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Sometimes you need to go over the boss's head

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

How do I make this best of my new boss?

I recently accepted a position as the Assistant General Manager at a new hotel. I like my boss, but I honestly think he is in over his head.

-- He is stingy with information and I can't get a straight answer out of him on anything ever. He isn't confrontational or rude, just non-committal and vague.

He lacks a sense of urgency when addressing problems. Some of the issues will result in our property having its franchise revoked.

He doesn't seem to trust any of his staff.

He nitpicks the good employees we have, to develop them. He won't confront the staff who lie, doctor their hours, and walk out in the middle of shifts.

He won't hire enough staff to keep the doors open and leaves it to me to cover all of the open shifts.

I work 70 hours a week, and can't manage to get the basics of the job I was hired for done. I am starting to catch flak from our district manager. My boss is the owners' nephew. I was hired by one of the owners, not my manager, so I might not be the candidate my boss would have picked. Maybe I was hired to be my manager's safety net? How do I make the best of this situation? My wife and I relocated to take this position and want to make the best of it.

First question: You were hired by the owner, but did you also meet with the manager before moving your family to a new location? I ask because we often treat job searches like beauty pageants -- where the candidates try to impress a bunch of judges without making any effort whatsoever to find out about those judges. And this isn't entirely the candidate's fault. Many hiring managers like the beauty pageant model -- I have all the power, so you impress me or you don't get the job! So, if you are one of the many people who would accept a job without thoroughly vetting your future boss, well, you get what you deserve.

Regardless, you're in the situation now. You're in a leadership role. Your boss is in over his head. He's there because of his genetic make up and it is quite possible that you were hired to make up for his deficiencies. And you need to find that out. Which means you're going to have to go over your manager's head. This is an unpleasant thing and fraught with danger, which is why it will be a last resort thing.

However, the fact that the general manager wasn't the one making the hiring decision strongly indicates that the powers above him don't trust him either. If they trusted him, he would have been the hiring manager for his assistant general manager.

Nevertheless, your first step is to go to your  manager with a plan of what needs to be done -- how staffing problems can be fixed, how nitpicking issues can be resolved, etc. Blame the district manager. Here's a conversation starter:

You: Bob, we have a problem with staff. First of all, we don't have enough. Second, we're not treating the staff we have correctly. For instance, there were no consequences when Jane walked out mid shift. She came back the next day and we just pretended everything was fine, but it's not. When we do this, we not only end up short an employee but the good employees feel unappreciated and become angry and resentful of their slacker coworkers. This is not a sustainable management situation. My solution is...

Now, you'll note that I've used a lot of "we" and passive voice. This is on purpose. Once you start saying, "Bob, you didn't do this and your scheduling is terrible and you, you, you" he'll turn you out and make you an enemy, even if only in his subconscious. By using the "we" and pretending that it just happened, you give him a way out.

By coming to him with a solution, you give him the option of taking it without ever having to admit that he's not performing up to speed. If he's amenable, then you can start making the changes. Volunteer to be the one that handles scheduling or disciplining employees who leave early or don't show, or what have you. You'll undoubtedly have to have this conversation repeatedly, even if he is interested in changing.

But, if he's not, and he's defensive, you'll have to go to your district manager. I presume this is also a relative, so it will be sticky regardless. You can do your best to feel out what the DM thinks of the nephew -- if she thinks it's ridiculous that this boy got the job, then you're life will be a heck of a lot easier than if she thinks he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. If it's the latter, do your best and freshen up your resume because this is a family owned business that is headed for disaster.

But, if not, present the DM with the information you've told me, and add, "How would you like me to proceed? I can do x, y, and z, but not a, b, and c. Another idea is [brilliant idea]. I'm happy to do what you want to turn this around, but I need the authority to do so." And then let the DM respond. If she's a good manager (and let's hope she is) she'll help you come up with solutions for working with your boss to make the hotel a success. If she's a good manager, she feels just as trapped by the nephew as you do.

The important part is establishing clear expectations both with the district manager and your boss. Document the heck out of everything. Every serious conversation should be followed up with an email from you that says, "This is to confirm our conversation earlier. I will do x, y, and z. The consequence for employees who [do bad thing] will be [punishment of some sort]. You will follow up with the catering manager regarding [issue]. Blah, blah, blah. Then,is please let me know, if you need any changes to this plan."

It's not a perfect solution, but when your boss is the owner's nephew, you have to accept some compromises on job perfection. And a note to business owners everywhere: When your sister comes to you and begs you to give her child a job the answer is no. If there needs to be begging involved, your business will be better off without the little darling.

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