I have to take calls from my kids at work, and my manager doesn’t like it

A reader writes:

First, the positives. I work for a small firm in a small town. One owner, one office manager, me, and 5 professionals. The professionals work directly under the owner, while I alone work under the office manager. I love the work, I love the people. The owner and office manager are good people. The office manager is the only other woman other than me, so we laugh and get along well. I’m extremely grateful to have a job in this economy and my pay is adequate.

Now the negatives. The office manager is very exact when it comes to break times. My two breaks are 10 minutes each, and my lunch is 1 hour. I try extremely hard to save 95% of my calls and interactions with my family (my husband and 3 teenagers) for breaks and lunch, but in reality that is unrealistic. Sometimes the matter can wait, sometimes it can’t. When the school is calling because one of my kids is sick, I can’t “take that call later.” When one of my kids is calling because their car broke down and they don’t know what to do, I can’t “take that call later.” She’s very critical of this with me and it doesn’t matter what the situation is. If I get a call, I get up from my desk, go down to the copy room to take the call, quickly take care of it, and it’s over in less than one minute – literally. I still get written up for these matters, as well as being scolded about them.

I don’t want to lose my job, but I feel that during the next evaluation, I should counter her criticisms, but am a bit afraid to. She’s never had kids and doesn’t get it.

The reason I brought up the other professionals being directly under the owner is because that owner is never like that with them. They turn their 10-minute breaks into half-hour breaks and nothing is ever said to them.

I’m not lazy, I’m a hard worker, I have a good work ethic and don’t believe in taking advantage. But I believe her being so exact about breaks and phone calls is a bit extreme. She has even scolded me for taking 11 minutes on my break instead of 10 – forgetting about the numerous times that I didn’t take my break at all. Am I just whining or are these negatives legitimate?

I wrote back to this reader and said, “I think she’s probably being remarkably unreasonable, but before I give a full answer, let me ask — how often are you having personal calls, even if they’re just a minute or two? Is it multiple times a day, just a couple of times a week, or something else?”

Her response:

Honestly, I would say about 2-3 a day. And no, it isn’t usually “mom, I’ve wrecked my car.” But it is EXTREMELY brief. One question, one answer. I’ve asked them to text me, because I can text back answers without her having a fit. And they do – but with 3 teenagers, it’s honestly always something. I really try to a) find out what it is, b) if it can wait, I tell them I’ll have to call back or c) try to take care of the matter in less than a minute. Even this is scold-worthy in her eyes.

I’ve always held higher level positions where this was never an issue, so I’m probably a bit spoiled. But my last company closed down, and I ended up being a stay at home mom for 3 years. This hurt my opportunities returning to the workforce and probably spoiled my kids with the “mom is always here, so we’ll just ask her” attitude (therefore, the calls).

There was one time, I don’t think I’ll ever live this down – she was standing at my desk explaining a task to me. My phone vibrated and I happened to glance at it. I noticed it was the school – I apologized and told her “I’m terribly sorry but I have to take this.” It ended up being very serious; my 14-year-old had actually fell and knocked out her front tooth. My manager still refers to this as “the time I stepped away from her to take a call.” I’m sorry – any call from the school is going to get priority over her. I thought she was an adult and would treat me as such, instead of scolding me like a child.

I know, I know – the economy is terrible and I need to be grateful that I have a job at all. I am. I have an awesome work ethic. That’s why I’m writing you. I honestly don’t know whether I’ve turned into one of those bratty “I’m entitled” people or if she’s just being really ridiculous. Either way, I know I have to suck it up – I don’t believe I’ll ever change her mind.

Well, your manager is certainly being an ass. Caring that your break was one additional minute long is ridiculous, and so is hassling you about taking an emergency call about your kid (let alone hassling you about that incident continuously). She also doesn’t appear to know how to address concerns, which we’ll get to in a minute.

But the complicating factor here is that 2-3 personal calls a day, every day, is a lot. Even if they’re brief. And yes, I know that you’re probably thinking “it all adds up to barely five minutes a day,” and that could be true. But three daily interruptions from your personal life — well, it’s more than what’s typical, and it makes it seem like you’re not all in when you’re at work.

And the idea that she just doesn’t get it because she doesn’t have kids is … well, no. People without kids have been around kids, have been kids themselves, and have families. But more to the point, having kids doesn’t mean you should be held to a different standard at work — and you might not have intended to imply that you should be, but that’s really what that statement conveys, because otherwise it wouldn’t matter that she doesn’t have kids.

And the reality is, plenty of people with kids, whether they’re toddlers or teenagers, don’t get 2-3 calls per day from their family while they’re at work. Many of them get none. You’re framing this as an unavoidable necessity, but it’s not. There are people with jobs where they can’t be reached by phone during work hours at all (unless it’s a true emergency, in which case someone finds them), and their families handle it. So I think by framing this in your mind as “just the way it is when you have kids,” when in fact it isn’t really just the way it is, you’re keeping yourself from being able to find a better solution to this.

Now, back to your manager. The way she’s handling this is ridiculous, yes. But I have to wonder if part of the reason she’s coming down so hard on you about individual calls is because she’s reacting to (a) the overall quantity and pattern, and (b) the resistance she’s getting from you to the idea that you should be stopping or dramatically cutting down on these calls. (Here’s where she becomes a bad manager again: If that is the case, and she’s concerned about the pattern, then she shouldn’t be tackling this piecemeal, each time she sees you on a call. Instead, she should sit you down and say, “Hey, this is what I’m seeing, and it’s too much. Let’s lay out a reasonable standard to use.”)

In any case, here are the facts that I see:
- You’re working for someone who’s a stickler on time, to what sounds like a pretty silly extent.
- You’re not used to working in that kind of environment, so you’re understandably bristling.
- But you’re also digging your heels in about wanting to take 2-3 personal calls a day, which actually isn’t a super reasonable thing to be digging in your heels about.

(I’m not including anything here about the other people in your office not being held to such a strict schedule, because they have different roles and a different boss, so it’s comparing apples to oranges.)

Ultimately, this might come down to having to decide if you’re willing to do what this environment requires of you. And if you’re not, it doesn’t make sense to stay there and continue to butt heads; you should probably accept that she wants A and you want B, and therefore it’s not the right fit.

But before you conclude that, why not sit down with her and see if you can come to some happy medium? For instance: “Jane, you’ve raised concerns in the past about me taking a few extra minutes on a break or answering a personal call during the day, and I’d like to talk about that. From my perspective, it seems unwarranted to time my breaks to the minute, especially when I’m performing well and getting all my work done and when I sometimes don’t take a break at all. And regarding the phone calls, I will talk to my family about not calling me during the day unless it’s an emergency — but I also want to know that when something important does come up, my answering those calls — which should only be occasional — won’t be held against me. I’m asking to be treated like a responsible professional who isn’t slacking off, gets my work done, and can be trusted to manage my time.”

If she agrees to this, you’d need to follow through on your part of it and put the kibosh on all the calls and texts. And if she doesn’t agree to this, then you’ll have to decide if you’re willing to work at a job that places these restrictions on you.

What you can’t do, though, is stay there and keep ignoring pretty clear rules she’s laid out; that’s not really reasonable, even if you think the rules are silly.

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