am I a bad manager?

A reader writes:

I’m a newish manager, and I have one direct report. My new employee, “Susan,” quit this week. Her old employer had reached out to her and made her a dream offer. I spent five months training Susan. She had learned a lot and was starting to work well independently. The thought of starting over training a new employee is exhausting and depressing, and I feel completely defeated.

Susan isn’t the whole story. Before Susan, my direct report was Joe. Joe worked for me for three months before his serious mental health issues became apparent. His anxiety and depression made it impossible for him to come to work on many days, and he told HR that the job was too stressful. After a very unpleasant and dramatic three months, he resigned and I accepted his resignation. Then he tried to rescind his resignation and there was a period of time that I was genuinely afraid of him.

Before Joe, there was Emily. Emily was my first direct report and mediocre in every way. She left after a year. In hindsight, she was fine and I could have done a better job training and managing her. At that point, I had never managed before, and I had no idea what I was doing! I didn’t know how good I had it with her!

I acknowledge that I made some mistakes as a manager, but some of the circumstances were out of my control, like Joe’s mental illness. Another complicating factor is that the job is focused on boring research, but due to company policies I’m not allowed to advertise it with a title that makes that completely clear. Instead, the role has a title that makes the work sound somewhat more interesting. For that reason, it’s difficult to recruit candidates who are okay with completing boring research 90% of the time.

So in less than two years, I’ve had three employees in the job. Any confidence I had as a manager is gone, and I worry about what others in my company think when they see the turnover in this role. I’m considering telling my supervisors that I don’t want to manage anymore. They are supportive and value my contributions, but I’m not sure where my place would be on the org chart if I wasn’t in this role. I’ve started to look for roles outside my company, but I will likely have to take a big pay cut if I don’t want to manage.

What do you think? Am I just a terrible manager? Can I chalk up my employees leaving to extenuating circumstances (mental illness, dream job offer)? Should I just move on and look for a less stressful non-manager job? Or should I try again?

It sounds like you just had bad luck with Joe and Susan.

You can’t control for someone getting a dream offer, especially when the job you hired them for is somewhat boring. And you can’t control for someone’s mental illness.

It’s possible that you could be doing a better job in hiring, though. Most people — especially new managers — are pretty bad at hiring, so there’s probably room to improve there. (Here’s a bunch of advice on hiring better.) But also, someone could be very good at hiring and still have run into those last two situations.

I’m not convinced the job title is the problem. You should lean on your company to change the title if it’s inaccurate or causing recruiting challenges. But even if you can’t change it, you can be up-front and transparent with candidates about the nature of the work, starting from the first contact you have with them after they apply. You can describe the work in detail and make it clear exactly what the job does and doesn’t entail. You also should be having candidates do hiring exercises — which will help you make better hires — and you can ensure that exercise gives them a very accurate taste of what the job will be like.

I’d also urge you not to decide you “had it good” with Emily just because she stayed for a year and was easier than Joe and Susan. If she was truly mediocre, you want to raise your bar, not lower it. That doesn’t mean you’re not right that you could have done a better job training and managing her — you were a brand new manager, so that’s undoubtedly true. But it still doesn’t mean she was a great employee, and you shouldn’t settle for staff who you think of as “mediocre in every way.” That would be the wrong lesson to take from your experiences with Joe and Susan.

As for where to go from here … do you like managing? Does the idea of investing in yourself as a manager — learning to get better at hiring and better at managing — excite you or exhaust you? If you had more support — training, mentoring, guidance — would that change your outlook? Is there anyone around who can guide and mentor you, or are you totally on your own and expected to just figure it all out by yourself? Would your company pay for you to take management classes?

If you don’t feel a natural pull toward managing — toward how to effectively get results through other people — and you don’t have any help available … well, it’s a challenging job under the best of circumstances, and I wouldn’t feel a ton of optimism about that scenario. But if you have either of those two things, I’d keep giving it a shot.

{ 148 comments… read them below }

  1. ReadyNPC3*

    What’s the definition of a mediocre employee here? When I use to manage I’d have other managers expect enthusiasm and a desire to move up in the company from their reports. Anyone who didn’t, was labeled mediocre at best. I guess my point is how can we say on this site that you shouldn’t define yourself by your work (not everyone can have a dream job) and still expect every employee to be stellar. Sometime that means people focus on their lives and then put in the necessary level of effort at work which in my experience usually gets deemed as mediocre. Maybe I have my axis askew but I don’t necessarily see mediocre as a bad things in a lot of cases.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Of course not everyone will be great. But if she’s a manager, she should be looking to hire the best person for the role — the person who will get the best results in the job — not lowering her bar because she had some tough experiences.

      Note that doesn’t mean a desire to move up. It means the person who will get the best results toward the goals for the position.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This is a good point.

      When I hear “mediocre”, it means they have some spotty attendance issues, flippant attitude when you point out mistakes and lack of “hustle”, they work at a drawn out pace and struggle to prioritize.

      I can’t imagine thinking that of someone who just isn’t enthusiastic or without a desire to “move up”, we have enough people who want to move up, I love love love finding someone who’s happy in their position. Just as long as they do a satisfactory job. You want to stay in a junior role, thank you JESUS, less turnover. Just be pleasant to work with and do the job with minimal errors or hand holding, please.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It can be that stuff, but it often means their skills and judgment aren’t up to what it takes to perform well in the job. Think of a lobbyist who’s not great at strategy or an analyst who’s overly rigid in their thinking or a client services person who doesn’t intuit when a client wants lots of details or just wants the upshot. It’s the stuff that it takes to do a given job with skill.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Oh, I don’t find those people mediocre, I find them further down the rating scale.

          But I’m not seeing mediocre as harsh as some may see it. I see it as “average” on the scale of “Good” “Average” “Needs Immediate Improvement” and simply “Does not Meet Expectations at all.”

          If this was Yelp, I’d give a mediocre restaurant a 3 kind of thing!

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I’d argue it’s a matter of degrees. Using the lobbyist example since it’s one I’m very familiar with — being not great at strategy could mean you do a generally okay job but sometimes miss opportunites, aren’t especially creative in your approach but cover the basics okay, form good relationships with the obvious players but rarely quite get the harder ones on board, can solve some or even many problems but struggle more when something is extremely challenging, but are overall more or less passable. Coworkers would probably think of you as fine at your job, but your manager would know ideally your results would be better (or might wonder why you hit so many roadblocks). I’d call that mediocre, and I don’t want to hire that person, but a lot of people wouldn’t fire them and wouldn’t even tackle those issues in a real way (but would be relieved when they eventually left).

            But it’s a matter of degrees. There are more extreme versions of all of those characteristics that would be further down the scale, more toward “not performing the job as it needs to be done” and “obviously needs to be fired if they don’t improve.

            I think stuff like you originally cited — attendance issues, slowness, etc. — are one form of this, but there are lots of others, especially as jobs become more skilled and more senior.

          2. Ann O'Nemity*

            Oh, that’s interesting. I put mediocre below average. I think of it as not very good.

              1. MassMatt*

                I think another issue is the way employers try to inflate their import and attractiveness by describing themselves as high quality, having high standards (even when they really do not), etc. and then using that yardstick to evaluate their employees. Some employers exalt themselves with having a high bar for good reviews, raises, etc, someone can do well yet get a “meets expectations” review, accompanied with lots of hand waving about high standards, but no raise.

                I left a job that talked the talk of high standards yet walked the walk of mediocrity–as in star performers given the same raises, or even ratings, as people that did little or substandard work. This is not a high-functioning environment, it’s a mediocre one, at best.

                I suppose every employer wants to be seen as above average, but it’s just not the case by definition.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Yes, for sure. But it’s still the case that managers should, most of the time, aim to hire people who will do really well. (There are of course contexts where that’s not possible or realistic. I also care more if it’s, say, a nonprofit, where someone’s ability to get great results will affect more than some company’s bottom line.)

              2. Richard Hershberger*

                Etymologically, it means medium, as shown by both words having the same beginning. You can find discussions of ancient Roman society where the “mediocre” people are what we today call the middle class: not patricians, but not slaves.

                The word came into English in the 16th century with the sense of being in the middle: neither tall nor short, thick nor thin. Consider that this is what Goldilocks looked for in porridge: neither too hot nor to cold. Mediocrity, in this sense, is not necessary a bad thing. The word kept this feeling of the moderate middle until quite recently. What changed? Here in Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average.

                Turning to the original letter, if Emily really was mediocre in the traditional sense this means she come to work, did an OK job of it, then went home. And that is fine. No one would look at her and see C-Suite material, but her work was getting done. If she was mediocre in the modern, Lake Wobegon sense, then she was doing enough to not get fired, but that is all you can say for her. If so, the goal is to do better with the next hire.

            1. BethDH*

              I realized while reading this discussion that I mentally add “at best” when I see “mediocre” because I so often see that phrase. An employee who is mediocre (at best) is average or below average at every part of the role, where by itself it might mean good at some parts and not so good at others.

              1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

                Agreed – and it’s a conversation I’ve had offline before.

                I read “mediocre” as “no better than average, in the worse half”, whereas my spouse hears a far more neutral “around average/satisfactory”. We have had to agree not to use the word in conversation together.

                There’s certainly scope for significant overlap between “mediocre” and “fine” in some jobs, and maybe that’s something for LW to think about. Does she need a rockstar, or would an automaton do?

                1. Tidewater 4-1009*

                  There’s some room between rockstar and automaton.
                  Does OP need someone with a good attitude who is competent at work that requires a medium skill level and does not require a rockstar?
                  Is the job one with a career path, or not?
                  If it doesn’t have a career path then a person who has the required skill level and is pleasant to have around, but does not have ambitions to be a manager or C-suite, is ideal. This person will be happy with a 3% raise every year and stay a long time.

                  I used to be that person and I just rolled my eyes at the expectation that everyone would be trying to move up to CEO. If everyone was trying to do that, who would do the actual work?

                  IME a good workplace values people who enjoy being the receptionist, or the secretary, or the analyst, or the shipping clerk. Workplaces that pressure everyone to be always moving up (and therefore always working and stressed) are a nightmare.

              2. Annony*

                I do think adding “at best” puts it firmly in below average. I tend to think of mediocre as not very good but not very bad. So probably not someone you would hire (not very good) but not bad enough to be fired.

    3. Just Here for the Free Lunch*

      Mediocre to me is someone who meets the expectations of the job but is on the lower end to middle of that continuum. They do what they need to do to get passable results. I’ve inherited employees like that (and even made the mistake of hiring one or two back when I was a new manager), and they are frustrating. You invest time and effort and money to get more out of them, but you’re always vaguely disappointed.

      I have also had employees like you describe – the ones that are happy to do their jobs and then go home at the end of the day. I wouldn’t have called them mediocre though. They worked hard and were good at their jobs, and sometimes they even exceeded expectations, but they were perfectly happy where they were. Those employees are a blessing!

    4. Fancy Owl*

      I think it can be challenging because your sense of what’s awesome, mediocre or bad can be skewed by your past experiences. If you have a string of terrible employees, just getting an employee who shows up on time and doesn’t cause drama could seem like a massive improvement and they wouldn’t seem mediocre in that environment. But if you’ve only managed stellar employees who gave 110% every day, and you hire someone else who doesn’t, they’ll seem mediocre by comparison even if they’re actually meeting goals. So I think it’s important for managers have a strong idea of what success looks like in a role and not let high performers and low performers move the bar too unrealistically.

    5. JSPA*

      I’d say that’s more “middling” than “mediocre.” Same root concept, but middling is just “middle of the pack,” while “mediocre” throws more shade…middling talents at best, and additionally, possibly not really even medium-adequate in the job. I would not use mediocre as a descriptor unless someone fairly frequently doesn’t hit, “meets expectations,” and never exceeds.

      It is true that a new manager may be looking for someone who seems excellent in amorphous ways that go beyond the needs of the job. That’s when you’re more likely to end up hiring people who are ambitious and overqualified and get hired away, or who have undisclosed side issues that are forcing them to settle. You might do better with someone who’s not much of a conversationalist, not particularly preposessing, but who shows up ready to work, does a reasonable job, and gives you no particular headaches or drama.

  2. AnotherAlison*

    I’m not sure one way or the other about OP’s management skills, but I do wonder how her work is different from the direct report’s work and if she has to do “boring research”, too. If you aren’t enthusiastic about your job and your subordinate’s job, I think your department is headed for mediocrity, no matter who you hire. Your “boring” is someone else’s “not stressful” ideal job. The job is right for someone, but you might be polluting their thoughts about their job and creating an attitude of “how fast can I find something else” before they even start. I understand there’s a disconnect in the job title in postings and job, but are there other ways to make the real job clear in the posting so that you can find people who are a good fit?

    1. Kettricken Farseer*

      This is a good point. OP, I wouldn’t go into the interview wanting to tell a person, “This job is boring” because it may not be boring to them. If you’re clear about the role and expectations of the position, let the person decide if that sounds boring to them.

    2. NotAPirate*

      I’ve had some excellent jobs that were literally described as “boring”. I was working 3 jobs at one point and the “boring” job was the best of them. Decent money, monotonous work, not stressful, never overtime, didn’t need my brain on and could listen to audiobooks. I loved it. Some people make careers of that sort of work, frees up their brain for hobbies and weekends.

    3. drpuma*

      This is an excellent point. As a subordinate, there is a palpable difference between “my manager is willing to do my work but it’s not the best use of her time” and “my manager refuses to do my work because she thinks it’s beneath her.” One guess as to which management style gets the best results…

    4. Sparrow*

      It’s also possible that OP refers to it as boring just because she knows that’s how many people see the work. Even though I quite like my job, no one would ever say, “Oh, that sounds interesting,” when they hear about it, so I kind of understand that mindset. But either way, I agree that she should be considering whether that’s a message she’s projecting to candidates and employees.

      I also think she’d benefit from reframing the position in her mind, because there definitely are people interested in this kind of thing; she just has to find them instead of looking for someone she thinks will just tolerate the position. I have an MA in history, and many of my old classmates are in jobs that require a lot of research skills (including me). They might not care that much about the thing they’re researching, but the process is one they enjoy and are very good at.

    5. SarahTheEntwife*

      I agree! A lot of my work is kind of repetitive detail-oriented cleanup of library cataloging records. Very solo, very “boring”. But I actually find it weirdly satisfying. A thing was wrong and now I have fixed it! I can listen to podcasts while I do the really low-brain stuff, and especially with all the stressful stuff going on outside of work, it’s reassuring to know that if I screw up, nobody dies, and while things are important they are rarely minute-to-minute urgent. And I can see how the work I’m doing is useful and valuable, something my supervisor makes a point of telling me.

    6. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs*

      Agreed. Also, she mentioned that after 5 months of intensive training, Susan was only “beginning” to work independently. That sounds like a skilled and complex job to me, so it might help her recruit better hires if OP adjusted her perspective on the job. What is boring to me could be an interesting learning opportunity and challenge to someone else.

  3. SusanB*

    I have noticed that there is way more turnover in entry-level, minimal experience workers. At my office, I’ve noticed that those in the entry-level job stay about 2-3 years and if they aren’t promoted, they move on. Those with about 10+ years experience tend to stay a lot longer. I’m at a director level so I’m going to stay unless I find a dream job or get an amazing offer. But we’ve lost 3 entry-level workers this year alone and they were all here for 1-3 years. At that stage in the game, you’re figuring out if this job you selected in college is truly what you want to do for your whole career (and one of our workers left for a drastic career change) or you’re desperately trying to make more money and rise through the ranks so you can pay off loans, get your own place, etc. Two of our employees left because they got promotions or more money elsewhere.

    I’m getting ready to hire a replacement worker for the one who left my area and I realize I’ll be lucky if she stays for 3 years. The job doesn’t pay that well and she’s going to hit the cap fairly quickly in what she can do and learn. If we can’t increase her pay or her title and responsibilities (and I’m not sure that we can), she’d be better off to go to a nother position where she can keep rising.

    1. Archaeopteryx*

      It’s also the case that for most entry-level or limited experience level jobs, it only makes sense nowadays to move on after about 2 to 3 years. Otherwise your wages stagnate and there’s no way you can keep advancing. There aren’t really very many incentives anymore to stay in a lot of jobs for more than a couple years.

      1. Goliath Corp.*

        Yup, one of my first managers actually told me not to stay in the job longer than two years. Any longer than that and you risk being seen as a perma-assistant. There are never enough higher-level jobs for all of the assistants to advance, so most will have to move to other orgs.

    2. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

      “At my office, I’ve noticed that those in the entry-level job stay about 2-3 years and if they aren’t promoted, they move on.”

      This is not a bad thing if expectations all around are reasonable and training/recruiting are not big investments.

      I’m coming up on my second-direct report leaving. They and their predecessor each left after 3 years – one for a career change and one for grad school. These were not entry level, but third or fifth job. Both grew quite a bit in the role, added a lot our organization, and then moved on. While I’d love to have them stay longer, this is OK.

    3. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      2-3 years in an entry level job is actually a good thing, especially if you’re unable to promote or pay more. At my last company we had people who expected to be promoted after 6 months. And IME, I’ve only ever gotten large raises when changing jobs. And if a company isn’t able to provide decent raises, they need to find other perks to provide to retain their long term employees.

    4. Lynn*

      This is such a good note. There are so many factors that influence people leaving a job– a bad boss could be a reason but OP shouldn’t just automatically assume that they are the issue because the turnover is “happening” to them.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      By nature, they usually say that entry level positions are built by design to be temporary gigs. They are to gain experience and connections, then you move up at least a few pegs before settling in.

      When you’re hiring for lower paid positions, you’re also dealing with people often in a transitional period in their life. They will leave you for an extra 50c an hour because that’s a huge step up for them. Whereas as you know, a director position, you’re more ingrained in the business and it’s harder to shift. You also have more responsibility and you often feel more responsibility to the company.

      Whereas if I’m there just to answer phones or to do some data entry, you can easily do that for anyone. If you’re not dialed in with your colleagues or you are alone all the time, which is what it seems like may be the OPs issue, you don’t have a “connection” you have no “roots” forming like those of us in higher positions.

      1. andy*

        Entry level job are not meant to do anything with the employee. They are jobs that needs to be done that are also easy enough for someone new to work at. Companies are not creating them to move people up or anywhere, they are creating them because the need basic work done.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          It’s actually due to the volume of work that needs to be done if you want to get into being so weirdly specific.

          Yeah and no shit, companies create roles due to work that needs to be done.

          “New at work”, no. They’re for people who are capable of doing the work, it doesn’t matter if they’re new or not. Some people will never exit the “entry level” abilities. It’s a fact, people have different abilities.

        2. Jackalope*

          That really depends. Some places have entry level positions as a way to let people figure out if this is a good job for them or not while also deciding on their end if the person is a good fit; it is of course also related to what work needs to be done, but the intention is that when they need to promote people they will pull from their pool of entry level employees that they already know.

    6. Super Duper Anon*

      Yep, I went into my first job out of school knowing I was going to leave in 2-3 years. The job had a strange combination of job duties, part of the work was what I had gone to school for and part of it was work I had done in the past as summer jobs and was OK at, but was not my career ambition at all. It also was the industry I least wanted to work in and there was little room for advancement. I knew I couldn’t be picky about my options in my first role, so when I was offered the job I took it with the knowledge that I would stay long enough to get the experience level that most other junior roles were looking for, but not much longer. I stayed for a bit over 2 years then left.

    7. Kiwiii*

      This is a good thought as well. Sometimes people are looking to sit in a place for a long time, but with entry-level or near entry-level work it’s a lot less likely especially if they’re any kind of saavy. My department has pretty high turnover compared to our company as a whole, our longest employee hasn’t been here much longer than 3 years, then 2 years, then under 1 year for the rest of us (I’m at 10 months just now). Our last 3 employees to leave left at 1 year, 1 year, and transferred to another team at 3 years. But all of that’s because it’s near entry-level, we hire people just out of college or with an unrelated degree and a little experience, it looks pretty good on a resume as a year or so stop before grad school, or functions as a way to increase client familiarity coming from a tech role or tech familiarity coming from a client role. These are all great selling points, but I don’t think the average time people spend in this role has ever gone above 2 or 3 years, and I don’t know that it ever will, despite our manager being really great. You just have to keep it realistic for the role.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I had a couple jobs where I swear the purpose of the job was to launch people into the world of work. I trained so. many. people. I tried to reframe it as an opportunity to help someone have a good launch. (The launch I wished I had.)

        Maybe if you think about it in the big picture that would help, OP?

        I think it also helps to kind of standardize your training. This makes it less tiring for you. I kind of had my topics organized within the topic itself. But I might change the order I went over the topics depending on the setting that day or that week.
        One thing I did do is make sure I went over the list of no-nos. These were things that would not be obvious and the person should be told up front. For example, safety points. There were other examples of frequent mistakes people made, so I would point those out almost in a redundant manner: “With this we always do ABC, never, ever DEF. We’ve had people try DEF and they ended up with Problems X, Y and Z.” This works well with some folks as it stays with them, “Okay don’t do DEF.”

    8. Nonprofit Nancy*

      This is exactly what I was going to say. Three employees in two years might sound like a lot, but not if the job is entry level. If that’s the case, what OP may need to focus on is how to invest less time in training.

    9. Karia*

      Yes. I left one job after a year and a half. I‘d worked incredibly hard, covered understaffing, created a new revenue stream, increased profits and excelled with a quadrupled workload, and was rewarded with… a 3% raise. I switched and increased my salary by 20%. To be clear, I wasn’t expecting a 20% raise in house, but more than COL would have been nice.

      A lot of companies simply refuse to reward entry / mid level staff.

    10. TardyTardis*

      The ones who have been there 10 years plus are probably trapped by the job having good benefits and being in a situation where you desperately need them, so unless a miracle occurs, they probably aren’t going to leave unless horrifically bad management drives them out. The 2-3 year people are the ones who can move and know they’ll never get a raise unless theydo.

  4. Sagewhiz*

    In the hiring process, I would look for self-described introverts. We’re the ones who relish research, detail-oriented jobs, and autonomy. Keep in mind that introverted does not automatically mean shy. Many of us are outgoing—in bursts—but being able to hunker down and focus for long periods without interruption is what floats our boats.

    1. Mystery Bookworm*

      I actually think that terms like ‘introvert’ which can mean a lot of different things to different people, are part of the problem.

      I know plenty of people who describe as introverted (myself included) who wouldn’t necessarily enjoy a boring research role. And the ability to hunker down and focus isn’t necessarily tied to an introverted or extroverted personality.

      I think that OP should work on being as concrete as possible in the interview, describing or showing example tasks if she can, being very straightofwrad about what a typical day would look like, and really probe to get the sense that the interviewee is taking it onboard.

      1. WantonSeedStitch*

        Exactly. You can be descriptive about the role and your desired employee qualities without resorting to words like “introvert.”

        “We’re looking for someone who enjoys steady, focused, head-down work that’s usually very much the same day-to-day.”
        “This position doesn’t entail much if any collaborative work or outside-the-box projects.”
        “If you’re the kind of person who likes falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole for hours at a time, you’re probably someone who would enjoy this job.”

        1. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs*

          Yes, this is much better. Ask for what you actually want, in clear language! I’m a serious introvert, but I thrive on collaboration; I would not take a job where I worked primarily independently.

          1. Mama Bear*

            Same. I don’t thrive on collaboration but I’d be very sad after a while if I had to do a lot of research. Not my thing.

      2. Ann O'Nemity*


        I’m an extrovert* but I’m also analytical and I love digging into huge research projects. I don’t think of those things as mutually exclusive.

        When I say extrovert, I mean that I’m energized by social interaction.

        1. Mystery Bookworm*

          Exactly. My Mom is both an extrovert and one of the most focused people I know. She’ll just want to go out for drinks afterwards.

          I tend toward introverted (although I’d say I’m very closed to the middle) but I have a lot of trouble focusing for long periods of time in front of a computer; I prefer more active work. Not necessarily social interaction, but not sitting still for hours, either.

      3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        It’ll depend on the research for me and I’m HERE for some pretty mundane tasks that bore many people to tears.

        Wanna cry, read a book on grading lumber. Explaining lumber grades and percentages allowed in units was death to most folks. But some people love it, don’t even try to say it’s boring to them.

        I don’t want to collect rocks. I don’t want to pan for gold [don’t tell my father, he’d weep]. I don’t want to fish, etc.

        But I’ve done research on history of machine part repairs. It was all collecting data and inputting it into a spreadsheet that I built. That was a-okay by me. You want me to dig out medical records in archives? Done it, wasn’t painful to me.

        I’m particular about what’s boring verses what is stimulating enough for my brain to keep chugging through a painstakingly compiling data kind of task/job.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          So agree. Definitely describe what an average day looks like.
          I applied for one job where X was required. I. can’t. do. X.
          But I was interested in the job for other reasons. So I asked, “How much of my day will be spent doing X?” I was hoping to salvage it.
          The HM told me [a whopping] 75% of the day would be spent doing X.
          Oh dear God, NO! I wrapped up the conversation. The HM tried to get me to sit back down again. I said, “No, this is something so far out of my skill set I will not be able to do this.”
          [X was something that I could probably learn but would cause me to stop sleeping at night. It wasn’t crunching through the actual work that was a problem.]

          Accurately and honestly describe the job. Leave out subjective words such as boring. It’s fine to say it’s repetitive. Some people like repetitive stuff for various reasons.

        2. TardyTardis*

          Oh, I remember the spreadsheet where I allocated property tax expenses throughout a resort (resort property itself, the units not yet completed by percentage of completion, the units completed and not yet sold, and let’s not talk about the golf course and say we did). That was *pretty* getting all the formulas correct for the year, and then of course the annual adjustments…mmm.

      4. Sylvan*

        Yeah. I mean, I’d love a boring research job, but that’s more a curiosity thing than an introversion thing. Lots of different people can enjoy research.

    2. HS Teacher*

      This is what I came to post. Glad I read your comment first. I love tedious tasks. I’m a teacher, which requires me to be outgoing when I’m working, but I excelled at jobs where I required little oversight and could just do mundane tasks all day.

      As a teacher, I’m exhausted when I get home and don’t really want to talk to anybody because being that outgoing really wears me out. I love my job, but I would be fine returning to the minutiae of data entry jobs I held when just starting out.

      OP would probably have more success keeping employees if she/he focused on hiring introverts.

    3. Rainy*

      This is really not what introvert means–I know so many introverts who couldn’t pass a methods class, are shockingly unfocused when it comes to detail, and prefer to be told exactly what to do at work. And that makes perfect sense, because introversion isn’t about expertise, details, or work style.

    4. andy*

      Introverts still get bored when they are not challenged enough or when the work is the same all the time, pretty much as much as extroverts do.

    5. TL -*

      I’m on the outgoing side of extroverted and I have a research-based master’s degree, did scientific research for five years, and do research for my current job. My boss’s most and least favorite thing about me is probably my autonomy and independence. While detail-orientated will never be a natural gift of mine, it is a skill I’ve developed.

      For what it’s worth, being extroverted is a huge asset in my current position – it’s not necessary to succeed but it helps a lot. As is the ability to hunker down and focus for long periods without interruption!

    6. Karia*

      Yes! People have different values and right now, after years of stressful, client facing work the idea of “you get to put your headphones in and do research” sounds like *bliss*.

    7. Kiwi with laser beams*

      Yeah, when a lecturer at my university gave a talk about the field I ended up going into, she outright said “You have to be OK with working alone for long periods of time.” She didn’t say “introvert” or “extrovert” specifically, but she was up-front about the amount of alone time in a way that allowed us to think about our own respective preferences in that area and weigh it along with the other stuff she was saying about the job. So if part of the reason why the research is “boring” is because of a lack of social interaction, there are definitely ways you can mention that and assess whether someone is up to that.

  5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I’m going to slide in here as someone who has hired for boring jobs, along with just simply hard to fill roles for various reasons.

    I agree that you may be hiring the wrong persons but I also know that sometimes you have a very weak candidate pool to draw from, you have to take whatever the “best is”, unless you can survive with the role open for a long period of time. So do you have more time to be picky? Can you not be in a rush to fill the role? Or is it something that someone who’s mediocre and warms a seat is better than nobody at all?

    If it’s truly “I need a seat warmer”, you need to be kinder to yourself and just expect turnover to be built in. When you use the “fling them at the wall and see if they stick” method, you have to be okay with it and know it comes with these consequences.

    This is the downside to management, in my opinion. It’s my most hated task, like I literally lose sleep and start privately crying during hiring times. It’s okay, it doesn’t mean that I’m bad at managing and it doesn’t mean I wanted to hang up my skates. You just have to learn that there are parts you’ll hate and have to grit your teeth through. If the pros outweigh your cons though of course!

    Otherwise, I agree to brush up on your “picking” skills first and foremost! And just departmentalize, you can’t take this so personally! That takes so much time to get into the swing of. That’s something all new managers have to learn in order to stay in the positions that require you to do some really shitty things sometimes, like hiring or worse, disciplinary issues and terminations, etc.

    1. lazy intellectual*

      Agree with the third paragraph. If it’s a low-paid/entry-level role, you probably will have high turnover no matter what. Entry-level roles are stepping stones to higher-paying, more advanced roles – they are meant to have high turnover. (Though if everyone is leaving less than a year, that is a problem.)

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        (Though if everyone is leaving less than a year, that is a problem.)

        Yes yes yes yes yes, this this this this this.

        The only place I had truly bad turnover was where we literally hired anyone who walked in the door.

        We don’t have a rigorous process here by any means for entry level here but we do have more steps and standards. And our average turn around for our lowest paying jobs are remarkably low.

        We had a couple times when we couldn’t really be that choosy over who we hired. We literally only had drifters applying, we actually found one that stayed with us though! So hey, there’s still someone out there that will stick it out for awhile.

      2. mf*

        Yes, this: “Entry-level roles are stepping stones to higher-paying, more advanced roles.” And that’s doubly true if the role is particularly tedious/boring and will only appeal to a small pool of applicants.

        For roles like this, perhaps a better way to measure success as a manager is asking yourself, “Am I helping my employees develop their skills? Are they getting promoted or moving on to more advanced roles at other companies?”

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Bingo. This is super helpful. One thing you can tell yourself, OP, if they do move on to green pastures that you had a hand in helping them get there.

          There is a saying and I don’t know who to attribute it to: A teacher has done a good job when the student surpasses the teacher.
          So I adopted a variant. “I have done a good job if the employee confidently moves to a better job.”

          So you have seen the down sides of hiring people, OP. What I did with that is tell myself, “I can’t reach everybody. Not everybody is well matched to everyone else.” Oddly, it’s the ones that don’t make it that stick in the forefront of our thinking.
          But a good boss is always double checking themselves and saying, “What could have done better? How will I change what I am doing going forward?”

  6. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    Don’t assume you’re a bad manager – the fact that you’re willing to admit you’ve made mistakes and want to improve are steps in the right direction. You say the company won’t be honest with the title/description when posting for the job, but as long as you’re completely honest about the job when interviewing, you can’t necessarily blame yourself for people leaving soon after starting. Some may not realize just HOW boring it is until they’re in the thick of it. And it’s okay to admit that managing may not be for you. But I wouldn’t give up based on the last 2 years because some of those circumstances were outside of your control.

    1. EPLawyer*


      Your first person you could have trained better. Well, yes, I bet every first time manager would admit to this. It’s a learning curve for managers too.

      Your second person had mental health issues. Not sure what else you could have done here.

      Your third person got a dream job. It happens. People leave for other opportunities.

      #2 & 3 — do not reflect on you as a manger, unless you were insensitive to his mental health issues. You don’t have to just keep someone with issues in a job. You have to be understanding and work with them, but the job still needs to get done.

      I think you just need a little bit of a breather before jumping into finding a new person.

      1. Yorick*

        Even if you look back and realize you didn’t support #2 well enough for him to succeed in the job despite his mental health issues, that’s something you can learn from now and do well at in the future.

      2. Avasarala*

        I agree with this. You say you’re a bad manager, but 3/3 of your examples can be chalked up to basically not your fault (first time managing being tough for everyone).

        If you truly feel there is room for improvement in your managing, I don’t think it’s helpful to look at “well Joe had mental health issues and quit”. Maybe instead you can focus on specific scenarios that happened with them and think about what you would do differently. But the fact that they eventually quit doesn’t seem to signal anything about you at all.

  7. Bella*

    I’m surprised that training is that exhausting – is this a very niche roll that’s hard to find already-experienced candidates for?

    Could you also consider advocating for a higher paycheck for this person, or is that outside the scope of what you can do? Most people become happier with boring jobs if they’re paid well.

    Ao-signing everything Allison said about luck & if you truly like management -on that note, I’m wondering – is the fact that you think the work is “boring” working its way into either your interview process, or into the way you discuss the job with your direct report?

    At my last job, we had a manager (very thankfully, not mine but small teams so we all worked closely together) who went *overboard* on preparing people for budgetary constraints. She essentially made it sound like we were DIY-ing our job and really emphasized this in the interviews, even though we did have a budget that was reasonably sized for the org – the key was that it was WAY smaller than what she herself had worked with before and she hated it. & her negativity about the organization in general made her not great to work with.

    1. fposte*

      I was wondering about the long training too. Jobs that are hard to hire for and have high turnover are a tough mix with a long training. Also, the kind of people who actually like super-boring research are very often the kind of people who really prefer to work independently earlier, so it could be a win-win for you to spend less, rather than more, time training.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      It might be worth the effort, OP, to streamline your training.
      I noticed that people usually ask similar questions. So I added that to my training routine and answered the question BEFORE they asked.
      If we let them, the trainees will train US to be better trainers.

      Training can be very tiring. Constantly talking, explaining, thinking and so on can chew up a lot of energy.
      Perhaps, OP, you can work on doing segments at a time, rather than a big push of a slew of stuff.
      One thing I did was to directly say, “Today I’ll cover X with you. Then tomorrow I will cover Y and the next day Z. So before the week is over you will have X, Y and Z under your belt.” If they know what is coming up next that can be very helpful.

  8. Michelle H*

    Some positions are just hard to fill and sometimes managers just have bad luck in hiring. Remember, Dumbledore hired six Defense Against the Darks Arts professors in six years, and everyone still admires him. That said, some of them were clearly not the best hiring choices…

    1. Malarkey01*

      In retrospect Dumbledore made a LOT of questionable decisions, but he really committed to them which is 85% of the battle.

      1. Karia*

        Well yes. “Let’s get an orphaned child to fight wizard Hitler” isn’t exactly an A+ strategy.

    2. Avasarala*

      Yeah that’s not a great example because he really shouldn’t have hired many of them.
      1. Mediocre teacher who had literal disembodied evil attached to his head and no adults seemed to notice. If this isn’t Worst Boss of the Year on its own, I don’t know what is.
      2. An actual con artist and fraud who knew nothing and put students in harm’s way.
      3. An actual werewolf who, when not medicated, is a mortal danger to his students.
      4. A spy disguised as a former law enforcement officer (not that any adults noticed) who demonstrated Unforgivable Curses in the first lesson. Why not torture animals in biology class?
      5. A government officer who was a poor teacher and literally tortured students, not that any other adults noticed.
      6. A double-agent spy who is psychologically unstable and unfit to teach children by most standards around the world.
      7. An actual neo-Nazi equivalent who punished students with literal torture.

      Dumbledore really shouldn’t be managing or hiring anyone.

      1. TardyTardis*

        Not to mention the double agent spy was wasted on teaching and would have been brilliant in research. (but hey, working someone to death does keep them from overshadowing the headmaster, so it’s all good).

  9. lazy intellectual*

    It’s hard to tell without actually being there, but I agree with Alison that hiring may be the root of the problem. Also, I wish there were more advancement opportunities other than just becoming a manager. Lots of talented people don’t make good managers. You have to be good with people, and many aren’t.

    1. HS Teacher*

      Agreed. And this is why we end up with so many bad managers out there. In my field, there are lots of bad principals because it pays better and it’s where you move up from being in a classroom.

      1. CatMintCat*

        Completely agree with this. Being a good teacher does not necessarily make a good principal -the skillset is completely different. My current principal is a great bloke, a brilliant teacher but, at best, muddles through the admin side of the job with a lot of support from the rest of us (very small school). The principal of the school my kids went to years ago admitted the classroom wasn’t her best place, but was brilliant at running a very large school. We need different roads into the job rather than taking good teachers and making them mediocre (!) admins.

      2. Karia*

        Yep. My uncle – a brilliant teacher – went this route. I believe he was good at it but never really enjoyed it. In some respects it’s absurd – “You love your job, are really good at it and get excellent pupil and external evaluations. So we’re going to promote you into a management role that you will hate and involves a completely different skill set.”

  10. Malarkey01*

    Just want to empathize that I had a spectacularly bad run when I was a new manager. Yes I made a few missteps that a more seasoned manager wouldn’t have, but when a Senior VP pulled me aside after an HR meeting to prep for a deposition and said “You’re doing great, nobody could have prevented this” I felt SO much better. Managing is hard, especially when you run into no win situations like mental illness. With more time and experience though you gain confidence and stuff falls into place more.

    Second Allison’s suggestion to seek out mentors or training- just reading this blog has helped me (addressing smelly people anyone?), but self doubt will sabotage you every time so true to get some support from management or some self-perspectives on your own performance to date.

  11. The New Wanderer*

    A couple of things to consider. It’s not clear from the letter whether OP has hiring authority or even influence over who is assigned as a direct report. If OP does, then at the very least Sarah could be considered a successful hire in that she appeared to be both good at the job OP trained her on, and also good enough to be headhunted by her previous employer.

    But, I personally have had 16 direct managers (excluding interim managers) in just under 14 years at one company, and only the first of those was directly involved in my hiring. Due to reorgs, we get shuffled and reshuffled at least annually if not more often, and managers rarely seem to get a say in who reports to them. In that case, OP would only get to focus on the training and managing part. And it doesn’t sound like Joe would have worked out for any manager. That leaves Emily as a possibility of someone who might have improved under better management, but OP was brand new to it and there’s always a learning curve, and no guarantee of success even if OP had been the perfect manager.

    It kind of sounds like OP is looking for a reason to justify not wanting to be a manager anymore, and that’s fine! But the reason isn’t that at heart OP should feel they’re a bad manager, just that OP may not feel it’s a good fit career-wise.

  12. Buttons*

    What job takes someone 5 months to learn? If you want to keep someone then maybe it is a matter of expanding the role and the salary to pay for someone with more experience. If it is an entry level job, there will always be high turn over. I just can’t imagine what takes someone 5 months to learn. I just hired a new coordinator. It is an entry level position. I expect she will be mostly up and running at full capacity within 2 months with a few things that aren’t routine coming up throughout the next 6 months. But it isn’t exhaustive or constant.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      Probably the “boring research” takes a while to learn, or requires oversight until it is learned.
      Which is odd, because it sounds like more of an entry-level role. Possibly the job isn’t being classified correctly.

    2. SomebodyElse*

      Lots of jobs can take that long to learn. I tell anyone walking in the door from manager to entry level that the general learning curve is around 9 months.

      Month 1- finding the coffee station, the bathroom, and meeting a gazillion new people
      Month 2-3: learning the business and trying to figure out all of the acronyms
      Month 4-6: Figuring out what the job is and how to do it
      Month 6-9: Things start making sense, dots are connected, and light bulbs starting to go off
      Start of month 10: Settling in and making the job their own

      1. Stackson*

        Thank you so much for saying this. I started a new job a few months ago after being at the same company for nine years, and I’ve been feeling so behind. But… I’m only a couple of months in. I’m not supposed to be an expert yet. Thanks for putting it in a timeline context.

        1. Lissajous*

          Stackson, I’m a year into a new job after a similar time to you at my previous. I’m good at what I do, I’m experienced, and I feel like I only really started to find my stride six months in, and properly started hitting it a few months ago. Just stuff like “which project folder can I look in for a document of this type for this client that we’ve done before?” instead of having to ask someone. It’s not that I wasn’t doing work before that, but I didn’t know enough about the projects and my colleagues to figure out what should be next on my list, etc. Now I do!

      2. ex-tech guy*

        Yeah. At my old job, unless we lucked out and managed to hire somebody with directly relevant experience, which was not common, it took new hires months just to wrap their heads around what exactly we did, for whom, and why. The “knowledge domain” of the business was absolutely huge and yet also was not something a lot of people are exposed to unless they are in certain kinds of roles at certain kinds of companies. People could DO the job without knowing those things going in, but it was slow going for a while.

      3. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

        I’ve had people go from interns to very important high-paced worked (we have an annual gala, and often would hire a strong intern as a temp contract worker for a month or two for that at the end of their internship. These people were highly productive 4 months into joining our organization (including the time in the internship). I frankly think that if someone has to figure out what the job is (for an entry level position) that something is not right. There should be more direction/documentation/short training to get entry-level people up and running faster. They might not master the job or “make the job their own” that fast, but should be highly productive that fast.

        And figuring out acronyms in months 2-3? WTF? Document them. Or have them just ask if something is unclear.

        Yes, it takes a long time to learn the whole of a job. But if the first four or six months are just training/learning/figuring out I don’t think things are being done as well as they could be.

      4. SansaStark*

        It also might depend on the type of job. The industry I’m in is very cyclical and we’re up front with job candidates that it’s going to take a year before you’re going to see the whole cycle and probably another year before you understand how everything fits together. I’ve been at this job for 5 years and I finally feel like I have a good handle on everything now. I don’t know everything, but I have a pretty good understanding of the hows and whys of things and the backstories of decisions from years ago.

        1. SarahTheEntwife*

          Same here. I’m in an academic library, so there are things that only happen at certain points in the academic year. My job is a bit less cyclical than some, but in my old position it was universally understood that you needed to see an entire year to really learn the job. And my coworkers over in research help spend a lot of their first few months just establishing relationships with their designated department, since it’s such a people-focused job and it might take you three months to convince X faculty member to even make time to talk to you.

    3. AnotherAlison*

      Well, I have a former peer who didn’t pick up the full duties of his job in over 5 YEARS, and he had decades of related experience prior to that.

      With my position, the reality is that you would be able to do some things on your own within 5 months, but not everything because you have to go through a full project cycle from bid to close-out to know everything. We also have a lot of outdated standards for things you just know from doing them a dozen times, while a newbie would have to refer to the standard each time.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I think you’re not remembering that the OP most likely has a job to do while training someone.

      Having to do an entire 40 hour job, on top of carving out time to do the training procedures and being interrupted throughout the day, does indeed get exhausting for people. Especially when they’re not used to it when they’re new managers.

      Some folks aren’t able to do the multi-tasking that it often includes.

    5. Kiki*

      I mean, a number of jobs take 5 months or more to learn. If all 5 months are purely training, no output, that’s a lot, but I’d say quite a few jobs take 5-9 months to get to full capacity.

    6. Jackalope*

      I had a job that had a lot of highly technical information that you had to learn as well as lots of systems to navigate and industry-specific problem-solving, and for Reasons (good ones), you couldn’t just say you would just do the bits you’d already been trained on, you had to be ready to do it all. We had about five months of training and were told we probably wouldn’t feel proficient for at least a year. There was just too much to get all at once and so many different ways that issues could come at you.

    7. Not So NewReader*

      What job takes someone 5 months to learn?
      Uh. Most jobs.
      A chunk of that can be attributable to learning the regulations AND the fact that regulations and/or the understanding of the regulation can change almost weekly. It’s very hard to learn a moving thing…
      Take something like food handling. The amount of regs there would take a person’s breath away. It’s staggering. Added wrinkle, the store is at the mercy of the inspector’s own understanding of what the regs say. One inspector says “Always do X” and the next inspector says, “never do X.” So what do you do????

      Another chunk of why it takes so long is the ridiculous amount of material that needs to be covered. I have had two jobs now where it’s nothing to be handed a packet of papers at least a half inch thick. “Here read this.” And then the employee is never given any time to sit down and read the document because the work loads are over the top. In both cases these materials could be handed out at least once a week. Peach. I haven’t read last month’s packets yet. But neither has anyone else.

  13. Koala dreams*

    When a job is less attractive to candidates, there is also high turnover. In your case the job is boring, but there could also be factors such as low pay, irregular schedule, little chance of promotion, lack of training opportunities, bad location… Not everything has to do with you as a manager.

    You could probably also improve the hiring. A job that one person finds boring, another person would like, so you can think if the job has any positive sides and then make sure that candidates get a balanced view, including honest description of the negative and the positive.

    1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      I will add, though, that a manager once told me if the same job keeps coming vacant over and over, the problem isn’t the employees, it’s the manager. I’d taken a new job primarily for its location and thought, this will be okay for a while. I got there and found out that in the 4 years before I was hired, no one had stayed more than a year. My immediate predecessor stayed exactly a week (which is how the position opened up for me. No mention of that in the interview). My counterpart left after 7 months, and I lasted 8.

      Needless to say, the hiring director I reported to did NOT mention her revolving door and high turnover.

      1. TardyTardis*

        I had a manager who went through six accountant in nearly that many years, finally found one who could read her mind properly, and retired not long after. For some strange reason, the manager’s boss kept reducing the number of her reports…

  14. MissDisplaced*

    Hm, I’m not sure about OP’s skills as a manger, but maybe their skill at hiring.
    Compounding the issue: “the job is focused on boring research, but due to company policies I’m not allowed to advertise it with a title that makes that completely clear”

    I have no idea why this isn’t being communicated in the job posting? But if it can’t be, then you need to very clearly communicate that in your interviews! I used to hire for production artist positions, and had to be very, very clear that it was not a design position that was in any way creative or artistic, nor would it ever be.

    The other thing to consider is the level of the role. If it is entry-level without much advancement, you may have to resign yourself to the fact that people just won’t stay in the role too long. And there is nothing wrong with that if it is what it is. You would expect people to move on. Adjust your training time and expectations accordingly.

    As for the people you did have, I don’t see specific evidence you’re a bad manager. Susan was good and got a great offer to move up, Joe had health issues outside of your control, and Emily was just ok or lackluster, so maybe her interest wasn’t there, which doesn’t make you a bad manager.

    Whether you want to manage is a different question. Your current role may leave you too busy, or it may be unsuited to taking on the training and management of another, especially if it’s an entry-level role verses a more independent or seasoned role. You’d have to think about that.

    1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      She says right in the letter, due to company policies. Usually this means HR has a title/description/pay scale picked out that doesn’t quite line up with what the job requires, or the description they do have is so overly detailed, a candidate reading it might misinterpret what the job is about.

      One place I worked regularly included all of its HR policies in job descriptions. So a job description for a llama trainer might be 700 words and include 2 sentences about llama training responsibilities, and I’d often get people applying because “I can show up on time and in uniform, I’m very reliable,” which was the bulk of the job description and not “I am an advanced-level llama jockey,” which is what I actually needed them to be to hire them.

  15. pretzelgirl*

    Are you describing the job well, in the posting and interview? Is it a position that is difficult, mundane, too much work, too little work etc? Are you letting people know this if it is? This could really deter people after a year or so.

    Do they have other team members? If so, how do they interact with the person in the roll that has high turnover? I had a few jobs I left within a year bc the team was so incredibly awful I couldn’t stand it. I mean I got swore at for spilling water, people hid things from me, got me in trouble etc. It was awful. That could be part of it.

    1. pretzelgirl*

      Sorry I missed the boring research point. I would be super clear in the interview process (maybe a phone screen too) about the fact that its boring research.

  16. aubrey*

    As someone who has hired for boring roles, including some of the actual work in the hiring process has been really important. I reply to resumes of interest with a ‘do these 5 tasks’ kind of project. I keep it short so as not to waste their time, and emphasize that it’s to see if they like the work, not just testing them (though of course it’s also testing their attention to detail and ability to follow precise instructions etc since those are critical to the job). Lots of people think ‘yes I could totally handle monotonous work, I’m sure it’d be fine’ and then they try it and realize they definitely can’t do it for hours on end. Other people truly love a job where they can be left alone to fuss with details all day. It’s WAY easier to manage people who actually like the work.

  17. TimeTravlR*

    I was a manager in a couple different positions and was told I was good at it and my employees (for the most part) seemed to like my style. But I hated it. It just really isn’t my thing. So I took a (truly dream) job with good pay and no supervisor responsibility. I like being responsible for me. This may not be you, OP. But it’s okay if its.

    1. Almost a dream job*

      ^^ A thousand times THIS! I hate managing people and want to get out of it. But what I need is MORE money, not LESS money– and I can’t figure out how to do that without managing people. Ugh.

  18. AP*

    “You also should be having candidates do hiring exercises — which will help you make better hires — and you can ensure that exercise gives them a very accurate taste of what the job will be like.”

    In this context, what would a hiring exercise look like? Have them research something during the interview? I would imagine that any decent research project would take a decent chunk of time, say a couple of hours. I guess you could give candidates a research project as homework to do before the interview, although that has its own pitfalls.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Depends on the job. Usually up to an hour or so is reasonable. I’ve asked candidates for communications positions to draft fake press releases for events that will never happen, asked analyst candidates to research and summarize their findings on a particular law or bill (work we’d already done previously, so I knew the correct answers) / asked admin candidates to write an email in response to a tricky and sensitive hypothetical situation / etc.

    2. KAG*

      I once was provided a case study and given about a week to put together a presentation with my recommendations. I then presented it via Skype. They provided the same case study to all candidates for my position/at my level. I really had fun doing it… I think when done properly, it helps the candidate assess the position as well.

    3. Jane Marple*

      We hired recently for a research-related position and gave candidates an at-home exercise with a couple hour time limit. Basically, we gave each candidate a short (several pages) document and then had them create an even shorter (few paragraphs) summary, with some guidelines about the information within the long doc that the summary should focus on (if that makes sense). It didn’t necessarily test all their research skills (in that they were given the source document), but did provide insight into their analytical and writing skills–whether they could find the important information and present it clearly & concisely.

    4. Sarah*

      As someone in a field where I’ve been given tasks that take more than 4 hours, I would say an hour or less is ideal. It is about as much time as you might reasonably spend in an interview, so you aren’t expecting the candidate to spend more time than you would be willing to spend (which I think is fair because the interviewer is at least getting paid to do this. If the interviewee is employed, they are having to actively hide that they are doing this from their employer and are probably interviewing multiple places. It has been 2 years since I started at my job and I still remember how much I appreciated that their exercise had a strict time limit of 1 hour and that it was actually an amount of work you could do in 1 hour).

      Given how many of these I’ve had to do, I’d suggest that you consider very specifically what they would do in the job. This may require giving them some amount of starting information or having them edit something rather than start something from scratch or add to something. Especially since the main concern here is making sure they would be happy doing the work, you can really focus in on that. If normally they would be adding to an existing piece of work where they would be able to talk with the other contributors, provide them with the kind of information they would get from the contributors. I think hiring exercises are most effective when the goal is kept in mind. In other words, if they would normally use a program installed on every computer, a task that ends up partly measuring how quickly they can install that program is not a great measure. Maybe there is an online tool that meets the same needs and you can test it out on your current employees first, figuring also that interviewees won’t have had the chance to build up all the context. If there is a database that a lot of the research tends to come from, maybe even preselect some articles from the database, some more relevant than others, so they don’t spend as much time trying to find the database and get an account, etc. You want a small version. Then ideally you would tell candidates early on that you are trying out a new hiring exercise and initially don’t give it much weight until you’ve done it a few times and know what a good candidate tends to produce.

      1. TardyTardis*

        Also, how much are you paying? If you can only pay so much, people are going to leave for more money.

  19. Lady Heather*

    I am generally of the opinion that there are no bad employees – there’s only bad hiring and bad managing. (There are, of course, ‘people who could/would make bad employees’ – they aren’t bad employees, though, until bad hiring and/or bad managing (including ‘not firing’) happens.) Bad hiring can either be because you’re bad at hiring and aren’t picking the best candidates out of your pool of applicants (and you need to become a better interviewer etc), or because your pool of applicants only has bad candidates in it (and you need to attract better applicants – clarifying job description, searching in other areas, increasing salary).

    It’s hard to say what is the cause here, or if it’s just bad luck. But here are some things to reflect on:
    Emily: I’m not clear on whether she was a mediocre employee that only looks good compared to Joe, or whether she was a good employee that you, at the time, considered mediocre. Was it ‘Emily was insubordinate, rude and always late, but I didn’t fear her like I did Joe’ or was it ‘Emily was skilled, professional and did what I asked her to do, but I wasn’t clear on what I expected of her so she didn’t do what I wanted her to do’?
    Joe: having an employee with mental illness is ‘luck of the draw’. However, there are a few things to learn here as well: when hiring, were you clear on what he could expect of the job regarding routine, schedule, overtime, stress? When managing, were you clear on your expectations? Did you give calm and regular feedback?
    Susan: the only problem you seem to be having with Susan is that she left! If you’re on reasonable terms with her, I might try inviting her for a (virtual?) coffee to ask if she has any ideas of how to be better/more attractive employer. What things weren’t clear during the hiring process that surprised her after she started? You’ll want to be clear on those things to your candidates. But perhaps also: how did you do as a manager?

    I don’t have an opinion on whether you’re a good, meh or bad manager – even if the answer to the Emily (and possibly Joe) question is that you weren’t a good manager then, you hopefully learned from those experiences and are a better manager now.

  20. Thankful for AAM*

    I have bad managers and I can tell that if you ask staff for feedback and then do not listen to it, that is a sign that you might not be cut out to be a manager. It sounds like you are listening!!

    Could you ask the last person who left for their dream job for feedback? Something short, where could they see most room for improvement, the hiring process, the training, the work itself, etc. And ask for suggestions for how you can improve managing the day to day.

    My manager asked me about the optics of appearing to be friends with one of her direct reports (my co-worker) and I told her I agreed with the feedback she already got from her boss and grand boss that it looks bad. She still does the things that make her look like she is playing favorites. So when you get feedback, try to listen to it.

  21. Elizabeth*

    One of the issues that stuck out to me was your description of the job as 90% boring research. Obviously I don’t know what research you’re doing, but I think boring is going to be relative. I’m a research nerd, it’s actually one of my favorite things to do, and I have yet to find a subject that bores me, subjects I don’t fully understand, yes, but nothing boring. Alison is correct, be upfront about what the job actually entails, what subjects the person will be researching, if it’s a multitude of subjects, give examples of past research. Ideally, this would be done in the job ad to let people self-select out. If that’s not possible, make it clear to potential interviewees before you actually interview them, again to give them a chance to turn down the interview and not waste anyone’s time.

    1. Elizabeth*

      I’ve done some research that many people would consider pretty boring, but that I loved, salt production for one example. So I agree with some of the posters above, don’t describe the work as boring, just be honest about the subject matter.

    2. lazy intellectual*

      I work as a data analyst (so, research), and I always feel personally attacked when people are like “oh, research is boring.” I can’t imaging doing anything else!

      Of course, what “research” means in a professional setting is broad. If you are just perusing the internet for donor prospects, then yes, that can be tedious and boring. (I think the fun part of research is the analysis part.) LW1 needs to be REALLY specific about what the tasks are, and what percentage of the employee’s time will be spent on each task. This needs to be in the job description and in the interview.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      “Boring” is so subjective! I don’t like that description either.

      I like research because I like answers, I find it satisfying myself.

  22. Bob*

    Alison is very correct here, you started out wet behind the ears then you had a string of rotten luck.
    Also the advice given on getting better at your role and explaining the job in the interview stage is correct. Some but not all realize that in the interview process the interviewee should be interviewing the company as well as you interviewing the candidate.
    All that said the culmination of all this is a gut punch and that can lead to burnout and dread and even questioning yourself. But you have to accept this is bad luck. And it sounds a lot like those above you also realize this is not your fault.
    So what you need to do here is accept that you are not at fault and that these things happen and will happen again. You can try to put luck on your side by being the best you can be and by continuing to do your job.
    Captain Picard once said: It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.
    Also research into luck has found that you can improve your luck by putting yourself out there and taking more chances. You will have more failures but also more successes and you increase the chances of having big successes. Nothing ventured nothing gained.
    So build your support system especially (including emotional ones), build your skills and don’t doubt yourself. And accept that luck comes and goes but if you stop trying good luck stops being possible.

  23. Argh!*

    If you can include some behavioral questions to the interview process, you can tip off the candidates about the true nature of the job. For example, “Can you tell me how you approach a long-term project that requires [vague description matching the tedious nature of the tasks]?” You would get an answer that indicates whether they’d be a good fit, and they’d get a red flag or an “oh boy whooppee just my kind of job!” indication.

    If you are an outgoing person yourself, try to avoid the trap of hiring someone who is like yourself in that way. It’s a temptation we all have, but if you picture the ideal candidate, perhaps based on someone you’ve actually known, and mentally magnify what they do that’s different from yourself, you can avoid that trap.

    You could also reframe it in your mind as a 1-2 year job for someone and train them in skills that will help them move up and onward. Then you’d have a feeling of satisfaction when they leave rather than feeling like a failure.

    Very few people can do tedious work for years on end. Even people who are not neurotypical in the ways you’d need them to be would probably get bored eventually.

    1. Jane Austin Texas*

      I have also come toward radical honesty. I will literally sit people down in interviews, and tell them, “I want you to understand some of the challenges and complexities of this job…” and go through the list of things they will face (professionally but honestly). Have definitely had people say “this isn’t for me” in the interview. It’s ok, if you don’t want the job, I don’t want to make you want the job.

    2. TardyTardis*

      We had people who did do tedious work for years where I worked, and for astoundingly low pay, but they had very good benefits in a small rural town where having benefits made you aristocracy.

  24. 30 Years in the Biz*

    My first two management experiences involved an employee who stole from a hotel on a business trip (think room decor) I had to fire them after I gave them a chance to come clean and they lied to me twice. The replacement for this person told others I just sat in my office all day and did nothing while she was overworked- which was not true . Oh, yeah, she also accused me of poisoning her and reported this to our head of corporate health and safety. After several meetings, she was put on a PIP for her poor work habits -which she immediately ignored and then proceeded to bad mouth me and the situation to other employees. HR fired her. I ended up doing her work and my work with no issues for almost 10 months during a hiring freeze. These experiences had me thinking twice about continuing as a manager. Why did the first person think they could get away with stealing? And I chose the second person myself. Was I a poor judge of character? What kept me going was that my manager encouraged me, that I liked to train and help others, our company had a great product that needed great support, and I wanted to develop my knowledge and skills so I could eventually be a (big) decision maker. The third person I hired, and I worked together for 6 years before I left the company. She still works there, and I feel I offered her the support and training she needed to improve in her career. She has proven to be hardworking, dependable, and easy to work with. She came from a university environment and I feel I effectively helped her succeed in private biotech.
    To make a long story short, sometimes circumstances make you think it’s you, not them. You can’t always believe this. Often it is them. Do your best work, ask mentors for advice (like Alison!), and know that things get better.

    1. Jane Austin Texas*

      The first person I ever hired was a terrible employee. After 2 years of continued “training,” we had to put her on a PiP and fight with a union to fire her. It was a horrible experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The second person I ever hired was also a terrible employee, but I was able to recognize this pretty quickly and move her out. I have hired many, many more people since them and many of them have been excellent, but I still think “is it me? am I a bad judge of people?”

  25. Kiki*

    I would guess the last two employees having to leave can definitely be summed up to circumstances beyond LW’s control. I think it would be useful for LW to do more introspection on Emily, though. What do you mean by mediocre? Like, was she just not doing as well as you hoped or did she have a bad attitude? Do you think you gave enough feedback and resources to overcome mediocrity? Were the expectations for the role clear? Were the expectations for the role reasonable? I don’t mean to call LW’s managerial skills into question, it’s totally possible Emily was just mediocre at the job and had no ambitions to change that, but I do think it’s important for managers to ask these questions of themselves.

  26. Bibliovore*

    I really got caught up in “boring research.” For me that would be a fabulous job. There are tons of unemployed or underemployed librarians who would love to do “boring research.” On the other hand, the daily work-life of an archivist would have me jumping out of my skin.
    Get a mentor for management issues. Hire the people who want to do the job.

  27. Jane Austin Texas*

    This letter could have been written by a colleague of mine! We had an employee of 3 months up and quit, only to replace her with someone who left within 6 months. As someone who has witnessed this from the outside, but up close, please let me be the first to say that I think this has NOTHING to do with the management and EVERYTHING to do with the hiring process. Please don’t get down on yourself!

  28. Sarah*

    I do wonder if people are just unhappy in this position. Do you have a sense of whether Susan said that to make the transition easier or if she really was hally in the position?

    Also, you may be passing on your negativity. No one wants to be seen as a burden to their manager.

    But hiring seems like the obvious issue here. Have you ever sat down and thought about what would make someone effective in the position and what skills are most important? When I search for jobs, I notice a lot of job descriptions aren’t particularly good and the skills don’t always make sense. For example, they might say they want x years of experience with a tool I could learn to use at a pretty good level in a day. On the other hand, the same position will often leave out something that would seem more important. And there are a lot of job descriptions that are not very descriptive at all!

    Even if somehow you don’t get to wrote the job description, it would be a good exercise to think about what is actually important in this job. That way when you interview someone, you will be very clear on what you are looking for.

    You also probably want to discuss the good and bad things about the job during interviews. And frankly maybe the problem is that the job isn’t particularly appealing, in which case you might need to work with your company to figure out whether you can do things to make it more appealing or have very clear priorities so that you get what is most important even if you leave out some of what would be ideal.

    I just keep coming back to the part where you say the thought training a new employee is draining. I think getting better at hiring will help, but I also wonder if you are getting any support or training from your organization. Do you have a good manager? Do you remember how you were trained?

    1. Sarah*

      As far as the job being boring, I wonder if there are things you could do to make the other elements more appealing. For example, can you work on developing a great culture? Can you get your employer to consider having a great vacation policy?

      But mostly I think you might need help with the training process if it is this exhausting.

  29. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    A different approach to this….

    OP described the job as boring – and I assume it may also appear to be a dead end job but I don’t have anything to validate that.

    Do NOT expect people – good or bad – to want to stay in boring jobs for any length of time. What are the possible career paths within your organization for someone in this job? What opportunities do they have to rise and move upward?

    If it’s a boring job – and also with no future beyond that job – you’re not a bad manager UNLESS you can create opportunities for the incumbent to move to something more interesting in due time.

    It might not be YOU that’s bad – it just might be that the job sucks, and people give it a good faith effort and then move on. Especially if they have no options in your company/enterprise.

    If you can’t see that, well….

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This is making me think, OP. Can you find out from HR/your boss what the expected longevity is here?
      Prior to you, how long did people last in this position?
      This might give you a comparative basis and you can adjust your expectations of yourself up or down accordingly.

    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      An incomplete sentence – I said =”: you’re not a bad manager UNLESS you can create opportunities for the incumbent to move to something more interesting in due time.” == add to that AND DECLINE TO MAKE THOSE OPPORTUNITIES AVAILABLE.

  30. MaybeBaby*

    The letter writer doesn’t mention why Emily left. Did she get a better offer? Did you do any kind of exit interview with her or with Susan? There might be some valuable feedback there.

    Regardless, I’m sure that you are not a bad manager. It sounds like you had a string of rotten luck and that you’ve learned quite a bit during the last 2+ years. Take what you’ve learned as you hire again this time and as you start to coach and train your new employee. If it becomes clear in 6 months or so that you still don’t like managing, revisit that question then.

  31. Fabulous*

    I’m late to the party so perhaps this question was already posed, but if a candidate asks why the position is open what can the OP say to not make it sound like the constant turnover is an issue?

    I guess Susan’s departure can be easily explained by “the previous employee got a dream offer”, but if they ask follow-up questions like how long people generally stay in the role, or about the previous people in the role since Susan’s stay was so short. Maybe I’m overthinking this though and not all candidates would think to ask these questions!

    1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      Unfortunately, I’ve landed in more than one job that looked fine but turned out to have a revolving door. I was really p.o.’d that the employer glossed over or outright lied about the turnover and the reason they’re hiring.

      Now I not only ask why the position is open, I ask how many people have held the job in the past 5 years. If I’m told “Mindy left in June after six years with us to go to graduate school” and it’s now November, I ask the reason for the time lag in filling the position and if there were any interim hires that didn’t work out. I’m amazed at the employers who’ll conveniently not mention Jack, who replaced Mindy and was let go or quit after only 2 months. So the real reason the position is vacant is because Jack was gone in a flash, not that 6-year veteran Mindy went on to pursue her dream.

  32. Clinical Research Manager*

    Oh, I feel so much for this letter writer! I have been a Clinical Research Manager for 10 years now and hiring the right people is so hard! I definitely questioned myself as a younger manager so much when I had hired some people that ended up being bad fits for the job. I’m not sure if this letter writer is doing clinical research or something else, but what I have found helpful is to explain as clearly as I can what the actual day to day job will look like during the first interview (about 20% meeting with clinical subjects, 10% in meetings/conference calls, and 70% is computer work: data entry, reports, etc.). During that first interview I explain how much attention to detail there is for this job and why it is so important (not my area of research, but as an example say you are actually working on a COVID-19 vaccine trial, everyone will want to know that the research procedures were done exactly right and the results were reported accurately). The large picture is pretty cool! “Wow! We’re working on finding a solution to this big disease!” Similar to the job description title the letter writer had, this can be exciting to a lot of people, but the day to day reality is lots of “boring research” data entry and reports. For some that large picture is a great motivator to do the “boring research” well, but it is just important to make sure that they have a good understanding of what the actual work looks like.

    After the first interview I do have candidates do a 2 part short project – summarize a research article and do some test data entry (not part of any actual clinical trial, just a simulation). I can then actually see how detail oriented they are. Do they ask questions if they are unsure about something or just guess, etc.

    In the second interview I then ask them how they felt doing the data entry project. Is that something they could see themselves doing for over half the work week every week? It may not be their most favorite task, but if someone really hates doing that kind of work, it might help them realize this job isn’t for them. At the second interview I also ask them “what do you think a typical day will look like here?” This shows me how much they were really listening to me when I explained it in the first interview. Do they have a good realistic understanding of what we do.

    It is still so hard! The training does take a long time and if you are also busy doing lots of other work, that can be very difficult as well. The longer I have done this, the more I have realized that there just is no “magic bullet” to always hiring the right person each time. You can be a good manager (though of course always still learning) and you can do your best during the hiring process and it still just isn’t the right fit for some and you just don’t know until they’ve done the job for a little while. I actually just had one of my direct reports give her resignation today after being here 10 months. You just keep learning and do your best. Good luck!

  33. Lorac*

    My old manager could’ve written this, complete with a string of employees who kept quitting. If I could give feedback directly to my old manager, I would agree she was not a good manager. A great individual contributor, but not a manager.

    I joined in the midst of proposals and grant season when she was busy trying to secure funding for herself. She left me to fend for myself and threw a stack of training documents and assignments for me to fumble through on my own. Each “training assignment” I turned in was torn apart and criticized. She would tell me my abilities were far below her expectations, leaving me fearful that I was going to be canned. The highest praise I got was “your work is not good, but not bad either.”

    She would tell me I should approach her to ask questions, but then be obviously irritated and impatient when I asked questions that “wasted her time”. Except for a new person, it’s very hard to gauge what questions require her input, and which can be directed to other people. Also she never bothered to introduce me to anyone else in the company, which made it extremely difficult to approach different teams to get perspective.

    Even towards the 5 month mark when I began working independently she would give the same level of harsh feedback on every assignment. Often in public, or on an email chain with 20+ people CCed on it. And most was unwarranted. It’d be stuff like “I told you to ask the X team for this year’s data! Don’t just make stuff up!” Except I did ask the X team for the data and that WAS the data they provided…but she never apologized.

    By then another company I’d applied to before I started at this company reached back asking if I was still interested. Obviously I was. They requested updated work samples and were blown away by how much improvement I made in 5 months. Literally, they told me during the interview, the amount of improvement I made in 5 months was equivalent to what they would expect of their employees after 1-2 years.

    And that was the nicest thing anyone had told me in nearly half a year. I spent all that time thinking I was a subpar employee a few steps from being canned, and this other company told me I made insane levels of improvement and their starting salary alone was 45% higher.

    Even if the salary was the same or even lower, I would’ve joined them. I was just so starved for praise and acknowledgement. When I gave me two weeks notice, she barely reacted and then spent the remaining time avoiding me.

    I seriously wonder if she ever thought why she had 4 employees in a row quit, none of them lasting more than 5 months. I actually lasted the longest, the rest quit in less than 3…

  34. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    Of course, no one address my first situation – focusing on the job and its opportunities for growth.

    If there are none, and the job is boring, turnover is inevitable.

    Many years ago, I worked in a computer operations environment. There was no chance for professional advancement; shift seniority, and we had a garbage benefits package. So, we thought = ORGANIZE.

    Management wanted a meeting with us, to discuss WHY we were doing this. We explained those griveances. They asked for more time, we gave it to them but only a couple months. They couldn’t do anything about benefits as that was corporate (although we DID get a better medical plan the next year) , the other things, they resolved.

    And turnover dropped DRAMATICALLY. And the change was progressive – and lasted until a new manager pulled the line “well I didn’t promise you those things ha ha ha”…. that ended when the entire second shift resigned on the same day….they were all entering a technical training program at another company.

  35. Alf*

    This sounds like the perfect job for my daughter, she loves research.

    But as a manager myself, at my last job I inherited 3 direct reports, 2 of which were the owners kids. It transpired over time that they weren’t very product unless you included the amount of time they wasted on social media. So I had a choice, overhaul the expectations of the department or pick up their slack. I chose to overhaul the department, lay down expectations and key reporting dates. In short, the bosses kids left. So when it came to recruiting a replacement the remaining team member and I did the interviews and were very blunt to candidates, it is a dirty, hot, busy job, with no chance of progression; and I won’t be there holding your hand all the time (after appropriate training). The first candidate lasted 3 months (she was more of an outdoorsy job person, admin didn’t suit her), the next one lasted 6 months before we noticed significant health issues impacting on their ability to do the role, and the third has turned out to be a bit of a princess who likes to leave the hard jobs for everyone else. (Don’t get me started on the quality of toilet paper I must provide). So I too at times question whether I am bad at hiring, but at other times I question whether some people actually want to work or just get a paycheck for minimal effort.

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