A reader writes:
I was hired at a company in January to build a department that provides support internally to other departments. This role is new and meant to provide support so that other departments can focus on higher level work. I was expected to expand to three direct reports by December, but right now I only have one direct report, Mary.
Mary was the company receptionist for two years, and I barely interacted with her before I interviewed her. There was a lot of pressure to hire her, since the company culture focuses on upward movement for employees. Her interview went well, and I spoke to her manager and he told me that Mary is smart, gets all of her work done promptly, and is eager to try new things, but has issues coming into work on time. Since that’s not a factor in my department, which has more flexibility than the front desk, I hired her. She was a great employee for all of the reasons that her previous manager mentioned, but then the scandal happened.
Mary has three kids under the age of six, which is why coming in on time is difficult. I have no problem with her coming in later than 8 a.m., but when she was a receptionist, she was often late and went on a PIP at one point (which was not disclosed to me before hiring her). To counteract that, she secretly brought her kids into work with her for over a year and forced the CFO’s executive assistant to watch them in a back room when her daily 8 a.m. check in with HR happened (which was part of her PIP), and then the EA had to cover the front desk while Mary drove her kids to preschool. I say “forced” because the EA complained and the CFO (who is Mary’s aunt) threatened to fire the EA for cause with no reference if she told anyone!
Two weeks after I hired Mary, the EA put in her notice and lodged a complaint with HR and told everyone what had happened. Mary’s reputation has suffered and no one trusts her, which makes it really difficult for her to support any other departments. People started counting the hours that she’s here and pointing out that she works less than 40 hours a week. I have spoken to a few people and pointedly told them that it isn’t their role to manage her or her time and they need to stop, immediately. This has helped a bit, but I can tell that there’s an undercurrent and people are subtly refusing to work with her (refuse to open support tickets, try to go to me instead of her, and when they are forced to open tickets they make snide remarks to her, which I’ve witnessed in person and spoken to them and their managers about).
I had a Serious Talk with my manager, who said that it’s not our place to fire Mary since this all happened before she became my employee (although he supports me if I choose to let her go, he said that’s not an action he would take). Instead he wants me to coach her in getting her reputation back. He said if she stays, she has to keep to very strict hours unlike others in a similar role. She would have to arrive by 8:30, take no more than one hour for lunch, and fill out a timesheet to prove that she’s meeting 40 hours a week.
I spoke to her and laid out those terms, saying that this is a requirement of the role and that this debacle has caused a serious lack of trust not only between Mary and others in the organization, but between Mary and me as well, since her previous conduct was unethical. I made it clear that this job is on the line and I laid out the exact expectations I have for her – ticket response times, general conduct, and the timesheet. I can see Mary chaffing under the timesheet and hours restrictions that she didn’t have for the past two months, and there’s tension between us. The quality of her work is the same, but the amount has gone down drastically since people stopped putting in tickets unless they have to, and my boss has told me that at the current level of tickets, a department of three reports wouldn’t make sense.
This was a job I really wanted to love, but instead I feel resentful that Mary’s actions seem to be negatively impacting my future job growth at this company. I’ve spoken with some department heads about ticket requests reducing so drastically and 75% said they’d talk to their teams about it, but the rest basically told me that they won’t force their teams to work with Mary. The CFO is being evaluated by the board, and I doubt she’ll be here much longer.
I feel myself second guessing my decision. Should I let Mary go?
I’m pretty shocked that Mary wasn’t fired as soon as it came out that she’d been secretly bringing her kids to work and forcing someone else’s assistant to watch them — all while she was already on a PIP, no less. (And I’m also shocked that the CFO wasn’t fired for threatening the assistant in order to maintain the cover-up.) This is egregious stuff — firing on the spot stuff.
Your boss is being weird in his stance that you shouldn’t fire her because this all happened before she worked for you. No one knew about it before she was working with you — it didn’t come out until she was in your department. And sure, it was a violation that took place in her old role, not her new one, but it was a massive violation against the company, and it’s perfectly reasonable for the company to let her go over it. Under your boss’s logic, if Mary had embezzled in her old role but no one found out about it until she was in the new one, you’d have to overlook it. That makes no sense.
I’m not sure how long it’s been since this came out, but it sounds like it can’t have been more than a couple of months. I think it would be perfectly reasonable to do one of two things:
1. Fire Mary. What she did was totally unacceptable, abusive of her position (and of another employee), raises huge concerns about her trustworthiness, integrity, and judgment, and has cost her the trust of people who need to work with her, in a way that’s having a clear and direct impact on your department. I’d frame it this way: “It’s essential in this role to have strong, trusting relationships with coworkers, because otherwise they won’t come to us for the support we’re here to provide. Unfortunately, your past actions with Lucinda (the EA she forced to watch her kids) have broken the trust you had with coworkers — and frankly, with me and others — and I haven’t seen signs of those relationships repairing.”
Someone could argue that if you were going to go this route, you should have done it when the story first came out. But you were brand new to the job and still getting the lay of the land, and now you’ve had some time to see exactly what the impact has been on her job and your department. Also, in the time since, Mary has demonstrated that she’s not exactly bending over backwards to try to repair things — she’s not even working a full slate of hours, to the point that you’re imposing rules that shouldn’t be needed to ensure that she meets the responsibilities of her job. And she’s chafing under those rules, rather than understanding why you’ve imposed them. This isn’t someone who it makes sense keep around.
2. Alternately, you could lay the problem out for Mary and let her decide how to handle it. That would mean saying something like this: “Part of what I need in your role is someone who can build trust with other staff members so that they open support tickets directly with you rather than coming to me instead. I also need someone who will meet our expectations regarding hours worked per week without strict monitoring. To be honest, I’m not sure if the role is the right fit, given the problems we’ve had in both areas. If you think that you can turn it around in both areas, I’m willing to give you some time to demonstrate that — but I’d need to see significant changes in both areas a month from now, or I’d need to let you go.”
However, if you’re convinced that there’s no way Mary could turn this around in the next month (and I’m pretty skeptical that she could, given her coworker’s understandable lack of trust in her), it would probably be kinder to go with #1 rather than watching her try something you know will fail.