A reader writes:
Thanks to much of your advice on job-hunting — particularly the idea that interviews are a two-way street, which really helped me keep composed when I went in for my interview — I landed an entry-level position with a great company in a field I’d hoped to get into for a long time. Yay!
My boyfriend has a significant amount of background in my new field. From time to time, we’ll discuss work and I’ll mention that we had trouble getting the chocolate to extrude correctly to fill a certain teapot mold, and he’ll say, “Huh, sounds like you should check to see if there’s enough cocoa butter in the melted chocolate mix” (or some other solution that I never would have come up with on my own.)
But, then what? I’m a little hesitant to turn up at work the next day and say “Hey, we need to add more cocoa butter”! It’s not like I’m getting help on things I’m expected to be able to do myself (see: entry level position), but using advice from someone who doesn’t even work here still feels like cheating. Plus, when someone says “wow, how’d you figure that out?” I’d have to say “I asked my boyfriend!” (I think I might be a little bit extra conscious of this because I’m female and working in a traditionally male-dominated field, and am paranoid about playing into stereotypes, even though none of my coworkers have done anything to make me think this would be an issue.)
On the other hand, no one benefits from holey teapots, so I wonder whether I should just get over my hesitation.
I wrote back and asked, “Are the problems that he’s making suggestions about stuff that you’re in charge of handling, or is it someone else’s purview?”
Since I am still a trainee, there’s very little I’m actually in charge of, but the projects are always something I am personally working on, either helping or under the supervision of someone more experienced.
… When I think about it in terms of it actually being someone else’s responsibility, it seems extra awkward to offer outside information. But the last time this happened we almost ended up sending the entire batch of molds (actually giant servers) back because we thought they were defective. Eventually another employee figured out the solution, but I would have felt really bad about letting us go to the trouble and expense of sending them back when the problem was actually on our end (and I knew what needed to be fixed.)
I think you can pass along his input occasionally, but not regularly.
I absolutely agree that you don’t want to not speak up about a problem that you know how to fix, but you also need to keep in mind that your boyfriend might not have enough information to actually know what the solution is, or what has been tried and failed, or what has been tried and discarded for some other reason. You also need to keep in mind that the people in charge of doing this stuff presumably have at least a decent level of expertise or they wouldn’t be in charge of it (and if that’s not the case, there are bigger problems that passing along suggestions won’t be able to fix).
But occasionally passing along some thoughts? Sure. Just make sure that your answer reflects the caveats in the paragraph above. That means that you don’t want to come across as “Bob says the problem is ABC,” but rather something like “Bob was telling me he once ran into something similar, and Y worked to resolve it” or “Bob works on X and suggested that we take a look at Y.” And if this stuff is really outside of your purview, you can acknowledge that by adding, “I have no idea if that will help here but wanted to pass it on.”
The idea is that you don’t want to seem like you think that someone from the outside has definite answers to problems that someone on the inside is having trouble finding — particularly when that insider presumably has a more nuanced view of the situation — or that you’re confident that he’s right (not because you don’t trust him, but because he isn’t seeing it firsthand).
As long as you do that, and as long as it isn’t constant, the input should be appreciated.