New supervisor, intense workload. Recommendations to manage?
November 1, 2018 5:29 PM   Subscribe

My job has undergone some major changes this year, and I've been getting a more intense workload. I need recommendations on how to manage this, stand my ground, and work through it.

I work in higher education in the public relations area. My job has undergone some major changes this year, with my previous supervisor and several co-workers leaving, leaving me to be the only primary employee to juggle stuff in my specific unit, along with several contractors.

My new/current supervisor has a reputation for being, well, difficult to work with. At the beginning, I gave my supervisor the benefit of the doubt, but after some incidents, it seems unclear if s/he would have my back or go to bat for me (mixed messages), so my feelings of ease are quickly disappearing. This is based on my observations/feelings, as well as other concerns from colleagues and their own experiences.

A previous colleague who I worked closely with became a part-time contractor a while ago. Used to be my supervisor about four years ago for a short time; we had a toxic work relationship and did not get along. Overly critical, hurtful, mean-spirited, etc. S/he continued to "act" like my supervisor after officially not being, and my previous supervisor did not do much to stop it. The contract was due to expire, and my current supervisor initially seemed to want to discontinue the contract, and I explained the toxic relationship we had, as well as concerns (the contractor has limited hours due to another job, and was slow in responding and still expected me to adhere to the schedule s/he had), so I recommended a local contractor instead, as the job the contractor had was quite demanding. The vibe I got during the meeting was that my supervisor was understanding and felt the same way about the contractor (s/he had some difficulties getting along with the contractor), but then turned around after the meeting and re-signed the contract. I initially felt betrayed, but somewhat understood the logistics, based on needs of the business. However, this contractor still is telling me what to do/asking me to do things, despite us being on the same level.

I explained to my supervisor again the toxic feelings I had, and was told that we would work separately for the most part, on different projects, etc. I was told a new project, a major one, would be given to me, but this project has been postponed again and again, and my supervisor contradicted what s/he said by emailing me to assign me something, and CC'ing the contractor, without an explanation of why. My supervisor knows that every time I get an email from the contractor, I tense up and get nervous. It is a continued trigger for me. I have explained this. Yet, my supervisor did this. I feel like my needs are not being met, especially as I am primary/permanent and should have priority. I do understand sometimes we have to work with people we don't like, but things got really toxic between this contractor and I a while ago, and it still sticks with me. (Yes, I am in therapy for this and other matters.)

Additionally, our department is very under-staffed and there are too many expectations being piled up on me, which leaves me little time to breathe. When I try communicating this, I am told that it is temporary and they will hire more people, including a leader for our office. It has been 6+ months and there has been no changes. There recently was a flux of big events on campus and stories are piled high. I get this sensation of drowning and do not know how much more I can handle.

Bonus issues:
-I am underpaid. I did a comparison and I'm at least $10k underpaid compared to others with my title, in my living area, based on my years of experience and all. I work at a non-profit, which may change things because the comparison was with for-profit, but it has been a morale downer for me, especially as I knew for a fact others were paid higher than me. I have talked to HR about this to no avail, even showing Glassdoor comparison printouts. This has contributed to some bitterness and low morale on my part, although I recognize this is not something that can change.

-I am an alumni of this school. I feel attachment and have a hard time imagining myself leaving. The job does offer very nice benefits and it does feel like "a big family" where I am at. It is just that right now, the climate in my unit does not feel comfortable. I also fear facing barriers in finding other jobs, and applied without much success. I want to try and improve things...

...but feel powerless and stuck. Things aren't improving, I don't feel heard by my supervisor, and I'm basically expected to be a "superhero" and do it all (okay, slight exaggeration), for low pay and not much appreciation. I literally have many hats and expectations of me - kind of a "jill of all trades" for my profession.

How shall you recommend I proceed in terms of feedback and making myself heard? I understand I cannot change people or their reactions, but there must be something I can do to improve my situation, short of leaving. I have tried talking with the "ombuds"-like department, and they have been helpful, but not enough to actually effect change to my current situation right now. It does not help that I am intimidated somewhat by my current supervisor and get mixed messages. Advice on how to maintain boundaries with the toxic contractor and not "passively" do everything s/he asks me to do would be helpful, as well. I have been holding this in for a while, and finally feel the need to do something, just not sure what.

Thoughts would be appreciated.
posted by thoughtful_analyst to Work & Money (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're underpaid, overworked, you don't trust your boss, and you have a problem coworker who you can't get away from. Unfortunately, none of those problems are the kind of work-related issues that are likely to be actually curable. Why are you still there, exactly?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:39 PM on November 1, 2018 [15 favorites]

Anticipation, the reason I'm still there is because of the mentioned good benefits (health insurance, retirement) and the fact that I feel comfortable at the overall environment -- just not at my office, currently. My previous supervisor was generally very good with people and things were stable, and I'm really hoping that there is a way I can fix things, somehow. Maybe I just didn't do enough to try and change my situation? Perhaps I wasn't explicitly clear with my current supervisor about my discomfort with the contractor co-worker? I don't know, I'm just saying, I personally don't feel ready to throw in the dishtowel and start all over again somewhere new. My commute also rocks (a 5 minute walk, literally). I was also told we should get a new office leader soon (moving target, but it does SEEM to be happening), so I could try and affect change then.

I'm looking for solutions and pointers here on how to assert myself better with that contractor and my supervisor, maintain boundaries, and be happier. Getting a higher paycheck would be nice, but not exactly something I can fix, but hopefully the other aspects will be fixed somehow. Are you really saying those issues are unfixable? It makes no sense, because after all, at the end of the day, the contractor is on a contract - easily cut and discontinued. I, on the other hand, am permanent. I am more protected. Not at all saying that contractors are bad, but they are easy to cut anytime at my office.

I also don't not trust my supervisor exactly -- just feel unsure and not sure if I can completely trust in him/her. If that makes any sense.
posted by thoughtful_analyst at 8:18 PM on November 1, 2018

If you must stay, do your health benefits include a confidential employee wellness number? You can usually arrange counselling (in person or phone) or financial advice. If offered, take advantage of the financial advice and at least humour the notion of planning an exit.

If you are unionized, you may want to talk to a union rep. Usually they want to hear when the staff feels overworked and log it appropriately.

Be sure to take all your breaks and look after yourself first.

In the meantime, I always recommend Working with You is Killing Me - it's a great book on avoiding and dealing with emotional traps at work. You can even get the audio book version free with a new Audible account on Amazon.

I'm really hoping that there is a way I can fix things

I hope so too, but large organizations often have listening problems. That is, they are aware of the problem and collect employee feedback while pretending to care. It's up to you to decide what is best. Personally, I stayed two years too long at a for-profit organization just as you described. The changes promised never materialized. Thirteen years later, old coworkers say the place is still pretty much the same. YMMV! Good luck and take care of yourself.
posted by Calzephyr at 8:34 PM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

The loyalty you feel to this organization is being abused. Low pay, high workload, ignoring all your concerns. They believe they can treat you like crap and you won't leave. If you actually won't leave, you need to come to terms with being treated like crap. If you want to stop being treated like crap, you'll need to leave.

Just expanding on this, there is no incentive in the currently employment marketplace for employers to change. The only incentive there is is to keep payroll as low as possible. Your employer/manager probably thinks you're infinitely replaceable, and that if you do leave there's going to be someone else that will do your job, probably for less pay.

Keep in mind it's easier to get a job if you have a job. Don't wait until to break down and storm out. Start looking for your next career step now.
posted by krisjohn at 8:46 PM on November 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

The loyalty you feel to this organization is being abused. Low pay, high workload, ignoring all your concerns. They believe they can treat you like crap and you won't leave. If you actually won't leave, you need to come to terms with being treated like crap. If you want to stop being treated like crap, you'll need to leave.

Not trying to threadsit here... are you saying (from your perspective) that my supervisor is intentionally treating me like crap? What would my supervisor's benefit be to treat me like crap? Just trying to understand more.

collect employee feedback while pretending to care

Why pretend to care? Why not be genuine about it? Wouldn't that make the world a better place? (Not trying to sound naive, though. Just wistful thinking.)

Also, as a follow-on question for people's perspective... what could the reasoning be behind my supervisor seeming supportive of the decision to discontinue the toxic contractor's contract, then spinning around and keeping that person? S/he seemed genuinely in agreement with me.
posted by thoughtful_analyst at 8:55 PM on November 1, 2018

In re's to pretending to care - it's easier to send out feedback surveys than make actual change. Change is hard and takes resources. Surveys and focus groups placate workers for a while. My old job had an innovation forum that only collected ideas, it never acted on a single one, but it made people feel like they were being heard.

Dumb question, how long have you been in the working world? I sense you may be younger than me :)

Also, in regards to your supervisor...some people may lack the courage to follow through, a contract may still have had to be honoured or...? It's really hard to divine people's deeper motives sometimes.

Again, check out the book I recommended. I'm looking at my paper copy and it also lists behaviour types for the reader or the problem employee. Your behaviour may be unconsciously influencing others.
posted by Calzephyr at 9:17 PM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Have you considered trying to find a position elsewhere in the organization?

It sounds like you need a new job -- I doubt you can fix the issues with your supervisor and if the supervisor is not on board you're probably not going to get anywhere with the contractor issues either. It sounds as though you want to remain with the organization but does that have to mean this position in this department?
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:41 PM on November 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Why pretend to care? Why not be genuine about it?
Change has a cost. Change has a risk. Promising change without actually delivering it can get some of the benefits of change without the cost or risk. (or with a lot less of both)
Not trying to sound naive
You are, though. It's lovely and it's also the way I wished the world worked, but it doesn't.

Your boss cares about their job, and that's probably it. They will sacrifice you to save themselves. This is what it looks like when the interests of the individual are not aligned with the interests of the organization. They're treating you like crap because they need to, to avoid being treated like crap themselves.
posted by krisjohn at 12:05 AM on November 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

Why pretend to care?

Makes for better PR.

Why not be genuine about it?

Too much like hard work.

Wouldn't that make the world a better place? (Not trying to sound naive, though. Just wistful thinking.)

I'm not sure that PR is the right fit for you.

Seriously, though. When you actually care about what you do, it's always a shock to the system to find yourself working with (or, worse, for) people who give zero fucks. The immediate tendency is to try to analyze the situation as if of course they must care, because if people don't care then what the hell are they doing this for in the first place? But when it comes right down to it, there are large numbers of people who care enough about their work only to the extent that they can avoid being fired and keep drawing a paycheque, and will readily duckshove as much of what they're paid to do onto others as others will let them get away with. Some people are just complete shits in the workplace. It really is that simple.
posted by flabdablet at 5:13 AM on November 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

I second the suggestion to talk to your union rep, if you have one.
posted by lazuli at 10:55 AM on November 2, 2018

Unfortunately, not unionized.

As for the “making the world a better place”, I kind of said that in jest. I know that, while ideal, it’s not realistic. Just wonder why more places/organizations aren’t genuine, that’s all. Will keep an eye open for other positions within the organization.

Any good coping strategies to deal with the pushy contractor and maintain boundaries, while not having this person get upset if I am unable to meet their expectations or do everything they wish to do?
posted by thoughtful_analyst at 10:58 AM on November 2, 2018

You're managing this through your feelings, which isn't awful, but there are other ways.

I hope I am understanding this right. You are:
- overworked
- getting requests to do work from a contractor
- your supervisor is not telling the contractor to lay off

I hope I have that right. If so, there are two fronts on which to attack this.

1. Make a reasonably comprehensive spreadsheet of your current responsibilities by project sort of like this:

Task one Deadline Estimated hours this week Waiting on

Then you add up the hours and if they come to more than your workweek, take that to your supervisor and have your supervisor help you set priorities.

Another approach is to have a whiteboard with a line through it 2/3 of the way down. Everything on the top is what you can get done this week. Any additional tasks go on the bottom for next week. If something has to get done this week, the rule is something has to move below the line in order for something else to move above the line.

2. When you get a contractor request, you reply and cc your supervisor with something like:

Thanks Chad,

My priorities for this week are set, so let me check with my supervisor and let you know what's possible. Thank you.

Then you do the priority-rejuggling exercise with your supervisor.

3. What kind of support are you looking for? Given that this contractor has been rehired for whatever reason, I'm not sure you can reasonably require that you never have to exchange email with them (assuming that harassment etc. wasn't involved.) Your supervisor cc'ing that person might have had as simple a reason as wanting them to know you are on it. So maybe think through what the issue is other than bad it being clear on who assigns work or how much notice is required to meet a deadline?

The pay is kind of a separate issue...that is about deciding if you want the job or not.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:33 AM on November 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

I agree with warriorqueen that you're framing this problem as one with your feelings, which is probably not the most effective way to get the change you want. If your supervisor is new to managing, or even just a bit conflict-averse, I can easily see her nodding and appearing sympathetic to what she's hearing as you unloading feelings on her - and then not really doing anything concrete to fix it, since many managers would consider their employee's feelings about another worker to be not their business to fix or manage.

If the main problem is feeling overworked and frustrated about having a contractor inappropriately assign you work, I'm guessing you'd get more traction by point-blank asking your supervisor whether the contractor is supposed to be assigning you work--and assuming the answer is "no" (because it sounds like that isn't supposed to be happening), you can then tell her your plan anytime this happens in the future is to send an email response that copies your supervisor and says, "In order to manage my workload, [Supervisor] and I agreed that all requests for my time need to flow through her. Can you follow up with [Supervisor] if this is something you think needs to be assigned to me?"

It may be that your supervisor ends up telling you to go ahead and comply with some of the contractor requests - but it's a lot better to have that happen in a clear framework where you don't feel resentful because you suspect the contractor is getting something from you she shouldn't.
posted by iminurmefi at 1:37 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

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