When should a new employee cut bait — or be shoved overboard?


Karla L. Miller
November 23, 2011

This is the second of four columns by Karla Miller, winner of last month’s @Work Advice Contest. Tell us what you think and send your workplace questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

I’ve been at a new job for a while now and have a problem. Three others in my group have been here much longer and know a lot of things that are not written down anywhere. Call it institutional knowledge. Often this is info I need to do my job, so I ask one of them. Frequently they give me wrong or incomplete info so that I look like a fool. Have you any suggestions?

Karla: Oops. As someone who has been in the position of the institutionalized veteran, I’m now paranoid that this is from one of my former trainees. If so: I wasn’t trying to gaslight you, honest!

So I may be biased, but I would encourage you to start from the most charitable assumption: Your colleagues aren’t intentionally undermining you, but they’ve truly forgotten what it’s like to be a rookie. And they’ve obviously never considered the “what if I got hit by a bus” scenario.

So this is where you come in — not to run a bus over them but to write down what has been unwritten. When they give you info, take notes. Then turn those notes into an e-mail back to them that says, “I want to record this for future reference so I don’t have to keep pestering you. Here’s my understanding of how this process works. Have I left anything out?”

Ask not just what to do and how to do it but also why it’s done that way. Keep track of their responses. Your documentation might someday help a future hire. More important, just in case they really are out to get you, you’ll have a record showing exactly the kind of help you have, and haven’t, gotten from them.

* * *

I have a co-worker who honestly comes across as ... not very smart. There are aspects of his job that he is very skilled at (a large part of why we hired him six months ago). But he’s not skilled at other aspects and needs frequent reminders and written recaps of meetings that he attended. The questions he asks betray a lack of important knowledge about his job. Our managers have asked us to “set him up for success.” This is all good, but how do you separate what is due to different personality types and modes of thinking from what is essentially not doing a job well? I want to figure out how to be less frustrated and judgmental of this guy.

Karla: There’s a fine line between accommodating and enabling. Following the “teach a man to fish” adage, it’s pretty frustrating when you’ve set up the rod and reel and baited the hook, only to have him ask, “Wait, which end goes in the water again?”

With management’s blessing, it might be time to help him help himself. Steer him toward resources — Web sites, manuals, FAQs — where he can answer his own questions. After meetings, send an e-mail to everyone listing each attendee’s tasks and deadlines.

I’m not saying to push him overboard and let him sink or swim. For him, success may mean dropping anchor right where he is. But maybe he’s gotten in the habit of drifting and needs someone to hand him the oars.

Karla L. Miller, 39, lives with her husband, a self-employed science and tech consultant, and toddler in South Riding, Va. She once dreamed of being a creative writer but succumbed to the lure of a steady paycheck. But 16 years of writing and editing tax publications — most recently for the Washington National Tax office of downtown accounting firm KPMG LLP — hasn’t dulled her prose. Miller’s advice won over judges and voters. Her prize? Four weeks to win you over. E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com and let us know what you think.

Did you miss the @Work Advice Contest? Want to see Karla’s entries? Go to washingtonpost.com/workadvice.

Is it ever right to let a rookie employee sink or swim?

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