employee stole a coworker’s food delivery, drinking non-alcoholic beer at work, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Can I teach my employee critical thinking?

One of my direct reports, “Phoebe,” who is just out of school, has a great attitude about the work we do. However, she has zero ability to problem solve on her own. Every time something is not exactly right, she comes to me or another manager for help. I’ve tried asking “what do you think the next steps should be” and other forms of redirection. I’ve tried showing her how I’d handle a particular situation, but when a very similar issue comes up later, she isn’t connecting them. Her constant questioning when she searches for clarity and her nervous energy is noticeable — I’ve had two other managers and three clients mention it to me.

I want to help her progress, both for her own growth and also because I can’t keep doing 75% of her job in addition to mine. This past week I asked her to retrieve an item from the supply closet. She messaged me three times about where in the closet the item was — eventually I just went with her and it was exactly where I’d said. Another time, I asked her to order 200 markers. She called me because the supply store didn’t have boxes of 200 markers. They only had boxes of 50. It did not occur to her to buy four boxes of 50 markers.

All of her executive functioning skills need work and as a manager I’m clueless as how to help her get to where she needs to be. I do not want to coach her out of this role, because she has such a great attitude and honestly I’m worried that she’d be crushed out there in the big bad world.

You can’t keep someone just because you’re worried they’d be crushed in the big bad world. You can’t keep someone just because they have have a great attitude either, if they’re missing fundamental skills needed to do their job — particularly if that means you end up doing 75% of their job. Is your employer really okay with paying her to do 25% of her role (while your own work presumably suffers)? I’m guessing no. What about the impact on other employees who are likely to resent the situation more and more over time?

Her great attitude does mean that you might devote extra time to coaching and training her … but critical thinking is generally impossible to teach in the amount of time a manager reasonably has available to coach someone. Ultimately if she can’t do such basic chunks of the job, it’s not the right match for her, and you’re doing her no favors by keeping her in a job where she can’t thrive or advance.

All that said, the one thing I’d try if you haven’t already is naming the issue very explicitly. If you haven’t yet done this, it’s worth clearly telling her that you need her to problem-solve on her own (ground it in specific recent examples and describe how you would have liked her to handle those situation differently) and what she should try before coming to you for help. But given the details you’ve shared, it sounds likely that this just isn’t the right match.

2. Employee stole coworker’s food delivery

A DoorDash order arrived at our office today. The name listed on it did not belong to anyone we know, but the instructions were specific enough that we knew it had to be for someone in our department. We tried calling the number listed, with no response. After an all-call of “Hey! Did anyone order a cookie?” an employee came up to claim it.

About half an hour later, another employee’s husband called to ask if she received her cookie. All the pieces started falling into place, and we realized that the employee who claimed the cookie should not have. How do we address this? I do not want to outright say, “You stole that cookie,” but I do believe that the issue needs to be brought up, and the employee needs to reimburse the cost of the cookie and delivery. But can I “force” someone to do that?

Sure — but first make sure that’s really what happened. It’s possible that that she had ordered her own cookie delivery and thought this one was hers (and then presumably figured it out when hers arrived, but she could have assumed that was an error on the delivery service’s side, especially since no one else had claimed the first one). So talk to her and ask what happened! If she’s like “yeah, no one was claiming it and I really wanted a cookie,” then tell her it wasn’t hers and she should reimburse the colleague whose cookie she seized.

If it was an honest misunderstanding and she thought it was hers, that’s different and you can leave it up to her own judgment whether she reimburses the coworker. Most polite people in her shoes would, but it’s also true that the other person’s husband created this chaos by not including clearer instructions (like his wife’s name!) or alerting her to expect a delivery.

3. New hire is leaving because of a coworker

We have a new employee (been here right at 30 days) leaving to go back to school. But her main basis for her decision was “I can’t work with someone who is always negative and hateful. And not welcoming.” How do I handle this with the employee who is still here?

Is she referring to the other employee? If so, you’ve got to get more information — a lot more information! If she hasn’t left yet, please ask her about her experience and get details, then figure out if it lines up with what you know of the other employee. Talk to the other employee, too, and get her perspective on what happened. If you’re not sure how to sort through everything you hear, consider talking with others who work with this person and getting their input on what she’s like to work with (since as her manager you might see a different side than they do). This isn’t a court of law and you might not come away with rock-solid conclusions, but do what you can to get a sense of what that new hire’s experience was like and why. And then if you determine the problem lies with your other employee, even partly, you’ve got to address that. Sometimes that sort of thing can be resolved through coaching, and sometimes it can’t — but this should start a conversation about what’s going on.

If the new hire wasn’t talking about the new employee — if she was talking about you or someone else — that’ll change the details of how you proceed. But either way, you’ve got to take the feedback seriously (unless you have strong evidence the new hire’s judgment was way, way off), assume you’ve got a problem on your hands, and figure out how to resolve it … both for the next person and for others still there.

4. Drinking alcohol-free beer at work

I work in a safety-critical industry where drinking on duty is absolutely not allowed (and with regular drug tests). That being said, your thoughts on drinking alcohol-free beer during the working day?

My thoughts are: Why?! There are much better things to drink.

Plus you risk people thinking you’re drinking actual beer since they look similar. You can explain if asked, of course, but why deal with that?

5. My boss can see my personal Google calendar

I made a mistake in my enthusiasm for my current job back when I started and used my personal (but professional sounding) gmail calendar for work. My company has company domain email addresses for us, but we all use our personal google calendars for company appointments and tasks. Because my boss has edit permissions on my calendar, they can see everything, even if I mark it as private. (For clarity: I have a separate actual personal gmail and calendar with a more casual name that is where most of my life resides.)

I’m job hunting furiously and finally got an interview but realized in a panic that accepting the calendar invite put it right where my current boss can see it! I deleted it immediately, then realized it looked like I had declined the invite to the other party. I followed up in email, citing technical issues with google calendar, and assuring them I was looking forward to our call. But now I realize this is going to happen repeatedly. I can’t just change which email I’m job hunting with, nor can I switch the one connected to my company calendar without drawing attention. If they’re thinking about this at all, my boss would assume I’m job hunting, but I don’t want to poke the bear. Do I just confirm via email but not accept the actual invite? Any ideas or perspective on how this looks from the hiring side?

Your boss isn’t going to assume you’re job hunting just because you decide to stop using your personal gmail calendar for work. Set up a new calendar account, switch your work stuff over to it, revoke your boss’s permissions for the old one, and explain it was getting too messy to have personal and work stuff in one place so you’re streamlining. There are tons of reasons for that besides job hunting — private medical appointments, for example, or just a general feeling that your office shouldn’t have such visibility into your non-work life.

Alternately you could start using your other gmail account — the one where the rest of your life resides — for job hunting stuff, but it sounds like it might have a more casual name than you want for job hunting, and regardless you presumably have a bunch of applications out there with the other email on them … although you could change it going forward if you want to.

{ 675 comments… read them below }

  1. BasketcaseNZ*

    In my country, “alcohol-free” drinks don’t legally have to be actually zero alcohol. They have to be under 0.5%.
    (bearing in mind a standard beer is 4.5% and wine about 10%).
    So they are exceedingly light weight, but still require you to be of the legal age to drink to purchase.

    1. Cmdrshpard*

      It does bring up an interesting question would kombucha be okay? In the US, most regular kombucha still has a small amount of alcohol in it but not enough to really get you drunk (hard kombucha being the exception) but you don’t actually have to be 21 to purchase it.

      I doubt one drink at lunch would be enough to register, but if you drank kombucha like coffee so 4/5 in a day it might be enough to just register if tested. If the company had a zero tolerance policy, should that count as drinking?

      I am not sure how the % in kombucha compared to non-alcoholic 0.5% beer.

      I did have a slightly similar situation once. I brought cold brew coffee from home in a 16 oz brown glass bottle with a flip-top cap/seal. It previously held kombucha I think. Someone asked me what I was drinking and after I said coffee they did mention they had to do a double take because it looked like a beer bottle and the thought that I was drinking a beer in the office at 9:30am did briefly cross their mind.

      I stopped bringing my coffee in that mainly because I bought a better might that kept it colder, but partially to avoid the appearance that I was drinking a beer.

      1. Newbie*

        I sat in multiple meetings where the topic was whether the kombucha someone ordered with their lunch was a reimbursable expense for this very reason. Hours I’ll never get back and I dont even remember the decision.

      2. Sabine the Very Mean*

        Kombucha makes me feel about a half beer in. Tingly toes and smiley. I couldn’t drink one at work.

      3. Coverage Associate*

        In the US, there’s “hard” kombucha, which has over a certain amount of alcohol by volume and is regulated and labeled similar to beer, and there’s other kombucha, with a lower alcohol content and regulated and labeled like tea or juice. I had some of the tea kind at work once, in a clear glass bottle not shaped like a beer bottle. I still got teasing questions about whether it was appropriate for work. I already had a reputation as not a drinker, so it was all in fun. I feel like in the years since, kombucha has become more popular, and I wouldn’t worry about having the tea kind at work, even if I were new, because people know the difference.

        I also feel like so many things come in 12 oz aluminum cans now, no one can keep track of any but the largest soda and beer brand labels. In my own fridge, I confuse the perfectly work appropriate sparkling water with the hard cider that has a similar label. I would be reluctant to judge what someone was drinking from across a table or desk. And I am certainly not going to stop drinking anything in a 12 oz can at work because someone might think “beer.”

        1. thebeanmoveson*

          i cant begin to tell you the number of times people have carded me for buying ginger beer (which is pop). i dont blame them, it looks like beer and has beer on the label. but its just pop.

          1. Koalafied*

            Not helped by the face that some ginger beer IS alcoholic! I keep one of the brands with alcohol, Crabbies, around to use as a mixer for mules/dark n stormies/libres.

          2. Smitty*

            I get that a lot as well. Some ginger beer is alcoholic, but most are not. However, many stores do have you carded for even the non-alcoholic versions.

          3. I'm just here for the cats!*

            That’s extreemly odd. Any grocery store I worked the age-restricted items had a pop-up when the cashier rang them up. Then you put in the person’s birthdate. So really the cashier should see that it’s not beer. Then if they think it’s a mistake they can actually look at the label and see that it’s NOT beer.

          4. Butterfly Counter*

            Same thing has happened to me with the local root beers my grocery sells. A lot of times, the cashier just sees the brown bottles and the unfamiliar (not super common) label and assumes it’s alcohol and asks for id before even scanning.

            I’m just happy to be id-ed at my age.

          5. Artemesia*

            I make Moscow Mules with ginger beer and it is definitely alcoholic like regular beer; there are non-alcoholic versions. I have an alcoholic friend and she loves that for a change she can have the same drink at parties as I make hers with non-A gingerbeer and sparkling water rather than vodka BUT the regular ginger beer I buy has 4% alcohol. Ginger ale is another matter; I think all of that is a soft drink.

            1. Allison in Wonderland*

              Trader Joe’s has a delicious flavored seltzer that’s ginger and lemon flavored, and it reminds me of a non-alcoholic Moscow Mule

            2. NA means Some A*

              Please be careful with the NA beers and alcoholics. I dated an alcoholic 30 years ago who fell off the wagon bc they didn’t realize that the NA beer had some alcohol in it and got very very drunk drinking a case of it one hot day doing yard work. Unfortunately they are still fighting the dragons and not doing well. For some even mouthwash can trigger a relapse. It’s so sad.

        2. Someone*

          I recently brought a sour beer with a very pretty label to work instead of the sparkling water I was aiming for. So disappointing.

        3. Wenike*

          You can even buy wine in those aluminum cans now. And their labels look closer to sparkling water at a glance.

      4. Kella*

        There are some kombuchas that have *just* a high enough alcohol percentage that you have to be 21 to purchase it. It was a problem in our health food store cause adults would buy one and then offer some to their kid, not thinking about the fact that it had actual alcohol in it, and we’d have to ask them to leave.

        1. Cheesecake2.0*

          I accidentally brought a hard kombucha to work once because the health food store had regular and hard kombucha next to each other on the shelf and no one carded me. The label and art and company name all looked the same on the bottles. Luckily I realized after a few sips and discretely took it back home. I later told my boss this story as she is a lover of hard kombucha and she thought it was hilarious luckily.

      5. Insert Clever Name Here*

        I work for a public utility and kumbucha is explicitly forbidden (I don’t drink it and didn’t know it had any amount of alcohol in it until the company updated its policy and shared the reason) since there can be such a range.

      6. Laney Boggs*

        It is certainly alcoholic enough to have me in the bathroom every 20 minutes, so i had to stop drinking it at the office :)

      7. DataGirl*

        I once brought a root beer in a glass bottle to work. The number of people who did a second-take when walking by my desk because they thought I was drinking alcohol was significant. Even though I told anyone who asked or made a comment what it was, I also never brought anything like that to work again. You don’t know when the person who sees it is going to be someone in power- a VIP, HR- and if they don’t ask and just assume you are drinking alcohol they are going to walk away with a bad impression of you.

        1. ferrina*

          This is what I’d be concerned about. So many people wouldn’t stop to verify that the thing that looks like beer isn’t actually beer. All it takes is one person to report it, then you’ve got a big mess to untangle

          1. Zephy*

            +1. It’s just not worth even the appearance of impropriety – if you have to ask “could this look like something it’s not,” then you shouldn’t do it.

            I’ll add my own example. I bring a can of flavored sparkling water in my lunch every day. A few weeks back I decided to try a brand called Liquid Death (developed to give people who want to drink water instead of alcohol an option that still looks like a beer from afar), I picked up a case of their mango-flavored sparkling water. The 16oz cans are gold-colored and look for all the world like High Lifes if you can’t see the label clearly. I took a sip of my perfectly innocent mango-flavored sparkling water in front of a coworker while waiting to take my food out of the microwave and he was sure I was cracking open a cold one right in the middle of the office. Made sure to be mindful of where and how I recycled those cans that week.

            1. Paris Geller*

              I work at a library where we allow drinks, but not food, and whenever people bring in those liquid death cans I always have to do a double-take!

        2. Irish Teacher.*

          And depending on the workplace, higher-ups may be annoyed about the optics, even if you DO convince them it’s non-alcoholic. If clients are likely to pass by, it would not be good to have an employee drinking what looked like it could be alcohol or more likely (since I assume the LW probably wouldn’t drink it if clients were likely to be around), there may be a concern about new staff getting mixed messages. Alcohol is strictly forbidden, but there in Wakeen, one of most respected, long-serving members of staff, chugging down what looks like a beer.

        3. Katting Around*

          Same. My boss did the lets slide in my office. I told him what it was, this was 20 years ago. The next day he strolled in with a six pack. Turns out we both liked specialty sodas..lol

      8. NeedRain47*

        I am now thinking about the fellow in my grad school classes who brought a big thermos of his home brewed kombucha to drink on break every morning, hahaha. Nothing was ever remotely off about him so I don’t think he was getting loopy off it, but who really knows.

    2. MGW*

      My summer job in college was working as a cashier at a 24/7 grocery store (about 5-6 years ago now?) and at the time in my state in the US we could not legally sell alcohol on sundays, and I think a store policy was that we could not sell alcohol between 2-6am (unsure why).
      Anyways some of the alcohol-free beer would not trigger the “illegal purchase” warning on Sunday’s/early morning and some of it didn’t. They explained it was how it was made…some made never with alcohol and just flavored to taste similar to beer but others were made like normal beer and I guess heated(??unsure) to remove the alcohol. The second kind had trace alcohol and therefore was still considered illegal.
      Yes clients did get upset when the system would not let me sell them alcohol free beer on Sunday’s!!

      1. Cmdrshpard*

        OT but the general idea behind late night alcohol sales is to prevent people who are drunk and run out of alcohol from being able to buy more and keep drinking. In a lot of places it would require said drunk person to drive to the store to buy that beer/alcohol.

        While there will be legitimate cases of a 2nd/3rd shift sober worker trying to buy some groceries after work and wanting to pick up beer some beer for later, most late night attempts would probably be drunk people trying to buy more alcohol to keep drinking. It is easier on retail workers being able to say we are legally not allowed to sale you alcohol vs having to make a judgment call if a person is too drunk to buy more. Granted the worker still has to make that call during the other hours, bit at least not between 2am and 6 am.

        I ran into this issue during a road trip when I stopped for gas at 1am and saw an interesting beer i wanted to try but was unable to purchase it due to the time.

        1. cabbagepants*

          1 AM is not between 2 AM and 6 AM ;-) But you make your point. I had a similar problem when I was a grad student. I’d leave work around 4 AM pretty regularly and it would have been a great time to knock out my grocery shopping at the usually-packed Wegman’s in town, but alas, no beer sales then.

          1. DontTellMyBoss*

            Some states are 9pm to 8 or 9am do I think the example isn’t moot because they said 1 instead of 2.

        2. Sasha*

          Interestingly in the UK licensing laws are the opposite – shop alcohol licences often stipulate no alcohol purchases before 11am, presumably to stop people getting drunk on their way to work.

          1. Irish Teacher.*

            Just checked and in Ireland, the law is that alcohol can be sold from 10:30am to 10pm, Monday to Saturday and on Sundays and St. Patrick’s day, it’s 12:30pm to 10pm (This is in shops; obviously, it’s different for bars, pubs, restaurants). The morning matters more though, as most hops open around 9, whereas there aren’t that many open after 10pm.

          2. Cmdrshpard*

            In the US it very much varies by state, county, municipality/town/village. Each can set stricter restrictions.

            Some areas do have no retail alcohol sales between 9/10pm to 9/10am it just depends.
            On premises consumption has different regulations
            In my area pre-pandemic there was a 3rd shift bar that closed at 2am, opened and sold alcohol at 6 or 6:30 am for all the overnight workers to be able to get a drink after work.

      2. Beebis*

        Just curious, was this in Minnesota? I had to explain to a European person a while back that we couldn’t buy booze in store on a Sunday or sell it in a bar before 10 am and she just could not wrap her head around why such restrictions would exist

        1. NeedRain47*

          Kansas was like this too until fairly recently. Now it’s by county, so I can buy alcohol from a liquor or grocery store after noon on a Sunday. Until a couple years ago, grocery stores couldn’t sell anything with higher than 3.2% alcohol, and they still can’t sell wine or liquor, just some stronger beers and seltzer type things.

        2. Dust Bunny*

          Texas doesn’t sell alcohol before . . . I think it’s 8:00 am or before noon on Sundays in the grocery store.

          1. the once and future grantwriter*

            Where I live in the Midwest, businesses have to get a referendum passed in their township to allow alcohol sales on a Sunday. Convenience stores, restaurants, etc, have to gather signatures from their neighbor to get their business’s Sunday alcohol sales approved. It’s nuts.

          2. Pony tailed wonder*

            Texas allows each county to decide if they are wet or dry. Wet counties are more lax in their rules and allow hard liquor to be sold there. Dry counties only allow beer or wine sales and you have to join a ‘club’ before you can drink at a restaurant or bar. I preferred living in a dry county but they just went wet a few years ago.

    3. Lilo*

      I’m just with Alison on this. It looks bad and there’s just not a good reason for it.

      Honestly, at best, I think it risks coming across as being deliberately provocative. “Oh, silly you, it’s not a real beer.” It’s sort of daring someone to object or think badly of you. The optics absolutely matter here. And it’s not for a compelling reason.

      1. Cmdrshpard*

        While I agree that I wouldn’t risk it.

        I do think because you like the taste is a good enough reason to want to drink it, especially if the safety concerns are not an issue. Non-alcoholic beer is almost on the same level as root beer, or n/a ginger beer.

        Why do people drink sparkling water, have met tons of people who love it and tons who hate it. I was not a fan at first it tasted awful, but used it as a way to cutback on soda consumption, and now I love sparkling water.

        1. Lilo*

          I really don’t think liking thr taste is a good enough reason to risk people thinking you’re drinking on the job, particularly in a safety critical industry.

          Like I used to work as a lab tech and we had a diabetic coworker. While food wasn’t allowed in lab, we made an exception for her emergency drinks for when her blood sugar but had a clear protocol. THAT is what I’m talking about when I mean compelling circumstances. Liking the taste doesn’t come close to being a good enough reason to risk getting fired for drinking on the job in a safety critical role.

            1. Jina*

              No, but perception matters and it is foolish and naïve to think that this will not impact someone’s reputation and image. Frankly, if someone cares this much about being “allowed” to drink non-alcoholic beer at work, I’m going to have some doubts about their attitude and priorities. It comes across as very immature at best.

            2. Lilo*

              But he’s deliberately creating the impression that he is. My hibest guess is to get the thrill out of correcting people.

              It’s just frankly a stupid, silly thing to do. You just don’t mess around with this stuff.

              1. Gritter*

                No he isn’t. Any impression that he is ‘drinking on the job’ is entirely in the head of the observer.

                1. Lilo*

                  An impression that is deliberately created by the employee. I 100% agree with the poster who described this as “I’m not hitting you!” behavior.

                2. Raw Cookie Dough*

                  As it’s been stated, most near-beers have a small amount of alcohol in them. And even if they don’t, why would anyone dig their heels in on THIS issue? It’s immature. Anyone who would force this issue makes screwy decisions.

                3. Falling Diphthong*

                  Where else do you think impressions reside, if not in the heads of observers?

                  In general, you should not create in the heads of observers the impression that you are drinking on the job (when that job involves heavy equipment or chemicals, rather than being on Mad Men), are nude (even if you are wearing a flesh-toned body suit), are too distracted by a personal call to notice dangers to the forklift (even if you are faking the personal call and ARE SO paying attention), and so on. We judge others by the optics of what they appear to be doing all the time–usually optics are what we have to go on.

                4. Payne's Grey*

                  Honestly, a lot of people are going to double-take and query what’s in the can – and some won’t query but will just walk off with the impression that it was an alcoholic drink. Because yeah, unless it’s got 0.0% in huge letters on the can, it LOOKS like alcohol. And drinking alcohol on the job would often cause concern among coworkers. Why would someone voluntarily take that kind of reputation hit or invite the disruption to their work from people checking in? Just because they technically could? It’s either tone-deaf or oddly performative.

                5. EPLawyer*

                  But why bother to create that impression? You can easily avoid it by drinking literally anything else that does not have alcohol in the name.

                  It is trying to be provocative and then blaming the person you provoked for being provoked.

                6. metadata minion*

                  Caused by drinking beer, the vast majority of which is alcoholic. In an office job, I’m probably not going to look too closely at what my coworkers are drinking so long as they don’t also seem intoxicated, but in a situation where being even a little off your game could cause a safety hazard, that nonalcoholic beer would lead to unnecessarily awkward conversations. Why not drink literally anything else?

                7. A. Tiskit & A. Taskit LLC*

                  Most people who observe what they perceive as questionable behavior on the part of a colleague will NOT speak directly to that colleague – but they WILL mention it to other coworkers. And that, of course, is how rumors get started and keep on going around the office! Seriously, LW – do you really want to get a reputation as the company drunk because, out of all the hundreds of beverage choices available today, you picked THAT one?

                8. Observer*

                  No he isn’t. Any impression that he is ‘drinking on the job’ is entirely in the head of the observer.

                  No it’s not. The person IS drinking a beverage that is normally alcoholic. It is completely unreasonable to expect people to stop and think about what they are seeing and then come up with the POSSIBILITY that maybe it’s actually a variant and relatively unusual version of the alcoholic drink.

                9. SheLooksFamiliar*

                  I can have a cup of Irish coffee, or a can of Coke with rum in it, and most people wouldn’t think I was boozing. Coffee cups and soda cans do not give the appearance of ‘drinking on the job’, unless I had an alcohol-related incident.

                  Non-alcoholic beer in a can or bottle looks like alcoholic beer. So no, it’s not the observer’s fault for assuming someone’s drinking on the job.

              2. ScruffyInternHerder*

                Granted, my thoughts are biased because I worked with this dude, I swear, except he didn’t request Alison’s thoughts on the matter first. He just kept N/A beer at his desk in his mini-fridge.

                No, the company did not provide mini-fridges; he brought in his own because he enjoyed being the center of attention. He also enjoyed torqueing those “in power”, especially if they couldn’t *do* anything about it. There was no rule about N/A beer before he started, but you’d better believe it was added. Every other branch office was very much “Why on Earth is this being added to the handbook?” while ours was “Fvcking Cartman.”.

                And yeah, he was an absolute arse in all the ways.

              3. Just Your Everyday Crone*

                You can’t know that it’s deliberate, that’s just fundamental attribution error. Maybe he likes the taste and isn’t giving any thought about how it would be perceived.

                1. Lilo*

                  If someone doesn’t have the critical thinking skills to realize drinking a “beer” in a safety critical job is bad, then they probably shouldn’t be in a safety critical job.

                2. So Tired*

                  LW said that drinking on the job is “absolutely not allowed” so he’s aware of the rules. I find it incredibly hard to believe that someone who is aware of the rules and why they exist would lack the critical thinking skills to realize that non-alcoholic beer looks very similar to alcoholic beer and would undoubtedly cause coworkers to mistake it for an alcoholic beer.

                  This letter screams of someone who wants to trick colleagues into thinking he’s breaking one of the most important company rules, so he can turn around and say “Silly coworker! It’s not alcoholic beer!” There’s no reason to do that. I personally, and I’m sure a lot of other people, wouldn’t approach a colleague I thought was drinking on the job and would instead go to a manager to let them know what I’d seen–especially in a job that has strict safety regulations. Because if I saw someone with a container that looked like a beer, none of my first five thoughts would be “oh, I bet that’s non-alcoholic!”

        2. John Smith*

          if it genuinely is about taste, you could decant the drink into a flask or other non-beer looking recepticle so that no-one would know what drink it was, but that would bring its own problems. Also, if others smell beer on your breath, they may put two and two together. It’s asking for a world of pain.

        3. Allonge*

          Liking the taste is a good reason to drink it, sure. But there are dozens of things I like the taste of that I don’t drink at work. Presumably non-alchoholic beer is not the only taste this person can tolerate.

      2. Gritter*

        I’d disagree here. If it’s alcohol free then there should be no issue with drinking it. That’s it looks like an alcoholic drink is really neither here or there. A Coke looks the same as a Rum and Coke.

        There is more than a whiff of puritanism in many of the answers to this question.

        1. londonedit*

          I live in Britain, which from a US perspective looks like a country of complete alcoholics (we really don’t have any puritan streak when it comes to enjoying a drink) and I work in an industry that enjoys its booze. Even I don’t think drinking something that obviously looks like an alcoholic drink is a sensible thing to do while you’re at your desk working. It just gives the wrong impression. A can or a glass of Coke? Absolutely fine. But a bottle of ‘beer’ that looks just like the real thing? A wine glass with wine-coloured juice in it? No. You’re just inviting unnecessary questions and raised eyebrows.

            1. Rock Prof*

              I lived in Germany for a couple years, and I also don’t think this have flown there either. Particulary since job safety was such a huge deal. I had to have a ergonomic analysis done of my computer setup!
              As one exception that’s probably still stretching it, there were some alcohol free beers that were targeted as post-exercise drinks with electrolytes (or whatever benefit was being boosted at the time). I could maybe see these types of drinks on the job, particularly if the employee was known as a recreational runner or something. But even on a university campus, this would have gotten a lot of weird looks!

          1. Reba*

            I recently worked an event where the caterer provided that Liquid Death brand of water — it’s in a tallboy can and has sorta heavy metal styling. Cans considered more sustainable than plastic (of course we should have been refilling our own but that doesn’t always work out).

            Some presenters were pretty uncomfortable with giving the audience the appearance that they were drinking! Both professionalism and religious reasons were cited. Looking like an alcoholic drink can indeed be a problem.

            1. SEB*

              I immediately thought of Liquid Death when reading this. I have so many questions for their marketing team. Why would someone want water named Liquid Death?! That sounds like it’s Four Loko. And I definitely don’t want to give off the impression I’m drinking a beer or alcoholic drink in many settings. I guess on the other hand, it’s helpful for people who don’t want anyone to ask questions about why they’re NOT drinking! They can just grab a Liquid Death and they’ll look like a totally hardcore drinker!

              1. anti social socialite*

                The idea is that people who don’t or can’t drink can go to shows/events/parties/whatever and carry around something that looks like it could be alcoholic so other people won’t give them crap about not having a drink/pressure them into having “just one beer.”

                I’m explaining this poorly but the reasoning is sound.

          2. Payne's Grey*

            Same, and I wouldn’t drink 0% beer at work either. Sure it’s technically within the rules, but it’s distracting and creates a weird impression. Just like I don’t come to work in flesh-coloured leggings and expect no one to double-take at my apparently bare backside because I’m technically fully dressed.

          3. Generic Name*

            I was drinking some flavored iced tea in what is in reality a huge stemless wine glass. The glass is so huge I don’t actually drink wine out of it; it fits an entire can of soda plus ice in it. I was working from home and taking a video call with colleagues, and one did a double take, and I had to explain that it was just tea (and the ice had melted). That was a bit embarrassing.

        2. Ferret*

          It’s not puritanism. It’s awareness that in an industry like the one OP is in the optics may be bad regardless of the actual content and level of impairment. I used to work in a similar environment and we once had a serious discussion of if champagne truffles were legit to consume when someone shared a chocolate box around (I believe the decision was that it was fine). This was practically speaking quite silly but not something the company could control or influence.

        3. Antilles*

          The problem is that many (most?) people won’t KNOW you’re drinking alcohol-free beer – they’ll just see the bottle, assume you’re drinking at work, and judge you accordingly. In this case, the perception and optics matter more than the reality.

        4. Essess*

          If I am working in an environment that puts my safety in the hands of others, it is a really bad thing to smell beer on a coworkers breath and have to worry whether or not it was alcoholic or not and worry if my safety is at risk. I need to be able to be free from worrying about my safety while focusing on my job.

        5. Observer*

          If it’s alcohol free then there should be no issue with drinking it. That’s it looks like an alcoholic drink is really neither here or there.

          That’s actually not true. Because there is a limit to how much checking can be done, so in real life people use the normal signals to look for trouble. And when you see “beer” you know you have a problem. Now, someone is drinking beer that he SAYS is non-alcoholic. The only way that Supervisor can know that is by looking at the label. Which means that now, every time Supervisor sees a beer they have to check. Because the default for beer IS alcoholic (even some NA beers have some alcohol content), so Supervisor can’t let it slide.

          1. Underrated Pear*

            Yes. Thank you. This is why perceptions matter, and it’s worth pointing out again that the OP works in a “safety-critical industry,” so this isn’t just an arbitrary rule (although I still think most of the discussion holds true for the majority of workplaces). If my health and safety depended on my coworker, and I clearly smelled beer on his breath when I went to talk to him, what then? Do I trust him when he says, “oh, ha ha, it’s non-alcoholic! Now excuse me while I go climb up on this forklift/administer anesthesia to my patient/measure out this explosive chemical.” Do I demand he take a breathalyzer test before we go forward in a potentially dangerous situation? It’s creating unnecessary headaches.

            Even in a job where safety isn’t so critical, I agree with the commenters below that when we have a beer – alcoholic or not – it’s usually because we’re in a mindset of, “ahh, I’d like to kick back a bit,” which is *typically* not a mindset most people want to project at work. Sometimes it’s fine, and in fact, I once worked in a small creative office where it was totally acceptable for people to have a drink in the afternoon from time to time. So I certainly don’t think of myself as a Puritan when it comes to alcohol. But I’m totally with Alison here – if that isn’t the culture of your workplace (and it isn’t for most), why?

        6. Observer*

          There is more than a whiff of puritanism in many of the answers to this question.

          I sincerely hope that you don’t work in any sort of safety related position.

          Your response shows a fundamental and scary lack of understanding about the basic of safety.

        7. Artemesia*

          You are missing the point about the power of impressions. I never really totally got past the impression of being a slacker with one greatgrandboss because a temp when a phone call came in for me from the bigwig said ‘oh I don’t know, I haven’t see her around the office lately’. as if I rarely stopped by work; I was on vacation at the time. When I got back and he remarked on it, I said ‘oh I was on vacation, Sylvia is a temp and didn’t bother to ask anyone where I was.’ BUT I could always tell it affected how he saw me.

          Once someone gets an impression it tends to be there if subconsciously. And of course it sounds like fake beer boy is gleefully trying to create that impression.

        8. Librarian of SHIELD*

          The problem with your rum and Coke analogy is that when you see someone drinking what appears to be a dark brown carbonated beverage, your first thought isn’t “that’s clearly a rum and Coke.” When you see someone drinking out of a bottle or can that’s got a beer brand logo on it, most people’s first thought will be “that’s a beer.”

          It’s not puritanical to give people advice about how to be perceived well in the workplace. It’s an acknowledgment that people will make assumptions and it’s important to include those potential assumptions when you make workplace choices.

        9. Rob*


          No sensible person is going to think the coke you are drinking at work is a rum and coke, seeing someone with a clearly marked bottle of beer could easily be mistaken.

          As others have said, and I am aware of cases happening, alcohol free beer isn’t alcohol free and there are alcoholics that resort to drinking it all day to get a buzz on.

          Lastly, exactly how bad are you hooked of you can’t bear to avoid looking like you are drinking at work? This indicates a problem.

      3. learnedthehardway*

        Agreed, it’s not a good look. It risks misunderstandings, as far as management goes. It risks causing junior people who aren’t aware that it’s fine to drink on the job (because are they really going to look closely to see that it is a non-alcoholic beer).

        Any manager is going to look at this and – at the least – say the person doing it lacks critical thinking and good judgement. So, reputational implications over what – a beverage?!!?

      4. marvin*

        This question really made me think about why drinking a non alcoholic beer or glass of wine or mocktail at work feels weird to me. Apart from the potential to confuse, it just feels a little strange to kick back with a drink during the work day, even if there is no alcohol in it. I guess that speaks to the ritualized nature of drinking, or maybe to the fact that I am very boring and only drink water at work. It would also seem less weird to me in a more outdoorsy or active job than a desk job.

    4. Emmy Noether*

      There are quite a few thigs that contain small amounts of alcohol that we don’t think of as alcoholic. Juice, for example, contains up to 0.5% as well (highly variable though), because fruit ferments easily and spontaneously, starting while it is still on the tree, and some of that gets into the juice. A lot of purposely fermented foods also contain small amounts of alcohol as a by-product of the fermentation. Bread, according to a study I found, apparently contains alcohol.

      The difference with non-alcoholic beer is mainly the mental association with the name. Which is reason enough not to drink it at work.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        Not to mention things like a beef stew made with red wine, or liquid cough syrup or some kinds of mouthwash, all of which probably contain more alcohol than a non alcoholic beer, but are considered fine for work (unless you can’t do your job while on cold medication for safety reasons).

        I have a soda stream in the office, and regularly drink soda water with a dash of cocktail bitters for flavour at work. (I also have an office whiskey glass, so my workplace is probably on the more lenient side when it comes to stuff like this) .

        1. GythaOgden*

          Wine in cooked food is not going to ping any alcohol sensors. The ethanol evaporates during the heating process, leaving the taste behind.

        2. WillowSunstar*

          When you cook with alcohol, assuming instructions for the time are followed, the alcohol cooks off. It is not like the stew still has a half cup of wine in there or whatever was added. You don’t get drunk from eating stew (unless the cook was terrible at following directions, but the cook would have had to be really terrible at it or deliberately not follow then).

          1. Dinwar*

            “When you cook with alcohol, assuming instructions for the time are followed, the alcohol cooks off.”

            That was the view in the past, based on assumptions about boiling point of alcohol compared to cooking temperatures. Recent studies have tested this and found it not to be true. It’s reduced, certainly, but when measured properly it’s NOT gone. Which makes sense–heating stuff in an oven at 350 for an hour doesn’t boil away all the water, after all. (If you really want to dig into it I’m sure there’s a phase diagram somewhere.)

            This is an example of the Health Halo. Dishes cooked in alcohol tend to be fancier, higher-end dishes, and we tend to assume they’re intrinsically better. You see the same thing with health benefits. Know why food at fancy restaurants tastes better than home-made? Butter, salt, and sugar. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking McDonald’s or Gordan Ramsey’s place.

            1. Caroline Bowman*

              But then it also comes down to a question of quantity. 1/2 a cup of red wine in a big pot of stew, where at least some of the alcohol is cooked off, though not all, then you have a small portion of that portion-of-half-a-cup…

              It’s miniscule.

              1. Dinwar*

                Depends on what the alcohol is. A half-cup of red wine in a sauce that’s slowly simmered for a long time probably is negligible. Some dishes use larger amounts of much stronger alcohol, however–beef burgundy and vodka sauces both come to mind–and they’ll necessarily have higher contents.

                I mean, your stomach would rupture before you got drunk. I’m just saying that <0.5% ABV (max found in non-alcoholic beers in NZ) is in that same ballpark. To complain about one and not the other is inconsistent at best. I also agree that there's an image issue–you don't want to give the impression that you're impaired. But from a physiological standpoint there's no significant difference.

          2. Ada*

            That’s a common misconception, but most foods made with alcohol aren’t cooked long enough for all of the alcohol to cook off. You have to boil the food for about three hours before you’d have no alcohol left

              1. WillowSunstar*

                True, and I am the kind of person who cooks in the weekend and simmers a stew all afternoon for supper. Obviously it won’t work if someone is either adding way more alcohol than most recipes call for, or simply microwaving it and not cooking on the stove (or at least a crockpot).

            1. AcademiaNut*

              Yes. The alcohol evaporates faster than the water, but you need to cook it almost dry to get rid of it nearly completely. A red wine based stew isn’t highly alcoholic, but you shouldn’t serve it to a strict tea-totaller without explicitly checking that it’s okay.

        3. Observer*

          Not to mention things like a beef stew made with red wine

          Most of the time, the alcohol boils out by the time you’re getting at the stew.

          or liquid cough syrup or some kinds of mouthwash, all of which probably contain more alcohol than a non alcoholic beer, but are considered fine for work

          So, no one is actually drinking mouthwash – and most mouthwashes with alcohol comes with either child warnings or safety labels because that stuff is NOT meant to drunk.

          As for the rest, if you give a look at the labels of many of these medications it will say something like “do not operate heavy equipment”. Anything that has that kind of label should NOT be used while in a job that is safety critical.

          For instance, the NIH say about Bendryl “you should know that this medication may make you drowsy. Do not drive a car or operate machinery until you know how this medication affects you.”

            1. Lenora Rose*

              Yes, but not generally at work or in some cases while employable. If someone is doing so, at work, there are major issues that need addressing, and the mouthwsh is the least of it.

              1. Lydia*

                For reals. By the time someone gets to drinking mouthwash to get drunk, there were probably plenty of warning signs and issues before.

            2. Pony tailed wonder*

              When I was a candy striper in a hospital many decades ago, we were all alerted to keep an eye out for a mouthwash brand called Dr. Titchnors if I recall the name correctly. We were told that alcoholics would drink this if they couldn’t get alcohol any other way. We were to alert the nursing staff about it. And sure enough, the first person I saw with a bottle of it was in the hospital for alcohol related reasons.

        4. Rob*

          What a ridiculous argument.

          Alcohol used is cooking is burnt off.

          No one is drinking enough mouthwash to get drunk.

          THATS why that is fine at work.

      2. Lilo*

        I think we could split hairs all day but the reality is that the mental association really is just huge here. In these safety critical jobs you really don’t want to give the impression you’re drinking at work and drinking something that deliberately invokes and resembles an alcoholic drink gives that impression.

        At best, it’s going to give the impression of having very poor judgment.

        1. Littorally*

          Agreed. My read on it would be something along the lines of someone testing the boundaries of what they can get away with, or pulling the adult equivalent of the little kids in the back seat: “Look, I’m not touching you! Not touching you!”

          Not a good look, especially not in that kind of job.

        2. L-squared*

          Yeah, in general, I would say go for it.

          In a safety critical job, I’d say avoid it. I would totally do it in my office and dare someone to say something. But with safety stuff, its a different animal

        3. e271828*

          Exactly. This smacks of rules-lawyering idiot who is signalling that they have dubious judgment and is immature.

      3. allathian*

        If you’ve ever baked bread at home, the dough smells a bit like a brewery. That’s because the fermentation process changes some of the carbs in the flour to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The alcohol evaporates in the oven, so there’s no alcohol in bread.

        1. Emmy Noether*

          One would think it evaporates, but the study did find small amounts in baked bread, so apparently not completely.

          1. fhqwhgads*

            Sure but I think there’s a false equivalency happening (not singling you out, but in this thread in general) that mentioning “lots of things have trace acohol we don’t care about” isn’t particularly helpful to the letter unless we know actual amounts. “Less than the threshold to be labeled as alcohol when selling the product” covers a wide range of small amounts, some of which if you have multiple servings would then actually cross that threshold/affect a person. Others you’d have to consume significantly more than any reasonable human would to actually be affected by said alcohol. My understanding is non-alcoholic beer falls into the former and bread generally falls into the latter.

            1. Zweisatz*

              What’s more important to me is that bread doesn’t look like alcohol.

              Sure, there could be a double-standard with some foods that we consume, which contain about the same amount of n/a beer, maybe.
              But none of them will hurt your reputation like drinking something that looks like an alcoholic drink at work.

              Maybe that’s not “fair” or “lacks objectivity”, but it’s the reality about OP’s job.

            2. Emmy Noether*

              Don’t know about the bread (because I can’t make sense of the units given), but fruit juice does have roughly the same amount of alcohol as nonalcoholic beer, so you’d have the same chance to get tipsy on either.

              I agree though that the optics are very different. And optics matter.

              1. Pro Breadbaker*

                For anyone still attempting to debate the “but bread has alcohol in it!”: It does, but not a significant amount. Some of it bakes off in the oven, but not all of it does because we don’t bake bread until it’s bone dry.

                Bread and beer yeast are the same species (Saccharomyces cervesiae, literally “sugar-eating beer yeast”), although different strains. Brewers want yeast that makes more alcohol and less carbon dioxide; we bakers want the opposite because too much alcohol isn’t good for the gluten structure in the dough (both on its own and because it could kill too much of the yeast too soon, and dead yeast releases another substance that makes dough go slack). But a strain of yeast that makes less alcohol still makes some alcohol and, if allowed to over-ferment, will make the dough smell boozy, which will carry over into the finished loaf.

                Fermentation temperature and time also plays a role in the ratio of alcohol to carbon dioxide produced, with bakers and brewers handling each of those factors differently to create any given bread or beer.

        2. DyneinWalking*

          Depends on how well and how often you knead the dough. Yeast produces alcohol in the absence of oxygen. Having made bread myself, the dough has a very definite whiff of alcohol if left un-kneaded for too long. And that smell can persist even after it’s been baked. Thankfully, you can’t really taste the alcohol; I guess a lot of it evaporates when you slice the bread and the rest is really only trace amounts. But alcohol doesn’t completely evaporate during baking – and why would it? It’s not just a question of heat, but of surface area as well.

    5. JSPA*

      I’ve had one on a hot day and thought nothing of it. After excercise, some people find it easier on the stomach than plain water. There are some trace electrolytes, and no sugar or artificial sweetener.

      One could pay a lot more to mix up their own diluted, unsweetened rehydration solution, but unless you’re badly in need of it (in which case, it tastes pretty good) I find it tastes like armpit (but not in a good way). I like mineral water too, but if there’s a different percentage of magnesium than I’m expecting, there can be, uh, lower digestive tract effects, in unpredictable directions. Not helpful for hydration, and not convenient at work.

      People’s reaction will depend a bit on location, and a bit on the label.

      I’ve seen AF beers stocked at the canteen / cafeteria–at which point, it’s clearly OK. In some places, you can find alcohol free beer that’s very upfront about what it is (like a giant “0%” as part of the branding, or “that Dutch brand” with big blue band or arch; or an entirely “free” brand with brand awareness), so there’s recognition at a distance.

      Something with a giant main brand logo and a tiny “alcohol free” asterisk, or something that’s more of a near-beer, I’d avoid. Unless that’s what was standing between you and a migraine, in which case, well worth the risk.

      Note that some brands that are legally alcohol free with minute traces only are ~0.02% ABV. Weak kombucha, for comparison, hangs in around ten to 20 times that level. You’d have an easier time getting drunk off of supermarket white bread, dijon mustard and ripe bananas. Others are indeed “low alcohol” but in the weak kombucha range.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I recently looked up rehydrating fluids and skim milk was actually at the top. Followed by pedialyte-esque drinks, followed by whole milk. Liquid with a small amount of sugar, fat, or sodium rehydrated better than plain water.

        Non-alcoholic beer does have sugar, though. My quick googling suggests about half the sugar in a soda.

        1. JSPA*

          Warious estimates put wordwide lactose intolerance or malabsorption at 60-70% of adult humans. And true milk allergy is one of the severe ones.

          But for those who can drink it and will drink it, yes (not surprisingly, I guess, as it’s a whole food, for baby mammals) milk has all the key electrolytes.

          Some nut milks are pretty good on that score, others less so.

          I’ve had sweeter 0.0 beers (and normal beers) but that’s not my flavor of choice. Pretty sure they’re not all equally sugar-laden, because they vary so much in perceived sweetness.

          1. Falling Diphthong*

            I’m an omnivore who is lactose tolerant and loves cheese, and I can’t make a post-workout glass of milk appetizing. (Water and cold unsweet tea are the only vaguely appealing liquids for me in that context.)

            But I was interested that someone had studied this. And that juice, for example, when it hits your small intestine your body wants to dilute the sugar and so pulls water from other tissues.

    6. amoeba*

      Where I live in Europe, alcohol-free beer is becoming really popular at the moment – it’s marketed by sports companies as isotonic for after training, etc. If I liked the taste, I wouldn’t see it as a problem to have one at work at all – I mean, it’s certainly healthier than a softdrink.

      Would make sure it’s clearly visible on the label though – which it is for most brands here! And I’d go with the explicitly 0.0% alcohol ones, not the <0.5. There's many of the 0.0 now available, and they mostly have it written on them in large letters.
      I might still mention it in a light tone to my coworkers/boss at least the first times (as in "not a real beer, no worries, haha").

      1. londonedit*

        Yep, alcohol-free beer has been ‘a thing’ at marathons and other sporting events here (UK) for at least 7-8 years. I’ve done a few races where at the finish line there are people with those tanks of 0.0% Erdinger or whatever on their backs, filling up plastic pint glasses for everyone crossing the line. I don’t really like the taste of beer in the first place so alcohol-free beer isn’t my favourite, but it’s definitely a thing here these days.

        Having said that, no, I wouldn’t drink something that looks like a beer at work. My industry is very relaxed and no one minds if you go to the pub for a lunchtime pint (as long as you’re not actually drunk when you get back to your desk, of course) and there are regular after-work drinks in the office. But still, as Alison says, why would you drink something that looks like a beer when there are plenty of other drinks available that wouldn’t raise people’s eyebrows? I could easily stick some grape juice in a wine glass and drink that at my desk, or make myself a glass of fizzy water with ice and a slice of lime, but I’m not going to do that because why would I want to invite a load of ‘Ha, are you actually drinking a G&T at work?’ comments.

        1. CoveredinBees*

          Agreed. I worked in an office that sometimes did “wine Fridays” and provided wine for employees to enjoy on a Friday afternoon. I still wouldn’t feel comfortable drinking a near beer there during lunch. All the more so in a job setting that requires strict safety protocols. Technically, it’s not wrong but it just looks so bad that it isn’t worth it.

      2. JSPA*

        Totally agree. In summer, I had a car rental desk in france offer me a 0.0. Not sure if it was a promotion, or I looked exactly that miserable and hot. But clearly, no stigma (and in a country with VERY strict drinking and driving laws).

        Safety wise, pretty much everyone’s benefit if really excellent 0.0 becomes the a new normal–and in some places, we’re well on the way there.

    7. Grey*

      Right, and that 0.5% is enough to create liability issues for your company if your employee should cause a workplace accident and/or injury.

      1. Rob*

        Beware that may be nonsence.

        It the percentage is below a certain mark it is allowed to be promoted and labeled as 100% alcohol free.

    8. AnonInCanada*

      I think Alison said it best: there are much better things to drink than alcohol-free beer. And not worth the hassle of drinking it on the job.

    9. Jaye*

      For context, 0.5% is less than the alcohol content of a slice of white bread. Personally, I drink NA beer during work hours occasionally; I like the taste of a nice craft near beer and it doesn’t put me off my game at all. But I also WFH and my workplace doesn’t really care, so ymmv.

      1. Lydia*

        Yeah, if your job was safety involved and you were in the office, it would probably be different. At one job, my brother could drink regular alcoholic beer if he was working a swing or overnight shift because it wasn’t safety involved. It really matters what the work is and what the office culture is.

    10. CoveredinBees*

      In the US, it varies by state whether you can buy NA beers under 21. Interestingly, you can buy cooking wines under 21 but the company has to put a large amount of salt in it that people wouldn’t want to drink it. You also don’t need to be 21 to buy vanilla extract which comes in at a whopping 35%, again because drinking it would be highly unpleasant.

      1. Splendid Colors*

        In California, you can’t buy wine vinegar during the “no alcohol sales” hours. Found that out at the 24-hr Winco trying to buy sherry vinegar at some weird hour between experiments in grad school.

  2. Lime green Pacer*

    Re #4: Some years ago, I took an evening course at the local college. I took my beverage of choice with me—a decaf diet cola, which I kept cold during the drive there by putting in a frozen can cozy. Well, the exposed top part of the can must have looked a lot like a beer can (I don’t drink beer, so wouldn’t know for sure). I was asked, by different people on different evenings, if I was drinking a beer.

    I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle, and started bringing tea instead.

    1. Cmdrshpard*

      Unless a specific brand has a very distinctive top design, all cans look the same if looking at them from the top and you can’t see the logo.

      Unless the can is one with a very distinctive logo on the side you can’t really tell from far away what someone is drinking.

      The frozen cozy to me is what would give it more beer vibes.

      1. Higher Ed*

        decaf diet coke has a gold top, which probably made it look more beer like. most other sodas (pops) have silver tops.

        1. Saffy_Taffy*

          As a kid I got really upset with my alcoholic-in-recovery dad for drinking what I thought was beer when we visited the beach. It was decaf Coca Cola in the gold can.

    2. philmar*

      I used to drink a lot of diet coke at work, and the can would be too cold for me to want to hold it so I got a (organization-branded) coozy for it. People would ask me if I was drinking a beer, although it was in a joking/incredulous way. I would just say yeah, I’m walking around work openly drinking a beer in front of my boss and subordinates at 11 am on a Tuesday.

      Of course, I could believe someone drinking a beer during their evening college course, and I don’t really see why you wouldn’t be allowed to as a student. It would probably make the professor mistrust your judgement though, haha.

      1. JustaTech*

        I’ve been carded for root beer in glass bottles (and had a heck of a time explaining to the cashier that this was soda, not beer).

        In college I was taking a military history class and I really did not respect the professor at all. So the day we were going to cover the Korean war I showed up in scrubs with a martini glass that I proceeded to fill from my nalgene and sip out of. (I was making a very unsubtle MASH reference that the prof didn’t get.) Half way through class the prof suddenly looks at me and says “is that a martini?!” I toasted him with the glass and said “it would be appropriate, but no, it’s just water”.

    3. JSPA*

      Someone called the cops on a friend for drinking “beer” which was fruit juice, from a fruit-shaped bottle. People whispered about a teacher because she drank grapefruit juice, and grapefruit juice was supposedly infamously able to hide the taste and smell of alcohol.

      People with nothing better to do are going to project their own nonsense on others; you can’t live your life to avoid it.

    4. The OG Sleepless*

      I stopped using koozies for Diet Coke cans for that reason. I was in college, so I was underage for most of that time, plus it was in a very fundamentalist area in the deep South. I got several not-amused “is that a BEER?” comments. It didn’t help that the koozies didn’t really keep the can cold and they were a pain to get out.

    5. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

      In college, I spent a year or so constantly feeling sick (due to a food sensitivity aggravated by eating cafeteria food, but that’s another story). I developed a ritual of sipping from a big mug of chamomile tea all morning, then drinking a Reed’s Extra Ginger Beer around noon (which was in a green glass bottle). Many days, I’d be doing that second part in my 300-level algorithms seminar attended by about 15 people.

      It didn’t occur to me until much later that people probably thought I was drinking in class. I’m kind of surprised I never got a talking-to on the subject.

  3. Passionfruit Tea*

    Phoebe has learned that if she acts help and clueless people will do her job for her. Stop enabling her and tell her to do her job. It’s barely cute on a five-year-old and definitely not on an adult.

    1. Sabine the Very Mean*

      I don’t think that’s what’s going on. She’s doesn’t seem astute enough to do that. I agree with Beep below. Just needs to get help with emotional intelligence and anxiety. Therapy will help. But OP can’t help her there.

      1. Passionfruit Tea*

        I would agree with the comment below if not for the examples and the 75% of the work someone else has to do. If her anxiety is that bad then I wonder how she got through the hiring process. Shoving 75% of your work onto a colleague is a lot.

          1. Jackalope*

            A prior micromanager (or teacher/professor who micromanaged) could have some of that same effect as well.

            1. yala*

              True. In that case, it may be less a case of not having critical thinking skills, and more about not trusting her own critical thinking because she had to run everything by someone else, even things like “order 4 boxes of 50 instead of 1 box of 200”

              1. Smithy*

                Yeah – to me this reads far more as a lack of trust in her critical thinking and decision making, as well as trusting that mistakes she makes won’t be catastrophic. Let’s say that the single box of 200 pens costs $40 but for the last 6 months has been on sale for $35. The individual boxes of 50 pens cost $12.

                Now most of us, are going to feel that this extra expense at $48 is either not going to be noticed or if a question is asked, the answer will make complete sense. AND if the response is “just so you know for next time, they actually update their stock on Thursday – so if box of 200 isn’t available when you initially look and if the order isn’t a rush one – wait until then, and then go with the 4 boxes of 50.” Basically, if there was a better way to respond in that situation that it would be viewed as a catastrophic mistake as opposed to an opportunity to learn.

                Now, I think that a few things can get someone to that place. It can be their brain chemistry, their parents, a previous manager, etc. But this doesn’t strike me as shoving work onto a coworker, but rather being held captive by anything less than perfection.

                1. Observer*

                  Let’s say that the single box of 200 pens costs $40 but for the last 6 months has been on sale for $35. The individual boxes of 50 pens cost $12.

                  Now most of us, are going to feel that this extra expense at $48 is either not going to be noticed or if a question is asked, the answer will make complete sense.

                  The thing is that in such a case, the question should have been “They don’t have the boxes of 200 pens and if I buy 4 boxes of 50, it’s going to coat $18 more than prior purchases. Is that OK?”

                  But the OP says that it doesn’t even occur to her to look at that option. Which means that whatever the cause, she is not just asking too many questions, she is not even starting the process to think about what she should be asking.

                2. Eldritch Office Worker*

                  I agree with Observer. I totally get the anxiety of doing something wrong, but that’s when you propose a solution as a question not when you just freeze and don’t do anything. That very well could be just an anxiety response or trauma from a past job, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s unworkable.

                  I think a coaching step could be “moving forward if you’re going to come to me with a problem please also propose a solution. It’s fine if the solution is not what we ultimately go with, but I need to know you’re thinking the situation through”. But if that doesn’t work…I don’t know that this is sustainable.

                3. Zweisatz*

                  Yep, in a case I know it was cult upbringing (aka don’t think for yourself, authority will tell you what to think). Not saying that’s the cause here, but I’ve certainly seen the effect.

            2. Butterfly Counter*

              This is my thought. She sounds like me when I was starting in the work world. I was an excellent student and a great athlete to coach because I did as I was told. Doing one’s own thing got other kids lower grades or benched. You really do get trained to just follow orders to get what you want.

              It’s a bit of a surprise that most businesses and employers don’t want a little robot who simply follows orders to the exact letter. They want you to know the goal, be aware of procedures, and then fill in your own blanks.

              I think the OP really needs to sit down with her report and spell this out. I think it will help and she’ll get the hang of it. But because of her background, this isn’t something she’ll realize on her own. If one conversation and a few instances of gentle steering (say over another week) don’t change things, then I’d say it’s a lost cause.

          2. Emmy Noether*

            I wondered the same. She sounds like my toddler (can’t find things right in front of her, yells for help all the time, can’t deal with hitting the smallest snag). Except my toddler alternates that with wanting to do things “all on her own” and we’re working on problem solving.

            So either someone is doing everything for her in her private life since she was a baby, OR someone has terrified her of making her own decisions by punishing her when they don’t align exactly with what the person wants.

          3. Not So NewReader*

            I went the opposite way and thought that her parents were hands off therefore she was left to figure out everything on her own. Of course we tend to bring our own experience or what we see around us, into a a new situation. So I could very well be wrong here.

            OP notes her nervous energy. So this tells me she already knows something is hugely wrong.
            It could be that an office setting is not for her- it’s just so unrelatable that she cannot figure things out.

            Instead of framing it as critical thinking skills, I’d tend to frame it as “working through things independently”. I am not a fan of the catch-all critical thinking skills for many reasons. But bottomline is that if a person is missing critical thinking skills, the answer becomes they can’t be taught. Which means you can’t salvage the situation.

            I’d back into it differently. OP, does she ever ask you the same question twice? If no, this would be a shred of evidence that she might be adapting to the job. If you are explaining the same things over and over, then I’d agree that this job is not going to work out for her.
            Next step. If she is not asking the same questions, then it becomes a matter of how much longer do you want to do this? You say she does 25% of the job. This is so Not
            Good. She needs to speed up her pacing. Figure out what your time frame is. How much more of this can you reasonably do?

            Then tell her that you need to see her working independently and not involving you every inch of the way. She may not be clear on what is under her discretion and what is not. The markers example is a great example. It’s up to her to pick a product and pick the required number of packages to get to 200 markers. You probably have to say that if you have not said it all ready. That’s one example of showing her what is under her watch. You can go on to let her know that it’s okay to spend time looking around for something (the supply closet example), you aren’t going to ding her for the extra five minutes she needs because she is not yet that familiar with the supply closet. She might think that she was supposed to be super fast doing that.

            So in a short recap what is under her watch and what your expectations are. Then land on that you need to see improvement of the [time frame]. The time frame you set goes back to the question how much longer you want to do this.

            I will say that people who do not want to work independently just won’t, so no way to know where this will land. This may involve some tears. Ignore the tears and keep speaking. Keep your voice soft so she has to listen in order to hear you. (Nervous people don’t do well with loud voices sometimes.)

            Oddly both of you need to know this will come to an end soon. “End” could be that she is let go. OR “end” could be that she decides to take the ball and run with it. Just as you don’t like doing her job, she does not like wrestling with the basics of the job every day. Neither one of you are that happy here. It’s an act of kindness to try to salvage her job. But if she doesn’t want to be rescued, there’s nothing you can do. Hence my suggestion of setting a time frame for improvement and if there is no improvement then just call the end of it.

            1. JenLP*

              I love all of this advice. I’ll add that clarifying a time limit for how long she should struggle may be beneficial – we don’t want her to spend 2 hours in the closet trying to find something, but 30 minutes might be appropriate depending on the size. Of course, if she doesn’t want to work independently, she’ll just waste that time. But it’ll help give her an idea of how long to try before asking for help and give you some moments of peace. Maybe.

            2. Somehow_I_Manage*

              This advice is appropriate for a parent or a teacher, but it is WAY over the top for a manager-employee. This specific employee is not ready for any workplace. You need your employee to have the skills to find something in a closet…and if your “help” has reduced you to working up a performance improvement plan to improve skill finding things in the closet, then we’ve all lost our way.

              1. ferrina*

                I think a PIP is appropriate. That gives her 1) the clear opportunity to see how her behavior is hurting her and hopefully change and 2) the time to look for other jobs. But the PIP should be reasonably short (6 weeks?) and if she fails it, you need to let her go.

              2. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

                That may be, but the LW says they want to help this employee succeed. Not So NewReader is giving them a path to do so.

                1. Dust Bunny*

                  . . . however, it would not be the first time that someone has written to AAM asking how to help an employee succeed, when the problem may in fact be not-succeed-able. Wanting to make it happen doesn’t always make it possible.

              3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

                I’d have been so mad at finding the thing exactly where I said it was! I already get mad with my partner when I tell him which cupboard but he can’t find it, because it’s behind something else, but if you’re saying exactly where it is and she can’t find it, that’s a level of incompetence that I would just not know how to deal with.
                It’s worse than my intern who thought Helsinki was in Greece, later got hassled by guys because she sauntered through the red light district on her way home and her French was so poor that she said the equivalent of “let’s go” instead of “eff off” and (drumroll) translated a sentence that should have read “the hamlet Marie-Antoinette was so fond of” as “the place where Hamlet and Marie-Antoinette fell in love”.

            3. Office Lobster DJ*

              I like this advice. OP, I would suggest a few things to try.

              – Let her know explicitly what her authority is

              – Let her know it won’t be a career-ending mistake if she does something slightly “wrong,” (e.g. no big deal if she ordered the wrong markers, just get the right ones next time)

              – Let her stand on her own. When a similar issue comes up the next time, don’t coach her on the next steps are or get into a discussion on how you would handle something. Try repeating a warm but breezy “I trust you” and “whatever you think, I just need [the markers by tomorrow]” and see what happens.

              1. Zweisatz*

                I think the latter could be too open-ended for somebody who struggles to move forward on their own. LW mentioned she isn’t making connections between prior and current tasks. I would use that avenue. “Remember last time when you were ordering 150 scissors? You can use the same procedure here and don’t worry about making a mistake, I trust your judgement and if there is anything to do better next time that’s not a problem. We’ll just review and move on. “

          4. DataGirl*

            I think in general, we as adults/parents have taken over way too much of the critical thinking and decision making opportunities from kids, leaving much of this generation lacking in those abilities. I see it all the time with my own kids and their friends, they always want to be told how to do things and completely freeze if required to figure something out on their own. It’s really problematic.

            1. My Useless 2 Cents*

              I really wonder if it’s the way schools are now structured.

              On one hand there is no room to make mistakes (that will lead to a lower GPA, which will prevent the student from getting into college, which will ruin their lives! *yes, hyperbole intentional*) which has lead to an increase in anxiety. As someone who struggles with anxiety, I really wish I was allowed to fail spectacularly more often in school. Learning how to recover and adapt at an earlier age would have been very beneficial.

              On the other hand, there is less opportunity to take ownership and responsibility for tasks; everything is group projects and teamwork. This has lead to everything being up for a lot of questioning and debate to determine the one best solution.

              I think a clear conversation with Phoebe about taking ownership of tasks assigned to her would go a long way. But reassure her that there can be multiple ways to tackle tasks and LW will be looking at overall results; so ordering 4 boxes of 50 markers is okay and she isn’t expected to spend time finding a supplier offering a box of 200 markers. Even ordering 4 boxes of 50 markers when a box of 200 markers are available won’t get her fired. Also, please let Phoebe know that mistakes are expected and not the end of the world.

              1. Dust Bunny*

                “that will lead to a lower GPA, which will prevent the student from getting into college,”

                This sounds more like helicopter parenting. My schools never said boo about my getting into college, but my parents sure did (though not to the point of paralyzing my decision-making skills).

                1. Hlao-roo*

                  This will depend on where and when you went to school. I grew up with the general assumption that I would go to college from my parents, my classmates, my classmates’ parents, and my teachers. Some people were more explicit about it, but the assumption was always there. And in my experience, the pressure was greatest from the people who were not my parents.

            2. Birb*

              State standardized testing makes a LOT of people a lot of money, so it isn’t going anywhere. Unfortunately, many districts tie campus scores to teacher pay, which means teacher loss (quitting or leaving to higher performing districts) and high focus on “teaching to the test”.

              It was bad when I was in high school, but much worse now. I probably spent 20+ school days last year actively proctoring exams unrelated to my course, and many more displaced or with partial or mixed up classes due to testing.

          5. Bunny Girl*

            Yeah she seems like a lot of the grad students I used to see in my old position. Their parents held their hands through everything and now that they were “on their own” they were functionally useless.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              It doesn’t just have to be teachers. I grew up with parents who did not believe in teaching children how to do things. That can be very limiting unless a person decides to take matters in to their own hands.

              I see people saying put her on PIP and move on. I can’t argue that point, there are situations where that has to happen, absolutely. But it seems to me OP could have just done that and skipped writing in to Alison. Additionally, a key part of this process that I am talking about includes a time limit- improve or leave, period.

              In my experience having The Talk and getting things aired usually bring results within a week or two. I can think of two people who made zero effort to improve, everyone else raised their game. Not only did I see an improvement but cohorts also saw improvements. This isn’t something that goes on and on, it either works or not.

              1. Observer*

                But it seems to me OP could have just done that and skipped writing in to Alison.

                The reason she wrote to Alison is because she wants to protect this young woman from “the big bad world”. But the OP can’t do that.

                I do think that she needs the equivalent of a PIP is Clearly laying out what needs to change, what is in her authority, what she should do before she asks for help, the timeline, and the potential consequences of not improving.

        1. Zweisatz*

          I have somebody on my job who reminded me of this girl. Not as astonishingly bad as the examples but certainly asking a lot of questions that none of his peers did.

          What I mean to say is I have no trouble believing this.

          I do believe, especially with the supply closet example a much more direct instruction what to do in these cases could help. (“Don’t worry if it makes you take a little longer but I really want you to check everywhere, at least twice, before you come to somebody for help. I want to avoid interruptions to my or other tasks unless you’ve exhausted all your options.”)

          My example colleague did get better with time, but it certainly took several years and repetitive feedback, and he was able to perform certain tasks well. I’m not sure how successful you can be if it is THIS bad.

      2. Esmeralda*

        And she also may not be the sharpest pin in the pack. “Great attitude” does not equal “intelligent enough to do this job.”

        1. OrdinaryJoe*

          Yep … I’ve run into people like that. I think, often we – as a general nice group who want to see people be successful – try to assign other labels but ‘just not smart enough’ is sometimes the cold, hard, truth. Reminds of a despair.com poster that was … “Not everyone gets to be an astronaut when they grow up”

        2. ZSD*

          Yeah, I think if she’s not smart enough to know that 4 x 50 = 200, then…I wouldn’t call this a lack of critical thinking skills.

          1. New Jack Karyn*

            She may have thought she was just missing something. Or thought that if she didn’t find & buy the mythical jumbo 200-pack, the four 50-packs would cost more and she’d get in trouble.

            1. ferrina*

              That’s true. I’ve had times where I’m hyper paranoid about seemingly small things, which has complex roots in my history. But ultimately LW can’t change this behavior for her- she needs to find her own way past it.

            2. Office Lobster DJ*

              That’s how I interpreted it as well. This seems like a relatively new job. While I don’t know what to make of OP’s “it didn’t occur to her,” I could someone wanting to clarify that detail rather than misstep, especially if they didn’t know their boss well.

            3. Allonge*

              But critical thinking also comes in at this point: asking if it’s an issue that the 4×50 box makes things 12% more expensive is a reasonable question! Ask away (and file away the response).

              But OP says that it did not occur to her to consider this solution at all, or at least she did not mention it. Freezing in the face of this issue is… less than reasonable.

              1. The OTHER other*

                I agree, it seems as though a lot of comments are bending over backwards to create scenarios where it’s reasonable for someone not to be able to buy 200 pens when they come in packs of 50, not 200, or find the supplies in the supply closet which were right where OP told them they would be.

                OP says they don’t want to “manage her out” but I don’t see how keeping her is going to work out given she needs this much assistance doing such simple tasks. This is really not “critical thinking”. And OP I think knows this given the “she’ll get eaten by the big bad world” closing. Someone not able to function in the world is not a selling point.

                Either let her go now, or keep her on and watch as she drags entire departments down as they have to do her work for her and resent her sinecure while everyone else has actual duties they are held responsible for.

        3. A Poster Has No Name*

          Or it could be she will do much better in a job where the tasks are more rote and repeatable and predictable. There a plenty of jobs like that out there, and plenty of people who would be bored out of their mind doing them, but someone who lacks critical thinking skills could do really well.

          1. Irish Teacher.*

            I had a coworker like this when I worked retail. She LOVED the boring jobs none of the rest of us wanted to do, but when it came to the SLIGHTEST bit of critical thinking…forget it.

      3. yala*

        It might not be a conscious thing. Just that she’s usually had people step in and help her fairly quickly, and got into the habit of it.

    2. Snoozing not schmoozing*

      I have a close relative who can’t think through steps to get from A to H. I have to tell him every step to take B-C-D-E-F-G-H or his mind shuts down. It’s not intentional, but it’s frustrating to deal with.

      1. Anon for This*

        My son is on the autism spectrum – inability to follow multi-step directions is one of his challenges, and is very common among those with autism. Not saying that’s what’s going on with your relative, but it is a common marker of the neuro-divergent. Giving him the steps in writing helps, as he can complete A then move to B, etc.

        1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

          My spouse has ADHD, not autism, but it is the same thing – if there are too many steps, his brain either truncates them or just…forgets them. In his case it is an executive function thing.

        2. KoiFeeder*

          Professional autistic here, can confirm. I’ve gotten better at it with practice, but if it’s a new task (and not one similar to a task I’m familiar with) and you give me the steps once verbally, it’s not getting done. I’m willing to try to do it and fail spectacularly, but so many people have a culturally-ingrained fear of failure that they’d rather not do anything at all than risk doing something that would lead to failure.

        3. Molly_*

          This is very similar to myself, though I have ADHD. I’m more than aware that I can be annoying to colleagues as it takes me much longer than it should to get my head around tasks – I need the whole picture and to have it cut down into easy-to-follow steps, else I’ll be utterly lost. When I see or hear people get frustrated with me, it’s equally, if not more frustrating for me because I know I’m being incompetent again, and it’s very disheartening.

          I often wonder if I’m cut out for the corporate world, but I live in a society that requires that I be paid a certain amount so I can pay for bills, food and a roof over my head.

    3. A Person*

      I think jumping straight to “she’s doing it deliberately to manipulate people” is a bit uncharitable. There are a bunch of reasons someone might act that way, from being terrified of Doing Something Wrong to just being extremely literal-minded.

      I’m not sure speculating on the reason actually matters too much, though. Regardless of what’s causing it, I think the LW needs to explain very explicitly the behaviour that’s the problem, the impact it has on other people, the improvements they want to see, and what will happen if they don’t.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Right the reason does not really matter. And a negative reason such as she is lazy or whatever does not help OP find paths that might resolve things.

        1. Gyne*

          I can see an argument that a negative motivation for the helplessness (she CAN do it, just doesn’t WANT to) is easier to manage than inability to do the thing. If she really is being willfully helpless, a sit-down to say, “You need to be able to complete these tasks on your own. If you cannot, this is not the job for you” would result in (hopefully) a quick shape-up. if she truly *cannot* think on her own, telling her she HAS to isn’t going to get her there. So it does matter, kind of.

          1. Kit*

            Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter to the business. This is why Alison so often reminds people that it’s better, in the workplace, to focus on the concrete than feelings: there might feel like a huge difference between an employee who chooses not to do something and one who is incapable of doing it… but either way, you have an employee who is not meeting the requirements of their job. You can PIP them and coach them, but as a manager, if they don’t demonstrate those job skills, you need to be willing to fire them, regardless of whether the reason they don’t demonstrate those job skills is won’t or can’t.

      2. Observer*

        But it seems to me OP could have just done that and skipped writing in to Alison.

        Yes. But also unhelpful. And it also gets in the way of finding a solution.

        1. Observer*

          UCH! I pasted in the wrong line.

          I was referring to: I’m not sure speculating on the reason actually matters too much, though.

      3. Curmudgeon in California*

        I really think that the poor kid has never been taught or allowed to problem solve. Maybe even discouraged from applying critical thinking skills to anything in her life. Or it may be an executive function type disability.

        I once tried to teach someone how to use an index and Google to find answers to questions. They. Could. NOT. Do. It. Literally unable to comprehend and implement “in the book that is the reference, go to the index and look up the word you just asked me about and see what it says.” after I’d shown them three different examples of doing exactly that. They could not/would not search Google for answers to questions, either – they expected me to spoon feed them the answers. In this person’s case I think they felt it was beneath them or not part of the job or something, but it may have been that they were truly incapable of comprehending that level of reasoning.

        Most people, if you say “order 200 pens”, will first look for boxes of 200 pens. When there are none, about a third will throw up their hands and say “there aren’t any boxes of 200, so I can’t buy them.” Another third will come ask you “They don’t come in boxes of 200, can I order four boxes of 50?” The final third will just get four boxes of 50 and be done with it.

        The first third lack problem solving skills, and I’m seeing that more and more as schools teach to the test and rote learning, compounded by the culture of instant gratification. Most kids shrug off the literalism and robotic obedience by the time they are twenty, but not all.

        In my personal opinion lack of problem solving skills is a learning disability that is being made worse by rote learning and overly strict environments. Then again, most of my job is problem solving, so to me it’s a core skill.

        I also know that when I’m stressed, burned out or have a migraine my problem solving skills rapidly degrade to nearly nothing and even being able to get my shoes on the correct foot is difficult.

      1. cabbagepants*

        In her mind, if she asks 1000x questions then no one can get mad at her for Doing It Wrong! She of course misses the fact that wasting time with 1000x questions is, itself, Doing It Wrong.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Just my observation but people who don’t get nervous, don’t care about the job. Of all the new hires I’ve trained only two did show any worry or nervousness. They both ended up fired.
        I suspect she cares about the job. No way to know to what degree that she cares. OP will have to find out.

    4. archangelsgirl*

      Can’t figure out how to order 200 markers in boxes of 50 sounds familiar. I have sixth graders telling me that can’t measure something longer than a meter with one meter stick, they need 2. I expect that in sixth grade, of course, but that’s something we’re able to teach them to think through much earlier than their first job. I give it as an example only to say that there have been teachers, and probably many other people, trying to teach Phoebe these skills for many years. I am sure at this point that her manager is not the one to have a breakthrough, and the manager has too many other things to do.

      Phoebe’s issues could be cognitive, could be ADHD, could be depression, anxiety, could be something entirely else. She could be a victim of the current education system where we pass everybody up, and are especially lenient on nice, hardworking, non-troublemaking females. I know people will be offended and/or shocked by that comment, but it’s honestly how it plays out in some locations.

      Anyway, as most are saying, none of those things that might be going on with Phoebe can be fixed by a manager, and manager needs to cut Phoebe loose without guilt until Phoebe finds what she can do, and is good at.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        She could also have worked for or lived with a toxic micromanager, which could be a nasty boss or an abusive parent or spouse.
        Have you ever seen people get upset when the grocery store substitutes 5 one-pound bags of flour, even though it’s sold at the lower price?
        A vindictive micro manager can require the same absolute precision, and it really mucks with a victim’s expectations and reactions.
        A good 1st step is to explain that that you want the employee to bring you a solution when they bring you a problem. Say “yes that’s a good idea, please do it”. After a few successes, let her know she’s showing good judgment and that she should act on her decisions, just send you a quick email letting you know.
        That email is not for you — it’s a tool for her to teach her inner voice that she’s not going to “get in trouble” for doing something beyond what her manager specified precisely.
        If her proposed solutions do not show good judgment, then we’re back to PIP territory.

        1. The Real Fran Fine*

          All of this. And this is exactly what I’ve been doing with one of my direct reports who kept coming to me with questions on every little thing for a brief period. She’s gotten better, but I have a feeling this isn’t a one and done conversation and I’ll have to keep reinforcing the whole, “don’t just bring me problems, but bring me your solutions,” thing.

        2. LaVon*

          I wonder if she may have ADD or ADHD and may need some modifications to allow her to get her work done. I had an employee like this and with a few simple changes, she was able to do some of the work required. Unfortunately she wasn’t able to do everything that the job demanded and we had to let her go.

          1. jane*

            ?? this is so extraordinarily different than how my ADHD manifests I am having a ton of trouble connecting the two ?? ?

        3. sb51*

          Or even just not had a lot of opportunities for initiative — very junior people may not have had that responsibility ever if their parents didn’t give it to them. A lot of summer-job type roles have ZERO leeway by design — everything has a process and an exact set of instructions. Having her run things past you was also my first thought.

          She may well know that 4×50 = 200, but took the initial instruction as “go buy the bulk 200 box” which she couldn’t find. What would you think of a new hire who, given the same instruction, ran off and bought 20 retail-style 10-packs of pens that each cost $5 (so $100 total) rather than the bulk 200-count box for $30? In both cases, a quick “is 4×50 okay” “yes” (or “is 20×10 okay” “no, go find the bulk supplies”) would be a fine option.

          And then after a few months “you’ve been making all these decisions correctly, you can go ahead and make purchases up to $1000 without checking”.

          Or she really doesn’t have the problem-solving skills, but just requiring her to propose a potential solution before she brings you any problem should show that very quickly.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            I have seen first hand that with some bosses 4-50ct boxes of markers can cause an hour or more of pure screaming. The fact that there are 200 markers either way is irrelevant, they are not all in the same box therefore it’s a stop-the-world problem.
            Hey these people exist and they walk among us. smh.

        4. Been there done that*

          I was that employee and a decade later, I STILL have trouble trusting my instincts because I’m afraid of doing it wrong and getting screamed at. I’m a director level and I’ve been in therapy since then over this, but it’s definitely a challenge. I am paralyzed when put into a position where I don’t have explicit instructions AND don’t have the reassurance that what matters is that it’s done, not that it has to be done a certain way. But I’ve learned to make the best decisions I can given the information I have.

          I think the biggest gift OP can give to the employee is a conversation about this to say, “I trust you to make good decisions,” then praise her when she does. She’ll build her confidence that way. If that doesn’t work then yeah, it’s not a good fit and she doesn’t have the skills. But I do wonder if reassurance will help quell some of the employee’s questioning.

        5. ferrina*

          This is all true, but also it’s okay if the manager can’t/doesn’t want to do this. What Seeking Second Childhood is describing is actually really tough to do and has the potential to backfire. For some people it will be what they need; others will use it as a carte blanche to continue their behavior (I had an ex who told me I wasn’t allowed to hold him to any kind of standards because it “made him scared to make a a mistake” and that made me the bad guy. I got that lecture after I told him not to pile dirty laundry on top of clean laundry)

          OP should use their discretion and trust their instincts. Ultimately, they can’t see inside Phoebe’s head to know what’s going on, and ultimately Phoebe needs to take the steps to change (OP can offer support, which it sounds like they might already be doing, but Phoebe needs to take it)

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Yep. The employee version of this is not a person OP would be able to help.
            We have plenty of examples of a Bob or Jane who had to push back on every little thing. nope, nope, nope.

      2. voluptuousfire*

        I know we’re not supposed to armchair diagnose (Sorry, Alison!) but Phoebe sounds soooooooo much like me in one job I had after college. I was thrown into an office coordinator role where I was left to my own devices and was so petrified of Getting It Wrong and given tasks with no real guidance. One time I ordered extra printer paper (which my boss told me to do since it was an accountant’s office/prime tax season) and we got two extra cases, he told me not to do it again. It was confusing and between conflicting directions, no directions, and various other things I didn’t seem to do right, I was “laid off”. Looking back, all of that anxiety and terror over Getting It Wrong was undiagnosed ADHD and related rejection sensitivity.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Small consolation, but no one can work for a boss who says “do x” and then later says “never do x”.
          I had a boss like this and I used to say, “I don’t care of we do or don’t do x, I have no horse in this race. This is about time. If I don’t have to do x then I can spend time working on something that benefits our group.”
          With this type of boss, it seemed important to show I did not care either way. Boss like to argue about things, I would not give the boss an argument. This forced the boss to pick between do or don’t do x. Which was more to the point.

        2. I should really pick a name*

          Do you have any suggestions regarding what helped for you?

          “She might have ADHD” isn’t actionable, but “I have ADHD and here’s an example of what helped me” is.

    5. Asenath*

      There could be other reasons for her behaviour – severe anxiety, for one, or simply past experience which has convinced her that she needs to double-check everything. In a way, the reason is unimportant. At the moment, Phoebe cannot do her job without taking up the time of other employees, so in addition to the strategies already tried, she needs to be told straight out that if she cannot work more independently, she may lose her job, and receive some additional small, short-term help to see if she improves – when she calls, insists that she provide a solution and call back, or examine every object on every shelf in the supply cabinet and call back if she still can’t find what she’s looking for. That level of coaching, and only for a few more weeks, since this situation has already been going on for a while and she has already received some coaching.

      1. Merrie*

        This along with letting her know that if it takes her a while to get something done, or she makes an error, it’s not the end of the world and she won’t be in trouble.

        I’ve just transitioned jobs and am in the process of coming to terms with the fact that unlike in my old job, I don’t need to know how to do everything, I don’t need to make sure every single thing gets done, and I don’t have to do everything perfectly. I am not going to get yelled at and nitpicked. At most if I do something suboptimal someone will point out to me where the issue is and what I should do differently next time. With a lot of things there is room for a range of actions. And if I don’t know how to do something I can ask. And there are other people on my team to get the stuff done that I don’t get to. If Phoebe has had a micromanaging, critical boss, she might be scared to put a toe out of line, and need to adjust to the new reality.

    6. WillowSunstar*

      I had a young coworker who did the same and it drive me nuts. I don’t think colleges are all teaching them how to problem solve anymore.

      1. Ann Ominous*

        I went to college more than two decades ago and there wasn’t a specific problem solving class … my classes were topical on the various subjects. What kind of college critical thinking teaching did you receive?

        1. Raw Cookie Dough*

          Not actual classes, but general problem solving. Having to go through life without every answer you need just a click or two away. Having to negotiate around a campus without a gps in your hand. Having to figure out how to buy things by actually looking in catalogs, and making phone calls to ask questions, and then figuring out when they’ll arrive without Amazon Prime.
          Phoebe is treating this manager like her Google Assistant.

          1. Yaz*

            Oy vey. Not another millennial panic post. There are plenty of boomers (and greatest generationers) who lack problem solving savvy. Just as there are plenty of young people who are great at solving problems. A physical map is a tool as much as a phone GPS is… before compasses, people navigated by the stars. There is no deep problem-solving wisdom in knowing how to use a Sears catalogue- any more than there is in knowing how to navigate e-commerce sites. Tools adapt and evolve. People who can’t problem solve are a constant.

              1. Environmental Compliance*

                Point still stands that it is not a generational issue and that people who can’t or refuse to do their own problem solving are a constant variable.

              2. Observer*

                Yeah, Yaz should have mentioned Gen Z.

                But the point still stands. This is not a generational issue. It’s not even a “stage of life” issue.

            1. Not Your Admin Ass(t)*

              Yeah, Raw Cookie Dough’s comment bothered me in the same way too. People aren’t lacking critical thinking because the Internet and GPS exist. People lack critical thinking because they’re not being properly taught it, or aren’t receiving help they need to conquer situation that hinder critical thinking, like anxiety. And many of the people who should be teaching critical thinking to their kids and wards and aren’t…they ARE of the pre-Amazon Prime, pre-GPS age.

              There are plenty of boomers (and greatest generationers) who lack problem solving savvy.

              See also: my entire immediate family. I’m the sole thinking-ahead person in my family, and yet my critical thinking skills are self-taught and still not great.

              1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

                It’s interesting you point out the GPS – there is actually some evidence for its existence being related to the decline in wayfinding ability among the population, which is apparently highly intertwined with the portions of our brain which manage narratives and short term memory. Basically, because a thing tells us how to get a place, we aren’t developing the same skills as our ancestors for narration-based navigation (which comes far more naturally than using stars or the like), and so we aren’t committing the process and our surroundings (which build the narration for us) to our memory.

                Not sure if there are ties with critical thinking skill, in any way, though. And the issue that tended to be larger than GPS when studied was that modern children have much smaller roaming ranges than their parents/grandparents/forebears, and so less opportunity to develop robust wayfinding habits and neural structures during their formative years.

                1. Observer*

                  And the issue that tended to be larger than GPS when studied was that modern children have much smaller roaming ranges than their parents/grandparents/forebears, and so less opportunity to develop robust wayfinding habits and neural structures during their formative years.

                  Yeah. If we’re worrying about wayfinding, GPS is not the problem here. It’s the fact that we simply don’t allow kids to roam. I got flack for allowing my 9 year old sons to walk to school alone rather than go on the bus. The school building was 3.5 blocks away from my house. Think about that – many kids are not being allowed to walk 3-4 city blocks on their own. Of course they are going to have problems with wayfinding.

            2. Worldwalker*

              When I was in college in the early 80,) I signed up as a tutor in a peer tutoring program. The guy they sent to me wanted to know the answers. He didn’t want to learn how to find the answers—he just wanted me to tell him what they were. For everything. He could not comprehend that answers could be derived; he was trying to memorize every possible answer as a separate piece of information.

              That mindset might be more common now than it was 40 years ago, but it’s not new.

              1. Observer*

                It’s actually LESS common. Memorization was a dirty word for a while, and there was a very strong idea that it was important to teach people concepts, ideas and methods, but NOT information because you can always find information later.

                Fortunately, that’s no longer the common “wisdom” as it’s become obvious that to actually teach “concepts, ideas and methods” you also need a lot of information. But, memorization per se is not (at least officially) much of a thing.

              2. whingedrinking*

                I remember tutoring students in English and having to patiently explain that while they could indeed memorize the entire list of poetic devices, that would not get them an A on their provincials. They needed to learn how to look at an unfamiliar text and interpret it (preferably without defaulting to the shallowest possible reading), then support their interpretation in clear writing. It wasn’t so much the students that had difficulty with this concept; it was more usually their parents. “Why aren’t you telling my child how to do the exam?! He needs to get an A!” The fact that the process couldn’t be boiled down to an algorithm that could be followed exactly to derive an objectively “correct” answer seemed to drive a lot of people up a wall.

            3. Worldwalker*

              “Kids today! They just order something from the Sears catalog and pick it up at the train station instead of making it themselves like we used to!”

            4. Sasha*

              If somebody needs to use their phone to navigate around a familiar environment like their campus, the phone (and college, kids these days, or whatever we are complaining about now) isn’t the problem.

            5. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

              It’s definitely not just millenials. Some years ago, I trained a new employee who wasn’t as bad as Phoebe, but he wanted step-by-step instructions for every new task. He insisted I enumerate every step for him, even when the steps were practically the same as some previous task (like every step exactly the same except for step 3 out of 9). He was no millennial; he was at the tail end of the boomer or start of Gen X.

          2. yala*

            “Having to figure out how to buy things by actually looking in catalogs”

            That…seems like such a weird thing to consider a “critical thinking skill” but either way, the ability to *find* the information you’re looking for in a “click or two” is a massive skill on its own. Using tools to solve problems *is* critical thinking.

            1. Wheels on Fire*

              Yeah, this is super weird. How are catalogs and calling people any better than online shopping and googling questions? I think being able to adapt to change, including making use of new technology, is also an important part of critical thinking.

            2. LizB*

              Yeah, if your steps to buying a shirt are “look in the catalog that sells shirts, find the one you want, order it,” that doesn’t seem like it takes a whole lot more critical thinking than “look at the website that sells shirts, find the one you want, order it”. Even “google the word shirts, find the one you want, order it” is the same number of steps.

            3. KRM*

              And in science, the vendor websites are often TERRIBLE, so ordering things becomes a challenge, because you search the term and totally random things come up first. You have to learn how to use the tools. Even with GPS, you have to know how to orient yourself on a map before it becomes useful to navigate.
              The issue here is that Phoebe doesn’t feel comfortable taking initiative. For work purposes it doesn’t matter if it’s because her parents never let her do anything, or if she had a terrible supervisor in college who yelled at her every time she didn’t read their mind at work. LW needs to sit down and have a kind but serious conversation with her, with examples (“when I ask you to buy 200 markers, you have to figure out how to do that on your own as you look at what’s available. It’s OK to ask me if spending $30 more is OK because the cheaper alternative isn’t in stock, but you should not be asking me what to do if they don’t have a single box of 200”), and then needs to monitor improvements/lack thereof over a month or so. It could be that Phoebe will be let go, but it could be that if it’s spelled out to her that she is indeed allowed to problem solve, she’ll improve!

            4. Unaccountably*

              It’s particularly strange because “shopping in catalogs” is not a skill that is required in the 21st century. In fact, old-fashioned paper catalogs don’t exist in anything like the quantity or ubiquity that they did in the 70s.

              The modern analog is knowing how to use a search engine bar.

            5. ADidgeridooForYou*

              Right? And isn’t Amazon basically just a searchable catalog? You might be able to enter in search terms instead of flipping through pages, but you still have to compare prices, figure out which (if any) might be knock-offs or scams, figure out dimensions, etc.

          3. game, blouses*

            The worst workplace “Phoebe” I ever knew was a woman in her 60s whose problem solving was so poor that she caused a number of serious issues for the company (she was an admin and was responsible for some financial stuff). It took much longer than it should have to let her go, because the CEO had a soft spot for her and was worried she’d never find another job at her age and with her skillset.

            I now work with college students every day and I have never seen anyone whose critical thinking skills were as bad as this woman’s (or even close to as bad as Phoebe’s). So… I don’t think that’s a helpful generalization for you to make at all!

            1. AE*

              My “Phoebe” was also older, I’d guess her to be older GenX/younger Boomer. She was doing basic admin work but got VERY overwhelmed by any minor ambiguity or hiccup, always needed to pull in at least one other person to help troubleshoot. She took instructions extremely literally and didn’t seem able to rely on her own discretion or generalize from one situation to the next. She was a really lovely person, I hope she’s since gotten a position that doesn’t cause her such anxiety.

          4. ferrina*

            This is hilarious- Googling is a skill that requires real critical thinking! I’m in an industry where we often need to find precise, reliable answers, and you can’t just click a button and have it magically appear. You need to figure out the best search terms, evaluate the reliability of resources, and figure out what to do with conflicting information.

            If you think the internet constantly provides instant answers, you’re either not using it or taking all your search results at face value (which is….not a good idea).

          5. Observer*

            Having to go through life without every answer you need just a click or two away. Having to negotiate around a campus without a gps in your hand. Having to figure out how to buy things by actually looking in catalogs, and making phone calls to ask questions, and then figuring out when they’ll arrive without Amazon Prime.

            No. Yeah, I grew up pre-computer. But none of the things you mention are things that keep people from learning how to problem solve. Because these are all still tools you need to learn how to use. And the you need to USE them.

            Your Amazon example is actually pretty funny because their site is terrible in some ways. If you don’t have a REALLY good idea of what you are looking for, you are not going to get the best thing for you.

            Walking into a Staples, calling them up, or visiting their web site are not really different in terms of problem solving skills.

            But, sure, it’s easier to dump on “kids these days” than to think the situation through.

          6. ADidgeridooForYou*

            If that were true, then shouldn’t older generations of workers who were supposedly taught critical thinking be able to rotate PDFs using those skills without asking their younger colleagues?

            I’m kidding, mostly. I don’t like generational generalizations. I’m just saying that I’ve encountered coworkers of all ages who lack critical thinking skills, not just those born around/after Y2K. The evolution of tech doesn’t eliminate the need for critical thinking skills; it just necessitates a different kind.

        2. Asenath*

          In literature courses, analysis of topics in our essays, in other subject areas, even in ones not labelled “research methods”, assignments requiring critical analysis of research papers. And, perhaps more to the point, negotiating the entire university experience, from planning a program to figuring out how to find special materials and then use the microfiche and microfilm readers in the library. It was solving one problem after another, sometimes by finding and using sources of information (eg the administration), sometimes just by working things out on your own.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          The running commentary where I went to school was that things taught in class were more appropriate for masters or doctorates level. It was a lot of theory and not much practical.

          I have a lawyer friend who routinely comments that law school did not teach them to fill out forms. It was all about the theory or thinking behind our laws. Some legal forms are down right obscure.

          One instance that stands out in my mind was a critical thinking essay test. The question was (be aware this was long before Covid), you are the leader of a big pharma company. You have a vaccine that will work but 10% of the time it can cause death. This is a disease outbreak in a huge country and they need your vaccine. Do you sell it to them, in spite of knowing that 10% of the people will die?

          I said no. The correct answer was yes.

          I was 40 y/o sitting in a classroom of 20 somethings. I got to wondering about how we are shaping generations to come with this type of example. Barebones, the prof could have made the essay as having no correct answer but he wanted to see the person’s thoughts on how they arrived at their answer. The student could have been graded on how well they applied what they learned for the semester to the dilemma. But the prof wanted a definite yes or no answer. I wondered about what people took away from this experience.

          So this example typifies what I saw termed “critical thinking”, mostly it was nothing that could be applied to any mundane, average life or a daily task at an ordinary job.

          1. Emmy Noether*

            Ah, a variant of the trolley problem. There really is no correct answer to the trolley problem – that prof was full of it.

          2. Irish Teacher*

            The point of questions like that is that there IS no right answer; if you can support your conclusion, it’s valid. I can’t believe a college prof would treat it as right or wrong.

            I remember one of our lecturers complained about 1st years coming in, thinking there were right and wrong answers and looking for the “right” one rather than trying to support their conclusions.

            1. whingedrinking*

              Oh god, my first year philosophy class. Someone legitimately did put up their hand at one point and say, “But who’s right?”

          3. emmelemm*

            You can’t answer that question without knowing what the death rate caused by the disease is, and how transmissable it is. If 50% of the people who contract the disease die, and it’s very contagious, then vaccinating everybody and killing 10% of the vaccinated in the process might be an acceptable solution. But in the absence of that information, there’s nowhere to even start debating whether that’s a definite “yes” or “no”.

        4. Irish Teacher.*

          I think most of college is really about problem solving. We got essay assignments on topics we had not covered at all in class. This was intentional, to get us to find the information ourselves. Then there is the phrasing of questions, which almost always required us to think critically about the topic. One essay I remember was whether we thought St. Patrick had actually arrived in 432 or if that was confusion with Palladius and the true date was later.

          People who couldn’t decide the simplest things would not do well.

      2. DataGirl*

        I don’t think it’s a college level thing, I think it starts much earlier. I compare myself- raised in the 70’s/80’s, on my own or only in the company of other children pretty much all the time. No adults to help us, no cell phones to call for help, no internet to look up answers on how to do things. When something unexpected or bad happened, we had no choice but to figure out how to deal with it. Compared to my kid’s generation- they are never alone- even if a parent isn’t the helicopter type American society has gotten to the point where leaving a child alone or making them deal with something themselves will get the authorities called on you. Help is always right there, so they never have to learn how to think through a problem and solve it. It’s not good, we’ve got generation(s) of helpless people who have no clue how to think through a problem.

        1. Parakeet*

          I’m a ’90s kid, and people said similar things about us. Now we’re saying it about the current generation of young people.

          When I was a kid I had some book about kids on the Oregon Trail that was written in the early 20th century, and the forward by the author talked about how kids back in those days were encouraged to “plan and do” in ways that kids “today” (the early 20th century) were not, and therefore were much more competent.

          The cultural expectations will change, the problems available to solve will change, but there’s always problems available for kids to solve (and previous generations always think that the one coming of age doesn’t know how to solve problems). It’s similar to how in every generation most people seem to have basic-but-not-amazing competence with the tech that’s most relevant in their day-to-day lives and little to no competence with the tech that’s not, but the specifics of each of those categories change and each generation is appalled by what the others don’t know how to do.

          1. ferrina*

            That Oregon Trail forward is so cringe- kids in those days also had a much higher mortality rate. Not exactly the an ideal we should reach for.

            1. Asenath*

              I think the author was probably talking about the children who didn’t die in infancy, which is a much fairer comparison.

              1. ferrina*

                I was thinking of a fictional account of the Oregon trail I read as a kid. The kids were left to Problem Solve and made a fatal error.

                In my mind, the Golden Mean is giving the kids room to experiment and push them to problem solve, while providing critical information, tools and some level of oversight (not directing their movements, but keeping a loose eye to catch anything that is about to go horrible wrong). A lot of the “Kids Don’t Know How to Problem Solve” complaints I hear are from folks that assume that either a) don’t realize that the ‘Kids’ haven’t been given crucial information or b) just don’t like how the ‘Kids’ are problem solving (using Google instead of encyclopedias). I’m an educator, and I haven’t seen an issue with the quality of problem solving, but a big difference in the resources and approach that different people might take.

          2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            Yeah and in the 19th century when it became fashionable to go off hunting for botanical specimens, countless young adventurers set off, never to be heard of again, killed by wild animals or because they ate a poisonous mushroom or whatever.

        2. Observer*

          Help is always right there, so they never have to learn how to think through a problem and solve it. It’s not good, we’ve got generation(s) of helpless people who have no clue how to think through a problem.

          This is, fortunately, a factually incorrect statement.

          Being able to call for help, or search for information does NOT inhibit people’s ability to think things through or to trouble shoot. It just provides a different tool set and a greater probability that you don’t make a catastrophic mistake.

          I’m older than you – I’ve seen several generations of this.

          The extent to which people can’t think things through absolutely does NOT track with the rise in these technologies. It DOES track with the rise of helicoptering, etc.

        3. NICS*

          “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

          ― Socrates

    7. Koivu*

      This response makes me so sad. Phoebe sounds exactly like my teenage daughter, who is neurodivergent (ADHD/executive function disorder) and I worry about her ability to work because of her lack of critical thinking skills – and how she will be perceived by others (some of these comments show how neurodivergence is so wildly misunderstood). OP hit the nail on the head by saying Phoebe’s executive function skills need work. Unfortunately that is not something that can be taught by an employer (or parent or even a regular teacher). My daughter is currently attending a specialized school specifically for students with learning differences like hers. Sadly, this is not accessible for everyone – the tuition is $49K US per year. (After exhausting all other options, we’ve depleted our life savings so she can attend.) Anyway, all that to say, OP – thank you for showing some empathy and understanding to Phoebe’s situation. I think keeping her in the role will set her up for failure. The kindest thing to do is to help her find a different type of job where she can be successful. Wishing you both the best xo

      1. Splendid Colors*

        If Phoebe has a diagnosis, she might be able to get a job coach from the local Voc Rehab department who can work with her at the level of detail she needs. Because OP needs to be doing the rest of OP’s job, not walking Phoebe through basic executive functioning and problem-solving. Or Phoebe might need some kind of internship or a different type of job where she doesn’t need to make decisions.

        (My mom’s younger sister, who WAS the kind of person who would get out of doing work by pretending not to know how, also wasn’t shy and nervous about it.)

    8. CheeryO*

      I wonder if she would improve if the LW made it crystal clear to Phoebe that she has the freedom to make judgment calls, even as simple as the marker example. I can very much relate to Phoebe, and for me, it was just inexperience, a little bit of emotional immaturity, a little bit of GAD, and absolute terror that I would screw up and get fired. I was basically paralyzed by it and needed hand holding to be able to do even a simple task. Luckily, I had a couple internships to get it out of my system and learn from some good role models, but it was rough.

      Remember that kids coming out of college now also had some of their critical development years stunted by Covid. Not saying they need to be handled with kid gloves, but it’s worth taking a minute to address the problem in very clear language to see if that leads to any improvements.

      1. L.H. Puttgrass*

        I can see myself having gotten into a situation like this once upon a time (and no one has ever accused me of lacking critical thinking skills).

        “Okay, boss wants a box of 200 markers.” (Whether boss actually said “box of 200 markers” or just asked for “200 markers,” assume this is what I remember.) “I don’t see a box of 200 markers. I wonder if there’s something special about the 200 markers being in one box. I could ask…but what a dumb question. I definitely don’t want to bother the boss with dumb questions. But I also need to get the markers. But I don’t want to bother the boss. But I need to buy 200 markers. But…”

        At some point, the endless loop breaks when I find something else to do.

    9. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      Some people are just not that sharp. Recent parenting techniques (snowplowing, eg) are often also better at teaching helplessness than problem-solving skills. I had a Phoebe, he had no idea how much of other people’s time he was taking up, and he could not for the life of him generalize an answer to another slightly different but largely similar situation. Phoebe needs a job with very clear rules and procedures and no problem-solving.

      1. ferrina*

        Snowplowing isn’t a recent parenting technique. Certain parents have been doing this for a long time- It’s just got a fancy name now.

      2. Unaccountably*

        That is a perfect description of my Phoebe, but I’m not so sure parenting practices are to blame. The phenomenon is much too cross-generational for that.

        1. Splendid Colors*

          It’s also a common failure mode of parenting among people who are neurotypical with neurodivergent kids. They assume their kid’s diagnosis means they can’t learn basic life skills, so they keep doing things FOR them instead of teaching them HOW TO DO them. (This isn’t to say that someone with serious dyspraxia or spasticity should be forced to do physical tasks they can’t really do instead of having a support person, but more like assuming an Autistic teen can’t learn how to shop for groceries–which is pretty similar to shopping for office supplies.)

    10. learnedthehardway*

      It’s possible that this is the case. It’s also possible that Phoebe simply isn’t capable of thinking.

      My spouse has someone like Phoebe on his team, and he’s come to the conclusion that she just doesn’t have the mental capacity / intelligence to do more than a few, very specific tasks. It takes her forever to learn, but once she has figured it out, she’s okay with those functions. It’s a huge problem, because the job requires a lot more than she is capable of doing, and he can’t always assign someone else to the work.

    11. Seconds*

      I have been a Phoebe. It was depression.

      My story: my husband was out of town. Cold weather arrived, and I couldn’t figure out how to work out heater. I looked and looked, and tried different things, but nothing worked.

      So I started taking warm baths in the morning before I got dressed. But there wasn’t enough hot water to really warn me up, so I turned up the temperature on the water heater.

      The next morning I took my bath before I got dressed for work, and the water ran cold immediately. I remember lying in the cold bath crying.

      That afternoon I called the landlord to help me with the heater. He came and turned it on for me.

      A year later (now under treatment four depression) I found myself in the same situation : the first cold had arrived and my husband was out of town. I was going to have to call my landlord again. How embarrassing!

      With a feeling of dread I opened up the heater. There, right in front of my eyes, was a diagram and written instructions. Turn this, push that. Clear as can be. It took me two seconds.

      And the water heater? I had turned the temperature down rather than up.

      Unfortunately I don’t think you’re going to be able to fix Phoebe. But do be gentle.

    12. AnonInCanada*

      I’d like to know how Phoebe graduated from school? Critical thinking is something that’s taught from middle school onward. It’s just part of every subject in all honesty, being able to approach a problem and solve it using logic. If Phoebe is acting this out-of-touch, that’s something OP is never going to solve. I get it Phoebe will learn with experience, but OP’s patience (or her boss’s) is going to wear pretty thin if OP keeps allowing this to happen.

    13. middlemgmt*

      agree with other who are saying that’s not likely the case here. it’s probably not deliberate and i see this all the time- “uncertainty avoidance”. people who are so constantly anxious or afraid of doing the “wrong” thing that they are paralyzed unless given explict direction. That’s different that weaponized incompetence. I have an employee like that who does amazing, complex, detail oriented work, but we struggled for years to get her to do the planning/driving forward piece, not just the execution.

      what finally seems to have moved her forward that way was still being very clear, but having it be about the leeway she had for decision making and not the decision itself. “i want you to do the plan for this. you will say who does what, and in what order. if you think you need help from other team members, they can be pulled in. if you are not sure what i want or what the right thing is, give it your best guess, or just note that some piece of info is being verified. don’t let those things stop you from driving it forward. You may get some things wrong, but it’s not the end of the world, that’s why we have drafts and reviews, and then you know.” and then i had to let it go. and slowly, she started to take the lead more, respond to emails where before she might have thought she had to defer to me. and i backed her up even when i might have done it slightly differently, which created a cycle of her being less anxious and more confident in her decisions. in the case of the LW, i’d be very specific. “when an issue comes up, i need you to try and solve it first, or at least come to me with a proposed solution, rather than just the problem.”

    14. Meep*

      This comment is boarderline ableist tbh.

      I read it as Pheobe is petrified by the fear of screwing up that she cannot make a decision on her own. But then again, I understand anxiety and mental health exists~

    15. starfox*

      Ehh I don’t think that’s a fair assumption, especially since she does have a good attitude. It’s not impossible, but I think it’s much more likely that she either simply doesn’t have critical thinking skills/common sense, or her anxiety is severely getting in the way. LW says her nervous energy is obvious. As someone who has struggled with intense anxiety in the past, your body literally senses danger and goes into “fight or flight” mode. You can’t engage in critical thinking skills when this happens.

      I’m not defending her, because I absolutely couldn’t work with someone like this.

    16. I would prefer not to*

      “Tell her to do her job.”

      This is terrible management advice.

      Be specific, with examples, about what that looks like.

      “Barely cute on a five year old…” Why the assumption she’s going it on purpose? A lot of people struggle with joining dots, with things that seem like “common sense” to others, and with the switch from school life or eg shop work to the world of a professional office.

      Also, some bosses, parents, teachers etc are wildly unreasonable micromanagers who go out of their mind if someone exercises judgment or shows initiative! Maybe she’s experienced that.

      Either way, if she can’t do the job then she can’t do the job, and she may have to be let go. There’s no evidence she knows what she’s doing wrong here at all though.

    1. Not A Racoon Keeper*

      100% agree, as someone with significant and diagnosed anxiety. Alison’s response to the letter a few weeks ago “how to manage an employee that is terrified of me?” and the comments on that post would probably be very helpful to LW1!

      1. Raw Cookie Dough*

        But she asks the manager questions – EVERY question. Anxiety wouldn’t explain not knowing how to find something in a supply closet.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          It could. Anxiety messes with the brain in a lot of ways people don’t realize. If your brain is busy trying to figure out all the emergency exits in case of fire (for instance), it might not be able to see obvious things directly in front of it.

        2. Not Your Admin Ass(t)*

          When you’re extremely anxious, your brain doesn’t fire off correctly and make connections like it should. I’ve forgotten my own name when I was in a state of high anxiety, and needed to put said name on a form. I’ve spent an hour looking for a coffee table that I use every single day and hasn’t been moved in years–and was using at the time!–because I was anxious. I’ve been given a set of very basic, detailed written instructions to do a task and was unable to comprehend them for a week. Because I was anxious. I wasn’t in situations that your average neurotypical person would consider anxious, either. But they were for me, so my brain didn’t work like it should.

          (Heck, I’m on the verge of losing it right now because I’m at work, the phone just rang seven times in two minutes, and I have terrible phone phobia. I’m writing comments on AAM because I literally cannot pin my terrified brain down enough to interpret the work in front of me, and it’s not at all complicated stuff! It’s stuff I do literally every day, all day!)

          I’ve always had problems with critical thinking–partly due to an abusive upbringing where any mistakes were disproportionately punished, so I became terrified to do anything with the slightest chance of failure, and partly because the same people who did the disproportionate punishing never taught critical thinking (family AND teachers–and no, I wasn’t raised with GPS or Amazon Prime like your other comment says; I was born in the 70s). It was always, “You’re smart. You should already know how to do this thing I never taught you. Stop bothering me and figure it out for yourself.” SO. I’d try to solve the thing without any tools or training, fail, and be punished. Or, I’d just decide the thing wasn’t worth doing at all because of the risk of punishment and so never learned how to handle it.

          I try so hard to always think ahead in every situation so I don’t screw up. I will spend months working out the best way to do something, something that someone else would figure out the same day of encountering the issue…and I will still screw it up because my critical thinking skills are not where they should be due to having to learn all this mess as an adult, when it would be innate for so many other people my age. No matter how hard I work on it, I still regularly find myself in a situation of “I only find out after I eff around.” :/ Anxiety and trauma are awful, and it all absolutely messes with your head. Dunno if that’s the case for the employee, but not being to find something that’s right where it’s supposed to be is extremely common in anxious situations!

          1. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

            Same here with the abuse and the figure it out/you did it wrong Kobayashi Maru. Problem is, I don’t think OP can quickly convince Phoebe that independent thinking and mistakes won’t be punished harshly. Even if that did happen, I don’t think Phoebe would suddenly become 3 times as competent.

        3. yala*

          I mean, it very well could. “Is this the RIGHT thing? It looks like it probably is, but it’s next to X, not Y, but it is where Boss said it would be, but…”

          Anxiety basically means every seeing every possible way a decision or statement could go wrong (and then being so overwhelmed that it’s difficult to process or prioritize).

          1. Indubitably Delicious*

            I had a coworker like this, who had anxiety from severe workplace trauma (I don’t know the precise etiology, I just know she was chronically unsure of herself). She didn’t make it past her probationary period, and I hope she went on to find a job where she could relax and excel.

            In some (less severe) ways, I am a coworker like this. Anxiety and ADHD are factors for me. I’ve developed a good relationship with my bosses where I can go and say “look, I know this has come up before, but can you help check my understanding/prioritization?” and it goes over fine. But I do probably 80-90% of my job independently. That’s more what a sustainable executive function problem would look like.

            1. Willow Pillow*

              Seconded (as someone with severe workplace trauma). I had one manager who would say “ask if you have any questions”, then berate me if I asked to confirm if I wasn’t 100% sure (because autism), then berate me when I would try to figure things out on my own without context it hadn’t occurred to them to provide. I don’t ask because I’m incapable of critical thinking, it’s because I care about my work and doing it correctly.

        4. Lexie*

          I worked at a place that locked the supply closet and only one person could give you access to it. If she comes from an environment where things like that were tightly controlled she may have been freaking out internally about being in a “forbidden” area which then would make it hard to focus on the task at hand. Even having her supervisor’s permission might not be enough to let her guard down if a supervisor didn’t have that authority at a previous employer.

        5. Gerry Keay*

          Oh it absolutely does. Anxiety can trick you into thinking you can’t tie your own shoes correctly and have you breaking down because of the shame of struggling with such a seemingly simple task.

    2. Comic avec*

      My thoughts exactly. I struggle with anxiety and confidence, too. I also sometimes miss social cues. Fortunately, when I was just out of school, I had a boss who explicitly told me that I needed to figure out how to do things on my own. It wasn’t a cure-all; I still sometimes ask too many questions, especially on days when I’m feeling less confident. But it definitely helped a lot.

    3. Lilo*

      I’m not sure if it really changes the answer though. If she can’t do the basic tasks of her job, she needs to be let go. LW can’t keep doing her job for her.

      I think LW needs to lay out clearly that this isn’t working and why and give it another week, maybe two. But sometimes someone just doesn’t work out. I’ve been in this situation as a trainer and I won’t pretend it wasn’t stressful and sad, but I learned a long time ago if I didn’t set boundaries with people I was training, I’d burn myself out very badly.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        I agree that the primary concern is the magnitude of the problem, rather than the cause. If the LW lays it out clearly, provides feedback, and doesn’t see a significant improvement in a few weeks, she’s passing, as Alison says,

        “…the amount of time a manager reasonably has available to coach someone.”

        If she needed, say, 10% more handholding than the average employee, long term coaching would be more reasonable. Needing to literally follow an employee around and do things like point to the object they’re trying to find (which was exactly where you said it was going to be) and telling them things like “50 x 4 = 100” is not a sustainable situation, and not something that is likely easily fixed.

        This is the kind of situation where it’s easy to think “She’s really nice, and she’s trying hard, and it’s probably not her fault that she’s doing this, so I’m ethically obliged to work through it with her.” However, people like you who have had experience managing people with significant performance issues like this realize just how impractical this can be.

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Before assuming someone cannot extrapolate new ideas, please give them explicit instruction that they are expected to do so.

        1. Lilo*

          I mean in my case, the people I train are attorneys. If they can’t extrapolate, things really aren’t going to work out.

          Remember, OP also gave an example where this person couldn’t figure out how to find supplies in a closet despite clear instructions. That’s not good.

        2. Raw Cookie Dough*

          If the employee came to the manager and said, “I can’t find a pack of 200, can I purchase 4 packs of 50, instead?” that’s a heck of a lot different that giving up and not looking for a different solution once a 200 pack couldn’t be found.
          If you have to give explicit directions at THIS LEVEL, that’s a problem.

          1. yala*

            Someone upthread suggested explicitly telling employee to come to OP with potential solutions when she comes to her with a problem. Some people DO need to be told that they should do that, because they don’t trust their judgement enough. Setting that up as an expectation for future problems could be a good way to train employee to make calls on her own.

        3. Quinalla*

          I agree with this comment that follows the same path as Alison’s advice to be explicit. I have trained new people (usually new graduates, but not always) that are so used to regurgitating for tests or following explicit procedures with no deviation (more common in blue collar work) instead of thinking and coming up with a way to do something that they don’t realize they are supposed to think outside the box a little (or a lot). Sometimes all it takes is explicit instruction/permission to do that.

          I don’t know that it will work in this case, I agree with others there seems to be more to this one, but it is worth trying and even if it doesn’t help the employee at this job, may be something that will make sense to her at the next one and help her there.

        4. hbc*

          But this isn’t just “extrapolate new ideas.” She wasn’t told to buy a box of 200 pens and then panicked about whether she’d get her wrist slapped for not coming back with 200 pens packaged differently or for wasting the ten cents on non-bulk purchases. She wasn’t told to buy 200 pens and they only come in boxes of 500. She simply couldn’t execute “buy 200 pens” without them being prepackaged in that exact quantity.

          And if “get that thing in the supply closet” is too much extrapolation, I don’t know what to say.

    4. Weaponized Pumpkin*

      Anxiety doesn’t feel like enough to explain the markers example though! If I lacked confidence I could see asking: There’s no exact match, should I get 4 boxes of 50? But not even thinking of it? I have experienced a lot of anxiety issues, but thankfully not this much.

      1. ResearchalatorLady*

        Nor the inability to find things in a closet. it reminds me of once, years ago, when I saw a fellow waitress on her first day. She was reaching into the ice machine with her bare hands to get ice for customers’ drinks. “Use a cup!” our boss said. “Sure,” she agreed, and proceeded to start filling an empty cup with ice with her bare hands.. She was fired on the spot.

        1. Liz*

          Extreme anxiety could probably explain both, to be honest. I have poor executive function which gets worse with anxiety, and looking for things is The Worst for me. I can be standing right in front of something and not see it, especially if there are other items around or if it looks a little different from what I’m expecting (new packaging, box rotated so I can’t see the front, etc).

          I think perhaps an honest conversation about “what’s happening here?” might prove helpful, and if the employee can come to recognise that something is up, she might he able to get help elsewhere, but I don’t think this is a problem that can be solved by coaching alone.

          1. Charley*

            I hear you! I’m the same when it comes to finding things under pressure, especially if the packaging or size of the item isn’t how I imagined.

          2. Stuckinacrazyjob*

            Nod if I’m overwhelmed things that are easy for others become impossible for me ( although things that are easy for others are very hard for me in the first place !)

          3. Poppy*

            I can be the same way after working for a veterinarian who would tell me to get a certain drug from his truck, but would tell me the brand name and he had the generic. I was really new and didn’t know what the old timers called certain things (and hardly anyone uses the brand names he did anymore) so I got screamed at for not finding it. Now I get really anxious if someone wants me to fetch them something in a hurry and I can’t find it immediately.

          4. metadata minion*

            Same here! It’s like my brain has just enough cope to handle “get more pens from pen shelf”, and if there are no pens on the pen shelf it just errors out rather than taking the normally-trivial step to look on other shelves to see if someone put them somewhere weird, or calmly letting the appropriate person know we’re out of pens.

      2. Seconds*

        Anxiety or depression could absolutely explain not being able to find something in a supply closet. See my heater example above.

    5. A.N O’Nyme*

      I wonder if she knows a Guacamole Bob (usually 4 boxes of 50 will cost more than 200) or some other kind of completely unreasonable person and she’s terrified of doing something wrong that will get her fired? Which ironically is setting her up to be fired.

      1. BethDH*

        This was my first thought. Even without a specific GB, I can remember being early career at a point where the costs in offices seemed astronomical and I would definitely have hesitated on the buying 4×50 costs. I’m sure I asked a lot of in-the-weeds questions (“is it okay if it costs $10 more than it did last year?”), but I can see shutting down if I’d also had anxiety.

      2. Eater of Hotdish*

        Yeah, I had a supervisor/mentor/bully who would (a) be an asshat to me if I asked a question he deemed unworthy of an intelligent person and (b) be an asshat to me if I didn’t ask the question but just thought it through and came to a conclusion different from his. All that on top of the anxiety/depression/undiagnosed ADHD I started with.

        Shockingly, it did not end well.

    6. CPA*

      I agree with this. She sounds exactly like my 10 year old who was just diagnosed anxiety and ADHD with impaired executive function.

      1. ecnaseener*

        The big difference being Phoebe is not a 10-year-old. By the time your kid is ready for a full-time job, they’ll have had several years to find and practice coping mechanisms, on top of, yknow, brain development, and will in all likelihood be much better at this than Phoebe is :) (Sorry to harp on this, just, yeah Phoebe sounds like my 10-year-old self too, and even without being diagnosed or treated I had basic critical thinking by adulthood!)

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          Right. An ADHD diagnosis is not a lifetime without critical thinking skills, it’s executive function difficulties that need to be coped with – and most of us do. Now in my first job or two I was probably a mess because the environment was different, I didn’t know the norms, etc. So I feel for Phoebe, I do. But she’ll need to figure this out one way or another.

      2. ScruffyInternHerder*

        Same. And it took my then ten year old being diagnosed for anyone to pay attention to the wheels falling off on the 40+ year old Mom and think “hey, maybe there’s a reason for the anxiety, impaired executive function, and every other symptom of ADHD but she’s a woman and likely wasn’t diagnosed but placed in the gifted classes.”

        Mix all of that with an early job boss who clearly resided in the 5th ring of Dante’s Inferno, with a management style best defined as “Completely and unpredictably explosive over any and all mistakes, tiny and huge, perceived and real”, well. That took a few patient years to un-do.

    7. Daisy-dog*

      Or just overwhelmed. In one of my first fulltime jobs, someone gave me a calculator because we were figuring out a rate of processing. I was trying to divide and I kept hitting the square root symbol and was wondering why it wasn’t working. I later had to give our store number when I was on the phone with IT and asked someone what the store’s phone number was not the store’s internal number (it was my 3rd retail job, so I was very familiar with the concept of store numbers).

    8. Meep*

      That is the vibe I got. God bless my cousin, but he dropped out of the 6th grade, middle school, and finally high school due to not turning in his homework and hiding from tests. Brilliant kid, but he is petrified of making a single mistake that it is just easier not to risk it.

      His parents are part of the problem, mind you. (Avoidant, neglectful, and self-absorbed all spring to mind as someone who was screamed at when I was eight years old because their own children were misbehaving… You know rather than parent their children themselves…) But he just turned 21 years old and doesn’t have his high school diploma or GED or a job. He just sits there dumb, petrified from fear of screwing up.

    9. Elbe*

      I think that this could be the case, too. Some people are so afraid of doing something wrong that they end up doing nothing.

      One thing that the LW could try is to directly ask Pheobe why she didn’t just do XYZ. The answers could be illuminating.

      For example, if they asked “Why didn’t you just buy four boxes of 50?” the response may be that four boxes of 50 are more expensive than one box of 200 and she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to spend the extra money. Setting boundaries about what is considered within the range of the budget would help her make confident decisions.

      Clearly outlining that making these kind of game-time decisions is part of her role could help redirect her.

      But, ultimately, there is only so much the LW can do. If someone isn’t able to make competent decisions without guidance, then there’s a high limit on the tasks that they can be trusted with, and they’re not going to be a good fit for a lot of roles.

    10. starfox*

      Yep I said this elsewhere, but when you have severe anxiety, your body goes into fight-or-flight, and you literally can’t think.

      I’ve been there, although not to the degree in the letter. I’m not saying NOT to fire her because I absolutely couldn’t do someone else’s job on top of my own, but anxiety can be so crippling.

    11. vulturestalker*

      I also agree with this!

      It definitely isn’t the whole problem, but it might be half of the problem. I’d suggest that in addition to naming the problem explicitly, OP could try explicitly addressing the confidence thing. I wonder if the 50 markers mishap had more to do with Phoebe feeling like she needed permission to deviate from specific instructions, or being worried she’d be criticized if she applied her reasoning and got it wrong. Try a combination of “This is an ongoing pattern and I need you to problem-solve more by yourself” with “I trust you to make decisions yourself, even if that means interpreting things without specific guidance for me. I won’t be mad if you make a mistake or do things a little differently than I would!”

  4. Heidi*

    So for Letter 2, I kind of feel that the coworker who was supposed to get the cookie should decide how she wants it handled. It’s not really clear what her take on the situation is from the letter. If she doesn’t care that much, it might seem odd for other coworkers to go avenging over this.

    1. Passionfruit Tea*

      I disagree. Asking the coworker is putting social pressure on her to keep the peace. This should be dealt with by HR as a general statement (at the very least), stealing from colleagues is not okay.

      1. Lilo*

        I agree with Passionfruit 100%. The onus should not be on the employee who got her cookie stolen but that’s what would happen; she’d get blamed for the negative consequences on the thieving employee. And pointing out that there’s especially societal pressure on women to be accommodating and just take this kind of thing all the time.

      2. learnedthehardway*

        Completely agree with you Passionfruit Tea. If management doesn’t deal with it, they’re condoning it (if it was deliberate). Management is also in a better position to objectively decide whether it was an honest mistake (based on their knowledge of the employee, the response from the employee, etc. etc.)

      3. Observer*

        This should be dealt with by HR as a general statement (at the very least), stealing from colleagues is not okay.

        Except that you don’t know that that’s what happened.

        That’s why Alison’s advice was good.

        1. Artemesia*

          There is virtually no chance that the person who took the cookie think she ordered a cookie — after all no other cookie arrived. HR may want to soften their response based on the tiny chance this happened, but the message that this was not OKAY and the cookie should be replaced should be clear.

          1. Irish Teacher*

            She might have thought somebody sent it to her though, just as the other coworker’s husband did. My guess would be that she had a birthday or anniversary or had just started dating somebody or had some other reason to half-suspect a gift, one arrived and nobody claimed it so she assumed hers.

            Obviously, that’s just a guess and it could be that the person took it intentionally, but I don’t think the wrong person claiming a gift that has no indication of either gifter or intended recipiant definitely indicates the person deliberately stole it.

            1. goddessoftransitory*

              They’re lucky they weren’t in a hotel with five different orders arriving for different guests–this kind of thing happens SO MUCH in food delivery.

    2. Hey now*

      Is there a way that maybe they can print/show the order details, which will indicate that the cookie was taken by the wrong person?

      1. Passionfruit Tea*

        I doubt it, which is another issue. The thief doesn’t have to prove that they didn’t order a cookie too. It’s not a police investigation. A more general statement from HR should be sufficient and should make the thief (hopefully) realize that ‘we’re watching you, glasbowl’.

        1. Heidi*

          That feels like it’s putting a lot of faith in the power of HR. I find that one of the recurring themes of this blog is that sending out an announcement to everyone when the message is intended for a single person is often not effective.

          1. ferrina*

            It sounds like they didn’t really have a choice in this case- the delivery didn’t have the actual recipient’s name on it.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        I think the order details were “Cookie for Robert Bruce, phone 123-456-7890, paid for with his credit card” and no one thought to expand it to “Is anyone at this address married to a Robert Bruce? Dating? Did him a favor? Started a leaf-blowing war and this is his tendered olive branch, one with carbs?”

        1. EvilQueenRegina*

          I bet anything it was something along those lines. I can remember once at my last job some woman called for “Cecil Mongoose” – that was my coworker’s husband who didn’t work there, I was new at the time and didn’t know what that coworker’s husband’s name was (the real last name was a very common one) and we were also short staffed at the time which wouldn’t have helped me catch on. I don’t know how many times I said to her that we had no employee named Cecil and was she sure she had the right number before she said “This is Fergusia from X Estate Agents” and it suddenly clicked that I did know my coworker PERSEPHONE Mongoose was selling her house and that was who she wanted.

          In this scenario I can quite easily see whoever intercepted the delivery not thinking of the possibility that Robert might be someone’s partner/spouse, especially if again it was another common name, and if the intended recipient wasn’t expecting it she might not have connected it anyway even if the shout out had mentioned that Robert was the name on the delivery.

    3. ecnaseener*

      “Avenging” is an extremely weird way to frame this. No one’s suggesting the cookie-taker be punished, just that they pay back the price of the cookie. That’s not vengeance, it’s amends.

    4. Starlike*

      Not to let the cookie-taker off the hook, but the husband really dropped the ball on this one – I sent my husband surprise cookies at the office once, and was so glad I gave him a heads-up because it turned out ALL received packages went straight to the mailroom to be distributed the next day. Some cookie delivery companies will call the recipient to make sure they’re available to receive them, but DoorDash doesn’t do that.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Yeah, being too into the “Surprise!!!!!” factor can send things awry when the delivery is to a central office location.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          We do NOT do surprise deliveries for exactly this type of reason: the gifter wants to be generous but doesn’t take into account that the giftee may not be home, think it’s a prank or mistake, on and on. Hard and fast rule: they have to know it’s coming.

    5. Observer*

      kind of feel that the coworker who was supposed to get the cookie should decide how she wants it handled

      No. Aside from the pressure to smooth it over, it’s just not clear that the other person was in the wrong. And it *is* clear that the husband helped create this mess.

    6. goddessoftransitory*

      Honestly, this kind of stuff is what keeps me employed.

      So many people want delivery of food, and only a sliver of them understand what the delivery person needs in order for said food to actually reach them. And factor in the “husband sent this” thing and you’ve got pure nightmare fuel–I guarantee that guy didn’t say one word to DoorDash that he was sending food to a third party and left no indicators of how/where they were supposed to deliver the cookie.

      When you* call me and I ask all those terribly annoying questions about where the heck you are, what is your actual street address, what phone number can you be reached at (so many people have six numbers on file and NONE of them are their current, active one) and you sigh impatiently and keep trying to blurt out your order? It is to fend off this exact type of mixup.

      Do not be the woman who failed to mention she was at an Air BnB, then got all pouty because the actual owner of the property saw the driver, came out, waved and said “we’re good…” then went back inside and left it on the porch, without telling her, while she waited half an hour to call, insisted she didn’t know where the front porch was, and that the driver “should have met her outside” (which as far as he knew, HE DID because there was no specification as to who was receiving the food!) GAHHHH.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        * Royal You–the AAM commentariat is unfailingly lovely and would never pull this kind of thing!

  5. Mama Sarah*

    All this over a cookie? I’m picturing a typical chocolate chip cookie…delivered to the office by door dash at the request of the spouse? It sounds ridiculous. I think if I was the manager, I’d inwardly cringe and try to move on.

    1. Passionfruit Tea*

      But where’s the line, my $10 lunch, my $20 lunch? Whoever took the cookie did this on purpose exactly because many deem this too small to do something about but it adds up.

      1. Lilo*

        I agree. Stealing from a coworker isn’t okay. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small thing. And given this was a delivery, I’m guessing it did cost some money.

        1. Mockingjay*

          Remember the letter from a few years ago when someone stole an antique toy from the LW’s desk and gifted it to a higher up? We were all livid over it. And how often has Alison gotten letters about office fridge and potluck thieves? We all have our own stories about that.

          Workplace or home, the lesson is “Stealing in any form is wrong.”

      2. Wintermute*

        Not to mention that a delivery has a fixed cost, usually 4.99 fee and while yes, you can tip 15% on a 6-7 dollar cookie you’d be a jerk for doing so, the least you should tip for any kind of delivery order is really in the 5-10 dollar range especially given the cost of gas these days. So however much the cookie cost, and it was probably not a tollhouse here, there’s another 10-15 bucks on top of that.

      3. Pescadero*

        “But where’s the line”

        I’d say it’s right there at actually having some sort of identifiable way to actually get the object to the “owner”.

        No identifiable name, and no one claiming it after people ask around? I wouldn’t take it – but that is getting really close the border between stealing and picking up abandoned/misdelivered food.

        1. Critical Rolls*

          This is where I would have liked more information. Did the coworker actually say, “Yes, that is my cookie that I ordered”? Or did they think it was misdelivered and say, “I’ll take it”? My read on the letter could go either way.

      1. Elspeth McGillicuddy*

        Yeah, the kind that are bigger than your hand, not the small ones that you eat three (ok, six) of at one sitting. And probably some fancy flavor like red velvet brownie with sprinkles.

        It actually sounds like a nice way to say “I love you” to me. A bit much for everyday, but quite good as a yummier version of flowers.

      1. Insert Clever Name Here*

        Cookie delivery places generally have a “monster” type cookie, so it’s unlikely it was the size of a single break-and-bake cookie. But even if it was…it was ordered *for* someone at the company by someone not at the company, so it really doesn’t matter if it’s ridiculous or not.

      2. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

        Ridiculous but kind gestures can mean a lot if you’re struggling. People will happy-cry when a stranger gives them a candy bar and a tissue simply because it’s obvious they’re hurting.

    2. LifeBeforeCorona*

      I thought the LW or Alison was using a cookie as a stand-in for what was actually stolen. It could have been a Panera delivery or an all dressed large pizza. The outcome was the same, someone claimed another person’s food delivery as their own.

    3. Phryne*

      I find the fact that someone ordered a single cookie for delivery (presumably by car) far more cringe. Would be curious to know the carbon footprint of that cookie.

      1. Hobbling Up A Hill*

        The worker’s spouse was the one who ordered it. So we don’t know anything about why it was done.

        1. Phryne*

          The reason behind it has no relation to the effect on the environment though, so I don’t see how that matters.

            1. Lilo*

              Bingo. I don’t get to steal your lunch because you got it delivered and I think it’s more environmentally friendly to bring it from home.

          1. Worldwalker*

            “Thou shalt not steal” doesn’t have an exception for “except for things with an excessively large carbon footprint; then stealing is totally okay.”

          2. ADidgeridooForYou*

            Well, it could have been one of those giant cookies. And we don’t know how close-by the cookie place was, so the carbon footprint may have been negligible. You could pass the same judgment on everyone who’s ever ordered a singular small item from Amazon Prime. Either way, the cookie was ordered, so no going back to change things.

            1. Phryne*

              I do pass that same judgement on everyone who’s ever ordered a singular small item from Amazon Prime. :)

        2. I'm just here for the cats!*

          exactly! Maybe the spouse is away from home working and he did this as a nice surprise, because he couldn’t bring her something himself. Or he had talked to her earlier, found out that she was having a bad day and thought the cookie would help.

      2. alienor*

        Depends, in my city a lot of food deliveries get done on bicycles, and a lot of them are grouped – I’ve received deliveries from people who have a big insulated bag where they pull my food out from amongst several other orders. But, even if someone had ordered a single cookie to be flown 5 minutes by private jet, a la the Kardashians, it wouldn’t change the fact that the person in this letter took something that wasn’t theirs.

      3. nikkole82*

        most time the delivery person is not just delivering one cookie to one person. If I order something the driver might have 3 stops before it gets to my destination.

    4. No smart name ideas*

      I just assumed that “cookie” was used the same way “teacup,” “Ferguson,”or “llamas” are used on this site—as a placeholder to focus on the issue, not to get wrapped up in the weeds (as well as to add a touch of anonymity for the poster).

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yeah, I just assumed it wasn’t a cookie. I thought saying it was a cookie, though was a good approach if they wanted to get across the idea that the food was not expensive.

    5. Wintermute*

      A delivered cookie is probably more on par with the cost of lunch than you’re thinking. 6-7 dollars for the cookie, 4.99 delivery fee, 5 dollar tip to the driver.

      I know because there was a cupcake delivery place near my old work and this was dangerous, because sometimes on a rough day you just deserve a cupcake, you know? But even once a month that takes a bite out of your budget.

    6. Lady Blerd*

      It was probably one of those fancy cookies that are elaborately decorated to a particular theme that was significant to this couple. Whether or not we think it’s cringe for the husband to pay delivery for one cookie isn’t the point.

    7. WellRed*

      Yes, the whole thing is ridiculous. Delivery of …a cookie? Using resources? And hubs calls the office instead of wife (maybe I’m misunderstanding that part). And please, do we really think the cookie taker also was expecting a cookie delivery at the same time from same place?

        1. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

          ..they’ll want a drink to go with it so they’ll order a hot cocoa from the coffee shop.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          Like, maybe they practice The Secret and spent the morning trying to manifest a chocolate chip cookie from the good bakery. The “make yourself magnetic” folk would absolutely buy that concentrating on the cookie caused one to be misdelivered to your building, because quantum mechanics.

      1. Seconds*

        I would love getting a cookie delivered to me by my husband in the middle of the day. In fact, maybe I’ll organize something like that for him!

        (I’m bedbound at the moment and can’t do much else for him. You really can’t judge things like this when you don’t have the context.)

        1. Paris Geller*

          Yeah I’m finding the surprise over the cookie delivery a little. . . odd. My husband has definitely ordered a treat for me to my work before–normally my favorite Starbucks beverage or a couple of gourmet donuts. Yes it’s not something we would normally pay to have delivered but that’s part of the surprise/gift/thinking of you element.

    8. Falling Diphthong*

      I was expecting something like “Bob ordered lunch, and Steve claimed to be Bob and took it from the front lobby.”

      Steve in that example is much, much, much worse than Fergus, who after many people tried to solve “Cookie for Bob? No Bob works here” said “Sure, it’s me!” and went off with the cookie, probably assuming that it was completely misdirected and there was no hope of delivering the cookie to “Bob, but at his new address in Omaha which he forgot to update on his DoorDash.”

      Like, it’s dishonest, and probably the moral thing for the lost cookie is either the DoorDash deliverer gets to eat it, or it is divided into equal parts for the entire building as a rogue wild cookie. But as a bystander I would think “wrong address” and assume the cookie was somehow up for grabs. Fergus should be given the opportunity to say “Sorry Mabel, I didn’t realize it was for you” and give her a replacement cookie. This is really different from hiding behind the asparagus fern and sprinting out for each initially unmet delivery driver shouting “Hey, that’s mine!”

      1. Lilo*

        If you’re taking a “wrong address” cookie as “up for grabs” you need to be absolutely 100% clear that it’s what you’re doing and that it’s okay. You can’t just jump up and take it.

        The employee absolutely must pay for what they took.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          Sure, Fergus needs to apologize and provide an equivalent replacement cookie.

          For office food stealing, the question is often “How reasonable was it to believe that this food was actually up for grabs and not claimed by someone else?” As a bystander to the lobby confusion I would have figured the odds heavily favored the outcome “No one ever figured out why someone sent a cookie to John Doe at our office building.” Whereas when you take someone’s lunch from the fridge, you know damn well they’re going to notice and be upset.

          1. Worldwalker*

            I keep it simple: I don’t care whose something IS, only whose it ISN’T. Namely, mine. If it isn’t mine, who else’s it may or may not be doesn’t matter. I might miss out on the occasional abandoned cookie, but I don’t have to worry about accidentally taking someone else’s stuff.

      2. Phony Genius*

        I was once at a Chinese take-out restaurant when the counter person took an angry call. The caller had not yet gotten their food, but the delivery person had returned and said he had delivered it. What’s more, it was paid for in cash, so the delivery person produced the money to the counter person. The counter person had to tell the caller “I don’t know how to tell you this, but someone bought your food.” Apparently, someone at the front desk of this building decided to buy the delivery food, sight unseen. Either that, or they ordered from another Chinese take-out and got confused. At least they didn’t “steal” it.

    9. Falling Diphthong*

      All this over a cookie?
      Simple carbs bring out some dark things in people.

      Usually it’s that the company set an expectation of simple carbs (Bob brings in pretzels Monday) and then one day the carbs are not there (because Bob retired) and hoo boy, are a bunch of adults perfectly capable of buying their own pretzels having a whole lot of emotions.

      This is the reverse dynamic, a chance to score free extra simple carbs for anyone bold enough to just walk up and say “Yup, I ordered this cookie under a fake name. For reasons.” Maybe akin to the senior execs who trample the admins in order to be first to the potluck lasagna with their tupperware?

      1. Lilo*

        I remember one time when I was in college I lost it sobbing because I dripped a piece of cake on the floor.

        But it wasn’t the cake, really, I’d bought myself a cake to cheer myself up because I’d had an absolutely horrible week (a family member died in a motorcycle accident) and I just wanted to feel better and then it just backfired when it slid off my tray. I was broke at the time and couldn’t afford another one.

        Point is, you really don’t know what that cookie can mean to someone.

        1. Anon For This One*

          I feel this so hard. I’m having a very difficult week personally and literally yesterday I forgot my lunch so I tried to get a cup of ramen noodles out of the vending machine at work. The machine ate my 75 cents, didn’t give me my cup of noodles, and I ended up sobbing in the bathroom.

    10. Not A Manager*

      The fact that it was a small item makes it worse in some ways. The husband went to a lot of trouble and expense to send this one cookie to his wife. There was a reason for that. It meant something different to him than if he’d decided to have lunch delivered.

      Stealing that one cookies is sort of like intercepting someone’s mail. The issue isn’t the first-class stamp and the cost of the envelope. The issue is that it interferes with an important communication.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        But if you’re doing that, all the more reason to give good delivery instructions and be available to answer the phone when they can’t find the addressee. The interruption of the delivery of the important communication was mostly on the person who sent it, to himself rather than to anyone actually working at that address.

        I note that descriptions in the thread of successful versions of this (delivery to a central business address) include alerting the recipient to be on the lookout for a package.

      2. Observer*

        The issue isn’t the first-class stamp and the cost of the envelope. The issue is that it interferes with an important communication.

        Which is why I’m kind of side-eying the husband here.

        If this is important, then make sure the thing is properly addressed / and or the recipient knows it’s coming.. It did not have the intended recipient’s name on it and apparently were not told it’s coming. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault that the interruption happened.

    11. Oxford Comma*

      Everything is relative. A$3-4 cookie might be something you or I could shrug off, but for someone else, that might have been something that they had splurged on. Theft is theft. I once had someone who had come to my office for an appointment and the person saw I had an unopened bottle of soda. Before I knew what she was doing, she took it and drank from it! It probably cost me $1 at the time, but it was my soda. Not hers.

    12. Worldwalker*

      I’m guessing it was one of those foot-diameter cookies with decorations on it, like a cake.

      It would be interesting to know if it said “Happy Birthday Mary” or something, so the cookie thief lost all plausible deniability.

    13. Spicy Tuna*

      It sounds like it could have been an honest mistake. And while I get that it’s annoying, it’s also a treat, not a meal. I had a job once where it was always “crunch time” and we were routinely at the office until anywhere from 10PM to 1AM. Our boss ordered us dinner. One woman, who was pregnant, didn’t get her dinner one night. Something happened and it wasn’t ordered, or it was left off the order. It wasn’t intentional. We all offered to share but she said “EFF THIS! I’m going home!” – no one could blame her. But a real meal is definitely different than a treat.

  6. Goody*

    I can’t tell if Phoebe has learned how to play a game, if she is neurodiverse (and honestly not armchair diagnosing!), or simply that clueless. In any event, her current mindset is not helping her. Time for a serious sit-down to tell her that we love her personality and positive attitude but that her attention to detail and problem solving skills need serious work for her to remain on staff.

    She’s right out of school – high school or university? Might there be a job skills coach, mentoring program, or counseling office there available for alumni? Maybe something like the Stephen Covey Seven Habits program (which looks to have a lightweight version free online)? I’d hate to lose a potentially good worker if the shortcomings can be addressed in a reasonable amount of time, and I’m trying to think of suggestions that take that burden off your plate as her manager. These are probably not *just* work issues for her, but learning the skills as a function of the work environment are bound to help her in her personal life as well, since it sounds like she may not have learned much in the way of basic life skills from her parents.

    1. Cookie*

      That was my feeling too – regardless of where Phoebe’s issues began, the fix is more training, and not one-on-one by her manager. When I was struggling with calendar issues earlier in my career (but not right out of school, just overloaded with home responsibilities), my employer sent me to a 3-day Franklin Covey workshop. I find Covey to be cringeworthy in its earnest positivity, but the advice for organizing yourself and your work was solid.

      Also I’d recommend in-person training if it’s available. Phoebe out of her work environment with a day or two to focus on getting organized and learning to consider her work thoughtfully rather than just reacting – it could make a real difference for her. I love online learning, but with a beginner, it might not be enough.

    2. Student*

      I feel like you’ve conflated nice with good here. The letter strongly suggests that Phoebe might be a very nice worker – she has a good attitude, and her manager likes her enough to want to find a way to keep her on.

      However, everything in the letter says that Phoebe is aterrible worker, at least in this job. She is doing at most 25% of her job’s responsibilities, per her manager, and needs to have her hand held on very straightforward tasks. Barring a miracle, Phoebe is not going to become a good worker – the hope is to make her an adequate worker, instead of one who is failing in her role.

      You’re talking about connecting Phoebe, a terrible worker who is probably nice to hang out with, with a lot more resources and remedial coaching than is normal for a person in an entry-level role, or appropriate for most businesses to cover. I have a relatively nice white-collar career, making low 6 figures, but no job has ever offered me a fraction of that kind of support in any role I’ve had. Think of what that business could get by investing similar resources into their workers who are at least adequate at their jobs, instead of investing a ton of resources into a single entry-level employee who’s not performing.

      I think it’s reasonable for her manager to try to work with her to see if there’s an easy solution available – but it’s not reasonable for a manager to take extreme measures to try to manage Phoebe’s life and career for her. Sometimes, losing a job is also a good way for people to learn where their strengths lie, figure out what resources they need to perform better, etc.

      1. Former Retail Manager*

        YES! I agree wholeheartedly. I dealt with an older Phoebe, who was in her late 20’s (so not straight out of school) and she exhibited all of the same actions that are described in OP’s letter. A multitude of resources have been expended on trying to help this person be successful. It has not made any difference and it’s been over a year. I personally believe that my Phoebe is neurodiverse, but she never disclosed nor did she request any reasonable accommodation, so nothing to be done from that angle, but it was one of the most infuriating periods of my professional career to date, to the extent that I’d considered taking drastic measures to get away from this person. Something else worked out for me and I no longer have to deal with my Phoebe, but the ones who do, remain frustrated on a daily basis and no progress is being made. I’d personally have a very candid and detailed chat with her and specifically outline changes that must be made for her to remain on staff and a time frame in which to make them. If there is not substantial improvement, then she has to go. OP may feel guilty…I get it….I felt that same way, initially, but I assure OP that if she continues doing 75% of this person’s job, all while giving them access to resources that don’t improve their behavior/work at all, it will build resentment and eventually OP will crack. People like this, regardless of the reason why, are exhausting to deal with day-in, day-out. You have my sympathies OP.

      2. Worldwalker*

        Exactly. It’s all about the ROI. Businesses have to concentrate on that; they’re not charities. What’s the ROI of investing $X in training for an entry-level employee who can’t find things in the supply closet, versus spending the same to send a good engineer to a conference that help them become a better engineer? From a cold, hard business standpoint, unless Phoebe is irreplaceable in some way not mentioned, investment in making good employees better is more productive for the company than making bad employees adequate instead of just replacing them.

  7. iliketoknit*

    I had to laugh about the non-alcoholic beer question. My husband drinks NA beer all the time because, well, he’s an alcoholic (sober for 22 years now!). There has been a huge shift/increase in NA beer and there are all kinds of independent craft varieties now (though honestly I think his favorite might be basic Heineken), and he loves trying all the different varieties. He’s been so happy to find something that isn’t water or soda to drink. I’m not sure if he’s ever taken any to work, but when we were WFH he used to take NA beer into Zoom meetings and declare with glee his non-alcoholic beer drinking. It’s not a choice that I would make, but he’s in academia so “quirkiness” is common (I’m a government lawyer, so yeah, no), and he is widely beloved and extremely good at his job. Because of this experience, I wouldn’t look twice at a NA beer and have gotten to know most of the brands by sight, but I get the reasoning for thee advice.

    1. Lilo*

      If there are a lot of brands, doesn’t that actually lower the chance of recognition though? Off the top of my head, I can literally only name and would recognize one brand of near beer and I’d guess I’m more common. So that makes it more likely someone’s first impression would be that someone is drinking a beer on the job.

    2. Dark Macadamia*

      See, this is kind of why I feel like it’s better to stay away from at work. There’s kind of an attention-seeking vibe like “oh, look at me, drinking a beer, omg it’s totally not a real beer guys” that you wouldn’t get with other beverages unless you’re like, drinking juice from a wine glass.

      1. bamcheeks*

        yeah, I instinctively feel that drinking non-alcoholic beer at work is Wrong, not so much because of the alcohol/non-alcohol but because the connotations of beer are so “work’s over, kick back, relax time!” Most NA beer-drinkers I know drink NA beer because they want all the “ahh, end of the day, have a beer with friends!” feeling as much as because they like the taste of beer. So seeing someone have a NA beer at work would just feel like a very strange category mix– like someone declaring they weren’t really at work, whilst at work.

        That said, that’s just my headcanon and I don’t really see why everyone else should accept that framing! So I guess if I had a colleague who just wanted to drink non-alcoholic beer at work because they loved the taste, it would just be a moment’s, “Oh, that’s weird, oh well, takes all sorts!”

        1. londonedit*

          Same. When I started out in publishing it was all boozy author lunches and drinks in the office and people spending Friday afternoons in the pub, and some of that still exists (we have wine fridges in our office for author events and book launches, no one would mind if you popped to the pub for a pint at lunchtime or had a glass of wine with lunch if you’re out with colleagues or an author/agent, and there are frequently after-work drinks in the office, there’s just a lot less drinking during the actual work day than there used to be). Still, cracking open what to all intents and purposes *looks* like an alcoholic drink while you’re actually at your desk working would come across as incredibly weird, even in a booze-friendly industry and location like mine.

        2. Anon for this one*

          I feel the same way! I was trying to figure out why the idea of non-alcoholic beer at work bothered me; it’s not the appearance of impropriety, or the fact that 0.5% != 0.0%, but the associations.

          For me, non-alcoholic beer is something I’d drink, or expect people to drink, when I want a beer and don’t want alcohol. I’ve been drinking them lately since I’m currently taking medication that doesn’t play well with alcohol, but they’re a Friday/Saturday evening sort of thing even so. So I guess it’s the thought that someone would *like* to have a beer during the workday (outside of specific times when that’s condoned – I’ve been a couple places where there’d be a monthly or quarterly “happy hour” with company-provided beer) that seems off. It’s like joining a Zoom meeting from a hammock in your backyard – yeah you may be able to get work done, but the “kicking back and relaxing” connotations are hard to overcome.

      2. Waiting on the bus*

        Since working from home I do drink water and juice from a wine glass on occasion as I simply run out of regular glasses a lot quicker now. I try not to drink during video calls (which is all my calls) but I assume my coworkers trust my judgement enough to know that I wouldn’t be drinking alcohol during work.

    3. Maglev to Crazytown*

      In my first ever job, at a very large corporation, I excitedly made my office four flavours of homemade fudge for around the Christmas holiday (it was an office where people doing morale/team building things like that was common). Without thinking it through as an early 20-something, my flavours were: pumpkin spice, candy cane, eggnog… And strong as hell Baileys pecan.

      Everyone was loving it… And then the big boss division manager came into my office and said, “So, I hear you have some Bailey’s fudge?”. I had a moment of “well, Merry Christmas to me, I just got fired.” Thankfully he had heard about it from others, with raving reviews, and was super excited to try it too! Whew!

    4. hbc*

      For what it’s worth, your husband fits into the model I have for NA beer drinkers, which is…alcoholics. Whether on or off the wagon, they have a significant emotional dependence on beer-like substances, and the fact that the entire universe of beverages not tasting that way are reduced to undrinkably boring “water and soda”* is just another sign of their addiction. If someone doesn’t have a problem advertising that dependency at lunch at work, go for it, I guess.

      *As if the difference between a Coke, a pomegranate juice, a macchiato, and a strawberry kiwi Sparkling Ice is infinitesimal, yet somehow the nuances between 100 different fermented hop drinks is comparatively huge.

      1. londonedit*

        I think this is a bit harsh; where I live there’s also been a huge explosion in non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beers over the last 10 years, and the market is decidedly not ‘alcoholics’. The market is people who might be the designated driver but still want to feel like they’re having a pint with their friends, people who are trying to be a bit healthier and cut down on alcohol consumption, people who are into exercise and want to go out on a Saturday night but don’t want to drink before their long run the next day – in short, all sorts of people. I know a lot of people who drink non-alcoholic beers and only one or two of them don’t drink full stop – the rest drink them because they’re training for a marathon or because it’s lunchtime on a Sunday and they want something beer-like at their friend’s barbecue but they don’t want a hangover on Monday morning. Maybe it’s cultural differences but I wouldn’t assume someone who enjoys non-alcoholic beers only drinks them because they have a problem with alcohol.

      2. Yeah*

        I am pretty sure that most humans have emotional dependence on beverages. ;-) Morning coffee, afternoon tea, soda, wine, La Croix… I know people who have been full-on addicted to each of these. And the emotional dependence on foods… morning cereal, afternoon cookies, sushi, pizza, late night snacks, CHOCOLATE. Don’t get me started on emotional addiction to technology and social media!

        Someone who really likes nonalcoholic beer is no different from anyone else.

      3. Anon for this one*

        Wow, that’s incredibly harsh.

        Some people really do like the taste of beer – in addition to other flavors!

        Some people find that having a NA beer in a social context where other people are drinking is less obtrusive than having water or soda (which may be all that’s available in a given situation). (Maybe someone who usually drinks beer is newly pregnant and doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact.)

        Some people drink in moderation, and maybe they’re the designated driver for the evening, or have had their one beer for the night but want to continue having something beer-like.

        There’s really been an explosion in NA beers over the past few years, and some of them legitimately taste good, not just “good for a NA beer”.

        Out of curiosity, do you feel the same way about non-alcoholic mixed drinks (“mocktails”)?

      4. Parakeet*

        This is bizarre. I don’t like most beers of any kind and drink very little alcohol, but the problem with alcohol addiction is the alcohol addiction, not that somebody likes the taste of beer. Who cares if people like taste of beer more than other drinks, even if it’s to the point of eccentricity? If recovering alcoholics miss the flavor of the beer and are getting that from non-alcoholic beers, good for them!

      5. Blue*

        Whoa, harsh. I think it’s pretty obvious that iliketoknit was referring to the drinks available when out to dinner or at a cookout, not like…all the drinks that exist on earth. Maybe your local wing joint serves pomegranate juice and espresso, but mine does not.

      6. Payne's Grey*

        O…kay, but you’re incorrect about that. I drink NA beer because I really dislike the effect of alcohol but I really like the taste of beer.

    5. Waiting on the bus*

      I wouldn’t bat an eye about non-alcoholic beer in the work place. My current employer stocks it along with water and it’s not uncommon to see people drink a bottle during the workday. It’s mostly a group thing, like when colleagues from another location arrive, an inter-company workshop breaks for lunch or even a company-wide meetings during the last heatwave (our office manager gave out cooled water, soda and NA beer). Some also have chilled NA beer with their lunch some times.

      Coming from a background where people drinking regular beer while working manual jobs was seen as completely normal makes NA beer a non issue for me.

    6. Weaponized Pumpkin*

      My ex was sober and drank a lot of NA in the summers — he enjoyed the ritual of a cold beer on a hot day. Don’t think he’d have tried it on a work call, tho.

  8. SatefyCritical*

    I work in a safety critical role as well and this topic came up in a joking way at my workplace. We decided that whilst it’s technically legal, it’s a great way to invite a lot more “random” drug and alcohol screenings and who wants to pee in a cup at work more than absolutely necessary

  9. Knitting Cat Lady*


    I’m German and live in Germany. Back when I started and up until 10ish years ago they sold actual beer in the staff canteen. Now they sell non alcoholic beer.

    1. misspiggy*

      The German office of a company I know had to stop providing beer in meetings when British colleagues visited. They got a bit… over-excited about the novelty.

    2. Helvetica*

      Yeah, where I work – in Europe – having wine with lunch is completely normal, and they do sell it in our canteen as well. But I recognise that both the country and the culture of my career allows for this, and no one is getting blackout drunk. I’ve also seen people order a non-alcoholic beer for lunch and it didn’t raise my eyebrows.
      However, in a safety-critical industry, I would not opt for non-alcoholic alcoholic drinks. The risk is just that much greater and really, is this the hill you’d want to die on?

    3. münchner kindl*

      I remember several decades back a German court on work law had to decide whether the cafeteria (Kantine) at work could sell beer – non-critical safety work in office – or not.

      The arguments were: drinking beer is part of Bavarian way of life , so must be allowed
      Being drunk on the job, even if sobriety is not required for safety, is still impaired, so not allowed.

      Court gave a (salomonic) judgement:

      Cafeteria can sell beer, and employees are allowed to drink beer during lunch; but employer can demand that employees are not drunk at work (And enforce it).

      How employees should manage to square that circle in real life, the court didn’t say. Non-alcoholic beer back then apparently didn’t taste that good, but people could take an extended lunch break – until a small beer wore off; or a later lunch break and then use flex-time to leave early this day, for example.

      1. Tau*

        I love the argument that beer is so intrinsically Bavarian that a company shouldn’t be able to forbid it in its cantine.

        I’m also German (although not Bavarian) and in most places I’ve worked in Germany, the office fridge has beer in it but you’d likely be side-eyed if you snagged one before 4pm or so. I’m not sure most people would look closely enough at the label to tell whether it’s nonalcoholic.

    4. 123Anonyphant*

      I’m married to a German and live in Germany. My husband is a safety engineer at a major manufacturing company. They don’t sell alcoholic beverages or non-alcoholic beer/wine in their canteen, the former for obvious reasons and the latter (he says, but it’s his job to know) because it’s easier for them to maintain a culture of “no alcohol or anything alcohol-adjacent on the job.”

      My company, on the other hand, is not safety critical. We can buy whatever wine or beer we want from the canteen, even with our subsidy.

    5. JustaTech*

      When I visited a potential supplier in Germany back in very early 2020 they served beer in the cafeteria (I did not order one for many reasons including that I don’t like beer very much), and one of our hosts did have a bottle with lunch.
      From what I could tell it was a lower-alcohol beer, and he certainly didn’t seem impaired, so I guess it worked out for that company fine.

  10. Despachito*

    OP2, I see this pretty straightforward.

    The person who took the cookie should absolutely reimburse it to the one who paid for it (assuming it was pre-paid and that they did not pay for it on delivery). You ate it, you pay it. This would not be open to discussion.

    As for the stealing… I would not use such a strong word, at least for the first time this happened – as Alison said, it could have been a misunderstanding, and I’d give the employee the benefit of the doubt.

    But to repay the cost of the cookie is an absolute must even if it was a honest mistake, and even if it was not exceptionally pricey.

    1. All the lonely people*

      I think this is super reasonable. If it was truly that they also ordered the same thing and it wasn’t delivered, so they thought this was their order, they could have gotten a reimbursement from delivery company. They should reimburse the employee. If they took the cookie because they thought no one was claiming it, it is also reasonable for replacement or reimbursement.

      1. thelettermegan*


        I live in a town where anything not nailed down is fair game. Around here, an unclaimed cookie rightly belongs to whomever jumps first. Allison is right to say that the real person at fault here is the husband who forced a delivery person to hang out uncomfortably in an office while others scrumbled to identify the correct owner . . . of a cookie.

        1. Not Your Admin Ass(t)*

          I encounter all the deliveries at the front desk where I work, and, trust me, no delivery person I’ve ever met is standing around waiting on the rightful owner to show up. They come in, see me, say “Delivery for X, can I leave this here with you?” and then bolt. They’re not getting paid enough to stand around waiting; they’ve got other deliveries to make and will probably get penalized for taking too long if they stand around. Even if it’s a delivery that requires a signature, I’m the one who gets asked to provide the signature so the delivery person can bolt off to the next stop.

          And no, the husband is not the “real person at fault” here for the delivery going to someone else, and Alison never said that. She said he created the chaotic situation (albeit unintentionally). That’s not the same as being at fault for the food getting taken by someone it wasn’t meant for. That blame rests solely on the person who snatched up the delivery that didn’t have their name on it and wasn’t theirs, whether or not it was an intentional theft. It still needs to be put right. If I took a drink that I thought was mine and it turned out I’d accidentally stolen someone else’s, I’d do the right thing and both apologize and offer to make up for it.

          I live in a town where anything not nailed down is fair game. Around here, an unclaimed cookie rightly belongs to whomever jumps first.

          Oof. I have so many problems with this attitude and wording that I am not going to get into here….

          1. I'm just here for the cats!*

            I’d like to add that maybe the husband did give the name but it didnt get put on the delivery slip. That’s happened to me a few times. I think it depends if its something like Eat Street I think it had whoever orders name (this case the husband) but I’ve ordered from my local pizza place and there’s no name, just the address, what it is and amount.

            1. EvilQueenRegina*

              Or that the company mangled the name somehow – if, say, something came addressed to “Becky” because it was misheard, I can see “Betty” not connecting that that was meant to be her.

            2. Not your Admin Ass(t)*

              I was going by the beginning of the letter, which said, “A DoorDash order arrived at our office today. The name listed on it did not belong to anyone we know, but the instructions were specific enough that we knew it had to be for someone in our department.”

              It sounds like there was a name, but not one anyone recognized? I wonder too if the wrong name entirely made it onto the order, one that didn’t belong to the husband or any employee. I’ve had that happen before with these food delivery services. It wasn’t even the name of the person who picked up and delivered the order.

        2. I'm just here for the cats!*

          I don’t think the delivery driver waited. usually with uber eats, eat street, etc, all they do is drop it off. Heck, I had someone put it in front of my office door and it sat there for like 10 minutes until I saw that it was delivered. There was also the time that the office down the hall from mine got like 5 people’s sandwich deliveries and no one could figure out whose belonged to who.

      2. Baby Yoda*

        Not only possible they thought they ordered it, they may have thought someone had it sent for them as a surprise. (we don’t know if the recipient’s name was iced on the cookie)

    2. Falling Diphthong*

      I agree. You replace the cookie. (My spouse did this when he ate the catering leftovers, only to discover an hour later that they were a subordinate’s leftovers.)

      But taking the cookie, in these circumstances, seems like an act where the various people whose time was being used up (delivery driver, front desk clerk, other people nearby) would have been relieved to have an answer and get back to work. And the cookie eater could reasonably believe that the cookie was ordered in error and would never have reached “Robert Bruce at this address” because there is no such person. As tales of thievery from one’s coworkers goes this one is really minor.

  11. Princess Deviant*

    Alcohol-free beer isn’t completely alcohol free! So… it’s better not to drink it at work. I also think it looks unprofessional.

    1. Raven*

      Yep, this.
      It will also send the wrong signals in a safety-critical role (it might be a bit different in a role that doesn’t directly interact with that aspect, but still would be advisable to avoid).

      There’s plenty of nice non-fizzy drinks out there that are more suitable.

      1. Raven*

        I mean to be ridiculously pedantic 0.0% will still contain some alcohol, just < 0.05%. :)
        Not enough to get you drunk, but if you drink enough and have a low tolerence you'll certainly feel some effects (or at least think you do, the placebo effect can be very strong for some people).
        Doesn't change the fact that 0.0% would probably still be a no go for a safety-concious industry of the sort to do regular drug tests.

        1. AcademiaNut*

          It depends on how it was made. If it was made via no fermentation brewing, it will actually be 0% (and safe for people who don’t consume alcohol for religious reasons).

          1. Raven*

            If it wasn’t made via fermentation then technically it wouldn’t be classed as beer (and shouldn’t be advertised as such) and this whole discussion is moot.
            I’m not disagreeing, just pointing out that truly alcohol free substitutes aren’t what we’d typically think of when talking about non-alcoholic beer which is what the question is focussing on.

            1. Happy meal with extra happy*

              This is getting super pedantic. Whether or not actual 0.0% NA beer should be labeled as beer doesn’t matter because it IS being labeled as NA beer, and the packaging looks like a regular beer from a distance.

              1. Raven*

                That is literally my point.
                Most people will see non-alcoholic beer and relate it more to beer than to a true non-alcoholic alternative. Hence the issue with the optics.

  12. Irish Teacher.*

    Learning disabilities or other conditions are also possible. Not to armchair diagnose. Prior micromanaging or simple immaturity -I need to ask an adult – are also equally or more likely, but just to point out this isn’t necessarily a deliberate thing.

    In one way, it doesn’t matter. If she can’t do her job, it’s a problem, whatever the reason, but may change the approach the manager takes – starting by coaching/talking to the employee about why she doesn’t take initiative, rather than taking a more disciplinary approach.

    I think talking to her and naming the problem might be helpful. Tell her she doesn’t have to come to LW and ask about everything and ask why she does it.

    Given that she is just out of school, presumably young and new to the job, it’s possible the issue may be as simple as believing she is supposed to ask. Or if it’s (diagosed) anxiety or a learning/neurological disability, she may ask for accommodations.

      1. Name needed*

        I agree with you. I can also say that a disciplinary approach will absolutely not work, and will make things worse.

  13. More dopamine, please*

    OP5: a lot of people don’t know that you can create a Google account using a company email address. For example, I have one attached to my work email address, which is something like my.name@company.com. If you set up a new Google account using your actual work email and switched your calendar over to that, it might be even less likely to arouse suspicion.

    Here’s how to set it up, per Google:

    Go to the Google Account Sign In page.
    Click Create account.
    Enter your name.
    Click Use my current email address instead.
    Enter your current email address.
    Click Next.
    Verify your email address with the code sent to your existing email.
    Click Verify.

    Once you do that, go to Google calendar and set it up. And do NOT set up gmail.

    1. Melanie Cavill*

      Wouldn’t that only be the case if the company uses Google Suite for its professional domain? That isn’t confirmed to be the case, as per the letter.

      My company has company domain email addresses for us, but we all use our personal google calendars for company appointments and tasks.

      1. The Omega Variant*

        “My company has company domain email addresses for us, but we all use our personal google calendars for company appointments and tasks.”

        Not to be overly judgmental here, but this sounds like a bad practice. I don’t like to encourage employees to spin up their own records repositories ad hoc and use them for company business. I’m in the public sector, so maybe I’m too sensitive to the issue.

        1. Melanie Cavill*

          I completely agree. The last thing I want is anyone I work with looking at my personal google account.

      2. Robin*

        No, my office uses Outlook etc., but my department is on a project with folks at other orgs so we use Google Drive for all of that. I set up an account with Google using my work email, domain and all, no issues. It could be something had already been set up beforehand as an org-wide thing, but I think it is also possible to just have a Google account with whatever format of email you want.

    2. The Cosmic Avenger*

      They don’t even need to do that much. I have 8 personal calendars in Gcal. Some were to color-code certain things for myself, like birthdays, others were so I could share just those events with others (a child’s sporting events, volunteer gig meetings). The OP can create a new calendar, move their work events over to it, then revoke the boss’s permissions to their default calendar and share just the new one. The moving/copying might be a bit of a pain, but IMO it’ll be worth it.

  14. Irish Teacher.*

    I would avoid the NA beer, both because it seems to be setting you up for questions/suspicion and because of the possible example it sets to any new people, etc.

    The cookie sounds to me like it’s a mistake. Maybe she thought somebody sent it to her. She should still pay for it though.

  15. Raven*

    OP#1 I agree with Beep above, it sounds like Pheobe is dealing with some anxiety and confidence issues.

    If you haven’t already, it’s worth clearly outlining what sort of things she can make decisions about on her own and what would need to be escalated (if you can). Give examples like the marker pens and supply cupboard etc. and state that these are thibgs she’s expected to solve by herself.
    When she nexts comes to you with unnecessary questions, repeat that this is something you need her to solve on her own and ask her to think about it and come back with a solution (if you want to review whatever she decides).
    You’ve said you’ve tried asking her for solutions in the moment, so you might find better results by giving her some time to think about it without worrying what you think.

    You also need to state that the current situation is unsustainable, that you can’t keep taking on her workload. Give her a roadmap for where you need her to be by what point and if it makes sense talk about what support you can offer (does your company have a mentorship/shadowing program? Is there a colleague you can connect her with that has struggled with similar issues when starting out? Would more regular check-ins help?) .

    It sounds like she’s scared of failure, so it might be worth outlining how you’d respond if she ever does make a mistake as part of the general conversation.

    Of course if it isn’t this and she’s just not well-suited, it would be a kindness to tell her. Some things you can’t coach and she won’t be able to learn and that’s okay.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      It sounds like she’s scared of failure, so it might be worth outlining how you’d respond if she ever does make a mistake as part of the general conversation.

      I feel like this is important. It does sound like she’s scared of failure or of being berated for making a mistake. This seems like a case of “the workplace is different than school” and also different from being a kid and getting in trouble (one would hope). OP could definitely help by pointing out that the overall goal of work is to get things done and Phoebe isn’t going to be punished if she makes mistakes, she will just need to correct them and make sure they don’t happen again.

  16. Posilutely*

    LW1, this is very timely as I went to a meeting with my child’s teacher yesterday who explained that on the first day of school the headteacher swooped into assembly wearing a superhero cloak and introduced the idea of ‘gem powers’. Allegedly we are all superheroes and we just have to look deep within ourselves to invoke our gem powers – for example, ruby power is kindness and diamond power is independent problem solving. Whenever the children think about something and sort it out for themselves instead of asking the teacher (eg. ‘Miss, my pencil needs sharpening’), they receive a (fake) diamond to put in the class jar, which equates to extra minutes of playing time each Friday afternoon. Apparently it has worked wonders and they are all doing a lot more critical thinking! I have no bright ideas as to how you could apply this appropriately for an adult but maybe… diamonds?!

    1. Harriet Wimsey*

      I like this! I wonder if it would work with my teenager who would much prefer to outsource his critical thinking to me if he can get away with it.

    2. Allonge*

      I for sure would be motivated by diamonds :)

      Seriously, good one for kids – the adult level version is (probably) therapy or a work coach? Would an EAP be an option maybe? At the level OP is describing, this will be tough for a manager to resolve.

    3. Tib*

      Truthfully, I’d use this story and maybe even concept with Phoebe. I’d talk about the issues I see and what needs to change. Then I’d tell the story. It’s a cute story and gives some distance to the situation. Although there is the risks that she’d think you’re comparing her to a child. But this is more about being in a new group setting and needing to learn the expectations that go along with that environment. And she understands the school environment and the expectations that go along with that, while an office environment is probably still pretty foreign. I’d probably joke that I’m not going to swoop into a meeting with a cape but let’s think about the workplace equivalent to gem power, what can we do to unlock that power, and what can we do to recognize and reward that skill? Maybe you have the budget for a few coffee shop gift cards as a reward for x gems. I knew one boss who gave her assistant gift cards for manicures. And I’d probably use gem power as a private catch phrase. I might label things as gem power skills. It depends on the people and environment.

      1. Melanie Cavill*

        Disagree on that. If Phoebe is having anxiety/confidence issues (as many commenters are positing), I am not sure I can think of anything that would exacerbate it more than being treated like a literal schoolchild.

        1. Name needed*

          I agree.

          It’s also well-proven that such obvious “reward” systems where others can see (or we think they can see) if we are also being rewarded is extremely damaging for those with anxiety, depression, etc, and those who are ND.

  17. Anomie*

    Alcohol so-called “free” beer has a small amount of alcohol. Also the optics are terrible. If I saw someone drink that at work I would think they had big time alcohol problems. I mean, it looks like you crave beer so badly you can’t be without it at WORK. Many people would wonder how much you are drinking in your off time. You may be a non-drinker, but it looks bad.

    1. amoeba*

      No, not all of them, there’s load with 0.0%. And for me, that’s a really weird conclusion to jump to – my association would just be “apparently they like the taste”. (Actually, most people I know who like alcohol-free beer actually drink it because they don’t like alcohol very much! So going from there to “they crave alcohol” seems really weird to me.)

      1. Irish Teacher*

        Yeah, I would assume non-drinker, if I saw somebody drinking a non-alcoholic beer, not heavy drinker. But that’s assuming I KNEW it was non-alcoholic and at first glance, I might not, so probably better to avoid it in a work context.

      2. Phryne*

        I drink it in summer as a refresher because I dislike most pop/soda, and it actually contains less calories than e.g. a coke and has more taste than water. I generally drink just (fizzy) water and I love me a nice alcoholic beverage, but if it is a non-alcohol time and I want something wit a bit more taste than water, I prefer 0.0% beer over soda.

    2. tinybutfierce*

      You’d assume someone drinking an alcohol-free beverage meant they had an alcohol problem? How odd.

    3. Beebis*

      Lol at the offended responses to this comment. The only people I ever sold non alcoholic beer to when I worked in a bar were people I knew had alcohol problems to the point of being court ordered to not drink so even if it wasn’t accurate, my perception would be the same as yours.

  18. Anomie*

    Critical thinking cannot be taught. You either have it or you don’t. It can be sharpened, certainly. But sadly someone who cannot, on their own, figure out that 50 x 4 = 200, is probably never going to excel at executive function. No matter how nice they are.

    1. Raven*

      This is true. But it might be more that for whatever reason thought she needed permission to order something different to what she was told and asked OP before looking into alternatives. (I can see this with someone new to the working world or otherwise rather sheltered).
      If it’s more this scenario, she can be taught and can adapt more to the role. Though whether OP is able to or wants to take on that work as well as everything else is a different story.

      1. londonedit*

        Yeah it sounds to me like she’s panicking about ‘getting it wrong’, for whatever reason, and that’s why she’s looking for reassurance. She’s got ‘buy 200 markers’ on her list but then she’s confronted with boxes of 50, and in her mind she’s not sure whether she’s ‘allowed’ to buy 4 x 50 or whether she’ll be ‘told off’ if she doesn’t get exactly what the boss asked for. Maybe Phoebe has worked for an unreasonable boss in the past who would yell if they didn’t get precisely what they asked for, or maybe she just lacks the on-the-job experience to know when she can use her initiative and when she needs to ask for clarification. The key is whether, next time she’s asked to order markers, she’ll say ‘No problem – if they don’t have the boxes of 50 we ordered last time, shall I just get whatever they have to make it up to 200?’ That shows she is learning to apply past experience and critical thinking to the situation. If next time it’s ‘I’m not sure what to do about the markers because the boxes of 50 are out of stock, they only have boxes of 100’ then that’s a problem.

        1. Raven*

          Yep, I agree.
          It does seem like a confidence issue from what little we know. Pheobe sounds afraid of failure and so panicking when it rears its head on the horizon.
          The one ‘good’ thing about this is that she’s very unlikely to be unaware that she’s underperforming and so shouldn’t be caught out when OP speaks to her (thus avoiding her doubling down or refusing to adapt).

          1. Allonge*

            To be honest I am not sure. If someone is used to operating like this in their daily life, underperformance (so, job-related consequences) could be a totally new concept.

            In any case OP needs to discuss it of course.

        2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

          Except she didn’t say “they only have boxes of 50, is it OK to get 4 of these?”, rather they didn’t have boxes of 200 so she had no idea what to do.

          It isn’t a very fashionable idea, but fundamentally some people are just unable to succeed at certain skills, and it sounds like she’s one of them. By all means approach it with an open mind but I don’t think this can be fixed.

          1. Raven*

            As I said, she might have panicked and gone to OP before checking if there were other boxes, which is different and not that unbelievable. An error on it’s own but not something that cannot be corrected.
            I do also agree that if it was the case that she just can’t make decisions by herself, she isn’t suitable for the role.

          2. alienor*

            I mean yes, but this is also a very young person–if she’s just out of school, then she’s 22 or 23 at most. It would be one thing if she were 45 and had been working for 20 years without learning these skills, but I’d hate to write someone off as “unable to succeed” when they’ve barely even started trying.

            1. londonedit*

              I agree. I get that the OP is seeing this as part of a pattern and it probably isn’t helpful for us all to fixate on the pen incident, but I don’t think it’s terribly shocking that someone aged 21 or 22 in their early career might be a bit paralysed by ‘Argh, the boss said to get 200 pens but I can’t find the option for a box of 200’ and not be entirely sure what they should do in that situation. Do they order boxes of 50? 100? What if four boxes of 50 works out more expensive than one box of 200? Do they have the authority to make that decision or will their boss be angry at them for wasting money? I don’t think it shows a horrendous lack of thinking that can never be rectified. Phoebe is new to her job and, it sounds, new to the working world in general. As I said, if she does the same thing next time she’s asked to order something, maybe there’s more of a problem, but I’d expect her to clue herself in pretty quickly if the OP says ‘OK, if there’s no 200-pen option then we can always order in multiple boxes, so just make up the order from the 50- or 100-pen boxes’.

              1. Allonge*

                But as you say, OP included two examples out of a workload of Phoebe, 75% of which is on OP. Even if this particular issue does not come back, this is a super extra low level problem that OP had to solve for Phoebe.

                Hand on your heart – other than close friends and family, whose work would you take over without compensation to this degree?

            2. Heather*

              She’s 22 or 23, not 12. If she can’t be relied on to find things in a cupboard or order 200 pens she’s requiring a level of hand holding that is completely incompatible with anyone else getting their jobs done.

              1. alienor*

                But does that mean that at 22 or 23, she should be deemed unable to learn critical thinking skills? For the rest of her life? I totally understand the annoyance of handholding – I’ve had to do it with interns and young employees before – and if Phoebe’s current manager doesn’t want to put the time in (or doesn’t have the time) to help her improve, that’s fair. It just bothers me that we’re deciding someone is fundamentally broken and can’t improve when they’re this early in their career.

                1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

                  You want to coach Phoebe so that she can see something that’s right in front of her, just where she’s been told it is?
                  What I see is that Phoebe is a total burden for OP, who doesn’t want the big bad world to get Phoebe, because she has a great attitude. Anyone else would have been let go before this point.
                  Phoebe may very well have some kind of condition like ADD or whatever, making it hard for her to think things through, but it’s not on OP to do 75% of her work.
                  Much better for Phoebe to do some kind of job where she doesn’t ever need to think, something very repetitive probably. Not stocking shelves in the supermarket, because she’d have to find the stock and find the shelf. But there’s probably something.

          3. Waiting on the bus*

            She didn’t say it but that doesn’t mean she didn’t think it but be too insecure to even mention it. That would have been me right after school.

            And to be clear, my critical thinking skills are praised in every performance review and one of the main reasons for most of my promotions. But in my late teens/early twenties I was so insecure and anxious that I would have done the same when I couldn’t find a set of 200 markers on the shop website. I would have thought that ordering four 50 boxes should be fine but I wouldn’t have suggested it for fear of being wrong.

            OP should have a talk with her and clearly explain what sort of behaviour and decision making they expect of her as well as how mistakes or errors are handled – not knowing the consequences of getting something wrong might be what’s paralyzing her. If Phoebe still can’t work independently after that that’s one thing but clear parameters to work in might also give her the confidence to work on her own.

    2. bamcheeks*

      This isn’t true! There are all sorts of elements to this– confidence, practice, the amount of energy you put into it and believing you won’t be punished if you take the risk and get it wrong, as well as the kind of executive function problems common to a lot of learning disabilities. It’s impossible to say which one is most affecting Phoebe, but several of these are things which can be taught or coached and significantly improved.

      This doesn’t mean OP is obliged to give Phoebe the opportunity and support to learn it. But “doesn’t have it, can never learn it” is not at all true.

      1. Cat Tree*

        Yes, most “soft skills” can be taught or learned. It’s a skill just like any other. Some people have a natural talent and others are starting from behind. But with practice and coaching most people can improve.

        Specific to this letter, the amount of effort required probably isn’t reasonable for LW to put in especially if the employee isn’t actively trying to learn this specific skill. But Phoebe isn’t a lost cause and may be able to improve in her general life, separate from LW.

            1. Eldritch Office Worker*

              I may have lost the point of this thread – I agree critical thinking is a hard skill, but hard skills are even more teachable than soft skills generally

              1. Unaccountably*

                That’s what I thought, until my Phoebe. Turned out he couldn’t learn hard skills either; they required him to think things through, explore if-then scenarios, and try different methods until something succeeded rather than knowing from the outset what the One Correct Path was.

    3. Lilo*

      I mean I do work on critical thinking with my 3 year old. But I seriously doubt those tactics would be acceptable with an employee.

    4. ecnaseener*

      I wonder where you’re getting this idea that critical thinking cannot be taught, full stop. If you mean “cannot be taught by a manager without taking up far too much work time,” I agree with you there. But I don’t know of any evidence that it’s actually a static trait as you suggest. And I think a manager can be helpful in nudging a person to practice critical thinking.

      You picked a really interesting example actually, showing that what we see as “critical thinking” rests on foundations of other skills like arithmetic. (And language!) But there is flexibility: if Phoebe was truly terrible at arithmetic but capable of realizing that she needed multiple boxes, she could use a calculator and even ask someone to confirm the arithmetic – and I would say that shows basic critical thinking.

      Anyway, I think Alison’s right that the first step needs to be clearly naming the problem for her, telling her that she should frame her questions as “should I do X?” rather than “what should I do?” If there’s something other than critical thinking at play, like a fear of doing things wrong, hopefully the redirect will help. If it’s truly just critical thinking, maybe this framework will help her improve or maybe it won’t.

      1. Jackalope*

        Yes, 100% on the idea that critical thinking can be taught. It’s a skill like any other, not something innate. As ecnaseener indicated, it may not be something that is the purview of Phoebe’s manager, but it’s a skill that people can learn even in their adulthood.

    5. Corrvin (they/them)*

      If someone told me they wanted a box of 64 crayons, I wouldn’t buy them 4 boxes of 16. Markers also come in larger/smaller packages with different numbers of colors, like a 16 pack with 8 colors versus an 8 pack of 1 color. I don’t think it would be wrong to ask before ordering in case there is a difference that isn’t just the number of markers!

      (But yeah, this person sounds like they need more help than a regular office can provide.)

      1. Sasha*

        I suspect if Phoebe had said “they’ve sold out of the 200-marker packs. I can buy four of the 50 packs now but they are more expensive, or I can check again next week if the bigger packs have come back into stock. Which would you prefer me to do?” OP wouldn’t have written in.

    6. marvin*

      I wouldn’t judge too harshly based on the pen example. I’ve definitely had weird logical oversights when extremely stressed and in an unfamiliar environment. Phoebe sounds very anxious and working in an office may be a real adjustment for her. Which isn’t to say the LW needs to keep her on forever, but I wouldn’t assume she is unteachable just based on this.

    7. Captain Swan*

      It can’t be taught and especially not in a workplace environment. But it can be coached. My daughter has Asperger’s and some executive functioning issues, you better believe that we are helping her and getting her coaching to improve those skills. She just started full time in college and she is in a wonderful support program that provides, among other things, executive functioning coaching. They won’t do the work for you but they will help you figure out how to get the work done. The goal of the program is for these students to be successful college graduates that don’t need this type of coaching.
      There are entire FB groups that discuss EF coaching for young adults with disabilities, so coaching has been successful in dealing with these kinds of issues.
      Not saying that Phoebe in this question has a disability, by the way just the EF coaching can work.

  19. Green great dragon*

    I’m not sure why LW can’t switch to a different email entirely for jobhunting, but another option might be to forward the invitation to another email address, accept from that one, and delete (not decline) from the work-visible calendar.

    1. Merrie*

      Or, even easier, create an entire new calendar on their own Google account and not give access to their boss. You can have multiple calendars.

  20. GingerB*

    In all seriousness, how do you teach critical thinking and analytical skills?

    I have had so several coworkers who are really good at doing scheduled tasks and analysis but as soon as there is anything different, I have to swoop in and do it for them. People under me would just hand me a workpaper and I would have to review their work by basically doing my own analysis and double checking they got the same conclusion.

    And there is the dreaded “something is wrong,” where the coworker has not performed any additional research into possible causes and possible solutions. Half the time they can’t even describe what is wrong! There is a big difference between, “something is wrong, here” and “Something is unusual with item Z. It should had X, but has Y. Should we do A or B or something else?”

    So much of my job is ad hoc too. I try to teach my junior coworkers tips and tricks on how to troubleshoot but eventually I have to say “just figure it out.” Because figuring it out; applying our knowledge to the situation at hand is our job.

    Sorry for the rant.

    1. bamcheeks*

      We’re thinking about this at the moment too, and I think a big part of it for me is motivation and attitude.

      We have a couple of people who were promoted a couple of years ago (before my time) to a higher-level role because they could do higher-level oat polishing, but we actually need them to lead on the oat-polishing training programme. They can do a basic level of “here is a set of oat-polishing workshops”, but not “here’s how we’re going to promote the workshops; we’ve researched the options and this is the best oat polishing accreditation; and here is how we are going to evaluate the oat polishing course.”

      My manager and I were talking about it yesterday, and I think my biggest concern is not that they don’t know how to do those things automatically, but that when we say, “OK, you also need to do these things”, they give us a face that says, “ugh, do I have to”. You can’t teach people stuff they don’t want to learn! “Oh, OK, I’m not sure how to do that but I see the value of it” is a good place to start; “Ugh, that’s not my favourite but I realise it’s necessary so I’ll figure it out” is OK; “Ugh, I don’t want to do that and I don’t get the point of it” is a MAJOR problem.

      1. Worldwalker*

        Part of the problem there is that you’re assuming skill in one area confers skill in another.

        The skills required for oat-polishing and the skills required to promote and evaluate workshops are entirely different things. You wouldn’t expect your top oat-polishers to be able to handle workshops on, say, network administration, right? But the subject of the workshops is not particularly important. Just because someone can write a book doesn’t mean they can advertise it!

    2. Harper the Other One*

      I was hesitant problem solving on my own in my first job, and an intermediate step that worked perfectly for me was coming up with a solution to propose to my manager. Using the marker example from the letter (although that I probably would have done on my own!), I would have quickly told my manager “there are no boxes of 200 so I will order four of the boxes of 50 unless you direct otherwise.” On rare occasions I would come and say “I have problem X and I don’t even know where to start” but being explicitly invited to come up with a possible solution on my own helped me get over that hump.

      1. GingerB*

        I got similar advice currently in my career, which is to present possible solutions to each question or problem. I also felt anxious about asking for help from busy managers, so I tended to try and limit the amount of work my manager would need to do to answer the question.

    3. FashionablyEvil*

      Yeah, it’s a good question. I have an employee in my group who really struggles to see the forest and will get so fixated on a specific tree that he gets paralyzed and can’t move forward. His manager (who is a gem) has worked really hard with him to coach him on bridging the gaps, encouraging better decision-making skills, helping him understand the impact of his actions on others, all while being cognizant and aware of the employee’s mental and emotional health. And his work has definitely improved! But I would say it’s gone from a D to a C+ and I am honestly not sure if the employee will ever have what it takes to get to an A/B level. Maybe C+ will be good enough longer term (he’s a really nice guy which certainly helps), but I dunno.

    4. philmar*

      There’s a general rule in my organization that you don’t go to anyone higher up than you with a problem if you don’t have at least a suggestion for a solution. If you are so new or inexperienced you have absolutely no clue, you should still be able to say “I looked it up in this publication but I couldn’t figure out what it meant/find anything relevant.”

      I have a personal rule where I tell my subordinates, “I don’t know the answer to this, so I’m going to google it. And If I can find the answer in thirty seconds of googling, I’m going to be really annoyed YOU didn’t spend thirty seconds googling first.” And usually they would run out of my office lmao.

      1. Avril Ludgateaux*

        “I don’t know the answer to this, so I’m going to google it. And If I can find the answer in thirty seconds of googling, I’m going to be really annoyed YOU didn’t spend thirty seconds googling first.”

        Oh how I wish I had the capital. Somehow I got designated as the office “tech savvy” person, so when people have minor issues or question that aren’t worth calling tech support, they come to me. The thing is… I’m not exceptionally tech savvy! 99% of the time I’m googling the solution! Same when I’m making spreadsheets that involve functions and formulas – people are so impressed, but this is not advanced Excel expertise. Formulas and functions are, like, the simplest thing to do in Excel beyond data entry. They’re the easiest thing to Google, too. I would sooner rate myself highly in “curiosity” and “knowing how to find an answer” than advanced tech skills, really.

        Sidebar: Years ago, I saw a colleague using Excel for calculations. She was typing the values into cells to sum up during our conversation. I thought, hey, that’s clever! That way, you can see and alter your steps along the way, in case you flubbed a step! I figured at the end of her data column she would put a SUM or AVERAGE formula and then drag over the selection… Nope. She typed all the values into cells for ease of reference and then manually entered them into the calculator app.

      2. L.H. Puttgrass*

        I used to be a tech nerd in a previous work life, where people (including me) often have the opposite problem: we’ll spend days trying to figure out the answer to a question that could be answered in five seconds if we just asked someone. But we often have so much invested in being smart, and sometimes the problems are just so darn interesting. It took a while and some careful coaching to get me comfortable with the ideas of (1) admitting I didn’t know something, and (2) asking questions instead of trying to research everything on my own.

        1. GingerB*

          There is a middle ground. If it takes me more than an hour to figure out something, then I will ask someone. I consider doing research myself an investment because I usually end up learning more than just asking someone right away.

      3. Captain Swan*

        I told my direct reports (who are all mid level-senior) if you think I need to know something cc me, but I don’t want or need to be in on every decision. They know that they should make the best decision with the information available. If it turns out to be a bad decision, I’ll still back them (barring them deciding to do something that is completely, obviously wrong).

    5. AnonRN*

      In the workplace, I teach problem-solving by modeling it where I can. I tell new RNs that they don’t need to have all the answers (they won’t!), but they need to know how to find the answers appropriately. This might mean looking up a policy, or calling the provider for clarification, or reviewing a training module, etc…and then I show them that I literally do those things myself all the time. So then when they have been through this a few times I start saying to them “well, what does the policy say?” and if they haven’t already looked it up, that’s their cue.

      Sometimes it’s also about knowing what your resources and options are, which of course they don’t know the first time around but asking “what did you do the last time this happened?” can help them recall.

    6. Esmeralda*

      It takes time and patience. And willingness on the part of the student.

      “Critical thinking” includes quite a few discrete skills and abilities. So first you have to figure out, which piece needs to be learned and practiced? Then you construct activities and assignments (I’m speaking of academic settings, but you could do the same in other settings–probably harder to do) which require it, break it down into steps if possible, start with easier situations/tasks, let the student succeed (if they are struggling, ask questions to help figure out for themselves what to do, give them a chance to try, repeat as needed), point out how they succeeded, help them articulate what they did and what they can look for in the future (looking for the KIND of problem, looking for a pattern), give them more difficult situations/tasks, let the student succeed…

      You scaffold it for the student a lot initially, gradually remove the scaffolding. Discuss with the student what they have learned in terms of the critical thinking skill being worked on.

      It can be very slow and time-consuming. But unless the student has some cognitive or emotional or physical reason for not being able to learn these skills, it most certainly can be taught.

    7. Parakeet*

      Hmm. How to teach analytical skills is a worthwhile question, but what you’re describing could be something else – lacking foundational skills/knowledge in a particular field that would provide the basis for analysis. Nobody would ever describe me the way that you’re describing your coworkers, in my current job or volunteer roles, but in early post-college jobs where I was honestly trying to make myself fit into a field that was a bad fit for me? And certain college classes where I was in over my head and trying to make it work? People interacting with me in those roles would likely have described me that way. The difference between then and now is that I finally figured out what I was good at, and once I figured that out and got into appropriate roles, I was able to use my analytical abilities effectively.

  21. Despachito*

    OP3 – I was surprised how much the advice given is scrutinizing the EXISTING employee, and putting more weight on the opinion of someone who was there for a very short time and is fresh out of the school, therefore new to the working environment, than to my knowledge of my existing employee.

    Given the employee who has been tagged as unbearable (let’s call him Fergus) has been working there for some time, it strikes me as strange that his manager would not have at least some clue that Fergus is doing the things he was accused of (they may not have realize that he was THAT horrible, if it was the case, but it is highly unlikely he would be negative just to this one person and not to everyone), and that the coworkers would not be complaining.

    I do think that this requires some investigation, but the recommended approach seems to me almost as police investigation over a remark of a newbie (and I am side-eyeing her “I am leaving because of this one person” and moreover after a MONTH as well – it does not look very professional), and a bit of an overkill.

    1. bamcheeks*

      “the employee who is still here” made me think it was a microbusiness– that there’s OP and Fergus, and this is the first time they’ve brought a third person on board. Or it’s a three-person team where they don’t interact too much with people outside that team, and so it’s the first time Fergus has had a close horizontal relationship with a colleague and there are tensions coming up that weren’t present between Fergus and the manager.

      My first job out of university was into a team of two– manager and his secretary — and I made it a team of three. There were all sorts of things where the secretary had been doing things that made sense to her, but which were completely baffling to anyone who wasn’t her, but that hadn’t mattered until I joined the team, and it caused a LOT of tension. She had this absolutely batshit filing system where events could be filed under the name of the event, the city it was usually held in (or, on occasion, that it USED to be held in) or the name of the venue, and there was no way of knowing which it was– she just knew because she was the only one who used the filing system. And every time I had to ask, “where is this event filed?” she answered through gritted teeth because it was DEEPLY AND INTENSELY infuriating to her to be interrupted when she’d had this office and this filing system all to herself for twelve years.

      That didn’t really rise to the level of “hateful”, but it was pretty awful and as someone who had moved to a new city and was also really struggling to meet people and form any kind of social network, it was a pretty miserable! But it would have been entirely invisible to my manager because the two of them had had and continued to have a brilliant working relationship between the two of them.

      1. bamcheeks*

        .. I forgot to say, digging into it wouldn’t have meant disciplining my colleague or anything, but simply recognising that things like the filing system were going to cause tension in a three-person team and saying that it was time to move on from a “this makes sense in Sue’s head” system to a “actually makes sense” system.

    2. hrgrandma*

      I sent this problem in. The employee who is still here has been here for a year and we have not had any issues in the past. I feel the comments are more directed at the CFO who was training on billing. The employee who left has not returned my phone call (it’s just been 24 hours) so I may still have the opportunity to speak with and she has personal belongings she left behind. Our CFO has been here 2 1/2 years and is having a difficult time fitting into our culture. We are much more relaxed and she is pretty rigid in her expectations of employees, quick to point out mistakes she has had to fix. Our president doesn’t like confrontation so I’m not sure what will come of the situation. Family-owned businesses are more difficult sometimes…

      1. Hlao-roo*

        So the “someone who is always negative and hateful” (according to the employee that left) is the CFO, and you have observed that the CFO is rigid.

        You asked how to “handle this” with the employee who is still here. I’m a little confused what you mean by that. Are you asking how to talk about the departure of the employee who left with the employee who stayed? Are you concerned that the employee who stayed may also leave because they also don’t like working with the CFO? Or something else?

      2. Person from the Resume*

        OK, your question needed a bit more detail. You’re asking about the employee who has been there a year. What are you trying to handle – keep her from quitting too b/c of CFO, finding out from her why other employee quit, not let her know that’s why her new coworker quit? I still don’t understand what you’re asking.

        I don’t know if I’d trust someone who quits after 30 days “to go back to school.” They’re something fishier about that than if they quit and got a new job. If they were giving full time school a serious consideration before the reason they quit might just be more of an an excuse because they didn’t want to say “I always planned to go back to school, but I decided to work here a month to tide me over.”

        But YOU think the problem is the CFO who has been there 2.5 years. Try to find out if the CFO was that much of a problem and if you need to try to get more in line enough so that they don’t drive the next employee off. If you need to try to hire someone who says they can handle extremely negative people.

    3. andy*

      An existing employee being actually the issue would not be all that much shocking to me. And existing employee being very friend to management and asshole to those perceived to be lower then him is fairly normal.

      Many times it DOES take outsider leaving with bang for management to notice that yes, actually we have long term problem with Fergus, but people who intended to stay dont feel empowered to speak about it.

      1. Haven’t Picked a Name Yet*

        This. After 1.5 years of increasingly hostile and undermining experiences with a teammate, I finally approached my leadership about it with specific examples. I was flatly told that “no one else has ever had a problem with [teammate].” And yep, teammate is absolutely the type who kisses up and kicks down/sideways. I’d be surprised that no one else has ever complained except that it’s pretty obvious this teammate is a favorite who can do no wrong. Even my years of glowing reviews and getting along great with other folks was immediately dismissed in favor of defending this teammate. Blaaaargh.

    4. World Weary*

      I was once written up for what a temp said about me to my boss. The bare bones of the events were accurate but he never asked me about it prior to writing me up. It occurred in September when most of the office left early to be home before sundown for one of the High Holidays in Judaism, so I was the senior in the administration department even though I was hourly. When we had the meeting with the managing partner to go over the situation, I asked him if she had mentioned that I told her she could leave at 4 if she wanted since we were out of work for her that day. She already knew that she wouldn’t be in on Friday. She said great, then gave me her time card to sign. (This was a long time ago when things were still on paper and faxing was common). She had put down that she had worked to 5. I asked her to correct it and she refused. I told her that I couldn’t sign off on giving her an extra hour of pay so she had to choose between leaving early or being paid for the full day. She chose the latter and sat there with nothing to do for a full hour. I had two other administrators witness this. I wouldn’t have said anything if she hadn’t tried to get me into trouble over it.

  22. Plumbum*

    I really feel for the employee in letter 1. If I were just a little less fond of problem-solving that could probably be me.

    I have diagnosed severe social anxiety, am literally-minded and rejection-sensitive due to being ND, and have had plenty of situations where I need just one more scrap of information (“any box size is fine, we just need 200 markers total”) but asking for it feels impossible because it’s such a simple question that either answer could come with judgement or a reprimand and panic sets in. I can also relate to the not being able to find something literally in front of my face – if I’m expecting it to be a different colour, for example, I could be staring right at it and not see it.

    I’ve learned to overcompensate (“they asked for [X], but that could mean [A] or [B] – I’ll just do both”) and beg forgiveness instead of being paralyzed most of the time (“hope that’s ok, let me know if you need something different”), but it still happens. At worst I ignore a request for two weeks until I hit my “f*** it” threshold with the anxiety and just do something on it, along with the begging forgiveness.

    In my first job every mistake was life-and-death (except it really wasn’t) and I did not last. In my current job mistakes and miscommunications are handled graciously, so I’m less scared to try things that might not ultimately be right.

    All that to say, there’s a good chance she can get past it if her problem is actually anxiety/emotional with clear instructions and kindness. If her problem really is critical thinking that’s less likely, it’d be basically trying to change how she thinks. Not impossible, but more than a manager could do.

    1. Emmy Noether*

      This made me realize something: the way my mind works, I often see both the literal meaning and the implied meaning(s) of something at the same time, like one of those optical illusions that jump from a vase to faces. I’ve of course met people who are very literal and couldn’t see the implied meaning, but I’ve also met people who seemed to not be able to see the literal meaning. Like their mind jumped over what was there to what they thought should be there. Some people also don’t seem to remember what they said exactly, just what they meant.

      I could imagine a situation where the literal assignment was “buy a box of 200 markers”. Most people would just jump to “buy 200 markers total” immediately, but it is possible that the store is just currently out of boxes of 200 that they usually have, and the boxes of 50 are more expensive per marker. Which leads to the decision: do I buy 4 boxes of 50 now, or wait for the cheaper box of 200 to be available?”, which isn’t a ridiculous question.

      It’s possible that this is a communication style mismatch where the employee is considering each word carefully (boss said “a” box!), but the assignments aren’t actually worded that precisely. I think it’s worth it to try to point out to the employee that they can interpret more freely, though I don’t have much hope if it’s 75% of tasks where this happens.

    2. Littorally*

      Right, yeah.

      I’ve been thinking about the pen example as kind of emblematic of others. Based on the way pricing usually scales with multipacks, 50-pack x 4 would be a reasonable solution to the issue, but 4-pack x 50 would probably not be. To my mind, it’s much less about simple math (literal solution to the exact problem at hand) and more about knowing what kinds of solutions are acceptable vs not. That knowledge isn’t so much any kind of inborn critical thinking skill as it is developing an instinct for what one’s limitations are in role.

      That doesn’t cover all of it, but I would imagine that coming at Phoebe with an attitude of patience and encouragement to make some judgment calls on her own (it’s okay to spend longer searching the closet more thoroughly, you don’t have to find what you’re looking for within 5 minutes or else go seek help; it’s ok to make small judgment calls on your own and you won’t get in trouble if they’re not The One Perfect Solution when the stakes are small) will at least reduce the issues.

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        …but I would imagine that coming at Phoebe with an attitude of patience and encouragement to make some judgment calls on her own (it’s okay to spend longer searching the closet more thoroughly, you don’t have to find what you’re looking for within 5 minutes or else go seek help; it’s ok to make small judgment calls on your own and you won’t get in trouble if they’re not The One Perfect Solution when the stakes are small) will at least reduce the issues.

        Except that’s what the OP says they’ve been doing and it doesn’t seem to be helping.

    3. Alex (they/them)*

      yep this is something I’ve also struggled with! If this is the root of LW#1’s issue, the best thing to do is probably make it clear that she is permitted to make decisions herself and give her time.

    4. Tau*

      I also feel for the employee. I’m autistic and had a few formative experiences in my childhood and adolescence in which I attempted to solve a problem on my own using my internal sense of logic and got the feedback that I’d been completely ridiculous and nobody in their right mind would have solved it this way, which… did not do wonders for my confidence in making decisions, especially because nobody bothered explaining where my logic had gone wrong. I really hear you about being afraid of even asking because you might get judged/reprimanded/out yourself as not NT for even needing to ask instead of just magically intuiting what you’re supposed to do.

      That said, there’s a real limit to what a manager can do in this situation. Fingers crossed that giving her clear instructions on what she’s doing wrong and positive feedback for any attempt at coming with a solution instead of just the paralysis of “I don’t know what to do, tell me what to do” will lead to significant improvements, because otherwise… yeah, it’s not going to work out.

      (My own decision paralysis and anxiety has gotten a lot less, especially at work, as I got older and gained more life experience. So improvements can happen! Just not necessarily on the timeline OP needs.)

  23. Amy*

    I have a perfectly average 6 year old. He’s does everything right where he should for his age.

    And when we needed to get 5 ice cream sandwiches recently, he grabbed one box of 4, looked at the number, grabbed a second box and then send we’d have 3 extra.

    If he’s been confused, I would have understood. But even at 6, he got it.

    I just wouldn’t have the bandwidth to parent an adult on the 50 x 4 question.

    1. Veronica Sawyer*

      I also have a kid the same age, and he shows a higher level of initiative in solving problems than my Phoebe-like coworker does. It’s bad when I catch myself mentally comparing the two and I realise how warped my perception of reasonable expectations has become after working with a Phoebe for a year.

  24. Hiring Mgr*

    Did #2 really “steal” the cookie? Maybe this is a generous reading but it sounded like there was an unclaimed delivery and she went for it. But a simple “It turns out that cookie was a gift from colleagues’ spouse, can you reimburse them?” should fix it

    #5 is confusing…I don’t understand why everyone is using their personal Gmail calendars at work but going forward can’t you just create a new personal gmail that has nothing to do with your current job?

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      I could agree with you on #2 if they had explicitly said “I didn’t order it, but if no one claims it I’ll take it.” But it sounds like they came up and said “Oh yeah, that’s mine, thanks!”

    2. Nia*

      Yes taking something that you know doesn’t belong to you is stealing. It doesn’t stop being stealing just because you don’t know who the actual owner is.

      1. Worldwalker*

        Exactly. It doesn’t matter if you know whose it is—it only matters that you know it isn’t yours.

      2. JustaTech*

        So this specific issue (though with whole lunches and not cookies) came up a lot at my husband’s company. They were growing so fast the cafeteria couldn’t cope with all the people, so the company paid for people to get Peach (a lunch delivery service where you get 2-3 options from 2 restaurants every day and it’s delivered en mass to the office).

        So people were ordering lunch, and it would get delivered to the 8th floor, but when they got out of their meeting to grab their lunch it would be gone because someone else who hadn’t ordered Peach would decide they didn’t want the cafeteria food (or didn’t want to wait in line) and would just snag a box because “it’s all paid for by the company”. And then the original orderer would be hungry.

        It took several pointed emails from both HR and the folks in charge of food (and a few days of actually supervising the picking up of the boxed lunches, which annoyed everyone) before the lunch stealing stopped.
        So it’s worth someone sending an email to remind folks that food deliveries are not first-come first-serve.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      It’s stealing, but a mild form where you can reasonably infer that because there is no “Philip Montbatten” at this address and the phone number given doesn’t work, this cookie is going unclaimed. Fergus should apologize and give Susan an equivalent cookie. But I don’t think it needs to be a big deal.

      I can even see a social dynamic where the driver and front desk person and other bystanders are getting frustrated at the inability to solve this problem, and are all relieved when Fergus “fixes” it and they can all go back to their other work.

      This is different from, say, finding a cookie just sitting at the front desk and thinking “There’s no Philip Montbatten here–it’s mine!” as you sprint for the elevators, or hiding behind a fern so you can dart out to intercept any unmet delivery drivers and claim “That’s mine!”

    4. A More Brilliant Orange*

      He didn’t know who it belonged to, but he knew one thing for certain: it didn’t belong to him.

      On multiple occasions, I’ve heard people say: I didn’t know it belonged to you. Well you knew it wasn’t your, why did you take it when you knew it belonged to someone else? This always involved food for some reason. I suspect the temptation of the moment is too much for some.

      But, there’s no excuse for taking something you know isn’t yours. Unclaimed or not, you know it’s not yours.

      1. Irish Teacher*

        I wouldn’t even assume that. It’s possible he had some reason, in his mind, to semi-expect a gift (it was his birthday/an anniversary/he’d just started a new relationship and they were in the impressing each other stage, so this seemed like something the other person would do/he has somebody in his life who sends him cookies every so often) and when a gift arrived and nobody claimed it, he assumed it must be for him.

    5. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      I’m more gobsmacked at the fact that someone will order a single cookie and have it delivered to their office. People, you can get whole boxes of cookies at the supermarket, and then bring one into the office every day until you run out!

      And here in France a lot of companies have a policy that they will leave packages at the reception if the item is to be delivered to a company, the delivery guy is not responsible for getting the item to the actual person.
      This does reduce the number of packages delivered to companies that are unrelated to the business.

  25. Rosamund*

    I drink non-alcoholic beer because I don’t like sweet drinks or coffee, and sometimes I want something other than water or tea. There are genuine 0% ones available as well as 0.5. I haven’t done it at work yet though.

    1. Marmalade*

      There are multiple brands of seltzer waters made with hops. As a runner who is gluten free (and doesn’t really like drinking at 10am after a run!), they really hit the spot when you want something cold and fizzy for a social situation.

  26. Sssssssssssssssssssss*

    Thing is, for LW1’s situation, there are jobs where there is time to try to find ways to make it work for Phoebe. And there are jobs where, due to expectations, workload, deadlines, the kind of work and the work culture, this is just not going to work and there’s no time for the loving, patient approach that could work best for her.

    I’ve worked with all sorts of really nice people…but perhaps would have fared better job wise with a different employer.

    I recently suggested to someone, “Listen, you’re bright, educated, etc. but maybe this isn’t the right ‘home’ for you.” That person was so unhappy in the role she was in (she eventually went back to her old role) and it was clearly such a mismatch for her skill level and strengths. No coaching in the world would have brought her up to the speed needed for the job she had applied for and she was starting to self sabotage. (And she was also already in therapy for her ADHD.)

    1. Allonge*

      Unfortunately this is also where I landed: especially for the kinds of tasks OP mentions (find X, order pens), very few organisations will plan on a long training/adjustment period. Sure, there is something to learn everywhere, and especially if they hire someone right out of school, but this is a couple of weeks, after which the new person will have to be able to function in their job.

      So while I hope for the best for Phoebe, I totally see where Alison is coming from with her advice to OP. This situation does need to end soon.

    2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      There’s a level of training/ coaching that’s reasonable to expect and a level that isn’t, that’s for sure. Time OP spends sorting out simple things isn’t “free”, there’s opportunity cost in whatever OP could have been doing instead.

      If recruited for a certain role there’s a baseline expectation of level of competence, even though some details will need to be taught. For example if she joins an orchestra…. reasonable training would be about the expectations for performing piece of music X, procedure for showing up at rehearsal, etc. Unreasonable would be if she can’t actually play the violin to the required standard and has to be taught how to actually play the instrument, or someone has to play her part instead of theirs. It’s the same principle as this in most roles (with exception of explicit “trainee”, “apprentice” etc roles).

      I’ve seen this situation play out many times. Ultimately, if it isn’t just someone being too nice to take action, it’s usually the sunk cost fallacy.

    3. bamcheeks*

      It slightly depends for me whether “just out of school” means a graduate or someone who has just finished secondary school. In the UK it would mean literally just left school, so 16 or 18, but I know the US uses “school” for university so this probably means a 22-yo graduate. However, if it DOES mean an 18yo literally out of school, then some really clear spelling out of “I expect you to solve this yourself and I’m going to support you whilst you figure that out” is a pretty reasonable expectation.

    4. El l*

      Yeah. There’s been a lot of diagnosing attempts as to what Phoebe’s deal is, and it is true that LW should try to name the issue and give the feedback that if it doesn’t change she’ll have to go.


      (a) This is an entry level job. If Phoebe can’t handle these tasks, what chance does she have to handle higher-level executive tasks? LW risks pouring good time after bad.

      (b) There’s a point – and I think we’re there – at which it’s just not LW’s responsibility to figure out Phoebe’s deal.

      LW has been patient, tried to work with her, and seems to be accommodating.

      But at some level LW can’t forget that their job is to do business, not to employ someone who fundamentally can’t do their job and where there’s little chance that’s going to change. LW isn’t a nanny or an executive coach, they’re a boss and they have bigger responsibilities than just nurturing this person.

      Whether Phoebe takes this (likely) dismissal as an opportunity to change career path, or to deal with anxiety, or figure out her deal, is and must be her responsibility. Not LW’s.

    5. Polly Hedron*

      there are jobs where there is time to try to find ways to make it work for Phoebe

      What job would work for Phoebe? Would it be in a sheltered workshop?

      1. J*

        Probably something strictly data entry related. Maybe a low level help desk type processor where you use scripts or just allocate to team members – nothing client facing but in a scenario where automation isn’t fully utilized. Definitely something with repetitive tasks that ideally don’t have too many exception cases without her being able to escalate elsewhere. Something like order fulfillment/shipping could probably be a good one. I find a lot of anxious or ND people benefit from jobs that involve not just sitting at a desk too, doing something physical helps restore some level of balance.

        I have a relative who sounds a lot like Phoebe and he works for a credit card company where his first role was literally to route mail and deliver it and it was such a good job for him. He was able to move up to a role that required a bit more independent thinking after he felt comfortable with knowing how the business ran and learning the way they operated so he didn’t think he’d be fired if he did something wrong. Now he’s more of a help desk inbound call center person, using scripts to respond or just escalating the call.

        1. Polly Hedron*

          in a scenario where automation isn’t fully utilized

          Yes, the problem is that automation keeps reducing the number of these jobs.

  27. Wintermute*

    regarding N.A. beer, really, really depends on your culture. Our VENDING MACHINE STOCKED “sangria” flavored jarritos, and I still got side eye and comments for drinking it when I accidentally pressed A5 instead of B5 once at one job, so the optics around anything even remotely alcohol-adjacent can be really really bad. I just wouldn’t risk it, what’s the potential upside?

    The potential upside is hard to grasp here but the potential downside– ranging from at minimum looking weird and unprofessional at the low end to someone deciding the very small percentage of alcohol left in the N.A. beer counts as drinking on the job and you being summarily terminated at the extreme end– is ample. It’s the definition of a bad risk.

    1. Avril Ludgateaux*

      Jarritos is a soft drink, no? People were mad you were drinking a sangria themed but non alcoholic soft drink? Geez. I’ve always low key worried that drinking seltzer from cans may look like beer on screen, but I figured my colleagues know me well enough to know I would never do such a thing as drink on the clock (never mind that I don’t drink in the first place). Now I’m not so sure…

      1. Wintermute*

        yes, it’s a soft drink, a damned delicious one (mandarin and lime are my JAMS), and yes it was bizarre, but I think that goes to illustrate how extreme people’s aversion to even the appearance of alcohol is.

        1. Avril Ludgateaux*

          I literally have the lime one in my fridge right now! I don’t drink soda regularly but Jarritos is my special occasion drink, haha. I like mango and passion fruit, too.

  28. LimeRoos*

    Cookies!!! So for anyone who hasn’t seen the cookie trend grow – they’re basically the new ‘fancy’ cupcakes that were big over the last 15 years or so. There’s a major chain that is selling them – 6 different flavors a week on rotation with constant changes. My fav is an everything bagel cookie w/ cream cheese swirl on top (everything else is super sweet). Highly recommend if you like cookies, especially softer, larger, sweeter ones.

    So uh, that’s basically to say that the cookie was probably a little treat or surprise, relatively inexpensive, but also a fun flavor. Easy to mistake if someone else ordered the same one, but also easy to replace if they just made a mistake. Definitely talk with the employee who claimed it and see what the mix-up was.

    (also learned the chain I was thinking of is actually HUGE, possibly about to go the way of the Krispy Kreme, but we’ll see how long this trend lasts)

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      There’s a major chain that is selling them – 6 different flavors a week on rotation with constant changes.

      I see you’re a Crumbl fanatic as well! My favorite is still the cookie butter one they had a couple of weeks ago!

  29. Put the Blame on Edamame*

    #4 – there’s a fancy kombucha drink I sometimes get at lunchtime and drink at work in the afternoon, a colleague thought it was beer and told me they were impressed at how brazen I was.

  30. Veronica Sawyer*

    Hoo boy, I work closely with a Phoebe, except my Phoebe is middle aged with job experience. I suspect anxiety, confidence and probably some more severe factors are at play. Our manager is new and is way overloaded to know what’s going on, and as a peer I don’t want to bring up the problem and end up stuck micro managing this person. I feel bad for the person, but if they have gotten this far in life and have not developed ways to cope, there is no reasonable fix here IMO. I just keep repeating variations of Figure it out yourself, as nauseum.

  31. Avril Ludgateaux*

    #1 How long has Phoebe been working with you? You say she is “just out of school” – does this mean she graduated in May-June of this year? When did she start working with you? What was her training period like? Was it thorough, focused, and hands-on with a manager or other mentor?

    I asked for a LOT of guidance and handholding in my first professional job in the first few months, and all the same I’ve always had a brief period of “is this okay?” in every subsequent job and promotion. It is not that I am incapable of critical thinking – it’s probably my most valuable and experience-tested transferable skill! Wish there was a way to quantify it! – but that, when a new opportunity arises, I naturally lack the self-assurance and confidence in my understanding of workplace practices and norms, to make decisions that would reflect on me. When I am still learning the ins and outs of my job, and I don’t yet have enough of a rapport or camaraderie with my manager and coworkers to feel safe that they’d have my back if I screwed up, I ask for confirmation of procedures, and yes it sometimes happens repeatedly until I get a confident hold on what I’m doing. If I don’t know enough about the work environment to understand that mistakes happen and are almost often forgiven so long as you fix them, then that questioning period is going to be longer (note: I don’t work in an industry where people’s lives are on the line if I put a 0 where a 1 should be; I just have to catch it and fix it).

    1. Avril Ludgateaux*

      Counterpoint to myself, though: we have a Phoebe in our office. Thankfully I have not had to work with her frequently, but every time I have, she’s been completely unreliable, in spite of having a great attitude and generally friendly demeanor. Her work always seems to land on somebody else. For whatever reason, instead of letting her go, she’s been bounced between departments 3 times in her tenure (so far). I gave her leeway at first thinking she was young and inexperienced and would catch on soon. Turns out she is the same age as I am, just has really young features, so in her case she was not “new to the workforce” like I’d imagined. And it’s been about 4 years she’s been with us, with no improvement. :|

    2. Ellis Bell*

      I am actually curious about whether or not this employee *has* no critical thinking skills or like you say, needs to be given permission to figure stuff out, even if her solution is imperfect. I wonder what her reaction would have been if OP had said: “Well we need 200, so what could you do?” This isn’t to say it isn’t concerning that she didn’t ask the question herself or volunteer it, but phrasing the question would give insight as to whether she’s incapable or unaccustomed. Some jobs do insist you do things by rote; some upbringings are the same. As for the cupboard thing; that could totally happen to me! Unless I took everything out, familiarised myself and organised it, I could totally not find something in an unfamiliar space. Even if I’m looking right at it.

  32. toolittletoolate*

    I had an employee exactly like LW#1. Smart young woman, but so incredibly unable to problems solve or make any decisions on her own. She had to lock up the office one day and must have called me 10+ times about it, asking extremely basic questions like where is the light switch? (right by the door–Oh i didn’t realize that was the correct light switch—did you try flipping it to see what would happen? Welll, no. ). Should I take the elevator or the steps out of the building? (whatever you take to enter the building, it doesn’t matter).

    I finally had to sit her down and get very direct about my concerns. Turned out she had a very controlling father who basically told her when to breathe and was constantly calling her stupid if she made a mistake. I was glad we finally talked, but I told her our position required someone with more confidence to problem solve and make decisions, and that I was not in a position to provide her with the level of support she seemed to need. I asked her if she thought she could step it up and be more independent. She started crying and said she didn’t think so. She gave her notice and I told her she didn’t need to work one. I paid her for the notice period but didn’t require her to work it.

    I hope she was able to work through her issues.

    1. NICS*

      Thank you for being kind to her. I was like that when I was 20 (both parents were controlling) and I wish anyone had been so understanding with me.

  33. Monday Monday*

    #1 It is hard to say what makes your employee act this way. I have dealt with co-workers like this who are very experienced in their field and it comes down to confidence in a lot of cases. So praising their work when they do something right will sometimes help. I also had a co-worker document the solution. We kept a cheat sheet at work for odd situations that would come up and you do forget if that situation doesn’t come up often. So I would have them document new problems, and if the solution was already in our cheat sheet, I would ask them to clarify the solution because if they had a question about it, someone else may too.

    Secondly, I used to be a business analyst and have an IT degree. A lot of those skills are taught in those classes. You need to be able to problem solve and work through scenarios to be a programmer too.

    I would maybe recommend an entry level type business analysis class. They are usually high level and will teach you how to work through a scenario to solve a problem. I am sure there are plenty of free ones on YouTube. That would at least give her the foundation.

  34. Saffy_Taffy*

    LW1, I worked with someone like this for about 18 months. We were at the same level, with a boss in another city, and I had more experience in the role. She did in fact ask me a version of the 200 markers question. At least in her case, it all came down to a pathological fear of “being wrong.” I don’t know if that’s what you’re working with here, but it might be. So here’s what I did:

    Saffy: Phoebe, do you see how you can buy X in smaller and larger sizes?
    Phoebe: Yes but I thought [insert 2-minute ramble about how our boss 2 hours away might visit and have a problem with us trimming a larger product to size].
    Saffy: And if she did have a problem with it, what would you tell her?
    Phoebe: Well, I’d say [insert 3-minute ramble about how the right size isn’t available]
    Saffy: And once you explained that you made the best decision available to you, what do you think she would say?
    Phoebe: [Blank stare] Well she’d be mad because… Oh. Oh I guess she’d understand.
    Saffy: Have you ever seen our boss get mad about anything?
    Phoebe: I guess not.
    Saffy: So does it make sense that she’d get mad at you for making a judgement call about a small problem?
    Phoebe: Well [ramble about how our boss would get mad]
    Saffy: But remember, you just said she wouldn’t get mad. Because you used your best judgement and it’s a small problem.

    We did some variation of this 4 or 5 times over the course of a month. Then one day she needed a piece of information, we didn’t have it, and she was able to decide on her own who was most likely to have the information. When they didn’t know, she asked the 2nd most likely, until she finally found out who knew what she needed to know. It was a huge leap.

    1. irene adler*

      Well done!

      In my younger days, I was like Phoebe with the 1 x 200 vs. 4 x 50 decision.

      I quickly figured out that if this was an important distinction, then the boss should inform me. And as you point out, the decision was the best one made given the circumstances (i.e. no one told me otherwise). If this was going to upset someone, then let’s talk about realistic expectations (i.e. I am not a mind reader).

      1. Saffy_Taffy*

        Thank you, Irene! To be honest, I only knew to do it because I have an amazing therapist who would walk ME through the situation before I walked HER through it. Because, yes, she was so annoying I started bringing it to therapy.

    2. Frustrated Front Desk*

      I know it was only one example, but when I was younger, I would have had the same panic over not being able to find a 200 pack of markers if it sounded to me like a 200 pack had been requested. For one, I wouldn’t have known whether or not it mattered. Am I going to be chewed out for not following the simple direction of “buy the 200 pack of markers?” Is some micromanager going to be scrutinizing the receipt? The price per unit will almost certainly be cheaper with a bulk 200 pack than 4 separate 50 packs. Does it have to be one specific brand of marker that happens to come in a 200 pack because that’s the SDS we have on file? (TIL Safety Data Sheets for Sharpies and EXPO dry erase markers exist.) Did the store previously carry 200 packs? Does the person who normally purchases office supplies habitually buy 200, leading to the illusion that a 200 pack exists? Did I misremember, and it was actually supposed to be 20 markers? Could I possibly even know enough to make such a judgment call when I’m so new, and they know almost nothing about me?

      The closest to reality was my first fast food job, a need to make side salads, and not knowing how to adjust the fancy slicer to the proper width for cucumber slices. The job aid for preparing side salads posted above the prep station just said to adjust the width. I told my boss I didn’t know how to slice the cucumbers. The actual prep cook usually took care of that. She looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “With a knife.” 18-year-old me had no idea that was even an option.

      I have also known people who just weren’t that bright in some areas. From the outside, my paralysis from overthinking probably looks the same as paralysis from a lack of critical thinking.

  35. Lady Blerd*

    LW1: I agree with the others who suggest possible reasons for what’s going on with Phoebe could be caused by a lot of things, my ability to think things through goes out the window when I’m stressed but it gets weirdly sharp when people around me are freaking out. Thinking back to me in my early 20s, I probably was a Phoebe in my early days in the workforce. That said, I’ll throw my hat in with the simplest possible reason for her being the way she is and that is her brain isn’t wired for critical thinking and that can be difficult concept for those of us who have it to teach others. But this is just one interpretation of her behaviour and regardless of her reasons, OP will have to realize that Phoebe can’t do her job with her current set of skills. Maybe she will develop it over time but it won’t be with you.

  36. QAPeon*

    Back when I was a trainer on a help desk, we hired a guy a lot like this. Super nice guy, great with callers, but his last job had been one where he was required to follow documentation step by step with no deviation and ours…was not that. I did a lot of coaching, a lot of “how to think through” problems, how to extrapolate from similar issues to his current one, etc. But I have to say, he never got noticeably better and since he was a temp, we let him go at the end of his 6 month contract with relief.

  37. Elspeth McGillicuddy*

    When your coworkers lives are at risk by your doing your job incompetently, don’t give them any reason to doubt your mental competence, liquid or not.

  38. Environmental Compliance*

    Hi, HSE person. If you are in a safety critical role, please do not create chaos for us by doing things that give the perception of issues without causing issues. Someone will see you, they will call us, we will drop what we’re doing and go investigate, and I’m going to check every time because the safety ramifications otherwise are horrendous and I’d rather go and check than wait for an incident.

    1. Glomarization, Esq.*

      Most useful response so far. There’s the issue of poor optics. There’s the issue of whether or not the alcohol will have any effect on the consumer. But in the end there’s: don’t be a d-ck to the people whose jobs you will make more complicated by drinking a low- or no-alcohol beer at work.

  39. Wednesday Adams*

    LW1: A few folks have mentioned the possibility of a previous micromanager. I also wonder if there have been any other instances where you might have unintentionally reinforced fear of being wrong? Has she ever tried to do something herself at this job and been met with criticism? If that’s layered on top of previous bad experiences you could be unintentionally reinforcing the exact behavior you don’t want. Not ordering 4 boxes of 50 to get 200 sounds silly, but what if she’s previously been told she made a mistake getting the wrong color of post-its or something like that? Might be worth just thinking through if there are any places you’ve been particularly critical.

  40. cmcinnyc*

    There’s a ton of analyzing of poor Phoebe up thread but “It did not occur to her to buy four boxes of 50 markers” when asked to get 200 for me would be the point where I’d let her go. Her intelligence (or lack of), possible diagnoses, parenting style, etc. are beyond the scope of things a manager can do anything about. But an employee being unable to order 200 markers tells me this person needs to be in some kind of supported environment OR a job that truly requires no critical thinking at all.

    1. Bubba*

      Agreed. If she wasn’t sure that ordering 4 boxes of 50 was the right thing to do she should’ve at least been able to articulate why “Hey boss, the 200 count markers are out of stock, I can get 4 boxes of 50 but, it will be more expensive, is that OK?”

      But, if the OPs account is accurate and Phoebe acted like she literally had NO CLUE what to do in the markers scenario, then I think you’re right, it’s probably an issue that is outside of her manager’s ability to solve.

  41. MG*

    I had an employee just like Phoebe, as in zero critical thinking skills. Not straight out of school either, but a woman in her early fifties. I kept her on for four excrutiating years, both because she was really trying her best and because I couldn’t believe how bad she could get (and because I really hate firing people, to be honest). I tried to coach her, but that actually made things worse: she would try to apply what I taught her to a totally different situation and come up with the worst solution possible.

    Just one example: We mostly sell bulk orders to departments, so we are happy to send samples of our products to potential clients, but which samples depends on their needs and their size. She asked me about one potential client, who was from a particularly small department, about which samples to send. I told her to send the minimum, since there was no way they’d be placing big orders at any point in the near future. The next time a potential client called, this one with a huge department, she told him that she could only send a couple of samples and that if he wanted more he’d have to pay for them. When asked why, she said that that’s what I had told her for the previous client! When I pointed out the difference between the two (and this was not the first time we’d discussed the issue of samples and what to send to various clients), she just said, “Oh, I didn’t think of that.” This was after working in the position and doing this numerous times for almost four years!

    Anyway, it finally sunk in that all the coaching in the world would not help give her critical thinking skills, and I did end up letting her go. Her replacement is sharp as a tack and can easily tackle all the tasks that I had to do on my own because I just couldn’t rely on her to do them – a difference of night and day.

    In short, I agree 100% with Alison’s advice that Phoebe is just not going to work out in this position. Don’t suffer needlessly as I did – doing 75% of her work is just ridiculous! Hopefully, she’ll find another job which she can do well in.

    1. Deschain*

      Sounds so familiar! I trained a bank teller years ago (a woman in her 50 fifties who said she’d been doing the bookkeeping for her husband’s farm for several decades), and she was unable to learn the even the most basic bank transaction. If someone handed her a completed deposit slip and cash, she would just stare at them because she didn’t understand what they wanted. She told me that she didn’t understand the difference between checks and cash. She couldn’t use a calculator to add up checks at the end of the day to check her work. I don’t know what happened with her, but I was glad to get away from her.

      1. Ali + Nino*

        “She told me that she didn’t understand the difference between checks and cash.”

        She…what? What the what?

    2. EvilQueenRegina*

      I work with a Phoebe right now, that thing you describe with the samples is exactly what she would do. Example of my Phoebe would be, during a time of being short staffed, our manager had said to her “You can leave sending out the llama grooming reports for now because they’re not as urgent as the alpacas”, meaning to leave the llamas during the short staffing. Then a few weeks down the line, we were fully staffed again and she was supposed to be sending out the llama grooming reports, she was doing things like tidying up the envelopes, which was even lower priority, because “I was told to leave the llamas”. This keeps on happening, and usually results in a backlog of llama reports, the llama groomers chasing on it, and a hundred llama grooming reports being dumped on everyone else.

  42. CLC*

    Years ago I was in a meeting and a guy walked in with this ginger beer that was in this big fancy stein bottle. Everyone in the room did a double take and stared at him funny until someone said, “is that beer?” Lol. Honestly though I love Alison’s response of “why?” It is a very odd choice of beverage for the middle
    of the day at work. The only time I’ve ever seen someone drink it is when they were recovering from alcoholism and they need something in social situations to prevent them from ordering a real beer. That seems to be more of the point of it, like that gross sugar free candy at the drug store for diabetics.

    1. Elle by the sea*

      Not necessarily. There are people who like the texture and taste of beer, but don’t want to get drunk and drowsy. My dad is one of those people. Beer is quite nourishing at all – liquid bread, if you will. :) And sugar free candy isn’t gross – I prefer them to the sugary ones any time, unless they contain aspartame.

    2. DrSalty*

      Let’s not forget pregnant women, or people who can’t drink because of medical/health reasons that have nothing to do with alcoholism. NA beer is actually quite a growing market and a lot of craft breweries are getting into it.

    3. Elbe*

      I think that’s a bit harsh. Ginger beer is a lot like root beer – it’s generally not alcoholic unless indicated. I don’t think that people would be offended by root beer, even if it comes in a bottle like a regular beer.

  43. CD*

    For LW#1. Like Alison said, you need to make clear to her about what’s expected of her. Even though she’s your direct report and that may be a reason she’s coming to you with all of her questions, do you have other direct reports that she could go to instead and can you direct her to them for some questions? If there are, it could help you gauge if others notice the same issues you do. I know you don’t want her to be eaten up by the big bad world, but not everyone is suited to all roles. I know it’s hard because you want her to succeed, but it might not be at your workplace.

  44. Melanie Cavill*

    I just want to point out that with the amount of tabs I have open, this specific tab shows the text “employee stole a cow” and I wish that was the actual story.

  45. Gingersnap*

    re LW 1, what do you do when you have the exact same issues but the employee(s) in question are men in the twilight years of their careers? They have their routines and if one step is out of whack the whole thing comes crumbling down. Zero problem solving skills. Add to the fact that they come to me with their housekeeping questions (where do we get more forks for the kitchen? how many scoops of coffee should I use?) because I’m a woman, and their technology questions because I’m a millennial, and some days I’m ready to strangle them. More a rant than anything but if anyone has tips I’m all ears.

    1. Melanie Cavill*

      Do what I did: wait until one makes a comment about an intimate body part of yours and then flip all the tables all the way to HR.

      1. Gingersnap*

        Alas I work for a religious org so we just promote men who do things like that. Reasons why I left my last job. Le sigh.

  46. BellyButton*

    LW1 I think you can also prompt them to come up with the steps they need to solve the problem or answer the question for themselves. “If I am not available or anyone else, what steps do you need to do to find the answer? Write down 5 ways you could find the answer or solve the problem.”
    “does this question connect with anything else we have discussed in the past? Does it have a similar process or answer to something else I have helped you with?” If they struggle with this, you can prompt them- “how did we solve X? What are the similarities between them?”
    Also, address their fears of failure. ” Before coming to me I want you to think about the possible solutions and find answers. It is ok not to be correct, but you have to start figuring out things on your own and not take the easiest route- which is asking someone to solve it for you. “

  47. Okapifeels*

    I’m dealing with a situation like #1 and have been for a while. It drives me banana crackers crazy, because it really compounds her other problems, and the whole “well she didn’t know better” makes those senior to me reluctant to act. I think Alison is right that there’s no real way to fix critical thinking skills within the reasonable scope of a normal job; a lot of my work with her has been to have to spell out when she is supposed to handle something independently. It doesn’t totally work, but at least I spell out what she’s supposed to achieve, and if she doesn’t, we’ll, that goes on her review.

  48. Elle by the sea*

    It depends how long Phoebe has been in the job. If it’s just a few weeks and she has a great attitude, it’s worth trying to coach her on “critical thinking”. I’m using “critical thinking” in inverted commas because it might not be the case that she lacks critical thinking and it might be the case that she is just frozen, confused and second guesses herself because it’s her first job. Some people need a few weeks to get into the rhythm and then they will start doing a stellar job. Attitude is what matters the most.

    I can share a personal story. I consider myself to be someone who has good critical thinking and problem solving skills: you can’t go through a rigorous PhD programme without those. However, I often tend to get into things slower than others, often over complicate things and don’t see the big picture. When I joined my current job, I was completely frozen and wasn’t able to perform my most basic duties for a few weeks. My manager could have decided to let me go, but instead he started coaching me on skills which the OP and Alison might describe as critical thinking. I started catching up very soon and now I am one of the longest term employees at the company. (I should probably add for context that I started a relatively senior position as quite a junior employee.)

  49. ACA*

    There have been a lot of comments addressing Phoebe’s issue with ordering the markers, but not many about the closet. It makes me wonder – is Phoebe short? As a 5’1″ person, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been unable to find something only to have someone point it out…just enough above my eye level that I’d completely missed it.

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      I don’t mean this unkindly as I’m also short, but this is a bit much.

      If tasked to find something and she can’t see all the spaces she needs to look, then she needs to request a step stool as she needs it to do her job. Or even say I looked everywhere but the places I cannot access due to xyz.

      Based on OPs description, she either just didn’t look or didn’t comprehend the instructions. Im sure OP would have noticed if it was somewhere she couldn’t access.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        Another short person here (5’2″)… and agreed. I have absolutely walked past something at a grocery store that’s above my eye level, but being given exact directions to the exact location – no. Coupled with the “need 200 but the box only has 50” and this seems to be an overall Phoebe issue.

        If the closet shelves are truly that tall/deep, then the answer is Phoebe needs a step stool, but that will not help the overall issue of Phoebe does not seem to be able to think out her own solutions. That only solves a possible problem of she can’t reach things on shelves.

  50. AdAgencyChick*

    Is the situation in #5 normal? Why on earth doesn’t that company have Outlook or some other calendar program?

    #5, if you want to, you could advocate for this even as you job hunt. I would use the medical-privacy argument: managers should not be able to see sensitive information like medical and mental health appointments. But I don’t blame you if you don’t want to waste the mental energy on this if you’re already on your way out.

    1. Gracely*

      Where I work, Gmail *is* our calendar/email/etc. program. But we also all keep our work email account separate from our personal email.

    2. sdog*

      Yeah, I was confused by this at first, too. But I once worked for a place where we all used gmail for email, and also then used the Google calendar for appointments. This was a long time ago, and it was a non-profit, but maybe that’s still a thing sometimes? But in our case, each of us had our own work gmail account, so the two calendars weren’t linked to each other.

      It sounds like OP# 5 is using her work gmail account for job hunting, and that’s why it’s an issue. I don’t really see why boss needs to have edit privileges to the calendar and maybe I’d push back on that piece? But honestly, I’d just use my personal email account moving forward. Even with outlook, I wouldn’t use my work email for job hunting, unless it was an internal position.

  51. Fluffy Fish*

    OP1 – I worked with a Phoebe.

    She was also very nice and had a good attitude. And zero critical thinking skills. By the time she worked for my agency, she had been promoted multiple times.

    How does someone who is patently terrible at the majority of their job get promoted? Because people didn’t want to have the hard conversations. Because people didn’t want to fire such a nice person, so when she interviewed for promotions, they weren’t honest in their reference checks. Because it feels weird to write someone up for things that seem painfully obvious to most people. Because people didn’t want to formally write her up because then if she applied for a job with another agency, they would see her personnel file and not hire her.

    This did Phoebe no favors. She had a completely incorrect understanding of her skills – and why not? She kept getting promoted and no one told her the truth, ever. We ultimately fired her because she quite literally could not do anything correctly without explicit directions and even then got it wrong most of the time. 8 years wasted thinking she had skills she didn’t have, instead of finding a job that suited her.

    I get it, it’s hard to be “mean” to someone who’s great. But you have to address this directly and now. She needs to improve her ability to problem solve and figure things out. And maybe you do need to tell her she’s not going to get in trouble for a mistake while doing so or even as a starting point that if she comes to you with a “problem” that she must present a solution to go with it.

    But if she does not improve, you have to let her go and you have to tell her why. It unkind and unhelpful not to.

  52. PotsPansTeapots*

    #4- I’ll be the odd man out; I genuinely like the taste of non-alcoholic beer and find it very refreshing. I wouldn’t have a problem with someone drinking it at work, but I’m not at your workplace.

    1. PotsPansTeapots*

      And between this and the pain pill letter the other day, whoo, doggie are the bad addiction takes coming out.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        I do think the optics of this matter a bit for an environment with high safety concerns, but I completely agree with you on the bad addiction takes.

    2. Observer*

      I genuinely like the taste of non-alcoholic beer and find it very refreshing. I wouldn’t have a problem with someone drinking it at work, but I’m not at your workplace.

      You are also apparently not in a security critical workplace. “I like the taste” is just not a good reason for doing something that is absolutely going to have to raise legitimate questions.

      1. Dinwar*

        Not security-critical. Safety-critical. There’s a difference.

        I could easily call my job safety-critical–I’m the safety officer on something like six jobs right now. High-profile, significant risk stuff. But I’m not the one DOING the work. I’m oversight and reviewing documents and stuff. Plus I have people working under me boots-on-the-ground keeping an eye on things. If I had a non-alcoholic beer it would raise eyebrows and I’d have to explain, but it wouldn’t raise safety concerns.

        For my part, I’d avoid the n/a beer and opt for the root beer in the brown glass bottles. Same affect, easier to explain, and given the sense of humor around my jobsite probably would get a good chuckle.

  53. DrSalty*

    You know, I started drinking NA beer recently for reasons, and I did have a moment when I was like, “I could drink this anytime! I could have a beer with lunch every day when I WFH!!” The freedom was a little … intoxicating, if you will. But then I did some reflecting on why I purchased NA beer instead of pop/juice/seltzer — to replace that “have a beer” relaxation ritual — and I decided I wanted to keep it as a special after work and weekends thing, the same way I would beer with alcohol in it.

  54. Veryanon*

    Letter #1 – You as the manager need to toughen up and have a hard conversation with Phoebe, no matter how nice she is and no matter how sorry for her you feel. Her critical thinking skills aren’t going to improve if she knows she can rely on you or someone else to solve problems for her. I mean, you had to *spell out* for her how many boxes of pens to order so that you’d have a total of 200 pens. You’re really doing her a disservice not to nip this in the bud.

    Something along the lines of “This job requires a certain amount of independent thinking. I need to know that I can give you basic tasks to complete without having to direct you through every stage of the task. A good recent example of when this didn’t happen is when I asked you to order 200 pens, and you had to ask me how many boxes of pens to order because the pens didn’t come in boxes of 200. Another example is when I asked you to retrieve something from the supply closet, told you where it was, but then had to physically come and show you where it was in the closet because you said you couldn’t find it. These are the types of things I expect you to figure out on your own. Do you think you can commit to that? If not, this may not be the job for you.”
    And it may very well be that Phoebe would do much better in a job where she’s handling more creative things (although these seem like basic life skills to me, which leads me to wonder how much independence Phoebe had before taking this job?).

  55. Fluffy Fish*

    N/A beer
    Optics my friend. Seriously.

    I’m not even talking about people thinking you have a drinking problem. Some might but plenty wont jump to that conclusion. There’s been a pretty big shift in culture around alcohol in the US where non-alcoholic alternatives have become big business with there even being non-alcoholic bars opening. I myself have opted for the non-alcohol version of things at breweries, I enjoy the taste of beer and if I can get that without the mild poisoning that is alcohol, I’ll take it.

    But it’s STILL the optics. Regardless of the intention, it reads like someone trying to be provocative.

    You know it’s going to prompt questions.

    There’s literally endless beverage choices that are also non-alcoholic. Choosing the one that will look like the alcoholic version to observers…why? You like the taste? Cool. I assume you also like the taste of other non-alcoholic beverages. So why pick the one that’s going to raise eyebrows?

    Getting a rise out of your workplace for no reason isn’t typically a good career move.

    1. Observer*

      Getting a rise out of your workplace for no reason isn’t typically a good career move.

      This. 100x over

  56. ExManagerAnnie*

    OP1: When you chat with your employee, you may also clarify that it’s okay to make mistakes or do things slightly differently than you’d do (if this is actually true at your organization). I worked in a Very Toxic Place where if someone, for instance, asked for 200 markers, and the admin ordered the four boxes of 50 each, they would get reamed for not asking for the “special box of 200 they made for the person last time,” or whatever. Essentially, everyone was so afraid of making “mistakes” that almost every employee functioned like yours and it was exhausting for everyone involved.

    If the employee has the confidence that comes with knowing she won’t be vilified for small errors, she may be able to take the job and run with it with the excellent attitude that you mentioned.

    1. Marna Nightingale*

      That’s what I was going to say, except you said it better.

      It’s true that a manager can’t teach critical thinking skills. If that’s the problem, it’s probably too big a problem.

      But they can definitely instil confidence, so that’s worth a try. And honestly I don’t think anyone makes it to working age alive with the level of decision-making you describe, so odds are good.

      At worst, she’s absolutely freeze and not be able to unfreeze or else she’ll go for it and you’ll find out that she really doesn’t have any critical thinking skills and she’ll make a small, manageable mess. (Since you can control what you cut her loose on).

      At best, she’ll make a decision and come back to you looking stressed and you get to say “Good call, that works really well for me” or “Not what I was expecting, but I like it” or “OK, yeah, I see how you got there. That made sense with the information you had”, or “that’s not the ideal solution, but we can make it work” or whatever is appropriate so she finds out what actual workplace feedback is meant to look like.

  57. Unaccountably*

    OP1 – I also had a Phoebe.

    I don’t know why he was Phoebe. Was it his upbringing? Was he neurodivergent? Was it crippling anxiety or depression? I don’t know. As a human I wanted to know, but as his boss, I couldn’t afford to care. At the end of the day, there were no accommodations we could make that would allow him to continue making a full-time salary without being able to make deadlines, complete assignments by himself, or capably do the work we hired him to do.

    So I let him go. It sucked. I felt guilty. But I also had a responsibility to the co-workers who had to take up his slack, and I just couldn’t provide him with the kind of constant one-on-one tutoring that he needed in order to even get close to doing his job.

    There’s a lot of armchairing going on here, but ultimately it comes down to whether, after discussing the problem with her, you think that there’s a reasonable chance she could become a competent employee in her current position. If not, you’re not doing anyone any favors by keeping her on.

  58. Erin*

    It sounds like Phoebe knows she’s messing things up, which just derails her during tasks even more. Since she might be getting a feel for your communication style, it could benefit both of you if you were more explicit in directions.

    Ex with the markers: some people are very specific with what type of marker they want, while others don’t care. Telling Phoebe to order 200 hot pink, medium point Sharpies would eliminate confusion, and being successful with tasks would build her confidence to a point that she would be able to infer that you want 200 hot pink Sharpies when you ask her for 200 markers.

    I would also suggest that she partner with another person in her role to navigate where things are in the office. That will allow her to build connections so she can ask other people for help besides you.

  59. GiGi*

    OP1 – I basically am a Phoebe, and while I feel for her, you’d be doing her a greater kindness in outlining what needs to change ASAP, giving her a deadline, and if she doesn’t/can’t rise to the occasion, move on from her.

    The amount of years I wasted bumbling through complex office jobs, frozen and confused, would’ve been better spent figuring out what I am good at and what I can handle. I’m a “career receptionist” now, and it’s what works for me. Some people just aren’t built for complicated tasks. I’m one of them, and it seems like Phoebe is too.

  60. anti social socialite*

    I feel for Phoebe. I went from a very rigid “do it this way or no way” kind of job to a “it’s better to seek forgiveness than permission” kind of job and the adjustment was (& still is sometimes) difficult.

    You say she’s fresh out of school. Often there isn’t a lot of room for non-standard answers/approaches. (standard of learning exams anyone?) Mind you, that’s not be all schools, but she could be used to a very rigid system.

    It’s perfectly within your rights to either fire her or put her on a PIP, but it might also be worth finding out why she’s struggling. Is she afraid that if she doesn’t order a box of exactly 200 markers she’ll get in trouble? Or did it simply not occur to her to order them in groups of 50?

  61. Calamity Janine*

    this has likely been brought up before now but, instead of non-alcoholic beer, i have seen some fancy sparkling waters that have a hops flavor.

    personally to me that sounds like a drink reserved for only the worst circles of hell, alongside everyone’s fav “oh just trust me i totally picked you a flavor from the world of coca cola big display of international beverages that is good and tasty actually and in no way tastes of Satan’s armpit, just take this fun sample cup and trust be bro”, Beverly.

    is it the full beer experience, even non-alcoholic beer? no. but quite honestly the hops flavor sparkling water will likely smell of just hops instead of like beer specifically, which given your profession is what i would be more worried about. if you could be killing others while working drunk, “hold on you smell like beer, don’t go back to work, get this test done right now” is reasonable for a supervisor to do. even if the test shows you’re fine, that’s still an awful lot of fuss and bother and time wasted – both the company’s and your own. (and i expect that would only happen once before you get someone telling you off and saying no beers at work includes the non-alcoholic ones due to potential for false positives like this.)

    maybe just try some hops flavor sparkling waters.

    or diet coke, if you’re in the mood to love yourself and stop punishing your innocent taste buds

    1. Calamity Janine*

      (if it’s the sparkling from fermentation and those flavors specifically as well, maybe also try some kombuchas? they sometimes can also have teeny weeny technical amounts of nominal alcohol, akin to some nonalcoholic beers. but instead of being the nonalcoholic version of a well known alcoholic drink, that’s just normal kombucha. in terms of optics it also yells “i am a health nut and-or bit of a hippie” instead of “i am an alcoholic”, which is much more palatable for the workplace.)

  62. Blackbird*

    In my infinite wisdom I made a similar (low-stakes) mistake to OP4. My regular glasses are stemless wine glasses. I was in a Zoom meeting and drinking a Diet Coke out of one of these glasses- a coworker texted me asking if I was seriously drinking wine during a meeting. Oops!

  63. Heffalump*

    At the risk of being off-topic (this was in my personal life), I had an experience some years ago where someone fell down badly in critical thinking, so I can relate to #1.

    I was sharing an apartment with 3 other people, and the land-line phone was in my name. Cell phones were some years in the future. Normally I collected my roommates’ share of the phone bill and sent the telco a check, but one month we agreed that “Fern,” one of my roommates, would send the telco the money and I’d give her my share of the bill in cash. I don’t remember why we did it this way, but we did. I assumed everything was in order.

    The following month I received the bill, and it hadn’t been paid at all. I now owed the telco for 2 months’ service. I was like, WTF? Fern said that she was strapped and simply didn’t have the money for her share of the bill. Why hadn’t she told me so I could cover it and have her pay me back later? No answer. Why hadn’t she sent the telco everyone else’s share of the money? No answer. How had she thought I was going to react when I got the latest bill? No answer.

    I pointed out that even if I hadn’t been able to cover her share of the bill, I would at least have known that she didn’t have the money. Under that scenario, I would still have assumed that she’d sent the telco everyone else’s share of the bill. She had no response to that.

    She kept saying, “You’re paid up, you’re fine!” At one point she said, “I’ve seen these situations, and the bills get paid sooner or later.” All true, but missing the central point that she’d kept me in the dark. Even after the fact, there was no sense of, “It would have been a good idea to keep him in the loop.”

    A couple months later another roommate said straight up at the beginning of the month that he’d be a couple days late with his share of the rent. Fern said bitterly, “You get mad at me about the phone bill but not at him about the rent.” I pointed out that I’d been kept in the loop in the one case and blindsided in the other. She still didn’t get it. Arrrrgh!

    I moved out a few months later. This incident wasn’t the entire reason, but it was a good chunk of the reason.

  64. Katrinka*

    For the last letter, the job seeker: when I started job-seeking a couple of years ago, my regular personal gmail account included my (difficult to say and spell) married name. I had gone back to my (very easy to say and spell) maiden name, so I set up a new gmail account with just my initials and last name and two numbers. I felt it was much easier for a potential employer to deal with, plus I didn’thave to worry about missing a letter. Having a separate email for job seeking also made it easier to keep track of emails and replies.

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