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 manage a team of eight, all of whom have worked for the company much longer than I have. One of my employees has developed the habit of editing documents that I hand out during team meetings. She uses a red pen and makes a show of doing so. These are not corrections, but stylistic edits.

She usually hands them back to me after editing them. She'll often say something like, "Here, I made a few notes for you."

The last couple times she held them out to me, I didn't take them. I just picked up all of my things, then said something like, "Thanks for coming, everybody" and walked out without it.

Last month, at her annual review, she did the same thing on her review! (My practice is to have the team member read their review first, then I verbally walk them through it.) As she read the review, out came the red pen!

I've not said anything yet, although I do push back on some things. It's one of those "pick your battles" situations. Much of this kind of behavior from her has come and gone in the past three years. However, this practice isn't ceasing, and now another team member is doing the same.

Green responds:

Whoa, this is obnoxious -- and you need to address it firmly and directly. It's almost certainly making the problem worse that you haven't addressed it yet, although I will totally cut you slack on not having any idea of what to do in face of something this weird.

Sit down with your employee and say this: "Jane, I'm confused about why you're editing documents that I hand out to the team and even your own performance evaluation. I don't need you to edit those documents. What's going on?"

She'll presumably say that she's noticed errors in them or things that could be improved. You then say this: "Not everything needs to be edited, and when something does, I will specifically assign someone to edit it. Handing people edits they haven't asked for, particularly in contexts like informal documents handed out at team meetings, is disrespectful. Going forward, I need you to stop doing that."

Then, if it continues after you've directly told her to cut it out, you'll need to have a very serious conversation with her -- which won't be about her aggressive editing, but about her ignoring clear and specific instructions. If that happens, you'd treat it like you would any other performance issue. Meet with her again and say, "We talked about this a week ago. It's still happening. What's going on?" .... and "It concerns me that you're ignoring clear instructions. I need to have confidence that when we agree on a course, you will follow it." ... followed by real consequences if the problems continues.

Also, this kind of behavior isn't generally confined to one specific area, so I suspect there are broader issues with this employee's performance and attitude and the general ease of working with her. So use this as an opportunity to look at her behavior in general and see if there are other problems you need to address.

What you can't do is continue being hands-off. The goal with managing people isn't to find a way to make their behavior barely tolerable or barely acceptable; it's to have really great people on your team. If she's not one, use this as a wake-up call to start holding her and others to a higher bar, managing more assertively, and moving people out if they're not excelling at what you need from them (and that includes the basic ease of working with them).

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