Can you tell an employee who to spend time with at work? Brighten Project leadership development

Managing new hires and toxic employees

case study Feb 25, 2024



This situation came up during a recent coaching session and we had such a valuable discussion - I wanted to share it with you.

🧐 Here's the sitch: you've just hired Sarah, a bubbly, gregarious new recruit for you team. Sarah is in week two of her role, navigating onboarding and training and slowly picking up speed. Another employee in your team - Jack has taken an interest in Sarah and you've noticed they've been spending most of their lunch breaks together and also talking about having drinks after work. Jack is currently being performance managed for a toxic attitude and below average performance, he is known for talking poorly about the leadership team and the rest of his colleagues. Among the rest of the leadership team (your peers), Jack is known as a toxic employee and you are working on either moving him out of the business or lifting his performance through the performance management process. 

The challenge that you see is that you want to "protect" Sarah, and tell her to stop spending time with Jack for the good of her own career within the business, so she doesn't get infected by his poor attitude or tarnished by association due to his reputation within the business.

What do you do?


Let's go through this like we would in a coaching conversation....


What is your role as a leader?

Our area of influence is in the professional environment. We need to understand that we can guide, but it's very easy to overstep the boundary and provide guidance that is outside our scope. For example, telling someone who to spend their personal time with would be in scope or out of scope? [Answer: it's out of scope]. 

Sarah, like any adult, has the autonomy to choose whom to spend time with during breaks or outside work hours. The goal is to foster a positive work culture without dictating personal associations.


So if we can't tell Sarah what to do with her time, what CAN we do to help her as she onboards into the business?

This all comes down to your own judgement as a leader, and what feels appropriate without being manipulative.

  • Create opportunities for her to network with other colleagues and build new connections in your team and outside your team. Look at her onboarding plan, are there other key people in the business that you can encourage her to set up an introductory meeting with?
  • Specifically discuss how to create her support network within the business, and discuss how a broad range of connections will be really valuable to help her understand the business, her role in the value chain as well as enriches her personal growth.
  • Allow Sarah to figure out her role and network in her own time. Most intelligent adults will be able to understand the business and team dynamics fairly easily after a few weeks in a new role. It's highly likely that as Sarah broadens her circle in the business and gets stuck into the work, she'll be able to see what is happening and make her own judgement call about who to spend time with.  
  • Raise this with our own leader, providing an update on the situation in a very balanced, impartial way. Explaining that we're taking some action as needed [e.g. the 3 points above] but am also respecting the teams autonomy and boundaries. The reason we let our manager know what's happening is a way of managing up, it also helps us because we've shared the issue and if anything does come up in the future, it's not going to be a surprise for your manager.
  • Continue supporting Jack through his performance management process. We have a duty to Jack to help him be the best he can be, and that's how we're approaching the process - with support, care and belief in his ability to change and grow. Need more help on this? [Check me out]


What we're NOT going to do

  • While Jack may be a challenging employee right now, you don't know how the future may play out. He could really thrive in the performance management process and become a performer. It's your duty to protect his confidentiality and never share his performance information with his colleagues - so basically, we're not going to tell Sarah anything about Jack's performance or reputation. 
  • We're not going to assume the worst of Jack. For all you know, Jack and Sarah might be connecting on a romantic level and have never even spoken about work when they've been spending time together OR, Jack may already be working on his performance, and is making an effort to change his behaviours. 
  • We're not going to obsess over this. Everyone is an adult, let's take some small steps to help Sarah onboard, but then we must allow this to play out however it plays out, and then manage any situations that arise. We're not going to noodle over this situation, or use it as a vehicle to talk poorly about Jack or Sarah. 


What I found really interesting about this discussion was that this situation happened to me early on in my career. One of my leaders raised in a 1:1 that she would like me to stop hanging out with one of her leadership peers as she felt it was unprofessional that I was spending so much time with someone that wasn't my peer (and was her peer). She gave me no valid reasons other than she thought it made me look bad. To this day, I don't know why she felt that way, and as an experienced leader now, looking back I can only think that there was an element of territorial behaviour. In my roles I have had many of my direct reports cultivate connections with other leaders (my peers) and I only think that it benefits that employee to have other senior minds to talk to. If the connection is purely social - then it's none of my business. If the connection impacts my employees work or performance then it's well within my remit to raise it and talk through it. 

My experience taught me the delicate balance between providing guidance and respecting personal autonomy. It underscores the importance of fostering a culture where professional relationships are nurtured on the basis of mutual respect, professional growth, and the freedom to forge connections that enrich their own work experience.


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