How Do I Manage A Great Employee Who Finishes Everything Ahead of Schedule?

GettyImages 519915153 480975 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 five questions from readers.

1. How do I manage a great employee who finishes everything ahead of schedule?

I have an employee who is extremely efficient. He finishes tasks in about half the time of his predecessors. I give him additional work, but he still ends up with significant downtime. I’m inclined to ask him to search for efficiency ideas but success in that will lead to more downtime. Any ideas? I certainly don’t want to tell a great worker to slow down but in all honesty I wish he would!

Talk to him! Explain the situation and give him a few different options, depending on what’s feasible, and see what he would prefer. For example, can you offer to let him come in later or leave early when his workload allows it? Or if his workflow would make that tricky to do, maybe he’d be happy to have your blessing to use his downtime to pursue his own projects (whether it’s reading or studying a subject he’s interested in or whatever). Or maybe he’d be glad to take on additional responsibilities that haven’t traditionally fallen to the person in his role. (If you offer that, you should probably be paying him more. But if that’s not an option, he still might appreciate the chance to build his resume; you should just be up-front if you can’t pay him more, and let him decide for himself if it’s worth it to him or not.)

Basically, think through what the options might be, present them to him, and let him weigh in on what would make him the happiest.

2. My employees are distracted when customers need them

I manage a customer service desk where staff must use computers on the desk to assist customers. It’s been a long-standing practice that staff can use the internet as long when they’re on the desk, but we have a few employees who don’t pay attention as well when they’re using the computer for personal use.

For the most, customers are acknowledged immediately by staff, but sometimes there’s a pause while a staff member finishes up what they’re doing on the computer instead of stopping immediately to assist. At a few staff meetings as well as one-on-one, I’ve reminded everyone to look alive on the desk and be attentive to assisting customers, but the issue persists.

We can’t cut off the Internet access on the computers (we need it for some services). I also believe that would be unfair to those who just check email/social media periodically or read articles and keep their eyes open to assist customers. Are there any other steps/solutions that may help us with this issue?

You need to talk one-on-one again with the people who are still doing it, clearly describe what they’re doing that needs to change, warn them about consequences if it doesn’t, and then watch to see if it continues. If it does continue, the most logical consequence is to tell those people that they’ll no longer going to be able to use the computers for personal things. There’s no reason that you have allow it for everyone or revoke it for everyone; allow it for those who handle it responsibly, and stop allowing it for those who don’t. And then you’d handle that like any other performance requirement — meaning that if people continue to violate the rules, you’d treat it with escalating seriousness.

3. My contacts want to apply to my old employer, but it’s a terrible place to work

Last year, I found a new job and left my old employer on good terms. This is impressive, as many employees who leave do so because they become fed up with the toxic environment and quit without notice. In the time since I’ve left, I’ve had at least three contacts get in touch with me about applying to positions there. They are constantly hiring people in the fields where my network is most extensive, partly because they are growing so quickly and partly because turnover there is so high.

These contacts are not good friends — they’re old coworkers and networking contacts looking for an in, so I pretty much only “see” them on LinkedIn. I don’t want to flat-out tell them they shouldn’t apply, because not only are they unlikely to listen (some have been unemployed for months), but it could get back to my old employer and poison recommendations in the future. On the other hand, I hate the idea of not warning them what they could be in for! What’s the best way to be kind to these contacts?

You can give people “wait, slow down” signs without openly trashing your former employer. For example, you could say, “Before you apply, would you like to talk to me about the plusses and minuses of working there? I’d be glad to jump on the phone with you for a few minutes.” They may or may not take you up on that, but you’ll have clearly signaled “there are some downsides here” and someone who doesn’t take you up on your offer is being pretty reckless (which is not your responsibility).

Then if they do want to talk more with you, you can protect yourself from the appearance of trashing your old company by making a point of sounding dispassionate and running through factual info. For example, you could say, “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. They’ve had really high turnover and a lot of people have quit without having another job lined up because people pretty commonly dislike some elements about the culture, like X and Y. But some people are able to do okay in that environment, so I wouldn’t tell you apply or don’t apply — I’d just say to go in realizing that a lot of people have had issues with those things there.”

(And do this over the phone, so that it’s not in writing.)

4. Telling a job candidate that I have cancer

I’ve been interviewing candidates recently for a position on my small team. Today at a follow-up interview, I told a finalist, Jane, that I have cancer. I’m close to making a decision about the role, and I felt it would be useful to her as she makes decisions about this job or any others she’s considering. Do you think telling her was appropriate?

It seemed like the right thing because, while my prognosis is very good, my availability over the next few months will be diminished as I have treatments and surgery. That won’t change the scope of the position, but it probably will affect how I’m able to train and onboard whomever is hired. 

I only gave Jane a few brief facts at the end of our conversation, and she took the news very calmly and graciously. Do you think typically a candidate would appreciate this kind of information, or find it overwhelming or too personal?

I think you’re fine here! It’s similar to explaining to a candidate that you have parental leave coming up or that you’ll be going part-time for a few months to work on a book outside of work or anything else that will impact your schedule and accessibility. It’s the kind of thing that isn’t likely to make someone turn down a job, but that people appreciate knowing about ahead of time.

When in doubt, erring on the side of transparency is almost always a good thing. Good luck with your treatments!

5. Figuring out if the manager at a new job is about to leave

Twice in recent years, I’ve been hired by a manager I got along great with during the interview process, only to be informed mere days after starting that they would be moving on from the company.

In the first case, I was hired for a role I had no experience in, and the manager promised to train me. On my second day, he announced that he was leaving in three weeks. The promise of training evaporated with him, and when his replacement came along, it was obvious that he wanted someone experienced in the role. In the second case, at my most recent role at a large multinational company, I was hired by someone I very much looked forward to working with. My first day, I found out that he was in his last week. After he left, he was not replaced. I was the only person left on my team in the local office, with my new manager and the rest of the team in an office many thousands of miles away. This made subsequent onboarding and collaboration with others extremely difficult.

How can I make sure that the manager I play well with during the interview will be around for the long haul, or at least long enough to find my feet in my new role, establish relationships with others, and generally get started on a successful path at my new employer?

You’ve had some bad luck there. Unfortunately, there’s no good answer. If a manager hasn’t announced publicly that she’s leaving, she’s not likely to share it with a job candidate.

At most, you could say something in the offer conversation like, “One of the big draws of this role is the opportunity to work with you because of X and Y. I’ve had a couple of cases in the past where a manager left right after I’ve started. Any chance you’re able to give me a sense of your medium-range plans with the company?”

But the problem is, someone’s who’s planning to leave in a few months but hasn’t made it official yet isn’t likely to tell you that; there’s too much risk to her if she’s keeping her search discreet. And if she’s not planning to leave, it still has the potential to make her uncomfortable, because things can change, regardless of how they look right now — and will she now have to feel guilty if she tells you she’s staying and later changes her mind?

Ultimately you’ve got to go into any new job knowing that the manager could change. That’s not ideal, because obviously screening for a good manager is a huge part of what you’re assessing when you’re interviewing. It’s just a built-in risk without a good way to manage it.

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