managing an unmotivated staff, getting out of office lunches, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. My staff is unfocused and unmotivated — what can I do?

I’m a project manager for a team of engineers that builds websites, and I’m struggling with motivating my people. I consider myself a soft-skills and people-minded manager who is very aware of the common traps that “management” has often fallen into; micromanagement, constant status checks, false deadlines, abused authority, throwing people under the bus… etc. I strive never to do those things. I encourage my team to communicate, I ask them for favors when I need something done, I get constant feedback, etc.

However, my team often struggles with a lack of motivation and focus. The company’s deadlines and goals just don’t seem to resonate with them. They get distracted by other, less important tasks, and then I have to bear the brunt of the frustration from the rest of the company when engineering becomes the bottleneck. I am very clear when I communicate with them, but once I step away (which I feel strongly I *should* do), things just start slipping through the cracks.

How do I maintain these ideals of leadership and management that I firmly believe are worthwhile, while motivating my people and getting results?

These don’t sound like motivation problems; they sound like performance problems. You need to give feedback about what needs to change, and then hold people accountable to performing at the level you need.

It’s great that you want to be a kind, supportive manager, but a key part of your job is setting expectations and holding people accountable to them, and that sounds like the piece that might be missing here.

2. How can I get out of periodic office lunches for birthdays, etc.?

I’m in a bizarre office. My boss is incredibly micromanaging and goes so far as to follow us to the restroom (fortunately not inside for us ladies; the only other male in the office isn’t that lucky) and there’s an office tradition that we have to go out to lunch for Administrative Professionals’ Day and birthdays, about 4-5 times a year. I have problems eating with strangers that predate this job, and the tension doesn’t help.

I’ve read “how can I get out of having lunch with coworkers?” but feel that just sucking it up since it’s not frequent doesn’t apply here, and there’s little in the way of professional development in these interactions. In addition, my coworkers have to pay for their lunches and I personally know that when it’s their birthdays, I sometimes don’t have the price of a restaurant lunch in my budget. I’d love a way out of this (until I find another job-actively looking).

Well, 4-5 times a year is infrequent enough that you should probably suck it up and go most of the time. That said, you could feel out your coworkers to see if there’s support for changing this tradition to something else; it’s possible that you’re not the only one who doesn’t look forward to these lunches, and if you find that’s the case, you could propose skipping it at least for the birthdays. (Maybe suggest having cake in the office instead — that’s less disruptive to people’s days and doesn’t take the same time or financial commitment.)

3. Can I ask to shadow people to learn more about their jobs?

I’m 24 and don’t have much clue of where I want my career to go. I recently got a new job in insurance, but I’m not enjoying it much and don’t feel like this is the career for me.

Im going to start job hunting and researching other careers and thought as part of that I could approach companies and ask if I could go in for a chat about the work they do, sort of an informal interview, and maybe even ask if I could shadow for an hour or two. How likely do you think this will approved by workplaces, especially the shadowing? I’d quite like to get involved in schools or hospitals, and I would completely understand if they weren’t willing to have me around or for security reasons for example, but do you think is something most workplaces would be happy to provide?

You can absolutely reach out to people for informational interviews (just make sure that you do them right — read this and also #3 here), but shadowing is iffier. I’d wait until you’ve already formed a rapport with someone who seems helpful, and then ask … and only when you really think it’s going to be useful to you, because it’s a much bigger request and much bigger commitment from the other person. (Also, in many jobs, shadowing won’t tell you much. For lots of jobs, you’d just watch people sit at a computer all day.)

4. Is it pushy to ask when a company will post internship information?

A brand new company website is being organized, and under the internships tab it says, “Internship information will be posted soon.” Although it has been like that for a few weeks, would it be too pushy to send an email asking when the information will be posted?

No, that’s fine to do. But since what you really want to know is presumably whether they’re hiring for internships and details on what those internships will look like, I’d include that in your question. For instance: “I’d love to learn more about interning with your company. I noticed that your website says that intern info will be posted soon, but meanwhile, if you’re able to tell me anything about whether and when you’re hiring interns, and for what sort of roles, I’d be grateful.”

5. Formatting the date on my resume for a job that last a few months and then started up again

How would you recommend formatting the date for a temporary contract position at a company that lasted 6 months, and then started up again 3 months later? I am a recent grad, so this is the only work experience I have since graduating.

Like this:

Teapot maker, Teapot Emporium
May – Oct. 2013 and Jan. 2014 – present

{ 111 comments… read them below }

  1. CanadianWriter*

    #2 – Say you can’t afford it. Show them your empty wallet for dramatic effect. Cry.

    (Or say you have bloody vicious diarrhea, my father’s excuse for everything).

    1. Boo*

      Ha! Yeah, when my social anxiety was really bad, saying I was ill was my usual excuse to not go places (I had issues around eating in front of people too) and it was true, I WAS ill, just not in a socially acceptable way.

      I also like Alison’s idea of having cake in the office. That way you can pick at it, push it around your plate while you’re wishing your coworkers happy birthday, then disappear to eat it in peace or bin it as you prefer.

    2. Chinook*

      OP #2- are you an Administrator Assistant? If. You aren’t, be aware that turning down the lunch to honour your department’s AA could be taken as an insult to her. We could vet into a debate about the importance of the day, but if it is a tradition in the office that you decline when you have gone along with every other lunch, you could create unintended consequences.

      1. SL*

        It could be possible to do something else in recognition of the day that could be thoughtful and less expensive than lunch like bringing her flowers or a cupcake or something.

      2. Grace*

        OP#2 – Couldn’t you just go, have a beverage, and plead an allergic reaction to food as a way to have a win-win? (Several colleagues have religious beliefs that forbid them to eat foods
        that aren’t prepared according to their beliefs. They participate
        in events and drink a cup of coffee.)

        1. TL*

          Oh, gods, please don’t plead an allergic reaction if you don’t have one. There are enough people who don’t think food allergies are serious!

    3. Carpe Librarium*

      #2, consider starting the ball rolling towards a culture change by requesting that when it’s your birthday, you don’t want the fuss of lunch, so you’re happy to bring cake or candy to share. Others may follow your lead, particularly those who are also on a tight budget.
      Spending $5-ish a year for a packet cake mix or store bought cake, or a couple of bags of candy bars is a much more manageable budget item.
      This might not solve the problem of the Administrative Professionals’ Day, or even all of the birthdays, but it might reduce your office lunch outings to a more tolerable 1 or 2 a year.

      on another note, your boss follows staff to the *toilet*? WTF?! It’s times like these that I really wish the interrobang was an accepted punctuation mark…

    4. Jean*

      How about going out with the group, but just ordering one simple thing that you can manage to fidget with (and occasionally sip or take small bites from)? Coffee, ginger ale, whatever…if people ask you about it you can say something vague about having a lot of food allergies “but honestly, they are so boring! Tell me about your tennis team/kids/show dog etc.” (In other words, change the subject.) I’m hoping that having just one item in front of you will give you enough cover to distract anyone from paying any more attention to you. Also, just the one item will be easier in your wallet.

  2. Linda*

    #5 – I don’t do it that way. After a job loss, all i could get was on and off contract work with the same company. I list it as 2010-2013. I’ll never find a real job if i’m too upgront on a resume, give me a chance to explain HR Resume Reviewer. I call it truth by omission. I’m not lying. I contracted in 2010, 2011, 2012. Guess what, that is considered 2010-2013 in my book. If the employer doesn’t ask for how long each year I worked, then that’s called a bad interviewer.

    1. fposte*

      What you put on your resume is between Microsoft and your conscience, but no, somebody is not a bad interviewer for discussing your fit with the job rather than interrogating you to see what you meant by the dates you used.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Agreed. Interviewers give you the benefit of the doubt when you list dates of employment. They do not assume you are lying and I’m not sure why you think they should do so.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you list it as “2010-2013,” any normal interviewer is going to assume that you were employed there for at least part of 2010 and 2013 and all of 2011 and 2012. And any normal candidate would be taken aback (and probably a little put off) to be asked how long they worked there for the two years in between. So that’s not a bad interviewer.

      If it’s going to come out, it’s going to come out when they call that employer to verify employment dates, at which point it may or may not be a problem.

      1. Kinrowan*

        Unless you worked most of the year those years, or put in the description something about it not being full-time (Various contracting jobs for example), I think I would see this as misrepresenting your background if I found out about it after I hired you. It would totally impact the trust I would have in you. Hiring managers know about the bad economy, I have seen a ton of resumes from great people with similar experiences because there are so few jobs.

        1. Bea W*

          Absolutely, it doesn’t look odd to me when I see someone has listing contract or consulting work on their resume that that there are either gaps or frequent changes. That’s the nature of working as a contractor, and it has become common in my job function since the bottom fell out of the economy.

      2. Emma*

        What if you do something along the lines of Contract 2013-2014 or Seasonal 2013-2014?
        If you’ve had a lot of contract work during that time and its punctuated again and again it would take up lines of a resume and draw way more attention to contract work than i think would be ideal? Especially when you’ve had lots of solid work since?

        Wouldn’t this way still be honest without drawing unneeded attention, and then if the employer wants to know all the exact frames of time you could fill them in?

      3. KAZ2Y5*

        Hmm, have I been doing my resume wrong? I used to work for Company A which was subsequently bought out by Company B. Company B did not pick me at first, but did hire me on 3 months later. To save space, I have just put Company A/Company B as one job (it was 5 + yrs total, minus the 3 months) and give the job duties at each one. I think part of my reasoning was that Company A is totally gone now and there is no way to check anything from them (except my manager, who is totally awesome).

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If it’s 3 months out of 5 years, I don’t think that’s a big deal because it’s much more of a blip. If you were filling out a really detailed background check form, it would make sense to explain it, but for your resume, I think that’s fine. Anyone disagree?

          1. Ruffingit*

            No disagreement here, it makes no sense to parse out those three months when you’re talking about a tenure of 5 years. That is where I’d give the side-eye to an employer if they actually cared about having the timeline exact in a situation like this.

          2. Bea W*

            Makes sense to me. 3 months out of 5 years is a blip. It’s more when it’s something like 6 months out of a time that appears to be 2 years or multiple large gaps that add up where someone might be put off or feel the candidate is being dishonest.

    3. Elysian*

      I think that what you describe would be confusing and misleading unless you listed it separately. Otherwise I read it as “2010 through 2013.” What you’ve describe I would expect to see written more like “2010, 2011, 2012, 2013” in a non-continuous way.

      You could also do
      Teapots, Inc.
      Contractor for Special Caramel Projects, 2011-2013
      Design Specialist, 2010-2011

      I think doing a separate designation with some indicator that it wasn’t necessarily continuous work would make sense.

      But, since AAM’s takes up less space, and looks the least weird, it’s probably the best solution.

      If another person could misinterpret what you’re saying, it’s not their fault for not asking for clarification; it’s your fault for not being clear enough. Most people are happy to help each other when something is difficult to communicate, but you know this is misleading. Don’t blame someone else for relying on common grammatical conventions. Just be more clear (and forthcoming).

    4. OP*

      OP here. To clarify, would it be acceptable to write “my original start date” – “present”, omitting the 3 month gap on my resume, and on the application/background check and interview to specify that there was a 3 month gap?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        In your case, I’d do it the way I recommended in the post, because the overall amount of time with that employer is shorter and thus (as Bea W says below), the time away becomes more relevant.

    5. Bea W*

      It’s called “lying by omission”.

      When hiring managers and interviewers are looking at resumes and employment history, the default and normal perception of a date range is that a person has been continuously employed with that company between those two dates. There may be some rare exceptions in some industries or jobs such as seasonal work, but in most cases when someone writes “Teapot Maker, Teapot Emporium 2010-2013” it means they have been working contiuously as a Teapot Maker in that time unless otherwise stated.

      No interviewer would think to ask how many months each year a person worked. AAM describes why in her reply. I would be looking at my interviewers sideways if one ever asked me for how long out of each year I worked at a job I’d held for many years. That’s just bizarre.

      From the point of view of someone who has had to go through resumes and interview people, I would be really put off by someone who fudged their work history like this. The reason for that is because I am often looking for people with a minimum amount of experience with the work I need them to do. There is a big difference between the amount of experience someone is apt to have working in the role from Jun 2010- Dec 2013 vs someone who worked on and off during the same time. One person has 2 1/2 years, and the other could have a cumulative total of 1/2 that much and turn out to get on the job and really be not prepared to handle it due to the lack of real work experience or turn out to be as inconsistent as their work history that they misrepresented on their resume.

      One other thing to keep in mind, is that some employers will verify employment history, and when the verification paperwork comes back inconsistant with your resume, it could be problematic for you. I know I would be very hesitant to hire someone who was found to not have been entirely honest about their work experience in this way. I’m pretty sure my manager would immediately rescind the offer. It might not be a big deal if it’s a matter of one interruption of only a few months, but more than that, I would totally be turned off because I’d perceive the candidate was not honest and also was lacking the practical experience needed to succeed in the position.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        I recently saw an employer that wanted applicants to account for any gap in employment (presumably starting from when one started working full-time) longer than 3 months. They wanted a full explanation as part of the initial application on everybody’s favorite thing–the online application system. Really? anything longer than THREE MONTHS? Hell, it takes that long to fill out the damn form on the online application, let alone receive a job offer.

        1. Bea W*

          Who designs this stuff?!

          I have 1 year gap on my resume from Jan 1999-Feb 2000, back when I was workingon getting through school. When was applying for positions in 2011 someone actually asked me about this on a phone screen. I was actually mostly employed during that time, just at part time low wage jobs that had nothing to do with my field. No one had ever asked me about that ever. Who goes back more than 10 years and wonders what you were doing for that 1 year that is not accounted for in your resume. Really? It was easy to explain, but it was sure weird. Back when I was applying for jobs in hopes of starting my career in 2000, certainly I expected to be asked about gaps that occured all through the 90s as I was putting myself through school and had temp positions (not all even related) that lasted anywhere from 3 months to 2 years, but I 11 years later when it’s clear from the education section that I was still in school? It was weird!

          At this point in my career I can probably drop that last entry on my resume since it was a temp position that was only from Sep-Dec 1998 and I have more than enough relevant experience that it no longer matters.

    6. PostAc*

      Hmm, I do something similar listing my graduate assistantships on my resume, where I was technically not employed most summers, but don’t really make that clear. I guess I should clarify this? Note that this is for a non-academic resume. It’s also just occured to me that I should indicate that these were part time. Would people know to assume that “assistant instructor” and “teaching assistant” at a university would probably be part-time?

      Ack, I never know what to do with this bloody resume…

  3. Ann Furthermore*

    #1 – It sounds like you’re very committed to being a supportive manager who doesn’t hover and nag. Every boss should be like that! But perhaps you’re compensating too far in the other direction. By not wanting to micromanage, you’re not managing enough.

    I would recommend starting managing your employees more closely, but don’t go overboard. I don’t know if it will make sense, but I’m thinking of a spiral that gets smaller. Start moving in closer, step by step, until you find the level that works for everyone: close enough for you to keep things moving forward, but not so close that you’re micromanaging your people.

    So for example, maybe start by meeting with your staff each Monday to discuss what’s on the agenda for the week, and have each of them send you a status update on Friday afternoon. If that doesn’t work, maybe have meetings on Monday and add a Wednesday meeting to check in with everyone and see how things are going. Increase the level of supervision bit by bit until you strike a balance that works.

    1. Graciosa*

      I like the comment and the spiral analogy, but I would think about when it’s appropriate to spiral in the opposite direction. OP#1, you’re starting with the assumption that your team members are high performers who will work well with minimal management while seeing signs that this is not the case.

      Sometimes (not always – this requires judgment) you need to start with a little more supervision until the employee demonstrates the right level of performance for you to step back.

      This will also vary by individual, so don’t be trapped into thinking you have to have the “same” rules for everyone in order to be “fair.” Joe and Susy turn in error-free reports, so they don’t have to turn them in one day early for my review. Mark, Betty, and Chris don’t have that privilege because I’m still seeing errors – but they could earn it with improved performance.

      It’s not only fair to treat them differently, it’s pretty much a job requirement for managers, so keep that in mind.

      1. straws*

        +1 to both of you. I love the spiral analogy as well, and it’s so true that it needs to apply to the individual. I find that a lot of people equate “fair treatment” with “exactly the same treatment”, and that just isn’t realistic. As an employee, being further out on the spiral requires earning your spot, and as a manager, you have to know where each spot is, how it’s earned, when to move it, and be willing to do so.

      2. Rebecca*

        This, 1000 times…don’t be trapped into thinking you have to have the “same” rules for everyone in order to be “fair.”

        I wish I could put this on my manager’s chair. We have endless, time wasting meetings because 1 or 2 people don’t do something the way they’re supposed to do it, but my silly manager doesn’t want to single anyone out or make them feel bad, so she makes us all sit through the same things over and over and over again.

        She walks from office to office, reminding everyone to do something, when again, it’s 1 or 2 people who can’t seem to get it.

        It’s just maddening.

        1. Lily*

          LOL! At some point, I realized that the rules I had put into place were no longer necessary with the people I was managing, because they had either shaped up or shipped out. At the beginning *I* needed the rules because I so desperately wanted to behave fairly (which is reasonable) and be perceived to behave fairly (which is not achievable!)

        2. Lily*

          :( I remember asking both Anne and Barbara to doublecheck their work in order to be “fair” because Anne was always complaining about how unfair I was, even though Barbara performed well and Anne couldn’t finish her work.

          Did anyone else finish up the work of subordinates as a new manager? Was it possible to get them to finish off their own work once you realized what you were doing?

          1. manager anonymous*

            yes, and thats when documenting becomes so important.
            assignment- reasonable deadlines, reasonably chunked for underperforming subordinate. part a by Friday, part b by next wednesday, draft project by Monday following ( with 3 day window for revision following)
            communication – in writing- I expect part A tomorrow by end of day.
            Document success or failure
            Feedback in writing about success or failure to meet deadline and accuracy of work.
            Document everything that you finished yourself.
            Feedback in writing that incomplete work is not acceptable.
            (assuming that you already had face to face conversations and there was no improvement)
            If no improvement, meet with HR to create an action plan to support success of employee in their role.

        3. Lindsay the Temp*

          THIS!!! We have this one person in our department who insists on tattling to our manager things that “other people” are doing, and then it gets addressed over and over again in our weekly meetings. In reality, it’s the tattle-tale that is the issue, and we can’t bring it up in weekly meetings because then it’s reframed as a department wide issue instead of being aimed at the individual it applies to…and if it’s not being directly applied to that person, and she’s the one tattling about her own behavior, she’s certainly not going to think that this “department wide issue” applies to her!

      3. Bea W*

        I love this analogy too, and it allows for continuous adjustments in their direction. Not everyone works well under the same conditions. Some people are highly independent workers with a lot of self-motivation and discapline, and others work better under more supervision and having some external force that helps keep them on task. It may be your engineers are prone to getting off track just due to the nature of what they do. Those “less important” tasks are probably the more interesting ones to them, and it’s easy to get distracted by all those little more interesting things that pop up. This is where your management becomes a useful tool, because holding them accountable to deadlines and helping them prioritize work will help them re-focus and get back on the priority tasks.

        My manager is excellent at this. She’s mostly hands off, but steps in to get status updates and ask us at we are working on and how we have prioritized our work and then give feedback to either confirm we are on the right track or tell us Y has to be delivered in a week and is more important than X, Z is not urgent so don’t think about it until you have finished Y and X. I find her asking for status updates helps me keep track of where I am at, so it hardly feels like being managed at all.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      These are some really great points here. It made me start thinking that perhaps OP has one or two people that just cannot hit a deadline BUT since nothing happens to them everyone has jumped on the bandwagon.

      OP, sift through this carefully. You may have a culture or a group think that is causing this but the trigger point is the actions of one or two people. You’ll find out pretty quick. When you announce that deadlines are important and need to be observed some of your folks will instantly conform. The ones that don’t might be the ones that have set the tone for this whole behavior.
      Notice I am saying “might be”, this is something that becomes apparent only over a period of time.
      I have moved groups from A to B and there seems to be early adapters- those folks who are actually relieved that the boss is taking the bull by the horns and dealing with a matter. These early adapters might be useful in seeding the changes in others. To those early adapters I offered encouragement- “hey, thanks for getting that in promptly, you made our department look good to others.” Like you are saying I did not want to be an idiot boss, so I looked around for opportunities to say positive things as the changes started happening.
      Under the heading of taking with one hand and giving with the other: be on the look out for stuff that is preventing them from hitting their goals. Make sure they have what they need to get the job done. A statement of the obvious,sorry, BUT they will notice your seriousness about the work and that will help you accomplish your goal with them.

  4. Canadamber*

    Re: shadowing, I’m 17 and am considering finding a mechanic and asking if I can shadow them for a little while – is that too weird? (I posted in the open thread earlier but yeah.) I do have a pretty decent interest in cars but never had a chance to take auto shop in high school, and while my dad and I work on our cars sometimes I want to see if that’s an option for me, you know?

    1. A Not So Creative Name*

      First of all, a tip of the hat to you. Not many 17 year olds put that much thought and planning into their future. If anything, my biggest regret might have been that I didn’t gain enough insight into what I wanted to do and take the necessary steps to get there when I was younger.

      I could be wrong, but I think it might be easier for you to find someone who is willing to let you shadow them in the auto mechanic field, since many of them are family owned businesses and therefore have more flexibility. It would also be a lot more beneficial to you to than to shadow someone in an office since mechanics require manual, hands on work. (I once shadowed someone who was the Director of Strategic Planning at a large organization. While it was a high profile position at an eminent organization, I didn’t take a lot from the experience since my day was spent watching her take conference calls, researching, and sit at the computer.)

      That being said, it might be a little trickier to get a mechanic to let you shadow them because you likely will not be insured. Many workers are insured against workplace accidents, liability, etc., and having someone around who is not insured will be a huge liability on their part.

      None the less, I think it’ll be a great idea and opportunity for you to reach out to people and see if they’d be willing to take you on. Best of luck!

      1. Chinook*

        Around here, auto mechanic is a skilled trade, which means their is an apprenticeship stream available for training (though it isn’t required by all employers). Car dealerships often have apprentices on staff, which mean they have insurance to cover them. It is worth checking with the service manager at a local dealership to see if you can job shadow there.

    2. Stephanie*

      See if there’s a Society of Automotive Engineers chapter in your area. They should be able to point you in the right direction.

  5. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

    1. My staff is unfocused and unmotivated — what can I do?

    I have some tough love for you here. It comes from the context of my having sucked at management for a really long time, many, many years, until I finally figured out how to do this thing. I have all the sympathy in the world for you, and now I’ll say the hard things.

    First of all, if your staff as a whole isn’t performing, you’re the problem. Glenda, Max & Fred have to own their individual issues, but the group, that’s on you alone and you have to own that.

    Now about your ideals. I share them. Here’s the thing: your ideals only work when your staff is not dysfunctional. You have to fix your staff/work group/environment/processes first before you can lean out and let the individual butterflies fly. If you want to not be bad at your job, you need to be willing to do things that make you emotionally uncomfortable because those are the things that will fix the work group.

    1) Standards, make them. One of my signature sayings is “this [work/time turnaround] is not up to our standards”. Maybe it makes people guffaw or scratch themselves while wondering when we actually got standards, but the right people latch onto the idea of having standards and like having standards and taking pride in their work and elevate themselves to meet them.

    2) Micromanagement is not a dirty word. Some of my best results come from modeling how things should be done and then giving people the freedom to improve on my methods, not degrade them. Systems, accountability, whatever it takes to fix the work group function first, all with an eye toward letting go when things are set right (but not before).

    3) Be willing to fire people. Be willing to fire them all. Hopefully you don’t have to fire anyone, but be willing to. That willingness to do the hardest, most odious, most feared thing a manager ever has to do changes you for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that in doing 1) and 2) you are helping people keep their jobs. Which! Is in line with your ideals, isn’t it? ;)

    HTH, best!

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*


      What you do specifically falls under my umbrella, engineers that build websites and here’s something I’ve found helpful.

      Manage scope creep.

      Internal and external customers are brutal on web development teams because they expect a project to be done in four weeks, reasonable on the outset, and then creep the scope, change the specs, make significant changes at the 11th hour and still expect the same deadline to be made. Which, is not physically possible.

      This is very demotivating to web developers and can create an atmosphere where no deadline is ever taken seriously because what does it matter, the customer is just going to change things anyway.

      Part of fixing things on your team might start external to your team. Accept a project, scope it, commit to four week turnaround and keep to that commitment. 11th hour changes, estimate the amount of time of extra time (which nobody ever wants to hear), explain about the time space continuum, and keep to the new commitment.

      Engineers dig being advocated for. Builds loyalty.

      1. straws*

        This is all great advice. I struggle with the same desires as the OP. Although I’m still learning, I try to stick to a lot of what Wakeen outlined above. A couple of things that help keep me on track are:
        1) I also have a job to do and as much as I need to facilitate my employees’ work, I also have to facilitate my own. In some ways, I treat myself as my own employee and make sure to give myself the same respect and structure that I give others.
        2) I remember that employees who deserve respect, flexibility, autonomy, etc, will return it and earn it. Management is a 2 way street. I can’t manage without my employees, and they can’t properly focus on their work without a (good) manager. If someone is expecting/demanding the world, but not returning it (or at least performing at an appropriate level), then that needs to be fixed before I can give them the “perk” of my ideal management structure.

      2. CAA*

        Everything Wakeen said. Plus two ideas that really helped me in a similar situation. (Borrowed from Agile/Kan-Ban processes.)

        1) Use Trello. It’s free and anyone can learn it in 5 minutes. The team rule is “if it’s not on Trello, don’t do it”. Even if you have another task assignment / work management system, having a single to-do list for a project and making sure everyone is working from it, including your Account Mgr and Project Mgr, really makes life better. When there are lots of small tasks, as there always are in web site development, you can put each one on your To-Do list and let the AM and PM drag them up and down to prioritize to their hearts’ content. Devs drag the finished items over to the Done list and everyone can see at a glance what’s left.

        2) Hold a 15-minute stand-up meeting every day for every project with the Devs and the Account and Project managers. Go around the room and ask everyone what they’re going to get done by the next day’s meeting and what’s blocking them. It’s the job of the PM or AM to remove the blocks. It’s the job of the Devs to finish what they commit to.

        What this does for you is give the developers ownership. You’re not telling them what to do and what the deadline is, they’re making a commitment to finish a specific piece of work by a specific time. It also gives the AM and PM insight into the impact of their actions on the developers and improves relationships all around.

        You attend the daily meetings for each project and you then see who is repeatedly not meeting his commitments, who’s committing to less work than he should, who’s working off-task, etc. and you have specifics for a performance discussion.

      3. Bea W*

        We also encounter this issue in my field, particulary for people in my role working for CROs (contract research organization). Sometimes that “creep” can be more like “flash flood”. Having a manager that advocates for her group and is willing to be firm with requests for changes in scope is the biggest asset someone doing study build or changes can have. I can tell you it was non-existant at my last workplace, and it was extremely demoralizing and stressful. Us grunts don’t have the authority to push back on creep beyond saying “I need to take this to my team/manager”. If the manager doesn’t support the build team and fails to have or communicate realistic expectations back to the client, it’s a world of misery for everyone. That includes the client, because they get promised things that just aren’t going to happen except by magical intervention.

      4. Judy*

        On the same lines as manage scope creep, are you sure that “all work” is coming to them through you? One person should be a point of contact for the team. If you’re assigning the projects, but then someone else is coming to them asking them to do another project, priorities can be unclear.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          This is huge. There could be add ons coming in that you have no knowledge of. Make sure that all changes come to you. Give them the power to push back, “Yep, I can do that for you but you must talk to the boss first.”

          1. Bea W*

            This happens all the time in my work. People like to try to slip in extra requests by speaking directly to the person doing the work. Train your team so that, “Yep, I can do that for you but you must talk to the boss first.” becomes a second nature response.

            Not only does it keep the workload in from spiraling out of control, but clients really hate getting surprise change orders when the billable hours go over what was originally estimated and agreed too. Often the boss is the one who can confirm if the request falls within budget, and go back to the client when it doesn’t.

    2. Ruffingit*

      Be willing to fire people. Be willing to fire them all.

      This. Wakeen gave some awesome advice, which you should absolutely follow, but I also want to add this: Sometimes people do/don’t do things simply because they can. Your team is allowed to be lazy with no real repercussions attached. If you’ve got people with slacker mentalities or procrastination tendencies, having no consequences for that behavior is a recipe for disaster. You will have those people thinking “If I don’t meet that deadline, it’s no big thing, not like my job is on the line or anything…”

      If the job is in fact on the line and you show that you are serious about that by firing a person who doesn’t meet the new standards, etc. then you will find yourself with a whole different environment. The slackers/procrastinators will shape up or ship (or be shipped) out. There have to be consequences to things otherwise some people just won’t take it seriously.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Right on. OP, you pretty much have to have this attitude because if the deadlines are constantly being missed this costs the company money. If the company loses too much money then everyone’s job is in danger. I have found it helpful to frame it as “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. Over time a few slackers could (in theory at any rate) cost people their jobs. The number one task of a boss is to keep everyone working and keep the company viable.

        1. anonymous*

          Also, if any of your team members are truly in danger of losing their jobs due to their performance, make sure they’re made aware of it in plain and concise language. Don’t imply, hint or infer. Be straightforward.

          I had a job once where I had some what I thought were minor performance issues but it turns out they were more serious than I had anticipated. I had been made aware of them and was taking steps to improve. I had a check in meeting with my supervisor and I was let go due to the performance issues. Being let go was definitely a surprise, but the reason why was not. I had never been given any verbal or written warning that my job was in jeopardy. It had been implied but never actually stated. My supervisor was much younger than myself and was inexperienced. I was the first person she managed and she handled things in a rather murky way.

          1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

            I’m sorry that happened to you.

            Yep. Being willing to fire people doesn’t start in the 24 hours before you know you have to do it, with the final courage being rounded up 20 minutes prior to meeting. Being willing to fire people is part of helping them save their jobs.

            she handled things in a rather murky way.

            I have so been that person and sorry again.

    3. Susan*

      One thing to point out with point #3 – the OP says he is the project manager. PM doesn’t get to fire people.

  6. The Shadow*

    I’m speaking from a UK perspective, but it’s very common as a teacher here to get requests from prospective teachers to come in and shadow in schools. An “informational interview” wouldn’t be nearly as useful (to you) or as likely to be granted (by me, because it’s not generally how it’s done and it’s actually a bigger commitment of time/effort from me). I have such people come in at least a couple of tines a year to shadow my department, and will talk to them after that to debrief and answer questions etc. It’s normal and expected that people interested in teaching will want to do this here.

    I don’t know how teachers in the US would deal with this, but in all the schools I’ve worked in this would be a perfectly normal request. Whereas a request for an “informational interview” would be somewhat weird.

    1. Alex*

      Ah ok, thank you. So do you think it’s dependent on the type of field?
      I’m UK too, so maybe offering whoever I’m contacting the option of whichever would be more beneficial to them/what they would be willing to do?
      I want to make sure I’m flexible around their work schedule and time rather than mine

      1. The Shadow*

        I definitely think it’s field-dependent. I’d contact the relevant people (head of department at secondary, head teacher probably if primary) at a few local schools and ask if you could come in to observe some lessons. The staff will then be able to coordinate suitable times and dates etc. If it’s secondary teaching,the summer term is often great for this as the senior students are on exam leave and staff have a bit more flexibility and time available.

        Do be aware though that some staff and schools are not great about replying to such requests. They may get a lot of them, and they may not always be able to help. But it’s certainly not unusual to receive such requests, and no one will look at it as weird. Also if you do want to apply for teacher training, it’s pretty much expected that you will have done this.

        Good luck!

      2. AcademicAnon*

        I work in research at a university, and we’ve had high school students come in and observe what we’re doing. It’s not quite the same as shadowing, as it’s more like giving a presentation about what we do to someone not in the field versus working and answering questions while someone watches us work.

    2. JustKatie*

      I taught in the US, and it’s very common (and required, at least in my state) for those still earning their degree to spend a certain number of hours observing before student teaching. When I taught, I allowed many different people to observe, although the front office dealt with the legalities and logistics of the visit. Any teacher here would be used to this request, just be prepared to have a background check.

  7. Alex*

    #3 OP here – Thank you so much for answering my question! I read all the links I could find on how to go about asking for informational interviews and how it is definitely NOT a job interview!

    I know that I might get rejected by some for a face to face interview but even a phone call or email would be just as useful if not.

    If anyone has any more advice on they would or wouldn’t do, please let me know

    1. OriginalYup*

      I see above that you’re in the UK. I don’t know whether this advice will is valid outside the US, but schools and hospitals in the US often have regular volunteer programs available. My thought would be to identify two or three schools and hospitals where you have a contact or are particularly interested, and see whether you can volunteer with them for a few hours per month over a few months. While the work itself may not be interesting at first (volunteers are usually started with repetitive low-risk tasks to see whether they’re reliable), this can be a great way to get a sense of who does what, how things are structured, and the type of work available in different units.

  8. Lily*


    I’d like to address missing deadlines, as that was a big problem for me, too. I’d like to recommend breaking down the big task into smaller tasks and attaching a deadline to each smaller task. First, I would ask people to break down the tasks themselves and propose deadlines. This will solve the problem for some people.

    This will expose problems for other people. If people are missing deadlines on the smaller tasks, then ask them why. If they cannot explain, then ask them to describe what they did and then ask them why the deadlines were missed. They should be able to come up with possible solutions. Hopefully, this is enough for some more people.

    If they can’t think of any possible solutions, then you suggest some. If someone is uncooperative enough to reject your solutions at this point, tell them they have to try your ideas until they come up with a better idea. Make it clear that they have to turn around their poor performance in order to keep their job. You are “micro-managing” to help them!

  9. Kinrowan*

    #1 – I so feel for you! This was me when I started managing. But like Alison and Wakeen said, this style works if everyone is super motivated and into their job as you are and the reality is a lot of people are not for various reasons. But what surprised me the most when I started to be more direct and involved (which I saw erroneously as micromanaging) is that in fact the staff liked having me be more involved, after some initial resistance.

    The other thing that Wakeen mentioned resonated with me: standards. I had in my naivete assumed that the staff and I shared the same standards, but that was not the case. Once I started to share and be explicit about what my standards were, and hold people accountable for them, I actually got more respect as a manager. It gives them something tangible to work towards, it gives them the satisfaction of a job well done, and that their contribution is valued and that we are all working together toward something.

    I have a better relationship with them because I am not stewing about why they are not on top of their job and they feel visible and valuable in their job. They took my earlier lesser involvement as non-interest in their job. It’s also made addressing performance and even job-related problems (we can’t get something in time for example) much easier because people know where they stand with me.

    Good luck!

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*


      If stewing was an olympic sport, I would have been the global gold medal winner.

      All of the time I wasted stewing about people not doing their jobs well that I could have put to use learning how to do my job well. It was a bit of insanity.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But what surprised me the most when I started to be more direct and involved (which I saw erroneously as micromanaging) is that in fact the staff liked having me be more involved, after some initial resistance.

      This is such a common fear of managers (being perceived as a micromanager), but it’s really not micromanaging to be engaged with the work, as you found. I know I already posted a link to an outside thing I (co-)wrote below, but here’s another that I thought might be useful here — it’s something I put out with The Management Center last month about how to be hands-on without micromanaging:

  10. EAA*

    #1 – I wonder how clear you are on your expectations. You stated that “I ask them for favors when I need something done”. Are you telling them what they need to do or asking them? If what you are saying sound more like suggestions and not requirements they are less likely to take it seriously. Also a favor is something you do once it’s not usually an ongoing requirement.

    1. LeighTX*

      This is what stood out to me as well. Rather than asking for favors, I would advise doing what other posters mentioned above and setting out clear tasks and deadlines for each person and make it clear that these are *assignments*, not favors.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Agreed. I thought that was bizarre wording. No manager should be asking her staff for a favor unless it’s something like helping to change a car tire if for some reason she’s having trouble with that. That would be an example of something that is a rare thing unrelated to the job. However, when you’re talking about tasks at work, those are not favors, they’re DUTIES. They are part of the job. Very different concept.

    2. Bea W*

      Asking for a “favor” also implies it’s not necessary but something that is done out of courtesy when the other person has the time and inclination. It fails to convey high priority and that the task is part of one’s regular job.

      I had a manager who unfortunately made this mistake often. She would ask for something important but use words like “It would be nice if…” or “You should think about doing…” and “in case someone asks in the future.” When the reality of the situation was that someone was breathing down her neck waiting for something to get done. I had a heavy workload with multiple high priority tasks with deadlines. Therefore, all “It would be nice…” and “You should think about…” requests were automatically put at the bottom of my priority pile.

      Unfortunately no amount of explaining and communicating this with my manager (and HR!) changed that situation. I had to move on before I either went insane or got placed on a PIP for chronically failing to sort out which “It would be nice” requests were actually “do this now or else” and which ones were “It would be nice.”

      1. TL*

        Ug, my current supervisor is kinda like that. He’ll say, “Oh, we need that out in [broad time frame]” and what he really means is “I need it by Wednesday.”
        He’ll give one to me when I ask; it just takes some pushing.

    3. Liz T*

      Also, when I had a manager who communicated this way, I found it really condescending–it was like she thought she had to wheedle us into doing our jobs.

  11. LeeD*

    #4 – I have to disagree with the advice here. If I got an email like the one proposed above, I’d probably send as a reply, “This information will be posted on the website soon. Please check back.”

    It’s likely that the information hasn’t been posted on the website yet because the details haven’t been finalized. Having someone email me to request those details would be annoying, and would also convey that the person can’t grasp the underlying message of “we don’t know yet”.

    You would be better off going with your original question and ask when the information might become available. People often know what’s holding up the final decision (e.g., waiting for the budget, a key person is on leave) and can guess on a timeline based on that, even if they can’t tell you what the final decision will be.

    1. Bea W*

      The person or dept responsible for arranging internships often has no control over and nothing to do with updates to the website. These are separate functions. What happens is that the information has to be sent to the person or department who updates the website. They could have that information, and not have posted it. In a decent size company these two departments may be completely removed from each other.

      With that in mind, I’d just recommend emailing the internship contact simply asking about oppurtunities in X time frame, and not bother mentioning the “coming soon” on the website. That “Coming soon” may be there for an undetermined length of time.

    2. LBK*

      But you might be able to at least tell the person if you’re thinking it will be 2 weeks or 2 years. Maybe not a specific date, but you’d presumably have some kind of more useful information to give unless the timeline is truly indeterminate, which would be weird for something like a job opening because obviously someone has to start doing the work eventually.

  12. EJ*

    #2 – I can’t believe I’m the first person asking this, but OP, can we get a little more information about your boss following staff into the bathroom as part of a management style?

    I feel like there might be more to this environment, that could add to more helpful answer.

    1. Arbynka*

      I want to ask as well. Boss following his employees to the rest room seems bizzare. And he follows the man all the way in ? Why, on earth, why ? So he can check if he is really going and not just slacking off ? Very weird.

      1. CanadianWriter*

        I had a boss like that once. She thought that the only reason people went to the bathroom was to play on their phones, so she would follow everyone in and peek through the crack in the stalls.

        1. Arbynka*

          Your boss not just followed people to restroom but actually peeked into the stall to see if people are doing their “business”? OMG. I would be afraid of what my reaction would be if I was sitting on a toilet and saw my boss peaking through the crack…

          1. Ruffingit*

            Anyone else think something is wrong with this? I don’t care if you are the president, I’m drawing the line at conducting business in the bathroom. The business that isn’t normally conducted there anyway :)

          2. QualityControlFreak*

            Ew, ew, ew, ew, eeeeeewwww!!! Possibly he just really liked having the power to creep people out? I worked for the military for a lot of years, and we didn’t conduct business in the head. Just … no. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!

          3. Not So NewReader*

            Get to a doctor. Find out why the process is taking so long. A healthy body does not need to be in the bathroom for that long. I see so many people that keep books and magazines in the bathroom. Yikes. I read a while ago that reading while “taking care of business” can cause or worsen hemorrhoids.
            Family members could spend up to an hour in the bathroom and LAUGH about it. No, no, no. This is a medical problem.

        2. Laura*

          That is really creepy…I would be very uncomfortable with a boss who tried to look at me with my pants down.

          If I was that OP my main question would be “My boss follows us to the bathroom. This is creepy. How do I make it stop?”

        3. Judy*

          I had a manager (not mine) who was wanting to “borrow” me for 2 weeks of heavy overtime in her project, follow me into the ladies room. I had refused 20 hours of overtime over 2 weeks. She proceeded to question me on why I wouldn’t be able to put in 60 hour weeks on her project in the next two weeks, when I had already explained to my manager the first week my evening plans were preparing for vacation, and the second was a week of vacation, that my manager had approved 3 months previous.

        4. Stephanie*

          Er? Why does it matter if they’re playing with their phones? As long as it’s not 30 minutes of Candy Crush, I don’t get the issue.

    2. littlemoose*

      Yes! That was such a red flag to me. Very, very weird behavior. Could have merited its own question really (on WTF Wednesday, of course).

    3. Ruffingit*

      I asked the same thing below, I should have read through the comments first. Sorry about that. I would really love for Alison to address this because WAHHHHHHHH?? It’s just so weird.

    4. UK Anon*

      As the names says, I don’t know about your laws, but surely there is an element of sexual harassment to this? If my male boss was following me to the bathroom every time, I would be very, very worried about his motivations…

  13. Ruffingit*

    #2 – Boss follows you to the restroom??? WHAT THE HELL/F**K??? Something is very, very wrong with that man. VERY WRONG. How does he have the time to do this and why does he want to? Is he timing you or what? That is just so bizarre to me. And I really feel for the man who gets followed INTO the restroom. If I were him, I’d probably start using a restroom down the street at a local gas station or something, but then the boss would probably follow him there too. UGH.

  14. Ruffingit*


    Could there be any issue with harassment or something along those lines if a boss is following people into the bathroom? I don’t think this rises to the level of hostile work environment, but I do wonder about possible sexual harassment lawsuits or something of that nature since this boss is following his subordinate into the bathroom itself. I suppose it might depend on what the boss is doing while he’s there as in is he watching the subordinate through the cracks in the door, etc.

    Thinking out loud here, but I truly do wonder about possible implications legally of this behavior.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If he’s just standing outside the stall talking (as opposed to, I don’t know, forcing his way in), I don’t see a sexual harassment issue. Just an annoying boss issue.

      1. Ruffingit*

        That was my thought as well, but I am wondering about the issue someone spoke of above about a boss who would look through the cracks in the stall door to make sure the employees weren’t using their phones. I’m thinking that could be more of an issue harassment wise, but I don’t know. Just so bizarre regardless.

        1. Mallory*

          a boss who would look through the cracks in the stall door

          1. **pepper spray directly to the peeping eyeball**
          2. . . . “Oh! Boss — I didn’t realize that was you! I just saw someone looking into the restroom stall at me while I was trying to do my business.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          I am getting creeped out too, Ruffingit. I have read in advice columns about bathroom fetishes and I feel that anything could be going on with this boss. There is just no way to know. And just because he only follows the men into the bathroom that does not mean there are no fetishes going on there.

          I think what sways me here is that years ago there was a big discussion about shoe salesmen and foot fetishes. The customer thinks that the salesman is helping to put the shoe on their foot and noooo, that is not what is happening. The salesman is having waaaay to much fun and the customer is not aware, nor consenting to the activity.

          I don’t want to encourage paranoia but if something feels creepy don’t ignore that feeling, either. Use the middle ground approach of eyes wide open and watching for other clues.

          1. Liz T*

            Well, the customer IS consenting to the activity. The salesperson’s allowed to feel however he or she wants about it, I don’t think that alone makes it a different activity.

        3. Judy*

          I always wondered, in one place that I worked, ONE of the ladies rooms had extra, added after the fact aluminum riveted “guards” that meant you couldn’t see through the cracks in the stalls. None of the other ladies rooms in that building had them. The men’s room right by it didn’t, I asked someone because I found it so bizarre.

          That story had to be good.

    2. Beti*

      ” I don’t think this rises to the level of hostile work environment”

      I’m pretty sure my manager would find _herself_ in a hostile work environment pretty quickly if she followed me into the bathroom and looked through the cracks.

    3. Anon5*

      I had a former (male) coworker that would do this to other (male only) coworkers. The inquisitor would descend on our building every day and proceed to ask people questions until he asked one that would stump them. He wouldn’t care if you got the first 50 questions right, if you didn’t know question 51 then he had caught you being ignorant about your job (and wasn’t it a good thing he had found this out… according to him). He would tell the poor person they needed to have the answer for him by tomorrow. He would then move on to the next victim and work his way through the whole lab (over a dozen people) . He wasn’t in charge of anyone, just slightly above us on the organizational chart.

      The females started going to the bathroom for extended periods of time when he showed up. Being a lab, the bathroom was more of a locker room than a standard bathroom, so there were places to sit without being creepy towards anyone using the facilities, but everyone in the lab knew why almost all the females were in there at once. The males tried doing this but he would follow them into the bathroom and continue on with his barrage of questions, no matter what they were doing in the bathroom. So the males would get on their desk phones, call each other and pretend to be having work-related conversations and explain that they couldn’t get off the phone at this moment. Management at this place was the definition of dysfunctional and toothless so they didn’t care that this daily disruption was happening.

      We could never figure out what he actually did for the company besides annoy everyone below him on the organizational chart. Then a few months after I left (for other reasons) he was arrested by a government agency for something rather large. Then it clicked. He spent all day looking busy and being so annoying to ensure everyone left him alone to commit his crimes in peace. He ended up pleading guilty, got a prison sentence of over a year and had to pay restitution.

      So it may not be something sordid to do with bathrooms, they may be acting out to hide something they’re doing. They also could just be a power-tripping jerk.

  15. MJ*

    #1 Two suggestions:

    —Read Susan Scott’s “Fierce Conversations” – it’s a great book that will help you address performance issues.

    —I think motivation IS part of your problem. Employees need to feel connected to the mission of the company. There is a great story from the Disney company which had a demotivated janitorial crew at one of its parks – when they stopped talking to the crew about tasks not done well and started talking to them about their goal of creating an exceptional customer experience, performance improved. People need to feel like what they are doing is important, otherwise they are just earning a paycheck, and some will do whatever is minimally required to do so. Others may be more self-motivated, but they may eventually seek employment that is more meaningful.

  16. JP*

    OP #1 here. I didn’t see this until just now because I used my work e-mail and I try to make a habit of not checking it over the weekend. Mistake!

    Thank you SO MUCH for all the suggestions. Just having a cacophony of advice to think about is beyond helpful.

    Some clarification:

    I’m actually fairly new at this company, only about a month. Prior to me there was no manager at all for the engineers/web developers. They identified a lack of priority, a filter for tasks, and help communicating as their reasons for hiring a project manager, which was me. I think part of the reason I’m struggling is because I’m new, and still working to establish a basic relationship/rapport with people.

    Now that I’m there I’ve instituted a few different things to help us all be on the same page and communicate better. We do daily stand-ups (5-10 minutes for a team of 8, very terse and agile). I have a 5-10 minute weekly check-in with each engineer on Mondays to recap the previous week, frame their upcoming week, make sure they’re comfortable and happy, and bring up anything urgent or on fire.

    I think I agree with you all that maybe I’m being too distance and nice. I come from a history of terrible managers, who never really treated me (us) like a human being or considered that we were smart enough to do our jobs. I’m very afraid of stepping over lines and building up resentment, a) because that would make me feel bad, and b) because I think it’s demotivating and salts the earth in the long term.

    I like the analogy of spiraling in, and I think I’m going to take steps to draw firmer lines and clearer expectations with people.

  17. SallyForth*

    #1 If it’s only 4-5 times a year, schedule vacation time that just happens to include that day. I know it’s the passive way out, but it will be much easier than explaining to people.

Comments are closed.