Q: I supervise an employee who plays the perfect victim, and worse, my immediate manager believes her stories. He was brought into our company from outside and has only managed our department for a month, so he and I don’t yet have a strong relationship.
I admit it took me six months to figure this employee out. At first, I believed what she said when she told me how hard she worked. Since she fell behind on many of her projects, I pitched in and completed several myself when she told me that she’d run into circumstances beyond her control. I’ve always been a hard worker and I just added her jobs to my workload.
Her poor work habits bothered me. She had a reason for needing to leave early nearly every Friday afternoon. First it was that she had a roofer coming, then she had a dental appointment, and then her dog needed to go to the vet. It also seemed as if she was on her cell whenever I passed by her office. I don’t mind an employee occasionally using their phone, but she was on hers regularly. When I told her to cut it out, she got teary and said I just happened by the few times she received emergency calls. After two more weeks of regularly catching her using her cell, I wrote her up.
If she’d been a terrible employee, I could have fired her, but she did just enough work to meet minimum expectations. I tried to fix each problem. When she gave me the roofer excuse a second time I told her she couldn’t leave early any more Friday afternoons. That’s when she started to complain that I didn’t do enough to help her. This stunned me because it was absolutely untrue; I have spent more time assisting her than any other employee in my 15 years as a supervisor.
Worse, she expressed these criticisms to my manager and also went from person to person in our department grumbling that I was overly demanding and that she feared being fired. Since she is a likeable person, many of these employees felt sympathy for her.
This morning I sat down with my new manager and said I wanted to fire my employee. He told me she had come to him several times, that she really wanted to do a good job and he felt I judged her too harshly. When I told him the real story, he didn’t seem to believe me because it was so counter to what she’d been saying. He’s also a nice guy and wants to give everyone a fair chance.
I feel like I’m in a no-win situation here. How do I handle someone who plays the perfect victim card?
A: You may be supervising a perfectly false victim. While victims deserve empathy, false victims use others’ gullibility to skate through life avoiding accountability.
Here’s to spot a FV.
Nothing is ever an FV’s fault. FVs need to blame their failures on others. His coworkers aren’t helpful. Her supervisor is too demanding or doesn’t give clear direction and thus any mistakes are the supervisor’s fault. He could excel if given more training and if certain coworkers or his supervisor weren’t in the way. FVs expend so much effort blaming others that they have no time to succeed.
FVs excel at securing sympathy. Like a bully who kisses up and kicks down, a false victim endears herself to others even as she singles out one person, often her supervisor, with subtly voiced allegations of unfair treatment.
FVs use others. Your employee uses your manager’s kindness against him and you, forcing him to chart a middle ground between her earnest protestations that she wants to do a good job and your testimony. You take responsibility for the work coming out of your department and she used that to get you to finish her work. FVs thrive in jobs that feature shared responsibility, particularly when working for or with hard-working supervisors or coworkers who take on too much responsibility.
What to do now
Those who supervise or work with FVs can’t always fix an entrenched false victimhood behavior pattern. Further, FVs rarely respond to coaching because they want others to join them in self-denial.
To fix your situation, you need to tackle both parts of it. Forgive your manager for being buffaloed. If you take your irritation out on him, you risk becoming part of the problem. Instead, offer him the facts that will enable him to draw the correct conclusion.
Force your FV to take accountability by stating facts. “You’re say you’re working hard but you’re on your cell again. Leave it in your car.” Cut short his blaming by saying, “Please answer my questions from the point of view of your own responsibly.”
Finally, let your manager or your employee or both know, “We can’t go on this way.”