how to talk to an employee about a struggling coworker

A reader writes:

I manage a junior employee, “Arthur,” who has become friends with another employee at his level, “Ford.” Ford works on a different client team with a different manager (“Zeke”).

Ford has been significantly underperforming. It’s been clear for a while that he isn’t well-suited for this position. Ford’s manager, Zeke, has been clear about expectations, and has put Ford on a performance plan, which hasn’t gone well. Ford is on his way out, Zeke has been clear about that outcome, and the company is being gracious as Ford wraps up some work before ending his employment.

The trouble is, Ford has been talking about all this with Arthur … but being half-truthful about the whole thing. He has told Arthur that his client is extremely difficult and demanding; the reality is he works with some friendly clients with a moderate, but not excessive, definition of success. He has told Arthur that “he is leaving”; the reality is that he’s being politely shown the door. In short, Ford has either failed to realize that his underperformance is his own fault, or is telling these half-truths so he doesn’t appear unsuccessful in front of his peers.

Normally, I’d treat this as a problem that’s going away when Ford leaves. But as part of their friendship and work, Ford and Arthur have bounced ideas off each other about projects and managing clients. I’m worried that Arthur will treat the information he’s heard from Ford with greater weight than it deserves. I don’t want Arthur to take on Ford’s habits of poor quality work, non-communication, loose accountability to deadlines, or attitude toward clients, and I don’t want him to think that Ford’s experience is normal (this is Arthur’s first office job). And as a new, but pretty high-performing employee, I don’t want Arthur to think that he might be similar in performance to Ford and in danger of a similar outcome.

How can I give Arthur the truth about Ford’s failure to meet expectations, while still respecting Ford’s privacy (and dignity)? How can I tell Arthur that he is a much better performer than Ford, and he doesn’t need to worry about being shown the door? I also worry that Arthur will weight the stories he’s heard from Ford as more accurate given their friendship. Can you help frame this in a way that’s direct, helpful, and respectful?

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

{ 75 comments… read them below }

      1. Carol the happy elf*

        My friend had tshirt that said
        “Poo-buddy’s Nerfish”
        “New buddy’s goldfish”
        “No butt is perfect”
        “No nuts in Parfait”
        “Pobody’s Nerfect”
        “And as long as we keep trying the wrong things, we can’t go write!”
        (When that tshirt wore out, we actually held a memorial service and burned it.)

      1. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

        Considering how the year’s going, Vogon poetry would be bliss…

    1. alienor*

      I’m sad that Zeke’s alias isn’t Zaphod, but also Zaphod would never be anyone’s manager if he could help it.

  1. Raldeme*

    Junior or not, Arthur probably has a sense that Ford is speaking out of self preservation and to make himself look good… when I started my job I immediately noted who was negative / excusey off the bat and took their opinions with a grain of salt, no matter how much I liked them personally

    1. Elizabeth West*

      This is where holding off on getting chummy with coworkers at the beginning of a job can provide great value. It gives you time to figure out who’s a Ford or a Fergus.

      1. TootsNYC*

        “holding off on getting chummy…”
        There’s a fantasy series by Naomi Novick, the Temeraire series (dragons in the Napoleonic War). In it, a Navy officer ends up “drafted” into the “air force” as captain of a dragon. He’s completely new to the culture.
        In the captain’s lounge, there’s one guy sort of off by himself who is quite friendly to our fish-out-of-water. The other captains treat our hero with even greater distance and coldness. A bit of time goes by, and he discovers that his new friend is one of the more despicable persons in the service, and he realizes how right all the other captains were to hold him at arm’s length, and he recognizes all the little “tells” that he missed. And he has to spend energy on creating a more accurate reputation. He muses on the un-wisdom of jumping into familiarity with people whose quality you don’t actually know, and of not trusting the surface friendliness of a new acquaintance.

        I think of this so often.

    2. Lady Meyneth*

      I wouldn’t be so sure. We had a very poor performer who was let go last February. Joe was a great dude to hang socially with, but he never worked 3 full hours in a whole day. He was always off his desk chatting with someone, or on the phone gossiping (in an open plan office, for everyone to hear), and we all had to pitch in to do his work or it never got delivered. His leaving wasn’t a huge surprise, and honeslty the whole team sighed in relief.

      Except for our intern Carol. It was her 1st office job, she’d just been hired, and Joe immediately started chatting with her non-stop (as he did with everyone who didn’t cut him off). She never realized this super charismatic guy who knew everyone in every department was anything but a rock star, considered him a trainer/mentor of sorts, and was shocked and devastated when he was fired. Our company forbids dicussing the reasons for firing with peers, so all Carol heard was “Joe was not fitting in with our team’s requirements” or some such thing. Our manager couldn’t say much more, and the rest of us couldn’t very well tell her Joe’s only performed well at happy hour.

      It took a long while for her to notice, even with our team hinting at it, that wow things were sure getting done faster without Joe around.

      1. Happy It Isn't Always Monday*

        “Joe only performed well at happy hour.”

        That is such a great phrase! I have known “Joe”. A couple of them!

        A lot of times they are friendly & seem like the best. That may be why they can get by for so long while producing so little. Often it takes a change of management to get rid of them because everyone has “history” together.

        I’m always a bit wary of people who try too hard to buddy up when I’m someplace new.

        1. Anon for Today*

          I see this with a lot of “bro-type” guys, especially when they approach management. I think some of them have some kind of idea about work that means if they become the guy everyone likes, they can fly under the radar and do nothing (a lot of the sports bros I went to high school were like this).

    3. kicking-k*

      True. That said, I can’t think of any characters in those books who’d be ideal managers.

      I’ve been managed by a Slartibartfast and a Marvin at different times.

  2. Forty Years In the Hole*

    I guess “Ford doesn’t have a better idea…”
    Sorry…dating myself.

  3. Creature from the Black Lagoon*

    Alison’s script is really great. My manager had a similar conversation with me after a colleague was abruptly (from my perspective) fired for poor fit, and it was very helpful. I hadn’t known that my colleague was missing goals, so it made me wonder if management was in the habit of firing people willy-nilly, and if I was going to be next. The reassurance that there was a process being followed behind the scenes was important for me to feel secure in my job and trust that my manager would be straight with me if I was having performance issues at any point.

    1. KHB*

      I like that script too, but I’m curious about the advice to break it out only if Arthur seems rattled or upset, and to treat it like it’s some state secret that the boss is committed to giving feedback if someone’s job is in jeopardy. It seems to me that if you have a consistent policy of giving clear warnings before firing someone for performance-related issues, that would be something you’d want to communicate to all employees regularly. Because almost certainly, at least some of them are more worried about the possibility of losing their jobs than they’re willing to let on to their bosses.

      1. Smithy*

        I agree with this – that just because the OP knows that they’re friends, a version of this script might be beneficial.

        Even if this is Arthur’s first job out of college – there may very well be earlier jobs/internships/volunteering experiences where firing happened in less professional ways. And I think that often those experience can hang around traumatically for better or worse.

      2. Wintermute*

        I concur, I would follow the general advice of ignoring the person you let go and focusing on the REAL question “is my job at risk”. I’d say something like, “I know it can be intimidating when you’re new on the job and someone you’ve been working closely with leaves suddenly. without getting into the specifics of situations I want you to know that kind of thing never comes as a surprise to anyone, and we have a culture committed to coaching and providing good feedback, and ensuring our clients’ expectations of our team are reasonable and fair.”

        For someone with any degree of ability to read office politics and between the lines that should be enough, but if they seem so new they don’t see it I might even state the implication directly: “there’s no reason for you to fear for your job security, and if that were to ever change you would know well, well in advance and be told exactly what to do to fix it.”

        1. KHB*

          “without getting into the specifics of situations I want you to know that kind of thing never comes as a surprise to anyone”

          Unfortunately, I think you probably would need to get more into the specifics than this, because layoffs (as opposed to firings) usually do come as a surprise, and you don’t want to inadvertently promise that they won’t.

          1. TootsNYC*

            I’ve been laid off 11 times. It is never a real surprise. We’ve always known the company wasn’t doing well, and most times I’ve known that my specific position was vulnerable. A greenhorn might not be able to read the tea leaves, of course, so perhaps it’s worth differentiating a bit.

            Also, layoffs are often announced as such; there’s a lot less secrecy around them.

            1. KHB*

              So, my organization just laid off a couple of people – not because we’re struggling financially, but because the CEO decided that we don’t need a Director of Cat Herding anymore, so he and his administrative assistant were both shown the door. The announcement came out of the blue to the rest of us, and naturally there have been a lot of questions (Were the laid off individuals offered the chance to transition to other positions in the organization? Did they get any more warning than we did that this decision was coming?), and senior management has pointedly refused to answer any of them.

              So I guess even if layoffs don’t usually come as a surprise and aren’t shrouded in secrecy, I don’t think that’s something an individual manager can guarantee, if somebody higher up wants to do things differently.

    2. LizM*

      I like the script too. I had a similar situation, and HR advised me to say that while I couldn’t talk about this specific person, this is our performance management system, and all the steps we take if someone is struggling. We’re in government, so this kind of thing can drag on for what feels like years, and it’s remarkable how much an employee who is generally well liked can hide about their performance issues from their peers.

      1. Chilipepper*

        HR advised me to say that while I couldn’t talk about this specific person, this is our performance management system, and all the steps we take if someone is struggling.

        I think this is the way to go. Make sure the one not fired knows there is a process in place and that this is never out of the blue.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I agree that maybe going over the process of what happens when somebody’s performance is not meeting standards is a good tack to take (still can’t read the Alison answer, so guessing what she’s said by channeling my inner Alison). That way Arthur knows about the process, and you don’t worry about violating any privacy concerns for other employees.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        Young me had a boss say, “You are fine. Keep going as you are, you have nothing to worry about.”
        I said, “And you’ll come tell me if something comes up, right? You won’t wait until you want to launch me out the door?”
        The boss said he would tell me.

        It was a pretty toxic place, but as near as I can tell the boss kept his word. I ended up leaving the job because of changes in transportation. Back in those days, I wasn’t one to chat much with bosses and I think this habit saved me at that job. He left his family and ran off with another employee. Then everything made sense- why the employees were arguing with each other and so on.

    3. PollyQ*

      I would actually say a little less than Alison suggests. I’d avoid talking about Zeke & Ford as much as possible and stick to how LW evaluates performance, what kind of steps would happen if there were issues, and reassuring Arthur that he’s doing well in his job, so he’s not at any risk himself.

    4. Rena*

      I got a very similar version of that script when I was an intern. I was totally rattled when a guy sent out a “Hey, anyone need help with anything, I have a few extra hours!” email in the morning and we got a “Guy is no longer with the company” email in the afternoon. As someone new to both that company and the workforce, it really helped to know that there was a process in place, and that this shouldn’t have been a surprise to him.

  4. Tracy*

    Did not read the article/response. But anyway …

    I think telling Arthur a direct “Ford wasn’t meeting expectations” and “that he is a much better performer” is a fair enough and direct message.

    One big thing I really struggle with is leadership not being direct and firm without giving away the details. These are the leadership personnel, after all. I need graceful strength, not gentleness, from them.

    1. Who is the asshole*

      In this case it wouldn’t be about you though, but the underperforming colleague and his dignity. A manager has to consider what is okay to share about a co-worker’s struggles even if you, personally, wouldn’t mind that info be shared.

      1. TootsNYC*

        excellent point. Because I think an employee in Arthur’s position would be unsettled if his manager told him specifics about Zeke. “If he’ll talk about Zeke like this, how will he talk about me?”

        Seeing your manager or your company treat other employees with respect builds trust; seeing disrespect makes you feel unsafe. I have seen both; I know this to be true.

  5. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Tempted to make reference to the total perspective vortex…

    In reality: manage the issues if and when they arise. Speculation of the worst case scenario (where your employee starts to act as badly as the one who got told to leave) is a useful exercise for yourself in what you’d do (how you’d address the issue, how you’d explain that ther performance is dragging) but of limited use to others.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      And hit post too quick.

      Basically how I’d personally do it is telling them outright that you let Ford go for not meeting expectations, if asked. Then assure them that their performance isn’t in that same arena.

      Unless things change.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      ‘How do I manage an employee with 2 heads, 3 arms, who is constantly drunk and steals spaceships?’

        1. Lynn*

          With any luck he will fall into an SEP field and you won’t have to manage him at all.

          1. Lynn*

            Oops-hit post too soon. For those not familiar with the works, an SEP field is a “Someone Else’s Problem Field.” AKA where my husband says I often live at restaurants, since he never has that problem when he goes out without me. :>

  6. A Good Egg*

    I was going to say that the answer to this question was 42, but someone already beat me to it. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

  7. Jennifer*

    Is it possible that Ford is not lying but giving his perception of the situation and the company has their perception and Arthur is smart enough to understand the difference? I highly doubt this is the first time he has heard someone make a negative comment about the company.

    Maybe Ford didn’t have a clear understanding of the job’s requirements before accepting the offer? Clearly the company didn’t assess that he was not a good fit for the role before hiring him. It sounds like there were mistakes made on both sides here. It happens.

    Instead of addressing Ford’s comments, I’d meet with Arthur and just explain that he’s doing a good job, on the right track, and doesn’t have to worry about his job security.

    1. BS*

      This was my question too. The examples LW cites of Ford being “half-truthful” strike me as an understandable difference of opinion, or a different way of framing the issue.

    2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I would hope that as a conscious manager OP is meeting with Arthur regularly anyways to go over performance standards and job expectations and coaching on how to meet them. From my experiences in the workforce, when my managers were involved and doing this routinely I was able to feel secure in my job and perform at the top of my abilities.

      Speaking hypothetically for Ford, it could be that he is describing how the situation feels to him. It could be that this position was a stretch apply, where both sides thought with coaching and training he could make the stretch.

      1. Jennifer*

        Yeah, if Arthur feels insecure about his job for no reason, that seems like a management failure.

    3. TabithaNotBrown*

      THANK YOU! I’ve been in Ford’s shoes. The same language was used in my situation, “poor fit,” “not meeting expectations,”…However. My former supervisor “poisoned the well” so to speak after I reported her to HR for something. Suddenly, joining a call right on time instead of 5 minutes early was “underperforming.” Or tripping over my words in a conversation, or needing a sick day, or many other benign things that she conditioned others to seize on as evidence of my ineptitude. The truth was, she was offended someone like me held her accountable.

      Ford may legitimately be a poor performer, his experience is HIS experience. Just because it doesn’t align with OP’s view of events doesn’t make it wrong.

      1. Jennifer*

        Yes! I’m not calling the OP a liar. I’m just saying Ford may not be one either.

    4. meyer lemon*

      I’ve certainly had the kind of co-worker who always thought their clients were impossible to work with, their projects were way more demanding than anyone else’s, and their schedules were impossible to keep up with. Didn’t take long to figure out that co-worker was doing less work than anyone else. I don’t think they were necessarily lying, but it seemed like Dunning-Kruger in action.

      If Arthur is reasonably perceptive, he may have picked up on this too, but it wouldn’t hurt to feel him out a bit to make sure his perspective isn’t too out of whack.

  8. Cathy*

    “Arthur” “Ford”

    I know this is a serious letter but I needed that laugh today.

  9. Kiki*

    When a coworker I was close to left, I really appreciated that my manager asked how I was feeling about it. In that situation, my coworker did actually voluntarily leave and had been pretty candid with me about the issues they had. It was really good to talk to my manager about the departure and how we could fix some of the issues that led my coworker to leave. I think open-ended questions in these contexts are a really great way to show that you care and that you’re receptive to your employee’s feedback.

    1. Smithy*

      I think that this approach is really savvy. I’ve known a lot of managers who will take time to talk to me when peers I rely on are leaving – not just about work load, but also to see how I’m feeling/anything thoughts/etc. So then when someone is let go, and it feels like there’s total silence, that ends of making things feel more opaque and eerie than is helpful.

      If the OP knows that Arthur valued having a work friend like Ford to bounce ideas off of – then it could be an interesting time to consider seeing if Arthur would be interested in supporting training new staff in the role, or connecting with another “peer mentor”. It certainly could be that Arthur just liked Ford as a friend, but I know I’m someone who values more casual talking to coworkers/peers about work problems as a means to trouble shoot or verify I’m headed in the right direction.

    2. Lacey*

      That’s smart. I’ve always worked places where it’s just announced that “so and so has left” and the only way you can tell they were fired is that it isn’t announced what they’re doing next!

  10. I'm just here for the cats*

    I feel like I am missing some sort of inside joke with the Arthur and Ford. I’ve seen things about fishes and the answer is 42. I don’t get it could someone point me to what I’m missing

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Rather a classic of the sci-fi comedy genre. Was originally a radio series, then a book series.

        1. Carol the happy elf*

          And a movie? Not my cuppa, but NerdHubby and Chip Offtheoldblock spent months quoting that stuff, endlessly. When Nerdhubby turned 42, I was supposed to find a bakery that could make a cake like a dolphin….?

          And as for having Arthur be a trainer, I’d be a very close observer on his attitude, first. Maybe give him several months to get some mental distance. I’ve known a few really clueless coworkers who toxified the department, and had gathered hangers-on to keep doing things after the firing.

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            Never seen the movie, but I grew up listening to the radio show (really dating myself here).

            1. Marillenbaum*

              The movie is reasonably charming (how can it not be, with Martin Freeman and Alan Rickman), but I love the radio show–my brother-in-law is British and a huge nerd, so he has the entire collection saved and plays it on long car trips.

          2. TardyTardis*

            Alan Rickman is Marvin the (rightfully) Paranoid Android, if you need another reason to watch the movie.

  11. PT*

    I have been in the position of onboarding new staff while working to turn around an underperforming team. The way I handled it was that I would go over everything and then say, “These are the processes/procedures/expectations for performing your job. You may run into situations where you see, hear, or are instructed by some coworkers that you’re doing something wrong and that they actually do things differently. Don’t listen to them and always ask me if you’re getting different information, because some of them are mistaken and need to be retrained.”

  12. DBW*

    I would always assume that a company has good reasons to let someone go, especially if they have been on a PIP or have been vocally struggling with certain aspects of their role. I know there are exceptions, but in general I think that most people want their employees to succeed and will work with the employee on their performance issues before firing them. If I had a coworker friend who was complaining all the time about their clients/workload, and had told me about being in meetings with their manager where their performance was being criticized, I would take that with a grain of salt. I think that’s probably the case with Arthur too. From the letter, it doesn’t sound like his performance is waning or that he’s visibly distraught over the situation, just that the manager is aware there is some misinformation is flying around and worried that he’s got the wrong impression. If there’s ever a point where it’s clear that he doesn’t understand what’s going on, then bring it up with him, but I would just leave it alone for now.

    1. Anon for this*

      The struggling might not have been that vocal, though. I was on a PIP in younger and foolisher days and I don’t think the majority of people I interacted with knew anything about it. And I wasn’t very good at telling people when I was in over my head, which is one of the reasons I ended up on the PIP. Sometimes it seemed easier to put a brave face on it and pretend everything’s OK.

      So if I’d been fired it wouldn’t have been a surprise to me at all, but it might have been a surprise to colleagues.

  13. Lacey*

    When a coworker I had worked with fairly closely and knew to be great at her job was fired, I was really alarmed. It seemed more likely that she had committed a serious crime than that she was fired for poor performance! Firings never happened at our company.

    I found out later that the seemingly random firing had so unnerved some of my coworkers that they were terrified of being next. Unlike me, they thought it was performance related, but when it was such a high performer, they figured they were surely going too!

    Eventually the truth came out, she’d essentially been fired because she talked about her kids way too much (it was too much) and annoying a manager she didn’t even directly report to. I can’t help but feel if the company had thought they might have to explain what happened to us they might have thought through it more.

    1. Wintermute*

      eh, that DOES seem like a mighty thin justification to fire someone unless she was literally talking and not working for significant periods a day. “annoying” a manager resulting in firing almost always means your work is terrible and arbitrary, because it’s nearly impossible to control others’ pet peeves.

      1. Lacey*

        It was/is a super dysfunctional place. The manager wielded a weird amount of power.

        Multiple times she tried to make me change desks with other people because she didn’t think I deserved the nice work space I had. She wasn’t my manager either.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I’ve still not been able to read it either – oh well. Time to channel my Inner Alison and guess what her answer was.

  14. Yep s'me*

    I was a bystander for a firing that I hadn’t seen coming at all. Right after the firing I tried to figure out stuff like why they were fired, whether they had been warned or had seen it coming, and whether I was going to be next. My first set of conclusions was that the bosses were arbitrary and might fire people unexpectedly and unfairly based on small problems.

    I had an awful week or so, trying to help with filling in the gaps for the replacement hire, while not wanting to display anything that might be considered inappropriate curiosity or even let on that I had been friendly with the person. Eventually I got to know more about what the problems had been, and as part of that management told me explicitly “You don’t have to worry about your job. We think you are doing a great job and we really appreciate you.” I never ever would have asked, but it sure helped me to hear it.

    I don’t think it’s unusual that Ford didn’t tell his work-friend that he was in trouble. And it doesn’t matter now whether Ford was deluding himself or just saving his pride.

  15. someone*

    I had this conversation with my manager when I was a new grad in my first year. My office mate was fired and my manager wanted to make sure I knew it wasn’t random, I’m doing fine, and if I wasn’t, I would know long before being down the door. They didn’t mention layoffs though.

  16. Blurred*

    Ugh. In my case, Ford had a habit of throwing Arthur and the rest of my team under the bus to higher ups. “I can’t meet my goals because Blur department doesn’t do x, y, or z.” Most of those above knew my department did what it needed, but I’m sure there were some who thought we didn’t help Ford enough. One time I mentioned to the team that Ford was saying we were not supportive, and Arthur got VERY defensive. I was not sad when Ford left.

  17. UShoe*

    Isn’t all of this a bit of a moot point if Ford has told Arthur, and Arthur believes, that he is leaving of his own volition?

    Unless you announce firings but not the reason, surely it’s just a matter of letting Arthur believe that and correcting his behaviour if that starts to reflect Fords?

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