my employee keeps asking if she’ll be fired

A reader writes:

One of the people I manage is about one year into the position and is doing okay most of the time. She does make mistakes and has trouble remembering or picking up certain concepts. I am really hoping she will improve as she gains more experience.

She has one habit I find odd. Whenever she makes a mistake or forgets something basic, she asks, “Will I be fired?” I don’t want to be constantly reassuring her that she is not going to be fired, but at the same time if I don’t see growth and improvement, then I would have to think about it.

I don’t want to give her a false sense of security that nothing will happen to her regardless of performance, but I don’t want her constantly worrying about messing up.

And as a supplemental note, she was fired from her previous job. I knew this but felt she had enough potential to develop in a different role.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 109 comments… read them below }

  1. Elm*

    I wonder if this employee has a challenge (or set of challenges) like ADHD, an anxiety disorder, or OCD (among others). Obviously this is not something that can be asked about, but the advice is solid–they may not realize they’re doing it and, if they are getting treatment, can bring this information to their next doctor’s visit so it can be worked on via therapy, medication adjustments, or both.

    Note: not all people with these disorders present in this manner, but asking for reassurance MAY be indicative. Less so for ADHD–I include that because of the mention of forgetfulness. Also, I hope no one infers disrespect from this. I actually live with all three of the issues I mentioned!

    1. miamivice*

      Or she may have past trauma from a sudden unforeseen firing at a toxic workplace. Or she may have anxiety AND PTSD from a past job.

      1. Smithy*

        This type of letter, and these types of responses are why letters like the one from a week or so ago at the workplace where the boss was breaking keyboards make me concerned for LWs long term.

        Even if you find a way to tough it out, it’s so likely to leave you with long term bad work habits. Whether they’re coping skills to reduce your own anxiety or survival skills to adjust to unprofessional personality types.

      2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        This is where my mind went. Years ago, I walked into what I thought was a routine mid-year performance review, only to be given a piece of paper to sign that said I was being put on probation for my unacceptable performance, and given six months to improve or lose my job. I had no warning, no idea it was coming, my previous review six months earlier had been fine, and nothing about my work had changed in those six months. I was taken off probation and praised for my newly improved outstanding performance before my six months were up (had not changed anything other than I started documenting everything), whereas the manager who’d put me on it went on to be demoted, then terminated, then fired from several subsequent jobs they’d found. It took me at least ten years to stop being afraid of performance review meetings.

        1. miamivice*

          *nodding vigorously* The scars can run deep, and in this employee’s (OP’s employee’s) world, sudden firing without warning and for no reason may be “a thing that can happen” because it actually has happened, to her.

          (been there myself)

          1. Agusława*

            Ooooh, that sounds like me. I was fired three times without PIP or any kind of verbal warning that I am lacking as an employee, two time of those three right before Christmas, both on the phone, one of those times was right after I was given a huge project (by ‘right after’ I mean two days later). I am now in a stable job with a healthy contract that gives me right to two months’ wages if I get fired per local law, but I still jump with fear every time I see an e-mail or a phone call from my boss. I was genuinely surprised when my boss did not fire me for getting late two days in a row due to construction work being one on my street and he was more concerned with my scared face than my lateness.

        2. Roy G. Biv*

          Ah, I see you are my work twin. Very similar series of events, and it took me from being confident in my skills/results at work, to second guessing myself for several years. The director who sprung the surprise PIPs on a whole bunch of us was unceremoniously fired one morning, and replaced with a person who is a pretty good communicator. I still feel like this company squandered a lot of my goodwill.

          1. linger*

            You’re absolutely right, they DID forfeit goodwill, and firing the director was not really a welcome sign to the contrary. After all, if the firing came as a surprise to that director, that indicates the same style of bad management goes further up.

            1. Marthooh*

              I don’t agree that Bad Director’s unheralded firing was a bad sign. Some things should result in immediate termination.

        3. refereemn77*

          I’ve had this happen. The best manager I ever had (who was also a full bird colonel in the National Guard) decided to go back to his old department. Our team was merged with another team, and I went from a good annual review and talking about planning for a promotion to being put on a performance plan and then asked to leave. I still get anxiety during performance reviews now. Like, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

        4. Kat in VA*

          BossMan may drive me crazy, but one of his firm beliefs is that if you are truly blindsided by performance issues, or personnel issues in either your review (or just being handed a PIP like IWTITB), then your manager sucks and needs training.

          Personnel issues should never get to the point of a PIP or threat of firing (or actual blindsided termination) with the employee completely unknowing. The time to bring up issues is in real time, not at a review or when someone has decided they’ve had enough…without going through the steps of a verbal discussion (or a few of them, depending on the situation), a formal meeting, a formal meeting with HR, then a written action plan.

          *obviously there will always be employees who ignore or dismiss such clear and obvious signs, but at least at that point, the manager can say, “We talked on this, this, and this date informally. Then we had a formal meeting on this date. Then we had a sit-down with HR on this date. THEN you were given a written warning on THIS date with a clear 90 day plan to improve X, Y, and/or Z.” If none of that is forthcoming in a clear and concise manner…again, your manager SUCKS at managing.

        5. Alternative Person*

          Had a similar experience, makes reviews and re-contracting meetings have an extra level of stress years after the fact.

        6. Caroline Bowman*

          THIS. I ended up in such a state after a really awful work experience with a poisonous, really political manager who left my confidence in tatters. It took me ages and ages to even consider taking a permanent job again, I just did fixed-term contracts for 3 and 6 months at a time, for fear of it all happening again. When I landed at what was to become my next career job, the manager there was so nice (quite demanding, rigorous, not a soft pushover, but very kind and fair and with a good sense of humour) that after the third or fourth time I had to fend of panic attacks at being asked to ”just pop into meeting room 3 / my office after lunch, I need to talk to you”, I was able to tell her that I was living with daily / hourly terror of being shouted at and / or fired. She was absolutely floored. Obviously the meetings were ”pop over, I need to outline our plans for teapot making for March” and other innocuous such topics, but I took it always as ”I’ve done something”.

          That kind of thing stays with a person.

    2. fposte*

      Yes, and unfortunately the reassurance-seeking makes firing more likely and not less. Brains are not always our friends.

      1. Stitch*

        I hate to say it, but every time I have worked with someone who did this (the sample size here is like 2, though so not super scientific) they did end up getting fired. And I had done what Alison suggested here and laid out very clear goals and how they knew they were on track or not. In both cases I think they just got in their own way.

        I did try really hard but there’s only so much you can do.

        1. fposte*

          Unfortunately I’m inclined to agree. It’s a bad combination with “just okay and not improving as hoped so far.”

    3. Zap R.*

      Yes. Typically I try to avoid armchair diagnoses on here but the constant asking for reassurance is very much an OCD thing.

    4. Quill*

      My immediate thought was generalized anxiety or PTSD. “Will I be fired (for making a typo)?” is pretty common catastrophizing material. Especially when you’ve previously been fired, or you personally know people who have been fired for equally petty reasons.

      I may be speaking from experience on that one.

      It took me a full year and another job at a reasonable employer to get past the majority of that after I got fired, also meds.

      1. Caroline Bowman*

        It took me a year of strictly taking temp and fixed term roles to help me get past that terrible anxiety. I was stunned and mortified by my being ”asked to resign” (with hindsight, I could have sued them, they were awful and had no real grounds) and had been thoroughly bullied and victimised by a manager who was just poison.

        Of course when it happens, you’re so panicky and mistake-prone and paranoid that you actually probably aren’t exactly a stellar employee!

        I had to take ”proving myself to a permanent employer” right off the table for ages and ages, and even then, when I got such a great job, it took months of private anxiety and worry. I did confide in my manager once I had made sure I was doing well and explained how terrifying I found it to be asked to ”come to my office after lunch, I need to chat” and she couldn’t have been kinder. After that, I managed to let it go gradually.

    5. Cedarthea*

      I would for sure put ADHD in that pile, as they may have been fired for forgetting items, that was the case for me, except I wasn’t fired, but I would get pulled into my bosses office to guess what I had done wrong and be shamed for it, which can be a similar root of anxiety.

      Also, because I would interrupt conversations happening in front of me, due to the impulse control portion of my ADHD (which needed to be corrected, and my current boss spotted right away, and provided me with assistive coaching to help me with understanding why it wasn’t cool, and what I could do instead, and it has helped me develop a better approach (along with appropriate meds).

      1. Quill*

        Back when I was at old, toxic job, my memory was so unbelievably bad all the time. Like, stressed to the point of forgetting core business procedures (didn’t help that we were yelled at for not working fast enough in a workplace that needed accuracy…)

        Stress can really take your existing mental problems and turn it up to 11.

        1. Caroline Bowman*

          and make you quite prone to inertia and being essentially ”lazy” where you just avoid whatever is going to get you shouted at, which is of course counter-productive.

    6. Anxious Annie*

      I am a lot like this person. I have a lot of workplace anxiety. Although I never have the guts to ask if I will be fired, I think it constantly. I have been working in therapy for over a year to deal with it. I came off a very, very toxic job that I am still not 100% over. I would say LW can (I know this an older letter), but to give her compliments on her work when they can. Tell her she did a good job on something, even its stupid and mundane. If it continues, maybe give her some resources to reach out to, like an EAP or something. Therapy has worked wonders for me.

      1. Oh No She Di'int*

        I very gently and softly differ on one aspect of this matter. I have had at least two employees in this category, and in my experience compliments fade very, very quickly. I find that there is very little cumulative effect. I think compliments and praise are good to give just because they’re good management practice. But not with the expectation that you’ll make the behavior go away. No amount of complimenting and praising makes the anxiety go away, because ultimately it’s about an inner state, not about any input from the outside world.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          And often both reassurance and compliments have diminishing returns, so it takes more and more of them for less effect. That doesn’t mean praise is bad—praise is necessary!—but it can’t cure things because the necessary “dose” has no cap.

          1. andy*

            That is when praise is used as manipulative tool. It is not used to point out thing that was actually well done as example of well done work you can try to reproduce again. With well done praise, you can learn from it. It looses value when it is generic, dishonest, used only to make someone feel better etc.

            Just like there is good and bad criticism, there is good and bad praise.

        2. James*

          Part of the problem is that criticisms are usually actionable while compliments aren’t. “Hey, good job on that TPS report!” doesn’t really give you much to go on. “Your TPS report needs to include X, Y, and Z”, on the other hand, gives you something to do, some action to take.

          Also, compliments ultimately don’t really matter. Outside of exceptional circumstances saying “Good job on the TPS report” isn’t going to impact my career much. In contrast, criticism can end my career. This is even worse if the compliment is mechanical, routine, or forced; it’s added to the background noise of corporate jargon and managerial double-talk.

          From an employee’s perspective, it just makes sense to focus on the complaints and essentially ignore the compliments.

        3. Is butter a carb?*

          I agree. My situation is different than this one as my super anxious employee DOES do a good job. There is no reason for her to think otherwise. I am very clear about feedback and expectations and compliments, but it doesn’t matter. She freaks out all the time. I’ve spoken to her about this issue too. I can’t calm her down for NO REASON everyday.

          I have high anxiety. I fear I will be fired constantly, but I don’t show that. I would NEVER say to my boss “am I going to be fired”. I think it and even cry about it, but I act pulled together at work (also an important skill, I’ve actually been complimented on my quiet confidence. ACK! If they knew the truth!)

          Sometimes when I get compliments it makes me feel worse. Because obviously you will make mistakes. If it’s right after I’ve had a really good review I feel like it’s worse because my boss thought I did a good job and now she’ll be extra disappointed.

          1. Warm Weighty Wrists*

            Hoo boy, my brain weasels say very similar things to this! I’m lucky that I have a boss like you who is clear about feedback and expectations, and gives compliments, but I still have to (internally) chant to myself “Nobody is perfect. I try my best and that is enough. I am good enough at my job” on a pretty regular basis to keep the anxiety from spilling out my mouth.
            Controlling the impulse to seek reassurance is such a difficult but important part of managing anxiety. Good luck to you in managing your employee!

        4. Smithy*

          Completely agree with this.

          What I’ve actually found personally far more comforting is developing very concrete goals so that an individual has more tools to evaluate their performance. If you have three performance goals, and each goal is accompanied by markers of success – that gives the employee tools to more concretely show themselves where they are struggling or whether or not they’re on target.

          As others have noted, forever going “will I be fired” is a lot of catastrophic thinking. Not that a boss alone can help with therapeutic tools to manage that, but concrete professional goals can provide more clarity on where performance is.

    7. Trout 'Waver*

      Armchair diagnosing letter writers is against the commenting rules on this site, because it can stigmatize people. Also, regardless of illness or challenge, the behavior still needs to be addressed and changed.

    8. wittyrepartee*

      In my experience, people with ADHD have had bad experiences in low level jobs. So, you get scared of being fired at every mistake because you’ve had terrible experiences with people who aren’t interested in giving you some time to get a error-checking system in place.

    9. Snark*

      As someone with adult ADHD and anxiety, I do actually think posts like this pathologize and stigmatize counterproductive workplace behavior, is not actually helpful and actionable to the OP, and serves no purpose besides entertaining oneself with open-ended speculation.

      It doesn’t matter. Maybe the employee has ADHD and trauma and OCD and anxiety and depression and and and. That’s an imponderable. It doesn’t change what OP has to do to manage it, and OP shouldn’t concern themselves with the employee’s mental health aside from making sure they understand there’s an EAP, if that’s the case.

    10. Gazebo Slayer*

      My anxiety disorder has definitely long manifested in a constant worry that I will be fired – partly because I *have* been fired several times and had a long string of temp jobs of uncertain length. I don’t constantly check in like this, but there was a time when I was less mentally healthy when I absolutely could have been the employee in this letter.

  2. annewithanE*

    i really admire your philosophy that firing shouldn’t be a surprise. neither i nor my SO have ever worked anywhere like that. it always was a surprise to people when they were fired. it’s such a toxic environment.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It’s simply not productive to fire people without warning, it does more harm to the rest of your staff and overall morale in the end than anything. I’m sorry you’ve only experienced that kind of awful environment, it’s common in some industries I’m aware of but it’s really not the standard. Most places who are worth a damn thing would at very least understand that stressed workers, who are waiting for that shoe to drop makes you less productive and efficient.

      1. Fikly*

        This, and if you have a problem with what someone is doing, but never tell them this, how on earth are they going to know they need to change what they are doing?

        1. Is butter a carb?*

          Right? And why wouldn’t you want to fix it instead of firing someone and then having to rehire??

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        Yes. In addition to being awful for morale, it’s expensive. My whole goal in providing feedback is so people get better at their jobs – we have a mutual interest in it being successful, and I’d like for it to work out, if there is a way for that to happen.

      3. Comments1962*

        My former Fortune 200 employer disagreed and formally trained all directors and managers to never give any indication of intent to fire or lay off. Case in point; call a company wide meeting. State in meeting that times are tough and we are downsizing. Please file out the door and if you are being let go your manager will meet you with a box containing the personal items from your desk and security will escort you directly off the property.

        1. PBJnocrusts*

          Yes ! This ! Absolutely! It was done this way at previous toxic job. It has made me be the employee described in this letter. It could be my new boss who wrote this letter.

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

      Agreed. There are a few positions/industries where I can understand not wanting to give too much advanced notice in case an employee in a sensitive area might cause real sabotage, but those should be the exception and it would be better for the business to have safeguards in place to mitigate damage rather than have a policy of walking people out the door without any warning.

    3. Not Me*

      Keep in mind that plenty of people who have been given TONS of warning will often still be surprised and will still tell others they were mis-treated by management.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        “Oh, sure, I’d had two written warnings, but who doesn’t, right?”

      2. Quill*

        Conversely, people who have been in a toxic job for a while may have been living in fear of being fired for so long that they just genuinely don’t see it coming. If your boss blows up at all things equally it can be a shock to hear “you’re fired” because it could have been the thing you spilled, the report you were late on, or literally anything.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          Yep. If anything may (or may not) be the last straw, it’ll always be a surprise.

      3. Extroverted Bean Counter*

        I have seen this much more often than an employer being unclear about expectations. These are the same people who have been totally blindsided when a significant other breaks up with them. Somehow all of the warnings, the write-ups, the talking-tos (in the case of a job) and the fighting, ultimatums, and complaints about their partner’s expectations (in the case of relationships) don’t translate into a message of “my status here is in danger”.

        1. Is butter a carb?*

          This spoke to me so much. I literally told my ex for several months I wanted a divorce and why (was hoping he would leave me so I would have the kids in the house and not have us move out. Didn’t happen). He was SHOCKED when I left. It pretty much summed up our don’t listen when I talk.

          I’ve only fired one person, but they were the same. I gave very specific goals and when he didn’t do them, he had excuses. Like dude! You are going to be fired. At least check the boxes on this stuff!
          Also, if you keep making mistakes and the person keeps having to correct it, wouldn’t you be…concerned? When I started having to document everything and give a verbal warning he was shocked. Haven’t you realized you have been making mistakes and not doing what I ask?

      4. Stephanie*

        Yeah, I had a friend tell me he was on a PIP and was a bit in denial his job was under threat. He did end up getting fired, but luckily the employer worked something out where they gave him generous severance and a negotiated end date.

      5. NotAnotherManager!*

        Oh, you mean the person who was routinely lying on their time card and, after being warned (in no uncertain terms) once to cut it out immediately or be fired, continued to do so and then told us that they shouldn’t be fired because we’d only given them one warning? And then complained to anyone who’d listen that we were terrible and unreasonable people.

    4. Cedarthea*

      My current boss always reiterates to me, that we aren’t firing them, they’ve fired themselves with their actions and we are just doing the paperwork.

      I had a previous boss who liked to call me into her office and make me guess what I did wrong, because she didn’t do immediate corrections so I didn’t have any clue what might have upset her. I left that job in spring 2014 and I still get anxious when my current boss, who is very clear, asks me to come and talk to her. The time that had me the most stressed out it turns out there were giving me a raise, a retirement plan and a car allowance.

      Then when I had done something, well lots of somethings, wrong, I was supported with additional training and support. But that anxiety is still present, and I think it will always be, but I now know it’s coming and I know how to keep it in check till after the meeting.

      1. Leela*

        “I had a previous boss who liked to call me into her office and make me guess what I did wrong”

        Holy hell. Like a cop that says “do you know why I pulled you over today?” Is that where she got the inspiration…? Either way, that’s insanity of the highest degree and I’m so glad you’re out. I’m not surprised you have anxiety after that, I think just about anyone would!

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        I do not know who these bosses are that have time to play guessing games on feedback. It is horrible for your relationship with the employee, and it’s a completely ineffective use of time. Just be out with it directly, tell them what needs to happen next time, and go about your business. Easier for everyone.

    5. TiffIf*

      Although if something is immediately fireable–do not pass go, do not collect $200–make sure they know what the egregious offense was and make sure your policies make clear what counts as an egregious offense.

      I was once fired from a job. I think it was because I made the dumb choice to do some homework while on the clock when there were work things I should have been doing (I was close to graduating but working full time while taking classes part time and stressed out)–but when I was fired I was only given a vague “concerns about some of your behavior” and nothing else, with no previous warnings or issue I had been made aware of.

      1. Liz*

        I work in Elder Care, an industry which has one of the highest rates of turnover, second only to fast food. In my last job, I was told there were “concerns about my care”, with very few details. I strongly suspect I was dismissed because the big boss’s spouse has (or will soon have) the same qualifications.

  3. Jean*

    Sounds like the employee may have some lingering trauma from when she was fired before, especially if she didn’t see it coming. Next time she asks, just tell her you don’t want to fire her, you want her to continue learning and improving. Making mistakes is part of the process.

    An anxious employee is a distracted employee, and if you’re able to reassure her – which does not require you to say “we’ll never fire you” or anything like that – she will be more confident and probably make fewer mistakes.

    1. fposte*

      The problem is that the employee has been doing this for a year and she’s doing it over over small things. So either the OP is regularly reassuring her and it’s not having an effect or she hasn’t figured out after a year of seeking reassurance that it’s not coming. So I think it’s important to address the pattern as well as the question.

      1. Jean*

        Yikes, I missed the part about this happening for a year. OP might try giving more specific/targeted feedback, like “I’ve noticed that you’ve made several mistakes related to X, how about some additional training in that area so we can make sure your knowledge is where it needs to be?”

        This sort of anxiety can be really irrational though. (I speak from experience on that.) It may not help even if the manager does say “We aren’t going to fire you” or some other similar blanket statement.

        1. fposte*

          I’d also say that the goal here isn’t simply to make the employee feel better; it’s to make her stop this behavior. It’s hurting her (and she’s an okay but not great employee so she doesn’t have a ton of leeway), and it’s not a good use of anybody’s time. I would be even more explicit than Alison’s script is about saying the question needs to stop, but I would still emphasize ways that she gets information about how she’s doing.

          1. Stitch*

            Yeah the thing about this situation is that you do need to meet performance; making the employee feel better can’t be your main goal.

            I want to say people empathize a lot with the employee here, but when I was management in this situation it was emotionally very tough too. I am not a robot, someone crying in my office distresses me too.

          2. Close Bracket*

            Reassuring the employee is more likely to lead to her stopping than going full HAM on her is.

            1. fposte*

              I don’t know what HAM is (high and mighty, maybe?), but there aren’t only two extreme choices here, and in fact reassurance is explicitly recommended *against* with at least one kind of reassurance-seeking behavior.

              So as a manager that leaves you plenty of options, including the kind but clear one that Alison models. My version would add more explicitly, “I understand you’re anxious, but please don’t ask about being fired again; that kind of ongoing anxiety-quelling isn’t something I can do. What I *can* do is tell you the procedure and keep on with the regular feedback I give you, and to tell you I believe you have the capacity to grow and excel in this role.”

          3. Is butter a carb?*

            Agree. It’s also really annoying. I have this anxiety and I manage someone with it and sometimes I want to yell “pretend to have it together!” I can’t imagine myself having these convos with my boss. She would not be able to take it.

      2. Stitch*

        Yeah I think if this is still happening after a year there’s a good chance LW had to let her go.

    2. BravesLove*

      Agreed that she’s probably dealing with some PTSD from her previous firing. It can take years for that anxiety to go away (spoken from personal experience).

      1. Amethystmoon*

        Right, I used to work at temp jobs. While I wasn’t fired that much, there were a few places which had zero tolerance for any kind of little mistake, including a typo. So it does wear on you. But I’ve been at my current company for nearly a decade and have been promoted a couple of times, so I know it wasn’t just me and that those places were toxic.

    3. Extroverted Bean Counter*

      “I don’t want to fire you” would, in my mind, be translated as “well I don’t want to fire you, but unfortunately I have to/will” and equally anxiety-producing.

      Especially if the employee isn’t actually in danger of being fired for their performance as-is, the concept to really drive home is the “keep learning/growing” part of your thoughts. Mistakes are part of the process, and as long as Employee keeps learning from them and taking care to grow, there won’t be a problem.

  4. Zap R.*

    This is a very compassionate way to deal with something that is often a symptom of mental illness. I wish I had been treated this way. Thank you for all you do, Allison.

  5. Jaybeetee*

    While I never behaved specifically like this, at my first permanent job after years of temping (with all the job security that life entailed) and being fired once, I was quite nervous about being let go, and that nervousness probably showed in other ways.

    I still remember walking into my first performance review, and my (probably rather astute) manager spelled out that a) my performance was just fine, and b) if there was a problem I would already know about it – that she wouldn’t be doing her job as a manager if she sprung problems on me during the review process.

    This was a govt job, and I’m in a different govt job now – so it’s not easy to fire someone. But I found it immensely reassuring that that manager reminded me that there were processes, that she had her own job to do, and that I wasn’t going to just be called into an office and canned one day. I agree with Alison’s advice to break down those processes for her at some point, so she knows that you’re not just going to fire her out of the blue one day (assuming your workplace has such processes). Let her know that firings don’t come as a surprise where you work.

  6. CRM*

    OP, this is great advice from Alison. Being fired out of the blue, especially if you’re just starting out in your career, can be a tough blow, so it would be a kindness to explain to your employee how the process should work.

  7. Pegasister*

    I never post, but I wanted to dip in with some empathy. I was fired from a job, and it was actually over my manager’s mistake which was blamed on me, so not my fault at all. However, it was just as I was moving and it put me in a horrible position, and as a result I had such bad job anxiety that I maintained two jobs for years out of fear of one of them going under. Many people never get fired. However, it was my second time getting fired (the first time was because private teaching jobs are often contingent on student reviews and they expected teachers to maintain a 9 out of 10 rating– I had an 8.5, so…), and it just completely shot any confidence I had in my competence. I’m still not completely over it. Being fired can do a number on you.

    1. Gazebo Slayer*

      That is an absurd standard, and I can only imagine that school has sky-high turnover.

      I’ve been trying to maintain at least two sources of income for a while out of fear of losing one. However, my main job has been requiring 50-60 hour weeks most of the time for a while now, so any side income has fallen by the wayside, which makes me nervous.

      1. Pegasister*

        Every single private school I’ve worked at has this standard. You are right, there is an absurd turnover rate in ESL.

  8. James*

    I am like your employee. I constantly worry that some decision I make will get me fired. I’ve got three kids to support, after all, and I routinely make decisions that carry liability and financial risks for the company. Since I’m a little fish, the company will almost certainly axe me as a way to deal with the liability. I don’t say this to attack the company; it’s the way things are.

    This can be turned into a strength. The things you worry about being fired over (with training and coaching) are the ones that carry the greatest risk, and therefore require the most focus. If your gut is telling you “OMG I could be fired for this!!” it’s a warning sign that you need to pay more attention to it. That’s worth knowing.

    I’m NOT saying that the employee should constantly be worried about their job; that’s not motivation, that’s driving people, and only gets you the minimum necessary to avoid being fired (until they burn out and catastrophically implode, a process I’ve seen a few times). It’s more a matter of introspection. If I’m worried I’ll be fired for something, it’s an internal warning sign that something’s not right or that something requires my attention and hasn’t been getting it. And it’s important to note that this internal voice isn’t always right.

    The fact that the employee is nervous means they care. And that’s not a small thing. One of the hardest things to teach someone is to take ownership of their work–to take it seriously and care about it. They just need to learn to care during the work, not the review process.

    1. Blueberry*

      This is a really excellent framing. I’m going to take a mental note on it and try to adapt how I feel about worrisome tasks using it.

    2. AIM*

      I think this is probably a really useful way to look at things for some people, but my suspicion is that the employee’s problem is actually the opposite– since they seem to think every little thing can potentially get them fired, I’d say that their sense of “this is vitally important” is OVER-sensitive, and their real problem is that they don’t understand what parts of their job are vitally important not to mess up and which parts are “eh, mistakes happen.” I’m always like this with new jobs myself until I get an opportunity to compare my work with others’, since that’s the best barometer I’ve found for understanding what the actual norms are for the level of work I’m meant to be producing.

  9. Data Lady*

    I was once just like OP’s employee, and I resonate with this post so hard.

    I was fired without warning from my first job. I was making mistakes, but my performance reviews were great and we had many talks about my future at the company, so I assumed the mistakes were minor and didn’t matter. My boss never even hinted that he was thinking about letting me go. Then one day, after having worked there for over a year, my boss called me into his office and fired me on the spot. I told him that it felt out of the blue, and he said “you were making a lot of mistakes, that should have been a sign”.

    At my next job I assumed that I needed to be perfect, and that every mistake I made was an indication that I was going to be fired. Feeling this way caused me to make even more mistakes, and it became a cycle. I lived in CONSTANT fear of being let go, to the point where I had a panic attack every time my new boss called me into his office for a one-on-one. It took me two years therapy (and one very forgiving boss) before I finally got to a place where I wasn’t always preoccupied about getting fired, and my work started improving considerably as a result. I think having some clarification on the firing policy really would have helped.

    1. Pretzelgirl*

      I so know how this goes. I am in therapy to deal with workplace anxiety. I get to a great point and freak out again its so frustrating. Although I have a great boss in many aspects, feedback is not his strong suit. So it can be frustrating.

    2. Gazebo Slayer*

      You have my sympathy. I am still afraid of any and all one-on-ones – my mind assumes they are all “we’re letting you go.”

  10. Stitch*

    I probably could have written this letter about 4 years ago. I had an employee who reacted to any feedback with “am I getting fired?” I tried so many tactics to calm her down. I even pulled out my own early performance reports to show her the learning curve is steep and it was normal to make errors early on. I was the second person she was reassigned to because I generally am good at ironing out the kinks in new people. We set clear goals and expectations too, like Alison suggested.

    But ultimately she did get fired because her performance never improved. The catastrophizing made her unable to take and incorporate edits and improve. I’ve seen this happen again once since and it is really hard, but it really does interfere.

    As a trainer I have had to learn not to take it too hard when this happens.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, I think we all sympathize with the anxiety somebody like this feels. But there’s even a significant difference between somebody who feels it and somebody who can’t stop herself from repeatedly voicing it. That’s likely to indicate anxiety has already leapt reasonable boundaries, and at that point it’s not likely that a manager has the ability to fix that. It’s still worth having the important conversation–maybe the employee is getting help elsewhere and this will be a good triangulation, or maybe she just didn’t realize that she was speaking the thought. But this is kind of like the workplace equivalent of wanting to love somebody better–it rarely works, and it’s a tough expectation.

    2. Rusty Shackelford*

      And sadly, what she “learned” from this is “if I’m not perfect, I’ll be fired.”

      1. fposte*

        I can’t tell if you mean that that’s the distortion in her thinking, which I think you might be right about, or if that was an appropriate takeaway, in which case I would disagree.

  11. Janis Mayhem*

    I has a coworker who told me every day she thought she would fired. Every. Day. For two months. I would do my best to reassure her (I had been employed at the company for about 4 years at that point). She did make some minor mistakes but she always thought they would result in her being let go. She also thought her boss hated her. She eventually ghosted the job.

  12. Leela*

    I was once fired from a job out of absolutely nowhere, I didn’t even know there were issues with my performance (that’s what they brought up in the firing but I’d never been talked about it, and I was consistently at least in the middle of the pack but had been at the top a few times and won several prizes they were giving as incentives for people with the highest numbers on that team). I hadn’t had any interpersonal issues with anyone come up, hadn’t broken anything or done anything that I could think of that would even land me in hot water, let alone get fired with no warning. I brought that up in the meeting and they claimed that I should have known because our manager would come around and check out my work (but she did that with literally everyone on the team so..?).

    It was very challenging for the first few jobs after that to feel like I wouldn’t just be fired out of nowhere. It’s possible you’re dealing with some kind of similar baggage but I really like Alison’s script for handling this! I never brought up my concerns to my managers because I was worried they’d think I was too much of a hassle to keep if I asked but I was having panic attacks after each and every typo or facial expression I perceived as off etc in the next job, it would have meant the world to me to know the clearly outlined process. In fact, I’m not sure why that isn’t covered with people in onboarding. I know that no one wants to bum someone out when they’re starting but it does seem like important info to have when you’re starting somewhere and you don’t know how they handle things like that!

  13. Madison*

    I used to feel this way at my first couple of jobs and I was never fired from any position.

    For me this stemmed from childhood issues. My mom was very hard on me. When I would make a small mistake she would make a huge deal out of it usually screaming and carrying on. She did this in hopes that if she over reacted once I would never do that small thing again.
    This resulted in me being an adult who feared being fired over the tiniest mistakes. I would make a small error and have to go to the bathroom and cry and compose myself. It was a weekly occurrence for me to sit at my desk waiting for the boss to call me in and let me go. Through therapy and several very positive job experiences I’ve overcome this irrational fear.
    If this is the case I don’t know that there is much you can do other than let her know that there will be clear steps taken before firing is on the table (like verbal warnings, written warnings, write-ups, etc).

  14. MissDisplaced*

    I always worry about this too, but it’s not because of mistakes. Every year I’ve been at my current company there have been layoffs every November and March (the last two quarters of the fiscal year).

    I’ve also been moved to a different reporting structure, where quite honestly, I’m invisible and just a salary number, no matter the work or value I bring to my smaller, individual area of the business.

  15. Chronic Overthinker*

    This letter could have been about me. I know it’s not, but I felt useless in my previous role. There was so much to learn and when I was hired I was trained by a former employee due to everyone else being out of the office on a conference. The training was minimal and when everyone came back, there was no structure to the training so I just got bombarded with information and nothing seemed to stick. I was humiliated in front of the whole office and bullied by my peers. It was an awful situation. By the time I had my review I knew it wasn’t good, but I was trying desperately to improve. So I do understand where the employee is coming from. Reassure them with positive feedback and give them a guide on how to improve the skills they need to help them shine.

  16. J J*

    As someone with anxiety, I definitely have the thought “oh crap will this get me fired” every time I make a mistake at work. But those thoughts stay in my head, because I know it’s counter-productive to say it to my boss. (And because, luckily, at this point in my life I’m generally pretty good at identifying my day-to-day anxiety thoughts as such and can talk myself down from them.) So I sympathize with your employee, but she has to figure out other ways to deal with her anxiety. That said, being clear about your process for addressing performance issues is good advice for everyone, but especially for managing someone with anxiety! Not knowing what to expect is a big anxiety trigger for a lot of us, and if we can trust the systems that were in place often that gives us at least some relief.

  17. Buns of Cinnamon*

    I’ve seen several comments about this stemming from childhood experiences. Those of us who were pressured to be perfect were often raised to believe if we made the slightest mistake, love would be withheld. It’s a hard thing to get over, and it’s a shame it spills over into the workplace.

    An employee who has that much anxiety about being fired isn’t going to perform at their peak. Regular feedback that includes what they are doing well as well as areas that can be improved will be helpful. I love Allison’s response about explaining how a firing process would work if needed.

  18. The Original Stellaaaaa*

    The employee might be picking up on the same mixed signals I’m getting from the email. So she’s generally fine, but makes some mistakes, but has potential, but actually is at risk of being fired?

    1. fposte*

      I don’t think the messages are contradictory, and I don’t think she’s generally fine. I think she’s okay, which is the word the OP uses, most of the time, and needs to improve to be better than okay and more than most of the time. It also sounds like she’s behind on the trajectory anticipated right now and the OP is hoping that time and guidance could still get her there, but that it would be a problem if she doesn’t make it.

      And lots of people with potential get fired. Those aren’t contradictory things. But if the employee’s potential never manages to get realized they’re not going to keep her in the job forever just in case the switch finally flips.

    2. Kevin Sours*

      My take is that it’s you are fine for now and if you continue to show the progress you’ve been showing you’ll continue to fine. But if you are doing the same quality of work this time next year (or whenever) it’s going to be a problem.

      But if that’s the case I can’t help thinking that you’d be doing her a disservice by not making that clear.

  19. Stephanie*

    Oooh, been there. Even though most employers aren’t going to suddenly fire you and will go through a structured process before actually firing you (like my old employers did), the irrational fear is still there in your subconscious.

    I started CurrentJob after doing a research masters. Academia is great at encouraging self-doubt (and I had demanding PIs), so I spent my first six months or so skeptical of positive feedback and wondering if I was doing enough.

    Alison’s script is a good one. I would just emphasize that she’ll know if her job is in danger.

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

    First hand experience: I’ve struggled with (I don’t use the word “suffer” about myself in relation to this) a generalized anxiety disorder for which I have now been stable on medication for a number of years (but even so, I still get ‘breakthrough’ episodes of anxiety occasionally – is that normal I wonder? Sorry that’s a bit of a derail!) and I can identify with OP’s report’s behaviour.

    I realize the original of this letter is some way in the past and OP may not still be reading, and probably if she is – the situation probably isn’t still “acute” so this is more of a general comment to the manager of a person in the OP’s report’s position.

    It seems clear to me that the ‘report’ has an “out of the blue” firing in her past… taken totally by surprise, with no warning signs — yes, in theory employers in the US can just fire anyone any time they want, but there are practicalities such as: the person is actually performing well, we need to get the job done, Person X is doing it, happy days!

    But one day: Person X gets called into the office with no forewarning, nothing they are aware of that they could be fired for (underperforming, dishonesty, chatting too loudly in the office, or whatever) and is just fired for ‘no real reason’. Maybe a reason is given like “you wore a red scarf today!”. Maybe there’s no reason given at all. Maybe it’s “not a good fit, let’s say”.

    Oh, the boss gives a litany of reasons that are small things. You submitted the paperwork on the wrong colour of paper. You have a habit of leaving too early in the evening (why did you leave at 7 on those two days? The rest of us were here until 9?)… Maybe it’s just a short sighted action to make the financial targets for that quarter and the boss knows they will be screwed for next quarter, but they now have 3 months to figure it out rather than 1 day. Maybe for the boss it’s to be seen to be taking some kind of management action, after being accused by their own boss of being too passive and tolerant. Or to show an example to others, in order to get them in line. Who knows. It could be anything. Or nothing.

    So in the position of Person X… when they start their next job (whenever that is, after explaining at multiple interviews why they are ‘ineligible for rehire’ at their old place… possibly after some period of time). What is X going to think, next time the boss wants to talk to them? (‘Bosses’ are pretty much interchangeable in their mind at that point). … Are they going to assume it’s just a basic catch-up and a bit of feedback about how boss would prefer they handle the ABC situation differently next time because… or are they going to just assume it’s more of the same?

    OP says: “She does make mistakes and has trouble remembering or picking up certain concepts. I am really hoping she will improve as she gains more experience.” I don’t see anything in the OPs wording about actually helping (or providing resources like access to other people who could help) to fill in the knowledge that the report is currently missing. Is she being set up (inadvertently due to an unaware boss) for failure? It’s a possibility.

    As I alluded to above, I have some person experience with a situation similar to this. Not a “performance” issue in this case (my performance was good) but rather, some aspect of my ‘conduct’ in the workplace that I was pulled up about. I do admit I was in the wrong, but the incident happened, I made an apology and I was led to believe that was the end of the matter. I had scheduled time off for a week after. Then when I came back I was invited to the “HR meeting” to discuss this and eventually formally charged with misconduct in the office and given a warning. They didn’t take into account any of the mitigating factors I presented (as they had already decided on the outcome but had to be seen to follow due process I suppose) and dismissed them as irrelevant.

    I asked why did they wait for this ‘trial’ until I came back from time off? “We didn’t want you to worry”. Yeah, right!

    Now I’m not necessarily freaked out about being fired, as such, but I am still gun-shy about any time I get invited to a meeting with a boss and/or HR people.

    The original incident was in 2006…. 14 years ago! (More than half of my working life.)

  21. Libora*

    I kind of wonder about OP’s management there though. I know how we can all sometimes get trapped in our own heads and not see the forest for the threes but it’s so mundane to do a bit a grocery shopping even if you’re too sick to work that I wonder why OP is giving so much credence to Jane’s threat. Maybe they have a history of being unreasonable about sick leave and stuff like that? Would the scripts change if that’s the case?
    OP you have done absolutely nothing wrong and this whole situation is banana, I’m sorry for you but we definitely need an update!

    1. Libora*

      Aaaaaaand I’m not at all on the right article! Don’t know how it happened sorry about that!

  22. mguiney*

    I honestly can totally see my bosses writing this about me, at the start of my current job.

    I was dealing with some pretty heavy life stuff at the time, and am an anxious person, so the stress from dealing with a previous workplace-related assault was affecting my ability to focus and retain information at the new job. Not only that, but a few jobs before I took my current one, i’d worked for a company that expected me to take on a disproportionate (and unrealistic) amount of work for the amount of compensation I received, and threatened to fire me any time I didn’t meet deadlines that were literally not possible to meet, given the resources I had at my disposal. All of these things contributed to a super bumpy onboarding.

    It wasn’t until things got pretty bad that I had a really painful conversation (I have a very hard time talking about what happened to me) that things started to get better, but if I didn’t have management who was willing to ask me what was going on, i’d probably have been fired. Luckily, they did, and I seem to have recovered from my bumpy onboarding.

    The only difference between this account and mine is that this writer’s employee was actually fired from her previous job. I have to wonder if the previous workplace she left was one where the communication style was dysfunctional or if she was put under a lot of pressure that wasn’t originally part of the job, because I know that that’s the kind of environment that spawned the tendency to ask that question, for me.

    1. mguiney*

      One more thing- I’m wondering if the employee was actually fired, or if she is “ineligible for rehire”. If this is the case, it is important to talk to the employee to see what happened, as certain non-firing scenarios (including ones including wrongful termination suits and payout clauses often taken by people leaving certain megacorporations after being sexually harassed) can lead to former employees being ineligible for rehire

  23. New Jack Karyn*

    I’ve just been told they’re not bringing me back next school year (HS teacher). After two years of good reviews. I’m still in my probationary period, so they don’t have to give a reason, and they’re not.

  24. Sun Tzu*

    And as a supplemental note, she was fired from her previous job.

    This does not mean anything. I used to work as a consultant and, in this field, employees are treated as paper napkins. As soon as the company finds someone cheaper to send to the client, they fire you.

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