managing by posting lists, giving a reference for a former coworker who wasn’t very good, and more

It’s four answers to four questions (well, three plus an update). Here we go…

1. Manager posted list of names of people who are always on time to work

Recently my supervisor posted a list with five names out of the 22 people who work in our dept as “being on time 100% of the time.” I feel like this a little bit passive aggressive shaming of employees who were tardy. Granted, we have a few who are late 100% of the time, but some are late by one minute once! Your thoughts would be appreciated.

It’s a really weird thing for your manager to make such a big deal out of — surely there are more important measures of success than whether you’re at work at 9:00 or 9:01? I don’t think it’s shaming so much (if anything, this highlights that more than three-quarters of your coworkers are all in the same boat), just a dumb thing to make a focus point.

And really, if there’s any issue with people’s punctuality, your manager should address it with those people one on one. Just posting a list like this is a really passive, ineffective way of conveying that message and of doing her job.

2. Should I give a reference for a former coworker who wasn’t very good?

I worked closely with someone who was recently fired. “Steve” and I worked together for about two years. During the first year, I enjoyed our collaboration and I felt that he made strong contributions to the projects we worked on. However, during the second year, he put forth less and less effort, and simply stopped pulling his weight in a variety of ways. To make matters worse, he started dropping by my office multiple times a day to discuss minor work-related matters. These conversations were never productive or necessary, and I had to ask him to stop. The drop-ins slowed but never stopped, so I was feeling quite irritated with him by the time he was asked to leave.

Recently, he reached out to me to ask if I would serve as a reference for his job search. He’s been around the block long enough to know that I probably can’t give him a great reference, so I think he’s asking because he needs someone from our organization and I’m the best he can do. I can say specific, positive things about his contributions in our first year working together. But, I can’t say that I would recommend him for a position without reservation. My feelings about whether to provide a reference are complicated by the fact that Steve’s direct supervisor in our organization is extremely difficult to work with, and probably did block Steve’s success in certain ways. So, I do think that Steve might succeed in a similar position in a different environment, but I can’t say so with confidence. Finally, I know that Steve’s wife doesn’t work and that he has two children, so I lean toward helping if I can.

Is it kinder to provide a reference in which I say, “Steve did X, Y, and Z during our time together, but I can’t comment on his overall performance,” or to simply refuse to give a reference because I can’t wholeheartedly recommend him for a position?

Ooof. My usual answer with this kind of thing is that you should decline to give the reference or tell him that it won’t be glowing, because people giving inflated references is how other people end up with the kind of bad coworkers we read about here. But given that he was good to work with his first year, I do wonder if what you note about his difficult manager played some role in what he was like in year two. He’s still responsible for his own behavior that year, but it does make me more sympathetic.

You still can’t give a falsely positive reference, though. So I think your best bet is to tell him that you’re willing to talk factually about the projects you worked on together but that you wouldn’t be comfortable going beyond that to comment on his performance, and so therefore someone else might be a stronger pick. If you’re comfortable with it, you could even tell him that you felt like he struggled in his final year, and that you know it might be related to (manager), but that it’s put you in a position where you can’t give the kind of reference he’d probably like.

3. How can I explain to interviewers that I left my new job because of a bait and switch?

Three months ago, I was offered a job managing a small retail store in the very small (1,600 people) town I currently live in. After discussing the position in detail with the owners and agreeing on certain job details that I required be a part of the position if I were to take it, I decided to turn down the job as the pay was too low for me to accept (they don’t offer benefits). However, they came back to ask me my minimum required salary and offered me that number with the formerly agreed upon details. I decided to accept, despite wanting to leave this town for quite some time, and committed to a maximum of two years and a minimum of a year to help the resolve a number of issues with the store — issues which were the reason they had hired me.

However, even before starting (and of course after giving notice at my other job), they began changing the terms. They informed me they had let their employees know I was not actually the manager, but they wanted me to fill the role in other aspects. When I did start, I was suddenly not even responsible for those aspects either. Despite a conversation with the owner who offered me the job, they continue to strip down my duties and responsibilities and title. They are still compensating me as agreed upon, but the job is not what I agreed to and I am not utilizing the skills I originally expected to. I should also note that none of these changes were due to a lack of work performance. Not only have I reorganized their direct to garment and embroidery department to work more efficiently, I have brought in three new accounts in my short time here, using my contacts from past jobs. I have also been told my performance is above expectations.

I know my mistake in this was not getting the original offer in writing (something that is just not done in this small town setting), a mistake I will not make again. However, I feel I have given them a reasonable amount of time to address the concerns I brought to them originally and am not satisfied with their response. I have decided to cut my losses and begin looking for a job out of town, resuming my original plan to relocate. However, I’m not sure how to handle the “why are you leaving your current position” question that is bound to come up in interviews. Any suggestions?

“They hired me to manage the store, but it turned out that they really needed someone to do X instead. It ended up being a very different role than I’d signed on for.”

For what it’s worth, even getting the details of the job in writing might not have avoided this. It would have avoided any possible miscommunications, yes, but if they really meant what they said when they hired you and just changed their minds later, having it in writing wouldn’t have really changed anything. You should still get job offers in writing, but don’t beat yourself up over not having done it here.

4. Update: can you ask to come back to a question later in the interview, and how long can you pause before it seems weird?

I just wanted to let you know that you are the reason I got a job offer today. As a new grad, my fellow classmates are pretty jealous! I used all your tips and tricks to create a strong resume and cover letter I’m very proud of. I got a request for a phone interview 22 minutes after I applied online for a job. When I had my in-person interview today, I asked the manager several questions to assess the company and her management style. When I asked her your magic question “How would you differentiate a good X and a really great X” she responded “Someone who isn’t afraid to ask questions. You’re the first person I’ve interviewed that has asked me questions. Most people are too nervous.”

I was told they would make a decision two days later after interviewing two other candidates. 45 minutes after I left, the COO called and offered me the position, saying the manager was very impressed with me. I accepted, negotiated pay and was offered more.

I truly believe that asking the magic question and other questions I got from your blog is the reason I have a job now. I enjoy your blog so much and am so thankful for all you’ve shared on it.

Yay! Congratulations!

{ 73 comments… read them below }

  1. FiveByFive*

    1. Eh, I’m not sure I would go as far as saying this is passive-aggressive. Yes, if individual employees are habitually late, they should be spoken to personally. But I don’t know if simply posting a list of consistently on-time employees is necessarily making it a “big deal”. It’s nice to recognize people’s effort, and it’s a way to put a positive focus on things. When we teach kids in sports, for example if we see a kid using incorrect form, we don’t point it out – instead, we wait for a moment when another kid uses perfect form, and point that out instead “Great form! That’s how we do it!” Sometimes highlighting the positives can be more effective.

    2. I may just be naive on this, but can’t OP give a reference exactly like what she typed in this letter? Simply say he was great in year one, not so much in year two, it might have been due to a management issue but I can’t say that for sure…? Isn’t that what a reference is – an honest assessment of the person’s performance? I’m not sure I see the need to skirt around things or worry about being falsely positive.

    4. Wow! Alison, that’s got to be so rewarding to get letters like that. Fantastic! Great job OP (and great job Alison)! :)

    1. Random Lurker*

      I sort of agree with you on #1 – to a point. I’ve had roles where punctuality is very critical, and yes, people not being in their seat and ready to start working at 9 sharp (or whatever time) was problematic. So I’m not judging the manager for pointing out that some people are consistently doing this.

      However – my problem is making a positive example out of people doing what is expected on the most basic level. I’d prefer to see a list recognizing people who went above and beyond in some way. That gives positive reinforcement, and I think it would be less likely to shame people who had been late. Being on time is such a basic expectation. It’s like making a list of people who returned emails promptly or completed their timesheets on time.

    2. Colette*

      The OP can give the reference she gave us, but if she wants to help Steve, she should let him know what she’ll say so he can ask someone else.

    3. Elsajeni*

      But at some point you pull aside the kid using incorrect form and give them some one-on-one coaching on how to do it correctly, right? Bringing public attention to someone doing it perfectly — whether “it” is kicking a soccer ball or filling in their TPS reports — is fine, but it won’t help people who think they’re already doing it right, or who don’t have the skills or knowledge to perfectly copy what that person is doing.

      1. newbie*

        I completely agree. Providing positive reinforcement to those employees who are performing as expected is one thing. Addressing issues where employees are not meeting expectations is a separate issue. Posting lists or making broad announcements to everyone doesn’t address deficiencies with specific individuals. Those should always be handled directly with the offender so it is clear to those offenders what is expected in the future and what consequences there are for non-compliance.

        In my experience, those people that are consistently late to work are not going to be shamed by a posted list. If they are not specifically called out on it by their supervisor and there aren’t any consequences, why should they change?

        1. Artemesia*

          This and the person who was late once is going to feel defensive and shamed — it feels like grade school. I know reading it put me in that frame. ‘Perfect attendance’ is not something to be proud of particularly and it is infantalizing. If people are showing up consistently late, then they need to be managed and consequences including firing made clear if it is critical that they be there on time. If it is less critical but annoying to the boss then he needs to let them know they are not meeting expectations and this will effect their evaluations and raises. ‘I see Johnny is in his seat and ready to work’ may be a successful manipulative ploy in the kindergarten classroom, but it is sort of creepy at work.

      2. FiveByFive*

        Oh definitely. It’s just one tool in the toolbox. btw posting a list of on-time employees would not be my approach; It does seem kind of juvenile. But the manager might see it as positive encouragement and might think it fits her particular situation. It’s certainly better than posting a list of late employees, and it might be more efficient than having one on one meetings with all the offenders, assuming punctuality is a crucial part of this job.

        1. Agnes*

          I have a theory: I’m guessing it’s a situation where to-the-minute punctuality is not absolutely vital, but there’s a lot of people slouching in later and later, to the point where it’s become a bit of a problem. And because it’s not a single person or absolutely necessary to be there on the dot every day, the manager didn’t want to make a big deal of it or to point to the one person who happened to be late that day, but did want to say that she prefers that people show up on time. She may have figured that if she talked to everyone one-on-one, the response would be “What’s the big deal? I do my work, everyone else does it, it doesn’t matter.” and if she posted a list of latecomers that would be shaming and micro-managey, so thought she’d try this. It doesn’t seem particularly effective, but doesn’t seem like the worst possible response, either.

    4. neverjaunty*

      re #2, agree, and I’m really bothered by this ‘he has a wife and children’ rationalization. One, it’s awfully close to the old excuse of “he has a family to support” for promoting and paying less-qualified men more, and two, it assumes that people who don’t have a spouse and children clearly can’t have any important need for money.

      And it’s not as though a future employer is going to say “wow, the reference we got on this new hire was pretty misleading, but he’s got a family so I guess that’s all right.”

      1. Alma*

        +1,000 – utilities, home upkeep, homeowners Assoc dues, and homeowners/renters insurance doesn’t cost much more for two people with small children than it does for one person. Food often costs more. Income tax favors those filing as married with children.

        Granted, when the children are in their teens and beyond and eating everything in sight, that is a big hit to the food budget – but one the couple saw coming.

        Marital status (or Partnered status) and children have no place in employment decisions.

        1. neverjaunty*

          No, it actually does cost a lot more to maintain a household with four people than one. The point, though, is not the mathematics of household size – it’s the assumption that a married person with children has such a unique financial burden that he deserves a special pass to get his flaws as an employee papered over.

          1. Natasha*

            What if we factor in parenting obligations, not for the parents’ sake, but for the kids’? I remember how scary financial problems were whem I was a kid, because I didn’t really understand them and couldn’t help.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              But there could be other candidates with dependents who might be the better candidate than this guy but might lose out on the job if he gets a falsely positive reference. It’s all speculation, of course, but we can’t know everyone’s situations. I’d say sticking with the truth is the best path.

            2. neverjaunty*

              That’s just repackaging the same thing. “Sorry, Jane, I know you’re a stellar employee with a great work ethic, and Wakeen is a mediocre employee and a slacker, but he’s got a wife and two young children at home to support, and it’d be really scary for those kids if we laid him off instead of you.”

              AAM is right – we don’t know everyone’s situation, and the only relevant thing here is that Mediocre Steve shouldn’t be getting a great reference from the OP. If he wants to financially support his family, maybe he should get his act together at work.

            3. Temperance*

              I still don’t think that’s cool, because frankly, I have bills to pay, too, and don’t suck at my job. I grew up as a poor kid so I understand where you’re coming from, but no, you aren’t entitled to a good job just because you have children.

            4. Anon for this*

              Nope, not okay. I’m a good employee and I have another co-worker who is a bit of a slacker at times. This week in particular he’s not followed through on projects that has caused a bit of a trickle down mess and instead of owning up his mistakes he’s throwing other colleagues under the bus.

              He’s married with kids. I’m unmarried with cats. I’d be pissed if it came down to the two of us they decided to keep him simply because of his “parenting obligations.” I have bills, too.

              1. JM in England*

                The way I see it, wouldn’t having a spose and children to support provide a bigger incentive to be a stellar performer? After all, such people have more to lose if they’re fired…….

                1. Another Job Seeker*

                  Not necessarily. I am unmarried, and I do not have children. I do the best I can at my job because I am paid to do so. It’s about the commitment I made when I accepted the position – not who my not having a job would impact.

      2. Mephyle*

        I’m not defending the ‘he has a family to support’ but I want to offer an explanation of why some people think it’s defensible. Their reasoning is: if a single person is jobless, only they themselves go hungry, but if a parent of a family is jobless (and their spouse isn’t working or there is no spouse), their children go hungry too. In other words, it’s not because a person supporting a family is ‘worth more’ in themselves, but because there are more people suffering the consequences. They are ‘worth more’ counted by the number of people who will go hungry.

        1. Sammie*

          As the person who had her CEO tell her that “Steve is getting a raise and you are not because he has a child–and it doesn’t matter that you have twice his output,” this is NOT defensible. Work is work–home is home–we all have our own stuff.

  2. The Bimmer Guy*

    #1: I think that was an extremely bitchy thing to do, but I’d let it go, especially since most people didn’t make the list.

    #4: Great update! Congratulations!

  3. S.I. Newhouse*

    #1: Those types of bosses are the worst. A previous supervisor I had once accidentally-on-purpose attached a document to an email once listing all of the latenesses of every member of our staff, going back years. Imagine how mortified I was when I saw, next to my name, from several years earlier, “9 minutes late – transit problem” and “3 minutes late – cat emergency.” (I was late after an appointment at the vet’s). I am a manager now and I promised to myself to never, ever do anything like that!

    #4: Congratulations!

    1. Blanche Devereaux*

      Hmm, I wonder how much time that supervisor wasted keeping tabs on everyone’s comings and goings for years on end.

      I understand that punctuality is paramount in certain fields and positions, but in others where 5-15 minutes makes little to no difference (and here I’m assuming that was the case for you), I’m almost certain your supervisor had better things to do than keep tabs.

      1. Rater Z*

        I remember the job where I was usually about 4 minutes late. If I was 2 minutes early, I got stuck at the far end of the parking lot. At 4 minutes after 5 pm, I had the pick of the front end of the lot near the door. It wasn’t that great of a neighborhood and I was working 11-12 hours a night exempt. My supervisor was fine with it. The time came, of course, with a new supervisor who wasn’t happy until she could write people up for things so I had to do better.

    2. KR*

      Tbh cat emergency is a completely acceptable reason to be late to work in my view. I have definitely used that.

  4. Deebee*

    Is there one comprehensive masterlist that has all of Alison’s different advices listed? I’d love to just read over everything regarding (for instance) resume writing. I’ve looked through the categories and I think I’ve read back hundreds of posts so I’ve definitely picked up on a lot, but a good overview would be a real useful resource to have.

      1. DeeBee*

        Thanks!! I’ll make sure to buy a copy! I’m such a huge fan of your blog. We’re reorganising at work so I’ve got plenty of time to kill while I await my fate (needless to say, your advice has never been more relevant).

  5. Procrasinator*

    Alison sells a book called “How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” which sounds like exactly what you’re looking for. I purchased it, and it was well worth the cost — after taking her advice my jkb search went dramatically smoother!

  6. Procrasinator*

    Also, I definitely initially typed “How to Get a Jon.”. Which would be a very different book, and to my knowledge Alison did not such a book.

  7. Laura*

    FYI I am getting terrible ads on the site on mobile today. Pop up windows with no way to close that direct to spam sites, something about winning an iPhone 6. I couldn’t close the page without restarting the phone. Sorry I can’t give the exact link but I am not opening the site on my phone again to test it out!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I talked to my ad network about this, and they said it’s been happening internet-wide to iPhone and iOS users. Here are two solutions that they say have worked for other people. Would you try this and let me know either way if it works? If it doesn’t, I definitely want to know!

      Change Cookie Settings
      1. Click Settings on your iPhone
      2. Select Safari
      3. Scroll down and click Block Cookies
      4. Select Allow for Current Website Only

      Clear All Website Data
      1. Double-click your home button and close Safari
      2. Go to Settings
      3. Select Safari
      4. Scroll down and click Clear History and Website Data
      – Note: This will close all of your Safari browser windows

      1. Laura*

        My settings are slightly different (probably bc old OS), I was already blocking cookies but I reset the history. Was able to open the site without a pop up!

  8. OP to #1*

    I am feeling defensive. I’ve never been late but I have forgotten to punch in because I get there too early, making me look late. And this is the first time in 15 yrs she’s done this….and it’s only in the last month that she posted about that I punched in 1 min late, forgot to punch. I didn’t make the list because of this and I’m thinking why all of a sudden when for the last 15 years, before the last month, I would have been on the list. I know it’s not really a big deal, but really, it makes me want to punch in 1 minute late every day now, just to piss her off.

    1. Temperance*

      It’s weird to me that this would be an issue in a professional office. My last job was really awful with this stuff – my boss once wrote me up for being 2 minutes late during a traffic jam.

  9. Turtle Candle*

    My gut response to #1 isn’t so much that it seems passive-aggressive as that it seems really… grade school? That might just be me, but it really has a strong whiff of “gold star for little Billy” that would put me off (or maybe just make me giggle) even if I was on the list myself.

  10. anncakes*

    I work in a field where punctuality is vital and tardiness can really screw things up. At my Teapot Hospital, we have a problem with a few people being frequently late, and those of us who get there early end up having to cover for them and end up doing extra work. We are expected to be ready to go 10 minutes before our official start time, and I’m one of the ones who is always early. I have never been late. I’m sick to death of having to pick up the slack and having to do extra work and take other people’s appointments because they don’t care enough to be on time and do their job right. I’m ready to slap the coworker who always has some kind of excuse and who has put me in a situation where I’ve had to stay 2-3 hours past my shift to cover for her multiple times. I’m tired of management being ineffective at solving the problem and letting people get away with it over and over again.

    With all that being said, if my manager did what #1’s did and posted names, I’d think it ridiculous and juvenile. In smaller workplaces, it’s already a well known fact who comes in late and who is actually reliable. Posting a list of those with perfect attendance does absolutely nothing except maybe piss off the people who were late once or twice because they really couldn’t help it but who are otherwise great performers. If the people who are chronically late would take a public list seriously enough to change their ways, they’d have bothered enough to not be chronically late in the first place.

      1. anncakes*

        Oh, of course, and there are fields where being a few minutes late doesn’t cause a single problem. My point is that even in my situation and in my job, where being late really matters, I’d *still* find it pointless and ridiculous to post a public list of perfect attendance as a way to shame the people who come in late. It does no good at all.

    1. OP to #1*

      Being late by a few minutes doesn’t really matter, it is in a hospital but it doesn’t make anyone else have to pick up slack. I think it’s just rude for people to be late…..I didn’t make the list, because I forgot to punch in, you are not allowed to punch early, and sometimes I forget to punch. I’ve been there 15 years and never got acknowledgement for my punctuality and attendance , but I forget once to punch in and she praises all these other people. It is the culture of the company and I am making plans to leave. My supervisor is a wimp and won’t address chronic problems with punctuality, absenteeism, and people calling out in storms.

      1. Zillah*

        This is a bit beside the point, but while your supervisor sounds quite problematic in her own way, you’re coming off to me as taking this much more personally than really makes sense. It seems like you’re actually folding punctuality and attendance into morality, which is problematic on its own level – the issue with their lateness is how it affects your responsibilities at work, not personal assessments of whether they’re being “rude.”

        Here’s the thing: this isn’t a problem because your supervisor left you out. It’s a problem because this is an immature and frankly ridiculous way of singling people out. The issue isn’t that you’ve never been late – the issue is that this is an ineffective way of managing people who are having attendance/punctuality problems and a poor way to gauge (and reward!) people who have been performing well. The focus should be on outcomes, not on principle.

  11. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

    I’m having some trouble expressing how I feel about the perception that you can never give a good reference to someone that got fired.

    Especially reading the OP’s “Steve’s direct supervisor in our organization is extremely difficult to work with, and probably did block Steve’s success in certain ways” — being let go can often be a lot more complex than “Steve is a terrible worker” — I’ve seen more politically motivated firings than performance based ones. Usually it’s a blend of the two, and as noted in the post these workers would often do just fine in a role without a toxic manager.

    When OP says “I think he’s asking because he needs someone from our organization and I’m the best he can do” — let me be clear, nobody on earth feels happy or comfortable about asking for a recommendation from a colleague when they’ve been fired. Being fired is one of the most publicly humiliating things that can happen to someone, and you can bet that the person asking for a reference is hoping against hope that you will see past how he exited the company and do him a solid by speaking of the good work you saw him doing.

    So I would suggest to the OP (and to anyone else that finds themselves in this position): imagine your colleague had approached you for a reference while they were still employed by your company. Take everything you know about them being let go and about you being “the best they can do” and think only about how you feel about them and the work that the two of you did together. Leave out of the equation anything else. If the worst thing you can come up with at that point is the fact that Steve was too chatty, then do the right thing and give him a solid reference. Say he was good. You don’t have to say he was GREAT! but say he was good.

    1. neverjaunty*

      Well, for starters, the OP was pretty clear this wasn’t simply an overly chatty co-worker: “during the second year, he put forth less and less effort, and simply stopped pulling his weight in a variety of ways.”

      And I’m really, really not buying this shaming about how haaaard it is to ask for a reference and so the only correct thing is to “do a solid” by giving a reference that is misleading at best. Certainly, it’s fair for OP to point out the pros and cons, such as observing that Steve’s manager may have been part of the problem. But giving a fake good reference puts other unemployed job-seekers whose references DON’T fudge the truth at a disadvantage, and it means dumping a problem on whoever ends up with a mediocre new employee in their workplace.

    2. Charityb*

      I’m not sure that the fact that Steve was fired was the LW’s issue though. In addition to the chattiness, it does look like there was a solid first year followed by a second year where Steve gradually gave up and stopped trying to work.

      “However, during the second year, he put forth less and less effort, and simply stopped pulling his weight in a variety of ways. ”

      It’s not that the LW is assuming that Steve can’t get a good reference because he was fired; the LW just doesn’t want to give Steve a good reference because he wasn’t a good employee. She can talk positively about the specific instances where he did well but I don’t see why it’s unfair or unreasonable to acknowledge that someone who only did a good job for 1/2 of his time at the work might not deserve a great or even just a ‘good’ reference. If Steve had quit instead of being fired, I don’t think this letter would have been any different. If he was still employed, the letter might even be worse — if he wasn’t pulling his weight for 2, 3, 4+ years then the LW would have more memories of him as a bad employee than memories of him during his one good year.

    3. C*

      I think Long Time Reader First Time Poster’s point that firings can often be political is spot-on. To the others who keep referencing the LW’s opinion of Steve’s work in year 2, the LW was not Steve’s manager nor was she privy to his situation at work. From her comments, it seems entirely possible that Steve’s boss was a toxic influence.

      The point is, you should never give a false or misleading reference for someone, nor should giving a reference be something that you feel uncomfortable doing. But we are often in the dark about how/why people are hired or fired, and it kind of feels that other comments here advocating that Steve be treated like a leper because 1) he was fired and 2) his stellar work performance disintegrated while he reported to someone described as “extremely difficult to work with”. Let’s be a little more understanding about the circumstances he may have been under. A poor performer is a poor performer, but in my experience someone who’s strong and then fizzles out has usually had external factors influence that decline.

      1. neverjaunty*

        I’m not following how ‘give an honest reference if you do it at all’ translates into treating Steve like a leper.

        1. FiveByFive*

          Right, and that mention of “do him a solid” is an interesting choice of phrase. It seems like whenever I’ve heard it used, it means “hey, be a pal and bend the accepted code of ethics for me, and maybe someday down the road, I might do the same for you, maybe, probably… if I don’t think it will come back to bite me. OK, pal?” But I could be wrong.

      2. Koko*

        Even if his boss was a toxic influence, as Alison said, the guy is still responsible for how he handled that crummy situation. A toxic boss is a difficulty, not a sealed fate.

        I have seen people in toxic/politicized workplaces who kept their head down and their mouth shut and made it out a few years later with some experience and a good reference while other employees dropped like flies or went down in flames around them. It’s a difficult thing to do and a skill a lot of people don’t develop until after they’ve been the one who went down in flames, and in hindsight they realized what they should have done. Some people never develop it.

        Because it’s a difficulty I’m sympathetic to OP’s ex-coworker, and I’m not going to fault him as a person or assume he gave up at work because he was lazy or manipulative or anything like that. But even so, in my assessment of him as an employee, he lacked the ability to stay focused and motivated under a difficult manager. That’s the kind of valuable information I imagine that a potential future employer would want to have.

      3. Purrsephone*

        “A poor performer is a poor performer, but in my experience someone who’s strong and then fizzles out has usually had external factors influence that decline.”

        I agree wholeheartedly. It’s this that I think the OP should weigh in her decision as to whether to give a reference and what that reference will be.

        1. Cassandra*

          Having myself been a Steve — a high achiever stuck in a dank dusty corner until I ran entirely out of hope — I would be cool with the OP saying exactly what was said here about me. I would expect to have to address the falloff in my performance in the interview.

          I would encourage the OP to give an honest reference. I deserved a second chance, was fortunate enough to get one, and have been excelling since. I hope the same of Steve.

  12. Nicole Michelle*

    For OP #1, I feel like it shows the nature of the employer. I worked at a place that would give you a warning about clocking in a few minutes late too many days in a row. Then one bad snow storm hit and they handed out gift cards to employees who made it in and on time. Long after I left I still read reviews about them about how strict they are about time.

  13. Sue Wilson*

    #4: Congratulations on the Job OP!

    ngl, though. If I asked what differentiates good from great in performance, I’d truly wonder if ” a person who ask questions” was a helpful answer to my question.

    1. OP #4*

      As a new grad in the health care field I still have a lot to learn on the job, even if it’s just how the documentation system works. I can see how the manager’s answer could be unhelpful for certain careers. But it was a relief to me to know it’s ok to not know everything yet.

    2. Wonder Woman*

      I think it’s a useful answer if that’s how you like to work. I was once reprimanded for asking too many questions when I was a 20-year old intern at a chemical manufacturing company. It still stings 20 years later (how was I supposed to know anything as a brand new intern?!) So hearing that in an interview would be a positive thing.

  14. Nico m*

    #2 Cut Steve a break and give him a reference based on his first good year.

    Its quite possible his later problems were all down to the toxic boss.

  15. Erik*

    #3 – I’ve been through this a couple of times. I even had full discussions, everything in writing, etc. and it still happened. All I’ve done is simply explain it as Alison did – I’ve yet to have any problems with it. Most people were understanding that the role changed.

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