updates: the mothering coworker, the fish microwaver, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are three updates from past letter-writers.

1. Coworker sees herself as a mother figure

Thank you times a million for your help! I talked to her today and it went very well. She apologized for making me uncomfortable, and said she’d make a big effort not to offer any other advice or to “act like a mom” around me. Thank you again for your response!

2. Coworker cooks fish at work — and the smell makes me vomit

I’m happy to say that the offender has not yet cooked it since! I posted in some comments on the original post that I found out after the fact that someone else who also hates fish gave them some tough love after our interaction and apparently it sunk in. Very pleased with that outcome. The offender seems to be fine if not even a little nicer in general as well. No idea why, but I’m not complaining!

As far as your other advice, well, I have been taking a long hard look at my company’s culture. We have a monthly internal survey program that is actually taken seriously by upper management, so I have been more frank in my comments in the surveys and have told my closer work friends to do the same, whether they are is up to them.

The saying goes be the change you wish to see and after your post I decided to finally put in for a desk move due to a minor annoyance that always irked me about my location that I was too scared to request in the past. I was right next to a conference room so I dealt with a lot of groups loudly congregating as they waited for the room to open up. I lead and participate in dozens of conference calls weekly and the people waiting could get loud and distracting when I was trying to lead a call.

I moved last week and some people have asked why (as it was only 2 desks away behind my original) and I just say “that location was a bit loud for leading calls due to people waiting for the conference room, so I requested a move”. Most people have said “oh yeah that makes sense.” So far the worst response was “must be nice to get what you want”. And I just smiled and said “well the view certainly is better!” as I now face outwards instead of inwards.

3. My employee can’t accept that his performance is bad

Thank you so much for publishing my letter and a huge thanks to everyone who commented. Your response gave me some additional phrasing to try with Benedict but also prompted me to reflect whether I truly had been as clear as possible – and I think I was by the time I wrote in to you, but probably I hadn’t been at the start. A learning process for me as well!

Ultimately the process played out to ALMOST the very end, with Benedict resigning the day I was to submit my final report. While the PIP paperwork will stay on our files here, he did manage to secure another role and leave us without being let go. We work in a smallish industry and I’ve heard he is doing well in the new role where he is more a subject specialist and doesn’t have staffing responsibilities.

The 6 months of process took a huge toll on me but I came out the other side stronger, more resilient, and with a whole lot more tools than I went into it. The downside is that I’m about to launch into a similar process with another staff member. This time there are fewer complicating factors and I feel better equipped to manage it.

The best thing from writing in was to hear that I wasn’t alone. The comments from everyone else reassured me that I wasn’t going crazy (is it possible to gaslight yourself??!), and just knowing that other people had been through similar experiences and survived gave me a boost to keep going, so thank you so much to you all!

Update to the update:

Since I sent the update email, I’ve now gone through another performance management process with a different employee and they’ve now recently left our organization. I’ve learned so much from both of these situations, to the point that a few senior staff have jokingly asked if I’ll hire myself out to work on their staff. Fortunately now I have a great team and at last I can focus on helping the high performers really excel instead of hoping they cope while I spend months dealing with process and poor performance. I’ve continued to read the website and love the varied perspectives that people bring to the comments in particular.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      I know right? I white knuckle it through most weekends. Alison doing weekend updates is like a Saturnalia miracle!

  1. Fikly*

    Amazingly, when you ask for what you want, you are much more likely to get what you want, than when you stay silent!

    1. Jedi Squirrel*

      Yes, I agree, but…this is easier for some than for others.

      The general rule is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but IRL a lot of times, the squeaky wheel just gets replaced.

      Time in foster care has taught a lot of us that it’s better to just suck it up, stay silent, and get that roof over your head and three squares a day than to complain. You don’t want to be seen as that difficult child who just keeps getting sent back into the system because you keep demanding what you have a right to. Oliver “I’d like more please, sir” Twist is a gorram hero. He’s also an outlier. And fictional.

      Not everyone feels that they can advocate for themselves. Because for most of their lives they just couldn’t.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          They may be–but for me, I’m glad to read it. I’m always grateful for insight into behavior patterns of the people I work with and for, and especially those who work for me. It helps to target our working habits to help them become efficient. And it makes us human/humane.

        2. WoodswomanWrites*

          I am actually appreciative of Jedi Squirrel sharing their experience. People bring their backgrounds in life with them, including to work, and it’s good to be reminded that I can’t assume I know everything about how my co-workers respond to work situations. I’m glad to have this reminder that we are all different.

      1. Fikly*

        While this is true, it doesn’t change that if you don’t ask for what you want, you are unlikely to get it.

        And if your trauma prevents you from advocating for yourself, that’s valid, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to respond to it by taking it out on the people around you by complaining about what they are able to obtain by advocating for themselves. Being traumatized does not give you permission to treat the people around you badly.

        1. chronicallyIllin*

          ? Are you responding to what Jedi Squirrel said, or are you projecting some personal experience onto this conversation?

          Jedi Squirrel’s input offers some explanation about why people can be hesitant to ask for things. It doesn’t suggest ANYTHING about being mad at people who CAN ask for things. I would guess that it was, honestly, an emotional defense against the suggestion that they’re silly or stupid for NOT just being able to ask for things.

          1. Fikly*

            I’m responding to Jedi Squirrel’s comment, in the context of the LW’s coworkers who were passive aggressively complaining about the LW getting what she wanted because she asked for it.

            Personally, I have been abused by someone who was abused themselves. It doesn’t make the abuse ok. It makes it understandable, in a way, but they still bear the responsibility to either get help, or not be around people in a way that exposes them to abuse.

            I work very hard not to abuse people in response to my own experiences.

            1. chronicallyIllin*

              So you took Jedi Squirrel’s response as a defense of the person who snidely said “must be nice to get what you want” despite them saying nothing about that? I do not think that’s what they meant. I think they were simply trying to defend themselves (internally) as not being “just stupid” or “just silly” for having a hard time asking for stuff. It’s a common, and natural, response I think. And I don’t even think it was 100% a response to the post in general– just to the exact comment they replied to.

              I have had the same experience of being abused by people who were themselves abused. I agree with what you’re saying. It just seems strangely accusatory in response to Jedi Squirrel who has said nothing justifying the negative behavior you are talking about.

              1. Not always sexual!*

                Well, it’s a comment on a post about that issue, so I thought there was a connection? And I wasn’t even disagreeing with Jedi’s point. I 100% agree with it. Some people aren’t in a place where they can advocate for themselves. I’m not always in a place where I can advocate for myself. I just don’t think you should then take your frustration at the situation and not being able to advocate for yourself out on other people.

                I certainly didn’t say Jedi was doing that. That would be accusatory.

      2. Quill*

        And then you can compound that with demographics bias by your bosses or whomever…

        This has been your weekly reminder on AAM that if you have any leverage to advocate for others as well as yourself, do it. Make the scene that helps other people.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      Gotta love these people. I had one at a previous job that would say (about me), “Must be nice to be dipped in gold!” She was a very petty, jealous person in general and made similar comments about other people all the time. She never got the concept. “If you want X perk, talk to your boss.” She would rather complain about it.

      1. TimeTravlR*

        And my personal mantra is, “The answer is always no if you don’t ask.” Sometimes you get a yes, sometimes you get a no… but you gotta ask!!

    2. Lrrr of Omicron Persei 8*

      I’ve gotten similar comments as I typically have Sat. off from work (we’re staffed to be open all 7 days a week and Sat. tends to be the biggest day most want off). I always tell them I specifically asked for that to be one of my two days off when I started and it helps I’m a high performer (this has been noted in past dept. emails preference is given to high performers).

    3. Be the Change*

      I was once at a small conference and at the coffee station, someone was pouting that there was no tea. I said, “You should ask the conference organizer, she will get some.” The woman said, not jokingly, “I’d rather complain.”

      I walked away and made sure I didn’t sit next to her, ever, during the conference.

  2. ExceptionToTheRule*

    OP3 – from those of us who have to work with consistently underperforming co-workers, THANK YOU for putting in the effort. Trust me, your team notices and appreciates it.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I have to second this. My team leads work really hard to make sure we all have all the help we need (but we definitely notice who just isn’t getting it). They have gently managed out two people that just couldn’t figure out our tasks. One is looking still, the other has a new position and is excelling. Sometimes the fit just isn’t right, and the best thing for everybody is to help them find a better fit.

    2. J.B.*

      Yes! I’m sorry it was a full 6 months but really glad that OP3 did it, and it sounds like it worked out best in the end for everyone. Go on rocking your team of good employees (who are probably as glad as you are the dead weight is gone!)

    3. prudencep*

      Thanks! Having been in places where I’ve been in that position, I feel now I owe it to everyone to do it.

    4. Oranges*

      Yes, we’d much rather have you doing the work to get rid of the people who make more work for us than helping us excel but ignoring the huge elephant in the room. Trust me.

      1. Unrepentant Fish Microwaver*

        This fish is delicious, and given all the considerably pungent food my coworkers reheat, I will push back 100% on any attempts to single out my delicious Vietnamese food.

        1. Torgo*

          It’s more a matter of making sure people don’t get sick rather than singling out a particular cuisine. You should look at it from the viewpoint of the others, not yourself.

  3. Lionheart26*

    That’s always my reply to the inevitable “must be nice to get the summers off… Grumble grumble” comments when people find out I’m a teacher.
    Yes, it is a great perk! In fact it’s one of the reasons I love the job! If a summer break appeals to you, why don’t you become a teacher too!

    1. TimeTravlR*

      I’d rather work year round than teach. But that’s mostly because I know I would not be a good teacher. You deserve that time off… don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

    2. New Jack Karyn*

      Yeah, everyone saying that teaching is such a cush gig, I ask why they don’t teach. Always something, some reason they don’t. Not enough pay, or they have talents in other areas, or they couldn’t take working with kids/parents or whatever.
      Which, fine, not everyone should be a teacher. But don’t slam on the ones who actually do the work.

      1. Professor Space Cadet*

        Years ago, I was in a Mailboxes Etc.-type store when the franchise proprietor asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I was a professor. He replied, “Nice! I’d love to have summers off” and then added “I used to be an education major, but I hated kids.” I said in response, “Oh, well, I bet that owning a franchise is a better fit for you then” and talked about the advantages and disadvantages of being a franchise owner.

        1. Professor Space Cadet*

          My last reply cut off before I was finished . . .

          I don’t think he meant to be rude, clueless as he sounded. I really think that people sometimes don’t know what to say to teachers and just blurt out the first thing they think of.

      2. Fikly*

        “It’s such a cush gig!”
        “Then why don’t you do it?”
        “Well, x reason.”
        “Doesn’t that make it not a cush gig, then?”

  4. Elizabeth West*

    Dear fish microwavers,

    I was one of you until I realized that leftover fish from the night before does not have to be consumed as my LUNCH, but can be eaten as DINNER the following night. When I am at home, in my own space, and nobody is present who hates the smell of reheated sea kitten. Or, I can repurpose it into a thing that does not require heating, such as a salmon salad sandwich.

    Omega 3

  5. J*

    I’m always a little bit surprised when I read letters like #3. I work in a highly regulated industry with strict contract terms, so it’s basically impossible to fire someone on a whim. I’ve always had the idea that the rest of the business world was full of malicious bosses eager to fire someone for any reason or no reason at all. When I read about bosses who struggle to get their employees back on track or have trouble with disciplinary problems, I kind of scratch my head. I thought bosses just fired people at the first opportunity and then got on with their day.

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      Hiring people is hard, so while there are probably some terrible vindictive people out there, I think it’s safe to say that most managers would rather keep the people they have then fire them and start over–but if the people you have are a big enough problem that it affects your other employees then you have to take care of it or you may be stuck with both a bad employee AND open positions to fill.

  6. Dinopigeon*

    Re: microwaved fish… Recently had a friend ask me, in all earnestness, whether microwaved fish actually smells bad. She was horrified to learn that it does. It turns out she has no sense of smell, and had been eating fish at lunch for a long time without anyone bothering to provide a clear explanation of why she’d get the occasional glare.

    Being straightforward in a kind and professional manner is usually the best course, even when “everybody knows”, because we can’t always assume we know what is driving behavior.

  7. Benedetta*

    I’ve been squirming reading the “Benedict” thread, because once upon a time I was a Benedict. On a PIP that dragged on and on, and unable to take in exactly what my chances of disaster were.
    I interview well, talk a good game and can understand and discuss feedback, and consequently got myself into a job that was beyond me. My problem was bridging the gap between theory and practice. I had such bad executive dysfunction that I hardly got any work done some days, missed deadlines, and was basically so stressed out once I realised I couldn’t cope that decision paralysis got added in as well.

    I’m sure I was a nightmare employee. I don’t know if Benedict felt terrible and ashamed about letting people down, but I did. But I was too proud to admit what a mess I was in – and yeah, I probably did seize on any crumbs of positivity and blow them out of proportion.

    Not to encourage armchair diagnosis, but the executive dysfunction did turn out to be caused by ASD (which I knew I had, but when I was diagnosed years earlier, only problems with social skills and organisation were mentioned) and possibly ADD, which I’m investigating now.

    I did resign eventually. Since then I have limited myself to jobs I know I can already do, which is frustrating and limited, but I hope only for me and not for everyone I work with. I am sad about the lack of progress, but I’m NOT being that person again.

    1. Benedetta*

      In case anyone is wondering, I didn’t quit earlier partly out of optimism (I really thought I would get the hang of the job and it would get easier – I never did) and partly because I really needed the money and hoped I’d find something else before I would have to quit. I never succeeded while I was there, though I did have some interviews.

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