Q. I’m director of property management for a retail company and I’m having serious problems with my secretary. It started when I got promoted to my current position and she seemed unhappy. When I tried to ask her about it, she would get very aggressive. Then she started to miss work frequently. One possible explanation is that she’s jealous of me—she may feel she can do my job and resents my promotion. How can I improve communications with such a difficult person? Is there a point when it’s too late and she should be fired?

A. The first step is to avoid playing amateur psychologist by trying to unearth why your secretary is behaving so aggressively. There could be many reasons that explain her behavior, some of which may have little or nothing to do with you. You can only manage her external behavior, not her internal feelings. In any case, your role isn’t to dig for cause-effect relationships that explain her change in attitude. You need to encourage her to perform her job more effectively and meet certain standards. That means focusing her attention on clear, measurable, observable accountabilities such as attendance. Document her absences and quantify them by numbers of hours missed and the days of the week she was out. (Employees with absenteeism problems tend to miss Mondays and Fridays the most, and when managers point this out the workers may improve.) Regardless of how difficult she is, you should remind her of the specific job requirements and—in a supportive, nonthreatening manner— discuss what will happen if she does not meet those requirements. Begin with phrases, such as “This job requires that you perform these tasks. . .” or, “While I understand you’re not happy with certain things here, your position requires that you fulfill these duties in a professional manner. . .” (and then refer to an official, printed list of job accountabilities). You’ll know you’ve reached the point when it’s too late to salvage her when you’ve given her ample opportunities to bounce back (but she hasn’t), and then you’ve sent at least two probation memos that clearly and unambiguously spell out exactly how her performance needs to improve within a specified time frame—and the consequences if she does not improve.

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