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No. 144 – My reports are lazy, disengaged and take too much sick leave. Help?

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28 February 2024

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week: a disengaged team, a disliked boss and big red flags in a part-time job.

I recently started as a team leader in a call centre. Most of the agents have been with the company for a while, and either seem disengaged or are poor performers. The team has high levels of sick leave, and managing them has been challenging. Additionally, they are not meeting their hybrid office commitments and are mostly working from home. How do you suggest I approach leading this team to improve their performance and engagement?

It sounds like the culture within your team has been poor for a while, which explains the high absenteeism, low engagement and overall disengagement. If you can, I would start by trying to form a trusting relationship with some of the key people in your team and ask them what they observe is going on. Your team will understand, better than anyone else, so seek to be genuinely curious about what the experience is like for an agent who works in the environment you have inherited. What tasks make the job more challenging, tedious or unproductive than it needs to be?

Your biggest priority, initially at least, will be to listen. You are new to this team, so try and openly hear their concerns. You might find there are a few bad apples making life difficult for everyone and who need to be moved on. You may also find there are legitimate processes that make performance levels challenging – find out what they are and help fix them. You will have to approach this problem from a perspective of seeking to understand. Avoid making assumptions about what you think is happening. Once you know what the big problems are, you can move into action and help solve them.

My manager has been in her current position for almost two years and has turned out to be a psychopath. Even though we work in the public system, she has managed to create a 30 per cent bonus for herself through non-worked overtime, but the most alarming thing is how she manipulated and divided our team. Since her charm is fooling everyone in management, I can’t escalate this problem. So what is the solution?

Thank goodness this column is anonymous or else we might all have a defamation issue to deal with! To be fair, thinking of your boss a psychopath is probably not going to help you create the easiest working relationship with her. I can see how frustrated you are but if you are looking for a solution to create a well-functioning team, you will need to find a constructive way to work with her.

If there are things she is doing which are illegal, against company policy, amount to harassment or anything else that you know would be serious enough to escalate, document what you can and then take your concerns to HR or another senior leader in the organisation you trust. If it is her personal style, then try to find a way to give her feedback. This might be through an anonymous 360 degree review or else in a team or individual feedback session. Again, doing so calmly and with data to explain your concern will hopefully have the best impact.

My son is desperately unhappy in his part-time job, where he works 24 hours a week, usually from home. He’s been told by his boss that new systems have to be learnt in his own (unpaid) time, he is not allowed to use an out-of-office message letting people know he works part-time, he can never miss a deadline, and he cannot rely on support from anyone else. Can an employer say he won’t pay for the extra hours my son might need to incur to do his job?

So, let me get this right. In the 24 hours of a week your son is paid, his boss wants him to figure everything out on his own, never miss a deadline and then not tell anyone he is, in fact, part-time? This job has major red flags and I think your son should move on since it sounds like his boss wants a full-time employee on a part-time wage. Any new starter needs time to learn a new role and be encouraged to ask questions and ask for help as they learn – and this always needs to happen at the company’s expense.

To submit a question about work, careers or leadership, visit (you will not be asked to provide your name or any identifying information. Letters may be edited).

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