Being Quizzed By Subordinate

Question:

I was recently hired to direct a very high profile beautification initiative–lots of vending, installation, maintenance and constituent satisfaction considerations. A directorial peer, who has been with the company forever, has an employee who is developing a pattern of dropping by my work sites and asking questions that are inapropriate, insubordinate and just plain nosey. Example: Drops by my maintenance headquarters and asks: What is my job description? Then asks if the site I have assigned my crew to is within that description! Example: Asks on a Friday if I plan to work over the weekend, then asks if the clients paid for the materials or are they company supplied!He further asks why I am dressed for field work while in the office. My responsibilities include the management of city parks, payroll,labor and training, procurement, and client satisfaction. This snoop is a lower level service employee who has been with his director for years. I suspect that he is digging for information for this director, or is just plain obnoxiously nosey. I resent his questioning, but do not want to respond with a heavy hand on such a low level employee. Any advice on how to respond to his next insubordinate question? I am tempted to respond simply by asking, “Why do you ask?” Then whatever his reply tell him, the management team has that handled. I am too busy for games with this director or his mule, and am considering speaking to his director regarding these puzzling questions from his employee. This would certainly set off the “she’s hard to work with” bomb throughout organizational gossip mill.

Does anyone have an iron-fist, velvet-glove ideal response?

Signed,

Tired of Being Quizzed


Answer:

Dear Tired of Being Quizzed:

If you don’t want to be viewed as difficult to work with, prove that you aren’t by taking emotions and ego out of this communication situation. Look at it pragmatically, as an outsider would, and you will see that you need neither an iron-fist or a velvet glove, you only need to communicate professionally in the way you want to be seen–calm, mature, confident and focused on work and being part of a productive team.

Consider the setting in which all of this has taken place. Is it unlikely the employee would come by the sites for any reason other than negative ones? If there could be no possible positive motives, that gives you a reason to seriously deal with it, through his director or with him personally. But, if there could be another motive, consider that as well.

Have you made the employee feel welcomed, answered questions readily and conversed in a normal or friendly way? Perhaps the employee thinks he’s having a good conversation!

Are the questions themselves rude or inappropriate, or are they part of routine conversation? The examples you gave likely seem worse to you than to someone not involved. And tone would make a difference too. There’s a difference between asking with a surprised but friendly tone, “Hey, what are you doing dressed like that today?” Or, with a darkly suspicious tone, “Why are you dressed like THAT when you are supposed to be in the office today? Hmmmmm?”

I can understand that you don’t want to answer questions that are inappropriate, or that you don’t want to waste time in idle chit-chat with someone you don’t know well or don’t like. You have several options.

*You can find ways to eliminate conversation with the employee altogether. When he arrives, say you are too busy to talk and either make yourself busy or leave. Do that repeatedly until he stops dropping by. You can do it and still have a smile now and then. Don’t say you wish you could talk, just say you can’t.

I once said, as someone I didn’t want to keep having come by, was walking in my door, “Hi Ann! I can only say hello this time and have to go back to work. I noticed the other day that this habit of ours of chatting so regularly has really hurt my work. I’ve been spending time I couldn’t afford, and it’s not a habit I want to keep going. I’m sorry!” I had a rueful smile and stood by the door as I talked. It hurt her feelings, for which I WAS sorry. But she stopped dropping by. I figured two minutes of awkwardness was better than hours of conversation I didn’t want. She likely didn’t believe me about my work, but no one could fault me for my courtesy.

Compare that to someone I knew who didn’t want someone to drop by so often. He had hinted about it once or twice. Finally, when the guy walked in, John said, “Good Grief! I didn’t mind talking to you one or two times, but do you intend to camp out here every day? I don’t have the time to waste, and it seems to me that you ought to be working too.” He made shooing gestures and said, “I’m busy!”

Equally effective, but I couldn’t have done it! *Apply your idea. When he asks a question that is OK, answer it. When he asks a question that isn’t OK, ask why he wants to know. Frankly, it sounds as though you simply don’t want him asking any questions, and you’d rather he didn’t drop by at all. So, discouraging any conversation or discouraging his visits might still be the best idea.

*You might want to make a point of talking to your directorial peer and saying that so-and-so dropped by. I believe in being direct, so I’d ask in a friendly tone, “He had a lot of questions about the project. Was there something you wanted to know about it?” Or, even more directly, “I have to tell you, I feel like I’m being grilled when he is there because he asks so many questions. Is he doing that on his own or for you?”

*Talk to the person who is directly responsible for you and your work and clarify regularly that you’re on the right track. That way you can feel certain that the questions aren’t expressing thoughts of anyone higher in the organization.

Then, be professionally firm but civil and stop the questioning. Respond in a cordial tone: “My goodness, I feel like I’m being quizzed by the boss! What’s behind all the questions, Bill?” Whatever he says, you can then say, “You may mean well, but those aren’t questions you need to be asking or I need to be answering.”

If he continues, ask his director to tell him to stop. Or, tell him yourself, since he isn’t responding to courteous treatment. “Bill, I don’t have the time to stop what I’m doing to talk, and I sure don’t have to the time to be quizzed. You might not mean it that way, but it seems that way to me. So, stop.”

Unless you have a history of conflict, there is no reason for bad rumors to circulate about you simply because you question the questions in an appropriate way. What starts rumors are confrontations that seem overly aggressive for the situation, or accusations that seem severe.

You say the employee is lower level, and the employee’s boss is your peer. You also imply that you have nothing to cover up or be worried about. Given all of that, what you have is a minor issue that you want to keep minor in everyone’s mind. If you treat it as a line in the dirt you may be viewed as over-reacting. If you find a way to deal with it as one of those irritants everyone deals with now and then, you’ll be able to keep moving forward, and strengthening your reputation. Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.