what to say when your boss is rude to a coworker in front of you

A reader writes:

What can/should I do when my boss is rude to another coworker?

We’re a small, very early-stage start-up with no HR person. The coworker and I are both young, female, and new. My boss often puts her down (“God, you’re inattentive” or “if you can’t even do this task you should be fired”) in front of us in response to her simply asking for clarification or an email to be resent, or tells her curtly “louder” while she’s talking in a meeting. He doesn’t seem to be doing it to anyone else.

It bothers me to see this and I imagine she must feel uncomfortable as well. I want to say something, but I don’t know what I can say. Any advice would be appreciated.

Agh, this is really tough.

What most people do in this situation is stay silent, feel really uncomfortable, and maybe commiserate with their coworker afterward.

Sometimes that’s truly all you can do. If you’re in a very junior position or otherwise don’t have much standing to speak up, or if you don’t have great rapport with the boss yourself, you might not be in a position to do anything in the moment. That’s a pretty awful position to be in — it’s horrible to feel like you have to just sit there and watch someone be mistreated. If that’s your situation, I’d encourage you to talk with your coworker and see how she’s doing — let her know that you see what’s happening and that you think it’s unacceptable. That might make the situation she’s in easier for her, and if she’s starting to question whether she’s somehow causing his mistreatment of her, it can help to hear that someone else thinks it’s not okay. (That’s especially true since she’s young and may not have much frame of reference yet for how a manager should interact with people.)

That said, sometimes you’re in a position to do more. Sometimes simply looking visibly shocked will shame a boss like this. And if you’re in a senior role and/or particularly respected by the boss and/or have particularly good rapport with him, you’re often well positioned to say something to him afterwards — which, depending on the relationship, could be anything from “you came across pretty harshly with Jane in that meeting” to “it’s really uncomfortable when you talk to people that way” to “we are going to lose good people if you keep talking to them that way.”

If you’re new and junior, though, that’s probably not something you’d easily be able to do. (Although you could do the “look visibly shocked” part.)

But there might be opportunity to provide another perspective in a way that doesn’t directly take on your boss. For example, if your boss insults your coworker because she asks him to clarify something, you could say mildly, “I actually was wondering the same thing too.” Or if he’s berating her for not getting a task right, you could say, “To be honest, I wasn’t totally confident about my ability to do this either. For me, the problem was X.”

If you do that, there’s a chance that your boss will just widen his circle of wrath to include you too, so you’d have to decide if that’s a risk you’re willing to take. But you could try it once and see what happens — who knows, it’s possible that it’ll calm him down.

Ultimately, though, your boss is a jerk. (And to be clear, it doesn’t matter if your coworker truly is awful at her job — she still doesn’t deserve to be talked to that way.) And when you’re working for a jerk, it’s usually only a matter of time before their jerkiness starts seeping out in other ways too, so I’d keep an eye out for that.

boss said she’d give me a great reference but she didn’t, jobs advertised for less than minimum wage, and more

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

1. My manager said she’d give me a great reference — but she didn’t

After a second round interview with company A, I was asked to submit references. I typically would not include my current direct supervisor, who started working with my team six months ago, but many of her close friends work at Company A and she is aware that I am job searching. We have a good relationship, and she is a “huge fan” of the work I’ve produced. She gave me great reviews during my annual review last month.

Despite all of this, I did not get the job at Company A because of the reference my current supervisor gave. According to the hiring manager, my supervisor did not have full confidence in my work product. What makes this situation especially unique is that my supervisor has been bragging about the “glowing” reference she gave to multiple people in the office. She even told one of my peers that the workload may shift because I was about to get a fabulous new job.

Should I let her know that her reference was not as glowing as she thinks it was? Aside from never using her as a reference again, how should I move forward with her? It at all? I’m sure it was her – the hiring manager specifically said my current supervisor’s reference was the determining factor. My other references were former coworkers/former supervisors.

It’s possible that the hiring manager got mixed up, and the reference was from someone else. But assuming that’s not the case, it’s possible that your manager was acting in good faith here … because references aren’t typically a pass/fail thing but are more nuanced than that. References that are overall very positive generally still acknowledge that the person has weaker spots (and really, a credible reference often needs to do that). It’s possible that she didn’t think the weaker spots she mentioned would matter much for the job, but the hiring manager considered them a bigger deal.

The idea that she said she didn’t “have full confidence” in your work sounds damning, but it could have been something like, “Of course, she’s still learning to do A and B so I have a lot of oversight on her work in those areas.” Or the hiring manager could have asked how independently you work, and your manager could have said, “I review all her work before it goes out” just because that’s standard practice at your company. Or who knows — but there are a lot of ways that your manager could have felt she gave a strong reference while the hiring manager didn’t take it that way.

That’s not great, of course, because it may mean that your boss isn’t communicating the way she intends — but it also could just mean that the hiring manager put more weight on something than you’d expect her to from the outside.

Since you have the kind of relationship with your boss where she knows you’re job-searching and she’s bragging about how she’s helping you, I do think you could say to her, “I feel awkward about raising this, but the hiring manager for that job said that your reference gave her pause — she felt like you didn’t have full confidence in my work. I want to make sure I’m meeting your expectations and you feel you can give me a great reference in the future. Is there anything you’d like to see me doing differently?”

2. Recruiter made me promise not to accept any job offers

A few months ago when I was job hunting, I was contacted by a recruiter, Megan, who explained the position she was working on with me and asked about my experience and job hunt. She asked if I had any other interviews or offers on the table. I was honest and told her I had one interview the next day. She said, “I can’t submit your resume until you turn down that job” (mind you, I hadn’t even gone on the interview yet). She said “I’ll call you tomorrow to see if you even liked it or not.”

The next day, she calls and asks how my interview went. I told her it went well, but that position was very data-heavy, not what I was looking for. She said “Okay, I can submit your resume to my company, but you have to PROMISE me you won’t accept any other offers.” I was very put off by this, but the position sounded great, so I told her sure. She kept following up with me, saying “you stopped job hunting right? Not taking any offers?” I would just kind of brush it off.

Turns out, the company thought I was too junior and didn’t want to interview me anyway. What if I had actually turned down an offer to get this though? I’d be furious at myself and Megan for pushing so hard. I didn’t stop job hunting or turn anything down, since I knew this wasn’t a guaranteed interview. But I still found it incredibly strange. Is this normal? I never worked with another recruiter like that.

It’s not normal. It’s terrible practice. Of course you should be actively searching and should be free to accept a job offer if you want to! Good candidates aren’t going to agree to work with a recruiter who makes those demands, so Megan is harming not only candidates (for the reasons you mentioned) but the employers she’s working for as well (since they’re going to lose out on strong candidates who will find Megan’s demands ridiculous).

3. My boss doesn’t know my name

I’m writing in with a bit of an odd conundrum; I don’t think my boss knows my name. My company has less than 25 people in it. I have a main supervisor and then a boss who is above my supervisor. Every time my boss has spoken to me, she has called me by a different name. Sometimes, the name she calls me starts with the same letter or sounds somewhat similar to my actual name (such as Emily or Annie) but sometimes it is wildly different (Rachel or Christine). Each time she does this, I say something along the lines of “oh, it’s actually MY NAME,” but it continues. The only time she got my name right was when she was interviewing me during the job application process.

I’ve noticed that she sometimes makes small mistakes with other coworkers’ names, such as Christine instead of Christina or Katie instead of Kaitlin, but it’s never as huge as with my name. My coworkers have definitely noticed it, and seeing what name she’ll call me next has become a bit of a running joke. I don’t necessarily find it offensive, but it is annoying. I don’t feel like my name is all that unique or hard to remember. Do you think there’s anything else I should be doing or should I just let it go and accept that for whatever reason, my boss just can’t learn my name? Am I totally overreacting?

Since you’re already correcting her each time, there aren’t a lot of other options. The only other things you could try would be (a) a big conversation with her about it (“Jane, I’ve noticed you almost never call me by my correct name; can you try to remember to call me Cecily?”) or asking your supervisor to mention it to her. I might go with the latter, so that you don’t have to shoulder the burden of an awkward conversation with someone who has been so dismissive of your reminders already. But since she’s apparently mangling other names on the reg too (although not as badly as yours), I’m not super hopeful that it’s solvable.

It would be interesting, though, to know if she ever messes up names of people who are her peers or senior to her. If she’s an equal opportunity mangler, I wouldn’t take it personally at all. But if she only does it with people who she has power over, that’s telling.

4. I saw a job advertised for less than minimum wage

I am job searching and just came across a job that pays less than minimum wage. I am not interested in applying for this job in particular but wondered what the best way to handle it in general is. Minimum wage in New York city and state recently increased and in the city, the minimum wage is $13/hour for businesses with 11 or more employees and $12/hour for those with less.

This job is a temporary, part-time job at a non-profit. Even if it has fewer than 11 employees, the $11/hour they’re offering is still illegal. If I were interested in applying (which I might have been in the past), what is the best way to handle this? In the interview? At the offer stage? Just not apply for this job because an organization that doesn’t even realize the laws surrounding minimum wage have changed is one that one should avoid for fear of complete disregard of all labor laws?

I have actually worked at a business in the past that disregarded state wage laws but it was a little bit of a different situation (a restaurant that paid the federal minimum serving wage instead of the higher, New York state wage) and my wages after tips were generally high so I rolled my eyes and decided it wasn’t worth it. That was admittedly not the best way to handle it, so insight would be great!

It’s possible that they just haven’t updated their ads — if they’re used to reposting the same ads, it could be that it’s being done by a junior person who doesn’t realize they need to update that piece of it. So it’s possible that if they offered you the job, you’d find that they were offering it to you at the higher, legal wage.

As for when to bring it up, you could just wait for the offer and address it then if they still offer the lower, not-now-legal wage: “New York City recently increased minimum wage to $13/hour, so am I right in thinking that should be the wage for this position?” But it would also be fine to bring it up in the interview: “I saw in the ad that the position was advertised as paying $11/hour. Since New York City recently increased minimum wage to $13/hour, am I right in thinking that $13 is actually the wage for the position now?”

In other words, just sound matter-of-fact about it and like of course they’ll follow the law.

5. How far back do employers check your social media?

Thanks to your resume advice, I’ve managed to get an interview for an internship!

I’m very much a quintessential millennial and have had Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook for a lot of years now. Do you have any advice for ensuring there’s nothing that an employer would object to on there? Part of the internship is running the charity’s social media accounts, so simply making my accounts private probably wouldn’t fly. My recent content is all employer-friendly but I’m just worried in case there’s some dumb teenage stuff from years back. How do employers check social media? Do they glance over the most recent stuff or do they deep trawl your account?

They’re usually just looking at the most recent stuff. It’s hard to give an exact timeframe since it depends on how much you post (six months of posts for you could produce the same number of posts as three years for someone else, if you’re a prolific poster and the other person isn’t). But typically an employer isn’t going to be reading everything carefully; it’s more like a quick skim to see if anything (good or bad) jumps out. That quick skim usually won’t go more than 100-200 posts back (and that’s on the high side).

That said, if you know that you had bad judgment in what you posted in the past, it would be smart to go back and clean that up, because you just never know how someone might run across something. But if you’re just worried that you might have posted something indiscreet eight years ago but don’t have anything particular in mind, I wouldn’t worry too much about that.

I slept through an entire day of work

A reader writes:

I started a new senior position in a new city about two months ago and I was killing it. It was just such a great fit of the job matching my abilities- I moved several integral projects forward and took some business trips in my first few weeks. Everyone was saying it felt like I’d been here years. My boss and the head of the firm were completely tickled, my coworkers and I were clicking great — it was workplace nirvana.

Danger zone: I was saying “yes” to everything because I was loving the work and wanted my boss to know he could count on me. I have a bit of a savior syndrome so when people say they need my help, I can practically never say no, but my boss is awesome and I love this work so I don’t even want to say no!  (And he has acknowledged over the last two months that he’s thrown a lot on my plate, and has thanked me just for taking the job because he’s less stressed than he’s been in months.)

But I was in a new city, with a totally different lifestyle and schedule, and I was only getting around three hours of sleep a night. I would say that probably 65% of sleeplessness was caused by work stress/anxiety and the rest was a mix of lifestyle shake-up, like a new commute and sacrificing sleep to do things like hunt for a new apartment.

I started coming in later and later (the office is flexible, within reason), until one day last week I slept through the ENTIRE day.

I know that is completely shocking, I’m shocked too, and so incredibly embarrassed. I woke up late, emailed the administrator to let her know I was on my way in, and then when I sat on the bed to put on my shoes I must have just passed right back out again for about another 6 hours. Just sheer exhaustion, I guess.

My boss called me and left a concerned voicemail, then followed up with a concerned email a few hours later.

I was so mortified I didn’t know what to do, so I stayed home, called the doctor, got a prescription for sleep meds, and then tried to calm myself down before calling my boss to apologize and explain. Other than apologizing over and over, I’m not even sure what I said. I definitely mentioned averaging about three hours of sleep a night over the last three weeks and just generally having too much on my plate, and that I have anxiety over wanting to do everything to the best standard possible, which was making me lose sleep.

He was amazing – he was concerned about me and my health first and foremost, then also about our deliverables. We came up with a two-week work plan that he confirmed with my colleagues. They took me off one project temporarily and cut way back on my role on another. I’m also taking a few days to work “undisturbed” from home (which was his way of letting me know it’s okay to nap). He made it clear I don’t have to share anything I don’t want to, and gave me an encouraging pep talk about “being human” and “big life changes.”

On my end, I am urgently prioritizing sleep hygiene to mitigate the exhaustion, and creating lists up the wazoo because I get forgetful when I’m tired.

The problem (or not problem?) now is everyone is treating me extremely sensitively. Maybe I’m projecting because I feel like such an a-hole for letting the team down, but it seems like they’re walking on egg shells and being extra gentle. On the one hand, I appreciate it, but on the other hand I hate the reminder that I effed it up so royally. The ramifications are rippling forward 6-12 months, because of how they redistributed my workload.

I feel like I want to avoid everybody. I feel like I don’t deserve to be here, like I let everybody down and now we’re all waiting for it to happen again. A small part of me also wonders if age or gender are playing into it at all – I am a woman who is younger than the other senior members of the team, and the dynamic has been sort of like a gentleman/lady, mentor/mentee thing.

To me, this whole thing seems like an epic professional mistake. Aside from turning back time, what do I do now?

This is such a good example of how if you build up good will and standing by being a great employee, a good boss will cut you slack even when you think you’ve done something mortifying.

You had already proved yourself, so what happened reads completely differently than if you’d done it your first week on the job or if you were known to be a slacker.

Think of it this way: When someone sleeps through an entire day of work, what conclusions are you likely to draw about that person? Generally, you’re going to assume either they’re sick or they’re really cavalier about work. Your boss, and probably the rest of your office, already know that you’re not cavalier about work. You sound like you’re highly productive, on top of things, and full of initiative and drive. So it wouldn’t make any sense for them to now think, “Oh, we were wrong about all of that — she’s actually a huge slacker.”

What happened was more akin to you being sick. “Sick” isn’t exactly right, but it’s way more in that neighborhood than anything else. You were suffering from the effects of weeks of exhaustion. It caught up with you because you are a human, not a robot.

Your boss clearly understands that. (See again: previous two months of drive and excellent work, and his gratitude for your performance.)

So the problem you haven’t now isn’t “how can I come back from this epic mistake?” You already handled this well: You apologized profusely, you explained what had happened, and you’ve taken steps to adjust your sleep.

And your boss handled this perfectly too: He recognized how your workload was contributing to the problem, he modified it to be more realistic, and he made it clear that he understands you are human.

This is all very, very good, for him and for you.

I suspect that people are treating you gently because your boss probably explained you were way overextended and exhausted, as part of the adjustments he made to your projects (and possibly also because people were worried about you the day you didn’t show up). I can see why that’s rattling you though — no one wants to be treated like a delicate flower at work.

There are two things that you can do about that. One is that you could talk to your boss and say something like, “I want to thank you again for being so understanding about my exhaustion last week. I’m mortified about it, and I’m grateful that you were so kind about it. I did want to say that if anyone is feeling like they need to be extra gentle with me now, they definitely don’t! I’ve gotten the sense that people are treating me very delicately, and I don’t want anyone to feel they need to do that. I’ve handled the sleep problems, and I’m good to go!”

But the other thing is that simply by being normal and demonstrating that you’re not in fact a delicate flower, people should relax. Time and exposure will take care of much of this. So fight your urge to avoid people, because the more they’re around you being normal and reasonably hardy, the more that will overcome any worries they might have. The best thing you can do right now is to be around them and be matter-of-fact in your manner.

And truly, this is okay. You collapsed from exhaustion, your boss understands, and all involved have come together to correct the situation that led to that. Let yourself trust that your boss is not blowing smoke when he tells you that he understands, and trust that people have seen enough of your work to know you don’t crumble at the first sign of difficulty.

should I point out job applicants’ mistakes to them?

A reader writes:

I supervise a summertime internship program at my job, which attracts mainly college-age applicants. A huge component of the internship is attention to detail. This week I received five applications for the internship. Three of those have included detail errors, some minor and some major. For example:

1. The first applicant stated in his email that he had attempted to send his application to the listed email address but it did not work. Upon closer look, I discovered he had included an extra period in the domain name, and he apparently had not thought to check the accuracy of the address.

2. The second applicant’s cover letter made reference to the internship at our company (for example, Washington Tribune – not our real name) but on subsequent references, referred to our company with the incorrect name (Washington Gazette).

3. For the third applicant, I sent back a stock response thanking her for her interest and stating that I would be reviewing applications after the closing period. She replied by thanking me for my consideration, but then had (accidentally) included an email thread between her and her father, in which he was directing her on what to include in her cover letter and offering to write the final paragraphs for her.

Attention to detail is crucial for this position and I feel all of these situations could have easily been avoided with enough time, care, and attention to detail. I have a handful of other applicants who sent in clean, strong cover letters and resumes.

Is it acceptable for me to point out these mistakes to the candidates? On one hand, I’d like to help them realize that time and detail are crucial when applying for jobs. On the other, I’m grateful to have seen these mistakes and avoided hiring them for a very popular internship.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

my coworker thinks it’s funny to try to scare me

A reader writes:

I have been having a mild problem with a coworker since I started at this new company a little over a year ago.

He tends to like to sneak up and scare us while we are working. We both wear earbuds while we work so it’s easy for us to not hear him and to be distracted with what we are working on. He’ll come up and make a loud noise or pop up suddenly around the entrance of our cubicles (he does this on purpose).

I have anxiety and am incredibly jumpy. He knows this too because I’ve mentioned this to him. I even jump when people say “good morning” or people that just pop into my cubicle to talk about work without meaning to scare me. I think once he saw my reaction to being scared, he likes to make me jump and I hate it! It takes my body a little while to even calm down once he’s left my cube.

I’d like him to stop but he’s otherwise an incredibly nice man.

I’ve also had this problem outside of work. When people find out how jumpy I am, they seem to be entertained by how easily I will react to any sudden noise. It’s really annoying in general, but even more so at work because it does take me a bit of time to recover from the anxiety of it and how annoyed I am!

My coworker is quite a bit older than I am, and I notice he does this with me and another coworker of mine. We are both younger women. He doesn’t do this with any older coworkers or any male coworkers that I’ve noticed.

I’ve just been putting up with it because he’s been so kind to me since moving here and starting a new job, and I’ve been managing my anxiety pretty well. Recently, though, my anxiety has gotten worse and I wish he’d realize what this does to me.

Is there any nonchalant way of trying to get him to stop? I don’t want it to come off as though I’m incredibly bothered by it, one, because he has been so nice to me and two, he seems to like to see a reaction out of me when he teases me like this so I’d like my reaction to be more casual so maybe he won’t get whatever entertainment he seems to get out of teasing me.

I believe you when you say he’s a nice man because you know him far better than I do, but this one thing he’s doing is not at all nice. And it’ll help to get really clear in your mind about that, because it’ll hopefully make you more comfortable telling him very directly to cut it out.

And for what it’s worth … there’s nice and then there’s “nice.” The fact that he’s only doing this to young women is (a) not surprising and (b) pretty gross. I’m not saying he’s a monster — if you say he’s been lovely to you in other ways, I’m sure that’s true. People are complicated creatures, and they can be wonderful in some ways and awful in others. And there are lots of genial older men who act in incredibly sexist ways toward younger women and seem to think that’s charming. In fact, it’s neither charming nor okay, and it’s okay to tell them to cut it out … especially when it’s impacting your feelings of well-being the way this situation is.

As for how to do it, I don’t think nonchalance will work here. This is someone who enjoys scaring you. And sure, to give him the benefit of the doubt, some otherwise kind people have a bizarre blind spot when it comes to this kind of thing, like the people who genuinely believe everyone enjoys being tickled. But what matters here is that, based on his behavior so far, this is not someone who is going to get the message if you try to deliver it nonchalantly.

You said that you want to your message to be casual because you don’t want him to think it’s funny if you try to address it more seriously — but if he thinks it’s funny to hear you seriously tell him that he needs to stop scaring you, then he is not a kind person anyway and you should stop thinking of him that way. But if you’re right that he’s a kind person, then he should want to know that he’s doing something that upsets you, and he should stop once you tell him. So you should do him and yourself the favor of delivering the message in a very serious way, so that he can’t possibly misunderstand it or think that you’re joking.

Say something like this: “I don’t like it when you try to scare me. It’s extremely unpleasant and distracting, and it’s not something I find funny or welcome.” If you want to, you can add, “I know that you thought this was in good fun, but it’s not. Please cut it out.”

Say this without smiling. It’s important that you look and sound serious, so that he can’t possibly think you’re joking around with him. (It would be delusional for him to think that, but people do it all the time in this kind of situation.)

If you’re right that he’s a nice person, that should solve the problem.

But if he doesn’t respond to that with an indication that he’s taking you seriously and will respect your request, then say this: “You need to respect a clear no.” Say this in a pissed off tone, and then turn back to your work — don’t chat with him or otherwise let him think things are fine.

That’ll probably stop it because once you refuse to play along in letting him think he’s having a fun, charming interaction with you, he won’t be getting what he wants from the encounter anymore.

But if for some reason that conversation doesn’t stop it, then you’ll know for sure that you’re dealing with someone who’s not nice at all, and you should feel free to proceed accordingly — meaning no more friendly relationship, and complaining over his head if you need to.

client pressured me into buying lingerie, employee thinks “thanks” is positive feedback, and more

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

1. My client invited me to lunch — and then pressured me into buying lingerie

I’m a freelance worker. One of my clients has been with me for several years, and I greatly appreciate her loyalty. Recently she put me in a very awkward situation, and I probably could have handled things differently, but I don’t know how.

She invited me to have lunch with her and her friend, implying that the friend could become a prospective client. Well, to cut a long story short, that “friend” turned out to be a salesperson, and the two of them basically browbeat me into buying several hundred dollars worth of products that I don’t want or need, that I’ll never use, and that have no resale value whatsoever. (It wasn’t an overt multi-leveling marketing scheme. It was lingerie, and I wasn’t pressured to join their “great, once-a-lifetime opportunity” at all, perhaps because I don’t look anything like a lingerie model. They just seemed strangely desperate to make a sale as quickly as possible, and I was was so desperate to get out of there that I didn’t care what it took.)

Needless to say, I’m not going to be accepting any more lunch invitations from her. How could I have handled the situation differently (given that physically leaving was not an option, because we went there in her car)? I really was blindsided by the whole thing, and it has shaken my trust in her. I’m not even sure I want to keep her on as a client anymore. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard similar stories from other friends and colleagues, and I’d always assumed that I was smart enough to never allow it to happen to me … until it did.

That was incredibly rude of your client — she took advantage of your relationship, and you’d be entirely in the right if you do decide you’re not interested in maintaining one with her anymore.

As for what you could have done differently, usually the thing that keeps people from cutting off a sales pitch they don’t want to be receiving is they don’t want to be rude — and that’s exactly what people like your client are counting on. Recognizing that can help you stand up to it.

And frankly, it’s not rude to say, “I misunderstood the purpose of this lunch. I’m not interested in buying anything, so let’s talk about something else.” And if they continued with the sales pitch, it’s not rude to say, “My answer is a firm no. I don’t want to spend the rest of our lunch discussing it.” But even if those things were rude to say (and they’re not), they pale in comparison to the rudeness of what your client and her friend were doing. So it’s entirely justified in that situation to be a little rude if you need to, in order to extract yourself! It also would have been fine for you to say, “Jane, I’m disappointed that you’d deceive me about the purpose of this lunch and I’m leaving now” and then get up and take a cab home.

2. My employee thinks “thanks” is positive feedback

I have an issue with my direct report, “Fergus,” who thinks that when someone thanks him for doing a task, that constitutes positive feedback. He forwards emails to me that read simply “thanks” with notes asking me to take note of the evidence of his fantastic work.

In the culture that we both work in, and have for many years, “thanks” means only that someone has recieved an email and does not relate in any way to the quality of the work, the timeliness of the response, or anything else. So by misinterpreting them, Fergus is getting an unfarily positive understanding of his work product. This is leading him to push back against the performance management that I am going through with him, becuase his work is in fact unacceptably poor. However, he gets very upset and defensive at the slightest criticism and often does not seem to take in negative comments. How do I explain that “thanks” and even “great, thanks” does not mean “well done,” in as effective and kind a way as possible?

“I’ve noticed that you’ve forwarded me many emails from people saying ‘thanks.’ That’s an acknowledgement that you did a task for them, but it’s not typically feedback on the quality of your work. However, if you have emails from people talking about the quality of a project you did for them, I’d love to have those.”

You could add, “The sort of feedback that could show praise for your work would be things like if Jane commented on the thoroughness and accuracy of the report you sent her, or if Bob said he appreciated the nuance in the draft you wrote for him.”

That said, he sounds unreasonable enough, and the issues with his work sound serious enough, that he may not get this, no matter what you say. So I wouldn’t make your bar for success here “I find a way to convince Fergus of how poor his work is.” Rather, your bar for success is “Fergus brings his performance up to a good level quickly or we transition him out.” And if you haven’t already, I’d be very clear with him about that so that he understands that this isn’t a debate.

3. I interviewed with someone who hires “from a vibe”

I recently had an interview for a very competitive role at a high-profile company. The job description perfectly lines up with my strengths and passions.

The person who interviewed me would be my future boss if I got the job. We got along well and it was an easy-flowing, conversational meeting. He told me his strategy is to hire off of a vibe — that the work itself would have a very short learning curve for someone with my background. We spent most of our 30 minutes together talking about non-work-related topics such as music, pets, restaurants in town. When those 30 minutes were winding down, his assistant knocked to let him know the next applicant was waiting for him so he quickly asked me if I had any questions. At that point, I felt a bit pressured to rush through them!

I read the job description thoroughly, felt confident about my abilities to carry out the work, and enjoyed my time in the office, but I left the interview knowing next to nothing about the day to day functions, culture, or benefits. He told me they’d need to make a decision shortly and that works for me. There are no more rounds of interviews scheduled.

Is the casual nature of the interview a red flag in your opinion? If I got an offer, I would sort of be going in blind. Should I accept on good faith assuming there would be some training?

No, don’t accept that on good faith! That’s too important a thing to gamble on.

And this is a terrible way to hire; he’s only learning about whether he has rapport with you and nothing about your skills or accomplishments or how you work. (It also makes it likely that he hires people who are similar to him — which can lead to really discriminatory hiring.) If you’re interested in the job, you’ll have to do the work yourself of figuring out if it’s the right match for you, since he’s apparently not going to do it. That means that if you get an offer, you could say something like, “I’m really excited about the role based on what I know so far, but we didn’t get a chance to dive in much to the details of the work when we talked last time. Could we set up some time for a more in-depth call where I can ask you about the day-to-day work, the team, and so forth?”

4. Do I have to train my replacement when he’s sick and contagious?

I am retiring after decades at my current position, having given generous notice and have a new hire showing up to get trained for one week only. Am I obligated to train the new person if he shows up stinking sick? There are flu and other viruses going around. It’s even a battle trying to stay well in our workplace, despite a generous sick leave policy. But I will literally have this person sitting next to me. I promised my spouse a special vacation that we will be going on shortly after my departure. Am I obligated to sit next to someone who is coughing and sneezing because he is too scared to not show up to his new job knowing that he only has a one-week stab at me? Believe it or not, I know of two people in my circle of friends who have had this happen. I don’t want to sound selfish, but I don’t think my company’s problem and the new person’s problem shouldn’t be my problem. What are your feelings on this? Is there a protocol? We are a large company. We are numbers. But after decades of dedication, it’s my opinion their problem should not be my problem. Or is it?

Before you try to opt out of training the person completely, are there  ways to do the training that don’t require sitting right next to him? Can you work from separate offices while on the phone with each other? Can you screen-share? Think about what you’d do if he’d been hired in a remote office and you still had to train him — or if one of you had serious allergies to something about the other. Companies make this work in those situations, so if you think creatively, you might be able to come up with solutions.

Meanwhile, it’s reasonable to say to your boss, “I feel terrible for Bob — he’s very sick and clearly felt like he had to show up since it’s his first week. But he’s quite ill, and I can’t risk sitting next to him all week while he’s likely contagious. Here’s what I propose instead…”

5. Boss okayed remote work and now is dragging his feet

I moved 300 miles in October to take a great new job. My husband told his boss at that time that I had moved and he would need to follow me. His boss came back with an offer to transition him into a role he could do remotely, with higher pay and a manager title. This sounded great at the time.

As of now, he does have the manager title and a little extra pay (though less than he was originally led to believe and salaried instead of hourly, so no overtime money), but he’s still in our last city because his boss can’t seem to let go. He’s basically still doing his old job because the guy they hired to replace him makes so many mistakes, and he’s been trained in his new jobs and is pulling his weight there as well. He told boss before Christmas that he wanted to move around now. Boss was evasive about giving a firm yes or no, so husband assumed it was fine and we gave notice on the apartment in that city that we would be out by the end of the month. Then, Boss said he wanted husband to stay for another three to six months! At this point, husband is no longer doing trainings, the vast majority of his work communications are by phone or email, and all of his work is on his laptop. I think that if his boss is saying that he can’t leave now, there’s never going to be a point when boss will say he can leave. I’m sick of doing the long-distance thing, and he’s even more miserable about it. I just don’t know how he should proceed to get out of this limbo.

How firm is your husband being with his boss? Ideally he’d say something like, “I’ve been relying on our agreement in October that I’d be working remotely by now. I’ve given notice on my apartment here and need to be out by the end of the month. I know you’d like me to stay longer, but at this point I do need to make the move. I’d like to plan on my last day in this city being (date). Can we move forward with that plan?” He could also say, “I’ve made a lot of plans based on the agreement we made last fall, and it’s not possible at this point for me to change those.”

But if the boss still drags his feet, that’s a sign that your husband may need to look for a different job in your new city.

listing an unfinished novel as a work accomplishment on your resume

A reader writes:

I’m a copywriter. It’s my first time hiring for a copywriter position.

I don’t want to be petty or unfair to applicants, but I don’t want to hear about people’s unfinished novels on their resumes or cover letters. In my opinion, it comes off as either immature, self absorbed, or really uninformed about the work (copywriting is really not at all like writing a novel, other than that they both use words). But is it wrong to reject applicants purely because they cite their unfinished novel as evidence of their writing skills?

If you complete the novel, even if it’s not published, I feel like that could rise to the level of a business accomplishment because it demonstrates dedication. But if you’re working on a novel for free (i.e. a publisher has not given you an advance), then that’s not really evidence that you can write especially well or even that you write regularly. There’s no deadline or editor that you’re beholden to.

I could see bringing it up in an interview when discussing culture fit or if you were looking for an editing position at a publishing house.

Am I missing something? I would love you know your take on this.

Full disclosure: I have about 150,000 words of my own unfinished novel but I don’t put it on my resume.

Yeah, it’s not something that should go on a resume, for exactly the reasons you say. It’s not evidence that you can write well, since there’s no accountability to others involved. And that’s not just because it’s unfinished; you could have a finished novel, but if it’s unsold, it indicates that you have stamina, but not much about the writing itself.

But I wouldn’t reject an otherwise excellent candidate for including it on their resume. It would raise my eyebrows, yes, and I wouldn’t be super impressed with their judgment in this regard … but if they had really strong experience and skills, those would outweigh it. On the other hand, if they kept citing it in the interview, that would be a fairly strong strike against them, because they’d be showing they didn’t really get that it’s not significant to the work of the job.

However, if the person didn’t have other evidence of strong writing and editing skills, and offered up only the existence of a partially written novel as qualifications for the job, then yeah, that’s a rejection — because the person isn’t really demonstrating any qualifications in that case (assuming you want to hire people with experience and a proven track record).

my coworker is getting credit for my work

A reader writes:

I work for a medium sized company on a very small team. For all intents and purposes, it is just me and my colleague, “Joe.” Joe and I both started at the same time and work on the same types of projects. The similarities end there, as Joe is the type to take 2-3 hour lunches and surf the internet, while I am working hard only a few feet away.

About six months ago, Joe was assigned a very large, very visible project. He struggled to handle it, and I was quickly pulled in to help by management. As Joe would freely admit, I ended up doing a majority of the project myself. It was extremely important for the company, and a month or so later we both received employee of the month for our contributions.

Fast forward to today, when Joe revealed that he has been selected as company-wide MVP based, in significant part, on this project. I congratulated him, but I can’t help but feel betrayed and disheartened by this turn of events. I worked day, night, and weekends on that project to make it successful after he all but gave up on it. Since then, he has turned down several large projects while I have taken on significantly more responsibility, yet he is the one receiving awards.

Part of me wants to speak with my manager and ask why someone received an award based on my project, but part of me thinks maybe that would be viewed as petty. I am already looking for another job, mostly due to the fact that I often feel I am being overlooked and under appreciated, but this was still a big shock. Do you have any suggestions? Is there even any point in trying anymore?

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.

we give our interns free housing — and there are problems

A reader writes:

I train and manage a team of young (22-25) paid interns who, as part of their compensation, have free housing in a shared living space owned by my organization. Recently, one of my female interns told me (in tears) that the male interns repeatedly use the word “bitch” in their shared living space, despite multiple requests from female staff to stop. This is not acceptable to me, and I am definitely going to address it.

How do I best approach these young men constructively without causing retaliation against my female interns? There’s no way for me to know about this unless I had been told, and I’m worried that it will become a bigger issue behind closed doors if I intervene. It also borders on controlling my employees’ behavior outside of work hours, so how do I make it clear that this is still a work-related issue even if they’re not “at work”?

You are bringing back terrible memories for me! Years and years ago, I worked for an organization that provided free housing for its interns — they purchased a huge old house, and had a staff member live there rent-free in exchange for making sure the house ran smoothly. For about a year, I was that staff member. (I was 25-ish and traveling all the time, so it seemed like a good deal! It was not.) I dealt with so much weirdness in that house, including having to talk to a guy who refused to flush the toilet for environmental reasons (not okay when you’re sharing a house with eight other people in it), food thieves, a woman who tried to insist on total silence after 8 p.m., interns who thought I was their mom and would drive them places, someone who liked to pee outside, and so much more. And for some reason, they could not be trained to lock the door when they left — which resulted in the house being robbed a few months after I left. (And when the robber came in, they made him tea! They assumed he was a new intern. Then they all headed out, and when they came back, the “new intern” and all their electronics were gone.)

Anyway, your question.

You’re providing living space and housing them with other interns; you absolutely have standing to insist that they not harass, degrade, or otherwise create a hostile environment for the other people in the house. You’re right, though, that you can’t address it without it becoming clear that someone reported it to you, but that’s okay — because as part of addressing it, you can make it clear that any kind of retaliation against people for talking to you will be even more of a problem than the original behavior.

Say something like this: “While you’re sharing living space with other interns, we expect you to be respectful. I’ve heard reports that you’ve been asked to stop calling people ‘bitches’ but you’ve continued. Can you tell me what’s going on?” Then you follow up with, “It does need to stop. We have an obligation to ensure that the living space we’re providing is livable for everyone in it, and we’d be legally liable as an organization if we heard people felt unsafe or harassed there and didn’t act. In general, if someone tells you your behavior in the house is unwelcome, assume you need to cut it out — or come talk to me if you think you shouldn’t need to.”

Then say, “I hope this goes unsaid, but part of treating the other interns in the house with respect means that there can’t be any retaliation against them for telling me what was going on. That’s something we would take very seriously, to the point of reconsidering your internship here. Do you feel like you’ll be be able to treat them normally and respectfully going forward?”

And then talk to the women who talked to you, let them know that you’ve addressed it and it shouldn’t be happening anymore, and that you want to know if there are any further problems. Tell them that you made it clear that it would unacceptable for anyone to retaliate against them for talking to you, and that they should let you know immediately if that happens.

You should also inquire more broadly about how things are going in the house — do they otherwise feel comfortable there and have there been any other problems? — and reiterate that if they feel unsafe or harassed in the future, they should come to you or another employee right away and you’ll help them, and it’s okay if they need to do that. In doing this, be open to hearing that they may not be super comfortable living with these dudes at all, and be prepared for the possibility that you may need to make changes there.

And then check in a few times with them in the weeks/months to come. People won’t always approach you when there are problems, so assume you’ll need to go out of your way to find out how things are going there and how comfortable people are feeling.

coworker is too aggressive about enforcing rules, colleague selling free stuff from work, and more

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

1. My coworker is too aggressive about keeping our lab clean

My colleague, who is my peer, recently got a responsibility he treats very seriously. That responsibility is focused around improvement of tidyness of the laboratory with a focus of reducing the risk of contamination. These are serious issues that I completely support — they are not only important, they are essential. Unfortunately, since he got that responsibility I find him unbearable: he bombards the team with letters about the “lack of discipline”; he tells us we are “looking for excuses” and the effect of negligence on our front are “gross.” He decided to clamp down on some minor issues and he is very committed to that task (while he doesn’t listen to opinions on the major, related issues, like cleanliness of the floor). He told me off for the supposed “bad practice” in front of the junior staff, and his rhetoric is really intense and at the moment is causing me anxiety and makes me self-loathe and makes me hate coming to work.

I would like to tell him somehow to pipe down, as at the moment my constant stress because of his attitude makes me less focused and less productive. I personally have lots of years of experience and my work does not suffer from contamination problems. I really do not want to appear obstructive — I wish him all the best with the difficult task he is fighting — I just cannot stand the constant crusade of pointing (some but not the other) errors in our work.

I also know he has struggled for the last few years with his performance, and he is trying to prove himself in this new niche — but I am tired of his clumsy attempts to shine. I would appreciate if you can tell me how to tactfully tell him to calm down a bit.

“Dude, can you take this down a notch? Reducing contamination is important, but this is way too intense.”

Or, “Hey, I support your efforts in this area, but none of us want to be scolded like this. Can you think about a lighter-touch approach?”

If that doesn’t work, talk to his manager. I suspect he’s gone rogue here, and his manager would rein him back in.

2. Colleague selling free stuff he gets from work

I work in a library in a university. We get a fair few donations of books, some of which we don’t need (relevance, duplication, etc.). I circulate lists of disposals to other libraries locally, then whatever’s left on the shelf gets offered to staff in the building. There’s always a scramble, and there are a few who descend like locusts and snap up the choicest morsels every time. You snooze, you lose, all’s fair and so on.

However, a colleague has raised concerns that another colleague takes some of the nicer books, then sells them on Amazon, pocketing the profits. I’ve not yet found concrete evidence to confirm this, and won’t take any action until I can be sure, but something about this strikes me as a bit … morally dubious. I can see if you’ve got a huge collection, and you realize that maybe you no longer want a particular title that you picked up for free, you might offer it for sale, but I suspect this isn’t what he’s doing. Given what he routinely takes, I worry that it’s more like he’s systematically depriving everyone else of certain (usually expensive and limited print) books to line his own pockets.

I feel like I’d like to address it with him or his line manager, but that it’s not really within my remit. After all, when those books go on that shelf, they’re effectively there for the taking, whether you decide to read them, use them to prop up table legs or shred them to line your hamster cage. Why shouldn’t I begrudge him this additional source of income? (The only reason I don’t do it for the library is the time/effort involved.) But it doesn’t sit well with me. As I said, these are often the nicest books (RRP can be $50-$75 or even a lot more for some of them). Is there any action you think I can take? Or do I find another solution?

Yes! It’s reasonable to officially say, “We ask that you take these books for personal use only. These are not for resale.” You’re not offering them to people so they can make money off of them; you’re offering them because they might derive personal enjoyment from the books, and there’s something unseemly about him rushing to deprive his colleagues of books they might want to read so that he can turn a profit.

And if you do find evidence after that that he’s taking them for resale, then he’s breaking a clear rule and profiting off his access to library books in a way that wasn’t intended, and it’s fair game at that point to tell him the books are now off-limits to him. If you don’t have the authority to do that, you probably do have the authority to bring it to the attention of someone who does.

3. Employer wants my salary history — but I’ve already accepted their job offer

I recently received a great offer to a new company, and they came in at exactly what I asked for. After I accepted and signed the offer letter, they sent me a link to enter my information to complete the background check, but in the employment verification section, they asked for my salary at every job in the past 10 years … and it is a required field in the form! I was unable to enter “n/a” so I submitted a zero so that it was clear that I wasn’t lying, just declining to provide the information. I’m not hiding anything undesirable, I just don’t see any reason they would need this information for such a long period of my career, and find it strange to be asked this on a background check. I would be curious to hear any thoughts, drawbacks, or suggestions on how to handle something like this in the future.

That’s actually a good way to handle it. It’s clear that you didn’t actually earn zero dollars at every job, so you’re conveying that you’re declining to answer that question. And you should decline — it’s none of their business. You’ve already accepted an offer from them!

If they come back and ask for the numbers, you can say pleasantly, “Oh, I don’t give out that information — my employers have always considered that confidential.” If they push, then you can say, “I’m confused about why you’re asking for it. I’ve accepted your offer. Can you explain why you’re looking for this now?”

More advice on this here and here.

4. Can I keep the money if I win my office’s March Madness pool?

This may sound like a silly thing to worry about, but I’m weirdly anxious about winning my office’s March Madness pool! We are a small company (nine employees total) and I am one of two remote employees on the staff. Last week, I received an email inviting all staff to participate in a March Madness pool — $15 entry, winner-take-all. I love sports and competition, so I immediately jumped on this and returned my completed bracket.

Now, though, I’m wondering what would be expected of me in the off chance that I win. Is keeping the money in poor taste? Would it be better to donate the money in the company’s name (and let my coworkers know), or purchase something for their office? If I worked in the same physical location as my coworkers, I guess I could bring in a box of donuts or treat to happy hour or something, but I’m across the country and won’t see them in person until August. I’m not saying I think I have the gift of magical foresight or anything, or that I think my winning is likely (although the pool is small so odds aren’t terrible!) but I can’t even enjoy rooting for my picks right now because I’m fixated on this. How would you proceed if you were in my place and happened to win?

You get to keep the money. Really — it’s totally normal to do that, and it’s what most people do. The exception would be if your office has some sort of specific-to-them tradition of you doing something else with it (and you could ask a coworker who’s been there longer than if that’s the case, if you weren’t there for the last one and it’s been a long-running tradition). But most people just keep it.

5. My peer did an exit interview with one of my employees behind my back

One of my direct reports put in notice for a much higher paying job with better benefits. A VP from another department, my peer, called this employee for an exit interview. During the interview, the VP asked the employee about my leadership, if I was driving them out of the company, and if I was competent. This seems inappropriate, but what if any recourse do I have?

Is there any chance that the VP was asked to do this by someone higher up? There’s a chance that could happen, like if they’re concerned about potential problems in your department and thought the VP had particular rapport with the exiting employee. But otherwise, yes, that’s inappropriate and out of line. You could talk to the VP and say, “I’m confused about how you got involved with the exit interview for Jane — what happened there?” Or you could talk to whoever normally arranges exit interviews and say, “I was surprised to hear Fergus called Jane for an exit interview — and frankly concerned about why he would be involved in something in my department like that. Can you give me any insight into how that came about?”