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Ask Susy: My New Temp Is a Great Person, but Terrible at Her Job

Ask Susy

Hi Susy,

I am a C-level EA. I have a temp covering someone on my team who’s on maternity leave. The temp nailed the interview, said all the right things, was so confident and seemed like a go-getter—all the qualities I was looking for. Now, three weeks in, she is the opposite of who she was in the interview. My challenges with her are plentiful: she’s defensive with feedback and doesn’t take it as constructive; she suffers from low confidence and laughs openly about it; she works better with “marching orders”; and she does not understand collaboration and thinking outside of the box. She is also slow and inaccurate. I’ve spoken with the temp agency for feedback and they agree, as they check in with her as well. Our department is stuck since we’re already short staffed and it will be time-consuming to train someone new. We want our temp to work out, she IS a great person. I want to make her into an awesome admin because I was like her in my twenties. What should I do?

– C-level EA with a C-minus employee, from New Jersey

It sounds like you’re dealing with a classic fear-of-failure scenario. The lack of confidence, the negativity, and the difficulty with feedback? These are all signs of someone who’s terrified of disappointing decision-makers. Your new temp has probably faced her fair share of rejection and short-term relationships (cue the temp agency)—so bracing herself before the fall by using negativity as a crutch becomes the go-to defense.

On the other hand, she may just have mastered the art of getting hired—a skill serial temps develop to keep the jobs coming. If she doesn’t want to be a career Office Ninja, she may be taking the “temporary” part of her job description too seriously.

Regardless, the two of you need to have an honest conversation. Ask how she thinks she’s doing—what she’s doing well and what she could improve. Explain that you hired her for a reason—because you think she’s capable and you believed the confidence she embodied during the interview. Tell her you trust her to work independently and creatively. Based on her response, you should get some more insight into whether she’s interested in learning or just clocking in for a paycheck.

You also need to be honest on your end of this conversation. She may not realize a professional shortcoming isn’t the same as a personal one. So this could be your opportunity to interject some well-meaning career advice. If she comes to understand your constructive criticism is meant to improve her performance and give her an edge, she’ll be more apt to accept it without taking a hit to her self-esteem.

In fact, tell her that you really like her as a person and think the two of you share a few qualities. One of those, of course, was dominating the interview—but tell her you hoped to see more of that same initiative once she got the job. Bringing negativity to the office, not being able to work independently or with a team, and having trouble executing tasks is worrisome, so what gives?

Because you want this temp to work out, prepare a detailed plan to help her improve and present it to her. Give her some tips—like making and reviewing checklists when doing X, or how you come up with solutions to tricky problems—something actionable that serves as a “marching order” and still allows her some autonomy. Then, include a timeframe to keep her accountable.

If she drops the defenses and starts attempting collaboration, consider it progress and keep her on. If not, then training another newbie who’s actually willing to respect the job will take less energy than putting up with someone who isn’t.

Good luck!

Weigh in on Susy’s advice in the comments. Would you choose to train a new temp or try to mentor the current one?