Trapped With An Incompetent Teammate!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being assigned a partner who is incompetent: She just relies on my husband to do everything and tell her what she should do; it’s like he’s doing two jobs! His immediate boss won’t do anything; should my husband go over their heads?

My husband works at a very small company where the workers are split into teams of two. Since the beginning, my husband was teamed with a completely incompetent person (all the other workers said they’d quit if they were teamed with her). Even after three years, she still doesn’t know a thing, and she has shown no interest in ever learning. She just relies on my husband to do everything and tell her what she should do (it’s like he’s doing two jobs!).

When the bosses originally assigned teams, the workers were told that they would be changed in two years. When the time arrived, my husband was notified that they would not be changing the teams after all. When he mentioned the stress and strain of working with an incompetent partner and requested a change anyway, they refused and told him that, because he was the most skilled one there (and has received recognition as such), he should be teaching her how to do the job. Believe me, he has tried, but she doesn’t seem to have the capacity. Besides, she says that she doesn’t need to know how to do anything because she can just ask him.

She recently made a huge mistake and ignored an important signal that required immediate action. My husband wasn’t present when the signal was received and she didn’t tell him about it like she should have. After the resulting incident, my husband took care of practically everything and gave her step-by-step directions to do the rest.

When she failed to manage her little part, he even had to call in a third person to help, as time was of the essence in dealing with the incident.What’s worse is that, when questioned about the incident, she said it wasn’t her that received the signal. That basically put it on my husband, who was out of the room taking a bathroom and meal break at the time! I understand that she doesn’t want to lose her job, but to blame him!

These guys get paid very well, and there is not another job like it anywhere around (not that pay, this location, or anywhere else for that matter). That is why she does not want to get in trouble for her actions. She doesn’t want to let this cushy (only because she does nothing) job with amazing pay go. She has even mentioned casually that she’ll never get fired because she could just claim discrimination or sexual harassment!

Following this incident and her false (though passive) accusation, he made another request (written this time) for a change of team. He figured that the incident just proved his point that she shouldn’t be working there because she lacks the skill and any desire to develop it. Instead, my husband got in trouble for her mistake and has received a brief suspension and monetary punishment (and public humiliation) for his part in the incident. He didn’t play a part other than to fix it! But, his bosses say that it happened on his team’s watch so they’re both responsible for it.

They also say that he is being held responsible because he should have gone back and checked the signals from when he was away from his station. He asked around, and none of the other workers do that. They rely on their partners to handle the signals properly and alert them over the radio of any that they receive in their absence. His bosses’ only response to this was that this type of signal review would have to be a new standard practice from now on. So, basically, my husband is being punished for not doing something that no one else does, but will have to do sometime in the future.

As far as the team change he requested, his bosses said it wouldn’t be happening (they’ve even implied that there will be further action taken as punishment for his making the request). They just won’t budge. It’s almost like they don’t want to admit that they made a mistake in hiring her, so they just keep her on to make other costly mistakes. The thing that stinks about all of this is that they keep her on my husband’s team and then hold him accountable for whatever she does or doesn’t do. They won’t give her to anyone else because there would be an uprising if they tried. But, why should my husband be the only one whose career is being destroyed? Really, no one’s should, other than hers. She’s usually a nice person, but she’s in over her head! And, now she’s taking my husband down with her!

In reality, it’s his bosses’ fault that any of this happened. They made a mistake in hiring her. They saw a potential that wasn’t really there. It happens. But, instead of rectifying the situation and documenting all of the mistakes that she’s made and all of the complaints they’ve received and firing her, they just keep covering it all up and keeping her there and punishing my husband for not being able to do it all by himself!

He is the sole supporter of our family, as I am unable to work since the accident. Also, there is not another job in sight that pays even half of what he makes now. So, his solution is just to keep his head down and just not care anymore (they’ve completely broken his spirit!) But, I can’t just sit by and watch this brilliant and wonderful man get completely destroyed by this. This is insane!!! What can he possibly do?

Signed, Trapped

DearĀ Trapped:

My gosh! What a tangled and terrible story. If you had any doubt that there are layers of mismanagement and unfairness there, doubt no more. This is a dysfunctional workplace and any reasonable person would be frustrated by what’s going on. In your closing paragraphs, you indicated that you understood the problem rather well. The “slacker” employee should not have been hired but since she was, the bosses/managers should never have let her poor performance go on so long. Their desire to keep her is having repercussions with other employees, especially your husband.

I was struck by the lack of supervision and managerial skill, when it was obvious she wasn’t performing and they didn’t do anything about it. Don’t they have regular evaluations there? I suggest at least twice a year so everyone can stay on the same page–more often when an employee isn’t performing. The evaluation should include a written warning for repeated mistakes and a time frame to correct the problem, such as 30 to 60 days. The lack of truth finding and supervision regarding the mistake she made was also telling. The fact that they blamed your husband and imply more punishment for his request for changing teams all seems so petty and vengeful.

Clearly, there isn’t an effective management or accountability structure there. My guess is that the bosses aren’t schooled in effective management and are just scape-goating others to avoid responsibility, something you observed. I can see that you and your husband are seeing these situations with a rational eye, where the bosses/managers are not! Something is wrong. Is the female employee who is doing such a bad job a “favorite” of someone there? Why are they so loyal to her?

I’m not sure if your husband has many good options. You mentioned that the job and pay was unique and there were few opportunities in the area. If that’s true and he has little opportunity elsewhere, he may be stuck for now. It comes down to whether he is willing to survive the situation for now.

If I were in his shoes, I would be updating my resume just in case. Many jobs are listed online now (Yahoo HotJobs, CareerBuilder, Monster, etc. Are you in a small town or rural area? What state are you in? Has he considered calling his state department of labor to get their advice? He can do it without disclosing the company name to get some basic info. Maybe he can look into state employment information.About the only thing I can think of is if your husband were to ask if he could become her official supervisor and create a specific plan for her to learn the job skills better.

Unfortunately, the bosses would have to approve his plan and they might not go along. It would probably be a thankless job but maybe she would feel more pressure to perform, especially if she agreed to a set of skill performance standards in a specific time. For example, she is able to accomplish XYZ skills in 30 or 60 days, and if not able to do so, could be written up. Do other employees observe her games? Can someone else be brought in to assist?Overall, it’s a tough situation and your husband has to decide what he’s willing to put up with. Maybe in a few months things will improve there. He could be looking for a new job in the mean time. Try to think creatively. Has he ever registered or worked with an employment agency? Some will work for no fee–the company pays the costs. Maybe there are other options he doesn’t know about. Talk to other people you know to see if they have some ideas–are you in a social or church group? Exploring possible solutions and taking some action can help him cope for now. Let us know how things develop. WEGO is looking for creative solutions to resolve problems whenever possible.

Follow Up: The unbelievable part about all of this is that there are semiannual evaluations that take place. My husband just underwent his right after this incident, and, even though the evaluation was supposed to be limited to his performance for the latter half of last year, this incident took center stage and had a very negative impact. His boss said that he was trying not to let it influence him, but he had the incident paperwork right on his desk next to the evaluation papers, so his attempts to avoid any “contamination” weren’t likely to work.

As far as my husband’s partner being a favorite, it doesn’t appear to be the case (all the other workers speculate that she is an equal opportunity hire, but the bosses vehemently deny it as if that would be a bad thing, which is ridiculous, because it’s great to hire a minority candidate–as long as they can do the job). But, when she is evaluated, they just cite her performance in a menial area that is specific to her (each employee has a part of the workplace that they alone are responsible for… none of these “responsibilities” requires much skill or effort, so it’s no wonder that she’s able to perform), so then they can avoid any comparisons.

Nevertheless, they fail to enforce any type of consequences for her failure to come up to standard in the main part of her job. Everyone is well aware that she doesn’t have the capacity to do this job, so I guess the bosses just maintain far lower standards! for her so she is able to meet them consistently.It would be great if they handed over management duties to my husband, but they know that she would be fired in a heartbeat. He has expectations for her performance and he wouldn’t hesitate to enforce consequences if she failed to meet them (nor would any of her other coworkers).

Unfortunately, in their meeting with my husband, the big boss mentioned that he is no longer responsible for “managing” her learning. Evidently, they wanted to foist responsibility for teaching her on him, but not allow him the power to evaluate her or impose consequences. And, since he has put in writing his own informal evaluation (in the form of a request for a competent partner), they have taken the responsibility for teaching her away.

Evidently, they don’t like to have things in writing. In fact, when each of them had to write up their account of the incident for the official report, hers didn’t match my husband’s (since she was clueless as to what was happening, and he was doing everything). So, instead of taking this as proof positive that she should go, the bosses generously gave her the weekend to work on hers to make it match–she actually had the nerve to e-mail my husband at home and ask him to tell her the details of what happened! She eventually just went back and looked up the details in the system, though, like anyone who wasn’t even there could have.

Also, during their meeting, they asked if they could have another meeting with both of them and show her the letter that my husband wrote. He has nothing to hide (they had a similar meeting over a year ago when he found out that they weren’t going to give him a new partner, so she knows that he doesn’t respect her skills and doesn’t want to work with her), so he said yes. But, this just sounds like another lame attempt to get everyone to “get along” just like last year.

No one appears to be concerned with how the team meshes, they just want to avoid conflict at all costs (e.g. My husband intervened when he witnessed two other coworkers harassing his partner about trying to schedule a vacation day 8 months in advance. One of them was so angry about my husband’s interference that he chose to spit something vile on the window of his new truck on his way out. When my husband called and confronted him about this lack of respect, the man came in early the next day so he could intercept the big boss before my husband could report the incident.

My husband was content to handle the issue on his own, but now that the bosses were involved, he had to tell them what had happened and that he was not happy at this lack of respect. The coworker offered to have my husband’s truck detailed, which costs lots of money, so my husband refused–he didn’t want a monetary solution, just an apology. But, the bosses saw his refusal as him just being difficult. They told him that the problem wasn’t his coworker spitting on his truck, it was how he was choosing to feel about it. Are you kidding?)

These bosses expect everyone to push aside their feelings and just do the job, which makes sense if it’s just a personality conflict, but, in the case of his incompetent partner, &nb! spit is a skill issue; she just can’t do her job, and he shouldn’t have to do it for her in addition to his own!

I guess my main question is: should my husband go over their heads? The problem with this is that the corporate offices are in Canada, so he doesn’t know anyone there. He only deals with the bosses at his location, while they frequently go to the corporate offices and know everyone there. I know that the big boss went to corporate after the incident, and the rumor was that he was finding out how he could fire the woman. But, nothing happened; she’s still there! So, in this “topsy-turvy” workplace, I’m wondering if my husband might get fired for having the nerve to complain.

More Advice: Thanks for clarifying some points. Overall, I can see that your husband has taken appropriate action and tried to do the right thing several times (changing team make-ups, solving problems, trying to communicate the truth, pointing out the employees lack of performance, etc.). Obviously, the managers lack an objective, performance-oriented approach and they are playing favorites. Your descriptions make that very clear that the employee in question is not expected to perform at the same level as other employees. Maybe there were tax breaks or other requirements that this employee be hired but she is receiving special treatment. It seems that the bosses know your husband would hold her accountable if they gave him more authority over her so that is a dead end. There is no doubt that intrigue level at this firm is very high. That’s something that’s very hard to change when it’s being generated by the managers.

As for going to the HQ in Canada, it’s hard to know what the outcome will be. Your husband has some leverage in that they see him as a very skilled person. If he decided to try contacting the firm in Canada, I would suggest that he take a position that he needs help and doesn’t know what to do, rather than just complaining. If he can offer some suggestions to help solve the problem, that might help as well. At the same time, there is a risk. The bosses locally have shown a tendency to blame him unfairly and they might make things worse for him. It’s very hard to say if he will be better off or worse off. If he decided to try contacting the main HQ, he should first consider contacting his state department of labor to see if they have any suggestions. States have different laws on things like hostile workplaces. He should also have his resume updated and be looking for other jobs so he isn’t left unprepared. I wish I had some better ideas but anytime managers are this entrenched in a maintaining a dysfunctional workplace, it’s a very hard thing to fix.Good luck!

Steve Carney, Guest Respondent