where do you start when you inherit a bad employee?

A reader writes:

My department is about to get a new manager. Our CEO will mostly likely promote my colleague Elaine, and I’m excited for the new leadership — she’s a smart, super-competent, young-ish woman. But there’s an issue she’s likely to face in this new role, and I’m curious about how you would handle it.

My department has a challenging employee, Newman. Newman has many years of experience, which he takes as evidence that he’s good at his job. But he’s … not. When he works on a project, he gets caught up in weird details — like trying to build features that the client didn’t ask for and that don’t work properly — and then does a sloppy job implementing them. I believe (but can’t prove) that he sometimes skips our quality control process. He has submitted work in the past that is honestly embarrassing. Newman also regularly makes offensive jokes and comments in the office. We tell him when a comment is inappropriate, and he’ll stop in the moment, but then he says other inappropriate things later.

Our previous managers have not addressed Newman’s performance systematically. Our longtime previous manager, Jerry, got mad at Newman over specific projects and took him off some major accounts, but never had calm conversations about what needed to improve. Newman has never been on a formal improvement plan.

Newman does not believe that he has performance issues. Instead, he thinks that Jerry was biased against him, and he thinks things will get much better for him under Elaine’s leadership.

Elaine is aware of the issues with Newman, and she’s committed to addressing them. But where do you start with an employee who has been underperforming for a long time? What does that first conversation look like, and when do you have it? Which of Newman’s issues should she address first? She can’t just come in and fire him, because my company makes it very hard to fire people, and the process takes a long time.

There are two ways to do it, depending on how clear the previous manager was with the person.

If the previous manager was doing their job and had told the employee there were serious problems, then you can make it clear there was an information hand-off between you and them and you’re picking up where they left off. You can frame it as, “I know Jerry had been talking with you about your work in XYZ areas, and I want to work closely with you to get that work where we need it.”

But in this case, the previous manager wasn’t doing his job and so there’s not a lot Elaine can reference. What I’d do in her shoes is just prepare to manage Newman very closely and address the issues forthrightly as they come up. So there won’t be an initial “I see you’ve been struggling” conversation, but as the problems unfold under Elaine’s management, she should do what previous managers didn’t do and actually manage him. That means laying out clear expectations up-front, checking in on his work regularly so that she can spot problems early, talking to him about what she wants to happen differently, and then holding him accountable to those expectations.

That’s also the answer to your question of what issues she should address first: she should address them as they arise. It’s hard to go in as a former peer and say, basically, “I’ve watched your work for a while and I expect it to suck in the following ways.” It’s much easier to address problems as they come up. If she’s worried that means she’ll need to let him fail before she can step in, there could be some of that — but she can minimize it by watching him closely and checking in regularly.

(The one area I might handle differently is his history of offensive comments. She could use the same approach there — wait for it to happen and then address it decisively once it does — but it would also be reasonable for her to say from the start, “As we prepare to work together in a different way than we have previously, I want you to know that you cannot make jokes about X or Y on my watch. Others might have had a laxer approach about that in the past, but I take that very seriously and want to be transparent with you that I’d consider that unacceptable on our team.”)

Then from there, it’ll be crucial for her to actively manage him: give feedback, escalate the seriousness of their conversations if he doesn’t quickly incorporate that feedback going forward, and start down the path of a formal improvement process if she doesn’t see the changes she needs.

It’s possible that once someone actually bothers to manage Newman, he’ll improve. Who knows — maybe no one has ever correctly set expectations with him and made it clear the issues are serious ones, and maybe he’ll shape up once someone does. So proceeding this way is a kindness to him since it gives him the opportunity to know what it will take to succeed in his role. But if it doesn’t result in changes relatively quickly, this will have laid the groundwork for whatever process your company has in place for transitioning people out.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 137 comments… read them below }

  1. Bree*

    One other thing that jumped out to me about the letter is that the LW suspects Newman is skipping the quality control process but can’t prove it. It wasn’t clear to me if it was just the LW who couldn’t prove it, or if no one – including Elaine – could. If the latter, it would be worth revisiting that process in general.

    1. Granger Chase*

      I agree with this. If the manager would be able to check if Newman is bypassing the QC process in place, I think that could start a big picture conversation and possibly bring up issues with past projects, such as Elaine being able to say it was such a serious violation of company policy to go around QC procedures that she went and looked at other projects that had the same issues and found they went around the QC procedures also. I think having her frame it as a “do you need additional training on our QC process?” instead of assuming (perhaps rightly) that he is purposely going around them could help with this conversation a lot.

    2. LW*

      I can’t prove it, but it might be provable with some digging. I haven’t tried (for obvious reasons—it’s really not my place).

      1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        Even if you cannot prove this, it gives Elaine a good place to start investigating. She will have the power of a manager to pull files, etc.

      2. Clisby*

        What kind of QC procedures do you have that couldn’t be easily proven? Of course, I don’t know what industry you’re in, or what kinds of QC processes you have. However, when I was a computer programmer (for an online product), our work had to be reviewed by a separate QA group. There was no way to bypass them – if they didn’t sign off on it, our work didn’t make it online. I know QA and QC aren’t the same, but how is Newman even able to skip your QC procedure? It shouldn’t be up to him. Some completely different group of people should be handling QC.

        1. Anonomoose*

          If it’s a smaller development team, that, say, just requires code review and sign off from the boss, this isn’t that hard to skip

          “Oh, boss, I pushed to the release branch”
          *Boss thinks: but I don’t remember signing off on this, but I must have, because he pushed to the release branch*

          *Employee thinks: hey! It’s all fine, if boss had wanted us to follow all these stupid procedures, he’d have told me then”

      3. pamplemousse*

        Not trying is the right call. This is a good question to ask, because it’s a situation I’ve seen before and a lot of readers are probably curious about it! But if Elaine in fact gets the job, the appropriate thing to do, I think, would be to wait and see if the issue comes up again, then flag it to her as you would any other manager.

  2. Close Bracket*

    I disagree that there is not a lot Elaine can reference. While Jerry may never have drawn a line through all Newman’s problems every time he removed Newman from an account, Elaine should have the record of all those times that Jerry did so. Her conversation would be less “I know Jerry had been talking with you about your work in XYZ areas, and I want to work closely with you to get that work where we need it,” and more “I see that Jerry removed you from X after A happened and then removed you from Y after B. Let’s talk about what’s going on with both of those and work closely to get you to a point where that doesn’t happen again.”

    1. Jedi Squirrel*

      If Jerry left that paperwork trail, then yes. And you could link it in to what Bree said about about skipping the QC process: “Do you know if there were quality issues with your work that led Jerry to make that decision?” Then it’s less about Jerry potentially being biased and more about the quality of Newman’s work.

    2. voyager1*

      I think this is a good idea but the Elaine is going to need stuff in writing about what Jerry did. Going by what she thinks happened or what LW is telling her could be all be wrong. If there is no record then Elaine is pretty much starting from 0.

      1. Close Bracket*

        Hopefully Elaine is listening to Jerry and not to LW. Even if Jerry never made written notes, he knows he removed Newman from things, and he knows why. Unless Jerry died suddenly, there is no reason for Elaine to be starting from 0.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I agree but I also wonder if Jerry is accessible to Elaine, I was just assuming Jerry walked off into the sunset and isn’t readily available to give this kind of information to her directly. But perhaps he did train her or spent enough time to debrief about staffing issues, etc. All our managers scatter to the wind when they leave and they aren’t heard from again, so it wouldn’t be possible if they hadn’t made a proper papertrail [which is why I make everyone at least write up a document even if it was a verbal conversation that they had to keep on file.]

          1. Close Bracket*

            Yeah, we don’t know where Jerry is. I was assuming there was some overlap so that he could bring Elaine up to speed, but we don’t know that.

          2. LW*

            Jerry is not accessible but was very open about the issues with Newman, to the point of being inappropriate. I assume he briefed Elaine directly but I can’t be sure, and knowing Jerry it was informal and not in writing.

            1. voyager1*

              What is the context for inappropriate mean? If Jerry is out there badmouthing Newman to everyone he goes to the unreliable narrator status pretty quick. Just because an employee ain’t great doesn’t give you a pass on not being professional or being a jerk to them.

              1. LW*

                Jerry was a giant jerk about Newman and badmouthed him to lots of people. It was a real problem. Most of what I (and Elaine) know about Newman doesn’t come from Jerry, though, so his reliability doesn’t really matter. We’ve seen his work and heard his inappropriate comments.

              2. Devil Fish*

                What do you consider “badmouthing” in a business context? I’ve had managers that talked about subordinates in a way that I would consider inappropriate and unprofessional just on the basis that they were sharing feedback about subordinates with other subordinates in a way that was more about venting than solving the issue.

                If Jerry was complaining to subordinates that Newman continues to make offensive jokes even though he’s been told not to, is making up tasks for himself instead of doing the work he was assigned, and had to be removed from another project due to his poor work quality, I think that’s inappropriate and unprofessional but they’re not baseless criticisms.

                1. voyager1*

                  Both of your examples are pretty bad. I had a manager say to me that they would not have hired one of team members.

                  Here is the thing though. If he is bad mouthing Newman to say LW or Elaine. What is he saying to Newman about Elaine or the LW.

                  That is why this issue of badmouthing is so bad. It undermines trust the employees have in management. It is truly one of the few things that makes a workplace toxic.

            2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

              Ah yeah, now I totally get where Newman comes from on his idea that Jerry had it out for him. I would just leave that in the dust and focus on what Elaine knows directly because screw second hand when you’ve got it first hand!

      2. serenity*

        I don’t really agree with this at all. This isn’t a court of law, where only what has been formally put down in writing can be admissible or talked about. If Newman was removed from accounts for reasons X or Y, Elaine can definitely reference that when she’s in the role and having her first direct report meeting and setting expectations.

        This whole scenario took place recently for a friend of mine (she inherited someone who was poorly managed and had performance issues which had never been really addressed, and she knew what she was in for). She had a friendly but pointed conversation with her new report and, in essence, said “I know there have been some issues in your performance, and I’d like you to know that my approach is going to be different from your previous manager in ways X, Y, and Z. Here is what I would like to see going forward….”

        1. hbc*

          Yeah, I agree, no need to start from zero, and no need for things to have been in writing. If Elaine doesn’t have proof, she should be more open to whatever defenses Newman claims, but she can still talk about it.

          Elaine: “You got pulled off several accounts for adding a feature that the customer didn’t want, and leaving it in for several versions.”
          Newman: “No, I never did that. Customers loved my additions, and Jerry was just jealous of my skill!”
          Elaine: “Okay, so to prevent this kind of misunderstanding going forward, let’s make sure that you’re not going to work on features that the customer hasn’t agreed to in writing and I’ve approved. That way it’s clear to everyone what’s going on.”

          That’s emailed to him after the meeting, and he’s got zero tolerance going forward on doing that again (or for the supposed first time.)

          1. Close Bracket*

            Now that you mention it, the other people working on the accounts will know what Newman did or didn’t do and how the customers reacted even if they don’t have insight into why Newman was reassigned. Who knows, maybe the customers did love the additions!

          2. voyager1*

            Yeah that is the best case scenario of a hypothetical. If Newman was smart he would say that he was pulled off the accounts with no feedback as to why. Or worse yet, he says that and it is true.

            Then what do you do, call him a liar?

            This is why it is so IMPORTANT to put stuff in writing when it comes to disciplining and feedback and coaching.

            1. hbc*

              I would say that Newman claiming no knowledge means that Elaine can say, “Okay, well, this is what was passed along, so let’s make sure it doesn’t happen.” Not a worst case scenario at all, since he can’t refute Jerry with a shrug.

              The point is, Newman either has to agree that he did X and argue that he should be able to do X, or he’s going to say he never did X. In the first case, Elaine gets the chance to be super clear that X is not acceptable. In the second case, Newman can’t really argue that he needs to be able to do X, so he’s probably going to (reluctantly) go on the record saying he won’t do X. Plausible deniability is removed in all cases.

        2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          This will depend on the internal procedures in the end. It may not be a court of law but no papertrail means no termination in a lot of organizations. Usually ones with CBA’s but others have adopted the procedure as well. So again, it depends on the SOP.

          1. Devil Fish*

            This right here. A lot of people seem to overestimate how much big volatility energy companies are willing to swing around to keep their employees in line. Despite all the “at will employment” talk and threats of firing, I’ve mostly worked at places that mandated a very strict paper trail before they’d actually do it (to avoid paying out unemployment to fired workers but still).

            The only time I’ve seen someone fired without a lot of documentation was a dude who was actively harassing women during new hire training—the company only did something after half a dozen women complained, and what they did involved giving the guy a week of paid leave while they “investigated the complaints.” (Where is my week of vacation for being harassed? Oh we’re not doing that? Okay cool.)

    3. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I agree that Elaine doesn’t have any point of reference. Elaine, if she gets the promotion, isn’t starting from 0 like an outside hire would be. If she’s currently a colleague of the OP, then she’s likely already experienced Newman’s issues first-hand. A new manager should have a one-on-one with each of their direct reports and in this one Elaine can point out anything that she’s already witnessed on her own — poor attention to the job specs, falling down rabbit holes, offensive comments — and work from there.

      The only advice I have for the OP is to stand well back from this, don’t try to poison the well if Elaine is unaware, and let Elaine handle it the way she wants to without giving any management advice. If Elaine gets the promotion, she’ll get direction from her own boss about what TPTB want her to accomplish.

      1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

        I meant to say that Elaine *does have a point of reference… not doesn’t

    4. Qwerty*

      I think Elaine has a better shot developing her own management relationship with Newman rather than drawing on Jerry’s management. Newman thinks Jerry took him off the projects because Jerry doesn’t like him, so revisiting those issue could poison the well and end up with Newman thinking Elaine is just listening to Jerry. Jerry handled those situations poorly and didn’t leave much useful to build on.

      If the goal is to make Newman a productive team member, Elaine has a better shot addressing what she has knowledge of. Newman is already looking forward to Elaine’s management, so she has the opportunity to use that optimism to make him more of a team player. The offensive comments is an easy starting point, because she’s witnessed it directly as a team member and it isn’t tied to Jerry’s bad management. She can have a big picture conversation and then remind him the moment. It serves as good litmus test of if he’s listened – slipping up occasionally may happen, but if the frequency decreases then she knows he’s trying to improve.

      1. knead me seymour*

        Agreed. It sounds like Newman has no trust in Jerry’s authority and is happy to accept Elaine as a manager at this point. Given that she also used to be a peer, I think it may be more productive to start fresh and assess issues as they arise, as Alison suggests. Obviously she doesn’t want to bend over backwards to accommodate Newman, but I think trying to borrow authority from Jerry would be almost certain to backfire in this case.

      2. pamplemousse*

        Yes. It would be satisfying as Newman’s peer to know that someone is FINALLY going to call him on the carpet for the dumb things he did back in March, so I understand the impulse here. But the end goal is for Newman either to become a good employee and coworker, or to be managed out in a compassionate and airtight way. Both of those are better served by starting with a clean slate.

    1. Submerged Tenths*

      Completely agree! If Elaine is the ONLY one trying to manage Newman, she is doomed. Her boss should be in the loop starting yesterday.

    2. Artemesia*

      This. I have watched someone come in to a department and the problem employee be gone in three months. But first Elaine needs to have the conversation with her boss about her concerns and her approach going forward to hold him accountable and work on improvement and on eliminating sexist/racist jokes and statements. THEN she needs to have the conversation with Newman and monitor closely. Maybe once managed he will shape up, but the goal should be to get rid of him if that does not occur. So it is critical to have her own boss’s buy in on the front end.

  3. Jamey*

    I think the script about setting the expectations that there will be no offensive jokes under Elaine’s watch is particularly good.

      1. Jamie*

        If he were the only one doing it then just with him. People who do that kind of thing take comfort in general announcements as they feel it’s more pervasive and that it’s isn’t directed at them.

        If indeed he’s the only perpetrator she needs to point out that no one else has trouble staying professional and it’s non-negotiable that he does as well.

        1. Jedi Squirrel*

          People who do that kind of thing take comfort in general announcements as they feel it’s more pervasive and that it’s isn’t directed at them.

          This is what I was afraid of when I asked. Newman would feel it’s not about him but about everybody else.

          no one else has trouble staying professional

          I like this framing!

          1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

            Agreed. Because the “No off color or offensive jokes” conversation uses more of “you know it when you see it” definition and not specific: don’t make jokes about race, religion, gender, hair color, age, cultural background…
            Because it’s assumed that’s understood and also it derails the discussion. “What about… But I’m…”
            While Newman sits in his chair thinking, “I don’t do that. One time, that one person got upset, but I don’t joke around her because she just doesn’t like joking at work.”

  4. Serin*

    > Who knows — maybe no one has ever correctly set expectations with him and made it clear the issues are serious ones, and maybe he’ll shape up once someone does.

    Does that ever happen? I’ve known a few people who were new to the workplace and succeeded after being told, once, that it actually does matter what time you come in or what you wear, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone genuinely pull out of a dive like this.

    1. voyager1*

      That is because you are framing it as a dive. I have seen folks who were lackluster who changed branches/locations and then were the “rockstar.” I have also seen the opposite too. I am sure there have been letters on here too that have had the situations.

      Sometimes how well you connect with your manager makes a difference.

      1. Meraydia*

        Agreed. I inherited an employee who was essentially on the chopping block when I took over. It turned out to be a management style issue (my predecessor micro managed too much). The employee really shined and ended up being promoted to a better job rather than being exited. You never quite know what is going on, which is why I think it’s important in this case for Elaine to start the conversation fresh so there isn’t a perception that Jerry has poisoned the well against Newman (no matter how valid his view of his performance was).

      2. NW Mossy*

        Been there, managed that guy.

        When I first started managing people, I was taking over for a leader who was retiring. In a handoff meeting, she named an employee and said “He’s going to be your #1 problem.” It quickly became apparent that he was not my biggest problem, and in fact I had a much harder time managing the person that was my predecessor’s favorite. He started to thrive under someone who didn’t perceive him as an irredeemable screw-up, and I spent a lot of time with the favorite giving feedback about behaviors they’d previously gotten a pass on.

        1. RC Rascal*

          I have had the same experience as both Meraydia and NW Mossy. Multiple times. Once, it was a young employee seen as useless who had never been trained. Another it was an old curmudgeon who had never been managed. Despite being a rabble rouser he knew what he was doing and had great insight–it’s just the previous regime didn’t want to hear it.

    2. Minocho*

      I have. I was consistently doing an important task incorrectly. I had received documentation of the process, and followed the document – but there was an undocumented portion of the process (or maybe it was documented somewhere, but I was unaware of the documentation), and I was not doing it. My boss was remote, and I worked alone on most things except this one process, where I took a shift on the process periodically.

      I found out I was doing it incorrectly because I heard coworkers talking with each other about how horrible I was, and how I was creating extra work for the team by not completing the process correctly. I was mortified, and asked my manager about it immediately – I’d been doing this process the incorrect way consistently for six months – and he said that I was doing it incorrectly. I asked for and received the information I needed to do the process correctly going forward.

      But that cemented in my coworkers’ and boss’s heads that I was a bad worker. Every review for the next three years I got dinged for not following instructions – and this specific incident was the only example given each time I received this feedback.

      Newman may or may not be aware of the issues. But giving him clear feedback gives the team a chance to gain a productive member. And I hope that if Newman does improve, his new manager allows him to recover his reputation. I ended up having to leave this company to recover my professional reputation.

      1. 1234*

        I think your story speaks more about the company culture that it does on your capabilities.

        1 – The team could have easily come to you and said “hey, I noticed, this part of the process hadn’t been done. Did you need help with that?”

        2- Your own boss could’ve easily checked up on this task and realized you didn’t do X or Y instead of you coming to him.

        3- They could’ve easily mentioned all of this before 6 months.

        4 – The fact that this came up in your review for 3 years means they are grasping at straws trying to nitpick “not following instructions.” I would’ve printed the documentation that you received and asked your boss “I apologize if I’ve missed it, but where in this document is step X or Y?”

        1. Minocho*

          The culture had problems, and there were lots of places where things could have been improved more quickly. This was a particularly frustrating experience, but it taught me a lot of very valuable lessons.

          It helped me really appreciate how valuable corrective / critical feedback is – I directly seek out critical feedback now. It’s never pleasant to receive, but it is as difficult to give well as it is to receive well, and I really have worked hard to be receptive to it and appreciative of it.

          It gave me a good lesson in the need to allow my opinion of people to change – to give additional chances and a little more benefit of the doubt to people.

          It taught me the value of documentation and process.

          It taught me the value of interacting well across teams to have a broader perspective of how well you are doing your job.

          It taught me some things I do NOT want to do if I become a manager!

          But in the moment, man, that experience was really unpleasant.

          1. Door Guy*

            The first payday after our payroll person left at my last job, most everyone’s checks were wrong. Mine was off by a couple hundred dollars, but most were wrong by around $50-$75. When we spoke with the general manager (who had done payroll that week) he told us we’d all done our time punches wrong and that’s why our checks were off. There was a lot of grumbling and complaining for a few days before we got an update.

            Apparently, the former payroll person was just fixing all the time punch issues (we punched in and out through an app on our phone since we were remote field workers). Whenever we switched from “production” to “lunch” or “meeting” or “training” we were supposed to change TWO different drop downs or it didn’t change properly. A few people knew (they had asked/been told by the old payroll person) but the rest of us had no clue and she just fixed it every week without saying anything. Mine was off so bad because I had 2 training days for one of our new product lines and hadn’t punched correctly for either of them, most of the rest just had their weekly meetings and lunches wrong.

      2. Close Bracket*

        Wow, everybody just let you do the process wrong for 6 months and not a single person told you about! Holy cats, I hate your former coworkers and boss.

        1. Minocho*

          I was frustrated, for sure.

          I finally quit the job in the closest I’ve come to rage quitting. I was reamed by my boss for sleeping through a single 4 am phone call, and told if it ever happened again I would be written up.

          4 business days later I had an offer and gave two week’s notice.

          My boss asked me if it was the money, and I decided it wasn’t worth my time to even try to have a real conversation, so I just said “Yes”.

          A former coworker there (who is now a confirmed friend for life, 10 years later) got an offer with a 60% raise. Her boss (who she loved working for, but 60% raise!) went to the CFO to see if they could match the offer. The CFO marched up to her desk and demanded to see her resume, stating publicly in front of everyone that there’s no way she was worth so much money.

          The CFO called her into her office later, and said they would match the offer, but she would have to understand that she was the most highly paid non-management employee in the company going forward. She came to me and asked what I thought (she REALLY liked her boss and felt guilty about leaving), and I said there was no advantage to her staying if the CFO had that attitude about her.

          I lasted another few months there after that.

            1. Minocho*

              nope! Sold to another business, and the high ranking managers were bought out for decent sums of cash. But I got out long before that – thank goodness, it preserved my sanity!

    3. Lora*

      Ever? I mean, it’s probably happened once or twice. Just…very very VERY uncommon. And usually those few times, the person was going through some personal things and they got better when the personal things resolved. For the inappropriate commentary – I’ve only seen people learn to keep that under wraps when they changed companies rather than change bosses, as they seemed better able to grasp the whole “your last job at SketchyCorp might have been very casual but here at SuccessInc we are more buttoned up, you need to watch the unfunny jokes” concept better than the idea that it was wrong all along.

      One of my friends swears up and down that I shouldn’t give up on people so fast, because he ONCE had an employee who was a royal pain to deal with and at the top of the list for the next round of layoffs, a guy who had been passed around several departments on and off a PIP. When he was finally really blunt to the point of rudeness with the guy about his shortcomings, the guy managed to shape up really well and eventually was promoted a couple of years later. It seemed like people had simply tried very hard not to hurt his feelings. My friend has had exactly one such employee in 45 years of business though, and I’ve only seen two who both had personal issues that suddenly cleared up, so…

    4. Qwerty*

      Yes, I’ve seen it happen several times with varying levels of success.

      The recipe for this type of situation is where managers like Jerry essentially don’t manage and avoid difficult discussions. There have been multiple managers who never did anything, so Newman has been lead to believe that his performance is acceptable. While Jerry eventually took Newman off of projects, he didn’t have the conversations about *why*, so Newman got to fill in the blanks with whatever he wanted.

      If Elaine comes in with a fresh, clean slate and treats Newman according to how he acts under her management, he has a chance. She’ll need some compassion for his situation – as much as we think it should be obvious that he is doing things wrong, he’s going to be very confused by the new feedback. If Elaine addresses things as they come up, it can prevent them from turning into bigger issues worthy of client removal. Or pair the client removal talk directly to Newman’s actions so he can see the cause and effect.

      I know managers who have had the Newmans on their team actually thank them for negative feedback (not in the moment, but down the line). Sometimes they improve to be great employees, some middle, some not great but no longer toxic. Some do you the favor of leaving on their own because they don’t want to be held to the new standards. Regardless of how much Newman improves, it helps the team as a whole to see that they have a manager who is willing to address issues and help the team improve.

    5. LawBee*

      Some people need and thrive under more active management. If he’s never had that, but he’s that kind of employee, this could end up being a great thing for him. But without it, he’s left to go his own way, which clearly isn’t working. I’m not sure I’d call it a dive as much as kind of a free-form flail.

    6. gbca*

      I’ve had it happen. In this situation, there was a manager with a bad attitude who micromanaged his team and the attitude permeated the whole team. Then the company went through a re-org and I inherited one of the team members, Mark. He probably would have gotten let go as part of the re-org (all low performers did) but someone realized that there was a common theme in this team. Anyway I was a little apprehensive, but I had him in a role where he had a good amount of responsibility and autonomy and he absolutely thrived. I actually promoted him a year later! Then due to another re-org Mark got moved over to another manager who sat near him when he was under the first manager. The new manager told me he thought he’d never want Mark on his team when he was on the old team, but it was like he was a new person now.

    7. designbot*

      I’ve had a conversation with a report about how he needed to take more ownership of his work, socialize less during the workday, generally step it up. He’s my best employee now. I think a lot of it is in their mindset and their maturity, but there’s also a trick to delivering the message of “you’re not living up to your potential and I believe you could be great.” instead of “you’re screwing up in every way.”

    8. Nas*

      I’ve seen it. I don’t know the details – she’s a colleague so I don’t know what conversations happened in the background, I just saw the results as I worked with her on different teams but we didn’t have the same managers.
      She was seen as someone who half-assed her work. Then she was on the lay-off list and fought hard to stay. She also changed managers. Suddenly she’s doing process improvements, ensuring our partners follow every detail, writing instructions, teaching others…
      I hear there are some attitude problems now (after years of good work). But who knows, could be personal issues, not connecting with the new manager… People are not either great or terrible, that’s why management matters. Otherwise companies woukd only need to hire people, fire the ones who are not amaizing and that would be it.

    9. Senor Montoya*

      Yes, it does. Not as often as you would hope, of course. I have a co-worker who had worked in our office half-time for four or five years. We had a bunch of departures (we don’t pay enough and don’t have enough opportunities for promotion) and desperately needed coverage for functions central to our office. Half time co-worker was offered the opportunity to do part of the work the departing folks were leaving; Half-time took the offer even though they did not have direct experience — their experience was adjacent and, with a good employee, would indicate skills that could apply to the core-function. I’m lead on that function and was dubious about Half-Time (nice person, not the sharpest pin in the pack, rigid thinker), and I was right.
      Despite my clear, detailed, and documented feedback to my grandboss, Half-Time was hired on as a full time person.

      Over the last 6 months, I’ve worked very intensively with Half-Time, made expectations clear, helped them set goals, checked their work very closely. Half-Time actually has improved and is fairly competent — nowhere near the superior level most of the rest of the staff is, but acceptable.
      I have no power to fire and our grandboss is loath to let anyone go. No one has actually been fired or managed out in over a decade. We work with students — probably the only thing that would get someone fired in this office would be sexual harassment of a student or other truly egregious behavior harming students.

      So yeah, it can happen. But in this case it took a huge amount of departmental resources, which, in my view, would have been better spent hiring someone who would ramp up more quickly and be more than just competent.

    10. jay*

      Maybe not for everyone, but it would definitely work for me — I have a LOT of trouble knowing how to conduct myself in work environments if not given clear expectations. Like, I’m the kind of person who cackles when I get a new handbook because I love rules and guidelines and procedures, so if I’m in a place where I don’t have those and my boss is doing the hand-wavey “ehh just do your job” thing, I’m a total dumpster fire as an employee — totally overwhelmed, choice paralysis, etc. This is also why I’ve actively avoided management positions, because I know that unless explicitly taught how to manage, preferably in writing, I will have no idea what to do, ever. I need a manager who is either willing to meet with me regularly and help me doublecheck myself, or I need to be left completely alone until I figure stuff out. (I also have mental health stuff that plays into this aspect of my personality, fwiw.)

    11. pamplemousse*

      I have.

      I changed managers at a low point in my performance. I wasn’t in danger of getting fired, but I’d gone from a good employee in my first year to being someone who was, at best, doing the bare minimum, and the trend line wasn’t going in a good direction. My original manager had been a very nice person but new to her role, and she wasn’t always great at making clear what she expected and when my performance was unacceptable. (I am also not great at picking up on cues.) My new manager, who had already been at the company, was experienced, engaged, and very direct. She and my old manager had a joint meeting with me where the old manager made clear what was going wrong and my new manager was crystal clear about what I was going to need to do to fix it.

      We fixed it. Within two months, she’d realized some issues with my role (which had made sense on an earlier version of the team but was no longer as essential) that were contributing to my slump, and adjusted my day-to-day tasks to better play to my strengths and our business’s needs. Within six months, she realized I had leadership potential and started giving me more responsibilities and exposure to our broader strategy.

      That conversation was four years ago, I’ve been promoted multiple times and thrived in every role. I’m now a manager handling difficult and complex work while managing senior contributors. My evaluations are excellent. She’s not perfect, of course. But if she left the company and tried to hire me to come along I’d probably walk over broken glass to go with her.

      She’s never mentioned that conversation or what came before it again. I’m not sure she remembers it. I will never forget it. Her clear feedback, her willingness to give people a chance (and cut them loose if they fail), and her ability to think creatively about the people who work for her and how they can fit into our bigger goals changed my life.

  5. Anne of Green Gables*

    I have had an employee *really* shape up after expectations and consequences were made clear, but it was a young employee fairly new to the work world.

    I’ve also had an employee viewed as terrible be seen through a completely different light with a different manager. In this case, the previous person was pretty awful to said employee, and when they were treated like a human being, their performance improved immensely. Obviously not the situation here.

    1. Jill of All Trades*

      I can relate to this. Under my old manager I was barely skating by – think 2 or 3 out of 5 in every category on an annual review. Under my current manager I’m considered one of the top performers for people at my level – a 5 out of 5 in most categories.

      It’s amazing what a difference good management makes.

      1. stampysmom*

        100%! I just got a small promotion with my latest manager after a year and a half. My last manager brought up things in my annual review that wasn’t even related to me. (for clarity – “you had complaints about being responsive” but she was aware they added additional headcount to my project because the scope exploded and I had turned to her for help being utterly underwater. And – “you didn’t attend all these meetings and people were mad” when we had realized months back they were actually complaining about the PM who I had recently inherited the project from). Frustrating as heck to think things were addressed months ago and not even on my radar, then to have it come back up at a review as all my fault.

    2. Combinatorialist*

      But considering Jerry “got mad” and “never had a calm conversation” that may very much be at play. If no one is ever telling you what you were doing wrong and just yelling or otherwise having an angry conversation out of the blue (from your perspective), exactly what motivation would you have to try? With clear, respectful feedback, he might really improve.

      1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        That sounds almost like an episode of Seinfeld in and of itself.

        Jerry: I’m so angry! What made you think that was acceptable!
        Newman: What was acceptable?
        Jerry: You know what you did! On what planet is that the right thing to do, I mean really Newman!
        Newman: What are we talking about?
        Jerry: Oh don’t you play dumb with me, you know exactly what I’m talking about!

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Yep. He may not necessarily shape up completely but a lot of people will react a lot better when they’re treated with dignity and respect. Instead of just screamed at and treated like you’re the turd they stepped on while in their nice dress shoes.

        A good starting point is to treat him like he’s human and see how he wants to play that way.

  6. RC Rascal*

    There is a kind of employee who will get away with things as long as they can get away with things. Once it’s clear they can no longer get away with stuff, they stop. Frequently this person will be branded as a long time trouble maker or hopeless case prior to the new manager, but the reality is that no one has ever tried to manage them or clearly communicate to them what the issues are and what they should be doing.

  7. animaniactoo*

    Hmmmm. I think it should be possible for Elaine to go in with something like “I know that you believe that Jerry just didn’t like you and that was responsible for most of the issues you’ve had here. I want to be clear with you that I have noticed some things that I think could use improvement, and I’d like to work with you on those. For example, one thing I’ve noticed you do in reports that I’ve seen is _______. I’d like you to work on incorporating more ________ from the standpoint of a finished product.”

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      Unless Elaine has heard Newman say he thinks Jerry didn’t like him, I’d leave that out. I might leave it out anyway; don’t get into the weeds about who liked or didn’t like whom.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Right. Elaine is the boss. Her word stands on its own quite well. She does not need to say, “And all these other people agree with me.”

    2. pamplemousse*

      I’ve been a peer promoted to a manager, and I’ve also taken on others’ direct reports who were management challenges. I think the best approach is what Allison suggests: affirmatively making clear what YOUR expectations are going to be and let him start with a clean slate. Otherwise, it’s too easy to make it seem like the new manager also came in with a personal ax to grind.

      If this guy is as bad as the LW says, the issues are going to pop up pretty fast, and you’ll have the advantage of having seemed willing to give him a chance and the benefit of the doubt, untainted by whatever he thought Jerry thought.

  8. Lexi*

    And unless this email came from Elaine, it’s not the LW’s place to be having planning discussions with Elaine on managing employees. When Elaine is promoted the relationship needs to change.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        Although hopefully the OP can says something like “hey, as a new manager, you should check out AskAManager.org. There is a lot of advice there that seems good to me, and while I’m excited to have you as a manager and expect you’ll be great, it’s always good to know of resources too, right?”

    1. I edit everything*

      But this is a situation that is likely to come up for many people. I expect finding yourself inheriting a problem employee is more common than not, so it makes for a good, useful, widely applicable column.

      1. gbca*

        Exactly. I actually emailed Alison a similar question (though I’m new to the company so the behavior was what I heard secondhand, not what I experienced as a peer), so I’m happy to see her advice.

  9. Emmie*

    Firing someone takes time, and effort. Managers should still go through with the process. What is it about your company that makes it hard to fire someone? It is reasonable to engage in a formal process such as verbal warnings, written warnings, and a performance improvement plan. Those steps encourage a fair process, though it feels like the termination process moves slowly when an employee is under-performing.

    I do not intend to diminish OP’s perceptions, but it’s important to question those perceptions at our own companies. Managers can move this process along more rapidly by documenting project coaching including failures; contacting HR about performance issues; documenting verbal warnings; and memorializing issues on annual performance reviews. Manager should also document successes too.

  10. Anti-ageism*

    “Our CEO will mostly likely promote my colleague Elaine, and I’m excited for the new leadership — she’s a smart, super-competent, young-ish woman. ”

    I don’t want to derail too much, but I want to call out this comment. It is incredibly ageist. You’re saying that the CEO is promoting someone with positive qualities (as she should) including that she is “young-ish.”

    Wow. Would you brag about not hiring POC or LBGTQ+ people, too?

    I say this as an older millennial FWIW.

    1. Peaches*

      …I think you’re overreacting a bit. It’s not clear what context she meant ‘young-ish’ in. She could have just meant it to simply point out that Elaine could potentially be a leader at the company for many years to come, which LW is excited about.

    2. LW*

      I mentioned this because I think the age and gender issues are relevant. Elaine is a younger woman; Newman is an older man. That can be a challenging dynamic (and Newman is pretty sexist, although I didn’t say it in the original letter).

    3. Qwerty*

      I took as a something that could affect the advice. Being young means that she likely has a lot less time in that industry than Newman, so that may cause him to balk at her coaching. There are also issues in a lot of male dominated industries where men do not respond well to being managed by young women. He already tells offensive jokes – I would guess those include sexist jokes.

      Ask yourself if you would have been upset if “young-ish woman” had been swapped out with “man with two decades of experience”. Would you have felt that it was derogatory towards young people?

      1. Dust Bunny*

        This, exactly. Female, conspicuously accomplished, and younger is exactly the type of person that a guy like Newman might find particularly galling.

    4. A*

      Seriously? I’m all for advocacy, and I LOVE AAM, but this is getting a bit out of hand. I know this had good intentions, but it feels like an over reaction / nitpicking. Let’s all give each other just a lil bit of slack, eh?

  11. Dust Bunny*

    . . . or not. It’s possible that the LW meant that “young-ish” might be a liability from the standpoint of being viewed as an authority figure, since Newman is a (presumably older than Elaine is) man. The description the LW gave is exactly the kind of woman that people like Newman often blow off.

    1. CHUN*

      I am a reader of this blog from China, I have never posted before. I realise this blog is majority of Americans but I want say that this is extreme anti-China Letter. In Asian countries we respect seniors.

  12. cmcinnyc*

    “I’ve watched your work for a while and I expect it to suck in the following ways.”

    I do get why you can’t just say that but it’s a beautiful sentence and really cuts to the heart of the matter.

    1. Funbud*

      I’m keeping this expression on file. Someday, there’ll be a situation where it fits perfectly!


    2. Johnny Tarr*

      Broadly applicable to life, too! “I’ve been observing you for a while and I see that you suck in the following ways.”

        1. E*

          Sudden vision of pre-printed AAM sticky notepads with this printed at the top in a beautiful elegant script…

        2. Seeking Second Childhood*

          Well that did it, i just laughed so abruptly that I’m logging off to clean up cracker crumbs. Thank goodness I’m in a tile kitchen not at my computer.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I laughed.

        But then I remembered this almost exact note was left for a young girl in middle school in her locker :| I hate my memory ruining what I know is a joke :'(

  13. NGA*

    This is really timely as we’re facing a similar issue. A related question, though: we will likely be bringing on a new manager from the outside in the next 8 weeks. Should the current manager begin a formal performance improvement plan with the staff member now, or wait for the new manager?

    Obviously, the best outcome would have been for a PIP to have started months ago, but that option is off the table since we can’t time travel. On the one hand, I think it could set the new manager up for success better to have some ground work laid with this employee, and it’s really something we owe to the employee to give her timely feedback. On the other hand, I would hate to give the employee a 3 month target of what appropriate performance would look like, and then have the new manager stuck with that as their metric if they would prioritize something else. (And similarly, for the employee to be working with those metrics and then kind of have the rug pulled out from under them midway through.)

    1. Dagny*

      Wait for the new manager.

      It seems like it would be hard enough to be on a formal performance improvement plan, let alone have it handed off to a new manager in the middle of it.

      From the company’s perspective, you’re betting a lot on that new manager correctly understanding the problems and following the plan. It might be ‘easiest’ for the new manager to just terminate the employee at the end of it (even if she’s improved), or it might be ‘easiest’ to keep her on (even if her work merits dismissal).

      Shorter version: do NOT have a new manager walk in blind and do the last 1/3d of a formal PIP for an employee they have never met.

      1. NGA*

        Thanks, I appreciate your input! This resonates with me too. I struggle with NOT giving the employee timely feedback (I’m also the HR person, not the manager, so my power here is purely recommending paths forward) but I think giving the new manager authority over this both gives the employee the opportunity to start with a clean slate in a hopefully better environment, and also sets the manager up to be able to set performance expectations in line with their vision and goals.

    2. Devil Fish*

      Could the current manager give the employee some documented coaching on the things that need to change and be clear that a PIP would have been on the table if they weren’t leaving but since they are this is a chance to get it together before things need to escalate to that point? (Personally I would hate to know that this information had been delayed for 2 months and I’d been underperforming the entire time without a heads up that oh hey you’re on the edge of being fired but we’ll talk about it later.)

      You’re also looking at some lag-time after the new manager starts because they’re going to need to observe the employee and decide whether they need a PIP based on their own priorities, unless the PIP is based on metrics that have already been documented but inexplicably not addressed before. (In which case the manager’s first impression of this employee is they suck and they’re on the way out, so not a lot of reason to invest a lot of time and/or resources into trying to effectively coach them. Neat!)

      1. Qwerty*

        Seconding this idea. It sets everyone up for the best outcome. The employee gets the coaching of a PIP without the anxiety of knowing a new manager will be making the decision with only a few weeks of data. The new manager won’t be stuck with an employee in crisis and will be given time to make her own opinions. The employee has a chance to get their act together before the new manager comes in. Plus the employee and exiting manager may be more comfortable being frank with each other since they only have a few more weeks of working together. It is sometimes easier to look vulnerable or dumb in front of someone who you don’t have a long term future with, allowing everyone to focus on the problem.

        If the employee has 4 weeks left on their PIP when the new manager starts, that really puts the manager in a terrible spot. No matter how bad the employee is, it is hard to make a good first impression as a new manager when one of your first acts is to fire someone. So then they will likely feel obligated to keep on this struggling employee, which could make it harder to actually address the employee’s issue in the future.

    3. PollyQ*

      I vote “now”, with the expectation that the situation be resolved, one way or the other, before the new manager comes in at all. Alison often recommends short PIPs, and given the tight labor market, it’s not unreasonable to think that finding the new manager may take longer than 8 weeks.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Start it now. Try to wrap it up within 8 weeks so you’re not dumping it on the new manager. If you wait, all sorts of things can happen — the employee could ask for disability accommodations or announce she’s pregnant or so forth and all of a sudden dealing with the problems when you hadn’t previously is going to look like discrimination or retaliation, even though it’s not, which is a complicating factor you don’t need. Get the process started now and try to resolve it quickly.

  14. Wintermute*

    Your talk of building features leads me to believe this may be I.T. field. I would second seeing HOW someone is able to bypass Q.C. because that’s a big deal if things are going to production that have not been tested. It is not unrealistic to fire someone the first time they do so. If they’ve been removed from projects for putting out unusable work, that’s also absolutely a firing offense. If he’s refusing to stop telling offensive jokes, based on what KIND of joke they are, he might already be creating a legally hostile workplace by repeated, unwanted conduct after being told to stop.

    Addressing the problem means changing his work address to someplace else. You don’t work with him, you fire him, ideally as fast as you can. I would stake my professional reputation on the fact he’s a one-man morale disaster anyway (nothing demoralizes a team like someone that gets away with doing no usable work, to say nothing of people that are offended by his sense of ‘humor’). He’s also a legal risk, if not for harassment then a hit to your A&O insurance and a potential lawsuit when he does something ill-considered, ignores QC and it slips through informal testing by his coworkers.

    If other co-workers know as much about his many sins as you do, they’ll probably be ready to throw Elaine a party when she does what should have been done long ago.

      1. Wintermute*

        Also, I know that the letter stated that firing is hard, there are a couple other articles floating around AAM about how to navigate that and that hard doesn’t mean impossible, it just means that you need to build your evidence.

        I’d attack this one, personally, on multiple fronts. The offensive “jokes” should go to HR, the performance issues should result in write-ups inside his command structure, if he’s had to be removed from projects then you make the business case that you’re not actually getting value by employing him, he’s not putting out useful work product.

        He’s given a lot of reasons that can be brought to bear at once to paint an accurate picture of an employee with negative value to the company on top of a serious discipline problem and alienating behavior towards his coworkers.

  15. Donkey Hotey*

    Nothing to add, but a small amount of relief to know that there is more than one Newman in the world (because I’m working with his older brother… with rabies.)

  16. Bella*

    What do you do when your company does not have a process in place for transitioning people out or a formal improvement process? We definitely have a Norman on our team but I also know that my company does not have any process to handle people like him.

    1. Close Bracket*

      If you are a manager, you informally tell him the areas that he needs to improve. If he doesn’t, you can reassign him. Unless he is union or contract (in the US), there is nothing stopping an employer from doing that. If he still isn’t doing a good job, you are allowed to fire him (in an at will state, which most are).

      1. Close Bracket*

        (using “informally” to mean that you don’t need a PIP process to tell someone they need to make fewer mistakes. You can just tell them. I don’t mean drive bys at the water cooler.)

      2. Devil Fish*

        Whether the state is at will has nothing to do with it and at will isn’t the great protection it’s made out to be. I’ve worked at a lot of places that had no process for firing people and the big bosses actively prevented management from firing bad employees. If a manager fired someone, that person was called and told the firing had been reversed; the manager was written up for insubordination. Obviously it was a toxic hellscape.

        If you’re management at one of these places, the best thing you can do is get out because if it isn’t a toxic hellscape now, it will be soon enough.

        1. Close Bracket*

          At will isn’t any protection at all! At will means they can fire you for wearing any ugly shirt and they don’t need a process!

          1. MsSolo*

            I think the lack of protection here also mean the manager – they can be fired at will for firing someone at will, after all (a lesson in why at will is a terrible set up).

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’ve worked in places without any “Progressive Disciplinary action” spelled out.

      You just fire them in the end. You usually warn them anywhere between 1 and 3 times depending on what the issue is and then you pull out the old Johnny Ace “We wish you the best in your future endeavors.”

      Everyone I’ve had to fire was fired after a few warnings and instructions to not do it again. In the US, without a CBA involved or contracts, in an at-will state, it’s up to the company to decide how much they want to invest in someone and when they just cut them loose.

      1. Devil Fish*

        That 3 warnings thing is the same process at every company I’ve worked at in the only not at will state. If you get fired in Montana, they fire you for misconduct no matter what you actually did, because that’s something they can fire you for and they won’t have to pay unemployment. It’s not great.

    3. NW Mossy*

      Ask around! It’s highly unlikely that you’re the first manager at the organization that’s run into a poor performer, so soliciting input from peers and your upper leadership will probably point the way to what’s been done before. Informal process and knowledge of past situations can be good guideposts.

      That said, some sort of defined practice is needed, even if it’s nothing more than a few bullets on a sticky note. At a very high level, here’s a common model of progressive performance management:

      1. Informal feedback and coaching about the problematic results/behavior. This usually jumps off from a specific instance you observed/heard about, and you discuss your expectations and how they can handle it differently going forward. For most people and most issues, you never need more than this.
      2. Formal feedback/coaching. If the issue persists after the initial conversations and there’s minimal improvement (or even regression), then you start to formalize by writing things down. You write down when you talked, what you talked about, and what you saw in response. You write down your expectations and where they need to make change to bring their performance up to standard, along with a set time frame in which to do so. You share it with the employee, and if they don’t meet that bar within that time frame, go to Step 3.
      3. Performance Improvement Plan. Very similar to formal coaching, but with different consequences. If the employee gets to the end of their PIP and hasn’t met standards, or met them short-term but then slid back, the final outcome is a firing.

  17. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

    I am confused as to why Jerry never documented the various issues with Newman. Or maybe he did, and in this company, where apparently it is all but impossible to fire an employee, it wasn’t enough. Since it seems apparent that Jerry disliked Newman intensely on a personal level, I could almost believe that Newman thinks he’s a good employee and that Jerry just didn’t like him. I used to know a fellow aspiring actress who, whenever a given director didn’t cast her, would say, ” Oh, well, Director hates me.” No, Jane. Director thought someone else was better for the part.

    1. Close Bracket*

      We don’t actually know what Jerry did or didn’t document. LW says this above:

      “I assume he briefed Elaine directly but I can’t be sure, and knowing Jerry it was informal and not in writing.”

      Which kind of just sounds like Jerry was not a due diligence kind of guy, not through any strategy, but just bc he wasn’t. But, LW wouldn’t have access to Elaine and Jerry’s conversations or to Newman’s personnel file, so it’s all speculation what Jerry did or didn’t document.

  18. Alex*

    Ugh, I totally work with a Newman, right down to the “I’m an awesome employee because I’ve been here forever” and “skips the QC” and my long-time manager doesn’t address the problems because she prides herself in totally trusting us, ie, not checking up on whether we are doing good work.

    Now you have me daydreaming about getting a new manager who will actually do something about it…..

    1. Not So NewReader*

      There is so much more to the job than checking for good work. I am wondering why she thinks that is all she would be checking for. I constantly checked for problems such as broken equipment, irregularities found in the inputs, strange and unexplained outputs, safety stuff, random questions/concerns and so on. It’s not just about looking to see if the employee is doing the job correctly. Oh grr. I am daydreaming of a real manager for you also.

  19. Adjuncts Anonymous*

    Captain Awkward commented on her blog about this letter, for those that may not have seen it yet. (Link in next post to subvert moderation.)

  20. BasicWitch*

    Oooh, I’ve inherited employees like this. Only in my case it was many times worse because I worked in pet care. Lack of QC = injured animals. :(

    I wanted to fire him right off the bat, but my manager said I had to coach him first. When I had an inevitable opportunity, I was finally able to see his file (my manager was weirdly controlling about it, even though I had the right to access), and discovered previous managers had given him “final warning” on three – T H R E E – separate occasions! So I DID coach him, because while I was very doubtful he could be salvaged I did feel like the fact that he had faced zero consequences before meant he hadn’t really learned anything. That changed real quick, and he didn’t respond well. The best part? When I sat him down for (what would actually be) his final warning, he nodded and smiled while I laid out the reasons why we were at this point and then asked when he could expect to begin training for an open management position. He thought a good way to “keep him motivated” to do his work without massive safety incidents was to promote him. We fired him the next day.

    On the other hand, I managed not one but two teams who were presented to me as unfixable, and I had been told to show them all the door in phases while replacing them. Some DID need to be let go, but the majority were just sullen from being treated poorly and trained inconsistently. They absolutely blossomed after some gentle coaching and much-needed training and I’m proud to this day of how well they did.

  21. Argh!*

    I inherited a Newman, and my boss’s bad advice is the reason I started googling for better advice and wound up here.

    I had to manage up and manage down at the same time, which I realize in hindsight my boss may have found threatening. My Newman was a very disorganized individual, possibly with ADHD issues. I am a very disorganized individual, possibly with ADHD issues. My boss is a very disorganized individual, who is also a micromanager, a coward, and a poor communicator. …. who thinks she’s brilliant.

    At first I did all the “right” things by her definition, then the “right” things by best practices that I’ve learned from previous supervisory jobs, books, training, and reading. There has been some success, but the reality is that my Newman’s job had changed significantly from what they were hired to do, leaving all the things that Newman truly sucks at.

    I had to micromanage and look over Newman’s shoulder, deal with customer complaints, and do some impression management on both of our behalfs with coworkers. This person was an albatross who dragged down the productivity of the entire department, and also affected my productivity, reputation and morale.

    Finally my boss got with HR and instructed me to write up a PIP. I submitted my draft and… crickets. My boss instead put ME on a PIP, which she totally botched. She told me that Newman’s PIP was held up in HR, so I stopped by HR to 1) let them know that she wasn’t implementing my PIP properly and 2) ask about Newman’s. HR had never received it!

    So…. now our underperforming unit will be absorbed into a new unit and someone else will be Newman’s supervisor. I feel for this person, but I have decided not to tell her anything at all about this history. I want Newman to have a fresh start with this new person (who has supervisory experience). I considered having a final talk with Newman about their attitude, but I’ve had many performance discussions in the past.

    Here’s the thing: if your supervisor doesn’t support you in your efforts to straighten out a problem employee, you will be stuck with a problem employee forever. Besides not being able to “transition out” this person, you will also have on your hands a person who knows that nothing you say about performance really matters.

    Taking someone off of a project, monitoring closely, making time to field complaints, and harm reduction efforts will be a big part of the job, taking time and energy away from other job duties. That’s just how it goes. The Peter Principle is at work in many workplaces. People rise to the level of their incompetence (or get promoted based on the wrong criteria) and if their supervisor and their supervisor are all of the same ilk, the people at the bottom and the customers will just have to pay the price.

    Newman’s new supervisor will get the blame for Newman’s poor performance, and move along to a new job in the hopes of finding an organization that does things right. And then Newman will become someone else’s inherited employee once again.

  22. Shay*

    I inherited a problem employee and it was a nightmare. I was promoted and asked to manage two people (previously team-members although I was senior in title, years of experience, and actual expertise). One person was happy about the change, a known performer, and interested in working for me. The other person was appalled that she wasn’t promoted to the management role, cried, objected and attempted to negotiate for this change not to happen (??). It went on for WEEKS.
    My boss informed me of this employee’s ‘problems’ in her current role and I was shocked at her lazy lack of management, unwillingness to address the employee’s problems for many months, and her now attempt to hand off the problem to me (think missed deadlines, complete avoidance of un-favorite tasks, calling in sick the day something is due and more). I was then called into my boss’s boss’s office to discuss this ‘problem’ employee and was given two choices: manage her out of the organization in 60 days or allow her to take another job internally.
    I was quite candid with grandboss: it isn’t reasonable that I’m now asked to take on a ‘problem’ that should have been handled months or a year before (he agreed) and allowing her to take another job internally made her someone else’s problem in the company (he agreed). But, this left me with the task of micro-managing her, putting her on a performance plan, and ending her employment. From what I’d seen of the crying and attempted emotional manipulation, I knew the preferred route of managing her out of the organization would be ugly.
    In the end, I agreed to her movement within the company. She lasted about a year before leaving after which, I had a frank talk with her then supervisor, explained the situation I was put in and apologized for the situation it put her in.

  23. Kisses*

    I’ve just gotta say how fun this was, being about one of my favorite shows! No offense to GoT fans but I never get into those posts quite like this. ….Newman!
    I do however always picture the Fergus as the little brother from Clarissa Explains It All. The perfect face to picture for most of them ;)

    (Sorry for being so off topic!)

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