colleague told me to “stay in my lane,” feeling useless at first job, and more

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

1. Senior colleague told me to “stay in my lane”

I recently gave notice at my large corporation. I accepted a similar role at a smaller company. I left due to culture fit; I like a less structured, faster paced organization.

A senior-level executive pulled me aside to give me advice: “Stay in your lane. You connect with too many people. You will look like you don’t know what you want.” My work performance and reviews have been excellent. I am skilled at building connections with stakeholders as its part of my job; hence, I need to develop cross-functional relationships.

I want to grow as a professional, but I am having trouble digesting this feedback. How would you interpret this?

Well, if it’s true, I’d interpret it as meaning that you’re sort of bouncing all over the organization, possibly being aggressive in your efforts to form professional relationships with people, and that it’s coming across as being more scattered than focused, and maybe schmoozy for the sake of being schmoozy rather than genuine.

However, it’s also possible that this executive is just totally off-base. I’d run the feedback by other people whose judgment you trust — people you’ve worked with, so they know your specific context and the habits this person might have been referring to — and see if they think there’s anything to to it. If you talk with other senior colleagues (hopefully there are at least one or two you’d feel comfortable approaching in a mentor sort of way) and they don’t agree, I’d write it off as one person’s odd opinion (and possibly one full of biases and agendas, who knows).

2. Spending six months volunteering before looking for a paid job

I recently stepped down from my high-stress/low-reward position to something much more sedate. It was a good decision mentally, and it’s meant that I can do other things with my time. One of those things is volunteering two afternoons a week with a pretty well-known NGO. Since volunteering with them, I’ve realized this is the sort of work I want to be doing. (The work is looking after their social media, making contacts with government officials/staff, writing media releases, petition signing, event management, phoning previous event participants to see if they would like to participate again, general organization stuff, etc.)

I’m wondering, though, if the work I’ve been doing for them will have a different weighting than work that I was getting paid for. I’d like to spend the next six months volunteering with them so that I have some really solid skills when I am looking for a job (also, it’s really important work and I’m having a ball). But I’m wondering if I should be looking for paid work at the same time?

Yeah, sometimes volunteer work does get less weight than paid work — often because it’s very, very part-time, and often because employers assume that there’s less accountability and the bar for performance is lower. However, you can get around that, especially the second part, by focusing on what accomplishments you had in the role, rather than just what activities you engaged in (which you should always do on your resume anyway). If you can say, for example, that you increased their social media followers by 20%, successfully placed stories in the Teapot Times and the Teapot Daily, and became a go-to resource for local legislators — or whatever your specific accomplishments are — you’ll make moot the question of whether the volunteering made it a less serious job.

So whether you should be looking for paid work now probably depends on how likely you think you are to have those types of accomplishments from the volunteer job at the end of this six months. If you do, you might be better positioned to move into this field professionally at the end of that six months than if you started now, before you have that proven track record.

3. I feel useless at my first high school job

I’m a senior in high school and I recently got my first job, which I thought would be a pretty standard part-time, entry-level retail job. I initially applied for a position that basically involved cashiering, stocking, etc., but during my interview, the hiring manager offered me a different position, more as a salesperson on the tech side of the store, and I accepted because the pay was ridiculously high for an entry-level job.

The problem is, I’m awful at it and I feel useless because of it. I was told I wouldn’t need a whole lot of technical knowledge – I’m pretty good with computers, but tech isn’t something I’m really passionate about – but every few questions a customer asks me is one I don’t know how to answer. I’m not cut out for sales at all (my planned career path has nothing to do with either tech or sales), and I feel like I’m constantly disappointing my manager. (Plus, when there aren’t a lot of customers in the store, there’s nothing to do). I dread going into work because it ends up being hours of just aimlessly walking around or failing to adequately answer customer questions.

What should I do? Again, it’s very well-paying and I’m sure it’s much more comfortable than the average high schooler’s job, but I want to feel like I’m actually contributing to my workplace instead of just getting paid to stand there and redirect questions. How do I make this job better for both myself and my employer?

Can you talk to your manager and explain that you’d like to be able to do a better job answering customers’ questions and ask if there’s any training that you could have? Or if there’s a more senior salesperson you could observe or get coaching from?

Alternately, if you’re sure that you really don’t want this job, would you want the cashiering position you originally applied for? If so, you could talk to your manager, explain that you think you’d be more interested in that role after all, and ask if it would be possible to move to it, and that you understand the pay would be lower.

There’s no shame in any of this; you’re at the very early stages of figuring out what you do and don’t like in a job, and this is part of the process. It’s not like your complaints are “I hate working at all”; you’ve identified very specific things you don’t like … and one of them is that you feel unhelpful and want to contribute more, which is a good instinct to have. So talk to your manager and see what your options are. (And then come back and update us if you want!)

4. Confusing titles on a resume

In five jobs over 10 years (in a field where that isn’t a huge red flag, don’t worry), only the most recent two have had official job titles. The second-to-last one was pretty reasonable (Senior Teapot Engineer), but the current company has its own bizarre system of job classifications and the official title is something like “Pots Developer III-a,” which means nothing to anyone external (and frankly not a lot internally either).

It seems unpleasantly inconsistent to list job titles for only some of the jobs. Is it better to leave them off entirely, or to make up reasonable, accurate, but not official job titles for the earlier jobs? And if the latter, would it be okay to list the current position as “Teapot Engineer”? FWIW, all the jobs are in the same field and could all be classified as teapot engineering, which is clear from the resume.

Well, the big thing is that you want the titles to match up with what those companies will say when a reference-checker calls them. For the jobs without titles, I’d come up with something that captures what you did there without inflating it and which — and this is key — wouldn’t raise any flags if a reference-checker mentioned the title. In this case, it sounds like they were all teapot engineering, so I’d just go with teapot engineer. (I should note, this is pretty straightforward in your case; it would be harder if you were managing the marketing team and wanted to call yourself the marketing director without ever having had the title. In those cases, I’d say to push for a title so you don’t end up in that position.)

For the jobs with the inscrutable titles, you could list them this way:

Teapot Engineer (formally Pots Developer III-a)

… in other words, a descriptor of the job, followed by the official title.

{ 93 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. LBK

    #1 I can understand this feedback. I had a coworker who was excellent at her job but was blatantly networking 24/7 as a means of looking for the next step. Just be cautious about balancing your reputation for doing good work with your reputation for rubbing elbows and ensure the first is what gets you new jobs. I’ve worked for/with a few people who only seemed to get their jobs because of connections instead of talent. It’s a really hard perception to overcome.

    I do think the “unfocused” aspect is hard. I’m someone who could be happy in a variety of departments or industries as long as certain elements of my job and my team were the same. I understand that’s scary to a manager who’s accustomed to people who are looking for work in a certain field. I think the key is just to express passion for the things that are specific to that role at that company and not that role at any company.

  2. Glasskey

    OP#3–I’m curious: Did your boss actually give you a job description for this position or just describe it to you? Having a job description might help you target what is going well and what isn’t–if you want to keep the position, that is.

  3. Amber

    #1 Personally I’m confused about this as well. “Stay in your lane. You connect with too many people. You will look like you don’t know what you want.” The phrase “Stay in your lane” is rather rude and is something said to someone who is butting into the work of another department, someone who has a tendency to go so far out of their job description it’s bothering people.

    I’m really not sure what the person was trying to say. There are so many interpretations of this. I would actually just go back to the person that said it for clarification.

    1. AnotherFed

      I think talking to the person who gave the feedback is a good idea, assuming you have a good relationship with them. Ask for specific examples to clarify – there’s tons of possibilities for what could have driven this perception. You might have only seen one side of a situation, someone else could have been complaining without you knowing, there could just have been a perception problem you’ll learn to manage, or this particular person could just be blowing smoke – can’t tell which without more data!

      1. Lauren

        If anything, asking that person to clarify will give more info of whether its real feedback that means
        a) they crazy
        b) they know something from experience that OPs behavior may backfire at some point

        Talk to the person again, and find out which it is

  4. New Math

    #1 If I am reading correctly, a senior level executive pulled you aside to give you advice to take with you to your new job? If this is accurate, she may be trying to tell you something about how you are perceived by others, which is valuable to know. She wants you to succeed in your new job, and is perhaps telling you about something that held you back where you are now.

    Could you ask her for more information? Like, “Could you tell me more about what you meant when you said …”

  5. ReanaZ

    ….I’d be really, really curious to know the gender dynamics of OP1’s situation. I know I read gendered microaggressions everywhere (I am a woman in IT, so there really are gendered microaggressions everywhere, which doesn’t necessarily translate to other areas of life) but… yeah, I’m a woman in IT, and this sounds suspiciously like the kind of sabotagey/undercutting kind of “advice” I’ve heard old senior dudes give young, kickass up-and-coming women they felt threatened by.

    To me ‘stay in your lane’ is not a polite or helpful thing to say and it sure as hell isn’t good advice for someone who wants to grow in their career. (It might be good advice for someone who wants to move up at a very rigid company with a very specific culture, but I don’t think it translates out of those circumstances. )

    I would take this advice with a giant, giant grain of salt.

      1. Agnes

        It’s been said a lot with respect to the Republican primary, for some reason (i.e., “Kasich is the moderate, willing-to-compromise, experienced-in-governing guy, so he has a lane to himself.”) so I wonder if the phrase is just in the air recently, so this guy picked it up and used it in a not very clear way.

        1. Anonsie

          That’s an idea. Because it both doesn’t make sense in this context and is oddly hostile compared to the rest of the feedback, so “guy doesn’t actually know what this means” would be a compelling explanation.

    1. Three Thousand

      I’m having the same reaction. One of my first bosses in IT was considerate enough to tell me in so many words that he thought I was smarter and more valuable than he was and he really didn’t like that, but I don’t expect most people to be so straightforward about this kind of thing. “Stay in your lane” sounds like advice you give to someone you think needs to be held back for the sake of it.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I’m going with Artemesia’s “maybe, maybe not” below. “Stay in your line” might be mean-spirited BS or it might be an attempt to truly tip someone off about how something they’re doing is being perceived. Or it might well-intentioned but off-base. There’s no harm in the OP reflecting on it and getting input from others, if the original source is someone who she thinks has reasonable judgment.

        I don’t think it’s necessarily gendered at all. When I think of the few times that I’ve thought this about someone, it’s actually been more men than women.

    2. Merry and Bright

      Also sounds like the manager is lashing out a bit to someone because they have dared to give notice (seen this happen). I mean, if this was really meant to be useful or constructive wouldn’t it have made more sense to mention this “problem” to the OP before she resigned and it could have supposedly benefited the company?

      1. Artemesia

        maybe. maybe not. I think it makes sense to treat it seriously as Alison does. It is quite possible that the OP is perceived as a lightweight social climber who is flitting about rather than doing good work. Or it could just be a gendered put down. But it serves her better to reflect on the feedback and see if there might be anything to it than just assume malice. ESPECIALLY since she is leaving. This is not the sort of feedback that people generally give while on the job. The most demoralizing feedback I ever got, early in my first real job, totally brought me up short because it flew in the face of how I saw myself. This was very helpful to hear although I didn’t want to hear it. It sounds like the OP’s image of her ‘networking’ is very different than how she is perceived by leadership; worth some reflection.

        1. Merry and Bright

          I didn’t mean there was anything gendered about this. However, good managers do give good feedback while you are employed and it sounds as though you benefited from this in your first job. I also agree that the hardest lessons are often the ones we learn most from on the end.

          But if the OP’s networking methods were so off course and upset the managers that much, I still think it would have been better all round to raise this before.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            But it doesn’t have to be something that upset them “so much”; it can just be something noticed and being passed along. Also, this didn’t come from her manager; it came from a senior exec.

          2. The Dusty Bluebells

            I think you should apologize to Artemesia and Alison. You seem very petulant and should read advice before you give it. You are not as wise as them so you should not argue with them. This is Alison’s site and her advice goes. Just saying.

              1. neverjaunty

                You KNOW that’s untrue, AAM! You delete insulting comments that people make under pseudonyms, you terrible dissent-hating person! ;)

            1. anonforthis

              What is the point of this comment? You are looking to insult a commentator for the sake of insulting them. If anyone is being petulant around here, it is YOU.

    3. Mookie

      Right. It’s a combination of “know your place” (where said place is situated low on the totem pole) and some other implicit sin; that sin may be rocking the boat, unsolicited or unhelpful meddling in other people’s work, or an inability to balance networking with fulfilling her role on a team and meeting colleagues’ expectations (none of which the OP may actively be doing, but that may be how she is perceived). It’s possible that the executive means to say that the OP has a reputation for diversifying her skills at the expense of mastering any one of them, that her future in the industry depends on a highly focused specialization. But it’s weird, discouraging, ambiguous feedback, and feels a little vindictive.

      1. Colorado CrazyCatLady

        And like Merry and Bright said, if those things are true, why wouldn’t they give her this feedback before she decided to leave?

      2. AnotherTeacher

        Variations on “know your place” is how I’ve heard “stay in your lane” used, too. Like other readers, I find the usage in #1 odd, like the person who said it doesn’t know how to use contemporary slang and is trying to seem cool. Without knowing if casual language is normal for the context, the use of “stay in your lane” seems unprofessional and possibility mean-spirited.

        I’d follow Alison’s advice. It won’t hurt the LW to examine their actions and how other people perceive them. Maybe the executive sees weaknesses where others see strengths.

      3. EmilyG

        I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but yes, “know your place” is how it came off to me too. I don’t know that it’s necessarily a gendered, but it seems like such a rude statement that it’s hard to imagine it being meant in a helpful or kind way. Sure, take a moment for introspection on why the person might have said it, but if you can’t come up with anything quickly, I’d just assume the person is weird, envious in some way, or a jerk. I wouldn’t beat yourself up about, OP.

    4. AnotherFed

      I wouldn’t really have taken ‘stay in your lane’ as rude or unhelpful (unless the rest of the relationship with the person saying it is not so positive). At least where I work, this could be valuable advice about work style. If you’re a project manager, it’s good to know and work with the leads of your various teams (training, test, software development, etc.), but it’s likely outside your lane to skip those leads and manage their people’s tasking, or to knock out a training document because you know the material, etc. Even if you’re doing a better job at it than your reports, presumably you have more/better things to do!

      1. New Math

        I agree. Staying in your lane is about being focused on you own path and giving others the space to do so as well. I don’t think it means the same thing as “know your place.”

        1. Kelly L.

          Yeah–at my job, my bosses use it amongst themselves to refer to the different areas where they’re experts. They mostly use it on themselves, though, as in “I want to make sure I stay in my lane on this, because teapot spouts are really more Karen’s thing.”

        2. Blurgle

          I’ve never heard the phrase used before – not once, ever – but I’d never interpret it as anything positive. “Remember you’re a peon” is what I’d hear.

    5. Mallory Janis Ian

      I didn’t read gender into it, although that could be there, but I did think that it might be a way for the superior to take down a “kickass up-and-coming” person a notch or two. Like the superior may have some bias toward, or feel envious of, people who are able to fast-track their careers through networking more quickly than if they relied on skills alone. I mean, some people just know how to create a high profile for themselves and can surpass equally-skilled people who don’t have the same networking instincts.

      1. voyager1

        I read it more as LW trying to network and suck up to the bosses too much. Bur without more context it is really hard to know. I think going to the person who said it is really the best thing to do. If the LW is worried what the feedback means ask on their last day.

  6. SophiaB

    OP#1, you mentioned moving because of a culture clash, so it’s worth looking at the feedback in that light. If you’re moving somewhere less structured and less formal, where innovation and quick thinking is prized over process-following, they’re probably going to appreciate your skills in relationship building more than a company where everyone has a set role and a set path.

    I’ve just changed departments and my former boss gave me a lecture before leaving about ‘don’t jump in right away, don’t make changes, don’t criticise, just accept what you’re told.’ Three days into my new role I was given control of changes and told ‘just get on and fix things, we’re not precious, do whatever you need to’. New team, new roles. My old boss was trying to look out for me, but her advice only suited the team I was leaving.

    1. S.I. Newhouse

      I agree totally with the first paragraph of this comment. OP #1, whatever the problem was, it sounds like it may very well resolve itself by switching to a new company with a different culture. Personally, I wouldn’t put much stock in that odd “advice” at all.

      1. Hellanon

        Hmm, I disagree. It sounded like the advice came from an exec at the new company, and I’d read it as saying that the OP’s efforts don’t appear to be focused on the core functions of her job. In other words, the networking doesn’t look like it’s functional – which can be solved by being a more strategic networker. Make the outreach explicitly task-focused, be upfront with how it aligns to the role’s responsibilities & expectations, and use that objective as an inroad to building the personal relationship. The OP may just not be making the overall alignment between job & networking clear and thus look like she’s bouncing around trying to make friends, but at this stage, it’s an easy thing to remedy.

        1. No Longer Passing By

          No, it was an exec at the old company that OP1 was leaving. Different companies have different cultures and levels of acceptance. I would think that a smaller, less structured company would welcome someone with cross-departmental relationships.

    2. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night

      Agreed, based on the limited information we have. At my old job (conservative accounting department with zero room for growth) my boss would critique my actions as overreaching and attention-seeking. In my new Client Service job, where seeking out new challenges and breaking new ground is highly valued, I’ve established myself as a high performer and asset to the company in just under a year doing exactly the same thing.

      “Stay in your lane” is definitely the sort of advice I can picture coming out of my old boss’s mouth, though she never used that phrase specifically.

    3. TootsNYC

      Definitely look at the culture difference.

      You’re moving from a big, slower place, where there ARE lanes, and clearly marked ones at that.
      You’re moving to a place where the lanes may not even exist, or they’re blurred.

      I think it’s GREAT that you’re saying, “What can I get from this comment?”
      Explore it–and as Alison points out, be open to all interpretations. Find someone whose judgment you trust, and sound them out.

  7. Lisa

    3) Learning sales is HARD, don’t panic if you’re bad at it for a while… if you’re really sure you hate it and will never like it even if you get good at it, definitely move, but keep in mind that if you want to have career growth in any field sales skills are useful even if not necessary, and the thing you’re selling to every employer is yourself… so you could do worse than to overcome whatever is standing between you and being good at sales now, in high school.

    1. Zahra

      Yes, sales is not an easy thing to learn. I think the first step in sales is to see it as customer service: you want the customer to get the best service and buy (at your place of work, if possible) the appropriate stuff for her problem to go away. But… to be able to do that, you need to know more about your field.

      Can you pinpoint which areas in tech are more difficult for you? We have enough people on here that some of us could point you to specific resources from which you could probably get some cheat sheets. For example, how are video cards numbered? Here’s a website that explains it:
      From that website, you could easily make a cheat sheet for the numbering system and you could probably find a reference on release dates for series from each company (which grossly follows performance improvements from a generation to the next). You probably only need to know about models released this year and last year + upcoming models. After that, see with your manager if it would be acceptable to use the cheat sheets on the floor. After a while, you’ll know that stuff by heart.

      (I’m assuming you work somewhere like Best Buy.)

    2. Bleu

      OP, if you start working as a cashier tomorrow, I think you’ll find you don’t know the answer to 1000 more questions from customers or about how to ring up certain items. To some degree, that part of it is just what comes along with learning a new job.

      On a personal note, as someone who has worked in a Big Box store — but in the photolab, when people were still having their film developed or printing off lots of digital photos. There are worse things than working in a retail store, of course, and each job has its pros and cons, but once you become a cashier, which can be its own special hell, you pretty much never will be able to get out again unless you become a manager.

    3. S.I. Newhouse

      I agree completely. Don’t give up on this position yet, OP #3. Nobody knows the answers to every question in any job. I’m sure your manager appreciates your effort more than you realize. Alison’s advice to ask for additional training is excellent and if that’s an option, that should definitely help you. Good luck!

    4. AnotherAlison

      Also, if #3 is the over-achieving sort of high school student who is good at everything, staying in a job that she’s bad at (sales or other) could be really valuable. You can learn how to ask for help, take direction, take criticism, and deal with failure. Like Lisa said, high school is a great time to learn this.

    5. Not So NewReader

      Working sales where there are not many customers and the questions are difficult is a reeeally tough job to hack. So, OP, I don’t blame you for finding this tough, I’d probably want to quit myself. I do applaud your level-headedness about this situation, you say you are paid well yet you have carefully considered all aspects of the job, not just the nice check. This is very wise.

      It almost sounds like you need to have technical knowledge in order to sell products. People are coming in with X problem or Y problem and each situation is different making it harder to figure out if they need to just purchase a product or do they need a repair person. If this is the case, then you might very well be in over your head. Decades ago, part of old job was to sell tractor parts to people. Yeah, right. If the man knew what he needed he could look at the microfiche with me and we’d figure something out. But if a person came in with no tractor knowledge, I was probably not going to be successful in helping that person. I might catch on, in say, 10-20 years. Fortunately, there were numerous other aspects to the job and I could hand off complex tractor parts questions to other people, just as they would hand off more detailed questions on other things to me. But that is not happening for you, there is no handing off going on.

      I know from my own experience that I can reach a point where I am not interested in salvaging the situation and this could be where you are at. Do what you gotta do, OP. But. Make it your life habit to be running toward something as opposed to just running from something. That will serve you well. Pick what you will do next and go for it.

      1. dawbs

        In that vein…downtime can be a useful thing.

        Last job, I had the young people who worked for me do what, in this OP’s job, would have been the equivalent of “practice selling basic products to each-other”–which would include “ask annoying questions and have to find the annoying answers.

        Role-play is embarrassing and tedious and feels really dumb to do…and is insanely helpful. ANd it is incredibly useful in finding out who to pass off to. If you and Wakeem and Fredlina practice selling chocolate teapots to each other, when a customer comes in and asks about white-chocolate for handles, you can say “actually, let me check with my colleague, she’s more knowledgeable than I am about handles-one moment” or “the cup temperature is actually Wakeem’s area of expertise–let me make sure this will meet your needs for heavy teapot duty”

    6. Jaydee

      I worked retail jobs in college, mostly fairly specialized things (garden store, craft store). When I was hired on at the garden store, I didn’t know a thing about anything they sold. The manager didn’t care because I was cheerful and friendly and always happy to find out the answer to a question I didn’t know the answer to. Eventually I learned quite a bit about what plants like shade and what kills which weed/bug, etc., but it was frustrating at first.

      You should talk to your manager about your concerns. She might offer you some additional training. Or she might tell you that she doesn’t want someone who knows the answer to every question but is a total jerk to customers and she would rather have you be polite and friendly to customers but have to learn the answers. Either way, hopefully you’ll be able to address your concerns.

    7. neverjaunty

      Sometimes what is standing between a person and being good at sales is, they don’t enjoy sales and the skills for being good at sales do not come naturally to them.

      OP #3, I have a pretty good guess as to where you’re working, and even if I’m wrong I’d bet the model is the same: the store provides some nominal technical assistance to customers, but it’s #1 emphasis is on sales, and unless you’re locked up in a back room away from customers 100% of the time, you’re expected to push product and meet certain goals. You may want to look for another job, but in the meantime, ask your manager for assistance in training and information. Does the store have training manuals or technical sheets you can use to become more familiar with the products? Are there senior employees you can hang around to learn more about the work?

    8. TootsNYC

      You wrote this: “I was told I wouldn’t need a whole lot of technical knowledge – I’m pretty good with computers, but tech isn’t something I’m really passionate about – but every few questions a customer asks me is one I don’t know how to answer.”

      Take the customer with you to the manager in order to get the answer to this, and then remember what the answer is. Dig around, try to suss it out. Make a list of what questions they ask, and see if there’s a trend. And remember that nobody, but nobody, starts out knowing the answers. Everybody learns them sometime.

      Your time is now, on the job.
      Also remember this: ARE you disappointing your manager? If so, then he should be helping you find those answers (you’re supposed to do your part by remembering them for later, even if it means you take notes); that’s his job.
      But it’s also possible that he’s OK w/ your saying, “I’m sorry, I really don’t know; here’s the pamphlet that has all the info.”

      Sometimes retail customers expect too much from the sales folks. If they want tech expertise, they shouldn’t be buying at a place whose prices are low enough that they can’t hire tech experts.

      And, retail customers have a responsibility to have done some of their homework before they come in, to be honest.

  8. Frosh

    I’m so confused about number one. I’ve only ever heard “stay in your lane” in the context of asking people not to speak for minority groups, that you don’t have those experiences, and it’s not your business to speak to them. i.e. As a white woman, I should sit down and listen to women of color when it comes to intersectional feminism. This seems like such a weird thing to say to someone who is say, flooding the marketing office with ideas.

    1. AnotherFed

      It’s used a lot when someone is taking on tasks that properly belong to another group/person. Sometimes that’s fine or even necessary, but it can look unfocused – think jack of all trades and master of none. Also, if you’re, say, picking up some marketing work and some training work and not really doing much software development anymore, that may be perceived as shirking your original responsibilities or as not sure what you want to do with a career.

      1. fposte

        Right, that’s where I usually hear it. It’s kind of a subject/task version of MYOB.

        I support the advice to go back to the person who made the comment for more information. It could be a rude statement to somebody who’s being perceived as uppity, as noted above, but I also think people aren’t always articulate when making their points, and that there could be some good advice for the OP about perception here. And if it is the uppity thing, the OP’s leaving anyway, so no harm done from getting the explanation.

      2. TootsNYC

        That’s where I’ve heard it–when the art director keeps coming and saying, “We need to rewrite this headline, it doesn’t make sense to me.” And she’s wrong.

        It doesn’t usually get said when the production person comes and says, “Isn’t there supposed to be a space there?”

        It’s really only when your “assistance” in someone else’s area is getting in the way–distracting them, diverting energy, etc.
        (And yes, I’ve heard it in the “I want to stay in my lane” sort of way as well)

    2. anoning

      As far as your example goes, I don’t know if intersectional feminism is the right example. Intersectional feminism started to prove that gender isn’t the only aspect of feminism, and that your identity encompasses class, religion, and sexuality instead of only gender. The point is that feminism affects everyone differently, so it’s not so much that you should sit down and not say anything about feminism, but more acknowledge that your experience doesn’t mirror everyone else’s. The idea really started because not everyone does this and because feminism has always defaulted to white, middle and upper class, heterosexual, cisgender, (mostly Christian, whether practicing or lapsed) women and for a long time, anything outside gender identity wasn’t seen as a feminist problem.

      1. OP4

        No, they’re pretty relevant, just not formally titled. I don’t think anyone would object if someone called and said, “Hi, I’m calling about Wakeen who was a teapot engineer here,” though.

  9. Colorado CrazyCatLady

    OP 3: how long have you been there? At my first job in high school, I always had questions for the first few months. (And really, any job since then!). I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to be a cashier instead, but just to consider you’ll likely have questions you don’t know the answers to in every job at first.

    1. Zillah

      I agree. It’s totally normal to feel out of your depth at first and to have a lot of questions; to some extent, I actually think that that’s ideal, because it means that you’re constantly adding to your skills (though obviously that stops being the case at a certain point). You mentioned having a lot of down time; can you use that time to learn how to answer the questions you don’t know, even if you can’t get formal training?

      OP, here’s my concern: while the cashier job might be a better fit for you right now, I think you should make sure that you’ve explored other options that would help you do your current job first, because it sounds like it could be more useful for you in the long run – though only, of course, if you can make it work.

  10. anon17

    I’m having a hard time understanding #5: how does a job not have a title? I thought that a title was just what a job is. Is a title more formal than that? Like if you’re hired to do teapot design, isn’t your title teapot designer?

    1. I'm a Little Teapot

      I’ve had multiple jobs with no formal title, usually at small organizations. Sometimes it’s also hard to define what a job is in a short phrase other people will understand, too – if you work at a small company where you do a little teapot painting, a little order-taking, maintain the website, and answer the phones and email, what are you?

      1. Stitch

        Yes! Add on top of that, when the small business you work for decides to give you a weird title because you do so many different things/they want to be “different” (think “teapot rockstar” or “Office badass”) – titles that are taken so seriously that they appear on the managers’ business cards. I feel like having those titles on my resume would do the opposite of helping :/

  11. ella

    OP #3–First, I want to say that your situation is really, really typical of first-time jobs and of retail jobs in general. I’ve only worked in one store that gave me any kind of formal training on the products that I was selling. So don’t beat yourself up too much. Managers generally expect that retail sales associates will learn the products as they go.

    That said, I think it’s awesome that you see this place where you could improve. Do you have access to either product manuals or an iPad at the store? Most stores have a “don’t read stuff on the sales floor” rule, but ask your manager if he would mind you researching some of the products when there’s no customers. You could also ask one of your more experienced coworkers for some ad hoc training. If your customers are like mine, after awhile you’ll know what kind of questions they tend to ask, and you can learn the answers to those questions without needing to know everything about every product.

    1. TootsNYC

      Most stores have a “don’t read stuff on the sales floor” rule,

      Would you be in trouble for standing there memorizing specs off the brochures that are on the floor? You could make it a point to stop when someone comes near you.

  12. boop

    3, I found that to be a difficult part of retail, too. If someone asks a question you can’t answer, once you direct them to someone knowledgeable, go with them to find out the answer! Eventually you will collect enough information that you won’t have to direct customers away nearly as often. Customers themselves will also volunteer a wealth of information on their own, if they’re passionate about a thing.

    1. E.R

      I was thinking the same thing – this sounds like a good opportunity to learn and get better. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever use the tech or sales skills again, they’re not going to hurt you to develop a little. If you’re very young and already super competent at your new entry-level job, you would get bored very quickly and you could be missing an opportunity to learn new things. I remember how awkward it was to start out in retail and floor sales , though! I was terrible at it… until I wasn’t

  13. Not So NewReader

    OP 1. We used to use an expression, “Oh, he’s a collector”, meaning the person just like to collect up relationships with people like some collect stamps or coins. The relationships had no depth and in some cases no real reason at all.

    Added to this mix in your story is there are some people that just suck at giving advice. When I was in my teens I had a couple people tell me that I carried myself like I thought I was royalty. Since I knew I did not think of myself as anything even remotely royal this piece of advice was almost useless to me.
    Notice I said, “almost”.

    I had fallen on my tailbone. I hit so hard that I almost blacked out. My last two years of high school were torture. I had to hold my back in an EXACT position or the pain would cause me to brown out (not quite black out). When I thought of this, the light bulb went on in my head. I carried myself stiffly, I was in pain so I did not talk as much as others and this combo gave an odd impression to people who did not know me well. My solution to that advice was to make sure that I let my concern for others show more often. I joked a little more and did other small things that basically conveyed that my body is stiff, not my personality. I made these adjustments to my life and the comments about royalty went away.

    I’d find the comment about staying in your own lane to be a put down. But we don’t get to choose how other people express themselves. The best we can do is consider what they have said and makes some adjustments where possible. In the course of going about your day I am sure you help many people. Think about ways that you can make it clearer that you are helping or you are willing to help. People who think you are beneficial in their lives very seldom worry about what lane you are swimming in.

    Have a higher awareness of other’s and the needs of their settings. Yep, I am sure you already do this. Do more of it and be clearer about it. I am not saying make a great show of it in front of a dozen people, no. Go on a one by one basis and let individuals see your willingness to help them.
    Additionally make sure you don’t miss people. This person that complained to you, might be a person who did not feel benefit of your help first hand. Maybe he asked for help at the worse possible point and you could not help him. He might still be stinging from that. Keep in mind that there are people who will remember something for months. In this example here you might be able to salvage it by going to back to the person at the end of the day or the next day and checking in with them. “Hey, I am sorry I could not help you yesterday, how are things to day, is there something I can do?”

    I love the expression “good advice, bad delivery”. It helps me to see that there are two components to everything that is said: the content itself and the way the message is given. Some times we have to really work to find how the advice can be useful to us as we go along.

    Lastly, if nothing any of us said here rings true to you, go to your own boss and ask her advice about what the VP said.

  14. Breebit

    To LW #3, hooboy, have I been there! In my early 20s I ended up in a sales job with no sales experience and what I thought was a personality unsuited to sales. Instead, it became my favorite job that I’ve ever had and I was consistently one of the top three salespeople in the company. But it took time to get to that point. I felt uncomfortable and uncertain of my every move for about four months after starting.

    Alison’s advice is perfect. I’d like to add that finding a coach doesn’t have to be some fraught, formal thing. Depending on how competitive the store culture is, a lot of sales people like to talk about their process. If you had a problem with not knowing the answer to a customer’s question or ran into trouble in some other way, you could try asking one of your coworkers about how they would answer the question/handle the interaction. Down-time can be boring, but use it to your advantage! Pick your coworkers’ brains to see what they know about products and sales. You could also ask one of them if they’d take over a sale that you’ve had trouble with in the past so that you can watch them (“Hey Fergus, if I get a customer that wants to buy X, could you take over so I can watch you sell? I’m having trouble answering all the questions about X and would like to see how you do it.”).

    I second Alison about asking your boss if there are more training opportunities. The other thing that can help with learning about technology and the products you sell is reading sites that include product reviews and development information about a wide array of tech stuff. Even if you just skim a few articles a day, you’ll pick up the jargon and specific information that your customers will likely ask you about. Those articles don’t even need to be about your specific technology products: just acclimating yourself to the language and specifications in a wide variety of tech contexts can help you apply that info to your products. And if you don’t know something that a customer is asking about, it’s okay to say “You know, I’m not sure about that. Let me go ask my coworker; Brand X is more of her focus”. Your customers will appreciate your honesty, you won’t feel inadequate, and you’ll get to learn something from your coworker.

    But if the job just isn’t for you, that’s okay, too. The great thing about first jobs is that they teach you so much about yourself and the working world. Sales might not be a thing that you like to do, and I’m sure you’ll be great at a bunch of other things that make you feel excited to come into work.

    1. TootsNYC

      As for what to read–maybe you should read the websites THEY would have been reading if they’d been researching their purchase before they came into the store. Consumer Reports-type stuff for your tech products.

  15. Vicki

    #4 : “you want the titles to match up with what those companies will say when a reference-checker calls them”

    Whenever I read this advice, I just sigh and move on. I’ve been working for 30 years now and I have no idea what my actual internal job titles were for many jobs on my resume. Also, what I do rarely has much to do with what the job title implies, at least after my first month on the job. If I were to use the “official” job titles, even if I could remember them, they’d be so off base from the descriptions that anyone reading my resume would wonder what was going on.

    1. Vicki

      Perhaps this is only in the tech sector, or only in the SF Bay Area, but job titles seem to be largely considered to be “suggestions” by many companies. This may be because HR databases are highly regimented and managers can’t just create a new job title for someone based on what they’re actually doing.

      At my first job, I was hired as a “Clinical Data Specialist”. I was the best Unix programmer in the team, so that’s what I did. No job title for that existed.

      At may last job, I was hired as a “Technical Writer”. I did wiki support.

      At a job in the middle, we were all “Engineer I”, “Engineer II”, or “Engineer III”, regardless of what we did.

      I like Bell Labs’ approach: everyne is a “Member of the Technical Staff”.

      1. Kyrielle

        Last job, I got titles that matched what I did, but I still think the one I ended at was sort of puzzling because it means different things elsewhere. I mean, Jr. Programmer, Programmer, Software Engineer, Sr. Software Engineer…these are all at least moderately clear what’s going on. Staff Software Engineer? Uh? I’ve been on the staff the whole time through all the other titles…what? But that was the top general title for a software engineer at that company. (The top was software architect, but for that you were actually doing architect type work, so it was a slightly different beast, whereas the others were a progression.)

        1. Gawaine

          I’ve seen “Staff” and “Chief” with hierarchies that appear to be military inspired. (Similar to Staff Sergeant and Chief Petty Officer).

  16. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    #1 – yeah, been there, done that. I am reminded of the old 1950s cliches “don’t get too uppity, mind your own business and know your place.” It has racist overtones, but also is applied in the business world hierarchy. I had a boss who, for some reason, resented the fact that I got along with everyone, and said “you’re an opportunist! A @#$%^! opportunist!”

    I reminded him that there is room for more than one opportunist in our department, and, oh yeah, I wasn’t after HIS job, just relax.

    #3 – yes, but, on the other hand, your manager has faith in you. They wouldn’t have given you the superior job if they didn’t. Do ask for help, do ask for training – but approach it that “you’d like to do more BUT you have more to learn.” You may just be told = “learn on the job” and if they keep you in that position – consider it a vote of confidence – but – also have a vote of confidence in YOURSELF.

  17. AnonasaurusRex

    Alison would you recommend doing the same as you told #4 if your company uses non industry standard titles? For example, my coworker is a Database Administrator, full stop. That’s the job function he does, but our stupid healthcare group doesn’t allow the title Administrator in any job title except someone who works in Administration. Their reasons are incredibly stupid. So my coworker’s title is Database Consultant, which doesn’t fit with the types of jobs he’s actually looking for and makes him look like he does different work than he does. In this instance should he list Database Administrator (Database Consultant)? We’re both job seeking in different cities and trying to help each other and compare notes.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      In general, yes, that can be a good solution, although his is particularly tricky because if I read that I’d wonder if he was saying he was an outside consultant or what. (But I would just ask him; it wouldn’t cause me to reject him or anything. It’s just a little confusing.) Another option that can work is having a little blurb right before your bullet points that makes it really clear what the job was. For example:

      Weird title
      One-sentence blurb describing the essence of the job
      * accomplishment
      * accomplishment
      * accomplishment

  18. Argh!

    #1 sounds like your reasons for wanting to leave were validated. In that culture, the silo system dominates, perhaps? In another organization lateral relationships may be the way to get things done rather than “going through channels.” You are right to leave, and I wouldn’t take it personally unless you have problems in your next workplace. Good luck in your new job.

    1. Vanishing Girl

      Another +1 here!

      The same thing could have been (and probably was) said about me in the last year. I’ve realized that my siloed company is just a bad cultural fit, and I need to find a place that recognizes & welcomes those kinds of interdepartmental relationships. So it sounds like a bit of confirmation that it’s time to go.

  19. azvlr

    #3 Bravo for reflecting and identifying so specifically what doesn’t feel quite right. I think it bodes well for your working future. This is something that takes years for many people to figure out. You should feel encouraged rather than disheartened for having these thoughts!

  20. Long Time Reader First Time Poster

    “Stay in your lane” sounds an awful lot to me like “know your place” — I was once pulled aside by a male colleague (I’m female) who clearly saw himself as “higher ranked” than me (we were at the same level). He sat me down and told me that he felt it was his duty to let me know that I needed to know my place and stop doing x work and to stick to the y work.

    He had ZERO supervision over me, and no authority to have this conversation. I believe he actually felt threatened by me because we had some overlapping skill sets. He literally used the phrase “know your place” — I don’t think I’ve ever been so furious in a workplace situation in my life (and that’s saying a lot!).

  21. Student

    #3 – You could also try to get better at work through your own efforts, if asking for training doesn’t get you anywhere.

    When there is “nothing to do” at work, read about products or try to use the display models. If your customers have questions that are somewhat consistent, try to make yourself a FAQ – when you don’t know an answer, write the question down when you aren’t busy and try to figure out the answer. Chat up a more senior salesperson who knows the products better and have him/her show you things.

    If all else fails, when there is nothing to do at work, clean things up. Straighten out displays, maybe help take inventory or restock, clean off touch-based gadgets with sterilizing wipes. Check for sales tags that have expired. Ask your manager for ideas on what would be helpful.

  22. Gawaine

    On #1 – the only place I’ve seen that advice given that made sense – which doesn’t seem to fit the OP – is with a couple of people who tried to spend their working hours networking with other people in ways that both distracted them and didn’t get the work done that they were being paid for. Intentional networking is great on your own time – if it’s on the company’s time, then it’s less great (assuming it’s more than short conversations). If “stay in your own lane” means not making friends on your own time, then it’s stupid advice. If it means, “stop coming up to the 7th floor and talking the saucer division manager’s ear off about teapots,” it’s not.

    In one case, it was someone very junior, who wanted to connect with everyone around him. Instead of asking them to lunch or coffee, though, he’d come by during the workday, when people were trying to get work done and be able to honestly bill their hours. If he’d been talking while working with someone on the same project, in the process of getting work done, it wouldn’t have bothered everyone so much – instead, he was pretty oblivious to social cues, and the people he was bothering weren’t direct enough for him to understand what he was doing wrong.

    In the second case, it is someone very senior, but he has in common the lack of respect for other people’s time or for what he was being paid for. When he catches someone in the hallway, you need to gnaw a limb to get free. He’s chatting about things that are tangentially related to work done in our industry, but he’s not on the same project, and in one case, he almost caused a conflict of interest problem by talking to someone in a different group.

    One other note on the comment about always having gotten good reviews – in my experience, that’s not the proof it should be: One thing I’ve noticed is that grade/review inflation is rampant, at pretty much everywhere I’ve worked. I had an employee burst into tears when I gave him a 3/5 – “meets expectations” – because he’d never gotten something that low. Without making the comment about him, I’d say that there are too few managers who do their job of providing good feedback, and too many that want to avoid conflict. So if you’re getting actual, verbal feedback from someone, I’d consider that as trumping anything said in a review, unless you have reason to believe that your review was really very exceptional. (If you’re the only one happy about your review at review time, that’s a good sign for you).

  23. Gawaine

    On 4- Most big companies I’ve worked with have had titles which have nothing to do with my role. For example, I’ve had “Software Engineer IV”, “Senior Software Engineer”, and a few others along the way, while working as a “Teapot Service Manager”, “Teapot Warehouse Lead”, “Teapot Product Owner”, etc. The range of titles seems to change every few years – a company may go from Software Engineer IV to Senior Software Engineer to Technical Expert without changing the underlying numerical or text code in the system below it.

    At least for those companies, I’d say that’s true for more than just the software guys. The Finance, HR, and administrative professionals went through similar changes.

    For me – I won’t normally list the title, just the role, since no one at the larger companies really cares about the title. If you call HR, you’ll get my dates and salary, not my title. If you call my manager at a past job, he won’t be able to tell you what my official title was without some serious work, but he can tell you about my role. And given that, if someone hands me a resume that says “Software Engineer III”, it won’t give me any new information to ask in an interview, while if it says “Teapot Development Lead”, I’ll ask about your time developing teapots.

    Just don’t be dishonest or confusing. If, in your organization, “Lead” or “Director” is part of a title, don’t use it in your role description. (If you were a Teapot Engineer IV, but in charge of directing Teapot Development, reporting to a Director, don’t put “Director of Teapot Development” as your role on your resume).


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