how to talk to an employee about a struggling coworker — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

I manage a junior employee, “Arthur,” who has become friends with another employee at his level, “Ford.” Ford works on a different client team with a different manager (“Zeke”).

Ford has been significantly underperforming. It’s been clear for a while that he isn’t well-suited for this position. Ford’s manager, Zeke, has been clear about expectations, and has put Ford on a performance plan, which hasn’t gone well. Ford is on his way out, Zeke has been clear about that outcome, and the company is being gracious as Ford wraps up some work before ending his employment.

The trouble is, Ford has been talking about all this with Arthur … but being half-truthful about the whole thing. He has told Arthur that his client is extremely difficult and demanding; the reality is he works with some friendly clients with a moderate, but not excessive, definition of success. He has told Arthur that “he is leaving”; the reality is that he’s being politely shown the door. In short, Ford has either failed to realize that his underperformance is his own fault, or is telling these half-truths so he doesn’t appear unsuccessful in front of his peers.

Normally, I’d treat this as a problem that’s going away when Ford leaves. But as part of their friendship and work, Ford and Arthur have bounced ideas off each other about projects and managing clients. I’m worried that Arthur will treat the information he’s heard from Ford with greater weight than it deserves. I don’t want Arthur to take on Ford’s habits of poor quality work, non-communication, loose accountability to deadlines, or attitude toward clients, and I don’t want him to think that Ford’s experience is normal (this is Arthur’s first office job). And as a new, but pretty high-performing employee, I don’t want Arthur to think that he might be similar in performance to Ford and in danger of a similar outcome.

How can I give Arthur the truth about Ford’s failure to meet expectations, while still respecting Ford’s privacy (and dignity)? How can I tell Arthur that he is a much better performer than Ford, and he doesn’t need to worry about being shown the door? I also worry that Arthur will weight the stories he’s heard from Ford as more accurate given their friendship. Can you help frame this in a way that’s direct, helpful, and respectful?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

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