Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: How to handle a colleague doing personal work at work

While I was ill and working (I know, I know, and after all my preaching against presenteeism...), I got the following email from longtime Intern 101 reader Intern Timmy.  Here's his story of dealing with a colleague at his office who was clearly doing outside work at his day job:

My colleague "Laura" and I began noticing that our co-worker Seth was taking a lot of personal phone calls at work.  Our office is small and relatively quiet so it's pretty easy to overhear anything.  (It's a been a long-known fact that he does work on the side, and it's work that our company wouldn't do so it's non-competing and okay for him to be doing on the side.)  The problem we had was it seemed like every day he would be on the phone from 30 minutes up to 2 hours.  All the while he was supposed to be working on actual billable tasks ... and to our knowledge he wasn't putting in any extra time after hours to make up for whatever time he spent on his personal jobs.  Our firm does a lot of government projects, and tracking what you worked on and who you billed is a big deal since our government clients do sometimes audit this information.  If it isn't tracked correctly, our office can be in a A LOT of trouble.

These phone calls had been going on for a while, and we were becoming increasingly upset by it because all of us were busy working on a lot of projects and project-related tasks.  Seth was supposed to be busy too...but he apparently wasn't if he had so much time to do this stuff.  Also frustrating is that now and then between these calls, Seth had helped us out on some projects, and usually any part he worked on required one of us to go back and fix his work (keep in mind, Seth is licensed), so it was frustrating seeing him take these personal calls in between screwing up our projects and causing us extra work.  The more junior staff was pretty ticked off by it, but none of us had said anything.  Finally, Laura and I decided we can keep bitching about this internally or we can do something about it.  We considered going to our manager--but there's a side story there I'll tell you about in a moment--so instead we decided to just go to HR because of the time sheet problems that his "work" were causing.

We met with the HR person and told her our concerns; she agreed with us that it's a problem and suggested we talk to our manager and let him know and that HR needs to be part of this conversation.  So we set up a time to meet and put it out on the table.  HR was very helpful and wanted to see something done, which is good.  Our manager agreed to talk to him and let him know that it cannot occur in that capacity at work without him making up the time.  Before the manager could even talk to Seth, another employee complained to HR as well.  This forced the issue, and finally our manager spoke with Seth.  It took him a week from the initial complaint to when it was handled, which is too long IMHO.

The side story about the manager: our manager is in my opinion someone who probably shouldn't be manager.  It's not that he's not a good guy or bad at architecture (he's good at designing and great at detailing a building).  But he avoids conflict and the fact that HR said something needs to be done and 2 of his staff voiced serious concerns about the issue... you'd think that would make him jump at the problem and solve it quickly.  The fact that a week later nothing had been done and it took another person completely unrelated to the first complaint to force the issue is unacceptable.

Since the complaint/conversation, the phone calls at Seth's desk have declined; I won't say they've ended because we see him leave his desk with his phone and then come back 30 minutes later.  But, at least they've subsided.  He still isn't a very "trusted" member of our group because of all the mistakes he's made and the lackluster way he does complete tasks.  

Intern Timmy, it sounds like you and your colleague did the best thing you could do given the circumstances.  And actually, a week is an unsurprising amount of time between the manager hearing a complaint and finally doing something about it.  He may have been waiting for a good time to talk with Seth.  Since it's a small office, he might have been waiting for Seth to be alone or almost alone before he pulled him into a conference room so that he could speak with him without embarrassing him.  However, I do wonder if it took only a week because of the extra complaint.  It very likely could have taken longer.  The fact is that most managers and bosses hate confrontation and will avoid it at nearly all costs.  Just as we often complain that architects are lacking in business acumen, I find that they often also lack in managerial and communication skills as well.

And that's part of the sad truth about not just architecture but most professions--people advance into managerial positions with incomplete skill sets.  Your manager, like a lot of architects that advance up the ladder in a firm, is a great architect and a so-so manager.  One of the best, most useful skills you can develop as an intern is good communication skills, which include being able to confront people in a respectful way.  It's a skill that most people, regardless of their major, don't have (or don't have much of), so if you can develop this in even a small way, you'll be ahead of the pack.    The fact that you and Laura were able to triage the situation, consider the best plan of attack (i.e., talking to HR before the manager, and to frame the problem as a timesheet/auditing issue), and express your concerns in what was hopefully a respectful manner--those are good skills to have.  Again, it sounds like you did the best you could.  You'll probably not be able to stop the behavior totally, but at least more than one person in the management food chain knows that you know that this person is acting inappropriately, making it harder for management to ignore the behavior in the future if it escalates or morphs into some other unethical activity.

Got a question you'd like answered or a topic you'd like to see discussed here?  Drop me a line in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Thanks!

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