Make her stop...
June 12, 2011 12:06 AM   Subscribe

I work with a screamer. Help.

I run a small academic research department. We consist of four faculty and four civil service. I run the department, but I am not a boss. The boss-person is a chancellor who does not have much contact with us. This is normal and how it should be.

The problem is that I have a civil service person, "Lucinda," who screams at least a couple of times a month. She screams at students, fellow department members, faculty, administrators, the chancellor, random members of the public who happen to ask her the wrong thing at the wrong time. You name it, Lucinda has screamed and yelled at it.

Other than that she is a lovely person. Really. She is poor worker. Extremely slow and makes some major mistakes. I did not hire her or work with closely her until recently. If she does not feel like doing something, she just ignores it. If she does not agree with a policy, she does not follow it. Since our staff work unsupervised, which is the nature of the work, we donʻt realize she has not done something until it is a problem. We do not have people to supervise and watch over staff. Quite honestly, if you talked to Lucinda, you would think she was the nicest person and everyone else had the problem.

This woman is way overqualified for her position, which requires only a high school degree. She has two masters. She is always complaining that she is overworked and underpaid. She resents the faculty. She feels that they are overpaid and under worked. Lucinda complains life is unfair especially to her. Lucinda took the job for a specific reasons: free tuition for a PhD, health care, and a paycheck. None of which she had before. She has worked with us for 6 years. She makes it very clear this is the only reason she took the job is to get her degree and health insurance.

Her previous employers (both at the same institution) never mentioned her screaming until I asked them. Then they told me that she was indeed a screamer and a poor worker, but they did not want to mention it and scotch her chances because she was so "nice."

Whenever we address the problem, she is always remorseful and blames some external issue (her period, someone was mean, the cat threw up, she is underpaid, she is over worked, the sun was too bright, the night was too dark...). Through the ineptitude of previous administrators and department chairs the problem, while acknowledged, was never addressed.

I would love to get rid of her, but I really cannot. We have a hiring freeze and I would not be able to replace her. If I let her go, beside union issues, I will not be able to rehire and may lose the position completely; in order to ensure that I donʻt lose the position, I must keep it filled. With the economy, there are not jobs for her to move on to, so she is staying put.

I am going to talk to our personnel department. They are aware of the problem, but are never much help.

Any suggestions? Help. Please. Any coping strategies, I do not like getting screamed at and dealing with people is not my forte. I am a scientist, not a psychologist.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (35 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Explain the problem you have with her, to her, and tell her she will be losing her job if she doesn't fix it. Don't do this in any more blunt of a fashion than you have to, but make it clear that she is skating on thin ice.
posted by maize at 12:25 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Document EVERYTHING. Every temper tantrum, every screaming problem, missed deadline or costly error should be written down and documented so that when she is up for review or the hiring freeze is lifted you'll have more than anecdotal evidence to deny her promotion or extension of her contract.

If she really is as lazy as you say, the screaming probably has no punch behind it. I'm sure she yells, but I assume her threats are an idle way to compensate for her mistakes and laziness.

At my office, my former boss was a screamer. We developed a system that if someone was getting the dressdown from him, we all made it a policy to call them on their cell phone. They'd answer the call and say "Sorry, I have to take this call it's very important" and excuse themselves. It got to the point that the screamer would remark how weird it was that everyone would get calls while they were talking to him and what strange coincidence it was.

Also, the next time you're dealing with her, just tell yourself, "You're a small person and I am working to make sure you won't be working for me much longer."
posted by JimmyJames at 12:58 AM on June 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

This is why hiring freezes suck and make no sense. You're SOL until that changes.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:59 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Understood that union issues could be substantial, but from what you've described, losing the slot would be worth losing her.

That aside, to me, honestly, not getting rid of her is doing a gross disservice to her colleagues and the people with whom she interacts, a.k.a. you're doing a poor job of running the department.

Coping strategy? As suggested above, tell her that all inappropriate behavior and substandard efforts will be documented and that she will make major changes or she will be terminated.
posted by ambient2 at 1:17 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

"I'm sorry your life has made you bitter, but it's not my fault and it shouldn't be my problem".

Not saying you should say this, but having it running through your head may be therapeutic.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:02 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you don't know it already, you need to learn exactly what the process is to remove an underperforming employee. Feel free to ignore me if you already know this, but I'm always surprised by the number of people in leadership positions who don't know how to fire someone. It isn't just about documenting at academic institutions, there is often a clear process of conversations that need to happen to discuss behavior, as well as a specific way that the supervisor needs to document issues that come up. You need to know this, even if you don't actually supervise the person.

And ambient2 is totally on point. I commend you for considering how to actually respond to her toxic behavior - it's part of your job, and part of being part of a community, to protect vulnerable people in your community, like your students. Working in a crappy environment is worse than being down a staff person, in my opinion. If you run the department, then you need to make it clear that anything that you consider anything that affects the productivity and wellbeing of that department is your business. If you can't take it to the ombudsperson, or your problem resolution center, of whomever, then you need to call out the behavior, every time. If someone is screaming, you have the ability to, in a calm voice, repeat the phrase that colleagues treat each other with respect. Screaming at colleagues is disrespectful, so this conversation cannot continue. Or that screaming at students is disrespectful, and it cannot continue. If you see it happening to coworkers, step in and say something. Every time. Make eye contact with the person you are trying to support, to make it clear that you two are allies. And for God's sake, do not let anyone scream at a student.

Does your institution have principles of community, or HR standards around work place bullying? Because that's what your co-worker is doing. Bullies are more likely to stop when they are called on their behavior. There are some good books on dealing with difficult people and workplace bullies. Amazon or your local bookstore will her. It isn't the just the bully that's the problem, but the individuals like your colleagues who concealed her behavior from you when you hired her, and now, all of you - your whole team - for allowing it to continue. Her excuses are just that, excuses, but they cannot excuse her unprofessional behavior. Every time she offers one, repeat that she is responsible for her behavior, and that screaming will not be tolerated. Repeat when she makes excuses. Say, "Regardless of your situation, screaming is not respectful behavior and it will not be tolerated." Repeat. And you all need to mean it. Because the moment you decide that someone screaming at a student is allowable/tolerable because you really don't know how you'll get the administrative tasks done without her, your group has kind of gone towards a bad place.

The fact that she's overqualified is besides the point. The fact that she's doing it for a pay check and hates her job is beside the point as well. What matters is her behavior, and her actions.

TL;DR: If she screams at you, or a student, firmly, and calmly state that, "Regardless of your situation, screaming is not respectful behavior and it will not be tolerated." Repeat as necessary, every time it happens. Also, google "workplace bullying" for tips.
posted by anitanita at 2:41 AM on June 12, 2011 [26 favorites]

We have a hiring freeze and I would not be able to replace her.

But she sounds nerve-wracking, an energy suck to manage, and like she's not doing things half the time anyway. That last part means everyone has to check up on her, which suggests it might be better to just do it yourself. Especially along with the screaming.

Is there any possibility you wouldn't be better off eliminating the job and distributing her duties among the remaining staff, maybe through some strategic use of Google docs and sending all calls to voicemail?

Also, I don't think people who act like that are 'nice'.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:52 AM on June 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

If she has no fear of losing the job, why should she change? She's been allowed to behave in this way for 6 years, I don't think anything we can suggest will change her. She needs a major kick up the bum.

If you can't/wont fire her, can you reduce her wages? Is there any negative consequence you're able to enforce as a 'reward' for her poor performance and bad behavior? If there isn't then there is no reason for her to improve her performance at work or stop screaming at people.

I think you need to shake this idea that she's so nice - as you've described her, she doesn't sound very nice. Randomly screaming at people, unable to 'own' her issues (ie blaming her problems on external factors), constant complaining and despite having 2 masters, she's unable to adequately perform in a job that requires only a high-school degree.
posted by missmagenta at 3:19 AM on June 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

Pay attention to the fact that she's held two previous positions at your institution and that she wasn't fired. Also note that personnel doesn't seem all that willing to tangle with her. I'm guessing that her previous supervisors knew how difficult it would be to fire her. They were probably happy to give her a recommendation when the next sucker called asking about her during the hiring process.

Do you have a friend in Human Resources that you can have an informal talk with? If you don't, then could you cultivate one? It would be good to know what you have the power to do and how you should do it before you try anything that depends on you being able to fire her.

I have worked as a low level grunt at a public university and I have had a co-worker whose behavior was similar to your description of Lucinda's behavior. I and my co-workers would have been incredibly happy if someone in management had done something about our crazy.
posted by rdr at 3:19 AM on June 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


Crazy people do this. "Look! I have LISTS! With DATES! And TIMES! And INCIDENTS!' I'm sure you do, crazy person.

dealing with people is not my forte

You run the department. Make it your forte.

It boggles me that you want to keep a disruptive, resource-draining waste of space around so that you don't lose her position, and at the same time admit that you won't ever be able to fill the position anyway. The worst that could happen is that she leaves, you lose the position and productivity and morale skyrockets. It's much more likely, though, that the Chancellor will simply say 'fill the position'.

Let the Chancellor know that you're going to give her a warning. Then give her a warning that she has one more warning. If she gets that last warning, fire her.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:27 AM on June 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I tend to agree with the OP that - given the hiring freeze - it is impossible to terminate this employee's employment. You give up that position for your department, you will never get it back - this will lead to more work for the remaining employees and associated problems for morale etc. That being said, I am generally wary of people who exhibit behaviours that indicate that they are socially incompetent, especially when they have a reputation for being "nice" - I've worked with a fair few of these types and they tend to be given a great deal of slack, which they do not deserve. If somebody screams at people in the workplace that makes them not very nice at all.

So basically, this woman isn't nice so take that feature out of the equation. What are you left with? You can't fire her, but she is socially and professionally incompetent. She is also affecting the quality of life for those who interact with her. I'd suggest that now is the time to pull out all the big guns that your institution has available for mediation: the union (on behalf of all your other employees), the counselling centre, an equity office. Don't make threats about firing her that you don't intend to follow through on - but do use the bureaucracy at your disposal to make her realise that she is endangering her future at the institution. If she is doing her PhD there, she ought to care about her reputation.

Alternatively - if all else fails - can you send her on a secondment to another department for a year? That might act to break the cycle... or at least give you a break until the hiring situation changes.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 3:35 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am going to talk to our personnel department. They are aware of the problem, but are never much help.

This is the appropriate avenue to deal with coworkers like Lucinda. Document everything (screaming, ignoring policy, ignoring work, etc.). Then go to personnel every time something egregious happens with the list. Bother them until they do something. The fact that there is a hiring freeze might not stop them from losing dead weight so be sure beforehand that you're ready to do all of Lucinda's work for free if she goes.

As for a coping strategy, you have to maintain a saint's patience. Stay calm but firm if she starts screaming at you. Say, "Lucinda, your response is not appropriate for the workplace" and walk away. Accept her apologies when they come but keep your guard up to show her that it is really not OK to scream like a banshee and not have social repercussions in a civilized workplace. As for her ignoring her work assignments and ignoring policies, call her out only if you have to and document everything.
posted by motsque at 4:38 AM on June 12, 2011

Perhaps with the right kind of prodding she can be pushed into doing something rash enough that you would be "forced" to call the police? That usually gets the higher-ups' attention. Bonus points if a child is involved (since you mention she yells at children as well).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:44 AM on June 12, 2011

I thought even during a hiring freeze, employees could be transferred within an institution. Can you replace her with someone who's already an employee at a different department?
posted by galadriel at 5:15 AM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

given the hiring freeze - it is impossible to terminate this employee's employment. You give up that position for your department, you will never get it back - this will lead to more work for the remaining employees and associated problems for morale etc.

She doesn't do her job and when she does it she does it badly and makes everybody she deals with uncomfortable. Losing that position in the department will not make any significant difference to anybody's workload because they already have to pick up the slack. It would however make people feel more comfortable.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:31 AM on June 12, 2011 [9 favorites]

I work in an academic department that is set up similar to yours -- the chair isn't really a "boss," per se, as much as he/she is the person who handles the administrative tasks necessary to keep the department moving. He doesn't really have the ability to fire people, and certainly not without going through proper channels.

But he *does* have the ability to note for employment files whether someone within the department is not doing as they are supposed to. And he has the ability to take those concerns to the deans or HR as necessary. He is also specifically the one who would address issues such as the one you have in your office. He is, effectively, a supervisor without being a boss, if you can think of how those terms can be used to indicate different power structures within different organizations.

It may be worth looking into whether, as the head department administrator, you have the same abilities and clout to do that. There is recourse. We had a hiring freeze a few years ago, but for us that meant no new positions would be approved. Existing positions could be filled as needed. I'm sure you know your institution's protocol on this, but it could be worth looking into a little more deeply to see if it really is impossible to fill the position were this employee to be let go.
posted by zizzle at 6:40 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

When you talk to HR, use the words "hostile work environment." Say them very slowly, while staring directly into the eyes of your HR rep. If that doesn't energize HR to do something, then find a lawyer and explain to him or her that you are stressed, and HR refuses to take reasonable steps (e.g. formally disciplining Lucinda, up to and including firing her). See what the lawyer says.
posted by Etrigan at 7:11 AM on June 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

Do you have quarterly or bi-annual or annual reviews? If so, document everything she does in a certain time period, e.g. every screaming incident, every time she ignores part of a process or work she is supposed to do, and address it with her at her review.

Print hard copies, one copy for her and one copy for you, you both sign both of them to provide proof of what was discussed in the review and put your signed copy in her employee folder.
posted by dgeiser13 at 7:15 AM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is it possible to suspend her with or without pay even for just a week? You would have a punishment to back up any threats of disciplinary action without immediately going to termination. Plus, your department would have a chance to see how heavy the workload is without her. It might be enough to snap the behavioral rut she's in.
posted by Alison at 7:20 AM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Say, "Lucinda, your response is not appropriate for the workplace" and walk away.

I'd say, "Lucinda, your response is not appropriate for the workplace and you will stop screaming right now. Is that clear?"
posted by mediareport at 7:31 AM on June 12, 2011 [11 favorites]

Perhaps with the right kind of prodding she can be pushed into doing something rash enough that you would be "forced" to call the police? That usually gets the higher-ups' attention. Bonus points if a child is involved (since you mention she yells at children as well).

That is just evil, and should be reserved as a last resort, and only for people who are actually dangerous. Doing it to someone who is just an asshole could have serious, life ruining effects. Bad mojo...

This person is just childish and has a bad attitude. Likely stemming in part from knowing that she "can't" be fired. This is the kind of person who NEEDS to have a "performance improvement program" sort of thing implemented. She needs to be worked with until she improves her behavior, or gets sick of it and quits.


1- No temper tantrums. Yelling gets her sent out of the office, immediately no matter what, not to return until she regains composure. If union rules prevent sending her home without pay, then send her to a "rubber room" to sit and fester until she is ready to not be an asshole. (Note: this isn't a "break". This is sitting and doing NOTHING. No smoking, no reading, no music no sleeping. Her job duties for that time are to sit and do NOTHING. If she refuses to do that, she is refusing to perform her job duties.)

2- Reexamination of job duties. Sit down with her job duty list, and go over what the expectations are for each duty. Make a checklist, or tell her to make a checklist. Follow up on the checklist. Daily, hourly, weekly, whatever.

3- Supervision. Any of those "surprise" things that you discovered that weren't getting done must have regular status reports. If she doesn't volunteer them, then you come looking for them.

4- What happens next. Per your organization's rules, here is what will happen to her if she does not improve her job performance. Warning, warning, suspension, fired. Or whatever it is.

Since our staff work unsupervised, which is the nature of the work, we donʻt realize she has not done something until it is a problem.

That is unacceptable. Being allowed to work unsupervised is something that needs to be proven or earned, and being forced to work unsupervised without adequate expectations defined is being a bad boss. And you are doing her and the rest of your staff a disservice by putting them on autopilot and then "getting them in trouble" when they fail to meet unstated expectations.
posted by gjc at 7:40 AM on June 12, 2011 [9 favorites]

IME, people like this get passed around the university and are taken on in exchange for something. Dealing with Lucinda long term will likely require some sort of deal with a dean.

If you really want to fire her after the hiring freeze is over, start building the paperwork case NOW.
posted by k8t at 8:12 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have trouble believing that a hiring freeze would make it impossible for you to replace a person fired for underperforming and being verbally abusive. At my university, "hiring freeze" only refers to creating new positions, not filling suddenly-vacant ones; if that were the case, research would come to a grinding halt since RAs routinely only stay for two years. Perhaps you can get a special exception if you document her shortcomings well enough.

Check with your VP for HR. She is clearly a drain on your department- doing no work and decreasing morale. Even if you don't get someone new, are you sure getting rid of her wouldn't be a net positive?
posted by supercres at 8:30 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

How much work does she get done if she is such a bad employee? Because if she's really THAT BAD, everyone else is probably doing her job for her already. So what's the loss if you lose her and the position entirely? The position technically isn't being filled now. It probably wouldn't be that much of a change except for the part where nobody has to deal with the screamer. Is it really better to have a slow, error-prone, screaming employee that everyone has to cover for than nobody?

And what supercres said: I see vacant positions being filled all the time if they are determined to be a useful enough position that it needs filling and everyone else in the office can't cover for it.

Other than that, if you absolutely can't get rid of her, I can't think of any stick you can possibly hold over her head to get her to behave whatsoever. She has no motivation to not do whatever the hell she wants because she can get away with it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:35 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me like this person simply just isn't being managed very well. That happens in academe, too. Have you tried, I dunno, having meetings where the things she would yell about would be dealt with in a group setting? Deliverables, processes, bureaucracy...take a computer startup attitude toward the department.

Previous departments knowing about her personality quirks tells me that they didn't say anything because they wanted to get rid of her as well, but something about this tells me there might be a management failure in the department. Maybe she doesn't know the relevance of her work, or what the priorities are (such that she exaggerates the importance of stuff that she yells about)...stuff like that.

I mean, she yells at the chancellor themselves and nothing happens? There's a disconnect in this question somewhere.
posted by rhizome at 9:01 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is there someone you could transfer internally to her position, or would it be possible to divide her responsibilities amongst other staff, a half dozen Interim Her Positions? It'll be a pain in the ass, probably, but it sounds like with her in that slot, you've effectively lost that position for now in the first place. Could you paper over it's vacancy with some staff shuffling until the hiring freeze thaws?
posted by EatTheWeek at 9:49 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

If there is a union, there should be performance review and mediation processes in place. The institution where I work is highly unionized and while dismissing people can be time-consuming in terms of paperwork, etc. it's certainly not unheard of. Probably her other departments figured since she's vocally Not Here For Long it wouldn't matter much if she just gets passed around from one office to another. I wouldn't count on it.

Much of this piece on progressive discipline for supervisors is specific to my institution/state, but you might find the general information useful. Know that any procedures you implement will need to apply to everyone if you want disciplinary actions to stick.

Just as an aside, I'm clerical staff and this: This woman is way overqualified for her position, which requires only a high school degree. She has two masters. She is always complaining that she is overworked and underpaid. She resents the faculty. She feels that they are overpaid and under worked. is so much the norm, especially in the current economy, that it made me laugh. Being overqualified for your job is no reason to underperform or take out your frustrations on other people.

I'm strongly pro-union, but I'm also strongly anti using the union as insurance for one's jerkness and bad attitude.
posted by camyram at 10:09 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does she do enough work to justify having her? If not get rid of her, after ample warning in writing, if so, keep her until the freeze is over.
posted by edgeways at 10:32 AM on June 12, 2011

This is really common in universities, as I'm sure you know, and not just in the academic units. I had a somewhat-related issue with a coworker who was underperforming to the point of near-uselessness...though given how some of the director-level staff treated her, I was somewhat sympathetic. Not of her crappy performance, mind you, but how she'd become so complacent in the first place.

Honestly assess this woman's responsibilities and the value she's adding. Sure, I bet she does stuff that the department members don't want to do -- but how much of it could be accomplished more simply anyway?

As for her being otherwise nice and not wanting to get the woman fired in this economy, can she apply for other positions at the university? Hiring freezes may not necessarily extend to intra-university transfers, especially for union employees.
posted by desuetude at 1:50 PM on June 12, 2011

Dump her. It will take you time and process but you dump her. She will NEVER get her PhD and will NEVER leave. She creates more work for you and your colleagues. You report to the Chancellor well guess what, she is a liability with her behavior and what do you do when she really loses her temper because she feels she can get away with it? She yells at students, faculty and staff in addition to loathing her job and is bad mojo. Really, she is NOT a nice person if she is yelling at people and not taking responsibility for her actions.

Listen, there is a hiring freeze now but not forever and you will get another opening at some point. It is not as if she is helping you as a position, anyway. If anything, she causes problems and will continue to do so.

It is a union environment, make sure she is either laid off OR you start the process of benchmarks and expectations for her either to improve or is gone. In either situation you win. Her being nice, really, that is not genuine.
posted by jadepearl at 2:13 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you fire her and get someone else to take over her duties and give that person a raise?
posted by ferngully at 3:14 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

She sounds unstable. Is there an Employee Assistance Program? Document the unstable behavior and begin the discipline process. She doesn't have to know you don't dare fire her. Insist that she get whatever help necessary to address her emotional issues. Treat her with great compassion, but make it clear that she must meet the grood days/weeks; what gets rewarded gets equirements.

If she has a screaming event, there should be a consequence. Ask HR what you can do.

As far as the other job performance, give her daily tasks to accomplish. Praise her for any completed work, and for good days/weeks.

Ask HR if you can get a temp if she leaves. Sometimes that's a way around a hiring freeze.
posted by theora55 at 7:00 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Buy a copy of Crucial Confrontations. Worth its weight in gold.
posted by stuck on an island at 8:54 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

My keyboard sux.
Treat her with great compassion, but make it clear that she must meet the *requirements. Praise her for good days/weeks; what gets rewarded gets repeated.

or something like that.
posted by theora55 at 2:17 PM on June 13, 2011

I disagree with obiwanwasabi re documentation. You should document, *and* your co-workers should also document. If three, four people all come to the chancellor with the same complains that will send a very strong message.

Please read "The No Ass-hole Rule".
posted by cupcake1337 at 6:48 PM on June 15, 2011

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