Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Aug 11, 2010

Ask a Manager: Is Nepotism a Mitigating Factor?

 Due to an upswing in business my workload has become crushing. My supervising manager has advised me to team with another administrative assistant. I have done so, or at least have tried to, but now this person is "constantly too busy" doing things like Internet shopping and gossiping away from her desk. (We are talking a couple of hours in a day, not a few minutes) and some actual work.

Here is the biggest problem: the admin I can not rely on is the daughter of one of the owners and has been with the company a lot longer than I have. I am afraid to say anything against her.  How do I assert what's fair in a situation that is already one-sided?


Nepotism is an ugly fact of life in the workplace. I’ve seen it at all levels, and I’ve even had to deal with it in employees who have been assigned to work for me. As a conscientious manager, being put in that situation can put you on edge as you walk the line between playing the expected political game and trying to keep the respect of your other employees. Depending upon how in tune your manager is to that, it can impact the situation and how you should handle it. At a minimum, I recommend you consider where your manager might stand on the issue and how aware s/he is of the problem already.

The danger here is that presenting a scenario like this can put management on the defensive. If you make it seem like an attack on your manager’s judgment, he can shut down on you. Worse, if your manager interprets your concern about your coworker’s habits as an act of pettiness or unsportsmanlike conduct toward a teammate (especially this one), you end up making yourself look bad, and then it’s (still) no help for you!  But you know all of this already, which is why we’re here.

So here is my advice. Forget about the fact that the other administrative assistant is a waste of space. You and I aren’t going to eliminate nepotism, and we aren’t even going to fix this one case of it. If she’s been gumming up the works for this long, she’s not going to start working harder, and your management is not going to start pushing her harder. Sorry.

So let that go, and let’s focus on what’s most important: You. 

You have a big bucket of work and no one is helping you. It’s time to go back to the well and ask for help again. Now I don’t know exactly what kind of work we are talking about here, but generally when there is too much work, you have a choice of in how to handle it. You can either kill yourself to do it all (I think you’ve been trying to do that), get more resources to help you (your manager tried that), or prioritize it and let some of it go.

So with that in mind, I suggest you first set some boundaries for yourself. You are obviously a conscientious person with a strong desire to do a good job and succeed in your work. Remember that you won’t be able to do that if you burn yourself out. Think about what is reasonable to expect of yourself, and determine what work is most important from your perspective. Come up with a proposal of how you might prioritize it based on that.

This doesn’t have to be the end of it. In other words, I’m not suggesting that you will just tell your manager, “sorry, but I’m only doing half of the work you’ve given me,” and expect it to be well-received. However, it’s a starting point for the conversation that will not only illustrate the problem in practical terms to your manager, but also demonstrate that you are taking some leadership in finding a solution. Your manager might not accept that any of the work is less important, but if you can rationally demonstrate that it cannot all be done by just you, and his prior solution is not working, it will elevate the importance of the problem.

Now, armed with that, you can approach the issue of getting yourself some better help. I know: I told you to let the goldbricking ways of your coworker go. Still the case. You still need to remove the emotion, the opinion, and the judgment from the situation as you present it. However you must still focus on the result. Don’t let that go. That’s the key.
The important thing to remember is that your manager thinks that he solved your problem by pointing you in the direction of this well-positioned online shopper, but it didn’t work. He needs to know that he still owes you some support.

Now let’s put it all together. I see the conversation with your boss going something like this:
1.    State the problem:
“I’m still having trouble getting through all of the work”

2.    Illustrate the impact, taking ownership and showing you care:
“There are not enough hours in the day to get it all done so I’m concerned that the quality of my work will slip and I will not be able to deliver. I do not want to let the company down.”

3.    Address the past solution, being careful to state only facts and leave out your judgment and observations:
“I know you told me that I should share some of the work with Tiffany ( Ashley? Brittany? Am I close?), but that hasn’t been working out. She has told me that she doesn’t have time to help me because she is too busy.” 

4.    Propose a solution (within your own means):
“If we cannot get someone else to help, then I would like to restructure my work so I can focus on the top priorities. This will mean that X, Y, and Z will have to wait until we can get someone else to cover them.” 

5.    Ask if there is anything else that your manager can do within his means, but with a twist:
“If there are other resources available, I would still love to get help, but since these other people don’t work for me, it would be helpful if we could identify specific things they will be responsible for  and the message could come from you (management) to them.”

Notice that with this approach you aren’t making a judgment on how busy the other employee is or isn’t, but have only presented the fact that she told you that she is. Also, with the last point above, you are separating the owner’s daughter from the situation by talking about the help you get in terms of “other people”. Now your manager might read between the lines, depending upon how well known it is that this gal likes to loaf. That’s still ok because you have insulated yourself by approaching it tactfully and professionally.

The other important thing here is that you are making it a point to ask your boss to be more directive with the person who is helping you. I think that’s been a big part of the problem all along. If the person helping you is not beholden to you in any way, then you must rely entirely on his or her work ethic and desire to help you. Obviously if you get the wrong person, that’s not going to fly. So above all else, I recommend you push on that point. If your manager does not accept an option where all of the work doesn’t get done, you need to push to make sure he continues to help you get what you need without leaving it to you to sort out the additional resources.

Remember that in order for your manager to succeed, you need to succeed. You need his help in making you successful. If you can help him to focus on how he can best help you, you should both be in a better position to get through this stressful time.

I hope that helps.

~~ Don Draper

Don Draper is the Finishing School's resident manager, on-call for your sticky situations and management input on all topics.  Write Don in care of bwfinishingschool@gmail.com

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