employee’s reading skills aren’t good, coworkers were aghast at a change in lunch plans, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. My employee’s reading and writing skills aren’t good enough

I have a direct report who is chomping at the bit for a promotion that she’s not currently qualified for. Luckily, my company has processes in place for that: I wrote up a plan, outlining what she’s already doing well and where I need to see improvement in order to recommend her for promotion, and got it approved. She and I went over it together and she’s not only working hard at it, she really is showing strong improvement in most areas. But there’s one area that isn’t getting better, and that I’m finding really awkward to talk about: her reading and writing.

We’re in a technical profession, and the company is spread across the country so being able to communicate effectively in writing is important. Frequently, I run into problems with her because she didn’t fully read and/or understand things that were sent to her (recently, she responded to “X is ready and John’s piece is included” with “OK, let me know when X is ready”), or because she doesn’t communicate well in writing to other people — both on a basic grammar/proofreading level and because she doesn’t think through what’s in her head vs what other people know, and so only writes down half of what she should.

This means I have to manage her work more closely than I’d prefer (and a lot more closely than I’d expect to manage someone in the position she wants to be promoted to) to catch her communication errors, it causes misunderstandings and missed requirements in the work that she does, and frankly, it makes her look bad to our higher-ups when her work comes to their attention, which makes it harder for me to advocate for her promotion.

At her last review, the main area I gave her for improvement was her written communication. I tied it to her advancement and gave suggestions for improvement — read carefully before responding, proofread before sending, try to anticipate the questions that people will have and include the answers so they don’t have to ask. She took it well and I know she’s trying (I later noticed when walking past her desk that she was working on an online course in communication), but despite her improvement in other areas I haven’t seen any growth in this one. I’m 80% of the way to being ready to recommend her for this promotion and I really don’t want this to be the one thing that holds her back. Short of saying “I’m concerned that you can’t read very well,” any suggestions for wording additional feedback in this area?

It’s really great that she’s taking the feedback seriously and trying to improve, but the reality is that this might end up being the thing that holds her back from promotion.

I like that she took the initiative to take that online course, but I’m not sure a communication course is what will fix this. This sounds like it’s about reading comprehension, attention to detail, and the ability to suss out what info other people will need (some of which may be tied to critical thinking), and a basic communications course isn’t going to target those in the way she needs.

Any chance you have the time to do some serious one-on-one coaching with her? I suspect the thing that might help her most is sitting with her and working on this together — for example, watching her write an email and then showing her where she’s going wrong, asking questions to nudge her to identify those spots for herself, and coaching her for how to approach it differently. Even then, she might not be able to build the skill up to where it needs to be — at least not in the amount of time that’s reasonable for you to invest. (A few intensive coaching sessions are reasonable, but doing this long-term is not.) But one advantage of approaching it this way is that it’ll give you better data on how likely she is to be able to make the improvements you need — and another is that the coaching sessions themselves will allow you to talk openly about where she is with this and what still needs to change.

2. Are weird technical issues making me look bad to my boss?

I’m about six months into a new position, and overall I think it’s been going really well and my boss is happy with my work. I still feel like I’m trying to prove myself and what I’m capable of, and I’m building trust with my boss (who is remote) to prove that I am reliable and a hard worker.

However, I keep running into weirdly, seemingly random email technical issues that I feel like are making me look bad and potentially eroding my boss’ trust in me. On multiple occasions, I’ve sent important, time-sensitive emails that got stuck somewhere along the way and didn’t arrive in my boss’ inbox until the next day. Another time, I was at my desk all afternoon but five semi-urgent emails were sent to me but did not showed up in my inbox until later in the evening (interestingly, the time stamp still says they were sent during business hours). I’m pretty confident this is not related to the internet being down because on all the above occasions I’ve been doing other work online.

Each time I’ve reached out to my boss to explain what happened, but I’m worried she’ll think I’m making excuses for laziness or lack of attention to detail. She works remotely, so it’s hard for her to have the normal in-person oversight, but I’ve been trying really hard to prove that I am an efficient worker who can get things done without her physically being there to watch over me. And especially given that it’s 2019, most technology-related things, especially email, are just expected to work. How do I explain these seemingly random email technology problems without making it seem like I’m lying or making up an excuse?

If your work is otherwise good, your boss probably doesn’t think you’re flagrantly lying about technical malfunctions. That said, I can see why you feel uneasy. The best way to handle it is to (a) alert your IT team to the issue and ask if they can help you solve it and then (b) let your boss know that you’ve done that. For example: “I wanted to let you know that I’ve alerted IT to the email lag I’ve been having sometimes, where messages I send sometimes don’t show up until the next day and I sometimes recent emails hours after they were sent. I’m hopeful they’ll be able to solve it.” The subtext there is that it is in fact a real problem and you’re trying to get it fixed.

3. Is it okay to kiss my significant other when we part after lunch?

What are your thoughts on kissing a romantic partner after a lunch date during the workday? I’m salaried, working for only of the only employers in a smallish town. As my partner and I don’t see each other as much as we’d like, we have a standing weekly lunch date. After lunch, I walk them to their car, we kiss (very quick, sweet, closed mouths), and they go back to work (they’re a telecommuter). I frequently see colleagues at the same lunch places we go to, but never on the street after.

Am I committing a huge faux pas? I would never kiss someone *in* the office. I’m also aware that we are a couple of heavily tattooed semi-goth weirdos in a fairly staid town. FWIW, we’re in our mid-thirties and I am a manager.

You’re fine. If you were passionately making out on the hood of the car, that would be weird, but a quick peck in the parking lot is perfectly normal and inoffensive.

4. My coworkers were aghast when a lunch event switched its menu

A supplier is holding an event over lunch today to get feedback from my department on certain items they are considering developing. The invite for this came with a statement that the meal was to be a Mexican buffet. The invite was forwarded by my boss and his boss encouraging attendance.

Today we received a reminder email that also stated that the meal was being changed to Panera to allow more vegetarian options. My team sits around me, and many people were aghast at this decision. Some people decided to not attend for this reason. It sounded like they were not fond of Panera or not happy that the switch was made to allow vegetarian options or both.

I was surprised at this response. I turned to the guy next to me and in a hushed voice said, “How about go, give your input on the items and just not eat any of their food?”

Is this normal behavior? I understand that a Mexican buffet isn’t hard to keep vegetarian-friendly, but I feel the reaction was over the top. I don’t know if they were looking for a way to get out of an hour-long meeting. I may just be venting, but I think they were offered a free meal and are being overly picky.

I kind of admire the passion of the people who were aghast at the change in food plans.

Yes, it’s over the top. Amusingly so. But the food is sometimes the main draw at an event like this (which is basically giving free advice to another business, albeit advice that could end up benefitting your company), so if people were pumped for Mexican and not so into sandwiches, I don’t think it’s outrageous to decide to spend their lunch time doing something else. Being aghast is weirdly intense, but people get really excited at the prospect free food that they find especially delicious.

5. Lukewarm responses to pregnancy announcements at work

In the comments on a recent letter about an intern who asked her manager if the manager’s pregnancy was planned, some people said that they’re cautious about how they respond to pregnancy announcements because they don’t know if the pregnant person is happy about the pregnancy or not, and so they’re more neutral and guarded than congratulatory. I argued that in the workplace, the only polite response is congratulatory, as when someone is announcing at work, it’s rare that they’d be looking to share their conflicted or negative emotions about their pregnancy. Then, in Friday’s open thread, commenter Cat posted this, which I thought was important enough that I wanted to share it here as well.

I’ve been thinking about the “notifying co-workers about your pregnancy” letter for a while and some of the discussion has been bothering me. I wanted to bring up a perspective that I didn’t see reflected in the comments.

Basically, something I didn’t see discussed is this: most women are nervous when they announce their pregnancy at work. They know it opens them up to potentially personal questions that they don’t necessarily want to answer. But more than that, they know they risk discrimination against them by their employer for having a baby. Yes, it’s illegal. But we all know it happens and that being “mommy tracked” is a very real phenomenon. We also know that women have their duties reassigned while they’re on maternity leave and never get them back and that some companies find excuses to lay women off when they’re pregnant or on maternity leave. And we know that some coworkers resent having to cover for women on maternity leave.

It’s a scary time and women are absolutely going to be hesitant in how they approach it. For many women, just making an announcement in the break room or at a staff meeting doesn’t feel like the right approach for that reason. It does feel like a sensitive conversation. And you’re absolutely watching the nuances of coworkers — and especially your boss’s reaction — to see how they’re likely to respond. A lukewarm response doesn’t come across as “I don’t know if you’re happy about this so I’m being cautious.” It comes across as “I’m not happy about this and you have to worry about being treated worse as a result.”

This doesn’t matter so much when we’re talking about an intern. But it absolutely matters as to other coworkers. Feigning enthusiasm is a way of telling women that you’re not going to change how you view them professionally – you see this as good news and not career suicide. Just saying something like “That’s big news” in a neutral tone does not do that.

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