getting what you need from a low performer who you don’t manage

A reader asks:

What is the best way to approach a department assistant about task effectiveness when she doesn’t technically report to me, but owns certain processes/administrative tasks? I purposely limit my interactions with her because I and others find that it can sometimes be like pulling teeth to get a helpful answer, result, or response. She seems to be signalling,“I just don’t care.”

I don’t want to whine to her boss (who is also my boss) or appear as if I’m exerting some kind of authority over her that I don’t have. Most of us shy away from addressing the issues because she’s moody and resentful enough as it is. I’m simply looking to get more value when we do have to collaborate on something. Our small department needs all hands on deck and I’m unsure of who should (and how to) approach this.

If this is someone who you rely on to complete your own work, and if she’s impacting your ability to do your job well, then you need to say something. And note that that says “need,” not “could.” You actually have an obligation to address issues when they’re getting in the way of your work.

In general in situations like this, you should start by talking to the person herself, and if that doesn’t resolve the problem, then you take it to someone with more authority – your boss or hers (who in this case are conveniently the same person).

So talk to her. Tell her specifically what you need that you’re not getting. For instance, if you’re having trouble getting client billing histories from her, say something like, “Jane, I’m having trouble getting client billing histories from you. Is there a better way for me to ask you for this type of thing? I need to be able to get it without a lot of back and forth, and if there’s something I should be doing differently on my end to make that happen, let me know.”  Or, “Jane, I’ve noticed that I often end up following up with you about emailed requests because I don’t receive a response the first time. It’s holding up my ability to move forward with my work, so I wonder if you’d be able to get back to me more quickly on this kind of thing.”

If the problem continues after that, you could go back to her for one more try (“Jane, like we talked about last month, I need to receive replies to my emails so that my projects don’t stall”) to show her that you’re not going to be stop pressing for what you need regardless of what roadblocks she puts up, or you can jump to your boss at that point.

And you will need to talk to your boss if this keeps up. Good managers want to know about problems like this, and they won’t necessarily realize how much you’re being impacted unless you tell them. If your efforts to resolve the problem yourself haven’t worked, then the problem is one for your boss to handle. Let her know what’s happening, with clear and specific examples, and let her take it from there.

One final note: While I’m a big believer in starting by talking to people directly, if you know that realistically you’re just not likely to take it up with Jane herself because she’s so difficult, then go straight to your boss — and explain that you haven’t addressed it directly with Jane because you don’t feel comfortable raising sensitive issues when she’s already hostile and resentful. But don’t let your discomfort dealing with Jane become a reason to say nothing.

{ 75 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    Make sure you know the difference between “poor performer” and “your tasks are not as high of a priority”.

    1. KellyK*

      Good point. Ideally, the difference should become readily apparent when the good performer follows up with “When do you need it by? I’ve got to finish [boss’s name]’s TPS reports before I can take on anything else.”

      If you take the first step of going straight to the person, I’d include asking them to make sure they let you know if they have higher-priority things that are preventing them from getting you what you need.

      If they *do* have higher-priority stuff, then you know that you need to tell your boss, “Jane can’t get me the ABC numbers until Tuesday because she’s working on the TPS reports. But I can’t make my deadline unless I have the ABC numbers by Monday—how do you suggest we prioritize this?”

      1. Mike C.*

        In my situation, I have a bunch of managers at various levels who don’t talk to each other. Lots of fun trying to balance everything out.

        1. Jamie*

          I don’t understand the managers not talking – doesn’t that just create problems in their projects?

          I have several people that report to me for certain things and to other managers for others. If they are having trouble meeting a deadline or are under pressure because there are only so many hours in a day my next communication is with their other manager to figure out how we can both get what we need…whether that’s restructuring priorities, pulling in some additional people, whatever.

          It sucks to feel like you’re working as hard as you can and giving it your full effort and still feel like a failure at the end of the day because of your inability to suspend and expand time itself. I’ve been in that position before and I hate it – I would never want to do that to someone else.

          Although, I have to say people here are remarkably cooperative about this kind of thing – which is nice.

          1. Long Time Admin*

            It can be very difficult in highly competitive or political companies to get managers to just talk to other, much less agree on anything. And if their director or vp is involved more in office politics than business, it’s absolute hell for the assistant who really does want to help everyone. I had a lot of that back in the bad old days.

  2. Lisa*

    I think its more about this person screaming from every fiber of their being that “that’s not my job”. As far as I am concerned, you work for the company, therefore helping other departments is your job. Its one thing if you are asking her to do things that don’t make sense, like stapling / stuffing envelopes when she is a VP or if she really isn’t qualified to do said task, but if its a matter of related to her job, you are swamped and need help or its a busy season and everyone is expected to pitch regardless of job description, then you have a right to ask her to do some things. Best that it comes from her direct manager though that you are allowed to give her tasks. You don’t need the manager’s permission for every task, but having the manager tell her she is expected to help when needed means she has to listen to you. If like Micke C says above there are priorities, she needs to tell you that she has other things that need to be completed before she can help. But I have a feeling, this is the type of worker then has finished her tasks, but suddenly becomes busy when asked to pitch in.

  3. Victoria HR*

    I would approach it like, “Jane, I’ve noticed that you don’t seem to want to complete my requested tasks. Is there a problem that I should know about?” To heck with being diplomatic. Sounds like Jane needs to be brought up short and be told that her performance is seriously lacking.

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah, the last time a manager pulled that on me they got a nasty response from their boss’s boss about how I was already working on something more important and to trust me when I say so.

  4. Jamie*

    If I am understanding correctly the things she is not doing properly are processes she owns. In that case, there is nothing wrong with clarifying with the boss that those are indeed things she’s supposed to be doing.

    Then I’d make sure I wasn’t asking her to do anything which wasn’t her responsibility (says the woman who had to tell people that IT doesn’t format Word documents for you, just because the previous IT did it doesn’t make it part of the job.)

    As Alison said in her answer, I’d start with asking Jane if there’s a better way to communicate what needs to be done. Approach it as a “how do we solve this” rather than “how can I explain that you need to suck less.” If that didn’t work I’d ask your mutual boss what plan B is when you can’t get assistance.

    1. Jamie*

      This is the first time in reading a letter I’ve wondered if details changed it could have been written about me – the last couple of weeks.

      Bad sign about my own mood lately – and it’s not lack of caring but being completely inundated. So there are a lot of root causes for the same result – could she be overwhelmed and the grouchiness is really in response to that and not apathy?

      Either way I will be extra helpful today and try to be a little sunnier…because even if it wasn’t written about me, the fact that it could be needs to be addressed.

      1. Ariancita*

        I’m sorry, but I find “grouchiness” because of being overwhelmed completely unacceptable. We’re dealing with this on our team, and the person is always resentful and grumpy and pushing back because her plate is full. But ALL of our plates are full and no one else acts like this; and that attitude makes our already stressful workday even more stressful and doesn’t help anyone. Perhaps it’s different in your workplace and you’re the only one whose workload is overwhelming to that degree, but a resentful attitude has a negative impact on everyone. I’m glad you’re recognizing that and trying to change it.

        1. Jamie*

          I agree – it’s unacceptable and shouldn’t happen. But sometimes it does.

          I’m explaining it as perhaps another cause for the OP’s co-workers attitude – but explaining it doesn’t mean I’m excusing it. I’m not. But just because it should never happen doesn’t mean we should ignore it as a possible contributing factor to be addressed.

      2. Ellie H.*

        My first reaction was “I hope this isn’t about me!”, too! But I think it’s just paranoia though because of the generality of the description of the situation – I’m typically quite chipper and upbeat at work. I do have to admit that there are a couple of things I’ve worked on this semester that I’ve felt not-my-job-ish about (it all IS my job, though, because I’m a general assistant) that I have been less prompt with due to my aversion. So yes, it’s a good reminder that a lot of us could probably improve our outlook.

      3. Kelly O*

        It kind of makes me feel better that I’m not the only one seeing a bit of myself in this one.

        Granted, over the last few days I’ve had this epiphany moment and am making some changes and working toward a new goal, which will help in the long run. I hope it helps in the short run too.

        I also think we all get these end of year doldrums to a point – especially if you are feeling swamped, unappreciated, and unable to get any sort of a win.

        1. Ariancita*

          I’m surprised to hear this. You always sound upbeat/positive in your posts, even when discussing things that annoy you (there’s always a positive spin and ending). I bet you’re harder on yourself than need be (and I understand this–I do the same thing and always look for ways I can improve–which don’t always work out… :)

          1. Kelly O*

            Well, I do try to find the bright side and all that. But I definitely catch myself feeling overwhelmed, pulled in ninety directions at once, and like I’m dropping every ball there is (because no matter which ones I have up, inevitably I will only hear about the one that fell.)

      4. Brooke*

        I think that it is wonderful that you were able to look inward and were realistic with yourself! I hope that I am that realistic with myself when I’m falling short of my best. That’s very honorable and I love that you even put that you are going to actively put forth effort to try to change it today! Props to you!

    2. KellyK*

      (says the woman who had to tell people that IT doesn’t format Word documents for you, just because the previous IT did it doesn’t make it part of the job.)

      Wow. That’s special. If there’s anyone in your office who’s particularly good with Word, you might want to ask them if they’re willing to take this on (either doing the formatting or showing the other person how).

      I’m our office’s unofficial “make MS Word cooperate before I throw my computer out a window” person, and I don’t mind it. It’s a happy little ego boost when I straighten out screwed up formatting and people think I’m a genius because I can operate Word and Google. But I’m also a tech writer/editor, so it’s at least vaguely within my purview, even for people who aren’t on the same teams/projects.

      1. K*

        To be fair, it’s not necessarily a crazy thing for people to think; our IT people are explicitly responsible for helping people with Word formatting issues among other things. Of course, once they’re corrected on how it works at their office, people should certainly not be harassing Jamie to format their documents.

      2. Jamie*

        This was years ago when I first started – I put a stop to it immediately. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll lend a hand when needed and will show people how to do things…but I wasn’t about to take the handwritten stuff left in my in box and churn out lovely documents. More of a teach them to fish philosophy.

        And to Lisa below – I have an Excel expert and if she were ever to leave I might show up on her porch crying begging her to come back.

        On a more helpful note – I absolutely love the laminated cheat sheets put out by Beezix. I bought several sets on Amazon a couple of years ago when we switched to Office 2010 and they are really helpful. I keep them in the pocket of my office door so you don’t even need to ask – like a teeny tiny lending library.

        They are nice for those who find the help files daunting because there is SO much information and they don’t always know what the function they need is called. They are to Office what crib notes are to Shakespeare. Won’t make you an expert, but can help you bluff through the easy stuff.

        1. Jamie*

          Cliff notes – not crib notes. I’ve never used a crib note. I’m aware some consider Cliff Notes cheating too, but I do draw the line somewhere. :)

          1. Laura L*

            Ha! It took me a long time to understand why teachers hated cliff notes. I wanted to actuallly understanding what I was reading, so I often read the cliff notes in conjunction with the book.

            Took me a while to realize that lots of students read them INSTEAD of the book. :-)

              1. Laura L*

                That too.

                I once had the opposite of that happen. My 11th grad lit class was the worst class of my life. The teacher let us listen to the audio version Huckleberry Finn during class, because most other students complained about having to read it. That took a month or so.

                Because of that, when we got to the end of the semester, we didn’t have time to finish all the required books, so we WATCH THE MOVIE VERSIONS INSTEAD! It drove me nuts.

                The teacher was a permanent sub for the semester, so I think that played into it. But I hated it because I was used to being challenged. 12 years later, I am still annoyed. :-) But not too much.

        2. Ellie H.*

          Wow, thanks so much for the tip! I REALLY want to get some of those. I’m pretty great at figuring out Office stuff on my own and in using the help files (well, maybe this suggests I don’t need the cheat sheets) but I would love to amp up my general knowledge of how to do stuff, or even just my sense of what it’s possible to do. (Mail merges are particularly lost on me.)

          1. Jamie*


            These are the ones I use – got a great deal on Amazon. What’s nice is that they are so intuitive I have had people who are really not Office literate teach themselves things and grown their competency…because sometimes it’s easier to learn on your own than to watch someone else show you and this guides them.

            And I consider myself fairly good at Excel, but I’ve used them to refresh my memory on how to do an array function, stuff like that. They have them from basic to advanced functions.

            I am not affiliated with them in any way, although it sounds like I just wrote a testimonial – but they are one of the best things ever.

            1. TheAssistant*

              As the unofficial “IT help desk” in my office (oh! but we have an entire IT team? Why ask them, though, when you could just ask TheAssistant?), I am buying these STAT after Christmas.

      3. Ariancita*

        It’s not all vaguely in my purview on my team, but I am also the go to person for all software and hardware issues (Office, network, Windows, Mac OS, back ups, shared drives, video editing, Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, stats software and qual software, etc). It’s just because I’m good at this stuff and even if it’s a program I’ve never seen, I’ll be an expert at in a couple of hours. I don’t find it annoying to be asked to do it; I do make sure people know it’s my last priority, but like you, I’m happy to help and contribute.

  5. Scott M*

    When I read the last sentence, “Our small department needs all hands on deck” I wondered if the problem could simply be that the person is confused and overwhelmed. Often times I hear the phrase ‘all hands on deck’ as a code for “we don’t know who is supposed to do what, so we need for everyone to just get busy!”
    I know that sometimes I might appear unhelpful, because I know that if I stick my nose into something, just a little bit, I will get a bunch of responsibility and work dumped in my lap (“Oh, you know something about this? Great! … here! Have this done by next Friday”)

    She could appear moody or resentful because she has a lot of people asking her to do a lot of things. Perhaps many of those things are not her job, but she has to do them because people, more important than her, are insisting.

    But yes, the thing to do is be specific. You need to make sure she knows exactly what you want. And you need to have specific examples so if you have to go to your boss, you can clearly explain the issue.

  6. Scott M*

    Something else I just wondered. The OP says that this person ‘owns’ certain processes. I wonder if this could be the sticking point. To some people, just performing certain tasks does not imply ‘ownership’ and therefore means they won’t do anything outside those specific tasks.

    Maybe, in her mind, she is just supposed follow certain procedures and complete certain tasks. But the OP is expecting a bit more flexibility and thinking-outside-the-box. The assistant could be thinking “look, I just fill out these forms and file them”, while the OP could be thinking “why won’t she discuss with me the process and help me improve/change it for this particular project?”

    1. Sharon*

      Yes, this. I used to work in a company where it you so much as glanced at something as you passed it walking to the bathroom, everybody then assumed you “owned” it. It was a culture full of dumping tasks on any sucker you could. The OP should clarify if her company is like this.

      1. Kathryn*

        I was a staff accountant, and at my old job, I somehow ended up in charge of a large remodeling project after the operations manager went on bereavement leave. The reason? I just happened to be the only person working on a Saturday when our CEO came in and found a whole bunch of problems. He came into my office and basically said “It’s yours now!”. On the bright side, I learned a heck of a lot more about construction that I ever thought I would.

    2. Kelly O*

      This, a thousand times.

      I send out an email every week with information about each department from our buyers. It goes to all stores.

      Every blessed week I get emails asking questions about specific things, and every blessed week I wind up forwarding those to the specific buyer, because even though I send them out at once, they come from a half-dozen different people. It’s assumed that since I send it, I’m writing them all.

      It is completely frustrating to have to say the same things, over and over on a fairly consistent basis. (And before it is suggested, we have sent email reminder of these things out, and it’s like no one ever reads them. So we wind up sending the email blast, and I spend the rest of the day responding to panicked emails about things related to varying degrees.)

      1. Aimee*

        I don’t know if you already do this, or if it would help in this situation, but one thing my company does to combat this is include a contact person at the end of each blurb of info. We send out a weekly newsletter to all of our sales people – it’s compiled by one person, but that person doesn’t know all the details about each piece. So each section lists the contact person (with a link to e-mail them). It actually helps a lot to have that info right there for the sales people.

  7. Ariancita*

    Wow, I could have written this, except in my case, the employee is not a low performer, but she’s moody, resentful of having to do the work, and always pushes back and gets angry. She has been approached directly several times, but her response doesn’t change: she doesn’t have time, she has other priorities (even though this is a big part of her job), she’s too busy, etc. We’re a very small team and pushing it up to the main boss could make her resentment worse. I’m not sure how to handle it anymore.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Not behave moodily, resentfully, and angrily! It’s totally fine to say that you have other priorities and they should take it up with your boss, but you shouldn’t be unpleasant about it.

        1. Ariancita*

          Exactly! We’re all overworked and have other priorities on the team, but no one else behaves this way. It has a real negative affect on the whole team, reduces overall productivity because people are hesitant to approach her about her part of a project we can’t move forward on until she completes it, and it decreases overall morale.

        2. Mike C.*

          I was speaking more to the fact that she wasn’t getting done what was asked of her. If she doesn’t have the time, and the things she has to do are a higher priority, then what is expected?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Ah, but I think that would be a very different question: “Our department assistant never has time to do the projects we send her. She’s explained that her higher-priority projects need to get done first, and her boss has confirmed that. Given this, how can we get this stuff done?” (And in that case, the answer would be to raise it to your boss, because the dept doesn’t have the resources to get its work done.)

            Whereas in the OP’s question, it’s much more about the person’s attitude, general resistance, etc.

            1. Paulina*

              Actually, if I may chime in—as I authored the original question—there is plenty of time for task work as we have observed long periods of time on personal calls, extended lunches and jumps at any kind of excuse to be away from her desk. Mondays and Fridays are popular ‘sick’ days too. I know there can be instances where there is more work than usual, but regardless of workload this person remains inconsiderate, doesn’t consistently follow through or provide information about completing tasks (even when asked), and simply ignores completing some tasks. And all of this doesn’t seem to affect the amount of time spent on non-work items, so how can there be much empathy? Her manager has spoken with her about it and has literally received responses like “Is that all?” or “Are you done?” After many years, I think she knows she has cemented a spot in our department and it would be tough if we had to bring in a new body to train and transition. Since it has gone on this long and there have not been any serious attempts to improve her performance, it just continues. This is an over-the-top description, but we are in a sense ‘held hostage’ by the failure to seriously address the situation. In turn, it does affect our productivity and team spirit, especially for those of us who do have pride in our work and mission.

              1. Jamie*

                “Are you done?” Wow. I can’t imagine any workplace I’ve ever been where that would be allowed to pass.

                I’m just trying to imagine someone saying that to me and I’m drawing a total blank. My only response would be a write up – but if they let her remain entrenched – wow.

                FTR when I said up-thread I thought this could have been me, that was before this exposition. There is a huge difference in being less chatty and smiley than usual and being blatantly rude.

                If it were me, I would totally make this your bosses problem. The first time someone asks you “are you done” is the last time you need to worry about consulting them before going right over their head. I’d give her tasks as always, if she doesn’t do them put it on the boss and ask how you are supposed to work around her.

                If this were someone really struggling with a workload they couldn’t handle I’d be a lot more compassionate.

                Age old question of why, especially in this economy, do people like this have such job security when there are tons of job seekers out there who would love the opportunity to do it well? I don’t get it.

                1. Paulina*

                  Jamie, I totally agree with you. I think there would be lines of people with strong work ethics who would love to have the job that she has. The kicker is that she is supposed to be the top assistant setting the example for others. While I don’t think that the work ethic will infect others, it does make one wonder sometimes if our work ethic really matters. After all (and I could never really do this), it sounds like we could care as much as she does and keep our jobs too, right? That is, until the bottom line would begin to look like sour cherries…

      1. Ariancita*

        I hear ya. When speaking with my colleague who is also in charge of this employee (on a different aspect of the same project), I’ve basically said to her: at some point, the job is the job. (This in response to all the ways we’ve tried to work with this employee to help reduce her load, increase communication, shift priorities, have 1:1 s with her to discuss her issues, all with no results and continued anger and resentfulness on her part.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think you do need to talk to her boss, or to yours, since you’ve approached her about it without any effect. You can tell the boss that you’re concerned that she will become even harder to work with as a result of you escalating the issue, and ask them to handle it with sensitivity to that fact. (For instance, if I were that boss, when talking to the moody employee, I would make it very clear that there was not to be any retribution or hostility toward the person who raised the issue. And there would be consequences if there was.)

      1. Ariancita*

        This is great advice. Thank you. One caveat: There is a person who is between her and main boss (this person is level with me) who is also frustrated about the problem and has spoken directly to the employee and getting zero response. So it would be up to this person to bring this to the boss, rather than me, and she’s reluctant to do that (part of it being increased hostility and part of it being her not wanting to look like she’s failing to manage to her/our boss). Do you have any advice for how I could talk to her about handling this situation (i.e., escalating it to the boss) without overstepping my bounds?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Hmmm. Is the person hesitant to bring it up also your boss? If your boss is someone else, you could talk to your boss and ask her to address it with the other manager.

          1. Ariancita*

            We’re a small team and there is only one main boss (the PI: we’re academic research). So this person is not my boss, we’re lateral (she’s the director of this one project and I’m the director of a part of this project, but I’m also leading on other projects and the team as a whole: the employee in question works on my team as well as on the project team as a whole). So since she’s the director of this project overall, it would really be up to her to address it with the PI. I think my colleague wants to handle it, for reasons I mentioned, but she’s having a hard time (for obvious reasons–the continued push back, hostility, etc). So I’d like to find a diplomatic way of suggesting that it’s time for her to discuss this with the PI.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I might say something like, “I think we’re unfortunately at the point where Bob needs to be brought in to this. We’ve tried discussing it with Jane directly many times but haven’t seen the changes we need. At this point, Bob really needs to be aware of what’s going on, so that he can decide how he wants to proceed.”

              Because really, Bob probably would want to know about this, and you can point that out. I know I wouldn’t be happy if something like this was happening on my staff and no one told me about it!

              1. Ariancita*

                Great! This language is very helpful. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees when you’re in the midst of it. I like that this is simple, to the point, and doesn’t in any way sound like she isn’t doing a good job of managing. Thank you so much!

  8. Mike C.*

    I can really relate to the situation of the assistant. I do a whole lot of analysis/project management/quality type work, and I’m in contact with first, second, third, fourth and fifth level managers. (First is my direct manager or his peers, second is his boss, etc). I’ll have my long term projects and my short term metrics and other research to do, and yet these managers will wander around looking for the first person they see to take on something else, all without talking to any of their peers about workload and priorities. In fact, I had a second level manager move me to another building to “prevent distractions” from others.

    So yeah, there are plenty of times where I’m treated as an office assistant and asked to “schedule meetings” and I have to tell that manager, “I have other projects I need to work for your boss and your boss’s boss”. Some get annoyed or upset but if I dropped everything that was in my job description to do everything that wasn’t, I’d never get anything done and I’d be fired.

    So yes, there is such a thing as “not my job”, and there is such a thing as “your request isn’t important enough for me to work on”. I suspect this assistant has similar concerns, but I could be wrong.

      1. Mike C.*

        I don’t think I am, but many folks find that being told no, no matter how much you dress it up, is unpleasant. I’m not trying to play word games here, but getting caught in between managers like that simply isn’t fun.

      2. Anonymous*

        Some people see all “I can’t do this right now I have other priorities” as unpleasant though. A lot of people at my org would consider anything that wasn’t, “sure!” unpleasant.

        No I won’t have a 2 hour meeting about your project that isn’t a priority for me.
        I’ve been specifically asked to not work on that.

        Both of these might be considered unpleasant and unwilling to be helpful. (And both of them would be considered by my director to be not harsh enough.)

  9. Generally Happy*

    I have a peer exactly like the OP described. When I joined my current team, I was warned that “Brian” pretty much did the exact minimum required and often ignored requests ( yes, they were “his” job and in most cases tasks only he could perform) or did them half…way. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but unfortunately the warnings proved correct and Brian remains employed. I brought up specific instances with our mutual boss at first, who basically giggled and said that’s just how good old Brian is. It’s basically now a running joke between any people who have to work on projects with him that they’ll be doing extra to compensate. Although it isn’t really funny, since management mysteriously avoids dealing with it, we have found a way to manage our own stress by letting it roll off our backs and hopefully Work Karma will happen, someday ;)

    1. Jamie*

      yes, they were “his” job and in most cases tasks only he could perform

      This is slightly OT, but timely as many readers are working on their master budgets for 2013 – including staffing: this is why redundancy is so important whenever possible.

      Sure – you can’t have 100% coverage for all key positions, but a lot of people skate because they are the only one in their company that knows how to do X. Or they wrote legacy app Y so they can slack off knowing no one wants to touch that mess of badly commented code.

      We all know if they got hit by the proverbial bus the company would find a way to go on, but it’s a messy transition so it’s easier to just work around the problem employee.

      Having backup is a good thing for a lot of reasons – including not letting under performing people have a free ride.

  10. A Similar Problem*

    I’d love to hear if anyone has any thoughts on how to deal with a similar problem when Step 2 (talk to the boss) doesn’t work. At my old company we had an assistant who hated his job and working in general – he had been fired from previous jobs for poor performance and only got this one because he was the son of one of our important clients. We initially gave him a regular workload (research and client reports) but he would show up in a hoodie and sweats (in our business/business casual office), sit and play on his phone, be on Facebook, and take smoke breaks every 30 minutes. After numerous talking-tos from co-workers and the manager directly above him (who had no actual power to hire/fire or change her position), we finally took it to the real boss, who said he was not going to be fired no matter what he did (assumedly because of who his parents were), and we either needed to find a way to either motivate him or work around him. We ended up taking all his projects away from him because it was holding up our work and reduced his responsibilities to mainly admin (answering phones, proofreading), but he then he just refused to answer phone calls and left his desk at every possible opportunity, leaving us with both the increased workload of doing his research and answering the phones for him.

    I eventually left the company and this was a big factor in my decision (sad because the rest of the team was fantastic), but I’m also wondering if I (or we) could have handled it better – by the end we were all so frustrated that any sort of calm dialogue was pretty much out of the question. Would love tips to motivate poor performers or work around them better without letting them mess up MY work as well!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There’s really no way to motivate someone like this, and it wouldn’t be a good use of your energy to try. I would have simply stopped giving him work and if that left everyone else with too much work, would have thrown the problem back at the higher level manager to handle, just like you would anytime there was too much work.

      But yeah, a manager who deliberately hires someone with a bad track record because they’re the son of someone important, who tolerates the behavior you’re describing, and who says the person won’t be fired no matter what they do (and lets everyone else pick up the slack) isn’t someone you want to work for. That was the real issue, not finding ways to motivate this guy.

  11. jill*

    In addition to speaking to her directly and potentially speaking with her manager, I also suggest that you do everything in your power to make your requests easy to respond to. I know this probably feels like you’re giving in to her bad behavior, and it’s not very satisfying, but I think this will make it more likely that you get what you need while you’re waiting for bigger changes in her performance.


    – Are you being clear and specific about what you need, why, and when? Are you being completely explicit about deadlines?

    – Are you sending requests to her with a reasonable turnaround time? Are you structuring your work so that you are able to anticipate what you’ll need from her before it’s totally urgent? Are you structuring your work so that it’s not dependent on her turning around a request in an hour?

    – Are you sending requests in accordance with her protocols/policies, or are you creating additional work by ignoring them? E.g., if she creates a monthly spending report that comes out on the first of the month, try to avoid asking for a spending report just for your division by the 27th of the previous month. (Obviously there are times when this just needs to happen, but the basic thesis: be aware of these recurring processes and use them to be more efficient)

    – Are you requesting information that you could quickly and easily access yourself? Is the info you need on a server somewhere or on a wiki?

    While, again, it is part of her job to be responsive and pleasant, I’ve found that it’s less crazy-making to approach people based on how they DO act, rather than based on how they SHOULD act.

    And not to excuse her conduct, but I think a special level of consideration is necessary for assistants. Yes, we are all busy, but unlike the rest of us, our assistants don’t have anyone supporting them (logistically–not personally, I hope!), don’t have anyone they can pawn off work to, don’t always get to see how their work matters to the bigger picture, and often have people completely and utterly disrespect their time–by making unnecessarily urgent asks (that could and should have been anticipated earlier), by disregarding the processes they already have in place, and by ignoring their own priorities and assuming they can just drop everything and help. This is something I experienced as an assistant (and a really good one, at that!), and now frequently experience with the assistant I manage. Again, yes, she should absolutely not act this way, and yes, we are all busy and have people disrespect our time. She might just be a bad apple, attitude-wise, but it might also be the case that she’s been treated pretty poorly for a long time and has little recourse to ask for better.

  12. Cassie*

    We have a few admin assistants in our office who support various groups – one was similar to the one described by the OP, albeit probably less moody but did always seem ultra-busy and pushed to the max. A simple expense report could take a month (even when all required information was present) because she was so busy. Or at least, she claimed she was that busy. At times, it was difficult to tell if she was really THAT overwhelmed or if she was the only one who complained.

    I have doubts, though, because the rest of the assistants frequently complain about not having any work to do. At the same time, they don’t really “own” their responsibilities/duties and do only “okay” work. That’s fine (if the bare minimum is the requirement, then the bare minimum is sufficient) but the contrast between the two is interesting.

    People do complain (from time to time) to the supervisor of the assistants but the supervisor does not do anything with these complaints. Not even by providing the feedback to the assistant. And the people who depend on the assistant are at a loss what to do – since they are not technically the assistant’s boss, they don’t feel that they can say anything.

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