top of page

Going Back to Work With the Problem Employee

By Jared Tarbell - Flickr: sky puzzle, CC BY 2.0,

How many times have you heard the words "I just want to do my job"? Sometimes shouted, the implication is that work is monstrously challenging not because of its tasks, but because of co-workers. If only they weren't there you could get so much more done. You would, in fact, be perfectly content.

It's doubtful the museum world was ever as benign and complacent as it appeared, but the combination of COVID-19, layoffs, remote work, and a long-needed racial awakening has left many workers stressed, sad, and anxious. And those are the ones still employed. Add to that the fact that many of us have returned to a workplace under threat by both the virus and what will happen if our organizations need to close again, and you have a perfect storm of issues. Not to mention, we just spent six months working from home, and only seeing our colleagues on the screen. Why is the return to work so difficult?

It's a universal truth, that virus or no virus, some co-workers are challenging. They are poor listeners, they're immature, and they seem to save their worst behavior for the office. Americans spend one third of their lives working so over time that bad behavior can reach epic levels. It's as if junior high, the nadir of all educational experiences, never left us, waiting instead until we got what we were certain was the dream job, only to plunge us into an environment where colleagues behave cliquishly, rudely and emotionally. No wonder people want to be alone.

The museum world is unique in that it employs a broad spectrum of ages. Between the board at one end, volunteers, and full and part-time staff at the other, there may be as many as five generations working side by side. While that's a sign of a healthy workplace because intergenerational viewpoints generate creative thinking, it can also be a point of contention as Millennials and Boomers, Generation Xers and Z collaborate. Overlay all that with issues of gender and benign and overt racism, and whoa, what a mess. So...unless you're going to embark on a career where you always work alone, what should you do?

First, a few truths:

  1. Much of museum work involves collaboration.

  2. Collaboration challenges us and spurs creativity.

  3. You don't have to be friends with your museum colleagues, but you need to work with them to serve the museum well.

If you work with a problem individual you should:

  1. Put on your empathy hat and listen. Their work experience may not be yours.

  2. Try a different way of communicating. Maybe they are better at hearing than reading? Ask which they prefer.

  3. Whatever happens, don't take it personally; instead, make work your priority. That's what you have in common, not your combined negative feelings.

  4. Be friendly, but try to curb oversharing.

One caveat, none of the above means putting up with racist, sexist or inappropriate remarks. Never enable that behavior. Be prepared to interrupt with a remark like "I find that offensive." There are some great examples here.

If you're a leader:

  1. Listen first.

  2. Reflect on the way you communicate. Are you rushed? Leaving things out? Expecting staff and colleagues to intuit details?

  3. Be respectful. Remember to lead with a positive, and assume the best about a staff member's actions.

  4. Be clear, be concise, and underscore a conversation when it's important. There's nothing like saying, "I have something important to say, and I hope you can help."

There are very few times when we get to hire an entirely new staff. Most leadership opportunities mean going to war with army you've got. That means figuring out how to encourage your team to put the exhibit, the fundraiser, the project, ahead of their differences; to see collaborative, creative thinking as the reward; to collaborate and communicate rather than compete and argue because in the end, we all--community, staff, and board-- benefit when the museum succeeds.

Joan Baldwin


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page