what to do when your manager won’t manage

A reader writes:

I work in an academic institution, and I love what I do for a living. It’s a calling, I spent a lot of time in graduate school preparing for it, and some days, I couldn’t be happier.

Those are the days when my boss and most of the other people who “work” with me are not here.

There are more personnel problems than I can reasonably describe, but I’ll give you the top 4:

1) My boss allows an unqualified volunteer to perform a skilled, essential function that he is profoundly unfit to perform. He argues with us when we assign him tasks, he comes in earlier and stays later than allowed, wanders the building bothering people, and generally behaves like an unsupervised child. I have repeatedly approached my boss about all of the above issues, and while he agrees with me, he will not discipline or replace this person.

2) Another volunteer is incredibly rude to me and has made sexist, racist, and all-around inappropriate statements to me, my boss, and coworkers. I have documented such statements, and have had four meetings will my boss about this person. My boss agreed with me that this person should be terminated but hasn’t done it.

3) A member of the paraprofessional staff does no work and is so horrible that she actually drove away her gifted and qualified supervisor. She refuses to learn simple tasks and complains about problems but refuses to do anything to solve them, even when given tools and support. She’s worked here over 20 years.

4) The boss will not deal with any of this. It’s almost like these people have something incriminating on him, the way he lets them get away with murder.

I love the work I do, and the one employee I supervise. But I feel trapped. I can’t absorb Problem #1’s duties, since we’re already so understaffed. I feel I’ve done everything right with Problem #2, but to no avail. I wait anxiously for Problem #3 to retire. I pray Problem #4 wins the lottery and retires in Tahiti.

What can I do?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them). This is one of my old favorites.

{ 77 comments… read them below }

  1. videogame Princess*

    If it’s a public school, I wonder if there are union rules that are impacting his ability to take action. That’s not to say that unions don’t ever work, and I think that sometimes they can be successful, but this one might be hurting, rather than helping the situation.

    1. videogame Princess*

      Oh, I see–not a public school. Reading the comments from the last repost I can see that it is something a little different.

    2. Mike C.*

      If there’s a union, there’s a process for firing people. If the manager is too lazy to fill out a few forms or properly document bad behavior to fire someone for cause, that’s not on the union, that’s still on the manager.

    3. sam*

      It may have nothing to do with unions. I worked for an employer a number of years back where we were at-will employees, but because the company had instituted across-the-board hiring freezes, employers were afraid to fire or let anyone go, because getting clearance to re-fill the position was a giant nightmare.

      I was actually there as a temp/contractor because that was the only way that my boss could get clearance to add a desperately needed resource for some Dodd-Frank implementation projects they had going on. Given my background and the type of work that I do, it actually cost them significantly more in the short-term to bring me on this way, but because I didn’t add to “headcount” and it was paid out of a special project budget, none of that mattered.

  2. Ask a Manager* Post author

    By the way, if you’re outside the U.S. or using an ad blocker, Inc. may ask you to register in order to read more than one article there. That’s because they otherwise aren’t able to earn any revenue from those page views, which they’re dependent on.

  3. SJ*

    I’m in the same exact situation (in higher ed). There are a lot of great aspects about my boss, but his total refusal to discipline or fire a seriously problematic employee I work with and address the major communication problems in our office is so disheartening. He repeatedly says, “She doesn’t respect me so nothing will change.” So you won’t even try?

    1. Rowan*

      This is so prevalent in higher ed! My manager told me the other day, “You know, if an employee really doesn’t want to do something, there’s nothing you can do to force them.”

      1. VideogamePrincess*

        So employees are the only ones who make choices? I can’t decide if I’d want to work there and have poor work ethic, or stay far away from these places. Actually, definitely the latter.

    1. videogame Princess*

      Ooo that will definitely result in short term results! I seriously hope you’re being sarcastic.

  4. Marketing Girl*

    UGH- I’m living this right now!! My boss is the owner and CEO though, so it adds to the whole company culture going to the pot. And actually, the good and responsible employees get the guff because its easier for him to approach them since we’re the “doers” of the group and lets the lazy ones do whatever. The office has lost 8 people since I’ve been here in 3.5 years and we’re a small office so that’s a high number.

    1. Me too!*

      Marketing Girl, I am in the same boat as you. Ownership has a core group of people who can do no wrong. This core group does NOT include the GM (my boss). I know my only solution is to leave, but I have decided to wait until the new year. :-(

      1. Marketing Girl*

        Solidarity! Yeah, I’m thinking the same thing. I’ve been looking and interviewing here and there, but it’s gotten a lot worse lately, so I need to buckle down and really start “the hunt”. It’s such a time consuming process and I just got engaged so my evenings have been going to wedding prep, but now it looks like I need to work by day and plan & hunt by night.

        *Side Note: and planning a serious job hunt when knowing you need to inform any new employer, “Oh, by the way – I’m getting married this year and will be going on a vacation/honeymoon” is such fun.

        1. F.*

          Getting married and going on your honeymoon is not necessarily a deal breaker. We hired two people in the past couple of years who were in that situation. They were up front with us when we offered, so we were able to plan for their absence.

          1. Marketing Girl*

            Thanks for that hope! I hope I can be in that situation as well. So they told you when they were at the offering stage of the process? And everyone was ok with that? (Trying to figure out when to spring it.)

  5. hermit crab*

    The Inc. stock photos are always good, but I love this one even more than usual! I might print it out and hang it up at my desk.

  6. INFJ*

    Ugh. I’m sad that the solution is “leave.” It makes sense, but it seems like OP is happy with the job otherwise! For me, bad management would be a deal breaker. However, I would definitely be trying some of the other tactics Alison mentioned first (try going over his head).

    1. LBK*

      The thing is, “everything is wonderful except ____” means it’s not wonderful, it’s decent. That doesn’t make it bad, either, it’s just…decent. For some reason when it comes to many elements of the workplace (jobs, managers, employees) people have a tendency to describe them as either fantastic with caveats or terrible with redeeming qualities. I think it’s because workplace decisions can have so much impact on a person’s life that we want to see them as black and white, so it’s easier to compartmentalize the good and bad and then focus on whichever side justifies our position. It supports our inertia to write off the downsides of a decision as less consequential than the benefits by default.

      This is obviously an extreme comparison, but all I can think of is the way people speak about abusive partners. “He’s such a caring, loving person when he’s not beating me.” Well, then he’s not really loving or caring.

  7. regugutr*

    Does it make sense to level with the boss that this problem (his refusal to address problems that impact her) is causing her to seriously consider leaving? I realize that, in this situation it’s unlikely to help since it sounds like they’ve already lost one “gifted and qualified” employee, but in general, would it be helpful to point out “I’m at my wits end and if nothing changes, I’ll need to start looking.”.

  8. Kelly*

    I work for a public university that had a budget cut that was the largest in its history this year. Other campuses in the system were offering buyouts to staff who were over 65 and/or had 30 plus years of service. I work for the flagship campus and no buyouts were offered for this fiscal year, probably because of the larger number eligible under both criteria. A new HR system also went into effect July 1. One of the goals was to speed up the hiring process by posting a position internally and externally at the same time. Another change was in how internal hires were handled. Previously, internal hires did not have a probationary period if they transferred. Now they have a probationary period of a full year after an internal transfer. The more objectionable change in the eyes of many staff was that performance reviews are now mandatory. There were departments that never had formal performance reviews. The changes are a way to create more accountability rubrics for both managers and their reports, which is the norm in most workplaces. It’s a problem if you are someone who has become too complacent in the years since you were hired, both as a manager and employee.

    I was hired externally and have been in my current job for around two and a half years. The last nine months have been tough to say the least. A coworker separated from his wife and has a very irregular schedule. He took a reduction in hours to help deal with childcare. He wasn’t noted for his punctual attendance before, and him arriving on time is a chronic problem now. My boss is good at her job, but is an awful manager. She’s a firm believer in the passive-aggressive and the “my way is the only acceptable way, even though it makes no sense” methods of management. I know she is aware of his chronic tardiness and will spring it on him during his next review, but he seems unfazed by it. He seems to banking on her sympathy for his personal difficulties to keep his job. He is also well aware of her dislike for doing supervisory and management tasks, including reviews. I went 15 months between my probationary review and “1 year” review. It should have been 6 months at most. She hasn’t been in any hurry to rewrite his job description and hand some tasks over to me with his frequent absences. I’m not sure why she hasn’t done so because the current arrangement is going to be a long term one for several years, at least until the kids are all in middle school.

  9. Seal*

    Academic librarian here; I suspect the OP is the same. Having worked in academic libraries most of my career, I can sadly say that this is a far too common situation. I suspect a large part of it is the nature of the profession. Library schools don’t offer much in the way of management training, despite the fact that all libraries are organizations with some sort of hierarchy and that many librarians wind up managing people at some point in their careers. Plus the culture of many libraries (at least the ones I’ve worked in) seems to ignore if not encourage bad management because it’s easier to ignore a problem player or wait them out rather than address legitimate performance issues.

    Since the OP’s boss obviously has no intention of dealing with any of this, I’d suggest they first go to HR with their documentation. Chances are good that HR has at least some idea that there’s a problem and may welcome additional documentation; they should at least have advice for the OP. Also, it may be time to take things to the OP’s boss; you can’t assume they know exactly what’s going on, particularly if they’re not onsite and the boss has been deflecting concerns about their department’s performance.

    Finally, when the OP does leave, make sure to do an exit interview and specify exactly why you’re leaving. I did that a couple of jobs ago and as it turned out my terrible boss got demoted within a year because my successor had the same complaints and concerns I did. Nothing like helping to establish a pattern of bad behavior to finally force someone out.

    1. AW*

      Nice to know those exit interviews are actually heeded. I was only asked to do one once but the guy who called me about it insisted on scheduling it when I was going to be out of town at a conference for my new job.

    2. irritable vowel*

      Yes, anyone who’s an academic librarian doubtless read this post trying to figure out if their own work environment was being described. (We don’t have a lot of volunteers at mine so I’m pretty sure this isn’t my library. :) Not only are there often people in management positions who just got there through attrition higher up through the years, there is also often a lot of passive-aggressiveness due to long institutional memories of previous bad leadership. A good, new library director/dean will do a little housecleaning of folks like this, either working with them to change their ways or edging them out–but it really does need to come from the top, internally. Unfortunately, based on my own observations, unless that happens, the OP’s boss is not likely to change his ways.

    3. Kelly*

      Another academic librarian pitching in. I don’t think that library schools think that library management, of facilities, personnel and financial, are as important as other subjects. Security training could also tie into facilities management as well. To be frankly honest, that downplaying of management training is reflected in how poorly many librarians and paraprofessionals view their managers. It also doesn’t help that librarianship is a female dominated profession but that doesn’t seem to be reflected in administrative structures. Those seem to be more male dominated for various reasons.

      Most programs, both in person and online, require a management course. In my program, it was taught by the former director of a public library. It was taught once every two years, when it should have been scheduled at least one semester out of each academic year.

      1. irritable vowel*

        When I was in library school, the management class (which I took) was offered as four full-day Saturday sessions in a semester. Definitely not the same level of rigor as a regular semester-long course, and definitely not something that a lot of people could fit into their schedules. One of the best things our former library dean did was send me and two of my colleagues at a similar level to a “managing from the middle”-type workshop that was specifically for librarians. Not everyone in library school will take the management elective, but anyone who finds themselves in a management role should be required to have some kind of formal training.

    4. CG*

      I work in an academic library too! I’m early in my career, so I don’t know any other style of management — how do you suss out during an interview whether the director/dean might actually be a good manager?

      I wonder if anyone has tips on what fields/types of organizations typically have better-trained managers.

      1. Grumpy Career Changer*

        I second this question and would find strategies for this very useful asap!

        My own observation is that if someone says “I asked them to change parts of the job description, but I guess someone changed it back,” then possibly there are opportunities to improve communication and decision-making. The difference between that institution and the most functional institutions – even just in terms of managing the hiring process, communicating with candidates, creating a job description that seems to fit in with the library’s mission – is huge.

        But how to identify good managers, beyond that? I wish I knew.

      2. irritable vowel*

        That’s a good question. In most medium/large academic libraries, the dean or director is going to be spending most of her time not directly involved in management. That’s what the associate deans/ directors and department heads are doing. The dean is going to be fundraising, doing strategic planning, working with the university administration, and so on. But what she does is still going to profoundly affect staff morale, and she should be visible to everyone on staff. I would ask your interviewers how actively she engages with the staff. If they say “not at all, I doubt she even knows my name” (disengaged), that’s a bad sign, as is “she’s extremely involved in departmental decision-making” (micromanager).

        1. Seal*

          The other thing to look at is the organizational structure itself, particularly how the hierachy is structured and the number of administrators overall. The larger the organization, the more administrators you should expect to see; you should also expect to see logical reporting lines (e.g. public service units grouped together, technical service units grouped together, etc). If the organizational structure looks odd, ask questions. I work in a large academic library that has all of 2 administrators; most libraries of our size have at least 3 times that many. Since the administrators can’t possibly keep up with all of the administrative duties for a library of our size, many responsibilities – but none of the authority – is pushed to the department heads, of which I am one. The department heads are expected – but not required – to work together on projects and to resolve issues. Far too frequently, departments heads refuse to work together for the most inane reasons, but mostly because many of them feel there is no incentive to cooperate with anyone else; the administration refuses to intervene, because they expect the department heads to work things out amongst themselves. Those who dare question this status quo are ridiculed or humiliated, then left to stew while the other department head gloats about having gotten their way. As a result, opportunities are regularly missed and problems allowed to fester, often for years; morale is all but non-existent. It’s a terrible way to run a library and unfortunately it shows in how we deal with our users. I am desperately trying to get out; you better believe I’ll asked pointed questions about organizational structure in each and every interview I have.

    5. AnotherTeacher*

      I agree with everyone in this thread that the situation sounds like an academic library. It’s a familiar theme from my librarian friends and my own experience working in/with libraries.

      Ideally, the situation Seal presents happens and the best interests of the organization are served; however, if you suspect HR and/or the boss’ boss are not invested in change, please proceed carefully. This is only anecdotal, but I think other readers have shared similar situations: More than one of us in the department approached HR and our boss’ boss regarding problems in the department. Nothing happened. I had documentation for my exit interview. Nothing happened. Only when the department head retired did any positive change take place.

    6. maggeleh*

      Haha! I came here to the comment specifically to offer odds that this situation was taking place in a library (former academic librarian myself).

  10. Rebecca Too*

    Having just gone through a very similar situation with a manager who refused to engage in any kind of conflict resolution, and would rather talk to employees about movies and TV shows, I can say that Alison is 100% right on with her advice to leave. After I documented the miserable situation I found myself in, and then attempted at least 4 conversations with my manager to resolve the problem, I emailed her boss, reached out to HR, documented everything discussed, and then resigned. It took me 2 weeks to gather what I needed to be able to say I had legitimately done everything in my power to resolve one particularly awful situation with a coworker, which reflected very poorly on the company, by the way. I was an employee in very good standing, there was no reason for HR to doubt my statements, and when I told them that I wanted to leave, they gave me all of my remaining vacation time, they did not contest unemployment, and they extended my medical benefits for 30 days. I’m not in love with not working, as I’ve never been unemployed, but I worked at this particular job for 10 years, and it is my firm belief that had it not been for this particular NON-manager, I would still be there. I’m so much happier having taken the initiative to make things better for myself. I wish the same for OP.

  11. SD*

    Could be that the boss’s boss won’t back him up on personnel discipline. Still ends with the same solution Alison offers.

  12. Sigrid*

    Was there ever an update? I hope the poor OP got out, although if she’s in higher ed, job opportunities are thin on the ground and there’s high probability that she’ll run into the exact same problem wherever she goes…. (Exactly why I got out of academia. “Your manager is an ass and isn’t going to change” is, in my experience, par for the course in the ivory tower.)

    1. V.V.*

      I was wondering the same thing. I am guessing though, that Alison would have posted the follow – up along with the original letter if one had been available.

      It could be the OP didn’t have the time or realize they had the opportunity, but considering the way they refer to their job as a calling, it wouldn’t surprise me if they chose not to write in again.

      This is not intended to be a reflection on the OP in particular, but I know many people who need this advice and will never take it, instead assuming they got the brush off.

      They invested all this time in their career, are following their calling, but THEY are the ones that need to leave because of EVERYONE else’s incompetence and neurotics?

      No way José!

      I truly hope the OP found greener pastures.

  13. Gene*

    For #2, it may be time to go to HR. Use the words “Hostile Work Environment” in your WRITTEN complaint. That will at least start an investigation. Make sure you keep originals of all your documentation and just give them copies. And keep a file away from work, as well.

    That’s probably the only one you can really go around your manager on. The rest are just him being useless.

  14. Eric*

    why is “ride the ineptitude” an option?

    You know have a built in excuse for when your projects fall behind and the knowledge that your manager won’t do anything about it anyway. 6 hours of Facebook and fantasy football per 8 hour day, here we come.

  15. valleygal*

    I’m starting a new job on Monday for exactly this reason. After doing 25-45% of my department’s work for six months under the tenure of new management — while five other coworkers apparently did nothing — I went to the new manager and asked him to do something about work distribution. He refused, saying he was not going to stand over anyone and tell them to work. His supervisor told me they’d rather have one unhappy person (me) than five (my coworkers). At that point, I knew the only thing to do was leave. Reading this response has been reassuring; I knew I’d made the right decision, but it’s nice to see on here!

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      I’d love to be a fly on the wall of your old workplace as they evaluate their happiness and productivity now that you are gone. :) Congratulations and good luck!

    2. Anon Accountant*

      Please let us know how they took it when you left. Have 1 unhappy overworked person instead of 5 others actively working and sharing tasks?! Glad you left.

      Did you get an exit interview or anything to tell them why you were leaving? If so, did you mention the lack of work distribution?

      1. valleygal*

        Thanks, all, for the kind words. I don’t really blame my coworkers — self-policing and thinking no one is watching is a lethal combination! Most of them feel that management treated me poorly.

        To answer these questions: initially, my manager said he wasn’t really surprised I was leaving (which put a ?!?! thought bubble over my head; I was widely acknowledged to be the best in the department, and he didn’t take any steps to try to stop me leaving). Two days later he called me back in to “try to understand where [my] head’s at,” which turned into 30 minutes of, “the grass is always greener, every place has its problems,” and generally trying to make me doubt my judgment. I didn’t change my mind. Never heard from his supervisor again.

        I did have an exit interview, and HR yelled at me for not bringing this to their attention sooner. I see their point, but frankly I have no interest in working under someone who has to be told to do his job.

  16. Mirilla*

    Oh I’m going through something similar right now. I’m afraid Alison is right. Some managers aren’t interested in managing. My boss actually won’t get us a real manager (we don’t have one) because he doesn’t believe he needs anyone to babysit us. Actual word used -> babysit. There’s a real disconnect there between him and I regarding the role of good management and the huge effect it has on the employees. We have a problem employee as well. She’s been written up several times I believe. I didn’t even report her the last time and she blamed me anyway for all the things she does ( she said I do them, not her.) She’s still there & I’m there but I really don’t want to be. I’m realizing now how important it really is to job satisfaction, motivation and productivity. Even if you got your boss to agree to fix one of the 4 things on your list, is that really a win? You know how this person handles things so this is a pattern that will continue with different situations. That’s why, in my case, even if/when problem employee is let go (if I’m still there), I still need to get out because I have no confidence that future issues/problems will be handled any differently.

  17. Alpha*

    At my workplace, if someone isn’t getting a job done, instead of addressing the fact that ‘Jane’ does nothing with their entire day but make tea, our managers just move Jane’s jobs to other people who they know will get them done. I find this incredibly frustrating and wonder what they hell they are even paying Jane to do?

    1. Mirilla*

      Lazy managing. It’s easier to avoid the issue by overworking the good employees than to have that difficult conversation with Jane. I’ve seen many people post about this very issue. Eventually the hard workers move on and quit.

    2. Fish Microwaver*

      This happens at my workplace all the time. Good people overworked while the lazy incompetent ones cruise and are also disruptive interpersonally.

    3. Kixco*

      Yes, it’s been my experience that “the price one pays for being competent” is that one is rewarded by being given other people’s work.

  18. Ducky*

    I recently got fired without any notice for accidentally oversetting the apple cart of this situation. :( Apparently being willing to point out, however diplomatically, that some of your co-workers’ work is late/shoddy/non-existent gets you on the bad side of the popular-kids clique (shockingly comprised of said bad workers), and when the popular kids know how to say just the right things to HR and your manager keeps his head in the sand… Well, I’m hoping freelance goes better.

    Main regret is every minute wasted saying things like “Maybe I just don’t understand my job description, but I thought Waukeen wasn’t supposed to be assigning this to me…? But I can certainly do it, of course!” when I really should have said “Waukeen’s not doing his work and now that it’s late, he’s trying to have me do it, and do it right away because it’s urgent. Could you, like, maybe yell at him for once about this?”


  19. nofelix*

    This all prompts a question:

    When DO bad managers start managing?

    Have any readers encountered situations that did improve? People seem to be asking how to effect change because they think it’s simple, and it’s clearly not. Maybe some experiences of how dramatic achieving a change has to be will help put this into context.

    1. Anon Accountant*

      I saw it only once on a small scale. A manager permitted an employee to not show up for work, not complete assignments, and he failed to show up for meetings with multiple clients. Several clients left because of him but our manager wouldn’t discipline or fire him. If anyone complained he would scream “I’m tired of hearing everyone complain about him!” and we would wonder why he defended him so strongly. They weren’t related to the best of anyone’s knowledge.

      Our company was bought out and he started his same stuff of not showing up. The new managing partner told him you have to fire him. He dug his heels in and pushed back. Finally he told him if he didn’t fire him then they could talk about having his ownership percentage bought out or he (managing partner) would fire the employee. To summarize the employee was fired and things were more productive because when he DID do anything it was so full of errors. Then the manager fell back into his non-managing ways.

    2. Kixco*

      I know there are about 150,000 books on how to be a manager, but is there one book that might be considered the gold standard in terms of offering decent advice to folks who want to be good managers but aren’t sure where to begin?

  20. MeToo*

    I recently resigned from a position with this kind of non-managing manager situation, without another job lined up. More than one so-called colleague (in a small department) was not showing up for work, leaving assigned tasks undone for weeks or months at a time, and basically collecting a salary for spending some time browsing the internet in the office each week. I worked there for 3.5 years, and during the first two I believed various assurances that positive change was around the corner. I spent the last year trying to have the situation addressed by discussing and documenting the situation, and its negative effect on my ability to do my own work, extensively with my boss and with my boss’s boss, then requesting a transfer (even if it would be a step down) to another department in the institution where I could be more effective, all to no avail. I also applied for other jobs in my field during this time, without success (academic librarian, hey-o). I decided to resign when I realized that the stress was affecting my health, and that staying in such a dysfunctional environment might actually be making me less employable. (Truthful job interview answers would sound something like, “I can tell you how I know that should be done, but if you’re asking about my actual experience, well, it’s been a three step process of waiting for my shitty coworker to do her job, asking her repeatedly why she hasn’t, and then doing it myself even though it’s in no way part of my job description.”) I am now seeking non-library work. But what do I say when I am asked why I left the job? No one likes a negative Nelly in an interview.

  21. kendallcorner*

    I have had several managers like this. Any tips for rooting this out in the interview? Good questions to ask my potential manager or red flags to look for?

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