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My boss keeps sending me messages saying things like, "How much time are you spending on [company program]? Please don't let it take too much time.", or "Try not to sign up for too many [external programs], they are taking dev time". In this case, programs include things like volunteering, job shadowing, hackathons, brown bags, etc. All are sponsored by my employer. I've told my boss that my other duties on average take up 1-2 hours per week, which is a fraction of what is worked, and is far outweighed by the overtime that I put in. I've told my boss this multiple times. He still sends me these messages. I put in just as much work as my teammates, and the statistics actually show that I'm in the top 20% contributors in my local business unit.

The trouble is that if I keep telling him that I'm doing no such thing, then I'm accused of slacking in a backhanded manner. This has happened a few times and I have to admit, while I know that I shouldn't feel guilty, it feels like a shake-down. I have no doubt that if I do not take action, they will keep happening.

How do I tell my boss to get off my case, and to stop implying that I'm slacking?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Jul 22 at 21:27
  • Is he maybe sending the messages to everyone?
    – Michael
    Jul 23 at 13:14
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    I know these manager so well. They want you to start early and end as late as possible. If your job is always done at time, he has nothing to say. Let him complain against you, if he use email, keep them as proof. Just ask him "am I late in my work ?" if you're not, he will has nothing to say .. if you're late, then you're in fault !
    – PowerCat
    Jul 23 at 15:30
  • Your manager is communicating a problem to you. This isn't a simple nudge... This is him annoyed at something you're doing and trying to politely word his request that you stop. You can try to learn the reason, but you need to take this feedback for what it is. You're being asked to stop this for some reason and if you want your manager happy you should. You are, in the end, there to make his job easier and help complete his organizational goals and objectives for his dept.
    – schizoid04
    Jul 24 at 12:19
  • Your boss knows how long these things take. If you say "I'm only doing 1 hour a week" and they know they take 8 hours, how do you expect your boss to react?
    – Stuart F
    Jul 26 at 21:36

10 Answers 10

97

Time to go a little more on the offensive.

  1. Schedule a 1:1 or use an existing 1:1 meeting (if you have it). This needs to be talked in person.
  2. Ask your boss point blank: "Do you feel that I spend too much time on side activities?"
  3. If they say "yes" ask for specifics: "I really need to understand what exactly that means: can you give me a few specific examples of what activities I have done that I shouldn't have and how these impacted my deliverables and deadlines?"
  4. If they say "no" to question 2, than ask them why they send these e-mails and what you are supposed to to with them.

Keep pushing for answers that are "specific" and "actionable". Chances are your boss is just grand standing. You asking for real actions and decisions will make them back off. If they remain vague and unclear: "I'm sorry, this isn't clear enough for me to take action. I need more specific guidance to change anything. I could do A, B or C, which one do you want?". If you actually get specific guidelines (unlikely, but possible), just say "thanks" and follow them.

If this doesn't help, than answer any future e-mails with "thanks for the heads up. Can you please provide specific guidance on what specific things you would like me to do differently?"

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    I like this but I would like to add: if neither of these strategies work, I would look for a new job. This boss is creating a toxic environment. If you cannot change it, it is better to leave before you loose your motivation and burn out.
    – Aolon
    Jul 22 at 6:00
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    I can't agree with point 3. From the boss's point of view, which part of "too much time" doesn't the OP understand? The boss doesn't care exactly what hackathons, brown bags, or whatever the OP is doing, They just want the activities to take less time in total. The OP isn't going to improve the situation by behaving as if they don't understand simple English!
    – alephzero
    Jul 22 at 16:55
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    The boss really shouldn't care about how much time these things take, unless it's having a measurable impact on deliverables. "Too much time" is unhelpfully vague. How much time would be OK? And why? Asking for specific observable effects is totally reasonable.
    – Useless
    Jul 22 at 17:24
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    While it's true that the boss should manage for productivity not hours spent, the unfortunate truth is that some bosses see that an employee spends 7.8 hours working to achieve X and thinks "if they worked all 8 hours, then could achieve 1.025X!" and orders them to stop spending 0.2 hours on side activities. These bosses don't realize that working harder past a point harms productivity. And while it's tempting to assume that such bosses will fold under the face of facts and logic, egos can and do get in the way. It's much more likely that the boss will simply get angry if challenged.
    – bob
    Jul 22 at 18:43
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    So I think this answer, if followed, is likely to backfire unless OP has a great boss. Which is sounds like they don't, or they wouldn't be doing this.
    – bob
    Jul 22 at 18:44
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I see several possibilities here:

  1. your boss is concerned about your level of productivity, and is trying to help you (by identifying ways to eliminate activities that they see as distractions from your main duties) indirectly without being confrontational ("your current level of productivity is unacceptable");
  2. your boss is satisfied with your general productivity, but is facing pressure from above to deliver results more quickly, and believes that asking you to eliminate side-activities is an effective way to easily increase your productivity even further;
  3. your boss is satisfied with your productivity but feels entitled to micromanage your time to an unhealthy extent.

You need to meet with your boss and ascertain which situation you're in, as the best way to proceed is very different in each case. #3 is possible, but I wouldn't discount possibility #1 (even though you say you are a top 20% employee) especially if your boss has a less assertive/more confrontation-averse personality.

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    As a former boss, when I read the question, #1 and especially #2 are what I was thinking. My boss would specifically ask me “what is Concerned Employee doing right now” (not picking one person, he would ask about all of them). He expected such detailed and up to date answers that I was forced into micromanagement, which I absolutely hated. It also didn’t help that this was during the start of COVID and I had just lost the ability to “manage by walking around”. Jul 23 at 2:00
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    "manage by walking around, checking on TPS reports" ? :)
    – Caius Jard
    Jul 24 at 8:14
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Could be a matter of optics: if your boss has to tell the Big Boss that a given deadline has to be pushed (for any given reason -- may have nothing to do with you) and then the Big Boss sees your boss's employee (you) at an optional event, the Big Boss could come to the conclusion that noses aren't sufficiently to the grindstone.

Since these optional events are all company sanctioned and don't actually take up much time, the Big Boss likely shouldn't come to that conclusion (or should be mollified when your actual contributions are brought to their attention). Unfortunately, optics are more about human nature than logic, and it's likely that the Big Boss wouldn't bother to ask your boss how much time you spend on optional events; they'd just be upset that you weren't 100% on such-and-such mainline project. In turn, your boss probably is primarily concerned with keeping the Big Boss happy, so the details of the situation don't really matter. I once worked at an office that spent oodles of money making over a nice play space with a ping pong table and gaming center... then when people were seen using it, it was banned during work hours and was obviously thereafter never used again because who's going to linger at the office to play when they could go anywhere else?

I'd schedule a meeting with your boss to discuss the numbers of the situation and find out frankly what the problem is, and then decide how to move forward based on their response. It's important to remember that just because an event is company-sponsored doesn't necessarily mean you're clear to attend -- specific schedules and priorities are usually subject to your direct manager's direction.

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You could write your boss a calm and polite email expressing your concerns, something along the lines: "dear Boss, it seems to me that you have concerns about my work time. Is there a reason for those concerns? Are you unhappy with my contribution?"

Your boss is worried about how you spend your time, so talk about that, what in particular is he worried about and how could you address that. Maybe he actually has a reason, then you'll know it and will be able to address, or he's just a "helicopter boss" and will see it himself.

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You have told him multiple times. He still complains.

This means that he doesn't like it since you have disregarded his suggestions. You cannot tell him to stop. You can either follow his suggestions or complain higher up.

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I'm going to take a slightly different tack than the other answers: I think that the problem here is what your boss thinks about the nature of one or more of the other tasks.

In any large organization, particularly in the current year, there are going to be any number of company-sponsored events that are, for lack of a better word, "hokey". Well-meaning HR types come up with some of them; marketing executives come up with some of them; others seem to have no rational basis at all, but emerge from a kind of primordial organizational ooze. Often the event exists for a purely symbolic reason that is important to somebody somewhere in your organization but completely unimportant inside your department or unit. The fact that something is "company sponsored" does not necessarily translate into it being useful for your team - at least, not from your boss' perspective.

And that's OK - not everything has to be useful. And there are symbolic things that organizations can do that generate indirect value. But it can sometimes be difficult for people focused on, you know, the actual work, to not take a somewhat cynical attitude towards them.

Without knowing your boss, I would guess that it's likely that he doesn't really think you are not being productive; it's more likely that one of the events you are attending are seen by him as being more gallingly insipid than any of the others, and so he particularly resents your attendance at that event or type of event. He probably views that event as being foisted on the organization for no purpose. If you can figure out which event that is, and stop attending it, he will probably stop needling you about any of the others.

Of course, you may not want to do this because you don't want to reward him for giving you a hard time about attending events that the company's sponsorship gives you the right to attend. That's definitely a legitimate viewpoint - but if you dig your heels in, you're going to have to go over his head, or to HR, or to the internal sponsors and champions of these events outside your department, to get him to stop.

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I had a similar situation at work one time. I got an memo on my desk that was basically "you are doing non work again?!"

The work concerned was needed, and as in your case, greatly outweighed by work done over lunch and after hours - and he knew it. I wasn't quite furious at it, but it was close. I was a senior manager sorting out his own self created issues in the team, and putting in many extra hours to do so. I knew he gained far more than he lost, and would not wish to lose that work.

So i went on the attack back, and was blunt. That he and his projects had gained far more than they had lost by my extra hours. That I'd arrived late because i was at a training to help me know how to address a set of problems he had created. And if he wanted to count the hours i took off for that kind of training and development, and require strict hours compliance in the morning, I'd happily count the hours over lunch and after hours in the evening, as well.

I never heard another word on it.

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Trying to manage your boss like an employee is a risky proposition

It looks like the boss wants hands on keyboards* 100% of the workday, with little to no side activities. Is the boss right? No. Are you likely to change your boss's mind about this, even with facts and logic on your side? No. But you are likely to make your boss progressively angrier, and that's bad for your career. So you really have two options here: 1) accept the toxic culture, or 2) leave. I feel for you, but expecting to successfully manage your boss is a faulty expectation. They manage you; you don't get to manage^ them. You do however get to pick where you work.

*From the examples provided, I don't see any indication that the boss thinks you're slacking; just that they want you to spend all of the time you're at work working (which is a terrible idea, but see above).

^This doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice or should just take mistreatment. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be give and take and management of expectations with your boss, or that there’s not an art to maintaining a healthy employee-boss relationship. But at the end of the day, they’re the boss and they get the final say. Your final say is the option to leave if you’re unhappy.

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  • Totally agree, it does not look like they think you are slacking it more looks like the perceive you as high performer and need to make more progress. I would ask for a new position
    – eckes
    Jul 23 at 6:21
  • "Managing your boss" is a key skill for everyone. This is a bad answer, despite having a grain of truth. Apologies for the bluntness, but I strongly feel this is simply incorrect.
    – fectin
    Jul 23 at 23:03
  • @fectin No offense taken. I understand people have different views on this and am ok with that. Plus I aimed for brevity, so it’s possible that an overly literal reading of my answer could lead to misunderstandings—e.g. I don’t mean that you should just 100% go along with whatever your boss says and does all the time without giving any feedback about your preferences or style or goals. Just that many people forget the power imbalance between boss and employee, to their own career peril, hence my answer.
    – bob
    Jul 24 at 21:11
  • I’ve edited it to make this more clear.
    – bob
    Jul 24 at 21:18
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I have to ask... are you a woman? Maybe you are, maybe you're not. But it sounds like what my female colleagues have to go through all the time :(

Mate, if you've told your boss multiple times that you're not slacking and you're also outperforming your peers then there's some other prejudice going on. Behavioural stuff that you weren't put on this planet to have to deal with. This company is not worthy of your time - especially if they don't check/train their managers to manage properly.

Go find your crew - they're waiting for you elsewhere!

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"How much time are you spending on [company program]? Please don't let it take too much time.", or "Try not to sign up for too many [external programs], they are taking dev time". In this case, programs include things like volunteering, job shadowing, hackathons, brown bags, etc. All are sponsored by my employer.

Looking at the specifics of the programs mentioned, my initial guess is that the company is sponsoring all of these programs to give employees a bit of variety in choices of which ones they wanted to take - and your boss is concerned that you are taking all of the available options, at once, rather than spreading them out over a larger period of time and getting more work dedicated to (Thus reducing the amount of overtime you require to get specific tasks done in, by using the regularly allotted time you were getting paid for to get those tasks done or prepared for in advance.).

I would recommend first identifying what value you're planning to get out of the programs, and which particular parts of that value contribute to your direct work for your manager. You don't necessarily need to triage everything that provides low value to your work, but it's something to keep in mind in case that's how your manager feels about it.

With that, scheduling a 1:1 meeting and discussing the programs you are taking, and what value from those programs are helping with what you're working on, and what are personal goals that are more tangentially related to your workload.

One possible solution is to reduce the number of them that you are taking at once, and spreading out some of the lower priority company and external programs. By doing this, although you might be compromising here, it would help build confidence with your manager that they can explain your use of the programs as actually providing workload value to their manager, if needed.

Even if you are not slacking in this case, it might come across as worrisome due to how much time the company is spending to pay you to take programs sponsored by the company as well - and it could be worth considering how this appears with respect to whether it's somewhat double-dipping into their resources more than they get out of the work you're doing.

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