my employee gets stressed out and snaps at me

A reader writes:

One of the people I manage is a recent graduate; this is his first office role and he struggles with anxiety. When I assign him projects, he is immediately overwhelmed and panicked. No amount or type of support mitigates this, but the next day he comes in feeling much better. We then reflect on how easy it is to feel anxious when doing new things but that sometimes we just need to work through it, and how awesome is it that he was able to do X, Y, Z and get so far from where he was the day before.

I’m fine with all of this and helping him work through it to the amount I can, but when his anxiety is spiking, it is so evident that I have had other colleagues ask what’s happening.

The part that I’m finding frustrating is that when I give him feedback about his work, he often responds with very irritated sighs and an exasperated tone, and often argues with me about what I’m saying. I have historically just ignored this and responded calmly. After an initial bad response, he then goes and does what he needs to. Aside from these things, he is very smart and capable. I sat down with him the other day and calmly raised for the first time how he had responded in a scenario a few days prior (sighing, sounding exasperated), said it’s not a great dynamic, and asked his thoughts for how we could work together more effectively. He took the feedback well and was open about sometimes feeling overwhelmed. The problem is that this behavior continues.

When he reacts this way in our small, open office environment, what should I say in the moment? It’s incredibly irritating to make time to answer his questions and then have him respond in such an insulting way.

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.

{ 97 comments… read them below }

  1. Pansy*

    “the next day he comes in feeling much better. We then reflect on how easy it is to feel anxious when doing new things but that sometimes we just need to work through it”

    In the moment, you should say the things that you have been waiting for the next day to say.

    In some ways, you are having the same responses he is. In the moment, you aren’t responding as effectively as you could, but the next day, you have a more effective response. Is there anything from your advice to him that you could take away for yourself? As you think about how you can respond better in the moment, is there anything you can take away to tell him?

  2. CharlieBrown*

    As someone who also suffers with anxiety, I really feel for this guy.

    But regardless of the cause, his behavior still isn’t appropriate. I have sometimes had to take a moment alone to compose myself in these moments.

    I hope he gets some help in the long run, and not from his boss. The kind of help he needs isn’t part of her job.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Can anybody post the link in the comments. I can only read on my mobile device and search isn’t working right……

          1. ferrina*

            Ooh, I’d forgotten about “You don’t treat me as an equal!”

            Um, that’s right. I’m your boss. By definition, we’re not equals. I’m supposed to assign you work and give you feedback!

  3. The one who wears too much black*

    I remember this letter because it helped me realize that sounding exasperated and annoyed at work was one of those warped work norms I had picked up from a former job. I also really feel for this guy because, in my experience, work requires a significantly higher level of emotional regulation than had been required of me at my previous job (which I got right out of college).

    1. Sloanicota*

      I agree, I worked in an office where people were generally tense and unpleasant for some reason, and several years later I’m still trying to shake off my sense of the norms around this. I feel like I developed an uncharacteristic shortness of temper at that job and once you start “snapping” at people it becomes a habit :( Other than excusing yourself or taking a pause I still haven’t quite figured out how to retrain myself honestly.

  4. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    This sounds like OP and Newby both need some strategies. And maybe they can work them out together.

    Maybe OP should give new assignments to Newby near the end of the day, so that 8 hours aren’t wasted stewing and worrying. And Newby needs to give themself a pep-talk before a feedback session with OP so they don’t walk in with their back up.

    1. Observer*

      The last thing either of them needed was to try to work it out *together*.

      In fact one of the strategies the OP needed was to figure out how to be LESS involved in Employee’s issues and strategies.

    2. Lady Blerd*

      “Maybe OP should give new assignments to Newby near the end of the day, so that 8 hours aren’t wasted stewing and worrying. ”

      That’s not reasonable in most jobs. Sure supervisors should be mindful of when they drop some news or requests but the issue is on the employee here. Imagine if your boss needs a crucial last minute report for the next day at 8am, or if the boss or even the employee is too busy all afternoon to talk etc.

      1. CharlieBrown*

        Yes, but we don’t need to develop a one-size-fits-all solution. If OP can find a better to deliver his regular assignments, it will make it easier for him to deal with the one-off situations, as he’s experiencing less stress overall.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          From the update it sounds like manager did try some other ways to deliver assignments, and employee took that as an opportunity to attempt to argue with them about “who should complete” the assignments.

          In the end it sounds like it was a case of bad fit at a company that would leave employees without support.

          1. CharlieBrown*

            I read the second update and it sounds like there were a lot of missing stairs there. Yikes!

            1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

              Yeah, my above comment was posted after just the first update. The second update makes me just sad, for both OP and the employee.

          2. Mongrel*

            Yeah, when the employee is figuratively shouting “You’re not the boss of me!” to their boss…
            Things aren’t going to go well.

  5. LoFiCafe*

    Coming from a background of severe trauma, my perspective on this is he’s experiencing a self defense mechanism. For his own reasons, he responds with fight/defend/fawn and it’s classic to be able to better organize and manage those thoughts and feelings after an overnight sleep or distance.
    OP is doing everything they can and more without being a professional therapist, it is the workplace after all, and I would have appreciated such patience a lifetime ago when I had to deal with this personally.

    1. Ann Ominous*

      Well explained! I wonder if the letter writer also has a fawn response (I’m thinking about her under-response to him snapping like that).

  6. Essentially Cheesy*

    From my own personal experience dealing with anxiety and stress, I can only postulate that this is a maturity related issue. The behavior improves with time but the person needs to really work on this and have some self-awareness about the situation.

    1. Meow*

      It feels problematic to say this is a maturity issue when the employee has disclosed a mental health issue. It’s likely that the employee’s anxiety is causing this behavior. It’s still his responsibility to determine how to appropriately deal with his anxiety, but framing it as an unfavorable personality trait or characteristic is unkind (and untrue.)

      1. Pansy*

        I don’t see in the letter where the employee disclosed anything. All we know is that per the LW, the employee struggles with anxiety.

        Anxiety does not always mean generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Anxiety is present in mentally healthy people, as well, and is common in situations where they are doing something new. Increased maturity can decrease situational anxiety.

        1. BubbleTea*

          I DO have a diagnosed anxiety disorder and I agree that increased maturity, or at the very least increased life experience, can help. The more experience I have of realising that my anxiety was not predictive of the outcome of a situation, the less I am controlled by the anxiety.

      2. The OTHER Other*

        I just re-read the letter twice, the LW never said the employee disclosed a mental health issue.

        I agree with essentially cheesy, and think even more strongly that the employee has a maturity problem.

        “when I give him feedback about his work, he often responds with very irritated sighs and an exasperated tone”—this is the behavior of a snotty teenager, and it doesn’t belong in the workplace. It has probably hurt him in his career, though it’s somewhat hard to say given it seems this workplace is pretty dysfunctional.

        I can’t imagine acting this way towards a boss, let alone howling about “not being treated as an equal”, without there being immediate terrible consequences. Hopefully this guy will grow up. If he doesn’t, it’s better that he remain low on the totem pole so he’s unable to act this unreasonably towards others and infect them with his awful attitude.

  7. Heidi*

    Just finished reading the updates to this letter. I feel like the whole thing boiled down to the OP working in an unsupportive environment and left to flail. I hope the OP is in a better work situation now.

    1. RJ*

      I cannot upvote this enough. And as a fellow sufferer of anxiety, open floor plans only make it worse.

      1. Meep*

        My husband thinks I am a weirdo, because I could have literally nothing on my screen and I still hate people looking over my shoulder.

    2. Warrior Princess Xena*

      Ditto. I went back & read the update and still think that having an office/closed room would have helped. at the very least having a space to destress for 10 minutes would be helpful – a quiet room or anything like that!

    3. Curmudgeon in California*


      Open plan offices are hell. That’s a big part of why I insisted on 100% remote. Plus the fact that Covid is not over and open plan is a germ pit.

      I have several years worth of studies and articles about it. It doesn’t improve “openness” or “collaboration.” It’s just cheaper for the company.

  8. Goldenrod*

    This is the kind of letter that amazes me. I feel like my behavior has been monitored to within an inch of my life, in almost every job I’ve ever had. It’s never been okay to show irritation or emotion or argue with a boss.

    It is amazing to me that some people just let it all hang out and get away with it!

    1. E*

      Professionalism is a tool of oppression and often harms people who have been marginalized. It is part of white supremacy culture.

      In 2022, we bring our whole selves to work, and we work together to foster environments that nurture inclusivity and collaboration. It is okay to show emotion at work.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I hope you’re being sarcastic? Basic adult behavior is not oppressive professionalism and “bringing your whole selves to work” is not permission to snipe and eye-roll at each other like elementary-aged siblings. And, frankly, if my friends and siblings behaved this way with me I’d want to know what the heck was up–I don’t want to deal with this in my private life, either.

        1. Meep*

          Lucky for you that you have not realized this, but it is reality for many.

          The one good piece of advice my toxic manager gave me was that I couldn’t get angry, because if I did so I looked like a b*tch. If my idiot male coworker got angry at me, he just looked assertive.

          I am a white woman, but it is far worse for black women who are stereotyped as loud and aggressive. Hell, even their natural hair is considered “unprofessional”.

          1. turquoisecow*

            I mean the employee in this letter is a man and no one finds his behavior okay so while it’s certainly true women do face more issues with emotion showing, I don’t think men get a free pass. This one definitely didn’t.

            1. Meep*

              I am responding to Dust Bunny belief that “professionalism” is not steeped in racism/sexism in general. This case is an outlier. And even then, he didn’t view OP as his manager, because of what was between her legs if you look at the updates. So no, man did get a free pass.

      2. Xantar*

        Certainly demands for professionalism can be used for oppression just like tone policing or appeals to courtesy. But professionalism is also a desirable thing to have in the workforce, and it wasn’t invented as part of white supremacy. I can assure you that the concept of professionalism also exists in Asian companies.

        1. Pansy*

          “I can assure you that the concept of professionalism also exists in Asian companies.”

          And also manifests as hegemonic oppression. Might be different sprinkles, but it’s the same cupcake.

          1. CharlieBrown*

            Might be different sprinkles, but it’s the same cupcake.

            Do you mind if I steal this? I have a lot of uses for it.

          2. Xantar*

            Of course it’s possible for the concept of professionalism to be abused. That doesn’t mean it is always a worthless concept. I’m not sure what point you think you are trying to make.

            1. Pansy*

              My point is that even when professionalism is not part of white supremacy, it is still rooted in certain behaviors being better suited to professionals, and therefore certain people being better suited to professional positions bc they exhibit those behaviors, always upholds the hegemony of the upper classes.

              1. tessa*

                I hold a professional position and I’m not upper-class. Neither are most of my peer colleagues. As such, one of us are hegemonic.

                *sigh* I just don’t understand why straightforward problems can’t just exist here as they are. What is the point of turning these situations into hammers in search of the nearest nail? I mean, the guy is being continuously rude, and there’s no valid reason for that.

          3. Eyes Kiwami*

            What a bizarre opinion to hold. Professionalism exists around the world and is not always a sign of “hegemonic oppression.” I wish oppression only manifested as not getting to snark at your boss!

      3. Observer*

        In case you are trying to guilt people who expect coworkers to act like adults in an adult workplace, I would point out that the reverse is true.

        Professionalism is more often than not the thing that HELPS people who are marginalized. And so is NOT bringing “your whole self to work.” Because a PROFESSIONAL knows better than to be rude to a customer, coworker or manager because they “have an issue” with some aspect of the other person. And the best thing that can happen in a workplace is that people leave the parts of them that are rude, entitled, and / or bigoted firmly OUT of the workplace.

        THAT Is how you foster inclusivity and collaboration. Because people won’t feel included of others are allowed to bring the bigoted parts of them to work. And people will not collaborate if they know that the people they are supposed to collaborate with are going to be rude to them whenever those people don’t like something.

        1. CharlieBrown*

          Unfortunately, this emphasis on “professionalism” usually centers a very WASPy type of behavior, and anyone from a different culture who tends to be even a little louder or a little more forthright is automatically seen to be bossy or aggressive, even when they are not.

          You are correct that rudeness is not a part of professional behavior, but “rudeness” is often viewed through a lens of race, gender, or class. I’m glad that you have apparently never had to deal with that, but there are lots of people here who have.

          And this same emphasis on “professionalism” also hurts those people who as kids were not exposed to type of behavior, either because of race or poverty.

      4. Generic Name*

        I appreciate where you’re going with this comment. That said, I super don’t want to be yelled at by angry coworkers who are “bringing their whole [angry] selves” to the workplace.

      5. Gerry Keay*

        I find this comment frustrating because there’s a lot of really important, juicy, nuanced discussions to be had about the connection between corporate professional culture and White supremacy. But takes like this, which are both hyperbolic and overly broad, end up confusing people, making them defensive, and obfuscating meaning.

        There’s a lot to be said for paying attention to how professional norms get enforced, the end goals of those professional norms, who benefits from them, etc. Dismissing any and all aspects of professional norms as oppressive is not the way to do that. Emotional regulation is an important skill for people to have and use in nearly all social situations, and asking adults to regulate their emotions at work is not White supremacy.

        1. Pansy*

          Emotional regulation applies to everybody in an interaction, though. When one starts tying emotional regulation to exhibiting behaviors that correspond to “professionalism” only in certain people, then you start to get oppressive environments. For example, in this situation, one could advise OP to work on her emotional regulation to be less bothered by her direct report rolling his eyes. I bet that would go over like a ton of bricks in this comment section.

          OP actually phrased her requests with the language of “working together effectively.” Taking her at face value, this is a fairly open approach which doesn’t make any assumptions about who is most responsible for making the interactions better and thus avoids the whole professionalism pitfall.

          1. Gerry Keay*

            I swear I feel like I’m reading a different letter. I’m pretty sure that if you’re at the point of refusing to do work and being actively antagonistic to the people around you, it’s time for the person refusing to do work and being antagonistic to take responsibility for those behaviors.

            And ya know what, if OP had written in saying they were giving an emotionally heightened response to employee’s eye rolling, I think people *would* tell OP to regulate their emotions better.

            “People are allowed to feel things” =/= “People are allowed to behave however they want because of their feelings.”

          2. Panhandlerann*

            It seems like OP is “regulating” her emotions so much that she’s not reacting strongly enough to this guy’s eye-rolling and such.

      6. Parakeet*

        You aren’t wrong about what “professionalism” often means, but the LW and the employee are real, individual people who were engaging in actual specific behaviors that had an effect on each other and the other real, individual people around them. They aren’t avatars for theoretical concepts, characters in a Social Justice 101 morality play.

        This isn’t directed solely at you – I see this in a lot of places, in this comments section and elsewhere, where people treat real people experiencing real problems, like screens to project their models of how the world works at the macro level onto.

        1. GythaOgden*

          Thank you. I’m dealing with the reverse of this — management not doing its job and letting down some very sick patients — and whichever side you’re on, a lack of professionalism in your colleagues is frustrating and depressing. I’m on the verge of simply walking out, but wouldn’t do that to my immediate colleagues. I do have my CV ready to upload to job sites, though. I don’t want to work in a democratic workplace — I want to work somewhere where I know what I need to do and am given the tools to do it, and since I’m in the public sector (at least at the moment) I’m serving my community rather than some commercial enterprise (though I wouldn’t mind being in the private sector at all).

          The perfect is the enemy of the good. In an attempt to make the world a better place, social justice is a rapier, not a steamroller. Things still need to get done, and a lack of management has also proved to be a problem.

    2. NeedRain47*

      It’s not okay to argue, but it should be okay to have feelings at work and even to disagree without getting punished for the mere fact of disagreeing.I’m sorry you’ve been treated like that but just b/c you have doesn’t mean we should continue that way.

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        No one is arguing that people should be punished for disagreeing. This wasn’t simply an employee who was disagreeing, he was arguing (which you yourself state isn’t okay), and behaving in an irritated and exasperated way. He’s allowed to feel anything he wants, but he needs to be able to express those feelings in a healthy and productive manner.

    3. Cat Tree*

      Sometimes when behavior is just so bizarre and unexpected, the manager kind of gets flabbergasted and doesn’t really know what to do.

    4. WillowSunstar*

      Agreed. I’ve never been able to get away with showing emotions at work or argue with a boss. Could be a gender difference.

    1. CharlieBrown*

      There is a search box at the top of the sidebar on the right. If you copy and paste the title (“my employee gets stressed out and snaps at me”) into that box, it will be after the sponsored results.

  9. NeedRain47*

    Maybe, and hear me out now, we should acknowledge the fact that people have emotions and are even allowed to have them at work. Working in a small open office makes this an absolute nightmare. You are in “public” every single minute and if you are upset everyone knows it even if you haven’t said a cross word. Even if someone is working on their tendency to panic, you’re setting them up for failure with an environment where they have no privacy at all.

    1. Observer*

      The problem here was not the Employee “had emotions”. It was that he was being a jerk and spiraling out of control in situations that really didn’t warrant it.

    2. I should really pick a name*

      People can have emotions, but they are still responsible for their behaviour.

    3. neeko*

      There is having emotions, and there is being rude. Dramatically sighing and arguing with your boss about feedback is not going to get this person far.

      1. NeedRain47*

        I guess I should have spelled out specifically rather than thinking anyone would assume I’m not a complete idiot. Yes, I am aware that yelling at people is rude and it’s not acceptable to yell at your boss. However I also find it unacceptable for bosses to try to mandate anyone’s emotional state, which is how the letter and response both come across.

        1. Jennifer Strange*

          That’s not how it comes across to me. They’re talking specifically about his actions, which he needs to be able to control.

        2. neeko*

          The OP isn’t doing that though. It seems more like she has been honestly going out of her way to NOT mandate his emotional state.

        3. biobotb*

          Trying to get someone to stop dramatically sighing and rolling their eyes when asked to do their job is trying to get them to regulate their emotional state?

        4. Ann Ominous*

          “ However I also find it unacceptable for bosses to try to mandate anyone’s emotional state, which is how the letter and response both come across.”

          I’m curious what in OP’s letter read that way to you. I read it as her trying very hard to make allowances for both his emotional state and the rude way it came across (too many allowances in my opinion).

          I didn’t see where she said he shouldn’t feel a certain way, just that he shouldn’t roll his eyes and argue and sigh heavily.

        5. Unaccountably*

          Eye-rolling is a behavior, not an emotional state. Neither your eyeballs nor the muscles that control them have emotions.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        This. SO MUCH THIS.

        It’s okay to have thoughts and feelings – but it is never okay to lash out at and belittle or insult your coworkers. The employee was at risk of becoming that toxic person who can “technically” do the job but that nobody wants to work with because his interpersonal skills were not good.

        1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

          We all have feelings but I still think the employee was over the top. He should hsve practiced coping so he wasn’t so mean to his boss ( sorry my mind is mush. I hope my meaning comes across)

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            I think we’re trying to say the same thing – that it’s okay to have feelings, what isn’t okay is expressing those feelings in a way that is rude and insulting, which is what it sounds like the employee was doing in this case.

            It’s never okay to use your coworkers as emotional crutches (or family members in 99% of cases). What would help this employee the most would probably be some courses/classes/sessions in emotional regulation. There are better ways to deal with frustration than what he was using per the letter.

    4. Kella*

      The experience or expression of emotion, and engaging in specific behaviors that indicate annoyance, frustration, and disagreement, are two separate things. You can feel frustrated and choose not to argue with your boss, roll your eyes, or make nonverbal sounds of annoyance. If you truly cannot control what your face does when you are experiencing big emotions, you can ask to be given a moment to compose yourself, or at the very least use words to offset what your face is saying, “Got it, I’m on board, I’ll get right on that.” But if you are both feeling frustrated *and* choosing to communicate frustration, then that’s a problem, unless you’re actually seeking to solve a problem.

  10. Dust Bunny*

    Exasperated sighs and arguing (as though he knows better than you do) about stuff that makes him anxious (because it’s relatively new to him) is an especially bad dynamic. He hasn’t earned the right to be exasperated, never mind have grounds to show it.

    1. CharlieBrown*

      He has every right to be exasperated. Good grief, people are allowed to have emotions.

      But in a professional environment, we must exercise control over which emotions we choose to display.

      This concept that “I have suffered, therefore others must continue suffer” is evil and must end.

      1. Sunshine*

        I don’t think Dust Bunny was suggesting that he should suffer in any way. Exasperated is an emotion describing someone who’s fed up with something, but new guy hasn’t been there long enough to be fed up – that’s how I interpreted it. Frustrated, maybe, but receiving feedback is a very normal part of starting a new job! Exasperated is not the right attitude to take in that situation.

      2. Eirene*

        Sighing, rolling your eyes, arguing with your boss, and then pretending none of it happened the next day is not exasperation, and you do not have the right to exhibit that behavior. Being exasperated because you’ve been asked to do your job within normal parameters or have received constructive feedback that will help you do your job better is not a valid emotion in the first place. Some emotions are not valid, and you just have to get over them.

  11. Lady_Lessa*

    I’ve gotten into trouble with eye rolls at work, even that was the only way I was expressing my disagreement with my boss. Not sure how I could have handled it, since she was coming from making pound cakes with all ingredients nice and even and was working in an area, where I had a lot of experience making cakes where all of the ingredients were balanced even if you were adding pinches of some things and cups of another.

    Another issue, she insisted on things that came from the supplier called “Liquid shortening” and I was using “vegetable oil” even though in use, they were identical.

    1. Kella*

      You can conceptually recognize that your boss is being ridiculous while not physically rolling your eyes and while displaying a willingness to do the things she asks for. Physically rolling your eyes, especially at someone whose job it is to tell you how they want things done, is disrespectful and dismissive.

    2. Eyes Kiwami*

      I’ve never heard of a workplace where it was OK to roll your eyes at what your boss says! That’s considered pretty rude!

      How would you feel if your boss rolled their eyes at you, would you feel respected?

    3. Citra*

      “Not sure how I could have handled it?” Maybe try not rolling your eyes like she is insufferably stupid, because that is how eye-rolls read, and actually speak up.

      Also, while your “pound cake” example is quite confusing, I guess you’re saying in your last line that she wanted you to use a particular product from a supplier, but you were using a different product? It’s totally normal for her to want you to use what their supplier provides. That’s not eyeroll-worthy at all.

      Nor is it eyeroll-worthy for her to have you do it the way she/the company you work for now wants it done. You seem to think you know better than she does, and maybe you do, but what you do in that case is ask why she wants it done that way, or say, “I’m used to doing it this way, would that be something to try?” or something, instead of just rolling your eyes.

      1. Juicebox Hero*

        As near as I can figure, the pound cake example means that the boss only ever followed a recipe, whereas the commenter made more elaborate cakes and had to tweak the ingredients, thus making them the better baker.

        Which is irrelevant, because the boss is the boss because she knows how to manage a bakery, and being a good baker doesn’t qualify someone to be the boss.

        And I think the boss was calling the product “liquid shortening” while the commenter was calling the same thing “vegetable oil,” which is just one of those things where you have to bite your lip and dump it in the batter. You might be right, but there’s no way to express that without coming off as petty and insubordinate.

        1. Juicebox Hero*

          And after some googling, liquid shortening and vegetable oil aren’t the same thing. Liquid shortening contains hydrogenated oils and emulsifiers to that keep it liquid at room temperature. I don’t know if it makes a difference in the finished product, but not using what your boss tells you to use is a no-no and calling an ingredient by the wrong name is… wrong.

  12. Evan Þ*

    There was a time at my old job when I also got stressed out at work and sounded exasperated, so I had a lot of initial sympathy for the employee here. In my case, it was because I had a lot of unscheduled overtime, so I’d start getting stressed when the signs seemed to show a super-urgent project coming in that would mean four or five hours (maybe less, maybe more) of overtime that night.

    My boss was great; he talked with me about it and gave me some good strategies in the moment. The overtime wasn’t his fault at all; the policy came from upper management, and he gave me full support when I was trying to empower other teams to handle some of the super-urgent projects themselves. But the real solution was my getting a new job.

    So I guess the takeaway from this would be: Make sure you’re giving the employee reasonable projects that aren’t objectively stressful. But if he’s also reacting badly to feedback, that makes things a lot harder.

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