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You’re Not Fired, But…

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.


25 thoughts on You’re Not Fired, But…

  1. These situations totally suck. Sometimes I hate being a boss. It’s so hard to have hard talks with people, but I force myself to do it because I have an ethical responsibility to do it. I get so frustrated that my male colleagues are seen as having high standards but I am portrayed as being an unreasonable bitch. But I know I’m not being a bitch, and I can’t change other people’s minds who have been indoctrinated, so I will just keep moving forward and holding my employees to a higher standard.

  2. It has been my experience that when you have the “Listen, you need to change your behavior or you will get fired” conversation with people but they often don’t actually believe you. And then when you do fire/demote them, they’ll say something like “Wait, what? I didn’t think things were that bad??”

    I am also not looking forward to having a similar conversation with someone on Friday. :/

  3. Lol, I gave up that battle long ago. I’m firmly entrenched in bitchland. Although, it helps I think that I’m generally perceived by my direct reports as a helpful boss who does her best to keep their asses out of the fire. So when I tell them they fucked up, they take it very seriously. Of course, I’m sure they still think I’m a bitch…

  4. I don’t think it’s possible for you to not end up being pegged with an offensive label. I can’t imagine that military culture is especially enlightened about women in uniform, though I admire you for staying true to what you believe. Perhaps others will follow your lead with time.

  5. It has been my experience that when you have the “Listen, you need to change your behavior or you will get fired” conversation with people but they often don’t actually believe you.

    There is also that.

  6. Ugh ugh ugh, I have only been in this position once and it sucked. I won’t go into details on the off chance that the person involved follows this blog, but it was a nightmare. I felt so guilty for not being able to get this person to work or respond to me professionally and appropriately. I think if we had had five minutes of genuine conversation where she had asked me about the things she was struggling with, I could have cleared up all of her misunderstandings about the job and found a way to make things work for her (she wouldn’t have been the first person I would have done that for), but instead she had cut off all communication for weeks up until the point she finally quit (we would have fired her the next day if she hadn’t, actually). She had seemed super professional and capable when I’d hired her a couple of months before, so the complete devolution of her behaviour was something I was not prepared to deal with at all. It was especially strange because we overlapped in a lot of our interests and had some mutual friends, so I kept running into her at community events she’d helped organize at the same time as she was ignoring all of my attempts to get in touch with her. As far as I could tell, she wasn’t having a personal crisis but rather just didn’t like the job she’d been hired for and wasn’t being up front about it. But even with behaviour like that on the other side of things, I still felt like an utter bitch and completely incompetent at *my* job.

  7. FashionablyEvil: It has been my experience that when you have the “Listen, you need to change your behavior or you will get fired” conversation with people but they often don’t actually believe you. And then when you do fire/demote them, they’ll say something like “Wait, what? I didn’t think things were that bad??”

    That’s why you make the file.

  8. zuzu: That’s why you make the file.

    My mother taught me that: document, document, document. When she had this problem, I was even taking screen-shots for her of public webpages with incriminating material (note to employees: don’t be stupid about your online privacy). And that’s not just for employer/ee situations either – if you’re having trouble with a contractor or business, bad neighbour, spouse during a divorce*, etc. – DOCUMENT. Take notes, date them, and let them know you’re doing it. It doesn’t have to be a covert and hostile thing and you can even use it as a way to demonstrate to someone the scope of the issue *before* it gets to the firing point, but it is important to have a record of what was said and done when, because people have selective memories.

    *My mother learned this lesson when my dad started using gaslighting tactics during their separation.

  9. Ugh, I hate that part of my job the most! I’m with the other commenters on document, document document. It can help with the problem of not being believed by the individual when you are describing that the stakes of continued mistakes include possible firing. It can also help take some of the “mean” or “bitchiness” out of it if there’s a standard documentation process within the company. It becomes a little less that you’re singling them out and more that at a certain point the organization requires that you escalate this through their process and that includes formal write ups etc. And ideally at a certain point in that process, once the issue is clearly spelled out and they’re hopefully taking you seriously, I’ve found that the conversation can helpfully move from “I’m so mad at you for being mean to me” on their part to “What I want here is for you to succeed at your job, this specific issue isn’t personal, let’s figure out some way to support/retrain/be proactive about this” and once in a fantastic blue moon can actually improve the working relationship. There’s a spot where it becomes clear to them (in the successful cases) that you really do want them to succeed, you’re taking these steps because you don’t want to have to fire them, it’s about a behaviour or a habit and not a personal thing and that can reduce their embarrassment and make the conversation a little more productive.

  10. That’s why you make the file.

    Oh, absolutely. But even then, I have seen people who still don’t get it. (Did you think that getting multiple performance reviews that say “fails to meet expectations” and describe lots of areas for improvement was a good thing?)

  11. This is a great topic. I’ve been thinking a lot about power and assertiveness and communication styles and how the world maybe won’t end if women stop nurturing the shit out of everyone’s feelings and apologizing for our own? I’d like to find out.

    I think that hinting doesn’t work and just leaves the clueless foundering in the sea of plausible deniability. You can get lost in hinting forever. You can get lost in “Okay, but next time, please…” forever. And then you let things build up and have to have a huge awkward sit-down where you catalog all their faults.

    What works is directness in the moment as much as possible. When they screw something up, just say “There are a lot of mistakes here. You’re going to need to do this over again, and check it carefully before you bring it back to me. Thanks.” And walk away. Act like you assume they will just do it, and they will.

    With Guy #1: “I’m sorry, I know we’ve talked about this before, but I need to make it official. You need to visibly improve x, y and z by (date). (Be really specific about what x, y, and z are). If you have questions or need any guidance, please come to me for help. I really want you to succeed here – show me that you can. If I don’t see an improvement I’ll have no choice but to (take action – fire, demote, reprimand, whatever).”

    Then put something in writing and have him sign off on it. Review at agreed-upon date as necessary. And start shopping around for roles where he might be a better fit.

    With Girl #2: “You’ve done excellent work here in the past, but your recent performance is slipping in ways that are extremely noticeable both me and to command. I know you’re leaving, but you’re not gone yet, so you need to show me that you still want to work here. Please improve x, y, and z specific things immediately. I know you can do the work and that you won’t make me have this talk with you again, but if I don’t see marked improvement by (date) I’m going to have to (put something in writing/rethink keeping you on).”

    It’s an awkward horrible conversation to have, and they’ll spend a day or 2 being pissed off at you and thinking everything’s unfair, so the aftercare of these conversations is really key. Once you’ve had the conversation, be magnanimous and treat them like you expect that they will perform. If they screw something up, tell them bluntly “This is not correct, please fix it now,” document it, but also give them a chance to correct it. They’ll either perform or they won’t.

    If they call you a bitch out of your hearing…so what? You can’t control that.
    If they call you a bitch within your hearing, that’s another story that requires a paper trail and no second chances.

    It’s totally awkward and it takes a lot of adjusting of our own behaviors vs. cultural expectations to carry off authority and power, and the “bitch” word is always lurking in the shadows, but you can’t really head it off at the pass by being nice and pleasant – eventually you have to deliver negative information and let people say what they’re gonna say.

  12. Kristen J: Lol, I gave up that battle long ago. I’m firmly entrenched in bitchland.

    This was a tough realization for me in my management career.

    Jadey: I felt so guilty for not being able to get this person to work or respond to me professionally and appropriately. I think if we had had five minutes of genuine conversation…

    I have one person in my past that I’m thinking of, and yeah, despite the fact that she was entirely inappropriate and unprofessional (seriously, grabbing your boss’s ass on the job, in front of customers and other employees, is not professional? Since when?!) I felt so guilty for supposedly making her life so hard. In this case, firing was not my decision to make, so I had to deal with her pouting and her victim complex for a long time; but totally, totally. Not wanting to be a bitchy lady boss played big into that situation.

  13. I’ve had to do this a few times, and I empathize with your situation.

    In my case, it helped me to be matter of fact and brief. They are going to get angry and hate you for a while, and nothing you can say can stop that. I found that when I stopped trying to (essentailly) prolong the confrontation and say “hey, I’m a nice guy so please don’t hate me” that it just made things worse.

    It sucks no matter how you look at it, though.

  14. As an employee (and lady person), I have to say that as uncomfortable as the “You REALLY screwed this up” conversations are, I vastly, vastly prefer them to the, “mmm well this could have been a little better but it’s okay…” conversations a lot of bosses fall back on because those conversations are easier. I would rather know for sure that I need to change something than sort of feel like my performance is a little shaky but mostly fine but my boss seems kind of stressed…

    I actually think of it as a favor that my boss is doing for me- I believe everyone deserves the chance to improve their performance, and I’m grateful to them for giving it to me. Maybe it would help to have those conversations as a boss if you think of it that way?

  15. I don’t have any experience being in charge of people, but I do have a lot of experience with being bossed around.

    I ran into a problem with my previous job where I was making mistakes. Most of it was lack of communication or attention to detail on my part. And apparently I made a series of mistakes over a period of a month or so. The thing that sucked is that I didn’t really hear about these mistakes until I had made a whole bunch of them. My boss ended up sending me a huge note about standards and all my screw ups and mentioning problems that she’d never even mentioned before.

    This pissed me off, mostly because I WANT to know when I”m making mistakes, because I want to do a good job. I don’t want to find out that people have been covering for me on something weeks after the fact. I know those things happened because I was miserable and stopped caring, once I started caring at least about my reputation as someone who could do a good job, I got better.

    These are the things that bosses have done for me when I’ve been making mistakes that have helped.

    1. Make sure the employees are always aware of and deal with the consequences of their mistake. If it is a big deal, let them see what a big deal it is, forward them e-mails, include them in meetings, or just give them a summary of all the crap you had to do to cover for their mistake. This impresses on them that it IS a big deal. And it will make them feel shitty, but that shittiness serves as an excellent deterrent to repeated mistakes. Also this takes some pressure off you being a “bitch” and puts it into the realm of “you fucked up and xyz happend.”

    2. Make sure they have what they need to avoid the issue in future. Do they need a double check? Training? A write up on proper procedures? Be there for them to facilitate this.

    3. Appeal to their pride, not just their chance of being fired. I guess this only works with people who care at least a little bit. But I know for me feeling like I’ve let my boss down, and I’m not doing as good of a job as I could is a much bigger motivator than “Hey you might get fired.” The reputation of the individual and a department is at stake when someone can’t perform consistently, and that is more than just a job.

    And don’t worry about being a bitch, worry about being consistent and clear. The biggest challenges I’ve had with superiors were bosses who didn’t know what they wanted, and people who flew off the handle at tiny things and ignored big things. As long as your responses are proportional and your demands are consistent then you’re doing a good job. Set consistent expectations and be clear when those expectations are not being met.

    I will stop rambling now and leave you with the great words Sondheim: “Nice is different than good.”

  16. Also, what JJ said. I hate feeling like my boss is just being nice. If there is a problem I want to KNOW. It also makes me feel like I’m MORE disposable if my boss can just cover up my issues. Being involved in fixing my mistakes makes me feel like at least I am responsible for something, and the buck stops with me.

  17. Right on, JJ!

    I teach first year college students. I’m sure I’ve been called a bitch more than once, even by students who generally like me. I’ve also been a boss, and quite probably a “bitch” at work.

    Bottom line: People need to know, clearly and directly, when they’re not performing in a way that gives them an opportunity to make a change (constructive vs. destructive criticism). If someone’s going to call me a bitch and try to use sexism to take the sting out of being told their work needs to improve, whatever, that’s the risk we all took by getting up in the morning and going out of the house. I’m not going to pre-emptively guilt myself and talk myself out of saying what needs to be said because that might happen, and I think too many people do that when giving feedback.

  18. I gave up that battle long ago. I’m firmly entrenched in bitchland.

    *high fives*

    Bitchland, where the slogan is: Come for the backbone, stay for the personal satisfaction.

  19. I’ve had to document things against my boss before. I had to go to HR because I was sexually assaulted by a customer while I was on the clock and my manager didn’t do anything about it. So, I highly agree that everything should be documented. Eventually my boss ended up losing his job. He left the store yelling and making a scene. Let’s just say that I’ve been a lot happier since…

  20. Rare Vos: *high fives*

    Bitchland, where the slogan is: Come for the backbone, stay for the personal satisfaction.

    lol, that should totally be on a tshirt.

  21. Jadey: My mother taught me that: document, document, document. When she had this problem, I was even taking screen-shots for her of public webpages with incriminating material (note to employees: don’t be stupid about your online privacy). And that’s not just for employer/ee situations either – if you’re having trouble with a contractor or business, bad neighbour, spouse during a divorce*, etc. – DOCUMENT. Take notes, date them, and let them know you’re doing it. It doesn’t have to be a covert and hostile thing and you can even use it as a way to demonstrate to someone the scope of the issue *before* it gets to the firing point, but it is important to have a record of what was said and done when, because people have selective memories.

    *My mother learned this lesson when my dad started using gaslighting tactics during their separation.

    I do this wish EVERYTHING now. I do it right from the start. If I have to call anyone about anything, I write it down, and I keep all my emails. I find that if you call a company and say ‘so on x date I spoke to y person and they said z’, you are much less likely to try to roll you. Usually i don’t need the information, but I’d rather that than be kicking myself when I do.

    I’m in exactly the situation Shinobi describes, right now. My boss has apparently just been fixing things. I wish I’d known that I was making mistakes! Also, my job has a bunch of processes that only come around every six months or so. I’ve been in my job 18 months. So the first time, by boss just did them for me. The second time, she had me watch while she was doing them. Now apparently I’m supposed to magically know a very complicated process. I wish she’d been a bitch earlier, frankly. It’s gone straight from ‘yeah, that’s fine’ to me getting the distinct impression she wishes she could fire me. It’s really upsetting! I hate feeling like a lousy worker, and I hate that it’s been sprung on me.

  22. This is a tough one. I sympathize with you in a big way. Trying to remain objective in these situations is difficult. And it’s way worse if your desk is right by theirs. I work in a ‘open office’ so my employee is literally right next to me all day long and I’m right next to her and there is only the two of us. I hate it! And it doesn’t help when your employee is at least two decades older than you. But if their performance is bad, there’s nothing you can do but call them on it.
    Just know that you’re not alone in this. It’s gut twisting and it sucks, but it won’t last forever.
    Wow, after reading my post and thinking about it, I think I need a new job.

  23. I’ve been thinking a lot about power and assertiveness and communication styles and how the world maybe won’t end if women stop nurturing the shit out of everyone’s feelings and apologizing for our own? I’d like to find out.

    Too true. I also think that soft-selling when something is clearly wrong is a disservice to everyone. “Well, you see, it’s sort of, kind of, problematic when you sexually harass your co-worker,” isn’t doing the employer or the employee favors. Things that are clearly unacceptable should be delineated as such.

    Yay, boundary setting!

  24. If I had fucked up as badly as you’re describing, I would know.

    I mean, is it really that hard to tell when you’ve screwed something up that badly? Unless you’re completely so clueless about what you were doing, in case you should know anyway. If you understood the stakes of what you were doing, then it shouldn’t take a chat from the boss to inform you that you dropped the ball.

    My boss passes down the heat ahead of time by saying things like “if we don’t get this done by X date, heads could roll.” “I’m really feeling the heat on this one, guys. I’m getting a lot of questions…” “This is a high visibility project.” Or “I’m hearing a lot about the good work you’re doing.” “I appreciate all the hard work you guys are putting into this.” It creates an atmosphere where employees are never stop thinking about the stakes to the work and believe that management is keeping track of their efforts.

    There’s a good chance these employees are thinking to themselves, “I wonder when the boss is going to chew me out over this.” “Surely the boss has noticed that I’ve stopped caring by now. I wonder if she’ll say anything to me?”

    Then again, I work in a field where an example of a big screwup creates immediate negative impacts on a lot of people. So it’s kind of hard to miss when you’ve got dozens of people calling you asking what the heck is going on.

  25. I think the only remedy is to be sure good, solid procedures are in place for corrective action. If at all possible, each task needs to be broken down into its most minute components, so that the person knows exactly what fell short and how that affects the desired outcome. It also helps if it’s the sort of organization where people get corrected on a regular basis, i.e. “Everybody gets a write-up sooner or later.” This way it’s less likely to be interpreted as something personal.

    I’ve worked in the corporate environment for a long time and have been on both sides. Everybody needs the structure, whether they think they do or not.

    Of course, if it’s “senioritis,” it’s more of an attitude problem. I think your best option in in this case might be to bring in the replacement ASAP and arrange for some early training. This keeps the soon-to-be ex employee busy, and maybe hastens their departure, once the replacement has their feet on the ground.

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