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 recently expanded my team from one direct report to two. "Tammy," my original staffer, is proficient but not great and can get confused by complicated projects. "Carrie," the new hire, is still learning but is a superstar. She picks up on nuances of projects that Tammy misses, even though Tammy has been in the role three years. Carrie also volunteers for more work and to learn new projects, while Tammy only does the minimum that is expected. I am fine with the level of work Tammy puts out and it's what I expect of the position. Given Carrie's current learning curve, I expect within the next three months Carrie and Tammy will be directing projects at the same level of difficulty.

Tammy is very insecure about Carrie and has repeatedly told me that she feels that I favor Carrie. She mentioned that we spend a lot of time together, and I pointed out that I'm still training Carrie, not socializing. I said that I trust Tammy to do her work without my oversight, and it's not favoritism. I asked if there were any examples of times when I treated them differently. Tammy could not provide any, simply saying others outside the department had made comments to her about it. I told her that others might perceive it that way because Carrie and I eat lunch together in the cafeteria every day, but Tammy chooses not to eat lunch with us because she goes to the gym. Tammy replied in an angry way that it was her lunch hour and she could do whatever she wanted. I told her that I agree and was not upset that she goes to the gym.

Since Carrie was hired, Tammy has been terse and almost rude. Recently, Carrie forgot to invite Tammy to a meeting involving multiple teams. Tammy was very upset that she had not been on the invite and exclaimed, "I need more lead time than a few minutes to attend a meeting! You can't expect me to drop everything!" I snapped and said, "Then don't go" and walked away. It was not professional and I have no excuse, I've just become so tired of this childish situation! She did not attend the meeting, and when we spoke later, I apologized for my angry response, but told her that if she speaks in a rude way to others, others may respond in a similar manner. Two days later, she slipped me a note as she left for the day. In the note, she said that I favor Carrie and that I don't have to like her, but I do have to respect her.

I am at a loss about what to do. Tammy keeps bringing up "favoritism" and I feel uncomfortable giving Carrie public praise or Tammy constructive feedback. Please help!

Green responds:

Tammy is out of line, but you're not quite handling this correctly.

You shouldn't be eating lunch with Carrie every day. Even though Tammy would be welcome to join you if she wanted to, it is going to come across as favoritism -- to Tammy and to others who notice it. Plus, as a manager, you need to have professional boundaries with the people you manage. You can certainly eat lunch with employees from time to time, but when it's an everyday thing, especially with only one employee, it starts looking like you're close friends with someone you manage, and that's not appropriate. This is particularly true when the person you're eating lunch with is a superstar new employee whom your other employee feels threatened by. Also, if Carrie ever wants to stop eating with you, the power dynamics mean that it might feel awkward for her to say that.

So, effective immediately, stop eating lunch with Carrie every day. (You'll need to frame this for Carrie in a way that won't make her feel weird, so you could tell her that you're trying to read more and are going to read at lunch for a while, or that you're running errands at lunch, or whatever else makes sense.)

Then, sit down and talk to Tammy. Regardless of her feelings about Carrie, it seems clear that Tammy isn't feeling valued or respected. So address that first: "Tammy, I want to talk to you about how things are going. You've said things recently that make me think you're not feeling valued or respected. I want to be clear that I do value and respect you. You're great at X, and are making a fantastic contribution on Y. You're a key part of our department. Is there something you'd like me to be doing differently so that that comes across?"

That's the conversation you want to have -- not one about Carrie. But if she does continue focusing on Carrie, say this: "You've mentioned to me a few times that you think I favor Carrie. I've heard you and I've tried to explain what I'm doing. I welcome hearing from you about what you need in your work and from me, but I need it to be about you and your needs, and not about Carrie or anyone else."

Ultimately, Tammy may need to decide whether she can continue in her role reasonably happily or not. And there's a point where it's reasonable for you to say, "I've heard you, I've explained my thinking, and now we need to move on."

But -- and this is crucial -- you also need to stop snapping at Tammy. You might be frustrated, but that's not OK to do.

It's also worth reflecting on whether Tammy's right that you favor Carrie. It sounds like you might! And that's not inherently wrong; it's OK for managers to treat higher performers differently than lower ones. But you do need to be fair to Tammy -- including things like giving her clear and actionable feedback and access to you that isn't wildly different from how much access Carrie has to you, and treating her with respect and kindness. 

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