NEW YORK University’s Kwame Appiah answers readers’ questions

Q: I work at a small NGO as the assistant to the executive director. Soon after I was hired, a new writer was also hired. Let’s call her Carrie. Carrie did not have experience in writing the particular kinds of proposals our NGO requires, but the executive director thought she was a good fit for the position. There was a rough start to her tenure, as a lot of deadlines came up quickly and she was doing a lot of things last minute. Her writing was not the best during this period, but both the director and I chalked it up to her rush in trying to hit the deadlines.

Recently, she turned a project over to the director to be reviewed. She had plenty of time to work on it, but still struggled immensely. She had to work closely with the director rewriting it. After that, the director told me she was unsure of how to help Carrie polish the work by the time it got to her to review and that she was frustrated by Carrie’s performance. To save the director some time, I thoroughly proofread the next project and gave Carrie many suggestions and notes, which she implemented before the draft was ready to be reviewed by the director. The director praised Carrie for how much she improved.

As my office is just outside of Carrie’s, I heard their conversation, and she did not mention that I had contributed at all. I’m not necessarily in need of praise and admiration for helping the specialist, but I am frustrated because I know Carrie’s salary is substantially higher than mine and I feel as if I am more capable of doing her job than she is.

However, I am hesitant to go to my boss and tell her any of my concerns because it may reflect poorly on me. My boss is also not afraid of firing people who are unable to do their job to her satisfaction, and I don’t want Carrie to be fired. I really like her as a person; I just feel like her abilities do not measure up to the requirements of the position. What should I do?

A: Let’s try to keep two sets of questions distinct. One has to do with whether your colleague is capable of doing the job she was hired to do. The other is about whether it is wrong of her to hide the fact that she relied on your help to get this project done, and, if so, whether that’s something you should report to your boss.

You’re honest enough to indicate that your feelings about these issues are affected by the fact that she’s paid more than you are, while you’re convinced you can do her job better than she can. But it’s worth trying to sort through the issues here as dispassionately as we can. On the first question, it looks as if the answer is no. She’s not ready to do the job. On your account, she’s never actually produced a satisfactory written proposal on her own. If your boss knew that, there would be two responses available.

The boss could arrange for Carrie to be coached, as she did with the first proposal and you did with the next one, in the hope that she will soon be able to operate on her own. Or she could decide that she made a mistake in hiring her and give her notice that, unless she improves substantially, she would have to go.

That you like Carrie and don’t want to see her fired reflects well on you. But it isn’t a reason for your NGO to keep her. It does provide you with a motive to keep covering for her, I suppose, but doing so won’t solve the problem that her lack of competence creates. It can’t be efficient for the boss to spend a lot of time rewriting her proposals. It can’t be efficient for you to spend a lot of time bringing her work up to standard, either.

To turn to the second question, Carrie should indeed have been above board about the help you gave her. It is unsurprising that she didn’t mention your role here, because it would have undermined her claim to be getting better at the job. The fact is that your boss now has a false impression of Carrie’s skills. That rankles you and resentments like yours don’t make for good office relationships.

But the bigger concern is that it undermines your boss. Managers can’t manage well when they don’t have accurate information about those they’re managing. There’s no easy way for you to let her know this, as you point out. You don’t want to sound merely bitter.

However, it’s a problem that your boss thinks she has a competent proposal writer when she doesn’t. Of course, there’s the issue of equity raised by the fact that Carrie is being paid more than you while bringing less to your common pursuit.

The next time Carrie asks for your help – and she will – why not say that you’d prefer to discuss with the boss the possibility of your being assigned to mentor her officially, given the time it will take you? That way the director has a better picture of what’s really going on, and you won’t have to pay the penalty for getting behind with your actual job. On the other hand, you could just tell the director everything you’ve told me.

Ratting out a colleague is the opposite of collegial, needless to say. You don’t want to make a habit of it, and your reluctance to do so is commendable. Given the details of the situation, there’s a case to be made for disabusing your blinkered boss.

This article first appeared in The New York Times

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