaceable in the short term), do you really need this particular headache?

  19. Jennifer Juniper*

    Jane needs to be mortified – and put on a PIP with frequent random monitoring of her computer.

  20. owl10*

    It’s not just about bullying. If you’re so stupid as to get recorded doing the wrong thing you’re too stupid to be employed.

    1. Gerry Keay*

      Yikes, this is super ableist. I’m sure you don’t actually believe that people with lower intelligence or intellectual disabilities deserve unemployment (and therefore potentially be without healthcare or housing or food), but that’s what this sentence implies.

      1. Despachito*

        Being stupid is not a sin, and I know some people who aren’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and still they are nice and fine to interact with.

        Jane was stupid AND MEAN, and it’s the meanness that counts.

        1. banoffee pie*

          Yes, I can imagine some quite smart, yet mean, people that I know in real life getting sucked into this with such glee that they forget they’re doing it on a work computer.

          1. Pennyworth*

            I am perpetually surprised that so many people get sprung putting really inappropriate things on social media. I’m not a digital native but I know that once something is out there someone will find it one day.

      2. Jennifer Juniper*

        Intellectually disabled or unintelligent does not mean stupid.

        Stupid is knowing you shouldn’t do the thing and then doing it anyway – especially when it harms other people. Jane could have an IQ of 170 for all you know.

        1. Gerry Keay*

          That’s quite literally not the definition nor the etymology of the word “stupid.” That might be how you use it, but that’s certainly not the most common definition or use of the word.

      3. 0wl10*

        No, it is not at all what it implies and you’ve taken political correctness to an extreme.

        A well paid professional who is so stupid as to get recorded bullying people should be fired for poor performance not just bullying. How does the employer know they won’t slip up on a call to a client or something?

        I have a disability. It does not a free license to do what you want at work.

      4. RagingADHD*

        Well, do you think socially awkward people deserve to get mocked and bullied?

        Treating your coworkers with respect is a core job function. So is exercising good judgment and professionalism about what you say on a recorded call. If someone cannot manage to do those things, it is not ableist to say they can’t do the job.

        Being a bully is not a disability or a protected class.

        1. 0wl10*

          ‘Good judgement’ is a more polite way to put ‘stupid’ thank you. I am progressive and I don’t believe the word ‘stupid’ has come to mean intellectual disability. Stupid is not the r word.

          Smart people do stupid things all the time, like in this case. These are probably otherwise smart well educated professionals. In 2021 if you have no intellectual disability and you get caught on record, you’ve done something stupid. It’s such a stupid mistake you should be fired just for that, not just the content of the record. See also – the ESPN lady who said racist things about her co worker on record. Dumb AND racist.

          An intellectual disability is protected as it should be. A smart person doing a stupid/dumb thing is not as you say!

          Surely we’re not at a point where we can’t say an otherwise smart and educated person did a stupid a thing.

  21. Annie J*

    As others have said, it’s never a good idea to leave things in teams or slack chat that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in public, it is after all the companies resource and they can look at it whenever they want to.
    I learned this lesson very clearly myself, a friend sent another friend an explicit personal message on teams, and he realise that the bosses could see what he was typing so teams got banned for us completely.

    1. allathian*

      Yikes, that was overkill, surely? There are legitimate business uses for software like Teams.

      I’m just wondering how on Earth managers have enough time to spend on monitoring their reports like that…

  22. alienor*

    Sounds like Jane messed up in two big ways: first, she let her dislike of certain coworkers be obvious enough for people to bring it up, and second, she talked about them over internal systems. I don’t agree that complaining about coworkers is evil or bullying in and of itself–sometimes people irritate you, and you say so to your friends, and sometimes they probably say the same thing to their friends about you when you’ve done something irritating. But the way we all get along in the work environment is by having those conversations privately, not on the company Skype, and by being civil to each other when we have to interact.

  23. I should really pick a name*

    I’m weirded out. I just re-read the original version of this letter this morning.

  24. Heffalump*

    For me to keep Jane (a stretch), I would have to be convinced that she had really seen the light and wasn’t just behaving herself out of fear of the consequences.

  25. Nayo*

    I continue to be ASTOUNDED that people just type these things on company property/accounts. I treat everything I do on my laptop as if my boss could see it at any time, right down to my google searches (which are sometimes silly but never inappropriate). I wonder how much of it is plain ignorance of the fact that your employer can see these things if they wanted to, and how much of it is “well they’ll proooobably never see it so I’ll chance it”?

  26. pancakes*

    “Bob brings a variety of skills and value to the business. Other employees seem to value his experience and willingness to help. He’s also stepped up, big time, to take on new responsibilities after Alex’s departure.”

    Someone can have these qualities and nonetheless make chewing noises that annoy their coworkers! Or weird jokes that fall flat, etc. To be clear, I would advise anyone not to use work platforms or devices for personal chat, and certainly not for ridiculing coworkers, but the letter writer’s position seems to go a bit further, towards the idea that someone can’t be treated fairly by coworkers who really dislike personal things about them. I don’t think that’s correct.

    1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

      …and you think it’s okay and justifiable under any circumstance to maintain a months-long mocking of a coworker because of their annoying habits?


  27. Cp76*

    The comment sections of these types of posts are fascinating. They’re usually lower in response count, which makes me think that—what appears to be the “universal” reaction of clutching your pearls and saying “well, I would never!”—isn’t that universal in the workplace after all. When people work for companies or managers or in office environments that are toxic, brutal, unforgiving, unrewarding, etc., this seems to be a pretty common occurrence. They seek out their tribe, and a lot of times it appears to be a survival technique. I don’t fault them for that. I’ve been privy to input about a manager by those anyone would consider genuinely good people. They don’t have a bad thing to say about anyone else. There is one person, however, who is just awful. Complaints/concerns about this person have been documented for years now and nothing ever changes. And because nothing changes, their behavior only gets worse because it’s never reprimanded. It’s totally unrealistic to expect for everyone else to just grin and bare it. More than that, it’s unjustified to expect such a double standard in the office and not understand why adults won’t tolerate it and do what they can to make the day bearable.

    To be clear, I absolutely agree that it’s uncalled for to pick on someone who is genuinely struggling but trying their best. If that is Jane in this case, I would consider that inexcusable. But let’s stop pretending that every workplace is a utopia and that you’re a perfect human when the environment so many of us work in is far from it. It usually rots from the top. When workers are treated poorly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when they exhibit “poor” behavior.

    1. SimplytheBest*

      I think these kinds of posts have a lower response rate because 100 comments of “Yep, Jane is mean” isn’t exactly stimulating conversation.

      1. fhqwhgads*

        It’s also a reprint and this site has a ton of longtimers who may have read the original at the time and done their commenting then.

      2. MCMonkeyBean*

        Yeah, I think the letters that get more responses will be either things where opinions are split and we all argue with each other or letters where the person who wrote in is so clearly in the wrong that we can’t help but dogpile on to tell them so lol. There’s just not that much to say on a letter where OP clearly already knows what is right and wrong and is just looking for minor guidance.

  28. Jesshereforthecomments*

    Alison’s advice is great, but considering this didn’t happen as a one-off and you have word-of-mouth from two other people that her behavior and treatment of colleagues is a problem, you can just fire her.

    You have to wonder, for everyone who spoke up, what did they put up with that finally prompted them to come to you? And who is dealing with her bullying, but hasn’t felt comfortable bringing it to you? You will never know the full extent of it.

    And say she does change her behavior… she’s eroded trust and morale on her team, trust that she may never gain back.

  29. Oh Behave!*

    Please say something to her. Why are you protecting her from an uncomfortable conversation? Believe me, Bob has an inkling into what is being said about him. Do you really think these jerks are treating him nicely to his face? Non-verbal cues are loud! I’m talking about eye rolling, tone of voice, etc. You, by being quiet, may be showing others you approve of this bullying behavior. This being an old letter, I would love to have an update (also a link to the original letter/comments).

  30. Midwestern Scientist*

    Y’all this is wild! How in 2021 do people not realize any electronic communication can be tracked/retrieved by your employer?!?!?! I internally rolled my eyes when my 40+ lab manager made a point to inform me (20s) of that when I started working but I guess some people do need that reminder

    1. allathian*

      Mmmh. There’s the technical ability to do so and there’s the question whether an employer monitors communications on employer-issued devices like this as a matter of course. I consider any employer that does so toxic by definition and wouldn’t want to work for them, even if I’m not in the habit of badmouthing my coworkers to other people. My closest coworker and I do occasionally comment on the annoying work habits of some of our internal clients, such as the one who always flags their tickets as urgent when they truly aren’t, or the one who sends such disorganized emails that we have to ask them twice or three times to clarify what they need. It doesn’t affect the way we respond to the clients or deal with their tickets, though.

      A caveat, though, I’m in Finland and here letter secrecy is taken very seriously, and it even applies to work emails. There has to be a suspicion of something criminal going on for the employer to get access to emails sent from an employee’s address. This is why ticketing systems and/or role-based emails that are accessible by more than one employee are essential to conduct business. Even then, they don’t get access to an employee’s email wholesale, first they get the header info, and if anything suspicious can be found there, they’ll get to see those messages.

  31. FrugalFed*

    I had a coworker like Jane a few years ago. Unfortunately, Jane bullied me for a full year and while my other colleagues knew about it, once I brought it up with my manager, he did nothing to mitigate the issue, and brushed it off, and I was pushed out of the company several months after. Jane was also friends with the HR assistant, whom my manager said was very objective, even though sometimes she talked behind other colleagues backs as well. There was a lot of favouritism at the company (it was small).

    I hope you talk to Jane about this. I spent many months after losing my job thinking that I wasn’t good enough and too stupid to work elsewhere, which really hammered in the imposter syndrome when I finally got a new job the year after. Workplace bullying takes a lot out of someone’s self esteem and confidence, and can negatively affect how they work.

  32. CookingMama*

    Please address this with Jane. I accidentally (I assume) was copied on one of the awful email conversations that my coworkers were having about me at one of my first jobs (a new age bookshop that prided itself on being “zen”, ironically). On reflection, I’m sure I had some growing to do since I was intern-aged at the time. But I certainly never did anything to deserve the vitriol they spewed about me. It was genuinely mortifying and I quit the next day.

    1. KatieP*

      Similar circumstances, different outcome. Our supervisor, who I’d known had a habit of gossipping and speaking ill of others, was retiring and I was moving into her position. I asked her a question about a topic we hadn’t discussed, and then my group chat notification dinged. Apparently she wasn’t impressed with my inability to understand everything about a subject she hadn’t instructed me on.
      I wish I could say that I was shocked that she said such ugly things about me in a chat that was clearly meant to be private. I was just hurt. She was mortified when she realized what she’d done.
      She retired a month later, and when the people I manage start speaking ill of others, I use that incident for its instructive value. As some of them witnessed it first hand, it’s pretty powerful.

Comments are closed.