my boss hardly reads emails and says it’s my job to follow up with her when something’s important

A reader writes:

My boss recently decided that she is way too busy to read emails that she sees as unimportant … meaning if she is just copied on them or … I’m not sure how she decides what is important because we (her employees) all know to write VERY specific subject lines for this reason. Recently she chewed out a coworker and told him that it was his fault that something never got done, because even though he emailed her exactly what he should have, she never read it, and he never followed up with her. She then told him and me (I happened to be with them at the time) that she has so many people emailing her all day that it is our responsibility to make sure to follow up with any “action item” and basically said if you don’t put ten exclamation points or READ THIS, etc. at the beginning of your subject line, she’s not going to read it in any timely manner or at all.

I recently sent her an email, one that I send monthly, for a bank transfer that needs done. I have a reminder to email her to do this transfer. This month, she didn’t do said transfer, and this was my fault — because I didn’t follow up.

I asked her nicely if we could try to work on some type of system or procedure to make sure these things get done because sending reminder after reminder doesn’t seem to work and doesn’t seem to be very efficient (the previous week, I went back in my emails, found what had not been responded to/answered, and resent with a new reminder and still got nothing back).

This was her response: “It doesn’t matter what is efficient and what is not, you need to follow up with emails that need an action from someone. You should print them out and have a follow-up folder. Once you see a reply is made to it (sort by subject line so you can see it quicker), then just shred the copy. Sometimes you can’t wait to see an email, you need to call me or whoever and ask if they saw the email. Again, it’s your responsibility to follow up just like it’s mine if I send one to Bob (her husband/our other boss) for action. We just have too many coming at us all day, every day. So the burden lies on the sender, whoever that sender is. Bob follows up on ones he sends me that need action, so everyone has to do it.”

To me, this is ludicrous. And you notice she didn’t say “just like if I send one to YOU” so she wanted to make it clear that this rule doesn’t apply to her unless it’s going to her husband. I believe if I said that something wasn’t done because I never read the email, and SHE didn’t follow up with me, she would blow a gasket. I understand I am her inferior, but in a small office, I would think you would apply the same rules to yourself that you do your employees.

Also keep in mind that we work at the same office, but we have about 15+ companies here so keeping track of each email I send that requires a reply or action would basically be saving every email.

Am I completely off base?

No. But there are two separate questions here: Is this ludicrous, and what should you do in response?

First, is this ludicrous? Yes!

At least the answer is yes in this particular context, where your boss is routinely not reading emails and then blaming you when she misses her own routine tasks (like the bank transfer). If she were only missing something very occasionally and was asking you to follow up with her on just rare occasions where something was outstanding, that would be fine and understandable. Managers are often far busier than non-managers and have way more stuff coming at them all the time, and it’s not inherently ludicrous for a manager to say, “Hey, I’m leaning on you to let me know when you need something I haven’t answered yet.”

But when not reading emails is her default, that’s ridiculous.

The other question is what you should do about it, and that’s an answer that’s going to be very unsatisfying. You can’t force your boss to see that this is ridiculous or to act differently. All you can do is to hear what she’s telling you and respond accordingly.

In this case, that means that you need to take her at her word that you need to track outstanding emails that you haven’t heard back on and follow up with her about them.

I don’t think you need to do this with every person you work with, just with your boss and others senior to you. (But it’s also not a bad idea to do it with any very important project or question, no matter who the recipient is. I do, and it’s helpful because I want to catch it if a problem is about to unfold with something that matters to me.)

I also don’t think you need to print out emails, which is absurd. You can simply move them to a “waiting for” folder in your email that you regularly check. (I do this even though I’m not working with someone like your boss, and it’s tremendously helpful.)

But your boss is telling you how she works and what you need to do to meet her expectations — and more broadly, what it will take to be effective in your role. Whether or not it should be that way is mostly an intellectual question; the practical reality is that yeah, you’ll need to follow up with her.

I do want to note that in general, it’s not outrageous for a manager to expect employees to do more follow-up with her than she would be okay doing with them. Some of that is because in many cases an employee is there in part to make the manager’s work easier on them — they’re in a helper role to some degree. It’s also about where people’s time is best spent. If most of a manager’s time needs to be spent on senior-level tasks, like big-picture strategy and bringing in money (things that her employees are not in a position to do), it’s not unreasonable for her to lean on people who work for her to help out with organization and follow-up (things that they can do).

That’s grating in your situation because your boss is being ridiculous (and flighty and disorganized and generally a mess), and also because she’s being a jerk. But the basic set-up where you need to do something in your role that isn’t as much of a requirement in hers isn’t an inherently wrong one.

You’ve done the right thing by flagging for her that this isn’t a great system and asking about other ways to manage it. But she shut you down so emphatically that it’s pretty clear this is the way she’s going to operate, and you’ve got to decide whether you’re willing to live with it or not. It would be completely reasonable if you decided that you’re not, and that you’d rather move somewhere else — especially since I’d bet quite a lot of money that there are plenty of other management problems in your organization, and other ways in which working for her sucks. But I don’t think there’s any practical way around the reality that this is how it’s going to work while you’re there.

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