my employee isn’t doing her job … but I think she’s being abused

A reader writes:

I manage a very seasonal business, one where I can only retain one person in the off-season, as we can’t afford (nor have the work for) anyone else during that time. In my six years here, we’ve built up a good core staff who return most years, and I’ve promoted one person to the full-time, year-round assistant manager position. She’s been with me four years.

In the last year, her performance has dropped to the point that her job is in jeopardy. She calls in often to say she’s going to be late, and about half the time that happens, she simply doesn’t show up. She is entirely non-communicative when she’s out of the office — she doesn’t have her own phone, so is impossible to get in touch with. To cap it off, she has begun dropping duties entirely, to the point where I have taken over a number of her duties because I can’t count on her to take care of things.

Here’s the complicating factor: she’s in what I believe to be an abusive relationship. Many of her call-outs are related to a series of injuries, all of which have fantastical stories explaining them. Last year, we actually moved her onto the property (this is hospitality) to give her a few months to get her feet under her, and at the end of the three months she went back to him.

I’m at the end of my rope. She and I are going to have to have a serious discussion about the realities of her performance, but at the same time, I don’t want to make her life even worse. I honestly don’t know where to start, but the situation can’t continue as-is. What do I do, and how do I do it compassionately?

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

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. Chilipepper Attitude*

    If anyone is facing this at work, I recommend contacting local DV services to learn more so you have something to say if you are presented with the opportunity, like if the person says something to you. It is very painful to recognize that women return often, it is part of the abuse/conditioning. So getting information for yourself can help.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      There is also the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 which is available 24/7.

      1. AbruptPenguin*

        NDVH is an amazing resource, and they have also 24/7 text and live chat.

      2. Jen*

        move her back onto the property. tell her it’s to help her get in on time. Be a good person, and don’t send her back. Is she friends with someone else on the team that can talk to her?

        I know it’s not the right business answer, but it is the right human answer. You might be the last refuge she has. Try to get to know her better so you can help

        1. I wish*

          >>move her back onto the property. tell her it’s to help her get in on time. Be a good person, and don’t send her back.

          This is not possible as we don’t have any power or authority over anyone that we can just move them and not send them back. It’s the employee’s choice.

          It’s very unfortunate fact that a lot of abused victims go back to their abuser and we can’t do a damn thing.

    2. Jess*

      I’m gonna be that person that points out that DV is not just women, and not just spouses/partners, but not to be pedantic. For example, grown folks who are dependent upon or care for abusive parents or other family members, even if the abuse is due to medical issues outside the abusers control, are also vulnerable. Basically I’m saying anyone who feels trapped in an abusive cycle should feel seen and heard.

      1. allathian*

        Absolutely. Caregivers abusing those they’re supposed to care for is also distressingly frequent, child abuse’s obviously the most common, but elder abuse and the abuse of the disabled by caregivers don’t get enough attention in discussions like this.

      2. Jessen*

        Something I’d be curious about is who to contact to get help and advice on how to support that situation. We’ve talked here about finding resources to provide advice and support for employers and managers, but where could people turn to get advice for other situations?

        As someone who was in one of the above situations, the answer I got from local DV services was just that they only had funding for intimate partner violence. Even the national domestic violence hotline basically told me they had no support or options for adults who were being abused by someone other than a partner or former partner. The person I’d talked to had never even considered it.

        I also found that as a disabled transmasculine person there were a lot of gaps in the system regarding those identities. The system was pretty clearly designed to serve able-bodied cis women, with some services aimed at cis men. There are unfortunately a lot of communities that may not be able to fully benefit from mainstream domestic violence services, and it would be helpful to have advice for supporting them as well.

  2. Urka*

    Oh my goodness – the first letter is mine, and I’d forgotten I wrote it.

    I’m sad to say the employee in question moved back in with her partner and things got worse. She turned on me, made a point of starting rumors among the other staff that caused serious problems, and eventually despite a PIP and a demotion with no loss of pay, I had to fire her.

    I haven’t heard from her since but I do genuinely hope she’s doing well.

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      I’m sorry for both you and her. I don’t doubt it was difficult for you to have to terminate her, but like you I do hope she is doing well.

    2. CheesePlease*

      I am so sorry. You tried to help her. Abuse harms physically but to a much greater degree mentally – knowing who to trust becomes an impossible task.

    3. Keymaster of Gozer*

      You did the right thing. I found the original update you wrote and it sounds like you were under a colossal amount of stress yourself! I hope life is a bit easier for you these days too.

    4. Momma Bear*

      You can only do so much for someone who isn’t ready to make the changes they need. I hope she was eventually able to move away from that situation.

    5. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I know you got piled on a bit in the update – I hope you’re doing better as well

      1. Lady_Lessa*

        Can one of you smart kind folks do a link to Urka’s update please. I’d like to read it, but don’t have to time/know how to find it.

        Many thanks.

      2. Urka*

        I did, and I understand why. Given where I was at that point in my life – in the middle of a very contentious separation that eventually led to a divorce from someone who was abusive to me, as well – I was struggling a lot myself, and didn’t always express myself as well as I could.

        The commentary was well-intended, if somewhat harsh.

        1. Lady_Lessa*

          I hope that you and your family are doing well.

          As an advice column junkie, I am very familiar with stories of just how hard it is to get out of abusive situations.

          1. Urka*

            That’s very sweet, and I’m actually doing great. Sold the business, got remarried to an awesome person who had a kid, and my little blended family is actually pretty happy.

            1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

              Happy to hear this and thank you for all you tried to do for this employee!

              I left a dysfunctional marriage, but had the fastest and easiest divorce of all time and am now on very cordial terms with my x of 13 years. I cannot fathom how hard it must be to leave an abusive relationship where one keeps getting dragged back in. Glad that you got out! Hope that she eventually did too.

            2. MEH Squared*

              Glad to hear that you’re in a much better place. Sorry to hear about your employee, but you did everything you could to help her.

        2. Czhorat*

          Urka, you’re a saint. Really you are.

          And I’m sorry. This type of situation is so heartbreaking. It sounds like you did all you could, but it wasn’t enough. It couldn’t have been.

          At the end of the day, at least you knew that you did your best to give her a chance. That’s all you could do.

    6. Belle of the Midwest*

      Urka, I am so sorry it didn’t work out. It sounds like you gave her the fairest, most honest, and kindest chance you could.

    7. MegPie*

      This is so sad. If and when she is able to get out of her situation she will appreciate your compassion and the things you did for her.

    8. Bill and Heather's Excellent Adventure*

      I’m sorry to hear it didn’t work out. You did what you could and I hope life and work are treating you well.

    9. CSRoadWarrior*

      You did what you can, but in the end you had to make the difficult decision. Which I know is NOT easy. I can only hope she is doing well and in a better place.

    10. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Urka, please don’t beat yourself up too badly. It sounds as if you did all an employer reasonably can do to help that employee. It sounds as if you have them resources, information, support, and patience. In the end the employee didn’t make the improvements you needed despite the help and information you were providing.

      Give yourself some grace as well.

    11. Lilo*

      You did nothing wrong. Your safety and wellbeing are absolutely a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

    12. AcademiaNut*

      It’s often mentioned that leaving an abusive partner can take multiple attempts, and that leaving and then returning to a bad situation is really common. The flip side is that this process often burns through multiple rounds of help as well. Someone like you goes through quite a bit of effort to help someone safely leave, eventually reaches the limit of what they can do, and then has to detach for their own sakes. Stepping in to help someone in a bad situation doesn’t obligate you to a lifetime of supporting them.

      1. LR*

        This is a great point. I think it’s true that many survivors will need a few people who try and fail to help them before something really sticks. I hope Urka can see herself as one wrung on that ladder and her employee was able to climb to something better.

  3. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Oh Lady, this one I remember. There’s only so far an employer can go to help in these situations and at the end of the day the job does need to be done. It’s a horrible situation with absolutely no easy resolution to be found.

    I hope the employee was able to get away from the abuse and is nowadays in a safe and happy place. It’s not easy leaving an abusive relationship.

    1. Wintermute*

      I remembered this one too. I found it especially tragic that it was a small employer that didn’t really have the option of letting it slide the way a larger one would– where they can chalk up having one less than productive employee out of thousands is part of the cost of being an institution in a society. When it’s 100% of your employees that are in trouble that’s just a rock and a hard place.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        . . . except that “letting it slide” at a big employer still means “relying on immediate coworkers to cover”, which is no less unfair at a big employer than at a small one. Yes, it doesn’t show as much in the big picture but it’s still a problem if you’re someone that has to work with that person directly. It’s basically just “as long as it doesn’t affect management it can be ignored”.

        1. Twix*

          That’s a vast oversimplification. For one thing, asking a team of 20 to cover for a coworker is a very different situation than asking a team of 3 to. For another, a big company has resources they can shift around if more help is needed on that team. To the fairness aspect, the balance of covering for a coworker is that that some coverage will presumably be available to you if you ever need it. In a healthy workplace, needing to cover a reasonable amount for colleagues because they have lives outside of work that are sometimes complicated is part of the job. If a company is offering unequal support to employees or letting employees drown in work because they need more staff actually in the office working than they have, those are absolutely problems. But they’re problems with the company, not the concept of covering for a coworker.

          1. EchoGirl*

            Yeah, there’s definitely a difference. The example that springs to mind for me (probably because I worked in one for a few years) is a call center, yes each person more or less would technically affect call volume in a way that could theoretically be measurable, but there’s not going to be a perceptible impact on either customer experience or the other employees. Obviously that’s an extreme example (a very large number of people who all do the same job), but the point is there is a continuum there, if you have a bunch of people who can pick up a small piece of the work, that can significantly reduce the burden on any one individual and also ensure no balls get dropped. In a smaller company or a very specialized position, the impact on everyone of having one person out is going to be much greater.

  4. CSRoadWarrior*

    This is so sad. I cannot imagine how hard it is for the employee, and how hard it can be to tackle this as an employer and/or boss. This is a topic that needs to treaded lightly and professionally, and I agree with OP that you wouldn’t want to make things more difficult.

    I also take this kind of personally because I was recently in a similar situation, but got out of it after only a month and a half of being with this person. Luckily I didn’t lose focus and still did my job well but any longer and my work could have suffered. I will stop here.

    1. JSPA*

      Sending you all the support–and thank you for not feeling obliged to share details, to be believed. We all need to learn not to rules-lawyer people who say, “it was abusive / it was turning abusive, so I got out.”

  5. parttimer*

    It’s worth noting that several states allow unemployment insurance to be collected if an employee leaves or was fired due to domestic violence. If you need to part ways, it is worth informing her of this option if it’s available to her. The laws vary (some states it might only be if someone is physically moving due to DV, others if there was an injury, another if the person was fired). But it is worth researching.

  6. chs.29*

    As someone who survived an abusive relationship in my early 20s, I think Alison’s advice is spot-on. You don’t have to wait for this type of situation to happen; you can suggest an official policy – and build a great culture – right now.
    I can’t remember if my former workplace had a policy, but they did have a very respectful, professional culture. It was my safe place. I rarely talked about my personal life, but ultimately, two of my close coworkers picked up on red flags in some things I shared. They generously shared their own abusive and toxic relationship survival stories with me. They were both fiercely strong, immaculately professional, highly successful, intelligent women, and that was a big part of what gave me the confidence to get out and rebuild my life.
    All that to say, creating a safe, professional, respectful, positive culture can go a long way in all sorts of personal situations. I still keep in touch with some of my coworkers from that place, and I recently referred a candidate to them: she got hired, and is doing a remarkably fabulous job. I think it goes to show that great culture and goodwill really do benefit both the employees and the organization as a whole. Good all around.

  7. Lalchi11*

    I’d like to add that some states have statutes that require employers to provide leaves of absences to employees who are victims of domestic violence. Some statutes also require employers to provide reasonable accommodations, and prohibit discrimination or retaliation based on the employee being a victim of domestic violence.

  8. LK*

    One thing the union I work for tries to bargain into each of our collective agreements is domestic violence leave language. This is an extra bank of leave, paid or unpaid (we prefer paid of course), that employees experiencing domestic violence can use for things like accessing additional medical care, therapy, moving out, seeing a lawyer, or recuperating in general. The OP’s business might be too small for this to be feasible, but I encourage employers that can support this to take the initiative on implementing it, no need to wait for a union. It can make such a difference for helping someone out of a bad situation.

  9. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    Along with the excellent choices the LW made, it could also be a kindness to offer assistance with finding work outside the local area. Perhaps with a related business (since it was in hospitality, either another chain location or a similar business where LW has connections).

  10. Kat*

    Allison every time I try to read your responses on this external website I get a 404 error from that site saying they can’t find the content I’m looking for.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, I’m baffled! If you want to email me directly, I can get more into and pass it along to them to try to troubleshoot it! (

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