Subordinate Supervisor Not Supervising Friends

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about friends taking advantage of new supervisor:

I promoted a great worker to supervisor about a year ago and she has continued to be a very hard worker. But, even though I have mentored her and sent her to as many supervisory classes as our company has offered, she seems to be having a difficult time playing the role of supervisor with friends. These friends are now her subordinates and are making her look bad by taking advantage of their friendship. Do I hold her accountable for their non-productivity? I like her a lot but I feel I need to take a firmer stand with her. Any advice?

Signed, Supervising A Supervisor

Dear Supervising A Supervisor:

As I reviewed your message, and the follow-up information in which you mentioned some specific situations, I smiled somewhat–although I know how very frustrating it is for a manager to not be able to depend upon a supervisor.The reason I smiled was because if you think about it, you have almost been as mild and accepting with her as she is being with her friends. And your motives are likely very similar. She is someone you like. She works hard. You know she can do well. But the bottom line is that she isn’t performing her job correctly in every area. So, that means she needs supervisory intervention just as much as she needs to intervene with others. You will be able to use this to help train her, by using your responses to her work as a model. So, in some ways it is a great opportunity.Consider these thoughts that you may wish to adapt to your particular situation:

1. I always refer to these possible stages for supervisory intervention: ·The Prevention Stage (When no problem has occurred, but the potential is clearly there.)
·First Concern (When there isn’t an unmanageable problem, but when little things have been happening that are worrisome or indicate a problem is beginning)
·Identified Problem (from first occurrence to repeated), Chronic/Acute (When the behavior or performance problem is habitual and characteristic, or when it is severe, no matter how often it happens) and,
·Crisis (When an event is so serious that immediate action is required and organizational sanctions are used.)It will be good for you to think about where you are with the supervisor in that progression. You’re past the Prevention Stage, past the Early Concerns, and already to an Identified Problem. That means the next one up is the Chronic/Acute problem and you DON’T want that to happen with you in charge! And we won’t even mention the Crisis!As part of training and mentoring, you may have spent time talking with this supervisor about the problems associated with supervising friends. If so, you have some assurance that she was aware of the need to not give her friends special treatment. If you were specific about the names of the friends and what kind of temptations there would be to give them special treatment you’d be way ahead of most managers!That’s not to say you did anything wrong if you didn’t talk to her specifically about them–just that often we know what temptations will be awaiting an employee or a supervisor, but we sometimes talk all around the subject rather than naming names and talking realistically. I used to say to new supervisors, “The transition time is often like being left alone in the malt shop the first morning you’re hired. It’s a temptation to want to give your friends free malts–and they don’t mind asking for them either! But what sometimes happens is that they get the free malt and you get fired. So, Greg, what are the kind of things you think Todd or Karen or Paul or your other friends, might hope you’d be their pal about? What do you think will be the most difficult part about that?”That opened the door to the supervisors own concerns as well as mine, and I helped them develop some plans for avoiding the problem, and reacting to it if it occurred.

2. But, as noted, now you’re at the stage where something has happened–the approved overtime without supervisor’s present, which you mentioned in a follow-up message–and the employees didn’t work during some of that time. It would be interesting to know if the supervisor was aware that there wasn’t enough actual work for them to do–and if perhaps she was giving them the overtime only to allow them to make the money, not because work was needed. If that is the case, she is certainly shown more than just bad judgment. On the other hand, it would be worthwhile to know if this happens all the time when overtime is being used. Perhaps the two were only doing what many others do.Whatever that situation, it is a mid-range infraction–and not uncommon when there are no supervisors around.The real problem is that your supervisor apparently did not fulfill her role in intervening about an identified problem when she found out about it. But, let’s look at that. I don’t want to read too much into your messages, because I realize they were brief and likely many things were going on in addition to the material you sent us.However, you said that you investigated, took statements, then called the employees in, along with the supervisor, and told the supervisor to handle the meeting. But, when she didn’t you took control of it. I don’t know what your organization’s policies are, so they may have required your direct involvement. But, few organizations would forbid a supervisor to do the investigation on an issue like this. Your supervisor should have been the one to do all of that, present a report to you, and then present her plan for the interview, for your approval. You would have been a witness, but she would have done all the talking. And, if she didn’t, rather than letting her look at her shoes, a good response might have been. “Carol, I’m here only as an observer. Continue with your interview.” And then not talk until she did her job.If she had never conducted an interview before, or never had any training in doing it, that would be a different situation. But even then, at some point she has to fly on her own, with you only observing, not taking the controls from her. The next issue is this: What did you do after the interview? I’m hoping you asked the supervisor to stay, so you could tell her how disappointed you were and specifically why.The One Minute Manager concept is a great one for those times. Specific, brief, absolute, not too mild, and with an expectation of good results in the future.In this case, it sounds as though a follow-up memo would have been appropriate too.If you didn’t talk sternly and specifically to her then, it’s not too late. And that brings us to what you can do now.

3. I think a great way to handle this would be to meet with the supervisor and tell her honestly that you have spent many hours thinking about this. You made her a supervisor because you thought she could do the job. But recent events are concerning you very much. Then, you could mention several issues that have bothered you. You could say that you suddenly realized that you were doing some of the things that you didn’t want her to do. For example, you’ve been letting your good feelings about her get in the way of holding her accountable for her work. And, you’re not going to do that anymore.Ask her about her experiences thus far and what has presented the biggest problems. If there is something you could have done to help, let her know you would have welcomed the chance, and expect her to talk to you about problems in the future–just as she should encourage employees to talk to her.Make this a problem-solving meeting, with a focus on how you want to help her in her efforts to be more effective–but that being effective isn’t an option. She must fulfill her role–and do it better than she has been doing it thus far. Then, you can give her the specifics of how things will be from now on–using a tone that shows her you still think well of her but realize that more structure may be needed for awhile.

If I were you, based on the little I know about the situation, I would set up a weekly meeting with her in which she would report issues about work, so you can help her obtain a better balance than being overly strict with some people and not demanding anything of others.You say she has had training. I think I’d ask her to review that material. If she can find the chapter that says it’s good for a supervisor to play favorites with friends, I’d like to read it! (I don’t mean to be harsh here–but she should still be in the honeymoon stage of being a supervisor–not at the blatant disregard for good practice stage already!)I would start supervising her much more closely for a while, and tell her that I’m doing that–just as you want her to be more observant about issues with the two people who have already shown their lack of judgment. That doesn’t imply spying or micromanagement. It’s close supervision and assistance if needed.If the two people with whom she is close ask for anything above the norm, you should approve it. That’s until your supervisor convinces you that she can be trusted to deal fairly with everyone.You may be thinking this will make you feel badly to be so strong with her about this–but really, you’re saving her career and keeping her promotion intact. And, you’re modeling for her, the right way to work with people–in a caring, concerned way, but also in a way that focuses on getting the work of the business done.

The role of a supervisor is to do his or her own work and to work with and through others to accomplish the task of the organization. That means your job is to work through her, just as her job is to work through the employees she supervises. And all of you will be held accountable by someone, sometime. You can imagine the hostility this supervisor has likely caused with the other employees if a double standard has happened very often. And, they may be wondering why something hasn’t been done before now. So, in this way you can solve several problems at once.After you get this current situation under control, the supervisor will benefit if occasionally you ask her if she’s had issues come up in dealing with her friends, and how she has managed to avoid problems.

Don’t assume she’ll stay strong without your continuing support and follow-up. That’s Prevention Intervention again! You will also want to ask her about each of the other employees with whom she works. Encourage her to communicate often and positively, just as you will be doing with her.Certainly you will want to commend her when she fulfills her supervisory role effectively. But don’t give in too quickly on that. She needs to show you that she really is ready to be the kind of supervisor you and the company–and the employees–need.One good approach for the interview, as well as your ongoing supervision is to determine for yourself, and share with her, the things I often mention for these situations: –What do you want to see stay the same about her behavior and performance? –What do you want to see more of? –What do you want to see less of? –What do you never want to have happen again? It’s good for you to be clear on those things for yourself AND for her.I want you to think about this too: I don’t know the size of your organization of what layers there are above you, if any. But if something were to go wrong, or if an employee were to complain over your head, it could be the supervisor and her friends sipping the malts, while YOU are being fired! I hope these thoughts are helpful as you develop a plan of action. I’d be interested in knowing how it works out, so if you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.