A reader writes:
I am writing to you about a problem my boss has with one of my coworkers. (I’m his PA, and since he’s not that good at hands-on people management, I try to advise him as much as possible on difficult matters, but now we’re at a loss.) I’ll call the coworker John.
John has been working with us for 3.5 years now, and he’s a bit of a special case: he’s very slightly mentally disabled. He had an accident that basically left his head not working as well as before. You wouldn’t notice it if you didn’t know it; he acts perfectly normally. He was hired as part of a special program to do the one thing here that is extremely repetitive (and yes, boring), but it has to be done (it’s computer work, a bit similar to data entry, so day after day, he basically does the same thing).
A couple of months ago, he came to my boss saying he wanted to do something else, something more complicated. We tried training him, but it didn’t work. (It would have taken about two years to really get him going, considering it took one year to learn his first task.) He went back to doing what he did before (and does well).
Now, last week, he came to my boss again, almost in tears and very frustrated, saying that it wasn’t fair that because he’s disabled, we won’t let him do anything else, and he wants another chance to be trained to do other things.
I understand his frustration, it must suck to see other people climbing up the ladder and being stuck at the bottom, but there really is nothing we can do about it. He’s paid the same as everyone else, and treated the same (he’s not the only one doing the tedious work; there are two more people doing the same). But there is just no way we have the time and resources to train him, when we know it won’t work.
How do we handle this? Do you have any idea how to tell someone that this is as far as they will go? And yes, it is because of his disability, but we are really, honestly, not discriminating! It’s like me wanting to be trained as an engineer : I might want to, but I just can’t because I simply can’t do the math.
What a tough situation for him, and for your manager.
The kindest thing your manager can do, though, is to be direct. John deserves to have the same information that you both have — the knowledge that, like it or not, his role at the company isn’t going to change. He can then decide whether he’s okay with that, or whether he’d rather look at other options.
You boss should say something like this: “The work you do is great, and I appreciate that you want to do more here. I was glad to try training you for the X role a few months ago, but as you know, the training ended up not getting us where we’d need you to be. I’d love to offer you other roles, but realistically, we’d only be able to offer limited training. I very much want you to continue working with us, but I also want to be honest with you about the fact that we’re not likely to be able to offer you new roles. I understand if that ends up being a deal-breaker, but I hope you’ll stay with us because we really value you here.”
It’s a hard message to deliver, but it’s far better for John to hear it than to be in the dark about his prospects there and/or continue to be frustrated.
That said, it might be worth seeing if there are small changes that your manager can make to his current job. It doesn’t have to be a whole new role — it could be tweaks to what he’s doing now. Can he be responsible for additional element related to his current work (even a small one)? That might provide the type of challenge he’s looking for, as well as increasing his sense of responsibility and satisfaction.
Obviously, you can’t do this if training him on that new element would take a huge amount of resources, but I wonder if there aren’t small things that wouldn’t take the same amount of training as a whole new job.