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.

Here's a roundup of answers to four questions from readers.

1. An employee does well only after I warn her about her work

I have a new hire who is several months in. She seems to do well at her job and pay attention to detail only when we have a conversation that she is on "notice" and things need to improve. Notice period ends and problems have resolved, but then a week later she's back to needing her hand held again. This is my second go round at this and I'm getting alarmed. Advice?

Green responds:

The key here is to warn her that you need to see sustained improvement. Name the pattern explicitly -- "When I highlight these issues, you improve for a short time but it doesn't last" -- and ask what she thinks is going on and what she thinks she needs to maintain the improvement long term. 

If the problems are serious enough to jeopardize her job, you should explain that, too, being clear that if she doesn't consistently raise her performance and keep it there, you will need to let her go. You don't need to start the process from scratch each time, especially when someone is this new.

2. Haircut drama is disrupting my office

A new employee started on the team a few months ago. "Nina" wears her hair in a pixie cut. Another employee, "Mika," had very long hair and loved Nina's short style. She decided to cut her hair the same way and even went to Nina's salon to get it done. However, Mika hates the cut on herself. She has been crying over it while at work, making everyone uncomfortable. Nina says Mika blames her for talking her into getting the cut (even though she did no such thing), and then will cry and apologize to her for being harsh.

I really want to be understanding, but this is becoming untenable. No one wants to be around Mika, and I am fairly certain Nina is job hunting. How can I gently speak to Mika about what's going on?

Green responds:

Oh, my goodness. It sounds like at this point you need to tell Mika that it's becoming disruptive and she needs to keep this out of the office. I would say it this way: "I know you're unhappy with your haircut, and I'm sympathetic. However, at this point continuing to talk about it in the office is becoming disruptive, and I'm sure you can understand it's making things particularly uncomfortable for Nina. Going forward, I'd like you to keep conversations about your haircut out of the office. I know that might seem like an odd thing to ask, but it's become such a focal point that it's truly disrupting the office."

3. How to weigh a refused reference

We recently interviewed someone who was qualified in ways we could evaluate in an interview, but had a short work history with a couple of interruptions. We decided to ask the candidate for a single reference. When the recruiter was unable to contact the reference, they followed up with the candidate. The candidate, after contacting the reference himself, discovered that this person was uncomfortable providing a reference. The candidate then disclosed this to us and provided an alternative reference.

The recruiter believes this is a red flag. I believe that reference checks are not very reliable, and that without knowing why, the original reference's discomfort isn't anything to go off of. I'm somewhat biased, because I made a lot of similar mistakes in the early days of my career -- e.g., providing a reference without asking the reference first -- and I was rarely if ever penalized. Am I being too lenient?

Green responds:

Short work history with multiple gaps, and the only reference he offered wasn't comfortable giving one? It's a red flag. That doesn't mean "definitely don't hire this guy," but it does mean that you shouldn't hire him without doing a lot more digging. You should talk to at least two more references, and they should be managers. Maybe they'll set your mind at ease -- but maybe they'll raise serious issues.

The issue isn't that he offered you a reference without asking them first. It's that the person he presumably thought would be his best reference refused to give one.

And remember, a good hire isn't just someone who has the skills for the job (which is what it sounds like you evaluated in the interview), but also someone who is easy to work with, reliable, conscientious, honest, and lots of other things that you can't know from a single interview, but which  references can tell you about. Right now, you have someone who you think has the skills, but who has a short and checkered work history, and whose first choice of reference won't vouch for his work. You need to keep digging.

4. How do I motivate my employees?

I'm a new manager of two employees and I'm concerned about how to motivate them. I feel uncomfortable throwing motivational ideas at them, because I feel like they can see through my attempts to get them to work harder. How do I go about motivating them to feel ready to take on the day without feeling silly?

Green responds:

Do they need motivating, or do you just think that's something you're supposed to be doing? Generally, when employees need special motivating, it's an indicator that something is wrong with the situation -- either you have the wrong people for the job, or something in their environment is de-motivating them (like unreasonable expectations or terrible pay, benefits, management, or culture). Generally, if you have the right people on your team and a good environment, they'll be motivated if you're doing your job well -- meaning that you've given them clear roles with real responsibility, ensured that they're able to make progress toward meaningful goals, and recognized them for good work (both via feedback and via their compensation).

If there's nothing in the environment that would de-motivate a reasonable person and you've laid out clear and reasonable expectations about how you want them to operate but they're not hitting the level of productivity and results you need (and you've tried coaching them on that, to no avail), then I'd look at whether you have (a) reasonable expectations and (b) the right people for the work. But usually a manager shouldn't need to get people ready to take on the day.

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