how much should I hand-hold a disorganized employee?

A reader writes:

I am a new manager struggling with how the handle one of my direct reports who is struggling a bit himself. He is a smart guy but super disorganized. For example, he is in charge of ensuring all internal audits in our company have been set up, executed, etc We discuss this in our one-on-ones and invariability every time there are a few he has forgotten to set up, follow up on, or document. I have suggested a few ways that he could keep track of these, such as email reminders and spreadsheets. Any time I make these suggestions, he claims he does not need the “crutch” and is able to stay on top of things.

My biggest hesitation comes down to how much I should be helping him with this stuff/insisting that he use my suggested method. When we discussed using a spreadsheet for planning events, I walked him though setting one up and left him with a template. He is still not interested in setting on up. I know I cannot literally force him to use one, but how much energy should I spend on helping him develop good habits/encouraging him to try different methods?

We are now at the point where I have told him if he does not start to keep on these things, he will be fired. This has led to no change in his attitude toward this part of his job. I have talked with my manager and HR and he will be going on a PIP. I feel bad letting him go, when there is the possibility that a few simple set up could get him performing exactly where I need him. (He is very good at the non-organizational aspects of his job, but there is no way to pull these parts out of his job.) On the other hand, I am at a loss as to what to do. Is there some manager secret on how to get things like this to work? My boss and HR want to just fire the guy, but I feel like there is something more I can do.

You can’t be more invested in saving his job than he is.

You’ve told him he’s in danger of being fired and he’s still refusing to use your suggestions to solve the problem. It would be one thing if he were saying, “Actually, I want to try solution X instead of solution Y, because I think X will be more effective for me.” But it doesn’t sound like he’s saying that; it sounds like he’s telling you he doesn’t need to change anything and he’ll just magically start being on top of things.

He’s not making anywhere near the effort it sounds like you want to make to save his job. I’d ask yourself why you’re more committed to making this work than he is.

For what it’s worth, you actually can insist that he use email reminders, spreadsheets, or whatever other methods you think would help. You absolutely can say, “Because your way hasn’t been working and things are continuing to slip through the cracks, going forward I want you to track all of these projects in a spreadsheet and update it weekly so that when we do our one-on-one’s, we can see exactly where everything stands.” (Or whatever system you want him to use.)  When someone is this disorganized, you can step in with requirements like that.

Whether you should or not is a different question. I’m more inclined to do that kind of hand-holding with someone is both (a) fairly junior (and where inexperience might be playing a big role) and (b) highly motivated to succeed. I’ve done that before when someone has seemed truly unable to fix their disorganization on their own and it can pay off; the key, though, is that it needs to be a limited-time, fairly short-term investment, like working together really closely for a few weeks to put new systems in place — and then after that, you need to step back and see if they can take that and run with it on their own. But the person needs to be open to the help — if they’re defensive or convinced they don’t need help, this won’t work and will be a bad use of your time. Your employee seems to fall in the “convinced he doesn’t need help” camp — maybe from arrogance, maybe because he’s embarrassed to accept help, who knows.

But you’ve offered help. He’s declined it. You’ve made the stakes clear (and the PIP should make them even more clear). From here, it’s up to him.

{ 264 comments… read them below }

  1. Eillah*

    As a disorganized late twenties lady, I really appreciate the feedback in this post. I’m still admittedly navigating how to do things others can do without thinking/effort, and seeing these perspectives from the other side are incredibly helpful.

    1. Anonym*

      Life is all about tools and external systems to stay organized! Try different things until you find what works for you, and don’t be embarrassed. Most people use external tools, habits and systems to stay organized – you just don’t usually see them, so it’s easy to think you’re just disorganized and everyone else just magically keeps everything straight in their heads. (Took me a long time to accept this one, as a previously disorganized, ADHD-I, now currently hella organized at work and average at home person.)

      Sounds like OP’s employee might be operating under that misunderstanding, since he’s calling totally normal organizational tools “crutches.”

      1. Eillah*

        Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in this frustrating circle of my own making– I need better executive functioning skills in order to work on my executive functioning skills!! I’m trying, but I feel like I fall off the bike a lot. It’s also an embarrassing problem to talk about, particularly as a women– the idea is that you’re supposed to have your shit together (how true that is is another discussion entirely….)

        And yes, I agree with the point about the employee. I hope he’s able to get himself a system soon.

        1. Bee*

          Oh god, the decision-making effort and big-picture conception that’s required to create new organizational systems is just….so much. It’s why a lot of mine is still just handwritten lists and calendar appointments! I have failed at every system I tried to create for work, but I’ve been able to successfully maintain (and adapt to my own preferences) those that were already in use before me. Try asking others if they have a system you could steal!

        2. Anonym*

          I had the same problem, always falling off the newest wagon after a month or two. Now I just rotate them, which works surprisingly well! And I periodically poke around for new tools to add to the rotation. I’m starting to think figuring out what works for you might be the biggest factor in success in life.

          It’s totally frustrating, I know, but do be kind to yourself. Beating yourself up just wastes time and emotional energy and you don’t deserve it. And the more you talk to people in life, the more you realize how most people don’t have it together after all. We’re all struggling in one way or another for the most part. But you’re right – that expectation is a killer. Grr…

          1. AnonEMoose*

            This second paragraph in particular is SO TRUE. I promise that the people who seem to you to have it all together are struggling with something. Maybe not the same things you are, but something.

            I thought that once I graduated college, I’d have it all figured out. A…um…”few” years on, and yeah…that’s not how it worked out. That said, my 30s were way better than my 20s, and so far, 40+ is great. Not perfect, but very good.

            Be patient with yourself, be kind to yourself. When you fall off the bike, try to figure out what went wrong…is there a specific pattern like when you get stressed, or have umpteen things to deal with at once, or??? If you can identify a pattern, you might be able to figure out ways to deal with it.

            Maybe try spending some time thinking about process…you need to achieve X. So, what tasks do you need to do? What information do you need? What options do you have? Write it down if you need to (I like Post-It notes for this, because I can add and rearrange as needed). Others like a white board.

            If there’s a coworker you have a rapport with who does this well, consider asking them how they figured this stuff out. But most of all, try not to blame yourself or consider yourself broken because of this. Try to think of it as something you need to work harder to master, and go from there.

            1. Not Rebee*

              One tip I’ve found is that if you really enjoy the novelty of outlining things (as a one-off, not as an all the time thing) you can trick yourself into figuring out a single process using only the short-lived enthusiasm for writing on the whiteboard (!) or putting post-its all over the wall and rearranging them until it looks right (!). The key is to find something you can trick yourself into thinking is fun, and then doing your best to work fast before you realize it’s not that fun. You may just manage to get a whole new organizational system in place before you hit the boredom wall :)

              1. TardyTardis*

                I knew someone I think invented new colors for Post-It notes to keep all her stuff organized, but it worked.

          2. uranus wars*

            I have also found my methods have had to change as my jobs change. The spreadsheet and planning system that kept me organized 10 years ago do not do the same today.

            Currently I have a file holder on my desk with folders labeled with every project I am working on. This works for me because I am visual. People make fun of me because I am old school…but guess what? That year I tried to adapt to digital I missed more appointments, deadlines and double-booked myself more times than a human should.

            It’s about finding what works for you and know that some of them will fail! That’s how you’ll find the right one!

      2. Sleepytime Tea*

        Yeah… you can’t help people who won’t help themselves. I have never been a manager, but I have been in lead roles where I was trying to help new people (new to the job, the workforce, everything) to manage very heavy workloads that had a lot of stress. Some would take every idea you gave them and try it out to see if it worked for them, and others would ignore anything you suggested and insist that they could handle it. Guess who ended up being able to handle it? Wasn’t the ones who let pride get in the way. (And really, I think it does come down to pride.)

      3. Sally Forth*

        I am on the board of a non-profit that had a similar problem with the ED. We assigned him a board member who just retired as a very high level project manager (think giant bridge projects) as a mentor. The board member had tons of tracking methods in his toolkit and coached the ED in how to select one that would be a good fit. The ED rejected all of them. Two months later, the magnitude of what the ED had neglected came to light and he was let go.

      4. Harper the Other One*

        YES. I have to-do lists, reminders on my phone, notes in my calendar… I keep recommending solutions like this to my husband but for some reason he feels like most people “just remember” this stuff. Maybe I could once upon a time, but even then, I used tons of systems to help myself stay on top of everything.

        Play around with what works for you. There are lots of great pages online that will talk about different organizing methods and when you find the thing that works, it’s so much more relaxing.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      FWIW, folks who are doing (organizational) things without much effort originally started where you did—at a place where it took effort.

      I’m relatively organized (I’m lagging a bit right now for failure to maintain my to-do list), and it’s because I’m forgetful. It was fine when I was younger, but as more tasks and demands have been added to life, I can’t keep track of all of it in my short-term memory. I will literally forget to do things if they’re not somewhere in a planner or a checklist, or properly filed and organized somewhere.

      It’s now second-nature for me to maintain those systems, but it wasn’t when I first started using them. And I had to experiment and figure out what works for me. I still sometimes fall behind on maintaining my organizational systems, so I dedicate time to catching up and keeping organized. It all becomes easier with time, experimentation and practice :)

      1. Elemeno P.*

        I am also very forgetful, though I was like that as a kid, too. I keep detailed lists of everything I have going on, detailed emails with what people have said in meetings, and flag everything I have to do to make sure it’s still there. I’m thankful to also have management that understands and helps me with things when I need it; I got a reminder today about something I missed, was honest that I forgot, and am finishing it up ASAP. The LW sounds like she would be a supportive manager with an earnest employee who actually wanted to try.

        1. PersephoneUnderground*

          If you just straight up accept that you’re forgetful and externalize all that info by using lists and other organizing tools, you’ll probably end up much more organized than people who don’t absolutely *have* to use those tools because they’re neurotypical. Turn it into an asset!

          Most jobs have more moving pieces than anyone can keep in their head, so you’re ahead of the game by having practice at using systems everyone ends up needing at some point. Like how some kids can coast in school and never learn to study because they pick everything up in class. But then hit a wall when they get to a level where they need to study for the first time. Congratulations, you already know how to “study” in my metaphor, unlike the guy in the letter who thinks he can keep coasting and really can’t.

          Speaking as someone with ADHD here, it’s actually made me much more on top of things than my husband for instance, and he’s started using tools I’ve relied on for years (phone calendar instead of “I’ll remember that important appointment.” for instance) and he’s been impressed how much it helps him.

      2. EddieSherbert*

        Honestly, I was the most disorganized kid/teenager – I actually failed a class in school because I kept losing my (completed!) homework assignments that I had shoved randomly into my books/backpack. My parents basically went “full manager” and sat me down, made me come up with an organization system, and then followed up to make sure I was using it. They also made me retake the class over the summer so I wouldn’t fall behind (haha).

        A decade later and I am highly praised and known in my personal life, work life, and volunteer life for being an extremely organized person/a “planner”!

        1. Ann Nonymous*

          I’m honestly curious as to why you continued to keep doing the things that you knew to be a problem such as randomly shoving completed homework where you wouldn’t find it. After one time, or maybe twice, why didn’t you figure out that you were sabotaging yourself and do something about it? I really want to understand this thinking as there is someone I know who acts similarly.

          1. Elemeno P.*

            Coming from my experience, your thought at the moment is, “I’ll definitely remember this!” And then you don’t. It took me until my mid 20s to realize I was lying to myself and that no matter how much I wanted to remember something, I simply couldn’t. I didn’t do it despite realizing it was a problem; I just didn’t realize it was a problem.

            Also, as someone who’s mother also didn’t understand this, please don’t be too hard on the person who forgets things (if they’re not like the guy in the letter who actively resists these things). If someone is earnest and apologetic, they’re not forgetful AT you.

          2. Rebecca1*

            For me, it was because the reason I randomly shoved things in was that I already had used up all my brainpower doing the assignment. I didn’t have any left to decide where it should belong (which folder, which part of the backpack, etc)). Nowadays I take meds for ADHD and I usually have a little brainpower left to remember where things go. But when meds wear off, it can be impossible to remember.

            1. Jack Russell Terrier*

              Yes – I see that! This is wear taking time to break repetitive tasks down into component functions really helps – so you automatically have the place to put it and don’t use your poor fried brain eg completed homework file. This has to be convenient too or you won’t do it – eg same file that simple moves between your schoolbag and your desk. It should end up using as little brain power as cleaning your teeth. It takes no brainpower because … you keep your toothbrush and toothpaste near the sing – so your file is always right there too. You don’t keep your toothbrush in a drawer in the basement. That’s the other part as someone mentioned up-thread. You give something like completed homework / keys a home and you never – never – never ever put that thing down somewhere else ‘just for a moment’. For example, when I pay at the checkout – I never put my credit card anywhere else but back in it’s own place in my wallet. It never goes in a pocket or anything like that. If I have move away from the checkout I keep hold of it in my hand and immediately move over to a place where I can put my shopping down and put away my credit card in my wallet.

              1. MayLou*

                Also you might not be the sort of person who can easily figure out how to make this sort of thing easy. I am, my wife is not. She’s much better at following systems though, so I set them up and she makes them happen. So it might be helpful to find someone who is good at systems and ask their advice on streamlining processes that are frequently not working well.

              2. Autumnheart*

                Same. When I was first being assessed for ADHD, one of the phrases that just summed it all up for me was, “I forget to remember things.” Story of my freakin’ LIFE.

                My big problem is that the thing which captures my attention automatically becomes the biggest priority. In order for me to maintain an appropriate list of priorities, I truly have to do the following: 1) make it an external list, and 2) put it somewhere so that I frequently pay attention to it.

                So I have a whiteboard on my fridge, and things get added and crossed off the list as I get through them. And I’m in the kitchen a hundred times a day, so I’m frequently reminded of what the next thing is. I use other tools that function kind of the same way, but that’s the one that gets used the most.

                Luckily for me, my job is organized almost exactly the same way, and requires frequent, rapid reprioritization, so I’m actually very well suited to it. But it’s incredibly easy for me to lose track of long-term things in favor of short-term things, so I use a bunch of different tools to give me timely, short-term reminders to make the progress on those things that I need to.

              3. TardyTardis*

                Sometimes you have to make color coded piles on the floor (don’t ask how I know this). I knew better than to disturb *anything* in one manager’s office because her filing system could best be described as ‘geological’ but it worked for her.

            2. nonegiven*

              The only reason I never lose my keys any more is because I have a place where I always put them away and never any other place. If something doesn’t have a place where it belongs, I’ll lose it.

          3. Jennifer*

            It’s part of who they are. It’s a flaw just like any other flaw. We have to love people in spite of them sometimes. At that age, I was still in denial that I was chronically disorganized and was convinced with just sheer will I could change who I was. I was wrong.

          4. fposte*

            Adding my voice to the chorus here: because the hope and belief in the good outcome was much stronger than experience. Still true on many things to this day, as the coffee stain on my sofa testifies.

            That’s why a lot of us relate to the OP’s employee. We understand what it’s like to believe that the bad outcome was an aberration and we’re up to handling this the way we want to. But we also understand that that’s not true, and he’s doomed if he can’t change his ways.

            1. TardyTardis*

              True. Although I always made sure to clear out my ‘rat pile’ once a week (it used to be only when I went on vacation, but that did not work out so well).

          5. LadyGrey*

            I do/ did something similar! The cause/effect of it wasn’t something I recognised- I was putting X in my bag so I would take it with me, at that moment I wasn’t thinking about whether I could find it later. Then later I would take X out of the bag so I had room for something else, and put it down wherever I was because it just needed to be out of the bag, where/whether I could find it later didn’t enter my thinking. The sort of planning ahead is often affected by anything that affects executive function- such as ADHD. Going through my bag to find out what I need to do with X is something I had to learn from an ADHD advice site- it isn’t obvious if your brain doesn’t connect the dots.

            Your friend might know they’re doing this, but if they don’t it might be worth pointing out the cause/effect- kindly! And drop it after the once, unless they bring it up.

          6. nonymous*

            It seems to be a common behavior in preteen/early teen years. The way my nephew explained it to me was that when he stuck it into his backpack he considered it “done”. And then when the teacher did the final call to turn in assignments that didn’t apply to him, because he was “done” or he was distracted by other stuff going on.

            The biological motivation actually has to do with the fact that teenagers are still growing their prefrontal cortex, which has to do with planning. People develop at different paces so it’s entirely possible to have a kid who can plan step-by-step action and execute sitting right next to the one who can’t figure out that she needs a designated spot for homework that needs to be turned in.

            And honestly, I remember in elementary (from first grade) and having a binder for Saturday school that my mom and I worked out of during the week. We would always put completed stuff at the front to be turned in (or partially completed stuff to work on the next day). So I feel like in my personal case, I was super-coached at an age when it was developmentally appropriate for an adult to hover over and say “Why don’t we put this here? Now you try!” and maybe some kids don’t get that coaching?

            1. NW Mossy*

              This is showing up for my team right now! A portion of our workflow involves doing a thing in System A, and then recording the date it was done in System B. That second part is super important because System B won’t initiate the next phase of the process if that date is missing, but it’s also frighteningly easy to overlook because the actual task itself is done.

              I’ve given the team the task of figuring out a system that ensures that date gets entered. The only limitation they have is that the system can’t be “just remember to do it.”

            2. Arts Akimbo*

              OMG are you my sibling??? This is my son to a t! Shoved in backpack = done. He had gotten so many terrible grades for not turning in homework assignments we KNEW he had done before we finally realized what was going on!

              1. Clumsy Ninja*

                THIS IS MY LIFE! Yep, constant harassing of my kids to please just turn it in! In their case, we still haven’t found a system they will USE.

                1. valentine*

                  So the homework stayed in the backpack? I would expect teachers’ calls for homework to be time to dump the backpack out and look at every sheet of paper to find the right homework for each class.

                2. Seeking Second Childhood*

                  I will volunteer the brilliant idea my daughter’s 6th grade came up with : Homework done? Snap a picture and email it. As long as there’s at least one smart phone in the house it’ll work. My daughter resisted this because she didn’t want to stand out as not turning in homework — but now at the end of the year she “gets it” that she sends an email *AND* turns in the homework. (Points to me that I didn’t point out she WASN’T turning in homework anyway many days…) It also took her a while to realize she didn’t have to write anything more than subject line “homework” and sign her name.

            3. TardyTardis*

              I know, I went to a parents’ night, heard that Cathy was behind, went into her desk and handed stuff in for her. She got better…

          7. Eillah*

            I can only speak for myself, but sometimes there’s this weird lack of patience with doing things the “right” way. It doesn’t make sense and certainly isn’t productive, but it happens.

            1. fposte*

              I remember also as a kid that I was easily put off by the flaws in the right way, resulting in a my way that was much worse. Example: folding papers in half to tuck in your book was an established thing in grade school. I was bothered by creasing paper down the middle (it’s really funny to me now–we’re talking spelling homework, not the Mona Lisa) and therefore put it in the workbook without folding it in half, thus resulting in squishing and dog-earing it around the edges. But my way was *theoretically* superior to the right way, and that was enough to keep me doing it.

              It’s like people who believe it takes 5 minutes to drive from point A to point B when it’s theoretically possible to do it, maybe at 2 a.m. if you hit all the lights, but in reality it takes 15-20 minutes. Now that my mind can handle–I will leave 20+ minutes for that trip. But for other organizational stuff I really, really want to treat it as 5 minutes.

            2. smoke tree*

              Yep. For some reason I’d rather spend 10 minutes shoving something into the tupperware cupboard and dealing with the inevitable tupperware explosion instead of taking 10 seconds to remove the tupperware stack and put the new piece in the right place.

              1. Seeking Second Childhood*

                “the invitable tupperware explosion”
                The story of my life!
                (“I laughed. I cried. It moved me, Bob” -Veggie Tales)

          8. Pommette!*

            Because some other thing would invariably come up that seemed like a much bigger and more immediate problem, and all of my attention would instantly (and fully) shift to dealing with that new problem. (And by problem, I really mean any kind of situation or distraction: “so and so showed up and needs help with something”, “the bell rang we have to hurry to class” or of course “there is a bird outside of the window!”). I’d shove the paper (or assignment, or whatever it might be) in a book (or binder, or bag, or wherever it might be) without even thinking about it, because my brain was already fully focused on the new thing.

            I realized that I had a problem right away. But thinking of it as self-sabotage – as something that was my fault, and as the result of bad decisions consciously made – was actually part of the problem. The fact is that I’m not someone who does that kind of thinking in the moment, and that no amount of feeling stupid and guilty over misplacing items, or of resolve to pay more attention next time, ever helped me keep track of things. I kept trying to “do something about it”, but the something that I was trying to do (pay more attention to things, as per friends and family’s annoyed and insistent recommendations) just wasn’t working, and wasn’t ever going to work.

            Trying to change myself did not help. What did help was developing systems that take the way my brain works into account, and make it harder for me to place something somewhere stupid without thinking about it. So for instance, I have one giant and ugly “pile of everything” on my work desk, and one torn up “pocked of everything” in my purse. Everything goes on the pile/pocket, and there is nowhere else for anything to go. I put things there without thinking. If I need something, I know where to look. Then, I set off blocks of time where I will actually focus on filing things, and put them in their “proper” places.

          9. Beth*

            When it’s teenagers, I think it’s very normal to have some area of life or another where the problem SHOULD be obvious and the solution SHOULD be obvious and simple, but for whatever reason, the dots don’t quite connect. I didn’t have this specific problem (I was much too anxious as a kid to lose homework) but a lot of my friends and classmates did. It’s normal for the developmental stage–your parents probably aren’t monitoring your work so closely as they might have when you were younger, but your brain is also not fully developed, so some things inevitably slip through the cracks.

          10. boo bot*

            “I’m honestly curious as to why you continued to keep doing the things that you knew to be a problem…”

            Oh, man, I didn’t KNOW why!!! I wondered the same thing! Why COULDN’T I just do things right? Not being able to fix the problem is, in itself, part of the problem.

            Amusingly, this thread has reminded me of my own high-school and college notebook system: I would get a spiral notebook for every subject, with a different color cover for every one, and write the subject name on the cover.

            Then, I would carry the notebooks I needed for each day’s classes in my backpack, so I could take all my notes in the appropriate notebook.

            Then, I would get to my first class of the year, and take my notes in the appropriate notebook – let’s say, History.

            Then, I would go to my next class, let’s say Science, and because it wasn’t far away, I’d just carry my notebook instead of putting it in my backpack. Then, I’d take my Science notes in my History notebook because it was already in my hands.

            Then, I’d go to Math, and realize I’d forgotten my math notebook. So, I’d take out my Science notebook (as yet untouched!) and turn it into my Math notebook! (But it would still say “Science” on the cover, although I’d plan to change that later).

            … and so on. By the end of the semester, I’d have used all the notebooks, but my notes would be scattered among them almost completely at random. At some point I started getting three-subject notebooks with dividers, but I still took notes in the wrong sections. There would be stretches of time, where I’d get it right, but overall? It’s a miracle I graduated.

            1. fposte*

              “Not being able to fix the problem is, in itself, part of the problem. ”

              Oh, that is a really shrewd observation there.

              1. boo bot*

                Yeah, I’m amazed that questions like “Why can’t you just do better?” are so frequently rhetorical.

                Like, WHY, actually, can’t you just do better? There’s usually a useful answer to that question.

            2. Massmatt*

              This seems s one reason why I never liked spiral bound notebooks, this plus the spirals would inevitably get bent, and torn out pages look like crap unless they are perforated.

              Loose leaf binder! Problems solved!

              1. Shad*

                I use a combination system—a spiral notebook is easier for me to take notes in in the moment, but afterwards, I move actual notes (vs messily working out a math problem) to a 3-ring in the right section. Usually just when I get frustrated with trying to keep track of what notes are where, but I’m working on building the habit.

              2. boo bot*

                Haha, unfortunately the loose leaf binder was not a great solution for me – I didn’t like taking notes on pages that were already on the rings in the binder, so I’d take notes on the loose paper, then I’d be in a hurry and put the loose pages in the binder without putting them in the rings, or put them in a textbook, or another notebook, or a folder, then the pages would fall out somewhere…

                It should have worked (and it’s what I do now) but at the time it only increased the opportunities for chaos.

              3. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

                I was a big fan of the folders with two pockets and three prongs when I was in school. I’d use a differnt color for each subject and write the subjects on the front. I’d bind the notes and returned homework in the center section, anything that needed to be bound in went in the back pocket, and anything to be turned in went in the front pocket. I had another folder with blank notebook paper in one pocket and graph paper in the other pocket.

                As the term wore on, this would sometimes descend into chaos, particularly if I had classes where I didn’t end up really needing my notes much so I stopped taking and organizing them so those classes would end up with all of the papers just stuffed in their folder, but it worked really well for math and computer science classes with lots of notes and homework assignments to organize. It worked better for me than spiral notebooks since I could hole punch and bind in handouts as well, but I found it easier to not have everything in a giant binder while working on assignments.

                I developed this system in high school because I went to a school that couldn’t afford textbooks for the foreign language classes, so I had to keep organized notes for my French and Russian classes to have any chance of being able to look something up later. I had 3 different folders for each of those classes, though: Notes/vocab/grammar, Assignments, and Cultural. Mostly, I wanted all of the vocab and grammar notes to be really well organized since this was before we had internet at home (and before it was easy to use Cyrillic text mixed with Latin text even if you did have internet at home) so I had no other way to refer back to things from earlier in the year. We’d get handouts with important vocab on them sometimes, and other times be expected to write it down ourselves, and I definitely had to develop strong organizational routines to survive those classes! This came in handy later when I had a computer science professor who didn’t believe in textbooks and expected us to learn everything from lecture.

                1. Seeking Second Childhood*

                  I was a Trapper Keeper kid. Disorganized me was saved by those 2-pocket “portfolios”. I had a different color for each class YAY! I could slide loose papers into it YAY! I could even move papers from one color into the other when I realized I’d put it in the wrong place DOUBLE YAY!!
                  But it didn’t work for my daughter — in first grade, she got derailed by the cute animal photos on her folders (gee thanks gramma grrr) and wanted to have ALL THE ANIMALZ ALL THE TIME. I’d see her looking at the animals 5 minutes after she’d gone to put completed homework into it…and then she’d run off with the homework still not in the folder, and start playing with stuffed animals. And she’d get cranky that I made her go back to put her homework away.

            3. Sophia Brooks*

              I totally did this! And then when we had to turn in a notebook for a grade, I copied a friend’s notebook. I did totally fine in school though!
              When I got to college, I just carried a legal pad and three hole punched the notes into a three ring binder.

              1. boo bot*

                Another user of the System! I actually did fine in school, too – I think note-taking wasn’t that important a part of my learning process, or something? Or at least, note-having; I did okay with taking the notes.

                I don’t think I ever had to turn in a notebook for a grade – I literally have no idea what I would have done!

                1. Seeking Second Childhood*

                  boo bot: “Note-having” vs “note-taking” is a big thing. All the way back in psych 101 (when dirt was new) we were told about studies showing that the very act of taking notes reinforces it in your mind. Even if you never look at those notes again, you took the notes & that helps.
                  (Newer studies are showing that paper-based note-taking is better at this than typing notes into an ipad. I’ve seen nothing comparing paper to ipad for people who are physically unable to use paper btw.)
                  And turning in notebooks / binders for a grade is a hideous thing. Kids can be failing a class because of this even but get a 95 on the final exam.

                2. Kivrin*

                  “I’ve seen nothing comparing paper to ipad for people who are physically unable to use paper btw.”

                  What would there be to compare?

          11. Jedi Librarian*

            To add on to the pile, I honestly thought “so what?” Cause it worked more than it didn’t work. Like, 80% success rate. I’m only now getting out of the habit, but I still fall back on it cause it’s easy to. And it’s in a spot, so it’s fine, right?

            Well, as I get more and more important documents, I realize it’s not. (I almost lost my W2 because of this.) But… I don’t really know what else to do even when I try.

          12. AC*

            Thinking about how you think is hard. Recognizing your own patterns is hard, particularly when negative emotions like guilt or embarrassment might be involved. Moving from the mindset of “just do better next time” to the kinds of problem-solving and strategizing that people are talking about here is a big step that’s not necessarily intuitive; it often takes having it pointed out from the outside and/or just being in a place of being able to consider and accept all those big concepts that feed into it before an individual is able to successfully take that step (or, more accurately, the first step of many).

          13. JSPA*

            1. Living in the moment / not visualizing the future moment (“my math homework obviously belongs next to the questions / inside the back cover / behind the assignment sheet in the stuff-i-was-handed-in-school folder / in my English book because tomorrow i don’t have to bring in the math book, but i do need the English book / etc.”

            2. Blurred memory, after the fact, of all the similar (yet branching) decision pathways, over previous weeks.

            3. Vagueness as to which assignment is actually missing, powered by shame – avoidance.

          14. Harper the Other One*

            Executive functioning is a problem for a lot of teens – and not everyone grows out of it! It can be related to a diagnosis like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder but it can also just be the way someone is. So if you’re looking for resources to help someone, suggest they search for that particular phrase – there are tons of resources for developing executive functioning for all ages.

      3. Olivia Mansfield (formerly Mallory Janis Ian)*

        I have to write things down in my planner, and then I had to go to a Tiny Habits online session to establish a habit of, “When I sit down with my morning coffee, I will look at my planner.” Because before, I was writing a bunch of stuff down but forgetting to look at it. You have to look at it for it to work, apparently.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          DING DING DING. I am perplexing all the medical offices because I refuse the next-appointment card. I text myself the date&time — and send it to both home & work so it’s on my calendar AND I tell my manager.
          (One very young receptionist was so rattled when I gave it back that I realized it must be in HER personal checklist so I took it to sooth her. But I still threw it out before I left the building.)

    3. Marley*

      As a diagnosed with ADHD in her late 30s lady, I was amused to discover that many of the suggestions on how to manage your life with ADHD are things I already did!
      There’s a reason my smart phone never leaves my side–reminders, calendars, lists. It’s all there.

      Whether you have ADHD or not, you might find those kinds of resources helpful!

    4. Anathema Device*

      Why do you think others do them without effort? Don’t assume not seeing the effort from outside means it’s not happening.

      1. Eillah*

        Very much in the process of dismantling that idea, for sure, it’s a tough one to get rid of!

      2. Eillah*

        But I guess on a more meta level… in addition to needing a to-do list, I need to learn how to *keep up with* and *update* that to do list in the first place. So it’s not just about finding a system, it’s sticking with it. Whether rational or not I feel as if I’m screwing up something that’s so basic for everyone else.

        1. nonymous*

          I believe that’s a challenge for many people as well. Hence the prevalence of 30 day to NewHabit type articles. I will say that for people who are constantly about trying new systems that they may have developed a meta-habit of “time set aside to maintain system” where the details of maintenance.

        2. LadyGrey*

          That’s exactly my problem at the moment, thank you for putting it into words! Good luck!

      3. Move Over Thrawn - Florian Munteanu is BIGGER than you!*

        Exactly. I use multiple aids to help me keep track.

      4. Jen S. 2.0*

        Coming to say this. Rare is the person who is magically organized and together and great at everything and managing all the things (whatever the things are) with no effort. In fact, usually a lot of effort goes into the illusion of effortlessness!

        Sometimes they have been doing the things so long that now it’s natural, but it was a massive struggle at first and they kept at it until it wasn’t. Sometimes they wrestle wildly with the things in private to make them look like a cinch in public. Sometimes, sure, they’re naturally good at the things, but they drop the ball on quite a lot of other stuff that you don’t see, or are missing other skills. Sometimes they’ve learned to avoid the things they don’t do well, so of course it looks like they’re great at everything!

        But you shouldn’t feel like something is wrong with you because you need to put in effort to do or manage something that appears effortless for others. It’s very likely not effortless; you just don’t know where to look to see the effort.

      5. EH*


        People always think I’m so organized, but it’s because if I’m not meticulous with things I forget them! I actually put a lot of effort into maintaining my systems, but nobody sees me doing that so they think I’m just Naturally Organized. They don’t see me scurrying around to finish things I forgot about or taking ten minutes in the evening to figure out tomorrow’s to do list. It’s that whole “don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides” thing.

        I find discussions like this really reassuring, and let me tell you, if a coworker told me that they were having trouble keeping organized I would be really sympathetic and probably tell them a couple horror stories of my own! (and offer to share my methods if they wanted)

    5. Cheesecake2.0*

      As an early-30s lady who is finally getting a handle on this stuff, here are some of the things I use. Personal life – google calendars (one for me, one for hubby, one “family” calendar). If it ain’t on the calendar, it isn’t happening. Dr apts, vet apts, meetings, classes, date night, movies, vacations, bill due dates. All of it, put it on a calendar. Also, we use google Keep which is like shared note-taking. We have 1 for household item shopping. You use the last of the dried basil? Add it to the keep list. Every weekend when I grocery shop, I get everything on the list in addition to my meal planning stuff. We also have a second Keep note with the meal plan for the week with menu/recipes. So if my husband gets home first on Thursday night, he can open the recipe and start making dinner. Takes me about 1-2 hours once a week to do all the planning for this. For cleaning, we have a regular “schedule”. Saturday is laundry, Sunday is kitchen/living room, Monday is floors. Tuesday is garden, etc.

      For work, each night before I leave, I make a “To-Do” list for the next day, so I know exactly what to start on the next morning. I also keep all emails organized into different categories (1 folder per project, etc). I use my outlook calendar religiously. I write SOPs (standard operating procedures) for all tasks I do and essentially use them as a checklist to make sure I got all the steps. My job is very detail oriented and procedural so this works for me.

    6. Jennifer*

      Same. I’m older than you and still disorganized. I think the key is accepting that I am disorganized. I have been since I was a kid. It’s not changing. Before I was trying to actually change something that seems to be part of my personality. I’m never going to be the girl that enjoys shopping at The Container Store. What I can do is find a pretty low-effort method that works for me, like email reminders, and follow that process, instead of trying to be Miss Has it All Together. That will never be me.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        HA! Ironically I *love* shopping for containers & calendars & organizational tools. But I still often fail at USING containers & calendars & organizational tools.
        They pay me to stay organized at work…my problem is at home.

    1. CatCat*

      Seriously. He doesn’t need a “crutch”? Well, clearly he does because he keeps falling down!

      I’ll be interested in an update on this one. Part of me is wondering if he wants to be let go.

      1. boo bot*

        Yeah, I really hate the attitude behind that phrase. Something’s a “crutch”? So… it’s a useful device?

        I’d hate to be around this guy with a broken ankle.

      2. Moray*

        Some of us, when we don’t expect to succeed at something, want to not try, because then our failure can be blamed on the not-trying rather than our own shortcomings. We tell ourselves that we don’t really care and it doesn’t matter, because deep down we know that it will be so much more painful when we do care, try really hard and still fail anyway.

        I used to do that with school assignments I didn’t think I would pass when I was young–try to convince myself that I didn’t give a crap, shouldn’t put in any effort, and that’s why I would fail.

        This rings of that kind of self-sabotage to me.

        1. Loose Seal*

          Ooh, this is thought-provoking. Don’t know if it applies to OP’s employee but I can see some people in my life that it probably does.

        2. LondonBridges*

          I did that too! Except for me, it was just “I don’t have time to do this right and perfect because I procrastinated, so I’m just not gonna even start it.” Took me most of high school to break that self sabotage habit and let myself half-a** work, so I would at least get more than a zero.

        3. smoke tree*

          I also wonder if he might not want to invest much of his time and energy into developing these organizational skills. I’ve had a few coworkers, all of them male, who figured they could get away with avoiding this kind of boring work if they consistently half-assed it. Sadly, they were usually right.

        4. Kitryan*

          I did this for *years*. If you don’t try you can’t fail. An underachieving procrastinating genius is still a genius.
          Starting at the end of high school I started realizing that excuses weren’t going to cut it anymore and not finished/half assed work from a genius gets the same grade as anyone else’s unfinished/poorly done work.
          By the time I was finishing a 3 year grad program I had a earned a rep as smart, reliable, and organized.
          And for the most part I’ve kept that rep. I figured out my coping mechanisms and just stopped buying into the mystique that you were only really good at something if you didn’t have to try.

    2. irene adler*

      The tracking suggestions are not crutches. They are tools used for following through on all tasks he is responsible for. And currently he is not completing all of his tasks. Hence, he needs to modify his working style to be 100% complete on all of his work.

      1. Double A*

        Well… they are crutches, in the same way that a crutch helps you with a task you can’t do without support (i.e. walking when your ankle is broken). There’s really nothing negative about crutches! I don’t know why it has a negative connotation.

        I mean, writing things down is a “crutch” to support our memory. A powerpoint is a “crutch” to support your audience’s understanding. A crutch is only a problem if it’s not sustainable in the long run (like drinking to deal with your depression).

      2. Vermonter*

        The tracking suggestions are crutches. I can’t walk far without a cane/crutch; this guy can’t keep track of all his work without a spreadsheet.

    3. fposte*

      That’s actually one thing I might consider tackling as a manager, depending on the employee and situation. I think for a lot of career trajectories you move from a point when it’s fine to rely on memory to where it’s not tenable any more and you need to put in systems, and it can be hard to realize that that’s a natural progression and not a failing. So I might make that point and also say that I expect an employee at their level to be using standard professional organizational tools, so it’s clear that their use isn’t remedial.

      This can help reframe if an employee is thinking of this as a personal issue, but it’s not a guarantee; it could be a lifeline to somebody struggling with executive function and thinking this is a sign they’re failing, but if they’re determined that to-do lists are for quitters, I probably can’t convince them otherwise.

      1. Cartographical*

        This is good framing — people with ADHD and other EF disorders can suffer from rejection dysphoria (I’m not 100% sure I’m remembering that term correctly but it was explained to me as a disproportionately crushing feeling when receiving even mild correction) that appears as reflexive resistance.

        Sometimes, what also helps diffuse resistance is to give a short timeline for taking up the task, very short, so the impetus to start is internal but they don’t lose sight of the goal. Ten minutes for kids, 30 for teenagers, 24-48 hours for adults. “I’ll check back tomorrow to see how it’s going.” Displacing authority can also help reduce resistance to the messenger of the change: “I know you’re not happy but I’m getting pressure I can’t refuse from Grandboss.”

        It may seem patronising or infantilising on some level but the techniques are pretty effective, even with an older person like myself. However, if someone isn’t willing to change, nothing is going to help, and that’s not on anyone else.

        1. fposte*

          I agree with much here, but I would recommend against throwing blame for the requirement elsewhere; the manager needs to own her authority on this as on other things.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Yes, especially because it isn’t the manager’s responsibility to help the employee manage how his mind works/processes.

          2. Cartographical*

            True, that was mainly as an example of the management system — not necessarily applicable in this instance. Sorry.

      2. That Girl From Quinn's House*

        I’d also add, it’s worth examining the work environment to see if it doesn’t implicitly punish people who don’t have explicit, detailed answers right off the top of their head.

        1. fposte*

          I’m not seeing that as an issue in this situation, though–is there something I’m missing? This seems to be about timely completion and documentation.

          1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

            It’s not in the letter, it’s more of a general advisory. So often we become nose blind to the weird smells in our environment that a new person would pick up on, it’s always possible the new person is picking up on some implicit pressure the LW has already tuned out.

            1. fposte*

              It’s just that even if what you’re talking about is true, the employee is still fundamentally lacking. If you haven’t done the work, that’s a bigger problem than expectations of answer style.

      3. Quinalla*

        This is really interesting and not something I’ve ever thought of before. Most organizational tool/trick/etc. I’ve learned I’ve been like “Why didn’t someone tell me this sooner!”, but I hadn’t thought about those who think they must be failing if they have to use some external tool to keep organized. To me, it’s always been clear that you have to use them when you get to a certain level or fail and I’m always on the look out for the next one that will take me to the next level, but yeah, I can see that some folks when first getting to that “oh shit, maybe I can’t hack this” moment thinking that any kind of a tool is a weakness. I’m going to have to think about this some more!

        1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

          I find it a bit odd too. It’s bit even a crutch, just an appropriate tool for a certain level of complexity in your day.

          When I was working on my PhD thesis I found that a detailed calendar was pointless because my to do list was not much more complex than “wake up, make coffee, write thesis”. Obviously there were a lot of different tasks included in “write thesis” but I didn’t have to do a lot of keeping track of things because the process of writing itself kept things organised.

          But when I have worked on multiple tasks, or had to collaborate with others, or defer certain tasks, then I need some kind of system to make sure everything is completed. It’s not about difficulty or skill as much as it is quantity and fragmentation. I wonder if this person is getting hung up on a notion that smart people should be able to just do things without needing help of any kind.

          1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

            *not* even a crutch… I swear sometimes autocorrect changes words as soon as I hit submit.

      4. Remote Worker and Dog Lover*

        I love emphasizing that organizational tools aren’t remedial but an expected part of work, especially as you get more senior.

    4. Snark*

      Yup. To expand: there’s a certain flavor of (usually male) who is just too smart to bother himself with being organized and accountable, too smart to need systems to get and say organized, and too smart to listen to direction when their disorganization and accountability is causing problems for others. Because they’re very smart boys, you see, and that’s all they’ve ever needed, and all they ever should need, and the role of the other people (usually women) in their life is to scurry about taking care of the small details so they can think big thoughts and whatever. They don’t need crutches, they need someone to take care of the boring, crappy stuff for them.

      And screeeew a whole lot of that guy.

      1. A Certain Flavor*

        Wow. How would the Commentariat react here if this post read “To expand: there’s a certain flavor of (usually female) who is just too hypercritical and closed-minded to understand how pedantic and overbearing they are. They have processes and procedures they’re committed to, because they work for them and they think they’re so smart because of it that they can’t entertain any different point of view. They’re just too smart to hear their little system might not be perfect. Because they’re very smart girls, you see, their little systems are all they ever needed, all they should ever need and the role of other people in their lives (usually men) is to kowtow to their every whim because they’ve been beating their heads against the glass ceiling for a few decades. They don’t need big-picture people in their lives, they need other people to obsess over the excruciating minutiae that rules them.”
        How would that be? Would that be offensive? Would that be unacceptable? Would that be so beyond the pale here in these comments that maybe Alison would even consider taking it down?
        Would the commenter be accused of being whatever the man-hating equivalent of a misogynist is?
        Wow. Here, let me avoid using a gender-neutral pronoun. I am a male human, and this comment is reprehensible.

        1. Wrong Target*

          Snark’s a man. He’s describing men he knows. Calm down.

          I’ve run into many female versions of the person he described, and wouldn’t assume it’s a male-only phenomenon, for whatever it’s worth.

          1. Snark*

            I know this kind of guy, I’ve worked with this kind of guy, and at various times I’ve been this kind of guy.

            1. Wrong Target*

              Haha. Me, too, as a female version of him. I do actually have ADHD, but that doesn’t mean it’s anyone else’s responsibility to mind me like a nanny.

          2. Mr. Shark*

            …and telling anyone, especially a woman (based on feedback I’ve heard) to Calm Down would have the opposite effect.

            I agree with A Certain Flavor…whether Snark is a man or woman, that was an over-the-line post.

        2. Snark*

          I stopped reading this overheated geyser of nonsense after it became clear it was based on a false equivalency, but I had no idea Alison had appointed moderators!

          1. A Certain Flavor*

            Okay, touché. I obviously disagree with you; but “overheated geyser of nonsense” is a GREAT line. May I use that?

        3. Seifer*

          I can’t even with this. Flipping the script doesn’t make any sense. At that point you’re just getting into advice column fanfiction.

        4. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Flipping the genders doesn’t work because Snark is talking about an effect of sexist socialization — a world in which a dominant group is rewarded for or just allowed behavior that others aren’t. It’s fine to talk about the way sexism plays out, which is not just about how it harms women.

          Regardless, this is now derailing and we need to move on.

      2. Cathy Gale*

        I agree, this isn’t fair. Executive function disorders like ADHD can look different in men and women, but the people involved do care, a lot. Everything you described about disorganization describes my gifted spouse who also has ADHD, and he doesn’t think he’s too smart, he often thinks he shouldn’t need systems because earlier in life, he didn’t, and others still don’t appear to.

          1. Snark*

            I apologize. After that post above, I was running a little warm, and that came out sharper than I intended.

            That said, my point, which was that I don’t think it’s necesary to invoke notional diagnoses when this is a social/gender dynamic that I’ve observed and participated in often in my life.

          1. Blossom*

            Yeah, I’ve worked with this guy and, lovely as he was, I did find it an example of unconscious sexism (not just on his part, but the societal assumptions we all unconsciously hold). He praised me heavily for being so organised and on top of the detail, and shrugged off his own disarray (that impacted on me). What he didn’t realise is that my “organisation” was the result of endless effort, going against the grain of my naturally quite daydreamy/big-picture brain. He seemed to see me as a trusty sidekick to take care of all the boring stuff while he got on with incubating genius schemes. It would never occur to me that I could get away with bringing my scatty-clever-schoolgirl self to the workplace without applying some sensible adult polish first.

        1. Former Employee*

          This is late so it’s possible no one will read it.

          When I was younger, I didn’t need glasses. Once I hit my 40’s, my vision for close work started to deteriorate, so now I use reading glasses.

          Who cares what other people do/don’t need? I’d rather be the one with the glasses than the one who is squinting at the page or holding it at some weird angle to make it easier for me to read the small print.

      3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        “I don’t need these instructions!!!” *burns them in sacrifice*
        “Dude, why is this built backwards? Where do these screws go, why are there extra screws?”
        “ITS NOT BACKWARDS, YOU ARE. Screws are CRUTCHES, I don’t need no crutch!”

        1. Kitryan*

          Ha! I was praised for ‘saving’ a superior when all I’d done was actually read the document from the client (the instructions) and pointed out the terms the superior would have to comply with. Some people do *not* want to read the instructions!

    5. R*

      Right? I think it’s interesting that he considers organizational tools to be “crutches.” As if organized people are just magic? Or they have photographic memory, and they never write anything down?

      I’ve always been told I’m an “organized person” but that’s because I use a google calendar, spreadsheets, and reminders. And I carry a planner with me everywhere I go. Nobody is “naturally” organized – it takes work, just like anything else!

      (It kind of reminds me of the “emotional labor” thing. No, your wife isn’t just magically better at remembering birthdays…she writes them down!)

      1. Kiki*

        Yes, I am considered very organized but it’s a result of being very forgetful! I know I forget a lot, so I put systems in place to keep me on track.

        I do know some people who are able to remember everything going on without having a reminder system in place; a lot of them don’t have very much going on and then there are a few wildly gifted folks.

        Spreadsheets, calendars, and reminders are not crutches– they are necessary tools.

        1. OrangeHat*

          Whereas I am definitely guilty of being less organised than ‘I should because I’ve got a good memory and tend to be quite good at reacting to things off the cuff. Over-relying on that has gotten me into serious trouble over the years – yes, I can get away with a pretty slapdash approach 80% of the time but the world of work taught me that I needed to adopt some systems because the other 20% was not pretty. Still doesn’t come naturally to me at all, but I’m much better than I was.

        2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

          Absolutely. I am organized as hell — because I have ten calendars, three to-do lists, a whack of alarms and reminders that all buzz at me, and am literally never out of reach of some combination of my watch, phone and tablet where the buzzing happens. But once something goes into a drawer, I will completely forget it ever existed, unless I put a big label on the front of the drawer or otherwise draw my attention back to it somehow.

      2. Mystery Bookworm*

        Yes. And often as we achieve goals (more work responsbility, a house, a family, friends) we wind up with the need to do more organisation. At a certain point you really just need tools to help make that work.

        We’ve had some issues with an in-law of mine who just doesn’t see himself as the kind of person to use a calendar. He just has this image of himself (as laid-back, maybe?) and a calendar doesn’t fit into it. He’s so locked into this point of view that he can’t see it’s changing other people’s image of him to someone who’s inconsiderate and unreliable.

        My partner and I can fall into that trap as well. We imagine that if we have an unplanned weekend it will be a relaxing oasis. But now that we have a home and a dog and a baby in route, an unplanned weekend is generally just kind of a mess (there are exceptions, of course). Planning is – paradoxically – actually what allows us to do the really relaxing and fun things.

      3. The Bean*

        It’s such a weird way to look at it. Being an organized person who is on top of deadlines usually means have a tracker and or calendar.

      4. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        This. I was always amazed by how my mom knew when/where everything was. I forget everything! You just know!
        “I write things down. And I check my list.”
        Oh. Way cooler when you were magic, Mom.

      5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Absolutely. I also don’t really know anyone my age (or older) who doesn’t have some kind of organizational system. I truly don’t have any room in my head to remember all the things I need to do—having external tools it what lets me get through the day without feeling like all my mental processes are being allocated to remembering my to-do list.

        1. MayLou*

          The adults I’ve known who don’t have a planner/diary/organiser have been long-term unemployed with pre-school children, who have needed support because they were struggling to cope with the increasing demands of life as their children got older and therefore busier. In a lot of cases, they had never learned any different. Schools seems to now use homework planners and I think that probably helps fill the gaps for children from families where there’s not a lot of structure or need for organisational planning.

        2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          I have post-its reminding me to look at another post-it. As my responsibilities have expanded in the workplace and in my personal life I have had to start using tools I never needed before to keep on top of everything.

      6. EddieSherbert*

        So much this! It’s not really a memory thing and just consciously using the (often free and easy to access) tools available to you. I LOVE Google calendars. I also like and use whiteboard calendars and the annual paper calendars with fun photos.

        However, I’m also married to someone who adamantly ignores the Google calendar we share and the annual calendar in the kitchen and monthly calendar in our office, and (still) insists I have magically-unattainable-organization-and-memory (despite knowing the truth – for several years now)… So maybe there is *some* skill to it – like the ability to remember to check those things often!

        1. Mystery Bookworm*

          Using organisational tools is definitely a skill (or habit, depending on what you mean by ‘using’) but certainly one that can be learned and cultivated.

          1. Pommette!*

            Using them is a skill, as is picking the tools that will work with and for your particular brain and work processes.
            Depending on how you want to look at things, I have either failed at using most of the tools I’ve tried, or those tools have failed me. But I try to being open minded about trying new things, and analytical about how and why the things that didn’t work out failed. Skills can be learned (albeit sometimes really slowly and laboriously)!

    6. Bee*

      Yeah, my automatic response to “I’m on top of it” was “Well, you clearly aren’t.” Naturally I would follow this with a whole thing about how that’s to be expected at this volume, none of his peers carry all this information in their heads, and the whole point of organizational systems is to free up the brain space to focus on more important things. But if he can’t see this, that’s the problem.

    7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yes. IME, this kind of bizarre response usually indicates that this is (1) a person who cannot accept feedback, and (2) cannot accept help because (3) it threatens his very fragile sense of self. None of those things are issues OP created or can solve, and he’s demonstrated to OP that he refuses to (re)solve it himself.

      It’s incredibly basic and normal to do things like keep a spreadsheet for tracking purposes. To refer to core organizational tools as “crutches” sounds like he has some significant insecurities about his own competence and is projecting those insecurities onto OP’s suggested tools. OP cannot save someone from their own commitment to self-sabotage.

    8. Marley*

      Yep! It’s not a crutch, not even a coping mechanism, but a system for managing complex tasks because the human brain is not infallible.

      1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

        Exactly. It’s not a special extra thing that only people who struggle need. It’s a core competency of being successful at this job.

    9. JustaTech*

      I would be tempted to say “It’s not a crutch, it’s a truck.” Yes, you could walk everywhere you need to go and just carry things, and maybe that used to work for you, but now your job needs you to move all 20 of these bags of cement mix *today* and that just isn’t possible if you’re walking. Use the truck.

      1. Mpls*

        +1 – Both are tools (crutch and truck), but the crutch implies the user is impaired in some way. But the reality is that the dates/information/etc is more than one person can carry, so they need the truck.

        And as someone in a highly regulated global industry that requires audits from multiple countries’ health agencies in addition to all the audits that go with being a publicly trade company, I am cringing at the idea of missing/messing up audits.

    10. ArtK*

      “I don’t need a crutch.”

      “Since your current methods aren’t improving anything, I don’t think that’s an appropriate response. What tool are you going to try first to improve this situation?”

      “I don’t need a crutch.”

      “This is not negotiable. Either use the tools available or start polishing your resume.”

    11. Pommette!*

      Yes! As is the (implied) premise that there is something wrong with “crutches” at all.

      Crutches are tools that you use to support your body (or brain) in order to do things that you want, or need, to do. That is awesome.

      Finding the right set of crutches for your needs can be hard, and it could be that the spreadsheet wasn’t the right kind of crutch for the employee’s needs. But at least try to find something that helps!

  2. Plain Jane*

    A spreadsheet would be a good idea even if he WAS on top of all the audits in case he suddenly got ill and had to be out for a week.

    1. Yvette*

      Good point, and it could be presented that way, in case someone else needs to temporarily take over. Don’t most places where people are responsible for monies have to take a week at a time? Or am I mistakenly assuming that the word “audit” implies finances?

      1. Hallowflame*

        I think the 1-week break policy id specific to banking/trading. I have been working in finance/accounting in several industries (not banking/trading) for years and never been subject to this policy.
        And the term audit just means to review for compliance. It can be applied to almost any kind of review process where one checks to ensure rules or processes are being followed.

        1. a clockwork lemon*

          This isn’t just applicable to external audits in particular. My role involves working with a lot of complicated data cycles and on a given day any single event in my sets are at a different stage in its cycle. Because there’s so many of them (think several thousand per quarter) and three to five steps per cycle, I keep a weekly spreadsheet of where everything’s at and do an internal processes audit every so often.

          This way, I can get on top of things and check to see if stuff is at the next stage in its cycle to update proactively instead of getting swamped by our system’s internal alerts when it auto-updates once a month, and I can also look back to make sure I haven’t accidentally missed anything.

          It also makes me look like a rockstar when I can give status updates to my team seemingly off the top of my head.

    2. misplacedmidwesterner*

      That’s what I came here to say. What if he was in a car accident and had to be out for six weeks?
      Quite frankly as a manager, there are some big enough projects I insist on shared tracking on for just that reason. Accountability for the staff member and emergency coverage.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      My immediate supervisor is extremely on top of things, but one of the reasons she is extremely on top of things is that she freaking uses spreadsheets. A lot.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Right? It’s a transferable tool.

      And that means that he’s even easier to replace, right/right?

    5. LKW*

      This was my thinking. I had a co-worker who had to take over a position because the guy was killed by a falling tree. My coworker had to go through all the files to create a tracker/process/the whole thing because the guy that knew this was dead.

      Perhaps this guy wants to be indispensable and thinks this is the way to do it.

    6. Granger Chase*

      Especially with him being on a PIP and management & HR ready to fire, it would be good to start getting as much of his current workload uploaded into a spreadsheet so the individual handling his work in the interim of finding a replacement is not left totally directionless. I am thinking a person who sees using an Excel spreadsheet as a “crutch” probably does not have great organizational systems for their files, emails, etc. as well, which will make a transition period all the more difficult.

    7. TardyTardis*

      Yes, a Strong Suggestion to create ‘hit by a bus’ folder could easy open the creator’s eyes…one would hope, anyway.

  3. Kiki*

    I think requiring a spreadsheet at this point is a good idea. It could save his job, which would be great. But even if it doesn’t, having some amount of tracking of what’s been done will be helpful if he has to be let go.

    1. R.D*

      Yes. To me it is weird that there is not already a system in place to track completion of the internal audits. In my opinion, this should not be his personal tracking spreadsheet, but the departmental tracking tool which would be in integral part of the internal audit processes.

  4. Detective Amy Santiago*

    My advice would be to present the PIP along with one last offer of helping set up an organizational system. If he accepts, great, help him set up something. If he declines, well… you’ll probably have to let him go.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Agreed—this is the way I would go, except I’d make it an express condition.

      PIP + he has to accept and utilize an organizational system of OP’s choice (or he must suggest and implement an alternate organizational system), or immediate firing. Personally, I think it’s appropriate to fire him at this point because he has a bizarre and self-sabotaging approach to OP’s feedback. But if the purpose is to give him another lifeline so that OP feels like they did everything they could, then by all means, offer the lifeline. But make acceptance mandatory. This is a lot of effort to sink into someone who seems unconcerned with the effect it’s having on his professional reputation and performance.

    2. BethRA*

      I would insist on a spreadsheet as part of the PIP – because OP needs to be able to track his progress between meetings, and he’s shown he can’t keep track of tasks on his own.

      1. EddieSherbert*

        Plus, if he is fired after the PIP, having documation for his projects would be helpful.

  5. Sara without an H*

    OP, are you a rescuer? (Think about it.) I, too, have invested way too much time and energy in attempts to save employees from themselves. As a result, I drained myself without actually doing the employee any good at all.

    This is a core component of the job, you’ve been explicit about what the employee needs to do, and he still can’t or won’t do it. Run the PIP to completion, document how he performs while on it, then let him go. You’ve done everything you can. Don’t look back.

    1. Snark*

      Good catch. Don’t be the best supporting actress to this guy’s so-smart lead actor, OP.

    2. JustaTech*

      And also, yes, it will suck to have to find someone new and train them up to do this guy’s job, and maybe whoever the new person is won’t be as good at some of the non-audit stuff.
      But at least if you get a new person you can make sure from the get-go that they’re super organized about the audits so you can spend the time you were using on Mr Disorganized to work on new skills with a new person.

    3. LKW*

      It doesn’t sound like it. The OP has made the stakes clear and initiating steps to termination. I don’t think the concern of “Could I have done something different” is rescuing so much as validation that this situation was completely preventable by the employee.

      But I agree it raises a question about empathy and giving too many chances.

    4. The Other Dawn*

      Well, I now have a label for my younger self! I’ve done the same thing. There were at two employees in which I invested way too much time and energy trying to help them succeed and in the end, they didn’t no matter how much I tried. My older self now realizes it’s up to the employee to WANT to succeed and do as much as they can to get there. I can only do so much. They need to take it from there.

  6. Snark*

    This sounds, to be horribly blunt, like someone who needs to learn a lesson the hard way, with his crap in a box. If this person thinks that typical, universally used, basic tools of project management, used by basically every competent professional I know, are “crutches,” then he’s beyond coaching, beyond the holding of hands, and frankly not worth any further effort.

    1. JokeyJules*

      everyone has to learn some really hard lessons. sometimes the hard way.

      you just get a front row seat for this one, OP.

    2. Jen S. 2.0*

      And more to the point, you don’t need to feel bad about this person’s blunt insistence that doing what he needs to do to accomplish what needs to be done will somehow undermine his credibility. No, he’s undermining his credibility all by himself. Your feelings don’t need to get involved with his insistence on self-sabotage.

      Dear people of the world: The rest of us are not out here remembering everything perfectly and getting it all done with nothing other than our brains, some willpower, and a smile. People use calendars and lists and notes and trackers and alarms and plans and guides and templates and programs and frameworks and maps and gadgets and tips. As they should.

  7. The Bimmer Guy*

    It sounds to me like he just needs to go. I can understand that some people are disorganized and need a bit of help, but I don’t understand the stubbornness. Typically, people are usually open to help from management and being given new strategy…especially when they’re told they’re in danger of being fired. And it sounds like he has a really gung-ho attitude about the whole thing, too, when he really needs to be saying, “Oh, geez. This is a major issue for the organization and for me, because I’m going to lose my job if I don’t fix it.”

    Unless the PIP is purely for documenting a case toward firing him, he’s clearly uninterested in making changes to get the results you require. That’s…not a winning formula. I’d remove him from the role ASAP.

  8. Dasein9*

    About to turn 50 here and am actively grateful at least once a week to the supervisor who insisted that I learn to manage my time and workload effectively. People actually think I’m “the organized type,” when I have in the past been anything but. Tools for organization are not “crutches;” they are what we use to accomplish what we must without dropping the ball.

      1. Yorick*

        Yes! Tools! Using a hammer instead of putting nails in wood with only your hand doesn’t mean you’re bad at carpentry.

        1. LKW*

          Actually, using your hand would make you a very bad carpenter. A very sore carpenter who is likely bleeding.

    1. Zombeyonce*

      I know how you feel! People think I have a great memory because I always know what’s coming up and never forget to buy birthday presents in time and remember everything I need when I go on vacation.

      The thing is, I have a horrible, no good, very bad memory, but I have tools (crutches) in place to fix that problem. I have To Do lists organized really well in an app I can access anywhere. I have birthday reminders set 1 month, 1 week, and 1 day early so I can get presents in time, and I keep a list of everything I need to pack on a trip and add to it as needed (plus lists for each kid, too).

      Find your weakness and let solving it make you better, I say.

    2. Hamburke*

      Exactly! I’m the organized-type BECAUSE I make lists, checking systems and set reminders.

  9. Jamie*

    As the head of internal audits I can tell you trying to maintain the level of organization required without tools (such as calendars and spreadsheets) is a huge red flag that he doesn’t understand the level of importance of what he’s doing.

    How is he tracking follow up of any CARs or OFIs resulting from the audits? This would be wildly concerning to me.

    1. The Bimmer Guy*

      Minus the industry-specific bits, those were my exact thoughts. I would think that documentation and organization were requirements for internal auditing.

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*


      I am just dumbfounded that someone responsible for auditing doesn’t naturally have checklists and process all over the darned place.

      Has he done this work before? Was he trained to do this before?

      I would be very tempted to have a direct conversation about what his auditing strategy is and then to spend a lot of time staring at him with a perplexed stare when it turns out it’s “I know it when I see it.” If he doesn’t have a documentable process, whether it’s a spreadsheet or stickers on a chart, he is simply not doing his job. End of story.

    3. BadWolf*

      Yes, I feel like a good fit for an auditor is using an extensive “paper” trail of spreadsheets, lists, etc. Not viewing such things as a crutch.

    4. Close Bracket*

      I, too, have been head of internal audit. Add my voice to those boggling at the thought of doing this without some sort of organizational tool. I hope they have an organizational database for CARs.

    5. Mr. Shark*

      Yes, I agree. I don’t know how you run audits without tracking all the CARs or OFIs, along with making sure to schedule everything to meet all requirements. Ugh! I can’t imagine.

  10. ELWM73*

    You refer to audits so the tools suggested are not about doing a job well but being in compliance-your audit requirements should describe what is needed and if he refuses to comply…well…

  11. StressedButOkay*

    As a person who is not naturally organized, these “crutches” (i.e., tools to do my job) are a lifeline. I track everything that can possibly be tracked, use Outlook reminders/Tasks every day AND I still have written weekly lists and a physical calendar on my desk.

    Not all of us are good at keeping this in our heads and, honestly, some of it needs to live where other people can access it and see it, too!

    He’s either incredibly blind to his own shortcomings or has no interest in saving his job.

    1. Anonym*

      AND externalizing all these things to calendars, spreadsheets, etc. frees up precious mental space for more strategic thinking! The amount of time I used to spend just trying to *remember* little things…

      1. StressedButOkay*

        Yes! I do not have the ability to recall all the particulars of phone calls, for example, so I have a lovely tracking sheet that I keep simple notes in case someone has a question about a phone call or a voicemail I received. I tried to remember something from a call once and got it all backwards – never, ever again.

    2. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      This. OP is worried about this guy keeping his job. But this guy is worried about how he looks doing it.
      “I don’t need an electronic tool to help me do my job.”
      First of all, there is a billion dollar industry out there thriving because we all do! Secondly, if your manager asks you to use a spreadsheet, just do it. Is that a hill do die on?

      1. Auntie Social*

        See, I would understand if the guy had a super memory, never forgot a thing, and didn’t want to use a spreadsheet because to him they’re just busy work. But the boss wants a spreadsheet because every system needs a backup. . . so you create a spreadsheet or some system that (1) shows other lesser mortals the status of things, and (2) allows you to go on vacation and not come back to a train wreck. And at raise time, doesn’t the spreadsheet show that you’ve done your job flawlessly?

        1. Glitsy Gus*

          Exactly. Even if he were keeping everything in order (which he is not) there needs to be something in place that lets the department know what is in process, pending and complete so that if he gets hit by a bus on the way in things don’t grind to a halt due to lack of information.

      2. Atlantis*

        My whole industry uses management systems. The specific software/form it takes changes from location, but half the job postings I see say something along the lines of “familiarity with case management tracking systems a plus”. I even had to design a very simple electronic barcode one myself as a school project.

        They certainly do good business.

    3. LKW*

      +1 for the two key points

      1. I doubt anyone can keep it all straight in their head. I’ve yet to see it.
      2. Communication is key. When things go wrong, when things go right – everyone needs to be on the same page.

  12. Celeste*

    I think you should not just let him go, but get the spreadsheet you want in place so that you can bring your new hire up using it.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Yes, this. At Exjob, I was required to use AwesomeBoss’s spreadsheet. Granted, she also relied on it for her budget forecasting; it wasn’t just for me. I could use anything else I wanted to help me stay on top of things, but the spreadsheet was presented to me from the get-go as THE department tool for my job.

  13. Lora*

    I used to work with this guy. It’s maddening. As Alison said – if you really, really want to do this, you CAN tell him, “use the spreadsheet / checklist / Outlook alerts / whatever that I gave you, dammit” and if he doesn’t, oh well, don’t let the door hit you buddy. Dude can find a job that better suits his talents, whatever they may be.

    I think it’s more feasible to fix in someone fresh out of college. Once the bad habit or the belief that they totally are awesome is ingrained in them, it’s much harder to change. You may also be running uphill against the “I can’t really hear you” thing: I say this because it’s happened to me this past week, repeatedly so it’s at the top of my mind:

    You: Please use the spreadsheet and Outlook reminders I asked you to use last week.
    Employee: I don’t like spreadsheets, I’ve done okay so far.
    You: Actually you missed XYZ and ABC and I really need you to use the spreadsheet. Just give it a try.
    Employee: Naaaahhh, I like my way.
    You: I don’t want to put you on a PIP, but this is getting to be a bit much.
    Employee: Yah OK I guess I’ll use it
    (doesn’t use spreadsheet, continues to screw up)
    And then when you have to put the employee on a PIP and say, “you are going to be fired in 60 days if you do not use the spreadsheet like I told you,” employee will be shocked as heck.

    In the case of the dude I used to work with, the only thing he really “hears” is you shouting at the top of your lungs that you will fire him with extreme prejudice if he doesn’t do exactly as he is told, and you really do have to pump up the volume and drop all the Please and Thank You that you’d use with a regular person, so everyone all the way down the hall knows he’s messed up again. And then *what* he hears is, you’re just mad at him / don’t like him, have a personal beef with him. It honestly doesn’t dawn on him that you’re not MAD, you are frustrated and tired of his obliviousness and you really, really just need him to do exactly what you are telling him, pronto, without arguing or whining. A few of his previous bosses told me they had the same issue with him, and I know at least one ended up firing him because he just didn’t want to do the shouting every day that seemed necessary to trephine a hole through the layers of self-absorption that were wrapped around the dude’s thick skull.

    1. Snark*

      Quality Bronze Age skull-drilling reference!

      And yeah, I have worked with this guy too. It took our boss literally hollering at him to actually understand she was even upset, and then it was just “what’s her problem? sheez”

      1. irene adler*

        This guy did our annual ISO audit- once.
        Very personable guy. Very knowledgeable on the subject matter.
        He told us we passed. The cert would be in the mail in about 2 weeks.
        Well, 3 weeks later, no cert.
        We make calls. Auditor never available – he’s out auditing.
        More weeks pass.
        More calls- to his manager this time. He tells us auditor is out auditing.
        We explain situation- no cert received.
        “I see”, says manager.
        Later, manager calls us to explain that auditor is so busy performing audits that he cannot find time to write closing reports, issue certs. So he has grounded auditor until all reports are caught up.
        Cert received a few days later.

        Guess what? Next year we get a new auditor. Prior auditor no longer employed there.

  14. boo bot*

    So my main advice is to tell him, “do this or you’re fired,” and I don’t think you really need anything more than that.

    If you do that, though, and he says, “I really want to but spreadsheets killed my childhood gerbil and I can’t bear to work with them,” or something, I would suggest he should try keeping a handwritten record like an organizer or wall chart, possibly with different colors (which should be HIS responsibility to figure out, not yours).

    The reason I say this is, as someone naturally disorganized (AKA, ADHD) I suck at tracking things through spreadsheets because:

    (1) I have a hard time reading them and absorbing the information because of the way they’re laid out.
    (2) I forget they exist. Seriously, I just forget they’re there. I could put a note on the side of my computer screen, reminding me to update the spreadsheet, and the note would become as part of the scenery, with no more rhyme or reason than a cloud.

    Anyway, handwritten planners with colored markers and other designated planning materials that I can always see (i.e. that don’t vanish when I close out the tab) work; email and calendar reminders never do – the phone beeps and I look, and then my brain marks it as “done” and I never think about it again.

    TL;DR he should just do this, if he asks for alternatives tell him to try physical-world planners.

    1. Lora*

      Heh, I like this – if I could do my job using Trapper Keepers for each project, I totally would. Plus, there is definitely something more authoritative about marching into an update meeting with a big notebook full of multicolored sticky notes, opening it to page 50 and saying, “Anthony, you had committed to filing the permit license paperwork on 11 November 83, can you please update us on your progress?” with a big toothy smile.

    2. the Viking Diva*

      Glad you brought this up – I was also wondering whether insistence on a spreadsheet was part of the problem. I have colleagues who honestly can’t find information in a spreadsheet and definitely can’t build one themselves, while I would always be happier to treat lists as data where I can tick things off and change the colors and re-sort columns like a fiend. I have learned to accept it as a mental processing difference. I think the OP can insist on a system that s/he can check too, but there may be reasons (in addition to the attitudinal problem that others have discussed) why a spreadsheet is not the way to go.

      1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

        I also thought about this. We don’t know word for word who said what and how the other one understood it, but I wonder if somehow “you should use a system like x or y” became “you must do x” and “I don’t believe x would help me” became “I don’t want to try anything”. Of course the part about not needing a crutch doesn’t fit this explanation very well. Still I think the focus should be more at what needs to happen, not how to achieve it. It’s very common that people aren’t very good at making the distinction between “this absolutely has to be done this exact way and nothing else will work” and “to do this, I think x is the best and easiest way, but if you want to do it differently it’s ok”.

        1. boo bot*

          Yeah, if I were in my youthful days and told, “You are too disorganized, so you have to track everything you do through a spreadsheet,” I can imagine being totally demoralized and kind of defensive, because to me it would sound like, “You’re failing, so we’re going to track your failure with a system you will also fail at.”

          (In my current, less youthful days, I would either use the spreadsheet as a secondary system and bring in my own organization stuff, or explain why it wouldn’t work and what I actually needed.)

          This guy’s responses make me not really want to champion him, because he sounds like he’s not interested in dealing with the problem, but I can see where he might be coming from.

          1. Pommette!*

            Everything about this comment is spot on, and the phrase “You’re failing, so we’re going to track your failure with a system you will also fail at” is a perfect encapsulation of a frustration many of us disorganized people have felt at some point.

            Navigating organization system is tough until you figure out what kinds of things work well for you.

      2. boo bot*

        Yeah, I think it’s a literal mental processing difference. To me the lines on a spreadsheet can kind of all mingle together and it’s hard to tell which item matches what; I’m very, very prone to misreading them.

        I wouldn’t object to putting data into that format if necessary, but I wouldn’t use it as my only/primary organization tool – I wasn’t joking about forgetting the spreadsheet exists!

    3. alphabet soup*

      Addressing your first point, have you ever tried using Airtable? They have different “views” for spreadsheets– e.g. a card layout, a form layout, etc rather than your standard grid layout. What’s nice is that you don’t have to create a new spreadsheet to get the view– you can maintain the data in the standard grid, but choose to view it as cards. And if you have to share a spreadsheet with others, each person can have their own personal view, so if Fergus likes standard grid layout and you don’t, you can still view the same data in card layout.

      I just recently discovered Airtable and my mind was blown by this feature. :)

      1. Loose Seal*

        Holy @&#%! I just looked at the video tour for Airtable and it is fab-u-lous!

        Someone down below suggested there be a Friday thread for organizational tools and this one should absolutely be mentioned.


    4. Dust Bunny*

      I LOATHE spreadsheets . . .

      . . . but I am willing to use other tools.

      If you need spreadsheets specifically as part of your documentation then, yes, he has to do them. If you’re just offering them as an organizational tool, it’s OK if they don’t work for him, but he has to be willing to do something else.

      1. Washi*

        Yeah, if this employee is so uninterested in collaboratively finding a solution to the problem that he can’t vocalize “I’m not great with spreadsheets but I’m going to try this paper calendar of deadlines” then there’s not much the OP can do to help him. As Alison said, it would be different if he were actively trying to work on the issue, but it sounds like mainly the OP is making suggestions and the employee is shooting them down.

        OP, this guy is making your decision pretty easy. If he were a delight in the office and clearly trying to improve and maybe making marginal progress but still juuuust missing the mark of where you needed him to be, you would have a much harder time letting him go.

    5. Alianora*

      Yep – I actually like spreadsheets a lot, but as task management tools they don’t work for me, unless I’m tracking specific project-level tasks. For day to day I stick with pen and notebook.

  15. ILoveHR*

    As a long time HR Manager, I often tell my supervisors that firing poor performers can actually help the employee to realise they are not a good fit in that job. Often the supervisors confuse the poor performance as being a bad human being. On the contrary, most employees have a hard time admitting they are in the wrong job. Several fired employees reported back they took time to reassess their talents/abilities and found a job with a better money and benefits!

    1. Princess prissypants*

      Yep, dudes who can’t be bothered to understand why the world doesn’t revolve around them.

  16. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    He’s doing this to himself. You’ve done everything possible, including being understanding and giving him suggestions. However he poo-poos them away because he doesn’t want a “crutch”, despite not being able to keep up with a part of his job! You cannot internalize this and feel bad for him. This is the wake-up call he needs because he’s being stubborn to the point of self destruction. You cannot stop it from happening, he has to see that being great at a portion of the job isn’t enough, you have to at least be okay at the portion that isn’t as easy for you.

  17. Silver Fig*

    TIL that spreadsheets are crutches. I will give this more though on the way home, while driving the hatchback crutch I have to use because I can’t run fifty miles an hour.

    1. KayEss*

      I’m sure if you just tried hard enough, you’d be cruising along on your own two feet, just like the rest of us! /s

    2. fposte*

      I was thinking of cars myself! Even setting aside the fact that a crutch is a fine thing to use when you need one, what he’s talking about isn’t a crutch, used only by those with a specific need, but a common tool that many to most workplaces regularly employ to make things run better. It’s like “No, I’ll freehand draw a copy of the image rather than using the Xerox.” It’s not better than using the Xerox.

  18. NicoleK*

    Don’t become my boss. She spends a lot of time handing hold my BEC coworker (coworker has been in her role for 6 plus years).

  19. Auntie Social*

    I’d tell the guy he has to come up with some system, whether it’s the calendar with reminders or any system he chooses, but he has to choose one now, and get it set up in the next two days (I’m assuming things are BAD.) Look at it this way—how do you ask for a raise if you can’t prove what you did, did on time, no errors, late fees, etc? I was in charge of this kind of thing, plus insurance coverage for satellite offices. Insurance DROPS you if you don’t pay, so I was all over those offices. I kept a card system–it was that long ago–but it worked! And that was the first thing I did every morning. I’m not organized at ALL, but I wanted to keep my job, and I was proud that i could show the status of every office any time I was asked.

  20. Me*

    Honestly OP, you’re being given a gift. This guy is not the kind of employee you want – he clearly has a problem and yet has 0 inclination to fix it. He is giving you the gift of being able to fire a problem employee. Take it and hire someone who is interested in doing good work.

    Signed – a government employee who only dreams of being able to fire grossly incompetent people

    1. Auntie Social*

      This X 1,000!!! About firing folks: every year on his birthday my husband fires the client who irritates him the most—doesn’t listen, doesn’t furnish their docs, whines constantly. Honey says it’s his birthday present to himself, and can feel his blood pressure lowering. Anyone who says “you’re the lawyer, fix it!” is on the short list.

  21. SheLooksFamiliar*

    I wouldn’t be as upset over the problems – things happen, right? – as I would be at calling tools and apps ‘a crutch.’ These are tools to enable us to be efficient and effective at work. And frankly, if they’re a crutch, well, maybe they need to be. I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast, so you can bet I rely on spreadsheets, One Note, and Outlook. And Post-It notes. And scratch paper…you get the idea.

    OP, please keep us posted on how you decide to handle this situation.

    1. NW Mossy*

      A favorite podcast of mine often features the phrase “if it’s stupid but it works, is it still stupid?” It’s a framing I love, because it puts the emphasis where it should be – the effectiveness of whatever system you use.

      I’ve been known to take notes in stand-up meetings on Post-Its and attach them to my constant-companion coffee cup. It’s simple, easy, and work to make sure that the thought/question/to-do makes it back to my desk to be acted on.

  22. theletter*

    I think you might have better luck saying “The next thing that slips through the cracks will get your on a PIP and/or fired” and let him figure out how to organize himself. Focusing on methods that you think will work just clouds the message. I’ve noticed for myself and some others that sometimes focusing on the means to organization feels like micromanagement and busy work. At a certain point, for example, it’s rather difficult to teach someone how to take notes in a new way. Everyone is going to have a different method that works for them, and trying to change that won’t necessarily resolve the issue.

  23. animaniactoo*

    Any time I make these suggestions, he claims he does not need the “crutch” and is able to stay on top of things.

    Have you actually responded to him and said: “No, you’re not able to stay on top of things. If that were true it would already be happening.”?

    If not, I would be blunt and clear about that and follow up to say something along the lines of “I’m not sure what you have invested in not needing to use these tools. But from a professional standpoint, there is no downside to using them whether or not you feel you need to. There is only a downside to trying to succeed without them and failing.”

    I also think that if you go forward with the PIP, part of that should be a requirement to develop whatever system he wants to use, and have it approved by you. He can’t just show it to you – you have to approve it as part of the deal, because otherwise you’ll be back in the same loop of “this will work fine!”. No, no it won’t – not unless he can come up with something that YOU feel has a shot of working.

    But after that… this is up to him. He’s got to put in the effort. And it may be that he won’t really accept the necessity of it until he’s lost a job or two. That sucks to watch. But HE has to drive the effort to save himself. I mean, he’s got to at least put the gas in the car… and right now he’s not even doing that much. You need to recognize that and let him live with the results of that, even if they are not what you would like for him. Or yourself. Please be clear about this… if he fails to do this, it is not your failure that you couldn’t get him to do it. You did what could be done from your end. That’s as much as you can control, so that is the limit of what you are responsible for. You can’t control how he responds when you have made a very good faith effort to help. He has the choice of that and that choice is entirely his responsibility.

  24. Lime Lehmer*

    I work in the audit office of a major institution.
    Audits are planned executed and documented in a timely manner.
    This is a necessary and IMPORTANT function for any institution.

    LW you need to zoom out a bit and think more about the needs/risks of your company than saving the job of an employee.

    Your first priority is to determine the processes that will be implemented going forward.

    Stop suggesting and demand that the employee follow these standardized processes.
    The employee needs to utilize templates as REQUIRED. It seems as if you are letting him treat the templates and processes as optional.

    Additionally, you need to determine the following as soon as possible:

    1. where the employee is in regards to current audits.
    2. what documentation is missing, and if possible obtain it.
    3. what is the audit process he has supposedly been using, and does it meet the needs of your company.

    Our institution uses a shared drive, standardized processes and standardized templates to keep track of documents and to ensure the validity of the audit process.

    Start thinking about the risk to your company and less about the employee.

    He may be smart, but the “audits” he has done may be useless.

    1. ArtK*

      Yes. Time to audit the audits. If someone external comes in looking at those, LW’s company could be in a world of hurt.

        1. De Minimis*

          It’s a scary combination to have someone with those issues working in that area.

  25. PharmaCat*

    Let’s bookmark this for the Friday conversations – favorite organizational tools, beyond Excel, Project and Calendar.

    1. Lena Clare*

      Yes please! I’d also like to know how to bullet journal, if that’s even remotely similar.

      1. Media Monkey*

        it is such a simple and useful process! honestly go to the bullet journal website and watch the video. it is about 5 minutes long. try it out, adapt it to suit your job and work style (I use monthly and weekly to do lists as my job doesn’t lend itself that well to daily ones). you don’t need to produce beautiful layouts like you see on pinterest – just useful functional ones!

  26. Southern Yankee*

    “You can’t be more invested in saving his job than he is.”

    OMG this! I once had to fire an employee I inherited – my predecessor didn’t fire her because she had five kids, husband on disability, etc, etc. The employee was wildly inappropriate with customers and insubordinate to the point of ridiculousness. Once I said “if you do this again, your job will be in jeopardy”, and then she immediately did that thing, I felt no guilt at all in firing her. I have told that story for years and stated it as “if she didn’t care about losing her job and feeding her kids, then why should I?” Allison, as expected, framed this much better than I did – you cannot be more invested in your employee than he is!

    OP, this is a pretty hard lesson to learn as a new manager. I always want to help employees be successful and reach their potential, but sometimes, the employee has no interest in improving. It feels like failure and that you should be able to fix it because all that potential is there! But, once you’ve made the attempt, especially when you’ve tried several times, the employee isn’t going to magically change if only you find exactly the right words or actions. It sounds like you’ve done all the right things, and at this point, it’s on the employee. Give yourself permission to lay responsibility on the employee and let yourself off the hook. You’ve done all you can, the rest is up to him.

    1. Loose Seal*

      I used to have to say to new foster care social workers that they couldn’t work harder on the parents’ case plan than the parents did. It never works, even in the short-term let alone for the rest of the kids’ childhoods, and leads to burned out social workers. It is a very tough concept to grasp, especially for people that went to college — and sometimes grad school — specifically so they could help people.

  27. Morning Flowers*

    Chiming in with agreement that the employee probably either (a) doesn’t see the big pattern or (b) doesn’t think it’s a problem.

    My mother is exactly like this — you tell her something important, she promises to remember, no she doesn’t need to write it down, this is important she’ll remember — she doesn’t remember. It took years, patience, Being The Bigger Person, and — oh right — my *life-threatening autoimmune condition* that requires household decontamination rules to get her to process and accept that no she really is really bad at remembering things. Especially things she finds stressful or doesn’t want to hear!

    Which is my way of saying … OP, you could possibly explain to your employee once, extremely clearly, that he HAS to use these tools, which is normal and fine, and he has a very short time in which to do so and keep his job. But if he doesn’t, you don’t have the emotional ammo to *make* him see how he needs to change, let alone quickly. I’d start planning to replace him tbh.

    1. Zombeyonce*

      Do I work with your mom? There is someone at my office just like that. They have insisted since the day they were hired that they have this amazing memory.

      At first I was impressed because they never took notes in meetings but things still got done. Queue a couple of months later and all these small things that came up in meetings long ago turn out not to have been done. They were never even written down, much less actually completed or delegated.

      It was made much more annoying by the fact that they would insist we didn’t need to write anything down in their meetings because they had it handled.

      1. Zombeyonce*

        I should point out that I also suspect they have a highly selective memory because it always seemed to be requests they weren’t excited about that were forgotten. And since it wasn’t written down, it also made it easier for them to claim we never requested it.

        Now that I think about it, I wonder if they really do have an amazing memory and just hoped that we all have terrible ones…

  28. De Minimis*

    This is one of those letters where I have to check to make sure the LW isn’t talking about me [they aren’t.]

    People have hit on a lot of what’s probably going on. I agree that the LW has done as much as they can or should do, it’s up to the employee now that he’s been made aware that his job is riding on this. Sometimes that can be enough to force changes–I know it’s worked for me a number of times [unfortunately, my war with disorganization never really ends, so I’ve often had similar issues crop up with each job.]

    There’s often this misplaced sense of “I can handle this myself” that gets in the way, but I’ve never seen it go so far as to reject basic organizational tools such as spreadsheets and Outlook! I agree too that there may be some element of self-sabotage, perhaps subconsciously, or maybe not.

    Whatever is behind it, the LW can’t and shouldn’t try to do anything beyond what they’ve already done. It’s up to him.

  29. Loose Seal*

    Any possibility that this employee doesn’t know how to make a spreadsheet or an email reminder and that’s why he rejects the idea out-of-hand?*

    Maybe not but I’ve known a few people that will dig themselves in deeper and deeper rather than admit they don’t know how to use a tool in the office that everyone else seems to use easily.

    *Although why that would stop him from using a pad and pen (or even a paper calendar!) system of organizing is beyond me. But just throwing out a suggestion to check for if the OP is looking for just one more thing that might help him before having to let him go.

    1. fposte*

      I think that’s absolutely possible, or that he has a vague idea but isn’t reliably comfortable with it. Speaking for myself and my executive functioning challenges, in a situation like that learning how to do it can seem ridiculously insurmountable. Ironically, what helps is putting “Practice [tech task]” on my to-do list.

    2. animaniactoo*

      It looks like OP took that on too:

      When we discussed using a spreadsheet for planning events, I walked him though setting one up and left him with a template. He is still not interested in setting on up.

      What I might start wondering is if he’s somebody like my godmother who needs things to be very specifically tailored to her use due to some LD difficulties, etc. But in that case, she wouldn’t take a job that needed such attention to detail like auditing or coordinating auditing.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I get the feeling that it’s something along these lines in the end, even though they’ve been given instructions and a template, it could be outside their scope.

      It reminds me once of trying to show someone how to complete shipping paperwork. We made the BOL on the computer using an excel template. All you had to do was type in the descriptions and quantities.

      This person refused to use the built in calculator function, even though I showed her over and over again to just use “=Cell With QTYxCell with Pcs Per Unit”, nope nope nope couldn’t do it that way. She kept using the computer calculator to do “qty x pcs per unit” and then get this, copy/pasting the number. She flipped her lid when she couldn’t copy/paste from the calculator and didn’t want to have to just input the sum. It was hell on Earth, I even wrote it down and nope nope nope couldn’t do that, she swore she’d never be able to use the formula function… Yet here I am, the worst at Excel ever who figured out simple functions over the years, as needed as my jobs have changed and required more spreadsheets.

      1. No Green No Haze*

        ^Everything about this hurt me to read. Not an Excel expert here, but an inveterate Googler.

  30. AnonForThis*

    Yep. Too- common scenario:

    I, female, need a bit of adderall to hold the strands together. Which I’m determined to do. You’re the bro dude. You’re chatting with 2 friends, 3 clients and a supplier while working on your spreadsheet, then leaving early, for golf, while tossing out facile comments about efficiency.

    The next day, my numbers add up. Yours don’t.

    So you praise my “natural organisation,” and maybe add that women are naturally organized.

    Now, I have also been the source of organizational fuster clucks. I have believed that things were easier for others (albeit with some medical justification). Never served it up with quite that spin of condescending entitlement. Been called on it if I came close, too. Bro-dude gets a pass, and too often, a promotion, for being a networker (fair enough?) and an “ideas person” (nah, lack of detail doesn’t add up to big ideas).

    1. PersephoneUnderground*

      To be a little more charitable, it could be the guy in the lettrt is reacting with some false pride trying to measure up to his image of a confident guy (or your brodude but not a jerk) who can juggle everything without effort. He doesn’t see that all the most successful guys actually do have a system to keep track of things, and CEOs have assistants for the same reason!

      Cultural pressure puts the zap on everyone’s heads sometimes. Guy in the letter is about to lose his job because he’s trying to look competent over actually being competent!

  31. Light37*

    “You can’t be more invested in saving his job than he is.”

    I’ve had to deal with this in my volunteer work. I tutor in ESL and my student had to finish a certain level by this month. She was looking like she might not do it. I’ve been as flexible as I can, changing days to suit her, etc, but I can’t care more than she does. There are times when I can’t switch to another day, because I’m doing this around my job and I’ve been cutting into my own time off to do it, but that’s not good for me.

    My student finished last week (YAY!!) and I am very pleased. But if she hadn’t, then I would have had to let it go, frustrating as it would have been to spend two years getting to this point and then missing out.

  32. Lady Blerd*

    Chiming in to say that this guy will have to learn the hard way that he needs a tracking system, whatever works for him. I wouldn’t be surprised if firing him won’t do the trick as he will likely think that OP is the real problem.

    For years I was able to get by with just my memory, Outlook’s calendar and random to do lists that I’d write on sticky notes but some things did fall through. When I was promoted last year and decided that I needed a better system so I adopted a former boss’ method of writing his To do bullet list in a book and then, after looking up bullet journals, adopted that system and by some miracle, it actually works for me. I think it works for me because it’s semi-passive: it’s almost as mindless as putting a note on a sticky note, and I know that if it’s something is in there, I will catch it.

  33. PersephoneUnderground*

    Since there are lots of comments relating to people with ADHD (which I absolutely do not think applies to this guy, it’s more a contrast than similarity), I’ll leave these things here that help me, both aimed at adults with ADHD and covering lots of organization help:
    “How to ADHD” on YouTube
    “ADHD Rewired” with Eric Tivers’, podcast and website (and class that I took and loved, but there’s plenty of free stuff there).
    Habitica RPG to do list app

    1. Allonge*

      This, OMG. Audits should be one of the last things someone like this guy should be doing.

  34. Boobookitty*

    This sounds a lot like my ex-husband who has ADHD. He was able to do very well at some parts of any job, but any parts that required organization would fall through the cracks, appointments would be missed, promised items wouldn’t go out. The one time his work performance was virtually flawless was when he had an assistant. She handled the details, and made it possible for him to shine with the rest of the work (primarily sales and client relations). Unfortunately, most employers have cut admin staff back so much that he almost never had the support he needed to do his job well. We haven’t been in touch for years, so I hope he’s doing well now.

  35. Hamburke*

    I’m a list maker. Putting something into my list (or at work, our shared task list ToDoIst) frees up the part of my brain that has to remember. It’s not a crutch – it’s an organizational system designed to promote higher-level thinking. This needs to be reframed for your DR.

  36. Greensleeves*

    I have a very similar situation right now with an employee I manage. I don’t know what to do because am leaving my company soon for a new role. 90% of the time, Jill is sweet, if overenthusiastic–think golden retriever puppy who desperately wants to please but has gotten herself into trouble and is not sure what she did wrong. But she does have a mean, vengeful streak. Jill knows the head of my new company and I wouldn’t put it past her to send an anonymous note if I pissed her off (and then immediately regret it). Jill definitely also has some learning differences/is neuroatypical and I try to be understanding & accommodate where I can.

    I am the director of tea sales at a beverage company. I manage a young sales associate named Jill, who has been with us over a year in her first sales role. Jill is very enthusiastic about sales and is a member of several salesperson networking associations, is constantly reading articles and doing professional development. However, Jill’s performance has been less than satisfactory. We have minimum goals for the # of sales meetings per month and the number of client outreaches. Jill has only met those goals a handful of times. She spends more of her time meeting/networking with other salespeople. Her sales numbers are the lowest on the team, but we have a very dedicated group of buyers so this has obscured her lack of success. If you look closely at the data, she has only brought in ONE new client and upgraded another few–far short of her explicitly-defined goals. Despite repeatedly being shown this data, Jill seems to think she is doing a great job. My boss is also unbothered by this, saying that we can’t expect much from an entry-level employee.

    Jill can’t seem to stay on top of documenting her work, and frequently needs to be retrained on our processes. She can’t remember the names or details about any of her clients (a list of less than 200) without looking them up. Despite nearly daily reminders, she almost never checks her calendar and has missed several mandatory meetings recently. We have other teams that handle the other beverages we sell (coffee, soda, etc) and Jill often steps on her colleague’s toes in an attempt to be helpful. She has had repeated reminders that she is to stick to tea sales. For example, my boss handles all sales of coffee/tea makers (from espresso machines to french press). Jill has repeatedly pitched her clients on teapot sales despite being instructed to hand all of those off, and when reprimanded, argued that learning teapot sales is important for her professional development.

    Jill was written up in the beginning of the year for all these issues and while not put on a PIP, was given clear instructions on what she needed to stop doing, what she changes she needed to implement, and what a path forward to success looks like. I saw improvement for a few months, bringing her performance up to a C+ level. However, the last 2 months have been incredibly busy/stressful and Jill is slipping back into her old habits. One of the specific points was that she needed to follow the instructions of her superiors and our consultant–Jill has a tendency to ask other professionals in our industry for advice and follow their instructions rather than our processes.

    Wow! Why hasn’t Jill been terminated already, you ask? It’s very hard to get fired in my state and at my company, and Jill is a member of several protected classes.

    I am leaving at the end of the month for a new opportunity. Before I go we are planning a big event to pitch our business to new clients. This is an annual event we have been doing for about 10 years. Our RSVP numbers tend to be low until the last week before the event, and this year is no exception. On Monday, Jill found an old invite list on her computer and asked me if she could send invites to those people. I said no, the list was outdated and we have other, better methods of filling the room, and that she should focus on X and Y instead. On Tuesday, she sent invites to the list anyway. I found out and confronted her. She defended herself, saying that she was worried about the low RSVPs, and that I was “checked out” because I was leaving soon. I told her that she was being insubordinate, and that when her superior tells her not to do something, she is not to do it, and that her actions indicate that she thinks she knows better than me. Jill had also told me earlier this week that she was interviewing for another position as a sales manager. She brought that up and said that since she was leaving soon she was just trying to get through the next month and wrap up here. I don’t believe that she has had an actual, in-person interview yet.

    My question is–how do I get through the next few weeks without throttling Jill? And if you were in my position, would you write her up again before leaving? Again, I’m worried that she would try to sabotage my new job in some way (I’ve seen her do similar things before, and had a nasty experience with a terminated employee last year). Her colleagues and her interim manager are also very frustrated with her, and would be happy to see her go. I believe that if she does manage to secure a new position, she would be let go in a matter of months. I’m not convinced she is capable of the kind of changes she would need to be successful in this field.

    Thank you!

    1. nonegiven*

      I’d ‘check out’ where she is concerned. Just smile and nod and think how she won’t be your problem, soon.

  37. Another Manic Monday*

    I cannot maintain a calendar, use alerts, planning events ,and such. My executive functions are not good at all when it comes to planning things ahead. I compensate by sticking to a routine and furiously executing all my work immediately and not leave anything for another day.

  38. Argh!*

    I have had to micromanage one of these, and it is demoralizing to both that person and me. My other job duties suffer because I have to spend time setting up Outlook tasks and correcting mistakes. This has been going on for years because my boss would not support me as a supervisor. I was prohibited from escalating corrections and discipline. New HR and new Grandboss now want this situation handled correctly, and my boss has been dragging her feet. After ten years there has been only a small amount of progress, and yes, they do resent having to do things my way. I made argument that when your way isn’t working you have to change it. It did not get through, and I think this person’s weak ego will never allow them to tackle their actual weaknesses. Either that or they score a zero on the “conscientousness” side of the Big Five personality test.

    I have documented enough conversations, memos and evaluations over the years that dismissal with cause would absolutely be justified. Our biggest customer has ceased to discuss things with them because there have been so many problems, so I have to handle everything or at least act as a go-between.

    Someone from a related department had been waiting for years for this position to open up, and he is a dream employee. Detail-oriented, organized, enthusiastic, and always thinking of ways things could be better. He wound up giving up and now works in a job that in my opinion is beneath him.

    This is the price my manager was willing to pay rather than get rid of someone uncoachable because she can’t handle difficult conversations.

    I agree that it’s time to cut the cord and let this one go. There are other jobs out there for him and other workers out there for LW.

  39. Greta*

    As Alison said, you have done all you can. For your own sanity don’t worry anymore about this and performance manage the employee out. Taking direction and being organised are huge skills and if the employee can’t meet the requirements then don’t make excuses. I have learned over the years that you have to let go of things sometimes. You give it your best shot but if it doesn’t turn out quite as you desired, maybe next time it will! Good luck!

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