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I am having a debate with someone working at a financial office in Europe.

In his office, one day a manager casually approached his coworker asking how long some task takes. Not much thought was given to the answer because it was casual conversation. Now it is used in official estimates causing unrealistic expectations.

 

Is the manager at fault for not assembling formal meeting to ask this question?

 

My argument, it is subordinate’s fault for introducing a false reality image into manager’s mind so when the manager in turn was tasked with writing a timeline, she went by what she knows. Friend’s argument is, manager bypassed office etiquette by taking advantage of the informality of situation, not making explicitly clear the answer may be used in decision making process. If it was a formal meeting, he would have properly calculated time taken for the task.

As an employer yourself, what is your perspective?

UPDATE, thank you for all feedback. I do, however, want to not lose focus of main question of using information given in informal context, not about time estimation (although that was useful to take notes of too)

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This is an interesting question, somewhat akin to whether a priest should contact the police if they are told something criminal during confession; I would agree that the answer is “it depends” (on what ‘the crime’ is). Was the manager pressuring the employee to come up with an answer on the spot, and was the employee under the impression that they just wanted an estimate? Was the employee aware that the information could potentially be ‘used against them’? If I was that employee, I might be rather miffed, and would tend to either keep my mouth shut in future, or to wildly under/over-estimate to mitigate blame. If I were the manager, I would have requested the information in a more formal context, for example, by email.

That said, in casual conversation with my wife I overestimate stuff constantly (time, inches, etc), and she always uses it against me.

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The employee broke the golden rule whenever asked by a superior how long a task will take always add 50% to the time (If it takes 4 hours say 6 hours) if you finish in 4 they are delighted and if something goes wrong and it takes 6 no one is mad. So in your example, it is the employee’s fault for giving a bad estimate regardless of the setting.

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My question would be, why did the subordinate provide a false figure in the first place ? Whether it’s an “in passing” conversation or a more formal one, personally, I’m not going to give you different figures. Maybe in the informal setting I might give a more ballpark figure, but to give an example:

Manager: How long will it take to deploy a new server ?

Me: Probably 5 or so hours.

And then in the formal setting I might say “give me 6 hours and we’ll have it done”, meaning I’m estimating higher in case we run into trouble. I still think it’ll be around 5 hours, but I’m giving myself some breathing room. If the subordinate was trying to show off or wasn’t really paying attention and said that a 50 hour job would take 7 hours…… then that’s kind of their own fault. Etiquette doesn’t play into the equation here. Regardless if I’m in a formal meeting, an informal discussion at the water cooler or at the bar having a beer, I’m not doing to inflate or deflate anything like project hours or costs, etc.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what setting I’m in, I will always provide more or less the same information. Really, this comes down to simply being honest. If you’re honest about things and not lying or padding anything, then you won’t run into this kind of situation.