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Are all-but-absentee supervisors common in public service jobs?
March 13, 2014 8:05 PM   Subscribe

I find myself at yet another job where the supervisor literally does not come in to work. Is this just the norm in nonprofit/public sector jobs?

In spite of my best and not-so-best efforts I'm back in a role that I only intended to be in temporarily. The newly hired supervisor, intended to relieve the burdens on the none-too-competent director, simply...doesn't show up for hours or days at a time, is late to meetings, etc. I've basically been in and out of nonprofits and university settings throughout my career and I have encountered at least one manager/senior person like this in every role. I've also found that they tend to be the last fired; I once had a position where nearly the entire department was laid off, but the guy rumored to be working a second job while supposedly holding down the duties at our office is still happily working there full time.

I happen to be upset at the moment because the director just rode me hard on something I later found out the new guy was doing on pretty much a daily basis. I've been job searching fairly intensely but I would like to know if I should be avoiding nonprofits and universities to stop encountering this issue or if this would be de facto in corporate jobs too.
posted by ziggly to Work & Money (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It's not normal in government, non-profits or the corporate world. It may tolerated more in government because it's so hard to fire people, but it's not at all normal or common in my experience.
posted by cnc at 8:11 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

I've worked at universities and a couple of nonprofits. I have only experienced quasi-absentee directors when part of their job was international travel. (I'm not saying it wasn't annoying to only have infrequent access to them, but it was part of their job description.) So to me, it's not at all normal.
posted by wintersweet at 8:20 PM on March 13

I've worked at several universities in the US and Australia, and no, this is not the norm. Chronically late to meetings and hard to get access to, because of being overbooked, yes. Chronically absent? No.
posted by gingerest at 8:27 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I second gingerest. Gone due to meetings happens, yes, bu gone totally AWOL, no.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:34 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Worked at a fairly dysfunctional nonprofit for 6 years - definitely not the norm.
posted by radioamy at 8:35 PM on March 13

Not the norm at the non profits I've worked for. Everybody seems overbooked and overworked.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:42 PM on March 13

I'm at a university and the professors are hardly ever present. and my boss just came back from a 3-week vacation...yet she is all kinds of uncertain and worried about proper coverage in our department when one of the staff members asks about going on vacation.
posted by Jewel98 at 8:43 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]

I've never seen this at a nonprofit but I did have a supervisor at a university once who came in at 10am, took a 2 hour lunch and left by 4 every day.
posted by entropyiswinning at 8:44 PM on March 13

My husband once worked for a company that had a sales rep who "made a lot of calls" but not any sales. His boss shadowed him one day, and found out he was working for two hours every afternoon as a yoga instructor. Fired on the spot. But it did take a while for the company to catch on. Sociopaths are good at conning people.

I do think this is unusual in any industry or nonprofit. However, I worked in a lowly staff position at a college for a while, and, to be frank, all the lowly staff I knew had a certain attitude that a secret "flexible" schedule made up for the lousy wages.
posted by Malla at 8:53 PM on March 13

Every supervisor I've ever had has been largely absent, and mostly spent their time "working at home".
posted by SkylitDrawl at 9:08 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]

I don't think it's really fair to compare university faculty to other non-profit administration since even department heads, deans, etc. in the US generally still have some sort of research/other responsibilities. Full disclosure: I am a faculty member at a research university. For four years I supervised a staff that I expected to be in the office even though I was frequently not. The difference was that their job was to be there, whereas I couldn't actually have done my job if I had been in my office 40 hours a week.
posted by obliquicity at 9:32 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]

Yeah, but someone on your staff knew where you were, and other than when you were in the field or whatever you were reachable, right, obliquicity? You weren't just ... gone.
posted by gingerest at 9:46 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

No this is not the norm. Of course it's not the norm - don't let your feelings of frustration push you into an alternate reality here.
posted by smoke at 9:47 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]

I work at universities and this has totally been the norm in my experience. The majority of my colleagues, some of whom have supervisory responsibilities to other staff, work from home whenever they can get away with it. This is maybe 80% of the time. So they'll come in to teach, and go straight home again. For some of them, it's clear that they are really working, as they publish productively, and appear to be prepared for teaching and supervision. But even those people tend to procrastinate on administrative duties, which includes supervision of other staff. E.g. my head of department just doesn't really answer emails from me (or anyone) requesting meetings, even when these meetings are necessary (mandated annual performance reviews). You have to be lucky enough to catch him in the corridor to pin him down to a time, and since he doesn't have teaching every semester, it can be months between sightings.

I have another boss who is my direct supervisor on a research project I am doing right now. He has been ill on and off for months, and I haven't actually seen him since the start of this project in January, even though I work in his actual office one day a week. Sometimes he answers emails about whether he is coming in that week. Other times he just... doesn't. For a couple of weeks, even a month. When I worked for him in the past, it was not unusual to not see him for a few weeks, and then find out he had gone to a conference overseas and not told anyone. But he gets his work done, and my work for him is independent enough that I don't strictly need to talk to him about it every week (although it would be really helpful!)

Then there are my colleagues who "work" from "home". After a few years of that, it becomes apparent that they don't, in fact, work. And may not even be at home. Perhaps they are on a beach somewhere in Thailand. The older ones who have tenure don't tend to be firable, so people just wait for them to die. Meanwhile anyone they have supervisory responsibilities towards is shit out of luck. The younger ones don't have tenure, and don't get their contracts renewed. Since the consequences are more dire for them, I imagine that these absent colleagues may be suffering from depression or something rather than just lounging about under a palm tree, but they also don't usually have people underneath them, so it's only their PhD students who suffer from their MIA status.

So yeah, I don't actually think you are in an alternate reality. It sounds from other people's posts like there are actually universities where no one goes MIA, but that has not been my experience, so I don't disbelieve that you keep coming across it either. My experience has been more like 10% of my academic colleagues and superiors are actually present on a consistent basis; another 20% are absent a lot but usually contactable by email, or at least people know why and when they will be away (e.g. "works from home on MWF" or "does fieldwork every year from June to November"); 60% are randomly absent for weeks or months at a time, without consistently replying to emails, and no one knows where they go, but they still fulfill all their publication and teaching expectations, and then 10% are either too depressed to come to work regularly, or are exploiting the system until someone notices and fires them.
posted by lollusc at 10:04 PM on March 13 [9 favorites]

In certain sectors, it seems that what a typical workday looks like is changing.

On another, possible parallel universe, note: is there a critical mass of people with chronic illness, treating mental health issues, or dealing with family responsibilities like caring for an elderly or ailing loved one happening all at once?

Like it or not, work is changing: from where people work, what constitutes work, and also the idea of an office proper. Sort of like Zadie Smith's "Elegy for a Country's Seasons," what you described and more could very easily become the euphemistic "new normal." Something is changing in how and the ways in which people work. More atomized, automated. You mentioned the public sector. Could it have anything to do with sequestration or budget considerations? People can be oddly cavalier when they've gone through phase after phase of layoffs and ominous budget forecasts. It could be that people are burnt out.

Finally, work places and dynamics are often terribly uneven and personalities clash. If you have a work ally, then so much the better since having one can mean the difference between a tolerable job and one that has you running for the door. Office culture is changing. And some people get off scot-free. I hope you find another, more permanent, and better for you position soon, or at least in the very near future.
posted by simulacra at 10:29 PM on March 13

I know someone who has a civil service job. The nature of it is such that this person and most of their colleagues -- though not all -- are doing a legit job because it's a passion. One person, though, is lazing around, coming in late, taking long lunches, leaving early to the extent that they wouldn't last a month in the private sector. Too many of the admin/support/generic job types are said to be laughably useless.
posted by ambient2 at 11:40 PM on March 13

What llollusc says about the university sector is roughly my experience too - there are a large number of people who are somewhere, doing something and the more senior you are, the less present you are. Emails don't get answered, papers don't get signed and there are never any apologies issued or explanations given. The reasons are unclear and I suspect varied - some are slacking off, some are engaged in endless "busy-work", some just don't care to explain what they are doing.

Outside of universities ... from experience I suspect it's less a problem, although still not unheard of. In the government sector, I had a boss who attended wall-to-wall meetings and simply didn't answer a lot of emails. Another colleague was hardly ever around and no one knew what they were doing. It took several years to find out they were doing nothing, not even bothering to come in some days.
posted by outlier at 2:48 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]

Goverment -my bosses are usually at another facility, in meetings, on travel or working from home.
One of my bosses has a chronic illness in which he can be out for a day or two every other week or so.
posted by KogeLiz at 2:54 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

I've worked in the nonprofit sector for my whole career (~15 years) and I've never seen this. I have seen "do nothing" managers, but they weren't absentee, just ineffective or focusing on the wrong things.
posted by lunasol at 4:17 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

The higher up you go, the more your manager will be absent. International travel, meetings, etc. Sure, he/she may work from home, but hell, they're away from their families so much it's only fair.

Working from home means just that. They're on-line, available on IM, and they are WORKING!

Sometimes a non-profit will hire someone and they need the expertise, but they don't have the dough, so they'll strike a deal with someone, "we'll say it's 'full-time', but just come in, take care of your business, and then do whatever." Usually, it's not a secret, and in fact, all the work is getting done.

There is also a concept in this world, Rank Has Its Privilages. Yes, you can be yelled at for taking a 2 hour lunch, and your manager can disappear for an afternoon. That is because your manager has EARNED the right, and you haven't.

Now, if you feel that you're not able to perform your job due to the fact that your supervisor isn't around to mentor you, or approve things, or whatever, then it may be time to move on. But, if things are getting done, you have what you need to do your job, and you're mad because you got dressed down by the director for something that your manager does, you may need to reflect on the nature of hierarchy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:41 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]

I've worked for nonprofits of varying sizes, for private companies of varying size, and for publicly traded companies.

The behavior you describe is common at any institution with bad senior management. Good senior manage hires managers who know that the biggest part of their job is to keep people motivated, and that a big part of that is that the manager is seen as contributing value.

At organizations with ineffective senior management, you get low-level managers who have no idea what they're doing, and are frequently AWOL.
posted by colin_l at 6:14 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]

All of my work is in the corporate area, but i see a lot of middle management "working from home" which means tending to emails on a Blackberry for maybe 20 minues a day. I've also seen sales organizations where doing nothing is rampant - people are "full time sales" and htey actually spend their days as stay at home parents, amateur athletes, etc and just let big acounts run on autopilot. they usually work thath to their advantage for 5-10 years before they get laid off or move on to another company.
posted by WeekendJen at 6:51 AM on March 14

I ran a small nonprofit a few years back in the heritage sector. I was off-site a lot for meetings and other things. That said, the staff on site always knew where I was and when I would be returning. They always had a means of reaching me at any given time during regular business hours. My predecessor at that job was never available to the staff and while he claimed to be working remotely, he wasn't actually doing any work, not even the bare minimum. The board ended up firing him and being rather sheepish about the fact that it took them so long to catch on to his behavior.

In your case, it is up to the powers that be at your place of employment to determine whether or not this person is working enough. It's not up to you. All you can do is seek other employment if you don't like the way things are headed. But this is not normal behavior in any place I have worked, be it public or private sector.
posted by futureisunwritten at 6:55 AM on March 14

Seconding Ruthless Bunny. Working from home means just that. They're on-line, available on IM, and they are WORKING! 

In my workplace, not seeing some is normal. Not being in contact is wrong... In my workplace.

I have heard strange tales from the academy and non-profit/foundation world though, so I believe what you are dealing with is not normal in the sense of "okay," but not unprecedented.

Can you establish ways to at the very least document with supervisor that you are communication about expectations, needs, and your progress?

If emails go unanswered, I would be so tempted to write a weekly email like "Another great week! Thanks for your continued support in all the stuff I do and for thinking 'I am so great.'" Not advising this, of course, at least not so explicitly, but with supervision absent, one-sided documentation has some appeal.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:23 AM on March 14

I would say it is becoming more common in the corporate world with the flattening of management, improved technology, and the increased use of autonomy as a "free reward". I have only seen my supervisor once since Christmas. Likewise, I have someone on my team that I have only seen once since last summer. About a quarter of the team still work at least one day a week in the office, but many have given up their desks and work exclusively from home or field locations. (Our group has an empty office available if anyone needs it temporarily.) I encouraged these changes a few years ago because the team was filled with high achievers who had difficult personalities. If you keep them dispersed, then they are less likely to kill each other and as a company we can harness their collective energies.
posted by 99percentfake at 8:46 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

I've only ever worked in non-profit, so I don't have any university/public/private sector experience to compare it to, but I have been in places where face time was highly valued, and in places where it was not, and have seen people in both places abuse the concept of working remotely. I don't think it's the norm for the sector as a whole; I think it is a function of both poor management/accountability practices and people having trouble adjusting to new norms around technology-enabled work outside of the office. I think it's better to look at how well prospective employers seem to be running overall.

That being said, if you're not getting the guidance and supervision you need at this job, I think Lesser Shrew is actually on to something. My boss is more hands-off than I would prefer, and every Friday I send them an email with bullets summarizing the high points of my work for the completed week and the next one, with a clear note if I need feedback or action from them. It serves a nice dual goal of making the task of supervising me dead easy, and giving me a record of what I'm doing and where I'm going in this job/my career.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 9:09 AM on March 14

I've worked for 14 years in the non-profit and government sector. Because people are sensitive to being perceived as not working hard enough, there have always been pretty strict rules around signing in, tracking time, and being in the office during core hours. I've known good and bad workers everywhere, but absentee-ism has been low.
posted by ldthomps at 2:09 PM on March 14

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