Be Proactive To Be Productive . . . and To Keep Your Job

mgr empeI came across this article on LinkedIn last week by J.T. O’Donnell, Founder & CEO of, titled Boss Labels Employee “Under-Achiever” For This…. It blew my mind—both because of the naïveté of the employee and because of the curmudgeonly-ness of the boss.

Here is how Ms. O’Donnell described the situation:

I spoke to a manager recently who was very upset. Why? She went to an employee with a new task and the employee commented aloud, “Good. I’ve been looking for something to do. My work’s been light lately.” The manager was infuriated by this statement. She couldn’t believe this was the first she was hearing about the employee’s lack of work to do. She started having daily meetings with the employee to check on her workload and now felt like she had to babysit to ensure she had enough to do. Her final comment was, “She better not expect a raise or promotion any time soon. I’m seriously thinking about letting her go.” [emphasis and quotation marks in original]

What Employees Should Do When Their Work Is Low

If you’ve ever been in a job where you had nothing to do, you know how wasteful that feels and how quickly you become bored. Thankfully, I haven’t been in that position since I was in a summer job in college, where I had to seek out work to do.

I was a temporary file clerk working for a group of engineers. Many days I went from engineer to engineer asking for work. Someone could usually find something for me to do. And when overtime was available one weekend, I got the assignment over other clerical employees with more experience. I believe I got the recognition—and the extra pay—because I had been proactive during the week.

So I suggest that if you are bored and underutilized in your job, seek out more to do.  Don’t sit around waiting for your boss to give you something, like the employee described in this article.

To be productive, particularly in a boring or dead-end job, you need to seek out your own work. Be proactive.

Ms. O’Donnell gave the same advice in her LinkedIn article, and I used to tell my kids the same thing at the dinner table when they were in entry-level jobs in high-school.

And if as an employee you have some legitimate reason for not seeking out work, then keep it to yourself! Don’t give your manager a reason to think you’re a deadbeat. But those situations should be rare.

The only time I found myself in that position was the day before I was scheduled to go on maternity leave and wouldn’t be back for three months. That’s how serious I think it needs to be before you deliberately let your workload drop.

What Bosses Should Do When They Find an Underworked Employee

The boss described in Ms. O’Donnell’s article downgraded the employee for not being proactive, and Ms. O’Donnell agreed with this position, saying

We are all businesses-of-one. Our job is to make sure our customer (a/k/a our boss) always feel like they are getting the best deal. We must deliver customer satisfaction, or be at risk of being replaced.

While I agree that employees should be proactive (as described above), as a manager I would probably have given the employee—particularly a young employee in an entry-level position—one bite at the apple. I’d give one strong coaching that the employee must come to his or her manager when needing work before writing them off. One coaching could salvage the employee, and I think it’s worth it.

I would feel better about an employee who came to the job already knowing to be proactive. But I recognize that not everyone has a mother who coaches them at the dinner table.

What would you have done, as employee or manager, in this situation?



Filed under Employee Engagement, Human Resources, Management, Workplace

2 responses to “Be Proactive To Be Productive . . . and To Keep Your Job

  1. In my opinion, an excellent manager would say to the employee: “I’m really grateful you brought this to my attention. I can’t, and I don’t want to, hover over my teammates. I need your help, and you gave it to me. Thanks!”

    Unless, of course, you are a Theory X disciple.

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