my employee’s work is bad … but he gets a ton of public praise

A reader writes:

I have an employee who is not performing as well as expected after a year in his role. He is on a development plan and has clear objectives to work towards. He receives monthly feedback (positive and developmental) and we discuss ways I can help him to achieve his objectives.

My problem is this: others in my immediate network and some senior members of my team are praising him publicly for work that he has very little real ownership of and has not contributed to enough on his own merit. He requires a large amount of input, feedback, and suggestions on projects, which then also take several rounds of feedback and meetings with me to get to a “final” version, which he then sends out to others.

My issue is not that I want the credit; it’s my job to coach him and develop him. But I do have an issue with him appearing as if he’s produced a great piece of work by himself, as I think it sends a message to him that is contradictory to what we are discussing as part of his development plan. I’m also concerned that it could appear that everyone except me is giving him great feedback and recognition. Outwardly his documents look polished, but nobody but me is aware of just how much of a struggle it is to get to that point. Whilst I am always the first to give credit where it’s due, I don’t feel with him that it is due, as he’s had so much help.

Am I wrong in feeling this way? How do I handle this with those giving him praise which I don’t feel is in proportion to his actual contribution? I’m concerned I will come across as stingy with my praise when in fact I would rather he was praised and credited for things which really were his own work.

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.

{ 85 comments… read them below }

  1. Tired Social Worker*

    I think that as a good manager you want to support that praise and focus on HOW he got to the point where his work is being well received. Focusing on the “how to” will lead to him being able to replicate it and get to the point where he can do it independently. If you see him reverting back to old behavior prompt him with “what did you do on X project to get Y results” and see if he is able to retain and apply information. That is how you will know if he has the ability to make improvements.

    1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      And emphasising that the HOW involved a lot of input from a lot of other people, who should also be praised. It sounds like the production of the document was very much a team effort, with this guy simply pulling all the bits together.

      It may be that this guy’s greatest talent is getting other people to perform brilliant work for him in which case, expect him to be promoted soon!

      If you want to show other people that no, he’s not that great and only produced great work because you pushed him really hard and wouldn’t accept anything but stellar writing, you could always let him fail at something (when there’s still time in hand to correct the mistakes). The risk is that it’ll end up being your fault for not catching his mistakes, so it needs to be clear that he should be producing flawless work by now, you are entitled to time off now and then after all.

  2. Churlish Gambino*

    Good answer. I especially like the wording around why certain aspects drew praise and what takeaways the employee should have from that to apply to future work — that’s how you get things to stick. I hope the LW took the advice!

  3. KHB*

    I think you might have to be prepared to start letting him drop some balls. Be clear with him that he’s been here a year, and he should be at the point where he can do X, Y, and Z by himself without as much support as you’ve been giving him until now – and then stop giving him that support. You can still pull the emergency brake if he’s about to send something out with major errors in it, but stop polishing his work so much to the point where it’s wowing everyone.

    Also, is this the only employee you have in this role, or are there others? If there are others – who are doing better with their own work, and getting proportionally less of the public praise – then you should think about whether they resent seeing their less competent coworker get so much recognition. Because if they’re anything like me, they probably do.

    1. SomehowIManage*

      I agree with this . I prevented an employee from failing and it created extra work for me and made it hard to hold him accountable.

    2. Wendy*

      It also might be worth putting a bug in the ear of whoever in your organization is doing the most public praising and ensuring they know the results are a team effort. That’s harder if the “team” is basically just him and your edits… but if there are others who contribute, you’ll come across as a fair manager who just wants to ensure everyone gets credit for their hard work.

      1. Office Lobster DJ*

        Agreed. If you feel you can’t disclose he’s on a development plan — “Oh Jane, you were so kind to praise Fergus’s report. It took some coaching to get him there, but I was pleased with the final product, too.”

        Definitely make sure your own managers are adequately in the loop. And, like others have said, let him sink or swim when you can.

    3. Katie*

      Ha. I feel you might be my former manager. I dragged a team each month to success. There was debate of whether we should let the ball drop to the client.
      Before we got to that point, I made a scorecard of my review.

    4. JamminOnMyPlanner*

      Yeah, I don’t know what field they’re in, but it seems unsustainable for LW to be polishing his work this much.

      I agree with Alison’s advice about how he needs to make the connection between the praise he’s getting and the changes LW made to his original work. But if he’s not getting it on his own, at some point, sounds like LW needs to pull back on the helping him so much.

    5. WFH with Cat*

      Agreed with all points … and, in response to to your last statement:

      No one who needs constant direction and correction after a year on the job is likely to come across as a stellar employee by those who are close enough to see what happens day-by-day, so it’s quite likely that the more competent employees have already figured out what’s going on with the weaker team member. How they feel about the situation will depend largely on the people involved — but also on how much they might be having to pick up the slack (with or without public praise). This whole situation seems untenable long-term.

    6. umami*

      Yes, it doesn’t sound like the finished project is even the employee’s work in the end, but the boss’s. I also would suggest that the manager back off a bit on the constant input and feedback, which sounds a bit micromanage-y. At this point, the employee has some great examples of high-quality work, so let him attempt to reproduce that level of work with minimal intervention. If you are constantly changing what he does, he might feel paralyzed to actually try to do it on his own. If he gets stuck, guide him on how to fix it without stepping in and over-fixing it. I remind myself that my good is someone else’s perfect – not everything and everyone will produce work at the same level, and that’s OK if the end result works.

      1. SixTigers*

        Also, if the boss is always correcting and polishing what he does, why should he bother himself to do better? He can slap together some careless presentation and the boss will make sure it gleams before anyone else sees it.

      2. SnappinTerrapin*

        If the micromanagement were a temporary measure to assist the employee in learning to internalize the skills needed to make the end product praiseworthy, it would be a good thin. He could then step up to produce that level of work through his own efforts.

        However, it’s not a viable long-term strategy. The manager needs to use her time to manage other employees and processes in order to ensure high performance across a broader range of her team’s mission. She is limiting the time available for other tasks.

        And without the conversation Alison advised, the employee is likely to have a very skewed view of his own performance. It’s not fair to him not to clear up his confusion about being praised for the quality of his manager’s work on his tasks.

    7. LittleMarshmallow*

      I agree with this. Don’t cover for crappy employees. Of course you can train and coach but at some point there has to be a reasonable expectation of skill and learning and if they can’t do it, let them fail and hold them accountable. We have a lady who people, myself included, have been covering for for 5 years and now those doing the covering are tired of her getting credit for work she didn’t do. To be clear also… it’s not that I want the credit for the work. It’s that I don’t want her to get lauded for work I did. It sets a precedent that’s harder and harder to tear down the longer it goes on. At this point I’m 95% sure that the only way for me to fix it for me will be to leave the company. So congrats company… you get useless employee that hasn’t accomplished a task without gross intervention in five years and lose someone who is making sure that projects don’t fall apart due to her incompetence. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. And yes, I’m bitter and it’s at the point where I’m certain it is affecting my quality of work because I just don’t care anymore.

  4. Zudz*

    I had a similar issue on my team. We had a person who was not good at complying with procedure. We had a knock-down-drag-out about something they were not in compliance with, and they never really accepted that what they were doing was wrong. A few months later the policy changed to be more in line with what they had been doing all along. They took this as vindication. Clearly, to their mind, they were right to violate the procedure in the past because the future policy agreed with them. No amount of explaining how security reviews in the future don’t retroactively apply to actions in the past could convince them.

    The obvious corollary was that we were getting constant feedback from end-users about how great his customer service was. He was always willing to stay late, go the extra mile, follow up with secondary issues… the whole 9. It made him nearly impossible to discipline or coach.

    Unfortunately, the long term effect was that he was terminated. Afterwards, all of the other things he’d been doing wrong, and work he was putting on other team members to help cover for the problems he was creating, all came to light. I knew he was problematic, but I had no idea how bad it actually was. Our workload, weirdly, dropped off dramatically (like… almost 50% some weeks) after he left. I wish I had realized how bad it was before, but most of my team was afraid to come to me with complaints about him… because of his seniority, and all of the praise he was receiving. It was just a mess compounded by mess.

    1. Myrin*

      I gasped out loud when I read that his incompetence was responsible for near 50% of your team’s workload. How?!?

      1. Zudz*

        It wasn’t exactly. We have ticket based work, and we run regular reports. So he would split jobs into multiple tickets. Think along the lines of: client requests teapot glazing instructions. That’s a ticket. But for this one guy it would be a ticket split into teapot body glaze, teapot spout glaze, and teapot lid glaze. So it looked, on paper, like a TON of work was being done.
        Once he was gone, the reports went from the range of 150 tickets to 100ish. We even had a couple weeks in the 70 range. (We’ve since stabilized just north of 100, which is what we would logically expect given the industry and our client base.) I can’t prove the drop was because he was inflating his numbers so he could pass actual hard work to his peers (at least, not without a /lot/ of legwork)… but the difference is stark, and the timing suspicious.
        The most annoying thing about it all is that the thing he was ultimately terminated for had nothing to do with the quality of his work. He just wouldn’t get vax’d, and we require it of all employees.

        1. China Doll*

          In situations like this, I always wonder: Did someone back in the mists of time tell him to handle things this way and he just never adjusted his work methods? Or did someone advise him once to split a ticket into three parts “in this one instance” and he took it as the approved method? It can be amazing how archaic work practices can survive in a company, particularly among longtime employees.

          1. JSPA*

            When it’s somebody with a long track record of doing exactly as they please, scr@w protocols, and their coworkers, and the rest of society, so long as they can schmooze customers on the phone, I would not feel much of a need to search for a hypothetical misunderstood instruction back in the mists of time.

          2. Zudz*

            I can kind of answer this. There were instances where splitting the job into parts made sense, and some where procedure specifically required it. We generally allow a person working a request to exercise judgement and split things up if there’s a reason. Usually that means splitting things up due to complexity, or to spread a workload around.

            He just learned that you /could/ split up tickets, and (mostly through trial and error) which ones we would follow up on to figure out why he had done that. He basically learned to exercise judgement too loosely, but in a way that wasn’t especially eye catching. It wouldn’t be until a week later when we were doing reports that we would have the opportunity to catch it. And by then he would basically be like… “Well, it’s water under the bridge now. And the customer was happy, so it must not have been wrong.” That was kind of his whole shield.

            1. Lydia*

              In a way, it’s a form of genius. I feel like there’s a whole legion of people who are conniving in low-stakes evil ways. If we could only harness their lazy powers for good, the world would probably be a much better place.

        2. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

          Oh my word, sympathy majorly as I had one of those guys several years back who would pick up calls in the queue, then log 5 ‘related’ calls (‘user also has issue with different software B, user can’t load software C’) which in isolated cases wasn’t a problem because our ticket system was set up to log calls against software name.

          Was only when a complaint came in from third line support that we realised he was making this all up. They’d got sick of how many totally unnecessary calls were being sent to them and this guy? Was submitting 25 TIMES the number of any other tech.

          He was put on performance improvement, decided he knew better, didn’t stop doing it and actually quit a month before the final meeting.

    2. LifeBeforeCorona*

      We had an employee like that, they were beloved because they were willing to overlook and break all the small rules which were necessary for accountability purposes. We got a new manager who put a stop to it when an expensive piece of audiovisual equipment went missing and was never found. They got a lot of pushback from people who liked the convenience of just getting and doing what they wanted. You have to sign for the equipment and demonstrate that you are trained on it and no, you cannot take it home when it’s needed at work.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        Them: “but previous IT Manager just let us take keyboards and mice and monitors and laptops out of the storage room whenever we wanted as it was less work for him!”

        Me: “well it’s not less work actually because it’s been over a year since he left and I’m still trying to figure out where half the stuff actually went and whether it’s been forgotten or nicked”

        (Probably going to have to write off several of these things. The missing A1 printer though….)

        1. Been there, done that*

          Yikes, that’s an expensive loss. And very… niche, as stolen office supplies go!

          1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

            At least it wasn’t the A0 printer! Although frankly if anyone could get that thing out the building on their own without anyone noticing I’d be seriously impressed.

            (The A1 printer is theoretically moveable by a few strong people who don’t mind throwing their backs out. The A0 one is a you gotta have heavy lifting gear)

        2. Lydia*

          What’s fun is when you have to involve the FBI because the missing equipment is government issued.

  5. Heidi*

    In addition to the concerns Alison raised, there’s also the possibility that this employee could get promoted based on his outwardly stellar performance and then flail when no one is there to correct the work. That kind of thing can also reflect badly on the OP.

  6. Beth*

    The problem is he can’t complete his work product independently after a year in the role, which is not to say that he necessarily has to be 100% perfect either as work in many roles does involve someone else reviewing before calling a deliverable complete. Just because feedback is positive for the final outcome doesn’t mean his process for doing the work shouldn’t improve. Perhaps putting his first drafts next to the finals would help him see how much he needs to improve more clearly. And, do clearly convey that someone with a year tenure is expected to have a first draft much closer to the final. Perhaps you could have him compile a checklist of his common mistakes/gaps based on his more recent work and have him confirm that he has considered all those things before giving you his first drafts in the future. Reviewing his checklist could help with confirming he’s understanding at a basic level what his gaps are and having him use it before submitting might help with any detail orientation issues or him coming to you hoping that you’ll do the work for him.

  7. RC Rascal*

    Here is another thing to think about:

    That others perceive his work as high quality and you don’t could be seen as a personal conflict. Other managers and employees could see you as personally disliking the employee.

    Keep in mind that weak managers will frequently PIPs for personal and political reasons.

    1. Kit*

      I’m not sure that’s as relevant in this case, because there is the actual documentation that ‘his’ work (the original, unedited output) is not actually high quality; the quality comes only after his manager spends a lot of time and energy on revisions. It’s possible that some people will speculate about this, but the OP can easily refute concerns from her higher-ups, who can (and should!) then shut down the gossip.

      Some of them may well have egg on their faces if they discover exactly how undeserved their praise was, but that wouldn’t be my chief concern if he needed to be PIP’ed.

    2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I have a feeling that the work that is being praised is final products only – and the folks doing the praising aren’t seeing how much effort is being required to get to the final product.

      But I do have to agree with others – it may be time for OP to let a few balls (on low stakes things) drop. Also, maybe be a bit more proactive on making employee find their own answers. At a year in they don’t need to be a master at the job, but it’s not an unreasonable expectation for the employee needing to be far more self sufficient than they seem to be.

    3. Nom nom*

      Keep in mind that weak managers will frequently [use] PIPs for personal and political reasons.

      Yep. I’ve been a manager for years and this letter is tricky for me as I can see both sides. The fact is, most managers who insist on an employee having “performance issues” have failed to provide the employee with the very basics in terms of training and other support, including feedback and guidance that makes sense and is able to be actioned. Whether they have intended to or not, the manager has set the employee up to fail.

      Alison raises excellent points about how this could be perceived if LW fires the employee. Even now, more often than not, I am more likely to believe that an employee has been unreasonably or unfairly treated or targeted by a manager, rather than that there was a truly problematic performance problem that the employee was unwilling to even try and fix.

      If the employee is supposedly failing to improve, you need to go back to basics. What are the actual issues with the employee’s performance that are causing actual problems? Are these actual problems, or is it something that you have a personal preference for?

      If they are actual problems, you need to explain these to the employee, complete with actual examples of their work that has these issues, feedback and comments on how it can be improved, and examples of what the employee’s work should look like. You then need to provide feedback that is actionable, and a reasonable period of time in which to achieve these goals.

      For example, if you don’t like the way Fred writes emails, is it because the way he writes those emails has actually caused issues, or just that you have a preference for an email that is slightly longer or shorter, or uses dot point lists, or uses a particular greeting and sign off? Even if you think the way Fred writes email might cause issues is not enough. If you want Fred to write emails differently because of an actual problem, not a perceived problem, provide Fred with as many examples as you can of what his emails should look like. And, at all points, allow him to ask questions.

      (And yes, the above paragraph was something that a real manager, Josh, wanted to put one of their team on a PIP for recently: Josh thought Fred’s emails were “always a sentence too long and that it might cause confusion”, but that it hadn’t caused any confusion so far and that all the recipients of Fred’s emails, internal and external, thought he was great and his emails were, too. Josh’s boss is my direct report and kicked it up the chain to me, because he had no idea how to even start on how stupid this was. Josh is now furious with me as this PIP was 100% an example of a PIP for personal and political reasons.)

      Also, OP, you need to meet with the employee more frequently than monthly.

  8. Smithy*

    I think another relevant question the OP can ask themselves is whether or not this workplace is or isn’t largely functional. Particularly when it comes to questions around staffing/performance improvement/etc.

    If the OP works at a place where these issues are largely functional and professional, then all of AAM’s advice is great. If the place is a little less functional, more chaotic, less professional….then at least the OP can exhale because that may also identify where some of this anxiety is coming from. In particular I’ve worked at a number of places that seemed to hate firing people using “professional” means and instead relied on bizarre gotcha tactics to push someone out immediately and unexpectedly or far more commonly, slowly and painfully push them out. And when I say slowly…in some cases that meant years. Like years until their planned retirement.

  9. learnedthehardway*

    I’d definitely make sure that your own manager is in the loop on how much coaching and rework has to be done with your direct report, to get his work to a level that is polished enough for presentation to internal or external stakeholders. You might also talk to them about the problem it creates to have VP External Department praise your employee to the skies when it took 3x as long and 17x as many revisions to get their work to the level that it could be shared. At least this way, your own manager will be aware that your direct report is not the superstar they appear to be.

    I would also use the feedback from external people to reinforce your coaching. Eg. “VP External Department said they really liked your analysis of blue goop profitability based on the sales vs production costs. You see why that is so important to include now, right? And how important it is that you verify all of the input costs?” You can also refer the employee back to this presentation/work product as a model of what TO do on similar, future assignments – sometimes, people who are struggling simply need a rubric of what the expected outcome looks like.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      Having been in a similar position to the OP myself, I’d say be careful about how this is worded to the ‘grandboss’. There’s a fair chance that the grandboss will respond with (something like) “well, why isn’t he performing, you need to train him more effectively, why aren’t you getting effective results out of him” etc.

      1. LittleMarshmallow*

        For sure! I have two people right now that are not performing (I’m not their manager but am being forced to act as such without any actual authority- which, side note, do not do that to people; don’t make someone who isn’t a manager “manage” someone… it’s the worst) and as I’m trying to get some accountability going with someone with authority all that keeps happening is more critiques on my training methods. I have successfully trained many on these exact things… others have done just fine. I’m so tired of the answer to “this person violated a policy… again” being well, were you clear enough with them? And then being told that I overexplain things too much… what do you people want from me?!?! There are days I feel like maybe they’re trying to manage me out by making my time at work miserable.

  10. Still Salty*

    I dealt with a guy like this. He was in an admin position supporting my department and I was the most junior employee, so I ended up spending so much time helping him that whenever the higher-ups saw his work it looked polished and perfect.

    When the time came for layoffs after our company was purchased, I was let go and they kept him. If I had let him fail (instead of seeing it as my job to get better work-product to the higher-ups, and to not take up as much of their time) then that might have changed. He apparently exited the company abruptly (as in, was essentially forced out) after the new owners became aware that he was subpar to the other admin workers.

    1. Office Lobster DJ*

      I’m so, so sorry that happened to you and hope everything worked out even better for you in the end.

      LW, let this story be a caution for you. It’s about more than just assigning praise or credit; perception can have very real consequences. You’re right to want to address it. What if the senior leadership kept or promoted him instead of one of your team – or you?

      1. Still Salty*

        Thank you! I have a new job and I’m pleased to be employed even if it isn’t my “dream job” (although I don’t dream of labor). I got some satisfaction to see the higher-ups who made the decision to let me go get let go themselves or depart for different positions after killing themselves over the merger and bending over backwards to kiss new management’s behind. My former supervisor rather abruptly exited the company herself, I believe due to something that came out in national news (although I can’t prove anything).

        But yes, this is most certainly a factor to consider when thinking about interactions with other people. Whose head is on the chopping block when it comes time for layoffs may surprise you. I know at my company, people would flat-out say that they used layoffs as a way to get rid of problematic people, those they didn’t like, and those who didn’t gel well with the team or didn’t seem to have a place. In my case, I was so junior that I knew my superiors were tired of mentoring me and figuring out what “stretch” assignments to give me, and they also really liked the admin guy, thought his work was great, and refused to listen to me when I raised my concerns. So chopping my position, saving $100k a year and spreading out my work, then keeping what they believed to be a competent admin worker made sense to them. Until it didn’t, I suppose.

  11. Parenthesis Dude*

    It seems like the boss is doing most of the work to get this employee up to snuff. If so, that at least leaves the problem in their corner. And yes, the solution is probably letting a few things drop.

    But the potential issue is that other members of the team are picking up part of his slack. If that’s the case, well it’s just devastating to watch an incompetent get praised while the people doing the work aren’t. That can cause you to lose important people, and that’s something a boss needs to try and prevent.

    1. As per Elaine*

      It’s also worth asking if other people on the team are getting as much of boss’s time as they need/could benefit from, or if they’re not getting as much coaching as they could use because they can produce acceptable outputs independently.

  12. LMB*

    There’s one on every team, isn’t there? I’ve worked with a few people like this— they produce mediocre work, are difficult to work with, need significant coaching, etc but for some reason are beloved by everyone other than direct teammates who have to deal with them everyday, and are especially beloved by more senior leaders who only see final products or hear the “buzz” about the new wonderkind. I agree with Alison that there’s not a whole lot that can be done but I think in addition to the potential problems she notes, this can start to affect his teammates. They may become resentful if this mediocre (or just plain bad) employee is getting noticed so positively. If raises/promotions/bonuses are competitive or hard to come by and he gets one over a better employee, that has real consequences for the person who lost out and can erode morale more generally. The message sent to them is that the company values appearances more than actual work and/or talent. The LW should really do their best to carefully document this person’s development and be transparent with the immediate chain of command. Praise other employees in the presence of senior leaders and push back when appropriate.

    1. Clobberin' Time*

      I work with this guy too. The “for some reason” has a lot to do with the old boys’ club. Everyone else’s morale is in the tank because the golden boy can do no wrong, and there is always an excuse for mediocre performance.

      1. SixTigers*

        Or there’s no excuse at all but he’s a good golfer, is always up for shmoozing in the hall, is buddies with Everyone Who Matters, never mind that his estimates are two weeks late, someone will take care of those.

  13. Dinwar*

    There are a few things you may want to look into in addition to what was said above:

    1) What is your training like? Most of the time I’ve seen someone in this situation it’s because they haven’t received adequate training–they’ve gotten piece-meal instruction, mostly along the lines of “You screwed up, here’s how.” Without a systematic training structure you don’t know what folks know. A certain percentage of people will fail even with proper training, but if you don’t have proper training you’re maximizing your potential for failure.

    2) Do you have real coaching/mentoring in your company? It sounds like this person may benefit from it. And remember, you’re seeing the extreme here; it’s almost certain that others have similar issues, but to a lesser degree so they aren’t as visible. This relates to Point 1, because mentoring and coaching are part of training. This may also take some load off your plate, as this worker would have an official not-you person to go to with these issues. Sometimes feedback comes better from a peer or someone not your immediate supervisor.

    3) Who’s not getting praise? Or, rather, why? You said “he”, which has me wondering–there’s a long history of men getting credit that should go to women. (Fun historic fact: a large number of women fought at Trafalgar, and petitioned the British government to be included when the medals were handed out. They were turned down because officially they were in violation of the Admiralty rules.) Even if that’s not the case, though, it’s pretty obvious that there’s a disconnect between who does the work and who gets credit for the work, and that’s a problem. People like to be visible. I would also question how much your bosses really know about what’s going on. It’s normal for bosses to be somewhat out of the loop–a good team could be defined as one that knows what to keep the boss unaware of–but there are limits. You may want to look at your communication structure.

    It could just be that this guy’s a lost cause and your office is oblivious. But it doesn’t hurt to take some time and dig into these sorts of questions.

    1. Nom nom*

      Agree 100% with this.

      OP also needs to think about what of the “several rounds of feedback” is actually necessary, and what might be based on their personal preference.

      OP sounds like a good manager, which is refreshing, but I’ve also dealt with managers who mistake the normal review and feedback process for “this person needs so much guidance and input for the documents to be polished”…but, when you look at the changes that the manager made to the employee’s work, not only are they minimal, but they are also very much equal to what happens with everyone else’s work during the same process.

      Someone asking a question, or offering two different options for how something can be phrased or presented (like a pie chart vs a graph), does not mean that their draft is not “polished” or complete. It means that they have submitted a draft for review, and that the review process is both useful and working.

  14. AnonaLlama*

    This situation could actually help your PIP, OP. I’d use a script something like:

    “Ok, Fergus, that report wound up in great shape and you saw we got great feedback on our final version! As we’ve been discussing, though, I need for your initial drafts to be much closer to this type of product than they are now. Do you see the difference between the final product and the draft you submitted for this report? What are you thinking about for how we can get you closer on the first draft?”

    If Fergus doesn’t seem to get how his draft was different from the praised version, go through it together in detail so that he sees the deltas.

    1. Nom nom*

      Totally agree. Examples of what the work should actually look like, versus examples of what it currently looks like (with any and all problems or issues noted, with clear statements explaining why these things are problems or issues), is literally what any manager should be using to help an employee who they think needs to improve.

      If you cannot provide these examples, and you cannot explain what the problem is and how it negatively impacts the work being done, then there is no actual problem.

  15. Lacey*

    This is one of the least satisfying answers. I’ve never been a manager, but I’ve often been the coworker of people like this. Somehow they’re getting praised to the skies from management while everyone else works twice as hard to make up for them. They take credit for our ideas, they get credit for our work because they handed in the final piece. It’s a nightmare.

    1. tessa*

      This right here.

      And the managers and other higher ups find themselves blinking and bewildered, wondering why they are losing skilled and reliable employees in droves.

    2. Nom nom*

      I think Alison’s answer is pretty good, although I do think OP needs to meet with the employee more than once a month, and needs to use actual examples of what the work should look like, and examples of what it currently looks like (with any and all problems or issues noted, with clear statements explaining why these things are problems or issues).

      I’ve been the coworker and the manager of such a person, but I’ve also seen both coworkers and managers complain about how much input they apparently need to have to make the work “polished”…only to look at the changes made and the feedback given and see that the final product is almost identical to the person’s unedited work, or that the changes made were unnecessary, subjective changes based on personal preference than actual need.

      While OP sounds like a supportive manager, I’ve also seen plenty of people dumped onto PIPs or similar plans for reasons that have nothing to do with performance, and/or that provide the person with nothing but generic, vague feedback that is impossible to action.

    3. Nana*

      Yeah, I don’t care about public praises, but I do care about better job titles and by extension future earning potentials.

      If all my incompetent coworker gets is praise, who cares. But if she’s also getting the job that people don’t think I’m qualified for when in reality I’ve been carrying her (and if she doesn’t hesitate to accept), there’s a problem here.

  16. Truly*

    I used to manage someone like that. Totally hopeless in that he was incapable of applying learnings to other situations so it was always groundhog day with him. And he thought he was god’s gift to our organisation – phase 1 of Dunning-Kruger forever. I really did try but with no success. He’s still around but I no longer manage him now, not my problem anymore.

    1. Nana*

      The criteria for charming can be different, but I’ve seen female coworkers who get away with doing nothing because people find them likeable.

      1. LittleMarshmallow*

        Yeah, the coworker I have that is the difficult but well liked by management employee is female. She’s also getting special treatment and lower expectations because she’s a mother and the other women on the team aren’t so obviously we should be fine with taking on the extra work to cover for her shortcomings. Our personal lives aren’t nearly has important as hers because we don’t have children/spouses.

    2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      I’m convinced that in fact this guy will turn out to be the son of the CEO’s golfing buddy.

  17. Been There*

    So he’s taking/applying your feedback, and people are happy with the final product? And you have a problem with that? And he’s only been there a year? It’s not uncommon for projects to go back and forth for revisions between manager and employee in many industries.

    1. Myrin*

      It sounds like it is uncommon and a sign of a real problem at OP’s workplace/in her industry, though, which is ultimately what counts. She also says that he “is not performing as well as expected after a year in his role”, so there’s no “only” involved in that timeframe.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      But from the first line of the letter, it sounds like it’s uncommon for employees to need the current level of revisions/feedback on *every* report that this employee does at this point in their tenure. As in, this person is not continuing to apply feedback or showing any improvements, and people are only happy with the final product because of the excessive amount of work the manager is still doing to get things up to par.

      I think the LW is borrowing trouble being overly concerned about the praise the employee is receiving and whether it’s sending mixed messages. It doesn’t sound like the employee is taking it to heart or ignoring the PIP because of it. If the employee can’t meet the goals of the PIP (which should have a defined end point, which is not clear from the letter), then that’s the main thing the LW should focus on.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        I think that either OP is micro-managing, or, it’ll turn out that this guy is the son of the CEO’s golfing buddy.

    3. Nana*

      I don’t understand this “only a year” business. A lot of contracts are scheduled to end after 6 months, so those of us who don’t want to list a bunch of short stints on our resume need to learn fast and hit the ground running. A year is DEFINITELY enough to gain significant knowledge of the company, and companies who give their employees that much leeway need to ask themselves why they’re not hiring the freaking contractors.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        It sounds like most people should have learned the basics and started working pretty independently within a year.
        Even someone in an all-new role in a new field should be pretty competent after a year. If you can’t get the basics right, and produce work that just needs a quick once-over, after a year, you’re the wrong person for the job.

    4. Nom nom*

      I have to agree. A lot of this sounds like the normal back-and-forth that takes part during a review process, which a lot of managers either don’t understand or become impatient with.

      Also, there is only a very small minority of people who cannot action feedback that makes sense; however, people cannot be expected to action vague, generic and inconsistent feedback. If you give someone examples of what their work should actually look like, versus examples of what it currently looks like (with any and all problems or issues noted, with clear statements explaining why these things are problems or issues), and also provide any training, retraining or other support that is required (including either documeting processes, or updating that documentation if it’s out of date or not helpful), then 99% of people will improve almost immediately.

      People management is difficult, and most people suck at it. If you don’t want to deal with it, or you are bad at it, don’t do it. And go to extensive management training before you even think about managing people.

  18. Green great dragon*

    It feels like the LW just has to be really clear that the problem isn’t the final product, it’s about the amount of coaching to get there.

  19. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    Do others contribute to his success as well? If not, perhaps they should. Can you team him up with various other colleagues to learn from their processes?

    You don’t need the credit, but they do. Guide him in publicly responding to praise by thanking the members of the team who helped achieve the desired result.

  20. Vio*

    I’ve noticed that several articles have an external link to read the response. Presumably there’s an agreement with those sites that readers have to go to their site to read the response (which is perfectly reasonable of course) but the problem arises when some of those sites require either registration and/or payment to read the articles. In the case of it’s only registering for a free account, annoying but ok. Sometimes though it’s a “you have read too many free articles today and must pay or wait” even without having read any articles there, ever (I wish I’d made a note of which site this was, it’s happened in a few older articles that sounded interesting).

    1. BubbleTea*

      Those sites pay Alison for her articles, whereas here we read for free. Their paywalls etc are how they fund paying the writers, which is an objectively good thing to do.

    2. calonkat*

      Alison earns money by writing columns for those sites. All the letters and answers on this site are free, so it’s only a few on external sites that might require a subscription. If you object, then you just don’t read those (I tend to click through on the ones I REALLY REALLY want to read the updated answer to), and you can always search the site for the original letter and answer.

    3. Elenna*

      Yes, as calonkat said, this is how those sites earn the money which they use, among other things, to pay Alison. Often these are reprints/updated advice to older letters (such as this one) so if you want, you can search this site for the original letter and the advice Alison gave then.

    4. SnappinTerrapin*

      When I find a paywall, I weigh the cost against the benefit before deciding whether to subscribe.

      I appreciate Alison making this site free, and don’t begrudge her any revenue she derives from advertising, from linking to other sites that pay for her writing, or from sales of her own books or other merchandise.

      The Inc. articles are republished. You can search Alison’s archives, if you’d like to read the comments when it was published earlier.

    5. Yes Please*

      Yes, I pay for subscriptions to multiple sites, including Inc., thanks to Alison. I’m happy to support high quality writing.

  21. stretchingisgood*

    Can you go on a vacation next time he needs support so that another manager sees what he’s actually like to work with?
    If they love him and don’t see a problem with his work — is it possible that it is in fact you?

    1. Nana*

      Good suggestion. I worked at this company once where I could finally prove my chops after the project manager took a long leave of absence. I would later learn he was in fact a micromanager, and I spent the first few months paralyzed because of the kind of manager he was. Had he never left, my contract probably wouldn’t have been extended.

      1. Nom nom*

        Awesome outcome!

        This needs to happen more frequently, frankly, especially if a manager complaining about someone’s performance cannot produce any actual evidence of issues that truly stands up to scrutiny, including when compared to other people’s work, and/or it’s clear that the supposed guidance being provided is not actually actionable.

      2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        I was wondering whether OP wasn’t micromanaging too. Like you, I have suffered from being micro-managed. The boss would even dictate “please find enclosed…” emails. He was always furious that we managed fine without him. He once called me into his office to shout at me because when a client asked for my number in an email, I just answered with “01 42 62 84 92” instead of “Dear Client, my telephone number is 01 42 62 84 92 and you can reach me between 9am and 4pm, yours sincerely Rebel Withmouseyhair, Project Manager”, when in fact, my number was clearly stated in my signature, and the guy called me the minute he got my email and was perfectly friendly during the call, not at all upset at the brevity of the previous email.

        Once, when he was away and unreachable at his country home, I had to produce an estimate for a client. I pulled up the one he had done previously, and just changed the date and other relevant numbers before sending it out. The estimate was accepted and we’d already delivered the work before the boss even knew about it.
        He chewed me out once he got back because of an error in the estimate… but I showed him that I had simply reproduced an error in his previous estimate, how was I to know it was a mistake?

    2. Nom nom*

      I think this is a really good idea. It will become apparent pretty quickly if this is an actual performance problem, instead of a problem with misapplying policy and procedure, unreasonable/uncommunicated expectations, or just personal preference.

  22. El l*

    Two things you should do.

    First, make it clear when sending things out that he has to give some credit to you for all the time you put in. You don’t have to make it “me me me”, rather, “When you collaborate with people – which you certainly did here with me – you need to give credit to them. Make sure their name is on the email and deliverable.”

    Second, I think you need to draw boundaries about how much time you put in to any given deliverable. “I only have x hours to help you polish this – and based on what I’m seeing here, this needs significant improvement which you’re just going to have figure out on your own. Think hard about improvements, and let’s meet in y days.” Then you need to start letting him stand and fall on his own feet. You have other places to be besides propping him up, right – so spend time there instead. And if people start asking you later, “Why has his work dropped off?” I’d be willing to say, “I couldn’t sustainably spend that much time polishing his work.”

  23. Bw*

    I wonder if the letter writer was one of my former managers. I feel like I was the person being written about because it mirrors my experience at a job I wasn’t a good fit at.

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