what to tell my employee about another employee who’s underperforming

A reader writes:

I manage a junior employee, “Arthur,” who has become friends with another employee at his level, “Ford.” Ford works on a different client team with a different manager (“Zaphod”).

Ford has been significantly underperforming. It’s been clear for a little while that he isn’t well-suited for this position. Ford’s manager, Zaphod, has been clear about expectations, and has put Ford on a PIP, which hasn’t gone well. Ford is on his way out, Zaphod has been clear about that outcome, and the company is being gracious as Ford wraps up some work before ending his employment.

The trouble is, Ford has been talking about all this with Arthur … but being half-truthful about the whole thing. He has told Arthur that his client is extremely difficult and demanding; the reality is he works with some friendly clients with a moderate, but not excessive, definition of success. He has told Arthur that “he is leaving”; the reality is that he’s being politely shown the door. In short, Ford has either failed to realize that his underperformance is his own fault, or is telling these half-truths so he doesn’t appear unsuccessful in front of his peers.

Normally, I’d treat this as a problem that’s going away with the low-performing employee. But as part of their friendship and team work, Ford and Arthur have bounced ideas off each other about projects and managing clients. I’m worried that Arthur will treat the information he’s heard from Ford with greater weight than it deserves. I don’t want Arthur to take on Ford’s habits of poor quality work, non-communication habits, loose accountability to deadlines, or attitude toward clients, and I don’t want him to think that Ford’s experience is normative (this is Arthur’s first office job). And as a new, but pretty high-performing employee, I don’t want Arthur to think that he might be similar in performance to Ford and in danger of a similar outcome.

How can I give Arthur the truth about Ford’s failure to meet expectations and the reality of the client he worked with, while still respecting Ford’s privacy (and dignity?) regarding employment-performance issues? How can I tell Arthur that he is a much better performer than Ford, and he doesn’t need to have any concern about being shown the door (though he has some areas to improve on … as we all do)? I also worry that Arthur will weight the stories he’s heard from Ford as more accurate given their friendship and the fact that I am not directly managing Ford so don’t know the issues firsthand. Can you help frame this in a way that’s direct, helpful, and respectful like you so often do?

Ugh, yes, this can be a thing that happens when someone is let go. Most employers try to protect the person’s privacy and dignity by keeping the problems on a need-to-know basis … while the person being fired is sometimes telling other people a totally incorrect version of what happened, meaning that their version is the only version being heard.

Sometimes this doesn’t really matter. If someone wants to say that they were fired because, for example, “the company hired me to do X but really needed someone to do Y,” when that’s not what happened, that might not be a big deal. (Sometimes it might be, depending on the circumstances, but in other cases you wouldn’t lose much by just leaving it alone.) And it’s usually okay if a person wants to tell work friends that he left voluntarily rather than being fired. But in other cases, misinformation can do real damage to people’s morale and to their trust in the employer’s integrity if you don’t correct it.

It’s good to be cautious before rushing to assume that someone is doing damage though. In a lot of cases, the person’s friends on staff kind of know that the person wasn’t stellar at their job and will hear what they’re saying with some skepticism. So I’d first pay attention to what kind of sense you’re getting from Arthur in that regard. If he seems more matter-of-fact about it than upset, there may not be anything you need to do here (and it could even rub him the wrong way to have you step in with a take-down of Ford’s work).

Importantly, it sounds like Arthur is telling you what he’s hearing from Ford, which gives you an opportunity to try to feel him out on this. And it gives you a really good opportunity to say something if you do decide the record needs to be corrected. For example, the next time Arthur mentions that Ford’s client is really demanding, you could say, “You know, I know that client and I’m familiar with that project, and the expectations are actually very reasonable.” If Arthur mentions that Ford is criticizing his manager, you could say, “From what I know, most people really respect Zaphod and think he’s a good manager. But not every job or every manager will be the right fit for every person.”

If you get the sense that more than that is needed (if Arthur seemed rattled or upset), that’s the point where I’d sit down with him and say some version of this: “I wouldn’t normally have this conversation with you because, in general, when someone is struggling with their job, that’s between them and their boss, and there usually isn’t reason for other people to know about it. But it sounds like you may have some concerns about how Ford’s situation has been handled. I don’t want to violate his privacy, but I do want to say that sometimes when someone isn’t working out in a job, it’s because it’s not the right fit with their skills and their performance isn’t hitting the marks it needs. When that happens, it’s human nature that people don’t want to tell friends at work that they’re struggling. But I want to assure you that Zaphod is someone who’s committed to giving people reasonable expectations, coaching them where he can, and being honest if it becomes clear that the job isn’t the right match. I also want to make sure you know that the company doesn’t push people out willy-nilly; if someone is struggling, we give feedback and we coach, and we give clear warnings if it ever gets to the point that the person’s job could be in jeopardy. So I don’t want this situation to make you worry about your own job. You’re doing great work, and I really value having you here.”

But feel out where Arthur is at first, because he really might be figuring out some of this on his own.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 112 comments… read them below }

  1. Catalin*

    Yeah, this is awkward. I agree with Alison, don’t say anything unless it becomes a must-do situation.

    Also, LW, +1000 for the Hitchhiker’s Guide reference.

    1. Garrett*

      Yeah, I didn’t get anything from the letter that Arthur’s work ethic has regressed or he’s underperforming. I would just make sure you provide positive feedback to him and let him know what he’s doing is correct. I don’t think that even with his stretched truth that Ford can do that much damage in the time he has left.

    2. INFJ*

      I agree completely. You almost don’t even have to mention Ford, just address any performance issues with Arthur as you would normally (if you see any). Even though they’re friends, it’s very possible that Arthur can see through any half-truths that Ford might be giving, and won’t be influenced by him at all.

    3. OP*

      Sorry for the late response to all this….work got the better of me for 2 days!

      I got a bit tired of Game of Thrones references I didn’t get, so I fell back on one of my old absurd favorites. :)

    1. Maggie*

      Absolutely! For a moment there I was whisked back to Friday night when I would listen to the radio show while getting ready for a night out, probably at the disco! :D

  2. LBK*

    I definitely think this is a situation where you should keep an eye on Arthur for a couple weeks or a month after Ford is gone but don’t do anything until it’s clearly necessary. Even if Arthur is new and impressionable, once the source of those impressions goes away I think you’re very likely to find that Arthur won’t carry them with him. I know I personally can have a tendency to soak up negativity from nasty coworkers around me, which is why I isolate myself from them – if I keep myself out of their AoE, I don’t generate that negativity on my own.

    1. NW Mossy*

      And as many of us have experienced personally, a “work friend” is not the same thing as a personal friend. Once you no longer work together, you have less incentive to keep in touch because your common bond is severed. Arthur and Ford are friends now, but in six months, there’s a better than average chance that if Ford comes up in conversation, Arthur will have to pause for a second to recall who Ford is or what Ford’s opinion was on Client X.

      1. Pommette*

        True. And even if they did go on to become personal friends, it could be that Arthur understands that Ford is a nice guy but a terrible professional role model.

    2. Ama*

      I’ll also say that I’ve had coworkers of mine who I personally had no issues with be fired and while in the immediate aftermath it was shocking and a little disturbing, usually as time wore on it became clearer why the decision was made, just through little things that popped up. For example, a long-time admin was fired and I felt completely blindsided because she always seemed on top of things; I found out later, as I took over a few of those tasks, that there were a ton of double checks and safeguards in place to make sure the apparently frequent and persistent mistakes she was making got caught. She wasn’t even keeping track of the payment due dates on her own; her manager had set up regular calendar reminders on the admin’s computer for her.

      Once I realized how much people were working around and not with the admin, the firing made a lot more sense. So it’s possible that Arthur may figure a lot out on his own once Ford is gone.

    1. Ann*

      Why can you assume Arthur knows that Ford wasn’t great at his job? How can you tell if a colleague that you don’t directly work with isn’t doing a good job?

      As an example, one of the people on my team… well, let’s just say that “smart” is one of the last words I’d ever use to describe her. She’s definitely not someone I’d call a top performer. Yet, someone else in my company who only knows this colleague as a work friend, they’ve never worked together, recently told me how “smart and talented” she is. I was floored at the comment and was noncommittal in response.

      I wondered then, and it’s come up again now – without working with someone, how do you know what type of employee they are?

      1. SusanIvanova*

        Yeah, to hear Coffeecup talk about himself, he was the best, most respected employee on every team he was ever on. If you didn’t actually work with him you’d even believe it – we did during his interview, after all. But he’d put all his skill points in Bluff and had none left over for the actual work.

  3. AthenaC*

    I agree it’s concerning that Arthur is hearing these things, but as Arthur takes over Ford’s projects, he will quickly discover the truth. At that point he will realize that either:

    1) Ford was lying; or
    2) Arthur is just a “better fit” than Ford was

    Either way, you’ll have what you need – your weak performer gone and your strong performer taking over his role.

    1. Kyrielle*

      If he takes over? I wouldn’t assume that he will, since they’re in different departments with different managers. He may have to interact with these clients, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be on these projects from the letter.

    2. OP*

      Arthur won’t take over Ford’s projects…he’s on a different client team. He’ll likely have no way to know how good Ford’s work was (or wasn’t).

  4. BRR*

    I might sit down with Arthur and enforce what he is doing well and let him know that you are pleased with his work overall. Maybe ask if he has any concerns if you’re getting that vibe?

    1. snuck*

      Yup. This is a good way to do it. Reframe the situation – tell Arthur what he’s doing well, be specific and give examples…”I like that you follow up the clients promptly – this is exactly the sort of thing that puts you in such good standing here” and “I notice you are double checking your work before it goes out – it sounds crazy to mention it – it’s such a simple expectation, but it’s common for people to not do this – so thanks! For being fabulous at this” and “I’ve had some feedback from your clients and they are very warm to you – they like the way you interact with them and this is good.”

      Focus on his positives, mention them to him and link them to a positive outcome/expectation (doesn’t need to be lots of rewards!) and he will grow from that. If he raises Ford just say “we’re here talking about your performance, I’m not going to reveal anything about Ford’s” and that should be enough for him to read between the lines.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yes, yes, yes. As one person said to me, “You tell me how to KEEP my job.” Well, sure, it does me no good to lose people. There are many ways to help a person keep their job. It’s an excellent idea to tell your employee what he is doing right and what he can keep doing.

        What is great about this idea is that you don’t mention Ford and you aren’t going into a long list of what NOT to do. If he asks you “Does this discussion have anything to do with Ford?” Just tell him that it got you to thinking and you decided that it was important to tell people what they are doing RIGHT, so they can keep doing it and keep making similar daily decisions.

      2. ZVA*

        I like this suggestion. When I’m praised for something, I often try to up my game in that regard—if someone said “I like that you follow up with clients promptly,” I might try to do so in an even more timely fashion! At the very least, I’d make extra sure to stay consistent, knowing that that trait or skill was valued.

        Once Ford is out of the picture, I wouldn’t be surprised if any influence he had w/ Arthur will fade fast, especially if you’re reinforcing all the things Arthur does well that Ford didn’t.

  5. PK*

    I don’t think it warrants a conversation just yet. Seems like more of a ‘keep an eye out’ than anything else since he hasn’t shown any actual issues with his work performance.

  6. Important Moi*

    Alison’s response was very gracious. While you may be worried about Arthur’s actions going forward, I think it is worth reiterating a you take a “wait and see attitude.” As someone who is in a micro-managing situation that I’m trying to leave, I admit my bias. My supervisor “monitors” my contact with other co-workers and vendors to the the point of ridiculous. You don’t want to come across as a manager who’s monitoring Arthur’s friendships, even if that’s not what you intend and even if Arthur’s asking you questions about Ford.

    Much like a job interview, Arthur’s may be investigating how you’re reacting just as much as you are investigating him.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Oh gosh, yeah. I had one boss who monitored my relationships with people while we were at work. I thought that was awful. I was wrong. Later, I had a boss who would drive by people’s houses to see who was visiting them. If the “wrong” car was parked in your driveway you got an earful for a week.

      This is not a road to start down, OP. You’d be better off encouraging Arthur to ask you questions every so often. And here is the tricky part, when he does come to you with questions don’t skate by it. If you have to postpone the discussion for the moment that is one thing, but make sure to follow up. The funny/odd thing here is that if people know they can come to you and discuss concerns they start bringing things to a better resolution themselves.

      If he point blank asks you why Ford got fired, then tell him that there are rules that must be followed. Go over the rules with him but remove Ford from the discussion. Let’s say Ford was always late for example: “Our company seems relaxed about punctuality. So if a person is late that is not a big problem. If it is noticed that they do not make up the time, then THAT becomes a problem. You can keep yourself out of this stuff by making sure if you are a half hour late you stay an extra half hour. No one will bother you.” Notice here you are not talking about Ford and you are showing Arthur how to keep his job.

      1. OP*

        You are reading a whole lot into it that simply isn’t there.

        Arthur and I communicate on a regular basis, have multiple workstreams that cross, and sit near each other. We talk. A bunch. It’s not like this is happening in a vacuum.

  7. animaniactoo*

    I suspect that in part Arthur Dent is mentioning this because he’s watched the whole process with Ford Prefect go down and is more or less aware that this report is different from the sense he’s gotten in other places about how the company handles stuff. So, I don’t know that you need to counter that with more than offhand comments, with as many comparisons as you can draw to Arthur’s own experience with the company for his own evaluation.

    Client is difficult? “Huh, I’m familiar with that client, I would have said they’re along the same level as the Schmidt account that you’re working on. I wonder what Ford found difficult about working with them.”

    Criticize Zaphod? “Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like what I know of Zaphod. Generally he’s very clear about his expectations and really good at working with employees who are struggling. It’s one of the things the company puts an emphasis on because X (we believe in developing employees, hiring takes a lot of time and money and it makes more sense to cultivate an employee who is already in place when possible, etc.)”

    And then just let time and experience, the evaluation of his own eyes and experience, win the day.

    1. Dr. KMnO4*

      I like this approach because it’s positive while still countering Ford. You are not saying anything bad about Ford but you are challenging the negativity. As a professor, my students sometimes complain to me about other professors. Even if some of what they say is valid, my stance is “Don’t badmouth other professors to students”. I always try to combat the student’s negativity with a positive statement. I find it reminds the students that people are multifaceted and maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. I don’t think it would hurt for Arthur to remember that Ford’s perspective is not the only one worth considering.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      This works when you know the people well enough to be able to have a balanced perspective. One of my best bosses ever was very disliked by his crew. In speaking with one of his people, I said, “No. You have a good boss here. He has problem X (I explained). Once X is resolved you will be able to see better that he is actually a good boss.” It was maybe 6-8 months later the employee came back to me and said, “You were right! Now that X is over, I can see I have a GREAT boss.”

      This approach does work. It’s not always instant though. Here what you are doing is giving people things to go and think through. Many people will think about what you said for a while after the conversation has ended.

  8. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    I wouldn’t discuss this at all with Arthur.

    It may look like you’re trying to attack his pal, or trying to find out what he and Ford discussed.

    What Arthur and Ford talk about with each other, in assumed confidence, as peers and friends, is NONE of your business. Ford is on a PIP, he may use Arthur’s shoulder to lean on – but if you raise the topic with Arthur, you’re coming on as someone who’s trying to tap his/her employee for information.

    Steer clear of this. If/when Ford loses his position, you might want to talk with Arthur then, and only briefly.

    1. Roscoe*

      This is exactly my point. If i’m talking to my friend as a friend, that is none of my manaagers business, and if my manager did ask about it, I’d probably be more annoyed

    2. LBK*

      But Arthur has clearly already divulged the nature of those conversations, otherwise how does the OP know what’s being said? If he brings it up, I don’t think the OP needs to cover her ears and pretend she didn’t hear it…

      1. Jaguar*

        Not being able to imagine alternate scenarios doesn’t “clearly” mean your interpretation is correct. Off the top of my head, OP could be speculating, someone else could be speculating and related that to OP, Ford could have told OP, or OP could have overheard them talking.

        To me, the letter reads like dancing around the question, “How do I plant the ideas I want in my employee’s mind and prevent the ones I don’t want,” which isn’t your job as a manager. On a basic human dignity level, you need to trust Arthur to be able to make decisions on his own. Your job is to clearly lay out expectations for Arthur’s work, which is a much more direct way of solving the issue of letting know Arthur what the expectations for his work is. Don’t get involved in what one of your report’s friends might be saying to them – it’s besides the point and a pretty bad look.

        1. Anna*

          Even Alison said it sounded like Arthur was sharing these conversations. Considering the specificity the OP has, it’s unlikely they’re speculating. The letter makes it sound like the OP knows what Ford is telling Arthur pretty clearly.

          1. Jaguar*

            Okay, but that’s one of the four scenarios I came up with. My point isn’t to cast doubt on what Ford’s actually doing, it’s to dispute LBK’s claim that Arthur “clearly” told the OP what Ford was saying.

        2. Important Moi*

          Jaguar I don’t know if you’ll see this, since a new topic has been posted. I agree with you. I tried to address what was bothering me about the question. You phrased it much better than I did. Your comment about planting and preventing ideas was spot on.

          1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

            An addendum – if Ford is such a bad employee – and at least one manager feels that he’s potentially a bad influence, why is Ford still there?

            Even if he’s on a PIP, about to be fired, and he’s aware of it as well, if he’s allowed to , and is willing to, work out the string, he probably isn’t all that bad and is taking it professionally.

            If Ford is the “bad apple” that OP says he is, why don’t they ask him to go NOW? And what dialog has OP had with Ford’s manager?

            Something here doesn’t seem right….

        3. OP*

          Arthur is directly sharing these conversations with me. No speculation involved on that front (though I do wonder how much he holds Ford up as a peer role model).

  9. M_Lynn*

    FWIW, my office has a similar situation a while back with two new employees befriending a “bad influence” coworker. The guy was incredibly rude, pessimistic, and performed only the bare minimum. I think he was their official mentor in a mistaken belief that giving him more responsibility and “fun” tasks would change his attitude. Obviously, it didn’t work. We were all worried that our 2 new awesome, ambitious, pleasant coworkers would pick up on the guy’s bad habits. As it turned out, the problematic coworker left rather quickly, at which point it came out that the 2 newer coworkers liked him well enough personally, but felt really trapped into a work friendship with the guy whom they knew was negative, unhelpful, and not the best worker. So they were super happy he was gone because they were getting concerned about their reputation from becoming friends with the guy right away! There is a chance that Arthur is repeating the language he heard, thinking that it’s the official line, but knows that Ford is not a model employee.

    1. Artemesia*

      Wow. We have a terrible negative worker, so let’s put him in charge of mentoring new people. What could go wrong there? LOL.

      I knew of a college which had a tenured faculty member who was mentally ill, couldn’t really handle classes, and whose illness took the form of wild fantasies in which he Zelig like was an important player in important political settings. He was a professor of political science. So the department made him freshman advisor since he was alienating students in classes and no one was taking his classes. No one really likes that role and it seemed an efficient way to handle someone who wasn’t performing in the classroom. They probably wondered why they saw such a dramatic drop in majors in their department.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        People do this all the time, yet it still astounds me. It’s like the weird notion that you should give a failing employee more responsibility because it will make them magically grow up, behave professionally, and become competent when they’ve failed to demonstrate any track record of competency. Truly, when has this ever worked? And if it did, has it worked often enough to use it in all circumstances/scenarios?

        1. JustaTech*

          And herein lies the downside of tenure. The best way to deal with someone you genuinely can’t fire is to give them an nice office somewhere out of the way (in the library, perhaps) and suggest that they do “research” or write a book.
          It sucks for everyone else who has to pick up the slack, because you can’t hire someone new, but at least it isolates the problem so it won’t spread so badly.

          (There are plenty of good sides of tenure, and it is possible to get rid of a tenured professor without them committing a crime, but it’s very hard.)

  10. Beancounter Eric*

    1. Have a Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster
    2. Don’t panic (in big, friendly letters)
    3. Say nothing

    1. Artemesia*

      This. The damage from discussing this with Arthur is much more probable than the damage in saying nothing. It is times like these that you should remember what your mother told you. If one absolutely MUST then Alison’s phrasing is graceful, but only if one absolutely MUST.

  11. Rat Racer*

    I totally agree with Alison’s advice (as always) but would add that it seems unlikely that Arthur would pick Ford’s poor work habits like failing to communicate, being mushy on deadlines, or giving clients attitude. Maybe Ford has some lousy half-baked ideas about how to structure projects, or the best way to communicate ideas, but it’s hard to imagine someone becoming convinced that up is down and the sky is green.`I’m picturing Ford saying “You know, the real way to get a client to love you is to turn in your TPS report 2 weeks late and hang up on them if they complain.”

    I think the bigger risk is Ford poisoning the well and saying “management here is all sleazebags out to get the little guy. The CEO is embezzling money and the office manager is sleeping with the finance director.” That sort of thing.

  12. Sofonisba*

    I tend to agree with everyone else; many years ago, quite early in my career, I was Arthur to a Ford who ended up going on medical leave due to stress-related illness. Our Zaphod pulled another colleague and me into a meeting afterwards and tried to do what I’m sure they thought was basic damage control but really was just a polite but firm takedown of Ford that I had to carry with me forever more when Ford would later vent to me as a friend. It was so awkward, and I really didn’t like having to keep that from my friend for fear of hurting her.

    1. Bwmn*

      I completely agree with this. I’ve worked with people who I’ve become friend with and could also acknowledge that their job was in trouble. Things like showing up late/leaving early/not reaching targets – no matter how much you like someone, it’s easy to see that behavior as a problem.

      As far as actual work concerns, if Ford has been emphasizing how demanding the client is – and there’s a case where there’s a soft deadline, and being a day or two late but with a strong work product (as opposed to meeting the soft deadline with a weaker work product) – those kinds of issues I’d want to watch for. But I wouldn’t be too aggressive about trying to correct Arthur’s image of Ford unless other issues are apparent.

  13. NK*

    OP, has Arthur said or done anything that makes you think he is going to pick up on Ford’s bad work habits? I know he and Ford have bounced ideas off each other. But I think a higher-performing employee, even at the beginning of their career, isn’t going to start playing fast and loose with deadlines, poorly communicate, or have a bad attitude based on chats with his coworker – especially one who is clearly unhappy and on their way out the door.

    That said, I think it’s a good idea to have a general check in meeting with Arthur to discuss performance, see how he’s doing, etc. Hopefully any concerns he has will come out in that meeting, and you can address them. But I have a hunch he has an inkling that Ford may not be the best employee and isn’t terribly concerned.

    1. myswtghst*

      Agreed with all of this. I think it’s unlikely Arthur would start picking up bad habits from Ford on his own, and unless Arthur broaches the topic of Ford, I think it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie, but proactively making sure Arthur is getting feedback and positive reinforcement will likely be much more effective in helping him continue to be a good employee.

  14. CM*

    I would leave Ford out of it and just tell Arthur that you’re pleased with his performance. Maybe talk to him about career development. In other words, signal that he’s not in danger of being fired, and don’t worry about what else Ford told him.

  15. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    Generally I would also say “wait and see,” because Arthur hasn’t picked up Ford’s bad habits, and it would be strange for him to pick them up after Ford has left.

    That said, it’s possible that Arthur is raising these issues because he’s worried about where he stands with you and how you’re evaluating him. Based on what Ford’s saying, Arthur may think that Ford is being set up to fail, and that might be causing him anxiety. When he’s asking you questions, he may not actually want to know if the client is demanding; he might be asking, “but what if I have a demanding client? will I be supported, or will you fire me?”

    Here’s an example, if you’ll indulge me:
    I worked at a 12-person organization that rarely fired its employees, until it fired two people in rapid succession. All staff understood the basis for firing one of those people because everyone could see his underperformance. But the second employee was in the legal department, which had an organizational structure in which every attorney supervised her own cases, and no one shared cases, and outside departments generally didn’t pay attention. The second employee was primarily fired for poor performance and for being incompetent. But she had been with the organization for 5 years, and she’d never been disciplined for her prior years of crap performance until a new manager was hired.

    One of the younger attorneys, who was performing well above expectations and was on track for promotion, was friends with the fired attorney and was terrified that she would be fired next. She had no idea it was a performance-based firing b/c her friend was feeding her a bunch of b.s., and instead she had been convinced by her friend that the firing was due to budgetary problems or because of seniority (Fired Attorney was the most junior, but Good Attorney was the second-most junior in the department). Because the Good Attorney’s managers weren’t paying attention, this poor woman lived in active fear of being fired for 1.5 years. Even after she was promoted and given annual merit raises, she was worried she’d be fired (this is in part b/c the org only gave feedback during annual performance reviews, and those reviews were actually delivered closer to once every 2 years).

    I finally mentioned something to the E.D., who finally had a frank convo with the Good Attorney. It made a huge difference; all of a sudden Good Attorney was more engaged, more vocal, happier, pushing out new projects and generally exceeding her already high performance levels. If her supervisors had just given her positive feedback on a more consistent basis, or if they’d noticed her apprehension and asked her if something was bothering her, she wouldn’t have had to suffer for 1.5 years thinking she was on the short-list for firing.

    So there’s a small chance that Arthur is seeking reassurance when he relays Ford’s version of events to you.

    1. OP*

      Yes, this is kind of what I’m worried about. And Arthur gets plenty of regular feedback (strengths and areas to improve on), and is frequently told he’s a strong performer, so hopefully no issue on that front.

      Sounds like I’m letting this worry exaggerate itself in my head a bit.

  16. Sibley*

    I was another Arthur to a Ford, and believe me, I knew. I knew he was disorganized and way over complicated things than then were’t good enough anyway. I knew he couldn’t meet a deadline if his life depended on it. After Ford was fired, yes I took over a lot of projects, and then I REALLY knew. Because I had to clean up a giant mess. Mgmt in my case helped me balance, answered a lot of questions when I was unsure, helped communicate w/clients, etc. They didn’t tell me why Ford was fired, but I (and everyone else) knew. Then they gave me a bonus for all the extra work.

    Unless Arthur really doesn’t get it, then say something, but otherwise don’t worry about it.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I think most of us have this nightmare, we get assigned to work with Low Performer and we have to make a go of it even though it looks like a sinking ship. How can we ever hope to get a fair eval? Questions like this run through our heads non-stop.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        I did get stuck working with low performer Coffeecup, before we all knew what he was like. Spent two weeks waiting for him to write some Windows code to go with my Mac stuff, then got fed up, spent two days on Google, and wrote it myself with some help from a third person. I made sure my manager knew exactly how that went down and that I never wanted to be teamed with him again, and I wasn’t.

  17. Anonymous Coward*

    One of the managerial moments that has stayed with me from early on in my career was when a coworker at the same level as me was fired after a situation much like the one in this letter (I knew her work was great and her attitude wasn’t, but now that I have hindsight I was probably only getting a small percentage of the whole picture and it was through her lens). Although I didn’t much like her, I thought that the firing (supposedly because of something that was out of her control) was unfair and took up for her with our grandboss (it was a smaller company and fairly flat in hierarchy, so I worked with him a couple times a week and we were friendly outside of work). He basically gave me a version of the script Alison suggests here: “I can’t share private personnel information, but there is more going on that you don’t know about. I want you to know that no one is fired here without a series of warnings and attempts to help them improve. You do not have to worry about being let go unexpectedly, because if your work ever becomes an issue, your manager or I will discuss it with you long before it gets to that point.” I didn’t know enough about working life to know that was what I wanted and needed to hear, but it rang very true because I trusted this manager to do a good job.

    1. Bibliovore*

      I had exactly this happen. Nellie was seriously underperforming, on a PIP for a year and half, (union position) and a drag on the department. Her affect to other departments was cheerful and helpful. She shared with all who would listen that the misery in her work life was caused by my unreasonable expectations,(not) unreasonable deadlines (not), out-of-job description assignments (not) and abusive bullying behavior. (not)
      My supervisor allowed her to resign the day she was being let go.

      Very brave Laura, one of Nellie’s peers from another department asked for a meeting with me and expressed her dismay about the way I “managed” the situation and forced Nellie to resign.
      I explained the above- there were procedures, I had followed them, I wasn’t at liberty to discuss the details.

      The next day Alamando, a very close friend of the recently departed employee from yet another department, came to tell me how disappointed he was in the way I handled the situation and forced her to resign.

      I repeated- there were procedures, I had followed them, I wasn’t at liberty to discuss the details.
      I informed my supervisor about those conversations. She announced at the next staff meeting that if anyone had any questions about Nellie’s leaving, feel free to make an appointment with her. No one took her up on it.

  18. knitcrazybooknut*

    Personally, I would assign Ford some Vogon poetry to read and see how fast he leaves. It will probably be improbably fast if he’s using the Heart of Gold to commute. If your towel is dry and you have a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster at hand, you’ll be set, as long as alcohol in the workplace is accepted in your corner of the galaxy.

    But seriously? I think Arthur probably has a pretty good idea of what’s going on, but you’re going to have to gauge that and act accordingly. I would start with some leading questions and be prepared to turn the conversation on a dime if you get a response you’re not expecting. I’ve started the “awkward conversation” before about someone’s performance with a coworker and been surprised to discover that the person I was speaking with had an opposite opinion from mine, and thought the coworker was brilliant and awesome. (Since I was the manager, it was moot, but I was happy to avoid putting my foot in my mouth.)

  19. Anon 12*

    I feel like this is like not bagging on the other parent to a child before, during or after a divorce. The kid WILL figure it out eventually that other parent is a nicompoop or whatever, will still love them but will appreciate responsible parent all the more. Do the things that good managers do – openly reinforce the good behaviors and work product, invite open conversations about good worker’s development and career path and smile/nod politely when good worker repeats bad workers fantasies about having a hard go of it.

    1. Artemesia*

      but many fathers and mothers DO succeed in turning the kids against the other parent and parents who let it all go unchallenged may find themselves with resentful teens who believe Dad when he blames Mom for the divorce or reject Dad because Mom has filled their head with what a louse Dad is. So it is important to provide more information sometimes; just carefully and only when you have reason to think you have a problem.

  20. Jessesgirl72*

    OP, do you know that Arthur is actually believing Ford?

    Once upon a time at my first Real Job, I made friends with another Jr employee. We hung out socially after work and on weekends, even. And she would come to me with these stories about how her Manager was so unreasonable and out to get her, etc. I would sit there and “Uh Huh” and “Oh that’s terrible” her, but I was thinking “Helen really has a point though, and you’re constantly late, and if you’re also screwing up the work, she’s going to follow through and fire you!” I didn’t say these things, because it was obvious she wasn’t going to listen, and it didn’t matter when we were out at the club on weekends. She may have been shocked when she was fired, but I wasn’t, and it didn’t make me worried about my job.

    TLDR version: Just because Arthur is young and new to the workplace doesn’t mean he’s blind or naive. He may know Ford had a poor work ethic and shades the truth

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Since he is new, he is probably working on making a good impression. Until he is sure of the landscape this could include getting along well with Ford.
      OP, be prepared for anything. It could be Arthur asks you why it took so long to get rid of Ford, and here you are gearing up for a different conversation.

  21. Stellaaaaa*

    I think OP should speak to Arthur about the client that Ford has insulted. Arthur has worked alongside Ford and has been able to filter Ford’s statements about his own performance through observations of his actions. However, Arthur is only hearing what Ford is saying about your client. Even if he senses that Ford might be lying, he doesn’t know which facts are being embellished. This is the first impression he’s getting of a client that he may be working with eventually. It’s incredibly common to know that someone is full of it but to still have their lies take root when you don’t have any other info about the person/event/client in question. For all Arthur knows, Ford is a crap employee AND the client is also bad to work for (that would actually be a go-to justification for poor performance: “They’re not going to like anything I do anyway. Why do it well?”) I don’t think it would be out of line to pull Arthur aside and say something like, “It has come to our attention that Ford has been saying untrue things about a valuable client. I need to correct the impressions that he has been giving you because you will be working with them after Ford leaves.”

    1. Roscoe*

      Problem is, you are basically saying that their friend is a liar. I wouldn’t say that he is saying untrue things, just that what he is saying hasn’t been your experience. I could say John is a jerk. He could be perfectly fine to everyone else, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t a jerk to me. I don’t think painting someone’s friend, who they have a relationship outside of work, in a bad light is good, because if just makes the boss look petty.

      1. Stellaaaaa*

        It depends on whether OP cares more about Arthur not thinking the liar is actually a liar, or preserving her company’s relationship with an important client. Ford is shxt talking the people who pay OP, Arthur, and everyone else they work with. I don’t see the problem with throwing Ford under the bus on this one.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          OP, you can start your response with, “Arthur, you will probably not have the same experience as Arthur.”
          Sometimes just saying that much gives people cause to pause.
          Let’s say Arthur says “but-but-but….”
          Then you can repeat a variation, “Differences in people, Arthur. Different people bring out different responses in others.” Optionally you can add, “I don’t think you will have much difficulty with this client. If you do have concerns, come see me and we will look at it together.”

  22. Mascarpone*

    As someone who’s been in a similar situation, this depends on whether Arthur can observe the quality of Ford’s work. In some jobs, people who are pleasant, friendly, and smart can still be poor performers, and the only people who know about the performance problems are the immediate managers. Watching people like this get laid off is TERRIFYING because you have no idea what they’re doing wrong, if you’re doing it right, and if you’re next.

    Arthur may not say anything and just start looking for a new job.

    If this is the situation, I’d give Arthur an up to date performance evaluation (“you are doing well, keep working on XYZ”) so that he’s not left terrified.

  23. stk*

    It might be worth making sure you’re extra clear with Arthur where they are doing well. If Arthur hears Ford’s discussion in a context of “… well, MY boss has been really nice about X, Y, and Z, and their criticism of A, B, and C was valid and constructive, not mean”, then Arthur will KNOW that Ford is not to be taken too seriously. Being the best boss you can be to Arthur around their own performance should make sure there’s nothing to worry about.

    Also, A+ H2G2 references!

  24. UTManager*

    I have a slightly different opinion having been in a very similar situation recently… I think employees should know when a peer is fired due to poor performance. I also think it’s possible to do this while still being respectful to the exiting employee.

    As managers, we tell employees to mind their own work and not focus on others’, etc., so it’s not reasonable to expect them to KNOW when a peer isn’t performing well, and to KNOW that people are held accountable for poor performance (but that they’re also given chances/support to improve), and to just roll with it and not ask questions when something big like a firing happens.

    When I had to let go a chronic poor performer I inherited, I just brought it up in the regular 1:1 meeting with each employee and explained that employee X was unable to fulfill duties A, B, and C and after trying different things it was decided it was best to part ways. I emphasized that nobody is let go out of the blue except for extreme things like violence/theft, and we want everyone to succeed and are committed to training/coaching and giving people every chance possible to do well – but that as a manager, I couldn’t allow one person to continue on and cause everyone else to have to work more as a result of the poor fit once it became clear they couldn’t meet their goals. This approach killed any opportunity for rumor-milling, or for employee X (who was a dramatic sort) to spin their own tale of woe and stress others out. I had a few people thank me for “doing the hard thing” and holding employee X accountable and think I won a lot of trust by being honest about the situation before being forced to by rumors, etc.

    1. Kyrielle*

      At one point, one of my coworkers was let go. At least half the team, maybe more, was shocked.

      I was not shocked at all. I had been able to see the behaviors building that led to it. And my comment to the shocked folks was, “I think when we changed direction from X to Y, he had a really hard time with that shift and it didn’t play to his strengths.”

      (To his credit, he wasn’t shocked either. Rueful. Maybe a touch embarrassed. But not shocked.)

  25. Chriama*

    I have to disagree with Alison about feeling Arthur out first. This is Arthur’s first office job. There are a lot of things we don’t know when we’re new. I think Alison’s script for talking to him is good, but I think it should go ahead right away regardless of how you think he’s interpreting things. If you’re really worried about Ford’s privacy, focus more on the idea that you’ll give feedback and he’ll never be blindsided by a PIP or forced out without knowing what metrics he’s supposed to be meeting. You could even approach the convo from that angle – after hearing about Ford’s leaving, you want to reassure him that there are no issues with his performance and give a head’s up that there’s more to the situation than can be seen from the outside. But as a pretty new employee myself, I’ve always appreciated my manager spelling this stuff out to me explicitly. Just even the fact that she’s willing to do that lets be know what kind of workplace I’m in.

    1. Ultraviolet*

      Yeah, I think the fact that it’s Arthur’s first office job tends to suggest it’s a good idea to have this talk with him proactively.

  26. NonProfit Nancy*

    This is so timely for me. A good friend at my work was just let go unexpectedly. I never noticed any problems with her performance (not that I necessarily would have – but she seemed conscientious and valuable to me) and I admit I did feel it as a little bit of a morale blow (“is that the kind of company I’m working for, they just let a hardworking employee go with no warning?”). But ultimately having my manager interfere would be even worse and would make me feel spied on. I don’t know what happened and I probably never will, it’s none of my business, and I’ll have to get over it on my own. Do nothing.

  27. designbot*

    What about maybe a broader warning? At a previous job I was brought in on a recommendation from a friend on another team and as a result we often were seen going to lunch together, talking, etc. This wasn’t outside the norm for our office culture, but at one point a project manager warned me, “be careful how much time you spend with the saucer team. They goof off a lot more than we’re able to in lids and I wouldn’t want you to pick up any bad habits from them.” I certainly didn’t stop spending time with my friend, but it was very helpful to note that oh, what’s normal and acceptable for her team might not be for mine. It sounds ominous but it was genuinely useful feedback and I wonder if Arthur might benefit from similar.

  28. Roscoe*

    I think you saying anything about his friend is not the way to go. If I have a relationship with a former co-worker, I can keep that out of work. But if my manager takes it upon themselves to basically start saying bad things about them, including saying they are lying, it would reflect worse on my manager than it would on my friend complaining about management. I mean, there are 2 sides to every story, but I don’t know why I’d assume my manager was being “more” honest than my friend. Both people see things from their perspective. It doesn’t mean either person is wrong, just that they see the see things different. But going out of your way to give your version, just looks petty

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      No, it’s not just “seeing things differently” that Ford says he’s quitting, when he has been fired.

      1. Roscoe*

        Well, I was referring to the other issues. But sure, that’s fine. But why does a manager really need to correct that. If someone wants to say they quit of their own free will, I’d think managers would rather have others think that as opposed to just being fired out of the blue. What is the harm in letting someone have their dignity

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          It’s because Ford isn’t only lying about the verbiage surrounding his exit. He’s spreading misinformation about a long-term company client, and it hurts the company if people don’t want to work with that client because of what Ford’s been saying.

          Also because, in all likelihood, Ford is probably talking this way to other people. Arthur is the one who’s coming forward with the information. Experience tells me that there are 9 other people who are keeping their mouths shut but have still listened to what Ford has to say.

          1. Jaguar*

            Let’s say you were fired and had been telling people you were “leaving your job.” Then, let’s say your former manager specifically told people, on hearing your language for it, that no, in fact, you were fired, and the reason for making that correction is that they disagree with your opinions on things and, “in all likelihood, Stellaaaaa has been telling lots of people these things we disagree with.” What would you think of your former manager? What would your manager gain by doing that? Because to me, those are incredibly lame reasons for refusing to let a fired employee leave on their own terms.

            1. Anna*

              See Someone’s response below.

              A fired employee doesn’t get to leave on their own terms because they are literally not leaving on their own terms; they’re being fired. This isn’t a case where the employer is giving Ford the option of resigning with a reference OR being fired, the decision is that Ford should be let go due to poor performance.

              1. Roscoe*

                I still don’t get why saying “No, they were fired” is that big of a deal. Its like you just HAVE to be right

                1. Jessesgirl72*

                  No, it’s because it lets everyone else know that they need to take what Ford said with a grain of salt. If he lied about that, he probably lied about other things.

                  And personally, I’m not really all that hung up on preserving the “dignity” of someone who is lying and trying to undermine the reputation of company and their clients, who is being fired. There is no need to humiliate him, but telling the truth is not wrong either.

                  The OP’s responsible for working for the good of the company and her direct reports. Why should she jeopardize that because it might make a liar feel bad?

                2. Jaguar*

                  Honestly, if management announced under any circumstances that someone was specifically fired at a place I worked, I would be pretty shocked and have a bad opinion of them. If management did that clearly in response to someone saying they were “leaving,” I would be outraged. The first is really distasteful and uncessary. The second comes off as outright spiteful.

                3. Anna*

                  I think saying someone was “let go” for “reasons” is a perfectly acceptable thing for a manager to share.

            2. Stellaaaaa*

              In this scenario, I actually have been fired so I probably don’t have a lot of good will toward my former manager to begin with. And why would my former manager care what a fired employee thinks of them? Alison often has to talk managers out of that mode of thinking: you have to do your job, even if it means your employees stop wanting to be your friends.

              Additionally, the manager gains a whole lot: the hard-working employees will know that the company isn’t randomly letting go of good workers, and the company preserves company-wide rapport with a client. My reaction to this email might be different if this scenario didn’t extend beyond an interaction between two employees. Ford is saying that a client is treating him badly when they’re not. That’s worth correcting. Don’t let lies from a bad employee take precedence over the truth, especially when the truth is positive. The client is easy to work with. There’s absolutely no reason not to tell Arthur that.

              1. Jaguar*

                We’re not talking about letting lies persist. We’re talking about someone hearing something and feeling the need to correct it. To go to the absolute extreme, if Ford was telling people that management were space aliens like something out of They Live, would you feel a need to correct the record? I would assume not – the idea is so plainly absurd that there’s no risk of people buying it. Assuming again that you agree, then you agree there is some point at which you trust people to make up their own minds without needing the record set straight. I would offer that any time you think someone heard something you feel is false and that they should know the truth, you should understand there is a risk of people thinking that you don’t trust them to make up their own mind and a risk that you’re trying to manipulate them by tellnig them what you want them to believe (since this is a manager, not a peer, doing this). I would argue, given the situations at play (Arthur is a good employee so presumably he’ll find out Ford was wrong anyway – Arthur and Ford are friends – Ford is being fired), that it’s far worse to start trying to convince Arthur that the stuff Ford has told him is wrong than it is to just trust Arthur to sort through what Ford (may have) said to begin with.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            I think it is important to realize that some people will never see the light. Sometimes we do lose people because of situations like this.

            I had a subordinate who was told that I was the Wicked Witch of the West. I was going to make everyone’s lives miserable, that is what he was told. He bought it. In doing so, he made himself into a person who could not be managed. It was so bad that he would not even speak to me if I spoke to him. This went on for a while, then one day he quit. And he never told me. I shrugged and my life went on.

            I did try to reach the guy in the months that he worked in my group. I tried this and that and the other thing. He was happy thinking of me as the Wicked Witch, I almost think it filled his cup some how. It reached the point, where his peers were laughing, “We get along fine with you, what IS his problem?”

            Here was a person who did not want to salvage the situation. He did not want to work at keeping his job. This happens. I did the best I could given the givens and that is the thought I hold on to.

        2. Someone*

          Yeah, presumably Ford is saying things like “Every time I call client, they insist on reading Vogon poetry, and boss says I have to listen and make constructive comments even though I am in agony when it happens, or else they will throw me out of the airlock. So I quit!” It’s reasonable to say “Actually, I’ve worked with client, and they dislike Vogon poetry as much as I do. In addition, I want to reassure you that we don’t throw our employees out of airlocks without ample warning, and an opportunity to disembark at a routine port of call.”

          1. Stellaaaaa*

            There’s probably more to the story with this particular client, like they’re the one who finally piped up about Ford’s work not being up to snuff. Of course Ford’s rebuttal would be along the lines of, “They’re just too picky!” or “They expect things of me that other clients aren’t expecting of the other employees!” I know that commenters here generally side with the employees in addition to taking a “better not to mention it” approach to things, but I don’t see how anything could be lost if OP said, “Ford lied about why he’s not working here anymore, and he also lied about this client, who you’ll have to work with next week by the way.”

            It’s not up to OP to work around Arthur and Ford’s friendship. OP has a job to do and if she has to cut through Ford’s lies to get her job done, that’s not her problem.

            1. designbot*

              or to just say “I know that you and Ford are friends and I think that’s great. I understand he had some difficulties here and particularly with Client X, and wanted to make sure that you were open to approaching that client with a fresh outlook and not carrying any grievances that Ford may have aired. I know he saw things differently than a lot of us did when it came to them.” That’s really what you’re trying to get across, right? It’s not about Ford lying, or about him being fired, it’s about him having some troubles that you want to make sure his friend doesn’t borrow.

              1. OP*

                Bingo. Stellaaaaaa has teh description pretty close to spot on. ClientB clearly had issues with Fred’s work. Fred thought they were demanding and picky, but really…he wasn’t doing well.

                I don’t care much about Ford lying. I just don’t want Arthur to ‘borrow those troubles’. Which is the part designbot got right.

                Thanks for the insight y’all.

  29. Yes, and...*

    Ugh, been there, done that, have the t-shirt. In our case, Ford was a terrible employee but exceedingly charming, and he completely gaslighted Arthur into believing all of us were out to get Ford. When Ford left, Arthur improved a bit, but we always knew when he’d hung out with Ford socially because he’d come back all righteous about Ford’s treatment and how Arthur wasn’t going to fall for the things Ford did. He started giving the cold shoulder to colleagues whom Ford said were untrustworthy, and we ended up having to put Arthur on a PIP. Arthur took another job soon after. It was sad because pre-Ford, Arthur was a delightful co-worker.

  30. Jane*

    We had a similar situation with an under-performing coworker and unfortunately I am not sure who brought it up but our (very small) department had a meeting about it and it was super helpful to talk things through. Initially we felt our work friend was being thrown under the bus, but the meeting gave us a lot more helpful context and it was done in a respectful way. We had a send-off party for the person and he’s actually doing really well in his career (he got a job and left, was not actually asked to leave, but became was apparent that he was not doing as well as he needed to be to stay). This type of thing can easily affect morale (several of us were pretty concerned about what appeared to be unfair treatment of the under-performer before we got more of the full story) and in some cases it can be worthwhile to surface the issue and talk it out in a small group or one on one setting.

  31. StartupLifeLisa*

    We had the opposite happen in my workplace… an employee resigned because of her overbearing manager, and the manager proceeded to tell everyone that the employee leaving had found a great new “dream job” and as much as she would miss (Manager), she couldn’t pass it up. Made things very awkward as the employee herself was very open about that she did not have a new job lined up, yet her manager kept insisting (when the employee wasn’t present) that she did, while the employee then had to clean up and correct this so that she wouldn’t miss out on potential referrals since she in fact still needed a job!

    (The manager is now gone, too. Found herself a new job, gave notice, started her new job during her “last week” at old job & just didn’t come into the office, never picked up most of the stuff from her desk, and didn’t say goodbye to anyone.)

    1. The Supreme Troll*

      I’m sorry to hear this. I hope that the employee has now, indeed, found the dream job that she deserves for real. As for the manager, well, there’s karma…

  32. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    Hmm, I’m really torn on this one. On the one hand, I’m having a hard time imagining a good way for such a conversation to go down — and on the other, I’m remembering how someone who trained me at some of the trickiest parts of my last job was abruptly fired, and I spent a long time sweating over whether she’d actually trained me correctly, given the firing. We were in the middle of a huge push for better quality, and she wasn’t the only one given the boot.

    I found out over a year later, and via gossip, that her firing had nothing to do with her work quality and everything to do with her being pretty jawdroppingly insubordinate on a repeated basis. At that point in my career, I didn’t have the skills to have a tactful discussion with my boss about whether I should be taking that training with a grain of salt (I hadn’t started reading AAM yet!) so I just fretted endlessly.

  33. boop the first*

    Maybe Arthur deserves a little more credit? It’s not fun to work with an under-performing coworker, and sometimes it’s easier to be friendly and chill about things that are out of your control. You can like someone as a person, yet dislike their work habits.

  34. Mike B.*

    Are you and Arthur having regular check-in meetings? That’s the best way to stay apprised of an employee’s feelings; if Zaphod’s attitude is having an effect, it will probably emerge as you discuss the state of affairs at your workplace.

  35. Say WHAT*

    I’m experiencing a similar situation in that my coworker has been having problems since July or so, but tells everyone outside of our office that it’s really my fault or my boss’s fault and tries to smear our reputation.

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