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Author Topic: Help me be tactful  (Read 45787 times)
drgrabow
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« on: May 01, 2012, 6:00:34 PM »

Ok, so I am cognizant that asking for advice on tact on this forum may be an inherently flawed premise, but here goes.  I am in an executive position at my university.  I have an administrative assistant who does a fantastic job in almost all areas of her job. She routinely exceeds my expectations in all areas except one.  She is, what we call in the business, a Debbie Downer.  She is a hypochondriac.  She regales all of us with her personal problems.  She sometimes even interrupts my work to give me an "update" on some aspect of her personal life in which I have no interest. She is actually making herself physically sick. I've tried to discuss this with her in the past. I have also included some discussion of optimism/positiveness in her performance reviews.

For the most part, I write this off as a personality quirk.  For the past few years, our student workers have each found their own way to tell me that they disliked working with her.  Again, I haven't been terribly responsive.  In some cases, I thought they were over-reacting.  However, we just extended an offer to a great student to work for us next year.  She is a leader on campus, and someone I feel I could mentor in the position.  She declined and then confided in a colleague that the reason is my assistant.  She has heard that she is miserable to work with/for.  I may be slow to learn, but I think I am catching on now.  I feel like I should do something.         

Tell me if you think this is too much.  I'd like to have a moratorium on discussing our personal lives in the office. This is not an issue for me, as I rarely discuss my family. But I think she needs hard boundaries.  She has not been able to regulate this before.  I don't think she'll be able to in the future either.   

She has a vacation coming up.  I thought I might discuss it with her prior to her week off, so she has time to reflect on her time off.  I don't want to be one of those bosses who let's a situation like this persist. 

HELP!  I don't want to lose a good employee, but I need her to make rapid improvement in this area.  Losing out on this student is actually more significant than I've let on (political issues at play). I also don't want to lose a valued employee.

Thanks!

Grabow
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zharkov
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« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2012, 7:52:32 PM »


You don't need to be tactful, that didn't help in her review.  Give the "one minute manager" approach a shot, just tell her not to discuss health and other personal stuff at work.   Simple and direct.
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Zharkov's Razor:
Adapting Zharkov a bit to this situation, ignorance and confusion can explain a lot.
drgrabow
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« Reply #2 on: May 01, 2012, 8:18:04 PM »

The one minute manager approach might be best.  Can you tell I sometimes have a problem with wordiness?  I also need to find a way to address this issue without selling the students out. 
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skeptical
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« Reply #3 on: May 02, 2012, 12:22:12 AM »

This is a tough one, but I know how annoying it is to have someone around who shares too much information. If you have student workers around, you don't want her modeling this behavior to them. I would have a brief chat and tell her that both of you need to behave more professionally; that you are going to make a point of keeping your personal life out of the office and that you expect that she will too.
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barred_owl
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« Reply #4 on: May 02, 2012, 1:03:14 AM »

I think in addition to any single conversation with AA, you'll need to nip any discussions of health/personal issues in the bud as soon as the AA starts sharing them.  Just a simple, "I'm sorry, but let's get back to discussing XYZ."  Repeat as necessary.

You might also consider some sort of informal training for the student you want to hire.  You're in the position of authority here, so the student will likely be amenable to anything you might suggest, such as, "If Debbie starts complaining about her aches and pains or personal issues, it's okay to tell her that you're too busy to talk."
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voxprincipalis
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« Reply #5 on: May 02, 2012, 1:37:40 AM »

She has a vacation coming up.  I thought I might discuss it with her prior to her week off, so she has time to reflect on her time off.

Oh, come on! Don't ruin her vacation. Have the talk far enough in advance that she has time to digest it and figure out and adjust to the "new normal" before going away.


Tell me if you think this is too much.  I'd like to have a moratorium on discussing our personal lives in the office. This is not an issue for me, as I rarely discuss my family. But I think she needs hard boundaries.  She has not been able to regulate this before.  I don't think she'll be able to in the future either.   

I think the problem here is in establishing what appropriate boundaries are -- it is not the casual discussion of personal lives. God forbid if someone in your family was diagnosed with a terminal illness, or there was some other catastrophe -- you would want to be able to discuss that with people around you if you needed to. And I'm sure you would want the same for your AA, if the situation were really serious. By putting a moratorium on any discussion of personal lives in the office, you are creating a zero-tolerance atmosphere that will be hard to renegotiate and equally hard to stick to in times of true emergency. Besides, do you want someone feeling that they can't have photos of their kids on their desk, or can't mention that their spouse's father is sick, or can't tell you about their sister's new baby? I don't mean a day-long counseling session about it, I mean five minutes of conversation at the water cooler.

I'm also sure that you would want to be there for your AA if there were actually a serious crisis.

As for selling out the students, obviously I don't think it would be a good idea to sell out the current student you want to hire, but I see no reason why you might not tell your AA that in the past students have said that they find it difficult to work with her because they feel like they get sucked into her non-serious personal issues in a way that's inappropriate for the workplace and they don't have the experience or the authority to know how to stop that from happening. If she could try as hard as possible to keep workplace interactions on a professional level rather than a personal one -- unless there is a real emergency, of course -- you would appreciate it, since it will make it easier for students to work in the office and do some good for the program.

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larryc
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« Reply #6 on: May 02, 2012, 2:56:05 AM »

This might be an easier fix than you anticipate. "Debbie, please don't discuss your personal life at work, either with myself or with the student employees. Before you speak, please take a moment to think about what you are about to say and to make sure it is not unduly negative. Thank you."

She might not like it, and you may have to repeat it a few times, but she should get the picture. Probably you should have said this years ago, but it is never too late to tell someone to STFU.
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scampster
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« Reply #7 on: May 02, 2012, 3:58:03 AM »

This might be an easier fix than you anticipate. "Debbie, please don't discuss your personal life at work, either with myself or with the student employees. Before you speak, please take a moment to think about what you are about to say and to make sure it is not unduly negative. Thank you."

As Vox noted, this sounds like a moratorium on speaking about one's personal life at all at work (and should be applied to everyone if applied to Debbie Downer) and frankly I wouldn't want to work with a supervisor like that. I don't spend my day talking about personal stuff, but I'd like to be able to ask my officemate how his new baby is on occasion. Debbie is obviously crossing a line in terms of what is appropriate to talk about at work with people who aren't your friends, so it needs to be addressed, but not in the way you suggest.
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tinyzombie
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« Reply #8 on: May 02, 2012, 9:41:24 AM »

This might be an easier fix than you anticipate. "Debbie, please don't discuss your personal life at work, either with myself or with the student employees. Before you speak, please take a moment to think about what you are about to say and to make sure it is not unduly negative. Thank you."

As Vox noted, this sounds like a moratorium on speaking about one's personal life at all at work (and should be applied to everyone if applied to Debbie Downer) and frankly I wouldn't want to work with a supervisor like that. I don't spend my day talking about personal stuff, but I'd like to be able to ask my officemate how his new baby is on occasion. Debbie is obviously crossing a line in terms of what is appropriate to talk about at work with people who aren't your friends, so it needs to be addressed, but not in the way you suggest.

+2. Telling her not to talk about her personal life is not the solution. Do what Vox said, and for heaven's sake, don't expect her to "reflect" on it over vacation. (Part of the problem is that she's not "reflecting" on your previous feedback, after all.)

OP, I wish you the best! It does sound as through you're really concerned about your employee and your office dynamics, which is great. I do wonder, though, why this one student worker (yes?) who might be coming in is so important, and I hope that you don't privilege her above others (I'm not saying you will, but I wasn't clear on that part of your post).
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drgrabow
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« Reply #9 on: May 02, 2012, 9:59:21 AM »

Ok, I serve as Dean of Students at my institution.  For years, I've hired the Student Government President to work in my office.  It's been great.  We are around to collaborate on things.  We get to know each other well.  I team teach a class with the student, so it's easy to communicate about things that need to get done in the class.  The student that I want to hire has been talking with two previous employees who basically told her, "run, run away!"  This is not just about losing a student worker.  This will make it harder for me to be effective in my job both as a teacher and as Dean.  So that's the juicy back story.

With regard to why directives like, "Don't be negative at work," have not worked in the past...this habit is so ingrained in her that I don't think she even realizes that she's doing it.  Also, it would be hard to say, "You may talk about family issues if they are major."  She thinks everything is major.  One time she came in and announced that her doctor thought she had multiple sclerosis. Now, I know better than that.  That she didn't turn out to have MS or any other serious ailment was a surprise to no one.  If I thought I had MS, I'd might say something to people at work, but they would likely be genuinely concerned for me because I've never said anything like that before. Even if this person got legitimately sick, I think that we wouldn't believe her.   



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tuxedo_cat
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« Reply #10 on: May 02, 2012, 11:06:52 AM »

I guess I'm kind of perplexed by why there is a need to handle this assistant with kid gloves.  Her conduct is unprofessional, period.  It is preventing you in significant ways from fulfilling your responsibilities to the campus community.  People will carry on with annoying and disruptive habits if there are no consequences.  It sounds like you have made it clear to her that there are no consequences for her "quirkiness."

People can change when they are sufficiently motivated.  The prospect of being replaced might be pretty good motivation.  And certainly, you can preface that discussion by saying that she
does a fantastic job in almost all areas of her job. She routinely exceeds my expectations in all areas except one.
  blah blah blah . . . "I would hate to lose you in this position, but you must change this behavior as it clearly interferes with my office's ability to serve the students on this campus."
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drgrabow
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« Reply #11 on: May 02, 2012, 1:55:31 PM »

I'll admit, I've been asleep at the switch for too long now.  It hasn't bothered me as I am a pretty tolerant person.  Again, I thought of it as a personality quirk more than something that was actually keeping others from doing thier job.  I am now seeing that our student workers (who, because of their positions on campus) can be quite powerful) have been going out of thier minds. 

I will plan to discuss it with her right away. 
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larryc
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« Reply #12 on: May 02, 2012, 1:59:26 PM »

I guess I'm kind of perplexed by why there is a need to handle this assistant with kid gloves.  Her conduct is unprofessional, period.  It is preventing you in significant ways from fulfilling your responsibilities to the campus community.  People will carry on with annoying and disruptive habits if there are no consequences.  It sounds like you have made it clear to her that there are no consequences for her "quirkiness."

People can change when they are sufficiently motivated.  The prospect of being replaced might be pretty good motivation.  And certainly, you can preface that discussion by saying that she
does a fantastic job in almost all areas of her job. She routinely exceeds my expectations in all areas except one.
  blah blah blah . . . "I would hate to lose you in this position, but you must change this behavior as it clearly interferes with my office's ability to serve the students on this campus."

+1.
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miss_jane_marple
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« Reply #13 on: May 02, 2012, 3:44:09 PM »

She is a hypochondriac.  She regales all of us with her personal problems.  She sometimes even interrupts my work to give me an "update" on some aspect of her personal life in which I have no interest. She is actually making herself physically sick. I've tried to discuss this with her in the past. I have also included some discussion of optimism/positiveness in her performance reviews.

You are describing two different behaviors, one is talking about her own health issues, and the other is a mystery, except that it has something to do with a lack of optimism. You write, "She is actually making herself physically sick" and I'm wondering how you know this. In what way does talking about her problems make her physically sick?

The problem I see is that you want a quick fix to an issue that has been gong on for a long time, because the student has already declined the position and you feel an urgent need to change his/her mind. It's a little like saying the student won't work in an office with someone who is obese, how can I get the AA to lose 80 pounds by July?

Is there a way to circumvent this issue by communicating with the student(s) AND the AA? What I mean is, can you explain to the AA that excessive discussion of her health is not acceptable, and tell her that you're advising the student(s) that they don't have to listen to it. Tell the students a specific thing they should do each time the situation arises. For example, after the first 30 seconds of gory details, they can say, "I really don't want/need to hear this, I'll be back in a few minutes." Then they go out in the hall, to the restroom, outside, to another office, whatever. But you have to tell the AA first that this will happen.

About the optimism thing, unless you want to share what you really object to, it's hard to suggest a solution.

Working on the AA's behavior is not a quick fix, and will probably be only moderately successful in the long run. This person may derive great comfort/satisfaction/fulfillment from talking about these issues, so that the talking is strongly reinforced every time it occurs.

I would not want to be in the position of trying to replace an employee who "does a fantastic job in almost all areas of her job. She routinely exceeds my expectations in all areas" over the issue of talking about her health. And I wonder, if you gave the reason as "hypochondria," if that would trigger an ADA situation, since hypochondriasis is a DSM condition.


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dr_prephd
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« Reply #14 on: May 02, 2012, 4:15:26 PM »

+2. Telling her not to talk about her personal life is not the solution... don't expect her to "reflect" on it over vacation.

+3.

Sounds like your personalities clash but that she's not doing anything outside the code of conduct. Which employee is more valuable to you? The one who works full-time and routinely exceeds expectations? Or the undergrad. who will be with you for a semester and call out during mid-term, the day after Halloween, and two weeks at Thanksgiving?

Protected times to meet can help her feel like she has time to touch base with you. Once you get into the routine of meeting for an hour a week, she may come to you less in-between because she knows she will have a chance to talk with you.

The student that I want to hire has been talking with two previous employees who basically told her, "run, run away!"  This is not just about losing a student worker.  This will make it harder for me to be effective in my job both as a teacher and as Dean.  So that's the juicy back story.

Time to institute 360-reviews, perhaps? "Others have commented that your negative comments such as "XYZ" make it hard to maintain a positive working atmosphere. Our code of conduct specifies positive interactions, so this will be a goal for you."

If I thought I had MS, I'd might say something to people at work, but they would likely be genuinely concerned for me because I've never said anything like that before. Even if this person got legitimately sick, I think that we wouldn't believe her.

Wow. I hope this attitude doesn't seep over into your relationship with her, or else you might find yourself training a new AA.

Positive attitudes are important from bosses as well.     




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