Dear Captain Awkward:
I recently got a promotion (yay!) and now people I have to supervise people I’ve previously worked alongside (less yay). There’s one employee in particular who’s had a problem with taking instructions from me. He and I were hired around the same time, and he has more experience in the field. I quickly picked up on everything I needed to catch up to his experience-level, and there’s no question in my mind that I worked hard and deserve to be where I am. I just don’t know how to get him to listen to me. His work is consistently turned in late or is sloppy; when I ask him to get something done by a deadline, I often find him watching Youtube videos or Netflix movies at his desk instead of working. I’ve previously asked someone higher up the corporate chain (i.e. someone I know he respects more than me) to say something to him. This worked temporarily, but he’s slipped back into his old ways. I really don’t want to bring in a third party again, because I feel like it serves to undercut my authority and also it looks bad to *my* boss when I can’t get my employees to listen to me.
We won’t be doing performance reviews for another seven months, so I need advice about what I can do in the meantime to get him to wake up at work. To make matters more awkward, I’ve known this person through a mutual friend long before we started working together. I’ve also slept with him (before we started working together!), but it was just sex and we were both very clear that we didn’t have feelings for each other. I know he sees this as “just a job,” but I’m looking to make a decent living and develop a niche for myself in this company – at least until I find out what I’d really like to do with my life. How do I navigate this awkward college drama while trying to become a classy adult?
Congratulations on your promotion! And for writing in with such a supremely awkward situation in such a succinct and vivid manner!
This is a “boundaries are your friend” situation.
Here’s an old post about how to handle performance reviews when you are the boss. You should never let performance issues slide until you’re at Official Review Time anyway, so I’m going to suggest that you have one of those awkward lunch or coffee meetings with this guy who is now your subordinate.
Here’s a rough script for that lunch.
Gambit: ”Hey, I wanted to sit down with you and talk about how things are going at work since we restructured things. First, it seems like you’ve had some trouble with deadlines lately – what’s going on with that?”
Then you listen and ask follow-up questions depending on what he tells you. We all hit slumps and get the blues sometimes. Maybe he’s not getting the inputs he needs in time to turn them around, and that YouTube watching is happening while he’s waiting on someone else’s work. Maybe he’s over-promising when he can get things done and needs to be more honest about how long things take.
Maybe his reasons are all bullshit – whatever, hear him out fully and don’t let on that you know it might be bullshit. It’s okay if he complains. Complaining doesn’t mean you are a bad boss or need to take anything he says personally. Don’t interrupt to correct him or defend yourself or the company! Giving your employees license to be really honest with you gives you information about how to motivate them. That’s all that’s going on here, even if it feels like something else. Listen and then keep directing him back toward solutions.
The main question you want to ask next is “Is there anything specific you can think of that I (or coworkers) can do to help you with this stuff?“
Then you listen some more. Maybe there isn’t anything you can do, and if that’s the case, be honest. Maybe there is a token thing you can get for him (a faster computer, a quieter workspace, acknowledgement that x task should take longer than you guys have budgeted, a day or afternoon of sick time even though he’s not sick so he can handle some life stuff that’s stressing him out) - if so, do it.
“While we’re here, is there anything else you want to talk about?“
(Listen some more).
End the conversation on a positive, but firm note. ”Thank you for being so honest with me. I’ll see what I can do about (thing you asked me). In the meantime, I need to be honest with you – this thing with the deadlines is a big deal, and higher ups including (the person who talked to him before) have noticed. I really need you to commit to working on meeting deadlines from here on out. Can you do that for me?“
Be very clear, and direct, and use short, declarative sentences and simple questions. Don’t apologize for acting like the boss (LIKE A BOSS!) when you are the boss. Don’t apologize, period. Don’t over-explain or over-justify. Treat him like you expect to be taken seriously. If you have trouble with this, picture Glenn Close as Patty Hewes saying the stuff you’re saying. Would she apologize or mince words?
A brief note on “day jobs”: A smart way to handle “just a day job” is to kick ass at it so that you can keep putting food on your table until your dreams come true. Save this point in your arsenal for if (when) he gets defensive. “You know I’m the last person who wants to be the Internet Police, but the truth is that if you were kicking ass at your job, no one would ever notice that you went on YouTube sometimes. The fact that people are noticing means that you need to pull it together.”
I realize that asserting yourself in this way might be a big adjustment, but there is a reason your company promoted you. Should you get cold feet, remember that for an employee, one of the most annoying things is a manager who is uncomfortable with leadership or authority, so they try to pretend they are not your boss and everyone “is all friends here” (seriously, if your boss says “I think of us as a family!” RUN AWAY). This kind of boss never tells you when things are wrong, because they’re operating on a “I like you and you like me, so why aren’t you just naturally perfectly doing what I want” assumption and they let you keep messing up until one day they explode! And you’re fired because your boss assumed you were a mind reader. NOT COOL. Part of being a good manager is not taking an employee’s poor performance personally and laying down the law when you need to. You are very smart to try to nip this thing in the bud.
If you get any pushback about from him, of the “Ooh, look who is management now” joking-that-isn’t-ever-really-joking (especially when it is a dude saying it to a lady who has seen his manlyjinks), say “Yup, that’s me, and I’m trying to do it right, thanks for noticing!” If he brings up past sexytimes, he gets a mean, hostile “Really?” If he wants to resent you, let him, as long as he uses his inside-his-head voice and takes care of business. You don’t need to beg people to respect you.
After the conversation, document it. You can write a memo to the file, but a good way to document something is to send a follow-up email.
Thanks for our discussion today. I’ll plan on/look into (thing you agreed to do for him), and will count on you to be on top of deadlines going forward.
(Plus additional work thing or question – add something here so the email isn’t JUST documenting stuff for HR, especially something that he has to respond to, like “When you get a chance, can you let me know about (project)?)”
That way he has to respond to the email and you have proof he received it.
After this, you’ve got to use a combination of positive reinforcement (sincere thanks when he does meet deadlines, sincere recognition of improvement) and staying on top of him. If he starts messing around when things are due, you’re going to have to be the one who says “Can you please close YouTube and get to work on that thing you promised me you’d have today?” (Document) and “Is there something I need to know about why you’re struggling with deadlines again? How should we solve this?” (Document) and “This is sloppy and needs another edit. Can you get me the final version in an hour?” (Document). Hopefully he’ll turn it around by performance review time. If not, you’ll have the unfortunate paper trail you need to relieve him of this crappy day job that he only does when he feels like it.