my toxic former employee is poisoning my staff

A reader writes:

For the last 10 years, I’ve been the head of a community-based organization. My assistant director, along with at least a third of the employees, pre-dated my employment there. “Bob” didn’t seem to want my job himself, but the head of operations warned me about him, saying he was was a snake with loyalties only to the long-time employees who worked under him.

Sure enough, from the start, he made it clear he didn’t think I was up to the job. We eventually came to have what I thought was a functional working relationship, but it was still strained. I tried to find out why by gently questioning, but he never fessed up. It was just a general attitude of faintly sour disapproval, which was strange because the program improved and expanded under my leadership. Eventually, to my relief, he decided to completely retire.

What I didn’t know was that he was undermining me at every turn, and behind my back would openly sneer at me in front of other employees. I think that part of it was that my style was to build consensus and discuss things, which he interpreted as lack of confidence, when really I valued his and other employee’s feedback.

After I replaced him with a talented employee who did a beautiful job, I realized how entrenched his work had been; he had been running an expanding program as if it was still small. I have been very happy with the way things are operating since his departure.

But Bob has been meeting with some of my employees and trying to stir up trouble outside the office. When I had to make a decision to change some strategies, my long-time employees got very upset. There were no cuts, but staff had to change their traditional way of doing their jobs for a period of time, which led to much dissatisfaction. They met with Bob outside work, and he stirred them up. He still calls his friends from the office and pumps them for gossip about me, which they then spread around to others on staff. It’s a very weird dynamic. It definitely undermines my work.

The things Bob is doing — encouraging gossip, backbiting, and general negativity, which I hear from a few staff members who are still in touch with him — are downgrading my reputation in the eyes of the staff who worked with him over the years, even though he has left. It’s almost as if he’s on a personal vendetta. What can I do?

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

{ 135 comments… read them below }

  1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Is it weird that I thought this was going to be about actual poisoning? Like arsenic or salmonella?

    1. NeutralJanet*

      Right??? There are so many truly bonkers stories on here, I was ready to read that he’d hosted a little get-together at his home with “special” snacks and then everyone got sick or something. Obviously this is bad, but at least no one is being, you know, actually and literally poisoned.

        1. Catalin*

          I think there’s one in COVID related stories, either here or someplace similar. The gist was that a man (want to say manager/boss) went into the office knowing he had COVID and was contagious and gave it to an employee who everyone knew was frail and high-risk. The employee died from it, and the person writing in framed it as “everyone knows X killed Y”

          1. Sasha*

            Oh yes, there was “coworker told me after my serious accident that they were praying to God for me to die and not their crush”. That was definitely something.

            1. Vio*

              I remember that one, I think! What made it even worse was that after telling this person that they’d been praying for their death, they complained about not being invited to their wedding! “Hi, I want you to die and can I come to your wedding?” has to be pretty far up the list of things it’s never, ever OK to say.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I swear I read one not so long ago about a MIL who might or might not have been putting eyedrops in food.

            1. Miss Muffet*

              It is very interesting! I really enjoyed it and I think there’s a show of it on Netflix or amazon or something.

          1. SunriseRuby*

            I loved Emily Yoffe and remember those letters so well. I admired the letter writer for following both her literal and figurative gut, taking Prudie’s advice, and doing the switch of her aus jus and horseradish with her husband’s on the sly. I would love to know that the villainous mother and son were convicted of attempted murder and that they’re still rotting in jail.

          2. COHikerGirl*

            I remember the original. I don’t think I saw the update! Boy howdy is that MIL a piece of work. So glad I won the MIL lottery (twice!).

          3. Fishsticks*

            That is absolutely wild. Good on her for running as soon as she saw that her husband knew it was happening.

        1. Antilles*

          I don’t know about the eyedrops in food, but there was a strange story in Vice a few years ago about the author’s Grandma who regularly poisoned everyone in her life and everybody just sort of accepted it and worked around it.

          1. A Simple Narwhal*


            I understand the missing stair principle, but a missing two-mile wide sinkhole??

            1. Alias Sydney*

              Wow, that is just…craziness. Unimaginable.
              I can’t even begin to comprehend the whole thing.

          2. Andie Begins*

            Just looked this up and I realize your comment is not exactly a recommendation but I second it all the same!

        2. Random Dice*

          Dear Prudence. The mom was poisoning her DIL. One meal, MIL provided individual carafes of gravy, and DIL switched with her husband, who said she was making it all up. The husband got incredibly sick. Instead of hitting the roof at his mother for positioning his wife, he was furious at his wife. She left him.

          1. Middle Aged Lady*

            He knew, too. I will never forget the update to the story. She said when she saw the look in his eyes as she told fhe tale of the switched ramekins, she realized he was aware of his mom’s actions the whole time.
            Never found out the motive, though.

    2. Spilled Advocaat*

      Me too! A reversal of the person who got accused of poisoning when a colleague stole and ate their spicy food

    3. UKDancer*

      No I thought that as well. There was a chap in England called Graham Young who poisoned several of his colleagues in the 1970s.

      Aged 14 he had poisoned (non-fatally) his father and sister with thallium and antimony and was detained in a secure hospital. Unfortunately he was released after 8 years and went on to poison several of his colleagues with thallium, killing 2 of them and seriously injuring several others.

      Fortunately it’s a lot harder now to get thallium but the headline did remind me of that case.

      1. knitcrazybooknut*

        The Young Poisoner’s Handbook is a movie they made about it. Really creepy. IIRC, he killed himself in prison when it was discovered.

    4. Catwhisperer*

      After multiple employees casting spells on their co-workers and bosses, I was fully prepared for an intentional poisoning story.

    5. Dark Macadamia*

      First thought: actual poisoning?

      Second thought: wouldn’t it be funny if it was his own venom because he’s a dart frog or something

      Article: “the head of operations warned me about him, saying he was a snake” YESSSSSS

  2. Dust Bunny*

    This is so weird: He retired. He’s gone. Voluntarily, even.

    I’d like to think there’s a “reason” but it might just be that he’s a miserable b*****d who has to mess stuff up just so that nobody else has anything nice.

      1. Gerry Keay*

        If the internet has taught me anything, it’s that for some people, seeking out conflict IS their hobby. I think it has to do with the adrenaline rush but yeesh does it seem like an exhausting way to be.

      2. H.C.*

        Hovering at the Chipotle line & scrutinizing patrons’ guacamole add-ons (yes, mentally I’m merging them as the same Bob)

    1. Kapers*

      He feels bested and he’s insecure and desperately needs to tell and retell a story where he’s the victor and OP is the villain.

      At least that’s what it is in my eerily similar situation.

    2. ecnaseener*

      In all fairness, it’s a community-based organization so maybe as a community member he still cares about how it’s run. Obviously his behavior is over the top, but I don’t think it’s necessarily absurd that he continues to have opinions.

    3. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I wonder if it really was a voluntary retirement. I once worked with a guy very much like this till he abruptly retired, seemingly voluntarily. It came out about 18 months later he had pulled another favoring his special employees stunt to the detriment of another employee, and how he pulled said stunt could have gotten the company massively sued for disability discrimination. HR gave him a choice, retire effective immediately or you will be fired for cause. He chose retirement, but kept pot stirring with his former special employee group – who also kept harassing that employee who went to HR. Slowly but steadily, they all ended up leaving (combination or retirement and new jobs), and that was the only thing that salvaged the situation.

    4. Artemesia*

      I remember a retired administrator who returned to campus several times a week holding court in the small faculty cafeteria area. He wasn’t as bad as this guy, but some people really have no life. There was a lot of ‘back in my day’.

    5. Fishsticks*

      In an older job of mine years and years ago, the head of the museum I worked in LOATHED the assistant director, his second-in-command. LOATHED her. Explicitly went out of his way to do her career harm at every turn, tried to cold-shoulder her, went around her for things that weren’t his purview, etc.

      He was eventually fired for sending me a card mocking my father’s untimely death that he had put together using museum materials (I had left the job by then in part because of his ongoing harassment of me for being on good terms with the assistant director, but a former coworker who was still there was able to find materials proving what he did).

      Even after he left, he spent the next several years spending all of his time continuing to try to undermine her career. She was made director of tourism! But because this was a small county government and he was a good old local boy vs. she and I being “yankees” (she has lived in the south for literally 35 years but grew up in the Midwest and I came from a different Midwestern state, yes we have been called carpetbaggers), everyone just sort of believed whatever bullshit stories he made up about us long after he was fired, I was gone, and she was in charge of the whole department.

      She eventually retired. He never stopped harassing and badmouthing her until then. Actually, he might still do so, it just doesn’t affect her any longer.

        1. Gracely*

          If anything, he probably says “and then I was fired just for sending a sympathy card to a past employee!”

          1. Fishsticks*

            Ha! He sent me a card with a kitten on the front and “what goes around comes around, B****!” as his ‘sympathy’ card after my father died of a heart attack. It was all printed on the card so no one could prove it was him, except that it was mailed from the town he lived in and my former coworker found his initial failed attempts in the trash at the museum.

          2. Fishsticks*

            I didn’t even ask for him to be fired. I just said I wanted there to be some kind of discipline or repercussion for what he did and for him to undergo mandatory training if possible, and that I would need to see some kind of response or I would be contacting a lawyer for the county government allowing his behavior to go unchecked and continue to escalate for so long (I had filed multiple complaints about his harassment, abuse, and the time he was following me every time I went on lunch break because he thought I was ‘conspiring’ against him with the assistant director after she was promoted to director of tourism. There was a long history of him deserving discipline that never happened.)

            They fired him less than a week later.

            My new boss at the time was informed and brought his gun into our office (this is the South, he had it in his car anyway) because we were genuinely worried that he might do something violent afterward. Instead he focused all his anger on the assistant director/promoted Director of Tourism. He still just says she had it out for him and he did nothing wrong ever. And so so so many people believe him.

      1. Anonymous Today*

        This is the true nature of “Southern Hospitality”.

        I never spent much time in the South, but we drove though the South on a cross country trip when I was a child. The discreet “white’s only ” signs on the restaurants, the gas stations with their “ladies”, gentlemen”, and “colored” signs on them, the scary billboards with “Impeach Earl Warren” and reminding people to pay their poll taxes (I had no idea what those billboards meant, but they seemed threatening to me.) all made it feel like the sort of place where if you didn’t fit in you might not be safe.

        I have managed to avoid the South ever since and while I’ve been to Houston a number of times in more recent years and found it to be a perfectly nice place, I would never live anywhere in the South and continue to avoid the Deep South altogether.

    6. Joan Rivers Lives*

      Sometimes you can figure out which employee is the most toxic & enmeshed w/a former employee like Bob. So if you replace them it can change the dynamics w/others.
      Of course you’d do that because they aren’t doing a good job, not just because they’re chummy w/Bob. And it helps if the replacement is a positive person who fits in well.
      But group dynamics can change when one pot-stirrer leaves.

  3. Falling Diphthong*

    OP, consider that Bob has been tap dancing around so long with his giant blinking “I AM A PROBLEM” sign that you look there first–he was actually just the most vocal and highest ranked of a cluster of long-time employees who think Change Is Bad.

    I agree with Alison that when you lay out expectations for them, you should not mention Bob. If they cite him, refuse to be drawn into a debate with Ghost of Bob.

    1. Rex Libris*

      Yep. This is about your current employees. It’s very much a case of manage them up or manage them out.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      He really was a red herring: OP was more fixated on him because his dislike when employed there was more noticeable than that of his followers. He also seemed very much like a sneering misogynist with a very hierarchical attitude. However, none of those observed traits help OP understand why her staff actually appreciated Bob and stayed in touch. None of those observations helped OP understand why her staff were not getting on board with her. It helped her feel better that it was just the opinion of a jackass, sure, but what about identifying what makes the others tick instead? Are they resistant to change, any change? Are they lemmings who shy away from OP’s style of wanting to hear thoughts and opinions instead instead of just handing orders down? Are they actually pretty good with ideas, but they don’t trust OP to listen? OP needs to get over Bob and look at whether she can work with what she’s got. I’m sure she did, once she got over the shock of finding out about the Bob dinners. Which are a bit miserably negative and grim if I’m honest.

    3. Artemesia*

      I wish we had an update. Alison’s advice was spot on — the LW should literally NEVER mention Bob but instead assertively manage the staff through these changes and work to get rid of people who continue to obstruct. A strong focus on outcomes is needed.

  4. Eldritch Office Worker*

    Was this posted Monday and replaced with the job interview thing? Not a criticism just trying to decide if my brain is breaking.

  5. No Longer Working*

    Brava, Alison on your succinct directive on how to be a great manager (4th paragraph). All the advice a manager needs, summed up clearly. Perfection!

    1. Anononononononymous*

      Thank you for pointing to that paragraph specifically. I’m about to become a supervisor for the first time and I just copied that paragraph to keep as a touchstone.

      1. Fire Ferret*

        I’m not even a manager and I just copied and pasted that paragraph into a doc called “Good Advice If Your Ever a Manager”

  6. Back again*

    How are you even certain that you were being downgraded in the eyes of your employees?

    I’m thinking you just might have to release this. There comes a point where your employees thoughts belong to your employees even if you don’t like the thoughts. I would even find it odd that you keep contacting me about Bob Bob only has as much power as you give him. He’s annoying, but is he really a threat?

    .If there are employee performance issues, then you may need to fire them.

    1. Samwise*

      “The things Bob is doing — encouraging gossip, backbiting, and general negativity, which I hear from a few staff members who are still in touch with him”

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          Exactly. That’s why Alison focuses on OP being the best manager possible, a clear communicator, and willing to let people whocannot accept the organization’s new direction.

        2. yala*

          The point of the quote is for LW to explain the situation they’re in. It’s part of the picture, not necessarily something they can specifically fix.

      1. andy*

        Those people are gossipers. There is no reason for them to keep meeting with Bob and there is no reason for them to tell stories about Bob to op. Keeping relationships with with ex-colleagues is not all that unusual. But if you dont like them, you dont have to engage. And if whether you like them or not, you have zero reason to bring whatever they tell you to the workplace.

        If there are only few staff members to be in touch with Bob, then his reach is super small – literally only those few people.

        1. She of Many Hats*

          The employees can be social with Bob all they want. It’s their private life since they’re doing it outside of work. But they should not be bringing back the gossiping, backbiting and sabotage. Those behaviors which affect how the organization & team operate are what can be managed by the LW if they follow Allison’s recipe for a Good Manager.

          1. andy*

            But that is my point. These behavior at the 5 years later point being pinpointed on Bob is just avoiding to have look at the organization itself. If people within the organization are backbiting and sabotaging, then it is the culture of the organization itself. As long as these give people advantage within the organization, it will continue.

            Those who are sabotaging are at fault. And those who bring OP news about Bob meeting up with ex-colleagues are seriously likely just another competing group. Because at this 5 years later point, bringing up Bob primary serves to stir up OP.

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Yeah the truth is that anyone can get your employees worked up about things that are upsetting them. Their friends and family, their coworkers, anonymous redditors – many people that you have no control over. It’s annoying because you know this person and were hoping to have him out of your life, I do get that. But he is out of your life, and in this context is no different than a friend riling someone up while listening to them vent about work.

      What is under your control is how you handle the performance issues and how they’re impacting work and culture.

    3. Commendable*

      This isn’t a swearing site, so I can’t say exactly what I want, but agree OP needs to forget about Bob. Deal with any current employee issues as you normally would as a caring boss, but treat anything Bob says or does as a complete inconsequential activity.

  7. ladyhouseoflove*

    I know the letter-writer wrote this two years ago and I hope that there has been a positive update. I think it’s angering to think that this man would just not let things go—it’s like a school bully still tries to badmouth you even after everyone has long since graduated.

    1. Glacier*

      I had thoughts that if he was super bitter and toxic he could at some point be cause for alarm but don’t know if someone who retired vs was fired would retaliate with violence. Maybe that is too extreme but the fact that he’s still so enmeshed in the workings of the office isn’t normal behaviour.

  8. Smithy*

    Being mindful that this is a community organization that has grown, I just want to say that those growth processes can be painful and for some staff their experiences working with Bob may have been the parts that validated their experiences.

    For example, a small project growing means including more bureacracy – which will very often have pain points endured by junior staff who may feel like they’re being told by leadership to “glass full” their situation when they can’t yet see the growth vision once you get beyond the growth period. More collaboration is great, but how well it works is dependent on the systems in place to facilitate this smoothly. And until those are functioning well, more collaboration can be very time consuming, making the “old ways” seem faster, and that your past experience and expertise is being dismissed.

    This doesn’t mean that their unwillingness to see the new ways of working as a positive will work for the organization – but I do think it’s why the advise isn’t to shut down their communication with Bob on their own time. Bob may have been the only one to validate that frustration of not feeling heard at that time – and shutting it down may help individual bad actors, but it also doesn’t send the message you want to the broader team. Over time those who ultimately prefer being on smaller and less bureaucratic teams will leave on their own accord or may need to be let go. But this kind of growth often sucks and this kind of gossip as a result is also really normal.

    1. fgcommenter*

      Exactly. Sometimes, what is seen as toxic, backstabbing, and undermining, is actually valid concerns and criticisms.

      Community-based organizations that start focusing on growth can become more bureaucratic, less personal, more money-hungry, and all-around less helpful to the community mission it started with. People can have genuine frustrations and problems with that.

      1. Happy meal with extra happy*

        But there’s absolutely no indication of that here. Going down this path basically means giving advice that’s fully against the site’s rules: “I understand what you’re saying and your concerns, but have you ever considered that you’re either completely misguided and/or lying?

        1. Commendable*

          Not only that, it’s totally feasible that a person who was fine at managing a small team for a charity that was all about giving potholes, it’s completely incapable of providing any sort of guidance for a charity that is not about improving roads overall.

          If I were to violate the site guidelines and speculate, I’d bet Bob was all about the small charity being a family, and incapable of dealing with it when it became an organization.

      2. goducks*

        People can have valid criticisms and concerns, but at the end of the day if a decision’s been made by the head of the org that they’re moving in a direction, the only real choices are get on board or get out.
        Griping and subverting are never productive paths. Raising a concern constructively is fine, ideal even, but once the concern has been raised you (general you) have to let it go- either by abiding by whatever TPTB decide to do, or moving on to another job.

        1. Smithy*


          Honeslty – my comment was more about seeing the OP likely not being 100% in the right and Bob/Bob’s supporters not being 100% in the wrong. Rather, there’s usually more gray, and often the better moves going forward have to do with modeling behavior for all staff – including those who aren’t the specific focus of this letter.

          Like having a lower opinion of staff still engaging with Bob is understandable and very human. However letting that be a huge focus of how out of office relationships impact in-office treatment and respect…..that’s a choice I’d encourage taking a step back from.

    2. andy*

      It is super normal to not like changes. It is also normal to grow liking them after months. And yet also, it happens that changes are objectively bad for you or even bad overall while management refuses to listen.

  9. goducks*

    Turning an entrenched negative culture around is a really tough process. Bob almost certainly hired, promoted and rewarded members of his team that acted like he did, or supported his attitudes. It’s probably going to be impossible without removing some of Bob’s people. I agree with Alison that the LW should speak to each of them and lay out expectations, but the LW needs to be ready to move sooner rather than later to remove some of them.

    The good news is, if done well, the removal of a few of the Junior Bobs will encourage the fence-sitters in the group to move in the right direction-either because they see the writing on the wall for folks that don’t get on board, or because without the constant negativity in their ear all day, they find themselves more willing to be open to the change the LW is making.

    1. Mildred*

      Kings used to lop off the head of an occasional lord to prevent a general insurrection.

      Water follows the easiest route. If your employees realize that “following the Bob route” no longer guarantees job security, promotions and pay raises, they will change their tune.

      I’m sure you’ll have a few holdouts. When life has been good for someone under the current system, they are loath to change the system.

  10. Qwerty*

    I think Bob is being given too much credit here. Those employees engaging with Bob are likely his friends and probably active participants in the conversations. It’s easier to blame Bob as the boogeyman, but those employees don’t have to share any gossip about the OP and don’t have to give Bob any information.

    Bob’s work friends probably like talking to him and like venting to him about the job. He isn’t the one stirring them up – they are stirring themselves up. Which is easy to do in a group convo!

    Alison’s advice is spot on – eventually those employees will acclimate to the OP’s culture and tire of venting to Bob or they will move on.

    Continuing to meet with coworkers who you were close to is really normal, especially since Bob doesn’t have a new job to take up his attention. If Bob was being a positive influence, I doubt OP or the commenters would care that he was socializing with current employees so much. While I’m not saying OP is a bad boss, Bob + loyal squad seem to have thought so, and having a lot of venting sessions with your friend who “got out” is something I’ve seen a lot at toxic jobs.

    1. Sunshine*

      Ooh, I agree with this. The employees are either also toxic OR OP genuinely has some self-reflecting to do on their leadership. But according to the original comments, Bob left FIVE YEARS AGO. I think your employees just dislike you, OP, or are “mean girl” enough to talk crap about you with Bob even if they don’t. It might not even be your fault, but five years is a long time for them to actively participate in this kind of thing.

      1. Tommy*

        Five years ago thing suggest they are meeting Bob because they are friends with Bob. Bob would need to be manipulative mastermind to keep being able to manipulate unwilling people into meeting him that long.

        And also it suggests that both their discontent and/or gossipy politicking nature of the organization are something inherent to organization. That in order to improve or stop it, OP needs to fix something in the way the organization works. Most likely, they gossip with collegues, because that is rewarded within the organization.

        They are not moving on, because they are still employed in that organization and they don’t like some aspects of it. Some people being unhappy about state of organization is normal. Literally every single team/company I have seen had some. Sometimes they were right for years, sometimes wrong, but phenomenon of unhappy people does not requires outside influence.

  11. Antilles*

    One amazing piece of context that came up from OP in the comments of the original post:
    Bob’s departure had occurred five years in the past. OP had only found out about this backstabbing relatively recently prior to writing in, but yeah, Bob held that grudge and kept trying to undermine OP a full half decade after leaving.

    1. Kapers*

      Wow! Gossip/griping can be intoxicating in a way and I can see a former leader needing some kind of stimulation where’s he’s still “leading” after retirement. But holding on to that kind of negativity for that long is just not healthy (even if he were the best boss in the world, and OP is the worst, which seems unlikely.)

      I hope 5 years after retirement I don’t even remember today’s complaints, and if I’m still in touch with my team it’s to talk general life stuff, not department nitty gritty.

  12. Meow*

    I first read this as “my toxic employee is poisoning HIMSELF” and I thought “oh boy, here we go!”

  13. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Bob is just a drama/attention seeker. Because he’s no longer at the firm (and according to the comments has been gone 5 years) then there’s nothing you can do about him in particular.

    But current staff? That you can fix by being everything that ISN’T what he says about you. In time it’ll resolve itself because I seriously doubt there’s anyone who’s up for years and years of the same rants from one person. Even with my closest friends I’d be at ‘do you have anything to talk about other than this?’ point.

    In the future I dare say Bob isn’t going to have many friends or people willing to listen to rant number 5643 about a place he hasn’t worked at for a long while.

    1. Dr. Rebecca*

      Yes, that’s the point: “…where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago…”

    2. jane's nemesis*

      Yes, that’s because this is an Inc. reprint, as she explains before the link:

      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).

  14. Harriet*

    We have this happening at my workplace, which is a church. Former employees are poisoning parishioners. Can’t fire them! And it goes back a couple of pastors, so it’s not just the current one. Thoughts appreciated!

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      There’s no drama like church drama.

      Unfortunately, all you can do is continue to address problem spots as they come up and hope that folks self-prune themselves out of the congregation if they don’t like the New Way of Doing Things. Heck, you can even suggest it sometimes by “co-promoting” events at other parishes that you’d like to lure them to.

      1. Lady_Lessa*

        Amen about church drama. One of the worst that I have seen (evangelical) is changing the order of the service by moving when the collection took place.

        1. peacock limit*

          Our Christmas Eve service was taking longer and longer each year because the pastor kept adding special music to it (up to two hours, at one point), so the council proposed and voted that we move it to 6:30 instead of 7 one year. The pastor was livid that they moved it up, so it was written and announced that was at “6:30, per the council” in every possible scenario.

        2. Miss Muffet*

          Oh yeah, for sure. I think it’s a big-fish in a small-pond kind of thing. People will take power wherever they can get it and when they get it even in a small community they just love to wield it. Church councils can be some of the most toxic groups!! And our church organization requests that pastors that leave (for any reason, even retirement) don’t return to their former congregations for at least a year to allow the new person to step into the role without being undermined in any way, which helps avoid some of this.

    2. DingDong?*

      Yup, a relative who is a pastor’s wife just reported that a toxic parishioner finally died after ***2 decades!!!*** of undermining the church administration and leadership. Fortunately his family members (who were allies in his attitude) are starting to act more conciliatory and cooperative since his demise.

  15. Ffs*


    “Set clear expectations and goals and help people meet them; give lots of positive, sincere feedback when people do well and clear, actionable feedback when they should be doing things differently; meet regularly with people one-on-one to debrief recent work and problem-solve; address problems forthrightly; be kind but hold people accountable; talk to people about their own goals for their work and careers and help them make plans to achieve them; solicit input and give it a fair hearing; share your own thought process and how you’re making decisions; and talk explicitly about the kind of culture you want and enlist people in sharing their ideas about how to build it.”

    1. Alannagranger*

      Because it is hard! It’s easy to say it but all of those steps require a lot of skills to execute. You need to have a strategic understanding of what you’re doing, how you get there, and how each person on your team fits in that puzzle. You need to be empathetic and comfortable with productive conflict. You need to be able to manage your time and workload so that you can prioritize quality interactions with your staff while also doing the work you need to do to strategize and execute. I’m an above-average manager, I think, and maybe two things on this list come naturally to me. The rest is hard work and sometimes falling short and owning up to it and reminding myself that the hard work is why I get paid. And it’s getting up the next day and trying again and hoping that five years from now all those little steps will have added up and I’ll be a great manager instead of a pretty good one.

      It’s easy to say, hard to do.

      1. Kapers*

        I think a lot about poor management (as a newer manager who struggles, and as an employee who has experienced mediocre to terrible management in almost every role.)

        Your organization also needs to support and empower managers, but few actually do. Many won’t let you fire problem employees, or reward your better employees. Most don’t provide adequate management training and actually discourage transparent feedback. Many orgs have people managers still expected to contribute individually at unreasonable levels, leaving them little time to actually manage their teams.

        1. Tom*

          There is very little accountability for management. Especially when it comes to treating people with basic respect. A lot if bad managers stays at the positions, because no one cares.

          It is much easier to get rid to toxic low level employee then manager who regularly verbally abuses people under her. It is unheard of to fire manager that makes work less effective and harder – but not enough for complete meltdown. They hang on for years.

  16. Lab Rat*

    Read “Snakes in Suits” by Robert Hare
    Bob sounds like this, and his cronies are his “flying monkeys”.
    (I had a Bob, he’s retired too. His “Stepford Wives” are still my co-workers and are still programmed to torment me. I’m pretty immune now though.)

  17. Anon for this one!!*

    This could be my workplace, except our Bob isn’t retired, and this behavior almost certainly wouldn’t meet the (extremely bureaucratic, extremely rules-based) bar for firing employees. (Employees can be fired here — we’re not government— but this probably isn’t enough.)

  18. Tesuji*

    My first thought, when I saw what was basically “a group of employees are meeting out-of-the-office to discuss workplace conditions” is to wonder if this was a protected concerted activity for labor law purposes.

    I know Alison cautioned against taking any adverse action against them for other (good) reasons, but it feels like any time a manager is in the position of saying “I have a group of employees who are getting together to talk amongst themselves; what can I do about that?”, one answer should be that she better have a conversation with Legal before even starting down that road.

  19. Chickaletta*

    Confessionally, I felt myself in Bob’s position today when I sneered publicly at a request to include my boss in a meeting where high-level decisions were being made. It’s… months, years in the making and my reaction caught me off-guard, but is probably because for the last year and a half, I’ve lost confidence in my boss (I’m his EA) and I’ve gotten so used to my feelings that I’m starting to forget to conceal them.

    It all started when he made an off-hand comment to me last year about wishing for the company to sell out so he could get a golden parachute. This really struck me wrong, even if he was joking, because he is a senior executive who has the means to make something like this happen. Since then, I’ve been hyper-alert to his shortcomings and the ways in which he isn’t leading the company well. Fast forward to the last couple months when I’ve learned, confidentially (I’m not supposed to know), that our company will likely merge/sell-out this year and his wish for a golden parachute may become a reality. Now I’m even more alert to ways in which my boss isn’t doing everything he can to save the organization (i.e. I think he may be putting his own self-interest ahead of the company). It pisses me off to say the least. I find myself looking for ways to signal to other people that “hey, this person might not be on your side”. Hence, my obvious frustration when people ask to have him included in strategy and major decisions. (For the record, I’m aware of my bias based on his off-hand comment and have tried to fix this a couple of times by making lists of what I think he does well. Unfortunately, the lists only reinforce my concerns. And just last week I finally got to hear from another VP they have similar concerns about my boss so now I know I’m not the only one seeing it).

    I’m telling you this story because I know you tried to find out why Bob doesn’t like you, but it may be worth another shot asking him… Did he latch on to a comment you brazenly once made? Did he see something in your resume/interview/first days that put him off? Now that he’s not at the company anymore, he has less to lose and may be more forthcoming. I know if my boss asked me today about it, I would not be honest about my concerns about him while I’m still employed under him. I would be the only loser in that game.

  20. Heffalump*

    It may theoretically be possible to shape up, or move out, Bob’s flying monkeys, but I suspect it will take a while.

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