Is there anything I can do to stop a resentful employee from complaining behind my back?
Here’s the situation. I have an employee, Sally, who was moved to my team about six months ago. I didn’t arrange for her transfer but at the time, I thought it was a good thing: Sally and I were friendly and for months she’d spoken privately to me about her bad managers. They treated her unfairly, she said. They gave her unclear feedback and set unreasonably demanding expectations.
Her new role on my team involves fewer responsibilities. I thought that she would be able to rise to the demands of the position with some coaching. I have given her clear feedback on her work, pointing out repeat problems. I set clear expectations and have reviewed them with Sally several times, and I’ve put them in writing. I ran workshops and coaching sessions, hoping to address some of the issues with her work. And yet Sally’s work is still very poor and requires several rounds of corrections; she hasn’t shown any of the growth I need to see for her to meet expectations. On top of that, she responds poorly to my feedback — she sulks or snaps or tunes me out entirely. I moved her onto a performance-improvement plan, which is a requirement at my company — otherwise, I believe it would be best to let her go sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, Sally is telling our colleagues that she’s being treated unfairly — she’s saying that I give opportunities to other people instead of her, and that the standards I’ve set for her are “subjective.” I know she is convincing because I was fooled myself in the past, when she complained to me about her previous bosses. A number of my co-workers and some employees who I manage have come to me saying, “Hey, Sally says she’s trying really hard” or “Sally says she’s being held to different standards.” Of course, these people don’t know the full picture because much of the situation is confidential — and I can’t go around saying, “Well actually, she’s a fundamentally poor fit for the role and requires lots of hand-holding.”
Is there anything I can do to ensure my colleagues and team members don’t think I’m treating Sally unfairly? Is there anything I can do to stop her from gossiping? It’s all unhelpful behavior.
This is such a good illustration of how people don’t always know what’s going on behind-the-scenes at work, and how the reality can be very different from how a situation might appear.
That’s frequently a problem for managers, who sometimes have information that would significantly change someone’s view of a situation but can’t share it because of their position. Think, for example, of situations where someone seems to be getting a privilege that others aren’t afforded (like flexible hours, a ton of time off, or unusual slack being cut on work performance), and it’s really because of a medical situation or other personal crisis that they’ve asked not to have shared. And of course, it can come up a ton when someone is having performance problems — in large part because the struggling employee is free to circulate their own version of events, while the manager is generally far more constrained in what seems right to share with others.
In fact, manage for long enough and you’ll very likely have a situation where a struggling employee tells other people that you’re the problem — that you’re being unfair or a jerk or your expectations are unrealistic, or you dislike them for no reason — whereas you know the issue is their work. After all, most people won’t tell their co-workers, “It turns out I’m quite bad at my job.”
So what can you do as a manager in this situation, where you don’t feel you can set the record straight without violating the employee’s privacy?
Obviously, the answer can’t be “Just trust me because I’m the boss, and I have information that you don’t have.” There are too many bad bosses who do treat people unfairly for that response to be credible or convincing.
Instead, one of the most powerful ways to combat this is to be very open about how you manage people — and to make sure that you’re consistently demonstrating fairness and transparency in the way you operate. When people see that in their own experiences with you, they’re more likely to be skeptical when they hear reports like the one your employee is circulating.
But the other thing is, you might not be quite as constrained as you think you are. When people come to you about Sally’s complaints and are worried there’s truth to them, you’re not duty-bound to have zero response. You want to respect Sally’s privacy, of course, but you and your employer also have an interest in ensuring people don’t mistakenly believe an employee is being flagrantly mistreated. It’s okay to say something like, “I don’t want to violate Sally’s privacy, but there’s a lot more to the situation than that and I don’t think you’ve heard the full story. I can tell you that in any situation where an employee is running into problems, I’m committed to providing as much feedback and coaching as we reasonably can, and I always hope it’s something that can be worked out.” That’s respectful of Sally’s privacy and doesn’t get into the details of exactly what her shortcomings are, but it lets you signal there’s more going on.
You also asked if there’s any way to address this with Sally herself. You need to avoid saying anything that can be misconstrued as “Don’t discuss your work issues with your colleagues,” because her right to discuss work issues with co-workers is actually protected under federal law. (It’s part of the National Labor Relations Act, which mainly protects workers who want to unionize but also stops employers from restricting conversations about wages and working conditions.) But you could certainly say to Sally, “I’m hearing from people who are concerned that you’ve told them you’re being treated unfairly and held to a different standard than everyone else. Can you tell me what’s making you feel that way?”
You could also say, “If this is your interpretation of our conversations, I’m concerned that you’re not taking my feedback to heart, and that will make it difficult for you to make the changes you need to make to stay in this role.
That’s alarming to me because I want to see you succeed here.” And frankly, given that she used to complain to you about these same things when she was working for other managers, you could even say, “I know you had these concerns when you were working for other managers as well, so I want to ask you to consider that it’s not about managers being unfair to you, but about real concerns with your work that will hold you back no matter who you’re working for.”
Will that get through to her? Maybe, but based on the history you’ve described, probably not. By sharing what you know she’s saying to others and refuting it, you may at least give her second thoughts about so widely misrepresenting the situation to others. Or maybe not! But it’s worth a shot.
Beyond that, I’d focus like a laser on bringing things with Sally to a resolution sooner rather than later.
Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.