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At the organization I work for, some of our workforce is students from a nearby university, and I supervise a handful of these students. This is my first time supervising people and for the most part it is going well. Our team has good dynamics, everyone seems comfortable with each other and the work they are doing, and we complete our tasks on time. At their 90 day check in with HR, they all told the HR rep they felt like I was approachable, and no one raised any complaints about me or the team. I am worried about one student in particular however, we can call them A.

We let the students set their own work schedules to cater to their school schedule as long as it's consistent each week of the semester and they at least work 20 hours per week. We're also flexible with letting them take time off when they have tests or extra school work. I've made it clear to them that I need them to let me know if they are not going to work their normal hours or if they need to take time off for some reason. I noticed a couple months ago that A was not coming into work during their normal scheduled time, and they were not communicating with me about it.

After several emails and calls to their office and talking to the other people on the team, no one had seen them, so I called A's personal phone and asked them to come meet with me the next day. We had a good talk and they mentioned they were going through some personal stuff and just felt overwhelmed. They didn't want to go into any detail, but I got the impression that they were in some kind of a guilt cycle where they felt bad for missing a day and didn't want to face the team, so they just kept skipping out and not telling anyone.

I reassured A we weren't there to judge them and I understand stuff like that happens, but I reminded them that they at least need to communicate with me so we can properly cover their tasks while they are gone. I also pointed them to some resources the university has to help people with stress and mental health, and I encouraged them to talk to HR about work accommodations that will help them with stress and focusing (this is one area where I've noticed our HR has helped several people). Despite my best efforts to get them to open up, they were pretty closed off the whole time and didn't want to go into details about what the root of the problem was, so my suggestions were shots in the dark, and I felt like prying would make things worse. They seemed much less stressed by the end of the meeting however, and I was hopeful about the future.

Things got better for the next few weeks, but I noticed recently that A has started to miss work again without telling anyone. They've missed enough work now that I could coordinate with HR and put them on a PIP, but I think that may just stress them out more and is not likely to really fix the problem beyond giving us grounds to let them go. I care about the students I supervise, and I want them to have a good work experience here that will prepare them for their careers. I'd hate to have to let A go unless that is what they want, but at the same time, we can't function properly as a team like this. What else can I do to help A meet their work obligations without them feeling overwhelmed?

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    One thing I didn't see in your question was - have you contacted their academic supervisor to express your concern and update them on their student's performance? Their academic supervisor may not be aware that there is an issue.
    – Charemer
    Jan 19 at 10:04
  • Why would it be unreasonable to tell A that 'personal issues' is not good enough? That the organisation might be happy to support any worker or student in all kinds of circumstances, but not if the student/worker won't provide details? Jan 20 at 20:56

3 Answers 3

35

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink

I read and re-read what you've written, I can't fault what you are doing in terms of Management.

You could try asking them if the personal issues have re-occurred or if they have changed in anyway.

The next step is - can you operate with reduced capacity on a team member?

"Person A has had some personal commitments and for the short term they will be dropping their contribution down to 10 hours a week"

Does your Organization have any anonymous counselling services? If so - could you put Person A onto these to see if they can help?

However - and this is the harshest lesson in life and it can suck for someone who is rather compassionate:

When the Carrot has failed, you need to use the Stick

It can feel like kicking someone when they are down - but ultimately, if you aren't honoring your obligation(s), there has to be consequences. PIP, Written warnings and ultimately dismissal.

And a PIP is not the end of the world, I went on a PIP when I was younger, hasn't hurt my career.

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    And consider that this is probably the BEST time in their lives to get fired for slacking. They’re still in school and I assume not surviving on this job. They will be much worse off if they (as many do) go out to the “real” workforce thinking it’s ok to act like this.
    – mxyzplk
    Jan 18 at 1:25
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    The employee's behavior is symptomatic of something much deeper. He needs to get help dealing with that or else it'll just get worse.
    – Nelson
    Jan 18 at 1:37
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    And while there are lots of subjective and vague PIP targets, "needs to show up to work during contractually agreed hours" is literally the most basic, objective and measurable goal. Some PIPs migth seem unfair, I don't see how a PIP could be any fairer than that.
    – nvoigt
    Jan 18 at 7:19
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    Make sure that, at the 2nd meeting discussing this, that you praise A for his efforts after the last meeting but that you've notice things slipping again. Wrap positive and encouraging carrots around the gentle threat of the stick. A's obviously in a very rough place and needs to know you're supportive and encouraging, but that the reality is he still needs to stick to his commitments or at least communicate and make accommodations.
    – FreeMan
    Jan 18 at 13:02
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    Some PIPs are merely "tribunal body armour" to be donned when the decision has already been made. Some PIPs are genuine ways to improve someone's performance in the role and setting up good habits for life. I don't know the situation, and it seems uncomfortable but do grasp every chance to see and approach this as an opportunity to help this student, in fact not disciplining them early as part of a "good" PIP is a step on the road to having to set up a "bad" PIP.
    – StuperUser
    Jan 18 at 15:28
8

I am all for giving the benefit of the doubt, which you have done. It was resolved for a while, and then returned. It is not unreasonable to do a PIP at this point because of the nature of the issue

It is a given you need a meeting again. I feel I would cover this general flow in the conversation:

  • Enquire how they are, and generally see if they will open up, and how they are.
  • Remind that this happened before and you did all you could to help, it appeared to help for a while. Was it helpful?
  • Point out that it has returned and again you are not telling anyone what is going on, leaving us powerless to help, and in limbo regarding your responsibilities.
  • Communication is a must for anyone working for any company ... (teaching moment make sure it is completely understood).
  • We have to put you on PIP to help you long term. Is there anything that you can communicate to me that I should know about that we can take into account for the PIP?
  • This is not a punishment. We will make and reasonable concessions, if you communicate with us. We want you to succeed and perhaps together we can design some coping strategies, that you can use throughout your future career. Please talk to us and you will be fine.

After it is probably not a bad idea to check in every few weeks - before symptoms re-appear just to ask how things are? etc.

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... in a kind of guilt cycle where they feel bad for missing a day and don't want to face their [team] obligations ?

30y ago, I showed up late after missing a day, as my usual despondent self. Even then, one of my coworkers said,

"I'm glad you showed up."

I still think about that. Squad.

"my best efforts to get them to open up" failed. "prying would make things worse. They seemed much less stressed", after we both knew that, and I stopped asking.

"they at least need to communicate with me". No, no-call-no-shows. But also stop asking questions.

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    thank you for your response. I don't understand the additions you made to my dialogue in italics. Can you clarify exactly what point you're trying to make? I think you're suggesting I praise him for coming to work when he does show up. Kind of a "try positive reinforcement instead of punishment" approach, which I think is valuable. Am I interpreting you correctly, or am I missing something? Jan 18 at 23:23
  • 8
    This answer isn't very clear about what you're talking about. Try using complete sentences
    – Steve
    Jan 18 at 23:30
  • I think your approach is to not ask questions at all, instead just laydown the law? I base this on your statements: (1) "No, no-call-no-shows" - in other words, if you can't show you must call (2) but we are not allowed to ask questions about the absence behavior. (Conclusion) don't ask what is up, can we help, etc., and instead just penalize?
    – Chris
    Jan 24 at 20:36

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