my boss wants me to collaborate with my awful coworker

A reader writes:

I have a coworker who started a few months ago. He and I are responsible for similar types of projects, but we rarely collaborate because the projects don’t readily lend themselves to teamwork. Occasionally, we may consult each other if we hit a technical snag with the software.

For some reason, my boss has started pushing me to work more closely with him on my projects. However, I find his finished products to be subpar, and I wouldn’t want my name associated with his work. Other coworkers seek me out specifically to assist them, even when I’m slammed and he isn’t.

Do you have any thoughts on how I can 1) get my boss to stop pushing the point and 2) let her know that I prefer to stick to my way of doing things without disrespecting my coworker?

Also, why might a manager start insisting on collaboration out of the blue?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

open thread – September 22-23, 2017

It’s the Friday open thread! The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on anything work-related that you want to talk about. If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to talk to other readers.

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please don’t repost it here, as it may be in the to-be-answered queue :)

telling my boss about a rumor he might lose his job, advocating for my staff, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. There’s a rumor my boss might lose his job

I am in a predicament where a coworker has told me he overheard a rumor that my boss is being ousted by the president. Allegedly, they are bringing in an even more senior head of our group (new role) to be his boss, with the ultimate goal of eliminating my boss’s role. This coworker is an office gossip, and I have seen many of the rumors he has spread to be credible.

Here is where things get sticky. I was brought into my own job by my boss, having worked together at a prior company. We have a really good relationship. On the other hand, this gossipy coworker has admitted to undermining the boss to other leaders in the business because he does not like his leadership style. I believe that this is a ploy for my coworker to try to oust not only my boss, but also eventually me, based on conversations we’ve had where he has tried to take over things under my purview. He throws all of his coworkers under the bus in order to get ahead while feigning loyalty or friendship.

He told me not to tell anyone this piece of information and said that I am the only one he told (which I am not sure I believe given how gossipy he is). I feel I need to tell my boss this information and come clean with how my coworker has been sabotaging him. How do I know if this is a wise thing to do? The only reason I came into this role is because of my boss, and without him, I would not be very happy working here and frankly would be concerned about my own job security.

It sounds like you have reason to be far more loyal to your boss than to this coworker, and the coworker sounds like an ass anyway. If your boss is a reasonable person with good judgment, I’d tell him. Obviously you should include the caveat that you have no idea if it’s true or not, but you can say that you didn’t feel right hearing something like that and not sharing it with him.

2. Advocating for my staff to management above me

I’m a regional leader in an organization. Members pay to join and it was started by a company, so obviously it’s not exactly the same as a workplace, but in a lot of ways it’s like being a regional manager in a larger company.

My region has some concerns that are specific to our group. I know that regional managers who’ve been around longer than me have been raising them with head office for a while now, but head office isn’t receptive and it’s not only affecting morale, but it’s also led some people to leave. I’m not sure how relevant it is, but from what I can tell, head office is actually in the wrong on this (and for once, the issue is actually pretty black and white), but for some reason they refuse to even entertain discussion, let alone reconsider their position.

I’m finding myself stuck. On the one hand, as a regional leader, I want to advocate for my “staff.” I also feel some responsibility for making sure that head office understands just how negatively its position is viewed among the people in my region. On the other hand, given that I’m a regional leader, I don’t want to come out and blame head office or tell them they’re wrong. But I also want to make sure that members in my region feel heard and know that we regional leaders are continuing to work to address their concerns.

As (essentially) a middle manager, how do you advocate for your members without seeming like a troublemaker to head office? When head office doesn’t want to entertain a discussion on something, is there a way I can raise it that might get them to engage? And how do I tell my members that I hear their concerns and I’m working on it, without seeming like I’m contradicting or criticizing head office?

In general, the way to raise issues as a manager to management above you is to frame it around the interests of the organization. So it’s not just that you and your staff think their position is wrong — you want to put it in terms of how it’s impacting morale, harming the leadership’s credibility, and causing good people to leave. Keep it less about your personal opinion and more about the impact you’re seeing as a manager. That way, your input is about you doing your job — because part of managing well is making sure that you loop in people above you when you see problems brewing on the ground.

However, with a head office that isn’t receptive and refuses to even allow discussion, you’re unlikely to get through to them. Frankly, at this point, it might make sense to make that the issue — their stonewalling and lack of transparency should be a pretty big deal themselves, even aside from the specifics of this issue.

3. Can I ask my boss if I’m about to be laid off?

I currently work as an IT contractor. I am essential to the operation here, but budgets are being cut and my boss is being very secretive and short with me. He is spending most of his time behind closed doors and our relationship has gone from being very friendly and open to short and minimal. Is it appropriate for me to to straight up ask him if I am about to be fired?

You could*, but if the answer is yes, it’s very likely that he won’t tell you that until the company decides it’s time to tell you that. It’s possible that there’s still some value in asking, because he might give you an answer that’s compelling enough to be convincing (like “your project is the major money maker for the company right now, and I wanted to talk to you about we can make sure we keep you”) or that he’ll give you enough of a hint that you’ll have your answer (“it’s a tough time for the company right now, and I’d understand if people felt they needed to look around”).

But really, if budgets are being cut and your boss is being secretive and short, I’d start looking. That doesn’t mean you’re definitely being let go, and it doesn’t mean that you need to take any job that’s offered to you, but in this kind of climate it’s always smart to start looking so that you’re not starting from scratch if you do lose your job.

* If you do talk to him about it, don’t use the word “fired” — that means you’re being let go because of your performance or behavior. Use the words “laid off,” which means your position is being eliminated.

4. People keep thinking my last name is my first name

I’m recently married, and I took my husband’s last name. I knew a new name would be an adjustment, but I didn’t anticipate a bigger problem: my first name could also be a last name and my last name could also be a first name. Clients and opposing counsel frequently call me by my last name, thinking it’s my first (I assume part of the problem is that an email will show up last name, first name). I know how to handle this in person or over the phone (“it’s Lindsey, actually”) but I don’t know how to politely but firmly correct people over email.

I know some people would advise me to let it go, but I don’t think that is the solution, especially with opposing counsel: I am a young, pretty woman in a male-dominated industry, and I don’t want to be seen as a pushover. What’s a polite but clear and confident way to correct people? Should my response differ in any way if it they repeatedly use the wrong name? What if the email only necessitates a short reply (“Got it, thanks!”) – should I still correct them then?

I think it’s worth correcting them even if you’re just sending a short reply. Think of it as a kindness to them: You’re preventing them from continuing to call you by the wrong name, which will be embarrassing to them at whatever point they figure it out.

In an email, you can just add it as a short, matter-of-fact note at the end of your message like this:

Got it, thanks! (By the way, it’s actually Lindsey — Taylor is my last name.)

If you want to warm it up a little more, you could add “The way the email is programmed to display doesn’t make that obvious!”

can you ask a reference what they said about you?

A reader writes:

I am currently in the middle of the hiring process for a job I very much want. There are an extremely limited number of positions available in this area and I am fortunate enough to have moved past the first round of interviews with the top company in this niche. I received an email two weeks ago letting me know I would be informed of next steps within two weeks. I was unsure what that meant — whether there would be a second interview, I would be contacted for references, or I would be called with an offer (I know I should have asked but was unsure how to respond to what was clearly an automated message; hindsight is 20:20).

Last night at a professional event, one of my former managers (who had offered to be a reference in the past and is on my reference list that I have not yet provided to the company) informed me she had been called for a reference by the company and that she said I was “the best.” I wanted to ask for more details, but everyone had been drinking and we were surrounded by others, including colleagues who wanted to interview for this position but were not given consideration. Would it be unprofessional to email that manager today and ask her who called (hiring manager, HR, etc.) and what was asked and what she said?

If it makes a difference, we are on very good terms, and I am encouraged by the fact that she already revealed she spoke highly of my performance. I would also like to ask her if she knows if another manager I worked under in the same company was also contacted, as I fear this other manager would not be able to give me as glowing of a reference (although I suspect you will recommend I contact this manager directly). Is any of this okay? Or should I just let it go and be grateful to have gotten some intel on what’s going on behind the scenes in this hiring process?

I totally understand the impulse to ask what she said about you, but you should resist it. References are supposed to be confidential, and you’re potentially putting her in an awkward position by asking her for details about the conversation. Even if she spoke glowingly you of you, a good reference-checker will try to get her to talk about weaker spots, and you shouldn’t put her in a position where it feels like you’re asking her to share that with you. (And if she chooses not to share everything, she may feel uncomfortable that she’s not being fully transparent with you, and that’s not fair to do to her.) And really, even if she said nothing but fantastic things, it’s still awkward to be asked to share the conversation.

Not everyone feels this way, of course. Some people would be fine with it, especially if you have a closer relationship. But enough would feel awkward, or even a little unethical, that you shouldn’t do it. Really, if she’s willing to share, let her volunteer it.

I also wouldn’t ask her about whether she knows if the other manager was contacted. You’re not really going to get anything actionable from her answer; it sounds like it’s more about you being curious about what’s happening behind the scenes. And while curiosity is understandable, it doesn’t really warrant asking her questions about the process.

She gave you a good reference! Let that be all you ask of her for now.

update: my company’s accountant is nitpicking my pretty frugal travel expenses

Remember the letter last month from the person whose company accountant was nitpicking his travel expenses in the most ridiculous way? If you didn’t read the comments, you missed this insane detail from the letter writer: “Actual comment at the last checkin with Bob, regarding a ~$12 tab at Chipotle: ‘Ordering extra guacamole is wasteful of member dues.'”

Here’s the update.

Thanks for writing a reply to my question! Funny thing is, the week you posted it things were already on their way to a mostly happy resolution. I’ll explain:

That week I was asked to staff our CEO at a conference at the last minute. Our CEO is a very prominent woman in her field who travels constantly and is usually staffed when she has major speaking engagements. My colleague who handles this particular topic area had a family emergency so I was asked to go. The CEO’s very formidable executive assistant sent me the flight/hotel info since I was expected to be on the same flight as the CEO.

“This will be interesting,” I thought. So I sent my proposed travel expenses to Bob as he has demanded, and of course he came back and said the flight was way too expensive, take this other one, and he also nixed the conference hotel and advised a Days Inn a 30 minute walk away! I replied that I had important business purposes for this itinerary and he gave me his now-usual spiel about “responsibly using member dues.”

I finally saw an out that didn’t involve my boss going to the CFO and forwarded his response to the EA, explaining that “accounting is refusing to authorize the itinerary you’ve given me.” She was horrified by what she read and wanted the full story. I had lots of emails from Bob with his ridiculous travel decrees, so at her request I forwarded them along. She said she would take care of it and that I should book the original itinerary on orders from the CEO.

It was a great trip; the CEO did a great job speaking and it was nice to get face time with her. A week or so goes by. Then we get an all-staff email announcing that the travel audit function was moving under the authority of the general counsel. I had a call that day from a new audit team member apologizing for the hassle under Bob and that he was never authorized to (a) veto/approve individual expenses in advance or (b) subject auditees to ongoing monitoring — according to the new audit person, he had been freelancing in an effort to go “above and beyond.” The new audit person also said I am no longer under audit and said that my past expense reports were all responsible and that I have been an excellent steward of our funds. I found out a few days later from the EA that the audit team lead had been fired. The CFO is still in place, but has had the audit function removed from his oversight due to his lack of supervision and is on notice. Bob was not fired but was demoted and moved to a pretty menial role in accounting where he has no significant contact with non-accounting employees…or with travel expenses.

Unfortunately, I found out today that my own boss was reprimanded for failing to escalate the situation when I requested it. Good in the sense that she shouldn’t have allowed her issues with the CFO to get in the way of advocating for her employee, but bad because she knows I was the one who took the issue to the executive office. Hopefully I won’t be held back down the road because of this.

I really appreciated the encouraging comments. To answer a few of the questions, no I don’t think it was a conspiracy by the CFO to get to my boss by pushing me out. Maybe, but I really do buy that Bob was just way out of his lane and completely unsupervised. There were apparently five other employees getting the same Bob audit special, all relatively lower in the organization and in other departments. And I’m not concerned about my org’s financial condition, as some suggested I should be; there’s no question that we are financially strong. Just one rogue accountant.

The guacamole story was very funny to my coworkers; it’s become a running joke and people now order extra guac for me when we go out to group lunches, which is fun 😊

stolen lunches, missing mugs, and other petty office thefts: share your stories

Workplace thefts are usually a lot pettier than Monday’s letter about the person who stole an intern’s jacket.

Like this from a commenter recently: “I have a Bath and Body eucalyptus (mini) hand sanitizer next to my computer. Turns out someone has used it up, then refilled it with water so it wouldn’t look like it was used. It costs a buck.”

Or this: “I had someone steal my pyrex dish once. They dumped my lunch out into a little baggy, put that back in the fridge, and stole my dang dish. WHO DOES THAT!?”

Or this: “Someone in the office even stole a coworker’s mug! He had left it on the counter while he went to the bathroom before he got his coffee and it was gone when he came back. TWO YEARS LATER he found it soaking in the sink after the thief had used it and promptly ‘stole’ it back. He was very excited.”

Of course there also was the letter about the coworker who stole someone’s spicy food and got sick (and the epic update), the manager who stole someone’s family heirloom, the boss who stole an employee’s iPad, and the boss who kept stealing lunches.

So let’s talk office thefts — petty and not-so-petty. What have you found stolen at work? Even better, if you’ve been the perpetrator, now is the time to confess anonymously here and seek salvation. Share in the comments.

will my mental health get in the way of a promotion, bad resume advice, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Will my mental health get in the way of a promotion?

I am a college student working part-time at a retail job that I absolutely love. I have goals and plans to move up in the company that my direct supervisors and my district manager are aware of and are very supportive of. Recently, a manager has been guiding me towards a small promotion as a lead cashier. It may not seem like much, but would bring me more responsibilities and would make me more likely to be moved into a management role later on. I am extremely eager for this job.

The thing is, I suffer from depression and anxiety. I go to counseling and take medication, and I am able to function well and exceed expectations most of the time and often more than double sales goals, but recently my mental health has taken a turn. I’m doing my best to still perform well at my job, but today was unbearable and I asked a coworker to take my shift.

My boyfriend is worried that I have jeopardized my chances at this promotion and that they will not give me the lead cashier position because my mental health makes me “unstable and unreliable, and unable to do work.” His thinking is that they will be more likely to promote people who never have people take their shifts, call in, or request off. I don’t agree with him but now I am worried. Do you think it is likely for them to give someone else the position because they do not have mental health issues? Is it even legal for them to not give me a promotion based on my mental health? And how should I address my issues to my employers so I don’t come across flaky and make it clear that my job still is extremely important to me? (I told the person who took my shift that personal things had come up, but when I called my manager to let her know she would be showing up instead of me, I did let her know that I was just having a bad mental health day and couldn’t see myself performing my best. She is open about her own mental health problems, but she is leaving our store soon and I now wonder if whoever replaces her will understand as well, or if the manager who is doing the hiring for the promotion won’t understand.)

Your boyfriend thinks that you’ll look unstable and unreliable based on getting someone else to cover your shift once? It’s really, really normal to switch shifts with people at part-time retail jobs, as is needing to call in sick or ask for specific days off. So do not listen to your boyfriend on that front.

But in general, when you call in sick or let a manager know you’ve switched shifts, I’d keep it vague — you’re “under the weather” or “feeling ill.” Don’t specify that it’s for mental health reasons. Not because there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s more info that you don’t need to provide (just like you don’t need to specify “diarrhea” or “sharp shooting pain in my side”) … and because the reality is that yes, there can still be stigma around mental health issues, even among people who seem to get it, and there’s no reason to introduce worries in their head that it cause issues in the future. That’s of course unfair; if you call in with a headache, you wouldn’t normally worry that your boss will fear you might have headaches in the future — but this is still a thing when it comes to mental health.

As for the legalities … if your condition is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s illegal for them to consider it in promotion decisions (as long as you can do the job with reasonable accommodations and without undue hardship to them). But the reality is that there’s a ton of bias — both conscious and unconscious — around this stuff, so you’re better off keeping the info you share minimal.

2. Is it okay to hire people from my full-time job to work at my part-time job?

I work full-time for a public organization, overseeing about 50 staff members in a large department. There is a fair amount of movement between positions and there’s no guarantee that I will supervise the same people from year to year. I also work part-time for another public organization and regularly advertise for new positions on a professional listserv. Recently, people who work for my full-time organization have started to apply for positions in the part-time organization that I hire for and would supervise.

My initial feeling is that it would be a conflict of interest to hire a person who also works for my full-time organization, as I’d potentially be in the position of supervising them for two different companies. I can imagine all sorts of issues with that. Even for those staff members who I do not directly supervise at my full-time job, there is a real possibility that I would have to give them feedback on their full-time work as it often directly affects the work of the staff members that I support. I’ve reached out to my supervisor at the full-time job to confirm that she would also see this as a conflict of interest, also I haven’t heard back yet. So, I’d like to keep it as separate as possible and not hire anyone for the part-time job who also works in my department at my full-time job.

However, is this okay and ethical? It seems unfair to take someone out of consideration for a position simply because I may have a conflict of interest in hiring them. Do I need to convey this to potential candidates somehow? What if they are the best candidate and the only disqualifying factor is that they work for my department at the full-time job?

Ugh, yeah, I’d be wary of conflicts of interest too. For example, if you become aware of problematic behavior from someone at one job, you’ll have the question of whether and how it’ll impact your assessment of them at the other job. Or if they don’t like how you handle something at the part-time job, is it going to impact things at the full-time job? (And how will your full-time job feel about that?) You also risk politics from the one job coming into the other. It could go perfectly smoothly, of course, but you’d be introducing the potential for problems and messiness that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

That said, I don’t think this is such an absolute no that you can’t evaluate the whole situation and decide to proceed with hiring one of them anyway; it’s not like hiring your boyfriend or your daughter or other definite no’s. If you know someone to do good work and they have a track record of professional maturity, it’s not crazy to decide the risk of problems is low enough that you’ll move forward with them.

But I can also see being pretty uncomfortable about doing that with people who you work with closely at your full-time job. So one middle-ground option would be to decide that you don’t want to hire people from your department there, but that you won’t do a blanket ban on the whole organization. If you went that route, you’d simply explain to anyone in your department who’s interested that you don’t feel you can hire from your current department because of the potential for conflicts of interest.

If you decide to do that, that’s not unethical; people aren’t entitled to any particular job, and it’s very normal to remove otherwise good candidates from consideration because of connections that could cause problems (for example, that they’re dating or related to someone in the same department or who would have authority over them). I’d just make sure that the part-time employer is aware that that’s what you’ve decided to do, so that they’re not surprised by it later on (especially since these are public organizations).

3. Is this good resume advice?

I have been reading advice about resumes lately that goes against what has seemed “standard” until now, and instead suggests people start using complete sentences, include explanations for job changes or gaps within the resume, write a friendly “summary” at the top. Is this really a Thing now, or is this from the land of “video resumes are the future!”? My brain is honestly so fried now from all of the different tweaks I see suggested, I’m having trouble even bothering to revise my resume anymore … (which may be why I’m still not working!)

Do not use complete sentences on your resume. Resumes should be easy to skim, space is at a premium (so you want to be concise), and they should use bullet points, not prose. More on that here and here.

Nor should you include reasons for leaving or for gaps, unless there’s a very specific situation that where it makes sense — but not as a general rule. That’s not the convention for resumes, and it looks a little out of touch when people include that info for all their jobs. Not like “I won’t hire you” out of touch, but it doesn’t strengthen your resume.

But summaries are indeed a real thing now. They’re by no means a requirement, but they’re pretty common these days. The majority of them aren’t useful because they tend to be so generic that you could imagine every other candidate with similar qualifications having the same summary … but the good ones talk about what differentiates you and makes you awesome (meaning concrete achievements, not “good communication skills”).

4. My company adjusts salaries for cost of living downward but never upward

I have been an employee with my company for five years, and in my current role for four of those years. We are allowed to work remotely, and I recently relocated from the D.C. area to California. When I originally moved, I let them know that I would temporarily be in San Diego, and they ran numbers and reduced my salary based on OPM’s pay tables. This was annoying, but I knew the move was temporary and assumed that we would recalculate once I landed somewhere more permanent. After three months, I relocated again to Los Angeles, a considerably more expensive metro area (more expensive than even D.C.!). When I inquired about the COLA adjustment to reflect my new location, I was informed they never raise salaries for COLA, just decrease them. So I could move from LA, to a less expensive metro area, take another pay cut, then move to San Francisco and have to suffer at the lower salary.

This doesn’t seem fair to me — if you are going to allow employees to go remote, and make adjustments to salary, shouldn’t they be prepared to make those adjustments regardless of how that shakes out for them?

Yes. This isn’t how this is supposed to work. You work for jerks.

5. My ex-roommate left documents in violation of HIPAA

My roommate moved out a month ago. She was in the medical profession and, well, she left a lot of stuff behind. Today, I started looking through a folder that she left, and it’s bad. There are dozens — literally dozens — of patient charts with full names, medical histories, and medication lists. She also left documents with her full Social Security number, date of birth, everything needed to steal her identity. I figured shredding the latter would be sufficient, but I don’t know what to do about the former. It seems like a massive HIPAA violation, and she’s still practicing. I have two major questions. 1) What do I do with these documents? I don’t want them in my home, I don’t want to be responsible for them, but I have no idea what the procedure is for disposing of them. 2) Do I report her to the licensing board? This seems really, really bad, and I feel like the hospital should know, as well as the board. I’ve tried contacting her to no avail.

Do you have a way to contact her old employer? If so, I’d do that, explain what you found, and ask what they want you to do with the materials. I don’t know that you need to report her to the licensing board — you certainly could if you wanted to, but I think that’s really up to you, based on whether you feel strongly enough to put in the time to do that.

I don’t think you’re being negligent if you decide not to; she’s the negligent one, and anything you do to clean up her mess is more than you’re obligated to do. (Although I do think you at least need to shred those materials unless her former employer directs you to do something differently.)

how can I increase my chances when I’m under-qualified for a job?

A reader writes:

I may — and may is the operative word — be about to hit a lucky break in my job search. I have a strong contact with a longtime associate of a hiring manager in a small office, which recently posted a position with requirements I technically meet. I’ve applied to the position and gotten the promise that my contact will recommend me personally in glowing, specific terms. It’s possible that they have someone else in mind already and won’t interview me … but if not, it’s a promising coincidence.

The problem is that I’m well aware the position is well out of the realm of my previous experience. I have education in the field and some transferrable skills from a previous position, but this posting is not entry-level and I’ve never done the specific tasks named in the job description. I believe I can stretch myself into the role, but how do I come across as someone who has that capacity in the interview stage? I am more questioning the emotional side of this than the skills side. When you see a junior candidate and say “this person would take a lot of managing, but it’d be a worthwhile pleasure to bring them up to speed,” what are you looking at?

Well … to be totally blunt, it’s not something experienced managers say a lot of. I did sometimes think that kind of thing when I was a newer manager, but then you learn pretty quickly that “this person would take a lot of managing” means “this person would take a lot of time that I won’t be able to spend on other important things.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t real pleasure in coaching a junior employee and helping them grow. There is! It can be incredibly satisfying, particularly when the person is eager to learn and genuinely interested in the work, takes feedback well, and appreciates the investment you’re making in them. But when other candidates are better matched with the role, “it will be fulfilling to watch this junior candidate grow” doesn’t usually justify the significant additional time it would take to manage them.

That said … it’s more of an option with some types of positions. If the role is relatively junior and doesn’t require specific hard skills, it can sometimes make sense to hire for potential. That’s especially true in fields where soft skills really matter, and where training will be more a matter of weeks than months. And it’s even more true when the other qualified candidates are just okay, rather than excellent. There are a lot of junior-ish roles where hiring a smart, driven, enthusiastic person without a ton of relevant experience but who can learn quickly is better than hiring someone with relevant experience but less of the other stuff. (But there are also a lot roles where you really need both.)

If it’s the kind of role where that’s in play, the types of things that could tilt it toward a less experienced candidate are: smarts, humility (so you know you have a lot to learn and want to do it), an ability to learn from feedback (and a strong interest in getting it), work ethic and drive, natural interest in the work, personal warmth (this doesn’t mean being bubbly; it just means forming warm connections with people), courtesy and consideration for others (this matters more than you’d think in this context, particularly at junior levels), and a track record of getting things done (even in totally different contexts like extracurriculars or another field). Depending on the position, specific talents can really matter too, like writing or relationship-building.

Also! The fact that you’ve never done the specific tasks listed in the job description isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re wildly under-qualified. I’d pay more attention to the qualifications they’re looking for — if they’re not listing “experience doing X” there, they may not care as much about that as you think.

Good luck.

when the employee you recommended gets fired

A reader writes:

Last fall, my firm hired an employee who I had referred for the same position that I have. This employee was just fired last week (after nine months with the firm). Apparently, the people she worked for felt she was somewhat lazy and was not keeping up with her work. Should I apologize for referring an employee (I received a referral fee) who ended up being fired? I realize you don’t *have* to apologize, but I feel bad about the situation. What would you advise? Should I apologize or just let it go?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

my boss is unavailable and it’s driving us all mad

A reader writes:

I report to a C-suite level executive, “Bob” (where Bob’s boss is the CEO). I manage Bob’s schedule and generally coordinate our department’s projects under his direction. However, Bob is one of the most unavailable, unreachable bosses I have ever seen. He is very clearly a verbal processor (likes thinking out loud to an audience) and hates writing his thoughts or instructions via email … which would be fine, except his business travel can put him out of the office for weeks on end. When he does communicate via email, it’s only after A DOZEN OR MORE emails have been sent to him asking for answers on the subject. Even then, Bob’s replies often consist of “Thanks for the prod … will get that to you by end of day,” and then he doesn’t provide the answer he just promised. Because of this, projects can be delayed by days or weeks.

Since I manage his schedule, I know full well how many hours per day he’s truly unavailable (i.e., in meetings or on a plane) and I can promise you he does have plenty of down time, during which he could presumably be working on these answers to emails. What’s more, I have access to his emails and can see just how much comes in and goes out (hint: my own inbox/outbox is astronomically busier than his is, yet I keep up with mine just fine).

I’ve tried scheduling phone check-ins with him, but he is notoriously bad at keeping appointments with his staff. I’ve tried flagging emails in his inbox, but they just pile up into a backlog. I’ve tried responding to emails myself on his behalf (with his permission), but much of it is over my head and really needs his input. I’ve tried sending just one email a day, listing priorities from the team in short bullet points, but these go ignored. I’ve mentioned to Bob that his lack of communication is stalling projects and causing unease among the staff, but his behavior remains the same.

What’s the deal? Why is Bob so unresponsive to the needs of our team (and other internal and external contacts, for that matter)? He really is a genuinely kind boss (not cold and aloof) and seems to want to keep his thumb on the pulse of the office — on those rare occasions he makes it to our meetings, he shows genuine interest in everyone’s work and provides great insight into projects. So it’s not likely that he’s checked out and searching for another job or something. He’s just not getting it.

What can my team and I do? We are all increasingly bitter over this situation.

I wrote back and asked, “When you’ve told him that his lack of communication is stalling projects and causing unease among the staff, what has he said in response?”

He’ll acknowledge what I say and nod understandingly but without seeming to really grasp the seriousness of it. He’ll say things like, “The team might need some help from you and I in relaxing their frenzy on this project” or “Maybe I need to be a bit more present so the team doesn’t get so worked up over this stuff” … but then he won’t follow through, so the pressure just keeps building and the discontent keeps rising.

I tell myself if Bob isn’t concerned about these projects, maybe there’s nothing to worry about. But the staff bitterness is what concerns me most, and I feel like I’m failing to get across to him the gravity of the situation (one all-star employee in particular has spoken of looking for work elsewhere if Bob doesn’t change his ways).

Consider this an excellent lesson in focusing on what’s within your control and letting go of the rest.

You have done everything here that a good assistant should do: You’ve flagged important emails for him, gotten his permission to respond on his behalf to keep things moving, sent him a daily list of priorities, used bullet points so he can quickly see what’s important, and talked to him about the situation it’s causing on the staff. If you hadn’t done each of those things, I’d tell you to.

But you’ve done everything within your control to do, and he’s not changing. That means that at this point, the only practical step for you is to emotionally disconnect. It’s up to him now. You can’t force him to do things differently. If that means that he ends up with a bitter, disengaged staff, that is a problem he has created and will need to deal with. If he loses good employees because of it, again that’s a problem that he created and will need to deal with. (And while that will suck for your team, it might be what needs to happen in the long run.)

This is not a situation where morally you must find a way to solve it no matter what, like “Bob is keeping people locked in their offices and not feeding them, and they are malnourished and slowly starving.” That’s not to say there won’t be ramifications for the people on your team — at a minimum, working for a manager like this sucks, and at its worst could end up affecting them professionally, like if they have fewer accomplishments on this job than they’d otherwise have. But at this point, it’s not yours to solve. (Which is good, since you can’t!)

As for why Bob is like this, I’d guess a combination of incompetence, severe disorganization, and inability to understand his impact on others and/or lack of understanding of what his role as a manager requires of him (which itself is a form of incompetence).

There is a chance that Bob is right that people think there’s more urgency around these things than there really is … but if that’s the case, it’s on him to clarify that with people, not leave them in a perpetual state of stress and worry. So either way, he’s not doing his job.

Really, the only thing you could try that you haven’t already tried would be one final, more serious conversation with him (especially if you sugarcoated the message when you talked to him previously). You could say something like, “I know we’ve talked about this before and I won’t keep pushing it, but I do want to tell you one final time that I think this is causing serious problems on the team. People are frustrated to the point that they’re becoming bitter, and I worry we’re going to have a real culture problem here soon and may start losing good people over it. I’m happy to help any way I can, and I want you to be aware of what I’m seeing.”

From there, though, this is on him and the best thing you can do for yourself is to get really, really clear in your own head that it’s out of your control and that you’ve done what you can and can’t do more.

You might decide that you don’t particularly want a job where this is how things operate (and you’re more likely to figure that out if you let yourself stop banging your head against the wall and see more clearly what you can and can’t change). Or you might decide that it’s not ideal but you can deal with it once you don’t feel pressure to solve it. Either one of those will be a better path than trying to solve something you have no control over.