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Dilemma of the Month: How Do I Deal With a Trash-Talking Employee?

Back Article Jun 17, 2021 By Suzanne Lucas

I recently got a two-minute-long voicemail from an employee. I’m 99 percent sure it was a pocket dial and he didn’t know I could hear what he was saying. He and another employee were talking about work and trashing me. How do I address this?

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Remember when you were a child and sometimes over dinner your dad or mom would complain about their incompetent boss? Well, congratulations! You are now that incompetent boss.

I don’t say that because I believe you’re incompetent. You may be the most awesome boss ever. But you are the boss, and unless you and your employees are both perfect, your employees will complain about you. It’s what they do.

And on the legal side of things, because his conversation was with another employee and they were discussing working conditions (that is, the boss), that falls under the National Labor Relations Act protections as concerted activity. Most of the time, we hear about that when managers try to prevent people from talking about salary, but it applies to any working condition. 

So you can’t punish your employee for trashing you, but what can you do? Here are your options.

Ignore it. Just don’t say anything. Maybe your employee didn’t figure out he accidentally left a long voicemail telling you how much he hates you. And if he did figure it out, this allows him to stew in his own juices, being nervous that you’ll fire him at any time. Natural consequences.

While this is an option, it’s not one I recommend. Difficult conversations are challenging, but ignoring a situation like this won’t solve the problem, and you want to solve the problem. So let’s go with the second option.

Speak up. Approach your pocket-dialing employee and tell him you’d like to chat for a bit. Explain that you heard his voicemail, and assure him that he’s absolutely within his rights to trash the boss with another coworker. But you’re concerned about what he said, and you want to make sure the department is an excellent place to work and that he’s happy here.

Then go through what his complaints were and address them. How you do this depends on the complaints. Some may be real problems that you can fix, some may be general work complaints and some may be false. Here’s how you would deal with all of them.

The real problem. Suppose your employee said, “I’m so tired of working for Joe. He never asks. He yells.” You know you tend to be loud and intense. You may think it’s necessary because of your high-stress work environment, but your employee sees it as a real problem, so to him, it is one.

Start this way: “One of your complaints was that I yell too much. You’re absolutely right. I get frustrated easily, and that tends to be how I respond.”

Note that you didn’t say the word “but” in this discussion. “Buts” are always about justification. That never goes over well. So just leave it out. 

Then explain how you are going to fix it. “I need to be more aware of my voice when I’m speaking. I know I need to work on this, and now that I’m aware of how much it bothers you, I’ll make an effort.”

Go one step further and ask for his help. “When I’m starting to lose it, can you give me a signal? Maybe hold up your phone so that I’m reminded of your pocket dial?”

Of course, only do this if you intend to make fixes. If you are going to stick with yelling, be honest about that too. “I know I yell too much. That’s how I am. Please don’t take it personally.” That’s a lousy thing to do (you should work to improve!), but it’s honest.

General work complaints. “Working in masks is so hot and awful. And if you so much as take a sip of water, Joe gives you the evil eye for pulling down your mask!” Acknowledge that the masks are genuinely awful but that there’s not a blooming thing you can do. Just show sympathy.

Lies. The funny thing about lies is that the person saying them can absolutely believe they are true. Take this statement: “Joe is such a micromanager!” You can be the most laid back, least micromanaging of managers, and an employee might think that because you enforce deadlines or expect people to be on time. Ask the employee to clarify, “Can you tell me what I do to make you feel micromanaged?”

Listen and repeat back until you understand. Then explain. “Yes, I know it’s annoying when I remind you of deadlines, but we have clients that depend on us. That’s not micromanaging. That’s managing. What can I do to help you meet your deadlines so that I don’t need to remind you?”

Consider this pocket dial a blessing. You got to find out things that no one would have told you otherwise. This way you can fix them.

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