When Personal Problems Affect Your Job Performance

When Personal Problems Affect Your Job Performance | CorporetteWhen 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?) 

Pictured: Sad day {9/135}, originally uploaded to Flickr by Diiesmiley.


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  1. Wildkitten :

    If at all possible, or at the first time it became possible, I would move to a different firm. It would be easier to make a great impression with new people than to dig yourself out of this (totally understandable) hole.

  2. Commiserate :

    I can relate to the OP. Not in law, but the same thing happened to me in grad school. I was assigned some very stressful teaching assignments and was struggling to complete my dissertation. There was also some other personal problems, boyfriend also flaked out on the relationship just like in Reader J’s case. I barely made it through and probably some people wondered about my competence. I think the points about redeeming yourself are valid. Also consider moving on to a new place, making a fresh start somewhere else if things don’t work out at this company.

  3. Not to say play the sympathy card, but, maybe kinda play the sympathy card.

    Was anyone extra nice to you when your mother died, or possibly mentioned to you a similar story of having lost a parent? If possible, could you talk to that person and say something like “this has been a rough year since my mother passed away, and all the fallout relating to that. I’m feeling back on my feet now, but I want to show everyone that I’m back up to speed and can produce good work product. Do you have any projects I could help with, or can you recommend any that I ask to be assigned to?” Or maybe ask them for advice in general “after my mother passed away, I was a little shaky, and don’t feel like I was bringing my A game for a while. Did you feel like that after your mother (loved one)’s passing, and what did you do to get beyond that, and to show everyone at work that you were back up to speed”?

    And OP, I’m so sorry your rough year, and I hope it gets better from here.

    • Diana Barry :

      I agree. Anyone who knows – hopefully a partner? – bring to them first and see if they can help you strategize.

      AND ask them to give it to you straight if (despite the personal issues) it’s time to look for another firm, full stop.

      So sorry for your loss, OP.

  4. Anon this time :

    Having recently come out of a time of personal life crisis as well (relationship imploded when boyfriend’s chronic lying was discovered, Grandfather spent four weeks in critical care in the hospital before dying, and then grandfather’s estate created unbelievable amounts of family drama), I was careful to share with work what I could to get a bit of a “pass” while it was all going on, and, even more importantly, I took time off when I knew my work product would suffer if I came in.

    For example, no one needed to know about my relationship issues, but I told my supervisor and colleagues about my grandfather’s hospital stay in a matter of fact way. For me, this was sharing things like “I’m requesting to take annual leave two days a week for the for the next three weeks because my grandfather is in critical condition in a hospital four hours away and I need to participate in his care with my family,” and then again when the estate drama was happening.

    I probably won’t get to take a vacation this year because all together I took about two weeks of time off during the two month period that this all went down, but I know it saved my overall work performance for the year. In part, simply because it helped adjust expectations. I know this is not always possible in big law, but I highly recommend it if at all possible.

  5. I’m so sorry for your loss of your mom. That’s just devastating, and I completely understand why you had a rough year. But, did you tell people in authority that this is why your performance suffered? I think it’s imperative that you let them know. If I were giving you your review, I would absolutely want to know WHY. You being sloppy because you stayed up too late watching TV every night is very different from you being sloppy because you dealt with the loss of a parent.

    Having been in your shoes (former BigLaw with a bad review), I have a few other thoughts:

    1. Do you have a partner mentor that you are close to? It could be your assigned person or another senior person. That partner can be very helpful in helping you make inroads on another case.
    2. Are you a minority or LGBT? I found that the diversity partners/mentors were very helpful in sitting down with me and helping me come up with a plan, once I received my bad review.

    In my case, I ended up leaving the firm. While I was told that I could “bounce back” from a bad review, the reality is that the partners talk to each other and I wasn’t getting on good cases because of my bad review. And if you can’t get good cases, you can’t prove your worth. But, your case could be very different. You’re bouncing back after a personal crisis, and I would hope that people at your firm would be understanding about it.

    Best of luck to you.

    • I completely agree with Wow. Your superiors need to know the back story, if they don’t already. I have been through a very similar situation twice–with the passing of my mother-in-law and then my mother. Both times I was very up front with my firm about what was going on, and they were exceptionally understanding.

      I think your firm would appreciate your very reasonable explanation–particularly if your performance during that time was an anomaly. If they gave that review with full knowledge of the underlying situation, you need to move on. Either they completely lack empathy, or your performance was too poor to recover from.

      I’m sorry that you’ve been through such a rough time.

      • Meg Murry :

        Yes, my advice is assuming your office knew that your mother was in treatment for cancer, and passed away. If they don’t know that – please, tell them. You probably don’t need to get into specifics about the relationship ending, or your father’s depression, although adding something general about how your father isn’t taking it well and you have had to handle a lot of the details is absolutely relevant and not oversharing.

  6. I am sorry for your tough situation. I would say that the advice provided is good advice. Focus on work (and maintaining your mental health) and do better. Identify for your supervisor some concrete steps you are taking to improve your work – better work planning, allowing more time to review materials, etc…

    I was in a similar situation – my marriage ended dramatically while I was still on probation at a new job. I was told to shape up or ship out. I shaped up, and have moved up in my organization significantly since. The only caveat is that people may always be a touch more sensitive about anything that looks like “weak performance” from you, if you stay in the same place.

  7. jumpingjack :

    This is awful, OP, and I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through this. Did your work know what was happening at the time? My mother went through a long terrible illness when I was at Biglaw, and the firm was incredibly understanding. When I first (hesitantly) told a partner about it, he said that I should have told them earlier. They cut me a lot of slack during that time. Even though the worst has passed, it’s possible that if they understand what you’ve been going through they’ll give you a clean slate.

  8. Just commenting to agree with the other comments about how it would be easier to move firms. After having a baby, I had a period of several months where I did poor work due to sleep deprivation. I worked my ass off to recover and it worked for awhile, but they never saw me as a good associate again and it was easier to have a fresh start at a new firm.

    On the plus side, I LOVE my new job and it pays better, so it worked out great in the end.

  9. Former Biglaw :

    I hate to say it, but I think the “your supervisors need to know” strategy is unlikely to work for most partners in BigLaw. I say this as someone who was in BigLaw for a number of years before leaving. Maybe it’s that one magical firm, but chances are it’s not. Maybe it would’ve worked if you’d already established yourself with these partners after a few years of solid work…but this was a first impression. If you’ve been there a year, it won’t look too horrible on your resume to look for a new job. I’d start looking now. I think the reality of BigLaw is that people don’t cut you slack.

    • Amelia Bedelia :

      this, unfortunately. I agree. You will never recover enough to make partner. now, if you only want to recover enough to work there three years more or so and then transition in-house? I’d still say move, but you have a better shot of surviving. Otherwise, jump ship now.

  10. Mid law response :

    Granted I’m not and never have been in BigLaw but in MidLaw if any of our new associates were in this position I think they’d be given some fairly generous leeway. It may have been better to ask for less work rather than taking on something and not doing it up to your standards, but you can’t change the past. You’ve been through a really rough time and it is OK that it has affected your work. Focus on what is most important to you now. Do you need the firm salary? Do you want the firm job? Do you want to make a switch for a fresh start? Are there things you like about current firm that make you want to try to rebound to stay? You’ve likely got more options than you realize. Communicate and don’t over commit. If your firm is holding B- work against you when your mother was dying, it may not be a place you want to spend time anyhow — I wouldn’t.

  11. Anon in MA :

    On a personal note, my suggestion is to forgive yourself and congratulate you on seeking to make a plan for the future. I assume you’re a lifelong overachiever and perfectionist to be where you are, and sometimes life happens. I’m really sorry to read about life throwing you multiple challenges all at once.

  12. While a BigLaw associate, I had an episode of major depression (what would have been called a nervous breakdown in the olden days) after a series of Unfortunate Events. I had to be out for a week simply to get everything under control and not kill myself (no kidding). I had to tell the partner I worked for at least some general details, because I wasn’t back to normal for about a month, and while the partner was understanding, I could tell that I was never considered in the same way again, and that the situation could not be salvaged in the long run. I two-tracked – job hunting plus good performance – and just hung in there until I found something to step into. Fresh start at different firm with much better fit. At the time, I thought my life was over. It turned out to have been a gift. Wishing you the very best.

  13. I’m coming late to this, but weighing in so even if OP doesn’t see it, it’s here in case someone in a similar situation comes across this post in the future . . .
    As a former Big Law partner (and a boss in a very different setting today), I would say that you should focus on great performance and finding a new job at the same time. Trust is so important, and if you took work product from me without warning me you might not be able to do it, etc., I just wouldn’t be able to trust again even though I would have true empathy and sympathy for you.
    I supervised an associate with drug issues who ultimately went to rehab, came back and apologized, started doing better work, but I could just never trust him again. Any time he was 5 minutes late, I would immediately assume I would have to cover for him yet again. He left after 6 months and it was best for everyone. He’s in a less demanding environment and doing well.
    I hope the best for you now and in the future.

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