my best employee is disappointed that I’m not dealing with a bad employee — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I am a newish manager and dealing with a staff personality conflict I’d love some help with. About six months ago, I became the manager of a business I’ll call The Teapot Emporium (I’m trying to anonymize this so I’m going to use tea as a stand-in). The various staff members there had been working at the site for 2-10 years before I came. We have a few employees who serve tea, recommend teapots to customers, and run tea-themed programs. And then we have support staff who unpack new teapots shipped to us, at times apply some finish to the products, process them, and then put the teapots on our shelves for the public to browse and for our tea servers to use.

I have a tea server I’ll call Sarah who is a rock star. Customers love her. She works hard, is dependable, and puts on the most amazing programs. She alone is responsible for a sizable chunk of our sales and foot traffic. Then there is Celia, one of the support staffers. She is … not a rock star. She’s always 5-10 minutes late for work, even though she mans our customer service desk first thing in the morning. She could be better at customer service. And she can be sloppy with her processing. It turns out, because there was no one else to train her when she was hired, those responsibilities fell to Sarah, who had to check all of Celia’s work on top of her own job responsibilities. This happened before I came on board, but it seems to have soured their basic relationship. No one is hostile, but at best their relationship is strained polite and at worst cool.

Everything seemed more or less okay until recently when Sarah informed me that Celia sometimes takes weeks to process a new batch of teapots (which should take 2-3 days) and that Sarah had recently discovered a new teapot hidden on a workroom shelf for six months that Celia had forgotten about. Celia’s workstation is a total mess, a mix of new teapots, pieces of paper (some covering said teapots), discarded teapots she’s “rescued” for personal use — all mixed together on carts, shelves, boxes on the floor. Celia was off that day, so Sarah and I fished out all the new teapots waiting to be processed and put them on a single cart. When Celia returned, I spoke to her privately, explaining the importance of organization and processing effectively and presented her with a color-coded priority system.

This seems to have pushed Celia over the edge, because ever since then, as soon as a box of new teapots comes in, she opens them in private and then hides or covers them until she’s done processing them. Then she puts them on the public shelf herself.

Now Sarah is coming to me complaining that she wants to see the new teapots when they come in, she’s excited to browse what we’ve got, she can help prioritize items for processing, and it helps her work to know new inventory. However, Celia doesn’t want to let her see the teapots she’s unpacked. Celia feels this is micromanaging and is offended Sarah feels the need to “check her work.”

Yesterday we got a new box of teapots, and Celia immediately hid them after opening the box. Sarah then sent me an email begging me to conduct a three-person meeting where she and I clearly lay out processing expectations for Celia. I felt that was an overreach and talked to Celia privately, who said she knows teapots as well as Sarah and there’s nothing in her contract saying she has to show them to Sarah before they’re placed on the floor. She also asked to speak to a union representative because she feels she’s being bullied by Sarah and, again, there’s nothing written in her job description specifically stating she has to show teapots to a tea server before they’re placed on shelves.

I’ve checked around with other Tea Emporium managers, and they’ve all agreed that while there’s nothing in writing saying that tea servers get to inspect teapots after processing, it’s pretty weird that Celia won’t let Sarah look over the unboxed new teapots. I don’t really like drama or confrontation, so I told Sarah to just let Celia keep processing the way she had been, but that I’m working on the situation. I also told Sarah that I’m going to honor Celia’s union meeting request, and together we’ll work it all out.

Since then, Sarah has been distant. In fact, every time she looks at me I feel almost disappointment in her eyes, like she doesn’t trust me anymore. The last time I told her I was working on the situation, she said to just forget about it and whatever I chose to do was fine. She seems deflated and all because I didn’t make Celia show her the new teapots we’re receiving.

I do think Celia is being a little unreasonable, but I don’t think forcing her to work in a way she’s uncomfortable with is the answer. I really believe a solution can be reached through consensus, not force. But Sarah now says she doesn’t care and to hold the union meeting without her. What do you think, is Sarah’s poor attitude warranted?


You’ve basically told Sarah to be less invested in good work being done — to ignore that Celia is hiding items from people and deliberately shrouding her work in secrecy so she can’t be observed or held accountable — because you don’t like confrontation. So of course Sarah is deflated! You took a conscientious employee who was invested in work being done well, and told her you’re not going to deal with a situation that’s directly affecting her. Why would she want to attend the meeting, given all that? In fact, there’s a good chance Sarah is looking for another job, or will be soon.

There are some things you can decide by consensus, but not everything — and part of your job as a manager is to step in and give direction when something isn’t being done well. You can’t avoid that just because you don’t like drama or confrontation — and if you try to, you will lose good employees, who won’t want to work in those conditions.

And of course, it’s not “drama” to give feedback and lay out expectations for how someone does their job, or to address it when there’s a problem. That’s part of your job. (And Celia’s attempt to claim that she doesn’t have to comply because it’s not in her written job description is absurd — managers need to give direction on things outside written job descriptions all the time — and I’m wondering why you’re letting that go unchallenged.)

To be clear: This isn’t just about Celia not letting Sarah see new teapots. That’s probably the least of it! The issue is that Celia takes weeks to do work that should take a few days, forgets some items entirely, and deliberately hides her work from any oversight. For Sarah, a conscientious employee — and one who was pulled into having to train Celia — that’s frustrating. Hearing that you’re allowing it because you don’t want make Celia “uncomfortable” has got to be maddening.

Sarah looks like she doesn’t trust you anymore because she doesn’t trust you anymore! You’re going to need to decide if you’d rather keep the great employee who’s raising reasonable concerns — the one who’s responsible for a sizable chunk of your sales and foot traffic — or the bad one who’s deliberately hiding her work and being defensive, if not outright antagonistic, when she’s asked about it. You probably can’t keep both.

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