how can I ask whether I’m doing well enough at my new job?

A reader writes:

Is there an appropriate, non-annoying way to ask whether you are making sufficient progress during training?

At a previous job, I was given strictly positive feedback until about a week before my 90-day training/probation period was scheduled to end, at which point I was told that there were major concerns with my performance. At that point, I had formed a lot of bad habits from not being corrected, but I was told that it was too late for additional hands-on training. The number of errors I made reduced drastically after I was informed of the issues, but needless to say, I didn’t reach total perfection in time to make it off of probation. (Long story short, there were literally hundreds of opportunities to make errors during the day, and all it took to make one was to be distracted for 1-2 seconds. I knew I wasn’t reaching perfection but assumed that it was unrealistic.) When I expressed that I was confused because I had been told that I was doing very well up until that point, I was told that it’s policy to only give positive feedback during training. Apparently negative feedback is not given until it’s necessary because the employee is on the designed-to-fail improvement plan.

Fast-forward a few years—I just started a new job (though in an unrelated industry) with a similarly long and intensive training process and dozens of opportunities for errors of omission during the day. My severe inattentive ADHD is being treated now, and the type of attention to detail that this job requires is much more in line with my skills than the aforementioned one, but needless to say, I’m feeling a bit insecure. I’m getting good feedback but as I’ve learned, that’s no guarantee that I’m actually doing well, and I have no idea if the number of errors that I am making is below, at, or above average for my stage in the training process. Is there a way to ask how I’m doing that will garner a candid, honest answer? I know that I can’t straight-out ask “Am I doing well enough to reasonably expect to not be fired and to make it past my training?” but that is the question I would like an answer to. I have no particular reasons to assume impending doom, though they have extended the planned length of my training by a few days. With my ADHD I don’t always have an accurate sense of what a typical person would consider adequate/good/bad in terms of tiny details. I tend to overcompensate and obsess more than underestimate, but am still feeling a little anxious.

Well, the first thing to understand is that that previous company’s way of doing it (a) sucked and (b) isn’t universal. A decent manager will give you feedback and won’t lead you to believe that things are fine if they’re not. There are managers who function the way that old company did, and it’s wise to be aware that they exist, but you also don’t want to unnecessarily freak yourself out by assuming it’s happening unless you have some particular reason to believe it.

That said, there are certainly tons of bad managers out there, and so it’s also not crazy to want to be sure that you have an accurate understanding of how you’re doing.

While you can’t perfectly protect yourself against the possibility of a terrible manager who doesn’t give direct feedback even when there are serious problems, there are things you can do to increase the likelihood that you’ll hear if there are problems.

The biggest one is to simply ask directly. For instance:
“Is there anything I should focus on doing better?”
“Is this error rate in line with what you’d expect to see from someone at this stage of training?”
“How do you feel things are going overall?”

In addition, make sure that you’re hearing it when you do get less-than-positive feedback. Particularly when you’re new to a job, you might end up thinking that the corrections you’re receiving are a normal part of learning the job when in fact there’s a more serious concern underlining them. So make sure that you’re staying attuned to what kind of feedback you’re receiving and how it’s balancing out (i.e., how much is positive versus corrective). And asking the types of questions that I listed above can help get you some context that can help you figure that out too.

Also, in your case, since they extended the length of your training by a few days, it’s reasonable to ask about that. For instance: “I wasn’t sure if the fact that we’ve added a few days to my training indicates that I’m not picking this up as quickly as you’d hoped. Is there anything you’d like me to be doing differently?”

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. Stephanie

    Aw, OP. Your former workplace sucked. You’ve probably got some Crappy Workplace PTSD. I don’t get the point of a positive-feedback only policy during the probationary period. Seems like you’d want to weed out shortcomings upfront?

    1. some1

      And not at all practical from the employer’s perspective. They wasted a lot of time and money by not giving the LW a chance to improve before it was too late.

      1. Helka

        They sound like the kind of people who can’t wrap their heads around the idea that what is to them glaringly obvious might not be to other people. I’ve encountered those types before and they’re a hell of a headache to deal with.

      2. AVP

        I wonder if that was the point – they knew they wouldn’t want to bother keeping people on if they weren’t perfect from the get-go, and assumed they wouldn’t be able to improve. So they set them up to fail and gave them no chance of saving themselves by the end of the probationary period.

        Stupid and expensive way of doing things but I could see someone trying it.

        1. Kelly L.

          Or they’ve got a whole revolving door of people who are actually fine, but they don’t want to give any of them benefits so they trump up a reason to get rid of them at the last moment. Jeez, just admit you want temps.

      3. OP

        And what I didn’t mention in the letter was that the “additional training” I requested was literally “Could you please show me how to do this thing I am apparently messing up on one more time?” It would have taken no time at all, I just wanted to see an example because I couldn’t remember all the steps. I think by the time they told me anything, their minds were made up and they wanted me out.

    2. AdAgencyChick

      My goodness. It sure is Wednesday, isn’t it?

      OP, what happened at that first workplace was cray. I think Stephanie’s diagnosis of workplace PTSD is spot on.

    3. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

      It’s as if they took a reasonably good notion and went haywire with it.

      We don’t give a lot of negative feedback when people start training because people learn at a different pace and you don’t want to make people freeze up in fear their first week. So yeah, we’re outward positive when we might be inwardly concerned.

      That would be like Week One though. 90 days is nuts.

      1. Stephanie

        Ok, that motivation makes sense. I’d guess telling someone he sucked at his job on Day 2 only works on like Parris Island.

      2. OriginalYup

        Totally agree. Even if your training plan mandates constant Susie Sunshine cheerfulness, you can still communicate errors to people in a positive way. “Wow, you’re doing great! Good for you! Let’s go over the Teapot Glazing process again so we can talk about the common error points. People often make mistake X here and here, and mistake Y here and here. Let’s do a practice run together.”

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

          Absolutely.

          So you don’t tell a person the first couple weeks they are making “too many” mistakes or they aren’t learning fast enough but there’s a point long before 90 days where you have to say it that way, if you’ve given them time to correct at their own pace and it isn’t happening.

    4. On My Phone

      Trying to figure out how that approach was good for the business.
      Option A. Let the employee know right away and bypass possible errors
      Option B. Let them possibly make 100’s of error s a day and say nothing

      1. OP

        In this case, it was a nonprofit school for children with autism. So unfortunately, there wasn’t a monetary case for avoiding errors. It was only the children’s educations that were affected, and they couldn’t exactly file complaints.

        1. AnonyMiss

          OK, that just makes it all the more messed up. “Oh, it’s just autistic kids… it’s not like they’ll realize their education took a nose dive.” What the actual eff?

        2. ME

          WHAT?!?! So in a field where the MOST important thing is to give constant feedback, reinforce good behaviors, and cut off bad behaviors, they choose to train you by giving you no real feed back what so ever? I can only imagine that they’re as crappy at their jobs as they are at management.

          OP, being fired was NOT your fault. I can’t imagine how humiliating and awful that must have been after months of positive feed back. I’m glad you were forced to move on. Not ever boss will be so terrible.

          1. OP

            Exactly! We were doing ABA, so you would think that they would have a handle on giving feedback of all things.

            I actually wasn’t fired. They got me to quit by writing me up for failing to notice that a student patted himself on the leg under the table – my only mistake on my last day there – and I just quit rather than signing it. (The student’s IEP categorized all self-touch as self-injurious behavior because he couldn’t differentiate between hard hits and soft pats, so when I missed a soft pat, my write-up said I had “Endangered student safety by failing to provide a consequence for self-injurious behavior.” I knew I was going to be fired soon anyways and saw no point in having a paper somewhere with my signature acknowledging that I endangered a child.)

  2. Weasel007

    I recently was absorbed into a new group with a new role. I requested a 1×1 with my new manager and have them every two weeks. I started off by saying “I want to do an exemplary job for you. I am open for discussions on where I’m doing well and areas where I can improve. It is very important to me to have regular feedbackso I can continuously improve.” My boss was thrilled. Now, if your boss doesn’t want to be bothered, that isn’t a good thing. Regularly scheduled feedback, and the openness to accept less than stellar comments helps.

  3. NP

    Could the OP be entitled to any reasonable accomodation under the ADA on account of his/her ADHD? I suppose it would depend significantly on what is considered an “essential duty” of the role. Also, I have to admit, if I had ADHD, I’d be wary of taking on any role that supplies the opportunity to make dozens or hundreds of mistakes daily if I stopped paying attention for a couple seconds.

    1. LBK

      I’m not sure what a reasonable accommodation for ADHD would be considered in an office environment, though – usually when accommodations are made for that in a school context (like when you’re taking a test), it’s either in the form of extra time or isolation, ie allowing you to take the test outside of the normal class hours so you aren’t distracted by your classmates being around you. How would that work in an office context?

      1. NP

        I don’t know what would be considered a reasonable accomodation, but I would suspect that what you just listed regarding test taking (being isolated to avoid distractions) could absolutely apply in the vast majority of offices.

        1. hildi

          LBK & NP – There’s a big emphasis in my state to educate employers and managers about hiring persons with disabilities. I just attended a training last week with a lady that works at JAN – The Job Accomodation Network. The service this site provides sounds immense. Check it out. I found a few resources for ADHD and/or learning disabilities. http://askjan.org/media/lear.htm

    2. OP

      You know, in retrospect I should have been more assertive up front about that. That first job was a school for children with autism, so it should be a safe environment to disclose, and I probably would have benefited from, during the training phase, explaining that due to my ADHD I have trouble absorbing and remembering long verbal instructions and requesting written materials to be able to study at home on my own time.

      When it comes to office jobs, though, I have never felt that it would benefit me to disclose. It’s one thing when it’s a matter of written or verbal training, but when it comes to needing accommodations to handle your work duties or the company culture (like needing a private cube and noise-canceling headphones in chatty open-plan offices) I fear many managers would see it as a signal that I can’t thrive in that position/company or think “If she needs accommodations to do her current job, how could she handle one with more responsibility?” Plus my ADHD is not the stereotypical hyperactive, multi-tasking kind, so I fear getting pigeonholed for roles that don’t even suit me. Luckily at my current job, I’m able to work the way that I need to work and my boss allows a lot of flexibility.

      1. Anx

        It should have been a safe area to disclose, but you never do know. I have known students in special education programs (just 2) been kicked out of their programs for academic difficulty with a late-diagnosed LD and one for withdrawing from classes due to hospitalization. You would think a department that exists solely to educate students on educating students with special needs would be more accommodating or offer an appeal, but they did not.

        It’s kind of like when health centric NFPs or hospitals slash their medical benefits.

  4. Ann Furthermore

    Ugh. I hate hearing stories like this. I had a boss do something similar to me once: hoard all the negative feedback until he could ambush me with it in my review. It was awful.

    My manager now is great about this stuff. A couple years ago she brought something to my attention that I thought was not that big a deal, but actually was. And when I heard her point of view and considered what she was saying, I realized she was right. I took care of it, thanked her for making me aware of it. We both moved on, and the matter was considered closed.

    Alison is exactly right. Ask directly, listen carefully to the feedback you get, and then respond accordingly, whether that’s to say thank you or follow up with more questions. If your boss does say that there are things you need to work on, first thank him or her for letting you know. Then ask if there’s additional training material you could review, or if there’s someone else in the department that’s particularly good with X that could give you some pointers, and so on. This kind of thing demonstrates that you really want to be successful in your new role, which will go a long way towards building goodwill with your boss, even if you are off to a slow start. (Not that you are, of course. :) )

  5. BRR

    I could have written this myself. I would add to figure out how your new manager operates. When I got my current job my manager is much better at constructive feedback. That but my mind at ease a little. To this day I still don’t take positive feedback well though. I want to know what to fix. I’ve been told great work and fired so I just want to not be fired again. Also if you get anything to improve upon, follow up. “Is my chocolate teapot making more in line with department standards?”

  6. LizNYC

    As someone who has suffered from Bad Workplace PTSD, it’s totally normal for you to be overcompensating and to be terrified it’s going to happen again. Alison’s advice is spot on. If you aren’t having regular meetings with your direct supervisor about your role, performance, etc., start! When I started my current job, we had them weekly (for the first month), then twice a month to be sure I wasn’t running into any issues I couldn’t resolve, that I wasn’t doing anything epically wrong (especially since every procedure was new to me), and to coordinate schedules and plan ahead. It also helped to build camaraderie and gave me a sense of the kind of manager/person she was. I knew I could tell her things confidentially and she knew that when I complained about something, it was a problem, not just something small and annoying.

  7. Felicia

    I was fired from my first workplace that was just like your former one. 3 days before my 90 day review, without having been given feedback. I was struggling because the job i was doing was not what was advertized and i didn’t have an advanced enough skillset for it. But i figured if it was that serious, they’d warn me.

    1. AVP

      I had a similar thing, where my job radically changed a month in and I just didn’t understand any of the systems that would allow me to do the new one properly. Instead of initially letting me go and hiring someone who wanted the new job, they thought it would be easier that way. So I had a feeling it was coming but was still really surprised when it actually happened, since I had made much bigger errors than the one I eventually got fired for. Looking back it was obviously the pattern and the inability to adjust.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Yeah, I am wondering how many new employees these employers get to keep. What a waste of time and money. And it seems to be a good way to permanently cure people of ever wanting anything to do with the company again.

      1. AnonyMiss

        Actually, probably not a waste of money, and that’s the scary part. I think the FLSA (maybe the NLRA) allows for a far lower minimum wage for employees under 21 during their first 90 days. Many employers also don’t let your health coverage and benefits kick in during your probation. Churning and burning can actually save money… and if the managers already don’t manage, it doesn’t matter if they’re out interviewing more use-and-throw… I mean, prospective employees.

              1. AnonyMiss

                Yup… neither did I. Probably not many employers even know this, or would use it for fear of lawsuits, but there’s federal law on that matter – which supersedes state laws.

                But with all the horror stories on here (and Evil HR Lady, etc.) I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised that somewhere, the Saul Goodman of all corporate in-house counsels has figured it out, and a greedy and unscrupulous CEO just jumped at the idea. *shudder*

  8. AnonEMoose

    I’ve seen things like this happen where the company doesn’t want to have to pay benefits and so on. So they hire people and get rid of them right before the probationary period ends. I don’t know that this is what happened to the OP, but it’s a possibility.

    1. Kelly L.

      My first thought too. You’d think it would get pretty inefficient after a while, but there are always idiots out there to try something like that.

    2. Meg Murry

      Yes, I’ve seen this in places where someone is doing an adequate to mediocre job and there are far more job seekers than open positions. They arent necessarily bad enough to fire, but a very small percentage actual get hired at the end of the 90 days (or 3 or 6 months) – the term heard around here is to call the person an “89 day wonder”.

      I also wanted to suggest to the OP 2 things: First, ask your trainer ” now that training is almost complete, is there anything specific you think I should focus on getting better or faster at for this last week or two?” Try to see if you can get some tailored training just for your strengths and weaknesses.
      Second, be very wary of the compliment sandwich. You may hear “You are doing fine. Try to go a little faster, but you’re getting really good at writing TPS reports.” For (most) normal people, this would be positive feedback, but for some people that just aren’t good at being direct, the message might actually be “you’re too slow”. So don’t assume 2 positives plus one negative = overall positive – ask for clarification, in the “try to go a little faster” example you could ask “How many entries do you think I need to do per day?” Its harder if your main concern is error rate, since no one is really going to say “oh a 5% error rate is OK” – everyone is looking for 0% error rate, even though that never really happens. I would instead focus on what you need to do to make the error rate as low as possible (one last proofread, read numbers back right to left instead of left to right, mutter the numbers silent to yourself as you input) without dropping below an acceptable entry rate, especially depending on how long it takes to fix an error vs slowing down to avoid them.
      The vagueness in feedback I mentioned above is another reason the compliment sandwich stinks, as Alison has pointed out before.

      1. Judy

        One thing that’s helped my son with mild ADHD was to work on his coping methods. Do some research on ways to cope with the specific tasks. Once you’re established at the company, see if they have an EAP that would allow you to go to a therapist to work through some coping methods for specific tasks you may struggle with.

    3. OP

      As far as I know, most of the employees did make it through the probation eventually, but of course they said that it was 90 days and would then be “busy” and conduct it after 4 or 5 months even for the “good” employees.

  9. Alexis

    OP I really sympathize with you, having gone through the same thing three years ago. It was during my final student teaching placement. Up until then I’d gotten stellar reviews in all my previous 4 placements (each being 1-3 months). I got lots or praise at my final one, then my advisor called me in to discuss some concerns. I was shocked and come to find out my CT lied about to me and about me. Even though I got an almost perfect review in my evaluation this year (Autism teacher for 2.5 years) I still worry the same thing will happen.

  10. OP

    I actually wrote in with this question a few months ago, so I didn’t get to implement any of Alison’s suggestions, but I have a happy update for it.

    A couple of weeks after I wrote in, I was cleared to start independent work. (In my job, once you are working independently, your work isn’t reviewed by a manager and mistakes may not be noticed before delivery to the client, hence the long training period.) This job is also functioning as my internship for school, and my internship coordinator shared the feedback review that my boss filled out with me, which was very positive. This job also works well with my ADHD needs as I have a very quiet, private cubicle and a lot of flexibility. As for my training being extended, it turns out that they had intensified the training program recently and just didn’t have a great estimate for how much time it would take. The others hired in the same role shortly after me took a bit longer than I did to start working independently. I had feared that they were making up new practice exercises for me because I wasn’t catching on quickly enough, but they just have a lot of practice exercises that everyone has to do during training.

    The point about making sure to absorb negative feedback when it is given is well-taken — there was a minor issue where one of the people training me would say “This is super picky, but I would…” and eventually snapped a bit in frustration because I wasn’t catching on that those things were to be considered a basic necessity in every project rather than things you should do if you have the time to implement them. After that, of course, I got it.

    I think that everyone is right about me having Bad Workplace PTSD – that was my first job out of college so it kind of framed what I expected from employers forever! (I also watched my boss at a different job fire a poor 19-year-old receptionist for bringing her in Hello Kitty mouse pad and office supplies instead of saying something to her about it, and worked at a staffing agency with clients who fired people for “cultural fit” all the time without telling them it was going to happen. I guess I’ve had bad luck until now.)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      That’s good news, OP!

      Also, my apologies again for taking several months to answer this! (Usually if a letter is that old, I move to something newer, but I figured that this topic would still be useful to lots of other people even if too late to be useful to you.)

      1. OP

        No problem, thank you for answering! I am sure that this advice will come in handy at another job someday and that it will benefit others. (Especially millennials who are always being told by other business writers that we “need too much feedback” – one of the reasons I feared asking for it.)

    2. Shortie

      OP, I sooooo agree with you that Alison’s point about making sure to absorb negative feedback is important. This comes naturally to me, so I implement suggestions possibly to a fault sometimes, but I have seen colleagues crash and burn more times than I care to count because they interpret differently managers’ or trainers’ statements like, “If I were you, I would . . .”; “Have you thought about . . .”; “Other people in this job have found it helpful to . . .”; “Customers prefer when you . . .”; and the list goes on. That is feedback, even if it is not as direct as we would all prefer, and it is important to hear and absorb it. Good points, Alison and OP!

  11. Likestopaintthings

    I am on a probationary period as we speak…..I was under the impression I was doing well,however another co worker raised a red flag about my performance and now I am very nervous……I just sent in my benefits package to HR and all that is great…But as confident as I was this co worker has very much intimidated me…. I do feel I am progressing and will be successful getting through this time period but I also am keeping an eye out for errors…. This is depressing me somewhat…i am a single older woman and need my job….I just want to have this over with!!!!

Comments are closed.