my new coworker is bad at her job and keeps apologizing

A reader writes:

How do I handle a new hire who is constantly apologizing and self-deprecating? One of my new coworkers is always apologizing for asking questions, or if there’s a mistake in someone’s work, she often says things like “I hope that wasn’t mine” or “Sorry that mine are so bad.” She is regularly making statements like these, or even saying “Oh, you haven’t decided to fire me yet” as if she expecting to be let go at any time for her quality of work.

The bigger problem is that her work is typically very bad, and often needs to be re-done by me or another coworker. I work on the QA side of our team but don’t have any sort of authority. I often provide feedback for my coworkers, especially new ones. (I have provided her with comprehensive feedback, but there hasn’t been much improvement.)

I would like to be able to say something like “I don’t need an apology, I just need you to improve” but I don’t want to be or sound rude, or overstep my authority. What would you recommend?

It sounds like she’s aware that she’s not doing well, and she’s self-conscious about it. Often when people in her shoes over-apologize like this or talk down about their own work, it’s an attempt to show some self-awareness — to say, “Yes, I’m struggling with this, but I want you to know that I know I’m not doing well. I’m not so oblivious that I think everything is okay.”

That said, if she’s making those sorts of remarks all the time, it can be tough to respond to. And that’s especially true if the real answer is, “Yes, you are doing pretty badly, and yes, you might actually be fired at some point.” But it might help if you reframe it in your mind and hear her apologies and self-deprecation as her saying “I realize this is a problem.”

On the other hand, sometimes when people make statements like this, it comes across more as “I’m helpless, and I’m not being proactive about doing the things I need to do to improve.” If you think that’s what’s happening here, then there’s more value in taking it on directly. I wouldn’t say “I don’t need an apology, I just need you to improve” — that wording does sound overly brusque. (Plus, she may not be able to improve, and that’s really her manager’s job to delve into.) But you it would be perfectly appropriate for you to respond by being direct about what you need from her or what she needs to do to address her own concerns.

For example: “Please don’t worry about apologizing. I just want to make sure you understand the corrections I’m giving you and that you know what to do differently next time. Do you feel like you have the information that you need now?”

Or in response to something like “Oh, you haven’t decided to fire me yet,” you could say, “Is that something you’re worried about? If so, you should talk to (manager).”

Also, if you have enough rapport with her that you think you could address the bigger picture, you could say something like: “You make a lot of self-deprecating remarks about your work quality. It’s true that you need to improve in XYZ, but it can be tough to hear the way you talk about yourself! Rather than you continuing to talk badly about your own work, I think we’d be better served by getting a plan in place to help you get up to speed. Would you like to sit down and come up with a plan that might help, or to talk with (manager) to try to come up with something like that?”

And of course, if she’s just not able to do the job, you should be looping her manager in. There’s only so much you can do as a peer, and it sounds like you’re probably at or close to the limits of that.

{ 143 comments… read them below }

  1. K-VonSchmidt*

    What if you have an employee that does this? How do you make the connection between poor performance being lack of training, focus, or related to aging or a medical issue? I have an employee who is older and has diabetes that they are not controlling well. When they are at their worse medically, more mistakes happen. When I try to bring it up, they turn into an Eeyore, saying sorry and that they will do better, sometimes there are even tears!

    1. the gold digger*

      We had some management training years ago where we were practicing giving performance evaluations. I played the part of the employee getting bad feedback so I turned on the waterworks and started giving (ridiculous) excuses.

      The guy who was playing my boss was absolutely unmoved. He did not respond to my tears at all and focused solely on the objective feedback he was giving me. I was so impressed.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Yes, this. The emotional reaction is a derail (whether or not the employee intends it as such). Don’t get sucked into addressing it.

        1. Ad Astra*

          And those of us who don’t intend to derail with tears generally appreciate when the person we’re talking to seems unfazed. If I’m doing a bad job of controlling my emotions, the last thing I want to do is talk about it. I’d much rather finish the conversation and GTFO.

          1. OfficePrincess*

            YES. I’ve gotten much better over the years, but for a long time, every emotion came out as tears. There are still times when I’m over tired that I will notice that I’m crying without intending to or having a real reason. I try to convince myself no one actually notices while internally screaming “GET IT TOGETHER!”. Please, please act like it’s not happening and carry on with the conversation.

          2. Elizabeth West*

            If you don’t acknowledge that I’m crying / tears are flowing, I can get it under control much faster. If you start going, “Poor baby,” then I’m more likely to go, “BAWWWWWW!!!!”

          3. rainy*

            The HR person where I work upset me to the point of crying recently. We have drug tests that you have to go to immediately when informed. She mistakenly informed me right as I was about to go to lunch with coworkers I hadn’t seen in a while (and wouldn’t be around to see for a while after that), and right after I had gone to the restroom. She acknowledged how upset I was and that she screwed up right away and that got me halfway there.

            When she apologized profusely upon my return with a fast food bag it made me burst into tears. Then she felt even worse – I felt so bad!

            I appreciated the apology but wish she’d waited a day!

      2. AVP*

        I had to give a similar talk this morning! The employee got a bit emotional and focused on her health issues. I tried to reframe it by saying, “Yes, I understand that you have these challenges and you are trying to deal with them. However, this isn’t about being sick, I know you’re trying to get that under control. In the meantime, though, the following things happened last week and they are absolutely not acceptable and cannot happen going forward. They just can’t. However you work out your health challenges, work these out now.” And stuck to that. We’ll see what happens going forward, but they were really fireable offenses and I feel better just knowing that we’re all on the same page about that.

        1. TootsNYC*

          This is interesting to me. My kid is struggling, psychologically, but I’m also kind of annoyed at some stuff. And I’m struggling with the idea of sympathizing w/ her illness, but also saying, “I don’t care how sick you are, you have to figure out a way to do these things anyway. You sickness is a struggle, and it makes this harder, but you still HAVE to do these things, somehow, some way. Your sickness is not an excuse or a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

          1. Putting Out Fires, Esq*

            My husband was trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that he had a recent mental health diagnosis and using it to excuse things like forgetting critical life tasks. What I told him was this: acknowledging where our difficulties come from can only point us in the direction of solutions, it can’t excuse seeking solutions at all.

      3. TootsNYC*

        I had a doctor do this w/ me once; I was so frustrated by the medical issue (plus a lingering depression) that I started crying. He said, sympathetically, “I would probably be upset if I were in your shoes,” and he handed me a tissue, and he just kept talking as though I was not crying.

        I thought it was the most respectful thing anybody had ever done to me.
        Now, this wasn’t an adversarial situations, but I’ve often thought that his mindset was wise.

        My crying was my own reaction, my problem, and he trusted that I would be able to deal with it, and that he didn’t need to interfere.

    2. fposte*

      I posted a link to an earlier AAM answer, but it’s actually not that applicable, now that I look at it.

      You can’t make her handle her medication differently. You *can* ask her what reasons she thinks there might be and how she plans to address them. If she cries, hand her a tissue and keep going–“I know it’s not always pleasant to hear, but it’s important for me to be able to give you feedback.”

    3. Nervous Accountant*

      This may be off topic, and I understand if you don’t want to respond but how does the diabetes play into this? I’ve been struggling to control mine for about 6+ months now (it’s a daily struggle) and I’m wondering how this can affect me at work (aside from the occasional shakiness from low blood sugar)? I’ve never heard of it affecting ones mind/ability to work but I could be wrong/have a very limited view on it.

      1. rainy*

        High blood sugar, particularly sustained over a long period of time (which poorly controlled diabetes usually seems to imply) makes your brain really foggy and slow. It also makes you tired and cranky.

        Low blood sugar can cause cognitive impairment when you’re working unawares and problems on that end can cause issues, but you generally notice the brain fog easier (since it causes more physical symptoms) and recover faster.

        Both can also cause issues with consistently being on time in the morning due to causing fatigue that might make you sleep in, making you temporarily ill (high, but more for type 1s), or impairing you from driving (low).

        Type 1 diabetic here btw.

        1. Nervous Accountant*

          oh my god. I never knew it could make me slow. All these years I thought I was just dumb. I’ve had uncontrolled/badly controlled type 2 for 20 years. Just started getting serious about fixing it a few months ago.

          1. anonderella*

            I believe there is a correlation with depression as well. Of course I have no studies in my pockets to back this up, but I was told by a mental health facility worker that they have a significant amount of diabetic patients who are admitted with diabetes-related depression/anxiety.
            It wouldn’t have to be induced directly by the diabetes; if someone was already worried/depressed about their health and found out they have a health problem, it could worsen their depression.

            But as far as I understand neuroscience, glucose absolutely plays a role in how we think (how fast, how accurately, etc).

            1. Putting Out Fires, Esq*

              My mother, a physician, has a purely anecdotal-based-on-ER-visits theory that there’s something about type 1 diabetes particularly that leads to young (teenaged) patients being self-destructive. That for some reason they tend to engage in riskier behaviors and make less effort to control their condition and generally behave in destructive behaviors and that teenagers with other chronic illnesses don’t seem to have the same pattern.

              Maybe it’s related to the depression/anxiety?

        2. nonegiven*

          Also, long term uncontrolled diabetes can affect vision, to the point of changing your glasses prescription.

          1. FoodieFoodnerd*

            Longterm, uncontrolled diabetes can also seriously affect your sight, even to the point of total blindness, in a way that a new glasses prescription won’t fix — look up diabetic retinopathy.

            Your retinal blood vessels die off, and your body tries to fix the problem by growing new ones, which are fragile and bleed.

            Laser treatment can cauterize some, but much of the damage is irreversable.

      2. Becca*

        The extremes in blood sugar levels, depression, daily stress of managing the disease etc all play a part in affecting your emotions which can affect your ability to work. A coworker of mine has diabetes and there was one instance where he was very angry, it was very out of character, and he ended up fighting with the Manager and quitting but came back a few days later when it was under control again.

        1. rainy*

          Yeah, and the worst part is both extremes can make you uncharacteristically irritable (and almost moreso when you’re well controlled; going not too far above or below- easily caused by eating out – even starts to cause symptoms).

          Keeping that in check, and letting people know what’s going on if I have to, can be a struggle.

      3. Liza*

        Nervous Accountant: Before my dad’s diabetes was diagnosed, he was having a lot of memory issues. He was worried, we were worried. As soon as the diabetes was diagnosed and he started treating it, he was back to his old self brain-wise, and we were all relieved! (Now I get myself tested for diabetes every year, so I can catch it early. It’s on both sides of my family, so it’s reasonably likely to hit me someday.)

  2. LQ*

    I have this coworker. Oh it is horrible. Because she keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over. (Well not exactly the same, think you say a chocolate teapot handle needs to be 5 mm thick. She makes it 6, you say, no only 5 is acceptable, then she makes it 4 and it is a “new” mistake. I think it is the same mistake but others disagree.)

    I’ve definitely said, “I don’t need you to apologize. I just need to make sure you understand. Does this make sense?”

    *Except once when she brought a huge thing down and then hid it. I told her “I don’t need you to apologize, just get out of my way so I can fix it.” I don’t recommend that. Don’t do that one.

    1. LBK*

      I think “I don’t need an apology, I just need it to be right” can actually work just fine for someone in your own department where you’re senior and you’re kind of expected to oversee them as an employee, but in the OP’s case it sounds like she’s a step removed from that, so it might be a little awkward if the QA department isn’t granted that kind of semi-authority over whomever’s work they’re reviewing.

      1. LQ*

        I think a lot of this depends on tone too. I can see saying it in a way that is empathetic and firm and another way that is very bad screaming boss territory.

        Part of that is do they know what right is? If I say that 5mm is right and you keep making it at 6 and then 4 and then 8 and then 4.5. Then yes, just make it right.

        I think it is a little harder if “right” is undefined. I try to always make sure that when I’m showing someone what to do they understand what “right” looks like. If they do, then it is much easier to go with that line.

        1. Aurion*

          Oh yeah, tone is definitely key here. I know my delivery of that line would probably fall on the side of clipped/icy/impatient, so if the OP uses that line, she’d have to really watch her tone and delivery.

    2. animaniactoo*

      I’m with you that’s the same mistake. The fact that she did it wrong a different way does not mean it’s not the same mistake, and I think it might actually be dangerous for her thought process to frame it as a different mistake.

      Because then she can make it 3 and it’s a new mistake and make it 4.5 and it’s a new mistake.

      No, there’s only one mistake here and it is that the handle is not 5 mm. Single data point. This is what it was supposed to be, and it’s not this.

      1. LQ*

        Exactly! Thank you. And even if the handle shape changes slightly but the thickness stays the same at 5mm you don’t get to claim that as “well everything changed so I didn’t know!”

      2. Kyrielle*

        Yes, this. A *new* mistake is if the handle is now 5 mm, but positioned sideways to how it is supposed to be.

      3. TootsNYC*

        Also, “getting the thickness wrong” is one mistake–it’s often cognitively the same mistake. No paying enough attention; misreading the spec sheet, misreading the measuring equipment.

    3. Sarahnova*

      I’ve been sorely tempted to tell a friend, “I don’t need you to say sorry AGAIN. I need you to STOP DOING THE THING.” Because, at a certain point, apologies are cheap, you know?

      I think saying this can work as a workplace strategy (in a form), but it’s about giving the specific feedback first, and then the pattern feedback, as Alison has explained it. “I appreciate your apologies, but I notice that this error has now come up multiple times. What strategies can we put in place so that this doesn’t happen again?”

      1. LQ*

        Yes. Strategies to not do it again are important.

        With my constantly apologizing coworker I’ve just sort of started ignoring the apology part. She is also a nervous laugher so I let her get it out, but I don’t engage that, and then when she’s stopped I address the specific issue. “The handle needs to be 5mm. 6 is too thick and turns into a melty goopy mess. 4 is too thin and the breakage is far to high. Can you get this handle repaired in time for the shipment?”

      2. neverjaunty*

        Go ahead and tell the friend. It’s the same things as for a co-worker. “I understand and appreciate that you’re sorry. Going forward, what are you going to do to make sure that this doesn’t happen again?”

        Acknowledge the apology, and then set it aside. It’s not important. Making sure there’s a solution is important. If you get a defensive reaction or a bunch of tears or gibberish, or them telling YOU how to make sure it doesn’t happen again, well, then you know you have a person who thinks they can do whatever they like as long as they throw out an apology later.

      3. Dulcinea*

        Personally, I think when someone keeps apologizing for the same thing without changing their behavior, what they are really doing is asking for permission to continue. Put another way, they are looking for reassurance/forgiveness and not genuinely expressing regret and retying to make amends. Now, I can definitely see how a good intentioned person with anxiety/self-esteem problems would feel the need to repeatedly apologize, but that doesn’t make it the right course of action.

        1. I'm a Little Teapot*

          Anxiety/self-esteem issue are quite likely, especially if, as the letter makes clear, she knows she’s not doing well. If I’m doing badly at something, I will apologize profusely, whether or not it’s a problem I know how to fix; even if I know I’m hopeless at a task, apologizing feels like I am doing *something.*

          1. Sarahnova*

            Thing is, though, profuse apologies are really only good for one-time usage, to show that you get it if you’ve made a really substantial error. Beyond that, they are experienced as putting a burden on the receiver – of assuaging your anxiety and telling you it’s OK, even if it *isn’t*. That’s my issue with my friend – time after time she pulls the same flakeouts, and we pick up the pieces, which inconveniences us and costs us money, and then on top of that we have to listen to her self-flagellate about how she’s sorry sorry sorry, she feels soooo guilty. So she puts not only the practical, but the emotional burden on us.

            A single sober apology, coupled with a statement of how you are at least going to *try* not to do it again, is helpful. Regular profuse apologies pretty much make things worse – especially if you are making the same mistake multiple times.

      4. TootsNYC*

        I want to say this to my kid.

        And my brother the Army sergeant apparently DOES say it to his soldiers.

  3. Sarah*

    To me, this sounds like a processing issue. The employee is spending so much time in their own head, obsessing over past mistakes and being fearful of being fired, that she doesn’t have the bandwidth remaining to concentrate appropriately on their work. I find myself wondering if their most recent previous employment situation was with a toxic or abusive boss.

    That being said, policing or improving their performance is not your job. Nor do you have any power over their continued employment. If I were in your shoes, I’d approach them from a place of empathy and camaraderie, as you would any other coworker who was struggling. Something like, “Hey, quit being down on yourself. A lot of us struggled when we first started doing this. Here, why don’t I – ” insert here some concrete simple thing you can do to help that won’t overtax you given your workflow.

    Sometimes all people need is solidarity and a shot of confidence.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Sometimes all people need is solidarity and a shot of confidence.

      While true in general, that doesn’t sound like the issue here, though.

      The bigger problem is that her work is typically very bad, and often needs to be re-done by me or another coworker.

      This is a really bad sign. It’s not typically good with occasional mess-ups. It’s typically very bad. I don’t think that’s a confidence issue. I think that’s a competence issue, and the confidence issue is just a symptom of the real problem—this person may not actually be cut out for the job.

    2. Laura*

      I agree, this isn’t OP’s issue to deal with. The best thing to do is to be compassionate and helpful to the employee. I speak from personal experience when I say how toxic workplaces can affect you FAR down the line after you’ve left that job.

  4. Sans*

    I used to have a colleague that did excellent work, but still apologized for everything. And still openly worried about being laid off. Yes, it was a company that did a lot of layoffs and any one of us could have been laid off at any time. But it still wasn’t good to talk about it with everyone, all the time. A few of us kept telling her, don’t apologize, don’t keep talking about layoffs. But at least she was a very good employee, but just a worrier as well.

    (Note – all of us eventually got laid off from that company over the years, but she lasted longer than the rest of the dept. You never know!)

    1. Ann Cognito*

      At my last job, which was actually a very stable environment with very few terminations, I had an employee something like this, who did excellent work, but who spent her work life terrified she was about to be fired at any moment. As a result, she apologized for the most minute mistakes, over and over again, plus wanted constant reassurance that her work was good, and she wasn’t about to be fired. Her issue was she had been suddenly let go from a prior job, for a relatively minor mistake that would never have gotten her terminated from the majority of organizations.

      During our 1:1s we would discuss how she was doing, and she would admit that she was extremely nervous about being let go. I would tell her that as long as her work remained at the same standard, there weren’t going to be issues there, but that she needed to be aware that her constantly apologizing and needing constant reassurance was something that had to change immediately, as it was distracting.

      Things got better, or at least I thought so. Because one of the other people on the team, let’s call her Jane (they shared an office) told me that she still talked about it all.the.time, in addition to over-apologizing and not letting it go if she did make a small mistake, which was exhausting and very distracting. Jane asked me to speak with the employee again, because although she had done so and asked her not to keep bringing it up, it kept happening.

      So I spoke with her again and told her that it needed to stop immediately, and if there were any more reports about it, she could end-up losing her job. For me, it was ironic that we had a very strong performer from a work product standpoint, but her insecurity that she was about to be let go, and inability to stop focusing on tiny mistakes were what could end-up causing her termination.

      It did get better after that; then I left for a new job, and there’s a new manager. He’s actually a good guy by all accounts, but it has sent her into an absolute tail-spin because she’s had to get used to someone new, so the whole thing has started again. Apparently, she’s made up her mind to find another job now, but I don’t think it’ll be any better for her. Her termination experience has really impacted her. I’ve never worked with someone like this before, and I felt bad for her, because she really was a very high performing employee, apart from this one thing.

      1. anonforthis*

        I don’t blame her. When you’re an anxious person (who worries about details anyway) and you’re let go for what’s in the scheme of things a minor issue, it just really knocks your confidence as an employee.

        I’ve been in that person’s shoes the past few years in a similar way. I was laid off twice and let go due to performance once over the past few years and that made me *very* skittish with any sort of work project. My logic brain tells me I’m doing fine by my jerk brain is all “afjalkfjalksfjlaksdjflaksjflkdsjflksdj! Are we doing this right? I hope so! Let me double, quadruple and quintuple check! I can’t go through unemployment again! I can’t be fired! I keep speaking with exclamation points!” Small details would keep me up at night.

        Luckily I landed in a job where I get regular (excellent! :D) feedback and my job anxiety is starting to fade. Whenever I get caught up in the “OMG! WTH! They can let me go for this!” I talk myself down with “OK, what is exactly the problem here? You’ve made mistakes before in this job and nothing’s caused anything to blow up or kill anyone. Your feedback is great and you’re doing well. Simmer down now!”

        Sounds like the OP’s former

        1. fposte*

          Yeah, I think that’s the unfortunate situation where I don’t blame her for feeling anxious but I still hold her responsible for dealing with her anxiety in a way that isn’t a problem for her co-workers and supervisor. Your counterexample of self-talk is a really good model of a successful alternative that doesn’t place undue demands on colleagues.

          1. neverjaunty*

            Yes, exactly this. It is very. very. exhausting. to have to constantly reassure a co-worker’s anxiety. I can’t imagine what it would be like for somebody else who ALSO has anxiety issues, and then has to try and manage not only that, but somebody else broadcasting negative and frightening worries at them.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          This was how I was when I came here. My old boss was fantastic and we actually had a conversation about workplace PTSD–she told me a story of her own experience with it. I miss her.

          I feel now like I did before then. :(

        3. designbot*

          I think the regular feedback is also key. For those of us who tend towards anxiety, not recieving feedback can be so stressful. I’d say it’s the one thing that a boss can do when they have an employee like this–don’t draw it out, but regular little bites of feedback can do a lot.

  5. LBK*

    If you’re less concerned about her actually improving and more just annoyed with the constant apologizing, maybe something like “You really do not need to apologize – this is the reason the QA process exists” could work. Depending on the nature of your relationship, you could also throw in a joking “If no one ever made mistakes, I wouldn’t have a job!”

  6. Erica B*

    I’m curious on something. Is she feeling pressured to do her work quickly so that she isn’t able to do her work carefully? It’s quite possible that she may need to just do her work slower and more carefully before submitting, and I would even suggest that she double check her work too. If she’s new AND being encouraged to work quickly I would expect that errors would happen much more frequently than if she were just new and not checking her work.

    When I work on my data entry, analysis for my work- If I’m feeling strong pressure to work quickly than I make stupid mistakes (usually typos) that I could’ve caught on my own looking and checking when I’m done. But I do have a second set of eyes looking at my spreadsheets for this reason- just to make sure I don’t have typos before submitting to the final report.

    1. Troutwaxer*

      I was thinking similar thoughts. What about her process? Is she doing multiple drafts? Is she reading over her work before she turns it in? Are there automated checking tools she should know about that she needs to be trained on? I think you probably need to give her a usable process and make sure she sticks to it. Something like, “do a rough draft and bring it to me?” Then show her how to find her own errors. Then “Make your second draft and bring it to me.” etc.

    2. Ad Astra*

      I had similar problems at my first job out of college, when my job was to edit copy and lay out newspaper pages. The pressure to get things done by the nightly deadline made it tough to thoroughly check everything for errors. The only things that helped were practice (so I could get faster) and some guidance from my boss about time management — specific things like “The first thing I do is X. Then I make sure I have Y done by this time. When I’m waiting on stories, I revisit X for updated stats. If I’m not sure what shape my photos will be, I do this…”

      Later, I found out my coworkers had a checklist to go through before they submitted their pages. Once I got access to it, that helped me make sure things were perfect.

    3. OP*

      She actually takes a very long time to complete her work. She was hired in a batch of new employees and while the rest of the new hires picked up the general pace of the work, she takes 1.5-2 hours to complete something that should only take 20-30 minutes. I wouldn’t mind if she was slow and correct, but her work is riddled with mistakes.

        1. OP*

          As I commented below, I’ve spoken with my team lead, who has spoken with our department head about the issue. Our department head is very reluctant to fire anyone and tends to handle confrontation very poorly. I’m planning on speaking with our department head in the future if our current round of training still doesn’t help.

      1. Erica B*

        hmmm… something weird is definitely going on. 3X as long as everyone else, and still has issues? I wonder if this area of work just isn’t where her strengths are.

        1. Marty Gentillon*

          Reminds me of the story about a hemmer (someone who hemms jeans) and made huge numbers of mistakes. It turned out that her eyesight was really bad. After the doctor have her glasses, she suddenly became good at her job. It may be time to ask why she is having a hard time (is there a medical reason, temperamental, Something else?)

  7. Minion*

    So glad this was posted today. I have an issue very similar with a coworker who’s junior to me, though not my direct report. I supervise some aspects of her work, so I have some standing to address mistakes she makes. She apologizes a lot too and worries about being fired.
    Her issue is that she simply doesn’t slow down enough to recognize and correct mistakes. She’s a very fast-paced person who’s on the go from the moment she walks in the door. In fact, people joke they always know who’s coming down the hallway because she walks so fast, it’s practically a run.
    She’s a very motivated individual and I can see that it really bothers her to make these mistakes and she recognizes why the mistakes are happening, but it’s almost like she’s powerless to stop it. It’s weird. She’ll say, “I know, I know, I’ve got to slow down!” and she will, for a bit, then it’s right back to the same mistakes.
    She’s great, otherwise. She’s smart, very capable and is always willing to help out in any way she can. She’s a wonderful person, she just can’t seem to turn it off.
    From the tone of your letter, though, it sounds like your coworker is aware of her mistakes, but she’s taking an Eeyore approach. “Doesn’t matter anyway.”
    So, I can’t offer much advice, OP; what AAM suggested is great. I hope it works out for you. Come back with an update!

    1. LQ*

      Checklists, mandatory rest time (like an hour or a week or whatever to not look at the thing and “let it rest” and then come back to it), and a QA process can all be helpful if people are willing to use them. I make a lot of mistakes (I can’t spell for anything) but I have a multi-step QA process to eliminate that and whenever anyone brings me one of those errors I thank them and fix it quickly. (Which encourages them to bring me more, so I have a sort of secret base of people who are my ‘it’s live but local’ QA process because they bring me errors and get chocolate from the cache at my desk.)

      1. the gold digger*

        Yeah, that’s one of my weaknesses – I am not a detail person and I like to get stuff DONE. That’s why I have built in processes to prevent or reduce my mistakes – when I write spreadsheets, I try to sum numbers more than one way so that any data entry errors can be identified. When I put together reports with numbers, I print a copy of the report and of the source data and manually tick and tie, etc, etc. It’s boring and tedious and I hate hate hate it and I hate ever having to do that kind of work, but that’s what I need to do to keep from screwing up.

        (That’s why I so furious in my previous job when the guy who hired me quit two weeks after I started and left me with all the strategic planning, budgeting, and monthly financial reporting for the BOD. I hate that kind of work because I am not good at it. I ran into him at the airport months later and I told him I didn’t appreciate what he had done! :) It might not have been so bad if he had actually worked his notice period and shown me what needed to be done, but he took the rest of his vacation instead.)

        1. LQ*

          Yeah, I know when I get to the point of boredom with a project I start screwing up all the details. Having a plan is so important for that.

    2. SusanIvanova*

      I used to work with ADHD kids in karate class (their doctors sent them to us to learn how to focus), and being called on behavior, saying “I know, I know”, and then drifting right back to the original behavior was common. The “I know” was more “I know there’s a problem, now that you’ve pointed it out”, not “I knew before you told me” – that was just something they had trouble detecting without prompting. With most kids, they might goof off a bit and then go back to what they should be doing; with these I had to call them out as soon as it started. It took a lot of work but eventually they learned how to spot that on their own.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Aargh, the “I know, I know”. My son went through a phase of that when he was thirteen or fourteen. I knew he hadn’t listened to me enough to “know” a damned thing, so I would stop and make him tell me what he “knew” about what I was telling him. Basically, “I know, I know” was just his way of trying to hush me up because he didn’t want to hear it. He sometimes uses it that way, but not nearly a much as he used to.

  8. animaniactoo*

    In the problem-solving, you might ask her why she thinks she screws up so much, and what she thinks might help her resolve it – either from her end, or working with you on how she gets the information.

  9. MindoverMoneyChick*

    I once literally had an employee tell me she had allergies so it was like “her brain was in a drawer” after she couldn’t answer a really simple question. Literally – “did you finish the document last night?” was answered with “I don’t remember”. When I expressed frustration and bafflement with with this response she told me it was like her brain was in a drawer due to allergies.

    This document was her number 1 priority for the previous day. She should have been able to finish in a few hours but was still working on it at 6:00 pm when I left and she promised me then it would be ready for the next day for our 8:00 AM meeting. Then she was called in late for that meeting and it was on that phone call she couldn’t remember what she had done.

    This was at the end of the line with her, the final mistake out of a great many. She was savvy enough to realize she was going to be fired any day and escaped to a new job before we did it. I was her peer in the case, but had been assigned remedial training for her since she was not performing well. In that case I did have the standing to tell our manager that she had to be let go.

    Actually if the situation been less egregious I would more likely have just outlined the problems for my manager to use in her decision making, without making a recommendation myself, but ugh…this was awful.

    1. LQ*

      I recently had allergies worse than I’ve ever had them this spring. A coworker asked if I was drunk (in the something is horribly wrong with you and I’m worried way). I went home sick and I didn’t work on anything important that morning. Better drugs did make a huge difference. But brain in a drawer sounds like a good way to describe it.

      1. Recruit-o-rama*

        Me too. This year was the worst year ever for me with my allergies. It may sound like an excuse, but there were some days when I was barely functional. I was on a business trip with a co-worker during one of the worst days and she told me she seriously considered taking me to the ER. allergy medications did almost nothing to provide relief.

        1. LQ*

          I was so glad they helped me out a lot. (Though one of the recommended round I took gave me sleep paralysis. never again….)

          1. Recruit-o-Rama*

            I am so happy allergy season is over, It was such a bad year!! Here’s hoping next year is not as bad!!!!

          2. Purple Dragon*

            I’ve never had sleep paralysis but I’ve heard horror stories- I’m so sorry – I wouldn’t wish that on anyone

      2. fposte*

        Yes, but even if that’s the explanation, it’s not a sufficient response to blowing off your number one priority, especially if you’ve been previously unreliable.

        1. LQ*

          OH Absolutely! The reason my coworker asked what was wrong and thought I was drunk was because I never act that unreliable and weird and slow. For me it was yes, go home! Rest! For someone who it is the last in a long pattern who doesn’t come up with an alternate (I’m feeling horrible, X needs to be done on this would you please help me?) plan? Seems absolutely reasonable.

          I just like the brain in the drawer phrase.

      3. MindoverMoneyChick*

        I believe it. I have allergies too. If it hand’t been part of a larger pattern it would have be different. But in truth she had not finished the doc in question. She dodged several questions about the subject about location etc. and when I finally said “I just need to know – did you finish it?” and she claimed she couldn’t remember, because- you know – her brain was in a drawer. Really she didn’t want to tell me she hadn’t done it.

        I just never got over the phrasing from a staff member who was a very thin ice to start with.

        1. LQ*

          It is a pretty great phrase. But I feel like it would sound very different coming from someone who is always on top of things and someone who is always behind and has a problem to start with. I feel like if I or most of my coworkers said that there would be some serious laughter. But if the one constant error maker and apologize said it there would be dead silence.

          1. MindoverMoneyChick*

            Yep, dead silence was pretty much my response. And it is a great phrase. This story happened circa 2008 I think, and I’m still using it.

  10. INTP*

    Sometimes this type of behavior is an attempt to show self-awareness, as Alison said, but sometimes it’s just controlling and manipulating. Most people care about others and want to put others at ease when they are upset – it’s a VERY strong impulse. When you pre-emptively make a big deal about how bad your own work is, and apologize excessively, you put the other person in the position of either piling on the insults while you’re down and clearly know the work isn’t good enough, or reassuring you by saying “Oh, no worries, it isn’t that bad.” Most people aren’t comfortable doing the former until they get REALLY fed up.

    (I’ve actually used this technique with strangers in public. “OMG, I am soooo sorry to bother you, and I know this is so out of line for me to even ask, but could you please put out that cigarette?” is a lot less likely to result in an angry response than “Could you please put out that cigarette?” I wouldn’t recommend doing this with coworkers of course because as shown in this thread, people pick up on it and get really annoyed with you.)

    1. fposte*

      I also think there’s a middle ground, where it’s neither self-aware nor controlling–it’s just a habit, and it may be one that’s helped the person but they’re not consciously using it for that reason.

        1. fposte*

          Sure it does. Otherwise just about everything we do–every smile, every thanks, every laugh–is manipulative and controlling, because they’re all adaptive behaviors to smooth our way in the world. So I think it’s worth distinguishing between things we’ve developed as ways we just are and things that are consciously designed to make people easier on us.

          1. Anonymous Educator*

            I disagree. Unconscious bias leads to discriminatory behavior even though it’s unconscious, but it can still be identified as undesirable and then compensated for. Smiles and thanks aren’t manipulative if they’re conscious and desirable. Self-deprecating remarks to guard against criticism (as opposed to just being polite) are manipulative and undesirable. Even if they come from an unconscious place, they should be made conscious and compensated for.

            1. LQ*

              I don’t understand what your line is for what is and isn’t manipulative. Are you saying all manipulation is bad and all things that are bad like this are manipulative?

              (I’m kind of on the far side of this where I think it is all manipulative because it exists to manipulate, but I’d say the same thing about babies having big eyes. I just don’t think all manipulation is bad. Controlling for unconscious bias in hiring by removing names from resumes I would say is manipulative (in that it is manipulating to remove bias) and positive, in that it helps find the best candidates for the job.)

              1. Anonymous Educator*

                I think all manipulation is bad, but it sounds as if you and I disagree on what’s manipulation. If everything is manipulation, then the word manipulation has no meaning. Actions have effects. Sometimes those effects benefit us. But that doesn’t mean every action that benefits us in some way is manipulative.

                1. LQ*

                  But I think it is important to make sure that you define the term. If you don’t you can be both arguing the same point but not hearing. So I think it is important to define what you are talking about.

                  (And I’m not saying everything is manipulation, I’m saying everything that manipulates us is manipulative. But again, it is about having a clear understanding of what those words mean so we are all having the same conversation.)

                  Semantics puts everyone on the same page so that a constructive conversation can be had.

                2. fposte*

                  We’re definitely arguing semantics, but there’s no just to semantics :-). I genuinely have no idea of how you’re using the words “manipulative” and “controlling” at this point, then, if you don’t think it’s conscious but you want to exclude other non-willful effects that exist to provoke certain reactions.

                  And perhaps more importantly, if you don’t think those are pejorative terms, we then need a new term for the person who is performing a certain behavior in hopes that it will change ours.

                3. Anonymous Educator*

                  Manipulation has to achieve an effect that is not the ostensible expected effect. A normal smile in a normal context conveys “I am trying to be friendly to you.” If you are, in fact, trying to be friendly to that person, you’re not manipulative. If, however, you use that to convey you’re being friendly, but that’s only so she lets her guard down and trusts you, and then you abduct and kill her, your smile was manipulative.

                  If you say “I could really use a compliment right now,” then that’s telling your friend what you want, and then your friend may compliment you. That’s not manipulative. You’re saying what you want, and your friend is responding in kind. If, however, you say “I suck. Nobody loves me. You don’t love me,” then that’s being manipulative. It may achieve the same effect—your friend may then compliment you in an effort to convince you you don’t suck—but it is deceptive.

                4. Anonymous Educator*

                  P.S. If you can’t agree with me on that premise, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. Fully up for arguing with people who share certain tenets or assumptions with me, but if we can’t agree that “all actions that benefit you are / are not manipulation,” there’s no point in us even talking about whether the word applies in this situation.

                  I also don’t, incidentally, buy the argument that there is no such thing as altruism, since even being nice to other people or giving to other people makes us feel better about ourselves. I think that’s circular logic.

                5. fposte*

                  @Anonymous Educator–interesting. I think we have some room for agreement, in that you’ve got some overlap with passive-aggression there that I think is legit, but your definition doesn’t seem to leave room for the possibility that the person genuinely feels she sucks and that everybody hates her. And since we’re talking about apologizing, let’s make it that she’s genuinely sorry. If she is really sorry that she makes mistakes and says so a lot, is that still manipulative? What’s the difference between the expressed thought and the unexpressed thought here–do you think merely the difference between thinking it silently and saying it makes it manipulative?

                6. LBK*

                  I’m with fposte here. If we can’t clearly agree on whether intent matters with manipulation, can we at least agree that intentional manipulation is clearly worse than unintentional manipulation and, as with most cases where someone’s doing something unintentionally, give them the benefit of the doubt and try to help them be more aware of their behavior before condemning them?

                  Almost every time “manipulative” behavior comes up here I find myself extremely surprised by the number of people who are willing to just write off anyone who does something that could be considered manipulative without ever considering that that behavior may genuinely come naturally to them and that it could be changed if anyone ever bothered to point it out to them.

                  FWIW I’ve always only thought of manipulation as a conscious act by definition, especially if you’re going to treat it as a morally unsound one, because I’m just generally not a fan of thinking someone’s a bad person solely based on behavior they may not realize is bad and that no one has ever tried to help them recognize.

                7. I'm a Little Teapot*

                  Very much agreeing with fposte and LBK; sometimes (often!) people do have negative feelings about themselves. It sounds like your definition of “manipulative” boils down to “anything people do that is dishonest *OR makes me feel bad*.”

                  It’s also worth noting that “manipulative” behavior is often learned, consciously or unconsciously, as a means of self-defense against abuse/bullying. When you live in fear of someone who flies into screaming rages about trivial things or berates you daily until you cry, you learn to do everything you can to placate people and discourage negative attention, and that behavior is really hard to unlearn even after you’ve gotten out of the bad situation.

                8. LBK*

                  And it’s not just hard to unlearn, it’s hard to recognize as abnormal or as something that needs to be fixed, because it becomes your status quo. You really need someone external to point it out to you, whether that’s a coworker, a friend or a professional. Not everyone is blessed with high self-awareness, and even those of us who are (according to my therapist, not just by my own measure!) still usually need someone to help us work that behavior out of our system.

        2. INTP*

          I think there can be a blurry line. I think a lot of people are sort of conveniently and semi-consciously in denial about their communication styles, especially when they’ve picked up an overall manipulative communication style from family dynamics. I’m not inclined to excuse someone as not being manipulative because they haven’t examined themselves closely enough to realize that they are manipulative yet or they rationalize things they’re called out on instead of considering them with self-honesty. Or even if they aren’t that way in their whole lives, people in work survival mode can rationalize things that they really know are unethical simply by focusing on hanging on to the job at any cost and not thinking very hard about what they’re doing. The end effect on the people around them is the same as if they were intentionally manipulative.

          On the other hand, it could totally be a genuinely innocent bad habit of a person with an overall respectful and conscientious communication style who would correct it as soon as they realized they were doing it.

          In any case, I don’t know that the psychology behind it matters much to the OP – not responding to the emotional theatrics is the best way to deal with it. The OP probably also knows if this person is manipulative in many small ways or if this is just an out-of-character annoying trait.

          1. Anonymous Educator*


            That’s what I meant, but you articulated it far better than I did.

      1. gloria*

        Yes, I am a compulsive apologizer (especially in personal relationships) and it wasn’t until someone explicitly pointed it out in front of me (about a different situation) that it occurred to me that my apologizing might make anyone else feel uncomfortable or like they needed to comfort me. For me it stems from some very deep-seated issues (like, on some level I used to feel constantly like I had to be apologizing for my existence) and I guess my worldview was warped enough that (subconsciously) I would never have felt like I mattered enough to anyone for them to want to make me feel better.

        Anyway I don’t think that’s particularly relevant to the LW’s situation, except insofar as it can be hard from the outside to figure out what is driving this behavior and so, especially in a work situation, I think you really ust have to react to the behavior itself, and the scripts here are good for that IMO.

    2. DVZ*

      That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have said it was controlling but I do think there is an element of laziness/thoughtlessness about it. I have a new colleague who does this (I’ve been tempted to write this exact letter myself) and it’s absolutely infuriating. I think what bothers me the most is not the constant acknowledgement of how badly she’s doing, but the language of it all, which sounds like OP’s situation too. Constantly saying “Sorry mine are bad” or “Sorry I’m so slow/bad” (as my coworker does) is just annoying language. It acknowledges a problem without suggesting a solution or offering a more nuanced understanding of what exactly is going wrong. I’d rather hear “I recognise I have made this same mistake a few times. I need to do X and X in future” or “I can see that I’m slower than everyone else, which I think is due to A and B. Could we discuss that?” which would be far more productive and less annoying.

    3. Anonymous Educator*

      I think in this case it’s a defense mechanism. If I insult myself, maybe you won’t insult me. If I apologize, you won’t beat me up for my mistakes. It’s sort of a different take on “Do I look fat in this?”

    4. OP*

      I do think that it might be some kind of unwitting manipulation or learned habit on her part. She’s used her apologies in the past in a way where the only way to respond without feeling like a jerk is “oh no, it’s okay…” I’ve stopped acknowledging some of her apologies, simply because I don’t want to reinforce the habit, but I’m sort of reaching the end of my rope with it.

      1. Marty Gentillon*

        Might I suggest that you try to replace the habit with something productive. I would be telling her that I don’t want the apology, I want to know what she learned from making the mistake, why she made the mistake, and what she thinks she can do to avoid that mistake next time. To apologize, don’t “be sorry”, instead share what you learned from making the mistake.

        I strongly suspect that she isn’t used to thinking about mistakes as oppurtunities to learn (which they are), and is therefore not analizing them. If you make the analysis the apology she will have to pick up the habit. Have her study engineering processes about cause analysis such as root cause analysis, proximate cause analysis, and 5 whys.

        1. anonderella*

          Haha I know you don’t mean it like this, it’s just all I can hear :

          *in baby voice* “Yes, but do you know what you did wroooong?”

          1. Marty Gentillon*

            LOL, and that child will grow up to understand his/her mistakes, own them, and prevent similar future mistakes with little outside help.

            More seriously, in general human error is rarely the real cause of failures. Attributing failure to human error usually just means that you didn’t analize it well enough. Much more likely is that the circumstances set the person up for failure. Understanding the circumstances that errors were made in allows for them to be changed in the future, prventing future mistakes.

  11. Stan*

    “Please don’t worry about apologizing. I just want to make sure you understand the corrections I’m giving you and that you know what to do differently next time. Do you feel like you have the information that you need now?”

    I like this script that Alison recommends and have one additional suggestion. It may be helpful to say, “Can you take me through the steps you’ll take next time.” or whatever verbiage would be appropriate for your industry.

    We have an employee who seemed to take feedback well. She wouldn’t get emotional, she seemed to be listening and understanding, but she would continue to make similar mistakes. I think the issue was that she was so afraid that she would be fired for making the mistakes*that she just went into head nodding autopilot and couldn’t actually process why the mistakes happened and so continued to make them. Once we had her start going through the steps for each task, the volume of mistakes has dropped considerably. It’s added to the load of the employees who work most closely with her, but I think it will pay off in the long run. Plus, we wanted to give her a fair shake now that toxic manager is out of the picture.

    *She was hired at the same time as toxic manager who convinced all the new hires that all the “old timers” were out to get them and just compiling “evidence” to get the boss to fire them.

  12. CodeWench*

    I feel for the OP. I am a software developer and I have a coworker that constantly “misunderstands” directions. It is to the point where I tell him EXACTLY what he needs to do in great detail and he will still do it wrong. I have to check every single line of code that he checks in in order to make sure he didn’t screw it up somehow. I don’t supervise him. We have the same position. My boss is aware, but nothing changes. I’m honestly not sure what to do anymore.

    1. pope suburban*

      I’m grappling with this right now too. While I am senior to a new hire, and I used to do her job (concurrent with my current job, no less), I am not management, nor am I part of her department anymore. But I know what the job requires, and I see all of the big, big, glaring mistakes she makes. I’ve been trying to be patient, but after three weeks, it’s clear that she wholesale lied on her resume, and is not interested in hustling enough that the lies sort of “scrub out.” If she was on board with training, and engaged with the job, and didn’t need to be prodded to do basic tasks that she has already been prodded to do, I’d be fine with it; I understand that sometimes a career change takes a bluff or a reach (and that’s sort of how I got into my role; the temp agency said I knew Quickbooks– I don’t, and never pretended to– but I learned fast and well enough to stay for two years and counting). As it is, though, it certainly *looks* like she thinks she’s achieved a role where she gets to sit around ad faff on the internet all day for better pay. It’s not good for the company, it’s not helping the clients, and it’s not helping the departments she is supposed to be assisting. We’re kinda out of options at this point, and it’s frustrating. Nothing to do now but throw ourselves on the mercy of the wise commentariat here, hint hint, nudge nudge. :’D

    2. Rubyrose*

      Let your coworker fail. I’m doing that right now in a similar situation. It is finally getting management attention.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        Ditto. Management strategy for Coffeecup was to give him easier and easier tasks, to the point where he picked up the nickname – I could’ve done any of his assignments on top of my other work by just drinking more coffee. But even when I had nothing to do, I’d only pick up spare problems from my other coworkers, not him (I did UI so my busy time was out of phase with the rest of the team) – I wasn’t going to be obscuring his lack of ability by reducing his workload, which I’d do willingly for the other teammates because I knew they were actually busy.

        Just to prove the point, after they finally got rid of him I went through his list and fixed a dozen of them in one day.

    3. JessaB*

      Let them fail. Let the boss deal with the fallout of that. You can’t do the boss’ job for them. Unless it’s actually your job to check that code, sometimes you just have to let it go.

  13. Double Double w/Cheese*

    How would you all handle something like this from the perspective of the employee? What should I be asking for? I really want to improve, but am at a loss. I feel like this is me, only I’m remote so I’m apologizing over IM and not in person (also have never mentioned being fired :p).

    1. animaniactoo*

      I would ask for tools that give you a greater context of what you’re working on so you’re less likely to make those mistakes, question if they see any kind of a pattern to the mistakes you’re making (after looking for one yourself), because you can’t see it, and you’re trying to figure out anything that will help you reduce the number of instances, etc.

      Is there a work process you can set up for yourself which might help? LQ outlines one above that seems like a good setup to me.

    2. LQ*

      Create a plan for problems of the same kind to not happen again. For the teapot example I used earlier if that coworker said, “Hey, LQ could you go over all the thicknesses with me so I can make sure this doesn’t happen?” I’d be thrilled. (I’ve actually just had her building the How To manual because she learns much better when she documents it, so she’s doing all of that and I’m checking on it, the problem is she stops following them because she thinks she knows.)

      So look at the kinds of errors you are making. Are they all about a similar kind of thing? What structure can you create to identify those errors and resolve them? You’ll never stop making errors. But you can catch them early in the process with the right kinds of checklists, tools, resources.

      What are your weaknesses? How can you compensate? And don’t stop doing that because you think you’ve got it figured out. The great thing about checklists is that they catch things you DO know how to do and still get wrong because you are tired/allergies/bored/whatever. I cannot recommend creating those tools enough. And if you have them use them. I know it might be boring to run down a list of stuff that tells you things you already know like wash your hands before going into the operating room. But it makes a huge difference.

      And only apologize once for anything you do. If you need to apologize to more than one person, eh maybe. But really cut back on it and come with “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again because X.” The most important part is the X. If you only say X I’m going to think it is fine. (YMMV there.)

    3. Jennifer*

      Yeah, I’m a constant apologizer as well. I just want them to know that I know I’m terrible, and I’m trying, dammit. I’m not blowing them off, I’m trying to turn myself into whatever they want–but there’s always another pithole I didn’t see that I somehow end up falling into anyway.
      I got into trouble last week for apologizing for doing my job, but I have to perform the emotional labor of soothing over people’s feelings and making sure they get what they want, and if I can’t just give it to them they tend to explode on me, so….hence the apologizing.

      1. Marty Gentillon*

        Remember, there are two parts to a real appology: 1) express sentament, 2) make it right. Of these two, the first hardly matters at all, and the second makes all the difference. If you skip the first, but get the second right, nobody will doubt that you are sorry. Nail the first, but skip the second and everyone will assume that you are blowing them off.

        My advice when dealing with peoples feelings, when they explode, wait for them to calm down, and then move on to what you can do to make it right. What can you do to fix this instance of the mistake? (ex: I missed office hours, therefore I will come to you at your convenience). What can you do to prevent the next instance of this mistake? (ex: set up an alarm for office hours the day before, arrange to have someone else cover you for morning office hours, cover their evening office hours, etc.)

    4. Anonymous Educator*

      I think it really depends on what the employee’s potential is. I see several possibilities:

      1. The employee has potential but just screws up from time to time. I would recognize the mistakes, give positive reinforcement on what she’s doing well, and encourage her to get training (or train her myself, if that’s part of my job).

      2. The employee has potential but screws up a lot. This is someone I would view as just lacking any sort of background in what she’s doing but really has the aptitude for it. Same deal as before, except the training would have to be more formalized. You didn’t study X, you have no experience in X, and you know nothing about X, but I can see you pick up things like X quickly, so please go to this conference on X, take this online course about X, train with Other Employee for two weeks on X. Then get started on X, and we’ll check in.

      3. The employee has no potential in this. Maybe she’s a good person and has a good attitude and is good at other things, but the amount of training that would be involved for her to do her actual job well is outside the scope of what your organization is willing to invest in (with both time and money). I would put her on PIP and then fire her. Or, if she recognizes it too, just recommend she look for another job.

    5. OfficePrincess*

      A lot depends on the type of mistake. Is it something like missing a step or wrong calibration that could be helped by a checklist or posting a cheat sheet at your desk? Is it an organization issue that could be helped by a to do list, scheduling tasks on your calendar, or just having a specific place on your desk for certain things, like invoices to be processed are on the right front, invoices that need sign off are on the left front, documents to file are in the back left, etc? Is it an issue with fundamental understanding that could be helped by reading more about topics in your industry or finding a mentor? Or, if you’re not sure, try reaching out to your boss and point out that you see a pattern but aren’t sure how to fix it and ask what has worked for people in similar situations.

    6. Jillociraptor*

      What do you mean that you feel like you’re at a loss? You’re making errors but don’t understand why/how?

      You should consider having a sit down with your manager, or someone who oversees your work, to talk about the issues. They may be able to help you diagnose the problem, and come up with a solution for you to try. At the very least, this can help you get out of your own head and get another perspective on your performance.

      1. Double Double w/Cheese*

        Yes! I have one aspect of the job down, I think, but the rest is like a black hole. When I reach out to colleagues, they all have different answers to my questions and when I look at prior employees’ work for examples, that’s all different too. Normally I wouldn’t worry about this, but my job is basically non-IT QA, so it bothers me that we don’t have a process down that I can at least refer to as an example.

        I sat down with my manager after noticing a pattern of errors and she gave me some good suggestions (checklists, creating my own guides), and my colleagues say this is just the nature of the job, but I still come in every day worried that it’ll be my last.

        (Just to clarify – my work doesn’t have to be re-done every time I submit something like the OP, but enough mistakes are caught that I’m constantly on edge).

        1. Jillociraptor*

          Ah, okay! So it sounds like you might have two issues: one is that you’re still getting up to speed and developing a kind of un-teachable sixth sense for your work. I’m not sure how long you’ve been in your position, but there are some things that you just have to develop a feel for–that’s tough! I made a mistake just this morning of this type — I can learn and generalize from what I missed, but I just don’t have the political acumen for this workplace yet to have anticipated the issue independently.

          The second is that there might be a mismatch between your expectations for the work, and the realities of what’s feasible. It might assuage your concerns to talk with your manager bluntly about the quantity and frequency of errors, to understand how that stacks up to expectations. It might be that you’re making a totally acceptable number of errors for the work you’re doing, at your current stage. I wonder if you’re more of a systems-person than is typical in this role in your workplace. It sounds like your coworkers have a somewhat higher level of comfort with ambiguity (“this is just the nature of the job”) while you would prefer things to be spelled out with more precision. Neither is necessarily right or wrong, but understanding how your assumptions differ might help you to contextualize your errors and your feelings about them.

          Good luck! It’s great that you’re being proactive and seeking out opportunities to improve your performance!

    7. Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

      @Double Double: May I ask what type of work you do? Have mistakes that you’ve made been brought to your attention? You said you work remotely. Are you able to go to the office for some training with a more senior co-worker? If that’s possible, I would definitely spend some time at the office and take lots of notes and ask lots of questions.

      1. Double Double w/Cheese*

        Yes, I’m in editing/QA. I was making the same mistakes continuously early in my tenure here and I sat down with my manager about it – they suggested the checklist thing, which was super helpful, and just being more proactive in general, which was also helpful, but I’m finding it difficult, as I sometimes don’t even know what to look for.

        I would love that and we have it in the works for when it’s more financially viable. I have some documentation, but it’s mostly focused on the parts of my job that I feel I’m pretty good at by this point. I might focus on cutting out the apologies and just asking when things come up, then documenting for my own reference.

        1. Marty Gentillon*

          Remember basic engineering practice, you probably don’t really understand a mistake untill you have asked why at least 5 times. Ultimately, this practice more than any other is what prevents failures in critical systems. Understand the chain of events that lead to failure, and then put multiple preventative measures to stop the failures.

    8. Ad Astra*

      I like a lot of the suggestions you’ve already received, but here are my additions:

      1. Look for opportunities to ask questions that can give you more information about whatever you’re struggling with, and try to use them to show that you’re actively trying to improve. Why did you choose to do it that way? Would it work if I did it this way? Did my second version look any better? Is there a good place to direct questions about X? Do you have a resource I could use for Y?
      2. Keep a record of any tips or corrections you get. I have a Word doc that I use to record feedback (like “Actually, our style is Chocolate Teapots, Inc. with a comma) so that I don’t forget it. When I have time, I go through and organize it by topic so I can use it as a reference. It helps me avoid situations where someone has to correct the same mistake several times.

    9. Tuxedo Cat*

      My coworker situation was slightly different from the OP (the apologies felt more like wanting us to praise her), but I think my advice might help anyway.

      What would’ve helped is if she had identified why she kept messing up. I’m pretty sure that part of the problem was she was starting projects way too late and then was too proud to ask for help. If you can identify what is causing your mistakes and then ask for help before the final project is due, that would’ve made everyone more receptive.

      The other piece is that she really shouldn’t have opted into most of the projects she chose to do or she should’ve communicated with us what she was capable of doing. They were way outside of her skill level and knowledge. We’re lucky that we do have a good deal of flexibility in our workplace and projects, so we probably could’ve designated appropriate level tasks or found her something else to do.

      1. Tuxedo Cat*

        I also wanted to add that my coworker didn’t take any of our suggestions to improve, including when we created dates for tasks to be completed so we could discuss them before rolling out the final project. Because we could opt into other projects, my coworkers and I opted into projects that didn’t require working with her. It was too much to manage this coworker, and the actual management didn’t want to do anything.

    10. Double Double w/Cheese*

      Just want to say this is why I love the commentariat here – all of your replies have been so insightful, thank you! I can’t get to every one of them now, but I’m taking them all to heart. I think one reason I felt lost was that I was having trouble coming up with an improvement plan for myself, so that will be my first priority along with apologizing less and asking more.

      1. anonderella*

        Hey, just so you know, you are not alone in this feeling. I am totally with you, and grabbing up all the comments here for my own benefit, too!
        My job, by design, oscillates between two modes: tear-inducing boredom and so-busy-I-am-pouring-sweat (which, in an office, looks fairly disconcerting).
        My only real source of confidence (ironically enough, given my terrible case of Imposter-Syndrome) comes from reminding myself that I *haven’t* been fired yet (from this job, anyway.. probably where the paranoia kicks in); I perform a fairly difficult job (difficult bc of the balancing act of extreme multitasking/routine task maintenance) that not many people want to do, and not many will last long at doing if they aren’t the type that can cope with that.

        And what do you know, after managing to fit in all the requests of one of my bosses today (the CEO), he just paged me to tell me that I do a *Great* job, and he was just paging to say thanks, especially bc I am rarely given all the instructions to tasks and still manage to get them done << his words!

        At the end of the day, I cram my tiny hoard of accomplishments down into a backbone for the next day. I think its easier to pat yourself on the back when your accomplishments are big chunks of spine, as opposed to adding up individual joints and tendons. Double Double, maybe you could try to keep a work journal? It's a great way to look back over your accomplishments and not-so-accomplishments. I've been keeping one for almost every day for three months, and I'd have been amazed when I first started how helpful the thing has been. I even spoke with my boss about it and convinced her it was useful and necessary enough to keep a budget for extra notebooks for me.

        As for the OP letter: I am a chronic apologizer, but it absolutely comes from a place of wanting to communicate to others that I recognize that I made a mistake. I used to follow it with a brief reasoning on what I think happened in my mistake, until I realized some personalities will take that as talking back – a terribly shaking realization, as I was only trying to improve my behavior, just not having the foresight/experience/(or, honestly)inherent people skills necessary to see that my method was hindering my improvement. It really, really sucks to realize that the fastest, best way to get to Point B (ie, just point-blank asking someone what they want or how can you help them) is not the way you are going to be able to travel there; but know that it is your inventiveness and adaptivity that will get you there with heads swiveling and clamoring 'How on earth did you *do* that! You're amazing!'

  14. Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

    To the OP, is this co-worker making a lot of different types of mistakes or basically making the same mistakes many times? Also, you said she’s a new hire. Is she currently on a probationary period? In either case with the mistakes, I would talk to her and find out what’s going on. Has she done this type of work before or is this a new industry for her, etc. And then I would try to help her improve her work. If that doesn’t work, and if the mistakes she’s making are affecting the department/business, I would definitely take the issue up with the manager.

  15. Student*

    I’d try passing the info to her boss first, but if you’re stuck with her and want to try to get her on track so she’s not making your life terrible:

    (1) Make her fix her own mistakes as much as feasible. If her making a mistake is “rewarded” by you doing her job for her, she has less incentive to do her job correctly. Send it back to her to do correctly, even if that means sending it back several times, or that the part is late. You’re QA – you fix mistakes and give things a second look; you shouldn’t be redoing entire pieces of work because then that work never gets a genuine “second look” after you’ve done it for her. Get your own boss on-board first.

    (2) Ask her what’s going on. It’s part of a pattern – see if she knows what’s happening here. Maybe she knows that she doesn’t understand X specifically, or knows where communication is breaking down.

    (3) If #2 doesn’t bear any fruit, train her or recruit somebody on your team to train her or tell her/your boss that she really needs training. Go through things one step at a time, making her do them herself, until you find the sticking point(s) where she’s making bad assumptions/doing something substantially wrong.

  16. OP*

    Thanks Allison and everyone. You’ve all had some great scripts, advice, and given me a good perspective on how to handle this. I know my team lead has spoken with our department head about her performance, but our department head is a big believer in everyone deserves a second chance, even when it’s their seventh or eighth chance. So she might be around for a long while even if she doesn’t improve.

    Part of this is going to be adjusting my own attitude to be more empathetic and helpful, but also making sure that when I am providing feedback, I make sure she has any resources I’m aware of to help her work through this herself.

    1. LQ*

      If you think you would have your department head backing on this, I highly recommend having them create documentation. (If it already exists, this is harder. But if it exists push them back to it over and over. Did you follow the checklist? Was there anything missing from the documentation? Etc)

      Having people create their own documentation which is sort of a method of checking and teaching is valuable. It does require you to check those documents but I really recommend it. It is one of the only things our leadership is on board with overall in managing the person I’m dealing with like this. It lets me see what she doesn’t understand, it helps her get better. And it eats her time doing it so she doesn’t eat my time making me redo work that would be faster alone. (And now I have to introduce her to an entire new kind of work. It’s going to be fun!)

    2. Isben Takes Tea*

      Something Captain Awkward suggests saying when people self-depricate around you is “What are you hoping I’ll do when you say that?” It puts the burden of the interaction back on the self-depracator.

  17. Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

    @ OP. Um, if she was the best of the lot, I wonder what the other candidates for the position were like.
    You say that the team leader has spoken to the department head about this person, but has anyone spoken directly to her? As one of the previous posters said, if she’s not made to own up and correct her mistakes, she will never have any incentive to improve and you’ll essentially be doing your work…and hers. I see a big opportunity for resentment and bad feelings here. This matter should be addressed ASAP–for everyone’s sake.

    1. OP*

      I don’t know if she was the best of the lot, but I know that part of the reason she was hired is because she goes to church with out department head.

      Luckily, we’re jumping into a new phase of training, where everyone is going to have to confront the mistakes they make. I’m hoping this will be helpful for her as we move forward.

  18. SusanIvanova*

    “I’m helpless, and I’m not being proactive about doing the things I need to do to improve.”

    And that was the theme of a recent My Little Pony episode!

  19. Lauren B*

    Just saying: I’ve been in this situation where I’ve been too self- depricating. Knew I was not performing as my other co-workers did.
    But that was after months, and months, of asking the the QA person for advice, who was tasked to train me, and did not. train me. at all. for more than a few hours spread over months that typical training for the position takes likely close to a hundred hours. Asked for feedback, asked if I was doing anything wrong or could do anything better. Never trained me like she was supposed to. Because I have low self esteem I became self depricating…when instead I should have gone to my boss about the awful job she was doing training me!!!! Once she took away my access to software when I tried to perform a task that she didn’t want me to have the power to do. Unbelievable.
    Is it my fault I got so down that I got depressed and felt helpless? Yes. But is it her fault that she was the worst trainer, ever, and was trying to sabotage my work without giving me any feedback whatsoever when it was repeatedly asked for? Also yes.

  20. Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

    OP said “I don’t know if she was the best of the lot, but I know that part of the reason she was hired is because she goes to church with out department head. ”

    Say no more… :-(

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