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I manage Jane, and she manages John.

John complained to me once that Jane is unprofessional, rude, and disrespectful to him. I addressed the situation with Jane.

Since then, John tells me that everything is ok, but privately complains to other team members that the situation has gotten worse, and is "bad-mouthing" me behind my back. The other team members are sharing this information with me in confidence.

Is there anything I can do to correct John's behavior? Can I salvage this situation between the two of them?

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    Rudy, welcome to The Workplace. I edited this question to bring it more in-line with the requirements for posting here. The site is looking for specific questions with direct answers. "What should I do?" questions are against the site's guidelines. Please feel free to re-edit if I've strayed from your question's intent. – Wesley Long Jan 11 '15 at 5:07
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    You are John's manager's manager. Why don't you ask John to explain his behaviour directly? – Masked Man Jan 11 '15 at 6:47
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    To add to Happy's comment: Assuming that John is intelligent enough, he should pick up that being called upon by his manager's manager is a (potentially) bad sign. – Jan Doggen Jan 11 '15 at 10:35
  • I'd call John in, state to him that I have witnesses who claim that he's been saying stuff about me and watch his reaction. It's a bluff but the purpose of the bluff is to smoke him out in the open. If he admits to it, I can choose to set the dogs on him. If he doesn't admit it, he'll be a lot more circumspect as to whom he is talking to. If his productivity deteriorates, give him a warning and if it continues to deteriorate, drop him. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 11 '15 at 14:43
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The first thing that I noticed about your question is the fact that a lot of people are talking about other people without them being present.

  • John was talking about Jane to you.
  • You were talking about John to Jane.
  • Presumably, Jane talked to John. Maybe saying something about you.
  • John now is talking about you to other people.

You need to get all people into one room talking with each other, not about each other.

You probably still don't know what's wrong. Wether Jane is right, or John, or both or none. Grab them both, get a meeting room and don't come out until this is resolved one way or another.

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While every manager strives to lead their team by persuasion/negotiation, sometimes a manager has to use their authority. You being John's second-level manager might be required to use that authority in this case.

Call John for a "quick word" in a meeting room, and ask him specific questions:

John, remember a while ago, you had raised an issue, and we got it resolved. Does that remain resolved?

Make it clear to him that if he still has any concern, he would need to raise them with you directly. If he says the issue has been resolved, you tell him the following:

If your concerns have been addressed, I require you to focus on your work and not discuss it any further in the office. Do you agree this is reasonable?

If he is smart enough, he wouldn't say, "No". If he does, you will have to warn him that gossiping about his manager could lead to disciplinary action, including termination. If he still remains adamant, you initiate the disciplinary action (depending on what your company's policy and process says.)

As for Jane, you could seek feedback from other employees reporting to her (not in a group, of course). If a number of them report the same issues that John did, Jane is also a problem. If not, then either John has a problem working with his manager, or (much worse) John could be a victim of workplace bullying by Jane.

Once you have this data, and if Jane is a problem, you have to ask her to explain, and if appropriate, follow the disciplinary procedure. Moreover, without going into exact details of the case, it is hard to tell if Jane is bullying John (for example, John might be gay and Jane doesn't like gay people, or John turned down Jane's offer for dinner, or ... many other such reasons). If you suspect workplace bullying, you might have to seek help from the company's HR.

  • If Jane doesn't like gay people, why did she ask him out for dinner? Homophobes these days are so inconsistent! Good advice about checking whether the issue was resolved, though, it gives him a chance to explain himself. John may genuinely feel backed into a corner because he's complained and feels nothing has come of that complaint. – Jon Story Jan 12 '15 at 14:04
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    @JonStory Those are two different scenarios, not the same. (I said or, not and.) It is tempting for managers to ask, "How come only you have a problem with your boss?" My point here is that a manager should not jump to conclusion that if only one employee complains about a boss, then the employee alone is always wrong. – Masked Man Jan 12 '15 at 16:20
2

You're not going to like this answer.

You have to fire John ASAP. Even if his complaints are justified, he has messed up the whole hierarchy with his private conversations. He's a toxic employee, and the only question left is how much damage you are willing to let him do, and how many other employees you're willing to let him "spoil."

Next, you need to evaluate Jane's behavior. Were John's accusations accurate? If they were, can you salvage her? You may just have to "clean house."

Remember this: Every hour your toxic employee spends "infecting" other employees is an hour you're going to have to spend salvaging the "infected" employee. If he's talking to half a dozen other employees, you may never get ahead of the situation.

My company went through this very thing this past summer. We had two toxic employees in a department I don't manage, but they were degrading everyone's morale, including my team's. It got to the point where they were sabotaging our sales and customer service efforts intentionally in a power struggle with the VP of Operations. We tried to salvage them, but ultimately had to get rid of them. Within a week, the whole company's "vibe" improved. People were less stressed, happier, and thus more productive.

Think of it medically - You can either clean the wound, get your stitches, and take your antibiotics (face the pain now), or wait and have the limb amputated when it turns gangrenous (rebuild your department from scratch).

TL-DR;

Fire John now for insubordination. Decide if you can salvage Jane or not. If you can, put your efforts there. If not, don't waste any time getting rid of her, too. Nothing good will come of waiting, and John's already proven direct approaches won't work with him. He's already lost.

Worthwhile references:

UPDATE

There is a lot of disagreement in the comments below. Some have likened my approach to that of a Mexican (drug - inferred) cartel.

These are, to me, from those who haven't had to deal with this situation. I've been through it three times over the last 25 years, twice as a line-level employee and once as a manager. I have seen what happens when these toxic employees sew their seeds. I have seen the complete lack of results in trying to "rehabilitate" them. I understand your emotions, but this CAN'T be an emotional decision. You can't sit and wish an employee to find a new attitude. These "toxic employees" were lost months, if not years ago. There is just no way back once they've become this bad. Wishing there were does not make it so.

You can try all you want, but that means first "quarantining" them in order to prevent further damage (a process that in itself may "justify" their grievances in their view) and then rebuilding them. Not from zero, mind you, but from negative. Is that where you need to put your efforts? Do you do this at the expense of your other responsibilities? At the expense of your customers? At the expense of your business? At the expense of the well-performing employees?

Even if you are successful (and I've never seen a success), at the end of the day you only have an employee you can't trust, and you've sent a message to the rest of your staff that you tolerate that level of insubordination and behavior. Those who do well come away with a "Why bother?" attitude, knowing that performing well isn't appreciated or recognized, but that only insubordination will garner recognition.

It may sound harsh, but you are doing far more harm to the rest of your organization than you will ever to as good trying to rehabilitate someone like this. Not terminating John harms your company, your team, likely your customers, and ultimately John, as no responsible manager will ever be able to trust him, again, and he's better off starting fresh somewhere else.

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    Holy guacamole Batman! I sure don't like the answer. Given we don't know where the OP is based, as likely not an "at-will" country as one, and given John's comments are heresay unless the witnesses are willing to go on the record, you are likely to end up on the business end of a lawsuit following this. While I get the sentiments of a toxic employee, establish the facts first. Confronting John about it with facts may be enough to send him with his tail between his legs, the mexican cartel response is overkill. – The Wandering Dev Manager Jan 11 '15 at 9:57
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    For example in the UK, if John was over a year in the job, you'd have to document what he was aledged to have said as part of sacking him. Without witness statements that could be seen as libelous, kind of thing that leads to tens of thousands in a lawsuit, never mind the wrongful sacking after you lose the libel case. – The Wandering Dev Manager Jan 11 '15 at 10:05
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    Horrible, horrible answer. Terminating an employee is a gross overrreaction to your hearsay of them allegedly saying things in private conversations. 'Insubordination'? What the hell? This is not the military. People kill themselves when they lose their job, from time to time, and you're prepared to do that to them because it's inconvenient to follow a proper disciplinary process? I hope you never manage anyone. – Tom W Jan 11 '15 at 18:54
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    @WesleyLong we only have it as heresay, we don't know the motivations of the reporters, maybe someone has an axe to grind and is dropping John in it. We need to confront him first to find out if there is any truth in the reports. – The Wandering Dev Manager Jan 11 '15 at 19:24
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    @WesleyLong You are right about toxic employees and 90% of the time you can do everything you can to help them and they will still revert to toxicity. I do however think that firing immediately is a bit extreme. The OP really should try to fix this a couple more times and give some heavy handed warnings first. I have seen managers do this and toxic employees either continue and got fired or life is so unpleasant for them that they leave willingly. The result is the same. – maple_shaft Jan 12 '15 at 12:44
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This is a case where an open Discussion is mandatory. You have to call John, Jane and everyone involved in this gossips. Discuss all the confusion and complains and make sure every stone is turned. This will leave no hidden doors and everything is going to be very clear. And once the truth is revealed you can make a decision on this matter.

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John has got too much time, is asking for trouble, or is having a medical condition.

Quickly determine 1) Did John violate any policy? and 2) Is he delivering expected level of performance?

The number one rule about taking action is "have facts first." Companies cannot act based on hearsay or rumor.

If John did cross a policy line, then the company can issue a firm response. Put him on notice verbally or give a written notice, there are many ways to do this, so this depends on your company's procedures.

If John is not performing per expectations, then you have a range of options including having him transferred to a role or site that makes more sense. Do this via Jane of course.

If John is outperforming, you might want to get Jane revisit his targets because he might have been given easy targets and therefore has too much time on his hands. The fact that he's not productive with his spare time doesn't help the team, so revisit his targets and list of deliverables. If Jane has issues with setting appropriate targets for John then this could be the first root-cause. Sit down with Jane. Get her assessment and plans for John.

Sometimes poor behavior or conduct (often shown by poor performance) persists because they are just not aligned with the company, its mission, the culture or other reasons. You find this out when performance drops and through the performance dialogs. If John wants to honestly stay, effort can yield the real reasons behind these worrying patterns of behavior. If he doesn't want to stay, then he wouldn't care about targets and low performance scores over time will usually send a message to leave the company or you will eventually have enough facts to substantiate termination.

Of course, if you or Jane or anyone observes that John needs medical attention then get appropriate help. Adjust his performance scorecard appropriately also (a person with an ongoing mental/medical condition can't be expected to deliver like a healthy staffer).

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