why was my probationary period extended at my new job?

A reader writes:

I’m a recent college graduate in my first professional job (at a nonprofit and it involves both customer service and web design). This job has a probationary period lasting six months. However, at my six-month review, my manager said that she was extending my probationary period an extra six months, without much explanation. I was rated as “meets expectations” in all but one area in my evaluation: I was rated as “needs improvement” in communication. However, the “communication problems” my manager described seem rather petty. For example, I have been reprimanded several times for “causing tension with my voice and body language” in web design meetings when I have not been aggressive in any way. I was also told that I shouldn’t say that I can’t or don’t know how to make the website changes I’m asked to do, even though I really don’t know a lot–I had very little experience coming in, I was given no training, and I have had to teach myself many things on the job. I am doing my best to radiate a positive attitude and teach myself things as quickly as possible.

I probably come across as nervous sometimes since I have some anxiety problems (which I am getting help for), and I have been trying to ask more direct questions in meetings to figure out what I am supposed to do in my work projects, since meetings often just seem like endless discussion with few tangible takeaways (I have been reprimanded for this too because apparently they value discussion over actual decision-making!). I’m doing my best to be as quiet and subservient as possible to avoid more criticism, but doing so doesn’t feel healthy and I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep it up. The kicker is, I have great relationships with my colleagues and they all tell me that I am doing a good job with the website, considering my lack of experience and the steep learning curve. I am also doing well in the customer service part of my job (and I did have lots of prior experience in that area).

Anyway, my question is, how common is it to have one’s probationary period extended, and is it normal for it to be extended for just a few small “deficiencies” they’ve found with me? Also, what does a probationary period really mean? Neither my manager nor HR was able to give me a straight answer. From what I can gather, it seems to mean that it’s easier to fire me if I’m under probation, but still, my position is at-will so the distinction seems rather meaningless. But it does hurt a bit since it makes me feel like the administration isn’t really interested in keeping me around as a permanent employee.

The deal with probationary periods is this: Some companies commit to putting people through a progressive discipline process (warnings, a formal improvement plan, etc.) before deciding to fire them, but they exclude probationary-status people from their internal obligations to follow that process. The thinking is that if they realize fairly quickly that a new hire isn’t right for the role, it doesn’t make sense to go down a lengthy progressive discipline path, and they want to retain the flexibility to let the person go more quickly. To be clear, the law does give them that flexibility; this is just about their own internal policies.

Extending the probationary period basically says, “We have some concerns / aren’t 100% sure this is the right fit, but we think it could be, so we’re giving you some more time and we can see how this goes.”

For what it’s worth, you’re describing their concerns as “small deficiencies” and maybe that’s right — but from what you wrote, it’s possible that these are legitimately big deals. “Causing tension with your voice and body language” could be a total overreaction to minor personality differences — or it could be that you’re really doing something that comes across to most people as disruptive. (For example, rolling your eyes might seem like a small thing, but that’s actually a pretty aggressive act in a lot of offices.)

Similarly, saying that you can’t or don’t know how to do work that someone is trying to assign to you might seem like a reasonable and accurate things to raise — but it depends a lot on how you’re saying it. A flat “I don’t know how to do that” isn’t great in a lot of contexts, because often part of your job is to figure out how. They might be looking for “Let me look into how we can do that” or “I’m not sure — can I try to figure it out and then come back to you?” or even “I’m honestly not sure where to begin with this — do you have advice for who I might talk to about it?”

And while it’s entirely possible that this is indeed an office where meetings are mainly useless discussion, it’s also true that in your first professional job, you might not be in a great position to judge if that’s actually the case or not. It can be hard to know what value others are getting out of the discussion when you have the necessarily limited perspective that often comes with entry-level roles. Is it possible that your view of these meetings is coming across to others? If so, that would definitely concern me as your manager; I’d be looking to you to show that you understand that you don’t know what you don’t know and not to assume that your take on the meetings trumps more senior people’s assessment of their value.

But none of that means that you should become “as quiet and subservient as possible to avoid more criticism,” and your instinct that that’s unhealthy is right. It’s not about being subservient; it’s really just about recognizing that you’re new to the work world and new to this organization, and that the more open you can be to learning and hearing feedback (and frankly, the more cheerful or pleasant you can be in doing that), the better you’re going to come across.

{ 193 comments… read them below }

  1. CaliCali*

    Honestly, as I kept reading this, it seemed to lay out all the reasons that the probationary period was lengthened. It doesn’t really matter if you believe the criticism to be founded; it’s about perception, and the perception they have of you is, to put it mildly, that you’re difficult to work with (“several” reprimands raised a red flag for me). I would encourage the OP to seek out advice from a trusted coworker who can be frank about areas of improvement, in large part because continued employment there will be dependent on modifying the off-putting behaviors mentioned.

    1. Jennifer*

      Yeah, this happened to me and it was so that they could easily get rid of me within the next month. I hate to say it, but I think you’re on your way out the door :(

      And yeah, perception is unfortunately everything. I did my best to “improve,” but by the time they extended my probation, it was really too late.

    2. JHS*

      But sometimes perception is skewed by things that are completely unrelated to what the person is actually doing depending on whether the manager is actually petty or not. It’s almost impossible to tell whether the OP is oblivious or whether the manager is a jerk unless you work in the same environment.

      1. Lindsay J*

        But the manager is the one making the decision in this case, so it doesn’t really matter too much for the OP whether the manager is being petty or not – she has to adapt to the manager’s feedback (petty or legitimate) or risk being put out of a job. Being objectively in the right isn’t what matters here, being perceived as a good fit for the position by the manager is.

        FWIW though, OP, having your probation period extended isn’t necessarily the kiss of death. My ex had his probation period extended and I was very concerned by it. However, he made it through the extended probation period and has been at that job for close to two years now.

    3. Anna*

      I think that’s fair. What I think is unfair is not actually giving explanations on how the OP is “causing tension.” That’s too vague and it means that instead of the OP working on things they feel could cause issues, the OP is forced guess, worry every time she moves, and not speak up lest it might cause tension.

      However, OP, if you’re making a point of telling people in a meeting to discuss a project that the discussion is pointless or you imply you’re done with the talking side, you’re going to put people off. You’re new, you don’t actually know much about what goes in to the process, and it might behoove you to spend some time observing the culture.

      1. Green*

        There are a lot of people who audibly sigh when they are frustrated with a meeting, lean back in their chairs when they’re bored, roll their eyes, throw their hands up, show frustration in their voice, etc. I think it’s enough to tell them they need to conform their body language with basic standards of acceptable social behavior in a workplace without getting into a listing of grievances. Basic etiquette isn’t something your manager should have to teach you. I know that it’s still hard for some people, but that’s when it’s time to work with a trusted friend or family member (or counselor) for feedback rather than your manager.

        1. Anna*

          I think being specific is always a better choice than assuming someone who doesn’t seem to know what basic meeting behavior looks like to figure it out on their own. “Your body language conveys boredom. For example, I’ve noticed you sigh a lot during meetings, and I’ve noticed you rolling your eyes during discussion.”

          1. Green*

            Depends on how much patience you have for this employee. If they’re still on probationary status, I wouldn’t be inclined to invest much time in basic human interaction training. I think it’s enough to say that your tone and body language are inappropriate and causing tension to an employee who is on probationary status.

            1. Jayn*

              But that relies on the person being able to recognize that a) they’re engaging in those behaviors and b) they’re inappropriate for the situation. It may be more work than you think the situation warrants, but vague feedback can leave a person unable to fix a problem because they’re not sure what the problem actually is.

  2. fposte*

    “I have been reprimanded for this too because apparently they value discussion over actual decision-making!”

    Or they value buy-in, and you’re trying to skip past the process that gets it and making success more difficult. I’m an academic, so I know from pointless discussion, but the discussion is how a lot of people get to the decision. You’re mistaking “not important to you” for “not important, period.”

    There have been some good discussions here on relationship-oriented vs. task-oriented approaches that I think you might find useful; if I can find good links I’ll post them in a followup. But I’m concerned that you’ve been alerted that your communication style isn’t what they’d hoped and have been given specific examples, and you’re not seeming to consider the possibility that they have a point.

    1. KT*

      This is an excellent point. I’ve found this to be common with new employees fresh out of school (not a millennial thing, it’s universal!). In school, if it “wasn’t going to be on the exam”, you could tune it out and excel. But in real life work, the discussion and relationships are way more important than the actual take-away/tasks.

      OP, you’ve gotten several reprimands. Closing up and being subservient isn’t the answer. You have come off as not-involved with your body language in tone, and it sounds like you need some coaching on how to appropriately handle yourself in an office-setting and professional communication.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I would also add that often the takeaways and action steps are what’s most important and it’s not just about relationships — but that the discussion is how you get to the right takeaways and action steps. When you’re very junior, you might just not have a fully informed perspective on why people are finding the conversation useful in getting to better outcomes.

      2. afiendishthingy*

        The “closing up and being subservient” thing threw up red flags for me because in my experience that translates to “sullen.” It really is hard to figure out the communication norms in a professional job, and nobody’s born knowing it. You’ll need to work with a lot of different people over the course of your career, and you’ll need to learn how to be assertive without being disrespectful or unnecessarily confrontational – even when they’re telling things you don’t like or don’t agree with. You’re going to have coworkers and bosses who may be totally incompetent or have less education than you or are constantly late. You still have to be professional and respectful. I am not trying to pile on you, because it took me a good chunk of my twenties to figure all this out.

        Don’t take your manager’s decision as an insult. Think of it as a chance to improve. Work with them to figure out specific steps you should be taking – not just “be more positive” but “rather than saying ‘I can’t do this’ say ‘I need some help adjusting the floogerbit intensity on the website design, do we have resources I could consult on that?” (I know nothing about website design can you tell.) And check in with them now and then to see how you’re progressing.

        Don’t fret! It could be they’re dysfunctional or it’s just a bad fit, or they could have some good points, or it could be a combination. So keep your resume up to date, look around a bit just in case, but experiment with the idea that they may be on to something. Best of luck!

    2. T3k*

      Also, she doesn’t mention what kind of discussions that are taking place. If she’s doing web design, it’s very common for discussions to be about how to best appeal to their audience, possible changes that need to be made, etc. Basically, web design isn’t just about slapping together something in HTML but also requires discussions and research (yes, research. Big companies actually shell out quite a bit of money for UX research).

    3. JMegan*

      Some offices absolutely do value discussion over actual decision-making (hello, Former Employer!). And it can be immensely frustrating if you’re a more task-oriented type. Or heck, it can be frustrating even if you’re relationship-oriented and still don’t want to spend half your day in pointless meetings! But the thing is, this is the culture of your workplace, and you can’t just come crashing in and change it. Your colleagues have been working this way for probably years, and whether or not it’s effective or efficient, the point is that it works for them.

      One of the things about being a recent college grad and/or being new to the workplace, is that you get to learn all sorts of things about office culture, and what you can put up with vs what you absolutely can’t stand. So you’re learning something about yourself here. If it turns out that this kind of meeting is a dealbreaker for you, that’s important information both for staying at this job and looking for another one. Every organization has them to some extent, but if you want to avoid them, I would stay away from academia and government, and look instead to fast-paced for-profit business models.

      1. Brandy*

        Ive been to meetings to schedule meetings. Also meetings half the people didn’t show up to and were rescheduled. That’s how one of my last employers rolled and I rolled with it.

        1. JMegan*

          The meeting series I’m thinking of at my former employer, was to discuss photocopier settings. There were ten hour-long meetings, involving no less than five managers (and me, lucky!) to discuss the pros and cons of enabling or disabling a single option on the copiers.

          Believe me, the day I realized that the discussion actually was more important than the actual outcome, was the happiest day of my time there! Once I was able to frame it like that, the whole thing became a lot less frustrating. Because I realized that we actually were accomplishing our goals – it was my understanding of the goals that needed adjusting, not the goals themselves.

          1. Kelly L.*

            This is really helpful to me today, too. Our department has a way of chewing on an issue for months of meetings without seeming to “get anywhere,” and this will help me look at it differently.

            1. afiendishthingy*

              Oooh. before Esoteric Windbag Director got fired we used to have the same 2 hour long meeting at least once a month… “What defines our Teapot Analysis program?” For like… 10 months. I was not containing myself very well by the end. If I come across this again I will try to focus on that.

              1. Kelly L.*

                Yes! The temptation is to say “Apparently, what defines our Teapot Analysis program is re-analyzing our Teapot Analysis program every two weeks.”

          2. Lynn Whitehat*

            So, what goal does that advance? Ten hours times, I don’t know, eight people, is 80 people hours. To discuss copier settings? There’s no better use of these people’s time?

            I could not work where you do.

          3. Green*

            If you’re more senior, you can certainly influence efficiency when it comes to meetings. But if you’re junior it can be nice to throw in some perspective: “Holy crap, I am getting paid to listen to people talk about a photocopier setting! MULTIPLE TIMES! THIS IS HILARIOUS.”

      2. Clever Name*

        ” look instead to fast-paced for-profit business models.”

        Definitely. I work in a fast-paced consulting firm, and we really have very few company meetings. Project meetings, sure, but there really aren’t a ton of meetings, which is nice.

    4. LBK*

      I’d argue that discussion is actually the only good reason to have a meeting – if there’s nothing to talk out and all you need to do is tell me the final conclusion, send me an email. The only reason you should need to get me in a room is if you want everyone involved in making a decision to be there and be able to provide input. Sometimes through that process you’ll realize that you can’t actually make a decision just yet, so it may seem like the meeting was a waste. But you only realize that by having a discussion, and you only get to have those discussions (in an effective and efficient way that doesn’t involve a 60-part email chain) by having meetings.

      Having just gone through a lengthy review of one of our processes that involved meetings literally all day for 2 weeks, we didn’t come to any concrete conclusions until the end of those 2 weeks but we absolutely needed those meetings to make sure we all understood what was going on and to make sure every base was covered since the process was so complex.

      1. Koko*

        Yes! So much this. Don’t waste my time with a meeting UNLESS you want to have a back-and-forth discussion. I don’t need to interrupt my work and trot down the hall (and have our team take up valuable conference room space) just to have assignments doled out.

      2. A good old canuck*

        I’d like to add that sometimes meetings that are primarily for discussion and perhaps don’t end with a definite conclusion are needed. In some organizations a change in a process or protocol or a single decision can have an impact on multiple departments. If that happens it makes sense for meetings to be focused around “How will this change impact this department”. Sometimes, multiple departments may have to have that discussions and that may mean that a number of individual meetings with each department may need to happen before a decision can be made. So, it may seem like the meeting is solely discussion focused, but it could be that the meeting is only a small part of a bigger picture.

      3. Jen S. 2.0*

        Agree big time. Don’t have a meeting when a memo will do, and, similarly, don’t send a memo when we really need a meeting.

    5. blushingflower*

      There are also a lot of people who think out loud and need to bounce ideas off of each other. Or you have two different departments who each have a different piece of the picture, and they need to have a conversation to understand what ideas and solutions will actually work.
      Yeah, sometimes those meetings can feel tedious and boring, and sometimes only a few people are actually getting anything out of them. But those discussions can be hugely important to making the right decisions, because having everyone’s input leads to better understanding and better decisions.

      But, yes, the boss has said “you need to work on your communication skills”. The answer to that should be “can you give me specific examples of things that I have done that I could work on?” “Are there any training resources available to help me improve?”

    1. CaliCali*

      I thought this point was very salient, regarding communication pitfalls:

      Not taking things personally enough: Yup, I’m talking to you task-focused people. Here’s the thing: You want to get things done, right? I completely understand – we need people like you to keep the train moving and achieving things. However, if you don’t consider how you say things to people and the personal value others place on your interaction with them, then you will not get things accomplished, because they won’t work with you because they feel like you don’t like them or are trying to send some kind of message. They will passively aggressively communicate with you, they will avoid you, they might even sabatoge you. It’s certainly not right or easy to understand, but as a relationship person I’m here to tell you that’s what’s happening.

  3. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

    OP, I am worried for you about the focus your putting on viewing these issues as small. It really does not matter whether or not you view these as major problems, it matters whether your boss does. It might not seem rational to you, but when it comes down to whether or not they are going to keep you on, that’s the only thing that matters. I can think of multiple examples of times where I’ve let someone go because of a pattern where I shared feedback about what needed to change and they dismissed that feedback and responded by telling me what they are doing well (most recently, it was a very, very similar situation to what you describe). What you are hearing from your boss is that what you are doing well isn’t enough to make up for the problems they see. Your colleagues might be giving you positive feedback, but they may not be in a good place to assess your overall performance, and they may not even be consulted about whether to keep you on.

    I’m also concerned that you are focusing on the lack of training, and on how little you knew when you started. Many jobs don’t provide explicit training in every task or project. You may get some training, and you are expected to figure the rest out over your first few weeks, months, or years (depending on what it is). 6 months in, most employers would expect you to be up to speed through a combination of training, learning on the job, and doing your own research when needed. It sounds like you are doing this to some extent, but that you may need to do more learning – on your own time if needed through a class, mentor, youtube – something. If you argue otherwise, you are effectively asserting that they hired someone unqualified for the role – and the result of that may be that they agree and decide not to keep you on.

    I also want to suggest that you try to focus on observing the interpersonal interactions between others in the office. As a new employee, it’s not your place right now to change the way they run meetings. Instead, watch how people interact and do your best to follow a similar pattern in your interactions. If you are spending meeting time trying to communicate that you don’t know what you do, where to start, or what the goal is, and no one else is doing that – take a different approach, like asking these questions in a private meeting with your boss.

    I wish you luck diciphering the dynamics and expectations – it’s not easy to do that in a first job.

    1. KT*

      This is an excellent point. Saying you can’t do something just doesn’t fly. You can say you need some time to perfect something,b uit just to say you “can’t” isn’t going to work.

      When I first started and was over my head managing a website, I spent a lot of time googling tutorials and how-tos. How do embed html code with color blocked tables? Insert a right side sidebar? Google was my savior.

      1. Tanith*

        Ooooh, it really gets my goat when the members of our web team say that they “can’t” do something. What they really mean is that it’s time-consuming, or expensive, or may not be possible with the current version of the website but could be implemented with an upgrade.

        Never say “can’t”, because a resourceful and committed person can ALWAYS find a way to meet the requester’s needs, even if it’s not in the exact way the requester originally intended it.

        1. Another HRPro*

          Yes. Can’t do something is not an option. Explaining the situation and understanding priorities is necessary to determine if something SHOULD be done but almost everything is possible with enough resources.

    2. Meg Murry*

      Yes, my concern is that they are realizing that hiring someone that didn’t have a lot of web design experience and expecting them to learn on the job was not a smart move – not necessarily your fault, because you fit their original job description, but they didn’t really know what they wanted when they hired you and now they realize they need more expertise.

      You may be doing great “considering your lack of experience and the steep learning curve” but the company may decide that isn’t enough and they do need someone with experience. This extension of probation may be so they can evaluate whether it makes sense to have you stay in this role.

      I think you need to have an honest conversation with your boss as to what your web design skills are, and what is being asked for, and how to handle it when someone asks for something you don’t know how to do. Maybe start with meetings where you all lay out priorities for the website (so #1 might be update to current company logo and graphic standards, #2 might be update out of date addresses, etc, #3 might be add a section about ABC and #4 is add user forums). Then you can go to your boss separately and say “I can do 1 and 2 easily, 3 will take more time, and #4 will take me a long time and a lot of teaching and research. How do you want me to proceed, do you think we can push back on#4 for right now, or is this something very important to the CEO?”

      Is it possible to have you lay out the framework for what they want to do, and then hire a consultant to build those web features, while you do the more general maintenance of the site?

      Last, communication is not a little thing. It can seem like it, but in most jobs, it doesn’t matter how good you are at your individual job tasks – if you are difficult to work with, most people aren’t going to want to keep you around. Yes, your company may be heavy on the “sit around and discuss” instead of “go go go, do do do”, but if you don’t first identify what exactly it is everyone wants done, it just means you’ll wind up doing a lot of the work over again once it’s complete and not what they wanted in the first place.

    3. Koko*

      Especially in a technical field like web design. That fields is updating itself so quickly that beyond having a solid foundation such as understanding basic HTML/CSS and the logic of programming languages, it almost doesn’t matter what training you come in with because in six months it will be outdated anyway, and unless you work for a cutting-edge technology company like Google or Facebook your company is unlikely to be better-equipped to provide you with training than you, a technology professional, are equipped to seek out for yourself.

      Everywhere I’ve worked there’s been that one invaluable technology employee, a developer/coder/designer, who can make seemingly anything happen. The company didn’t teach them their skills. They are the kind of people who mentally thrive on challenge. Compared to the relative monotony of their routine tasks, they love being given a puzzle that their existing skillset didn’t meet so that they could spend a few hours researching it and coming up with a proposed solution. Responses like, “I’ve been wanting to learn Skill X which seems to be the new hot thing, and I think your problem is the perfect reason to learn it,” are common. If you work in technology, you need to be an auto-didact. Companies won’t hire you for skills that will be obsolete in a year – they’ll hire you on the strength of their belief that you can keep up with the field.

      1. Ad Astra*

        That invaluable technology employee saved my ass so many times at OldJob. And every single request was completed sooner than what I thought was reasonable, with zero errors. God bless her.

  4. Dan*

    CaliCali is right in that you’ve laid out the reasons why your probationary period was extended.

    Here’s the thing: Saying “I can’t” or “I don’t know” is Not. A. Helpful. Answer. Particularly if you say it during an open meeting. It comes across as “No”, even if it’s true. And here’s the rub: A flat “no” is really, really hard to work with. When I sit in meetings, when I’m tempted to say “no” to my boss, what I really say is, “here’s what needs to happen for me to say yes” or “here’s what will happen if I say yes.” I help my boss make an informed decision on how to best get the work done.

    If I’m the wrong person to do the job, I’ll say so, and I’ll explain why. And sometimes I’m the right person to do the job, even if somebody could do it quicker/faster/cheaper. In that case, it’s a “growth experience” for me.

    Your co-workers may be correct in that you’re doing a good job “for a recent college graduate.” That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing the job the boss wants. (I’m not trying to put you down here, just trying to explain how those statements can both be true and perceived to be conflicting at the same time.)

    Finally, few employers ever provide their employees with training of any real substance. You’re expected to figure out how to do what they want, and take the initiative to get it done. The reality is, the further you get up the food chain, the more they’re expecting you to figure out these things on your own. It’s ok not to know something — but your employer expects you to figure out how to get to that end result; they certainly don’t want to hold your hand to get there.

    If you really truly feel lost, and have no idea how to get the knowledge to do the job they want, then that’s a sign that the fit may not be right.

    1. fposte*

      Right–a “no” stops the flow; it robs the other person of tools. (Forbidden in improv for that reason, I believe.) The subtextual question to “Can you get x done?” is usually “How can x get done, and could you handle it?” That’s not a good question to answer “No” to.

        1. Anony-moose*

          Love the “yes, and” philosophy of improv. I try to use it in my life as often as I can. It’s amazing how much just being open to next steps (whatever they are) can change things.

    2. The IT Manager*

      It can be a timing / audience thing too. It should be okay to tell your boss you don’t know how to do something (I’m thinking technical web design thing) and you need training or to study up on it or something.

      If you’re in a meeting where people are talking about that they need their web page to do something, and you respond with I don’t know how to do that, that’s bad. You’re basically refusing to do your job if you can’t meet their needs one way or another. It’s possible some things are truly out of scope too / technical for you / not your job, but it sounds like you’re saying that what they’re asking should be something you can do but you lack training. You’re lack of training means they can’t get something that the person in your position should be able to provide.

      1. fposte*

        I would also say there’s a huge difference for me between “I don’t know how to do that” and “I’m game but I’d really like to get some training before I dive in.”

        1. NJ Anon*

          Right or “I will figure it out!” Being resourceful is a huge asset. I may not know how to do everything but I’ll find out how to if the need arises.

    3. Anonsie*

      Depends on how you say it, though. If you’re in a planning meeting and they say they’re going to shoot something your way to take care of but you know it’s going to require a lot of background work for you to do, it’s reasonable to say that you can’t do it immediately so it will add +whatever time to what they want. Or if they’re asking how they should go about doing something and you don’t know the answer, an “I don’t know off the top of my head but I can look into it and follow up with you” while hashing out the details you do have is pretty much your only option. I mean, what else would you do, just make something up on the fly?

      I’ve worked both with people who would shrug their shoulders and refuse to take new things on if it meant extra work to figure it out and with people who expect you to just “yes sir” at them and then quietly do the background work without ever acknowledging it to anyone. I couldn’t tell you which of those situations is happening here from the letter.

      1. eee*

        I could also see someone misinterpreting a rhetorical question for an actual question. Ex: In a meeting, the group is discussing desired changes to the website. Someone makes a suggestion to do something that you have absolutely no idea how to implement, there’s some discussion of the merits of the suggestion, and your boss decides they think it’s a good idea. They turn to you and ask “Hey Erma, can you do [this specific task]?” You respond “No, I don’t know how to do that.”
        I’ve been in some environments where “No, I don’t know how to do that” is a definitely okay answer to give, either eliciting the response 1) “Ok, well please look into it and come back next week with more information on the topic, like whether it would be difficult or easy to implement, what we would need to implement it, how long you think it would take you to learn how to do this task.” 2) “Okay, Juan has had some experience doing something similar before, we’ll have him guide you through this task” or 3) “Hmm, okay, let’s brainstorm something else we could do, since this is a very low priority, and I’d rather we just make a quick change.”

        If you’re very literal minded, this could be an easy mistake to make–the person is asking you if you can do it, and your response is “I don’t know how to do this.” When in reality, they’re politely telling you “do X”.

        1. LBK*

          I wouldn’t say that’s a rhetorical question, but rather you’re mistaking a question that means “Do you have the availability to handle this task?” for “Do you have the knowledge to handle this task?”. The latter is almost never a question that gets asked in the working world because it’s assumed that if something is relatively within your job description, you’ll know how to do it or at least know who to ask for help.

          I’d say the only acceptable negative answers to “Can you handle this?” are “I’m actually completely swamped and won’t be able to work on it for 2 weeks so if we need it ASAP, Jane will have to do it” or “Jane actually does about 40% of this already in her regular work so it probably makes more sense for her to take on the other 60% too instead of me”.

        2. Anonsie*

          Ohh this makes me wonder if she works with the “do you want to do x” type of assigners. You know, people who tell you to do something by asking if you a question about it and then get bent out of shape if you actually answer it instead of just doing the thing. That drives me batty, I hate having to read people’s minds for them.

          I used to have a manager who did that to an extreme, she’d ask you to do something by going “Hey Anonsie, have you ever mixed this type of mortar before?” For months after I started working for her I would just answer her question like, “No I haven’t. Do you need me to?” She would just kind of get uncomfortable and go “Welllll I guess I could ask Joe Bob, he knows how to do it…” Then just look at you pointedly. “So, should I ask Joe Bob to come show me how and start doing it? Or should I leave him on what he’s doing now and figure it out, is it simple?” And she would just get really uncomfortable and shuffle off, then later in meetings she’d say you wouldn’t follow directions. And you’d be like, what directions? I kept asking what you wanted! Gahhh. I’ve worked with a few managers who did this.

          1. Brisvegan*

            Aah, yes, the bad boss I’ve mentioned before did this sort of thing. It was only after she left that I realised things like “maybe we could think about doing an x spreadsheet in twelve months” actually meant “do an x spreadsheet straight away, on your weekend, or I will scream at you because I did not check y document, which I am the only one who can access, but details from which would be recorded on x spreadsheet in an ideal world, before I did z and got egg on my face.”

            She also had a philosophy that good employees would guess what the boss wanted and get it done pro-actively. That can be a good thing, of course! However, to her, that apparently meant “read my mind and do things I have never asked for or hinted at or I will be very pissed off at you.” You were a very bad employee if you didn’t guess the exact thing she wanted done and do it without being asked (eg admin was yelled at for not filling her stapler when it ran out of staples, though that had never been required or expected of our admins and the boss had a box of staples right next to her stapler).

            1. Joline*

              I had a boss that yelled something like that at me once. “I need you to give me what I want, not what I say!” Literally. I responded with “The way you think is so entirely alien to me that I’m never going to just figure out what you want, so you’re going to have to tell me.” He laughed a bit and tried to get better with his instructions after that.

              1. TootsNYC*

                My mother used to say, “Listen to what I mean, not what I say.” (Usually when she’d been thinking so hard that the wrong words came out of her mouth–a verbal “typo.”)

                And then she would say, “I always say exactly what I mean.” Usually when you had improvised something and done it differently than her explicit instructions, because you thought she couldn’t possibly mean that.

    4. T3k*

      +1. I’m known at my office to be a person of few words, but I never just go “No, I can’t do that” and drop it. If it’s something I truly can’t do, I explain why or what needs to be changed so I can do it or at the very least “I’ll try to research more into that and get back to you on it.”

    5. Turtle Candle*

      Yeah, I will often say “I don’t know, but I can find out/figure it out,” or “I can do it, as long as I can go to Susan with questions, because she has more experience than me,” or “I can do that, but I need X resource to do it,” or “I can’t do that in X weeks, but I can do it in Y weeks, or I can do it in X weeks if we make Z change,” or whatever. (And my up-front willingness means that I’m more likely to get buy-in for the schedule change, extra resources needed, or willingness for Susan to be my go-to person.)

      And the flip side is that because I don’t say “no, I can’t” 99% of the time, the 1% of the time I do need to say it–because the thing that’s being asked is unreasonable or literally impossible–it carries more weight. Once in a while something is technically impossible, and saving my “No, I can’t, because [reason]” for those times means that it actually gets listened to.

    6. Blurgle*

      I think the only time I would use “I can’t do that” is if the boss asked me to do something illegal, and even then you’d better believe I’d explain.

      “Can you drive out to X and pick up that whatchamacallit?”
      “Not by myself, boss; I’m not permitted to drive with my eyesight. Can I snag a cab, or would you like me to arrange for a messenger?”

  5. Ad Astra*

    It is possible that the manager’s criticism are nitpicky or unfair, but my gut tells me this OP is underestimating the importance of communication in this job. That’s an easy thing to do as an entry-level employee, and I can see a lot of myself in this letter. Relationships are important in most jobs, and the way you communicate with people has a huge influence on these relationships.

    OP, please take Allison’s advice. After you’ve made some adjustments to your communication style, consider asking your manager for feedback to make sure the changes fit her expectations and the company’s culture. Your manager is telling you what’s important to her, so take it to heart.

    1. NP*

      And it’s important to remember that even if communication style is really important in this job, it’s not important in every job, or at least it won’t keep you from moving up. I can think of many senior people who are absolutely terrible communicators (e.g., write extremely abrupt and rude emails demanding things), but they somehow make it through.

      1. Brisvegan*

        However, entry level people often get judged very differently for offhand or abrupt communication styles, so OP is going to have to get through the first part of their employment first.

        An C level exec sitting in a meeting, scowling, with arms folded and leaning back in a chair will have one interpretation (not impressed, but with the experience to know what works) while an entry level, new hire, younger person will risk a very negative interpretation (arrogant, above themselves, know-it-all, disengaged).

        OP, this might not be what you are thinking, but it is easy to give the wrong impression when people only know 6 months of your work and you are new in the work world. Seriously consider looking at your body language to give a message of interest and openness, whatever you are secretly thinking. Sit up and lean ever so slightly forward in meetings. Keep an open and interested expression on your face, never a bored or unhappy expression, even if you think someone is talking rubbish. Take notes if needed (don’t doodle!). Look at whoever is speaking. Never look at a phone, email etc while in a meeting. This may mean taking a paper and pencil if using a computer for notes could be misinterpreted. (I cannot count the number of my college age students who think checking their phone or having social media open in meetings or classes is not a big deal, when it signals less than full engagement to everyone around them.)

        Some people might react that it is “fake” to consistently manage body language, but I think it is more like choosing your words to make a good impact. It’s another message that you are giving and you can make it professional and positive, the same way you make your words professional and positive.

      2. afiendishthingy*

        I’m not sure this is the best lesson to take from this experience. Sure, we can all think of people like this, but wouldn’t the people around them and probably the company be better off if they WEREN’T rude and terrible communicators? And as an entry level employee you’ll almost definitely be better off learning to navigate the social/comunication dynamics of a workplace.

        I’ve only been managing people for the last year, but I can tell you I’m much more willing to forgive minor attendance issues, minor mistakes, etc from a cheerful flexible employee than one who rolls her eyes and has a million excuses/defense when she’s given feedback. Also our employees are classified temporary part-time and assigned to specific clients; if that case closes we’re not required to place them on another case. Good employee? We will do everything we can to find another case for them because we don’t want them to leave the agency. Argumentative can’t-take-feedback employee? I’m going to spread the word to my colleagues that you are not a treat to supervise.

        1. Charityb*

          I agree completely. I mean, you can say that there are very senior and successful people who microwave fish in the middle of a crowded office and openly text during meetings but that doesn’t mean that someone who is on probation should take the same liberties or should internalize those bad habits. It’s kind of like how experienced drivers sometimes drive with one hand while eating or applying make-up; sure they often get away with it but that doesn’t make it best practices for someone taking a driving test.

        2. TootsNYC*

          I can tell you I’m much more willing to forgive minor attendance issues, minor mistakes, etc from a cheerful flexible employee than one who rolls her eyes and has a million excuses/defense when she’s given feedback.

          I told my kids this when they were in elementary school. If you treat your teachers well, they’ll be much more willing to help you or to cut you some slack if you screw up.

      3. Observer*

        The truth is, though, that poor communications really will always hold you back. Yes, in some places, if you are a brilliant star, you’ll move up anyway. But, it’s much easier when you are good communicator even in those places. Pretty places where this is not true is in dysfunctional workplaces.

  6. Bekx*

    Honestly if your job is to update the website, and you don’t have the skills or knowledge to do so, then it looks like they made a hiring mistake. My guess is OP’s predecessor was able to do both web and customer service and that’s why the position is grouped together like that.

    I’m a web designer, so I’m sorta speaking from an annoyed tone (at your company). It’s not this easy job that all 20 somethings can do because “they learn that in school now!”.

    My advice to you, if you want to continue in this role, is to see what you can learn about HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and basic design skills. If you’re using a CMS like WordPress you can find plenty of tutorials online as well. But frankly, it’s not a skill that you can just learn overnight.

    So that leaves you with your communication skill, which apparently they think is lacking. I think Alison is spot on with trying to see what people are getting from you. Perhaps if you can share what these petty examples were, that might give us some more insight.

    1. BRR*

      Not to play devil’s advocate for fun but the position might have been created following a restructuring or from budget restraints. My last job was created because the organization had these duties that required 10%-30%. So at first it was a position on its own, the person didn’t have enough to do so they took on the duties of another position when that person left but that position required 110% of somebody’s time so when the person doing all of this left they stuck the small duties on another position which I applied for. I was doing things that required way different skills. I was fired from that job and they moved the small part onto yet another person.

      After I was fired, I applied for a job at an organization doing A and B. The organization had a small budget so when things were divided up between the number of employees they could hire, A and B were the responsibilities of the same person. Thankfully I didn’t get that job because it was a set up to fail.

      1. Kelly L.*


        My job said nothing about web design anywhere in its ad or description, yet I’m doing a fair amount of web design, because the people who did do it got cut at some point.

    2. Ad Astra*

      I’d like to know more about this OP’s job responsibilities and his past experience. It seems very, very strange to me that a company would hire a web designer with very little experience. On the other hand, managing content on a CMS has a much shorter learning curve. I’m wondering if OP is really something more like a web editor/webmaster/digital content manager/etc rather than a designer.

      Then again, I may be projecting because I was a web/digital editor who dealt mostly with content and people often thought that meant I knew how to design websites when I really can’t do anything beyond a ’90s-style HTML site. I did often get requests that were pretty far outside my skill set and job description because so many people equate online content management with web design. It was sometimes tough to find a diplomatic way to say “I have no idea how to do that, and I’m not entirely sure who in this company would know, and honestly I suspect our existing programs aren’t capable of that at all.”

      My other theory is that OP is struggling with a CMS or design program that is unique to his company, and doesn’t feel like he’s had enough training to be able to ask the right questions or look up the right information. In that case, he may be able to ask for some specific training, or at least some clarification about who knows what in this organization. But even if my theories are true, he needs to improve his communication to survive in this office.

  7. Amy R*

    Welcome to the working world. 99% of meetings are pointless discussion. You’ll need to get used to it, I’m afraid!

  8. KT*

    One of the most valuable things I had happen to me during the early stages of my career.

    I had what I thought was a blockbuster first year. I had delivered HUGE events, major media coverage, and industry firsts. I expected confetti.

    I sauntered into my review, and my then manager sighed and looked at me and said “You’re at barely meets expectations right now”

    I was shocked. Truly shocked. When I said the above (RESULTS! I DELIVERED!), she shrugged and said, “No doubt you delivered results. But this company culture values the “how” in how you got there more than the results. You got the results we wanted, but you didn’t get there the right way. You didn’t communicate appropriately, you rubbed people the wrong way, and it really tarnished your end product”.

    For the first 24 hours OP, I very much felt like they were being so petty. I didn’t communicate? Really? My events were AWESOME.

    After my first 24 hours of denial, I did some reflection. I DID communicate ineffectively. I did go about some things that made people feel dismissed or that I didn’t value the meetings. It was a huge learning milestone for me and it has benefited me ever since. Client management is something that can be instituted internally as well, and working on communicating, making sure people feel heard and valued, can go a long way in building your professional image.

    1. simonthegrey*

      But did your boss say anything to you sooner about being below/barely at expectations? It seems like that is a long time to let that slide!

      1. KT*

        So this is one of the those weird big-corporation arrangement where my “boss” was several layers above me and I saw her maybe 3 times a year. I had someone who I worked with day to day who had given me feedback (which I thought was “petty” compared to the awesome I was delivering!) but I did not “officially” report to her.

        1. KT*

          My review also had 360 feedback containing input from various departments my actual boss would never have a chance to meet, like people from our legal team, catering staff, etc–the annual review is the one time those folks were ever approached for feedback

          My feedback was that I was arrogant, aggressive, and dismissive. That is NOT me, as a person, so I was really horrified when I took the time to do some reflecting and humbled myself greatly.

          A few years later at my review, one coworker high up in the legal department wrote that I was “smart, talented, but more importantly, a really kind person and it was a pleasure” to work with me, and that was when I officially made it at this company and got a good review!

          1. Bend & Snap*

            So much ouch in all of this. It’s really inspiring to hear how you used that feedback for positive changes.

            1. LQ*

              I really hope the OP comes in and reads some of these stories. They are really positive. (I needed a bit of an attitude adjustment today too it’s helpful.)

            2. afiendishthingy*

              Yes, I’m impressed you managed a turn-around that quick. I had a job in my mid-twenties where I once was nearly fired for losing my temper with a woman who lived next door to a company property. (The neighbor was being unreasonable and TOTALLY STARTED IT, but I reacted very badly. and loudly. and profanely.) (The interesting thing about that one was the split reactions I got from people I told – my friends in their twenties were very much on my side, you were off company time and property! She was a jerk and the company threw you under the bus – While my parents and a few others I told who were at least ten years older than me were definitely in the “yeeeahhh you cannot pull that and not expect to be in trouble” camp.) I also had “communication issues” with a supervisor there on occasion, mostly because I felt that, due to having a different background, she had unreasonable expectations of me and my peers. And I thought she was being TOTALLY UNFAIR when she called me to her office and said “It’s hard to have a conversation with you because if someone says blue, you say red.” I did leave on good terms with everyone, but I would guess it took me at least a year after these incidents to realize that, while she was not necessarily a great manager, I was in fact totally out of line in some of my interactions. It’s a little embarrassing to think about now, but I have at least belatedly learned from the experience, and I’ve mentioned it to my own reports who tend towards defensiveness. They’re tough habits to change but so, so important.

              1. TootsNYC*

                yeah, defensiveness is such a liability–I’ve also said to people I was giving negative feedback to, “You don’t need to be that defensive–this isn’t an attack, and I’m not firing you or putting you on notice. I just need something different from you, and I know that you can improve. But when you get defensive; it closes you off to fixing the problem. You’re hurting yourself.”

          2. Katie the Fed*

            Ahhh yeah I think I was that way early in my career too. I cringe looking back sometimes!

          3. LBK*

            This happened to me but instead of getting a review, I overheard a coworker talking about me (she was standing outside the bathroom and didn’t realize I was in there and could hear everything extremely clearly). It was really awkward but it was also a wake up call that I was coming off like a total asshole and if I hadn’t heard her saying that, I probably never would’ve known I needed to fix it. Fortunately I got a lot better and she and I ended up being very close.

            1. afiendishthingy*

              YIKES. Mortifying but I’m glad you were a big enough person to take it at face value.

      2. Anonsie*

        Seriously, that’s ludicrous. “We don’t like how she’s behaving and we’re going to give her a poor review, but whoooeeee I am NOT going to bring it up before that year is over!”

        1. LQ*

          I don’t know. I might have someone in another division that I work with just a couple times, or on one little project and I am frustrated with the way they do it. But then the project is over. When I get an email saying, hey, do a review for this person…I’m going to be honest. It might have frustrated me, not enough to go to their boss, but if you are going to solicit my feedback yeah, I’m going to say they were rude or whatever.

          Something can be not bad enough to bring up, but still be true and worth saying when asked.

          1. Anonsie*

            If she’s being dropped down to “barely meets expectations” then they should have known about it before then though. What you’re describing is a lot milder than how KT is saying she affected people, and I wouldn’t think that would bungle your whole review and tarnish all your good work. If it was as wide-reaching as she says it is, they should have realized it well before they asked people for their comments.

            1. Observer*

              Yes, but her supervising co-worker WAS trying to give her feedback, which she dismissed as “petty”.

              1. Anonsie*

                I think you’re misreading the post. She said it only came up in her annual review, at which she was shocked and felt it was petty. But after a day of thinking about it, she realized the feedback was pretty accurate and made efforts to improve.

                I’m saying, she shouldn’t have been totally blindsided by this in her review if it was bad enough for them to drop her that low.

        2. 2horseygirls*

          Ludicrous? Yes. Unusual? No. The same thing just happened to me in the worst review I’ve gotten in the 21 years of my career. Apparently, I ask questions in an offensive manner, among a myriad of other sins. And a co-worker felt I deliberately waited until she left for the day to email issues (when in reality, it was when things calmed down enough for me to concentrate on the more detailed aspects of my job; instead of mentioning this AT ANT POINT in the first 11 months I was in the department, it got saved for my annual review — three months *after* that co-worker retired.

          Honestly, this post has been quite the eye-opener for me. A lot of what I took for granted in the workplace has been excellent management, not standard business SOP.

    2. Artemesia*

      Powerful point. I had a similar experience with a first job where I thought I was doing well (and in many ways I was) but the feedback given by my supervisor (and he did it ‘informally’ i.e.not as part of the written evaluation) really brought me up short and challenged my view of myself. He disclosed some uncomfortable truths that I don’t even want to write here, but it made me reflect and greatly improve the quality of my work.

      It is easy to fool yourself.

  9. LQ*

    “I don’t know but I’ll figure it out!” Or “That’s a great problem I don’t have an answer for yet, let me poke at it and see if I can come up with something.” Or “You win the best problem of the day/week/month/year award.” Or “I’m building it in my brain, give me a minute or two to think about it.” (And also if any of my coworkers are reading they now know who I am! None of them are without personality, or subservient either.) These are some of the things I say when I’m thinking if you wanted someone with an instant answer you should pay three times as much as you pay or send me through a whole bunch of fancy trainings. Because I get to do things that are way outside what someone at my paygrade/experience levels gets to do. I get to learn cool new things and they are usually willing to give me the time to figure it out.

    Also? If you want to be able to slack at one thing (like communicating) you need to not meet expectations in other areas, you need to blow them out of the water. (Rainmakers)

    Stop using scare quotes. Please. It is a communication thing that isn’t aggressive, but people can hear it when you do it aloud and it sounds passive aggressive, which is just as bad as aggressive.

    1. ThatGirl*

      +1 to “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.” That is the best line to use, because it shows some initiative on your part to go do the research and come back to it with a solution.

      1. LQ*

        This line has helped me time and again, if I really can’t figure it out or I do have to say I can’t do it I have usually had enough time to think of an alternative solution, or ask around to figure out why they want something, which lets me work around it.

        The only problem is now that I know much more and I know there are some things the tool I use just cannot do and the answer is “Not without bringing in a high end consultant” no one likes when I answer right away and the answer is no. I need to go back to saying I don’t know even when I do, giving the time for alternates.

        1. ThatGirl*

          I think that saying “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out,” even if you ultimately know the answer will be no goes a long way and gives a different impression than saying “No” outright.

          That is to say, I do love saying no. :)

          1. Turtle Candle*

            Yeah, “I don’t know, but I’ll look into it,” or “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out” can lead eventually to “we can’t do this because we would need a tool/resource/whatever that we have; here’s what we’d need to proceed” or “this would require expertise in X, which would take me six months to learn–do you want me to spend my time on that?” Or even, “We can’t do X because it’s illegal/technically impossible” (I’ve heard horror stories from designer friends who were told to lift images or design elements wholesale from other sites, in direct contradiction of copyright/intellectual property laws, and obviously at that point you have to say no.)

            But doing the legwork of figuring out whether it’s possible and what would be required to make it possible softens the message quite a lot.

      2. Anonymous Educator*

        Since I have no official education or certifications in my current field, this has basically been my motto for the last four years.

        At my most recent job, my boss told me I had to set up some thing called “Monkey.” I had no idea what “Monkey” was, but I said I’d figure it out. Turns out it was actually “Munki,” and not “Monkey,” after all. And I still didn’t know what it was, but I did research and some trial and error and figured Munki out.

        If I had said to my boss “I don’t know how to do that” instead of “That sounds cool… give me some time to figure it out,” I’m sure he would have really regretted hiring me.

    2. Anony-moose*

      Yes to all of this.

      And now for me, sometimes the answer is “I can’t do this because I’ve looked at the project and it’s way outside my skillset” or “I’ve called our teapot vendor and spoken to three people and unfortunately what you’re asking for won’t work with our current system, but we can do Option B instead.” And after 3 years, my boss knows that when I say “I can’t do this,” I mean it.

      1. LQ*

        When “I can’t do this” means “this tool is incapable of doing what you desire, I’ve checked every possibility” that is really the time to say no. It does feel good to get to a place where people believe you when you say no. (And if you say that when what you mean is “I don’t have the skill to do this or to know if the tool can do this” it might take longer to have them believe a no is a not possible.

        1. Tanith*

          “This website unfortunately can’t do your laundry and walk your dog. But I can suggest a range of other options, such as this all-inclusive maid service and dog-walking company.”

          1. LQ*

            Yup! “It can’t make you coffee but it can email you and remind you to turn the preset on your coffee maker on at 4:30 when you leave.”

          2. Kelly L.*

            Yup. In some cases at CurrentJob, with web design, a few people were shocked when they found out how much it would cost to do some of what they wanted.

    3. OhNo*

      Exactly! Like someone was saying above, a flat “no” ends the conversation, which is generally the last thing you want to happen, especially if your communication skills are in question. In addition to LQ’s suggestions, you could also try framing your response in terms of time: “Sounds do-able, but it might take a little longer, since I’m not familiar with it”.

      This gives whoever you’re talking to the important info (you don’t know how to do this yet), along with the implications for them (it will take longer to get what they need done), so they can make an informed decision about what needs to happen.

    4. TheSockMonkey*

      Very early in my career, I used the phrase Ï don’t know, I haven’t been working here long”‘ when a client asked me a question. He could have blown me off, but instead he looked at me and said “that is not an acceptable answer. I wouldn’t accept that answer from an employee I hired, and I won’t accept it from you. When will you find out?”‘

      He was honest, direct, and just harsh enough to make his point. 10 years later, I can tell you that its the best workplace lesson I’ve gotten and remembering his words has led me to learn so much and figure out so many things on my own. People have a perception that I have a much vaster skillset than I do, and its because I approach new challenges with the “‘right” attitude and figure things out before anyone knows I don’t know.

      My point is that in your early 20s, it can seem like you know how to navigate a workplace or what things are acceptable to say, but you need to navigate the office culture and “play nicely” by attending meetings, making polite conversation with coworkers, and being humble when trying to figure out what’s going wrong.

      And finally, the company may very well have hired you for something that’s beyond your skillset–it’s happened to me, and at the time, I definitely blamed the company. But, your choice now is to learn what you don’t know and try, try, try or look for another job. Think of the probationary period as a gift–you have time to make up your shortfalls instead of being fired.

      1. J*

        Unfortunately you won’t get that kind of straight shooting feedback nowadays. Just a cold silence, a bad review, and possible termination.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That sucks if that’s been your experience everywhere you’ve worked, but it’s definitely not universal. Plenty of managers work hard to give useful, actionable feedback.

          1. J*

            No, not my direct experience but just what I’ve observed over the years and read here and on other web sources.

            Some managers are good at that, but many are too vague or too nice about it, or they just freeze you out or avoid the confrontation.

            I’m talking about that style. A seasoned older person giving it to you straight like that. Direct and disapproving, and immediate, but while also giving you a second chance.

            1. Brooke*

              Out of the 10 or so managers I’ve had in 15 years, I’d say a few were exceptional, a few were terrible, and the rest were somewhere in between.

              I get frustrated when people paint the working world as a 100% horrible, terrible place. No job is a walk in the park every day, and some ARE truly terrible (as are some managers) but most are somewhere in between… as are attitudes. A positive one can make a huge difference.

            2. afiendishthingy*

              A month ago I was having a Talk with an employee about her communication and professionalism. She started blaming her own behaviors on another supervisor she’d worked with at our agency – “I only I did that because she was rude, she wanted too much, she –”

              I cut her off and said “To advance in your career, I do NOT recommend criticizing other managers like that. It doesn’t reflect well on you and I would rethink your response.” Direct, disapproving, immediate. Older side of the generation but I am a selfie-taking overeducated Millennial. So no I don’t think that management style is a relic. Of course I’m also a devoted AaM reader.

              1. TootsNYC*

                I’ve said that sort of thing several times to people who report to me, or to people who are lower than me but colleagues only: “It doesn’t make you look good…” “That’s not an approach that is going to help you; people will react this bad way…”

            3. TootsNYC*

              Unfortunately you won’t get that kind of straight shooting feedback nowadays.

              It’s not like you always got that in the past. The world wasn’t necessarily a better place in the Olden Days.

              And people do still give that sort of advice.

  10. Mimmy*

    I can speak for anyone else, but at my one post-Masters job, my probation (90 days I believe) was extended by 3 months. In fact, I had my first performance evaluation about a month early (2 months into the job) because they saw concerns and wanted to address them then, and not wait until the end of probation.

    My primary issue was my self-confidence – My job was to provide resources via phone and email, and in hindsight, I think I didn’t have as full a grasp on the breadth of resources as I–and they–thought I did. Looking back, I really wish I’d admitted this, and reached out for help. But I just kept trying and trying and mercilessly beat myself up. The multi-tasking often required was also posing a great challenge. I was ultimately laid off after less than a year of employment.

    Do not make the same mistake I did. I like Alison’s third script re: not knowing how to do the work. Be honest, yes, but ask for some guidance and/or even some resources to help you become more comfortable with your assignments.

    As for the tone of voice and body language: This is an issue for me as well. I’m not always aware of either, and am horrified any time someone points out an instance where I made a faux pas. My default reaction tends to lean towards defensiveness. Don’t automatically assume that your manager is mistaken. Sure, she could be misinterpreting, but talk to her about it. Try asking for specific examples of when she observed/heard something that might be construed as “causing tension”. Sometimes if you step back and think of a specific instance, you may say, “oh…I see why you thought that way”.

    Good luck!

    1. Jerzy*

      As someone who is getting their 90 review FIVE months into my job (schedules around here are nuts!) I was definitely having some problems adjusting to the high volume of teleconferences, and often stayed so silent, my higher ups would email me to ask if I was joining a call I was already on!

      My review is tomorrow and I feel SO much more confident now and feel I’m making more constructive contributions to my projects. I filled out my 90 day self-review at the end of my 90 days, but the last 2 months have been so eye-opening for me, a lot of what I wrote isn’t even applicable any more, which I am going to point out during my call tomorrow. I just hope my project leads and supervisor agree I have improved recently.

    2. afiendishthingy*

      Yes, it can be really easy to commit social faux pas unintentionally – but it doesn’t make them not rude. One of my clients complained that I look around the room while I’m talking to her, and she thought I was judging her based on her home. Second part, pretty far off from the truth, but I DO glance around the room while talking to people, and I know it can come off as rude and disrespectful. I have inattentive ADHD and get distracted by shiny things. But I know it’s something I need to work on; I was a little horrified that the habit was so obvious and that she’d interpreted it that way, but I was also glad to get the reminder to MAKE EYE CONTACT. I always think about it during interviews and do better but forget the rest of the time.

    3. TootsNYC*

      t talk to her about it.

      Or, listen to her about it.

      I’m worried that our OP is minimizing and brushing aside, and focusing on arguing her way out of the pickle. Instead of listening and learning.

  11. Amber Rose*

    I’m a big fan of “can you leave this issue with me for [x time]? I’ll look into the answer and get back to you” when I don’t know how to do something. It’s more proactive than “I don’t know.”

    I don’t agree that extending probationary periods is good practice but I think your boss has some legit reasons to be doubtful: your work is excellent but your attitude isn’t quite there. Both things are equally important. Don’t dismiss one just because the other is up to par.

  12. Steve G*

    The only thing that stuck out to me was the “I had very little experience coming in, I was given no training, and I have had to teach myself many things on the job.”

    In this economy everyone is having trouble finding a job but you managed to nab one, I wouldn’t be highlighting that I don’t have experience in something unless it is a wildly senior task, or coming across in any way as ungrateful for not getting training. The days of on-the-job training are gone, for the most part. I would stay late and study on the weekends and buy a (topic)-for-Dummies book or a book on whatever computer program and learn how to do the thing in my own time.

    1. KT*

      Yeah, formal training and on-the-job help is long-gone. It’s very much sink or swim and you have to have the initiative to learn on your own

      1. J*

        Completely depends on the job. I just started a new gig and they definitely train their employees properly. It’s unacceptable for a company to not train or coach or help at all.

    2. LQ*

      Weirdly I think some entry level jobs have more training (things like videos to watch etc) so if you’ve had one of those jobs and go to a job that is something like web development and you get nothing it can be more confusing. Clearly this is a job that needs more training than running a cash register or answering the phone, why doesn’t it have any!

      (Part of the answer is if you have 10,000 people in a call center with a huge turn over you can easily make some videos to train each group of them. But when you have maybe 1-3 web people it doesn’t make financial sense to train them with premade videos etc…)

      1. Elsajeni*

        Oh, that’s true and I hadn’t thought about it. When I worked in retail, I had several days dedicated exclusively to formal, official training (read this handbook, take these quizzes, ring up these practice transactions, memorize these phone scripts…), then occasional less-formal training (“Wakeen, go show Elsajeni how to place a custom order,” etc.) over the next few weeks. When I started my first office job, that occasional, informal “Here’s how you do this, now get to it” training was all I got. As it happens, I’d been reading here long enough to have the idea that that was typical, and so it’s about what I was expecting; if I’d been basing my expectations on my past jobs instead, I can imagine it might have felt more like being thrown into the deep end.

    3. Anonymous Educator*

      Not only have I not had training at most of my jobs, but a lot of my jobs have involved no one knowing how to do my job, my predecessor having no interest in being contacted with questions, and all (paltry) written documentation several years out of date.

  13. Weekday Warrior*

    Yes, and even quite senior employees can fall into the trap of thinking and saying “I haven’t been trained for X or Y”, and therefore not take responsibility for the learning or the task. It might feel that training yourself takes the employer “off the hook” but it’s so much better for your self-esteem, and career, if you think and act like someone who controls their own destiny. Never give up your power to an organization and take a passive role.

  14. AnonEMoose*

    I can see a lot of myself in this letter, too. I think back to some of the things I said to people – and how – in the workplace when I was in my 20s and cringe.

    Two things I want to share with the OP:
    1. Perception is reality. How people perceive you is incredibly important in the workplace. Especially when you’re entry-level, you want them to see you as eager to learn, helpful, reliable, and approachable. No, it’s not always fair. But it’s how it is.
    2. Working relationships matter. Someone very wise once said “People will forget what you said. But they will never forget how you made them feel.”

    The most recent time I got feedback about my communication style from my boss, I sat down and thought about it. And then I started talking less in meetings, and trying never to be the first person to respond when a question or topic for discussion was brought up (unless the question was specifically directed at me, of course). I also started phrasing suggestions as “What if we…?” or “One thing to consider…” and so on. And if I disagreed with someone, I would start my comment with something like “I see that” or “That’s a good point, I’m concerned about how these factors play into it” or “It seems it would make sense to consider…”

    And most importantly, I made sure to talk with my boss about these in my meetings with her. “I’m trying X, what do you think?” This not only brought her attention to what I was doing, it showed I was taking her feedback seriously. Years later, I’m still with the same company.

    First jobs are hard. You’re trying to not only learn your job duties, there’s a whole lot of professional etiquette and unspoken rules you have to learn, too. And most people don’t tell you that you need to learn this stuff.

    So observe other people; how do they interact? How do they bring stuff up? When they circle back to stuff in meetings, are they really just rehashing, or does new stuff come up?

    1. TootsNYC*

      And most importantly, I made sure to talk with my boss about these in my meetings with her. “I’m trying X, what do you think?” This not only brought her attention to what I was doing, it showed I was taking her feedback seriously. Years later, I’m still with the same company.

      I think this is important. Pick a strategy, and after a meeting you’ve attended, ask your boss for feedback. Not immediately, but perhaps the same day. Get your feedback more immediately, for one thing, so she can point to the specific instance, so you can analyze it. This gives her an opportunity to provide specific coaching and feedback as well.

  15. Mike*

    In addition to what others have said, that coworkers “tell me that I am doing a good job with the website, considering my lack of experience and the steep learning curve” is actually a huge warning sign about the level of work you’re doing.

    Generally, that level of caveatage means either 1) they expected you to struggle at the role and they’re being reassuring that you’re working at an appropriate level for what was expected of you (especially true if you’ve been deliberately hired or assigned to something that’s outside your comfort zone due to unexpected business needs); or 2) you’re not meeting expectations, but since they’re friendly coworkers and not your manager, they’re not going to give you a performance review and are going to try to give you “well, y’know, considering” diplomatic comments.

    That your manager didn’t raise this during the review makes the first option more plausible, but even there “meeting low expectations” isn’t a great place to be.

    1. TootsNYC*

      since they’re friendly coworkers and not your manager, they’re not going to give you a performance review and are going to try to give you “well, y’know, considering” diplomatic comments.

      yeah, having a caveat after your achievements (“really good, considering…”) means you’re not doing that great.

      Mike’s right that this is not the main area of focus for your boss, because your boss said “meets expectations.” But it does mean you can’t be relying on this to gloss over other problems.

      1. Biff*

        As much as I feel there is valid criticism happening, I’m also getting some red flags about the working environment.

        1. Entry level, at least everywhere I’ve worked, at least usually has some basic training. Anything with proprietary systems usually has at least some on-site training and ongoing support. If the OP is using some proprietary systems, I do feel like a lack of training is a major oversight.

        2. It sounds like the manager barfed up six months worth of issues in one meeting. The OP is already fundamentally trained to act the wrong way, because natural human instinct rewards ‘no bad outcome’ when it comes to behavior.

        3. It sounds like the OP was handed a very technical role with no training. In any industry other than tech, this would be a huge, huge, HUGE red flag and I don’t know why people constantly treat it as no big deal inside tech. While you might ask your #1 CSR if they felt the tax documents that were being mailed out were easy – to -read and had a tone that would please customers, you wouldn’t ask them to do all the accounting that goes into each document being mailed out.

        4. I spent 5 years on the board of a non-profit. If the meetings are anything like that nightmare echo chamber, I bet OP is not only getting constant pointless chatter, but they are probably getting a lot of conflicting action items. “Can you get the dress code for the Gala Dinner up on the website before we send out invitations?” “Ugh, Sally, not the dress code issue again — I talked to Super Short Skirt lady personally and the issue is handled.” “Yeah but everyone else saw that skirt last year, and you know that at least a few of them are going think it’s okay this year. We should just post a blanket policy so no one has to be talked to.” “Milo, I don’t like how you are talking about women’s bodies.” Aaaaaand then the discussion circled the drain for an hour and a half. And in that hour and a half, posting the dress code slides on and off the action item list probably 50 times.

        I think that OP needs to sit down and evaluate this job. Is earning potential at the job acceptable? Will staying at the job for a year or so be a huge resume builder in their field? Can they reach out to other organizations that are either similar or that they work with and find out how their org measures up? The non-profit I worked for ended up having a TERRIBLE reputation in the business despite probably spending more lavishly in terms time and money on their chosen cause.

        Frankly, a bad job that teaches you poor office coping/politicing skills as a first job can be like taking up smoking — it follows you around for a long time even after you quit.

        1. Observer*

          you are making a lot of assumptions here, and it’s hard to know what is really happening. But, at least one of the things you say doesn’t seem to be supported by the letter. The LW states that she has already been reprimanded “several times” about one aspect of her communications issues. She just thinks that this is “petty”. (It’s NOT.) She’s also already been told not to say that she can’t do things. She doesn’t see why not since she doesn’t know how and no one trained her anyway.

          1. Biff*

            Ah, I think I misread that. I was under the impression she was reprimanded over and over in the review. Certainly changes the tone of the letter, doesn’t it?

  16. Cucumberzucchini*

    I think you would benefit from embracing a “Fake it ’til you make it” attitude. If you’re smart and have the aptitude you can find a lot of online tutorials for web stuff. Try also taking an improv mentality of saying Yes to things. If you get asked can you setup a flibbityjibber for blabbityblahblah on the website, and you don’t know how to do it just say, “Yes I believe I can. Let me look into it and I’ll get back to you with any questions about it.”

    I’m a web/digital marketing professional and I’m constantly saying yes to doing things I’m unfamiliar with. Because I know I can learn pretty much anything in my field. If I had started out saying no I would have severely limited my career advancement and business growth.

    1. Cucumberzucchini*

      Also the benefit of this strategy, if you can figure the stuff out, eventually you’ll be perceived as this magical, reliable, guru, we-can-never-fire-them person.

      1. Anony-moose*

        I love this. So true! I’ve learned a really odd assortment of skills as a freelance writer just by not having anyone else to help and now i’m the go-to problem solver at work. Need to fix the HTML on the website? I did that on my own site yesterday! Gotta prep this document for the printer? I can figure it out. And when in doubt, Google is my best friend.

  17. Artemesia*

    Probation means they can fire you tomorrow without process. I would be listening much more carefully to the feedback you are getting and also be thinking about plan B — perhaps even getting aggressive about the job search as you may need to be. Being reprimanded more than once about body language etc in meetings is a real red flag. And not being able to do the job is an even bigger red flag. You need to make getting up to speed on the web design stuff a high priority including working on it on your own time to upgrade your skills.

  18. BRR*

    Some great comments above, things that stuck out to me (I’m sorry if this is rough but I really want to help):
    -You say your job involves customer service and web design. Depending on the details, these possibly involve two completely different sets of skills and possibly you don’t have both because they’re so different which leads me to…
    -You say you are doing well with the customer service part of your job, I’m wondering if you were hired because they genuinely liked you and either thought the role didn’t require this much web design or thought you’d pick it up quicker (which is their fault for not providing training or not hiring what they needed).
    -This is also a time to think if you enjoy both parts of your job. They’re very different it’s perfectly ok to figure out what you like and don’t like.
    -Your colleagues “tell [you] that [you are] doing a good job with the website, considering [your] lack of experience and the steep learning curve. Maybe you are. It’s also a possibility they’re being nice or that you’re doing a good job for your level of experience but objectively there should be more.
    -You think these are small things but they are obviously enough concern for your manager to extend your probationary period. It sounds like you’ve gotten some things to correct. If you’re not sure I would go to your manager and seek clarification and say you enjoy working there and want to succeed in this role.
    -I’ve gotten feedback about my interactions as well, I recommend “The 11 Laws of Likability” if you need some help.

    TL:DR Don’t shrug off this feedback because your manager does think that it’s important. Possibility they want (or wanted) someone with more web design skills.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      -You say you are doing well with the customer service part of your job, I’m wondering if you were hired because they genuinely liked you and either thought the role didn’t require this much web design or thought you’d pick it up quicker (which is their fault for not providing training or not hiring what they needed).

      This actually happened to me at one short-lived job, the one with Evil Coworker. They told me in the interview that the job didn’t require sales (what they hired me for was more akin to scheduling one of their services), but in reality, they wanted me to upsell services every time I spoke with someone. The day I quit/was let go, my supervisor’s boss sheepishly told me that Supervisor had hired me thinking they could teach me the sales stuff, but I actually suck at sales and hate it. And she didn’t bother to teach me anything, only scolded me when I didn’t do it right. (There were other reasons I quit, but they’re not relevant here.)

      I think you have a point about the two skill sets being wildly divergent. It doesn’t mean OP is a bad employee, but I think it points to a larger problem with fit and with the job as defined. It’s almost like having two jobs at the same time, which messes with your head when you have to switch back and forth.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Something similar happened to me at a previous job, and it was the only job in which I’ve ever gone home in tears more than once or twice. Basically, I was supposed to be doing some IT stuff – reimaging computers, troubleshooting, and so on. And I was supposed to be doing some project-type stuff, but I was also supposed to be available to clients all the time. As in, I would literally be in an office with computer guts spread out on the desk, and people would be coming to me “we’re out of coffee in the resource center.”

        There was just no way for me to successfully reconcile “get this project done by the deadline” with “drop everything and help the client, every time they ask,” especially with “the copier is jammed again” and “the receptionist needs to go on her lunch break, so you need to sit at the front desk for 30 minutes” thrown into the mix.

        I did learn some stuff from this experience, though. Such as I don’t really like working for super-small offices because of the “everyone wears every hat” dynamic. And I prefer environments that don’t have clients on site constantly. So I guess it wasn’t a total waste.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Exactly–you learn what you will and will not put up with at work. The other reasons included the Evil Coworker, and also having to sub repeatedly for the coworker who worked in her vicinity, so much so that I rarely got my own job done. I was only supposed to sub once a week, but at the end, I was up there at least three days of a five-day week, using a computer on which my stuff wasn’t accessible. I literally was not even doing my own job. I can’t blame the other person for trying to escape EC’s horribleness, but after two months of this, I’d had enough.

  19. brightstar*

    I had to extend an employees probationary period and I think they felt it was for petty things. But, it added up to a larger pattern that meant I had to go behind and double check her work and had less time for my own duties. The pattern was serious. They improved and are now permanent.

    You’ve been giving definite areas to improve upon. It isn’t hopeless but the concerns your manager raised do need to be taken seriously.

  20. schnapps*

    Oh, OP, you are me! I score super low on anything that measures empathy and my communication skills were abysmal. I still often come across as cold, I’m very task- and solution-oriented and believe discussion in meetings should be kept on track and to a minimum. You want to get ‘er done? I’ll do it.

    The irony? I work with politicians now – specifically, I help them run their meetings. The amount of discussion can drive me absolutely batty, but it matters. And it matters in staff meetings as well. I don’t have a lot of patience for huge amounts of discussion, but I have a couple of coworkers who need that. They need to chat about it and get to solutions on their own (whether I have the solution or not – and my solution may not work for them or the group. I’ve been wrong at least once before :)). They need to feel totally included in the conversation and the relationships. And I’ve found that some of the best solutions come out when you’ve got a whole bunch of different kinds of people with different perspectives working on a problem.

    Try to pay as much attention as you can during the meetings – take notes, and at the end of the discussion, try to summarize what happened. It’ll help everyone stay on track. The meetings are important and everyone needs to be heard. I struggle with a lot of the same things you laid out in your letter, and its hard work to change it, but it’s so worth it.

    You say you have lots of customer service experience – why not apply those same customer service skills in meetings? Listen more than you talk, take a step back and put yourself in their shoes. Go from judgment to curiosity.

    Wow, that was longer than I expected. :)

  21. SM*

    I’m probably reiterating lot of the comments already, but you should take the criticism more seriously. Even though it seems petty (which I totally get, I used to be entry level as well!), it is serious enough for your boss to bring up and that’s the person who decides your future at the company. You should observe other people and mimic their attitudes. Replace “I can’t” with “let me look into it” or “I’ll check in with so-and-so and get back to you”. The meetings may seem like a waste of time for you because you aren’t at a high level, but they are important for everyone else and your job is to listen and absorb. One day you’ll be the higher up with an intern sitting across from you, and those conversations won’t seem so useless anymore.

    I think a lot of people deal with a similar dose of reality at their first job. You should be actively communicating with your boss about these difecencies. Even be forthright, say ” if someone asks me to do something that I’m not familiar with, how would you like me to respond?”. Or, “if I’m trying to do something on my own for the first time, is there someone who could check my work or who I could go to for questions?”. Another good piece of advice I got early on is to keep a running list if questions or concerns about things your working on, and schedule a time with your boss once a week to go over the list and they can help you decide either the best solution or how to find it.

    You can turn this around, but you should be stepping back to see the bigger picture of your role in the company. Good luck!

    1. The IT Manager*

      I’m probably reiterating lot of the comments already, but you should take the criticism more seriously.

      Yes! You have received very specific feedback on problem areas. (So many people would kill for this because many bosses are not as direct as yours.) But your letter shows distinct bias. You say they are petty and you describe them in such a way that they come across as minor things in your letter, but they are not little things to your boss. (And I suspect that part of your problem is you think these are little things when they are not.) They are big, important enough things to him that your probationary period was extended. You need to consider your self on a PIP. You have clear direction, fix the problems, or you will probably not make it out of your probationary period.

  22. VolunteerCoordinatorinNOVA*

    I know it’s tempting to want to keep quiet and “subservient” but that can often backfire as you can come off as distant, uninterested and cranky. When I first started working, if people didn’t like/ignored my ideas, I would think that I wasn’t valuable and I should just shut up. Even though I thought this was better than “screwing up”, it can come off bratty and obnoxious. I never realized this until I saw other co-workers doing it and realized how I was coming off.

    As for meetings that don’t seem action orientated, that’s just part of being on a team and in most normal workplaces in my opinion. Sometimes these meetings drive me nuts but I value being included and even if I don’t have anything to offer, I can at least be in the loop of things that affect my job/department/organization. I think if you are in a one on one meeting with your boss or a small team meeting, saying you’re not sure of how to do something can be ok but if you’re in a larger meeting, saying something like “I need to look more into that” or “Can I get back to you by X as I want to make sure I’m correct” makes it look like you’re going to take action, where a “no” just shuts down the conversation. If you are looking for action items but aren’t sure of what they are, I usually take notes throughout the meeting and then I’ll either email my supervisor or co-worker and list the things I came up with and make sure there isn’t anything I’m missing.

    One last thing, I wouldn’t really let my co-workers know I didn’t think they were doing their job because I don’t think that’s my job or appropriate. I would only put so much stock into your co-workers opinions as they don’t have any power in you keeping/losing your job.

    1. fposte*

      “I know it’s tempting to want to keep quiet and “subservient” but that can often backfire as you can come off as distant, uninterested and cranky.”

      It also risks appearing sulky. “If you don’t like the way I communicate, I won’t communicate at all!” That’s a mistake. The goal is to adapt your communication skills, not turn them off.

      1. VolunteerCoordinatorinNOVA*

        Sulky is the perfect word which I couldn’t think of! I once had a therapist who told me (about my parents) that at their age they weren’t likely to change their behavior/actions so it was more beneficial to take time to figure out to adapt how I dealt/felt about their actions. I think this is true for the workplace and it can stink at times because you feel like you’re the only one changing but it really can make such a big difference to be able to learn how to communicate in a way that works with your coworkers.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      “When I first started working, if people didn’t like/ignored my ideas, I would think that I wasn’t valuable and I should just shut up. Even though I thought this was better than “screwing up”, it can come off bratty and obnoxious. ”

      I actually had to have a pretty serious talk with one of my employees last week about this. She was being surly and uninterested – and I wanted to know why because it’d been going on for several weeks. She said it was because her colleagues blew off her ideas. I did talk to them later, but I told her the way she was handling it was making her look petulant and unprofessional.

      1. VolunteerCoordinatorinNOVA*

        I’m so glad its something I caught early in my career because when I see it now, it looks so bad. Plus it’s just more damaging to your reputation in a group than people realize. No one wants to work with someone who can’t deal with things professionally.

    3. LBK*

      I think there can be some value in scaling back how much you say but it has to be accompanied by the right attitude. It should be done in a way that makes it clear it’s being done thoughtfully – not out of spite, but because you’ve gained self-awareness and realized that maybe you don’t know as much as you thought, so now you’re closing your mouth and opening your ears so you can learn. So you still respond and act engaged when you’re approached, but maybe back off the unsolicited input until you’re more sure that what you’re saying is adding value.

  23. Marina*

    The smartest thing I ever did at my first professional internship, was when I got a negative performance review (like, really negative–I had to go to the bathroom and cry halfway through) I asked a mentor coworker I liked and trusted to observe me at the tasks I was struggling with and make specific suggestions for things I could change. For me it was time management and multitasking skills. For you it might be to ask someone else who’s in the meetings you’ve been struggling with to give you notes afterwards about specific tones or phrases you’re using that come across as aggressive or dismissive. But if you do this, you have to be ABSOLUTELY sure that you will not respond dismissively or defensively–that no matter what your coworker suggests, even if it sounds totally silly to you, you’ll give it a shot.

    Following my mentor’s suggestions in this situation worked really, really well for me. At the end of my internship, the executive director told me I was one of the best interns they’d ever had, not just because of my improved performance, but because I was able to respond positively to critical feedback. Look at this as an opportunity to learn ways to take critical feedback, because that skill will serve you REALLY well in your future career.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Your last sentence- yes, yes, yes. When people tell you things that are hard to listen to it is because they see something worth salvaging. It takes work to explain stuff to people and that is time that could be spent on something else.
      The good news here, OP, is that your company still sees something of value in you.

    2. Brisvegan*

      Taking negative feedback calmly and seriously and then acting on it is a seriously important skill! It’s very hard to hear that you aren’t doing well. It’s scary if you think you might lose your job. However, being seen as the person who will take feedback well and be constructive about fixing problems is enormously useful.

      OP, this is a great chance to work on this skill. You don’t have to internally agree with the analysis, but merely to know that the boss thinks the issues are important and to be seen to take them seriously and try hard to fix them will help your career. (In fact, thinking that the boss might have a good point, at least from boss’s position, is a great habit to cultivate, too.)

  24. Anonsie*

    There are two things that come to mind immediately here.

    One is that a lot of businesses (I have found this especially true in some nonprofits , though I am against the overall stereotyping of for-profits being x way and nonprofits being y way but this is the big exception where I find this even stronger in NPOs) expect a very friendly, gentle atmosphere. More so than you might ever expect, in ways that are hard to predict.

    For example, I was once told to always list people’s names alphabetically whenever I was mentioning more than one person in writing so no one felt like they were being ranked or slighted. At another place I was told to never say whose desk a project was on, ever, because it would make them look bad to not be done with it even if they were actually supposed to have it still and weren’t doing anything wrong. So I’m a little curious of the LW works somewhere that has some cuckoo unspoken rules about propriety that she’s running afoul of.

    The other thought is the one others have already brought up, which is that when you’re younger and have less experience it can be really hard to get your overall message straight. But I suspect there is a little combination of both things happening here, LW is a little rough and the office is especially focused on kid gloves.

    1. VolunteerCoordinatorinNOVA*

      I agree that generally non-profits are “softer” than other workplace environments. I feel like this comes with having a bunch of people who are passionate about a cause/are willing to deal with some challenges (pay, hours, schedules, etc.) and really want to make a difference so they can be a bit more emotional about their jobs than at a for-profit. I am someone who is generally very direct and I have to be aware of who I’m talking to because I know I can come across as harsh but it’s just how I think. Luckily I get to practice pretty much every day as I work with volunteers and they often require kid gloves. At a former job, we had a 20 minute discussion about saying good morning and how people were hurt if you didn’t do that. That meeting almost put me over the edge!

  25. some1*

    The LW’s meeting behavior reminds me of my counterpart (who is well, well past entry-level). If I had a dollar for every time in a large meeting she’s brought up the fact that she doesn’t know how to do something because she didn’t get enough training I could retire to Florida. It gets really old (especially because “not even training” is subjective).

  26. NJ Anon*

    We eliminated the term “probationary period” at Oldjob. It really has no meaning and to some people implies that they can’t get fired after making it past that date. Most workers are at-will and can be fired at any time whether it is before or after so what’s the point?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m not a fan of them for basically this reason, but companies who use them use them because after that period is up, they’re committing to putting you through a PIP process for most problems.

      1. BRR*

        I understand the benefits of have policies and procedures, but I always find it dumb when companies are hindered by their own procedures. Examples, keeping a probation period so as to not have to commit to going through a PIP or my current organization’s requirement of all jobs need to be posted for a minimum of five days and posted publicly (not a union rule). So for an internal promotion they need to post the position, set a closing date of 5 days later, and mark it “internal applicants only.”

          1. Jaydee*

            But a well-written policy will usually allow for that. So a good policy would provide for a PIP or progressive discipline for most “employee is kind of screwing up but it’s not too bad yet and we think he is capable of doing better” issues, but immediate termination would be possible for really egregious misconduct.

            With the 5 day job postings, it adds a bit of transparency and fairness to the process. Yes, we all know Wakeen is a shoe-in for the promotion to “Chocolate Spout Design Team Lead” but posting the position instead of just promoting Wakeen gives Jane and Fergus the chance to apply if they want. It hopefully minimizes the impact of favoritism or bias on hiring and personnel decisions.

      2. TootsNYC*

        And in some states, if you declare that you have a firing process, you are legally bound to follow it before firing anyone (except for crimes, usually). And you can be legally bound to follow it even if you haven’t written it down, but you’ve done it that way for the last 3 people.

        But extending the probationary period is, in my opinion, the equivalent of putting someone on a PIP. And it’s a p.i.t.a., so I think that OP needs to take their specific criticisms very seriously.

        1. some1*

          This is interesting, are you talking about legally bound as it relates to UI, or whether he firee could win a wrongful term suit?

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It depends on how you word your policies, which is why smart companies are careful to say things like “we MAY do XYZ” (rather than “we WILL do XYZ”), “we reserve the right to deviate from this procedure,” etc.

          But I’ve never seen the “you did it that way for the last 3 people so now you must do it for everyone” thing in any state — what state are you thinking of?

        3. Jaydee*

          It’s not so much that if you have a firing process you have to follow the process. But some states do recognize exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. There’s the implied contract exception (what I think you’re referring to) which says that depending on how you word your employee handbook, you might end up creating an implied contract with your employees. Basically if your employee handbook claims that employment is at-will but then says terminations will only be done for good cause, or if the handbook says you will always follow a very specific progressive discipline process before termination, you might have created a contract. But most employee handbooks are written vaguely enough to avoid that. So even in states that recognize that exception, most employers have figured out how to word their handbooks to avoid creating an implied contract.

          A few states also have an exception that basically requires all employers to act in good faith and terminate only for cause. But that one is really rare.

          As for having to follow the same process you’ve followed for prior employees, I am guessing that’s more of a CYA in case of a discrimination claim. If all the women who were fired for failing to punch out and punch in for breaks got at least two verbal warnings and a written warning before they were fired but all the men got just a written warning and were fired on the second occurrence, then that employer is at pretty high risk for a man who forgot to clock back in after his break suing when he gets fired. On the other hand, if the employer is consistent and everyone gets the same number and type of warnings for the same type of conduct, sure a suit could still happen, but the risk is lower.

  27. SL*

    What timing–I’m about to do my 90-day review today at my first “real” job.

    Anyway, OP, you’ve been given clear feedback on areas of improvement. Please, for the sake of your job, listen to that feedback and start thinking of ways you can improve in your communication skills. It’s a good sign that they’re extending your probation rather than letting you go outright, but it’s also important to treat this as if you’re being put on a PIP (performance improvement plan, if you haven’t heard the acronym before) and to demonstrate clear improvement in your trouble areas throughout the process.

    Good luck. :(

  28. Katie the Fed*

    Goodness, OP – a lot of people beg for the kind of feedback you’re getting, and you’re blowing it off. You need to take this seriously! “Several” reprimands 6 months into a new job is not normal – that’s a big deal! Your manager is telling you that you’re on thin ice, whether you agree with her or not.

    The answer isn’t to be subservient – it’s to focus on the specific things that were brought to your attention. Watch your tone and body language in meetings. Ask for assistance if you need it in figuring out the web design projects, but you can’t just automatically say you don’t know how to do it.

    1. Another HRPro*

      I agree. Like it or not, your boss is giving you a gift right now. Telling you that you need to work on things means you need to work on them. Not be subservient – that wasn’t the feedback. You were told to watch your tone and body language and don’t say you can’t do something or refuse work. This is actually good feedback as it is fairly specific. If you don’t understand the feedback, ask for examples (i.e., can you tell me a time when my tone wasn’t appropriate? can you tell what specifically I am doing with my body language that is coming off as unprofessional?). Embrace this feedback and address these issues. Whether you think they are significant or not is irrelevant. Your boss does think they are significant or they wouldn’t be extending your probationary period.

  29. Koko*

    I’m getting a strong vibe that this person is one of those technically-oriented types who deals with people in a very blunt, matter-of-fact manner and doesn’t understand the importance of emotional intelligence and fostering good working relationships. The, “I’m doing the job I was hired to do, why do I need to add unnecessary fluff to my email when ‘print this’ gets across the message I need to communicate? I wasn’t hired to make people feel good, I was hired to fix the website,” sort of attitude. I think for people lacking a certain level of social/emotional intelligence, they genuinely think that having to navigate social mores at work is superfluous or unnecessary and resent being marked down for not doing the soft skills very well because their hard technical skills are robust. It’s a big culture shock for folks with this orientation, who often excel in school because in school they were able to work largely independently on almost every project and earned a high GPA and test scores on the strength of their hard skills. Then they get to the working world and suddenly it seems like less smart, less talented people are unfairly being praised and elevated above them just because they’re better at small talk and such.

    OP, if you think that might describe you, the simplest thing I can say is that soft skills do objectively matter as much as hard skills. Very few jobs allow you to operate in complete isolation and companies everywhere make hiring/firing/promotion/raise decisions on the basis of both hard AND soft skills, not hard skills alone. Learning how to communicate effectively and foster good working relationships is as critical to being a valuable, successful employee as having hard skills.

    1. LCL*

      This certainly describes me. Though I never thought when someone was unfairly promoted over me that I was smarter than them, rather that I had more accomplishments. Or wasted less time on the job. I used to define all on the job socialization as time wasting…

    2. Not me*

      +1, and I really relate to this!

      I want to add that while OP’s soft skills might need work, that doesn’t necessarily mean OP has low emotional intelligence or lacks social awareness – it means there’s a new priority and set of skills for OP to learn. We’ve all been there with one thing or another.

  30. Rock*

    My work has a fairly… ingrained motto of never saying “no” to a client, but never, either, lying about what doing that work would entail. The saying is, “Yes, AND” instead of no.
    It’s not that we can’t do it. It’s just that it will take 8 months longer and 50 million dollars more, and require a specialized crew. So it’s Yes, And.
    OP, I know this doesn’t apply to you 100%, but it’s somewhere to start in terms of mentality. Figure out what’s stopping you or preventing you from doing the work, and add that into your mental calculation of how to solve it.
    I can’t do X because I don’t know Z. I CAN do X as long as I have time to learn Z, or there is someone who can teach me Z on site, or if Z is negotiable.
    Hope that helps a little!

    1. blushingflower*

      And if “Yes, AND” isn’t an option, “No, BUT” can be.
      “I can’t do X, but I can do Y, which is close to X, does that work for you?” Sometimes people ask for things that you legitimately cannot do for them because of limitations of the resources available (e.g. the software you have to use doesn’t allow for what they are asking for). But sometimes you can get them something that meets the same need in a different way.

  31. LookyLou*

    This reminds me so much of a coworker that just finished her 6 months probation but was fired at the end.

    She would often tell us “I don’t know” and then sit there stupidly. For us we were extremely frustrated because it was her job to handle this and if she didn’t know then she was supposed to tackle it and find out – not sit back and make someone else do it. She’d also ’cause tension’ by getting frustrated when speaking/asking questions/taking direction… she’d pull at her hair or make erratic movements that made everyone else feel uncomfortable around her, you could also hear an edge to her voice that made you wonder if she was about to explode and storm out.

    Management had told her that these problems were a big deal numerous times, but she always had a “this is how I am” attitude about it. It got to the point where people were told to go to her supervisor to get assistance with things they needed her for. They toyed with the idea of extending her probation but the ultimately decided that she wasn’t going to improve if given more time. To be offered an extended probation instead of being kicked out is certainly a positive sign that there is a chance to turn around perspectives and become a valued employee.

  32. Kathlynn*

    This is what I like about Canada. Employment isn’t at will. In BC, you only have 3 months to decide someone doesn’t fit (some places give like 6 month probationary periods, and I’m assuming they do that in a “you are hired for this long and your employment might be extended after that” way). It cannot be extended. After that they either need to pay you severance, give you notice, or have just cause for immediately firing you.

  33. J*

    Couple thoughts on the training issue:

    On one hand, some workplaces don’t even show you the basics of what they do and how they do it. My last job was like this, I’d find out months later that I was supposed to be doing something critical with a tool I had never even heard of. Then I’d find out other people knew what it was but never used it because they didn’t like the functionality and preferred to do it their own way with sone other tool. Then I’d use the tool for what I thought I was supposed to be using it for and get chewed out about why I did that instead of using the other, very similar tool. The problem with these types of workplaces is that the overall disorganization and dysfunction can create drama and cause people to blame others, and if you’re new that oftentimes is you. This could be the case with the LW.

    The other thing though is that skills like web design/development generally aren’t trained and you usually have to learn them on your own. Your boss doesn’t want to hear that you don’t know how to do the job you were hired for. This could also be the case with the LW.

    For instance, an engineering firm generally wouldn’t train you how to be an engineer, but hopefully they show you where things are and give you some idea of how things are done or allow you to learn as you go.

  34. Jaydee*

    I think Alison gave excellent scripts to use when you don’t yet have a skill they are asking for. I have been doing my job for 8 years and still often find myself saying, “You know, I haven’t had that situation come up before. Let me [check with person who knows about that] [do a bit of research] and get back to you.”

    A couple other things that might help would be to talk to your manager and ask for specific examples, especially of times when your body language or voice cause tension in meetings. Keep in mind that aggression isn’t the only thing that can cause tension. A former co-worker of mine was a very excitable, nervous person, and seeing them get flustered by little things was unnerving. A couple recent letters have talked about the stress of dealing with crying co-workers/managers. There are a lot of different behaviors or quirks or tones that can be off putting in certain settings at work. If she struggles to give you specific examples on the spot, ask her if she would pull you aside afterward if she notices something in the future. Consider saying something like “I know this was a concern on my evaluation, and I want to address it. I am not aware that I’m having this effect as it happens, so it would really help me if you could draw my attention to any specific situations so I can start to recognize them and make appropriate adjustments.”

    Also, since these seem more of “soft skill” or “cultural fit” issues than issues of not performing specific job tasks as expected, it might help to talk to a trusted co-worker who has been there longer than you and get some insight on what the norms in the office are. They might be able to offer some suggestions too.

  35. Shannon*

    I hate to say it, but, you need to listen to what your colleagues *aren’t* saying. I really hate advising anyone to read between the lines for subtext that may not be there, but, that really stood out to me. They’re saying that you’re doing a good job with the website, but, it sounds like that’s only half of your job.

    As far as “I don’t know how to…..” goes, you’re in tech. This field is constantly changing. It’s not your job to know every answer to every problem, but, it’s your job to be able to research an answer to that problem. I’d also consider actively listening to what the problem is and what result needs to happen. Sometimes, finding out what the end result is supposed to be and working from there is less constrictive than what the consumer perceives the problem to be.

    Also, perception is reality. I can think I’m communicating just fine all day long, but, if only 2/5 people understand my intended message, the reality is that I’m not communicating very well.

  36. Brisvegan*

    OP, you do have some good news in all of this. Your workplace wants to work with you to keep you. They want to give you a chance to fix the things your boss mentioned. They didn’t fire you. They have said that there are serious problems that you need to fix and have given you the chance to fix them, because they would prefer to keep you as an employee, so long as you fix the problems.

    Take the problems seriously. Fix them as much as you can. Let your job do what they prefer: keep you and not have to hire another person. Make it easy for them by fixing the issues that your boss has been kind enough to tell you about.

    Good luck.

    1. OP*

      Thanks for the positive spin on it…I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I suppose if they really wanted to get rid of me that badly, they would have done so at 6 months. I really hope that I am improving satisfactorily.

  37. LadyCop*

    “I’m doing my best to be as quiet and subservient as possible to avoid more criticism, but doing so doesn’t feel healthy and I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep it up. ”

    I might be misinterpreting this, but if the OP thinks that they can breathe a sigh of relief once probation is over, they are certainly mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Alison that they should not have to act that way, but one thing they have to realize is you don’t have the luxury of having whatever attitude or demeanor you want just because you’re off probation or get a promotion etc. If that truly is the face they have to put on to get through the work day, then maybe it’s not a good fit.

  38. Wanna-Alp*

    There are many excellent comments here, OP.

    Another thing you might want to consider, with regards to this bit: “I have been trying to ask more direct questions in meetings to figure out what I am supposed to do in my work projects, since meetings often just seem like endless discussion with few tangible takeaways (I have been reprimanded for this too because apparently they value discussion over actual decision-making!”

    Are your questions getting the right balance between asking for general understanding of the tasks for you being discussed in meetings, and asking for specific direction that would be best asked about outside of the meeting, 1-to-1 with a technical person who can answer your queries? For example “the web site needs an insert with X & Y information on it” might be a general thing to discuss at the meeting, but the details of where you get X,Y and how you do the insert would be better left to later.

    Sometimes people want to discuss the overall picture in meetings, but they don’t want you to derail the meeting with pinning down nit-picky details (not saying that you are doing this, but it would be worthwhile to check).

  39. Van Wilder*

    I was in a similar position at my previous job. They extended my probation period by three months, then I passed. I had two good reviews, then got put on a PIP, then had the PIP extended. I felt like they just always wanted me to know that they could fire me at any time. Of course, they acted like I stabbed them in the back when I quit.

    They were also really formal and hierarchical. So if I had said in a meeting in front of internal clients “I don’t know how to do that”, they would have killed me. I once got a talking to for saying “I don’t understand…” in an internal email while asking for clarification. At first, I thought I needed to learn the corporate culture, but in the end I believe it was a toxic culture that was just about appearances and conformity.

    Anyway, I don’t know if you’re in a toxic environment or you just need to learn the culture. But the best thing you can do for yourself is try to adapt to the culture, so you know you did the best you could on your end. And if you don’t truly adapt or it isn’t the right fit, put on your best happy face while you job search.

    I now work somewhere that appreciates my contributions and doesn’t make me feel anxious all the time. Best of luck!

    1. OP*

      “I now work somewhere that appreciates my contributions and doesn’t make me feel anxious all the time.”

      That’s exactly what I want. :)

      Even though things have been going better since my probation was extended, I’m still scared of what will happen at my 12-month review…are they going to surprise me with something like “Well, you didn’t improve quite as much as you should have over the past 6 months…goodbye! We don’t want you anymore”? :(

  40. OP*

    Thank you, Alison, for answering my question! It was good to get a better definition of what a probationary period is (and it’s the definition I expected, but worded much better than my boss or HR did). To everyone else: I actually sent this to AAM several months ago, and some things have changed since then. I’m still employed at the same job, and it seems like things have been going better overall.

    Those of you saying the job might not be a good fit–I think you’re right. I’ve actually been covertly job searching on and off for the past few months, but it took me quite a while to find my current job and I know that it could take a while to find the the next one. I am also going to be more careful about accepting jobs in the future, because I want my next job to be at an organization where I can feel comfortable staying for a few years or more. I have actually gotten three interviews recently–one job turned me down, and the others were phone interviews that resulted in invitations to interview in-person, but I turned down both of those because they didn’t sound like jobs (or geographical locations) that I would thrive in. I think my current job was the result of mutual desperation–as I said, I had been job hunting for a while and I couldn’t afford to turn this opportunity down at the time, and after I was hired, I learned that the position had actually been open for a year. One of my coworkers who was on the search committee later told me that he would have preferred to hire another candidate who had much more technology experience, but I won out overall because I had better people skills. I honestly thought I didn’t stand a chance after some of the interview questions I was asked (and unable to fully answer). I did have a tiny bit of prior WordPress experience from a college course, and I made it clear in the interview process that I had very little web design experience but was willing to learn. Then, in my first few months here, I had to build two new WordPress sites from scratch while trying to maintain an old site using a CMS I was completely unfamiliar with. It was a very steep learning curve, and I’ve gotten compliments on the finished product, but the process of building them was a huge amount of work–when I got asked to make even small changes, it would take me hours or days to figure it out. Now that the sites have been finished, I’m just maintaining them and I’m not feeling like I’m in over my head so much. But those first 6 months were really frustrating and disheartening.

    The other half of my job–the customer service part–has actually been a great experience overall and I know I’m good at it. And now that web design is less of a day-to-day task for me, I’ve gotten to take on some other, more enjoyable projects. As for the meetings, I’ve gotten better at accepting that decisions don’t get made as fast around here as I’d like them to. I tend to have an attitude of “What’s the problem? Okay, how can I fix that right now?” so I can get frustrated when decisions take weeks or months to be made. However, I still feel like my boss could be more understanding of my small reactions to things that I sometimes find hard to control…I don’t roll my eyes or anything stupid like that, but I involuntarily cower sometimes when I’m asked questions I don’t know how to answer right away (I didn’t know about this until a coworker pointed it out), and just last month I was told that it wasn’t acceptable for me to look surprised/confused in a meeting when someone brought up a project that I thought had been scrapped. I keep thinking I’m coming off as having a better attitude at work, but then I’ll be caught off-guard by something critical my boss says and feel horrible about myself. And criticism often seems to come out of nowhere–for example, my first review, at 3 months, was very good, but just a few weeks later my boss laid out a whole series of complaints made me cry (the only time I’ve actually broken down in tears at work, and I was able to hold it off until she left the room, but that was when I seriously started to consider finding a new job). I really do my best to be cheerful and pleasant, but I feel l’m never going to be able to completely please the boss. (And from what I can tell, my coworkers feel similarly–the longer I work here, the more I learn about all the personality clashes that have happened over the years.)

    And to the many commenters who suggested qualifying my “no”s instead of just flat out saying “no,” yes, I have been doing that all along, I just didn’t make it clear in the original post. Like I said, I try to solve problems as fast as possible, and I did a lot of Googling for help files and code snippets to help build the websites. I know way more about WordPress and HTML and CSS now than I did when I started. But I’ve always felt that no matter what, I’m never going to learn fast enough to feel really successful at the web design stuff.

    So…I think things are going about as well as they can right now, but I know I don’t want to stay in this job long-term; I just need to bide my time and learn as much as I can until a better opportunity comes along (one that doesn’t involve web design!).

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