A reader writes:
I was hospitalized last week with a fever of life-threatening proportions (103 F) and was advised by my doctor to seek emergency room care immediately. Before I left the house, I contacted my boss and two of my coworkers who usually cover for me when I am on vacation and told them the situation. It did not occur to me in my illness-induced stupor to set up an away message on email or contact anyone else; I thought — wrongly — that in this emergency situation, my boss would take care of things while I was hospitalized and would take the necessary actions and contact the necessary people to inform them of my absence.
After I was admitted, I called HR to arrange for FMLA, since I had no idea when I would be released and I would be able to come back to work. I did this because in the past, my boss has not been understanding about legitimate medical issues I’ve had, and I wanted to cover myself and my job. Each morning while I was in the hospital, I phoned into the office to inform my boss that I was still in the hospital, so she knew where I was. I have been diagnosed with highly infectious flu and received several courses of strong antibiotics that have left me weak and exhausted.
When I was finally released from the hospital and opened my email, it was clear that she did not do any informing except when absolutely necessary — when she was called out by cc from one of our off-campus bosses, demanding to know where I was and why I was not returning emails. She must have then at that time told these bosses, because soon after I got a personal email from one boss apologizing profusely and saying had he had known I was ill, he would not have flown off the handle, etc. If she hadn’t been cc’ed, my guess is she would have hung me out to dry — figuring after I came back from my illness I would pick up the work where I left off, and not offering to ask other employees to pitch in during this emergency.
I have already burned all of my sick leave and am now in the red. The latest is my boss basically threatened to take me off a business trip that won’t happen for 2 weeks. I expect to feel a lot better within 1 week and it seems strange to me that while she couldn’t care less than my emails and work were not being done while I was in the hospital, now she wants to take me out of a major part of my job, when she hasn’t even seen how I am. I am still weak but now I feel like I have to show up to work, no matter how bad I feel, in order to defend myself and not her take me off this trip. I am already stressing about the work I have to do when I return. I have asked many times in the past for other’s help but I am always refused this assistance from other employees in the department because they are “too busy” and am instead offered her help to “re-prioritize.” There’s a reason why I am organized and given a lot of high-level tasks — because I can multi-task and can prioritize tasks myself. Unfortunately this has led to my being overworked and always counted on.
No one likes to be ill. But when I am, my boss makes me feel like a criminal. I am unfortunately in a position where I cannot afford to be choosy with jobs — I have to stick with something that will offer comprehensive group health insurance, or else I would have gotten out of here a long time. Doubly unfortunate, I am positive my boss thinks she can treat me like this because she knows I cannot go anywhere. I haven’t said anything to HR about my boss’s previous mistreatment of me while I was on medical leave; one time my boss made my mother cry by demanding and shouting over the phone for when I would return to the office. This had the effect of making me very anxious, knowing that my boss is not concerned about my well-being but just the job getting done.
At the very least, am I allowed to insist that we play it by ear and I can determine whether or not I go on this trip in a couple days, not now? I do not want to get emotional during this discussion with her; it occurred to me while I was sickest that I might die. (I have a chronic illness with an impaired immune system.) I am however angry by what happened in my absence and wondering if now is the time to bring this up with HR. I am having trouble with this, as in January I requested a raise and after asking several times for an update, I have still seen no action and I do not want retaliation from my boss in the form of a denied raise. But at the same time, I don’t want her treating me like this to continue.
No, you can’t insist that you play it by ear and that you’ll determine in a few days whether or not you’ll go on the trip. Your boss is entitled to make that decision now — and that’s not unreasonable, since if you’re not going, she presumably needs to arrange for someone else to go or otherwise make other arrangements. You can certainly suggest doing it your way, but if she overrules you, that’s her prerogative.
I’d guess that she doesn’t want you to go because either (a) she wants you in the office to catch up on the work that you missed while you were out, and compared to that, the trip is no longer the best use of your time, and/or (b) she doesn’t want to risk you having to pull out of the trip at the last minute and instead wants to be able to plan with confidence now. Neither of these are unreasonable.
Nor is it necessarily unreasonable that she doesn’t assign other employees to assist you when you need help getting caught up on work and instead offers to help you re-prioritize. Frankly, offering to help you re-prioritize is exactly what she should be doing in this situation. That’s normal. In fact, it’s what good managers do.
Should she have had an away message set up on email for you while you were gone, and notified others you were out? Sure, yes. But the fact that she didn’t isn’t a crime — people get busy with their own things and don’t always think stuff like this through. When someone asked where you were, she explained. Again, not a crime, and pretty normal.
The only thing I see in your letter that seems like a problem is your reference to a time that your boss shouted at your mother over the phone to know when you’d return to the office. That’s obviously inappropriate and out of line.
But I have to wonder if you’re interpreting all the rest of her actions through the lens from that one incident (or a more general dislike of her), because all the other things you’re complaining about … well, they’re not big deals and they’re actually pretty reasonable.
(And sure, I realize that the shouting incident might be the tip of the iceberg and might indicate that there have been other similar incidents … but all I can go on is what you tell me and the fact that there are a lot of complaints here about pretty minor things.)
Really, what I’d recommend is putting aside your anger and seeing this as business, rather than something personal. You may wish your manager were more compassionate, but … she’s not going to take the approach that you want her to take. That’s not who she is. She’s going to focus on the work that needs to get done, not on how you’re doing. A lot of bosses are like that to some extent — and even the ones who do care about you personally are generally still focused on ensuring the work gets done.