can I ever repair my bad reputation with my manager?

A reader writes:

I’ve been working IT support for a company for nearly four years, and I wish I could say I’ve been a better employee but I can’t. Around the beginning of 2018, my mental health began to take a severe nosedive after the end of a very long personal relationship, and in late 2018 I was diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety, and adult ADHD. Over the course of 2019 and into 2020, I’ve been working with various doctors to get back on track, and I’m in a much better place now than I was two years ago.

The problem is, at work, I’ve built up a reputation for being lazy, inattentive, and generally problematic. My coworkers used to walk on eggshells around me because my anxiety could cause me to take an innocuous comment and react badly to it. Nowadays, they recognize that I’m doing better, and even joke with me that they can’t intentionally set me off even if they wanted to. My manager, on the other hand, has decided that he needs to micromanage me to keep me in line, and it’s not great. He’s banned me from using my personal cellphone (a tool I used to use frequently to try to manage my symptoms and keep my priorities in check) in the office, citing it as a distraction. He changed my work hours to more closely align with his. He’s prohibited me from doing any work at our auxiliary sites where he can’t watch me, while my coworkers are free to go about their business however they please. Finally, he demands that I keep my desk at work absolutely void of anything other than my company workstation “to minimize distractions,” while my coworkers are free to keep books, pictures, anything that’d make their area a bit more homey.

These measures, combined with the fact that I can expect a heated email from him any time I make the smallest mistake or oversight on an incident I’m working on, are causing a vicious cycle. He feels the need to micromanage me, so I try to avoid him and work as autonomously as possible, and since he can’t see me, he assumes I’m up to no good and tracks me down. I have FMLA time for my mental health issues, and this just causes me to use it to the greatest extent just so I can calm down and get some space away from him.

I’m honestly better at managing my symptoms and getting my job done now — it’s been about a year and a half without anxiety causing outbursts, and about three to six months since focus caused major issues — but nothing I do seems to get through to him. Is there anything I can do as an employee to get him to back off, or would you say it’s too late for me in this job?

Well … it’s possible that it’s too late. Sometimes if you establish a bad track record with a manager, it’s hard to ever get them to see you differently, no matter how much you change. You’re stuck in their head the earlier way. Or the mistakes earlier were significant enough that they’re just not willing to risk them recurring, no matter what you do. When that happens, the only real option is to leave and start fresh somewhere else.

But there are things you can try meanwhile. These strategies might work or they might not — but if they don’t, you’ll at least know for sure that you’ll always be under a cloud with this manager, and that’s useful info.

Three things you can try:

1. Direct conversation. Have you talked to your manager to acknowledge the previous problems and demonstrate that they’re behind you now? You might figure that it’s obvious and doesn’t need to be spelled out — that anyone watching you would be able to see you’re operating differently now — but sometimes when people are used to seeing you a certain way, you really do need to nudge them to realize they haven’t actually seen that behavior from you in a long time. So it could be worth having a conversation where you take responsibility for the problems earlier, say you’re aware of the difficulties you caused your team and you’ve worked hard to change the way you operate, and point out what your more recent track record has been. You could say, “I understand that I need to earn your trust back and I’ve been trying to do that. Since it’s been X months since anything like Y or Z happened, would you be willing to experiment with giving me more autonomy, similar to what other team members have? Or if we’re not there yet, can we work toward that?”

But an important note here: you said it’s been three to six months since your focus caused major issues. If it’s been six months, have the conversation above. If it’s been three … give it more time first. Three months can feel like nothing, and if it’s been that short, your manager might just need to see a longer period of sustained improvement from you, and that’s understandable.

2. Stop avoiding your manager. You’re trying to avoid contact with him because it’s unpleasant, but that might be keeping him mired in past impressions of you because you’re minimizing the opportunites to update those impressions. And if he’s thinking, “I’m barely hearing from Jane. Where is she and what is she up to?” that’s going to add to his impulse to manage you more closely.

In fact, while this is counterintuitive, the best way to deal with a micromanager is often to give them more information. Micromanagers are often motivated by a worry that they don’t know enough about what’s going on — that there could be problems unfolding that they won’t catch early enough, or that things are off-track. If you’re proactive about keeping them in the loop, often that reassures them things are going well, which decreases their need to hover over you. Plus, over time they build confidence that you’ll proactively inform them about the things they care about, so they feel less compelled to check in and check in and check in. (Not always! Some micromanagers are impervious to this. But it works with a lot of them.)

So in your shoes, it might really help to lean into contact with your boss, rather than avoiding it. See contact with him as an opportunity to demonstrate how you work now — to gradually override his old, outdated impressions.

He can’t change those impressions if you’re hiding from him; you’ve got to give him new ones.

3. Take a fresh look at how you’re using FMLA. I’m not suggesting that you not use FMLA time that you really need, but you wrote that you’re using it “to the greatest extent” to get space from him. If you can move away from doing that, it might help — both because of #2 above and also because it might be reinforcing for your boss that you’re really struggling. (This is tricky because if you are really struggling, you should take the time — but if I’m reading correctly that some of it might be more optional, take another look at whether there’s room to do that differently.)

Now, you might do all of this and still see no change. In fact, I’m positive that you won’t see change immediately, because even if change is possible, it’s going to take time. I’d combine the tactics above with at least another three months of really strong performance (ideally including no recurrences of any of the previous issues — which admittedly is not fair because other people get to make mistakes, but you’re on an image rehabilitation plan here). If you do that and you’re still not seeing a difference, then at that point I’d conclude the well is just poisoned between the two of you, and moving on is the easiest way to solve that. But — especially considering the job market in most fields right now — it’s worth giving this a few months and seeing what happens.

{ 257 comments… read them below }

  1. Essess*

    If you are using the cellphone to manage your symptoms and priorities, you may want to have a talk with HR to see about getting your cellphone listed as a required accommodation to manage your health issues.

    1. Colette*

      … and then be really, really diligent about only using the cell phone to manage your health issues – no texting, checking social media, etc.

    2. SomebodyElse*

      I disagree a little with this. It would seem that it might be better for the LW to use a different tool for priorities (think something that can be used on their pc) and possibly even used with the manager to show effort and self management.

      For the symptom management, that’s a little trickier. If it is needed (say an app that tracks moods or other things), then yes, maybe HR and accommodation is in order. But I would truthfully be a little careful with this one. At any rate… the two should absolutely be split.

      1. Minimal Pear*

        One problem I can see with that is that I’d be awfully worried about using a work computer (assuming they’re using one) to track, say, my anxiety or when I took my meds.

        1. SomebodyElse*

          No, that’s why mentioned separating them… I wouldn’t use a work computer for personal health.

          But I would use a work computer for work priority tracking (I’m assuming that’s what the OP meant by priority).

          By separating the two there’s a lot less of an opportunity for people to get the wrong impression… “LW is always on her work phone…”

        2. Mama Bear*

          Is there an alternate way to track the same things without using a work computer? Maybe a different device? There may be none. If the OP is using the phone much like diabetics use a phone to manage their insulin pump, that needs to be part of the conversation with HR and the boss.

          I’m also wondering about the personal effects. That seems awfully punitive. Surely the OP could have a photo or two without it being a problem. A clear desk/office would be disheartening to a lot of people. It sounds like manager is trying to manage in the way that works for *them* but isn’t taking into account what actually works for OP.

          1. RC Rascal*

            To me the ruling on the personal effects makes me think the manager is on a power trip and this has elements of a power struggle.

            1. AKchic*

              It sounds very much like a power struggle.

              If LW was zoning out and staring off into space, I could see manager assuming LW was “staring at a picture” and decide all pictures needed to go.
              If LW knocked over a tchotchke in frustration, manager could assume that all knickknacks were a safety hazard and could be thrown in anger, therefore all had to go (not actually unreasonable, depending on LW’s moods and potential outbursts).

              But at some point, one has to wonder at the bareness of it all. Yes, in theory, it’s “safe” for everyone, but it is demoralizing and it is counterproductive and counterintuitive… unless the ultimate point is to make it faster to get the employee packed up and gone if/when they are terminated.

            2. Ellen N.*

              I see it differently. I’ve had two coworkers who had severe ADHD. In both cases anything at all could distract them from their job.

              One example: I asked one of them to get me some storage boxes. Ten minutes later he hadn’t brought them to me so I went looking for him. Someone spoke to him which caused him to forget the boxes.

              I can see how tchotchkes on one’s desk could be distracting.

              1. Susie*

                But this proves the point. Literally anything can be a distraction when your brain isn’t cooperating and can’t focus. Without treatment, a bare desk isn’t going to help anything.

                Things I’ve been distracted by at work when I wasn’t getting treatment for my ADHD: the seam in my shirt, the way the light was coming in the window, the dots in the ceiling tiles, the way my chair rolled on the carpet, a scratch on the surface of my desk, the power light on my monitor, people talking anywhere in earshot about anything, the way my sock fit in my shoe, the pattern on the carpet, the hum of the printer, etc.

                When your brain can’t filter out anything, it’s hard to focus on the thing that you want to focus on. Your attention gets pulled in a million directions by every little thing that happens in the moment, and the thing you are trying to focus on gets buried by all the rest.

                The OP said they’ve been getting treatment and they don’t have trouble focussing anymore. THAT is what matters, not the contents of their desk. And if their manager was managing properly they would know that.

                1. JSPA*

                  I look back and can’t believe how long it took me to realize that those things were not similarly distracting to everyone (and simply not talked about, any more than you’d discuss the passage of food through your intestinal tract).

                  To your actual point: Yes, this sounds like boss is very inappropriately acting as a doctor or psychologist without a license, and is discriminating against OP for a medical issue in the process (or vice versa). Unless OP at some point complained about the THINGS being a problem (and never went back to clarify that the actual problem was ADD, not THINGS), I think OP absolutely has standing to push back on this.

                  Well, that also assumes that the desk was not previously a complete disaster zone, with unintentional growing things. (I’d be speaking from personal experience on that one.)

          2. sunny-dee*

            I’m reading a lot between the lines here, but I’m guessing that the OP spent a lot of time on their phone not working and probably had similar timewasters at their desk (probably books, since the OP mentioned other people had books, but maybe things like bobbleheads or toys or plants which they could spend a lot of time messing with). The boss is probably cracking down on the areas where he observed the OP wasting time before — at least, I would assume that before assuming that the boss just prefers empty desks.

            1. murky*

              Entirely possible. Books (all about various computer subjects I was attempting to learn more about), computer components, old equipment I was still working with, figurines I’d keep at my desk to make things more homely, I had all of those. My boss has a separate office from the one myself and my coworkers are in, and while he pops in a few times a day to see what everyone is doing, I’m thinking that the issues in his head are more exacerbated by coworkers snooping on me and exaggerating things, whether he’s asked them to or they’re doing it of their own volition.

            2. char*

              Yeah, this was my thought too. Phones can be a huge distraction for some people. I and many of my coworkers are neurodivergent. A few of my coworkers found that they were so distracted by their phones that they voluntarily choose to leave their phones with someone else during the workday. And personally, I have a rule for myself that I do not ever use my phone while on the clock because I know how easily “just checking something for a minute” turns into “wait where did the past two hours go?” for me.

          3. Anon Anon*

            The personal effects thing seems very punitive. Unless that personal effects were something that caused significant distractions in the past.

            However, I am also of the thought that if you don’t trust your reports to do the work assigned (with some allowances and accommodations as needed) then it’s time to part ways with that employee. So I would probably encourage the OP to start developing an exit plan for his/herself in case things don’t improve.

      2. murky*

        Emailer here. I should probably clarify the use of the phone. I used it for a combination of mood tracking apps (moreso when my anxiety was out of control) and talk therapy between therapists and friends when I was feeling especially anxious or scattered. I also would use it to keep tabs on my health-related concerns (I have other health issues outside of the mental, but they haven’t impacted work nearly as much) that I’m simply not comfortable looking up on my company computer; my coworkers have proven time after time that they can’t keep their nose in their own business when it comes to whatever is on another coworker’s screen, and I don’t trust some of my more sensitive health-related information out in plain view like that. And, of course, there was the occasional social use, I won’t lie and say it was all for my health, but I compared that to coworkers who’d browse YouTube and Facebook all day during downtime to which my manager never said a word.

        1. MusicWithRocksIn*

          If your coworkers are browsing YouTube and Facebook during downtime but getting their work done when busy, and you were not getting work done while busy but messing around on your phone, then it’s actually much better that your boss asked you not to use your phone rather than telling everyone they couldn’t ever mess around on the internet. If you do ask for accommodation on using your phone then going forward it would be best to show extreme restraint and only pull it out to enter something quickly then put it away immediately. Really demonstrate that you aren’t going to linger on it. If you are going to use talk therapy going forward then you probably need to discuss that fully with HR and get clearance and backing for it.

          1. CmdrShepard4ever*

            If you need some sort of talk therapy during the day, you should talk to HR about using intermittent FMLA during the day to step outside and call/text with a therapist/friend about the anxiety issues. If you have had issues with productivity before being on your phone at all at the office will make it seem like you are just goofing off. It might not seem fair but coworkers have earned the ability to occasionally goof off if they have been able to get all their work done.

            I personally disagree with Alison that 6 months of good behavior after years of bad behavior is enough to time to ask for your boss to ease up. Unfortunately while you are trying to fix your reputation you need to be on your best almost perfect behavior. It is easier the earn and maintain a good reputation than it is to build it up from a negative one.

            You might decide that the work required is a lot more than you can handle right now and decide to job hunt, and I wouldn’t blame you. But just carefully weigh all your options, not only because of the current job market but also you will likely need a reference from this job.

        2. Colette*

          Based on this, I definitely recommend NOT asking for your phone as an accommodation. Use a notepad to record things during work and then enter them after work if you need to.

          “Talk therapy between therapists and friends” looks a lot like goofing off unless you are in the conversation.

          And this is one of those things where it doesn’t matter what your coworkers do – they are not you, and they are not trying to rehabilitate their reputation.

          I assume you’re working with a therapist; maybe work on specific techniques to use at work when you’re anxious or scattered, or even see if you can book a 15 minute phone appointment on a regular or as-needed basis. Asking for a break to take a medical appointment looks much different than just being on your phone.

          1. AVP*

            yes to all of this! And especially one of your middle points – OP really cannot compare themself with co-workers here, they’re on a totally different curve. OP needs to work much harder and better than the others in the department because they’re making up for lost ground, whereas the other presumably haven’t lost the ground in the first place (I mean, they could have their own performance issues but that’s not part of this convo) and will get more of a pass from their manager.

            Unfortunately, unless the talk therapy has been part of your ongoing HR/FMLA conversation, as a manager I would absolutely think it’s just goofing off or a distraction given the past issues. If OP wants to overcome this, focus on actually doing what the manager wants to see from them and not on stuff like the desk photos that are kind of insignificant in the long run (or maybe seem to be standing in for larger issues?)

        3. BWooster*

          It might also go a long way in changing the way the co-workers interact with you if you acknowledge any issues they might have encountered as a consequence of your previous performance issues. If they’re acting snoopy with you in a way they’re not with each other, there is definitely some bad feeling there. Fair or not, it would pay dividends to acknowledge that this might have placed an unfair burden on them (if it did — if it didn’t then they really should mind their own business.)

          You don’t need to do that and in no way should you feel like you need to disclose any kind of personal or sensitive issues as a part of that. But if you do feel comfortable with something like “I went through a difficult time, I’m sorry in a way that has impacted you, I’m taking steps to make this right.” it could help.

        4. Old Med Tech*

          I am going to suggest something radical. I am a retired Medical Laboratory Scientist. The last 13 years of my career were spent teaching in a Medical Technician program. I made my students write down on paper important information. They made their own flashcards (using recipe cards) to use studying for exams.
          The process of writing information down by hand seemed to help them remember better.

          Would it be possible to keep a notepad and pen or pencil to track your moods ect. This non-electronic alternative might appear less distracting to your manager.

        5. Laaal*

          It sounds like you were observed spending a lot of time on medical stuff while on the clock. Doing research on your medical issues and having appointments with your therapist should be done off the clock. That’s FMLA stuff (except medical research doesn’t count as an approved FML reason). If you’re focused on that, you’re not working; that’s pretty easy for your boss and coworkers to see. Sounds like even now you might be misunderstanding what’s appropriate on the clock vs being off the clock/FML. Work while you are at work and demonstrate your commitment to being productive instead of blaming the folks you’ve burdened (by shifting work responsibilities to them) and you have a chance to improve your reputation. If you need time off, you have to follow appropriate channels or you look like you’re just goofing off. I hope your health and work relationships improve! Good luck!

        6. Tinker*

          So, I won’t lie either and say that this isn’t often a quite reasonable use of the phone in many office environments, all other things being equal, and it may well be similar usage to how your coworkers are using their phones.

          However, all other things are not equal and regardless of the degree of fairness involved it is a definite fact that you are not being viewed similarly to your coworkers and you do not have a lot of leverage right now to illustrate that this perception of you is unfair. This is a frustrating thing and perhaps a thing that should not be, but it’s a thing that’s true and it informs your strategy.

          If you’re trying to convince your manager (and maybe other people, like HR et cetera) that you need your phone for a genuine medical purpose, which of these lines of approach looks stronger?

          “The only things I use my phone for during the workday are these specific things which a layperson can readily see are things I need to do at that time to manage my medical condition. I have done thus-and-such things to be sure my use is limited to this necessary thing.”
          “I won’t lie and say it was all for my health, but (etc) coworkers (etc)”

          Even if everything after the but is absolutely 100% true and would be ultimately provable, I’d venture to say that the conversation around line #1 is going to be a whole lot more productive and that it would significantly benefit you to be able to honestly and confidently utter line #1 or to find some sort of alternate accommodation where you can use the phone definitely not at all.

          Yeah, it’s not fair — and it’s kind of hard to discuss this because of how often the dialogue around managing a sense of fairness has a belittling tone. The desire for fairness is a fairly ingrained thing for humans, and when you are in a situation that does not feel fair in the moment, it is completely legitimate for this to be a frustrating feeling. The thing is, in part because of the way that dialogue tends to go, it is probably not a feeling that you can do much about in the moment or that you can give any voice to in the context of work right now — because, right or wrong, doing that won’t serve your interests.

          Personally, what I’ve found to be useful to think in similar circumstances is “this is not fair and I am dissatisfied; because of that dissatisfaction I will focus on the plan most likely to get me into a place where things ARE fair.”

          1. Tinker*

            Maybe a bit of a teal deer on one point:

            “But Susan is also doing it!” On the physical level, a fact. Not necessarily a relevant fact to the question of what you should do. Strategically, lets the manager go away secure in their conclusion that OP is an excuse-making slacker. Strategically a failure, in other words.

            “Okay, I will stop doing it.” Hopefully also a fact! Also a relevant fact to the current conversation. Strategically, plants the seeds of doubt: that sort of thing is the thing that non-excuse-making non-slackers say, so therefore what might OP be? Strategically, potential success.

            Play the long game. You don’t have time right now to deal with Susan’s issues — leave Susan’s inevitable home improvement video rabbit hole downfall to Susan.

        7. JSPA*

          Eh, “why can’t I, if they can” doesn’t hold, here, unless they also had trouble producing good work, reliably and on time.

          Another false equivalency: texting a therapist and texting a friend for support are not equally reasonable, even if they both feel similarly helpful, in the moment. Friends and therapists present different levels of information risk. Therapists have a formal code of conduct, friends don’t. They also create a very different risk of time-slippage. A therapist will (ideally) encourage you to self-stabilize, and get off the phone. A friend doesn’t have the same intrinsic goal, and may very reasonably also want to have you deal with their issues, or talk about something else, in ways that a therapist doesn’t.

          “Not chatting with friends at work, even if stressed” is a pretty standard office norm. “Contacting a medical professional for a medical need” is something you could push for, but frankly, if it’s not so much a need as a comfort (or for that matter, an urge), then you may want to prioritize being, and appearing, self-sufficient.

          Would your boss be open to you having the phone, but with Block (or something similar) installed and active for long periods of time? It’s designed to prevent you from using certain apps for certain stretches of time. I block myself from certain apps and certain sites to a) go to sleep b) not get on the phone if I wake up at night c) get up d) not bog down during breakfast e) get at least 2 hours of undistracted work in the morning f) get at least 2 x 2 hours of undistracted work in the afternoon (and so forth). If your phone is blocked from 9:30-11:30, 12:30-2:30 and 3 to 5, your boss may be a lot more comfortable with you having it on hand (they’re a good touch-object!) and also using it during the “open” hours to check in with your apps. You can still have alarms to remind you to take meds, drink enough water, and eat lunch.

    3. Koala dreams*

      Yes, that was my first thought, too. Or even the specific apps that they use, if it’s something that’s not standard on a mobile phone. It’s sounds discouraging to be forbidden to use the tools that help you deal with your disability. If the problem is mainly the manager’s impression of you, it might be possible to repair, but if the manager is trying to punish you for having health issues or a disability, it might not be possible to repair this relationship. Try to get the accomodations you need, and do your best to repair things, and if it doesn’t work, or it turns out the manager is ableist, don’t be too hard on yourself.

  2. OrigCassandra*

    A small addition to what Alison said: that it may be too late for this job absolutely does not mean it’s too late for your career.

    I stayed in Toxic Ex-Job far too long — long after I knew I’d torched my own reputation with my reporting chain. I kept trying to find a way back. I shouldn’t have.

    When I got out of there finally, my work life and career trajectory took a delightful turn upward, one that’s been sustained and gratifying. You too can put this behind you (pace everything Alison said about the current job market, to be sure) if you need to.

    Good luck, OP.

    1. Mama Bear*

      I left bad managers twice – and don’t regret either one. For the most recent one I did try to meet in the middle and have a conversation about my job/work, but instead of having a “let’s work through this” conversation, they ambushed me with a terrible mid-year review (which we as a company didn’t do until that point and the lack of communication just highlighted their poor leadership/poor opinion of me). I knew there was no fixing it. The relationship was irreparable. I got a new job as quickly as possible and am MUCH happier. Sometimes it’s better to just move on if you can, even if it’s just an opening within the company.

      For OP it feels kind of like “forgiving” a cheater but never really giving them any opportunity to prove they’ve changed because you will never trust them again. That’s not a positive or healthy relationship.

      1. serenity*

        This isn’t really fair to the OP’s job or their manager based on what’s in the letter. OP said themselves that they had focus issues up until just a couple of months ago and they’ve been actively avoiding their manager in ways that are probably unhelpful to how they are perceived (as Alison addressed).

        All due respect to OP and their mental health struggles – and it does sound like they are doing better and taking steps to become more accountable – but referring to the manager or workplace as “toxic” and/or “unhealthy” is pretty out of line here.

        1. Catosaur*

          I feel like this could turn into a chicken/egg argument. There’s always the possibility that this manager’s style exacerbated the OP’s mental health issues to begin with and their interactions are never going to succeed. Micromanagement rarely appears overnight.

          1. serenity*

            That still doesn’t rise to the level of referring to this manager or this workplace as toxic, though!

            And as others have said below, reframing this as less of an adversarial relationship and more of “I have been a less than ideal employee for nearly two years, I am trying to manage some mental health issues, how can I redevelop trust with my manager” is probably going to be much more effective and helpful for the OP.

            Given what’s provided in the letter, there’s an argument to be made that managing OP more closely was probably necessary given the circumstances – conflating that with “micromanaging” is maybe not warranted.

      2. AVP*

        it’s been less than 6 months, though! It’s true that this may be unsalvageable but in work-time that’s just not enough to really know yet.

    2. Seal*

      +1 to this. For years I viewed my toxic first FT job as a way to support my outside activities. While I was able to do very well at it with little effort, my coworkers and others were resentful of me because I made it obvious the job was never going to be my top priority. I eventually burned out on my outside activities, eventually gave them up, and decided to focus on my career. To my great surprise, I had unknowingly been burning bridges for years and people actively went out of their way to exclude me from everything. It took me far too long to realize that my best option was to cut my losses and move on. Once I finally left, my career took off and has been on an upward trajectory ever since. Best thing I ever did for myself.

      1. Karia*

        Baffling. A job *should* be a means to an end. I mean – you should definitely do it to the best of your ability and work as hard as you can but what on earth did they expect? For you to get the company logo as a tattoo?

        1. Seal*

          For the first few years at the job, things were fine. My coworkers understood and were very supportive of my outside activities, which revolved around the performing arts. In fact, they even went to a few shows I was in. But after a change in management and a new hire who turned out to be a bully that targeted me, things quickly went south. The funny thing was that the quality and quantity of my work never changed; even the people who otherwise had nothing good to say about me admitted that. To this day, I have no idea what else those people expected of me.

          1. Karia*

            Sadly, sometimes it is just personal. I imagine if you *hadn’t* had outside interests it might have been “Well Seal needs to be better rounded blah blah…”

        2. Iron Chef Boyardee*

          what on earth did they expect? For you to get the company logo as a tattoo?

          I’m sure there are companies out there who do have that kind of expectation as a show of “loyalty,” but wouldn’t hesitate to fire someone who did go that far if it served their needs.

    3. refereemn77*

      I also tried to stay too long. After a team reorg, the new manager and I just didn’t get a long. I had enjoyed working at the company for six years, and I did my best to make it work, but I went from a path of working towards my next promotion to getting put on a performance improvement plan within six months.

      Another co-worker and I brought up important life and safety issues on a project that was being pushed through (how will security at our very large, 37-story office tower get notified that users are having a medical emergency, for example). That was the final straw. The other co-worker and I were pushed out for various reasons (items that were not necessarily wrong, in practice, but were minor and would normally have been handled differently).

      It happened to be a good thing for my career. I ended up being recruited into another company with a 25% pay increase.

  3. juliebulie*

    I think the manager might be a lost cause, since he seems to think he knows better than you do about how best to manage your ADHD symptoms. (No personal effects on your desk? Give me a break.)

    I mean… sure, try to work with him. Maybe he will listen. But if you feel like he’s just going to punish you forever, you need to get a fresh start somewhere else when the opportunity arises.

    1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Without knowing if OP has had a direct conversation with their manager, we can’t make that assumption. If OP is expecting manager to just “notice” that they’re doing better without talking about it, I can’t say I blame the manager. People aren’t mind readers, and if you suffer from any type of mental illness and aren’t having a conversation with your manager, they aren’t going to automatically know what to do. They’re going to see someone who can’t get their work done and can’t control their emotions.

      If OP has had the conversation and the manager is still behaving this way, then manager will never be supportive and is a lost cause.

      1. Actual Vampire*

        The attitude I get from LW’s letter is, “I used to be bad at my job, but I’ve fixed that now, and I don’t understand why my boss keeps acting like I’m still bad at my job.” But there’s nothing in the letter to suggest that LW’s boss has any reason to think LW is better at their job. Has LW’s work performance improved measurably? Has LW talked to their boss about their previous problems? Have they apologized for their previous outbursts? Have they explained what they have done to improve?

        I’ve posted here before about working with a friend who had severe untreated ADHD. One of the biggest problems was her magical thinking. She didn’t know how to learn from her mistakes. If she failed 5 times she was still 100% convinced that she would succeed the 6th time. It sounds like LW is making actual changes, which is great, but I’m still getting some of that magical thinking attitude from the letter. LW doesn’t understand that their reputation won’t change overnight. I can understand why the boss doesn’t have confidence in LW, especially if Boss doesn’t actually know about the changes LW is making.

        That all being said… some of Boss’s rules do sound ridiculous. I think Boss does not really know how to handle this situation.

        1. TimeCat*

          I really get that impression with the “three to six months” comment. Three months is a really, really short time when considering major disruption at work.

          1. Chili*

            It’s also pretty short in comparison to how long there’s been issues. Like, if LW had a really bad month, 3 months of high performance would be enough to be pretty confident the issue’s resolved. But the poor performance went on for a year… I feel like it’s going to take at least a year for the manager to feel confident the situation is resolved.

          2. BRR*

            Not only that, but it sounds like it’s not been great for a large chunk of the LW’s time at this company. It doesn’t sound like the manager is handling things optimally, but I can understand the manager somewhat. They had an employee with performance issues and they’re keeping on eye on it. Are they doing it correctly? That’s debatable. Are they a nominee for world’s worst boss? Not based on this letter.

          3. Not So NewReader*

            I agree that three months is too short. If you had been doing this for a year, OP, then I am thinking it’s going to be about 1.5- 2 years with this boss to dig out from under, if ever.

            It might be helpful to put yourself in her shoes. Big boss is pressuring you because you have a subordinate who is an underperformer. Maybe the boss hints that you will be fired if your employee does not improve. Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to put your job on the line for someone else?
            Try to view things from her perspective. I think you will gain the most ground that way.

        2. Dust Bunny*

          This feels a bit like my parents’ communication style, wherein each of them basically gives half of the idea, they each misunderstand the other, and then bicker needlessly.

          So, yeah, the boss’ rules sound at least superficially ridiculous, but if the LW isn’t communicating she can’t expect him to react as though she is.

        3. Avasarala*

          I completely agree with this. I don’t think the manager can see everything OP can see, and OP doesn’t look much better from the manager’s perspective.

          -OP has a 1 to 2 year track record of bad behavior with coworkers and poor performance.
          -Behavior towards coworkers: no major incidents for 1.5 years, but it seems you haven’t worked on repairing the bridge you burnt with your manager the way you have with your coworkers.
          -Performance distraction 3-6 months ago: This is still recent and doesn’t indicate you’ve “turned a corner” at all.
          -You still need to take frequent time off to handle your medical issues. From an outsider’s perspective, this doesn’t look like “under control”, it looks like “trying to get it under control.”
          -Your phone calls to friends probably don’t seem like a medical treatment to your manager.
          -You actively avoid your manager and don’t give them any information. This does not seem like someone confident in their workflow and performance. Would you trust someone you had to track down to get info from?

          I think you need to show your manager how different you are, because it’s probably not coming across right now.

      2. hbc*

        And even if the manager has noticed the improvement, he very well could be thinking, “Wow, OP sure has improved since I started watching her like a hawk, cleared her desk of all distractions, and got rid of that phone.” There could well be correlation with the steps he’s taken, if not causation, that makes a conversation absolutely necessary.

    1. Me*

      How is OP abusing it?

      Looking at whether op can scale back on the amount of mental health days needed now that he’s feeling better doesn’t mean he’s been abusing it.

      1. murky*

        My general rule of thumb is “can I safely drive half an hour into work?” before calling it. As I mentioned in another comment, I have other health issues exacerbated by depression and anxiety (chronic fatigue, IBS, migraines, etc.) that fall under the same umbrella.

        Plus, I don’t get paid for FMLA time off. I’m not a huge fan of punishing myself and driving myself into debt because I can’t work.

        1. Me*

          I’m glad that you’ve found something reasonable that works for you.

          My comment to the original commentor was centered on the “abusing” of FMLA. There’s zero indication the OP is abusing FMLA.

          1. Kes*

            I think the comment about abusing FMLA is probably in response to OP saying they are using FMLA time as much as possible to avoid their boss. This may well be because interacting with their boss is making them anxious, but it’s not a great solution; as Alison points out, avoiding the boss is likely reinforcing their bad impression of OP. OP is better off talking to their boss about the steps their taking to improve, and trying to improve their relationship with the boss rather than avoiding them.

          2. A*

            FMLA was not designed to be used to get away from your boss. If boss is the cause of your qualifying medical condition, there are bigger issues to address than ‘how do I stay here?’

  4. JustKnope*

    Can you try to replicate some of the tools you were using your phone for on your work computer? If you had task trackers, timers, or other attention support tools on your phone, you may be able to duplicate some of that on your computer to help keep up that same structure.

    This sounds really frustrating (and some of it sounds too punitive) so I really empathize with how you’re feeling! But if you look at it from your boss’ perspective, I think Alison is right that you need to aggressively demonstrate that you’re making changes and getting things under control before your boss will really start to trust it. He can’t take your word for it at this point.

    1. Koala dreams*

      I think this is a good point. Even if the manager does not approve of the mobile phone, they might accept a more “boring” alternative. There are very professional looking tools out there if you need something for time keeping and task planning. Maybe not as good as the phone apps you use currently, but good enough to get you through the day.

      1. Charlief*

        Also a lot of tracking can be done with a timer on the computer and a bullet journal

    2. allathian*

      I’m not sure the OP would be comfortable with that. And I’m not sure I would want to deal with anything related to the management of my health from my work computer either.

  5. Colette*

    I agree with Alison that the OP should be more proactive about keeping her manager informed – especially about any issues, because that’s part of building trust. I also notice that the OP works in IT support but that she makes not mention of any stats. Is she handling the same number of issues as her coworkers? Does she get similar results on customer satisfaction surveys? Does she solve issues in the same amount of time? It’s possible that she has improved, but that she’s still not up to the same level as her coworkers.

    Also, if the 3 to 6 months was the last 3 to 6 months – and especially if the OP is now working from home – that will affect how long it takes to repair the relationship with her manager.

    1. Venus*

      Yes, I was thinking that IT should be able to point to specific things that have been done such as resolved tickets. My other suggestion is to keep the manager updated by email as much as possible, for example send a daily email detailing all of the work that was accomplished, so that the OP can hopefully minimize the manager’s negative responses while addressing their need for info. I have had to deal with micromanagers, and found that a few minutes to write up an email summarizing my work is often time well spent. In this case it might also reinforce to the manager that the OP is making changes.

  6. Cordoba*

    It sounds like the manager in this situation may well be justified in micromanaging the LW, as LW’s previous behavior indicates that they do require close managing to get satisfactory work output and professional behavior.

    I’d suggest that LW mentally reframe it from “manager feels the need to micromanage me” to “manager is reasonably keeping a close eye on me” and stop trying to buck that or shake him off.

    Make it easy and dull for the manager. Anytime he looks for an update or wonders what LW is up to it should be a trivial effort for him to find out and the answer should be boring.

    A low-performing employee’s reputation with me would probably never improve as long as I found myself having to routinely “track them down” to figure out what they are working on or how things are going.

    1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      I agree completely. Everything restriction the manager put on the OP is very reasonable. If the OP truly needs the phone then they should speak to the manager and/or HR about that. Otherwise, everything else seems very reasonable.

      I do also agree that you should follow Alison’s advice and speak to your manager. This may help some, esp. with the phone issue.

      1. Milvus milvus*

        “No family pictures at the desk” doesn’t strike me as terribly reasonable…

        1. Amanda*

          It depends. I have a problem coworker who keeps a ton of ‘fun stuff’ on his desk. Magic cubes, anime figures, a plant, about 8 family and friends pictures, etc. When I look in the direction of his desk, 9 out of 10 times he’s playing with either his phone or one of his desk things instead of working, and I’m not exagerating. His performance is very low and, as someone who has had to pick up the slack, I have often wished his distractions were somehow removed.

          If the LW was being easily distracted by the desk stuff, it’s reasonable for the manager to just ban them. Is it the best solution? Probably not, specially when dealing with mental issues. But it’s not unreasonable.

        2. Curmudgeon in California*

          This. This is not just micromanaging, it’s authoritarian punishment.

          Get a new job, start over.

      2. LizArd*

        No personal photos on the desk is not r reasonable. It’s petty, vindictive, pointless, and cruel.

        1. sunny-dee*

          We actually don’t know that because we don’t know what the OP was doing with the stuff at her desk. It could be petty; it could be misguided; or it could be a totally reasonable reaction to the OP getting distracted by random objects.

          1. Cordoba*

            Even if we assume the boss is totally off-base about “no pictures” and is implementing it through either malice or misunderstanding; the LW still has the question of what they should *do* about it.

            Aside from “find another job” I submit that the most efficient answer is probably:
            1) Remove pictures
            2) Do reliably good work for 6 months, without dodging the manager or otherwise giving him occasion to “track down” LW to get visibility to their work
            3) Point to track record of 6 months of good work to justify normalizing work rules, to include the return of pictures
            4) Continue to do reliably good work once work rules relax

            Given that LW was blowing up at colleagues and not getting work done their employer would have been justified in simply firing them a year ago. When you’re trying to come back from that is perhaps not the best time to dig in and force the issue about non-work-related photographs.

            1. Washi*

              The picture thing strikes me as a little much, but OP has to assume that at this point she has basically zero political capital. Which is progress, since it’s sounds like she’s done a lot of work to crawl out from being in the red, but she has very little standing to push back on anything, especially if there are still some issues like dodging the manager.

            2. Kes*

              All this but also what Alison said – talk to the boss, acknowledge the issues and cause, and explain what OP is doing to improve. At the moment boss’s opinion of OP is based on their previous behaviour, their restrictions (whether helpful or not) stem from this, they are keeping an eye on OP looking for slacking, and any improvements are likely to be attributed to boss’s tactics. Acknowledging that you know there has been a problem, but have been and are taking steps to improvement, could help switch boss’s viewpoint towards looking for the improvement.

          2. Searching for a New Name*

            My experience of being a person with ADHD is that people tend to assume that clutter is a cause of distraction. However, I promise you I am just as capable of losing track of time and what I’m supposed to be doing in a spotlessly empty space as I am in one that has things in it. The cause of distraction is a malfunction in my brain, not a result of a willful desire to do other things or the presence of objects.

            Reading the letter, I read the restriction against any objects on OP’s desk as being the manager having no idea how to actually support an employee with executive dysfunction, and instead flailing around targeting symptoms in a scattershot fashion.

        2. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

          As someone with ADD I can attest that sometimes even pictures can contribute to clutter which is a distraction.

          I think the manager was just trying to have the OP keep their desk as clear as possible to eliminate all distractions and clutter. Did the manager maybe go a bit overboard, yes possibly, but I would not say it was cruel.

          1. Curmudgeon in California*

            I would. It’s the kind of thing that grade school teachers do to children with no power. It’s not how adults deal with stuff.

        3. Mama Bear*

          I agree. This just feels petty. Maybe limit the things at the desk, but no personalization at all when it’s not company culture seems unnecessary.

      3. ElizabethJane*

        Unless the OP was spending a significant portion of each day rearranging their personal effects or otherwise fidgeting with the items on their desk. “No family pictures” sounds punitive but “You work better when you have a clear desk. I really need you to keep it as minimal as possible” is not.

        1. mlem*

          As long as it’s evidence-based. “When your desk is clear, you average 17 tickets; but when it’s cluttered, you average 2.4” — yes, fair to require a clear desk. “I didn’t bother to run the numbers, but I assume that a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind” — there’s far too much of that, and many (not all!) folks with attention problems actually find all the “obvious” distraction-removal techniques just make things worse. Some people actually perform better when they can fiddle/fidget with/gaze unfocusedly at stuff.

          1. ElizabethJane*

            Oh that I agree with. And I’m one that focuses better with a fidget object. In an ideal world I’d knit but that’s not socially or professionally acceptable and people don’t really believe that I can do it without losing focus on the conversation or presentation.

            1. Ellen N.*

              I certainly can see that knitters can knit without losing focus and that knitting helps them to focus.

              My problem with a knitting coworker would be the clacking knitting needles.

          2. Amanda*

            It’s also worth noting that the LW did improve after the manager took those actions, even though there’s not necessarily a correlation.

            In the managers’ mind, though whatever improvement he saw from the LW in the last few months are directly a result of these measures, and so his approach is working wonders.

          3. Koala dreams*

            I also got the impression that the manager’s aversion to a cluttered desk was based in some weird assumptions, and not on the actual need for a clean desk. Otherwise, one would assume that the most productive workers would also have very clean desks…

            1. K*

              I once worked at a company with a clear-desk policy: nothing could be left out overnight, for security reasons. I am another low-executive-function person and did actually find this worked wonders for my concentration, and also simply being able to find stuff. At my next job I didn’t do this and was massively less efficient. I readily fall into “if I can’t see it, I’ll forget about it,” and consequently, if allowed, tend to have far more things on my desk than I am currently working on…

              My current job is so far from home that I have brought very little by way of personal effects, although I could, and still try to keep a clear desk.

              The difference is that neither of these is punitive: at the first place, we ALL had to have clear desks; at the current one it’s my choice.

              1. Loretta*

                agreed. i found the “clean desk policy” I had in one office really helped my sense of discipline and closure, and even when I went on to other jobs I kept this policy going. I am not a big fan of “flare” all over the place. I think it can sometimes project an overly cosy, non-professional image.

                I know who I am, I know what I need to accomplish, I don’t need a bunch of photos and objects to comfort me or create a whimsical persona?

              2. allathian*

                Clear desk policies make me a bit suspicious, TBH. In such an environment I would feel like I could be perp walked out at literally any moment.

    2. Senor Montoya*

      Sometimes you gotta be micro-managery. I mentor our new hires. At first there’s a lot of oversight, then as the new person learns and demonstrates competence, we back off. However, this year we have had several new hires who slipped through the oversight process (I wasn’t their mentor — different problem, and it’s why I do all of them now; they are now on various lengths of short leash) and another who was excellent for 6 months, we backed off, and then, because of WFH, I discovered a huuuuuuggggeeeee problem with that person’s work. Not irreparable, because they have the skills and mindset to do very well, but just did not do the work on an important function. So now I am that micromanager: for the first three weeks, I set goals with them for every week and set tasks for every day, I checked their work *every day*, I checked in with them every day, I took over several significant tasks and completed them because they had to be done immediately (that did not help my mentee’s reputation, but it was more important to complete the work), and I reported to their supervisor every day for the first week, then twice a week for the next two weeks. This week I will check twice, report once (unless there’s a serious backslide). Going forward, they will be working with me every two weeks to set goals, list tasks, identify resources, and identify possible obstacles. We will do that for at least three months.

      We want to keep this employee (has plenty of potential to be a good employee, and it is also such a PITA to hire — higher ed), but it’s not going to happen until they can *demonstrate* that they are reliable. I know they are chafing, but they know that the options are: chafe or be fired.

      Sounds like OP is in the place of my mentee. The best thing OP can do is be transparent with their manager, not avoid him. (If my mentee started avoiding me, that would be very very bad for their continued employment) Show what you have done to change, show how you are succeeding, and show how you are keeping on top of your work and are planning. And if you have not apologized for the previous poor work, it is not too late. Not apologizing = your manager takes that as you don’t understand how poorly you did and don’t understand how much it affected others. That may not be TRUE, but your manager is not inside your head.

      Keep working at improving, OP, and work with your manager to demonstrate over time that you are reliable and productive.

    3. remizidae*

      Agreed. Hiding from the manager and trying to evade their reasonable management strategies is making this worse. OP is only 3-6 months away from “major issues” and needs to accept being micromanaged for the next year +.

  7. Lindalinda*

    Thank you for asking this OP and thank you Alison for the advice! I feel I am in a similar situation, altough my anxiety is showing a bit differently. I act really WEIRD: talk too personally, sometimes take ages to accomplish the most simple tasks, have hard time communicating things so that others understand… But all in all, I am sure I also come across as lazy and inattentive and all in all, just not a good employee. I will try these advice!

  8. KimberlyR*

    OP, it sounds like some of your anxiety is partially tied to your manager (apologies if this is not the case!) I also have anxiety and I avoid the things that trigger it, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously. If you’re in therapy, I would work on managing some of your anxiety (or at least your anxiety symptoms) as they relate to your boss, so that you have an easier time being around him at work. Its easy to say and hard to do, but if you’re constantly anxious around him, you’ll struggle with Alison’s advice in #2. Even if you aren’t in therapy, working on reducing some of your anxiety around him will help you, however you do it. Good luck! It isn’t easy to overcome that gut reaction to someone but it sounds like you’ve already gone through a lot of difficult things so I know you can do this too.

  9. River Song*

    Would it be a good idea to acknowledge the impact on his/her coworkers when talking to the manager? “Reacting badly” could mean a lot of things, and it made me wonder if part of the reason the manager feels the need to be close by is to be able to intervene if it happens again.
    I do hope it all goes well, OP!

  10. Trout 'Waver*

    I kinda disagree with point #2. Micromanagers don’t micromanage less when they have more information. They micromanage even more. They can’t focus on the bigger picture, so giving them details gives them even more to micromanage.

    1. Snow globe*

      Not necessarily. If micromanaging is how they manage everyone, there might not be anything that will change it. But it sounds like the manager is more lenient with other employees and his micromanaging is a response to LW’s past behavior. There is reason to believe the manager could lighten up if he feels confident that he has all the information he needs on what LW is working on. LW avoiding the manager is only going to increase his concern.

      1. Annony*

        Yeah. It doesn’t sound like the manager defaults to micromanagement but rather that he doesn’t trust the OP. Hiding reinforces that lack of trust and makes the micromangement worse. More information could make it better. If he was a micromanger in general that would not be true.

      2. ClumsyCharisma*

        This. I tell my people I will only micromanage you if make me micromanage you. You won’t like it and I won’t like it but it’s how it’ll have to be.
        But if someone came to me and said they knew they had been slacking and had a plan to get back on track I would definitely work with them. We would come up with a plan together to give them the space they want while I’m making sure they are being productive. But if they don’t talk to me how would I know they are serious about improving.
        I hate micromanaging but if I have to go down the PIP and termination route I want to know did everything in my power to get them productive before it got to that point.

    2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I think in this case it depends on if the manager is a true micromanager with everyone, or if they’re only acting this way based on OP’s past behavior, especially if OP hasn’t had that direct conversation with their manager.

    3. LQ*

      This is a manager who was closely managing one staff person, who was behaving in a way that was difficult for coworkers, more so than other staff. That’s just a manager. Is that a manager who maybe can’t see the changes? Unsure. But I think that assuming that this manager is a lost cause because they were managing closely through a difficult situation is not useful.

      1. TimeCat*

        The changes are also super new. I have experience with employees who will change for a few months following a talking to and then fall back into bad patterns.

        1. Night Heron*

          Exactly. I’ve had more than one experience where an employee is on a 90-day PIP, is exemplary, and once they get off the PIP they start sliding back into bad habits. In most cases, we were able to get things on the right track long-term, but it required extra diligence/a bit of micromanagement up front.

    4. Senor Montoya*

      It depends — is the person a micromanager, or does the manager need to keep very close watch on a particular employee because that employee did poorly when they weren’t being micro-managed? It seems that no one else is being micro-managed in the office, and ALSO that OP was not being micromanaged previously.

      Also, the OP is avoiding the manager. That’s a significant problem. Giving information (the kind Alison describes, not every jot and tittle) really can help.

    5. Ashley*

      I have definitely gotten bad Micromanagers to back off by flooding them with information. This is most effective when they are truly bad at their jobs and disorganized which may not apply to LW’s manager. In my experience the person goes on information overload and is forced to back off or I may keep giving info and they just spot check which can let you have a bigger picture conversation.

  11. Dagny*

    Consider having a low-key talk with HR about this. Treating you differently because you have mental health issues is a bad idea all around; your boss is not a psychologist and is not your psychologist, so he should not be determining how you need to handle these issues. Also, this starts to sound a bit like punishing you for using FMLA, and even if that is not his intention, he should be made aware that treating you differently in ways not related to your job (pictures on your desk) or denying you the chance to do your job (traveling to auxiliary sites) is a bad idea.

    1. ElizabethJane*

      Yes but also the OP needs to recognize if those things were actually impacting their day. Treating someone differently because they have mental health issues is not good. Treating someone differently because they are bad at their job (regardless of cause, even if that cause is mental health issues) is acceptable.

      The pictures and books on the desk – I’d like to believe the manager in question noticed a direct relationship to productivity and things. Maybe the OP spends a significant portion of their day rearranging or otherwise fidgeting with things. Or flipping through books as a method of taking a break. Traveling to auxiliary sites again could be up for debate. We have two locations for my office. I can work in both but it’s a perk to be able to work in the one (fewer people/less supervision, shorter commute for me). I don’t NEED to work there, I just like to do it. But if I can’t get my job done there then my manager is well within their rights to say “Sorry, you don’t get to work at that site”. Or maybe the work at those locations is the more desirable work. Again it makes sense that it is reserved for the people who are exceeding expectations.

      1. Dagny*


        If the manager treats someone differently because the employee is bad at the job, that treatment has to be the same as a mentally healthy employee who is bad at his job. Removing personal items from the desk does not sound like it is related to the job (and if it is, the manager needs to be the one to demonstrate that) so much as punitive or ‘playing psychologist.’

        1. sunny-dee*

          People are fixating on that, but there is good reason to believe that the boss is focusing on that because of the OP’s past behavior. Everything else that the boss is doing — banning her cell phone, banning her from traveling offsite, overseeing her tickets, the micromanaging — is all directly related to the OP’s previous behavior. It’s reasonable to at least consider that the reason he banned stuff from her desk is similarly related to her past behavior.

        2. SomebodyElse*

          Umm distractions can cause problems for employees who don’t have MH issues.

          1. sunny-dee*

            Can confirm. When I was in an especially stressful time at work (with, admittedly a toxic manager), I literally spent an hour once just spinning in my desk chair.

            It wasn’t a major thing, but it was one of the things that indicated I needed to look for a new job.

            1. SomebodyElse*

              I once shusshhed my boss (we had the kind of relationship that I could get away with that) because I was watching the turkeys outside of my office window.

              Yeah, me getting an office fish wasn’t a great idea either. Do you know how calming and entertaining watching a fish swim is?

              1. Koala dreams*

                Watching the turkeys sounds important though! /only half joking

                Now the office fish, that could cause problems. I once read a detective story where a primary school class had a class fish, and it ended in a tragedy.

        3. ElizabethJane*

          We don’t know. I have to keep my desk clear of personal effects. If I have photos and books and a cup for pens I will spend a lot of time rearranging my desk, especially if I’m stressed out or otherwise avoiding an unpleasant task. And I mean 20-30 minutes in the morning and 20-30 minutes in the afternoon. I recognize this about myself and I keep my desk bare.

          If I had performance issues and I **didn’t** know this about myself my manager would be well within their rights to say “ElizabethJane you spend close to an hour every day arranging the items on your desk and it’s drastically impacting your performance. I need you to either stop doing that or remove the items” and if I couldn’t stop they could say “You need to remove the items on your desk and keep it clean”.

          The end result is “I can’t have family photos on my desk” but it’s absolutely justified.

      2. Senor Montoya*

        Auxiliary site: exactly. I would not let my in-trouble-mentee (described above) go off where I cannot keep an eye on their work until they have demonstrated they are reliable now where I have fairly easy oversight.

    2. Long Time Lurker*

      I hear this, but I think the OP needs to be very honest with themselves about whether their boss is treating them differently because of their mental health issues, or because of their behavior and work in the last two years.

    3. CL Cox*

      The manager is not treating them differently because they have a mental illness; they are treating them differently because of their work behavior. There is a big difference. Any impact on the OP’s mental health seems to be unintended, the manager is trying to help them stay focused on their work tasks.

    4. Me*

      Yeah I’m getting a vibe of oh you have ADHD then no distractions for you, regardless of whether they were ever an issue. And that’s not ok.

      1. Annony*

        If that is what happened then I agree. I got the impression that the stuff was actually causing an issue in the past which resulted in the ban but now the OP feels like it wouldn’t cause an issue anymore.

        1. Senor Montoya*

          The OP has to demonstrate it;s not an issue. Three to six months — sorry, not enough, especially if it’s closer to three (or two and a half) than to six.

          1. Me*

            It has to have been a distraction in the first place fro the OP to have had it taken away. An employer cannot just decide what someone with ADHD can and can’t have because of it. If the employee was playing on his phone all day that’s one thing. banning pictures and books…unless they were a distraction which it’s hard to see how, then the employer is implementing rules that are different for someone with a disability and that is not legal.

      2. Dagny*


        And as per above, the manager is not a psychologist. Maybe I am weird in that I do some pretty epic eye-rolling at people who ‘play psychologist,’ but the manager should understand that his experience does not include a Ph.D. in psychology, a post-doc, a license, and clinical experience, which are the things generally needed to be able to put together a plan for an ADHD person to be productive in a workplace.

        1. sunny-dee*

          But there’s absolutely nothing in the OP’s letter to indicate that the boss is doing this because of ADHD or is doing this as an armchair psychologist. There is indication that he’s doing this because he has seen her waste time and get distracted and is ordering her to remove distractions (e.g., her phone and the stuff on her desk).

            1. Aitch Arr*

              Of the FMLA, yes. Of the reason, likely not if HR is doing their job properly.

          1. Kathlynn (canada)*

            The wording of the letter seems to indicate, accidentally or not, that these restrictions didn’t come into effect until the LW started to try and turn things around. And given the need for FMLA, disclosing it to HR and or her manager. If that is the case, this honestly looks like discrimination to me. To suddenly go from “oh their a shitty worker” and then micromanaging them when told they are getting their act together.

        2. Bark*

          I’m not sure where you got the idea that he’s playing psychologist. It doesn’t sound like he’s trying to manage OP’s mental illness. It sounds like he’s try to manage OPs work by removing things that are causing a distraction and that seems pretty reasonable.

    5. RC Rascal*

      Be careful with this. There are HR departments that would go nuclear over this. Sometimes there is no such thing as a low key chat with HR.

      I would not involve HR until I tried what Allison suggested. The only exception if the cell phone is part of an accommodation need, as suggested in the first thread. In that case OP needs to tell the manager first that they need phone access as a health care accommodation, and if the manager insists on keeping a hard line then they need to escalate this portion of the issue to HR.

    6. Bree*

      This was sort of my read, too. Like, I can understand the manager wanting to keep close tabs on the LW for some time going forward. But some of the specific ways that’s happening seem more like he’s trying to treat the mental health condition than improve the work product. I got a parental or therapist vibe from some of the examples, not a manager vibe.

      Alison has good advice for approaching a conversation that could maybe help make a shift in the nature of the relationship. But if it doesn’t work, you may want to start watching out for other opportunities and try to get a fresh start somewhere else.

    7. Arctic*

      Yeah, there were things here that were ringing in my head, as someone from an in-house legal department. Depending more on the context (did the manager note that those distractions really were distractions not just an assumption) not necessarily total ADA violations but definitely going down that path. I would certainly ask a manager to handle this differently if it were in my organization.
      But, honestly, from a practical stand point I don’t think this is helpful for the LW. The truth is there are genuine and recent (at least six months ago) performance issues. And reestablishing trust should be the main goal. Documenting might not be a bad idea but, at the end of the day, the focus should be on going forward.
      (She could ask for the phone back as a reasonable accommodation as she uses it for managing her ADHD and anxiety.)

      1. Charlief*

        I have adhd and I can get blind to think like messiness and it can get out of control fast- it’s better now with drugs.

        Could it be the the manager is just reacting to previously unprofessional desks and that a blanket ban is because in the past – a photo would turn into a pile of photos and some other stuff and some paper and and …

        I think this person needs to demonstrate clearly that they can function better and at an average level for a year before asking for things like this. They don’t have the capital right now.

  12. AnonandAnon*

    Until your manager can trust you, really trust you, then you should probably just follow along with what they are asking of you no questions asked. What you do, or not, reflects poorly on your boss, so of course they are going to be making sure you are toeing the line. Ultimately, you are not being given the same privileges as the others because you have not proven yourself to be as reliable and conscientious. I work with someone who has been a really poor employee, does not care about the users or the work product (yup, IT here too). He also has a bad temper, and curses and bangs his desk when he’s frustrated. He has had some health issues and has been out for months at at time, and also has FMLA. Honestly I wish he would just quit, he’s made my life, and the lives of my coworkers miserable, and we are frustrated with management that they have not done anything about him.

    1. AnonandAnon*

      OP, if my posting comes across as harsh it’s because I wanted you to know how it feels to be on the other side as a coworker. The difference is that you are working on changing, and your coworkers see that, your manager will too, in time.

    2. One Gia*

      In the same boat–have a similar peer and it is very frustrating, regardless of what is causing the issues, because I tend to have to pick up the slack. I hope my manager is keeping close tabs on her to help her improve or move her along.

      1. allathian*

        Have you informed your manager of these issues? Have you told them how it’s affecting you? If nothing else helps, you need to focus on your job and stop doing your coworker’s. Management will deal with a slacker if jobs don’t get done.

  13. AnonEMoose*

    Alison’s advice is very sound. It might also help if you can try to see your manager not so much as an adversary, but see the two of allies with the mutual goal of “get the work done accurately in a timely way.” If nothing else, re-framing it in your own mind might help make it less stressful for you.

    I did once get a previous manager to change her feedback to me. I was getting a lot of feedback from her about me being “too direct/blunt,” that sort of thing. So I started doing things like trying not to be the first to speak in meetings, phrasing things as questions/requests for input, and calling those things to her attention in my 1:1 meetings with her. I’d say things like “I’m trying doing X, like when I said Y in Z meeting – is that more what you want to see?”

    Now…there was a lot to unpack with this – if I were male, I suspect that the things she had an issue with would have been fine. I wouldn’t have been “too blunt,” I’d have been “assertive and confident.” But calling her out on the gendered BS would not have improved my standing with her…and what I actually did was effective, if hard for me sometimes.

    But maybe part of what you can do with your manager is to be very explicit with him about “I’m doing X and Y, and I think there’s been improvement in areas A and B, what are your thoughts?” It’s hard to do, but getting him to pay attention to your new ways of doing things both demonstrates that you’re aware of the issues, want to improve, and are working on it in specific ways and brings the changes to his attention. Which might make him more comfortable easing up on a few things and seeing how things go.

    1. hbc*

      I think an approach like this to the manager is really good. In OP’s case, I would also add something like, “Given my past performance, it makes sense that you’ve increased your oversight and limited my autonomy. Is there a timeline where you can see easing back on those restrictions in small steps where we can both see whether I’ve made lasting improvements? For example, I could [do one offsite visit where I check in 4 times on my progress/put two pictures back on my desk/have two scheduled 5 minute phone checks where I can use my health app/etc]. When do you think something like that would be reasonable?”

      If Manager basically says “never,” or doesn’t stick with the agreed upon definition of success for any of these baby steps when OP meets them, then I’d say the relationship is toast. But hopefully it’ll nudge him to at least be more clear about his endgame.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Oh this is really good here, OP.

      We have to go where they are. For example, AnonE noticed that pointing out the gendered complaints was not going to gain any ground for her. So she went with something that would help her gain ground in her discussions with the boss.

      As an aside, doing this type of thing can exhaust or wear down the micromanager. So you may get some slowing down just because of her fatigue here. BUT! Keep doing those things that she wants you do to. Just because you happen to notice you are starting to gain ground, don’t get lax.

  14. LGC*

    Ouch! I’m so sorry!

    So, given the timeline, it seems like…you probably had a major meltdown in late 2018 and major focus issues in late 2019-early 2020. I can speak for myself, but…like, depending on the meltdown, I’ve been rattled by it. (Which is bad supervising, I know, but I’ve been cautious around the couple of employees that have yelled at me.) And you say that it’s been three to six months since your lack of focus has caused major issues – it doesn’t just depend on the timeframe, it also depends on the issue. If it was a costly mistake, there might not be a timeframe where you can regain full trust with him.

    I’m also going back and forth on apologizing for your past behavior to him. On one hand, it sounds like…to be honest, LW, you haven’t really acknowledged the impact of your performance issues to him. On the other hand, there are a couple of red flags that make me think it’s a “him” issue – namely, the heated emails every time you make a mistake. I don’t care how badly you messed up, you don’t deserve that. No one deserves that.

    1. CL Cox*

      I think that would depend on whether it’s the same mistake that keeps happening. I usually point it out/make a suggestion the first time, remind the second time, and then by about the third or fourth time of the same thing happening, I’m gonna be a little testy.

      1. LGC*

        There’s a lot of variables that go into it outside of time, yeah. I’ll get annoyed if employees keep making the same mistake repeatedly myself, and it’ll take a while for me to relax enough to trust them because they need to earn that trust.

        But also, it sounds like…I guess to use an example relevant to LW’s profession, if it was a situation where they accidentally infected the servers with ransomware, even if it was a one-off thing, of course the manager would watch them like a hawk. That’s actually more what I had in mind – without knowing the degree of the mistake, we can’t say whether six months is enough time to come back from that.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I’d much rather deal with a crying employee than an angry/yelling employee any day. I just have no way of knowing how far down that angry road an employee is willing to go. I do put my foot down and I put it down HARD. I don’t deal with anger on a regular basis, that is not how adults solve problems.

      And the whole time I am putting my foot down, underneath it all I am scared. I don’t want people getting hurt. I don’t want to have to call for an ambulance. OP, if you have ever been on the receiving end of anger you know how tough it is. And usually an angry person is NOT consolable. There is very little one can say that will make the angry person come down off the ceiling.

      Judging by what she has laid out as rules for you, OP, she either can’t manage people OR she is at her wit’s end. I’m not there so I don’t know. In the past, when I have seen people treated this way they are on very thin ice. I think you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by talking with her.

      Avoiding her with leave time is only throwing gas on the fire. She’s going to be more leery about your work and you are going to continue being more and more leery of her micromanaging. It’s not going to get better because you did not show up, it’s just going to get more miserable when you do show up.

      What she sees right now is something like this, “OP had numerous work issues. It’s been quiet for a few months but I am just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I have no idea what is going on here. Making everything worse, OP takes random leave so it feels like we will never get these issues settled. I need an employee who can show up regularly and do a consistent job day in and day out.”

  15. LDN Layabout*

    ‘three to six months since focus caused major issues’ vs. ‘Around the beginning of 2018′

    LW it’s really good that you’ve found ways to treat and cope with your mental health, but three to six months of not having ’caused major issues’ is not long enough to convince anyone when their job as manager is partly based on your behaviour/output at work.

    Your coworkers react differently because their job performance is not judged on your actions. For your manager, it is.

  16. SomebodyElse*

    As a manager, here’s my perspective.

    First off… good job recognizing the problems you were having and taking steps to address them.

    You’ve been a not so great employee by your own admission for about 2 years. You’ve been an improving employee for 3-6 months. Your manager has had much longer to get to know the not ideal employee you were than the improved employee you are. You need to build trust with your manager and that takes time. Honestly, it might never happen. By your own admission you were disruptive and inattentive. You are still avoiding him to the point he has to track you down and are avoiding work/him by using FMLA. I don’t think you have fully made it back into the ‘good employee’ category yet.

    Two choices at this point and I suggest a combination of both… 1. Do what it takes to keep yourself on track and work your way back into the ‘good employee’ bucket 2. Look for other opportunities to start fresh.

    By doing both, you’ll probably find you start seeing the restrictions loosen, you’ll be hopefully raising your referral to neutral to good, and you’ll eventually be able to get a fresh start on a new team or with a new company.

    Good luck, and I really mean it when I say I hope these changes are lasting ones and you go on to have a great career (and life).

    1. Daffy Duck*

      This is what stood out to me also. If the employee wasn’t showing their best for 2 years it will take more than a few months to recoop. I would say expect to prove your great behavior for at least as long as there were issues. You want to be visibley doing a great job so it is acknowledged.

    2. Kes*

      I agree with all of this. OP should definitely work on improving their relationship with their boss. However, they should also keep in mind that their not-so-great reputation is probably well established and it may be difficult to fully recover, so they should also consider looking for a new job where they can wipe the slate clean and build a new reputation as a good worker.

    3. Soylent Green*

      Also, aside from the fact that colleagues no longer need to work on eggshells, is there a neutral person who can confirm the areas where you’ve improved?
      Sometimes when you’re managing an employee’s performance they will talk about how they are absolutely nailing everything now when they just…aren’t.
      Plus, it would be a good reference point for when you’re having the frank conversation about earning back trust. eg, I’ve had feedback that in the past six months, no llamas have gotten fleas on my fleawatch…

  17. Squid*

    Yes, I wondered about this too. Could treating the OP so differently (including in ways that could be construed as punitive) due to disabilities be considered discrimination?

    1. ElizabethJane*

      I’d think it absolutely depends on the reason.

      Let’s say “eating at your desk” is one of the perks that all of the other coworkers get. As in, snacking throughout the day. All of them have a bag of chips or maybe a candy bar and they are able to snack away and maybe only lose 5 minutes of work time from going to the vending machine, washing their hands, tidying up.

      The OP however spends 10 minutes walking to the machine, can’t snack and work at the same time, is absurd about sanitizing their desk after eating, and spends another 10 minutes wandering around after going to the bathroom to wash their hands. At this point 45 minutes of work time is gone.

      The manager would be well within their rights to say “Snacking impacts your productivity too much. I need you to stop eating at your desk”. The reason the person is losing 45 minutes may be that they have ADHD but also saying “You can’t take 45 minutes to snack” isn’t really discrimination.

    2. SomebodyElse*

      I think this is one of those hard to answer questions with the information we have.

      I’m going to go out on a limb and say there was probably a PIP at some point in the past two years and these are reasonable things to enact with an underperforming employee if they contribute to the underperformance.

    3. boop the first*

      I was a little concerned about this too, at least with the phone and constant check ins. From the outside, it would be easy to misconstrue it as a manager thinking he understands ADHD and making major decisions that are literally based on someone’s medical history, which I thought was wrong. But I guess if the mistakes are bad enough, simply proving that OP is getting medical treatment isn’t good enough?

    4. Mobuy*

      The way the manager is treating OP is not due to disabilities, but due to behavior. OP needs to figure out how to manage her disability in such a way that she can also do her job.

    5. Kes*

      eh, ‘don’t discriminate based on disability’ doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t take steps to deal with poor performance, even if mental health may be an underlying factor. If OP was performing well and the boss learned OP has ADHD and just decided they can’t have items on their desk because they might be distracted that would be unreasonable, but if OP is frequently distracted by various things and doesn’t get their work done, taking steps to try and keep OP focused and to keep more of an eye on OP to ensure their work gets done isn’t necessarily unreasonable.

    6. Ryn*

      If OP were performing at the same levels as their colleagues and boss found out they had ADHD and instituted these changes, then I think there’d be an issue. But this is to address their work behavior, not their mental illness. As gets talked about a lot on here, mental illness may be an explanation for behaviors but it’s certainly not an excuse, and I think it’s reasonable to OP’s boss to manage them differently than OP’s peers. I agree that some of the measures (harsh emails are never okay, no family pics feels weirdly punitive) feel over the line, but to argue that you can’t hold a low-performer to different standards just because they have a mental illness is bad for a bunch of other reasons!

    7. Not So NewReader*

      I have seen a lot of this type of punishment in lower paying jobs, but I am sure it goes on at many levels. It’s pretty common, I think. Since OP admits they weren’t doing that great a job, I am not sure what is to be gained here with a discrimination complaint. I think the boss will just find other ways to measure OP’s work performance and target other things.The new limitations would add new layers of misery for OP and the boss.

      It’s probably more direct to deal with the complaints the boss has now, rather than putting the boss in a position to line up even more complaints. OP, with that list of restrictions, I would pick several and decide that they were not a hill to die on and just let them go. Then I would pick one or two restrictions that I really wanted lifted and work toward getting those one or two lifted. We can only fight on so many fronts after that we run out of energy/resources.
      For me, I’d let go of the issue about personal items on my desk. Hey, less clutter, easier to work. Or think of some similar positive thing to tell yourself. Find reasons why a limitation does not hurt you and may even help you.
      But maybe working at other sites hits you as super important. So I would try to see what I needed to do to get that ability back. I’d start with these smaller less important-to-me things and make sure I was doing them.

    8. AcademiaNut*

      It’s not discrimination to address the behaviour if it’s uniformly applied.

      Telling a poorly performing employee who spends a lot of time on their phone to keep their phone out of sight at work is a reasonable requirement, and doesn’t depend on knowing why they’re on the phone. Same with extra close monitoring an employee who has been doing badly. Applying either of those to someone specifically because they have ADHD, when it’s not linked to productivity, would be discrimination. So could requiring it of the OP, but letting other employees with similar productivity use their phones.

      If there’s a medical reason for exemption from something, then that needs to be negotiated as part of accommodation. For example – say the general rule was that employees couldn’t use their cellphones during work hours, but an employee needed an app to monitor their blood sugar.

  18. RC Rascal*

    There is good advice here, but I do have this to add:

    Do you feel that any of this is personally driven and is about your personality and not your performance? I have seen situations like this where it comes down to the manager personally dislikes the employee. Sometimes it starts as a performance issue but if it turns personal there is absolutely no way back.

    Regarding the avoidance: Is this coming from you or is it in any way mutual? I have seen managers avoid employee issues and then blame the employee. Sometimes the dynamic is such the manager is such a giant ass when the employee does try to work with them, that the employee avoids them. Then the manager makes an issue of employee avoidance. Sometimes the manager actively avoids the employee, cancels meetings, etc. and then claims the employee doesn’t communicate with them.

    If either of these is the case you cannot fix this. That said, it is possible to stay in a holding pattern with a boss who hates y0u, or avoids you, for some time. You just need to be aware this is what you are dealing with not delude yourself that you can make it better.

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      +1. The thing that might hurt OP’s case is that some (many?) people are probably more likely to interpret the behaviours associated with poorly-treated adult ADHD as a character issue rather than a disability. If their manager is conflating their mental health challenges with stable personality traits, the issue kind of becomes about personality at that point. I’m not justifying that, it’s just that it’s difficult to avoid.

      It’s possible that the only way that the OP can come back from this is if their manager is able to separate the ADHD/anxiety/depression-related symptoms from who the OP can be when they’re at their best. Given the timeline of the OP’s struggles, I’m not sure the manager has gotten a chance to see enough of high-functioning OP to be able to give them the benefit of the doubt anytime soon.

      1. RC Rascal*

        Your first paragraph clearly states what I believe will be an impediment to OP’s ultimate turn around. Only, boss probably doesn’t have the information or insight to break it apart like you have.

        What he knows is the OP drives him nuts. He doesn’t want to deal with it. And to him, “drives me nuts” equals a fit issue, which is most easily remedied with hiring someone new of his choosing.

        That’s why I think OP needs to focus on improving as much as they can at this role so they can maintain stable employment, and pursue a new opportunity at the same time. The OP could stay at in a holding pattern at this time if she manages herself correctly.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        This is why it’s important to look at the requirements of the job and use that as the guide. If OP cannot fill the requirements of the job, the employer does not have to make accommodations if it is a hardship for the employer. I have seen employers say, “The position requires a person to show up for work on a regular basis.” Or, “We can’t accommodate outbursts of anger.”
        Ugh. This gets to be a long, long road. More to the point to do our best effort each day and OP can still job hunt, too.

  19. ThinMint*

    #2 is huge. I have an employee who could have written this and when you are in this situation, you trying to work autonomously doesn’t build trust. When your history is not performing, getting your work done and not sharing what you are working on or asking questions doesn’t come across as good autonomy. It just seems like avoidance and secrecy.

    1. Daffy Duck*

      I agree. LW wants to do a great job, but also needs to be seen as doing a great job. There is a difference between bragging and communicating you are doing a good job. Don’t expect to hide away and have your manager know you are doing good, make it easy for him to see you are doing a good job.

  20. foolofgrace*

    Another reason to try and get back in your manager’s good graces is the fact that you will probably have to use him as a reference for your next job. I agree with Alison’s advice, especially about not avoiding him. Something I do just to be able to say “I took care of X on Y date” or whatever is to keep track of what I do during the day using OneNote, a greatly undervalued application. I have a “page” for each day and I just summarize what’s happening. That way you have something finite not only to refer to but to show your manager if it’s appropriate. If your manager sees you staying up to date on your tasks, it might help.

    My OneNote use was especially valuable when I came back from five weeks on staying home. When I got back to the office I was like, “What was I working on again?” and I could just refer to my OneNote notes. It was a lifesaver.

    1. LizArd*

      I have serious anxiety issues that have affected my work in the past, and I would just like to say, OP – I think what your manager is doing would send me into a fucking tailspin, and I’m not surprised you can’t tolerate it. Frankly I think you deserve more empathy than you are getting upthread. What you describe is my waking nightmare.

      1. remizidae*

        It does sound terrible, but OP has earned the micromanaging based on their behavior. Like someone else said, “you are not being given the same privileges as the others because you have not proven yourself to be as reliable and conscientious.”

        1. letmeoffthistrain*

          But what if boss’s behavior is actually making it worse (or harder to manage symptoms) and the improvement is coming from outside work the letter writer is doing?

          I struggle with micromanagers too – when I’ve had micromanaging bosses in the past it has increased my anxiety and made it more difficult for me to concentrate and focus.

          1. BRR*

            Having been through mental health-based performance issues at work, the manager’s behavior very well might be making it worse. But if you had a direct report with performance issues, would you decide to grant the employee more autonomy? This guy doesn’t sound like he’s going to win manager of the year but I don’t think this is the letter where we take a stand on principle that he’s a jerk.

          2. Kes*

            Then OP needs to talk to their boss about what factors are impacting their performance and work with them to come up with a plan that will help. Right now from boss’s perspective, OP is a bad employee and is avoiding them which probably makes it seem like OP doesn’t want to deal with the issues. In fact, it’s probably a spiral – boss is managing OP more closely due to previous performance, which makes OP avoid boss more, which makes boss want to monitor OP even more. OP needs to be the one to break the cycle and stop running from the issues and boss.

    2. Autistic AF*

      Not necessarily! I left two jobs over a discrimination and accompanying mental health issues and was able to get new jobs without involving the managers who mistreated me in both cases. I had strong references prior to things breaking down at job #1, and from volunteer work; I didn’t end up needing any references from job #2.

      This doesn’t mean that OP will have the same fortune, but I would suggest looking for references that aren’t that specific micro-manager – former managers, project leads, internal customers, etc.

  21. Data Analyst*

    Hi OP! I have been there (no micro-manager, but so much work anxiety that my default was “avoid.”) I actually did an intensive anxiety treatment program that included tracking bad coping mechanisms, with a little mini notebook – a page for each behavior with columns for “submit” and “resist” where I could do tallies. Just keeping track of it really helped and encouraged me to be accountable to myself. How often am I having the urge to avoid? Am I giving in more or resisting more? If you’re like me, you start with worry in the morning leading up to work. You feel like the only thing to do is take a mental health day. You spend a while going back and forth about whether you’ll really do it, how to word the message to your manager, etc….then you do it. Immediate relief! Yes! …but then you have the whole day to worry more – are they mad at me for using my FMLA? How much FMLA do I have left? What’s going to be waiting for me tomorrow and how bad will it be? So the anxiety actually gets worse. I’d say that you’re in two negative cycles – one with your manager, and one with yourself. For me, I improved through exposure therapy where I would purposely trigger the work anxiety and then sit with the anxiety and wait for it to subside (with therapist guidance and supervision).

  22. Tyche*

    I think this situation just needs time. It hasn’t been long enough for your manager to trust that you’re improving. However, you shouldn’t be treated this differently due to your mental health issues. I have ADD and my desk and workspace are decorated. It doesn’t distract me from completing my job. That’s an inappropriate way to handle the situation in my opinion.

    Just something to consider though. Your medical history is your own to share or not share. While I imagine you have to tell HR something about why you need FMLA, that doesn’t mean coworkers or managers need all of the same information. You aren’t required to tell future employers, bosses or coworkers about your diagnoses. Whether or not you do is up to you, but it can unfortunately lead to a situation like this sometimes.

  23. Annony*

    Another thing to really think about is how your performance compares to your coworkers. You say that you have improved a lot but are you at the same level as they are? Are there metrics you can cite to show that you are performing at a similar level? If so, I would use those to advocate for getting a similar level of autonomy. If not, then it makes sense that your boss would want to still keep a closer eye on you. In that case, focus on things like getting your phone and desk back and leave the schedule and working at other sites until later.

  24. JohannaCabal*

    I think eventually LW is going to need to look elsewhere.

    Years ago, I took a job where I was miserable for three months. I’m sure I’m still remembered there as the flaky legal assistant (and this was a decade ago). Also, the entire org was a clique and I just never melded. My confidence evaporated.

    Long story short, I ended up getting fired. I then got another job where I soared and was even promoted.

    My situation is much different but I can tell you that finding a new position is sometimes the only thing that helps. At this point, I don’t think your manager can be swayed and this will impact your career trajectory at your company. With the crisis now, I’d take Alison’s advice and quietly plan a job search. It also wouldn’t hurt to put feelers out (I’ve even had a few zoom interviews recently).

    1. Elizabeth West*

      So much this. When Exjob started to change, I should have begun looking immediately. Instead, I clung to it, hoping the change wouldn’t go in the direction I feared it would, with nearly the same exact issues as the OP. At the time, I couldn’t find a way to deal and I ended up losing the job. I have much better coping skills now, thanks to a huge effort and improved self-awareness.

      OP, since you’re still employed there and the current job climate is so precarious, you should start looking now but continue to do the very best you possibly can. You want that improvement to carry over to your next job, regardless of what your manager decides to do.

      As for me, I can see now that I really needed to get out, in ways that were separate from the job itself. I know I couldn’t have stayed in the job regardless because of the changes—if I could have, I’d still be languishing. Unfortunate circumstances can absolutely be a step to something better.

      1. Karia*

        This. We had a new director come in who was a nightmare in every way. I kept thinking if I just *proved myself* she’d back off. No. I wish I’d left four months before I did.

        1. JohannaCabal*

          It’s a horrible feeling going into a toxic situation every day, isn’t it. Throw in the fact you know your boss and even co-workers don’t like you prolongs the pain.

          I knew going from Day 1 this was not the right job for me and wanted to walk away. Of course, this was 2009 and I’d been laid off from a job where I excelled and was a newlywed trying to qualify for a mortgage. I still should have left after the first week…that place gave me nightmares for years. At Awesome Job, I even dreamed I was back at the old place and was trying to tell everyone I needed to get back to Awesome Job.

          1. Karia*

            I stuck with it because I got on with my coworkers and I liked (and was good at) the actual tasks. But it was just… not going to work. I don’t handle being micro managed well – I can understand the necessity of someone is struggling but when they simply aren’t it’s just a demoralising exercise of power.

    2. BRR*

      Based on my own experience I have to agree. I’ve been the poor performing employee and have had a coworker whose work was awful. The similarly is when you’ve built a reputation over such a prolonged period of time, it can be really hard to get rid of that reputation. I was the poor performer prior to have the poor performing coworker. The coworker knew they were making mistakes but had a terrible manager who didn’t care plus the coworker’s mom was the company’s sole HR employee (and yes, it was as awful as it sounds). I was heavily involved at one point because their work was drastically impacting mine and thought really hard that if the coworker had someone helping them improve, would a mistake just cause me to think “oh, we’re back at this again.” And the answer to this day is I don’t know.

      Which is the long way of saying it’s really hard to repair a reputation when it sounds like it’s been not great 1/3-1/2 of the time you’ve been there. In this economy, I’d personally triage this position and look for something else. Not just for your some sense of job security but speaking from my own experience, it’s going to be hard to settle your anxiety in this role.

  25. Lady Heather*

    LW, your situation reads very anxiety-inducing to me – if I were in a situation like that, I’d probably be on my toes all day afraid of when the manager is going to turn up and what he’s going to say etc. I read you similarly, as you say you need to use FMLA to calm down.

    I have two tricks for remaining calm in these situations: (these are more ‘exercises’ to do when you’re anxiously avoiding your manager or when you’re at home thinking about avoiding your manager, and not things to do when you’re talking to your manager.)
    – visualize the worst thing that can happen.. and then visualize the next day or the day after. Anxiety can cause you to get stuck in the loop of ‘what if my manager sees me do x and thinks y and says z, help, the world will end’ and thinking of the next day – “the day after my manager yells at me, I’m going to get out of bed in the morning, eat, drive to work, say hi to Wakeen, ..” can help to convince your brain that running into your manager isn’t so scary because however disastrous it goes, life goes on. If you’re afraid your manager is going to fire you – imagine/visualize that you’re living off unemployment insurance while looking for a new job that you’ll eventually find. Life goes on.
    – write scripts or short stories for interactions. Writing about people in interpersonal conflicts and how they react to it helps me be less scared of conflict. I still don’t react well to conflict in the moment, but I’m less anxious about it because I’ve got a stock of ‘calm associations with conflict’ in my head? (Because the people in my short stories are super cool about conflict, don’t get flustered, and always have the right response. It’s not at all realistic – but the emotions of my characters kind of rub off on me.) One word of caution, though: when I’m tired/overwhelmed and write, my characters are overwhelmed/tired and get stuck in a loop. YMMV.
    (if you have trouble writing about imaginary characters and imaginary problems, it can help to keep your favourite television character or well-spoken celebrity or youtuber or whoever else you’re a fan of in mind while doing this and imagine it’s them delivering the perfect response. It works for me, at least.)

    ‘Imagining what happens after’ helps me when I’m anxious and pretty much has instant results. ‘Practicing conflict resolution through writing’ was more of a therapeutic thing that helped a lot in the long run, but that was months of writing before I saw results.

    I feel for you, OP. I’ve been unreliable in the past and it was hard to recover from. And I don’t have advice for how to.
    But I do have tricks for getting out of ‘that person might say/do/think something and I’m paralyzed with fear thinking about it so that I’m unable to do anything except avoid that person and meekly say “eep”‘ thing that I read in your letter. Or that I’m wrongly attributing to your letter – in that case, feel free to delete this comment from your memory.

  26. Beigen*

    OP, remember that this blog is written from the POV of management. I think there’s parts of the advice here that might be sound (for example, not avoiding the manager), but the script for asking to be treated like other employees frankly sounds terrible and will make you look very bad if things take a turn for the worse with your manager. You should never be flagellating yourself in communications with your manager.

    If you want to stay in this job (big if, IMO), it might make sense to reach out to your employer, but I would greatly recommend that you consult with an employment lawyer before you do–NOT to prepare to sue your employer, but for help in drafting emails to your manager that will put you in the best light and might actually help you get back to a state of normalcy at work. There may be issues here with disability and possibly FMLA that you and your employer need to navigate. You don’t necessarily want a lawyer to handle your communications with your employer–that will come across as a shot across the bow and will be counterproductive–but a good lawyer can help you advocate for yourself in what sounds like it might be a delicate situation.

    Finally, the advice to second-guess whether to take FMLA leave, while deliberately phrased to be non-committal, is…not good. You know yourself better than anyone–continue to do what you deem appropriate with your leave to manage your qualifying conditions, and don’t let anyone, including management, discourage you from taking the leave that is your legal right. If your manager has a problem with you taking FMLA leave, then that is an issue with your manager.

    1. Colette*

      Huh? Alison’s script is fine – and certainly better than one written by a lawyer who will be thinking about how it will play in court, not how you can best rebuild that relationship.

      And it sounds like the OP is taking the FMLA, in part, to avoid her manager. If she needs it, she should of course take it, but if it’s a tactic to avoid her manager, she’d be better off figuring out how to not avoid her manager.

      1. Beigen*

        We’ll just have to agree to disagree on Alison’s script. A good lawyer will help you to develop a script that will both help you to get back on a level playing field with your coworkers and protect your interests.

        OP says she is taking FMLA to “calm down and get some space,” i.e., manage the anxiety the manager causes. That’s a valid use of FMLA.

        “Figure it out” is not helpful advice to a person who is experiencing the level of depression and anxiety OP is describing.

        1. remizidae*

          The manager isn’t responsible for OP’s anxiety. OP’s poor performance is.

          1. Karia*

            What? OP may have performance issues. The way OP’s manager is choosing to handle those issues is absolutely anxiety inducing. At this point it would be better and kinder to fire someone than manage them like this.

          2. Autistic AF*

            Let’s OP had a workspace that triggered a repetitive strain injury, and their performance suffered because they weren’t able to keep up. Their performance issues stem from their environment. Neurodivergence and anxiety are significantly more complicated, but the environment is still the issue. The manager absolutely contributes to that environment.

            1. Colette*

              To an extent, this is true – but that doesn’t mean the manager is doing anything unreasonable or wrong. If the OP had a repetitive strain injury from data entry, she’d be able to request time off to recover, or an ergonomic evaluation – but she wouldn’t be able to request no more data entry if that was her primary job. Similarly, the OP can request specific things from her manager (e.g. the OP gives her a daily update but acts with less supervision during the day), but she can’t request that her manager not act on her mistakes or that she be allowed to act without supervision when her history has proven that she’s not successful doing that. (I know she has changed, but am less convinced her manager knows that at this point.)

              1. Autistic AF*

                While that’s true, it also doesn’t mean that the manager is doing everything reasonably and correctly. The avoidance tactics are not productive, but they haven’t appeared in a vacuum either.

                1. Colette*

                  The OP can’t control her manager, though. If the manager wrote in, I’m sure we’d have different advice.

            2. Koala dreams*

              I do think there are things that the letter writer could do better, but I agree with you that the manager, and the work environment, is also a cause of the problems. If the manager and the work environment stays the same, then the issues will come back eventually. You can work harder to make up for it for a while, but it’s not a sustainable strategy in the long run. For example, if you need the mobile phone to manage your health, and you aren’t allowed to use it at work, eventually you’ll have to get accomodated at your current work place, or find another work place that allows phones.

          3. Black Bellamy*

            This is why I agree with Beigen. The OP is being treated differently due to his medical condition. The OP has to keep their desk clear is a clear sign that management is managing the medical condition, not their productivity.

            1. BRR*

              The OP is being treated differently due to their performance. Requiring a clear desk isn’t managing a medical condition, it’s likely just not great management. There’s no indication the manager even knows about the medical conditions.

        2. Colette*

          The OP needs to be able to deal with the anxiety she gets from interacting with her manager, or else find a new job. That’s not easy – no one is saying it is. But those are her choices. Not interacting with your manager is unlikely to be a reasonable accommodation.

    2. JustKnope*

      How is that script self-flagellating? The script acknowledges that there have been performance issues (which the OP says themselves). The script (and the entirety of point #1) is about accountability, to help move into a mindset of partnering with the boss to identify solutions. Mental health issues or not, the employee hasn’t performed well, and it’s not going to help OP’s case to pretend that isn’t true.

      1. Beigen*

        OP has taken responsibility, worked to address the conditions that were causing them trouble at work, and has improved their performance. The manager is still trying to manage them out of the job. When your manager has identified you as the problem, the solution is obvious: your departure. There will not be any “partnering with the boss to identify solutions” under these circumstances. OP needs to go into this with some clear goals and have an actual strategy for getting there.

        OP should not pretend that they were a perfect employee before (nice strawman), but they also shouldn’t have a long conversation with the manager where they rehash their past sins before asking how they “work toward” being allowed to have a picture frame on their desk (seriously?). It’s not good self-advocacy to remind the boss why they’re treating you poorly before you ask them to stop.

        1. Colette*

          The OP hasn’t said she improved her performance. She’s said she reacts better and her coworkers don’t set her off anymore, and that she’s in a better place. She said nothing about performance as far as statistics go. She probably is doing better, but that doesn’t mean she’s doing well.

          Some people have the same opinion as you – i.e. show your strength, don’t show weakness – but in my experience, people are more likely to want to help you if you acknowledge your faults and ask for help. And that’s what the OP needs, if she wants to succeed in this job – a manager who wants to work with her.

        2. Kes*

          OP has taken steps to improve their performance, but they haven’t taken responsibility in terms of acknowledging their past performance and that they’re working to improve, which is what’s needed. They don’t need to rehash everything that was wrong and nobody is suggesting that, but an admission that things weren’t great, that improvement was needed, and that they are working to improve, could go a long way to mending bridges with boss. Whether things are repairable remains to be seen, but a few months into improvement after years of poor performance, when OP is still avoiding their boss and hasn’t even tried talking to them, is too soon to say. Fighting the boss instead of working with them will only guarantee the need to leave, and cement OP’s reputation as a bad employee.

    3. X Thorn*

      “remember that this blog is written from the POV of management” – I think the OP was perhaps aware of that, and maybe even looking for that perspective, given that they emailed Ask a MANAGER.

      *bonus points to you for stating the bleedin’ obvious though*

      OP, if you want to repair the situation with your manager and fix things, listen to AAM. If not, listen to this random, lawyer up, and make everything worse. That WILL result in your leaving this job, sooner or later, and will do nothing to repair your reputation. It will also be expensive and ineffective.

  27. Professor Ronny*

    One of the employees I managed in the past was a terrible employee. While it is hard to fire a State employee, I did eventually fire this person. The thing is, if you had asked them, they would have told you they were a great employee. Someone above mentioned magical thinking and that was very much the case with them.

    So, my first suggestion would be to make sure you really have improved as much as you think you have and are not just thinking magically. How do you do that? Is there anyone you work with that you trust to give you brutally honest feedback? If so, ask them. Are there quantitative productivity measures you can use to compare yourself with your coworkers? There is no point doing any of the things AAM mentions if you have not truly improved as much as you think you have.

    My second suggestion is to realize that your manager is human. Once you had shown your manager that you were a problem employee, that because their impression of you. That is a tough thing to change and maybe an impossible thing to change. There was a point with that problem employee I mentioned where there is nothing they could have done to change the situation because there had been too much poor performance on their part. Sometimes, as AAM said, you have to change jobs to get a manager with a different perception of you.

    1. Anon Anon*

      I completely agree. I think the first step is to determine how much you have improved. I also have found that sometimes even if an employee’s performance has improved, that improvement takes them from being a poor performer to being a mediocre/potentially passable performer. And at least for me, being a mediorce/potentially passable performer isn’t a good thing. It’s just better than being a poor performer.

    2. Former Retail Manager*

      Yes, 100% to your point and Anon Anon’s points. When you’re struggling as much as OP seems to be, small improvements can often seem much larger than are leading you to believe that you’re doing better than you really may be. I’ve encountered a number of employees who consider themselves good employees worthy of a significant promotion when, in fact, they were very average performers. Even when you aren’t struggling with issues like OP, your own assessment of your performance isn’t always the most accurate, especially if you’re in a position in which don’t always know the quality or quantity of work your peers are doing.

    3. Washi*

      I agree. Her improvement in managing the symptoms of her mental illnesses is a huge personal accomplishment, but as far as work goes…some of the things OP talks about are just meeting basic expectations for the workplace. Like abstaining from snapping at coworkers is not a work accomplishment, it’s just a baseline expectation. Same with focusing on your work enough to avoid “major issues.”

      OP may have moved the needle from “thinking about firing this person” to “ok probably do not need to fire” but realistically, it will take a lot more than 3-6 months to get to “this is a great, trustworthy employee.” The reality is that the OP may need to actually perform BETTER than her coworkers and not just the same in order for that to happen. Which is why the suggestion of leaving when possible is a good one – in a new position with a clean slate, “great employee” is way more achievable.

      1. AnotherLibrarian*

        I agree with everyone in this thread. As someone with depression, sometimes actually getting to work on time and not crying all day for no reason is a major accomplishment. However, that’s not really a major accomplishment in the grand scheme of work activities. It’s hard, because the effort it takes me to do these things is higher than it would be for someone without depression, so I have to keep it in perspective.

  28. Military Prof*

    I’m forced to wonder if this manager lacks the authority to fire the OP, and hence has decided to make things as uncomfortable as possible as a mechanism to getting rid of a troublesome employee. (I’m not making a value judgment on the OP–my point is that the manager sees the OP as difficult, and may be essentially trying to punish their way to a solution–the OP becomes so frustrated they quit.) This obviously isn’t a behavior I’d support or try to justify–but it is one I have observed on a lot of occasions, in a wide variety of fields. If the manager’s boss takes a dim view of hiring/firing, or has already said they can’t fire the OP out of fear of a lawsuit under ADA grounds, or for any other reason–the manager might be using what authority they possess to make things as unpleasant as possible, while staying within the bounds established by their superior.

    1. RC Rascal*

      Your point is valid but I suspect it is more likely the boss lacks the fortitude to fire the OP, rather than the authority. What I have learned from a 15 year career in Corporate America is that there are a lot of conflict avoidant managers. Some of them are at high levels of the company. Conflict avoidant managers do lots of weaselly, shape shifting, chickenhearted, gas-lighting, and punitive things because they lack the courage and ability to handle a situation head on. Never attribute to inability that which can also be attributed to cowardice, because the latter is more common than the former.

      My hunch is that it is easier for the boss to attempt to make OP miserable enough to quit than to manage her performance issues effectively. That she has involved FMLA and he knows she has a behavioral/mental health issue is playing into his hands. The good news is that because he is too cowardly to fire her now, he is likely too cowardly to fire her in the future. She can most likely redeem the situation enough to stay employed until she finds another opportunity, even if it takes awhile. Meanwhile, going to work isn’t going to be all that much fun.

  29. WellRed*

    The oP has not indicated they’ve tried communicating with the mgr on anything so far so going straight to a lawyer is a bit much. While I think the mgr here is being heavy handed, the OP has more than a year’s worth of behavior, toward coworkers and work attitude, to correct. That is not flagellating.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Agreed. While I understand the need to fix the manager, the manager did not write in. OP did.

      Annddd just because a person gets an attorney does not mean things land well. A friend had a problem meeting deadlines. It involved the union and their own personal attorney before it was over. My friend “won” probably because everyone was exhausted by fighting on such a basic level. Walking out of court, the ATTORNEY told my friend, “Don’t ever do this again. YOU were wrong, period. You HAVE to meet deadlines. And if you ever have another problem like this do NOT call me.” My friend was absolutely SHOCKED to learn that, yes, they had to meet deadlines. While Friend won the case all my friend could think about was the attorney’s admonishment. The win turned into a loss.

      Unlike my friend, OP can see their errors and admits these things were not right. I think adding a lawyer into the mix on top of all the leave time and the original issues is just way too much here. I’d recommend leaving before adding a lawyer in this mix.

      I have seen mention of starting over. The idea was brought out that the new place did help a lot with doing a reset of work attitude and habits. OP, I hope when you think of moving on, you do not think of it as failure but rather think of it as “new beginnings”. Start over with a clean slate.

  30. TimeCat*

    OP three to six months simply is not enough time to make up for past poor performance. Focus on maintaining good performance and earn trust.

  31. Anon Anon*

    OP, honestly I don’t know if this situation can be salvaged. Alison’s advice is excellent, but I also think that you need to consider that things may have gone past the point of no return. Starting over where a manager doesn’t have any preconceived expectations about you might be a good thing.

    However, if you opt to stay where you are, I would encourage you not to compare yourself to your co-workers at the moment. They have extra flexibility because they’ve probably not only proven that they can perform well, but they also haven’t a multi-year stretch of performing poorly. Basically, they have your managers trust and you don’t. It stinks, but it could take a long time to regain that trust (if it ever happens), and you will most likely need to be a model employee (which I don’t think is sustainable, which is why I think you should look into finding another job and starting over).

  32. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP — First, I’m glad that you’re doing better. Uncontrolled depression and anxiety can really mess up your life.

    That said — if you reported to me, I’d probably be managing you closely, too. (NOT the heated emails — those are unconstructive, and the no pictures on your desk rule kind of baffles me.) You say you’ve been improving for 3-6 months, but have you been improving in ways that your manager can easily see and evaluate? You admit you’ve been avoiding him, which is understandable, but really counter-productive.

    You are way overdue for a candid conversation with your manager. Acknowledge that your performance was sub-par for a while, but you’re taking steps to improve. Ask him for specific steps you could take to increase his confidence in you. This will not be a pleasant conversation, but it needs to happen and it needs to happen soon.

    You should also continue to work on rebuilding relationships with your co-workers, as part of rebuilding your reputation in general. If they know they can rely on your good performance, they’re more likely to speak well of you to your manager.

    You may decide after all to just write this job off and look elsewhere, but as others have pointed out, job hunting right now is tricky. Invest some time and effort in rebuilding relationships in your current job while you look for other opportunities.

    Good luck!

  33. TootsNYC*

    so often the most effective solution is the counter-intuitive one.

    When kids misbehave, we sometimes pull away or punish; it’s often a lot more effective to draw the closer, to love them more, to act nicer to them, to encourage them.

    In your case, you are pulling away from your manager, but you’d probably get better results by stepping IN.
    Think of it like a PR campaign–a good one, based on what you actually do, and not a crappy one based on the slogans you throw out with no facts to back them up.
    Provide evidence that you are trustworthy, and expect it to take some time.

    1. Actual Vampire*

      I think the PR campaign is a good analogy. Look at it this way, LW: unfortunately your boss has a negative view of your work. Hiding from him isn’t going to make him forget his negative feelings. You need to actively show him that you are doing better work.

      Also, hiding from your boss is probably counterproductive. The less you communicate with your boss, the more he has to think about you. He is going to be thinking and worrying about what you are doing and what you aren’t getting done and whether you are going to meet deadlines and so on. The more you communicate with him, the less he has to think about you.

    2. TootsNYC*

      so, if there are metrics (pre-existing methods of collecting them, or perhaps make your own), mention them to your boss. “yeehaw, I closed 15 tickets in the last two days–that’s on parwith Superstar Sam’s numbers.”

      If you have a tricky issue, chat about it to your boss after: “Boy, that was tough! I’m glad I googled ‘how to X,’ because I could send the user a link that was really helpful.”

      I would also say: my own strategy with mistakes is that I bring them to my boss the moment I realize they happened. I find the fallout is far less. I’m guessing you are hearing about these mistakes after the fact. In that case, my strategy is to not hide from them.

      1. Actual Vampire*

        Oh, yes, that point about mistakes is HUGE. I posted upthread about struggling to work with someone who had severe ADHD and anxiety. She was very ashamed of making mistakes and would go to great extents to hide them because she wanted to fix them by herself. Often, little mistakes would turn into huge problems because of her secrecy. It became very difficult to trust her. If LW has already established a reputation for doing the same thing, hiding from the boss now will only make things worse.

  34. Susie Q*

    I disagree with a lot of the advice given here. I think the manager is being over the top. Either the manager trusts the employee or the manager does not trust the employee. And if you can’t trust an employee, that employee shouldn’t be employed. It’s not fair to the employee to be overly micromanaged for an indefinite period. There needs to be finite criteria to meet in a PIP, etc. Banning personal effects at a desk is ridiculous and over the top – this feels punitive not constructive.

    This situation reminds me of when a partner cheats on another partner. And to save the relationship, the cheated on partners put down these insane rules that end up making everyone miserable. Most of the time, you’re better off cutting your losses and moving on.

    1. Anon Anon*

      The manager may be limited by what he can do by the employer. For example, my employer is so fearful of being sued, that the moment someone discloses anything that might result in them needing either a reasonable accommodation and/or FMLA they become off limits.

    2. Senor Montoya*

      OP may be a potentially valuable employee, so the manager wants to keep them. Or maybe the manager can’t fire OP or has been ordered to work with OP. We don’t know.

      It is not the same as intimate partners cheating on each other. The manager does not now trust OP because OP performed poorly and was disruptive with coworkers. OP is changing this. Entirely possible that the manager can come to trust the OP to work well and get along with coworkers. But the manager is extremely unlikely to come to that conclusion if the OP avoiding the manager.

      Is the manager doing this perfectly? No, he is not. But overall, the manager;s behavior is reasonable. The OP doesn’t know if they can get the manager to trust them. But I’d advise OP to try because: 1. OP will need a reference from this manager, 2. Now is a terrible time to be looking for a job for many many fields, and 3. OP is going to have to know how to work well and get along with coworkers wherever they work.

    3. MayLou*

      The manager isn’t the one who wrote in for advice though. Alison can say “your manager is being over the top” until she’s blue in the face but it won’t change the manager’s behaviour because the manager isn’t the one asking what to do differently. The OP needs to know what they can do that’s within their power to effect change in the situation.

    4. Lilyp*

      Yeah I don’t think the manager is doing a good job managing here. Two years is a really long time to keep someone around who isn’t meeting an acceptable standard. To be brutally honest, if the manager doesn’t have a vision and a measurable plan to move OP up to a place where they can operate independently at a normal level he should probably have fired them by now.

  35. Dog Coordinator*

    I’m dealing with a micromanaging owner of the small biz I work for, and it’s crushing me. I transitioned from a position where I had a ton of autonomy (sometimes TOO much), and I’m not adjusting well. Like the LW, I have been reacting to my boss’s micromanaging by pulling away, but I can see how that is making my boss try to manage me MORE. Seriously, since the stay at home orders, my boss has tried out at least 3 different task/to do apps, making more lists, making more to dos… and honestly there are too many for me to keep up with, which then make me seem like I’m not doing enough. And having a boss dealing with their own mental illness/instability makes it impossible to have a frank and honest conversation about any of it, as my boss will just turn it around to how they are being effected and all they are doing to keep going. A lot of martyr type behavior. The difference between me and the LW is that I don’t have a pattern of poor work behavior that has brought this on or justified the micromanaging at any level… I’ll be following Alison’s advice on job searching soon… Best of luck to the LW!

    1. TootsNYC*

      Maybe in your case, you should be the one to proactively tell him everything you’re doing. Either just before, or just after you finish. Send him “my plan for the morning,” etc.

      Become the one who controls the flow of information, and bombard him with all the evidence of what you’re doing and how long it took.
      (I find that the process of doing this sort of tracking actually helped me get more accurate at estimating how much time something takes)

      1. Dog Coordinator*

        Thank you for the suggestion! I’ve just begun doing this! It’s too early to tell if it will have the right effect, but so far the massive to do lists have shortened. I also used some of Alison’s previous words when my manager made some comments about tracking how much time I was spending on tasks, to make sure that I have been hitting whatever targets my boss is making up in her head. My boss jumps around and comes up with random new things to throw in the mix, so I’ll also need to be more clear that “if x is the new priority, I have to stop working on y”. I don’t know if I’ll be able to track timing on tasks, since I also get interrupted or pulled to a new task while managing folks or incoming messages, but at least being able to state that “Z took a lot of time because of blah blah” will help.

  36. Karia*

    I think you need to leave. I can’t see this getting better, and micro managing often makes anxiety worse.

    At one place, while I didn’t have a bad history, I got a new micro managing boss. As a result I *began* making mistakes. Having someone watch me constantly, for no reason, turned me into an anxious wreck and ruined my ability to do my job.

    I would actually have a think about whether part time might be a good idea if you can afford it, or a more relaxed role / industry where mistakes aren’t going to have as much impact.

  37. Beth*

    I have a friend who experienced something along these lines–a manager monitoring them extra closely and requiring significantly more checking in and getting permission and etc. than they did for other employees, due to poor performance that had stemmed from undiagnosed ADHD. My friend’s performance improved significantly after they got diagnosed and started treatment, but it took a while for their manager to trust that change. Eventually, my friend was able to sit down with their manager and ask for a trial run of less focused management. They had hard numbers to point towards to show their success rate going up, they had that data from over a period of I think seven or eight months that showed the improvement was sustained and consistent, and they had other less quantifiable achievements to point to as well. It was an uphill battle, but with all that to back them up they were able to reset their manager’s opinion of them a bit, and their relationship did improve significantly from that point on.

    But OP, I’m not sure if this is going to be the same for you. It doesn’t sound like your manager is just micromanaging your work; it sounds like they’re micromanaging your entire existence. Having a photo of your family on your desk is hard to justify as a management-worthy element of your work or performance! A lot of the other points make sense for an employee that’s historically needed extra close management to perform successfully (especially since “3 months since this caused major problems” really isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things), but the fact that you’re not allowed even that kind of little control over your personal space makes me think a line may have been crossed already. Do what you can to improve your relationship, of course, but also seriously consider whether a fresh start somewhere else might be less of an uphill battle.

    1. Karia*

      While this is a lovely success story, I think your managers should have cut a new hire working 100 hour plus weeks a little slack.

  38. AnotherLibrarian*

    The issue I see here is that you’ve been doing better for six months/three months and your manager has 2 years of bad behavior to be comparing that too. If you want to reestablish trust, you need to give it more time. I’d also seriously consider how long it takes to change behavior/get effective treatment. As someone else with anxiety/depression I’ve spent years in therapy and on medication. I still have “bad weeks” and the only thing that keeps me safe at work is that I work hard to be a rockstar on my “good weeks” to earn some latitude during my “bad weeks.” That maybe a way to approach this. If you need to earn trust and latitude, that means going way above and beyond when you can, knowing you’ll need latitude when you can’t.

  39. beenthere*

    I relate with your anxiety, but see your main issue as less about performance, and more about reliability.

    Background: I started a new job in 2016 and very much felt thrown into the deepend of our busiest season (which has since proven to be our historically busiest period ever!), and I made some mistakes. Nothing catastrophic, but enough mistakes in succession for my managers and teammates to question my attention to detail. That, combined with long hours (100hrs+ weeks), and fear of losing my job, gave me anxiety attacks, and I was diagnosed and medicated for it. The anxiety compounded issues because now I stammered where before I spoke confidently, now I froze and couldn’t make decisions where before I was decisive, and since my managers were now watching me even more closely (and yes, one was definitely micromanaging me), my inability to answer the questions immediately and directly (set aside the fact that it sucks that they were constantly “quizzing” me) further damaged my reputation and became an additional performance issue. All from a few small mistakes that now, in hindsight, weren’t that bad. In fact, my colleagues have made them without consequence.

    The difference? They had established track records of good performance. I did not. Stop viewing your manager as an adversary and start viewing them as someone who is trying to help you improve your performance. Giving them the benefit of the doubt that they have literally told you what you need to do to get back on track – communicate with them more, be on your phone less, don’t get distracted as you have in the past – because they want to help you get there.

    That’s great that you haven’t made any major mistakes due to focus issues in the past 3-6 months…this sounds really harsh, but, that’s kinda the minimum expectation at a job. Given that there are still recent performance issues (yes, 3 months is recent!) AND you are actively avoiding your manager AND you are “needing” to take FMLA leave frequently, and the real issue as I see it is: you’re really unreliable. It doesn’t matter if your performance is getting better, if your interactions with your coworkers are less testy, and it doesn’t matter as to the cause of your unreliability. Your manager can’t find you when he/she needs to, you are not reliably at work (regardless of the reason), and you seem to be in denial that these are issues that any employer would struggle with managing. You need to speak up and acknowledge, “Hey, I know I’ve been really unrealiable, here’s why and here’s what I’m doing to improve that,” or eventually expect to be fired. Maybe it’s even better to give yourself a week long break, clear your head, and assure your manager/HR/company that when you return it will be fresh, ready to prove yourself *over a sustained period of time*, and determined to succeed. It sucks that you are suffering from mental health issues and ADHA, but clearly your therapies are not managing them appropriately and after a certain point you need to find a way to consistently do your job, and if you require accomodations have doctors notes explaining the what and how so they are not questioned. If they are truly needed, they will be supported by your care team!

    My story ended with me getting promoted, and that the biggest factor in my success was (1) being coachable and taking some really tough feedback to heart, and not needing my managers to tell it to me more than once, and (2) drilling down and working on the gaps we identified, working HARDER than my peers because I NEEDED to redeem myself, and (3) having an open, positive attitude and showing up every day so at the very least no one ever doubted my *committment*. I am sorry for how harsh a lot of my advice was, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do professional and I just hope it can help you too. The issue isn’t your intelligence or your ability to do your job, the issue is you’re not reliable – and fortunately, that IS something you can fix, or at least address head on in conversation :)

    Good luck, keep your chin up, you CAN do this if you want to!

    1. Koala dreams*

      That workplace sounds very toxic. To have people work 100+ hours a week and still expect them to be productive and speak coherently is a lot to ask.

      Sometimes the solution is to find a more suitable work place with a healthy working culture, not to work harder and harder for no reward. I don’t just mean extreme cases like your place of work, but also that if this job demands more of the letter writer than what they can give without damaging their health, maybe the solution is to find a better job, not to stay committed to this job.

      1. beenthere*

        It’s not the workplace, it’s the industry as a whole – it is agriculture-related and highly seasonal. Harvest season is crazy, rest of the year is not. Just the nature of the beast, the difference was this workplace still invested 2 years to get me where I needed to be and coached me along the way. Quite supportive and the opposite of toxic man, actually. I think that one bananas season was just everyone trying to keep their head above water – my bosses included – that I don’t hold it against them. And I’ve been there long enough to now to have been rewarded and also realize that crazy season Was the exception, not the rule.

        1. beenthere*

          *to clarify: for me it is an industry wide problem of overwork.

          But agreed, if the demands of the job are more than the OP can deliver while maintaining their mental health and well being, at the end of the day someone has to say “this isn’t the right fit, this isn’t working.”

  40. What the What*

    This sounds like a lost cause. If the LW is doing better, the manager is going consider it confirmation that their management strategy is working. They aren’t going to assume or believe that the LW would be doing better on their own when the LW never did better independently. The improvement in the LW’s performance directly coincides with the manager’s micromanagement and policies to control the LW, so I don’t see how they ever convince the manager that he’s wrong and the LW would do better without that management style. While we all know that correlation does not equal causation, it’s a natural human instinct for the manager to believe that they are the reason for any improvement, not just time.

    I think the LW should think about finding a new job with a fresh start.

  41. tangerineRose*

    “the best way to deal with a micromanager is often to give them more information.” This!

  42. Kathlynn (canada)*

    So it’s not clear, when did your manager start to behave this way? And do you have HR or does he have a Boss you feel comfortable talking to. Because if it didn’t occur before you made your FMLA request, this looks like discrimination. If you have HR it may be worth a talk with them. You’ve been there for around 4 years, But you’ve had a bad performance record for at least half that (you don’t say what your performance record was before your health took a nose dive). If you do have a record of good performance prior to 2018, you can use that in the discussion. Because you will have to acknowledge that you have a recent bad track record. And I do think it would be worth mentioning how his behavior and expectations are making your health issues worse, and a reasonable compromise to them.

    If the answers to my questions are yes, his behavior to you completely change, you could say something like this (also, if you still have the angry emails, have someone else check them, and be ready to show or forward the emails if the other party agrees that there’s a level of anger.)
    “Hi, I’m [name],
    6 months ago/Recently, I disclosed to [HR/HR and my manager] that I was dealing with [specific?] mental health issues, and needed to take FMLA. And that these issues had contributed to a decrease in my productivity and other negative behaviors I regret. Since then my manager [name]’s behavior towards me has completely changed in a negative way. While my coworker’s [behavior has changed in a positive way]. If the timing had been different, I could believe that they were the direct result of my [prior?] struggles with performance and negative behaviors. But the changes did not occur until I admitted to having mental health diagnosis. And I feel that my manager’s current behavior towards me is not based on my productivity, but rather my mental health diagnosis. And I would like a 3rd party, HR, to help us navigate this situation, to ensure that my manager’s reasonable concerns about my prior productivity are met in a way that doesn’t infringe on my right for equitable treatment. [this last sentence may be better of as the first sentence. with a different closer sentence]

    I originally put the issues in there with the phone and such, but my writing brain turned off, and it would probably be better for the second email if the reach out is done by email. Have the issues ready, with reasonable compromises. Because Honestly this seems like someone who heard ADHD and went “well now I can’t trust them to do anything on their own”. Hate the negative stigma on health issues.

    You probably won’t be able to get most restrictions lifted, at least not at first. But the goal of this is 1) having someone who can see more details then you double check your feelings of discrimination (and with less bias then you or your boss. who people will hopefully speak more freely to) 2) creating grounds for discussion, that don’t feel like they are available, 3) Figuring out if it’s even worth staying in the immediate future.
    What *I* would focus on getting compromises for, are things that are making your anxiety worse. Like, if your boss would let you have your phone, and reduce his in person monitoring, plus watch his reaction to mistakes.

  43. Personal*

    So, one thing I’ve learned when dealing with mental health is that you still have to take accountability for your actions, and the way they affect other people. You said “my anxiety made me have outbursts at work”. That’s… well, it’s not the same as saying “in the past I reacted poorly or had outbursts that affected my coworkers, but now I have better coping strategies and respond in a professional way”. Depending on how those outbursts made your coworkers feel (afraid, embarrassed, nervous, unable to work with you) and the number of complaints your manager received, they may feel like a short leash is imperative for you. And you need to respect that your past behavior is why they feel that way. Just because coworkers have “gotten over it” doesn’t mean that your manager has. Let them see sustained improvement, consistent healthy reactions, and long term stability. That’s the only thing that will change how things are.

  44. CastIrony*

    This is me. My mental outbursts have cost me any trust and opportunities to move up.

    So I am grateful for this letter, and empathize with OP.

    Now, if only I could be brave enough to loon again…

  45. CastIrony*

    A lot of commenters are suggesting that OP move on, and I agree.

    However, I wonder if the reference they’d get would affect their job search so much they can’t find another one.

  46. Koala dreams*

    It’s possible that this job, with this manager and those bad memories, is not the place for you. You’d do better in a new place, with people who didn’t know you before and a more relaxed environment.

    As for the FMLA, I don’t think it sounds like you are abusing it, it sounds more like you’ve got stuck in a cycle that makes sense given the situation, but is giving you problem with your manager. I have health issues myself and sometimes I get stuck in cycles where particular days of the weeks are extra bad. I don’t even have any meetings with my boss that could cause this. I always feel worse if I’m in a cycle of being ill on Mondays, and not, for example, Wednesdays. It just feels worse to be sick on a Monday, like everybody will think you are a slacker then.

    Could you find other ways to deal with the anxiety? Setting a meeting agenda with the manager in advance, plan tomorrow’s tasks in the evening so you feel more in control the next day when your manager wants a long discussion of your daily tasks. Plan a calming activity after work to reward yourself for going to the scary meeting, or maybe do the calming thing before the meeting so that you don’t show up already sick with anxiety. See if your boss accepts e-mail updates instead of video meetings, or whatever makes sense for you.

  47. K*

    I’m highly sympathetic to the OP, having once been in a similar position during a recession. I did not manage to repair the relationship. I’m not saying it can’t be done, ever, but I know the anxiety of feeling unable to clear the slate. I tried for several years. Don’t do that.

    My eventual decision was to leave, take some time to recalibrate and do some intensive professional development, and then start job hunting again with some new skills to offer. (I would prefer to have left with a new job in hand, but despite many applications, I didn’t get one while still employed.)

    It took a while to shake the feeling that maybe EVERYONE thought I was unreliable, but I did find another job at which I performed well and am about to move to a much better one, and my career feels back on track. Good luck!

  48. Sarah*

    Although I would not say you’re doomed here, as someone that experienced literally the exact same constellation of conditions, caused by the same thing…big changes in my working environment (first moving to a new manager, then to another company entirely) were the best things I could do for my mental health. I had a very similar experience as you: major depressive/anxiety breakdown after a very painful personal situation, accompanied by a lot of just straight up NOT working; which eventually became obvious to my manager. Major deadlines were missed, clients got mad. It was not good.

    While I was still at the job where my breakdown happened, the thing that helped me the most was to keep everything in my mind focused on work related tasks and work related outcomes. If I spent my time thinking “manager thinks I’m unreliable” that was WAY too big for me to take on, paralyzingly so – and it played into all of the things my brain was telling me about myself, too. It was much better to break it down. For me, that involved thinking back to the big mistakes/issues that made my manager think I was unreliable in general…and think about fixing them in a work-related way, not a personality related way. So, for example:
    – the thought “My boss thinks I’m disorganized because my desk is always a mess and because he thinks I’m disorganized he doesn’t trust me with anything” I changed it to “my boss started thinking my desk was a mess that time there was an important file I couldn’t find quickly. Now, I’m going to take 10 minutes every day to triple check that I know where my files are and file any stray papers so that any time he asks me for a file, I’m 100% confident I can hand it to him immediately.”

    – The thought “my boss thinks I don’t care about my work because I let a bunch of client calls fall through the cracks when things were bad” was able to turn into “I know that the expectation is that I check in with clients a few times a week. I’m going to check in with client A M/W/F and client B T/Th, and take notes of the calls, so that I can always tell my boss when I last talked to someone.

    Removing the value judgments: “disorganized”, “unreliable”, “volatile” really helped me think it through in a way I could manage. When I was still in the early days of getting better, those labels felt like they were just how I WAS, and couldn’t be changed. I think one of the big things I learned is, don’t try to take on that negative self-view, OR anyone else’s negative view of you, all at once. If it turns out that at the end of the day, my boss thinks I’m volatile and disorganized and unreliable, but he can’t complain about the quality of my work, that’s step one.

    Step two, though, is almost certainly getting out of the place that is partially causing this anxiety, and looking for a new job – focusing specifically on making sure you’ll have a manager who doesn’t share the anxiety-causing habits of your current manager. My new manager at my new job has his own issues, and certainly isn’t perfect…but it makes it so much easier that they aren’t the SAME issues that made me so stressed in my old job.

    1. Soylent Green*

      This is amazing advice. I am going to share it with my team as a coaching tool

  49. Random IT Guy*

    While it sucks, OP, there might be not much you can do.

    Sometimes, it helps to be up front, and vague at the same time.

    From my personal life – something bad happened, i made some dumb choices that resulted in some people getting hurt – and was interviewed by police, and then later the court.
    All of that, and the doubting myself, the guilt – that impacted my work – and shifted a lot of work to colleagues.

    Once that was behind me – i wrote a mail to all my colleagues.
    I was clear – i said ‘stuff from my personal life rolled over me, and impacted how i functioned at work. that caused a lot of my work to land on you guys, for which I apologize. I know i did not do my job as you are used to, and let personal issues influence me at work. As that is behind me now, and i`ve made sure to not let those circumstances continue, I will work on improving my work to my previous standards. Again, I am sorry for placing this extra burden on you’

    1 colleague replied – dude, it`s cool, we got your back. (He did include fresh cut onions there!).
    Another called me – and just asked “are you okay, can I help you”.

    They NEVER held my crappy performance against me – and my manager had a point in the yearly review about it – but said ‘oh, hang on, you acknowledged this, and you even apologized – well done’ – and moved to the next topic.

    While they could have kicked me out – they accepted my apology, and were able to move on. My manager did say my mail to all of them helped a lot.

    It may not be what would work for you – but, at this point – it may be worth a shot, while you also work on your CV to see if you can move to a new start.

    Hang in there, you can do this!

  50. Turtle Candle*

    My coworkers used to walk on eggshells around me because my anxiety could cause me to take an innocuous comment and react badly to it. Nowadays, they recognize that I’m doing better, and even joke with me that they can’t intentionally set me off even if they wanted to.

    I think a lot of my feeling on this would depend on how exactly you reacted badly or were set off in the past, LW. If it was something relatively harmless (tears, for instance) then not a huge thing, but if there was any significant degree of scorn or disdain or blaming, or even worse, aggression or yelling, you’re probably going to be under the microscope for a very long time here. (Yes, even if your coworkers are no longer upset. It’s really hard to tell from the outside when someone is genuinely cool with you and when they’re humoring you so you don’t explode.)

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