Ellie & Jill Take on COVID-19: Insensitive Bosses

Posted on April 9, 2020

Ellie and Jill

Ellie and Jill (get it? EL and GL?) are two anonymous ELGL members who answer your most pressing and sensitive questions. Because everything is anonymous, you can rely on Ellie and Jill to tackle the issues you’ve always wanted to talk about but were too afraid to ask. Want to submit your own question for Ellie and Jill? Send an email to [email protected].

Q: I’m a mid-level professional but my position is not considered “essential” so I should be able to work from home. But my boss thinks that if we’re not in the office it makes our department “look bad.” So we’re all required to come in to city hall. I’m fluctuating between anxious, angry, nervous, sad, and resentful. Any advice on what to do?

A: This sounds difficult on so many levels. There’s the real fear of catching and/or spreading COVID-19, the supreme challenges of dealing with family arrangements now that schools and daycares are closed, the direct frustration with your boss, and adding to that, you’re probably hearing and seeing a lot of fear and frustration in your colleagues as well. That’s a lot to have on your shoulders right now.

As hard as it may be, the first thing we’d advise anyone in this position to do is to lead with empathy. Your boss sounds like a total Jean-Ralphio right now.

Your boss is oblivious to the challenges and risks that they are exposing your department to by requiring you to be in the office. You mention that they are concerned about the department “looking bad” if you’re not all in the office.

That sounds like some underlying insecurity to us. It could be personal, or it could be a fear that if/when the next recession hits your manager or your department might be seen as one that can be cut when funding is short if you weren’t “essential” enough to have to keep up and running during the pandemic crisis.

It’s also possible that your manager is afraid that they aren’t equipped with the managerial skills to oversee a department in a work-from-home environment.

Whatever the cause, keeping in mind that for your boss, these fears are as real as the all of the other fears we are collectively dealing with right now can help you shape your approach to the situation.

And if we’re wrong, and your boss is just a total asshat, then at least you maintain your reputation for being a stand-up person. 

Keeping this in mind, future conversations with the boss can take the shape of “Let’s talk about how our team can provide the highest value of service to the organization possible during these challenging times (and oh, by the way, a lot of that can be accomplished remotely)” or “I have some ideas about how we can ensure accountability of staff if we transition to a work-from-home arrangement and I’d like to bounce some ideas off of you” instead of hitting them with “You need to let us all work from home right now.” 

On top of this, if your community is operating under a shelter-in-place order and only essential employees are permitted to be working outside the home, you need to talk to your organization’s HR department.

You can probably do this in a way that doesn’t come off as “tattling” on your boss if you approach it as a question they can help you answer versus an accusation against your boss.

This could look like, “Has there been a formal process for identifying essential employees and departments? We’re still reporting to City Hall in X department, and I’m not sure that I’ve seen any documentation that identifies my team as essential, should anyone ask.” 

If this doesn’t get you anywhere and you truly believe that your boss is putting you and your team at risk, taking more direct action is a responsible approach.

This starts with a direct conversation with the boss. Ideally at this point you won’t just be speaking for yourself, but on behalf of other managers and staff in your department.

You can frame this conversation as concern about the organization’s obligation to its workers and the people you serve – many of whom are in high-risk groups or live with people who are.

Remind your boss that if the virus spreads through your workforce, your ability to fulfill your mission will be even further limited than if you were working from home.

And come prepared with actionable ideas for how to continue providing high quality service while maintaining accountability while folks are working from home. 

If this approach fails, a final option is to go over your bosses head. And know that this will likely come with consequences. If your City Manager, Mayor, or other top person takes your manager to task for keeping you all in the office and institutes a work-from-home approach, your boss may harbor some petty ill will toward you.

If you think this might be a risk, it’s worth addressing with the big boss during your conversation. It’s also possible that going to the top won’t get you the results you’re looking for. And if that’s the case, you need to think hard about your future with the organization.

Can you continue to work there knowing they are a place that will willingly put their staff at risk in order to save face with the community or avoid having difficult conversations? We hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, we’re here for you.

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