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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

I work for a small non-profit organization and we have no HR. Because I have some seniority, I've been assigned as a supervisor to one of our part-time workers, who also happens to be a friend of mine from high school. She is in communications and often makes mistakes on print and online publications. Even before I was her supervisor, I'd sat down with her and told her she needed to be more careful. That did not prove effective, as a few days later, she made another mistake and I had to e-mail her to remind her about the review process we established so we can avoid publication errors. Others in the communications team have also mentioned her making mistakes.

Since I became her supervisor, I removed her from online publishing, but now she is doing grant proposals and documents for the government, and is still making mistakes! I am usually the first one called into the boss' office, because she cuts and pastes from drafts of my work(cut-and-paste is a common practice here), and doesn't bother to check--or ask me--if the document is the final version, and therefore had been reviewed for errors.

She is also absent-minded when it comes to other things. For example, I requested that she make copies of her timesheet so I have records of her projects in case the boss asks me. She has so far done this only once. Also, another co-worker has complained that when she asks her to research something, she would agree, and then not do it.

I have no idea how to tell her that she really needs to be more focused and detail-oriented, especially since (a) I had done so in the past and it hadn't worked, (b) she has a tendency to say "Okay," and then no to do what we asked her to do, and (c) apparently she's upset that I was assigned as her supervisor. Do you have any advice for me?

First, I hope that you were not made a supervisor strictly because you have seniority. That's about the worst reason to promote someone. (Although, admittedly, it's a very popular reason for promotion. Longevity does not=good supervisor material.) Because you are not sticking your head in the sand with this employee, it seems like you earned this role by more than not quitting.

Your first issue is that she is an old friend who is ticked off that you are her boss. Her failures could just be passive aggressive behavior--and may even be subconscious. This is a frustrating situation. Now, since she made mistakes before you became her supervisor, my guess is that there are some competence issues along with negative feelings.

It's hard to have a supervisor who used to be a peer. It's hard to be a supervisor to someone who used to be a peer.

I'm going to solve part of your problem right now. This is super-de-duper easy. Instead of trying to get your employee to ask if the document she is cutting and pasting from is a final version, you simply save documents as proposal42_draft.doc when it is a draft and then change it to proposal42_final.doc when it's final. Easy-peasy.

Now, as for the other mistakes, what we need here is a shorter leash. She's been told that she needs to proofread, or whatever, and she's not doing it. Or, she's incapable of noticing the mistakes. If it's the former, then she has to run everything by you before she turns it in. This is a huge pain for you, but hopefully, will be a bigger pain for her and she'll start paying attention. This also blocks her access to the big-wigs and can be very frustrating. But, until she can produce error free work, absolutely necessary.

If she's incapable of noticing the mistakes then you've got a person who is in the wrong position. So, she either gets nudged towards the door or the position evolves to fit her strengths. There's nothing wrong with the latter, by the way. I'm a writer, not an editor. I don't have an editor over here (except for my commentors who can spot a misspelling or missed word a mile away), but I do at US News and she catches some things and occasionally changes my grammar to something clearer. She's very good at it. (She's a very good writer as well.)

If this person just needs a quick grammar clean up, then this might be a solution. If this person's errors, however, are of the factual kind, this may be manage out situation. You have to decide if the problem is fixable. Include her in your decision making process.

Explain that these errors have got to stop and you are willing to help her with that. What support does she think she needs? Are the deadlines too tight? Does she not know how to do research? (The first page of Google hits does not equal "research.") If it's just sloppiness, then the short leash should help.

She may need a mentor who can help her through. Or, this may be too much effort for a part time person. (Yes, I can be heartless.)

But, work with her, not against her. Be clear in expectations. Follow up every time. And good luck.


Rodolphe Mortreuil said...

I agree of course with EHRL. You can say anything to anyone as long as you say it right, and posing the problem as a "what do you think" is a great way to both make it non-confrontational and putting the issue back on her doorstep, where it is more difficult for her to ignore.

On the proof-reading and editing side-line: EHRL you might want to look at the 9th paragraph in this post: rune it should read run it. Sorry, it just jumped at me.

Evil HR Lady said...


Gah! See, I need an editor. I fixed it.

Ask a Manager said...

I sense a discomfort with her own authority in the letter-writer's letter, which is making her feel helpless. Being a manager gives you all kinds of tools to handle situations like this, if you're willing to use your own authority. You can tell the employee the sorts of things EHRL suggested. You can tell her "this is a pattern, and it's a serious concern because it could jeopardize your job if we don't fix these issues." You can give her a formal warning and put her on a formal improvement plan. If all that doesn't work, you can fire her and replace her with one of the many competent people out there who are desperate for a job and would do it well.

And not only CAN you, but you must. That's the job. What you can't do is let it continue, or you won't be doing your own job well.

Anonymous said...

I had a team member that historically had problems of accuracy. She may have had ADHD - didn't focus. My HR created a method to both document and explain the employee's problems. The acronym was STAR - Situation, Task, Action, Result. I would complete it with good or bad results (balance is important) and give it to the employee. It helped.

Anonymous said...

A good question, response, and blog overall.

Very tempting to point out the spelling error/typo in the last paragraph of the supervisor's post.

"...and then no to do..."

Couldn't resist...

My point is that when criticism (albeit justifiable) is directed towards subordinates, you had better dot your i's and cross your t's all of the time. Your subordinate will be watching you like a hawk.

Anonymous said...

Hello Stuck in the middle,

A little advice on promoting may do the trick for you. You seem fairly new to this leadership roll and it seems like you feel stuck in the middle. If you are truly new to this leadership thing, please take the time to decide if a leadership roll is or is not for you. If you decide that it is not for you can stop reading as nothing below this will be of any use to you.

Now that that is out, on with the problem at hand.

Right now you feel stuck in the middle between a job and friend, don't you? Well, that's ok, because you are in the middle. Time to get used to it, it comes with the territory.

As a leader it is your job to make hard decisions. You have a particularly hard dilemma that needs to be addressed quickly for the sake of both you and your direct report. If you allow this situation to persist your boss will notice and it will affect you. Curiously, the same is true with your direct report.

A high percentage of new leaders fail to get out of the starting box after being promoted, by that I mean, new leaders tend to have a hard time moving past the duties and relationships they had prior to advancing.

Well it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee and either embrace your new position or let it go. Follow the advice EHRL and the others have given you and get to work.

Hint, hint, if you’re so called friend was truly a friend she would be happy for you and want to help you be successful in your new position.

Wally Bock said...

From a supervisory standpoint, this is pretty straightforward and EHRL has hit the high points. There are two possibilities: either she can't do what you want (modify the job, find her another one, or help her go elsewhere) or she won't (document and deliver consequences). That's simple, but it depends on the supervisor's willingness to confront, counsel, and document if that's appropriate.

V K Vijayaraghavan (Viji) said...


Try out solutions posted by others.One more thing; probbably she lacks something on concentration side of work. There are techniques such as meditation, yoga which can help her to improve.


Anonymous said...

She may be the kind of person that likes to get things done quickly rather than accurately. Others like to have accuracy but may miss deadlines. So maybe you need to focus on forming her that taking some more time with her work is better than completing a project quickly. What's the environment; is it fast-paced? Do people around her turn things in fast and get accolades? If that’s the environment she sees and it matches her personality she may be getting a raw deal here. Is she trying to keep up with the pace by sacrificing quality? So I would suggest looking at the external factors within the organization that may be affecting her choices and bring those to her attention. “I wanted to let you know just because employee A, B and C are delivering their projects quickly their projects are different than yours, yada, yada, yada…”

Anonymous said...

Regarding others asking her to do research, does she get those requests a lot throughout the day? Constant interruption in her regular work could be distracting and might explain the accuracy errors.

If people are walking up to her desk to ask for research, it may be better for them to send an e-mail instead. She doesn't get immediately distracted by a conversation and the other person can have proof that she agreed to help out when she replies to them. If she's already getting these requests in e-mails then she should come to a good stopping point in her work before reading and responding.

Now she should really be telling you if she feels distracted but that's some advice to pass along if that's her problem. (I can tell you from experience that getting a phone call, multiple IMs, and several e-mails all at once can make you want to tear your hair out.)

Steve Meyer said...

You may want to change the process with her. Because she is doing mostly a "cut and paste" job, change it up. Find a grant that is due several months out, give her a style guide/template and let her go. Do not let her cut and paste. Make her write the grant out from A-Z. This may work in two ways. It can instill pride in her own authorship and make her concentrate on the small details because she and she alone is responsible for the final product.

El Comodoro said...

All good ideas, but I would address the strategic over the tactical, here.

It might do some good to explain that sloppy editing/proofing is about the best way to look unprofessional or amateurish.

Sure, it's probably a motivation/focus issue. Being HS classmates can't help. But sit her down and try to convey that she's making herself, you, your boss, and the org as a whole look foolish by publishing shoddy copy. Heck, it's worth a shot.

Positively dreading the comments to come after someone brought up ADD/ADHD). Good gravy, it'll be another Sleep Disordergate!

human said...

Does she keep a running to do list with both routine weekly tasks and one-time tasks on it? And a calendar or day planner for deadlines?

I had a job where I kept forgetting to do things that I was supposed to do, and missing deadlines. So my boss told me to keep a running list of things to do (and showed me how she tracked her own tasks) and we set up a weekly meeting to go over what I was working on, what I had finished, and what was still outstanding. After that, I stopped forgetting to do things, AND we had a chance to talk each week about ongoing tasks, any problems that came up, etc. Things worked a lot better.

I guess you could say I should have already known that I should be writing down a to-do list -- and you would be right -- but what my boss did was a better outcome for me, her, and for the organization than my being fired and them having to go to all the trouble of hiring someone else!

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