columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

One of my employees whom I manage is a very hard worker, reliable, and always gets the job done. He has a great reputation in the company, and everyone goes straight to him for help with projects (something that was the case when I started, and has been working well until recently).

But the past few months, he has been staying late and talking about it in a way that troubles me. I often hear him say things like, "I'm going to be here until 9:30 tonight so one more task won't matter" or "I was here until 8 and it still isn't done."

As his manager, I felt obligated at the beginning to find out where these tasks were coming from and what I could take off his plate. Every time we met, we decided on a plan for reassigning something, or I would reach out to someone asking if a timeline could be pushed back, etc. Then, a day or so later, he would be back to staying late. Just yesterday, he sent me a note that said, "Look at the time receipt on this email -- I was here until 10 p.m."

It's frustrating when he flaunts his overtime because he's not helping me do anything about it. We seem to have a plan and then it falls through. At this point, I'm feeling like he just wants me to feel guilty or bad for him. (He is not eligible to be paid overtime.)

I believe the problem is ineffective time and task management. He has a team he manages that does design work for the entire company, and sometimes requests come in that we need to say no to, or give a more realistic deadline for completion. He wants to please everyone, which is just not realistic for this type of work. Another problem is that this workload is inconsistent -- sometimes we are bombarded with requests, other times it's very slow.

I've tried continuously to ask how I can help, but I think the last resort would be to have all of his tasks come through me. I hate to rob him of his freedom to manage his own tasks, but part of my role (I believe) is to help him manage his work in the confines of a 40-hour workweek. Any advice?

Green responds:

Are you absolutely sure that this is about work and time management, and not simply what's truly necessary to get the job done? If it's the latter and you address it as the former, you're going to frustrate and demoralize a good employee. So before you tackle this, make sure that it's not actually a logical and conscientious response to the workload.

But assuming you're sure he really doesn't need to be working all these hours, sit down with him and say this: "Bob, it's important to me that we find ways to manage your workload that will allow you to work reasonable hours -- meaning 40 hours a week most weeks. We've talked about this before and set plans, and then it doesn't seem to solve the problem. What's going on?"

He'll probably say that his workload simply can't be managed in 40 hours a week, and he has no choice but to work all these extra hours.

So then you can say this: "I'm committed to getting your workload down to an average of 40 hours a week. But doing that means that we need a better system for fielding new requests. I'd like us to get aligned on when it makes sense to push back on a request or give a longer deadline so that you're not working these sorts of hours, and I will fully back you up on setting those boundaries. I suggest that we do A, B, and C to address this. I'm open to other ideas, too, if you'd prefer a different approach. But the plan should not be that you simply work well into the evening to get it all done. That's not sustainable, and I'd like to keep you around for a long time without burning you out. So let's figure out how we'll do this."

Then, once you have a plan, be realistic about his track record of agreeing to plans like this and not following through. Say to him, "I know we've agreed to this sort of thing in the past and it's ended up not sticking. Can we agree that you'll come to me if this starts to seem impractical to stick to or if there are other reasons your hours start going back up?" He'll presumably say yes, and then you should say, "I'm going to count on you to do that."

Then, check in with him a few days later: "How's the plan for managing your workload going?" If you hear his hours are going back up, help him brainstorm what to do differently. That's going to help reinforce that you're serious. From there, keep checking in -- maybe weekly until he's established a new pattern.

And if you hear him complaining about his hours again, sit him right down and say, "Bob, when we last talked about this, I was really clear that I wanted you to proactively come to me if your hours became a problem again. Why am I only hearing about this now?"

You're going to need to stay on it in this way, at least for a while. Otherwise, he's unlikely to take the issue that seriously, and he's likely to fall back into old patterns.

But remember, first make absolutely sure that it's really a Bob problem and not a workload problem -- or you will have a rightfully frustrated employee on your hands.

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