Ask a Boss: I Hate My New Employee!

Photo: Kourken Pakchanian/Condé Nast via Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I’ve worked for the same organization for about five years. We recently hired a new person who reports directly to me. I was told I’d have some say in the hiring process, which wasn’t true — we only interviewed four people, two of whom decided not to pursue the job further, and the other one had no relevant experience. I wanted to continue our search, but our director insisted the remaining candidate would be fine.

I really don’t like her. Part of it is a personality mismatch, and part of it is that she’s a really immature person. She can’t handle any direction or feedback, however carefully put, without becoming angry and defensive or tearing up. She’s also pretty passive aggressive and will do stuff like cc my supervisor on emails for no reason (that I can see) on pretty straightforward requests that I send her. 

She hasn’t been here very long, but we’ve gotten into a cycle where I just try to avoid her, because any instruction I try to give her will make her really defensive (and this isn’t necessarily feedback, it’s really just me trying to teach her the job), while she gets progressively more and more anxious about needing stuff to work on.

I’ve been documenting everything, but I don’t think I’ll get much traction because my immediate supervisor seems to really like her (I think mostly because my supervisor never interviewed the new hire since she was sick that day, and I think she is worried that making a bad hire will reflect badly on her).

The new hire isn’t a bad person, I just really don’t want to work with her! I don’t have the energy or the inclination to baby this person, her personality grates on me, she would not have been my choice for this position, and she seems completely unaware of how she’s coming across when she does stuff like cc my boss. I think some of this is rookie job mistakes because she’s pretty young, but I’m not sure how I’m supposed to manage this person when just interacting with her makes me cringe.

Any advice? She hasn’t done anything fireable and actually has a good work ethic, but if she quit tomorrow I’d be overjoyed. 

If you just didn’t like her personality — for example, if you hated her sense of humor and found her obsession with cat GIFs annoying — I’d tell you to suck it up because being a good manager means being able to manage people who aren’t exactly like you.

After all, over the course of your career as a manager, you’re going to manage plenty of people who wouldn’t be your first pick to have a beer with, and that’s okay. You don’t need to like them all personally, as long as they’re (a) fundamentally decent people, (b) with the skills you need for your team, and (c) approach their jobs in the way any manager needs from her employees — which includes things like listening to feedback with an open mind, fielding straightforward requests without drama, and not freaking out when you give direction or course-correct a project.

But she’s way off course on (c). And that means that this isn’t really about you just not liking her; it’s about her work habits and the way she interacts with you about work matters. That moves it out of the realm of personality conflict and puts it squarely in the realm of Things That Are Legitimate for a Manager to Care About.

Not being able to take any feedback or direction on her work is a huge problem! It’s making it impossible for you to do your job as her manager, and it’s making it impossible for her to master her own job, because she’s resistant when you try coach her in how to do it. Those are serious issues, and you’re doing yourself — and her, too — a disservice by downplaying it as “just not liking” her. You’re framing the problem as much less weighty than really it is, and you risk not seeing her performance issues as clearly as you need to.

Instead, I think you’ll be best served if you decide not to care so much about whether you like her or not and instead focus on whether she’s performing her job in the way that you need. When you look at it through that lens, I think you’ll see pretty clearly that her inability to take feedback or direction is a legitimate performance issue for you to address, and you should address it with her just like you would any other work issue.

That means that you should sit down with her and name the defensiveness itself as something that’s getting in the way of her effectiveness, and explain what you want her to do differently. For example, you could say: “I’ve noticed that when I give you feedback or directions for a project, you tend to get upset and frustrated. It makes it hard for me to give you the guidance that’s essential to your job here. I want to be transparent with you: This is getting in the way of you being effective in your role here, because talking through projects, giving and receiving feedback, and incorporating instructions and guidance are all part of performing well here — and in most jobs, frankly. So this is a big deal. If you have questions or concerns or an idea for a better way of doing something, I of course want to hear that. But going forward, I need these conversations to go differently. I need you to be open to what I’m saying and to be able to have these discussions without becoming frustrated or defensive.”

Of course, given her pattern of defensiveness, she may very well get defensive about this too. If that happens, you haven’t failed. For this conversation, your bar for success isn’t, “I say something so effective that it changes her behavior.” Instead, your bar for success at this stage is, “I lay out clear expectations for how I need her to operate, and I explain that these are serious performance issues.” What she does with that is up to her, but you will be fulfilling your responsibilities as a manager by being explicit about the problems and what you need her to do differently.

And when you do this, make sure that you’re clear that these aren’t suggestions. Especially when talking to people who tend toward defensiveness or hostility, managers often soften the message in performance conversations like this one, and as a result job requirements (“I need you to do X”) end up sounding like optional suggestions (“It would help if you did X,” and “Can you try doing X?”). The unsoftened version might feel stern, but it’s in her best interests to hear it clearly stated like that — since it really is impacting how effective she is at work. (Speaking of which, how clear have you been with her about when she should and shouldn’t cc your boss? It sounds like it’s time to say something like this: “Please do not cc Jane on emails unless I’ve asked you to. She has other things she needs to focus on, and I’ll loop her in if I think she’d want to be informed about something.”)

You could also ask, “Is there anything going on that’s making it hard for you to hear my input?” That’s worth asking because it might give her an opening to tell you that she’s miserable in the job, or that she’s getting conflicting instructions from someone above you, or who knows what else. But ask and see what you find.

After this conversation, you’ve got to commit to breaking the cycle you’re in, where you’re avoiding giving her feedback because she reacts badly. If she reacts poorly to feedback, then address that on the spot (“This is an example of what we were talking about the other day”). But you can’t let her resistance keep you from managing her, not any more than you could avoid other fundamentals of your job, like having to talk to annoying clients, or filling out expense reports, or anything else that you can’t decide not to do just because it sucks.

If it helps, remind yourself that by actively managing her — giving her feedback and guidance and addressing it forthrightly if she reacts poorly to that — you’ll be bringing the situation to a head sooner. Either she’ll cut down on the defensiveness, in which case your job will get much easier and you’ll probably stop dreading these conversations so much … or she won’t, in which case you’ll now have a pretty serious performance problem on your hands: an employee who has ignored repeated warnings about her behavior, which is a lot easier to address than a vague feeling that you just don’t like her.

It’ll also give you something more solid to take to your boss. If you’re able to explain that your employee gets angry and frustrated from routine workplace interactions and has continued to do that even after repeated conversations about it, that’s hard to ignore — or at least, it will be if your boss is at all reasonable, no matter how much she continues to like her as a person or feels personally invested in her because she hired her.

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I Hate My New Employee!