can I pass along my boyfriend’s professional advice to my coworkers?

by Ask a Manager on December 12, 2013

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?”

The response:

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.

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

J December 12, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Another idea is, while I assume the boyfriend is mostly citing his own experience, a lot of the time you can find the same “answers” from other sources: industry articles, professional associations, networking contacts etc. So you might try to see if his solution is supported in the industry literature, and cite the other source instead of him. An added bonus is that you’ll get extra context and information from the other sources, and professional development from reading in your field or networking with others in your profession.

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EJ December 12, 2013 at 12:45 pm

+1.

Could have saved me a lot of typing, and said it much better.

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reverse engineer December 12, 2013 at 5:21 pm

+1

You can also go an additional step: if you find some useful sites about the problem, figure out a google phrase that lands them on the first page or two.

Also: “friend” vs “boyfriend” is okay. “I was talking shop with a friend of mine in a similar position…” (As long as your place isn’t possessive of IP, and then talking to anyone regardless of relation would be frowned upon)

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Mints December 13, 2013 at 2:19 pm

A variation of this is to cite a forum. I think Spiceworks is an IT community? If it’s a problem that is on-going, and people ate trying to solve, it seems reasonable to say like “I was reading about that chocolate mold problem on Spiceworks to get a better understanding of it, and some commenters said that cocoa butter had helped.” That way I think there’s more of an implied “maybe this won’t work” and that you were doing research for yourself

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DogMom December 12, 2013 at 12:42 pm

A phrase I find useful in similar situations is, “What would happen if you/we” and then the suggestion.

Take from this whatever seems useful, disregard the rest.

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clobbered December 12, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Exactly this (from experience having a spouse in the same field).

“Is there a chance more cocoa butter in the mix would help?” is a perfectly legitimate question, and don’t argue if they say no. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.

I will say this gets a lot better when you are not a junior person and you (and your spouse) are known and you have your own expertise. Then you can be entirely straightforward (absent any confidentiality restrictions) and say “I was talking to Mary last night and something she said made me think that the problem could be in the cocoa butter. I checked it out and seems she was right”.

Like with all sorts of situations, the more credibility you have, the more you can be free to speak the truth without worrying about perceptions.

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LW December 12, 2013 at 4:31 pm

LW here,

This is actually a good reminder that when bf and I are discussing, I should make sure to pry for details about how to fix the problem. Thanks!

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EJ December 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Have to respectfully disagree with AAM on this one in terms if how to offer the avice to your coworkers.

There’s no reason to refer to your boyfriend at all, and in fact depending on your industry, it could be considered a real problem that you’re sharing internal processes with an outsider. That’s not to say you shouldn’t, just that there’s no reason to draw attention to it.

You might be better off just mentioning the idea rather Than attributing it to “Bob”. People come up with ideas all the time, from all types of sources – research, the internet, books, experience…the list goes on.

I would find it awkward to be told that someone’s boyfriend suggests I do my job differently – but I’d be open to suggestions from a coworker.

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Ask a Manager December 12, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Yeah, my only worry there is that if she presents the idea as her own, she’s potentially opening herself up to appearing to have expertise that she doesn’t have, which could be a problem if they start giving her assignments she’s not equipped for, expecting her to be able to answer follow-up questions about the idea, etc. She could combat this a bit by using J’s idea above about finding the answer in another source, but it could be a tricky line to walk (as opposed to just being open about it).

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sunny-dee December 12, 2013 at 5:05 pm

I have actually encountered something similar. My brother is a software developer and I work in the software industry in a non-development role, but I interact with engineers and testing groups daily. Frequently, I’ll be talking about something, and my brother will be like, “Oh, have you thought of X?” and it is a very reasonable thing to bring up, but outside my expertise. So I feel a bit like a fraud mentioning it, but it’s also been useful in the past.

One thing, though — one of my development teams has actually worked with my brother before. I’ve even had them ask me to ask him something. That takes the edge off bringing up one of his ideas, at least with that team.

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Jeanne December 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm

I don’t know what industry you’re in. At my last job, I would have been in trouble if they knew I was discussing details with outsiders. Make sure you’re not crossing the line by having discussed your work in that much detail.

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Suz December 12, 2013 at 12:58 pm

I had the same thought. Your company probably has some trade secrets they use in their teapot manufacturing. You don’t want to risk getting into trouble or fired for sharing confidential information with someone who doesn’t work at your company.

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LW December 12, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Employees certainly have access to proprietary information (though I personally have very little.) My questions are usually about process stuff that’s the same everywhere.

It seems unlikely that I’d bring up any trade secrets in the course of regular discussion anyway, though, since I wouldn’t expect him to have knowledge of them that I don’t have.

I am very meticulous about what I discuss, nevertheless!

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The IT Manager December 12, 2013 at 1:20 pm

giant servers plus traditonally male dominated field sure sounds like IT.

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The IT Manager December 12, 2013 at 1:55 pm

In that case, I think you’re fine discussing non-proprietary technical issue with your bf. Reminds me of a class I took where one of my classmate often came into class, discussed work problems, and the instructor and the rest of us tried to help solve them. Nothing about setting up COTS software to work on a network liked we discussed needed to be kept secret. In fact these things are commonly discussed on message boards and forums all over the internet.

I do agree with Alison not to walk in as if you hold the solution because until you troubleshoot you do not know for sure, but I think its perfectly fine to arrive the next morning saying you spoke with someone, researched the problem, or something and have an idea to try.

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B December 12, 2013 at 1:23 pm

This was my exact thought as well. Be careful you are not oversharing and especially if you plan on giving out a suggestion on fixing it. Sometimes what you may consider not to be confidential is in fact confidential. Get a good feel for what is or isn’t, or ask someone what types of things are.

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LW December 12, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Well, my general sense is that if it’s a process I could have found documentation for on the internet if I’d known what to search for, it’s okay to discuss with non-employees. Do you think that’s accurate (assuming Google doesn’t lead me to illicit leaked documents?)

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sunny-dee December 12, 2013 at 5:06 pm

That’s been my rule of thumb, too, LW.

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Anon December 12, 2013 at 1:35 pm

I agree. It can be hard to figure out in the beginning of your career what kinds of things are and aren’t supposed to ‘leave the office,’ so to speak. I would tread lightly in this area until you know what is and isn’t appropriate to share.

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Brett December 12, 2013 at 12:44 pm

An additional factor here could be whether or not the coworkers involved actually know Bob as a professional. The husband of one of my recently hired co-workers works in the same industry for a different employer, and if she told me that he recommended a certain solution, I would listen because I know her husband’s professional reputation.
(Though she is rapidly building an impressive reputation anyway, but I know he has certainly specializations where his input, even from the outside, would be valuable.)

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Ed December 12, 2013 at 12:52 pm

This kind of stuff has a way of really pissing people off. People are so territorial/insecure. Nobody seems to like it when the new person makes suggestions, especially when it’s not even from their own experience. I’ve even been the new person on teams where I had the most industry experience on the team and it made people mad when I offered suggestions. Personally, I would just keep my mouth shut. If I am new on a job and offer suggestions from past experience, I word it very carefully so I don’t step on any toes.

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Cajun2core December 12, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Remind me not to work where you work. It sounds like a hostile environment.

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The IT Manager December 13, 2013 at 9:54 am

I agree, but I am also feeling a industry culture division in these comments. Like I said, I suspect this is IT. IT has something of a culture of valueing people for what they can do and not just years on the job, and of using the internet and forums ask for help to solve problems.

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Malissa December 12, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Tricky situation. I would phrase more like I did a little research on this and adding cocoa butter seemed to help, what do you think of that/have we tried that? Possible follow up with a can you tell me why this would be a good idea or why this isn’t appropriate here?
It is true, research can involve asking others and you’re not being pushy in your suggestion. Also you are making it into a learning situation for you, so maybe you’ll be more knowledgeable the next time. Also you’ll get a better feeling about how to handle situations like this in the future.

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Gail L December 12, 2013 at 1:14 pm

I’d take this slower.

“What kinds of things do we try to solve issues like this? What have we tried so far?” With the right tone, this is a good question because as a trainee this is a good thing for her to learn – what’s the process they have for solving the problem and how do they go about working through things. If they’ve already tried her boyfriend’s solution, she can keep quiet.

If they haven’t, she can pipe up that once her boyfriend in the industry had a similar problem, and solved it by X.

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LW December 12, 2013 at 4:42 pm

It seems a lot less problematic to frame suggestions as “something my boyfriend in the industry did once” than “something my boyfriend suggested yesterday”, so I’ll keep that one in mind, thanks!

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twentymilehike December 12, 2013 at 1:21 pm

I have experienced a little bit of a similar situation. My hubby was a pro in my old industry (we both had our jobs when we met and got married), but when I didn’t know something, I’d often call him for guidance and/or to pick his brain. Sometimes I gave his informaiton as suggestions, but mostly I used it as personal knowlege. I can definately say that disussing the industry with my experienced husband was a useful tool in progressing in my own job. You just have to know when to speak up and when to let it go.

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Helen S. December 12, 2013 at 1:24 pm

I work in the software industry, as does my S.O. If I learn a new concept from him, I now know it, and I don’t need to credit him. Much like I don’t start sentences with “in college I learned…” I don’t go around saying “my boyfriend taught me…” because the place I learned something usually isn’t relevant. However, once or twice I have passed something along at work that my boyfriend told me about, and mentioned it came from him, because it was something I myself knew very little about and I didn’t want to misrepresent that. I agree that this should happen rarely and it should definitely be about something not at all confidential. There’s a larger problem if your boyfriend constantly has solutions that no one else at your work including you can figure out.

Just in my personal experience, I have noticed that women tend to give a lot of credit to the source of how they know certain things, and men almost never do this. It can be hard to find a good balance between always giving credit where credit is due even when it isn’t necessary, and trying to seem like you yourself are an expert on everything.

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Anonymous December 12, 2013 at 1:46 pm

This. I learned a TON from an ex (he was a VBA programmer who pushed Excel into strange places I don’t think even Microsoft ever intended it to bend) but I didn’t go around volunteering that information when I said things like, “we could also try doing it [x] way.”

If someone asked me, “wow, how’d you learn so much about Excel?” then I’d be honest and say, “I picked it up from D___,” but people didn’t ask much and the ones who did, I was relatively buddy-buddy enough with to be honest.

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bearing December 12, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Ha, I need to ask my husband how he handles this question at work.

I am home raising kids, but I have graduate-level training in the academic branch of the same field in which my husband works in industry. We talk about technical problems at his job all the time. I think I serve mostly as a sounding board rather than an originator of new ideas that are specific to the systems he is working on.

Anyway, even if I did come up with some great insight that actually became useful for him at work, I recognize that the ability to use that insight is up to someone who knows the specifics — it is his job to incorporate it into his own body of knowledge, much as if I were a textbook he consulted. It is his job and his job to decide how to think about the technical problems. I would not feel slighted in the least if he never chose to reveal at work that some idea came to him through a discussion with me.

OP I say think of it as only part of the ways that you can learn about the industry. I like the idea to check what your boyfriend says against industry publications and other sources of info. Take it in and make the knowledge part of yourself; then you get to make the decisions about how to prudently apply your knowledge.

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Windchime December 12, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Yeah, I was trying to figure out how to state this. I would worry about saying, “Bob thinks this”, or “Bob suggests that”. That will undermine the OP’s credibility, in my opinion.

I am also in IT. I have a colleague on my team who will often share our issues with her husband (also in IT), and she’ll bring back his opinions to our team. The difference is that my colleague has years of experience and is a leader on our team. Somehow, that feels different to me than someone reporting what their boyfriend thinks.

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PoohBear McGriddles December 12, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Besides not sharing information you’re not supposed to with outsiders, you also don’t want to come off sounding like Bobby Boucher from the Waterboy “Momma says alligators so ornery cuz they got all them teeth but no toothbrush”).

Still, it can be good to have an outsider to give an additional perspective. When I was in college, I had a job making eyeglasses. I learned a lot from an online forum for people in that field, and was able to use what I learned there at work. In my current job, I have a former coworker with whom I regularly discuss non-specific work issues.

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AVP December 12, 2013 at 2:31 pm

I also have this occasionally, as one of my best friends is in my industry but 3-4 years ahead of me in terms of experience. And she used to work at my company, so everyone knows her and she knows our processes well. Occasionally I’ll run into something I can’t get past and will run it by her, or she’ll recommend a new vendor or an app that she thinks I’ll like. If I pass something on from her I usually bend over backwards to give credit where credit is due, but I try not to do it super often. And I do due diligence on whatever it is, since what works well for someone else is not necessarily going to work for everyone.

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Jamie December 12, 2013 at 4:04 pm

All I know is if someone with whom I worked had a bf who knew how to get this grand total in a report footer to calculate properly – when the 3 formula magic trick for summing report variables with conditional attributes didn’t work and it’s soooo close…well if someone walked in with a solution to that I would buy them a gift basket full of muffins and love.

But yeah – in the OPs situation it’s risky enough that I wouldn’t do it unless it was really sparingly and a huge glaring problem that’s driving people crazy and they are desperate for input to fix it already.

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joanne December 12, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Thanks to this post, I now have one email in my inbox. Everything else is filed away in newly created folders! No more sifting through 12 months of emails to find the info I need! Thank you, guys. It was the kick in the tush I needed.

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Meg December 12, 2013 at 4:38 pm

As a programmer, I end up offering solutions to programming issues that I’ve researched or consulted on, and never feel bad about “Oh I didn’t come up with this on my own; better give the proper credit!”

In most cases, it’s not about knowing the answer to the question, but rather can you find the answer to the question. Where the solution came from is hardly a problem, and you end up retaining that information as your own knowledge anyway.

OP, I bet you’ll never forget to check the cocoa butter when you come across that problem. Where did that information come from? Experience. Give credit to your experience.

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LW December 13, 2013 at 9:36 am

My bf actually seemed a bit surprised when I mentioned that I wasn’t sure how I felt about passing along his comments, and said something like “I’m just a more targeted version of Google.”

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NK December 12, 2013 at 4:42 pm

I think the right answer is highly dependent on the situation and requires some professional judgment. I agree with AAM that if OP sounds like she knows more than she does, she runs the risk of getting assigned things beyond her capabilities. And if the work is highly technical, it may be that there’s no way she would know this stuff on her own. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for new people to bring in fresh ideas about how to do things. If it’s the latter, I say she should bring it up on her own, and credit her boyfriend only if asked. This isn’t school, it isn’t “cheating” to bring in someone else’s idea (assuming they’re ok with it, which presumably he is, and that you’re not violating any sort of confidentiality or copyright issues). And because she used that phrasing, I’m guessing she’s just more timid about bringing in her own ideas than concerned about getting in over her head at work.

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LW December 13, 2013 at 10:55 am

I think my feeling like it’s “cheating” is mostly the result of having had “ALWAYS CITE YOUR SOURCES” ingrained into my brain over the course of many years of postsecondary education. :)

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Henry December 16, 2013 at 6:12 am

My wife works in PR, and one of their clients is closely related to my industry. She asked her boss “Can I ask Henry for background on Chocolate Teapots?”, to which the reply was “Actually, can he meet all three of us after work one evening for a chat?”.

So yes- sometimes it works very nicely.

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ethel March 10, 2014 at 12:27 am

For one thing, when I’m at work, all past boyfriends, girlfriends, and family members become “My friend” or “someone” who “once told me.” I have no blood or love ties as far as co-workers know, until I get to know them better.

As for making sugggestions when you’re a TRAINEE:

The LW is crazy if she thinks she can walk into the chocolate factory and save it from ruin like Charley Bucket. When you’re training, your job is to learn first, make suggestions later. You look like a complete arrrogant shit who’s going to break things and cost them more money than your training is worth if you can’t learn how to do your job without “improving” things.

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