"Stop internet-ing and do your job!" ?
July 25, 2013 8:27 AM   Subscribe

An employee in my office is scheduled to be fired today for "non-productive use of company time." That's a fancy way of saying, "Playing around on the internet all day instead of getting his work done." I happen to know that another co-worker is at risk for the same fate. Should I warn her to change her ways while there is still time, or stay out of it?

This afternoon, management will be discharging an employee for performance issues - primarily for spending most of his workday hours on the internet while failing to, you know, do any actual work. (Ahem.) No one knows this is coming (I'm in HR, so I know).

Another employee, Mary, is notorious for her own lousy productivity and time management. She spends most of her work time shopping online and, oddly, doesn't care who knows. It's become a running joke upstairs (only no one laughs).

Mary has gotten away with it this long because (a) she's been here forever, sort of a fixture and (b) she has a VERY lax manager who can't be bothered to do anything about it.

Until now. I've been in the meetings and I get the very real sense that after this guy goes, Mary may be next. The execs above her manager have had enough.

I don't work closely with Mary (different departments) but I like her. I don't understand her cavalier attitude towards her work... but personally she's been nothing but kind to me.

I really want to sit down with her and quietly warn her that her proud reign as the Ebay Queen is harmful to her career prospects here. But I don't know if it's any of my business or if it would do any good. She tends to get very dramatic and defensive, and I'm afraid that my helpful advice may be misinterpreted as criticism or an attack.

As I recall, a new manager did try to talk to her once about limiting her personal computer use. She got upset and stated that she considers herself entitled to it, it's a "perk of the job". (It's not.) There were some tears, but it had no lasting affect on her Shopping Cart.

If you knew that someone's poor work habits were leading them to the chopping block, would you tell them? If there's a chance that a friendly word from me can prompt her to turn things around, don't I owe it to her to say something?
posted by falldownpaul to Work & Money (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The way you frame, it looks like she's done either way. Even if you had a good talk with her and she turned it around in the next week, firing her and the first guy might be more about sending a message to everyone else that this level of brazen slacking off won't fly any longer.
posted by DynamiteToast at 8:31 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wait wait wait wait wait... "I'm in HR, so I know." No matter how wrong Mary's behavior may be, if you were to bypass her manager/office protocol/The Code of HR Secrecy to TELL her, that would be much, much, MUCH worse. People get fired for doing crap like that. Don't put your own gig on the line to issue a warning that would most likely fall on deaf ears.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:33 AM on July 25, 2013 [72 favorites]

She got upset and stated that she considers herself entitled to it, it's a "perk of the job". (It's not.)

Sounds like she signed her own death warrant a while ago. Nothing you mention about her behavior even remotely suggests a friendly word from you will do anything but exactly what the previous friendly word did (i.e. light the fuse on the drama bomb.)
posted by A god with hooves, a god with horns at 8:33 AM on July 25, 2013 [11 favorites]

Best answer: If you want to help her advocate to the decision makers that she should be given a written warning with a documented improvement plan to be evaluated in 3 months time.

Giving her a heads up that she's under consideration for dismissal is more likely to rouse the ire of your superiors for forcing the issue before they were ready to act when she flies off the handle as you said she did previously.
posted by rocketpup at 8:33 AM on July 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

If you knew that someone's poor work habits were leading them to the chopping block, would you tell them?

No. If they were a friend, I might say 'are you sure that's a good idea? I don't think that's a great idea.' but what you're describing is a non-friend who is long-term defiant about her lack of productivity and who must be a drag for everyone around her to work with in that she sets the bar extremely low and then crows about it. It is a drag for people who work hard and want to do a good job to see someone like that throwing mud in their faces.

Unless she were so awesome and hilarious her love of life filled the place with laughter and good will and losing her would be a terrible blow to morale.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:33 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would have the conversation and use myself as the example.

"Wow, can you believe Bob was fired? I know for sure they are also looking at the rest of us, and I am really taking this to heart. I've completely stopped shopping and cruising the internet at work because I really need this job. You know how difficult it is to find another job in this economy? What are you planning to change?"

And then, it's on her. You've done due diligence for your friendship, but you know you can't be responsible for her actions. Also, if Mary is fired then your company becomes stronger, and that's a good thing.
posted by raisingsand at 8:33 AM on July 25, 2013 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Rather than talking to her directly, can HR issue a notice that the amount of time employees spend on activities not related to their job (ex. eBay, online shopping, facebook, texting) has become a problem. Those individuals found to be spending an unreasonable amount of their work day doing non-work activities will be made accountable, and that those individuals may lose their jobs or have their computer access restricted, etc.

That way EVERYONE knows, not just her, and hopefully she smartens up.

And really, are you sure you want her to keep her job? She doesn't sound like she is a very good employee...
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:34 AM on July 25, 2013 [27 favorites]

Seconding the HR confidentiality. Are you sure you're not putting your own job at risk?

You should know better than us, but isn't the reasons an employee is fired something that is in strict confidence between the employer and employee? And not something to be casually shared with others?
posted by vacapinta at 8:38 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

don't I owe it to her to say something?

No, not on the facts you've laid out. Also, I suppose you can theorize why you might owe it to Mary to speak up, but you can easily theorize that you owe the opposite (not getting involved) to both your company and to whomever will get, and possibly better appreciate, Mary's job.
posted by cribcage at 8:39 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why didn't you warn the cat that just got fired? Whatever that reason is, is the same reason not to warn Mary.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:41 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, since you work in HR this strikes me as a very bad idea. Frankly Mary sounds like she needs a kick in the arse. Don't sabotage your own job trying to help her. And if they have already made up their minds that people like that are as good as gone, there's not much you can do to intervene.

I have worked with people I really liked BUT been secretly happy when they were canned since they were shitty workers.
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:47 AM on July 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

If her current behavior is as open and well known as you say, is your warning her really going to change anything? Even if she does straighten up right away, the damage has already been done.
posted by florencetnoa at 8:50 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

and, oddly, doesn't care who knows

Then what could you possibly do to make her suddenly change her ways?
posted by spaltavian at 8:53 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

HR probably ought to be giving some kind of official warnings, generally, but it sounds like she's already been warned that she shouldn't be doing this, so warning her again will... do what? Probably nothing. She's made her bed, let her lie in it.
posted by Sequence at 8:54 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

The very best that will happen if you warn Mary is nothing. She knows it's a problem already and has no interest in changing. (Possibly when other employee is fired, she will change, but probably not; she'll rationalise it away because she won't know for certain it's because she does too much online shopping.)

The worst that happens is that she gets angry at you and tells people you're talking up confidential HR info and you get fired.

I don't see an upside here.
posted by jeather at 8:58 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all for the insight and advice so far. I really needed to hear some outside opinions on this... even though I'm not in any way responsible for Mary, and I agree that she's made her own bed here... I'll still feel a little guilty, wondering if I could have helped her with a discreet word. But I agree, that seems futile.

For those of you who are (rightfully) concerned about the HR /confidentiality issue, please let me clarify that I would never discuss the particulars of "Bob's" discharge with Mary, nor reveal confidential operations strategy.

If I were to say anything to Mary at all, it would be about her own time management and that it hasn't gone unnoticed and that's it.

Raisingsand suggests a safe, surreptitious approach. Might give that a try, let the discharge speak for itself and the rest is up to her.

I also agree with those of you who point out that she's a marginal performer who probably needs to go. Professionally, I agree 100%. Personally, she's been nice to me and I would like to see her turn things around and keep her job, if she can.
posted by falldownpaul at 8:59 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seriously. You're in HR. What are you doing asking anonymous strangers a question like this on the internet?

You cannot use information you came by as a result of your work illegitimately. If you were Mary's boss's assistant or the Finance guy or something, I would tell you it's completely unprofessional (and a firing offence) to meddle by warning Mary or hinting to her. But you're *in HR* -- so you should totally already know that. Your job is to work through proper channels. That means either encouraging Mary's boss to speak with her directly, or asking your boss or Mary's boss if they want you to speak with her directly. On behalf of the oganization, for which you work. In HR.

The fact that you're asking this question though, suggests you're very junior. In which case, stay out of it.
posted by Susan PG at 9:00 AM on July 25, 2013 [10 favorites]

If you warn Mary, here is what she is likely to do. Nothing about the issue, but when she is fired she will blurt out something like, "Yeah, falldownpaul said I was in trouble and he was right." That alone will get your ass in trouble too.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:14 AM on July 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

this person is going to grab on to anything on her way out as a desperate action to stay. don't put yourself in the line of fire. your situation is even further complicated by the fact that you work in hr and are privy to info that isn't public knowledge. even if you only warn her about her own time management, you're using conversations that aren't for general consumption to get that info. it's difficult to be someone who gets to see the road ahead and are restricted from sharing the map, but it's also part of your job. making choices about who to warn and who not to warn because they were nice to you (but still a bad worker), is unfair to your company and unfair to the people who depend on her work (or are maybe getting laid off/not hired because she's being drug along).
posted by nadawi at 9:17 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's difficult to understand, especially in a bad economy, but there are a lot of people who just don't care about keeping their jobs. Maybe a spouse or SO makes enough for both of them and they are just working for spending cash, or maybe the salary is worth 30 hours of work to them but not a full 40. I worked with someone like this. She sounded a lot like Mary down to thinking goofing off was a perk of the job. And she just kind of shrugged when she was laid off, like, it was fun while it lasted...

It sounds like you care about Mary keeping her job more than Mary does. You will only frustrate yourself (and possibly get yourself in trouble) if you keep trying to make her understand that she's in danger and she keeps not seeing it or not caring.
posted by payoto at 9:20 AM on July 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Regardless of whether or not you act, at this instant she could have a blinding realization and become the best employee at the company.

It will take some time (probably a lot of it), even as a newly-minted model employee, to change her reputation as a slacker. If the wheels are already set in motion for her firing, nothing she does right now (and I mean that literally) will keep her on board.

From the sounds of things, she's probably wasted years of company time.

So she's "nice" while she's wasting money that could be going to pay you better or improve your company? So what?

Advocate for her internally (be prepared to explain why her and not the guy who's already getting fired), advocate for a general "warning", but you don't owe Mary a thing and you DO owe your company a duty to keep confidential information private.

Keep your nose and neck out of it. Mary made this bed and she'll have to lie in it.
posted by toomuchpete at 9:28 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Echoing the chorus that warning her outside of a formal written writeup is a career limiting move for you, but also that it's likely unnecessary. You don't need to stick your neck out for this person, because the office gossip mill will handle that for you. If your company is like any of the ones I've worked in, word will get around FAST about the reasons for today's termination. If she doesn't get the hint after that, she's on her own.
posted by deadmessenger at 9:30 AM on July 25, 2013

The way I see it (IAAL, IANYL, IANAlaborL), it's not just your own career you could be jeopardizing. If you speak to Mary about it confidentially or off the cuff or pretending to just be chatting, and she doesn't change her ways, and then they fire her, she could come back with a vengeance and sue your company for not giving her additional warnings and/or you for not being more clear. There are a lot of ways to spin this with a creative attorney, and unfortunately, most of the time companies prefer to settle lawsuits by former employees rather than fight them, because juries love individuals and hate companies, and the cost of pursuing could be much higher.

But can you imagine what it would be like for all concerned if that were to happen? Not just your job at this company, but also how would you feel if your company, which has already warned Mary and given her every opportunity to change up, ended up having to pay her some hefty settlement to get out of their hair and you knew it was your fault? Ugh, I would hate to be in that position.
posted by janey47 at 9:37 AM on July 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Don't give this employee any sense that she's got any more of an inside track than she already has. She's already taking advantage of the privileged position she's worked her way into. If she is told that she has to god forbid work, she's going to become resentful and an interminable complainer. I bet employees on the same level or below her-- who actually do their jobs-- are already feeling pissed off as hell that she is getting away with this behavior.
posted by BibiRose at 9:44 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not in HR, but as part of my job in IT I am frequently made aware of these kinds of potential or definite terminations before they happen. I think if you want to continue to have a career in HR, you absolutely cannot let on that you know. If it ever came out that you tipped the person off in any way, you could be in all kinds of trouble and might end up having to move into another line of work. Frequently, it sucks, but maintaining secrecy is a critical part of this kind of job.

About the only consolation is that one day you'll probably be in the know when it's someone who has been an utter bastard to everyone. You still can't let on that you know, of course, but it can be quite enjoyable just knowing what's about to happen.
posted by FishBike at 9:45 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: It's decided, I will not say anything to Mary.

Thank you, everyone, for your time and your thoughts. I appreciate hearing your take on things.
posted by falldownpaul at 9:47 AM on July 25, 2013 [16 favorites]

As someone who has had extra work dumped on me because of this kind of person not doing their job, I don't care how 'nice' Mary is: screw her, if she's fired then she's earned it. This isn't a case of discrimination or unfair labor practices: this is a clear-cut case of someone who is literally refusing to do the job they are being paid to do.

It is not fair to her coworkers to keep this dead weight hanging around. They are burdened with doing the work Mary is being paid to do; if/when she is fired, then one of two things will happen:
1. A decent employee will be hired in Mary's place, reducing everyone else's workloads (and stress) to their proper levels.
2. No one is hired to replace Mary, since management sees that obviously there has been an extra and unnecessary employee in the department.
...2.(A) In this case, management might consider splitting what they wasted on Mary's paycheck to give everyone else a raise; or
...2.(B) If the company budget is tight, this may mean someone else, someone who does work, won't need to be laid off.
posted by easily confused at 10:02 AM on July 25, 2013 [7 favorites]

If it makes you feel any better about the situation, I think that you will find that once someone is terminated for excessive personal use of the company internet that the rest of the company will learn about it in nauseating detail very soon thereafter and it will be the subject of much gossip and discussion. The last time I had to terminate someone for this reason, office-wide internet usage was reduced by a couple orders of magnitude. If the rumor mill isn't sufficient to change her behavior, it is quite unlikely that a quiet word from you would make any diference at all.
posted by Lame_username at 10:03 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to say that the most important virtue that any HR person can possess is the the ability to keep mum. Mary may be sweet, but YOUR job is at stake if you give her a heads up on this. It could be TERRIBLE for you if she goes screaming to her boss saying, "FALLDOWNPAUL TOLD ME THAT I'M GOING TO BE FIRED! WAH! GAH! GNARF!"

She'll leave the company, you'll still have a job.

You don't want to be the bearer of this kind of bad news.

Now, to get back to my own job...
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:01 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's decided, I will not say anything to Mary.

This is definitely, DEFINITELY the right decision. The number of ways things can go south for you or for her or for your department if you inappropriately made a comment to her and had her interpret phrasing any number of ways wrong or whatever is a HIGH number with almost no upside for you or even for her. Glad you're heeding good advice here.
posted by disillusioned at 11:51 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm with FishBike (whose situation I've been in) and Ruthless Bunny. In some ways it sucks not to be a "regular employee" on these issues, but your job is HR, your responsibility is to the HR department first, and your ethical responsibility is to be hands-off. You don't in fact owe her anything, and short of her performing CPR on your puppy, I'm not sure why you think you do. If she's depending on you in any way to protect her, then she would be guilty of abusing any relationship you do have.

So, I know you've been convinced, but going forward you may want to consider how your position makes you a little different from everyone else. You don't need to be hated like cops hate Internal Affairs, but you're just not able to sit down and gossip with the rest of them.

The best way to help the Marys you will meet in the future is to promulgate a solid, well-managed Internet Usage Policy, and hold regular refresher courses for the rank and filers so that they understand it and know how to operate within it.
posted by dhartung at 2:19 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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