Screwed by supervisor -- what to do?
October 10, 2014 8:56 AM   Subscribe

My supervisor's incompetence jeopardized my own work goals. What should I do?

Background (apologies in advance for the wall of text):

This is my second big project for this company. I am a freelancer and so is my direct supervisor, whom I will call S., and who is in charge of looking after some specific projects for this company. I got the jobs through her. We have some acquaintances in common.

I don't have a beef with the company: they pay on time, there are some interesting projects and the big boss, whom I will call B., seems to be an OK guy. As I have gathered he wants to create conditions so that our department can go full time at some point in the future. S. is the go-between for the team and B.

The first team project went well and I finished my job one month before my deadline. I am generally fast and I had everything I needed to do the job. However, things didn't go as smoothly for other people on the team, mostly due to bad managing, missed steps and such. Looking at the final product, I was aghast at some glaring errors I noticed (my work was in the early stages so these mistakes didn't exist at that point). Other people tried to call S.'s attention to those issues, but S. either didn't reply to their e-mails or didn't give a damn.

Fast forward to now. I was invited to do this second project, involving fewer people and where I would be doing the most important parts. I was told I had 3 months to do it and that I would receive most of the stuff needed in advance. I warned S. that the deadline was tight for the amount of work involved, but she said there was no way to extend it or to get more money (which were the suggestions of a friend of mine in the industry). I also warned S.that I had a non-refundable week-long overseas trip booked, which would take place at the end of the 2nd month.

So, my plan was to do as much possible in the first couple of months. S. was in charge of writing the texts I needed to do my job. Then I had to pass off my stuff to another colleague, P. and then to S. herself and her best friend/workmate, C.

When the clock started ticking, I still hadn't any source texts. By the end of the first month, instead of receiving at least one third of the texts (it's simple math...), I had got only half that. P. and I had, on more than one occasion, a few days in a row of nothing to do, because there was nothing to work from. I asked S. repeatedly for more stuff (as to not leave P. hanging!), but that seemed to fall on deaf ears. I realized S. and C. were finishing another project for the company so they weren't paying much attention to this project. And whatever S. did, she didn't do well -- it was painfully clear that she didn't have a clue about the medium. The texts were mostly a Copy & Paste mess; there wasn't any original stuff in there. I had to do several corrections and changes -- which wasn't my job. As for my own job, the feedback from the company and the final client was very positive -- they were loving it.

Long story short: S. and C. suddenly woke up (about one month too late), panicked about their part on the last stage... With good reason, because they were ill-suited for that job as well: whatever these two people took one entire day to do, P. alone could do in an hour (as for me, two hours, tops). I also found out that, contrarily to what I was led to believe, I didn't have 3 months to do everything… But just 2 months and a half. With a trip in the middle… S. suggested hiring someone else to do part of my job. The catch? Their fees would have to come from mine. I said it wasn't necessary as I could do my job quickly as long I had the stuff I needed. S. didn't even think about relinquishing their fees and hiring someone more competent and faster to do S. and C.'s jobs. Another surprise: S. had planned to take on two new projects on the 3rd month, meaning her own deadlines were getting a bit tighter.

S. and I exchanged some e-mails were I tried to give some constructive criticism about the handling of this project -- it was v.v.v. soft. Yet, S. refused to take any responsibilities and said she didn't see any use in discussing the matter. It was as if I were talking to a wall.

A while later, S. decided I wasn't being fast enough [I don't know how -- I had planned out my output to meet the (new) deadline and I was meeting my self-assigned goals at a steady pace] and went ahead and hired someone else all the same.

I am pretty upset: at the loss of fees, at the awful management and how avoidable the whole thing was. Let's just say that my daily output is currently 4-5x the initially planned when I took the job… if only I had the stuff back then! I also refused a well-paying project because I was busy with this (underpaid) one. Also, hiring someone else will turn the final product into a flawed and patchy mess (like the first project...). Trust me on this. I won't even want my name on it anymore.

I also believe a big project should have a clear schedule, available to everyone, from the very beginning. S. only created one near the end.

I will finish what's left of my job, no question -- but I lost whatever goodwill I had left.

Onto the questions now:

What should I do now? I believe I didn't have any conditions to do the job I was hired to do and that I am taking the blame when I shouldn't be. I had hoped to work on future projects for the company and possibly even earn a regular paycheck there… But at this point I feel I don't want any part in projects where I feel the final result is subpar (and it doesn't need to be -- there are a few good people on the team) and where I can't respect my supervisor.

My partner is angry on my behalf and says I should escalate and talk to B., the big boss, and share all of this. I am reluctant because it feels like tattling but on the other hand I don't want my professional reputation in this company to be damaged because of S.'s behavior.

Should I talk to B.? Should I say something to S.? Should I just cut my losses and move on? (problem is, it's a small industry…).

Thanks in advance. Sorry again for the wall of text, but I'm functioning on little sleep these days.
posted by lost_lettuce to Human Relations (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Your position sounds untenable. Talk to B and be professional throughout. explain you are willing to undertake other projects but not where S is supervising. I hold out little hope.
posted by epo at 9:05 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd fire B and S. This is a nuclear option, but who cares, they're boneheads and you don't want to deal with any of these folks again. You can be kinder than I, but not much.

Dear B and S,

Based upon the issues that arose with our last project, I am afraid that unless things change, I will be unable to accept any new projects with your organization. These are the issues that contributed to the problems of our last project:

1. Ill-defined timelines and benchmarks.
2. Late delivery of necessary materials and data
3. Materials received required massive reworking, a task not included in original scope of work.
4. Hiring of an additional party to conduct a portion of work, resulting in work product that was unable to be vetted or completed to standards.

I have enjoyed most of the people at XYZ Corporation, and I have enjoyed the projects in general, I find that the complete lack of appropriate project management tenants contributed to an unsatisfactory result. I am not in the habit of working under these conditions or of being associated with sub-par work product.

Thank you for the opportunity,


Lost Lettuce

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:26 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think you can talk to B if it will just be like, "Hey, S is making me look bad" or "Just so you know, S is horrible at project management." It has to be solution oriented. It has to be "During this last project, there were several bottlenecks in work flow. Communication also created confusion during the project. I know that, at least on my end, there were times where I was caught up on everything and had days where I had to wait to proceed until other materials came in. I think in the future, we can ensure more efficiency if ___." The solution can't be to fire S, but definitely offer other solutions.

Definitely lay out that there should be a clear calendar of deadlines for everything that everyone should be expected to adhere to, which didn't happen. It sounds like you guys could benefit from something like Basecamp or Trello or some sort of project management tool because it sounds like some team members are having issues communicating through email. Maybe you can suggest that to hint that the project management and communication have gone poorly. I think it's fine to express frustration that you felt like you did your piece of the project well and were turning things around in a reasonable amount of time, and then the finished product was rushed and not as good as it could've been with better up-front planning. Don't accuse the final product of being sub-par if no one else is going to think it's sub-par and it doesn't objectively stink.

I think you talk to B at least to save face and show you care, but if the situation won't be any better and he can't promise anything or seems unwilling to reassure you, you just start taking projects with other organizations. Separate from your sit-down with B, if you do accept another project at this place, insist upon a calendar of deadlines and a stipulation that if you meet all your due dates, they can't cut your fees. The fact that you need material from them to do your job means it can't necessarily be a static calendar of dates, because if they don't send you stuff, you can't still be expected to turnaround your piece. But maybe the calendar and specify "48 hours after text source material sent" or something.

Based on your questions, it's clear S doesn't care or is bad at her job. She won't be sad to see you go because your competence makes her look bad. I doubt talking to her will help.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:34 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

It sounds like the contract you presented them with did not have clear timelines and expectations. It also makes no sense that after you both agreed to the contract they unilaterally took some of your fees to pay someone else. Or that you had to turn down other work in order to put extra effort into their work, or that the written deadline changed. So maybe something to do would be to draw up a new template that is fair to both and shows expectations on both sides and present that the next time you work together. This past project is water under the bridge, but presenting a contract that takes into account their past behaviour will communicate your professionalism and willingness to work collaboratively.
posted by saucysault at 10:18 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been earning my living as a freelancer for several years with quitr a few long-time clients.

Part of how you respond depends on your personality and at the end of the day, what you want out of this. I'm actually having a hard time understanding what happened in regards to your fee when I read this (ie, did you complete work and they are taking from that fee or using the fee for not completed work? very different scenarios).

If it is taking from your fee for work you completed and you have a good rapport with B (and this fits with your personality), then I would sit down and say some of those things in polite terms, without throwing people under the bus (I think this point listed by bunny is good: "Materials received required massive reworking, a task not included in original scope of work.")

I would also assess what went wrong and what you want in the future. Was it S? Would you feel more comfortable if you had an agreed upon start date? Partial fee up front or after meeting points in the project? Think very carefully. As an example, like you, I tell clients up front "Not available on days x-x, need material on day y to start, saving a week for your project." If they don't send the project, I send an initial friendly email (hey, where is the material), but if it is a few days in and I know it will affect my timeline, then the next email is "I am holding these dates for you,but I will not be able to do the project unless I get the project on this date and/or the timeline will need to be moved." 99% of the time, the project material appears with the comment.

However, I will absolutely say that I have learned over time to truly fire clients. In a polite way, though (ie, "I'm busy, no availability.)" Or, change the parameters of what you want - the fee is YYY to be paid on date Y for this deliverable, or I will take projects with Bob (don't state why or why not). I have found that doing it this way is far less headaches, work that you want representative of you, and at the end of the day, you are paid more. I have another friend who actually has customers from stores and he has used the same philosophy - sometimes it is better to get rid of problem customers/clients because you fill up your time with better quality.
posted by Wolfster at 11:27 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

S. suggested hiring someone else to do part of my job. The catch? Their fees would have to come from mine.

I just wanted to address this one aspect, as the same thing happened to me once, in my 15 years as a freelancer. I will spare you the details but the big picture was that the agency on the project signed off on a SOW that stated that they only make their fees as the milestones are met while my contract was simply hourly work for hire. The project was a major cluster-eff from the get go and three weeks into it the agency ended up asking me to eat my fees. Guess what, I said NO WAY, and they had to pay.

To be fair, both per-hour and per-milestone types of contracts have a place but - BUT! - the latter type is a lot more expensive as the freelancer has to assume all the associated risks, and the deliverables are clearly defined in the contract. So for example, if I worked on a project where I would charge $100/hour and I estimated a 100 hours of total work for a grand total of $10k, I would NOT charge the same $10k in installments. I would charge $20k, and I would have a detailed SOW where the milestones were very specific and the deadlines relative to the client delivering finalized requirements and materials.

Are you on such a project? Clearly not so absolutely do not give up your fees! It is not up to S. to just decide not to pay you.

I was also not clear whether you are "upset at the loss of fees" re. future work with this employer, or getting paid for the hours you've already worked. If it's the latter, tell them you expect to get paid for your hours and then fight them in small claims court or call your state's labor department for help. In my experience, the small claims courts really look down on freelancers being stiffed, and don't take kindly to employers who say that the work was not satisfactory while keeping the "bad" freelancer working on project after project.
posted by rada at 11:49 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Clarifying the fees issue…

This job pays a sort of "salary", a set amount per month, during 3 months, regardless of the amount of work done. I had to do the job I was hired to do (which can be divided into two stages). So S. basically decided it was better to hire someone else to finish the second stage, but that is going to come out of my monthly fee. I am upset because I refused this one-month project for other client that would pay at least twice as much in normal conditions, and now I am not even going to earn the full fee for this month.
posted by lost_lettuce at 2:42 PM on October 10, 2014

As you explain it, it makes no sense. If the contract is a salary for a month of work then that is what you should be paid. If they are cancelling your contract there should be cancellation notice and fees in the contract. Maybe you should run the contract past a local lawyer to see if it is legal for them to reduce your fees.
posted by saucysault at 10:58 AM on October 11, 2014

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