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 two years into the top job at a somewhat dysfunctional local government agency.

I have an employee who has been here for 17 years and is mediocre in his performance. He does his job and does OK, but isn't always a part of the team or as polite to the public as I would like. This week, I found out that he has never logged into his new email account. Never, ever. It has been 60 days since we updated our email system and everyone was provided with written instructions on how to access their own individual account. He just hasn't opened his, has lost his access instructions, and has not asked for help in getting access. He currently has 88 emails in his inbox that have not been reviewed. Many are from me providing updates on our programs and activities. Others could certainly be from the public asking questions.

I am a high-tech boss in a low-tech, small county government office, so I understand when people do not prefer email, but I am shocked and baffled by this, and I am starting to question my gut reaction here. I have been completely clear about the need to have email access and the expectation that you use email for your job and that I am going to be sharing information via email. I have mentioned in staff meetings that I will be sending emails later with more information on various projects, that online training instructions have been emailed to the staff, and so on, so I just can't see an excuse for this.

His immediate supervisor is pushing for leniency because in the past this employee hasn't had a work email account, and may not understand that checking email at least once a day should be standard practice. But the more I think about it, the more frustrated I get. This seems like it would be the most basic of things to understand. You were assigned an email, and it is your responsibility to access it and manage it accordingly.

I guess my question is whether you think this behavior is excusable because email is new to him, or whether my initial gut reaction (disbelief, frustration, outrage, etc.) is the right way to look at this. Should I cut him some slack and give him another chance, or should I cut him loose?

Green responds:

I think you're right to be shocked and outraged. It's shocking and outrageous, for all the reasons you said.

But if this is a traditionally low-tech office and this is someone who hasn't had work email for nearly all of the 17 years he's worked there ... well, I might not fire him over it, but at a minimum I'd have a very serious conversation making it clear that this is a big deal and that regularly checking email isn't optional, find out what on earth he was thinking, and then give him closer oversight for a while since he's shown terrible judgment.

More important, though, I think this is about more than his email. This is someone whose performance has been mediocre and who isn't always polite to the public (which is a huge deal), and I'll bet this isn't the first time that he's been unacceptably cavalier about an expectation of his job.

If he were a great employee and the email account were the only issue, I'd be more inclined to cut him some slack. In that case, you'd still have a serious conversation with him and make sure he knows that this is a big deal, it's not optional, and he needs to immediately start checking email daily and being responsive to messages (and be specific about what that means -- like "you need to respond to all emails from the public within two business days"). And then you'd need to follow up to make sure that's happening.

But he's not a great employee. He's actually kind of a bad employee. So the question for you is: Do you want to keep this guy on your staff? Would you be relieved if he came into your office tomorrow and resigned? At a minimum, shouldn't you be laying out a higher bar that he needs to meet on a number of fronts and requiring him to meet that bar in order to stay in his job?

I'd take the email incident as the final impetus to get serious about fixing his performance (or in this case, requiring his immediate manager to get serious about it). And if his manager has already formally addressed the problems with his performance in the past and the email incident is just the latest piece of evidence that those efforts haven't worked, then it might make sense to part ways now.

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