my boss keeps assigning my work to other people

A reader writes:

My position is with a small nonprofit organization. I am the only person who is officially employed in a communications role; I handle the organization’s branding, signage, media relations, and social media. My manager regularly gives communications projects to other people in the organization. These projects have included updating the organization’s banners, finding new promotional avenues for our events, and creating a new branding for a program we run. There have been many more examples. I have literally been involved in conversations about these projects and had my manager turn and assign the project to someone else.

I’m not too busy to take on these tasks. I feel I’m not trusted and not valued, and I’m not getting near the experience I hoped my first job would give me. I know I need to address this with my boss so I’m looking for a script to say to “Hey! That’s my job!” in the moment, and maybe something to address the problem with my supervisor in private.

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • How can I get an employee to try to solve problems on her own?
  • Will reference-checkers get my current salary when they call my manager?
  • My company doesn’t give employees the chance to apply for management roles
  • A recruiter wanted to talk and then went AWOL

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. Dorothy Zbornak

    #1 – I feel this frustration; I had a boss who would literally just assign tasks and projects to whoever was standing closest to him when he thought of something that needed doing, regardless of that person’s actual role. Sounds like a different situation than yours, but it was aggravating when something that should have been my task by default went to someone else just because of proximity to the boss. (In my case, most of the time everything just got shuffled to the correct person anyway, since the boss didn’t particularly care who did what, just that it got done.)

    1. Green Goose

      When I read #1 I wasn’t clear how long the LW had been working there. If they are still new to the job, and it’s their very first job this might make sense but if this is a place LW has been at for more than six months I think it’s weird. I agree with the advice that LW should speak privately with the boss so they can get aligned about what the LW is supposed to be doing.

      1. Nanani

        If either LW, or their role, is very new maybe the boss is still thinking in the old system where this sort of thing didn’t have a go-to person.

        1. Luna

          Yeah I thought the same thing too.

          Communications roles can also be weird, especially if the company/department has a poor organizational structure in general. My job hired a new Communications person a few months ago (in a brand new role), originally as communications for Group X, which I am not part of. But recently I’ve been getting the impression that they now want him to do all communications, but they never actually communicated(!) that to any of the rest of us.

          So there is this weird vibe where the communications guy thinks other staff are doing “his” work and vice versa. None of the managers will come out and clearly say “going forward Fergus is responsible for x,y,z communications tasks that were previously handled by each group” or “each group will keep doing x tasks but Fergus will now take on y & z higher level projects.” Basically the managers haven’t really bothered to think through how this new role fits into the overall group and are hoping it will just work itself out over time. It’s quite possible that is the stage the LW is currently at at her job too.

        2. Seriously?

          Or the LW may be misunderstanding the scope of their role. It’s possible that the manager is thinking that LW is responsible for X, Y and Z specific tasks while the LW thinks they are responsible for anything communications related, especially if X, Y and Z doesn’t keep them busy.

          1. Green Goose

            Yeah, this is possible too so the LW should definitely clarify with the manager.

    2. anna green

      Hahaha, I make that comment about one of my old boss’s all the time! That he would just assign projects to whoever happened to be standing closest to him when he got it. It drove me crazy! That’s so funny, I guess I’m glad I’m not alone?

    3. Midwest for Life

      My boss does this all the time. Specifically in my department though, one of my direct reports sits closest to him so he pulls her in to “chat” ALL the time. Usually leaving the rest of us out of the loop. My situation is complicated by his apparent crush on this same person – so he’d probably find reasons to talk to her regardless of where she sat. And leaves him defensive if I ask about things they talked about because he was “planning to tell me eventually” or thought I already knew… uhg. Yep, Frustration is the exact right word.

      1. Strawmeatloaf

        Eww. I would definitely warn your direct report about it. I wonder if they’re feeling creeped out by it.

    4. the sucky life guy

      I’m in a situation (shituation?) where my actual job is X, but I also happen to be quite good at Y, even though Y is definitely NOT my job. There is only one other person here who does Y, so she’s often swamped with work, and can’t attend to people’s requests for a few days. So they use me. Meanwhile, they give all my actual work to other people. Recently they even hired new people to do my job, instead of hiring another person to do Y and letting me do X.

      A. This is just pathetic management.
      B. It is demoralizing. Other people are overworked because they won’t allow me to help, and I’m constantly looking for another job. But without the opportunitiy to do my job I’m gaining no experience, so nobody wants to hire me. So I’m stuck

  2. Ladylike

    Don’t know if it’s an issue on my end or an issue with the site, but the Inc. page won’t load. :(

    1. Merida Ann

      I couldn’t get it to load on Internet Explorer (it got stuck on the stock photo), but I didn’t have any problems when I switched to Chrome, so I’d suggest trying another browser if you can.

    2. Joanna

      Yeah, it loaded for me but was just a giant ad on my cell phone. I closed it and a blank box that said “Ad closed by Google Ads” took up over half the screen…

  3. The OG Anonsie

    #2 – It may be that the more senior researcher tended to be more territorial about some of this work, or was especially nitpicky about it. Some folks won’t worry about that depending on the context, so it might not bother the other junior researcher now that it’s part of their designated responsibilities, while this one is uncomfortable having to take those things on alone. They might be worried about some kind of blowback or being blamed if it goes wrong.

    Even if it’s not coming from the senior researcher, that’s not an uncommon concern. When I was a sort of middling level researcher and we brought in a lot of junior staff and grad students on a regular basis, I saw this fear a lot. It’s frustrating, and I never found a great way to tell in the beginning who would end up getting over it and who wouldn’t. But it’s also understandable, because in a lot of settings people will absolutely blame the most junior person for any problem even if their hands were nowhere near the thing or they did a great job.

    Then again I’ve also worked with people who did this more or less constantly for reasons I don’t entirely follow. I think some people do it as a form of protest when they feel they’re being asked to do too much, or they don’t like the way something is being handled. They sort of feign confusion and act like they need help, but if you provide them help they don’t really change anything. Maybe she feels like she has too much work now and is trying to signal that? Or maybe, maybe, she doesn’t think she gets paid (or otherwise compensated) enough to take on that level of responsibility.

    1. Dust Bunny

      I was just getting on here to say this: Sometimes it’s less about not knowing how to do something than it is about feeling like you don’t have the authority, officially or unofficially, to proceed. Possibly the senior researcher was exacting about how things were done and this person got burned.

      My job occasionally involves medical records. I work here, am in excellent standing as an employee, and this is part of my job. I am totally permitted to access this material, but it still feels weird to do so without running it by my supervisor first. I don’t need to do that, but it seems like the kind of thing that should have a witness, I guess?

      1. Seriously?

        Or it could be an expertise thing. I frequently double check new things with my boss. Can I make an educated guess? Yes. But I do not want to guess wrong when the stakes are high.

      2. The OG Anonsie

        Especially in the strongly hierarchical world of research. As they say, shit rolls downhill. The difference in behaviors between the two junior researchers could be due to different experiences they’ve had elsewhere, with this senior researcher, with management as a whole, all kinds of things.

        In addition to the hierarchy there’s also a lot of favoritism in social circles, too. If the one junior person has a better relationship with [insert relevant parties here] they may feel more confident or empowered to take on things than the other one, who may get less slack in general. Or hell, maybe the one who’s not having issues is just much more familiar with what’s going on because they happen to chat/interact with the senior staff more, giving them a greater body of knowledge and context from which to make decisions.

        To be clear, the other one is not handling this well– but there are a lot of contributing factors that could/should inform how the LW handles it.

    2. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day

      Yeaaahhhh… I worked with one person who was just absolutely incapable of making an independent decision or doing anything without explicit approval beforehand. It didn’t seem to be a fear response (based on a past experience with a micromanaging boss – which I could have understood). She just seemed to have a very specific idea about how offices/hierarchy in a professional role works. It was maddening because she was senior to me and was supposed to be training me, but pretty much anything I asked her was met with “well, let’s ask dept. head”. She also expected me to treat her that way, because she was sr. to me. And, well, that was absolutely not going to happen. If I’m unsure of something I have no problem asking for clarification, but when it comes to work I err more on the side of forging on as far as I can possibly go rather than stopping and asking for permission to continue. I also pride myself on having a good sense of what I can go ahead and do, but ask someone to confirm or look over after the fact (because the consequences are not immediate or the stakes are low) vs responsibilities that have to be perfect the first time, so I won’t even touch it until I’m 100% sure about them.

      Anyway – that situation blew up spectacularly, but it was a good learning experience. I can’t say that I really agree with that mentality/approach to work, but it’s good to know that it’s out there and I do try to remind myself to just butt out and not judge unless it somehow impacts me.

  4. Leela

    LW #5 I’m curious if the recruiter was in-house or from an agency? An agency recruiter would get reamed for holding off on a position for a week, even a day, by their bosses. Not that they wouldn’t still talk to you if it was still available but every hour they wait is an hour another agency has a chance to fill the role and get the finder’s fee for the hired candidate. Speed pressure is very immense at agencies, and the push to churn over candidates like that is a huge part of the reason I left (it lead to all sort of behaviors that aren’t illegal but I found unethical and frankly, repulsive).

    If it’s an in-house recruiter, it could be a whole host of reasons. The hiring manager put the role on hold, funding fell through, an internal candidate just threw their hat into the ring, and the other reasons Allison listed as well. I was so busy as an in-house recruiter that it felt like my work day was 10 minutes, people slipped through the cracks all the time because there simply wasn’t time to make sure that everyone at the pre-phone screen stage was being caught up.

    It’s possible, even likely, that you’ll hear back from them soon. Recruiters across the board are very busy and have a lot of pressure to get a huge amount of work done in very little time. Good luck on your job search either way, and I hope your family emergency turns out alright!

  5. Storie

    Regarding the salary Q—in CA, they can no longer ask what your current/previous salary is. I think some other states as well?

    1. KX

      To riff on this fact about CA… If I am IN California, but applying to a company that has offices in other cities and maybe HQ in another state… Can they still ask a California applicant? Does the law apply to asking CA applicants or does the law apply to CA companies?

      Does anyone know?

      1. Someone else

        My understanding is if you’ll be a Californian employee when working for them, even if they’re not “a CA company”, they can’t ask you (like if you’ll be a remote worker and no one else is in CA). If you’d be relocating to work for them in a place where it is legal to ask and they ask you during the interview, it’s probably technically OK of them to ask. But either way if they do ask you, since you are in CA now, it should be safe to push back with “You may not be aware but there’s actually a new law in California that prohibits asking that”. If they accept it and move on, good, maybe you did actually inform them of something they happened to not know if they don’t have existing employees in CA. If they press it after being told that or get huffy that you called them out, you probably don’t want to work for them anyway.

  6. Technical_Kitty

    For LW#2, I have a similar situation and despite having told this person they need to stop asking and sort it out themselves they can’t seem to stop. Would love to hear how AAM’s advice works out and if you do anything else to deal with it. Our person has been with company over a decade and he’s on track to be eliminated by year end :-/ he’s not a technically savvy person but he’s nice and it would be a shame to see him let go.

    1. Atalanta0jess

      Do you send them away when they come to you without having tried on their own first? It sounds like you have verbally set the limit, but perhaps need to enforce it.

  7. mark132

    LW #2, I’ve had this before. Often it’s stuff I have demoed to them many times before, and every time it’s like we’ve never done it before. Sometimes I just find you have to tell them you don’t have time right now. Outright tell them you are busy right now, if they are still stuck in a couple of (insert time unit here eg: hours/days), come back and we can try and figure it out. It’s amazing how often they have figured it out sometimes within minutes.

    1. Turquoisecow

      My husband has an employee like this – I’ve suggested using the Socratic method as a teaching device, or maybe just not responding immediately, as sometimes he figures out the answer to his question fairly quickly and just wants a sounding board or something. It’s kind of a shame because the guy was hired basically to be able to work independently and possibly manage things, thus taking work off my husband’s plate, but he seems to almost be making things work.

    2. Washi

      I think some people love problem-solving, and some people really don’t like being in the “I don’t know the answer so I’m going to mess around/try something/look it up on the internet” place and when they don’t know something, panic and immediately look for help. One thing I’ve found helpful is just asking “what have you already tried?” which usually signals to the person that they should have made some effort before coming to me. And I think Alison’s scripts work well if you can be even more explicit.

      1. MLB

        While people have different personalities, your default should never be to go to someone else if you don’t know the answer. It implies you’re lazy and will make no effort to figure something out. While it may not be as big of a deal in your personal life, it’s a huge deal at work.

        1. mark132

          I’ve had some people “compliment” me about how quick I am figuring it out. The reason I’m quick is often because I’ve put in the effort to develop the problem solving skills. To be fair sometimes its because I designed and implemented the system, so yes I’m going to be fast at figuring out the issue. But that doesn’t excuse you from being able to figure it out. Usually because I’ve created tools to also figure out issues with the system. I’ve got in the habit of using the tools I’ve created (rather than raw queries) to debug issues so I can figure out if I need to improve the tools.

        2. Bea

          Worse, it’s not always a signal you’re lazy. For me I start questioning the person’s intelligence and overall skill set after awhile.

          My boss recently told me not to worry if I need to ask multiple times because the department I’m asking is there to help. I explained to him that my standards for myself are high and I prefer to not go that route. I appreciate him saying that because it’s nice to be able to double back, it happens sometimes. But I’m always digging and prying information everywhere before asking whenever possible because I’m smart enough to know where to start even at a company I’m still new-ish at.

          1. Cercis

            But your boss may be thinking that you’re spending too much time trying to find the answer when it could be a 30 second query. There’s a time benefit analysis that you have to run. I have a hard time with it, but after a boss took me to task for spending “too much time” trying to figure out something on my own (about half an hour or so) I’ve learned that for most things looking for the answer using the obvious sources needs to be where you stop, after that you need to ask if someone knows the answer. If they don’t, then clearly you need to spend more time looking.

            Now, you definitely don’t ask the same question twice (unless it’s been a long time between and your question is mostly “hey has this changed”). And it’s a good practice to document the questions and answers for your employer to provide to future new hires.

          2. Mike C.

            That sort of attitude will burn you if you ever have to move even slightly out of your comfort zone or to a larger employer.

        3. Close Bracket

          > your default should never be to go to someone else if you don’t know the answer.

          What is the difference between asking a co-worker and asking Google? Or between asking a coworker and asking the governing procedure? Asking for help doesn’t imply laziness. It implies that the asker needs help.

          1. Someone else

            Asking a coworker something you could google is disruptive to the coworker and waste’s coworker’s time. There is a difference. A lot of the time when people ask a coworker instead of google, what they’re saying is “help me” and what they mean is “do it for me”. Sometimes there is nuance within an office where you might need to know the context of your business not just whatever google says, so I’m not saying there’s never reason to also ask a human. But if it’s something like “how to do X in Excel”, if you’re asking your officemate instead of google, without even trying to look it up yourself, you’re disrespecting their time. Asking for help isn’t laziness. Asking for help when you have existing resources to help yourself and choosing to ignore them is.

        4. Eliza

          I’d change that to “if you don’t know the answer and knowing the answer is within the scope of your job”. There are some parts of my job where I’m expected to be able to look up how to do things on my own and make judgement calls as necessary, and other parts where I’m not the right person to be making those calls and my job is to notify the person who is.

      2. AcademiaNut

        Although if they’re being hired as a researcher, they pretty much need to be in the first category as a basic job requirement – if their response is to panic when encountering something they don’t know, they really should be in a different line of work. It’s a like having someone antisocial and grouchy in a strongly customer facing role.

    3. Gotham Bus Company

      Maybe you demonstrated that task on a Thursday and the employee thinks there’s a different procedure for Mondays. (Yes, I actually worked with someone like that.)

    4. tamarack and fireweed

      LW2 sounds to me like one of the situations where the approach of one of my former managers would work. He said to us: “If you come to me with a question/problem also bring along a suggestion for an answer/solution”. This can be cookie-cutter like when applied to management issues, and sometimes you really need the manager to take charge and provide direction. But when you deal with an employee who needs to either learn initiative or acquire the confidence to take initiative this may reset the parameters of asking questions. I’ve done it with junior people that I set the expectation that I wanted only well-researched questions with an assessment as to possible next steps, and some took to it very well.

  8. Massmatt

    I feel for the LW from the company that not only won’t hire from within, but won’t even let their employees know about opportunities. It shows that they don’t value their employees, and indirectly, their own company, if they will only consider people outside it. IMO the assessment of your fellow employees that their jobs are dead ends are accurate and people should start looking and quitting. Perhaps this and accompanying reviews on sites such as Glassdoor will give them a wake up call. If not, at least you will have moved on to greener pastures and the company will bear the consequences of their shortsightedness.

    I worked for a company that was similar, though not this bad. Jobs were posted but they usually went to external candidates. I was passed over a few times, finally I had enough, got a significantly better job elsewhere and was quickly promoted there. Meanwhile managers at old company still wonder why they have so much turnover. Some companies never learn.

    1. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day

      Ugh. Yeah – last job was sort of like this, though it did depend on the department. Some were worse than others. Unfortunately the department I was in, was probably the worst of all. When I interviewed there was plenty of talk of room for growth and I was extremely clear that I wanted the job at hand, but that I was looking to expand my responsibilities while in the role.

      Then I get into the role and I actually heard the dept head say something along the lines of (this is almost word for for word) “I’m 40 years old and I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, so nobody else should be worried about moving up the chain either”. Like WTF man? This was a large company and the department was fairly large as well (like 30 people total). You can be upfront with the management level directly below you that you don’t intend to go anywhere, but we had about 4 levels of hierarchy – why would you not want someone from level 2 moving to level 3 when someone from level 3 left? It was such a short sighted way to run a dept. Even if you (as the head/boss) don’t plan to go anywhere you can still invest in the growth of those below you. Let them take on as much as possible (and make your life easier in the process) to set them up for the next (external) role.

  9. Bea

    I’ve naturally developed my critical thinking skills and rarely had the luxury to have someone to even ask someone else how to proceed. So I’m extra awkward when faced with a person like the Junior Researcher in #2. I’ve ran into so many now that I’ve moved into different companies and newer workers in general.

    I agree it’s often out of fear of screwing up. I think it’s best to drive home “use your judgement and run ideas passed me but I will not just give you the answer.” You have to empower them to try and get over the fear.

    I tell people about how I lost my boss’s memory to Alzheimer’s and had to piece things together for over seven years because I loved that place and was determined to take care of his business even if I had to bullshit myself through things at times. It’s hard and sometimes people can’t or just don’t want that kind of internalized pressure from not having a laid out clear cut path to follow. I would think research would be something you’d need self governed thinking in but what do I know, I’m just in business ops and accounting.

  10. Gotham Bus Company

    Letter #1:
    The boss is probably reducing your workload to justify pushing you out. Update your resume and start looking for a new job.

    Letter #2:
    The coworker is using you as an excuse to not learn her job. (“I don’t need to know this because you’re here to know it for me.”) PLEASE shut that down now before you end up doing her work for her.

    Letter #4:
    You’re learning the hard way that your company has an official “insiders need not apply” policy of filling management positions. Of course it’s demoralizing, and the top bosses clearly know that it’s demoralizing. Start looking for another job immediately, and don’t bother speaking up about it because nobody will listen (unless you want to mention it during your exit interview).

  11. Ambarish

    For #2, I’ve asked folks to do the following: every time I unblock someone with an idea, or a fact, or even by pointing them to someone else, they do a mental post-mortem right afterwards to see if they could have figured that out themselves. And to keep a tally of those times and drive that number down.

  12. Phoenix Programmer

    #4 Seems like it would also make hiring the right manager challenging! After all “secrete” managers can’t exactly interview their future teams and make sure they mesh.

  13. sunshyne84

    #1 Was this a position before you got there? If you boss wasn’t apart of hiring maybe they are unsure of how to use you. They could have asked their boss, but….hey here we are. Maybe they don’t understand that you have more skills other than running social media. Either way you should have a chat on what they expect from you and what you are hoping to accomplish.

  14. Becky

    #4 Trying to be generous here, I wonder if it is a misaligned effort to avoid the Peter Principle. There are many many stories of high performance individual contributors who have been moved into managerial roles and suffered as a consequence because the skill set for a manager may not align with the skills of the individual contributor. It is unfortunate that in most companies you can’t advance very far as an individual contributor even though you might have a lot to contribute in that area. This seems to happen a lot in the tech industries a lot–a developer who writes excellent code may be promoted to a team lead where they are doing less of what they actually like–the coding they want to do.

    Of course, this is still a bad way of going about it, because there are individual contributors who might do very well in management positions.

    1. Strawmeatloaf

      I still believe that the Peter Principle can be applied to those who have come outside the company too. Someone had such and such on a resume that sounded like they could manage, the next company does hire them at a management position, but really they weren’t doing anything like that at all and are a bad manager/upper level employee.

      1. Becky

        Oh it absolutely can–no argument there. Just if this is an attempt to avoid the Peter Principle its a ham-handed one and you’ve pointed out another weakness to it right there.

  15. Close Bracket

    #2

    Are we sure Jr Researcher 2 isn’t having problems? Maybe she’s just not speaking up. I would check in before assuming.

  16. snerdle

    I can’t access the article! The Inc site just keeps redirecting me to sign up, and even after that it redirects me to my “profile” page with the intention, I assume, of pushing me to upgrade to a paid subscription. Really disappointed if this is one more site starting to block the interesting content from public view

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