clueless supervisor
October 24, 2012 10:21 AM   Subscribe

As a supervisor, what can I do to help my assistant feel more needed or is it a lost cause? Lots of snowflakiness inside.

A little over a year ago, I moved into a higher position at the institution I was already working at. The tasks of the job were very different and I was given the task of supervising one part-time employee. My predecessor in this position was less technologically inclined and took longer to complete certain projects, and so this part-time employee was taken on during her tenure to assist with various office tasks.

I'm sure you can see where this is going: I complete tasks at a much faster pace, and so I am not passing things off to the assistant. I have worked to create new projects for her and to increase her workload. The truth of the matter is that in most, if not all, respects, her position is obsolete despite the tasks I have added. Most of the tasks given to her since I have been here have been at the expense of my own position.

In the past year, I have tried to convey this to my supervisor as well as to the HR office about three times. Each time, the stance has been that the position should be maintained (people are rarely "let go" here, as that is always seen as a last resort -- thankfully). However, the financial state of this institution is not very good. We are facing salary cuts and increases to our health insurance premiums (which are to occur simultaneously).

On the one hand, perhaps it is time to eliminate the position. It is possible that she could move into another office to work, but I am not sure of the likelihood of this. On the other hand, she is a person who relies heavily on the tuition benefit this job affords her (half off tuition for her children, one of which is currently a college freshman).

This is my first time in the role of supervisor, and I am really struggling with what to do. Any advice, MeFites?
posted by singinginmychains to Work & Money (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Without changing her office, can you change her job description? You are already giving her all the extra work you can, but perhaps your colleagues, your supervisors, your supervisors' assistants, etc. have projects or assignments she can take on?
posted by Rock Steady at 10:26 AM on October 24, 2012

It doesn't really sound to me like you need to do anything.

You suggested she be let go three times, the higher-ups are not into it. Is she complaining that she's bored or not challenged? If so, you could encourage her to apply for other jobs internally. If not, everything seems like it should stay as it is.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:28 AM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is there someone else in the office who might have work for her? You might score extra office brownie points if you help out a coworker in need.
posted by Rinoia at 10:29 AM on October 24, 2012

Is there something she could be trained (or train herself) on that would increase her ability to be helpful? Something like learning new software, or auditing a class, or getting a certification, or something along those lines that would help her if she loses this job and also potentially help you down the line. That's always seemed to me to be the best way to use an employee who has a bunch of unavoidable downtime.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:35 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

To approach the issue from the other direction, are there new or different tasks that you could take on, if you delegated more to her?
posted by emumimic at 10:38 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: All of the suggestions so far have been applied. My boss has asked her to do a few research projects for him in the past few months, which she has enjoyed but completed very quickly. Last spring, she attended a two day Excel training class which she really seemed to enjoy, but our employer does not have the funds for further career development opportunities at the moment.

She came into my office today in tears and stated that she doesn't feel needed. Of course, that would be a concern for her given the current financial environment here. Other offices have have assistants quit in recent months (to move on to higher paying jobs); those positions were not filled after they were vacated.

I have tried to take on new tasks in my position to free up things to be delegated to her, but I think the fact is that we are both very efficient workers. When one is busy, the other is bored.
posted by singinginmychains at 10:40 AM on October 24, 2012

As a supervisor, what can I do to help my assistant feel more needed

Stop trying to have her position eliminated for one. Even if she doesn't know you're doing this, I can't imagine you treating her the same way if you were

And, as others have suggested, perhaps she can be used for more of a departmental assistant instead of a personal assistant. Or take of of the tasks you do and have her own it, freeing you up to do something personally fulfilling of your choice for part of the day.

Don't be Matthew Crawley and Moseley the poor woman.
posted by inturnaround at 10:42 AM on October 24, 2012 [11 favorites]

It's hard for me to understand an office job where there can't be more tasks invented. Create PR materials. Make a better web page for the department or project. Improve the filing system. Create a list of answers to frequently asked questions. Do outreach to other organizations in the institution.

Last spring, she attended a two day Excel training class which she really seemed to enjoy, but our employer does not have the funds for further career development opportunities at the moment.

She can spend time doing training (for Excel or whatever) from books she can get from the library.
posted by grouse at 10:46 AM on October 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

It seems to me that you have a really great opportunity here-

Even though you CAN complete most or all of the tasks required for both your job and hers - why not make her owner of the more dull and tedious ones while you spend the extra time working on professional development type stuff.

While you have this resource, do not let it go to waste.
posted by sarahnicolesays at 10:49 AM on October 24, 2012 [13 favorites]

This question is hard to answer without knowing the specifics of your job, your assistant's skill set, and the work of your department. Could you clarify? In any case, I don't think it's the job of a supervisor to help people "feel more needed" -- it's to facilitate the goals of your employer. It's hard to believe there isn't SOME project that would be of benefit.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:53 AM on October 24, 2012

I find it outrageous that you have to think up work for an assistant to do. Your job isn't to make up work, your job is to complete your own work.

Your assistant is correct, she is not needed in her job. A person might take this as a sign that it's time to move on. Frankly, I'm baffled as to why she's not shopped her resume around.

I would have a formal discussion with your assistant:

"Sarah, I believe that you've noticed that your duties have changed since I've come on-board in this position. Frankly, since I have a mastery of technology that my predicessor didn't, there's not an awful lot for you to do in that regard. What things around here do you think need doing? What kinds of tasks would you like to take on? This is an opportunity for you to design your job. Why don't you take a couple of days to get your thoughts together on this, and let's meet on Monday to discuss what you've come up with."

Now the onus is on her to create a job where there is none. The other option is to move her into an admin position that is now vacant due to the admins who have quit for better pay.

It would drive me batshit crazy to have to think up work for someone to do.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:55 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I mean this in the nicest way possible but...I cannot fathom being upset at having an extra staff person, and I think you just need to reframe this. You can expand! Develop projects! I'm coming at this from a nonprofit perspective but off the top of my head I would love:
- Someone to create and manage social media (facebook, pinterest, a blog, whatever -- there is always more that can be done here, always)
- Someone to apply to and manage grant projects
- Someone to do outreach and publicity, which could be anything from cold calling to site visits to a booth a the county fair

Is it possible that you are simply not used to being a manager? Because bluntly put, task delegation is your job now. To start, I'd make a dream list of things you'd like done, and then sit down with her and see what sorts of projects that she would like to work on. Keep in mind here that you could simply give her the duller tasks you are doing now and take on a fun project with your extra time.
posted by susanvance at 10:57 AM on October 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

Another thing: I don't want to be harsh, but I don't think it looks good for a supervisor to be repeatedly complaining to HR that you cannot think of any way to productively use a staff person's time. That's your job.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:06 AM on October 24, 2012 [9 favorites]

I've never had a job where there wasn't more that could be done than there was time to do -- it's always possible to do things better than you're doing them, or to do more of it, or to take it in new directions or expand it into new markets or add new features or improve existing ones or etcetera.

When you're working as an employee, you get used to the working style being: My manager assigns me work. I do that work. Then I go home.

Now that you're a manager, it sounds like you're still stuck in that mindset. Part of being a manager, though, is taking on the responsibility of assigning work to yourself (and your department) that you know needs to be done, or that you think can be done better than it is currently being done.

The thing that e.g. Ruthless Bunny suggests -- asking your employee to identify tasks and carve out a job for herself -- that's your job to be doing. That's what managing employees is. Ideas don't all flow from the CEO down the food chain; most of the good ideas start at the departmental level or below.

Right now you have a surplus of available labor -- this is a huge opportunity! Use it! Be proactive and find ways to use that surplus to improve your company and to improve your own position within it. What that consists of, exactly, will depend on what your department does, exactly, but there is always something that can be improved.

This will help your supervisee's career, but much more importantly it will help your own. Going to your supervisor and telling him/her "We don't have enough to do, we should fire my subordinate" -- repeatedly, no less! -- has got to be harming your own career; you're marking yourself as Not Managerial Material.
posted by ook at 11:12 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm curious about why you seem so inclined to take it upon yourself to get this person let go.

Yes, true, in a bottom line sense, she is superfluous. But it doesn't sound like you have the authority to make decisions about this.

So why not just move on? I agree with others who've said that your job as manager is not DO ALL THE THINGS. It's to oversee the doing of the things.

Are there tasks you do that this employee is fully capable of doing? Are there back burner tasks or "someday" projects that you can now free up space for? Delegate so that you each have a manageable amount of stuff to do, rather than piling your own workload and leaving her with nothing.

I get the sense that you're trying to be some kind of hero who can do the work of two people. Too many people are forced to work that way. Why bring it on yourself?
posted by Sara C. at 11:16 AM on October 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

It seems like you've suggested -- repeatedly -- eliminating her position, and they've said no. Since it's not your decision in the end whether to eliminate the position or not, it seems like your task is to make the situation work as well as you can.

I'm not sure what kinds of office tasks you're talking about, which makes it hard to answer. I don't know if we're talking about the previous person in your job dictating and the assistant transcribing -- which, if you type for yourself, there's kind of nothing to be done about the fact that you don't need it -- or whether we're talking about something like the previous person being inefficient at filling out paperwork and you being faster at it and therefore happy to do it yourself. Because you having time to do less skilled things yourself doesn't actually mean you should do them yourself.

It seems like the solution, if at all possible, is to work at the top of your skill level as much of the time as you can -- remember, your job isn't to do whatever you can yourself and only pass off to the assistant what you can't do. I think when people are new to having assistants, this sometimes happens, that they only pass off what they can't do, but it's not the intent. The intent, it would seem, is for the assistant to spend her time on the things that aren't the most challenging part of your job to free up time for you to do more skilled work. When you say you complete the tasks of your predecessor more quickly, it almost sounds like the issue is that you don't have enough to do with those tasks, so you go ahead and do the assistant's job as well, which isn't really a solution, right?

Like I said, hard to tell -- you could be right that there's no way for her to still do the work she previously did. If it's a matter of the work the assistant previously did not being done at all by her or you (transcribing, for instance), that's one thing. But if it's a matter of you having enough time to do your job and also her job -- if that's what makes her job unnecessary, the problem is actually that your job doesn't fill your time as it did your predecessor's time. And in that case, your task is to find challenging, supervisor-level things for yourself to do.

I don't mean it harshly at all -- this is really, really difficult, learning to supervise people. I sympathize.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:25 AM on October 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

My boss has asked her to do a few research projects for him in the past few months, which she has enjoyed but completed very quickly.

Someone (not you) has to hold a workflow meeting amongst all people of a similar rank and title as yours. Surely there is *someone* who is slightly more disorganized, more scatterbrained, more paperwork-intensive (think old-school technophobic) that could use her assistance.

Other offices have have assistants quit in recent months (to move on to higher paying jobs); those positions were not filled after they were vacated.

Surely some of these assistants left unfinished projects, or otherwise were responsible for tasks which are now not getting completed. Someone (again, not you) needs to go over all these activities with a fine-toothed comb and ensure accuracy, efficiency, and timely completion are being met all around.
posted by invisible ink at 11:27 AM on October 24, 2012

Response by poster: This has been very helpful to me so far. As this is my first time ever supervising another person, I don't yet feel fully equipped with education or experience to always know what to do. So, perhaps in that sense, I am not yet "managerial material". Hence the reason I am here, asking you fine people.

I really appreciate the suggestions to delegate some of the simpler tasks to her to free up time to work on higher level things myself. Linda Holmes, I think your suggestion that I don't have enough to do to fill my time is very accurate. That was something that was addressed very early on in my time in this job; it perhaps needs to be addressed again.

Also, to clear up one thing: when I have spoken to HR about this, I have never suggested that she be let go. Each time, I have approached it from the stance of "we have some downtime in our office occasionally, and my assistant seems to be hungry for more work. I have continually increased her tasks, but the situation has not changed. Do you have any suggestions?"

I work in a graduate office at a small liberal arts college. We typically only have 60 students enrolled at a given time, and their need for student services (i.e., the role I play here) is rather small. I register them for classes (and create database entries for the classes themselves), offer a small amount of career and academic counseling (we have offices specifically dedicated to this, so I act more as a liaison between the students and those offices), and generally work to keep the students apprised of events on campus and things relating to their enrollment.
posted by singinginmychains at 11:41 AM on October 24, 2012

So there's a career office and there's an academic assistance office, right? And you're sort of a front line resource for students who sometimes refers them over to one of those offices for more help?

Do you have the freedom to do things like set up workshops or online resources that would involve collaboration between academic and career counseling -- like, "So You Want To Be A Teacher: From Freshman Year To Writing Your Resume," that would help students all the way along a particular career track? There do seem to be lots of possibilities, but it depends on how things work there.

On the one hand, it seems like you're in the kind of field -- services -- where there's no such thing as no more to do. There's always more to learn, to teach, to create as a resource for students. On the other hand, I admit that a two-person student services office in addition to a career office and an academic office, at a school with 60 total students at a time, seems like it might in fact make it tough for everyone to have enough work. It does seem like a lot of staff.

Good luck to you; you seem to be thinking about all the right things.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:58 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, wait -- you only have 60 graduate students, and it's mostly a liberal arts school? AHA! I get that a lot more. I was confused about the idea of a 60-person college.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:59 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Figuring out new tasks for employees is absolutely not HR's role, and they can't do a good job on it.

I agree with Linda_Holmes. It might make sense to take a totally different tack. Post on Chronicle Forums saying that you run a graduate student services office and sometimes have downtime. How can you make your student services office the most awesome one ever? Look at other institutions (both peer institutions and others) and see what sorts of graduate student services they provide.

Here are some things I can think of:
  • Identify funding opportunities for your students and help them apply for them.
  • Keep a calendar of funding deadlines and conferences for your students.
  • Organize a voluntary library of previous student grant/fellowship applications.
  • Organize workshops on applying for funding or fellowships
  • If these are not doctoral students, organize resource on applying to PhDs
  • Work with the career office to organize career workshops for graduate students.
  • Create graduate student directory pages for your web page
  • Organize a cross-university symposium or seminar series for grad student research
  • Use social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) to appraise the community about grad student research or creative work
  • Start reading forums and mailing lists devoted to graduate student affairs administrators for more ideas and networking
  • Volunteer for professional or university organizations/committees
  • Improve your own skills (computer/interpersonal/whatever)
Maybe you should start a brainstorming meeting with your assistant and together you can decide what sorts of activities would be a good fit for her and you.
posted by grouse at 1:31 PM on October 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

grouse: How can you make your student services office the most awesome one ever? Look at other institutions (both peer institutions and others) and see what sorts of graduate student services they provide.

There is her new assignment.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:46 PM on October 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

Why can't she show some initiative and look for tasks or jobs that she can do? Her coming into your office in tears because of some feelings seems off to me. If she likes the job, perhaps you can suggest that she come up with some ideas for new areas for her to master--if she doesn't have any skin in the game, I'm not sure that she'll be pleased to do whatever you throw on her desk.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:06 PM on October 24, 2012

Can you use some of your extra time to do management training?

Also, given that you only have 60 students, could you use the extra time to go and introduce yourself to them. They may be more likely to use your services if they already know you.
posted by kjs4 at 5:41 PM on October 24, 2012

Keep the web site current - seek out dead links, old information, etc., and correct it.
Do research on FERPA and HIPPA and make sure you're in compliance.
See if there are projects she can do with the Graduate Alumni office.
posted by theora55 at 5:56 PM on October 24, 2012

Is there any way to find out from graduate students what they feel their needs are? This research would take a little bit of time in itself. My university sent out a survey once a year asking students about their satisfaction with student services and areas where they felt they needed more support.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:17 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, grouse has some really useful ideas!
posted by stoneandstar at 3:18 AM on October 25, 2012

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