my coworker is bad at her job, and I’m unofficially in charge of her

A reader writes:

About six months ago, my team hired a new person to help with my workload: Penny. Although Penny and I are both at the same level (and get paid the same), since I have several years of experience in the company, I trained her and am essentially her manager but without the authority. I suspect the only reason I am not actually a manager is because that would require a pay raise for me.

Our manager, “Jane,” is chronically busy and perpetually absent, in charge of many different projects, so most people in our department see me as in charge of my small team. People come to me when they have issues with Penny, and other managers will lecture me about how to help her to succeed better or improve, or tell me when people have complaints about her work or what they see as her weaknesses. This is frustrating to me because I’m not her manager, but I don’t mind helping her out as she is nice and we get along and are the same age.

Here’s my issue: Penny is just … not very good at some of our work. For example, one of our tasks is to create a collection of monthly reports to distribute to other departments. I used to do them all and I have been helping Penny to get proficient in putting them together so she can take over. The problem is, she will consistently make mistakes and then, seeing that the numbers for the month are “bad,” will declare to me that “Jane is not going to be happy with this!” I’ll generally lead her through some troubleshooting to figure out the issue, which is pretty much always a simple mistake she made in the report. I understand that everyone makes mistakes and I don’t fault her for this, but this same pattern has happened so many times. I don’t know how I can get her to realize on her own that she needs to double and triple check these instead of seeing something that’s obvious really off and just shrugging and saying our boss will be upset. Sometimes she will even start announcing the numbers to people without checking for mistakes which (1) causes people to freak out and (2) means we have to come back later and say things like, “Sorry, we made a mistake, sales were actually only down 8.7%, not 87%.” I say “we” because I’m always the one who ends up stepping in to fix it.

Ordinarily I would just let Penny mess up and take the heat for it, but since people see me as the “head” of this project, I also get the blame for mistakes, even though I’m not technically in charge.

I’m not sure what to do, though, because since I’m not Penny’s manager, she doesn’t take direction from me and it’s hard to give her feedback. Since we are the same level and the same age, she doesn’t see me as an authority. Sometimes I will ask her to do something and she doesn’t do it. I don’t think this is deliberate on her part, I think she just thinks it’s a suggestion since I’m not the boss and so in her mind I’m not in charge and don’t make the decisions about what should get done and when and by whom (which I guess is technically true). I’m at a loss for how to approach this. I don’t want to try to “pull rank” or lecture her, and I’m worried that if I do she’ll just get upset and think I’m on a power trip.

You’re in an impossible position.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether your boss has put you there or whether you’ve inadvertently put yourself there — but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Your position is impossible because you can’t be responsible for a co-worker who you don’t have any authority over. In your case, lots of people seem to be treating you as if you’re responsible for Penny’s performance, when in fact you don’t have any real power to do the things that position entails: You don’t have the authority to give her assignments, or provide her with feedback, or ask her to make changes to her work, or tell her to check her work more thoroughly … and you definitely don’t have the authority to impose any consequences if she ignores your feedback and suggestions. That means you can’t be responsible for her work, any more than I could be responsible for yours.

Sometimes organizations explicitly create this kind of “manager with no actual authority role” — assigning people to accomplish things through other people without giving them the authority they need to do it. But in your case, it doesn’t sound like your manager explicitly set things up that way. It sounds like it just happened by default because she’s not around … and maybe because you were conscientious and stepped up to fill that void. But when stepping up means stepping into an impossible role, it’s rarely the right long-term decision.

So I think there are three potential conversations you could have here. One is to try talking to Penny about this directly. Since she was hired to assist with your work, and since you’re leading the projects she’s working on, it’s not totally out of line to say to her, “Because I’m leading these projects, I need to be able to give you feedback or specific directions. When you don’t incorporate that feedback or follow up on things I’ve asked you to handle, it puts me in an awkward position — because I have to step in and do it myself or correct your work. I’m not your manager, but I am leading these projects, and I need to be able to count on you to carry things out the way we talk about.” It’s possible that she genuinely hasn’t realized this, and that spelling it out will help.

But that option relies on Penny agreeing to do things that way, and I’d rather see you get the authority you need (and the money you deserve) instead of having to rely on Penny’s good will. The second, and better, option is to talk to your boss, explain what’s been happening, and ask if she’d be willing to formalize the authority that people seem to expect you to have. Since you’re functioning as Penny’s unofficial manager anyway, it’s not a huge stretch to propose making that official and asking for a raise. Giving you the formal power to manage her work might solve all of this. (Of course, that assumes you want to manage Penny. Managing is stressful even with the best of employees; managing someone who’s not performing well can be a serious headache. You’re not obligated to volunteer for that if you don’t want to do it.)

If you don’t want to manage Penny, or if you don’t think your boss will go for that idea, the only other option is to stop taking responsibility for her. I know you’re worried doing that will backfire on you since people think you’re in charge of her work, but it’s far easier to correct that impression than it is to try to manage her without any authority. If you go this route, when people come to you to give feedback about Penny, you’d say something like, “I agree, that’s really problematic. I’m Penny’s peer and am at the limits of how much I can intervene, but I really encourage you to talk to Jane about this. It’s important for her to hear this feedback.” That way you’re conveying both that you’re not empowered to handle this and that someone else is.

You should also talk with your boss about the problems in Penny’s work, the efforts you’ve been making to try to coach her, and the fact that you’re at your limits of what you can do since you’re her peer. It’s possible that Jane doesn’t realize the extent of the problems with Penny’s work because you’ve been stepping in to problem-solve. Or maybe she does, but figures that you’ve been handling it so her attention isn’t needed. (That would be bad management, but it happens.) When you have this conversation, don’t pull any punches — be direct and transparent about what’s happening, and explain that your attempts to coach her haven’t been successful because she understandably sees you as a peer and resists taking direction from you. I’d use the words, “I think she needs to hear this from someone with authority” and perhaps “my sense is that she needs closer supervision than she would accept from me.” You should also mention that other managers have come to you repeatedly about improvements they want to see Penny make.

This might feel like throwing Penny under the bus, but it’s not! It’s giving your manager crucial information that she needs to manage your team, and which she might not have right now. It’s also letting her know about something that greatly affects you, and it’s giving her context that she’ll need to understand what’s happening once you step back. The tone of this isn’t “Penny is awful”; it’s “Penny is trying but needs more oversight and support than I’m empowered to give.”

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 139 comments… read them below }

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      On the positive side, that may be the funniest 404 error cartoon I’ve ever seen.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          It spelled out four oh four and had a cartoon of a man in a suit leaning over and his neck just sort of stretches down into a hole so at first I thought he was an ostritch.
          LSCooper has it right for how to see it :)

        2. Essess*

          Here … try this ‘bad’ url to get the 404 cartoon.

    2. lnelson in Tysons*

      I’ve reached my limit on articles I can read without subscribing/signing up.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          If you were Alison wouldn’t you want to know that some of your readership is getting annoyed by restrictions on external articles?

          1. wondering*

            What do people want her to do about it? Stop her work for other publications, which probably expect her to promote that work here?

      1. Michaela Westen*

        Try googling the title and going through that link.
        That worked earlier with a Crain’s article one of my friends posted. I’d reached my limit.
        I’ve read one article there in the past few years. Glad I saved the text and not just the link!

      2. Loux in Canada*

        It should work if you put www . outline . com / in front of the link. Without the spaces, of course – not sure if this will get stuck in the spam filter anyways.

  1. Clorinda*

    “You’ll have to talk to Jane about Penny. I’m not actually her manager.” Rinse, repeat.

    1. Anonya*


      I’d also have a conversation with Jane about your concerns, not only about Penny’s work quality but what the expectations are for you “managing” her.

    2. fposte*

      I was thinking of a variant of “Return awkward to sender”–“Deflect awkward to manager.”

    3. irene adler*

      Yes, good suggestion.
      Makes me wonder if the OP is in fact, Penny’s supervisor and all the managers are aware of this. But no one informed the OP. Maybe because they figure they can save a few bucks in salary.

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        That crossed my mind as well. Otherwise there is really no need for other managers to tell OP how to handle her. If it’s not her job then they need to talk to the actual manager.

      2. The Jones*

        I’m half wondering if ‘Jane’ is actually deflecting these other managers to OP, since OP presumably works much more closely with Penny. If so, that’s something to go up the chain about.

  2. LawBee*

    It’s not a solution for everything, but if Penny is really bad at these reports, maybe she shouldn’t be doing them at all. If there are other areas where she’s fine, or excelling, perhaps LW could find other tasks she can offload to Penny.

    1. Rhiiiiiiannnnnnnon*

      I don’t know… it seem’s Penny’s main problem with the reports isn’t just that she’s bad at them, its that she also lacks either accountability or problem-solving skills to tackle her mistakes. She realizes there’s something wrong, but waits for her co-worker to fix it. In my experience, people like that can rarely be shuffled around to tasks they’re good at…because they’ll always find reasons they’re not good at something (to get out of doing work).

      1. Michaela Westen*

        I used to be like that, and I wasn’t trying to get out of work. I had a disconnect between seeing a problem and realizing I could do something about it. I think because of the way I was raised.

        1. Rhiiiiiiannnnnnnon*

          Could be like that with her too! I never like to assume someone doesn’t want to do well at work — I think most people do, and either just don’t know how, or don’t have the confidence, or something else… Still, if that’s the case then moving her to different projects won’t help. The pattern will repeat.

    2. LW (I feel famous!)*

      I sometimes suspect Penny thinks she’s above the reports and would rather be doing more “interesting” work, and is thus deliberately doing them badly. But maybe I’m just being paranoid.

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        Um…you aren’t the only one that thinks that.

        You keep fixing her mistakes. Stop doing that. Let Jane…her manager take the heat and have to deal with her. As is Penny is looking like she’s competent (to Jane) but *you* are the one doing the work.

        If she was hired to take stuff off your plate but you’re still doing that stuff *and* fixing her errors, she is basically more not less work for you.

        *And* she’s paid the same money without the experience or competence. Return/send het to Jane.

      1. RJ the Newbie*

        Thank you! I was getting the ‘you reached your monthly limit’ message and now I’m in.

      2. Clisby*

        That’s what I was talking about in my comment above. Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge all allow this. (I’m sure other browsers also do; these are the ones I know about.)

        Sometimes clearing your browser history will take care of it, too.

        1. SusanIvanova*

          Safari too, and if you right click to get a popup menu then hold the option key down, “Open in New Window” turns into “Open in New Private Window”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      They let you read a certain number of articles for free each month but then they charge, like many other publications that need revenue in order to exist.

      1. Alfonzo Mango*

        Can we sticky a note to these weekly articles that complaints about paywalls aren’t welcome? It’s getting old for this series.

      2. the bitter journalist*

        THANK YOU.

        My responsibilities include vetting letters to the editor and deciding which ones get in the next day’s paper.

        Which means that I’m besieged by calls and emails from letter writers who want to know when we’re going to publish *their* letter. Because they don’t want to waste their money buying the paper if their letter isn’t in it.

        If the company had $1 for each one of these people, we … wouldn’t be in the precarious financial position we’re in.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Then don’t read the article. It’s super easy instead of pointing out something like this.

      Did you know Alison also /sells/ her books and doens’t just offer a free service? Come on now.

      1. Anon3000*

        And without commenters here, who also bring in revenue by simply existing on this page and clicking around, Alison’s book sales would significantly decline. This page is a marketing tool, and by coming here, I help it be that. Sooo, if sniping at people for mentioning the article is behind a paywall (which should be disclosed up front) is part of this wonderfully generous experience, I can go click on someone else’s website and generate revenue for them and their ads.

        Consider it done. Rude.

        1. boop the first*

          Consuming a person’s work for free is not paying for it, just so you know.

        2. anonami*

          Why are you blaming Alison for what other people are saying? She hasn’t been rude here at all.

  3. Myrin*

    OP, I’m seeing surprisingly little mention of your own manager in this – you’re only speaking about her in the first sentence of your second paragraph, and I really think that’s the issue. Like Alison says at the end of her advice, Jane is the one who needs to be in the loop, who annoyed coworkers need to be directed to, who needs to be talking to Penny about these problems. You don’t mention if she’s generally a good manager or not but let it be said that even someone who is “chronically busy” and “perpetually absent” needs to hear about this and, if she’s an even halfway decent manager, she will want to hear about this because it seems like a pretty big deal. So really, all ways lead to Jane in this, in my opinion.

    1. EPLawyer*

      Jane doesn’t know that Penny is not good at her job because you’ve been covering up Penny’s mistakes. The boss who does have the authority to fix this, can’t fix what they don’t know about.

      Your very first step is stop feeding into everyone’s assumptions you are the manager when Jane is not available. I know you want to be a “team player” and make everything run smoothly. But that’s not your job. The sooner you stop taking responsibility for things that are not your responsibility, the less stressed you will be.

      1. Snark*

        Totally agreed. But this needs to be communicated to Jane, you can’t just start doing it. “Jane, as I’ve worked with Penny, I’ve been functionally managing her, even though she’s my peer. I’ve noticed {issues}. I’ve done my best to address them, I often field others’ complaints about her, and I often redo her work for accuracy and completion. I’m getting burned out and this is not sustainable given my own workload, so I will start referring issues with her work and complaints from coworkers you moving forward.”

        She’s perpetually busy and unavailable because you’ve communicated to her that she can be. It’s time she understood that she needs to be focused on this office and this issue for a change.

    2. LW (I feel famous!)*

      My organization and even moreso my department have organizational issues. Jane is the manager over 3 (I think) separate projects and their related employees. Due to this, she has at least one other office in a different location, maybe 2? I don’t know for sure. On paper she is supposed to spend 50% of her time on the project I work for. In reality she is in her office maybe 10% of the work week. I get the impression she is much less interested in this project than the others, and much less interested than she was when she initially was put in charge. So she is just kind of dropping the ball. The other departments we work with still depend on us for our reports and deliverables, but I feel like I’m the only one on my team who actually cares about this anymore. Part of the reason people come to me about issues is because they know they have little hope of finding Jane present and less hope of getting responses to emails.

      1. EPLawyer*

        The solution is to not also cover for Jane. If Jane is not interested in your project, then Jane as a manager needs to own that. It is not your job as Jane’s subordinate to make it easier for her to disengage while still being the manager.

        If need be, go over Jane’s head. If you have no authority to act as manager, save your sanity from trying to be one.

        1. AKchic*

          You aren’t paid to do Jane’s job. You’re paid to do your job. If Jane can’t handle her workload at that site, she needs to go to her bosses and figure out a new method for that job site, and if that means promoting you (with a pay increase), then hey – win-win?

          In the meantime, pass the awkward back on to Jane. This is her employee, so she needs to be managing her employee. Send all the other people back to her since this is her project. You do your work. Make her do hers.

      2. Sigh*

        This sounds so much like my work and situation right now I visibly looked around to see if someone on another team wrote this letter about our department manager. Nothing but sympathy for you.

  4. Sigh*

    Thanks for posting this. I’m in an incredibly similar situation, and it was the wake-up call I needed to realize that I either need to formally ask for the position I’ve been performing for the last couple of months, or have a more serious talk with our absent manager about a teammate’s behavior.

    1. Deja Vu*

      I too could have written this letter almost word for word. Here’s to speaking with our managers!

      1. analystk*

        Same! I have been speaking with my manager a lot, but this gives me some good ideas for advocating for myself and for not giving up hope yet. :)

  5. voyager1*

    You need to get with Jane. Document the errors Penny is making AND document any of blowback you are getting from other departments. A email from a manager from a different dept upset would go a long way here.

    I am a hard no on trying to manage Penny like AAM suggests in her first outcome. Too many ways that can go sideways, and to be fair to AAM she doesn’t sound to optimistic about it either.

  6. AdAgencyChick*

    One thing I’d add to Alison’s advice, OP: If you are not given authority to manage Penny, ask your boss to clearly define your responsibilities and hers. Then, share that division of labor with the rest of your colleagues, so that when they come to you complaining that something isn’t done correctly, you can say, “Now that Penny’s here, I handle ABC and she does XYZ, so you’ll have to ask Penny about that.” If you get argued with, you can also use Alison’s scripts of “I agree, that’s a concern — unfortunately, I don’t manage Penny so you’ll need to speak to Jane.”

  7. L. S. Cooper*

    Is it possible for Penny to just… take accountability for her own mistakes? I’m in almost the same situation– to the point where I actually double-checked this for details to be sure it wasn’t about me. (I’m not the same age as my equivalent to LW, and I try to check in with her if I think something looks off before I send out any reports.) I fully admit that I struggle with some of the reports I do– one of them, I had to send out no less than six times the first time I did it, because I kept getting things mixed up. I ended up asking my LW equivalent for help to finally fix it, because I was getting close to tears in frustration. But every time I sent it out to try and correct it, I was the one to send it out, and it was always with an apology from *me*.
    Penny also seems to have the good sense to know when the numbers look “off”, so she should really get reminded to double-check her work when the numbers turn up funny, before sending things out and alarming people. Or, at the very least, she shouldn’t have done that more than once. I’ve made some very dumb mistakes in my six months of working here and sending out reports, but I’ve not made the exact same mistake more than once.

    1. SansaStark*

      Absolutely. I’ve also had to send multiple emails explaining my (repeated) errors, but ultimately it was having to send out those emails that really helped me identify my own knowledge gaps in places where I really did think I understood and the shame reminded me to check my known previous errors several times before sending that email each week. Framing it in your own mind as helping her get better might help alleviate some of the guilt of watching her fail.

    2. Amethystmoon*

      Good luck with this. Seriously. Not all managers will force underperformers to be accountable for their mistakes.

      1. TGIF*

        The manager doesn’t seem to be involved. Why can’t LW send an email to Penny “Hey, I noticed you made XYZ error in the spreadsheet. So sales were actually only down 8.7%, not 87%. Please make the changes and let the Other Department know”

        1. Amethystmoon*

          Well, it depends. If Penny is like my former co-worker, she will get extremely defensive & argue til she is blue in the face that it was not an error (despite all evidence showing it was one). I’m assuming Penny is female. My former co-worker was a man and outright refused to take feedback from me because I’m not. But company didn’t seem to care.

  8. Rebecca*

    Wow, talk about been there, done that, got the T shirt…I was in this position with a Penny, and my managers (plural) just told me I had to make her successful, I had to make her happy and want to work here, she was here to help me, etc. Penny pretended to understand, but made constant errors, and to boot, threw me under the bus many times. “Rebecca didn’t tell me I had to do that” or “Rebecca is confusing me” while telling me she understood and I was very helpful and clear with her. It got so bad we had a sit down with the managers, and went step by step on a checklist of things she was expected to do, so they could see that yes, she was told X, Y, and Z, and given all the training and materials needed.

    This went on for months, and despite me telling managers she wasn’t getting it, and everyone who she affected complaining to me, she finally quit. Honestly, I was relieved.

    I totally agree with redirecting every single issue back to management, and I’d make sure all bases are covered with regard to training, etc. so you can show where issues have been addressed multiple times. OP, I hope this works out for you.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Mine got fired despite TWO of us trying to bring her up to speed during her PIP…and for three years or so we were still having “UH OH” moments finding still more things she’d let out into the wild, because she’d even release them *with our names on them*. [exclamation deleted]

    1. Not again*

      Lucky you! My Penny did the same and also started to actively sabotage my work and badmouth me to other teams. It finally got so bad I transferred to a different department and she got the promotion I had been lined up for. By now everyone in my previous team has finally realized the full extent of her incompetency and constantly complains about her performance but the ED staunchly has her back. He doesn’t even care that she lied on her CV and claimed jobs/positions she never had (which she actively boasted about at a team dinner).

      Pennys can get really bad. I learned the hard way that you need to get on top of the situation as early as possible and make sure the manager is aware of any issues. Do not cover for a Penny’s mistakes and absolutely “encourage” her to take accountability for her own mistakes.

  9. INeedANap*

    “Since I’m not Penny’s manager, she doesn’t take direction from me, so I can’t give her that feedback.”

    Could you just use that script whenever people come to you about Penny?

    1. voyager1*

      I am a no on this as written. Complaints need to be directed to Jane. LW needs to make Penny a problem for Jane.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        How about “Penny reports to Jane, not me, so I can’t give her that feedback.”

      2. Pomona Sprout*

        Agreed. Alison’s original script says in no incertain terms that Jane is the responsible party:

        “I agree, that’s really problematic. I’m Penny’s peer and am at the limits of how much I can intervene, but I really encourage you to talk to Jane about this. It’s important for her to hear this feedback.”

        That covers all the necessary bases quite nicely, imo.

    2. KHB*

      Why does not being Penny’s manager mean that LW can’t give her feedback? The people who are complaining to LW are not LW’s manager, and yet they’re giving LW feedback. Anyone can give anyone feedback (although whether it’s heeded or not is of course another matter).

      1. CL Cox*

        Because a manager giving feedback means a whole lot more than a co-worker giving feedback. If a manager tells you that you need to double-check your figures (or have someone else review them) before sending them out, it is basically an order, whereas a co-worker telling you that you need to double-check your figures (etc.) is merely a suggestion. I have this issue with one of the people I manage. I am not her direct supervisor, but it is explicitly spelled out in both our job descriptions that I manage her. And our mutual boss has made it clear to her that I am not her peer, yet she still ignores what I tell her to do, blows me off when I point out errors (and claims to be too busy to make the corrections herself), and speaks to me rudely and dismissively in front of others. She also treats one of her peers (who I also manage) the same way, but bends over backwards to help her friend (yet another managee). Her annual review is coming up and one of the items she is going to be found deficient in is work quality, attitude, and ability to take direction.

        There’s a reason why she’s not been hired for any of the internal transfers she’s put in for (well, besides the fact that they are all above her current ability and experience).

        1. KHB*

          That doesn’t make it literally impossible to give the feedback, though – to say “Penny, I just got a call from Bob in the rice sculpture department. Because the numbers in our report were wrong, he ordered 2000 tons too much arborio for next quarter. That’s a major thing, and we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

          Managers have an extra set of carrots and sticks to use in situations like this, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are powerless. Most people, I think, will have at least some response to hearing “Your actions had X consequence for your coworkers/this company/our customers.” I suppose there are some people who don’t give a fig about anyone other than themselves and their friends, and who can only be managed by saying “pull your socks up or you’re fired.” Maybe your coworker is one of them. But from what we know about Penny, I’m not sure she necessarily is.

          1. CL Cox*

            The LW says that Penny is not listening to her feedback, that she’s hearing it more as suggestions. So it sounds like there needs to be clarification made to Penny as to who her manager is, as well as making her understand that there will be consequences if she doesn’t improve. It seems like it’s not been made clear to either Penny or LW what the chain of command really is.

            1. KHB*

              But LW also says that she hasn’t been fully communicating to Penny what needs to be done. She touches on this in the letter when she wonders how to get Penny to “realize on her own” that she needs to double-check the numbers, and she mentions in one of her comments below that she hasn’t actually had a conversation with Penny about the pattern of problems with the report. I’m willing to bet that Penny is hearing LW’s directions as suggestions because LW is phrasing them in a way that makes them sound like suggestions.

              But these are challenges that managers have to deal with, too. Becoming a manager doesn’t magically endow you with telekinetic powers to make people do what you want – you still have to communicate clearly and assertively about what your expectations are and when they’re not being met. Lots and lots of new managers struggle with this, as evidenced by the AAM archive, so it’s not so surprising that LW is struggling with it too.

              I’m finding it a little odd that so many people in this thread are so focused on LW’s lack of formal managerial authority over Penny, when it’s really, really common in lots of organizations to have “team leads” who are responsible for overseeing the day-to-day work of people they don’t formally manage. It sounds to me like Jane intends for LW to act in a team-lead capacity on her team of two, even if that relationship hasn’t been formally defined. (It’s possible that I’m wrong, but a quick conversation with Jane should clarify that.) Needless to say, it would be highly inappropriate for a team lead to refuse to pass on feedback to one of her team members.

  10. Batgirl*

    If people’s complaints are redirected to Jane “Actually Jane’s her manager” then surely Penny’s performance would become more of a priority for Jane. Either she’d make time or give you what you need to do it. It’s hard to know how Jane could even know about the issue while OP is helping fix stuff.

    OP, I know you’re concerned about looking bad, but by saying “Nope I’m just very experienced and helpful; I’m not actually anyone’s manager!” You’re stressing how you’re overperforming your actual role and not underperforming an imaginary role.

  11. Ms. Guacamole*

    I’m in a similar situation at my job and have been for the past two years. In my situation, it’s a team of people and my department head (I’m a HS teacher) explicitly asked me to be the “lead” for daily meetings small groups of teachers have. I have no actual authority, it’s just my unofficial job to lead these meetings, coach and manage the teachers on my team, convey important information, help them with specific problems they’re having, etc.

    Last year and this year, I have had at least one incredibly difficult person on my team, in both instances new teachers who were doing terribly and absolutely refused to take any feedback. Last year, I just kept documenting every time I tried to help one particularly difficult person and she ignored or rejected my help. I periodically complained to the administration, and when her observations were bad enough they finally listened to me. I submitted all of my documentation and she was fired.

    This year, the difficult person is a mansplaining ass (I know that’s mean but it’s the end of the school year, I’ve been commenting on student drafts all day and I’m not feeling charitable) who is clearly unhappy about taking any kind of feedback or advice from a woman. He’s not a first-year teacher but he is young and at the beginning of his career and his classroom management strategies are generally just various levels of yelling at the entire class. I’m just doing the same thing as last year–lots of documentation, being a squeaky wheel with my administration.

    1. Creed Bratton*

      Just sending love and respect from another HS teacher. Keep fighting that fight! It seems sometimes admin is just so relieved they’ve filled the role that they’d rather let a mediocre or ineffective teacher languish than deal with issues. It’s how some schools end up with standards that are basically ” just don’t abuse the kids.” Also: I’ve worked with your coworker in the last paragraph and if your district is anything like mine he’ll only be there a few years before they ‘promote’ him into a supervisory position. Arrgh.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Unless he yells at the wrong student and a disgruntled parent complains to the right person in the district….

        1. Ms. Guacamole*

          This has actually already happened and he had a disciplinary meeting about it. It’s hard to fire a teacher mid-year but I doubt he’ll be back next year.

      2. Ms. Guacamole*

        Actually, I really think he’ll be let go. He’s had a few disciplinary meetings about inappropriate conduct with students (some about his yelling/aggressiveness, some sexual, one because I pointed out to the dean that he was basically following around one of my female freshman students for no legitimate reason (?!).

        My admin is pretty good about getting rid of bad apples, luckily.

    2. Former Employee*

      Is there any way that someone can anonymously leave the Rebecca Solnit book (“Men Explain Things To Me”) on his desk?

      1. Clorinda*

        No! Then he’ll start mansplaining mansplaining to everyone, and the universe will collapse on itself.

  12. Amethystmoon*

    This was one of the reasons why I left my last job. I was unofficially the senior co-worker in charge of a new co-worker, who didn’t even try to mitigate his typos. The position was data entry. After a year of trying to tell the actual manager what was going on, and sending screen shot after screen shot of easily preventable mistakes, it became obvious to me that that new co-worker was being projected up the wazoo. If I or anyone else had done a fraction of what he did, we wouldn’t be in our positions.

    I was afraid to take more than a day of vacation time lest co-worker mess up something (he did this over Tgiving break the first year I was there, it took me half a day to correct his work, and it was all typos that he even had photos to double-check the data, and realize he had gotten things incorrect).

    I had people complaining to me about co-worker even though I had to keep telling them to go to his manager, as I had no actual authority and co-worker would ignore me frequently.

    You can try going to the actual manager. Make sure you have evidence of mistakes when you do. However, it is also indeed very possible that nothing will come of it, and be prepared to decide if you still want to stay in the job if nothing does come of it.

    1. RainbowBrite*

      Ooof, I feel you on the vacation thing. I took 2 days off last year and immediately regretted it because I spent my first day back frantically doing 3 days of work in 1 because the person they had cover me was absolutely useless. I was more stressed coming back than before I left! She even messaged me when I was at Target one of those days to try to ask me a work question! The only thing they did was say they’d let me train someone more trustworthy for next time I took a day off so I didn’t quit or burn the place down over it.

  13. boredatwork*

    I have a co-worker exactly like Penny, they basically rely on other people, who are put in the exact position OP is in (myself included), to basically have their work done for them. Anything even moderately hard or requiring critical thinking gets foisted on whomever they can convince to help.

    Since part of my job is making sure my segment succeeds, I help when needed, but I am very honest with my boss about performance issues I see with anyone I “manage”. This way I make sure my boss knows exactly how strong the team is, I don’t get blamed for short-comings that are outside my control and I continue to make low-performing co-workers a pain point for him (and not just me).

    1. NicoleK*

      This! The “Penny” I work with excels at getting people to help her out. When I’m not annoyed by her, I marvel at her skills of leveraging people to help her with her job.

  14. e271828*

    I always wonder what happens to the Pennys and Janes and their hapless bystander-victims when Compensating Overperformer takes a long vacation. A month, say. No, no email or phone service. (Vacation is probably best timed for after being turned down for promotion to management status, with raise.)

    1. NicoleK*

      The “Penny” I work with will complain to our Boss about how overworked and overwhelmed she is. Boss will help her out, give her a pass, or get someone else to help her out. “Penny” is charming, outgoing, and gregarious. People who don’t work closely with her think she is wonderful.

      1. KHB*

        Is your work output quantifiable? If it is, and if your Penny is doing significantly less than everyone else by charming Boss into pushing things off her plate and onto someone else’s, put together some numbers to show what’s really going on. Boss might not realize that there’s any discrepancy, because Boss has other things to worry about.

      2. alphabet soup*

        Yup, this describes my “Penny” to a t. Everyone who doesn’t work with her thinks she’s so sweet and kind.

        But they don’t know that I’ve been carrying her for the past five months. I finally made my boss aware of the extent of the issue. I think “Penny” is now leaving.

        Once it became clear to her that I wasn’t going to carry her anymore, she stopped talking to me. It feels like high school, where the popular girl befriends the nerdy girl to get her to do her homework for her. So, in addition to being overworked, I feel dumb and manipulated and taken advantage of– 17 and clumsy all over again.

        These situations really are impossible.

        1. Not again*

          This. I finally told my Penny that I would gladly continue doing her work (the complicated parts she needed my help with) if she gave me 80% of her paycheck. Or else she would have to take care of it herself. She stopped talking to me that day, which was rather awkward since we shared an office. She wouldn’t even reply to my “good morning”s. And this lady was in her 50s, not a teenager.

      3. Not again*

        This sounds just like my Penny. My Penny would also often need urgent medical leave 2 days after my vacation started and wouldn’t return until I came back.

      4. InfoSec SemiPro*

        I had to fire Penny, only it was a dude.

        So many people who never had to get work out of him were soooo sad he left.

    2. Amethystmoon*

      Took three days in a row over a holiday once. Never again.

      However when I finally left the position, co-worker wound up leaving the company. I heard it was done willingly.

    3. LW (I feel famous!)*

      Ironically I recently came back from an extended medical leave and basically what happened is that things fell apart and everyone just held their breath until I came back to fix them. We had a huge meeting on my first day back to “discuss all the issues” and then I spent the following weeks putting out fires and troubleshooting issues. (I think that’s what finally spurred me to write to Alison as I was getting fed up.)


      On the plus side, I think people finally see that Penny is making a lot of mistakes, which (as someone pointed out in the comments) I was covering up by helping her and fixing all her errors before.

    4. Plain Jane*

      In my experience, they find someone else to pick up the slack. The Penny’s that I’ve known have a talent for finding the White Knight coworkers who enjoy being brought in to save the day.

      When Penny’s take the long vacation, that’s when the trouble starts for them when it becomes clear their backup is doing a better job

  15. NicoleK*

    I, too, work with a “Penny”. I joke that it takes a village to keep “Penny” in her job. Going to the Boss doesn’t help. Our boss has been propping up and protecting “Penny” for the past 6 years. Maybe you’ll have a different outcome with your boss. Good Luck!

  16. Lanie*

    I am in a similar situation with regards to a coworker who goes to me when our managers are unavailable. She actually started a couple of months before me, but tends to ask a lot of questions because she listens to respond instead of listening to absorb. I work for a property management company in accounting & my main responsibility is billing out the work the maintenance team does. She sometimes helps me with that when I have a lot or if she doesn’t have anything besides busy work to do. At first, when she would make mistakes, I would fix them for her, but now I send her an email detailing what the mistakes were and let her fix them herself. Sometimes it helps her to pay more attention, but she has a problem with wanting to get the work done fast instead of taking her time & checking her work.

  17. KHB*

    It’s certainly tricky to be in a position of responsibility but no authority, but I disagree that it’s impossible. You lack the authority to fire Penny, promote/demote her, or set her salary, but at least 90% of what managers do doesn’t directly involve any of those things. You can still oversee her work and give her directions and feedback, just as you would if you were her manager. It sounds like the core of the problem is that you don’t feel confident in doing those things – but that’s a problem that actual managers can have, too. (Think of all the letters from managers we’ve seen here of the form “How do I get Fergus to stop doing XYZ?” where the answer was essentially “You need to tell him in no uncertain terms to stop doing XYZ, because you haven’t done that yet.”)

    It sounds like Jane has too much else on her plate to oversee Penny’s day-to-day work, so that responsibility would need to be delegated to someone else in any event, whether formally or informally.

    My advice is twofold. First, sit down with Jane, let her know that Penny’s performance is not up to par so far, and ask how she’d like you to handle it. If she does want you to be in charge of overseeing the day-to-day stuff (as I suspect she does), you probably want to aim for a system where you loop Jane in every so often with regular status reports, or whenever something really major happens and you need her to back you up. You and Jane just need to pin down the meanings of “every so often” and “really major.”

    Then, work on getting better at telling Penny what to do – and at pointing out when what she’s done is not right. You say you think Penny’s taking your directions as suggestions, so work on making them sound less like suggestions. Instead of “You should probably do X next,” aim for “Please do X by time Y, so it’s ready for Z.” If time Y rolls around and there’s no sign of X, track her down and say “Hey, where’s X? We need it for Z.”

    You say you’re worried about upsetting her or looking like you’re on a power trip. Do your best to overcome those feelings. Part of gaining seniority in the workplace is that you do need to exercise power over others, and you sometimes need to tell them things they don’t want to hear. You’re not (or at least shouldn’t be) exercising power for power’s sake – you’re issuing directions in the interest of getting the job done that you were both hired to do. Good luck.

    1. Sparrow*

      I think Alison and the others are right that OP should stop taking the brunt of this, but I also agree that there’s a bit more OP can do in her interactions with Penny. It doesn’t sound like OP’s had a broader conversation with her about the pattern that’s developed around preparing these reports. I know that’s generally a manager’s responsibility, but as a peer who used to do this exact process, I think Penny is well positioned to frame it as, “Can I give you some advice on a few things I found really critical in my process for producing these reports? Based on [errors], I think they could be helpful to you, too.” If Penny refuses to listen, I think that’s a Jane issue, but I think OP still has some options for approaching her within their current dynamic.

      1. LW (I feel famous!)*

        I have not had this type of conversation but I agree it needs to be done. I will do it before the next round of reports is due!

      2. KHB*

        I think that’s far too light a touch for this situation. I’d opt for something more like “We need to stop distributing reports with so many errors in them. In the past, our error rate was about X, and now it’s Y. That’s too high, and people from other departments have been complaining. I understand that mistakes happen, but it’s your responsibility to double-check the numbers before the report goes out. I’ve put together a troubleshooting checklist, and I hope it will help you get the error rate back down where it needs to be.”

        And I definitely don’t think OP should go straight to “This is Jane’s problem, not mine” unless Jane tells her specifically that that’s what she should do.

      3. Evergreen*

        I agree; I think another step is to redistribute responsibilities: Penny prepares the report and the LW is responsible for checking it before Penny sends it out. If errors haven’t been fixed Penny must not send out (and this type of clarity can make it easier to loop Jane in when there are problems with future reports).

  18. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    I would have a conversation with your boss before saying anything to Penny or any other people that come to you about her. Explain the situation and ask her expectations of you. Then when others come to you, simply say “I’m not her manager, please see Jane about that” and repeat until they get it and stop coming to you. You were essentially her trainer, and someone she can come to with questions. It doesn’t matter if others see you as being in charge of anything, because the bottom line is that you’re not, so stop allowing others to treat you as such.

  19. R*

    Been there- I had a coworker lie on her resume and land a job with the same title/duties as mine. People complained to me she was horrible at her job but my boss quickly fired her. I’ve also had bosses be 100% aware of the situation and doing nothing. Once your boss is aware all you can do is divert the complaints to her, and wash your hands of the situation.

  20. Moray*

    I’m sort of in Penny’s position. Not in the sense that I’m making a lot of mistakes, but because I’m new and my manager just…doesn’t work. So the person I’m depending on daily is a peer–more experienced than I am, good at explaining things, reasonably patient. We have the same title.

    She’s great, but the situation is a bummer. I never know what I should and shouldn’t bring to her. I never know how to tell if I’m leaning on her too much. She doesn’t have the authority to greenlight major changes that I would normally get approval from a manager on. And I don’t want her to be accountable if I make mistakes because coaching me isn’t her job. She doesn’t have the title or salary that a supervisor would.

    We’ve talked about it, and she’s plainly said that if she doesn’t help me, nobody is going to. Boss just makes empty promise after empty promise (and is also neglecting more important parts of her work without consequences, so that’s not going to change.)

    1. LaDeeDa*

      Can you and your peer talk about it more– tell her you won’t get mad and your feelings get hurt if she says “no.” Then becomes partners to get your boss to address issues. Sometimes people bring things to me that aren’t within my scope, I can often handle them and give direction, but there are times when I don’t want to do something my boss should be doing, and I will coach the person on how to approach her to get what they need. Would that work for y’all?

    2. Tex*

      You can address that with your peer by saying that in the absence of feedback from the manager, how wpuld she like you two to function together as a team. That gives her an opening to use her institutional knowledge but still signifies your openness to change and a better dynamic between the two of you.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I have been the one saying, “if I don’t help, no one will…” .

      Ask her directly what you should bring to her. Generally, speaking try a thing or two before asking. And it is perfectly okay to say, “If I encounter a situation like this again, how do I begin to troubleshoot it on my own so I don’t have to keep asking you?” You may be surprised to find out that she says that a particular problem is something that comes up so rarely, you should just come get her.

      Some situations are just one of a kind, such as the printer catches fire. How often does that happen, not much. So there’s probably not a lot you can do with the unique problems. But you can definitely work on the recurring problems and get a handle on those.

      Remember your cohort’s reward comes later when you know what you are doing and you are able to keep up. She is willing to trade some extra effort now, for a much longer term of lower effort.

  21. acorn*

    Another “manager with no official authority” here! I too have a Penny who refuses feedback and does a poor job as a result. And a Jane who is too busy to deal with her. Why oh why do so many workplaces set things up this way?

  22. Holly*

    I’m troubled I haven’t seen any mention of the fact that this new person is getting paid the same as OP, despite not having the same years of experience (unless she made a lateral move?). OP, have you never gotten a raise since you were entry level at this company? That’s a red flag onto itself.

    1. BRR*

      I noticed that but I read it as they’re in the same position and the work is to be split equally between the two positions once Penny is up to speed. If that’s the case then I don’t have any issue. The problem in regards to pay is if the LW is being asked to do more. Training is a normal expectation, but the LW either needs to hand off performance issues to Jane if Jane doesn’t know or receive the formal authority, and pay.

    2. Deja Vu*

      I know for me in state government, everyone starts out at the same and there are no raises unless built into the state’s budget for the following year (which usually doesn’t happen). I have a coworker who took a demotion to come into our office and is making more than me but I am technically in the same boat as OP as far as training and taking flak for mistakes and oversights. It stinks but it’s a stat job right…? (insert crying face here)

      1. Holly*

        I guess when I think of state/city government jobs (I am also a government employee) I think of lockstep compensation per a contract or civil service rules. But you’re right there’s definitely other types of state government positions where that’s possible. I envisioned OP in a private company.

  23. LaDeeDa*

    UGG managing without authority help/training has become my number one request from employees. As our company continues to flatten it is translating into not giving people people managing roles, but making them manage people. It is so frustrating. In our recent corporate strategy meetings I brought this up to our President and CEO, and they don’t really understand or are not willing to address it at this time.
    Mid-year last year I incorporated a module into the project manager training my team deliveries, and I am adding it into my high-potential program, and I just finished writing a webinar about influence and persuasion which is a much more corporate approved way of saying “managing without authority.”
    Alison has talked about this many times and always gives great direction. If you need more help you can do searches for managing without authority, influence and persuasion to see some more practical techniques.
    Also, know this isn’t unique to you, I am hearing from my contemporaries and many companies that this is becoming a problem in all their organizations. I am planning to do a bit more research to see where this trend is evolving from- it isn’t something that came up that often 5 years ago– but it is constant now.

  24. TexasThunder*

    I slused to have an issue where I was supposed to be a technical and subject matter expert on a team, but was given zero authority in hiring or enforcing policy. I had 5 years more experience in an area, but the more junior people would say they understood why I suggested one approach but they would rather do it their way.
    I discussed it with my manager and I just got the unhelpful advice that I should act like a manager and persuade them. The issue was many of the team hadn’t the background to understand why their approach was mistaken, and bristled at suggestions from a perceived peer.
    Going forward I’m only going to act like a team lead if given actual authority.

  25. Not So NewReader*

    “Jane is not going to be happy about this…”

    OP, that is not a request for help. Seriously. It’s an implied request perhaps, but her helpless runs from not fixing the problem to not even being able to ask directly for help.

    Indirect requests are so annoying.
    You can assume she is talking to herself and ignore it.
    You can grunt.
    You can say, “You’re probably, right. You better fix it.”
    Or, “When you are ready to ask for help let me know.”

    Notice how you have not lifted a finger so far to help.

    So finally, she says, “OP, will you help me?”

    And this is where I am a mean, mean person, OP. “Sure. What have to tried so far to fix your problem? This is similar to what we went over on Thursday. Why don’t you try that then show me what you got.” Then I walk away.

    Here’s the thing, people who are good workers do not object, they understand that I am passing out fishing poles not fish. They understand that I am right near by and they can open the subject again.

    People who want to sponge their work off onto me, don’t get all this. Or at least pretend not to get all this.

    Not only are you shielding Jane here but you are also shielding Penny. Why not send the complaining cohorts to talk to Penny directly, too? You don’t have to absorb all those complaints for her.

    You say Jane is hard to get a hold of, so why not ask to schedule an in person meeting with her. Bring copies of the mistakes that you have been fixing. It would be helpful to quantify things, how many times a day do you fix mistakes, how much time does it take? How many people have complained to you? Is it the same mistakes or is she creatively making new mistakes everyday such as something she did right yesterday now no longer makes sense to her and she botches it. You can ask how long Penny is expected to be in training. If you know for a fact by x weeks she should have masted a, b and c, be absolutely sure to mention this shortcoming to Jane.

    It sounds to me like Penny is waiting for Jane to train her. This could be a misconception about workplaces or it could be a whim on her part. Ideally, Jane would say to Penny, “OP is your trainer. She will be giving me progress reports on how you are doing.”

    One thing I have done is to say, “Your probationary period will be up by x date. At that point you will need to be doing x, y and z on your own.” Sometimes that helps people to knuckle down and get serious.

    1. Magenta*

      This so much!
      Coaching and getting people to come up with the answers themselves takes more time and causes a lot of pain in the short term, but long term it is so much better.

  26. DataGeek*

    For reports that are the same every month like this there should be no way anyone should be making mistakes. There are systems and processes you can in place to avoid these type of incidents at all. I don’t see any mention of that beyond being more careful and detail oriented. There’s still a sanity check, but you have a process problem. You’re more likely to have Penny’s than Perfectionist so it’s really important to have checks in the system that avoid this issues. If the OP reads this and is interested I can provide some links or best practices.

  27. insert name here*

    I saw one positive which is that Penny recognised that the numbers were bad when she made her mistake. I’ve worked with people who could produce an answer out by a factor of 100 and send it in with a “here you go”. If she can tell when the answer is not as hoped for she can learn to go back through and double check in those cases.

    1. Dr Wizard, PhD*

      I didn’t get that impression at all!

      It looks like Penny would happily crunch numbers that said (per example) that sales are down 87% (instead of 8.7%) and declare ‘Oh, Jane’s gonna be so mad [that our sales are so terrible]’ and tell everyone that the company is circling the drain.

  28. DaniCalifornia*

    Man do I feel OP on this. I’ve let this happen to me at 2 jobs now and wish I could have had the answer here when I was in/am currently in that position. My previous job I ended up doing 2 levels above me and they expected that work all the time but weren’t willing to promote or pay me for it. My current job I’m paid well but there is no “advancement” as our office is <10 people so I've been the default person who gets asked to do things bc the other 2 admins have made mistakes. Drives me up the wall! I will definitely be using the language Alison suggested in her response in the future.

  29. Liz*

    OP, I’ve been exactly where you are, and some 4 years later am still dealing with different aspects of it, so let me strongly encourage you to speak up now.

    1) Make sure Jane is aware of what’s happening. It’s best to start with an actual conversation, so it’s easier to read the situation and it lessens opportunities for misunderstandings.

    2) Start documenting it. This may be emailing Penny to say “Hey, Jim from Accounting just called and said the number should actually be 8.7%. Can you please fix it and check for other errors?” and keeping a copy in a separate folder, CCing Jane, or emailing Jane with a punchlist for her to give to Penny.

    In my case, I did not advocate strongly enough to “Jane” at the beginning. Eventually, when I realized “Penny” was being paid more than I was, I escalated the issue and “Jane” fixed it by making me a supervisor… which resolved the pay discrepancy but left me in charge of “Penny” with no HR authority.

    So keep Jane in the loop at all times, document the issues so no-one can say “You never told Penny that” or “Penny has not had training for Blue Teapots”, and *do not let it rest*. Part of my problem is that “Penny” was not dealt with quickly, and the longer it went on the harder it was to do anything. “Penny” is now on the 6th year of working, and only just working at a Y2 standard… but as performance issues were not documented by “Jane”, my new manager “Linda” and I are having to start from scratch. It’ll be much harder to implement a PIP because we’ll have to explain why it went on so long.

  30. Eeether Eyether*

    OP #3: I have been reading this column for months–first time commentator, as this post hit a nerve. I am the admin for a VP at a very large international company. The *most* important part of my job is managing my boss’ calendar. If he has a conflict–and this happens many times throughout the day–I have to rearrange his entire schedule, including his 1:1s. Usually, with very little notice. In fact, I did it this morning–two of the attendees were already here for the meeting. I reschedule as many of the meetings as I can, for a time as close to the original meeting as possible, and make a huge effort to reschedule them for the same day. But if the president, or CEO, of the company wants a meeting during a time when something else is scheduled, it gets moved. Full stop. And, this is important…the meeting notices look like they come from my boss. But they come from me. I change his calendar–not him. He’s too busy doing his job. So, it might not be not your boss who is canceling your 1:1 meetings. It’s most likely his highly organized, albeit stressed, admin, doing *her* job.

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