Can I Start Afresh With Negative Subordinate?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about negative talk about our workplace:

Someone under me has said some really negative things to me about working here, such as “I can barely tolerate working here,” “this is not the job I expected,” “I don’t want to be involved in the tasks I’m given,” “I want to do things are a higher level like you (me – the supervisor),” and “I don’t like working with you.” When I ask her for clarification she refuses to talk about it.

When she and I met with HR she said she just wants to forget about all of this, does not want to revisit it, wants to start a new day as if none of this has transpired. I am having a hard time in thinking this is acceptable. Pleases advise. Am I just to start a new day as if nothing has ever happened, as if nothing has ever been said? Is this really possible?Please shed some light on this. It has got me very confused… and I just want to do the right thing. Thank you.

PS My boss and HR are aware she has said these things to me. Several of these things she has also said to my boss (i.e. the only way she can tolerate working here is by going for a masters degree, and that there is no growth for her here).

Signed, Confused Supervisor

Dear Confused Supervisor:

There’s obviously much more to this than you have had time to write. However, it seems clear that this is one of those challenging times when you have to remind yourself of your role as a supervisor. Your job is to work with and through employees to achieve the tasks of the organization. Instead of focusing only on the things this employee says, focus on the impact of those things on her work and the work of others. Then, be guided by what your manager and HR want to do about it. It sounds as though they’re willing to tolerate her unpleasant attitude for the time being, so you will be doing your job as a representative of the organization by being guided by that. Frankly, I don’t know why they would tolerate it, but I’m sure they have their reasons. Maybe they’re just giving her a little more rope. This employee may have griped, moaned and generally complained, but perhaps now she realizes that she isn’t likely to find a better job–so she’d better learn to deal with this one. She also likely feels on the defensive about her negative remarks and would much rather forget it all! Convenient, isn’t it? And frustrating for you. But if you keep your focus, you won’t find it so upsetting. You may also find that you establish a new way of dealing with her in the future.

First, remember that there’s a difference between starting over and moving on. Starting over would imply that everything that has been said or done before is erased. Thus, any new remarks would be like the first time. That would not be wise. Moving on implies that she is aware she has used poor judgment and now you are giving her a chance to improve. That is the correct approach. Probably no good would come of counseling with her now. Just get her back to work and be aware that she enjoys seeing herself as superior. Think of that as a weakness of hers that you must learn to work around until it becomes disruptive to the work. You didn’t indicate the details of the HR meeting–who called it, what was its purpose, what was the outcome, etc. But, apparently there was some resolution about things. If you are still her supervisor, you still have a responsibility to oversee her work and to identify the gaps between her performance and behavior and what is needed to accomplish work effectively. For example, does she make negative statements to other employees? That will be a link to work–and should be handled as such, after you’ve talked to HR.

If she only complains to you, but does good work, you may find you will simply have to cut those conversations off and put the focus back on the job. If she’s NOT doing good work, the comments don’t matter anyway because you need to be focused on performance improvement. But if she IS doing good work, the comments may only be an irritant and ignored, so long as you feel she has a chance to express herself when it’s important. Do not encourage her venting. Stop the conversation when you realize it’s headed down that path. You mention all the things she’s said to you that are negative.

You may find that the less you allow those conversations the better. You may want to say, “Carol, you’ve had a chance to vent about those things. Now, it’s time to work.” Or, “Carol, continuing to talk about those things indicates to me that you’re not focused on your work, so why don’t you put your focus there?” Or, “Hmmmm. Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. But since you do, I think your best bet is to put your energy into your work so you will at least get a good evaluation to take with you to your next job when you find it.” Or even, “Look Carol. You’ve made your attitudes clear. Now it’s time for you to work.” Then walk away or usher her out of the office.

Document the date, time and remarks, as I’m sure you’ve been doing. But especially describe any impact this might have on work. If others hear her, mention the negative feelings that she spreads around. If she comes to your office, mention the fact that both of you were taking time away from work solely to talk about her negative feelings. Show the link between her complaining and getting the work done. That will get HRs attention if nothing else will. Then, forward that information.

Remember the old adage I often quote: “Your employer doesn’t own your attitude—but your paycheck rents your behavior.” Keep your attention on her work performance and on her behavior–and how both of those affect other employees, her and you. The next time she makes a remark, tell her to put her focus on her work. Document it and send a note to your manager. After a couple of times, ask them if they want further action and what they’d like for you to do.

This is the kind of situation in which you should not act on your own–always clear your actions with your manager and with HR if necessary. Then, put YOUR focus on the good employees in your work area. Don’t let the squeaky wheel get all the grease. She’s already gotten more attention than she likely deserved. Now, focus on her work and the work and feelings of the rest of the group–especially those who are a much better view of their role, than it appears she does!I hope these thoughts will trigger some thinking of your own. If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know what develops. The desire to please a negative employee is not always the best way to create a WEGO working relationship with your whole work group.

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.