Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I supervise a young woman whose life has been turned upside down in
the past six months. Her supposedly loving husband cheated on her,
and walked away from their two children. Her life has been hell but
she has also changed from a smart, reliable, assistant into a flaky, late
for every deadline, staff member whom I’m afraid to rely on. The
company is a very fast-paced environment, and employees are
measured by their billable productivity as well as their ability to do
marketing. She’s loused up several bids and also declined
opportunities to work for other supervisors when they’ve needed help
in a jam. They’ve come to me saying it’s my responsibility to get her
on track, and that if I cannot, her job may be in jeopardy. Now I have
to change from a listening ear and comforting shoulder into a hard-
nosed boss. Is there a graceful way to do it?


Dear Squeezed:

It’s always hard to shift gears when you’ve been a source of comfort
and support. The hard part is knowing when your role has changed
from friend to enabler. She’s lucky to have someone she trusts in
apposition of authority. You can only hope that gives your word added
measure rather than weakening them.

First thing, get past the immediate deadlines. If you cannot rely on
her, pull some all nighters, or call in other staff. Then sit her down, in
your office, door closed, and tell her, This is not a friend, peer, comfort
talk. This is your boss telling you things you won’t want to hear, but
better from me than from my bosses. The bottom line is that your
work has become unreliable. We’re all sympathetic with your life
struggles. None of us would want to go through them. But the firm
cannot depend on a weak employee. So here’s my recommendation:


Take a temporary leave of absence to get your life back together. And
enroll in an EAP (employee assistance program) that’s mandatory as a
precursor to developing an action plan for employees whose work
needs remediation. Everyone here wants you to succeed. But we need
to turn this around fast or you’re on the road to looking for a different
job. I know that’s hard to hear. It’s hard to say. But I value you and
want to see you make it. I’ll do what I can to keep you off deadlines.
But that’s hard and can’t last forever. Please help me help you. Then
you’ll see if she’s strong enough to pull it together. If not, she may
have to use her time between jobs to reorganize her life. Sad but
maybe necessary.