updates: can I use an improvement plan for an employee who lies, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are three updates from past letter-writers.

1. Can I use an improvement plan for an employee who lies?

First off, it is HARD to come up with an example that is useful but disguised, since I have reason to believe the person I wrote about reads your site. The long and short of it was there was originally a particular problematic behavior that they were told not to do (and why), and this year they both continued to do it, and they tried to hide it from me.

I wrote in after a discrepancy arose regarding some reports. I never really got to the bottom of that; the third party I was attempting to verify the figures with tracked items in a different way in their software. To give the employee the benefit of the doubt, I think they just hadn’t kept on top of their tracking, which led to the discrepancy. However, my sense was that they hadn’t kept on top of their tracking because they were working on certain non-priority items after we had already talked about not doing that.

Long story short, that employee has since taken a role in a different department to pivot their career in a new direction, while remaining with the company.

Given our dozen-years long relationship, and the niche workload of that role, not to mention the pending difficulty of replacing them, I expected to be more upset at that announcement. And I just… wasn’t. Funnily enough, my neighbor in the downstairs flat moved out the same week. She used to drive me nuts at times (neighbors!), but I found myself oddly verklempt the night she left, in a way I just wasn’t with my former employee. I think that is due to a combination of things:

  • I really like this person and I wish them all the best. I truly hope their new career path fulfils them and I do think that they have been (for at least ten years) a good employee. I hope that with this change, the company will continue to benefit from the good work they are capable of producing, even if they weren’t at their best in the last year or so. And I think it’s smart of them to pivot into a direction that holds fewer stressors for them.
  • I don’t think I had anything left to teach them after that long tenure and I’m excited to see them develop under a new supervisor. And since they weren’t listening to me anymore (regarding the non-priority items and the ‘problematic behavior’), I hope they grow under someone new.
  • And finally, one of the reasons they had been asked not to engage in the original ‘problematic behavior’ was the worry that it could lead to burnout and… I suspect I was right and that it did. Since this person has transitioned to the new department, I have discovered a number of errors from their work this year that were uncharacteristic of their work in the past. It certainly seems like some combination of burnout, senioritis, or ignoring me and working on non-priority items to the detriment of their work product.

I think I just feel relieved that I don’t have to keep having the same feedback conversations with them. As you said in your advice, the situation was untenable, although it can be hard to see that clearly after such a long working relationship.

Their replacement started just last week, so while it’s too soon to say for certain, hopefully all’s well that ends well.

Thanks as always for your advice.

2. How can I break the habit of giving reasons for my time-off requests? (#2 at the link)

My update is that I have actually somewhat backslid: while I do try not to give reasons for my absences or asking for PTO, I have gotten on much friendlier with my grandboss as we now work together nearly daily. This has resulted in far more explanations in the casual sense. As in them asking me how I was feeling after taking sick days and me feeling the need to white lie about physical symptoms even though I used those sick days for mental health reasons.

I still try my best to be reserved about how much of my personal life I share, but I definitely have broken boundaries I tried to set for myself when starting this job – talking about parts of my life, giving out my cell number, working overtime and volunteering for more projects, etc. While this has lead me to being much more highly valued and has moved my career path forward with this department significantly, it has messed significantly with my work life balance (which was one of my new job resolutions to hold onto). During my PTO I have still successfully maintained a no-contact boundary for myself.

All this to say that my grandboss is still kind and understanding, and no one is asking for reasons for PTO or actively undermining these goals. It is more of a slow creep of a heavy workload office that finds me blurring my own lines. I will continue to be mindful of the boundaries, and hopefully improve incrementally, or at least resist further slippage. Best luck to everyone in the same boat!

3. Can I pass on a volunteer who’s only interested if they eventually get paid? (#3 at the link)

I did take your advice. I mentioned in my letter that I had an interview with another potential volunteer the following week. They ended up being a fantastic fit for the project. They worked for a video production company full-time, but enjoyed volunteering for causes that interested them. They were a delight to work with and the videos they edited turned out beautifully. The way they worked also gave me some guidance on doing my own (much simpler) video editing projects if I needed to. I let the first volunteer know that we were selecting someone else for the project. I didn’t address their request to be hired as a reason for choosing the other volunteer, since it turned out to be just one factor (the other volunteer had more experience as well).

I appreciated everyone’s comments and hearing from people doing creative work who enjoyed being able to volunteer their skills. I think some of the comments were less about my particular organization and more about the general challenges of under-resourced nonprofits, the difficulty of sustaining long-term systemic change, and the inequity that results from insisting people contribute unpaid hours first in order to be considered for paid positions. Those are all real concerns and we try to address them in the way we work, but I think we can also still create rich, meaningful opportunities for people to donate their skills and knowledge to improve the world as long as we aren’t blind to the challenges.

P.S. I also commented on the letter with a little more detail on our model.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Olive*

    I have mixed feelings about LW1. On one hand, I’m happy that their issues reached a resolution. OTOH, this feels like the kind of story we see all the time from other coworkers who are beyond fed up with a manager allowing an employee to misbehave over and over again with no consequences, and it ended with… no consequences.

    1. Emily*

      Yeah, it seems like LW just let the employee become someone else’s problem instead of actually dealing with the issue.

    2. Wayz*

      Yes, but this sounds like burnout and poor communication more than anything. I’ve also seen this caused a lot by poor job design, especially when there have been changes to job duties that aren’t really discussed with the employee or considered. If there are these sudden negative changes or issues after 12 years of everything being great, there’s a bigger issue, and as managers, it’s our job to figure out the reason why things are happening and what we can do to fix it, not become offended because a team member is being dishonest. It’s also a major problem with PIPs in general: they treat the employee like the problem, when most of the time, you’re blaming the employee for showing symptoms of a much bigger problem that they do not have control over, but is still impacting their work.

      I’m glad it worked out for both LW1 and the employee.

      1. ferrina*

        Yeah, this seems like a grey area. Managing isn’t a dichotomy- there’s no Problem/Not a Problem delineation. There’s a lot of nuance. Like: Do I tell my employee not to work on Item A because it’s not a business priority, but they think it should be a priority and they are driven to work on it? Or do I tell them not to do something they find meaning in because I need them to spend their time and energy elsewhere? What do I do if they disregard what I say- should I pull rank and demand strict adherence? Turn a blind eye? Agree to let them continue? Do I try to catch them in the act? How much evidence do I need?

        Honestly, this sounds like a tough and nuanced situation, and the outcome sounds like it was the best thing for all parties.

      2. Stuckinacrazyjob*

        Yes, job design is huge. If you constantly expand the parameters of the job or even simply don’t provide enough support, you’re going to get huge dips of job performance as people burn out or simply become too physically or mentally ill to continue.

      3. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

        Lying and hiding that you’re doing the exact opposite of what your boss told you to do is not poor communication or poor job design. There is nothing in any job design that requires lying and covering up. Nobody is offended, emotions aren’t involved here, so that was a weird aside. But if you lie to me, you are teaching me that I can’t trust you anymore and that is a problem in any job.

        If my boss says “Don’t do the thing” and I say “Okay” but keep doing the thing and also *hide* that I’m doing the thing, that is in fact a problem with me, the employee. 10 years of good work buys some benefit of the doubt, but a manager doesn’t have the ability to figure out an employee’s issues for them. The employee is not a problem; the employee’s *behavior* is a problem and that is what a PIP should be about. You seem like you’re conflating job performance with personal and emotional issues.

  2. Mrs. Pommeroy*

    I am thankful to LW2 for sending in an update although they hadn’t stuck to their resolution and even somewhat slid back on it.
    Don’t get me wrong, I *love* positive updates! But it’s also a good reminder to see that personal growth isn’t as straightforward as people tend to think/hope.
    LW2, I wish you luck and strength in continuing on your path!

    1. fine-tipped pen aficionado*

      I feel the same way! It’s like how you start to feel bad at yourself when you scroll social media and only see people’s highlights. A video with someone honestly showing their messy house is so refreshing. Like ah yes, it’s okay to be a human being actually.

      So grateful to everyone sending in updates and definitely love the happy endings too! It’s just as important to see that things can turn out well. But idk — that one just hit different. All the love and luck to LW2!!

  3. Teapot Wrangler*

    LW2 – You don’t need to white lie! Try: “On the mend, thanks”, “Much better today, thanks for asking”, “Still feeling a bit under the weather but well enough to work – thanks for checking in on me”, “Doing well today, thank you” – they’re asking because they’re nice, not because they need detail.

  4. Angora998*

    Ref: 2. How can I get a coworker to take computer classes?

    Is she taking notes? That’s an issue I have in training work studies on campus. Instead of taking notes they’ll ask you the same question instead multiple times. The writing of notes helps memory retention.

    1. Phryne*

      I once had to train someone who would write down everything I showed step by step… and ask me how to do the thing the next day. When I told her she should check her notes, we had gone over it the day before, she just looked confused. She had apparently completely forgotten both my explaining the thing and writing it down. This was someone with a MA.
      After many frustrations, I had to let her manager know I could no longer train her. It was for my previous function and I had moved on within the company. I did not mind training replacements, but this was going nowhere. I do not really have the patience to be a teacher to a slow pupil and I firmly felt that how I was teaching her was clearly not going to work and, not being a teacher, I did not really know of yet another way to make things stick.
      She did not last long in the end.

  5. Coffee Protein Drink*

    I also had to train myself to not offer reasons for PTO. It takes a bit of effort. After a while if I had to call out, it’s easy enough to say, “I’m not feeling well.” If I schedule PTO, I just ask for the days off with no explanation. I frequently remind myself that it’s my benefit, and if I schedule it far enough in advance that coverage can be found, nobody needs to know why.

    There are exceptions of course. I had surgery scheduled and it got delayed because a big storm affected power all over time. Also, when I had Covid because we have requirements regarding Covid absences and testing.

  6. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

    LW2, you wrote “I definitely have broken boundaries I tried to set for myself when starting this job”. Can I ask why you set those boundaries for yourself in the first place? For example, are you trying to prevent burnout or some other consequence you know from experience will eventually happen? Or are they not your boundaries but boundaries other people think you should have?

    I’d encourage you to sit with this and find out what you really value and why you keep undermining your goals. Maybe you need to develop some self-talk scripts to talk back to things like guilt or feeling like what you want is unimportant or whatever it is you are telling yourself that leads you to keep breaking promises to yourself. Or maybe those boundaries are not actually important to you at all, in which case you can free yourself of the guilt of not keeping them!

  7. TMITamika*

    To #2 who gives too much detail: I used to be like you. In my family, details rule. My parents give and expect way too much information. It took a long time (years) for me to learn to generalize. If I take a sick day I just say “medical appts”. If someone asks how I am when I come back, I smile and say “Better, thanks! What did I miss?” and just keep the conversation moving. Nobody wants to hear about symptoms. When I put in for time off, I say nothing about whether I’m going to sit at home and rearrange my toilet paper tower design or go to Mexico.

Comments are closed.