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‘My Employee Talks Behind My Back!’

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Dear Boss,

I’m the founder and sole manager of a small retail business with four full-time and a few part-time employees. My first hire was Mary, and I think of her as my second-in-command. She hasn’t been the easiest employee to manage: she’s a little flighty and forgetful, and not always as professional as I’d like her to be with our clients. However, our clients adore her, and she brings a really unique skill set that’s helped us make a name for ourselves locally.

A really wonderful recent hire quit last week, with very little notice. I was disappointed, but didn’t take it personally: sometimes you just get a better offer. But today I received an email from another previous employee (Sarah) saying that she was really torn about telling me something, but she thought I needed to know before it destroyed the business. According to Sarah, Mary is extremely negative about me to the other employees, and the recent hire left because of what Mary has told her. Sarah is worried that anyone else I hire will too, unless I do something. Apparently, Mary spends a lot of time talking about how incompetent I am, that our financial situation is so precarious that we’re about to shut down, and just generally creates drama where there is none and blames it on me.

Sarah moved across the country, but she’s remained friends with all of us, is a strong supporter of our mission, and has no reason to stir up trouble. And it explains a few weird things that have been trickling back to me. Mostly small things, but I recently spent a morning of my first family vacation in two years dealing with a nonexistent staffing issue: Mary sent the other employees a frantic text claiming that I left the business unstaffed except for her, and one of them texted me to ask if she should go in. I was in a place without much cell reception, and spent a long time trying to get in touch with both Mary and the person I’d hired to fill in for me … who had been there all along. I’ve been uneasy about this incident, because there was no good explanation, and Mary’s explanation (that she wasn’t sure what the replacement was supposed to be doing) didn’t make sense. The only reason she’d send such a text, at least that I can think of, would be to make me look incompetent: she just didn’t think that it would get back to me.

According to Sarah, Mary has supposedly been looking for a new job since January (and telling everyone else to), but I think her skill set would get her hired easily if she were seriously looking. I don’t know if this is something I can bring up with her, particularly without implicating Sarah as the source (Sarah said that she has already repeatedly told Mary to cut it out). I can’t continue to lose good employees because of Mary. On a personal level, it bothers me that she is very sweet to my face, but apparently so angry behind my back. And, mostly, I worry that someone happy to stir up drama among our staff would have no qualms stirring up drama among our clients, and badmouthing me to them, if she were angry enough.

How should I deal with this?

That’s really sticky! It’s tough to act on information you’re only hearing about secondhand and can’t verify through your own observation.

But in my experience, when there’s smoke, there’s nearly always fire. That doesn’t mean you draw solid conclusions based on smoke, but it does mean that you need to take it seriously, assume there may be a real problem there, and do some serious investigating.

And the fact that Sarah’s information explains some weird things that have been trickling back to you adds a whole lot of smoke. When things feel off and then you hear something that makes it all fall into place … well, chances are good that there’s a reason for that.

That said, the reason isn’t necessarily that Mary is deliberately sabotaging you. Sarah could have wrong information or an agenda of her own. But this is all serious enough that you do need to take action pretty urgently.

Start by talking to your other employees. Especially since Mary is your second-in-command, it’s reasonable for you to periodically check in with other staff for feedback about her and how things are playing out when she’s in charge. In fact, that would be a smart thing to do even if you weren’t having these issues, because otherwise you can end up with a situation where there are huge problems with a manager and everyone is afraid to speak up. So, talk individually with your other staff members and ask how things are going. Ideally you’d take them out for coffee or otherwise talk to them one-on-one in a place where there’s privacy and they’re more likely to feel comfortable speaking candidly. Ask how things are going in general, and ask if there’s anything you can do to make their lives at work easier. Then, if it hasn’t come up on its own, ask how things are going with Mary. You can even say, “What should I know in order to be able to support and coach Mary better?”

Meanwhile, also talk with Mary about the things you’ve seen from her that seem off. For example, regarding that text she sent saying the business was unstaffed, you could say this: “I’ve been thinking about this and I’m having trouble understanding it. Can we talk through what happened when I was on vacation and you texted people to say the business was unstaffed? Since you knew I’d hired someone to cover for me, what happened there?” And if she again gives you an explanation that doesn’t make sense, be direct about that: “That’s surprising to me, because that doesn’t really make sense and sounds out of character for you. Is something else going on?”

If nothing else, addressing these small-ish things will let her know that you’re noticing and she’s not flying under the radar with this stuff. But the conversation will also probably give you more data, even if it’s just “hmmm, something seems really off here” or “I see where she was coming from after all.”

Depending on how this conversation goes, it might also make sense to talk to Mary head-on about what you heard from Sarah. It’ll be awkward — but if you were in Mary’s shoes and you weren’t actually doing anything wrong, wouldn’t you want the chance to clear your name? I know you don’t want to reveal Sarah as your source, but if that’s the only way to resolve potentially serious problems in your business, you may need to explain to Sarah that you’ve got to act on what she told you. You can explain that you’ll do all you can to minimize any repercussions to her (which hopefully should be minimal, since she no longer works there) but that you do need to talk things out with Mary.

It’s also okay to put real weight on what you know of Sarah and Mary. If Sarah has a track record of being honest and ethical and if Mary seems less so, you can factor that in. On the other hand, if you know Mary to be trustworthy, you have to weigh that too.

One last thing that’s going to be crucial: Raise your visibility among all your staff. If Mary is spreading negativity about you, the more people see you operating competently and transparently, the harder it will be for her to have an impact. So make a point of being around more frequently than you normally are, find opportunities to work more closely with people who normally might not have much contact with you, and ensure that you’re being scrupulously fair and open in the way you operate. (Speaking of which, address those financial rumors head-on! If you share information about the business’s finances openly with your staff, you’ll counteract any misinformation they might have heard.) If Sarah is right and people are hearing things that worry them, giving them firsthand experience to the contrary is a good way to protect yourself against any potential bad-mouthing while you sort through what’s going on.

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‘My Employee Talks Behind My Back!’