transcript of “My Boss is Burning Out”

This is a transcript of “My Boss is Burning Out.”

Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show! Today I’m going to answer a bunch of shorter questions from people. The first question today is from someone who’s worried that her boss is burning out.

Caller 1: I need some advice. Over the last nine months or so I have been slowly burning out at my job, but that’s not the problem. I am taking steps to combat my own burnout.  The problem is that over this time, I’ve been watching my company add more and more work to my boss. It’s like the higher ups have asked themselves “What else can we do to burn Boss out?”, then they do what they think of.  They have assigned her to time consuming projects only to pull her off of them mid-way through, essentially wasting her time. We have had three other supervisors quit. Instead of back-filling their positions, the powers that be just assign the abandoned teams to my supervisor, increasing her workload again.

I am part of her original team of seven (she’s now up to 25 direct reports), and each of us want to have her back as much as possible. She is a stellar boss, and goes to bat for us time and time again when we need help getting our work done or meet resistance from other departments. So, my question is what can I and the rest of the team do to support her? I have taken on all the little projects/assignments/tasks she has turfed out to me to lighten her load.  Is there anything else? None of us want to lose her, and many of us would probably jump ship with her if it ever came to that.  I would really appreciate your input here.

Alison: Well, first, you’re so kind to be thinking about this. Being the boss can be a thankless job and not everyone would look at this situation and think to have the reaction that you’re having. So your boss is really lucky to have you.

I think the thing to know here is that there are some things that you can do to make your boss’s life more pleasant right now, and we’ll talk about what those are, but you aren’t going to be able to solve the big, fundamental problem here, which is her workload, and the way she’s being managed from above. For the record, having 25 direct reports is insane. The number of direct reports that one person can handle effectively is somewhere around six or seven. In some cases, maybe where the people being managed are doing very rote work or very independent work, it could be more – but 25 is well beyond anything that’s reasonable. So the fact that she’s still coming across to you as a stellar boss while managing that many people and stretched that thin is really impressive. And then you throw in all the rest of her workload, because it sounds like she’s doing her own projects on top of all of that management, and it’s pretty exhausting to contemplate.

So, back to you and how you can help. I think one important thing to realize here is that the best thing for her to do might be to get out – to leave this situation and fto ind a better, more manageable job for herself. So I don’t want you to think of your role as needing to figure out how to keep her, or the best case outcome that you somehow make this just bearable enough that she decides to stay. Because it might be best for her if she leaves! Instead, I would focus on making sure that she knows you appreciate her, and that you want to pitch in and help make her life easier right now however you can. So yeah, if you have room on your own plate, volunteer to take some work off of hers. And be easy to work with – you know, have your own house in order – don’t let work slip through the cracks, keep her proactively apprised about where things stand, and when you need things from her, streamline it, make it as fast and as easy as possible for her to give you input or approve something or otherwise get you what you need. Because being easy to manage will make her life easier.

And then, this is really important, be explicit with her about appreciating her! You told me that you think she’s a stellar boss and that she’s gone to bat for you over and over, that she helps get what you need when there are problems with other departments. And I wonder, does sheknow that you think that? From what I’ve seen, when people like and appreciate their managers, it doesn’t always occur to them to tell the manager that! They think it’s unneeded or it won’t be a big deal to the manager – but this is alwaysa great thing to hear, and I’m 100% sure that your manager would be really happy and really grateful to hear you say that. Based on what you’ve described about her workload, I bet she thinks she’s barely holding things together, so hearing the opposite from you would be really nice. Or, maybe she is aware of how much she’s doing to hold things together and doesn’t know if anyone other than her sees it – so let her know that you do. Basically, tell her what you said in your call – that you see how much she does, love having her for a boss, and that you appreciate her. The times I can think of that employees have told me that, it’s meant an incredible amount to me. So tell her!

But don’t get too attached to hoping that she’ll stay. Of course you don’t want to lose a good boss, especially in a situation that sounds pretty difficult to navigate, but if we’re talking about what’s best for her, it sounds like it might be a good thing for her if she does decide to leave. And that’s okay!

Okay, next letter.

Caller 2: Hi Alison. I have a question for you. I worked for a nonprofit for over four years and during that time I did artwork for a lot of their events, never when I was working on the clock in my day job but as a freelance artist. I was always paid a pre-agreed amount, but we never wrote anything down as to who owned the images or as to specific use for them.

After an extremely bad year, I was unfortunately let go by a bad manager. I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t still hurt and make me angry. I really loved that job and I put a lot of heart and soul into it.

Now it has been almost a year and I discovered that the Halloween illustrations I created for the organization are being used again. I don’t want to demand that they stop using my artwork, because they paid, they commissioned it. But when I was an employee, it was openly acknowledged that I was the artist and credited for it. A lot of people knew just by talking around the organization.

So my question is, do you think it be unreasonable to ask for credit for any future use of my work? Or would it just seem like retaliation from a bitter ex-employee?

Alison: So the answer here is that unless you had a written agreement that they would give you credit whenever they used the images, they probably do have the right to use them without crediting you. It ispossible to have a written agreement that says they have to credit you whenever those images appear, but if you didn’t arrange that, what they’re doing is likely fine. I know that you said you were doing this as a sort of freelance thing for pay on top of your regular work for them. It’s very likely that this was what’s called work for hire, which means that they hired you specifically to create images for them that they would then own. So they can use those, they can probably use them without crediting you, you probably can’t demand that they stop. And I know you weren’t proposing that you do that, but just to give you some background on that.

It’s also true that sometimes organizations give bylines to current employees but not to former ones. You see this more with writing – but if you’re working for an organization and you write something, they might give you the byline while you’re there, but once you leave they might just credit the work to the organization more generally. So they’re not necessarily doing this to spite you or try to erase your contribution – it might just be standard practice for them to not put people’s names on things if they’re no longer working there.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t still try to make the request. You can definitely ask! And you know, the worst they can do is say no. I don’t think you’ll sound like a bitter ex-employee as long as you frame the request in the right way. You don’t want to contact them and say, “Hey, those are my images, so you need to give me credit” – because that will just invite them to point out that actually, those are their images now because they bought them from you and/or you did it as work for hire, and they don’t need to credit you. But you could say something like, “I saw you’re using the illustrations I created! I’m so glad that they’re still in use – I had a lot of fun making them. Would it be possible for you to still credit the images to me the way that you used to? I’m proud of the work and it would mean a lot to me to be credited for them.”

With that approach, you’re not demanding anything, you don’t sound bitter, you’re explaining what your interest is. And who knows, maybe they’ll say yes. But it’s possible they’ll say no, and if they do, it’s probably not personal – so just respond graciously if that does happen.

One other thing I will say is – before you do this, think about what is driving it. If it’s something like you’re working to build a portfolio of illustration work and it would be professionally helpful to have your name on that work, that makes sense – although keep in mind you can still put that work in your portfolio even though your name doesn’t appear on it; it’s pretty normal for designers to do have work tin their portfolio that doesn’t carry their name once it’s published and you can still claim it as yours when you’re trying to get future jobs. But if your motivation is more emotional than that – if you’re hurt by being fired, and it stings to see them using your work even though they let you go, and this feels like a way to somehow ease some of that – you know, to vindicate yourself, like “look, if I was bad enough to be fired, why are you still using my work?” – if that is more in line with your thinking, I would strongly consider not pursuing this. While this is very emotional to you, to them it’s really just business … and whether or not they do credit these images to you, it’s not going to change your feelings about what happened, and I worry about you pursuing it in an attempt to soothe that hurt. So just give that some thought before you decide whether or not to get in touch with them.

Caller 3: Hi Alison. I was hoping to get your input on an issue I encountered at work recently. I’m a female manager in her late 20s who is relatively new to managing. One of my reports who is male and around my age has, since I was promoted to this position, been having performance issues. As we went through this, I pointed out instances where I saw the issues, I had a bigger conversation with him a few months ago where I told him what the expectations were, I told him how he was falling short of those, and I told him that if he continued to fall short of them, I’d have to put him on a performance improvement plan. So we continued to see those issues and I followed through and put him  on a 30-day PIP, and during that time I continued having our weekly one-on-ones. And throughout all of this, boss was in the loop and supported me.

So as the end of the PIP approached, we were having our final one-on-one, I told my report that we hadn’t seen sufficient improvement and that it was very likely, based on what we’d seen so far, that we’d have to let him go at the end of the plan. He was of course understandably upset, but after that conversation, I thought it went about as well as these things can.

What I didn’t know was that after we had that conversation, he turned around and called my boss. He told my boss that I have a personal vendetta against him and that this plan was not long enough to allow him to show improvement. My boss told this guy that he needed to talk with me about it, but what he’s now telling me is that we have to extend the PIP because this employee is in California, where the employee protections are relatively strong and my boss is afraid that this guy will file a lawsuit – not even necessarily that he’d be successful but we don’t want to deal with the time or expense of this lawsuit.

My questions are: First, is there something that I should have done this differently over the course of this, particularly should I have tried to give him a heads-up that I didn’t think things were working out? Secondly, what should my boss ideally have done in this scenario? And thirdly, how do I handle this situation going forward? Because even if this employee fixes his issues at this point, and also just and annoyed that he would go over my head so I’m not quite sure what to do going forward.

Alison: I’m frustrated with your boss here. You did everything right in this situation, from what you’ve said – you had multiple conversations with your employee about the problems in his work, you clearly laid out the expectations for him and where he was falling short, you gave him a formal improvement plan with benchmarks he’d need to meet to show improvement and a specific period of time to do it in, and you kept your boss in the loop the whole time. This is exactly the way to handle performance problems. You said you’re a new manager, so first, kudos to you for getting this so right, because performance problems can be really hard to handle, even for more experienced managers but especially for new managers, and it sounds like you nailed it. And you did something that’s really important – you kept your boss informed while it was happening and made sure that he supported what you were doing.

I don’t know if your boss has acknowledged to you that he messed up here – but if not, he should. It’s one thing for him to realize, uh oh, we really should give this longer than 30 days – and I’ll say, I don’t even know if that’s right in this case – there aresome performance issues that take longer than 30 days to be able to know if the person should remain in the job or not, but for the vast majority of situations, 30 days is a very reasonable amount of time. That doesn’t mean that someone will vastly improve their skills in that time, but it’s enough time to tell what kind of trajectory the person is on. Are they clearly on the path to getting better or are they not. For most jobs, 30 days is enough time, and most performance plans really don’t need to be longer, although a lot of organizations write very lengthy ones. But let’s say that in this case, your boss is right and something like 60 days would have been better. Fine. But he should have thought that through earlier. And the problem with changing it now is that it is signaling to your employee that he can reverse your decisions by going over your head to your own boss when he doesn’t like something you told him. It’s undermining to you, and you really need this employee to respect your authority and your decision making. Your boss is actually setting this guy up to think that maybe in another 30 days, if he hasn’t passed the extended plan, he can go over your head then too and maybe get more time or get the whole thing canceled. It’s not great for him to set him up to believe that, and it’s definitely not good for you as a manager.

Also, for the record, California does not have any law that would prohibit you letting someone go for performance reasons. You can’t fire someone – in any state – because of their race or gender or their religion or disability or so forth, but in every state, including California, you can fire someone for legitimate performance reasons, and you’re on especially safe ground when you have the kind of documentation of those issues that a performance improvement plan provides you with. Now, if your boss is worried about nuisance lawsuits, I get that – and if he just wants to double your documentation to ward that off, I get that as well. But he should at least acknowledge to you that he messed up by not figuring that out earlier on, and that now now he’s put you in this difficult position with your employee – and he should be telling you that he will definitely have your back in letting this guy go in 30 days or whatever time period you decide if the problems continue.

Now, you asked if you should have tried to give your employee a heads-up that things were not working out. But you did! That’s what a performance improvement plan is! Assuming that you did a plan that clearly said you have 30 days, you need to improve in the following ways during that time, and if not, we may let you go – that isa heads-up. That’s a very clear heads-up. That in fact is a huge part of the point of doing an improvement plan, to make sure everyone is on the same page about what needs to change and what will happen if things don’t change.

As for what your boss should have done, well, he should have thought this out earlier so that if he wanted to do a longer plan, you would know that from the outset. Or he should have told this guy when he called him that you and he had spoken and were aligned about the situation. And he certainly should be giving you some reassurance now that he’s not going to flip flop again at the end of this extension.

As for how to handle the employee going forward, it sounds like you areextending the improvement plan, like another 30 days or something like that, I’m guessing. I suspect, just based on watching a lot of these situations, that he’s not going to improve, not because people don’t improve when they’re put on improvement plans, a lot of people do, but based on the fact that he haven’t done it so far, I’m skeptical that giving him another 30 days will somehow change that. I suspect you will have clear-cut justification to let him go at at the end of the extension.

So I would talk to your boss right now and make absolutely sure you’re on the same page now, that he’s on board with that plan, so there are no surprises when that happens. But if I’m wrong and you do see the improvement you need, then great – if he’s working at the level you need, then fine. But you would want to make it very clear that that improvement needs to be sustained over time – he can’t slip back to old habits and then expect he’ll get a brand new improvement plan and start that process all over again. A condition of taking him off the plan is that everyone agrees that this performance level will be sustained, and that if not not, you would need to let him go. And you want to make sure your boss is on board with that and that you talk through exactly what that would mean in different scenarios, so that he doesn’t pull the rug out from under you again. And when I say talk through in different scenarios, I mean really spell it out. Because he may thinking, “Sure, yeah, that sounds good in theory.” But he may think it through more thoroughly or more critically if you say, “Okay, just to make sure, if the next 30 days go the way that these last 30 days went, then on December 1 – or whatever your date is – that means that we would let him go. Is that your understanding as well?” You know, really spell it out and make sure that he’s thinking it all the way through because sometimes with managers you’ll do that and they’ll think, “Oooh, no, I’m not actually comfortable with that.” And it’s better to find that out now so that you can figure out a plan that he will actually be on board with the whole way through.

About being annoyed with your employee for going over your head … I get it, it’s annoying, but I think the way to look at it is to decide, you know, we’re talking about his job here and if he truly believed that he was being treated unfairly, it isokay for him to escalate it. I mean, if he really hadbeen treated unfairly, we would want him to have recourse in that situation. Ifyoufelt like your boss was treating you unfairly, it might seem reasonable to go over his head to hisboss, right? So I would just try to remember that. If you get into a situation where he keeps doing it repeatedly, that’s a problem and you’d need to talk to your boss about redirecting this guy back to you. But if it just happened once, and when his job was on the line, it’s understandable. So I’d try to let that part of it and move past it.

Caller 4: I share my office with two women. Our “spaces” are a cubical type area. My issue is, I have a coworker who loves to eat nuts or chips while at her desk, which is fine, however she is an incredibly loud chewer.  It sounds like she’s always chewing on a handful of rocks.  On top of that, in recent months she’s started to answer her phone and speak to our customers while chewing on these treats.  I find it so rude.  It doesn’t really bother my other coworker, but it drives me crazy. I’ve resorted to wearing headphones all day and listening to music or podcasts. In recent weeks, things have gone downhill. She’s now started belching out loud without an “I’m sorry.”

I just don’t know what to do anymore.  I know in the next year or two we will be moving and all of us will get our own offices, so this is not an issue I’ll have to deal with forever, but for the time being, what do I do? Although not ideal, I can deal with it with my headphones, I’m just more concerned with her talking to our customers while eating!  I just don’t know how to go about this situation! Please help!

Alison: Well, you have my sympathies, I know how aggravating it can be to be trapped next to someone who’s making a sound that grates on your nerves all day long. I don’t know if it makes you feel any better or not, but my inbox is full of letters from people whose coworker sits nearby and makes some kind of annoying noise all day long. Sometimes it’s loud chewing, sometimes it’s drumming their fingers, sometimes it’s talking to themselves, or having loud phone calls – there are a bunch of different ways that this happens, and it’s slowly driving a large portion of office workers crazy, from what I can tell from my mail. I know it can sound like a small thing when you’re not the one dealing with it, and I do think it’s true that some people just aren’t that bothered by these types of sounds … but if you’re someone who is, it can be so aggravating, especially because you’re a captive audience when you’re at work and you can’t easily get away from it.

The thing is though, there might not be a lot you can do about it. Using headphones to block it out is smart, and if you don’t feel like having headphones in all day, you could also try white noise if the coworkers around you will agree to it. If it were something like humming or drumming her fingers, you could just ask her directly – you know, “hey, you probably don’t realize you’re doing this, but it’s pretty distracting – could I ask you to stop?” But with eating, it’s harder to say, “Hey, you’re a loud chewer and it’s gross, please stop.”  Well, maybe you could, actually – with some relationships, if you got along really well and had good rapport, you actually could kind of joke about it and say, “Good lord, you’re a loud chewer! You’ve got to keep that down or I’m going to confiscate your chips!” If you have that kind of relationship where you like each other and you joke together, maybe you could do that. But it won’t go over well with everyone. And some of this may just be realizing that working around other humans means working around noises – it’s just part of the package, because we are a loud and gross species, some of us more than others.

But there is that thing about her talking to clients with her mouth full, and that one honestly might not really be your business, even though I get why you’re annoyed by it. If you have a really good relationship with her, it is possible that you could say something like, “Hey, I don’t know if you realize, but if I were your client, I could probably tell you were chewing while talking to me just now and I probably would not be thrilled.” But if you don’t have a close relationship with him or a relationship that allows for that, then I think you’ve got to just figure that’s not your problem to solve. It’s something her boss might want to address, but it doesn’t really rise to the level of thing that you should tip her manager off about.

Okay, let’s do one more.

Caller 5: I have a question for you about a somewhat sensitive work subject. I began a new job about three weeks ago and it’s since come to my attention through two separate conversations with two separate employees that I work with that there were three people in the office who left around the same time about three months ago. So this is prior to me starting. And they left rather abruptly and both of my colleagues at different points have said to me that there’s confusion about why they left, but that it is a sensitive subject and they’re not 100% sure what the reason is that they left or why they left abruptly. In fact, one of my colleagues said to me that she was away on vacation and when she returned, there were a lot of meetings behind closed doors and then those employees were gone.

So my question is this: Is this something that I should raise to my supervisor? Should I say to her that two of our colleagues have spoken to me about this and that it concerns me and I’m wondering if she can reveal a little bit about what happened and how it will affect the work culture of our office? Thank you.

I wouldn’t, especially not as a new employee. Because the thing is, there are all kinds of reasons this could have happened. It could have been that they were laid off because of budget cuts. It could have been that they were fired – even for different reasons for each of them and the timing was a coincidence, or maybe there had been long running issues with all of them and your office decided to deal with it all at once. Or they could have been fired for the same reason – who knows, they could have been doing something shady together, or all involved in something that was fireable. Or they could have all resigned in protest over something, to make a point. There’s no way to know what it was, but any of these would definitely have resulted in the closed door meetings that your coworker saw.

If you were a long-time employee and you had concerns about what had happened, it would be reasonable to talk to your manager and ask if there was anything she could share with you. She might not be able to because often things like firings are confidential and with good reason, but it wouldn’t be out of line to ask.

But as a new employee who’s only been there a few weeks and who wasn’t there a few months ago when this happened, it’s going to look a little odd to ask about it. You risk it coming across as gossipy or otherwise it just not being clear what your stake is in finding out. Now, certainly if you had heard specifics that you wanted to ask about because of a concrete concern it raised for you now – like if there had been harassment or discrimination issues and you wanted to know how those would be handled going forward – that would be something you could ask about. Or if it was something like one of the people who left used to do part of your job and now there are questions about how that work will be handled, you could ask about that. Or if there were things that you potentially needed to know about to do your job – like if one of them had worked closely with a client you now handle, and you needed to know if there was any sensitive history for you to be aware of, that’s something you could ask about.

But if it’s really just “I heard people left under mysterious circumstances and I want to know why,” it’s not really something that you have a lot of standing to ask about, especially when longer-time employees haven’t been told.

Now if you are worried that maybe this says something problematic about the culture, the best thing to do there is to reserve judgment and pay attention to what you are seeing firsthand. You know, how does your manager manage? What’s the culture on your team? Are you getting clear expectations for your role, and useful feedback, and the support you need to do your job? Is your manager approachable? I’d put the most weight on that stuff – the stuff that you see happening now, and not get too caught up in worrying about something from before you were there, unless and until you see it playing out in more concrete ways that would make it more relevant to you.

Well, that it our show for today! If you’d like to hear your question answered on a future episode, I would love to answer it. You can record it on the show voicemail by calling(855) 426-WORK. That’s 855-426-9675. Or, you can record it in a sound file on your phone and email it to

That’s it for today, and I’ll be back next time with more questions.