transcript of “My Coworker Sucks at Her Job” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 28)

This is a transcript of “My Coworker Sucks at Her Job.”

Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show! Sometimes on the show I have one guest on and we really dig into their question for the whole length of the show. But today I’m going to answer a bunch of shorter questions from people, questions that don’t take a whole show to answer.

The first question today is from someone with a coworker who isn’t cut out for the job.

Caller 1: I work for a small business (about 10 total employees, with 4 in my department) in a very casual, flexible office. About 6 months ago, one of my coworkers suggested to the owner that because the business is growing, we needed a part time person for extra coverage and to fill in when people were on vacation. She recommended a friend of hers for this job, and this friend, lets call her Artemis, was hired with no interview. To say her performance has been disappointing would be an understatement.

The day she started, I was showing her something on her computer and told her to print a page. A few seconds of silence while she looked at me blankly, then said, “how do I do that?” Within a week, the friend who had recommended Artemis for this job regretted her decision.

It is a relatively easy job — mostly answering phones and email requests. Yet, after 6 months, Artemis still makes mistakes on simple requests. I am baffled as to how someone in her 50’s does not know how to use email, google, and can barely type. Besides the lack of computer skills, she doesn’t follow up with customers whom she’s promised to get back to, and she still asks the rest of us questions about things she should know by now. We delegate the simplest of tasks to her, but she manages to mess those up as well.

Honestly, if I was this bad at a job, I would have quit long ago, so I can’t understand why she stays (she doesn’t need the money.) The manager is very easy going and says she’s still learning and we need to give her time. The owner is very hands-off and I’m not sure he realizes the extent of her incompetence. I’ve tried just ignoring the situation and doing my job, but when her mistakes cause me extra work and cause customers to call and yell at me, it’s hard to ignore. It’s also demoralizing to know that this employee doesn’t do half of what I do, but is paid nearly the same as I am. What can I do here?

Alison: It’s easy to think that Artemis is the problem here, and she’s certainly a problem, but the bigger problem here is your manager. Your manager is the person who should be dealing with this and bringing it to a resolution one way or another, but isn’t doing it. This is one of the most common types of manager incompetence, and also one of the most frustrating.

Now, you say that you’re not sure that your manager realizes the full extent of the problem, so step one here is to fix that. Have a sit-down conversation with your boss and lay it all out. The framing you want, both in your head and explicitly when you have this conversation, is that you’re not complaining; you’re raising a problem that’s impacting the business and needs to be addressed from that angle. Just like you’d raise it if a computer wasn’t working or if shipments weren’t going out. It’s a business problem, and it’s fair game for you to say “hey, I want to make sure you know about this because it’s serious and it’s having effects X Y and Z.” When you have this conversation, don’t pull any punches when you explain what’s going on. Sometimes in this situation, people kind of dance around the problem and are very delicate in how they describe what’s happening, because they feel awkward about sharing negative things about a coworker. But the only way this works is if your boss has the same information that you have. So share everything that’s going on. If you’re concerned that your manager will see this as you complaining, you can say explicitly at the start, “I feel awkward sharing this with you, but it’s starting to have such serious effects on customers and on the rest of the team that I feel like I have to loop you in.”

If you lay it all out for your boss and you still get told that Artemis is still learning and you should give her time, then you know for sure that your boss really is the problem here. He’s not doing his job – and if he’s like most managers who operate like that, it’s probably because he dreads hard conversations. If that’s the case, then all you can really do is to stop enabling the situation – which means don’t do Artemis’s work for her, don’t clean up her mistakes, don’t even make yourself responsible for soothing her upset customers, if you’ve been doing that – push it all over to your boss to deal with. If you’re taking it on yourself, you’re preventing your boss from seeing the full extent of the problem – and from feeling the full pain of the problem, which sometimes is what is required to get a manager like that to finally be moved to act.. You’re making it easier for him not to act. So the more that you can shift the problem over to him — maybe even sending him the upset customers to deal with – the more likely it is that he’ll finally be moved to address it.

But if that doesn’t happen, then yeah, you have an AWOL boss. And at that point, all you can really do is accept that that’s part of the package of working there – this boss who won’t just won’t take on and resolve problems – and decide if you’re still able to be reasonably happy working there knowing that’s a condition of the job.

That sounds like a very negative answer, but I actually think it’s a really positive one – an empowering one, even. Because you’ll be looking head-on at the reality of the situation, not just hoping and waiting to see if something will change, and either deciding “nope, not for me” or “you know what, this isn’t ideal, but it’s still worth it to me to stay for other reasons.” And that gives you an element of control back, which can make this all much easier to swallow.

Alright, let’s do the next question from a listener:

Caller 2: Hi, Alison. We have an intern who is great and is really standing out as as a good hire. One thing I’ve noticed about her is that she is constantly saying she’s sorry and apologizing for small things that don’t require any apologies, like “Sorry, can I ask you a quick question?” or “Sorry, could you take a look at this for me?” I get where the impulse comes from, I’m a young woman only a few years older than her and I did the same type of thing when I first started my job. I’d like to point this out to her, as I doubt she realizes she is doing this. She does not report to me, but I feel like we have a pretty good relationship. Is it appropriate to do that? And if it is, do you have a good script for bringing this up?

Alison: Yes! A great thing about working with interns is that they’re there to learn, and you can give feedback really easily, because you can always frame it as part of the whole point of the internship being to figure out stuff like this, which is true.

She may not really be intending to truly apologize – from your examples it sounds like it’s almost more like a verbal tic. But you’re right to think it’s not ideal. It’s not such a problem while she’s an intern because everyone is going to cut her a ton of slack, but ideally she’d break the habit because as she progresses in her career, it’s likely to undermine her a bit – it’s a small thing, but it can feed into the overall picture you present to the world in terms of confidence and authority. And it tends to be something that women in particular really do.

I wouldn’t make a huge deal about it. I think you could just say something like this: “Hey, can I tell you something I’ve noticed? I’ve noticed that you apologize a lot, and you might not even realize you’re doing it! You’ll preface a lot of questions or interruptions by saying sorry – and I wanted to mention it because first, you absolutely don’t need to apologize for those things; and second, it’s a pretty common pattern that women fall into, especially young women. I actually realized I was doing it myself when I first started working and had to work to stop it too!”

Obviously, say this in a friendly, supportive tone – you’re not chastising her, you’re sharing something that helped you that you hope might help her.

And then be aware, that even if she takes it to heart, she might still keep apologizing because it can be a hard habit to break, and you don’t want to make her self-conscious by calling her on it every time she does it. But you’ll have planted a seed, and I bet it’ll be helpful.

Caller 3: I’m a recent college grad, and what I’ve noticed is that a lot of people in my age group and some of my friends have been creating either private Instagram accounts and new Twitters and privatizing their actual ones. If you’re not working in a role that requires you to do social media, is your manager seriously scouring your Instagram and other social media just to see if you’re a hot mess or is that a myth my grandma keeps telling me?

Alison: It’s not entirely a myth from your grandma. The way you’ve heard it might be overstated. Most managers aren’t going to be scouring your social media, and you don’t normally need to create perfectly cultivated profiles that reflect your professional persona and nothing else. But it is definitely possible that your manager or someone else from work will come across what you post on social media – either deliberately or just through some kind of happenstance – and so you do want to be thoughtful about what you’re putting out into the world. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security that no one but your friends are looking at your stuff, but it’s probably not true. I would think of social media as a sort of town square – you’re talking publicly, and people can hear what you’re saying. So I do think that if you want to post things you wouldn’t want your managers or other colleagues to see, you really should be careful about your privacy settings, which is not a bad idea regardless.

Let’s talk about the kinds of things that could cause problems for you at work if your manager happened to see them? Well, if your Instagram is filled with photos of you drinking heavily, it’s possible that could affect the way your manager thinks of you. Not like you’d be fired for it, but just that she could start thinking of you as less serious. Actually, there are a few fields where it could potentially get you fired, as weird as that sounds – there have been cases of teachers being fired for that sort of thing, because we apparently expect our teachers to be 100% wholesome and never have a drink. But for most people, it’s not a firing thing, just a perception thing.

Other stuff – controversial political opinions – again, it could be something that affects how you’re seen at work, depending on exactly what it is. It might not matter at all, it often won’t. But in some cases it would so it’s good to be aware of that.

Things you might not think about being an issue are things that you might mention on social media but not especially want your employer to know about – health stuff, religion, plans for pregnancy, actual pregnancy before you’ve announced it at work. You’ve got to remember that if you are putting it on social media, it could find its way into work.

And then one thing that people don’t always think about but should – if you call in sick and then you post a photo of you at a baseball game or in a bar later that day and your manager happens to see it … that’s not good. So be aware of stuff like that. I’ve actually had letters from manager saying they’re alarmed because their employee was out sick and posting photos of themselves at a game or at the beach, and people don’t always stop to think that photo wasn’t necessarily taken today. It could be an old photo they’re posting, who knows. But that’s the kind of thing managers will sometimes read into and worry about, so be aware of that.

But for most people, going as far as to create a public account and a private account is probably more than you need to do, unless it brings you peace of mind. But it’s certainly a way to bring yourself more privacy, and there’s nothing wrong with it if that’s what you want to do. There are times where it could make sense – if you work in social media, or PR, or another field where you know that your personal accounts are going to get viewed a lot in a professional context, that’s a time where you really might want to have one for your work persona and another more private one for your non-work life. But for most people, just having one and locking down your privacy settings as much as the platform will allow is the way to go.

Now, I will say that when you’re job searching, I would care more about this. That’s a time when employers are more likely to be deliberately googling you and seeing what they can find. So when your job searching, I’d take an especially rigorous look at what’s public before you start sending resumes out.

Here’s the next question.

Caller 4: I’m in the running for a new position at work and I’d like to wow them, but I know at some point during this interview, they’re going to ask where I do you see yourself in the next five years. And honestly, I want to be in a rut. I have a million and one hobbies, some of which I pursue semi-professionally but they don’t interfere with or affect it any way. I love my job. I take a lot of pride in excelling at it, but I have no ambition at all to be moved away from my comfortable duties and my sharp skills. I don’t want to work 60-hour weeks; I want to work 40 hours, I want to work extremely well, and I want to get paid a lot of money.

I’m wondering if there’s a way to spin this that doesn’t make me look like a lazy millennial? In an ideal world, I’d just come in and say “I want to do an exceptional job for you and I want you to pay me as much as you can for it.” Surely I’m not the only one who doesn’t want to move into middle-management ulcer territory. Thanks your time!

Alison: I yearn for the days when we can throw out the millennial stereotype and people can stop worrying about it. It’s crazy! The oldest millennials are now almost 40. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.

The answer to your question – you are definitely not alone! There’s a weird thing in our work culture, where we assume that everyone must want to move up. And there’s another weird thing, which is that often the only way you can move up is to move into a management role, which not everyone wants to do and not everyone is good at. Lots and lots of people would be perfectly happy just doing a good job in the job they’re in and not being pressured to take on more responsibility.

The thing, I think, that’s important to know is that in many roles, your approach is wonderful to have. There are a lot of jobs where I’d be thrilled to hire someone who isn’t going to be trying to be promoted out of it in a couple of years, where I’d be thrilled to have someone who’s just really into doing the work of the job, will do it well, and stay in it long-term. So I think for you, the key will be turning this almost into a strength – into something that will be appealing to the manager for the job that you’re interviewing for.

I would address it pretty head-on if it comes up. Say something like, “You know, this is exactly the work I’d like to be doing long-term. In five years, I’d like to still be doing it, but to have really mastered the role and gotten better and better at it. I’m not someone who’s going to be itching to move up in a year or two – I want be awesome at this role and would happily stay for as long as you’ll have me.” You could even add, “I know not everyone is like that. But I have a lot of interests outside of work, and my ideal set-up is one where I have stability at work. That’s what gives me the most satisfaction.”

So there are a few key points there that I want to highlight that you would be hitting on – you’re not saying that you’re just be going to kind of put in the bare minimum or that you’re going to stagnate, you’re saying that you’re interested in mastering the role and being awesome at it. You’re talking about working to get better and better, and that’s important because you’re not saying you have ambition at all – you’re saying you’d direct your ambition toward excelling in this job rather than toward leaving it.

I will say that you should be aware that to some extent you’re might be limiting your earning power if you take this approach. Not right away, but over the long term. There’s usually a ceiling for how much it makes sense to pay someone in a given role, even if they’ve been in it for years. If you stay in the job long enough, you might reach a point where you’ve hit the top of the salary range for that job and they can’t pay you more for it. So factor that into your long-term thinking. But as long as you’re okay with that, you should be good here.

Okay, here’s our next question.

Caller 5: My problem is an employee of mine, Carl, who interviewed for a promotion and did not get selected. He is a very well qualified employee and does a great job but was narrowly beaten out at interview by a lovely young lady, who we’ll call Bessie, who just exhibited more passion, and warmth than Carl. She is also a Spanish speaker and that is a definite plus. I personally told Carl the results of the interview and tried to be encouraging for future opportunities. He told me that he would be have difficulty working with the new person on the team but told me he would be “civil.” I asked him to try to be more than civil. This was about six weeks ago. Since then Carl has been “civil” but definitely not friendly or particularly helpful – with Bessie or me! I think he thinks he’s hiding it but his demeanor is noticeable to everyone. I cut him some slack for a week or so but now this is going on too long. Now he’s avoiding both Bessie and me when possible – taking extended breaks and disappearing from the desk. Right now I’m even more convinced I made the right choice but how do I deal with Carl’s poor attitude and unfriendly behavior?

Alison: Yeah, I would be thinking the same thing, that you made the right choice. It’s one thing to be disappointed by not getting a promotion – that’s normal – but sulking six weeks later isn’t oaky. That’s if he really is sulking. If he’s being pleasant and professional but just not overly friendly, that’s certainly his prerogative. But I get the sense from your letter that it’s more than that – especially since you say other people are noticing it and now he seems to be avoiding you and your new hire. And the disappearing for long stretches of time isn’t good. So if he’s being chilly or sulking, that’s definitely something you can talk to him about — and really, need to talk to him about if it’s making the environment unpleasant for other people.

I would think about what the specific behaviors are that you’re seeing that are making you think bad attitude because when you talk to him you don’t want to go into it using that language. You want to be very specific about what behaviors you’re noticing – is it eye rolling or being resistant to assignments or being gruff with people. The more specific you can make it, the better because ultimately it doesn’t matter what’s in his heart. That’s not our business. What is our business is how he behaves at work, so the more that you can put the focus on that and be very specific, the better.

When you talk to him, I’d start by giving him a heads-up that you want to talk about how things are going so that you’re not blindsiding him. And then sit down with him somewhere private and start by just asking him how things are going. Because who knows – he might tell you something that changes your sense of the situation, like maybe he has something going on outside of work and you’re seeing his reaction to that, rather than the promotion situation. But if that doesn’t elicit anything, then I’d say something like, “I want to talk to you about something I’ve noticed, and I may be off-base. My sense is that your demeanor at work has changed pretty significantly since we hired Bessie. I know you wanted that job, and it can be hard not to get a promotion you really wanted – especially when you’re qualified for it, as you were. My sense, though, is that it’s really affected you at work. You’ve been chilly with both Bessie and me and it seems like you’re making a point of avoiding us. We can’t work as a team that way, and it’s impacting the environment for everyone around you too. I also noticed you’ve been away from your desk for long stretches of time, in a way you never used to. I don’t want to read into what’s going on because I could be wrong – but at a minimum you’re coming across as unhappy in a way that’s impacting the broader environment here. Can we talk about what’s going on?”

That’s where you start, sometime like that. And if you do have more specifics about what’s reading to you as bad attitude, put those in there too. I mean, you don’t want a whole litany of complaints, of course, but make it clear that – you want him to understand that what you’re taking issue with is specific behaviors, not, like as I said previously, what’s in his heart or how he feels, because he gets to feel however he wants. What you’re concerned about is how he’s operating at work.

So that’s where you start. And hopefully he’ll be willing to have a conversation with you about it, but either way, at some point in that talk you’ll need to say, “I do need you to change your demeanor because right now it’s coming across as almost hostile. And I can’t have you disappear for long stretches. I want to be really up-front with you that those are basic expectations of the job. But also, if you are feeling like this is just not for you anymore, we can work with that. I hope that’s not the case, because you do great work and I really value you, but if you don’t think you can be happy here, let’s be realistic about that and figure out where to go from there.”

So you’re saying that what he’s doing can’t continue, but you’re also saying, hey, it’s safe for you to tell me not happy there anymore and if you would really would prefer some kind of transition. Sometimes people are at that point but haven’t fully realized it in their own heads, and this kind of conversation can nudge them into realizing, “ok, yeah, I can’t keep really doing what I’m doing, but I also don’t really want to be here anymore.” And that’s okay if that’s where he is! You hope he won’t be there, of course, but if he is, let’s get it into the open and talk about where to go from here.

One other thing. If he’s open to talking to you and he doesn’t just stonewall you, that would give me more hope that this can be salvaged. At that point, you might talk to him about other paths to promotion, if they exist, so he knows that you’re still wanting to invest in him and that you’re taking seriously his interest in moving up. Frankly, I would be more cautious about promoting him at this point because he’s not showing a ton of emotional maturity and ability to roll with disappointment, but that doesn’t mean that he can never grow into a different job – and it might be really helpful to talk with him about what could look like, so that he’s hearing that you’re still thinking of him in that light and that those doors aren’t totally shut to him.

But ultimately, it is okay to say “hey, I’m really happy to have you here and you do great work, but I also need everyone on this team getting along with everyone else and not freezing people out.” And it’s okay to make that as much of an expectation as any other performance expectation. I think you were totally right to cut him some slack at first because he’s human and people have reactions but six weeks in, it’s time to address it and see if you can get things back where you need them.

That’s our show for today! If you’d like to hear your question answered on a future episode, you record it on the show voicemail by calling (855) 426-WORK. That’s 855-426-9675. Or, if you have a longer question, a question where you’d want to actually come on the show and talk with me, email it to

That’s it for today! I’ll be back next time with more questions.