Manager Doesn’t See Truth About Problem Employee

Question:

How do we get our manager to see that we have a serious problem employee who is bringing down morale and spreading her poison to every department? Several couples work in this business and she has tried to start rumors of affairs as well as trying to stir up arguments and disclosing personal information. She has even told customers bad things about the company.

Our boss doesn’t do anything about any of this. I met with the employee and our boss and the employee became angry and interrupted me, but the boss didn’t do anything. After I left the employee cried and told him more stories about the rest of us, making it seem we had been causing problems for her. He apparently believed all of that! What can we do?

Signed,

Fed Up


Answer:

DearĀ Fed Up:

I combined your two messages and edited them to avoid giving away specific workplace information.

Your situation seems so obviously problematic that it makes me wonder if this is the whole story or if there are versions that show that many people in your workplace are causing problems.

For example, no one can spread poison unless someone listens and acts as though they are interested. So, apparently your coworkers sometimes listen to the problem employee and believe her. Also, apparently there is enough truth in her stories that she can create upset. If that wasn’t the case, she would just be talking to air.

So, the first thing all employees must do is say, “Stop. I don’t want to hear gossip and rumors.” Until they do, she will have a reason to tell stories. The second thing is that all the problems should be worked on, not just this one.

It sounds to me as though the work situation there is unpleasant overall if some of the stories you mentioned are believable enough to create concern. I wonder if there is ever a time when all of you come together to focus on how to do the best work. When work is the focus, private arguments lose the focus. When customer service is the focus no one would want to create doubt with a customer about how the business is going. So, it sounds as though everyone could stand to get back to work and stop the personal conversations.

The work you mention probably involves time together away from work. It will be doubly important to insist that no one spread stories to hurt marriages, friendships and the ability to just relax and enjoy down time. But again, if no one listened and repeated it, no one would be hurt by it.

However, if you really want to make a stronger impression on your manager I think you need to put your complaint about this employee in writing and ask for a full investigation of the entire situation.

In your written complaint list the untrue things the coworker has said and who she said them to. List the times she has talked inappropriately to a customer. Provide facts not just verbal complaining. Then, cite the recent incident in which she told him that individual employees are doing criminal activity (drugs).

End your memo by saying that this has gone far past being a situation of a problem employee and has become one in which damaging lies are being told on a regular basis. You might say that if she would accuse employees of drug use, she could lie to accuse the whole company of something illegal. Then, say you are asking that all employees be interviewed to find out the truth of the problems being caused by this one person, so the truth will come out. If she has accused you of specific wrongdoing, emphasize that you want to be exonerated of that charge. Be adamant that you want your boss to find out the truth and get that out in the open.

You may not want to go so far with this. But, that seems to be the one way to get the problem employee stopped. Your situation with the manager is also important. If you have a history of being a good employee who does not stir up problems, you stand a much better chance of being believed. So, watching your own work and activities is crucial.

Your boss may see this as being a back and forth fight where neither person is blameless. But, since he doesn’t want to fire everyone he just tries to keep things calm enough to get work done. You will need to show him that things are so bad the work is in jeopardy. You know your situation best, but if it is as bad as you say, surely you can gain the support of others to do one of those two things mentioned here. First is to not listen and certainly not believe her. Second is to ask your boss, in writing, to do something specific to make this stop before things get so bad that he loses employees over it.

The final thing I would suggest is that you take a leadership role in counteracting the unpleasantness.

*Except to solve the problem once and for all, don’t talk about this employee. Support good employees and good work. *Live your life in such a way that you are an example for working together effectively. *Work with others to improve customer service, work enjoyment and work effectiveness. *If you see a problem, work with others to fix it, not just complain. *Support your manager in work issues. *Away from actual work, find things to do away from others as well as with them. You all need a break from direct contact. *When you hear that someone has been gossiping or talking negatively, point out that gossip is nearly always exaggerated so this should not be believed. Dilute her poison with your reactions. Don’t spread it to someone else, even to point out the coworker’s lies.

The bottom line is that every poisonous gossipy, lying employee I have encountered has had people who eagerly listened, even though they later said they didn’t like the gossip. They should have frowned and stopped it when they were hearing it.

Sadly, many workplaces, though not as unique as the one you describe, have situations in which there are arguments, accusations, counter-accusations and unhappiness. I think the manager should take a much stronger stance and do something definitive to stop the bad behavior and spell out what is acceptable and what is not.

But, employees have an obligation as well, to not keep the unhappiness going. Or, as I suggest, to make the complaint about it so strong that no one can overlook it.

Best wishes to you in this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

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.