When your work suffers because of personal problems you’ve been struggling with — and your supervisor has noticed — how can you turn things around? Reader J wonders…
I am a mid-level associate in Big Law. I switched firms in December of 2014. Today, I had my first review and it went very poorly — in Big Law words, “needs improvement across the board.” How do I get out from under my first review having been so terrible? Back story: When I joined this firm, my mom was approaching the one year mark after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer and was doing well. Within about 8 weeks, she got very sick, and over the course of the following 12 weeks, died a slow, painful death. My dad has become too depressed to take care of himself. My boyfriend of over a year left me. I have no real family support. My personal life has been atrocious, and while I tried my best in the office, I knew that I was falling short due to non-work demands/crises. Recently, I’ve felt back on my feet. I know that I can meet expectations and that my work product is, under normal conditions, solid and consistent and I love my job. How do I overcome this bad first impression?
Ouch, Reader J — I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve had such a rough year, and that it’s affected your work in such a negative way. I think you have a few options for recovering from a career setback like the one you’ve experienced:
- Gauge how bad it really was, and whether or not you can recover. It sounds from your email like it was general B- type behavior — turning in less than great work product (typos, etc.), and so forth. Two points here: for some workplaces, B- work will not be OK — there is no recovery, and you just need to get your ducks in order to find a new job. A second point: B- work is one thing, and D- work is another. If it was really bad — factual errors, missed deadlines, etc. — you also just need to face the fact that it likely wasn’t so much as a “bad review” as a civil warning that your current job is not long for this world.
- Do really, really good work. Life is a constant juggling act, and right now it sounds like your work needs to take precedence above everything else — and it seems like you know that. Dig in for at least six months, nose to the ground, etc.
- Go back to the people you worked with during The Bad Time, get a new assignment, and redeem yourself. Now, HOW you do this is going to depend on who you were working with, what happened, and more. You may want to address it with some people directly (“Due to my mother’s passing and my father’s serious health problems, I know my work product for you suffered, and I’d like to redeem myself.”) If you address it directly, I would encourage you to be SPECIFIC, because the all-encompassing “personal problems” may be interpreted as drug problems, general flightiness, and more. BUT: you may not always want to address it directly — for some people that’s just going to open new wounds. For those people I might go back to them and specifically ask to help with one of their lowliest projects — i.e., prostrate yourself. Take the CLE presentation or article that needs to be written with no credit to you; offer to help out with some other un-sexy project. Get it done, and do it well. Then ask for better work.
Readers, what are your thoughts on how to recover after a bad period in your career? (Do you think she should have said anything while it was all going on — either to HR or anyone else — or perhaps taken leave when she felt things going south?)