everything you want to know (or maybe don’t want to know) about job rejections

usnewsEver wonder what went on behind the scenes when you receive a job rejection? Or whether a human even looked at your resume before you got rejected? Or why employers sometimes send cringe-worthy rejection emails?

At U.S. News & World Report today, I answer those and lots of other questions about job rejections. You can read it here.

there’s a civil war in my office and I don’t want to take sides

A reader writes:

I am writing to you as a last resort because my workplace has spiraled beyond dysfunctional and I don’t know what else to do.

I recently started my first full-time job. One of my coworkers, Marley, was assigned to be my mentor and train me on how to navigate the company software, which is very complex, and help me with my projects. Now, from what I understand, Marley does not get along well with our manager, Andi. There is some bad history there from before I started working there, but even I can tell from the snarky tones and general impoliteness that Marley uses to address Andi.

Recently, a new policy was introduced which would change the way we handle our workflow and the priority level of certain projects. Marley took personal offense to this, and some of our coworkers encouraged her to complain to Andi to “stick it to her” and “show her who’s boss.” I missed a day of work because a family member went to the hospital, but when I came back, I learned that Marley had essentially threatened to quit.

I was very shocked and worried, because there were many things I hadn’t been trained on and wouldn’t be able to complete without a mentor. The office environment also became very tense and toxic around this time. For whatever reason, even though Andi sent out an email saying that Marley would be leaving the company, a bunch of people are saying that Andi isn’t really going to fire her or that she “doesn’t have the guts.” Marley also keeps talking to me and working with me as though she has the upper hand and nothing is wrong. She seems really sure that once this is over, there’s going to be some kind of repercussion for Andi. Marley has been here for almost two weeks and there isn’t any official word on when she’s going to be gone.

Half of the office is really involved in the drama; they’re the ones actively taking sides and being really vocal about whether Marley is going to stay or not. The other half of the office is just keeping their heads down and not saying anything; that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks but it’s getting to me and I don’t know why management isn’t doing anything about this. I tried going to my HR rep, but so far the only response is that “the issue is being handled.” I just want to cry because it’s so obviously not and I feel like the office is three steps away from a mutiny.

I come into work feeling like it’s a battlefield. The politics are way over my head and I spend half of my day paralyzed with anxiety. I’m scared to ask questions when I need help because I don’t want to get entangled in one of Marley’s tirades, but there is also a sort of unofficial shaming if anyone looks like they’re taking the manager’s side. I just sit in my seat for 10 minutes planning out how to ask my question and then escape. I can’t eat lunch in the office anymore because I’m scared that Marley will try to talk to me about this. Because I’m the newest employee, everyone seems to think I’m neutral or won’t say anything and keep using me as a sounding board to have these types of conversations with. I’ve been looking for a new job but I’m scared because this is my first full-time job and I haven’t been here for a full year yet.

I just want to be able to do my work without feeling like I’m about to get drafted into a civil war.

Oh my goodness, none of this is your problem. None of it.

Some random pieces of information, and then some advice:

* I don’t know what’s gone on between Marley and Andi, but I can tell you that someone who thinks it’s okay to routinely use “snarky tones and general impoliteness” with her boss is someone with no idea how to handle workplace conflicts and isn’t someone you want to be aligned with. From what you’ve written, Marley is a serious problem, regardless of what Andi’s shortcomings might be.

* Coworkers encouraging Marley to “show Andi who’s boss” are overlooking the highly pertinent detail that Andi is the boss. Marley’s belief that she’ll cause some kind of repercussion for Andi is probably delusional. (Without knowing all the details, I can’t say for sure — but it’s pretty likely that Marley is being naive, which would make sense given what else we’ve seen from her.)

* If Andi has already sent out an email saying that Marley is leaving, Marley is probably leaving and either resigned or has already been told to leave. That could change, of course. If Andi is a weak manager — and it sounds like she is — Marley could try to rescind her resignation and Andi could allow it. That would be a huge mistake on Andi’s side, but there are plenty of bad managers out there.

* If Marley does leave, you will be assigned someone else to train you. If Andi doesn’t realize she needs to do that, you can ask for it to happen. But people leave jobs in the middle of training new staff members all the time, and life goes on. You will be fine.

* You say that when HR told you the issue was being handled, it was obviously not true … but you don’t actually know that. It’s certainly not being handled as swiftly as it should be — they should have shut this all down two weeks ago, if not longer — but that doesn’t mean they’re not handling it at all. Some companies move slowly on this kind of thing, but they do move; it just may take longer than you want it to (and longer than it should).

Okay, now some advice for you:

Most importantly, stop feeling like you have to be involved in this in any way. You don’t have to have any feelings about this other than irritation that it’s impacting your work environment. You don’t have to listen to people’s tirades, and you don’t need to stop asking work questions. If anyone talks to you about what’s going on, these are your new mantras:
* “It’s important to me to stay out of this. Sorry! But I did want to ask you about (work topic X).”
* “I’m way too new to understand any of this, and that’s probably for the best. But can I ask you about (work topic X)?”
* “I’m committed to staying neutral on this one. I’m just too new. So I’m going to bow out of this conversation!”
* “I don’t feel right hearing this, since I’m so new. Can we talk about something else?”

Second, consider talking to Andi and letting her know that the situation is making the environment untenable. She may not have any idea how much Marley is talking about this, and hearing that might give her some additional urgency in acting. I assume you’re worried that if you talk to Andi, you’ll be penalized by coworkers for taking sides, but Andi is your boss. The situation is impacting your ability to get your work done, and she needs to know that. When you talk to her, you can also mention that you’re worried you’ll face repercussions among your coworkers for speaking with her because (a) it’s important for her to know that you (and probably others) feel like that and (b) she needs to know about it in order to ensure it doesn’t actually happen. Now, if she’s a weak manager, she may not be too skillful at (b) — but this is still a reasonable conversation for you to have, and if your coworkers hear about it and don’t like it, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? You’re already miserable there. It makes sense to do the thing that might make things a bit better.

Third, give this a month to play out. A month from now, this may have reached some kind of resolution and things may feel quite different in your office. Of course, it’s also possible that that won’t happen, but right now you’re smack in the middle of it, and it doesn’t make sense to draw any conclusions until you’ve given it some time to play out.

company wants to take over my personal phone number, should I tell my just-hired manager my concerns about the hiring process, and more

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

1. My company wants to take over the phone number I’ve been using for personal calls

I was given a work phone when I started my job three years ago. As part of her pitch to have me accept, my manager at the time said, “I got rid of my personal phone and just use this one, so you can do the same – it’s a real perk.” I didn’t ever get rid of my personal phone, but my work phone did become my primary contact number for friends and family during the week.

I’m now leaving the company. I gave three months notice and my last day is this week. I have just had an email asking that I give my phone (and number) to my colleague first thing on Monday morning (less than one working day notice to give my number over). I am deeply uncomfortable with this. I don’t think it is appropriate at ALL that a stranger will be given the number that I have been using for three years, especially when i have been given so little time to notify all my contacts. Am I able to say anything / refuse?

This actually isn’t that unusual because they own that phone and that number. And they have a business interest in ensuring that a business number continues to be answered by someone who works for them.

They were wrong not to explain to you from the start that they’d be taking that number back at the end of your employment with them — but you also sort of overlooked that major detail when you started using the work number as your personal contact number.

However, you could certainly say, “I didn’t realize I’d be giving up this number, so I need a couple of days to transfer all my contacts to my personal number. Is it okay for me to do the transfer on the morning of my last day?”

2. Should I connect with my just-hired manager on LinkedIn … and tell him my concerns about the selection process?

I work in a small IT department (four people including the director). The director has been here nearly 30 years. Two of the staff (including me) have been here 19+ years. Our IT Director has announced his retirement effective the end of this year. Both the other long-time staff member and I have expressed interest in the position over our last several annual performance reviews. In May, we were each informed (separately) that management had decided to fill the position from the outside. Neither of us were given interviews, and were both told that no internal applications were to be accepted.

I was not involved in the first round of interviews. But once the field was narrowed to two, I was asked by my manager (retiring IT director) and his manager (CFO) to sit in on part of the second interviews. I was the only staff member of our department given this opportunity. I have been told which one of those two candidates will be given an offer. IMO, he is the better choice of the two.

Is it appropriate to send this person a LinkedIn connection request? If so, when? Before he gets the offer? After he gets the offer, but before he accepts? After he accepts, but before he starts? After his start date?

At some point, I will need to have a very frank discussion with this person about my own career plans, and my thoughts on this selection process. But I am not sure if this is an appropriate conversation to have before he becomes supervisor or after.

Definitely don’t do that before he starts! He’s not working there yet, he’s not your manager yet, and contacting him to complain about the selection process would come across really strangely, and would probably set him up to see you as A Problem before he even starts.

Once he starts, give it some time. After working with him a bit, it might become really clear why your company only wanted to consider outside candidates. It might become clear that they wanted to bring someone in to make changes that they didn’t think could be made as effectively by someone who’s been there two decades already, or it might become clear that he brings key skills that you and you coworker don’t have. Give it some time to play out and impact your thinking before you initiate any conversation about how the process was handled.

As for the LinkedIn request, you can send that any time you want. I’d probably wait until after he accepts the job, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s no urgency though.

3. Can I ask my boss to stop interrupting my presentations?

I’ve been in a new role for a bit more than a year now, and one of the areas I’ve been struggling a bit in is presentations (which come up semi-regularly in my role). The biggest issues are that a) I haven’t been able to do them very often, b) I don’t get to use our analysis tool very often, which means giving demos on it is harder as it’s not fresh in my mind, and c) they have been on topics I’m not very familiar with. All of these are fixable and I know how to work on them.

The biggest issue for me has been that whenever I’ve been giving a presentation, it’s been in front of my boss, who never hesitates to jump in if he feels you have missed something or if someone in the audience asks a question. This has happened a few times now, and just results in me being even more uncomfortable because I know at any time he’s going to interrupt me, which breaks my flow.

So my question: my boss is generally a decent and sane person (although a bit of a control freak). Should (and if so, how) can I tell him to please stop interrupting me during my presentations? I’m happy to receive feedback later, or even for him to let me finish and then go back to points I missed, but the in the moment interruptions really bug me!

“As you know, I’ve been working on strengthening my presentations. I’ve noticed that I’m more likely to get thrown off and therefore to struggle with the presentation if you jump in while I’m in the middle of them. I absolutely want your feedback, and of course I understand if you think it’s crucial to correct something in the moment for the audience, but I wonder if I can ask you to wait to give me feedback until after I’m done? Or, if you want to add something, to do it at the end? Especially while I’m actively working to improve these, I think that would be really helpful to me.”

It’s possible that he’ll tell you that part of giving good presentations is being able to go with the flow and deal with interruptions, but it’s a reasonable thing to ask for and see what he says.

4. What’s a “letter of intent”?

Recently out of work, I’ve noticed a trend of specific job listings asking for a “letter of interest” or “letter of intent” instead of a cover letter. What reasons would someone in a hiring position ask for this? At first I thought these listing were merely asking for a cover letter in an incorrect way in a misguided attempt to sound fancy. However, I’ve noticed it so. Many. Times. Could an employer have legal or other reasons to request this?

Nah, it’s the same thing as a cover letter, just with a different name. I’ve seen some people say that cover letters are for when you’re applying for specific jobs, while letters of intent are what you send when you’re expressing general interest, but that’s really splitting hairs — and clearly inaccurate in the cases you’re seeing, since you’re seeing the term in ads for specific jobs.

Assume the terms are interchangeable, and don’t read anything into it.

5. Asking to delay a start date when you’re in the middle of buying a new house

My fiance and I started a condo search a few months ago (around April). After a while of searching, we finally found a place we liked and had our bid accepted (mid-June). Due to several reasons, our process has taken a while to close and we are now looking at a August 11 closing date.

My fiance has been thinking about switching jobs and had a very passive job search, maybe one job application once a month or every two months. But recently she saw a job that would be a great fit for her and what she wants to do at a bigger organization with more room for upward mobility. She applied, was given a phone interview, and was called back for a two-hour group interview. They asked her permission to check her references, and she indeed heard back from some of them saying they have been contacted. They have stated they would prefer to have someone start sooner rather than later, around August 11. Our banker told us it not recommended to change jobs during closing process. It can be done, just adds extra layers of paperwork and perhaps drags the process out further.

Would it be out of line to ask for a start date that is three or four weeks out after the closing on the condo? If it is okay, should she explain it is due to the closing or just ask for extra time on the start date?

Yep, it’s totally fine to ask, and she can explain that she’s in the middle of closing on a condo and is wary about changing jobs right in the middle of that process. People will understand that.

And she may not even need that much extra time. If she gets a job offer at the end of this week, she’s already going to be exactly two weeks from your closing date.

weekend free-for-all – July 22-23, 2017

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand. (This one is truly no work and no school.)

Book recommendation of the week: The Boy Who Loved Too Much: A True Story of Pathological Friendliness, by Jennifer Latson. I read this after reading this fascinating write-up in NYMag about Williams syndrome, also known as “cocktail party syndrome,” which makes people incredibly outgoing, extroverted, and trusting (as well as causing intellectual disabilities, physical problems, and musical and story-telling talents).

update: telling my company to revoke my IT access during our legal dispute

Remember the letter-writer last month who was on unpaid leave during a legal dispute with her company, had discovered that they hadn’t revoked her high-level IT access, and was wondering how to suggest they do so? (#5 at the link) Here’s the update.

I’m the letter-writer who asked about how to tell a company I was embroiled in a legal dispute with that I still had high-level IT admin permissions that had never been removed. A few folks in the comments asked for an update, and I am happy to have one.

A quick clarification first–nearly everyone told me all this communication should be coming from my lawyer and not me, and seemed shocked I was still talking to my company directly. I think this is a cultural difference between the U.S. and here–the process here is designed to minimise the need for litigation and NOT involve lawyers directly until very late. There’s about 4-6 rounds to the full process (as opposed to the U.S., where it seems like there’s nothing between “hope they come to their senses” and “take them to court”), and lawyers don’t really get involved directly until about round 5 (actually appearing in court). Earlier than that you’re allowed to have “legal advice” but are supposed to self-represent and have to petition the court to have a lawyer officially represent you in the earlier stages. While my company knew I was seeking legal advice, the communication stayed through me (advised by her) and my lawyer repeatedly advised me to minimize references to her, getting legal advice, “my lawyer says,” “I’ve been advised by a lawyer that,” etc. because she says that usually escalates things too quickly and makes it less likely to get a satisfactory outcome at the earlier stages. This sounds unlike what I’ve read on here about the U.S., where it seems this is often used as a soft threat to get people to back down before going to court.

A couple of things happened shortly after my question was answered. First, the HR person who had been so hostile ramped up their behaviour again and tried to have me flat out fired on a trumped up charge. I immediately escalated to the next step in the legal proceedings (essentially from the “flag that it’s happening but try to work it out yourselves” stage to the “telling the court we don’t think we can work it out and requesting official mediation” stage, which is mandatory before a hearing) and then I demanded to work with a different HR person.

This solidified for me that I needed to handle this access issue ASAP to reduce my personal risk. But based on the commentariat here, I knew I needed to approach it really carefully. I was pretty taken aback by the number of people who were of the opinion that I had done something wrong or that my company was going to think I had done something wrong by even knowing I still had access to the system (from passive alerts, as I clarified in the comments) or by thinking about the fact that I did. Junior Dev really hit the nail on the head with their comment: “It’s part of my job to make computer systems more secure; that means I have to understand the ways they could be insecure. But to people who don’t deal with those issues on a daily basis, all this can sound like scary hacker talk, or at least be hard to understand why someone could have good intentions yet still see opportunities to do harm.” I was thinking like an IT person trying to make security better talking to people who don’t understand IT security and I needed to moderate my message to accommodate for that.

I decided the best way to handle this was in the context of playing the “being the bigger person” card, even though part of me still just wants to tell them where to stuff it. I wrote the new HR person and told them with their permission I was planning to send my boss a short document to ease the difficulty of my unexpected absence on the company, which they said would be very appreciated. Then I spent about 30 minutes brain-dumping a document outlining things I had admin access to that needed to be transferred to other people, including things I knew had been missed because they hadn’t transferred my permissions yet (e.g., some of those passive notifications I mentioned, like error messages about integration between these systems).

This gave me the chance to both flag I needed to be removed from these systems and a chance to say politely “your info sec is crap; you should probably fix that for the future” (but worded much more professionally with a line taken nearly verbatim from from of the commenters about probably needing to update policies for the future to accommodate people being on unexpected absences for security and functional reasons), but all under the guise of helping them out. It was my assumption (cleared with my lawyer!) that this document would likely cut off any trouble before it started, but also protect me in case the worst I feared did happen.

I’ve always tried to deal with my company in good faith even when they weren’t returning the effort, and in this case it paid off. Between the new HR person and the goodwill over this document, they changed the tone of our interactions entirely and we went into the conciliation process with them being actually, well, conciliatory. We were able to negotiate a mostly-amicable settlement deal and I agreed to transition out in exchange for a reasonable severance. This let us avoid going to court entirely.

I wish none of this had happened and I was still working there, but it’s the best outcome for a crap situation, and now I am going to take a bit of a break then figure out how to move forward. A giant thanks to everyone here for helping me sort out my head about this during a very, very stressful time. It was extremely, extremely useful to have all of your perspectives.

open thread – July 21-22, 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 :)

calling in sick with cramps, application system is flagging me as using “inappropriate words,” and more

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

1. Calling in sick with cramps

I tend to get pretty crippling menstrual cramps on the first day of my period — not enough that I’ve seen a doctor about it, but enough that it cramps my style for an entire day. Sometimes, I feel well enough to get things done, but not well enough to be off the couch and in public.

What should I say to my manager (a man some years older than me) if I need to call in sick? I am tempted to just say “I’m sick” and leave it at that, but I’m worried that it’ll look fishy when I come into work the next day totally fine, since most illnesses don’t put you out of commission for just one day.

I don’t want to make him uncomfortable or give TMI, but I *really* don’t want to come off as lying. We have a pretty good rapport and have talked about marginally personal stuff before, and I know he’s a staunch feminist so can’t imagine him being too squeamish about female body stuff. I’d also like the opportunity to ask if I could work from home instead of using a sick day, if that seems reasonable. It would be ideal to do it every month (assuming that first day didn’t fall on a weekend), although maybe half the time it’s tolerable enough that I *can* go in, just really don’t want to.

I’m wondering if it seems ok to say something like: “I’m dealing with cramps today, but I still have work I’d like to get done — can I work from home for the day, or should I take a sick day instead?”

It’s not going to look weird to take a single sick day and then show up the next day; that’s actually really, really common. The bigger issue is that if it’s happening every month with no context, that’s going to eventually be noticeable.

Given that, my advice would be to say something like this to him: “I get horrific cramps one day a month and would like to work remotely that day if I’m able to work but not able to easily come in. I wanted to just ask you about it overall rather than asking monthly.”

(And then if there’s a day where the cramps won’t even let you work remotely, just handle that like a normal sick day … with no worries about it looking odd that it’s not followed by a second day.)

2. Application system is flagging me as using “inappropriate words”

I’m currently on my first real post-grad job hunt and your website has been super helpful in terms of cover letters and resumes! However, I’ve come across somewhat of a conundrum while job searching. What should I do when a job application that requires me to submit my resume in text form flags some words as inappropriate? And I’m not talking about any four letter words or sexual innuendos. One HR website I’ve applied through, in two different industries, has flagged the words “refugee” and “religious” in my resume, even though those words are integral in my resume; the word “refugee” is literally part of my current job title! Is this scaring potential employers off if/when they see my application has “inappropriate” words? And if so, how the heck do I get around it?

There’s a small icon that’s clickable right underneath the text box, and when you click on it, another window pops up with the “Word Filter Report.” It lists how many words, how many unique words, how many inappropriate words, and then lists the inappropriate words with how many times they’re used. This hasn’t barred me from submitting and doesn’t outright say “You have a resume with inappropriate words” upon submitting the application, but it still makes me wonder if hiring managers can see that something’s up with my resume.

This is just a weird part of some online application systems. You can ignore it. The vast majority of hiring managers aren’t paying any attention to it and in many/most cases won’t even see it (and even among the small number who might, it’s pretty widely known that this kind of filter will flag things that aren’t actually problematic in the context they’re being used in). It’s not like the hiring manager is getting a report that says “this candidate used questionable language.”

3. Can I tell another team to stop doing my team’s work?

I work for a company that has a headquarters in one state and several remote offices in another state. My team is based in one of the remote offices. Over the years, many of my team’s job functions have slowly been assumed by other teams at corporate. It’s not that my team is shirking their responsibilities; they are already performing these tasks. I think the problem is that the corporate teams may not know that these are already being handled by our team. I’m worried about losing our jobs because people don’t realize what we do.

If I find out that someone in corporate is working on something I normally work on, is there a tactful way to tell that person that that is something I handle and they should back off and send those tasks to me?

Two things: First in the moment, it’s fine to say to the person, “I saw you are working on teapot orders. I normally handle everything having to do with teapot orders — can I ask you to forward that stuff over to me to handle when you see it, so that I’m in the loop on all of it? There can be some fussy bits that wouldn’t be intuitive if you didn’t have the whole order file.”

But second, talk to your boss about the pattern. If it’s happening more than very rarely, it’s something she should be aware of and addressing more in a more big-picture way. Or, if you’re a manager yourself (I’m not entirely sure from your letter), then you have standing to talk with managers over at headquarters to explain the problem and try to come up with a broader solution.

4. Having women-only bathrooms without men-only bathrooms

At my workplace, we had four single-person bathrooms (separate entrances and not shared once inside). These were gender neutral so anyone could use them.

I think in response to people being perceived to leave the bathroom in a mess (several emails went around on the topic) and complaints from female employees (I’m guessing here), management have placed a sign on one of these bathrooms indicating that it is for women only. Occasionally male people are caught(!) using the women’s bathroom, and a “reminder” email goes around.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’ve stayed out of toiletgate, but I guess my thoughts are 1) not that big a deal so don’t worry, 2) single person gendered bathrooms are dumb, 3) if they’re going to gender bathrooms, it should apply both ways, and 4) I resent the implication that all men leave bathrooms in a dirty state (even if that may be true :) ). Interested in your thoughts!

Yeah, having a women-only bathroom while all the others are gender-neutral does imply that women are getting special treatment because men are gross. I’d say it’s moderately annoying, but not so egregious that it demands that good people fight back … but that if you want to advocate for a different system, it would be entirely reasonable to do so.

5. I saw a part-time job opening that would be perfect if it were full-time

I am in the private sector of a relatively small field where jobs are hard to come by. Recently, a job at a nearby academic institution has become available that I am well qualified for. I have wanted to break into the academic sector for a long time. It is a data management job, not a professorship. The problem is the job is part-time. I need full-time work. Is there advice you can give me on the etiquette and protocol for applying for a part-time job I would want if it was full-time or would it be poor form to submit my application materials?

If they’re advertising it as part-time, it’s very unlikely that they want to make it full-time. There may only be part-time work, or there may only be a part-time salary in their budget. So the only real way you can do this is by contacting them and saying something like, “I realize that this is part-time position, and I’m really only looking for full-time work. But I wanted to reach out and let you know that I’d love to talk with you if you ever decide to hire for a full-time role in this area.” Attach your resume, etc.

You’d do this not really expecting anything to come from it — since after all, they’re hiring for something different than you’re a match for — but if on the off chance it turns out that they’ve already been on the verge of realizing that maybe they need someone full-time after all, then great.

The point here, though, is that your framing — both to them and to yourself — needs to be “I realize this is unlikely, but just in case.”

we hired someone without talking to any references … and it went badly

About a month ago, a reader posted this in an open thread:

Does anyone have any experience hiring someone when you couldn’t get in touch with any real references? We recently interviewed some one who seemed okay but I had reservations. We didn’t have many good options, so we asked for her references. The only one we got in touch with was someone who worked with for 3 months 15 years ago and who is now her friend. We tried calling more recent employers and no one returned our (multiple) calls. Anyway, my boss was desperate and hired her.

I get that there might be some innocent explanation, but it’s a major red flag to me. Any stories (whether with good endings or bad) from similar situations?

At the time, I responded there with this: “It’s a major red flag. Can we use this as a test — will you report back to us in a few months about how she turned out as an employee?”

She did, and here’s what happened:

In an open thread a few weeks ago, I asked for experiences other commenters had with hiring someone when you couldn’t get in touch with any of their references, and you asked to report back with my story. Well…

Backstory: We were searching for someone for a position that required relatively difficult-to-find skills. The search went pretty poorly. At the interview stage, we had one candidate who I would categorize as “not great, but could work.” My manager and I agreed to move forward with her.

But then … we tried contacting her references. She has 10+ years of work history and we could not get in touch with anybody. When we went back to her asking for help, she provided references who, no joke, worked with her for 3 months 15+ years ago. We had been clear that even providing coworkers from her more recent jobs would have worked.

At this point, I was blinded by red flags and rescinded my support of her candidacy. Nevertheless, my boss offered her the job.

So … it’s been 3 weeks, and we’re letting her go tomorrow. It’s nothing egregious, but she lacks certain skills/personality traits (like resourcefulness, flexibility, etc.) that are necessary for the job. She’s also someone who I could definitely see being an “okay” employee in other jobs, but not someone who I would want to give a reference for.

I don’t know whether to consider this a “lesson learned” in terms of the references, because I’ve always known (partially from being a religious reader of this site) how important they are. But I’m a new supervisor, and I have learned that I need to put my foot down on hiring decisions when I will ultimately be cleaning the mess. I’m not sure how successful putting my foot down will be (since my manager is “involved” to say the least) but I will at least speak my mind.

Me again.

Yeah, it’s a lesson learned.

It’s not that there’s no conceivable situation where someone could have legitimate reasons for difficulty in coming up with references. Stuff happens — managers die, go off the grid, whatever. Or for people who are in their first job, it can sometimes be hard to figure who to use (since they usually won’t want to use a current boss who doesn’t know they’re looking). But that’s not what happened here. In this case, she didn’t give an explanation that made sense, and she didn’t take you up on it when you offered to let her use coworkers rather than bosses. There’s a reason for that.

And someone who’s a good employee with good judgment isn’t going to suggest references they worked with 15 years ago for three months.

So, the lessons to draw out for the future:

1. When someone can’t give you suitable references, have a conversation with them about why. You’ll get more insight by talking with them about it.

2. When you have reservations about a candidate, take those seriously. “Not great, but could work” is not enough to hire someone in most situations.

3. When you have reservations about a candidate but are considering hiring the person anyway, then you really, really need to speak with references to learn more. If you have reservations and the person can’t produce any references, that’s pretty much always got to end up with not hiring them.

4. When your boss wants to hire someone who you don’t think is the right choice, speak up. Ultimately your boss may overrule you, but it’s good to be on record clearly saying “I think this person would be the wrong hire, and here’s why.” (And I don’t think you managed this person but if I’m wrong and you did, then you have standing to push even harder.)

But also … experiences like this tend to be how people learn these lessons. I think everyone who’s been managing and hiring for a while has at least one story like this — so I wouldn’t beat yourself up over it too much.

with teen employees, where’s the line between reprimands and firing? (and a niece weighs in)

A reader writes:

This is not a question about something I am dealing with, but there was something in the news in my community that is really generating a lot of discussion. I was wondering what you thought about it.

A bunch of lifeguards (largely teens) were fired from our community pool. The director of the rec center won’t say much, only that it was about social media use. See here and here.

The comments are a mixed bag. Many people think this is extreme, but some also thought if they were sharing pictures of pool patrons, that would be a dealbreaker. Personally, I thought that if there is sexual harassment or racism/other bigotry, I can see where there would be a zero-tolerance policy. But it also made me think: where should the line be between reprimands and dismissal?

I expect the real cause will be leaked, but for the time being it’s generated a lot of conversation among those of us who manage high school or college students, who may not always have a good feel for what’s appropriate. We’re trying to figure out how we would have responded in various situations.

I know we just heard from a niece, but this question was too perfect to pass up bringing in a different niece: 17-year-old M., who’s in her second year of lifeguarding and thus is my lifeguard expert (and who has been making occasional appearances here since she was 12). Here’s our email exchange about this letter.

Me: So you’re a lifeguard. We obviously don’t have all the details here, but what’s your take on this?

M.: We don’t know exactly what was in the chats, but it sounds like it was “raunchy jokes” and in that case, I don’t think the guards should have been fired. But if a guard was making inappropriate jokes about another lifeguard, then the perpetrator should be let go.

However, because so many guards were fired, it seems like the management overreacted because probably not all of those guards said hurtful things.

From the comments and articles, it sounds like this pool has a very bad culture over​all, but the managers do have the right to fire​ people​ at any time because lifeguards are (to my knowledge) always hired at-will.  As long as the pool remains safely guarded with the correct number of lifeguards who get sufficient breaks, I would say the managers are still doing their jobs, except for keeping morale high.

Me: People are going to have group chats and stuff like that with their coworkers, especially when you get a group of people who are all around the same age. But it’s also true that sometimes it spirals out of control. Where do you think the right boundaries are for this kind of thing with coworkers?

M.: It probably differs at every pool, and each situation is different, which is why this is a difficult issue. In this particular pool, one of the guards was so hurt or disturbed by the group chat that they actually showed it to the superiors, believing it would be bad enough to warrant their attention. In my work group chats, there is very little that would get anybody fired, and I don’t think anybody would show it to our boss.

If I were a lifeguard manager, or whoever fired these people, I would draw the line at bullying or harassment. If one or more specific people were targeted in the chats, I would take action, and if it were bad enough, would let people go. But it is a delicate subject because the texts are not part of the job, so I would tread very lightly, as the whole thing is an invasion of privacy.

Me: So from the manager point of view, the concern is sometimes that the people involved in the group chat think that everyone is okay with, for example, raunchy jokes … but that really there’s one or more people who feel really uncomfortable with it, and who feel like they’re being subjected to a sexualized workplace, which can get into sexual harassment issues. Because a lot of times, people won’t speak up if they feel uncomfortable about something … which leads to everyone else assuming they’re fine with it, but they’re actually not. That’s why workplaces will often shut down any kind of chat like that, because it can lead to legal issues for them even if it’s all happening during non-work hours.

That said, with young employees, like lifeguards tend to be, I think it generally makes sense to just explain this to them rather than firing them for it (unless it was really egregious, and I’d put “sharing photos of pool patrons” in the really egregious category). People aren’t born knowing this stuff, and the way they learn it is usually that some manager takes the time to explain it to them. What do you think about that — does it ring true to you?

M.: That is true, and I didn’t really think about it.

I know that my coworkers have lots of different group chats, so you just have to know your audience. But in person, it seems that everyone is chill with one another and can say whatever they want, too. A chat just seems more permanent. Probably, if nobody was bullied or harassed personally, then the managers should just explain everything in an inservice, so people can adjust the chats accordingly.

But, also, it depends on the culture of the workplace. At a pool I used to work at, we didn’t have any group chats (that I know of), or at least any with the majority or all of the staff. Almost all communication was through email, with the boss CC’d. It was not a super fun environment, but strictly professional. At my job now, many more friendships are made, and it is a very fun place to work, and there are more chats, and those who don’t want to be in the chats just leave them.

Me: Yeah, culture is always a huge factor. You are weirdly smart about this stuff. Do you feel like you understand workplace stuff better than most of your friends? Where do you think it comes from? I’d love to take the credit, but I don’t think I’m actually responsible for it.

M.: ​Thank you! I just think because I have had a few different jobs with some bad managers, some so/so, and some good, I am able to see what works and what doesn’t. I think that people my age who work understand this, because people always think about what they wish a manager would do.

Me: AND because of fervent reading of Ask a Manager, right?

M.: Yes of course.

my family thinks my daughter is too picky about the jobs she applies for

A reader writes:

My daughter, a university student, recently was hired for a summer job that matches her field of study. My question, now that she has a job for the summer, is not urgent, but I am sure will come up again next year, and when she graduates.

She is an introvert, and quite shy on top of that. She knows that she would find jobs that require a lot of contact with the public torturous, and therefore did not apply to any openings for fast food or retail outlets, although that is the type of job that is most plentiful for her age group. (Her current position involves very limited contact with the public—perfect for her!) She has worked at residential camps for the last two summers, and reached the conclusion that she never again wants to work with children, so she also did not apply for anything that would involve supervising kids. Although these decisions limited the number of jobs available, she found and applied for a couple of dozen positions that looked like they would be a better fit for her, and had some interviews.

I supported her in her decision not to apply for jobs she didn’t want, but other relatives were not so kind. She/we had to endure many lectures about how she should be applying for every opening she saw, even if she would hate the job, as “any job is better than none.” If money was an issue, I might agree, but she is in the fortunate position of already having money set aside to complete her degree. Getting work this summer was more a case of developing a work history for her resume. (She was prepared to volunteer for the summer if she couldn’t find a job.)

My question concerns all the flack we got about her choosiness in what to apply for. Was I right to encourage her to only apply for jobs she actually wanted? Or should I have been joining the rest of the family in insisting the important thing was to have a job—any job? The thing is, not only would she hate jobs that required a lot of public contact, from my past experience with her when forced to deal with strangers, she probably wouldn’t be very good at them either. You have often stated that interviewing goes both ways—the job seeker is determining if they want the position as much as the employer is determining whether they want this person for the position. If you aren’t desperate for a position, is there any point in applying for ones you know you don’t want? (The problem being, if she applied and then got an offer—because as far as I can tell, fast food outlets hire any warm body that expresses an interest–the logic that any job is better than none would result her working in a job she hated, and likely was not good at, and therefore resulting in not being able to use her supervisors as future references, which in my opinion partly defeats the goal of building a work history.) Any thoughts?

She got a job, and one in her field, so it sounds like this strategy worked just fine. And in the process, you hopefully reinforced for her the idea that she should think about what she’s good at and what she likes when she’s thinking about what jobs to apply for. That’s a message that will serve her well.

If she had been struggling to find a job using this strategy, then at some point you would have needed to talk with her about what one does when that happens — things like at what point to decide that you’re being too choosy for your circumstances, and how to balance meeting your financial obligations with not wanting to be miserable. Her search didn’t play out that way so you didn’t have to have that conversation, although it could still be an interesting one to have now.

But the goal, of course, is to work to get yourself into a position where you can be choosy. Choosy is good, when circumstances allow for it. If your daughter was able to be choosy and land a job she wanted, good for her!

The easiest way to shut down lectures from relatives who have Very Important Input to provide about your daughter’s job search is to drastically limit the amount of information you give them about it. If you keep things vague, they won’t have a lot to opine on.

However, with closer relatives who are generally reasonable, you could also point out in the future that your daughter’s strategy has served her well so far, and that she’s smart enough to adjust it if it becomes clear that she needs to.