A reader writes:
Recently, a superior in a different unit of my department, to whom I do not report, told me in a confidential email that one of the executive assistants in her unit was having performance issues — “letting things slip,” in her words. In that email, she asked me to make myself available to the faculty member this EA works for as a “backstop,” to complete missed tasks, schedule and follow up with appointments, etc. — essentially, to be responsible for following through on work that the EA has not done up to par.
While I want to be a team player and help where I can in the department, I am hesitant to take on this role for a few reasons: first, I used to work as this faculty member’s administrative assistant a few years ago, but no longer do. My role in the department is different now. Second, acting as the EA’s “accountability person” would be an unofficial role — basically, additional responsibility without additional compensation (I am a non-exempt hourly employee, while the EA is salaried exempt). Third, having two people (one officially, one unofficially) responsible for the same tasks sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Personally, I think the EA’s supervisor should address those performance problems and create a plan for remediation, rather than asking the faculty member’s former assistant to fill in the gaps. Am I in the wrong here? What would be a useful way to address this, both to the superior who is requesting this, and perhaps to my own supervisor, who I believe is unaware of the situation?
It’s possible that the EA’s manager is currently working to address the performance problems but feels like she needs a back-up to ensure work is getting done correctly meanwhile … and it’s possible that they wouldn’t specifically tell you that part of it. But it’s also possible that that’s not happening, and this is just a wimpy way of avoiding managing her. If it’s the former, it’s not necessarily wrongheaded to bring in help for a limited period of time. But if it’s the latter, that’s ridiculous and her manager needs to do her job and manage the situation.
It’s reasonable for you to get a better idea of which of these it is — not necessarily about the details of the EA’s employment situation, but about what it means for you and what you’re being asked to take on. For example, you could say, “Can you give me an idea of how long you’d want me to do this? It’s not something I could do indefinitely, so I’d want to know that there’s a plan in progress to resolve the issues within a specific amount of time.”
But before you even do that, you definitely need to loop your own manager in. At a minimum, she should be aware if you’re taking on significant new work and should have the chance to say no, that she wants you focused on your primary job. It’s possible that she could be overruled if the person making this request of you is higher up than she is, but she should at least be involved in the conversation. And in addition to that, if you just don’t want to do this for the reasons you mentioned in your letter, it’s reasonable to share that with her and see if she’s able to help get you out of it.