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Some background:

I'm a programmer working in a group of electrical engineers in a very engineer-focused department. I have no education or training as an engineer, and have next to no overlap with my coworkers in my duties. I was hired three years ago to take on reporting, automation, programming, and database administration for this group (i.e. purely technical tasks).

My first boss, let's call him Andy, was rarely around and thus we barely spoke. He unofficially assigned a coworker of mine, let's call her Sue, to supervise me. I very quickly automated my daily tasks, taking what previously amounted to a full day's worth of busywork into around 30-60 minutes. After that, I repeatedly asked Sue for more work, but she rarely had anything to do. At the end of the year, Andy gave me a poor performance review, saying that while I did my job very well, I didn't "go above and beyond," saying I should have asked for more work (even though I did).

The next year, Andy and Sue left the group, and I got a new supervisor. Let's call him Bob. Bob was very communicative, friendly, and supportive, however he also rarely gave me anything to do, despite my repeated requests and communication to him of my situation on my daily tasks. Despite this, Bob gave me a favorable performance review.

Then this year, Bob left and I have a new supervisor. Let's call her Cindy. Cindy is not as communicative as Bob, but slightly better than Andy, since she's at least around most of the time. I tried my best to explain to her my situation, but she changed my very detailed job description to something along the lines of "perform daily duties and help as needed." I tried to communicate to her that in the past I have received little guidance as to what is expected of me and that clear communication and direct delegation of duties would help me to be as productive as possible (i.e. I can't read people's minds), however, she seems to have disregarded this. While my workload has temporarily increased slightly due to a new project that is soon coming to a close, I find myself being harshly criticized by Cindy for not being "proactive." In these scenarios, there was a task that Cindy wanted me to perform that often is only tangentially related to my daily duties, however in these cases she either did not inform me of the task, or delegated the task to herself or another employee. She will not allow me to explain my position when reprimanding me, so I can't help but feel like at the very least, there's some sort of miscommunication going on here. Starting this year I have kept a log of tasks I have performed that are outside of my daily duties, however the list can be a bit bare if no tasks are delegated to me or there are no fires for me to put out. I'm fairly certain that if this continues, I will have another poor performance review that criticizes me for not being a mind reader and that this will damage my chances at finding future employment. I feel like I'm at my wits' end, here.

TL;DR: I'm in an awkward position in my group where I have completely different duties than my coworkers, I keep getting new supervisors who won't delegate work to me despite my asking for it, and they keep criticizing me for not doing more than what I'm asked.

My question:

How can I be more "proactive" in my job when I'm not given work to do outside of daily duties, and my boss often fails to delegate necessary tasks, or is there some larger issue here that I'm not seeing?

  • 2
    Having little work assigned to you is a red flag. You would be wise to start looking for a new job, on your own terms. Healthy companies have a lot of things to do, whereas unsafe companies sound like your current one. There might be a round of lay-offs coming in a year or two. – Juha Untinen Jul 17 '18 at 13:18
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To me, asking for work when you are completed with your tasks is different from being proactive. Being proactive is doing what needs to be done without someone asking you to do so, such as when you automated a lot of your job. Are there other pain points you can automate or optimize? Document the problem and the existing statistics, implement your solution and share the new statistics. Learn to network with other folks in your department and other departments, look for new possible projects and ask to join them.

There is another problem. Because your manager keeps changing, the expectations on your work keep changing. Your new manager might be not delegating your tasks, because 1) she is looking to downsize and make your job obsolete or 2) you are missing some essential skill to take on the project. For 1) start studying for a new role. For 2) understand what skillset is missing and pick it up.

  • I agree with you in theory, however the problem with that is my coworkers rarely communicate where pain points are in their duties, despite me repeatedly offering to help and trying to get this information out of them. They often are content to just keep their head down and push through a problem because that's the documented way to do the task than think about ways the problem could be eliminated. There were a few times I've offered to help with problems, but usually they get shut down by someone saying that they don't want things to change, or some supervisor says it's impractical. – iamvishnu Jul 16 '18 at 22:45
  • Sounds like a very rigid culture. Instead of getting buy in upfront, could you just implement a solution and show everyone the difference? For instance, at one of my old jobs, my team had a migration problem that we ran into every release that required 3 weeks of someone's manual effort. My manager and team decided that it wasn't worth the engineering time to implement a faster solution. I took my own time and implemented a script that runs the migration over night automatically. After I showed my manager the amount of time I saved the company, he couldn't save no to using the solution. – jcmack Jul 16 '18 at 22:57
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Simple. If you have no work to do, then look around you and find some work that would make sense to do. In your opinion. Then you send an email to Cindy saying "Hi Cindy, I think XYZ needs doing, so I'll start with this unless you have more important things".

  • I agree in theory, however the point I was trying to convey is that it's usually not possible for me to do so. My job duties are so far removed from those of my coworkers that I have no clue what needs to be done unless someone brings up an issue, which they rarely do. I've been trying to uncover these areas of improvement for a while to little effect. – iamvishnu Jul 17 '18 at 16:26
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The same situation has apparently been going on for 3 years now. From your post I infer that you are not an engineer but have enough skills to function in a support role.

It is possible that your skills would allow deeper collaboration but for some reason this is not happening. Maybe it’s a culture issue, only educated engineers are trusted with deeper tasks. Maybe the skills gap between you and the engineers is such that you would need a phd to join them. And maybe some long standing managerial issues are in your way.

Either way, you need to take charge, not of “tasks” but your life and future. Clearly the three year old situation can’t continue. Go back to school and join the engineers. Or find a work place where your skills and personality match the culture better.

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