my employee tells small lies but is otherwise good at her job

A reader writes:

I manage two clinics, both of which are located in the same building. By necessity, I spend most of my day at the main clinic; I oversee everything, but the nature of the work in the smaller clinic does not require constant clinical oversight the way it does in the main clinic.

The receptionist for the smaller clinic was hired before I became her manager. She has many great qualities – she is very skilled at her job (our industry is very niche so I definitely value her knowledge and experience), has a good rapport with patients, and is an enthusiastic and creative problem solver.

Here’s the rub: this employee has the tendency to be sneaky. I have caught her in some small lies, and they are starting to create issues with the staff members she works with at the smaller clinic. She is honest about the big stuff – I’ve monitored those things VERY closely – but she has a pattern of pushing the boundaries of what she can get away with over time. For example, she will take liberties for a while (e.g., leaving the clinic regularly to make personal calls during business hours, arriving 10 minutes late once or twice per week even though coverage and punctuality are both important parts of her job) but I only hear about it from her colleagues once they start to notice a clear pattern of behavior. I also know of a handful of times over the years that she’s told small lies, such as saying she had approval for something when she didn’t.

As soon as I address the issues with her (I’ve sat down with her three times in total), she is incredibly apologetic and minimizes the issues as misunderstandings that will be cleared up immediately. She then performs the duties of her job perfectly … until 3-6 months pass and she starts the process over again, usually with slight variations of the same issues. The fact that I am pulled by the other clinic and can’t have my eyes in both areas at once definitely works to her advantage.

A few months back, her coworkers approached me with a short list of things she’d been getting too lax about. Most of the items were fairly minor but collectively they were definitely concerning, and most of them were also on my radar so it was clear that I had to act. I prepared a list of expectations for her and went over them with her in person. I expressed disappointment that I was having to revisit issues that had come up in the past. I also made it clear that the expectations were non-negotiable and that I’d be monitoring her adherence to the list. She seemed genuinely discouraged, and embarrassed by the feedback – she felt that she had really stepped up her efforts over the previous year (it’s true, she has taken a lot of initiative and her overall performance has been excellent otherwise) and thought that her colleagues were overreacting to occasional problems. There could be a grain of truth to that – since she’s shown herself to be sneaky in the past, her colleagues are probably less willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She was quite teary and she assured me that the expectations were crystal clear.

In the month or so following the meeting, things seemed to be going well … but then the plot thickened. The employee currently has an immediate relative who is gravely ill and there are some additional factors have made her personal circumstances incredibly challenging. She has made some reasonable requests that make her life a bit easier during a very difficult time and I have approved those requests. Unfortunately, I am now finding out that she has been pushing the boundaries again, such as on one occasion telling an employee that she had been given permission to do something from me when she hadn’t. Frustratingly, it was something I would have allowed had she asked me, but she didn’t and she should have. 

I have worried that the dishonesty might extend to bigger things, but I have only seen signs that she IS behaving honestly in other areas. For example, when I took over as manager, the cash box had never been properly monitored and she could have reasonably assumed that that would continue (or else the paper trail would be too confusing to go through in detail). What I found was that she had consistently tracked every single item accurately and honestly. Obviously, not everyone who lies is bold enough to steal, but I found it reassuring that she had protected an area of vulnerability when she could have quite easily taken advantage of the lack of oversight. I find that she is conscientious about asking for approval before going forward with anything of definite significance, even for things she could get away with not asking about. It’s not an excuse for the other behavior, but it shows that there are shades of gray that make it difficult for me to tease everything apart — it seems that she can keep herself in check for the big stuff but takes liberties with the stuff she views as being trivial.

I have seen past posts where you’ve talked about toxic employees who undermine authority, but this situation seems less cut and dry and her personal circumstances add to the confusion. I am hopeful that the situation is salvageable. Her colleagues otherwise have a decent working relationship with her.

This employee knows how to straddle the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior so closely that I sometimes question whether I am overreacting or under-reacting at the same time. On the one hand, these are relatively minor issues that are coming up with an employee who is otherwise very competent. On the other hand, how could I not have major concerns about her integrity at this point?


I think the fundamental question for you here is: Are you okay with having an employee who you know will lie about small-ish things, which means that you can’t take her at her word when she tells you something? And who you know will do things you’ve asked her not to do, as long as she thinks she’s not being watched closely?

I don’t think you should be okay with that, even though the rest of her work is good.

I especially don’t think you should be okay with it because you’ve talked to her about this before. It would be one thing if she somehow didn’t think this stuff was a big deal and that you wouldn’t really care if you knew about it anyway. But you’ve talked to her about it and told her clearly that it’s not okay and that it needs to stop … and it’s still happening.

It’s also concerning that she’ll shape up for a few months when she knows she’s being watched, and then will slide right back after some time goes by. That says she does understand what you want her to stop doing, and she’s capable of stopping it during the short periods where she takes you seriously … but ultimately she’s just not in sync with you that it matters.

Since she’s otherwise a good employee, you could give her one more chance and be extremely clear that the change needs to be a permanent and sustained one or you won’t be able to keep her on. As in: “We’ve talked several times in the past about these issues. I’m really concerned that it’s come up again. Can you help me understand why this keeps happening?” Followed by: “You do good work, but I cannot keep you in this job if I can’t trust you to operate with a high degree of integrity. I need to be able to take you at your word, because the alternative is that I’d have to check up on everything you tell me, and that’s not practical. I want to be very clear with you that this is a final warning and if the problems resume, I will need to let you go. I hope that doesn’t happen because I think you’re very valuable here, but these issues are serious and I need you to take them seriously as well.”

I know you want to be sensitive to the stuff going on in her personal life right now, and that’s a good instinct. But that should lead you to do things like give her more schedule flexibility if you can and even to give her this final chance … but it’s not something that should make you overlook fundamental integrity issues.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 307 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    OP – think of what you’re putting your other employees through. It must be so stressful for them to have to monitor this and then come to you – repeatedly – with lists of transgressions. They deserve better than that.

    I also feel like you’re giving too much credit for basic things. So she doesn’t steal from the cash box? Not committing a crime is an expected part of employment, not something you should get extra credit for.

    I think you’re at the point where you either need to fire her or give her a clear, final warning that if this behavior happens again, you will be letting her go. There are so many great receptionists out there who won’t put you through this grief.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I fundamentally agree, but I’m a little skeptical of the lists of transgressions from the other employees. There’s a point at which that becomes busybodyish, and the types of infractions don’t indicate against this.

      I’d be really concerned about lying about approval when approval wasn’t granted, but I’m a little worried the receptionist is getting the death of a thousand little cuts.

      1. AnonyMouish*

        Seconded. Also, the way the OP’s letter was worded, I wonder if she perceives herself as answering to a number of bosses, not just OP? If everyone in the place is policing what she does and “did you have permission for that call” and “who said you could do that?” I’d get pretty irritated pretty quickly.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          And just in general, for workplace rules, a boss really needs to figure out which hills are worth dying on and which aren’t. Workplaces where multiple approvals are required for basic job duties and there’s no room for individual initiative tend to be dreary workplaces. Obviously punctuality is important for an admin, but if this person is chafing under too many limits, it might be worth figuring out whether some of them can be dispensed with.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Eh, the OP gave me a longer list of examples, and it doesn’t sound at all like the issue is that she needs multiple approvals; the issue is that she’s telling people things are approved by the OP when she knows that they’re not.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              Ohhhh. I read it as “yes, Jane rubber stamped my TPS report” not “yeah, Jane approved my absence yesterday afternoon” when she didn’t. In which case, that’s much worse.

            2. Jaykay*

              Okay, so it’s not just approvals about arriving late or making personal calls? Because if the employee needs to do a minor personal thing like take a call, and decides not to tell the boss b/c she only expects it to take 10 minutes, and then her busybody coworkers say, “Hey, did Boss say you could step out?!” and she says yes to get them off her back, I would let it slide. In other words, if the approvals are about persona things, I would give more leeway. If they are about work things, like “Boss approved this change to the process,” then that’s pretty serious.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Nope, it’s stuff like “check with IT to see if we have more of these before you order yourself a new one,” and then the receptionist doesn’t check with IT and says the OP already gave her permission to order a new one.

                1. Anonymoose*

                  Ahhh but even THAT can be explained away. What if she already knew that IT/stock didn’t have any? I ask this, not to argue against your example, but being an admin/receptionist you actually hold a ton of info at your disposal that your boss probably doesn’t know. And they have other friends that might have the same info. Add that OP is probably busy, that the admin knows it will save time from trying to track down very busy boss just to say ‘there is none’ and boom, she orders ‘with approval’. I know this because I have done this. And I would not, and should not, be discouraged from doing this as it’s way more efficient. The only thing the admin did not do correctly is follow up with her boss and let her know that she ordered it as she was told/saw that there wasn’t any ____. That was her bad. But the ‘with approval’, sorry, I think there is more to the story, if this is indeed the example OP gave.

                2. Anonymoose*

                  Also, she could just be incredibly unorganized. Or have ADHD (I myself struggle daily with making sure i’m following through correctly).

                3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  “And I would not, and should not, be discouraged from doing this as it’s way more efficient”

                  It’s sure not more efficient if IT has 5 widgets in a closet.

                  “The only thing the admin did not do correctly is follow up with her boss and let her know that she ordered it as she was told/saw that there wasn’t any ____.”

                  Except the whole point is that the admin didn’t follow up and didn’t ask or look to see if there were any widgets. She didn’t ask, and then just requisitioned the new one while claiming that OP had authorized it.

                4. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  I’d like us to take the OP at her word that when she says the receptionist is deliberately misleading her, she knows what she’s talking about. She gave me enough examples in our email back and forth that I trust her sense of this.

                5. Hmm*

                  Well it would have been nice if those examples had been articulated in the post. The convoluted way that it’s written, it does sound as though the OP is nitpicking over nothing, or at least the infractions are way open to interpretation. We can only go on what we read; if it’s not there, you can’t blame us for questioning.

          2. Annonymouse*

            Its more about the PATTERN of behaviour and the fact it’s bringing her integrity into question.

            So Jane didn’t check the lied about checking the stationary cabinet and made sure to reorder the widgets – not a big deal.

            Jane said she had approval to wear shoes not part of the dress code for reasons when she didn’t. A bit strange but not something that can’t be fixed.

            Jane lied saying she had approval to take a longer lunch and start later – that’s questionable to dishonest.

            By doing all three (instead of just one) Jane is proving she can’t be trusted when she says something – a big problem for her coworkers.

            Also she fixes her issues long enough for people to forget / get off her back and then she goes right back to doing it again.

            And not an occasional slip up while trying to permanently fix – she actively goes back to her problem behaviour like there was no talk at all.

            Now there is a difference between a fib to get stuff done that doesn’t hurt anyone (like saying “dr x needs these widgets back today” when you know the widget person would otherwise dawdle and take 2 weeks to do it and you need it in 1 week)
            And the kind of fibs Jane is telling.

      2. Jadelyn*

        Well, except that there’s a reason the phrase death by a thousand cuts exists, because it describes a very real phenomenon. She’s got a bunch of small but problematic behaviors, and if anything she’s inflicting this DBATC on her manager and herself.

        I could see being concerned if this were a case where a bad manager were nitpicking a direct report to death – I’ve been there and I have nothing but sympathy for people who have to deal with it – but this isn’t people making up/exaggerating bad behavior where none exists. This is a really troubling pattern that, while made up of very small behaviors and incidents, is still a troubling pattern that needs addressed.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I agree… a point. But while small behaviors can add up to a troublesome general trend (I don’t disagree with you in principle!), sometimes they’re just reflective of catty nit-pickiness. I’ve seen a team gang up on a okay-but-not-great coworker and exhaustively catalog every minor failing, bringing the list to me in triumph when they figured the coworker had gotten enough rope, while committing many of the same errors themselves. I just want to caution OP to consider all possibilities.

          1. Anonymoose*

            I agree. I’ve seen this from both sides – as the boss and the employee being told to ‘watch’ my coworker. It is incredibly easy to rack up little hurts. Because nobody is perfect.

            1. Cactus*

              Yep. Having been in an incredibly toxic workplace where various levels of managers and reports frequently cycled through favor and disfavor with one another, this kind of behavior was common.
              Overall though I generally agree with Katie the Fed above that the OP should be taken at her word–while we can never know the whole story, it’s better to stay in the habit of believing that what letter writers say is true.

          2. Effective Immediately*

            I have seen this many times as well, as a manager with a significant number of direct reports. I was with OP until The List from Peers came up.

            I am wondering if OP’s perception of Jane is partially being painted by Jane’s colleagues (as she states she can’t have eyes on the smaller clinic at all times yet seems to know about very minor infractions) and if everyone else in both clinics are being held to this level of disclosure/accountability to their peers.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Eh, I disagree. In this case, OP has direct knowledge of her employee’s lies, and her employee is failing to satisfy/meet core expectations of her position. I don’t think this is death by a thousand papercuts—I think this is someone slightly manipulative who doesn’t take OP’s feedback seriously except when she thinks it could jeopardize her employment.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          My guess is you’re correct. The coworkers’ lists of infractions just bother me enough that I think OP should do due diligence.

          1. Annonymouse*

            I think it’s less:
            Jane was 3 minutes late one Tuesday
            Jane wore a crimson cardigan when dress code says scarlet
            Jane did the stationary order on Thursday instead of Wednesday

            Kind of listings and more:

            Jane takes or makes a lot of personal calls. For example she took 4 yesterday and 6 the day before.

            Jane has been coming in late at least once a week for the past month without calling ahead to let us know. This means one of us has to cover until she comes in.

            Jane hasn’t been doing stationary inventory. We ask if she has, she says yes but then we run out of important supplies and then she admits she hasn’t.

            These are minor but important issues especially when taken all together.

        2. Anonymoose*

          Oh absolutely I think the employee is dishonest. Or, at the very least still doesn’t understand the culture that she’s working in and is super scared of getting in trouble because of a past employer. We see this all the time here on AAM.

          In either case, the OP no longer trusts her. It’s done. It cannot be resolved by anything the employee does. I’ve been through this myself and finally had to let the employee go despite my personal feelings toward them because I simply could not trust that she was 1) working in the best interest of the company, or 2) working in my best interest on my team. Either of those would she simply would have been coached, but both? Nope.

          It is very telling though that she didn’t mess with the cash, which still makes me think there is more to the story, but we’ll probably never know.

          1. Anonymoose*

            I didn’t phrase that right, #2 she would be coached, but both, she would be fired. Need coffee.

      4. BTW*

        This was my thought. I’ve been on both sides of this coin. The first was a team who complained about little minuscule things that I did that did not affect their work in any way (directly or indirectly) and my employers were annoyed (with them) but brought it up to me to placate the team (not my team) It was a very toxic environment and everyone was always more concerned with what each other was doing rather than their own work. I can see this becoming an issue here although it doesn’t really sound like the case. I’d say this employee has bigger issues regardless of the feedback from colleagues.

        On the other side, right now we have a problem employee and so we are being particularly nit-picky about him. His general overall work performance is crap (he thinks he’s God’s gift to us though) and everyone, including my GM who essentially runs the place, wants him gone but our boss (who is rarely ever here) doesn’t seem to want to pull the plug just yet. We all have no idea why. A lot of the stuff we bring up is major and directly related to his job but the odd little things slip in there for sure.

    2. MillersSpring*

      I’d fire her now because she’s been counseled repeatedly already in the past, but issues continue to happen. Your other employees don’t respect her, and the OP is in danger of losing their respect, if that hasn’t happened already.

      As Alison said, she doesn’t toe the line unless she’s watched closely. And the OP said she takes liberties on things SHE views as trivial. This is not a person who should have free rein in your business.

  2. fposte*

    Oh, I would have a *huge* problem with this. “Dishonest but doesn’t steal” isn’t a big rec for an employee to me. Reliability is sacrosanct.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Right? To me this is like “cheats on wife, but doesn’t beat her!”

      Honesty is more important to me than anything else. I tossed two resumes for a job yesterday because they contained fibs.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          One of them listed himself as the manager for a position from several years ago. Except – he and I both worked in that office at the time and I KNOW he wasn’t the manager. I don’t know if he didn’t see my name as the hiring manager, or didn’t realize I changed my name. Who knows. But don’t lie about something that’s easily verifiable by the hiring manager who was also there.

          1. designbot*

            wow, I can’t believe people actually do that. I mean, I believe you, but I can’t quite comprehend it. I wonder if he has a way that he justifies this to himself, like “well I was managing x and y processes, so I really *should* have had a management title!” or if he admits to himself that he flat out lies.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Absolutely agreed. There are three massive red flags for me: (1) she lies about having approval for things she doesn’t have approval for; (2) she’s consistently failing to meet core job expectations (punctuality, professionalism re: personal calls); and (3) she does not appear contrite when confronted with her dishonesty and instead attempts to minimize her misconduct. This undermines your ability to trust her honesty, her professionalism, and her representation of events, and as Katie the Fed noted, it is likely hugely demoralizing for her coworkers (I don’t even know what kinds of lies she’s telling them, but if she’s this comfortable with lying, I assume the problems are actually worse with her peers).

      That doesn’t sound like an excellent employee to me. That sounds like a problem employee who is occasionally incompetent. And the fact that this keeps resurfacing is creating an awful cycle of manipulation where she behaves poorly, goes through a honeymoon period where she brings her behavior up to acceptable levels, and then backslides when she thinks she’s in the clear. OP, the fact that you’ve had to repeatedly counsel her on these issues, only to have her backslide, indicates that she doesn’t intend to change, and she doesn’t take your concerns to heart. I don’t think that bodes well for your employee, and I don’t think this relationship is salvageable.

      1. Jadelyn*

        #3 is really the biggest one, to me. She minimizes it when called out, and by getting better then backsliding repeatedly it becomes super clear that she has no intention of actually fixing the problems. She’ll do exactly as much as she needs to in order to seem like it’s fixed for awhile, but she’s not making a fundamental change to how she approaches her work – she’s playing the OP.

        1. fposte*

          I don’t know that it’s quite such a deliberate moral failing–lots of people mean to work out more and do it for a while and then stop, after all, and habits are hard to change. But I agree that it’s not acceptable for the position and her minimizing doesn’t bode well.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            Yep. It’s very common to know you need to change something but not do the work to figure out why you keep doing the thing you want to stop (or not doing the thing you need to do). Or not know where to begin to figure that out. Or you figure it out and don’t know how to fix it or where to go to help for that. It doesn’t mean it’s a deliberate moral failing. But it still may mean you don’t want that person on your team.

            1. fposte*

              Yes, I feel pretty strongly that she’s not a good employee; I’m keeping that separate from her being not a good person.

          2. Jaykay*

            I agree. She just seems like a normal, flawed human being to me. Not a deliberate lier. Most people fib when they are put on the spot. “Jane, where’s that report?” “Oh, I’m working on it, I’m almost done!” (When you’ve totally been procrastinating and barely started.”

          3. Annonymouse*

            But from the sound of it she only tries for long enough to get people of her back as opposed to trying, backsliding, trying again but not able to keep it up.

            It really sounds like she stops for 3-6 months completely then starts testing the waters to see if she can get away with it again.

      2. TheLazyB*

        Yeah it’s the minimising that I don’t like. I read it as OP thinking that it’s ok to react like that but it’s really not.

  3. Barbara in Swampeast*

    Another word for “straddling” is “playing” as in she is playing you. Even though she is having problems with “little” things, they are things you shouldn’t have to deal with. And you admit that it is negatively affecting the other staff, that in itself is a big problem. You need someone you can trust at that clinic since you can’t give more attention. Keeping her on is just taking up more of your time than it should.

  4. Dee*

    Things are small if they happen once or twice. This has gone past small. And if I were in her co-workers’ position, having her continually get away with this stuff would be very frustrating.

    1. starsaphire*

      Speaking from the co-worker perspective, from a somewhat similar situation…

      It’s a HUUUUGE morale drain. HUGE. You lose a lot of productivity from your other staff for various reasons, from time spent texting “WTF?” at each other, to time they’re spending tracking her foibles, to the few that are thinking, “Well, if she gets away with murder and he lets her, no one’s going to care that I’m ten minutes late coming back from lunch/leaving early for an appointment.”

      Please ask yourself what the morale and productivity of your other staff is worth to you while you’re deciding whether it’s worth the trouble of disciplining/firing and replacing her.

      1. Lemon Zinger*

        Absolutely this! Since OP isn’t at this particular clinic most of the time, she has no idea how Jane’s behavior is affecting her coworkers. I’m willing to bet they are at their wits’ end.

      2. A Person*

        Seriously, my workday would be a lot nicer if I didn’t have to worry about Creeper co-worker and having to run interference/call out or take yet more notes on his behaviour/unpick yet another of his stupid comments or actions with a client/just generally be a buffer. I’ve spoken to senior management, they know he’s a damn hazard twelve ways from Sunday but despite having enough to fire him, won’t because they don’t want an incident. I told them, there will be an incident whatever happens, at least if they got rid of them now, they could control the narrative.

        1. starsaphire*

          Oh my God. That’s awful.

          “An incident” is certainly what they are GOING to get if they keep letting this loose cannon roam free. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. :(

        2. AnonEMoose*

          So here’s a question. What if you didn’t? What if you stopped acting as a buffer, and just referred all the issues with Creepy McPervyson to management? Because right now, it’s your problem, and so management isn’t seeing the full scope of the problem, and you’re dealing with it, so they (as they see it) don’t have to.

          But if you, in effect, dump it back in their laps, that might change.

          1. A Person*

            I can’t in good conscience not be a buffer. Some of those clients are young children. Management has removed Creepy from the youngest kids leaving him with only the teenagers and adults. I had a meeting with senior management recently and had Creeper brought up to me. I told him everything. But he seems more concerned with not provoking Creeper. The thing is Creeper is so convinced of his own victimhood that nothing said against him ever gets through.

            A couple of weeks ago he gave a broken belt buckle to a young kid, who promptly put it between his fingers and made a punching motion. Fortunately everyone else descended on the kid but Creeper refused to take any form of responsibility. He literally said to me ‘no (the belt buckle) it isn’t dangerous. I don’t think like that’.

  5. AnonForThis*

    I’ve got a similar situation with an otherwise stellar employee. Not only have I caught her in a few lies (nothing truly substantive, but still had a negative impact on other members of the team) as well as a few occasions of overstepping boundaries. The most egregious example was her messaging a senior executive in the wee hours of the morning to highlight mistakes made by co-workers and hint at criticism for her first line manager.

    On one hand, she is an incredibly hard worker, smart, dedicated and usually a great asset. The violations don’t truly rise to the level of putting her job in jeopardy. But she’s also on a fast-track for a leadership position herself and I’m really worried that if the behaviors continue the impact of them will grow.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      ” The most egregious example was her messaging a senior executive in the wee hours of the morning to highlight mistakes made by co-workers and hint at criticism for her first line manager.”

      Wow. She should NOT be on a fast-track to a leadership position with behavior like that!

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        I think what this employee needs to hear (and OP’s, too), is that integrity is expected of everyone — and part of integrity is *consistency*. It’s not enough to be the employee who tells the truth 95% of the time. The other 5% is poison.

        I agree w/Katie that you can’t promote someone who has an integrity issue AND a tendency to blame others publicly. Even if you don’t fire her over this, I would have a conversation with this person about how there is no possibility of advancement if she doesn’t fix this.

        1. Jadelyn*

          Can we trumpet this to the skies? Integrity is only integrity if you practice it consistently. If there are exceptions, that undermines the entire concept!

          I have developed a reputation at my org for discretion and integrity, which resulted in being given access to peer feedback for several executive-level employees (in that I administer all our peer feedback surveys, but for executives normally it would be someone else collecting the data – which they changed to have me doing all the data collection for all positions including the highest-up execs). I will admit, I’ve been suuuuuper tempted to peek at the comments once or twice! Not that I’d ever tell anyone what I saw, but I’m just really curious.

          But I’ve never actually done so, and the way I’ve resisted temptation is by reminding myself that the entire reason I *could* do it is because they trust that I *won’t* do it, and that trust is more valuable than sating my curiosity – and that violating that trust even once, if it were found out, would shatter it for good.

          If your integrity is situational – like the OP’s receptionist, who chooses to show integrity when she knows she’s being watched but plays fast and loose with it when she thinks she can get away with it – then you don’t have integrity. You have expediency.

          1. The Supreme Troll*

            Exactly. There is no such thing as selective integrity, selective honesty, or selective fairness. If a person ever has to put thought into when to act this way, then that person never really has these qualities.

            1. BPT*

              Well, there are times when I’m not going to tell people things when it’s not their business. If I’m going to a job interview, I’m going to tell people I have an appointment (which could be considered lying by omission), and if pressed I’m going to say I have a doctor’s appointment. If I’m sick with something I’d rather not detail for people and they press me for what’s wrong, I’ll make something up. People use selective honesty all the time – telling white lies or evading a question that doesn’t really need to be answered.

              With things relevant to work, yes, definitely you have to be honest all the time. But people are fallible, so to say that if you ever don’t act 100% with integrity or honestly or fairly then it doesn’t exist is a much stricter standard than I’m willing to stick to. If you’re equating integrity to always doing exactly what you should at work, I think all of us on this website during work hours or who check personal email would fail that.

          2. seejay*

            I had something similar when I was working at the financial institute in forensics. I had full access to a *lot* of financial credentials. Sure, I could look up things like credit history, finances, etc. I had friends and family that liked to joke that I’d be looking up their information. A lot of the time, I could have and no one would be the wiser. Many times I had to do tests when I was building queries to find specific bits of information on cases we were investigating and I had to actually figure out clever ways to look up data I knew existed in the system in order to test my queries (yet we didn’t have actual test environments to run this on, so I was doing it on live data with real evidence I had). And in one investigation, I had to look up financial and personal data on famous celebrities because employees were doing it for fits and shiggles (a *HUGE* privacy breach and no-no). Was I tempted to look up celebrities, friends and family members just to snoop? Sure, there’s always that little curiosity bit that wants to go poking around just because. But I never, ever did. When I had to do test queries, I ran them on my own personal data because that was safe (or on “mickey mouse” because that did exist in our data apparently). And anything I did find out about anyone, for investigation purposes, I didn’t tell anyone outside of work, because that’s what I was paid for. My whole position relied on certain expectations of privacy and integrity. Sure, I could talk about generalizations about cases I had worked on, especially if they were months past, but I’d never ever give names or personal details.

            1. Jersey's Mom*

              Wow. It sounds like that former workplace did not have an adequate IT oversight department. I work for a company that has similar access to financial (and other sorts) of personal data for hundreds of thousands of people. The company actually has tags on a number of different personal data (i.e. famous or infamous people) and randomly checks keystrokes of people who use that database to ensure there’s no tomfoolery going on. Looking up personal data that you do not have a clear corporate reason to do so is a fireable offense. That is a one-stop-out-the-door-no-appeal action.

              1. seejay*

                Oh we had oversight. Which is why my department got called in to investigate when low-totem employees started poking around places they shouldn’t be. And it wasn’t that it was IT oversight… it’s entirely possible that Mr Famous James Bond (fake name) went into Financial Institute ™ and requested Low Totem Financial Person to access his account for totally valid reasons and that person shouldn’t be dinged for doing it. We had measures in place to catch people who were doing random queries for fun just to snoop and those we *did* catch and conduct investigations on and they were dealt with appropriately (I wasn’t privy to the actual outcomes, I was just part of the data gathering and investigations).

              2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                Agreed. My company also watches for people randomly going data-diving in our client database, even when it’s a fully licensed employee with no malicious intentions.

            2. Ann Furthermore*

              At my last job, I was one of a very small group of people who had access to employees’ personal information. I was in an IT role, and at least one person in the group needed access to be able to provide support, and that person was me. And I could have looked up all kinds of stuff about my co-workers, but I never did. If I had to do testing I would use my own record, and if I needed to test something as a manager, I’d look at the employee list and deliberately pick someone I didn’t know and use their record. It would really piss me off if someone violated my privacy in that way, so I was always scrupulously careful about not doing that to anyone else.

      2. AnonForThis*

        I WISH it was that easy – she was on that track prior to my joining the company and her reputation up the chain of command is good enough that coming in and saying, “hey everyone her personality could is problematic enough that I can’t support her as a manager” wouldn’t be met with agreement.

    2. paul*

      Ew, gross. Seriously, she’s trying to throw people under the bus like that and she’s on a promotion track?

        1. Zombii*

          That’s a large part of it, yes. And when they go to another company that doesn’t have issues like that, they function as patient zero.

    3. anon for this as well*

      One of my coworkers is like this. Every time someone brings up a complaint against him, my manager or his manager says, “but he’s such a hard worker!”

      Yes, he’s good at his job, but asking for people’s cell numbers so he can message them about projects when they’re on vacation and micromanaging people he works on projects with to the point they don’t even want to work with him is a big problem regardless of how good a worker he is.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        “Hard worker” does not mean “good worker.” This guy sounds awful, and he sounds particularly awful to his peers. Is it worth getting the benefit of one inefficient, “hard worker,” if it depresses the effectiveness and production of everyone he works with?

        1. The Supreme Troll*

          Being a true team player (supportive of your coworkers whenever the work situations call for it – which is typically most of the time) is a fundamental quality somebody needs to be considered for any leadership role.

        2. seejay*

          We had someone like this in our office. They were a hard worker, knew their stuff and were quite excellent at their job.

          They were also the office bully and a holy terror to deal with and our manager refused to discipline them out of fear that they’d take it badly and leave and he was too afraid of losing their skills. So they essentially reigned ultimate supreme over everyone and got away with bloody murder until they decided to find another job and leave on their own.

          No matter how awesome anyone is at their job, having to work with someone who is a horrible person doesn’t make it worthwhile to anyone else in the office.

          1. Delta Delta*

            It’s the worst trying to work with people like that! Both with the bully and with the boss who refuses to discipline the bully. It brings down morale for everyone and then lots of other people leave.

            1. seejay*

              I left the office in tears once when this person managed to make me feel like I did back in grade school when I was the constant target of a group of a gang of bullies on the school bus. *Normally* I was a lot more hardened against the barbs and comments and most of the time their bullying was just frustrating, irritating and overall demoralizing, but not actually outright able to hit me below the belt. One day they got me though… combination of not feeling well, feeling a bit more vulnerable than normal, and a more acidic, attacking, belittling barb towards me than usual and I just regressed back 30 years in my emotions. It was horrible.

              I told my direct manager after that (unfortunately not the one who had any power over them) that I refused to work with them again unless I absolutely had to and only in a very limited capacity, as much as my job required of me.

          2. Stay At Home Cat*

            I lost my most recent job over this situation, essentially. I worked in a small office where the CEO was very laid-back and hands-off, and unfortunately it left the CFO a huge power vaccuum to exploit. She was good at her actual job, but she tried to directly manage everyone else’s jobs even when she didn’t understand them, and wound up bullying everyone else in the office (especially me because I was in the unfortunate position of having to frequently attempt to correct her about a database she claimed to know how to use but in reality didn’t). After she lectured me about ‘business norms’ pertaining to something the CEO did that I had no involvement in, I politely stood up to her and was fired two days later. Unfortunately, everyone left is too afraid to stand up to her and the ED is so checked out that I think she’ll stay where she is until she retires. The kicker? She’s also acting as HR because the company thinks it’s too small to hire an HR rep.

            I’m so glad your office bully left.

        3. anon for this as well*

          Considering how awful everyone else is at their job here, I think management would say yes. If they’re not going to fire someone else for multiple sexual harassment claims, they’re not going to think a case of severe micromanaging is bad.

    4. Fiennes*

      To me, crossing a boundary like that specifically to get another manager in trouble is *much* worse than anything described in the letter. OPs employee may be lazy/undisciplined/etc.–but this person sounds malicious.

    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Uh… I hate to break it to you, but this is not a stellar employee. This is an employee who thinks back-stabbing, undermining, and taking action well beyond her authority and outside of proper chains of command is all acceptable. Further, if her lies have a negative impact on other members of the team, then those are functionally substantive lies that have substantive negative effects on people. And yet she’s being rewarded for this behavior, which will only reinforce that her unacceptable behavior is a *good thing* that helped her achieve success, not a bad thing in need of correction.

      Honestly, I wish all managers would read The No Asshole Rule. It breaks down why this kind of behavior is 100% not ok and harms an organization in the long-run. An employee like the one you’ve described should not, in a million years, be promoted into leadership.

      1. Venus Supreme*


        My biggest issue with the letter is that OP has had more than one conversation with the employee and the behavior hasn’t come to a full-stop– and she minimizes the issues being raised. Each isolated incident may perhaps be minor but it has definitely snowballed and is now affecting all the coworkers and OP.

        The reasons for keeping her on-board (great with the patients, knowledgeable, experienced) is not enough to keep her when she’s lying and harming employee morale at this clinic. It is not impossible to find another stellar employee who can executes the duties well and, wow, doesn’t lie either!

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I agree with both of you, she is not a good employee. The incidents should be hooked together as on-going issues and consequences should be attached. “You have had X number of conversations regarding Y behavior. And Y is still happening. The next time it happens will be grounds for dismissal/suspension/write up [insert company procedure here].”

          This is an individual who cannot work well independently, she needs an immediate supervisor present at all times. The position she has requires that she know basic rules/guidelines and follow them even when you are not present, OP. And here we see that she cannot do that, hence the need for closer supervision and/or less responsibility.

          My continued employment at my current job is based on how often I ask questions and the quality of my questions. (Our work is heavy with detail and there are changes almost daily.) The kicker is most times I am at work and my boss is not. I have to know when to pick up the phone and call her. If I cannot pick up the phone and ask a question, I can’t keep the job, period. I have to work with minimal supervision. My boss has to be certain that I will check in with her at appropriate times and then follow her directions to a tee.
          OP, you need a person who can follow the rules and not lend your name in a wrong manner. She is in a position where she represents you and your wishes. You need someone can carry out your wishes exactly as you have stated when you are no where in sight.

          FWIW, your employees feel you are being played. There is a possibility that they respect you less for it.

  6. MommyMD*

    Chronically sneaky and deceitful employees are not worth the trouble no matter the rest of her performance. She knows what she’s doing. She’s always looking for the next angle.

    1. fposte*

      Or she’s a traffic speeder who’d be fine in a job where speeding was okay, but she’s not a fit in a position that needs you to keep below the limit. Rules can have different grey areas in different places.

      1. NonProfit Nancy*

        I agree. This employee doesn’t sound that terrible to me, and there are a lot of jobs where these kinds of lapses – stepping out to take an occasional phone call, not always arriving right at the dot on time – are within bounds, because a person is bringing a lot of expertise and value to something else. We have coders and other specialists who push more boundaries. Unfortunately, this sounds like is a picayune type job where big picture things (taking initiative to create procedures for the cash box, assuming that’s what happened) wouldn’t make up for the small stuff (not being there on time).

        I feel like I’m going to be the minority opinion here … I get the “trust” issue, but to me it’s about *getting the tasks of the job done* more than it is about how good a feeling you have about their personal integrity. Of course, if she’s not getting the tasks done then yeah you can fire her … for that.

        1. Lora*

          I’m sorta there with you. 10 minutes late, steps out to take a personal call, who cares. I have stuff to do which is a bit more important then giving a crap about who is telling their partner to pick up a carton of milk on the way home. If you’re so bored that you’re playing hall monitor, I can think of some chores for you to do. I realize there are some jobs where this isn’t OK, but if she’s getting the job done well enough and it isn’t actually impacting her colleagues other than giving them something to complain about, let it go. Otherwise YOU get sucked into the role of hall monitor, and as you’ve said, ain’t nobody got time for that.

          The “yes in fact I DO have permission” is troubling though. OP says that it is for things which she should ask permission, so although I can easily imagine that the nosy parker who complains about other people being 10 minutes late here and there is also the type of person who barks, “Did Boss say that was OK?” at every bathroom break and extra pencil taken, I would be concerned about this. Is everyone clear on what requires approval and what doesn’t? It sounds like the colleagues are questioning her not just about important things she should be asking for, but also for trivial nonsense. Nevertheless, you’ve told her in no uncertain terms, more than once, what requires permission so presumably even though her colleagues might be unclear, she herself isn’t. I think you gotta confront that one head on.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            The OP says pretty clearly that this is a job where coverage matters. That means that if she’s not at her desk when she’s supposed to be, other people will be impacted (both coworkers and I assume clients). Stuff that isn’t a big deal in most other jobs can be a huge deal in a receptionist job.

          2. The OG OP*

            OP here – these are good points. Unfortunately, 10 minutes late does matter in her specific position for reasons that are hard to explain without revealing the specific line of work. I don’t care at all if non-reception staff shows up a bit late because they can make up the time over the course of the day without negatively impacting the way the department functions. I’ve explained to the employee why the expectation is so rigid and she understands why. None of the rigidity I have in place is on principle – purely out of necessity.

            1. NonProfit Nancy*

              Since you’ve been clear that being on time is an essential requirement of this job, and that even if she brings other great qualities, you need a person who’s sitting in that seat more, it seems more straightforward to me now: you tell her she will have to be let go if she can’t commit to being on time every single day and being at the desk all day – and the next time she’s late, do it. She may well find another role that’s better suited to her other skills. Your next hire might be someone less dynamic and have less of those other values but be more reliable timewise, and based on what I’m hearing that’s a trade you’re willing to make.

            2. Lora*

              Welp, then she’s not cutting it, unfortunately. And you tried. Me personally, I wouldn’t want to be the hall monitor anyways, so I think you are better off getting someone who doesn’t require so much coaching and hand-holding just to show up on time for work.

          3. Antilles*

            I realize there are some jobs where this isn’t OK, but if she’s getting the job done well enough and it isn’t actually impacting her colleagues other than giving them something to complain about, let it go./i>
            The thing to note is that there are plenty of jobs where “being right on time” can *be* a required job task in and of itself and failing to do that actually means that you aren’t getting the job done.
            -The clinic receptionist is usually the person who’s in charge of getting insurance paperwork from patients. If the receptionist sneaks out for 10 minutes, then patients can’t do required paperwork, so their entire appointment starts 10 minutes late, which can easily cause a nice ripple effect that takes hours to catch up.
            -In some offices, the receptionist is in charge of unlocking the front door in the morning, so if she shows up late, clients can be left out in the cold (in the most literal meaning of the phrase).
            -Coverage on the main phone line or greeting customers can be very important, to the point that quite a few offices actually have set rules that when the receptionist goes for lunch, a different employee will actually come sit at the reception desk for those 30 minutes just so there’s continuous coverage.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          But that’s if you’re salaried and coverage doesn’t matter. OP has said coverage matters, here, and as a result, being on time and at your desk is a core job requirement. It’s not reasonable to apply the norms for one category or class of workers (coders, specialists) to another group that operates under different professional standards.

          1. NonProfit Nancy*

            I agree that after listening to OP’s followup I’m changing my answer. OP states that desk coverage is 100% critical to the job. This employee is clearly unable to meet that requirement, unfortunately, despite other good qualities, so there’s not much to be done. Next time they’re late OP will have to fire them.

      2. Hannah*

        I was thinking something similar to this. This is such a good analogy. It seems like the employee thinks that after a few months of good work, she has built up the credibility to do things like give herself flexibility in her schedule or move ahead without approval on something. In many jobs this might be true. Is it definitely 100% clear to her that no matter how good her performance is, there will never be flexibility in these areas? If it is, but she’s still taking liberties anyway, it sounds like it’s just not a good fit for her. It doesn’t mean she’s a terrible employee in all areas, but she can’t seem to function in the rigid environment the clinic apparently requires.

        1. OhNo*

          That’s a really good way to look at it. It sounds a lot like she thinks there’s flexibility in her position that just doesn’t exist, and never will. There are a lot of positions where you can build up credibility over the course of a few months and take these kind of little breaks or minor lapses. But it sounds like this job is not one of them, and I’m not sure she realizes that.

        2. neverjaunty*

          I am baffled at the idea that it’s ever understandable to lie about whether your boss approved something. “I didn’t know I needed to get approval” is very different than “oh, boss said it was Ok.”

          1. Zombii*

            We’re missing a lot of context in the letter that Alison apparently got more details on in an email exchange (obviously I don’t expect the entire exchange to be posted every time, and this was a long post, but sometimes more context would help).

            I’m mostly thrown by the OP saying she would have approved it if the employee had asked, but hadn’t approved it, and that was the issue. If she would have approved it, I’m wondering whether the employee didn’t realize it was necessary to ask—like if she’d asked before, and OP said yes, and employee didn’t realize it was something that needed to be asked every time. When a new manager comes in, it’s not always obvious where those lines are, especially if the old processes worked differently.

  7. EA*

    I think that she should be warned and then fired.

    This does lead me to wonder if she is looking for a job that is more flexible. It seems like most of the things she pushes are related to this: ” leaving the clinic regularly to make personal calls during business hours, arriving 10 minutes late once or twice per week even though coverage and punctuality are both important parts of her job”. I wouldn’t want a job where I was unable to do those things, which is why I am not a receptionist. I also wouldn’t lie to anyone about it. It seems like she wants some autonomy and the ability to make decisions and use judgement on small stuff. It absolutely doesn’t excuse the lying, but it can be hard to see coworkers who have certain perks, and you don’t due to the nature of your job. Maybe it would help if the OP explained to her that if she is looking for X and Y she should look into different kinds of work. I mean, I am just spit balling here, she could just be a liar in most situations.

    1. Malibu Stacey*

      Yeah, I had an admin counterpart who worked reception and I she she pulled similar things and I think it was the same motivation – she saw other people getting flexibility and decided to do what she wanted.

    2. Bwmn*

      I agree with this – I also think that it might be a point for the OP to talk to the employee about where her strengths are. As a non-admin, I presume that there are admin jobs where things like strong record keeping is the predominant requirement whereas being punctual or the occasional personal call aren’t an issue.

      In my position, arriving ten minutes late every day (provided there wasn’t a meeting scheduled at 9am) and taking a personal calls every day (again, provided they weren’t in the middle of a meeting) also isn’t an issue. I get that the lying is problematic, but perhaps an honest conversation about the employee finding a job where her strengths could shine and her struggles wouldn’t be a concern could be helpful.

    3. Editrix*

      It may also be a case of things coming up where she feels like the things she’s stepping out for take precedence in the moment and she *would* get permission, but there’s not a higher authority in the moment on-site to defer to. It’s possible that the OP is underestimating the impact that primarily managing from the other location has on the smaller location’s day-to-day and moment-to-moment operations. It can be hard to state in a big-picture way how those small lacks of interaction with someone in authority can affect the people impacted, when they feel like they’re left to fend for themselves in some ways with no functional autonomy.

    4. The OG OP*

      Totally! I have explained the reasons for the lack of flexibility to her and she gets it. She has a very challenging home life that makes getting to work on time very difficult and she would really appreciate some flexibility – that’s just one aspect of the job I can’t budge on.

      1. Parenthetically*

        Honestly, it just doesn’t sound like this job is a good fit for her. I really value the ability to have a lot of agency over what I do, so admin work was 100% wrong for me, but great for not-me, for a person who thrives on structure.

      2. The Strand*

        Find something else for her to do that does not require her to arrive before opening, request permission for bathroom breaks, etc. It is what it is. If she’s otherwise a good employee but needs to do some personal business or occasionally arrive late, and there’s no room to allow that – you have your answer. Ask her to work somewhere else in your clinic, give her a good reference for some other place, and get her placed somewhere else.

        1. SarahTheEntwife*

          Creating what might be an entirely new and unnecessary position because an employee can’t keep to one of the main job requirements of their current position would be incredibly kind, but also way beyond what I’d normally expect a manager to do.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        This is helpful, OP, because it sounds like her cycle of bad behavior has more to do with her outside life than it does with her character or commitment.

        Are there other positions for which she would be qualified that don’t require the same kind of punctuality that a front desk admin requires? It sounds like she needs leeway that she just doesn’t have in this job. But if you like her and think the other problems stem from her outside life, not her willingness to be a good worker, then if it’s feasible to place her in a different role, it might be worth exploring that option.

      4. neverjaunty*

        Then she needs to get a different job.

        It is possible for people to have genuine challenges AND for them to use those challenges as an excuse for misbehavior. I have unfortunately worked with many people who used personal tragedies to get away with terrible behavior and to avoid consequences at work. I wonder, OP, if that is the reason you are so eager to find reasons to keep this employee – ‘she lies but at least she doesn’t steal money’ is so low a bar that it’s nonexistent.

  8. Malibu Stacey*

    “leaving the clinic regularly to make personal calls during business hours, arriving 10 minutes late once or twice per week even though coverage and punctuality are both important parts of her job”

    In most jobs, this wouldn’t be a big deal but for a receptionist in a medical clinic it is. I’ve been in admin roles my whole career and this is essential for the receptionist. It’s great that she’s great at record-keeping, and has institutional knowledge but if she can’t show up on time and not leave the desk on the regular she isn’t cut out for this role.

  9. Miss Ann Thrope*

    I know I should look at things from the LW’s perspective, but I do wonder if the person genuinely thinks that they got permission to do something. For example, I don’t know how detailed your conversations were with her re: allowances, but if it any of it was vague, she honestly might have thought she had the judgment to include whatever it is that she did, under those allowances. So in my mind the “small lies” seem separate from the punctuality and coverage issues.

    1. fposte*

      If she can’t grasp what permission looks like even though the rest of the OP’s staff can and even after being counseled for it, that’s still a problem and doesn’t need to be excluded.

      1. Miss Ann Thrope*

        But hasn’t it come up that some managers expect the people who report to them to be able to differentiate these things? I’m just saying that perhaps the OP’s direct report is not able to differentiate these two in a way that aligns with OP and their management and perhaps a more direct discussion of when to ask permission and when not to is warranted.

        As separating out the post as involving two issues, I don’t mean that one requires a talking to and the other doesn’t. Rather, I think it’s important to be clear that these are two different things and to not conflate them.

          1. OhNo*

            I only see a difference in the way a manager would approach discussing them. The lateness issue affects a basic expectation of the position, and not being able to meet the mark consistently warrants a “this is what the position requires” conversation, while the permission issue is more based in the particular bureaucracy of this workplace, and warrants a “this is how we do things here” conversation.

            In the end, though, the results are the same. For both, the rest of the conversation would include “if you can’t adhere to that, we will need to let you go”. So they might technically be two separate issues, but in this case they’re just facets of the fact that this employee isn’t meeting expectations.

        1. Shelf*

          I was seeing the same. It could just be the vagueness of describing the small lies though. The part about “I gave her allowances she took an allowance said I gave her permission and it turns out I would have of she had asked” to me sounds like a potential disconnect for what she needs to ask permission for.

  10. animaniactoo*

    One thing you need to correct immediately – when she tries to minimize things as misunderstandings, you need to stop her there, and not accept that explanation. Because that is another form of a small lie, with big implications.

    “These are not misunderstandings. I accepted that originally, but it is fairly clear now that these are areas where you think that leeway exists because they don’t have a “big” impact, or can be expanded on from something else you have been given permission for, and are otherwise good at your job. The reason that this is clear is that this doesn’t happen up and down all the duties of your role, only on what can be considered the “small” stuff.

    There is no leeway for regular occurrences of these things, even for the small stuff. You are never given permission to do something unless you have explicitly asked me for it and I have granted it for that occasion OR made it clear that such permission is a permanent thing. Any misunderstanding on your part about this going forward is a failure to accept this. You do several good things that make you valuable to me as an employee, but you undermine all of that when these issues come up and there can be no more “misunderstandings” about it.”

    1. fposte*

      Yes, I really agree with that. I think “misunderstanding” really means “misunderstood that it really was a problem that was going to be tracked.” That’s another good reason for the open-ended request to explain–it illuminates her thinking for you, allowing you more information as to whether or not this is correctable, and it illuminates her thinking for her, possibly allowing her to realize when she says her rationalizations out loud just how flimsy they are.

    2. Newby*

      It really is important to make it clear that there can be no more misunderstandings, real or not. If she doesn’t know what you meant or if something is ok, she needs to ask. I had an intern that tried to blame a lot on “misunderstanding”. Her behavior showed that she did understand that it wasn’t ok, or she wouldn’t have tried to hide it.

    3. NonProfit Nancy*

      Well to me there’s also an interpretation about judgement. She may feel like she’s a valued employee and can use her judgement to decide what’s a big deal and what’s not – if it’s not busy, she can step out to make a phone call. If she’s got a good enough reason, she’s earned the leeway to be late sometimes. I do this in my job too! OP is saying they don’t trust her judgement (for real reasons, I’m not criticizing!) and wants her to obey the letter of the law. I’m not sure she’s hearing that – probably because she doesn’t want to.

      1. animaniactoo*

        I’d agree with that except that she’s explicitly in a role where being 10 minutes late and stepping out to take a personal phone call will *always* impact her co-workers or the clients. Even when the office isn’t busy. Because one of the primary duties of her job is to be present. She’s the receptionist. If she’s not there, somebody has to cover for her. Every time. Or let calls go unanswered, which REALLY can’t happen at a clinic.

        1. NonProfit Nancy*

          I don’t know about this woman, but if that was made clear to me – that it didn’t matter what I brought to the table, because Butt in Seat was my primary responsibility and that’s all that mattered – I’d try to transition out ASAP. Being a Butt in Seat is fine for a first job – I did it myself with pride! – but you can’t blame a job that’s framed that way for having high turnover and mostly entry level applicants who want to move on after a year.

          1. The OG OP*

            OP here – this speaks to one of my fundamental concerns. Very few people want to be the “butt in seat person”. We have several receptionists across the two clinics so I’ve had to hire before – finding a great receptionist can be a huge challenge, especially since I working with a limited budget. At the heart of it, this employee is happy in her job and her fellow employees like working with her most of the time. My worry is that I’ll replace her only to find that everyone else is not as competent or else wants to leave after 1 year.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Honestly, this might be a job where you know that people are going to leave after a year, and so be it. Some jobs are like that if they’re not very challenging, and that can be okay. You can hire good people knowing that’s likely the case, and plan accordingly.

            2. EA*

              I think you are really stuck in a rough place. You have a receptionist who struggles to get to work on time, and then lies about it. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to find good receptionists/admins who want to stay in that line of work.

              I think you should assume your next receptionist will be a combination of bad/leaving after 6 months to a year, and calibrate your decisions based on that.

            3. always in email jail*

              I work for an organization that has clinics, though I don’t work on that side of things, I hear about the staffing issues. unfortunately I think Alison is right, that may just be the way this position works. I’ve found that making those expectations very clear during the interview process helps. Occasionally you can find someone who is OK with the rigidity because of the other benefits it gets. For example, yes, the start and end time are very clear with little flexibility, but maybe it’s also a role where they will likely never be asked to stay late/work extra hours, and they value that consistent schedule for childcare reasons, volunteer commitments, etc. Or yes it’s rigid but they will never be called on the weekends or while they’re on vacation, and they really value the ability to completely disconnect during their “off” time. If you’re clear about this expectation in the interview process, you can weed out people who won’t be able to adhere to it, and find people who will value other things about the job.

            4. animaniactoo*

              Hey, glad you’ve chimed in here!

              Given what you’ve said here, is it possible to work with the employee and give her some occasional morning flexibility? Say a half hour later start time every other Friday, and an earlier leave time every other Wednesday? With the understanding that the personal calls thing *must* be done on breaks? Can you look at how often she has a break, and whether she’s actually getting any if the clinic is busy and it’s hard to pull coverage for herself? Would setting up a more formalized break schedule actually work for her in terms of being able to handle those occasional personal calls? Is there something else that would work for her that you can reasonably make happen?

              That kind of schedule change is something you could explain to everyone else as her schedule leaving her in a space that’s too structured and is creating issues over the longterm, so you’re looking to address that to prevent the reversion back to the recurring issues as she works to balance her home life and her work life.

              BUT! Be prepared for the possibility that you make these kinds of adjustments and then the issues still stick around because they’re more a personality kind of thing than a grind kind of thing.

            5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              OP, are there other ways you could sweeten the compensation pot? (e.g., more paid leave days, opportunities for training) If not, then I agree with Alison that you might have to resign yourself to having to hire every 1-2 years. It’s hard to find great receptionists, but you also deserve and need a great receptionist, and that’s not what your employee is able to deliver right now.

            6. Not So NewReader*

              This is the problem though with many things, it’s trade offs. You can have X or you can have Y but you can’t have both.

              Apparently being great with the patients and having knowledge is of more value to you than if she commits small lies and is randomly unavailable when she should be available?
              This goes into the discussion of how there are no perfect employees/employers.
              And it also goes into a discussion of how what we believe, whether it’s true or not, impacts the decisions we make. You believe that if she leaves you will have to hire a new person every year or so. This may or may not be true. You can, in the course of interviewing, let applicants know that you are interested in finding people who will stay for a few years. Or conversely perhaps you could hire someone who is semi-retired from the field and would like to settle in to a workplace like yours. Have you checked the applicant pool in your area lately?

              Let’s say you decide to stand pat for the moment. This employee is showing you who she is and how she operates. It probably will not change. You say she gets along with other employees well enough. Keep in mind, that they have a responsibility to get along with everyone they work with. They could fully despise her and still retain professional composure. It can be done. If she appears to get along well with people that maybe because of their graciousness and not hers.

          2. animaniactoo*

            A receptionist job will *always* have this expectation. Always, without fail. Even when they do other higher level work. And a receptionist may be a higher than entry-level job depending on the nature of the work. Note that I didn’t say it was her sole primary responsibility but *one* of the primary responsibilities. She may have 3 or 4 primary responsibilities.

            If having the flexibility to not be on a butt-in-the-seat schedule is important, one SHOULD transition out of roles where it is required. But there are many non-entry-level roles where it is always required.

            1. NonProfit Nancy*

              Having said all that though, I think there’s something to be thought through here. If OP wants an excellent, long-term employee who brings many higher level skills to the table AND ALSO can never be late or leave the desk at any time – are they paying quite a high, competitive salary for that position? Those are two elements of an employee that don’t often come together. Most professionals are going to chafe under rigid scheduling expectations, and most butts-in-seats staff aren’t going to be willing to do higher level work excellently for low pay. Right? I wonder if there’s any way to get better coverage for the desk so that these frontline staff people have more flexibility, or maybe – as someone suggested below – divide out a “clinic manager” type role and a “receptionist” role?

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                Agreed—sometimes this can be solved through compensation (sometimes it can’t, and that’s ok, too). Although OP has now chimed in upthread to note that she has a fixed/limited budget :(

                1. NonProfit Nancy*

                  It sounds like the resolution is that they need a receptionist who for a lower wage, can be there without the whole time. That is reasonable! Just clarify your expectations for the role and good luck. If you anticipate a lot of turnover – common among jobs that have no advancement or wage increase – you can plan the job to be easily picked up by the next person, too. Make formal procedure guidelines, maybe hire through a temp-to-perm agency to reduce the time interviewing, etc.

                2. animaniactoo*

                  I suspect that this is not a workable solution and the truth is that there IS no workable solution that involves keeping Jane at this point unless Jane can turn all of this around in a last ditch effort to save the job.

                  1) It sounds like OP doesn’t have the budget to add even an extra minimum wage person
                  2) However another issue is that medical receptionist is often a detailed kind of job that includes more than answering the phone and are usually paid higher accordingly. It really wouldn’t be possible to higher somebody to just cover the phones and expect them not to be able to do XYZ portions. So even if you remove the receptionist portion from Jane with a decrease in pay for the reduced responsibilities of XYZ, and PQR which she has picked up but are not necessary parts of the receptionist job, there is still not enough budget for Jane + another body.

                  Which is why OP is gritting her teeth and saying “she’s great at so many pieces, her co-workers like working with her in general, are these issues really so bad/unsolvable?”

  11. Arjay*

    I agree that the integrity issue is important. The one thing that strikes me about the letter though is that the examples sound like she’s lying to co-workers, but not to the boss. If I felt like my co-workers were inappropriately monitoring my behavior, I might lie to them too just to make them go away. It’s hard to say from the letter, but if a peer came up to me and said, “Hey, why were you 10 minutes late today?” I might blow them off by telling them I had permission since it shouldn’t be any of their business anyway.

    1. Malibu Stacey*

      And most jobs that would make sense. When a receptionist is ten minutes late with no notice, that means it falls on her coworkers to put their own work aside to handle calls and visitors. It’s a really bad client experience for them to have to wait.

    2. BethRA*

      The problem is that by lying to them instead of either not answering or telling them they’re not responsible for your whereabouts, you’re establishing yourself as someone who isn’t honest. That tends to lead to more questions, not less, and it undermines people’s trust in you generally.

    3. always in email jail*

      I understand this is different for an admin position, but it still seems valid. She’s not lying to her supervisor (like saying “we discussed this in the hallway, remember?” when you didn’t or something ) she’s lying to her coworkers. Does she really owe her co-workers honesty about why she’s late? She owes them punctuality, but I’m not convinced she owes her coworkers an explanation when she does’t deliver.

      she DOES owe her supervisor an explanation, though.

      1. Whats In A Name*

        I agree she doesn’t owe them an explanation per se, but she certainly does not need to lie about it. Especially because in her role her being 10 minutes late causes the co-workers to have to stop what they are doing to pick up her duties and then, what, they have to give up 10 mintues of their lunch or stay 10 minutes late to make up for her tardiness?

        The details might not be anyone else’s business, but continued lying isn’t the right answer either. And if she were 10 minutes late per month this would probably be a moot point – a few times a week? That’s not fair to everyone else.

    4. Jessesgirl72*

      Lies like “Boss gave me permission” undermines the boss’s integrity and authority as well, though.

      But the generally accepted advice around here is that you focus on your own work and don’t rat out a coworker- unless their bad behavior is effecting your work! Not only is she having a negative impact on her coworkers, but she is effecting the clients. In a medical clinic!

    5. NonProfit Nancy*

      I did actually think it was weird the coworkers all came together to report a list of small concerns. Were these problems making their jobs harder in some way? I hope so, and understand OP doesn’t have time to go into every detail. But if it’s stuff that doesn’t affect them really except on principle, I’d think that was strange.

      1. Zookeeper*

        That is the part of the letter that I keep going back to. She definitely should not be lying to her supervisor, but I would be annoyed if my coworkers were monitoring me and making lists of concerns. If they are so swamped that someone can’t cover the desk for a few minutes for her to take a personal call, how do they have time to meet and make up lists? There are times when you have to take a personal call at work. Of course you try to keep those to an absolute minimum, but life happens and it doesn’t stick to nonworking hours.

        1. Whats In A Name*

          From where OP has interjected comments it sounds like being too swamped isnt’ necessarily the issue. The issue is that staff are with other patients, employee has stepped away without letting anyone know and now customers/patients arrive to an empty desk with no one aware they are there to check in. Which probably means same is happening with people calling in.

        2. neverjaunty*

          Having been in the other end of bad co-worker situations, likely why they are making list is that the OP isn’t there all the time. And if (as seems to be the case here) Boss is reluctant to do anything about the co-worker’s behavior, then Boss is going to find ways to deflect things: Oh, but nobody else has a problem with Venomina! You don’t have specific examples of what you’re talking about so I can’t do anything about it! And so on. Presenting a united front (which is something AAM often advises) and keeping specific records is one way to deal with this.

          (Also, while it is true that sometimes this can be bullying, I’m getting more than a whiff of Geek Social Fallacies. Sometimes the reason everybody gangs up on Fergus really is that he’s been an ass to everyone.)

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That was my read — because when the receptionist isn’t around, someone else is going to have to answer calls and deal with patients as they arrive. If that’s pulling you away from your job to do, that’s going to be worth raising with the person’s boss.

        1. AD*

          Good point, I didn’t think of the fact that she’s a receptionist. Yeah I can see why the phone calls, punctuality, and other issues would impact coworkers adversely.

        2. The OG OP*

          OP here – yes, this is it exactly. It’s not that the other employees are too swamped to help out from time to time. The over-arching concern that was brought forward was this: the situation is causing us to look unprofessional because patients are left waiting at a desk for a receptionist to arrive when the other employees are in the clinic rooms seeing patients. This is disruptive for the employees who are having to take (or ignore) phone calls, etc.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            That’s a big problem, in which case I think the coworkers are 100% right to bring this up. It undermines confidence at every step of the line—patients don’t trust the office to be timely and professional in dealing with their needs, coworkers don’t trust the receptionist to cover phones, and no one knows whether the boss ok’d this or not because the receptionist is telling people you did.

      3. AD*

        I agree. The OP’s letter doesn’t really go into detail on what the lies/transgressions are, apart from the punctuality and personal phone calls. The “approval” situation isn’t really detailed.
        I understand that this employee has an issue that needs to addressed (and has been unsuccessfully addressed before), but the nature of the issues isn’t really here and it’s hard to know how serious they are. They may be fireable offenses, or they may not.

        1. Jamie*

          ITA. Time away from the desk (late, phone calls) bigger issue because of her role. If she were in a role where coverage wasn’t an issue I wouldn’t care.

          The approval thing is confusing me. She appropriately asks for approval on major things but doesn’t when it comes to small stuff that doesn’t really matter and the boss would have okayed anyway? If I’m reading that correctly maybe an adjustment in what needs to be approved?

          If people at a different location were waiting on my approval for trivial stuff I’d figure out what I really needed to sign off on and where they could make the call. If it requires my approval I’ll send a fast email (even if I gave verbal approval) or approve through software as applicable so audit trail of my okaying something. I’m not saying lying about it is okay, but it’s still prudent to look at the system to see if there are unnecessary bottlenecks to people getting work done.

          If it’s lying about approval over being late or phone calls or personal stuff like that it’s different and much harder to forgive. For me, anyway.

          That said I’ve had people lie to my face and the world stopped while we dealt with that and others where I knew they were lying and couldn’t care less. The latter was telling me they were late due to traffic rather than a late start, or that they were taking the day off for a doctor’s appointment when it was just a day off.

          Shitty past bosses can make people afraid to tell the truth, or ask for a day off without giving a reason. I don’t call people out on it, but I will go out of my way to let them know no one needs to justify a day off if they’ve got one on the books or if their role doesn’t require an absolutely start/end time remind them of that. Those are lies I couldn’t care less about.

          1. Fiennes*

            While not excusing the employee’s behavior, I think you’re right that this person has had a terrible boss/terrible parenting/other form of terrible authority at some point. Since she’s fundamentally honest about important things, her impulse to lie about the little stuff seems, to me, likeliest to arise from having been punished for telling the truth, or for asking for small privileges. It’s not uncommon in adult children of alcoholics, for instance.

            Again, that’s not an excuse. As we grow up, we have a responsibility to try to handle our own baggage. But to me that seems like a likely origin for such behavior.

            1. fposte*

              Or it’s from being in a family or peer culture where that was expected, sort of like in some places pedestrians never cross against the light and in some places they’ll happily stop traffic.

      4. Perse's Mom*

        The rest of the staff may have thought it was more efficient (everybody goes together so it’s 1 30min meeting rather than a dozen 5min meetings) or more impactful – when you have a dozen people all telling you that something is a problem, it’s harder to dismiss or downplay it than if Sue and Jane and Bob all approach you separately to speak for the people who are affected by problems A, B, and C.

        Alison has in some cases actually recommended this approach, though I think usually in cases where management is trying to be oblivious to the broad impact of something, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case here or the LW would probably not have bothered writing in.

    6. Alton*

      Speaking of which, I wonder how the lies are being revealed.

      I had a co-worker once who would leave early without permission a lot, and one time when she knew I could see her leaving, she told me our manager, Fergus, had given her permission to leave early to take a training class. I thought nothing of it and mentioned it casually to a co-worker, and that co-worker casually mentioned it to Fergus (“Hey, I heard Cersei is learning to operate the teapot painting machine”), and Fergus was quite surprised (“Wait, what? I didn’t send Cersei to any training sessions”).

      But the key element there was the specificity of the lie and the fact that Cersei had lied about having permission to leave early altogether. And it was just chance that it got back to Fergus.

  12. Cassandra*

    If you want to give the receptionist a last chance, OP — and it sounds as though you do, though clearly AAM’s commentariat isn’t keen — it may be worth trying to sort out the why behind the fibbing.

    Does this receptionist have Former Bad Job Blues that are distorting her behavior? Does she fear asking you for things, or believe (irrespective of truth value, though if it is true, it’s something to fix) that if she asks she will invariably be turned down? Does she not want to interrupt you for small stuff? Alternately, does she think her behavior only matters when it is explicitly being monitored? That would certainly be troubling, and a thought process to change — ideally toward “my behavior impacts the entire office’s effectiveness.”

    Last thought — do other employees have the flexibility to do some of the things she’s being sneaky about? If so, then a conversation about differences in her role/expectations vs. theirs seems in order.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      Well, and is there *ever* a path for her where she can earn more flexibility with her hours, if she toes the line long enough? Managing my own time is a perk of my seniority at my company. I’d be pretty hacked to be called to the carpet for small breaches, after this many years on the job. I get that different jobs are different, but if in 20 years you still imagine her rushing to be in the door at exactly 8:59 or risk a scolding, I can see the morale problem from her POV. This may be the job OP needs filled and this isn’t their problem to solve – and maybe this employee just needs to try to move on and find a more flexible arrangement – but I don’t think it’s terrible to consider.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Consider the position: medical receptionist. Where, in any such setting and completing those duties, is there flexibility with hours, ever? If that’s your line of work, and it’s a morale problem that you can’t manage your own time, you’re a prime candidate for a career switch.

        1. NonProfit Nancy*

          I was hoping there might be something like “office manager” that did things like ordering, etc. Although of course you wouldn’t promote someone who wasn’t able to meet the requirements of their current job – but at least you could frame it as “I’d need to see you do X and Y consistently before we could talk about the manager position,” which might be the kind of motivation an employee like this needed. Unfortunately it sounds like that’s not at all the case.

  13. Lily in NYC*

    Boy do I have mixed feelings about this one. First, I don’t like that coworkers are making lists of grievances about her. I’m curious about all their performance level – are they on time every day? Do they never take personal calls? Or is it just a personal dislike and they are out to get her?
    But then it does seem like the woman knows there are some issues but doesn’t really care. I remember learning in a psych class about how a certain type of person (usually high IQ and independent) has their own internal moral code that they adhere to strictly, but they don’t feel as obligated to adhere to things they don’t personally feel is important or necessary. And I can see how this would be problematic. So I just wrote a lot of words but I guess I have no advice.

    1. Allypopx*

      I don’t love the list of grievances either, but I have been in the position where there are real performance issues with a coworker that are impacting other people, and those issues are brushed off by management because, like the OP says, individually they aren’t a big deal, but stacked up together they create a problem. And since this seems to be a medical clinic, it’s hard to know how big a deal the impact of that problem could be. Did you run out of tongue depressors once or are you consistently out of supplies? That kind of thing.

      The coworkers also know the OP isn’t on site to see these things, so OP won’t know unless they speak up. It’s not the kindest thing to do, but I can see where they might feel it’s their best option.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I agree but I just wish we had more info. I’ve witnessed a group of admins turn on another one solely because she replaced their friend who got fired (for good reason). They made her life hell and told lies about her that their bosses believed. She would have been fired as well but HR figured out what was going on when she was put on a PIP (because they knew these other admins were trouble) and transferred her to a different department (where she did great and got along really well with the other admins in that dept.).

        1. Allypopx*

          More context would definitely be good. The OP did say that they already had a lot of the issues that the coworkers reported on their radar, so that leans me towards the complaints be valid. But you’re right, they could be being blown out of proportion easily.

            1. The OG OP*

              OP here – wish I could go into more detail but it would make the line of work too obvious. I’m as sure as I can be that this isn’t some petty vendetta against the receptionist (though I can see why you’d wonder about that). Actually, all of the employees have said that they enjoy working with this person but they are just frustrated by the issues they brought forward (which were valid concerns).

              1. The OG Anonsie*

                How sure of this are you, really and truly?

                Now the punctuality and stepping away thing has been illuminated already by your other comments (thanks for that!) so it’s not that there is no issue here whatsoever. And given that she apparently has some personal life stuff going on that impacts that, it may be that there is no solution and she can’t make her circumstances fit your needs in some ways at the moment. That’s one thing.

                The other thing is, I’ve worked in a lot of different clinics in my life, and I have seen a very under-the-surface type of weird monitoring and reporting “well we like her but she’s doing x exaggerated thing that has no affect on me and I may or may not be accurately reporting to you and I just had to tell you” on people not in the in-group in a lot of them. Especially towards the support staff. The fact that her actual *behaviors* are consistently by the books and she is always embarrassed, seems to think they’re misunderstandings, and often come from people reporting on offhand statements she made on processes that didn’t actually involve them all sound really familiar to me as a way I’ve seen plenty of support staff needled gradually into leaving their clinics.

                Like re: the IT ordering example Alison gave above, did she place the order without the correct approvals, or did she just say “yeah I have OG OP’s approval” to some uninvolved person but actually followed the process? Important distinction there between actual untrustworthy behavior and providing truncated details (“I have OG OP’s approval*.” *assuming all other barriers are dealt with) to someone who didn’t need to hear the whole story anyway. If that someone then goes to make a report to you about it, I’d be questioning why they did that and if this is part of a larger pattern of weirdness between staff. Because everyone will always say there’s no problem at all and they totally like the person that they’re pettying to death, it’s just that she’s doing something wrong.

                The time away from the reception desk is a not-by-the-books behavior but we have a specific explanation for that which isn’t being sneaky and deceptive, it’s having a life/work conflict that is problematic. That has different implications / different ways to be addressed than the other bits here, especially if some of this is indicative of a staff culture issue that will crop up on whoever is in this receptionist’s spot after her. You said keeping someone in the position seems difficult– is some of the other staff’s interactions with the receptionists part of this?

                I don’t know enough to know if I feel like this is what’s happening here, just that it is definitely something to consider when trying to get a good, stable receptionist into this group.

    2. Elizabeth H.*

      I wanted to comment something along the same lines but wasn’t sure how to put it. I’m not condoning the behavior, but it reminds me of some of the aspects of what Gretchen Rubin talks about as the Questioner tendency, (that’s not perfect, but can’t find one that describes more closely what I am referencing), people who usually have a very clear sense of what they think is the correct thing to do in any given situation (or spend a lot of time getting information to seek the answer) and don’t necessarily take other people’s directions well if they themselves don’t find it reasonable.
      To be honest, I see myself in this somewhat. A lot of the time I wish that I had more energy and enthusiasm for just doing what I’m supposed to do instead of thinking about ways it would be better, how I would design it, trying to figure out what the best thing for me to do at any given moment is, finding precise answers and background information to every question etc.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Thank you! I had a difficult time articulating exactly what I mean. I relate to it as well and am looking forward to getting out of work so I can check out more on Gretchen Rubin.

      2. Parenthetically*

        That’s me!! I call myself the Inveterate Optimizer. I have strong opinions about how things ought to go, and though I’m not a perfectionist AT ALL, if I am interested in a task or process, I always want to tweak it until it’s juuuuust right. “Just do it this way (even though there are 10 other, probably better ways)” makes black smoke come out of my ears.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        If this is her, then she is not a good fit for the job. While this may quell concerns about her integrity, it does not change the fact that the job requires butt in chair. And it also basically says that she will never be able to do this particular job.

        Personally, I don’t blame her. I need freedom to move around and have some say in how my time is spent, too. I have been working long enough, though, that I feel free to ask the boss where the limits of my authority are. And most certainly, if I overstep once, that is the last time I overstep. I am discouraged by not seeing any of that going on here.

    3. Meg Danger*

      I want to know more about this type of person! Lily in NYC, do you have a link, or remember any other details about people who adhere to strict internal moral codes? So fascinating.

      1. Yetanotherjennifer*

        I just happened to listen to an episode of the “Note to Self” podcast the other day about this. Gretchen Rubin is writing (or maybe is now promoting) a book about the 4 tendencies regarding motivation. The 4 tendencies are Upholder (regularly meets inner and outer expectations), Questioner (questions all expectations, will do if justified), Obliger (meets outer, struggles with inner, prefers outside accountability), and the Rebel (resists all expectations). The podcast included an explanation of how each type would address a personal goal of turning off the cell phone at night. It is really fascinating. The Obliger is the largest category and the Rebel is the smallest.

        1. Parenthetically*

          I LOVE this! I’m an Enneagram person so I’d be interested to see how those line up or overlap with Enneagram types.

        2. Damn it, Hardison!*

          Her book is called Better Then Before and is pretty interesting. I took a few helpful things from her (I’m an Obliger)

      2. Lily in NYC*

        I wish I could remember – it was many moons ago but the concept really stuck with me because like you, I kind of identify with it myself. But both Elizabeth H and Yetanotherjennifer both mentioned Gretchen Rubin’s work, which sounds very interesting. Thanks to both of you for that – I can’t wait to check it out.

    4. Malibu Stacey*

      Typically for reception though, if they are late or they step away from the desk, other people have to step away from their own work to receive visitors, etc. Most office roles are not like that. I have been the admin counterpart in that situation and it’s frustrating.

    5. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Keep in mind that a clinician or nurse might have more flexibility, just in the nature of the job, than an admin who has to be punctual and available during work hours.

      And yes, there’s people who have their own internal value set which they stick to, but play fast and loose with rules they don’t particularly see the logic and sense in. I’m one of them. It’s been interesting.

      1. EA*

        I am one of them too. Basically if I think a rule is stupid I refuse to follow it. It made Catholic High School fun.

        It hasn’t caused issues at work, I follow the rules there because I want a roof over my head.

    6. Delta Delta*

      I also don’t love that co-workers made a list, but they may feel like it’s the only way to get OP to know what’s going on. It sounds like OP isn’t on that particular job site as frequently as in the other place, and so they may feel like they need to document what’s happening in OPs absence. Also, they may feel like OP isn’t doing anything about this problem employee (which can lead to low morale) and they want to be armed with information when they talk to OP. Especially since this employee has had a pattern of problems and has apparently been spoken to in the past. I worked somewhere once where the Big Boss thought Receptionist could do no wrong, except for the fact that she only did right by him and for him. When push finally came to shove and she had to go, he asked people for examples of problems and since some people had kept lists he was actually able to see there was a pattern of problems that he had no idea about. So, I wrote a lot of words, also, and also have no advice.

        1. Delta Delta*

          The VNPSU. We could have really good membership meetings where we serve pie. That’s mostly because pie is delicious.

    7. NonProfit Nancy*

      Agree about the other employees and their List of Grievances. I raised an eyebrow at that. OP says they noticed some of the same problems so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here, but in general if something like this happens I’d spend at least a few minutes asking if I’ve ever noticed this woman being Outside the Clique, or if there’s any way that getting rid of this woman could benefit the complainers in terms of pay / job roles / whatever.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Agreed, lots of factors to weigh in here:

        If non-complainers are complaining, that would jump at me. While definitely not a final determining factor, I would know I have to pay attention.
        The nature of the complaints, is it reasonable that these things could be happening.
        Can I find evidence myself that some of these things are happening?
        The employee’s history and my own recollections of what has happened.
        Sometimes I could check with my own peers for their observations.
        The employee’s reaction and explanation of the setting could persuade me to change my mind. (“Yes, I did slam that exterior door very hard. A terrible rain came up with a hard driving wind and water was coming into the building. So, yeah, I ran to the door and slammed it hard.”)
        Other complaints can be boss induced, meaning that I have done something stupid or short-sighted. At that point I jump right in and tell the complainer “That is my fault and here is why [explanation].”

        And there are some complaints that are on my List of Complaints I Do Not Deal With.

        From what I see here, I think OP is on the right track to pay attention to this situation and become more active in what is going on.

    8. AKJ*

      Me too. The issue with the co-workers really just rubs me the wrong way and makes me more sympathetic to the employee. I do get the LW’s concerns, though, and integrity is so important.
      I was in a situation at a previous job where a co-worker (not my manager, but someone in a position where she delegated tasks to me) monitored everything I did – I ended up overhearing her talking with my manager and looking over screenshots of everything I had been doing that morning on my computer, because she felt I’d taken too long to complete a task she asked me to do. The fact that I was under her microscope just made everything worse for me – my anxiety shot through the roof. I’d come from an environment where there I had been trusted to allocate my time and workload on my own, so it was a difficult adjustment to begin with. I felt like she complained about everything I did, like I had a target on my back, and as hard as I tried to meet her expectations I could never quite make it. I actually had chest pains from anxiety for months, it was so bad. That level of anxiety did not help my performance any.
      I don’t know, that may not be the issue at all. It just concerns me that so many of the LW’s concerns seem to have been brought to her by the co-workers, who may (or may not) have agendas of their own. I just don’t know if that changes the answer any.

    9. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I mean, if someone wrote in saying that they and their coworkers were frustrated because their receptionist frequently wasn’t at her desk and was doing other things that were causing problems for them in their work, and that their boss probably didn’t know because she was often at another location, my advice would be “go tell your boss what’s happening,” and I imagine that would not be a controversial recommendation here. The fact that they put together a list when doing that isn’t outrageous; it’s organized.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I’ll admit I didn’t notice she was the receptionist! That changes much of what I wrote (but I”ll stick with my point about internal vs. external moral codes).

      2. The OG OP*

        True. I am also someone who asks for people to give specific examples so that I can better understand the issue at hand. This was the group recognising how to get through to me effectively. It wasn’t them marching down the hall ready to tar and feather this employee. It was more of a casual head’s up: these are the issues we are experiencing – we think the office would really benefit if you addressed these issues with the employee.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        I think I remember you saying to approach the boss as a group in response to some OPs’ questions. There is a way of doing it, we are not talking about an angry mob with pitch forks and torches.

    10. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I’m going to push back. I’m not fond of people putting their noses where it doesn’t belong. But in this case, I think the coworkers are gathering information because they think that their individual grievances are probably too low-level or not severe enough to merit review, whereas if their grievances are viewed collectively, it highlights a big problem. Of course managers should take complaints with a grain of salt, but OP hasn’t given us reason to believe that the complaints themselves are designed to harass the receptionist. It sounds like they were gathered to flag an important issue that would otherwise go unregistered.

    11. Marcy Marketer*

      I also had/have mixed feelings, but just thinking about a patient clinic and a receptionist job, I think we should give the coworkers some leeway here. My friend is a speech pathologist, and she once missed an entire 30 minute session because her receptionist failed to check in the person sitting in the waiting room. My friend even went out and said “is my appointment here?” and was told no by the receptionist. I can see if that happens once, but if it happened multiple times, my friend/others would 100% escalate that– they’d have to! They’re measured on billable hours. And if she was missing checking in patients because of being on personal phone calls, coming in late, etc, I can tell you medical staff would be so upset.

  14. MuseumChick*

    I would consider the “hidden cost” of such an employee. Specifically, the message it sends to your other employees that she continues to get away with this.

    I like Alison’s script for this.

  15. PiggyStardust*

    Can you take it a step up from a 1:1 discussion and put her on a performance plan, citing specific examples of her inappropriate behavior with measurable goals for improvement? Give her the last chance, but it also lets her know that any backsliding will result in termination.

  16. always in email jail*

    I really struggle with this. Flexibility is earned, and is a privilege, especially in my organization (which doesn’t have a very flexible culture). It’s sometimes hard to tactfully communicate that fact to employees, though. I channel my inner Alison when I have to :-P

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      Well, I wondered if this employee feels like she’s “earned” it for her many years on the job. If OP doesn’t feel that way, it’s something to explicitly discuss.

      1. Liane*

        Receptionist isn’t a position where you can “earn” flexibility on hours. If the business hours are 9am – 5pm, do you really expect the boss to declare, “Congrats, Angel for your 5 years of work, winning Receptionist of the Month 55 times! To mark your superior performance and loyalty, going forward, we will change our opening time to 9:30am.”
        If you’re lucky and there is more than one receptionist position, you might be able to earn “no weekends” or “first choice of days off.”

          1. The OG OP*

            Exactly – I’ve said this in a few threads but punctuality is deeply ingrained in this particular role. It’s not that I’m choosing to be rigid. Tardiness has a direct impact on our patients and the other employees.

  17. Decimus*

    While in most cases I wouldn’t suggest this, since the OP is unable to keep close monitoring on the other clinic, is there another employee who could be appointed to a “Team Lead” sort of position? Since her coworkers are noticing this stuff anyhow, and since the employee clearly responds to close supervision, it could help if you assigned someone officially to do just that.

    Alternatively I think you might either have to accept that this employee is going to have to be fired or moved to a different position, one where either the demands are less rigorous or she can be more closely supervised.

    1. The OG OP*

      This is a very good point. I’ve considered this but ultimately decided that it would create too many other issues.

  18. AnonyMouish*

    I read the OP’s letter twice, and I had a different reaction than most:

    To me, this sounds like an employee who is stifled in the rigid rules of her current role, and feels like she should be allowed some flexibility since she’s otherwise so good. Specifically, you say she’s highly skilled, an enthusiastic and creative problem solver, has taken on a lot of initiative and that her overall performance has been excellent. Given this kind of skill level, what’s the benefit to having her ask permission for something that you and she both know you’re going to grant?

    I know you don’t want to reward her for lying, and I understand that this may be the only job that’s available. But it sounds to me like you might want to consider whether she’s just the type of person whose skills are better used in a job that’s less strict, and whether there’s a way to use those skills without looking like you’re allowing lies or bending the rules.

    1. Murphy*

      My boss grants all my sick/vacation requests with no questions asked, but that doesn’t mean that I can just not come to work one day, or come in 3 hours late and say “Bob said it was ok.”

      1. AnonyMouish*

        The way the OP wrote it didn’t seem to indicate it was that large a transgression, especially since she’s being dinged elsewhere for being late 10 minutes at a time, which OP states isn’t appropriate.

    2. always in email jail*

      It may be time for candid conversation about whether or not this is the role for her, regardless of if you have anything to offer her. It can be made clear that it’s not a veiled threat, and clear that you appreciate everything she contributes, but that being on time (not 10 minutes late) is a hard and fast expectation of this position, and if she doesn’t feel she can make that happen that she’s not going to succeed in this position. You can even make it clear that you value her and want her to succeed, which is why you’re doing her the courtesy of having this conversation.

    3. Leatherwings*

      I think OP made it pretty clear that the kind of flexibility the employee is taking isn’t acceptable on a regular basis for that job and I think we can trust OP that that’s necessary and that’s she’s evaluated whether this is a real issue or not and concluded correctly that it is.

      And at this point, it’s not even about flexibility, it’s about the employee’s continued pushing of boundaries and rule-breaking, no matter how small. Telling her that she suddenly can have this flexibility basically IS rewarding her for lying AND would undermine all the performance conversations OP had with her.

      If this person is the type of person whose skills are better used in a more flexible environment, she needs to find a job that is in a more flexible environment.

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        Right? I agree that is sounds like she’s not suited to the job. Finding one that is is her responsibility, not the OP’s.

        1. AnonyMouish*

          Right, finding the right job is everyone’s own responsibility – except, from a management perspective, we often talk here about retaining great workers and motivating people in whom we see potential, and I think this letter could be reframed to read a lot like that.

          1. Leatherwings*

            But the thing is I think this has gone well beyond that. Maybe if she wrote in and said “this woman’s coworkers are coming to me and saying these small things are happening and I don’t know how to handle them” this would be a reasonable reframing.

            But OP has now had multiple disciplinary conversations with this woman about these lies and they keep happening. The answer is not to reevaluate whether the flexibility questions she’s lying about are really a big deal. The lies and misdirection is a big deal in itself now. She’s intentionally crossing boundaries even though she’s been repeatedly told not too. This now goes well beyond a question of reasonable flexibility.

            1. NonProfit Nancy*

              I don’t really even think the lies are important – they’re almost a red herring here. OP states that the clinic must be staffed by the receptionist and that this employee has repeatedly failed to meet this critical job task. For that reason, unfortunately, I think they have to be let go despite other good qualities they might bring to the job.

              1. Leatherwings*

                Well I certainly think that meeting the basic responsibilities of the job are important on their face. But the lies just make it clear HOW unacceptable this is. Both of those things are totally unacceptable and the two together pretty much eliminate any need for a “step back and look at the flexibility” type conversation. Either one of these things alone merit a serious conversation (which OP has already done) followed by a PIP/firing. But both of them together, to me, just amplify the need for a single last chance conversation followed by a firing.

              2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                Eh, I think lying is a problem regardless, even if it’s low-level lies. But I agree that the inability to meet core functions of the job is a cleaner way of evaluating why things aren’t working.

          2. PollyQ*

            Given that it’s a medical clinic, there may not be another job for her–all the other jobs may require some form of medical training/licensing.

            1. The OG OP*

              Yes – unfortunately, there isn’t a different position I can move her to. We are a team made up of receptionists and highly trained health care workers only.

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                Ugh, that’s awful. I was hoping there was something slightly more flexible, like office manager or insurance biller, in the mix (although of course one should not be promoted to “office manager” if they’re not meeting their basic metrics).

                1. Jessesgirl72*

                  Even insurance billing would mean she’d have to be certified in coding/billing.

                  It sounds like she probably would be a very good office manager in a private practice, with coders and receptionists under her. Hopefully that is where she lands when the OP is forced to fire her.

    4. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      The more negative reading would be that she believes she should get more autonomy than a receptionist job really merits, maybe based on seeing clinicians and others with more flexible jobs enjoy the flexibility to stop and get some coffee on the way in or duck out for a call.

      That said, I agree that OP should critically consider whether some of the requirements this person is breaking are really required. Punctuality obviously is, but if this person otherwise has good judgment and takes initiative, granting them a bit more autonomy and requiring a few less hoops to be jumped through might really help.

      1. AnonyMouish*

        I agree with the ‘more negative reading’ — I’d just argue that maybe if she’s as good as OP says (and maybe I’m reading too much into all the praise), maybe there’s a way to grant her a few privileges seeing as she sounds a lot like a receptionist-plus-plus.

      2. Alton*

        I don’t know if I’d call that a “negative” reading, necessarily. I think it can be challenging for employees whose roles are quite different than the other employees’ to figure out the boundaries and company culture. I struggle with that as a non-exempt admin at a university sometimes–many of my colleagues have much more flexible roles.

        But since the OP’s employee has been talked to about this, she should really have a better idea of the boundaries by now.

      3. AKJ*

        +1! I agree 100%. If she is truly as good as OP has said she is, maybe she deserves at least the benefit of the doubt. There may be some wiggle room here, only OP knows, but this is a good perspective to consider when making that decision.

    5. Honeybee*

      But that would be an argument for letting her go and maybe supporting her finding another role somewhere else. An actual good employee who feels stifled by rigid rules but has a good relationship with the boss would simply talk to the boss about the need for flexibility.

    6. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Unfortunately, that’s not wise now that she’s shown she’s willing to lie. You don’t want someone in your employ who will lie to you when they think it serves them and they can get away with it.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Yeah, on reflection, I share your opinion that the Ship of Responsibility has sailed.

  19. Alton*

    Not excusing the lying, but one thing I wondered is if 1) some of the lies could be a defensive reflex because she’s trying to avoid potential conflict (ie, maybe lying in the moment about being given permission to take a personal call feels “safer” than having a frank discussion with her boss about taking time for important personal calls) or 2) there could be a pattern of some of the lies relating to her not knowing how best to handle something or running into difficulties doing so.

    I’m not saying that lying is okay in these instances or isn’t a problem in itself, but I was curious if any underlying issues or themes had emerged.

    Of course, some people are just dishonest, sometimes for self-serving reasons. I’ve worked with people like that.

  20. Jessesgirl72*

    OP: I think you know how this is going to end. You know the right thing to do is to fire her. You can give her one last chance, but she’s already demonstrated that she doesn’t take these chances very seriously- and the more she is given, why should she?

    Don’t let her personal situation keep you from doing YOUR job in looking out for what is best for the clinics and your other reports.

  21. Katie*

    One thing that struck me in this letter was that you mention at time, she asks approval for things she doesn’t even need to. To me, this signals that maybe her actual problem is innate bad judgment.

    When approaching the OK/not OK line that you are assuming she is trying to balance, maybe the root of the weird behavior is that she doesn’t have a great ability to navigate it. Some people just genuinely have trouble with this, and her behavior (dismissing the incidents as “miscommunication,” acting apologetic, yet doing it again, plus sometimes getting it wrong when she has to ask for approval) makes me think this may be what is going on.

    Not that that makes it OK–having good or bad judgment is an important characteristic that can make or break an employee in some circumstances, but maybe looking at it this way will help address the problem, even if that means saying “Sorry, you have demonstrated bad judgment over a period of time, and we have to let you go.”

  22. michel*

    sadly for many employers this will be very recognisable,
    hardly ever getting any positive feedback, but constantly being reprimanded for small unimportant details
    thats why in soo many businesses mediocre employees rise to the top, while talent is disillusioned and unhappy

    Did she get rewarded/promoted for her excellent work, or is every conversation complaints about details?

    i read things like “she had really stepped up her efforts over the previous year” and “knowledge and experience” and a whole bunch of other superlatives yet the advice is to warn her 1 more time because she is sometimes a few minutes late and takes personal calls?

    I generally agree with the advice given here, but this seems wat over the top.

    You have to ask has any of her behaviour cost the organisation? or has her excellent work helped it thrive?
    too me she seems perfectly capable of running the clinic and managing the small stuff without harm to the organisation.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      “Sometimes a few minutes late” and “takes personal calls” means she’s not at her desk, scheduling appointments, greeting clients, sending reminder emails, and other core duties of a medical office receptionist. Details DO matter. Details DO impact how excellent your work is. And details DO impact your coworkers.

    2. Dee*

      It’s not just a few minutes here or there. She’s also lying about things, and she’s not listening to what her manager has told her. Something can be a misunderstanding once or twice. After that, it’s a problem.

    3. Prismatic Professional*

      The main point here though is that regardless of whether or not she is great in A, B, and C, her job is P, Q, and R and she isn’t doing it. Not arriving on time for a medical office receptionist is in no way ok. Stepping out for personal calls I could see if it was a day/time the clinic is dead and the call was <5 minutes.

      One of my professors used to say, "If I am a Chinese restaurant and you are a 5-star Italian chef, I am not going to hire you." Just because someone is fantastic in one area doesn't mean that is the area/skill set that is involved in the job.

      If she wants autonomy, reception duty at a medical clinic is not the right choice. If she has done these other stellar things, she could parlay that into a new job (it sounds like her manager would give her an excellent reference for some things) where punctuality isn't as vital.

    4. The OG OP*

      You had some good points here but you are filling in the story with some extra details that don’t apply in this case (not your fault since I couldn’t give the full story without making my e-mail 500 pages long). She gets lots of positive feedback when she does a good job. Unfortunately, the clinic is made up of receptionists and health care workers only – there’s no position for me to promote her to.

  23. babblemouth*

    I’m going to disagree with most people here, and say this wouldn’t be a giant problem with me. This employee is overall reliable, and the grievances you hear about come from co-workers. If I was in her position, feeling watched by coworkers, I might explain away things to them (like “yes, I’ve been allowed to do this personal phone call”) if I knew so many small things would be escalated to my manager. Everyone is guilty of a white lie now and then, andif someone else was keeping track of them all, it would make something that means very little look highly suspicious.

    I feel like what would be useful here is not to clarify exactly what she is and isn’t allowed to do, but rather that she doesn’t *need* to keep hiding what she’s done to her coworkers, because she would not get in trouble for it most of the time.

    (But as I seem to be in the minority, I wodner if I’m missing something bigger)

    1. always in email jail*

      I agree to some extent, which is why I would almost leave the lying to coworkers piece out of it. I’d personally just address the fact that you’ve counseled her on tardiness and time management in the past, make it clear that it affects her coworkers when this happens, and make it clear that the expectation is that she is in her seat ready to go when the work starts, and that if you continue to hear that this is not happening you’ll have to move forward with a formal disciplinary process.

    2. fposte*

      How long do you want to wait at the counter of a medical clinic for the receptionist to finish her personal call?

      1. always in email jail*

        I agree, but that’s why I think that’s a performance management issue based on stepping away to take calls and being tardy, not “your coworkers said that you said that I said it was OK”

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          Lying to your coworkers shreds morale, though, and I consider that a valid performance issue.

          1. always in email jail*

            I agree, and if that was the only issue I’d address it, but with other more concrete issues to address I’d personally avoid that rabbit hole. Even if she told employees the truth, it’s still not OK that she’s late and leaving her desk etc, so regardless that needs to be fixed. I’m not saying I’m right, I’d just personally address the more concrete, easy-to-fix issues first.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      She’s not coachable. This can be a deal breaker. You tell a person to be on time because the job requires someone there. They are fine for a bit then they resume being late. You tell them again, “be on time, the job requires someone to be there.” The person goes back to being fine for a while then whooops, right back into a tardiness issue.

      She will not allow her boss to give her instructions. OP has numerous examples of how she cannot coach her employee. The employee regresses to the old behaviors after a few months.

  24. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    Full disclosure: I can lie often, easily, and without “tells.” But just because I can, doesn’t mean I should. The only person who can catch me out on them is my wife, and I can count on one hand the times I’ve lied to her. White lies, you know? Like, no, your butt looks fine, or not saying that I don’t like the new clothes/hair.

    But I never tell large or easily-busted lies, and generally don’t tell any, because I don’t like to think of myself as a liar. How does the employee not have reservations, or a moral code, that makes her feel bad about lying so much, especially where she would get busted?

    Growing up, I was often severely punished for small things, and treated badly for being chubby. So “I didn’t use the computer after you banned me for months/eat that cookie” or “I lost my iPod anyway so you can’t take it- I can’t find it/ I’m totally saving that money rather than buying snacks,” were important in keeping me adequately fed, not isolating me from friends in the age of IM, and preserving some sort of joy in my life.

    But, I never liked doing that, and when I became independent I resolved to be a truthful person. Doesn’t the employee even want to be truthful? How does she justify her many lies?

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I definitely saw a subordinate who had a confused childhood in this OP’s letter. Just like you are showing here. Or it could be that the subordinate is with an abuser now where lying saves her from a beating. If anything like this is the case, hopefully Subordinate is in counseling.

      Bosses can only go so far in these larger life issues and then after that bosses have no say in what happens next. Maybe if OP lays the cards out on the table, that would make the truth bubble to the surface. “This is unacceptable behavior, the next occurrence will mean you will be separated from this company”
      This could trigger Subordinate to tell OP something extraordinary that would lead OP to believe the lying will stop. I am not sure what that would look like for me. I know in the past I have set deadlines/boundaries even in light of new information. “Okay, I will approve time to go do X. And we will see how that goes. We will resume this conversation on Y date. And we will re-evaluate the situation.” [This is an outline of what I said, I can’t be specific. It fit the conversation very well and the subordinate did clear up the problem we were talking about.]

  25. Mena*

    I think you want an employee that you can trust to do her job *just as if you were standing right beside her* – you provide direction and management and she does what you ask. It doesn’t sound like you have that and making it worse, you have other employees seeing that you’re not attaining this … it lowers your credibility with some and it may tempt others to slip and slide themselves. Now the larger team is compromised.
    So, one more chance, one more crystal clear conversation and if the cycle repeats, fire her.

  26. Maeve*

    I have to ask…in post OP says she’s spoken to the employee several times about this…etc. But has OP actually told her that “Hey…you know if you let me know, chances are I’ll probably be ok with it?” or perhaps give her a little bit of autonomy – come up with a list of things that both manager and employee agree on that she doesn’t really need approval for.
    Being a couple of minutes late or leaving a couple of minutes early – isn’t and shouldn’t be the kiss of professional death.
    Also…OP should speak to her other employees – policing someone’s behavior is just as tacky as attempting to get away with something you don’t have approval for. Unless you’ve explicitly given them the authority to police her – tell them to back off.
    And have an actual conversation about expectations – don’t just pull out a file and run down the list of her transgressions.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Disagree about being late or leaving early. This is a receptionist. Arriving late means the nurses answer the calls.

      And disagree about half with the policing point. Yes, when employees start trying to police and nitpick each other, it’s tacky and bad. But, this is a satellite location, and OP isn’t there all the time. I can understand the onsite manager and coworkers compiling a list, because OP can’t observe all of it and draw her own conclusions.

  27. Former Retail Manager*

    My $0.02….

    The worst offenses I’ve read in OP’s letter are as follows:
    — Stepped out to take personal phone calls (Has ill family member and sounds like other substantial personal issues)
    — Arrived 10 minutes late a couple of days a week (Once again, ill family members & personal problems. Is she always late on the same days each week? Can someone else cover the front for 15 minutes on those days?)
    — She lied and said she had approval for something that you admit you would approve anyway? (Perhaps she is tired of her meddling co-workers asking her questions and it’s easier to just give them an answer that she knows is correct.)

    I am assuming from various components of the letter that this is a longtime receptionist who is not young (i.e. 30+) To still be a receptionist at that point in life tells me that this person is likely in it for the long haul and considers this a career, which in my opinion, should come with a certain level of respect. To be quite honest, she sounds spied on and micromanaged, which is not appropriate treatment for an experienced professional, regardless of the fact that she is in a lower-level administrative position. And I’d question the motive of her co-workers who are making lists of each little indiscretion. As another poster mentioned, it reads very “busybody” to me and may be indicative of some underlying issues between receptionist and staff. I find that employees rarely begin narcing out their co-workers out of the goodness of their heart unless a serious issue is involved (drinking on the job/theft/drugs/harassment/violence in the workplace, etc.) For co-workers to not only note the receptionist’s every last move, but to feel the need to escalate it to management, says something to me.

    I would do the following:
    –> Hone in on the issues that you have the biggest issue with and ask her point blank what is going on. While you say you spoke w/ her, the conversation sounded one-sided with you telling her the problem and outlining expectations. Ask her why she is late periodically? Is it due to the personal circumstances in her life and can you do anything to accommodate her with that? Or did she just oversleep? Why did she say she had permission when she didn’t? Because she knew you’d approve it and just wanted to get the nosy co-worker out of her business? Was nosy co-worker making inquiries that aren’t even pertinent to their position?

    –> I’d also ask her how much latitude she had under her previous manager. If she went from having almost total control and ability to use her best judgment, so long as there was no material business impact, to being asked to request approval for every little thing, this may be a big adjustment for her and part of the reason that she isn’t always asking for approval.

    –> I’d also ask her how her relationships are with her co-workers. Is there tension that is motivating them to come to you with all of these complaints? If there is tension, what caused it and how can it be resolved at this point?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      She lies multiple times, not once, and she does things when the OP isn’t around that she knows she’s specifically been told not to do. Those are the issues.

      1. Leatherwings*

        Yeah, I think that the issue is the ongoing pattern of what is at best secretive behavior she’s been told to stop and at worst outright lies about behavior she’s been told to stop. It’s the constant ignoring of performance issues that’s a huge problem, not a single personal phone call.

        1. NonProfit Nancy*

          Unfortunately OP has also chimed in and shared that desk coverage is 100% vital to this job. So being a few minutes late and stepping away during work hours IS actually completely incompatible with what OP needs, and there’s no flexibility there.

          1. Happy Lurker*

            This entire post is bringing back bad memories from bad receptionists jobs…being the only person in the entire office the day after Thanksgiving…and the phone ringing not once…being told that as the first person the public sees, I should be dressing better than the other admins. While on a much smaller salary…ugh!

            1. NonProfit Nancy*

              I think there’s often a LOT of disparity in how low-paid receptionists are expected to behave versus much more highly compensated office workers are treated, and I suspect it’s classist at its root. We have some shockingly high standards (never even a minute late, no personal calls, etc) for jobs that are probably paying what, 30K or less?

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                That’s not shocking at all, much less classist. A receptionist at a medical office is there specifically to schedule appointments, take calls, follow up on scrips, schedule rooms, and so on. As a patient, I often call right when an office opens to schedule an appointment, because I usually need to snag one of the “same day” slots left open. So it’s not only not shocking, but completely reasonable to expect that a receptionist be at the desk and ready to go at the stroke of opening time.

                And happy lurker, sorry, I have no idea why you take exception to any of the things you mentioned. Of course they needed you in the office the day after Thanksgiving (which is not a recognized holiday), and of course they required you to dress better than back-office folks who aren’t client facing (because you’re client-facing). Those are reasonable expectations in my book.

                1. NonProfit Nancy*

                  I get your desires for same-day service, but … sometimes people get sick, sometimes they have family problems, sometimes they’re victims of traffic and end up late. The difference is that white collar workers are more likely to get leeway and respect and assume best intentions, while a low wage worker with no sick time, who has to find their own coverage any time they get a phone call, who can’t afford a car on their wage so they wrestle with public transportation … is fired for being “lazy.” Is any of this the clinic’s failure to provide any backup systems? At the beginning of my career, I wasn’t allowed to take a bathroom break. That’s insane to me now, but I had to hold it through a four hour shift. And it was because they knew I was low skilled and they could replace me cheaply (I was “just” answering phones) so I wasn’t really valued. But I probably worked harder that year than I have in the ten years since, and I was providing an important service!

                2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  “I get your desires for same-day service, but … sometimes people get sick, sometimes they have family problems, sometimes they’re victims of traffic and end up late.”

                  That happens to everybody once in a while, and reasonable accommodation can be made by a reasonable employer for typical life events. Same with reasonable accommodation for bathroom breaks and the legally mandated 15 minutes per four hours, plus lunch. Being late and taking personal calls with regularity, though, is a performance issue. Because clients and patients do expect same-day service, and the entire reason a medical office has a receptionist is to take calls and schedule appointments.

                  “The difference is that white collar workers are more likely to get leeway and respect and assume best intentions, while a low wage worker with no sick time, who has to find their own coverage any time they get a phone call, who can’t afford a car on their wage so they wrestle with public transportation … is fired for being “lazy.”

                  Of course a white collar worker is more likely to get leeway; they’re not there to provide coverage. My arrival time is irrelevant because I’m there to complete tasks, not answer a phone or respond to inquiries. The stakes aren’t very high, and so it’s easy and cost-free to give me leeway. For a receptionist, the stakes are higher, so there’s a cost to giving someone leeway, and there’s less of it. If you need coverage from 9-5, and patients expect to be able to call and reach someone during those hours, a receptionist who comes in at 9:10 is jeopardizing those client relationships. This is the nature of the job.

      2. Former Retail Manager*

        My overall point was to determine the “why” behind her behavior. It doesn’t seem like she was ever asked point blank why she lied about X, Y, and Z. I think that response in itself may give the OP the information they need to decide if this employment relationship is salvageable.

  28. Aphrodite*

    Here’s what struck me out of your post:

    A few months back, her coworkers approached me with a short list of things she’d been
    getting too lax about. Most of the items were fairly minor but collectively they were
    definitely concerning, and most of them were also on my radar so it was clear that I had to

    While I agree with most that there are serious concerns about her here and they should be addressed with the severity of a final warning, I have to wonder if the other employees are looking to get her in trouble. You said “most” of the items they complained about were “fairly minor.” Do you think that means they are going beyond what you would consider legitimate complaints? Do you feel they might be trying to escalate issues that are of little or no importance to you? Or are they legitimately combined with more serious issues and together need to be corrected?

    1. NW Mossy*

      I was actually struck with the exact opposite conclusion, notably by the phrase “most of them were also on my radar.” That, to me, actually says that the other employees are in alignment with what the OP already considers important, rather than them bringing up issues that the OP does not care about and laying out a case for why the issues should be given heavy weight.

      Also, it’s worth noting that in a workplace with a reasonably healthy culture (and I don’t see anything to indicate that this one’s unhealthy), it’s uncommon that employees actively seek to sabotage others. Healthy workplaces don’t offer the kind of environment where sinking someone else’s battleship is rewarded, so there’s not much incentive for people to overcome the general professional norm of treating others with respect and consideration. If anything, industries where you’re working in service to others (and a clinic qualifies) tend to draw employees who think well of other people and are somewhat more likely to give others the benefit of the doubt because of that.

    2. The OG OP*

      The concerns were legitimate. By “fairly minor”, I meant that I didn’t see them as being fireable offences. I saw the issues as things that needed to be fixed but they were fixable. There was a bit of an undercurrent though of, “uh oh, this is a bit of a concerning list as a whole”. It was a list of things someone might do when they think they can push the boundaries.

  29. OG OM*

    Maybe the problem isn’t that she tells little lies, maybe it is that she is a terrible liar and always gets caught? Maybe she is bad at lying and abstractly “unlikable”? I think everyone lies a little bit in the context of their jobs and abstract bias is the key determination of who gets away with it and who doesn’t.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Uh… I have not worked places where people routinely lie—even low-level lying—in their jobs (although it’s true that some folks get away with it and others don’t). Or are you referring to white lies?

      1. Rat in the Sugar*

        Yeah, I think there’s a difference between something like telling an annoying coworker that you’re too busy to chitchat when you actually have free time (something many people have done), telling your boss you have a doctor’s appointment when you are really interviewing (sometimes unavoidable if you want to keep your job), and telling a coworker that your boss approved your request when you actually didn’t ask for permission (NOT okay, and not something that’s normal for most people to do).

    2. always in email jail*

      How are we defining “lying in the context of their jobs”? During the “is it ok to use sick leave to recharge” convo earlier, a lot of people admitted to doing that. Isn’t that kind of a form of lying in the context of your job?

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Maybe the problem isn’t that she tells little lies, maybe it is that she is a terrible liar and always gets caught?
      I don’t think you want to teach her to lie better, though.

      Lying is lying no matter how well done it is. I was always grateful for the bad liars. We could get to the bottom of the situation much quicker.

  30. rubyrose*

    Having worked at a medical clinic as an admin (answering phones on an appointment desk) I can tell you that it was extremely important for my manager to be able to trust my word. Patients calling in would lie to me about what they needed, so I would book them into the wrong clinic. Lie, no misunderstanding, as in telling me they had a cold but all they wanted was birth control pills. They would then come in and be refused treatment. It is only because my manager and all the clinic staff knew I was trustworthy and honest that they backed me up when those patients would complain to executive management about my handling their request incorrectly.
    If I had a history of small lies – my manager would not have backed me up.

  31. HisGirlFriday*

    I agree with everyone who commented about the overall morale issue. We have that issue at my office, with Jane Andrews, who’s our director of teapots education. She is consistently seen to do the bare minimum — come in late, take longer at lunch, refuse to answer phone calls or speak to members, etc. — and the people whose jobs are impacted by her finally had enough and went to our director and laid out a list of grievances that called her across the carpet.

    The list included Jane having told Director that she had told Anne Shirley and Diana Berry to do X, Y, and Z, which she had not. They therefore hadn’t done X, Y, and Z, and when Director called them out for having not done work, they were able to say, honestly, they hadn’t been told to do the work. Director then called Jane to account and discovered the lie…and many other lies.

    I do not know the details of the conversation, but I gather there is a PIP in place to either reform or fire Jane. Director hates firing people, and really doesn’t want to have to hire for that position — it has a lot of repetition and boringness, and very little flexibility, but faced with the choice of reforming/firing Jane or dealing with never knowing if Anne and Diana have actually been given instructions and that the work is getting done, Director is screwing up her courage and doing the necessary.

      1. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

        I can see Ruby Gillis doing this sort of thing, too, especially if she’s doing it to cover up her string of beaus. . .

  32. BTW*

    Legally, would you need to give her that final warning before letting her go? I know your laws are quite different in the US. Here in Canada most of us need to have a nice little paper trail to fire people after their probationary period. Basically we need documentation of “cause” to let someone go. It sounds like you have that but it’s a grey area for us. The employee generally needs to be told at some point that the next time it happens, they’re done.

    Personally I’d err on “final warning” but I think we all know what the outcome will be regardless. Doesn’t sound like she’s changing her stripes any time soon and in the end, you’ll probably end up letting her go.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      There’s zero legal requirements for warnings or cause. In most US states , you can be fired on the spot, with zero warning, for any reason or none at all, at any point in your tenure.

  33. Chickaletta*

    In full honesty, I can see myself in this receptionist. I’ve mentioned before here that I really hate to be micromanaged or face rigid rules (not saying that’s what OP is doing though), and I’m the type of person who doesn’t like having to be at the office on the dot, who gets disciplined for taking personal calls at work, or ask mother-may-I types of questions. I can see myself stretching the truth in order to appear that I’m in compliance with these types of rules. But also like the receptionist in the letter, I consider myself to have integrity when it comes to the things that matter – I keep my word, always follow through, do a thorough job, etc. But if I’m being judged on whether I walk in the door at 8:00 or 8:10? Yeah, by those standards I would be a bad employee at just about every place I’ve worked.

    So I look for jobs and managers where I do not have this type of oversight (one of the reasons why freelancing has been wonderful for me). I love working for managers who leave me to my work and don’t care how I get it done as long as it’s done and done well.

    All that said, skimming through the comments above, I’m on the side of the LW. Clearly, there is good reason for him to need to feel he can trust his receptionist, he’s communicated that to her, and she still can’t comply in the long-run. That’s a problem.

    Since she’s such a good employee in most other ways, is there another job she could be moved to where she has more flexibility (in arrival times, approvals, and other areas where she has a tendency to tell white lies)? If not, perhaps the LW could start coaching her towards jobs where she would be a better fit. He could start saying things like, “You’re really great at X,Y, and Z, but I’ve noticed that you don’t like to do A, B, C. You’d do great at a job like ___. Have you ever thought about something like that?” Her answer might be revealing.

    1. Former Retail Manager*

      I said something similar above and I have the same point of view as you. To me, the environment read very “micromanagey.” I have been micromanaged more times than I can count, don’t care for it, and have similarly responded to co-workers with white lies/half truths when they repeatedly questioned me in the interest of getting them to butt out because “yes, my manager is fine with this” is much nicer than “none of your damn business. you aren’t my supervisor.”

    2. Whats In A Name*

      I think this is really the crux of the entire thing So I look for jobs and managers where I do not have this type of oversight….the receptionist is just not in the right position. It doesn’t make her a bad person (thought the lying part is suspect)…but this level of rigidity in scheduling is not likely to change – ever. It’s the nature of the job, and whether you are in it a month or a decade or a quarter century it will remain this way.

      1. RVA Cat*

        This. It is an issue of fit. Sounds like time to discuss this openly and honestly with her.

        Also, if coverage and adhering to these rigid rules are that important, you need to hire for that – and pay for it. I do wonder if some of this could be a pink collar problem, where the receptionist is held to a different standard while also being underpaid.

  34. Christine*

    How much time are you spending a week dealing with the issues? If it’s more time than you wish it might be time to let her go.

  35. Siberian*

    I’ve experienced something similar with a young woman (early 20s) in my extended family. She quite understandably developed a coping technique of lying to her physically and emotionally abusive parents to stay safe from them. Unfortunately it’s been a hard technique to turn off now that she’s out of that scary situation. She tends to lie a lot about little things, and responds evasively to many innocuous direct questions. She’s spent a lot of time staying with us over the years and the lies have been very corrosive to our trust and respect for her. It makes me less interested in engaging in conversation with her, less likely to invite her to things, less sympathetic when she tells me stories about her life and the many negative things she says are happening with professors, roommates, etc. Does it matter whether she lied about why she moved out of her last apartment share? Not really—it doesn’t affect me personally. But it really does matter that I don’t trust her anymore.

    I’m assuming that the OP and the employee’s coworkers are in this situation—the lies may or may not each be important in themselves but the eventual loss of trust makes it uncomfortable to be around that person. At that point it’s hard not to internally question everything they’re saying. It can be emotionally draining and causes a lot of resentment.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This same story has played out several times in my family also. As you are saying here the relationship between the helper and the helpee went up in flames. Unfortunately, family members lined up along sides and it shattered the family cohesion.
      Sad, sad stuff.

  36. LadyPhoenix*

    I say fire her. It is clear the receptionist is “testing your boundaries” to see how much she can get away with things.

    And “not stealing” does not a GOOD receptionest make either, it is something that should be expected from every employee. Normal people don’t steal and they are not rewarded because it is a given.

    In truth, she is essentially a child waiting to drawing crayon doodles on the wall. The moment you turn, she will be right there to doodle on the walls. And then you’ll be there, telling her not to do it, while she nods her head sith a crayon in he back pocket. as a aprent, you would fix this by taking the child to day care or hire a babysitter.

    Except the reality is, the receptionist is an adult. She should know better and yet she keeps doing this over and over again. So treat her like an adult and fire her.

    Not only that, but it will send a bad message to other coworkers. You will either have a “cats away, mice will play” situation, or just a lot of angry coworkers who won’t turn towards you for help.

    You gave her a warning, she ignored it, now it’s time you take the natural course.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        There aren’t perfect employees nor are there perfect employers.
        How many times should OP tell her employee to stop lying, stop being late, stop leaving her post and whatever else, before OP puts her foot down?

      2. Birdhouse*

        There’s a lot of ground between lying, boundary-pushing, unreliable employee and perfect employee.

  37. Channel Z*

    This reminds of a story where an office worker with receptionist duties spent a lot of time on personal calls and browsing, and others were forced to pick up the slack, like answer the phone she was supposed to answer etc. She mostly did this when the bosses were out to lunch. A co-worker complained, and the boss said the issue had been addressed with her previously, but he had been unaware it was still happening. She was fired the next day. Fast forward 10 years and the same woman was arrested for embezzling $40,000 from another employer. Moral of story: little lies can become big lies.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I think that is some of what OP is concerned about here, also. I have heard that people test the waters to see what they can get away with. I think this employee has shown OP everything she needs to know.

  38. Candi*

    What bugs me is, “small” is in the eye of beholder.

    She may think what she’s lying about is small, but… context she doesn’t have may indicate that this is a Big Thing she’s lying about. That tends to get messy in pretty much any environment.

    The repetitive slideback is concerning, too.

    I wouldn’t want to work with someone like this. It’s bad enough when someone ‘small lies’ once to a manager to try to make themselves look good at your expense. (It didn’t work.)

  39. Bevina del Rey*

    There’s someone out there who could knock this role’s performance, and integrity, out of the park. Why not let this person go so there’s an ability to really learn, after several ‘second chances’, that there are consequences for being untrustworthy? Keep it clean, don’t focus on emotions–this person is bringing down staff morale and is not a trustworthy person with integrity. Let her go.

  40. Angry Manager*

    Personally I’d fire her as an example, shes perfect for it. Gets rid of a liability and it shows the rest of the staff that you are not a pushover. I know that seems like a horrible reasoning to do something but other staff see how much room you have given her and it may lead to other issues in future.

  41. Lin*

    Another thing to consider…although you’re trying to be empathetic given her family situation, that is not your problem in terms of whether to deal with this issue now or later. If you’ve given her reasonable concessions to help her deal with her family problem, then that is a kind and reasonable thing to do as her boss/employer (as long as you would give these same accommodations to your other employees). But I think in your mind, you need to compartmentalize and not consider her family situation while deciding what to do about her other employment behaviour. Maybe it’s callous, but her personal problems are not your problems. These issues existed before the family situation cropped up and honestly its bad timing, but that’s her fault not yours. Compassion is great, but I almost see her as taking advantage of you by getting accommodations and then spitting in your eye by continuing to be dishonest and bend the rules

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