Recently, I have found myself in the difficult position of having two people who work for me screw things up spectacularly. Fortunately, not life or death things, but things that are significant and important. One of them is just unqualified overall for his job. The other has done excellent work for me in the past, but is preparing to leave her job in the near future and has what I think is best described as a severe case of senioritis (sloppiness due to laziness, coasting on past success, etc.). We’re now at the point where the need for training and mentoring are being surpassed by the need to explain that getting fired or demoted is a very real possibility.
My current boss has (kindly) described me as the sort of person who is wholly unafraid to ask fairly pointed (although still respectful) questions of authority figures, particularly people who outrank me*. And it is true, I am known for being fairly blunt. But I will be damned if I have figured out a good way to tell the people who work for me who are screwing up that they’ve screwed up in ways that could/are going to get them fired.**
I’m good at the warnings and the soft-pedal, “Hey, I’ve fixed it for now, but in the future…” and “I do understand how this got overlooked, but it’s one of those things that requires a close eye…” and other things that stop short of “Your conduct was unprofessional, unacceptable, and leads me to question whether or not you’ll be able to continue in this position.” Or “You have screwed up so many times and so badly that you are getting fired.”
I don’t think it’s ever easy to tell someone that they’re not doing well at their job. And there’s no great way to fire someone. You can do it without being an ass, but it requires a serious level of confrontation and can get awkward easily. Getting fired is intensely personal and intensely stressful, and knowing that you’re going to inflict that on someone can be its own challenge.
I think the difficulties inherent in that kind of interaction are exacerbated for women: the desire not to be a bitch, and the constant cultural reminders to be nice. It’s also much harder in an environment where women are such a minority of the total workforce. (The Army is roughly 15 to 20% women, and they’re not evenly distributed.) You’re already stuck in the nice/weak/tough/competent abyss, which is wretched. And that’s even before you get to the being firm/being a bitch line. There’s a significant (as in notable, not necessarily large in number) subset of men in the Army who think that women are per se unqualified to be there and any inability to handle something like this gets attributed to being a woman, not to finding it challenging to tell people they’re screw-ups.
The Army is also big on its leaders being able to get people in line and yelling/chewing people out is definitely part of the professional culture. But there’s a significant difference between that and explaining to someone what all of their professional deficits and failures are. It’s always going to be a challenge, but I wish there were a better way to mitigate “She’s being a bitch,” versus “She’s my supervisor and is telling me I screwed up.”
*It’s sort of hard to explain to someone who’s not familiar with military culture exactly how this operates, but suffice it to say that ordinarily, a very high level of deference to people who outrank you is expected.
**The military is actually a LOT better at this than most civilian employers. We have counseling forms and standard language to inform Soldiers that their conduct isn’t meeting the standard and that continued failures to meet the standard could result in their separation from the military. There’s a place for the leader to explain what they will do to address the issue and room on the counseling for follow up about how things worked out. If they’re used well, they’re actually extremely useful.