can I tell an employee her inconsistency is holding her back?

A reader writes:

I have a direct report who is a high performer but with some poor consistency. She has been in the department longer than I have, and though she was somewhat disgruntled when I was promoted and she wasn’t, we have since become better at working with one another, and she is a top performer for me – when she is on.

The problem is she is very inconsistent. I allow her a degree of flexibility in her working hours – she can arrive late and leave late, and I trust her to get her work done. But she consistently works excessively hard on customers and projects which have little benefit – and then complains that she is overworked. I try to teach her prioritization but she consistently returns to her habits, regardless of my explanations.

Furthermore, she often has self-inflicted illnesses. She will drink non-potable water and develop a stomach bug, or exercise to the point of exhaustion, and take days off. Having known her for some time, I don’t believe she abusing my trust and taking days off, but it is causing other problems.

I have had multiple conversations with her in regards to her salary and potential future. I believe she is a very capable person with good skills and attitude, but I cannot consciously promote her to a supervisor role if she cannot set an example for others in their consistency.

I also don’t have the option of increasing her pay or non-supervisor responsibilities. Before I managed this team, she was given continuous pay increases to the point where her salary is just below mine. And she has been promoted in name already, and does have some minor increases in responsibility.

Can I tell her that her consistency is holding back her career?

Not only can you, but you must. It’s your job now to give her feedback, and this is crucial feedback for her to hear. Having this discussion with her is part of your job as a manager.

And frankly, I’d look at this not just in terms of how it will impact her future raises and promotions, but also how it should be impacting your assessment of her performance now. Are you really content to allow her to be this inconsistent in her current role and to misplace energy on projects with little benefit? And if you are, should you be?

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Katy O*

    If she misses work & complains about being overworked I don’t understand how you would ever consider her attitude good. Sounds like the previous manager wasn’t a good enough leader to adequately deal with the situation. Honestly, this woman would probably have been fired from many places. Good luck!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah — I’m thinking someone before this manager didn’t deal with the situation (all those raises, in this context!?!) and now it’s been left in the OP’s lap to handle.

      1. The OP.*

        That’s about right.

        A challenge also is that I was given a challening team (for reasons AAM mentioned above) and was told to “fix it”.

        I feel I’ve done a good job so far, but this person I could have been more direct with earlier on.

        Which makes this harder to deal with now, which leads me to asking a manager :)

  2. clobbered*

    I would be very confused is somebody sat me down to complain to me about my consistency and then launched into complaints about working too hard on some projects and being sick too many days.

    That is not what inconsistency means. Inconsistency means excelling at a task sometimes but messing it up other times.

    Working too hard and complaining about overwork is another thing entirely, as is absenteeism, if those indeed are the problems.

    1. Clobbered*

      Yeah, it’s just that the examples the OP provides don’t go to that. It is hard enough to give negative feedback to somebody who believes (and in this case has been previously given reasons to believe) they are a great employee without being muddled about what you are complaining about.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Agreed. I’m hoping that this: “I try to teach her prioritization but she consistently returns to her habits, regardless of my explanations.”
      … has to some degree set for the stage for the big-picture conversation that should now happen (where it should no longer be just about teaching or explaining but about making it clear that this is A Problem, not just a little thing of no consequence).

    3. LP*

      I took it as the employee is doing a great job on the tasks with little or no benefit, which she works excessively hard on, and then not doing such a great job on the more important tasks, saying she is unable to as she is overworked. This would be inconsistent – doing a great job in some cases, and a not so great job in others. Working too hard and complaining about being overworked does come into it, as this is the reason for her inconsistency. I would also argue that absenteeism could be part of this also – the days of could lead to some work being rushed and not coming up to scratch as a result

      1. Katie*

        It seems like the issue then, though, would be on prioritization, not consistency. If she consistently performs well on unimportant tasks and consistently performs poorly on important tasks, then the issue is still not inconsistency. It’s misdirecting her energies. Maybe there’s a reason why she’s avoiding the important tasks or spending more time on less important ones. It’s always worth investigating the why’s. You might find out something you didn’t know, and you’ll certainly be better able to help her correct the problem.

        I just want to add…when otherwise capable people keep making mistakes, especially the same ones over and over, it’s usually not an accident. It may be that she’s getting pressure from the wrong places and is ending up overworking herself in the wrong areas because that’s where she feels she’s being pulled. It may be that she’s got other things going on in her life (a slew of self-inflicted health problems sounds like she’s got other issues). It may also be morale, since you mentioned she was passed over for promotion.

        I feel like something else is going on here, and that if you’re really invested in seeing her do well, you’re only going to be able to help her if you figure out why she’s doing what she’s doing.

        1. Liz*

          Yeah, the first thing I thought when reading the description of her work habits, and tendency to “exercise until exhaustion” is “This woman is avoiding something and has no coping skills.”

          Also, no one else seems to have been curious, but how did she even find “non-potable water” capable of inflicting illness? Is this in the U.S.?

  3. jersey mama*

    first of all, where can you even find non-potable water? is she drinking directly from a creek behind her house or something?

    i suppose i should say something helpful. all i can say is this: you definitely need to have a discussion with her one way or the other because whatever you want to call it (inconsistency, absenteeism, inability to prioritize, etc.) there are performance issues, and that is definitely your business to address. good luck!

    1. Rachel*

      This was totally my question too. Where on earth is she getting this? Maybe the OP works abroad somewhere…?

    2. jersey knit*

      Hi jersey mama! I want to add to the OP that it’s important to separate out your genuine gripes from the personal qualities that get on your nerves. Any impression you give of personal dislike will give her more leverage to dismiss your opinion.

      As with the peeing, I would keep the sickness (and bong water) out of it, since that seems secondary. Most people can still complete their higher priority work even when they get sick. Focusing on the sick days, or worse, passive-aggressively blaming her for her own illness (regardless of whether it’s true, it will not be received well) allows her to lump all of your criticisms in with the more personal, less-of-your-business ones. You should act in a way that gives her the benefit of the doubt (even if you don’t think she deserves it) to sow a trusting relationship where she has more respect for you.

      Make a list for your own purposes (keep one going as things happen — document document document! I probably wouldn’t show it to her though) of concrete examples when she’s dropped the ball or when her unsatisfactory performance has affected a project or the company overall. Usually when I have a criticism I want to express, I bring at least three real-life examples for each one, partly so I can figure out which ones are most valid and which are just my perception. (Also, if you tell her she’s doing a “good job” bring concrete examples of that, so she doesn’t think you’re patronizing her and knows you understand her work and her strengths.) Testing your own arguments allows you to focus on only the ones that are important, convincing, and impartial.

      Think about what her objections might be, and plan in advance how you’ll address them or how you’ll redirect the conversation back to the important facts. If you do your homework, I think she’ll respect you a lot more than if you shoot from the hip based on vaguely expressed impressions with few real-world examples to back them all up. There’s a chance she hasn’t connected the dots before, and illuminating her with specifics could be very helpful if no one has had the initiative to approach her this directly about her inconsistencies before.

      I think also, if part of a problem is prioritizing, you have to work with her specifically to keep track of individual projects (perhaps in outlook) so both of you have a common understanding of how to advance on the smaller pieces of the bigger picture, looking at her progress on accomplishing tasks from the bigger or smaller priorities from week to week. (Use your judgment to determine how far in the weeds to go — you don’t want to micromanage, but you also want to be able to guide her if she expresses she genuinely needs help prioritizing.) The time and stress it takes is part of the reason managers get paid more — it’s an extra responsibility they have that other employees don’t.

      My other piece of advice is to level with her productively about any resentments you might still harbor toward each other. That might mean asking her really hard, painful questions that you might not want to hear her answers to — but it’s your job to approach her with them, not hers to volunteer that information. That might mean broaching awkward topics, but you both will feel much better afterward.

      The best way to get her to respect you as a boss is to communicate openly, including the negative things. If you’re both tactitly acknowledging what’s going on without actually talking about it, the gulf is just going to grow.

      Some of this might be projection based on my own experiences, so if you’ve done these things already, that’s awesome. But I think managing a situation with your dynamic is difficult, and it’s not intuitive to figure out the best way to handle an old employee’s adjustment to a new supervisor. Good luck!! I hope it all works out harmoniously.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I would add that it’s important to look at absenteeism as exactly what it is — absenteeism. It doesn’t matter what the reasons are, whether they seem legitimate or less legitimate. Ultimately, what you need is for the employee to be at work reliably. She could have the most sympathetic reasons in the world, but ultimately the question is whether she’s there reliably or not.

        I’ve worked with many managers who are frustrated by how often an employee is out, but they feel they can’t do anything about it because the reasons are “legitimate.” What you need to respond to is the overall picture, and not get hung up on whether the reasons are legit or not. If the person isn’t there enough, it doesn’t matter what the reasons are.

        1. jersey knit*

          If you’ll be penalized for taking it, why don’t those companies solve their problem by giving employees less vacation/sick time? It seems passive aggressive to say “I know we officially give you this time, but if you take it, we’re going to hold it against you.”

          I say this as someone who rarely uses (my very generously given and very much appreciated) sick/bereavement days because fortunately I rarely need to. I know it’s about building a record of reliability, but when it’s based on rules that aren’t written, the line between using the time you’re given and chronic absenteeism seems uncomfortably subjective.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I agree it’s subjective, which is why I prefer putting it all in one paid time off pot, rather than separating out sick and vacation time. But the way I look at the reliability issue is: If you’re not able to come in, without preplanned notice, with some degree of regularity, there’s a reliability problem. Sick or have another emergency a couple of times a year without notice? No problem. Every six weeks? Problem.

  4. TT*

    I had to look up “non-potable water”, why would anyone intentionally drink this? And where would you be able to obtain it in this day and age? The toilet?

    Some difficulty at taking this story at face-value here, intentionally continuously drink unsanitary water? No logical/competent human being would do this…

    Without further due evidence, I’m actually a bit concerned in regards to management. I think this is either a bit of over-reaction to short-term recent events or we’re not getting the entire story. In any case, to complain that a logical employee would continually give herself diarhea is in itself illogical, if she cannot be trusted to drink sanitary water, how can she be trusted with vital work responsibilities?

    1. TT*

      In other words, I would be a bit concerned if my management is using the excuse that I’m intentionally and/or incompetently giving myself food-poisoning to justify not promoting me.

      1. The OP.*

        That is more of my challenge. I want to explain that the illnesses, as well as the other inconsistency, are affecting her career, but allow her to understand how, and how to correct the behaviors. And I’d like to do so in a way which she can understand as fair.

        Maybe I am not getting to the root of the problem, but I am not sure that is something is in my domain.

        In the meantime, she is getting all her work done on time and correctly, and providing help on more advanced topics. But I need her to be better than “adequate” to promote her.

        1. jersey knit*

          I think that’s a good point. It’s a good idea to be prepared to describe to her what transcending adequacy would look like vis a vis her current performance, ideally using real-life examples of how she could take her work to the next level. Even if it’s about her absences abstractly, connect it to real situations, eg, some important decision that had to be made that she wouldn’t have been able to because she was out so much.

    2. The OP.*


      OP here.

      The water issue was from a camping trip, where she indeed drank water from a creek, using an inadequate filter. It was not a continuous event, but it is in keeping with her habit of getting ill by eating junk food frequently, or excessive exercise.

      She is capable in her duties, but she isn’t always entirely logical.

      Does this make more sense?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I feel like people get one “sick because of my own actions” incident without any negative consequences. After more than one, they become Officially Unreliable.

      2. TT*

        I’m fine with a statement like that, maybe simply explain her professional wounds are in part self-inflicted. I would phrase it as using more common sense and risk-prevention measures in personal and professional life, so that she can be seen as more professionally dependable, that’s the pt you’re trying to make correct? Just the bit about giving herself food poisoning was a rather odd piece of evidence.

      3. fposte*

        Now you’re making me curious–how does this junk-food sickout get conveyed? Does she call in and say “Dude, I overdid it on the Twinkies and can’t make it in,” or does she leave midday saying that the hit the vending machine once too often?

        I’m really not being flip (though I’m vaguely amused)–I’m wondering a little if the problem isn’t that she does stupid things but that she makes up stupid fake excuses for being lazy, hungover, whatever. Or, alternatively, if you’re the one making the connection between her junk food eating and her illness, which would be something I’d discourage you from doing.

        1. TT*

          yes again! Sometimes mind makes connections where there is none, someone who have no control over their eating/drinking habits is equally likely to show lack of inhibition in other regards that might contribute to her overall physical being, so the underlying problem is not so much her annoying behaviour, but her general lack of self control..

          However, there is an additional explanation I think OP should consider: that she might have poor control over her eating/living habits due to an either known or unknown medical condition. For example, undiagnosed and/or untreated type II diabetes tend to force someone to consume an alarming large amount of glucose and leaving them physically feeling drained and ill even after minimal physical exertion. So a condition like that would both explain why she would require time off even after a mild workout or why she east such a vast quantity of junk food, there is no malice or incompetence in this regard. I would ask her to seek medical treatments if she continually feel physically weak and need time off, who knows you might even save a life!

      4. former camper*

        How do you know she was using an inadequate filter by choice? I’ve been on hiking trips where 2 days in our state of the art, supposedly heavy duty filtration system broke. You can’t just decide that when you’re hiking 15 miles a day that you’re not going to drink water. We scrounged around and someone had brought iodine pills and we added that to the water after boiling it – not the best filtration system, but it provided some level of protection (boiling doesn’t give a lot of protection but we had no way of distilling the water). We were super thankful that no one got sick. Our inadequate filtering was not a personal failing, but sometimes crap happens and you’re in the middle of nowhere.

        My point being, that you are ascribing a motive – carelessness – to something that is not necessarily the employee’s fault (maybe it is, but not necessarily). The fact that your employee tried to filter the water could mean that she might have been trying to take reasonable precautions. However, sometimes filters break or don’t function according to manufacturer’s specification (or manufacturer’s directions are bad).

        This goes along with some of your other comments further down the thread – that lack of control in one area of personal life may mean lack of control or carelessness in another. From personal experience I can say that people can clearly see that I am failing in one area of my life (I’m very noticably overweight but working on it) but I actually have the reputation of being an extremely competent programmer and data manager who gets projects done in a timely manner (I get ask to help not only my own but other department members with programming issues). A failing and sloppiness in one area of my life does not mean that I am sloppy and unprofessional in other areas.

        Clearly your employee has a problem. Deal with the real issues – inability to prioritize correctly and possibly (make sure the employee doesn’t have exactly as many absences as other team members) an absentee problem. Use work related “employee is not logical” examples only and make sure you can justify them with work examples (and not personal life examples that can be colored by your own ideas of what your employee’s personal habits should look like).

        1. Liz*

          This is such a good point, and very well made. I think we’re all prone to that kind of judgment, unfortunately.

          I’m also really glad someone cleared up the water mystery. And if the employee used a filter, it seems unfair to judge her for the filter’s ineffectiveness.

    3. fposte*

      I’m thinking runner/hiker/biker who slurps out of park and forest rivers or ponds when she’s out, but maybe not.

      However, I think that that’s probably something to stay away from in the conversation anyway. If her absences are excessive, then that’s the issue; if they’re within allowable limits, I don’t think it’s wise to start judging an employee’s reasons for absence (unless you’re getting into illegal pastimes). That may be an example of the OP knowing too much and needing to let it go–it’s important to differentiate “Sharon, here’s where you’re screwing your life up” from “Sharon, here’s the improvement I need to see in your job performance,” even if you think the first is something the employee could probably benefit from hearing.

      1. TT*

        Yes, say something along the lines of your absences are holding you back because you’re seen as not professionally dependable, can you please address this etc… I understand the need to cite specific examples, but that was crossing a bit too much into TMI and non-need to know territory

    4. Katie*

      Technically, even the water in your toilet is potable, until it goes in an unclean bowl or is used.

  5. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Okay, now that we’ve got a little more information from the OP, I’d sit her down and say this:

    “I want to step back and have a big-picture conversation about your performance. You’re very good at X and Y, but A and B are holding you back from reaching the bar I know you could reach. I know that you’re very interested in growing in your career here and taking on more responsibility, so let’s talk about what that path would look like. Some of the things that need to happen differently so that can occur are ___.”
    (And then one of those things would be the unplanned absences: “You end up missing work without notice enough that it interferes with people’s perception of you as reliable. Especially if you want to move into a management position, that kind of reliability is really important.” Etc. etc. etc.)

    It sounds like you’re worried that because you didn’t address this with her clearly earlier on, you’re now limited in your ability to take it on assertively at this point! But you’re not (and you have a lot of company in that managerial boat, by the way). Think of it this way: You’ve been hoping she’d get your subtler messages and improve on her own, but she hasn’t, there’s a definite pattern that’s emerged, and now it’s time to talk to her more seriously about it.

  6. jersey knit*

    One more thing to add: giving her so much flexibility with arriving late and leaving early might also be a part of the problem. How late is late, how early is early, and how does she make up the time? Based on the rest of the email, it sounds like you don’t actually trust her to get her work done to the extent you state earlier on. When you address her inconsistencies, the flexibility of her hours might also be a subject to put on the negotiating table. If the flexibility in her schedule is a factor in her not getting work done efficiently, maybe be less permissive about it until you see progress on her prioritizing. Less flexibility might not be an option, but if it is, I’d consider bringing it into the discussion.

  7. Anonymous*

    It sounds like this person has poor judgement. And (I speak from experience) you can’t really “fix” that as a manager. You can set expectations and enforce them when someone shows poor judgement but it’s learned at such a young age that it’s tough to train someone in “better judgment.”

    What I mean is…

    I have an upset stomach because I ate too much McDonald’s last night in my mind does not qualify as a sick day. It qualifies as a learning experience not to eat garbage.

    I can’t get off the john because I drank unsanitary water in my mind qualifies as “I’m never going camping again.” (Although I don’t camp and would never drink unsanitary water).

    Overexercising? Like, seriously? I call out sick when I can’t get out of bed. Unless it’s to go throw up in the bathroom. And even then, if I have no fever, I try and wing it. I don’t call out sick for a hangover or because I’m only functioning at 75%.

    Overworking on small projects with no impact, but not working fantastically on projects with huge impact is a prioritization thing (see, also: judgment). You already mention showing her what the priorities are. You can reinforce it but I get the sense this person isn’t really functioning at 100%. I’d have a serious chat with her and then start documenting. I’ve learned in life that it’s okay for people not to move above a certain level. There are a lot of folks out there with poor judgement and no work ethic. And that’s on her. It’s not your job to find a way to promote her if she’s unworthy.

    1. Liz*

      Wow. This is really judgmental of what is essentially a failure in communication. You have no way of knowing what medical issues are involved with this employee. You really think some people just didn’t learn enough during childhood and so that’s it? And I don’t see how you could decide she’s just at a lower level permanently because she failed to meet this particular boss’s poorly expressed and conflicting expectations, either.

  8. Anonymous*

    I have a question/comment about this – about the unreliable person getting a management position. I see a little of myself in that person, and frankly having to manage other people is the last thing I’d want to do at work. I can sometimes barely manage myself. I like to get my own job done, but broadening responsibility is quite another thing.

    Does the OP think this person would have any interest in advancement like that?

  9. Larissa*

    I would just like to say thank you to the OP! Thank you for at least caring enough to try and mange effectively and to recognise that you need advice. I have been managed by too many managers that refuse to recognise they are fallible and many more who just don’t give a crap.
    I also agree with AAM recommendation to sit the employee down and talk to her about what she is doing right and then be very specific on what she needs to improve. Maybe setting her some goals to reach would be effective? You also need to be very clear on the consequences if she does not improve.

  10. Vicki*

    I just want to say one thing to the OP.

    When you have your next conversation with this person, _do not_ use either of the words “inconsistency” or “consistently”. They do not mean what you think they mean.

    Please read back over your original letter:
    “The problem is she is very _inconsistent_. I allow her a degree of flexibility … and I trust her to get her work done. But she _consistently_ works excessively hard on … little benefit – and then complains that she is overworked. I try to teach her prioritization but she _consistently_ returns to her habits, regardless of my explanations.”

    From this I get: You trust her to get her work done… but not the work you think she should be doing? AND she is consistently inconsistent.

    Unless you find better ways to phrase your issues with this employee, the conversation is going to be more difficult than necessary. You need to be Crystal Clear on what you see as problems, and what ramifications those problems cause.

    (If I had a manager who said that she trusted me to get my work done but then told me I was prioritizing badly, I would wonder what was wrong woth _her_ not me. Are you micromanaging??)

  11. Matt*

    Part of being a leader is giving feednack. And in this case, offering recommendations. Your feedback is not only good for her, but good for the organization.

  12. A S*

    Last year this time, I started a new position that I felt like I was inover my head from day one – namely because people started bullying me in front of others, when I was expected to be leading them forward as a team. The thing I appreciated about my manager was that he pointed out how I could improve my responses and actions – he took the time to help me succeed.

    Unfortunately, the constant stress took a toll – for 6 months, I was home sick for at least a week out of every month. HOWEVER, I knew my priorities and stuck with them, got my shit done, and lead my teams. I’m seriously wondering what is distracting her so bad that she can’t prioritize (I’m of the opinion she’s not really working, maybe goofing off, but who knows? Conveniently working hard on the wrong things is suspicious at best). I think she has a serious substance abuse or undiagnosed mental health issue – leaning more toward the latter.

    Manager should gently, and with compassion, set goals, try to help her succeed, but if she continues, manager needs to consult hr on her/his fears, do a formal write up, etc. What else can they do, really? The person needs some serious help.

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