update: how can I back out of a mentoring relationship?

We have a late-breaking update in our “where are they now” update series: Remember the letter-writer wondering about how to back out of a mentoring relationship that was more like intensive remedial coaching? She provided one update last April, but here’s a new one:

I did take your advice and told the person that I didn’t think there was much more return to be gained by meeting so regularly. At the same time, I caught the person in a couple of lies about things she’d overlooked, forgotten, or, mostly, procrastinated on, and finally had a conversation with her along the lines of, “I’ve tried to help you become more organized, but I can’t teach you to be motivated or honest, and I’m incredibly disappointed that I’m going to have to monitor everything I give you from here out.”

I’ve learned more about some of the things that you and commenters pointed out–specifically, why she wasn’t fired for performance reasons a long time ago. I got so fed up with the situation that I went to my boss and closed the door and was very blunt with him about resenting having to spend so much time both double-checking her work and defending his decision not to fire her to others. I said that I’d already damaged my own credibility by not being able to get any improvement out of her, and that having to tell people, “There’s a good reason that she hasn’t been fired, and we just have to trust the boss” was making it worse. I asked why he hadn’t just cut the cord. As it turns out, he is just as, if not more, frustrated and wanted to fire her almost from the get-go.

The problem is that upper management has instituted a nonessential hiring freeze, and vacancies aren’t being filled except in very critical positions. Upper management doesn’t see that position as critical, no matter how well-reasoned our argument, so if the person were fired for performance, she wouldn’t be replaced. The position is one that others could fill in for during their own slow periods, but consistency is important, as is coverage, and the boss is working from a position of it being better to closely monitor someone who knows how to do the job than have to intensively train interim replacements who won’t be filling in for longer than a couple of weeks. With the nature of the job, I do understand that argument, and there are bigger fish to fry with upper management than arguing for a replacement.

So, at this point, it’s not a happy ending, but there are glimmers. The person still has a good attitude about wanting to improve her performance. I have distanced myself from the situation because I don’t have the bandwidth to carry her. I never did bring up the question of anxiety/learning disabilities with her because as commenters pointed out, it’s none of my business. I’ve also been able to explain to others whose morale has been affected by this that there truly is a reason for her not having been let go, without sharing details in an unprofessional manner. They sense the change in my tone that indicates that I’m being honest, rather than just paying lip service to defending something that makes no sense (not that upper management’s decision makes sense, but tackling it again is on the boss’s list of 2015 to-do’s).

From a personal standpoint, I don’t have regrets–I honestly thought that I could help the person become a better performer, because it became clear almost immediately that she didn’t need mentoring, she just needed help with organizational and time-management skills. I would offer others the same help; I think this is a fairly unique situation. I do wish I could help my boss to build the case for replacing her, and I have some ideas for how to do that. My efforts didn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded; our company (even though it’s not perfect) values an environment of helping and learning. I’d do it again.

Thanks, Alison, for your great advice and level head, and thank you to the commenters who provide such tremendous insight. It’s an excellent community.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Isabelle*

    We went through a similar experience and it felt like a lose-lose situation: either let the person go and lose the position, or keep them and deal with resentment from their colleagues. The manager in charge was worried that we could lose a position anyway since some team members were starting to look for other jobs because of the issues with the non-performer and may have not been replaced themselves.
    In the end the non-performer was let go and the position was lost. The position is still lost 2 years later because the hiring freeze is still in place even though the workload greatly increased.

    I hope OP’s workplace can find a better solution. Maybe that person will eventually improve, the fact that they are aware they need help and are asking for it is encouraging.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      Yes, I’ve seen the same situation play out. I watched someone struggle to meet their job goals for two years before they were let go and not replaced. Several months later, I can honestly say that having a low performer was better than having no one in the position.

    2. Eliza Jane*

      On the other hand… at my last position, they were in this place, and kept a low performer on because they knew to fire him would lose them the position forever. As a result, their 2 top performers quit, and they lost both positions and had a much crappier team…

  2. sunny-dee*

    OP, I’m glad the experience didn’t sour you. I totally agree with your assessment — when someone seems willing to learn, it is worth the effort to help someone develop critical skills before letting them go. It may not work out (sorry!), but at least you know you gave her every opportunity to succeed and did everything that you could do. That’s its own satisfaction, and I’m glad your efforts were noticed and appreciated.

  3. Jazzy Red*

    I’ve seen a few situations like this, and one solution might be an internal transfer – switch the low performer into a job she might actually be able to do with someone who is more capable of this job. If that possibility hasn’t been considered, it should be.

    You have to get creative when there’s a hiring freeze. People still quit, get sick or die, and the job still needs to get done.

  4. Julia*

    There are classes for organizing and time management skills out there. Perhaps send her to a couple?

  5. quix*

    Bad logic on the company’s part.

    If the position doesn’t need to exist, eliminate it. If it does need to exist, make sure the person in it is competent.

    The way they’re running it, they don’t see the position as necessary, but they’re paying someone incompetent to do it anyway.

    1. blu*

      I don’t think it’s quite that clear cut. Just because a position is “Essential” doesn’t mean its not still worth having. From my perspective an essential position is one where the company cannot continue the work of the business without it. Conversely, there are plenty of non-essential positions that still help the company function. I think recruiters/staffing team members are one example. You could eliminate all of your recruiting staff at a company and just rely on managers to source, select, and hire as needed and the company would continue to function. However, from a business perspective at a certain point it doesn’t make sense to do that, nevertheless in a hiring freeze situation you probably wouldn’t backfill any recruiters who left the company while the freeze was in place because that isn’t an essential position.

  6. Mena*

    Thanks for your update. My worry is that somehow in all of this you have become ‘responsible’ for this person’s success, or lack therof. This is completely unreasonable but you seem to be the one fighting for her survival in this organization, that this has become your ‘job.’ It is great to hear that the boss wants to fire her too but in the meantime, time is being taken away from your ‘real’ job. How does this benefit your future in the organization?

  7. Annalee*

    I never did bring up the question of anxiety/learning disabilities with her because as commenters pointed out, it’s none of my business.

    While I totally agree that her mental health and any potential learning disabilities are Not Your Problem, it may be a kindness to suggest to her–once–that she seek evaluation for ADHD.

    ADHD is massively under-diagnosed in women, because it presents differently in adult women than it does in young boys. It also tends to come on later, so while boys tend to be diagnosed in school, girls frequently fly under the radar until they’re trying to hold down a job or parent a child. Difficulty prioritizing and procrastination are classic symptoms.

    I have ADHD that wasn’t diagnosed until college. I had already developed a lot of coping mechanisms by then, so I didn’t seek treatment–up until a few months ago, when I got a new job with more responsibility and realized I really needed some help. Working with an ADHD therapist to help develop new coping skills to help keep myself organized has made a world of difference.

    This is certainly a very touchy subject at work–it’s not the kind of thing you want to just say to someone out of the blue. But given that you worked closely with her on organizational skills for an entire year, are you in a place where you could shoot her an email saying “hey, I came across this article about ADHD in women and I thought you might want to have a look at it?”

    It is, of course, not your job to tell her to go see a therapist. But if she has undiagnosed ADHD, drawing her attention to the possibility would be a huge kindness. Even knowing that about herself will open her up to a bunch of options that could help her improve her performance.

    1. teclatwig*


      I have only begun this journey of discovery re: ADHD in women, and it explains so much about the areas I struggled with in school and in the workplace, and gives me hope (and access to strategies) for the future.

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