Many Complaints About One Problem Employee

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about malicious employee: It has NOT been proven that she has sabotaged other workers but everyone feels she has at one time or another. She is a passive aggressive office bully.

I am the manager of a scheduling department at a home care agency. One of my employees will notice an error that may affect patient care but will not report it to me, especially if I made it. She will instead tell one of her co-workers that she’s noticed the mistake but plans on with- holding the information so that the person who created the error will get “in trouble”. This is not the first time one of the people I supervise has come to me stating this individual made statements like this. I don’t want to approach the individual in question solely based on what others have told me but I do need to address the issue.

The employees that share this information with me also don’t want to be known as whistle blowers. I have approached this individual verbally when I over heard her expressing her discern for me to others but she denies it and then attacks the person she was speaking to because she thinks they told me, not that I simply overheard. This individual also calls other employees after hours and gossips.

I’ve asked the individuals that she calls to please redirect her, refrain from joining in, or simply not to pick up their phones. They haven’t done so. Instead they listen and then report back to me. They are afraid to ignore her because she is spiteful and has known to “make things disappear”, i e schedules and paperwork. She has also been at the company for over 20 years. It has NOT been proven that she has sabotaged other workers but everyone feels she has at one time or another. She is a passive aggressive office bully. By the way, we are a very small office, no HR department to lean on. The owner is on my side but has had complaints before I came a year ago and never addressed them.I am trying really hard to change the environment of a very negative office into a positive one but cannot because of the behaviors of this one individual. Please help! What basis do I have to write her up and can I do so without totally exposing the other employees I manage? Thank you.


Want Something Better

Dear Want Something Better:

This certainly sounds like an unpleasant situation. But, it is one you can help to change, with consistent and effective supervision and leadership.

1. You say you would like to change the office environment from negative to positive. One way to start is to write a description of what you would like the office to be like. Be reasonable and fair, but describe each employee and how you would like to interact with them as well as how you would like for them to work and to interact with each other and with clients. (After you’re underway with your goals, you can have employees write out the same thing and discuss their ideas, either with you only or with the group.

That is often useful, because it requires everyone to acknowledge positive attributes of work.Combine all of the positive traits the employees listed and make a combined list, including your own list. You’ll have a list of descriptive terms for a wonderful workplace! See if everyone agrees, at least generally, that the description would be a good one to aim for. You could even post the list or key words from the list.

2. Also consider using elements of a program such as Character First (trademarked name). They have a list of traits and qualities that would be good for everyone to develop or reinforce. By having such a list you have something to use as a standard. “Lisa, our Ideal Workplace list includes looking for ways to help others. You knew what Gina needed today but you deliberately didn’t help her.” Another good book for you might be “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. It has a lot to do with influence and excellence.

3. There are two things with which you need to deal: 1.) The problem employee 2.) All of the other employees. As long as they only want to complain but are not willing to work toward improvement, you will always be caught in the middle. Consider asking them to send you an email with the information they are telling you, so you will have it to refer back to, after the conversation. That isn’t being unfair, that is simply asking them to be willing to be counted in the efforts to make things better. Let each of them know that although you are concerned, they have it within their power to stop what is happening. Truthfully, why should the coworker not call them if she knows they will listen?At the same time, you can redirect their behavior a bit by keeping their focus on work. Find work projects that need to be done. Develop something that one or more must work on. Commend work accomplishments. If there are inexpensive items that employees have asked about or that you can provide through the budget, get a few of those. For example, one manager asked employees if they would like to use colored folders for their desk files (not the official office files). She bought several boxes of those files and let employees pick and choose. The enthusiasm didn’t last for more than a few days–but things like that, every few weeks, gave a feeling of newness to the office.That manager also gave little treats now and then: A stick of sugarless gum left on the desk or small samples of personal items.

There is a website you might enjoy, “” Some of the sample items are only a few pennies each. I don’t advocate spending money unless it’s necessary, but those are truly small expenses.Those things won’t turn things around but they can put the focus on something other than unpleasantness. At some point (probably very soon) you will need to say, “Marie, I’m sorry you’re being disturbed at home by Lisa’s phone calls, but that is something you can change.

From now on if you are going to complain about something Lisa has done, don’t come to me unless you can also say, “Here is what I did about it.” All of these things are like developing healthy skin through good treatment and attention to daily care. Next is like removing a thorn from that healthy skin!

4. Talk to your manager about his or her ideas for dealing with “Lisa” the long-term problem. You will need his support for anything you do. There is no point in starting something you can’t finish anyway.Do keep in mind however, that in most businesses without an employee contract that is binding, an employee can be dismissed without a complex process. Fairness and humane treatment should be present, of course. That is why an employee should be warned clearly about what will happen if behavior and/or performance does not change. (That is more than “improve”. It must change to the actions you describe as acceptable.) But, if you have had ample time to figure out that Lisa is the source of many problems, it only makes sense to remove the problem.I am always reminded of the thought by Dag Hammarskj√∂ld who said, “He who wishes a tidy garden does not reserve a plot for weeds.”

If you want a highly productive and positive office, you can’t keep an unproductive or negative person and hope she doesn’t strangle out the good part.The bottom line is that if Lisa is willing to create problems for the business, just to get even with someone, she will eventually create many problems for the business. That is unacceptable and needs to be stopped. It could be that she has her own perspectives about why she is the way she is. Your job is to clarify what she should do instead of or in addition to what she is doing now, if she wants to not only keep her job but be most effective in it.

5. You will need to talk to Lisa about your concerns. You indicate that you have counseled with her before, so this won’t be the first time she has had an idea that her behavior is not considered to be effective or helpful in the office. Apparently in the past she has denied doing anything wrong. Don’t let her denial keep you from moving forward. Few of us will admit to wrongdoing, even if we know we have done it.The One Minute Manager concept (Ken Blanchard) is a good one: State what you have observed or heard and how it makes you feel (concerned, frustrated, upset, are all appropriate feelings). Then, give her a chance to talk, which will also take the pressure from you for a bit. (“So, tell me about this.” “Tell me your view of how that happened.” “Explain your thoughts behind what you said.”) Don’t give her an easy out to deny it a complaint with “Is that what you said?” Or, “Tell me why Jan would report that you said that.” Instead, just assume she did say it and she will tell you otherwise if she didn’t.She may still deny her remarks or actions.

You can respond to that type of denial with something like this, “You say you didn’t make those comments. Unfortunately, they sound very much like the comments you have made in the past and they sound like an expression of the behavior I’ve seen from you. I wish they didn’t sound at all like you, Lisa, because they wouldn’t be so easy to believe. But they do sound like you and I believe you said them.”Many managers feel that they must hear or see everything they talk to the employee about. But, just as a jury must weigh all of the evidence, including circumstantial evidence, so must a manager look at the totality of the situation. You can counsel and you can sanction or even dismiss an employee, based on what you have seen and heard on your own, combined with what is reported to you. If Lisa had shown you nothing but positive traits and actions you wouldn’t find it easy to believe negative things. She has shown you many negative traits and actions, so it is likely she shows even more of those to coworkers and others.

Next, you can give her a warning–maybe a final warning, according to the status of things–and a way to stay out of trouble.”This is a final warning for you, Lisa. I’ll be putting it in writing, but I wanted to tell you directly about it as well. You are not to ever again do or say anything that indicates you are not going to do your job correctly, for the purpose of causing problems for me or anyone else. You also are not to ever again create worry and concern with other employees by threatening them or treating them in a bullying manner when they report inappropriate remarks you’ve made. You can avoid having problems about this by limiting your comments to positive work-related remarks. You can avoid a lot of it by leaving work at work and not calling coworkers about work related matters. If I hear you have done that or anything else that is disruptive or hostile toward me or my efforts to create a positive office, I’ll ask Mr. Miller for your dismissal. He and I have talked about it and are in agreement that, as much as we’d rather not have to do that, we will for the good of the business. Do you understand that this is a final warning?”

She may protest that she is the victim of harassment by others, etc. Stick to your warning statement. “Let’s stick to the main thing, which is your behavior. I’ll know if you’ve changed or not, so put your efforts into that change.”

6. After the conversation, you will want to keep your eye on the goal–a pleasant and productive workplace. Not everyone will be pleasant all of the time, nor will it be trouble-free. But, if you see something negative continuing past one time or one day, that’s the time to stop it. Early intervention is the key.Intervention about behavioral and performance problems can happen at several stages–you want to do it early. The earliest stage is what I refer to as the inoculation stage. It can come any time an employee may be at risk for problem behavior or performance, including when they are hired. Since you’re starting a new day in your office, this is a good inoculation time.

You can tell everyone that you know they will be tempted now and then to hold onto a frustration or to vent about something that angers them, but that you want them to avoid those temptations because they are harmful to everyone. You may want to suggest ways they can stay more positive, including just putting their focus on clients who need them.The second level is what I call the “Uh oh” time. It’s when you get just a brief idea that something isn’t quite the way it should be. Someone has acted pouty for several hours. Someone rolls her eyes when you give her a suggestion for work. You think, “Uh oh. What’s that all about?” That’s the time to find out.

Often just the act of questioning an employee reminds them that they are being noticed. Using the One Minute Manager again, you can tell them, maybe even with a smile, to not do that again, or to do something else instead. Make it brief but definite.”Jan, what was that eye roll all about?” (She denies it or says she didn’t mean it or says something else.) “Well, don’t do that again. It looks like I can’t count on you to do the work and I’m sure that’s not true. So, don’t do the eye roll. OK?”The third level is the Definite Problem level. You have seen something that bothers you and have talked to the employee about it, but it hasn’t changed. Or maybe you haven’t seen it before, but it’s severe enough that you can’t just do some mild questioning. At this stage an employee is warned more strongly and told not to do it again or else severe action may be taken. Sometimes you’re talking to someone who has formerly done just fine, but who made a mistake or used poor judgment. The warning doesn’t have to be a chewing out, just a reminder.

There is a good book called, “Discipline Without Punishment” by Dick Grote. It presents ways to remind employees of the performance and behavior they agreed to when they were hired.The fourth level of intervention is about a Chronic or Acute behavioral or performance problem. At this point, there is no choice but to do something severe to stop the problem and turn it around–either a loss of assignment, pay, shift or status or removal from the work.The fifth level is the Crisis level. At this stage it’s too late to do anything but try to keep the damage to a minimum. A crisis in your current situation would be if one or more employees were going to quit because of the actions of Lisa, or if she allowed something negative to effect the business, or created such a disruption that there was no way to have a good workplace. You probably have employees at all of those levels. The key is to intervene, tell them what is preferred and get feedback from them that says they will do it. That’s actually easier than it sounds!

7. I know this is a long response, but your question is about a complex problem that has gone on for a long time. You can gain and maintain leadership in your group through forward motion that sees the goal clearly and won’t let others put up barricades to achieving it.As much as possible, keep the focus on work and ways to improve the service provided to clients. Avoid personality discussions and avoid petty arguments about this or that. When possible, let people work within their style. Decide what is important about the work and commend those who do it, while redirecting those who do not.Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know some of the solutions you develop and how they worked out.

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.