What's your problem? Resentful employee

I recently took on a middle management position with one direct report. Although I go out of my way to treat her as an equal, she is defensive and negative. Should I encourage her to take her hang-ups elsewhere?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Oct 2014

Q. I recently took on a middle management position with one direct report. Although I go out of my way to treat her as an equal, she is defensive, negative and does not respond well to instruction. I know that she may feel awkward reporting to someone her own age who she knows is earning more. However, she was very friendly with my predecessor, who was younger than her. I detected the animosity very quickly and thought she must have applied for my job herself. She said neither my predecessor nor her head of department suggested she apply, so she didn't. My predecessor made it clear that the colleague in question would be looking to leave if she did not secure a big pay increase soon. As she is an asset to the company, I am supporting her 100% in making a case for a higher salary, in spite of the friction between us. In her recent performance review, I highlighted her prickly manner, alongside a great deal of positive feedback, and she responded that it is just her nature and she used to be a lot worse. I am not at work to make friends but would like to get to the root of the problem to create a more harmonious working relationship. Shall I fight to keep this hard-working person with a chip on her shoulder or let her take her hang-ups elsewhere?

A. My suspicion is this. She was at least as hurt not to be suggested for your role as she would have been had she applied and failed. In some ways, the hurt may have been greater; she was left in no doubt that neither her department head nor your predecessor thought her up to it. Typically for a prickly person, she didn't go ahead and apply anyway; she just harboured her resentment - and you're the unfortunate object of it. I doubt if it's any more personal than that.

You're already doing all you should to put the company's interests before your own and I think that's right for the time being. But do make it clear that your total support for her salary rise is based on her capability rather than her manner; and that you very much hope, if her application for a significant increase is successful, her attitude will change for the better. She's already told you she used to be even worse so it should be possible for her to improve still further. You'd be wise to put all this in writing.

Realistically, however, it's possible that her attitude will improve only when she moves to a new environment; one that doesn't constantly remind her of the slight to which she feels she's been subjected. If that's the case, you will have done all you could, both for her and your company. You will have every right, subject to all the necessary procedures, to encourage her to look elsewhere.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office? is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@managementtoday.com. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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