an employee 2 levels down refused to meet with me — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I am a division director at a large organization. I have three direct reports who collectively oversee about 30 staff, at levels ranging from entry-level, hourly office admins to seasoned managers earning six-figure salaries.

Every year, I meet once one-on-one with everyone who is not on my leadership team just to check in. I send out the questions in advance — they are designed to get feedback about the experience of the individual staff member and perceptions about what is working well and what isn’t in the division overall. There are a few questions I always ask and then I might throw in a couple of more topical questions.

I don’t consider these meetings to be optional, but it was never something I needed to enforce. My expectation is that when I request a meeting with someone on my team, they will meet with me. (I would personally never dream of refusing to meet with my boss!) Maybe not at the specific time I suggest, but they won’t just decline to meet. But that is what has happened and I don’t know what to do!

I sent a skip level meeting request to a manager (he has two young, new staff members who report to him.) He declined the meeting with no comment. When I followed up about finding a more convenient time to meet, he responded, “Thanks, but I’ll pass. I don’t need to meet.”

My irritation flared when I got this message, “Who does he think he is to just refuse to meet with me?!!” But once I got over that gut reaction and considered it further, I was conflicted. On the one hand, these meetings are important for me to get insights from across the division about what’s working and what’s not. In the past, themes have emerged that I’m then able to address to make the workplace better for all. Further, I don’t want this staff member setting an example for his direct reports that they can just opt out of meetings they aren’t interested in. On the other hand, these meetings are meant to give staff the chance to share their experience with me and something I’ve learned not to do thanks to reading AAM over the years is to force people to take part in “elective” activities (for example, when we have a holiday gathering, we schedule it during the normal work day but let people know that they are not obligated to attend and if they would rather just duck out early and take couple of hours of personal time, they can do that).

This meeting seems to straddle the fence on whether it’s primarily for me or for the employee. The staff member in question isn’t new to to the workforce or new to our organization. When I interact with him, he’s technically polite but generally sullen. That said, my understanding is that he’s fine at his job and his staff like him, but I have had to ask his supervisor to talk to him about participating appropriately as a manager. (For example, last year, he and his direct reports just … didn’t show up … at our division annual retreat. It was in our city, but away from our organization’s office, during normal work hours. He said he thought it was optional and he and his staff just went to work like normal that day.)

So, is this a hill to die on, where I I insist that he meet with me and share his feelings about his job? Or do I put this in the category of elective activity and give him a pass?

This is a work activity, and not an elective one.

You are doing due diligence on the management of your department, collecting information and creating opportunities for you to spot problems and areas for improvement. It’s a work duty, for you and for him.

Yes, it’s a chance for him to share things with you if he’d like to — and sure, he can opt of doing that piece of it if he wants to (although it would be pretty impolitic of him to make it clear he’s doing that; generally the wiser way to do that would be with bland answers rather than outright refusal). But he can’t opt out of you using the time to ask about things you’d like to know. It’s your meeting that you want; you get to call it and you get to expect him to show up for it.

And it’s not about dying on a hill; it’s about expecting him to comply with normal professional practices. Of course he needs to show up for a meeting that his boss requests. Not because you’re lording your authority over him, but because it’s reasonable to expect employees to comply with things that help you run your team effectively (within reason, of course … and this is within reason). It’s different from a holiday gathering; it’s a work meeting.

Years ago, I took over a team that had barely been managed previously, and I set up recurring regular meetings with each of the people who would now be reporting to me. One person told me she didn’t think it would help in her work and so I should skip her. I had to explain that the point wasn’t just to help her in her work — although I hoped that would happen too — but to help me in my work. To do my job well, I needed to know what was going on in each person’s realm and have the opportunity to give input, ask questions, make adjustments, and so forth. She had a fundamental misunderstanding of what the whole point of the meeting was — and, as it turned out, something of a fundamental misunderstanding of our relative roles as well. I suspect the latter is true of your employee, too.

Which I say because: something is going on with this guy. Sure, in the most generous reading it’s possible that he misunderstood what you were asking for. But I doubt it, especially combined with the rest of the info you provided about him. It’s worth digging in more deeply with his manager about exactly what’s going on there, because something is off.

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