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How Can I Manage a Seriously Ill Employee Who's Making Mistakes?

And three other tricky workplace dilemmas.

A group of people sitting at a desk in an office. columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor. 

Here's a roundup of answers to four questions from readers. 

1. Managing a seriously ill employee who's making mistakes 

My team's strongest performer is in the midst of a serious, life-changing health crisis, and this is causing issues with her usually stellar performance. Typically, she requires little to no oversight and exercises astute judgment. However, due to her stress during this time, she is failing to follow standard operating procedures, sending redundant emails about known issues, and finding issues that don't exist or missing ones that do. (To be clear, this is being caused by stress, not by the medical condition itself -- and she will admit as such and knows that she is somewhat distracted.) I am not concerned about this from a disciplinary standpoint like I would be if these kinds of mistakes were coming from a typical employee, but she works with both internal and external clients, and I am having to correct information that is sent to them, including communications that we have standard templates for, which she is not consistently using. I am also having to respond to the redundant emails and remind her that we have already discussed and resolved these issues, and let her know when I make corrections. 

This feels like the type of micromanaging that I know she has bristled at from others in the past, and I normally relate with her more as an advisor for her higher-level problems, which is a relationship that has worked well for both of us. I do not want to add to her stress, but I am also concerned that these issues will get worse as her illness progresses, and I do think it is useful for her to see what she is missing so that she is aware of what to look out for. How can I best navigate these concerns while still being considerate and compassionate during this difficult time? 

Green responds: 

Rather than just flagging each individual instance as it happens, sit down with her and talk about the broader pattern. Tell her this isn't a disciplinary conversation but you're seeing a pattern of mistakes and you want to figure out how you both need to manage her work differently during this period, and ask her to brainstorm with you about what might help. You should say explicitly, "I know in the past you've bristled at what feels like micromanagement, and you haven't needed a lot of oversight, but I want to be realistic that while you're under this much stress, we need a different system. I don't think we'll need permanent changes, just something to get us through this period." 

It might be that you both realize from this conversation that the solution is mostly about (A) her being aware of the pattern and needing to be more vigilant than she normally would (including using those templates, even if she didn't need them in the past) and (B) the two of you feeling comfortable changing the amount of oversight you give her during this period. But I'd also consider whether there are ways to lower her workload right now, which is something she might not realize she can ask for. 

2. My staff member assumes she's invited to meetings when she isn't 

I supervise someone fabulous, and I very much support her professional development. I go to great lengths to bring her into as many conversations and decision-making moments as possible. But sometimes it is not appropriate for her to be in certain meetings, especially ones organized or requested by external partners. Recent examples have been with important funders who requested a meeting with me and weren't responsive when I asked if they wanted her there, too. When I tell my staff member about the upcoming meetings as an FYI, she responds in a way that reads as though she assumes she is also invited. 

I'm looking for an easy script to use when she assumes she is invited to these, and for some reason I am struggling with it. 

Green responds: 

Be straightforward and matter-of-fact! If you treat it as something delicate that you need to break to her gently, it's more likely to be awkward. 

Ideally, you'd be as clear as you can when you first mention the meeting. Say "I am going to meet with X," rather than "we (meaning "our team") are going to meet with X," and so forth. If she responds in a way that sounds like she thinks she's attending too, you can say something like, "This one will just be me and X, but I'll update you when I get back about how it went." Or, "Because we're going to be mainly talking about Z, I'm going to go to this one on my own." 

If you notice she bristles or seems put out by that, you can address it head-on by offering whatever context will help her understand, like that it's normal for external partners to want to talk directly with a senior counterpart but that you'll bring her on later for other elements (if that's the case; you don't have to find a way to make that be true), or that you're keeping a meeting small because the partner prefers it, or that it's more efficient for this topic, or that you need her focused on something else, etc. You might also frame the conversation as a general "let's talk through the times when I'll ask you to attend, and the times when I may not, so we're both on the same page, and you're not wondering each individual time." 

3. When someone doesn't come back after bereavement leave 

Last week my colleague Bob was away on bereavement leave after he lost a parent. He told us all he would be back on Thursday, but when Thursday rolled around, he didn't come in. His manager, Jane, came by to ask me and another co-worker if we had heard from him and knew when he was coming back. We hadn't. 

How should a manager ask someone when they're coming back to work in a situation like this? Obviously, we want Bob to take all the time he needs, but if someone doesn't come back when they told us they would, is there a good way to check in, ask when they're coming back, and whether everything is OK? 

Green responds: 

Yes. Ideally a few hours after Bob was expected on Thursday, Jane would have reached out to him in a low-key way, saying something like, "I just wanted to check in with you. We'd been expecting you back today, but if you need more time, let me know and we can work out what you need." That signals she's willing to work with him and understands he might need more time than he originally thought, but also that she needs to be kept in the loop about his plans. 

4. Employee is monopolizing the conference room to get quiet workspace 

My office is open plan, out of necessity because of the way our building is set up. We all work pretty silently and keep distractions to a minimum. We also have a large, open event space where we're all accustomed to taking phone calls and having meetings. 

Recently, we've added a few employees, and the volume level has increased. Most of us have just deployed headphones until the newbies catch on. The problem is with one employee who has taken it upon herself to consistently go work in the event space. She also happens to be the only employee with a laptop she can work on. But now, that room is never available for anyone else unless we ask her to leave, which she always is willing to do, but it's awkward. I don't know how to communicate to her that what she's doing is inconsiderate. It also seems like she should be able to work in there if she wants to, and it seems petty of me considering the majority of the time that space is vacant. Am I being unreasonable? 

Green responds: 

If she's always willing to leave when the space is needed for something else, it doesn't sound like this is really a problem. Open offices can be incredibly difficult for people to work in, and if there's a mostly unused conference room sitting vacant, there's no logical reason why she shouldn't use it, as long as she's willing to move when needed, which she is. Working in there could be making a major difference in her concentration or her productivity. 

I know it might seem unfair, because people without laptops can't do it, but if that's the issue, then those people can ask for laptops, so they can use the conference room as a quiet room at the same time. The solution isn't to stop her from doing it just because others can't. 

If the issue is that you feel awkward or rude asking her to vacate the room, I'd say the solution is for you realize it's perfectly OK to do that (and she seems to think so too, based on her cheerfully leaving when asked to). 


This article was written by Alison Green from Inc. and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to


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