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THE QUESTION

I work as a paid intern at a publishing company. On paper, I work for a supervisor on a single magazine owned by the company, but in my day-to-day work, I'm frequently called upon by other staff to help with assignments like editing and fact-checking.

A manager who doesn't have an intern of her own has developed a habit of assigning me work that is always "top priority." She is often cryptic when I ask her for deadlines. I suspect that the work is not "urgent" and that the manager is merely being impatient. However, this technique forces me to place her assignments at the top of my pile. My supervisor doesn't seem to mind, just as long as my other work is getting done.

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My concern is that I'm getting bogged down with work from someone who likely won't decide my future within the company. What should I do?

THE FIRST ANSWER

Colleen Clarke

Corporate trainer and career specialist, Toronto

Before you take any work from anyone other than your assigned manager, tell manager No. 2 that you are already working on such and such, and that if you are to stop that to do her work, she will need to get your manager's approval. Working for multiple bosses can be a great learning experience but also a challenge politically.

Find out from your manager how they would like you to handle the demands of manager No. 2. It is not for an employee to decide whose work is the priority. Manager No. 2 needs to ask your manager if you are available to do work and when.

Do not jeopardize your supervisor's work for anyone you are not assigned to work for. At the same time, the point of being an intern is to learn as much about the business as you can, to acquire new skills and strengths, and to build relationships, self-confidence and some expertise.

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Always know your limits and learn to say no for the right reasons as early into a new position as possible. The next time you are asked to do work for manager No. 2, tell this person she has to get your manager's approval and then use a stalling technique. Say you are happy to help, and ask whether next Tuesday would be okay.

THE SECOND ANSWER

Bill Howatt

Howatt HR Consulting, Kentville, N.S.

It sounds as if you have pushed yourself to complete tasks for both managers, but have you asked your manager directly if they expect you to put their work second, behind the other manager's requests?

If not, it's important to sit down with your manager to clarify their expectations and priorities for your daily workload. Your manager most likely will set their work as your first priority, and tell you that if and when you have spare time, it would be fine to help the other manager. Likely your manager will want you to do your best work in the role you were assigned.

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One useful skill for employees is to understand how to meet and exceed their manager's expectations. The key to doing this is to understand your manager's priorities. This will serve as a road map for getting your work done each day.

Your manager may speak to the other manager, or simply tell you to manage your time and learn to set your own limits. This would put decision making for your workload in your hands.

On the off-chance that your manager shows no empathy and expects you to do everything, this is important information. Clearly, you have a valuable set of skills, so only you can decide if this is the right place for you, and if you can or want to maintain this pace.

Are you facing a burning issue at work? Need help navigating that minefield? Let our Nine To Five experts help solve your dilemma. E-mail your questions to ninetofive@globeandmail.com. Confidentiality ensured. Weigh in with your view at tgam.ca/careers. Check out past columns here.

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