how to manage a hard worker who’s making mistakes

A reader writes:

I manage a woman who is a very hard worker. She goes the extra mile, never complains, stays late and always volunteers to help…but lately I have noticed she is getting lax on things like returning important emails in a timely manner or getting things done that I asked her to do. I know she is busy as we all are right now because we are understaffed and everyone is doing their best to fill the gaps. I also know she has some prioritizing and time management issues; she loves to do creative projects, but she takes longer then I would like on them because she wants to make them perfect.

Do I let it go with the excuse that we are all so busy right now or do I address it? I have been that hard worker, and I know how it feels when you are outproducing other team members and things are still slipping through the cracks. Is it fair to hold her to the higher standard that she has set for herself, even though the expectation is more than I could expect from other team members? She is pretty hard on herself naturally, so I want to make sure that I address this carefully.

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 113 comments… read them below }

  1. Morgan*

    Haven’t read the Inc. article, but I strongly believe that a manager’s core job is to find people’s strengths and utilize them. If you are understaffed or have a good employee that is having some issues then stemgth prioritization is even more important. People are at their best when they do what they are good at, and at their worse when they are forced to do what they are told. Correspondence just might not be for this person. If so, it is your job to lessen it.

      1. Jennifer*

        Mine too?
        I’m so sick of being ragged on for what I’m not good at, what I literally did not sign up for, and hearing that all of my obvious trying is even worse.

    1. Charby*

      That’s definitely true, but sometimes someone’s weaknesses are an important part of the job that can’t be minimized beyond a certain point. For example, if someone has a weakness about meeting deadlines it’s not always practical to just make all the deadlines flexible since often a client needs a deliverable at a certain date and can’t just do without it.

      I definitely agree with you on the manager’s role, but it’s also the manager’s role to identify that parts of the job that absolutely do need to get done and work with the employee on a way to get those things taken care of. If some of that work can be moved around to other people that’s great, but sometimes people do have to do things that don’t play to their strengths, especially in a situation like this where it sounds like everyone is short-handed and a bit overwhelmed.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      So I’m going to disagree with that :)

      A manager’s core job is to get results. Finding people’s strengths and utilizing them is a means toward that end — but ultimately a manager needs to get results, and if someone’s strengths aren’t well-aligned with the team’s most pressing needs, or they have weaknesses that are causing problems or posing significant opportunity costs, or things just aren’t being done the way they ultimately need to be done, a manager needs to address that.

      It’s not always practical to say “correspondence just might not be for this person, so it’s your job to lessen it.” That role might need to deal with correspondence, and it doesn’t make sense for the team as a whole to lessen it for that person. (Of course, when you can do that, it’s great to do. But it’s not always the case.)

      1. KJR*

        This exactly! I have another example to offer. We hired someone to fill an inside sales position that required some mathematical skills. It became apparent over the course of her employment that she wasn’t able to perform the job well because she didn’t have the needed math skills. She tried very hard, was great on the phone with customers, but we all had to take turns checking her work because they were full of mistakes. We had to let her go because it is essential function of the job. On a side note, we learned a lesson here. With the very next hire for this position, we started giving a math test that closely simulated the kind of math that would have to be performed for the job.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          I’m on the fence with you on this one. If this salesperson can make it rain in every other aspect, I would think there’s a sales engineer or technical services person that can assist with the calculations? Or do they really need to be done on the fly? Just curious because I’ve worked with several sales teams and there always seems to be a couple of them that aren’t technical but they can close deals so it’s overlooked.

          1. SilverRadicand*

            I think the key is that KJR’s coworker was hired for inside sales instead of outside sales. For an outside sales position, I would agree that the core responsibility is close sales, as that is literally money making, but for insides sales closing a deal isn’t actually making the company money, so the core responsibilities are more logistical in nature.

      2. Charby*

        In addition, it’s not really fair to the employee as well. If they are being too aggressively “sheltered” (for lack of a better work) from having to do parts of their job that they aren’t amazing at then they’re losing that opportunity to strengthen these skills. Being good at time management, being good about following up, and knowing how to manage expectations and meet deadlines are all critical job skills.

        This employee will have a hard time learning them if the manager chooses not to work with them to improve and instead tries to work around them. I think the advice about playing to one’s strengths is good but it’s also important to convert weaknesses into strengths (or at least “okays”) when possible.

      3. Cheryl Becker*

        Totally agree with Alison. It is part of her job to answer emails, and to get the things done that she is asked to do. If her “going the extra mile” on some projects, and taking too long on creative projects are getting in the way of her doing what she was hired to do, she should stop doing those extra things.

        The OP would not be holding her to a “higher standard,” but simply requiring her to do those things she was hired to do. This is part of managing, and reviewing performance. You cannot make exceptions for people just because they are hard workers, or because they are pleasant, have a good attitude, or whatever.

      4. Morgan*

        Excellent point and well taken. I would just say that it is always easier to work with assets that one aready has than it is to acquire new ones.

        But yeah, I need to read the Inc. article.

  2. sunny-dee*

    This could be me. I don’t know about the OP, but I have frequent comments from my manager about responding to emails in a timely manner or being more vocal on mailing list threads. The thing is, I get 100 emails to me personally, and because of the number of projects I’m on, I am on over 50 mailing lists. My total email count is over 500 per day (not counting the hundreds of automated messages that go straight to trash). My manager doesn’t know anything about my projects or their deadlines, and when I try to show him what I’m dealing with or ask for his priorities, it’s a massive shrug and just a vague “do better.” (Although we did spend a whole hour going through my email client for different folder / saved search filter options once. That was … fun.)

    1. FD*

      This isn’t my idea originally, but here’s something that I’ve found helpful.

      First, I schedule two blocks of time for e-mail daily, and put them on my calendar so people can’t schedule meetings during that time.

      Second, I go through my e-mail and sort it into sub folders based on urgency level. Then, I focus first on attacking the level 1 items and work my way down.

      1. Koko*

        I do similar inbox triage. I try to devote the first 30 minutes of my day and the last 30 minutes of my day to “email management.” I go through my inbox and every email either gets filed into an archive folder, or tagged with one of several labels:

        -Respond (emails that need a direct response from me)
        -Do (quick one-off requests – I also add these to my to-do list in addition to flagging them this way in the inbox – my inbox is NOT my primary to-do list)
        -Routine Project A (emails related to)
        -Routine Project B (emails related to)
        -Special Projects (emails related to)
        -Receipts and Confirmations (for events that haven’t happened yet/expenses that haven’t yet been submitted)
        -Read/Watch (for whitepapers, webinars, and other professional development that I get to as time allows)

        My 2 rules are:
        -When I leave at 5pm, there are no uncategorized emails in my inbox.
        -When I leave at 5pm, there are no emails in the “Respond” category more than 1 business day old. (So same-day emails can stay til tomorrow, but yesterday’s must be answered before I leave.)

        Just setting aside the beginning and end of each day for email management, and following these 2 rules, ensures that nothing accidentally falls off my radar and nobody has to wait more than 1-2 days to get a response from me.

        Also worth noting, if you aren’t already doing this, that when you get an email and it’s going to take some time (more than 1 day) to find the answer, it’s good practice to reply acknowledging receipt and giving a timeframe for when you’ll have an answer: “OK Bob. I’ll need to run a few reports on this and I have a few other items to get through first – will let you know by Thursday.” Don’t leave them hanging until Thursday wondering if you’re ignoring them.

        1. Anony-Moose*

          I love this. I’m a “get my inbox to zero” every day and appreciate your thinking behind the folders!

        2. Jerzy*

          I just saved this as something to copy. I do some of this, but I don’t have enough of a routine to keep on top of it. Thank you!

        3. Bow down to Koko*

          This is great! I’m at my first job with 50+ emails a day. I’m only a few weeks in but have been looking for a better folder system. You nailed it! Thanks!!

          1. Koko*

            I hope it helps you as much as it helps me! If you’re using Outlook, I actually have named my categories with a number at the front so that when I use the “Group By…Categories” option (find this in View Settings on the View tab) it lists them in my order of priority, with uncategorized emails on top followed by “1 – Respond” and “7 – Read/Watch” down at the bottom, and you can collapse any categories that you don’t need or want to look at daily (like email receipts you need to submit at the end of the month). Then you can still sort by date, sender, subject or whatever else as needed and the Group By option keeps the categories separate and sorts within them.

            Bonus Tip that you will likely need if you get a lot of email: Another Outlook powertool I was unaware of for far too long is the “Clean Up Folders and Subfolders” option. When you click this button it will go through the folders you’ve selected and move all emails that contain duplicate threaded content into a sub-folder of your choice. So if you’ve been out on vacation and there was a 25-email thread, it will archive the first 24 and just leave you with the final one where you can just scroll to the bottom and read your way up. If the thread diverged at any point because two people started different replies to the same message, it preserves the final message from each branch.

        4. Renee*

          I handle all of the administrative tasks for my employer so my emails cover a lot of subjects. I do something similar but I color code mine when they come in (as long as they can’t be instantly dealt with):

          Red – to do (my in-box is my to-do list)
          Purple – Pending/Waiting – I need an answer/something to happen to complete
          Blue – Pending for Follow Up – Waiting for answer/action but I need to keep my eye on it
          Orange – Shipping Request – Shipping needs to be scheduled and any export paperwork prepared
          Light Green – Invoicing Request
          Black – Pending Shipping – Shipping has been scheduled but not picked up (I want to make sure it ships as scheduled before putting the email away)
          Dark Green – New Order

          This way, I read them only once to know what needs to be done. We’re a technical manufacturer, so a lot of my tasks are routine and can be done in blocks to save time (shipping, invoicing, new order processing). Some things get multiple colors. For example, a request to ship an order will usually get red, orange, and green tags, signifying that it is something I need to do that involves both shipping and invoicing. I change tags as needed, e.g., I request needed information and then change the tag to blue or purple. As I know what all the colors mean by repetition, I can look at my in box and have an instant idea of what needs to be done, and I can sort by red to get the active to do items. Things like invoices from vendors are printed as I get them and put into my invoice in box for processing with other invoices after the mail comes, and the email is “put away.”

          Completed emails go in sorted files.

    2. Rat Racer*

      I came here to say the same thing! This could absolutely be my previous manager writing about me 5 years ago. My manager drew a line in the sand: if you miss the deadline or there are mistakes in your work, it doesn’t matter how pretty and eloquent your power point presentations are. Employees need to learn that they have to manage their time according to the priorities of the business, not based on which projects are the most fun to work on.

      While it’s true that good managers play to their employees’ strengths, we all have to be accountable for deadlines, answer email, and double check our excel spreadsheets for errors. It was a painful lesson for me to learn – and one that I keep re-learning, but SO very important for career advancement and success.

      1. azvlr*

        This could have also been written about me! After working for months on a tedious project, and being creative in nature, I will admit to indulging myself on a creative assignments as a bit of a break.

        My manager was super nice about it, but has made it very clear that the tedious assignment, with it’s nebulous deadlines and direction, is far higher priority than the creative and interesting project with its clear deadlines and direction. I like to think I have made improvements.

        1. lonepear*

          It is t is really reassuring to read all the people saying this could have been written about them, because I had to double-check the date on this to make sure it wasn’t my old manager writing about me!

          (We ended up agreeing on communicating more explicitly, since that was part of the problem–her on deadlines vs. whenevers, and me on status of projects and when I had a project on my plate that I was overwhelemed by to see if it really needed more work or to be handed off/narrowed instead.)

    3. TootsNYC*

      The most valuable thing I’ve done in the last two years was to realize that there is a keyboard shortcut for moving an email to a folder (command M, on my Mac in Outlook). SO much faster for me than using the mouse to click and drag, and aim for the tiny little folder hidden among many others…

      So I set up folders for the emails I need to keep. And another neat feature is that when I press the “move” command, a window pops up for me to type the folder name in.

      (Some of those folders I even named with a symbol as the first letter, so I only have to type + or = or * or @ for my most-used folders. Others have a number for the month, so I only type 11 (November) or 03 (March). )

      I think you could combine the “move to a folder immediately” along with the “I set aside block of time to tackle stuff in email” tactic (which I think is important).

      I also have some automated “when sender is Software Server, move file to X folder” type rules.

      AND, we have internal rules that some emails must have certain phrases in the subject line, for easier mental and physical sorting.

      I also group my inbox by conversation–this really cuts down on the clutter, because each topic is only a single line, and I can move them as a group. And often I really only need to see the last in the chain to be able to see everything I know. I can also tell what’s going on by opening up the conversation chain and seeing who has responded to it; if I’m at all worried that my assumption of “Joe handled this” is wrong, I can click on the email to check, but that’s way faster than mentally thinking of every one of them at once. And if I see Joe has chimed in to say, “I’ll handle,” I don’t even bother to read anythign else; I just file it, bcs Joe’s on it.

  3. Workfromhome*

    Sure it can never hurt to make sure people understand priorities but I think there is a deeper issue here and its not the fault of the worker.
    “she is busy as we all are right now because we are understaffed and everyone is doing their best to fill the gaps”

    Is this a temporary under staffing issue or is as I suspect a chronic long term issue? When someone is a hard worker who goes above and beyond normally what happens when they lose hope? They starting letting things slip or they figure they cannot get everything done so I might as well work on something I want to work on. If the manager knows they will continue to be understaffed then the right thing to do is acknowledge it and not only give clear priorities but be open and honest that there are things that simply won’t get done.

    Its fine to say “we are short two people but we expect to have two new perople in a month so if everyone can pull together help is coming” its not OK to say “IWe are short two people but we are not going to replace them so everyone needs to do the jobs of 2 people forever and by the way we expect that everything will be done just as well as when we had a full staff..that’s the expectation”

    So rather than simply saying these are the priorities why not let them know that X Y and Z can be let to slide (not just that they are lower on the priority scale) and that you aren’t expected to do them due to short staffing. If you aren’t going to fix the short staffing then maybe you need to reward that person by letting them do a creative project that may be a lower priority . I’ve seen these situations a lot…and the top performers are the ones that end up getting the short end of the stick and eventually leave.

    1. Kelly O*

      I think you’re on to something here.

      If you’re short because someone’s notice got timed wrong with a medical leave, or someone had an accident and is out unexpectedly or has some sort of family emergency that’s one thing. But if you’re short because you really need six people but the executive office tells finance they can only budget for four and you’ll just have to make do? That’s not right, not really.

      The issue does need to be addressed in some way, because it’s the functional reality of that role. A manager’s job is not to absorb their staff’s weaknesses or take extraordinary steps to accommodate them, but to help balance the individuals on staff with the workload and the other expectations of the department. And maybe Jane just needs a little guidance on priorities. Maybe she is stressed about Project A, but it’s secondary to Project B and can wait in a “rob Peter to pay Paul” situation.

      But the bigger picture is, why are you understaffed and what can you do about that? Being able to say to the powers that be something like “I have a hardworking staff of dedicated people who are putting in as many hours as they possibly can, but if this is your expectation then we really need to consider adding additional staff” can help you. (Not to mention if they’re putting in serious OT, from a budget perspective it might be just as effective to bring on that extra person or two, or even bring in a temp to help with basic things like filing and copying in the short term.)

      1. Serena*

        Kelly, I am so grateful for your insights and questions. I came across this page today because I was browsing the website for advice on overcoming mistakes at work. Three BIG mistakes, to be specific.

        I have been at my current job for a year now. The head of my department retired last year soon after I started, and within 3 months of his departure, the rest of the department followed. Pretty soon, it was just me and one other person left to do 6 people’s jobs. I worked 14-hour days, weekends, and holidays without receiving overtime. I was given extra responsibilities that were above my pay grade because the company didn’t want to replace the more senior colleagues who left. Much of it was due to cost-saving measures, but I tried to make the best of it as “opportunities to prove myself” (that was what I kept telling my partner).

        When I spoke to people in other departments, I learned that the same was expected of all the staff which was causing the high turnover. Since I was still somewhat new, I never complained about the extra work, but I did ask for extra help which finally arrived months later. I could tell that our inability to meet demands from clients and vendors in a timely manner was hurting the company’s reputation. I found myself constantly apologizing for delays and committing errors because I was working under a lot of pressure; I was not the only one.

        Currently, the department is almost at full capacity again. Some of the mistakes I made earlier this year are coming back to haunt me. Some of these will cost the company money (chump change for the multi-million dollar company, but it’s still a few thousand dollars). One vendor is threatening legal action because of an oversight on my part. I am owning up to all my mistakes by bringing them to our new department head as soon as they resurface and working with him to resolve them, but I’m worried that each mistake hurts my performance exponentially.

        The truth is that even with the new hires, I’m still burning out because of the corporate environment. The questions you posed made me recognize that even more. I’m a perfectionist and I’m very hard on myself, so I’m trying to take the lessons learned instead of dwelling on the mistakes.

    2. BizzieLizzie*

      Yes – I take Alison’s point that it is not 100% clear in the OP’s question IF the lady has a good performance or not.
      Now I think Alison’s advice if there were core-performance issues, that it was that she was not picking the right areas to focus on is spot on.

      However – it might be the lady is performing well & OP does say:
      “I know how it feels when you are outproducing other team members and things are still slipping through the cracks”
      It could be that she is just expected to do this extra work – and still keep up with the emails. Sometimes, some managers when asked to nominate a priority focus, say just want all things done, regardless of the fact that it is not humanely possible. And I sort of wonder if that is at play here?

      1. Spooky*

        I think that’s what happening here. I mean, for crying out loud – the employee stays late, shows up early, volunteers to help out with extra work, outperforms her colleagues, and does it all with a smile, and that’s STILL not enough for OP?

        Op, you don’t want an employee. You want a robot. You’re not being fair at all – there’s no possible way a human can be fantastic at everything all the time. Your expectations are ridiculous. If you want her to do a better job, it’s up to YOU – the freaking manager – to get this poor employee the help she needs so she can do her job even better than she’s already doing it.

        1. Another HRPro*

          Just because someone works long hours does not mean they are doing the job well. Yes, the manager has a role in making sure that the amount of work assigned to the employee is reasonable, but hours does not equal performance.

          1. Seal*

            Exactly. I took over a department from a manager who routinely worked 10 hours a day, 6-7 days a week for years. She never got anything substantial done, because she had very little training to begin with, had a very hands-off manager who didn’t want to get involved, and was herself a micromanager who checked literally every piece of work her 4 employees did. She complained bitterly about how “busy” she was and how large their backlog of work was, but completely failed to realize SHE was the problem. The very epitome of working hard, not smart.

      2. Ad Astra*

        I go the impression that the OP was mostly satisfied with her employee’s performance because she spent more time in the letter praising the employee than she did pointing out the problems. Many other letters we see about an employee dropping the ball despite making an effort focus on the problems while admitting that the employee really is trying.

        But then, it’s possible this OP just has a particularly positive disposition.

      1. BizzieLizzie*

        sorry to hear that – I know it can be very very draining & impact both work & home life if it goes on too long.

      2. A Cita*

        Same here. And we’re grant funded, so there is going to be no relief. Since the sequester hacked our grants by 30%, we’ve all had to reduce hours to part time, but still put in our regular 60-80 hrs a week (I know, I know, but it’s the deal when you’re a grant funded area of academia). And EVERYTHING is a priority. It’s tough.

        Also, want to note re: creative projects: they often take longer to do than people who have no experience in doing them think they should. Those who have never had to do real design or creative work very, very often underestimate the time and effort it takes to do the work. Also, if creative work is your hat, it’s near impossible to do a less than great job. It’d be like telling a musician they don’t need to play so well, focus so much on hitting the right notes.

    3. AFT123*

      I agree with this – this is a recipe for high-performer burnout, and from OP’s letter, it sounds like this person is already into the burnout phase.

    4. Tris Prior*

      Yes, this! I’m dealing with a similar situation right now and what’s been helpful is that my boss was very, very explicit as to what my priorities are. As in, I am not allowed to work on Y until X is complete each day, and if that means Y has to go out late, that is OK. As in, I should complete Z as quickly as possible, and if that means it doesn’t look as visually attractive as it could, that is OK.

      I can’t say I’m wild about my priorities, as given the choice my job would include mostly Z and some Y with no X. But it does help to have this clearly laid out for me, as we’re not allowed overtime and I have more than 40 hours of work to do per week if everything’s done to my internal standard. And to have a boss who understands that sometimes dates are going to slip or the end product might be adequate but not awesome, as a result of the priorities he has set for me.

    5. Ad Astra*

      This is important. Most of my professional experience is with newspapers, which are categorically understaffed. And I worked at smaller newspapers in fairly newsy locations, so we really felt the absences. It was one thing to be temporarily splitting the extra work, but when corporate decided not to fill vacant positions, we were all saddled with more than we could get done in 40 or even 50 hours. At some point corporate unrolled a new campaign/training program that, at least on paper, gave us permission to drop the time-sucking tasks that weren’t bringing in the metrics we needed. The plan wasn’t perfect overall, but that element was one of the smartest things that company did while I worked there.

      If your company is going to be understaffed for the foreseeable future, you have to learn to let something slide. In our case, it was cutting back on boring “this is a thing that happened” event stories that nobody cared about.

          1. Cordelia Longfellow*

            I don’t have adbock but do often get routed to a registration page when I try to read your Inc. articles.

        1. Talvi*

          I’ve only encountered this problem once, and I was reading on my ipod – my laptop has adblock enabled, and I haven’t had any problems with that thus far.

          1. Andrew*

            Sometimes I get rerouted and sometimes I don’t. I think it usually is when I am at my home computer when I get rerouted, which is the only one that has Adblock installed. However, even when I have tried to register there, it never seems to work. I usually end up switching to a different browser than the one I usually use if I’m at home.

  4. Marie*

    For some reason this letter rubs me the wrong way. By your own admission, your department is understaffed and this particular employee outperforms her colleagues, volunteers to stay late, goes the extra mile, etc. Now you want to criticize her for not maintaining the “higher” standard that she has been meeting up until now, while not holding your other team members to the same standard as her. If I was your employee and I got the impression that you expected me to complete X within 3 days, but it was fine for the guy in the cubicle next to me to complete X within 5 days, and you overall just expected more from me than anyone else, I would grow to resent my job. Especially if I was not being rewarded in some way (even with just positive feedback).

    If you are unhappy with the turnaround for some projects, you will need to set clear deadlines (you say she takes longer to complete things than you would like, but you do not specify whether or not you’re giving her time frames or just expecting her to maintain the same turnaround as before). There’s a good chance that her productivity has decreased because her workload has increased (due to understaffing) and she is feeling a little burnt out.

    1. Spooky*

      I got the same impression. I hope like hell that this employee is just cheerful because she’s in negotiations with a better company, and is about to leave this bad manager in her dust.

    2. AFT123*

      I agree and to add another thought – Raising the bar each time an employee goes above and beyond is going to cause burnout. If you have 5 employees with the same title and the same job functions, and one person goes above and beyond frequently, it really isn’t fair or even a good idea to make that person’s expectations higher. I’ve been in this situation before and unless there is a promotion at stake, I’ve learned that it isn’t good to always have the high-achiever reputation. It becomes expectation. Then when you drop from 150% down to 110%, you’re all of the sudden scrutinized more than the people who have been 80% all along.

      1. RVA Cat*

        “unless there is a promotion at stake”

        This is absolutely key. It sounds like not only are they understaffed, this high performer may need to move up but there is no place there for her.

      2. sharon g*

        DING! DING! DING! I have been that employee who gave 150% where others gave 80% on a good day. It got me nothing. No bonus, no raise, no extra time off, not even a “thank you.” I won’t fall for that again.

        1. Tris Prior*

          It got me worse projects with more difficult clients, because “you’re so good, you can handle them, and your co-workers can’t.”

      3. Anony-Moose*

        My goodness, I love this. “Raising the bar each time an employee goes above and beyond is going to cause burnout.”

        Yes. I’m such an overperformer and a recovering perfectionist. It’s my nature to go as far as I’m pushed, and with zeal. So I regularly get pushed pretty far and pretty hard while watching my coworkers give about 75% but get less scrutiny and criticism.

        It’s exhausting and causing me to think about moving on to a less fast-paced job.

        1. AFT123*

          Totally can relate to this. I’ve finally stuck it out in a job that I struggled with this tendency and figured out how to be more “normal” while still being a little above average. While I’m def. less stressed, I can’t really say I’m happier about it overall, because everyday I feel like I’m permanently damaging my worth ethic… but I’m still working on this, so I guess I just keep on keepin’ on!

    3. Engineer Girl*

      This was me on one project. I was working 60 hours a week to finish work not being done by others. I literally was producing 1/2 of the products for a team of 11 people. I was reprimanded on my performance review when, after 5 years, I dropped back to 50 hours a week. This was because a) I was getting physically exhausted and b) a family member started to experience health problems that required my help. My manager also reprimanded me for occasionally coming in late on deadlines. I may occasionally come in late, but never ever had to do rework. Others hit the deadlines knowing that their product required rework. This means the final acceptable product came in later than mine, and at extra cost because it had to be worked twice.
      I grew to hate this manager and project because a) I was never recognized for my work – everyone received rewards when we hit milestones b) I was criticized for not hitting the high standard that no one else came close to meeting c) the manager was doing nothing to correct the poor performance of the others.
      I left. The project failed. That’s what happens when you don’t treat everyone equally (equal performance means equal rewards – unequal performance means unequal rewards)

      1. abby*

        Ugh, sounds like similar issues with my old job. I was a high performer, got excellent reviews, never missed deadlines, always had money left in the budget, principals fought over having me manage their projects. Then I was given a project that was over-budget and behind schedule, with the explicit expectation to “fix it”. I couldn’t, despite working long hours during the week and on the weekends for months on end and not billing any of this excess time. There were a lot of other problems associated with the project that made it impossible to fix. I also grew to hate the principal on the project, who criticized each piece of my work, but then took credit for it when the client complimented the same work. When the employer had to let people go due to a sudden elimination of the primary business, I was in the first group (surprise, surprise!)

    4. WLE*

      I agree. I think the only appropriate action that OP should take is to tell the employee that her hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. However, sometimes mistakes happen from taking on too much. Moving forward, the priorities are X, Y, and Z. C, D, and E can wait until the first three are completed.

    5. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

      “I manage a woman who is a very hard worker. She goes the extra mile, never complains, stays late and always volunteers to help…but lately I have noticed she is getting lax on things like returning important emails in a timely manner or getting things done that I asked her to do.”

      No where does it say “out perform peers”. I had a co worker that would frequently “go the extra mile”. Or perhaps a more appropriate way to phrase this would be “dive down every rabbit hole”. It was annoying. It impacted my ability to get my work done because while our team needed projects A, B, and C to get done, hard-working co-worker would be off doing D and E even though it is not really anything our department should be doing. When she would finally work on department related work, it would usually be sub-par. However our manager would not hear one complaint about this because the worker did so much overtime. I found myself frequently thinking that if this person would prioritize, learn to work more efficiently, and just do their job without worrying about everyone else’s work we would all get to go home a lot earlier.

      1. Anonymousterical*

        The OP did say: “I have been that hard worker, and I know how it feels when you are outproducing other team members and things are still slipping through the cracks. Is it fair to hold her to the higher standard that she has set for herself, even though the expectation is more than I could expect from other team members?”

        It sounds like the OP’s hard-worker works to a higher work/performance standard than her peers.

        1. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

          True, but in the situation I posted above my manager also thought that the co worker was out producing me and my teammates simply because she was spending more face time in the office. That simply wasn’t the case however and I honestly question if it is hardly ever the true case.

          In my case, that manager ended up leaving for a different job along with that co worker. I ended up taking over all of that co workers responsibilities, and not only did I not have to work any overtime to complete it, I found serious errors in almost all of her work. That co worker was dropping deadlines, failing to respond to emails, producing incorrect results, and because she happened to be taking 70 – 90 hours a week to achieve all this she was painted as some sort of example for the rest of use to emulate. It’s ridiculous.

          I’m not saying the OP’s direct report in question is like this, but from the letter above we really don’t know if that is the case or not. Too many people hear “works late, comes in early” and automatically believes that gives that employee a pass to screw up.

  5. Frances*

    Maybe I’m reading too much into this piece of the letter: “but lately I have noticed she is getting lax on things”
    but if I’m not then it implies that the employee has not always been lax on things. If she normally is a great employee and only recently has been having problems, burnout could be an issue. If that is the case, in addition to AAM’s suggestions to help her manage her time and prioritize, I think it would be a good idea for you to bring up the potential for employee burnout to your management. It’s likely management doesn’t know how close they are to losing good employees due to overworking them. If she is normally a great working, you want to do what you can to keep her.

    I say this because I’ve been this employee and close to quitting a job I love due to overwork–I was a hard worker, happy to go the extra mile. Then upper management cut funding so we had to work harder with many more days staying late. Then a few years later they cut funding again so we had to work even harder with longer hours and bringing home work most nights and weekends. Then another cycle of cuts. After 5 years of this I started to falter, my work quality suffered which was frustrating to me (I bet your employee is frustrated with herself when she messes up.), and I became less fun to work with (impatient and mentally spent). It was only when I said “enough is enough” and cut back to a 40 hour workweek most weeks and no weekend work did I get back to quality production. I’m much happier now and my work has never been better. Anyway, it might be worth considering as a possible culprit in her work quality.

    1. F. (another Frances)*

      I have also lived this situation. I was so fried mentally and physically that my production was slowly grinding to a halt. Fortunately, one of the positions I was filling in for was filled with someone who has now taken over nearly all of those duties, so I am only doing the work of 1-1/2 positions. I also cut back to 40-45 hours/week and no weekends. I empathize about the budget and staffing cuts. Sometimes there simply is no more money in a company and positions cannot be filled. One this I would suggest to the OP is that they have the employee write down every single job duty/task for which they are responsible. It was a real eye-opener for my boss to learn exactly what I was doing because I was (normally) doing it all so smoothly. My workload only really came to light when it all started to break down.

    2. Kira*

      I can totally see it as a case of the straw that broke the camels back. She can handle a and b, so then she was given C. When that turned out well, D, and E and… wait, why isn’t A being done as well as it used to? I think the manager could set expectations like this, “I know you’re doing really well, given the circumstances. You can get D and E done in 3 says when it takes everyone else 5. But I need A to be covered first. If that means D and E take 4 days, or even 5, that’s okay.”

  6. Rachael*

    I had this issue at one point. Another coworker and I were high performers dealing with a ton of workload that kept piling on and we were still expected to perform regular duties. In addition, my boss was holding us to a higher standard than others in our role.

    The boss was great…but just didn’t understand that it was becoming unmanageable. She was even busier, so to her my workload looked like a walk in the park.

    My situation was a little different because it was me who approached the boss with my concerns and a request for a promotion. I wrote my new job description and explained to her what was happening. She understood and advocated for our promotions. My workload didn’t decrease, but at least I was being compensated for the higher standards set upon me.

    In short, I see two things that should happen:
    1) The manager should raise her employee to another level if she is holding her more accountable than the others. That may increase her productivity because she feels valued.
    2) The manager may have to take a step back and see if the workload is too much. If she is working on projects it could be extremely hard to catch up on emails. Sometimes things get overwhelming and you try to work on what you think is more important.

  7. abby*

    I agree with the distinction made by Workingfromhome. If the understaffing situation is a chronic, long-term issue with no hope for relief, your employee may simply be burned out. Or she may realize that no matter what she does or how many hours she puts in, she still won’t get everything done. She might be in self-preservation mode at this point, as extra hours put in at work may not make a difference but extra time away from work can make a big difference for health and well-being.

    My team and I are in this situation. We are chronically understaffed due to budget problems that pre-date us. I do not know when this will be resolved, if it even will. For my team, I work with them to prioritize and I take on time-sensitive items when necessary, as I am exempt and they are not. For myself, I realized several months back that I will never get everything done. Unfortunately, there is no one who can take some of my work because my own manager is in the same situation. At this point, I rely on very clear and frequent communication with others that I work with and do my best to prioritize.

    1. Spooky*

      “Or she may realize that no matter what she does or how many hours she puts in, she still won’t get everything done.”

      This. Once you realize there’s no hope of the situation ever improving, it’s hard to find a reason to care (especially when those around you get to turn in less work)

        1. KittenLittle*

          Me too! Today, my coworker has flirted with the significant other coworker, talked about personal stuff for hours and is now coloring a picture. It’s so difficult to stay motivated when this is happening–plus with the noise level, trying to proof my report just makes me irritable.

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              We have a chronic colorer here too but at least she does it while talking on the phone to customers

      1. abby*

        Or she may care, but realize that frequent long hours are not resolving the workload issue while at the same time resulting in significant personal costs. Hard to say, but there are so many reasons a hard-working employee could appear to be “slacking off” under these circumstance.

  8. Chriama*

    I think I saw when this was originally posted on this site, but was there ever a response? There are so many issues pointed out in this letter, I don’t even know which are relevant:
    – is the employee actually a good worker (‘hard working’ vs.actual performance)
    – are you holding her to the same standard of work as her coworkers
    – given that this is a busy period, have you clearly elaborated what work to prioritize and how
    – how long has this busy period been going on, is it a seasonal thing or will continue for an indefinite amount of time
    – if her work is only slipping lately, have you addressed the issue of overwork or burnout with her

    The answers to those questions could shape the situation in so many different ways that I’m impressed Alison was able to come up with a coherent response at all!

  9. skyrimFanatic*

    Sadly, this is me–I was struggling to fill out a spreadsheet (I’m a perfectionist, but that perfectionism is compensation for inherent sloppiness), and finally my boss asked my coworker to write a program to do it for me. I’m very smart but I struggle with ADHD, and I would bet she does too. I’m wondering if I should just leave, and I would love to have my boss sit down with me and talk about what he needs so I can make a decision (then again, I started in June). I don’t want to sit here wondering if I’m doing good work or the company. I’d rather just find a place where I DO fit in, and where I can excel, even in contracting. So please be honest with this person. If she wants to do a good job (which it sounds like she does) then she probably would appreciate the input.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Me too, without the H. So I can relate in that I’ve noticed the more new tasks I take on, I’ll start to miss steps on older tasks I’ve been doing for years. Like if a task has 11 steps and I did them seemlessly prior, once I have a new task splitting my attention, suddenly I constantly start missing steps 5 and 9 for whatever weird reason my brain discards them from memory. Thank goodness I’m in a job now where my mistakes don’t have that much impact and or I can go back and fix them before anyone catches them.

  10. Not me*

    While discussing time management and prioritization is good, the obvious first step is to review the employee’s workload and see if it is actually possible for a human being to do in the amount of time that the employee has.

    1. Lexi*

      Exactly – this is how I read it too. I was in this situation once – doing the work of 4 people (literally – the other 3 had been laid off), constantly responding to requests, and the feedback I got back after a mistake was “this can never happen again.” Since the mistake was grabbing a wrong number from a spreadsheet, and I was was sending out probably 50-100 answers a day, that was pretty much impossible. Sort of like telling someone who writes emails for 8 hours a day to never have another typo – ever. So I just gave up and stopped worrying about being perfect because that wasn’t something that was ever going to be possible.

  11. Jake*

    I read this letter radically differently than AAM. I read, “I’ve got an employee out producing her peers, so more has been put on her plate due to understaffing and now things are falling through the cracks. How do I address this as she is a top performer and the reason things are slipping iso due to understaffing.”

    1. Jake*

      I should rephrase, at the end AAM mentions expectations for the coworkers.

      I guess my point is that if this employee is doing more than her coworkers and until recently has been great, the answer isn’t to help her prioritize. The answer is to reduce the work load to a reasonable level, which is less about talking to her and more about getting the coworkers up to snuff or getting more coworkers.

  12. LBK*

    I really like Alison’s point about actual work quality and not just personality qualities. I’ve worked with a woman who was all the things the OP described – hard working, dedicated, always ready to chip in extra hours, etc. – who was ultimately fired because she spent all those hours doing terrible work. It seems there may be extenuating circumstances in this case with the department being short-staffed, but I think there’s a question to be raised about how long you let someone’s potential (as observed by their attitude and commitment) help them float along before you decide they’re never going to actually start doing good work.

    I will say that the one bonus of having her work there was that it caused my manager to relax and realign his priorities because he realized that looking at who stayed the latest and who made the most phone calls were meaningless metrics in terms of performance – she smoked everyone in those but was far and away the worst employee in the department.

    1. TootsNYC*

      This is where a manager really isn’t doing his employee any favors–and certainly not herself any favors–by not immediately addressing performance quality issues.

      If someone is motivated and has a helpful attitude, those are strengths they can use to shape what they do.

      It’s even MORE important to step in quickly with corrections, to establish standards, and to create discipline* in order to establish a framework the employee can use to gauge how well she’s doing.

      *no, not punishment–discipline; order; like, “I saw that your status email wasn’t done; you need to do this one time” follow-up sorts of things.

      1. LBK*

        Not sure if you’re speaking generally or about my specific example but there was a TON of additional training and coaching, which I know because I did most of it. But after 6 months she was still asking me for help on basic tasks we’d usually expect people to be able to do independently after their first week. I really think she just didn’t have the ability to do the critical thinking and synthesizing of information the job required, which sucked because she was really sweet and clearly wanted to work hard. It sucked doubly because I don’t even think it was totally her fault – I’m pretty sure she was on meds that fogged her cognitive abilities. Either way, it just wasn’t a good fit.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I was speaking generally; you hadn’t provided enough info to speak about that situation specifically.

          And actually, you prove my point. In the situation you saw, there was feedback and training, and then that’s how you can be confident it wasn’t a good fit.

  13. Kristine*

    I would also say: make sure that the mistakes are not really the manager’s, and make sure that the manager is not a micro-manager.
    That happened to me: while working in a high-paced, high pressure environment, I received complaints about “mistakes.” When I started tracking what actually happened in a day journal, I found that my associate educator actually passed a wrong address to me, then flipped out when it appeared on the roster; blamed me for a mailing that did not reach a section of volunteers, and then became silent when she learned that the materials had never been generated by her, nor passed to me; and blamed me for a prominent misspelling that was actually committed by another superior.
    Never before nor since working at this place have I received complaints about “mistakes.”

  14. Lindrine*

    If she is missing details and overworked AND volunteering for more, then it sounds to me like a chat is in order. Something like, you’re working hard and pitching in and that is wonderful, but things are getting missed. The things getting missed is more important than you volunteering. Let’s try to get things better balanced in the department, and please clear any volunteering by me for now so we can make sure you don’t burn yourself out.

    1. Chriama*

      That’s another good point. She might be volunteering for this stuff because no one else will though, in which case it’s important to tell her exactly what her priorities are and how you’re going to make sure the work is spread around more equally so she doesn’t feel pressured to do it all.

    2. TootsNYC*

      The “volunteering for more” would have my alarm bells going off for someone who is undisciplined and flightly, and who wants to take on the new and shiny tasks instead of doing the boring, gray, everyday slog.

      We had a guy like this at my church–he’d volunteer for everything, but then he was never around for the first things he volunteered for.

      One time this impacted me, because he wasn’t there for the thing I was in charge of. And I actually said something to him, in an “advisor” sort of way, about, “You are stretching yourself pretty thin, and then you don’t have time or focus to do things you committed to previously, which isn’t fair to the people working on it with you; also you shut other people out from tackling things, which is not good for the organization, actually.
      “If something new comes along, you need to officially set something else down before you pick it up.”

      He actually told me later that he’d thought of those comments and had tried to change what he did.

  15. Another HRPro*

    I think it is the managers responsibility to talk about the change she has seen in performance, determine with the employee the cause and help her deal with that. As a manager, you can’t just let it slide. Maybe there is too much work for the employee to successfully complete with her normal quality level and that is good information for the manager to have. There might also be something else going on and the manager should figure that out as well.

  16. QualityControlFreak*

    Well, I haven’t missed any deadlines yet…. But I am looking for another job. Not only am I held to a higher standard than my coworker, I’m assigned to do about 90% of the work (because they are incompetent, and unwilling to become competent) plus I get to DO ALL THE THINGS when they are not at work (which happens every week). I’m not the only one here looking for a different gig. I love the org, love the work, but I’m just not willing to be the slacker’s little bitch until I retire because management doesn’t want to manage.

  17. Jem*

    I can really sympathize with the employee here and would agree with Allison’s speculation that perhaps the manager has not clarified expectations about how long things should take/what the priorities are/ given clear deadlines etc., in which case the employee’s only crime is not being able to read minds.

    It also sounds like it could be the “punished with more work for being being competent and responsible” thing.

  18. TootsNYC*

    Alison, I love that you included this perspective:

    “And if you aren’t holding others to that same standard, it could explain why someone with a good attitude is becoming lax herself — she may be getting the wrong signals about expectations and accountability. So be sure you’re addressing this angle too.”

    It’s an important perspective. And kindly broached.

  19. Efficient_Worker*

    YES!!! I remember the original response to this letter, and at that time I pointed out that showing up early, leaving late, volunteering to take on more, and not complaining DOES NOT mean you are a good worker.

    At the time I had a co-worker who was exactly like this. She was the first to volunteer for work, but she never responded to emails, delaying everyone else’s ability to get work done, frequently missed deadlines, and often the work she turned in had errors requiring significant rework. Whenever I would bring my concerns to the manager she would hear none of it because in her mind, showing up early and leaving late meant you were a “star” employee.

  20. Kira*

    Perfect timing for me. I’m in the employees shoes right now and I can imagine my manager writing a letter like this. The specifics are different, but I’m being tasked with a lot of new work, trying to handle it well, and sometimes ending up with different priorities than my boss. In my case, I’m always trying to sort things by what must be done this week/day, and she is worried about the projects that are important but don’t have the same kinds of pressing external deadlines so I often set them aside.

    1. BeeBee*

      I felt that way too!!! Guess there are a lot of use who read AAM.

      My boss (who was great) recently left the company. A good chunk of her work is now being placed on my shoulders. Upper management is showing no signs of wanting to replace her position anytime soon due to finances, so more work for our department gets, you guessed it, all dumped on me. In addition, I’m being thrown into aspects of the company and business that I was never part of before (but my boss was) and often don’t have ready answers for. But it’s not as though anyone in upper management ever ASKED me to take the is on. No, they just send it on over and expect I will do it AND all my other work as well.

      I try my best to get it all done, often jumping from 4-6 projects daily and racing in-between them. But I notice I am starting to make mistakes because of having to rush constantly and I no longer have the luxury of taking the time to properly write, design and proofread the way I always used to. They’re not huge mistakes (mostly typo kinds of things or writing that is less than stellar by my high standards) but nevertheless they’re embarrassing for upper management to see, even in a draft version, and this does not paint me in the best light. Will they care that I’m on overload and taking on my former manager’s workload as well? Doubtful. So yes, I feel as though this post could’ve easily been written about me!

    2. TootsNYC*

      I’ve been that boss–because the long-term projects are soon going to be the right-now projects. And they need to have -some- progress as we go along. FOr one thing, that’s how we avoid being up against the wall when -that- deadline arrives. And for another, outside eyes are watching us, and managing our reputation *is* important.

      That’s why communication is so important. Some managers don’t realize it, but they absolutely need feedback about what their directives are doing in the workflow of the people who work for them.

      And one of things that’s important to communicate is, “working on LT project means RN project is going to be 2 hours late, or it will be less complete. Is that OK with you?”

      Your manager’s not wrong. She just needs a clear picture (from you) of the price that she’s going to pay.

  21. Anonymousterical*

    “And if you aren’t holding others to that same standard, it could explain why someone with a good attitude is becoming lax herself — she may be getting the wrong signals about expectations and accountability. So be sure you’re addressing this angle too.”

    This. Totally.

    At Ex Job, I was one of four high performers on a team of eleven. We got important things done. We picked up slack for others. We volunteered for more, because, the times we hadn’t, the tasks ended up being completely ignored into catastrophicity by the slackers. We worked 14-16 hour days and picked up extra days, putting in 70-90 hour weeks; the slackers worked 10 hour days and never worked extra. The slackers were never held accountable, despite promises otherwise. The high performers were yelled at and told we weren’t doing enough and grilled over why certain things weren’t being done. Guess which employees that manager has left. Spoiler alert: he lost all the ones he held to the higher, self-imposed standards.

  22. katamia*

    Depending on the kind of work, maybe a checklist would help–the manager could sit down with the worker and say, “This week/month, I want you to focus on X, Y, and Z. A, B, and C are lower priorities.” One aspect of perfectionism (or at least my perfectionism, not sure how common this is) is a lack of ability to prioritize. If I were in the employee’s shoes, being explicitly told that certain things were…not unimportant, but not as crucial…would give me a better sense of what to focus on and what to let go.

    Although if this work requires a lot of intense focus, it might be good to revisit expectations of when emails should be returned so the employee doesn’t have to stop what she’s doing every 15 minutes to answer an email.

  23. NicoleK*

    The “hard worker” could be me. In my case, I’m totally overwhelmed and feeling resentful that others aren’t held to the same standards. I’m not purposefully neglecting my work but I am cutting back for sanity.

  24. Blurgle*

    People who are being pushed to work too hard – or “too smart” – make mistakes. Fatigued people make mistakes. Distracted people (no matter how necessary or how important the distractions are to the job) make mistakes. People who have not been given clear and 100% realistic instructions re. priorities make mistakes. People who are thrown into a chaotic situation without the training and experience to handle chaos make mistakes.

    Business could learn a great deal from the aviation industry. These are all factors in what’s known as “cockpit resource management”.

    1. AeroFanOne*

      OMG, Blurgle, do you work in my office too? :)

      I continue to be dismayed at our “management” who will stand in front of the four of us who are actually *doing* the processing in our office, tell us quality is critical, and literally in the next breath say, but you have to process 50 paperwork packages a day. And answer emails within 5 minutes and answer the phone no matter what and physically handle the walk-in traffic when it’s your assigned day.

      Upper management calculates our paperwork processing metrics by counting *all* six of us in this office, but only four of us, um, actually DO the processing. It’s a no-win situation. We can’t possibly make up for the two folks who don’t ever or at least regularly process, and yet we’re still expected to provide error-free, quality, right-on-time work, plus all these other tasks. It’s an enormously frustrating position to be in, and there’s simply no way to humanly do what they expect. Oh, and no overtime unless decreed by someone two levels up, and they love love love to offer OT a 3:30 in the afternoon.

      And yet they’re regularly perplexed when many of us skip the overtime for our planned, scheduled, busy lives. Surprise, huh?

      For the OP, one, consider checking in with this staffer and see if her workload is truly reasonable/realistic/humanly possible. What metrics are in place to measure what she’s doing? How is she doing compared to other staffers? If you’re understaffed, is it reasonable to expect your team to bust their asses with no relief in sight?

      Two, see if providing management about prioritizing would help. Prioritizing is partly your job too, not just hers.

      Three, is there *any* kind of small reward you offer your understaffed, overworked team? Maybe a coffee treat delivered one afternoon? An ice cream break? Lunch out, offsite, non-working? When hard work and sacrifice are acknowledged, then folks are more likely to continue the ass-busting. When it becomes the expectation and the norm, that’s when you start losing your commitment. IMO.

  25. Anx*

    This letter really reasonates with me.

    I was laid off very quickly from one food service position and laid off at another during the final round of deep cuts. The former was more recent; it was not a good cultural fit at all. The restaurant was new and still working on their identity. They were very…um…party-centric? Anyway, I didn’t feel very comfortable there in just the few shifts I worked. I felt like an odd-man out because I wasn’t really just in it to make a lot of money and have a lot of fun. I was probably far too serious; almost timid?

    Anyway, the manager who let me go during opening week cuts noted that she would give me a great reference in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to help much when my online applications have ‘fired’ or ‘laid off’ on them.

    My manager at my previous serving job fired me during seasonal lay offs and gave me the numbers of two hiring managers in town. I didn’t have a vehicle at the time and those restaurants weren’t accessible via transit, but she really liked me. I just didn’t have the polish, sales record, or seniority to justify holding me over for the slowest season. She did note that I was the hardest working person on staff (which isn’t really true, but perhaps true for front of house).

    One of my issues was the sales isn’t really my thing. Food service in general isn’t really my thing. I’d rather been working in a job where I felt more confident, but that wasn’t really an option. So part of it was the problem of working in the job you can get rather than a job you can do.

    But I do think I would have been better at my job had I gotten any feedback about my performance. Perhaps if I had goals more clearly stated. I probably would have made fewer small mistakes if I wasn’t constantly afraid of the owners watching me and criticizing my service without context (not understanding my table made special requests). In one of the jobs more organized management would have been very helpful (and point of sales computers that didn’t crash every hour!).

    In short, I think that with feedback and a little more organization from management and less fear, I could have improved my performance dramatically. But the best thing probably would have been to move me to a back of house position or bussing, but I was never considered for those positions. Ugh, one of the managers told me I was too pretty to be back of house when I dropped off my application (I also think they were disappointed that I looked a lot cuter during my interview, but wore my glasses and long pants and minimal makeup during shifts).

  26. chrl268*

    Alison, (not sure how long you keep checking comments) I went to read the inc article today and its telling me I either need to login or sign up – I’m not feeling warm and fuzzy to inc this morning so ceebs signing up but is there a time limit to free access to your inc articles? I haven’t had a problem with this before, but I’ve never been this far behind in reading articles. Any info would be appreciated, I’m feeling curious more than anything.

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