updates: the swearing coworker, the employee who doesn’t do his own work, and more

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

1. My employee always gets other people’s help on his work (#3 at the link)

After I wrote, I followed your advice and asked him to complete the next project on his own or only come to me for help, explaining that I wanted to assess his conceptual knowledge. Unfortunately it did not go well and there were major errors causing us to almost miss a deadline, so I knew then that my concerns on his understanding/skills really were warranted.

I went through everything for the project with him again. I had gotten some feedback in the comments that perhaps I was not considering that people learn in different ways, so I tried varying my approach a little over the next couple assignments. It became apparent that the problem was not just that he didn’t know what to do, but that he didn’t care to address it and was happy to rely on others to pick up his slack.

As a last ditch attempt I asked my manager to assign the analyst to another supervisor for a specific project (working with other supervisors for projects is common in this company) to get another perspective. That supervisor – very tenured and someone whose judgment I trusted a lot – said he’d never been so frustrated with an analyst and he didn’t want to work with him again. On the strength of that I began pressuring my manager to let me start a PIP. But, this company is large and basically never fires people. People are given second, third, forth and more chances, which took a lot of the power out of any feedback I gave. I had finally begun drafting the PIP but then left the company myself – partially because of how they handle performance issues such as this. Unfortunately, one of my closest coworkers is now my former analyst’s supervisor, and things have not improved. However, my former manager seems to have totally checked out during the pandemic and is fine letting the analyst just coast along, to the increasing frustration of my friend. Wish I had a more satisfying update! But I am glad I got out of there.

2. My coworker puts on a show of being busy — but it’s not required

Thanks for answering my questions. Your response and the commenters helped a lot to reframe this issue for me, particularly the commenter who pointed out that I don’t decide what is important to other people. A couple of things have happened since I first wrote you back in January, the big one being the pandemic. Since we are now remote entirely, it’s impossible for this person to park in my office for long periods of time to complain. It’s much easier for me to offer a supportive comment on IM and then move on or say I have to go. I’ve also realized that if I react less to this type of behavior and respond less, it helps to discourage it. Also this person has been on the job longer now and needs less day to day support for me and has fewer questions.

I did take your advice before the shutdown and we sat down to talk about prioritizing tasks which seems to be helpful to them. I also spoke with my boss who is aware of the situation and has expressed several times that he is willing to hire additional staff if the workload is really such that they need to work all hours of the day and night. We also discussed some strategies to make this person feel like a valued team member.

However, working from home, this person does appear to be working nonstop and all hours of the day and night. But I’ve come to realize that this is not really my problem, if that is how they choose to spend their time and energy.

Lastly, in addition to your advice and that of the commenters I heard Esther Perel make a comment on her “How’s Work Podcast,” that both helped with my perspective and increased my sense of empathy. She stated that often times this type behavior is the result of a person feeling unloved or unlovable, and thus they decide to behave in such a way to make themselves feel needed. “If I can’t be loved, I can be needed.”

3. Coworker swears angrily during the day

I wish I had a more interesting update but what ended up happening is that we’re now working from home so I’m back to working in relative quiet. We’ll be back eventually though, and I’m going to use your advice to address it with my co-worker. I was also surprised at how perceptive the comments were. A lot of them wondered if it might be a PTSD issue and they were right on the money. So it’ll also be a matter of working on my own responses to things with my therapist and realizing that my co-worker isn’t a dangerous guy — just a frustrated one with a very slow computer!

4. Should I follow up again? (#5 at the link)

Taking your advice, I reached out to the company through the normal hiring channel; a few weeks later I got an interview and was eventually hired.

Yesterday, I was awarded the up and coming Business Development Rep. of the quarter at our company’s mid-quarter performance awards. Needless to say, it’s been a positive experience thus far.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Liz*

    #1 sounds a lot like my former CW who we used to refer to as “useless” He was famous for slacking off and trying to get others to do his work for him. He was also shuffled around in the ten years or so he was with the company, between various departments and positions, because my company is wishy washy about getting rid of people. I’m not sure what happened, but i know eventually he wasn’t there anymore. He spent a huge amount of time making personal calls, etc. and not doing his work, so i’m sure that had something to do with it. All i know is i’m very hapy he’s gone.

    1. Trek*

      We had the same issue where an employee had coasted in a leadership roll for almost 2 years. When he was finally held accountable and told he had to do his job he said he was never trained which is ridiculous because people went over things with him multiple times. Also ours is an environment where you can reach out to someone if you are not certain of how to do something and get feedback. Finally left when they started writing him up and once again said it was because he was never trained.

    2. br_612*

      We had someone like this. Everyone forced to work with him was frustrated because he took the credit for it while getting us to do the actual work and got paid way more. He wasn’t a manager or supervisor. He just spent weeks or months making fiddly changes on slide decks. He was especially known for taking credit for the work fresh out of undergrad women actually did.

      He’d also ambush people with “mistakes” he found in their work. Work he had no reason to review. When that happened to me 5/6 of the “mistakes” were him misunderstanding things (this data from your comparison deck is old and it’s updated in my deck, this data was presented twice so my reference is also correct, things like that) and the last one was a broken hyperlink on a reference. I (graciously I think) explained all his misunderstandings, promised to fix the broken link, and then had a conversation with the director who helped with that ambush because he was extremely rude, condescending, and confrontational through the entire thing and she just let him act that way. I was worried that while I could handle it (because grad school prepares you for that kind of thing) a fresh undergrad would probably be humiliated and he shouldn’t be allowed to treat people that way. Fresh undergrad me would’ve been fighting tears in that meeting.

      I also had a conversation with him that if he had questions about a deck I put together he was welcome to ask me any questions, but that presenting them to the director as “obvious mistakes” that would be “embarrassing to show to our colleagues” was not an acceptable first course of action. (My work is generally top notch, I’m a go to person for what feels like everything, but I’m sure I do make mistakes and I have no problem with people pointing them out as long as it’s not in a condescending way in an ambush meeting.)

      I also offered to be the buffer to our fresh undergrads if they ever felt pressured by him to do the work he’d been assigned or if he decided they too made “embarrassing mistakes” (they generally don’t). In a “Hang on let me bring br in, she’s more familiar with this data than I am and I’d like her input before we making large changes” kind of way. That seemed to help once he realized I won’t allow myself or others to be treated poorly, am capable of standing up for myself in a professional way, and that I have a lot of capital in this company.

      Everyone but the CEO hated this guy. But he had a PhD from MIT (hence the paycheck) and the CEO couldn’t see past that prestige and MIT made it through a massive (percentage wise) RIF. He finally quit a couple of months ago. Thank God.

  2. Phony Genius*

    “But, this company is large and basically never fires people.”

    From what I’ve read on this site, it’s usually the smaller companies (and government) that rarely fires people. Can anybody who has experience with large companies comment on whether it’s hard to fire someone there?

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      I worked for a huuuge company (think 50,000+ employees), that was publicly traded, who didn’t fire people unless they started making porn IN the office (true story). They would just shuffle people into same pay positions with lower and lower responsibilities until they left or just sat at their desk doing nothing. They are and have always been pretty profitable (some years more, some less) so somehow it has seemed to work?

    2. ian*

      I’ve worked at a couple of different large companies that didn’t fire people – it was “easier” to just reassign them to different departments. Hilariously at one this ended up with an entire department that was staffed by employees no one else wanted to deal with, managed by someone no one else wanted to have managing anyone, producing nothing but sporadic reports that didn’t get read.

        1. The Vulture*

          Please everyone keep this stories of giant corporations who never fire anyone coming! I am finding it strangely heartwarming, I know it’s a problem, but, you know, it’s the kind of problem I want to read about right now.

    3. SimplytheBest*

      This is the opposite of what you’re asking, but I’ve mostly only worked at small companies and I have been lucky in that I’ve worked at places where people were fired immediately if they needed to be fired. No dragging it out and ringing our hands and giving eight, nights, tenth chances.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Yeah – I’m federal gov’t, and my manager doesn’t tolerate “Retired in Place” folks. Or folks who act like they were raised by wolves, or any other nonsense. In the six months since she took over our unit she has managed out (and in one case outright fired) all our bad apples.

        Personally I think she rocks. It’s nice to not have to carry the dead weight anymore.

        1. Tabby Baltimore*

          If you ever come back here, I’d really like to know what behaviors your manager documented (and how s/he documented them) that supported managing the sub-par employees out/getting that one employee fired.

    4. Red Boxes and Arrows*

      In 2018, I interned at a company that has 25,000+ employees. Today I work for the manager I interned under but at a different company (one with 15,000 employees).

      I complained to him about the attitude of one of my current team members and he said, “Yeah, we’re doing extensive coaching with him but he knows he’ll never get fired.” I was like, “Whaaa–?” And my manager explained that our current company is similar to the old (internship) company in terms of firing people.

      He told me the story of one of his direct reports who did half the work in twice the time as anyone else in the department, and whose work was sloppy, to boot. Extensive coaching ensued. The employee would improve for a few weeks after each coaching-come-to-Jesus meeting, then slowly slide back into his old habits. This went on for a little over two years.

      Manager finally went to HR in 2017 and said, “I’ve done all I can, it’s time to part ways with Employee.” And they told him he had to document it. So he produced his notes and copies of the emails that he always sent to Lazy Employee after each coaching session. And they said, “No, I mean document it like *this*,” with ‘this’ being twice-daily check-ins with the employee, retaining a log of those check-ins, creating a formal performance plan that was basically a highly detailed, daily “How to Do Your Job” instruction manual, and a ton of other you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me things.

      Manager literally didn’t have the time for all that busy work so he just made sure Lazy Employee was never assigned anything mission-critical. Manager jumped ship to our current company in 2019. Lazy Employee is still at the old company, still in his same job role.

      1. babblemouth*

        I need the name of these companies, because I’d love to take a gap year doing nothing! Honestly, it sounds like the only way I’ll ever find the time to write my book :D

    5. Cat Tree*

      In my experience, it’s absolutely the smaller companies that never fire people. And the reason is pretty simple – they know they can’t afford to hire someone better.

      I work at a huge company now, and the vast majority of my coworkers are high performers. This is the only company I’ve worked where I have actually seen someone fired. Someone from my department was fired for not doing his work, and it certainly didn’t come as a surprise to him or anyone else.

      At smaller companies, the managers were usually as bad as the mediocre employees. I was stunned at one place when I walked into an office area and one guy was just blatantly browsing facebook without even trying to hide it from his boss. I needed work from this guy and wasn’t getting it, so I tried talking to his manager. He was just as useless. I’ve worked at several other small and medium companies, and they are similar. A few highly motivated people come through occasionally, especially during economic recessions, then they get frustrated and leave when something better comes along. It’s not just a few bad employees at these places; it’s many mediocre employees with a few really bad ones mixed in. If your goal is to get through the day/week/month/year doing as little work as possible and getting a steady (but mediocre) paycheck, I can point you to several companies that will let you sit around and do nothing all day.

  3. PersephoneUnderground*

    #3- please do address this if it recurs back in the office. Working on your own reaction is fine, but please resist the urge to make that all you do. Even if you didn’t have PTSD, it would not be cool for him to have these outbursts. I know you said you plan to address it, but that last line about working on your own reaction was a bit worrying, because it’s tempting to blame ourselves in these situations.

    1. mlem*

      This. Work on your reactions if you think it would benefit you, OP, but don’t assume you’re the problem here.

    2. Roci*

      Yes I was very surprised by this. I don’t think one must have PTSD or something to be bothered by a coworker angrily swearing throughout the day. I swear freely in my private life but I cannot imagine showing my frustration and anger as outwardly as that during work! That’s pretty standard “not acceptable” behavior, just like regularly crying throughout the day, toxic positivity, or any other extreme and distracting display of emotion.

    3. Keymaster of Gozer*


      I have PTSD and that still doesn’t mean other people get a free pass to behave unprofessionally in front of me. Their anger and lack of control isn’t my issue to fix just because something horrific happened to me in the past.

    1. Office Grunt*

      When I saw that quote, my brain went to Red Green – if women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy

  4. June First*

    Just dropping by to say that I am here for ALL updates. No need to apologize or wish you had something more exciting to report. I always wonder how things turn out and am glad when it’s generally good, even if the problem goes away without direct intervention.

  5. Cassidy*

    #1 writes, “I had gotten some feedback in the comments that perhaps I was not considering that people learn in different ways…”

    While that’s true, it seems too many people use that as an excuse to slack off or to not have to address the slacking off of an employee.

    Good for you for getting out, #1.

    1. Quill*

      Gonna quote my mom here “That’s a reason to work on different ways of handling something, not an excuse to not bother.”

      1. AnonPi*

        I need to remember that expression. Our own slacker decided to try to pull that one on us a few years ago after we got a manager with a disability. Within a few weeks if anyone said there was an issue with his work he’d speculate it was because he had a disability (varying ones from week to week), and felt he should just be excused from whatever work responsibilities fit the bill of disability of the week. Once he declared he was color blind and couldn’t see the screen to do the main work he was responsible for (we use color coding a lot), I called him out on that stating he waited several years to tell us he couldn’t see his work?! Then I acted confused about how he’d done what little work he had completed to that point, and proceeded to mention the color coding could be turned off (it’s just a filter we use, so it can be turned off/on). At which point he admitted he could see everything, and needed the color coding to track the work. *facepalm* After that he cooled off on the disability thing, and just went back to slacking.

        And yeah, govt here. There’s been talk for years of putting him on a PIP, but doubt it’ll happen. They’d rather just ignore the problem. When the rest of us complain about taking up the slack we’re suddenly “not team players”, and not being “mature or professional” by just taking on the extra work and keeping our mouths shut. Me/peers are seeking other jobs and have one foot out the door just waiting for the opportunity to move on.

  6. Put the Blame on Edamame*

    Does anyone know which episode of the “How’s Work” podcast is quoted here? That line resonated with me a little too hard.

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