can you be fired for being OK but not great, my employee is pushing for “girls’ weekends,” and more — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Can you be fired for being fine but not great?

Beyond egregious performance violations and the like, can an employer fire you for doing fine or decent work — but it’s not quite at the level they have in mind? (Maybe a rephrase here: for states with at-will employment, I know you can be fired for any reason. But does something like this actually happen?)

I’m thinking of a former colleague who by all accounts was well-liked, showed up to work on time, didn’t slack off, met their deadlines, and otherwise did a more than decent job in their role. However, I think their manager was somewhat frustrated that, despite this person being fine at their job, they weren’t “great” at it. This person wasn’t fired, but it got me thinking: if you’re an otherwise good and reliable employee, but don’t necessarily perform at “great” levels, could your job realistically be in jeopardy? Or is more industry-specific? To be clear, it’s not that this person was doing sub-par work; they just maybe weren’t as talented as their manager hoped they would be — or develop into.

It depends on the job, the manager, the organization, and the needs of the team. In the majority of cases, someone who is fine but not great probably isn’t going to get fired. But there are situations where the team really needs someone who’s performing at a higher level. You’re most likely to see this when something has changed (a new manager comes in and realizes “we could be doing a lot better than this,” or the job itself changes and the person who was fine in the old context isn’t well suited for the new one, or the org/team goes through belt-tightening and the impact of one person being OK versus great becomes bigger).

Also, for a lot of jobs, performance is about a lot more than not slacking off and meeting your deadlines. Those are bare minimums, but in a job that requires creativity, innovation, or initiative, they generally won’t be enough to put you in the “good” category (let alone the “great” one). So it depends on the nature and needs of the role too.

People often bristle at that, feeling like by definition most people are average so it’s unfair/unrealistic to expect everyone you employ to be great. And for many jobs, that’s true. But if you think about the difference in having, say, a trainer who does an OK job versus one who does a great job, there are jobs where it’s reasonable for managers to hold a very high bar. (With the example of trainers, I used to hire them and the difference in results and participant satisfaction for OK versus great was enormous. It was good for the organization and its clients that they held a high bar on that … but it did mean that people who couldn’t get beyond the OK level wouldn’t succeed there.) In those cases, though, the employer should be very clear about their expectations, both in hiring and in the metrics used to measure performance, so there’s a shared understanding among everyone involved and it’s not just a gut-level, poorly defined “I know it when I see it.”

how to tell your team their work isn’t good enough

2. I became my friend’s manager and she’s pushing me for “girls’ weekends”

I am a new supervisor to a team of 10 employees. I have worked at this agency for 7 years and have also worked alongside a coworker who became a good friend of mine during that time. This friend, “Ann,” always had some needy, boundary-less qualities but I put up with them because we rarely worked together closely.

Now that I am her supervisor, she is really pushing boundaries, constantly asking to go out drinking and go away for girls’ weekends and I’m so over it! I have said “no” on so many occasions, explaining my chaos at home and the business of work, that I just can’t. She continues to make sly comments that I’m “no fun anymore” and that I “always come up with excuses” or complaining that I say I will try next time and don’t. I’m over her behavior. How do I address this?

If you are telling her you’ll try next time and then don’t, you’re part of this problem! You need to clearly tell Ann that now that you’re her manager, the relationship needs to change and you’re no longer going to socialize with her outside of work, period.

Sample language: “I’m sorry I didn’t say this more clearly earlier. Now that I’m your manager, our relationship needs to change. We can of course have a friendly relationship at work, but we can’t be friends. I need to be able to evaluate your work objectively, and I don’t want others on the team worrying about favoritism or bias or that you have special access to me. So we do need different boundaries than we had in the past and can’t socialize outside of work. I know that’s an awkward change to make but I’m committed to it, for the sake of the whole team.”

I’m becoming my friend’s boss — do things have to change?

3. My company wants me to pay them back for paid sick leave they advanced me

I have 10 PTO days earned per year. This is my second year at my job. Last year, I had to take bereavement because I lost someone, and then I was sick repeatedly, and at the end of the school year, I had negative PTO hours, and our finance manager told me it would roll over to this year, and I could earn it back. This year, I was sick again for a whole month, and I reached out to management to ask what to do about my negative PTO. I figured they would ask me to take sick leave unpaid, but they never got back to me.

I felt sick today, went home, and let the finance manager know (our policy when taking PTO), and she just emailed me: “Since your current PTO balance is -71.75, no paid time off is available and any time off will be unpaid. So I will prorate your 5/10 pay to be for 72 hours, instead of 80. [Management] also wants you to pay back the remaining -71.75 hours that were taken as PTO. Of course, we can do some kind of payment plan or deduct from any future checks, just let me know what works best for you. The amount owed is $2,508.23.”

What the heck? I don’t have to pay them back, do I? I’m cool with having present and future time off unpaid. But they can’t retroactively ask me to pay all this money, can they?

They can. They handled this badly — they should have clearly informed you when you were first getting into the red that you’d either need to take the time unpaid or pay it back, not wait until you were 70+ hours in debt to inform you — but legally they can indeed require you to pay them back.

Where it gets interesting is that in most states they can’t just go ahead and deduct it from your paychecks. Most states have restrictions around pay deductions, which can include needing your explicit agreement for the deduction and that the deduction in any given paycheck can’t take your pay below minimum wage for that pay period. That said, even if you don’t agree, they can make repayment a condition of your continued employment, and in some states they can withhold the entire amount from your final check if it’s still due at that point (as well as pursue you in court for anything remaining, although most employers won’t do that). Their ability to do the latter may depend on whether their unearned leave policy was communicated to you before you received the advance, so check your employee handbook or other written policies to see if it’s in there anywhere.

But your best bet is to try to negotiate a repayment arrangement. Tell them it would be a hardship for you to repay the amount they’re requesting and that they should have informed you earlier of that expectation or had you take the time unpaid originally, and ask what can be worked out. It’s possible that if you push back, they’ll back off or come up with a more palatable way to fix this.

4. Responding to a group hug designed to violate your boundaries

This happened years ago, but I still think about it sometimes and wonder what I should have/could have done.

I had only been at this job a couple months, and I was working on something on the same computer with the practice owner. He (a man in his 60s) was leaning in, and I (a woman in her 30s) politely moved over so he could see better. He started joking about me being standoffish and not wanting to be touched. I laughed it off and got back to work. He left the room, and a few minutes later when I left, he got everyone who was working and readily available — probably five or six people — to crowd around me and give me a group hug, since I “didn’t like to be touched.” It was very brief and nobody got handsy. I was in shock and just kind of stood there not reacting until they quit. That was the end of it, nothing else ever happened, and it was never mentioned again.

But what if things had escalated or continued? This guy was the owner, the practice manager was pretty much never there, and there was no HR. I moved on less than a year later; unsurprisingly there were a lot of management issues. But would there have been any other options other than just leaving?

Well, speaking up. That doesn’t always work, but it works a lot! If he had continued, you could have said — in a serious tone, not one you softened to downplay the message or sound nice — “I know you’re joking around, but I’m not. I don’t want people touching or hugging me, so I’m clearly telling you to stop.” In a lot of cases, that would have put an end to it. In other cases, it might not have — but those cases are more rare.

Also, for the record, that guy was a jackass. “I think your boundaries are funny, so let’s deliberately violate them” is gross.

5. Is it worth it to interview if you know the hiring manager already chose someone else?

I applied for an internal job (lateral move with almost identical job duties) and recently got an interview request. I shared my news with a friend (Marcia), who is also friends with the hiring manager (Jan), and Marcia informed me that Jan has already chosen a candidate.

However, because the chosen candidate is an external hire, there is a longer process to officially confirm them. And in our company, hiring managers are required to interview a minimum number of internal candidates. Meaning application statuses in the application system stay in limbo until the chosen candidate is hired.

I’ve already accepted an interview date, but I’m wondering if I should cancel now that I know what I know. In addition, now I feel Jan probably invited me to an interview because we have a mutual friend in Marcia and to fill the internal hiring quota while they wait for their chosen external candidate to get through the HR red tape.

That would be giving an awful lot of power to Marcia and to information you heard secondhand. What if Marcia got it wrong? What if something changed since Jan talked to her? What if the external candidate doesn’t accept the offer?

If you’re interested in the job, go to the interview and approach it the same way you would have if you hadn’t heard this.

If the hiring manager is just going through the motions with you and already plans on hiring someone else, that’s crappy — and it’s contrary to the spirit of rules that require interviewing a minimum number of candidates. Those rules aren’t supposed to mean “check this bureaucratic box” (although they often get used that way); they’re supposed to ensure a range of candidates is actually considered. Too often this kind of rule is used to waste people’s time, and that sucks. But it’s not clear enough that that’s what’s happening here.

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