my employee locked me out of a work document in a fit of pettiness — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I took a job a few years back to manage an area that previously did not have a manager. My employer doesn’t fire people, it just moves them around, and this area was the dumping ground for problem employees before I arrived, so I inherited some colorful personalities.

One employee in particular, Jason, is infamous across the entire department for being very difficult to work with. He plays constant power games, loses his temper frequently, and has horrible people skills. Every month or so, there’s another crisis involving him that requires me to patch up relationships across the department, sometimes up to the level of my boss’ boss, the director of the department.

This one is thankfully more local, but feels serious. A while back Jason made a report that gets emailed to another employee on my team, Chidi, to use. Over time it has become unusable because it’s not filtered well enough. Chidi’s been asking me to fix it for a long time, so recently I went in and fixed it.

Jason found out and was very upset that I changed “his” report. To be clear, he never uses the report, it doesn’t even have much to do with his job responsibilities, he just happened to be the one to originally create it a long time ago. Also, I didn’t change it for fun, it was unusable and I made it usable. I responded by calmly telling him these things and I thought that was the end of it. He left for the day less than an hour later for an unrelated reason.

And then I find that I’ve been locked out of the report. I can still view it, but I can’t make changes to it.

Some background: the software that the report is made through was managed by another position in the department that has been unfilled for the past few months after the employee retired. Jason really wanted that position and applied for it, but my boss, Tahani (who is beyond fed up with Jason), wouldn’t give it to him in a million years. Tahani told him he was rejected for the job because he doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree. (He actually decided to get a bachelor’s degree because of this.) He wants so badly to move up and be promoted, but he can’t seem to internalize that his horrible interpersonal behavior is what’s holding him back, though I’ve told him multiple times in performance reviews.

The position still hasn’t been filled, but Jason was given administrative access to the software to cover the position in the meantime. My boss also has administrative access and she’s been meaning to give me administrative access for a while, but just hasn’t gotten around to it. This is how he could lock me out of the report.

Coincidentally, that same day I asked him to give me edit access to a folder with some work files in it that aren’t part of his job responsibilities anymore. He flat out refused. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say and then he left for the day for unrelated reasons.

This feels serious, but I’m having a hard time judging how serious because my workplace norms are getting so out of whack from this job. Part of me is worried making a big deal about this will just make me look controlling. But I can’t have my employee locking me out of work documents because of his ego! I’m his boss!

If I bring this to my boss, she’ll go nuclear and yank his administrative access. But that administrative access is very important to Jason, and he’ll throw a fit and start playing even more power games. Similar scenarios have happened half a dozen times before. I have to keep managing him, and it’s much easier to do if I don’t make him feel “threatened.” I’ve worked hard since I started this job to convince him that I’m not out to get him. I’m going to talk to Jason first and I hope to get it handled and then tell Tahani about it. But what do I say that won’t just trigger more power struggles?

Also, there’s a chance he’ll threaten to “go to Tahani” about this, which he has done multiple times before and is always uncomfortable for everyone. Tahani always agrees with me, but I feel like it reflects badly on me when my employees waste my boss’ time “tattling” on me. I’d love to hear your suggestions on what to say when he threatens me with that.

Just to head off the obvious response: I can’t fire him. I’ve documented everything, and maybe if he does this again I could escalate it to my boss’ boss and it’s theoretically possible he could get fired. But he’s not getting fired over this.

Just to drive that last point home: Some employees in our department were found to be driving company vehicles to fast food places, spending the entire day there, and coming back at the end of the day to hurriedly make it look like they worked and clock out. They were not fired, just transferred to a different area. (Not mine, thankfully!)

Your company is a bigger problem here than Jason is. To review:
* Your company won’t fire people but just moves them to other teams so they become someone else’s problem, including people found not to be showing up to work and falsifying their timecards.
* This has resulted in you having an employee who loses his temper constantly and causes crises on a monthly basis.
* This problem employee is so convinced you won’t take any real action against him that he is locking you out of reports and openly refusing to give you access to other files (!).
* Your boss is “beyond fed up” with this employee but instead of addressing the problems in an honest way, told him he didn’t get a promotion because of his lack of a bachelor’s degree (which he is now getting, which is setting everyone involved up for a serious explosion when he gets it and finds out it didn’t matter). This is incredibly unfair to the employee, problematic as he is, and astonishingly terrible management.

Your company is really, really badly managed.

To your credit, you seem to be trying to be direct with Jason (telling him multiple times that his horrible behavior is what’s holding him back).

But he’s crossed new lines with his latest actions. Locking you out of a report and refusing to give you files you requested is really serious (especially the latter). It’s not controlling to have a problem with this. It’s really serious. Firing serious.

And I know your company won’t let you fire him for this. Which is an enormous problem of its own! Normally I’d tell you that you can’t manage in an environment like this and you should get out, because this will hold you back in serious ways (you’ll achieve less, learn really messed up norms, and pick up all sorts of bad habits — and fundamentally, be prevented from doing your job as a manager).

But you gave me a small amount of hope when you wrote this: “I’ve documented everything, and maybe if he does this again I could escalate it to my boss’ boss and it’s theoretically possible he could get fired.” It that’s the case, then start that process. Document this, escalate it, and start putting together whatever paperwork it will take to eventually make the case to fire him. If you can fire him at some point, just not now, then get that ball rolling so that day comes around eventually.

And meanwhile, stop hesitating about letting your boss know about this major incident. You said you don’t want to because she’ll go nuclear and pull his administrative access, and that will cause Jason to throw a fit and play more power games. Good — let all that happen. Your boss deserves not to have you hiding things she’d care about from her, and the more Jason misbehaves, the more ammunition you’ll have to put in your case to eventually fire him. Hand him the rope and let him use it.

(Similarly, when he threatens to go to her about something, stand back and let him. She might as well see exactly what you’re dealing with, and you give up too much power if you’re afraid of that threat.)

But really — all of this sounds exhausting. It sounds exhausting to have to go through the lengthy gauntlet your company is going to make you run here, and it sounds exhausting to work around Jason if you don’t. Is this job — this job where you can’t do your job because they won’t let you — worth it?

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