Work advice: Managing family and client expectations

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Special to The Washington Post.

Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.

Q. I'm a services consultant in a small company. I'm also the eldest daughter in my family, with responsibility for managing the care of parents six hours away. For the next six months or more, I'll be traveling there once or twice a month for up to a week at a time. Fortunately, our CEO gives me lots of leeway. My co-workers are great, too — we all pitch in to help each other.

Although I can work part time while away (even running a project from the chemo infusion center), my absence is noticeable to our clients. One or two colleagues can hold down the fort, and I have a staff vacancy I plan to fill. But in the meantime, what should I say to clients who are used to getting same-day responses from me? And should I apologize for oversharing — for example, "Sorry I didn't get back with you this morning, I was on the phone with my mother's oncologist"? It's true, and they ease up on their immediate expectations or prioritize their requests, often with expressions of support and concern. Some of them are "work friends," meaning we discuss limited personal news — the loss of a pet, an upcoming wedding — over lunch and coffee.

A. Give no unnecessary explanations or apologies. (This is not permission for the perpetually remorseless to dodge giving apologies you know are due. So don't even.) Instead, spend your energy behind the scenes, arranging contingency plans so that you have little to explain or apologize for.

I understand the urge to preempt clients' frustration with an excuse no decent human could fault you for — but sharing too much can backfire. You should assume even sympathetic clients are mainly concerned about getting the quality of service they're paying for. Rather than explaining why your line was busy, try this: "I received your message, and I have several ideas for you."

You can let your closest work friends know you're tending to a family matter, while assuring (and ensuring) that their needs will still be met on time. And try not to take advantage of their sympathy.

Use technology to manage expectations. Set your default voice mail greeting and e-mail auto-response to let clients know you or a colleague will respond within, say, 24 hours. Include a number they can call for urgent matters.

And just as you're leaning on supportive colleagues, start doing the same with your siblings. If they can't pitch in, ask them to help hire and manage someone who can. Regardless of sex and birth order, they're part of a team with important clients to serve, too.

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Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.