My Employee Spends Too Much Time Justifying Everything

Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

I recently hired a new employee who has some personality traits that are affecting the work environment and other staff. It’s hard to identify the exact problem but I think I think it can be summed up in two ways: she doesn’t know how to end a conversation and she feels the need to justify her actions in every situation.

As an example, she might come into my office to ask if she can be 10 minutes late next Monday due to a doctor’s appointment. I might say, “Sure, we have enough coverage, no problem.” At this point I would expect her to say, “Great, thanks!” and leave, but instead she lingers and explain at length that she’s tried really hard not to have appointments conflict with work, she doesn’t think it will be much more than 10 minutes, and she’ll try in the future to schedule them on her day off. No matter how much I reassure her that she’s all set and everything is fine, she continues on, repeating the same thing in different ways. It gets to the point where the conversation becomes awkward.

As another example, she might ask if she can post something to our website. I say, “Sure, that’s a great idea.” She usually responds with something like, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure because … etc.” I repeat, “Yep, no problem.” She responds with more justifications or comments about why she suggested posting this item and why it would be a good idea, even though I’ve already told her I agree it’s a good idea. Again, the conversation becomes awkward.

This type of thing happens in almost every interaction with her, even minor ones. The other staff and I are feeling very uncomfortable and awkward. I know it must be difficult to start a new job when your coworkers all know each other, but we’ve tried hard to welcome her and help her feel she fits in.

I have already spoken to her, saying I don’t want her to feel she needs to justify everything, but several hours after speaking to her, this behavior continues. Any advice on how to correct this or help the staff deal with it? Do you think we’re being too picky or “clique-ish”? Do you think her behavior can be changed, or needs to be?

I suppose it’s possible that you’re being too clique-ish, but there’s nothing in the letter that indicates that.

It’s reasonable to ask your employee to change this behavior because what she’s doing is exhausting (and not terribly efficient, either). She’s asking for a lot of your time and emotional energy to reassure her in each of these conversations, and if she keeps doing this, over time people are likely to start avoiding her.

But it sounds like you haven’t really asked her to stop yet. You told her that you don’t want her to feel that she needs to justify everything, but that’s a different message than telling her to stop. The first sounds like it’s about how she feels and you’re trying to reassure her — which is lovely, but it’s not clearly telling her to change her behavior, so it’s not really fair to be surprised that you’re continuing to see it.

Hinting rather than being direct is a really common mistake managers make. But to manage effectively, you’ve got to be forthright and direct about pretty much everything — your expectations, your feedback, and most of all the times when you’re asking someone to do something differently. Not only will this be better for you (because you’ll get what you want from people far more often), but it’s much more fair to employees, who shouldn’t have to read between the lines to figure out what you want.

So. Have another conversation with her, and this time be clear about what you really mean — which isn’t that you don’t want her to feel she has to justify everything, but rather than you want her to stop justifying everything. For example: “When we talked the other day and I told you I didn’t want you to feel that you need to justify things to me or others on staff, I should have been clearer and asked you to please stop justifying things When I tell you something is fine, it really is fine. I want you to take me and other staff members at our word and not continue to explain why you’re asking, because that’s taking up a lot of time and requiring a lot of energy to convince you that it’s okay! Of course, occasionally there really might be additional context that’s needed and in that case you should be speak up — but the majority of the time, like with X and Y earlier this week, I’d like you to work on accepting ‘yes’ and moving on. Can you work on that?”

You could also say, “If I have concerns about something, I will let you know or ask follow-up questions. If I’m not asking, it means you’ve already given me enough information and I don’t have any concerns that you’d need to address, so you don’t need to worry that I might.”

Frankly, depending on the relationship and how this conversation goes, you could also just ask her outright what’s behind the behavior. For example: “What’s going on when that happens? Have you worked places where you were expected to do a lot of explaining for small things and were you were penalized if you didn’t?” That’s a really common explanation for this behavior, and I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that is in play here.

From there, address it in the moment if it continues to happen. She’s probably not going to completely fix this overnight, but you can help by reinforcing your expectations in the moment. If she goes into justifying mode, kindly say, “This is a case where you’ve already gotten a yes and you don’t need to justify anything!” Or, “This is what we agreed we wouldn’t do!” Or “Already settled and answered! I’m going to get back to what I was doing.” Don’t glower or be snippy about it, of course! Use a kind tone, but be firm. (I’m emphasizing tone here because I’m guessing her behavior comes from insecurity, so let’s not add to it.)

Also, since it sounds like she might not know how to end conversations gracefully, plan to play a more active role in doing that yourself in conversations with her for a while. Instead of waiting for her to end a conversation (since she may not), say things like “Okay, thanks — I’ll talk to you later!” and “Sounds good. See you in our meeting this afternoon!” and “Okay, I’ll get back to it then — could you close my door when you leave?” and other obvious “that’s it for now” signifiers. Hopefully over time she’ll learn that this is how one does this and will get more comfortable with doing it herself.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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