recovering from a period of lower performance at work, applying for a job at the company I left on bad terms, and more

It’s four answers to four questions. Here we go…

1. Recovering from a period of lower performance at work

How do you gracefully recover from a period of poor performance at work without either making excuses or throwing yourself much further under the bus than is actually necessary? And how do you rebuild a slightly tarnished reputation (or figure out if it actually *got* tarnished anyway)?

The background is, I suffer from severe depression and moderate anxiety, which are both well-controlled by medication and usually don’t affect my work much. However, I had a disruption in medication for almost two weeks recently because of some insurance issues, which is more than enough time for symptoms to start showing up again, and I lost a lot of motivation and found it hard to care about or focus on doing anything at work. It happened at a bad time as well – in the middle of a highly-stressful transition between software systems that put me in a majorly central role of responsibility, on top of my existing duties (which already come close to overwhelming me sometimes) – and long story short, I dropped the ball on several things.

I’m back on my meds and working on getting caught up and on top of things again, but it means I keep finding stuff I left undone for lack of energy/focus/motivation as I go through my backlog. I feel terrible coming to my manager for like the fourth time in one day to say “oops here’s another thing I screwed up/didn’t bother to do!” – and I am getting more and more tense that she’s getting upset with me or that I’m going to end up in trouble. Ordinarily, I’m a very good employee – our department head has (jokingly) told me I’m not allowed to go on vacation because he can’t run the department without my help, and most of the people I work with outside our team have given glowing feedback on my work – but I feel awful about having messed up so many things in such a short span of time and I’m afraid it’s going to damage my reputation (or has done so already), with my manager mostly but also with others in the organization.

How do I make a graceful recovery from this? I feel like my manager would be understanding if I brought up my mental health struggles, but I don’t want her to think I’m making excuses, either. Do I just apologize profusely while I fix things, then wait out any fallout for a couple months, or is there a way to talk to her about it without making excuses and making myself look even worse?

I think you’ll feel better if you say something to her so that she has an overall understanding of what’s going on. However, you don’t need to share the specifics of the situation with her if you don’t want to. It would be fine to just say, “I want to let you know that I was dealing with some health issues for a few weeks recently, and it definitely affected my work a bit. The issues are resolved now, but I know I wasn’t on my game during that time and I wanted to let you know that so that you have that context too.”

One of the nice things about generally being an excellent employee is that it buys you some extra slack during times like this. Your manager knows that this isn’t your normal M.O., and she also knows that you’re human and will occasionally be affected by things outside of work, especially heath. Give her the framework to make sense of the last few weeks, and I’m sure she’ll just be glad that you’re back to feeling better.

2. Applying for a job at the company I left on bad terms

Long story short, I left my old job (in 2010) in a quite bad way. My boss — who almost everyone agreed was abusive, and who had forced many, many talented people to quit — and I had an argument. It was the last straw, and I quit in a huff. I got a new job a few months later, and never badmouthed the organization. Also, I was on good terms with everyone else there, except HR, who didn’t like me because my boss didn’t.

Now, I am a freelancer, and I freelance for Old Job – at the request of the manager that I quit because of. I was told she liked my work and didn’t hold grudges.

Now there are a few openings in entirely different departments of this company, and I would like to apply for one. The other department is much better suited to my talents and interest. However, is this a terrible idea? I have at least one HR person who doesn’t like me (the other quit) and I have no idea what my old manager would say if asked. I also have no idea what my HR file says – I had to take a month off of work because of a legitimate medical problem at one point, and I always got the feeling they held that against me. I’m most afraid of being embarrassed; I would hate to have them laughing that I actually thought I could get hired again.

Apply! You’re freelancing for them, at the request of the very boss who would be likely to be the biggest issue, which is a decent indicator that the place doesn’t hold what happened against you. It’s certainly possible that although they’re fine with you freelancing, they wouldn’t be fine with you coming back as an employee, but even if that’s the case, it’s very unlikely that they anyone would be mocking you for not knowing that.

All that said, since you have plenty of contacts there, I wouldn’t just send in an application cold. If you know the hiring manager, even just a little, reach out to her directly, and say that you’re interested and wanted to see if she thought it could be the right match before you apply.

3. My coworker won’t stop pushing me to change my line of work

I have a question about a coworker who doesn’t seem to pick up social cues or have boundaries. My fiance and I made a work-related relocation to a place neither of us ever had any intention of living — with the understanding it would be for two years, tops. Since moving here, I found a new job but it is definitely not something I would want to do forever, which kind of makes the two-year timeline easy to deal with.

I am in a marketing role in a company that offers consulting services. I am not interested in becoming a consultant, but a colleague always seems to put me on the spot in group settings (including when my direct boss is present), trying to “convert” me. It’s not something I have an interest in, I’m not interested in a career change, and my coworkers seem to think that Fiance and I have settled in to live here FOR-EV-ER.

Obviously, I don’t want to tell them I am counting the days until we can leave this place in our dust, but how do I handle this situation?

You’re overthinking it. You don’t need to get into a long, involved conversation about this. Just be direct and concise: “I’m happy with what I’m doing now, and I’m really not interested in moving to consulting.” If needed, you can add, “So, moving on, how is the X account going?”

If it continues after that, talk to the coworker privately and say this: “I’ve noticed you keep suggesting that I move into consulting. I’m really not interested in doing that — how do I convince you of that?”

Of course, that’s just rhetoric; you don’t need to convince her of anything — but it can be helpful in getting someone to realize that they’re being too pushy.

4. Asking for feedback on an assessment I did before I was hired

I am starting a full-time position about a month after I graduate, which is in a few weeks! A month and a half ago, I did a second interview with the company I will be working for, and part of it required a research and writing assessment. Basically, I had to research a teapot issue and write a memo about it. Obviously I did fine because I was hired, but can I ask for feedback on it? I want to hit the ground running when I start, but also don’t want to come across as too eager or annoying. If I do ask for feedback, do I ask now or when I start?

Eh, you could, although I’m not sure it’s going to be especially useful. You did well enough that they hired you, and that’s probably the main takeaway.

But after you start, you could say something like this to your manager: “Hey, was there anything in the memo that I wrote during the hiring process that I ideally would have approached differently, or any other feedback from that exercise that might apply to the work I’ll be doing now?” You want to frame this not as “I’m looking for pats on the head” (not that I think you’re saying that) but as “is there anything that would be good for me to know as I do similar work?”

It’s possible that the answer will be no, either because that’s truly the answer or because it’ll have been a while since your manager looked at it and she may not want to take the time to re-familiarize herself with it in order to give you useful feedback (since soon enough there will be real work to give you feedback on). But it’s not weird to ask, as long as you wait until you’re actually working there.

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Amy Farrah Fowler*

    #1 In addition to Alison’s advice, I would suggest being sure you’re engaged in your work and pro-actively ask your boss for feedback about things. I think in combination with giving her an idea of what you’re going through, she’ll appreciate you being open and willing to take feedback. Some of it may be constructive criticism, but if you take that in stride and build back up, a couple off weeks shouldn’t tarnish your reputation. In fact, recovering from an issue like that with grace can actually be a positive thing.

    My boss actually sent me an email a few weeks ago commending me for handling some struggles recently with professionalism and engagement. It was really nice to hear that while I felt I wasn’t achieving at the level I’d like (for reasons I couldn’t entirely figure out on my own) that she was appreciating my ability to take feedback and not giving up.

  2. Nobody*

    #1 – Everybody has off days… I have a coworker of whom I think very highly — I actually nominated him for an award last year — and a few months ago, he went through a bad streak where he screwed up several things in a short period of time (one of which could have been pretty serious, but out of pure luck, it ended up not being an issue). I was really surprised because it was uncharacteristic of this person, who is normally a top performer. Now that I think about it, I happen to know that he struggles with a mental health issue, so perhaps that was the cause for him, too. The thing is, he had built up such a great reputation that everyone knew these mistakes were anomalous and chalked it up to a few bad days. I don’t think any less of him and I plan to nominate him to for the same award again this year.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

        Hi Jadelyn,

        This is a Thing That Happens. I have been managing people for 25+ years and it is common for top performers to have a spell once or twice, during a history of working with me, where outside issues cause performance issues as you describe.

        We’re not robots. You had your issue. Their issues might have been a new baby, a sick parent, a bad marriage, money troubles, etc. etc. I’m sorry you are going through this but the good news is, we all do.

        So, you fix your issue, and then you find your mistakes at work , you apologize for them and fix them also. You can tell your boss “I’m sorry, I had a rough couple of weeks but I’ve got it fixed up now, my head is on straight and we’re all back to normal”, and nobody will even remember this.

        You don’t have to say why. Everybody has issues! And some last a lot longer than the time it took for you to get this fixed up.

        Best wishes!

  3. MK*

    OP1, normally I would say that an employee who performs excellently as a rule shouldn’t worry about poor perfromance that lasted a couple of weeks; an occasional off-period happens in life. The only thing that concerns me is your mentioning that it happened “in the middle of a highly-stressful transition between software systems that put me in a majorly central role of responsibility”; if an employee that performs very well as a rule exhibits a significant drop in productivity during a high-stress period, that might lead a manager to think that this employee doesn’t handle stress well in general. And you really don’t want your boss to form the impression that you are great as long as things as running smoothly, but are liable to fall apart under pressure. So I think you should say something to explain to your boss it was just bad timing that a personal crisis and a work crisis happened at the same time.

    1. bluesboy*

      Agree with all above, but also wanted to add that if you have the conversation Alison suggests with your boss then it might help to ‘close’ the situation in her mind and return things to normal.

      Otherwise the boss knows you’ve had a bad period but doesn’t know either that you’re aware of that, or that it’s over. Which leads to greater scrutiny of your work and more stress for your boss. Best to let them feel you’re aware of the situation, ready to move on, and let them do the same.

      1. Jadelyn*

        OP1 here – thanks for pointing that out. Usually I have a relatively high degree of autonomy for the level of my position (I’m about one step above entry level) and her direct involvement in my activities is limited to the occasional request to prioritize a specific item or checking to make sure something got done before she tells the person asking about it; but this past week there was a much higher level of scrutiny, which makes me think she probably isn’t sure that I’ve realized the issue and am working on correcting it. It’d be nice to have my usual autonomy back, so +1 for the “talk to her” column!

  4. The IT Manager*

    For #4, asking for feedback feels off to me. That kind of detailed feedback, i.e. a graded essay, is something that happens in the educational environment and not the workplace.

    You did well enough to get hired on a simulated/make work project designed to test you. It’s unlikely that your boss would even remember any details about your answer a month later much less something that should be improved upon since any glaring errors would have likely put you out of the running.

    It probably wouldn’t hurt to ask, but it may set the tone for you being out of touch about what’s important in an office (results that impact the bottom line) rather than feedback on something that contributed to your hiring but is no longer impacting the bottom line.

    1. New Math*

      I agree. If a new employee did this, it would raise concerns that she is going to need a lot of reassurance. You got the job, so well done!

      1. Artemesia*

        Yes this is all the feedback you need. It is one thing to ask for feedback periodically on the job but it is very high maintenance to want feedback on the project you did when the result was you got hired. Don’t make them regret their choice.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Eh, I can see that point of view, but it’s not asking for detailed feedback to just say “hey, is there anything from that exercise that would be good for me to know as I approach similar work?”

      I give assignments as part of hiring and it’s pretty normal for new hires to ask something along those lines. If the answer is no, it’s no, but it doesn’t come across as high maintenance to me.

    3. Koko*

      I wouldn’t necessarily be put off by it, but I can say that if there were any shortcomings in an applicant’s practice assignment worth mentioning, then the first time I actually assigned them work of that nature I would be sure to bring it up then. I’m not sure it would be as effective to give the feedback if it was a type of assignment they won’t typically do (but which demonstrated a combination of skills used in various other typical assignments) or weeks/months before they actually have that kind of work to do for me. I would want the feedback to be fresh in their mind when they begin working on a concrete project, not a distant memory of feedback on a hypothetical project from two months prior.

  5. galfromaway*

    Re #1 – What if you’ve come to realize that past employment performance has been more seriously affected by depression and anxiety, but it’s something you never addressed with your past employers? Or yourself for that matter? Well aware now and can make changes, but am afraid that those past experiences will affect future opportunities.

    1. fposte*

      It’s pretty much the same as the OP, really, in that there’s no rewind and what really matters is pulling yourself together going forward. I would encourage you not to compare your trajectory to the ideal one imagine you’d have had if you were healthy all the time; pretty much everyone has past experiences affecting opportunities, one way or another. Life can follow many different paths and still be okay.

      More pragmatically, I wouldn’t raise the issue unbidden, but if a prospective looks at your resume and says, “Your trajectory from 2009-2012 is very different than your more recent years,” it’s fine to say that you had a health problem that then got dealt with. (They usually won’t ask, but you might as well be prepared, right?)

    2. Jadelyn*

      Funny you should ask – that’s basically where I’m at, actually. My current position is the only real career-type non-temporary position I’ve ever had, and is the only one I got *after* getting on meds. I actually haven’t found past experiences (as in prior jobs) to affect current opportunities, as long as you are building the foundation you need where you’re at now.

      Just consider it a late start – that’s how I try to look at it, since I’m 30 and in a barely above entry level position because my 20s were spent drifting between retail and temp jobs as my mental health prevented the kind of stability necessary for a career trajectory to develop. Build the foundation wherever you are now, and don’t look back.

      1. galfromaway*

        It’s a very late start then — I’m a little older than my 30s…

        I’m not at the point where I’m going on meds, but am continuing counselling and may look at meds down the road if this doesn’t get me more stable.

        Thanks for both answers.

        1. Jadelyn*

          Fair enough – I wish you the best of luck in recovering, through whatever means work for you.

  6. Temperance*

    Re OP #1: I’ve mentioned in the comments here on a few occasions that I was recently hospitalized and out of work (unexpectedly) for a month. I had a really slow start coming back, because I was in such bad shape, physically, and because I had no idea what was going on wrt events etc.

    I proactively told my boss that I was wiped out from being sick (which she totally understood), and still trying to get my footing because I was so out of the loop on our major projects. My boss is not a very organized person, and I am, so it was a hot mess.

    Even now, I find things that I don’t know (for example, we sponsor one event at a lower level, and apparently another Partner was able to secure more funding and now we’re sponsoring a table, but it’s not on my events list as such) and I just apologize and offer a way to fix.

  7. Mutt*

    #3 – Is your coworker one of the consultants? If not, I have found that sometimes people who push others to do things in this way (especially in meetings with Important People, etc) actually would love it if that was turned around on them.

    Pushy Coworker: #3, you need to do consulting! Consulting! Cooooonsuuuultaaaaannngggg!!!

    You: Pushy, while I don’t have any desire to do that, YOU would probably be wonderful at it! Have you ever thought about doing that yourself?

    Pushy: (with an air of shock) Oh my gosh! *chuckles self-consciously* Well I’d certainly never considered that for myself! I can’t imagine I’d be a good fit for that… *looks at Direct Boss with burning intensity*. WhatDoYouThinkAboutThat,DirectBoss??

  8. Oignonne*

    OP #1- I empathize with your situation. I have also had some health problems recently that affected my ability to manage work and the best thing I did was communicate. When I noticed I was starting to let things slip I spoke to my boss and basically said “I’m having some trouble keeping up with X because of of an ongoing health issue. I am frustrated by the impact it’s having on work, but it’s getting addressed and I’d like to get back on track.” We were fortunately able to make some deadlines more flexible while I recovered. You can do a similar thing now, as Alison described, and acknowledge that your work has been poorer and tell the manager you are working to get caught up as you return to your normal productivity level.

  9. TootsNYC*

    Re: #3
    Alison wrote: “If it continues after that, talk to the coworker privately and say this: “I’ve noticed you keep suggesting that I move into consulting. I’m really not interested in doing that — how do I convince you of that?” ”

    I might say that this is approaching the wrong problem.

    You don’t really care what she believes; you care about what she is DOING, which is bringing this topic up in front of lots of other people.

    i would say, “I’ve noticed that in meetings you keep bringing up the idea of me moving into another career field. I would like you to stop doing this. i don’t want my future career plans to become a topic of conversation for a larger group; it is my business, and mine alone. Please stop, because it puts me in a very awkward spot.”

  10. Jadelyn*

    Thanks, Alison! I’ll talk with her on Monday. I think I was imagining that if I said anything, it would have to be this big drawn-out conversation and I didn’t want to make that much of a big deal out of it, but leaving it to nebulous “health issues” (which she can guess what I mean by it, because she does know I have a history with mental illness, but she’ll follow my lead in letting it stay vague I think) can be a simple and brief heads-up kind of conversation instead. And I think she’ll probably feel a lot better about my work struggles lately for having that context.

    1. NutellaNutterson*

      It might be worth framing things (in your own mind, at least) in terms of checking in with someone else yourself about your perceptions of your performance. Not for reassurance in the vicious cycle of “reassure the Anxiety Monster” but to see if anxiety and depression are skewing your sense of the magnitude of the errors and what good performance usually looks like.

      1. Jadelyn*

        That’s a very, very good point. It’s funny, because I work *in HR*, so I’ve seen firsthand what it takes to actually fire someone at this organization, and yet because of brain-monsters any time I mess up I start worrying that I’m going to get fired – even though I KNOW that there are several levels of coaching and performance improvement-type stuff that would have to happen first. So it’s entirely probable that my interpretation of just how bad things are is maybe somewhat blown out of proportion. Thank you for reminding me to check on that!

  11. Chocolate Coffeepot*

    I agree that usually, the more context your supervisor has when your work performance is affected by personal issues, the better. (Not that you need to go into a lot of detail, just that if Supervisor knows what’s going on, she’ll be more likely to cut you some slack.)

    At PreviousJob, we had an intern who was generally a good worker and so was asked to participate in a project I was managing that required a lot of attention to detail. She failed miserably, to the point that I removed her from the project & she wasn’t offered a permanent position at the end of her internship. My then-supervisor found out much later that the intern had been going through a divorce during the project but was too embarrassed to say anything (this was a long time ago, in the Bible belt). If we’d known … I still would have pulled her from the project, but she might have gotten the job offer.

    And may I add that it can help to let direct reports know about these things, as well. A close relative of my supervisor (Jane) was recently rushed to the hospital, and faces a lengthy recovery period. Jane is understandably quite worried & as a result has been less organized than normal. Since we are all aware of her relative’s condition, we aren’t worried by Jane’s disorganization — but we would be if Jane had suddenly changed without an explanation.

  12. Louise D*

    I’ve never commented here – usually just a lurking lurker. But I’ve got to say something in response to Question 1: I had almost the exact same thing happen last year, and I handled it just how AAM is suggesting you do, and it worked, and everything was just fine! Better than fine.

    Honestly, I was so worried about bringing it up to my boss at all. I had over a month of bad times (during an extremely busy period for our team, I couldn’t focus, was missing e-mails, forgetting about deliverables entirely) before I was functional enough to go to the doctor and get my meds changed. By then, I felt like I would never catch up. I imagined all the terrible things she would probably say, and I figured I’d end up on a PIP. But – not at all. I went in and explained that ‘Hey, I’ve been having some problems with my depression and anxiety but I’ve taken steps to fix them and have changed meds, and I trust you enough to let you know what’s going on with me, and I didn’t want you to think this was an indicator of future performance.’

    My boss was very understanding and asked what steps would help me get back up to my fighting weight, basically. (She actually high-fived me for continuing treatment and we had a discussion about de-stigmatizing mental illness in the workplace, but your mileage may vary!)

    I think the crux of it not feeling like Making Excuses is that you have an issue and you’re fixing it, not that you have an issue and there’s nothing to be done about it forever (which is how I felt, most of the time, last year). (Honestly I could have written your letter.) So I just want to let you know that you’re going to get through this period with grace and deep breaths, and soon enough it will be an unmemorable bump in the long road of your stellar career. :)

    1. Jadelyn*

      Thank you! My manager is generally super supportive – during this period of bad stuff going on, I was off-the-charts stressed one day and meant to send a text to my boyfriend as I was walking out to my car to go get lunch, saying “f*** this place I’m so done everyone can eat a bag of d***s”, but accidentally sent it to my manager instead. She came running out to catch me at my car before I left, not to yell or be upset but so that she could show me that she was deleting the message and not reading it because she could tell from the first word that this was obviously not meant for her to see. Once she had deleted it, showing me her screen while she did, all she did was give me a hug and asked if I needed to vent or anything. So I think, rationally, her response to my talking to her about this will be something like what you’ve described!

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