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‘My Boss Wants Me to Do Her Dirty Work’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I switched to a new team within my company last year, working on a project that was understaffed until several of us were brought on.

One of my teammates, Joe, staffs a work area that intersects with mine and on which he is supposed to operate fairly independently. Soon after we both started, our manager, Megan, expressed concerns to me about Joe’s performance and asked if I would help mentor him. I agreed, while making clear that I would only be able to give general feedback since his work area is not one I have much experience in and my own workload seemed substantial. She agreed and said she wasn’t looking to off-load his management.

Several months later, Megan’s feelings on Joe’s performance have worsened. At her repeated insistence, I increased my work with him to include partially overseeing some of his tasks, while I again clarified that I didn’t feel my workload or expertise allowed for the support or structure he needed. She agreed with that as well, but there is no one immediately available at our company to provide that topic-specific oversight.

Recently, Megan has initiated direct conversations with me about Joe’s future on the team. Rather than simply asking for my opinion and observations as a task manager and colleague (as I might have thought appropriate), she has been asking me to discuss “what we want to do about” the issue and asking me what my proposal is. Most recently, she asked me to develop criteria that we could measure Joe’s performance progress against (and ultimately evaluate whether he stays). I am anticipating that once those are agreed on, she may ask me to then manage that process with him.

I want to believe my boss’s intent is to be collaborative and to acknowledge that this question has big implications for my work — and perhaps to develop me as a team leader — but honestly, I feel like she’s trying to drop an uncomfortable process in my lap. This feels like it’s part of a pattern of avoidance that has impacted my colleague, too, since his performance problems might not have reached this point if she hadn’t been avoiding managing him more actively earlier on.

Am I being overly sensitive? Is this normal? I have managed staff before (and would happily again under different circumstances) and would never have dreamed of asking a subordinate’s teammates to help me decide what to do about their performance, even if they were task managing and providing input. But perhaps it’s not as odd as it feels to me?

I am still new to the team and can tell that taking care of this issue for Megan, one way or another, would be a big plus for my standing with her. But I’m uncomfortable with it and just downright don’t want to. My gentle attempts to draw the line between our roles have fallen on totally deaf ears. Is there a way I can say, “Please do your own dirty work” that doesn’t sound like I just want to avoid responsibility?

You’re not being overly sensitive, and this is not normal. Your boss is asking you to do something that’s not only clearly outside the scope of your role but that you don’t have the authority to do.

It might be reasonable for Megan to ask you to develop criteria for measuring Joe’s performance. If you’re the person who works most closely with him and whose work has been most impacted by his performance, it may make sense for you to lay out the specifics of what you need from him.

But framing it as figuring out “what we should do” and asking what your proposal is sound as if she’s trying to make you take the lead on a difficult situation so she doesn’t have to. And this isn’t just “Hey, can you do this database work because I hate it?” — this is “Can you act as a manager when you aren’t a manager and don’t have the authority underpinning the work I’m asking you to do?” That’s just not something you could do even if you didn’t mind the request. It’s an entirely different job with significant additional responsibility, and, crucially, it requires the person you’re managing to know you have been empowered to manage them.

It’s also quite unkind to Joe. As you mentioned, Megan’s pattern of avoidance isn’t just a problem for you; it’s a problem for him, too. One of the horrible ironies of managers who refuse to manage is that they often avoid hard conversations out of a desire to be “nice” … which ends up having the opposite effect because it means the people they manage don’t hear about problems early on (if ever) and don’t get the chance to try to fix them. Often, it means they let problems fester until the consequences become dire and the employee’s job is in jeopardy when maybe things wouldn’t have gotten to that point had the manager done their job and given clear feedback and coaching earlier. Megan at least seems to recognize that something needs to be done, but she apparently hasn’t yet recognized that no one but she can do it.

In any case, it sounds like it’s time to start using language like this with her:

“As Joe’s peer, I don’t have the authority to do the sort of work you’re describing, and I think it would need to come from you as his manager.”

“I can give feedback and observations based on my work with Joe, but since I’m not his manager, getting involved beyond that would be overstepping the boundaries of my role.”

“This sounds like it’s reached a point where any intervention will need to come from you as his manager. I don’t feel positioned to do more than provide feedback on his tasks to you and to him.”

It’s possible that Megan will hear this and think you’re making a play for more authority — hinting that you’ll handle the problem if she makes you Joe’s manager or at least a formal team lead. So it’s worth thinking through whether you’d want that, should it come up, and thinking about compensation, too, since you should be paid for taking on significant new responsibilities. But if you don’t want that and she offers, you can be direct: “I’m really happy with my job as it is, and I’d rather not take on formal responsibility for managing the X role.” (Be aware that she could decide to make it part of your job anyway. And she may if she really wants to get out of handling the situation, though if you make it clear you don’t want to do it, her avoidance of conflict may work in your favor.)

But it’s possible that just clearly setting boundaries and reminding Megan of the limits of your authority will be the nudge she needs. And if it’s not, it’s okay to ask directly, “Can we clarify how you see my role in this situation? I’m getting the sense that you’d like me to take more of a management role with Joe, but it’s not something I feel positioned to do — definitely not without formal authority but also not in light of the rest of my workload.”

If nothing else, by naming what’s going on, you’ll at least bring the conflict to the surface and force her to say point-blank what she’s looking for from you … and, I hope, help her to realize that you can’t rescue her from doing her job.

Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every other Tuesday.

‘My Boss Wants Me to Do Her Dirty Work’