my coworker is hassling me about his peer feedback, employee calls me “buttercup,” and more — Ask a Manager

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. My coworker is hassling me about his peer feedback

In my department, we’re asked to provide feedback for year-end reviews for our manager, other managers, and peers. The feedback is collected and delivered anonymously to the recipient by their manager. The process works well. However, based on some details provided, you can sometimes tell who wrote what about you.

I have one coworker, Barry who doesn’t do such a great job and hasn’t since he started. Not a go-getter, lack of initiative, etc. We really want him to do well on our team and we try to provide constructive feedback during this time. Our manager also provides it during the year. However, sometimes this feedback is taken as a personal attack with no plans to improve himself.

The problem is that after Barry receives this feedback, he often goes on a witch hunt to find out who said it. I have been cornered in my office and have received emails to my personal account grilling me about his feedback and trying to find out who said what. I am especially concerned this year because I have provided feedback to my manager, Jack, regarding Barry’s performance on projects we have worked on together. This was not a stellar year for Barry. I just know I (and others) will be cornered and asked if I knew about what was said and whether or not I agree with the feedback. To make it harder, Barry and I have worked together for about 15 years and were really close for a long time. Most of those years we were at another company in a different role/skill set and in that role Barry did great.

Jack came to me and said to be prepared for potential backlash and that he would help shut it down. But in the moment, what is the best thing to say to Barry? Defer him to our manager? I feel like by saying “You should really talk to Jack” is only confirming that feedback came from me.

Jack needs to shut this down before it happens. Go back to him and explain that Barry has a pattern of cornering you in your office, grilling you on who said what in his feedback, and even emailing you outside of work to try to push for answers. Say you’re not comfortable being in that position and it makes it harder to give candid feedback, and ask that he talk with Jack during or before his performance evaluation to make it clear he can’t do that this year — that it’s unacceptable, that it deters people from providing feedback, and that he’s explicitly telling him he can’t do it. Or Jack could talk with your whole team about why this isn’t okay, explain the system relies on people being able to trust feedback will be kept anonymous, and say that people should let Jack know if anyone is violating those boundaries.

That will set you up so that if Barry pushes, you can say, “Jack asked us not to have these conversations so I’m not going to talk with you about this.”

If Jack isn’t willing to do that, it’s still fine to say, “I’m uncomfortable being asked to speculate on who gave what anonymous feedback. You should talk to Jack, not me.” And if he still pushes: “Barry, this isn’t a conversation I’m willing to have. Please stop.” And then tell Jack immediately.

But it’s really problematic that Barry has apparently been doing a bad job there for years. It’s time for Jack to resolve this one way or another.

2. My employee calls me “buttercup”

How should I respond to someone (Betty) who reports to me when she calls me by a pet name? I am 45, and she is 61 and consistently calls me “buttercup.” I don’t know why, but what started as a “What’s up, buttercup?” during our weekly project debriefing has now become Betty’s consistent reference for me. I find it demeaning and feel she is trying to diminish my authority as her supervisor and in front of others on my team.

My supervisor is younger than me by six years and Betty would never think to refer to her in this unprofessional manner.

“You know, I actually don’t like ‘buttercup’! Would you mind just calling me Jane? Thank you!”

That’s it.

To the extent that you can, try to believe Betty is doing this not because she’s trying to diminish your authority but because she just doesn’t know you don’t like it. If you see other signs that she’s trying to undermine you, you should of course address those — but you’ll probably handle this more calmly and with less angst if you give her the benefit of the doubt.

3. How do I tell my boss about my predecessor’s mistakes?

I recently started a new job at a start-up, and one of my duties is supervising all internal and external documentation. The good news for me is that the vast majority was created under my predecessor, so that project is largely considered wrapped up. The bad news is that the more I review what was already done, the more mistakes I find. Few of these are serious errors; it’s mostly grammar, spelling, typos, and awkward or confusing wording. I think the small ones make us look terrible when they pile up like this, though, especially when they appear on client-facing documents.

I have already started cracking down on glaring errors in any new content, but the older documents are weighing on me. I’ve done as much editing as I can on the spot, but I have a lot of other duties and can only do so much. Everyone on my team also has pressing obligations right now.

I want to bring the issue to my boss’s attention (and possibly even suggest hiring a professional copy editor for a few hours) but I’m not sure how to go about this. My predecessor was a colleague of mine, and my boss and I both have a great deal of respect for them. I also suspect the team was under pressure to create a lot of documentation very quickly. How do I bring this up without feeling like I’m badmouthing them or asking for too much?

The key is to be matter-of-fact about it: “I’ve found a lot of our older documents have grammar and spelling errors or typos, probably because they needed to be created quickly. I’ve been fixing them as I find them, but I don’t have the time to systematically go through them all. I’m concerned it doesn’t reflect well on us to clients, so I wondered if you’d be okay with me hiring a copy editor for a few hours of work to tackle this.”

In other words, just the facts! It would come across differently if you sounded scandalized or contemptuous of the previous director, but as long as you don’t, you don’t need to dance around it. Use the same tone you’d use if you found a problem with the printer — as if it’s just a work problem, not a predecessor problem.

4. My office keeps scheduling important trainings on Jewish holidays

At my office, which is a very liberal workplace in a liberal east coast city, I am one of the few practicing Jewish employees. My issue is that we keep having mandatory trainings or very useful trainings on Jewish holidays (like on Yom Kippur) that I would love to attend but can’t. My supervisor is very understanding and no one gets upset that I can’t go, but I feel that I’m missing out on things I need to know. For me, it would be a lot better if they took these days into account instead of just being lenient in forgiving my inability to attend. What is the best way to ask this of them? Side note: our school district also includes several Jewish holidays as school holidays, so this is difficult for parents as well as religious Jews.

“We’ve been scheduling key trainings on important Jewish holidays, which means that I and other observant Jews can’t attend. I know inclusivity is an important value for us (that’s useful to say even if it’s not true, as it often makes people feel they should live up to it) so could we take the Jewish calendar into account when we schedule trainings? Here’s a list of the most important holidays to avoid.”

5. Can I get out of traveling for a mandatory year-end meeting?

My company has a mandatory year-end meeting in Washington D.C. Most employees work in that area but there are a handful of us in the Pacific Northwest. The meeting is always the week before Christmas and they make us fly basic economy. They pay for the flight and hotel, but not for any food expenses or anything else. Every time I’ve gone, I get the flu from the nasty flight full of sick people, and this means my Christmas is pretty much ruined. Do I have a right to decline attending? I’ve asked that they just include a webinar of the meeting for those of us off-site, but they have refused.

Since it’s mandatory, you can’t just decline — but you might be able to get out of it if you talk with your manager about the problem it causes. Explain it’s one of the worst weeks of the year for you to travel, you’ve gotten sick the past three years, and you can’t afford to pick up the expenses inherent in the travel, like food and other incidentals. Try to put numbers on it if you can: “Last year I ended up paying $310 for food and cabs, and I’m not in a position to continue to cover that.” Then say, “I’d strongly prefer to attend remotely or watch a video of the meeting afterwards. Is there any way we can make that work?” If not, you could say, “If it’s essential that I be there in person, I’d need the company to cover all the expenses associated with the trip.”

You might have better chances of making a change if you can get some or all of the other remote people to make this request with you.

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