Question #138: How do I help my employee overcome his self-loathing?

Emo Batman saying "I wish I were as dead as my parents."
How much is childhood trauma, and how much is the pure enjoyment of cosplay and punching people?

Oh Captain my Captain,

I am the manager of a retail establishment and recently had an eye-opening experience with one of my employees.  He is normally a smart, funny, articulate, motivated, an amazing artist and very thoughtful guy.  Twice now I have had bizarre experiences with him where, over the course of his shift,  he acts extremely rude, uncaring, and generally like an asshole.  On both occasions I’ve told him he’s acting inappropriately and it needs to stop.  This is twice in the last year and a half that I’ve worked with him.

This last time, I figured there must be something going on in his personal life to make him act this way.  After I got off work I went home and checked his Facebook to see if something was up.  (I probably should have just asked him but the night ended with us not speaking to each other).  What I found was his Myspace page and a blog post from two years ago about how he intensely loathed himself, couldn’t look at himself in the mirror and didn’t understand why anybody would want to really get to know him because he found himself so bland, uninteresting and disgusting. He said he acts like an ass sometimes and doesn’t mean to but he can’t stop himself.

We aren’t exactly friends (I’m the manager and he is my employee), but everybody who works there is on friendly terms and we will all occasionally hang out outside of work.  This post that I read disturbed me deeply and even though I would be completely uncomfortable saying anything about it directly (which I’m sure would be inappropriate besides), I want to help him if I can.  What can I do that would help him see the (numerous) positive qualities about himself?  I try to be positive at work and tell people when they are doing something right, and give constructive criticism when something goes wrong, but I don’t know what to do with someone who (I now know) feels so deeply flawed. Is there even anything I can do?  If he starts acting like a jerk again, what can I say that won’t feed into his already poor self-image?

Loathing But Not In Las Vegas

Dear Loathing:

Is there anything I can do?”

Yes. Keep calling him out on his asshole behavior when it crosses the line for what is appropriate at work.  “That’s not appropriate, please stop.” (Document). If the behavior continues, proceed to writing him up and/or firing him. Do not let on ever that you read his blog posts. Focus only on what happens at work. The farthest you could step into his personal life is to ask “You’ve been completely out of line lately in a way that is not like you. If something is bothering you, why don’t you take a few days off and pull things together.”  If your workplace has an employee assistance program (EAP) give him the number and document that you did. Your watchwords are “Manners” and “Boundaries!”

If he starts acting like a jerk again, what can I say that won’t feed into his already poor self-esteem?

Nothing. It’s not your problem to take care of his psyche. It’s your problem to make sure that the work gets done at work.

Your letter reminds me of a line from my favorite Marilyn Hacker poem, “She Bitches About Boys” – “Women love a sick child or a healthy animal; a man who’s both itches them like an incubus” – and I’m getting a vibe from your letter that your interest in this “smart, funny, amazing artist” is a little more than managerial.  Fair enough! We all want to find out more about people we like, and he put his messy thoughts on the internet for everyone to see. Now you know too much and you can’t unknow it.  That’s where manners and boundaries come in.

On Manners: A safe assumption is that our employers are Googling us (and we’re Googling them). Everyone is Googling everyone and the boundaries of what is private vs. public are fuzzy right now.  I think the trend is going to be toward normalizing the sharing of personal stuff online and understanding that people are complicated, vulnerable, and human – we contain multitudes and we don’t all live our lives like we’re planning to run for office someday. While we will all make judgments about what we read, developing good manners about how we view and react to what we see about other people is important. For example, The Roommate Code says that you pretend not to hear your roommates having sex.  You don’t mention it, you don’t let it affect how you interact with them – you make an essential mental shift to a parallel universe where it never happened. If as a teacher I stumble across a student’s personal blog where they’re writing about sensitive stuff, I’m going to close it and forget about it. I’m not going to mention to them that I read it or bring it into how we interact in the classroom, because even though it’s out there in the world I know that I am not the audience for it.  Bringing it up would be bad manners the way asking a roommate “SO DID YOU HAVE A GOOD TIME LAST NIGHT? SOUNDS LIKE IT!” is bad manners.

On Boundaries: A theme that comes up over and over again on this site is that developing and enforcing boundaries with people depends on you looking at the facts (the behaviors that are actually happening) and your feelings (how the behaviors affect you, or in this case, your business) before you go looking for reasons or excuses that the other person might be behaving that way. “He only acts that way because he hates himself” stops becoming an excuse for shitty behavior. How is he acting?  Shitty. Why is he acting that way?  Not your problem. You can’t “love” or “compassion” people into dealing with their own dark sides, and knowing why something is happening is overrated, especially in a work relationship. I’m not making an argument against compassion or empathy here, or even against asking why in a personal relationship where intimacy involves sharing stuff and knowing may give you some insight into how to handle what’s going on. But if you excuse shitty behavior that affects you badly because of (sad reasons) you set yourself up for a lot of hurt and abuse and then you kind of paint yourself into a corner of never being able to be mad about it or put an end to it because of (sad reasons).  With good boundaries, you say “I’m sorry that (sad reasons) are happening to you. If I can help with any of that, let me know.  In the meantime, I need you to treat me well and obey the social contract.”

So make this a victory for manners and boundaries, ok?  Keep calling your employee out on his behaviors that affect work and leave the rest alone.

7 thoughts on “Question #138: How do I help my employee overcome his self-loathing?

  1. I think this is a great analysis and that in fact it extends way beyond work.

    We’ve become obsessed with the “Why?” of our own and other people’s behavior. Knowing the “why” of a person’s behavior can help us empathize with them, and keep us from reacting in a way that’s not constructive. But the “Why” of most inappropriate behavior is “some combination of wiring and family shit from a long time ago” and that rarely tells you much about how to deal with the behavior.

  2. For several years, I managed a small retail store where most employees’ personal lives bled into work. I knew who was having relationship problems, who was out drinking until 2am every night, whose boyfriend was struggling to overcome a heroin addiction, etc. Even the boss would let all of his private details become common knowledge. It was a fantastic job in a lot of ways, but it was also deeply weird.

    So in the middle of that situation I became a manager with no training on how to transition from being buddies with co-workers to having authority over them. And while I did a great job at the rest of my managerial duties, this is an area where I fell down several times before I figured it out. I had to get to the point where I understood that K and L’s drinking problem had nothing to do with what I needed them to do on the job, and then I had to make them *actually believe* that I meant it when I told them they needed to do work whether they were hungover or not.

    Knowing why some employees weren’t doing enough work or were rude to customers didn’t make the problem go away, and it often made my job tougher because my first instinct when I know someone’s upset is to help them feel better. Apparently some folks resented me when I told them to do something and expected it to actually happen! It took a long time for me to stop caring about that.

    1. A lot of yes to this. It seems like it’s quite a similar situation, and can make for some really bizarre situations.

  3. That’s good advice. It’s not your problem. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to be compassionate or that you’re not a nice person or whatever it is that compels you to want to take care of this particular wounded creature. There’s nothing wrong with being kind – it’s just that he has to be responsible for himself.

    In my own experience, I’ve found that it’s also a lot easier to be compassionate with people who take personal responsibility for their behavior at work. As an example, an employee who was going through some pretty rough personal issues at one point came in one day, asked to have a meeting and then told me what was going on. He said he wasn’t making excuses and would try not to let it bleed into work, but that if he happened to be a bit stressed out or distracted, I should know why. Given how horrible what he was going through was and how hard and well he usually worked, I think I would have put up with a lot but I honestly can’t remember that his work actually suffered. I just remember him being quiet and sad for a while, and everyone else on my team was happy to support him when he needed it and I was happy to act as a buffer between him and people our team interacted with and who didn’t know the specifics. And then he recovered, got most of his old bounce back, and we moved on.

    The thing here is, if someone is conscientious and they feel they will have a hard time at work, they should be able to approach their immediate superior and let them know. Now, I’m led to believe that hiring and firing in the US is done somewhat more summarily than in other places, and I think some employees may have genuine concerns about being fired if they speak up, and that’s horrible, but the LW doesn’t sound like someone who would do that.

  4. this sounds like my store, except my managers all act like the constant drama is normal and encourage the cliques, drama, and popularity contest that ensues from such behavior

  5. I would like to add one thing – it’s not enough to let him know when he does something wrong. You also should tell him when he does something right. Any animal trainer will tell you that positive reinforcement is essential to produce the behaviour you want; negative reinforcement alone is not enough. And we humans are animals.

    So my advice would be that whenever you happen to notice him (or any other person you’re managing, or indeed anybody else) doing his job particularly well, say so. Say it as close to the occasion as possible, and try to make more positive comments than negative ones.

    I should add that it’s good to give positive reinforcement for employees performing their standard duties, and not just give it when they do something above and beyond their regular job, such as taking extra shifts and so on. Otherwise you’ll end up with at least some employees who will do their regular jobs less well, because they never get any approval for them, while doing all the extra jobs well, because that’s where they get their rewards. And you need people doing the regular jobs, too.

    1. This is great advice. Especially if his self esteem is really low, occasionally saying something simple like, “You did great with that customer!” or “I really appreciate how you do this thing, it shows how thoughtful you are” blah blah. Giving him positive reinforcement when it’s due is going to have much better results than just punishment.

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