A reader writes:
I’m a program manager in a nonprofit and supervise one employee, our program associate. She’s great. Very productive, efficient, intelligent, and in general a pleasure to work with. She’s been with the organizaiton about 2 years and is eager to advance in her career. (This is her first full-time paid position after college.)
About four months ago, she started working half-time in another department due to budget cuts in my office. Her new supervisor has a reputation for not responding to emails, being a micromanager, and just being a difficult person to work with. Everyone in the office knows how she is, and my supervisee knew it before she accepted the 50% position in that office.(Granted, she would have gone to part-time if she hadn’t accepted the job.)
However, now my program associate cc’s me on emails to her other boss in which she says that she feels like she doesn’t have enough job responsibility, isn’t being allowed to work on specific tasks in her job description, asks to go to meetings that she feels that she’s being excluded from, etc. I don’t disagree that she should be working on this things, but her emails come across as not just assertive but quite demanding. Frankly, I feel that when she cc’s me, it may give the appearance that I’m condoning the emails when I’m not.
My supervisee ccs me because she and I have a good relationship and I think she feels like I should be in the loop. I haven’t asked her to stop cc’ing me, but maybe I should. I’ve sometimes tried coaching her through other strategies for dealing with her boss (such as aying, “I’m eager to work on XX project. What can I do to prepare myself,” etc). I’ve also reminded her that it can take time to get to know a new boss and figure out the best strategies for working with him/her. I’ve told her that once this busy time of year passes in in a few weeks that may be a better time to advocate that she be brought up to speed on the other projects she thought she’d be working on.
I’m not sure what else I should do, if anything. My direct supervisor is the head of the organization, so I feel like if I go to my boss for input, it just escalates the whole issue. Should I ask to not be put in the middle or should I be doing more to look out for my program associate’s best interest? Ultimately, I want her to stay with the organization. It would be a loss of my program if she decided to move on because of her frustration with her other boss.
The other boss might be a bad manager, but your employee doesn’t sound like she’s helping herself either. I would do three things, and maybe four:
1. Talk to your employee about how she’s handling the situation. Point out the following:
a. The tone of her emails to her other boss is coming across as demanding, not assertive. Explain that no matter how frustrated she might be, she needs to keep her tone professional when talking to coworkers, and especially to her boss, and that sending a slew of demanding emails is likelier to undermine her position and reduce her credibility than to get the outcome she wants. Give her specific suggestions about how to word things differently.
b. She can’t force the other boss to do what she wants. She can make her case for it, but ultimately she may not get what she wants. This probably isn’t going to be the last difficult manager she has in her career, and she needs to figure out how to deal with it professionally and productively. At some point, arguing for the same thing over and over is both pointless and potentially combative, and the more productive way to handle it is to think, “Okay, this is the situation and it doesn’t look like it’s changing. What do I want to do from here?”
2. Ask her why she’s cc’ing you on the emails she’s sending to the other boss. Hear her out, but let her know that it’s not appropriate and ask that she stop. Unless something truly involves her work for you, she needs to handle her relationship with the other boss independently.
3. Talk to your own manager, the head of the organization. Give her a heads-up that your employee is unhappy and frustrated with the other 50% of her job and explain why. Don’t present this as “I’m asking you to intervene,” but rather as “I want you to be aware of this, because it may come to a head at some point … and by the way, I really don’t want to lose Jane because she does great work.” (On the other hand, maybe you do feel she should intervene — and if that’s the case, it’s fine for you to make the case for that.)
This conversation is appropriate for you to have, both because you’re part of the organization’s management team and because it’s affecting one of your employees. You mentioned being concerned that talking to her will escalate the issue, but frankly it sounds escalated enough already that your manager should be aware of it.
4. This last one is optional, and without knowing the personalities involved, I’m not sure if it would be constructive to do or not, but you might want to talk to your coworker — the other manager — as well. After all, she knows you’ve been seeing all those emails, so it wouldn’t be crazy to talk to her about what’s going on.
However, don’t go into that conversation accusing her of anything or with a tone that says you’re there to advocate for Jane. Just tell her you’ve noticed Jane feels frustrated and ask what her take is. It’s possible that you’ll get some insight that might change your perspective on this. After all, Jane’s complaints — that she feels she doesn’t have enough responsibility, isn’t being allowed to work on specific tasks in her job description, and wants to go to meetings that she’s being excluded from — are all things that could have legitimate reasons behind them. (For example, for the sake of argument, maybe the manager feels that Jane wants more responsibility than she believes is reasonable for someone at Jane’s skill level or in her position, isn’t going to give her tasks X, Y, and Z until she’s first mastered A, B, and C or until the department’s busy season is over and she has time to train her on them, and doesn’t invite her to high-level meetings because it’s not appropriate for her job.) Or maybe not. But it might be worth talking to her about what’s going on, since you manage half of Jane’s time and are interested in retaining her.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to (a) the other manager to decide she manages Jane, (b) the head of the organization to decide whether she wants things done differently, and (c) Jane to figure out how she wants to respond to the situation, with the understanding that she can’t force things to change.