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I’m having an issue with Melanie, one of the employees I supervise, as well as Melanie’s husband, even though he doesn’t work here. Melanie was hired back in August. Before she worked here, she was a stay-at-home mother. Her youngest child started school in August just before she started working here. She handles our reception desk and answers the phone and accepts the mail for pickup. The job is a good fit for her because she has no prior work experience and her hours allow her to drop her kids off at school before work and to be out in time to pick them up after work. She has been a good employee so far and there are no problems with her work.
Melanie just had her six-month review. Her review was good and she was given an “exceeds expectations” in every category. The only issue I brought up is that in every conversation she has or that goes on around her, she brings up her children and her husband. Every single one. It doesn’t matter what the conversation is about or if it is a meeting about work-related things. She even did it several times during her review before this issue was brought up. I tried to be understanding because my wife stayed home with our children when they were young, and I remember how nervous she was when she went back to work. I understand this is the first job Melanie has ever held in her life, and that she was a homemaker and stay-at-home mother for the last nine years since right after she graduated from college. But it had to be said because things were getting to the point where people were avoiding Melanie if they didn’t have to speak to her, and work-related conversations were painful because they always came back to Melanie’s husband and children.
The next day, I received an angry email from Melanie’s husband. He was upset about me insulting his wife and wanted me to apologize to her as well as him and their children. He made references to freedom of speech and went on and on. It was a long email. I did not respond since he doesn’t work here and I felt his email was out of line. Now he won’t stop calling. I don’t answer when he does, I just let the call go to voicemail.
For her part, Melanie says she agrees with her husband and doesn’t see anything wrong with what he is doing. She has continued to bring up her husband and children in every conversation. However, her work has not suffered and besides this one issue she is having no issues or problems. I’m at a loss as to how I can deal with an otherwise excellent employee who won’t stop talking about her husband and children and her husband who won’t stop contacting me even though he doesn’t work here and I’ve never met him. I’ve never had to deal with anything like this as a manager before.
I think you’re probably going to end up having to part ways with Melanie — if not now, then in the not-terribly-far-off future. While her work may be excellent, she’s so out of touch with professional norms that she’s okay with her husband repeatedly harassing her boss, is ignoring clear and direct feedback about her behavior in the office, and is causing all of her co-workers to avoid her. Those are big deals, and they do not bode well for her tenure on your team.
But let’s tackle the husband first, because in some ways that’s easiest.
You’re absolutely right not to engage with an employee’s spouse about how he feels you’re treating his wife. In general, it’s good policy not to discuss personnel issues with people outside your company, and if he ever does manage to reach you on the phone, you can explain that.
Moreover, what he’s doing at this point — calling you over and over — is harassing behavior. That means you probably should pick up the next time he calls, so that you can tell him clearly to stop contacting you. You could say something like, “I’ve received your email and voice-mails. I don’t discuss personnel matters with people outside the company, and I need you to stop contacting me.” If he argues, then say, “Again, I need you to stop contacting me. Please don’t call again.” And then hang up.
You’re also going to need to talk to Melanie about this. While she’s not the one calling, it’s reasonable to tell an employee that their relatives can’t harass you about things related to their job. (There’s also a chance that she doesn’t know he’s been contacting you, would be horrified to hear it, and would want to know — although based on what you’ve said about her, probably only a small chance). So, say something like this to her: “Your husband has been calling me several times a day, wanting to discuss your performance review. I’ve let him know that don’t discuss personnel matters with people outside the company, and that I need him to stop contacting me. I’m hopeful that will put an end to it, but I wanted to let you know that it’s been happening and that it can’t continue.”
If Melanie goes into the same mode her husband went into and starts defending his right to say what he wants, you can say, “Your husband isn’t an employee here, and I won’t be discussing personnel matters with him. The calls and emails are disruptive, and I want to be very clear with you that they need to stop. I can’t keep you on staff if that means that your husband is going to harass me or others here. I value your work, but this is inappropriate and disruptive.”
And really, it’s okay to follow through on this. You might feel uneasy about taking action against an employee because of the actions of her husband — and if Melanie were being abused or controlled by her spouse and was horrified by his outreach to you, that would be a different thing — but it’s very reasonable to put your foot down on what’s happening here.
Now, let’s talk about Melanie’s own behavior. I think you need to figure out what the real impact is of her constant talk about her husband and kids. If it’s constantly disrupting work-related conversations, that’s a legitimate issue. If in order to be effective in her job she needs better relationships with the co-workers who are now avoiding her, that’s a legitimate issue too. But if it’s just annoying without actually impacting workflow or her own effectiveness, then I’d probably just figure that it’s her prerogative to conduct herself that way (and to pay the price in reputation and co-worker relationships).
If it does have a real work impact, though, then you need to address it from that angle. For example: “When you interrupt work-related conversations to talk about your family, it takes people off course and disrupts the work that’s happening. So I need you to stop interrupting work conversations with nonwork items.” And/or, “In order to do this job effectively, you need to build strong relationships with co-workers. Right now, that’s not happening; people are avoiding interacting with you because they’re frustrated at how often you turn conversations to your family. I need you to build stronger relationships with people. How you do that is up to you, but from watching the dynamic, I think it would help if you decreased the talk about your family and instead talked about things that are of more common interest.”
If she pushes back on that, you can say, “I hear your point of view, but I’m telling you what’s required to succeed in this job. I’d like you to take a day or two to think about what I’ve said, and then let me know if you can work within these parameters or not. If you decide it’s not right for you, then we can plan to transition you out of the role.”
If that seems harsh — threatening to fire someone for talking too much about her kids! — keep in mind that you’re talking about the work impact here, not the topics she picks for social conversation. (And that’s why it’s important to get really clear on the work impact, and if there is one, before you have this conversation.) If it still seems harsh, throw in the fact that she’s told you that she’s totally okay with her husband calling and emailing you to complain and demand apologies on her behalf. This is not someone with a high adherence to professional norms, she’s disrupting your office, and it’s reasonable to say “no more.”
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