Address staff as group to defuse office quarrel

Marie G. McIntyre
Tribune News Service

Q. I may have reacted inappropriately to an employee complaint. Last week, “Tracy” told me that a co-worker was being “catty” to her and making rude remarks. Tracy also complained about two other people who do a lot of whispering when she’s around.

I took the “catty” co-worker aside and informed her that she had hurt Tracy’s feelings. However, now I’m wondering if this was the right thing to do. I haven’t talked to the other employees yet, so I would like some advice on how to manage this situation.

A. If you fear that you have become overly involved in this schoolyard squabble, I agree with you. When employees begin bickering and tattling, joining the game is not a helpful strategy. So instead of trying to micromanage relationships, gather your group together for a frank discussion about appropriate conduct at work.

For example: “Because we seem to be experiencing some unprofessional behavior, I need to remind you that this is an office, not a social club. You don’t get to choose your colleagues, so you may not like all of them. But that really doesn’t matter. Regardless of your personal feelings, you are expected to be pleasant, helpful and cooperative with everyone.”

Next, engage the group in defining specific guidelines for mature, professional communication. Ask them to assess their own team against these standards and create an action plan for improvement. In future staff meetings, set aside time for regular progress checks.

After that, if some backsliders continue to engage in workplace drama, just treat it as you would any other performance problem.

Q. I seem to have made a bad career decision. After receiving my Ph.D., I was hired by a large multinational company that has a special program for new graduates. I thought I would be doing interesting research and handling challenging projects, but my work is very routine.

Because this was extremely disappointing, I made several complaints to both the program manager and my immediate supervisor. Now they have said that if I continue to complain, I will be asked to leave the program. Although I still feel undervalued, I don’t want my first job to end in failure. What should I do?

A. First of all, you need to view this situation with a wider lens. In large organizations, even Ph.D. graduates often start in lower-level jobs. The real career question is not whether your current role is ideal, but whether this company can offer the kind of future you want. If so, then you are simply “paying your dues” in order to qualify for more desirable positions.

But even if the long-range prospects seem bleak, you don’t want to be forced out. So apologize to both managers, explain that you were just feeling frustrated, and don’t make any more complaints about anything. If you do your best work and get along with everyone, you are more likely to receive a promotion if you stay or a good reference if you leave.

Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.”

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