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trying to be a good supervisor

ravena ravena at alumni.Princeton.EDU
Sat May 29 22:33:30 EST 1999

Dear women-in-bio:

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 
specialist downtown.  

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 



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