I’ve Hung Myself Covering for John Unfinished

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about correcting a superior’s irresponsible performance: How can I address this issue without risking my job?

I’m my own worst enemy – at least in the workplace. I’m creative, hardworking, able to take criticism, passionate and dedicated. Yet it seems when responsibilities are delegated, my boss always chooses two of my other colleagues and me. The harder I work and more productive I am, the more work I’m given – with no extra compensation.

The extra work I’m doing is unfinished work from a co-worker, I’ll call John Unfinished, who holds a title that is one above mine, but he is a dear friend of the boss.Two of my other colleagues also have noticed this shifting of responsibility, and we wonder why we’re on cleanup duty.

We’ve thought about going above our boss to resolve the issue, as it hasn’t been resolved in our regular meetings. How can I address this issue without risking my job? I’d like to focus my energy on my job duties and not worry about cleaning up others’ messes. I believe John Unfinished should be held accountable for his lofty behavior, and he should be the one hung, not me.

Signed, Hung

Dear Hung:

You will notice that I have rewritten your question to make the anger you express about work being dumped on you more vivid. The feeling you express that one individual in your work group is treated more favorably than you is common in many workplaces.

In your work group, Mr. John Unfinished, about whom you are jealous and resentful, is your boss’s friend.You say that this problem of mal-distribution of assignments has not been resolved in regular work group meetings, but you don’t say how that problem was brought up and how it was discussed. I bet that what was said was not clearly and forcefully said. Rather, complaints about having to finish John’s unfinished projects, about which you and two of your closest associates complained to each other, were not mentioned in your regular meetings. Right?

The topic of fair distribution of work is a touchy subject that often is passed over lightly when a boss makes assignments. If you want a genuine discussion of who does what and how much, you cannot mince words. You need straight talk. What might that straight talk be in your work group? I can’t know from here because I don’t know your kind of work. You’ll have to spell that out and come to an understanding with your boss, such as: “Boss, the past couple of weeks I’ve listed projects assigned to me and the hours required to complete each of them. The more I do, the more I have been assigned. Some of us also have been asked to finish several of John’s unfinished projects. I feel overloaded.”

Such a statement should open the discussion about how to make assignments more fairly. In your kind of work, is it easy to estimate the time it takes to do a project? Probably not. If not, one way to get a clearer idea of what is a reasonable time to complete different projects is to have each assignment posted and when finished to indicate the time it took to be completed. Also might it help to have assignments for each member of your work group posted with target dates for when they need to be completed?

Here then is where team communication is required. Each morning or at week’s end, whatever time is appropriate for your kind of work, a team meeting reviews where each of you is on assignments and if adjustments are needed to meet target dates. In short, your work group functions as a team rather than as individual employees ordered to do work by a boss. Let’s suppose you all were paid equally by how many projects your work group completed for a week. If that were the rule, would you all not do everything within reason to get as many projects completed as possible and wouldn’t you each help each other to work as rapidly and effectively until all possible were completed?And would you not pounce on John Unfinished to do his share?

This is to say, from here, I cannot know what is the best way to make assignments and decide who does what and how much. But it is clear, from what you say, the way assignments are made now causes dissatisfaction. So rather than complain to each other, the topic and method of making assignments needs to be candidly on the agenda of your regular meetings. To get it on the agenda, it is best to mention it to your boss in advance. It will be up to each of you to see that you take enough time to thoroughly come to an agreement on how to best make assignments. Leaving it up to the wisdom of the boss alone is not what you should do.

You say that you and your closest coworkers have thought about going above your boss to complain. I’m sure you know how well that would fly with your boss. Rather, if you want to have a good working relationship, the smart thing to do is to think creatively and positively about how to make your boss look good. The way to do that is to make your work group look good. That cannot be accomplished by gossiping to one another about him playing favorites and being dumped on. You must have the guts to speak up for your self and for what you think is fair.

Collaboration does not happen by boss made assignments. Think of your work group as a team. Ask aloud in your regular meetings if we are a team and how we might work collaboratively as a team. And that means discussing who does what and how much. It means cheering  others’ good work and offering to give a hand rather than complaining about who does what. It does not mean biting one’s tongue and allowing resentment and jealousy fester.

Does this make even a little sense to you? If it does, then put that creativity and passion you say you have to work to transform the dissatisfaction you now have to excitement about being a member of a winning team. That will require you to find your voice; a voice that can sing out when it needs to make other listen and sings well even when no one is around to hear, a voice that encourages other voices be have their opportunity to sing solo at times and sing in harmony at other times, a voice that is gentle but strong. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

William Gorden