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A bit of background

I'm a junior female developer working for a telecommunications company. Shortly after I started, another young woman joined the team. Our manager sat us together with the intention of doing some pair programming. As we are the only two women in the team and we have similar interests, we soon became very close. Our tasks are mostly bug fixes and small non-critical new features on a legacy system that will be replaced in a not so distant future.

However, as the system we work on lacks any kind of documentation and neither the senior developers nor our manager are always available to help, we sometimes make mistakes. Most of the time one of us spots them, but there have been a few times where not even testing noticed, and everything blew up in production. Last time it happened our manager decided to split the team, and placed us in different areas of the building. We cannot see each other as frequently as we used to.

What happened

Last week our manager approached me. He was curious about some changes that were applied without his permission. When I made clear that none of my tasks involved the files in question, he had a meeting with my coworker in a nearby office. It was a heated and loud discussion, in which he accused her of various nasty things I didn't know and didn't want to know. By the next day the whole department knew about their argument, which got worse after she reported him to management, who in turn called him out for his outburst. After that, he told me and the other developers nearby that we "have to let her make her own mistakes", and explicitly told me to not help her in any possible way.

Now, it's clear to me our manager is evaluating her performance with caution, even gathering evidence in case he decides to put her in a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan). While I know this is not my business, my coworker still asks me for help, and I'm running out of excuses. At first I told her I was busy, or suggested to look at my notes (which are located in a shared drive) or to have a look at the code itself, but I'm afraid that she doesn't take the hint.

How do I stop her or convince her to stop asking for help after I've been told to let her work on her own, without sounding rude, malicious, or that I want her to be fired?

Edit: I talked with our manager at that time, and he brushed off my concerns saying "just tell her you're busy". Just in case, we've updated our résumés and started browsing job sites.


I know there are questions like What can I do to make a coworkers lack of effort more visible?, but IMO they focus in whether the OPs should report their coworkers to their Managers, and not how to deal with this kind of behaviour.


Update: A few days ago I went back from my vacation and to my surprise I found out there was a reorg while I was away. The whole team was relocated to another floor, the PM resigned, my manager was returned to his old developer role (apparently by his own request) and my friend and the head of Testing put their notice at the same day. I don't know if all these changes (especially my manager's demotion) are consequence of their incident, but it's seems to be resolved.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Feb 15 at 21:50
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It's not clear to me from the description here. Did your manager tell you not to tell your coworker that you were instructed not to help? If not, why haven't you told her? – DCShannon Feb 16 at 18:44
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Meet you colleague for lunch or after hours and talk through any queries she may have then. During work time, presumably you have you own tasks to fulfil, so it would be detrimental to your position to be helping her all the time anyway – Matt Wilko Feb 17 at 9:52
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it sounds like the manager in question has his/her own agenda here, maybe desiring to sweep an unprofessional outburst under the rug by getting rid of the other party directly involved. Do you know what prompted said outburst? The lines about splitting the team and letting your colleague make mistakes suggest the manager does not have the project's best interest in mind. Splitting up a team and stifling learning opportunities, especially when someone is actively seeking help (and is also making an effort to solve problems on their own), is wrong on more than just a professional level. – CCJ Feb 17 at 19:35
    
@Santosh, I don't get your point. Testing has nothing to do with this question, I only mentioned that as an example of how chaotic the project is. – Trickylastname Mar 6 at 14:08

10 Answers 10

up vote 285 down vote accepted

Don't make excuses. Tell your coworker what is going on. Say:

Our manager has explicitly told all of us not to give you any help in any way.

Anything else is covering up for your manager and lying to your colleague and friend. Your manager may of course find out you said this and may not be pleased. If you don't want to risk that, you'll just have to keep lying.

It's up to you of course, but if you are as displeased with this approach as I would be, you might consider approaching HR or other managers (possibly the ones who called out your manager) and tell them what you've been asked to do. They may be as displeased with your manager's approach as you are. Having employees not help each other is rarely beneficial for the company.

I would also pay attention to Telastyn's answer. This has many of the signs of being retaliatory, especially if your colleague has shown no signs of underperforming until now. It's a good idea to check that the company knows about, and agrees with, your manager's actions.

If you feel like it, you might consider meeting up with your colleague out of hours and offsite to give her some advice. Your manager has no right to control what you do out of work hours - although that may not stop him finding some way to get back at you if he finds out.

EDIT:Several people have suggested asking your manager what you should say. However my default position is that it's OK to pass on relevant information to colleagues unless I've been asked not to. Better to be able to tell your manager "I didn't know you wanted this kept secret" that to deliberately disobey them. And if the manager asked me to lie without a good reason I probably wouldn't. But this is something you have to decide for yourself.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Feb 15 at 21:51
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"If you don't want to risk that, you'll just have to keep lying" IMHO it's not a good practice and had donwvoted this answer. A shame since most of it is ok. Also IMHO if I got a "slow" coworker I never do it's work for him but at least I try to point where he/she can find a solution and no manager can deny that and no good manager ill try – jean Feb 16 at 16:09
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I'm not recommending it. it's just that lying is the only alternative to telling the truth. – DJClayworth Feb 16 at 16:17
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I wouldn't lie to my friend if I was in that situation. I don't think it's a good advice to suggest that. Since OP is clearly uncomfortable with the manager's reaction, I think talking to HR is highly advisable, something your answer seems to skirt. – ventsyv Feb 16 at 21:51
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I completely agree that it's not good advice to suggest lying to a friend, which is why I didn't. And I only recommend talking to HR in two out of my five paragraphs. – DJClayworth Feb 16 at 21:54

I am going to take a slightly different view of your problem. So, to summarize:

  • Your boss acted inappropriately towards an employee.
  • That employee (rightly) reported this misbehavior to HR.
  • As a consequence, your boss told you not to help that employee do their job.

This is retaliation. I would report this behavior to HR. Depending on the sort of inappropriateness in the original argument (and jurisdiction), retaliating against this employee for talking to HR is illegal.

Regardless, it is vile, and the added possibility of sexual bias only makes it worse.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Feb 15 at 21:52
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@davor - it does not matter. Even if the problem employee was incompetent, there is no need for semi-public arguments or behind the back sabotage. – Telastyn Feb 17 at 1:10
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@Davor - the circumstances (the manager doing it after HR was brought in) certainly look retaliatory. It is therefore appropriate to report the matter to HR, and THEY can make the determination. – Peter Feb 17 at 11:34
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@einpoklum You are assuming that HR won't do their job professionally and look at the situation fairly. They might not. – ereOn Feb 17 at 12:40
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This is clearly an HR issue. Participating silently makes the OP guilty of mobbing. The only way out is to escalate. What to do if HR doesn't do their job is another question, and purely hypothetical at this point. – Peter Feb 18 at 12:02

Edit:

Let me be clear: There are some vague details here. There is probably more going on in this situation, and obviously the story from OP is only from their point of view, so we cannot know the manager's point of view. I have a problem with how this and other things was handled by the manager because of the following statements.

Last time it happened our Manager decided to split the team, and placed us in different areas of the building.

What? Why? What good does this do?

It was a heated and loud discussion, in which he accused her of various nasty things ...

Not something that any manager should so, regardless of what justification they could have. Does it happen? Sure, but that doesn't mean it's the right thing. This should happen behind closed doors, and it's part of the manager's job to stay calm and professional about it.

After that, he told me and the other developers nearby that we "have to let her make her own mistakes", and explicitly told me to not help her in any possible way.

Again, what good can come from this? Maybe it's a good play politically for the manager, but it's not something that a good manager would do. My opinion, obviously.


Apparently the developer in question (let's call her 'Sally') made a mistake. Was it something that was quietly added to the codebase and actively hidden from testers, management, etc., or was it a 'fix' that simply didn't get mentioned? Who knows, and it doesn't really matter, because it's not the OP's business to decide or act on that, other than possibly notifying the manager if she suspects it's the former.

My original answer below is to illustrate that the answer to

My manager told me to stop helping an underperforming coworker. How can I do that without appearing to sabotage her?

Is you shouldn't have to, and you should talk to HR to

  1. Make sure they know how this manager is 'managing' the team.
  2. Ask them how you should deal with the situation.

Despite whatever happened with 'Sally', the OP should not be expected to lie to a coworker (even a slight lie as 'tell her you're busy') at the instruction from a manager.

This does not address disciplinary action that should / should not be implemented against Sally due to her own actions. It's entirely plausible that she was totally at fault and should be fired, suspended, demoted, or whatever for violating company policy/protocol; hard to tell from where I'm sitting. Regardless, I don't believe the reaction from management was appropriate.

end of edit


You said:

Now, it's clear to me our Manager is evaluating her performance with caution, even gathering evidence in case he decides to put her in a PIP.

It's pretty clear to me that your manager is most certainly gathering evidence and working toward getting rid of the other person. Explaining that "we have to let her own mistakes" is not-so-subtle language for "if you continue to help her, I'll never be able to argue that she can't perform her job and get rid of her". Any manager worth their salt would expect the team to give extra help to the 'weak link' if you will, bringing them up to the level of the other team members.

The best thing in these cases is almost always communication. I would first talk with HR and ask how they recommend handling the situation. They are already aware of the problem that exists between your manager and the other person, and should be able to tell you if what your manager told you to do is acceptable or not. You should be able to work out with a representative from that department how you can meet with them privately, maybe even on your own time, if you're concerned about how your manager would take knowing about the meeting.

Developers frequently make changes that more senior staff are not aware of: it's only an issue when those changes don't go well. I would guess that your manager probably had a similar, painful conversation with their boss, and simply let the 'sh*t roll downhill' if you will. Part of your job as a developer is fixing bugs when you find them, and I doubt that your manager wants to be aware of every small change you make: they've likely got a lot more to worry about. Bugs happen; if they didn't, there would be a lot less need for developers.

IMHO, your manager handled this poorly and now has a grudge against your co-worker. Even if you did continue to help your co-worker, it can be difficult or impossible to change someone's mind about another person who they feel has slighted them, as your boss seems to feel after having management talk to them about their 'outburst'. Once you talk to HR you'll know how this is going to play out. Either they will counsel him to tell the rest of your team to disregard his earlier instructions, or they will counsel you to do what your manager said. Either way, as long as you can talk to them confidentially, your manager won't have anything to hold against you.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Feb 15 at 21:53
    
Agreed. A manager has no right to ask you to lie to a colleague, unless lying is part of your job description (e.g. perhaps you are a spy). You can also do whatever you like in your own time, including talking with your friend. – superluminary Feb 17 at 11:17
    
"My opinion, obviously." No, I'm pretty sure it's cold, hard fact that a good manager doesn't stop their assets from improving in quality, especially for little to no marginal benefit. – QPaysTaxes Feb 17 at 16:44

@GeoffAtkins has the right idea. Go to your manager and ask him what you should say to her when she asks for help. You really should do that at the time when a manager asks you to do something like this until you gain some confidence in what to say. I would likely have said something to the effect of I was asked by my boss to stay out of the situation (but then I know how my boss thinks and what he would want me to say.).

In the future, stop trying to communicate through hints. This is a sure loser over time. People don't get hints.

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+1 for "Stop trying to communicate through hints... People don't get hints." – Lindsey D Feb 12 at 19:02
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I can't/won't vote this down (because there is something that can be said about the importance of speaking clearly), but I think that the fact that HR has already been involved between "those two" and the fact that this smells of retaliation... "Go to your manager" just doesn't feel right. HR is where she should go. – WernerCD Feb 12 at 19:58
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Getting clarification from her boss about what his instructions are is necessary even if she chooses to go to HR on this. However, that is a move that could have negative consequences for her, so I will not recommend it as a blanket case. – HLGEM Feb 12 at 21:35
    
@HLGEM Her boss already knows there is an issue and knows that she is asking people around for help, so I don't think that this makes the situation worse for her. – yo' Feb 15 at 13:50
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@yo, it can make the situation worse for the OP (not the person who is in trouble already) to go to HR with this. Now she too potentially has made an enemy of her boss. This is not something to do lightly or without thinking through the consequences. – HLGEM Feb 17 at 15:00

The manager is out of line, unless it's in your job description to tell lies, don't do it. I'd just say I can't help her because I've been told not to. I wouldn't go in to detail she can work that out for herself.

You're hired to do a job, not get involved in people's personal issues, or tell lies, or keep secrets, or take sides. Just do your job.

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Just do your job. That's what she signed up for. If training other junior employees is part of contract then the manager should be held accountable for obstructing you from doing your job. Otherwise if the manager sees that your always-help-seeking colleague is negatively affecting you then he should be able to do his job and manage the team as he sees fit (with-in rules and regulations of the company, of course). – Ejaz Feb 13 at 3:51
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@Ejaz - your job is to do what your manager tells you to do. – Davor Feb 16 at 19:54
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@Davor I'm tempted to post something about if a manager tells you to jump off a bridge... but instead I'll say this: Your job is to advance the interests of the company. If your manager is exposing your company to liability and tells you to act in a way that will expose you and your company to liability, then it is your job to report the manager, disobey any illegal orders and protect the company from liability – Richard U Feb 17 at 17:43

Two things concern me. First is the way you characterize your coworker. Your question implies that she does have a performance problem ("underperforming coworker"), but your narrative seems undecided.

Second, I think you're mixing up two very important issues:

  • Whether or not your manager is retaliating against a co-worker
  • Whether or not your co-worker has a performance issue that might be affecting your (or your team's) performance

You need to separate your personal and professional relationships with this co-worker for a moment and ask yourself a fundamental question: Can your co-worker do her job adequately on her own, without your help?

You mention that she "keeps coming back" to you for help, and also that the manager has explicitly told the group to stop helping her. And your manager physically separated you after a production error.

Typically, a big, embarrassing team error is when a manager would foster increased communications/ collaboration between team members by bringing them closer. The fact that he did the exact opposite makes me wonder if he blamed the mistakes on too much personal interaction.

So...I think what you've got either way is a very clumsy manager who needs a lot of coaching (or to become an individual contributor). More important, HR needs to get to the bottom of your co-worker's performance to really understand how to proceed.

If she really is underperforming and coming to you for help because she can't do her job, your manager is right, however badly he's making the point. She needs to make her own mistakes and either be coached until she can perform on her own or moved out of the role.

If she can't do the job, you're not helping her by masking the problem and you might even be contributing to her eventual termination. If a good manager can figure out where she's lacking, s/he can add some coaching/training or even switch her role to make her successful...once the problem is diagnosed. The co-worker has to be working on her own for that to happen.

And remember, you're probably also not helping your own performance, because you also have a job to do and you can't do it if you're doing hers.

If your co-worker is NOT underperforming, then the manager's actions need to stop and HIS performance needs examination.

So...start with an honest look at what your co-worker is doing and how it affects your work, and then let your good sense (and morals) take it from there.

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Honestly, in this situation I don't see the Mgr as out of line at all. I sense that the Mgr. is being forced (probably by HR) to keep an underperformer around while, left to his own devices he would jettison them. These are confusing days of 'diversity' and 'coaching' where formerly managers would deal directly and unhampered with issues in their area. The language around the co-worker here leads me to believe there are issues with their performance. If so, of course the manager is frustrated and bringing in HR only complicates things for him. – Martin Fawls Feb 18 at 3:38
    
Martin, you may be right, but I think there still are better ways of handling this than the manager is displaying. His manager (or HR) needs to step in and help a rapidly deteriorating situation. The last thing you want to do is set up a good legal defense for hostile workplace if there are legit performance issues. Besides, there's clearly a toxic relationship here, and changing things up could solve the problem. Just did that with another mgrs employee, and 6 mos later she is a stellar performer, about to be promoted--she was just in the wrong slot. – zink Feb 19 at 5:11
    
You may be correct to. Sometimes it is a slot thing. I got laid off in a 20% personnel cutback and I could have gone right back and gotten another position in the same field. I didn't and for the first time since I started delivering papers w/my brother at 11 yrs old I didn't work. I had savings and friends I could work under the table for and it was life changing. I met my wife while I was unemployed (still can't figure that one out) then managed a friends restaurant...had never worked in any sort of food svce but loved it. Sometimes losing a job is good for everyone. – Martin Fawls Feb 24 at 3:42

Early in my career I had a similar situation. A co-worker who I got on well with was essentially targeted, maybe similarly to yours...she did her job well enough but wasn't stellar. People slowly drifted away from dealing with her because...well, because we all need a job esp. if the economy is not good and some managers have long memories.

I ended up going to lunch with her and explaining that I felt she was being evaluated with an eye to getting rid of her. She was not surprised. I also went on to explain that I wished to continue working where I was, under our boss, and therefore I would be distancing myself just as others had - but that if she needed a reference for another opportunity I would be happy to provide. She understood and in the end I did provide a reference to her. I gave her a truthful explanation, we discussed a little what she was planning to do (move on) and she appreciated the honesty. We were 'work friends', not 'friend' friends.

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Some people call this mobbing, and it can have repercussions if HR catches people doing this – Peter Feb 18 at 12:09
    
I know we all "worry about ourselves" when you see someone targeted you go into "protect yourself" mode, and while honesty is good, you're also enabling your manager's behavior. We all have to evaluate the risk to benefit, keep in mind today this person was targeted for some reason, tomorrow you might be the target. I get why people lay low and play it safe, at the same time, that's not fixing any problems. When I'm hired by a company my job is to do what is best for the company, this includes insubordination in the event the orders are against the best interests of the company. – RualStorge Feb 18 at 16:52
    
@RualStorge - why are you assuming that this was unjustified? There are plenty of shit employees around. It's not just the managers that are incompetent. – Davor Feb 22 at 11:53
    
@Davor well to be fair when someone says "targeted" and gives no indication management attempted to improve the situation, rather they created a culture where when you see management watching someone everyone's response is to give them a wide breadth to protect their personal interests... Regardless of whether termination is or is not justified, just that culture sets people up to failure. The moment someone thinks you're under scrutiny the entire team ostracizing them guarantees that failure. Which to me still says there is a real problem in management. Saving in ignorance rather than malice. – RualStorge Feb 22 at 21:59
    
@RualStorge - to me that just means that the management has already decided to fire the person, but in this day and age that is quite difficult, so they need to observe and come up with a good enough reason not to trigger a lawsuit. – Davor Feb 23 at 9:44

There's just one point that hasn't been addressed yet: If this goes on for a while, she figures things out on her own, and complains to HR, you will be in trouble for participating.

What you've been doing so far is to intentionally sabotage an employee with the intent to get rid of her - at least that's how HR might see it.

Coordinated mobbing of an employee with the intent to get rid of her can result in significant costs and bad press for a company, so HR needs to prevent that. One of the ways to do that is to set an example if someone is caught doing it.

Absolutely worst case, your manager weasels his way out of this and manages to convince them you've done this on your own initiative - if he doesn't do that, he might get fired.

By letting HR know early, in writing, you are protecting yourself. Don't use strong words like "mobbing", just tell them what you've been asked to do, like you told us.

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For what it's worth: you say that you and your colleague are close. If they're your friend, help them anyway.

This does not replace any advice about reporting the manager, or telling her the truth.

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Simple and to the point - great answer. Welcome to the network! – Peter Feb 18 at 12:11

Personally I'd tell my friend exactly what's going on, she'll know why your not being more helpful, and it will help her make better decisions. If you think you want to keep working with her going forward absolutely keep helping her, managers come and go, but your professional network is forever.

You don't want to burn bridges with the people you like, for the sake of people you don't like.

Lastly, this won't be the last time this comes up, it sounds like your manager has a temper and will be alienating a lot of people in the course of his career. So if you back him now, your probably going to be put in this situation again.

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