my employee complains about her coworker but doesn’t want me to step in

A reader writes:

One of my employees, Kelsey, has been with the company for just over one year. She sits next to an employee, Lorraine, who has been here for 15 years. They seem to get along most of the time, but Kelsey comes to me on a weekly basis and says that Lorraine does some things that upset her.

Lorraine has a habit of addressing any concerns or problems she might have with Kelsey or her work to the office at large instead of directly to Kelsey. For example, rather than tell Kelsey that she didn’t think it was appropriate to bring a flower arrangement to a funeral home for a viewing, she asked the entire office at large if they thought it was appropriate – well within earshot of Kelsey. Not once did she address her concerns with Kelsey directly. Kelsey does not handle this well. She takes it very personally.

Each time there is an incident, I ask Kelsey if she wants me to sit down with Lorraine and discuss this with her. She says no because Lorraine would immediately know that Kelsey had talked to me. I’m frankly getting to the end of my rope dealing with Kelsey feeling the way she does when she never addresses it with Lorraine at all. I ask each time if she’s willing to push back on Lorraine, and I’ve even tried coaching her on what she can say (“Lorraine, I am sitting right here, is there something that you want to discuss with me?” and so on…) but she always tells me that she’s afraid that when she says something to Lorraine, she will “just go off on her.”

While Kelsey is early in her career, she is a stellar employee. She got the highest marks out of everyone at her last review. She is never late, she always completes all her work on time, she frequently helps other employees out with work they have, and she has managed her customers that she took on when she joined the company better than the other staff did (in a way that is visible to anyone who works for the company). Lorraine’s work is decent enough, but she doesn’t go above and beyond for anything.

I’m looking for some guidance on how I should handle this situation once and for all. Should I say something to Lorraine about how Kelsey feels, or should I continue to encourage Kelsey to push back on Lorraine when she makes these comments to the whole office? Or do I keep letting the situation go?

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.

{ 99 comments… read them below }

  1. KHB*

    I wonder if Kelsey is the only one that Lorraine is treating this way, or if she’s just the only one who’s complaining about it so much? If it’s the latter, that makes it a whole lot easier for the boss to intervene, because this is a Lorraine problem, not a Kelsey problem.

    1. Heidi*

      The original post had a detailed update from the OP. It seems that there was a Lorraine problem and a Kelsey problem. It had a good resolution, though, and Kelsey and Lorraine became friends.

      1. KHB*

        Just read the update. That is a great resolution, and it seems like the manager handled it just right. It sounds like maybe Kelsey and Lorraine just got off to a bad start with each other and needed somebody to press the “reset” button.

  2. Cajun seafood boil*

    Lorraine sounds very toxic and passive aggressive. I imagine she is doing this to other employees as well and may have “gone off” on someone in front of Kelsey. I am not sure why the manager is tired of Kelsey and not Lorraine either. This sounds like a manager problem as well.

    1. Retro*

      Yes, i think seeing Lorraine’s wrath upon another coworker is most likely the reason why Kelsey doesn’t want OP to talk to Lorraine. Coworkers are known to say the occasional passive aggressive thing here or there. If Lorraine was considerate and willing to listen, another coworker might’ve already talked to Lorraine about her singling out of Kelsey or hinted at it in some way, and Lorraine would have corrected her behavior. I’m willing to bet that everyone is afraid of Lorraine raining fire on them that no one, including Kelsey, wants to bring up the issue

    2. JamminOnMyPlanner*

      So, there’s a update, and Kelsey was basically just making things up to get offended by, which really surprised me given this letter. Lorraine’s funeral flowers comment seems super passive aggressive so she definitely seems like the problem given this information.

    3. Cj*

      I’m conenting here on my thoughts on the original letter, not the update.

      Allison is assuming that Kelsey was afraid Lorraine would go off on her (Kelsey). But the OP had that comment Kelsey made in quotes. If that is exactly what Kelsey said, it means that Kelsey was afraid she would go off on Lorraine, otherwise Kelsey would have said “she will go off in me”. I thought Kelsey was afraid she would lose yet and yell at Lorraine if she finally confronted her (Lorraine).

    1. RJ*

      Damn! That was an interesting turn of events. Turns out the problem wasn’t Lorraine….it was Kelsey all the while.

      1. fhqwhgads*

        I mean, they were both problematic, but Kelsey was a problem in a way that wasn’t clear from just the letter, and probably the bigger problem.

    2. SomebodyElse*

      There were a bunch of comments from the OP (SheWoulf*) in the first letter as well, I think that’s where it started coming out that Kelsey was part of the problem, the update supported the comments.

    3. Dark Macadamia*

      Ooh, thank you for this (and for the note about the comments, SomebodyElse). I didn’t remember this one from before but my first thought reading it today was “sounds like LW probably has TWO problem employees”

    4. Scully*

      Is there a reason why the original posts are not linked, particularly as there is input from the OP or updates such as these? Is it weird to anyone else? Or am I just weirdly annoyed about it, lol.

        1. Scully*

          That totally makes sense! But what about the update that was published on this site, linked above by Eldritch Office Worker? Is that also prohibited by the agreement with Inc?

  3. Horse and Carriage*

    As someone who has dealt with toxicity from her own Lorraine and who had people above her refuse to do anything about it even when the behavior was WILDLY unprofessional, I am begging you to step in and then keep an eye on Lorraine because it sounds like she will retaliate.

    If the fact that people should behave professionally at work isn’t enough of a motivator, think about the fact that you will lose Kelsey over this.

    1. Unkempt Flatware*

      Yes Kelsey is telling you she is afraid of Lorraine. And it doesn’t sound like a made up fear.

      1. Former Gifted Kid*

        If you read the update, it really doesn’t seem like Lorraine is the type to retaliate. Kelsey was genuinely afraid of Lorraine’s reaction, but not because of anything Lorraine did, but because of her own childhood trauma. As someone sorting out her own childhood trauma, it is genuinely hard to tell sometimes if you are afraid of someone’s reaction because of their past behavior or because you are projecting other experiences onto them.

        1. yala*

          Am I missing the update? I don’t see anything that implies that about Lorraine.

          As for her not being afraid because of anything Lorraine did, I don’t think that’s accurate. Lorraine’s been bullying her for a year, finding ways to publicly criticize every move she makes, work-related or not. That’s gonna put someone on edge.

          1. Former Gifted Kid*

            It is linked in a comment above. There’s nothing to suggest that Lorraine has publicly criticized every move Kelsey made for the entire time that Kelsey has worked there. Just that there were multiple incidents where Kelsey felt like Lorraine was criticizing her when she talked to others in the office. It is pretty clear in the update that things Kelsey viewed as public criticism were not really that at all.

          2. Meep*

            As someone who has been there on both sides of the fence, I think they are both not necessarily blameless. It could be that Lorraine is non-confrontational and doesn’t know how to handle her concerns with Kelsey without having an audience to stiffle how Kelsey reacts. It could also be that Kelsey is sensitive and sees everything as a personal attack.

            My former manager is a piece of work in that she takes EVERYTHING as a personal affront. I sound absolutely batsh*t crazy for saying this, but she has gone out of her way to claim she is the only reason a guy got his Ph.D. He had one semester left when he joined our team. She had nothing to do with it. But it carried over when it was time for me to go back to grad school. Coworkers thought I was insane for not wanting to take “free” company money, but I knew the costs were higher than the reward to the point I didn’t even tell her I was in grad school and told my coworkers and supervisor not to mention it to her either.

            Turned out this was the smart move as when she did find out about it, she went to our boss and lied that I was doing coursework on company time. Jokes on her, because anytime I had to shift my schedule, he already knew about it, but it really was a wake-up call for the coworkers who thought I was being paranoid this entire time.

            The point is, I had to be paranoid because I was dealing with someone so paranoid and devoid of reality. It was not fun. I found myself taking everything way too seriously like Kelsey to the point I had to psycho-analyze EVERYTHING for a while. I was 100% on the nose for most of it, of course, but that is because I was dealing with a psychopath. There is no indication that Lorraine is a bully. Just passive-aggressive.

            I really feel bad for people like her and Kelsey who think the world is so out to get them that good things happening in other’s lives are slights to them.

      2. MCMonkeyBean*

        I think in the original the OP clarified in the comments that when it says ” she always tells me that she’s afraid that when she says something to Lorraine, she will “just go off on her.”” it meant Kelsey was worried that she herself would “go off” or Lorraine–like she was not sure how to start a confrontation without letting loose all the anger she had been building up. Some ambiguous wording that significantly changes things!

    2. Marguerite*

      I agree with this. I complained to my manager over my version of a Lorraine and Lorraine was not happy. What’s worse is that there was a pack mentality and other people went against me, started to ignore me and exclude me from lunches- it was awful.

  4. Gnome*

    I’d water either Lorraine has some beef with Kelsey that nobody is tracking (e.g. resembles and ex’s new girlfriend), Lorraine is somehow intimidated by Kelsey (e.g. superior performance), there is something grossly missing from the letter, or Lorraine is like this with everyone and had been spreading toxicity for a while. Too many red flags.

    OP should spend some time lurking and listening. It’s hard to believe this is the only problem.

  5. BA*

    Alison’s advice is (as always) spot on here. As I read through the letter, I kept thinking that if these Lorraine/Kelsey interactions were just between them, it would be harder to intervene. But Lorraine has made these interactions everyone’s business. It puts Kelsey in a terrible spot, of course, but it puts the rest of the team in a really uncomfortable spot, as well.

    I think letting Kelsey know that you’re going to address it is fair, of course. But in doing so, I would make sure she realizes that you’re doing so because Lorraine’s conversations are happening in earshot of everyone and doesn’t make for a kind workplace for anyone.

    Then when you talk to Lorraine, do as Alison said. Point out what is happening, how it is inappropriate, and how others have noticed that there’s something up because Lorraine is very public in her concerns about Kelsey. No one else needs to bring that concern to you… if she’s talking to everyone about it, people notice it. Whether Lorraine makes a stink, course corrects or not, you have an opportunity to make a friendlier workplace for more than just Kelsey.

  6. Essentially Cheesy*

    Great response – the best way to deal with this is directly with Lorraine, no matter if the manager or Kelsey does it.

    However a few things are on my mind. Is Kelsey just a b*tch eating crackers in Lorraine’s eyes? Because there may be nothing Kelsey can do to improve Lorraine’s opinion. Or is this an age/experience kind of issue? A younger Kelsey may be too intimidated to discuss with Lorraine directly. Maybe a new desk location would help?

  7. Millennial Marketer*

    Millenials and Z-ers grow up being told to be “seen and not heard” and to “respect their elders” to their own emotional detriment, then their elders act surprised when the younger generations don’t want to cause any sort of confrontation. At what age do you get to be heard? At what part of adulthood or your professional career have you earned that right? Asking for a friend… the friend is me and I’m quickly approaching 30.

    1. Gnome*

      Really? I’m 40ish and my parents were raised with “seen and not heard” but I wasn’t.

      1. Internist*

        For real. If anything, the opposite. My mother often mentioned when we were kids how proud she was of herself for going over her boss’s head to get a raise and encouraged us to do the same when we had jobs. Well, that advice got my brother fired (though it seems it was probably just the last straw). We were raised to think authority figures had to listen to us, sometimes to a fault.

      2. Uranus Wars*

        I was not raised by this standard (I’m 42), but my younger siblings were (ages 17 & 21). They had a different mom than me. I don’t think it’s generational as much as parental.

        I think it’s never too early to stand up for yourself. It’s uncomfortable and hard, but like anything else you get used to it. And once you see the benefits of it, it’s gets way easier.

      3. F.M.*

        I’m of a similar age, and my mother used to speak seriously to me about being more honest about my own emotions, and not repressing them all until they exploded, and finding healthy ways to express my own frustrations, anger, and sadness instead of feeling like I had to play nice and quiet all the time. So, uh, yeah, I’m with you on this one. I don’t think this is a universal generational divide, even within the United States.

    2. ArtK*

      Please don’t make generational assumptions like that. I can assure you that “children should be seen and not heard” dates back to the 15th century.

      At what age? Whatever age you are right now. It’s a toxic attitude and can hurt people.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        But if this is what she experienced/was told as a child she can’t just un-learn it. This is unhelpful, not her question about it?

    3. municipal government jane*

      Hello, fellow millenial! I’m not sure this is a generational thing (though I could be wrong), rather an experience thing and a workplace culture thing. I am, by nature or nurture, not super skilled at being direct or handling conflict head-on. I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of great mentorship, coaching, and support learning how to address concerns directly with colleagues. It’s not a “right”–at many of the places I’ve worked at, it’s an *expectation* that coworkers handle conflict or challenges directly with each other where possible, and always with professionalism and respect. But I know this isn’t the case everywhere, and I wonder if your feelings are reinforced by a crappy culture. (And, FWIW, I’m somehow both conflict-shy and more willing than most to speak up about my convictions at work. When I’ve done this, I’ve always felt better about it, even if it created challenges for me. So I’m also benefitting from a positive feedback loop.)

    4. Critical Rolls*

      This is not a universal generational experience. My personal anecdata contradicts your assertions. The generalization is unhelpful and inaccurate.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        But if this is what she experienced/was told as a child and know others who has she can’t just un-learn it one day. This comment/reply is unhelpful, not her question about it? I took it as her genuinely asking about her experiences, not as a reply to the OP or justification of Kelsey.

    5. Antilles*

      That’s all bull. You have the right to speak up and to make your opinion known from the instant you become a part of the team.
      Of course, you need to do it politely/professionally, always keep in mind that you don’t know everything, pay attention to the politics/personalities involved, and you need to pick your battles to only fight ones worth fighting – but those principles all apply whether you’re a 22-year old whose diploma ink is still wet or a 62-year old approaching retirement.

    6. anonymous73*

      Please don’t blame generations on this issue. Some people avoid conflict like the plague and won’t stand up for themselves. This is not a generational problem.

      1. Esmeralda*

        And also, I’m a tail-end boomer and I got the same lessons, possibly more so. But there’s a difference between “respect your elders” and “eat the sh!t sandwich your elders are handing you”.

        1. Dancing Otter*

          1000% agreed.
          In 1966, our pastor tried to teach us that blind obedience to authority was a religious duty, based on “Honor thy father and thy mother.” It did not go over well, but that’s another story. SMH

    7. NervousNellie*

      At my previous job, I was OLDER than my boss and he once said something akin to “the adults are talking.” It was breathtakingly horrible. It was clearly a joke referencing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but you almost see the air leave the room when he did it.

      This event caused me to realize that you aren’t perceived as having the right to be heard unless you have President or Director in your title and have at least a handful of reports. Even then, there are probably some race, income, and sex related characteristics that play into it. You can be damn near 40, have years of experience, know what you are talking about and still be subject to rude dismissal.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Yep. My boss said something to me this morning about putting an “adult” on a project – meaning a more experienced employee and I just about lost my mind on her (I went towards gentle correction but my brain was AGGRDSJKSGSDKGKS)

    8. angrytreespirit*

      That’s a sucky place to be in and I’m sorry. If I had to guess, you had authoritative caretakers who squashed you whenever you had an opinion, showed negative emotions, or did anything outside their narrow range of behavior acceptability. They might have given you physical or emotional punishment for your errors – both are damaging. So you learned that it’s safest to blend into the background and not make trouble. Then you might have had your first few job experiences with authoritative bosses or highly structured workplaces. (My first job was a strictly managed white tablecloth restaurant, at 15. Not a great fit for someone already used to being silent and invisible.)
      So now you’re completely averse to conflict because you’ve learned to expect a thrashing if you feel your feelings or stand up for yourself in any way. The only thing that’s helped me with this is therapy, and it’s been years. I’m over 40, and I would say only the past year or so of my career have I been able to ask for things or push back, or be able to respect myself enough to know I deserve things like raises.
      Maybe you have a work friend, or a mentor who can help with your confidence. And remember if your supervisors now are the kind of managers telling you to be seen and not heard, that is 100% a them problem and they suck as bosses. You’ve always had the right to stand up for yourself; you just didn’t believe you deserved it.
      Put on those ruby slippers, babe. I’m rooting for you : )

    9. Very Social*

      My upbringing did not include that particular lesson, but boy, do I relate to not knowing when you are “old enough” to start doing things you were taught not to do. In the case of the workplace, reading this blog is a really solid basis, so I think you’re well on your way to understanding when you need to be heard and push back!

    10. matcha123*

      Elder millennial here, and I really feel this…with the caveat that I am from a minority, low income background and I have a suspicion that this parenting style is rife in these communities.
      What sucks is that when people like us do try to push back in a professional way, we’re immediately labeled as “sensitive,” “too young,” “troublesome,” and more.

      I really felt for Kelsey in the first letter because her situation mirrored my own in which an older coworker would make statements out loud about me, but without directing them to me and other unpleasant things.
      The update letter took a weird turn in that the OP suddenly decided Kelsey was the problem and used language that really downplayed Kelsey’s feelings.

  8. municipal government jane*

    Though Lorraine is definitely the issue here, it also sounds like Kelsey could use some coaching about direct communication & conflict management at work. Since Kelsey is already a rockstar and is early in her career, some support in learning how to do this would likely really benefit her long-term. I loved Alison’s advice about this aspect.

  9. S*

    I’m still boggled about the criticism of flowers at a funeral. What sort of person makes fun of someone for the way they bring flowers to a funeral? Because that’s exactly what this behavior is: Lorraine identifies a way to pick on Kelsey and then broadcasts it to the rest of the office to shame her. The public shaming would be wrong, even if the criticism were on point (“Hey, does anyone else think it’s weird that Kelsey uses hot pink Comic Sans in all her emails?”) But to do it over something like a funeral is really horrible bullying behavior.

    1. Kate R*

      I was looking for a comment to see if anyone else was confused by this. I kept expecting OP to explain their business had something to do with funeral arrangements because I can’t understand why in the world someone would criticize this. Even if they did coordinate funeral arrangements, this would be a mean way of correcting someone, but if Kelsey was just attending a funeral, and Lorraine decided to put her on blast to the whole office about it, it’s particularly cruel and bullying behavior.

      1. Antilles*

        The only thing I can think is that Lorraine thought that Kelsey should have arranged to have the flowers delivered in advance rather than carrying them in herself.
        Which, fine, there’s a bit of truth to that. It does make it easier since the funeral home can set up all the flowers ahead of time, everything matches the family’s (or deceased’s) preferred color scheme, etc…but like, it’s a very minor procedural thing rather than an actual faux pas worth calling someone out about.

        1. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

          Wait, is there a color scheme for wakes and funerals? Like how is the florist supposed to know, especially in a city with multiple flower shops? Does anyone really care? the only thing that we cared about for my grandparent’s funerals was that a family member took the plant that was sent by my work place.

    2. Mental Lentil*

      The only thing I could think of would be if they brought a dozen red long-stemmed roses instead of something more funerary, but again, you really wouldn’t want to call them out on it and draw more attention to it.

    3. JamminOnMyPlanner*

      I’m really confused about this, especially since the update clarifies that this is really Kelsey’s problem and she was actively seeking out ways to feel left out and offended.

      But Lorraine’s comment about the funeral flowers seems ehhh I’ll just go with “not very nice” rather than the word I was thinking.

    4. Kippy*

      But you don’t bring the flowers to the funeral. You have them delivered in advanced. Showing up to a funeral with a flower arrangement is super awkward.

      1. Dahlia*

        Do you remember when you were taught that? How old were you? How many funerals have you gone to?

        I’ve been to one, as a child.

        Sometimes people haven’t had experience doing something, and yes it may be awkward, but it’s unkind to gossip about them. It’s like acting like someone is an idiot for not knowing to tip housekeeping at a hotel.

    5. TrixM*

      I agree, but some people are also superstitious. My mother made the mistake of bringing lilies to my Irish grandmother when she was in hospital prior to passing away, and poor Nana nearly levitated out of the bed at the sight of the “funeral flowers” in her room.
      So perhaps it was something of that nature, or some perceived etiquette rule like the “no white shoes after Labor Day” kind of BS. Either way, she did not handle it appropriately in the moment.
      It was obviously a poor combo with Kelley’s apparent “suspicious by default” setting at the time. I personally struggle a lot when I encounter people who are generally paranoid. It’s a way that an anxiety disorder can manifest, but no matter the cause, it’s a mindset I struggle to understand when it’s seemingly from nowhere. I’m not a Pollyanna that expects everyone’s motivations and actions to be well-intentioned, but I find most people are at least neutral in most circs.

  10. Gnome*

    I would also suggest to Kelsey that she may want to minimize the fodder given to Lorraine. She has every right to limit conversation to work topics. Not that she should have to, but if someone is going to publicly make a stink about flower arrangements, then there is no obligation to inform them of non work things. This is just a place where OP can mentor, not a solution, but AAM has lots of letters and advice about keeping to work topics with more toxic coworkers so it’s worth mentioning.

  11. Wine Not Whine*

    The first thing that came to my mind was, “okay, Kelsey, if you don’t want me to talk to Lorraine, what else do you suggest we do to address the situation?” Not in a put-down tone, but genuinely asking for input on why she’s bringing it to you and what she sees as a positive response from you.

    1. KHB*

      The answer to this that Kelsey may be thinking (and may or may not be bold enough to say) is “I want to create a paper trail of Lorraine’s unprofessional behavior that will eventually be used to fire her.” Maybe Kelsey is too new (or not thinking things through enough) to realize that that’s not how it works – that in a healthy workplace, a conversation (or several) always comes before a firing. But if Lorraine’s behavior is bad enough – and especially if she does have a habit of “going off” on coworkers – it may already be at the point of talking to Lorraine about what she needs to change immediately if she wants to keep her job.

  12. Bern Notice*

    My gut tells me that with Kelsey being the newer (and noticeably stellar) employee, and Lorraine being a 15 year veteran of the company – that Lorraine is feeling jealous of Kelsey and being a passive-aggressive bully in order to try and drag Kelsey down. The whole ‘addressing the appropriateness of sending flowers to a funeral home with the office at large’ is REALLY petty and mean on Lorraine’s part. And Kelsey’s apparent fear of setting Lorraine off sure makes it seem like she’s either been on the receiving end of Lorraine’s ‘going off’ or she’s witnessed her going off on another employee. Kelsey may also be afraid of retaliation, of being seen as the “office snitch”, and of being ostracized by her co-workers (if she’s not already due to Lorraine constantly encouraging everyone to gang up on her).
    I sure hope that Kelsey has some friends in the office who have her back and refuse to participate in Lorraine’s nasty attempts at getting the entire office in on her bullying behavior. And who would perhaps offer some backup of the bullying that Kelsey describes.
    It’s high time for management to step in here – the stellar employee deserves to be defended and Lorraine needs to be put on notice that her nasty, passive aggressive behavior is negatively affecting the work environment and it won’t be tolerated. It’s possible that many others are sick and tired of Lorraine’s nonsense – and this may be the opportunity to get it all out on the table so it can be addressed.

    1. Kate R*

      Thank you for posting this. I feel more confused than ever. The examples in the update are very different from Lorraine making fun of Kelsey’s funeral flowers and paint a whole different picture. I’m glad the various talking tos seemed to fix everything, but I’m feeling flummoxed.

      1. Former Gifted Kid*

        I’m kind of wondering if the Letter Writer is telling that story the way Kelsey relayed it to her and might not be exactly what happened. I think it’s possible Lorraine asked someone else in the office something like, “Are you supposed to bring flowers to a viewing yourself or are you supposed to have the florist deliver the flowers before the viewing starts?” If she asked it loudly, you could characterize it as asking the whole office. You could also read the intention as Lorraine criticizing Kelsey’s choice or Lorraine genuinely not knowing the etiquette and asking.

        I had a parent who always framed criticisms as questions, so I sometimes here genuine questions as disapproval.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        To me it read like OP was maybe so burried in the weeds of their job that they had lost a bit of the pulse of the floor (where Kelsey and Lorraine both worked), so she could only relate the reports she was getting. The update read to me like someone who hadn’t been getting enough floor time, but was now getting a lot more and so she had a different perspective from the first letter.

  13. Lizianna*

    I’ve had situations in the past where employees didn’t want me to intervene, but I felt I had to. I framed it as, “My responsibility is to the team as a whole, and when other people observe this type of behavior go unaddressed, it sends the message that it’s acceptable on the team.” I tried to address it in a way that kept the confidences of the people who reported it, but there is only so much you can do when there were only 1 or 2 witnesses to a particular interaction.

    I do think if Kelsey is willing to say something, with the knowledge that you’ll back her up if it goes sideways, that could be a good option, but I would lay it out the Kelsey that the behavior has become disruptive enough that you need to do *something.* Just letting her vent in your office and not addressing it shouldn’t be on the table. If she doesn’t want to say something herself, you may need to.

    I also think it’s important to let Kelsey know that retaliation is not permissible, and if the behavior doesn’t stop, or it escalates, she needs to let you know, and you’ll deal with it. Then actually follow through if that happens.

    1. Bernice Clifton*

      Yes, this. Kelsey and Lorraine aren’t the only people there and you don’t want them thinking that they can harass their coworkers or that they have to put up with harassment FROM them because management won’t do anything.

  14. Kia*

    It sounds like Kelsey’s remarks are a cry for help and you are not doing anything to respond.

    Of course if asked directly, she will say she doesn’t want you to confront Lorraine. She is worried about retaliation. And she seems to have a justified fear because she is being mistreated and nobody is doing anything to help her.

    A skilled manager creates a sense of psychological safety on her team. She should stamp out bullying without having to be directed to by a junior member of staff.

    1. JamminOnMyPlanner*

      So the update is interesting… Kelsey wasn’t being bullied, and she was actively looking for ways to get offended.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        I think we can be a little more generous than that. It sounds like she needed a reality check and took it well. Soemtimes people just get sidelined by the narratives they create around themselves and need to be shocked out of it.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          To me it read like Lorraine may have been a bit like one of my coworker – a bit heavy on the sarcasm, and not always great at reading how the sarcastic remark had landed. But Kelsey was also just not willing to look at her part of the situation either.

          I also kind of got the feeling like the letter to Alison wasn’t the only thing that OP did, but that they also did their best to get more floor time, so they saw more of the interactions that led to the comments to Lorraine needing to consider impact of comments and to Kelsey about not going looking for things to be offended about while also looking at how she was interacting with the group as a whole. It was one of those everybody was part of making the mess, so everybody needed to be a part of the solution.

  15. animaniactoo*

    Additional – you have some work to do within the rest of your office on shutting down or declining to participate in such conversations when Lorraine tries to start them. Because that is a piece that is already partially poisoned, and you’re going to need to do some active work to bring it back from that edge.

  16. Critical Rolls*

    This really sounds like it’s borderline bullying, what with the personal criticism being broadcast to the whole office and the longtime employee vs new high performer dynamic. I also wonder what the manager isn’t seeing, since Kelsey seems afraid of Lorraine.

    Either way, this is long overdue to be addressed and Alison’s advice is spot on.

  17. Sick of Workplace Bullshit*

    Lorraine is a bully and you need to put a stop to it. She is clearly targeting Kelsey. Kelsey may not be able to articulate why she feels like Lorraine will go off on her, but she’s feeling it for a reason.

    1. yala*

      Very much this! It was one issue I had with Allison’s advice. I mean, not so much an issue, but just that OP should be aware that Kelsey may not be able to articulate exactly *what* Lorraine *might* do, because Lorraine is good at keeping her bullying subtle. Or subtle-ish. The kind where it’s easy to feel like you’re childish or wrong for being affected by it at all.

      It’s one thing to SAY “that kind of behavior is unacceptable and will be handled”…but another thing to believe it. There can be retaliation that doesn’t overtly look like retaliation. And if Kelsey has been dealing with Lorraine picking at her for a year and not seen anyone else *notice* that it’s an issue, she may feel like it’s unlikely to be Handled if she tries to go forward formally.

      If OP approaches Lorraine, it’s unlikely that Lorraine will be any *nicer* to Kelsey. She’ll just (maybe) stop doing the very specific thing she was told about. And Kelsey will be aware that a coworker she works closely with dislikes her (You don’t have to like all your coworkers, but being actively disliked is stressful), and on guard for the Next Thing.

      …ugh, speaking of articulating, I really can’t today. Subtle bullies make all my words go wrong.

      1. Fedanya*

        You should read the update post linked above, which will reveal exactly how offbase your assumptions were and how unhelpful this comment is.

        1. yala*

          Feels a little unnecessarily rude.

          Even if there was a happy ending to this story (which is, again, not obvious from the story itself, for Reasons, so it’s certainly not helpful to be snarky about someone not knowing about it), I think it’s still *helpful* to be aware of the fact that someone who is being bullied may not be able to articulate exactly WHAT they think their bully will do if they report them, and that being bullied for a long period of time can make people very timid about confronting their bully.

          Great that that wasn’t the case here after all, but that wasn’t clear from THIS post, and your comment was more than a little rude and unhelpful.

  18. anonymous73*

    I get that Kelsey is new to the company, but you can’t keep making the same complaints about someone at work and also insist nothing be done. I don’t like conflict, but hell if I’m gonna let someone treat me that way. Lorraine is a bully and needs to be dealt with and if Kelsey is unwilling to stand up for herself, she needs to have OP do it on her behalf if she fears retaliation from Lorraine. I hope this was resolved.

  19. yala*

    Do you ever overhear any of Lorraine’s comments yourself? She addresses them to the whole office. Maybe you could have a sit-down where you just ask her, “Hey, you said X, what was that about?” If she says something like, “Oh, SOME PEOPLE did Y,” you could just ask that she go to you next time she notices an error so you can deal with it directly, instead of disrupting the office.

    Not as useful if her comments are more focused on Social Etiquette and all that. But approaching it like you’re genuinely curious as to What Was That all About? may at least avoid any snidery going over to Kelsey?

  20. Jessica Fletcher*

    Interesting that she’s upset Kelsey won’t go to Lorraine directly, but she isn’t upset Lorraine is making passive aggressive proclamations to the entire office instead of speaking to Kelsey directly. (Is the funeral flowers thing really even work related, or just Lorraine needling Kelsey for no legit reason?)

  21. raida7*

    but she always tells me that she’s afraid that when she says something to Lorraine, she will “just go off on her.”

    Honestly as a manager I’d be digging into this part – is there a basis for this feeling, or is Kelsey a bit anxious? If it’s the former, well I don’t care what Kelsey wants, I need to deal with a long-term staff member that goes off at people.

  22. Summer*

    LW1 – If the entire office – which I assume includes you – can hear Lorraine when she says these things about Kelsey, then why can’t you intervene on her behalf without even mentioning that Kelsey brought it up? If you can hear Lorraine saying something, why don’t you address it right there?

    You have a stellar employee being humiliated in front of everyone. Lorraine seems threatened by Kelsey and this is her way of cutting her down to the entire office. Lorraine absolutely knows what she is doing and it’s not right and I don’t understand why you haven’t stepped up and actually managed her yet. Do you want to lose that stellar employee? Because that is exactly what will happen if you keep allowing Lorraine to behave like this. I’m mad on Kelsey’s behalf and (because this is an old letter) I hope she left your office behind long ago and you are now kicking yourself for not speaking up sooner.

    1. Summer*

      Man, I wish I saw the update prior to commenting because the update provided much more insight than the original letter. So, please ignore my first comment on this one!

  23. LondonLady*

    Maybe Kelsey just needs a safe space to vent about Lorraine and then continue being a stellar employee, and by letting her complain to you, she gets that. It may be frustrating to you, but it may prove the best solution to let this continue if things are otherwise running well.

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