My colleague “Andrew” and I work in a specialized department for a midsize company (about 150 employees), each of us covering half of the company with no overlap. We both work remotely while the teams we support are on site in offices across our region, so we rely heavily on Microsoft Teams and email. Our boss, “Sam,” is very laid-back — he’s supportive without micromanaging us and rarely pries as long as we’re getting our work done.
Andrew is great in his role … when he’s actually doing it. Over the past few months, though, he has been incredibly difficult to reach. He’s not responding to emails, is always “away” on Teams, and only answers messages hours or sometimes days later, if at all. We have a weekly in-person meeting with another colleague, and while it’s informal, he regularly blows it off without letting us know he’s not coming. I’m aware he had issues with tardiness/attendance before we worked together, but I’m unsure of the extent.
Recently, I covered for Andrew while he was on a lengthy vacation, and it was evident he had been neglecting important, time-sensitive tasks leading up to his trip. He clearly had not been responding to many of his clients, letting things pile up. I worked very hard juggling his half of the company along with my own while he was out, fielding calls and messages from angry clients and frustrated co-workers (though people were very complimentary of my work). The doubled workload meant quite a bit of overtime for me.
The last day of Andrew’s vacation, I sent him a list of important updates and ongoing projects and let him know I’d be happy to chat if he had questions. No response, and it’s been almost two weeks. After he got back, I sent him a message asking how his trip was. Crickets. Since his return, he’s missed meetings and emails, and I’ve had multiple colleagues ask if Andrew was still on vacation or if I knew where he was. It’s hard to see messages coming in for him going ignored, but they aren’t my clients and the combined workloads are too much for me to manage alone.
I no longer know how to defend Andrew to his (understandably frustrated) colleagues, and I’m feeling pretty put out that he hasn’t acknowledged my covering for him in any way.
In my last one-on-one with Sam, I let him know what was going on because I’m concerned for the other staff and clients, and while Andrew’s poor performance shouldn’t reflect on me, I suspect this will bring consequences for our department as a whole. Sam wasn’t surprised. It sounds like other people had also brought this up with him before I did, and he agrees it’s an issue. However, Sam had not had direct reports in a long time until our department was created a year ago, so he’s getting used to being in a managerial role again and I know he tends to soften the message when giving feedback.
What else can I do? Should I talk to Andrew directly? We aren’t terribly close, and he can be somewhat volatile — sometimes he’s standoffish and other times he’s warm and engaging, and I never know which he’ll be. I’m also at a loss as to what to say when colleagues come to me wondering where he is. So far, I’ve been sticking to a brief “I’m not sure about Andrew’s schedule today,” but it sounds so oblivious. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to throw him under the bus either. How should I handle this?
There’s nothing you can do to manage this problem beyond what you’ve already tried.
That’s bad news because you’re clearly frustrated and worried that Andrew’s unresponsiveness could blow back on your team. And it’s legitimately aggravating to watch a co-worker flagrantly ignore the standards you’re both supposed to be held to — and even more aggravating to watch your manager act as if there’s nothing he can do about it.
But if you shift your perspective a little, it can be liberating to acknowledge that you’ve done everything you could reasonably be expected to do, and now the problem is out of your hands. Andrew will either do his work or not. Sam will either manage him effectively or not. You’ve alerted Sam to what you’ve seen, and from here it’s up to him. You don’t manage either of them, so there’s nothing more you can or should do.
It’s definitely not your job to try to get Andrew to manage his work differently. If he seemed like someone who would appreciate a heads-up (“People keep complaining that they can’t reach you and are sounding increasingly concerned about it,” say), that could be worth offering. But since you say Andrew has been volatile in the past, that’s not something you’re obligated to take on. It’s Sam’s job to deal with that, not yours.
You’re also not obligated to cover for Andrew when co-workers ask where he is. The response you’ve been using — “I’m not sure about his schedule today” — is fine. You’re worried it makes you look oblivious, but I’m betting your colleagues will read between the lines and understand you aren’t the issue. If you want, though, you can start sending people to Sam when they ask! Tell them, “I’m not sure about Andrew’s schedule, but you could check with Sam.” It’s possible that if Sam starts receiving an influx of queries about Andrew’s whereabouts, it could spur him to take more action than he has so far. But again, either way, it’s not your problem to solve.
One thing here you can address, though (or, more accurately, that you have standing to push Sam to address), is the impact this is having on your own work. While it sounds like Andrew’s unresponsiveness doesn’t directly affect your workload most of the time, it sure did when he was on vacation and you had to do his job as well as your own. Being expected to cover a job that had been neglected for months is very much your business, and you’d be on solid ground declining to spend extra hours cleaning up after him in the future. So if you’re asked to be Andrew’s vacation cover in the future, it would be reasonable to remind Sam what happened previously and ask for a plan to ensure you’re only covering the work that comes in while Andrew is away, not cleaning up everything he might have shirked in the weeks or months before he left.
One caveat to all of this: It’s possible there’s more going on with Andrew than you know and which might change your assessment, or at least your frustration level, if you did. For example, it’s possible that he has a health situation or family crisis that he’s arranged to take extra time off for. He could even have formal medical accommodations in place that allow him to miss more work than he normally could. If that’s the case, both Andrew and Sam are still managing things badly — there should be more communication about Andrew’s availability and Sam should be stepping in to ensure requests to Andrew aren’t just being ignored — but the existence of that type of accommodation isn’t always visible to co-workers. My hunch is that this probably isn’t the explanation (it sounds more like Sam is just a weak manager), but it’s useful to keep in mind that you might not be privy to everything that’s happening behind the scenes.
Ultimately, though, there can be real relief in deciding it’s not your job to solve this. You’re certainly not being paid to solve this, and you can leave any agonizing about it to the person who is.