Please help me face the music at my job
March 16, 2021 5:45 PM   Subscribe

I've dropped the ball repeatedly, without warning, in the past month at work. I'm talking to my manager tomorrow. How do I say anything without it sounding like a weak excuse? What's about to happen?

Yeah, I know I'm being a really shitty employee right now. You don't need to tell me that. As a manager, a direct report who says they're working on something, puts it off till the last minute, and ends up not being able to complete the task is, I'm sure, not ideal.

I'm also new to the corporate world - this is my first job out of college and I don't know how to talk to my boss. What I should and shouldn't say about having ADHD and being in a rough place emotionally (I haven't said anything) when all I want to do is be honest. I've seen enough advice on this to know that being honest will probably not help.

Q: What's been going on that you've been neglecting work?
A: Nothing, really. At least, nothing that will get me off the hook. I graduated this past May and this is my first job out of college. I've had internships before but this is a different level of responsibility. All I can say is, I've been kinda checked out since the beginning because I've been having a post-college existential crisis (am I gonna have to spend the rest of my life in an office job? Did I just spend years of toil getting a degree for a 9 to 5 to be the rest of my life? Did I even want a degree in that field? Does this mean I can never have a weird haircut in my life, or get the tattoos I want? But I have to because it's the only way to maybe retire someday. Instead of thinking about that, I'm just going to bury my nose in my phone and ignore work). There have been other things that have exacerbated this (ADHD, toxic living situation, medication withdrawal, all my supports went away a year ago when the pandemic started and i can barely concentrate) but it's also entirely self-sabotage. I feel like a fuckup and lo and behold, the self-fulfilling prophecy comes true.

Here's what happened: Over the past month or two, it's been my responsibility to set up and demo parts of a project that I worked on. I've barely known anything about what was going on, probably because I was so checked out. We've ended up postponing the demo several times because I wasn't ready or I was rushing to get things done at the last minute. Last week, I was having horrible migraines because of med withdrawal and dropped the ball yet again on a demo. (I did not tell my team lead that I was feeling bad. I didn't want to delay the demo again and you're not supposed to tell your boss you're getting off antidepressants, right? I don't know how much or how little to tell work people and I don't think anything is bad enough to merit help or leniency so I'm going to err on the side of never telling anyone anything and just dropping the ball, which can't be the correct course of action) After I asked for some help on the day of the demo, he talked to me about how I need to get things done in advance because I've done this last-minute shit more than once (not his words, mine), I've had plenty of time and few other responsibilities, and I'm either not doing my due diligence or something else is going on. I think I stammered something about med withdrawal being a factor that week and not knowing who to ask. I've been working more closely with people since, but I can't shake the feeling that I did something very bad (I did) and I'm going to have to answer for it in my performance review.

So my question is this: How do I face my manager tomorrow? I know he's going to ask about why/how I haven't been doing my due diligence. Important to note that my responsibilities at this point are pretty minimal, they've been asking me to reach out and ask questions for a long time, and I just....haven't because I've been so checked out, doing the bare minimum if that. I don't know what to say, it's pretty indefensible. I feel horrible for letting my demons get the better of me again. On a more positive note, I do feel like I'm starting to warm up to the work. The company culture is great, I'm getting back on some ADHD medications to actually be able to sit down at my desk and work, and I'm more at peace with where I'm at in my life. What do I say for myself, and is this a recoverable fumble? Thanks everyone for your insight.
posted by scruffy-looking nerfherder to Human Relations (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Come in with some solutions to propose. I think most managers care less about reasons and care more about results.

Sample solutions:
-I changed prescriptions recently and things should settle within a couple of weeks. In the meantime I’m
being much more careful with my sleep schedule so I can stay more focussed.
-I am committing to using my laptop rather than phone to keep up with emails so they’re less likely to be forgotten.
-I installed a new calendar software that gives me alerts.
-I was having some family issues that were really distracting but they are settling down now and it will be easier for me to focus.
-I sometimes find it tricky to prioritize. May we do a weekly check in this month to help me triage my tasks?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 5:49 PM on March 16, 2021 [22 favorites]

Best answer: As a former manager, a few 'don't':
--Don't lie or try to cover up, especially if you're asked a direct question.
--Don't catastrophize and tell me you're the worst person in the world and get dramatic about it.
--Don't blame others

Be pragmatic; own up to your mistakes. Give boss a clear path forward. If you need something, ask for it. Do you need help prioritizing? Do you need a daily email check-in? Help your manager to help you. But you have to figure out what you need (and soon!).

It's important to remember that pretty much everyone in the business world has screwed up at their job. Sometimes in a huge way. We've all been there, and have (some) sympathy. It's really important that you show that you're learning and growing.
posted by hydra77 at 5:55 PM on March 16, 2021 [27 favorites]

Are you aware of what *you* want? Focus on that for a little bit, think about it, try to come up with a concrete dream plan, and then think about how you and your boss can both get what you each want; how you can be reliable or creative or whatever strength you can bring, while at the same time eventually getting something for yourself that will bring you happiness.

If you have a 2-year sojourn/sabbatical/tattoo-fest planned for 2025, then being a fully-checked-in office employee while saving all your money might be energizing.
posted by amtho at 6:00 PM on March 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

This isn't really an answer for tomorrow, but for general in future: If you're sick, you're sick and you should tell them and take the time you need - but that doesn't mean you have to go into great detail. Different countries and probably even different workplaces vary in how much they will want to know from you, but in your case I would probably have called in sick with a migraine.

They'd rather know for a fact that you're too ill to be capable of doing the work by deadline, so that they can get someone else to cover it, rather than have you trying to work through being ill, and failing to hit the deadline. But at the same time, your boss doesn't want to be your counsellor or hear every last detail. Give them the minimum personal information you can while still conveying a firm line that you are not well enough to work today.

For tomorrow - seconding to go in with some plans for how you've now got things in place to make sure things will be different in future. What's done is done, and they'd rather hear "I'm doing x, y, z now, which means in future you don't have to worry about this" than spend a whole morning raking over the coals of what happened. And yes to asking for specific support if you can identify certain things that might help make that happen. Again, they'd probably rather know that you understand and have ownership of the work issues and have a clear view of what they can do to avoid them in future, than have you just mumble that you'll promise to try harder in future. It's like the classic interview question about your weaknesses - nobody expects to hear "I have no weaknesses" - they want to hear "I am aware of weakness x and y, and this is how I mitigate them in my working life".

Good luck!
posted by penguin pie at 6:10 PM on March 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Seconding nouvelle. Also, burnout is affecting A LOT of people right now. Positioned well, it isn't a hokey excuse at all, it's completely valid. If you've experienced a lot of changes to your environment , you're likely affected.
posted by firstdaffodils at 6:15 PM on March 16, 2021

Good advice upthread.

In addition, if your company offers Employee Assistance, go ahead & call. No one besides you and the EAP company will know that you've done that. It's a bit of a crapshoot, but it can't hurt and it might help.
posted by elmay at 6:15 PM on March 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

You were overwhelmed and various kinds of not-well and you dropped a ball. It happens! This is not a career-ending failure. If anything it's a signal that in the future you should both tell your bosses right away if you're not getting something fundamental that you need to know to complete a project, and also that you should listen to your body when it says you really Cannot Work Today.

But, also... I also have ADHD and a lot of existential angst about working a buttoned-up office job. So I totally get where you're coming from. For me... well, I spent almost ten years banging my head against the wall of a career that required a lot of sit-at-the-desk-and-buckle-down-and-work-all-alone-for-weeks-on-end time, and I fucking hated it and I eventually got fired. And now I'm a receptionist/office manager, and... I kind of love it? There are lots of little tasks to get done every day, there's always something new going on, something to organize or research or help out with, and I interact with literally everyone in the office many times a day instead of being locked to my desk all damn day, and overall I think it might be perfect for the way my brain works.

It's possible that this job is just not for you, and that would not mean you're a failure. Not every job is good for every person.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:16 PM on March 16, 2021 [7 favorites]

FWIW I would not use the term "checked-out." That's something an employee does right before he or she is about to quit.

I would say that as a recent grad straight into this pandemic you have been facing two primary challenges 1) acclimating yourself to the workplace and 2) adjusting to the pandemic situation. (You could mention feeling ill, and not taking the day off in context of a specific incident, but I wouldn't mention illness troubles in general at this time). In addition, you are grateful to have the opportunity to help problem solve together.

Come prepared with a realistic list of things that didn't go well, and a way to mitigate that problem in the future. You might consider "confessing" that you didn't feel comfortable being as proactive as you should have been to ask questions, and you now realize that even if it is uncomfortable you need to ask. I think it's entirely reasonable to request regular check-in meetings to discuss the prioritization of your workload. You may also want to volunteer to send weekly status update emails about the tasks at hand.

In the future though, it is entirely appropriate to proactively let your colleagues know that you aren't feeling well or "woke up feeling under the weather." Check with your boss about his policies about how to take sick leave.

People make mistakes in the workplace. It happens. Assuming you are a typical office monkey and not say a doctor making mistakes are not matters of life and death. Time management can be really hard to do in the workplace and is a common issue for employees new to the workplace. Time management as a student vs as an employee can be very different.
posted by oceano at 6:17 PM on March 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: So first, if possible, try to be clear with yourself that you are not your job, so no matter what happens, you will learn and grow and it will be okay.

Here's a formula for you for the rest.

An example of a mistake I've made is: ___
I learned: ___. In the future, I will address it/prevent similar by: ___.
This circumstance also impacted on me: ___
It would also help me to: ___

So for your demo:

I repeatedly made the mistake of underestimating the amount of effort I needed to make.
- I learned I need to lay out all the steps right at the start, with target deadlines for each step, so that I am ready to go for a demo early. I will enter those on my calendar and not let other things distract me.
- I learned I need to ask questions up front, and I will enter those as tasks to complete in advance.
- I learned that if things are going off the rails I need to let people know and ask for help/let people know who will be impacted.

(This can also be a spot to highlight your earlier success for example "I learned that although I can deliver, like I did, on getting a project done, I'm not yet great at planning to steps to do a demo, so I am going to work on that.)

In this case, my ability to do those things was impacted by changing prescription medication, by pandemic and home stress, and a last-minute set of migraines.

I know this is an issue, so I would like to ask for some help. If possible, I would like to plan future work by breaking it into milestones and email you when I've met them, and have a check in with you the day before a demo to be sure the demo meets your standards and is ready to go, if that's possible.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:18 PM on March 16, 2021 [14 favorites]

It is OK to say you're not feeling well but I would seriously not mention anything related to mental health or mental health medication (including ADHD). Some workplaces are OK with discussing those issues but in most that sort of thing still carries a lot of stigma.
posted by Anonymous at 6:56 PM on March 16, 2021

Also to reassure the anxiety brain-- A sign of a functional workplace / good boss is that when an issue arises, the boss will have a productive and constructive discussion with the employee about the situation to come up with a new path forward.

FWIW As an employee brand new to the workforce, I also had a tricky situation (also resulting in an anxiety spiral) at work where things were not going well. While our situations are not directly comparable, it took me awhile to realize that while I should have done some things differently, I did my best in a situation where I was set up to fail. It is not reasonable for me to take more than my share of the "blame." My boss deserves some of the blame, because he had an opportunity to step in and didn't. Your boss could have been more proactive as well. For instance, he could have asked for a dry run beforehand. He didn't. You didn't know you needed one.
posted by oceano at 7:01 PM on March 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

In general, it sucks to fire people. Many managers are very willing to try working with you first.

If you want to keep this job, you have to be in earnest about improvement.

But here's the deal: you ARE right out of school. Comparatively, you know diddly. They should know that. So one approach is to use that: "I didn't realize this was too much for me to handle yet. I can keep working but I need more guidance from someone more experienced. I panicked and didn't want to admit I was over my head. Is there someone who can help me finish this?"

As a manager, I have learned to be careful with new grads because they do often get overwhelmed. It's really not unusual and doesn't mean you are broken or incapable.

Your mental health stuff may be in there but honestly it's just as likely there was plenty of outside reasons this happened. Focus on those with your manager.
posted by emjaybee at 7:09 PM on March 16, 2021 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Oh man, I’m sorry. As a manager, this conversation sucks for me too but it’s not always the end of the world—it’s more a reality check. If you are on thin ice because of repeated, consistent errors combined with an unforgivable thing like lying or blaming others, I ask you to explain what happened because we need to have this discussion before I fire you. If you are not on thin ice, which almost nobody ever is with me because everyone has tough periods and drops the ball, I ask out of genuine concern. I want you to be okay as a human, that’s the most important thing, and I want you to not be miserable at work. Of course, it’s my job to make sure the work is getting done so if it’s not you’re making ME (and/or others on the team) miserable and that’s not something I can let go of repeatedly. I want you to be the right fit—all bosses want things to work out with their staff—but I NEED to know if you’re not. This conversation is me kind of begging you to be the right fit. It’s your opportunity to prove you are.

What I DON’T want to hear:
Excuses, lies, blame, long, drawn-out stories, TMI (specific meds, diagnoses, and treatments strike me as TMI unless we’re close or you’re asking for accommodation in which case I’d happily refer you to HR and they’d happily accommodate,) self-flagellation, self-pity, overly rehearsed scripts of what you THINK I want to hear, unrealistic promises to immediately fix everything and never mess up again.

What I DO want to hear:
That you know you messed up, that you understand its detrimental effects on the work and the team and you regret it, that you care about your job but you weren’t at your best due to a tough time and personal matters overtook things, but that you have taken control of those, that you have a work plan already in place to ensure things improve (this is where TMI is good—specific steps, measurable goals, and a realistic timeline for improvement), what help you need from me.
posted by kapers at 7:28 PM on March 16, 2021 [20 favorites]

Here again to second oceano’s excellent advice not to say “checked out,” because it’s hard to justify keeping someone on who doesn’t even want to be there. To some extent, nobody wants to be there, it’s work and we’d rather be at the beach or whatever, but at the same time, there’s a zillion new grads who’d give anything for an opportunity to have your job.

Your existential doom feelings re: corporate life are totally understandable and more people experience this than you think (we just don’t talk about it to our bosses unless they’re like...beyond extremely cool.) You aren’t doomed to anything except needing to work for $$. You have a lifetime to find the work that feels right, or right-er.

And to answer your last question, yes, you can recover from this sort of thing! I once made a mistake that was 100% due to my own lack of care (didn’t even have a health excuse, I just was sloppy) and it cost the company $50k. I thought maybe I was going to die and I was so scared to talk to my bosses that I didn’t sleep for 80 hours. They didn’t fire me and now I have the big title that makes people scared to tell me they messed up, so I tell them that story.
posted by kapers at 7:52 PM on March 16, 2021 [11 favorites]

Piping in to share my own experience at my internship, 10-15 years ago, fresh outta college (omg, I'm getting old!).

I was a HOT mess. Constantly overslept, missed meetings, kept saying I'd fix things but I didn't. Ultimately, I believe that cost me the opportunity to continue with the organization as a full-time, permanent employee. It didn't help that the commute was ~1.5 hours one way, which was not something I was used to at all. I ended up missing a major event that I planned, due to oversleeping. To this day, remembering that still makes me cringe and go red with embarrassment. I think we all struggle with our first jobs, in one way or another. Sometimes it's timing, sometimes it's office politics, sometimes it's just generally life and inertia.

The key here is: don't be so hard on yourself. It's really hard to make the transition from college to the "real world". I was very blessed to have a supervisor who was supportive and continually understanding, even though I kept coming in late. She said she's seen it all, and it's generally a tough transition. Having COVID on top of everything (virtual environments, general stress, etc.) makes it even harder.

Be kind to yourself, you're doing the best you can with what you have. I would try making to-do lists or task lists, maybe weekly goal lists, and stick to it the best you can. I believe in you, and I know you got this. :)
posted by dubious_dude at 8:13 PM on March 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

The previous answers are great. One additional point--I'm not sure what you mean by "due diligence" in your question, and using this term might confuse your boss too. Here's one definition. Good luck tomorrow.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:37 PM on March 16, 2021

As your boss, I don’t want to hear about ADHD, OCD, or any other mental/health issues. I want to hear that you understand you fucked up and how you plan to fix the fucked-up parts, and how you ensure that this will not happen again.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:46 PM on March 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

Answering yet again as a manager of humans who mess up and beat themselves up way too long/hard over it: don't forget your talents, good qualities, positive contributions, potential! In fact, make a list of those positives if you must, just to reset your mental energy. Don't go in radiating "I'm a failure" vibes--because you aren't. Clearly you're an intelligent and thoughtful person. You've gotten through schools, internships, you've gotten this job, you've dealt with significant personal challenges and this hell year. You can still be a great employee. Great employees fuck up from time to time.

Framing things positively is like a magic spell you can do on your boss. Truly. You don't have to go nuts with this, and don't try to spin serious fuckups as wonderful experiences, but sprinkle in a few positives to lift the tone of the conversation. Bosses love to hear stuff like "You know, I discovered I really thrive with close collaboration so I'm going to be reaching out to X next time I have a question like Y." Whereas "I didn't know who to ask" (though perfectly valid) sounds like a problem and bosses hate problems.

Do you have regular check-ins with your boss? If not, your boss has failed you as a junior person IMO. If they're open to it, even a 15 minute 1-on-1 every other week will keep things flowing.
posted by kapers at 8:55 PM on March 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

One thing nobody has touched on in this thread yet, that is a real consequence here - your coworkers on future projects will probably not trust you for a while. Reputations take time to repair, and at this point if you're on my project team, your reputation is probably not something I'd want to work with in the near future.

Fix the problem, as people have given you great advice on how to do, then just keep demonstrating that you won't have the problem again. It's not too late, and you're on the right path in wanting to fix what's happened, so keep on that path and it will come good, as long as you own it and put in the work.

Don't beat yourself up; just make sure that you correct as much as you can as openly as you can.
posted by pdb at 8:57 PM on March 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

Don’t go into detail, but I think it’s okay to say you’ve been dealing with some medical issues that you haven’t been comfortable discussing and in retrospect you’ve realized you probably should have been more forthright about this and taken some sick leave.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:21 AM on March 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

There is a lot of good advice here. I agree with so much of what's been said that this happens and is not the end of the world, and that a good manager will want to engage with you first as a human and make sure you're okay. But if/when the conversation turns to business particulars, I just want to add one additional piece of accountability that as a manager I listen closely for when going over these types of failures with people, and that may be helpful to convey if it's true -- if your mistakes had consequences for others on the team, whether it was additional work or reputational risk, or really adverse consequences of any kind, I think it can be meaningful to acknowledge them to your manager so that he/she knows that you understand and have internalized those consequences and that they might operate as a safeguard against future mistakes. "I know that by failing to do X I put A, B, and C people in a difficult position, and I feel terrible about that. I spoke to/will speak to them to let them know I understand the ways in which they were impacted, that I'm sorry, and I will do my best to make sure it doesn't happen again." When I hear that sentiment in this context it reassures me that the employee and the team have a good chance of functioning effectively going forward.
posted by clownschool at 10:00 AM on March 17, 2021 [8 favorites]

Are you sure you want to keep this job? Looking at it from the manager side, your fuck-ups don't seem that bad or unusual. I'd probably take you being overwhelmed and under-delivering as a sign that I wasn't giving you all the guidance and support you need, and I'd want to put a plan in place and work extra hard to help you get there. I wouldn't be angry or think less of you... unless you didn't take that action plan seriously.
So before you talk to your manager, you should be clear on whether you want to actually work there. Are you willing to put in the humbling work of fixing the fuck-ups, repairing trust, etc? If not, just ride this until they fire you and put your efforts into updating your CV and figuring out what you want to do with your life instead. Being incompetent, getting fired and figuring your shit out is basically what the first job out of college is made for.
posted by Freyja at 7:01 AM on March 18, 2021

Response by poster: Update time!

My manager rescheduled our chat for today and it's gone better than I expected. Apparently my team lead had told him that I'm smart and have skills (yay) and my issues seem to be with communication/technical knowledge/support. Which is true! So I talked about how I consistently underestimate how long it'll take me to do things, how I didn't wanna put anyone in a bad position, and I'm working more closely with other team members now. He told me to ask for help right away instead of waiting and trying to fix it myself for ages, and to lean on my team more - and that it's not a huge deal so long as I keep people in the loop/make sure I'm on top of what needs to be done. Oh, and that I'll be getting a mentor soon, which I think would help a lot. I feel pretty good about that tbh. And nary a single mention of personal issues!

Now, as far as the trust angle goes: I dont think I really burned bridges with many co-workers. Maybe made some extra work for one or two senior people which, like, it's not good, but it doesn't seem like everyone hates my guts.

Are you willing to put in the humbling work of fixing the fuck-ups, repairing trust, etc?

Yeah, I think I am. I'm learning a lot, making lists, being really fully involved at work and I'm okay with doing that for now. There could be way, WAY more soul-crushing jobs. I like my co-workers, I think they're smart and the company culture is pretty healthy. So yeah, I'll do my penance and eat crow and repair trust by just doing my job as best I can for as long as it takes.

Thanks so much for your answers, everyone. Yall really helped me see the situation more clearly and I appreciate that so much. Hugs to everyone who wants them.
posted by scruffy-looking nerfherder at 11:59 AM on March 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

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