my employee refuses to do her job and leads me in circles about why she won’t

A reader writes:

I have a direct report (let’s call her Bartleby) who has been underperforming for a while, in particular by not doing enough work that can be charged to our internal customers.

This might seem like an easy problem to call out and manage, but Bartleby and I have had communication problems since I took this position about five years ago, and they’ve only gotten worse. When she’s doing work that she feels is solidly in her preferred domain, she does well. If asked to work on something slightly different (but still well within her skillset and job description) in order to get more chargeable time, she becomes resistant. This manifests in conversations that run something like this (condensed to a few lines, when her actual responses are often five-minute monologues or longer):

Me: Please work with Marge on this chargeable task.
B: Well, I don’t really feel comfortable with that.
Me: Why?
B: You provide so much more support to Marge and the others in the group and I feel uncomfortable doing this work knowing that I won’t have your support.
Me: What do you mean by support here?
B: You won’t back me up if things go wrong.
Me: I will back you up, as I have in the past. Please work with Marge on this.
B: I don’t feel comfortable with that because when Bill was a manager, he trained Marge on it, but not me.
Me: He trained me as well before he left, and I’m happy to train you on it in turn.
B: The difference is that Bill supported me, and you don’t.
Me: As I said, I’m happy to support you as needed.
B: I don’t feel comfortable that you will.
Me: So, you’re refusing to have me train you so you can do this task?
B: I never said that! Don’t accuse me of refusing to do work!
Me: So, you’ll work with Marge on this?
B: I don’t feel comfortable doing that without more support.

This continues until I just terminate the conversation, often after spending half an hour or more talking in circles like this. I then receive long, rambling emails that misrepresent what was said and complain that I won’t take the time to talk to her about things. I spend more time managing her than I do the other half-dozen (highly motivated and self-directed) people in my group put together!

I have really tried to think about what she means by “support,” and I have come up blank. I have asked for specifics and have gotten many vague words in response, but nothing actionable beyond the concern that that she’ll be blamed if things go wrong. If there are any customer questions or concerns about what we provide them, I will readily step in to deal with them; no blame ever accrues to her (or even to me, really) in the rare case of problems. When I try to offer her new projects or training, I get what I described above. Given how often Bartleby invokes the past manger, Bill, and how I don’t do things the way he did, I feel like the nucleus of her complaints about me often amount to, “You aren’t Bill.” That is certainly true, but it’s also not something I can fix, and there are good reasons I do things differently. (For one thing, I was specifically hired because I would spend more time on developing new work and less time on close, daily management of the activities of each group member than he did.) With the rest of the group, my management style seems to work well. I hardly need to mention a task before they are ready to take it on, and if they need training or help, they both ask for and receive it with complete grace.

I have brought the matter to my manager (with whom I have a great relationship, and who has given me high marks for performance and good advice when needed), and we have set some specific goals for her regarding the amount of work that she charges; if she doesn’t show progress towards these goals, we’ll put her on a formal PIP and move towards termination if things don’t improve.

I would like to avoid things getting to that point. First, she does have valuable technical expertise, and when she’s working on something where she feels comfortable, she does very good work. Second, I dread going through the (long, involved) termination process with her, since I know it will involve all sorts of similar evasions, misrepresentations, and accusations of favoritism. It will be exhausting, and while I’ll do it if needed, to borrow a quote, “I would prefer not to.”

So, is there a way I can change the direction things are going here, or is my only good option to hold the course and brace myself for the consequences?

Hold the course and brace for the consequences. Whatever’s going on with Bartleby, it sounds like it’s coming from her and not you.

And it sounds like you’ve made good faith efforts! You’ve asked what kind of support she wants and feels she’s not getting. You’ve asked for specifics. You’ve reflected privately. And you’re not getting anywhere. If there’s something specific she wants from you, she needs to tell you.

The one thing you can — and should — try that you haven’t already is to let her know how serious a problem this is and what is going to happen if she doesn’t change what she’s doing. The PIP is the formal way of doing that, but you can do a less formal version of that conversation first.

For example: “We have talked many times about your resistance to talking on projects like X and Y. I need to be clear with you that this has become a serious performance issue and if we can’t solve it, the next step will be a formal performance improvement plan, which would end with you being fired if this doesn’t change. I don’t want to see that happen, so I want to be very clear about what needs to change to avoid that. Specifically, when I assign you a task, I need you to either do the task or, if you don’t feel you can, give me specifics on exactly what you need from me that will allow you to do it. Simply not doing the tasks is not an option. If you have specific, concrete things you need from me to make that possible, I need you to name those. You cannot continue to resist the work without specifying exactly what support you are looking for. If you do continue that, we will need to start the PIP process.”

Then, after that conversation, if she’s resistant to another project in the same way you described in your letter, you’d handle the conversation more like this:

You: Please work with Marge on this chargeable task.
B: Well, I don’t really feel comfortable with that.
You: What specific actions do you need me to take to support you on this task?
B: I’m worried you won’t back me up if things go wrong.
You: I will indeed back you up, as I have in the past. I understand you’re worried about that, but regardless I do need you to begin this assignment now.
B: I don’t feel comfortable with that because when Bill was a manager, he trained Marge on it, but not me.
You: I’m happy to train you on it before you begin. But this is what we talked about earlier — I need you to take on projects like this one without pushing back. I’ve heard your concerns, I’m open to any specific requests for concrete things you need, I can give you more training if you need it, but meanwhile I need you to get started on this today.
B: I don’t feel comfortable.
You: Projects like this are a required part of your job. They’re not optional. If you don’t want the job knowing tasks like this are part of it, that’s a conversation we can have. But this is indeed part of your job and I need you to start on it today.

And if you have to have more than one conversation like this after the big-picture “we’re heading to a PIP” conversation, don’t delay any longer — get started on the PIP process ASAP. If your organization allows it, that PIP should be pretty short — think weeks, not months (as long as that’s enough time for these projects to come up and for you to see change or lack of change). Don’t let it drag out.

I’d also recommend that you go into these conversations with Bartleby assuming that it’s very likely this will end with needing to fire her. It sounds like you’ve been dealing with her as if she’s a rational person who’s so close to doing a good job if only she can fix this one little thing … and that’s leading you to indulge in these lengthy circular discussions more than you should. It is okay to short-circuit these discussions with “this is what we talked about, and I need you to do this today.” Don’t give her all this space to play out … whatever this is that she’s playing out.

For the record, it’s possible that Bartleby genuinely does feel unsupported and might have legitimate reasons for that! She might have worked with unsupportive managers in the past, or been penalized harshly for mistakes, or who knows what. That’s why it’s important for you to have looked back at your own history with her and to have heard her out. But taking you at your word that you’ve done that and she never gets blamed if something goes wrong, there’s a limit on what you can do to accommodate her fears. At this point whatever she’s dealing with has become disruptive and is getting in the way of work getting done. Lay out the changes you need in how she’s approaching projects, and then hold her to that and decline to get into these endless quagmires every time.

But yeah, assume this is going to end with needing to part ways.

{ 414 comments… read them below }

  1. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

    HOW DO THESE PEOPLE KEEP THEIR JOBS INDEFINITELY. HOW. Every day it seems like, I hear and read stories about people who were just *poof* fired for clocking in 1 minute late, or whatever. And then we regularly read letters on AAM about people who just straight up refuse to do their jobs, right to their managers’ faces, and the manager is stymied on what to do. Stop spinning your wheels and fire her! There are skilled, conscientious people out there who need jobs and will not vampire all your time and energy. Hire one of them. No one is irreplaceable.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Seriously, this.

      Do the PIP to CYA, if it makes you feel better, but be prepared to unload her and find someone who will actually do the work.

    2. Sheworkshardforthemoney*

      In all my years, I’ve seen one person fired on the spot for a clear safety violation. Most managers seem to either be fire immediately or hope the problem goes away on it’s own. That rarely happens, instead good people leave instead.

      1. Siege*

        It is, hands-down, THE most frustrating thing about working for a union. Everyone – everyone! – thinks that union members are untouchable with regards to firing, but they’re not! We WANT you to fire bad employees! Bad employees who are union members are still bad employees! We just want you to follow the process to do it and make sure that it’s a fair firing. And then you get managers who just cannot possibly commit to little things like “not giving an employee a glowing review because the employee sucks but pisses off the manager’s enemy” or “document the issues with this employee” or whatever, and the employee stays in place for years and years, sucking up everyone’s time and energy and killing enthusiasm for their program, and man aren’t union employees just totally unfireable?

        Why do so many managers only want to fire if they can fire immediately, and not if it takes work? OP, if you feel unsupported by your managers, that’s an issue to address, but honestly, I read the title of this post and said “this person needs to be fired immediately.” I did not change my mind on reading the post!

        1. lost academic*

          So much easier to use the union as an excuse to not manage people in a timely and effective manner.

          1. Cat Tree*

            Exactly. I work in manufacturing, and I’ve worked at various places with and without unions. I’m an engineer so never part of the union in any case. But the ONLY difference between the union places and the non-union places is that the unions got paid more.

          2. Frustrated as well*

            Ding ding ding

            My mom was a director in a unionized workplace for nearly 10 years. She was admin, so not unionized. She inherited an admin assistant who was completely incompetent–think unable to open a Word document, type notes, and save it. In the 2010s. This woman had been shuffled around from department to department for over a decade because none of the other admin level staff would go through the formal evaluation process.

            Well, my mom did and all she ended up having to do was submit an honest performance evaluation for her employee–you know, marking “unsatisfactory” on her report and documenting why. Of course it went through union review, the union looked at the performance review, interviewed the employee, concluded they would not advocate for her based on the evidence, and strongly recommended she take early retirement, which she did. My mom said she had other managers from multiple departments come to her incredulously asking how she’d gotten rid of the problem employee and my mom was like, “I just did my job!”

            1. Heffalump*

              I’ve heard that in school systems, shuffling bad teachers around from school to school is called “the dance of the lemons.”

              1. My Cabbages!*

                Yep, my husband teaches in a school infamous for being the ending point for “lemon dancing”.

          3. Loulou*

            Thank you!!! Many of the most frustrating people I work with are non-union. They’re at will and could contractually be fired at any time…it’s management who’s keeping them here, not the union.

        2. xl*


          I work in a union environment and I’m a union officer. I hear a ton of complaining about how the union is only there to protect the bad workers.

          No, the union is there to ensure that the established and agreed upon process is followed, no matter who it involves. There are plenty of bad workers who have me pulling my hair out and they’re people I don’t like working with. I’m the one down there working with them and having to work harder when they’re not pulling their weight…you think that’s what I want? But there is still a process that management has agreed to in order to remove someone, and if we allowed management to just bypass that process, then what is the point of having a contract in place? Once that precedent is set, what would be the next thing that would bypassed….our COL raise, or our health plan, or our dental plan? Or just firing someone who’s a good worker but higher in the payscale so they can replace them with someone new so they can start them at the bottom of the payscale?

          I’ve heard a lot of complaints from management about how they can’t get rid of bad employees because they’re “untouchable,” but at the same time they haven’t taken even the first step in disciplinary action against that person. If they follow the rules and still have a case to terminate that employee, then I can’t override their decision. I’m not in management and I can’t tell them what to do. I’m just there to ensure the process was followed. I’m there to protect the process, not the specific person.

          1. KRM*

            Yes, heaven forbid that you take some mid level steps if you feel you need to fire someone! /s

            I mean, unions are great. They guarantee your contract and negotiate for benefits! They’re there for you if you have issues! They don’t want bad employees working there either! But if you can’t even bother to say “X is refusing to do A&B parts of their job, what is the process for documenting this, up to and including firing them”, then YOU are part of the problem! (generic you, to clarify!).

          2. Irish Teacher*

            And working in an industry and a country where unions are common, intervening when people are at risk of being fired is only a small part of what a union does. Generally, our union is involved in stuff like negotiating pay, representing teaching in discussions on changes to the curriculum, negotiating working conditions.

            My first association with unions would be negotiating higher pay for workers, not preventing people from being fired. Most of the high profile strikes here (not just with teachers, but with transport workers and other groups) have been either about poor pay, pay cuts or changes to working conditions that are deemed unacceptable. The Irish transport union is currently raising the issue of anti-social behaviour on public transport and the need to protect its workers from physical violence and are campaigning for a dedicated police unit to deal with the issue. There have been threats of strike action over this.

            And just because it’s an interesting story, back in the early ’80s, a union in Ireland basically brought about a national boycott on South African goods in protest at apartheid. That DID involve protecting an individual worker who was suspended for refusing to handle South African goods. There was a strike that lasted something like 14 months and eventually, the government intervened and banned South African goods.

            So there are definitely times when unions support people who are being fired for…what in this case was a principled stance. I can imagine it must be frustrating to have to jump through hoops to fire somebody truly causing difficulties, but it’s surely better than having no protections.

        3. Cowbell*

          So much this! [stands, applauds]

          I was in a union shop for 20 years and we went through several managers during that time (because of the nature of the work, contract gets handed from company to company, so managers change). We had one person in the group who was such a detriment to the rest of the group. Excuses, talking in circles, evading direct answers, timecard shenanigans, and more – all legitimate business-based reasons for them to be reeled in by management. We had three managers in a row who avoided dealing with them formally because of how “difficult” the union made it. (Meanwhile, others of us spoke to the union and let them know we, too, were miserable because this person’s issues radiated out and affected the rest of the team in numerous ways. Union leadership was therefore warned not to go to the mat for this person.) We finally had a manager who was rightfully ticked by all the crap, went through the process and ran them out the door. To much cheering.

        4. Yes Anastasia*

          YUP. I’ve worked in unionized & non-unionized public sector positions and managers drag their feet on firing people in both settings.

        5. SongbirdT*

          I am the daughter of a retired union prez and I feel like my mom could have written this. She said it over and over that the bad workers were a thorn in her side too, but management had a process they could use to solve the problem! She, on the other hand, had a legal obligation to represent them regardless. However, there’s nothing the union can do when performance issues are documented and the process is followed.

          1. KRM*

            Yep. My mom worked at a place with a union and an ineffective manager over a terrible employee. She used to say that if the manager would just write down what this guy did (or didn’t do), the union representation wouldn’t be fighting to keep him. They’d be saying “hmmm, looks like you have a documented history of not actually performing parts of your job as contracted, so it’s been nice having you, there’s the door”.

        6. Boof*

          I imagine unions are like any other organization in that there are examples of them doing things terribly wrong and examples where they really help. But when it comes to unions and firing, I can’t help but flashback to some commenter here who it sounded like said a union member was sexually harassing/being a major creeper, and finally fired for it, but for some reason the prior managers hadn’t documented the behavior / dealt with it for a long time. So the union said they couldn’t be fired for the behavior now since it had been tolerated before? And the employee got to go back with back pay. Which… I hope they commenter was communicating the situation horribly wrong because that sounds exactly like the sort of nightmare scenario people complain about. Yes managers should address a problem in the past, but if they haven’t it should still be addressed now! Allowing a serial creeper to creep is not a win for anyone, least of all all the creeper’s (presumably unionized) coworkers!
          (I also know my husband used to teach and the union was a nice resource for when administration was doing their usual nonsensical “you must pass the kids who do not know the maths and who came to you not knowing the maths because everyone else passed the kids despite not knowing maths because the numbers look bad if you don’t” demoralizing crap – so I definitely think unions can have their ups too)
          That being said it sounds like LW is not dealing with a union but corporate bureaucracy – either way the time to start working on this is now, exactly in the way allison beautifully outlined.

          1. KoiFeeder*

            I can’t figure out which comment you’re referring to; was it any of these?(

          2. KoiFeeder*

            I’ve linkspammed you trying to find which comment it was in a reply that Alison will post if and when she has the bandwidth to deal with moderation, so while we’re waiting on that, I’d like to point out that people making all sorts of excuses for why sexual harassers shouldn’t experience consequences is neither new nor restricted to unions.

        7. Clisby*

          One of my brothers worked for years in a manufacturing company that was unionized. He was in management. I happened to be present when someone complained about how hard it was to fire union employees, and he just rolled his eyes. He said, basically, “The union isn’t the problem. The problem is that too many managers don’t want to do their jobs, and they put up with crap from union members over and over and over, without documenting anything, and then think they can fire them on the spot and have that work out. It won’t.”

        8. Lydia*

          I have a friend who is a union steward and he is so with you on this. We talk about it often. If a manager hasn’t documented the issue and the interventions, that’s not a union problem, that’s a lazy manager problem. Do the barest minimum amount of work and get the outcome you need. That’s all it takes.

        9. Flash Packet*

          We had dead weight on our team when I got hired. “Dean” was often MIA, did really bad work, and had a bad attitude (he was always trying to drag team members into political arguments; he once said that eugenics isn’t actually a bad thing, so long as you use it to “cull the herd of defects” and he wasn’t talking about animals).

          The manager who hired me was also my manager at a previous job, so we were already pretty close. After I’d gotten the lay of the land, I asked him why the hell Dean was still employed by us. Manager told me that he just didn’t have the time or energy to document everything the way HR would need in order to be able to fire him.

          Dean was such dead weight that when we were assigning parts of projects, he would get booked for 1/3 more hours than anyone else but given half the amount of work. Management did that so they would have a realistic plan. (“Dean’s not going to do much work anyway, so let’s not make a plan that assumes he will work as much as everyone else. We’re just setting ourselves up for failure.”)

          And I was like, “So you’re overscheduling everyone else just so Dean can play a few more rounds of Call of Duty???” And my manager said, “Dean’s been here longer than I have, and I’m not giving up my nights and weekends to document his failings since the company clearly doesn’t care. Chin up, though. At least you know you could coast here, collecting paychecks along the way, for several years before anyone would ever do anything about it.”

          Dean finally quit on his own, giving a 5-day notice and leaving so many messes behind that it took three of us working a month’s worth of 50-60 hour weeks to get everything cleaned up and back on track.

      2. Sinking Ship*

        Exactly. Good people leave because bad people are allowed to stay, even more so in high leadership positions.

    3. CharlieBrown*

      LW says “First, she does have valuable technical expertise, and when she’s working on something where she feels comfortable, she does very good work.”

      So yeah, there’s a reason not to fire her right there. But is it a good enough reason? I don’t think so. You can hire or train technical expertise. And five years of this is entirely too long. I think sometimes managers focus on the one or two positive things like this because it’s actual work to get rid of someone and replace them. (And depending on your workplace, it can be a genuine headache.) But yeah, they should have been gone or made vast improvements well before this point.

      Good-bye, Bartleby.

      1. BatManDan*

        The last reason (or “objection,” as they are called in sales environment) given is always the REAL reason. The OP mentioned a few weak reasons (judging by the consensus of the commenters) to keep her, but the mention at the end of “don’t wanna do the work of firing her” (and by implication, replacing her) is exactly what is keeping the OP from firing Bartleby. And, since it doesn’t add up in a dollars-and-cents or a pros-and-cons sort of way, she left that until the end, but it’s a big hurdle for the OP, and that’s exactly why Bartleby still has a job.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          OP, is Bartleby’s prickliness affecting her coworkers?

          e.g. Dumping less enjoyable work onto them? Hurting morale because they would also like to pick and choose their projects, but haven’t quite worked themselves up to her “Dare to be the most unreasonable person in the room, and watch everyone cave to accommodate you” strategy? If you drag your feet on removing her, you could wind up having to hire for the open slots of frustrated coworkers who figure “The problem is management will never fire this person” and so go somewhere Bartleby isn’t.

          As Charlie Brown says, it’s easier to hire someone who wants to work and then train them in attaching lids to llamas, than it is to hire someone who knows how to attach a lid to a llama but doesn’t want to and so won’t.

          1. MsM*

            And realize that even if you do fire her, they may just be too worn out from having dealt with it this long and need to start over somewhere fresh. Dragging your feet increases the likelihood of someone you don’t want to lose deciding today is the day they’re just done with everything.

          2. OP (Bartleby's Manager)*

            OP Here. Mostly, this does not affect her co-workers, but this is a concern that’s very much on my radar. They’ve occasionally run afoul of her being strangely obstinate about other matters (e.g. requests for information about capabilities in her area of specialization that get, “It depends,” as responses), but I think the structure of the group and its specializations mean the consequences of her behavior fall far more on me than on others. This is not to say that folks will miss her dearly were she to leave (I doubt they will), but I don’t get the feeling that there’s a deep well of resentment that she’s still here, either.

        2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          I feel this. That being said, I’m pretty sure OP is right that cutting Bartleby loose is going to be… extremely not fun. So I can see not going forward with that if it seems like there’s another option. The problem is that there probably isn’t another option, given the shenanigans, and this has been going on too long. So yeah, time to brace for impact.

        3. Fluttervale*

          My experience has been that no one ever wants to actually sit down and fire someone. It sucks, they cry and yell, then you cry, it’s hard.

          BUT 9 times out of 10 if you execute the PIP process correctly they quit within a month. I don’t think I’ve ever had to PIP someone to fire them except attendance, theft, or violence.

        4. Zweisatz*

          And I can understand why OP is reluctant to start the PIP process – all their energy is already being sucked up by having these drawn out discussions with the employee. But consider this, OP: go through the suck for x weeks or have these discussions INDEFINITELY.

          Also I believe it will serve you well to internalize that this employee may not agree with your assessment and that’s okay! Sure, she may think you didn’t have her back or didn’t give her a proper chance or never gave her the right support or… But remember that you are the manager in this situation, you have the power and you can make things happen (supportive manager for the win!) even if employee disagrees.

          You don’t need her assent to performance-manage her. Rip the bandaid off.

          1. The OTHER other*

            Just reading the LW’s sample dialogue, which they said was much condensed, was tiring. I am cringing at the thought of having gone through this over and over again… for YEARS? Ouch.

            LW, you say you are putting in more work managing Bartleby than all the rest of your reports, combined. Never mind your aggravation; think of how much of your time this person is wasting! Doing a PIP/getting rid of Bartleby will probably be a PITA, but it’s a PITA with an end point. Do you want to spend another five years dealing with this person?

            Bartleby is training you not to bother asking her to do things she doesn’t want to do. And it’s working.

          2. Observer*

            all their energy is already being sucked up by having these drawn out discussions with the employee.

            Well, PIP or not, the OP can solve that problem by REFUSING TO HAVE THOSE DISCUSSIONS.

            My first thought when reading the letter was “Why on earth are you engaging in these discussions?!” I get it when it happens the first time. But there comes a point where you just need to stop engaging. You’re not covering new ground and you can prepare.

            ou don’t need her assent to performance-manage her. Rip the bandaid off

            This! 100% x 1,000

        5. OP (Bartleby's Manager)*

          OP here. This is a fair cop. If it would be an easy process for me to terminate her, I would have done so, despite losing her legitimately valuable technical chops. Things have reached a point, though, where jumping that very high hurdle is seeming like the easier way forward.

          1. Rose*

            I don’t want to disagree with Alison, but I wouldn’t even go into discussions with her. Just “you need to get started on this today” blank face, keep repeating it until “if you do not begin this work today I am documenting that you are refusing to work on this”. If it’s training, open your calendar and say “looks like we both have 3pm open to train on this today”.

      2. Mockingjay*

        Five years is what stood out to me. OP, your patience is commendable, but think of all the time wasted managing Bartleby’s emotions over all those years. And that’s what you are managing right now – her feelings. Manage her work instead.

        I’d use even more blunt language that Alison suggests, especially since a PIP is looming. You need to be very specific about Tasks – what she is required to do, which teammates she needs to work with, in what format, due on this date. These specifics will allow you to shut down her protests and give you metrics to evaluate against a PIP.

        1. ferrina*

          YES! OP sounds like she’s been doing this for 5 YEARS! Why?! Why is Bartleby still invoking Bill 5 years later? Is Bartleby’s last name Havisham, because she seems really stuck in the past.

          It’s past time to shut this down. The job expectation is X. Bartleby needs to find a way to be successful at X. You are happy to try any solutions she suggests, but end of the day, X needs to be done.

          1. Russell T*

            Amen! It’s not that her current manager “is not Bill”, it’s that Bartleby is still seething with resentment at Bill five years later! He trained Marge and not her and she is still (still!) fighting that battle.
            Bartleby needs to go.

          2. The Prettiest Curse*

            Is Bartleby’s last name Havisham, because she seems really stuck in the past.

            I love the combined literary references! If Bartelby starts showing up to work in a ratty old wedding dress, you’ll know that the PIP you should put her on isn’t working.

        2. WellRed*

          I don’t think her patience is commendable at all. What a huge waste of time that could have been spent far more productively.

          1. learnedthehardway*

            Agreed. Bartleby has found an effective way to keep NOT doing what she is supposed to be doing. She’s doing it deliberately.

        3. Observer*

          OP, your patience is commendable, but think of all the time wasted managing Bartleby’s emotions over all those years.

          Actually it seems to me that the OP’s patience is NOT commendable. The time waste you mention is a real issue – but it’s not even the worst of it. The fact is that there is no way others are not suffering over this.

        1. CharlieBrown*

          Did you read all of my second paragraph?

          There are very few people in this world with truly unique skills.

    4. KatEnigma*

      Because managers like the OP don’t want to deal with the process required to fire them. They somehow think this kind of manipulation from their employers is preferable to a straightforward PIP.

      1. Rex Libris*

        One of the harder things to realize when I became a new manager was that you have to separate people’s actual performance from their stories about their performance, and address the former. If the employee refuses to provide actionable feedback, or address the issues you’ve flagged, you have to work with what’s in front of you.

        It’s not necessarily avoiding firing, but wanting to give the benefit of the doubt… that can go on forever if you keep listening to the stories.

        Definitely PIP time in this case.

        1. Sparkles McFadden*

          This is it exactly. When managers say they don’t want to deal with the long PIP process, it usually means they don’t want to feel bad about firing someone.

          At the eleventh hour, many managers will start saying things such as “I’m not sure if we’re doing the right thing here. She has a family.” If the direct manager isn’t thinking that, the grandboss (who doesn’t have to deal with this on a day to day basis) may jump in with that. Once that door opens a crack, the other thoughts come in: “Well, she does things OK sometimes…” and “We’ll have to hire someone new and that will take time, and what if we don’t find anyone good?” Then Bartleby gets to stay another five years.

          1. super anon*

            And people like me grow ever more weary of being the willing mule, caring about my work, going the extra mile. Why should I, when refusing to work gets the same results. “Quiet quitting” intensifies.

            1. lyngend (canada)*

              yeah, At my last two retail jobs, I got so tired of this. Working my butt off, showing up everyday. Yet the rare time I get sick? “do you have a doctor’s note”. when my lazier coworkers were calling in regularly without consequences. (and at the time, it cost me more money to get the note in cab fair and doctors fees then going to work).
              Made it so I really don’t go all out for my job anymore. I will absolutely do my job. But my willingness to go above and beyond isn’t that much. And If I have the choice I won’t ever work retail again (for multiple reasons

          2. KatEnigma*

            You do realize that’s just the Manager’s version of “I’m not REFUSING but I don’t feel comfortable” excuse for not doing their job?

            As Alison said in the past couple weeks, if you don’t address the problem at the time and make the hard decisions THEN, something comes up like illness or pregnancy or whatever, and then you can’t fire them without a lot of trouble.

          3. Baffled Teacher*

            My reply to this is “if they need to support their family then they need to start doing their job as assigned” especially in situations like this where there are no extenuating circumstances.

          4. Unaccountably*

            “When managers say they don’t want to deal with the long PIP process, it usually means they don’t want to feel bad about firing someone.”

            Maybe, and maybe not. By the time my bad employee got to the PIP phase, I was absolutely not going to feel bad about firing him. I’d already gone through the “Please God don’t let me have to find someone to replace this guy” stage of grief. I dragged my feet on the PIP process because I knew I was signing myself up to micromanage him for four weeks, on top of the tremendous amount of time I already had to spend attempting to get him to do his job, neither of which I actually had time for.

            If I could have just yelled at him that he was fired like on TV, I’d have done it. But the PIP process was considerably more onerous for me than it was for him, and that was why I started it later than I should have.

        2. Zweisatz*

          Yup, I had to fire people that I liked. But if you give 10 chances, you have explained after every issue that this is a problem, it needs to be fixed and you have mentioned 3 times that if this isn’t fixed you have to part ways… what else is there to do?
          At some point it doesn’t matter that it would be nice if things were different. Yeah obviously they would be! But what does the data right in front of your face tell you?

          I would suggest to OP to imagine what it would have been like to start the PIP after say, 1 year, not 5. Not as blame or recrimination, but a kind of reverse sunk cost fallacy: Wouldn’t it have been cool to not have these discussions for the last 3,5 years? How far in the rear view mirror would Bartleby already be? You would probably work with a splendid replacement at this point.
          You can give that gift to your future self any day now.

      2. Sleeve+McQueen*

        I’ve gone through a few of these and here’s what I wish I could have told myself when I first became a manager
        * Clear is Kind. Alison often talks about not softening the message and it’s really important to let people know they are not meeting expectations.
        * The longer you wait, the worse it will be – obviously you need to give people space to improve, but there’s no point delaying the inevitable, it will waste so much more of your time and probably sour your feelings about the employees a whole lot more, and you will still need to fire them anyway.
        * Most people don’t like not succeeding at work – maybe they are in the wrong role, maybe they need a wake-up call they’ve gotten into some bad habits, but neither is a satisfying experience for them
        * Starting the PIP takes a lot of the emotion out of it – it makes dealing with the employee less frustrating and if they are not improving, the end is in sight.
        *It sucks, but worrying about how much it sucks is worse. No matter how much I have dreaded doing it, the agonising over doing it is far harder than the experience of doing it.

        1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

          Your last comments on dread are just so very spot on! The more you dread something, the longer you wait, whereas in fact you should be even more on the ball to seize the first opportunity to get it done. It is perhaps the thing that annoys me most about myself. Trouble is that there are just enough of those dreaded things that end up going away by themselves to give me reasonable hope that it can happen again.

    5. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Hiring is exhausting, training is exhausting, these things take time and resources and there’s a skills gap in the meantime. Most of the time it is legitimately easier to fix a problem than fire someone and start over.

      In the middle of that, it can be hard to see where the line is that you have to fire people. It feels obvious from the outside looking in, but it’s rarely that black and white in person.

      Also some places, it’s simply not easy to fire someone due to policy and procedure. So there are a lot of reasons.

      1. Been There*

        This comment really resonated with me – that when you’re in the middle of a situation you see as a coaching or skills gap problem, you can easily miss the forest for the trees.

        Though the performance issues were different, I had to let go an employee who similarly would engage in these exhausting circular conversations where little was resolved and I struggled to stay on message, or understand how their comments related to the topic at hand. It was so frustrating because the person was trying very hard to do their job and it just … wasn’t … working.

        Alison’s advice here is really good. Having that “you’re on track for a PIP” conversation ahead of time at least allows Bartleby to understand the seriousness of their behaviour when that PIP is introduced. I really liked the script too, as even a clear conversation plan can go out the window with certain types of people.

        You have done everything you can. To get yourself into the mindset of having to let Bartleby go, think about what else you could be doing with the extra time not spent coaching or having endless discussions with them. Even if your other employees work well independently, you will have more time for high-level management tasks — the stuff you note you were hired to do.

        The process of firing my employee was long and exhausting (it was a union shop.) The work of creating a PIP and monitoring them closely through it sucked.

        AND it was so, so worth it. They needed to go.

        1. Me ... Just Me*

          There are lots of positions that are difficult to fill, for many reasons. Sometimes, it is preferable to have someone who mostly does the work than NOT to have anyone for a prolonged length of time. I don’t know where everyone here works where vacancies are instantly filled with skilled individuals, but that’s never been my experience.

          And, if the worker has been there for any length of time (say, 5 years) there’s going to be consequences within the team (friendships, etc) that will also need to be managed. It’s not as straight forward as everyone thinks.

          1. Zweisatz*

            Well, I would assume people are speaking from experience. I sure am.

            When I let people go, we didn’t have anybody in the wings. But it turned out that it was always a great relief when the process was done because 1) low performers are usually a time suck to somebody 2) being short-staffed can be preferably to all other points in this list 3) we didn’t have to correct their errors anymore and could spend the time on other tasks 4) my team does notice when something is off and if they have to clean up after the same person all the time or re-explain basic info for the 5th time it turns out they are also relieved when the source leaves.
            Low performance rarely fosters great relationships.

          2. Observer*

            Sometimes, it is preferable to have someone who mostly does the work than NOT to have anyone for a prolonged length of time.

            That’s extremely rare, though. Nothing the OP says indicates that this is one of those situations.

            Keep in mind, it’s not just the Bartleby is not doing their job. It’s also wasting a ridiculous amount of time and energy – time and energy that could go to better use. And it’s also almost certainly affecting other staff. And worse, from the purely pragmatic “need warm bodies” perspective, allowing stuff like this to go on is likely to cause the better staff to leave in a way that an open position won’t.

      2. Sparkles McFadden*

        The PIP process doesn’t always result in firing. In this case, it might get the point across to Bartleby that she cannot just refuse certain tasks, and it should pinpoint where the gaps in training are. It should also formalize the training process. The LW says “I’ll get you training if you want it” but there’s no reference to whether or not any training ever took place. In a responsibly set up PIP, the manager is formally accountable as well.

        1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

          Yes, the PIP could simply be a way of cutting through all the BS, getting to the point, telling Bartleby that there is no point mentioning Bill after five years (I’d feel like telling her that Bill left because he couldn’t stand managing her any more!), and getting Bartleby to either state in a one-verb sentence what she needs to be able to do the job or simply leave.

      3. LlamaDuck*

        Thank you, this is very true.

        Also, I have been employed in places that were stressfully understaffed for too long, because people were fired (maybe rightly!) and just not replaced.

        Sometimes it was because management refused to pay market rates. Other times, HR was legitimately trying to hire someone new, budgeted appropriately, and was just struggling. That employer also once hired someone who quit after three weeks.

        It depends on how bad the fired employee was at their job. I wouldn’t want to be around someone hostile, aggressive, unsafe, or vulgar. But, tbh, there are places I would’ve taken a team with a lazy coworker over a team that’s semi-permenantly understaffed. And replacing the lazy coworker with a reliable one didn’t seem to be in the cards, so, I left.

    6. Rae*

      Do we really prefer managers who jump to firing too quickly? Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is human and appreciated. Firing someone shouldn’t be done lightly.

      1. KHB*

        There’s a huuuuuuge amount of middle ground between firing someone immediately for a single minor misstep and letting nonsense like this go on for five years. Bartleby has had more than enough benefit of the doubt.

        1. ferrina*

          Five years is a long time not to do a key part of your job. Bartleby has had time to figure this out, to get some training, to address this. At my organization, if you are doing a key part of your job, there’s a 3-6 months grace period before you get put on a PIP. It’s not immediate- we know folks can have a bad month or two. But 5 years? Nope.

        2. Thursday Next*

          Yeah this person should have been on a PIP after maybe three or four of these conversations max. The idea that this has been allowed to go on for years is boggling and probably generating great resentment in Bartleby’s co-scriveners.

      2. Mark The Herald*

        I agree with you – I don’t want people fired at the drop of a hat. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that. It’s just an honest reaction I think many of us have had. We read stories on AAM, or we hear them from friends or family, or we witness them firsthand at work, and we really wonder why we are working so hard and investing so much worry and care and effort into our jobs when there are people who take home a paycheck every week despite being outrageously lazy or incompetent or straight-up defiant.

        On a lot of politics and economics, I’m somewhere off to the left of Leon Trotsky… but still, there is a lot to be said for the social compact. If you see enough other people slacking or norms breaking or rules violating with no consequences, you start to feel like a sap.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          I’ve come to view a lot of social structures as evolving from “Since we are no longer in a tribe of 100-odd people where everyone knows everyone, how can we assure everyone that that all the other people in this social compact are doing the right thing, and not freeloading while expecting others’ effort to carry them?”

          1. Unaccountably*

            Some societies evolve toward “We have to make sure that no one is freeloading, even if it means that people who are genuinely in need are treated like freeloaders.” Some evolve toward “We have to make sure that people who are genuinely in need are given the resources they need to succeed, even knowing that freeloaders will occasionally take advantage of the system.”

            I don’t think the first one works very well, personally. It certainly isn’t a very kind place to live if you’re human and fallible.

        2. NotWorkingForFree*

          There is a guy at my job who’s been in trouble literally since he started with my group. He always says oh I didn’t know or no one trained me on this. I’ve trained him myself on some things-I KNOW he knows. He just doesn’t want to do it right. He gets cut SO much slack. I’d love to sleep at work and get paid for it and have no consequences. Absolutely makes me question why I try to do a good job sometimes.

      3. Former Young Lady*

        This is a strawman. Nobody’s saying OP should have yeeted Bartleby after a single instance of “I’m not comfortable” nonsense.

        Refusing to address poor performance over the long term is not good management. Having bottomless pity for your worst worker is just plain inconsiderate of their competent colleagues.

        1. Rae*

          I read this very differently. The employee is strong at a large portion of the job, and the OP has been trying to work with the employee on this piece. After repeated attempts to find a solution the OP is discussing with their manager the likelihood of needing to do a PIP but is looking for any other options they haven’t seen. That isn’t refusing to address performance issues. We’re also coming off of 2 years of hell and recalibrating to new normals.

          1. KRM*

            Sure but repeated attempts CANNOT equal 5 years of having the same conversation over and over and over, while the employee continues to refuse to do parts of her job. And yes 2 years have been pandemic years, but that doesn’t excuse the 3 prior years. Bartleby is BEYOND recalcitrant and needs to be gone yesterday.

      4. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        I think it’s that managers prefer to jump to firing quickly, they don’t want to have to go through the motions of trying to get the worker to improve, they don’t want to have to document everything that’s going on, they don’t want to put anything in writing in case it comes back to bite them in the butt, they just want it over and done with.
        Workers don’t prefer managers like that, because the power to fire in an instant can lead to huge abuse, usually starting with firing anyone who has the “wrong genitals” or “wrong skin colour” or even, as per a very recent post, “wrongly-located scars”.

    7. Salsa Verde*

      I think it’s exactly what Alison said: It sounds like you’ve been dealing with her as if she’s a rational person who’s so close to doing a good job if only she can fix this one little thing … and that’s leading you to indulge in these lengthy circular discussions more than you should.

      I totally get that – I have managed people like that. They seem to WANT to do a good job, they are very smart, and they are succeeding in more than half of their job. And then they do not outright refuse to do work, or they resist that characterization, and you as the manager feel like if you could just find the right words to unlock their cooperation, everything would be fine.

      Also, Bartleby invoking a manager that has been gone for FIVE YEARS is a red flag – that’s an unambiguous flag that this person is unreasonable. She might be able to talk in circles about other things, but that is unambiguous and unreasonable.

      Good luck, OP, I have dealt with people similar to this – not as bad, but similar. It ended up with him being on a PIP and then fired, so yes, be prepared for that.

      1. Rex Libris*

        Yep, when the conversation devolves to “My mythical manager from Back When did these things (that I may be entirely making up) which I now expect you to either live up to or make up for”… you are not dealing with a reasonable employee. You can’t reach someone stuck five years in the past. The technology doesn’t exist.

        1. Irish Teacher*

          Yup, as a teacher, especially as a learning support teacher, I get this quite a bit from students and often, when I mention it to the mainstream teacher, I find out, to my total lack of surprise that the student is saying something very different to that teacher or is majorly misrepresenting the situation.

          “According to Johnny, you’re the best teacher ever and always let him do y and never give out to him.”
          “WHAT? Johnny has spent the last two weeks telling me how he hates me ’cause I never let him do anything he wants to.”

          I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bartleby made the same complaints to Bill and cited somebody else as having been much better support than him.

          Not sure if this is much practical help to the LW, but just that she shouldn’t assume Bill was doing something better than she was or that this is “just a personality conflict” between her and Bartleby. If she only has Bartleby’s word for it that things were better with Bill, well, I wouldn’t be giving that too much credence.

          I mean, it is possible. As I said below, it MAY be that she really got on well with Bill and is determined to hate anybody who takes his place and does anything differently, but…that’s not really reasonable either. At least not in anybody above the age of 15.

          1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            In the example OP gave, Bill was actually responsible for having messed up the situation, it’s the reason why she’s pushing back on being trained: Bill only trained Marge and not her so she shouldn’t work on this thing with Marge.
            So I’m not sure why OP thinks Bartleby preferred Bill.
            My impression is that Bill left precisely so he wouldn’t have to deal with Bartleby any more.

      2. ferrina*

        This. So much this.

        As Captain Awkward says, Reasons are for reasonable people. She’s refusing to have a conversation with you about this (she’s talking, but she’s not having a conversation). She’s invoking things from 5 years ago as an excuse for not doing a basic part of her job. That’s not reasonable at all. This will usually end with her protesting to the end that she is the victim, yet somehow never being able to change no matter what you do.

        Generally, this is either a choice on her part, or a hurdle so big that you could never have been able to break it down (whether she needs medication, therapy, etc.- you cannot and should not try to provide those things). You can’t just accept this situation- it’s not fair to you or your team. Plan how to move on.

    8. Richard Hershberger*

      I suspect that the one-minute-late firings are disproportionately in low-wage, high-turnover fields. This lowers the stakes for both sides, and it is less likely that there are elaborate corporate procedures. On the other side of the equation, we see right here that this manager doesn’t want to go through the trouble of those procedures despite its being part of their job. The irony is duly noted.

      1. Ace in the Hole*

        Yup. I’ve heard plenty of stories of fired-on-the-spot in retail and food service.

        In my current field, turnover is low and training takes a long time. I’ve still seen people fired on the spot, but only for things like “assaulted a customer,” or “operating excavator while drunk.” Even a serious accident caused by gross negligence usually takes at least a few days and some paperwork.

        1. doreen*

          I’ve heard a few “fired for one minute late” or equivalent stories that were not in retail or foodservice. The thing is, I wouldn’t really consider them “fired for one minute late” . Technically the last incident might have been a single minute of lateness, but if that has come after oral and written warnings for multiple latenesses of much more than a minute , you really aren’t getting fired just for that “one minute late”.

      2. EL*

        As a person who worked in a low-wage, high-turnover field (food service) for a decade, I can assure you that being fired at that point in my life — a situation in which I would be immediately at risk of losing my housing due to inability to save significant sums of reserve cash — was not in any way lower stakes for me than being fired now would be. For the manager and company? Sure.

    9. The Person from the Resume*

      [The Manager] dreads going through the (long, involved) termination process with her, since I know it will involve all sorts of similar evasions, misrepresentations, and accusations of favoritism. It will be exhausting, and while I’ll do it if needed, to borrow a quote, “I would prefer not to.”

      Bartleby has perfected an exhausting response which the LW would prefer not deal with.

      LW, be a manager and manage Bartleby out even if it is exhausting because if you don’t you’ll continue this exhausting song and dance until either you or Bartleby moves on. And it’ll probably be you because Bartleby getting away with only doing the work she wants and doing less than everyone else in her section and less than what is considered a FT job in her role (i.e. not doing enough work that can be charged to our internal customers). That’s a pretty sweet gig for her, but not for her coworkers who are presumably picking up her slack.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Also, if I were one of your non-obstructive employees, I’d be sick of Bartleby’s crap and looking to leave.

      2. Zweisatz*

        Also I believe the objections Bartleby will bring up are kind of a red herring. The thing is as her manager you don’t have to indulge her in these minutia. As an example how to cut these interactions short, look to Alison’s script.
        Essentially you are not ASKING her to agree with your performance assessments you are TELLING her what’s what.

    10. KHB*

      I think situations like this happen the same way all kinds of dysfunctional/unhealthy situations happen. It starts by letting somebody get away with something one time, because it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort to make a big deal out of what is, at the time, an isolated incident.

      But then there are more “isolated incidents,” and more, and more – and you’ve got a full-blown pattern on your hands. And by that point, it’s hard to turn the ship around, because you’ve already let them get away with so much, and this is just “how things are.” And you know that if you try to call them out on it now, they’ll object that it was never a problem before, so they don’t understand why it’s a problem now. Meanwhile, they keep pushing your boundaries more and more.

    11. David S*

      A lot of it depends on the organization. For example, we had a serious underperformer who often only worked 2-3 hours a day and never completed tasks on time. This affected all of us so I flat out asked my manager about it. Her response was that if she fired the person, she would not be allowed to replace them, so as miserable as it was, it was better to have a someone who would do 40% of their job than to be stuck with no one, i.e. 0%.

      1. Luca*

        Along this line, I heard of a company that did an RIF, offering a buyout package and informing each dept to cut a certain number of heads.

        The HR dept was told to cut one position, and the decision seemed to make itself when their receptionist took the buyout. Long story short, HR ended up needing to replace the receptionist, and in exchange agreed not to replace the next dept employee who left.

      2. BatManDan*

        which, on the face of it, makes mathematical sense, but actually it doesn’t work out that way. All the other employees will gradually start doing less and less (consciously or unconsciously, out of jealousy, apathy, or resentment – doesn’t matter) and you’ll eventually have a team producing WAY less than they used to / would produce if the manager would MANAGE and get rid of the slacker.

    12. Goldenrod*

      “Stop spinning your wheels and fire her!”

      I know!! It’s crazy to me how many people get away with just *deciding* not to do whole portions of their jobs. And they think that when their boss “asks” them to do something, it’s actually a question…it’s not! You can’t say no!

      I think OP is being way too accommodating here…which reflects on the fact that she is a nice person…but srsly, get this employee on a PIP immediately! You don’t have to put up with this!

    13. Well...*

      I think the issue is that layoffs are super easy when that’s what’s needed, so it feels all the time like jobs are constantly in jeopardy. It’s also very easy to fire someone when political winds have turned against them/their work/their department within the company.

      When someone is doing critical tasks (or partially doing some subset of critical tasks) that the company wants to have done and can afford to pay for, it’s pretty annoying to be short-staffed, and so the activation energy is higher to get rid of them.

      It feels unfair because a really good worker can get fired when their work becomes de-prioritized, but a really bad worker can hang on forever if the work they are supposed to be doing is highly valued.

    14. Artemesia*

      And 5 years of this crap? Who would put up with it that long? This person should have been fired 4 years ago.

      1. BatManDan*

        As other have pointed out, the OP is the doing the exact same thing as Bartleby – refusing a primary job role / function, with a lot of words that add up to “I’d prefer not to.”

        1. Courageous cat*

          Yep. I feel like this answer was surprisingly soft given this is a pretty non-negotiable job duty when you’re in a management position.

    15. WillowSunstar*

      When I was younger, I absolutely would have been let go for doing something like this. You can’t generally refuse to do a task that is part of your job and there’s no law against the task, and still expect to keep your job. It’s called insubordination.

    16. fhqwhgads*

      It’s both extremes of opposite methods of super shitty management: not managing at all so never fired (or way too long to get fired), or excessively stringent: you were 1 minute late once, you’re gone. Both are very very shitty.
      Most employers are somewhere in the middle, or at least closer to the middle than either of these examples.

    17. Panda*

      Have you ever worked for the government? You have to jump through hoops to fire people once they pass probation unless they commit a felony.

    18. roy*

      Seems a simple enough problem, but one tidbit I didn’t see was this: Get a witness for all subsequent assignment/status conversations. This person is not reliable and may attack unless you have independent conversation!

    19. goddessoftransitory*

      I find the kind of person who pulls this is careful to do so with superiors that don’t have immediate firing ability over them–they have to go through their boss, there’s procedures that have to be followed (like in government jobs) or some other hassle that means they’ve calculated how far they can push, never going beyond the pale. Basically, they know exactly what level of crap they can pull and still be below the watermark of “NOW it’s worth the ass pain and paperwork to get rid of them.”

    20. Inkognyto*

      in nearly all positions I’ve held, If I refused a project without any actual basis, it would be a mark against me. The second one I’d be on a PIP.

    21. Unaccountably*

      I wonder this at least three times a week. I’ve had to terminate an employee so I completely understand what an unpleasant trial it is, but also, I have never had a job in my life where I could just straight-up tell my boss I wasn’t going to do the work she assigned me and still be kept on.

    22. STX*

      My manager told me “I prefer contractors [through a staffing firm] because they are so much easier to fire.” We are an at-will state! Firing is so easy!

      But see, with a contractor he calls the staffing specialist and THEY tell the worker that they are fired and my boss doesnt have to handle the negative emotions…

  2. Lilo*

    I just don’t see this employee working out. Pushing back and fighting work with the supervisor? They also seem to be jumping to extremes here and escalating the conversation to blaming the LW for things that (taking LW at their word) aren’t supported. I think you start with a PIP but I’m not optimistic.

    1. Well...*

      For me it’s the lack of specificity in complaints. It really feels like deliberate manipulation to drag someone through circular/pointless/vague conversations, and it’s hard to imagine someone with that habit not being a drain on morale.

    2. BatManDan*

      I love how the prelude to the PIP, according to Allison, is very much like a PIP. Why not go straight to the PIP? I’d go straight to the firing, but hey, that’s me.

  3. Dust Bunny*

    Five years of this is way the bleep too long.

    My supervisor is very techy and asks us to adapt to new and, for me (who is not techy), uncomfortable-at-first tasks all the time. And we do it. Because that’s how the job works. And we all get better at it and then it’s less uncomfortable.

    But Bartleby is never going to be comfortable with this stuff if she doesn’t do it.

    1. Abogado Avocado*

      Agreed. Five years is way too long — especially since you’ve given Bartleby multiple opportunities to explain with specificity why she doesn’t feel comfortable with certain work, but she hasn’t done so and, moreover, still refuses those assignments. Do you know if her co-workers wonder why she’s been permitted to minimize with whom she’ll work and on what?

      It can be an enormous PITA to hire for a technical role when expertise in the specific area is not widespread. Still, I would imagine that hiring for such a role can’t be as nerve-wracking as strategizing how to approach Bartleby when seeking to assign her to work with certain people on certain assignments. Rip off the bandaid and implement the PIP!

      1. Sloanicota*

        I think this is as simple as, “is there any role in this organization where the things she’s good at can be 100% of the job?” if so, or it can easily be created, then perhaps there is a chance for this employee, ideally under another supervisor. If not, she needs to be fired. Perhaps there’s another company out there where her preferred tasks can be 100% of the role.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          Honestly, no, don’t create a role for her. She’s already gotten away with not doing her job, don’t create The Perfect Job as a reward. This doesn’t sound like someone who is trying hard but missing the mark–this sounds like someone who is pining for a past manager who didn’t hold her to standards.

          1. Thursday Next*

            Yeah, technical requirements aside, there isn’t a job where this kind of non-communicative lack of cooperation or reasonableness is acceptable.

          2. Dust Bunny*

            (For the record, I’m not a total hard-ass. I have a coworker for whom we sort of created The Perfect Job, but we did it because a) she can do most of what we need done, and b) she will try anything we ask of her. What she can do, she does to the nth degree without griping. She earned it by being honest, sincere, easy to work with, and thorough. We’re OK with picking up the few tasks we wish she could do that are simply a bit beyond her because we know that what she does, we can trust.)

        2. Sparkles McFadden*

          Nope, nope, nope. It’s on the employee to look for a different position within the company. No manager wants another manager’s problem person.

          I had to fire someone at the end of a PIP, and I was asked by multiple people “Can’t you just create a job he can be good at?” People who had lodged written complaints about how Bad Employee caused problems on their projects asked me this…so in each case I said “I guess I can assign him to you directly.” I never had to add on to that because each person said “No! Never mind!”

          1. Zweisatz*

            Lol, great response.

            But yeah, I believe managers who hold the line on these kind of things are doing so much good for the overall team. Because having a bunch of low performers who are apparently held to different standards can be so corrosive to the overall ecosystem. It’s an easy way out for their managers (or so it seems), but a huge disservice to the other employees.

        3. Observer*

          if so, or it can easily be created, then perhaps there is a chance for this employee, ideally under another supervisor

          Nope. At least not as things currently stand. Because this is not someone who is reasonable. And things change so that even if the job starts with 100% things she is happy with, there WILL be a shift. And now she “knows” that she can get away with just . . . refusing to do her job.

        4. GammaGirl1908*

          Meh. No one is entitled to only get to do things they like and to leave the rest to others. That’s why they call it work.

          If we hired you to do X, Y, and Z, and they all need to be done on your watch but you really only love Z (although you’re just fine at X and Y), you’re not entitled to only get to do Z and actively ignore X and Y.

          Maybe trade with someone so they can do more X and you more Z, or get really efficient and fast at X and Y, but “I am not 100% comfortable with Y so I won’t do it” isn’t part of going to work.

        5. Anon4This*

          I’m in a situation where I’ve had to do this with a really difficult person who has unicorn subject-matter expertise in a critical niche area. No formal training available, vanishingly small number of people who do the work and do it well (and all battle-hardened, difficult types), mission critical. We are doing our level best to create internal knowledge, but this person is so hard to work with, it’s tough expertise to develop before they run off trainees (I sometimes cynically wonder if they’re sabotaging the process to remain so valuable).

          It sucks, and I would never recommend it, if there is another option. I’m a big believer in putting people in positions where they will succeed, but not being able to terminate (more because of the business needs and stakeholder demands), makes supervising a real challenge. And they know it.

          I have to settle for removing any responsibilities involving other humans, doing continuous meetings and documentation, summing it up honestly in an annual review, and biding my time until some things we have in motion are primed and ready to go. I spend more time on this person than anyone else I’ve ever supervised, and their HR file went into a second volume.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Also, stop engaging in this.

      Bartleby is ridiculous and possibly also manipulative, but she can’t waste your time if you’re not willing to have it wasted. She does the tasks assigned or she’s PIPped, or whatever discipline is appropriate. But stop getting sucked into her vortex.

      1. EPLawyer*

        Yes. STOP engaging in the circularity. Ask her to do something. If she pushes back, you go right to, this is in your job description. It is a condition of your employment. If you need help, that is available. But if you continue to not do this, we are going to have to discuss your continued employment.

        I am betting you dollars to donuts that if you start mentioning her job is on the line the circularity will stop. She will also start doing the jobs she doesn’t want to do. Right now there is NO reason for her to change. She pushes back, you give up. She still doesn’t have to do the work she wants to do. her system is working FOR HER. You need to stop it from working FOR HER.

        1. Daisy*

          She has gotten away with manipulating OP and the rest of the department so she only does the work she wants to for 5 years. The longer it goes on, the harder it will be for her to change (IMO it is too late already). OP needs to pull her in ASAP and tell her a PIP is coming if she doesn’t change her ways. Start the PIP ASAP, even if she only half-objects. She will push the limit as long and as far as you let her.
          This is a good example of letting the monkeys run the circus. If this stunt was shut down the first or second time it would have saved so much headache. A manager’s job is to do the hard things that let the rest of the team run smoothly.

    3. Lady Blerd*

      I was stuck on the five years as well. That’s a long time to endure this unacceptable situation and I bet that the sum total of her contribution to the team and the company doesn’t add up.

    4. Harper the Other One*

      “Uncomfortable-at-first” is also something OP can lean on with Bartleby. When Bartleby says “I’m uncomfortable with that” one way to close that avenue of conversation is “new tasks as often uncomfortable; you get more comfortable by doing them.”

  4. Sheworkshardforthemoney*

    Bartleby argues like a toddler. They can outtalk and outlast you every single time. Maybe state in clear terms that Bartleby must do A B and C. I expect to see A B and C finished by x time. We are no longer discussing this.

    1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      DING! This reminds me of a conversation I had while babysitting.

      “If you brush your teeth and put on your pajamas now, then I will read you two stories before bed. But if you don’t, I’m going to have to tell your mom.”
      “Please don’t tell my mom!”
      “OK, then I need you to brush your teeth and put on your pajamas.”
      “But don’t tell my mom!”
      “I won’t. So please just put on your pajamas and brush your teeth”
      repeat ad infinitum

      1. Capybarely*

        Without doing any armchair diagnosing, it’s a pattern that can also be a part of catastrophizing – the consequence seems so very possible, and panic-inducing, that being able to think through the steps to avoid that consequence is impossible in the face of overwhelming panic.
        The irony being that it’s literally self fulfilling. And thus the cycle is “hear consequence, get overwhelmed, take overwhelm as sure sign consequence will happen, melt down because before even getting started *the consequence is inevitable and there’s no way out*.”
        As a parent, we can teach distress tolerance skills. As a manager, that’s overstepping boundaries and roles.

    2. Richard Hershberger*

      When my wife was a kid, her family had this thing that the final answer to a sequence of “why?” questions was “Because God is not an elephant.” There was a family consensus that this was a sufficient answer. I suspect it appealed to the toddlers’ love of nonsense. We tried it on our kids. I was impressed by how often it worked.

    3. Amy Farrah Fowler*

      Yeah, I think it can be hard in real life situations to hold the line, but you’re right it’s almost exactly like a parent saying “this is no longer up for discussion.”

      1. Esmeralda*

        “Because I said so”

        Which is exactly the right answer for OP to give to Bartleby.

        Maybe even, “Bill has been gone for five years. *I* am telling you to do X Y Z by ABC deadline.”

        And I’d be thinking, I don’t give a rats ass what Bill did or didn’t do.

        1. Zweisatz*

          Or on uncharitable days, “Well then you should probably go work for Bill.”

          (don’t say that out loud)

    4. Sloanicota*

      If Bartleby can’t give a specific example of what she’s talking about by support, like, “that time when we did X and you blamed me for Y,” then she’s simply not having this conversation in good faith. If OP was really feeling generous perhaps she could try to catch this “lack of support” in the moment, as it’s happening, after Bartleby has taken on a task. But I agree with OP’s assessment that basically this employee preferred the old manager’s way of doing things and isn’t willing to work well with the new boss.

      1. Observer*

        If Bartleby can’t give a specific example of what she’s talking about by support, like, “that time when we did X and you blamed me for Y,” then she’s simply not having this conversation in good faith


    5. Katherine*

      I’m surprised noone has suggested answering ‘Bill didn’t train me on this’ with ‘I will train you, does 2pm work for you?’ instead of ‘I will train you if you need it.’ Bartleby has pretty clearly indicated that they need training (though they may not *want* training), so this is another place you can break the cycle by being specific.

      1. WheresMyPen*

        That’s what I was thinking. Say “Ok, you want training? For this task I will sit with you from 2-4 and train you on how to do it.”

    6. OP (Bartleby's Manager)*

      OP here. I have three kids, one of whom is a teenager. I have simplified the argumentative pattern for the purposes of the letter; there are definite notes of both “toddler” and “teenager” in our conversations, but with all of the mental agility of a highly intelligent adult. Imagine a toddler who has taken the argumentative equivalent of super soldier serum…

      1. Sloane Peterson*

        This may be a lot to ask, given the exhausting nature of your history with this person, but here goes:
        1) Have you asked her exactly what she’s afraid of if things go as wrong as she expects? Bart seems vague and anxious, but her anxiety may come from real concrete experiences. What is Bart’s “worst case disaster” scenario? Lean into The Worst Thing That Can Happen with her and if it’s still vague, then you have more information about her motives. Ask her to be only brutally forthcoming about everything (“no support” is not clear enough)and that she can trust the conversation will never leave the room.

        2) Does she think Marge really got “better” training from Bob than what you can provide? Is there something missing from your training, or is Marge telling her something about your ability as a trainer/manager? Does Marge disparage Bart when things go wrong?
        Is Marge a Sh!t Starter or overly competitive towards Bart?

        3) Have you considered that there’s something she can’t say to you?
        By your detailed description she really seems to be “talking around” a problem that might be very real, but may be something she cant say to you (because she has a problem with you) or cant talk about directly for fear of retaliation by her co-workers who will all know who said the Unsayable Thing.

        4) Ask her why the task she is refusing is so scary for her. She may feel overwhelmed, not “good enough” or that making mistakes at first will anger her co-workers.
        Concentrating all your efforts on the “support” issue is a good start, but give this person a chance to attack the root of the problem by asking the right questions before putting her on a PIP.

      2. Irish Teacher*

        I teach teenagers and it reminds me quite a bit of them, well, my 1st and 2nd years (12-14 year olds). The seniors are usually more mature.

  5. King Friday XIII*

    Yeah I can think of all kinds of comment section fanfic reasons why this might be happening that are sympathetic to her, but I also can’t imagine a boss being much more patient than you’ve been about the whole thing. Good luck, OP.

    1. CharlieBrown*

      Fanfic, you said?

      Bartleby is actually an alien, testing us to see how much resistance we will put up with when they invade.

      Yep, LW has been way too patient.

      1. Beth*

        Bartleby is six pixies in a trenchcoat, sent by a particularly lame trickster god who had intended to spread chaos but only managed to spread incompetence.

    2. El+l*

      Thank you – there are times on this site where commenters can come up with every possible amateur diagnosis (which Manager OP has to run down!) for why an employee is behaving reasonably.


      New rule: If you are an employee, especially one first hitting the workforce, it is your job to figure out “your deal.” If you are a manager, it is your job to run the business, be a good middleman, and support/accommodate your employees when necessary.

      But it is not the manager’s job to figure out the employee’s problems. Sometimes they’re just difficult, like here. Or immature. Or whatever.

      Also, for this situation, I think this ends in firing. Whatever chance they had to draw a strong boundary and get employee to adapt to it probably passed about 4 1/2 years ago. They’re too used to causing trouble.

      1. Daisy*

        Agreed. If this was shut down the first time she would have adapted, and possibly been a good employee. As it is she has too invested in being able to run her own show. OP needs to make this separation as swift as possible for the sake of the rest of the team.

      2. KRM*

        And, at this point, it doesn’t even matter WHAT the employee’s problem is. If you figure that out in the first couple of interactions, great, then you figure out how to work together around it. At this point, it doesn’t matter.

    3. Somehow_I_Manage*

      This is one of the best written letters I’ve seen. OP was rational, reasonable, and the situation is extremely relatable. There’s really no wiggle room for Bartleby. Bartle-b-fired soon :-(

  6. JustMyImagination*

    What if you stop phrasing it as a request? Instead of “Please help Marge with this and let me know if you need training”, go to Bartleby and say “I’ve scheduled an hour on your calendar this afternoon so I can train you on X as you’ll be helping Marge out with that task.”

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I picked up on this, too. Although most people would understand that this phrasing from their boss means that the task is required and not a request, Bartleby is not treating it as such. An alternate wording is to just say “Bartleby, I need you to work with Marge on X.”

    2. Mr. Shark*

      Yes, I was thinking that, too. The LW says “I’ll train you to do this” but it doesn’t sound like she has done so, because Bartleby keeps saying she’s uncomfortable.

      If she completes the training, then she can just say, “Do task X, I trained you last week.” and there are no excuses, nothing Bartleby can fall back on.

      1. Kevin Sours*

        This, honestly, feels like a colossal waste of time. It’s not clear what, if anything, Bartleby actually needs to be trained on. Just vaguely training “anything you might need to know” without a good faith effort to identify what training is needed and engagement in learning by the trainee is *exhausting*.

        The problem isn’t that Bartleby needs training and support. The problem is that Bartleby refuses — seemingly deliberately — to identify what they need to the tasks assigned. “Proactively” providing that support in the form of vague training is just feeding into that.

    3. Malarkey01*

      This! And with Allison’s script I’d cut out everything between the first and last sentence. The OPs original script and Allison’s are great for an employee who is legitimately raising an issue. Once it is raised and discussed it does nothing to cover the same ground. I don’t feel comfortable with that gets I’m sorry to hear that but it’s not optional you need to have this done today.

    4. CheeryO*

      Yeah, a one-time knowledge dump training session might nip this in the bud. To me, generic “discomfort” means she has no idea what to do or where to start and is afraid to just jump in. She needs actual training and not vague direction in hopes that she will ask the right questions. Some people are just not able to do that, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad employees (although clearly this is not the professional way to handle the situation).

    5. Llama Llama*

      Yep. I constantly had to fight with this group about work that they were not trained for. So instead of asking, I just put it on their calendar as a training session and they were expected to do it after that.

    6. Liz Lemon*

      Agreed. I think in pretty much any job I’ve had, my manager would have scheduled training for me, and offered to be available if I needed help, rather than leaving it in the realm of “I would like you to start doing this”. You get to tell bartleby that this is part of her job, period, and that it’s time to get started with doing it, and troubleshoot issues if they come up.

  7. Azars*

    They’re going to have to fire this person. The line about, “Don’t accuse me of refusing to work!” is telling. It shows that the person is savvy enough to know that an outright refusal would get them written up and fired, so they’re framing everything in comfort levels and evading specifics.

    It reads like someone who wants a narrow set of responsibilities who’s clever enough to stonewall attempts at different work. Unless they’re great at the limited role, probably not salvageable. They sound like an incredible pain to work with.

    1. Event Coordinator and then some*

      Yep, “don’t accuse me of refusing to work!” If said outright like that (OP said she had to condense the dialogue) shows me that this might not be a good-faith effort to work through the problems Bartley is having.

      I get not trusting new managers. But 5 years is long enough to do a vibe check.

    2. KHB*

      It’s a common DARVO tactic used by manipulative people: Making the conversation all about “How dare you accuse me of doing X!” to distract from the discussion of how they did, in fact, do X.

    3. DrSalty*

      Yeah this was my read. I suspect Bartleby is doing this on purpose bc she just doesn’t want to do those tasks for whatever reason. It’s not about lack of support. I think there’s a non-zero chance once LW makes it clear her job is on the line she gets with the program.

    4. Cayman Islands*

      It could be purposeful or it could not be purposeful. I have seen people be accused of refusing to work when the reality was that they were expressing concerns. So, I advise to LW to avoid framing Bartleby as a clever schemer who knows how to use the language of comfort to avoid work. Instead, LW should just not make any assumption about Bartleby and proceed with assigning work that Bartleby could reasonably be expected to perform without creating stories in her head about what’s going on in Bartleby’s head.

      1. Daisy*

        This has been going on for 5 years. It isn’t a new concern, and OP says they trained her on some of this themselves. It’s manipulation at this point.

        1. Cayman Islands*

          That’s the kind of story about what is going on Bartleby’s head that I advise avoiding.

    5. OP (Bartleby's Manager)*

      OP here. I did condense things down quite a bit, but that line was close to a direct quote. And yeah, your read on this is pretty much what I think, but I wanted to hear what Alison had to say without adding that bit of my own thinking. She is great at her limited role, but the work is evolving such that her limits are becoming too narrow to make financial sense.

    6. Kristi*

      It seems like the appropriate response to “Don’t accuse me of refusing to work!” is “Great, I must have misunderstood that you were agreeing to do it. Your deadline is X.”

  8. KHB*

    There are half a dozen other employees in the role who are handling the job just fine – and probably many more people out there who would be able to handle the job just fine. It’s time for Bartleby to go.

    Just by engaging with her on these things, you’re teaching her that it’s OK to blather on about what makes her “comfortable” or not. With the huge grain of salt that I’m not a manager and there’s probably a good reason for that, I’d aim for the most polite version of this that you can manage:

    OP: Please work with Marge on this chargeable task.
    B: I don’t feel comfortable with that.
    OP: I didn’t ask you what you were comfortable with. I asked you to do it.

    1. KHB*

      And by making herself so exhausting to manage, she’s making you MORE reluctant to fire her, not less! You need to step up and do what needs to be done – I don’t see this getting any better otherwise.

      1. KHB*

        If you need more motivation to start leading Bartleby out the door, just think what all this looks like from the perspective of all your other team members. Speaking from experience, Not only is it hugely demoralizing to see an underperforming team member get coddled like this, but it can actually drag down everyone else’s standards as well, because they can fall into the trap of thinking “I’m doing better than Bartleby, so I must be doing an excellent job.” But “better than Bartleby” is not so much “excellent” as it is “barely adequate.”

        And I bet your other team members could benefit from increased mentorship time from you that you can’t give them right now because you’re babysitting Bartleby.

    2. ElizabethBennet*

      This is something my students have tried to engage in. It’s necessary to explain why we need to do/learn certain things, but because they are teenagers there is often pushback. At a certain point I have found that one thing works: “Because I said so.” The questions stop. They realize that I have explained and now it’s time to just do the work. This is something that I have said as a parent, too. My mother used to say that and I swore I never would, but it works. I never start with that, though. There is always the explanation and time for some questions, but if there is continued resistance, I break out “Because I said so.” The work gets done.

      1. Irish Teacher*

        I tend to go to “That wasn’t a request. It was an instruction.” Or “this isn’t a democracy. It’s a benign autocracy.” But those might not be appropriate with adults!

      2. JustaTech*

        To quote one of my favorite books when I was a little kid:
        ” ‘Why?’ said Max.
        ‘Because’ said Ruby.”

        (Ruby is Max’s big sister, and yes, I identified with Ruby a *lot*.)

      3. allathian*

        Yes, but treating adults like recalcitrant teenagers is the last resort before PIP/firing. Professional adults don’t let it get to that point at work, ever. FWIW, neither do most *working* teenagers! School is obviously different because kids can’t get fired from school. Well, they can get suspended and transferred to another school, depending on the jurisdiction, but not in the sense of fired from a job.

        At work employees are expected to follow their manager’s instructions, but things are really bad if a manager has to actually say “Because I said so.” That said, some people need more explicit instructions than others, and may not recognize a request as a requirement, unless it’s clearly stated as an instruction to do something.

    3. TootsNYC*

      yeah, there comes a time when I think you just issue orders.

      I’ve never been much of one for asking instead of directing. I hope that when I give directions, I don’t come across as “issuing orders”–I do think there’s a bit of a distinction. And I’ve had my staff push back now and then, so they’re not afraid of me, apparently, which is good. (They get met with inquiry from me, and explanations, and often they’ve changed my mind.)

      But especially with someone who starts to balk, I have flat-out said to someone, “I am your boss, and I want you to do this.”
      I also used to include this concept in my hiring-interview speech about how I approach being a manager: “I like for people to have autonomy and freedom of movement as they do their jobs. I like to give them all the information the need, and then set them free to work. I try hard not to be a micromanager; I listen to the information my team is gathering, and I often defer to their judgment. Or I explain my points. But if it ever comes to a point that I have to say, ‘I’m the boss,’ I will consider that to be a big problem we’ll need to solve.”

      Also, I want the exchange to go like this:

      Me: Please work with Marge on this chargeable task.
      B: Well, I don’t really feel comfortable with that.
      Me: Why?
      B: You provide so much more support to Marge and the others in the group and I feel uncomfortable doing this work knowing that I won’t have your support.
      Me: Try me. Do the task; that’s not negotiable. If you need my support and you think you’re not getting it, point that out. And when you’re done, we’ll circle back.

      1. MsM*

        I’m honestly not sure why OP can’t just tell Bartleby, “If you’re feeling a lack of support from me, it’s because I’m tired of getting pushback every time this task comes up.”

        1. Cayman Islands*

          Bc then they would both be jerks. Managers cannot withdraw support just bc they don’t like someone.

          LW can be tired of the pushback and can express that in a non-confrontational manner, but as the manager, LW still needs to provide support.

      2. Cedrus Libani*

        I once worked for a startup where the practice was, if you disagreed with your boss about something, you could bet $1 on the outcome. It was great. You still had to do what the boss said, but if you were right the boss had to admit it and pay up.

        I was once so certain about something that I raised the stakes to $5 – a king’s ransom. And I paid up the next day, because he was right and I was wrong.

        One of our techs, who’d been doing her thing since I was in diapers, had a row of $1 bills taped over her workbench. None of them were mine; I knew better.

        Wish that convention would catch on. It saves a lot of arguing over things that are easy to just try out and see if they work or not.

    4. Serin*

      I was wondering if we were losing some specifics in the effort to anonymize the question, or if Bartleby’s arguments are really this content-free? In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter — RHB is right — the letter writer needs to stop engaging with the content of the arguments (such as they are) and start using Dr. Spock’s “Be that as it may.”

      I don’t feel comfortable with that.
      Nevertheless, it’s a required function of your job.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        My guess is that they’re very nearly this content-free because there is little content to be had beyond “I don’t wanna”.

    5. Pugetkayak*

      Yes,the OP definitely allows themselves to be pulled into these conversations. Once or twice you try and explain things, after that, these should have been cut off.
      OP: Well, this is the task that is required, if you figure out a way we can be more supportive of you, please let me know. In the meantime, you will need to complete this task.

  9. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    Bartleby sounds exhausting and I have no idea how you have dealt with this for 5 years. I would have completely lost it at some point. I know you are dreading the termination process, which I agree is a likely outcome, but is it going to be any worse than dealing with her for the next 5, 10, 15 or whatever years? Just imagine the lightness of not having the Bartleby burden!

      1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        And let’s not forget about poor Marge and all the other Marges that have to work with Bartelby. You know Bartelby never does any of the work so they are stuck carrying the project every single time for 5 years. How many people quit because of this or are thinking of quitting? I know I’d be annoyed enough to be looking

        1. Daisy*

          Exactly! It is like giving in to the tantrum toddler and letting them have the toy. Pretty soon you teach the whole group learning that tantrums get you what you want and instead of having only one difficult toddler you have 5. The good kids in the group don’t come back because it isn’t fun having to deal with the problem attitudes. Then you are left with only the problem children and life is really miserable.

        2. Science KK*

          I quit because of someone like this. Her thing was “I’m too busy” or “I’m not available for that right now”. Everything got dumped on me because as another comment pointed out, X doesn’t do anything and I do two things, why should I do anything else? And when I let things slide I would just get asked to take over.
          I didn’t even have to job search, another team snapped me up as soon as they found out I was looking.

    1. Clefairy*

      Exactly- I’ve had nightmare employees I’ve dreaded dealing with/terminating, and it has definitely sucked in the short term, but in the long term, I have been SO HAPPY that they were no longer my problem every. single. time. Don’t let fear of the short term hold you back from long term success and happiness!

  10. Critical Rolls*

    This was exhausting to read. I know you’re dreading the PIP and possible termination process, OP, but can it be worse than 5 more YEARS of this? Really think about what that would look like — I’m confident it will harden your resolve.

    1. Weekender*

      Agree. And in my experience these people NEVER leave on their own. Why would they? They have a good thing going…getting paid for not doing what they are supposed to do.

    2. Glazed Donut*

      Yes yes! Imagine what the general day would look like with someone who wasn’t so combative. If it helps, start the interview process–it may show you just how much BETTER this could be. At the very least, you should be able to get a coachable person rather than whatever this is. Spending less time harping on this one individual should free you up to do better work, too.

    3. My dear Wormwood*

      Yes this is a great time to apply yhe Sheelzebub Principle: if you *knew* this person was not going to change, how much longer would you be willing to put up with it? I’m betting it’s not another 5 years.

      If you put her on the PIP and she doesn’t improve, you’ve got your answer.

      Also: as soon as I read the Bartleby pseudonym, I thought, “Oooooooh, this gon be gooood.” A+ naming choice.

  11. Jen*

    OP you have much more patience than I have. Five years of this? Alison, thank you for posting this with a reply, because I often have a hard time wording things so this is great. Thank you.

  12. Ms. Ann Thropy*

    One million interweb points are hereby awarded to you for the Bartelby the Scrivener references.

  13. NW Mossy*

    I had a Bartleby as a direct report, and it ended as Alison predicts – we terminated her. She was unhappy about it. She fought her termination through every legal channel available to her. She was very invested in the perspective that it was the organization’s fault for not meeting her needs. She never seriously entertained the potential that it was the other way around, and that was the barrier she had to get over to start performing at the expected level.

    But here’s the thing: even with all that drama and angst, terminating made a huge positive impact on my team’s overall productivity and morale, even though I didn’t replace her. They no longer had to spend their time covering work she wouldn’t or couldn’t do, fixing her errors, or fruitlessly trying to train her to do things effectively. They saw that the organization took action to address a problem and it increased their faith in management.

    And, selfishly, it made my life much easier. Managing a struggling employee who’s not improving absorbs a huge amount of your time, leaving you less to invest in areas where it’ll do more good.

    1. Daniel*

      Oh my goodness, all of this, especially the second paragraph. Keeping on an insubordinate employee over fear of the firing/hiring process is such a crazy false economy, and I’m amazed so many letters come in under that sort of vein.

      Bartleby is almost identical to the “integrity” guy we had some months back, and maybe even more cynical. (I mean, that guy almost certainly was too, but there was some wiggle room for him to just be spectacularly incompetent/delusional. But “don’t accuse me of being of refusing to do work” while you’re refusing to do work?? Noooo.)

      1. pewpewpew*

        I read the headline and also thought of Mr. Integrity. Five minute monologues!? OP you are letting B drag you into the weeds on this by coming back over and over to her “discomfort,” which she can insist she still has no matter what you say. Because she doesn’t care what you say as long as she can get away with avoiding the new task, for whatever reasons. Maybe they are good ones, but they are extra-irrelevant if she won’t actually name them.

        Focus on specific behaviors and results that you need to see and on a specific timeline. I’d actually tighten up the softening language in Alison’s suggested script too, because it makes it easier (or would for me) to stay focused on outcomes.

        You: Please work with Marge on this chargeable task.
        B: Well, I don’t really feel comfortable with that.
        You: What specific actions do you need me to take to support you on this task?
        B: I’m worried you won’t back me up if things go wrong.
        You: I will indeed back you up, but I asked what specific help you need. This is what we talked about earlier — I need you to take on projects like this one without pushing back in vague ways. I’ve heard your concerns, and I’m open to any requests for concrete help, but I need you to get started on this today. [I moved this up to short-circuit this sooner and still point out the in the moment example]
        B: I don’t feel comfortable with that because when Bill was a manager, he trained Marge on it, but not me.
        You: If you need training before you begin, let’s schedule it now. Do you have specific questions about the task itself or how you would start working on it? [so she has a nudge to be more specific that gives her 2 clearer ways of doing so]
        B: I don’t feel comfortable.
        You: That’s what training is for [cheerily]! Let’s schedule it now [do so without letting her drag you back to her feelings]. Projects like this are a required part of your job. They’re not optional. If you don’t want the job knowing tasks like this are part of it, that’s a conversation we can have. But this is indeed part of your job and I need you to start on it today.

        1. Been There*

          The “This is a part of your job” thought has proven helpful for me in the past. It comes up often at AAM and it’s about as clear a way as possible to offer parameters of the role.

    2. SomebodyElse*

      “terminating made a huge positive impact on my team’s overall productivity and morale, even though I didn’t replace her.”

      I call that addition by subtraction. I’ll even push back on the idea that you think you were selfish because it made your life as a manager easier. That’s not selfish. Not dealing with your Bartleby as you said allowed you to focus on things that made an impact to your team.

    3. Bartleby be gone*

      Yes. This. The Bartlebys suck everyone’s energy, and cause low level (or more) resentment. OP might be amazed at how the atmosphere changes once she’s gone.

    4. Former Young Lady*

      As someone who has picked up the slack for many a Bartleby, I wholeheartedly endorse this. I’ve watched entire teams become revolving doors because no one wanted to give a Bartleby consequences.

      There comes a point when the benefit-of-the-doubt reservoir is exhausted, and the longer OP waits past that point, the more the rest of the team will resent the situation. It’s a great recipe for burning out your star performers and/or losing them entirely.

    5. Dust Bunny*


      I used to have a boss, many jobs ago, who was such an adult child that not having him there was less work than having him working.

    6. Polly Hedron*

      even with all that drama and angst, terminating made a huge positive impact on my team’s overall productivity and morale, even though I didn’t replace her.

      Yes! And OP should put her Bartleby on a PIP ASAP while management is supportive, because their support could change!

      I originally had management that supported firing my Bartleby, but I felt sorry for her and defended her.
      By the time I wised up and tried to start a PIP, new management had came in who pitied her (as I once had) and who insisted that I keep her.

      I had to wait for newer management to come in and support a PIP.

      The whole cycle took 9 frightening years of drama and angst, but it was worth every bit of effort. Without her, work was heaven.

  14. ThisIsNotADuplicateComment*

    OP the reason Bartleby’s behaviour has been getting worse over the years is because you’ve taught her it works. I think you should reflect on why you haven’t put her on a PIP and fired her years ago. You’re looking a lot like Bartleby in this letter – flat-out refusing to do an important part of your job.

    1. JennaLee*

      this. plus, after 5 Years of being super frustrated with her behavior while not addressing it head on, Bartleby is likely picking up on OP’s intense frustration and genuinely feeling unsupported and as though others are treated better. It feels like an endless doom cycle at this point. After the first few conversations, when a pattern began to emerge, it would have been beneficial to pause and acknowledge the pattern and say let’s make a detailed plan together so we can achieve our goals and get you the support you need. It’s okay that different people have different needs.

    2. Snow Globe*

      I kind of agree with this. It was frustrating to read through that conversation, but I was almost as frustrated with the manager as with Bartleby. OP, you are operating as if work assignments are completely optional and you need to get Bartleby to accept the responsibility. But you are the manager; you can (and should) *tell* Bartleby that you are assigning her this work, even if she says she is not comfortable. She has said she is not refusing work, so assign her the work!

      1. Pugetkayak*

        Agreed. Having this happen once or twice…ok, but the fact that you let yourself get sucked into this time and again, that becomes a problem with how YOU are handling things.

    3. OP (Bartleby's Manager)*

      OP here. I will say that these cycles are rare, but increasingly common, thus the push to get it done now. But yeah, I recognize that my unwillingness to push for termination is not helping here. I can’t really defend my unwillingness beyond, “It’s harder than you think,” but it’s safe to say that even in the short time since writing, I’ve moved past my internal resistance. Now, time to work on the institutional resistance.

  15. Yeesh*

    I work for an employer with a union, and even then this would someone fired quickly for insubordination. I am not sure why you feel like you have to keep having circular conversations with someone who won’t do their job and won’t explain why for SO LONG.

  16. Eldritch Office Worker*

    OP, you sound like a good manager. Treating people with respect, asking them questions, assuming they’re coming from a rational place, reflecting on your own behavior – that’s all great management.

    But you’ve hit a wall here and you need to have tools in your toolbox for when that happens. Not accepting pushback, using plain declarative language about what has to happen, follow up with consequences if it doesn’t. This is opposite to your management style, and it won’t feel good, but you have to frame it in your head as an escalation. This is level two, how you manage when the day-to-day strategies aren’t working. Learning how to do this is good professional growth for you, even if it’s hard.

    You will most likely have to fire this person. But in the meantime, stretch these muscles and see it as a learning experience for yourself. Once you have these tools, you won’t let this behavior go on five years next time.

    1. Dinwar*

      I had to go through this process. My managerial style is more laid-back–I clear the way so that my team can focus on the work. I had to learn how to also be firm when needed and to enact consequences for folks who refused to do their jobs. My basic mental mode is “We’re all scientists and engineers, give them the tools and they can do the work.”

      As you say, it’s tough. It doesn’t come naturally. But there’s really no choice. You either step up and deal with the problem employee or you allow them to run rough-shod over you. What surprised me was that being firm when folks crossed the line earned me the respect of the rest of the team. They LIKED that I stepped in and put a stop to certain nonsense, enough to actually submit it as feedback for my annual review.

      Part of management is demonstrative. Your staff wants to see you act as a manager. That means different things in different areas. For some offices that means holding 1-on-1s and providing feedback. In some it means managing schedules and contractors. But in most, acting as a manager includes dealing with problematic employees. This not only addresses the problematic employees, but it also lets the rest know that THEY don’t have to deal with these problems–that you, as manager, have seen them and are working to address them.

      1. BatManDan*

        Yeah, she’s avoiding ONE “tough situation and recreating a half-dozen more. It’ll be harder to replace even ONE of the other employees (that WILL quit due to this nonsense), than it will be to replace Bartelby.

  17. Vice President of Monitoring Employees’ LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

    “I fully intend to support you on all projects that I assign to you. However, by definition, my support is contingent on you actually doing the work. I cannot support anyone who doesn’t do the work.”

  18. Weekender*

    I can’t get past the 5 years part. But on the other hand, it happened in my old group for 5 years before I left.

    I have worked with people like this, and management never did anything about it. The bad employee(s) kept up this charade for so long that they were essentially able to weasel out of most of their basic job responsibilities. AND because our manager allowed this behavior by not addressing it, it spread like a disease through the group.

    It was one of the main reasons I ended up leaving the company because I was doing above and beyond, getting top performance reviews, and they were doing less than their job description, and I wasn’t able to get promoted and I was left to do the work they didn’t “feel” like doing. But they got the same raise as me every year.

    If you keep letting this employee do this, the rest of the team will resent you, if they don’t already, and you will lose top performers. It sets a standard and you may have others start behaving like this.

    1. Mother of all Raccoons*

      Yes – have been in a situation like this where the “Bartleby” was hired to be extra help during a difficult shift but as one of my coworkers put it “having them around is worse than having no help”. When they finally left it was actually better to have fewer people doing the same amount of work because we were spending so much of our own valuable time dealing with this persons mistakes/refusal to do certain things

    2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      If I were Marge I’d be working on my resume since it sounds like she has to pick up Bartelby’s slack.

      1. Bubba*

        Yup. Even if Bartlby starts telling the manager she will do the work, I think OP should keep a very close eye to make sure she is not just turning around and dumping the work on Marge, or doing things so poorly that Marge gets fed up and decides to do it herself. I’d be very suspicious of an employee who spent 5 years telling they weren’t going to do something suddenly changing their tune. If OP really wants to give Bartlby yet another chance, they need to make sure Bartlby really becomes more productive, not just makes herself look more productive at the expense of other employees on the team.

  19. H3llifIknow*

    OMG Bartleby sounds EXHAUSTING. I’d have had that convo ONCE and been ready to put her on a PIP. The LW is a saint for apparently having it multiple times!! I had an employee that I assigned a task to, and when I went into the database 6 weeks later, he had done–quite literally–nothing. I called him on it and he said, “I didn’t know what to do or how and I was so overwhelmed I did nothing.” I was furious! He didn’t ask for help. He pencil whipped his status reports, he charged the customer for the time, and I and my deputy ended up working through C’mas to finish the project by the January 10 due date. And then I was forbidden from punishing him in any way because “then the client would know he’d done nothing.” So I couldn’t charge the time to fix it, because they’d already paid for his time, and at the end of the project HE received accolades from the client for “getting it done, so efficiently”. Unbelievable. Still salty about it even though I left that contractor 7 years ago!

    1. On Fire*

      So he committed fraud (charging the client for undone work)? That may have been what the higher-ups were concerned about the client learning, but it still would have been better to, you know, ACT when they learned about the fraud. No wonder you left!

    2. Observer*

      The LW is a saint for apparently having it multiple times!!

      No, the OP is NOT a saint or close to it. They are more or less doing to you what your management did to you, minus the fraud.

  20. InsufficentlySubordinate*

    Frankly, Bartleby sounds a lot like Wally from Dilbert whose goal is to do as little work as possible. Alison is right though in the other things you have to consider. I would’ve lost my patience after just two of these conversations, admittedly, but I’m not a manager.

  21. Dinwar*

    “It will be exhausting, and while I’ll do it if needed, to borrow a quote, “I would prefer not to.” ”

    What strikes me is this quote. How is this any different from what your employee is doing? It’s an uncomfortable task but it is part of your job.

    1. Dr. Rebecca*

      Because the employee’s stonewalling “I would prefer not to” is used as an excuse to, you know, *actually* not do the work, and the LW is merely expressing the fact that in a just situation this is *not* something they should have to do, because showing up and doing your job is a reasonable expectation to have of one’s employees.

      1. Dinwar*

        I don’t read it that way. I read it as the LW making essentially the same excuse–“I’m not comfortable performing this task.” The reality is that this is something every manager has to deal with, regardless of whether it’s just or not.

        It probably came out harsher than I intended. I intended it to be more a prod to get the LW to think about the similarities between the situations, to show that their thinking on this is in error. It’s often easy to identify problematic thinking in someone else, but not in ourselves, so it’s sometimes useful for someone to point out similarities.

        1. Laura*

          I think you’re spot on. Forget about five years – leaving it unaddressed after 6 months is too long. It’s a two-way street with two people in total avoidance mode.

        2. bamcheeks*

          I mean, I am pretty sure LW is aware of that irony, since they called the employee Bartleby and then used that direct quote! But yeah, LW, you also need to accept that that is what’s got to happen here.

          What I would do is think very clearly about what support *you* need from you manager and from HR— it’s going to suck, an you will need a space to offload those frustrations and someone to go, “you’re not the awful person she’s claiming you are, hold the line.” Get that support in place, and then do it.

        3. Marna Nightingale*

          It’s a point but I disagree. I read it very differently.

          Bartleby: I would prefer not to [so I won’t].
          OP: I am getting ready to [but I would prefer not to].

          In the context of OP writing in and asking for advice, I read that as “is there by any chance a third option, which I have overlooked?”

          Which is a great question to ask before firing someone, I think.

          1. Dinwar*

            It can be. However, asking questions is a pretty common avoidance tactic. It’s super common in environmental remediation–since you can’t sample 100% of the site it’s always possible to justify needing more data, so you can avoid making a decision on how to move forward (or admitting you can’t afford to move forward). And the LW seems to know this. I mean, their manager told them what needs to be done. The LW never the less included a lot of hedging.

            I mean, I may be wrong–I do rocks and fossils, not people. But I’m reading this as an avoidance tactic. At the very least the LW should be asking themselves if that’s what’s going on.

            And to be clear, I’m not saying there’s no difference. Firing someone is hard, and should never be done lightly. I’m just saying that the fundamental error is the same: It’s an uncomfortable task that the individual doesn’t want to do and they’re looking to avoid it.

  22. Px*

    If there is a way you can make this person part time and let them focus on work that supports the skills they have and bring to the table, maybe consider that?

    But otherwise? Let them go, let them goooooo!

    1. Observer*

      No. Do NOT do this!

      You do stuff like that for people who are reasonable and are *genuinely* TRYING, even if they are struggling. Bartleby does not qualify on either count.

  23. Data Nerd*

    It is utterly baffling how people get away with this nonsense. I agree with the commenter above who suggested just telling and not asking, but also maybe there’s some way for you to do pre-emptive training with her? Like once a month, it’s a two-hour session of “today, we learn how to use the Stargate system!” or something? She sounds exhausting, though, and I’d give real thought to whether it’s worth keeping her on. Unless you’re in government and firing someone is its own horrendous nightmare.

  24. CLC*

    “I don’t feel comfortable with this task” means identifying (1) identifying the specific reasons why I don’t feel comfortable (2) figuring out what specific actions to be done to correct those. I’d schedule a meeting with Bartleby and both you *and your boss* and work through a visual framework that forces her to be specific and delineates a pathway to solving the problem—she won’t be able to talk in circles. Having your boss there too is important (1) so she can see a united front and broad support for solving the problem and (2) your relationship/communications between you have been muddled over the course of five years and you need to bring in a third personality to break that—maybe she will be more specific and direct with your boss. If this doesn’t go well or if there is backslide, go down the PIP road.

    1. Snow Globe*

      Five years ago, that would have been a reasonable tactic. At this point, the OP needs to just make it clear that Bartleby is required to take on these specific tasks. A long discussion about this implies that tasks won’t be assigned until Bartleby is completely comfortable.

      1. MsM*

        Yep. Bartleby’s had five years to either present OP with concrete recommendations for addressing the discomfort, or come up with her own solutions for overcoming the discomfort so she can get the task done. At this point, what she’s telling OP is that either there is nothing OP can do that will make her feel sufficiently supported to get the task done, in which case she cannot continue in this role, or that she is in fact refusing to do the work, in which case she cannot continue in this role.

  25. did we manage the same person?*

    This person sounds so similar to someone who I used to manage that I’m actually wondering if it might be the same person. If so, I have a ton of empathy for you! And agree that you’ll likely need to fire them. At the advice of HR, I ended up helping my problem employee get transferred to another team, in hopes that it would solve the problem, and instead they energy vampired the entire new team, most of whom ended up quitting.

  26. Bernice Clifton*

    “The difference is that Bill supported me, and you don’t.”

    Translation: Bill let me work on tasks that I enjoy and excel at, and let me get out of doing the stuff I don’t want to do. If that’s Bartleby’s deal breaker, she needs to look for a new job instead of basically refusing tasks.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Yeah, I’d really, really like to talk with Bill about Bartleby. Did he finally just throw up his hands, declare her a “missing stair,” and just work around her? It would not be good management, but it’s not uncommon.

      1. Bernice Clifton*

        It sounds like it may have been a thing where Bartelby worked on Chocolate Llamas exclusively and Marge did Vanilla Llamas exclusively and that made business sense at the time but it no longer does.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      If Bill was so in the weeds of his employees’ work, I’d bet cash money he just did Bartleby’s work if she didn’t do it and that was the “support.” Bad management in a different way.

    3. ecnaseener*

      I was thinking it meant “Bill did a lot of hand-holding (to the point of “snowplowing” or straight up doing some of the work himself) and you don’t,” based on what LW said about Bill spending too much time closely managing his reports.

      Same point either way: it sounds like Bartleby just will not work independently outside her preferred area.

    4. Coco*

      I think it boils down to Bartleby only wanting to do tasks certain specific tasks that she enjoys/excels at. She only wants to do ABC, but the reality is this position should cover more. It would be better for everyone if she simply found a different job that is nothing but ABC.

    5. Luca*

      I also wonder if the task in OP’s example, which Bartleby said Bill trained Marge on but not her, is a new or changed part of Bartleby’s job.

      Think secretaries who had to retire because they couldn’t transition from typewriters to computers. Resistance to learning electronic court filing, for one, would fit Bartleby’s refusal to do certain things. I’ve seen several longtime legal assistants who don’t want to get with that change in the program.

  27. Esmeralda*

    And I’ll bet OP has other employees who have completely had it with Bartleby, because they’re doing the work Bartleby prefers not to. Or who are thinking, Bartleby gets away with not doing work they don’t like, I could too.

    Not only is Bartleby expensive in using up resources themself (getting paid to do work they’re not doing, OP wasting time going around in circles), but someone else is doing that work OR the work isn’t getting done, which also has a cost.

    1. EvilQueenRegina*

      As someone who’s had it with the Bartleby on my team who prefers not to answer her phone and to leave it to me to pick up, I can confirm this!

      In this specific situation, there are certain tasks that my Bartleby, who is on a lower pay grade (originally the previous manager’s choice but Bartleby preferred to remain in that lower pay grade job once she had gone) doesn’t do, but the expectation is that she is meant to pick up her fair share of the tasks she does do, which doesn’t always happen. It has been flagged with our current manager, but there’s a potential for restructuring and us reporting to someone else (nothing is confirmed at the moment) and I wonder what will go down then should that happen.

  28. JSPA*

    “I can, and I do, have your back, as far as any work that you produce. I cannot, however, accommodate whatever free-floating fears or vague objections are preventing you from starting on this project, as of now. Marge is waiting.”

    “training” is too vague and all-encompassing. I need you to start on the task, so that you and I–and Marge–can figure out where additional training might be helpful.”

    “As you work on the project, make a note each time you encounter some part of the process where you feel uncertain, including what aspect is ambiguous or confusing. Any such items that you and Marge have not been able to clarify, together, using the reference documents in [location], please let me know about, as a bullet point list, the next day, so that I can clarify them or seek the right sort of training.”

    “It is normal, in a work environment, to learn by doing, and to leverage your experience with a task like [the thing she’s good at] in approaching similarly-stuctured or functionally-adjacent tasks like [task she’s refusing]. You’re allowed to make mistakes; you’re not allowed to sit out the process of working on the task, and learning while you work.”

    1. JSPA*

      –“don’t accuse me of refusing to do work!”
      –“why not?”

      –“I’d be willing to do the work if you had my back!”
      –“Great! Grab your things, including your laptop, and let’s have you work next to Marge today, in case you have any questions that are easier to deal with in person.”

  29. Simone*

    There’s a great book called “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. It’s all about how to spot dangerous people. This lady may not be as dangerous as a workplace shooter or a colleague stalker but she is breeding resentment in LW and probably other team members, costing the company money and efficiency and generally not being a good employee.
    The book lists the reasons and methods for firing an unreasonable employee. LW should read it. Twice. And then do it.

    1. inko*

      I don’t think that being a poor employee and breeding resentment has much to do with The Gift of Fear. Lots of people are irritating or a bit useless without being dangerous. The only connection I can come up with is that Bartleby is being manipulative – and she is. (My personal sense is that uncertainty frightens her and she’s learnt that this approach lets her dodge the tasks she’s less confident on – and the more she avoids them, the more daunting they seem. But that’s my interpretation and there could be any number of things behind this.) But it doesn’t follow that she’ll react dangerously to pushback or that she’s otherwise unreasonable. A lot of us have these dysfunctional little techniques for getting through the world, unfortunately, and we’re often not fully aware of them.

  30. Figuring It Out As I Go*

    Honest question – is this not insubordination by definition? She is refusing to do a task that is within her job description and skill set. When one of my managers told me in a touchbase that an employee refused to do something the manager assigned that was within their job scope, the manager was surprised when I told them to do a coaching session with the employee. This manager is new to management, so doesn’t always realize the need to address issues like this.

    1. Observer*

      I agree with you – this is insubordination. And at 5+ years in management, the OP should be able to recognize this and be comfortable in dealing with it.

  31. Gracely*

    “I’m not Bill. Bill hasn’t been here for five years. You have my support whether you believe it or not, but I need you to do this or we’re going to have to look at if it makes sense to continue your employment. I can support you if you do the work, but doing the work isn’t optional.”

    I really think OP needs to stop trying to argue at Bartleby and just lay out what the situation is. Do the work or don’t have a job.

    1. cmcinnyc*

      Or, “Bill left 5 years ago.” And then silence. Let that sit. FIVE years, Bartleby. Bill should not be part of the conversation anymore.

  32. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP — I worked for 35 years in libraries, which tend to attract a lot of Bartlebys. Do not let this drag out any longer–five years is already too long. As a former manager of mine once said, “Comfort is not the issue.”

    Do you realize how well Bartleby has trained you? She has taught you to acquiesce in long, circular conversations that end without any consequences for her. You need to break up this pattern as quickly as possible. Yes, there will be consequences. When you stop reinforcing somebody’s behavior, they generally ramp it up trying to get you to go back to the old pattern.

    Your own manager is giving you good advice on this. Have you thought of asking her to sit in on a meeting where you implement a version ofAlison’s script? If you have HR where you work, you should brief them, too, and get any advice they have about how to do a PIP in your organization.

    The PIP should be include very specific language about what performance goals you have for Bartleby — she will try to rules-lawyer every point. Have a witness present when you have the conversation — your manager or somebody from HR. You should also include a time frame — I wouldn’t give it more than a month, because Bartleby can either change her behavior, or she can’t. There won’t be gradual improvement.

    I’m not optimistic that Bartleby will suddenly turn around. This is a long-standing pattern of behavior for her and by and large it’s been successful. You’re probably going to have to let her go.

    1. BatManDan*

      100% this. Bartleby has trained their manager (the OP) into becoming, ironically, another Bartleby who would prefer not to do a crucial part of her job of managing people.

  33. kiki*

    I feel like I’ve encountered this situation with people I’ve dated. It’s really confusing because you feel like since they are always providing some new piece of information or reason, there must be some point at which you can talk through the issue, get to the root of it, and resolve things. But it will never be resolved. When there’s an issue, both parties need to be committed to putting in effort to resolve it. If someone is continuously listing reasons they cannot do something but not providing any ideas or solutions of how to do something, they don’t actually want to solve the issue. Even if LW became the best manager in the world, they could not make Bartleby step up and do things they are committed to not doing.
    Because Bartleby is doing parts of their job, it’s worth it to go through the PIP process and make clear that Bartleby must do these tasks or look for other work. Maybe they’ll step up once they know it’s 100% non-negotiable. But there’s a very real possibility they won’t and that’s not on LW.

  34. Irish Teacher*

    I’m going to add from my experience with students that people like Bartleby often create the situation that they then use to back up what they believe.

    I’ve had students where the situation goes like this.
    Me: Mary, stop talking.
    *Mary stops talking and I move on with the class*
    *a few minutes later*
    Me: Johnny, stop talking.
    *Johnny stops talking and I move on with the class*
    *a few minutes later*
    Me: Bartleby, stop talking.
    Bartleby: I wasn’t the only one talking. Why are you picking on me?
    Me: I didn’t say you were the only one talking but that is not the point. You need to stop talking and get on with your work.
    Bartleby: Oh, so it’s OK for THEM to be talking and not me. You’re picking on ME! I’m going to tell the principal/my mom about this.
    Me: Bartleby: Stop arguing and get on with your work.
    Bartleby: But I wouldn’t HAVE to argue. If you weren’t always PICKING on me. Mary and Johnny were talking too and you’re not mad at THEM!

    And on and on until Bartleby gets a note home a detention or something, which she then convinces herself was received solely because she was talking rather than because she kept arguing and being disrespectful and is genuinely convinced this is unfair and that she did nothing more than Johnny or Mary did and that the only reason she got more severe consequences is because I hate her.

    I’m not sure how much help this is, but…I’m not entirely sure it is a communication problem between you and Bartleby, so much as Bartleby trying to turn things around so that you are in the wrong and she doesn’t have to do the tasks she doesn’t want to.

    It is somewhat manipulative to do “you don’t support me” and then give no specifics. It puts the other person on the defensive and distracts from the original issue, in the same way my previous students were trying, consciously or unconsciously, to get me to turn my attention from correcting their behaviour to reassuring them that I did like them or to defending myself from accusations of being unfair.

    Like others, I am not sure you will be able to correct this, though I hope I’m wrong, because it seems like Bartleby is convincing herself that anything you do or say is being unfair to her and is more interested in putting you in the wrong than in making any effort to change her behaviour.

    I also wonder if perhaps she liked Bill and resents you for not being him. Again, that comes up a fair bit in teaching. One of my favourite, most cooperative classes were apparently very difficult for the sub who covered for me when I was out after an operation and I suspect it was at least partly that they and I got on so well that they resented anybody taking my place, so to speak. And I’ve been on the other end of that too, when I have covered for a teacher and gotten right from the start, “Mrs/Mr. X doesn’t do it that way,” “Mrs/Mr. X would let us do that,” “Mr/Mrs. X is a better teacher than you.”

    As an adult, Bartleby should be mature enough to realise that you are not to blame for Bill leaving, but…her behaviour sounds so immature and lacking in self-awareness that I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t realise some of her animosity to you came from just wishing Bill was still there.

    OR it might be another manipulation technique, making you feel that the fault is with you rather than her, since she didn’t have those problems with Bill (according to her; Bill might well say something different).

    1. Observer*

      I’m not entirely sure it is a communication problem between you and Bartleby, so much as Bartleby trying to turn things around so that you are in the wrong and she doesn’t have to do the tasks she doesn’t want to.

      This is EXACTLY what is going on here.

  35. Troublemaker*

    I want to offer a humble contrast with all other top-level replies. I think that OP backstabbed Bartleby when they became the current manager of the team, and Bartleby has responded by focusing on their contractual job duties while looking for ways to tolerate OP. In particular, it sounds like when OP and Bartleby worked together for the first time on a chargeable task, something went wrong, and OP either failed to instigate a blameless-postmortem root-cause analysis, or worse, used Bartleby as a scapegoat. Since chargeable tasks are business-critical (internal customers presumably need them done), Bartleby’s employment is in jeopardy every time they agree to work with OP again.

    I’ve had this exact sort of thing happen to me. In my case, my manager scuttled a project and threw away about 4 engineer-years of work. The lead engineer promptly responded by going on walkabout! I was put in the lead’s place and asked to immediately start work on a new greenfield project with the exact same description and design as the previous project. At that point, I saw into the future, including the PIP and dismissal. There is literally nothing that can be done to save this sort of employment; management set the timbre and the tempo.

    1. BuildMeUp*

      None of this is supported by the letter. I’m sorry you had a bad experience with a manager, but you’re really projecting here.

    2. bamcheeks*

      Even if this were true (and there’s a lot of projection here!), it’s been FIVE YEARS. At some point you’ve got to move on mentally or physically.

      1. ferrina*

        Yeah….you can’t just nope out on a significant part of your job description.

        I’ve had bosses undermine me and use me as the scapegoat (I had a VP several levels higher than me that liked to throw me under the bus for any mistake she made….I was entry level). The answer isn’t to stop doing your job. I mean, you can, but don’t plan on keeping that job for long. Get out of that situation, get to a better place and be happy again.

    3. Marna Nightingale*

      Bartleby, is that you? :-)

      So, firstly, all things are possible but this one is extremely unlikely, if only because if OP were that cold and treacherous Bartleby would have been out of there roughly 4.5 years ago.

      And even if it were true, nothing about this is working and apparently Bartleby would also “prefer not to” find a new job and make the jump, so I guess it’s up to OP to break the pattern.

    4. EvilQueenRegina*

      Sorry, I’m confused – not seeing where OP did any backstabbing, is there some context I have missed?

    5. Minerva*

      Beyond the projection here this line is super weird:

      “Bartleby’s employment is in jeopardy every time they agree to work with OP again.”

      OP is Bartleby’s manager. You either “agree” to work with your manager or you quit. You can’t just…not decide to do critical your job and think that solves the issue.

      1. MsM*

        And in the meantime, if I didn’t trust my manager, I feel like I would not be constantly advertising to my manager that I didn’t trust them. If you 100% know you’re not going to be supported based on substantive past evidence, what’s the point of arguing about it? Just do the work as best you can, circulate your resume in your free time, and get out.

        1. Irish Teacher*

          Yup, if the LW were the type to throw people under the bus, then…refusing to do your job is giving them the perfect excuse to do just that. “Well, the problem was that Bartleby just refused to do her part. Otherwise the project would have worked out just fine.”

          1. MsM*

            If anything, I think the fact Bartleby feels this comfortable pushing back is a sign that deep down, she knows OP wants to be supportive and helpful when a less patient manager would have stopped entertaining these arguments long ago. Which is something OP might want to consider pointing out.

    6. JSPA*

      Well, nothing is impossible, but when a scenario has zero basis in the original letter, but it’s a PERFECT match for one person’s personal experience, that tends to mean the scenario is pure projection.

  36. Thursday Next*

    “Don’t accuse me of refusing to do work!”
    “So you agree that you’ll do the project then! Excellent.”
    (Walk away.)

  37. Ainsley Hayes*

    Definitely hold the course and brace for the consequences. I have had a direct report like Bartleby where, in addition to having these circular conversations with me, she would go over my head to my boss about the assignments. When she was told she had to do them, she had a bad attitude AND resented any constructive criticism on her work. This situation ultimately resolved after a PIP where we ultimately had to terminate her part-way through.

    Good luck – be kind to yourself.

    1. ferrina*

      Yup, loop in your boss/HR as an fyi.

      I had one employee that was too okay with making mistakes and needed constant guidance. She was also gunning for a promotion that would put her as project lead/client liaison. She got mad when I told her I needed to see more consistent success (i.e., I couldn’t review her work every. single. time.)

      She got mad and went to my boss complaining that I was verbally abusive and bullying her. My boss immediately came to me and chewed me out. Never mind that we had regular 360 reviews and I had always gotten great reviews from people I supervised. Never mind that she had regular skip-levels with the complainer and others, and no one had ever had any concerns about me (and had repeatedly praised my management). Luckily I was able to talk my manager down, but I had to talk through every. single. move. with Boss in advance. That Boss was particularly naive and had no idea how to manage and tended to go with the last thing that she had heard. It was an overall ridiculous situation (I left six months later).

  38. Corinne*

    Sounds like what she wants is extreme hand-holding and micromanagement (like her past manager gave her). She wants to follow exact, step by step directions, vs. using any decision-making skills of her own.

  39. bamcheeks*

    Second, I dread going through the (long, involved) termination process with her, since I know it will involve all sorts of similar evasions, misrepresentations, and accusations of favoritism. It will be exhausting, and while I’ll do it if needed, to borrow a quote, “I would prefer not to.”

    OP, you do need to do it, and this is your job. Spend some time thinking about what support you’ll need from HR and your manager, and communicate with them clearly to make sure that support is in place. And then do it.

    1. Ainsley Hayes*

      Good advice. Get your tools in order. If you company has an attorney for HR issues (internal or external) be sure to check in with them. Attorneys help you plan for worst-case scenarios. During the situation I mentioned in my comment upthread, our attorney was such a source of comfort.

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        This is good advice. HR and legal council can be helpful in cases like this, especially when you have a manipulative and/or Teflon employees.

    2. irene adler*

      yes- exactly. Get everyone on board for the termination.
      If folks are prepared, the termination might not be as painful as feared. That was the case for me. I documented everything even though management kept telling me, “it’s hard to terminate an employee” and “you’ll need lots of documentation.”
      Then one day (after a consult with an attorney), management declared the documentation enough and she was terminated very quickly.

    3. ferrina*

      And document, document, DOCUMENT!

      The more you can write down, the easier you make it for HR and Legal. I had an employee who wasn’t working out at 3 weeks in. At one week I had been worried, so I started writing notes after every conversation with or about him. I had clear records of who said what when, what I had assigned to him vs what he had actually done (and when he had turned it in), clear bulleted emails where I recapped my conversation with him to him and he had responded (to show that he was aware that XYZ were the expectations), everything.

      Our normally reticent HR was delighted and was much more confident going into her conversation with him. They were quickly able to work out a parting of ways.

      1. Ainsley Hayes*

        Yes! And document in real time. Contemporaneous notes are best. And, whether you are saving to a computer or a hard copy, please make sure your notes are limited access to only those who must have access.

  40. VaguelySpecific*

    Dealing with something similar right now just with a peer. our group reviews action items and explain what needs to be done, ask if they have questions, they say they are good and then a few hours later I’m getting asked questions I already answered. Or we will all discuss in a meeting a new policy we are implementing then the next day they will not follow it and say they weren’t aware things had changed, they were never told, etc. they also avoid volunteering for any projects regardless of size and when something is assigned to them by our supervisor they rely on me and other peers to tell them what exactly they need to do, which usually devolves into us just doing the work for them because it must get done.

    Unfortunately, I worry that we might be seeing the first signs of some sort of dementia rather than just incompetence. It’s very frustrating and sad and I have no idea how it will ultimately be handled.

    It doesn’t sound like this is the case for OP but is a reminder that sometimes things like this aren’t necessarily intentional/malicious.

    1. Boof*

      While it’s sad if behaviors may be due to something more readily attributable to bad luck than to bad habit (ie, dementia vs lack of effort) in the end it should be the same management unless the employee has an ADA condition for which there is a reasonable accommodation, and ultimately it’s on the employee to get the ADA condition diagnosed and decide when / if to disclose it.
      I think even with dementia management is the same; name what the problem is, what concrete outcomes are and what they need to be, discuss with the employee, decide if there’s a real path forward or part ways.

  41. Bubba*

    This person is refusing work and complaining that you’re not the old manager who left- FIVE YEARS ago?! This person cannot handle a change and it sounds like that is required for this job. Honestly, it is required in some degree for most jobs. I hardly know anyone whose job duties and company structure haven’t changed at all over the course of 5 years! The expectation that she only ever do things she is already fully trained on and “comfortable” with is completely unreasonable. It’s time to put her on a PIP and be prepared to part ways at the end of it.

  42. Minerva*

    I would put good money down on “she just doesn’t want to do the work.” So Bartleby is doing her level best to gaslight you into thinking the problem is, at least in part, you.

    1. ferrina*

      Yep, this is my bet. She doesn’t like this part of the job, Bill didn’t make her do it, and OP has been allowing her to get away with not doing it. She’s found a pretty successful strategy!

      side note: this was also a strategy my ex liked to use to get out of doing his share of the housework. He wasn’t trained; if I offered to train him (i.e., show him how to do basic household chores), he felt unsupported; I told him I supported him and he talked about how his parents didn’t support him; I asked him to just do the thing, but now he has a headache, and I’m so mean for asking him to do the thing and expecting so much of him while he’s not feeling well…..there would always be an excuse why he couldn’t possibly do the thing he didn’t want to do, and the end result was that I had was doing 7-12 hours more housework than him per week, and I had a more demanding job and worked more hours, and I was actively job searching in my free time (which I had almost none). At the end of the day, he was unwilling to do his job, he wouldn’t find solutions, and it was hurting the people around him.

      1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        Oh yeah. I divorced this guy. (His mother literally had a house rule growing up that “Lastname men don’t do housework.” They just do yard work. And since we lived in a third floor walkup….)

  43. ThinMint*

    OP, I’ve been in your space. I think Alison nailed it when she mentioned you’ve been operating as if Bart were rational and you just need to get through to him. Look at the evidence to the contrary.

    It is good that you would be open to Bart staying if he turns it around, but if he doesn’t, and he’s let go, I want to assure you that on the other side of this for you is a breath of fresh air not having to spend this large amount of time managing him and having circular conversations. Indulging in those conversations at first feels like sign of a good manager, asking questions, trying to assist. But he’s not answering you and five years is way too long. There are other things in your work, and other people, who you can engage and spend time with after this that will make going through a termination process, if just, worth it.

  44. Bikirl*

    OP says they want to switch Bartleby from her preferred domain to other work “in order to get more chargeable time.” If I was Bartleby I might feel pretty cynical about being asked to do needless work– created just for the sake of billing the client.

    1. Dinwar*

      Nothing says it’s needless. I’ve seen this happen–the overhead work folks used to do is obviated by new processes or new technologies, or is no longer being done by the company or is done at a drastically reduced rate, and the staff either have to find billable work or lose their jobs. The company I work for used to have a lot of folks in a drafting department, for example, which GIS has made pretty much pointless. So they moved to other areas. One that I work with a lot became a field tech, doing soil/groundwater sampling for whoever needed help. Far from being needless work, that work is foundational to literally everything else our department does!

    2. Ness*

      There’s nothing in the OP that suggests the work is needless. In my organization, the amount of work of each type ebbs and flows, so everyone is expected to pick up work outside their specific domain as needed, so long as it aligns reasonably well with their skill set.

    3. Cayman Islands*

      I don’t see anything in the letter that indicates that the chargeable work is needless. I work in environments where chargeable hours rule, and I understand the pressure that LWS is under to make sure all her reports have chargeable work. I’m a little surprised at Bartleby, as not having chargeable work is also quite stressful for the direct report! But, I’ve been given entry level tasks when I am quite senior for the sake of having a charge number, and it sucks. So I might have a little sympathy for Bartleby, while still being surprised, but without more details on the work and the workplace, it’s hard for me to have a firm opinion.

      One thing I can say, after many years in chargeable environments, is that the valuable people never have trouble finding chargeable work at their level. If after 5 years, Bartleby still needs her manager to find her chargeable work, I bet Bartleby sees the writing on the wall and won’t be too surprised when she gets PIPed out.

      1. Bikirl*

        Dinwar, Ness, and Cayman Islands: I’m not that familiar with chargeable hours work environments and appreciate your comments.

  45. Veryanon*

    So much this. I can’t tell you how many managers I have coached through all the red herrings that employees like this will throw up to obfuscate the reality that they are refusing to do the job you need them to do.

  46. Susie*

    This conversation would happen exactly once with my manager, I would be given what I asked for and then if I dared do that again, I would be told “you’ve been giving the resources, training, support you asked for so now it’s time to get it done. Are you refusing to do the work?”

    Having to fire someone is hard, but it has to be done sometimes.

  47. Ness*

    Bartleby reminds me of myself as a child, when I would get out of chores by claiming I didn’t know how to do them. My mom rarely had time to teach me to do the chore, so she would often assign it to my older sister and give me a different, easier chore.

    But the difference is, I outgrew this behavior by the time I was 10. If Bartleby is still doing it after 5+ years on the job, she’s not likely to change now.

  48. SparklePlenty*

    As a coworker of a scarily similar employee my mantra is “they’re gaslighting, lying, time-sucking . Could you as a manager please address the frequently reported issue of xyz “ Nothing has happened yet.

  49. Hey now*

    Maybe go ahead with a PIP. Unless she is given some kind of valid risk of losing her job, or other consequences, she will not change.

  50. Just Your Everyday Crone*

    I suspect that Bartleby is the type who likes being micromanaged (needs a lot of handholding). OP says that she does not manage as closely as Bill, and when Bartleby says “support,” she means someone telling her what to do at each and every step. She’s going to have to decide to take the leap into discomfort or find a job where she can be micromanaged.

  51. Orange You Glad*

    One mistake has been letting Bartleby win when the conversation goes on too long. Even if you get exasperated by the runaround, when you end the conversation it should still be “I don’t want to discuss this any further, you are working with Marge on X and it’s due Friday” and leave it at that.

    Any chance you can assign this type of work via email so she can’t immediately try to talk you out of it? E-mail Marge and Bartleby with the assignment and something like “please work on this together and complete it by Friday”.

    She sounds exhausting and Allison gave great advice to prepare to fire her.

  52. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

    Apologies if this has been addressed already, but this in particular stuck out to me:

    “For one thing, I was specifically hired because I would spend more time on developing new work and less time on close, daily management of the activities of each group member than he did.”

    That’s it. That’s the problem. To her, support = hand holding.

    You need to be able to trust she doesn’t need hand holding. More to the point, you need HER to be able to trust HERSELF that she doesn’t need hand holding.

    1. All Het Up About It*

      I am late to the comment game. But absolutely yes.

      As soon as I read that sentence it was “Ding, ding, ding.” By “support” Bartleby means that she wants you to manager like Bill with close daily management of her activities.

      It’s not going to happen and if Bartleby can’t handle it and actually do the work that needs to be done it is PAST time for them to move on.

  53. Ann O'Nemity*

    It is exhausting to manage someone who can out-maneuver you like this. You can practice Alison’s scripts and still end up being talked in circles. It’s like conversation judo!

  54. Random Renaissance*

    Passive-aggressive, much? I wanted to bang my head on the wall just reading about this woman. But I would prefer not to.

  55. Olive*

    This may be one of my favorite letters ever because of the way the LW wrote out the dialog. I hope she writes back and updates us, because I’d happily read about the further adventures of Bartleby.

    1. OP (Bartleby's Manager)*

      OP here. I promise I’ll write an update when this is all resolved one way or the other, but I hope with all my heart that I won’t have to include any illustrative dialogue, because that would mean that I had to have more of these conversations!

      1. Pugetkayak*

        You won’t, because you will shut it down before it gets too far. Don’t let yourself get sucked in. You absolutely have the power here to do this.

  56. Luca*

    I worked with a Bartleby whose issue was simply, “If I don’t want to, I’m not going to.”

    ExEmployer is restructuring her department into a pool setting, where everyone’s fair game for all incoming work. I don’t know what the people who’ve gotten away with limited skill sets or bad attitudes until now, are going to do.

  57. Parenthesis Dude*

    What’s interesting is that this person has a lot of good skills and has the ability to do good work. As such, I’m not convinced a PIP is the right option for her. I think I’d try to move her to another team and see if she’d do better with a manager she likes. If it’s impossible to move her to a different team, then it’s time for a PIP.

    It’s not that she can’t be successful. It’s that she can’t work with you.

    1. BL73*

      I disagree. Her unwillingness to take feedback or to even try the tasks means she is not suited for any role in this company. Her personality is not conducive to coaching. No way would I “reward” her with a new manager.

    2. cmcinnyc*

      This outcome would be so demoralizing to me if I was, say, Marge. It is painful to work in situations where someone is disruptive, or not pulling their weight, or whatever, and management does nothing or decides they need to fix this person’s life for them. If OP does that, the rest of her team will go Bartleby.

    3. Jessica Fletcher*

      See, that makes me wonder if LW really is assigning work Bartleby isn’t trained on, or isn’t well trained on. LW should not assign work to untrained employees, and she shouldn’t wait to offer training right when the project comes up. LW should require the training now, not wait until another assignment comes.

    4. Observer*

      It’s not that she can’t be successful. It’s that she can’t work with you.

      It’s that she does not want to do the work and refuses to change.

    5. Bubba*

      I disagree, being good at a limited number of tasks and refusing to do anything else=/=being good at your job. Most jobs require people to expand their skillset and yes, take on work they are not comfortable with at first. I have never worked anywhere where the job tasks I was doing on the day I started looked exactly the same as on the day I left. Re assign her to a manager she likes?! If we could all be so lucky as to just choose a boss we like! Not doing assigned tasks because you don’t a long with your boss as well as you did with an old manager who left 5 years ago is not an option. If Bartleby really cannot get along with this manager, she should’ve requested a transfer or found a new job years ago.

      The OP seems to be the type of boss who has gone out of their way to try and understand where Bartleby is coming from and work with them, promising them training support etc… and they STILL won’t do the job. There is no indication re assigning her to another manager will solve the problem. In fact, since Bartleby seems to be the type who doesn’t deal well with change and is still clinging to how things were done 5 years ago, a new team/manager might actually make it worse!

    6. Irish Teacher*

      I’m not at all convinced it’s that she can’t work with the LW. (Then again, given the vagueness of Bartleby’s complaints, I’m quite frankly doubting anything she says.) I suspect if she were moved to another manager, the LW would become Bill and the new manager would become the LW and it would be “the difference is the LW supported me and you don’t.”

      I could be wrong and perhaps she has a genuine grievance against the LW, but I suspect that if she HAD, she’d say that, rather than just giving vague complaints with no substance.

  58. Garth Algar*

    I have an employee on my team who acts in a very similar manner and I just want to say good luck and Godspeed because it is EXHAUSTING

  59. BL73*

    I could have written this. My employee, M, came from a different manager who was demoted for not holding his team accountable for certain goals. I was up front with M from the beginning about expectations, how he wanted to be coached, what was flexible in terms of following process and what was not. By month 6, after he had disregarded my feedback and coaching, outright been insubordinate (but G [demoted mgr] never made me do this task so I’m not going to), he was on a PIP. 60 days after PIP inception, he quit. Of course, he went scorched earth and blasted me to all he could and I’ve had the hardest time filling his position (it’s an internal position only – must already be here to qualify). In the end, the team, my work environment and importantly, our output, has been so much better that even if I can’t fill his role this year, I’m so glad he’s gone.

  60. cmcinnyc*

    Or, “Bill left 5 years ago.” And then silence. Let that sit. FIVE years, Bartleby. Bill should not be part of the conversation anymore.

  61. Jessica Fletcher*

    Can you train Bartleby on this type of work before a task comes up? Are you assigning work she isn’t trained on?

    I think it’s reasonable to be worried about tasks you aren’t trained on, so fix it. Require her to complete that training now, before the task comes up. That way, she’ll have time to build up confidence in her ability to do the work, if that’s really a concern. She also won’t be able to say she hasn’t been trained on it.

    1. MsM*

      It’s. Been. Five. Years. If Bartleby’s genuinely still feeling under-trained, I feel like at this point, it’s on Bartleby to proactively seek out training herself and either just do it, or go back to OP with the research and ask for whatever resources will be required to get it done. But I’m pretty sure training isn’t the problem here.

    2. Observer*

      The OP has repeatedly offered to train Bartleby. Bartleby is refusing because only Bill is allowed to train her.

      What is reasonable about this?

      1. Cayman Islands*

        Bartleby is refusing because only Bill is allowed to train her.

        I don’t see that in the letter. All LW quotes Bartleby on is that Bill trained Marge but not her. Nowhere does LW quote Bartleby as saying that she won’t take training from anyone else.

        Another thing I don’t see in the letter is LW actually scheduling training. If LW wants to try something different instead of going in the same circles, try scheduling the training.

  62. ChemistryChick*

    My company has two Bartlebys (one definitely worse than the other). I’m not even a manager and it’s exhausting just being around them.

    Please take Alison’s advice, OP. Your team will thank you.

  63. Cake on Top of the Cherry*

    I wonder if Bartleby argues like that with friends and family too when she doesn’t want to do something, or has never learnt to communicate her needs clearly. No matter the case, she needs to learn that when you are working, you can’t argue your way out of tasks you don’t like like that. It comes as childish, and the more experienced you are, the worse it looks to employers and colleagues. Even if she gets fired in the end, she might find it difficult to stay in a job and grow as a professional if she doesn’t overcome this behavior.

  64. A. Tiskit & A. Taskit LLC*

    People like Ms. Bartleby keep their jobs because their managers are terrified of setting clear, written expectations and consequences and then following through if the employees fail to meet those job expectations. The managers may be afraid to fire the Bartlebys of this working world for any number of reasons: they fear confrontations (even when they hold all the power), they fear being accused of discrimination/bigotry if the employee is a member of a protected class/minority of any kind (with the attendant potential lawsuit and/or bad publicity) or they fear being left with a huge gap in their skilled workforce. These are understandable reasons but they should NOT deter a manager from taking action when it’s needed.

    LW1, please – document every such interaction you have with Ms. Bartleby. And start working on that PIP right now! If her past behavior is any predictor of her future behavior (and it usually is), she’ll continue to talk circles around you for hours rather than buckle down and do the work she’s supposed to.

    One final suggestion: Try cutting the circular conversations short by refusing to engage with her when she goes into all the reasons why she won’t do the task in question. Let her know that you’re not Bill that this isn’t up for negotiation and that doing her assignments is part of her job. You’ve let her talk her way out of doing her job for far too long. YOU have the power here, LW1 – and it’s time to exercise it, firmly and professionally.

  65. Madeleine Matilda*

    OP – I would also recommend, if you aren’t already, that you document every conversation you have with Bartleby so you have that documentation if/when you place them on a PIP and if you need to fire them. Also send them a follow up email reiterating the conversation, the assignment you have given her, when you will provide training, when you expect her to begin working on the project and what its timeline and deliverables are. Also if you haven’t, yet please loop in your HR.

  66. Not Today, Satan*

    Your company has a Very Bad Bartleby and you’ve made it progressively worse by not dealing with her manipulation and gaslighting for five.long.years.

    You’re underperforming, OP, and your other reports know it. You also seem to have refused to do your job… of managing her. Bart is playing you and you’re letting her.

  67. Frustrated Front Desk*

    I realize you’re paraphrasing, but these lines jumped out at me:

    “I don’t feel comfortable with that because when Bill was a manager, he trained Marge on it, but not me,” and “The difference is that Bill supported me, and you don’t,” from her and, “I was specifically hired because I would spend…less time on close, daily management of the activities of each group member than he did,” from you.

    It sounds like Bill had a more hands-on style than you, and she has a sense of security from knowing exactly what “correct” looks like on tasks she learned from him because of it. I think the two of you are not compatible as supervisor and supervisee because she needs a different management style, and possibly a different communication style, than you can offer. No good or bad here, just incompatibility.

    Again, I know you’re paraphrasing, but this stood out as well:

    Me: As I said, I’m happy to support you as needed.
    B: I don’t feel comfortable that you will.
    Me: So, you’re refusing to have me train you so you can do this task?
    B: I never said that! Don’t accuse me of refusing to do work!
    Me: So, you’ll work with Marge on this?
    B: I don’t feel comfortable doing that without more support.

    Here, you say you’re willing to train her, then skip straight ahead to sending her to go do the work with Marge without actually training her. What I’m reading here is that she isn’t refusing to do work, but she doesn’t think she’s able to do it successfully because she doesn’t know how, and I think she’s hearing you’ll train her as a last resort if you absolutely must, but not until she has already failed and her reputation has suffered. I think she wants a commitment to being trained before taking on the task, and you want her to agree to take on the task before discussing training. Of course you two are talking around in circles!

    I also think “feel comfortable” and “support” are contextual, and that may be part of why she can’t articulate what she means.

    I’m also curious about the fallout and lack of support after the fact she fears. The classic example that comes to mind is the retail employee with a customer demanding something they can’t give, and a supervisor who immediately gives the customer what they want to make them go away, without reinforcing with the customer that the employee was following policy and doesn’t have the power to do what they wanted. The last part is important because leaving it out is what makes the employee feel undermined and unsupported, even though neither of them did anything wrong in this scenario.

    1. caldertr0n*

      I’ve been looking for a comment like this! It really stood out to me that Bartleby doesn’t feel supported and says “You won’t back me up if things go wrong.” when asked for specific examples of support. I wonder if there’s not something more that the OP hasn’t told us about a prior conflict or situation where Bartleby made a mistake or something “went wrong” and they felt like they were thrown under the bus. Has OP tried asking “Can you tell me about a situation in which you didn’t feel supported?” Is Bartleby someone who thinks any normal questions/feedback/etc is a “mistake”? Of course, it’s on her to vocalize this if it’s what happened, but I feel like the disconnect here is in variable definitions of support. As Frustrated Front Desk pointed out, Bartleby might feel like they have to know what the “correct” final product looks like ahead of time.

      1. OP (Bartleby's Manager)*

        OP here. I’ll say that the need for training here is very much something Bartleby is overstating; she could do this work with her eyes closed, and likely better than I could, since it’s just an application of skills I know she has to a very slightly different problem. That said, my offers of training her were entirely genuine, and while I omitted the various discussion loops for the sake of simplicity, I have offered her training (from me or others) and been rebuffed repeatedly.

        I have asked, “Can you tell me about a specific instance when I didn’t support you?” and gotten nothing but vague answers and misdirections. I really wish I could understand the root of her feelings on this, because if she could express an actionable change she’d like to see, I’d likely act on it!

        All of this presupposes that she is acting in good faith, and I have really tried my damndest to respond as if she is. Given the lack of clarity and the lack of results, though, I have come to doubt whether this is the case.

        1. Anony123*

          Just curious, is there any chance that something else could be going on at all (i.e. Marge really is causing an uncomfortable/hostile environment) or that Bartleby may be doing something similar (i.e. is she “uncomfortable” only when getting assigned to work with people of different ethnicities, races, genders, etc).

        2. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

          Oh, it’s definitely not in good faith! She knows what she is doing. But good for you as the manager to respond to it with the presumption that it is good faith!

  68. MurpMaureep*

    I work for a large academic medical center and it is very hard to fire people outside of their probationary period (and the probationary period only applies to people external to the university, people moving from other groups don’t have this and are even harder to get rid of…meaning bad apples get shuffled around).

    I know there’s a lot of sentiment that this is “on the manager” and that the LW “just doesn’t want to deal”, but depending on the amount of process and bureaucracy it really could be laborious to get rid of the person. That’s not to say the LW shouldn’t do it, because it’s definitely the right thing to do. But at least at my institution almost all the work of the PIP, including documentation, justification, communication, etc. falls to the manager with little to no support from HR (and sometimes roadblocks from HR). And of course all this while managing the employee AND other staff who are probably constantly complaining about the employee.

    When I first moved into management, I inherited a problem person who was on a PIP…or so I thought. Turns out the previous manager hadn’t dotted every i and crossed every t and we had to re-start the PIP several times! This wasn’t the previous manager being sloppy, this was lack of support and clear process. I had very little support from HR or higher ups, worked lots of extra hours to handle the situation, only to have the person quit before the PIP was even resolved! Ultimately it made things way better for the group, but I do not blame LW for dreading wading into something like that.

    1. Observer*

      y it really could be laborious to get rid of the person.

      Sure. But that’s part of the job.

      Hopefully, if the OP stops enabling Bartleby it won’t be necessary. But if she won’t do the job, the OP is absolutely going to have to go through that laborious process.

      And in this case, the OP does have the support of their manager, which definitely does help.

      I don’t have an issue with the OP not wanting to do it. But, they do need to do the work. And they need to stop allowing Bartleby from being a time suck in the interim.

  69. Observer*

    OP you say that “Second, I dread going through the (long, involved) termination process with her, since I know it will involve all sorts of similar evasions, misrepresentations, and accusations of favoritism”

    The thing is that it doesn’t have to be that way. I mean you can’t keep her from making accusations, etc. But you CAN and SHOULD short all of the lengthy “conversations” and “discussions” about the matter. Say your piece, give her a chance to answer with SPECIFICS, then, when the nonsense starts, end the conversation. Document what just happened and continue on.

    It’s still not going to be walk in the park, but it’s going to be MUCH better.

  70. Unkempt Flatware*

    Oh dear glob…this is my father and I am a champion at gray rocking a circle talker. “I’m not comfortable with that” would be met with a simple, “Understood. You’ll need to do it uncomfortably, then.”

    1. OP (Bartleby's Manager)*

      “Understood. You’ll need to do it uncomfortably, then.”

      OP here. That’s brilliant. I may borrow it.

      1. Cayman Islands*

        It does sound very satisfying to say, but you should not. Responses designed to make a person feel badly rarely have a constructive outcome. Trying changing it to, “I understand. I am assigning the task to you.”

        Bonus points for following up with, “I’ll train you on Day at Time.”

        1. Here for the Insurance*

          I disagree. It’s not designed to make them feel bad, it’s designed to be clear that their feelings aren’t the #1 concern, which is true. If they feel bad, that’s their choice and their problem.

      2. Kevin Sours*

        I’ve been kicking around language turning around the “solve problems” aspect of it.

        “I’m not comfortable with that”
        “I need you to be comfortable doing that. What do we need to do so you are?”

        The advantage is that this isn’t offering solutions she can reject or stonewall. If she continues with vagueness, ask her to be more specific. She may try to come up with something you won’t want to do so she can claim you didn’t give her what she needed. But she’ll have to go “on record” as it were so that ask can’t be that absurd and you can either do it, counter with something, or point out the absurdity.

    2. Luna*

      A bit of a Graucho Marxist response.
      “You can leave in a huff. And if that’s not enough, you can leave in a huff and a half.”

  71. AnotherSarah*

    I’m hung up on the monologue thing. Half an hour?? It’s time (5 years ago) for a “I really need to stop you there.”

  72. comityoferrors*

    Ugh. I had a Bartleby that ran me in circles like this too. She would find excuses and arguments no matter how clear I was, to the point of open insubordination (and then endless arguments that she just didn’t understand my clear directions or feedback). She caused her direct coworker to quit. She also caused me to quit and swear off management forever.

    My Bartleby finally quit, because she was outraged that she was written up. It was her fourth write-up in a year, all for the same issue. We had been lenient a few times (at the direction of my boss, who was terrified she would sue us) so it was actually her NINTH TIME breaking the exact same healthcare reg in the exact same way. She was SHOCKED about the fourth write-up — it was the first one that actually disqualified her from a merit increase and bonus for the following year, and from her reaction you’d think we had literally never discussed the problem before. She accused me of hating her and not “supporting” her because I told my bosses about the infraction even though she was “trying so hard” and had managed not to repeat the issue for a month (a timeframe which included the Christmas and NYE holiday time off). When she reported the issue to me, she not-so-subtly asked that I just sweep it under the rug for her and screamed at me when I declined to do so.

    I was just a lowly manager that didn’t have independent powers to fire her. I wanted to fire her within a month of her joining our team, because it was obvious that she wouldn’t work out, but my boss would not let me follow through until almost a year later. Ultimately, I’m glad I left and glad her coworker left, because we’ve both moved on to better opportunities…but the year of managing her messed with my mental health so badly that I’m still recovering 6 months later. OP, please, for your sake and Bartleby’s coworkers’ sake — don’t be afraid to put her on a PIP and follow through if she doesn’t improve. Her attitude is not acceptable and is actively harmful to a healthy work environment.

    1. Academic Librarian Too*

      Yes, managing my Bartleby was a mental health challenge. It is true that after a year of excuses, blaming others, pushing her work on others, I reorganized the entire department, finding positions elsewhere, assigning independent work so that I could document her not doing the work I assigned her. I did finally turn myself in to the work mental health people. Best advice I got that let me sleep. Bartleby wasn’t doing anything TO me. I can’t actually fix the Bartleby situation. Bartleby will be happier somewhere else. There is a person out there who would love to have this job and be great at it.
      Keep your eyes on the prize.

  73. Another Scrivener*

    Sounds to me like Bartleby is someone who thrives in that micro-manager environment that Bill employed and you are specifically working to eliminate. You believe she’s capable and doesn’t need the level of hand-holding to which she became accustomed. So you allow her to be more independent, but she reads that as actually being a lack of support.

    This is not a “you” problem. It’s not exactly a “her” problem either, except for the fact that the change in office culture means this is no longer an environment that suits her style and needs.

  74. irritable vowel*

    The longer you drag this out, the greater an effect on morale it will be for everyone else who sees her getting away with this and who has to “work” with her.

  75. Anony123*

    Bartleby’s comments about “being supported” and how past managers treated her reads to me like she read some pop psychology articles on trauma/adverse childhood experiences etc, and is now trying to use that as a “get out of consequences free card” by applying it to a work environment.

    Of course, if there is actually something going on (i.e. Gretchen is bullying/harassing her and she doesn’t want to come out and say it) then that is a whole ‘nother issue.

  76. Somehow_I_Manage*

    OP, if there’s a tiny silver lining…it would be that it doesn’t sound like Bartleby likes you anyway. So, assuming things do go south, it’s not like you’re risking your invite to Christmas dinner at her house ;)

  77. More dopamine, please*

    OP, I would suggest NOT having the warning conversation that Allison suggested. If Bartlett is as skilled a manipulator as she sounds, as soon as she gets wind of a PIP, you’ll have a doctor’s note on your desk and she’ll be on medical leave for stress or a bad back or something. If you have been tolerating this behavior for 5 years and haven’t been writing her up, then you are going to have an even harder time managing her out after she returns from medical leave. I have known several employees who did this and it really sucks. (Although one used their medical leave to job hunt so at least they ended up exiting.)

  78. Courageous cat*

    This feels like a case of, not just a crappy employee, but not really good management either. 5 years of this, and she’d “prefer not to” fire her? It feels like OP is just avoiding the hard work of people management rather than actually taking control of the situation, because this should have been worked out a long time ago. And one *definitely* should not be spending such an outsized time managing one person’s tantrums. This should be a 5 minute conversation and done.

  79. Academic Librarian Too*

    This posting reminded me of someone I inherited when I started my position. Except she would just not do the task then we would have these circular conversations that made no sense except she just didn’t want to do that part of the job.
    I documented. Went to HR to make sure I was following the correct procedures.
    During a 14 month PIP with reams of documentation, I was not permitted at anytime to say the consequences of her actions would be termination.
    or fired
    or let go.
    I never understood that except that the language was considered by the union as punitive and that was grounds for a grievance.

    1. Luna*

      That’s a dumb reason, and sounds like the union is being silly and scraping for any ‘reason’ to get something. If you never say that there will be actual consequences, the termination will come across as out of left field, and that could be considered lacking the standard papertrail of “Here we have documentation showing there were problems, they were discussed, and were not improving”.

  80. goddessoftransitory*

    After five years, Bartleby has to figure out how to get more comfortable, and stop pining after Bill.

    This is past the point of reasonable accommodation. If Bartleby’s chair was filled with nails, if her computer regularly shocked her unconscious, if coworkers were throwing things at her, okay, that’s uncomfortable and something the LW, as a manager, can/should deal with. But nebulous “you like Marge, Bill is goonnnne, goonnnne from my life and I’m just so vaguely unsettled?” after five freakin’ years? NOBODY stays uncomfortable for that long. They get a new chair, new computer, new coworkers.

    She’s as comfortable as a pig in slops.

  81. Millie*

    I’m sorry this person is a pain. I’ve had similar cases and the best move for my sanity and theirs was to move them to another manager who had a different approach. I had staff moved under my management for the same reason. I know some will see this as giving up or moving the problem elsewhere. I don’t agree. Sometimes a new management style or approach can be what is needed. It also works well when you want to drive someone out altogether. They can’t blame just one manager for their issue if they had another manager but still didn’t improve.

  82. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Oh I know this situation, know it all too well.

    I’ve fired three people in my time as a manager, it’s a lengthy process here in the UK (except for gross misconduct which one of them was – that was a ‘get OUT’) and the first time I had to start going down the ‘you’re not doing this job right and not improving’ path it felt like I’d failed.

    To use an analogy – the person was like a piece of software that absolutely refused to do any of the more complex functions it had been purchased for. The basic stuff sure, but threw errors or shut down entirely when asked to do anything more involved.

    I spent months and months trying to fix it – let’s try X , maybe a different application running alongside, etc.etc. And because I’m a techie anyway I got way into ‘everything is fixable if you just understand the problem’ logic trap.

    When the actual answer was that application was never going to behave, not matter how often I tried. It had to be gotten rid of and one more fit for purpose brought in. And after the cost and the sheer time put into trying to get it to work that felt like I’d failed.

    But it was a mentor of mine who told me that better to just let a failure go than sink more time/money into a black hole hoping it’ll turn back into a star. Sorry my metaphors go everywhere.

    Here’s the good part: the day the underperforming ‘I don’t wanna’ person was actually fired I felt dreadful BUT the day after and after that I felt like a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders.

    Sometimes the correct fix is removing the software.

  83. Luna*

    “If you don’t feel comfortable working here, go work somewhere else…!” I am astounded you have managed to not blurt that out already during conversations like your example. I barely made it through it before thinking those words out loud.

  84. FellowBlueyFan*

    I agree with Alison completely. As a former-Bartleby, many moons ago, this type of conversation is what I needed (and received). It acted as a swift kick in the pants and started me on my path to becoming a better employee. You’re not doing yourself, your company, or Bartleby any good by avoiding having it – although I completely understand why. It’s gotta be done. I look forward to an update.

  85. That One Person*

    The firing process never sounds fun, and yeah this employee is likely to make it particularly obnoxious. I’m also not surprised because smaller battles spread out over time at first seem easier to deal with, but I think they carry a deeper weight to them than dealing with a bigger pain over a shorter period of time that at least has an ending. If you could weigh those 5 years of trying to manage this person against say a month of PIP or however long where they act up even more, which do you think would ultimately weigh more? How big do you think the gap would get each time you add another year of amassed minor struggles? Also keep in mind the amount of work this means others on the team have had to pick up due to her lack of willingness and whether or not that’s fair, especially over a prolonged period of time. Is that increasing resentment worth it?

  86. Julie Hansen*

    Also, make sure to follow up every meeting with an email outlining what you discussed. It appears she makes up her own story and documents it so you will need to do a little CYA to make sure you are hitting home the point that she cannot twist your words and get away with it.

  87. Calamity Janine*

    bad advice you should not do: respond to Bartleby’s excuse vortex in song.

    these are the excuses that never eeeeend
    yes they go on and on t frieeeeenndd

    some workers
    started saying them
    not knowing why they did
    and they’ll continue saying them
    ’til i go ’round the bend

    beeecaaauseeee these are the excuses that never eeeeend,

    1. Calamity Janine*

      note however that modern best practices indicate announcement of a PIP as well as more serious official actions should be done by a modernized greek chorus ensemble.

      oompa loompa doopity do,
      i’ve got another write-up for you…

  88. Mia*

    I had a coworker like this, and our supervisor made it all of our problems. She could get the coworker to do most of her job and then put it on us to get the rest done. I really wish our supervisor had done more. I hated working with this coworker. She was so smart too; if she had ever actually applied herself to the job with the same amount of effort she applied to not doing her job, she would have been a high performer. Instead it became so hard to work with her it was just easier not to involve her in anything. She would come up with all of these excuses.

    Eventually we got a new supervisor and he was able to fire her. (That was the the one good thing he did as a supervisor.)

  89. Here for the Insurance*

    OP, I’ve been in your shoes and I sympathize. So please know that what I’m about to say is with the best of intentions.

    Bartleby is playing you and you’re letting her. The only way to stop this merry-go-round is for you to toughen up.

    There is no reason, none, nada, zip, zilch to be engaging in these circular conversations. All they are accomplishing is reinforcing to her that her feelings take center stage and that if she keeps talking long enough she won’t have to do what she doesn’t want to do. She’s not operating in good faith, and people who won’t engage in good faith get cut off.

    Every time she brings up one of her “reasons” and you reply, you’re shifting the focus from her to you, from her doing her job properly to you doing yours. You’re accepting the premise that she needs to be comfortable and happy to do what she’s asked. She doesn’t. It would be nice if she did, and you should absolutely keep supporting her, training her, whatever. What you don’t need is for her to *agree* that you’re supporting her, training her, thinking you’re as good as Bill.

    This holds true if you end up firing her, too. You say you dread going through the process because “it will involve all sorts of similar evasions, misrepresentations, and accusations of favoritism.” Sure, she’ll probably bring those up. But here’s the good news — you don’t actually have to respond to any of that. If it gets to that stage, you don’t have to defend yourself. It’s like breaking up with someone. They don’t have to agree with the breakup, they just have to leave.

    For now, you clearly state what you want her to do. The only response to “I’m not comfortable” is “Are you refusing to do the work?” Anything other than a yes gets “Then please do task” and you walk away. Stop letting her set the rules of your engagement. Stop defending yourself. Ignore any follow-up emails that attempt to manipulate you. Stop thinking you need her to understand, to accept, to agree. All you need is for her to do the work. If she won’t, fire her.

  90. Merrie*

    OP, you have my sympathies. I used to manage one of those. Every one-on-one I had with “Rizzo” turned into a soul-crushing circular argument. My manager “Kenickie” would sit in on them and rein in her most egregious behavior, but he was disinclined to give me the support to hold the line, PIP her, and then fire her, which is what I felt was necessary. His boss basically said that he and I needed to work it out since it was our department. Because of the nature of our workflow, I didn’t actually work at the same time as Rizzo all that often, and both of us leaving our workstations to have a one-on-one was extremely challenging. It was much easier for Kenickie to schedule a one-on-one with her, but he was very hands off. Four years of this.

    I finally decided I’d had it with this job for this and a variety of reasons, and started job-searching. Then Kenickie quit (I did a little dance) and “Danny” took over his job. Danny seemed a lot more receptive to my concerns about Rizzo, and indicated that he’d had experience removing an employee with a terrible attitude like this in the past. We were preparing to start this process, but then I got a job offer somewhere else. Rizzo got my job. I don’t know if Danny decided I was the unreasonable one, or if he decided to give Rizzo enough rope to hang herself and is going to work to get her removed. But at this point, I don’t care ’cause I don’t have to deal with any of them ever again. My new job is a vast improvement in basically every respect, and I don’t have to manage anyone. Trying to get Rizzo fired would have been an incredibly unpleasant process, I am 100% sure. But it would have been the best thing for the ongoing health of the workplace–too bad my ex-employer doesn’t GAF about this stuff. I hope you can manage your problem employee out. It’ll be so freeing to be rid of her.

  91. blood orange*

    OP I had a coworker with a similar but slightly different habit. She was a really talented copywriter that we had worked with as a freelancer, and we hired her on full-time.

    Every. Single. Time. she was given an assignment, she would march over to the person who assigned it to her, and complain endlessly about seemingly anything she could think of. There weren’t enough billable hours for the project. She needed more information from the client. The client’s materials were too messy. Etc. and so on. By the time she was done complaining, she could have had half the project done! This was for smaller projects that were more routine, and big projects that had a large scope and budget. All of the project managers, myself included, slowly realized that she was doing this to all of us. We ended up parting ways with her over this even though she had great technical skills. This working style coupled with a really negative attitude just didn’t make a fit.

    We hired a wonderful replacement. She was also talented, had a vastly better attitude, and her projects were virtually always within scope and budget.

  92. Daniel*

    You can fire for any reason in America if it is not a protected characteristic. Use that and fire them.

  93. Former Employee*

    I suspect that given the 5 years this has been going on, the OP threatening to put the employee on a PIP might be perceived by the employee as just another version of “I really need you to do your job”.

    What would be really funny, though not at all amusing, is if it turned out that by following through and putting the employee on a PIP, the OP would finally get this employee to do her darn job.

    (For some reason I’m thinking of Cher in “Moonstruck” slapping Nicolas Cage while saying “Snap out of it!”.)

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