Q: I manage a unit of a medium-size company. A direct report is, in turn, also responsible for managing several others. This person has a chronic health condition which, when it flares up, leads to unpredictability in their availability and ability to do their job well. HR supports and works with them on emergency leave needs. However, it is a constant source of angst.
When this person is healthy, I have no concerns, and I am pleased with their contributions. When suddenly they are not healthy, it adds chaos and stress since we must quickly pick up the slack. To minimize disruption, I reduce this person’s responsibilities, shifting them to others and adjusting those individuals’ pay. While I provide feedback, I also know I hold back. I fear putting additional pressure on someone who is already struggling and for crossing the line between addressing a performance issue and penalizing them for their health.
When I’ve discussed reducing their workload, or have gone ahead and scaled back responsibilities, this person gets upset and says I am unfairly punishing them for a health condition.
They don’t always seem to understand the reality of their situation and the accommodations we’ve already given.
I’ve spoken with my leadership and HR many times and they concur that this is a very difficult situation, but apart from saying I need to address only this person’s “performance issues,” I don’t feel I have enough support. Is there something you’d advise, even an article or book to read to help me guide me on this? — Anonymous
A: There is a lot to unpack. I appreciate your mindfulness as this is a challenging workplace issue. You aren’t being well supported by your employer and that’s a shame — this is an issue that affects the company as a whole and they shouldn’t shirk that responsibility. But I do sense bias in some of your framing.
Your employee understands the reality of their situation. Chronic illness is an all-consuming thing. When you reduce their workload peremptorily, you are penalizing them for their health condition. And you aren’t doing them a favor when you provide accommodation. You are following the law and doing what is right.
Accommodation can mean many things, and here it means that you need a permanent solution in place to cover your employee’s responsibilities when they have a flare-up. If there is a permanent solution in place, there shouldn’t be a great deal of chaos. If you need to critique their performance, do so. Accommodation is not a shield from criticism. Just be sure you’re critiquing their performance apart from their medical condition and how it affects their work.
Try to develop an understanding of how to talk about these issues with your employee, openly but fairly. And are there creative solutions to this situation you haven’t considered? You note that when they’re healthy, you have no concerns, so I will gently suggest that what you might do here is reconcile some of the biases you have about chronic illness.
It’s OK to be frustrated. That’s human. But it is not OK to let your frustrations dictate how you treat this employee.
The back to interning blues
Q: I recently quit a well-paid, full-time position to take an internship with the United Nations in a developing country. I have four years of postgraduate experience and a master’s degree. The projects and the work are close to my “dream job.”
However, being at the bottom again is really challenging. The work I produce is of a far higher grade than intern level, yet the respect I receive is limited, as is the pay. But my main issue is my manager, whom I find to have a very poor work ethic and slapdash approach.
In my first six weeks, she took three weeks of unannounced vacation; she’s always late and complaining about having to work; and she appears to delegate almost all her workload to the two interns who are required to be in the office 8 to 5 every day. I have made it clear that I won’t, for example, fetch a keyboard for her from next door when she doesn’t want to go get it.
I am telling myself I have to let my ego go and focus on what I want from the experience, but she also has all the power in recommending me for roles. Do I need to just suck it up and try and move on ASAP?
I am aware that intern exploitation is a tale as old as time, but I’ve never actually experienced it before. — Anonymous
A: I am curious how you’re defining exploitation here. You chose to take an internship even though you are not at the intern stage of your career. Clearly, you weren’t emotionally prepared for taking a significant professional step back, even though you hope it will move you ahead in the long term. I get that. It’s a challenging bind. The organization hired an intern because that’s what they needed.
You acknowledge you’re doing the work you want. Not getting a keyboard for your boss when you’re asked to do so is not setting a boundary. It’s a keyboard! This is a professional request and one that falls within the purview of an intern’s work alongside the dream projects you’re working on. It could fall within the purview of many jobs. If someone asked me to grab them something, I would generally do it, just to be collegial.
As for your manager’s work ethic, why are you so focused on what she does and how? Who cares if she takes vacations? Vacations are a good thing. Delegation is part of a manager’s job. That said, being late and complaining are not ideal behaviors, but you’re engaging in a lot of policing here, and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t help you grow. It isn’t going to make you happier.
You will need to either learn to live with the professional decision you made and the change in status, or consider another job that offers the working conditions you prefer.
To snitch or not to snitch
Q: Some co-workers of mine are puzzled about how (if at all) to handle a colleague who doesn’t seem to think the rules apply to her. We are a small department in a large office. We have a very specific, skilled task we perform and we really try to work as a team. One of our colleagues was hired during the pandemic when we only had to be at work if absolutely necessary. Our supervisor recently told us those days are behind us and it’s back to the office, 8:30 to 5. This colleague continues to come in an hour or more late, takes one- to two-hour lunches and leaves at 3:30-4 if she wants.
It’s not just annoying. We’re worried if an emergency happens and she’s not here, it will cause all of us to have to start punching a clock.
We’re hesitant to tattle to our supervisor, but since we’re equals, we’re also not comfortable confronting her. Advice, please? — Anonymous
A: This isn’t a situation you and your colleagues need to “handle.” Your co-worker’s hours and habits are none of your business. Do you hear yourself? You’re reluctant to “tattle?” You are adults! Adults do not tattle. If her conduct is affecting your own work, which it seems it is, be mature professionals and tell her, with specifics, how her behaviors are affecting the team’s performance! But stop policing her coming and going or monitoring how long she takes for lunch. That is not part of your job description. You’re only doing it because you don’t want to be overly policed yourselves. I encourage you to consider that.