update: I think my employee is being maliciously compliant

Welcome to “where are you now?” season at Ask a Manager! Between now and the end of the year, I’ll be running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

Remember the letter-writer whose employee was being maliciously compliant? Here’s the update.

I read through all the comments and realized that Eric was not an employee who was able or willing to improve. I decided to be more hands-on and clear about my expectations in an attempt to have solid ground to fire him, but because of a a family wedding on my end and Eric’s lack of availability on his end, almost a month passed before we’d be in the office together.

And then the Friday before his next scheduled shift, he called my supervisor and put in his notice, effective immediately. He came in on Monday to return keys and I initiated a pleasant conversation about his new opportunity. He was heading to a larger organization than ours, doing the same type of work.

It took a couple weeks to convince myself that I tried everything I could and I wasn’t a bad manager, but it was a hard feeling to shake. However, it’s been about 2 months, and yesterday I forgot his name for a moment.

Thank you, and thanks to the many commenters who revealed to me that his behavior was way out of line. I can’t believe I spent over a year letting him manipulate and gaslight me into thinking his failings were my fault. I thought that was something that couldn’t happen to me, but it just goes to show you how people like Eric know what they’re doing, slowly and subtly eroding your confidence.

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. Looper*

    Glad you’re rid of him! it might be worth looking into managerial coaching to prevent a situation like that from happening again and/or help you gain perspective so you can address issues objectively instead of taking “blame” or feeling negative emotions about the behaviors of others. You sound like a great manager! Bad employees happen, even with the best management.

    1. Witch*

      Yeah, you’re not to /blame/ but there are lessons here you can learn.

      Mostly around gut-checking yourself and upping your confidence! Firing someone for what feels like a “small issue” can be a lot mentally, but often those small issues aren’t small. They’re big. They’re annoying.

    2. Fluffy Fish*

      Agreed! Not because OP is a bad manager – in fact by all account they sound solidly in the good manager category.

      More to give them confidence in their abilities and assessments and it never hurts to add new tools.

      1. Looper*

        Exactly! In the original letter she expressed so much guilt around Eric’s behavior, which is entirely out of her control. Her loyalty to her team is commendable, but she should feel empowered to make tough decisions without feeling like they will cast a shadow on her.

    3. ariel*

      Yep, sounds like this is a reminder to empower yourself to do your job – and let go when there’s nothing you can do with a problem. Congratulations, OP, long may you forget ole whats-his-name.

  2. Nea*

    “He was heading to a larger organization than ours, doing the same type of work”

    I can’t help but wonder if he got up to the same nonsense there.

    1. Juicebox Hero*

      Yes, especially since in the original letter LW said he went around telling everyone he didn’t like the job and wanted to so something else and be in charge. Maybe his new boss is a man so that makes everything OK (heavy sigh).

      1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        Are we sure that the original LW was a woman?

        Sometimes – especially in AAM – there often is a presumption that gender plays a role in EVERYTHING.

        1. TheseTinyKeyholes*


          “Through all this, he has shown a disdain for me as a boss, which I, and others, suspect has to to with me being a woman.”

          1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

            Removed; as a man, please stop telling women sexism doesn’t exist. – Alison

    2. Selena81*

      it sounds like a lateral move rather than up (did he somehow get wind of LW being done with him and rush to apply with every nearby company ?).
      So presumably he quickly fell into the same to-good-for-this-job attitude with the new boss.

    3. OP*

      OP here. After I sent Alison this update, another employee mentioned that she hears from Eric quite a bit. He is really enjoying his new job, especially that it is full time with benefits, something we couldn’t offer him. I wish him well and hope that he has found peace in the same way I have.

    4. OP*

      I’m not sure my last comment posted, so apologies if this is a repeat.

      After I sent in this update, another employee mentioned she hears from Eric often. He is doing well and is enjoying his new job, especially the full time salary and benefits, something we could not offer him. I genuinely wish him well and hope he has found peace in the same way I have.

  3. Rook Thomas*

    I agree with your comment about how subtle it can be when someone else’s behavior starts eroding your own confidence. This happened to me with someone I manage and I kept telling myself it was my fault, I was a bad manager . . . despite the fact that others on my team seemed fine with me, and so did colleagues. But it was subtle and the person is passive-aggressive and it just took a while before I had my “Ok, no. Nope!” moment with them.

    Glad you’re free of this guy!!

    1. Me*

      The reverse is also true. A bad manager can convince a good employee they aren’t. And again its subtle. I left a job over 5 years ago for a reason unrelated to my boss (although I was miserable, it was a family situation.) As time and distance set in, I realized all the little things that were done that chipped away at me. Dumping work on me on a friday afternoon or before a holiday. Setting a deadline for it, then never responding to the item when I sent it in (on time or early, always.) It takes forever for those chips to heal.

      1. Donn*

        Yes. Sometimes it may be a matter of who’s the easier target. When reliable competent Jean pushes back against being everyone’s go-to person, it’s easier to say they’re not being a team player, than to make goof-off Lou do their own job.

    2. ferrina*

      Yes to this and yes to what Me said about it working in advance.

      Especially when they do it slowly, so it becomes a frog in a slowly heating pot scenario. You don’t notice how bad it’s getting from the inside. It seriously messes with your head.

    1. Rocket Raccoon*

      My husband calls this “quit-fired”. He tells a misbehaving employee to shape up and instead they quit. Win-win!

      1. Quinalla*

        Yeah, agreed that he could tell that OP was going to get serious so he found a new job before that happened. I’m sure if asked he would self-justify it differently, but very likely that is what happened.

        OP, hopefully you can learn from this to be more direct/assertive immediately when there is behavior like this. Intent matters, but the impact of behavior matters more and is mostly what you can address anyway. You can address impact assuming good intent – with someone like this who seemed to have bad intent – acting like they had good intent is still a good strategy as they can either actually comply or admit their bad intent. But yeah, there was plenty worth addressing immediately with this guy since as Alison said he was bad at malicious compliance :)

    2. 1-800-BrownCow*

      Aw, yes. I had one of these. It was such a relief as I know the firing would not have gone well.

  4. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    It’s probably better that he move on.

    He may learn from mistakes and not take them into his new situation; there’s also the relief on his part, he doesn’t have the stigma of a PIP sitting in his personnel file – which can be a real obstacle to advancement, no matter how well he does, it can stick to him for years (unless you arrange for an expungement – which is rare.)

  5. Sara without an H*

    Every mistake I ever made in my management career was due to failure to be clear and explicit. And it’s actually to Eric’s credit that he found another position before you had to fire him.

    Congratulations! Here’s to a better 2024!

  6. Mermaid of the Lunacy*

    “it just goes to show you how people like Eric know what they’re doing, slowly and subtly eroding your confidence.”

    I don’t get the sense he was this clever manipulator, out to zap your confidence slowly over time. Don’t give him that much credit. It sounds like he was just immature and self-absorbed. Of course, I say this without knowing Eric. But I feel like sometimes we cast people in our lives as diabolical superhuman villains who “know what they’re doing” when they are really just jerks who aren’t out to get us specifically, just out to be…jerks.

    1. violin squeaks*

      I’ve been trying to decide this about my mother for YEARS. Emotionally immature, or narcissist? CAN’T DECIDE

      1. JaneDough(not)*

        @violin, I encourage you to read Craig Malkin’s books, and to look for some vids on YT by a therapist named Jerry Wise (that’s really his name!).

        Also, a person can have narcissistic tendencies w-0 being a full-blown narcissist — and those tendencies make them extremely tough to deal with.

      2. ferrina*

        Ugh, these people are worse than the clear supervillian. I grew up with a supervillian parent, and at least I knew that they were a terrible person. The emotionally immature or the “trying really hard but just don’t seem to get it” is worse for me, because I feel like it’s my fault for not being patient/explaining well enough/not being enough enough. They seem to be fine with everyone else- maybe it’s just you? (spoiler alert: it’s not just you. It’s just them). I didn’t blame myself for the supervillian, but I blamed myself for the “trying really hard but never improving”.

      3. Michelle Smith*

        I’m sorry. Maybe it is more helpful to focus on the behaviors and their impact than finding the proper label. Regardless of the reason, it sounds like it’s harmful.

    2. Sloanicota*

      Yeah, I wonder if OP can redirect some of their lingering discomfort with this resolution and decide that next time, they’ll be more direct and assertive in dealing with employees like this. I’m trying to picture a situation in a well run organization where this goes on for a whole month with literally zero progress, after everything else that already happened, because you’re not seeing the individual. That’s a pretty demoralizing month for the rest of the team.

      1. OP*

        This just reminded me of a sit down conversation my supervisor and I had with Eric where going into it, we discussed all the talking points and action plans and intended outcomes and my supervisor emphasized to me how serious this meeting was, and when we got in there, he softened the whole message and totally backed down. I had to be the one to lay it all out, let Eric know he wasn’t getting a full time position, and that we were actually demoting him while my boss acted like he had nothing to do with it. In the month that passed, Eric reported to my supervisor, so if it was demoralizing for my supervisor in any way, I’m okay with that.

        Surprisingly, this is not a well-run organization

    3. Hannah Lee*

      I have found with the Erics of the world, they may or may not be some diabolical clever evil genius, but they are so disinterested in working in good faith towards collaborating with others to make things better, that they might as well be.

      They can windup as a RL in the flesh version of Sea Lion trolls, sucking up time, energy, resources as people try to deal with them, get them refocused. And in that, the do often learn what tactics can effectively derail the people around them, and delay the inevitable. They get savvy about all the wrong things.

    4. Selena81*

      I think that ‘he knows what he is doing’ is correct in that he was knowingly sabotaging the company and expecting to get away with it by bluffing his way through.
      But I agree we should not build him into some kind of master manipulator.

  7. pally*

    Glad he quit before the OP had to expend energy terminating him. Certainly, less stressful for OP.

    Given the details of his activities, if it were me, I would have wanted to fire the guy. But that’s just me. And I bet that’s not the avenue the OP would have liked.

  8. LCH*

    yay, he solved himself! congrats!

    i do not enjoy managing people specifically because of weird employees like him.

  9. JaneDough(not)*

    LW, I’m glad that this bad experience is over and that you didn’t have to endure lots of additional difficulties with Eric. I’m also dismayed that you questioned yourself so much and for so long, and I hope you won’t again. (It’s always useful for us to examine our behavior and work on improving, but this doesn’t sound like that.)

    In case the following helps you, or anyone who’s doubting their skills / behavior: In my mid-20s, I worked briefly at a high-ish-end dept. store that carefully vetted employees. One colleague, N., was one of the truly kindest persons I’ve ever met. No malice in her whatsoever. Staff, managers, and customers liked and respected her, because not only was she kind / pleasant, she knew her merchandise, she knew how to interact with a broad range of customers, and she was efficient / professional.

    So it was an enormous shock when one customer interpreted N.’s behavior as disrespectful, became enraged with her, and escalated the matter to HR. To HR’s credit, someone there placated the customer and also didn’t penalize N. (because N.’s excellence was well-known).

    That taught me, early on, that humans come in such a broad range of flavors that it’s truly impossible to please everyone, and that some people will misinterpret and / or dislike each one of us no matter how kind or neutral we think we’re being in the moment (and no matter how many other observers are backing up our perception). Learning that lesson early has been a help.

    Best wishes to you.

  10. LisaD*

    I suspect you will someday get an email out of the blue from someone at his new company wondering if you ever had these issues with him! Always happens when a gaslighter changes jobs and their new colleagues start wondering if it’s them or him. I had quite a collection of those emails and Facebook messages from the later workplaces of one woman I worked with.

    1. Sparkles McFadden*

      I was just coming here to request Update #2 if anyone from Eric’s new company calls and asks about him.

  11. SpecialSpecialist*

    “However, it’s been about 2 months, and yesterday I forgot his name for a moment.”

    This made me lol. I’m glad you’ve healed from this ordeal. :D

  12. Onomatopoeia Cornucopia*

    One lesson is not to let people like this rules-lawyer you in dumb, literalist ways.

    In the real world, if you ask someone to be friendlier to customers and they respond by being louder/large creepy smile, you don’t go, “Foiled! He’s technically following one interpretation of the sentence I said, so what can I do?”. You say some equivalent of “Hey Eric, you know what the f*** I meant. This is strike two. Be normal and good at your job, or we will stop letting you work here.”

    Glad you’re shut of him!! Enjoy a hopefully more serene working environment:)

  13. Mango Freak*

    Yay!!! Congrats!

    I hope going forward you’ll challenge your notion that being a good manager means helping this guy stay in this job. Being a good manager also means helping the team you manage succeed, and weeding out bad hires.

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