Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
Here's a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.
1. How can I address my employee's bad attitude?
I have to meet with a staff member who is generally good at her job but has become increasingly disrespectful and resistant to any direction. Her attitude makes it difficult for me to work with her, but every time I talk to her about anything she is so unpleasant about it and afterwards it is almost the silent treatment. Do you have suggestions for me as her manager to address the attitude without making the whole situation even more unpleasant?
I know I can't make her respect me, but is there a way that discussing her disrespectful attitude will result in a better attitude and not just make the problem worse?
Managers sometimes worry that they can't address attitude issues as straightforwardly as they would performance issues, but you can and you should. In fact, you should frame it exactly the the same way you would a performance issue -- "what you're doing is ___, and what I need is ___." Just make sure that you're specific about what she's doing that needs to change (as opposed to just labeling it a "bad attitude"). For instance: "Part of what we need in this role is someone with a cheerful, can-do attitude and a willingness to hear feedback. That means I need you to be pleasant to coworkers, participate in meetings, not roll your eyes or otherwise be dismissive when people talk, and be open to discussing areas where I ask you to do something differently."
And if the problem is severe enough that it could conceivably lead you to replace her if you don't see significant improvement (and it sounds like it is), you should be transparent about that: "I want to be clear that this is important enough that without significant improvement in the next few weeks, we would need to move you out of this role." And then follow through on that if you need to.
2. My coworker keeps pushing unwanted help on me
It is my first year working at a boarding school, and one of my coworkers, who has been here for numerous years, has slowly been poking his head in my responsibilities and using them for his own agenda. For instance, one of my responsibilities was to interview students for a position. He sat in on all my interviews and kept trying to boost students who he worked with and gave me reasons not to pick the students that I work closely with. His reasoning was, "Well, this is your first year and I thought you could use the help." Any time I have come up with an original idea, his response is, "Well, THIS is how we have always done it" and he becomes super persistent until he gets his way.
I appreciate his input and guidance, and I do not mind trying to accommodate, but I need him to let me do my job. Unfortunately, he is very sensitive and insecure. I am looking for advice on how to tactfully let him know I need to do my job while not making it awkward at work/home.
"Thanks, I appreciate the offer to help, but I'm going to handle this on my own."
"I think I want to figure this out myself, but thank you."
"I'm going to do this on my own."
"I've got this, but thank you."
Etc. And you say this pleasantly, but firmly. And then you continue to repeat it firmly until he backs off.
If at some point you want to address it more broadly, you could say, "I appreciate your offers to help, but I think I need to handle most of this stuff on my own. Thanks for understanding." But since he's sensitive and insecure, you might be better off just addressing it in the moment as it happens and assuming that he'll back off once you've clearly established that you don't welcome the "help."
3. I was asked to work more slowly so other people don't look bad
I work in an editorial position for a major healthcare organization. I've been here about six months, I've gotten great feedback from my boss and coworkers, and I'm really enjoying being here. I've been particularly praised for my very quick turnaround and accurate work.
My boss's boss spoke with me this morning, and he had a different take. While he said he's heard my work is accurate, he's concerned with how quickly I'm performing it. Essentially, he is concerned that if another member of the editorial team is asked to complete a task, they might not complete it as quickly as I can, and the requester might wonder why another member of the team can't get it done as fast as I can. He asked that I do my editing work, save it, then look at it 30 minutes later, and THEN send it back.
Um, what? I'm being reprimanded for being too good at my job? Am I nuts for thinking he's nuts?
Well, to be fair, it doesn't sound you're being reprimanded. You're being asked to adjust a work habit to help manage other departments' expectations. That's not crazy on its face, but it's crazy in this particular application, because he's basically telling you not to let people know how fast you are (and that others aren't as good as you).
I'd talk to your direct manager, explain what her boss asked you, explain your concerns, and see what she says. But if she's on board with this, then you pretty much have to proceed that way. On the bright side, you now have a great piece of evidence that you're faster than everyone else, which can be used in future interviews, if you're delicate in how you present it.
One more thing: The instructions to save your work, then look at it 30 minutes later, and then send it back raise the possibility that your boss's boss has concerns about accuracy or thinks that you'll be able to improve the work on that second look. It's worth getting clarification about whether he was burying that type of concern in what he said to you.
4. Asking an interviewer about a recent scandal
I applied to a job at a college in another state, and through my research found the school is on probation. Last year there was apparently a scandal involving high level administrators, ethics, and legal violations. The college has been given time to fix the problems and it appears they have fired most of the staff associated with the problems. Should I bring this up in my interview and ask about it? Now that I know, it feels like the elephant in the room. I should note that I'm fairly certain the job I applied to and am interviewing for is vacant because the previous person was fired as a result of this scandal. Thoughts on tactfully asking about it?
Sure, if there's information you genuinely want to know (it sounds like you know the basics). You could say, "I've read a bit about the events that led to the school being put on probation with (governing body). Can you tell me anything about how that's being handled?"
5. My manager says I can't talk to HR without notifying him
Recently I went to HR to ask a question. They in turn told our VP, who asked my manager why I had gone to HR with my question. With that, my general manager took us into his office and told us that if anyone on our staff wanted to go to HR with anything, he wanted to be notified first. Can he do that? Am I required to tell my boss if I'm going to HR for something? I think it's my choice to not go to him if I feel I can't speak to him about an issue. The only reason I asked HR my question that day was because he was out of the office, and it was a general question at that.
Legally? Sure. There's no requirement that you have free and confidential access to HR. Whether your company would approve of him telling you that is a different issue. At a minimum, your company is going to want you to be able to approach HR about harassment and discrimination concerns without having to go through your manager, and they might (depending on the company and on you) also want you to be able to go to HR with more general concerns as well. That said, it's entirely reasonable for your manager to tell you to talk to him first about some types of things (like a management issue or something else internal to your department). So the blanket ban is wrong-headed, but nuanced instruction on this might not be.
Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.