my employee’s reading and writing skills aren’t good enough

A reader writes:

I have an employee who is chomping at the bit for a promotion that she’s not currently qualified for. Luckily, my company has processes in place for that: I wrote up a plan, outlining what she’s already doing well and where I need to see improvement in order to recommend her for promotion. We went over it together and she’s not only working hard at it, she really is showing strong improvement in most areas. But her reading and writing isn’t getting better, and I’m finding it really awkward to talk about.

We’re in a technical profession, and being able to communicate effectively in writing is important. Frequently, I run into problems with her because she didn’t fully read and/or understand things (recently, she responded to “X is ready and John’s piece is included” with “OK, let me know when X is ready”) or because she doesn’t communicate well in writing to other people and only writes down half of what she should.

This means I have to manage her work more closely than I’d prefer (and a lot more closely than I’d expect to manage someone in the position she wants to be promoted to) to catch her communication errors, it causes problems in the work that she does, and frankly, it makes her look bad to people who see her work.

At her last review, the main area I gave for improvement was her written communication. I tied it to her advancement and gave suggestions for improvement: read carefully before responding, proofread before sending, try to anticipate questions people will have and include the answers so they don’t have to ask. She took it well and I know she’s trying (I later noticed when walking past her desk that she was working on an online course in communication), but I haven’t seen any growth in this area. I really don’t want this to be the one thing that holds her back from promotion. Any suggestions for additional feedback in this area?

I answer this question — and two 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 manage a difficult volunteer who’s also a friend
  • Responding to men who pretend to be scared of women now

{ 230 comments… read them below }

  1. Benny*

    It might be at a more remedial level than needed, but a lot of public libraries have adult literacy programs that cover reading comprehension etc. So if she does need more coaching sessions that OP can provide to work on this, that might work?

    1. Bee*

      I was going to say – something like SAT prep books might help for practicing close reading. A lot of the strategies taught there would also work for breaking down the key pieces of information in an email and figuring out what the main takeaways/actionable pieces are. I wouldn’t recommend the LW take that training on, but if she’s motivated enough to do communications courses online, she might be open to doing this herself.

    2. Drago Cucina*

      Another library plug. Many in the US (or military libraries around the world) have subscriptions to Learning Express. It has a self-paced college reading and writing prep course. There’s even a pre-test diagnostic that will allow users to find out what they need to work on.

      There’s an Improve Core Skills section as well. It separates informational reading from literary reading.

      My workplace has a subscription to Udemy and I’ve taken some of the “How to Write a …. Paper”. There are also more basic courses available.

      1. tamarack etc.*

        Yes, +3 on that. This is something a lot of college students need help with – and succeed in improving.

        It’s true that a small amount of 1:1 coaching could be helpful as well, as Alison says. For example, sitting together for 15 min answering “quick” emails (presuming the emails can wait a few hours so that they can be answered in a scheduled session): What communication needs there are in each message; how to efficiently address them; next steps. Stuff like this.

    3. Em*

      I don’t think this is a problem with reading comprehension or writing skills. It sounds like more of an attention problem. The type of courses she’s taking and the ones being suggested aren’t likely to help with that.

      1. Ellis Bell*

        The inability to direct your attention properly to the written word (particularly the sort of inattentiveness that persists when someone is clearly trying hard) is often the very thing that causes poor reading comprehension. Low reading comprehension is a symptom, not a cause. I teach young people who are entering high school, but have the reading age of a child of six. Sometimes they don’t have basic phonics or the ability to decode words, but very often they decode individual words just fine, but can’t comprehend sentences or paragraphs. We all need speed and scanning ability, but in an effort to keep up, they over scan, use guesswork based on a few key words and can’t make out sentence structure at all. This is sometimes because they have inherent attentiveness issues, or because they struggle to scan left to right top to bottom (a dyslexic trait) or it’s simply because they got into a bad habit. Either way, if you’re a poor reader you of course would struggle to pay attention, like everyone does with anything that is a struggle. In order to get the proper level of attention you have to read with them word by word, using a fingertip or a pencil and making it clear that they can’t fudge or guess or just do whatever is fastest. The correct route is to pay minute attention, but that’s often too slow for real world practicality if you’re behind the expected level.

        1. Selena81*

          i kinda feel like inserting a rant here about modern education, and how it seems to *encourage* kids to just wing it (creating a chain of missing skills that’ll eventually catch up with the kid).

          1. Ellis Bell*

            You raise such an interesting point; it actually has nothing to do with modern education! Traditionally kids have always been wonderful at masking the fact that they can’t read, or that they only read with leaps and guesses, because traditionally we have this awful and outmoded idea that language is innate and the humanities just human expression, so people will just pick it up somehow from the lecture at the front of the room. If you can’t read, then you must be some kind of irredeemable weirdo is the traditional take. If at my school, we didn’t give specific and scheduled reading comprehension tests, using random texts, we would never have picked up on the fact that these kids can’t read well. Think about how many verbal clues get given in the classroom about a topic before a task needs to be read or an answer needs to be written. These kids are masters of getting by on those verbal clues, or by misbehaving because you’d rather be a rebel than a dummy, right? I would say it’s only very, very recently that we’ve started diagnosing and intervening with reading strategies at anything approaching a reasonable rate.

            1. Bruce*

              Ellis, I hear you… My wife just retired from being a “modern education” third grade teacher, and she was not encouraging kids to “just wing it”. As a teacher and now as a volunteer she has specific approaches to evaluating reading skills and teaching kids how to do better. Sitting with a kid 1-1 and having them read passages to her took time but she would find what was really going on with a kid…

  2. Higgs bison*

    Has it really been long enough since the metoo hashtag started for there to be letters just sitting in the archives? It feels like it just happened, though maybe that’s just a statement about how little progress has been made.

    1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      Are you ready for this? Weinstein was fired from his company in October of 2017. So, almost 6 years ago.

      1. Leia Oregano*

        To quote a character from Critical Role, a Dungeons and Dragons actual play, “Time is a weird soup,” and it was made even weirder by the pandemic!

        But also, yes, I feel like there’s been very little progress made on this front.

        1. Margaret Cavendish*

          It’s still relevant as recently as last week, with the Spanish soccer president kissing one of the players on the lips at the World Cup celebrations.

          Fortunately, the public response is pretty vocal this time around. There’s still That Guy of course (and apparently his mom), but the general consensus is that this is definitely not ok. Even FIFA, which is really saying something! They’re not an organization typically known for integrity and forward-thinking…

          1. Selena81*

            I feel there’s something changing in that at first the Spanish reaction was apparently:
            old women: he apologized so let it go
            young women: fire that AH

            And after he made that bizarre speech:
            old women: fire him!
            young women: fire him!

            In the past it felt like most old women were stuck in that not-like-other-girls mood where they had convinced themselves they were cool with assault.

        2. Vio*

          I feel there has been progress, but every now and then there’s a massive step back and much of the progress is wiped out.
          Some people and companies are only interested in the appearance of taking action and will, as soon as they feel the spotlight has moved away, shift back to the inappropriate behaviour they’re pretending to condemn.
          Some make genuine efforts to change but habits are hard to change and they slip up. This shouldn’t happen though since any decent level of empathetic understanding should make it much easier to avoid such behaviours. Behaving like and treating others as decent human beings is a much easier habit to build than, for example, quitting smoking.

          Unfortunately societal changes do take a long time. But the very fact that people began to be able to say “Me too” was a massive thing. For far too long victims and survivors have been afraid of speaking up due to not being believed or having their lives under the microscope and spotlight and a myriad of other reasons. More is being done now to change things for the better. It’s more and more difficult for people to turn a blind eye and that makes it harder for things to be swept under the rug.
          We’ve got a long way still to go, but we have begun and taken some big steps.

  3. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

    OP3, I wonder how you square “never ill-intentioned” with “a lack of respect and sensitivity for the issues behind MeToo”.

    If these men are dismissing the MeToo concerns, their intentions are not good ones. They are in great need of educating.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      Agreed, we shouldn’t make excuses for those who joke about these things because we hope they don’t really mean it. People who care about making things right, safe, equal/equitable don’t mock and diminish those things.

      You (general) don’t have to be the one doing the educating, but also don’t do the emotional labor of glossing over the awkwardness or helping the men who joke feel heard (they’re certainly not letting women feel heard!).

      I like the responses that question or point out what is being said. Whether it’s “okay then” and moving on, or “what do you mean by that?” said as neutrally as possible. The hard part isn’t the words themselves, but fighting the urge to go along to get along.

      1. Cakeroll*

        I agree – if you really want to be funny, you’d find a joke that makes everyone laugh, not just yourself. I do think that sensitive subjects can be sources of humor within the right contexts, and with the right audiences, but “at work” is neither of those.

        1. NotBatman*

          I agree that a “what does that mean?” (delivered in a neutral tone) can go a long way.

          Also, seconding the exhaustion of having to deal with these comments at all. It’s not funny, it’s moderately threatening, and it’s revealing more about the speaker than he probably intends to reveal.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Augh, I wish I had seen this before I said the same thing but less effectively below.

      It’s not “never ill-intentioned”. It’s a jab in the ribs: It won’t kill you but it’s still malicious.

        1. Orora*

          THIS. Often, these guys think of themselves as “one of the good ones” so they won’t even admit to themselves that it isn’t a joke. But it’s not a joke.

        2. Selena81*

          They use the pretense of a joke so they can fall back to good-old ‘feminists are humorless spinsters’

    3. Ace in the Hole*

      The two examples in the letter come across very different to me – although of course tone/delivery could make a huge difference.

      The first one is unquestionably insensitive and disrespectful. “Men have it so tough these days?” Really dude? Please cry me a river about how you get more opportunities, better pay, and how everything around us is literally built for your body at the expense of my comfort and safety.

      The second example, though, could be well-intentioned but poorly phrased. I work with some men who have become much more aware of sexual harassment and misogyny in the workplace over the last few years, but they don’t quite know where the boundaries are. Which makes sense – if they spent decades completely oblivious to the problem, now that they’re aware of it why should they trust their own ability to know what’s okay?

      Unfortunately it’s not clear whether “I’m afraid of hugging now” means “I’m afraid people will maliciously and falsely call me a predator for an innocent hug” versus “I’m afraid of accidentally hugging someone who doesn’t want it but isn’t comfortable saying no.” The latter interpretation is well intentioned, just… clumsy. I can totally imagine my boss realizing a hug might make someone uncomfortable, but then realizing that since he’s been a hugger in the past suddenly stopping without explanation might seem like a snub, and not thinking of more graceful options in the moment.

      1. wordswords*

        I have heard people who are genuinely well-intentioned but uncomfortable make jokes like that with a tone of “obviously this is a joke! I know men aren’t the ones who have it tough! I am making a joke to defuse the discomfort we all feel!!” So I can see it as a clumsy attempt from a well-meaning but very much fumbling coworker.

        However, as OP said, the joke isn’t funny, and is never going to land right, and doesn’t defuse the discomfort so much as give it a new, awkward additional dimension. Shutting it down with Alison’s scripts works whether this is someone who means a jab in the ribs (as Dust Bunny says above) or means a joking elbow-nudge and needs to get the message that they’re jabbing people in the ribs, thanks.

      2. Happy*

        That’s really interesting because I find the second example worse than the first!

        Did the boss really go around hugging employees before? If so, it seems mostly likely (given the context) that it was only the women and that’s super creepy!

        1. KateM*

          Me too! My reaction was “ugh what, you would have HUGGED me?? keep your paws to yourself!”

          1. Rose*

            Thank you! I came here just to see if other people thought that was as weird/creepy as I did. I’m not a super touchy person generally so maybe this is a me problem but… don’t freaking hug me for doing my job.

          2. Orv*

            I always feel like it’s unprofessional to touch my coworkers at ALL unless they clearly invite a handshake or something. Personal space is a thing.

        2. MsMaryMary*

          I, unfortunately, work in a very huggy industry. It’s white collar, but social lines are blurred and it’s very common for clients to hug us instead of shaking hands. I met a new client contact for the first time last week and she greeted me with a hug.

          It’s less common for coworkers to hug, but not unusual. Even the grumpy exec I work with hugs us after occasional team event.

          1. Happy*

            That is so strange to me! Perhaps it is because I work in a male-dominated industry, but the idea of people going around hugging each other at work is pretty unfathomable.

        3. Michelle Smith*

          I don’t know if we can jump to that conclusion necessarily. I’ve hugged bosses in the workplace on rare occasion before and it was never creepy or weird.

      3. Silver Robin*

        With the second one – clumsy but well intentioned – I find that really exhausting as well. Does the boss (or, in OPs case, coworker) have nobody else they could possibly do a gut check with? Does he have to go to his femme report/coworker to process it? He has no friends? Family members? Supervisors? HR? Managers? Advice blogs?

        Not to mention that “figuring it out” is not actually that hard? It is not some wildly inscrutable calculus. “It” is just consent. Ask people. If asking is a change in behavior, one could say, “I realized I was making assumptions about hugging, so I am checking with folks before I continue – are you okay with hugs?” With new people: “are you good with a hug?” (and, crucially, waiting for a response!). That is it. THAT IS THE WHOLE THING. And if you think that other people are not comfortable saying no, do not do the thing! Just stop. People will figure out it that you stopped hugging everyone and not take it personally.

        And I am entirely unsympathetic to them feeling lost, confused, unsure, and off balance in social interactions with women and femme-interpreted folks. Because the awkwardness of it all has been on our shoulders forever, so finally the awkwardness is being returned to sender. Enjoy.

      4. learnedthehardway*

        Agreeing with you about the second example. Eg. My husband used to teach university courses. He was very concerned – pre MeToo – about the optics of being alone with female students. I think he was wise for being careful, but it takes it a bit too far to refuse to meet alone with female students. Eg. he would NOT allow the door to his office to be closed during a meeting with a female student. I pointed out that this made it difficult for these students to discuss situations that they found sensitive – eg. if they were struggling due to mental health issues, etc. I told him that he needed to make this very open door personal policy totally universal – for all students, which he did do. But it wasn’t until I pointed out that he needed to treat all students the same that it occurred to him, and it was only after I pointed out that there were male students who might also claim sexual harassment. In all cases, his concern was more about the fact that he might be falsely accused of sexual harassment. (I mean, okay – there is definitely a very small subset of human beings who will claim someone abused them in order to gain advantage. But the vast majority of people are not like that.)

        I think he is typical of majority populations (whether by gender, race, whatever). Most people would never do anything truly evil themselves, but they don’t realize that – just as there is a small subset of people who will falsely accuse others – there is a small subset of people who will victimize others. And so they don’t recognize that reasonable precautions are not personal. And they just don’t understand that they live in a cultural context that is based on racist / classist / sexist realities, and so see a challenge to the status quo as taking away their “rights”, instead of seeing it as redressing the balance and leveling the playing field so that everyone can participate equally in society, safely.

        1. Fierce Jindo*

          I also teach at a university, and I’m floored that he needed it pointed out to him that he couldn’t refuse to offer privacy in meetings only to his female students. Good lord.

        2. Ellis Bell*

          When I hear these kinds of stories about colleges, it makes me think that higher education people don’t get the same kind of safeguarding training that high school staff get. We are very aware of how we need to behave appropriately with students and that students also require privacy to speak to us! So, for example, I let kids be the one to come to me, I loop in staff if a student is struggling and let them know we are meeting, we have glass windows in our doors so it’s not possible for a predator to meet without the chance of being seen. Every example of a rogue teacher usually involves them flying right in the face of very simple rules of how to interact with students. We can’t get offended about the fact that our profession affects predators, it’s a fact of life. All you can do is watch out for it, and follow the protocols.

        3. Ace in the Hole*

          That is pretty shocking. Refusing to meet privately with students of one gender is egregiously inappropriate. To do so because he is worried about false accusations is also egregiously disrespectful and dismissive.

          I’m glad to hear he changed his mind when you pointed it out… but I’m dismayed you had to point it out at all.

        4. tangerineRose*

          “only after I pointed out that there were male students who might also claim sexual harassment” Good for you for pointing this out!

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      It borders on impressively insensitive to make the #MeToo about it’s impact on men. Really does illustrate why the whole movement was (and continues to be) needed.

      1. Selena81*

        It’s kinda bad when you make a big deal about it amongst men (you aren’t a rapist, right? so why would it concern you?), and far worse when you do it amongst women.
        Pretty much pressuring women to say ‘awww, but you are one of the good guys’. Even though you are very obviously not.

    5. Not Bob*

      I’m afraid that the problem is not that they don’t know better, which would be solved with education, but that they have a sexist ideology, which is much more harder to change.

      I bet they know exactly the damage they are doing, they just don’t care about people they percieve as inferior.

    6. Elbe*

      I will never be able to wrap my mind around the self-absorption and lack of empathy it takes to hear thousands of stories about women being harassed, assaulted, and belittled to the point that their careers and mental health suffer… and to respond with “Wow, what a hard time to be a MAN.” Absolutely astonishing.

      I think that some of these ‘jokes’ are intended to call attention to the fact that the guys are thinking about it. There are a lot of guys who want “credit” for actually thinking about whether a woman wants to be hugged. But the way that the comments in the letter were phrased, it was either severely clunky wording or they are being bitter about actually having to be considerate of other people.

  4. Former lab rat*

    I’m not a trained professional, so I will not speculate on any diagnosis of ADHD.

    This may be a skill that is both innate and can be improved with training. Bravo that she is trying an online course. However, she may just hit a wall and stay at a certain level. This is not your job but have you tried getting her to repeat back what she heard when you gave her instructions – right at that moment? Is she better if you tell her to focus?

    I’m retired from science. Someone can be technically brilliant at the bench BUT it is equally important that you can present results in a thoughtful well planned seminar. Even day to day talk between lab members requires that you are concise. I’ve seen more that my share of awful first drafts.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      I work in a scientific field and the number of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors I see from our analysts on the bench is astounding. And these are highly trained, highly intelligent people. But this is not something they have been trained in.

      It does sound to me like she is having two issues: being in a hurry, and not being a visual processor. It may help her to read things out loud before acting on them.

      1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

        I work in a writing heavy field and many I work with (myself included) make these errors not infrequently. Often it comes down to whether the need to get the thing done and out/submitted outweighs the time and effort it takes to proof/edit/format. I will always take messy contracts over not having one.

      2. Green great dragon*

        Yeh, the underlying cause seemed less about the sort of communication abilities you’d get in a basic comms course and more about how she applies them. She might need strategies to slow herself down, read more carefully. The writing’s harder but maybe consciously doing a full check of the original request against the answer, check the jargon/acronyms/assuming they know which Jemima you mean and how to contact her.

        The read-aloud function is great for careless errors, but won’t pick up forgetting to address half the points.

        1. wordswords*

          Yeah. I could be overinterpreting based on a single example here, but based on that example, it sounds like what needs coaching is maybe attention to detail more than anything else? Or at least as part of anything else. Maybe there are other aspects of communication skills that also really need improvement here, but that email example seems to really be about slowing down, double-checking your interpretation, and double-checking that the answer you’re giving matches the question asked.

      3. Dek*

        “It may help her to read things out loud before acting on them.”

        This. Or some variant of it.

        It sounds like what she really needs to do is *slow down.* It’s something I struggle with too (ADHD), and it can definitely make you miss things that are right there in front of you. Reading emails out loud before acting on them or sending them is a good way to make you slow down and notice each word. A change in font could help. Sometimes when I’m dealing with a Mass Of Text, I’ll copy-paste it into wordpad and make a separate line of each sentence.

        I don’t think it’s that she suddenly forgets to read for half of the email. It seems less a literacy thing than an attention thing, and and a good solution to that is slowing down.

    2. ecnaseener*

      I appreciate you not speculating — I would hate for anyone to get the impression that people with ADHD are naturally bad at written communication. For many of us, it’s far preferable to verbal communication.

      1. Environmental Compliance*


        Verbal instructions will never stick. Written is a lot easier, possibly because it’s a lot easier for me to control how *I’m* processing written. Verbal I really have no control over.

      2. Chirpy*

        Same. Some people really do process writing much better than spoken words, and vice versa. It can be as simple as what the person’s main learning style is- visual? auditory? kinesthetic? (most people are a combination).

      3. learnedthehardway*

        Absolutely – I am very, very strong at written communication. I take extensive and detailed notes. And I’m very good at it because I am lousy at remembering anything anyone has told me. ADHD in action!

    3. Artemesia*

      I have dealt with subordinates and students who were frankly not smart enough to accomplish what the OP is trying to accomplish here. This may be someone without critical thinking skills. I worked closely with someone who was having trouble analyzing material. I asked them to take one piece of research and with a highlighter underline a statement that represented the most important idea it was trying to address. i.e. the thesis of the research or the main conclusion. He came back literally with the entire article a mass of yellow and said ‘it all looks equally important to me.’ And this did reflect a genuine lack of ability on his part that my individual coaching only slightly improved. You can try some coaching but she seems to be demonstrating an ability level that may not make her a candidate for promotion. You never start with that assumption, but ultimately you may have to draw that conclusion.

  5. a non*

    I find myself wondering if this person has some underlying issue (diagnosed or otherwise). If it doesn’t appear to be an overall understanding-language problem (for instance, they do just fine with oral communication), having a tool that reads an email to them, for instance, it might help with written comprehension. Similarly, having something read out their communications before sending.

    1. Lucy P*

      That’s a possibility.

      I worked with Systems Admin who spoke perfect English, but it wasn’t their native language. In their role, they were not expected to know all of the solutions to problems they might have encountered, but they were expected to do the research to find the solution. They also needed to document the problems and solutions. This person had trouble doing both. In most cases they understood what the problem was, but could not do thorough searches to find a resolution because they couldn’t articulate the problem in writing.

      I also worked with someone who had really bad eye sight, but wouldn’t admitted until we saw them struggling. After that we setup methods to help them with screen and paper reading.

    2. Sophie K*

      Yeah, that was my thought too. It’s possible visual processing is ineffective for them, and auditory (or something else) might work better. I’m the total opposite. Great reading/writing but if you tell me more than one (1) very simple thing out loud and I don’t write it down, I won’t remember whatever came after the first thing. See: me talking to a supervisor and positively diving for a notepad when tasks suddenly start coming at me. We all have to find out survival strategies.

      1. Michelle Smith*

        This is me. I think I had to be told this at some point early on though, that I need to be taking detailed notes in meetings. It made a huge difference. If I didn’t write it down, the person might as well not have said it.

    3. Ellis Bell*

      There are a lot of digital tools out there to improve accessibility so this is a really great idea. Like a lot of tools, they are just as helpful to the neurotypical as they are to the neurospicy, as helpful to the high achieving as they are to the struggling. Who isn’t helped by an out-loud proofread once in a while? Therefore no diagnosing is necessary and OP can honestly present these things as just generally helpful.

  6. ldub*

    With unfunny comments like the ones these men are making, I enjoy asking questions that require them to explain themselves. It might go like this:

    “I’d hug you but I’m so afraid of hugging.”
    “Why are you afraid of hugging?”
    “Well, you know, women…”
    “I don’t understand. Why are you afraid of hugging?”
    “Blah blah”
    “I’m still not sure what you mean. Is there a reason you’re afraid of hugging me?”

    And you can go on.

    “I thought we had a good professional relationship. Is there something you’re concerned about regarding our working relationship?”
    “I don’t understand why you’d say that to me. Can you explain?”

    In general, forcing anyone to explain a joke takes the “fun” out of it, and it’s especially effective when the “joke” wasn’t funny to begin with. For someone with whom you want to maintain and grow a relationship, you might end the exchange with something that appeals to their better instincts, such as:

    “What a strange thing to say. It seems like you might be making light of people who have faced serious situations in the workplace. I know that’s not how you’d want others to see you.” or “I know you well enough that I’m sure that’s not what you meant, but someone else might not know that.” Etc.

    1. justaresearcher*

      When that’s happened to me, I mention that they don’t hug (male employee) so why would they want to hug me?

      1. ldub*

        I still smile when I think of the new coworker who, on his first day, gave me (a woman) a big hug (I had been on his interview committee, so we’d met once before for 30 minutes.) I was standing next to a coworker who was a man, who he hadn’t yet met, and I asked “you aren’t going to hug him too?” He was forced to give the guy a big hug as well. It was great.

      2. Professional Human*

        I (a man) was working in a department with about a dozen others, and we were called into a meeting by our manager. He called the meeting to tell us that he was leaving the department and he enjoyed working with us.

        He went around the room hugging the women and giving the men handshakes, in a direction that made me the last person he would reach. As he approached me and held out his hand I said “manager’s name, don’t be sexist, give me a hug!” Everyone laughed, and I’ll always remember his strained smile as I pulled him into a hug.

  7. Jane Bingley*

    I still hear weird anti-MeToo comments, especially since I work in a field where conversations around the Billy Graham/Mike Pence rule is common. (For those not familiar – it’s a rule where men in power refuse to be alone with a woman, ever, in any context. It’s as sexist and harmful as you’d imagine!)

    Honestly, if you can manage it, the best reaction I’ve found is to simply not laugh. I don’t say anything, and I don’t give any kind of awkward chuckle. I just let the comment hang in dead air. They often backtrack pretty quickly. This requires counteracting my natural instinct to smooth over an awkward moment, but it’s well worth it.

    1. K8T*

      Agreed! Just letting the “joke” bomb does wonders for ending those sorts of comments around you (I doubt they stop when around like-minded people). I like to follow the dead air with an “Anyways..”

    2. Pippa K*

      I like this suggestion a lot and will try it more often. Like you, my impulse is to say something to smooth the awkwardness.

      I’ve also started using “what a thing to say.” With variations in tone, it can communicate a range of reactions (curious, dismayed, amused, disapproving) but has no word in it that someone looking to be offended can hang a complaint on. I get something to say in the moment, and they can respond with as much self-justification or explanation as they like.

    3. Mopsy*

      I was going to post the same thing! Silence will be more impactful than anything you say, especially since it will give them nothing to try and refute.

    4. Kes*

      Yeah agreed with this, I wouldn’t actually say anything, I would just give them a look of ‘that’s a weird things to say’ or ‘really??’

    5. Box of Kittens*

      I’ve done this. It’s also a great response when the person making the comment is senior to you, because then you’re not putting yourself in the position of “chastising” a higher-up. You’re just simply not engaging.

    6. Quinalla*

      This is great advice – don’t laugh and don’t say anything. Really great if you don’t know what to say or with someone you don’t know well or can’t push back on.

      For people I do know well, I’d address it in a straightforward way. “Offering to help carry something heavy is polite as long as you are willing to hear yes or no and that you offer to anyone you see struggling regardless of their gender!” or “You don’t need to be afraid of hugging, but you shouldn’t hug people unless you have consent. Offer a hug and be ok with yes or not. And if you are only offering to hug women as a man, think about why that is as that is a problem.” But again, that’s for people I know well who I am comfortable having a longer conversation with and who I know want to do better. Yes, those folks still sometimes make jokes as they don’t know what to do.

      I also send people the “Welcome to Hell” video the awesome ladies of SNL did years back. To me this really addresses these jokey/scared/whatever comments really well.

    7. Lulu*

      I taught myself to raise one eyebrow in middle school (Agatha Christie fan) and quickly learned it could serve this purpose well. It’s clear you heard what they said, but also that you Are Not Amused. Still works wonders.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        The silent, one eyebrow raised, slow blink works wonders in some situations.

        1. Lurker Cat*

          If you are unable to raise only one eyebrow at a time raising them both while otherwise keeping a blank face also gets the point across

    8. Aerin*

      It kind of amazes me how often the correct answer to “How can I convey to this person that their behavior is weird/unwelcome?” is just “Have you tried openly having a normal human response?” It’s like we’re so socialized to remove any friction from an interaction regardless of what it is or how it happened that we’ve forgotten how social consequences for bad behavior are supposed to work.

    9. Humpty Dumpty*

      I sometimes have an inverse situation where me (woman) holds the door open for a colleague (man) when I’m the first to arrive at the door and I want to be friendly.

      The responses I get are almost invariably extreme awkwardness and them insisting that I go through the door first. I mean, I appreciate people wanting to be gallant and all, but you don’t have to be embarrassed by a woman opening a door for you.

      1. NameRequired*

        I usually say something like “stop trying to be polite, you’re making this difficult” in those situations

  8. Canned Platypus*

    They will explain in detail why something wasn’t completed, but the work itself will remain undone.

    And then what happens?
    This is similar to the update from earlier this week about the employee who kept saying she didn’t feel supported doing the work. Acknowledge what she said, then tell her the work needs to be completed. If there is a genuine barrier, pull the trigger on eliminating the barrier. Otherwise, don’t get pulled into a conversation about why it wasn’t done. Deliver the message that it needs to be done.

    1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      I was thinking the same thing! “You often say you don’t want to start because you’re concerned about me not backing you up, but that has never happened so unless I’ve recently done something that makes you think there’s a change, I need you to start now”

    2. Generic Name*

      I had a former coworker who did this. I was like, “wow, I’m really sorry your mom is in the hospital. When can you get this done?” And then she’d blow the next deadline (also with an excuse). After the third round, I just did the thing myself.

      1. Generic Name*

        And before you think I’m a monster, I repeatedly asked if she was sure she didn’t want to pass it to someone else she she could deal with her family crisis, but she assured me multiple times she was good to go.

  9. JP*

    Save us all from these poor fools who claim they don’t know how to behave if they’re not allowed to insult / objectify / harass women. There aren’t enough eye rolls in the world.

  10. Mopsy*

    I had an instance where someone remarked, “I want to say something but MeToo is making me think twice” — to which I said, “Thank you for that.” So awkward yet so satisfying.

    1. ursula*

      I had a coworker who used to do a big wind-up with, “I probably shouldn’t say this to you, but….” and I had some success with, “Then don’t! You can still stop now.”

    2. Wendy Darling*

      I think I responded to something like that with “Oh! …. that’s good then!” and I felt so awkward I thought I was gonna die but it did solve the problem.

      I actually think the fact that I’m awkward as heck and do not appear to have thought out this response ahead (which I had not!) makes me seem genuinely appreciative rather than trying to make a point, which I am not mad about. I do genuinely appreciate it if MeToo makes anyone think twice about doing something kinda sexual-harassment-y.

    3. Ray B Purchase*

      I have done this before too! I don’t really like to hug most people so when someone said “I’d hug you but blahblahblah” I said “Thank you, I’d really prefer not to hug!” in a pleasant and genuine tone as though their comment was also genuine.

      1. Ace in the Hole*

        Same for me. “I’d hug you but blahblahblah.” My response is always “Thanks, I don’t like hugs!”

  11. Anonymask*

    For letter 1: How can you suggest your managers get better at these skills? The managers I work with (boss and grandboss) are notorious for what LW1 described. It often means I have to follow up with them multiple times to get information/approvals/etc., which turns what should be a 10 minute task into a 60+ minute ordeal.

    1. Sharon*

      Name the problem and solicit their feedback about how to fix it. Maybe they would prefer a sit-down once a week to go over all approval requests. Maybe they have different priorities and your task isn’t urgent (I see this a lot with lower level employees who think the TPS reports simply must be updated by Friday but the leaders are dealing with some crisis and the TPS report is not that important in the grand scheme of things). Maybe they need more lead time because approval isn’t really a 10 minute task from their perspective. Maybe the task should be delegated to someone else.

    2. College Career Counselor*

      You probably can’t, because there is less accountability of them to you than the other way around. It might help if you reframe it to yourself as “It’s part of my job to chase them down and get this information/approval/whatever from them.” If they’re not concerned with the time you spend on it, then that’s their prerogative. If they *are* concerned with how long it takes you to do things, then you have the opportunity to document and say, “this would have been done three hours ago/yesterday/last week/the previous quarter if you had responded to my email and subsequent follow-up messages. How would you like me to proceed going forward so we can operate in a more timely fashion?” Who knows, the boss may turn over a new leaf (unlikely), or you might find yourself empowered to make the decision or collect the information in some other way (more likely).

    3. Green great dragon*

      It’s worth asking about other approaches. Would they prefer doing these in person? Send them in bulk? I’ve had a boss to whom we sent a list every Friday am, and she’d do the lot before she left for the weekend (she was generally great, but hugely overworked).

      I also had a boss who would promise to try everything, but then cancel the meeting/not read the email/spend an hour on minor request 1 and never get to the others, and the only thing that ever worked was to wait until our deadline had passed, lie in wait for him, and begin the conversation with ‘This is overdue’ (he was terrible and I will never work for him again). No magic bullet.

    4. DrSalty*

      A trick I use for people who are bad at carefully reading emails is to put multiple requests in bulleted lists so it’s easier to follow while skimming. Otherwise they read just the first or last thing.

      1. Sally Rhubarb*

        I do this too because I find it easier to parse info when it’s pulled out.

        Breaking questions into multiple lines helps too.

      2. Sophie K*

        And never included more than one piece of information in a paragraph. Line breaks are your friend. Bold, underline and/or change the text color of your absolutely crucial points/requests.

        In a way, it’s easy for me. I just write emails the way my ADHD brain wishes everyone else would do. And I think it’s working because I only very occasionally have to ask a second time to get what I need.

        1. metadata minion*

          “Bold, underline and/or change the text color of your absolutely crucial points/requests.”

          Definitely, and it’s important to pick *one* of these options and stick with it for the whole document.

      3. NotAnotherManager!*

        Yes, bullets are your friends (or numbers – numbers let them go “Yes to #1, let’s talk about #2, and #3 is for next year”.

        I do a short session for new hires on writing emails effectively, and I also have an email template that my kids have to use when they are emailing teachers/coaches/etc. It’s very bottom-line-up-front focused and strongly recommends numbering/bullets.

      4. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

        These are all good suggestions. I’d also say look at the clarity and brevity of the request. I had an employee who would send me long, unstructured emails and I barely even knew what he was asking. Executive summaries are an art form in themselves, and one I find most people don’t do particularly well. Provide enough info for the person to understand the request but don’t go deep into the weeds.

  12. Sharon*

    I’d recommend focusing on the communications issues and not the reading/writing per se. Sometimes you get better results by focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses. Personally, I don’t do well with oral communication so my solution is to write everything down immediately when I talk with someone.

    Ask her how she thinks she can best solve the problem. She might do better with a daily 15 minute update call vs. a bunch of emails, or she might want to read her emails out loud to herself, or ???

    1. Lizzo*

      I think your suggested approach might help if the person had some awareness of the problem, as well as what tools/strategies might help them address the problems. It seems like LW’s employee doesn’t have that self-awareness (yet).

  13. Dust Bunny*

    “They’re always joking, never ill-intentioned,”

    Except not really. They’re at best half-joking and it’s definitely a bit mean-spirited.

  14. Richard Hershberger*

    Not-funny Me Too: This is today’s version of an old phenomenon of men befuddled at how to interact with women as human beings. An earlier version was holding the door open for a lady (in contrast to holding it open for women in general, but that is a discussion for another day). Many men professed inability to distinction between performative gallantry and common courtesy. It really isn’t hard. If would hold the door open for a man, hold it open for a woman. But there were men who claimed that the new rules required them to slam doors in women’s faces.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        Well, I think they genuinely were befuddled by the idea that women are human beings and should be treated that way.

    1. Beany*

      I remember reading a micro-article/opinion poll in a student newspaper, where the question of the week was “Holding the door open for a woman — chivalrous or sexist?” I looked in vain for the third option: “both”.

      1. Quill*

        Grew up in the midwest, you hold the door for people. Point blank. Higher priority if they have their hands full. Much lower priority if you’re letting all the heat / ac out and they’re more than six feet behind you.

  15. I should really pick a name*

    Witty retorts in the workplace are overrated.

    A fully serious response to a “joking” comment like that can be highly effective.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      Yeah, I vote for the serious reply too actually. Like “I know you’re kidding but an offer of help doesn’t have to be a big deal.” or “Well, jokes aside, what would you say to a guy who was struggling to carry something?” For the boss you might have to up the positive note in your voice a little, but it doesn’t mean you can’t respond sincerely. Like “I know you’re kidding, but I think that’s smart; not everyone likes hugs.” or “What’s wrong with a high five? I think they work great!” or, if you are in a huggy workplace and you’ve clearly always been fine with hugs just look a bit puzzled and say “No I’m fine with hugs like always, but thanks for the check in. I’ll always let you know.”

  16. pandamonium*

    I often have the issue of communicating too tersely or even bluntly, especially in writing. To the point its held me back a bit and I struggled to learn how to soften my messages (I still don’t agree that I should have to) when the technical information I am trying to convey is solid and correct.
    Someone recommended Grammarly to me for this and at risk of sounding like a walking billboard for them, its helped tons. My pitches contain the same technical information as before but running my writing through there first seems to add the magic bullet of professional fluff that people were expecting.

    1. Willow Pillow*

      I have had that same feedback… but Grammarly’s TOS states that it retains all the data you feed it, and using it for anything work-related would get me fired as I work with confidential information. I did take a bunch of business communication microcourses, and that helped.

  17. Sunflower*

    For OP1 it seems like this issue feels trickier one more sensitive because often for writing and communication can make someone seem unintelligent, even when they’re not. It also feels more uncomfortable to critique, because it feels more holistic of a problem for some to have, rather than a specific skill deficit that’s just a neutral fact. (It isn’t but it feels that way.)

    It shouldn’t be, but I think that’s why from OP’s letter it seems like they’re more wary of how to correct it. You don’t want to come across as critiquing their reading comprehension, because that feels really stigmatized for an adult to struggle with.

    If you address it as matter-of-factly as though they were struggling with a technical process or a specific workflow, it can help the conversation feel less fraught. And that includes being comfortable letting her know when it’s still not at the level you need.

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        We’re explicitely supposed to not nitpick people’s word choice around here, PLUS that’s an easy typo that autocarrot wouldn’t fix.

          1. MEH Squared*

            Not really. The problem with the employee is that she’s not reading correctly or is not retaining the information. Chomping at the bit as you noted yourself is not incorrect and gets the message across perfectly so it’s not the same.

          2. Jennifer Strange*

            I think a letter to an advice column and an email specifically for work are on two different levels of writing.

            1. Sense*

              I agree, I also think you need to use proper grammar & wording if you’re going to critique someone else’s writing, lest you weaken your own point by not practicing what you are attempting to preach.

              1. Jennifer Strange*

                But you even said yourself it is technically correct, so I’m not sure how it’s an issue. At the end of the day, you understand what was being communicated. It sounds like that’s not the case with the employee. The two situations are not comparable.

                (Also, the LW wasn’t trying to get a promotion off the letter they sent in.)

                1. Sunflower*

                  They’re not both correct- it’s “champing”. Someone could hypothetically chomp on a bit, but horses champ, which is the image invoked in the metaphor.

                  Both are comprehensible though, which is why this isn’t a big deal.

                2. umami*

                  For the LW’s usage, either is, in fact, correct, and ‘chomp’ is the more common colloquial usage. LW is not literally talking about horses, so the usage is not incorrect. The phrase has evolved over time.

                3. Lurker Cat*

                  Per both are correct
                  “The quick answer to whether champ or chomp is correct is that both are acceptable for modern use – meaning you can use either! To champ or chomp at the bit is to be restless or unable to show restraint.”

                  “The catch is, the word champing is more or less non-existent in contemporary English despite its more popular use (more on that later), and unless you work closely with horses or in the horse racing industry, chances are you’ve never heard it used as champing at the bit. Replace champing with chomping, and now you have a more familiar term – which is why you may want to use it in this manner. “

              2. Be Gneiss*

                “My employee has been an hour late to work 7 times this quarter, and other people are having to cover his meetings. I’d like to address this with him. Unfortunately, I was 10 minutes late to a dentist appointment last month. I called ahead and it turns out they were running behind, so technically I wasn’t even late. Even so, I’m not sure I can call him out on the issue.”

              3. Irish Teacher*

                I don’t think the OP is weakening their point, in this case though. Yeah, if somebody complained about a coworker making a typo and their own writing was littered with errors, I could see it weakening the point, but using an accepted term, but one which is not the original doesn’t, in my view, weaken the point that it makes work more difficult if a person completely misunderstands what is written to them.

                Even if the OP had made an actual error, I don’t think it would weaken their point, unless it was something very basic because even a slip like writing “it’s” for “its” is not comparative with misreading “x is done” as “I don’t know when x will be done.”

              4. Ace in the Hole*

                LW is critiquing an employee for writing that fails to convey or completely omits important information.

                You are critiquing LW for replacing an archaic word with a modern one in a familiar idiom. “Chomping at the bit” is grammatically correct and clearly conveys the intended meaning. Even if this were incorrect (which it’s not), it would not be an issue in any way related to the one she raises in the letter.

              5. Jaydee*

                Unfortunately, I have to disregard your opinion since you’ve got a comma splice there. Better luck next time! ;-)

          3. Ellis Bell*

            Precision in writing and overall comprehension of meaning are not really the same thing imo.

      2. Roland*

        Using a debatably-wrong, debatably-fine-now metaphor is quite different than seeing “X is ready” and replying “lmk when X is ready”. Proofreading is not the problem with OP’s report.

        1. Richard Hershberger*

          Grammarist has an article on this, including n-grams showing that “chomping” has been used more frequently than “champing” for about a quarter century now, and longer if we restrict it to American English. Using “champing” is verging upon showing off that you know the distinction. It is a bit like using an awkward construction to avoid “the hoi polloi,” except that the rule against that has always been bogus.

          1. Esprit de l'escalier*

            Is the “the hoi polloi” rule bogus because it’s a set non-English expression? When I see “the hoi polloi” I can’t help but think “right, the the many,” but I keep that thought to myself, or I hope I do.

      3. Dahlia*

        They’re not critiquing her grammar. It’s about her ability to read and process information, and write accordingly.

        Like replying to a “Here is thing you wanted” email with “let me know when thing I want is done”.

    1. Canned Platypus*

      You aren’t wrong, but the modern word (“chomp”) is perfectly acceptable and not in need of correcting. Language changes.

      1. Peanut Hamper*


        To be honest, neither of those words really makes sense to my ear, because this has become a saying. Its origins are agricultural, and most of us are so far removed from that way of life that the colloquial meaning, rather than the literal one, is the one that matters.

    2. Be Gneiss*

      This really feels unnecessary. OP wrote in with a sincere question, in a sincere attempt to figure out what to do with this employee. This is the equivalent of a LW asking how to approach a situation where an employee is routinely unkempt or not dressed appropriately for the office, and someone chiming in to point out that time the LW forgot their dress shoes and had to wear their rain boots all day. It’s unnecessarily critical.

    3. Pop Aficionado*

      “‘Chomping’ at the bit” drives me so nuts that I actually went and looked it up, and it turns out that William Safire of all people said nearly 40 years ago now that insisting it’s “champing” and not “chomping” is excessively pedantic.

      I still think people who say “chomping” sound, well… less literate than they could. But I’m willing to admit that the horse has long since left the barn with this one (if you will), and my prescriptivism is decidedly unwelcome.

      I think we really have to just let this one go already.

      1. JP*

        Nitpicking at chomp versus champ says a lot more about the person doing the nitpicking than the person using the phrase.

        1. Wendy Darling*

          I assume that if someone is nitpicky about that they’re either extremely extra or extremely into horses, and it’s more likely to be the horse one.

          1. Jonty*

            To me, they simply convey different images – I feel champing at the bit, tossing your head around or pawing the ground, is showing impatience, whereas chomping at it, gnawing on it, is born of frustration.

            (For the record, I’m *definitely* not into horses.)

      2. umami*

        Less literate? Honestly, I haven’t heard the phrase in a long time (decades, probably?), so I would probably think less modern vs. literate. Just because the published form trends toward ‘champ’ doesn’t mean people are less literate for exclusively knowing the more modern phrase.

      3. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

        That’s pretty irrational to conclude that people are “less literate” because they use “chomping” at the bit. It means nothing of the kind. I’m glad you realise you need to let it go but still, you should reconsider the conclusions you’re drawing there because they’re just not based in reality. “Chomping at the bit” is completely fine. You’re actually the one who is wrong there, in drawing such a distinction.

  18. Ink*

    In #3’s shoes I would be sorely tempted to respond to “I’m afraid of hugging now” with “good!” I don’t think hugs should be normal/assumed at work. Unless it’s your family business or you work with your best friend, I don’t think there should be anyone at work you hug without asking permission first! And a boss who’ll make that comment is a boss who I don’t think I could ever happily have in the hug zone, asking or not.

    1. Green great dragon*

      With the caveat that my workplace is thankfully very low on such people so I’ve never tried it, I’d be tempted to react as if they’d said something supportive. “Yes, it’s so much pleasanter when people aren’t trying to grab at you isn’t it?” said with enthusiasm.

  19. NYNY*

    My firm hired English teachers from a local college to help with business communications, and they ran inhouse classes. Much was oriented to new hires who did not speak English as a first language, but I thought it was really good.

    1. Danielle*

      Similarly, I used to work for a private tutoring company, and I had multiple corporate clients who received reading/writing tutoring. (They worked in the fields of law and management consulting.) While we often called our sessions something like “communications consulting,” really I was working with them on how to write and edit professional-sounding emails, slide decks, and reports. The only challenge here is if the material your workplace deals with requires strict confidentiality, which can make it difficult for a tutor to help the client review real workplace communications.

      If you or your employee are considering hiring a tutor/writing consultant, you might try contacting the writing centers at nearby colleges or universities. They often have employees who will pick up freelance tutoring for extra pay. I wouldn’t hire an undergraduate to do this, but an advanced grad student could be a good fit.

  20. Lunch Meat*

    When men are having feelings about things like the Me Too movement I like to suggest they see a counselor about it. The best part is I mean it perfectly sincerely, their feelings are theirs to manage and counseling can help, but it still communicates the disdain for the comment.

  21. Middle Manager No More*

    For Letter 1- in my experience this can be a really tough issue to fix in the workplace. I had a prior employee with issues that sound similar to this (not being able to read things critically to understand the impact/key points, issues writing and particularly around understanding who the reader was/what they need to know). I agree- try to the one-on-one coaching to get a sense if it’s something that a workplace can reasonably address. But be prepared for the REAL possibility that you can’t and set an expectation about that with your leadership in advance.

    My leadership at the time wanted to bend over backwards to get this employee to an acceptable performance level, to the point that it significantly negatively impacted me and my ability to do my own work. If there are deeper issues here, like there was in my case (english as a second language, a learning disability, a neurodivergence like autism/ADHD, ect), you have to know your limits and whoever is responsible for your coaching program to get people into promotions also has to know them.

    1. AcademiaNut*

      That’s a key part. It’s not just a question of whether they can improve in this area (they probably can, to some extent), but whether they can improve to an acceptable work level in a reasonable amount of time, and also whether this can be done with a reasonable level of work by the manager. Spending an hour or two a day in intensive tutoring of an employee over a period of years might produce significant improvement, but isn’t a good solution.

      This is a particular issue with things like critical thinking, or the ability to pay attention to details, or writing in a clear and understandable manner. If it’s something relatively simple (like needing to slow down and double check work), you should see improvements within a few weeks, or after a couple of intensive coaching sessions. If it’s a more basic issue, like you say, it can easily be outside the scope of the job to fix it.

  22. raaaleight*

    I am a professional writing tutor, and while I mostly work with students, I’ve also had a client who was a skilled technical professional and wanted to improve his written communication. For managers that can’t invest so much time in coaching, suggest reaching out to a local tutoring service to see if that’s something they might be able to provide!

  23. Miss Bianca*

    This sounds like it’s about reading comprehension, attention to detail, and the ability to suss out what info other people will need (some of which may be tied to critical thinking), and a basic communications course isn’t likely to target those in the way she needs.

    Le sigh. I’ve dealt with Director level people and above who are like this in the marketing in-house side. I also had a peer coworker who did this, but my boss never did anything. It was very frustrating

    1. Wendy Darling*

      Honestly as far as “this person doesn’t read the whole email” I’ve found that the higher level the person is, the more likely it is to be the case. If I’m emailing someone at the director+ level I just assume that I’d better somehow get everything I need to communicate into the first 2 sentences.

      And then occasionally I run into people who if it’s not the first line of the email it didn’t happen (and even then it maybe didn’t happen). Unfortunately those people have usually been clients of my company so I’ve never had any standing to suggest that they try reading, if not the entire email, at least the entire first paragraph.

      1. Needs Coffee*

        Once had a grand-boss start asking questions about something for which I had sent him a fairly in-depth analysis earlier in the day.

        After a few questions, I asked him if the email I had sent earlier in the day had not gone through, because I had put all the details in writing.

        He told me he had seen the email, but he “just went ZOOM down the page and decided what it said.” So now he had concerns about whatever the subject was.

        I was incredulous (more that he actually admitted how he “read” emails in front of witnesses, as opposed to the admission itself). I told him to go actually read the words on the page and THEN we’d talk.

        Not exactly diplomatic on my part. But I was well beyond diplomacy at that point.

        1. Heather*

          A person two levels up from you asked you, in person, some questions about an email you’d sent them and you told them to go back and read it again? that’s…a choice.

      2. Polaris*


        Its been the kind of week where I’ve muttered “check page X of the information you were sent back in July, and don’t @ me about withholding payment for lack of said information…which is clearly the entirety of page X” more than once!!!!

      3. June*

        Finally, my experience dealing with video game guys is good for something. Key info in the first phrase of the first sentence, background for the rest of the first sentence. Anything after that, they’ll randomly pick out nouns and fill out the sentence with random connective tissue.

        I got pretty good at compressing mechanics questions down, but never did figure out how to ask worldbuilding questions in a way that got a decent answer.

  24. hellohello*

    This isn’t particularly relevant to this specific LW, as there’s no way to know what exactly is behind the employee’s difficulties, but letter one is a good example of why the intense focus on shuffling kids into STEM education while devaluing humanities is so frustrating to me. I work in relatively technical field (not something that requires an advanced degree, but does involved a lot of technology and math/stats related work) and if someone comes in without the technological or statistical background they can almost always be trained for the job. When someone comes in who is lacking reading comprehension or the ability to write clearly it’s much, much harder to get them up to speed and often you just hit a wall where the amount of training needed is more than can feasibly be provided on the job.

    1. Wendy Darling*

      I once had to take a writing and literature class for STEM majors in college and it was full of people griping that they didn’t need to know how to write because they were going to be programmers.

      I am now a programmer and programmers who cannot write their way out of a wet paper bag are the bane of my existence. Like 2/3 of a programmer’s job is explaining what needs to be done, how it should be done, how something should be done differently, what they did and why they did it that way, why something is broken, etc. Most of that explaining is at some point done in writing. If you can’t write coherent documentation or trouble tickets you’re not going to get far.

      It’s WAY easier to teach someone to code than it is to teach them to write a coherent description of an error.

      1. Not Bob*

        I’m a software developer, and good communication is an issue for me TT_TT

        I’m not sure on how to improve, besides practicing to write good documentation.

      2. I Have RBF*

        This. So much this.

        Both programmers and sysadmins seem to think that documentation is beneath them, I have lost count of the number of idiot programmers who have said to me “Just read the code!” No, asshole, I do not have time when troubleshooting to read the multiple source code files of your compiled mess. Java programmers are some of the worst for this, but I’ve had it done with most languages. At the very least, the inline usage or help menu needs to be there. Lots of sysadmins, when writing “quick” scripts tend to neglect this too.

        I want to know a) what it’s supposed to do, b) how to pass it the parameters it needs, c) what are the built in error messages, d) what should be done if those errors are received, and e) when to escalate if that doesn’t fix it. If you can’t even comment your code, much less write a proper README or help doc, don’t expect me to support your crap.

        If you expect anyone else to ever use or maintain your code and not pitch it out when you leave, document it.


    2. Jiminy Cricket*

      This is so true. Everyone I hire needs to be an excellent written communicator in order for our team to function. None of them have “writer” in their title, and the work we do is adjacent to the tech field.

    3. Aerin*

      Being a writer who spent most of my time around writers, I assumed that being able to express yourself clearly and concisely was about as remarkable as being able to tie your shoes.

      Now I work in tech support, and holy crap this is not the case. Every time someone gives me a long, tangential description of something and I summarize it back in a sentence or two, they act like I just did a magic trick. Dude, I may not know the in-depth workings of whatever database issue you’re having, but I know parallel construction.

      1. Writer Seeks $$$*

        This is actually really encouraging to me because I think my career is never going to go anywhere high-paying because…everyone can do what I do! Apparently not XD

      2. Quill*

        I write as a hobby, work in STEM, and there is a LOT going on with people not being able to condense things into whatever is most relevant. (There’s a lot of times also where people refuse to provide context – knowing when to expand or condense is a skill!)

    4. Warrior Princess Xena*

      I find myself incredibly frustrated that we’ve devolved all education into “it will be good for your job later”. People who say “I will never do X (algebra, english lit, science, etc)” have missed the point.

  25. Annabelle*

    For #3
    I’d be tempted to reply: “Only pervs should be afraid of their interactions with women, not sure if this applies to you?”

  26. Jiminy Cricket*

    For LW#1’s report, I recommend learning the Army standard for writing an email. It won’t turn you into a poet, but it does give people a template for making their emails clear and effective. For people to whom this doesn’t come naturally, a fill-in-the-blank approach can help.

    Installing something like Grammarly can help with spelling, grammar, and usage mistakes. It can also make suggestions for greater clarity.

    That doesn’t help the reading comprehension, but it might help the other half of the problem.

  27. Capt. Liam Shaw*

    “try to anticipate questions people will have and include the answers so they don’t have to ask.”

    I would be very careful about this. Had a manager who got really annoyed when I included information in an email that was anticipating what she would want. I thought it was very odd how annoyed she got. I learned that day to sometimes just wait and see if a manager/coworker needs something before just volunteering it.

    1. Sally Rhubarb*

      Yeah my job trained me out of that habit real quick. If anyone wants the info, they’ll ask you is the mindset here.

    2. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      From the context of the letter, though, I would imagine they mean things that a reasonable person would expect to see in an email.

      For example, if you’re letting them know about an event, you might think ahead to include times, dates, location, if food will be served, and when they need to confirm attendance by etc.

  28. Falling Diphthong*

    For letter 3, pulling out this part: Say it seriously and without a smile.

    Don’t laugh, don’t do the social smoothing they expect any female-presenting people around them to perform. Convey that you are really not laughing with them as they chuckle ruefully about how hard it is when you can’t hug your coworkers. (See Spain’s soccer team.)

  29. Jack of all trades*

    LW1: how’s the workload? What does the workflow look like: does it require a quick switch while in a middle of the work? Or is this person making assumptions that they “have to” respond right away? From personal experience, I do stupid stuff like this when I’m slammed with work that I cannot think. Early in my career at an unhealthy work environment, I was expected to drop what I’m doing and answer emails/requests, and I was also worried that I’ll forget to follow up. Since, I have learned to push back, put things on a calendar for future folloe up, and raise the flag that there is too much on my plate and I need time to do the job right instead of being quick. Talk with your employee, I’m sure you will learn something.

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

    did anyone else notice that the next story after Alison’s was Psychedlics are reaching new highs in acceptance?

  31. nnn*

    In terms of reading skills, accessibility tools might help.

    For example, in addition to reading the email, use a screen reader to listen to it. (There are often onboard tools in the software or the OS, sometimes called Read Aloud, sometimes called Speak.)

    If you’re looking for specific information, Ctrl+F for key words in addition to reading.

    Basically, create a workflow where you’re not solely dependent on visual focus or visual learning styles to locate and internalize information.

    Changing fonts and colours of the documents you’re reading might also make it easier to read (if you use dark mode, try light mode, and vice versa. If you use a serif font, try a sans serif font. There’s also a font called Dyslexie that you can download, which was designed for dyslexic users but I also found it useful with post-concussion syndrome.

    Source: I read fluently, but the physical work of focusing on words on a screen became more difficult with a head injury a few years back. (Yes, I’m receiving appropriate medical care. This is the after picture.)

  32. nnn*

    Another useful response for #3 is “Thank you, I appreciate it!” delivered in a genuine, even relieved, tone of voice that suggests you’re so glad to be free of the burden of dude trying to hug you!

  33. Lily Potter*

    Damn, I hate to say this, but there comes a point where coaching can only do so much. Your employee can be taught grammar but she might not be able to be taught diligence and thoroughness. It’s along the same lines as “you can’t teach someone common sense”, at least not in the time frame you’re thinking about. Some people will pick up diligence and critical thinking skills over time but many won’t. The issue for the OP will be how to explain that to her employee in a way that makes some kind of sense. The employee is looking for a list of X, Y, and Z tasks to learn, and diligence just isn’t something you learn after taking an online course.

    1. EasternPhoebe*

      This is what I think the problem could be too. I had a boss who had perfectly fine reading and writing skills when she cared enough about something, but for the majority of work tasks, she would barely skim emails, answer the wrong questions, write nonsense because she wouldn’t bother to check for typos…I swear half my job was trying to interpret her nonsense emails and asking stuff multiple times in different ways until I got the answer I needed.

    2. metadata minion*

      I think it depends a lot on what’s underlying the lack of diligence. If she just doesn’t really care about reading the whole email, that’s not going to change.

      But if she has problems with focus, there are workarounds for that, ranging from reading the text out loud, to copying it into another document to break it into smaller pieces, to ADHD medication.

      If she has trouble keeping the information in her head in a way that works for her, maybe she needs to take notes even on what seem like short communications.

      I’m definitely not trying to diagnose her with anything specific, but these types of issues *can* be caused by a number of executive functioning and learning disabilities — and those can absolutely be present in people who are “smart” in other ways — so she might benefit from getting screened for that sort of thing.

  34. nnn*

    Also for #1, if she is considering taking courses, I found technical writing training useful for helping with all manner of business communication.

  35. I edit everything*

    Hard to tell about the employee in #1, but it could be she’s trying to read too fast or just isn’t taking things in effectively. Reading out loud (not the same as having the computer read it to you–both can be good but for different reasons) can help a person really focus on the words and combines three senses in the process. They really see the words, they hear the words, and they feel the shape of the words in their pronunciation. It’s a common recommendation for people who are editing their own work, as well.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      yeah, I had a boss years ago who was an auditory person, not a visual one, and she was notorious for missing details in emails. We her underlings were all visual people, too, so she’d tell us stuff and we’d either scramble to write it down or beg her to email it to us!

  36. Ex-prof*

    I once supervised an English teacher who had this problem.

    And the way she became an English teacher was that she took so many remedial reading and writing classes, all under the aegis of a university English department, that she ended up with enough college “English” credits to teach high school English, amid a teacher shortage.

    So there she’d be up there misspelling words on the blackboard in front of her students, who, on the whole, tended to notice.

    It was sad.

  37. Molly Millions*

    The fact that LW’s employee started taking a communication course suggests she might not fully understand the nature of her problem, and may be focusing on the wrong areas. A business communication course that addresses email etiquette, presentation skills, persuasion, and collaboration skills is not likely going to help with her attentiveness and clarity.

    If she doesn’t see the errors she’s making, she may be misinterpreting some of the more general advice in her reviews (e.g. she might read “proofread before sending” as “watch for typos,” when the problem is she’s writing incoherently).

    What *might* help is calling out the errors when they happen as well as going over her old emails and pointing out exactly where she’s gone wrong.

    If she can cultivate self-awareness, the following tips might help her write more coherently:
    -read drafts aloud to a deskmate to ask if they make sense;
    -write in bullet points instead of paragraphs (this is easier for the other person to read, and also forces you to filter out irrelevant information and focus on each topic separately);
    -describe actions in chronological order;
    -if a group email contains information or requests aimed at different people, address each recipient (by name) in a separate paragraph;
    -refer to people by their full names or departments/ titles to avoid confusion;
    -write out full dates and addresses (e.g. “Friday, August 23rd, 9 am”, instead of just “Friday morning;” “Starbucks, 123 Deer St, instead of “Starbucks by the office”);
    -Maintain a consistent format for how you write dates, addresses, and contact info (which will help ensure you don’t omit details)

  38. Seashell*

    Maybe the hugging comment could get a response like, “Probably not good to hug people in the age of Covid.”

    1. Just don’t hug coworkers*

      This is probably effective in the moment but still relieves the “hugger” of the responsibility to manage their own physical interactions with other humans absent of an outside force. Covid isn’t the reason they should be checking themselves absent of a pandemic. I don’t want to hug my boss because he’s my boss not my loved one, not because I might get Covid.

  39. Marna Nightingale*

    This isn’t directly related to issue #1 but a culture of proofing each others’ work is an awesome thing to foster in a department.
    I am not convinced that “proofread your own work” is a skill that meaningfully exists.
    My boss, an editor and proofreader vastly more experienced than I, hired me to edit and proof a report she was writing last year and yes, I caught errors.

    Also, and I know I’m taking a lot away from a single example, that kind of misreading sounds like a learning disability instead of a literacy issue. She’s not not understanding the words used, she’s missing words in the sentence and distorting the meaning.

    She could probably benefit from an online tech writing course, but an evaluation might also be useful.

    There are all kinds of nifty tools available to help with learning disabilities, including simple stuff like special fonts and readers that highlight text as you read.

    And lastly … sometimes the answer is “hire a tech writer, we’re better and cheaper than paying your technical experts to do their own documentation”, but it’s surprisingly hard to get most companies to see it that way.

    1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

      I think it does meaningfully exist. If we’re talking about external things and publications, where the standard is “high level of writing with close to zero mistakes” — totally you need another pair of eyes. That kind of fine-tooth-comb proofreading is one thing.

      But for day to day work, the level of proofreading where you review before sending to make sure you understood the message/assignment, your reply is coherent, and you answered all the questions — that’s doable on your own work. This is the kind of review good employees should do. They won’t catch everything but they will catch a lot.

  40. This Old House*

    How would you address #1 with a coworker or contractor, where that level of coaching from you isn’t appropriate? I’ve been trying to give a new contractor some time for us to get used to each other’s communication styles, and but it is becoming increasingly clear that they’re just not taking in everything that’s in an email, or sometimes the implications thereof, and it’s starting to have other consequences. (This person has other skills that are currently necessary for us, so I’d rather try to manage the communications issue before taking other steps.)

    I am reasonably sure that I am communicating clearly, as my communications skills have been praised by other people in similar situations. I’m noticing times when I could be more clear (e.g. I thought saying it verbally while they were taking notes was enough, but from now on I will repeat the request in a related email, even though it feels unnecessary/condescending), but there have been times when I am confident I have been VERY clear in asking them to do X and they have said, “I’ll get right on that” and just done Y instead, seeming entirely confident that Y was what I’d asked for.

    1. HalJordan*

      Can you ask them to repeat back to you what you’re asking, or have them send the followup email? That way you can find out if you’re on the same page directly from their understanding.

      Frame it as “something I’d like to try to see where we’ve had communication mishaps in the past”, maybe, so it feels less infantilizing

    2. Lizzo*

      Can you be exceptionally candid with them about the issues, e.g. use the X and Y example, and ask them to help troubleshoot? And point out that there are business implications for these misunderstandings, so it’s in everyone’s best interests to figure out a solution to prevent these things from happening again.

  41. Teach*

    What I like to say (when I feel comfortable responding, when I have the standing and the beans, when there’s time to have the conversation): “I mean, you shouldn’t have to guess or wonder what behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate with your co-workers, no matter what their gender. if you find yourself second-guessing this a lot, I would recommend doing some reading and educating yourself about it.”

  42. Mmm.*

    I feel bad for her. It sounds like she’s struggling rather than not paying attention with any level of intentionality. So many people slip through the cracks in our schools–I taught eighth graders who legitimately couldn’t read and was told no help was available.

    I’m glad she took the initiative to take a communication course, but I wonder if no one has ever told her that struggling to read and comprehend to the level she (apparently) is isn’t normal or something to be embarrassed about. You sometimes don’t realize that your experience is different until someone points it out.

  43. Robyn*

    I have trouble processing written information that isn’t in hard copy (the email trouble you mentioned unfortunatelysounds familiar), and I actually just found this site that I’m excited about trying that might help your employee:

    I am not in any way connected to this site/app, other than being genuinely excited by it. Here’s a link to an example of it:

    Hope it helps!

  44. Selena81*

    I think your advice to LW1 is good: sit down together and go through some emails (‘what is this person communicating’, ‘what kind of questions do you think might pop up’). Insofar as possible without being condescending.

    I think one thing that’s missing is telling her to slow down considerably: that it’s better to be slow and good than quick and wrong (at least when she’s still learning)

  45. Selena81*

    I kinda wonder wether 2 is a volunteer or a ‘volunteer’ (as in: they are forced to be there for a jobs program or some such).
    If they don’t want to volunteer it might explain the work-to-order attitude: they want to be ‘fired’.

  46. assumingthebest*

    For #4, OP says that the boss took off without notice, but it doesn’t say they were on vacation. It’s entirely possible they had a personal emergency to deal with that they didn’t wish to discuss. I agree that it would be helpful in those situations to check in with employees about what to prioritize during that time or who to talk to if they have a question, but there may have been good reasons that the person had to take off suddenly, extend that time, and not be as communicative as usual.

  47. Erika*

    I am not sure if there is a way to gently suggest getting a psych assessment, but the reading question seems like a problem that would be tough to solve without one.

    Is the issue *literacy*? Or is it *attention*? Or is it actually a Specific Learning Disorder in one of the reading domains– and if so, *which one*?

    I am finding myself wondering if she actually needs disability accommodations of some kind. Coaching is not going to help if the issue is an undiagnosed (and unknown) disability.

    If this were my friend, I would refer them to a psychologist (or psychology training clinic affiliated with a PhD program) who specializes in ADHD and SLD evaluations (not saying it *is* one of those two things, but saying that a psychologist with that specialization would be likely to be helpful in sussing out what it is). Whether diagnosable or not, they would be able to help explain what is going on and make specific recommendations for what will help with the problem at work. (Note that, at least in the US, it’s really only psychologists that can do the testing to pick out ADHD vs. an SLD.)

    I suppose one other option would be to try some of the strategies people with disabilities use– even without knowing if that’s the specific issue– and see if it helps. E.g., Does using text-to-voice help? (However, note that some things would be off the table without a diagnosis– like ADHD meds if the issue is ADHD.)

    Please note that this is not psychological advice to anyone– just felt it was important to highlight some of this general info, even though it may or may not apply to this specific person.

  48. ThatHRLady*

    Those “Me Too” jokes are especially prevalent in Old Boys Club companies (I’ve found Real Estate sales and marketing offices to be RAMPANT with this mentality).

    As the HR manager for one such company, I had to fire an employee who relentlessly, unabashedly sexually harassed SO MANY PEOPLE. The worst was when I was giving a sexual harassment supervisor training and at the end, he said he’d try his “breast, I mean BEST!”…. Hardee har har. And of course, was shocked when he was fired after repeated warnings.

    2 months later, the Harvey Weinstein case started really picking up steam in the press, and my CEO said to me in a one-on-one meeting, “Gosh, it’s so scary what’s happened to Harvey! It could happen to ANY of us!!” He…was not joking. He was genuinely concerned, stood up, and opened the door in the middle of our closed-door, very private HR meeting. I stood up after him, closed the door, and just blinked at him. WTF?!

  49. thursday*

    “she responded to “X is ready and John’s piece is included” with “OK, let me know when X is ready”

    Also in a technical-adjacent field and I see this kind of thing with multiple co-workers every single day. The idea of this actually being considered something someone needs to work on instead of Just Tuesday…

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