How can I repair a history of poor workmanship and communication to my boss?
November 20, 2007 3:45 PM   Subscribe

I do very small-time contracting for a small, casual, cutting edge usability consulting company and I'm in school at the same time. My boss (the youngish CEO) scheduled an ambiguous meeting with me this week which is surely to tell me I need to shape up.

I began this job looking like a hotshot, speaking well and smart, but I got serious depression and colds and have been producing questionable work for about a month and sounding completely incompetent at meetings. Recently I was produced some work for a brand new project and he thought it was terrible. After that he has avoided the subject of that project with me and sort of trailed off when I asked about it; Instead he gave me a different project to work on.

The thing is, this is by far the best job I've ever had; I'm being asked to do work that I can respect and my boss and coworkers seem like not-fools. I'm dying to look fantastic and get a shot at getting hired as an employee.

Is there any good way I can explain my incompetence at the meeting, or should I avoid trying that? What's the best way to show that I serious promise for the future even though I'm not doing well right now? Is there a good way to get an answer on that project that seems to have vanished? How do I demonstrate that I can be ORGANIZED and reliable? Of course I have the excuse of being in school, but that hasn't been the cause of my mediocrity and I want to encourage him to give me MORE work in the future, not less.

Thanks a bunch and cheers!
posted by oneous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You don't say whether you've been at this job for one month or one year.

As a boss, I appreciate it when employees having a hard time come to me in private and let me know what's going on. Better to do that than not say anything at all and letting your boss think you suck at what you do.

Come prepared to the meeting with an acknowledgement of all the things you know you could have done better and most importantly, what you plan to do to improve the situation. Give a deadline and a definite plan of action.

You might be able to redeem yourself.
posted by HeyAllie at 4:00 PM on November 20, 2007

I ... have been producing questionable work for about a month and sounding completely incompetent at meetings.

This one's easy: don't do that anymore.

Underpromise, overdeliver. Figure out some deliverable you can knock out of the park, then execute on it. Be prepared to work harder than usual, perhaps dramatically so, in order to make this happen: the most foolproof way to "look fantastic" is to BE fantastic, and raw talent is no substitute for hard work.

Great results, even if they don't speak completely for themselves, are the best foundation for making your case. If you can't walk into your meeting with something to show, then your next best bet is to acknowledge you've been underperforming expectations due to external factors, but make sure he knows you've addressed those and are primed to kick ass (you have and are, right?), and let him know he'll see it at your next checkpoint.
posted by kanuck at 4:10 PM on November 20, 2007

"I realise I have not been working to my potential in the past few weeks. I'd appreciate another chance to show you that I can be organised and produce excellent work."
posted by DarlingBri at 4:22 PM on November 20, 2007

It would be good to know how long you've been working with them, and how much good work your boss has seen. With that said, I think HeyAllie is absolutely right. I've been on both sides of this issue, and the best strategy from either side seems to be up-front and honest about it.

When a similar situation first happened to me, I stopped in to see my supervisor and said something to the effect of - "Look, I know I've been a little off recently. There's been some really rough stuff in my personal life, and although I'd be more than willing to explain it to you, I don't want to seem like I'm making excuses. I just want you to know that I'll be doing better from here on out, and if there's any way I can make it up to you, please let me know." I think there was some more in there about how much I liked the place I was at and how I felt bad about how I hadn't been up to my own standards, which was all true - and I think my supervisor could tell. He wasn't known for being cool, but he was really good about it. I mean, he'd clearly noticed that I wasn't doing so well... but I don't think he felt comfortable bringing it up. This strategy seems to have helped during some other rough patches, too...

I've since helped other people through spots from the supervisor's position, and I've tried to have the same conversation with them. I say that I completely understand going through rough patches in life (more than most of them know, I think), and that I'll do everything I can to help them. I try not to be their confidant, but I will (and have) helped people find someone to talk to - whether it's for some structured therapy or just someone to have a drink with. I also tell them, though, what the minimum is that I need from them and when... because it's a job, after all, and I need them to do things. Then we talk about that, about how long they're going to need to do better and figure out if they can do that or not.

It's always a good thing when, at the end of the meeting, an employee suggests a follow-up meeting in a week or two to see if their job performance has gotten better. It's not always needed, but the initiative is always appreciated.
posted by andrewmarc at 4:35 PM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

...and be prepared for the fact that this "ambiguous meeting" might be the one where he fires you. It's not the end of the world, and as a high school student you're in a better position than most to bounce back from it, but it's certainly a possibility, and one you should be emotionally ready for.
posted by hob at 4:42 PM on November 20, 2007

hob, I'm not certain, but I'm almost sure that oneous is in college, not high school. Unless high school students are getting incredible jobs nowadays.

I've been in that position before. One thing that can help, I think, is pre-emptively pointing this out. Sitting down with your boss and telling him, "look, we both know I haven't done what I'd like to do at the company so far. I know that's the case. I'm dedicated to making it change."

The ability to recognize the quality of one's work and the willingness to suck it up and take responsibility can count for a lot. Being the first one to bring up the quality of your work can show that you have that ability.
posted by koeselitz at 4:51 PM on November 20, 2007

Ooops, misread that, sorry.
posted by hob at 4:52 PM on November 20, 2007

Don't try and be a star or a hotshot. Stars are very close to divas and not really welcome in the workplace, resented by the "little people" who just do their job without the drama. You need to find a middle ground and not try and shine all the time. You will learn more that way and won't always be struggling to pull rabbits out of your hat.
posted by 45moore45 at 5:13 PM on November 20, 2007

--I am not saying become a mindless drone, but to take the pressure off yourself to be amazing 24/7. Doing a great job is always welcome, but you can do a great job and also do it at a level where you aren't creating unrealistic expectations.
posted by 45moore45 at 5:17 PM on November 20, 2007

Why have you failed? What is your plan to remedy the problems? Can you give this CEO a layout of your plan (read: solution) to get yourself to shape up? Can you deliver on the results?

Delivering results will do more for getting hired than anything else.
posted by bfranklin at 5:22 PM on November 20, 2007

As someone else who has been on both sides of this issue, I will nth the suggestion to face it head on with your boss. Set a meeting with him, explain your behavior, and (critical step) be resolute and specific in your plans to rectify the situation yourself.

Everyone has bad times, and any good boss should understand this. The ability to take responsibility for your professional behavior and demeanor is equally important to your ability to perform. Be proactive and show your boss that you understand the importance.

Good luck!
posted by Brak at 5:52 PM on November 20, 2007

Also, going in to talk with him first is imperative most of all because you're subcontracting. Keep this in mind; you're a hell of a lot more expendable than most. He's going to need a reason to keep you on, and he hardly needs a reason to let you go.
posted by koeselitz at 6:03 PM on November 20, 2007

A few words of advice:

Don't go into too much detail on your personal issues. I made a mistake like that once and it haunted me for the rest of my time at that job.

Unfortunately, after someone messes up once, it's easy for your coworkers to get into the mentality of "(s)he's always a screwup". Document the time that you were underperforming (with dates), the date of your meeting, and your subsequence performance. I would recommend asking for concrete activities/ milestones that your boss would consider as "good performance" so that you can make notes when you meet them. You will be better able to defend yourself -- if needed, hopefully it's not -- if you have a good sense of what the problem actually was, and can provide evidence that you fixed it.
posted by designmartini at 2:04 PM on November 21, 2007

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