To simplify the situation, consider a team of 4 people - Bob, Jake, Dan and me.

There are 2 distinct areas of responsibility in which our team operates. One that belonged to Bob and Jake, and one that belongs to Dan and me.

Recently, Jake was let go. This was an upper management decision. Bob was already pushing deadlines due to the amount of work. Jake, although less experienced, took some of it from him. Now Bob is alone and he certainly won't cope with basically twice the work. There are no plans to hire Jake's replacement.

Our direct manager knows that as well. What I was told by him is that I am to take over Jake's responsibilities. Trouble is, I'm in the same situation as Bob - I already am "full" on my own responsibilities, and to top it off, I have no experience in Bob's and Jake's domain. I also cannot delegate the work to Dan as

a) The manager told me not to

b) The manager told me he doesn't believe Dan has enough experience to handle it.

It seems quite contradictory to me, as I also have no experience in that regard. True, I always like to learn new things (and show it in the workplace), but I really don't see how that's going to work.

I expect answers about asking my boss to prioritize - I did that, and it's basically "everything is important". Due to the nature of the tasks (Bob's domain is more everyday tasks, while mine is long-term projects), I am pushed to do more of "not mine" work as it produces results and looks nice on the KPI boards.

My question is: what other options do I have to show my boss (or his boss) that the current situation would lead to unfavourable outcomes? Bob already told me he is considering to change jobs, and I am as well, considering I do not do what I was hired to do and I'm afraid of "going out of the loop" with my skills.

EDIT: To address some points in the answers and comments.

Overtime - Overtime is actually actively discouraged. I am supposed to complete the tasks in a normal, 40 hour workweek.

Company too low on money to hire Jake's replacement - I don't believe it's the issue of money. This is one of the largest corporations in the world in that product domain. Unofficially, I heard the upper management reasoning was: Hey 2 years ago Bob was alone and things went pretty smooth, so Jake isn't needed. This however misses the fact that over the last 2 years the workplace has grown in size (both spatially and employee wise) by at least 250%. So the workload from 2 years ago is nothing compared to the workload today.

Keeping the lights on vs long-term projects - The long term projects I'm responsible for are actually also keeping the lights on - whole parts of the company depend on their continuous development and maintenance. If I stop doing MyTaskA to do JakeTaskA, then one of our departments is, well, SOL on necessary changes.

Difference on tasks - when I say I'm not familiar with Jake's tasks, I mean I know nothing about them, have no experience and never done something like them. It's broadly the same domain, in the same sense that fixing an engine at your local garage and designing one in the R&D labs are the same - hey, it's working with engines, right?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jun 14 at 0:59

12 Answers 12

up vote 190 down vote accepted

Sounds like it is time for "Reverse Delegation"

Management made a decision to let Jake go without any consideration for the workload.

You have your current assignments and are "Full".

Do not ASK management what is a priority. Put it like this:

When your boss says "Yuropoor, I want you to take over these duties from Jake's workload" respond like this.

Sure thing boss. I'm full up right now. I can bump the widget project, the canard project, or the left-handed spanner project. Which one gets dropped so I can work on Jake's popcorn-flavored flapjack project?

When the boss pushes back and says, "They're all important", say

I understand that boss, which is exactly why I am letting you know that one of them is going to need to get bumped. I have no free time left. Which one should I let drop.

If he still refuses, follow up with an email.

Hi boss, as per our discussion on the floor today, I am concerned about the lack of resources and our ability to finish projects on time. As already hard pressed to complete the projects I am working on, I need to know which one I should put on the back burner in favor of the workload Jake was handling.

This was obviously a bad management decision and you need to see to it that you are not the next one out the door due to some scapegoating.

Protect yourself with a paper trail like this and then update your resume and start looking elsewhere. This is not a healthy work environment.

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    I like the assertiveness... and last two sentences might be crucial. This should be stressed IMHO. Be prepared to leave. It's plausible, that any decision is going to have negative consequences, and there is no good prioritization. Things almost surely will go south in the short term and the decision maker can always be blamed. They can always say, the other work should have been dropped. If the employee is going to called responsible for the fallout, there is no sane option, other than to leave. On the other hand handling increased responsibility correctly might gain recognition. – luk32 Jun 12 at 11:27
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    Ditto to @luk32, but realise that if the workload was consuming all resources and they still fired Jake, then they can fire you too. No one is safe in your work environment. Look for another job Immediately! – Bohemian Jun 13 at 21:38
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    @RobP. The question already says that that has been tried and they were told that they are all important. At that point forcing a choice, starting to take management decisions yourself or leaving are the only options left. – Tim B Jun 14 at 13:43
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    @RobP. this is not aggressive, it's assertive. Aggressive would be saying "You made the mess, you deal with the consequences". It is asking management to set priorities while making the point that the OP is overloaded as is. A pint cannot hold a gallon, when it is holding a pint, it is already doing the very best it can. – Richard U Jun 14 at 13:47
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    @RobP. feel free to provide an answer of your own so that we can vote on it – Richard U Jun 15 at 2:44

You can only do what you can do. Always remember that, and don't kill yourself trying to do more than you can do.

Since your boss, at least for now, is unwilling to set your priorities, you need to do so, and let him know. Let him know what you're working on, and what isn't getting done because of what you are working on.

Hi Boss. This week I am going to work on JakeTaskA, MyTaskL, and JakeTaskU. That means I will not be working on MyTaskB, MyTaskW, JakeTaskD, or MyTaskR. You've let me know that all three of the tasks I will be working on, as well as MyTaskB have due dates this week, so I'm letting you know that MyTaskB will not be done on time. If you'd prefer that the late task be one of those I've selected to work on instead, please let me know which to drop so I can work on MyTaskB this week.

Also, I'm not really familiar with Jake's tasks, so if it looks like they will be taking longer than Jake would have taken, I'll prioritize JakeTaskA over JakeTaskU, and perhaps only one of those will be finished. I will keep you updated on the status of these new tasks.

In other words, some work will not get done. You're letting the boss know what you expect to get done and what you know will not get done. The boss can change those around, choose different tasks to prioritize, but there will still only be as much work done as you can do.

And, as a commentor has mentioned, make sure you inform the boss by email, not just verbally.

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    > don't kill yourself trying to do more than you can do. Yes, sometimes there are times to stretch, but burnout is real. – Robert Dundon Jun 11 at 19:24
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    And if the company is too tight to hire a new employee, that doesn't make it your responsibility to work yourself into the ground. – gnasher729 Jun 11 at 21:55
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    Email trail. Don't say these things - email them (and keep a copy). Sometimes these things go crazy and you need to show proof. Personally I'd consider this situation one of those warning flags that getting a CV up to date and looking for a new job may be the best long term solution for the OP. – StephenG Jun 11 at 22:52
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    @R.Schmitz If the answer is indeed 'just do it all' this shows that the message has not been understood, but that's really not your problem as an employee. Either the manager sets priorities, or you have to set them yourself, there is no magical middle ground. Pretending there is one by not mentioning that things will not all be getting done is not going to help, that will give the manager grounds to take action against the OP. – Cronax Jun 12 at 9:41
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    My team leader always says that you can only do one thing at a time, whether you have 5 tasks or 100. If you're expected to do 100, you're still only able to do one at a time, it'll only take much longer. If your boss expects you to do it in the same lapse of time, don't let that affect you, don't burn yourself out. Continue doing your best, one at a time, and look for another job in the meantime. – TheWanderingMind Jun 12 at 12:23

You asked your manager to give you priorities in the theoretical case, and they told you 'everything'. Of course; that's always what they say.

What you should do is start working on the new workload. It sounds like you have two workloads now, one of which is "keep the lights on" and one of which is "future development". Typically how that's done is you do the "keep the lights on" work (Jake's old work) when it needs to be done, and then use the rest of your time on "future development" as you can. This means the future development gets the lower priority, generally.

Then as you see how that's going to affect your other workload, you keep your manager in the loop on that fully. You make it clear how much things will be delayed when you have an idea for concrete numbers. You say:

Due to my work on [these things of Jakes], the task [new development task] will be delayed by [n days], and other tasks in that area will be similarly pushed back by the same [n days] as a follow-on consequence.

Then your manager can re-prioritize, or can tell you to shift some of your Jake work back to Bob, or whatever, in order to balance. More concrete details, and more direct urgency, always make that easier for the manager. It also gives them more ammunition for going to their boss and asking for prioritization and/or changes; hard for them to go to the boss and say "Yuropoor is going to be overworked, can we prioritize", much easier to say "Yuropoor is unable to do X important thing due to their workload, please tell me how to prioritize this".

The important thing is to be open, to overcommunicate, and to not hide this by working a bunch of extra hours - work your normal hours (whatever those are).

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    It may be possible to reduce negativity without loss of impact. For instance: Rather than saying "because of work on X, the delivery of Y will be delayed again" say something like "I expect to need n hours per sprint on X to finish it at T, and the rest on Y, based on this Y is expected to finish at ..." (or if the deadline is fixed, you can indicate which scope subset of Y is expected to finish in time) -- The good thing about this is that he actually can do something with this information, like changing the ratio of timespend on X and Y (or changing the deadlines/scope of either project) – Dennis Jaheruddin Jun 13 at 14:58

Set clear boundaries with your boss and dust off your resume.

A simple, "That's too much, you're going to end up replacing Bob and me if this keeps up" can go a long way.

If it doesn't then congratulations, you get to find a new, more reasonable manager.

Don't work harder than your paid to. If your manager expects you to work more hours or do more work during the same hours to meet the same deadlines, then they should expect to pay you more.

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    I wouldn't threaten to leave ever without a job to move to already in the bag. You can never be sure how they're going to react, and "just go then" will leave you in the worst position. – UKMonkey Jun 12 at 11:02
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    have you ever tried to get a job when you're not employed? Savings are useful, but honestly, not being unemployed helps a lot more. – UKMonkey Jun 13 at 13:58
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    @UKMonkey Yeah, that 2% lower interview rate is massively brutal.... If you had a strong good reason for leaving then being unemployed will be an asset not a hurdle. – Steve Jun 13 at 14:28
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    @Steve where does that 2% come from? – stannius Jun 13 at 16:50
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    @stannius a chart explaining the difference between people who have stay at each job for 2-5 years and ones who don't that was posted on a slack team I'm with. The graph looked startling, but a glance at the actual scale proved otherwise. It really doesn't make that much of a difference, about 2%. Really, if you're having trouble finding a job, it's just because you're not that hireable. Blaming the difficulty on how long you stayed at a job or leaving before you had another job is just an excuse. I'll look for a resource about interview rates for job hunters that aren't currently employed. – Steve Jun 13 at 17:30

If everything is has some importance, then ask about urgency. If this is the same then buy some dice.

It is important to do one thing at a time (see lean):

Imagine that you have 5 tasks that each take one minute. Imagine that there is no over head in switching. So if you do A then B then C then D then E, it will take 5 minutes to do them all. If you keep switching e.g. ABCDEABCDEABCDEABCDE then it also takes 5 minutes. However in the first case you get to ship A after 1 minute, B after 2 minutes etc. However if you do the second, then you ship them all at around 5 minutes. This is on average twice as long.

It gets worse. The cost of switching is non-zero. Typically if you do two tasks at same time you are 80% efficient, so two one-minute tasks will take 2½minutes. When you do 5 tasks at once you are less than 50% efficient. Therefore through put drops from 1 per minute to ½ per minute, and the average time to completion moves from 2½minutes, to 10 minutes.

So what to do. Be honest with management when showing and predicting progress, do your best and drop the guilt.

When told to do you best, tell them that you are already doing that.

The next customer/task is your responsibility, the queue is your managers responsibility.

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    (see lean) It would help your answer to place a link to some documentation on LEAN processes so those outside understand what you're referring to. – psaxton Jun 13 at 19:22

Been there. Management thinks that not having tasks completed by 4 people in 160 hours a week can be divided up by 3 people in the same time. This is insanity.

Are you expected to work overtime? Do you get overtime pay?

If you manager won't help you prioritize then you need to commit to what you accomplish in a week (you set the priorities your work). Something along the lines of "Boss, this week I can complete this and this and this. I'll get started on the task(s) from Jake after I complete these". If you get pushback (you will) then you need a frank discussion with you boss on expectations and resources. If it's do everything then time to update your resume.

I expect anwers about asking my boss to prioritize - I did that, and it's basically "everything is important".

Of course you do, because that's the correct answer!

Maybe the manager needs to be managed - I once had one that did...

Rather than asking him, Q: "What's the highest priority?" (A: "They all are!"), ask him to rank the tasks in order of priority.

So, email him a list of tasks, maybe even in an Excel document, in order of how you think they should be prioritised. (Don't put numbers beside them or you'll get back a list of "1"s)

Then say something like,

Hi Ray,

I know that the tasks are all highly important, so here's my current plan for the order in which I'm going to work on them. Could you rearrange this list if any of the tasks are more urgent than ones above them?

If you really wanted you could put estimates beside each one, to give him that extra bit of info.

Then just start working on the tasks as per your list until he gets back to you.

Your manager is being unreasonable. When you ask how the restructured workload should be prioritized and he doesn't give you an answer, you have a right to push back. Stick to the fact that your team is losing a significant number of hours, and therefor less work will be completed. It's not really clear how he can argue against this if pressed to do so. If for whatever reason this doesn't get you anywhere, you have a few of options:

(a) Don't worry about it and just do what you can, prioritizing as you see fit. You're in a pretty defensible position. (others have mentioned keeping a paper trail, using email, etc)

(b) Talk to someone higher up (or at least threaten to do so). Note that going above a superior can be risky.

(c) Look for another job. This doesn't sound like a great situation and it's almost never a good idea to work for a poor manager.

Personally I would probably do (a) short-term and (c) long-term.

Visualizing your work load can go a long way in explaining your situation. Lookup some youtubes/books on Kanban, and create a Kanban board behind your desk, on your wall, or wherever.

Make postit notes for all the tasks at hand, and put them all in the NEED TO DO column. When you come into the office, grab the ones you plan to work on that day and move them to DOING column. When completed move them to DONE.

Mark the dates you move them from column to column on the postit, so you can later go back and say "That item took me 3 days". Show your boss at the end of each week what work you have completed.

Then the conversation is real, not hypothetical, you have documentation, you are being transparent and honest.

This also allows your boss to see what you think the next item is and perhaps he can change it? It also will help you limit your work in progress, to ensure that you complete tasks instead of starting too many at once.

It's pretty easy once you have set it up. I think it will help drive a more constructive conversation.

I expect anwers about asking my boss to prioritize - I did that, and it's basically "everything is important".

You either asked the wrong question (or phrased it badly), or your boss doesn't understand what prioritizing means. An answer of "everything is important" should be countered with "that I understand; which task do you want me to work on first?" When you know what you have to work on first, ask what should be worked on second. The third, fourth, etc. Keep that list. Whenever your boss has a new task, ask where it should be inserted in that list.

Once you have this list, estimate how long each task is going to take. Clearly communicate to your boss when you expect each task to be finished. Keep communicating with your boss. Inform him if a task takes longer (or shorter) than expected.

This all shows your willingness to work on the assigned tasks, and, more importantly, quantifies the amount of work on your plate. And that gives you ammunition to discuss having too much workload.

Assuming the three remaining people are actually full-time busy, then as others have said, expecting the remaining staff to absorb the work is unreasonable.

You can tell your boss this all day long. However, you can show him too.

Get a copy of Microsoft Project (or similar) and enter your project tasks and estimates. This will show the completion date of various bits of work. When he asks why something isn't done, you can tell him when you'll start and when you'll end. If he does not like the answer, you can then change the priorities of the tasks so he can get what he wants sooner.

You can't argue with math, and Math doesn't care if you like it or not.

This is not a "stretch" situation - they aren't replacing Jake. This workload will be the new normal. There is no point to working overtime to make up the time. Of course they won't replace jake if you'll work for free...

I would be wondering what the boss knows that you don't know. Because if you knew what he knew, the decision would probably make sense. For example, maybe you're losing a big client and the team workload will drop to 120 hours/week...

  • Our (team) client is our company (as in every workplace of that employer in Europe, not just the one we're physically in). Given the fact of recent acquisitions and plans to expand I actually forsee the workload to increase, not decrease. – Yuropoor Jun 15 at 4:17

You are jumping the gun to deal with this now. I would bite your tongue until you are actually being asked to perform more duties/more hours and have a specific work example to take to your manager. At that point, follow the other advice given here.

I say this because I recently started a job 10 months ago. In that time, one person quit, and another person got fired. I thought I was in the same situation as you, as both of their full-time duties came to me, and only me. I didn't complain at the time, just took it quietly with a heavy dose of optimism. Instead of being overworked/underpaid, I simply did their job better and never ended up working much more than 40 hours a week.

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    Nothing in the question leads to the assumption that he is "jumping the gun". Even then, being prepared is good. If and when the sh*t hits the fan, it's too late go google for answers... – AnoE Jun 11 at 22:17
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    I AM being asked to perform more duties - right now. I can't just do Jake's job better - my own tasks take up full 40 hours workweek, so unless his tasks take me 0 time, there still is a problem. – Yuropoor Jun 12 at 13:50

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