I’m trying to leave a board but can’t escape, asking a coworker not to bring her baby in, and more — Ask a Manager

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. I’m trying to leave a board but can’t escape

About 10 years ago, I agreed to serve on the board of a small nonprofit organization. The executive director, Sarah, is friendly and gregarious, and because we work in similar industries, we have developed a genuine friendship in the past decade.

I have known I was ready to leave the board for two years, but a couple of years ago Sarah was diagnosed with cancer. This made her job more difficult, diminished productivity, and generally resulted in more hands-on assistance and oversight from board members. I was happy to stay on and help since I care about the organization and consider Sarah my friend.

Her cancer went into remission and things became more stable at the organization. One year ago, after being named the board chair, I met with Sarah and let her know that 2023 would be my last year on the board, with an end date of December 31. Before I had a chance to share this with the rest of the board, another board member also announced she’d be leaving – with an end date three months earlier than my planned exit. As a group, we worked to recruit replacements and I spent a lot of time meeting with prospective board members, helping Sarah prepare for onboarding, etc. Two new board members agreed to come on and have begun attending meetings. In the meantime, the member who said she was leaving in the fall was convinced to stay on through the end of the year but has reiterated that she is out and would like the next board meeting to be her last. None of us have wanted to leave Sarah or the organization in the lurch.

In January, Sarah contacted me to schedule 2024 board meetings. I let her know that I would be able to attend one more meeting and we need to elect a new chair ASAP. She said she doesn’t know who the new chair will be because other longtime members may also be wanting to exit. I reiterated that I am no longer available to serve this organization. She countered by suggesting that I would need to recruit another new board member. In the interest of moving the organization forward, I scheduled the next board meeting and ended the conversation. I also reached out to a contact who I believe would be a good addition.

At the meeting, we did some regular business but ran out of time (I suspect by design) to talk about the chair position. As a result, I have now scheduled the NEXT board meeting as well, and I am certain I am expected not only to attend, but to act as chair.

I am burnt out and exhausted. I feel like a hostage. I believe Sarah is manipulating me to stay on the board because she sees me as an ally and a friend and is not taking my resignation seriously. How do I handle this? Can I simply stop attending meetings and remind her that I gave notice 12 months ago? Do I need to stay on for six more months for a “smooth transition?” Do I need to submit my resignation in writing and refuse all communication after the next meeting? What is my obligation to this organization and executive director when my boundaries are not being respected?

You are not a hostage! You do not need to stay for six more months, or even one more month. You can reiterate that your resignation was supposed to be effective last December, you attended one additional board meeting to help out, but you gave a full year’s notice and are no longer available to continue working. Or, if you’re willing to attend one final meeting, you can let Sarah know that this will be your final meeting, regardless of whether time is included to talk about the chair position and so you suggest that be a key item on the agenda — but either way you’re letting the org know you won’t be available after that. I recommend cc’ing the full board on this message so everyone has the same info.

You can’t be ordered to remain until you find a replacement (unless that was a condition you agreed to when you signed on and even then you could still leave sooner, although you’d want to finesse the language a little more — but it doesn’t sound like it was). If Sarah tries that, you can say, “I’ve already extended my timeline by over a month and I’m really not available after X. I gave so much notice specifically to avoid this, and I do need to stick to it.”

2. Should I tell a student worker the real reason we’re ending her job?

I recently started a new position at a small public university, one of the main responsibilities of which is supervising our department’s team of undergraduate student workers. It’s worth mentioning that this is my first full-time professional job, and I’m not substantially older than the students I supervise.

All of the students need to be occasionally redirected from their phone or reminded to show up to work on time, but none of them compare to one student, Ciara. I have to constantly hound Ciara to not do homework on the clock, her work when she does do it is sloppy, and she’s called off on short notice a couple of times in the past month. I was warned about her disciplinary issues by my predecessor, who said that they’d had to issue written warnings to her a couple of times. Ciara hasn’t done anything truly inexcusable, but it’s obvious that she doesn’t care about working here apart from the paycheck.

In our department, students get a finite amount of funding for the year to work, which they can then petition to extend. Ciara is now a few weeks away from exhausting her funding. This actually happened with all the other students too and they were all able to secure further funding, but for some reason having to do with her overall financial aid package, Ciara wasn’t.

This presents an easy out for me to let go of a less-than-stellar employee. Ciara was told a while ago that it was likely she’d have to leave soon, and all I need to do is sit down with her to make it official. She knows about the funding situation, and she’s aware that her request was denied because of matters outside of her control. Although honestly, I could’ve fought harder for Ciara’s funding to be increased (I did so for the others), but I just didn’t have a lot of motivation to do so.

When I tell Ciara she’s being let go, do I have a responsibility to let her know it’s partly due to her poor performance as an employee? On one hand, I’m very much someone who hates conflict. I’d been feeling incredibly anxious about the prospect of formally firing Ciara, and was intensely relieved that this “easy out” presented itself. On the other though, I do genuinely like Ciara despite her shortcomings as a worker, and I’d feel bad not telling her the whole truth. This could also present an opportunity for her to grow and perform better at her next job, maybe.

Yeah, part of the deal with student workers is that you should expect to have to guide them more than you would otherwise — and that includes giving feedback that will help them in future jobs. If Ciara weren’t a student worker, I’d say that you wouldn’t have any particular obligation to spell out the situation for her — you could if you wanted to, but it would also be reasonable to figure that she should put it together herself, given the written warnings and criticism she’d been receiving. But since she’s a student worker, you do owe her a bit more.

I’d say it this way: “I know you had some talks with (predecessor) about her concerns with your work — things like XYZ— and those are concerns I talked with you about too. I want to be transparent with you that those issues were a factor in our decision: we can’t go to bat to try to keep someone on when they’re not performing at the level we need. I’m not saying this to berate you, but because it’s something that’s likely to come up at future jobs too, and I want to see you set yourself up to do well in the next one.”

Don’t think of this as “conflict.” Think of it as helping Ciara — of giving her guidance that should help her get better outcomes for herself in the future. Whether or not she sees it as a favor in the moment (and she may not!), it really is one.

how can I stop softening the message in tough conversations with my staff?

3. Can I ask a coworker not to bring her baby into our office?

I’m hoping you can help me decide if I am being reasonable or not. I started a new teaching job in January 2023. In February, I found out I was pregnant with my second child. I announced at work around the 13-week mark. A few weeks later, another teacher in my department announced she was also pregnant, and her due date was the same as mine, in October. This teacher spends most of her time in another department, so I didn’t really get to know her at all.

Unfortunately, I lost my child at 30 weeks, in August. I stopped working, and our country allows you to take paid leave even with a stillborn, so I have only just gone back to work. My colleague had a healthy baby in October.

I was back at work this week, doing some prep work before the students come back, and she turns up at our office with her baby. I started crying, and took myself off to the bathroom. My boss allowed me to go home as it was almost the end of the day.

Is it reasonable to ask for her not to bring her baby into our department office? The office is right next to my classroom, and if I’m teaching I can’t just take myself off, remove myself as I would in a social situation. As I said before, she does spend more time in another department that has an office far away from ours. Can I ask that she just go there? I need to work, and this baby is a really strong trigger for me. She is also on leave until 2025, so there isn’t a real need for her to come in.

I’m so sorry, what a hard situation. For what it’s worth, it’s unlikely that she’s going to keep bringing her baby in; it’s likely that was a one-time (or maybe two-time) thing. But in case it does happen again … you can’t really make an official request that she not bring her baby into your department, but you could certainly have a discreet conversation with your boss (or another mutual contact who you trust to handle it well), explain that it’s difficult for you, and ask if she could kindly and discreetly explain what’s going on to your colleague. That’s very likely to take care of it.

4. Am I being quietly fired?

A few months ago, my position was realigned. My new supervisor was relatively new to the organization and new to our industry. Instead of hitting the ground running, I’ve spent a lot of time educating and training my new supervisor on my work and our industry, and it’s been exhausting.

In recent weeks, I’ve been pushing for greater clarity around role expectations. A more senior member of our team asked if they could help and, after meeting with my supervisor, suggested I draft a detailed description of the projects I’m working on and how I do them. The request is to provide a list of current projects and tasks, explain what goes into completing them, and how long they take to accomplish. Then, share that information with my supervisor to help them better understand the demands of my role. But I can’t help but wonder, am I really managing up or being quiet-fired? Seems like writing a detailed list with instructions on how I accomplish my job would make it awfully easy for them to terminate me. And why not? I prepared them a complete list of all my projects and gifted them the knowledge of my years of experience about how to get them done successfully. So am I really managing up and helping my supervisor and organization be more successful? Or am I preparing instructions for how to carry on my job when I’m terminated?

There’s no way that kind of list could transfer your years worth of knowledge and expertise — and it doesn’t sound like that’s what your colleague is trying for. They’re suggesting that you fill in your manager on the basics — “here’s what I’m responsible for, here’s what portion of my time each takes up, and here are some key details on each so you have a better understanding of what I’m doing.” After all, this came in response from you trying to get better clarity on your role (or to help your boss get better clarity on it), and this is a very straightforward way of doing that. This is basic info on your job that your manager should have.

Nothing here  indicates this is in preparation to fire you … but if that were happening behind the scenes, a list like this wouldn’t help them do your job. At most it could help them ensure they know what tasks would need to be covered, but that’s something most managers will be aware of anyway; it’s not info you need to (or even can) safeguard.

5. Is our supplier invoicing me personally?

I work in accounting for an S-Corp. I am not an officer. One of our suppliers recently had a billing software update, and now my personal name is appearing above the company name on the “bill to” on the invoice. I’ve pointed it out, and the supplier indicated it’s one of several issues their IT department will be correcting, but resolution is not a priority. Should I be concerned about this? Could it be problematic for me in any event?

No. It’s understood they’re billing your company and you’re just the point of contact.

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