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Need advice handling difficult employee

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Question: I have been struggling with this issue for ... well, years.

I am an administrative secretary to the director of my department. A few months after I was hired (five years ago), they opened up a position for a receptionist. We hired a woman who seemed bubbly and friendly: no problem with answering the phones and handling the mail. After hiring her, the director decided that I would be her supervisor (without any change in title or increase in pay).

Within the next year, she started having crying jags because her grandmother was sick. By the second year into her service, she got much worse. She was acting very oddly -- manic -- and then, she started becoming adversarial and started making claims that people were following her ... including helicopters. She was having hallucinations.

Within a month, she seemed to have a complete breakdown and collapsed on the floor, writhing and crying and begging for help.

One of the assistant directors helped get her to a psychiatric hospital. She was hospitalized and out on leave for about four or five months. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She had been prescribed medication previous to her breakdown, but we suspect that she stopped taking her medication.

She came back to work part time and gradually increased her schedule back to full time. And we accommodated her, allowing her to take the time off for all of her doctor appointments.

I feel for her, tremendously. I have friends who have had serious mental health problems. I understand how debilitating it can be and how important it is for her to have stability and a steady paycheck. I have wanted to help her.

Within the year after she came back from her leave, she seemed to be doing better. But then, slowly, she started sliding back to that unstable place. She comes to work dressed totally inappropriately: in flip-flops, sweat pants and t-shirts, many times. She walks around barefoot more and more frequently. He mannerisms and voice become very exaggerated and, well, odd.

She is constantly up and down from her desk, going into the kitchen, asking to use the bathroom eight to 15 times a day. (She does get an hour for lunch and two 15-minute breaks, as well). She has been in the negative for her sick time for several months now. She doesn't have any vacation or sick time left because of all the time that she has taken off (not doctor-related; I let her make up that time). A number of times, she come into work hours late, without getting an OK beforehand and with no plausible explanation.

I have spoken to her several times. I have written her up and had her sign the letter. I have kept records of all the problem behavior. I have contacted our employee assistance program on several occasions. She went to see them (at my request) on numerous occasions. I have talked to my boss; she basically doesn't want to have anything to do with the situation. I have researched the issues of bipolar disorders and the workplace on the internet, but it is mostly from the perspective of the person afflicted with the illness.

I am trying very hard to work with this situation. I can see, though, that it is unlikely to get any better. And it is really frustrating me and wearing me down.

To top it off, my boss has me cover for this receptionist whenever she is away from her desk or out for the day. So, not only do I have to deal with this very frustrating and delicate situation, but I am the one who has to compensate for her shortcomings by covering for her all of the time.

Frankly, I find all of this very unfair.

Even if I asked my boss to take over supervising this employee, it would not help me. My boss has a reputation for NOT dealing with anything. She is the proverbial head in the sand. If I was no longer this employee's supervisor, I am guessing it would just get worse and then I wouldn't be able to do anything to improve the situation.

It seems as though my only option is to continue to deal with this on a day-to-day basis or look for a new job.

I know this is a mouthful, but perhaps someone has experienced something similar.

Keep in mind, though, that this is not just another difficult employee who can be disciplined and eventually fired if they don't comply. It is not that simple. She has a mental illness and she is a union employee on top of that. It isn't that I want to fire her, but it has been literally years that this is going on now. I can't take it much more.

Any suggestions?  -- Susan


This should be dealt with by your HR department and legal advice - are you aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act?

You have been placed in an extremely delicate situation, and you deserve a huge gold star for handling this with so much diplomacy. You really need some guidance from HR, but it sounds like you aren't getting the support you need from them or from your manager. Is there a way to bring in a temp to cover for her as needed? Perhaps a part-time person could be brought in to give you added support so that you don't have to cover during her absences. In the meantime, continue to document the situation in detail. Perhaps it's time for HR to suggest a long-term disability leave.

As you have documented everything. Give to HR and let them handle it from there. We just recently went thru this and if all the documentation is there and her signatures are acknowledging all that is being advised to her, our legal consultant gave us options to offer to this employee. Ours ended up giving this person a year, with a signed agreement. documentation was done and this person did not last the year. Things got no better, but since he signed the agreement to improve within the year and did not, we were within our legal rights. DOCUMENT is the most important with SIGNATURES

You should get your resume together and move on for your own sanity.


You are with a business, not social services. Don't get me wrong, I know folks that are bipolar and I also know that they are notorious for not taking their meds. THEY HAVE TO TAKE THEIR MEDS...THAT IS THEIR RESPONSIBILITY, NOT YOURS. You have bent over backwards to help this woman. You don't owe her a job. She needs to meet her responsibilites or she should be let go. I think you need to give her an ultimatum. If she can't fulfill her responsibilities then you need to find someone who can. DEFINITELY get counsel from HR/legal. Part of being a good supervisor is having the backbone to make really hard decisions. I applaud you for how good you have been to this woman and she needs to respond in kind.

Dear Susan
I was in exactly the same position. My life was hell for over 5 years. I also didn't have the support of hr or management. I was with the company 5 years previously and loved my job. Unfortunately, management changed and so did the cooperation in scheduling the switchboard. I didn't want to to leave because of my friendships, working relationships and my tenure with the company. I do regret that all now. Do yourself a favor and get out while you can. It doesn't get better.

#1 - You've gone above and beyond doing the right thing to handle this situation. Kudos to you for trying so hard!

#2 - Definitely hand this issue off to HR ASAP, especially since this is a union employee. Her union (working within the Americans with Disabilities Act) has the resources (or should) to help her through whatever treatment she needs and HR should be able to facilitate covering her job duties.

#3 - I disagree completely with Susan. If you like your job other than this problem, there's no reason for you to leave. Unless, that is, you feel you can't respect your boss for her lack of help.

#4 - You may also wish to inform HR about the steps you've personally taken and the lack of support you've gotten from your supervisor during these trying times. This is a serious situation and she is obligated to protect all her employees -- including you.

Best of luck. I hope you're able to hand this issue over to HR immediately and get this giant weight off your shoulders.

Susan - I applaud you for all you have done and for asking this question. I am looking at this from the other side. I have clinical depression (not bipolar) and I know that it affects everyone in the office when it's bad. And yes ... I do take my medication everyday. However, there are times when it just does not have the necessary effect on me. As the person with depression I have struggled about how to handle my job when it is almost impossible to get out of bed. There are days that work is almost impossible to accomplish. I have the fortune to be higher up in my company and am given the freedom to come and go as I feel I need to. I have been with this company for 21 years and have been dealing with this depression for the last 4 years. I have really struggled with this issue as I know that it is not fair to the other employees to see me coming and going and I know that they feel they are picking up the slack for me (and in some cases they are). I have wondered from an employers stand point how do you handle an employee with depression. It can be a long term illness and yet it is not fair to expect special treatment from your employer forever. Should they be fired for an illness they may have no control over? Should the depressed person quit because they can't handle it every day? What allowances can be made for the depressed person? And at what cost to the other employees? As I understand it, the number of people with depression keeps growing which means this is an issue that employers will be having to address more and more.
I am very interested to be reading the responses of everyone. I know and understand that there is a lot of anger when you feel you are having to work double time to make up for someone.

It sounds like you have a very kind heart as opposed to some of the others that have posted.
In our company, I would work with HR and find another job that this employee will be able to handle.
It really sounds like you want to help her, not have her fired, I'm sure there is a job that she could do with her disability.
God bless you for the kindness and consideration you have shown her. Even though it has worn you down to where you think it is unfair, you have done a very honorable thing for a sick person. (whether she had cancer or bipolar, she is still sick) That should make you feel very good about yourself whatever happens.
We could all learn a lesson from what you have done.

Kudos to you for having a caring heart! As I read your posting, a couple of things stand out. First (even though it is kind of late to be mentioning it) you probably should have renegotiated your job description or at the very least your pay rate if your boss was going to add to your job responsibilities. At this point you should involve your HR dept. that is what they get paid for. If you have no HR dept. your boss should handle it or at least assist you in handling it further. That is what she gets paid for. It sounds like you have done a great job so far in documenting everything. The company you work for has clients or a base that they provide services or products to. It is a business, however, they must be capable of dealing with employees on all levels of needs. They should care about how the two situations intertwine. Good luck

Dealing with an employee's mental health issues is extremely is very important that you consult with your organization's legal consel through the HR Department. HR should be involved.

I worked with a woman who became very ill suddenly, she was diagnosed with MS. In addition, she would have some really uncontrollable mood swings but when she wasn't having her mood swings she was one of the best co-workers. The illness was especially difficult for her because it progressed rapidly and she had a small child to care for. This of course did not help her depression. I applaud you for not wanting to fire her after all she has an illness. I think HR should be involved since your manager has chosen not to respond to this issue. Perhaps she is taking her meds but the affect it has on her has changed. Some people with mental illnesses have to continue to change their meds. Its a sensitive subject, not sure you want to go right to her and discuss her taking her meds, she may not react the way you would expect. As for quitting, I wouldn't, but if you feel as though there's no other way, you may feel otherwise. Continue being sympathetic to this woman's problem. I'm sure she wishes things could be better. Perhaps she should work part-time until her condition improves. Be sure to take this matter to your supervisor one more time and then let her know that you're going to contact HR. I wish you much success in handling this situation.

I would just like to add to my previous post. A few years ago I had a chronic illness that made it difficult to function. I had a wonderful boss who was very flexible with my hours and as long as I put my 40 hrs in and got my work done, he didn't care when I came in or how often I had to go to the doctor. And on my end, I did everything medically I could to be functional and get my work done. I owed that to myself and my boss.

So when I hear someone who has an illness but is not doing what they need to do to meet their obligations, I can't help but think why do you owe her a job? If she was doing all that she could on her end, I would be much more compassionate in my response. It is one thing for an employee to be doing all that they can and still have some "bad days." It's another thing to have lots of bad days because you aren't being responsible.


To both yours and Diane's comment, I, too, have clinical depression/anxiety as well as Crohn's Disease. While I take the prescribed medications, I have good and bad days which are totally not within my control. I have suffered tremendously over the years not only from these illnesses, but from co-workers and in-human bosses. I had a hard time getting out of bed and was frequently late, however, I did everything to make up my work even if meant taking it home. My struggle was over when the pharmaceutical company closed our district sales offices throughout the US. After I left there, I decided my best solution was to work from home. Certainly you have done everything possible for her and in this instance, I have to agree with the others regarding taking this to HR for resolution. It is not your job to take this on and you shouldn't feel badly. Take your documentation and go to HR. In the meantime, you are welcome to check out my website and consider a multiple stream of never know what is going to happen at your company.

This is an extremely delicate situation, her condition falls under the disability act, which can unfairly negatively affect the company. It must be a struggle for you each day, feeling real sympathy for your employee and also wanting/needing to do what's best for the company and yourself. Documentation is and will be extremely important in this situation, the more the better. Document every conversation with her, even small, and have her sign everything!! I would although seek legal advise from a law firm that handles employment issues. They have helped us with situations that are delicate and it was very helpful to know and have advise that you are doing all that you can. I do think however, that it is time to make a choice;

1. Choice being taking the legal steps to untie her from your company because, this is not you or the companies problem forever especially because she is not doing her part to improve herself and work habits. But definetly get legal advise!!!

2. Choice is if the company doesn't provide you legal advise or the needed aid in this matter, then I would look for another job in the meatime. Once you have found another job inform your supervisor of their choice, you or her. See what happens, it may get their attention.

Good Luck

As someone who works in the mental health field, I had several comments. As far as one post saying bipolar patients are notorious for not taking meds, that's an overgeneralized, false statement. Many mental health patients with varying types of illnesses struggle with taking meds for many reasons: severe side effects, going through a manic phase where they feel invincible and don't need meds, going through a schizophrenic period where meds don't exist in their world, etc...As far as the question at hand, I would also suggest going through legal and HR departments. It is as discriminating to repeatedly give someone preferance due to an illness as much as it is discriminating to treat them poorly for having one. If this person is so disabled by her mental illness that she cannot be an accountable, responsible worker, than social security/disability/other benefits may be her solution. Many people who struggle with mental illnesses find that they are so disabled by them that they cannot work at all or that they can only function in specific jobs. It is not only unfair but unprofessional to expect the rest of the workforce to constantly pick up the slack, regardless of why the slack is there. I agree with the previous post that it is business. Trust me, I feel for her as you obviously do. But in the mental health field we also help people gain control over their mental health and remind them that it is not an excuse. She should be treated in the same way as any other employee. If she cannot do her job, she should not be there.

You should definitely hand this issue to HR and Legal, with a notice to the union. If there is no job that this person can do in your company, perhaps she should retire on disability. It's not fair to her, to you, to your company that you have to deal with this issue. Let the professionals handle it. Also, when you submit all your documentation to HR, submit documentation to show that you have had increased responsibilities (being supervisor) outside of your normal job description and try to get a revised job description with more money. (Of course, you will do the online and offline research to back up your request). Good luck and you should feel very good about your big heart.


I completely understand where you are coming from as I have been there with you. I would suggest asking to hire a part time receptionist and splitting the work week between them; the new hire can take on her part time job and parts of what is not getting done by the current employee. Eventually coming to the point where the current receptionist is working as little as possible. In my case it worked and she eventually turned in her resignation within 6 months.

It would appear that you have done, and are continuing to do, all that is humanly possible for this person. I commend you for your efforts and encourage you to continue keeping detailed records of all things related to the person and her work.

There is not easy solution; however, there is a way to ease the effects on you and your company by simply trying to alleviate some of the negative effects, on both you and the company, of this unfortunate situation.

Good luck!

Her being in a union and having a mental illness should not have anything to do with the situation. You have an employee that has violated several policies and procedures. How was she out for 4-5 months? FMLA only calls for 12 weeks, after that an employee can be terminated. If she has not put in a request for special accommodations then the ADA is not a factor, and even if it is, at this point her termination would be totally on job performance and failure to follow policies and procedures. My suggestion would be to speak to the union rep. and let him or her know of what you will be doing and try to make the process as smooth as possible, but it doesn't seem like you have any choice but to terminate her and if you don't, it seems like an unjustice to everyone else. Also you are setting a precident. If you let her come in late, why is it that someone else cant' come in late. If you let her take 15 breaks a day, why is it that someone else can't take 15 breaks a day. You need to nip this in the bud NOW!!!

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