advice

Ask a Boss: My Manager Is a Slacker — Should I Tell Someone?

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Dear Boss,

I work in an extremely small office: it’s me, my manager, and two other employees who do not work in the office. We’re managed by a corporate office that does not have a formal HR office.

My boss is … unproductive. She takes personal calls from at least five different people every day. Very rarely are the calls emergencies. I have previously asked her about personal calls at work, and she stated that her boss understands the need for personal calls, and as long as she’s not doing it in front of nonemployees, it’s fine. I feel as though she spends so much time talking to her family that she sacrifices attention to work, and I feel as though she’s misinterpreting company policy. I can’t easily check the policy, though, because I’d have to ask her boss directly, and he’s so busy that it’s intimidating.

It’s also a running joke between me and my two co-workers that if you want something done, you come to me, because my boss won’t do anything unless you sit in her office and wait for her to do it. Anything that I ask her to do usually waits until the next time I’m in the office, and I usually end up doing it anyway. I’m part-time, so I’m not here every day. Every time I ask if she’s had a chance to do the managerial task I’ve asked her to do, the response is the same: No, it’s been crazy busy here.

It would be less “crazy busy” if she would tell her family to stop calling her, and if she could learn how to better manage her time. It feels as though every time she says “I need to do x,” she gets distracted by her phone and puts x off for another hour or two. The only things she reliably does are the reports that need to be sent in to corporate.

Her lack of a strong work ethic is driving me nuts, and it’s starting to affect how I work. Normally, I enjoy having things to do. I enjoy being busy at work. I don’t enjoy having to chase someone around for days or weeks so they can make a five-minute phone call to corporate to clear up an issue. As a result, I’ve noticed a distinct decline in my productivity, which is very irritating to me. I know for a fact that the other two employees are also irritated by her inability to resolve issues in a timely manner. If anything gets done, it gets done at the last possible moment.

I guess my question is: When do I go above her? The lack of an HR department means that I have no one to discuss these issues with except her and her boss. We’ve already talked about the personal phone calls, and our discussion didn’t change a thing. I would like to talk to her about these issues, but the lack of change with the phone calls makes me feel as though my other concerns would be dismissed out of hand.

If this is something I should not go over her head about, would you please help me figure out what to say? I’m having a hard time being objective about the whole situation.

It’s usually pretty risky to go over your boss’s head with this kind of thing.

That doesn’t mean that it’s never worth doing, but it depends heavily on what your manager’s own boss is like. Generally, it’s only going to make sense to do if he’s shown that he’s open to listening to concerns, has a track record of fairness and good judgment, and is skilled enough to ensure that your boss won’t retaliate against you if she finds out that you talked to him. If you don’t know for sure that he’s these things, it’s usually not a smart risk to take.

And one sign that’s not in favor of him being this type of boss is that he apparently hasn’t noticed your manager’s extreme lack of productivity. That says that he’s not particularly hands-on or involved, which means that he’s more likely not to want to deal with complaints from two levels below. There’s also a higher risk that he’ll just send to send it back down to your manager to deal with, which is not what you want here. At a minimum, the fact that you went over her head will cause serious tension with her. It could permanently poison your relationship or, worst-case scenario, even get you fired.

The other thing to consider is that your manager’s boss might not think this is a big enough deal to merit bringing it to him. Your manager’s behavior seems egregious to you because it’s right in your face every day, but from her boss’s perspective, if the department is meeting its goals, he might be perfectly satisfied with her performance. He should care — he should want the managers he oversees to be competent — but plenty of bosses in this situation will figure that if things are getting done, they don’t need to get involved, especially if doing so would risk undermining a manager who works for them.

Given all of this, unless you have a really good rapport with him and a strong sense that he’d want to hear it, this probably doesn’t rise to the level of a problem that makes sense to go over your boss’s head about.

So where does that leave you? Well, it leaves you with a lazy boss who spends much of her day on personal calls. I get that that’s frustrating — infuriating, even — but I think you’re discounting how much this is not your problem to solve. You’re not responsible for how she spends her time, you’re not responsible for getting her to realize that she should stop taking all those personal calls (whether it’s against company policy or not), and you’re not responsible for getting her to do the work she keeps delaying. That stuff isn’t yours to fix. It’s her boss’s to fix, and for whatever reason, he’s not doing it.

It would be different if her behavior were leading to truly unacceptable impacts on you, like causing you to have to work well into the evening to make up for her deficiencies, or ruining your reputation with clients. But that doesn’t sound like the case here.

It sounds like the impact is that it’s really irritating to watch the way she operates.

And being constantly irritated matters; I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But I think your best bet here is to accept that this is how your boss is and likely will be for the foreseeable future, and that you don’t have the authority over her that you’d need in order to intervene and fix things. From there, you can figure out if there’s a way for you live with the situation reasonably happily, or if it’s driving you so mad that you’d be better off going somewhere else. If you’re thinking it would be unfair to have to leave a job you like just because your boss sucks, you’re right — but that’s also one of the most common reasons that people do leave jobs, and if you’re miserable, that might be the logical solution.

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Ask a Boss: My Manager Is a Slacker!