I used to post here more frequently, until I got a job . . .
about 9 months ago I took a job with a small biotech company, and 3
months ago hired an associate to work with me. This has been more
challenging than I've expected, and I think that some of the issues are
related to things that women-in-bio has discussed over the years.
I hired "Gertrude" to work on a cell culture project that wasn't very
well defined by my own supervisor, "Duke," but about which he's been gettiing
pretty stressed. I personally don't have a lot of experience in this
project either, so there was never any question of my simply just showing
her how to execute something that I already had up and running and could
do in my sleep.
I work half-time on another project, a project that is
well-defined, interesting, and generating results, and which could easily
occupy all my time if I let it. I would, honestly, much prefer to work
on this other project full-time, but have to devote half my time to the
one with Gertrude.
The problems started with hiring Gertrude. She had 10 years of
experience in both academia and industry, decent to glowing references,
her name on a few publications when she had worked at a prestigious
medical school, a bachelors and masters degree from good local schools,
and a decent GPA in her masters. For some reason, however, that I didn't
fully understand at the time, Duke didn't like her at the
interview. He said it had to do with her inability to present her work
in a clear way. I hadn't noticed that she was a terrible communicator,
and neither had other people I talked to in her past. She didn't come
across as a scintillating speaker, but I figured I was hiring someone to
do the work, not talk about it. Talking about it is actually *my* job.
At the same time he was sending me negative signals about Gertrude, Duke was
also pressuring me to get the project off the ground, so I really felt I
needed to hire someone quickly. I interviewed several people over the
phone and two other people in person, and really thought that Gertrude
was the best of the lot, although she wasn't my dream candidate. It
didn't appear that my dream candidate was there in that pile of CV's.
Duke talked to a friend of his at Gertrude's former company, and that
friend said Gertrude was well-regarded there. So I went ahead and hired
Her tenure at our company has been rocky. Some of the problem is caused
by health problems she's had. She hasn't been faking, but her illnesses
and doctor's appointments have interfered with her work. Duke was
annoyed when he went looking for her one day and couldn't find her; it
turned out she was sick in bed again.
There was also a tempest in a teapot at one of our group meetings, where
I had decided to have her give a presentation. It was my hope that this
would help her get over the communication hurdle and feel more
comfortable with the project. She had already been there 2 1/2 months,
had been to several group meetings, and I went over the presentation with
her beforehand, so I don't think I threw her into the deep end of the
pool without a life preserver. Nonetheless she got very nervous, and
spent a lot of time on her talk, even leaving the lab for a day and a
half to go work on it in the library of the school where she'd gotten her
masters (to be fair, she doesn't have a quiet place to work. Her office
has a lot of people there, and they talk a lot). Then, at the meeting
itself, because the higher ups decided they had a different agenda for
the meeting, the first part of the meeting went on so long that she
didn't get time to speak. She was really upset, almost to the point of
tears, and said at the end of the meeting "I'm going to kill you guys."
I think this was meant to be a joke, but it didn't come across as very
funny. This too did not go over well with Duke.
Gertrude has a non-mainstream personality for the company. She is
single, in her 30's, and does not have 2 kids, a minivan, or a house in
the suburbs. She wears black and likes to lift weights. I notice that
she seems to have communication problems with some of her co-workers.
She doesn't mean to be mean or off-putting, but I think sometimes people
perceive her as too blunt. Sometimes too people seem to have trouble
understanding her questions and she their answers. She's been described
as "different." I have noticed that in this environment, more than in
others where I've been, that being perceived as "different" is hard on a
person. In fact, some people's reaction to her really surprises me. If
they think she's "different," they should get out more--or meet some of
the characters I knew in grad school and post-doc.
She isn't a lab star, technique-wise. Her skills are, I would say, fair
to good, but not excellent. I think she is trainable, but it is going to
require a lot of time on my part, and this project is an iffy proposition
anyway, scientifically. Two weeks ago, right after the "I'm going to
kill you guys" incident, Duke hinted strongly that I should replace
Gertrude. I don't think that, at this point, that would be fair to her,
and I told him so.
Gertrude and I then had a meeting in which we discussed a few things,
like her not leaving the premises without permission, her coming
punctually to meetings, she and I having more regular meetings just
between us where we could communicate about her needs, and I've noticed
marked improvement in her attendance and attitude.
However, one experiment that she's done hasn't gone particularly well in
the interim (it could have been due to a faulty centrifuge, but I don't
know), and she's continued to have communication problems with my other
supervisee. She's also continued to have intrusive health problems: for
example she's taking an entire afternoon off tomorrow to go see a
I am not sure what to do. I honestly like Gertrude as a person, and I
want to give her a fair shot. I think she's intelligent, and on good
days she seems dedicated to and interested in the project. She asks
questions and cares about her experiments. It's also not clear that I
could get someone better, even if I did fire her and start looking again.
I don't think it's fair to fire someone for health problems or for being
At this point I am trying to give her a chance and get her to improve.
We had conversations a couple of weeks ago, and I've been advised to
document them in writing. So I wrote up an interim performance report,
with my expectations for the position, her strengths as I perceive them,
and my suggestions for improvement. An HR person has okayed it.
Gertrude and I will both sign it and it will become part of her file. I
may have softpedaled the suggestions, and I didn't know what to do with
the health issues, so I ignored them, although I've told the HR person
about them verbally in some detail.
I'm starting to get stressed out, with the pressure on one hand to
replace her, and my own conscience telling me that that wouldn't be at
all fair. If I replace her, I want it to be for a good reason, one that
I could look myself in the mirror the next morning and respect.
I'm sending this from a non-company account and not signing it with my
full name, because I want to protect the privacy of the individuals