update: my employee tears down other people’s work to make themselves look better

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m 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 tore down other people’s work to make themselves look better? Here’s the update.

You had excellent points about pay parity, which I agree with and brought up with leadership and got positive feedback! You asked about my employee being defensive in other areas — hoo boy, most definitely. Defensive became downright hostile. What started as comparisons of their work to a peer escalated to attacking my work, as well as the work of other managers in other departments. They took their complaints and demand for a raise to our executive director after I told them outright to stop criticizing other people’s work. It came to light that the specific work they were taking credit for and citing as reason to get a raise was unsanctioned — not in their job description and work that I had specifically told them not to do. After being informed that the unsanctioned work was out of line, they expressed anger along the lines of “you can’t unring that bell though” and submitted their four-week notice, which is where things get weird and have much less to do with the employee and more to do with organizational culture and the bummer that is middle-management.

You might be thinking “four weeks is a strangely long amount of time to give notice, especially for an entry-level position.” You’d be right! My boss told me there was nothing we could do about it as long as they were not actively harming our work (note: we’re an at-will employer so that’s definitely not true, but I suspect leadership wanted to avoid unemployment “stuff”?). The month that followed was full of chaos. The employee spent loads of time actively ignoring me and their job duties, making work noticeably more difficult for everyone with whom they interacted. I would catch them lingering in my office and staring over my shoulder, trying to see what I was doing on my computer and sometimes even asking point-blank “what it is I do all day.” I repeatedly asked my boss if we could let them go before their notice period was up, as the employee was now actively harming my work, and was told to be patient. I was given space to vent, but no tools or ability to affect the situation. The organizational culture here is very conflict-avoidant, so much so that I received emails from our executive director commending me for my “strength and patience” as a coded reference. Essentially, everyone was watching this happen, acknowledging it was bad, but wouldn’t put a stop to it.

It was only after the employee left that multiple staff members and volunteers confided in me that in addition to the poor performance and hostile behavior I was noticing, the employee had also been actively spreading rumors and airing all their dirty laundry and opinions about me, my supervision, and how I am unfit to lead. The one that stung the worst was them telling multiple people they were tired of me being “sick so often, as it is impacting their performance when they do show up at work.” I have a documented chronic health condition. Yikes.

Since then, we have hired a new HR director who sat in on a debriefing with leadership and spoke up for me and confirmed what I thought — as an at-will employer, “there’s nothing we could have done” was a poor excuse for how this went down. I received an apology and assurance that future situations will be handled differently, there will be more clarity around hiring and firing decisions, and there is upcoming management training on how to handle employee performance issues. Unfortunately, I’ve not seen any of those improvements made yet and my mental health at work hasn’t recovered, nor has it been checked in on since that debrief. I guess the bright side is that I’ve been able to get more work done in the past three months than I have all year, as I now have a new assistant who doesn’t need constant coaching on how to behave kindly towards other people and professionally in an office.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

    Just coming here to say how important it is to have on-site*, strategic HR in all organizations.

    *Doesn’t need to be IN PERSON, per se, but rather a figurative seat at the company’s/agency’s/what have you leadership table.

    1. Looper*

      Right? Paying some app company to handle your payroll and benefits administration is not even close to having HR

  2. Looper*

    It is absolutely wild to me how many letters are published in this blog that all boil down to a manager/managers who are terrified of conflict. Why do so many passive people go into person management? And honestly, it’s not even “conflict” they are avoiding. They are so passive they will avoid any direct address of any kind. It’s so sad how many people’s lives are made actively worse by professional cowards.

    1. Looper*

      This was a total comment fail and posted to the wrong letter! Sorry if this comes ad very poor taste in context, I have not even read this letter

      1. Looper*

        Also to be clear, I’m referring to LWs managers, not LW’S managing in this situation. Seems to me that LW would have had no problem address this has they not been totally hamstrung by upper leadership.

        1. Looper*

          And now I’m leaving the internet for the day because I’ve clearly lost all ability to type or keep consistent tense lol

        2. Magenta Sky*

          It is a common theme in the letters that show up here that the real problem isn’t the coworker, no matter how bad they are, but the management above them who hasn’t shown them the door.

    2. GreyjoyGardens*

      I wonder if many people wind up in management because “that’s just what you do” as far as career progression is concerned. Or who don’t care to be managers but really, really need the increased salary.

      Managing people is usually a completely different skill set than grooming llamas, or writing the step-by-step “How To Groom Your Llama” instructions, or getting 100 gold llamas shipped to Casterly Rock in time for Tywin Lannister’s birthday. But moving up often involves managing, and so does getting a salary increase, so people wind up in management who hate it and/or are terrible at it.

      1. Looper*

        That is very true, you have to hop up the ladder to make more money and most of the rungs of that ladder are middle management after a certain point.

      2. Magenta Sky*

        People go into management because it pays better. Maybe not a lot better today, but you go from the top of the pay scale for worker bees to the bottom of the scale for management, and up from there.

        1. Also-ADHD*

          This is it. I’m a pretty good people manager, and I try to stick more to mixed roles (lead and upper IC duties, consulting, running programs) but I don’t have any desire really to do solely management work. I like individual contributor work. But I want to keep moving into management because I have basically hit my pay ceiling otherwise In my field. Many people in my field go freelance to deal with that (I do actually freelance on the side, but I don’t like chasing clients enough to make it my main income source), and others go management—though going management makes your freelance rates higher in the consulting range later too so worth it there as well!

      3. hohumdrum*

        IMO this is because as a society, overall, we do not value people skills in overt ways. See: the jokes about personality hires, the way we put down teachers, the lack of respect for the real meat of what a manager does, etc.

      4. Feotakahari*

        Makes me think of whalers. In the Heart of the Sea argues that being the captain and being the first mate were different skillsets, but you only got to be a captain after a while as a first mate. It says the captain of the Essex was better as a first mate, and the first mate would have made a better captain.

        1. JustaTech*

          Given what I know about how *that* voyage went, 1) yikes and 2) sounds right.

          (How did the voyage go? Very, very, very badly. There’s an episode of Ask a Mortician about it, to give an idea of how very, very, very badly.)

      5. roann*

        I think that really hits it on the head. If wages were keeping pace with increased cost of living, I’d bet a lot of people who are working in management now would’ve been content to stay in a lower level position that they were better suited to and enjoyed more.

      6. JustaTech*

        One of the smartest things I’ve seen tech companies do is acknowledge that some people are excellent individual contributors and would make terrible managers, and create separate promotion streams so that there is a way for people to progress in their career without having to move to management.

    3. Was the Grink There*

      I know, like what do they ACTUALLY think will happen that’s worse than what they’re allowing to happen by mewling around letting moss grow on them?

    4. Mongrel*

      “Why do so many passive people go into person management?”

      I think it’s mostly split between the screwed up way that people get to be managers, promoting a non-managerial person to a manager with bugger all training, and the people who want to be ‘buffet’ managers, they’re all in for an office and telling people what to do but are unwilling to engage in the messier side of the work.

    5. rollyex*

      “to a manager/managers who are terrified of conflict”

      Some – a few maybe, but some – got there by not being willing to fight to *not* be promoted to management.

      I was made a manager and I should have pushed back way harder as I do not like it. I’m nowhere near as bad as the manager in this letter or most bad managers in other letters, but just want to point out how this sometimes happens.

  3. Ashley*

    It’s wild that they thought having an employee lurking and leering at you and not doing their job was impossible to do anything about. Seems like not doing their job would be a pretty textbook thing to be able to take action on.

    1. Magenta Sky*

      If they’d fired him, he’d have filed for unemployment and maybe gotten it.

      It was apparently beyond their imagination to just tell him not to come in the last four weeks while still paying him, making it exactly the same as if he’d been present during that time (so far as unemployment was concerned).

      Clearly, upper management was the real problem.

      1. Mad Harry Crewe*

        My org did that with a problem guy. His supervisor had been working on termination (PIP, warnings, etc) when he gave 2 weeks notice. With HR’s enthusiastic permission, she told him she would accept his immediate resignation and I believe they paid out the two weeks he didn’t work (it’s been a few years, so I don’t recall the exact arrangement). Made everyone’s life easier.

        1. Violin squeaks*

          I wish we would have done this with an employee who resigned during their PIP. I didn’t even think of it as an option. Those two weeks were super awkward and I had to kick them out on their last day because they somehow thought they could be the last one in the office that day? Working on what, exactly?

        2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

          We had that with a PIP person. They weren’t actively malicious in the way that OPs employee was, but the nature of their performance issues was that it did have a negative impact on the organisation (rather than just “you need to be packing 20 widgets per day but you are only doing 3, what gives?”) due to the type of mistakes, loss of customer confidence, etc.

          As in so many PIP processes that are not going to be met (the PIP itself was reasonable, and the genuine wish was that the person would improve, but it was very clear they were unable to), they saw the writing on the wall and resigned before reaching the inevitable (by that point) firing. They had to give a month’s notice but wanted to leave sooner which HR agreed to after asking their manager whether that was OK (?!), but I don’t think the rest of the notice was paid.

          Sometimes the best thing for everyone is when the “problem” employee moves on early and smoothly.

          Passive managers seem to go all the way to the top quite often. Or they have a ‘mate’ in management who promoted them because they wanted more money and/or status, without thinking that they would be a crap manager (because the manager promoting them had their loyalty in the wrong place as far as management decisions — to their friend rather than the company).

      2. rollyex*

        “It was apparently beyond their imagination to just tell him not to come in the last four weeks while still paying him,”

        Bingo. That’s the easy way to deal with this and get a decent result.

  4. Bumblebee Mask*

    At the very least they could have just paid the person out their notice period. Then it isn’t a firing and unemployment wouldn’t apply. Here’s your money. Don’t come back. Easy and can be non-confrontational and I’m sure the bitter employee would have been thrilled.

    1. I Have RBF*


      Sometimes gardening leave is a benefit on both sides. If the person is done wrapping stuff up, tell them to clean out their desk and enjoy the rest of their notice period as paid time off. If you phrase it as a benefit, it’s not like you are rejecting them, but thanking them for their service with an extra paid break between jobs.

      I’ve had it both ways. I resented it when they tossed me out the door when I still had handover stuff to do, but appreciated it when I had stuff all squared away.

  5. Observer*

    That’s a bit of a ride. At least she walked out, because it sounds like your management would never have handled this otherwise.

    Give your new HR person some time to get things rolling. These changes cannot happen overnight if they are done right. But here is a question – was HR Director part of the new hiring process? What was your impression?

    Also, perhaps you could check in with them on some of the other stuff.

    Lots of luck. I hope to hear another update in which your new HR head really starts making some good changes.

  6. Addison DeWitt*

    Jeebus, I’d have taken the last two weeks of the four weeks off if they’re just going to let the crazy person do damage on the way out.

    If they didn’t want an unemployment case, they could have just paid them for the four weeks but sent them home (aka bar them from the office).

    1. Lifelong student*

      Actually- paying someone after they have been terminated does not mean no unemployment. In Pennsylvania at least, being paid after employment does not eliminate unemployment- it may delay actual collection but it can cover what is termed the aiting week. If terminated, the weeks while you are still being paid are first the “waiting week” and for subsequent weeks the income may be too much to allow for payment from UC- but then you will collect UC. Not sure if that limits the number of weeks you then can collect for. The one time it happened to me, I never reached the maximum of weeks.

      1. Slartibartfast*

        Probably going to be one of those your mileage may vary situations. In Michigan (at least when I needed it several years ago) you don’t qualify for quitting a job but you do for getting fired, unless it was for a list of causes (things like theft, job abandonment, threats, harassment).

      2. Aitch Arr*

        That isn’t what’s being advised.

        Paying out someone’s notice period but not requiring them to work does not mean the termination date has been brought forward.

  7. Seashell*

    This guy really burned his bridges. Good riddance, and hope he knows better than to use LW as a reference.

    1. Bruce*

      When my group got rid of a guy like this he eventually did email me for a reference, I pretty much ignored it

    2. Portia*

      This is the sort of person who will either crash and burn at every job forever, alienating everyone and being asked to leave — or will luck out and find a place where management loves their aggressiveness and s***-stirring and emerge triumphant. I feel like I’ve seen both these dynamics in action.

  8. Zarniwoop*

    “ assurance that future situations will be handled differently, there will be more clarity around hiring and firing decisions, and there is upcoming management training on how to handle employee performance issues. Unfortunately, I’ve not seen any of those improvements made yet ”
    I suspect there’s only so much one HR person can do if the rest of the management is unchanged.

  9. Claire*

    I had the same experience a couple of times at a very big company. They wouldn’t let me do anything to make an underperforming and hostile employee leave early even after they had given notice (or in one case, determined their contract would not be renewed).
    My interpretation was that for HR, avoiding getting sued is more important than the sanity of the managers.

  10. PNW cat lady*

    I get that they didn’t want to fire him during the notice period so they wouldn’t have to pay unemployment. And 4 weeks notice is strange. But it’s cheaper and would be more productive to say thank you, we accept your resignation. Today will be your last day, here is a check to cover your resignation period. Goodbye. But unless not legal in the location the business is located, i’d also then update the employee handbook and state, unless contracted otherwise, this company accepts a maximum of a two week notice period.

  11. miel*

    Wait, is giving more than two weeks notice a *bad* thing? I thought of it as a courtesy.

    (Assuming the employee is not problematic.)

    1. JaneDough(not)*

      When I left a co. I loved (I left only because the new place offered a skill set the current place couldn’t), I gave 5 weeks’ notice because I knew that would give them a decent amount of time to start their search or at least line up freelancers so the impact on my department would be reduced. And I worked to my normal high standard, and spent free time typing up some useful info for my replacement.

      The co. was appreciative, I left on very good terms, and when the new place unceremoniously laid off a bunch of us because of the Great Recession, former place took me pack as a part-timer. So, yes, a longer notice from an employee in good standing can be a good thing.

      1. Bruce*

        Yes, it is great when people have good intentions and management uses that time to make things go more smoothly! May we all work in such an environment!

      2. Fishsticks*

        I did similar – I didn’t love the company but adored my coworkers, and it’s a retail-based business (I worked in the office on the online catalogue primarily). I was offered a new job right before the Christmas shopping season really got underway. I ended up giving about six weeks of notice so that I could continue working through the holiday. My new job is the sort where the place is basically on a skeleton crew in December anyway, and so the people who needed to train me were all out on a staggered basis for four straight weeks, and they didn’t mind waiting on me to start.

        My job at the time was really appreciative that I didn’t leave them in the lurch right in the middle of Christmas.

    2. I'm just here for the cats!*

      It really depends on the job. In some cases, it can really be helpful, like if you are client-facing and want to be able to wrap things up or do a warm handoff with folx. But if a worker is being problematic, like in this case it is certainly not necissary and i find it odd. If I had been in upper management I would have said, lets this be your last day working and we can pay you for the next 4 weeks.

  12. Bruce*

    Ugh.. I’ve only had one employee (that I know of) who was actively sabotaging the team, but I was managing him remotely because we did not have a strong local manager on site. He was doing some of the same tricks, claiming credit for work he didn’t do and disparaging other people. Finally found someone who wanted to move to that site for a year (for personal reasons), it took him about a month to fire the saboteur (he went in forewarned). Definitely a learning experience for me to have a better BS detector, but I learned finally. Having to put up with shenanigans right in your face from a short-timer would really stink! I hope your management has learned their lesson…

  13. Clara*

    I wonder if they were following you around and watching what you were doing because they somehow got a big promotion in their new role and realised that they absolutely were not ready for it?

  14. I'm just here for the cats!*

    Oh wow this is so messed up! If they were going to pay her for not doing anything for those last 4 weeks why didn’t they just let her go with pay for the last 4 weeks?

  15. JLC*

    I think there’s a major piece missing. When someone resigns, can the company not tell them an earlier day is their last day w/o it being considered a termination?

    I know many folks are concerned about giving their 2 weeks notice and being told to leave immediately and not getting paid for it.

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