When a good worker struggles

This one’s personal. It’s the story of one of the biggest leadership challenges I’ve ever faced: a good employee whose performance declined but who didn’t (or couldn’t) admit that she had a problem.

Broken pencilsJenny (not her real name) was one of the best pure writers who ever worked for me. She came to me highly recommended, with a history of success both at work and outside of work. When she joined our project, her subject-matter experts quickly came to love her: she was congenial, she asked good questions, and she respected their time. She showed enthusiasm and a positive, can-do attitude.

Soon after we began working together, Jenny told me that she was going through a difficult divorce and adjusting to life as a single mom. She needed a flexible schedule, to accommodate the kids’ activities. We agreed that she could do much of her work at home and in the evenings. I avoided scheduling meetings and important calls in mid-afternoon when she picked up the kids at school. The arrangement suited everyone, at least for a while.

Then she started missing deadlines. She’d assure me that a chapter would be finished by Friday. Then on Friday she’d ask if it could wait until Monday, promising to work over the weekend.

I asked her if things were OK, if she could use some help. The answer was always the same: I’ve got this. I can handle it.

But she wasn’t handling it. As I looked over her material before giving it to the SMEs for a first-draft review, I saw that it contained errors and left out important details — even though I’d given her extra time to complete it.

I learned in management school that if I ever found myself working on Saturday, while my employees were out playing golf, then I had a problem. I thought of that one Saturday as I was editing Jenny’s DITA files, trying to get them ready for the SMEs to review. While I doubted very much that Jenny was playing golf, I knew I had a problem just the same.

Yet Jenny continued to insist that she could handle the work. She’d had a crazy week, she’d say. But next week would be better.

I’m afraid Jenny’s story didn’t end well. Next week wasn’t better, and neither was the week after that. Eight or nine months after Jenny joined the project, I had to transfer her work to someone else. The last time I spoke with her was the last day she worked for our company. (A few months later I tried to contact her about a job posting I thought she’d be interested in, but she didn’t reply.)

Though Jenny’s story happened years ago, I still struggle to learn from it.

Hand holding a penMy manager at the time told me to evaluate the problem strictly in terms of Jenny’s work performance, and warned me against cutting Jenny too much slack.

Yet I think I could’ve probed more deeply — not to encroach on Jenny’s privacy, but emphasizing that I needed to understand her situation so I could anticipate its effect on her work. Doing that might’ve encouraged her to admit, to me and to herself, that there was a problem.

Certainly she recognized that the quality of her work was slipping. But either she didn’t trust me enough to confide in me, or she wouldn’t admit to herself that she needed help. My guess is things were scary enough at home; she needed to believe that she could at least stay on top of things at work.

I also think I could’ve stepped back from the project and reminded Jenny of how capable she’d been in the past, of the good reputation she’d had when she came to work for me. Then I could’ve asked her to help me to craft a plan that would return her to that level of performance. That too might’ve helped Jenny feel less pressured and might’ve offered her the chance to admit to herself, and to me, that she had a problem.

If you were the manager in this situation, what would you have done?

If you were Jenny, what could you have done to change the outcome? What would you want your manager to do to help you?

6 thoughts on “When a good worker struggles

  1. Michelle Corbin (@michellecorbin)

    Jenny’s story is very close to home for me, minus the single Mom part of the story. I went through a separation and divorce, and I really struggled with how much to share with my manager at the time. In the end, I shared quite a bit “in the midst” and cut back as things leveled out for me. Between my manager and my team lead, they helped me through a very difficult personal time in my life, by helping me be successful in my professional life, by adjusting workloads, by providing smaller, focused assignments, and by giving me easy paths to success. I think they were able to do this for me, because I was willing to be completely open and honest with them, which was really hard to do. Career management is a partnership, where the employee must play an equal part in being successful. Larry, I think you did all you could, but Jenny needed to give a little more to the partnership so that you both could be or feel successful in that difficult time.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Michelle, for your thoughtful and eloquent comment. It took courage for you to be so open and honest, and I’m glad you found support and encouragement. You’re right: it’s a partnership, and both the manager and the employee have a part to play.

  2. Citizen TT

    It seems to me that Jenny needed to learn how to ask for help not only from you but also from her personal support network. What you felt was a tug-o-war to respect her privacy and to maintain a professional distance. I think your heart is in the right place but it could have been a lesson that Jenny will learn in time, if she hasn’t already. You seem to have faith in her capabilities and the good you can do in this situation is offer to provide a recommendation if you think that is appropriate.

  3. Ray

    Hi Larry, this kind of problem is always difficult, and depends, to some extent, on the corporate culture. While you, as a manager, might want to reach out to Jenny or someone like her, your corporate culture might require you to keep a distance, and evaluate on a performance-only basis. What can we do if the culture we are in goes against our personal values, which include giving a good worker a break if s/he is experiencing temporary difficulties?

    In my own history as a manager, I have almost always ended up defending my employee (assuming s/he deserved that – there have been cases where that was not true). Sometimes that has cost me – but I’ve never regretted it.


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