my employee can’t accept that his work is bad

A reader writes:

I’ve put a staff member on to a formal performance improvement plan, but despite me providing feedback and taking multiple approaches to get through to him, he doesn’t seem to be able to grasp just how poorly he is doing.

I want him to succeed and have supported many conversations, participation in mentoring and coaching, formal and informal training, attempts to build a peer network, ongoing feedback, and participation at conferences and events. I’ve tried as many techniques as I know and have had advice on new ones to try, but they don’t get through. He appears to work best with specific instruction, which isn’t generally possible for the role he is in, because his role is more about managing a team, strategy, being future focused, communicating with many different stakeholders, complex problem-solving, and playing the political game.

The improvement plan, which has a month left on it, is clear that we will let him go at the end of it if he doesn’t improve, and and both myself and HR have talked him through it.

He spends a lot of time telling me and his team and other colleagues how good he is and how much he has to contribute, but he just isn’t delivering. Recently he’s missed two deadlines, but has spent that time telling me how much he is enjoying the opportunity to do this work and being given the chance to show me how good he can be.

Do you have advice on how to get through to an overly-confident staff member (where that confidence is very misplaced)?

I’ve been as blunt as making hand gestures of him needing to be up here (gestures) and showing he has only progressed to about here (gestures much lower). I am trying to be cautious that I’m not forever only giving negative feedback or corrections, but when I give positive feedback he latches on to that and can’t seem to hear anything else.

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.

{ 126 comments… read them below }

  1. Hamster Manager*

    That sounds frustrating, OP! It’s not your job to make him accept these circumstances, as Alison said, just double-check that he knows he’s about to get canned and then ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ until he does.

    PS love the article illustration on this one!

  2. hamsterpants*

    Why is it so important to keep giving this guy help and chances?

    I know that hiring is tough right now and decent managers want to enable their employees to succeed, but LW had already gone well beyond their duty.

    Dude isn’t performing. You don’t need him to “get it” as much as you need an employee who will perform.

    The writing is on the wall. It’s time for him to go.

    1. chewingle*

      Some companies have strict procedures before an employee can be fired. They may have to have a rigorously documented performance plan before they can let someone go.

      1. NeedRain47*

        My understanding is that this is also useful for preventing wrongful termination lawsuits. It’s harder to say someone fired you unfairly when they have documentation showing you genuinely did a crummy job.

    2. Katie*

      Because as much as they stink as an employee, it still is crappy to fire someone, especially when they are not antagonistic.

      1. Sir Ulrich Von Liechtenstein*

        How is it crappy to fire someone who categorically cannot do the work?

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          I read Katie’s comment as the experience of firing someone is crappy, just on a human level. It’s not a fun thing to do, especially when someone is a nice person. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, especially if it’s impacting other people, but it’s the reason people give a lot of chances when they don’t have to.

          1. Koalafied*

            Yes, I didn’t interpret it as saying it’s wrong to fire someone or that it makes the manager a crappy person – just that it’s obviously going to have a material negative impact on the person’s life and that’s, well, a crappy thing to have happen, and good managers are aware of that.

            It’s sort of akin to how we always say interviewers shouldn’t pretend like salary is an inconsequential detail that they don’t need to reveal until the end of the hiring process, or judge candidates for daring to ask about compensation instead of being so passionate and eager that the salary doesn’t matter, etc.

            Income matters, a lot. It matters when you’re offering it and it matters when you’re rescinding it. Acting as if that isn’t the case doesn’t come across well. It doesn’t have to change your ultimate actions or decisions, but it should inform how you execute them.

          2. Migraine Month*

            As a counterweight, getting fired from OldJob, stressful as it was, is the best thing that has ever happened to my career; it pushed me to improve my skills and take the risk of applying to a better job that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Allowing someone to stay in a job where they’re constantly failing isn’t a kindness to the person, their colleagues or yourself.

        2. SomebodyElse*

          It’s still crappy … and it should be. If you don’t feel bad about firing someone, including those that deserve it, I’d be side eyeing you as a manager. That being said, good managers still fire people, but generally want to give a fair chance for the employee to turn around. It doesn’t work more times than it does, but it still should be standard practice to define the problem and provide opportunity to improve.

          Being a good manager includes having empathy and taking action.

        3. Irish Teacher*

          Well, it could quite likely put them in a pretty awful situation – not being able to pay their rent, etc. I mean, it’s not the manager’s fault or their responsibility but it is a pretty crappy situation if somebody ends up at risk of homelessness or something simply because they weren’t very talented in a particular area. It can be the right thing to do and still be an awful situation. It doesn’t mean employers should keep on people who are damaging the company or not getting the work done, but…it’s still pretty awful to have to do something that could well end with somebody losing money, especially if they are genuinely doing their best and just don’t have a particular skill. If they are just not bothering, it’s a bit different, though it’s still not a nice thing to have to do.

          1. GythaOgden*

            Yup. I’d imagine a lot of problems can be managed without leaping straight to being fired, but for this person those are running out, and they’re probably dragging a team down with them.

            A lot of threads here are very protagonist-centred: we make judgements based on the circumstances in the letter and extrapolate based on whether we think the subject of the letter is sympathetic.

            An incompetent employee is given less slack than someone whose weed stinks up her cubicle, probably because the incompetence affects the job more, but also because people were concerned about the impact on the weed-smoker of being summarily dismissed. The other category of firing offences, gross misconduct, bigotry etc, are a point of agreement; this is only about more subjective areas of problematic behaviour in the workplace.

            I think the issue around weed may have changed people’s opinions — if it had been the person smelling of booze (or the gross person who used chewing tobacco in the office!!), they might have got less sympathy. However, they still needed to take some responsibility for their own situation and recognise that they were causing a problem for others. If that situation had arisen in our office, in Facilities we’d have been investigating the source of the smell for the comfort of everyone in the building, and taking action. There was an update in the original thread — going to a manager with the issue actually resolved it without the person being terminated. I think my particular manager would be pretty darn shocked if either of us came in stinking of any intoxicants, but she’d definitely have to lay down the law. Given our positions in healthcare, we take a stricter approach to smoking, drinking etc on the premises and the person involved with the weed smell would be investigated and told that her smell needed to be dealt with. I’m not sure she’d be fired but honestly, she’d be on very thin ice if it was causing a nuisance to others.

            I think we need to be able to see things more objectively when responding to threads. Being fired can be a huge kick up the pants, but it can put someone’s financial situation at terrible risk. But at the end of the day, whether it’s a personal habit that has got out of control or incompetence in some particular position, it has to be addressed as part of working as a team towards the same goal, and the company not being responsible for anyone’s immediate personal circumstances. It’s harsh, and I’ve been unfairly booted from a temp position because I was incompetent in the eyes of people who expected more from me than I could give them. I’ve stayed longer at my current job than was probably good for me given an excessive and at times absurd commute because it’s a very supportive environment and I’ve had years of personal issues that needed a secure base. But if you’re in a precarious position personally or financially, I hate to be so blunt, but it’s up to you to make sure you don’t get fired for justified reasons.

    3. anonymous73*

      First this is an old letter, so circumstances at the present time are irrelevant. Second, some companies make it impossible to fire people. Even if it is possible, companies are scared of litigation, so they need to make sure everything is documented and a process has been followed. And third, outside of something egregious that would constitute an immediate firing, you need to make sure you’re clear on expectations and give people a chance to succeed. As we’ve seen on this site, managers are not always clear with their expectations. They’re passive aggressive and hint around, assuming the employee will get it.

  3. SMH*

    I just went through this with an employee. No matter how many examples we gave her of her being late to work, late on deadlines, off task etc. she would state she was doing a lot better and we were being unfair. She also told us that no matter how much she improved we would fire her anyway. She ended up quitting prior to the end of her PIP but I have no doubt we would have termed her based on her first two weeks on the PIP.
    Have one more conversation with HR or your boss present and explain that he missed deadlines and is telling people he is so good and yet he’s on a PIP for xyz and you want to make sure you are on the same page. Ask him to repeat read the PIP out loud specially the reasons why he is on a PIP and then ask him if he understands what he just read. Explain he has 32 days and at that time he will be termed if abc changes are not made and sustained.
    You can add you may not agree but this is what we are seeing and experiencing with your work and we will not continue to employ you if our expectations are not met.

    1. Sarah55555*

      I work with a person like that. Any time she makes a mistake, instead of owning up to it and learning from it she says “I’m just doing the best I can with what I have today” – so needless to say, she keeps making the same mistake over and over again. It’s very frustrating but she is a peer so I am fortunately not responsible for her.

      1. Working Hypothesis*

        I’ve always wondered why “I’m doing the best I can” is considered an excuse. If that’s doing the best she can, then what she can do is not sufficient to get the job done. That’s a good reason to fire somebody. If I don’t want to get fired, I would rather convince them that I *can* do better, so that they might give me a chance to prove it.

        1. Sarah55555*

          It isn’t the mistake that’s the issue, it’s completely blocking yourself off from improvement because you refuse to learn from your mistakes. And she consistently makes the same mistakes. I don’t get it personally.

          1. sb51*

            I think there are cases where it’s perfectly reasonable to say that one is doing the best one can and be firm about it — but it still could result in firing. Or removing a responsibility/not being eligible for a promotion/etc depending on what they can’t do — if it’s “I can do my job but can’t do the one you want to promote me to” that’s a different-but-related conversation.

        2. Elbe*

          Agreed, and I think it would be a kindness for managers to point this out to people like this. If your best doesn’t result in completing the work on time, to standards… then you don’t meet the requirements to hold this job.

          Jobs don’t grant participation points. It’s the outcome that counts, not the effort in most cases.

        3. LittleMarshmallow*

          I agree that most of the time this is sort of a cop out… buuuut… people are human and often there are extenuating circumstances to why this might be a perfectly valid excuse. If you had a full full day of work planned that had all hands on deck required and then 1 or 2 people called in sick… then those left may not be able to get everything done that was planned that day and they would be justified in saying they did the best they could with what they had.

          Of course if that’s someone’s mantra always for just getting the basic parts of their job done then yeah… cop out excuse, but don’t just dismiss it always. There are plenty of times where a company or manager doesn’t give the appropriate resources to their employees to actually perform. Ask me how I know. Haha.

    2. anonymous73*

      Assuming he was told what would happen when first put on the PIP, a last conversation will serve no purpose. He can’t accept what he’s being told. We see a lot of letters here where managers beat around the bush and drop hints when there are problems, instead of being clear on expectations and consequences if they’re not met. It sounds like OP has been clear, so a last conversation will most likely only frustrate them further.

      1. Kevin Sours*

        I think a conversation explicitly laying out that they are not seeing the improvement they need to see would be useful if for no other reason as CYA.

  4. KSharpie*

    They sound like someone I worked with. The guy just would not get it. I went through and counted, I as a coworker had run through (3) 4 hour client software specific trainings, walked him through 3 jobs, gave feedback and corrected minor things… and he still gave absolutely terrible work. He claimed I hadn’t trained him at all but I had it on my calendar and taught 2 other people. I had evidence he’d been trained.
    If you told him his work was bad and gave no compliments he’d leave work for days.
    He went on a PIP and unfortunately it didn’t go well so I’m not sure how it really turned out.

    1. chewingle*

      The wonderful thing about working from home is also being able to record the trainings. I’ve had a lot of “I wasn’t trained on this” happening lately and have been able to go back and pull up recordings that went over the specific things they complained about.

      Of course then they turn around and say, “I don’t have time to rewatch a 30 minute recording!” But won’t bat an eye at the idea if making me hold a repeat training session.

      1. KofSharp*

        My boss found out he’d fall asleep during trainings and then claim he hadn’t received them.
        He’d also call while I was busy and just shoot the breeze under the guise of having a question.

      2. Elenna*

        lmao “I don’t have time to rewatch a 30 minute recording” but somehow they have time to do a 30 minute live training session? So they only have time to waste if someone else’s time is being wasted as well… yeah, that definitely makes sense and certainly isn’t an excuse to not do work at all… /s

        1. Wintermute*

          I think it’s more a case of “trainings are blocked off time and my boss isn’t expecting other production from me, I don’t have time to rewatch a 30min video while I’m trying to get something done every time I have a small question about a specific part of the process.”

          And I think that’s totally valid. Training sessions where you firehose information at people are not a substitute for documentation and online help for just that reason. In fact I think recordings are probably the most useless form of institutional knowledge transfer there is, because you need to invest a lot of time to get a simple answer if all you have is a little question like “when we create a new WENUS report what step comes after you click Analytics -> Estimates -> Usage Statistics?” or “how do I set the report period to “weekly”?”

          1. Critical Rolls*

            There’s a difference between people who reasonably need reference documentation outside live or recorded video trainings and people who claim they were never trained on something (when they definitely were) in order to evade responsibility for poor performance.

            1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

              Agreed – asking if there is a FAQ sheet is worlds away from claiming you never were trained on something.

          2. Loredena*

            I don’t know about other systems but Teams at least has incorporated transcripts that are surprisingly good. While I agree with your larger point I’ve absolutely used the transcript to quickly find something I need clarification on!

          3. GythaOgden*

            Some people do work better with just having a go and seeing what comes up. But with actual recorded training sessions I’ve done recently on suites that I could have just poked and prodded about myself, I had a chance to learn more about why we were implementing this software (to make sure everything got recorded and kept in one place rather than fifty different places) and what it would do for us (make our jobs way easier). That was more interesting than just the basics of the actual software. My colleague tuned out but I found it much more interesting because it went into detail about the other stuff and having things in context makes them so much easier to absorb.

            Ideally, also the employee needs to accept some lessons will be delivered in a way they may find sub-optimal, but that they nevertheless need to learn. At school, I took chemistry to a very high level, but was blindsided by the amount of learning by heart it involved, particularly in organic chemistry. Before that I’d got the whole way through my school career dependent on skills — treating work like a puzzle to be solved. But I could no longer avoid having to learn off all the organic formulae to get the grade I needed to get into the university of my dreams. The moment in the exam when everything clicked was fantastic because I’d had to engage not only with the material being learned but with a new learning process. That university place motivated me more than anything else.

            I now practice learning stuff by heart just to keep that part of me sharp. The numbers 1-10 in an obscure Siberian language, lyrics to folk ballads, poetry etc. I taught myself to write in Asian alphabets rather than just draw out the characters. It helped keep me awake at times (my job on reception is achingly dull, even moreso now many people are WFH, and my autistic mind is spinning like a hamster on meth), but it also keeps me able to learn stuff in sub-optimal ways.

          4. fhqwhgads*

            But they’re not pointing them at the video after being asked a quick question. They’re pointing them at the video when the person says “you never trained me on this at all” (implied: train me). The response is “yes I did, and not only here’s the proof, but also if you want to be retrained, you can have the same training you had the first time whenever you want by watching this”. It’s not a sub for FAQ or easy help docs. It’s a sub for the person who insists they were never trained and asks to be retrained anew multiple times to shift blame from their not retaining the info.
            Is there a chance that initial training wasn’t great? Sure. But if it’s one person out of a team who keeps saying they weren’t trained when everyone got the same training and everyone else is doing fine, it’s probably that one person’s issue, not the training.

        2. LittleMarshmallow*

          Ehhhh… I my experience, online PowerPoint or recorded trainings are rarely a good substitute for a good in person training with an experienced person (especially for first time training – for annual refreshers… sure go ahead with the crappy video). It’s possible that my company just sucks at online training or that I personally don’t learn well that way, but I think that it’s unreasonable to have someone rewatch a 30 min training to get a 5 minute answer from someone that has experience doing the task. This is the reason that first time safety training for new employees by us is done in person by either a safety rep or an experienced employee. Refresher training is all done online though. But I’ll say that I’ve found online refresher training only effective for those that actually do the tasks frequently. For those that don’t, online refresher training usually isn’t enough.

      3. CaptainMouse*

        Actually, that’s true for me. I cannot learn from “dead video”. This is how my brain works. Written instruction or best, interactive instruction are fine. This is because I stay engaged by imagining what questions I need to ask.

        I know this about myself, and take good notes and ask questions at the time. But rewatching that video of our live session—useless.

        1. Pocket Mouse*

          I usually jot notes during the recorded training, then touch base with my supervisor or knowledgeable person about those questions. That way, my questions get answered. Would this method keep you engaged with the recorded trainings you encounter?

          1. LittleMarshmallow*

            Possibly… I mean… I realized I ordered something at work the other day and have literally no memory of doing it. I thought I looked up the part number and then sent it to my colleague to order it… but lo and behold… the order email came from me… is in my tracking spreadsheet and everything and I don’t remember doing it (to be fair to me… it was a 12 hour day). So yeah… I could easily and without guilt at least say that I don’t remember being trained on something. Humans don’t remember every last little detail of everything. If they did then refresher training and written SOPs probably wouldn’t be necessary.

        2. allathian*

          Yup, this is absolutely me. I just can’t focus on “dead video” even if it’s a recording of a training I’ve attended. So I take notes on key points.

      4. Sparrow*

        I have a small, three-times-a-year task that I’m always fuzzy on because I do it so rarely. I am very grateful to the person who runs that process for not only having a recorded walk-through, but time stamps for the specific steps. Because no, I’m not sitting through a 20 minute video to double check I remembered one detail correctly, but I will watch the three minutes I know have the answer!

      5. Another health care worker*

        This happened to me with 2 employees who were fired for breaking a very important rule. The rule was honestly pretty obvious, and note that they did The Thing without asking or even telling anyone, when it critically affected the whole operation, suggesting they knew it was an obvious rule too! They just hoped nobody would find out what they were doing.

        When caught, they argued that no one had ever told them it was a rule, and then when I pointed out that it was clearly stated in their training materials, they said they had received too many documents during our training. In other words, they had both not enough training and too much training. And they had honestly been interested to know about this rule, but they just couldn’t find information on it, so what could they do?

        1. Louis*

          “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission” is really horrible advice though that may be what was going on here.

    2. MisterForkbeard*

      “He claimed I hadn’t trained him at all but I had it on my calendar and taught 2 other people. I had evidence he’d been trained.”

      This. We actually have a formal training and evaluation program implemented within my team. You have specific ‘courses’, some deliverables, and oversight in which you’re graded by your manager and a couple other people during your training period, and you’re also given a mentor that isn’t allowed to talk to the grading team about you.

      The end result of this is that the new hires get a significant amount of documentable training. It also (great side benefit) means that everyone comes out of the process knowing a good chunk of the team and who they can go to for help with various things, as well as an ‘ally’ they can speak to outside management. HR actually loves this approach and keeps recommending it to other teams, but we’ve also used it to let people go more than a few times. Especially since everyone goes through the same process, we can prove they should be able to get it done.

  5. Mary*

    I worked with someone who occasionally liked to say “I can explain this to you all day, but I can’t understand it for you.” Sometimes that’s simply the case, and you’ve done all that you can do. With that being said, I wonder how direct OP has been with him if he’s missed deadlines but has “spent time” telling OP about how much he enjoys his work and how good he is. That’s two very concrete examples of him falling short that you could provide.

    1. Working Hypothesis*

      Just as you can’t understand for someone, even though you can explain, you also can’t care more about somebody’s success than they care about their own. If he doesn’t want to change, then he’s not going to change, no matter what his boss hopes for.

    2. Zombeyonce*

      I also wonder about the language. I feel this kind of employee needs language even clearer and more plain than Alison suggested (which should be clear, but…). Something like “We have not seen improvement from you. Based on your current work, you will be terminated at the end of your PIP. How do you think you can bring yourself up to standards?”

  6. The Wizard Rincewind*

    Man, I would be over the moon to have a manager put that much work into helping me.

    1. De Minimis*

      Same here! I get almost no guidance from anyone, and I’m sure a lot of people have the same experience as I do.

    2. Also not a fan*

      My (newish) supervisor is spending so much time working with an abysmal (newish) empoyee that my timeline for rolling out a particular service enhancement keeps getting pushed back because I need supervisor’s attention and help.
      I get it, and it’s great that there is support when an employee is struggling, but dragging out an ieveitable firing has many ripple effects.

      1. ArtsyGirl*

        I was thinking the same thing – the OP is being so generous with their time and supportive to this problematic employee I wonder if the others are feeling resentful especially when he then goes on to brag about how important he is and how good his work is. The substantial extra mentoring and opportunities could led to frustration for the employees that don’t need handholding.

      2. Filosofickle*

        I feel this. On the flip side, a (newish) colleague of mine was recently fired. Looking at it through my own fears, I am unsettled by how fast it was and how little formal process went into it. I would like to see my company approaching under-performance very thoughtfully. However, it was almost definitely inevitable so not dragging it out and investing resources in someone who wasn’t going to make it did make sense.

        1. Leonineleopard*

          Thanks for sharing your thought process—that makes a lot of sense! By “very thoughtfully,” do you mean slowly and/or such it is transparent and visible to colleagues that the person in question has been warned about the consequences of failing to improve their performance and given a chance to improve after receiving the warning? Or something else entirely?

          1. Filosofickle*

            Thoughtfully to me means a couple of things. Management has made crystal clear that the job is on the line, no softening or ambiguity. The employee has clarity what the role and expectations are, a plan with goals and a timeline, and sufficient time to actually turn things around. That’s the minimum. I have some wish list items too, like a standard process — an objective HR process or guideline that everyone follows so you’re less subject to the whims of one manager.

            I suppose at the end of the day what my bleeding heart wants is kindness – I want to work for a company that is invested in our success and has given thought to whether we really have what we need to succeed and provides it if we don’t.

    3. Susan Ivanova*

      Yep. This time last year I was on a PIP and all I got was “you’re a senior llama groomer, I shouldn’t have to explain it.” Well, yes you *do*, or we wouldn’t be in this situation.

      A big part of the problem was them not listening when I said that I cannot groom a llama if the grooming station hasn’t been built yet, and there’s an entire team of station experts busily working on it. But I think it was also some upper management embarrassment that the llamas were running around looking untidy.

  7. Skytext*

    This person is a bad fit for this role. If he only works well when given concrete steps to follow, then he is either not suited to or not ready for a big picture role. When he starts running his mouth about how good he is, that’s when you need to be blunt. Interrupt him, say “I’m going to stop you right there. You like to tell me how good you are, but you don’t show it with your performance. Your work is not acceptable, and you will not continue in this role without significant improvement.”

    1. WellRed*

      Yes that’s my thought. He shouldn’t have been hired into this role in the first place.

      1. The OTHER Other.*

        I was going to say this. If you have someone who really fails in a role, it’s worthwhile to look at your hiring/promotion process and find out how it happened. No process is perfect, some people interview really well and so on, but a good process minimizes frequency of bad hires or promotions.

        At an old job, a manager, “Susan” who had been there forever had disproportionate power on who was promoted and played favorites with her people, leading to some disastrous results. It continued because no one wanted to confront her. Finally a new manager said “we have 5 team managers here and 10 shift supervisors. Why are 9 out of 10 of the supervisors from Susan’s team?”. There was shocked silence as someone dared raise the Forbidden Subject, but the sorcerer’s spell was broken and opportunities were given out more fairly after that.

      2. TheAG*

        I wondered about this as well. Also wondered about how the team he is supposed to be leading is doing with his lack of performance. Signed…the guy left holding the bag for the non-performer in multiple roles

    2. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

      Yeah, sometimes this is just the case. Thing is, person might be totally fine in a different individual contributor role. But that’s not what being asked.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        From going back to read the original letter, it seemed to me that the OP was a newer manager, and this person was probably an amazing individual contributor who got promoted into a position he was a bad fit for. It almost felt like the OP wrote because they wanted to make sure they were getting the managing piece correct because “employee” just didn’t accept the corrections that, no actually you aren’t doing a good job here.
        There is nothing wrong in trying to get other perspectives to make sure you’ve got something right.

    3. Hats Are Great*

      He sounds like a guy who interviews well and does great at selling himself as an asset to the team — but there’s no There there when he actually has to do the work. So he’s just continuing to sell himself when faced with performance concerns.

    4. Sheldon Cooper*

      I’m going through that with an internal hire right now. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that she’s best when she can follow written procedures, which is not the nature of my role (mine’s managing people and very judgmental situations). I feel bad that it may not work out, but in the long run, I think it’s better to not fit a square peg in a round hole.

  8. Nameless in Customer Service*

    [since this is an old letter] switch LW #1’s employee with Norbert.

  9. Aspiring Great Manager*

    I’ve had a staff like this. And I really think you need to go further in the clarity here. “Need to let you go” can still be misunderstood by someone with selective hearing like this person. Say instead: “if you don’t improve in the manner set out in your PIP, the company will end your contract. The contract termination will be effective the day/week/ after (or provide a date). Because PIP performance is evaluated over time and not simply in the last day, you have make more improvements in your work performance beginning today.”

    This is hard to say and hard to hear, but it has to be done.

    Then, Very Important!, after you speak with the staff, send them an email and document what you’ve done in order to make sure you have evidence of all the efforts you made.

    Good luck, its not easy!

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      In the U.S., very little employment is by contract. We would have to say something more along the lines of “your employment will be terminated (or ‘you will be fired’) on X date.” And yes, that documentation is critical. No “but no one told me!” possible there.

      1. Anonononononononymous*

        Agree that saying the actual words “you will be fired” is really important. I have a former co-worker who was let go on the last day of their probationary period for poor performance. My boss is too nice and tried to soften the blow. The result is that this person goes around telling people that they left because “the job ended”.

        No. It didn’t. I’m doing it. They were let go because they were incompetent. And I’m not sure if they’re lying to themself, lying to everyone else, or just never quite grasped that they were incompetent because my boss couldn’t just say it bluntly.

        1. bamcheeks*

          I don’t think it’s necessary to label someone incompetent— that’s the kind of value judgment that can eat away at someone who was probably just in the wrong role. You need to know that you are not successfully performing the functions of the role and that you will lose your job if you don’t improve— but the emphasis should be on the standards of *this role*. There’s no additional value in telling someone they’re incompetent as if this was a true fact about them always and forever

        2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          They were let go because they were incompetent, but they’re never going to admit to that! Nobody ever admits to that!
          They start out lying to others, and at some point I think they forget it was a lie.

      2. Working Hypothesis*

        I think it would need to be “you will be fired.” Some people still aren’t going to understand ‘terminated’ — especially if they’re feeling deer-in-headlightsy.

    2. Cheezmouser*

      +1 on the documentation. Copy your own supervisor and HR on that follow-up email so it is on file that you did give them notice that if they fail to show improvement as laid out in the PIP, the consequence will be termination.

    3. Spero*

      I agree on not softening the language. I had an employee like this and it just did not sink in over a 90 day PIP (longer because it encompassed an unusual period of time in our financial year). What finally sunk in for her was when I said “So, at this point you are not on track to meet these goals so based on the terms of the PIP your last day with us will likely be x. At our next meeting let’s begin transition planning for when duties should be moved to other staff prior to your last day.”

    4. bamcheeks*

      Yes, I’m always surprised when Alison says, “you need to use really clearly language like “if you don’t X, we will need to let you go” because you me that means something like, “if you don’t X, we won’t try and stop it if you hand in your notice” rather than, “you’ll be fired, there will be no more job for you.”

      Maybe this is a UK/US difference, but it’s still pretty soft to me!

      1. Sir Ulrich Von Liechtenstein*

        That is a really weird interpretation of it. I’ve always heard “let go” to be understood as a slightly nicer way to say “fire,” not a passive thing like you’re describing.

      2. Insert Clever Name Here*

        FWIW, I’m in the US and if I hear “they will be let go” it means “you will be fired.”

      3. Anon all day*

        Yeah, in the US, “let go” definitely means “actively fire you”. Maybe you’re thinking “let go” and they’ll just passively drift away? In the US, there’s definitely another meaning to it, where a person is fired.

      4. lunchtime caller*

        Agreed with everyone else that here in the US it is not like “I’m going to need to let you go” at the end of a phone call where you’re like “okay I’m being nice but we’re saying goodbye now!” but very firmly and obviously means “we are firing you”

  10. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    Went through this with a really annoying guy who was absolutely convinced he was a gift from the gods of computing but who caused more calls to IT than he fixed. Think putting unapproved software on peoples machines, reformatting drives for no reason, editing the registry bad enough to cause total system failure…

    And through it all he reckoned he was just ‘unconventional’ and ‘people love my work’

    It took the final meeting with me, him and HR after a long period of warnings where we finally got through to him that he was about to be fired (it takes a lot of paperwork in the UK to do this but we do do it). His reaction was to quit on the spot. Cool, sign here.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

      And I was very careful to say that the company would cease his employment unless he showed improvement. ‘You’ll be out of a job’ was used more than once but somehow he heard it as ‘keep doing a great job and we’ll promote you!’

      I cannot understand that kind of detachment from reality.

    2. Elle Woods*

      If it wasn’t for you stating you were in the UK, I’d think you were writing about a former colleague of mine. It was amazing how much smoother things ran in the IT department when he was fired.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        Certainly meant I didn’t have to spend so much time cleaning whatever he’d installed off the network! The scans for that were eating into my day.

        He once famously wiped an entire desktop and put a linux distro on it because ‘it’ll work better’. That was the incident that led to the original ‘you got to shape up or get out’ paperwork.

        (You cannot run a non windows box on our network. Nor are you allowed to install anything that hasn’t been past the approvals committee. Not even a browser)

        1. allathian*

          Sounds like IT was the wrong environment for him. Some people let admin access go to their head…

          I’m in a locked down Windows environment where I can’t even change my screen background without clearance from IT, which I think is taking things a bit too far, but whatever. Thankfully we at least use the Windows Software Center, so we don’t need to bother the IT folks every time we need to install a pre-approved piece of software.

          1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

            Yup, ours is only a micro off that level of restriction. All software has to be installed by SMS by IT.

            Okay, there are a few exceptions- some software can’t be deployed that way and is a manual install. I was all for taking away that guys admin rights across the board but senior management pointed out the guy couldn’t do his job if I busted him down to the level of an end user.

  11. Delta Delta*

    One of my favorite television clips to quote is Randy Jackson on one of the very early seasons of American Idol saying, “that wasn’t even half-good, dawg!” We say that around my house pretty frequently, often in connection with random household fails, like a broken garbage bag or burned toast. I like it because it’s entirely honest and delivered clearly, and I wish business issues could be delivered that way. There’d be so little room for misinterpretation.

  12. Lobsterman*

    I need one of these jobs where there are no expectations and I get to jerk my boss around all the time – and the boss thinks it’s their fault.

    1. Stuckinacraxyjob*

      Nod! I could gas myself up if there weren’t concrete things I was failing at

  13. Queen of the Darned*

    OMG, I immediately flashed back (AND had an actual hot flash) to a guy I tried my best to train up years ago. His Dad was in the biz (police) so he thought he knew everything already. He’d just bail on required training tasks because “I didn’t think it was a good use of my time, Queen”, and when I told him they weren’t optional he’d tilt his head to the side, smile at me pityingly, and say, “Queeeeen, come on.” I hated him with the heat of a thousand suns. I strongly recommended him for a second training, and he sulked and quit in short order. Last I heard he was schmoozing his way up the ladder in a MLM outfit.

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      I didn’t notice your username at first, and thought you meant he was literally calling you Queen, and I was going to congratulate you on your impressive display of willpower. :P

  14. Prefer my pets*

    There was an update to the original if anyone is curious. (Big thanks to having all the updates linked in original letters now!)

      1. Grace*

        Thank you for the link to the update.

        On the very small amount of information from this original letter and the update, the OP’s use of and attitude towards PIPs and other performance management procedures reminds me of a couple of the managers we’ve had to fire over the years not only for being too trigger happy with these processes, but also for using them when they should not be.

      1. it's me*

        It’s under “updates: the mothering coworker, the fish microwaver, and more.” The employee resigned.

  15. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    He appears to work best with specific instruction, which isn’t generally possible for the role he is in, because his role is more about managing a team, strategy, being future focused, communicating with many different stakeholders, complex problem-solving, and playing the political game.

    These are skills I don’t believe anyone can really learn in the time frame of a PIP, 1-3 months. If he made it all the way to a managerial position without demonstrating complex problem-solving skills, he’s really been promoted past his ability, was a very poor hire, or the job was changed to something else during the time he’s occupied it.

    I bet he’s holding on to the idea that he got this far with the skills he currently has, and so he’s earned his position. I wonder if he thinks all of this mentoring and effort is a way to prepare him for the next promotion, rather than keep him where he is…

    1. NeedRain47*

      He could surely demonstrate growth in those areas in three months, but not if he’s constitutionally incapable of hearing criticism.

    2. anonymous73*

      A PIP is the last step before termination. Which means that an employee has been given feedback repeatedly with no improvement. So no, he didn’t have 1-3 months to learn those skills. And you most certainly show improvement with those skills, which is really the purpose of a PIP. But no amount of feedback over any period of time is going to get through to someone who can’t admit that they’re not great at something and refuses to accept criticism.

      1. Asker*

        Plenty of PIPs and other “performance management” is applied when it should not be.

        Recently, I had a manager attempt to put a brand new hire on a PIP because they did not complete a task (which they were never even assigned) and because they had supposedly made an error. The error was a simple typo, that was not actually the work of this new starter. Another manager tried to put someone else on a PIP due to “constant errors”. But a simple investigation showed that the “errors” came from incorrect and incomplete information provided to the employee by the manager themselves.

        PIPs are weaponised by managers who want to get rid of people they are threatened by, don’t like, or are too lazy to actually train. Underperformance, more often than not, can be “fixed” by actually training the person, updating the documentation, and/or providing correct instructions.

    3. Asker*

      “He appears to work best with specific instruction…”

      Most humans do.

      “…which isn’t generally possible for the role he is in, because his role is more about managing a team, strategy, being future focused, communicating with many different stakeholders, complex problem-solving, and playing the political game.”

      This is not PIP stuff, especially not short-term, 1-3 month PIPs. Specific instruction is PIP stuff. ‘SMART’-style goals are PIP stuff. This is general performance development stuff, not PIP stuff. What’s been listed here are the type of generic, unreachable goals that are too often used to push people out of their jobs.

      “Managing a team” needs management training. “Communicating with many different stakeholders” needs communication training. You can also receive training in problem-solving and strategy.

      What are the actual problems with his work? The only specific issue mentioned by OP is the fact that two deadlines have been missed. Were the missed deadlines his fault, or was it down to other parties missing essential parts of work that then had a knock-on effect?

      I think Alison is right in that OP thinks they have been really clear when they probably haven’t. OP also needs to make sure that this is not some sort of personality conflict or issue between them and the employee.

  16. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    You’re the supervisor. You define reality. Hire their successor.

  17. soontoberetired*

    We had someone like that on our team many years ago, and he finally left on his own. He ran for a local office a few years after he left, and he listed his job at our company as part of his background, but the job he listed wasn’t the job he had. Clearly he lived in another reality from the rest of us.

    He didn’t when the election.

  18. ecnaseener*

    I see from the update that LW realized they hadn’t been quite as clear as they could’ve been, which is good…because I don’t think miming in the air is exactly unambiguous.

  19. Fluffy Fish*

    The only thing I can think to try if you’d really want to, certainly not necessary nor in anyway unfair not to, is to call out the mismatch in his assessment of his work and your assessment of his work.

    A colleague did this with her mediocre employee (but not fireable level bad). The were both very frustrated with each because employee thought they were doing a GREAT job and boss was picking on the but boss viewed their work as not great and consistently not improving.

    The employee ended up saying she thought she did a great job because she completed the tasks. Boss explained that completing the tasks was the bare minimum and consistently completing a task well (error-free for example) was required to be great in the role.

    Employee is still there, and unlikely to improve, but is looking for other positions as they now they will not meet the benchmark for great at this job.

    Anyhoo – if you think there’s any chance that might put it in perspective for the employee then go for it. But in general you can’t make someone see the light who is unwilling.

    1. Cake Party*

      I think this is a good point to make and I feel like it falls in line with the thread started by SMH above. Obviously the goal is for the employee to meet the expectations of the PIP but it might be useful to check in with the employee on how it’s going and figure out if all these expectations are matching/attainable. Like the person in SMH’s example they might have been making progress (coming in less late, or being late on fewer days) but maybe their attendance wasn’t able to be 100% perfect in a week (or whatever deadline the PIP would be), but the progress should be acknowledged and discuss with the employee if we’re both seeing that this may not be the job for them (you know they’ll probably slip into old habits after the pip, they know it’s exhausting trying to confirm to habits/expectations that don’t suit them) or if the expectations of the PIP are reasonable, maybe the manager has set the bar too high.

      In regards to this LW I have to wonder if the message wasn’t as clear as it could be and it would definitely be interesting to find out what the employees perception is since they think they have certain positive skills. With all the attention being paid to this employee ( trainings!,mentoring!, and more!) as the employee I would be assuming/interpreting that the manager was on my side and trying to help me and less of do X,Y,Z or you’re out of here.

      1. Fluffy Fish*

        OP wrote a follow up and said they think they weren’t as direct at the beginning of the PIP but were by the end – and also that the employee moved on right before they would have had to let them go.

        I just want to add that I don’t know that addressing the mismatch in perception is a tool that will help an employee improve, but I do think it can be a tool to help an employee realize they are not a good fit. I think its a complimentary tool along the lines of an employee self-evaluation (but useful, i hate those lol).

  20. The Cosmic Avenger*

    It’s good to be clear and direct, but is sounds like the LW has been. There are people whose perceptions of reality are up here (holds hand level above head) when reality is actually down here (holds hand level at waist height).

  21. sub rosa for this*

    Oh, this reminds me so much of Adam!

    Adam was a go-getter, a great leader, a raconteur, witty, interesting, always upbeat and positive, and extremely humble – just ask him! And if you didn’t ask, he’d tell you anyway.

    Adam was also not comprehending his job. At all. He didn’t like the metrics we tracked, so he set up a complex set of spreadsheets for all his projects tracking the metrics that HE thought we should be tracking. And on and on… you get the picture.

    We were so glad to see the back side of him after his contract was up, that a few of us went to the boss and asked that he be made ineligible for rehire… and found out he already was. Guess we weren’t the only ones who noticed…

  22. Feral Historian*

    You can’t get through to someone who is willfully oblivious. I had a coworker (who got put on a PIP and then fired, thank goodness) who would acknowledge the fact that he’d screwed up every time and swear he’d never do it again…rinse and repeat the next week. Despite being told specific things to do as well as more general needs for improvement, he was incapable of doing them. There was a lot more stuff going on, but the common thread here is that your company is not their venue to seek enlightenment. If they can’t improve to accomplishing minimum standards for their position, get them out and get someone in who can.

  23. raida7*

    I think that your feedback to him needs to change to: This is not a role that you are suited for, list out skills required to succeed – or even be satisfactory.
    List out how he’s excellent in a role that has clear instructions, and how this role doesn’t suit that.
    This is a chance for a crappy manager to learn they aren’t suited for management – or maybe they’re a good team lead but not a strategic lead.

    Maybe instead of firing him, this is a chance to say “You’re better suited at this time to a non-management role. Would you be interested in a different role here, which would not be supervisory and would not be paid at the same level and would not be dealing with strategy, etc?”
    If he says no because he’s either really convinced this is the *type* of work he wants to do or because he now refuses to be paid less, let him leave on the basis that he is not going to keep this role or be offered another similar one.

  24. Anya Last Nerve*

    I think this guy has worked for me! I told my manager, “If I tell him 99 bad things and 1 good thing, all he hears is the good thing.” It was so frustrating.

  25. Luthage*

    In all of this helping and support of this bad employee, what support have you given to his team or those having to fill in his gaps? I get wanting to help someone who is struggling to succeed, but people tend to ignore the people that have to deal with the fallout around them.

  26. Blue*

    I’ve managed people for 20 years and I don’t believe in PIPs, because they’re usually very badly written and thought out, and very rarely actually needed. PIPs are usually the result of inert, inept or otherwise poor management, and often some sort of power trip, conscious or not.

    Most PIPs do not follow the legal and/or policy requirements they need to, either: the vast majority of people on PIPs should not be on them.

    Things like “playing the political game” do not belong on a PIP. The goals must be definable, achievable and reasonable.

    1. allathian*

      Agreed. Although in a lot of organizations a PIP is a mandatory step when you’re terminating a poor performer. In countries where employment contracts are standard for the vast majority of jobs, it can be a requirement in the contract. When someone’s performance is so poor that they’re completely unfit for the job, it’s very difficult to formulate a PIP with achievable and reasonable goals. Although I do agree that “playing the political game” doesn’t belong on a PIP…

      1. Blue*

        Very true, but most “poor performers” don’t need a PIP or to be terminated. They just need actual, effective training and support.

        Even something as simple as ensuring that the way any processes are taught and documented can be surprisingly effective at magically (cough) getting rid of so-called performance problems. (Yes, this has happened at more than one place I’ve worked.)

  27. Media Monkey*

    i hadto fire someone in lockdown who sounds a lot like this person. he was still on probation (we’re in the UK so no PIP and harder to fire, but on probation, either side can decide to call it quits pretty much when they want).

    he seemed great at interview but on the job, he was doing less than someone he was hired to manage. after months of coaching, mentoring, people checking his work, asking him if there were issues getting in the way of him getting the job done (we would have been extremely sympathetic because lockdown), his direct manager having daily calls with him to go through his to do list (not normal – he is expected to be fairly self-motivated at his level) and him still not getting work done and missing client meetings that were in his diary, we had to let him go. he was absolutely shocked and convinced he was actually doing a pretty good job. some people are just not realistic with themselves.

  28. That One Person*

    It’s in the same vein as trying to help someone. Sure you can tell them about all the resources available, strategies, etc. but if they’re not ready for help yet then there comes a point where you can only watch as they crash and burn. The hope is that they realize before that happens, but realistically its not always the case and if this guy’s stuck in a fantasy land where he’s amazing then there’s only so much fighting to dispel that fantasy that you can realistically do before it’s just not worth it. A family member has a similar situation with one of the managers they’re managing wherein he’s great at customer service aspects, but sucks as a manager and can’t seem to do things right that have their processes in writing…and the weird/sad part is that he’s been around a while. It sounds like it’s become more of an issue over the past year and when given points for correction and even put on a improvement plan he’s fighting it, trying to rally people to his side. He’d have a better time fixing the mistakes he makes time and time again, including managing his team better, but he’s opted to spend it fighting his criticisms instead.

  29. Elbe*

    I think that people act like this for a couple of main reasons:

    1) They are too delusional/insecure for the feedback to sink in. They are subconsciously rejecting any information that doesn’t fit with their own image of themselves.

    2) They know they are a poor fit for the role and won’t improve, but they’re trying to be pleasant and positive so that they can stay in the role for as long as possible because the pay and benefits are good. Essentially, the situation is working for them even if they know it’s not working for the company and for their coworkers, so they’re going to “not get it” for as long as the company will let them.

  30. Llama Face*

    Some people you cannot coach through that. They will never see their faults. I had to manage someone in the exact scenario you described. They were a poor performer; their client even went so far as giving them less or easier work to try and mitigate the poor performance. They were on a PIP. Showed zero awareness; zero initiative; zero anything to address the expectations laid out. Not even the bi-monthly one on ones were getting through to this person.

    Unsurprisingly, to everyone BUT the individual, they were let go. Even then, their outgoing goodbye email was filled with things like “I don’t understand why this happened! No one let me know! No one tried to help me before just kicking me out.” Just a complete lack of self-awareness and willingness to see themselves from a different viewpoint.

  31. Jack Straw from Wichita*

    This reads like a past relationship of mine. After 2+ years of regular conversations where I asked for couples therapy and explicitly said things like “I’m not happy with you” and “X needs to change or this relationship cannot continue” he was SHOCKED when I finally said “we are breaking up and you have a month to move”… to the point he was confused when I slept in the guest room that night. Sometimes people just don’t get it, no matter how clear you are.

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