I’m being blamed for a coworker dropping the ball while I was out, hijacking a birthday party, and more — Ask a Manager


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

1. I’m being blamed for a coworker dropping the ball while I was out

I was recently out for three weeks due to scheduled surgery. An important task needed to be completed as quickly as possible during my absence. Since I could not do it before my surgery because I was still missing some key information, I asked my colleague whether she could do it. She said yes and I provided her with all necessary info.

During my recovery, I called her once or twice because of unrelated matters and asked how the task was coming along. Both times, she said she hadn’t gotten around to it yet but she’d do it. I told her to please keep me posted on this, even while I was sick.

The day I came back, she still had not done anything. The client had written an angry email to my boss and cc’d me and complained that I did not get anything done since quite a bit of money was at stake.

This task is usually not my coworker’s responsibility, and she is not obliged to do it for me. It was supposed to be a favor. If she didn’t have the time or simply didn’t want to, that’s fine. But why didn’t she tell me that? Or she could have called me after a week and told me, “Sorry, I realized I don’t have time for this!” Am I in the wrong to expect this?

I told my boss that I had delegated the task to another team member who had not gotten around to it, but I didn’t say who. My coworker has been with the company for 20 years and my boss works very closely with her. I have only been here for one year. I also didn’t want to say anything without talking to her first. Unfortunately, she is now on vacation until the end of September, so I have to wait until she comes back. How should I approach this? Am I in the wrong for expecting she’d at least inform me that she cannot do it?

No, you’re not in the wrong. Your coworker told you she would do the task, and then continued to assure you she was on it when you asked. If she realized she couldn’t do it, she needed to proactively tell you or your boss that.

I don’t think you can adequately defend yourself without telling your boss exactly what happened, which means naming the coworker (and it would look shady not to). It doesn’t need to be accusatory, though; you can allow for the possibility she did the task and emailed it before she left and the message went astray, or who knows what else. But explain to your boss that your colleague agreed to do it and you followed up with her several times and she assured you she was on it, and that you don’t know what happened but will find out once she’s back.

In the future, it makes sense to fill in your boss ahead of time on who will be covering things for you in your absence — not just to ward off situations like this, but also in case questions about it come up while you’re gone. You can tell her that you’ll do that from now on, and also ask if there’s a different way she would have liked you to handle this one.

2. My birthday is being hijacked

I have a question that feels ridiculous to even ask, but it’s bothering me more than I expected. A friend and colleague (we’ve known each other for years before starting at our current company; we were always more “acquaintances” than friends but we’ve never been at odds with each other, and we got closer while working together), “Jane,” and I almost share a birthday. Jane’s birthday is one day after mine. This is something that that Jane definitely knows. This year, Jane invited me to a birthday party for herself, to be held on my actual birthday because of weekends. The invite was online so I could see the guest list, and it is 100% mutual friends and work colleagues and includes all the people I would have invited to a celebration of my birthday.

If this were on any other day, I’d be happy to go and bring Jane a gift, but now I feel like if I go and other people brought Jane a card/gift, it will be awkward when they find out that it’s my actual birthday and they don’t have anything for me. I know this is small potatoes, but I feel really slighted here. The invite was also sent out a few weeks in advance, before I had invited people to celebrate my birthday, and now I feel like I can’t invite my friends to something for me unless I change the day. Even as I write this, I know it’s silly, but do you have advice for what to do? Am I just being ridiculous? I just wish Jane had asked me to do something together.

Why not just say to Jane, “I’d been planning to organize something for my own birthday, which is that day, and would have invited a lot of these same people. Want to make it a joint party for both our birthdays?”

I wouldn’t normally advocate trying to hijack part of someone else’s event for yourself, but when it’s your actual birthday and it’s the same group of friends (that last part is key), it makes a lot of sense.

3. How to get my co-interviewer to share her real opinions about candidates?

I work in a healthcare setting, manage the support staff, and am conducting interviews next week. For our interviews, the head of department always assigns a medical professional to interview with me. Usually this goes well and I have no problems. However, the colleague assigned this time — who I get along with well — has never conducted interviews before and is a real people pleaser. She is good at her job, but she never shares her thoughts in meetings/conversations and just agrees with the majority consensus. My concern is that I need the opposite in an interview process. If she simply agrees with me, even though she may think differently, then it is no different than me interviewing on my own. It is supposed to be a panel for a reason.

My plan was to not state my thoughts and instead push for her to speak first so she cannot simply repeat my opinion. However, I am skeptical this will work as I have tried this in the past with her and she just would not answer and kept deflecting back to my thoughts. Is there anything else I can do? How would you handle this?

Even when you’re not concerned about your co-interviewers being overly influenced by you (or each other), it’s still smart to create an interview rubric form that you each use to assess candidates, listing the key must-have’s and the nice-to-have’s that you’re looking for in candidates, and then each fill the form out on your own before you meet to discuss a candidate post-interview. That kind of assessment tool will ensure that you’re measuring each candidate against the same bar and can help mitigate bias (because you’ll be assessing candidates on clear requirements, not just a gut feeling or personal like/dislike — and has the side benefit of forcing your coworker to put her impressions down on paper before she has the chance to be influenced by you.

4. Taking a maternity leave without destroying my freelance business

I’m a self-employed nonprofit fundraising consultant, currently pregnant and due in spring 2024. I support a handful of organizations and I operate as a team of one (no subcontractors or employees). My business is a dream come true: I work remotely, doing projects I’m passionate about and highly skilled in, and I have tremendous flexibility.

I’d like to take a three-month maternity leave when the baby comes. As I see it, my options are: (1) Give my clients as much notice as possible about my upcoming leave and let them know I’ll be unavailable during that time. In the meantime, I would work with them to get ahead on as many projects as possible. The goal would be to make things relatively turn-key and avoid leaving my clients in the lurch. (2) Hire a subcontractor to work with clients on my behalf while I’m on leave.

I’m less inclined to do #2 because I don’t have anyone in mind to hire as a subcontractor, I don’t want to manage payroll or other issues that might come up while I’m on leave, and I don’t want to be worrying whether they’re delivering the quality of work my clients need. That feels like too much potential stress on top of all the craziness of caring for a newborn and my older child.

However, I’m concerned that a three-month gap may cause some of my clients to walk away. I’ve built up a strong client base over the last couple years and I don’t want to lose the great thing I have. I know my clients trust me and value my work, but I also know they have significant fundraising needs and may struggle to get the work done on their own. My leave also happens to coincide with one of the busiest times of year for nonprofit fundraising!

Option #1 seems far preferable to me for all the reasons you name. If you already had someone in mind who you knew you could rely on, that would change things. It’s not impossible that you could try to find someone before then, but you’d need to work closely enough with them between now and your leave to be comfortable letting them stand in for you while you’re unavailable (presumably with a contract prohibiting them from making a play for the client’s business for themselves), and it’s far from guaranteed that you’d find the right person … and meanwhile you’d be paying for their work with you during that pre-leave period, plus managing them (which is a substantial time investment), at exactly the same time as you want to be doing extra work to get ahead on projects in case the person doesn’t end up being the right one. It’s a lot of additional work without a guaranteed payoff.

If you have strong relationships with your clients, you’re not likely to lose them over a three-month leave with lots of preparation. Good fundraising consultants are hard to find, and if they like your work and you’re very transparent about how you’re arranging things for your absence, you’re likely to be fine. (However, you could always test this with a client or two — have the conversation now and feel out their reaction before you proceed with the others.)

5. Can I refuse to do this extra work?

I have a regular academic job and am getting close to retirement. I also get a very modest annual honorarium for editing a journal for a publisher (think four figures). The amount of work I put into it well exceeds the compensation, and the job has been a lot of effort. The journal was moribund when I took it on, and it is now one of the leaders in the field and turning a profit.

I’m entering the last year of my several years tenure as editor, and the publisher is now asking me to do another large marketing task in addition to editing which involves a lot of coordination and time. A little while ago, I received a very small raise to account for inflation, but it really is a cut as it is nowhere near inflation, and it is clear no more money is forthcoming. Several of the previous perks such as conference travel have also been cut in favour of these cheaper-to-run but much more labor-intensive marketing efforts, and I’m expected to do it all at home with my own IT equipment. It isn’t because the organization has no money; it does rather well.

I’ve done some of the marketing tasks that were asked, but found that unless I run the whole show, it doesn’t come off very well. I’ve said, “Well, I’ve done X amount and if you want more, here it a plan to delegate it to others as I’ll be leaving next year.” The journal is running very well, so the next editor is inheriting a much easier situation than I did. Did I do right here or should I just cheerfully accept more work for the good of the journal? It is a service job and there is no formal employment contract per se, though I pay taxes on the honorarium so I suppose it is sort of a consultancy.

Nope, that’s perfect. In this kind of role, you’re not obligated to take on additional work that you didn’t sign up for and aren’t being paid for just because they asked. Your obligation is to be clear about what you will and won’t do so they  can make other plans. You’ve done that. If they’d like to sweeten the pot to entice you, they’re welcome to try that — but you don’t need to do work you never signed up for simply because they want you to.

That’s of course a much blurrier line to maintain in a traditional employment situation (and often an utterly impractical one if you want to keep the job), but when you’re a consultant or someone being paid via honorarium, you have a ton of leverage and authority to simply explain that won’t work for you/you don’t have the time/it’s not your area of interest/etc. and decline, as you did.



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