If Your Performance Does Not Improve, Bye-Bye!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about frustrating beginning and prospect of an unhappy departure.

About two months ago, I started my job in the sales and marketing department of a company that invents and manufacturers them. A new product launch was underway when I was first hired leaving very little time for training on certain procedures of the company and software programs. After 8 days on the job helping as much as possible for everyone to prepare for the product launch meetings, I was left alone putting together binders containing the new sales collateral and ALL of my resources were out of town at the product launch meetings which were going to last for several days.

An instruction sheet was left behind with a table of contents that told me the order that the materials needed to go into the different binders. I was dealing with two different targeted groups, so even though the collateral looked very similar, the pieces were different. Even though things were moving fast and furious, I felt I could handle the challenge and went about gathering the information I needed the first day to pull the project together. (The deadline was in 3 days).

When I began pulling the information together, it stated on the instruction sheet that I would be getting the majority of my information from a specified person in the shipping department. This person’s job was to inventory all new sales materials for the different products and since this was a new product line, all the material was brand new, had never been inventoried. I called her on her extension only to find out she was not in for the day. (This was Wednesday).

I panicked. I called my contacts that were at the big meeting out of town and was greeted with little sympathy. I was told she would be back in the office the next day (Thurs.) and I could get with her then to get my information. I was able to get the binders in shape for the project, but lacked the bulk of the information that was going to make this a time consuming project. I did as much as I possibly could and then worked on other assignments as the job answers to 3 directors, 2 of who were still in the office and needing my help as well.Day 2, I called the shipping area and managed to get most of the material I needed to put the binders together, but because the information was so new and not even the person in shipping was familiar with it, it took us both more time than I could afford to get things together.

Day 3 – last day, I had most of the materials I needed to start putting the collateral in the binders, but some pieces were not even going to be ready until 2pm, 4pm and 5pm, right off the press so to speak. The person who had developed the collateral came back from the meeting on Friday (day 3) and first insulted me by saying she thought I would have it all put together by this point except of course for those items that were not yet ready. Her statement bothered me, and I went into her office and explained the obstacles I had encountered and why I felt the project was not going as planned.

She was moody and short with me and started telling me how I must learn to multi-task. Hmmmmmmm……with 20+ years in the work force and working as an admin. assistant I defend myself my reminding her I had only been on the job 10 days, was unfamiliar with the new sales literature, as was the person in shipping, and that I felt as if all of my resources who could have helped me had abandoned me and the project.By my defending myself, I knew it could go one to two ways.

Either I would gain respect by being assertive or I would be hated for having the nerve to speak my mind.I stayed at work on the day of the deadline until 7pm. I did not break for lunch and no one ever offered help, so I knew it was up to me to get the job done. When I left that evening, the “project manager” thanked me for all my help and her attitude toward me seemed kinder. I left that evening feeling good about having pulled the project together. I thought things would move forward and it would be thought that I was a team player…etc…etc…..That’s not what happened.

One week later (21 days on the job) the HR department sent a spokesperson to by building to ask me what happened. He had heard “things” were not going so good for me. I told him very little not wanting to call names or blame anyone for my first 2 weeks being disastrous. I went to one of my Directors and confided in her over the situation and she suggested I go back to HR and tell the whole story, so I did.I was not accusatory, but did state that I felt the owners of the project had abandoned me and I was left having the take responsibility.

I did explain that I wanted to move forward, put the incident behind me and be a team player and do the best job I could for the company. I was thanked by the HR spokesperson and told that the information would go no further, but he was glad I came forth.For the next weeks, I guess the word got out that I was a slow learner, and I was not “getting it”.

Little did I know that every question I asked or every thing I did was being scrutinized. I thought things were going very well, as I was completing assignments on time, getting along well with the group, my Directors were thanking me for being proactive in my suggestions for certain projects and meetings. I even went to one of my directors and sat down and asked if there were any upcoming events I needed to be aware of, or anything forthcoming I needed to start preparing for….etc…etc…..I went home everyday feeling confident that the job I was doing was a good one.

I felt I had mastered the software program I was having to learn “by the seat of the pants method.” I had made a couple of minor mistakes (in the outlook system setting up 1 meeting) but nothing that wasn’t correctable and nothing serious. I noticed the other administrators making the same errors who had been on the job 9 – 10 years. On December 23rd, I was called into a meeting by the VP of the sales and marketing department and HR spokesperson and told that my “Directors” had grave concern about my performance on the job. Ironically, no one in my department was in the building for they had all taken PTO for the holidays and being new, I could not take any PTO. They (the VP and HR spokesperson) seemed to feel I just wasn’t “getting it.” He quoted things I had heard said about me as far back as 11/6/04 about me asking things over and over again, and it was noticed I didn’t have a handle on outlook program for setting up meetings. He said I had 2 weeks to turn things around with my Directors, and if after that my performance did not improve, he would discuss separating me from the company.

I was shocked, devastated, confused and very hurt and it must have shown, because he asked if I was aware my directors felt this way. I told him and the HR spokesperson that all this came as a complete shock. I told them both I was hurt and confused and felt there was something else underlying that I wasn’t being told. I said I had received nothing but compliments and praise from my Directors and even a note at Christmas from one of my Directors that stated in his own handwriting that he was really glad I was here.

I instantly sent an email to my directors explaining the meeting I had just had with the VP and HR spokesperson and requested a meeting with each of them so I could discuss how I could possible turn their opinions of me around. Because of the holidays, the meetings will not take place until after New Years.

I have let this ruin my Christmas and New Years. I am feeling as if they do not want me to begin with. I am worried I will be fired. I feel I have been labeled a “bimbo” unjustly. I don’t know what I should or should not say to each of them in the forthcoming meeting. I want to go into the meeting prepared and with a positive attitude, but fear for some reason, they have already made up their minds to get rid of me. I am almost 50 years old and know that finding another job at this stage of my life is going to be hard.I apologize for this being so long and drawn out. I need advice and help and really don’t know what direction to turn in. Can you offer any advice on what I should and should not say in the meeting and how I can hold my head up when I know everyone is looking at me like I’m stupid and can’t do the job.

Signed, Not Looking Forward To Monday

Dear Not Looking Forward To Monday:

Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. It’s New Year’s Eve, but I felt compelled to take a few moments to share some thoughts with you. I hope you’re able to enjoy your evening and find some peace about this frustrating matter. We will hope that this year will start better than the way the last ended, in your work situation. And hopefully the other aspects of your life are more positive right now and give you strength for meeting this challenge. I’m going to toss out several thoughts that might help you as you prepare for your meeting next week. They may not apply to your situation precisely, but might trigger your own thinking or at least might provide another perspective.

1. Your situation is particularly frustrating because from your viewpoint you’ve been hearing positive things and thought everything was going well—then you get hit with word that things apparently AREN’T going so well. What makes this so difficult is that it could be that your Directors have thought they were doing the right thing all along. Books and articles always talk about praising as a tool. The idea is that if you praise good things you’ll get more of it. Also, most people would far rather commend than correct. When there is a performance issue, supervisors often find themselves praising the slightest good work as a way to say, “See? You can do it!” All of that is well meant, but can leave someone working with a false sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, if an employee is continually corrected and there are frequent conversations about problems, the employee can begin to feel put upon and harassed–and it’s no fun for the supervisors either.

So, the decision about how to handle perceived deficiencies is a difficult one. From your viewpoint, there are few serious deficiencies–and you may be correct. From their viewpoint it seems there are some concerns–and they may be correct too. The key is that apparently you haven’t been told clearly enough what areas ARE of concern and how you could correct those. If you knew, I don’t doubt that you would do whatever it took if it was at all possible. So, your first goal is to find out where the gaps are between what is wanted from you and what you are now doing.

What you want is the truth, so that you can deal with it–rather than compliments to make you feel good, but behind the scenes complaining. If your HR person has talked about separation, there must be quite a gap between expectations and reality! No business wants to hire someone, and then start all over three months later! I hope you will make it your first order of business to determine the size of that gap!

2. Have you worked in a setting like this before? Could it be that former work environments have been so much different than this one that the approaches you used before simply don’t work well here?A company that invents, manufactures and markets new items is likely to have a much different kind of work style than other kinds of workplaces. If much younger people surround you their style of doing things may be much different than yours. Younger employees complain about that with their older bosses too!A woman who was having issues similar to yours said that she had always been primarily responsible for taking care of one part of a process. In her new job she had to take care of something through several stages and on a short time-line. She was overwhelmed by it all and discovered she didn’t like working like that.

Job fit can be crucial for job success. It may be that you’ve worked in this same setting many times, but the personalities were different. Frankly, some of the approaches you’ve mentioned by Directors don’t sound very helpful or considerate. It could be that is part of the problem. It could be they’re just frustrated and showing it. Do you know anything about the person who was there before you? If he or she was stellar and they felt close to that person, it could be that you are simply trying to fill shoes that don’t fit at this point! If that person is available to contact, maybe you could do so and find out if there are ways you could be more effective. If no one has had that role before, it could be that the Directors had expectations that no one could meet. In one office a new person was hired as an Administrative Assistant and those with whom she worked each had a different view of her role. All of them thought she’d be their personal servant!You may be working under that disadvantage! Sadly, you may not be able to overcome or correct that problem. However, perhaps the meeting would bring that issue out.

3. That brings us to the issue of how you have done in similar situations in the past. If you have had similar jobs and done well, do you have copies of evaluations to reflect that? Did a letter of reference refer to your abilities in the area of multi-tasking or getting work done well? Or, have there been concerns expressed in other jobs as well? Have your reference letters been purely fact oriented and lacking in strong accolades? If so, that will provide you with a perspective about what might be happening here. If you have had great prior experiences, you can use that knowledge in a positive way, as I will mention in a moment.

4. It seems that things started off badly with that first project that didn’t go smoothly. How do you think you were perceived when you called people at their off-site function to express concern? What is your communication style in those cases? Do you tend to sound very excited? Angry? Complaining? Victimized? Depressed? Overwhelmed? You said you panicked. Was that obvious in your voice? Could that have given them the wrong impression right away? There’s the old adage that it takes thirty seconds to make a reputation and thirty years to live it down. Maybe that first situation set the stage for what has followed. Likely the Director or Directors you spoke to weren’t happy about being contacted away from the office at a big meeting. It could be that, as it was discussed there, the project manager was made to feel that she had done something wrong or hadn’t left things in good condition. (Which sounds to me to be the case anyway!) So, she came back upset already and feeling that she needed to show that it was someone else’s fault–yours–in order to protect herself.

When you defended yourself, it could be that you were viewed as blaming others rather than focusing on what you did and letting those facts speak for themselves. New employees always are in a tough spot when it comes to such things because they are expected to have confidence–but also some humility about their lowly position! That seems to be the case in many environments and I find it really disturbing! New employees are expected to jump in and start paddling with very few instructions–and then humbly take the blame when they sink! It could be that the person, who took the day off while you were working on the project, was chided about it and was not positive about you as a result. That could have had some ill effects as well. Perhaps not–but it is possible. So, once again, the very first project created contention that still may be hurting you. That project likely was stressful for everyone and they don’t even realize that their stress ended up damaging the foundation you were trying to establish in your new job.

5. What else might be going on? Be your harshest critic for a moment–not that you need additional grief right now!–and evaluate other things that might be having an impact. Think about you as you present yourself at work. I’m not implying there is anything wrong, just asking you to look closely at every possible issue. What about your appearance? Do you present yourself in the way that seems to reflect the attire of others at work? Do your clothes look clean and neat always? Is your hair and make-up conservative and attractive? Do you wear a fragrance? Could that be too strong to some? Do you smoke? If so, could the odor be noticeable or your breaks be seen as obtrusive? What about your breath? Body odor? Do you shower every day? Is your communication style pleasant and kind? Do you smile sincerely? Have you become part of the team and made at least a few friends? Do you cooperate with others and have you made a reputation as someone who is a good organizational citizen?

Do you strike a balance between friendly conversation and excessive conversation or disruptive conversation? Do you have any habits that you know from past experience can get on someone’s nerves? Does your personality seem to fit well with that of those you interact with most often? Has anyone hinted or joked to you about something you’ve said or done that might imply a more serious concern? Those are all areas in which people can be viewed as a problem or not a good fit in a company–but rarely will anyone say anything about those issues to someone’s face! And, since they aren’t things that people can easily be fired for, sometimes work issues get blown out of proportion as a way to achieve the same result.

I knew of an unhappy case where a man was simply irritating–he spoke using silly accents and made inane comments. People avoided him and hated working with him on a project. It’s hard to articulate those things, so his supervisor tended to find performance related issues to complain about and eventually the man was moved to another section–where he also irritated everyone. Someone should have said, “Don’t use those accents anymore and think before you talk in a way that has no purpose.” But that wouldn’t have been as easy to do as finding little work mistakes–because we all make them!I’ve seen women who wore garish make-up and poorly fitting clothes end up being criticized about work because that was a convenient thing to complain about. On the other hand, I’ve seen women who were stodgy and hypercritical have their work complained about as a way to get back at them for their nasty attitudes.

Some people who do their work fairly well seem to be so lacking in confidence and do hand wringing about it, that all of their errors are noticed more. While others are so arrogant that people try to find errors just to deflate their egos! All of that is to say that performance is sometimes not the problem–behavior is. But performance is easier to document and criticize. What possible behavior issues could be creating a barrier that hides your good work? Again, I’m not saying that you have issues such as those. But, by thoroughly examining the situation you’ll be able to eliminate everything except the primary issues.

6. That brings us to your performance. If you have positive notes to you, get those together. If you recall the positive things that have been said in the last few weeks, note who said them and when. Do you have any times that you have been corrected or re-directed? Have there been some things that someone else has had to re-do or take over for you? You mentioned a couple of small errors–and they really didn’t seem very dramatic. Were the consequences quite negative or were they relatively easily handled? What would you say is your level of even small errors? Every day? Every few days? Only once a week or so? Are the errors in areas you’re still learning in or in more obvious things?

Thinking through that will allow you to present you viewpoint better in the meeting. Do keep in mind that sometimes what employees consider to be only occasional errors seem to pile up after awhile. One employee I knew, said, “I’m only human. Yes, I make some mistakes, but so does everyone.” That is true, but her mistakes were frequent and most of them would never have occurred if she’d done basic double-checking of figures or documents. Her last statement before having to quit to keep from being dismissed was, “I’m only human.” So, it is worthwhile to know in your own mind how many mistakes or errors your managers perceive that you make. Could it be that someone is having to re-do work but not telling you? Are there things that you’ve corrected but that might have been viewed as avoidable to begin with? Those are things to evaluate in your own mind so that you can be open about them in discussion.

7. Do you have a direct supervisor? You mention Directors, but it would seem that there would be one person you would report directly to. What communication have you had with that person? Are there some directors who seem to feel positive about you? Remember that sympathy is different than support. There may be some who sympathize and feel sorry for what you’re going through–but are there some who seem to be sold on you and might go to bat for you? What about other employees who do work similar to yours? Do you have some friends at this stage that could do some training or mentoring if you asked for it? What about the HR person with whom you’ve talked? His role is to represent the organization, but it might be helpful if you felt he fully understood the situation and was supportive. Knowing who is supposed to be your job trainer is a key issue. You will want to direct your requests for additional training to them. If someone should have been responsible for talking to you before now, that person will feel on the spot in the meeting and you will want to be aware of that. Rather than implying that they didn’t do their job you can give them a chance to do it now by asking them for additional assistance.

8. As you prepare for the meeting, you should have–after thinking through some of these issues–a fairly clear picture of your performance and your behavior as well as your strengths and weaknesses or areas that might cause you problems. You should have any written material that would support you or give you an indication or problems. Now, think about what you have accomplished positively in the short time you’ve been there and write that down as well. Are there any projects that you’ve done especially well? Or, is there some report that you prepare and have done so without a flaw once you learned the method? Are there some people you have been working well with and that has helped move things along?

The bottom line for any business is: Have you helped them in some way? Have you been more help than you’ve been a concern?If you know there are areas where you have problems, what would it take to correct those? Training? Assistance a few times? More practice? Write that down too, so you will be prepared to say what you think would help. View the meeting as a two-purpose interview. One is to find out where you stand right now with work. Approach it with confidence (fake or real!) and the attitude that you are committed to doing a good job and even though you have discovered that there are some concerns after these first two and half months, you are anxious to keep learning and to show them that you will be a great member of the team. And keep that in mind too: You’ve only been there a very short time. Most probationary times in offices that have them go for about six months.

You’re really just at the breaking-in phase! To your bosses it might seem like a long time because they’ve had big projects going on. But really, you’re still just getting your feet wet. Try keeping that attitude so that perhaps they will re-think their hastiness. You might say something like, “I spoke with Mr. Smith and he said there were some concerns about my work. That concerned ME because I want to do a good job. I realize I’ve only been here about two and half months–which I know isn’t a long time–but I want you to think of me as becoming a strong help and as someone who will get better as I have more experience. I promise you that is the case. But I hope today I can find out exactly what the concerns are about so I can work on those.” Obviously you’d say that in your own words, but the thought should be there. You’ve only just begun and you’re going to improve.

Your emphasis with that part of the meeting should be to clearly understand the gap–and that’s not a bad expression to use. You might say, “It seems that there’s quite a gap between what you need and expect and what you think I’m doing or not doing. I want to close that gap in any way I can. I would really appreciate it if you could just go down the line of my tasks and tell me what you want and how that’s different than what I’m doing.”You’ll notice that those kinds of comments do sound humble! No good would come of implying that you’re doing fine. They apparently don’t think so and saying so won’t change that.If they don’t seem to have anything concrete–or even if they do–also ask for input on other issues. “I appreciate those comments about work. Now, I also want to find out if there is something else going on that has led to this. I’d rather know, even if it embarrasses me, than to not know and not be able to correct it. I’m well aware that sometimes there are things that people do or habits they have or personal issues, that no one wants to talk about. I’m here to listen if you want to tell me something about that. Please. Just let me know so I can correct it.”

Again, the tone is asking for help. It is very difficult to dismiss someone who has clearly said, “I want to do better, tell me how!” At some point that doesn’t help, but at this point it likely would!You may not be able to structure this meeting yourself and you may find yourself listening without much chance to respond. But if you CAN, try to accomplish the things mentioned here. Take notes and say that you are doing so. “I’m taking notes only so I can be clear on what I need to do and not for any other reason.” That will dispel concern that this is a pre-lawsuit meeting! Then, after the first part, try to move into the conclusion.”Before we leave I want to tell you again that I am committed to doing well here.” Treat this part like your job interview. I assume you thought you’d do well then! Now, use that same approach to conclude the meeting–or at least your part of it. You might say something like this, if it applies in your case: “When I applied for this job I felt confident I could do it. I came from So and So Company and had great evaluations there. Mr. Smith looked at those and knew about them when he interviewed me. I was known there for multi-tasking, being a good contributor and being easy to get along with (or whatever your strengths were there). I wanted to bring those things here to Acme Industries and I think I have done that to the point that I can in a short time. I have three nice notes from several of you thanking me for my work. And several of you have told me personally that you appreciated something I’ve done well. I haven’t heard anything directly about problems so I have thought that things were going fine considering that I’m still learning some processes. I know there’s a learning curve in any work and I know that the curve can seem pretty long sometimes! But I think I’m getting past the stress of the first few months and with some more experience will live up to the positive expectations you had when I was hired. If there’s additional training I need, I’ll ask for it and seek it out. If there’s something I need to change in my approach, I’ll work on that as well. I just want you to know that I appreciate your honesty with me and that you can count on me to have the good of the company in my mind. I didn’t just take this job because it was a job. I thought it was a job with a good company and I still think that. So, I hope you feel better about any concerns you had and I want to feel that I can show you that I have a future here. Thank you again.” A mini-speech! You don’t have to memorize something like that, but it is helpful to know generally how you want to leave them viewing you.

9. If, instead of a pleasant meeting, you get hit with some very negative comments, you will likely have to shift your approach and may have to defend yourself more. But, if you want to stay, don’t ever mention leaving! Even if they do, keep the focus that you’ll be there in another five or ten years and they’ll see that you’re going to do a great job. Keep as your focus that you know there was a learning curve but you think you’re getting past that now, after only two and half months. You may want to even say something about the fact that in a company as busy as that one, two and half months may seem like a long time–but to someone learning the processes it isn’t that long and you’ve really been working to shorten the time. Be like a broken record in your confident demeanor that you are overcoming issues and will be getting even better as time goes on. If your communication style will make that seem hard to believe–either because you sound afraid or angry–you might have to really work at sounding appropriately confident. But don’t worry if you sound nervous. Anyone would be! If you feel the need, admit that you are nervous if you need to. And here’s a secret: They are nervous too! These kinds of meetings are uncomfortable for everyone! You can bet they’re thinking about it over the weekend, just like you are.

Let them help you and they’ll be happier for it! Seriously! Unless things are so bad that they are angry with you about it, they would far prefer that you succeed so that they can get back to their own work. Try to find a way where they can feel that things are going to be all right. That’s why I say to maintain a confident demeanor that conveys the thought that you wish things hadn’t come to this, but doggone it, things are going to get better once you know where you need to make some changes.

If they have some bad news for you that imply that your time is short there, the only thing you can do is to say that you hope while you ARE there that they’ll see it is worthwhile to keep you. Then talk to the HR person alone about options regarding quitting rather than being fired or how that would affect unemployment compensation and so forth. That would be an emotional moment for you and one that would test your strength–but one that would certainly show the kind of character you have in how you handle it. Hopefully it will not come to that at this point.

With a meeting like this, usually bosses want to get through it quickly and cleanly and let someone else handle anything unpleasant. After the meeting contact the HR person if you think it appropriate and find out if he or she has information that would be helpful for you. If the meeting discloses some issues, write those down and get started trying to figure out how to close the gap. Ask for some training. Ask for critique.

See if you can find someone to use as a mentor or guide. Focus on being the kind of employee that you think is wanted, based on what you were told in the meeting. If you can’t be that employee because it’s an impossible task or for any other reason, then maybe you will want to consider moving on anyway! You don’t want to keep living under the strain that you now have, that’s for sure!10. I hope these thoughts have triggered some of your own. They may not reflect your situation in many ways, but they do reflect general thinking about issues such as yours. You don’t have control over how your bosses want to handle this situation. The more you can draw on your inner strength and portray yourself as the person you know you want to be, the more likely it will be that you’ll be viewed as someone they want to keep. You mention that you’ve had many years of work experience. Let that also give you confidence. You have been working more years than many others in the meeting. You’ve done well until now. It may be that this place isn’t the best fit for you but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable. On the other hand, if this situation points out something that you need to change or adapt, then that is also a good thing–because you would want to do that if you knew about it! Best wishes as you meet this difficult challenge. We’ll be thinking of you this coming week! If you have time and wish to do so, let us know how it develops. Thinking WEGO is seeing yourself as linked to others and the common good.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.