A few months ago I left a senior-level job in a prestigious but dysfunctional industry for a role at a nonprofit. It was a lateral move salary-wise, but a huge upgrade in benefits and work-life balance; my workload is a fraction of what it was and I have a fantastic boss, Joe. My mental health is better than it’s ever been, I have time for personal projects outside of work, and I’m getting great feedback. I can see myself staying here for a long time.
My only complaint is about one of my co-workers, Ronald, who started a few weeks after I did. We’re in different departments and report to different managers, but the nature of our work means we frequently have to collaborate, and it has become a nightmare.
Ronald has boundless enthusiasm and a head full of soup. His incompetence is frankly staggering and he’s created several Rube Goldberg sequences of unforced errors in under three months. He’s made multiple serious mistakes on projects, and plenty of minor ones. He doesn’t seem to fully understand the strategy elements of his role and doesn’t show initiative or bring ideas of his own to the table very often. When he does, they are bizarre in both content and presentation. Most importantly, he doesn’t give me any kind of data or analysis about the assets I create, which means I’m not getting the feedback I need in order to do my job well.
(I will also admit that some of my personal animus against Ronald comes from an incident where he referred to me as “Joe’s assistant” in front of a number of our co-workers — I am not an assistant, and I outrank Ronald. Joe did a great job handling this, but that was the catalyst that turned my feelings about Ronald from bemused to actively annoyed.)
Lately, as Ronald’s sloppiness and incompetence have become more pronounced, I’ve noticed that his manager, Kate, has been coming directly to me for insight on projects that are under his purview. More than once I’ve ended up having to work late in order to ensure assignments are finished and corrected on time, and I’m frequently roped into his tasks because he can’t be trusted to handle them on his own. Joe and I are both having to spend days working on these projects when we shouldn’t have to, and it’s extremely frustrating.
I believe there’s a shared understanding on our team that Ronald is incompetent, so I don’t think I need to speak up. But I would desperately like to implement some processes to mitigate the need for Joe and I to be involved in these projects for days on end. However … a lot of the fixes will just add to the additional work that is not part of my job, and mean I’ll spend a lot more time (indirectly) reporting to Kate rather than Joe. If Ronald leaves (or is fired), I also worry that some aspects of his job will fall to me because I’ve demonstrated proficiency in those areas. It’s already kind of happening. But I don’t want Ronald’s job! I took my job for a reason (in part to recover from burnout), and unless I’m getting paid a lot more I have no interest in being tasked with his duties. (Maybe not even then.)
I would love to continue to grow within the organization as part of Joe’s team. In an ideal world I’d be able to collaborate with the person in Ronald’s role. I’d hope my willingness to pitch in to resolve these issues would reflect well on me … but I’d rather not have to pitch in at all. How would you suggest I navigate this situation?
Talk to Joe.
The real solution here is that Ronald’s manager needs to start managing him — figuring out if the problems are coachable (they sound like they’re not, but that’s something she needs to assess) and either quickly getting him up to speed or moving him out of the role. It’s possible Kate is in the process of doing this (you wouldn’t necessarily know if that were the case), and if so, having you pitch in more could be a reasonable temporary solution while that’s happening. But that should be very temporary, and someone should be acknowledging to you what’s going on. I suspect you would feel very differently about all of this if Kate or Joe had said to you, “We’re working to resolve these issues as quickly as possible, but it won’t happen overnight. Can you help keep things moving over the next month with the understanding that it won’t be the permanent solution?” But no one has said anything like that, and so of course you need to worry that this is the long-term plan and that it might even get worse.
It also sounds like the issues with Ronald are severe enough that they shouldn’t have been allowed to go on this long regardless, which suggests Kate isn’t a terribly effective manager and, therefore, might not be working on resolving this at all — especially since she can lean on you and Joe to keep things functioning.
So talking to Joe is your move here. It sounds as if he’s aware of the situation since it’s impacting him, too, but he might not realize how frustrated you are by it. He also might not be fully aware of how much it’s affecting your work or your hours. Say something like this: “I was happy to pitch in while Ronald was getting up to speed, but over time I’m doing more of his work rather than less. Kate is coming to me for help with things that are under Ronald’s purview, and multiple times I’ve had to work late to ensure his assignments are finished on time. And, of course, you and I have both been pulled into days of work on his projects. Again, I was happy to help at first, but it’s not sustainable for me to continue doing his work plus mine, so I want to know that there’s a plan in progress to solve this.”
The ideal outcome from this conversation would be that Joe talks to Kate and pushes her to resolve the situation with Ronald one way or another. (If he can improve enough, great. If he can’t, she needs to recognize that and get someone else in the role.) If Kate won’t budge, then Joe could let her know that you won’t be available to do Ronald’s work anymore, or he could escalate the situation to his own boss (who might not know what’s happening since your and Joe’s willingness to help has probably made the problems less visible to upper management).
But if Joe isn’t willing to do that for some reason (though he should be), then it’s reasonable to say you want his blessing to set your own boundaries with Kate and Ronald — that you want to be able to turn down their requests for help when it would interfere with your or your team’s priorities or would add to your work hours. In theory, you could just start doing this without talking to Joe first, but the situation is a serious enough problem that it makes sense to involve him.
I know you’re worried that if this all leads to Ronald being fired, his work will just get moved over to you more officially. But, first, it doesn’t sound as if there’s any reason to think the organization wouldn’t rehire for his role, especially since you’ll already have pushed back against taking on his work. And, second, if that does happen, you have the power to set your own boundaries — to stand firm and say, “I took this job because I wanted to do x and not y, and taking on these responsibilities would be a fundamental change in the work I came onboard to do.” While you can’t force them not to expand your job description, you can make it clear where you stand. Most organizations will understand the subtext is that they risk losing you over it and won’t want to have to replace two people rather than just one, particularly one capable of doing the work you’ve been doing and particularly when there’s already a slot budgeted for the other job.
If none of this works — if you hear, “Nope, this is just the way it has to be” — then you can decide whether you want the job under those conditions. But there’s a very good chance that by laying out your concerns with Joe and holding firm on your own boundaries, the organization will be pushed to deal with the Ronald problem.