Managing A Challenging Employee

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about managing a talkative employee:

I have been made office manager. Not huge, I have one person under me and some part time occasional employees as well as a volunteer. Here is my problem. The full time employee that I am supposed to supervise is not a bad employee. She aims to please. She comes in on time. She handles the telephone and people who come to the window beautifully. She handles many things very well.

The problem: She likes to talk. Her position involves a lot of data entry and I’ve watched her talk without a break for long periods of time during work hours. She then asks the other help to get her data entry work done for her.She’s a real talker and on one day I remember, she talked to the janitor for a half hour. I interrupted their conversation and asked her if she could help me with some work that needed to be done. She told me she could not, that she had too much work.I asked her at that time because she was doing nothing and I could use the help. The other issue is that she has all our other help doing her regular work instead of the filing, tours, or helping me and her with our overload. She delegates much of her work to them. If she can get someone to do it for her she does. Where her job involves talking, she’s good at it. The Data entry part she delegates. These part time employees have been hired to help our department, not just her. My husband says, “She should be manager. She delegates better than you do.”

Today, she brought up to me that I should think about filling the paper in our printer and other items used by the department with paper. Eg. the fax machine, the network printer, the copy machine. In the past, if paper ran out of a unit, whoever was the unlucky person the paper ran out on was the person who added the paper. She thinks that I should make sure all the paper is filled in all machines because it annoys her when it runs out. Another thing she does is ask me if she can go to Dunkin Donuts for coffee. or down to her garage for an oil change during working hours.

When she asked about Dunkin Donuts, I said sure, go ahead. She then asked if she could take our other part time employee to keep her company. I said it is okay if this part time employee wants to deduct it from her time. I saw no reason why two people had to go to Duncan Donuts for coffee. I thought I was being good letting her go. Was I wrong in saying no? This did not set will with her. We do not work in a sweat shop, but I don’t think it takes two employees to get a cup of coffee.

These small issues are exasperating to me and I hope for some advice on how to react to them. I feel that we need to keep a decent relationship if we are going to work together, but I can’t let her have the run of the place. Can you give me advice on how I can react to these issues with an employee who is good in many ways but talks too much, takes every sick, vacation and personal day the minute it becomes available to her and uses help available to both of us for our overload for her regular office duties.

Signed, Frustrated

Dear Frustrated:

What you describe happens often in workplaces: An employee is good at one part of work, but another part of it is a terrible problem. Managers tend to tolerate the bad to get the good–but as you are finding, nothing improves as a result.It sounds as though your employee is managing you rather than the other way around! It does not seem that talking is her main problem. Her main problem is that she has been allowed to do what she wishes! That is a management problem as much as an employee problem, I think you would agree.

Consider these responses, and adapt them to your work situation if you can:

1. Take back your management and leadership role! You can do this in both supportive and corrective ways. Your role is to work with and through others to get the work done, and you have work of your own to do. So, try doing an organizing day in which you chart out work assignments as a refresher for you and others. Then, either directly in a one-time interview, or slowly as you guide into a new way of doing things, make it clear that only you can delegate work to volunteers. Or, that the employee can delegate this and this, but not data entry. Or, whatever you need to do to clarify that you decide the work structure, not one employee.In the meantime, link with the volunteers more than ever. YOU need to become their primary source of information, work and recognition, not the employee who has usurped your role.

2.Do not ever let an employee tell you no when you make a reasonable request. Can you imagine telling your boss, “No, I’m too busy”? I hope you said, “I know you have work to do, but it appears you have time to talk, so I want your help now. Now.” Then, when that work is done, you should close the door to your office and talk to her about her responsibilities.3. This third issue involves your responses as well as hers. I realize you only gave a couple of examples, but if you re-read what you wrote to us, you will see how you have abdicated your role to the extent that honestly it is no wonder things aren’t going well.Take for example the situation of the employee asking you if she could take another employee with her when she went for coffee. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, since most people don’t want to go to coffee alone. Your reaction seems to have been somewhat punitive and probably resented by the employee as well as the volunteer.But then, you compounded that by telling the employee that she could take the other employee if the other employee wanted to deduct it from her time. Not only is that snippy sounding–and very unreasonable for a coffee break–it is not the business of the first employee at all and you should not have conveyed the message in that way! Look what you set up!

I’ll bet your challenging employee delivered the message with the worst possible spin–so you are the bad guy and she is the good guy. Where do you think the loyalties of all the employees will be?Regarding the paper in the copier. You say formerly whoever was the “unlucky person” who was there when the paper ran out was the one who had to add it. Why should an employee be the one to notice that having paper run out in the middle of a job is irritating and something better should be developed? You have volunteers who have enough time to get work delegated to them. Why not have them rotate the task of keeping paper in the machines? But whatever you do…you should be managing the office. And copy paper is part of that.

I don’t mean to be extra harsh, but honestly you do not have a large staff of people to deal with, and yet you have let one employee become the de facto manager through your own lack of of strong role. At least that is the way it looks on the outside looking in.You say your husband has commented that the employee ought to be the manager because she delegates so well! That tells me you talk a lot about this at home. But it also tells me your husband notices what I do….that the employee is stronger than you are at this point.Dr. Gorden focuses on WEGO–the concept of working together to achieve great things, instead of working against each other. Maybe the employee can identify something that needs to be achieved and she can work on that. Or, she can be put in charge of something that limits her power but gives her enough to keep her happy. YOUR focus needs to be on having influence with volunteers, employees and clients, and ensuring that the office runs smoothly. You can only do that if you fulfill your role in every way and in the most appropriate way. Consider talking to your own manager if you want a closer opinion. But do not delay in taking the reins.

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.