how much should I tell a team whose boss is on a performance plan?

A reader writes:

Six months ago, I was promoted to lead a group of three assistant managers who each lead around 20 people. “Howard,” one of the assistant managers, had been hired two months before by my predecessor, but it was immediately obvious to me that his work was not up to par. I did my best to give Howard clear feedback about what he needed to improve, provided retraining, and was explicit verbally and in writing that if he did not improve X by Y date, it would lead to first a performance improvement plan and ultimately termination. Unfortunately Howard did not improve so I fired him a month ago.

During this process, several of Howard’s direct reports came to me about their problems with his poor performance. I tried to acknowledge their concerns and assure them I was addressing the issues with Howard, but I didn’t think it was fair to tell anyone on his team that I had him on a PIP already.

After firing Howard, I had 1:1s with each of his direct reports, and three of them told me they had felt frustrated that I wasn’t taking any action to address Howard’s performance. I feel bad that I gave them this impression, but I don’t want to be the kind of boss who undermines my managers by telling their direct reports when they’re getting written up, put on a PIP, or fired. How do I reassure a team that I am addressing their boss’ poor performance while not spelling out the gory details?

Yeah, this is tough.

Employees are understandably frustrated and demoralized by being stuck working for a bad boss, and they’re even more so if they think nothing’s being done about it. But at the same time, as you note, you don’t want to undermine the manager or violate his privacy or dignity.

The key is that you need to say something, but without talking specifics. The way I’ve handled this is to say things like this:

* “I appreciate you sharing this feedback with me, and I agree with you that what you’re describing is a problem. Give me some time to work on this.”

* “I can promise you that I’m addressing this behind the scenes, and while you might not see that immediately, I agree with you that this is a problem and I’m committed to ensuring this changes.”

* “I’m limited in what I can share, but Howard and I are working on approaching this differently. Can you give me a few months to see how we can resolve this?”

Now, no one in Howard’s shoes is going to feel great about you telling his reports that you agree something he’s doing is a problem or something you’re working to fix. But the nature of being a manager is that if you have performance problems, they’re going to affect your team, sometimes significantly — and your employer has an interest in keeping those team members from being demoralized and maybe leaving over it. So as Howard’s manager, you’re in a position where you do need to acknowledge there are problems and work is being done to address them. But you don’t need to go into details about exactly what’s being done or the precise timeline (like “I’ve told him he has three weeks to turn this around”).

The key to this working, though, is that you have to move fairly quickly. If five months go by and there hasn’t been a significant change in the situation, you’ll have destroyed your credibility with the people who talked with you. So you need to be committed to resolving the situation forthrightly and quickly. (You also need to pay enough attention to know that it’s really resolved, which might mean going back to the people who complained to you and asking if they’ve seen changes.)

{ 100 comments… read them below }

  1. Me*

    As a victim of a bad boss – please use this one as it’s the most concrete:

    “I can promise you that I’m addressing this behind the scenes, and while you might not see that immediately, I agree with you that this is a problem and I’m committed to ensuring this changes.”

    Also, please consider giving them a time frame for if the area of their concern is not improved to touch base with you – 3 months, 6 months, whatever you think is suitable.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      By far that’s the one I would want to hear if I was in the position of reporting to someone problematic. I would avoid saying “give me some time” because that’s really vague and sounds a little dodgy. “Committed to ensuring this changes” sounds like accountability and like action is currently being taken.

      1. boo bot*

        I think the three scripts Alison suggests kind of escalate in seriousness depending on the situation.

        (1) If you are learning about the issue for the first time now, from this employee, or you’ve otherwise just learned about it:
        * “I appreciate you sharing this feedback with me, and I agree with you that what you’re describing is a problem. Give me some time to work on this.”

        (2) If the employee has come to you before about the same issue, or if you’ve been dealing with it for a while and you’re not sure when it will resolve:
        * “I can promise you that I’m addressing this behind the scenes, and while you might not see that immediately, I agree with you that this is a problem and I’m committed to ensuring this changes.”

        (3) When you know you have a time frame for resolution:
        * “I’m limited in what I can share, but Howard and I are working on approaching this differently. Can you give me a few months to see how we can resolve this?”

        To me, the most important statement is, “I agree that this is a problem,” and I would add it to the last response in addition to the others. In my experience, people who are just trying to get you to go away and quit bothering them don’t usually admit that the problem is real, and having the boss do so would reassure me that she’s taking the issue seriously.

        I also do think that giving a time frame as soon as you realistically can is helpful, because “some time” could mean five minutes, or five hundred million years.

        1. Me*

          I can see that. I think where I’m coming from, if things are at a point where staff is complaining about their manager to the grandboss, it’s probably already past #1.

          Of course it’s always situational and workplace dependent. If you just have a bunch of whiny staff, or an inexperience manager vs a bad one, then it’s all very different.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      This, and I agree with New Wanderer that the grand-manager needs to be willing to commit to a time frame because “some time” just sounds like stalling. This isn’t just about the Howards of the world; it has to be fair to their reports, too.

    3. Chinookwind*

      It might also be useful to say something about how you are sure that the employee can appreciate how these types of issues need to be dealt with privately for the sake of everyone (but I can’t figure out how to phrase it).

      Sort of a “praise publicly, punish privately” mentality.

      1. Me*

        Agree. Maybe something along the lines of “It’s my policy to not disclose the details of any type of personnel issue, disciplinary or other wise. I’m sure you can appreciate why this is necessary and I assure you all employee are extended the same courtesy and discretion.”

    4. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

      I really like the way you put it and agree that giving a time frame may help reassure the people who are stuck under the “Howard’s” of the world. If nothing else it tells them the dark tunnel doesn’t go on forever and there is some light at the end of it.

      1. TardyTardis*

        Besides, if people feel they’re being scammed about something being done about their boss, they’ll start looking to go elsewhere, if they haven’t already.

    5. LibraryMan*

      I tell my people that “I am bound to treat all personnel problems confidentially. So I can’t provide any feedback on how I deal with this, or even if I have. You *should* be able to tell from [misbehaving person’s] behavior, so if you continue to see that there are issues, I really would appreciate the feedback, as that will tell me how this issues is progressing. Can you be content with this?”

      I’ve never had an employee tell me that this wasn’t enough.

      1. PSB*

        I’m in this situation with my boss and grandboss right now and I wouldn’t have cared for that response when we talked to our grandboss. It’s the “or even if I have,” in particular. As it’s phrased, it implies a possibility that you won’t address the issue at all. I’d suggest substituting “when” for “if” to signal a commitment on your part to deal with the issue while make the same point about confidentiality.

        1. TootsNYC*

          also, “if I have” is -covered by- “how”

          So don’t say it. It implies that you might NOT deal with it.

        2. Dust Bunny*

          This, exactly. “even if I have” sounds like stonewalling, sounds like you intervene only when you feel like it, and also like you’re shutting the complainer down. This would make me feel really unheard and like the company didn’t care about how its lower-rung employees were treated.

      2. Me*

        I think it’s really great that you give your employees something. I agree with the others that you’re probably better served by leaving out the “or even if”.

        Have you ever considered skipping the “you should be able to tell”, and just say, if you are still having the same or other issues in 3 months, please touch base with me?

        I think your gist is good, to my hearing pretending I’m the recipient of the message suggestions make it a stronger leadership statement.

        1. PSB*

          This is a good point. In my situation, my grandboss has promised to check in with my team at certain points in the future to see how things are going. I really appreciated the effort to take ownership of the issue to that extent and not put all the responsibility for follow up right back on us.

      3. Artemesia*

        Employees don’t tell bosses that their information or management is lame. This is like ‘I had a cash bar at my party and no one complained’. People don’t complain to the boss or the host — doesn’t mean they are not discouraged or offended or whatever.

    6. MusicWithRocksInIt*

      I love the agreeing that something is a problem. I feel like most people want to feel justified and validated that something is wrong. I would also add wording about letting me know if things continue/get worse/ more difficulty. Let people know they are heard.

    7. Claire*

      Yes, and yes, for a time frame. I once had a co-worker who spent most of his days watching videos, or faffing about with other non-productive co-workers. I finally went to our manager, who had no idea this was going on. He said he would “work on it” but months and months went by without any action. He eventually got fired, but all those months of vague replies really screwed up morale. (And he was just a co-worker! Manager/supervisor is 10x the stress!)

    8. Public Sector Manager*

      While I can appreciate the strong desire for a time frame, giving a time frame is not always possible. As managers we hire and fire, but that doesn’t mean we get to take action unilaterally.

      There are several things that could delay a final resolution: the employee who improves for 4 weeks then slides back; the CEO who wants to give the person just “one more chance”; the HR rep who needs to be consulted but is on a long vacation, etc.

      So if I come out and tell you all give me 3 months, and we’re in month 5 and I’m still waiting for others to act, then everyone is going to be upset it didn’t happen in 3 months.

      1. BethDH*

        I think you can set a time frame to check back in with the employee that isn’t a promise that things will be totally resolved though. You don’t have to promise “fixed or fired” in a month, but looping back to the employee about it (with suitably upgraded wording per the hierarchy of answers discussed above) if the problem isn’t noticeably lessening would at least make it clear that it’s still a priority for you.

      2. Me*

        It’s not a time frame binding you to action. All of that is totally understandable. It’s a time frame for the employees who suffer because of the bad behavior to touch base. If your hands have been tied and at 3 months you haven’t been able to do much, that’s ok. You just say you’re still working on the issues and you appreciate the feedback on how things are progressing from their pov. Then give them the next time to check in.

        If you do not open that door for employees to come back to you they 100% feel like you blew them off and aren’t really doing anything.

  2. KHB*

    How much does this course of action depend on the fact that it’s Howard’s direct reports who are complaining? If they were Howard’s peers or other colleagues, should you share more, less, or the same amount of information?

    Because I was in a version of this situation a while ago. I’m a team lead, and my team members and I all report to the same boss, Wakeen. One of my team members, Fergus, was underperforming in a big way. I kept telling Wakeen he needed to do something about it, and eventually Wakeen told me that Fergus was on his last warning, and if he messed up again, he’d be out. I’m glad that Wakeen shared that information with me – because otherwise I’d have been in the same state of frustration as Howard’s reports are here – but it also felt a little bit like information I shouldn’t have had.

    1. Me*

      For reals. It’s been 2 years for me and I finally have been told a specific change that will be made and when. I know things have been working in the background, but clearly not effectively (government so a lot of hands tied issues). Not communicating while problems continue is a really good way to run off valued employees and destroy moral.

      1. Massmatt*

        Bad attitudes are definitely contagious. Sarcasm, pessimism, etc can really damage morale.

    2. Sunny-dee*

      I think your boss was trying to avoid a situation that occurred on a team I was lead of, with an underperforming member who had a terrible attitude. Out of 7 people, he coaxed a decent team member into poor performance and bad attitude (besties) and another 3 left within 6 months, some by straight up quitting, some by transfers. Eventually, he transferred too, but it was way too little, way too late, and I lost absolutely all respect for the two managers involved.

      1. KHB*

        In my case, Fergus didn’t drag anyone quite down to his level, but he did have a lot of us (even me, to an extent) thinking “I’m doing way better than Fergus, so I must be doing an excellent job.” In reality, “way better than Fergus” wasn’t so much “excellent” as it was “barely adequate.”

        But yeah, just one toxic team member can have quite an effect on the whole team.

        1. Anonym*

          Oh, that’s interesting that a poor performer can lower the bar for everyone. I think we typically hear about the reverse, but this makes a lot of sense.

          1. Me*

            I think it happens a lot. If I’m a great performer and Joe can literally do nothing and pull a paycheck, what incentive is there for me to kill myself for this place?

            1. Cordelia Vorkosigan*

              But also the manager is the one who sets expectations for the team. So if the poor performer is the manager, then the team’s benchmarks for “average performance” and “high performance” are going to be skewed too low.

            2. Dwight*

              You should never “kill yourself” for a job, unless your in the army. Or a spy. Or the mob.

            3. Massmatt*

              I had to really fight this feeling in an old job. I was a supervisor of a small team and put a lot of effort into annual reviews etc but upper manager and grand boss put in next to nothing. Except for one person on a near-perpetual PIP, “raises” were given uniformly across the board. They were called merit increases but were so small and the same for all they might as well have been cost of living increases. In some years they didn’t even cover that.

              If you treat excellent employees the same way as the mediocre then eventually the excellent will either lose motivation or move elsewhere.

            4. sheworkshardforthemoney*

              Very true, I worked with a co-worker who had to be literally hunted down when his work was going unfinished. So other co-workers started doing the same things, extra long breaks and wandering away to chat with people in other sections. It was literally the bad apple spoiling the whole barrel.

    3. Observer*

      I think that if you are the grandboss, then the one person who needs to have more information is the employee’s direct manager.

    4. BRR*

      It sounds like as a team lead you’re entitled to that information. It all depends on the situation to me. I’d probably tolerate an underperforming peer more than an underperforming supervisor.

    5. Anna*

      I’m confused – if he’s been fired, why isn’t he gone yet? Are they having him work out a certain period?

      1. KHB*

        Oh, Fergus is long gone – this whole situation is in the past. I’m just reflecting on how it should have been handled.

  3. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Acknowledging that you are aware there is a problem and you are taking steps to resolve it should go a long way without sharing specifics, so I’d say go with the 2nd or 3rd suggested script that Alison provided. The first is a little too noncommittal for my tastes.

    For what it’s worth, I also appreciate this sort of acknowledgment when you’re talking about any less than ideal situation. New policy that greatly impacts my work? Saying “I know this sucks, but I can’t do anything about it for now” is far more supportive then touting the party line.

    1. Adric*


      90% of what I’m looking for when I make a complaint is an acknowledgement that the complaint was legitimate. Even if there’s nothing you can really do or say about it, just admitting “Yeah, you’re getting the short end of the stick here.” goes a lot way.

    2. LGC*

      Yeah – I think that what people are generally looking for is confirmation that it’s being addressed, not so much detail. It’s been my experience that people generally understand confidentiality, but do feel resentful if they feel dismissed.

      (Also, you are completely right about empathy with bad situations! I definitely annoy my bosses a fair bit by not being 100% on board with unpopular changes, but it has bought me a fair amount of good will with my team.)

    3. designbot*

      yes! My office went through a re-org a year ago and the result left a really bad taste in my mouth. To any outsider it sounds like I’ve been demoted, functionally I’m still doing the same job, but my bosses insist I’ve been *pro*moted. It feels like complete gaslighting and erodes my trust. If they’d just say ‘we know this new structure made the title work out a little oddly for you, but it’s what works for 99% of the firm and this is an unfortunate result, not a reflection on how we value you” it would have gone a long long way.

      1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        I’m so sorry. The same kind of thing happened to me. Makes you feel like “why should I bust my fanny to give you my best when it looks to the clients like I’ve been nailed to a lower rung and they want to talk to someone higher up the ladder?”

  4. 2 Cents*

    I cannot underwrite Alison’s advice that if nothing is done in a reasonable timeline, then they’ll lose faith you’re actually doing anything. I waited a YEAR for a horrible situation at OldJob to improve before I left for greener pastures. And that situation was one of two main motivators for me moving on.

  5. CupcakeCounter*

    Since you’ve been hearing things from his reports would having a larger team meeting be appropriate? Bring up the issue and acknowledge that you heard them loud and clear but you want to be honest and let them know that certain things you just can’t tell them even though they are being directly effected.
    Outline your/company policy regarding how the process works and general timelines for things as well as letting them know that the information on work performance has to stay confidential. Ask them how they would feel if one of their coworkers complained about them and you had responded with “oh don’t worry about that – so and so is on a PIP and not meeting expectations so they’ll be gone shortly” or “her mom just got diagnosed with X disease so we are cutting her some lack right now”?
    Make it clear you will be as up front as you can without giving out sensitive information and please continue to let you know of serious issues that are impacting their work.

    1. Frank Doyle*

      I don’t agree that a big team meeting, to talk about Howard behind his back, is appropriate. Even if the purpose of the meeting is to say “we can’t talk about Howard behind his back!” I think it would be better to disseminate this information in one-on-ones.

      1. TootsNYC*

        yeah, that feels really “ganging up on him.”

        And I think it would backfire, because there is an element of “how would you treat ME if I was struggling?”

    2. hbc*

      I think if you absolutely have to keep it one-on-one, even if you have the same conversation with everyone on the team. There’s something really unseemly about getting everyone together to, essentially, talk about how much another employee sucks. If it was a particular customer, or procedure, or department, that would be all right, or if it was nominally a meeting to collect info or strategize that ended up going in the direction of everyone complaining about Howard. But you might as well just fire Howard if you’re going to have a group meeting to tell everyone he has issues, because no one is really recovering from that.

  6. Princess prissypants*

    What Alison’s response suggests, but doesn’t clearly enough state is that it’s important to turn at least some of the responsibility for Howard’s problems onto yourself. It deflects a little bit the frustration that they have with Howard onto you, which gives them a proper avenue to follow up, and can minimize the repeated frustration with Howard once again does something stupid.

    1. boo bot*

      Oh, I hadn’t thought of this, and it’s super important! “I’m dealing with it,” can be satisfying… or it can feel like you’ve hit a dead end, especially when the next stupid thing happens (or the next ten stupid things) and you feel like you’ve already cashed in all your “complain to the boss” chips.

  7. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I think the problem here wasn’t that you weren’t giving them any real response to confirm it was being taken care of on your side. The problem is that they still had to suffer while he was on his PIP, since it sounds like he was supposed to just change his ways and “do better”. Instead the staff needs to know that there is someone above their boss and a workaround to deal with his inept ways.

    Say the complaint is he’s not responding quickly to things and there’s a bottleneck happening, this is making the reports angry because their jobs are being impeded right now, so who cares if he’s “working on it” behind the scenes. They need someone to escalate to while the person on the PIP is working towards reaching the goal of a 24 turn around or whatever it may be for correspondence.

    Because honestly, just hearing “oh we know and we’re handling it” will still lead to this frustration, they’re still being forced to report to someone who is doing things that are causing them distress. They’re flagging down extra help who they think should then just bypass Howard in some way but they’re told ‘Just wait, we’re handling it.”

    1. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

      I think some of that may come down to (at least in my previous experiences) the tone and what of the complaint to grandboss. How are the employees who are complaining putting it: I hate that Howard is doing this or when this happens (happens again) what would you like me to do to help fix the issue. I personally tried to lean towards the second in the prior job I had where I worked with a Howard.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        It would be great if the complainer included the “how should I handle this in the future” however that’s asking a lot out of someone who is frustrated and so burnt that they’re complaining to a grandboss about their manager. You cannot expect a report two levels down to have all their ducks in a row so tightly and should step in as a manager and give them the response of “This is how we will handle this when this happens again.” instead of requiring that to be asked.

        As a manager you have to lead and be the one who’s proactive, that’s what it takes to really manage people who just want you to do your job, along with Howard to do his, that’s above their paygrade to start having to remember that they need more than just a complaint in hand when they talk to you to get any response that’s not just a “cool, thanks for letting me know, bro.”

        1. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

          Reading back through what I wrote, yeah I think I had one point and didn’t get it out.
          I was meaning by tone more are you going to manager with actionable things that they can help you with – backlogs, not pulling weight, deliberately doing something wrong vrs I don’t like Howard, Howard was a jerk to me, etc. There really isn’t as much concrete a manager can help with if the complainer just wants to vent insults instead of I’m frustrated and can’t fix this thing that is getting in the way of my work.

  8. Lady Kelvin*

    This is a really tricky problem. I understand the need to keep things confidential, but I’m in a situation where that need has made it seem like nothing is being done so there is no point reporting the bad behavior anymore, so he just keeps getting away with it. My coworker (not manager) has a reputation for being difficult to work with, defying direct orders (like working during the shutdown when his manager told him under no circumstances should he), and being angry and threatening and occasionally scary to the point that he has driven off (female) colleagues and has been placed on leave with pay while an investigation took place. However, he is still here and still protected because thats “just how Fergus is” instead of being reprimanded or punished in any way. Its unfortunate because most people who suffer at his hands don’t bother reporting it because nothing ever happens so nothing ever happens because there isn’t a paper trail long enough to do anything about it.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This often happens because there’s something hanging over someone’s head and causing fear that they cannot terminate him for a reason. Did he complain/blow a whistle once upon a time and therefore they’re afraid he’ll sue for retaliation? Or is there a CBA involved where they have progressive disciplinary action and someone is dragging their feet starting the paperwork or they’re in the middle of it? If there’s a labor contract involved as well, that also makes it harder to tell anyone outside the management circle what’s going on because there are confidentiality legalities, not just professionalism issues on the line.

      And some people would rather just bury their heads in the sand and allow people to self select out instead of dealing with Fergus, which is very likely in the situation you’re talking about. It’s just not worth the “hassle” and “paperwork” required to let someone go. I know some places take a year or more before they can finally fire someone for acting like you described =(

  9. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

    I will say in OP’s case five months is a fairly quick but fair-feeling amount of time to either get problems resolved or move on to a better fit for all involved parties. It probably felt like an eternity though to the people under Howard most affected by his ineffectiveness.

    Personally I would feel best hearing that higher-ups are aware of the issues going on and are working with the person involved to come to the best solution. However just as I won’t discuss your details with Joe, I cannot discuss Howard’s with you. If this seems to still be massively affecting your work in 3 (or up to five) months please touch base again with me.

    1. Beatrice*

      I think, depending on the issue, it’s helpful to provide guidance on getting more feedback if the situation is worsening, too, especially if that’s measurable. e.g.”If this seems to still be massively affecting your work in 3 months, or if approvals are taking more than 4 days, please touch base again with me.”

      1. Windchime*

        Yeah, I can say that, for me, three months is an eternity when dealing with a horrible boss. If someone said, “Come back to me in three months if it’s still a problem”, I would consider that I’d just been blown off. My previous job taught me that it’s not worth hanging around waiting for people to start quitting or taking FMLA for stress; when bad management is happening and the higher ups start giving lip service, it’s time to move on.

        I had an HR person tell me, “Rest assured I’m working on it even though I can’t share details.” And then HR told the bad manager, who hauled me into HR and put me on a PIP as retaliation. So there’s that. I guess that’s how she was “taking care of it.”

  10. Not Me*

    After a month there were clear issues and no change. Five more months (and multiple new complaints) go by before termination? No wonder they were frustrated. I can’t imagine putting a manager on a PIP lasting 2+ months while their direct reports are coming to me with valid issues.

    1. Me*

      Sometimes it has to do with the company. There are great companies where you can let people go (deservedly) quite easily. Others require jumping through flaming hoops. Government – forget it, the best you can hope for is moving them elsewhere.

      1. Public Sector Manager*

        At my public agency it takes about 24 to 30 months to move from the first PIP to actual termination because of civil service rules. It can be done, but the documentation is a major grind. Waiting only 5 months is a dream!

        1. Me*

          I feel you. Local government is a nightmare. HR likes to change the rules depending on the wind it seems and nothing will ever be in writing so trying to get rid of someone is like a moving target.

  11. Canonical23*

    Allison’s scripts are good, particularly number 2. I agree that there should be a timeline to check back in, but clarify that you don’t want constant reports, i.e. “I agree that this is a problem – I am working behind the scenes to resolve this. Give me some time, and if there isn’t any change for the better in [however much time you need] please check back in with me on this.”

    As someone who had a junior coworker that was horrendous (think, throwing things at coworkers, yelling at me when I was training her, and making fun of customers), all I wanted from my bosses was a confirmation that they realized there was an issue and reassurance that they were doing something beyond just listening to my complaints. All they ever did was scribble down my statements and say “we’ll look into this.” Four months later, the coworker just stopped coming in and no one ever got an explanation as to why. You don’t have to share everything, but you do have to say something more than a platitude.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This is not the normal way to handle complaints of an abusive person that’s made their way into the team, W.T.F. You’ve got a lot more reserve than I do to last 4 months at that place while under attack from such an unhinged person being allowed to go about throwing things.

      If someone comes to us and says “Joe threw a stapler at me.” we don’t go “Oh we’ll check into that.” and then sit on a thumb. We go “Okay, we have questions about this and we’ll get to the bottom of it immediately.” and that means we immediately start asking others about what is going on, if another person says “Yep, he threw a stapler at her. She was like “Hey Joe, did you get that email I sent you about the teapots report? I’m still waiting…” and he just up and threw the stapler at her!”

      Joe better have a darn good story but most likely he’s fired for throwing a single GD thing, I don’t care what it is. Yelling gets a warning to knock it off. Kicking some boxes on your way out of the shop because you’re upset about a verbal warning for not turning off something before you go on break, warning.

      I’m fascinated in a bad way with these stories about people who get away with literally throwing things and being aggressive AF keeping their jobs for months! Even my crankiest boss would let some guys yell at him because they yelled at each other in the end but if they ever tried it with each other, nope, nope, nope, nope, get out. It was because he was the boss, he owned the place and he put up with a whole lot more than he’d ever in a million years ask his employees to put up with [RIP, bossman, I still got this, trailblazer!]

      1. InsufficentlySubordinate*

        No kidding. Someone throws something at me? They better be gone, lickety-split.

      2. CommanderBanana*

        Try 25 years – no lie, I worked for a woman who was sent to anger management counseling five times and STILL works there and has gotten promoted.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          True true, I do know that these people often work all the way through until retirement in some instances like that.

          Whoever is in charge of that organization is a miserable coward and that’s me being nice.

      3. Canonical23*

        My manager was very green (so was I, but I wasn’t in a supervisory position, just training new hires on certain things) and operated under the “three strikes for the same thing and you’re out” rule. So – reading between the lines – when my coworker threw things at me, she was written up. She stopped throwing things, but then started yelling at me when I corrected her in the training process. She was then written up. But each of her write-ups were for different things, so she couldn’t be fired right? Manager was also very conflict averse, which led to a host of issues with the public not being removed from the building when they should have been to keep conflict from escalating (another story for another day).

        I lasted about 3 months after she left (not even a year total at the job). I learned a lot of “this is what you don’t do as a new manager” there and for the most past, didn’t repeat my boss’ mistakes when I moved up to a management position at a different company. I try to be as transparent as possible with my staff, without revealing private information.

        I agree with the fascination of toxicity. I work in a field that has a reputation for being a “fun” job, however, the tolerance for toxicity and poor performance is very, very high in the field. Swapping these stories is good bonding at conferences sometimes, and highly discouraging at other times.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Broken down like this, I can see the misconception issue at least! It’s still painful but I “get it”. I was imaging she was just escalating, from throwing things, then throwing things and yelling, then throwing things and yelling while mocking customers.

          I’m glad you weren’t there long, sometimes it helps us out a lot in the long run to see this kind of shipwreck up close and then escape with our lives.

      4. Massmatt*

        I am also baffled and perversely fascinated by these tales of the unfireable. I and many of my peers have gone through many layoffs where good people were let go, and seen people fired for pretty arbitrary reasons. Yet I hear so many stories of liars, thieves, sexual-harassers, lazy, incompetents, drunks, etc that keep getting paid and evidently their managers just shrug and say “eh, what are ya gonna do?” Or in some cases promote them.

        I wonder do such people seek out dysfunction places in which they can ensconce themselves? Like Costanza on Seinfeld, he found that mineral polishing company where no one knew what they were doing. “I could go HOG WILD!”

  12. Old Lady*

    I would say it would depend on the problems. The managers I have known that were in trouble were like drowning swimmers – they would try to pull other people down in order to save themselves.

    If the manager on the PIP is giving their direct reports unfair evaluations or causing their work to suffer, then they should directly be told upper management is holding the manager responsible and not them.

    1. BethDH*

      Yes, and I think it’s fair for the grandboss to be more transparent about that aspect. Something like, here’s what we’re doing to mitigate the effects on you (then explain) while we also work on the personnel side (which is not shared).

  13. Yet Another Allison*

    Anytime any of my employees complains another person is not coached like they were or they don’t see anything being done, I remind them that just because they don’t see someone being coached, doesn’t mean it’s not happening behind the scenes. I also put them in the place of the other person by reminding them that if they were the person being coached it would be done privately also. I’m sure they wouldn’t want me broadcasting they are on a PIP or coaching them publicly, and the same goes for others. We also talk about alerting in the moment of any issues needing to be addressed and then thank them for the feedback. But it helps a lot to remind people they wouldn’t have their personal business discussed publicly, and the same respect is give to others.

    1. Fergus*

      My last job my co-workers knew about me getting a PIP before I did. When I got the PIP I looked at it and just laughed. I was there 6 months and they wrote down everything they said I should be doing but wasn’t since day ONE. The reason why I laughed is half of the things they complained about were never my job responsibilities at that or any job and instead the telling me they just gave me a PIP after 6 months. I knew that wasn’t the job for me.

      1. Close Bracket*

        I can tell you that in their mind, they did tell you. That’s what the PIP was for! Yeah, best to get out of that kind of situation. A good boss will address things they want to change when they arise, not store them up for 6 months and dump them on you.

      2. Minocho*

        I didn’t quite get to a PIP in my case. There was a process I was expected to do every other month. I was handed a sheet on how to do said process. About 9 months after I was hired, I overheard coworkers gossiping about how much I was screwing up said process – mentioning something that I had not been trained on and did not know was included as part of the process.

        I went to my boss and asked if what I had overheard was correct, that I was not performing certain duties correctly. “Oh yeah, ” he said, “You’ve been doing that wrong this whole time. People are really upset that they’re having to cover for you there.”


        So, now that I KNEW there was this other thing I needed to do, I got information on the thing and did it correctly. For the rest of my tenure there, my boss gave me demerits for laziness because I didn’t do the process correctly when I started the position.


        1. That Girl From Quinn's House*


          “Three demerits and you’ll receive a citation. Five citations and you’re looking at a violation. Four of those and you’ll receive a verbal warning. Keep it up, and you’re looking at a written warning. Two of those, that’ll land you in a world of hurt… in the form of a disciplinary review written up by me and placed on the desk of my immediate superior.”

  14. Phoenix*

    I wonder if it might be appropriate and helpful to schedule some kind of follow-up with the employee(s) who are bringing up their criticisms – as in, deploy one of Allison’s scripts, and then close the meeting with something like: “Given the time necessary to address changes of this type, can we meet again on this subject in [a month/3 months/whatever is appropriate to the situation]? I’ll put it on our calendars so we don’t lose track of it.”

    I think that might do something for helping the employee feel like their concerns are less likely to be forgotten.

  15. RUKiddingMe*

    “forthrightly” I read this as “fortnightly” and thought … “wow two whole weeks!” LOL

  16. AliV*

    How about a “thank you for your good work” if the person is in fact doing good work? “I’ve noticed you surpassed X goal” or “you always greet customers with a smile” or “I appreciate your contributions in team meetings “?

    Something that shows the grand boss sees good in the employee, even if the boss doesn’t?

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This would be awkwardly out of place if done during the time of the complaint.

      However it would be good if the grandboss took time to show up and do some face time during this hard period, where Howard is trying to fix himself. Then they could be handing out compliments where applicable. Really, they should just be visible at the time of struggle because it gives the people who are under the struggling boss a sign that they are paying attention to the department in some fashion. [This should be done in general and not just during times of struggle either but up your face-time when there’s a known problem so that you know it’s not just some backroom weirdness going on].

      1. AliV*

        Why would this be awkwardly out of place? It would work great for me if not only did the grand boss hear my complaint, but that they also let me know I’m a valued member of the team.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          You don’t really get much attention from your grandboss, do you?

          I’m not being snarky but am truly curious why you’d be so excited for some placating remarks, when you’re in the midst of filing a complaint about your boss that’s awful at their job.

          It’s not the right place. You don’t swerve from “This person is awful and they’re doing these things bad” to “Thanks for letting me know. BTW here are some compliments.”

          Compliments in that atmosphere read as a brush off and like you’re not grasping the fact that “my life is difficult,I don’t need to be told I’m doing a good job, I need to be told that you’re going to fix the issue that’s impeding my success at this company.”

          There’s a time and a place for everything. You really should be hearing this enough that you’re not hungry for a bone that a grandboss throws you with “Thanks for the report. Hey by the way, great customer service skills, killer! Bang bang, hand guns salute.”

        2. New Jack Karyn*

          I think it’s more the specific phrasing in your original examples. Something more like, “I appreciate you coming to me with this. We’re taking a closer look at the workflow in this department. Your hard work and strong results have not gone unnoticed.”

          1. AliV*

            That’s exactly what I was attempting to suggest Karyn. Thanks for putting it better.

            Workplaces with lots of compliments, recognition for hard work, and valued employees are rare in my experience. I’m glad if others have experienced otherwise.

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        In addition to being more visible, Grandboss should also explicitly let employees know that if they continue seeing issues, please let them know. Because “we’re working on it” could also be a brush off if there is no line of communication to follow up.

  17. Suzy*

    It sounds like the workers were complaining after he was fired that they had not been aware that anything was being done. But at that point they knew he had been fired. So at that point they had evidence that you were doing something and did follow through. I think its strange that they were still upset at that point. I wonder why knowing he was ultimately fired did not change their perspective since obviously something was being done?

    Sometimes people have a legitimate need to know something is happening and Alison’s script of “I am aware and addressing this…” is great. But also after the fact sometimes people are just annoyed about the whole thing and wish they knew more but the reality is that they really didn’t need to know it – they just would have *wanted* to know it. So I think its also worth talking to everyone in general about the process – that if someone’s performance is not good (or is slipping) management would want to know about it, but that often the response happens behind the scenes to give the employee a chance to correct the mistakes or improve, and then the employee will be re-evaluated within a certain time frame, and firing is a possibility. I think framing it to the current employees as “think about how you would want to be treated if you were having problems – I want to make sure we treat everyone with privacy and respect, so sometimes you won’t be able to know everything that is happening behind the scenes… but rest assured we do take performance seriously and often things are happening that you wont be aware of.”

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      Taking your specific point about whether the employees were still upset, or should have been, after he was fired. It sounds like these were specific debriefs about the process of getting Howard to shape up or ship out; it’s not terrible for a couple of folks to express that, for the previous couple of months, they had been frustrated at what they saw as no change. They may feel fine now (or relief, or what have you), but the conversation may have gone:
      LW: I know it’s been tough the last four months
      Arya: Yes, I was pretty frustrated, but I’m glad it’s handled now

  18. staceyizme*

    I agree- it’s ill advised to share details of corrective action with anyone other than the employee and (perhaps) HR or a Grandboss. That said- “I’m working on this.”/ “It is being addressed./ “I’ve communicated the issue and it’s being monitored.” should all be acceptable ways of saying “I’m on it.”.
    On the question of timeframes- I don’t think a manager’s manager can reasonably ask for more time from a team that’s already demoralized from prior bad acts. It’s disingenuous in the sense that it’s improbable that a specific time frame until resolution can be given. If you’re in the position of “fire, hire a replacement”, you’re still leaving a team without a competent leader and the old, bad practices of the manager that was dismissed will exert some residual influence, most likely negative. Some employees won’t choose to wait it out. Which is why it’s ideal to catch and resolve issues early at all levels, in my view. For example- the LW whose boss had an ongoing issue with using a team medal to routinely bully a subordinate? I’d have been looking for a transfer or an entirely new job.

    1. Canonical23*

      I understand your point about not wanting to give a timeframe because it’s not really advised to be like “I promise on March 31st that Howard will be fired.” But also, it usually takes a lot of courage for someone to report something to their boss, and it takes even more courage to go over your boss’ head to their boss. With just a vague “I’m working on it” a lot of people won’t take the courage to come back because they might feel they’re being brushed off. Giving them a timeframe to come back and let you know if things have changed makes it feel more concrete.

      So something like “If this problem is still persisting at the end of March, please feel free to come back to my office and let me know.” might let people know that you appreciate their feedback and do want them to keep giving you feedback, without specifically saying that you’re going to fire/demote/etc their boss.

  19. No one likes being managed by a bad boss*

    The last time I had a bad boss (maybe not PIP level but seriously checked out and not on top of things) I pointed out all the things that were not being done to my grand boss and got the response of ‘please check this with him, my understanding is that he’s on top of things’. It has since become clear to said grand boss that he was absolutely not and I’m still dealing with the fall out months later.

  20. Turquoisecow*

    I think it’s also a matter of are their specific concerns being addressed while Howard is there? If an employee comes to their grand-Boss and says “Howard is terrible,” they’re likely (I’d assume!) to give concrete ways that he’s terrible.

    Maybe he’s a micromanager. Maybe he doesn’t communicate expectations to his team. Maybe he’s making them wait on decisions or sign offs. In this case, the grand-Boss should not just say “oh we’re working on it yes I really promise!” but also give concrete solutions to mitigate the problems. For example, if I have to wait for Howard to OK this thing before I can move on to the next, and he doesn’t respond to emails quickly – should we copy the grand-Boss or someone else to get these approvals faster? If he’s giving conflicting instructions on how to do projects, resulting in employees doing it wrong, can he be required to put them in writing and have someone else involved?

    In short, how is Howard’s poor performance affecting his team’s ability to do their job, and how can we develop workarounds so the team isn’t frustrated? It’s one thing to say vague platitudes like “we’re working on it, check back in a few months if there’s no improvement,” but in the meantime the team is still having the issues and is still finding their jobs frustrating.

  21. Shax*

    LW, as someone who has never seen a dysfunctional manager performance-managed or even fired, thanks for doing this! You’re doing great.

  22. Jack V*

    Would it be possible to say something like, “I know this can’t go on and Howard and I are working on improving it. If it doesn’t get better, we’ll find another solution, we won’t let it go on indefinitely”?

    I know that’s stronger than any of the other scripts, but if I was in the employee’s situation I’d feel so much reassured that it was ACTUALLY being handled, and not just being told “trust me”, and having to wait and see if that really meant something, or the effort at improving would peter out. And it doesn’t have to mean it’s Howard’s fault — the same script might apply if Howard is overloaded with too many different responsibilities, or is suffering some ongoing medical crisis, or if you agree he’s failing as a manager but are going to shuffle him sideways instead of firing him. They don’t necessarily get to know which, but they get to know that the status quo is unacceptable.

    In fact, in this case, I wonder if there’s any room for more communication — you presumably want to know from their perspective if the situation has improved, and often you might need to ask in order to tell if Howard IS handling the situation better, and actively soliciting “has the situation got better or worse” would also make them feel like you’re acting on the situation. But if not, then it may be impossible to do without letting them too much about Howard’s situation.

  23. Wow.*

    I can very much relate to so many of the stories here! It is super frustrating to be told that yes, you’re right, this is an issue, I’m working on it, please be patient, etc. And it’s now been a year she is the same and haven’t heard back from the higher ups. So what was the point?

  24. Checkert*

    I’ve always been of the mind of if you’re in a position over others and your actions are affecting them, the discipline should be as outward facing as the actions. Your shame should be on equal display of your actions.

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