my employee calls in sick after negative feedback

A reader writes:

For the last two years, I’ve managed Fergus, who had been doing the same tasks day in and day out for about a decade. He hadn’t adapted to new technology, best practices, or industry trends. My first order of business as his manager was to coach him on the fundamentals and challenge him to grow and learn. For more than a year, we built up a great trajectory. People outside the department saw how much his work improved and commented on it frequently. People who had known him for a long time said he seemed revitalized in many ways. His progress gave me a lot of hope that he could become legitimately good at the modern demands of his role.

Then about six months ago, Fergus suddenly reverted to his old patterns. It was as if the prior year of progress got completely wiped out. Only this time around, he hasn’t been able to step up they way he did last year — even though we both know he’s fully capable, having done this all before!

Making matters worse, Fergus has recently started calling in sick the day after receiving even the mildest negative feedback. If a project goes off the rails or has to be delayed, we work the problem until it’s solved and later debrief about what went wrong. During the debriefs, I let Fergus take the lead; I ask open-ended questions and then agree or disagree with his analysis. I’m careful to keep it factual and focused on learning for next time. He assesses his work honestly and takes appropriate responsibility for missteps. Then the very next morning, he calls in sick. When he does return to work, he’s quiet and withdrawn for a couple days. This has happened three times in the last two months.

I should be clear that the missteps are not disasters. There’s no drama. Nobody is angry and nobody points fingers. I’ve let a lot of these things go that I would have otherwise corrected. (Things like sending a mass email using a five-year-old template that isn’t mobile-friendly, even though we used a newer template for all of 2018.) The problems I do raise are things that have an impact on other teams: missed deadlines, not completing something he had committed to, etc.

He says all the right things about wanting to improve, but unlike last year, it just hasn’t happened. And now I’m at a loss as to how to help him if he is going to be incapable of coming to work after missteps. It’s getting to the point where I’m afraid to say anything to him at all. How do I help Fergus out of the tailspin or time vortex that has consumed him?

Yeah, this is one of the biggest problems with people who don’t handle feedback well: People stop giving it to them. And that’s bad for their team (which isn’t getting the performance it needs) and bad for the manager (who isn’t doing their job) and bad for the person themselves, because they’re not hearing what they need to do to improve — and if the problems are serious enough that they could eventually lose their job, they’re not getting clear messages that things could reach that point.

So you’ve got to talk to him about what’s going on. In doing that, your measure of success shouldn’t be “Fergus gets out of his tailspin, starts taking feedback well, and resumes his previous level of performance.” If that happens, good! But it might not happen, and that won’t mean you failed; you don’t have that amount of control over another person. Instead, your measure of success should be “I clearly articulate to Fergus what I’m seeing, explain what needs to change, and offer the support that’s within my ability to offer.” From there, it’s up to him.

When you talk to him, I’m a big fan of just naming what you’re seeing. For example: “Last year you worked hard to raise your level of performance and really impressed me and others. About six months ago, that seemed to change. I’m not seeing those improvements anymore, and you’ve been missing deadlines and letting projects fall through the cracks. I know you can do this work well because I’ve seen you do it, and we’re at the point where my concerns are serious ones. What do you think is going on?”

And then see what he says. Maybe you’ll find out he’s dealing with something in his personal life that’s consuming his focus, or maybe the level of focus required for those temporary improvements wasn’t sustainable, or who knows what. But give him the chance to hear your concerns and share his perspective.

As part of that conversation, there’s also room to say, “Please tell me if I’m misinterpreting, but I get the sense that critical feedback on your work has been difficult for you. You’ve often called in sick the next day and seemed withdrawn for a few days after that. I realize that pattern could be a coincidence, but am I right in thinking you’re having a tough time with it?” … and also, “I do need to be able to talk with you about your work without it meaning you can’t come in the next day. Is there something I can do differently on my side that will make those conversations go more easily?”

But ultimately, you’re going to have to figure out what performance standards you need Fergus to meet in order to stay in his job. And the kindest thing you can do for him is to spell those out for him very clearly.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 253 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    A request: If you are speculating on what might be going on with Fergus, please be sure to explain how that impacts your advice. (Otherwise we just end up with lots of speculation, which isn’t actionable for the letter writer.)

  2. Angela*

    My first thought is something must’ve happened (or is still happening) in his personal life that’s really affected his motivation or confidence. If he’s struggling with something serious outside of work, I’m not surprised it would come out like this. I’m willing to bet this is the symptom of some larger personal issues. He might be going back to his old habits for some sense of comfort / familiarity, even if it doesn’t make business sense.

    1. Tessa Ryan*

      I had a coworker that did this. Only she would leave right after any sort of negative performance review (in the middle of the work day) and also take the next day off. It eventually got her fired.

    2. k*

      Yeah, I know we are not supposed to armchair diagnose here, so I’m not going to speculate as to the specifics, but this really, really matches the pattern of there being some sort of crisis situation.

    3. Count Boochie Flagrante*

      Yeah, this was screaming out at me in reading the letter. Personal improvement takes a lot of energy, and when something else starts sucking down that energy, the improvement can be the first thing to take a hit. That doesn’t mean that the OP should cut Fergus infinite slack, but I think it can inform an approach.

    4. Delphine*

      I agree. A sudden backslide, an inability to improve after showing progress in the past, and a new, disproportionate response to feedback? That all suggests that something has changed recently. Asking him what is going on is good advice.

    5. JustMePatrick*

      He may have some type of Mental Illness he is dealing with. OP should make it clear if there is an underlying Mental Illness he should seek treatment, and that you are willing to help him in any way possible.

      I think Allison’s script alludes to this possibility to give Fergus a chance to openly speak about it without feeling shame.

      There was a recent thread over on Reddit along this line where the poster had a Mental Illness and how the employer treated them made it possible to work through the issues with great success personally and financially.

      1. valentine*

        OP should make it clear if there is an underlying Mental Illness he should seek treatment
        This is overstepping, and by a lot, if Fergus hasn’t mentioned mental illness. I think the errors are due to memory loss, but, in either case, apart from pointing him to an EAP, if they have one, it doesn’t change how OP should address it.

        1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

          > I think the errors are due to memory loss,

          But OP said this change happened suddenly… like one day to the next (or at least “one month to the next” at the most, like how often the OP reviews Fergus’ work.. but probably shorter than a month). I suppose it’s possible that Fergus could have undergone some acute event resulting in memory loss but I’d assume OP would notice other ‘symptoms’ in that case.

        2. DeeEm*

          It’s generally NOT a good idea to verbally speculate to an employee about whether they have a disability or health condition — ADA covers those who have disabilities and those who are perceived as disabled. Let the employee be the one to bring up any disability or medical condition (and any accommodation needed).

          1. soon to be former fed really*

            I disagree. ADA permits and encourages employers to initiate discussions about possible accomodations when performance related issues are noticed. This can be done without armchair diagnosing.

        3. Julia*

          Yeah, I’m not sure how I would react if my employer suggested I “had a mental illness.” Who knows what’s going on with Fergus? Maybe someone else at work is giving him trouble, or someone he loves is very sick.

          The boss could ask “is there anything going on that you want to talk about? I won’t see it as an excuse, I’d just like some background information that could explain this, as you’ve been previously doing so well.” But that’s all I can think about.

      2. Fikly*

        People with mental illness are not obliged to seek treatment, any more than people with physical illnesses, excepting a few specific circumstances.

        If Fergus discloses a mental illness, then it’s appropriate for OP to offer what resources are available through employer, and to be supportive, but to not tell Fergus what Fergus should do about it, outside the context of work. And treating an illness, mental or physical, is outside the context of work. If you don’t seek treatment, there are consequences, that may include losing your job, but you still have the right to consent to treatment or to not be treated, just like with any other type of illness.

    6. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      My thoughts went that same way when I was reading.

      Especially since he’s taking it so personally to the point of calling in sick the next day. That’s a pretty big thing, most people sting a bit after negative feedback but not to the point that it effects you for multiple days.

      He’s probably beating himself up for the backslide and it can get deep into your head and cause panic attacks in some folks.

      I don’t know that he’s doing it on purpose even, he’s just now slipping up, he gets that feeling of “I know better. The boss has mentioned this before and now they have to mention it again and now I’m feeling sick over the whole darn thing.” Lather, rinse, repeat :(

      1. Minocho*

        We had a very high performing coworker that experienced something extremely stressful, and they began to respond like this. A lot of effort and sympathy was used by management, (from what I could see as a coworker), but it was very difficult for that employee. If we hadn’t happened to know about the initial stressor, the resulting effects would have been very difficult to understand.

        Hopefully Alison’s clear but compassionate and open script can encourage Fergus to share the information necessary for Fergus and the OP to find a plan and/or solution.

      2. Avi*

        I’ve worked with people who would have call-out binges like this following any kind of negative experience for them at work (and am in fact currently dealing with the fallout from one of them), but they’ve all been young or emotionally immature people who clearly didn’t treat their job as something with a high priority in their lives and these tantrums weren’t exactly surprising in light of that. Going into this letter I was honestly expecting something along those lines, but by the end of it my only question was why the writer hadn’t already asked Fergus what had happened. Having such a sudden and complete shift in his behavior like this is really worrying.

    7. SheLooksFamiliar*

      I also wondered if something happened outside of work that is taking all his energy and attention to manage. OP, if you learn that Fergus is dealing with a lot outside of work, I hope there’s an EAP for him. If not, I hope you can offer him accommodation and support – you sound like a caring, concerned manager.

      1. Iris Eyes*

        EAP and any information about what kind of mental health treatment/counseling may be covered by insurance and a reminder that taking time off during the day for appointments is appropriate and that you are happy to make that happen.

    8. Dust Bunny*

      This is exactly what I was thinking: Something other than the job hit him like a freight train. Acute life crisis, bout of random depression, or just hit a wall.

      I’m on the autism spectrum and I’m realizing now, in my forties, that I may have maxed out my ability to compensate. I mean, I get by, but if my job started asking a lot more of me or something happened outside of my job (parents died, whatever) I don’t have a lot of emotional and energy reserve to deal with it because daily functioning takes a lot.

    9. Curmudgeon in California*

      This very much reminds me of the way I was when I was having a bad bout of depression. My guess would be that something has set up a chain reaction in his life that has impacted his adaptability, and he may or may not be aware of it.

      It’s a touchy area. In my case, it was burnout, personal drama, economic anxiety, and a bunch of other crap that tipped me over into can’t cope, no changes, over-reactive inflexibility. I had to take time off and put my head back together. I didn’t have support from my manager.

      If he is experiencing excess stress, etc, in his personal life, it might be a good idea for him to take FMLA type leave, but to do that he needs to talk it over with a qualified medical professional. (My doctor said “Of course you’re depressed, your life just got turned upside down!”)

      My recommendation would be to encourage him to use your ERP to assess whether a short leave would allow him the bandwidth to get a better handle on his stress/issues/whatever. People take leave for stress (not just workplace stress) all the time.

      You might want to say that you’ve notices the sudden degradation in his performance, and think it might be advisable for him to use your ERP to figure out the cause and take steps to address it.

      It’s not your job to fix his external issues, or even know them. You do need to point him at resources that can help him cope with them.

    10. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Could be, which is why Alison’s suggested dialogue is perfect. It gives him the opportunity to let OP know if something outside of work is affecting his abilities to perform at the level expected of him. Because if it’s not a personal issue, he’s acting like a big baby.

      1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

        Depending on the work environment though, Fergus may take the “opportunity to let OP know if something outside of work is affecting his abilities to perform at the level expected of him” ….. or could alternately double down with the ‘nothing is wrong!!’ façade, fearing that things outside of work affecting performance are perceived as a weakness and so they are Not A Thing.

        Meanwhile frantically hoping to be able to resolve it some other way. (Where’s that deus ex machina when you need it?)

        I’d bet dollars to donuts it’s a personal issue, rather than being a “big baby”.

    11. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      I agree, it sounds as if something happened to derail Fergus. But I wonder if it might be work-related rather than personal–something happened or somebody, possibly higher up, said something that started him back on his old track?

    12. Friendly Comp Manager*

      I think having a conversation just to ask about what is going on is a great step, and leads into what next steps OP could have. I have experience with this. A person on my team was doing great, but then suddenly things started slipping. Nothing individually would have been a big deal, but it was a cumulative effect and I had no idea how to address it without nit-picking small things that added up. I work in HR, so I asked one of my colleagues how I could go about handing it (I was a first-time managers).

      I started out with “Ive noticed a shift in XYZ things, is there something going on?” and it turns out that my employee and their long-time live-in partner (and co-parent) had broken up! My employee is a VERY private person, so they had not mentioned it to me (not that I expect to know their personal business at all). They teared up a bit, and I expressed compassion and let them know that I “have their back,” understand things happen and that they should definitely seek out additional help if needed (EAP), and I would support additional flexibility if needed as they went through this difficult time and found their new normal.

      Honestly, I didn’t even need to adjust anything! Just having that conversation showed that I care about them as a PERSON FIRST, employee second, and they bounced right back. I have since promoted them twice in two years and they are a rockstar employee.

      I just wanted to share a personal example of how my situation played out — I know it could have gone differently and I was prepared for that, but sometimes just showing care and compassion is reinvigorating to the employee and they step back up. Sometimes they need more time. It just depends!

  3. juliebulie*

    Is it possible that Fergus calls in sick and later acts withdrawn because he’s ashamed of having done a bad job? It may have little to do with your feedback. He could be mortified because he feels like a failure, or scared that he’s falling into the old pattern that he worked so hard to get out of.

    Some of us can scold and punish ourselves far more effectively (and excessively) over a small screwup than our bosses would ever want to. Perhaps you can help him get a sense of proportion.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Yes, I am absolutely withdrawn for days after I get bad feedback telling me how awful I am. I can’t exactly project cheer under the circumstances, I feel like awful shit about myself, I hate myself, and I have literally been told by work that I AM a failure. So I don’t think you can complain that he’s “withdrawn.” He SHOULD be withdrawn!

      1. Delphine*

        In fairness to the LW, it seems she’s giving feedback professionally and not telling her employee that he’s awful.

        1. Viette*

          Yeah. There’s no evidence that Fergus is getting “bad feedback that tells him how awful he is”. He’s getting normal, measured feedback — in fact he’s getting *less* critical feedback than OP might give if he was not so affected.

          Fergus should NOT be this withdrawn after being told he needs to improve his performance in quantifiable, previously achievable ways in regular briefings. He’s not being told he’s a failure. He’s not being told he’s awful. If he gets so upset he can’t function at work, he needs to address it; the OP doesn’t need to stop giving normal, performance-focused feedback.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Whoa, no, people should not be withdrawn after feedback about their work. Certainly some people have emotional struggles that result in that, and that’s understandable, but it’s very much not a “should” in general!

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          Perfectionists with self esteem issues struggle with handling feedback.

          Even now, my head goes to panic at even the mildest feedback. I have had so many managers try to functionally rewrite who I am in a horribly abusive way, that even dealing with a decent manager sets off the inner screaming. (They can ask me to change what I do or say, but attempts at changing how I think or feel will be met with a hard, angry NO. No boss has that right. They don’t own me.)

          I have been bullied, gaslighted, and burned out multiple times in my 40 year career. “Toxic” workplaces is an understatement.

          With that history, it’s a miracle I can handle feedback at all.

          There are a lot of walking wounded out there.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Absolutely! But the response here is to someone who said people *should* respond this way to feedback, and that’s incredibly dysfunctional thinking that has to be refuted.

            1. Hiring Mgr*

              I thought Aggretsuko was saying that for someone who has been treated as he has (being told he’s “awful” and a “failure” is not normal or helpful feedback), it makes sense that he might be withdrawn, not that it’s the best way to react.. Not that the OP is giving feedback like this of course..

          2. Friendly Comp Manager*

            I relate so much to what you said!! It is a struggle for me even as I am in a senior leadership position, to feel emotionally strong in the face of negative feedback. I also had a traumatic experience with my first job out of college that I was not suited for in the least, but was hired for. I still beat myself up about a job I failed at even 15 years later, but I have learned healthy thoughts to counter those negative ones with.

            I had a very critical parent growing up, deal with perfectionism, and have had some truly horrible bosses in the past who were either bullies, or really toxic. It is that trifecta that causes me to struggle with it still, but I am getting better and know that it isn’t okay that I am so totally rocked by negative feedback. I have worked with counselors on this and am on a good path now. :)

      3. juliebulie*

        I was trying to say that this was NOT about the feedback. That this could be automatic self-flagellation for having screwed up, regardless of how the boss addressed it.

        1. sacados*

          That’s entirely possible, but it still leaves OP with the same problem. And it means that Fergus needs to be responsible for recognizing these tendencies in himself and trying to find ways to work around it (therapy/counseling, self-care, whatever). Because that sort of reaction is not sustainable and is going to wind up causing Fergus to lose his job if he doesn’t figure out how he can get past it.
          And if he’s honest about the situation, that this is a problem he’s aware of and is actively working to get under control, that gives OP as his manager a lot more leeway to give him the time he needs to fix things gradually.

        2. Momma Bear*

          Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria and anxiety can cause people to be extra critical of themselves, especially when they know they can do better. Nobody beats you up better than your own jerk brain sometimes. If Fergus won’t talk about what the issue is, maybe just a reminder of a support like an EAP might help.

        3. Kella*

          This may be true, but if the only way that he finds out that he messed up is when his boss gives him feedback, then it’s essentially the same problem. OP may not have the power to stop the cycle, but they have to find out if there’s anything that is in their power they can still do.

      4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        No. No. No.

        When someone reflexively withdraws when they’re feeling that kind of crippling shame, it isn’t a case of “they should be withdrawn.” They should be reassured that what they did did not garner that kind of extreme response.

        You don’t need to shame yourself and shiver in a corner somewhere because you goofed and used the wrong template. The OP is saying these are minor enough errors and just mostly annoying probably in the end, like “this template isn’t mobile friendly.”

        Also why are we keeping these templates that have been replaced? Toss them when they’re upgraded, that way you don’t fall into that error!

      5. TimeCat*

        Please don’t do this. I supervise and train people and give feedback. I am never mean or excessive, I keep heavy focus on correcting errors and make very clear this is normal (it is! No one is perfect from day one).

        People who shut down or react emotionally to correction are the hardest to train. We talked about this last week with the ‘am I getting fired’ letter. Those who freak out over feedback often end up in a negative loop because the overreacting causes them to not be able to learn or incorporate changes to their work.

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          People end up that way due to abusive parents, teachers and managers in their past, IMO. No, they “shouldn’t” have that reaction, but they do. It is damned hard to break that loop, though. It literally has to become a conscious choice.

          1. Veronica Mars*

            As someone who has a crippling fear of Not Being Good Enough, plus a lot of reinforcing past bosses, I think some of this is that the only way to get through it is to get through it.

            As a manager, I think the best thing you can do is to continue to be level headed, emotionless, and specific in your feedback. Hopefully over time he will learn that, no really, nothing bad happens after these conversations.

            But I do like Alison’s advice to give him a chance to share bigger picture stuff with you.

            1. Friendly Comp Manager*

              Yes, very true. You can be as compassionate as you can possibly be, but you can’t choose positive thoughts for someone. I have not dealt with this at work, but I have A LOT in my personal life especially with a former roommate who rented a room from me, at the end of her living her I couldn’t talk to her about ANYTHING without her having a meltdown. We had to go our separate ways, and employees are no different, in fact I would argue with work it can be more measurable, so even though as humans we feel horrible for a person to lose their job, there are measures in place that can make that the decision to continue the employment relationship a bit easier to decide. Not easy to execute (especially for high empaths), but the decision can be more clear.

            2. Atlantian*

              “Hopefully over time he will learn that, no really, nothing bad happens after these conversations.”

              Except that, eventually something bad will happen. I.e., he will eventually be fired for this. And, if he ever has in the past, or if the LW has ever implied or implicitly stated that as an eventual outcome, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

              I don’t really have any advice for the LW except to allow Fergus the space he clearly needs to deal with these feedback sessions in his way. And, like everyone else has said, offer the EAP if there is one. But also, if possible, try to work through the actual outcomes and solutions right then and there. Try not to give negative feedback and then send him on his way to internalize it. Give the feedback and then immediately pivot to solutions, preventative measures for next time, etc. For me, as someone who has this type of reaction to feedback, the best thing you can do is to keep talking through it right then and there, through the tears if necessary, to get me and us to a point where we are both on the same page and comfortable with the next steps. With someone who struggles with perfectionism on this level, the absolute worst thing you can do is leave me to figure out how to process the feedback on my own. I will come to the wrong, worst case scenario, every time. In fact, for me, the taking the next day off and then being socially distant for a few more days after that is me being on pins and needles waiting for the other shoe to drop (you decide it was a firing offense after all, you needing to take that responsibility away from me entirely, you deciding I’m just not cut out for the role and demoting me back to my role before that promotion, etc.) and just slowly allowing things to come back around to the status quo. I need that distance so that I don’t just randomly start crying at my desk, or in a meeting. It’s like when someone dies. You sometimes forget that they’re gone, but then you remember and the feelings are raw all over again. For people with anxiety/perfectionism issues, it’s like that, only over a much shorter period of time, hence the few days of time off and/or being distant and sullen while we work through those feelings.

          2. Kella*

            These comments are in response to saying people “should” react in this way.

            “It is reasonable that they would react this way,” and “they should be reacting this way” are two VERY different things.

          3. Ethyl*

            But that’s not up to your boss to fix or even, frankly, adjust to. It’s a “you problem.”

          4. Minocho*

            I was that nerdy kid in school that did well on tests and anything less that 100% was met with “That’s a 2% room for improvement, Minocho,” from the parental units. I did not learn very well how to take correction and feedback well. I would get anxious and ashamed much more quickly than appropriate – and absolutely did not recognize it.

            What helped me was two important events:

            I forgot about a calculus exam in college and didn’t study. Going in cold, I got a D. My professor called me up to him after class and very compassionately just said, “Hey, Minocho, that wasn’t usual. What happened?”

            The second was I was not completely trained on a portion of my job and Old Job, but I was unaware my training was incomplete. I did incompletely trained task in the way I was taught – which was only doing the job about 1/3 of the way – and the rest of the team had to cover for my misses. No one said anything to me about these problems. I never heard from coworkers or my manager. About six month into the job, I overheard to coworkers gossiping about how terrible I was because I was doing incompletely trained task incompletely. I was horrified, went to my boss and asked about it. His response was “Yeah, you haven’t been doing that right. It’s really been bad.” I was equal parts devastated and incensed – if I had been told I was doing it wrong, I would have at least tried to correct it!

            This really underscored for me that giving good feedback IS an act of kindness. It IS a gift – because I’ve been in a place where I desperately needed that gift, and did not receive it. I’ve had to work consciously to control my defensiveness and shame when I merit feedback that may not be positive, but I know it’s crucial to make it easy to give me such feedback, because it’s the best way to ensure I get better and better at everything I do.

      6. remizidae*

        If people at work are *literally* telling “you are awful and a failure,” you’re in a very dysfunctional place. More likely, this is your dysfunctional interpretation of what people are actually saying.

        1. TimeCat*

          This. If someone is telling you “you are awful and a failure” you have a bad boss.

          If you interpret “You did X in this account but should have done Y. Please make sure to check Z guidelines in the future” as “I am awful and a failure” and reacting like you’ve been told that, you are making yourself hard to manage.

          1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

            If you interpret “You did X in this account but should have done Y. Please make sure to check Z guidelines in the future” as “I am awful and a failure” and reacting like you’ve been told that, you are making yourself hard to manage.

            This is a fantastic distinction, and is applicable in so many areas, subbing out the feedback as appropriate.

          2. KoiFeeder*

            Also, if you commonly interpret “You did X in this account but should have done Y. Please make sure to check Z guidelines in the future” as “I am awful and a failure,” you should consider therapy. Not because you are awful and a failure, but because there are a lot of things that can cause those thought patterns and therapy is a good way to stop falling into the shame spiral. Seriously, shame spiraling is a horrible way to live and you deserve better.

            1. Curmudgeon in California*

              Definitely. Most insurance plans cover very little therapy, however.

              First you have to even realize it’s a problem, rather than that’s just the way it is in your life.

              1. (insert name here)*

                First you have to realize it’s a problem.

                Then next you have to find a therapist. One who works for you. One who you connect with and trust. One who has hours that fit around your work schedule. One who your insurance covers or who you can afford. Then you have to make time to actually go.

                These are not easy things to do when you are already struggling.

                1. KoiFeeder*

                  Yeah, I understand. I’ve just known people who would go into a spiral and end up actively suicidal because a teacher told them to lower their voice, and it’s just. Since I can’t physically fight the brain weasels and I’m not a licensed therapist, advising therapy makes me feel like I’m being useful.

          3. Curmudgeon in California*

            … you are making yourself hard to manage.

            This… this seems like victim blaming to me.

            No one sets out to be hard to manage. No one sets out to get bullied and abused in their previous job to where even a weekly one on one causes anxiety. No one *chooses* to be burned out, anxious, low self esteem, bullied and have bad tapes from bad bosses.

            I sure didn’t, and I really resent the implication that I “made” myself “hard to manage”.

            Sorry managers, you don’t know who abused your employee before you got them. You can only try to undo some of the damage by being fair, consistent, and understanding.

            1. Environmental Compliance*

              I can somewhat understand where you’re coming from, but there’s only so much you can do as a manager. If you are presenting something to an employee factually, and with some emotional intelligence, you can’t constantly soften that for an employee because *maybe* they’ve had a bad boss before and are now scarred. If your boss is being as fair and understanding as humanly possible, as the employee you also have to meet them halfway and try to react appropriately as well.

              Of course no one chooses to have anxiety or other issues resulting from a crappy, abusive previous work situation. But it’s also unfair to the current manager, who is doing the right thing, to project the previous dysfunction onto them.

            2. LunaLena*

              I think that you are taking this way too personally, and you’re projecting your own experiences onto Fergus a lot, starting with the assumption that previous bosses have traumatized him. You may well be right about Fergus, but that doesn’t change the fact that there ARE people who are difficult to manage, react badly to feedback, refuse to change or improve, or resist any kind of coaching, and they’re not all abused, burned out employees with low self-esteem. That doesn’t mean that YOU personally have not been abused by past employers – I totally believe that your past employers were horrible enough to cause anxiety or bully employees – just that that doesn’t mean that every poorly-performing employee has the same trauma and it’s “victim-blaming” to say that someone is difficult to manage.

              1. Curmudgeon in California*

                Saying someone is “difficult to manage” isn’t the victim blaming.

                Saying “YOU are making YOURSELF hard to manage” is.

                It’s the difference between stating a fact “Fergus is hard to manage” and “Fergus has MADE HIMSELF hard to manage”. The second is victim blaming Fergus as if he deliberately and with malice of forethought made himself difficult to manage just to vex his managers.

                Please read what I wrote, not what you think I wrote.

                1. Fikly*


                  Victim blaming is not ok. Very few people choose to be traumatized.

                  It’s not a person’s fault if they’ve been traumatized by a previous manager. It’s not their current manager’s fault either. The problem, however, still exists.

                2. Grapey*

                  Sometimes people don’t attempt to treat or even acknowledge their underlying cause of whatever is making them have harmful thought spirals, in which case that IS deliberate.

                  There may be shame or anxiety blocking someone from seeking help but that doesn’t make it less their decision to make.

                3. LunaLena*

                  I did read what you wrote, and I still think you’re projecting way too much of your own feelings onto Fergus.

                  If you make a conscious choice to not take action while knowing that you need help, and then performing poorly or refusing to change so that other people are negatively impacted (such as at a job), then yes, you are indeed making yourself difficult to manage. Please note that this is different from not realizing you need the help (say, not realizing you’re in a toxic environment) and therefore don’t know to do anything about it. At some point, employers cannot be expected to coddle employees who refuse help and are hurting overall productivity.

                  Here’s an example for you: I used to work at a small business with a woman who, after repeatedly told not to, was constantly checking social media on her phone, refused to do routine tasks around the office that everyone pitched in to do because it was “not her job,” did the bare minimum of work and often had to be hand-held through each task, then announced right before Christmas (by far our busiest season when staff were expected to work overtime) that she was going out-of-state on vacation with her boyfriend for a month, leaving the other four employees to pick up the slack. While she was away, she called to quit because the owner “bullied her” (we had an open office where everyone could hear everything, and trust me on this, she was not treated any differently from the rest of the staff and the owner was not a bully), and demanded that the owner overnight her last paycheck to where she was staying. A month after that, she demanded her job back and was astounded when she was turned down.

                  She had every opportunity to learn the job, help out, and otherwise work with the rest of the team. She resisted every opportunity to do so, and in fact, if she hadn’t quit, the owner was already contemplating firing her upon her return for leaving on vacation without getting approval on top of everything else. Would you say that it’s victim-blaming to say she made herself difficult to manage?

                  And if you do, well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. :) I just don’t believe in rigid statements like “No one sets out to be hard to manage,” because there’s usually an exception to the rule.

              2. dani*

                Thank you for saying what I was trying to figure out how to say without violating rules! :)

            3. Count Boochie Flagrante*

              It isn’t victim-blaming. Fergus is not a victim. Maladaptive behaviors are called maladaptive for a reason — they are not helpful and they need to be managed.

              At different points in my career, I have been called hard to manage, and I have also been called very easy to manage. Even if you’re struggling, making those struggles someone else’s problem is not the right way to go, and is disruptive to the workplace.

              And I think we’ve seen on this site that plenty of people do, in fact, set out to be hard to manage in a variety of ways.

              1. k*

                Except that we do not know for a fact that Fergus is or is not a victim; it is entirely possible that the inciting event six months ago was something along those lines.

                1. k*

                  It isn’t a huge leap when, again, we know absolutely nothing about what happened with Fergus six months ago; it is an equally huge leap to say, “he’s not a victim,” on zero information, besides the fact that the outcome is consistent with whatever happened being somehow bad.

                2. k*

                  (And also, again, I’m not trying to speculate or diagnose, which is why I’m being vague, but there are a lot of things, not all uncommon, that fall under the broad umbrella of “sudden, unexpected, and devastating event/news befalling a person/their loved ones,” about which it would be fair to use the term “victim.”)

              2. Curmudgeon in California*

                Again, I doubt Fergus MADE HIMSELF hard to manage. Not when he previously was trying to turn things around. If he had started out by refusing to change what he did, you might have a point.

                Generally, though, I don’t find it useful to automatically accuse people of making themselves difficult to manage. It really isn’t a good viewpoint, IMO. You deal with the situation, not throw blame around.

            4. Not So NewReader*

              I think surrounding context is necessary here.
              TimeCat said:
              If you interpret “You did X in this account but should have done Y. Please make sure to check Z guidelines in the future” as “I am awful and a failure” and reacting like you’ve been told that, you are making yourself hard to manage.

              Going from “please make sure to check Z guidelines in the future” to “i am awful and a failure is a huge leap in logic. That is not what was said at all.

              While I am very concerned about potential victim blaming situations, this is a pretty normal work conversation with actionable instruction. It’s reasonable to expect an employee to accept direction like this from a supervisor.

              If an employee interprets “please do X” as meaning “I am rotten to the core, I have no worth as a human being” there is not much a supervisor can do to change that interpretation. It’s not reasonable to assume the supervisor can do something more here.

              It’s not victim blaming to tell someone to listen to what is actually being said. Actually it’s an empowering statement that encourages the person to take back their own agency which probably feels very lost to them ATM.

              In this case instructing an employee what to do in order to keep their job is something managers should do. How many times to we read here, “I was fired. And I have no idea why.” No, managers are supposed to explain how things need to be done.

              If a person cannot hear instruction in the sentence “You need to do X instead of Y”, then there is something larger going on. It’s not up to the boss to fix all that. The boss can offer opportunities for the employee to work on that but that is the best the boss can do. The next step is how long does the boss wait before deciding that the employee cannot correct the problems. I think this is where OP is at.

              1. Fikly*

                But it is victim blaming to say that the person is choosing to interpret someone’s statement in a way that their trauma tells them it means.

                They aren’t currently in control of that response. They may or may not be able to control it in the future. Telling someone that they should be able to control something they cannot is victim blaming.

                It’s like telling someone who has an allergic reaction because they did not know someone else was going to eat a peanut butter sandwich across the train car from them that it’s their fault for not informing the entire train car when they got on that they had a peanut allergy.

                1. Avasarala*

                  If their job is to eat peanut butter sandwiches, though, or eating peanut butter is a reasonable expectation of their job–like receiving simple feedback is–then they need to find a way to control it if they are going to succeed at their job. If they can’t adapt their behavior then maybe this isn’t the right place for them.

                  I can have a really understandable reason for being calibrated to take feedback as a personal attack, but my calibration is still extreme for the workplace and will create difficulties for me if unaddressed.

                2. Fikly*

                  That’s true! In order to suceed in work, where they need to be able to receive feedback, they do need to be able to receive feedback without being derailed.

                  However. If they cannot do that, it is victim blaming to say they are choosing not to do that. See the distinction?

              2. TimeCat*

                I’m writing this to the person who said they interpret the comment as being awful and shut down for days after receiving criticism.

                I’m a little frustrated by the immediate jump to “Fergus must have PTSD” assumption.

                But the reality is, it almost doesn’t matter. Even with an ADA compliance that doesn’t excuse not doing your job. It isn’t a boss’s job to manage unreasonable reactions to normal and essential job conversations.

        2. Hiring Mgr*

          Why would you think that? If you’ve read this column you’ve seen hundreds of worse things bosses do.

          1. New Jack Karyn*

            Just because there are worse things a boss can do, doesn’t mean that calling employees “awful” or “a failure” isn’t wrong, dysfunctional, and bad management.

      7. Ace in the Hole*

        Wow, that’s pretty extreme! There’s no reason to assume that negative feedback = “telling me how awful I am” or being told you are a failure.

        Negative feedback is… feedback. If I’m acing 99% of my job but making mistakes on the remaining 1%, I’m not a bad employee. But I would hope my manager would still give me feedback on the thing I need to fix. To err is human, it doesn’t make someone a failure.

        The letter even says “I should be clear that the missteps are not disasters. There’s no drama. Nobody is angry and nobody points fingers.” It’s natural to be embarrassed or a bit down after being told about a mistake. But being withdrawn for days after mild criticism is not a typical reaction, and definitely not what “SHOULD” be happening!

    2. Count Boochie Flagrante*

      I actually had a manager completely pass on lecturing me on a serious error once based on this logic. She laid out the evidence of the error I’d made, watched me for a minute, and then said, “Well, I was going to get into just how serious this is, but you just went dead white and I thought you were going to pass out. I think you’re beating yourself up much harder than I was going to, so let’s just skip right to the part where this was caught, nothing actually happened, and let’s talk about how to keep this error from happening again.”

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        My bosses have pretty much handled my errors in that same way. They know they don’t need to “drill it into me” when a mistake is made. They just need to notice it and they know I’ll punish myself more than they ever could. I laugh about it because it’s pretty extreme and if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.

        1. Hills to Die on*

          Same – I had a former manager who only needed to point out that it happened and I would totally beat myself up over it and do everything I could to correct it.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, if someone clearly gets how serious something is, there’s no need for the manager to emphasize that. The person gets it, that part is done, let’s move on to whatever else about it needs to be discussed.

        1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

          In this case, I think she would have been absolutely justified in still digging into the error itself a bit, because it really was a very serious thing I’d done — but it’s now seven years later and I’m still very touched that she opted not to.

        2. anon for this*

          I had a manager who took me aside twice to explain how serious a problem was. The second time was completely unnecessary, and by the time we’d been through it again I was on the verge of tears and trying to hide it and my manager went, “You don’t have to look so upset!”

          I have vowed not to treat my own employees like this.

        3. Serin*

          I once had a manager who wouldn’t lay off something until she “felt” that I truly “felt” how serious my error was. In other words, until I had done community theater in a way that satisfied her of my contrition. That was hellish.

      3. SheLooksFamiliar*

        Same here. I once made a serious error in a report my boss asked me for, and it called out while he was presenting it to our executive leadership team. I was horrified and embarrassed, and must have looked like I felt. My boss told me, ‘I can see you’re beating yourself up over this and I think you understand how big a deal it is. So let’s just talk about fixing the report and how you’ll prevent it from happening again. And remember, the world will keep turning no matter what.’ I was always grateful that he didn’t vent his own frustration with me, and he could have.

        Even so, I didn’t feel like I should withdraw or scurry away from people. We make mistakes at work but it’s how we manage them that people remember the most.

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          That kind of reaction to your self flagellation is one of the things that can help break that cycle of self abuse/bad tape.

          Your manager did you a solid.

          1. SheLooksFamiliar*

            He really did and I tried hard to follow his example when I had people reporting to me.

    3. Mannheim Steamroller*

      [Is it possible that Fergus calls in sick and later acts withdrawn because he’s ashamed of having done a bad job?]

      Then he should simply CHOOSE to do a good job, then way he CHOSE to do a good job for over a year.

      1. nonegiven*

        Maybe it took all his focus to do the good job and something in his life is now taking all his focus and all he can do at work is go by habit which he didn’t develop because it was taking all his focus.

      2. Derjungerludendorff*

        You can’t just CHOOSE to not have emotions about something, or to have healthy and functional thought processes.

        People don’t sit down and decide to mess up their lives and create more problems for themselves. If they could just decide not to, they would.

    4. anonymous cherry*

      @ juliebulie,

      think this is definitely it. In my own personal experience, the disproportionate response stemmed from constantly being screamed at over were things that, IMO, didn’t deserved such horrid yelling. As an adult, I can disengage and analyze the situation but it’s taken me a childhood & half adulthood to figure this out and act accordingly. And I still slip up sometimes. It’s mostly internal. I remember when my MIL was speaking to me quietly and said that I had eaten an entire amount of food that was meant for everyone. I was self conscious about my weight and I cried for hours. All that ended up happening was that I would spend all my money on buying food b/c I’d be so hungry and wouldn’t eat at home. In my mind I kept hearing my mother screaming at me about what a selfish inconsiderate pig I was. (it’s a separate issue that MIL would make pathetically small portions that were mostly for the sons and the DILs ate very little and that my mom was verbally abusive).

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        Oh, god. I have been yelled at over something similar “That xxxxx was for everybody! Why are you such a pig?” type yelling. Same with the cheese-paring on portions, for a growing teenager. But it was my own mother, not a MIL.

        You have my commiseration.

  4. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    Any EAP options? Fergus would benefit from speaking with a therapist because it sounds like he is equating his self worth with feedback (and consequently feels severe enough shame that it is interrupting his progress). A major personal setback can send someone into clear regression at work, because it is kind of like they feel worthless at home, they must be worthless at work, and it spins into a distinct self-fulfilling prophetic cycle.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I had that though as well. I wouldn’t start with mentioning the EAP, but if I got any indication that he was confirming his absences were due to a bad reaction to the feedback, I think I’d say,
      “I want to remind you that we have an EAP; it’s a benefit we want people to feel free to use. Lots of times people think it’s only for serious mental illnesses or extreme grief or something dramatic. But often a little bit of coaching can help people find more powerful ways to handle even small disappointments or problems. Once some difficulty starts showing up in the workplace–and it seems this has, for you–it’s good to get some outside assistance. I hope you’ll consider it.”

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        Good script. I wish someone had told me this years ago when I got my first job after a helljob.

  5. Aggretsuko*

    I have actually gotten physically ill the day after getting really bad feedback. I’ve done that twice. It wasn’t a deliberate choice to avoid my supervisor (though god knows that didn’t hurt). Much as I’d like to point a finger and yell “LIAR!” or whatever, he may just legitimately feel so bad that he can’t get out of bed or gets a cold or whatever.

    1. J*

      When my depression was at its worst I would occasionally take a sick day on the day of my monthly meeting with my boss where he would often find a small thing to be critical about (say, “your desk is messy”) just for the sake of giving critical feedback. He was busy and disorganized and I knew if I missed the day of the meeting there was a very good chance it wouldn’t be rescheduled.

    2. sacados*

      The thing is, that’s not a good pattern to fall into. I don’t think anyone (or the OP) thinks Fergus is faking/lying. The result is still the same, that any critical feedback means Fergus is out the next day — which is just not sustainable. In that case, it would be Fergus’s responsibility to take steps to manage his mental health so this doesn’t happen.

      Unless what you’re trying to say is that maybe he’s just coincidentally coming down with a cold and it has nothing to do with the feedback — -in which case, maybe …. but the advice is based on taking OP’s word that this is a pattern.

    3. k*

      I don’t think anyone is assuming that Fergus is faking or lying.

      However, I do think that an assumption is being made that Fergus is not aware that this is not a good pattern to fall into, and/or Fergus is not taking steps to manage whatever it is he is managing. It is virtually certain that he is aware it is a bad pattern to fall into. And it is entirely possible that those steps have been ongoing for a long time, perhaps including when he was doing well, but for whatever reason have stopped working, or have no longer been sufficient to staunch changes in the particular crisis. (I’m being vague as to not speculate on what exactly it is, but suffice it to say: this can happen for many reasons.) It may be one’s “responsibility” to manage one’s mental health (or reaction to an unrelated crisis), but unfortunately, until there are neurochemical advances well beyond what we have now, it is not always in one’s control to make it work.

      And this assumption matters, because it carries another, implicit, assumption that he is being negligent, which colors the way people see and suggest advice for him. The advice you would give someone who is being irresponsible or negligent is not the same as the advice you would give someone who is being responsible but not seeing ideal results.

      1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

        I don’t think we’re assuming Fergus isn’t aware — but Fergus being aware and Fergus making sure his manager is aware that he’s aware, those are two different things. An employee can get a ton of mileage out of being forthright and saying “Hey, I know I’m really not at my best right now. I’m trying to manage it in X and Y ways, and I’m hoping that I can have it resolved and start showing progress within Z timeframe.” But if he doesn’t acknowledge that he’s aware and trying to keep it up, the OP would be negligent to assume that he’s aware and trying to work on it. Part of being a manager is having those direct talks and not making assumptions.

      2. Viette*

        ‘It may be one’s “responsibility” to manage one’s mental health (or reaction to an unrelated crisis), but unfortunately, until there are neurochemical advances well beyond what we have now, it is not always in one’s control to make it work.’

        I think part of that responsibility is in acknowledging when he needs help. Even if you assume Fergus is taking steps to manage whatever it is he is managing, he’s not managing it well enough to perform the functions of his job adequately. So if he can’t make it work — ie he can’t do the job at the level OP needs for the role — then yeah, he *is* responsible for telling the OP that and figuring out how the job can get done without it being all on him right now. Hopefully a compassionate approach from the OP, and Alison’s script, can help that happen. Assuming Fergus is aware of the problem doesn’t make a difference to the OP in regards Fergus not doing his job adequately; the OP is doing what she knows how to do to address that, and it isn’t working.

        I’m not trying to trivialize how hard it is to ask for help, but if Fergus won’t ask for help and he won’t do his job to the OP’s standards (which don’t sound inappropriately high), OP has to first start with, “what do you think is going on?”

    4. Glitsy Gus*

      I do think that if someone needs to take a day to regroup after a big mistake or a big reprimand that would be understandable to most folks. From the OP’s letter, though it sounds like it’s getting to the point where if Fergus hears, “hey, Fergus, could you please remember to replace the stack of coffee filters in the cupboard after you take one out?” he’ll call in the next day.

      I mean, he may be at a point where something that small is enough to trigger something in him that requires him to call in, but at this point this isn’t, ‘I need a day to get my head back on straight.’ It’s an issue, medical or otherwise, that needs to be addressed and dealt with.

  6. TootToot*

    Strong disagree that he is just a person that has poor skills with receiving feedback. He’s already received feedback and improved for an entire year. This is probably a mental health issue and quite possibly something covered by the ADA, or something occurring in his personal life. The LW needs to exercise inclusive management and ask if there is any accommodations such as flexible schedule or work from home that could help him to perform better.

    And, it actually sounds healthy to meet to take a day off after critical feedback if you have the PTO and nothing critical the next day. Feedback is stressful even for those that respond by improving. Taking a day off sounds like a reasonable way to handle it to me.

    1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

      Really? Taking an entire day off and then being subdued (or possibly sulky) for multiple days after that seems like a very outsize reaction to factual, unemotional feedback. I would expect someone receiving gentle but negative feedback to be subdued for the rest of the day, but not to be so impaired they couldn’t come in to work. And as Alison points out, it has a very chilling effect on the OP’s ability to give that feedback if they have to calculate having Fergus not come in the next day as a consequence.

      Also, I don’t think the OP can proactively propose accommodations as though Fergus has an ADA issue going on — that in itself would be an ADA concern. They can note the issue they see and invite Fergus to share if there’s something behind it, but if he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t have to. Not to mention, there are plenty of other issues that it could be that aren’t ADA covered — he could be going through a divorce, an illness or death in the family, financial difficulties, legal difficulties — there are a lot of things that can cause significant stress and make someone backslide in their on-the-job behavior.

        1. TootToot*

          You’re assuming subdued and sulky for multiple days. You’re assuming factual unemotional feedback. Just asking if flexible hours or work from home helps is by no means an ADA infraction. Asking to share is far more invasive. I mentioned the possibility and likelihood of other issues. Asking if flexible hours or work from home would help addresses that as well.

          1. Avasarala*

            “You’re assuming subdued and sulky for multiple days. You’re assuming factual unemotional feedback.”

            From the letter:
            “I’m careful to keep it factual and focused on learning for next time. He assesses his work honestly and takes appropriate responsibility for missteps. Then the very next morning, he calls in sick. When he does return to work, he’s quiet and withdrawn for a couple days.”

      1. TimeCat*

        ADA requires disclosure too, you can’tjust make supervisors guess. I supervised someone with a disability and the form I got from HR laid put clear responsibilities of both the person I supervised and from me (as well as their office). He didn’t just make me guess he was disabled and what to give him, he disclosed his issues and what he needed.

      2. Viette*

        Agreed. Fergus can’t get help until he asks for help. The OP is already altering her behavior based on how giving normal feedback appears to be making Fergus behave very abnormally, which as Alison pointed out is not good for anyone (though totally understandable).

        I totally agree with the OP having an open discussion with Fergus about what is going on, but taking a day off after every regular sit-down feedback session is not normal.

          1. Derjungerludendorff*

            True, but it depends on the help.
            Boss can’t directly offer medical help, but they can work with Fergus to see what job-related help they can offer.

      3. Been there, done that*

        “The LW needs to exercise inclusive management and ask if there is any accommodations such as flexible schedule or work from home that could help him to perform better.”

        As a manager, I would receive a reprimand from my supervisor and HR if I did this.

        In addition, flexible schedule and work-from-home might not be possible given the essential duties of the position.

        1. TootToot*

          Your work environment sounds like it perpetuates lack of inclusiveness. We don’t know if flexible schedule and work-from-home are or aren’t possible for the position. As a manager, you need to raise the issue upwards and advocate for your supervisees. Just ask to offer these options in a conversation about what would help.

          1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

            That’s an absolutely wild assumption. Some jobs cannot accommodate working from home, by their very nature. How is a nurse gonna treat patients from home?

    2. Perpal*

      I don’t think it’s the OP’s business to decide there is “probably” a mental health issue that is undisclosed and needs an accommodation; it’s only on the OP to clearly communicate what they are seeing, what needs to get better, and do their best to make Fergus feel able to disclose something if that is going on; if he does then yes, see what can be done to help. But OP shouldn’t guess or preemptively accommodate.

    3. Aquawoman*

      As a person with mental health disorders,* I would feel stigmatized by the assumption that people who are failing at their jobs in any way must have a mental health disorder.

      *to me, mental health “issues” are those that are related to mental hygiene (stress relief practices, cognitive distortions, etc), which are different from disorders, which meet diagnostic criteria under the DSM and are subject to the ADA.

    4. Aquawoman*

      As a person with mental health disorders,* I would feel stigmatized rather than included by the assumption that people who are failing at their jobs in any way must have a mental health disorder.

      *to me, mental health “issues” are those that are related to mental hygiene (stress relief practices, cognitive distortions, etc), which are different from disorders, which meet diagnostic criteria under the DSM and are subject to the ADA.

      1. Editor*

        I think personal experience can influence our interpretation of Fergus’s behavior a lot. I am in my late 60s and have been dealing with elderly relatives and friends and not-so-elderly cousins and friends.

        Medical issues spring to my mind first. My late mother’s ability to handle detail seemed to disappear in a week to ten days, mostly due to a terminal illness that took another two months and repeated hospitalizations to diagnostic. An acquaintance struggled with and died from early onset Alzheimer’s. I seem to know half a dozen people coping with Parkinson’s with varying degrees of success. Folks suffering TIAs (mini-strokes). Older people getting depressed because all their friends and family are dying. Aging is tough.

        Then there was the friend still working in his 80s who just thought the supervisor in his 50s was too young to understand the “best practices” my friend had followed since before supervisor was born. My friend didn’t even understand how serious the PIP was — he’d been told, but he just dismissed it as so much alphabet soup. Finally some friends coaxed him into retiring, and when he had finished a bunch of the retirement paperwork, he reported in some amazement that “they were going to fire me, they said, so I guess it’s good that I retired.” Retirement was not good for him, but being fired would have been worse.

        That said, I think an observation someone made about using the wrong template brings up a practical way forward in some respects. I don’t know if OP’s office is using the cloud, local servers, or what, but cleaning out old templates and sequestering them and also making sure Fergus doesn’t have old stuff stashed away on his workstation is a good idea. Is muscle memory or old function key setups a factor in any errors? Why should he *have* to decide which template to use when the default should be the correct template?

        Look into office processes to see if best practices can be set up so that Fergus automatically uses them because his old bad practices can’t be pursued through the software he is using. Are there checklists for some tasks so that filling it out helps meet work standards? (Read Atul Gawande’s book about checklists before being dismissive if you are no fan of checklists.) Try to look at each instance of backsliding, perhaps while discussing some with Fergus or other staff members, to see if changing work processes enables better performance — not just for Fergus, but for other staff members, too.

    5. Observer*

      The LW needs to exercise inclusive management and ask if there is any accommodations such as flexible schedule or work from home that could help him to perform better

      That’s an ADA violation right there. You simply cannot make assumptions like that, much less actually ACT on them.

      This could be a mental health issues, and issue with events going on in his life, an attitude problem or any combination thereof. There is nothing here to say that it is “probably” (ir more likely than not) that it’s a mental health issue.

      As for calling this a healthy response? No, it’s waaay over the top. Such a strong reaction to mild correction is totally disproportionate and makes it very hard to work with and manage someone. (In a personal relationship, this could easily turn into a relationship killer.)

      1. TootToot*

        Several commentators seem to be thinking I am suggesting bringing up ADA explicitly. Of course not, regardless of whether this is mental health issues or the type of stressor issues that routinely come up in a person’s life, just asking what sort of accommodations could help is not an ADA violation. Consider that maybe you are working in an a disability-exclusive workplace if you cannot image assisting this person to be successful, not to mention just not a human-centered workplace. He’s already responded positively to feedback for a year.

  7. Heidi*

    I’m a teeny bit curious about how long these debrief sessions are. It sounds like the OP is doing all the right things for them, but if I screw up, I will freely admit it and take corrective action as quickly to try to make it all be over and behind me as fast as possible. I would probably not be happy about having to hash it out at any length with my boss if the problem and the solution are totally obvious (i.e. I messed up and I fix it). All that being said, maybe Fergus does need this level of analysis, but if a huge amount of time is spent scrutinizing his mistakes, I can see it being somewhat exhausting and demoralizing, maybe even to the point of taking a mental health day.

    1. Well Then*

      That’s a good point. OP sounds like a thoughtful and caring manager, so I could be reading this wrong, but – not *every* mistake requires a detailed in-person debrief. Personally, that would be incredibly draining and demoralizing to me. For example, when Fergus emailed out the wrong template, could the OP have just sent back an email saying “Hey, as a reminder, we are now using the new template [here]. Please only use this version going forward.”

      1. valentine*

        OP didn’t address the template with Fergus, which is a shame because it was a great time to ask him how he would avoid doing it again. Maybe that’s a missing piece or a lot of the errors are one-offs.

      2. Been there, done that*

        The debrief might be a managerial requirement. When I was in this situation, I was required to have a face-to-face meeting to discuss any issue. This was in the union contract. Mandated coaching. If there was an investigation of my management, I would need to answer these questions:
        Was the employee informed of the error?
        Is there evidence of the error?
        What was the consequence to the department, another department or to stakeholders because of the error?
        Did the employee understand the correct procedure? (deadline, response etc)
        Was the employee in conversation or in writing able to articulate the correct procedure (deadline, response etc)
        It is exhausting on both sides.

      3. Auntie Social*

        I agree, short and positive is good: “So tomorrow morning when you come in, we’ll do A and B. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

    2. Nanani*

      That’s true, sometimes the answer to “why did you make this mistake” is just “I made a mistake.”
      Brains get tired, fingers click the wrong thing, it happens. And there’s not much to say about “I made a typo.”

  8. Harper the Other One*

    I second those above who think there may be more going on here than just not being good at handling feedback. I think the script of saying “hey, you were doing well at this and suddenly it seems harder, and I’ve noticed this pattern after you get negative feedback. What’s going on/is everything okay?” is the best idea here.

    If there’s an EAP or leave program that’s not well publicized, spread the word generally to the team as well.

  9. Llellayena*

    Not a permanent solution and I fully advocate Alison’s approach, but if you know he’ll be out the day after bad feedback, can you have those meetings on Fridays? It kinda sucks that it might affect his weekend, but if you know he’ll be out anyway…

    1. k*

      The only thing about this is that meetings on Fridays — particularly late Fridays — are heavily associated with bad news and likely layoffs or firing. (For basically the same reason you mentioned, but nevertheless, they are.)

    2. TimeCat*

      Funnily enough my first manager mentor told me never to deliver corrections on a Friday because she didn’t want to ruin their weekends. If I didn’t get out my performance reviews on Thursdays she had me save them until Mondays.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Weirdly, there’s a letter along this theme in tomorrow’s short-answer post. But in general I don’t think the OP should delay feedback to work around this; she needs to address whatever’s happening more head-on than that.

      1. Llellayena*

        I agree that a greater solution is needed. My option is more a temporary measure until the employee has the mental strength to implement the requested changes. Especially if it’s presented as a temporary work-around at the same time as the larger “these things need to change” conversation, this might at least mitigate the unexpected days out.

    4. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      The OP shouldn’t have to schedule feedback around the employee’s inability to handle it.

  10. k*

    I can only speak for myself here, but while debriefing about the nature of negative feedback is good, what is even more helpful is a sense — both before bringing something up, and afterward — of what consequences, if any, will result, and what specific actions will change those consequences either for better or worse.

  11. TimeCat*

    I dunno if three times is enough for a pattern. He may also be genuinely making himself sick if he over emotionally reacts to criticism.

    I do not think you are doing anything wrong as a manager. But I think having a clear and honest “what happened to your improvement” conversation may be in order. I think a clear improvement plan with metrics may help.

    If this is something you might have to fire him over, if he doesn’t improve, you should consider a PIP first as well. You know he can do it, give him the opportunity to regain before letting him go.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

      3 times of something (especially without any counter-examples) is definitely a pattern. I’ve inferred a little bit, but OP says that Fergus has “recently started” calling in sick after these corrections which I take to mean that since he started it’s happened every time.

    2. pcake*

      I’m sorry to derail your comments, but are you a Lloyd Alexander fan? Time Cat was one of my beloved books as a kid, although the Book of Three series is the one I still re-read.

      1. TimeCat*

        I change up my name regularly to avoid being too dox-able. But yes, this popped in my head because of that book.

        “So it is said, so it is written, so it shall be done”.

    3. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      In J-school they taught us that something that happens 3 times is considered a trend (as opposed to one or twice, or waiting till it happens 100 times).

  12. I'm just here for the cats*

    My first thought is that perhaps he has some sort of personal issue and he needs personal counseling. It could be something like anxiety or something more severe like bipolar disorder or depression. If your company has a EAP program that has counseling options please give this info to Fergus.

  13. Uncle Bob*

    Every minute you spend with your D players are minutes you don’t spend with your A and B players. Fergus may never even get to B even with non-stop effort. It’s time to bring in someone else.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          Whoa, that’s a little over the top. Fergus isn’t a rockstar, but he’s not a jerk either.

        2. Amazed*

          If Fergus’ sudden downturn in productivity was due to some kind of personal disaster, this approach would be a PR nightmare for the company.

      1. Uncle Bob*

        Managers have a limited amount of time and energy for coaching and mentorship, and yet most of them spend it all on their poor performers. Schools tend to do the same thing, leaving people in the middle and upper parts of your team’s performance curve with little to no growth or feedback. It’s really not fair to everyone else.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s often true, though. And may be true here based on everything the OP has reported. The OP needs to give Fergus clear, focused feedback and convey what needs to change and by when so they can both figure out if he can do the job in the way she needs it done or not.

      3. TimeCat*

        If someone is making serious errors and not reacting well to criticism, it’s not far off. Ultimately you need an employee to do their job and improve if they need it. Keeping a problem employee around can drag down a whole team.

        1. Leisel*

          Exactly! I had a coworker like this. He always managed to be ill and need 3-5 days sick days right before a tight deadline where there was a lot of pressure. My other coworkers and I would have to drop what we were doing to get the project finished by the deadline, and were impossibly inefficient because we weren’t the ones who knew what was going on with the project. It happened 3 projects in a row!

          I felt bad for the guy, because he had been open with me about his anxiety, but he had ways of making my job harder throughout the year, not just during deadlines. I can only be so supportive and still be able to do my own job well. Talking to him about it seemed to make him shut down and retreat. I wanted him to get better, mentally and physically, but the whole situation was really draining for everyone. He ended up quitting the job after he was diagnosed with some stress-induced heart problems. I felt relieved, but then felt really guilty about being relieved he quit.

          1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

            I had one like this. Deadline time, it happened like clockwork: Mary Jane is out on medical leave for a week. Weeks or even months of work she’d let pile up on her desk landed on me. My sympathy for her medical issues wore thin after a while. To top it, she wasn’t even a nice person and she didn’t appreciate one bit the help she got. She’d sit at her desk and read paperbacks while the rest of us worked our tails off every day. I wondered how the hell she got away with it, it was so obvious she was goofing off, then someone credible told me she was bipolar. This was in the early days of the ADA and it was a touchy subject.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I mostly agree with this but I’m pretty quick to pull an ejection lever on people after investing a decent amount of time trying to get them on the right track.

      But I wouldn’t bring up the A & B players. I’ve never needed my bosses attention, so if they’re busy holding Fergus’s hand, whatever, that’s on them. But if there’s now a bottleneck to get to the bosses rubber stamp hand, that’s another issue all together.

      The bosses need to understand that their time is often better spent in other places. Not necessarily with the other team members but what does the bosses work flow look like right now? Fergus is not the only person here, the boss clearly has other things to do! Are you now staying late to approve things because you have to worry about giving Fergus so much attention? That’s no good. That’s a waste of your time, your time is more important in the end! Most bosses aren’t there only to hand hold and walk people through basics and readdress things over and over again.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      It is really harsh. But not dealing with the Ferguses’ and letting it string out too long will demoralize the rest of the team who ARE performing.

      Yes, they should get every chance to improve but at some point they should be managed out.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I am not so sure if I would measure training/correcting time by the actual number of minutes spent. It makes it sound dire that OP is away from their A and B players for a minute. If that is the case, then the A and B players are not true A’s and B’s.

      However, I have noticed in training (oh-so-many-people) that there is a time frame in which most people will catch on to a given task. Some things take longer to learn than other things so it’s important to compare within a specific task, go apples-to-apples. Once in a while, a super fast person will catch on much faster than most people. Confusingly, some times a person can be very slow picking things up but eventually they get it and they have the same outputs as everyone else.

      The most concerning people for me are the one’s like OP’s Fergus. They get up to speed, they are doing much better and then all of the sudden nothing, gone. I don’t know why this happens, but many times *in my experience* they do not come back to their high level. For whatever reason they were unable to sustain their higher level. I found this upsetting of course because I wanted them to succeed.

      I settled on creating rules of thumb. How long would I give people in general to correct or master a particular task? This question was about fairness. I cannot put 9 hours into teaching Sue a task and put 3 hours into Bob teaching the same task and be okay with it if Bob fails. I know I have cheated Bob out of time I freely gave to Sue. I felt the amounts of time spent training should be relatively similar for Sue and Bob.
      Going the other way, let’s say I spent 3 hours teaching most people but Sue still did not get it after 9 hours, again this is valuable information I cannot ignore.

      If you start thinking about what if everyone called in sick the next day after receiving correction and figuring out how you would think about that, then it becomes a little easier to realize, “yeah, I gotta pick a plan here and work the plan through.” This type of thinking helped me become a bit more candid in saying what was needed to be said.

      “Fergus part of any job is to be able to receive information that is either corrective or new information. That information needs to be put into action right away and it needs to remain active. This is normal on any job. I have noticed after the last couple times we have spoken you call in sick the next day. If this is just coincidence and unrelated then this is fine. However, we need to be able to discuss work matters without you calling in sick each time. Is this something we can do?”

  14. remizidae*

    Weren’t we just talking on the other thread about how it’s okay to take time off for mental illness? It’s speculation, but it may be that Fergus just needs time off to process the negative feedback. I think the manager should focus on his performance, not his use of sick time.

    1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

      I don’t think that’s entirely applicable here, because it’s turning feedback into a much, much bigger deal than it rightfully ought to be. The OP needs to be able to coach Fergus without prompting a whole-day breakdown.

      Plus, if Fergus is spending his sick days on feedback recovery, how much time does he have for actually being sick?

      1. valentine*

        If you need several days off after each instance of feedback, that is a massive issue you should address as such, rather than accepting it as your new SOP.

      2. Ask me how I know*

        Let’s just say that Fergus is taking days off because he IS sick. If you have a high fever and are coughing, you are ill. If you didn’t sleep all night because you were perseverating about critical feedback and panicking about losing your job because of errors and of course you didn’t see those errors because …
        Letter Writer is Fergus’ manager. Letter Writer cannot fix Fergus. Alison’s advice is good to competently deal with the issue that isn’t going away.

    2. Observer*

      The OP is not remotely discussing Fergus’ use of sick time. They ARE focusing on his performance. Taking a day off and then being “withdrawn” for 2 more days after even the mildest negative feedback IS a performance issue. It doesn’t matter if the time off is sick, personal, vacation or unpaid. It’s a massive over-reaction to negative feedback.

    3. JSPA*

      If Fergus consistently needs an accommodation of receiving feedback in certain ways, whether for mental health or other reasons (perhaps, say, on friday afternoon, with a weekend to process) then it’s worth Fergus getting a doctor’s recommendation. The point of mental health days, freely taken, is to get oneself or one’s situation in hand, or at least, better define the issue. Creating a holding pattern that’s barely holding isn’t an effective solution.

      If Fergus does not have an answer on the spot, it might be both kind and effective to suggest that Fergus take a day of paid leave just to relax, then a second day, paid, where his only task is to brainstorm possible ways that an employee and manager in your situation could handle a problem as described (true brainstorming–no judgement, even self-judgement; just a thorough list of things one might do). Then put that list away for a week. A week later, if the mental break and awareness / distancing exercise have not already somehow magically fixed the issue, manager gets the list, and talks through it with Fergus (including noting the sorts of solutions that are missing, if entire classes are missing).

      There are all sorts of life issues and health issues (onset of dementia, undiagnosed / uncontrolled diabetes, onset of Parkinsons, hormonal shifts, side effects from some medical treatments including Chemo, not to mention grief and love and sleep deprivation or some random but intense irritation, at work or otherwise) that can lead to losses or slowing of executive function, and thus loss of recently attained skills, and failure to gain new skills.

      1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

        Then Fergus needs to disclose that he’s suffering from a medical issue, request accommodation, and if the issue is so bad that the stress of receiving ordinary, factual, routine feedback is enough to trigger a meltdown, he needs to reconsider whether he’s able to work.

  15. Been there, done that*

    “Things like sending a mass email using a five-year-old template that isn’t mobile-friendly, even though we used a newer template for all of 2018.”

    This is significant. This is not the kind of thing that should be overlooked or not brought to an employees attention.
    I am saying this as the employee who put an outdated watermark on a mass mailing last fall.
    If I wasn’t told, how would I know?

    And as someone who has followed PIP procedures: Identify the issue (missed deadline) ask for feedback (what do you think happened?) commitment to next steps (How can we proceed so that this doesn’t happen again?)
    All of what Alison said and…
    I had to document, coach and eventually let go a long-term employee who had just these same issues. I was physically sick about it.
    I was miserable. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t have to document and communicate with my employee errors or expectations.
    I availed myself of EAP.
    I met with HR .
    I came to understand that the “why” doesn’t matter. It is the outcome.
    There is someone out there who can do this job, who deserves to have a job like this and you aren’t “doing” anything to Fergus. He is failing to meet expectations on his own.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I agree that this kind of thing needs to be addressed but I’m still stuck wondering why there’s still an outdated template around floating there. Why hasn’t anyone helped Fergus remove it from his world and use the correct one?

      I wonder if it’s because he’s not going through the right check point and is like recalling the template from the last email he used and alas, the last email was the wrong template.

      This template thing is killing all my sense of organization. I destroy and disable all old templates to avoid this kind of thing. Just like how I archive all old procedures and replace them with new ones. Sometimes the company as a whole needs to safe guard themselves from human error like that!

      1. Mockingjay*

        Oh, I can tell you why. Because everyone has an old copy downloaded on their laptop for their ‘convenience’ instead pulling the current issue from the server. Or even better, let’s pull up an existing doc or form and type over the old stuff and hopefully remember to rename the file when saving…

        I have tried to solve this issue for 15 years.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Flames. Flames on the side of my faaaaaaaaaaaaaace.

          I have to deal with people not updating their software and then being shocked and angry when the quote they got from their outdated software was wrong. So it’s very much the same here.

          So yeah, sigh. That makes sense when you put it that way.

          1. Environmental Compliance*

            Yep. I have tracked down no less than 8 versions of the same flippin’ form *that is used for compliance purposes* and deleted them / replaced with new version that is required to use….somehow staff still find the old ones. Repeatedly. I have no idea where the heck they’re finding them other than on their desktops BUT THEY DIDN’T EVEN HAVE DRIVE ACCESS UNTIL THE NEW FORMS EXISTED.

            There have been many a day where I have sent a work friend the Flames gif.

            1. TimeCat*

              At my work they send out template updates quarterly, with a reminder email and step by step instructions on how to update your templates. And you still have people using 3 year old ones.

            2. Kes*

              That sounds like they may be asking others for the form and someone who has (the old version of) the form is providing the wrong version. Either that or it’s just in even more locations you haven’t found yet and people are just using whatever version they find

              1. Environmental Compliance*

                Probably. The sucky part is that the only people who would have had that digital copy shenanigan have been retrained ad nauseum so they really, really should know better. Especially when I make them redo it on the new form. You think they’d at some point find it a pain and just use the new one.

        2. Anonymous Again*

          Okay, but if (cough cough) Marketing (cough cough) didn’t keep moving around the templates every few months so we couldn’t easily find them, we wouldn’t download copies. Just sayin’.

        3. Serin*

          Yep. I mean, the new template is in this Box thing, whatever that is. I’ll just pick up an old one and change the names.

        4. Been there, Done That*

          Oh yes. That is exactly what I did. So I got the memo about the new watermark with the link to the vector files.
          I did it right once. Then six months later I pulled up the old template and did it wrong.
          Three people reviewed it before printing and didn’t notice.
          We put in place one more level of review so I (and others wouldn’t do that) but the new level of review has added 8 days to our publication process.

          1. Been there, Done That*

            Oh and my response when told was. oh, shit, sorry. won’t do THAT again. No big feelings. No shame spiral. No OMG how did I do that?! All significant growth on my part.

        5. Who Plays Backgammon.*

          You said it. I cringe at work because there are so many pdf’s of old versions of documents in so many directories on our shared drive. And on individual computer desktops. You can scream “outdated–discard and use the updated one!” and there’s always someone who doesn’t. It’s just too damned inconvenient to delete the old and make sure you have the new. So outdated information gets disseminated. Sheesh!

      2. MissDisplaced*

        The Fergus I had was really keen to stick to old software, templates, and didn’t like upgrading anything. He was also a generally disorganized person, which led to poor file management.

  16. Count Boochie Flagrante*

    What’s your EAP like? In the companies I’ve worked at, EAPs covered a lot more than just mental health — they also covered legal assistance, helping employees find services like childcare or dependent adult care, and other “stressful life event” type of situations. If yours does similar, you might refer Fergus to it in a general way. If yours is more strictly mental health only, I probably wouldn’t — I think you want to be very wary about implying that you think Fergus has a mental health issue going on, even if you’d be inclined to consider that a mitigating, rather than an aggravating, factor. (As you should! But plenty of people out there wouldn’t.)

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      We have a rather primitive EAP system and that’s exactly what it’s for. It’s for any personal “crisis”, including legal, financial assistance or dependent care. It’s mistakenly lumped as for “mental health” because we think about it when we’re trying to help people on the brink of utter self destruction. But since those things [financial issues, legal issues, care issues, etc.] all increase stress and stress is one of the biggest culprits of decreased mental health the employee assistance programs are there to help them find the assistance they need to relieve their stress and increase their over all health.

      Healthy people are productive people. And business loves productivity, it thrives with productivity!

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        And stress, whatever the cause, amplifies any mental health issues, (and physical health issues), plus is an issue on its own.

  17. chronicallyIllin*

    Again, we aren’t supposed to armchair diagnose but I wanna bring up a possibility (not a certainty) that I haven’t seen Alison or other commenters address:

    Severe anxiety can have physical symptoms. And some people don’t recognize that’s what it is. I also wouldn’t be surprised if other mental issues could cause similar things, but I have experience with anxiety-induced nausea. It wasn’t entirely clear to me that it was anxiety causing it, until the source of the anxiety went away and after we had done a whole barrage of testing to eliminate other issues. In my case it was chronic and always-happening, so all the doctors were suspicious it might be something else because they were used to anxiety-nausea having a specific trigger. If this guy was having it specifically and his trigger was the concept of going to work the day after receiving feedback, he might not entirely realize the link between those things, but it would match what I’ve been told is a common pattern for anxiety-nausea.

    All of this to say: I think it’s appropriate for the boss to vaguely bring up mental health concerns as a possibility, possibly even specifically saying that mental illnesses can have physical symptoms that aren’t always clear. Not to diagnose the person, but to raise it as a possibility for them, so that if even they think it’s a crazy-random-happenstance that they keep getting sick after this, they consider going to a doctor about it.

    1. Ask me how I know*

      I used to have violent diarrhea every time I had to get on a plane. I NEVER connected it with anxiety about flying. I was stuck in an airport bathroom 45 minutes before a flight and I remember thinking. Oh, God why is it I get sick before every business trip? What did I eat?
      Yup anxiety. There’s meds for that and I take them.

      1. K*

        Yup, me too. It was slightly lower-level than this, but all my colleagues were familiar with me as the one who constantly had to dash to the bathroom and frequently got “stomach bugs” at the least convenient time. I wasn’t faking. Eventually I was diagnosed with chronic IBS.

        When I quit my job and took a less stressful part-time position, it disappeared like magic. I’m still annoyed at my body’s reaction to stress.

  18. Donkey Wrangler*

    My Fergus does something similar – he will immediately storm off, follow that up with a diatribe via email about why I’m a terrible person/manager and list multiple things I have done wrong (some based in reality and some not), then call out for the next day or two and/or sulk for days/weeks. All of this over the most minor feedback or just from simply questioning why a process wasn’t followed. And yes, there is a plan to replace him but that takes time and budget I don’t have at the moment. Mental health is definitely also a factor which does complicate things – this was brought up after the last incident as an excuse for leaving work undone, sending several downright vicious emails and not coming to work for 2.5 days. While I accept that his mental health issues do explain things to some extent, it’s still not an excuse for some of the behaviors. I still give (most) feedback, but I keep it strictly factual with zero emotion and I refuse to engage when things heat up.

    1. TimeCat*

      Mental illness is NOT an excuse to treat others badly. You should not have to put up with his diatribes.

      1. valentine*

        yes, there is a plan to replace him
        Can you fire him and go without until you have the budget? Because everyone must be wasting more time on him than it would take to do his job in the first place.

        1. Donkey Wrangler*

          Unfortunately, we need him to cover his shifts for the time being. Once we’re able to free some budget, we’ll hire someone else and then he’ll be let go once they are trained. It’s a small business so we’re already stretched thin. He is also pretty competent when he’s not in one of his spirals.

    2. k*

      The OP said that there have been no diatribes and no drama, so I don’t think this is similar at all.

    3. Observer*

      If you let him go, you’ll have the budget to replace him…

      And the ADA does not require that you allow people to not manage the core responsibilities of their job or to be “vicious” to others. So, talk to HR and Legal, but start managing him out.

    4. miss_chevious*

      We have a similar issue on my team with someone who “doesn’t feel well” whenever she dislikes the way leadership is handling things, and goes home. The problem is complicated by the fact that she is very aggressive about filing complaints with HR and escalating things to grandboss every time she disagrees with something, and, even though her complaints have never been supported or found to have any basis, they all have to be investigated and reacted to, so managing this pattern is a challenge.

  19. Rusty Shackelford*

    I’m not going to armchair diagnose Fergus, but having lived with someone suffering from depression, I’m going to say this is all very, very familiar. Very. But, even if that’s the case, what can you do about it? The only thing I can think of is to point out how much his work had improved over the last year, just to remind him of what he’s capable of, and ask him if there are any new issues, work-related or not, that might be affecting his more recent performance. While you can’t tell him to take care of his mental health, you can possibly start a conversation that he’ll finish in his own head. And possibly he’ll realize that he needs to do something, or that whatever he is doing isn’t working.

  20. T. Boone Pickens*

    Keep doing what you’re doing LW as you’ve been nothing but reasonable. If Fergus is unable to improve his performance or unwilling to discuss what is causing these mistakes (assuming you have an EAP program) then you need to put Fergus on a PIP and see if he can improve and if not, unfortunately let him go.

    1. Notsure*

      We have employees like this at my workplace. Most often the employees that have extreme reactions to criticism grew up in an abusive environment (this usually comes out months after they start therapy when someone comments on their behaviour. Managers/hr are not gossiping). Often they get firmly told they need to work this out or else the job will be in jeopardy. Some go to therapy and some do not. The ones that go to therapy usually come back with either a diagnosis of BPD or PTSD or both. One worker actually got slammed with four diagnosis. Once in therapy mass improvements are seen. They usually disclose later that they did not have a real sense of self and therefore no self worth. So, when their work was criticize they could not see that we were not attacking them as a human just that their work isn’t up to standards. Plus they grew up in an abusive environment so they’ve learned that trying to fix a problem does not work and they will still get criticize/beat/etc. So they just got defeated before. To be fair some do refuse to go to therapy or talk to their gp because often they have to take leave to do therapy. If they refuse mental health support then normal protocol such as write ups and PIPs are completed.

      1. Julia*

        I’m very curious about your line of work and why you know so many details about your employees’ mental health and treatment.

  21. Mel_05*

    I know a lot of people are saying that its probably a personal thing that happened 6 months ago – and it could be – but is it possible something changed at work that made him feel like he couldn’t continue the progress… or that it was pointless?

    It might be he feels stuck, if that’s the case.

    1. TimeCat*

      Or he got tired after striving for six months.

      I did a difficult work project and I remember around six months I felt my ability to push extra hard diminished. Fortunately it was near the end of the project.

      1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

        This is a really good point too. If his improvement was the result of sustained ongoing effort, he may have reached a point where he couldn’t keep it up.

        Ultimately, the OP can’t know what happened with Fergus without talking to Fergus. We can speculate here all we want, but Fergus is the only one who holds that information.

      2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

        OP said though that he “suddenly” reverted to the old behaviour and patterns. It’s possible that he got tired or all the energy had been consumed but I thought (I could be wrong and frequently am) it would manifest as more of a “slide” back than a sudden change, though. It seems to me that something, possibly external, has changed abruptly.

  22. iwouldlikeacookie*

    His personal matters aside, would this not be grounds for a PIP? He has been missing deadlines and not following guidelines/orders from his manager.

    1. Anon for this one*

      I’ve been the “manager of people” trying to put in place a PIP on someone who was just making mistake after mistake, causing problems I then had to work many extra hours to repair, and it was getting worse… there wasn’t a “improving and then suddenly showing performance problems again” aspect in my team member though, she was just unable to do the job in the first place and we sort of “carried” her (I didn’t hire her) but then suddenly made mistakes that were disastrous (resulting loss of client confidence etc) rather than just the general low performance we’d been seeing all along and been able to ‘brush off’.

      I hesitated to bring the PIP because she was a “minority” (of course, this had no influence on my actual thinking, just my perception) because I was afraid of it being turned back on us because “you are singling me out because I am of X ethnicity”… er no! I am singling you out because you aren’t doing your job! I don’t care if you are white, black, yellow, blue, green, whatever.

      HR went along with me with the PIP documenting the paperwork etc……….. and then somehow it was blamed on me for having not provided enough training and feedback in the first place (I had provided appropriate constructive feedback focused on positively saying “ok, let’s just go through this right from basics as it’s really important, stop me if you already know it” etc)

      What had changed? — she called in sick (causing the original PIP ‘hearing’ to have to be postponed) with mental health issues due to the stress of work and then it became a subject we just had to work around. Ultimately the PIP was cancelled and it was put back on me as not having been supportive enough as a manager and perhaps I should be on a PIP for management skills?

      We worked there for 3 more years together and then I left before she did. I resented it all that time (but hid my feelings).

    2. Glitsy Gus*

      It could be.

      You probably want to have the conversation Allison outlined in her advice first to make sure there isn’t some kind of health situation or something like that that would explain this. If that is the case there are probably more productive ways to deal with the situation than a PIP. If health/home/other extraordinary circumstances are ruled out then, yeah, a PIP could be a good way to make sure everyone is clear about the situation and the expectations that need to be met.

  23. LogicalOne*

    Some people are perfectionists and can easily be knocked off track when they are told they did something not right or something they did wasn’t correct or helpful. I used to be that way. Everything I did had to be right the first time and every time and if it wasn’t, I would sometimes kick myself for it. I wonder if this is what’s going on and he has perfectionist tendencies. Or could he possibly be on the spectrum? I would say give it time and see if he improves.

    1. Antilles*

      I think six months is more than enough time to “see if he improves”. Maybe don’t jump instantly to firing him, but after half a year, OP is well within her rights to talk with him and use AAM’s script about having serious concerns.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Agreed. And he was doing things better, to the point others commented. Then he backslid.

        I dunno, if he were a true perfectionist wouldn’t he keep himself current in his methods and templates, etc?

  24. Lalitah28*

    Lots of interesting and good advice.

    I think the number one things to get across to all employees is that accepting critical feedback is part of everyone’s job. If you are finding that any feedback, especially the kind that’s delivered factfully and dispassionately but kindly, is soul-crushing, then you have to go to therapy.

    I think giving and taking feedback is one of the most underrated skills that need to be taught in school from K to 12.

  25. Jaybeetee*

    What’s strange about this is it sounds like he learned the new procedures, used those procedures without issue for a year, then… forgot them? Regressed? Sure, lots of people struggle to learn new systems, but at least from what I’ve seen, most of the time once people *do* learn, it sticks. Perhaps they might forget a step here or there, but they don’t forget the new way altogether.

    That makes me wonder if Fergus is suffering some kind of neurological issue or early-onset dementia (mindful of the rule here not to “diagnose” anyone – I am no doctor and have no idea really). Maybe I’m picturing this wrong, but I’m imagining like Fergus has forgotten how to use a database that he used for a year straight, or similar, which is pretty unusual, even for mental health issues. I’m not even sure what OP could do, other than what Alison suggested, if that is the case, but it’s what jumped out at me.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

      > used those procedures without issue for a year, then… forgot them?

      It sounded from the OP though that this regression in performance happened pretty suddenly. I think (I’m not a doctor so could be wrong) most neurological issues or things like dementia would have a bit more subtle onset… like dropping the ball here and there, following parts of a procedure but not all of them with a few mistakes… then more and more frequently. Rather than a “day and night” scenario.

      1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        I worked with a woman who’d been getting extra-forgetful over a period of two years, and at the end of that period it turned out she’d had a series of mini strokes that left her with permanent brain damage. We needed her in her position and she needed the income so we provided her with all of the extra support we could muster, but it was not a great situation in general.

        1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

          Yes, that’s the sort of thing I was picturing. I hope she was able to get the needed support (and medical treatment) in the end.

    2. Amethystmoon*

      I have to wonder, could someone other than manager have talked to Fergus? Maybe someone who has influence with him, but isn’t a boss, and said hey, why did you change everything, you have to use the previous procedures I and others were trained on? That does sometimes happen. Though, if it happened to me, I would clear it with boss first, but maybe Fergus could have felt like he didn’t have the power to? What if the person was a manager but in another department, or higher up than Fergus’s boss? It doesn’t necessarily have to be mental illness. I think though, that talking with Fergus is the only way that an answer will come to light.

    3. linger*

      Something else that could manifest as a sudden loss of memory is a device failure.
      Certainly there are aspects of my job that, after a decade of accumulated changes, one laptop “knows” how to do better than I do, and I couldn’t set up another device in exactly the same way without a lot of outside help. Reversion to previous document formats is exactly what you’d expect from reversion to a previous hard drive.
      So, hard agree that OP shouldn’t go into the conversation assuming ANY particular problem with Fergus, simply following Alison’s script asking about whether there’s anything specific going on that can be addressed.

  26. Blisskrieg*

    I agree with a lot of the assessments that something may have changed for Fergus. In response to Alison’s call for actionable items along those lines, EAP occurs to me. Often the EAP offers a broad range of services– counseling, legal, financial. If the OP gets into the conversation with Fergus and discovers there is a personal issue– or even if he is not transparent but she senses there s an iss– that might be something concrete to offer him while still respecting his privacy. If course, may not be an offered benefit, but sometimes I think people forget about it. I think I would approach it as “Fergus, there’s been such an abrupt change that I have to wonder if somethings wrong. I don’t need details but I do want to offer this service as a benefit the company offers and something you can choose to use.”

  27. TimeCat*

    The thing about being a manager, however, is your number one priority is having an employee who does the job you pay them to do. if a manager is delivering feedback in a kind and productive way and the employee is reacting irrationally to it, it isn’t the manager’s fault or issue to fix. Because they literally can’t fix it.

  28. Blisskrieg*

    Yes– I completely agree. I envision the above being accompanied by a more important, but parallel conversation of “regardless of the reason, these are the changes that need to happen and by x date (or immediatel y” and an outline of progressive or immediate disciplinary measures of it doesn’t happen.

  29. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    Since his great work only last six months, I wonder if he was expecting a raise. Has he gotten anything besides cost-of-living raises? I’ve seen people for whom, rightly or not, that’s really demotivating. I can imagine that since you were likely the first person to invest any time in his skill development, maybe he decided he would try really hard for six months, and see if that would finally get him the raise he thought he deserved. When it didn’t, he went back into “whatever” mode, including just not coming in after he gets feedback, because he feels so demoralized and unappreciated.

    I’m not saying whether he’s right or wrong in his assumptions, but rather just describing a situation. It may be worth going back into his records to see how he worked with previous managers. I confess I don’t know how I’d approach it with him. But I can’t help thinking that if he was able to do this so well for six months, maybe you could offer him a serious carrot on a stick as incentive to improve like he did before, instead of focusing on how he’s gone back to “whatever” mode.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

      It is a possibility! (I didn’t think of it, and I don’t think it is the most likely explanation, but still).

      OP, did the sudden ‘regression’ in his performance happen shortly after the review cycle?

      I’m not convinced I’d offer someone a “serious carrot on a stick as an incentive to improve” again, though. It seems obvious that the previous manager(s) allowed Fergus to coast on “one year of experience repeated 10 times” etc. It also seems like it was sort of apparent that after ~10 years of coasting Fergus was finally expected to get up to date and start working with new stuff with the new manager (OP). And he did recognize that and did engage with it. And he was doing quite well!

      My “pattern recognition” senses are going off that this sudden “back slide” is motivated by the same thing that caused him to get stuck in a rut of “what he’s always done” in the first place and to be perceived as a poor performer.

    2. Glitsy Gus*

      I’ve been in that boat. I mean, it went on for way longer than six months, but it really is demoralizing when you work really hard to master new tasks and learn new skills on your own time and really feel like you’re bringing it all in and then… nada in return. It really does make it almost impossible to keep your morale and motivation up when you really feel like there is no point because no one cares.

      It may not even be money (though money is always a good reward for good work), sometimes you really just need someone in charge to say, “I see everything you are doing and I really appreciate it.” I mean, that doesn’t work forever, but in the short term, anyway, that can mean a lot. That very well may not be the situation here, but oh man do I know that feeling.

      1. Anon-for-this*

        Same here. I addressed every single thing that has been brought up on a review, and the boss never acknowledges improvement. She just finds something new to complain about.

        Her pets, on the other hand, always get big fat raises no matter how poorly they perform.

        If anyone has a recommendation for how to be a mewling sycophant in a low-performing work culture, please share!

        1. Also Anon*

          If you’re any good at acting, one can do a lot with body language. When you see your boss, sit up straighter and then let your eyes open wide and then squinch slightly, with a very subtle smile. Your boss will hopefully get the impression that you are pleased to see her, which will make her like you better without realising it. If that’s hard, let the smile secretly come from the fact that you are ‘tricking’ her. Lean forward slightly in meetings when she talks, and no more than once a day tilt your head slightly as she talks.

          Also, if you can think of any genuine compliments for your boss that previously you would have bitterly swallowed, try saying them to her, or behind her back to her ‘pets’. Work on joining them first if you can and it will be more natural for you to slide into the facoured group. Note if you can pair all of this with a slight performance improvement then the boss can justify her new favouritism to herself with ‘Anon-for-this is doing so much better work now!’ Bonus points if she mentions it and you can bring yourself to say she inspired you, which really she did in a round-about kind of way.

          No guarantees of course, so if that still doesn’t work, try and get out of your toxic environment if possible.

      2. Amethystmoon*

        Good point. Is there any kind of internal rewards system? The company I work for does rewards once a month. You can get nominated by anyone and the award is presented in front of the team. It’s nothing that costs a lot, it’s just a kudos, although sometimes people do get gift cards to a company store or something like that. They can list the award in their annual review. Or even just an internal thank you system?

    3. MissDisplaced*

      I think this could be highly likely!
      It was a factor with the Fergus I had to manage.

      My Fergus was the only hourly production person (self taught) to three designers who had college educations. Though Fergus got a decent wage and overtime, he was topped-out for the hourly scale. But he wouldn’t take on tasks that would’ve moved him to salary.

  30. The Dread Pirate Buttercup*

    I’d be tempted to address how hard feedback seems to take Fergus and ask if they have insight about what works and what doesn’t, feedback-wise. I might, if he’d be up for it, it, recommend a re-read of _The Now Habit_, which concerns itself greatly with how self-shaming and a lack of compassion can get in the way of professional growth. (It’s available in audio form and I am phrasing its subject matter very clumsily.)

  31. VanLH*

    Years ago I worked with a Fergus. I liked him. He was a nice guy. He also suffered from some mental health issues and just wasn’t that bright. I am not saying that to insult him, it was just true. I had no management responsibilities buy my job was a place where everyone’s else’s work came across my desk. I was able to work with him to bring up his level of work. But after a year or so, he just started regressing. His work got worse, and slower. Eventually he went to the boss and admitted he just couldn’t do the job and left. I think it just took too much out of him to push himself to his top level of performance. I was sorry to see him go.

  32. Buttons*

    I also encourage OP to examine how the feedback is being delivered. Often people think feedback is “this went wrong/wasn’t right.” Feedback should be a tool that teaches, enhances and moves people forward. Feedback that isn’t accomplishing this is ineffective.
    It is better to recognize the problem and then examine why it happened and how to avoid it in the future.” “I noticed that this barrier wasn’t identified early enough in the project which caused X. Why do you think it was missed? How can we avoid missing it in the future? How can we deal with such a barrier more effectively next time?” Let them help come up with the identification and the solution, then if they struggle, the OP (or whoever) can help them come to the solution you see as best.

  33. Didi*

    I have had 2 employees that have shown similar behavior. In both cases there were substance abuse issues. Negative feedback (whether from me or from a client ) would send them spiraling and they’d go off the wagon or binge on their drugs or alcohol. They were legit unwell and it was OK that they used sick time to get better. One eventually took a buyout after an FMLA period for rehab, and the second one retired.

    At the time I suspected but did not know for sure what was happening. I found out the story later from one of the employees who called me out of the blue one day as part of a 12-step process of apologizing to people who were harmed by their substance abuse.

  34. Front Desk*

    Oof. Not going to lie, I can easily identify with Fergus here. When I get feedback, even in the Oreo model (something positive, something to work on, followed by something positive), I can hold onto that ‘something to work on’ and then withdraw. I’ve felt like calling in the day after my review, even if only one thing was brought up that I didn’t like.
    While I get the desire to withdraw and not be at work after an experience like that, however, I also understand that I need to show up, do better, and BE better at my job. It’s especially hard when I have a bad anxiety flare-up or can feel a depressive episode coming.
    The thing I’d want from my management is this: a one-on-one conversation, where management says something along the lines that Alison said, “Last year you worked hard to raise your level of performance and really impressed me and others. About six months ago, that seemed to change.”, and go from there. Keep an open dialogue, and let Fergus know that you’re available if he ever feels overwhelmed. Don’t just SAY you’re available, but BE available, and be willing to frame it all as a conversation, not a scolding.
    Granted, if he doesn’t shape up, there may be a need for a PIP, or a write-up.

  35. Budgie Buddy*

    I agree with those who are saying either Fergus isn’t able to keep up the increased productivity level long term or something else is going on in his life. The only way to find out is to ask him what’s going on.

    I also think OP should consider that Fergus May not view the feedback sessions as neutrally as she hopes. He probably already has a strong sense that he’s not doing so hot and may be facing a PIP or loss of job.

    OP writes: “During the debriefs, I let Fergus take the lead; I ask open-ended questions and then agree or disagree with his analysis. I’m careful to keep it factual and focused on learning for next time.“

    This is overall good but I agree with the suggestion to make these meetings shorter if they are not helping Fergus. He may still feel put on the spot, asked (in his mind) to explain all the reasons he sucks and screwed up. OP’s intentions are good, but it sounds like Fergus is not in a place to process the feedback he’s getting.

  36. RexJ*

    I remember a manager noticing a slightly similar trend when I worked back in London.
    She noticed that Big John had been taking a lot of sick days, all of them singles. She pulled up his records and noted when they were occurring. Then she made an intuitive leap that shows why she was a manager. She pulled up West Ham’s results in the current Premiership Football season. Thirteen of his sixteen sickies had come following a West Ham loss or crappy home draw.
    She took him aside and told him that she didn’t care how bad a season the Hammers were having, that being too hungover was no longer cutting and to get his ass into work.

  37. Anon-for-this*

    If I’m anxious and experiencing long-term stress, bad news gives me headaches, backaches or gall bladder attacks. If I’m feeling attacked for minor mistakes, coming to work on 3 hours’ of sleep doesn’t seem like a really great idea to me, so I call in sick, and I really am sick.

    My boss always closes her feedback with “further instances could result in blah blah up to termination.” That could have something to do with it. Threatening to fire people is only one stress level less than threatening to kill them.

    1. Been There, Done That*

      “My boss always closes her feedback with “further instances could result in blah blah up to termination.” This was actual HR language that I HAD to impart when providing feedback during a PIP. This was mandated language as part of escalated discipline. If you are hearing this language and not taking it seriously that IS a problem.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        That makes sense. Although, if the boss is always adding this as part of the PIP process but for months on end, then it stops being effective as a motivator and is just a continuing source of stress because the PIP seems to be endless. Or if the boss is always adding this even when no PIP exists.

  38. Anon-for-this*

    … and on the other hand, could it be a case of biased observation? If Fergus is criticized daily for something or other, then wouldn’t every day that Fergus calls in sick be a day after a correction?

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      LW says it’s happened three times in the last two months–enough so that it’s a noticeable issue, but not a sign that Fergus is getting lit up every day.

  39. MissDisplaced*

    I’m not sure exactly what is going on with Fergus, but I’ve managed a Fergus who was almost exactly like your Fergus. I was never able to solve it, because they closed our site and we all got laid off.
    The things I noticed and/or suspected about my Fergus:
    > Fergus is just collecting a paycheck. He no longer cares about learning new tricks or keeping up, and sort of feels owed a job anyway due to his long service and seniority. As such, Fergus does the bare minimum so as not to be put on Pip and fired.
    > Fergus isn’t getting paid as much as the “designers” or others and isn’t interested in expanding his abilities so he could move up.
    > When talked to about his performance, my Fergus would be sulky for days. He would improve slightly, but then backslide within a few months to his old ways, but never so bad as to be fired immediately.
    > Fergus doesn’t like change and prefers sticking with older technology, computers, software, etc.
    > Fergus is generally a disorganized person, which manifests in other ways like cluttered desk, poor file management, etc.
    > Fergus may have something else going on in private life, such as illness, divorce or family issue, but you cannot really speculate on that unless he tells you.

    It’s incredibly hard to manage a Fergus! Personally, I think my first point applied the most. Fergus just doesn’t really care that much and is only there for the paycheck. Because like Homer Simpson said, you don’t quit your job, you just come in and do it really half-assed. Fergus will never do enough to get himself fired, but he will never do enough great either.

  40. Jeffrey Deutsch*

    As part of that conversation, there’s also room to say, “Please tell me if I’m misinterpreting, but I get the sense that critical feedback on your work has been difficult for you. You’ve often called in sick the next day and seemed withdrawn for a few days after that. I realize that pattern could be a coincidence, but am I right in thinking you’re having a tough time with it?” … and also, “I do need to be able to talk with you about your work without it meaning you can’t come in the next day. Is there something I can do differently on my side that will make those conversations go more easily?”


    1. SWench*

      I also thought the part you quoted was brilliant.

      Jeffrey Deutschh, if I may presume to ask, did you (/do you — can’t recall the name of it to check!) run a website geared towards improving communications and understandings between people in a certain context? If so, I have been a super fan!

  41. BasicWitch*

    My last toxic manager really sapped my confidence, and I was denied permission to use PTO for the better part of a year due to “staffing needs” they saw fit to us me endlessly for instead of hiring more help. I won’t get into all the details, but suffice to say the way my boss treated me brought up a lot of childhood programming I still struggle with. By the end of 2019 I was ill and fragile, both physically and mentally. Then I got a new job that was a great opportunity, but also very much a “stretch job”. Hello, imposter syndrome! The learning curve has been tough. My boss is giving me fantastic and helpful constructive feedback, And unlike my last boss she has high emotional intelligence and empathy. But the problem is whenever she says anything that could even REMOTELY be interpreted as critical, for just an instant, I feel dread and shame right to the core of my being. I recover quickly because I’ve learned how to, but that initial response isn’t something I’m able to control yet (it’s a maladaptive survival thing… it stems from a period in my life when criticism was a prelude to abuse). And my boss sees that flash across my face because she can read people like books, and it makes her feel like she just kicked a puppy.

    I feel awful for making HER feel awful, but I don’t know what to do! I’ve been working on this for decades now and while I do believe I’ll get past it eventually, I have no idea when that day will come. I’m worried it will damage my relationship with my boss, but I also don’t want to dump all my childhood traumas on her desk the next time we have a 1:1…

    1. miss_chevious*

      I think you should talk to her about how responding to feedback is something you’re working on, because of negative associations in a prior job, and let her know you appreciate her feedback and find it valuable. A sort of “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, to let her know that what she’s seeing is correct, but that it doesn’t mean she should stop doing what she’s doing, which is working for you. You don’t have to get into the personal stuff AT ALL, if you don’t want to.

  42. Random IT person*

    From what LW describes, I suspect that Fergus deals with either a mental health issue (think Autism).
    Why? Because he changed – and later reverted to ‘same old’. As someone on the spectrum myself, if you`ve followed a procedure A-B-C a long time (think : years) – then you can go to B-C-D for a while , but it`s very hard to continue as A-B-C is familiar (and therefore safe).

    I would indeed ask him if he knows why this happen – and if you do value him (which I believe you do) you may want to ask – and ask again – if there are things going on that could impact his performance.
    Ask him what he would need to continue on the change you`ve already seen – and be willing to accomodate.

    Good luck, to Fergus and you.

  43. not neurotypical*

    This raises for me some interesting questions about accommodating chronic disabilities. Just as a thought experiment, let’s imagine that Fergus — like so many of us — copes with chronic depression. There was a brief and wonderful period of remission, but now it has returned with a vengeance.

    If a worker was coping with a chronic illness, we might expect them to (a) take a sick day after a particularly physically taxing day, and (b) be a bit low-energy for the remainder of the week.

    So, what is the big problem if a person with a different kind of chronic illness needs to (a) take a sick day after a particularly emotionally taxing day, and (b) is a bit subdued for the remainder of the week?

    All of which is to say that for many people, whether or not they have received formal diagnoses for their mental/emotional conditions, the energy required to manage receiving negative feedback is enormous. If Fergus has the sick days available, who does it hurt if he uses them for that purpose? Why should he be required to be peppy and smiling if, in fact, he feels subdued? Remember, although the biological bases of mental illnesses are not visible, they are just as real as any purely physical condition.

    Fergus isn’t fighting back against feedback, he simply needs extra time to process it. Whatever the reason for that, the kindest thing to do would be to treat that as something with as much right to be accommodated as any other condition. So, my advise would be to focus on the performance questions, continue to be kind but firm while doing so, allow him to take his sick days (which he earned!) as needed, and recognize that whether or not he is subdued is truly not your business.

    1. Allonge*

      Unfortunately, the fact that he reliably misses a day’s work and then does not perform well for the following two has a large enough impact on the business that his manager may well decide it’s not worth it. And if it’s not worth it giving feedback and then Fergus gets worse and worse at his job because he is not getting information on when he messes up, he is going to get fired.

      Short term, you are right, the kindest thing to do is to let him take the days. Longer term, it is neither kind nor good for the employer (which is a higher consideration for a manager than being kind to the employees).

  44. CM*

    My suspicion is that Fergus is burned out. It sounds like you asked him to change a lot about what he’s doing all at once and sustain the change indefinitely. The trajectory he followed — being able to put in way more effort at first, and seeming to do great before crashing and acting exhausted and checked out — is consistent with someone who burned up all of their extra effort and has nothing left.

    I still think it makes sense to talk to him about it, but I don’t think saying, “I need you to do X, so what can we do to rally and put even more energy in when your energy tank is empty?” is going to get the result you want.

    I think what you have to do is drastically reduce your expectations about how quickly you can get the change you want to see. Focus on one change that Fergus needs to make until it’s so comfortable and routine that it doesn’t require him to burn all of his extra energy to maintain it, and then introduce another change. That’s the only way it’s going to be sustainable in the long term.

    If that’s not possible, because Fergus is just a terrible fit for this job with the way things have changed, and you can’t wait as long as it’ll take for him to catch up, then be compassionate about that and transition him out as kindly as possible. But don’t treat him like he’s a liar because he could only sprint for a year before he got winded.

  45. we're basically gods*

    There’s a lot of people suggesting on this thread that, because there’s mental issues that can cause these sorts of things, the behavior is okay. And I’m…not a fan of that, honestly.
    I take criticism badly. Very badly. As in, dissociating mildly and feeling incredibly ill.
    However: Feelings and actions are not the same. Just because I feel something, it doesn’t mean I need to act on it. Being a responsible employee means that even when I feel like I’m terrible at my job and I should just crawl into a hole forever, I still…nod and try to not look like I’m in pain and I take note of the feedback and try my darndest to do better.
    I am really, really not a fan of the rhetoric that people with mental illnesses who have intense emotional reactions to things are incapable of controlling their behavior. It gets used to excuse poor behavior from people who may or may not be mentally ill. It infantilizes us by suggesting that we’re fundamentally incapable of improving. And, frankly, it minimizes the very hard work that many of us do every day to keep it together. It’s not an easy thing to do, and I recognize that, but I think it’s vital to keep in mind that you do NOT have to act on your feelings. Ever.

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