A reader writes:
I’ve been having an ongoing issue with my manager. I work in a bookstore, and he is frustrated that I don’t reply quickly enough to authors who will doing speaking events at the store, but I feel that I do.
My job is 75% marketing/events and 25% retail. I work from home the majority of the time, but tend to go into the store at least three days a week–usually more. I use my own computer and phone for this job, and have stopped giving out my number due to having past speakers call at unusual times (say, five times on a rare Sunday off, when I’m not really checking my phone) and then contacting my manager to complain that I don’t respond in a timely enough manner (meaning I’m not answering my phone immediately). It’s not like I let these calls drop-I contact the speakers within 24 hours, often before. In fact, I’ve calculated my average response time to be 5 hours (including nights and weekends). Keep in mind that none of these calls were emergencies, just calls to confirm details for an event.
Because the speakers call the store when I don’t respond immediately, the calls then get handed over to my boss, who thinks I have an issue responding in a timely manner. I’ve showed him email threads, call logs, anything I can get my hands on to prove that I get back to speakers quickly. He kind of vaguely agrees that I’ve responded quickly enough, and, when I ask him how he would like me to respond quicker, he just goes off on a rant saying that I just *have* to respond more quickly. Somehow.
The latest example is a speaker who emailed me around 1 p.m. yesterday. I was bogged down in other work, and flagged it to respond to first thing this morning (around 8 a.m.). Again, no pressing email, just confirming some details. Before I could respond this morning, she calls the store, talks to my boss, and he calls me and sends me an email asking again how to respond more quickly. The worse case of this was a speaker who called me and, when I didn’t pick up, called my boss and then he called me and sent me an email about how disappointed he was in my response time. The time it took from the speaker’s initial call to my response? 25 minutes. Yup. Other examples are me taking comp time for an afternoon (and letting the boss know about it), then waking up to emails the next day asking me if I was alright or sick because I didn’t email him back when he emailed me the afternoon before.
I’m fairly frustrated (as you might be able to tell). I can’t be any more responsive without giving up more weekends and nights, which I rarely get off anyway. Any time I ask for concrete improvement ideas from my boss, he’s vague and unhelpful. My fiancee suggested I have an outgoing/signature message to the effect of “I will get back to you within 24 hours; give me time to respond.” I end up checking my email several times a day on my days off, and I don’t get paid enough to work seven days a week (just above minimum wage with no overtime).
At this point, I’ve accepted that it’s just par for course at this job — that he thinks flex time means I’m on call all the time — but how can I convince my boss that I’m not slacking?
Well, you may not be able to, but I can tell you what would work with a boss who’s reasonable. How your boss responds to this will give us good data on whether he’s reasonable or not.
Sit down with him and say this: “You’ve mentioned a few times that you’re concerned that I’m not responding to speakers quickly enough, so I wanted to make sure we’re both on the same page about this. I’m vigilant about responding to all speakers within 24 hours, and it’s usually much less. I took a look at my average response time over the past X months, and I’ve averaged responding within five hours, including on nights and weekends. People sometimes get impatient anyway — I know we had one person who complained when it took me only 25 minutes to get back to them. So I want to make sure that you know how I’m handling this, and see if there’s anything that you want me doing differently. I think an average of five hours is really good, especially since I don’t work 24 hours a day. Does continuing as I’ve been doing sound okay to you?”
A reasonable boss will either say yes here, or tell you if there are specific things he wants handled differently (for example, “that sounds fine, but make sure you respond to people in Category X within the same business day; don’t let it go to the next day”).
What might happen is that he’ll say that this sounds fine, but then be back to nagging you the next time someone complains. If that happens, say this: “I’m sticking to the system we agreed to, about responding within 24 hours and usually less.” If the message came in during an evening or weekend, add: “This person contacted me at night/on the weekend, but I responded quickly when I was back at work.”
Also, you don’t note whether or not you’re ending up working more than 40 hours a week or not (including all that email checking from home), but if you are, you need to start logging that time and getting paid overtime, as the law requires (assuming you’re non-exempt, which it sounds like). And then you can add this in when you talk to your boss: “If you need me to check email and respond to people during off-hours, we’re going to incur overtime costs because it will take me over 40 hours a week. Is that something you want to do?” Alternately, if you don’t want to be doing that, don’t open the door to it — just say, “I’m not able to work more than X hours per week, so people who contact me outside of those hours will end up waiting until I’m back at work, but my email auto-reply lets them know when they’ll hear back from me.”
And speaking of an email auto-reply, I’m with your fiancee on thinking that you need to set one up. I wouldn’t say “give me time to respond,” since that’s a little aggressive, but I’d say “I will get back to you within 24 hours.” If you find people don’t pay attention that that, bold it, or add something that seems to speak directly to them (like “if you’re writing to confirm details of a speaking event…”).
But ultimately, you can’t make your boss see reason. You can (a) bring the issue to the surface, (b) lay out what you’re doing as clearly as possible, and (c) remind him of that when it comes up again, and that will work with a lot of people, even managers who seemed kind of unreasonable previously … but you can’t make a determinedly unreasonable person be reasonable, so try this and see who he reveals himself to be.