68

I am having an issue with an employee/former co-worker who is flat out ignoring me.

I work in a department in a college and for many years I worked as a student assistant. When I graduated I became a full-time employee and I became the supervisor to all the other student assistants. I have been in this position for a few months and at first everything seemed to be going well. All my former coworkers seemed to transition easily into accepting me as their supervisor.

However, as of a few weeks ago, I have noticed a drastic change in the behavior of one of my former coworkers/student assistant. At first I noticed that he was becoming rather distant towards me. I ignored the behavior because I believed that he may be stressed about school or that he may be having a bad day, and I thought that he has behaving this way to everyone. Now I have come to realize that this employee is only treating me this way and is now completely ignoring me. When he comes into the office, he does not say a thing to me. When he goes out for breaks or for any reason, he simply walks out right by me and doesn't say anything. I really started to notice that he was ignoring me when in the hallways he sees me and looks the other way to not talk to me.

I really don't know what I could have done to cause this behavior and I am having a really hard time trying to figure out how to deal with this because this is the last employee I ever expected to have a problem with. This employee has always been the complete opposite of a bad employee; he always does his work, he is always on time and he never complains. In addition, we have always gotten along very well. When I was his peer, I worked with him all the time and we were always talking to each other.

I am really having a hard time trying to figure out how to handle this situation. I don't know how to bring it up to him or if I should also involve my managers in this situation.

What is the best way to determine the issue at hand?

How can I resolve this issue and restore communication between us?

  • 8
    I'm almost sure there must be a duplicate somewhere on this site.... – user8036 Jan 12 '15 at 22:22
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    It is possible he has been hurt by your promotion, he probably feels (with or without justification) that he should have been the supervisor instead of you. – Masked Man Jan 13 '15 at 5:15
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    How do you go from having a positive relationship with someone and then they ignore you when you pass by and you say nothing about it? Why have you let it go on for so long without asking the person immediately? – user8365 Jan 13 '15 at 14:33
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    Does he still perform his job to standards? As in, is this simply a social issue, or is it also affecting his (or your) performance at doing your actual jobs? – Doc Jan 14 '15 at 8:02
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    possible duplicate of Teammate ignores and excludes me – Mast Jan 15 '15 at 12:16
132

The easiest way to address this is to start doing what you should have been doing all along.

You need to be having occasional 1-on-1 meetings with everyone you supervise. They should last about 10 minutes, and be confidential. Depending on the size of the group you supervise, these should happen once every week or so.

In these, keep the tone light, at first.

  • How are things going?
  • What difficulties are you having with your students?
  • With your professors?
  • Is there anything that you need to make your job more productive/effective?
  • Is there anything going on that is making you unhappy with your job?
  • What can I do to help with that?

Keep it short and informal, and put the "Gloomy Gus" somewhere in the middle of all of them so he doesn't feel in any way singled out. If he gives curt, 1-word answers, then you ask, "Is there something happening here that I don't know about that is making you upset?"

Whatever happens, even if he attacks you personally, keep it courteous and non-judgmental. You need to be in "Information Gathering" mode only. Don't try to fix anything in these meetings. Just get information.

If you have a real problem, you should uncover it. If it's something completely unrelated to you, then you haven't done anything accusatory.

You're in the dark. You need information. That's the only thing you should worry about right now.

Addendum

Maybe I'm too old and too married to understand these things, any more, but I just looked at your posting name and had one more thought: Does he have a crush on you?

  • 6
    +1 This seems to be a good answer with or without the addendum. More talking seems to be the key. – James Khoury Jan 13 '15 at 2:18
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    What if the co-worker resents the OP's promotion? Might 1-1 meetings not be seen as rubbing it in? I've never worked anywhere where a supervisor needed 1-1 meetings to make sure that everyone was getting on and had what they needed. Personally I'd just be friendly and avoid anything that might be seen as rubbing in my position as boss. – user1725145 Jan 13 '15 at 10:59
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    @SList if he resents the promotion, that doesn't mean she should not do something that is appropriate for a supervisor to do, and 1-1 meetings are very appropriate. – thursdaysgeek Jan 13 '15 at 16:14
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    Comments removed. Comments are not for dating advice or arguments. Take it elsewhere. – Monica Cellio Jan 13 '15 at 20:46
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    One thing to consider, shift supervisors overseeing student assistants have nearly no authority. I could have asked for someone to do their work, and written to the Commons Manager if they blew me off, but requesting a 10 minute private meeting would have gotten me told off by upper management. In fact, all of the student's tasks were planned for the day before I got there, I was just given the schedule. – kleineg Jan 13 '15 at 21:17
14

Is this affecting the work he does? If it does not, then it's not really a problem. You are now a supervisor, not a peer, and unfortunately, friendship is no longer the priority it was. If he's working well and getting work done, then greeting you is immaterial.

If he's not getting work done, then deal with that. Again, whether he says 'hi' is not really that important.

In either case, as Wesley says, initiate the 1-on-1s with all your subordinates, making sure they have clear goals and you provide clear feedback, both positive and negative. Make sure they have the tools they need to get their jobs done, and work on removing obstacles and roadblocks for them.

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    A healthy workplace is not just about "Is this affecting the work he does" - if it's affecting morale, the workplace environment, others, or progress, it's still a potential problem. – Jon Story Jan 13 '15 at 10:37
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    @JonStory Your point is right, but the answer also covers that, albeit implicitly. If it affects morale or work environment, I would include that under "affects the work he does". – Masked Man Jan 13 '15 at 13:27
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    I can see where you're coming from, but I've also seen workplaces where the culture is 'anything goes as long as you're answering x phone calls/meeting deadlines/making €y,000 in sales etc, so I think it's worth expanding on – Jon Story Jan 13 '15 at 15:02
  • Agreed, fair point. – Masked Man Jan 14 '15 at 6:36
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    Saying hi to someone in the hallway is common courtesy, friend or not; this sounds like a bigger problem than just the normal change from peer to supervisor. – Joe Jan 14 '15 at 21:44
11

If you haven't already done so, just ask him if everything is OK:

Hey, $name, may I ask you a question? I noticed that you've been very quiet in the past weeks and just wanted to ask if everything is OK...

Do that when you two are alone with nobody else overhearing. I'd do this as a simple first step before going into official 1:1 meetings.

This has the following advantages:

  • If he is mad at you for something you did, you acknowledge that you noticed his behaviour and give him a chance to tell you what's wrong. (Yes, sometimes people who are mad at you for whatever reason don't tell you straight away but give you the cold shoulder and wait for you to notice. It seems strange, but it seems to be common human behaviour.)

  • If his behaviour is unrelated to you, he will appreciate the friendly gesture.

If he says that everything is fine or that he doesn't want to talk about it, tell him that he can come to you if he wants to talk. Then drop the subject and stop worrying about it.

6

Go tenpin bowling, with the team, or organize some other suitable activity. Make sure he is in your team.

During the outing/retreat, find a moment to ask how things are going and genuinely share that you are more than a little concerned with recent changes you've seen. It could be you causing it but it is important to nail it so that you can make things better.. for the benefit of the team.

The ups and downs from winning and losing as a team going against other teams, might just break the ice here.

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    This seems like an overly complicated way of trying to get someone to talk. You're his supervisor, using your authority to arrange a meeting seems the more appropriate approach to a solution. – Mast Jan 15 '15 at 12:21
  • @Mast Can't hurt to have options. Getting a newly minted supervisor to yield full-authority to get someone to break silence wouldn't be my first bet. But sure it can be done. Taking them to a retreat after a formal meeting fails would be even tougher, even awkward. – ingo Jan 16 '15 at 0:07
  • I wasn't suggesting a retreat after a formal meeting. More like an informal 'can we talk for a minute' after coffee break. Usually gets it done. – Mast Jan 16 '15 at 3:26
4

You say you want to "restore communication": this suggests that maybe communication, in general, has been lost.

If it has been completely lost, that is to say this person doesn't respond even when you request information or assign tasks, then they aren't doing their job and you need to address it rather urgently. Part of their job is to respond to their supervisor. Clearly you can't have a 1-1, as Wesley describes, with someone who isn't speaking. Then you would need to escalate it, find someone with more authority to whom they are prepared to speak about what they're doing and why. Presumably if the issue can't be sorted out he'll be dismissed, but that needn't be your call.

If communication hasn't been lost as far as the job is concerned, they just don't chat with you any more and aren't so friendly, well, that's their right. You have to accept that it's their right not to be great friends with their boss if they don't want to. Have the 1-1, ask if you've offended them in some way (if so, repair that) or they have a particular problem. If you can't find any problem and they're otherwise fine, so be it, they don't want to chat to you any more.

However, they've probably taken it too far, since as a matter of courtesy colleagues ought to acknowledge each others' presence, make and respond to basic greetings, and in most cases occasionally have a non-work conversation. This is something you can discuss in a work context: "I accept that we don't hang out any more now that I'm not a student, if that's what you want. But saying hello doesn't mean I'll try to drag you into a chat, you should treat me the way you treat other permanent staff of the department". And you have to mean it. You also have to be prepared for the possibility that this is how he treats other department staff. Students sometimes have an "us and them" mentality, and basically won't initiate anything with staff or academics other than work.

One thing you should not do, is combine your authority as boss with your desire to get on well, and order him to enjoy your company! You can order him to be polite (although that has the potential to make things worse), but not to enjoy something he no longer wants to do. To a busy person there may be a fundamental difference between chatting to a peer, and having to chat to a supervisor. The latter becomes a work-based demand on your time, and your supervisor might be judging you in ways a peer doesn't. If this is how he feels, then it just is less fun than something that feels entirely voluntary. He might relax given time, or when he graduates himself.

2

There is often a tendency to treat a change as a problem to be solved. I encourage you to take a step back and think what really makes this a 'problem.' Is the change in your colleague's behavior truly problematic in some objective way that affects key job functions? Or is it a problem because it contrasts with your expectations of how he should (by your self-defined standards) be behaving toward you?

Sometimes things happen in people's lives, they go through changes. It would be odd if an individual remained exactly the same over time. We often judge people by the way they are right now, in this very moment as our interaction with them happens. But if we adopt a more detached perspective we might realize that over a long period of time, this might be but a tiny ripple in that person's dynamic character development.

Nobody really knows what is happening in other peoples' heads, hearts and lives. Sometimes things happen that might affect them deeply that have nothing to do with others, but rather with some change in attitude that is not really about you, but about something happening in them, so it is really about them. And so sometimes the wiser approach may be not to attack the 'problem' head on and try to 'resolve' it, but to give the person some time and space, and see if they might find a way through this on their own. You never know if your involvement will cause resolution or aggrevation, there is always that risk.

You need to use your own judgment, but I encourage you to carefully reflect on the issue at hand and ask yourself how certain you are that tackling this head-on is the better option. Try to distinguish two things: your preferred approach for resolving issues that fits your own character and interaction style, and the approach that may be most effective for the person who is exhibiting behavior you consider problematic.

If the answer is "I am not so sure," then perhaps you could engage in "information gathering" that others are suggesting here (which is a good idea), but in an indirect way. Carefully try to observe and educate yourself, without necessarily becoming vested/involved. It's a fine balance but selecting the most appropriate approach to a (perceived) personnel issue, and knowing when to be more or less proactive, is some of the art and science of supervision.

I would say that if you truly struggle to figure out what you may have done or said, then it probably is not directly about you but about something in that person's life that may merely be reflected on you, like a projection on a screen. Being the screen is not the same as being the culprit. It is easy to take the projection personally, but sometimes a better way is to use this as an opportunity to work on your own character for a bit, to learn to set healthy psychological boundaries.

A couple resources:

http://www.wikihow.com/Stop-Taking-Things-Personally

http://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/employee-facing-personal-problems-heres-what-to-do.html

Hope this provides a somewhat different perspective from what has been stated already. Good luck!

1

As a supervisor you need to address such issues even if they are painful. Other people will notice him ignoring you and lose respect for you. If he is angry about something, then failing to address it right away will make it worse. If he is having a personal problem, then he needs to be aware of is being noticed that it is affecting the workplace.

Sometimes the first step is ignoring someone, then it escalates to refusing to do tasks assigned or bad mouthing the person to others. Ignoring your supervisor is almost always something bad in the workplace. It causes ripples that can affect your ability to supervise the rest of the staff.

So you need to have a discussion with this person about the behavior and what is causing it. You also need to make your expectations of work behavior clear especially if he chooses to not tell you about the cause.

Remember attitude is part of his job performance, he needs to know that you expect politeness.

-2

What is obviously happening here, is that the guy has the crush on you.

What he is doing is a power move. When a guy who is not very experienced in relationship is in a situation where his interest is in a higher power position than him, he will generally do two things, based on his personality type. He will either seek you out as a trophy or he will try to establish himself as an equal in status to you. So a male employee in a relation with a female superior will try to over-dictate the terms of the relationship, in order to reobtain the perceived balance in a relationship. In this case, he does it by icing you. In doing so, he forces you to come to him and you will have to, because it is your job to work with your subordinates.

If you have no interest in him, the best way to get around this is to get a fosho boyfriend and to make sure he knows it. When he knows he is not on your sight he would most probably go into a secondary orbiter mode and will stop icing you. If you have an interest in him then you simply have to give in a little, establish relation with him then trade relationship power to make sure he understands that at work you are the boss.

  • 1
    I don't know that that's obvious, but it is possible, especially if you used to work closely together. As far as his reaction, if he really is attracted to you, it's possible that at least part of his reaction after your promotion may just be from the awkwardness of the scenario. Regardless of whether the male of the female is the boss, supervisor-employee relationships are just a generally awkward thing. Due to the conflicts of interest that can arise there, some employers frown on such relationships, for instance. – reirab Jan 14 '15 at 23:35
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    @reirab - When an employee has a supervisor, there is always a supervisor-employee relationship. – Nicolas Barbulesco Jan 15 '15 at 10:05
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    I agree with AncientOwl's first sentence, but I have to disagree with the rest of her post. And yes, I say "her", because only a woman would suggest showing off your boyfriend to resolve the tension. There is probably tension now because either you've rejected him somehow, or because he recently learned you had a boyfriend. In other words, this guy's fantasy got shattered somehow. And yes, this guy is too immature to deal with it properly. That last part, that he is too immature to deal with it, I actually totally agree with AncientOwl on. – Stephan Branczyk Jan 15 '15 at 11:45
  • So...there seems to be a lot of description of the situation, but little usable as far as resolution methods. Any concrete ideas on how to deal with a situation where a colleague (whether a peer or subordinate) is making a "power move"? I agree with @Stephan that getting a fake boyfriend is not a sustainable solution, seems more effort than it's worth and I don't see how this directly resolves the issue (it doesn't necessarily diminish the crush, but could backfire and provoke more intense behavior intended to attract attention). – A.S Jan 15 '15 at 14:00
  • In general moves that seem exactly the opposite of their intent - e.g. avoiding interaction to attract it through attention -- can be hard to spot because of their indirect mechanism. Whatever the reason (attraction, jealousy, or envy), the "power move" thing seems worth unpacking in terms of resolution strategies. – A.S Jan 15 '15 at 14:00

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