How Can We Correct A Valued Employee?
I have reviewed your inventory of questions and still feel as though I need to ask you a personnel question that has me stymied.
I am the director of a small non-profit museum that depends to a large part on the generous donation of time, energy, knowledge and interest from volunteers. We also have a very small staff of 6fte. Among these 6 is a part-time employee who only works on the weekends and other special occasions.
She has been with our organization since its inception 10 years ago and was with our predecessor organization with me for at least 5 years prior to that. In other words we have a longer working relationship than any other employees.
This part-time person, who I shall call Sue, works on the weekends as the official staff person to serve as backup to the volunteers at the desk and those who provide tours.
We ask Sue to complete a variety of tasks on the weekends such as contacting volunteers by phone, compiling a short internal document to keep volunteers informed of the calendar and events being planned by the museum. Members of the staff provide this information.
While Sue is preparing this document, she uses our administrative assistantís office. Lately, we have discovered Sue is going through papers on our adminís desk, and even taking it upon herself to redo a page of the newsletter for our members. As you can imagine, our admin is not very happy about this.
Challenges in handling this situation:
∑ Sue is a return to work retiree
∑ Sue and her husband have no children so the museum IS her family.
∑ It is very difficult to find part-time employees to work on week-ends.
I feel as though I am caught between a rock and a hard-place in talking to Sue about this. She is extremely sensitive, I do not believe she has a very strong self-esteem, and would literally be crushed if she were dismissed or even reprimanded about going through another's desk. In fact she would deny it.
Everybody likes her as she is always cheerful (on the outside) and chooses to act like the clown bringing levity to all situations.
I would certainly appreciate any suggestions you might have that would result in changed behavior, a staff person available for weekends in other words a win-win situation. Thank you for your attention to this request.
Wondering What To Do
Dear Wondering What To Do:
I can understand your dilemma. I wish there was a quick and easy solution. Let me share some thoughts and some questions for you to consider, and see if you can use them to help you decide.
1. First, as you likely have done, apart from this message to us, consider the complete situation you now have, that you can prove. Do you know for sure Sue is the one who made changes to the newsletter? Do you know for sure she went through the items on the desk? On the other hand, could she have gone through even more items than you think? Could she have accessed additional files? Could someone else have been the one involved? How can you prove any of it?
That kind of investigation is important for your assurance about your plans. It's difficult enough to deal with something like this without finding out, mid-way, that you were mistaken.
If you have proof that she did it or enough clear evidence to indicate it, consider this: Is this like her? Is this the kind of thing she has done in the past? Or, would this be completely out of character for her?
If she has never done such a thing before, what do you think has made the change now? If she has probably been doing this all along, would that make a difference in your thoughts?
2. Do you think she would have known her activities were inappropriate? This may seem obvious, but may not be to her. Wouldn't you think she would know someone would find out about the newsletter change? If she tried to keep that a secret, it would indicate she knew she had done wrong. Otherwise, perhaps she thinks her tenure and experience, coupled with her assignment requiring use of the desk, gives her the right to do extra work she thinks would be helpful.
Could it be she doesn't view the admin's desk to be a private desk, but rather a communal desk or, maybe a shared desk for her? If she is generally not there the rest of the week, and is the sole user of the desk on weekends, is it possible she thinks of it as a shared desk in every sense?
Another question is: Has she ever corrected someone's work or done a task normally assigned to someone else and received praise for it? Might that be her motivation? Or, did she find errors and felt it was an emergency and she had to make corrections? If that's the case, did she report it to someone?
Does the admin usually do good work? Is the relationship of the two employees a good one? Or, is there conflict and Sue feels that her tenure places her in the position of being able to tweak the work of the admin. when it's needed?
The answers to those questions will provide you with further insight.
3. The third thing to consider: What would be too much to ignore? What if she accessed other files, or went into another's space, or did something else that wasn't her responsibility?
What if this didn't involve this issue at all, but instead involved her making mistakes on the work she was doing? Or, being discourteous to visitors? Or, not dressing appropriately?
If one of the other employees did it, instead of Sue, would it be easier for you to say something? Have others done similar things or at least things that are similar in severity? What happened in those cases, by way of comparison?
And one last thought: Does this shake your faith in your ability to trust her in every situation?
4. All of those things, put together, will give you a much clearer picture. You may find that after considering it, you have more investigation to do. Or, you may decide it's not important enough to make an issue about, in spite of the admin's frustrations. Or, you may decide it is worse than you thought and you will become more certain about talking to her.
5. You have several options--some more palatable than others.
You could have ensure privacy for select drawers or containers on the desk, and also put a password on certain files. Sue would notice that and either wonder or know why you did it.
You could put out a general message to everyone reminding them of the courtesy of sharing workspaces and the need for full-time employees, volunteers and part-time employees, to respect the work and work areas of others.
You could ask Sue for help in drafting the note mentioned above--or some other guidelines for sharing space.
You could get a letter from the admin, stating clearly what she noticed about her desk and materials, and use that as the basis for more direct action.
You could call Sue in and tell her you were concerned about her actions, and why, and give her a chance to explain it.
You could set up another desk arrangement.
You could ask Sue about the newsletter only, using a non-accusatory tone, as though you are merely trying to find out. Once you do, you could with a smile tell her that could create problems and you certainly don't want that to happen--so you're giving her a friendly reminder not to do that and also to be careful about the desk use.
You could drop by on a weekend to do some business and talk with her. You could "notice" that she is spread out on the admin's desk, and in a casual, friendly way talk admiringly about the admin and how nice she is to cooperate with the idea of someone else being at her desk on the weekend. Then you could ask Sue to help by not displacing items and ensuring that the admin can feel confident her space and material is not touched. That could be done in a spirit of team work without a even a hint of reprimand.
The admin. might write a note to Sue asking for her help in keeping materials in place over the weekend and keeping computer files private. This might particularly be useful if others also use the desk on occasion.
Or, you might combine several of those options.
If the museum is like a family to her, she likely won't leave over one upset, as long as she is not confronted in an angry way. She probably needs the museum more than you need her!
However, if correcting a problem causes her to quit, you may find there has been more going on than you realize! Certainly you can't always be constrained by her tenure and niceness, no matter what. So, the key is, how far, and how long, can you let things go?
I'm afraid I may have created more questions than answers. Ultimately you are the one who must decide, based on what you know of her and the situation.
If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what you decide and what results.
Tina Lewis Rowe