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:

The receptionist in my office is the first to answer the phone, and she is the first one clients see when they walk in the door. A big part of her job is customer service, but lately I've received complaints about her interactions with people -- two from other employees and two from customers.

It has been very surprising to me because she is so friendly with me. She's upbeat, bubbly, and friendly -- part of why I hired her. But my office is in the back of our suite so I cannot overhear her interactions with people. The complaints I have received say that she is rude, difficult to work with, and unfriendly, but when I asked for the specific conversation, no one has been able to say, "I said X and she said Y."

I've spoken with her once about this in the past, because I had received other complaints. During the conversation, she got very quiet and just said she'd do better. She didn't rebut the complaints or say they were wrong. It seemed like there was improvement based on some of my office creeping (literally standing around the corner while she was on the phone so I could overhear). But today I got two more complaints saying she was rude, and unfriendly. One of the complainers asked me if there was a way to work directly with me as he wanted to avoid any interaction with the front desk because, he says, it is so bad.

I obviously need to do something, but I'm not sure how to fix this since I already talked to her once. Other than this, she is a stellar employee. Her work is quick, perfect, and she's very proactive. I've asked if she felt overwhelmed and she said no. I thought maybe that could have been causing her stress and that's where the behavior came from. What do you think? How do I handle this the second time around? I really like her and see her moving up in our office. She's rather young and this is one of her first jobs so then I wondered if maybe it could be inexperience. But maybe I like her so much that I'm just trying to make excuses for her.

Green responds:

If people aren't telling you that it's about specific language, my bet is that it's about manner -- that she's coming across as annoyed, brusque, put-upon, or unhelpful. You shouldn't drill customers for details, but go back to the internal complaints you've received and ask those people to tell you more about what's going on. Frame this as "I want to better understand so that I can coach her," not as "You need to prove this to me before I act on it."

Then, talk to your receptionist. Tell her about the feedback you're hearing and ask what she thinks is going on. This should be a dialogue -- not just you relaying the complaints and telling her she needs to do better. Really talk to her and try to figure out what's happening and why.

It's reasonable to decide one the measures of success for her job should be "people come away from their interactions with you feeling you were warm and helpful." Be very clear to her about that, and paint a picture of what that looks like. For example, you might say, "If you're stressed or annoyed by a request, the person you're talking to shouldn't pick up on that. We want them to feel that you're looking for ways to make their lives easier, rather than that they're inconveniencing you." You could even try role-playing some particularly tricky interactions and coaching her on how to respond.

But ultimately, you can't have someone in that role who's alienating people, especially customers. So really stay on this -- find more opportunities to observe when she's talking to people, and follow up with other people internally for feedback. Now that you know there's a problem, you want to proactively monitor it -- don't just wait to see if other complaints show up.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to