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 manage a junior employee, "Arthur," who has become friends with another employee at his level, "Ford." Ford works on a different client team with a different manager ("Zeke").

Ford has been significantly underperforming. It's been clear for a while that he isn't well-suited for this position. Ford's manager, Zeke, has been clear about expectations, and has put Ford on a performance plan, which hasn't gone well. Ford is on his way out, Zeke has been clear about that outcome, and the company is being gracious as Ford wraps up some work before ending his employment.

The trouble is, Ford has been talking about all this with Arthur ... but being half-truthful about the whole thing. He has told Arthur that his client is extremely difficult and demanding; the reality is he works with some friendly clients with a moderate, but not excessive, definition of success. He has told Arthur that "he is leaving"; the reality is that he's being politely shown the door. In short, Ford has either failed to realize that his underperformance is his own fault, or is telling these half-truths so he doesn't appear unsuccessful in front of his peers.

Normally, I'd treat this as a problem that's going away when Ford leaves. But as part of their friendship and work, Ford and Arthur have bounced ideas off each other about projects and managing clients. I'm worried that Arthur will treat the information he's heard from Ford with greater weight than it deserves. I don't want Arthur to take on Ford's habits of poor-quality work, non-communication, loose accountability to deadlines, or attitude toward clients, and I don't want him to think that Ford's experience is normal (this is Arthur's first office job). And as a new, but pretty high-performing employee, I don't want Arthur to think that he might be similar in performance to Ford and in danger of a similar outcome.

How can I give Arthur the truth about Ford's failure to meet expectations, while still respecting Ford's privacy (and dignity)? How can I tell Arthur that he is a much better performer than Ford, and he doesn't need to worry about being shown the door? I also worry that Arthur will weight the stories he's heard from Ford as more accurate given their friendship. Can you help frame this in a way that's direct, helpful, and respectful?

Green responds:

Ugh. Yes, this can be a thing that happens when someone is let go. Most employers try to protect the person's privacy and dignity by keeping the problems on a need-to-know basis ... while the person being fired is sometimes telling other people an incorrect version of what happened, and their version is the only version being heard.

Sometimes this doesn't really matter. If someone wants to say that they were fired because, for example, "the company hired me to do X but really needed someone to do Y," when that's not what happened, that might not be a big deal. (Sometimes it might be, depending on the circumstances, but in other cases you wouldn't lose much by leaving it alone.) And it's usually OK if a person wants to tell work friends that he left voluntarily rather than being fired. But in other cases, misinformation can do real damage to people's morale and to their trust in the employer's integrity.

It's wise to be cautious before rushing to assume that someone is doing damage, though. In a lot of cases, the person's friends on staff already know the person wasn't stellar at their job and will hear what they're saying with some skepticism. So I'd first pay attention to what kind of sense you're getting from Arthur in that regard. If he seems more matter-of-fact about it than upset, there might not be anything you need to do here (and it could even rub him the wrong way to have you step in with a takedown of Ford's work).

Importantly, it sounds like Arthur is telling you what he's hearing from Ford, which gives you an opportunity to try to feel him out on this. And it gives you a good opportunity to say something if you do decide the record needs to be corrected. For example, the next time Arthur mentions that Ford's client is really demanding, you could say, "You know, I know that client and I'm familiar with that project, and the expectations are actually very reasonable." If Arthur mentions that Ford is criticizing his manager, you could say, "From what I know, most people respect Zeke and think he's a good manager. But not every job or every manager will be the right fit for every person."

If you get the sense that more than that is needed (if Arthur seemed rattled or upset), that's the point where I'd sit down with him and say some version of this: "I wouldn't normally have this conversation with you because, in general, when someone is struggling with their job, that's between them and their boss, and there usually isn't reason for other people to know about it. But it sounds like you have some concerns about how Ford's situation has been handled. I don't want to violate his privacy, but I do want to say that sometimes when someone isn't working out in a job, it's because it's not the right fit with their skills and their performance isn't hitting the marks it needs. When that happens, it's human nature that people don't want to tell friends at work that they're struggling. But I want to assure you that Zeke is someone who's committed to giving people reasonable expectations, coaching them where he can, and being honest if it becomes clear the job isn't the right match. I also want to make sure you know that the company doesn't push people out willy-nilly; if someone is struggling, we give feedback and coach, and we give clear warnings if it ever gets to the point that the person's job could be in jeopardy. So I don't want this situation to make you worry about your own job. You're doing great work, and I really value having you here."

But feel out where Arthur is at first, because he might be figuring out most of this on his own.

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