How To Discuss To An Worker About An Underneath-Performing Colleague

Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues – from dealing with a micromanager to talking to someone on your team about body odor.

I run a junior employee, “Arthur,” who befriended another employee on his level, “Ford”. Ford works on a different customer team with a different manager (“Zeke”).

Ford has fared significantly worse. It has been clear for a while that he is not well suited for this position. Ford’s manager Zeke was clear about the expectations and put Ford on a performance plan that didn’t go well. Ford is on its way out, Zeke was aware of that result, and the company is friendly as Ford finishes some work before he quits his job.

The problem is that Ford has spoken to Arthur about all of this … but is half-true about the whole thing. He told Arthur that his client was extremely difficult and demanding; The reality is that he works with some kind customers who have a moderate, but not excessive, definition of success. He told Arthur that “he is going”; The reality is that he is politely shown the door. In short, Ford either failed to realize that its underperformance was its own fault, or it is telling these half-truths so that it doesn’t appear unsuccessful in front of its peers.

Usually I would treat this as a problem that goes away when Ford leaves. But as part of their friendship and work, Ford and Arthur gave each other ideas about projects and managing customers. I worry that Arthur will treat the information he’s heard from Ford with more weight than it deserves. I don’t want Arthur to adopt Ford’s habits of poor quality work, non-communication, loosely accountable deadlines, or attitudes toward customers, and I don’t want him to think that Ford’s experience is normal (this is Arthur’s first office job). And as a new but fairly capable employee, I don’t want Arthur to think that he could be similar to Ford in his performance and in danger of getting a similar result.

How can I tell Arthur the truth about Ford’s failure to meet expectations while respecting Ford’s privacy (and dignity)? How can I tell Arthur that he’s a much better actor than Ford and doesn’t have to worry about being shown the door? I’m also concerned that Arthur will weight the stories he’s heard from Ford as more accurate given their friendship. Can you help make this direct, helpful, and respectful?

Ugh, yeah, that can happen when someone is let go. Most employers try to protect the person’s privacy and dignity by keeping the issues on a knowledge-based basis … while sometimes the fired person is telling other people a wrong version of what is happening, and their version is the only version that does there heard.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter. If someone wants to say they got fired because, for example, “the company hired me to do X but really needed someone to do Y” when that didn’t happen, it might not be a big deal. (Sometimes it can be, depending on the circumstances, but other times you wouldn’t lose much if you left it alone.) And it’s usually okay for a person to want to let work friends know that they left voluntarily instead getting fired. In other cases, misinformation can seriously affect people’s morale and confidence in the integrity of the employer.

However, it is advisable to be careful before assuming someone is causing harm. In many cases, the person’s friends already know that the person was not outstanding at their job and will hear what they say with some skepticism. So I would first pay attention to what sense you get from Arthur in this regard. If he seems factual rather than upset, you might not have to do anything here (and it could even rub him in the wrong direction as you take down Ford’s work).

It sounds like Arthur is telling you what he hears from Ford, which gives you a chance to try and let him know about it. And it gives you a good opportunity to have your say if you decide the record needs to be corrected. For example, the next time Arthur mentions that Ford’s customer is really demanding, you might say, “You know, I know this customer and I am familiar with this project and the expectations are actually very reasonable.” When Arthur mentions Ford criticizing his manager, one could say, “As far as I know, most people respect Zeke and think he’s a good manager. But not every job or manager is right for everyone.”

If you feel that more than that is needed (when Arthur seemed insecure or upset) I would sit down at this point and say one version of it, “I normally wouldn’t have this conversation with you because if someone struggling with his job is generally between him and his boss, and there is usually no need for other people to know about it. But it seems like you have concerns about how Ford’s situation has been handled. I want his Don’t violate privacy, but I want to say that sometimes when someone isn’t training in a job it is because it doesn’t match their skills and their performance doesn’t get the required grades. When that happens, it’s human nature that people don’t want to tell friends at work that they are in trouble, but let me assure you that Zeke is someone who is committed to providing sensible adults to people ways to coach her where he can and, frankly, when it becomes clear that the job is not the right one. I also want to make sure you know that the company isn’t pushing people out for free. When someone has problems we give feedback and coaching and give clear warnings in case it ever comes to a point where the person’s work could be jeopardized. So I don’t want you to worry about your own job in this situation. You are doing a great job and I really appreciate having you here. “

But first feel where Arthur is because he could figure out most of it himself.

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The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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