I feel like I'm being set up to fail at work
January 10, 2012 9:15 AM   Subscribe

My boss recently spoke to me about my performance and then today just dramatically increased my workload in a way that will pull me away from my primary job responsibility without a discussion. How should I approach this situation?

I’ve been in my current job since August and in late November my boss and her boss sat me down and stated that they weren’t happy with my performance. Some of it is valid and I would say some of it was unfair. (There are ongoing personality issues with a few of the players at my work and I’ve been getting some flack from both sides) There was no documentation in that meeting and since that meeting, nothing specific has been said to me one way or another about my performance.

Today I’ve been given a big increase in my workload. There were cuts in November and I'm basically being given all of the work of someone who used to work 20 hours per week. The new work will take significant time away from the task I’ve been told should be my main priority, it’s the sort of work where I have very little control over the outcome of the work and it will put me in constant and direct contact with one of the people causing the drama right now. The work was dumped on my desk this morning and I have to play a great deal of catch-up to get months of backlog under control.

I feel like if I don’t focus on my new work, I will be told that this is an additional area where my performance is not up to standard but if I do add this work to my day the areas where there was already a concern about my performance will slip even more. Is my boss setting me up to be fired and/or quit? How do I handle this situation? What do I say to either clarify my work priorities or ideally get this work off of my desk?
posted by GilvearSt to Work & Money (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think your first move is as simple as going to your boss, telling her that you are trying to grasp the new landscape here, and asking her to help you prioritize the increased workload. If that question's not productive, ask her directly: What should I do if it appears that these responsibilities are more than can be accomplished in 40 hours a week (or whatever)? Her answers should at least help you clarify whether this is legit or whether you're being set up.
posted by troywestfield at 9:28 AM on January 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I suspect that you are correct, that they are trying to build up a case for firing you. I may be wrong, but that's my hunch. In any case, it sounds as though this is a pretty toxic work environment. I'd do what troywestfield suggested, but I'd also start looking for other jobs right now.
posted by decathecting at 9:30 AM on January 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

Wow, I can't disagree more. In my experience it would be very unusual for someone being set up to be fired to be given extra work. There are much easier ways to set somebody up that don't involve having a bunch of work messed up by someone who's not cutting it. The likeliest answer here is that it's "not about you". There's a lot of work to do, and somebody's got to do it. You must have improved since November - and this would be a great opportunity for you to demonstrate a great attitude: "hey boss, i can't wait to dig in to this new work - throw me a bone here, i think this is more work that one person can handle, how should i approach it?". you've seriously got to start looking on the bright side - i would bet dollars to donuts not doing that is what got you in trouble in the first place.
posted by facetious at 9:32 AM on January 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

I think they are setting you up to get fired. You should start looking for new jobs. It's really dirty of them, but you're better off being in a place where you have a chance. Look for jobs starting now.
posted by anniecat at 9:43 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't think they are setting you up to fail.

Intentionally they have given you an opportunity to prove yourself.

It doesn't need to be a production, just send an email asking how to re-prioritize and make it clear than anything your boss is deprioritizing is not going to get done in the original timeframe.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:44 AM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

And if they aren't setting you up to get fired, they've certainly made it clear that they don't like you and don't really value the work you do.
posted by anniecat at 9:44 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

meant to say "Intentionally or not they have given you an opportunity to prove yourself."
posted by Ad hominem at 9:45 AM on January 10, 2012

I think if they were setting you up to be fired, they would have criticized your performance in writing and a copy would have gone "on file." That's kind of HR 101.

But regardless, clarifying your workload and priorities with your boss, as others have said, is key. But do that IN WRITING.

Clearly your workplace has some level of dysfunction. It doesn't have to be a total disaster though. If there are no documentation procedures already, you need to start communicating in a way you can document -- even it's just a log of email exchanges you can refer to later.
posted by pantarei70 at 9:59 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

This happened to me, and it got bad enough that I'm no longer with the company I'd been with for more than a decade.

You need to document everything. Send an email to your boss (depending on your organization cc her boss- you need to be careful about this) advising that you need guidance in how to prioritize this work along with your previous workload. Do a time chart indicating the responsibilities you have including these new ones and how much time they would take. Ask if there are things that could perhaps be re-allocated to someone else. Be positive, and enthusiastic, but make sure they understand how much more work this is.

And polish up your resume, because one way or another they've demonstrated that they don't care at all about keeping you as an employee.
posted by winna at 10:03 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would also add that in your email asking for help prioritizing that you reference the previous meeting and that you are taking it seriously and want to show them you are trying to improve and you welcome the challenge but need support in prioritizing. Maybe ask your boss to give you a timeline for different stages of the work (assuming the work can be done in this way). I would also ask for a supervision meeting after that first timeline goal to go over what you've done and re-evaluate if the timeline is realistic and discuss if your original duties are suffering. If this really is about needing someone to do the work and not setting you up, and if you present this as positively as possible, these are all things people have come to me with because they genuinely need the support and want it acknowledged that they are taking on extra work.
posted by archimago at 10:21 AM on January 10, 2012

I don't think you're being set up to fail. I think you were given an opportunity to prove yourself after a somewhat rocky start. If you want to keep this job, you're going to have to work for it. First, you need to accept that this new work will be your responsibility. Then you need to come up with a plan to GET IT DONE. If it were me, I would roll up my sleeves and wade in. First, prioritize. Use time management skills to get as much done in a day as possible, or at least put a daily time plan on paper as a guide. It seems to me that you'll have to budget a certain amount of time every day to slog through the backlog while still doing your current everyday tasks. After you've given some thought to how best organize your day, send a quick email to your boss and any other affected coworkers, laying out in very simple terms how you plan to get this done. "Hey guys, I'm determined work this out and here's the way I intend to go about it. I'm open to input if you have any positive criticisms." This way, if you got something wrong, they will be able to direct you to a better resolution. Plus there's a big CYA factor if you catch flak later.

Just remember that the backlog will be gone eventually, and you will have made a great impression on the powers-that-be for taking care of this problem. There's a big difference between employees who come with their own solutions and those that wait for someone to tell them what to do. You'll also improve your own skills along the way, gain respect from your coworkers, and set yourself up for better things down the road.
posted by raisingsand at 10:50 AM on January 10, 2012

I'm always ammused by the people who jump on any kind of work relation issue (boss is mean, cowaorker did this, environment is difficult) and immediately recommend looking for a new job, or seeing the worst.

Cuts just happened. Just on that alone, this is not an unusual circumstance. If anything, the talk happened about performance because the bosses had some inkling that cuts may be happeneing, and they need everyone showing their best.

Bosses don't typically conspire to load someone up with work to make sure they fail so that they can fire someone. If they want to fire someone, they can just fire them. Especially when staff is cut, they need everone they have to make sure they can get things done, even if they don't particularly have trust in the staff they have.

For your specific question, they've told you what they expect of you, whether you think it is accurate or not. You need to look to see how you can manage perceptions, especially around things you believe out of your control.

starting as suggested above, go to your boss, but be prepared. Have a list of what you need to do, and steps you think need to be taken. Start with bringing up the discussion - "In light of our conversation about me performance, I want to make sure I kick this off right and appreciate you helping me prioritize and agree on some goals..."

Not specific goals, timelines, etc, and start status reporting on your progress weekly or biweekly back to your boss, noting all issues and plans for resolution and where you think he/she needs to step in and help.
posted by rich at 11:25 AM on January 10, 2012

(sorry - last sentence "Note specific goals.." not, 'not'.)
posted by rich at 11:47 AM on January 10, 2012

I don't think you're being set up to be fired or quit. I think you're being set up to focus on what needs to be done, and to quell the drama from the personality and performance issues by giving you clear expectations. You're stressed, and it's no fun to have a work place with changes for the worse.

There were cuts in November and I'm basically being given all of the work of someone who used to work 20 hours per week.

I'll point out that that doesn't mean they actually worked 20 hours. Sometimes it doesn't take as long to do certain jobs, if you can find efficiencies. I would bet that though you work hard and feel overwhelmed, you could find ways to accomplish more.

The new work will take significant time away from the task I’ve been told should be my main priority, it’s the sort of work where I have very little control over the outcome of the work and it will put me in constant and direct contact with one of the people causing the drama right now.

You need to disengage from the drama - without knowing what it is, whatever it takes to minimize your part in it, please do so. You will hopefully be too busy to have time for any of it! This is a great place for that kind of advice too - except when it doesn't go well - but you could try to get some help with that.

The work was dumped on my desk this morning and I have to play a great deal of catch-up to get months of backlog under control.

I'm sure you're distressed, but take a step back and do an overview of the backlog, and do a work-back schedule. Figuring out what tasks you can accomplish in that time frame, and realizing some things might not fit means you can go to your boss hopefully with solutions instead of a problem if you really can't work it in. Don't try to eat that elephant one bite at a time - find a way to render it down.

Long, old-person story here:

Once upon a time, I was hired into a old, long-standing company for my expertise in a few areas, though I'd never done the particular job before. I had a Co-Department Head, we had an assistant and we had part-time help. After some time in the job, I realized that there was a lot of work that was needless and time-consuming and pointless, and re-structured the department to work smarter, not harder or more. Things had been done in certain ways for years for no particular reason, and it was wasteful (Handwritten forms with hundreds of items, filed in triplicate! Then, entering them into the computer! And then re-writing item descriptions for sales, and entering them into the computer instead of doing it once when we accepted the items! I still cringe.). We no longer needed the assistant. My work partner then focused on her own specialty, and I mine, and soon the disparity in the numbers for our department's sales grew, and continued to grow. You see, she was still doing her job - working hard! Working longer hours than I did! Handling the same volume of items! Same number of clients! But she forgot that her job was not to do her job, the actual work - it was to make our department, and by extension, the company profitable. And to do that, we had to generate not just our own wage, but that and four or five times over. For me it was a formula - I made X, so each (auction) sale needed to generate Y in order to make Z yearly. She forgot it was a business, not just her job. When we sat down the the bosses, and she was called to task (and she did not like me, either) and this was all pointed out to her, that she needed to do X to generate Y and take on W so that I could generate Z, or she was not earning her keep - she left because she liked how it used to be. And, I found I could not only do my job, but hers (and only needed an assistant at crunch time). I soon left because this did not translate into more money for me personally, though I'd streamlined two and a half jobs into one. There's part of the rub...

So, what I am pointing out, is that you seem consumed with the amount of work, and the politics - but you seem to be forgetting your part in the company's goals. You're there not just to work to earn your paycheck for your own benefit, but to work hard and efficiently and to think about how your workplace can best succeed, in order for it to keep your job, and do this by keeping the company profitable and growing. And hopefully when you've figured out how to do your new job in the time allowed, to be adequately compensated for your new responsibilities. Face it - you have a new job description. You can let that be a reason to leave, or get over it and move on, hopefully coming out ahead. Many companies can't afford to stagnate, and the changes might be necessary to have a job at all.

Your question might soon be, "Once I get through all that I've taken on and have proven that I'm the employee they need in this position, how do I renegotiate my wage to be commensurate, now that I'm doing more than I was originally contracted to do?"
posted by peagood at 1:38 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't really think you are being set up for being fired or pushed to quit (why not just needle and nag you? why not just fire you?); is it possible that your performance has improved enough that they feel comfortable giving you extra work? But I think it's most likely just "we've fired people and we've kept you, so here you go!"

If you feel uncomfortable managing the load and your performance of your previously assigned tasks, you need to speak to your boss about it - without mentioning that you don't want to work with So-and-So but referencing the November meeting, asking how to prioritize, if things can be delegated or spread about, offering solutions and not just saying "DO NOT WANT," and etc. It's possible that this situation isn't doable or changeable, in which case you should then consider perhaps seeking new employment, but if you want to keep your job and make this work you need to work with your supervisors (and coworkers) to make that happen. At the very least, going to your boss with questions, concerns, and ideas about this added stuff will make you look good and proactive to the company, or will demonstrate to you that they really don't give two cents about you/your work, and that you should start looking.
posted by sm1tten at 5:01 PM on January 10, 2012

Speculating on the manager's motives doesn't help. Ask the manager to help you structure your time & prioritize the work. That shows that you care, and the manager may be able to help you work more effectively. If you give it your best, maybe it will work out okay, either way, you'll feel better.
posted by theora55 at 5:54 PM on January 10, 2012

In every workplace I've been in, when cuts happened, the people that management wanted to get rid of were on the list. (Unfortunately, since 2001, I have been in management discussions of who to RIF and why about a dozen times, discussing between 20 and 80 people each time.) Firing someone is a significant amount of work for a supervisor requiring justification, many unpleasant conversations with the employee being fired, and a lot of follow up. By contrast, putting someone's name on a RIF list requires much less work.

I agree that normally being told that you are not meeting expectations is usually a big signal to polish your resume, but perhaps there is another explanation:
- they didn't realize your performance issues until after the RIF list was compiled (it can take 3-6 weeks from the time your manager submits the list until you are notified depending on the size of your org and the amount of bureaucracy)
- you have hard to find skills that are absolutely required for your organization
- they really think that by giving you this message, you will improve

By the way, I am not saying everyone on a RIF list was underperforming, nor am I saying that being told you are underperforming is necessarily accurate or fair. I'm just trying to provide context about how I've seen these decisions made.
posted by elmay at 9:58 PM on January 10, 2012

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