references for bad employees

A reader writes:

This past summer, I worked as a supervisor for a pool management company, meaning that I oversaw the operations of nine neighborhood pools and managed about 50-60 life guards. Since this is often the first job they have, lifeguards do not always come with a sound work ethic.

Recently — after the season had ended — two lifeguards who worked at one of my pools contacted me asking whether they should list me as their reference as opposed to my direct supervisor, the Operations Manager. I told them to list me because 1. I was their direct supervisor during the summer and was more closely involved with their job performance and 2. the Operations Manager was fired before the pool season ended (I should note that I was only seasonally employed — I no longer work as a supervisor).

Unfortunately, these lifeguards were not very good employees. One consistently lied to me about why she couldn’t show up to work and did a half-good job, while the other never really took her tasks seriously. Although, I could probably muster up some positive remarks for the second guard.

Should I have told them not to list me because I don’t intend to give them positive references? Or if contacted, should I proceed to “tell it like it is” to the inquirer and hope that it will provide a learning experience for these lifeguards? Or should I refer the inquirer to someone higher up who still works at the company during the offseason?

You should give them a heads-up now that you won’t be able to give them a positive reference. It’s not really fair to tell someone to use you as a reference without warning them that it won’t be a good one; usually people interpret “you can use me as a reference” to mean “I’ll speak positively of you.” So ideally, when they first asked you, you would have said something like, “I don’t think I’d be able to be a good reference for you, because of your work this summer.”

However, you can still say it now — and you should, because otherwise they’re going to offer people your name as a reference, not realizing it won’t reflect well on them. Go back to them now and say, “This is a little awkward, but after you asked me about a reference, I thought about it more and realized that I wouldn’t be a great reference for you, because of our concerns about your work this summer. I’d rather tell you now than not have you realize that you shouldn’t send reference-checkers to me.”

By the way, I’m hoping that this won’t be the first time they’ll be hearing that you weren’t happy with their work. Hopefully you were giving them feedback while they were still working for you, letting them know that they were falling short of expectations, so this shouldn’t be a shock to them. And in fact, in the future when you’re dealing with subpar performance, you might specifically point out to people that it’s the kind of thing that will affect future references — since, as you note, it’s often their first job and they may not quite understand that.

{ 78 comments… read them below }

  1. Rob*

    That last paragraph was the most important part of Alison’s response. All managers need to make that a part of how they operate. Anything less is a disservice to not only yourself but to the people who report to you.

  2. Melanie*

    Please tell employees when they’re making mistakes on a first job! I remember thinking I was a pretty good employee at my first full time job – until the performance review a year in and they called me out on how I dressed (in retrospect, very inappropriate, I was a teenager though). I asked my superviser straight out, “Why didn’t you tell me this far sooner, I would have stopped doing that immediately!” He said it made him uncomfortable to ask somebody that. Don’t be that guy, let people know when something is a problem so they can correct it.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Ditto from me. I thought my first boss was my friend. We would hang out together after work. Imagine my surprise when I walked in one day and found out I had no job.
      I grew to understand that bosses are not necessarily friends, even if they are friendly. A huge role the boss plays in our lives is to tell us what we need to do in order to STAY employed. This is a vital role to fill.

      1. Cass*

        Ditto here as well! My very first internship, I thought I did well. When my manager sent my evaluation to my professor, she gave me a grade equivalent to a C (obviously room for improvement). I was upset that during the 5-month long internship, she never pulled me aside (ever!) to address any problems or issues, that probably could have been easily corrected. I was literally shocked when I saw my evaluation score.

        For privacy purposes, we couldn’t see the contents of the evaluation, just the grade so I still never know what I did wrong. I even sent her an e-mail after the internship ended to meet for coffee to discuss my performance and how I could improve as I was beginning my career. She never even responded.

        While I may have not been up to her standards as an intern, she, in my opinion, failed as an Intern Manager – as an internship should be based learning as well as teaching.

  3. Lily*

    Do I have to tell someone they are doing something wrong?

    Is it nicer if I simply ask someone to do X, and make sure of A, B, and C which they had not done, without mentioning that they didn’t do A, B, C before? I do explain that A is important because of D….

    If someone does not answer my questions about their work and I ask them again and they don’t answer them again, is there any nice way to tell them that I need my questions answered?

    If they try to get their co-workers to not answer my questions either, which I find an even more serious issue, what am I supposed to address? I’m thinking of taking her off the team and having her work by herself.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I might be heavy handed here- but I feel that if a person cannot answer questions then they cannot do the job.
      I had a coworker who would refuse to answer me. Quite scary.
      “Hey, did you get that fire put out in the back room?”

      No reply.

      I think it is a basic on the job requirement- speak when spoken to. If you cannot do that, then you cannot hold down a job, period. It is a safety issue, the employee cannot work safely and cannot work to ensure to keep others safe.

      Again, perhaps I am heavy handed on this one. I don’t know the particulars of your setting. I am basing my comments here on a coworker that behaved in this manner for YEARS.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Worse than a blank stare. A walk away with no eye contact, no acknowledgement at all.
          After a while, I thought this person could benefit from counseling.
          I had it drilled into me as a kid, “speak when spoken to.” I am not able to understand how one human being can treat another human being like they do not exist.

    2. Mike C.*

      How about you quit dancing around and set clear expectations? If you’re a manager this is your job.

      1. Long Time Admin*

        +1 million

        And this goes double for managers of young employees who have never had a job before. Managers need to be teaching them, as well as training them on the specific job duties. (YES, YOU DO! Just because they’re “old enough to be working” doesn’t mean they know how to behave in new situations. DO IT!)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          1. For the person who didn’t do A,B,C: “Jane, I noticed that you didn’t do A, B, and C. What happened there?” (And if the person continues skipping things, then you have a bigger picture discussion: “I’ve noticed that you’re leaving out pieces of tasks I’ve assigned. What can we do to ensure this stops happening?”)

          2. For the person who isn’t answering your questions: “Jane, I asked you X and haven’t received an answer yet. What’s going on?” …. followed by, “When I ask questions, it’s your responsibility to get me answers fairly quickly. Going forward, I need you to be more vigilant about that.”

          3. For the person trying to get her coworkers to stop answering your questions: “Jane, your behavior is undermining and destructive to the team’s ability to do its job,” followed by either firing her or a very serious warning. (I’d lean toward the former, because you don’t want someone like that on your team.)

          Lily, your question here implies this is complicated and a bit of a mystery, which says to me that you could really benefit from either doing some reading on management or getting some training in it. Right now, it sounds like you’re not managing and aren’t quite sure how to — which is going to really impede your ability to perform at a high level, get results, and retain high performers (who won’t want to work in an environment like that). Please take this seriously — this is a pretty significant piece of managing that you’re struggling with!

          1. The IT Manager*

            +1 for this: impede your ability to … retain high performers (who won’t want to work in an environment like that

            Honestly when I read your letter, I put myself in the shoes of the other employees in this situation. They’re ready grumbling behind your back about how you’re doing a bad job because “Jane” gets away with stuff and they don’t know what you want from them.

            I had a horrible passive aggressive manager once. He made jokes for weeks about how early we all left the office (there was not enough work to fill our days), before I realized that he might not really be joking. He wasn’t, he wanted at least one person manning the office until 5pm just in case some higher ups came into our office. (Unlikely since I only saw in them in our office once in the three months I worked there – for the Thanksgiving family day when they were making the rounds to all work centers.) He was avoiding confrontation – maybe he even thought he was being nice – but it we weren’t clear that he was serious for a long while.

            I’m not saying that you are passive-aggressive because you lack the aggressive part, but you’d be a better manager and your team would run better if you started being more direct and less “nice”.

            1. AP*

              It also seems like you’re worrying about appearing “nice” – a lot of women who are new to management struggle with this (and some men, too, I’m sure, but I happen to notice it more with women). Yes, we’ve been socialized that you should always be “nice” to people, but there’s a big difference between glossing over criticism because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and actually being kind enough to tell people when there’s a huge issue.

              In the end, if you really want to be nice to the rest of your team, manage them properly and get rid of the low performers and problem employees and everyone will thank you for that!

              1. Elizabeth West*

                Ha, exactly. No one thinks the boss is “nice” all the time anyway. I’ve had awesome bosses and we still bitched about stuff, although not as much as when the bosses stunk.

                1. AP*

                  “Do I want my employees to fear me or do I want them to love me? Mainly, I want them to FEAR how much they LOVE me!”

          2. Lily*

            With some people the conversations are easy. With others, I am clueless. I would like to be a participative manager who invites people to contribute ideas and can also take criticism, and this works very well with some people and terribly with others. I guess I am getting distracted by the details in my example below and should simply have a one-way conversation with such people?

            I recently did try to have a conversation along the lines of 2. She said she didn’t get the first email and she got the second email but thought all the questions were resolved. I somehow ended up on the defensive because I had written “I still don’t understand …” in the second email referring to the questions I had asked in the first email. Afterwards, I realized that I had forwarded the first email when I wrote the second email, so she could not have missed the questions.

            Thank you for suggestion 3, because I have a hard time describing the communication / people problems. I want to listen when people have suggestions to improve communication, but I’m starting to think that such suggestions are often red herrings, designed to distract me from giving feedback. I’m tempted to answer that their suggestions are too complicated and I don’t have the time to figure out the answer they need, so THEY are going to have to figure out a different solution. Am I still avoiding confrontation too much?

            1. fposte*

              We had a recent post about a co-worker who leans on her colleague too much that had some suggestions that might be useful, such as “What do you think you should do?”

              I’m a little confused by your last paragraph–it sounds like you’re getting communication suggestions from the people you supervise, and it sounds like you’re getting a lot–again, I think that’s poisonous fruits of the “nice” tree, and that you’re getting somebody who’s teenagerly using using “you didn’t ask me exactly the right way” as an avoidance tactic. You don’t have to ask them exactly as they please. You asked them in an email, twice.

              Fix the communication problem you’re really having, which is that of communicating consequences for failing to meet expectations, and then move from there.

            2. Lily*

              That post was great and I was happy that I was doing the right thing with someone else. I also realized that hierarchy is important and your position dictates how you should behave. I hope to find out more about this distinction in future posts and comments.

              So, I have to stick to communicating my performance expectations and not get distracted by the excuses people give. That gives my hope, because I was starting to think that giving feedback to some people was like fighting a hydra. After trying to tell someone about a problem, I ended up with 2 problems: the first problem not resolved and an additional communication problem!

              My sense of the absurd does eventually kick in; I eventually fired the employee who told me I needed to give them a written summary of my verbal instructions and put it in a particular box and …. Red herring! I should have said, “I’m not going to do that. You need to …” and gone back to discussing her TASK! I am astonished into silence. Sadly, I fear that they leave the conversation thinking that I accepted their excuses. Even if I keep on bringing up performance issues, if they think I accepted their excuses, they may have been surprised when they were fired. Reading Alison’s book, I realize I didn’t have the consequences conversation which is described on pages 162 -3, either. :-(

              I’m not good at this, but I’m not going to quit my job simply for the greater good of my reports. I think I am also realistic in thinking that my debate skills are not going to get better in a hurry, so I need a work-around. I’m thinking of telling them that their verbal skills are better than mine, but I need to judge their performance and not their ability to argue with me or make excuses. And performance looks like A, B, and C.

              25 part-timers, many of whom work remotely. I am a full-time employee but only a part time manager, since I also have professional duties and still have to serve customers. Weird combination in a big company, but it would be normal if I had a small business – except no one would question my authority!

              1. Not So NewReader*

                25?! many working remotely?! part time manager?!
                Ok , now we understand more about the struggle you are facing. And yeah, most new management people would have a struggle to do this. Heck, seasoned management people would still find struggles in this situation.

                Authority comes from several places:
                1) It comes from how we carry ourselves. Sometimes how we dress is a factor, depends on the job. But most of the time how we act and what we think of to say is what really adds credibility to our authority.
                2)Job knowledge. People who know their jobs well are people who are more apt to have credibility and in turn are more likely to be a respected authority figure. (Keep adding to your job knowledge. Let your crew see you growing. Expect them to grow too.)
                3) Our bosses are a source of our authority. If we have a boss that listens to us and backs us when we are right, our authority increases. (Apparently, you have authority to fire, and your boss supports your decisions- this is HUGE. You have an asset here.)
                4) Consistency. Have standardized ways of handling things that happen on a recurring basis. STICK to those methods, until the method proves to be that not helpful. Then tweak the method. If you are consistent, your people will be more consistent with you. Groups tend to do as their leader does. I like to target recurring problems and nail down solutions to those recurring problems. It tends to stop some of the chaos. I think you have some chaos going on… Probably you inherited it from someone else.
                5) This last one is a little trick I have learned and it has been oohhh soooo very helpful. Learn people’s names and learn what they are good at. Stock pile the names and the abilities. Jane in accounting is excellent at payroll questions. Tom in HR is a walking encyclopedia of company policies. Henry, in my crew, can charm the most angriest of customers. This is your go-to list when unique problems come up. You select the person who excels in the relevant area and you seek their advice. Conversely, make sure you are available to help others when they need it most.

                I have worked for a couple places now that I would describe as being in meltdown. These are some of the major strategies I have used. I am sure readers here can jump in with more tips. We have a really smart group here.

                As I read your posts, Lily, I am seeing that you are making major steps forward already! Keep up the excellent effort. Remember- there are seasoned managers reading this blog! Why? Because we are STILL learning, too!

              2. Kat*

                Wow – that sounds like a really tough position that you are in!

                It sounds like you’re getting better results now though, which is great. One thing that’s worked for me has been telephone/in-person conversations when problems arise. It’s much harder for the employee to pretend they don’t hear you (or outright lie) when you are speaking to them directly. I had an employee who was exceedingly good at ignoring emails…

        2. Laura*

          Teenage lifeguards deserve the same feedback, performance reviews, etc as someone in the business world. That means, they should get a 6 month review, with feedback, so they can help themselves improve for their yearly review. If it is a summer job, like a lifeguard..maybe they get a 1.5 month review, and a final review at the end of the summer, which will impact their return the next summer. The review schedule should be told to the new employees when they start, since many 16 year olds don’t know what a review is!

          It doesn’t have to be formal. You guys can go grab sandwhiches and talk. A manager manages. Do you job!

          1. lilybell*

            I used to be a life-guard. No one does performance reviews for a teenage summer job, nor do I think it’s necessary. It’s the type of job where you should be told on the spot if you are doing something wrong. I don’t even know how I could have been given an evaluation – I was the only lifeguard working at the beach and there was no boss on site – he just drove around visiting all of the beaches in the area and I saw him maybe 5 minutes every other day. He would have no way to know how well or poorly I did my job (unless someone drowned, I guess! Luckily that never happened. I spent more time cleaning up after people than saving them).

        3. fposte*

          I was assuming email (and I gave an example for that below) because I couldn’t imagine tolerating being baldly ignored to my face. If it’s to my face, it’s office time right then and there–“Jane, that’s not acceptable workplace behavior and it’s not tolerated. This is an official warning, and if it happens again you’ll be terminated. I’ll send you a followup by email so you’re clear.” If you’re standing there while she’s actually telling other people not to talk to you? I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t be fired on the spot.

          Now that it’s metastasized, it’s a slightly longer version of the above: “Your failure to provide basic levels of communication and your active obstruction of the office are huge problems.” Followed by either “I’m afraid I have to terminate your position here” (“You’re fired” is fine too, but I think that’s going to be a tough phrase for you) or “This is an official warning, and if there’s a recurrence of the behavior you’ll be fired. I’ll send a followup by email to document this conversation.”

          1. Anonymous*

            I had a co-worker in another location who refused to answer me on a phone call – it was very weird and passive-aggressive. I addressed it right then: “You’re not answering me when I ask a question or say something, is there a problem” to which he answered “no” and then went right back to not answering me. After the call I spoke to his manager and said I do not know what is up with this guy but I’m not ever having a phone call like that again so fix it (in a much nicer way but that was the basic message). I found having someone go totally silent to be creepy, occasional snippiness doesn’t really bother me but this did.

            1. fposte*

              It’s a big psychological thing, so much so that it’s a noted sign of marital breakdown when one partner simply refuses to respond to the other. It’s depersonalizing.

        4. Natalie*

          Dovetailing on Alison’s last comment, about learning to manage – just hanging out here and reading the columns and the comments is a great starting point. I’m not a manager, but when I was supervising a temp I found that just having soaked up the philosophy here helped me a lot.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Natalie- I do agree. I interviewed for a position on Thursday where, if I get it, I would have to kind of supervise some volunteers. The first thing I thought of was AAM!

          1. fposte*

            Remember that we have no idea where Lily works and how long she’s been there. Managing isn’t an inherent skill for most of us, and there are plenty of managers who are, say, seventeen-year-olds at an accessories store in the mall or a fast food place who really don’t realize what they have authority to do or have much experience to guide them.

          2. Lily*

            Yes, Mike, I am serious.

            fposte, I wish I had discovered this blog BEFORE I became a manager instead of having found it only after I encountered massive problems. I have been here long enough to kinda know what is expected of a manager, but I don’t know how to actually DO it!

            I also have a boss who has told me to keep a subordinate who decided on the project starting date that they weren’t going to do it as planned. Great example for the rest of the team! So, I also have to work within his expectations.

            1. Rana*

              Lily, if I have one piece of advice for you, it is this: own your authority.

              I say this as a person who took a while to manage that myself, but after someone made that suggestion to me, it became easier to do my job (which at the time was teaching).

              Don’t apologize for your power over others, don’t deny it, don’t make a big deal of it. Simply exercise it, and expect those you’re responsible for to respect it. It is okay for you to have power over other people, and it is okay to use that power. Really, it is.

              And when you adopt that attitude, and really believe it, it makes using that power both easier, and less necessary, because people aren’t always testing you.

              It’s something that can be hard if you’re young, or if you’re female, because other people are more likely to push back, but… you have authority. Accept it. Accept it, and it will be easier for others to accept it as well.

              1. EM*

                Great advice. I’m just dipping my toes in the project management world, which is tricky since I’m nobody’s boss, but I have to manage people and tell them what to do to get the job done.

    3. Amy*

      I wish my manager had your perspective!

      I’m not a newbie and extremely dislike being asked heavy-handed questions to the point that it takes extra effort to be cooperative in reply – obviously I know I should but… Other colleagues, project leaders, even the department head, don’t do that to me so I really don’t think it’s “my fault” exactly…

    4. The IT Manager*

      If you are someone’s manager or responsible for their work in some way (team lead), yes, you need to tell them that they are doind something wrong.

      It’s more polite, perhaps, to not call out their mistake, but I wouldn’t even say its kinder. It’s kind and nice to be clear, set expectations, and correct mistakes right away.

      As for not answering questions you need answered: after two non-answers, you don’t, and shouldn’t, have to be nice any longer. Nice didn’t get you anywhere. You don’t have to be mean but be direct and clear. “Jane, I need you to provide an update now.” You really sound like you’re trying too hard to be “nice” because you ask twice for “nice” way to deliver some hard news.

      After all your questions about being nice and avoiding confrontation, your solution of moving the trouble-maker off the team sounds like a cop-out because you don’t want to be direct and confront the real issues. A signifigant part of being a manager is telling people they don’t want to hear – often, but not always, for their own good. You sound like you need to do that.

    5. fposte*

      “Nicer” here seems to mean “more evasive.” Direct isn’t mean! It’s no big deal to say something early on (“Bob, I didn’t get an answer to my email–please make sure I get a response by close of business in future”)–that’s why you don’t wait until you get this kind of problem. Now you’ve got the poisonous fruits of the “nice” tree–the employee who doesn’t believe she has to do what you say.

      I don’t know what the team dynamic here is, but whether you move her or not, you need to talk to her directly at this point, and you probably need to communicate with the whole team about responsiveness and that this is a problem whose time is over.

      1. Lily*

        I had a good talk with one team member and listened to her gripes and explained the big picture. With her, it wasn’t a problem to repeat my mantra of “I need my questions answered” It turned out she had no idea that the problematic one who was apparently representing them was not answering my questions. In the end, she did her share.

        Another team member was really helpful once I briefly explained what I wanted. Do I need to tell her what the problem was? If she hasn’t figured out who was being problematic, then I don’t want to tell her, but I also don’t want her to be overly influenced by the problematic team member either.

        1. fposte*

          You certainly don’t need to run around telling everybody that Sharon said a bad thing and not to pay any attention to her, but you’d said that this employee had told people not to answer you. Maybe this wasn’t an accurate report, or maybe she actually only told one other person?

          Either way, you can say that there’s been some confusion about communications, but you’re making it clear now that you need responses to your emails by end of the same business day (or whatever interval works for you). You don’t want to get bogged down in who this employee talked to and who she didn’t, because it’s a waste of your time and it’s still putting her in control of a situation that you should be controlling.

          1. Lily*

            When I asked that all members of the team contribute solutions, the helpful team member Bertha told me immediately that she wasn’t going to send me her work, because the team had decided to use Sharon’s (unacceptable) solution. That was the first inkling I had that Sharon had responded to my attempts to work with her to improve her work by involving the other team members and getting them to agree to use her solution! I didn’t ask Bertha for any details, but I hope you agree that Sharon must have either convinced the team directly or else withheld the information that I was dissatisfied with her solution when someone else made the suggestion.

            Bertha was really helpful once I informed her that the team decision wasn’t going to work out and she gave me great solutions. I didn’t say anything about the other team members and have left her to draw her own conclusions. I hope that is best.

    6. the gold digger*

      Yes, you have to tell someone when he is doing something wrong. And the nice way to tell someone you need an answer is to be direct, especially if the consquence of not getting an answer is eventually going to be the loss of a job. I would rather my boss be blunt with me about something I can fix than fire me without notice. As a manager, it is your job to give feedback, both positive and negative.

    7. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Lily, this goes to your most basic obligations as a manager. You have to give employees feedback. You need to let them know what they’re doing well and what you’d like to see done better/differently in the future. Don’t hint or expect them to read between the lines; you need to tell people directly. This is really at the core of your job.

      As for the employee who is trying to get their co-workers to not answer your questions either — that’s such a serious issue that this person needs to receive a serious warning that her job is in jeopardy if she doesn’t immediately change the way she’s operating … and needs to be let go (quickly) if she doesn’t. Frankly, what she’s doing is serious enough that you could justify skipping the warning and moving straight to firing her. Don’t respond by just having her work by herself — that’s not a solution, nor is it an appropriate consequence for such a serious and toxic way of operating.

      Dealing with stuff like this head-on — giving feedback, setting and enforcing consequences — is a fundamental part of your job as a manager. You have to do this stuff; it’s really not optional, even if it doesn’t feel “nice.” (Although I’d argue, as others have have, that it’s far kinder than not being direct with people who are relying on you to give them feedback and direction.)

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Some of the worst managers I have had tried to be everyone’s friend. In the end, no one liked the boss. Better to just focus on being a good boss.

      2. Lily*

        Alison, your comments and those of your readers have been a great example of dealing with this stuff head-on and surprisingly, it doesn’t feel terrible to hear it! Experiencing it myself is more convincing than talking about it. Since I have appreciated the directness, I will try to take your example and give feedback directly and keep those who learn from it. Spending less time with poor performers will give me more time with good performers who deserve more attention and praise from me!

        Lisa, thanks for pointing out that the good employess want the feedback which the poor employees do not want.

      3. Lily*

        I’m really not so great with words! Alison, I want to say that you and your readers are modeling your own advice. You are walking the talk and that is pretty convincing!

        1. Not So NewReader*

          An grinning. I think in pictures. Like a little movie inside my head. There are no words. I have to dig around inside me to find words. It has gotten easier over the years. But there are still times where I cannot convey what I see inside my head.

    8. Another Reader*

      I just had to have a serious conversation with an employee about their work and found the guidance in Managing to Change the World on how to do that very helpful in preparing for and having a successful discussion. I shoot to give folks guidance all along but sometimes you just have to sit down and talk about what the expectations/bottom line are.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Thanks (re: Managing to Change the World)! That’s great to hear.

        One of my favorite things we put in the book are sample scripts for conversations like that — I think it really helps to hear potential language you could use.

    9. Julie*

      As others have said, it’s not a matter of being nice, but a matter of getting results. *Especially* if someone is on their first job (but even if they aren’t), they really need to know what’s important and whether they’re succeeding in the tasks assigned to them. BEFORE their annual performance review.

      So, for example: “Jane, I need you to keep a closer eye when you temper the chocolate for the teapots. I noticed last time that you didn’t bring it up to the proper temperature, which means that it’s never going to set properly and we had to throw out the whole batch. For the next week or so, can you send me an email whenever you temper the chocolate to let me know that it’s reached the proper temperature? After that, if we’re both happy that you’ve got the settings right, you’ll only need to send me a summary once a week of the batches you made.”

      Seriously. If someone’s doing something wrong, don’t wait to tell them. If you’re their boss and you need answers to questions, a non-answer is not acceptable. They need to know that.

      1. fposte*

        Well said. And, as numerous AAM posts attest, this makes it a really bad workplace for *all* the employees–cohesion disappears, and the good performers start feeling like suckers and get resentful.

    10. AB*

      ¨If someone does not answer my questions about their work and I ask them again and they don’t answer them again, is there any nice way to tell them that I need my questions answered?

      Wow, if you are their manager and they are not answering your questions, you have a huge problem right there.

      I wouldn’t be worried about finding a “nice way to tell them”, but rather, as Mike put it, quit dancing around and set clear expectations, including the consequences for not complying with your orders. Maybe your problem is that you are being too nice and that’s getting in the way of you doing your job.

    11. Lisa*

      I personally have a HUGE anxiety that nobody guesses at (because I come across as confident and more toward the overpowering/intimidating side than the anxious/worrisome side of the spectrum at work). It goes like this: “I’m doing something terribly wrong and my manager isn’t saying anything about it, but when it comes to review time and it actually matters for HIS reputation because he can’t be seen as giving raises or promotions to a poor performer, then he’ll suddenly tell me that there’s a massive hole in my work that I never knew about, and I’ll be up Shit Creek!”

      The ONLY, and I mean ONLY thing that keeps me from sweating bullets in every formal review and leaving the room to throw up is having a manager who I trust to Tell. Me. If. I. Screw. Up. That is enormously important to me, and I would guess it’s important to the GOOD performers on your team, too. Most people want to know about problems before those problems affect their pay or advancement. I have NEVER had a poor review in my life, so nobody who hasn’t directly managed me (I do share this fear with my managers so they feel comfortable giving feedback) would ever guess at it.

      The poor performer poisoning your team’s working environment probably will not like receiving feedback. You probably need to fire her if and when she takes offense at being told that she is out of line and needs to shape up, STAT. But the good performers, the people you want to keep, WANT THE FEEDBACK.

      1. Anonymous*


        Any employee, no matter where on the performance spectrum you’re on, NEEDS feedback! Don’t wait until the yearly performance review, if they’re screwing up or doing something wrong, say it in a timely fashion. Doing that can get your okay employees to shape up quicker and improve performance, encourage your great employees, or it can give you a clearer picture on your poor employees and can make you take action sooner. Feedback shortly after doing something inappropriate AND clear expectations are necessary and I wish I had that at my job in college. I would have shaped up much quicker before I had to have an intervention.

  4. Louise*

    One of the problems with entry level-type jobs is they often tend to have very inexperienced managers. (I say this as a veteran of many retail and restaurant jobs) There are often very limited resources in these types of jobs to train people, so people who don’t have any management experience are hired or promoted to be managers and never trained. Not sure what the answer is, giving negative feedback is something that *is* uncomfortable and not many (green, younger) managers will do it of their own volition, without coaching.

    1. fposte*

      I agree–the most they usually get is a handbook and a reminder not to let people do somethingorother. Kim S., are you around? This would seem to be a question in your wheelhouse–how did you learn how to be good at managing entry level employees, and were you able to find ways to help other managers do the same?

      1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

        Thanks for the shout-out, fposte! It is *super* difficult to move from a “being nice” frame of mind to a “managing properly” frame of mind. Honestly, in an entry-level setting where managers are likely to be inexperienced (so, a lot of service sector jobs, and possibly this lifeguard setup in the original question), I like the write-up system. As in, do something bad, get a write-up, 3 write-ups and you’re fired (or your job is in jeopardy). It feels somewhat childish, but it’s useful for new managers because it provides a format and gives a reason for what you do… worst case, if you really want to be dodgy as a manager, you can always fall back on “Sorry, I don’t want to write you up, but it says right here (in the manual) that you should be written up.” It also does give the employees some flexibility… after all, you’re being given multiple chances, and multiple opportunities to discuss issues.

        It’s not ideal, and you have to make sure that managers *are* writing people up when they do bad things, and that people *are* fired when they hit that 3 writeup threshold, or the whole thing falls apart. But I found that it gets new supervisors more comfortable with those conversations, and that’s a huge step.

        But it is suuuper hard to convince other managers, especially if they are lateral to you, to do things differently. And if you’re at a level of management where you have the responsibility to discipline, but no authority to terminate, that’s really tough… you have to be willing to say to your own manager “The time has come for Jane to be fired. I’ve warned her about x and y on these documented (another handy thing about write-ups) occasions, and she has continued to be problematic.” Really, the bottom line is that whoever is in charge of firing needs to be prepared to do it, and all the manager and employees must know that that is a tool that the business has in it’s box that it will use when necessary. There *must* be consequences.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          This is the best rational for write-ups that I’ve heard!

          I’ve always looked at them as needlessly bureaucratic and, as you say, a bit childish (since managers should just have direct conversations with people, warn them when they are falling short, and warn them when their jobs were in jeopardy), but your point about entry-level settings where managers are likely to be inexperienced (lifeguards, food service, etc.) is a really good one and is making me look at this differently for that context.

          1. KarenT*

            I think write-ups do have their place with inexperienced managers. It’s been my experience they are quite necessary with retail/service jobs because there is crazy turnover, even with management, and the paper trail is the only way new managers find out what’s going on. You often have college kids as supervisors and high school kids as employees. The term manager is often assigned to people who are really shift supervisors, and as Kimberlee points out, often have the authority to discipline but not to fire.

        2. A Bug!*

          It’s been a while since I was in grade school, but I can still remember the mindset: nothing has real consequences unless it goes on your “permanent record.” Anything else is just a suggestion coming from a stuffy old wet blanket.

          So I can see write-ups being most successful in settings where people might not have had the opportunity to mentally move on to a world where their authorities aren’t required to keep them unless they violate an egregious rule.

        3. Lily*

          I think looking at a couple of write-up systems might help me figure this out. I would simply Google, but I am sure that there are bad and good examples of this system to be found, so if someone can point me at a good example, I would appreciate it.

  5. JK*

    I see this all the time at some fast food places. You can tell from the first five minutes that you spend there whether there’s a good manager or not. Also, a friend who was new to being a manager told me she felt weird asking her secretary to do things. Having been a secretary in the past, I told my friend that her secretary is not going to be insulted if you ask her to type something or make a phone call or do some Internet research or whatever. It’s really annoying to have a boss who acts like he’s asking you for a favor every time he wants you to do something. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be “please” and “thank you,” but for pete’s sake, just tell me what you want me to do and quit acting weird about it.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      That would be weird, if you’d been a secretary especially. But having been one, I like to think that if I’m ever in a position where I have a secretary or assistant (like that would ever happen! :P), I would remember to say please and thank you. It means a lot to me when my bosses do this rather than just barking orders at me. I mean, they’re my bosses, so they CAN order me around, but it’s just a better situation when they remember you’re a person and not a slave or a thing.

  6. NUM*

    I want to focus for a minute on what the OP is supposed to do. The OP lists some options: tell them not to use him as a reference, give a bad (truthful) reference if asked, or kick the can up the ladder. Nowhere does the OP list the option of taking responsibility for commitments made and doing what he said he would do.

    What if they have already used him as a reference? The OP committed to these two they could count on him to give a positive reference (which I readily agree he should not have done). Should the OP now go back on his word? That is pretty unethical in itself and is sure to begin building his reputation as untrustworthy.

    1. Lisa*

      It doesn’t sound like OP said, “I will give you a positive reference,” and it doesn’t sound like they asked. But in any case, there is no such thing as a commitment to lie in this situation. Even if someone HAS promised, explicitly, to lie for someone else, the right thing to do is reconsider when the time comes and tell the truth. It’s more important to maintain your own professional reputation than to do favors for poor performing former employees. If I hired someone based on a recommendation and they didn’t show up for work and lied about the reasons, I would wonder about the reference’s integrity.

      If someone calls him now, I think OP should just confirm the lifeguards’ dates of employment and have no further comments on their performance.

      OP: “Yes, Sally was a summer lifeguard with us from XX/YY this year.”

      Caller: “Did you have anything else to say about Sally’s performance?”

      OP: “No, thank you for asking.”

      1. Anonymous*

        So when they ask the questions below what does he say then?

        “what was his timekeeping like”
        “how was his attitude”
        “how did he seem to grow in the role”
        “would you rehire them”

        Most reference checkers will ask other questions too and you can’t just ignore them.

          1. fposte*

            That’s just the script, though–I actually do think that the OP needs to let these employees know if she’s not going to provide references, because she told them she would.

      2. NUM*

        I can see that maybe OP didn’t actually promise to give a positive reference. The employees may just have been asking whether they could list the OP as their supervisor on future job applications.

        I just think the OP is in a real ethical bind here. OP’s professional reputation is damaged either way.

        A – Giving a more positive reference than the employees deserve will leave OP with the knowledge that OP lied for someone else and may damage OP’s reputation if the employees, hired by a new employer on the basis of the reference, don’t work out.

        B – Giving a negative reference or telling the employees that OP cannot after all provide the promised reference (if one was promised) leaves the employees with the certain knowledge that OP has lied and is not to be trusted. Even teenage lifeguards have friends and can spread that word.

        1. Colette*

          I don’t think the OP lied. Sure, she should have said that she was unable to be a positive reference – and still should – but it sounds like she was caught off guard. She answered the question the former employee asked, but didn’t really think through how being a reference for this person would go.

  7. Anonymous*

    OP should just come clean and say that he can’t offer a positive reference for them. But there’s two positives to doing that: 1) OP can keep his/her professional reputation intact, and 2) It can give the employees a huge wake-up call about their performance. It can teach them that if they want a reference, they need to be responsible, behave properly and perform to expectations, at the very least. And at that age when some kids/young adults can have a sense of entitlement, it brings them back down to earth and gives them a dose of reality. OP will be doing them a huge favor by being honest.

    And take it from me who asked for a reference at my job in college when I was a bad employee. My manager (and Allison) gave me a huge dose of reality that I didn’t take well at first. But with introspection and some maturing, I realize that I had to shape up and take constructive criticism and also grow up. The advice I got has helped me in getting my current job and I’ve really improved in my performance and reliability.

    So please do them that favor. They need to hear it.

  8. Julie*

    Lily, I give you a lot of credit for engaging in this conversion without becoming defensive and with a true desire to learn. While you clearly need to practice your management skills, I think this ability to seek answers and process constructive criticism will serve you very well. All the best!

  9. OP*

    I was definitely sure to correct the employees when they made mistakes. I had to write them up all the time and re-coach them, but more often than not, things didn’t improve.

    I think the reason they came to me for references had more to do with their inexperience with the working world. In high school, you can be a bad student and ask teachers for references and still expect a positive reference (not all the time, but a lot of the time). I think they assumed – especially since I am relatively close to their age – that I would take it easy on them.

    Regardless, I do plan to get in touch with them and recommend they don’t list me as a reference. Thanks for your help!

  10. OP*

    I should also note that I did not promise to give a positive reference. Although, in hindsight, that was clearly the implied request, I didn’t realize it at the time. I only told the employees that they should and could list me as a reference.

  11. Tiffany Lund*

    You did the right thing in being honest with them about how you feel so that they will realize the consequences of their sloppy work. If not scolded or confronted, these workers will end up thinking that everything will be okay and that they will continue with the sloppy work which is not good.

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