Mega-trouble at work - or is it meta-trouble?
June 8, 2005 10:55 AM   Subscribe

A coworker had an informal chat with our manager's boss this morning, and was told that our department should ignore anything our manager tells us to do, including direct orders, especially if it would make a customer unhappy. Help!

I work in a free public computer lab; many — dare I say most? — of our users are quite happy with what we offer and the help we provide, and are grateful we are a community resource. Still, every day we have at least one user who is extremely unhappy because we won't do his homework for him, scan her pictures for her, type his resume, find her a job, help him win an auction on eBay, spend hours using Dreamweaver to create her "perfect" website, know the address of "that website my cousin George told me about" … you get the picture. Many of our users aren't particularly computer-savvy. Some have never used a mouse, some have never been online, and some … well, to illustrate, I just helped someone who wanted "MY AUTO WARRANTY TO BE CONCEAL BECAUSE I HAVE NOT HAD THE CAR BUT 3 MONTHS AND I HAVE SPENT 3000 TO FIX IT." It's a challenging, reward-free job.

Any complaint that our manager's boss hears is taken as (yet another) sign that our department is full of know-nothings who spend all day yelling at customers and who, to paraphrase her, "don't want to keep your jobs."

For example, one complaint she received about us simply said "You suck." My manager was raked over the coals about this complaint at his annual review. He was not able to respond to her concern since without further details, a name or any contact information, there was no way to identify the problem. It could have been a legitimate concern, but it also could have been from a high-school student upset that we wouldn't do his algebra homework for him. (We do get praise from our customers too, but she doesn't seem to consider that.)

In her view, we should never say "no" to anything, even if it means doing the kid's algebra, because then he will be happy and that's (apparently) all that matters. My manager, however, has always said we cannot get that involved with one customer because it means the other customers here at the time suffer because they cannot get our attention.

The boss has made plans for us to attend a seminar given by our security manager about how to say "no", but my impression is that we're not allowed to say "no" to anything. (There's the meta problem I was talking about. Our entire organization has a problem making a goal of 100% satisfaction meld with outrageous demands and expectations, to the point that there are specific policies that, if followed, guarantee an unhappy customer.)

Add to that a string of highly unprofessional behavior coming from management, including such incidents as the manager showing all of us his personal annual review, my not having a job description although I've worked here for almost 4 years, random & contradictory rules and guidelines sent down from up above, routine panicked over-reactions, and more that I don't want to remember.

That's the background. Today's development, about not doing what my manager tells me to do, just floors me. It puts the entire department in an untenable position.

Believe it or not, this is meant to be a "professional" organization. The company recently hired an HR manager, who may not be aware of what's going on, and I've thought about making an appointment to talk to him. But I don't want to get labeled as a "troublemaker" anymore than I already am just for being part of this department. I can't afford to quit without another job waiting, and jobs in my field (which is corporate communications, not
IT — I landed here when my PR position was eliminated) are thin on the ground right now.

So, how do I deal with the situation? Not just my job but my whole department is under threat of elimination within the next few weeks, and I'm not even sure what I'm expected to do when a customer makes a request for assistance. Is it worth it to talk to the head of HR, or is that too closely akin to shooting myself in the foot? Should I just keep my head down, ignore it and hope it will go away (while continuing my never-ending job search)? Or is there another option I haven't thought about?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total)
Would it be possible for you to feed the security manager some samples of We Gotta Say No To That style questions that you have been asked? If so, will the boss-of-boss be there? The more you can get that seminar tailored to your department's situation, the more the higher-ups become aware of your situation and the less disconnected they will be. Heck, get some of the higher ups to participate by roleplaying the users so if one goes "Nobody would ever ask this!" you can show them otherwise.

As for the "Don't do anything your boss says," float it by HR as to whether or not it is official policy. I'd refuse to obey any new policy change that wasn't given to me in writing/email, but your situation sounds like one where the boss-of-boss wants to rule by fiat and that's never a good place to be the squeaky wheel. Checking in with HR, even informally, should not be held against you. If the boss-of-boss comes down on you for asking around, explain your situation (in writing) and that you were unsure what to do.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:27 AM on June 8, 2005

This revelation came from an informal chat with a coworker. Technically, you shouldn't know about this directive, so you have no reason to obey it. Until it's written policy, just keep saying "no."
posted by BradNelson at 11:29 AM on June 8, 2005

Talk to the second manager yourself, say you've heard what he said, explain the situation, and flat out ask for guidance.
posted by cillit bang at 11:39 AM on June 8, 2005

You are under no obligation to change what you do for a job because of an informal chat someone else had with someone else. It sounds like that you DO need are some outlines of what the purpose of the lab is with some printed guidelines both for what you WILL do and what the user's responsibilities are [i.e. what you WON'T do]. If mgt. doesn't want to put this list together, do it informally with your co-workers as a helpful handout for users. Additionally, think about running orientations about the purpose of the lab, one offshoot of which could be this statement of what you do and do not do, available for any future lab users.

You have two problems here:

- your job is hard because people ask you to do all sorts of things that probably technically you should not be doing
- your manager has a rough relationship with his manager which means that the people in your area are getting conflicting stories on what your priorities are. Your manager may be not representing you and your co-workers well, or his boss may be a total nut.

Your boss's boss is not your boss. Your boss may have to take the heat for what sounds like a fairly poorly managed situation. Your boss also probably needs to keep his job performance a bit separate from yours [i.e. your manager should probably keep his reviews to himself] and keep his fights with his manager a bit separate from your experiences in the lab.

So, I'd talk to HR about getting a job description, that's totally appropriate and within their baliwick, especially if you are getting conflicting messages. I'd talk to your manager about what you have heard and basically say "what do you suggest?" and I'd make him accountable for whatever higher-level battle has to happen with his manager. At the end of the day, you answer to him. I'd keep doing your job and keep trying to make people understand the purpose of the lab and I'd try to use concrete examples of "times you should say no" [parent wants you to babysit while they type, person needs you to type love letter to foreign girlfriend, person wants you to take "flattering" photo of them for online personal ad] and spin them as "Look, if we say yes to this one time-waster we have to say no to many more people, we need guidelines. If you want us to say yes to everyone we need more staff."

In the arena that I dealt with this before -- the public library -- one of the things that saved my ass was that the boss's boss actually had to work the desk [reference and public access computing] one day a week and so she wouldn't upbraid us too much for not being superheroes because she know just what a nightmare it could be sometimes. Seems like your boss's boss needs that same sort of empathy.
posted by jessamyn at 11:55 AM on June 8, 2005

I'm tempted to just say something flip, like "My god, just _run_", but I wouldn't want to be taken wrong, and from what you've said, I think you really, really, _really_ should start looking for another job. Just look at the points you've made yourself:

- You're being forced to do your job poorly, in spite of how you know it should be done.
- The main authority who seems to understand this is being publicly cut off at the knees by people more powerful than he is.
- The highest authorities have expectations that are not just extreme, but impossible. They simply cannot be met.
- Those same higher authorities clearly have no idea how to run your team, and they take it out on your team.
- Your job has already been explicitly threatened. (That's like pulling out a gun over and over again...even if it seems like an idle threat, at some point, they're going to follow through.)

I'm not just saying "You deserve better". (You do--I would never suggest that _anyone_ put up with that kind of crap--but that's not what's important.) I'm saying that your odds of getting fired sometime soon are approaching 100%. Whether or not you'd like to try and make this gig work out, you'd be naive not to start looking around right now.

If you end up having all the time you need to keep looking till you find a great new gig, then _great_. But from what you've said, there's honestly a good chance you'll be looking for work in the next few months, no matter what. You may as well get a head start.
posted by LairBob at 12:32 PM on June 8, 2005

I ran a helpdesk for many years, and I've been in a similar boat. The best way to approach this, believe it or not, is to agree with both the manager and the manager's boss. The trick is to get across to the manager or boss the implications of what they're asking for, and then ask for advice in such a way that it will force the boss to consider the issues that you're facing in a rational way.

Let me give an example. You can approach the manager's boss and say "I agree with you that we should strive for 100% customer service, but there's a scenario that we weren't able to accomplish that in, and I'm hoping you can give me some pointers on how we can accomplish that." How could the boss turn that down? "I had a situation where I was being asked by a customer about certain issues for an extended period of time. Because the rest of the staff were also assisting customers, I saw five customers come up to the helpdesk, stand in line, and then leave looking dissatisfied. We're really making a lot of people unhappy by turning them away, as evidenced by this complaint that there aren't enough staffers." Now, go for the kill -- a tangible, non-political solution. "It would seem to me that we could offer much closer to the 100% customer satisfaction you're looking for by hiring additional staffers to help during peak times."

There are only two legitimate responses here that can come of this kind of request:

1) The boss will agree they need to hire additional staff to be able to give extended support to individuals in the lab. If that's the case, then you can give truly stellar, in-depth support and build an amazing helpdesk. If management agrees to this, give them a month or two to see if a change occurs; if it does not, reapproach with this same issue explaining timeframes.

2) The boss will say that it's not possible to hire more people due to budgetary constraints. This is, obviously, the more likely of the two scenarios. In this case, stress to the boss that without the additional staff, because of the extended support being given one customer in combination with the current policy, multiple customers are going away unhappy -- and there has to be another solution. Especially stress that the boss that you're concerned that people are going away unhappy -- use their line. Then, ask what can be done other than hiring new people. Hopefully, in considering this question and with your explanation of the current work conditions, the boss will get a better impression of what's going on in the department and come to a similar conclusion about allocating resources as your manager (on preview: agreed with Jessamyn on having a boss who knows how to work the front-lines). From there, you'll then want to ask the boss for guidelines on what constitutes supported services and what you can officially say no on. After getting those, post them in the lab and make them known to the customers in as clear and friendly a way as you possibly can so that you consistently meet the customer's expectations.

There is a possible third result -- this manager's boss is insane and insists that it's possible to offer complete and absolute customer satisfaction with your limited resources even in the face of direct evidence otherwise. You can do three things here: try to present different evidence that the customers aren't being served, address the same issue with (ugh) your manager's boss' boss, or you can leave the company. In that order.

Now, before you do all of this, talk to your direct manager first. Let your manager know that you agree with *their* assessment that you need to spread the resources around more to better serve the customers -- it sounds like, in spite of the current manager's professionalism issues, you're roughly in agreement about how the helpdesk should be run -- and that you just want to talk to the manager's boss about that and that you'll back him/her up to the end. Your manager will probably be more than happy to have the additional support. Then, use that meeting to ask specifically for a job description, and if your boss agrees, also have your boss agree to a date and time for a follow-up meeting where that new job description is discussed.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 12:42 PM on June 8, 2005

Keep a log. Document the times when you suspect someone might complain, like the kid who wanted you to do his homework, or the woman who wanted a custom website. Note how many other people were also needing assistance and how many co-workers you had at the time. You could write it up at the end of your shift, or just write down the notable events once a week or so. Make sure everyone knows that you're keeping a log "to understand and improve our customer service", and be sure to ask management for guidance on what to do when faced with a really crazy situation. If your manager's boss is merely clueless and not completely unreasonable, it will give her a better idea of the kind of challenges you face and hopefully lead to more achievable goals. Yes, you will look like a suck-up, but you will probably also get your manager's job when/if he is fired.
posted by cali at 1:51 PM on June 8, 2005

Until your manager's boss talks to you, an informal discussion he had with someone else is not your problem.
posted by grouse at 2:50 PM on June 8, 2005

Putting aside any long-term solution for a moment, you need to keep the job, and it sounds like any firing is more likely to come from a manager that knows you and is more able to see you not following their orders, than from a manager's boss, who doesn't know you, and is less able to see that you're not following (unwritten) orders.
As you're largely anonymous to the manager's boss, disbanding the entire department is the biggest threat she poses to you. If she want to get rid of just the problem people, chances are she might direct your manager to pick the bad apples, and he'll select the apples that are bad in his view.
So, avoid crossing your manager.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:04 PM on June 8, 2005

I agree that you should not change your behavior toward your manager on the strength of one reported conversation. Keep in mind that you're hearing your coworker's interpretation of that conversation. Depending on their biases/agenda, it may be a highly accurate account or it could be very skewed.

That being said, it sounds like your whole department is on shaky ground, so this does sound like a great time to start putting out feelers for a new job.
posted by rhiannon at 10:18 PM on June 8, 2005

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