Update from LW below!
I love your site and have read 99% of your archive. I love the honesty and practicality of your responses and find a lot of helpful truth in them. This one, though, is stymieing me.
I have built a career that has been very successful and train people in complex aspects of my profession.
Since there are multiple cycles of the sessions required for industry certification, I get a lot of the same participants over and over, and one such is the worst energy vampire I’ve met in my entire life. I’m running out of ways to deal with her short of telling my boss to cut her out completely, thus hurting her career pretty permanently. I work hard to be patient, professional, and kind to everyone, but this woman, Emma, is beyond my capabilities.
Emma lives alone, and her husband either died under tragic and improbable circumstances or left her under equally tragic and improbable circumstances or there never was a husband at all; she was apparently adopted by a cruel aunt as a child, but that story has shifted as well and sounds suspiciously like Harriet Potter or at least A Little Princess. Each session now drags on as she rambles, and regardless of what we are discussing (usually content-specific and related to our set purpose) she finds an entry point to share irrelevant anecdotes incoherently and at length. With no exception, the other participants in each session despise this woman, and come to me privately to “deal with her.” She has been questioned on inconsistencies in her narrative by members of the group only to rail at how unfair everyone is to her and WHY WILL NO ONE BELIEVE THAT MY LIFE IS HARDER THAN YOURS. She never submits her assignments, and thus takes the sessions again and again and again (paying full price each time, so my boss just shrugs and takes her money) but the behavior never changes and it’s The Emma Show.
She has my office number due to its placement on my syllabi, but not my cell, although she asks me for it every single meeting so we “can socialize” because “you’re my sister from another mother!” She desperately wants to be friends on social media, and I have firmly told her I don’t do that with work acquaintances. She wants us to get matching tattoos. I have said no with increasing hostility to each of these overtures and repeatedly said, “Emma, I understand that you would like us to be friends, but I have to maintain professional boundaries and I know you’ll understand that I can’t breach those roles,” to which she will inevitably sigh, giggle, and pet my arm while saying, “Soon! I’ll graduate from the cycle and we can HANG OUT!”
Okay. I know that this woman is desperately lonely and probably struggles with the truth (even to herself), and I SHOULD be sympathetic. I have asked my boss to schedule her with another instructor, but my boss doesn’t want Emma in her own sessions again so I’m it. It’s to the point now that I don’t honestly know what to do short of open warfare.
Practical suggestions? A script? If I remove her from my roster it will have immediate and negative repercussions on her full-time employment and I don’t know if I can ethically do that to someone who, let’s face it, I just dislike. I strive to be a good person but my God she is testing this each time.
I hate how she eats French fries. (EVERY SESSION. LOUDLY. WITH MAYONNAISE WHO DOES THAT.)
I hate how she pronounces “nuc-u-ler.”
I hate how she monopolizes everyone’s time, in small groups, or pairs, or whole-group activities, no matter what I do, say, relocate, or attempt. (And yes, I know how to deal with teenagers with oppositional behaviors, just not forty-year-olds who insist they are grownups.) I move her seat; she cries and moves back. I tell her I can’t pass her due to lack of work; she blames her seat mate. I tell her not to talk tonight because other people need to share and work through their (work-related) issues; she interrupts and says her problems are more important. I feel impotent because my boss will NOT back me up.
(And I hate, hate, hate going to the bathroom after her, but that’s another story for never.)
Thank you! Just writing this helped a bit. VENTING.
~Emma, I Can’t Be Your Friend
There is no “subtle” or “nice” way to get this woman out of your classes. “Open warfare is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.” Riders of Rohan, remove her from your roster! Always be removing!
If what you want is permission to bar Emma from taking your course again, permission granted. I’m not your boss, so my permission doesn’t really count in a practical sense, but if it will help you square your shoulders to the task at hand, here you go. You are not being mean or rude when the predictable consequences of someone’s bad behavior catches up with them.
Emma is not doing the necessary coursework to continue to be certified in her chosen career. That (& any resulting consequences to her employment) is Emma’s problem, not yours. If she can’t complete the work necessary to being employed in her chosen field, then maybe she shouldn’t be employed in that field. I’m sure Emma has a much-harried boss who feels much about her as you do, and it’s time for that boss to make some decisions about Emma. That’s not on you, nor is her loneliness. You’ve taught the material and tried to work with her. That’s the extent of what you can do.
Emma is disrupting your class and ruining the course for other participants. That is your responsibility (and your boss’s responsibility) because you have a responsibility to your other students. Whatever Emma pays for the course each term, it cannot be enough to offset the losses from people who quietly never come back because they don’t want to be forced to work with her again. Please make this case to your boss. If your boss can’t manage her behavior, then no one can! So, take the logical next step and remove her from the program.
It’s time for you to document Emma’s disruptions in detail and submit them formally to your boss with a written request that she bar this disruptive student from your classes in the program. It’s also time for your boss to write a very formal and precise letter to Emma that draws on whatever your company’s policies are for refusing continued service to a student. If your company has no policy, create one and make sure it includes phrases such as:
“To preserve a constructive learning environment, students who disrupt class will be asked to leave.” Your boss should think about also including a maximum number of times students can repeat a given course in your published policies and syllabus, as well as creating a student code of conduct with explicit rules for acceptable behavior if one does not already exist.
One possible template for the letter:
Dear Ms. Emma’s Last Name,
Our records show that you have taken [NAME OF COURSE] ____ times between ____ and ____, without receiving a [passing grade] or [certification]. While many students repeat a class here and there on their path to [necessary certification or diploma], we have revised our retention policies and are asking students who fail the course [3? or more] times to seek alternate instruction. Unfortunately, we will not be able to accept your enrollment, and I am enclosing a full refund of your most recent tuition payment. We recommend [comparable course] at [OUR COMPETITOR] for a fresh start and wish you all the best in your career.
Your Boss’s Fancy Job Title
By the way, if there is no competitor, or if they are inconveniently located or whatnot, that doesn’t change the need to give Emma formal notice that she can no longer take courses from your institution. If learning this material were so important, she should not have pissed off the only game in town. Your boss should use the phrase “Our decision is final” if Emma contacts her to appeal the decision. Do not relent!
Emma will squawk and Emma will (probably) stalk you – like, barraging you with emails and phone calls and pleas for sympathy and show up to class anyway. She thinks you are her friend (despite all of your protests to the contrary and professional boundary-setting). If she does show up and harass you, you gotta be prepared to ask Security to escort her out, document the incidents, make them formally known to your boss and the facility where you teach and (possibly) her employer, who doubtless does not want their employee causing havoc. That sucks and is tense and embarrassing and scary, but things already suck…for you and for your other poor students who are unwilling participants in the Emma show.
I hope I hope I hope that your boss backs you up here. If she doesn’t, I would seriously consider hanging out your own shingle or talking to the competition. You should not have to put up with this.
Update from the LW:
I’m the LW, and I cannot thank the Captain enough and everyone for the advice and feedback. Actually, just writing it down made me feel pretty empowered. . .and to see the replies and really great, practical comments really helped solidify my thoughts on this situation. Part of the problem is my own, since even though I’ve been in this industry for well over fifteen years I look like I’m fifteen, and I’ve always struggled with perceptions of my own “adult” role. I get really high marks from participants but always doubt my own authority and that’s something I need to keep working on.
But here’s the update on Emma:
I wrote to the Captain halfway through the most recent cycle of training, and three days later got a message from Emma’s direct superior that she was withdrawing her, no refund, for “undisclosed reasons.” I don’t even want to speculate what those are, but her departure emboldened me to talk to my boss about her withdrawal and subsequently how we should deal with such disruptions in the future. Because we are contractors I suspect my boss is very conflict-averse and wants to make everyone happy, but I told her that the Emmas of the world impact our overall mission very, very negatively, and she seemed receptive to the idea of establishing group norms and conduct guidelines company-wide and actually asked me to devise them and do an instructor training on them!
There were so many great ideas in dealing with negative personalities like this, and I do think it’s time to brush up on my facilitation skills, perfect the thousand-yard stare for pointless anecdotes, and get over my aversion to mayonnaise. (And to commenters who were curious–we have working lunches during the day-long sessions; hence my exposure to said mayo.)
Jedi hugs and much love to ALL of you. My weekend is looking up, and I do hope that Emma finds success and happiness somewhere. I really do.
Yaaaaaaaay! Goodbye and good luck, “Emma!”