my employee is rude and combative

A reader writes:

I manage a small group of long-term staff. One employee who has worked with me for years (“Jane”) is very talented, and I helped her develop professional skills beyond the typical level of someone in her position.

I am now having a major problem with Jane’s attitude, which has deteriorated dramatically. She is openly disrespectful of me, disruptive of our team, complaining all the time, and almost combative towards me about many decisions. I am curious how this could have been prevented, and if there is anything I can do about it now other than firing her, which is probably what I will do soon.

A couple years ago, Jane started becoming more rude and less professional in interactions with me, openly expressing frustration both when we met in private, in her emails to me, and also in our general meetings. I thought maybe she was experiencing a temporary personal crisis or something like that — it was so unexpected. So I tried to respond mostly sympathetically and work through it. I met with her often to check about her complaints and was supportive of hearing her concerns, etc. But I also haven’t been a cream puff — I had some tough meetings with her and made clear that certain behaviors (such as refusing to do projects that I asked to be done) were simply not okay. No matter what I did, the behavior continued and has gotten worse with time.

The most confusing thing to me has been that her bitterest complaints and battles with me have been about decisions that I would obviously have the final say about. She gets white hot mad at me when I do not take her exact advice or preference on things, even though she knows she does not have much experience in these areas. I try to be sensitive to her feelings and say that I appreciate her input and then I carefully explain the reasons behind my decisions. But it doesn’t work — she just stays mad and continues to think I am wrong.

It feels like such a ridiculous situation that I have to keep arguing with a junior employee about these things. So, any suggestions?

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.

{ 145 comments… read them below }

  1. Seeking second childhood*

    I remember this one. And I really wish we would get an update. I’ve known a Jane or two myself and one of them fought hard about a well-deserved firing after a thoroughly failed PIP.

    1. Heidi*

      There was an update! This will surprise no one, but the events of this letter were just the tip of an iceberg of dysfunction. Jane quit before she could get fired. I think one of the important elements that didn’t get included was that this was in academia, where firing people can be a really arduous process.

      1. Observer*

        Yeah. But the reality is that the OP really mishandled the situation even within the constraints of Academia.

        1. Heidi*

          Oh, totally agree. All of this shouldn’t have been allowed to happen in academia. But I think knowing the context makes the fact that it went on for so many years seem slightly less bizarre.

  2. Elizabeth West*

    I would love an update to this one. Did the OP fire Jane? What happened when they did?

      1. Issy*

        Is that the same situation? It doesn’t seem the same. Did Jane turn into Icarus? I’m so confused!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yep. I use very generic names at Inc. whereas I can have more fun with them here. (Letters also sometimes get edited down to be shorter over there because they have a word count limit.)

          1. Heffalump*

            So if Cecil Mongoose and Tangerina Warbleworth have appeared in Inc. it wasn’t under those names!

        2. Eldritch Office Worker*

          The extra details make a huge difference to me. Not that the advice for the Inc version isn’t good, but I think one thing it definitely misses is how big the experience and power difference is between OP and Jane (Icarus).

          I have a somewhat similar situation at my workplace but it’s between a CEO and a VP and “fire her yesterday” is not on the table, this explains to me why it feels different.

        3. ceiswyn*

          My cat’s name is Icarus. That was a wild ride for me!
          (NO, Icarus, the juniors are entirely within their rights to order flea treatments. Also, you are not going to reverse my decision to limit our butter use.)

  3. SereneScientist*

    I respect Allison’s response here, especially taking the letter at face value–this is pretty bad behavior. But I feel like there is information missing. If Jane has been as stellar as the LW describes, “worked with her for year for years,” and has developed professionally beyond expectations for someone in her role…then, I’d be curious about the context. Has Jane been promoted, given raises appropriately etc, or generally had other opportunities? The topics which seem to frustrate/upset Jane the most provides an interesting clue but without more information, I hesitate to judge.

    1. SereneScientist*

      (Recognizing this is an archive letter, so perhaps the LW did provide other details in comments etc.)

    2. Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein*

      It’s worth reading the original letter (link to follow); Alison edited this one down pretty sharply, so there’s a lot more detail in the original.

    3. My Useless 2 Cents*

      I take a similar view but could be projecting a bit as well. I guess I can see some of myself in Jane (although I am in no way disruptive or combative) in the past few years because of a combination of health problems and a complete frustration with management that has led to total burnout. I had difficulty reading the letter without thinking to myself “Ok, you are so focused on trying to figure out what caused the change in Jane, are you bothering to LISTEN to what Jane is saying?”

      1. My Useless 2 Cents*

        Reading the original letter, the actions were more egregious than this pared down version. Advocating your position is one thing, actively recruiting coworkers to take sides and threatening them is another.

        1. quill*

          Yeah, the original letter had Jane Icarus almost trying to highlander her way up the lab hierarchy, aka there can only be one female lab director.

          1. Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein*

            All hierarchy squabbles are best handled with a katana and Queen soundtrack :)

      2. River Otter*

        In the original letter, the things Jane/Icarus was saying were completely absurd—like that she was more experienced than LW when she was just not.

        It’s a good question to address in general, tho’. If your employee is acting out due to reasonable disgruntlements that are under your control to fix, well, maybe consider fixing them.

      3. Meep*

        I was accused of being Jane. What actually happened was my manager decided that she needed to stir up conflict and I was her next target. I was labeled ‘rude’ and ‘combative’ because I got fed up with being unfairly screamed and CURSED at and decided to just stop being overtly polite to someone who was nasty to me. If something didn’t work, I no longer sugarcoated it. Ultimately, she ended up having two of her employees rage quit (myself included), wrongfully terminated three (1 for a chronic illness, one for being non-binary, one for coming out as trans), and nearly scared off a sixth before she was removed from management.

        OP is probably lovely, but my own PTSD definitely caused this letter to trigger me. Especially as OP is a woman labeling another woman as ‘difficult’ when women often get this label for not fawning over the person they are talking to and matching their energy.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          And yet some women are difficult. They’re still human; they have all the usual human failings. My mother is difficult by anyone’s standards and it’s not just “labeling”–it’s that she’s Never Wrong, brusque, short-tempered, and oversteps all the time. She’s nowhere near as bad as Jane/Icarus (but she’s also retired so managers everywhere are spared having to manage her) but she’s left a trail of bitten-off heads in her wake her whole life.

          The bit about Jane/Icarus blocking other employee’s orders of reagent when the LW apparently didn’t know definitely doesn’t sound like the LW stirring up trouble. It sounds like J/I . . . I have no idea what the thinking is here.

          1. StudentA*


            It’s tiring that this comes up whenever a woman is criticized. Some of my worst bullies (and best mentors) were women.

        2. Nina UK*

          I have similar PTSD as I was accused of being difficult as I didn’t accept abuse at work coming from a female manager. But given the original letter (with less editing) I could see that this is not likely the case here and OP is just fine :)

      4. Quick Chat*

        Yes! I was like “has anyone else asked Jane what’s going on?”! Living through this now — boss is in over his head and wants to power trip. Tries to sabotage me to write himself hero stories. Luckily I kept the receipts and shared them liberally with the executive who finally asked “why”.

    4. Sara without an H*

      One significant detail that was omitted from this version of the letter was that the situation took place in higher education, at a university where firing anybody was next to impossible. (I think I worked there, myself, a number of years back.) The OP was a senior faculty member managing a laboratory.

      Given the academic setting, where behavior that other places would call “toxic” is considered a normal Tuesday, the tolerance extended to “Jane’s” tantrums becomes more understandable.

      1. MicroManagered*

        Just sitting over here, in my higher education job, slooooowwwwwwly nodding my head in agreement. :)

      2. So long and thanks for all the fish*

        I had forgotten about this letter, but rereading it today in my current position as a postdoc in an academic lab I have a lot more sympathy for Jane/Icarus. Her behavior was obviously horrid, particularly bullying the students(!), but professors… Sometimes lose track of the zeitgeist in ways that can be really frustrating to research staff. I’m currently headdesking over edits, in a manuscript I’m writing, from the professor I work for, in which he’s added sentences that are objectively not true. These edits are necessary at all because the reviewers pointed out holes that I had tried to tell my boss we would need to fill in order to publish before we submitted it the first time, but he didn’t agree so we submitted without.

        I have a new job lined up next month, but if I didn’t I would need to start searching, like, yesterday at this point to avoid starting to spew negativity about my job. I’m sure this kind of thing happens everywhere but academia is just its own train wreck.

      3. Heffalump*

        If Jane weren’t female, I’d wonder if it was the poster who wrote, “My boss wants me to reflect on conflicts with coworkers, and I don’t want to.”

      4. pancakes*

        Would it have still been next to impossible to fire her if people were complaining about her behavior rather than silently enduring it? This part was wild to me:

        “I started by asking detailed questions of my other lab workers and students, and I found out that Icarus had been terrorizing many of them, and also threatening them if they complained to me. Icarus had also been blocking them from ordering reagents or doing certain experiments that she didn’t agree with, or for people she didn’t like, and in general making it impossible for many people in my lab to do their work.”

        It’s really dysfunctional the other workers she was terrorizing apparently didn’t feel they had any choice but to just endure all that. Apparently they assumed the threats would be made good on as well, and that there wasn’t anyone they could speak to about this terrible pattern of various types of unacceptable behavior. No one seems to have made even the slightest move towards getting this woman fired or holding her or the higher-ups who allowed it accountable in any way. I have to wonder what was going on in this environment that these threats apparently seemed plausible / seemed to hold water to everyone who heard them.

        1. Cedrus Libani*

          I worked with an Icarus once. Similar situation; the big-boss worked elsewhere, but there were several seniors who could tell me what to do in her absence. The other seniors loved Icarus – to his credit, he was a very hard worker, and he made their jobs much easier. He was only a menace to the juniors.

          It was a summer job; I moved on. Years later, I was at an industry party, where several of us got to swapping Icarus stories. That big-boss was also there, listening. She confronted us. “Why didn’t you tell me?” As one of my then-colleagues sheepishly replied, “We…thought you knew?”

          1. pancakes*

            Oof, that sounds like an uncomfortable summer! I suppose we all have to learn, at some point, that big bosses who aren’t present sometimes don’t actually have a handle on what goes on in the workplace day to day.

    5. Migraine Month*

      Ah dang, did my ex-manager write this one? The details don’t quite line up, but I was so frustrated at OldJob that it feels like me. I count my lucky stars that she fired me; it got me out of a zero-growth role at a company that everyone knows is basically a cult. Turns out that it’s far easier to be professional when your workplace isn’t toxic.

  4. Restored*

    Allison’s response is really great advice, I can use even in my personal life. Yes, to an update on this one, letter writer should please let us know what happened with Jane.

    1. anonymous73*

      There’s a link in one of the comments above to the update, where you can also read the original letter which has a lot more details and is WAY worse than it’s written here.

    2. Nancy*

      I would fire this employee, but I believe Allison should have preference it by asking if the employee is at will or under a contract that requires just cause (and I believe there’s a strong argument to support just cause). Also are there issues regarding the employee’s mental health. I worked on a couple of cases for a Fortune 500 company who wanted to fire very combative employees. They first put these employees on paid leave and the employees agreed (because they weren’t immediately fired but still getting paid) to a mental evaluation because we wanted to make sure there wasn’t an ADA issue. I’d also have said that the company should prepare for a lawsuit if the fire the employee – I saw this happen a lot where s**t at will employees who deserved to be fired sued. IMO there are a lot of sleazy plaintiff lawyers who put dollar signs in these people’s lives. We got summary judgment on a lot of this type of case. I would have advised the manager to consult in-house or outside counsel before firing this employee, even though it appears to have deserved it.

  5. Delphine*

    It’s important and commendable to recognize that a sudden and unexpected change in behavior could be a result of something going on with the employee (rather than assuming that they had a personality transplant overnight), but you can’t just assume that and then do nothing to confirm your suspicions. A personal crisis gives you a potential explanation for uncharacteristic behavior. You then need to follow up with the employee. “Hey, you’ve worked here for years, this doesn’t seem like you, and I’m concerned about your behavior. What’s going on?”

  6. Nea*

    Anyone else feeling like this is the other side of the “I was fired for taking initiative” letter?

  7. Akrasia*

    All I can say to someone in that position is tread carefully. If an employee is emboldened to act like this openly, then it usually means they know the leadership above you is weak and that you’re vulnerable. Before you take any steps, talk to upper management and make sure you have their unequivocal support.

  8. Salt*

    While this might not help the LR- I will say it sounds to me like Jane has outgrown her role and is feeling bitter and powerless to make decisions and is instead choosing to fight the LR on decisions to feel more in control. Jane either believes she can manage better than LR or thought she was growing into a role that never came to fruition (even if it was never promised and just an unspoken expectation). Jane either needs to leave and find a position that will fulfill her or if LR realizes ‘oh hey she is a stellar employee that’s not been given management opportunities and we’ll lose her to quitting or firing’ they could look into getting her into a managerial role. With a giant caveat. You don’t want to reward bad behavior. Having a frank conversation saying ‘I’m sensing frustration on your end, tell me why’ and then steering the conversation to ‘well if you want to see growth, I’ll have to see a change in X,Y, Z behavior because we can’t have combative bitter managers’ and see if her attitude changes– but for a good amount of time like a year. And be upfront too— “we won’t be filling a manager role for a year or so as we work out the new budget…” Everyone can fake compliance for a little bit.

    1. Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein*

      In the original letter, the behavior started immediately after a promotion that the OP fought for.

    2. River Otter*

      I think this would push Jane out, and if that’s the goal, just person-up and fire her. If she’s miserable bc she’s not growing, telling her she has to keep being miserable while sucking it up and putting on a happy face for at least a year, and no promises then, is not going to lead to the improvement you think it will. Continued beatings do not improve morale.

    3. Allonge*

      I mean – there is frustration and there is ongoing, consistently rude behavior.

      People can get frustrated as much as they please / deserve, but no way, no how should we turn back from where Jane is to ‘are we sure we are doing everything to make her happy?’.

  9. Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein*

    Alison, I get that you had to trim the letter down for publication at Inc, but I think with this one you wound up cutting out some details that really change the overall picture!

    Things like:
    – “This started right after I was successful in finally getting her a promotion and increase in pay that she had wanted!”
    – One more thing — I’m a woman. I thought maybe [Jane] would respond better to a male faculty member and this has proven correct. I brought a male faculty friend of mine to some of our lab meetings, and of course he agreed with me about research directions and so on. Interestingly, [Jane] now thinks this male faculty member is the cat’s pajamas, and asks to consult him about all our disagreements!

    1. anonymous73*

      I don’t remember the original letter, so I clicked the link Alison supplied in a comment above and Whoooo boy was there a lot of stuff missing.

      1. editor*

        I used to edit an advice column at a different publication and we routinely had to cut a large amount of details out of advice columns for space! If Alison normally leaves them all in here, that’s an anomaly in publishing.

    2. Princess Xena*

      This might be my inexperience, but I don’t see how this would have changed Allison’s advice at all. Jane still became disrespectful and fought back on really foolish things. Firing Jane was appropriate with just the behavior described, let alone the additional information that makes it even more egregious.

      1. Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein*

        It isn’t about changing Alison’s advice, it’s about changing how people are responding to it. People saying things like, well Jane must have been frustrated at a lack of advancement — look, she was literally just promoted.

        1. pancakes*

          That doesn’t seem to matter much in the grand scheme of things, to me at least, and broadly speaking people aren’t entitled to a full rundown on anything and everything they feel like responding to.

  10. kitryan*

    Obviously with the update, it’s a problem with Jane/Icarus and not this, but just from the initial letter, it also could be that the employee feels overworked and under appreciated and this has led to burnout and that’s where the bad behavior is coming from. I’ve had some of this sort of feeling, in prior jobs where I’ve been working hard for years and years and have minimal authority, am regularly overridden after following policies not of my devising, and have been overworked to one degree or another for extended periods with no acknowledgment. This can lead to a souring of things that derives not from the worker’s personal life but from those poor working conditions.
    Again, the update linked in another comment makes it clear this is not what’s happening here, but I’d say if a previously good employee of long standing seems to have basically lost their filter, I’d take a hard look at whether the employee might have reason to feel like they’ve not been heard or appreciated and what their support is, or if they’ve not had any raises/promotions that they may feel they’ve earned. The answer may be that everything is as it should be and they’ve developed a bad attitude separately, or there is a work issue driving this behavior but it can’t be fixed, but possibly there is a problem with the work that can be solved, and, if they’ve really been a good employee previously, that might be worth looking at and reexamining any suppositions one might be holding.
    Of course, sometimes even if there’s a legit complaint, the bad feelings/bad attitude can’t be ratcheted back even if it’s fixed and the best thing is to part ways.

    1. My Useless 2 Cents*

      “regularly overridden after following policies not of my devising” resonates so much with me! For years, I struggled with frustration at grand boss putting into place policy, rules and “standards” that made no sense (and boss would agree with me! they were put in place to placate the other branches) Only to find out months down the line that we were the only branch following said policies (other branches would just ignore grand boss and kept doing what they always did). Grand boss would then turn to us with “well, why do you do it that way?” **Because your dumbass told us we had to** It has led to total burnout and lack of caring on my end.

      The pared down retelling of the letter really brought me to this line of thinking vrs. the original letter that was much more a problem employee issue.

      1. kitryan*

        Totally. Higher ups say ‘this is very important’ ‘never let anyone do x’ and then as soon as you’re saying sorry, you can’t do that, or please submit this information that’s missing, you get ‘oh, we don’t need that’ or ‘but we have to do the thing even though we don’t have the important thing’ so you check w/supervisor and suddenly it’s fine and you should just do the thing you were never supposed to do.
        My situation’s a bit different in that I understand why we have the rules and I agree with a lot of them (not all, but most), but then I get a lot of ‘well, in this case, it’s ok’ which makes me look like an impotent hardass to all my coworkers, someone who keeps raising concerns that are immediately dismissed by my supervisors, since my coworkers don’t know that I was specifically told to obtain that information/ask that question as a matter of policy.
        When I was overwhelmingly overburdened mid-pandemic, my supervisor started slashing away at certain requirements and expected me to be thrilled that he was making things so much easier for me. However, my first reaction was ‘Why was I wasting my life doing these things for 7 years if they were completely unnecessary?’. Luckily it’s a small company so the lack of too many layers of management keeps things from going full Kafka.
        Total agree that the Inc edit, in this case, makes it more of a ‘might this be workplace burnout’ possibility rather than the ‘she’s drunk with power’ scenario that the original+update seems to be. (For all the Kids in the Hall fans, she’s gone mad with a moderate amount of power)

        1. Allonge*

          Gently: if you (and Jane) had burnout, I feel for you and I hope you can get that treated. Being combative with and rude to a boss, however incompetent, is not the solution though.

          You can get out and find the place where this will be easier.

          1. kitryan*

            I appreciate the thought, however I’m not sure where you see that *I’ve* behaved inappropriately. I think you’re reaching a bit here.

              1. kitryan*

                No problem, Jane is definitely over the edge, especially in the original and update. I can *understand* the desire to act out but that’s different from allowing frustration to turn you into an ass.
                In my case, it’s more… having a hard time being circumspect with immediate coworkers about things that are frustrating. I’m normally very positive and tend to look for the most charitable interpretations of everyone’s behavior and it just makes me… less of a Pollyanna? And less willing to go above and beyond compared to my usual kind of abnormally high standards.
                Which is not necessarily great and can make me feel like I’m not in the best place work-wise, but I’m not running around fomenting rebellion and being obstructionist for fun or anything.
                I’m working up to meeting w/my boss to discuss some of my issues and possible growth of my position/recognition of the added responsibilities over the years that he didn’t have time to get into in my annual review.

                1. Allonge*

                  Uh – in case you need to hear this, it’s totally ok to be frustrated by things that are, in fact, frustrating (plus pandemic), and also ok not to deliver to a 150% standard. No wonder you feel burned out!

                2. kitryan*

                  Replying to myself because we’re out of threading – yes, I tell myself that it’s ok to not always be perfect and that everyone, including me, makes mistakes (and to have charity for my mistakes and those of others, everyone can have a hard time or a bad day).
                  But for a perfectionist who is sensitive to criticism, it’s hard to feel like you’re not at your best. And it’s hard to not feel as positive about your coworkers/bosses and your job as you used to.
                  So, I’m doing what I can w/self care, planning to proactively and appropriately address work concerns at work, and so forth.

        2. My Useless 2 Cents*

          I quit my very first job because of something like that. Within three weeks at a very large box store, I was thrown behind the returns counter and given a list of never ever make a return under condition X, Y or Z. Sure enough, customer would walk up for a return under condition Y, I’d have to call a floor manager over and customer wouldn’t finish their sentence and floor manager would be “it’s fine” in a very put out, why did you call me over here for this tone of voice and walk away. I toughed it out a few weeks thinking it was just me being a newbie until I realized nope, it was how the job was designed to work. Started a new job a short time later and got the hell out of there. Customer service is a crappy enough job to begin with, not doing it with intentionally flawed policies.

          1. kitryan*

            Yeah, that’s super frustrating. And to the customer it looks like you’re blocking them for no good reason! When I bring up an issue and the supervisor response is, ‘oh, that’s fine’, it looks like I didn’t need to bring it up after all *and* I don’t get a chance to learn anything that might make me better at identifying when there is an issue.

            1. pancakes*

              It does? I have been a customer in those situations and it seems quite clear that a manager needs to be called over because non-manager employees aren’t meant to use their discretion about whether to authorize a return (or whatever) or not. I think this is a pretty basic and very common way for management to have some oversight over a process they want oversight of.

              1. kitryan*

                I think that when the employee is told we must never to x, and they then tell the customer ‘we are not allowed to do x’, but when the customer escalates and requests a manager, manager comes over and says, ‘of course you can do x’, like why did you even ask, the customer is going to think that the employee doesn’t know what they’re doing.
                I don’t think this is just needing a manager code/key/whatever to process a return w/out receipt or something, that’s different and the employee would then say ‘I’ll need a manager to authorize’ and the manager would come over and put in their code and it’s all fine, no contradiction.
                This is when a manager just flat out says to do the return outside of the permitted time limit or to accept the return of clearly used mercy or whatever that’s against store policy, after employee’s said to the customer (because that’s what they’ve been told) that it’s not allowed.

                1. Allonge*

                  I can see how this may be frustrating, but as a customer, I promise I never thought that an employee is stupid or uninformed when a manager made a different call from the employee. Also I never worked anywhere where managers did not have a higher authority to make exceptions than their staff.

                  May be it’s time for you to seek a management position? This issue will likely follow you to other jobs, too.

                2. kitryan*

                  Again, out of threading. I don’t work in customer service and haven’t for over 15 years. I was explaining what My Useless 2 Cents was talking about as I understood it.
                  Also, it’s a good idea not to assume that all customers are reasonable, especially those who are escalating to a manager, or that everything someone mentions in a comment thread about a topic is a specific problem they are currently struggling with.
                  Lastly, managerial authority is not the issue – the issue is manager says ‘never do x’ when training, then says ‘x is fine, what are you talking about’. That’s the problem, not the fact that a manager may know more and have more authority, which no one’s complained about in this thread, it’s having reasonable policies that are clearly communicated. And when those policies have exceptions, it’s best for said manager to say that this is an exception and if possible, to explain why, so that the staff can do their work better, rather than being arbitrary.
                  This gaslighting (and I think it’s often proper gaslighting) regarding policies is a general thing that happens in many jobs where managers aren’t doing their jobs well, that My Useless 2 Cents was saying *they* experienced at a *prior* job.

                3. Emmy Noether*

                  I think after the second time this happened, I’d just say the “need a manager to authorize” line to the customer, because that is obviously the de facto policy, even though it is not the official line.

                4. pancakes*

                  Fwiw, I have enough work experience and world experience to know that customers aren’t always reasonable. Anyone who has spent so much as a day working with the public or a bit more time than that out shopping as a customer will know they’re often not reasonable at all. I would think it went without saying that retail workers should try not to internalize the bad behavior and ignorant behavior of rude customers. Likewise short-tempered or harried managers. Kitryan, I seem to have said something that gave you the impression I don’t understand basic facts about this corner of the world, but I’ve been working since I was 16, and my first job was in a Pizza Hut. I have also answered phones for a public q&a help line, done volunteer work at a walk-in legal clinic, etc. I don’t see where I suggested or implied that all customers are reasonable, and to clarify that was certainly not my intention.

                  I also don’t think it’s realistic to expect a manager to be present for every transaction that requires communication about policies.

                  Regarding “the issue is manager says ‘never do x’ when training, then says ‘x is fine, what are you talking about’”: Of course that’s not pleasant, but it’s not necessarily a calamity. It’s not necessarily any reflection on the staffer at all. It’s not as if staff get to choose whether their training has been comprehensive, or whether the manager sounds consistent, or the policies are realistic, or whether the manager is reasonable or communicates well when harried, etc. If customers don’t have an accurate grasp of the dynamic within the few minutes they’re present, that’s not necessarily a calamity either.

                  You don’t have to say you’re out of threading each time; we can all see the Reply button disappears at a certain point.

  11. Brain the Brian*

    Sometimes I feel like a Jane (or an Icarus, as in the original letter). Lack of promotions, pay raises, anything even resembling autonomy in my work, etc. drive me nuts, and I unfortunately take this out on coworkers too often. Sigh.

    1. Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein*

      I sure hope you’re not behaving like Jane/Icarus in either the original letter or the update, though!

      Worth noting that she WAS promoted immediately before the bad behavior started.

    2. Anon all day*

      I mean, you have agency to not take this out on your co-workers… I totally get frustrations, and I don’t always act perfectly (or even close to it), but the response shouldn’t be a passive “yeah, sometimes I’m a jerk to my coworkers, ho hum.” Like, this isn’t a good thing at all.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      Except we have no idea that that’s what’s motivating Jane/Icarus, and also Jane/Icarus could start looking for other work rather than abusing her coworkers. J/I loses credibility when they “cope” by mistreating others.

    4. Allonge*

      Gently: you have more options than the binary of frustrated and taking it would on coworkers and frustrated and not taking it out on coworkers (please pick this latter though!). Maybe it’s time to find annother job?

    5. Observer*

      If you look at the original letter, that’s not what’s going on.

      In any case, so what? If you are in a bad job, leave. I realize that that’s easier said than done, and obviously, you can’t just up and walk out.

      But you CAN make a plan – start job hunting, figure out what you would need to get the kind of job that would work for you and start working on making those things happen before you start job hunting, or start job hunting for SOMETHING better while working on a longer term plan for your future.

      Regardless, taking it out on your coworkers is just not a reasonable. If it really is impossible for you to do anything about finding another job, and until you do find something else, please find a different way of coping.

  12. Nynaeve*

    There is an alarming amount of classism exhibited in both the original letter and this pared down version for Inc that I think the LW could stand to address within herself. The disconnect between “years” of a successful working relationship and “arguing with a junior employee (lab worker in the original post. “much younger lab worker in my lab without an advanced degree” in the very next sentence).

    The question was, is there anything I could have done to prevent this?, and I think the answer is a resounding Yes! It sounds like there was a major misunderstanding with the new responsibilities that were going to come along with the promotion, such as having input on the day to day activities and the overall direction of the lab, and more of a peer level relationship with the LW that the LW clearly did not intend. This needed to be addressed prior to the promotion being implemented, and made very clear along the way if that is indeed what is required of Jane even after the promotion. But, it also might be worthwhile to examine whether you could benefit from that type of a more peer-level second in the lab who you can trust to second guess your decisions, have input on hiring and possible future endeavors. Regardless of the level of education of the person you promote into that role. There is a lot to be said in a lab setting of relying on the person with maybe the lower degree than even some of the students, but who really knows YOUR lab and YOUR preferences. It sound like this is the kind of role Jane was wanting to be promoted into and you pushed for something very different, leaving Jane to feel as if the rug had been pulled out from under her in terms of the kinds of growth you were pushing her towards, and the new responsibilities she was expecting to come along with the promotion.

    1. River Otter*

      Jane was not peer level. An experienced lab manager is a huge asset, but an experienced lab manager is not a professional peer with a research professor. That’s like saying a department head is a peer of the CEO. Both are experienced roles, but there is a huge gulf in responsibility.

      1. Anon all day*

        Yup. I’m an attorney, and I work with paralegal coworkers who have double, triple my years of experience. When it comes to legal decisions, I still make the ultimate call (and they expect/want me to).

        1. Rain's Small Hands*

          It strikes me a bit as if the OR nurse has decided that since she now has twenty years under her belt, she should get to use the scalpel – or at very least be consulted on the cuts. The thing is that once you top out as an OR nurse, the next step isn’t surgeon… do that requires medical school.

    2. Anon all day*

      Highlighting levels of seniority/experience is not classism! Also, this response is super frustrating to me because even if Jane was right to be annoyed/upset with OP (though I don’t think she was), Jane still behaved terribly. The excuse of having a sucky manager (I don’t think OP is one!) does not excuse the behavior that Jane exhibited.

      1. Nynaeve*

        I don’t deny that Jane acted terribly and probably needed to be let go for the sake of all of the other employees. I was just saying that there was some room for self reflection and growth on the part of the LW, which is a response to the actual question she asked. “I am curious how this could have been prevented, and if there is anything I can do about it now other than firing her, which is probably what I will do soon.”

        As for classism, the way that the LW expressed herself in both the original letter and in the update point to a very elitist attitude vis a vis how she relates to her employees and what she deems them to be capable of in the course of their work for her. Form the fact that she chose to reprimand her in full view and earshot of her coworkers, she sees her as obviously lacking simply due to her level of education, she believes that she is paying her employees directly out of her pocket, she appears unwilling to take advice on any aspect of the running of her lab from the direction of research, to day to day operations, to accepting feedback on the output like writing and citations, etc. She very clearly has a “one man show” attitude and seems unwilling to collaborate in any way with her employees. Which is her prerogative, it’s her lab, but she ASKED if there was ANYHING she could do to prevent this happening again. And there definitely IS.

        1. Anon all day*

          Firm disagree. I think your logic is faulty because it presumes that Jane’s ideas are good and that OP is wrong, even though OP says in her letter that she has specific, scientific reasons why Jane’s ideas won’t work. Also, I think it’s a little ridiculous to argue that education-level isn’t important in a lab! Especially when OP states that Jane is empirically wrong.

        2. Pippa K*

          “Direction of research” is definitely going to be decided by the principal investigator. That’s specifically their job, for which they’ve been trained, and they’ve obtained grant funding for this specific research. Taking the view that someone without an advanced degree in the subject, who is not a co-PI on the research, etc., should not be advising on the “direction of research” or similar matter – this is not classism in any way.

          Related note, women academics are often expected to soften or attenuate their own claims to authority and if we don’t, other people are happy to do it for us. The OP identified gender/authority issues as one component of the problem with Jane/Icarus, and here are people in the comments saying she should have been more open to having her research direction, academic writing, etc. shaped and criticised by a less qualified person junior to her. Sigh.

          1. Unaccountably*

            Yes, exactly. Expecting someone who is accomplished in her field to undervalue her role in her own lab, and namecalling her when she doesn’t, is just… really, truly not a good look.

        3. River Otter*

          The public reprimand was a terrible approach.

          The rest, though, is entirely reasonable.

          “ she sees her as obviously lacking simply due to her level of education, she believes that she is paying her employees directly out of her pocket, she appears unwilling to take advice on any aspect of the running of her lab from the direction of research, to day to day operations, to accepting feedback on the output like writing and citations, etc.”

          -Jane was lacking due to her education. Graduate study makes you into the subject matter expert that it is necessary to be in order to be a research faculty member. Graduate education also comes with expectations of publication and attending conferences, which are also necessary in order to be a research faculty member. Jane’s educational level does not make her less of a person but it does make her less qualified. That is not classist.
          -LW does not believe that she is paying her staff from her own pocket. LW is highlighting the fact that her institution, her employer, does not provide the funds to pay her employees’ salaries. Graduate students and staff are paid according to what is called soft-money. It all comes in from grants, which LW is the author of. This is another area where Jane does not have the qualifications that LW does.
          -Jane circumventing LW’s decisions isn’t about whether or not LW takes feedback or advice. Once LW has made a decision, Jane and everybody else in the lab get to go along with it. LW is the CEO of her lab. She is the decision-maker. We all probably disagree with our CEOs decisions at some point, but that doesn’t mean we get to go behind their back and give contrary instructions to other people at our company.
          -Back to the qualifications, LW is the one with the experience to determine writing and citations, not Jane. Again, the CEO is the one with the experience to determine direction of their company.

        4. anonymous73*

          Hard disagree. And the only thing OP needs self reflection on is putting up with Jane’s behavior for as long as she did. It should have been stopped sooner.

    3. Allonge*

      I am not quite sure what the advice to bring on a peer has to do with anything. Even if OP was looking for someone like that (and could afford to pay them), which part of Jane’s behavior would suggest she is the one to fill this job?

    4. LinuxSystemsGuy*

      I get what you’re saying here, but it’s not really how labs work. Especially labs in an academic context. People with PhDs are in charge of labs, and unless it’s a *really* small lab, their seconds are also PhDs.

      A person without a PhD might have significant authority over specific logistical or practical aspects of the operation: like an office manager might have a lot of latitude in ordering materials, or a head lab tech might have a lot of say in tech scheduling or something. But big pictures operational decisions about things like what experiments get done, how they’re done, etc are almost always made by PhDs with the approval of the lab director. They are assumed to be the people that best understand the science the lab is doing, why, and how.

      1. River Otter*

        And the reason for this is that the PhD degree gives both the subject matter expertise and the experience with publishing that are necessary to be a research faculty member.

    5. Ellis Bell*

      I don’t think what you’re referring to is classism? Also I don’t understand the disconnect between the two things you say are disconnected? Jane/Icarus was a junior employee, who had been there for a number of years, who was young.

    6. Unaccountably*

      If I have 40 years of experience, and you have three years of experience, and you tell me that you have more experience than I do and I point out that that is untrue, it’s not “classism.” It’s a fact. If I have a junior role and you have a senior role, that is a fact, not a piece of bigotry. If I have more education in an area than you do, and a more advanced degree,, and IT’S MY LAB, it’s not classism when I get to be the boss. That’s just how life works, and it’s not unfair.

      That’s all setting aside the fact that there is, in fact, literally no information about Icarus’ social class in any form of this letter. All we know is that she works in a lab and doesn’t have a PhD.

      1. anonymous73*

        Thank you. Not everything needs to be labeled and the only thing OP did wrong here was letting it go on for as long as it did.

    7. Dr Smartypants*

      I am a lab manager with advanced degrees who also is very great at fixing machines and in doing chemical analyses of things. The PIs I work with barely come in the lab, one of them has no idea how to make their own lab’s analytical techniques… I essentially run everything except getting the funds. I totally get Icarus/Jane, and I can see the classism here, it likely would still happen even if she was experienced and had advanced degrees as it doesnt matter how much experience she has, the lab is not hers.

      That said… being rude and combative is not the way to go. If Icarus/Jane wasn’t happy, they need to leave. Unfortunately academia has a pretty hierarchical structure and all in all, lab managers are in the bottom of it.

  13. LaDiDa*

    If you develop someone in such a way you need to provide them with opportunities or they become bitter and jaded. It isn’t an excuse for her behavior. When she realized all this extra effort wasn’t giving her any benefits she should have taken those new skills and knowledge and left.

  14. Dust Bunny*

    Hmm, I hope this doesn’t double-post:

    I feel like I’m not super comfortable with the update. The ongoing leeway for Jane/Icarus’ behavior *without* ascertaining that there was a valid underlying trigger; that the LW didn’t ask other staff about team dynamics and thus didn’t know they were being bullied until the very end; and “supporting” other staff by chewing J/I out in public don’t really sound like a manager in touch with or in control of their team. I would be very uncomfortable hearing even a terrible coworker get reamed out while other staff were within earshot is not super professional.

    1. Antilles*

      Yeah, I didn’t love the idea of talking loudly and letting people overhear it.
      If I was one of those co-workers overhearing OP screaming, I would be thinking that the manager has lost control of themselves/the situation. If anything, I’m probably walking away from that overhearing wondering if OP is the source of the problem in a “crap flows downhill” kind of way. Especially when Icarus’ behavior got worse afterwards, since it’s clear you’re just venting frustration but don’t have any real power.
      Such a public blow-up also makes it so others can’t pretend like they know nothing so it drags us into it – in the same way that if you’re out to dinner with a couple and they start arguing, you get dragged into it. And there will also be plenty of people who didn’t see/hear it, get a game-of-telephone version of the story, and get the impression that OP just blew up out of nowhere – which is why OP “had so many junior students (!?) meeting with me and pushing me to accept Icarus’ point of view on something”.

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        Screaming? No.
        OP said this: “I had a fairly loud and very firm conversation with Icarus in the lab itself (ie, I bawled her out in no uncertain terms)”. Fairly loud is not the same as shouting. It just makes sure that everyone can hear. And OP said that it was something they normally would *never* do — but it was a way to be sure that everyone got the same message in exactly the same words.

        1. Observer*

          It was still a very bad move.

          I have a lot of sympathy for the OP. But it just goes to show that someone can be a good person but a bad manager.

        2. Antilles*

          Okay. Let’s say it’s merely “a fairly loud conversation” and not active shouting. That doesn’t change a single thing in the way it comes across to others.
          It still makes it seem like OP is unable to handle the situation in an appropriate manner. It still ends up making you look powerless when Icarus continues to ignore you. It still is a public enough action that the rest of us are put into an awkward position. And there’s still the game-of-telephone thing where people who don’t hear it directly get a distorted view and think OP was over the top.
          It’s a poor way to handle things, full stop – whether it crossed the line into active screaming or just intentionally loud, it’s not the right way to handle the situation.

    2. urguncle*

      Agreed. The thought process of “I’ll chew someone out in public, that will fix their attitude and let my team know that we’re a group of mature adults that handle their emotions appropriately” is, in a word, wild.

      1. Koalafied*

        That was the part that made me grimace, but academia is… such a weird, ego-driven place (which is why I left it).

        Personally, even with a terrible petty tyrant of a coworker who has been making my work life miserable, I don’t particularly want or need to hear them be verbally castigated. Witnessing that performance doesn’t necessarily solve my problem, which is that a petty tyrant of a coworker has been making my work life miserable. I mean, sure, MAYBE publicly shaming the tyrant will have that effect? But also, maybe it won’t.

        Bottom line, I don’t need a window into the disciplinary process, I just need the end result to be that I can come to work and order supplies and do my job without being terrorized by a bitter colleague.

    3. Observer*

      Yeah, the OP is not a good manager. And while it’s true that firing is hard to do in that environment, it CAN be done. And also, as others noted in that update there were a LOT of things the OP could have done to make things better.

    4. pancakes*

      I’d be very uncomfortable with that too, and no more comfortable with it if I subsequently learned it was somehow meant to make up for months or years of inaction. It doesn’t. It’s just a bad way to manage people.

  15. cantthinkofone*

    Maybe Jane is smarter than you and frustrated about how you run things. Problems like this aren’t always a one way street.

    1. pancakes*

      Talk us through why this was a smart way for Jane to express her frustration, if that’s what she was doing. I’m curious to hear the explanation for that.

    2. Janet*

      “Smarter” without a PhD or years of experience? I’d say intelligence matters a lot less than subject-specific knowledge and expertise in a literal *science lab* and I raise an eyebrow at this framing. This is not “boss has a degree but no experience and is coming in trying to implement changes that work in theory but not in practice.”

      A better comparison would be the analogies of lawyer/paralegal or nurse/surgeon mentioned by other commenters further up in this post. Aka as a nurse/paralegal input might be helpful, but there are some calls the trained and certified doctor/lawyer is going to make because it’s their license and/or professional reputation on the line.

  16. OP*

    OP here! It’s so funny to see this again after several years. I’m happy to answer questions, if anyone has any.
    – How did Icarus/Jane do in her new position? Just as someone suggested in the comments, she did well for about a year in a honeymoon phase but ultimately she was sidelined due to her poor attitude.
    – I never have had any management training, although I read books on management and followed AAM which was also very helpful. My sister is an MBA in hospital administration and I relied on her advice also. Like all PI’s, I was hired solely for my scientific achievements and I had to learn to manage my lab on my own. I made a lot of mistakes, but my lab was not the worst by far.
    – I previously worked in the same type of job that Icarus/Jane had, many years ago. It was how I started out in science and it spurred me to get my PhD and work hard to get into my current position. So I was sympathetic to her frustrations.
    – After the small promotion I was able to obtain for Icarus/Jane, there were no other paths to promotions for her. This is typical for academic research labs. Yes, it sucks. This is why most people in Jane’s position stay only a few years and go back to school or seek industry positions. I counseled Jane many times to do that, but she did not want to.
    – Yes, there are “class” differences in the lab, between me, my technician, students, other employees. Because this is academia! Every job category and payscale is rigidly defined based on required degrees and years of work experience. It’s not something I have any control over; it’s our university’s rules. Icarus/Jane lacks a PhD and therefore she cannot be a PI, ever.
    -The jobs in my lab only exist because of the grant money I bring in, which I am awarded based on my personal academic reputation outside of the institution from writing academic papers (plus the hopefully cool ideas I write in my grant application). Someone else cannot just step into my shoes, even if they have worked with me for years, and even if they write about the same cool ideas, because they are not me.
    – In addition, people working in my lab are not paid by my institution but from my grants. For example, I recently retired and as a consequence my grants stopped paying out and everyone in my lab officially lost their job (some were re-hired in other labs; I was also careful that all my students had finished their degrees before I retired).

    1. Anon all day*

      Thanks for stopping by, OP!!

      For what it’s worth, whenever a manager/supervisor writes into AAM with an issue regarding one of their employees, there is always a small but loud portion of the comments trying to find any reason why the higher up is in the wrong and why the employee’s behavior is excusable. I think it’s a mix of people thinking of their own crappy bosses (and assuming that all bosses are crappy) and a backlash against capitalism (which, I get! lol, but still).

      1. Ellis Bell*

        Bingo and bullseye, Anon all day. Hi OP; thank you for this patient and interesting clarification!

      2. Koalafied*

        I’ve concluded recently that there’s a deep and strong relationship between the way the capitalist machine chews people up and spits them out, and the growing society-wide trend where people jump straight to assuming malicious intent behind everything that goes wrong. People start to feel like the reason they’re being chewed up and spit out must be because they’ve been chumps for ever giving an inch without thinking it would turn into a mile, and so the remedy must be to never give so much as a centimeter to anyone with any amount of power ever again.

        1. Janet*

          Yes, some commenters certainly see things through the lens of their own trauma, sometimes to the point of fixating on the least plausible scenario as the correct one.

    2. Hlao-roo*

      Thanks for coming back with an update and more info! I hope things have been going well in your lab the past few years!

    3. So long and thanks for all the fish*

      Thanks for chiming in, OP! Academia has a lot of suboptimal bits, but it sounds like in the end the issue is that Jane, for whatever reason, needed to move on because she’d outgrown the role but didn’t want to and was taking it out on everyone else. IMO, the only other thing you could have done (short of not renewing her contract, if that were an option? or could do for a similar situation in the future) is not just encourage her to move on but to keep an ear to the ground for positions she’d be a good fit for and send them her way.

  17. Ellis Bell*

    This is a really good example of a set of behaviors being so unexpected that you don’t have a readily available script for them, and the default is “Oh my god, what happened to you that you are behaving so strangely?!” Then the quest to understand “what is going on” begins in earnest. I think the safety net to avoiding that interesting, but irrelevant detour is just having, and being really clear in your mind about what the standard of behavior is. If that standard is breached, give the person a chance to explain the reasons, sure, but simultaneously be clear that reasons aren’t excuses. It’s all the more important to document poor behavior in situations where firing is difficult, so use the meetings with the employee to do that paperwork and make the pending consequences clear. It really is a kindness!

    1. OP*

      Yes, that’s exactly how I felt! “Oh my god, what happened to you that you are behaving so strangely!?”
      We had worked together happily for 20 years prior to the problems that I wrote about, so it was so very weird. I thought perhaps she was having problems in her marriage or was suddenly experiencing a mental health issue. I was concerned and overlooked her behavior too long for that reason.

      1. Ellis Bell*

        20 years?! Oh wow, I missed that detail. Yes, I would probably be trying to get her brain scanned or something.

  18. Will Work For Chocolate*

    I think one of the most important aspects of this post is one that *some* seem to be picking up on but really is pretty important and that is the industry in which this happened. Academia.

    As someone in academia myself, who is involved in processing terminations for our organization, I can say that, in the five years I have been doing this kind of work, I have NEVER ONCE encountered a situation where the manager who wants to terminate someone for behavior like Jane/Icarus’s did an effective job of managing the employee BEFORE deciding to terminate. Instead, middle management in academia sits on problems, tolerates bad behavior while pacifying those affected in the short term, and rarely (if every) follows up with the issue – so the issue festers and spreads. The vast majority of the time, these issues don’t even show up in annual performance reviews. I have seen so many “Jane/Icaruses” that have received 4/5 or 5/5 on their performance reviews, which were completed less than six months before their manager submits a request to terminate along with a word vomit explanation about how Jane/Icarus has been acting out “for years”, and the manager requests that the termination happen a.s.a.p. My office’s response? “Where’s your documentation of these issues and the steps you’ve taken to resolve it?” Manger’s response: “Huh?”

    In academia, good faculty and staff are promoted to management positions as a reward for their good service in a non-management rolls. The universities provide NO management training to newly promoted managers or the necessary budget and encouragement to seek out management training externally. So we have a combo of no management training plus non-management skill sets being rewarded with management responsibilities because promoting to management is the only way that a good employee can “move up” and make more money. No one doing the promoting thinks about the negative impact that promotion will have on that manager’s employees when they actually, you know, have to manage people and can’t.

    Additionally, I’d also be willing to bet that OP did not have an “expectations conversation” with Jane/Icarus or the department at large about the way Jane/Icarus’s promotion would affect (or not affect) the hierarchical dynamic in the office in terms of who “owns” or “controls” or “oversees” which projects and processes and who the other members of the department should initially defer to on those projects and processes. Jane/Icarus likely expected that with her promotion, it would be obvious to others in the department that she would become the point person on some things, and OP probably didn’t adjust that expectation for Jane/Icarus (if Jane/Icarus’s expectation was incorrect) or let the rest of the staff know that they should defer to Jane/Icarus on X,Y,Z and only bring it to OP if Jane was doing something really wacky.

    This lack of clarity probably led to some extreme frustration on the part of Jane/Icarus who responded by acting out, rather than calmly seeking clarity from OP and aligning their understandings of the new office dynamic. Of course, Jane/Icarus’s behavior is on Jane/Icarus, but the misalignment of understanding which may have sparked the behavior is on OP as the leader of the department. If Jane/Icarus was struggling because OP wasn’t managing the office well (effectively communicating changing expectations), it’s not really Jane/Icarus’s responsibility to manage OP’s management for the benefit of Jane/Icarus.

    If I was OP, I think I’d owe it to Jane to have at least one more conversation where OP lays everything on the table (spells out the inappropriate behaviors, asks what spurred those behaviors and explains that if they continue, Jane/Icarus is likely facing termination) and then Jane/Icarus has the opportunity to air their grievances in a transparent (but respectful) way. If Jane/Icarus says “OP, you gave me this promotion, and I thought it meant that I would oversee Project A, but then you kept undermining my management of Project A by telling Employee X to do things differently than I’d said”, then OP can say “Well Jane/Icarus, I did *not* intend for you to oversee Project A and expected Employee X to do what I had told them to do”, to which Jane/Icarus may respond “Then what changes in responsibility and ownership of work *did* you intend, OP?” and OP needs to know how to answer that (or ideally introduce the topic preemptively) clearly. If OP doesn’t already have an answer for that, well…. maybe OP shouldn’t be overseeing the promotion of subordinate staff, because all of that should have been planned out prior to the promotion.

    1. Anon all day*

      “This lack of clarity probably led to some extreme frustration on the part of Jane/Icarus who responded by acting out, rather than calmly seeking clarity from OP and aligning their understandings of the new office dynamic. Of course, Jane/Icarus’s behavior is on Jane/Icarus, but the misalignment of understanding which may have sparked the behavior is on OP as the leader of the department. If Jane/Icarus was struggling because OP wasn’t managing the office well (effectively communicating changing expectations), it’s not really Jane/Icarus’s responsibility to manage OP’s management for the benefit of Jane/Icarus. ”

      This is ridiculous. You’re treating Jane like a cranky toddler, not an adult.

      1. Will Work For Chocolate*

        I disagree. I literally said that Jane/Icarus’s behavior is her own responsibility. How is that treating her like a cranky toddler?

        1. Allonge*

          You are literally blaming OP for Jane’s behavior in the same sentence. It’s on Jane, but, actually, it’s on OP.

          Because nobody can be expected to go to their maybe not perfectly managing manager when they received disappointing news, and discuss it like an adult?

    2. Allonge*

      If Jane/Icarus was struggling because OP wasn’t managing the office well (effectively communicating changing expectations), it’s not really Jane/Icarus’s responsibility to manage OP’s management for the benefit of Jane/Icarus.

      I don’t get this attitude, it’s self-defeating to say the least.

      However bad any manager of mine was (and I had bad ones), it was my best interest to manage up, correct for their weaknesses, and generally take into consideration where they are not doing well. Not for them, but FOR ME. For my day-to-day sanity, for creating a positive relationship with them, for establishing my credibility when I needed to report them to HR, and so on.

      1. Will Work For Chocolate*

        Not sure how this is “self-defeating”. Management has all the power. All. of. it. If they can’t do their jobs well, it is shouldn’t be up to their subordinate staff (who make far less than them and have absolutely no power to effectuate change with bosses who aren’t open to it or don’t think they’re doing anything wrong) to teach them how to do their jobs better. Sure, ignoring the faults of your boss may make for an “easier” day in the sense that you don’t have a sour relationship when you have to speak to each other, but it does not help the subordinate to absorb the difficulties in doing their own work created by management’s lack of skills or poor communication, and that can only happen for so long before they drive their staff insane. People are not infinite wells of acceptance for their boss’s ineptitudes.

        1. Allonge*

          Management has all the power. All. of. it.

          No, they don’t, you are wrong. At the very least you can leave for another job.

          Managers are human. You, too could become a manager one day and discover what kinds of powers you don’t have.

          I had bosses who could not comunicate well. Was it frustrating? Sure. I did not ignore this. Could I have just… I don’t know… stood on principle and waited for them to drive me crazy? I suppose? But instead I went back to them, until we found a communication channel that worked. And I kept going back, politely, and insisted when I could and decided if I could tolerate what I could not change.

          And – look, if you prefer to stand on your principles instead of going into some kind of constructive dialogue/actions to make your life easlier, up to you I suppose, but then you are choosing to make your life even more difficult. YOU are choosing to. Because principles.

          1. Allonge*

            Sorry, just one more thing – it’s self-defeating because you assume that nothing will ever change, and dismiss the possibility for any change. I don’t feel responsible for teaching my boss how to communicate, I want to make my own life easier by working with boss to figure out what is possible. Or, at the very least, know for sure that this particular manager is not worth my time and I need to move on.

            And: apologies if I was rude above – you are by far not the only person who works with this ‘managers are all-powerful and therefore are responsible for everything that happens’ attitude; I find it incredibly frustrating in general, let alone in a case where we are explicitly discussing someone who could not fire Jane even if they wanted to.

      2. Koalafied*

        Something a lot of people don’t realize if they’ve never been a manager is just how much challenging work it is just to have a complete and accurate picture of what is going on in your employee(s)’ worlds from day to day. Throw in “no management training” and “also expected to continue individual contributor work while managing juniors” and you end up with a lot of managers who are flying very nearly blind, and alternate between neglecting their management duties and making clumsy attempts to get their bearings by flailing around when that blindness comes around to bite them in the ass.

        100%, a good manager knows how to keep tabs on what’s happening with their team without falling into the trap of micromanaging. They know when to ask questions and what questions to ask to surface things that people aren’t volunteering. But as an employee, you’re much better served by erring on the side of telling your manager exactly what problems you’re having and what redress you need instead of assuming they must be able to see it from their vantage point without having to be told.

    3. OP*

      – The promotion that Jane received was minor, but it increased her pay slightly so I thought it was worth doing. She was eligible for the new job category because she had finally finished her MS degree (with my close mentoring and with me serving as her thesis advisor). The new job’s definition was very clear that it did not change responsibility or ownership of work. It also had no bearing on her authority within the department vs. my lab in the slightest.
      – Our institution’s annual reviews are a joke! We have to rank our lab employees on just a few questions which are mostly unrelated to their actual work, such as “is this person supporting the institution’s values and mission?” and “is this person putting the patient’s needs first?” and “is this person recognizing the value of diversity?”.
      So yes, Jane mostly received 5/5 rankings on her annual reviews.
      It would have been much more helpful if our administrators would permit us to write up annual reviews that included actual substance about employee’s jobs, but this was not allowed. Administrators wanted to quantify the results and report them in aggregate, and thus they could not have employees ranked on very different criteria from lab to lab. Even though employees in different labs needed to have different skillsets etc.

      1. Will Work For Chocolate*

        Those review questions sound so familiar…. did we work for the same place? In all seriousness though, the performance review questions are so vague and untethered from how an employee’s performance aligns with their specific job responsibilities, and they seem to be the same at every institution! It’s like one university’s HR team came up with some general performance review questions as a “place to start” 20 years ago, administration adopted those questions as-is without clarifying them, and then every other university said “Yep – those look good to me!” also adopted them as-is, and called it a day.

      2. fleapot*

        The bit about you being her thesis advisor seems really important here! If she was employed in the lab both before and after she did the MS degree, I’d bet that there were shifts in the relationship and power dynamic here that would be very, very tricky to navigate. It might be hard to even *see* those changes from your perspective, in part because she (presumably) wasn’t a traditional student.

        This context makes me look again at your reference to helping Jane develop skills beyond those normally required for the position. I’d suggest that advising her thesis needs to be understood *very* differently from offering more standard (even generous!) support for professional development of an employee. You have very different responsibilities to her and her career once she becomes a student—and she would rightfully have very different expectations than she would of an employer. It sounds like those roles and responsibilities got fuzzy. Even with the best of intentions, I can see how a situation like this might lead to some resentment on both sides. Grad students are vulnerable, and in some ways Jane might have been more vulnerable because of her longstanding role in your department.

        Absolutely none of this is to say that you should have felt obligated to keep her on given the behaviour you described! It’s clear that she crossed professional lines here. But it sounds like your intuition is telling you that there was some kind of (unidentified) trigger for the deterioration of the relationship. If you’re still trying to untangle that, you might start looking there.

  19. Sick of Workplace Bullshit (she/her)*

    I wonder how many people the OP drove away by letting Jane get away with this behaviour.

  20. Cohen*

    I think this is likely to be because of burnout and being fed up of the job, people etc. I think the above are reactions to working at a dysfunctional environment for a number of years.

    I think it would have been more helpful to have a one-to-one as soon as she started to behave in this manner. You can then try and understand if she would be able to continue based on the parameters discussed.

    Also, just because a person gets promoted and a pay rise does not mean that they should be 100% happy at the job. May be the promotion should have happened a long time ago, pay rise was not substantial based on the work conducted etc…

    1. Observer*

      You know, I know a number of people who have suffered from burnout. Generally, they didn’t behave the way Jane / Icarus did. Because that kind of behavior is just not acceptable, burnout or not.

      It’s worth noting that at the new job something similar happened. Clearly the problem was not the particular job. Now, it’s possible that the issue was Academia and the way positions are structured there. But that still doesn’t excuse it – Jane was skilled and educated enough that she could have started looking for industry jobs. And in fact the OP does mention that a lot of people in Jane’s position do exactly that.

  21. angrytreespirit*

    This letter could have been written by my husband. He had a Jane who was combative and disrespectful right out of the gate when he started (she was an office assistant and he was the CEO). She had adored the previous CEO who had also been male. She would refuse to do something he asked for and then force him to micromanage her (for instance, asking his permission every time she emailed someone). My husband was wracked with guilt about it and let it go on way longer than it should have. He would come home looking like he was ready to cry every day. Eventually, she started turning the other staff against him, and writing letters to Board members listing all the ways he was failing (?!?!). Like, truly not all right in the head. She finally resigned with no clear reason. After she left he found a folder with his name on it in her desk that contained notes and accounts of meetings between them, basically a collection of all the reasons that the business didn’t need a CEO (?). So some mixture of narcissism / Napoleon complex / fried brain wires. I hope there aren’t many people like our Jane out there, but there sure are a lot of messed up unhappy people who need a good therapist.

  22. 3lla*

    I know this maybe doesn’t reflect well on me, but I see myself in Jane. In a past job, my manager was so deeply offended by facts and had a pathological avoidance of answering direct questions. As an example, I once asked, “what time is the meeting?” And she answered “it’s important that everyone come to the meeting on time.” So I said “Definitely! I just need to know when on time is, please?” And she said “being prompt is important for client meetings.” I said, “I am really not trying to be obtuse here, can you tell me the time of the meeting?” And she left me on read for the rest of the day. Everything was like this with her. And, every few months (after having a fruitless conversation like this most days!) I got too fed up to endure this, usually when I was called out for not completing something I’d asked for the necessary details on numerous times and ways to no avail, I would say “manager, I have asked you seven times to give me the password to perform that task. You have not done so, and that is why it isn’t completed.” She would tell me in response to this that I was deeply unprofessional, a poor communicator, and had attacked her. And then not speak to me except during the team meeting for a few weeks. I feel like that manager could have written this letter about me, for the crime of needing any information to do my job.

    1. fleapot*

      Are you… me? My last boss was *alarmingly* similar. The worst part for me? I’m autistic, and she knew that I was autistic, so the whole “your communication is poor” thing was both cruel and legitimately triggering. (And yes, it was stuff on the level of me asking “what is the deadline?”, and her answering “you must meet the deadline!” while refusing to specify a date or time. Not ambiguous stuff where I might have missed something in her intonation. Not something where she gave me spoken instructions and I might have had a working memory glitch. Basic requests for concrete information, in email or DM.)

      I see a few comments upthread suggesting that experiences like these make people likely to identify unreasonably with someone like Jane. In this case, I think the update makes it clear that Jane was legitimately crossing lines in her conduct. But generally? Enduring a genuinely abusive workplace does help a person to develop a sixth sense about this stuff. I wouldn’t rely on that intuition alone in any situation, but I’ve learned from experience that it’s risky to dismiss it.

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