Hello everyone,

(I am a long-time MT member, but I have just joined using a different name because of the sensitive legal nature of this dilemma. I hope folks will respect my need for anonymity and be willing to help out.)

Bottom line

I have been offered a promotion that includes managing a key program as well the underperforming admin who is the program's only staff. I'm looking for some guidance/encouragement from MT.


I am currently a supervisor in a non-profit organization. "Jackie," the DR in question, has been our department's admin for nearly 10 years. Jackie has been seriously underperforming for that whole time.

I do not believe Jackie is capable of doing the job. She has received extensive training and coaching, special equipment, part-time staff, counseling, mediation, and probably more. Her technical skills, judgement, professionalism, and interpersonal skills are weak. (Yes I can back this all up with reference to her behaviours.)

Several previous managers have tried to improve her performance and failed. None of them were even close to being MT managers. Nothing even resembling O3s, feedback, coaching. Managers have made some counter-productive decisions such as allowing Jackie's position to be reclassified to a higher level in order to motivate her.

All of Jackie's managers have collected reams of "documentation" in attempts to get rid of her. One almost succeeded, but got some bad advice from HR, so Jackie won on a technicality (a form that hadn't been signed).

Jackie is extremely combative, and currently has grievances against her boss and her boss's boss. The union has made no inquiries with our department and is backing Jackie fully.

Not one member of the 20-person department supports Jackie continuing to work here. Through her incompetence, she has had a negative effect on every single person's work, as well as on the reputation of our department, the services we offer, and the health of her current manager.

Managing Jackie is everyone's idea of a nightmare around here. I am viewed as the person with the best management skills and the most backbone.

I am probably the person Jackie despises the most. I was one of two people who first realized her incompetence many years ago, because I worked more closely with her than other staff. I have been promoted several times and she has stated publicly that she thinks this is unfair. Jackie does not recognize her own poor performance, and really seems to believe that she is good at her job but has to deal with unreasonable workload and oppressive management.

My boss does not expect me to actually improve Jackie's performance, just to minimize the damage until she can be removed. I am also expected to continue the extremely time-consuming process of documenting everything Jackie does wrong. At the same time, my boss hopes that I'll be able to grow the program, improve its reputation, and leverage it for fundraising opportunities.

I intend to start O3s and feedback with Jackie as soon as I take over (in a couple of months). I don't think coaching is appropriate, as it wouldn't be done with the genuine belief that Jackie can (or wants to) improve.

I hate confrontation and haven't had to supervise anyone as combative as Jackie before. Virtually every time she receives an instruction from her current boss, she pushes back, asks a bunch of irrelevant questions, and writes to the union.

I'm scared to death, and losing sleep already.

Please share whatever advice you can.


AManagerTool's picture

I had a very similar situation with my admin when I started. I inherited her from my predecessor who allowed her to run roughshod over the whole team. She would refuse to do work assigned to her and would make every attempt to avoid work. I started O3's immediately after I started and per Mark's advice, I didn't do anything for a little while to see what made her tick. I kept detailed notes on our encounters and feedback. I never got past the surface levels with her in our O3's. She was always defensive and defiant in them. After about 90 days, I realized that the nice feedback and coaching wasn't working. She still pushed back on work assignments and my other directs were complaining. I went to HR with my notes after talking it over with my manager and his manager. HR told me I had all I needed to fire her right then and there. My notes were sufficient.

I wanted to be the kind of boss that Mark describes in his late stage coaching pod casts and had that serious talk with her. I told her in her O3 that after repeated attempts to give her feedback and correct what I and the rest of the team see as behavior indicative of work avoidance, we now have a very real problem that needed to be resolved or ...... well, you get the idea.

[b]Results:[/b] She responded by crying, breaking down that she had been angry over her husbands death three years earlier and that it was time she moved on with her life. It seems that she loved him deeply and couldn't bring her pain to work. She had nobody at home to share it with and so she buried it but it kept surfacing in her work. She was right as rain ever since we had that talk.

She recently retired and is touring Europe. On her way out she gave me thanks and a few bottles of 50+ year old scotch she had stashed away for about that long. Her husband was a big scotch drinker and she had a special gift planned for him on his 50th wedding anniversary with him. She had decided that since I helped her get over his death, I should get the bottles that she had been saving for him.

I still tear up (TRUST ME, I AM NOT A TEARY KIND OF DUDE) and haven't had the heart to crack one of those bottles although the thought of that 50 year old scotch makes me drool. I think I'll save them for another 20 years till I retire and share them at my retirement luncheon along with this story with what I hope will be my happy direct reports.

[i]Sometimes, what keeps you up at night is what another person really needs to hear in more ways than one. Be strong and trust in yourself, even if they don't want this to happen, they may need it.[/i]

HMac's picture

MTool: that's a terrific story. Sidebar: consider some other picture on your profile, would ya? When I read your posts, I hear that character's voice in my head (for the rest of you: that's the manager from "Office Space"...yeeeeeah), and I have to admit I'd start reading your posts somehow thinking you would be coming at it from that guy's frame of mind. But man - that's a great and thoughtful story you just posted.

tiringo: I can't match that with my own story. And given all the history you tell, I'd be really surprised if there's a similar happy ending (sorry - that probably makes me sound cynical, but it looks like Jackie has been given a lot of chances to turn it around).

Let me make one suggestion: if your HR resource is any good, consider partnering with them as much as you can until the company finally removes Jackie. You need the support, the counsel, and the expertise that a solid HR professional can provide. Otherwise, you're in this alone - and that's no fun. You're already losing sleep, and it hasn't even started yet! If at all possible, don't make this your job alone - meet with an HR professional, come up with a plan for monitoring, reviewing, addressing behaviors together.

And hey: congratulations on the promotion!

US41's picture


I am so sorry that you have "the old me" working for you. What a pain in the rear I can be when someone inherits me from someone else.

Here are some steps to take that have worked with me before. ;-)

1. Have faith in your new admin
2. Have faith in yourself
3. Schedule O3's
4. Begin giving positive feedback for 90 days
5. Begin using the O3 forms in your file folder with post-its storing your many discussions

If you go into this assuming the worst, the worst will happen. You will make it happen, and so will she. You have to go into this situation believing that you are there to rescue her from previous bad management and take her under your wing. You have to really believe that, or you are doomed to endless confrontations.

You have to believe that you can pull this off as well. You know what? A smug smirk and air of self-confidence as you deal with her with your peers, bosses, and her peers can go a long way. Say nothing negative about her to anyone.

Schedule the O3's and get to work. The first one will be an unmitigated disaster. So what? What is one week with someone who has been around for a decade screwing things up? What's another year? It's nothing. You have oodles of time, so use it. Let the first O3 catch fire and burn to the ground.

Then take the next O3, and it will likewise not be so great. Then visit her desk in between O3's once, squat down low (lower than her so she is seated looking down at you), and say very softly, "I need your help. Our O3's are running long, and I have so many things to talk about with you. Can you help by coming with a list and keeping it to ten minutes? I'll need at least fifteen for my stuff." Smile while you say it softly. Even put your hands on her desk in a pleading pose.

She's probably a frustrated high D that has no idea how to acquire power and is starving to death from lack of it. But who knows? A disc test online costs $31.00. Get her to take one and find out exactly what she is. She is worth $31.00 to save, right?

Give only positive feedback. Give her stupid, easy, nobody-could-screw-this-up assignments and delegations. Make them MT based: "I need your help! I need three copies of this report on my desk tomorrow by 11am sharp. 11:05 is too late because I need to pick them up for a meeting. Can you do that?" When she does it, shower her in positive feedback.

Then feed her another and another assignment. Ensure a failure-proof zone.

Start ramping up the assignments slowly and carefully. Continue with the positive feedback, and start talking up her successes to others. "You know, just the other day, I needed some copies made, and she had them on my desk squared away right on time."

One of two things is going to happen:

1) She's going to succeed
2) She will fail due to lack of training, ability, or motivation

Either way, you will have a bunch of O3 notes and a new shiny person to work for you whom you have personally sculpted, or you will have a ton of records showing that you went out of your way.

Should you coach? Hell yes, you should coach. If she has a particular weakness or ability lacking, then at the end of her 3rd O3, insist she pursue it. Brainstorm potential resources with her, and tell her to pick one by the next O3. Then have her engage the resource by the next. Then set a timetable by which she will be complete and then present to you what she has learned, training you on what she now knows and demonstrating thorough knowledge.

Karma is a funny thing, and I once inherited someone like me. It worked out OK in the end. My boss was pretty happy with the US41 he got after some investment as well. It took time, though. Considerable time and diligent, persistent patience on his part.

tiringo's picture

Thanks very much Hugh, ManagerTool, and US41. Your support and advice mean a lot to me.

A tiny part of me thinks I can manage "Jackie" better than her last 4 bosses. As a result, I'm very much drawn to both ManagerTool's and US41's perspective on this. I rehearse introducing the trinity to Jackie, and I fantasize about her initial rebuff and her gradual turnaround under my direction.

I know that's the right thing to do -- use the very best tools available, and give Jackie one last opportunity to make this work.

At the same time, if I give her three months of affirming feedback before I start adjusting feedback, I'm very very concerned that:

(a) the damage from her daily behaviour will sink the program she supports;
(b) I will have to fix all her mistakes and finish her unfinished work; and
(c) I will undo the months (years, actually) of building a case for her dismissal.

Regarding (c) above, Jackie has already had one suspension without pay, leading to her grievance against one boss. There is enough documentation to suspend her again (twice as long this time), but she's entitled to have the grievance heard before that can be done.

HR is already partnering with the bosses, but they are not a particularly strong resource. They make mistakes and don't help make the process transparent. For example, we find out about rules and policies after we've broken them.

Nevertheless, HR will be a significant part of life if I'm supervising Jackie. My current bosses literally have HR's lawyer screen emails they send to Jackie to ensure they don't say anything she can grieve.

Yesterday, Jackie's current boss (and mine) confidentially advised me to accept the position on condition that I NOT have to supervise Jackie. She told me this as a trusted friend and colleague (no jealousy or agenda that I can imagine). She said she believes Jackie is mentally ill, unmanageable, and the consequences for my health and well-being would be serious.

If I turn down the position, it would leave the department in a lurch -- literally no one willing to supervise Jackie, and no one to run a major program. Other eligible staff have all said they'd quit before supervising her. One member of our team revealed in a staff meeting that she's been getting counseling to deal with the strain of having to work with Jackie.

I'm so torn now, and I have to decide soon.

Thanks for listening, everyone. If anyone has more to say, please do.


jhack's picture

I have no experience with non-profits, nor of union shops.

In my industry, a good manager would take the position, oversee her work according to US41's guidance, and see if you can't turn the situation around. If you don't see improvement really fast (like in a few weeks), then assign someone else to run the program, give Jackie a new (non-critical) assignment, and continue working with her.

If you establish clear performance criteria, and document behavior (and ONLY behavior), you will be OK. Either she'll turn it around, which would be great, or she won't, and you'll be able to act.


HMac's picture

Sorry Tool, John and 41 - I'm gonna go in the opposite direction on this one...

It sounds like the machinery of tiringo's entire organzation is poised to move Jackie out - and that might be the better outcome for the greater number of people. The "right" otucome for the organization - so it can stop using so much of its resource and focus to tiptoe around a nonproductive and disruptive and unhappy employee - is to remove that employee. Humanely. Ethically. Caringly.

Time you spend with any one employee is time that you CAN'T spend with another employee. Consider the possibility of diminishing returns, and the opportunity cost of continuing to work with Jackie.

And as much as I admire Manager Tool's experience that he shared in his story, sometimes, the right decision for the manager is to say "enough is enough" and separate ways with a difficult employee.

It's a tough call. But if management were easy, they'd send in a teenager with a clipboard to do our job.

US41's picture

[quote="HMacNiven"]Sorry Tool, John and 41 - I'm gonna go in the opposite direction on this one...[/quote]

I don't blame you. After reading the further clarification, I feel like we have more information.

The only thing I might change is the 90 days of positive feedback. Just have the O3's, set objectives, hope for the best, try for the best, and record negative feedback as you pile it on. If nothing changes, make sure the file contains objective dates and measurements against metrics that are objective as possible and the actual dates and performance she gave. If it doesn't match up, give negative feedback, if it continues, give systematic feedback, and if it continues still, pack it all up and take it in to HR.

You'll need to sell it. You'll need numbers, dates, behaviors, feedback instances - all of it.

While you are doing all of that, I would remind you of Mr. Buckingham's advice in First Break All The Rules: Spend your time on your top performers - not your bottom performers. Don't let this woman become your day and night. Don't spend too much energy sweating the situation. She's been with the company a long time and the ship has not sunk yet. Other managers found workarounds or patches for her weaknesses and deployed them and survived. You don't have to be perfect.

Your top performers need your attention - they are your real investment, since they will follow you up the ladder and will be the backbone of your operation when you move on to bigger things and stand in for you when you are away.

I think the 90 days of positive feedback might be a weak point in my advice - perhaps a little too optimistic given the situation.

HMac's picture

EXCELLENT advice to add the Buckingham perspective. I had forgotten that source, but I was trying to get at a similar point: how often do we hear top performers complain that an imbalance of the organization's attention goes to "trouble" employees? And candidly - how many of us have at times thought that ourselves, looking at the organization from our individual circumstances? Well, me, for one...(D'oh!) :P

I thought a little bit more about this overnight, and it came down to this for me: one of the core challenges we face as managers is to balance the interest of the individuals we're responsible for with the interest of the overall enterprise. We DO have a responsiblity to the overall health of the organization - that's a big part of what makes us different from non-managers. And we accepted that responsibility when we moved into management.

I'm not in tiringo's position, so I don't want to give the impression that I know how to make the call on this one. So, triningo: use your best judgment. Because managers are properly paid to use their judgment.

tcomeau's picture
Training Badge

I don't have much to add. I can see handling this direct either as a problem to be dealt with or as project to be reformed. Either way, I wouldn't let her possible behavior decide my career moves. I've had at least one real challenge in every group I managed, and it usually wasn't the one I was expecting.

The only thing I have to add is that you should never be afraid of due process if you're sure you're doing the right thing. I don't have any direct experience with union shops either, but I have a brother who is a leader in the air traffic controller's union, and my parents were both involved in the Treasury Employees union. Grievances are just part of the process. People win grievances when management doesn't follow the rules in the CBA. People lose grievances when management does follow the rules. So if she's not meeting performance expectations, go through the process of either improving or replacing her. If there's a grievance, go through the process. It's actually pretty interesting to watch.


tiringo's picture

Thank you all so much for your continued support.

Tom makes a great point about unexpected challenges. I have a new team of 20 temps each year, and it's often surprising which ones work out and which ones are a major pain.

About not being afraid of due process, I'm not at all. What I'm afraid of is not having access to reliable information or support from HR.

For example, Jackie's grievance against her boss took 3 months for an initial meeting due to HR dragging their heels. For that entire time, the boss knew only that she was being charged with discrimination, harassment, and failure to provide a safe workplace. She was provided with no other details, and spent the whole time questioning herself and tip-toeing around Jackie.

Another example: I recently learned that managers can block employees' annual step increase due to poor performance. (A step increase is a bump up in pay and job level, until the employee reaches the "job rate" which is the maximum pay for that job.) I have spoken with no fewer than 10 managers from many areas of the organization, and not one was aware of this possibility. HR gives the step increase automatically each year, and does not consult managers or require them to sign off. When my boss's boss consulted with HR about what forms of discipline are available to her in dealing with Jackie, no one mentioned step increases. The HR web site contains nothing about it either. The worst? Now we've learned that our managers' "failure" to block Jackie's step increases could work against us in the progressive discipline process, because it suggests that her performance was acceptable enough to receive a raise.

I truly hope to be able to make a difference to Jackie's performance, or at least to behave with integrity as I oversee the disciplinary process. I will take the good advice here and document carefully, while making sure I reserve most of my energy for top performers. The latter will be really tough because Jackie is the only employee working in her specific program, and managing that program will be brand new to me when I take over.

If I do this (still not decided), it's going to be the challenge of my professional life. I'm sure you'll be hearing more from me!

Thanks again everyone. I don't know what I'd do without you.


bffranklin's picture
Training Badge


Sounds like an issue of bad relationships with HR, and it sounds like it's falling to you to fix that problem, too! Positive peer feedback to your contacts in HR could do well for improving that relationship. Inspire effectiveness in everyone you deal with!

tiringo's picture

Just three weeks before I take over as program manager and Jackie's supervisor, HR and senior admin cut a deal with the union and bought her out. She's gone gone gone and not coming back.

Part of me is very angry that they didn't have the nerve to fire her. The other part is coming to understand (if not quite accept) that firing Jackie might not have been in the organisation's best interest. With someone like Jackie, we are sure to be sued, costing the organisation much more than the small buy-out she received. HR and senior admin believe that we risk losing any labour dispute that goes to arbitration. If we did lose at that stage, it would cost us a fortune AND we'd have to take Jackie back.

Now I can go back to losing sleep over normal stuff like managing a new program and hiring new staff!

Thanks again for all your support and advice, everyone.


jhbchina's picture

Thanks for the posts and all the additional comments. Based on this thread, your managers did the right thing, and you might want to privately thank them for solving the situation in a professional manner. Conclude by saying you are looking forward to creating a department where this will not happen again.

Good Luck

tiringo's picture

As horrible as this may sound, the entire staff actually bought our managers flowers and theatre tickets to thank them.

They both put themselves at considerable professional risk and did damage to their physical and psychological health. For many months they worked massive overtime to try to keep the department running while dealing with this problem, while HR and senior management tried to make them go away. We are incredibly grateful to them.