Unresponsive Managers — What Message Are You Sending to Employees?

Great managers are masters of multi-tasking, communicating with team members while inspiring achievement, and delivering results. However, there’s often that ONE manager who never responds to your emails or phone calls. Now, I’m not referring to the C-level executive who is rarely seen around the office because he or she is busy running the company. I’m talking about that person in middle management, who oversees a team of employees and claims their “door is always open.” Of course, when you do eventually speak with them, they’ll tell you how busy they are. But the next time this manager requests something of you, try using that excuse and see how well it works.

The truth is, we’re ALL busy, but some managers use this as an excuse for poor communication skills. While non-managerial workers have no choice but to juggle multiple responsibilities while responding promptly when something is asked of them, there’s always the occasional manager who chooses not to respond to anyone in a lower pay bracket, simply because their title allows it.

So what message does this send to employees? We all know that actions speak louder than words. Perhaps unresponsive managers aren’t aware of how their actions may be perceived by their subordinates. Let’s take a look at some of these perceptions.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

It’s hard for a manager to build trust when he or she expects one thing from team members but practices another. If a manager’s actions say, “When I need something, I expect you to jump, but when you need something, I’ll only respond if I have nothing better to do,” it sets a double standard that sends a message of hypocrisy and distrust. It also sets a poor example for employees in terms of responding to clients or coworkers.

A Culture of Disrespect

When a manager regularly ignores an employee’s emails or calls, it tells the employee that their request isn’t important enough to warrant a response. Respect is a two-way street – in order to get it, one must give it. The quickest way for a manager to lose employees’ respect (or never gain it in the first place) is to treat them like they don’t matter.

The Kiss-Up

Many times, when a manager is too busy to respond to an employee, if they’re contacted by someone in a senior role, their schedule miraculously clears like rain clouds on a summer day. Those managers who clearly are only willing to devote a few minutes to those of equal or higher stature at the company appear self-serving by not taking the time to respond to anyone unable to advance their career.

Communication Breakdown

One of the most basic requirements for every job is good communication skills. It appears on every job description ever written, right next to “detail-oriented” and “ability to multi-task.” What kind of precedent is set for employees when the person in charge of managing their team can’t handle the most basic skills requirement? Just because an individual holds a managerial role doesn’t mean they should forget the basics.

Poor Employee Experience

Much has been written lately about the importance of candidate experience. It’s currently a candidate’s market, and employers who ignore candidates or treat them with apathy or indifference during the job application process will soon find them working elsewhere. But what about after they’re hired? Should a good candidate experience turn into a bad employee experience? It’s important for managers to treat employees well for the exact same reason it’s important for hiring managers to treat candidates well. If they don’t, they can expect their top talent to transition to competitor companies.

While we’re all busy at work, managers are often busier than the rest, as their role includes being responsible for their team’s work as well as their own. However, with increased respect and higher pay comes an elevated level of responsibility – to lead by example. Most employees can name at least one manager who taught them, inspired them, and helped shape their careers. While neglecting to respond to employees’ communication doesn’t necessarily make for a bad manager, it sends an important message – one lacking in respect, prioritization, and time management. When this behavior becomes routine, it could result in strained working relationships, employee disengagement, and high turnover. So a word of advice to managers – your communication with employees speaks volumes…literally.

By John Feldmann

John Feldmann is a Senior Communications Specialist for Insperity in Houston, TX. With over a decade of marketing and employment branding experience in the recruiting and human resources industries, John specializes in employment- and HR-related content development for a variety of media types in order to communicate Insperity's brand to both business professionals and job seekers. Follow John on X @John_Feldmann.