Surprising Surly Sue

Sue was the coordinator for the sales staff at the plant. Her job was to make their travel arrangements, ensure any presentation items and swag bags made it to trade shows on time and unscathed, reconcile their expenses and help get sales documents to/from the clients. She also filled in for our receptionist at the front desk while she was at lunch or on vacation or got pulled away on some other task. Sue was very efficient and organized. Her team trusted and relied on her; she worked hard to never let them down.

With everyone else, though, Sue was surly. Her tone was always condescending and curt with people in the office. She never had anything really nice to say about anyone or anything, including her team and the company. She gossiped constantly about the personal lives of the people who worked with us. It seemed like she tried to endear herself to people just to get information that she could use for rumor mill fodder.

When Sue answered the phones for reception, she always sounded annoyed and she never used the phone greeting as she was trained. She never properly announced the calls before transferring them. Sue would allow visitors to enter the building and meander around looking for offices without an escort. This drove me particularly crazy because I would often end up with ambitious sales people in my office who had no appointment, invitation or business there. We got complaints from the rest of the staff as well as our customers about her poor attitude over the phone.

The final straw with Sue happened when she and another woman on the staff almost got into fisticuffs after Sue threw the woman’s lunch in the trash. As the story was told to me, the woman put her lunch in the microwave and left the breakroom while the food was heating up. The woman didn’t return for some time. Sue arrived in the meanwhile, needing to heat her own lunch. Sue said she waited 10 minutes for the woman to come back and threw the food away when the woman didn’t return. The woman came back to find Sue eating and the food she’d put in the microwave trashed … Things got really ugly from there. Very harsh words were exchanged and inappropriate language was used. Both women were counseled for their behavior.

Sue’s manager came to me for guidance. He said, while he understood the reason for documenting and disciplining both women, he believed Sue was the antagonist in the situation. He felt she was becoming unmanageable. He wanted to know how to redirect her because he believed she was a great worker but knew her attitude was damaging to our overall work environment. I was grateful that he recognized the problem and wanted to do something to address it. Many managers to stick their head in the sand when it comes to the impact of attitude and working with others when a person is effective and efficient at the basic duties of their job. I was glad he could see that working well with others was just as important as doing a great job with the work assigned. It was clear to everyone that Sue was great at performing her job duties, but her abrasive, negative and uncooperative attitude was eclipsing the work.

Sue’s annual performance review was just a few days away so I suggested to her manager that he address those issues with her at that time. I told him to be very specific about the behaviors he’d been told about and what he himself had observed, how that was affecting her reputation in the office and what he believed she should do to fix it. We worked on the verbiage to be sure it wasn’t too nit-picky or negative because we were sure we didn’t want Sue to disengage or quit her job. We wanted her to be more conscientious and professional in her treatment of the staff and her “ad hoc” duties.

Sue’s manager’s office was two doors down from mine. The day of her annual performance review, I watched Sue walk past my office into her boss’s office and I said a little prayer that the meeting was productive. No one had ever really confronted Sue about her behavior before. People talked about how grouchy and mean she was, but no one had really said anything to her — until she had the blowout in the breakroom over trashing that woman’s lunch. Her boss was a pretty low-key, hands-off manager who really hated conflict or having to be critical toward his employees. I knew this was going to be tough for him — and there was no way to gauge how she was going to react. I listened out for raised voices and watched to see Sue’s demeanor when she passed back by my office.

I didn’t get either.

Instead, Sue marched into my office with tears streaming down her face and asked to speak with me. She sat down and vented for almost 30 minutes about how misunderstood she felt having just found out people thought she was mean and rude and unprofessional. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t sure if she was playing me or being honest. She genuinely seemed clueless about it … and a little bit hurt by it. She wanted my advice because she didn’t want to sign her annual review with all that stuff about her attitude on there; she didn’t want more negative information like that in her file.

I told Sue that she needed to sign the review to acknowledge that her manager had gone over the information with her and I told her to add comments about the areas she disagreed with. And I was honest with her that I had the same thoughts about her attitude as her manager and I hoped she would adjust now that she was aware of the impact. She shrugged and said “I’ll do what I can do.” I didn’t know what she meant by that at the time, but I soon found out.

Sue went right on being surly. She got a little better at announcing calls and not allowing visitors to go through the building unescorted, but she still talked negative and gossiped and threw away people’s stuff in the breakroom. And whenever someone confronted her, she would cry and run into my office to have the same conversation about how she was so confused and misunderstood.

I guess the moral of this story is to be mindful and deliberate about the reputation you create for yourself among the people you work with. Feedback about your attitude and demeanor, whether it is positive or negative, should never come as a surprise. Our performance is so much more than our work product. We should seek to create a professional persona that matches up with the person we see when we look in the mirror. And if that isn’t happening, you need to change what you do.

Otherwise, you might just end up like Surly Sue.

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10 Comments

  1. Managers hate performance appraisals and are rarely candid when addressing employee weaknesses. The Manager failed Surly Sue & the company by not articulating exactly how he wanted her to correct her behavior. She probably got a raise!

    • Buzz Rooney

      June 27, 2011 at 10:47 PM

      She did get a raise because of her performance. She really was good at her job. Her attitude and how she talked to people was awful. He gave her very specific things to do to show improvement in her attitude and a timeline for improvement. Most of it focused on how she handled the reception area and her email communications. She did just enough not to get herself in any serious trouble — but she was still rude in her tone and aggressive in her behavior. That is what made it so difficult to believe that she wasn’t either being surly on purpose or happy about being surly or both. Once someone brings those things to your attention, if that’s not the image you want to have, you adjust. Sue never really adjusted so I think she’s happy with herself.

  2. There were better ways to handle this. You yourself noted that this sort of
    feedback never should be a surprise yet it clearly was for Sue.

    While you made a point of ensuring that the problem behaviors were clearly spelled out, did you/the manager make any specific suggestions for improvement? Raising awareness and saying “do better” is not constructive criticism because it does not give a clear idea of what’s needed for improvement.

    Sue is possibly very frightened about her continued employment with the company and wondering when she is going to get blind-sided again. She probably can’t hear any suggestions very well — assuming they even exist — because she feels like the company snuck up on her. Why not schedule periodic ad-hoc reviews with the manager say, once every two weeks until the performance improves?

    • Buzz Rooney

      June 27, 2011 at 11:01 PM

      Her manager had discussed the issues with her attitude before as it related to the receptionist duties and her emails so she should not have been surprised. He never documented it formally until her review. I worked with him so he could be specific about what she was doing and how to correct the behavior. There was a timeline and follow up schedule as well. I think he waited too long to formally address the issue, but I think he did a good job outlining the problem and ways she could improve once he did.

      To me, it seemed she was shocked that she’d been called out for being a meanie and a grouch. She ultimately signed her review and made some comments to express that she disagreed — but she didn’t defend her behaviors. She improved some but still reverts back and has to be redirected a lot. And she is still regularly aggressive in her tone and demeanor with people. I concluded that she really doesn’t want to improve her reputation or appear to be a cooperative person in the workplace. Once someone tells you that your behavior is being interpretted as negative, if that is not your desire or intention, you will take their suggestions and adjust. She never did that. I believe that is deliberate on her part. I’m not sure why a person would want to be seen as a grouch but I don’t see another conclusion based on her behavior. Do you think there could be something else we are missing that is driving the behavior?

      • Bad habits are hard to break, and I apologize if I came across a little harsh about the follow-up timeline and such. My point was that a generic “do better” often doesn’t help — it just scares someone into wondering when they’re going to screw up again. When it comes to behavior, that can often make things worse because a person gets so defensive…

        Have you asked her what drives the behavior? Her answer may or may not be legitimate but I’ll bet it’ll be insightful. I’m not talking about the “they don’t understand me” — she needs to be more specific than that if she truly wants to ask for help.

        My real concern seems to be the fact that people may have made up their mind that she’s just a grouch and hard to get along with. That kind of generalization can, unfortunately, mean that it’s already too late to improve.

        • Buzz Rooney

          June 30, 2011 at 1:45 AM

          I don’t think you were harsh at all. I appreciate your feedback and questions. In order to keep the story succinct, I have to edit some stuff out so your comments/questions give me a chance to expound.

          I agree with you about the importance of specific feedback and improvement timelines. “Do better” or “be nice” isn’t enough. I don’t think being mean is her goal. I think somewhere along the line in her career, harshness became an effective way of getting results and no one ever developed her in other ways. When I asked her about why her tone is harsh and aggressive in talking or corresponding with people, all she ever said was “I don’t think it is harsh. I just get to the point.” She stopped with the big fonts, bolds, etc in her emails but the tone is still there. And on the phones?? Fuggettaboutit! There is no enthusiasm or smile in her voice at all. She admitted that she hates covering the phones and asked if we could switch her out — unfortunately, we couldn’t. But at least she confessed to hating it and that gives indication where the attitude comes from.

          I share your concern about people writing her off. However, I still believe direction and consistent feedback, we can turn her around. Will she ever be on the Morale Monitors committee? Probably not. But can she not scare customers and vendors when they call our office? Yes.

  3. Patrice Boone

    June 27, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    I have a Surly Sue in my office and I wish her manager or someone else would say something to her. I think in my situation, the manager knows that Sue does good and work and takes care of her and her people so she isn’t concerned about Sue’s attitude toward other people. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even want to talk to Sue much less ask her to do anything for me. I hope that one day someone gets the courage to say something, even though I think it my Surly Sue story will end just like yours did.

    • Buzz Rooney

      June 27, 2011 at 11:21 PM

      Consider perhaps that the manager TOLD your “Surly Sue” to behave that way. I’ve seen managers instruct their assistants/administrative staff to be the meanie gatekeeper (I’m working on a post about that now, actually) for a myriad of reasons. That person’s reputation is damaged but they don’t care because they get rewarded for the behavior — like time off, increases, bonuses.

      It is unfortunate that mean girl antics have caught on in the workplace, like people are acting out their own reality or motion picture drama. However, if the manager and rest of this person’s department knows and isn’t doing anything about it, I would bet they are in on the scam.

      Someday, your “Surly Sue” will be confronted about her behaviors and it will be a rude awakening.

  4. When someone is enabled for that long, it’s hard to get them back on track no matter how strong the feedback. Especially when it’s already been established that the behavior will not result in disciplinary action or termination. She knew that her boss wouldn’t hang her out to the wolves, so long as she treated him right.

    • Buzz Rooney

      June 30, 2011 at 1:29 AM

      Honestly, I think her boss was afraid to discipline her. He had talked to her about it before, but never documented anything until the incident in the breakroom. And that issue is easy to dismiss because it was an interpersonal conflict not related to work. I think he thought she would become aggressive with him if he confronted her behavior head on and disciplined her. I thought so too — which is why I was so taken aback when she came in my office crying.

      You are right about enabling the behavior. That is exactly what happened as a result of delayed disciplinary action on the manager’s part. She’s been surly for over 10 years now and it works for her so I am not sure she wants to change or sees any real reason why she should. That’s unfortunate for everyone, but most unfortunate for Sue.

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