my junior employee won’t stop sharing his “expertise”

A reader writes:

I run a seven-person office. One of my direct reports is both not very experienced and not very good at his job, which requires extremely specific legal knowledge and a strong attention to detail. Despite this, he’s got an irritating habit of positioning himself as a subject matter expert around the office in small, unofficial, but rage-producing ways.

A few examples:

• He interrupted me while I was explaining the legal basis for a decision I had made to another employee in order to let me know he “actually” had seen that decision and “actually” agreed with me (he was not part of the conversation I was having).

• During a training session he was taking as a refresher, he quizzed the students taking it for the first time on how they would handle various hypothetical situations.

• He has explained how to use certain research resources to our technical support staff — resources those exact staff members had sent to him, with instructions, weeks earlier.

I’m already in the process of documenting other notable performance issues and may not keep him on. My question is, should I bring up this behavior at his next counseling session, and if so, how?

I try to address these issues in the moment (“Thanks Bob, but we’ll use the official guidance” or something similar) but he clearly has not registered that this is a recurring problem. I’m not worried about being undermined — absolutely everyone in the office has independently clocked this his ability and authority levels correctly — but until and unless I remove him, I am trying to be the most transparent and responsible manager possible. His behavior irritates everyone else, and selfishly, I’d hate to undermine my own case for termination by not providing all the guidance he can reasonably expect to perform well.

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.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. BellyButton*

    If you haven’t seen the Daily Show clip of Desi deciding to act like a man– please search for it, this guy is the exact guy she is talking about.

    1. Wendy Darling*

      Same, but also the only update I’d be satisfied with is “We warned him and he didn’t stop so we all got together and flung him into the sea.”

      1. Rondeaux*

        I would rather see “I had the talk that Aliison suggested and it must have struck a chord because he’s stopped doing this and become a better employee”

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Only if he also stopped doing it in his personal life. If one more man attempts to explain to me the technology I actually write the software for…

          1. Wendy Darling*

            The other day I was having a perfectly pleasant conversation with a guy about the difference between creepy-horror and gory-horror, specifically citing the works of various directors, and he asked me if I’d ever heard of David Lynch.

            Which I’m pretty sure is the film-convo version of “My favorite band? Oh you probably haven’t heard of them” and then it’s Radiohead.

        2. Wendy Darling*

          I’ve spent a little too much of my life chasing these guys around gently reminding them to knock it off to have faith in the longevity of a change, but it would sure be nice.

      2. Elle*

        “Flung him into the sea” is simultaneously weirdly poetic and extremely funny. Would that more problems could be dealt with this way.

        1. beezus*

          It makes me think of the Tweet that was (to paraphrase)”And then Doctor Doolittle yeeted his sealwife into the sea off a cliff??”

    2. CB212*

      There was one at the end of that year! I’ve heard links get caught up in a moderation queue, but if you search “junior expertise” on this site you’ll get it.

    3. Florp*

      Me too! Mostly I just want to be reassured that there are men who realize they shouldn’t do this and stop when someone tells them to.

        1. Fluffy Fish*

          While both genders can do this, it is a particular problem with men addressing women and in fact Alison also called that out an addressed it in her answer.

        2. These tables are how I buy my house. They keep my house hot.*

          I can confidently say as a man that it is a Thing Men Do.

    4. A Simple Narwhal*

      There was one! I’ll post it in a reply but essentially he took it very seriously and worked to fix himself.

        1. BellyButton*

          Thank you! The upside is at least he took the feedback serious enough to be appalled that he was coming off like that. It has been a few years now, I wonder if he has grown and stopped doing it.

          Maybe it will be one of those “what do look back on early in your career and feel embarrassed about?”

          1. ferrina*

            I’d like an update on this too. Unfortunately, the folks I’ve met like this often slip back into old habits when they don’t have someone actively watching them. And the passive supervisor definitely wasn’t doing anyone any favors.

            1. Olive*

              I assume with him being junior that he was also pretty young, and I think it’s common for people in their first job or two to gain a lot of awareness around professional norms. When I look back at how I dressed for my first job… yeeee…

          2. Slow Gin Lizz*

            Yeah, I wouldn’t mind an update to the update but since the OP no longer works with Bobbin, I suppose they don’t know how Bobbin is doing either. Unless OP is still in touch with Bobbin or the former coworkers who might be.

        2. Artemesia*

          Should have known it was Bobbin — remember that letter now. There are a fair number of Bobbins in the workplace.

        3. Hrodvitnir*

          Aw, buddy. I remember this now. As horrifying as the experience must have been for him, it’s great it got through to him and hopefully he’s managed to figure out how to not be completely intolerable.

  2. Dot*

    I wonder if he could also benefit from being told, in a straightforward way, that there are times when quietly learning, asking good questions, and not asserting one’s knowledge are good and appropriate. And that his position as a new employee is one of those times when the expectation is that he will be learning, not that he will be an expert who is expected to prove his worth.

    Basing that off of a (possibly generous) hope that he is acting the way he is from some misguided belief that the best or only path to success is to act as if you are an expert, and that there is never tolerance for anything less than that. Or something like that. If he’s only ever been in situations where it was competitive and cutthroat, the idea of it being a virtue to quietly learn and observe might be something new to him.

    It sounds like there would be a long road ahead for him to become a valuable employee. But even if that doesn’t work out, maybe hearing that it can be better to learn than (falsely) boast is something that will eventually help him and his future employers/co-workers.

    Strength to you. It must be exhausting.

  3. Legally Brunette*

    If I had a dollar for every time this happened with junior law associates, I would have retired years ago! Ego is rarely tempered by law school, only fed :( Alison’s suggested attitude adjustment is the perfect response, since many employers of junior legal staff don’t bother to inform them that they’re no longer a big fish in a tiny pond.

  4. Meemur*

    When I got to the bit about explaining procedures to the very people who told him those procedures in the first place, I got a flashback. LW, this won’t help you but I’m sharing it in solidarity.

    A few of my friends used to watch WWE back when we were students and every once in a while, we get together to watch DVDs of old events. One night, a Rey Mysterio match came on and I mentioned that it was surreal to see him perform a 619 given what had happened since. (For non-wrestling fans, the 619 was his signature move. It tragically went wrong one right and killed his sparring partner.)

    One person in attendance hadn’t heard what happened so I told him in much greater detail than above, but he didn’t believe me. He was sure he would have heard about it online, so he Googled it. Instead of just confirming it was true and leaving it at that, he sat me down at the end of the night and explained it all back to me.

    We are no longer friends

    1. Stopped Using My Name*

      I have not figured out how to handle those people. I understand why you are no longer friends.

      Also, I do get tired of people who insist if something happened they would have heard about it online.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        My mom likes to say, “Wanna bet $x? Let’s shake on it,” whenever someone else disputes something she’s said. But that probably wouldn’t deter someone who feels the need to explain something right back to you that you just told them about. I honestly have no qualms anymore about interrupting someone who is doing that but I definitely used to try to be more polite when I was younger. Now I’d actually interrupt them to finish their story for them so they know I know everything they’re about to tell me.

    2. girlie_pop*

      I used to be in a knitting group with someone similar. I think he got an extra ego boost because in some knitting communities, any men in the group get fawned over because they’re men in a space made up mostly of women.

      Once I was working on a project that uses a specific kind of technique that some people find hard to learn, and someone else in the group asked me about it. He kept interrupting and butting in to answer her questions before I could. Finally, the woman talking to me said, very flatly, to him “I’m asking her because she’s working on a project using this technique right now and I want to hear what she thinks.” He talked for like a week about how rude she was!

  5. Frank Doyle*

    I would just like to note that the image Inc. chose for this post is *chef’s kiss* perfection.

  6. EllenD*

    A UK comedian (Natalie Haynes) phrased this as the ‘arrogance of the mediocre male’. She does routines about the classics and used this line after describing characters in Greek mythology who challenged the muses to singing competition. It didn’t go well for him.

    1. Medusa*

      I just now realised thanks to this comment that Natalie Haynes the writer of Stone Blind and Natalie Haynes the comedian are the same person. What a talented human being.

  7. Blarg*

    I have a rule: you can be an ass or you can suck at your job. But you can’t be both.

    (I rarely get to enforce this rule, but it is my rule nonetheless).

    1. Ralph the Wonder Llama*

      I enforced this rule back when I ran a restaurant. You could have a good attitude but need extra supervision or help, or you could have a crummy attitude and be brilliant at your job. You could not have a crummy attitude and do crummy work and still make it onto the schedule.

    2. MigraineMonth*

      My rule is that you can’t be good at your job if you’re an ass. Soft skills are required for practically every job.

      (I’m not saying your people skills need to be amazing, but not insulting or condescending to coworkers is a pretty low bar.)

  8. Sara without an H*

    I hope the LW sees this and sends us an update. My take: The manager really needs to address this, kindly, but firmly.

    And it needs to be done before somebody else does. Brutally.

    1. Angstrom*

      Yup. New folks are often afraid to admit they don’t know something, and overcompensate. They need to know it’s ok to not know things.
      “When you’re new, nobody will think badly of you if you lack information. They WILL think badly of you if you lack judgement.”
      “If you want to share something you’ve just learned, give credit to the source. You could say something like “X just told me about Y. Would that also apply to Z?”

  9. Fellmama*

    I work in a local quilt store. The owner of the store was an engineer for many years and specializes in “science” fabrics and patterns. She has some miniature quilts hanging along the wall that she’s made or that people have given her in swaps, with labels on them explaining the science connection if it’s not obvious to the eye.

    A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a tourist, as one does, when he said “that quilt back there that says ‘Fibonacci sequence’ on it . . . That’s a mathematical term.”

    I said “I’m aware.”

    He moved on to mansplaining the periodic table to his granddaughter, so I think my face said more than I did.

    Men, please resist the urge to explain things to women–especially at our places of work. If you can’t think of a way to make conversation without insulting somebody, just be quiet.

    1. Anonymous For Now*

      Given that “Fibonacci sequence” is not something that the average person would know, to tell someone who has an item labelled with that term in the shop, “That’s a mathematical term” is just so strange. It’s hardly wording someone would use because they chose the wrong phrasing!

      1. Fellmama*

        I mean, I learned about it in grade school, and I’m no mathematician, but right? Like why would you choose that as your opening conversational salvo?

        We’re located in a very “scientific” town and I think he might have been *trying* to make a “only this place would have science quilts on the walls!” type comment and just . . . failed.

  10. lpuk*

    ” woah, here he comes
    Watch out girl he’ll chew you out
    Woah here he comes
    … he’s a mansplainer!”

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