Work Probation Problems

Question to Ask theĀ  Workplace Doctors about being on probation:

I am a new federal supervisor with 3 months remaining on my probation. A group of employees whom I do not supervise or have much contact with have been falsely accused me of being pushy and curt in my communications with them. This has been a pattern with this group of employees from what I have learned but my supervisor listens to them.

She will not believe me when I explain I have not done what they are saying and try to point out they talk about every one even her. I believe I am a threat to my supervisor due to my quick success and devotion of my staff. Also I am the only white manager in the division and the 3 people complaining about me are African American. My direct reports and I have a great relationship. Although I received a Superior job rating at my 6 month review, I was informed today that if I received any more complaints I would be terminated. How can I defend myself from these false accusations when I am on probation as a new employee?

Signed, Problems On Probation

DearĀ Problems On Probation:

Thank you for providing us with some follow-up information about your situation. I won’t refer to the specifics of that to protect your privacy.You have a complex situation without an easy solution, but clearly you must do something quickly. I’m going to make some observations and give some suggestions which may or may not be accurate for the reality of your situation or fit with what you think is right for you. They are merely an outsider’s perspective for you to consider. I don’t know what you were doing before you were hired and what you were prepared for with this job, but it seems likely to me that you were successful in another job, got this one, and viewed that your work is primarily to work with your team. So, you came in and got started with that and feel positive about what you’ve accomplished with them. That IS something to be proud of. But, that is just one part of your work.

Your work primarily involves doing what your supervisor directs in order to fulfill her priorities and the priorities of her manager and those higher in the federal department in which you work. It doesn’t seem to me that you are comfortable with that subordinate role or that you have made a strong effort to fulfill that role during your probationary time. I may be reading too much into your comments, but that is the perception I received. It wouldn’t be unusual, if you had a supervisory role elsewhere and felt confident about what you could achieve. You arrived ready to work and that’s what you did. There is a mix of confidence and humility that is part of being new in a job and that is difficult for those who have been successful already, elsewhere. Your supervisor may feel that has been lacking. She should have talked to you about it more directly, but if she didn’t you could have gone to her as well.

She wants you to relate to her as a subordinate to a boss. You seem to think of her more as someone you don’t much care for or respect and who is only slightly higher than a peer. That’s bound to show; and apparently it has. I would bet your supervisor sees you as argumentative, resisting supervision, over-confident and not loyal to her or her supervisor. If you don’t feel those ways, you will need to ensure she sees you as aware of your role in the chain of command, willing to learn from her and supportive of her and her manager. If you can’t do those things, you may find you can’t save your job.

I don’t think your biggest problem is the three employees who you don’t even supervise who have complained about you. If you had the support of your supervisors they would tell you not to worry and that they know it can’t be true. But because you don’t have the support of your supervisors a complaint by these employees either seems true to them…or it makes a handy reason to say you’re having problems.

Focus your efforts on working better with your supervisor and those other things will take care of themselves.Consider these ways to build a better relationship with your supervisor and let her see that you will be effective after probation.

1. Ask to meet with her and tell her honestly that you are concerned about how things have been going. Reiterate that you want to be successful in your work, both with your team, with her and with others outside the section. Ask if you can meet with her on a weekly basis to find out how you are doing, what she would like to see as your focus and to get suggestions for improvement. (That will take a lot of humility on your part, but is appropriate anyway and may also help her realize that you want to work with her not against her.)

2. Take into the first meeting a blank copy of an evaluation form if you have one or the one you’ve already received. Ask her about each section and get her feedback. If you have accomplished something she might not know about, let her know. If she points out a problem, accept that critique and find out how you could have handled it differently. She knows the culture there better than you do, and she may have suggestions that would be helpful.

3. Work to gain influence with your supervisor, because that is what results in a strong relationship. In order to have influence you must be credible, valuable and communicate effectively. With only a few months on the job you are not able to be strong in the first two areas but you can be strong in the third. You should be working toward the second–being valuable–all the time, as though your supervisor was a customer to whom you want to sell a product—you. With time you will be viewed as credible. The combination will ensure that you not only make it off probation but that you succeed later on as well.

4. I don’t usually suggest this, but I think it would be worthwhile in your case: Keep a low profile for anything except words and actions that are positive and supportive. When you are off probation and if you have the support of your supervisor, you can deal with problems outside your immediate responsibility. Right now you don’t have the status for that and, as has already happened, it is likely you will be viewed as intrusive rather than helpful. If something concerns you, simply express it as a concern and be guided by your supervisor about how to proceed with it. If you are having problems with someone, discuss it with your supervisor and ask for advice. Use your supervisor as a resource rather than resisting her.

5. As for the three employees you originally wrote about: Do not avoid them. Look for opportunities for small talk. Smile appropriately. Use courtesy phrases. Don’t pour it on too thick, but make it clear that you are a professional person who is friendly with everyone. You can’t change what has happened, but others are watching to see what you do now. A positive professional relationship is not just the absence of unpleasantness it is the presence of civility, cooperativeness and collaboration. Look for ways to show that with those employees.The bottom line on all of this is a reality about work in any setting, but especially in yours: HR may support you and not respect your bosses. Higher levels may think there are problems. Your team may like you. But ultimately your supervisor and her supervisor will probably not lose their positions and no one will intervene to save your job for you if your supervisors and managers say you are just not working out. That’s why if you want to make it through probation, you will need to be the one to make the extra efforts.I don’t wish to sound hopeless about it, because I think you CAN do some things to make it better. But, I do think you need to start right away and make that your focus every day. Show that you have learned something from all that has happened. Set a goal that you will feel more positive about your supervisor and her role in your work. That is the best way to ensure that she will feel positive about you and your future there.Best wishes with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know what happens with this as time goes on.

Tina Lewis Rowe