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Dealing with technicians that are always unavailable

  1. Jul 22, 2014 #1

    Monique

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    This might be a bit out there, but I wonder what some people think of the following situation. A technician is paid 2 days a week to work for me, in reality the technician only puts in 4 hours a month. Whenever I delegate work, the technician either is too busy, is sick, has family problems, has a day off, or wants to go on vacation.

    I delegated a job that needs to be done every few weeks, one day the technician contacted me that the job couldn't be done the next week: the technician was too busy due to an upcoming vacation. I told the technician to make time a few days earlier to do the job and that I'd help: my attempt to manage the situation and level the playing field.

    Shortly after a colleague in the lab was involved in an accident and couldn't work, I called on the technician to help finish an experiment. To me it was also an opportunity to train the technician, because that person has very little relevant experience.

    Guess what: the day of the experiment (a Tuesday) the technician sends an e-mail: "went home sick on Monday, hopefully you can manage and I can help on Thursday". I sent my best wishes and asked whether we could meet Thursday at 11:00 (I purposely didn't ask for 9:00). Guess what: on Thursday at 11:10 I get the e-mail "Can we make it Friday at 11:00. This is currently my best offer ... Sorry!"

    How should one communicate with such a person? I'm at a loss. We had a blow-out, because I thought the text above was very inappropriate. I don't take "best offers" and the situation to me is unmanageable. A day later I found out the technician was still stick on Thursday, but didn't feel it was any of my business to be informed about that.

    I discussed it with three senior people in my department (two of them supervise the technician as well) and they say it's up to me to solve it. Ugh, I have no idea how to approach this other than take a deep breath and approach the situation with a lot of care to not escalate it into an argument. Such a waste of time, but an opportunity to develop people skills :rolleyes:
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 22, 2014 #2
    You need to document every instance and whomever pays the tech needs to know.
     
  4. Jul 22, 2014 #3

    Monique

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    Good advice, first I'll initiate a conversation to clarify "the rules".. of course in a constructive manner (not easy). I already talked to the people who manage the tech: the head of the lab and the lab manager, but both benefit from the tech not putting time in my project (the tech works in their lab). I was always told that hours spent working on projects were tracked, but I appear to have been naive to believe this. I asked the head of the lab to let the tech work with me for at least a week: useful training and "makes up time" but that request was denied. I could argue it hire up the hierarchy, but that certainly won't get me friends. Politics...
     
  5. Jul 22, 2014 #4

    AlephZero

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    Think about the option of cutting your losses. Get rid of the two days a week from your project budget, and let somebody else pay the tech to do nothing.

    The tech has probably figured out that (1) he/she gets paid whether or not he/she does any work, and (2) you don't have any direct authority to change that situation.

    You can only "train" somebody if they want to learn. That doesn't seem to apply here.
     
  6. Jul 22, 2014 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    Politics is right. You have to decide which battles to fight. You don't want to work surrounded by enemies, but you don't want to be taken advantage of either.

    Who pays the tech? If you are being charged 16 hours a week and you get 2, you have a right to complain - or even to get a different tech. I can't give more specific advice; our system here is set up differently: if a tech charges time against my research grant, I need to sign off that he has spent that time. While that doesn't prevent the situation you describe from happening, it does make it harder to happen.
     
  7. Jul 22, 2014 #6

    Choppy

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    It sounds to me like you're in that awful situation of having responsibility for something and yet no authority over it. At a minimum, I can sympathize. I'll try to offer some thoughts...

    First, are the expectations clearly established and understood?
    1. Where does the two days per week stem from? Is it written anywhere or is that an assumption based on contributing 40% of the salary? (It's a reasonable assumption, of course, but some people don't always reason the same way.)

    2. Is the tech aware that you expect two days per week of work from him or her?

    3. Is the tech even aware that he or she is working at least partly for you? Some people don't look too closely at where their salary comes from. Is it possible that this person could think that he or she is doing you a favour by doing anything for you?

    4. With respect to vacations and sick time do you have a formal policy on this? If you don't, perhaps this person would benefit from a more rigid system - vacations must be booked at least X weeks in advance and signed off by all lab supervisors, etc.

    5. Are there extenuating circumstances you're not aware of? It's a lot different if this person is booking off sick time because she or he has cancer than if she or he partied too hard the night before.


    Next, when dealing with "difficult" people, I've found it's helpful to focus on specific goals. When I worked in law enforcement it was critical to be able to identify when to ignore what a person said and focus on what they did.

    1. What do you really need this person do to for you? Is it crucial that he or she is physically present in your lab for the 16 hours per week that you paid for? Or are there specific tasks that you need accomplished to a specific standard in a specific time?

    2. Once you've identified your goals, try to define things you can do to motivate this person. Does he or she want more freedom? More responsibility? More professional recognition? Basically look for carrots.

    3. Conversely, what recourse do you have when your goals are not met? Can you contribute to this person's annual evaluation? Can you withdraw your contribution to this person's funding? Can you refuse to sign off on vacation requests?

    Finally, at all times remain professional and courteous. These situations tend to be transient in my experience and at the very least you can use this experience to make the next one better.
     
  8. Jul 23, 2014 #7

    Monique

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    This would indeed save me time, right now it's less complicated to do the work myself or request other people to help out. Point is, this person is eating up money assigned to me and that just doesn't sit right.

    The tech is paid out of a research grant (which nearly cost me my job), the tech works 4 days a week and should work 50% with me.

    The two days a week come from the 50% assignment of an already part-time worker. I had the conversation that the tech is supposed to spend two days a week on my project. At the time we agreed that this wouldn't be fixed days, but rather a flexible arrangement: this is not working out. Now I'd rather have the tech sit in the lab 2 days a week doing nothing, just to drive home the message how much time is being spent on other things.

    You third point, indeed that's the comment I always get: "I'm doing this on top of my other work". This stems from the fact that the tech used to work 100% in the other lab and views my project as "something on the side". This is a thought that will be difficult to change, without really making clear that the job description has changed (which I feel should've come from the other two with authority).

    There is only a single person who signs off vacation days, which is done electronically. The illness communication does need to be improved: I need to know when the tech is available and when not. According to the tech I should ask the lab manager or the head of the lab, I feel I should have the authority to be told directly.

    It's not excessive partying, but what it is I don't know. I asked whether it was the work load in the lab, which I thought was a relevant question (someone could be burned out), but that led to an angry response ("I'm working 100%, I always try to accommodate you"). I don't know what the policy is for ill employees, I know they don't have to give an explanation for being ill, but shouldn't they discuss it with their supervisor? I would appreciate it to know what I can expect from a person. Probably I shouldn't discuss that with the employee but rather the lab manager (who might've been in contact with the company doctor, who judges people who are ill a lot).

    Great advice, that's really something I can work with. I'll work those points out, it will help me better manage people in the future. I've never had trouble with other people, master and PhD students, techs really are of a different kind. Thanks for the thought that you put into the post!
     
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