I recently re-played your podcasts on Feedback. I was trying to think how I would apply this technique, which I think is great by the way, in a situation I find myself in and maybe others do as well.

Here it is...I've been told by a couple of sources (somewhat reliable) that one of my direct reports continually bad mouths me to others in my department, including other direct reports of mine, her direct reports and others. I've been told she has insinuated to these folks I am having an affair with the HR Manager and accused my wife of physically abusing me. She even wore a name tag from a Dollar General store and when others asked her about it she told them, "I'd rather work for Dollar General than Jim C.". She consistently protrays me as a barrier for her and others progression within the company.

While I don't have 'direct' knowledge of this behavior (I've not heard it directly or seen it), it's all second and third hand information, how can I or can I at all provide this direct report feedback, when I am not 100% sure these things have happened or if they did happen, are the facts accurate? How sure do I need to before pulling her in? Or do I just tell her what I have heard and go from there?

Your input is appreciated and valued.


Jim C.

Brent's picture

I'm not Mark or Mike, but I suggest you tell this employee--privately--that you've heard these things, as the introduction to some feedback. Something like: "I've heard from several people that you're bad-mouthing me to others in the company." You don't need to say that the reports are fact. It [i]is[/i] a fact that you've heard these things, and that's totally appropriate to say. Then go on with the feedback model.

Len's picture


I think that your approach to this problem--and it is, in my opinion, a problem--might have to be informed by your organization's particular culture and policies. That is, you will certainly have to consider the impact of why might turn out to be a false accusation.

In any event, however, I would suggest that you not let it pass. If it really is happening, this employee is seriously attempting to undermine your authority...and is even accusing you of offenses that could cost you your job, and have serious effects on your personal life.

I would confront the employee, candidly and calmly. Here is exactly what I'd say:

"I'm told that you are the source of some unsavory rumors regarding my personal life. Further, I'm told that you have uttered statements and engaged in behavior that most reasonable persons would conclude are intended to undermine my authority. Before I go to HR about this, I want to discuss it with you personally. Is there something you'd like to say about this?"

From a person who conducts herself in this manner, I'd expect denials and excuses. "Oh, that thing with the 'Dollar General' name tage? I was just kidding around! Everybody knew that was just a joke!"

Then, I'd go to HR.

Above all, I'd strongly advise against ignoring it...

Good Luck,

Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

Jim et al-

First, thanks to Brent and Len for their suggestions. We like it when fellow members help out.

Here are my thoughts.

Fire her.

If you think I'm kidding, you're only PARTLY right. Too many folks are too darn timid about stuff like this. What she is doing - if she is, and I tend to believe that she is, based on my experience, more on which below - is grossly unprofessional, defamatory, demeaning, and destructive of team unity. And actionable, as HR folks like to say.

Regarding "believing people" who bring you rumors. I have a lot of thoughts on this, and sometimes find myself both believing rumors that several people share AND being disgusted that no one had the guts to confront the behavior, as opposed to running to the boss with it. It's rumor mongers like them that make having a team environment impossible. If THEY are not willing to stand up for the right workplace, no amount of managerial interference will make it so.

I also have a funny analogy that I learned from a DISC presentation: When one person tells you you have a green tail, they're crazy. When two people tell you you have a green tail, it's a conspiracy. When several people tell you you have a green tail... you turn around and look.

Now, it would be best if, in each instance that someone had come to you with such information, you had asked several questions about were they actually there, whom did they hear this from, what specific direct knowledge they had, etc. I don't know if you did this, and if you didn't, I would caution you about basing your actions on what you've heard.

Hopefully, you either took notes during these reports, or you made notes shortly thereafter. If this is quite current, you can create a Memorandum for Record (MFR). Just put on one or two pages who told you what and when they told you. Be as specific as you can be.

Don't go to HR yet.

All that said, the question boils down to whether you believe these reports or not. There are three possibilities, in my experience.

(1) You are as certain as you can be - short of being there - that these things happened.

(2) You are pretty sure, but are worried about what to do and how.

(3) You are uncertain enough to think about doing nothing, but wonder about the implications of that.

If it's (1), review your corporate policies regarding respect and trust and employee treatment of others. Check out the EXACT wording of what your powers are about termination. (in the VAST majority of companies, managers can fire for cause WITHOUT any intervention by HR.) Write up what the accusations are (because HR WILL want it).

Then, call her in and fire her. Tell her she's terminated for cause, based on corporate policies x and y and z, and then tell her you'll need her badge and that you're going to escort her out of the building. If she puts up a fight, let her, and just call security. Tell them you've terminated this person, as her boss, and she won't leave. They'll help.

Now, look. It's possible she will go to HR and they will tell you you should have come to them, and blah blah blah. And ideally, you COULD consult with them, depending upon your relationship with them.

But it is an ENORMOUSLY different conversation with them if you HAVE ALREADY FIRED HER, versus going to them for advice. They'll have to convince you to re-hire her, which is very different than "give us some time to do an investigation" (which are generally HORRID affairs that RUIN your team for weeks if not months.)

Again, make sure you've checked that your firm is in the majority that do NOT give HR firing authority, but leave it vested in the manager.

Should you consider the history of this person, and her reputation, and her mentor's power? Yes. And if it's egregious enough - the Dollar General tag IS ALL BY ITSELF - they will BACK YOU for these instances alone.

Let me assure you, even IF you "LOSE" the battle with HR, you will no longer have problems with this person ever again, and you will NOT lose stature.

Had you better be sure? Yes. But that's how I prefaced this recommendation.


If it's (2), I would still go through the steps in the first paragraph above about option 1. Get your policy ducks in a row. You want to be able to say to her ALL the rules she's broken.

And, I'd give her some no nonsense FEAR OF GOD feedback. Something like this:

Jan, may I give you some feedback? ... When you tell other people I'm having an affair with the HR director, when you tell others on the team that my wife abuses me, and when you wear a nametag... and say..., here's what happens: (if she interrupts, just hold your hand up and continue) you destroy team morale. You violate clauses 11 and 25 and 94 of the corporate ethics and fairness and diversity rules. You reduce team effectiveness. You cause me to take time to listen to others complain about your REPEATED behaviors. You cause me to go to HR and determine if these are offenses for which you could be terminated, and to discover that they are. And finally, you significantly damage any chances you have here for advancement and growth unless you change considerably and immediately. In light of all this, what can you do differently in the future?"

Surely, she will DENY vehemently the accusations. And that's fine, because all you need her to know is that YOU KNOW, and that you also know that IF she did these things, and you had proof, you could FIRE HER. Believe me, she will notice.

[An interesting aside. Twice I've had situations like this, and someone asked me, "you don't believe this stuff, do you?" I was quite comfortable in this situation, and so I looked them dead in the eye and split a hair they didn't like to hear split. "Jan, if I did believe it, 100%, I would have fired you, even if you were my best performer. And you're not. But the fact that you're here means I didn't immediately disregard them, which may be far worse for you. Now you know I won't completely trust you if you don't change immediately... and until something else happens, you still work for me."

She'll probably deny til the cows come home, and then you'll have to tel her what would be appropriate new behavior. That's fine... under the circumstances, the point is that you have bigger guns than her, and you've just fired one across her bow.

Finally, (3). First, don't feel bad if this is where you fall. There are strengths and weaknesses of all these approaches. If you can't be certain, I would review all the policies, write up that MFR, and then pay very close attention for the next several months. I once recommended that a manager in your situation drop some hints publicly... and they messed it up. Too delicate to do by written word alone.

My approach in this situation is based on my unwavering belief that she WILL DO IT AGAIN. And when that happens, even if you hear it second hand, assess the legitimacy of the complaint, and then use feedback as in step 2, unless it's egregious, in which case 1 may be called for.

Along with this watchfulness, circle back with the folks who shared with you, tell them you've thought about it, and thank them for the input. When they ask what you're going to do, tell them that you appreciate their interest, but it would be unprofessional for you, as this person's manager, to comment on ongoing issues.

One final comment. Take a look in the mirror. Regardless of her churlish, juvenile stunts, what do you own in all this? How can you be a better manager? What are your performance numbers lately? WHY might she have said these things? Is your team suffering in some way?

And...regardless, you're still the manager - make the call.


BTW: If I "KNEW" about - if I had seen it myself - the nametag incident, and I felt there was truth and malice in it... I 'd have fired her in front of everyone. On the spot. And I might have told her to start by applying to Dollar General. - H (The visual I have of this is the scene in The American President where Annette Benning rips the President and he is standing right behind her.)

Brent's picture

And for what it's worth, this can happen to any manager; it's not your fault. I've known one fantastic manager who had a direct report who said some amazingly disparaging and untrue things about him to HR, totally out of the blue. It most definitely wasn't the manager's fault.