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I think my employee is being maliciously compliant — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I manage a team of about 20 part-time employees. We work in a creative field, but my department is strictly customer service oriented. I like to think I’m a fine manager; my employees like and respect me and they make for a kind and wonderful team.

But I have one employee, Eric, who has struggled with performance issues, namely an unwillingness to take feedback, an unprofessional attitude towards customers and coworkers, and generally being combative. He has been warned several times and was placed on a PIP, which he passed. Through all this, he has shown a disdain for me as a boss, which I, and others, suspect has to to with me being a woman.

Since passing his PIP, Eric has really amped up his customer service … literally. He has become obnoxiously loud while on the phone with customers, makes a huge show of being extra nice and overly positive, and generally behaving in a way that makes it clear that he is DOING A GOOD JOB. I always acknowledge good work, and I have made a point to give him a little extra so he doesn’t feel like he has to make a big show of it, but it just seems to fire him up more. It’s become so aggressive in the last few weeks, I can’t help but feel this is his way of being maliciously compliant.

I can’t continue working like this but I’m not sure if addressing it is the right move. Maybe I’m reading this all wrong and his loud enthusiasm is genuine behavior, in which case I would just be an asshole. But at this point I’m actually considering finding a new job because I can’t tolerate this for much longer — he’s completely worn me down.

It is maybe also worth mentioning that he has said to me, my boss, and anyone who will listen that he does not enjoy this job and wants to do something else. But when we’ve attempted conversations about career aspirations, he can’t give an answer except that he “wants to be in charge.” As far as I can tell, he’s not looking for other work, except for the one full-time position he applied to in another department and was turned down from, so there is really no end in sight for this behavior.

Is this worth addressing or should I just suck it up? I am so torn between this being a professional issue and a personal one.

I wrote back and asked, “Can you give me more specifics about what the amped up customer service looks like? Is it exaggerated to the point that a customer might notice and be put off by it? If you hadn’t known him before now and he was a new hire acting like this, would it seem off to you?” The response:

Some examples of things he has recently started doing:

– speaking to customers like he’s addressing a classroom of three-year-olds
– taking an excessively long time to solve simple customer problems
– promising things to customers we can’t deliver on, such as telling them something won’t be a problem to fix when we can’t fix it at all (and then letting me have the difficult conversation with them)
– a weird one: telling white lies such as saying I’m in a meeting or out sick when really I’m just on lunch
– when we openly talk about a difficult regular customer or universally disliked task, going out of his way to say he never has issues with that customer or he loves doing that task

Customers probably view him more as someone who lacks social skills rather than as off-putting … from their perspective, he seems like he’s trying.

But a new hire acting this way would definitely seem off, even with the learning curve of a new job. We usually start new hires on a 90-day probation period. I don’t think Eric would make it past that if he were hired today.

Yeah, you need to fire Eric.

When I first read your letter, I thought it was possible that this wasn’t really malicious compliance and his behavior wasn’t really an F-you. Unlikely, but possible.

But reading your list of specific examples … he absolutely intends it as an F-you.

Moreover, there’s plenty of actionable stuff here to address. He’s not even good at malicious compliance, because he’s left the door wide open for you to discipline and/or fire him for what he’s doing.

You said you’re torn between these being professional issues or personal ones — but they’re clearly, unambiguously professional ones. In fact, they’re so very much work issues that you have to address them.

Frankly, I think you should just fire him — he was already struggling with performance, an unprofessional attitude towards customers and coworkers, and general combativeness. Now he’s being condescending to customers, taking too long to solve customers’ problems, and promising them things he should know will be problems. Any one of those on its own would be something you should strongly consider firing him over. All of them together? You should do it today.

This isn’t PIP territory (especially since you’ve already tried that route, and I’m guessing that he’ll just hew to the terms of the PIP as long as it takes to pass it, and then he’ll revert to form). This is “you’re being actively and intentionally difficult, this is not working out, we are ending your employment today” territory.

If the reason you haven’t done that is because your employer requires you to go through another PIP … well, first it’s worth arguing that this should be an exception to that. You’ve done one PIP and you’re continuing to encounter serious problems, plus Eric is demonstrating that he’s not acting with good will. PIPs are for people who aren’t intentionally try to mess with you. But if your company won’t budge and forces you to go through that process again, then you should lobby for it to be as short as possible (weeks, not months, especially since you’ve been through this process with him before) and it needs to include language making it clear that you need to see sustained and permanent improvement and if problems recur again, you wouldn’t do a third PIP. If you need to convince your boss, “He wouldn’t make it past his 90-day probation period if he were hired today” is good framing to use.

But you need to make sure he goes — for the sake of your customers, your other employees, and your work overall.


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