my boss keeps asking me for input on coworkers’ performance — and then firing them

A reader writes:

I’m a software analyst. I’ve had a situation come up twice now at work, where my manager has asked me my opinion of a particular coworker, and then discussed her general opinions with me about their performance. Soon after each conversation, the person got fired!

Each time, I said my opinion, but tried to be diplomatic. In the first case, I felt the person had some weak areas that were impacting team productivity. In the more recent case though, I thought the person was a good asset to our team. It was clear that my manager had already made up her mind and was trying to get me to validate what she already thought. I finally said that I personally had no issues with this employee, but if she had concerns that it was worth it to speak to that person. A few days later, the person had been let go and my other teammates kept asking me if I knew why. In my opinion, it seemed like it was more of a personality clash.

Should I be concerned that she is having these conversations with me? In a way, I guess it’s flattering, but I’m not completely comfortable being put in this position, especially when I don’t always agree with the outcome. I’m also afraid that if I don’t agree with my manager’s opinions that it will affect me negatively down the line. Should I say something the next time, or just keep my mouth shut?

It’s not unreasonable for a manager to seek out input on an employee from that person’s coworkers. That kind of information can be useful in confirming that there’s a problem, surfacing problems the manager didn’t know about, or providing new insight or a different perspective.

And it’s possible that that’s what your manager has been doing — although I’m inclined to think it’s not, based on two things: your manager discussing her own opinions about the person’s performance with you (which is generally inappropriate, unless your role or some other context requires you to be part of that conversation), and the fact that the person was fired only days later (which makes it more likely that she was seeking validation of a decision she’d already made).

That said, it’s also important to realize that managers do need to fire people at times, and in at least one of these two cases, it sounds like that might not have been an unreasonable outcome. (It’s possible that it was reasonable in the second case too; there’s not enough here to know.)

As for how to handle this if it happens again, it really depends on what you’re comfortable with. If you’re worried that candor will jeopardize that person’s job, you can frame it in terms of what they need to help them do a better job — for instance, “I think Jane would get a lot of benefit out of shadowing some field organizers, so that she has more background when she’s writing about our campaigns.” And you can also emphasize what you think the person’s strengths are — “I know it’s taken Jane a while to get comfortable with our writing style, but her ability to explain sea lion politics in layperson’s terms has been invaluable.”

Alternately, if you’d prefer to get more context first, you can ask, “Why do you ask?” and see what she says. (A good answer would be, “I”m trying to flesh out my perspective on her work so that I can give her more useful feedback, and you work closely with her and generally have good insights about what will help someone succeed here.” A bad answer would be if this triggers her to simply vent about the person.)

Or, you can be studiously neutral: “What I’ve seen seems good” or “I don’t work closely enough with her to really have much of an opinion” or whatever else you could credibly say.

Along with the above, I’d also take a look at what you know about your manager aside from this. Is she generally a thoughtful, fair decision-maker? Is she volatile? Does she form an opinion early and refuse to change it? Is she reasonable? In other words, don’t look at these two recent situations in a vacuum; make them part of the overall landscape of what you know about your manager, and guide yourself accordingly.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. PEBCAK

    I’m also wondering if there is some CYA stuff happening here, that the manager has to be able to say that other people see the same issues.

    1. some1

      But it sounds like in the second situation, the LW didn’t confirm any issues with her co-worker and the co-worker was let go anyway.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Sure, but the manager might have had plenty of other legitimate reasons to let the person go. (And if she needed to cover her ass, might have done that in other ways.)

        1. PEBCAK

          Right, it’s a dumb move by the manager, but it does make me wonder if the manager is going to HR with “and OP thinks so too!”

        2. some1

          I agree, I’m just saying that I don’t think the LW’s boss has to confirm that the LW agrees with her to cover herself in order to let someone go. It sounds like this boss had made up her mind and wanted validation of her decision for some reason.

  2. Para Girl

    I used to be at a law firm and three times in a row, I got a secretary on probation. Each time, I was honest in my evaluation. Each time, the employee was let go after working for me. I ended up with a reputation as somebody who got people fired – even though I was on the bottom of the law firm food chain!! I had a temp covering the desk for a week, and at the end of the week, she said very sweetly “You’re not a b**** at all!”

    Um, thanks?

    1. CoffeeLover

      See, people always jump to conclusions like that and I can’t stand it. I’d rather be thought of as a b**** than to let incompetence be the standard of performance. I think it was Tina Fey that said, “You know what? B****es get stuff done.” Never have more truer words been spoken.

  3. Anon

    I think it is important to be honest about performance but at the same time, if you know the manager is someone who isn’t equitable in her decisions, then be careful how you word it and act neutrally. If you know she will take any criticism as validation to fire the employee, then choose to remain neutral. This relates more to whether the manager is good at evaluating people or not.

  4. Katie the Fed

    Ugh. I had a manager with a very divide-and-conquer style of managing, and she had her cronies and favorites. Early into her stint, she pulled me in to ask what I thought of so-and-so because she’d heard rumors about this person. I said “oh, well I’ve always known her to be very competent at her job” and the manager said “yeah, yeah, but I want to know the dirt!” and I said “oh I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with any of that” and left. I definitely wasn’t on her favorites list after that but I’m glad I didn’t trash talk anyone. Ugh.

    1. Ruffingit

      Oh gross. The manager asked for “the dirt” on someone? That is so unprofessional and sad. It makes the manager seem like she’s 16 years old and quizzing the cool kids so she can ensure that those at her lunch table are awesome enough to sit there. UGH.

      1. Katie the Fed

        She’s one of the worst human beings I’ve ever encountered. She destroyed that organization.

  5. anon-2

    Yeah I’ve been asked to do this.

    Unless there’s a serious problem – an employee engaging in harassment, illegal activity, etc., USUALLY I tell the manager to do his own job.

    1. Elizabeth West

      I have never been asked to do this, but that would probably be my response too (maybe worded differently). I don’t see how asking me about any of this stuff helps a manager manage–that’s his/her job, not mine.

      I can see someone asking about a junior employee for feedback reasons. However, the whole she-asks-and-then-fires-them thing would make me very reluctant to cooperate with her on this.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Sometimes a manager’s job involves getting feedback from other people.

      In fact, it’s smart to periodically do this around things like performance reviews, because coworkers can have a different perspective on someone’s work than their manager does. When doing this, I’ve learned things that I wouldn’t have otherwise easily known, plenty of them good. (Obviously, this kind of thing is usually about how someone works — how collaborative they are, how responsive, ease of working with them, etc. — not what results they produce; a manager should be able to easily see the latter on her own. But people can be one way with coworkers and a different way with a manager.)

      If I had an employee who worked closely with someone but refused to comment on how that was going, I’d be seriously concerned about what was going on with them.

      1. Ruffingit

        Refusing to comment on someone may be a consequence of previous work trauma though. I’ve known people who had terrible managers and commenting on anyone good or bad made for a lot of trouble at work. If the manager hated the person and the co-worker said something good, they were on the manager’s shit list because they should be against that employee too. And vice-versa if the manager liked someone and the employee said something bad about that person. In some cases, people have just been so traumatized by previous environments that they have a policy of never saying anything about anyone to anyone regardless.

        So I guess I’m just saying that it helps if the good managers can try to suss out why that employee may not want to comment. There are plenty of reasons to make your own policy of keeping your trap firmly shut if you’ve come from work environments where that is the best course of action.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Sure. But when you move to a new work environment, it can really hurt you to hold on to the survival habits that you learned at some previous dysfunctional place.

          It’s similar to dating: Your ex might have lied to you and been untrustworthy, but if you treat the next person with suspicion (and they’re healthier), they’re not going to be interested in being with you very long. You need to be willing to see that Bad Behavior X isn’t universal and to adjust based on what see about the new person/manager/employer.

          1. Ruffingit

            I agree people should adjust, but just as in dating, the right person will help you unpack that baggage. In the work world, this translates into a good manager at least taking an interest in why the employee may be tight-lipped. Sure, you should adjust as needed based on what you see in the new environment, but it can take awhile to be sure that what you see is what really is there. In some environments, it takes awhile before you know for sure that a manager is genuine and good. Prior to knowing that, I can see keeping my mouth shut and I think it’s sad to give the side eye to someone doing that without at least asking why they might be reluctant to share.

        2. Elle D

          When my new department head first joined our company, she would frequently ask my opinion on certain employees I work closely with. I figured she was trying to get a full picture of her new employees, so I did provide honest feedback – I tried to be positive while addressing any concerns that I thought may be hurting our productivity. Then I found out through the grapevine that my manager was telling these individuals I had complained to her about them. The way it was relayed to the employees made it seem like I had offered unsolicited petty complaints (“Jane is lazy” instead of “Jane has procrastinated on our last few projects, so the final product wasn’t as strong as it could have been. “) I felt very betrayed. I never offered up my opinions unsolicited, and nothing I said was especially damning, especially since I always tried to throw in positives as well. I felt like this damaged my working relationship with some of these coworkers.

          I now avoid her questions or stick to positive feedback. I can completely relate understand those who would be hesitant to provide any feedback about co-workers – I’ve been burned, and will be hard pressed to provide honest feedback in the future unless there’s a black and white issue like harassment or theft occurring.

          1. Ruffingit

            Exactly. You think the manager is good and has good motivations and then you find out otherwise. Such a shame and I’m sorry this happened to you.

      2. Windchime

        Our annual reviews at work always involve input from others with whom we have worked. Normally, it’s a mix of co-workers in the same department and “customers” (the people in the organization who use our data and reports). I don’t know how much weight is given to that portion of the review in comparison with the manager’s input, but I know it’s important. I’m frequently asked to contribute and I do my best to be honest but kind. Hopefully it’s a good balance.

    3. Ann Furthermore

      My manager sends out emails to people each year for feedback on her direct reports. It’s usually different people each year; the people with whom you’ve worked closely. Sometimes I get them for people in my group, but not always. But when I do I try really hard to keep everything positive in some way.

      Last year she asked me for feedback about one of my co-workers, and I’d heard some feedback from some people in another department that he sometimes comes across as condescending. I went back and forth on whether I should include that, and I finally did because I decided I’d want to know if people had that perception of me. But I also added that I was sure that it wasn’t intentional on my co-workers part, because I work with him quite a bit and ask him for help on some things, and I didn’t find him to be that way at all. I suggested that it was perhaps a language issue, since he’s from one country and we have users in many others.

  6. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

    What irritates me is that people are happy to be forthcoming about a coworker AFTER the coworker is fired.

    I appreciate that since we have a positive and cooperative workplace, I don’t have a staff full of complainers and backbiters, but come on, there are some things I need to know if they are taking place.

    There was one woman that “everyone” knew was abusing her work from home once a week day by neither working nor being at home…she’d an elaborate system of covering for this that included having to ask co-workers in the office to not mention she’d not done XYZ yet because she was currently: at the car wash, at mommy/baby playgroup, at the grocery store. “Everybody” knew except her manager and me (the boss’s boss), and nobody said anything until 10 minutes after she’d left the building for the final time after being let go for low performance.

    Then, I had 10 people tell me the gory details in the course of a couple of hours.

    Come on, help me out here people. The net effect nearly destroyed working from home as an option for anyone for a period of time.

    I love the amazing people I work with and I love that my day isn’t filled with Sally complaining about Suzy, but I need some balance and some honesty. It’s not high school and you’re not being a narq if you see an abuse of company resources, (that impacts other people’s work and general morale) and you say something about it calmly and discreetly.

    Anyway, I’ve found the best way to get feedback in our “positive and cooperative” environment is to ask specific, empirical questions. I can’t ask “what do you think of Suzy” but I can ask if Suzy delivered XYZ on time or I can ask why somebody is doing XYZ themselves rather than asking Suzy to do it and get honest answers.

    1. Julie

      I agree that it’s really helpful to know what’s going on when it’s important. I had a trainer who really didn’t have time to be working – she was getting divorced, and her soon-to-be-ex had taken their child to a state 2,000 miles away. She was supposed to be shadowing the other trainer and learning how we do the job. She was fired after not too long for several reasons, but after she was let go, the other trainer told me that she would go with him to the client’s desk but then leave and make phone calls to her lawyer, etc. She didn’t watch him work or learn the job at all. I understand that he didn’t want to be a tattle-tale, but she was making his job harder, and I really needed to know these things. I think I was a bit too hands-off as a manager, in general, because I didn’t want to be seen as a micro-manager. Looking back, I think it would have made sense for me to meet with her more often to find out how things were going as she was learning the job.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

        My folks are oddly protective of new hires also, which makes less sense to me than covering for a coworker that you’ve known for awhile.

        Anyway, since it’s all preferable to a work day listening to Suzy bitching about Sally, I’m resigned to needing to ask specific questions that draw specific answers. In your example, I would have had to ask how the shadowing was going, if it seemed like the new person was learning from the shadowing, how much time they were spending together each day, etc., to get the “well, she’s not actually been with me much” answer drug out.

    2. Cassie

      For me, it would really depend on who is asking. If it’s my boss, I would feel comfortable being honest with both good and bad feedback (I have a lot to say!). But for the most part, he doesn’t ask unless someone else has gone to him first with a concern about someone’s performance and then he may ask me.

      If it were some of the other supervisors asking, though, I’d be really hesitant to respond. I’d wonder why they were asking me or if they were trying to trap me into “complaining” about someone. There was a recent incident where a coworker made a comment about ABC and the supervisor twisted it into “this coworker said that XYZ happened, etc”.

  7. Tara T.

    There was a manager in one of my workplaces who used to go behind employees’ backs trying to get employees to rat on each other. In the end, the atmosphere was so oppressive and full of hate that most quit, and new employees coming in stuck around for a few months and also quit. The most hated person was that manager, of course. Everyone was in agreement that it had become a horrible place to work, thanks to her.

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