columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I am building up a new team and struggling with how to handle an internal applicant. 

The job I'm hiring for is fairly customer-facing and requires mostly independent work. One internal applicant who's currently on another team, Marion, is a train wreck. She is barely competent in the fundamentals of our work. We're often on call and most people do 15-25 hours of overtime on an average month, more in the busy season. She has done exactly 5.25 hours of overtime in the past two years and feels that is excessive. She is passive aggressive and moody, and the drama she brings to work every day is exhausting. I will leave an empty spot on my team before I hire her, because when she does do something, her inability to follow directions or adhere to procedures makes more work for her managers. Unfortunately, her co-workers love her. She's been around for almost a decade with no promotions, and they feel like she really deserves this. She's already spreading rumors that she isn't going to be hired because I don't like her, and I'm going to pick my favorite people, which puts my integrity in question.

I'll be responsible for rejecting her. I'll run into her frequently and really would rather not crush her. How do I kindly reject her? Do I point out all the skills she is lacking? How do I deal with the fallout from her peers?

Green responds:

Why has no one been managing Marion before now? I realize she's not on your team, but it's an enormous problem that Marion has been allowed to have such severe performance and conduct problems for a decade without someone in authority addressing the issues forthrightly. (No doubt that person is now hoping very much that you will hire her so she's not their problem anymore, but their negligence in managing her has been a huge dereliction of duty.)

In any case, when it comes time to tell Marion you won't be hiring her, ideally you'd be direct about the reasons why. For example: "I really appreciate your interest in being on this team. Unfortunately, I don't think this role is the right fit. It will require regular overtime and I know that's something you haven't wanted to do. It also requires strengths in X and Y, and I haven't seen the skill level in those areas that we need for this work. If those things change in the future and we have another opening, I'd be glad to talk more with you again."

If your sense is that will inflame things, an alternative is to focus on why you're hiring the other person -- what that person's strengths are that make them the top candidate for the role. But while that might make your life easier, you'd be doing a disservice to Marion by doing that -- the same disservice her managers have been doing That doesn't mean you can't go that route anyway, but be aware of that part of it.

In fairness, Marion is inviting that kind of disservice by being so difficult to work with. Her managers have been negligent by not addressing it, but human nature being what it is, it's not terribly surprising that people avoid tough conversations with her.

As for what Marion might tell other people after you reject her, you can't control that, although you can talk in detail about why you chose the person who you end up hiring. Beyond that, though, if you're fair and transparent in your dealings with people, people will see that -- and even if they like her, it's going to be hard to square what she's saying with what they're seeing of you firsthand.

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