Where’s the boss?

Having an MIA manager might seem like the dream: You can be productive in peace without being micromanaged, and it’s no big deal if you come in late. But Los Angeles paralegal Claire Goodwin told Moneyish that when her supervising attorney is out of the office for trials — for up to four days each week — she often hits a “dead end” where she can’t file paperwork or process payments without his authorization.

“We’re trying to clean up a mess right now, where we needed him to sign off on some paperwork, but he was out of the country and there wasn’t WiFi available, so we missed the deadline,” said Goodwin, 29, of Joseph Farzam Law Firm. “When he got back, he wanted to know, ‘Why did you blow this deadline?’ Well, we can’t move unless you allow us to move.”

Before Stacy Caprio founded Growth Marketing, she worked for a boss who would be out of the office up to three times a week without warning, leaving her and her team with no one to answer questions. And sometimes, she had to attend meetings in his place. “We would have to say, ‘Sorry, our boss isn’t here and he didn’t tell us he wasn’t going to be, but we are here instead,’” said Caprio, who declined to give her age, adding that she never called him out on it because “his power level was so much higher that he could pretty much do whatever he wanted.”

They aren’t the only workers being left to fend for themselves. Perhaps most infamously, while Wall Street firm Bear Stearns was collapsing between 2007 and 2008 at the start of the subprime mortgage crisis, its former CEO and chairman James Cayne was often away playing bridge. New York City restaurant Sushi Roxx is closing after the owner went “completely MIA,” Page Six reported last week. Staff said he left town and stopped returning calls; they learned the shop was closing through his lawyer.  

Now, these are not just busy managers who are tied up in meetings, delegating some responsibility or working remotely part-time. Scott Gregory, the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, who has been studying personality measurement and leadership for 30 years, told Moneyish that true absenteeism — sometimes called “laissez-faire leadership” — is marked by pervasiveness: The “unboss” is rarely in the office and often unresponsive by phone, email or text; they offload almost everything on their plate to subordinates; they cancel meetings with you constantly; or they are physically present but emotionally disengaged. They offer only empty platitudes (“Your work is fine”) instead of sincere praise or constructive criticism, and they may not know your name or what you’re working on — leaving you feeling frustrated and directionless.

And these bosses can fly under the radar or get a pass from higher-ups for the very reason that they are invisible. “Even if executives are aware that someone isn’t actively leading, they probably have other people to worry about — one of whom is charged with sexual harassment, or one of whom is an arrogant jerk — and so the absentee leader gets put on the backburner,” said Gregory, whose recent report published in the Harvard Business Review warned that absentee leaders are actually worse than abusive bosses.

“One of the reasons that absentee leaders persist and accumulate in organizations is because they are not actively causing problems, but they are the ‘silent killer’ in that sense because they can pile up unnoticed,” he added. “It’s pretty clear that from the view of those being ‘led’ that absentee leaders are the worst.”

Many times workers picking up the slack for an absentee boss suffer more stress. (demaerre/iStock)

A 2015 Harvard Business Review poll asked 1,000 workers about the biggest communications issues that prevent effective leadership, and eight of the nine responses involved neglect, including complaints about bosses “not giving clear directions” (57%), “not having time to meet with employees” (52%) and “refusing to talk to subordinates” (51%). Gregory’s research has also found that absentee leadership is related to a number of other negative outcomes for employees, like stress stemming from role ambiguity about what’s expected of them in their position, as well as increased health complaints, higher turnover and lower job performance.

“Even if you’re being micromanaged, at least someone is paying attention to you,” added Gregory. “Many people think some attention is better than being ignored.”

So what can you do if you can’t get face time or even FaceTime with your boss? Here’s what to do:

Learn to manage your manager. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to “manage up” and figure out how to work with your absentee boss as effectively as you can for now. That means sending them an email explaining what’s going on, and then also texting them an abridged version, as Goodwin does. “Texting him the Sparknotes version — ‘I just sent you an email you should look at, and it says this’ — and the full email version can help move things along,” she said. Don’t just email asking to have a meeting; send them a calendar invite, too. And document everything, so if something does go wrong, and it’s the result of your manager’s absence, you can simply point out that you reached out to them about it at this date and time.

Make the most of your freedom. Taking on your manager’s responsibilities, making your own decisions and possibly even directing your colleagues are great skills that you can leverage toward a promotion within your organization, or in fielding a better offer elsewhere. “I was hired as a liens negotiator, and because the owner of the firm wasn’t around and he didn’t necessarily know who to delegate things to, I had the space to step in — and now I’m the office manager,” said Goodwin. “It’s frustrating at times, but it’s given me the opportunity to grow … and it’s given me an opportunity to work with some of the other partners the firm. Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster.com, agreed: “Treat it as resume booster. Or start becoming visible to other leaders in your organization, and volunteer for other projects outside of your department, so other leaders might start thinking, ‘She would be great on my team,’” she said.

Don’t throw your boss under the bus. Calling out your manager will only put them on the defensive and make you look like you need someone to hold your hand. Instead, drop tactful hints that you need help. “Maybe approach them for a meeting like, ‘One of my goals this year is to be more proactive with my career, and it would be really helpful for me if I can get on your calendar two times a month, for 30 minutes even, just to check in and keep you posted on what’s going on,’” suggested Salemi. Gregory agreed: “Someone who really is an absentee leader is much more likely to go for something if you take a proposed to solution to them rather than a question,” he said, “as you’re more likely to get an ‘OK, go for it,’ than for him or her to make a decision.”

Find another job. You deserve to seek out a supervisor who is present in his or her position, who will guide you in yours. “The definition of a boss is someone higher than you in the chain of leadership who needs to know what’s on your desk; if you are overwhelmed and they need get you help or delegate work; someone who is your advocate for salary review and promotion; and someone who is going to be your mentor and to groom you to move up,” said Salemi.