Editor's note: Inc.com 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.
Here's a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.
1. My top employee constantly texts and surfs the web
As a relatively new manager working in state government, I am having an issue with a direct report that I am really unsure how to address.
Let me preface this by saying this person is, hands down, the top performer in my group. The problem is that she is nearly constantly texting, sending and receiving personal emails (both from her work account and her personal account), surfing (both on her phone and her laptop), etc. I don't understand how she ever gets anything done, but she does.
We of course have a policy addressing use personal technology and cell phone use during work hours. And although she is the most productive person I have, I find it distracting, annoying, and disrespectful. Recently during a webinar she sat and surfed around on her phone during the entire time. Afterward, we discussed some of the topics covered, and she was obviously paying attention. However, she was the only person in the room behaving this way. We were in a group with several other professionals from other states, and at least one person raised their eyebrows.
Well, since she's your top performer, I wouldn't address it from a productivity angle. Instead, I'd focus on the impact it is having: It's distracting other people and coming across as disrespectful. You could say something like this: "Jane, I've noticed that you're on your phone and social media and surfing the web a lot during work. Frankly, your work is excellent, so I'm going to defer to you to manage your use of these things on your own. However, I do want you to stay away from those activities during meetings, webinars, and other situations where your attention should be on other people. It comes across to other people that you're not fully engaged or respecting the time they're spending with you. It can also distract other people from the meeting."
In other words, focus clearly on the pieces of this that are demonstrably problematic for other people, without getting into whether it's impacting her own ability to focus.
2. How can I get clients to stick to deadlines?
I'm a freelancer. I stay pretty on top of my client workload, but at times it gets pretty packed and I rely on my clients to return their side of the material within a decent timeframe in order to keep things scheduled well.
My question is how to communicate this to them. I submitted a list of what one client needed to be working on April 1 and reserved April to work on their project. I did not hear back from them until late May! And now, at this point, I am booked with a lot of other work. Now, they are chomping at the bit to have their website completed. I've made it clear that I had reserved April, but once May came, I added quite a few other projects. I had hoped to finish this week, but due to my other projects, I've not been able to get to it.
I have a lot of projects along these lines, so if you have any advice for what to say when you can't get to a project right away, that would be amazing!
Say this: "We had set aside April to finish this work, and our schedule had you supplying me with X by April 15. I didn't receive it until May 22, so that's pushed the schedule back. I had much of June reserved for other work, so I'm fitting it in around that. I've carved out time to work on this again starting on [date] and should be able to get it to you by [date]." (Of course, you want to balance this against how important this particular client is to your work; freelancers often end up having to make exceptions for especially key clients.)
Going forward, be very explicit about this when you first lay out timelines, saying something like, "I'm reserving the last two weeks in July to do this project, so I'll need X from you by July 15. If it's later than that, it could take significantly longer to complete, because I'll need to fit it in around other projects. Knowing that, does this seem like the right timeframe to reserve, or do you think you might need longer to get me X? I want to make sure I'm holding right block on the calendar for you."
It's also smart to bring it up as soon as you see a problem starting. For instance, it might have made sense to reach out to this client a week or so after the material was overdue to say, "I want to give you a heads-up that I'll need to receive X soon in order to be able to finish it by [date]. Once we hit late May, I won't have much availability for the next few weeks."
You want to say this nicely, of course. You don't want to sound overly rigid; rather, you want the vibe to be "I want to make sure that you get the time you need, so let's make sure we protect the right period of time."
3. Did my interviewer give me a numerical grade?
I had an interview today and noticed that at the top of the copy of my resume the interviewer was holding was "97" written in red pen and circled. It made me think of a grade. Is this an accurate assumption? Are there any other explanations you can think of for this?
Some employers do assess candidates numerically, assigning certain values to each of the qualifications they're looking for. The idea is that it helps them assess people more objectively and prevents them from favoring candidates for reasons that ultimately don't have much to do with their ability to perform the job (for instance, just taking a personal like to them, or the fact that they went to the same college, or the fact that they come from similar backgrounds, or all the myriad ways that personal bias can play a role in the hiring process). Of course, hiring well is a lot more than a numerical formula, but it's not crazy to try to bring objective metrics to the process.
But there are loads of other possible explanations for that "97," including the possibility that it was an unrelated note that the interviewer scribbled to herself there, totally unconnected to you. When I have notes to jot down quickly, I'll write them on any paper that's around me, and I wouldn't treat a resume any differently. Lots of people do that -- and because of that, I'd put this in the (very large) category of things you might encounter in a job search that you shouldn't bother to try to read anything into.
4. Should I worry about not being the go-to person for my team?
I have one employee reporting to me who is working in one of our remote offices. I have found that on many occasions when other teams in the remote office need any information, they approach her instead of coming to me. I understand that it is easier for them to get together with her since she is working in the same office but as the manager of this team, I would like to be kept in the loop as well. I am concerned that if I let this continue, it would end up undermining my position. Is there anything I can do to loop myself into these meetings?
I don't think you need to worry that having a competent and helpful employee will undermine you; as a manager, you want to have competent and helpful employees, and you want them to field as much as they can so that you're freed up for higher-level work. That actually makes you look good; after all, it reflects poorly on managers when they have people on their team who don't excel.
If your concern is that you'll get out of the loop, that's legitimate, but you could address that by asking her to keep you informed about certain types of queries or information and/or looping you in on particularly challenging or sensitive situations. Beyond that, though, if you're concerned that people won't see your value, you could look for ways to give your work higher visibility if that's appropriate -- but in general, assuming that you're producing at a high level yourself, people aren't going to wonder what your worth is just because they interact more frequently with one of your staff members.
5. Co-worker hogs the coffee supplies that we all bring in
We have a small laboratory that runs 24/7. We are all pretty close and have set up our break room with a nice coffee maker, but we rely on all staff to supply the coffee and creamer to keep things going. Some bring the coffee grounds and others the cream.
The problem we are having is that one co-worker comes in and uses about 3 ounces of cream in her 6-ounce cup of coffee and then drinks many cups throughout her 8-hour shift. I thought about putting up a clever reminder that those who drink coffee should also supply something to keep our happy lab happy. She knows that it's all by employee contribution. I don't want to single her out, but some are talking about hiding their supplies away so she can't use them. If that's the next step, we won't have our cute, homey ambiance that we love about our break room. She's not exactly the friendliest person to approach. I hope you can help us come up with a way to sort of lay down the law without making her feel singled out or leave her defensive.
I think you're better off just being straightforward with her, rather than trying to come up with clever wording or dancing around it. Say something like this: "Hey Jane, can we get you into our rotation for replenishing the cream? We've been taking turns stocking everything. Could you take Mondays?" Or if the issue is that she's already part of the rotation but just bringing in far less than she's using up, then say this: "Hey Jane, it looks like you're going through the cream really quickly. Can you grab some extras to bring in?"
If she bristles, then you ignore the bristling and just say, "Yeah, we go through a lot and want to make sure it's evenly distributed among the people using it. Thanks."
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