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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Nowhere to Be Found: How I Dealt With an Absentee Manager

At first, I thought it was the greatest thing ever: My manager rarely made an appearance in the office. No one was ever sure where he was, and when he was needed, he literally phoned in. Can you say freedom?

Well, the honeymoon didn’t last. It only took one big meeting where I had to fill in for him (woefully unprepared, mind you) for me to remember that managers were there for a reason. And the fact that mine was nowhere to be found wasn’t exactly a good thing.

What could I do? On the one hand, I could’ve run to HR for advice, but in an office of less than 20 people—all of whom knew full well he wasn’t showing up every day—that didn’t seem appropriate. So, I decided that the answer was to take matters into my own hands and figure out how to work around my absentee manager.

And I still think this was the right approach, although I did make a couple of missteps along the way. If you’re dealing with a similar scenario, here are a few words of advice.

Adopt an Alter Ego

I’ll never forget the first time I was left hanging by my missing manager. We had a few major changes going down in the office, all of which were far beyond my pay grade to comment on with much authority. But, when our clients started calling, wanting answers, and my boss was nowhere to be found, I had to step up.

While I was terrified I’d say something wrong, showing any weakness—or worse, dissension in the ranks—wasn’t an option. I had to put on my big girl pants and take that call as if I had every bit of authority as my manager.

And guess what? It worked. I recalled all the conversations I’d heard him have previously, and I channeled that same authority and confidence into formulating the right responses to our clients.

From that point forward, every time I needed a manager but found only an empty chair; I put myself in that chair (figuratively speaking) and combined the authority my boss exuded with my own skills and knowledge. The same goes for any meetings or calls you’re asked to take in your boss’ absence. Even if it’s uncomfortable, step up. While you may not be the manager (yet), temporarily filling those shoes is your chance to show that you’re up to the task.


That said, when you fill in for your manager in any way, you need to communicate with him what you’re doing. If you had to take a phone call from an important client, send him a note letting him know. If the VP asked you to attend a meeting in his absence, fill him in on the meeting details.

I learned this the hard way. After several weeks of habitual absences (“working from home” is what he called it), I started to assume that my boss not only didn’t care what I did while he was out, but that he wasn’t keeping tabs on things either. And maybe he wasn’t, but of course, something went wrong with a client account I was handling, and his manager contacted him directly to find out what was going on. Because I’d been managing the situation solo, my boss had no clue. And now, I had two senior executives ticked off, all because I just assumed my manager couldn't care less.

Filling your boss in on everything that’s going on may seem like overkill, but think of it as insurance. The one time you need that back-up email that shows you did everything right, you’ll never worry about over-communicating again.

Do Your Job

Here's another disclaimer: Just because you may have to act like your manager on occasion, that doesn’t mean your work can take a backseat. After I started to get used to covering for my boss, I made the regretful mistake of letting his responsibilities take priority over mine, and chaos ensued. I missed a major deadline, and instead of me looking like a star for picking up his slack, I just looked like, well, a slacker, for not getting my own work done.

Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating—and honestly, unfair—that you’re doing two jobs, but at the end of the day, don’t forget what you’re being paid for. Your manager, whether he’s there or not, needs to be able to depend on you to get your work done. Prove you can do both, and you’re one step closer to becoming a manager yourself.

Do Not Attempt a Coup

It’s natural to assume that since you’re doing the work of your manager already, it would make sense for you to just start taking on that role. But believe me, now is not the right time to attempt a takeover. There’s a lot that goes on behind closed doors, and unless you’re part of the office inner circle, you have no way of knowing what your manager is up to while he’s M.I.A. And if he finds out you’ve been positioning for a takeover, chances are that won’t bode well.

Thankfully, this never happened to me, but I did have a colleague who tried it. While we all did our best to cover for our boss and take on new responsibilities, she took it a few steps further and started trying to position herself as his peer when he wasn’t around. Word got around to our manager pretty quickly (who, again, was paying a little more attention than we thought he was), and he never really trusted her after that. Neither did anyone else in the office.

Remember, as frustrating as it may be, you’re usually better off being viewed as hardworking and loyal than an opportunist. Staging a mutiny could risk tainting all the good work you did in your manger’s absence.

While your manager may not be acting very managerial right now, don’t forget you’re not the boss—at least not yet. Conduct yourself in a professional, loyal manner, and someone is bound to take notice.

Photo of frustrated woman courtesy of Shutterstock.