Discussion: November 10, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

A reader asks: How do I tell my boss that I am overloaded with work and can’t accept additional projects without letting an existing project slip?

How to Say It: Bosses hand out assignments but often don’t realize the cost a new assignment exacts. It’s your job to tell them… [the rest of my advice about How to Say it is in the newsletter].

Is my suggestion about how to say it nuts? How would you say it?


  1. My experience with this problem: your boss needs a concrete picture of your workload, to ‘see’ that you have too much to do.

    When i felt the workload mounting, i made a rough estimate of the % Person Year Effort (PYE) that each project was consuming. Even with a very rough estimate, i was at 235% – clearly an alarm bell for my boss! who subsequently hired a second position to fulfill similar tasks and relieve my workload. Unfortunately for me, i didn’t do this concrete measure of the workload soon enough, as the entire hiring process took 6 months minimum (I have a highly specialised technical job and qualified competent specialists are few and far between) and i suffered from significant burn-out afterwards. A learning experience for me, therefore.

  2. You said it just right. The important point is to speak up and let the boss known he just hit overload. Conversely, silence means assent.
    He is bringing up one of my early lessons as a boss. Like I think most bosses are, we aren’t aiming to burn people out. I kept handing one of my engineers tasks/projects many of which seemed to me to be small. He never said anything, so I assumed he was OK with it. One day he pushed back (politely) and said I was overloading him. So we reviewed his list as you noted and I adjusted as you noted. From that point I told my crew to tell me if I hit overload, it was OK to say NO so I knew where we stood. Again silence means assent and as you told the guy, the boss expects the feedback on workload. Don

  3. A good boss does what Don did but let me tell you a story about a bad boss: The department had nine big projects and that was more than they could do at one time. Department head went to big boss with the list, explained the problem, and asked him to prioritize. Big boss helpfully prioritized them with one as #2 priority and eight as #1! He couldn’t understand that this did not solve the problem.

    So if you have a boss who will work with you like Lorraine’s boss and like Don, that one’s a keeper. If not, it’s time for a new job.

  4. @Don Harkness: I hope everyone reads your comments carefully. Most bosses have no interest in burning their staff out. But it’s up to each staffer to talk to the boss, to discuss the sched and the workload. I wrote a little ditty about this a long time ago: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/crocs5firstthetruth.htm A big part of what you get paid for is to tell your boss the truth.

  5. I was there just a month ago. A colleague gave notice, the boss panicked, and immediately came to me to pick up the slack on one big project.

    This would have been my fourth major project at one time, with the standard being two in our area. I calmly pointed out that I was already a bit overloaded, and this extra project would do me in, especially given what we have coming after the first of the year. I suggested we scrap the lowest-priority project already on my plate. It’s really a loss-leader, and has minimal ROI, as far as I can tell.

    My manager quickly found someone less overloaded to take the extra project, and is working every angle possible to get her cheapskate manager to approve a replacement for the departed colleague. In the meantime, she’s already begging for people to take on more work in January.

  6. Key here, as Nick says, is to tell the truth. Update meetings can include % of capacity or @Lorraine’s PYE. Projects continue to be assigned if the boss thinks there is still availability.

  7. Oh boy, is this timely. I hit my breaking point on Tuesday when my boss added to my overflowing plate. It got me so upset, I called in sick on Wednesday. Caught my breath and called my HR rep. Thankfully, she is willing to work with me on this.

    The problem? I have a boss who talks like Don (tell me when you’re overloaded) but does very little to allow that conversation to happen. I literally have to fight to get on his calendar and 9/10 times, it’s cut short by a phone call that he just has to take.

    95% of the time, he gives absolutely no guidance. Then, he swoops in to either micromanage or dump a bunch of tasks on me with little idea of what I’m all ready dealing with. My husband came up with a great term – he’s a yo-yo leader.

    My HR rep called my conversation a catalyst. I can only hope in a good way!

  8. Haven’t got the newsletter yet(??), but the big problem is how to deal with a boss who do not listen when told that the workload is too high. If you can vote with your feet and go to another job, that’s fine, but what if not (in this labour market environment)? How to avoid that a bad boss uses the threat of firing you to load you with even more work? Unionizing is one way, but that may be a threat to the boss in itself, and doesn’t solve the problem of the workload right now.

  9. Thats not a big deal to do it. Everybody knows this fact one who works hard will get he reward of it for sure but who doesn’t will be rewarded for the same. Now one who don’t want to work can just wait for time to get over and let not disturb other who are working.There is no escape where you can run from work and find a way out of it. You will never be paid for doing nothing.

  10. r4i kort,

    Do you imply that all people who complain about the amount of work are lazy?

    It’s not a question of laziness, but of employers demanding employees to handle an ever increasing workload, often without paying them for the extra time needed, and with bad work as the result.

    If your contract says 40 hours work a week on average, that should be honored. If the employer wants you to work more the contract should be re-negotiated and you should be paid for the extra time. That’s not about laziness, but about fairness.

    Lazy people should be fired, but that is another matter.

  11. The only way to do this without being seen as a whiner (going to HR is a definite no-no if you’d like to stay for any length of time) is to offer choices to your boss at the time of new assignment. “Hmmm… well, you told me last week that Project Pork was to be complete by Friday, and this new assignment will jeopardize that commitment. Which should I do first? I’ll re-arrange accordingly.” This allows you to be agreeable and willing, but it shows that there are limits.

  12. I have a question regarding HR guidelines. My HR girl recently confronted me about knowing that I posted my resume online on job board sites. I told her that I’m finishing my MBA in 2 months and I already approached my boss about moving me into a better position and he said he didn’t have anything at that time, then I told him I would be opening myself up to other opportunities which he said he was fine with and 100% supportive. So I posted my resume on all the job boards after that. My HR girl told me she knew and she then told another manager who was about to use me for a project pilot to see if they could move me into the psotion permanently if I did good. Since my HR girl told her my resume was posted an recently updated with new skills of this pilot project they pulled the project from me. They said they didn’t want to invest the time and money on it if I was looking to leave the company. I expalined the situation to my boss stating I let you know I was being open to new opps when you said you had nothng for me, but they still pulled it. I need to know if my HR girl crossed any HR guidelines by telling my boss and this manager that my resume was posted and updated and showed them this?

  13. @Anonymous: I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again. DO NOT disclose to your employer that you are looking. Posting on job boards is like writing your name and tel# on a bathroom wall. Somebody’s gonna call you, and somebody else is gonna form an opinion. Sorry to be so blunt, but the fact is, you have no way to control people at your company. At this point, I don’t think you have much to lose if you ask your boss to schedule a meeting for you, him, the other manager with the new position, and your “HR girl.” Tell them all what you told your boss to start with – you’re interested in better work, and if they can provide it, you’d like to do it at your company.

    Just be ready to make a commitment, or they’re not gonna believe you. The question is, do you want to make such a commitment?

    I don’t see that HR crossed any lines here, but I’m not a lawyer or an HR ethics expert. They took the signal from you literally and acted to protect the company.

    When you post on a board, you’re exposed. (I won’t even get into the identity theft issues.)