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How do you supervise a likable but scatterbrained employee?

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Question: “I supervise a young secretary/receptionist who has been with the agency for two years. She is a pleasant person, but I have to constantly remind her how to properly handle security procedures, how to ask questions so she doesn’t send people to the wrong department, how to handle the front desk when more than one person is waiting, how to do basic purchase requests and the list goes on. I have given her a detailed SOP and sent her to admin training classes to improve her skills. But she doesn’t improve and she continues to mishandle situations. What do I do next — I truly want her to succeed?” — Jo


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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Publius September 9, 2010 at 7:03 am

Maybe you are an insufferable micromanager who gives plentiful uninvited and unnecessary advice in the form of criticism at the most trivial thing?

How about giving her some freedom to do things her way instead of your way?

You as a manager need to take a course in order to learn to delegate. It is an essential management skill. Your micromanagement time is costing the firm by its opportunity cost of what you are not managing when you are wasting time telling her how to wipe her butt when she is already managing the wiping of her butt.

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Rose February 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Unfortunately a lot of us have gone through something like this. We see many that lack the skills of doing their job but, have kept it because of politics or association of friendship with the people in charge. Life is not fair, and we cannot change the world. We should keep on doing our job and making sure we do it right and be glad we at least have a job. Many people would love to have a job right now. People that do not have the skills will eventually come across someone that does not put up with this kind of behavior. Either they learn their job or they don’t have one.

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anon February 18, 2009 at 11:49 am

Agreed 100%

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Sandy February 18, 2009 at 9:13 am

I agree with Amy. Every one has something they are better at than others, be it a clerical assistant or administrative assistant. Once a person has found their niche, and are comfortable with it, they will enjoy their work more and it will show.

But I can’t help wondering if the person that is having trouble with her position is cut out for that job, or maybe she has a learning disability that even she isn’t aware of; or maybe she needs to be supervised hands-on! I prefer to be with a person that needs guidance and personally show them just what is expected of them.

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Babs February 16, 2009 at 9:39 am

Anon,

Your response is helpful. I will consider the meds siutation with one of my team members.

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ELM February 13, 2009 at 6:57 pm

You say you are this person’s supervisor? It sounds like you are not doing your job if this has been going on for two years. I think you should be worried that you may be out the door if you have not shown this woman the ropes yet.
Niceness has nothing to do with it. There are probably other workers doing more than their share to make up for her lack of skills. They are the ones that can see she doesn’t deserve her paycheck. Stop *****-footing around. Tell her what you expect of her and give her a timeline. If she doesn’t catch on by the deadline, tell her she does not measure up and fire her, before your own manager gets rid of you.

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Eliza, PHR February 13, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Reading many of the comments I am realizing that developing an employee is not the norm at many of the companies. The first question to Jo is: how did you handle the “not up-to-par” performance on her various evaluations? Did you, as a supervisor, set short and long term goals to be met and defined the repercussions of metting or not meeting them? Did you follow up on the goals? If not, then this is your first step. I would ask your secretary if there is anything you can do to assist her in meeting the newly set up goals, however, do NOT ask point-blank about medications, illnesses, or other personal information. It is not your place and will open you up to a legal action against you should you terminate the employee with that knowledge.

If, however, your secretary will tell you that she is taking medication or she has a medical condition – then ADA rulling applies whether or not you can make the required accomodations to allow her to continue in her present duties.

As always, when in doubt about ADA, speak with your HR department and perhaps utilize a legal advice from an attorney familiar with ADA.

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Kris February 13, 2009 at 11:00 am

All of the comments so far have been dead on. If a person can not learn their duties after several attempts of training, it is time to let her go. You need to be honest with her. There should always be a grace period, but I think 2 years is way too long.

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JFS February 9, 2009 at 10:31 am

Why must you keep training someone who does not want to learn her job role for years? Unless the employee is a personal friend and one does not want to fire her but is willing to continue to do her workload until your exhausted and frustrated at yourself. Perhaps a demotion and/or terminate employee as there are many other qualified applicants out there who can do the job.

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Mark February 7, 2009 at 8:27 am

It quite frankly sounds to me like this job is not right for this person. I would have put her through the progressive discipline process that your firm uses, and if she still doesn’t start doing the job right, it is time to fire her or transfer her to another position she can actually do correctly.

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Jim Collison, Emloyers of America, Inc. February 6, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Stop “mothering” and coddling the employee. You don’t help her succeed by tolerating her poor performance.
What to do? Prepare in advance for a frank, serious conversation with her. Your goal is to (1) tell her in specific detail where and how she falls short in her performance, (2) tell her in specific detail what level of performance her position requires, (3) explore with her how she might cease her poor performance and achieve the performance required.
Be prepared to learn that there might be some mental or physical cause for her “scatterbrained” behaviors. Might she be affected by attention deficient hyperactive disorder, for example? If so, be prepared to explore ways to accommodate her disability and to assist her in receiving medical support.
If there is no health-related cause for her unacceptable performance and if she is not motivated to change her ways, then there definitely is a mismatch between the employee and the position.
Is her hyperactive behavior style one that would allow her to achieve well in another position? If such a position is not available, then termination is the answer.

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Jackeline February 6, 2009 at 2:49 pm

We had a similiar situation at my work. We hired two new employees at the same time to work at the front desk. One was able to catch on, and the other had a hard time. She earnestly tried since she knew she was messing up, but could not “catch on”. She finally gave her two weeks resignation after several months.

The above suggestions are helpful and I hope you will do them. If she’s been there fore two years and still hasn’t shown a sign of improvement, then it’s time to let her go.

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kit February 6, 2009 at 2:31 pm

2 years and she STILL hasn’t learned the basics of her job? No one is THAT nice! You can find another nice AND qualified person for that position.

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Kristie February 6, 2009 at 2:27 pm

I wonder how much time/money it has cost your company to send this gal to the multiple training seminars and repeat the same procedures over and over to this employee… I know that especially in todays economy, both time and money seem to be quite thin at the workplace. I’m very surprised that any employer could put up with this for 2 years!

Have you tried talking to this employee? I’ve been in the same situation – with an employee that just didn’t take the job seriously. We had a sit-down meeting with him and basically said that either he needed to learn the job that he’d been in for almost 6 months or that we would have to find someone capable of doing the job without the amount of supervision and attention he was requiring.

Who knows – maybe a talk (putting her on 6 month probationary period) would be a good ‘wake-up’ call for your employee & the catalyst she needs to start doing her job the way it should be done.

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SuperStar February 6, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Email her a copy of your remarks and everyone’s reply. What more does she need. Maybe drug testing???

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Anon February 6, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Maybe this employee can’t “succeed”. Back in the day, we had an employee who had a wonderful personality, but couldn’t really do the work. Because nobody dealt with this issue, when her salary increase was less than her co-workers she left the company for a “better” job elsewhere, from which she was fired in less than a year because she couldn’t do the work. My suggestion, if you have done this already: meet with her and provide her with a list of tasks and how to do them and with a deadline for accomplishing them. If she can’t do it, then let her go. It doesn’t help you with the rest of the employees who are capable to let her slide. The only caveat: perhaps there is a health issue in which her medication is making her “scattered”. Blood pressure meds often have this effect. Another possibility: her learning style: some people have to learn hands-on, by doing, while others can learn from a written document. Whatever the issue is, you have to confront it. Good luck.

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ANON February 6, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Are you sure you want her to succeed? Sounds like all you are doing is a lot of hand-holding. You need to address inappropriate behavior as soon as it happens and have her tell you what she thinks was inappropriate and/or incorrect. This way you aren’t always helping her and telling her the correct way to handle a certain situation. If she has been with the company for two years, she should know the policies and procedures. There should be no reason for continued hand-holding.

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Amy February 6, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Unfortunately, some people just don’t get it no matter how much training or support you give them. They can be the nicest people on earth but just aren’t the brightest crayons in the box. If you’ve been training her and helping her for 2 years and she still can’t do the job correctly, she isn’t the right person, no matter how nice and pleasant she is.

In our company, we had somewhat of a similar problem. We transferred the very nice, likeable person to a job that she could do well – putting away supplies, cleaning up the kitchen, running all the mail through the postage machine – very straightforward tasks – she became more of a clerical assistant rather than an adminsitrative assistant – she still has a job and is good at it.

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celt365 February 6, 2009 at 2:21 pm

I agree with Angel. I would also let her go if the answer is d).

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Angel February 6, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Just because people are nice doesn’t mean they do their jobs well… or have the skills or aptitude suitable to the position. My first question would be what are you doing to coach her when she does something wrong? You keep telling her the right thing to do, but is she corrected when she does the wrong thing? Does she know the specific behavior that is the problem? It seems as though it is reoccurring, which means a) she doesn’t know what she’s doing wrong, b) she doesn’t know how to correct it, c) she doesn’t have the skill or ability to correct it/do it right, or d) she doesn’t care. So, which one is it? If it’s b) or c), it’s time to let her go. Nice people get fired all the time.

I would sit down with her and explicitly discuss with her the exact behaviors that are the problem, suggest how to fix it, and provide a warning (of sorts) that if these issues continue, she will be subject to disciplinary action. TELL HER you like her. TELL HER you want her to succeed. But also tell her that her haviors are a real problem and that she may not be right for the position.

The most important thing to remember here is that YOU are the supervisor. Her actions — positive or negative — reflect on you and your ability to manage and develop her performance. Do you really want her ruining your career?

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