employee wanting to learn a new skill won’t take no for an answer

A reader writes:

I co-manage a small business and I’m a manager over a very specialized department. I have one employee who was hired less than 3 months ago, and I am having a problem with her wanting to take on a position that she was not hired for, has no experience with, and that I do not believe she is capable of doing. She believes that she is ready to take on this specialized skill, but based on her performance in her department I do not see her doing this specific job and do not want to teach her because any mistake cannot be undone, costs the business quite a bit of money, and makes the customer extremely unhappy. She was very pushy in asking my other employee in this department to show her how to do it and totally bypassed asking my permission. My other employee has a hard time saying no, so caved in and began to show her how, which I quickly stopped.

I did talk to her about it, saying that we need her more in her department than this one and that we hire people with experience specifically for this department. I tried to deter her and tell her to concentrate on the job she was hired to do. However, she refuses to take no for an answer and gets very defensive about it. She has taken this personally and accused me of not wanting to teach her simply because I don’t like her. We have had the same conversation about this twice and she is persistent on wanting to learn this skill, I feel like she is undermining me and my other manager by assigning herself to this job without permission.

I do appreciate her ambition and will to learn, but this job is not the one we hired her to do and we do not need anyone else in this department. I hate disappointing people, but I am tired of her disrespect and sense of entitlement when I have told her no twice already. How do politely and professionally tell her that she is not cut out for this skill and that she needs to stop asking about it?

You need to get more firm and more direct with her, since she’s not responding to the words that most people would respond to.

Sit down and have a very clear and direct conversation with her: “Jane, this has come up a few times now, so I want to make sure that I’m being absolutely clear with you about this: Your job is to work exclusively on ABC, and it doesn’t involve X. While I understand that you’re interested in learning how to do X, the reality is that that’s not likely to happen in your role with us, because we hire people with specialized experience for that work. Since this keeps coming up, let’s figure out how to proceed. Knowing that you will not be doing X and that it’s not going to be okay for you to continue pushing for it, do you still want to remain in your current job?”

If she pushes back / argues with you / etc., then you say, “I understand your point of view. However, we need you doing ABC, not X. Do you still want to remain in your position, understanding that that’s the case?”

And if she still argues with you, then you’re going to need to say, “I’ve heard your point of view. However, my decision is final, and I need you to respect that. I hope you’ll decide to stay under those terms, but if they’re not acceptable to you, we’ll need to start talking about a transition out of the organization, because I need someone in this role who wants the position as it’s currently configured.”

If at some point in this conversation, she tells you that she’s willing to accept her job as it’s currently defined, then say, “Great. Going forward, I expect that you’ll focus exclusively on ABC and that we’re both on the same page about this.” However, if it comes up in the future, then revert to the language in the paragraph just above.

The overall idea here is to be clear with her about what her job is, that you don’t intend to change that, and that you intend to enforce boundaries around that — and that if she doesn’t want the job as you’ve described it, the correct course of action for you both is to replace her with someone who does want the job, rather than continually argue this point. You also don’t want to find yourself having this same conversation again in a month — so if it does come up again, you should move immediately to, “Is this job one you want, understanding it won’t change in the ways you want it to?” (And frankly, if it continues to come up, you might consider whether it’s time to make that decision for her, depending on how disruptive this is to your business.)

Last, if you’re inclined, it might be kind to explain to her what she would need to do to get a job doing X — either at your company or somewhere else — while making it clear that that’s not a path you’re prepared to offer her yourself in the foreseeable future.

Now, some people will probably tell you to consider giving her a chance and letting her try out the new area and see how she does. And that might have been my advice had she handled this very differently (such as saying, “Hey, I’m really interested in X and I’d love the opportunity to get more exposure to that area if it’s ever feasible” and then backing off). But at this point, she’s shown herself to have such poor judgment and lack of concern for workplace boundaries (and only three months into the job!) that that’s not the path to take. In fact, I’d keep a pretty watchful eye on her in general — someone who handles things this way is likely to be someone who has problems in other areas too, and you should be prepared for the possibility that this isn’t the only way in which she’s not a great fit.

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