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.

A reader asks:

I have had a number of members of my team come to me lately with concerns about another employee, Jane. They say she takes long breaks, leaves early (she's got a job where she needs to be in the office at set times), and spends too much time socializing. This came as a surprise to me, as her output is within the normal range for my team.

I'm not in my office enough to observe these things myself, but I was concerned that I was hearing this from so many people so I brought it to Jane for discussion. She was clearly completely blindsided, felt betrayed by her colleagues, and didn't know what may have caused the perception or how to resolve it. Because she was so upset after our initial conversation and we weren't getting anywhere with coming up with solutions, I deferred a follow-up meeting for a couple of days, but I'm not sure how to address this. I did put forward some suggestions based on my observations and feedback from other team members, but she didn't seem to be taking any of them in. If I have to continue to performance manage her I will, but her surprise was so extreme that it made me worry that maybe the issue is with her co-workers, not her.

Of the co-workers who have reported these problems, I have varying degrees of trust in them. I heard from four people about this -- two have my absolute highest trust, one is newer and I'm cautious but think they have good judgment, and one has a tendency to stir the pot. The two whom I trust the most brought forward concerns that were verifiable, but not as severe. The pot-stirrer brought forward the most egregious concerns and ones that were harder for me to assess (in particular, that Jane has a tendency to leave the office early as soon as I'm gone for the day).

Green responds:

Because Jane says this isn't happening and you haven't been able to observe it firsthand, I think you've got to do your own observations before continuing any further.

In general, I don't think you were wrong to ask her about it without observing it yourself since you'd heard it from multiple people, two of whom you know to be highly trustworthy. (I wouldn't take the pot-stirrer's word for anything that isn't being verified by those two trustworthy others, though.) But once she told you the reports were wrong, at that point you've got to put the brakes on any further action until you find out for yourself firsthand. So for now, making further suggestions to her about how to handle this is premature. First you need to find out what's really going on.

To do that, ideally you'd alter your schedule enough for a couple of weeks that you're able to see firsthand what's happening. If that's not feasible -- if your work means you need to be out of your office a lot -- there are other ways of checking in, like finding a few legitimate reasons to call her during the timeframes people say she's often not there. If you're able to look at her computer login/log-off times, that may give you some useful data too. If you feel awkward doing this, keep in mind that it's potentially in her best interests, because if she's right that the complaints are groundless, this will help show that.

Also, is there someone in your office whose judgment you trust and who's senior enough -- i.e., not her peer -- that you could deputize them as your eyes and ears on this issue for a couple of weeks? Ideally, this would be someone who isn't close to any of the original four people who talked to you and who's either your peer, senior to you, or just a notch below you (like an assistant director or a team lead). The idea would be to discreetly explain to that person what's going on and ask them to keep an eye on what's happening when you're not around so that you're better able to sort through this.

Normally, I'd also say to look at your employee's work output, but you've already noted that it's where you'd expect it to be. And actually, if she didn't have a job that required her to be in the office at set times, her good output could be enough info to settle this. But it sounds like her job requires her to be present regardless.

But definitely don't keep pushing the issue until you've gathered more data. Because some of this is coming from two highly trusted employees, I think it's pretty likely that there's something going on -- but if they're off-base, you could end up really demoralizing and even pushing out a good employee who didn't do anything wrong. (Imagine being on the receiving end of this if she genuinely hasn't done what people are accusing her of -- that would be awful. And not even just awful for her, but awful for other people on your team who see it, too.)

You've got it in your power to dig more and find out what's really going on, and that's got to be the next step.

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