Dilemma of The Month: Coaching An Inexperienced Manager

Back Q&A Jan 3, 2019 By Suzanne Lucas
I’m in my 50s and the HR manager for a startup — about 80 people and the average employee is under 30. I’m dealing with a 20-something problem employee. She’s dramatic, often disrupting work with her grievances: an ant problem (confined to the cup on her desk); the disappearance of a shopping bag from under her desk. She asked for a raise, then denied receiving the feedback I offered on how she could earn one. Despite my recommendation, her manager (also young) won’t put her on a performance improvement plan over concerns it will reinforce the idea we have a toxic environment. What can I do?​

You’re the HR manager, you can’t really make the manager put their employee on a performance improvement plan — even though they should do just that. What you can do is coach the manager, who should be handling all of this.

Managing people is hard! And being a new manager with a bunch of other new managers around, all of whom are trying to lead people who are new to professional life is stressful just to think about. It’s clear that this employee sees you as more of an authority figure than she does her boss — that’s why she came to you for a raise instead of her manager. So, fixing the managing relationship will probably fix the employee problem.

You need to sit down with the manager and challenge her assertion that reining in this employee will create a toxic environment. Not reining her in creates the toxic environment.

Performance improvement plans only create problems when performance doesn’t need to improve. That’s not the situation here. You have a super dramatic, time-sucking, ineffective employee who creates a toxic environment.

When she doesn’t do her work, other employees have to pick up the slack. That is unpleasant for the other employees. When her manager fails to correct that behavior and other employees see this, that creates a toxic environment. Even if other employees aren’t complaining, they are experiencing negative consequences.

When she creates distractions with her drama, she takes away from everyone’s ability to be productive. If people can’t do their jobs, and there’s an obvious cause (the drama queen), fixing these problems won’t create a toxic environment. It will reduce the toxicity.

You say the employees think there is a toxic environment, and they’re right. There is one: Managers are unwilling to deal with the source of drama, which means they ignore all sorts of problems.

So, you need to coach the managers on how to handle the employees. Explain that discipline and negative feedback aren’t bad things; they are absolutely necessary for a successful business. Offer managers (specifically her manager, but it seems all managers need help) the training and coaching they need.

Managers need to know how to give and document feedback. When you have an employee like this one, who denies being told anything, it’s not good enough to just offer a verbal correction. All managers should follow up every discussion with an email documenting what was discussed.

And you need to step out of the “office mom” role. You may be the older, experienced person but — unless you’re also the facilities manager — the ants and the misplaced package are not HR problems. When you’re good at fixing things, people come to you for help with fixing. But that doesn’t mean it’s your job to fix everything. It’s up to you to establish boundaries.