Dealing with a bad-mouthing employee


I had an interviewee arrive early today. While she was waiting for me to get there, another manager overheard one of my employees talking bad about me to the candidate. She said I was overly critical and hard to work with. The manager informed me of this in confidence, so I can't bring up the matter directly with my employee. How do I deal with this situation discreetly?

This employee has struggled to acclimate herself with the rapid growth of my department, and I have tried on several occasions to take extra time for training with her. It appears as though she is taking her difficulty in adjusting out on me.

What she did may cause the candidate not to take the job, so I need to deal with this in some way. Any advice?

Jason, Atlanta GA

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Penny de Valk's Answer:

Your natural instinct in this situation will probably be to take offence at your employee's criticism of you but, in fact, the primary issue to address here is that your employee's behaviour was unprofessional and inappropriate.

As a manager, you need to separate the two and start by conveying the message about what is and isn't acceptable behaviour in your organisation. It is inappropriate for a staff member to be talking to a candidate about another member of staff, whoever that might be, in a negative way.

Ideally, the manager who overheard it and raised it with you would feed back to their colleague that they don't think it was appropriate to talk to a candidate like that – if possible, encourage them to do that and help them figure out a way to have that conversation so it doesn't interfere with their relationship with your team member too much.

It is particularly important to encourage your fellow manager to speak to her if you are to consistently signal to new staff the standards of behaviour that you expect and reinforce the message of 'how we do things around here'.

When you yourself speak to her – which you must – you would ideally want to be able to say, 'You were overheard saying…' so if that doesn't identify the individual who heard it open with that. If asked, 'Who heard it?' reply that it's not important, and rather what is concerning you is that she feels it appropriate to be critical about another member of staff to an external candidate. Check that she did say it and, if she acknowledges that she did, keep reinforcing the inappropriateness of the behaviour.

Assuming that she understands that, regardless of whether she agrees with it – remember, you are explaining a standard of behaviour, not negotiating – then you can address the separate issue of the content of the criticism.

Ask whether she would like to give you some direct feedback as you were disturbed by the content of what was overheard. You can then hopefully have a direct conversation about how she finds your management style.

At this stage, just listen to the feedback as there may be something in there that you can learn from, take a constructive criticism approach and make sure you end your conversation with some key commitments from you both to improve your communication in the future. Be sure to document the whole meeting.

To follow up you might want to think about using a team meeting or development day to spend some time talking about what constitutes professional behaviour.


About our Expert

Penny de Valk
Penny de Valk

Penny de Valk is the Chief Executive of the UK-based Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), the largest qualification-awarding and professional membership body in Europe for managers.