my employee keeps flipping from great to terrible

A reader writes:

I have a direct report who was at one time my star performer and was on track for leadership. She had some challenges in her personal life over a couple years, and over time her performance slipped until it became a problem. Accuracy errors, chronic lateness, and a general negative attitude that brings her peers down have come and gone over the last two years. It will get really bad, we’ll have a serious conversation about whether she wants to be here, she’ll pull it together for a while, and then she’ll backslide.

I’ve continued to hold her accountable to her job duties, but my question is whether I have to continue to invest in being excited, motivated, and supportive of her getting herself together over and over. It’s exhausting and disappointing to keep thinking she’s going to finally get back to where she was and then have her go down the same path over and over. Do I have to act like I have full faith that this will be the time she maintains performance, or can I be honest and tell her that when she maintains it for six months, we can start talking as though it’s the new status quo? She just emailed me her aspirations to be in leadership and the ways she’s going to turn things around, and all I can think is, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But I also don’t want to demotivate her by giving the impression that I don’t think she’ll actually do what she says she’s going to.

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

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • I don’t want to eat all my meals with a colleague when we travel together
  • Exercise ball chairs in the office
  • Information interview requests from fellow alumni

{ 131 comments… read them below }

  1. mango chiffon*

    re: the exercise ball chairs in the office, every ergonomic expert i’ve interacted with has strongly recommended against using those in the office since they don’t provide ergonomic support.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      That doesn’t surprise me. I find them incredibly uncomfortable and have never had one that aligned properly with my desk/keyboard/office setup. When they were a fad several years ago, my coworkers who were a lot taller or shorter than average, in particular, hate them with a passion.

      I also have issue with my lower back and need something that either has a lumbar support or that can hold a support pillow/device against my back in the right place. I’d be supremely irritated if I came into a hot desk situation and all the desks with real chairs were occupied.

      1. Wenike*

        I need something with elbow support! Otherwise my shoulders really start to ache after awhile.

        1. Kuddel Daddeldu*

          We got a few in our new office, in addition to regular ergonomic chairs for each desk. You can take one if you like to have a bit of variety (in addition to standing, all the desks are sit/stand) and some people like them, some not so much. I like having the option if and when I want it.

    2. PollyQ*

      There’s also a letter in the archives from someone who was annoyed by the squeaking caused by just one yoga ball/chair. Imagine the noise from a whole office of them! (link to follow)

      1. Worldwalker*

        It would be less agonizing.

        “If you need me I’ll be in the corner of the room, leaning against the wall with my laptop.”

    3. High Score!*

      I once witnessed a colleague fall off one of these and break his arm. Dude was even healthy and fit.

    4. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I manage an IT department. If those things were put in I can guarantee a lot of techies bouncing on them like kids toys, going headfirst into a filing cabinet and using them to make rude noises. Before throwing them out.

      It’s like the standing desks thing: if one person wants one then fine, but don’t make them universal. There’s no seating arrangement that’s healthy for everyone.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        What my office did before we all were able to go remote was to put fully height adjustable desks (on a track system) at every workstation. It was nice for those of us who were outside the average height because we could adjust the desk up or down as needed for comfort (and it would also go high enough to be a standing desk).

        1. Elizabeth West*

          The temp job where I worked last summer had those! They were great. I’ve also seen monitor riser things. I was thinking about getting one when I have a work-from-home setup. They’re less costly than a full-on table, although I’d love to have one of the tables for crafting.

          I used to work with someone who loved her exercise ball chair. She urged me to try it once and although bouncing was fun, I nearly fell off. So nope!

    5. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

      I used an exercise ball as a chair for years and for awhile it was great. I was an athlete in good health and good shape and I found it more comfortable than a chair.

      But once I was injured, holy heck, exercise balls are really bad if you have low-back/ hip/ knee active stuff going on. They are definitely not for everyone.

      And also, nothing is more hilarious/mortifying than the way a fart resonates on a exercise ball in a quiet office.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I had abdominal surgery a year ago and still don’t have my core strength back. I also have frequent gas. An exercise ball sounds like an absolute nightmare.

    6. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I used a yoga ball as a chair for months, but +in addition to+ my regular chair. A half-hour on that was tiring. I stopped using it when my center of gravity started shifting with pregnancy. (And didn’t use it after I came back –it got a deep scratch while I was on leave. So glad I checked it before sitting down!)

      Anyway IMHO the ball-chairs aren’t as comfortable OR as much exercise.

    7. Antilles*

      So I’ve looked into this and what I’ve found is that it really depends on the type of “exercise ball chair”.

      What most people mean/imagine when they say “exercise ball chairs” is basically just a yoga ball sitting on the ground. Just a very minimal base (if anything) and nothing else attached. In that case, yes, they typically do not provide adequate ergonomic support for hours at a time – they’re designed for balance exercises for a few minutes, not three hours staring at a spreadsheet. If you’re using them, you should probably be doing it in like 30 minute stretches interspersed with either walking around, standing at your desk, or a normal chair.

      However, there’s also an alternative which is more like a hybrid between a yoga ball and office chair – basically a small ‘skeleton’ of a base to keep the ball from rolling too far, a vertical column that ends in a small pad to serve as lower back support, and possibly even some side arm rests. These are actually designed for someone to sit in them for a couple hours in a row and (from what I’ve read), far better for ergonomics.

      That said, there’s still all the other issues with differing heights, keeping the ball properly inflated, posture, individual issues with back pain, etc.

      1. mango chiffon*

        I was told that even those in a “frame” weren’t great for ergonomic support since those typically have a low back support and don’t support the mid to upper back, leading to people hunching over. I think folks are better off having regular ergonomic office chairs with sit-stand desks so that folks can have the option of standing up, and then folks who really need a ball chair can make a request for that

    8. Meep*

      I talked to someone whose job it is to process workplace injury claims and to make sure everything is safe at a University. She says they banned exercise ball chairs due to the number of people hurting their backs.

    9. Worldwalker*

      One of those chairs would be a quit-on-the-spot-no-notice dealbreaker for me. I’ve tried sitting on one and within minutes I had shooting pains up my back; now with the level of arthritis in my knees, they would share in the agony. I would literally rather sit on a bed of nails.

      I’m sure I could get an ADA accommodation because of my physical limitations if it actually happened (I work remotely) — I can just see my orthopedist saying “They want you to sit on WHAT?” — but for the love of all that’s holy, nobody should have to request an ADA accommodation just to have an actual chair in the office!

      1. She of Many Hats*

        (qualifier – couldn’t get past Inc. paywall)

        “You have something going on that constantly affects your work performance – hence our repeated conversations about it. Before I can recommend you for the leadership track, I need you to figure out what is impacting your work performance and how to minimize that impact so any future team reports get the good manager they deserve. You need to consistently demonstrate, in this role, that you can perform at the level needed and expected.” And, really, the conversation needs to continue with the “Or else” part, too, since the employee has not kept up good attitude and quality work needed to meet the role they’re currently in much less the role they’re aspiring to.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Or a million other things. Let’s not armchair-diagnose at all, but even if we were, errors + lateness + irritability could come from all sorts of stressors.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        And even if there are medical reasons for the switch in behaviour – there does have to come a point where the onus is on the employee to mitigate the effects on their work.

        Accommodation cannot be ‘behave badly whenever without consequences’. I say that as someone who did once blame some appalling behaviour at work on my mental issues. (My boss basically told me ‘then get some help for it because you have to stop being rude/not doing work/showing up only when you feel like it’. And I did)

        1. Worldwalker*


          The normal expectations of work behavior — things like working the designated hours, being civil to co-workers, completing assigned work, and all the other things someone is expected to do on the job, whether that job is apprentice ditch-digger or Fortune 500 CEO, are not arbitrary requirements instituted as some sort of universal whim, or because someone wants to exclude people in some group or other. They are what they are because that’s been proven effective at getting work done.

          It’s a bit like having a rule against screaming in a restaurant. There will be parents who say that’s unfair to their children, who want to scream. But the rule wasn’t made to infringe on some right of children — it was made so that everyone can have a peaceful meal. “How can we suppress children?” was never part of the decision-making process; “how can we offer the best service to our customers” was what it was all about.

          So with any chronic problem, in the end it doesn’t matter what the cause is if it’s not something the business can fix (see: discussion of exercise ball chairs). It doesn’t matter if a problematic employee has a mental illness, or an ill family member they are caring for, or an abusive spouse, or a family member who keeps getting in trouble with the law, or a crazy ex stalking them, or any of a number of other problems. (and I’ve known people who had to deal with all of those, to the detriment of their work performance) It’s not the employer’s job to fix it. Compassion goes only so far, and is much better used in acute situations (my mom is in the hospital; I’ll be out for a couple of days) than chronic ones (my mom needs a full-time caretaker and can’t afford one).

          In the end, it’s down to the “we’re all family here” thing — no, they’re not. Employers are not parents and employees are not children. Employers are customers buying a product, work and skill, from the employees. If the producer can no longer provide what the customer needs to buy, whether it’s light bulbs or labor, it is necessary to find a producer who can provide it. You can have a lot of sympathy for the lightbulb company whose factory burned down, but you still need lightbulbs.

          1. Reluctant Mezzo*

            Although I had some days when ‘suppressing children’ sounded like a *really* good idea. They’re grown now, and actually don’t hate me, so I guess I did it right.

      2. ferrina*

        There’s a whole bunch of things that could cause this- I can think of at least a dozen mental health and physical health conditions off the top of my head, and that’s not including other aspects of life. Can’t jump to a single diagnosis from this, and it wouldn’t even be helpful for LW to try to diagnose the employee.

      3. BubbleTea*

        Maybe she’s secretly two people, alternating due to a magical bed that transports them through time to swap places with each other, and no one ever looks closely enough to notice.

    2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      It sure sounds like something bigger – physical/psychological/emotional hell, even social, her family all moved away or friends cut her out after they got married and she’s just really disconnected – because she is giving OP a laundry list of plans and goals, promises for the future, but no “hey, I understand what is happening now. I know it is not OK. I am taking real steps to improve. Right now I will be (adding proofing time, using instructions for procedures that we all have memorized and don’t bother with most times) to improve my work in X and Y.
      But there is no self awareness or understanding of the gravity in that email.

    3. Mockingjay*

      Or, it could be someone who has a lot of stuff going on in their personal life, affecting their performance. I was once that person.

      What did I do? I went to my supervisor and had a frank discussion about workload, handed off a portion of my workload to a colleague (he was delighted; it was experience he wanted in a new area), and took a month of FMLA. When I returned, I stayed at the lower level of responsibility, which I was able to handle capably. A couple years later (when family stuff was under control), I started taking on more responsibility again.

      Now whether that would work for this particular case, probably not. The employee doesn’t seem to recognize they’re not ready to handle more duties. Alison’s advice is spot on. Manager can only do so much to encourage an employee; the employee needs to recognize their own capabilities and weak areas of performance.

  2. Keymaster of Gozer*

    I remember the original letter and update for #1 and that situation got worse, not better with the person showing some extremely bad behaviour which had to lead to a ‘no, you can’t do this and stay here anymore’ talk.

    There does have to come a point where you have to say ‘I need a consistent set of good behaviour/performance’.

      1. Tired academic*

        The link’s probably in moderation, but if you search on: “updates: the sweat lodge, the mentor, and more,” it’s #3.

  3. I have RBF*

    #2 Exercise balls

    Noooooo! I have a severe mobility impairment from a stroke. If I came in to an office and found one of those at “my” desk I would be torn between trying to kick it halfway across the office to just turning around and walking out. I hate open plan and hot desking to start with, and those would just add to my loathing.

    If I try to sit on those I fall over, because I don’t have any balance, and even if I managed to sit on one I would be exhausted within a few hours with the effort to stay on it.

    This whole mandatory fitness kick that some places do is ableist as hell.

    1. Prospect gone bad*

      Do you think a company would actually put those on someone’s desk if they knew someone had mobility issues? I feel like you’re preemptively reacting to a situation that won’t happen. There are many body types and people who are fit or average may still want to participate in activities and receive certain gifts. My job did a walking contest with trackers and you’d be surprised you joined in

      1. BluRae*

        Yes, they absolutely would because a lot of companies don’t consider people with mobility issues at all in their planning. We see letters like that here all the time.

      2. Keymaster of Gozer*

        There was a massive backlash at work when someone in exec decided we’d all get standing desks so yes, I absolutely believe a firm would do that.

        Only need to read the AAM archives to see plenty of silly health initiatives! Like ‘should we have a health eating mandate in the office?’.

        Companies will do some daft stuff.

      3. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        If they’re hot-desking? Nobody even has a desk of their own. Plus whoever distributes the furniture is not the person who would know which people have physical issues, and someone would need to specifically remember to connect those two pieces of information … which so rarely happens.

        (And did your job mandate what shoes people had to wear for the walking contest? Or even mandate the contest? You’re missing the part where people are saying the balls are uncomfortable for extended use. It’s not really a good comparison.)

        1. accommodation is a right not a fun option*

          My office came up with a brilliant suggestion for hot-desking if you need specialty ergonomic equipment. You put away all your specialty items like chairs, keyboards, mice, what have you at the end of each day in a locked cabinet in the far corner of the building which is a roughly 5-10 minute walk down narrow corridors. Then when you come in the next day and locate your desk you move the existing items out to the closet and go and get your specialty items and set them up again. Assuming of course, your super fancy chair doesn’t get nicked by someone else as everyone has access to that closet. The lock is just to keep the public out.

          This was suggested to someone who has an amputated arm and leg, uses crutches and has limited hand dexterity (with that hand mainly used for the crutch), but yes assemble and disassemble your office on your own daily (because it wouldn’t be fair to others to help you every day). People are brazenly ableist.

          1. Phryne*

            I’m sorry you had this horrible experience, but that is not the only way it can go down. We hotdesk (in a semi public eduactional building even, where students can walk in and out too), and I have my own special chair and equipment and I don’t have any problems. I put a sign on my chair and put it in a corner at the end of the day and nobody touches it on my wfh days. There are lockers at the end of the hall for my other stuff. And yes, we all assemble our own desk set up every day, and once you het used to it that takes about a minute tops. (And many people who do not need any special equipment prefer their own mouse and keyboard and laptop holder. Not only people with special needs).
            And if there is someone who for some reason cannot do that, like your co-worker they will get their own desk where they can leave their stuff set up.
            That is also how it can work, and before you have actually seen it work in a workplace, there is no use assuming the worst just because your co-workers apparently do not understand normal norms about other peoples stuff…

      4. Nina*

        I think a) the kind of company that would install exercise balls without consultation is not the kind of company where the people installing exercise balls are likely to think about other people’s mobility or lack therof and b) people with mobility issues often do their absolute darndest to mask those issues and accommodate them themselves to avoid ‘being a problem’ (being pushed out due to mobility issues).

      5. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

        The letter said that they were replacing office chairs with exercise balls, so you’re changing the scenario. Also, I just went through an office move and you wouldn’t even believe the number of times I had to raise issues around mobility and access and got a shrug.

      6. Nightengale*

        Yes, especially if someone with the mobility impairment does not use a wheelchair. Even people who use a walker, cane or crutches often co-workers just “forget.” Or they don’t correlate – “uses a cane” with “balance problems with certain chairs.”

        And the people who make the decision to switch to exercise ball chairs, and order the chairs, and put the chairs out at desks may not be the same people who know that this employee or that one has a mobility impairment.

        Offering an exercise chair to all people regardless of perceived ability – great idea. Don’t assume someone can or can’t use one based on a disability. But make it an opt-in offer.

      7. Reluctant Mezzo*

        Some companies don’t like having employees with mobility issues and would be secretly delighted to manage those people out.

      8. MCMonkeyBean*

        1) They are hotdesking so no one has a specific desk.

        2) The letter is about a situation where they were planning on putting them at every desk, so they are reacting to the situation as specifically laid out.

        Do you think they have a list of people with mobility issues just lying around? Or any of the other millions of reasons people would not be able to use one of those chairs? Plenty of people would prefer not to have to disclose that kind of thing unless it was absolutely necessary. A basic chair is not something anyone in an office environment would or should expect to have to ask for a medical accommodation for!

    2. Nightengale*

      I have a literal trauma response from those exercise balls after the last time I went to physical therapy and they tried to fix my balance and startle reflex by sitting me on an exercise ball and throwing things at me. I could sit on the ball without falling over only by using all my focus and concentration. Marginally OK in therapy. Not feasible in a work setting where focus needs to be on work.

      Starting diagnoses: poor balance, hyperactive startle reflex
      Ending diagnoses: poor balance, hyperactive startle reflex, fear of exercise balls

        1. Nightengale*

          No after a few sessions I told the physical therapists I didn’t think it was helping and we moved onto other activities. It was reasonable for them to try to do something to improve my balance and startle reflex. I was startling and then falling over a lot in my life those days, and people were throwing things at/near me in life an alarming amount considering I was a medical student attending lectures at the time! Getting a cane helped. Other strengthening exercises helped. So PT wasn’t a total wash – actually these were better than the therapists I had worked with previously that couldn’t understand we were dealing with a new pain
          problem on top of a congenital neurological one.

      1. RagingADHD*

        What kind of things? Surely they were tossing things for you to catch, like beanbags or balls. You don’t mean they were hucking random objects at your head?

        1. Nightengale*

          Sometimes they were trying to get me to catch things and sometimes just throwing them to see if they could decrease my startle reflex. Sure it was safe things. And I knew they were doing it and consented although sort of grudgingly. And I still found the whole experience traumatic and think about it every time I think about sitting on an exercise ball.

          The background, which may also not sound believable, is that people were throwing things at me and near me a lot in medical school. Sometimes with the intention I would catch the things (but I couldn’t, I just startled) and sometimes with the intention someone else would catch the things but I happened to be there. And I would startle and then topple over. Items I remember include a cassette tape (thrown over my head from one classmate to another right after the end of lecture) beach balls (brought by the professor and thrown around before lecture) a bottle of eye drops (thrown at me to catch by a doctor in a clinic setting) and I forget what the clown threw at me in the session I attended on medical clowning. I was also falling a lot when people tapped me on the shoulder.

          Eventually I just stopped standing up in group settings until everyone else had left and started using a cane and built up some strength so I stopped toppling over when startled and I am generally sitting in a nice solid chair when my patients throw toys at me so it isn’t an issue. Although I buy the soft toys for a reason.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        I remember that now. I don’t think I realized at the time that this was actually a thing and not merely a Dwight thing.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      I’m not even sure they’re talking about an exercise ball *chair*. I think they’re talking about the ball alone. Beyond all the traditional ways this won’t work (ergonomics, needing the right size, health conditions), putting a bunch of large balls in a room seems really dumb. They’re going to roll around, squeak, deflate… this isn’t elementary school recess!

  4. El l*

    “Look, I’m seeing a repeated pattern here of [negative behaviors.] It was bad enough that we’ve talked [x] times about whether you can stay, much less become senior. I admire and encourage your ambition, but what you need right now – and only you can figure out how to do this – is to channel that drive into fixing whatever problems derailed you last time. Because leadership requires consistency.”

    (Yeah, Alison already nailed it)

  5. Dust Bunny*

    I had an exercise ball for a chair for awhile (voluntarily; they seemed like fun) and a) they do nothing for your core and b) they mostly create a pressure point that puts your backside to sleep.

    Allow people to opt in if they want but please make chairs the default.

    1. bamcheeks*

      I used one through pregnancy and it was definitely easier on my back but sitting on solid plastic doesn’t half give you a sweaty arse.

    2. AcademiaNut*

      I don’t think they should be used in a hot desking open office situation at all! Private offices, sure, if someone wants to. Cubicles – maybe, if they’re a good size and have privacy/sound blocking walls between them. Being surrounded by people who are fidgeting and squeaking in addition to all the distractions of hot desking sounds extra miserable.

    3. Bunny Lake Is Found*

      I have both a yoga ball and a standard desk chair. Maybe it’s my forward head posture, seriously rounded shoulders and profound swayback, but the ball REALLY feels amazing. I have sciatica pain and terrible posture, but on the ball both improve imensely.

      But I am also aware that if I want to rock up at my desk half asleep for a 5 am meeting or am having really bad cramps, I’m gonna need seating with an actual back or I am falling over.

  6. Persephone Mulberry*

    Gotta say, the exercise ball question did not go in the direction I was expecting from the subject line or even the opening remarks about switching to hotdesking.

  7. HotSauce*

    Regarding eating with coworkers when you travel, I have found it’s best to be straightforward with people. Telling them you need to be able to decompress over dinner alone shouldn’t send anyone over the edge, but if they’re very extroverted they may not realize that there are some people who enjoy eating alone.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      It depends on how needy the coworker is. They might be counting on the LW as an emotional crutch, and respond poorly to what they perceive as rejection.

    2. Jennifer Strange*

      Telling them you need to be able to decompress over dinner alone shouldn’t send anyone over the edge

      You’d think that, but I recall a commentor on a similar letter (or maybe even the original one for this?) insisting that they and everyone they know would be hurt and confused by someone not wanting to have every meal with them on a business trip.

      1. ferrina*

        Ah well, I guess even the most brilliant and well-adjusted commetariat misses the mark sometimes

        I know (and am related to) more than my fair share of unstable/toxic people, and they would definitely get upset. But these folks are going to find some reason to be upset anyways. More rational folks might be confused or maybe slightly annoyed, but it wouldn’t impact any long term-relationships. Might just be filed under “Weird Quirks About My Coworkers”

      2. Wonka Chocolate Factory*

        Yes, not everyone can respond to “I like to do things this way, which is different from how you do things” with understanding and accommodation. In this specific case, some people find doing things alone to be so abhorrent that hearing that a coworker prefers to eat alone over eating with them will only be taken as a comment on what bad company they are. There’s a limit to how much one can control the perceptions of another, though. Sometimes you just have to be as considerate as you can in explaining yourself and be ok with the other person being hurt regardless.

        1. Worldwalker*

          To me, ANY HUMAN BEING is bad company after a day of being “on”. I just want to go back to my room and find out if there’s a pizza place or a sub shop that delivers to the hotel. I want to stand under a hot shower until the pizza delivery is due, go down to the desk when they call me to say it’s there, and limit my human interaction to saying “thanks”.

          I’m not sure why anyone would want to eat with me. I can’t produce sprightly, witty conversation; I’m lucky to be able to produce well-timed grunts. I don’t want to share my food, it’s mine, mine, all mine, and I’ll stab you with a fork if you make another try for my onion rings. On the road, I’m about as fun at a meal as a cardboard cutout would be, except the cardboard cutout is less defensive of its onion rings.

          1. SarahKay*

            Are you me?
            That’s exactly my reaction to someone trying to steal my favourite foods too. After his failed attempt at taking some of my cheesecake I had a friend say, in a horrified tone, “you were really going to stab my hand with that fork weren’t you?!?”
            Yes. Yes I was.

      3. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

        I think I remember that and it may have even gone further into suggesting that there is something wrong with people who would want to dine alone.

        1. Hannah*

          I’m the original LW and yes, I definitely remember that! Not sure if it was on this one or the follow up though.

          Note – we are all remote now but Jane did invite me to lunch 2 weeks ago and we went, had a pleasant conversation and then I went back home, finished lunch and had a quiet evening.

      4. BluRae*

        I definitely have had at least one coworker who would have had a complete passive-aggressive meltdown if said you wanted to eat alone, but that’s also a Him problem.

        And he had passive-aggressive meltdowns over a lot of things.

    3. Jay (no, the other one)*

      I’m very extroverted. When I travel for work and have to spend an entire day being professionally “on,” I don’t want to spend the evening that way, too. While social interaction is energizing for me, professional interaction can be exhausting. I can’t relax, I have to corral my snarky and sarcastic sense of humor, and I’m often trying to think strategically about the interaction and the other people.

      If it’s a multi-day trip or conference I’ll plan one dinner with work folks. If I’m lucky we’re in a city where I have friends and I’ll plan to see them the other nights. If not, I’ll take myself out to dinner. I love to sit at the bar by myself at a really good restaurant. I’ll spend a couple of hours, have a cocktail and a glass of wine, an appetizer or two, and maybe dessert. Sometimes I chat with people. Sometimes I bring a book. Sometimes I make friends with the bartender. Whatever I’m doing, it’s NOT WORK.

      1. Angstrom*

        You can reframe the need to be alone as necessary for work: “At events like this I’ve found I need time alone to decompress at night, or I’ll be cranky the next day. Nobody wants that. I’ll see you for breakfast in the morning.”

      2. DarthVelma*

        I always make friends with the hotel bartenders when I travel for work. I’m an amateur bartending enthusiast and I’ve gotten tons of great tips and recipes. And it’s stunning how often the “drink special” turns out to be a drink I told the bartender I really liked the day before. :-)

        1. Daisy-dog*

          Yes, I love talking to bartenders! (Even as an introvert – low-key, one-on-one interactions are okay for me.) Breweries are the best because I usually get extra free samples.

      3. UKDancer*

        Same. I’m also an extrovert (slightly) and I don’t want to spend all my free time with my colleagues after a day being “on” for work because I want a break from them. If it’s longer than 1 night, I’ll often make plans for things I want to do like the theatre so I have a good reason for doing something else.

    4. Chirpy*

      Yeah, it depends. I had a very extroverted coworker who did not take it well when I finally had to just straight up explain that the rest of us really needed introvert time because she wasn’t getting the hints.

    5. This Old House*

      It could go over easier if you approach the conversation with “Let’s plan when we want to get dinner together – how’s Thursday at 7? I’ll need some alone time to decompress most nights, but I want to make sure we get a good meal together in, too!” Open with the part where you want to spend time with them, not the part where you don’t.

      1. A person*

        That is an excellent approach! I’m sure there are still some people that might be appalled that someone might prefer to eat alone, but overall I think that approach (especially said early and lightheadedly) would go over fine in most situations.

        I work in a pretty relaxed group so when we travel a lot of times dinner is together but quiet.

        I always check with my travel partners to see if they have a preference since, I don’t have a preference mostly. I’m perfectly content to dine alone (more peaceful but means I have to plan for myself), but don’t mind going out with colleagues either (gotta interact but can sort of go along for the ride usually with minimal effort). The ones that know me well will already know that I don’t talk a lot so it’s usually fine.

    6. UKDancer*

      I think I’d agree. I always start by assuming people are going to be reasonable. I usually speak to my colleagues and ask what they want to do. If it’s one night I probably would have dinner with them unless I was very tired in which case I’d plead fatigue. If it’s longer I’d try and develop a previous engagement one evening (theatre, ballet or a dance class) because despite being an extrovert I do like to decompress. Also sometimes I want to do something that I’ll enjoy in the evening.

      If I’m travelling with a new colleague or someone more junior I’d probably offer to eat with them more, because it can be a bit difficult if you’re new to the work or haven’t travelled for business before.

  8. Snowy*

    #1 – I did a similar thing in school, due to stress (bullying from multiple teachers and kids). What I actually needed was someone to actually listen and help with the bullying situation, and my swinging grades just reflected my general anxiety/depression because nobody saw my problems as “serious”. It may not be anything the job can do to help besides being supportive and making sure therapy and other resources are accessible to the employee.

  9. BellyButton*

    I am upfront with everyone that I need to my downtime when traveling. I sometimes will even stay at a different hotel from everyone else. When my boss asked me about it when I first started I clearly told him “I am “on” all day, every day with all the work events. At the end of day I need my quiet and alone time to recover and to be ready for the next day.”

  10. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

    I used an exercise ball in the office for a couple of months when I had a herniated disc in my back and sitting on a regular chair was too painful for me physically. Even though it was a godsend for me back then, I haven’t used it as a chair since my back improved, and would not recommend. Especially when combined with a dress code, or really any outfit other than exercise pants or jeans. I cannot begin to imagine trying to sit on that thing while wearing a skirt. Please please make it an opt-in. If I came into an office already unhappy that it’d been turned into an open office with hotdesking and found “many” chairs replaced by exercise balls on top of that, I’d be looking around trying to spot a candid camera, because no way are we not being pranked.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Oh and I absolutely had to make an effort not to fall off it while working. I am in decent physical shape and still had to keep it in the back of my mind and almost did fall off a few times, these things are not for everyone.

      Also, who’s going to keep these balls inflated? that’s an entire job of its own in an office full of exercise balls. I had to get the pump and put more air in mine at least once a week. Again not something everyone is physically able to do, and not something I would assign to someone unless they eagerly volunteered – “hey Bob, would you mind going around the office and reinflating all these dozens of balls that have been in contact with your coworkers’ arses all week?” yes, Bob will probably mind.

    2. Turquoisecow*

      Oh man, I can’t imagine trying to sit “demurely “ on an exercise ball wearing a skirt.

      I was mostly imagining the lack of upper back support causing me pain sitting on one for too long wearing yoga pants. Trying to do it in a skirt and/or heels would probably end badly.

      1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

        You can, but it’s a bit like riding a horse side saddle in that you will be worried about sliding off the whole time. Otherwise, this is why the 3/4 circle skirt exists because there will be enough fabric to side with knees apart without feeling like you are going to flash someone.

  11. Hiring Mgr*

    Whatever city you’re traveling to, you should always have an aunt, cousin, or an old friend on hand who lives there that will take up your evenings.

  12. Brain the Brian*

    Does anyone else feel like LW1’s employee? Sustaining performance in a job that bores me and has myriad structural and management problems all around that I am currently powerless to fix is not easy. Some weeks, I manage it and get a ton done; other weeks, I feel useless and lethargic and unable to focus.

    1. Zap R.*

      I definitely feel for LW 1’s employee, even if her behaviour isn’t acceptable. Clinical depression and other mental health conditions can relapse and remit and recovery is rarely linear. I have the same struggles that you do but I’m not sure what the solution is.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I can’t claim this to be a universal fix but, when my mental health issues were making me exceptionally rude/unproductive et al at work my boss gave me a very formal talk about how I either needed to find some external help to moderate my behaviour or I needed to find a different job.

        It was not a pleasant meeting and I really didn’t think that he was being at all kind at the time – but 15+ years later he probably saved my career. Because while being depressed at work was one thing, I was being really unfair on the other members of the team by being angry a lot, having a lot of not showing up for work, and in hindsight I was probably the kind of coworker people write letters to Alison about!

        I got help, and medications that enable me to lead a…stable 80% of the time life. The difference is I genuinely liked the job, I was just unable to see that my attitude was giving the exact opposite vibe.

    2. ferrina*

      I read that and thought “eep, this sounds like me”. I had undiagnosed ADHD and a pretty unstable upbringing, so my norms were a bit off. I had to do years of recovery to get back onto the normal scale. During that time, there was no middle ground- I was either brilliant and a joy to work with, or bitter and ignoring direct instructions. Usually the good side, but there were days and months when it was the bad side.

      I got more consistent with time and work, but I still struggle on some days. Now I have a better sense of my own strengths and weaknesses and what that means for the business and people around me, and I take active steps to mitigate the weakness and lean on my strengths.

      More important for the LW- my bosses didn’t invest in me until they could trust me. I had to understand the value of reliability first. I thought I could make up for it, but understood that impressions counted, so found a way to make myself be reliable-ish. Honestly, the importance of reliability didn’t fully hit me until I was a manager. Second chances can be given, but third chances need to be earned and the bar is high. And that might mean that the employee needs to go somewhere else to get a fresh start. That’s not an uncommon outcome, and in certain situations it can be a really healthy outcome.

    3. Jennifer Strange*

      I’m really sorry you’re going through that. While I do have moments of burnout, I can’t say I’m having it to the same degree/frequency that you are. It sounds like this is a build up of a number of issues (not liking your job, management problems, etc.) creating just a perfect storm of frustration for you.

      Have you spoken to a professional about your lethargy and inability to focus? I know I was having troubles not long after giving birth to my daughter and my doctor helped me get on medication that has really worked well for me.

      Wishing you the best!

    4. Aggretsuko*

      Yes, very much so. I’m out of care for this job though, since it’s been hell for so long, very little improves and management thinks I’m crap no matter what. I kind of am that employee…or at least I went from “rockstar” to “the WORST” (say it like Jean-Ralphio).

    5. Danish*

      I definitely went from Star Employee On Track for Promo to Chronic Issues Bad Attitude and it was basically for the reasons you say – the job was boring and was not going to change due to structural issues I was powerless to fix, all levels of management swapping every 3-12 months, and a corporate culture that was like “you can make changes! just come to leadership with your well documented idea!” but with no follow through. You can only watch your months worth of effort completely disappear into the leadership void so many times before you become extremely disillusioned and very cranky about it.

      1. Danish*

        (also I mean, anxiety, adhd, etc, but I’ve had that for ALL my jobs and the only one I developed a bad attitude about was the one where I was repeatedly getting smoke blown up my rear about how empowered employees were only to have it come to naught)

    6. Stuckinacrazyjob*

      Sustaining performance is difficult for me as well. to fit expectations I do more than I can and then I’m exhausted. If my physical or mental health are not good I can’t recover

    7. bamcheeks*

      Yes! I’m coming to the conclusion I need to actively look for 12-18 month contracts, because that’s my attention span. Much more than that and my ability to care just goes.

    8. Willow Pillow*

      I have definitely been there! Micromanager of a boss, contradictory directions, low efficiency, overly rigid policies… They also refused to consider my basic, no-cost disability accommodation (autistic with all the extra spice that a late diagnosis and trauma issues brings). I was doing great for the first few months, and as I started on more complex tasks the anxiety of not being able to wear headphones to help focus was too much. I hit a breaking point when I was told flat-out that I wasn’t allowed to take sick leave for said anxiety problems… that my job was causing.

      1. Brain the Brian*

        Not being able to wear headphones? That’s such a weird, low-stakes thing to forbid, especially in the case of someone who needs it as a disability accommodation! If you don’t mind my asking, what was their reasoning for denying it?

  13. Brain the Brian*

    Oh, heavens, have I ever spoken to a professional — weekly therapy, actually. Unfortunately, medication is not an option (I’m already on a medication for seizure prevention, so adding other neuro meds to the cocktail isn’t going to happen), and aside from that, I’m thankful that my therapist has helped me at least be able to handle work stress more effectively than I once did. But there are still days (and weeks and months) when maintaining focus and drive at work is very difficult — and I know that even if I manage that better emotionally than I might have at one time, it’s still having a negative impact on my career development. Alas.

    1. Brain the Brian*

      Well, this didn’t thread correctly. I intended it above under Jennifer Strange’s comment in response to mine. Ah, well.

  14. Dover*

    Re: informational interviews, I love doing these. Typically they’re brief, one-time meetings. Sometimes I’m able to directly help someone with a job search, if not it’s just helping someone understand how my specific industry works and what they can expect. It’s an easy way to help others, build my own network, and maintain a connection with my school.

  15. Lily Potter*

    I realize that two experiences is a small sample pool…..but the two times I met with college seniors from my alma mater, it was not a good experience. They were not interested in learning about my at-the-time profession. They were interested in a fast track to getting a job, nothing more. This was pre-LinkedIn times, so I’m hoping that they’ve learned how to use that to find company connections instead of randomly hitting up anyone who graduated from their college.

    My rule with LinkedIn connections for alums is the same as with anyone – if I don’t know you and you’re asking to connect via LI, I need a quick note telling me who you are. If you’re too lazy to do that much, I’m not interested in proceeding further.

    1. GrooveBat*

      I stopped accepting these requests when they turned out to be thinly-disguised ploys to sell me insurance or sign me up for financial advisory services.

  16. Rara Avis*

    My alma mater has an opt-in mentoring/job advice database for alums to help out current students and recent graduates.

    1. Lily Potter*

      Mine does too. That’s how I got connected with the two students I mentioned above. The problem is that the Career Services people did a poor job of managing student expectations. They more or less said “Here’s a great database of alumni that you can connect with in various fields!” They should have added a second line: “Be aware that while our alumni are great resources for you as you explore career fields, it’s unlikely that they can directly assist you with securing a particular job. Consider them information resources, not job leads.”

  17. General von Klinkerhoffen*

    re: alum cold approaches

    “(Although if you found that alums helped you when you were starting out, you really should pay it forward to keep that network going.)”

    I understand the motivation behind this, but as an alum of an institution that has some issues with generational privilege I find I baulk at this. If you graduated from the same place as me, you already have a massive advantage. To the extent that I have the resources to give any advice or mentorship to people starting off in my field, I feel I have a responsibility to do so for young people who haven’t already had such advantages.

  18. moonwalk*

    After I graduated from college, my already-conservative alma mater leapt with gusto off the deep end into all manner of aggressively anti-queer and very public policy and publicity. And I’m queer. So I would take current students reaching out with probably a grain of hostility.

  19. AnonForThis*

    I am not armchair diagnosing, but speaking from personal experience..

    I was the direct report in letter one. I was flourishing in my role, stepping up the hierarchy, completing studies…. then I fell down a well. That well was drugs. I was seconded to a massive internal project that put me in front of the entire organisation, including the new business we’d acquired that doubled our turnover. And I utterly ballsed it up. Coming in over an hour later, calling in sick once a fortnight at a minimum, literally falling asleep with my head against the toilet cubicle. Because I’d been with the company for 4 years and had been one of their star performers time and again, they tolerated a lot more from me than they would have just about anyone else. My 2 mentors in the org both spoke to me in a similar way that OP has, and I’d mask the issues for a week or 2… then fall back to the new old habits.

    I’d been assured a big promotion once this internal project was complete, but due to me not really adding anything… I was taken off the project and didn’t get the promotion. I was completely devastated. Within 6 weeks they’d found a reason to fire me, which in hindsight I could have fought because the actual termination was wrongful but I don’t blame them for doing whatever they could. I was toxic to the whole place.

    Took me moving states and cleaning myself up to get back on track and I am now doing a job I adore and with all the room for growth in the direction I want.

    My point is… the direct report, if this is any semblance of a similar scenario, is not going to get it together when she knows she has the capital to push limits further than others. And it sure sounds like the direct report needs to get out of that organisation. Not because it’s the wrong one for them but because they need the change to attempt to get back on track.

    Again, this is just my personal experience so I could be way off track but it does sound similar..!

    1. Michelle Smith*

      It’s really great to hear how well you’re doing now! Congratulations on your sobriety!

      I really do think that LW has to think at some point whether to keep that employee on the team. Sometimes it really does take leaving the environment in order for a person to make a change and in the meantime, LW is having to deal with all the extra work that comes with managing an inconsistent performer. It’s kind of like dating IMO. You hold on to a toxic relationship for too long because when it’s good it’s really good, and you try to ignore the fact that when it’s bad it’s really bad and it ends up poisoning the whole relationship. And you’d both be better off by cutting ties, moving on, and restarting fresh in a new environment with new people. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but honestly I am very surprised this person hasn’t already been fired.

  20. SB*

    Travelling for work is already painful enough without having to spend your off time with colleagues. Our crew has a deal that we will do breakfast/coffee together each morning before heading to site & we will do dinner together on the last night, outside of that, you are free to do whatever you like without feeling guilty about abandoning your crew.

  21. Lynne*

    Re: Request for Alum Interviews:

    The university where I work (and am also an alum) has a website specifically for this kind of connection. That way, the people who want to volunteer can do so in a controlled framework. If you do or don’t want to be available in some capacity, I suggest seeing if your alma mater has an official channel. That way you have somewhere to direct a student if they contact you.

    Unfortunately, because our Intro to Business class requires students to interview an alum, I was getting a lot of requests where I was not qualified to provide direction, so I removed myself from that space. On the other hand, if a coworker asks me to talk to a student who is interested in communications/writing as a career, I am more than happy to take them out for coffee and answer any questions they have.

    For me, it is really important to support current students because several people gave me a “hand up” when I was a student, which got me into a position where I am getting paid to do exactly what I want AND feel like my job has purpose. In the end, not everyone wants to stay connected to their alma mater, and that’s fine. I would just encourage paying it forward (barring some reason like your values don’t align with the institution anymore, etc.) because none of us gets where we are without help from others.

  22. Michelle Smith*

    Quite frankly, I don’t care if the stranger reaching out to me for an informational interview or career advice has any connection to me whatsoever. I have yet to reject a request. Now, they don’t come in for me more than a couple times a year, so it’s not a huge time drain. But I know how genuinely impactful those conversations were for me throughout my career, including as a mid-career professional. Not only do I not resent the requests or find them awkward, I make sure it is prominently stated on my social media that I am open to these requests. I strongly believe in paying it forward, and this is one way I can do that and help keep people from having to make the same mistakes I did. Not everyone takes my advice and not everyone is polite about following up and letting me know either way. But I’ve helped at least two people get jobs and that feels really, really amazing.

  23. Love to WFH*

    “open office plan with hot desking” is a dystopia on its own — adding exercise balls makes it even worse.

    Provide good chairs that are highly (and easily) adjustable.

    Best case: Also tell people that they can request chairs. Someone who is shorter, or taller, than average may be very uncomfortable in a chair that’s great for everyone else.

    Buy desks whose height is easily adjustable. If a desk is too high, it leads to more repetitive stress injuries. A desk that goes smoothly from for sitting to standing is ideal.

  24. MCMonkeyBean*

    Oh my goodness, I hoped the abandoned the exercise balls entirely. That whole situation sounds like a literal nightmare when combined with an open office plan and hotdesking. I don’t know how you could realistically even have an opt-in/opt-out system there when people don’t even get to have a designated space. I feel like every morning would devolve into fights over whatever remaining real chairs are left.

  25. Mothman*

    I was genuinely afraid the first one was about me for a second. Some of it is just workplace PTSD from previous jobs, and some of it is me knowing I’m not at my previous standards.

    Once things got more detailed, I knew it wasn’t me.

    The big thing I can say, that I always advise, is “say yes, not no.” This simply means rules need to be based on what you SHOULD do, not strictly what you should NOT do.

    For instance, “don’t be late” can mean very different things. Are they late if they’re in the parking lot on time? Entering the door? In the break room? So, instead of saying what you don’t want–lateness–say what you do want–be at your desk by 9 am. (Or whatever.)

    It’s one of those things that seems so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said or it can sound like coddling or not expecting critical thinking skills. It’s not. A little miscommunication like this got me off on the wrong foot with a boss. “Don’t be late” with her meant “be at this exact place at this exact time.” With the previous boss, it had meant “be in the building.” No way of knowing.

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