Dear Businesslady: How Do I Avoid Getting Burned?

Advice for the overworked and underpaid.

Dear Businesslady,

I need your help navigating the impending garbage fire of a situation that my organization has found itself in.

I work at a small non-profit that, like many others, has struggled financially since the recession. A new CEO was brought on last year and her primary goal seems to be cutting costs. We have two people about to leave the organization and there are no plans to hire anyone to fill those roles in the foreseeable future. We receive most of our funding through federal and state workplace giving campaigns, and one of the people leaving is in charge of applying to all those campaigns, which is a significant workload! Basically, it will be up to my three-person department to take on all her responsibilities, and for me personally, I will have to take on some of the responsibilities of the other person leaving (who was essentially an executive assistant). Additionally, one of my coworkers will likely be going on maternity leave during one of our busiest times of year.

It’s doubtful we’ll ever get raises or overtime pay, and while our jobs seem to be safe for now, morale is incredibly low. Still, I’m somewhat hesitant to look for something new (for healthcare and income stability reasons), so I was wondering what I should do to deal with this mess and also advocate for myself and the needs of my soon-to-be swamped coworkers.

— I Am Not Paid Nearly Enough for This

Dear Underpaid,

I’m not going to tell you that this is a bad scene, because clearly you’re well aware of that. I will tell you to reconsider your reluctant stance toward job-searching, for all of the reasons I’ve harped on before: even if you’re the perfect fit for a new position, it takes a long time to go from resume submission to offer-in-hand, and particularly when you account for a few mismatches before you reach that stage. It doesn’t sound like there’s much hope for improvement, so the sooner you start exploring other options, the better.

That said, if every single column I wrote distilled down to “maybe quit your job?” it would get really boring — not to mention, singularly unhelpful for anyone who wasn’t actually able to leave. So here’s some advice for enduring this unfortunate reality for however long it lasts.

You’re staring down a future of being overburdened, so let’s start by documenting what “normal” looks like, just as a point of comparison. The ideal workload is one that averages out to approximately exactly what you can handle — some busy periods, some slow periods, and a general a sense that you’re staying on top of everything in your purview.

But when you’re asked to take on too much, the rules change. Often, it means that if you feel caught up, it’s probably because you’ve managed to forget something major.

If that sounds terrible and stressful, that’s because it is! But it can be freeing too — if you adjust your habits accordingly.

Going forward, your goal is no longer completion, but triage. Assume that some projects will fall by the wayside, or take longer than they should, or get done more sloppily than you’d like, and direct your energies to whatever seems the most urgent.

You mention that your budget is reliant on giving campaigns, so maybe your first priority is meeting the deadlines for those funding requests, thus ensuring your organization’s survival (er, such as it is). Anything else that’s got an external due date attached — plus high stakes — is in a similar category.

Beyond that, well, what can you reasonably do? What can your team reasonably do? Once you’ve figured that out, start looking at what’s left. There are probably at least a few tasks based in a tradition of How We Do Things that no longer reflect your current resources. Those legacy projects (and approaches to projects) should be the first to go. Be prepared to ask questions like: Does that report really need to be so detailed? Could we change the newsletter from monthly to quarterly? Is it possible for mid-level execs to manage their own calendars so admins can assist with other stuff?

I suspect this may be challenging for you, because you seem like a conscientious person. If you’re used to working at a certain level — in terms of both quality and quantity — then leaving things un-done or else finishing them up hastily can feel like failure. In a way, it is failure. But the failure’s not yours — it’s the organization’s, for trying to do too much with too little. Don’t forget that.

Try not to get bitter, though, because you want to enlist your boss as an ally to whatever extent possible. Presumably they’re aware that human productivity has its limits, so they should be sympathetic to the position you’re in. Keep them abreast of what you’re actively doing, what you’re reluctantly half-assing, and what you’re abandoning entirely, so that they can confirm your priorities are in order (and offer course-corrections when you’ve misjudged things).

You asked about advocating for your colleagues, which is an admirable ambition. Big-picture, the best thing you can do is to be transparent about this newly rejiggered perspective on your workload. When you’re overwhelmed, say so. When you’re being asked to manage the unmanageable, point that out. And when you notice other people being saddled with unreasonable burdens, speak up to suggest a redistribution of effort — or help out, if you have the bandwidth.

Finally — and maybe most importantly of all — take good care of yourself. When you’re overworked and in an anxiety-inducing environment, you need to approach your downtime with the same dedication you devote to your job. Give yourself permission to really enjoy your evenings and weekends so that you can clear your head and reset your brain. Unless it’s truly unavoidable, stop checking your work email once business hours are over (and by “truly unavoidable” I mean “a crisis hit right as you were heading out the door,” not “you feel kinda guilty if you let something sit until the next workday”).

If there’s an upside to all this, it’s that you’re going to have developed some real strong coping mechanisms by the time this situation runs its course — you’re like an athlete training at high altitude. Figuring out where to focus when you’ve got too much on your plate is a valuable skill, and it’s one that you can’t easily cultivate in a less-demanding job. That may feel like cold comfort now, but once all this is over — whether it’s because your org is back on track or (more likely) because you’ve decamped for a better gig — you’ll realize you’ve built up an immunity to the iocane powder of excessive busyness.

Dear Businesslady,

I’ve been going above and beyond at my job, and while I’m capable of keeping up with the work, I want to be recognized for what I’m doing.

I was hired as a secretary 3.5 years ago, and a manager with an extremely heavy workload quickly asked to have me support her. She’s a good boss, and we work very well together. I also work for two other managers, and have a separate role as assistant to the director of marketing. (Weird, I know, but I have a marketing background and we also have a good rapport.)

There’s not really an official role that describes what I’m currently doing, which is why I have some concerns about asking for it. And the job description for my official position is pretty vague — essentially, “provide secretarial support,” which is what I do … but that’s fairly broad and subjective.

I can present concrete examples to admin to support my case, though: I put in overtime practically every week, I have access to special software that’s usually only provided to higher-level employees, and I’m frequently “on call” on the weekends and before work hours — which is unpaid, but means I have to be prepared to come in if needed.

Based on the demands of this job vs. the demands of other secretarial positions in my company, I am hoping that I can ask for a promotion. But have I been here long enough that this is a reasonable thing to hope for?

Some people have suggested that I write up a draft job description that better reflects my current role, to refer to whenever I raise this issue. I’m open to doing that, but if you have any other suggestions I’d love to hear them.

— Jane of All Trades (with Some Trade-Offs)

Dear (Also, Probably) Underpaid,

Yeah, I said it.

But y’know, there’s a lot to be said for working above your pay grade, especially when you’re early-ish in your career. When I reflect on my own professional trajectory, there’s a recurrent theme of me shooting my hand up Hermione-style whenever I was offered the opportunity to tackle something beyond my job description. After all, gaining experience is the only way to level up into fancier titles and fatter paychecks, so technically the only way to ensure you’re never under-compensated is to avoid any kind of personal growth. (Which I do not recommend.)

On the other hand, there’s not a huge incentive for employers to proactively reward their staff with raises and promotions. Some do — and they earn well-deserved loyalty as a result. But not all managers notice, or care, or are willing to put forth the effort to make it happen. By definition, supervisor types have a lot on their minds, and they’re not necessarily going to realize that you’re getting a raw deal unless you point it out. (And sure, some are so profit-driven that they’d rather save a few grand on salaries even if it means eventually losing their best people — but distraction and indifference are more common motivators than greed.) Most bosses will want to know when you feel like you’re ready to level up.

So yes, in this situation, you should absolutely ask for a promotion. Based on the account you’ve given here — your workload, your skillset, your tenure with the organization — it’s more than warranted.

Except you can’t just walk into your boss’s office and declare, “I want a promotion!” (Or, I mean, you can, but like…don’t.) There are a few pieces of prep work to get through before you open up that conversation.

First, you need to build your case. It sounds like you’re most of the way there, but it’ll be useful for you to create a write-up of everything that sets you apart from your coworkers with the same title. That includes the practical stuff you outlined above, but don’t stop there: mention all the times when your work was praised for being exceptionally strong, too. If you can track down pull-quotes from old emails (e.g., things like “This marketing copy is fantastic; I can’t believe you put it together so quickly!”) copy-paste them in there.

Now, take a moment to review this document and reflect on your own badassery. It’s really ridiculous that they haven’t promoted you yet, am I right? But don’t worry — you’re going to help them fix that.

In some ways, that’s the easier part. The next step requires a bit more introspection: what do you want? A raise, sure, but do you have a figure in mind? If the idea of coming up with a number seems daunting, do some research. Poke around on Glassdoor, check out the ranges in job ads for similar positions, and — if you can overcome our culture’s weirdness with discussing money (since this is The Billfold, I hope you can) — ask more senior friends and colleagues about their own salaries and what they think is fair for the type of work you’re doing.

That should give you a target amount, and then you can figure out the minimum you’d be happy with and the maximum that’d throw you into a fever dream of unimaginable wealth (but still reasonable). If you’re asked to name your price, start at the high end to increase the odds that you’ll end up somewhere between the two extremes.

Next — continuing the “what do you want” theme — think about your ideal title. It’s got to make sense within your office’s org-chart lexicon and align with the work you do, but beyond that there’s a lot of flexibility. Again, browse job postings to get a sense of the available vocabulary and consider where you’re hoping your career to go from here. You may not end up having any say at all in what you’re called, but if you do, you want something that reflects your favorite parts of your position, and/or overlaps with the kinds of roles you’d like to move into eventually.

At this point, you could go back to your Reasons Why I’m Awesome list and write up a job description that reflects your current workload, complete with prospective new title. Given the bureaucracy that often governs that genre, there’s a decent chance you won’t actually get to make it official — so you can skip this step if you’d like — but you should keep it in the back of your mind, because it might make sense to offer a draft to your manager (whether or not you’ve already written it).

And since we’re talking about your manager again, that means we’ve reached the part where you actually can walk into your boss’s office and kick this whole scheme into motion. (Well, most likely you’d bring it up during a regularly scheduled meeting. But that’s a much less exciting mental image.)

At a calm, generally positive moment during a one-on-one talk, broach the subject: “I’ve been thinking — given the portfolio of tasks I’m responsible for and the hours I’m putting in, I’m not sure ‘secretary’ accurately describes the work I’ve been doing. Do you think it’s possible to promote me into a position that better reflects my actual contributions?”

Then you wait — and tailor your response to the reaction you get. If it’s enthusiastic agreement, you ask what you can do to help move things forward. If it’s lukewarm, you start making your case (which should be easy, thanks to that list you put together). If it’s a definite no, then you find out how to change that — and try to get a timeline for revisiting the question. It’s probable that you’ll be asked if you have a specific salary and/or title in mind — and if that happens, won’t you be glad that you don’t have to come up with something on the spot?

It can be daunting to initiate a discussion like this — particularly when you haven’t done it before, although I don’t know that it ever stops being slightly scary. So if it helps calm your nerves, think of this as doing your manager a favor. By nudging your organization into doing the right thing, you’re giving them a chance to prove that they reward high-performing employees, and that will encourage other quality people to stick around.

But ultimately, it’s not about them. It’s about you, your talents, and the fact that you deserve meaningful recognition.

— Businesslady

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Businesslady is in her early 30s and a successful professional despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. She currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet. Her career guide, Is This Working?, comes out April 4th.

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