A reader writes:
I work in an entry-level associate person, but deal with a lot different departments, including our communications manager. Although she is nice, at least outwardly, I noticed that she is increasingly inept at keeping meeting appointments, takes forever to track down, unless my supervisor (the CFO) is copied to the email chain or he directly asks for something to get done.
For instance, I think it’s a waste of my time when I’m sitting in a meeting room for 20 minutes, can’t get a hold of her at her desk, and my emails go unanswered. This is precisely what happened this morning.
My boss thinks very highly of her, so I don’t want to say anything mean about her, but he is also my direct supervisor, and I feel he should be made aware. I copied him to my last email where I asked her to just swing by my desk when ready. We were supposed to have this meeting two times already…
I understand that she is busy and in a more senior position, but she could at least shoot me an email or let me know in advance that we need to postpone, etc. Once again, this is just another incidence in a string of unanswered emails, unanswered calls, until a week or two later and after I have literally emailed her five to ten times in order to get some kind of response.
Do you think I’m being petty or is this a cause for concern? How should I handle this matter, which seems to be slowly snowballing?
Have you talked to her about it yet? That’s the first step, and it doesn’t sound like you’ve done that.
However, before you do that, be aware that in some organizations, communications manager is a very busy job — if she’s taking last-minute press calls, for instance, that will nearly always trump meetings with entry-level staff. That doesn’t mean that it’s okay for her to routinely leave you sitting in empty meeting rooms, but you do want to be aware of that and have it inform your approach so that you don’t come across as out-of-touch with her how this type of work sometimes works.
Even if that’s not the case here, you still want to approach this with respect for her seniority and the fact that her time is, in the most literal terms, more valuable than yours. Again, that doesn’t make it okay for her to routinely leave you sitting alone in meeting rooms for 20 minutes, but it does mean that you want to shape your approach accordingly.
So what does that mean in practice? It means that you don’t curtly say, “I waited for you for 20 minutes.” Instead, say something like this: “I’ve noticed that you’re not able to make a lot of our meetings when we set them. Is there a better way for me to get time with you when I need it for XYZ?” It’s possible she’ll tell you that it would actually be better for you to catch in person when she’s at her desk, or something else. Or she might blow off your concern and tell you that no, it’s fine to keep scheduling meetings the way you have been — in which case, you say: “What’s the best thing for me to do when we have a meeting and you’re not there? Do you want me to try to find you, or just wait 5 minutes and then email you to reschedule?”
It’s also reasonable to say, “Would you mind letting me know when you need to miss a meeting? Otherwise I end up sitting in the meeting room waiting for you.”
If the problem continues after you talk with her, then you talk to your manager. But instead of framing it as a complaint, frame it as asking for advice: “I have a hard time getting time with Jane when we have scheduled meetings. We often schedule meetings and she doesn’t make it. I know she’s busy, and I’ve asked her if there’s a better way to get the stuff I need from her, but it’s continuing to happen, so I wondered if I could pick your brain for advice.”
Asking for advice on how to handle something when you really want to complain about it is a good way to raise issues in a professional, non-complaining way — you’ll get your boss in the loop on the situation without badmouthing someone and you’ll potentially get good advice about how to handle it.
(And frankly, it’s entirely possible that your boss will say, “Yeah, Jane is really busy and there’s no real way around that. Thanks for accommodating it.” And if that’s where he comes down on it, you want to know that. That’s his call to make, and in some situations it could be the right one.)
Speaking of your boss, stop cc’ing him on emails to the communications manager like “swing by my desk when you’re ready.” Even though you’re doing it because you’ve found it makes her more responsive, it’s also making you look … well, not great. It’s a passive-aggressive way of escalating things, when you should be talking to people directly instead. (To be clear, there are times when it makes sense to cc your manager when you’re not getting something you need — but a cc on meeting logistics isn’t one of them.)
Another thing to stop doing: emailing 5-10 times to get a response. One follow-up email makes sense. After that, pick up the phone or go by in person. It’s too easy for emails to get overlooked in a rapidly filling in-box, and when two emails haven’t worked, that’s a sign to try a different approach. (Not that you should have to — you shouldn’t. We’re just talking reality here.)
Basically, don’t stew in frustration. Lay the problem on the table — pleasantly and professionally — and see if there’s some other way of handling it, or if the consensus from the more senior people involved is that although this isn’t ideal, it’s just the way it needs to be.