my boss wants me to do her dirty work

A reader writes:

I switched to a new team at my company last year, working on a project that was understaffed until several of us were recently brought on.

One of my teammates, Joe, staffs a work area that heavily intersects with mine — on which he is supposed to operate fairly independently. Soon after we both started, our manager, Megan, expressed concerns to me about Joe’s performance and asked if I would help mentor him. I agreed, while making clear that I would only be able to give general feedback since his work area is not one I have much experience in and that my own workload seemed substantial. She agreed and said she wasn’t looking to offload his management.

Several months later, Megan’s feelings on Joe’s performance have worsened. At her repeated insistence, I increased my work with him to include partially overseeing some of his tasks — while again clarifying that I didn’t feel my workload or expertise allowed for the support or structure he needed. She agreed with that as well, but there is no one immediately available at our company to provide that topic-specific oversight.

Recently, Megan has initiated direct conversations with me about Joe’s future on the team. Rather than simply asking for my opinion and observations as a task manager and colleague (as I might have thought appropriate), she has been asking me to discuss “what we want to do about” the issue and asking me what my proposal is. Most recently, she asked me to develop criteria that we could measure his performance progress against (and ultimately evaluate whether he stays). I am anticipating that once those are agreed on, she may ask me to then manage that process with him.

I want to believe my boss’s intent is to be collaborative and to acknowledge that this question has big implications for my work — and perhaps to develop me as a team leader — but honestly, I feel like she’s trying to drop an uncomfortable process in my lap. This feels like it’s part of a pattern of avoidance that has impacted my colleague too, since his performance problems might not have reached this point if she hadn’t been avoiding managing him more actively earlier on.

Am I being overly sensitive? Is this normal? I have managed staff before (and would happily again, under different circumstances) and would never have dreamed of asking a subordinate’s teammates to help me decide what to do about their performance, even if they were task managing and providing input. But perhaps it’s not as odd as it feels to me?

I am still new to the team and can tell that taking care of this issue for Megan, one way or another, would be a big plus for my standing with her. But I’m uncomfortable with it, and just downright don’t want to. My gentle attempts to draw the line between our roles have fallen on totally deaf ears. Is there a way I can say, “Please do your own dirty work” that doesn’t sound like I just want to avoid responsibility?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 66 comments… read them below }

  1. Nesprin*

    “Hey Boss, unless you’ve promoted me to Joe’s manager without me knowing, I can’t handle this. If you have promoted me to Joe’s manager, I’d like to discuss title change and a raise. Otherwise, Joe is my coworker, and I’m happy to let you know when he’s missing deadlines that affect me, but assigning him tasks, and giving feedback is above my pay-grade. “

        1. LittleMarshmallow*

          It may not be great advice, but as someone that could’ve written this letter… I get the sentiment. It is incredibly frustrating and demotivating to be put in this position (in my case because of years of managers that don’t want to manage my Joe not just one manager). I definitely started out being gentler about it but now am definitely leaning towards “oh you don’t like conflict with Joe? How about conflict with me? Cuz that’s what you’ve got now. Conflict with me… congrats, you gonna manage now?”

      1. Meep*

        As someone who had to “manage” a Joe because his manager did not (it did not go over well – I was a whole year younger than him, female, and with a Bachelor’s while he had a PhD so he hated it and it was horrible for me) and had tried to get his actual manager to manage him, I kind of feel this language is necessary. She already tried several times to tell Megan that this is inappropriate. It needs to be explicitly stated now.

        I also have a feeling that Joe’s performance is worsening because of this lack of communication.

        1. NeedRain47*

          It doesn’t read to me like the OP has actually pushed back on this already. They may have said things like “I don’t have the experience with”, but they’ve been doing what the manager asks. They’d be better off starting out with clear but more professional wording like Alison suggests.

          1. As per Elaine*

            Yeah, I liked Alison’s next-to-last paragraph, about clarifying what the boss sees as OP’s role. I might well start there, though I do tend to directness.

        2. MegPie*

          If you look at Alison’s suggestions, they are direct/explicit, but not aggressive. Her scripts address the problem and suggest solutions. The above is a little angry, and rather than addressing the problem, it addresses what the poster *assumes* Megan is thinking, and suggests a solution in a way that doesn’t set anyone up for a collaborative solution.

        3. anonymous73*

          But she really hasn’t told Megan it’s inappropriate. She does need to be explicit and direct, but there’s a way to do that professionally. The suggested comment above is a bit over the top. And you can’t get mad and be aggressive with your response when you’ve been “gentle” when drawing a line.

        4. Kella*

          “Unless you’ve promoted me to manager without me knowing” isn’t explicit, it’s passive aggressive. Explicit would be asking the question, “Are you revising my duties to include management authority?” And if the answer is no, then, “Okay, I’m not currently able to perform X and Y with my job as it stands now.”

          1. Mockingjay*

            Yes, in these situations be careful how you phrase your questions. You might end up with a role you don’t want.

            “Are you revising my duties to include management authority?”
            “Why yes! Thanks for volunteering.”

            Not the solution OP is looking for.

    1. Ellie*

      Yes, the OP still has to work with this manager – softer language is going to help preserve the relationship. I would go with this wording, ‘If we are talking about performance managing Joe or putting him on a PIP then I don’t have the authority to do that. You may need to loop HR in. In the meantime, I can continue mentoring him.’

      Unless of course you’re done with the mentoring as well, in which case, ‘I don’t think my mentoring is helping Joe. If this is becoming a formal process then he will really need someone who is within his area/has more bandwidth/is closer to his skills’. Then take a step back… its not your problem.

  2. Trek*

    The one thing I learned from HR when managing employee with performance issues. ‘Have you clearly stated this could lead to their termination if not corrected?’ It did not matter if it was a new employee vs an old employee or someone in their first 90 days. They had to hear from leadership that their job was on the line so that they were clear we were ready to start documenting. If your company works like mine, Megan will never be able to terminate Joe because she has not met with him, she had not documented any performance issues, and she has not told him directly that he is not meeting expectations.

    1. Leela*

      yes yes yes.

      When I worked in HR it was all “I don’t know how many more hints I could drop!” Then you’ve said nothing! And even if you say something, if you don’t give the proper context (I am dissatisfied with your performance in X, Y and Z areas and need to see increases that look like [specific metric change here] by [date] or we’ll need to evaluate if we can keep you), it doesn’t necessarily look like a disciplinary conversation, just a weird aside. A lot of managers underestimate how very direct you need to be with these types of conversations.

      1. The OTHER Other*

        This is reminding me of an old Matt Groening cartoon about the different types of ex girlfriends, #6, the Girl From Outer Space: “I believe this interpretive dance will show how I feel about our relationship “.

        I’ve seen bad communication go both ways, sometimes managers think eye rolling behind someone’s back or ignoring their emails is a clear indication of what needs to happen.

        And sometimes bad employees act shocked when they are let go despite many very explicit conversations, written warnings, etc.

    2. LittleMarshmallow*

      Yes! And then you’re also just wasting the time of the person that’s trying to “document behavior” because it will never hold up in HR if the manager won’t do their part and make sure the employee knows their job is on the line. I’m in that position now and am getting to the point where I think I’m going to have to start looking. This isn’t sustainable. Managers out there, do not do this to your direct reports or colleagues. If you don’t want to manage then get another job. Don’t make everyone else’s lives miserable. If you’re doing this now to someone, stop and figure out how to do your job. No one is happy and you’re likely to loose the good one and get stuck with the one you don’t want to deal with.

      1. Whoo Girl*

        Yeeeeep. How often do we see letters about managers investing immense time and effort into propping up a low performer or mollifying a squeaky wheel? Meanwhile the reliable hard workers are quitting due to high workload, unfairness, lack of recognition, and pure frustration, and management is somehow baffled (or blames the departing employees).

  3. Don't be long-suffering*

    Maybe I’m misreading this. It sounds like you’ve told Megan you can’t do these management tasks, but when she pushes you agree to do them. Stand firm. Not my job. Don’t have time.
    Also, please tell her to talk to Joe. Imagine losing your job without ever hearing there’s a problem. Awful.
    Good luck with this.

    1. irene adler*

      “Imagine losing your job without ever hearing there’s a problem.”

      Exactly!

      Wondering, should the hammer drop on Joe, would manager see their way clear to throwing OP under the bus as the one responsible for Joe’s dismissal? Seems the logical next step here.

      1. INeedANap*

        This is exactly what I was thinking. The way I am interpreting the situation, should Joe ever need to be let go, it is going to be heavily implied to him, by Megan, that OPs “complaints” and/or poor mentoring was at fault.

        Frankly, I think OP needs to talk to Joe as well. It doesn’t need to be blunt “Megan is looking to fire you”, but some kind of warning to go to Megan.

        1. Hannah Lee*

          Yeah, I was thinking OP should mention something to Joe. Not sure the phrasing, but given that Megan seems to have been MIA as his manager, even saying “hey, have you talked to Megan recently, or has she had any 1 on 1’s, let you know how you’re doing?”

          Or the next time he under-delivers or doesn’t deliver, OP could as whether Megan had reprioritized his workload or was aware where his side of the project stood or ask whether Megan might be able to help him re-rack and stack priorities.

          1. SnappinTerrapin*

            “Hey, Joe, as you’ve noticed, Megan has asked me to give you some feedback over the past several months over the areas where our jobs intersect. That has been a little awkward for both of us at times.

            “I really think you and she need to sit down and talk to her about this, to be sure you and she are on the same page.”

            That would be an uncomfortable conversation, but I’m beginning to wonder if it might be the right thing to do.

            I’d rather have the awkward conversation with Megan first, spinning out that scenario for her, and telling her that it would be better for all concerned for Megan to have the awkward conversation with Joe.

            I’ve had some weak supervisors before, and their unwillingness to do the hard part of their job makes everybody else’s jobs harder than they need to be.

            I’m thinking seriously about having one of these awkward conversations with my manager now. Finding the right balance between tact and clarity isn’t easy.

            I’ve been a manager before, and probably will be again, but with some things going on in my family right now, I’d rather be able to let the folks who are better paid expend the energy necessary to get things running smoothly during the hours I’m not being paid.

        2. Ellie*

          I wouldn’t do that – performance issues should be confidential, and Megan shouldn’t be discussing these options with OP at all. Also, its going to confuse the issue and make it look like OPs problem to deal with when it isn’t. At worst, it could tip Joe off who could then make a complaint of some kind, and suddenly become extremely difficult to fire. A mentor should really just be helping Joe and offering support, its not going to support him to know that his performance is so bad, its at firing level. And who knows? Maybe Megan is incapable of firing him, so it turns out to be bad advice? She wouldn’t be the first manager to be caught like that.

      2. Texan In Exile*

        Been there. New VP waited until she eliminated my position in December to tell me that she didn’t like what I had done in June.

  4. Purely Allegorical*

    I’ve been in this situation, only my boss’s boss was asking me to help manage my boss. Boss’s boss eventually asked if I thought boss should be fired. The language I used was something similar to “Here’s what I’d like to see happen from someone in the role [explain specific things that are team needed to keep working moving]. I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to comment on Boss’s suitability for the role or on what we should do about him, but I can tell you I need XYZ from whomever is in the role and currently we are not getting it. The effect on the team has been ABC.”

    Focus on the impact to your work and then demur for the rest. “I don’t feel like it’s appropriate for someone in my role to be determining that”.

    1. Anita Brake*

      This is a great response! It delineates the roles of Purely Allegorical’s role and that of their boss, while also delineating the roles of Purely Allegorical’s role and that of their grandboss. Plus, it gives great feedback on what you are not getting, and which you need, from your boss.

  5. Lobsterman*

    I mean, isn’t the obvious right answer to be a terrible employee while cheerfully starting the job hunt?
    What’s Megan gonna do, fire OP?

    1. Kella*

      Or they could just communicate clear boundaries? It sounds like OP otherwise enjoys her job, it’s just this one new set of ill-defined responsibilities that she wants to turn down. That by itself really isn’t enough of a reason to need to find a new job.

      1. LittleMarshmallow*

        Agreed. This sucks if you otherwise like your job and would like to get back to just focusing on that and not having to upset your whole life just to regain the sanity of not having to manage someone for your manager. It feels like you’re letting them win.

  6. singularity*

    Joe himself has to think this is weird, right? I mean, a colleague managing your work, especially when they aren’t in your specified area? It makes me wonder if Joe has adopted a ‘do the bare minimum’ strategy because he knows his ‘real manager’ is never going to say anything to him.

    This is a huge red flag. OP, Megan is going keep trying to push things off onto you that aren’t part of your job, it won’t end when Joe leaves.

    1. As per Elaine*

      It depends on the org and the work. There are places where it would be pretty normal to have someone without formal managerial authority making on a project management role, or assigning tasks to a more junior colleague (heck, even a more senior one sometimes, if it’s the sort of place where different people take the lead on different projects). However, for that structure to be functional, when the person doing project management work tells the person doing people management work that there are issues with Joe’s performance, the people manager needs to deal with that.

    2. Hannah Lee*

      I feel like we’ve almost seen letters from the Joe in this situation. “Dear Alison, one of my co-workers, a peer, frequently gives me feedback, direction in ways that seem like she thinks she’s my manager. My actual manager, Megan, never mentions the tasks, changes Peer is directing me to do, so I’ve been ignoring and focusing on other priorities. Peer is now avoiding me, or giving me the sense she thinks I’m a bad employee, even though she’s not actually in my chain of command.

      How do I get her to treat me like her peer, not her subordinate?

      I thought of asking Megan to intervene, but I figured as long as she’s not raising any issues to me, she thinks everything is fine and I don’t want to make a stink if I don’t need to”

  7. The OTHER Other*

    I think if the time involved on this additional task is really the issue, then the response should be about that. “If I spend x time managing Joe, I won’t be able to do both Y and Z. Which would you like me to do?

    Language such as “not in my job description” or “this is above my pay grade” will probably not come off well.

    It is pretty crappy for a boss to foist off the most undesirable parts of management (PIP’s and possible disciplinary action/firing) while getting none of the perks, though there is the possibility this could lead to advancement, either with this employer or another. OP should document everything they are doing on this, employers generally find people with these skills, and showing this kind of initiative, valuable.

    Lots of jobs seem to want you to do the higher level job first and only then promote you into it; it’s kind of crappy but it’s not uncommon.

    1. Liz Lemon*

      That kind of response is good IF OP is ok with becoming Joe’s manager in place of other tasks. But it sounds like they enjoy their current job and are not interested in getting this responsibility.

    2. Hannah Lee*

      One possible side step might be LW going to HR, feigning innocence. “Joe’s manager Megan has asked me to document Joe’s failures to meet expectations and develop a PIP for him. Since I’m not his manager I have no idea where to start or if this is something I even have the authority to do. ”

      Which in a well run HR group should set off alarms, like why is OP, a peer, being asked to put Joe on a formal performance plan? With then a follow to Megan about what her role should be in managing Joe.

      Though I’d only do this if I was ok with moving into a managerial role, and with a good sense of how competent, engaged and ‘powerful’ or rules/process focued HR is in this particular company.

      Personally, I’d probably push back on Megan instead, but a side-step to HR might be helpful depending on the organization.

    3. Reluctant Mezzo*

      Lots of jobs want you to do the higher level stuff and pretend they’re going to promote you…someday.

  8. Kiitemso*

    Used to work for a company that did mentorship, but it was always a set period of close observation/help with a more experienced colleague and then it kind of ended. Like obviously you could go to your mentor if you had some questions but they didn’t have to hover over you or report back to your boss how you were doing a month or two later.

    You could say that mentorship hasn’t been helpful to Joe so now you need to focus more on your own work.

  9. anonymous73*

    You need to stop being “gentle” when drawing a line. She keeps asking you to do these management tasks, you gently push back, and then she convinces you to do them anyway. Establish boundaries about what you are and are not comfortable doing, and stand firm. You shouldn’t be having discussions about how to handle your colleague’s performance. If he’s doing something that directly affects you and your work, then you can bring that to her, but it’s up to her to decide how to manage it. Stop letting her take advantage of you.

    1. Momma Bear*

      I think this is part of it – she’s not making it clear to Joe what *she* needs from him, but neither is OP making it clear what they don’t want to do, either. Someone else said not to say it’s “above my pay grade” but sometimes it is very appropriate to say “I’m not a manager and I’m not comfortable with this.” Someone in this scenario needs to be direct.

      1. anonymous73*

        Yes I think you can tell someone it’s above your pay grade without saying those actual words. Kind of like “it’s not in my job description”. You don’t say that, but you push back by pointing them to the right person or procedure, or you ask them to reprioritize your tasks because you don’t have time to add something that normally isn’t your responsibility.

    2. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

      If anyone needs coaching, it’s Megan. She has no clue about how to manage. It goes beyond asking OP to do something way beyond OP’s authority; it’s also that Megan isn’t able to tread water (at least WRT supervision of an employee who is struggling), and is grasping onto OP like a life preserver. OP will figure out what to do.

      OP, as Alison has suggested to other OPs you might want to lean into the role of coaching Megan, if it suits you and if you are able to offload some of your other duties. It is possible to do so without blurring the lines of authority. You make it explicit that you will make no decisions, take no actions, or even make recommendations regarding Joe, while at the same time guiding Megan by simply asking questions:

      – What does Megan want to see from Joe?
      – How does Megan see Joe as meeting these requirements?
      – What does Megan think she can do to guide Joe in the right direction?
      – What markers can Megan use to measure Joe’s progress?
      Etc.

      Megan will likely ask you to answer these questions, but you resolutely refuse to do so, explaining that this is her job and not yours.

      You can still help her do her job better, and she will continue to rely on you, but in a more appropriate manner. This could help you get into management in you’re interested.

      1. anonymous73*

        I’m really baffled as to why you are suggesting that OP coach her manager to manage???

        It’s not OP’s job to manage Joe. It’s not OP’s job to coach her own manager. Period.

        1. SnappinTerrapin*

          You are, of course, correct.

          However, the lack of leadership on Megan’s part is negatively impacting LW’s work in several ways.

          The time and effort LW is expending coaching Joe isn’t solving that problem. Maybe coaching Megan a little will stimulate Megan to shoulder her responsibilities.

          If that doesn’t work, or if LW doesn’t want to try it (for all the obvious reasons), what other alternatives are open?

          She could disengage from seeking improvement, with predictable results. She could escalate the issue to Megan’s manager. She could give it all up as a lost cause and change jobs.

          Is there a better way to get this job on the right track?

        2. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

          It’s not OP’s job to coach her manager. But it may be in OP’s interest to coach her manager. This particular manager is willing to listen to OP, unlike in many other bad manager situations.

          The coaching would not, and could not, be about managing generally. But it could be about those aspects that are currently adversely affecting OP.

    1. Marthooh*

      Times are hard
      You’re afraid to say the fee-
      dback, so you find yourself somebody
      Who can do the job for free…

      1. Zaphod Beeblebrox*

        “I foresee terrible trouble
        And I stay here just the same”

        Consider not doing this…..

  10. Clorinda*

    This is really unfortunate for Joe. What feedback has he ever received from Megan? Does he even know that he’s in trouble here or does he think he’s mostly fine apart from his co-worker being weirdly pushy?
    It’s not fair. How can he improve if he doesn’t know? (And maybe he SHOULD know, but he doesn’t, and Megan’s not giving him the opportunity to learn.)

  11. Sick of Workplace Bullshit*

    Wow. That is really some next-level bullshit from Megan right there!

  12. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

    So when I first saw the headline I legit thought it read “My boss wants me to drink her dirty water”. The thing is like I could see a letter like that, so it didn’t register that I misread the headline until I was part way through the letter!

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      So far, we’ve had Steely Dan–and now we have the Standells! It’s classic rock day on AAM!

  13. Currently Bill*

    In this particular context, “dirty work,” MAY be appropriate. In general, I’m uncomfortable saying that basic performance management and communication should be considered “dirty.” It puts an unfortunate sheen on what (when done properly) is one of the most powerful tools an organization has for reaching its goals and supporting its employees at the same time.

    1. KRM*

      I see that, but part of the point of the letter is that Meghan clearly considers all this to BE “dirty work” that she doesn’t want to handle. We’d feel the same if she was making OP do boring paperwork she didn’t feel like doing, etc. It’s just unfortunate that in this case she seems to see “managing” as not part of her job, but something that she can offload on someone else when it gets uncomfortable for her.

  14. betsyohs*

    I was expecting part of Allison’s response to be some guidance on when to rope Megan’s manager into this, and now I’m trying to figure out if I’m off base, or if there would be a time that it’s appropriate to take this over Megan’s head. I totally agree that OP needs to be very direct and clear with her language, and I agree that talking to Megan first is the way to go. But then, if nothing changes, is there a point when you go up a level? And is that point way down the line when this sort of issue has become part of a larger problem? Or is it more immediate to this specific situation?

    1. SnappinTerrapin*

      I think it’s getting close to that point, but not yet. That is even more emotional labor on LW’s part than the things she might try before doing so, and none of them should be her responsibility in a well-run business.

    2. LittleMarshmallow*

      I think this very much depends on the organization. In some previous rolls, if my manager had done this to me, I’d have felt pretty comfortable going to grand boss for help, but in my current roll, going to grand boss would be very weird. Partly because of a restructuring to “flatten the org” so now grandboss is ridiculously high up in the org to be dealing with this TPS report level crap, but mid level managers aren’t equipped to deal with more entry level employees that need a lot of attention (which is leading to this phenomenon of delegating “management” to non-managers) and everyone is unhappy.

  15. Trawna*

    “… but there is no one immediately available at our company to provide that topic-specific oversight.”

    Well, that’d be Megan’s problem as his manager and the person with access to budgets. Not your circus, as they say.

  16. Dennis Feinstein*

    I had a similarish situation around 20 years ago when I had no management experience.
    I was the deputy editor of magazine A. Our magazine shared an office with magazine B.
    Magazine B editor was going on maternity leave. Publisher tells deputy editor of magazine B that she can be acting editor. Naturally she’s excited. A little too excited maybe. Publisher goes cold on her. Decides he now DOESN’T want her as acting ed. Asks me to do it. Because I’m young and stupid and inexperienced I agree.
    Then he tells me that I have to break the bad news that she’s not acting ed, I am.
    This went down about as well as you’d expect. She obviously thought I’d whiteanted her. You can imagine how much fun it was being her manager after that…
    Of course NOW I know I should’ve said, “No. You decided you don’t want her, so you tell her [you lily livered good for nothing man baby]” but we’re all wise in hindsight…
    OP please make Megan do her own job. That’s why she gets paid the big bucks (or bigger bucks than you presumably).

    1. Seeking Second Childhood, CTA*

      Vocabulary lookup, to save others. This from Wikipedia :
      White-anting is an Australian term for the process of internal erosion of a foundation. It is often used in reference to groups such as political parties or organisations where information from group insiders is ‘leaked’ or used to undermine the goals of the group. The Macquarie Dictionary says the verb “to white-ant” means “to subvert or undermine from within”.

  17. Anonymous Bosch*

    I appreciated the Steely Dan references. While the “Dirty Work” Steely Dan meant was of a different sort and would be unlikely to occur in an office environment, we’ve had some pretty wild letters here at Ask A Manager. Maybe one day there will be a letter on that topic.

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