my team keeps complaining about someone I don’t manage

A reader writes:

I direct a department that’s on a different floor than the rest of our office. A portion of my team’s workflow has to go through an administrative person in another department, Jane, who reports to another department director. Jane is new — she started six months ago — and she seems overwhelmed. From my perspective, she’s disorganized, bad at prioritizing work, and slow to learn tasks. She’s following someone who really excelled in this role, and she suffers in comparison. I’ve found her really difficult to work with, and I’m trying to minimize the amount of our work that has to go through her, but there are some things that just have to cross her desk, no matter what.

I hear a lot of complaining about Jane when my staff has a negative interaction. Some of it is just venting, but sometimes someone will approach me for help in dealing with her. When she was brand new, I did my best to speak positively about her. I knew she was facing a big learning curve. But at this point, she’s still failing at things she should have mastered, and I’m having a hard time not letting my frustration show. I have no role in deciding whether or not to keep her (she’s still in her probationary period), and so I’m working under the assumption that we’re stuck with her.

What should I do when my staff complains about Jane? And how should I handle my own frustration? I find myself sliding into joining the venting about her, and I don’t feel good about it, but it’s really hard not to!

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

{ 95 comments… read them below }

  1. Chairman of the Bored*

    When you speak with your staff about it make sure to acknowledge that Jane is indeed bad at her job and causing a problem.

    It is not unprofessional to acknowledge that somebody is difficult and slow.

    It drives me nuts when I tell my supervisor about a colleague who is objectively not doing what they are paid to do and the response is some weak-sauce equivocating like “Everybody is busy and we have to trust they’re doing the best they can”.

    1. Please remove your monkeys from my circus*

      “They’re doing the best that they can” doesn’t preclude being bad at the job.

    2. RVA Cat*

      That said, if this was a new letter it could be that they aren’t paying enough to get the job done well. This is doubly so if the previous person stayed long enough to become overqualified and left for a raise and promotion.

      1. Deborah*

        I was thinking the same thing – what if the previous job-holder was doing the jobs of 3 people, the kind of thing we hear about all the time? And then the follow up is “I moved on and the last I heard they had to hire 2 people to replace me.”

        1. Throwaway Account*

          I think the meaning is, maybe Jane is being asked to do too much so saying she is “bad at her job” might not be the best way to handle it. But I think the OP is clear that she would expect Jane to have mastered more of the job by now.

          I think acknowledging that there is a problem is the way to go with OP’s staff more than saying Jane is bad at her job.

        2. Candi*

          It links to “work to rule” or “work your wage”.

          Frequently, people who were in positions a long time took on, were given, or were dumped on, far more tasks than the official job covers.

          The new person coming in is expecting the official job plus maybe a bit. Then they get the equivalent of half a job to two extra jobs dumped on them. Everything gets affected when one person is expected to do a job and a half to three jobs, a lot of which they may not be familiar with.

          This is not OP’s concern. It is, however, the concern of Jane’s manager. Both because the newbie is overwhelmed, and because the previous worker’s overwork, chosen or imposed, hid the actual manpower the department needs.

          OP telling the manager gives the manager a chance to see the problem and (hopefully constructively) deal with it. i.e., one common cause of excess work is other departments dumping unassigned work on a worker. Jane’s manager could make a rule that all extra work requests must go through them and cannot be taken to Jane directly.

    3. ecnaseener*

      I would be wary about outright saying she’s bad at her job, especially as a manager. LW should certainly acknowledge the problems are real, but you can do that without outright saying something uncharitable that could be repeated.

      I can see why the “we have to trust she’s doing her best” line would be annoying though, if only because it doesn’t matter whether she is or isn’t – the problems need to get fixed.

      1. Orange You Glad*

        I agree. As a manager, it’s ok for LW to acknowledge the issue and advise the team on how to work with Jane for the time being and also take steps to work with her manager.

        Jane is still in her probationary period and for all anyone knows, she may improve with time and extra training/coaching. I’ve seen too many people get labeled as bad at their job because of a mistake early in their career and it follows them around the company for years.
        Jane could also be terrible and eventually let go. Either way, nothing will happen if LW doesn’t raise the issue with Jane’s manager.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          I’ve seen too many people get labeled as bad at their job because of a mistake early in their career

          Or poor training. I’m thinking of a letter from not long ago where the OP was being trained by someone who was really bad at it.

          1. Middle Aged Lady*

            This! I was trained by someone once who: was three weeks out from a wedding she was ambivalent about, and wasted time talking about the wedding and her issues with her fiance, gave me notes to study, in her illegible handwriting that she had taken during her training (she was pretty new as well) and admitted she was a terrible trainer! I looked bad as a result, but it wasn’t my fault.

      2. Gatomon*

        Yeah, I wouldn’t want to say anyone is bad at their job. I think I’d simply acknowledge that processes are taking longer now, or advise that more follow up with Jane is required than her predecessor and then shift the focus to how my team can adjust expectations and tweak processes to cope, within reason. (Emailing Jane every two hours about the status of something definitely won’t help, but maybe clear statements of priority in the initial request would.)

        Sometimes this type of complaining can take on a life of its own, where even if Jane is making improvements, no one sees them because it’s normalized to disparage her. And this attitude can spread to allow a culture of complaining about other employees if not stopped.

        1. Dasein9 (he/him)*

          Yep. A family example, but it happens at work too: I had a couple of minor accidents when I was a teenager and still learning to drive. I was labeled the “bad driver” of the family and was the butt of jokes for years until one day at a large dinner I loudly pointed out I’d not had so much as a parking ticket in over a decade, which was more than anyone else in the family could say.

          Labels stick, whether they’re fair or not.

          1. ZugTheMegasaurus*

            Oh yeah, that happened to me too, slid on ice and totaled the car when I was 16. My parents went on and on and on about my driving and how I obviously couldn’t be trusted with the car. After weeks of this, I finally said, “My accident was the FOURTH ONE in that car. Mom, you slid on ice and crashed it once, and Dad, you did it TWICE. Maybe the stupid car just sucks in icy conditions?” They were genuinely speechless.

      3. wordswords*

        Yeah, I think Alison’s “I know, I’ve talked to Jane’s Boss about the frustrations, let’s give Jane and Boss a chance to fix the issues” does a good job of walking the line between “we have to trust she’s doing her best [subtext, intended or not: and therefore this isn’t really a problem and I’m not going to try to fix it]” and “yeah I know, Jane is terrible at her job, let’s vent about it together.” She might or might not be doing her best! That’s something for Jane and her boss to consider when figuring out options and solutions, but it’s not the root problem for LW’s team.

      4. SheLooksFamiliar*

        Seconding this. There is no need to make that kind of comment about Jane’s performance. There could be lots of reasons why she’s struggling – she could be stepping into very large shoes and can’t possibly produce at the level her predecessor did, for example.

        Jane’s boss needs to know there are specific performance issues, and their impact: ‘My team relies on Jane to run reports on ABC activity. She frequently is late with the report (cite examples) or provides reports for the wrong entity (cite examples). We’ve missed deadlines because we’ve had to ask her to re-run reports, and there are still errors. Also, she gets flustered or short with us, and some of my team actively avoid engaging with her.’ That will give Jane’s boss much more to work with than, ‘She’s bad at her job.’

    4. somehow*

      I’d find different wording, as I wouldn’t want my staff to think I’d speak similarly about them should the situation ever arise on my team. To that end, your manager is right to choose fair-minded wording when speaking about someone else to you, and doing so is the opposite of “weak sauce” equivocating. Your take on things is a…curiosity.

      1. Observer*

        To that end, your manager is right to choose fair-minded wording when speaking about someone else to you,

        I disagree. Because there is a difference between fair minded wording (ie no saying the that the person is bad at their job) and refusal to acknowledge and try to do something about the problem. Because “doing the best they can” doesn’t really help the person complaining. And it doesn’t even acknowledge the issue.

        1. Kevin Sours*

          It is important to acknowledge that Jane’s performance is inadequate which the “doing the best they can” wording fails to do. But the why isn’t really relevant. Jane could be just bad at her job, she could be unsupported in the role, poorly trained, or being given too much work and conflicting priorities. You don’t need to jump to “just a bad employee” to articulate that the situation is unsustainable and you are working to change it.

        2. Lydia*

          Managers should not be bad-mouthing anyone to their staff, and saying someone in another department is bad at their job is, in fact, bad-mouthing them. Better to acknowledge there are issues and reassure staff you’ve passed along feedback.

          1. Kevin Sours*

            There is a line though. Because failing to acknowledge the elephant in the room or down playing real problems can impact a manager’s credibility with their team. It’s hard to say “Jane isn’t doing her job adequately” without it being at least implicit criticism. A literal “there are issues are we passed along feedback” is up there with “your call is important to us” in terms of believability. Sometime you have to name the problem. Specifically.

            1. CEMgr*

              To me, the difference is in the focus…making it on the work, not the person, is what a manager should do. Compare:

              1) “Invoice processing is requiring more followup and double checking than we expect (since Jane has taken over that function).” WORK FOCUS

              2) “Jane isn’t doing her job adequately”. JANE FOCUS, can appear ad hominem

              1. Kevin Sours*

                Once you are in the position of conspicuously avoiding acknowledging a fact that everybody can observe, it hurts your credibility. There is a tendency to want to deflect and avoid clear communication in these cases. To whit the phrasing “than we expect”. This is over softening the message. Maybe something like: “since Jane took over invoice processing is taking more followup than it should”.

                You can’t really convince people you are taking their problem seriously if you refuse to name it as such.

                1. Florence Reece*

                  Please explain the tonal difference that you read between “than [the turnaround time] we expect” and “than [the turnaround time] it should [take]”, cuz I don’t see it. It sorta feels like splitting hairs to be as mean as possible about a subordinate’s work, to your own subordinates.

                  You REALLY can convince people you’re taking a problem seriously without workshopping the bluntest acceptable phrase to describe the problem. OP’s solution here isn’t to blithely reassure her team at all — there should be messaging there, but the solution is to go to Jane’s boss and let her know the issues your team is having. That’s an ACTUAL solution. Talking shit to your team about someone on their level is unlikely to feel like a fix to their problem at all, no matter the phrasing.

                2. Kevin Sours*

                  The phrase “we expect” pushes it back on the complainer and carries with the the implications that perhaps they need to lower their expectations. If the problem is that another team isn’t delivering, it’s not talking shit to name that directly.

                  And it’s not enough to pursue the actual solution. People need to know that you are pursing the solution. Otherwise all they see is that they came to you with a problem and absolutely nothing has changed as a result.

    5. Jaydee*

      I think there’s a difference between acknowledging objective facts – it takes Jane twice as long to process llama expense reports as it took the previous person in that position; Jane has repeatedly sent the wrong information when your team has asked for the updated groomer list or appointment schedule – and more subjective takes like “Jane is bad at her job.” Acknowledge the validity of their complaints by acknowledging objective facts rather than drawing broad, subjective conclusions. It might be that Jane is disorganized or slow to catch on to her job responsibilities or it might be that Jane is now processing 2x as many llama expense reports or that there’s some other change in her process or workload that makes it take longer.

    6. Ellis Bell*

      OP sounds guilty as though the complaints are a personal attack, but it’s about the work, not the person though. X and y is not getting done, things are not getting prioritised properly, the pace of the work is slow. I think the idea that they’re insulting someone is what drives some managers to say people are trying their best, but that’s usually a given. Even if someone is trying their best, it’s okay to say “Yeah the workflow isn’t what it should be, I know it’s causing problems and I’ve flagged up to the department head for solutions”.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        Yes, I think this is the best response. I get you don’t want to say personal-sounding things like “Jane is bad” but you absolutely can and *should* acknowledge “yes, the XYZ report is taking too long, I have spoken with [Jane’s manager] about what we need to see in the future.”

        And before that you need to actually do the speaking with Jane’s manager part!! I don’t see anything in the letter indicating that they have talked to anyone outside of their team about the issues but you need to do that. That is absolutely the most important thing that you need to do

    7. Kella*

      “We have to trust they’re doing the best they can” is not a helpful response but as a manager, OP shouldn’t say that Jane is bad at her job because that’s an assessment of the *source* of the problem, which OP doesn’t actually know. It could be Jane didn’t receive proper training or has been given an unreasonable workload, or is unsupported in other ways, or she may not be right for the job. That’s irrelevant to what OP says to their team. Acknowledge the problem and that it’s being addressed without speculating about the cause.

      1. Lydia*

        There’s also no reason to believe she’s phoning it in or doesn’t care. The OP doesn’t know what the situation is, only that Jane isn’t performing as she should, and that’s all she should address.

        1. Kevin Sours*

          It’s pretty irrelevant from OP’s perspective. Jane isn’t doing the job she needs to do. Whether that’s because she can’t, won’t, or doesn’t have the resources to is an issue for Jane’s supervisor.

          1. Willow Pillow*

            I disagree, assuming the worst of people tends to fester resentment in my experience. OP not going BEC on Jane is definitely relevant!

            1. MCMonkeyBean*

              They aren’t assuming the worst, they are saying there is no reason to assume anything at all because it doesn’t matter. You need what you need and the reasons that Jane isn’t delivering the desired results aren’t relevant to OP.

      2. Lizzianna*

        At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. But I’ve found that approaching an issue with the assumption that someone is doing their best creates a much better tone and leads to actual problem solving. And even if they are phoning it in, that becomes pretty obvious through the problem solving process, and that makes the ultimate decision on how to address the situation easier.

    8. Itsa Me, Mario*

      As someone in an administative role, I respectfully disagree. I don’t think everyone needs to walk on eggshells around Jane or pretend she is great when she is not, but it feels disrespectful in my opinion to talk about someone behind their back in that way. Either share actionable feedback with Jane (“Going forward, when you schedule our monthly team meeting, could you make sure the conference room has enough seats for everyone?”), or speak with her manager about the situation. Gossiping behind someone’s back about how everyone knows they suck is a bad look and likely to lead to bad outcomes. And cannot possibly lead anywhere good.

    9. Lizzianna*

      I don’t know that you have to say that Jane is bad at her job to acknowledge there is an issue.

      I would probably respond to complaints by saying, “Thank you for letting me know, I can see how that’s frustrating. I’ll talk to (Jane’s boss) and let her know. Please let me know if this doesn’t get better in a few weeks. In the meantime, please let me know if it’s impacting your ability to meet deadlines or get your other work done.”

      I’ve often been in situations as a manager where specific, legitimate criticisms of an individual quickly turns into a vent session that turns into a BEC dynamic, all before it gets to the manager. An employee may list a dozen grievances, only 2 or 3 of which are actually issues that management needs to deal with. When managers say things like “she’s doing her best”, it’s an inartful way of trying to keep a situation from devolving into that. You can acknowledge that a process isn’t working without making it personal. There is also often a lot going on behind the scenes that employees aren’t seeing.

    10. NotAnotherManager!*

      I think it’s unprofessional, especially as a manager, to say others are bad at their jobs. That leads your team to think it’s okay to make value judgments or black/white assessments of other people’s performance and not focus on what specifically is causing the problem and addressing that.

      It’s fine to agree that specific things are getting in the way of progress and empathize – it’s really frustrating that Jane didn’t process the vendor payment within the required time (and speak to Jane’s boss about it as well as why missing it is a problem or creates more work for your team). It’s not okay to badmouth Jane and agree that she’s terrible at her entire job.

      I only understand the specifics of part of the work of other teams, but I do know when they’re creating a problem with mine. There’s a group at work right now who’s been complaining about how my team won’t help with a particular thing they think my team should do. They have made zero attempt to find out what capacity we have and if we’re the right people to do the particular work. From their perspective, we’re lazy and unhelpful. From our perspective, they’re trying to shove their work off onto us when we have work only my team is trained to do coming out of our ears. In this instance, I do not expect my managers to tell their teams that Department X is pushy and doesn’t understand our business – I expect them to speak to to their counterparts in Department X and address the problem directly, escalating where appropriate.

  2. The Person from the Resume*

    You’re a director and another director is Jane’s supervisor/boss?

    Manage! Talk to Jane’s supervisor. Bring up the work performance issues and how it impacts your teams. Make it Jane’s supervisor’s job to fix the problems. Keep going back to her if you continue to get complaints that Jane is dong poorly.

    If Jane is in her probationary period and doing this poor a job, she should be coahed to get better quickly or she should be fired. Don’t take a chance of getting stuck with Jane performaning as she is. Do something before it’s too late.

    1. Butterfly Counter*

      This was my thought. Your team is coming to you because they’re having problems they can’t solve. They want someone with power to speak to another person with power to make a change. If that’s not you, OP, talk to your boss in order to have the right conversation with the right person to make a change or to at least get information about what is going on.

    2. AngryOctopus*

      Yeah, IMO this is pretty clear cut. Your team asks Jane for things, and she doesn’t provide, even the most basic ones. This has an impact on your team. You need to tell her boss! It’s important that Jane’s boss has all the info she needs to assess the probationary period, and “fails to send TPS .pdf when requested by LW’s team” is a very good data point to have.

    3. Corelle*

      This! Absolutely. And when you have that talk with Jane’s boss, make sure you separate the emotional/frustration part from the business impact and objective work failures. Keep the focus on the work and quantify things as much as you can. “Our turnaround time on quotes has gone from 4 hours on average to 12 since Jane took over getting quotes from suppliers on custom materials, and we lost out on 3 proposals last month because we missed the submission window because Jane’s organization issues caused delays – once she lost the specs, once she attached the wrong supplier quote to a project, and once she forgot to submit an RFQ to a supplier at all. I tried to be patient as Jane learned the role but I’m not seeing the improvement I expected to see by now. How can we fix the errors and get quote turnaround times back to where they were?”

    4. Busy Middle Manager*

      This is about it! This letter shouldn’t really exist, then again, it’s very interesting to see what trips other managers up. I just find it odd that OP doesn’t think this is something for them to manage. Yeah, you don’t do the traditional performance review type stuff for them, but you sure as heck manage laterally and push them to have those talks!!!

    5. Unkempt Flatware*

      Yes! I once worked with a Jane. She was so difficult. Our shared boss would get so fed up with folks not coming to her to report Jane’s mistakes because it made it harder to document and fire her (we worked in government).

    6. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      This! I tell my team fairly regularly, I can’t promise to solve every problem the way you want me to, but I definitely can’t resolve problems that I don’t know about, and a large part of my job is to fix stuff that is keeping you from doing your job. Please tell me about the work-related problems so I can try to address them, don’t just suck it up and deal. That is literally what I am here for.

    7. Shopping is my cardio*

      OMG this. It is always baffling to me how little managing managers actually do. This is so simple: her bad performance is impacting your team therefore talk to her manager and get it fixed. Rinse and repeat.

  3. Dust Bunny*

    Just talk to her boss.

    You’re not out to get her as a person: You’re acting on a problem that her work is causing for your team.

    (It sounds like this job isn’t a good fit for her, but technically you don’t even know that, either–there might be something that could be done to salvage it. But her boss has to know about that to act on it.)

    1. Observer*

      It sounds like this job isn’t a good fit for her, but technically you don’t even know that, either–there might be something that could be done to salvage it. But her boss has to know about that to act on it

      Exactly. There are a LOT of possible reasons that this problem could happen. But her supervisor needs to hear from the other departments that this is a problem.

  4. learnedthehardway*

    I would be bringing up these issues to Jane’s manager. Give specific examples of situations that are occurring and how they are affecting your team’s ability to to their jobs.

    It’s okay to acknowledge that there is an issue to your reports. Let them know that you are following up on their complaints, and that you want them to bring specific examples to you.

    BUT, also remind them to continue to treat Jane professionally and civilly. Perhaps she needs training, perhaps she’s a bad fit for the role, perhaps she doesn’t have the resources she needs. But she’s not a bad person for struggling, esp. when she is following in the shoes of someone who was stellar.

    1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      “…. also remind them to continue to treat Jane professionally and civilly”

      This is so important! When I get frustrated and want to treat someone uncivilly, I tell myself “is that that who you are? Is that (frustration, or a jerk at work, etc) all it takes for you to stop being who you are?”

  5. Beth*

    If I’m complaining to my manager about someone she doesn’t manage, what I’m looking for isn’t for her to directly solve the problem. I know she can’t fire them or initiate a performance review. And while she’s welcome to join me in venting if she wants to, a kvetch session isn’t my goal either.

    I’m looking for her to 1) understand and accept my work being delayed by this problem that neither of us can solve, and communicate that understanding and acceptance to me clearly, 2) share any tips she’s picked up on how to work around the problem (is there someone else I can go to for task X? Does calling work better than email when I need a quick sign-off on something?), and 3) pass on feedback to whoever DOES manage the problem person, once it’s clear that the problem is recurring and disruptive. If that’s happening, I’m satisfied that we’re doing the best we can as a team.

    1. Nancy Gribble*

      This, yes! I worry that OP doesn’t understand her team’s motivations in “complaining” about Jane.

    2. Gerry Kaey*

      Yes 10000% this is exactly right and I think may go a long way in making employees feel heard and respected

  6. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    Assuming the issues with Jane are genuine rather than just venting about personality conflict (which it sounds like OP has seen for herself that they are in this case) – it is ‘management 101’ to take it to the manager/supervisor of the person being complained:

    – Issues with Jane’s work, with specific examples/incidents
    – That multiple team members have brought this to you, and you have also noticed it for yourself.
    – Impact of Jane’s actions e.g. client work had to be re-done costing x, I had to authorise overtime for Soo to meet the deadline because Jane was late delivering the thing, etc.

  7. Rage*

    Oh, yeah, I had this problem years ago. I was, in fact, completely overwhelmed with my assigned duties (overworked and underpaid) and so they hired someone to take the burden off me and do the bulk of the data entry.

    In short, she was impossible. So. Many. Errors. I spent more time fixing her errors than I might have just doing the data entry myself. Plus she was unreliable. But I wasn’t her boss; her boss was MY boss. And when things didn’t get done properly, other staff would come to me and say “well why don’t you…” and I would say, “because I’m not her boss!” and they would say, “Well, have you told her boss?” to which I would say, “Yes, of course, every week.”

    Three years later, my boss FINALLY put her on a PIP, and she promptly quit. I told the CEO that I would rather work overtime than deal with another situation like that again.

  8. Cohort 1*

    Since this is a letter “that has been buried in the archives here from years ago,” I’d really like to know how this turned out. LW, are you out there?

    1. Throwaway Account*

      I found this comment from the OP*:
      “Thanks to Alison and everyone who has commented so far – I was really seeing this as a “how do I deal with my team” problem instead of a “being a good teammate to the other director” problem, so it helps me a lot to re-frame it. I heard some complaints this morning from my staff, so I asked for some additional specifics, and then went down to discuss this with the other department director. She wasn’t surprised, asked a few clarifying questions, and asked me to let her know if things get better or get worse. It was a good conversation.

      I will definitely keep in mind some of the suggestions about validating my employees’ feelings – I think it will help me to manage this situation to be able to say that I’ve taken it up with the other director, and try to separate general complaining from concrete concerns that I should pass along, as requested.”

      1. Ms. Murchison*

        Thanks for posting that. I was mystified by the perspective of the letter and glad to see that Alison’s answer and the commentariat shifted it.

  9. Frickityfrack*

    We have a Jane and so many people have said something to her boss to no effect. Ours is shockingly dumb though, not just slow and kind of bad at her job (though she is the latter, as well). Among her greatest hits:

    *She didn’t know our building has an elevator after working here for 6 months. Our building is not large, and the elevator is in the main hallway directly next to the bathrooms. The only bathrooms. My coworker took her downstairs and when they came back up, Jane didn’t know how to get back to her office from the elevator. Her office is ALSO off the main hallway, which is only like 30′ long. All she had to do was look left.

    *She insisted, repeatedly, to multiple people, that a proposal for $75k was higher than one for $100k (I don’t remember the actual amounts, but they weren’t even close). She does payroll…

    *She worked with a coworker, face to face, several times and then when they worked on a different project, had no recollection of ever meeting this person because it was in a different context.

    Anyway, I will cross my fingers that this Jane was dealt with a little better than ours, because ours is apparently here for as long as she feels like it.

    1. Retiring Academic*

      I have a lot of sympathy with your Jane failing to recognise her coworker in a different context, because I too have this problem of not recognising people out of context (or thinking, I’m sure I know this person, but who on earth are they?), and I have fairly mild prosopagnosia (face-blindness). The condition is often allied with a poor sense of direction, which I also have. (I’m not much good at maths either, but at least I can tell that 75 is less than 100!) I try to warn people that I’m a bit face-blind, and it’s a big help to me if people can say their name or remind me where we’ve met before. It would be a kindness to your Jane if you can try this with her. I can’t tell you how ashamed I used to feel when I’d failed to recognise someone, and it was a huge relief when I realised I had an actual neurological condition and wasn’t just stupid and forgetful (OK, I am forgetful, but I’m not stupid!). Of course none of this excuses your Jane being slow and bad at her job, though.

      1. Frickityfrack*

        I’m totally sympathetic to her if it’s face blindness, but based on what she said, it didn’t seem to be. That said, she maybe just didn’t want to disclose it and tried to cover it up. No one would judge her if she said it was an issue – I’d honestly rather know so I could make sure she had the right prompts.

        1. Nightengale*

          People with face blindness get a ton of judgement and generally learn to expect it to be seen as a moral failure or just not believed. So if that is the case with your person, she may have a lot of past experiences of judgement. Many of us have spent a lifetime trying to cover up and create work arounds. Until pretty recently, no one had really heard of face blindness. I was sure, growing up, if I told any adults at school that I did not recognize other kids in my class, I would never have been believed. The teachers could never figure out why I was a great student when reading from a book but panicked when they brought in a movie and couldn’t tell a story from a picture, so they usually thought I was just playing around when I asked naive sounding questions about visual things.

          Again not saying this is happening with your person, but if it is, she is probably petrified people will find out.

        2. Astor*

          She may not know that she is face blind! A lot of people don’t know that it exists, and it’s also really common for people to internalize that it’s just their fault for being dumb or not trying hard enough. I’m going to link to an article by Oliver Sacks talking about the impact on his life from his face-blindness (prosopagnosia) and inability to recognize places. I thought to look for an article from him specifically because he was a neurologist who also wrote pop-science books about people who had these kinds of unusual brains, and yet he didn’t even realize that his difficulty was unusual until he was middle-aged. He also specifically notes in the article that many (but not all) people with prosopagnosia have difficulty with recognizing places (topographical agnosia). For him, that would include walking past his own home without realizing it’s his own home. And again: he’s a neurologist who has had this problem his whole life.

          If you wouldn’t judge someone if they disclosed that they have prosopagnosia and difficulty with topographical agnosia, then I encourage you to do that by not judging people when you notice that it’s an issue! Figure out how to proceed instead of figuring out a diagnosis.

    2. Jessica Clubber Lang*

      Playing Devil’s Advocate:

      1. If you were on a lower floor, she never needed the ‘vator and was laser focused on getting to her desk to begin work.

      2. There are several ways that could be true – was the 100k contingent on something(s) while the 75k was guaranteed, etc

      3. Face Blindness

      1. Frickityfrack*

        We’re on the 2nd floor. Granted it’s a weird building sort of on a hill, so there are “ground level” entrances on both floors, but you have to pass the whole lower floor to come in the upper entrance. I also know for a fact that people have talked to her about stuff that’s stored downstairs. I don’t think it’s possible not to know we have two floors.

        Also, to point 2, nope. These were flat “this is our bid for this entire job” amounts. And she argued about it with both staff and the bidders themselves, which was wild.

        To be clear, I don’t hate her, I think she’s a nice enough person, she’s just seriously lacking in common sense, so in a work context, it’s difficult to deal with.

        1. Scarletb*

          Wait, did she not know there were two floors at all, like this comment suggests, or just not know there was an elevator like in your first comment indicates? I wouldn’t even think about a lift if I only worked on the 2nd floor, lol. Also I just took a colleague a slightly different way to a floor she’s been working on for months, and she was completely disoriented about where we were in the corridor until we got to the actual room, so idk, people’s spatial memory works different ways.

  10. Llama Llama*

    My job as a manager is to work with that other persons manager if we are not getting the results that we need. Yes you should be giving that person grace for being new but that person’s manager needs to be in the loop and stepping in with needed.

  11. A. Nonymous*

    Hi — career admin here. I have a question for the first OP:

    Do you know if the admins at your company are managed by other admins, or someone from another department? If it’s the latter, definitely inform her boss.

  12. RhondaDawnAnonAnon*

    Agreed with others (and Alison) that the solution here is to talk to Jane’s boss. I had a a situation like this one last year, and it turned out the “Jane” in that case was being given conflicting directives from higher-ups about which work to prioritize. Once that got sorted out, the problems went away and we also discovered that our Jane was very good at her job. She just didn’t feel empowered to make the judgment calls that she needed to make to do it well.

    1. pally*

      Yeah, I wondered about this as a possible reason. My now-retired boss was CONSTANTLY issuing instructions to his people that directly conflicted with the needs of other departments causing major delays in getting product out the door. As a small company this was a big issue.

      People who were expected to make a quick turn-around on a task were placing said task at the bottom of the priority list-per the boss. It never occurred to my boss that he needed to be cognizant of the need to get product out the door or that his orders resulted in many a needless delay. The by-product was angry people and accusations of incompetence:

      “Everyone knows we need documents today to make the product to meet the backorders!”
      followed by
      “Boss said to take my time as you don’t need documents for another month!”

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      It’s probably faster for you if you just copy the title and paste it into the search box right above the sidebar.

  13. House On The Rock*

    I’d advise against the LW engaging in venting sessions with their staff about others. It blurs boundaries, can make your staff feel that all complaints are valid, and can create the impression that you talk about others behind their backs. I’d actually not say more to your employees than “I’m looking at ways to address this, for the time being, how else can I support your work?” and then offer workarounds. If you actually tell staff “I’ve spoken to Jane’s boss”, they will hammer you for details and/or spread gossip about “my boss told Jane’s boss she’s awful”.

    Focus on the impact to the work and on helping your staff do their work with as little frustration as possible. Don’t make it about Jane The Person, rather make it about The Person Responsible for X, Y, and Z.

    1. BellaStella*

      Agree with this a lot. i have to listen to our head talk poorly sometimes about others and vent and it is not only not a good look for her, it harms morale.

  14. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    Yes talk to the boss. And be open minded that this might not be Jane’s fault.

    I worked recently with someone who was hired to fill a position of someone who was excellent at their job. You know what “excellent at their job” meant? They had been doing it for so long that they had developed many of the processes and documented NONE of it. They made an incredibly complicated job look easy and then left with all of the institutional knowledge

    For the first 18 months that I worked with new guy I thought he was phenomenally incompetent. No, his training and documentation was phenomenally incompetent.

    And he just left and I hope he did a better job documenting than his predecessor. Sob.

  15. Raida*

    You speak to her manager.

    You talk to them about the impacts on your team, that his area is responsible for.

    You tell your team to give you clear, concise feedback both positive and negative, you aggregate this, and speak knowledgeably and calmly about this work issue.
    You tell them that they can continue to send you concerns, and they need to be in concise language, and if there’s improvement then the rate at which the issues are reported to you will decrease.
    You make it clear that you are taking these issues seriously and are acting on them, and do not expect immediate change.

    You can also loop in your manager on this, to make it clear that poor performance in this other team is their business and why, and the steps you’re taking.

    You also tell your team that complaining/whinging is not going to make life better or the work environment pleasant, so let’s focus on being concise, noting it, moving on, looking at what we can do well and can control instead of wallowing in frustration – which you also feel!

  16. Gravityfallsupwards*

    Ugh. I’m currently training a new person who is replacing someone who has 15 YEARS experience. And the job requires knowledge of 3 different departmental programs. I tried to set up meetings with NPs supervisor who has done very little to ensure NP is receiving the information needed to do the job. I want the meeting so I can set expectations with the clueless supervisor – supervisor cancelled on me 3times. Then a new manager started in the group, and NM makes passive aggressive comments about NPs speed/workload/understanding of the job.

    It’s a hard job, if it weren’t the group would be doing the work themselves. The systems are not intuitive and it is a lot to expect a new person to be at the expert level of someone with 15 years experience. Now I’m mad again.

  17. City Planner*

    This letter sounded familiar as I was reading… and then I realized it sounded familiar because I was the OP! I wrote this letter because I really thought that the problem was how I communicated with my staff around something that felt like it was out of my control, and the advice helped me see that the problem was really about communicating with Jane’s manager. So, I did talk to Jane’s manager, which was illuminating because apparently I wasn’t the only person in a director role who was having issues with Jane, and a couple of months later, she was gone. After that, we ended up with an internal hire into that role who was much more successful (and, in fact, is still in the role, several years later).

  18. Mim*

    Raise your hand if you have raging imposter syndrome, and legitimately worried that you were the specific “Jane” in question until you saw it’s an old question from the archive.


  19. SofiaDeo*

    You say Jane is still in her probationary period. So she has not in fact quite yet met the “should know these things by now”, has she? Some people have reaaaalllly long learning curves. I saw this happen once, someone who generated complaints halfway into their 90 day probation, was getting raves at the end of it. So do bring it up to Janes boss, but please remind your staff Jane is still in hers.

    1. City Planner*

      The probationary period at this organization was 1 year and at the time of this letter, as noted, we were 6 months in. The parts of her job that were still a struggle were repeating administrative tasks that she really should have mastered at that point. I understand your point – training is important! – but we’d gone well beyond that in this situation.

  20. Wintertime*

    I’m not sure if anyone else has mentioned this, but as a manager, OP’s job is not only to manage those who report to them, but it’s also their job to remove barriers that are keeping their reports from doing their job/make doing their job more difficult.

    The team I work on has a rule – you’re allowed to vent, but that has to be followed by problem-solving. Sometimes that means getting a director or even our AVP involved to clear the path. OP needs to clear the path because they’ve done enough venting.

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