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Disciplining an incompetent admin

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in Your Office Coach

Question:  “I recently hired an administrative assistant who makes a lot of mistakes. Two months ago, I told her that this was unacceptable and that she must be more vigilant about proofing her work.  Everything was fine for a few weeks, but then the errors started again. Yesterday, she mailed an important letter to the wrong address. I sign these letters, but I shouldn’t have to proofread them.  Now I feel that I have to review everything she does. I don’t trust her work, but I can’t afford to lose her. Any suggestions?” — Unhappy Boss

Marie’s Answer: You can’t afford to lose her?  I’d say you can’t afford to keep her. Here are some points to consider:

•    By performing acceptably after your initial warning, your assistant demonstrated her ability to do the job. The problem is that she’s obviously not self-motivated.  

•    Given her level of incompetence, you need to resolve this issue quickly. Consult your boss or human resources manager about the best way to replace her.  

•    To avoid repeating this scenario, you need to recognize that you actually created this problem by making a hiring error. Since you chose someone who was a poor fit for the job, there was apparently something wrong with your selection process.

•    When filling future vacancies, list all the abilities required by the job. Look for applicants with relevant experience and a strong work history. Conduct in-depth interviews, test skills with specific work samples and check out references.  

If you neglect these steps and “go with your gut,” you may soon find yourself filling the same position again.

To improve your employee selection process, see How to Hire Better People.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Gwen July 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm

I believe it would be to your benefit to not only replace your assistant with someone who has a strong work history and recommendations from previous employers, but also offer some skill tests during the interview process. Have the applicanttake dictation, compose letters for you, proofread documents, etc. and see if he/she passes the test. Everyone makes the occasional mistake, but to have continual errors as you describe from someone in an Administrative Assistant position is unacceptable.


Pat July 7, 2010 at 12:41 pm

I completely understand your frustration, however, I would suggest you take inventory of her unique strengths utilize her accordingly. She may have excellent customer service, or better at numbers then spelling, perhaps she shines in being honest, gets to work on time and works hard. If she is doing a great job in those areas perhaps with patience, encouragement and time she will work out. If not you may want to keep her by utilizing her part time and hiring some else who is skilled in the area you need also working part-time. How you communicate with her can also make all the difference in the world. You have to be firm, but kind, point out the error but also give her a few tips and let her know that you believe she can do it. Encourage professionalism in all aspects of her job, from her how she looks, answers the phone, email, and especially proofreading everything before it goes out. One other tip to give her is to create templates that are perfectly written where all she has to do is make a few changes using merging in Microsoft Word. By using a template you can create the letter yourself or let her know which template to use for the specific response you want to send out. Well I hope it works out for you both.


Joyce July 7, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Nip it in the bud. Generally people try to do their best when they first start a new job, so this could be a sign of things to come. If you’re unhappy as the boss, chances are pretty good she is making others unhappy as well. If she is a poor performer and you hang on to her, your image can be tarnished not just externally, but also internally, and this may have an affect on morale somewhere down the line.


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