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Ask Erica Vol. 2 – Reluctant Workers and Incompetent Assistants

May 2, 2009

In this week’s column, there are two anonymous questions and they are both about work and careers. I am halfway to legitimate!

How do you deal with a job you have absolutely no motivation for and actually don’t even need, but feel obligated to stay?

This is kind of interesting. I find that when giving advice, there are usually a lot more questions than there are answers. Depending on why you feel obligated to stay may help shape some reasons for getting up and schlepping to work in the morning. I am going to assume it’s some sort of awesome reason – like you signed a (non-enforceable) contract, or baby penguins are saved or something. I am also going to assume that there’s some sort of clear end-point. If there isn’t? Then just do it. People get divorced, you can end a job you think is crappy.

But – assuming the end is in sight,and leaving really isn’t a good option, I am afraid the answer that can apply in a lot of different situations:  Put on a happy face. Look, being miserable and showing it isn’t going to do any good. And doing a job, but doing it half-assed is just going to hurt your morale and make you spiral into miserableness even more  – and isn’t doing the company any favors. So, smile and do a good job. You never know what may come of this – you don’t need the job, but maybe you run into some one who can help you out somewhere else, or maybe you develop a skill you weren’t looking for, but comes in handy.  And then, when it ends – you can end it cleanly and professionally and have some pride in a job well done. And complete.

Another option (possibly to be used concurrently to smiling) is to talk to your employer. Maybe they aren’t too thrilled with you either? You don’t have to flat-out quit, but maybe suggest that this pairing may not have been a great fit for either party and is there anything you can do to improve the situation. They can either then gracefully fire you, or maybe, just maybe – make it better! Good luck.

I have a Sales Assistant who for all intents and purposes is a complete corporate retard, and on top of that is totally incompetent. I find myself fantasizing about squeezing her head when we have conversations like this:

Me: Call [Company Name] and get the Division 17 specifications sent to you via email
*Paint chip snacking Sales Assistant: Well Bella, I just looked at the Division 23 spec real quick and it says “HVAC Installation”
Me: Hortense, I just went through the entire 472 page document — something that you should have done yesterday and I need the Division 17.
*Paint chip snacking Sales Assistant: Maybe you misread, it says “HVAC Installation”
Me: Maybe you don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t do “HVAC Installation”. Now, why don’t you just do it my way and call [ company] and request the Division 17 specs

*Names have been changed as a means for me not to lose my job.

After this conversation I was 2 things, completely unsatisfied with my conduct, and still seething from the fact that she’s a moron and that I feel I should be getting 50% of her paycheck. What is a girl to do?

Some email clarification revealed that while “Bella” does have authority over the Sales Assistant’s employment, she would like to try to learn to be a better manager, and see if this could be salvaged. With that in mind – Eeek!

My initial thought is that while this girl may not be the brightest eco-friendly bulb in the box, there is some sort of power struggle here. She wants to be appear intelligent and show you that she knows her stuff, and she is being combative. It sounds like she learned it from watching you!

This conversation is a little telling. Some of these issues may be related, but they are brought together in one cringing jumble. I would have rather you asked why she thought HVAC was part of the description if that’s not something you do. Maybe that could help determine how or why she is reading these reports incorrectly. And if she did not do something that was requested of her by a deadline, was this mentioned to her in another conversation? Did she not do this because she was overworked? Unsure of how to do it, but afraid to ask?

It is important to document work-related behavior, both as a paper back-up and to be fair to the person being reprimanded, so they are clear that they are on shaky ground and given a chance to improve. But it sounds to me like this issue is probably more personality based than it is actual knowledge (though no less of a problem).

I wish there was a relationship reset button. It’s important for the company’s sake that you two work as a team, and if there is animosity or one-upmanship, it is the company and the clients who are going to lose.

Schedule a meeting with her. Ask her what her long-term goals are and where she thinks she can improve.  She may have some in mind, but come prepared with some areas that you  know she needs improvement.

Then, help her improve. Maybe explain how on a personal level, you learned this stuff from the ground-up, and give her some tips to keep what could be complicated new terms and jargon organized. Were there books you read that helped? Give her some measurable goals that she can achieve. Then ask her what you can do to help her achieve those goals. Make sure some of them have a set end-date so that you can determine if they were a success. Check in with her, periodically to see how she is progressing and if she needs additional resources or support.

I hope this helps, and please feel free to write for more clarification. Does anyone else have any advice for the Unmotivated Worker, or the Supervisor of the Paint Chip Eater?

To get some advice of your own, submit a question in the comments or email me at If you prefer to remain anonymous, just let me know.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 2, 2009 7:28 am

    Supervisor of the incompetent assistant: As her manager, you need to manage her; it sounds like you’re acting like you have no authority here, like you’re helpless over the situation.

    Managing her means: Talk to her about the issues you see, clearly spell out the bar that you need her meet, and let her know the consequences of not meeting it. Then stick to what you say. If she needs help, get it for her — within reason (only a certain amount of handholding is appropriate before you conclude that the fit isn’t right). But part of your job is to address problems head-on, give her feedback on her performance, and hold her accountable to meeting a reasonably high bar. If she can’t/won’t after you’ve spoken with her candidly a few times, then you need to transition her out so that you can find someone who does a good job.

    That’s all more easily said than done, of course, if you’ve never done it before. So seek help, either from your boss or a mentor or from books/Web sites on managing problem employees. But don’t put up with a crappy performance for too long — the opportunity cost is too great, when you could have someone great in her chair instead.

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