should I fire the office assistant?

A reader writes:

We have a Receptionist/HR Asst/Office Asst for our front desk. She does new hire packages, runs errands etc.

Pros: very efficient, proactive, creative, works well under pressure
Cons: horrible time management, ignores feedback
Facts of life: she’s currently heavily pregnant, she has a very long commute and she’s pretty young ( It’s her first full-time position)
Issue: her time discipline has been an issue, even before her pregnancy announcement – for an hourly worker, she comes in late, has absenteeism issues, each errand run turns into a 2 hr trip – after every time we discuss it with her and give feedback, she does well for a few weeks and then its the same thing again.

The company had been toying with letting her go for a while now and while we are very happy with her work quality, she is expected to work 40 hrs a week. Between personal, health and weather issues, she has worked 1 day out of the last 7 working days. She’s made plans to work right up to her delivery and plans to be back at work within 3 weeks of having the baby but given her absenteeism issues, we don’t know if we can rely on that.

I personally will be affected if she’s let go and knowing how hard it is to get efficient folks, I have been trying to see what options we could work out. Can I actually sit down with her and suggest that she consider taking time off for a while and come back once she’s more settled? Or am I trying too hard? Should we just let her go and find someone else?

Yes, you are trying too hard. There are tons of good people out of work who would do a good job in this role and actually show up on a regular basis. You’re letting her get away with bad behavior because you fear the hassle of finding a replacement, and you worry about what the replacement would be like, but this is one of those situations where once you do it, you’ll be kicking yourself for having waited so long.

That said, I’m going to assume that she really does need to be in the office 40 hours a week every week (which is probably the case if she’s the receptionist). But in these situations, it’s always worth checking your premises to be sure, especially when you’re happy with someone’s work quality.

Anyway… Look, either she’s required to be there reliably or she’s not. You’ve talked to her about it repeatedly, she improves for a while, then she backslides, and you talk to her again and the cycle continues. Why? Because there are no consequences, which signals to her that it’s not really as mandatory as you say it is. You’re trying to persuade her and cajole her into meeting the requirements of the job, rather than treating them like, you know, requirements.

Use your authority. These situations are what it’s there for.

This means that you sit her down and say: “Look, your job requires that you be here for 40 hours a week every week unless it’s cleared in advance. It also requires you to be here on time every day. And we expect you to take 30 minutes for the type of errands you run, not two hours. These are requirements of the job, and they’re not flexible. If you continue not to meet these requirements, we will need to let you go. This is the final warning you’ll get.”

I’m also a big fan of asking people, “Can you commit to meeting those requirements? Because if you don’t want to or don’t think it’s the right fit for you, let’s be realistic about this up-front and plan a transition that will work for both of us.” Sometimes people are straight with you when you take this approach and will tell you it’s not for them. And when they don’t, well, it’s not going to be much of a surprise to them when they end up getting fired for doing what you told them would get them fired.

However, the whole situation is complicated by the fact that she’s pregnant. If you’ve let her get away with this behavior all along without addressing it in a serious way and then you fire her right before her due date, you risk it looking like you fired her because of the pregnancy, which is illegal. That wouldn’t actually be a correct perception, but because you didn’t address this head-on earlier, you’re now in a situation where your motives could be suspect. And that sucks. And it’s one of the reasons why it’s always important to address any performance issue swiftly and directly, so that you don’t find yourself in the situation you’re now stuck in.

This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it until after her maternity leave — you’re allowed to fire people in protected legal classes as long as you have legitimate reasons to do so (i.e., ones that aren’t based on their protected legal class but instead are about performance or whatever), but it does mean that you need to care more about documentation and doing it all correctly. So keep that in mind.

As for your actual question, about whether you should suggest that she take time off and come back when she’s more settled: First, is that even realistic? Presumably you’ll need to replace her in the meantime and can’t hold the job open indefinitely. But more to the point, sure, if you have a rapport with her, feel free to point out that she’s not acting like someone who wants to have a job that requires reliability, and she should think about whether that’s right for her right now or not. But ultimately, as a manager, your responsibility is to take the steps I described above, regardless of whether or not you also have a heart-to-heart with her.

And keep in mind that you have an obligation not only to your company to take these steps, but also to other employees, who are probably growing increasingly frustrated that the company isn’t doing anything about the flaky, unreliable assistant.

By the way, you have a lot of company in this boat. The reality is that most managers don’t remove problem employees quickly enough — because we’re human, because we like to give people additional chances, and because we don’t like telling people that they’re failing. I’ve been guilty of this myself; every good manager has been. But it’s time to act.

A good litmus test for any manager out there struggling with a similar situation: Would you feel relieved if the person told you they were resigning? If so, that’s a sign that you have a performance problem that you need to address in a serious way, right now.

Good luck.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Seems to me you hired someone without experience and expect her to know the rules.

    Assuming you're serious about firing (and heavily pregnant is advanced in term, not using FMLA or providing dr notes), she might use pregnancy against you if her problems weren't properly addressed/documented beforehand.

    If you've had (& documented) the performance, punctuality, excessive absence work conversations and this one will be the last concerning problem areas, cya then let her go.

    BUT if you haven't done those things you may have a problem. In any event I wouldn't address: young, first job, commute, pregnancy or weather related absences unless your weather is uneventful ie roads open, not in states of emergency or extreme ice & snow like many of us saw last week.

    All that said, I refuse to try harder than the employee to make it work. Do what you need to do, but always cya. HTH

  2. Anonymous*

    If you were proactive and had been documenting her deficiencies, then fire her. Of course, you are asking this question to a blog so we could probably assume that wasn�t the case. I would hire someone to replace her when she goes on maternity and then cross your fingers and hope she doesn�t come back.

  3. Anonymous*

    This frustrates me a bit. I'm reading this as someone who is employed very part-time – not enough to make ends meet.

    First, the OP and her business should have nipped this in the bud right in the beginning. I understand giving the person a warning about the habitual tardiness and long-winded errands. It clears up but the storm returns. That person should have been asked to leave because there are people out there right now who will take a job and do it right in order to stay. Unfortunately, this woman realizes that she can get away with her antics without consequence; and perhaps she even knows about the legality of her pregnancy in the work environment. She may be young but maybe not naive. How long has this been going on? You could have made someone else very happy in this economy; you could have made the business happy by having an efficient, reliable person. How good is the quality of work when the person isn't even there half the time?

    Second, someone who doesn't take a job as serious just by not being on time shouldn't be in the workforce, and that's just as annoying. Yes, we all need money to get by, but don't take a job you're not going to give two thoughts about. Let someone who will. I know a few people who constantly complain about their jobs, and I feel like telling them every time to quit so someone who will appreciate it can take the job. But I guess as long as they keep getting the paycheck without consequence, they'll keep complaining and walking over the company.

    OP, you stalled and now are walking a tightrope. I agree with Anonymous at 3:16 that you should hire the best person out there and hope she never comes back. She might return, but maybe she'll return too late!

  4. Cavalier*

    Could she use the baby as a good time to leave the company on her own terms? As a parent her attendance is likely to get worse. Explain the issues, show how she is likely to be replaced, and offer her the chance to put 'parenting duties' on her resume rather than 'fired.' She may think she's being forced out due to pregnancy or she might acknowledge her issues see it as a chance to take charge.

  5. Anonymous*

    This is definitely sending a bad message to the rest of the staff. Why should anyone else bother showing up on time and doing a full week's work if she doesn't have to?

    I don't think the problem is youth. If you are old enough to have a job you are old enough to know that you need to show up on time for every shift.

    As for her returning to work early, I would suggest that a good deal of her decision might have to do with money. Going out pay for the full 12 weeks allowed in FMLA is usually not possible for low-income earners like office assistants. I would approach the issue of taking more time off delicately.

  6. Anonymous*

    Interesting though that the list of pros for this employee is longer than the list of cons.

    Kids just out of school (depending on how strict their school was) don't always understand the importance of turning up on time in the same way that an experienced adult would. I know I was always late in my first job.

    She needs a written warning (not just a discussion) about her timekeeping. If that doesn't sort it then follow everyone elses advice.

    But if she's as clever as your list of pros suggests then that warning may make all the difference.

  7. Anonymous*

    I hope that some of the responses here will not generalize the younger, just-out-of-school generation as those who don't understand the importance of the clock. I think the OP stating the youngness of the employee is a non-issue; if someone is going to be late when they are 25, they are probably not going to change unless they get a major wake-up call. It might be an immaturity issue, but the OP might be trying to over emphasize the age.

  8. nuqotw*

    Cavalier – if she doesn't bite, you can't fire her after that b/c if you do, then she will sue you, and present the "offer" as evidence that she was forced out due to her pregnancy.

  9. Anonymous*

    Pregnant chick gets a job, does whatever she wants, you can't fire her 'cause she's pregnant — oldest trick in the book…

  10. Ask a Manager*

    No, no, no! You absolutely CAN fire someone who's pregnant. You simply need to make sure that the reasons are clearly performance-related and that no one could feasibly claim that you were firing her because of the pregnancy itself.

  11. Anonymous*

    I think it's premature to answer the question without knowing the fmla status. It's sounds like at least some of the current absences could likely be intermittent fmla. If she doesn't have approved fmla one could argue that she's already requested it because you knew of her pregnancy and her need for time off due to health.

  12. Alyssa*

    I think your decision depends on what kind of working contract she is on. You mentioned she gets an hourly rate, does this mean there is no fixed contract and that you can fire her or she can resign with no notice? If so, just fire her, you don't need to give her a reason. Don't mention her pregnancy though to be safe.

    If there is a contract, sit her down ASAP and discuss your expectations with her. Tell her you are giving her a formal warning and document everything. Whatever you do, don't mention ANYTHING about the pregnancy then there cannot be any confusion. Like Allison says, ask the employee whether she thinks she will be able to work the fourty hours or not. If she says no, fire her.

    If she says yes then at least you are giving her a chance to improve her performance. If she comes late again, fire her.

    At the end of the day, you are enabling her poor performance to negatively affect every other employee who has to pick up the slack and ultimately the company itself which may lose business as a result of this. Your job is to take care of the business and your other employees. In this economy you could probably get someone with 20 years experience and a great work ethic in this position for the same wage.

    Anyone else agree?

  13. Anonymous*

    Since the assistant is getting paid hourly, there are definite consequences for being late, being absent – she should be getting less wages. From that standpoint at least, she's not 'getting away' with anything.

    Also, I really like Ask a Manager's litmus test. Great suggestion.

  14. Unemployed Gal*

    �In this economy you could probably get someone with 20 years experience and a great work ethic in this position for the same wage.�

    So true! Hey OP, is your company in West Michigan? I�ll send you my resume. I could do her job 100 times better, and I don�t plan on getting knocked up any time soon.

    Even if I were pregnant, I wouldn�t use it as an excuse to avoid work. She�s not a construction worker. She�s an admin, which means she sits on her butt all day answering phones and typing. That sounds ideal for a pregnant woman. If her pregnancy complications prevent that, she should have requested medical leave or special accommodations in accordance with her doctor�s orders. I doubt that her doctor gave her a note that says, �Call in sick whenever you feel like it.�

    Since she behaved this way before the pregnancy, it�s hard to believe her now, even if she genuinely needs the accommodations. All the more reason to only retain reliable employees.

  15. Anonymous*

    The final warning is great advice, especially since this woman's work quality is satisfactory. Great Work Great Career by Stephen Covey is a book that has copious amounts of information for an employee who needs to gain perspective and turn her job into a career that she can enjoy.

  16. Cassie*

    If the office assistant is an hourly employee, she should be paid for only the time she's there working, no? So if she comes in half an hour late, then she would only get paid 1/2 of the first hour… I would think that would be a wake-up call if she somehow hadn't noticed her tardiness…

  17. Office Administration*

    If a contract, then discuss your expectations with her ASAP.Giving her a formal warning and document everything. Whatever you do, don't mention ANYTHING about the pregnancy then there cannot be any problem.

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