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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