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

Remember the letter-writer whose employee refused to do her job and would lead her in (bizarre) circles about why she wouldn’t? Here’s the update.

Thank you for publishing my letter last year. Prompted by a recent question, I thought an update on my Bartleby might be of interest. Though timing meant that I couldn’t take the advice you provided directly, it coincided reasonably well with the course of action I had already started, and I held it with me while events played out. Shockingly, she mostly turned things around and the situation improved!

I included my concerns about the issues I outlined in my first letter in my annual performance evaluation of her (which I drafted shortly before you published your response). I didn’t mince words; I included direct statements that there were issues with how much of her time she was charging to customers’ projects (instead of to our overhead; it’s expected that folks will charge some time to each, but her ratio was the worst in my group by a good margin) and with how she had refused chargeable work when offered. My supervisor and I discussed her overall rating, and left it at the middle level rather than ticking it down to a category that would mandate an immediate PIP; while neither of us felt great about it, our conversations with HR folks indicated that they wanted us to give her one more shot before implementing a PIP so as to make it clear that all good faith efforts were made beforehand.

I knew that Bartleby would be displeased and likely difficult about it, so when we had the performance conversation that is part of our normal annual review process (usually an uneventful 1-1 meeting), I took the HR rep up on their offer to join the meeting to observe and mediate.

The meeting was … not uneventful. I outlined the issues that I had raised in my written review, let her know that they were real and serious, and that she would be placed on a PIP if things didn’t improve in the very near future. She responded that I was being unreasonable and that including my “incorrect” comments about her in the performance evaluation of record was unprecedented and unfair. When I (politely) pushed back, she escalated to almost (but not quite) calling me a liar who held her to a standard that didn’t apply to the rest of the group. I kept calm and stayed on message, while the veteran HR person (whose eyes were growing wider and wider) backed me up and tried (with little success) to bring things back on track. In the end, Bartleby agreed to write a response to the review to include in the file; the result was the sort of long, rambling series of diversionary tactics and indirect accusations that made up many of our previous conversations. In the aftermath, the HR person (still a bit stunned by the meeting), my manager, and I agreed on a modified strategy for communication with her, in which I would make any requests in writing and immediately exit any in-person conversation that showed signs of spiraling. We also agreed that we would put her on a PIP if things didn’t get better right away.

After that, Bartleby mostly avoided me in person for a few months and we communicated primarily by email, which was fine by me. She was brought in to a project that let her charge a reasonable fraction of her time, which remedied the most readily quantifiable problem with her performance. She also agreed to several smaller projects that I sent her way with only appropriate levels of commentary and no pushback.

After a while, we started having polite, short conversations in person about smaller matters from time to time, and her new pattern of avoiding drama and gracefully accepting projects has continued to this day; we even had a conversation the other day where we initially disagreed about a matter but found common ground fairly quickly. I no longer spend an inordinate amount of time managing her and her charging rate has remained entirely adequate. While she is still not a star performer, she now definitely a net asset to the group rather than a detriment to it.

I am not entirely convinced that this new state of affairs will last indefinitely, and I will remain vigilant for any sign of her old ways returning, but I expect that this year’s review cycle will be far less fraught than last year’s.

{ 121 comments… read them below }

  1. Dasein9 (he/him)*

    I do hope that the more positive review this cycle will help cement Bartleby’s new behavior and attitude in place. Fingers crossed for you, LW!

    1. ferrina*

      I hope LW updates us after this year’s review cycle! I’m very curious if Bartleby still thinks that LW holds her to different standards than the rest of the group (now that Bartleby’s performance is closer in line with what the rest of the group does)

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Exactly. The OP will be able to point to how Bartleby has improved (assuming that things continue as they are now) and get credit for how her behaviour has changed.

  2. FrogEngineer*

    Wow, that is… truly bizarre. I’m impressed at your patience in dealing with this person, OP. I think I would have given up on her a long time ago.

    1. Overit*

      I would have pushed hard for a PIP myself. Soooo much effort and aggravation is generally not worth it in the long term bec the person almost always reverta to their default.

      1. Skoobles*

        I mean, they basically placed her on a PIP in all but name, they laid out a quantifiable metric she needed to improve on in-writing with HR oversight and implemented management strategies to achieve this, they just made the consequences “be put formally on a PIP” rather than termination.

        1. Pet Jack*

          Some people honestly don’t get it until you have that written form saying you will be terminated soon. I have been shocked at how shocked people have been after performing poorly, being corrected in the moment, had poor reviews, told they were facing performance plan and then still shocked when it happened.

        2. Deborah*

          It’s probably one of those companies where the PIP really is a road to termination 98% of the time, not one where improvement is expected to happen and the job is saved. So the pre-PIP may make sense for that company.

          1. Kevin Sours*

            I wouldn’t go so far as “make sense”. I’m of the opinion that “pre-PIP” stuff is a sign that your PIP process is fundamentally broken. But it is a workaround for a PIP process that isn’t functional.

            1. Kevin Sours*

              (Note in most cases with an elaborate pre-PIP process it’s not that the pre-PIP is bad, per se, but I’ve yet to come across one where I haven’t thought, why don’t you throw out the PIP entirely and make the pre-PIP that actual PIP).

    2. Artemesia*

      I don’t understand why someone this unreasonable is allowed to ‘win’ and not be summarily fired after this behavior. The OP’s authority has been seriously undermined by this — with her superiors who now see her as unable to manage a difficult person and by any of her subordinates who see that the outcome of outrageous behavior was to have direct supervision removed.

      1. Dirtbag*

        Did I misread the letter? to me it sounded like OP’s superiors supported her throughout, and her subordinates see that the outrageous behavior has finally changed.

        1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

          Yeah, I actually feel like the takeaway was that once the LW was able to make clear just how big of an issue this was, even though the Bartleby threw a hissy and was standoffish afterwards, the work DID noticeably improve. LW’s authority wasn’t undermined, LW just learned that she might not have been effectively conveying how serious the problem was, or that she needs to bring in the big hammer earlier in the process.

      2. Kella*

        How is OP choosing to work in collaboration with HR to follow their company’s policies on how they handle performance, an example of undermining OP’s authority???? The problem didn’t go unaddressed, it was actually *fixed* it’s just that it was done so without a formal PIP or firing.

      3. Cyberspace Hamster*

        How did Bartleby “win” out of this? She had her avenue for time wasting cut off and is no longer getting out of doing work she didn’t want to do. OP gets to avoid going through what she mentioned as a tedious termination process and doesn’t have to rehire to get someone performing adequately on the team.

        You are sounding a bit like someone who subscribes to the “my way or the highway” view of authority, which would be undermined, but that style of management doesn’t do a lot to inspire loyalty in high performers. This way OP’s subordinates see that she will work with employees to resolve problems rather than just firing them, and no authority is undermined because the problem was actually solved (it would be different if Bartleby was allowed to continue being a problem).

    3. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Honestly, I’m super surprised that this has worked out as well as it did. But pleasantly so!

      I wonder if having HR involved helped because Bartleby could see that the OP probably wasn’t being unreasonable when HR agreed. It’s harder to maintain the belief that a manager is holding you to higher standards than others when HR is also like “no, you’ve gotta do this.”

      Add in that having HR there communicates that this is serious and it’s a set-up that gives the best chance of Bartleby realizing she needs to change her attitude.

  3. Hiring Mgr*

    Sounds like just getting to the heart of the matter has worked – congrats! I’ve seen many poor performers, even ones with bad attitudes turn it around over the years. Sometimes people just need a Come to Jesus moment.

    1. ChiliHeeler*

      Sometimes people need the right medication and therapist. In this case, people is me. I wasn’t quite as difficult as Bartleby, but I cringe at the thought of some of my previous behavior.

    1. Mouse*

      I think this is really uncharitable. The LW says that Bartleby did good work on the projects that she did complete and had valuable technical knowledge. Once the LW had some support in formalizing the performance review in cooperation with HR, the employee was able to turn things around and became a net positive employee. That seems like the ideal outcome to me!

      1. Antilles*

        Maybe, though I wonder how much of that is going to stick long-term.
        To me, it reads like the biggest problem Bartleby has is dealing with the uncertainty of a bunch of small projects and the biggest remedy that’s happened is Bartleby getting on a project with consistent billable hours every week. When that one big project (or her role in it) eventually ends, does she go back to having different projects every single week…and does that cause the earlier issues to come back?

        1. Observer*

          Maybe, though I wonder how much of that is going to stick long-term.

          That’s a good question. But the OP seems to be very well aware of the risk and is keep an eye on that.

          1. Lessonslearned*

            I have learned how to define a poor performer from LW and others so I can speak up about the situation and the consequences … how the poor performer is affecting me and my place in the team explained to my manager and up. Such a big, heartfelt thank you for these lessions.

        2. AnotherOne*

          yeah, I have the same concern. though, I’m not sure what LW can do beyond be consistent with the messaging, and follow thru with a PIP if the issue comes up again.

    2. Fives*

      This is harsh. LW didn’t fire Bartleby, and it’s working so far. LW is on guard in case it starts up again.

    3. Two Dog Night*

      Oh for goodness’ sake, LW was collaborating with her boss and with HR on this problem. She did the best she could under the imposed constraints, and it sounds like she handled Bartleby as well as possible. Why jump down her throat?

      1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

        Because some folks can’t grasp priority and importance in job function. Maybe the work LW’s team does is highly specialized and it would take months to get someone new up to speed (someone who will bring along their OWN management challenges). Bartleby may be the only person with special certification in Llama Transport Law on the team and, while other team members could get the certification, it would take time and they really need someone on the team with this certification. Or, Bartleby is actually on the low end of market rate and LW knows she wouldn’t have enough of a budget to hire someone at Bartleby’s level–or worse, LW knows that management’s response to someone leaving or being let go is to try and see if they can eliminate the position and even with Bartleby’s issues, they are still contributing more than if no one was in the role.

        LW made the decision that working with Bartleby was better for her and her team than just axing her–even with the meltdown in front of HR. Maybe we should trust her judgement.

  4. MassMatt*

    This was unexpected, I figured Bartleby would either have to be fired or (sadly) would continue on unchanged as the sort of dysfunctional yet oddly untouchable employee that HR throws up endless roadblocks against firing. Their demand to give “one more chance” before giving a below average review (horrors!) seemed to indicate that was where they were headed.

    1. Rainy*

      The fact that the HR person was like O.O at the interaction suggests to me that part of the roadblocks that HR was putting up were based at least partly in a failure to grasp the scope of the issue.

      1. Mad Harry Crewe*

        Yeah – which is also a problem. HR should generally take managers at their word that there is a problem, or if they have a concern about a manager, they should investigate rather than just pushing back on everything the manager does.

      2. Alice Quinn*

        Yes – I had a similar experience where I was consistently addressing a severe performance issue and raising to leadership and HR. My immediate boss was supportive and understood, but my grandboss and HR didn’t really grasp the severity and urgency of the situation till grandboss had the employee work with them directly on a couple of simple and very straightforward projects. In my case, the employee was just woefully unsuited to the job, and they’ve since thankfully moved on to a role they’re MUCH more suited to.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I love having my HR rep sit in on meetings with me when providing direct and routine feedback hasn’t gotten results. Sometimes, it’s good to have validation that, yes, that is totally inappropriate workplace behavior. I had one walk out, and she looked at me and said, “Is he ALWAYS like that? How do you get anything done?”

  5. ConstantlyComic*

    I gotta wonder what was going through that HR person’s head during the meeting. It sounds like they weren’t expecting the situation to be *that* bad and were quickly being disabused of that notion.

    Although it sounds like it wasn’t unsalvageable! I’m glad that Bartleby is doing better and hope that she continues to pleasantly surprise.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      A lot of times when managers describe truly untenable situations like this, it’s at least as much an issue of poor management skills as it is of performance.

      And then sometimes….this.

      1. FashionablyEvil*

        Exactly. I was dealing with a really difficult employee and our HR rep initially assumed that we were both contributing to the dynamic. And then she got on the phone with us and realized that was very much not the case.

        1. Other Alice*

          Oh yeah, sometimes when you’re dealing when Bartleby types, it can come across to 3rd parties as if you’re exaggerating the other person’s issues, or trying to make yourself look better. It’s useful to get everyone in the same room (or the same call) so people can see for themselves.

    2. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Yeah I am betting the HR person was rethinking that give them one more chance so we can say we tried stance.

      But I think Bartleby finally figured out her job was on the line and got with the program.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        This is where I fall.
        Bartleby has some weird personal background where she learned to deflect and defend. Sorry for whatever caused that, but here we are. She will not trust anyone in a leadership/upper level role.
        The meeting WAS a wake up call to Bartleby that she has to trust OP. Telling her the real consequences (PIP, firing) was equally important as telling her you will support her, then ending the conversation and showing her while she did the work.
        I’m thinking that this overall experience is a gift for Bartleby who had to trust that OP was telling the truth. “You need to do this. I will support you.” And then OP did.
        This may be a first for her.

      2. bighairnoheart*

        Yep! Sounds like having HR at that meeting helped in two very big ways. 1) it made the HR person realize that if there’s any relapse here, they cannot keep giving Bartleby the benefit of the doubt and more chances; and 2) it helped Bartleby realize she might be out of a job if she kept doing what she was doing.

        Which is all to say, good job OP. I hope that Bartleby doesn’t backslide, but even if she does, you’ve set yourself up well to deal with it.

  6. Smithy*

    Putting on my mildest of tinfoil hats, I do wonder if Bartleby is looking for a new position and the increased agreeability at work is due to an understanding that it’ll take time?

    My longest job hunt took a year, and it was at a period in our field when it was just tricky overall. So as much as I was trying to get out “asap” – there was that much pressure to not make things harder for me at work as the process took a while. I’m obviously reading this letter through my own experience – perhaps this is a more genuine change with a commitment to stay at this employer. But that’s my guess.

    1. Lab Boss*

      That’s very possible and I wouldn’t even say it needs a tinfoil hat. If you felt like your boss was managing you unfairly but you couldn’t immediately change jobs, it would be very reasonable to just bite your tongue and get through it to maintain your income and your reputation before leaving. Obviously the ideal outcome is a reformed Bartleby who does great work going forward, but a Bartleby who stops causing problems and does good work until voluntarily leaving isn’t a terrible one either- I’d call it an amazing win coming from where things started.

      1. Jessica*

        I mean, a reformed Bartleby who does great work going forward might be the ideal outcome *for the LW.*

        The ideal outcome for Bartleby is probably remaining at the company until she can find a job somewhere else where she can have a fresh start.

    2. Michelle Smith*

      It’s definitely possible. It’s also possible that Bartleby is just someone who has/had something personal going on and now they’ve gotten through it. Maybe they don’t deal well with change and the pushback was due to the change in management. Maybe they don’t deal well with expanding to something new, or receiving constructive feedback, or something else and they needed those few months of limited contact in-person with OP to work through those emotions and develop a new, better way of interacting. It’s really hard to say from the outside. But even if you’re right and Bartleby is looking for a new job that’s a better fit, I still see this as a win: OP is dealing with a better employee in at least the short term and will presumably be able to hire someone who is a better fit once Bartleby moves on.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        Another possibility was mentioned above, that something in Bartleby’s personal history installed the tactics of misdirection and obfuscation. The meeting with OP and HR may have been a big spur to her realizing that her pattern of behaviors was not serving her at this job–and she’s starting to change those behaviors.

      2. Starina*

        I agree with your take on this. Bartleby may just be belligerent and difficult, but having successfully managed more than one person like her, I’d say there’s a lot more to this than is being said, or than the LW is aware of.

        Examples of mine that spring to mind are Bartleby #1, who I discovered was hired to do the work they seemed “fixated” on, and were not meant to be doing any of the work they kept pushing back on, and Bartleby #2, who was an absolute star employee once a couple of basic, free-of-charge supports were put in place that also helped the rest of the team.

        They’re also examples I think of if I’m ever tempted to assume ill intent on an employee’s behalf, or positive intent on a manager’s. A senior manager had intentionally misled me about what Bartleby #1 was hired to do, and the former manager of Bartleby #2 had deliberately, unlawfully denied putting the supports in place due to ignorant, discriminatory beliefs.

    3. Observer*

      Putting on my mildest of tinfoil hats, I do wonder if Bartleby is looking for a new position and the increased agreeability at work is due to an understanding that it’ll take time?

      There is nothing that requires a “tinfoil hat” in this supposition. It seems quite likely to me. And it’s not really a bad outcome, as long as she doesn’t torch things when she leaves.

    4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I think it is not in OP’s mind that Bartleby is job searching, it’s a bad thing, a personal attack, disloyal.
      I think it is in Bartleby’s mind where OP/management exists to sabotage her, not give her support, make her do things beyond her training. Bartleby probably DOES think “I’m going to toe the line so they don’t fire me.”
      I don’t think Bartleby could grasp (at least at this point and definitely not at the time of the first letter) that if she truly is unhappy in this job and finds something else, I think OP would wish her well.

    5. bighairnoheart*

      Oh this is for sure a possibility. And this comment made me realize that it doesn’t really matter why the change happened–maybe Bartleby has altered her behavior for no reason other than to avoid getting fired, or she’s doing it temporarily before leaving for another job and gritting her teeth the whole time, or she realized she could trust the OP to manage effectively, or she saw the error of her ways and will never be obstinate again–all that matters is that the change happened in the first place!

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Agreed. The speculation is interesting, but the most important thing is that things are going smoothly. Bartleby may be trying to turn over a new leaf and make some changes. She might be biding her time until she gets a new job. And her leaving is OK if that’s what’s best for her.

        When I had a terrible boss and was working on my exit strategy, I definitely pulled back in a way that could have been seen as adjusting. It may have looked on the surface like things were more collaborative, but it’s more that I just stopped sharing my opinion about basically anything. (I tried to always be respectful and open to others’ opinions, and it was in a role where it would be normal for someone to speak up in a way that is not typical of most roles).

    6. NotAnotherManager!*

      I think that’s a reasonable read and a reasonable outcome. My Bartleby did exactly that, and I was happy to see her resignation a few months later. So was the rest of the team.

    7. Polly Hedron*

      Bartleby finding a new job would be the best possible outcome: then Bartleby could start over elsewhere with a clean slate and LW could look for a replacement as motivated and self-directed as the rest of the team.

  7. Kermit's Bookkeepers*

    My favorite part of this update is the victory of having an objective third party observe the Bartleby dynamic to confirm that yes, it really is as bad as you’ve described and yes, it cannot be allowed to deteriorate any further. This is very much my own issue here, but I know that I can often gaslight myself into believing *I* must be the unreasonable one if I keep hitting a wall with someone, and having a third party confirm that things are truly awful is such a win.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Absolutely. Especially when you write it down and think “I must be exaggerating this is wild”.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Been there, done that. It’s nice to have someone else go, hey, that’s not normal!

  8. Harper*

    Sounds like the review may have given her a wake-up call! Maybe she was struggling with personal issues or otherwise knew her work wasn’t up to par, but didn’t realize how bad it had gotten. Fingers crossed that her improvement continues!

    1. Observer*

      Sounds like the review may have given her a wake-up call!

      Yes. And if the HR person’s face showed as much shock as the OP indicated, it may have made Bartleby realize that she really was on thin ice and wasn’t going to be able to continue the shenanigans now that someone else was watching, and not buy what she was trying to sell.

    2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

      I mean, how many letters come in from managers who are utterly perplexed at how their employee can be “shocked” they are being fired and claim it “came out of the blue”? Whenever you drill down, the softening language shows up, the not being clear that this is a major problem that, if not rectified, will lead to termination. Having HR at that meeting and LW articulating in such a clear way how serious this was likely made Bartleby realize how much jeopardy her job was in.

  9. BellyButton*

    I hope that you won’t always be looking out for her whole patterns. I hope you will be able to recognize that she has grown and learned. That’s what development is about, if they are always punished, or it is always held against them, then what’s the point?

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      Remaining vigilant of someone creeping back into poor behavior isn’t the same as punishing them or holding it against them, it’s just recognizing that there is a possibility of a backslide.

      1. WantonSeedStitch*

        This. I have an indirect report who is quite capable of doing good work, but who has historically gone through periods of poor accountability and reliability. Management has a chat with her and she improves. Then she starts sliding again. Sensing the approach of another chat, she starts talking (unprompted) about physical and mental health challenges that are making it hard for her to do her job. Management asks if there are accommodations that would help. She says no. (We have even suggested some in the past, but either she’s rejected them or they haven’t improved matters.) We reiterate that in the absence of any accommodations, we have to hold her to the same standards of performance that we hold everyone else. She says she’ll get better. And she does. And then the issues start up again.

        If we just looked at her most recent behavior after her most recent promise to improve, it wouldn’t make sense. When she misses a step, it’s not just in a vacuum–it’s part of an overall, long-term pattern of behavior. When someone has performance issues for a long time, it’s important to make sure that any improvement is CONSISTENT. It doesn’t mean you have to always treat them as though you think they’re going to screw up again, but it DOES mean that any fumbles *related to the issues that were a problem in the past* are more serious and need to be addressed to ensure that a slide into poor performance isn’t starting.

    2. Indolent Libertine*

      Bartleby earned her previous poor reputation fair and square, and the LW is 100% entitled to be skeptical of whether the current improvements will hold. That’s not punishment or holding anything against her, it’s the entirely logical consequence of her prior actions.

    3. MigraineMonth*

      If she wants a blank slate, she’s going to need to find a new job. Particularly with such a long firing process, it isn’t reasonable to reset the process to the beginning every time the employee starts to do their job.

    4. Sara without an H*

      Given that the letter describes a five-year pattern of behavior, the LW isn’t “punishing” Bartleby, he’s just being cautious until she demonstrates a consistent pattern of improvement. That’s not unreasonable, given the history.

    5. SemiAnon*

      The part you’re missing is time. It can be relatively easy for someone to change their behaviour in the short term, but harder to keep up the improvement. Right now, Bartleby is performing decently, but has a (well-earned) bad reputation. The LW and HR need to keep a close eye on her, to make sure that the improvements continue without needing a lot of work on their part. If Bartleby continues to perform well, without sliding back into old habits, eventually she will get to the point where she has a better reputation.

      Best case, she puts this period behind her, and becomes a well regarded employee. Medium case – she gets things to the point that she can move to a new job and a clean reputation with a decent reference. Worse case – she slides back into old habits, and the LW and HR have to go through the whole song and dance at regular intervals, until she gets fired.

  10. Lobsterman*

    I wonder what lifestyle changes gave this result, but at the end of the day, well, good for Bartleby.

    1. Lis*

      I once worked with a woman (Kara) who just before I started was formally written up for doing something. Apparently the other 9 people who had the same job went to the manager and said they would have done, and had done, exactly the same thing and would have told her to do it, but this time there was a negative consequence and the Manager (Betty) threw Kara under the bus and punished Kara and Kara alone instead of admitting her department would all have done the same and training everyone. Betty went on maternity leave (Europe so a long leave) and a temporary manager (Trish) was brought in from an adjacent related department.

      After a number of months Trish asked Kara to do a certain task, Kara said no, she wasn’t appropriately trained to do it. Trish put down in an email how Kara was actually trained, everyone else was also trained and doing this, but if Kara needed more training it would be provided. And it was. Kara still refused, like for Bartelby all in circles. This went on for a while and eventually Trish told Kara she had to do this task and if there was an issue Trish would deal with it but it was not optional for Kara to refuse.

      Kara and I were on the same shift doing the same job in different areas so we used to take breaks together and got on well together. Kara told me she had sent an email to the compliance department saying that her manager trying to force her was a compliance issue. As she said this to me my jaw dropped and I said “Oh Kara you didn’t?” Kara really thought she had done the right thing and I said to her “You have in writing that you aren’t comfortable with this, she acknowledged this in writing and also in writing said if there were any errors she would deal with it and you went over her head, not to HR but to a different department that she was/will be back as manager of” Kara just couldn’t see past having being punished for something that wasn’t her fault.

      This was maybe 4 months after her undeserved write-up but got Kara another note on her file for what she did (I don’t think it was an official warning). For what it’s worth after that I made a mistake that could have cost the company the same-ish amount and Trish gave me personal training on why it was an issue, what I should do if it happened again and pushed training out to everyone else so they also knew and included it in the introductory training. Kara, when she saw this, finally realised she had over reacted.

      The point of this ever so long story (sorry) is that sometimes people react inappropriately because of previous experiences. And sometimes the new manager is a good person (as OP is) but the employee is slightly traumatised and makes bad decisions/bad hills to die on.

  11. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Bizarre but not unheard of behaviour, this twisting everything to try and make out that your boss is lying or didn’t say things they did. Outright calling you a liar in a formal meeting is decidedly off the wall though!

    I’m glad she’s behaving better but cautionary note that bad behaviour like this can occasionally go in cycles – leave it long enough so everyone thinks you’re good and then start acting up again so nobody will believe it’s anything other than a minor mistake.

    (I’ve got experience in my past of being a gaslighting, manipulative liar and it took a little while for me to actually change for good. I sincerely wish her all the best because while it’s a hard journey it’s a rewarding one)

    1. Michelle Smith*

      May I ask how you managed to successfully make that change? I’m guessing it’s probably harder than just waking up one day and deciding you want to do things differently.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Sure! It’s a complex combination of a very good boss calling me out on my bad behaviour (and saying I’d be fired if I didn’t change) – make no mistake I was an absolute nightmare to work with – a good doctor who got me some good medications, a LOT of therapy (my brain is severely abnormal) and my husband telling me I had to get help.

        Of them all it was the boss calling me out that really started it. To this day I use him as my mentor in being a good manager.

        1. Lucien Nova*

          You know, if I were just someone here reading your comments basically in a vacuum I’d never have guessed you were anything but perfectly lovely! Even having been lurking here for awhile and seeing you tell bits of your story over time, it’s still pretty hard to reconcile; you’re very wise and insightful amd I appreciate seeing your take on things.

          Your experience also shows why it’s so important to have a good support system that isn’t afraid to call you out when you’re being unreasonable, I think!

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            Sounds trite but having people who’ll say ‘we’re walking away from you/going to fire you because your issues are hurting us and we cannot enable it’ can seem like the cruelest thing in the world at the time – but be the best thing to happen in hindsight.

  12. Certaintroublemaker*

    It sounds like Bartleby learned some bizarre conversation patterns (FOO coping techniques?) that don’t work as well in email, and/or under threat of PIP. I’m glad LW figured out a way around it and got hours of time back in their week.

  13. Lacey*

    I’m glad you were able to get HR in there! I’m completely shocked that any of this worked, but nice that it did.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, I bet that’s it. This is why having HR there when you’re dealing with a problem employee who refuses to acknowledge that they’re the problem is so great. As long as your HR is reasonably competent, which is by no means certain.

        Bartleby saw the writing on the wall this time. I really hope she continues to do a good job.

  14. Lab Boss*

    I’m someone who can react really badly to criticism in the moment and then, with time to reflect, realize that it was fair and start thinking about how to respond (and yes, I know this is a bad workplace habit and I consciously fight against the impulse). That kind of sounds like Bartleby here- her initial response was a full aggressive defense against the feedback, and as soon as the immediate pressure of the meeting was taken off she collected herself and improved. It’s…. it’s not a great way to be, but hopefully the message WAS received and taken to heart even if it wasn’t handled well in the moment.

  15. Lily Potter*

    WTG! A side benefit is that your other reports now know that you won’t tolerate a slacker on your team. There is no doubt in my mind that Bartleby’s co-workers knew that she wasn’t pulling her weight before.

  16. mango chiffon*

    Can anyone help explain the initial issue with charging time, and the follow up around being on a project that let her charge a “reasonable amount of time”? Was the issue she was spending too much time on projects comparative to her coworkers? I’m assuming that means it was the wrong type of project for her and not a specific issue with her, but maybe I’m misunderstanding since I’m not familiar with how charging time to projects works in this case.

    1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      I think it is a business model that bills time to clients (as many professional services firms do). Bartleby was not generating enough “billable” time; too much of her time was spent on items that could not be billed to a client.

    2. A Datum*

      I can’t speak for OP, but I can speak for my own chargeable hours environment. If I’m building widgets for a customer, I charge that customer’s account for the amount of time it took me to build the widget. That’s chargeable time.
      If I’m working on departmental process improvement to simplify our widget-making record keeping, that’s not for a customer. That’s overhead time.
      Overhead is necessary, but it’s doesn’t pay the bills. Everyone needs a certain level of chargeable hours for the company to make money and pay salaries.

        1. Czhorat*

          Ironically,it’s a common way of billing in the legal profession, where one might have at one time employed a scrivener.

          1. allathian*

            When lawyers in the UK charged in guineas (1 guinea = 21 shillings) rather than pounds (£1 = 20 shillings) so that the lawyer got the pounds and the clerk got the extra shillings?

    3. FrogPenRibbets*

      I interpreted it as Bartleby either codes her time to client projects or admin. Obviously the client projects are billable hours and admin is not (or in other words a cost).

      So Bartleby was charging too much of their time to the internal admin and not enough time to billable hours. This was compared to coworkers in a similar role. From the initial letter, she was actively avoiding billable work and focusing on the admin.

      From the follow up she was assigned a project (and didn’t avoid it) that got her in more balance between the billable hours and admin hours.

    4. Two Dog Night*

      Apparently OP’s department does projects that they bill to other departments–kind of like a consulting firm, only with clients that are part of the same company. Bartleby is expected to spend a certain % of her time on billable projects, and that % wasn’t high enough–and she was turning down billable projects in favor of unbillable work. It sounds like OP has no complaints about Bartleby’s working quickly enough–it’s the % billable that was the problem.

    5. Engineer*

      From the inital letter, it sounds like Bartleby was charging time to projects but didn’t have a final product that justified the hours she put down. Think charging 50 hours to Client Corporation for the production of teapots, but the teapots that were turned over are 35-hour teapots. Based on this letter, since LW says some of that time should have been overhead, it probably means part of Bartleby’s job was to streamline the process and that time should not have been charged to a client.

      So, too much time, not enough results.

      1. fhqwhgads*

        I think it was the other way around: she’d have some billable project tasks and some overhead tasks. Say overhead’s supposed to be 20% of her time and billable the rest. She’d spend 80% of her time on overhead tasks and 20% on billable tasks, and when offered more billable tasks would say “no thanks”.

  17. A Datum*

    In the aftermath, the HR person (still a bit stunned by the meeting), my manager, and I agreed on a modified strategy for communication with her, in which I would make any requests in writing and immediately exit any in-person conversation that showed signs of spiraling.

    Reading the initial post, the comments on the initial post, and the update, it seems like getting out of the conversation spiral was key to getting Bartleby to do the work.

    I notice the use of “refusing” in a few places, but I didn’t see where Bartleby ever actually refused. From the initial post, it sounded like she raised a bunch of objections, but none of the quotes actually were a “no, I won’t.” It reads as though OP gave up in exhaustion after going in circles. Then when OP stopped being available for circles, Bartleby did the work.

    1. FrogPenRibbets*

      It’s a technique to refuse without actually saying the words “I won’t do it”

      Bartleby was refusing by not actually doing the work and deflecting.

    2. WantonSeedStitch*

      Someone who raises objections but doesn’t either offer or accept any address of those objections (“I haven’t been trained on this” “I’ll train you”) and who keeps going back to the same objections after solutions have been offered is in effect refusing to do the work. A normal conversation with objections would look like this:
      “I haven’t been trained on this.”
      “I’ll train you.”
      “OK, but since I’ll be new at this skill, can I direct client questions or criticisms back to you if I don’t know how to respond to them?”
      “Yes, of course.”
      “Cool, thanks.”

      Bartleby’s sounded more like
      “I haven’t been trained on this.”
      “I’ll train you.”
      “But you won’t support me.”
      “I’ll support you and back you up if things go wrong.”
      “I’m not comfortable because I haven’t been trained on this.”

      And so on. Bartleby provides NO circumstances in which she WOULD do the work.

      1. A Datum*

        Refusal to do work looks like this:

        “I’m not going to do this task.”

        I’m happy for OP that they learned some new management skills to avoid getting dragged into conversations that go nowhere. Those skills will serve them well in many circumstances.

        1. Genadriel*

          Refusal to do work doesn’t always look like the one example you (A Datum) gave. It can absolutely look like the scenario WantonSeedStitch outlined, followed by not actually doing the work.

          I mean, at the heart of it, it’s the work not getting done that is the actual problem. The circular conversations are just the obfuscation factor.

        2. Esmae*

          Sometimes refusal looks like “Sure, I’ll do it” and then just not doing it. Sometimes it looks like a long chain of “I’ll do it if…” and “I’ll do it after…” that just never ends, and the work never gets done. Sometimes it looks like flat-out ignoring the request. An indirect “no” is still a “no.”

        3. Ace in the Hole*

          Indirect refusal is a thing. If she repeatedly says she’s not comfortable doing it, shoots down all attempts to resolve the excuses for not doing it, and does not do it… she has refused. In fact, I have refused to do things exactly this way on occasion (when I felt the request was unsafe, unethical, or impossible).

          When someone says “I’m not comfortable doing that,” the unspoken second half is “…so I won’t do it.”

  18. Sunflower*

    Seems like in person Bartleby acts like a spooked squid, just inking the conversation until she can run away. On paper any deflection and circular digression is harder to obscure.

  19. learnedthehardway*

    It sounds like something worked here – at least for the time being.

    It sounds like your Bartleby is smart enough to realize – once she tried and failed at gaslighting you – that she is going to have to perform, and so she is doing it. She sounds like a “give an inch, take a mile” kind of person, though, so you’ll probably have to keep managing her very firmly, and it would be a good idea to have the HR person continue to sit in her future performance reviews.

  20. just do your job*

    I had a similar situation. The employee wouldn’t perform certain tasks that were clearly in their wheelhouse and job description. The conversations would get circular. After the 3rd go around and I clearly stated that this isn’t a negotiation, its a directive. The employee literally then said ‘well we have to discuss this further’. I SAID you need to do this or make other arrangements for employment. The employee said ‘ well if that’s the case I will do it’. Dont waste your energy

  21. Reality.Bites*

    As a human being I’m glad it worked out as well as it did. As a reader, I’m somewhat disappointed it didn’t spiral out into increasingly bizarre confrontations.

  22. Spark*

    This reminds me, not so fondly, of an employee I had like Bartleby. As the lowest in seniority in the office I was routinely given a series of the problem assistants to rehabilitate (and then greeted with surprise when my output was less than top notch, but that’s a different management issue.) My Bartleby was an expert on systems that technology was making obsolete and was being presented with other priorities to fill the gaps, which she did not like nearly as much. At one point, in order to redirect her to these new jobs, as my last task of the day, I would email her a prioritized to-do list for the next morning. Being the luddite that she was, she didn’t open her email until 3pm after working all day on her preferred low-priority tasks. Eventually we were all just waiting out her retirement, but as no better assistant option was offered to me in the meantime, I eventually realized that I was always going to be the dumping ground in the office for assignments and staff and left.

  23. LawStudent*

    Unlike some of the other comments here, I am optimistic and thikn this will be a permanent change/not a cycle. If for nothing else, getting HR showed the seriousness and the employee will now lock in.

    But, I also remember one of the comments in the original post mentioned how it seemed as though both manager and employee had different styles and seeing how things have turned around – it may have taken some time but the level of intention on your end may have allowed the two of you to find your footing. Specifically, you mentioning your modified communications and putting your requests in writing. Sometimes it is easier for people to digest tasks if they have something to refer back to versus having a verbal convo. Further, allowing the employee to push back via writing and have something in the employee file. Although you said it was rambling, the employee may feel more confident knowing they were able to submit something that “covers” them in the case things don’t go well.

    Finally, I am curious is the employee a different age group, gender or race from the manager or the rest of the team? Specifically you mentioning “When I (politely) pushed back, she escalated to almost (but not quite) calling me a liar who held her to a standard that didn’t apply to the rest of the group” makes me curious.

    1. allathian*

      Yes, I agree. I absolutely loathe spoken instructions because I don’t have any confidence in my ability to retain them, or in my ability to take notes correctly. I was good at notes in college but my handwriting now is poor to the point that I can’t read it reliably when I no longer remember the contents and I’m also a slow notetaker by hand, although I’m a reasonably fast and accurate typist. In that sort of environment I’d be constantly second-guessing myself or eternally asking for clarifications, which would tank my reputation as a diligent and proficient employee. I’m so, so, so glad to work in an environment where it literally doesn’t count if it’s not in writing, and all work orders come over a ticketing system, or on Teams chat for very quick jobs that I can do as soon as they come in and forget about.

      I’m not saying that I’d be refusing to do work in a different environment, to be clear, just that I wouldn’t want to work in an environment where spoken instructions are the norm.

  24. DNDL*

    Hey I have an identical employee and the same exact thing happened, except mine is now polite to my face but tells my boss about how I’m stalking her, following her home, watching what she does on the computer…..Thank god for bosses (and HR guys) who back us up when things get out of hand.

  25. Sara without an H*

    Hi, LW — I went back and read your original letter. First, congratulations on staying cool and on topic in your meeting with Bartleby. I know from experience that it isn’t easy to do this, but it’s absolutely essential if you’re going to convince a problematic employee that their usual bag of tricks won’t work on you. It also sounds as though the meeting helped solve the HR part of the problem, for which I also congratulate you. (I would have enjoyed watching your HR rep’s face as the meeting progressed.)

    A commenter upstream, Smitty, suggested that Bartleby has cleaned up her act enough to stay in her position until she finds another job and to salvage some sort of decent reference. That might be a good solution for both of you, but it’s not safe to count on it. I spent 35 years in academic libraries, an industry that tends to attract Bartleby’s. Be on the alert, not for a dramatic relapse, but for a slow slide back into her old habits. She may assume that, if she does it gradually, you won’t think it worth calling her on it. (Trust me: I’ve seen this done by experts.)

    Keep up your documentation, and keep your manager and your HR rep in the loop if her performance begins to degrade in any way. It would also be a good idea to get their agreement that, if Bartleby backslides, you don’t do another PIP, you just let her go.

    Please send us another update in 6-12 months. If Bartleby has, indeed, seen the light and is now productive, well, three loud cheers for both of you. If she reverts to form, don’t prolong the agony. It will be kinder to all concerned to let her go.

  26. Mackenna*

    This is absolutely correct. I used to work with a Bartleby, and the imagination she showed in ways to come up with getting out of doing tasks used to astonish me regularly. I often thought that actually just doing the work would surely take less effort!

    She did sometimes flat out refuse, but mostly she used a few different methods to try and avoid being given work, like going on about how busy she was all the time, and keeping her desk literally covered with paper so that people physically could not put files down on it anywhere, which surprisingly actually deterred people from giving her tasks to do. Or, if someone asked her about something, she’d list off all these other tasks she had to do and tell them she’d be happy to, but so sorry, wouldn’t get to it for over a week, was that all right?

    Then, when that didn’t work and she was actually given a task, she would do it in such a mind-numbingly inefficient way that people would give up waiting for her to finish it and take it back, or she would do it late and badly to the point they’d end up having to re-do it completely and it would end up being actually more work for the other person and not less, or she would hide it. Literally, she would hide things! Just one example of many, we moved offices mid-pandemic, and then after a further period of lockdown and working from home, when I finally got back into the office in 2022, I opened up a cupboard behind my desk and found a full tray of filing from someone who had left @2017. The filing dated back to 2015. Bartleby had physically buried it under the stacks of paper she would keep on her desk so nobody could see it, and then once she had the chance to shove it into the cupboard behind my desk and pretend it had been there all along, she took it. I knew immediately what had happened of course, no way would I have left filing I was responsible for sit anywhere for SEVEN YEARS.

    Unfortunately my Bartleby was also very good at talking around people, and was manipulative (she could turn tears on like a tap) that when I complained about her, people just flat out did not believe me. Even with me listing examples and patterns of behaviour. However, sufficiently long enough exposure did eventually mean other people finally figured out that I had been right the entire time and she was only recently managed out – five years after I first complained about her and told our manager that she was not up to the job and had to go.

    Tl;dr refusal to do work can indeed take many forms, some of which can actually look like enthusiasm to do the work, depending on how good your Bartleby is at being manipulative and covering their tracks!

    1. Zarniwoop*

      “keeping her desk literally covered with paper so that people physically could not put files down on it anywhere, which surprisingly actually deterred people from giving her tasks to do”
      Where I work that’s what chairs are for.

  27. Mackenna*

    Darnit I was trying to post this as a reply to A Datum and Genandriel’s comments a bit upthread about what refusal to do work looks like in practice.

  28. Single Parent Barbie*

    I love a happy (?) ending! This goes back to a thread from the other day. It is amazing what happens when we partner with the right, competent people (HR, Sr mgrs) and can hold our employees accountable.

  29. Chelsea*

    I had an employee like this once, and unfortunately we did have to part ways. It has always haunted me, because her spirals often made me second guess my reality. I loved seeing a version of this with a positive outcome.

  30. Jessica*

    So, I’ll caveat this with an acknowledgment that my default is to sympathize with ICs over managers, because my default is to sympathize with the person who structurally has less power. Front-line managers are, to a degree, the foot soldiers of a corporation in its relationships with its employees, purely because of the nature of their jobs.

    But it seems to me like people being like “I wonder what changed in Bartleby’s personal life that she’s behaving better” are missing kind of a key component of this arc, which is Bartleby’s trust in her manager.

    People get into bad habits because, at some point, that behavior *works* for them. It becomes a bad habit, rather than an adaptive one, when circumstances change and the behavior is no longer working, but they continue to engage in it.

    What seems apparent from the first letter is that what Bartleby was doing somehow worked for her under Bill, and in the example the LW gives, trust is what Bartleby was claiming was at issue. Every line of Bartleby’s, in that exchange, is basically “I don’t trust you!” I don’t know what the company at large is like outside the LW’s team, but if it’s a typical corporate environment, competition and backbiting and being set up to fail are likely issues. It seems like, under Bill, Bartleby was spending more time on managing risk to herself than doing actual work.

    So: new manager, not Bill, not interested in those sort of politics. Bartleby gets told by HR, basically, that she has to perform her job as if she trusts her manager, that she can’t be hedging and arguing about perceptions and claiming she can’t do something because her manager won’t support her.

    She just has to *act* as if she trusts the LW.

    So she’s been working that way for a while, and nothing bad has happened.

    Over time, I suspect, it’s becoming less of a coerced performance of trust, and turning into actual trust when nothing bad happens, which is why it’s getting easier to have conversations with her.

    (I’m not saying this to make excuses for Bartleby–if you’re actively, vehemently distrustful of your manager, you can’t do your job. If you have actual receipts that your manager is screwing you over, that’s one thing, but if you can’t or won’t trust your manager enough to be able to do your job purely because they’re a manager, you don’t know them, they’re new, etc. ultimately, you’re failing to perform the job and shouldn’t be in the role. But we work in a system that often incentivizes workplace behavior that has nothing to do with actual productivity, and drives people to focus more on trying to decipher and game the system for their own survival, and many people don’t do that well.)

  31. Bill and Heather's Excellent Adventure*

    Well done on having someone senior in HR witness Bartleby’s behaviour. Hopefully she won’t ever be a ‘missing stair’ again. I’m happy that you were able to resolve this and Bartleby seems to have improved and become a better employee.

Comments are closed.