The One That Almost Made Me Crazy

When you are a manager, there is always one employee you think might break you. You’ll have lots of good people, mediocre people and even bad people. But there is another category reserved for the nightmare employee.

Unfortunately for me, this nightmare showed up on my very first team in my very first management job. I only had three people reporting to me and two of them were problem children.  The one I will call Victoria tested my mettle. There were moments when I didn’t think I would survive being her manager.

Not a great introduction to employee management.

What made Victoria so special? I classify her as one of the “persecuted”. The persecuted are employees who think everyone is out to get them, everyone else is always wrong and they’ve done nothing to bring on the treatment they get. These people are so troublesome because you cannot reason with them.

Victoria was a classic case. She considered herself to be overworked when she wasn’t. (Yes, I can be sure of that. I covered her desk when she was away, and the longest it ever took me to do her whole job was 5 hours.) She considered any additional requests for work to be unreasonable and unfair. She complained to anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) that she was overworked. Never mind that she spent most afternoons online checking out her stock portfolio. (Silly thing to do when a supervisor has the cubicle directly behind you.)

She had trouble getting along with everyone—every manager in the department, every co-worker and every vendor we dealt with.  None of it was ever her doing. To illustrate, someone in another department once asked her for something via email. This person used to work in our department and got a promotion Victoria wanted.  Victoria’s response was, “You are wrong and shouldn’t you know how to do your own job?” That’s an exact quote, I swear.

Our vendor managed to typo her name in one email by simply leaving a couple of letters in the middle out, clearly a typing brain fart. Victoria emailed him back with the correct spelling in bold, capital letters and said, “Shouldn’t you know how to spell my name by now?” When I asked why she responded that way to a typo, Victoria insisted it was not a typo and that the vendor had done it on purpose to insult her.  Good grief.

Review time was even more fun.

Victoria insisted she was a high performer (she wasn’t) and refused to acknowledge that any aspect of her behaviour could require improvement.  She did once get a high performer review when she was actually doing her job, but still took it all the way to HR with a complaint about the minor amount of improvement suggested for her. She thought her review should be nothing but glowing praise.

My own review with her rated her as satisfactory. (Trying to get approval from HR for a needs improvement ranking was near impossible.) This resulted in a two month soap opera of me, my boss and my boss’s boss having to justify to HR everything we had ever said or done concerning Victoria, because she showed up at their offices in tears on the day she received her review.

Note to HR folks: if the employee is bad mouthing every single manager they have ever come into contact with, the problem isn’t management. Figure out who the common denominator is.

Victoria did of course think she was too good for her job and pay grade and was always applying for higher positions, most of which she was grossly under qualified for.  She felt even more persecuted and complained it must be racial discrimination. Clearly untrue when you looked at the makeup of our department and every other one she applied to, but that was using logic again.

It got to a point where I didn’t think I could handle her anymore. Then a miracle happened. Some crazy person from another department actually wanted her for a job. The only problem? They were going to call me for a review before making the offer. Drat.

Telling the truth meant there was no way Victoria would get the job. We’d all reached our boiling point and really wanted her to be someone else’s problem.

Did I take the high road and tell the truth? Nope. I’m ashamed to say I took the (mostly) cowardly route. I didn’t give her a glowing review. I did point out that she had communication issues that needed to be worked on but I also sold the things she was great at, such as her attention to detail.  I lied enough that she got the job.

Did I feel badly? Not at the time. Courtesy in our company dictated that hiring managers inform the employee’s supervisor of a job offer before calling the employee. I knew Victoria would soon be out of my hair. My boss wasn’t in that day, but I ran gleefully to her boss’s office and shared the news. Neither of us are “huggy” people, but we both jumped up and down yelling and hugging, so happy that we were getting rid of Victoria. That’s how bad she was.

Guilt did start to creep in later. I’d done something I didn’t think was particularly ethical. I’m no longer with that company, but I keep tabs with people who are there. Somehow Victoria has been promoted to a manager position. I know she had a baby a couple of years ago, so I really hope it changed her attitude and maturity level. If not, I feel terrible for anyone that reports to her or even works near her.

It was frustrating to have such a bad employee that we couldn’t fire. HR was unwilling to let go of an employee who got her work done, no matter how much poison she spewed into our department. There was no one sad to see her go.

It’s employees like Victoria who drive people out of employee management. I’ve been at this a while now and I still haven’t figured out a good way to deal with “persecuted” employees. They crop up periodically and I always have the same troubles. I do know to document everything with these people, so I have a leg to stand on when things go bad.

But I’d certainly love to hear from someone who has experienced more success with employees like Victoria. I still have nightmares about her.

You Must Give Clear Instructions

If you become a people manager, please know that providing instructions can sometimes backfire.

With some employees, I must be as detailed as possible when providing instructions, otherwise a task or behaviour will go completely awry. One of my favourite examples comes from the first employee I posted about in this blog, Julie.

Julie had a habit of wearing inappropriate things to work. Sometimes her outfits were jaw-droppingly awful. Others just needed minor tweaks. One day Julie’s bra straps appeared prominently as part of her ensemble. Another team leader pulled Julie aside and told her she needed to do something about her bra straps.

Julie said ok and quickly went off to the bathroom. She came back without her bra. Just took it off, so the straps couldn’t stick out.

Did I mention she was wearing a skin-hugging, white shirt? And that she was incredibly endowed, thanks to some cosmetic enhancements purchased by her boyfriend?

“Do something about your bra straps” was not enough direction.  With an employee like Julie, we should have told her to push the straps under her shirt or pull her shirt back over the straps. “Do something” was just asking for trouble.

You might be thinking to yourself, ‘Do I really need to baby my employees that much?’ The answer is yes. Sometimes.

I hope you don’t run across too many Julies in your career. I promise, there are frontline employees capable of rational thought. They just didn’t work in my call centre.