A reader asks:
One of my employees, Kelsey, has been with the company for just over one year. She sits next to an employee, Lorraine, who has been here for 15 years. They seem to get along most of the time, but Kelsey comes to me on a weekly basis and says that Lorraine does some things that upset her.
Lorraine has a habit of addressing any concerns or problems she might have with Kelsey or her work to the office at large instead of directly to Kelsey. For example, rather than tell Kelsey that she didn't think it was appropriate to bring a flower arrangement to a funeral home for a viewing, she asked the entire office at large if they thought it was appropriate -- well within earshot of Kelsey. Not once did she address her concerns with Kelsey directly. Kelsey does not handle this well. She takes it very personally.
Each time there is an incident, I ask Kelsey if she wants me to sit down with Lorraine and discuss this with her. She says no because Lorraine would immediately know that Kelsey had talked to me. I'm frankly getting to the end of my rope dealing with Kelsey feeling the way she does when she never addresses it with Lorraine at all. I ask each time if she's willing to push back on Lorraine, and I've even tried coaching her on what she can say ("Lorraine, I am sitting right here, is there something that you want to discuss with me?" and so on...), but she always tells me that she's afraid that when she says something to Lorraine, she will "just go off on her."
While Kelsey is early in her career, she is a stellar employee. She got the highest marks out of everyone at her last review. She is never late, she always completes all her work on time, she frequently helps other employees out with work they have, and she has managed the customers that she took on when she joined the company better than the other staff did (in a way that is visible to anyone who works for the company). Lorraine's work is decent enough, but she doesn't go above and beyond for anything.
I'm looking for some guidance on how I should handle this situation once and for all. Should I say something to Lorraine about how Kelsey feels, or should I continue to encourage Kelsey to push back on Lorraine when she makes these comments to the whole office? Or do I keep letting the situation go?
You don't need Kelsey's permission to address the situation with Lorraine! If Lorraine is doing something that you think is disruptive or causing problems on your team, you can go ahead and address it.
It doesn't always make sense to do that. If something is small and a minor annoyance, and the person it's aimed at is asking you not to get involved, it usually makes sense to respect that.
But if Lorraine is legitimately being rude, doing it a lot, and repeatedly upsetting a good employee, there's no reason you can't say, "Lorraine, I've noticed that if you have a concern about something Kelsey is doing, you address it to the office at large rather than to Kelsey privately. That's unfair to her. If you have a work-related issue with Kelsey, please talk to her directly -- or talk to me if you think it needs to be escalated." Or if most of what Lorraine is raising isn't work-related at all (like the thing about flowers at a funeral), you could instead say, "I've noticed you talk to co-workers about Kelsey a lot -- things like your disapproval of the flowers she sent to a funeral and the pies she baked for the potluck. It's enough that I've noticed it and I think it would bother anyone in her shoes. Can you lay off her?"
That said, this is complicated by the fact that you've already asked Kelsey a bunch of times if she wants you to step in and she's said no. Since you've presented it to her as a choice, it's not going to feel great to reverse that now and intervene despite her telling you not to. Ideally, you wouldn't have posed it as a choice so many times, but since you have, at this point you probably need to say something like this to her the next time she comes to you about Lorraine: "I've asked you in the past if you want me to talk to Lorraine about this kind of thing, and I think I did you a disservice by framing it that way. Lorraine's behavior is disruptive enough to you and to our team that I have an obligation as her manager to talk to her, so I'm going to do that. I'm going to present it as behavior that I've noticed, not a complaint from you, but at this point I do need to talk to her."
I'd also ask Kelsey what's behind her worry that Lorraine will "go off on her" if Kelsey speaks to her about this herself. Has Lorraine done that to her before, or has Kelsey seen her do it to others? If so, that's something you need to know about and address with Lorraine as well...and you need to tell Kelsey that that kind of behavior would be unacceptable on your team and it's something you'd handle if it happened (while ensuring she didn't face repercussions for your involvement). If Lorraine hasn't done something to make Kelsey worry about that -- if Kelsey just has a general fear of conflict -- then your message to Kelsey needs to be, "If something is upsetting you enough that you're talking to me about it multiple times a month, you really do have a professional obligation to work with me to resolve it. I can coach you through how to talk to her yourself if we decide that's the best approach, but what I can't let you do is bring it to me over and over without being willing to let either of us address it."
You can be supportive about this. You can assure Kelsey that you have her back and that the actions you're going to coach her to take (or will take yourself) are reasonable. And you can talk to her about how this is a professional skill like any other, which takes time to build and can feel iffy when she's first trying it out but which will serve her really well over the course of her career. But do guide her pretty assertively here, or you risk a) a good employee becoming demoralized over time, b) a less-great employee driving someone away and/or injecting toxicity into the broader group, and c) having hours more of these conversations with Kelsey without actually moving things toward a resolution.
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