don’t do this

a LinkedIn message describing the writer's college-aged daughter's educational background and interests in law school, noting she will be home in mid-May, and asking the recipient to offer her an internship at a law firm.

pictured: a LinkedIn message describing the writer’s college-aged daughter’s educational background and interest in law school, noting she will be home in mid-May, and asking the recipient to offer her an internship at a law firm

my coworker’s constant emails make me less productive

A reader writes:

I have a coworker who sends daily emails (often more than once a day) reminding me to complete work that is a normal part of my job and that I always complete on time. Two minutes after I receive a file to work on, she’s in my email asking me to send it to her when I’m done. I know this is her way of keeping herself on track, but the constant reminders are insulting and, frankly, keep me from doing my work because I’m spending time every day writing her back about projects that aren’t due for weeks.

I’ve tried to gently tell her, “Yes, I will get that done on time, as I do every month, because it is my job,” but she hasn’t taken the hint. I got nasty with her once when she interrupted urgent work several times to ask about non-urgent matters. I immediately felt bad and apologized but also said, “Please trust me to do my job.” The emails continued. If I ignore her email, she chats me. If I ignore that, she sends me a text or calls me. I’ve mentioned this behavior to our boss, but he won’t help because she’s just trying to do her job well. She does this to everyone on our team and I know it annoys others, but without the support of our boss it’s hard to know how to approach this topic.

I like this coworker otherwise. She’s good at her job and a nice person. But this behavior makes it more and more difficult to work with her. It’s gotten to the point where every interaction with her feels like a confrontation. Is there anything I can do?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today, along with a letter from someone whose boss expects her to work 11-hour days. Head over there to read them both.

student employee keeps venting on social media about a work decision

A reader writes:

Something happened a couple of years ago that I’d like to get your take on. I work at a university in a student-run program with a few departments that state law requires us to have. The students have a great amount of autonomy in this program and interview and hire their own employees. Every summer pre-Covid, one of the higher-ups of the university would take six of these students, including the leader of the program, on an all-expense-paid 10-day trip to another country.

One student/highly respected department leader, whose position also went on the trip until the year this happened, had been previously told by the leader of the program he was going. The student, Fergus, was of course very excited. He turned down other opportunities for this and spent a lot of time reading about the places they would be visiting. Unfortunately, about six weeks later, he was told that plans had changed and that he would not be going on the trip after all. He … did not take it well. He was very vocal, going as far as to vent on Facebook about it. As a result, the student leader intervened and had a conference with him explaining the rationale behind the decision and that his Facebook post wasn’t okay. As a sort of apology for his disappointment, the leader arranged for the student to attend a week-long statewide conference at a nearby city and arranged a large purchase Fergus had wanted for his department.

All seemed well, until about a month later when Fergus went back to not just posting on Facebook very publicly complaining about the decision not to take him on the trip, but making an entire blog about his disappointment (not a single blog post, an entire website). He posted on this blog and on Facebook several times about how upset he was, lambasting the decision not to take him, etc. He ended up having to get professional help due to how upset he was.

Due to the bylaws of the department (another aspect required by the state), Fergus could only be fired by a vote of the department. Something which they bafflingly never even considered. It seemed that there was nothing that could be done. But looking back, I’m not so sure. I feel like there must have been SOMETHING we could have done, and I’d really like to get your thoughts on that and this whole situation.

Oh nooooo.

Everyone messed up here.

Why did the program leader tell Fergus he was going if that wasn’t fully settled, and why did those plans change? That would be understandable if it was something like “we just had sudden dire financial news and cannot pay for the trip and we are very sorry” or “you have been harassing other people in the program and one consequence will be that we will not ask them to travel with you.” But if it was more like “eh, we didn’t fully plan things when we first told you that you’d be going” … well, that is crappy! And it’s understandable that Fergus was upset since he had turned down other opportunities based on what he’d been told.

That said, his reaction was wildly over-the-top! He created an entire website to post about how he’d been wronged?!

The Facebook venting … eh. I’d certainly advise anyone in his shoes not to do it and it wouldn’t reflect well on them, but people have weird judgment with what they post on Facebook and he’s a student. I wouldn’t be terribly impressed, but assuming we’re talking about one or two disappointed posts and not a long ongoing saga of vitriol, I don’t know that it’s an outrage. Bad judgment, yes, but not necessary something that requires Action.

But creating an entire website about it and having to get professional help because of how upset he was … I’m thinking there was something else going on there. That’s a really intense reaction to a single disappointment. So was there more context? Had he already been struggling in other ways?

As for what could have been done, it sounds like someone in a position of authority really needed to talk to Fergus and see what was going on. Had he already been feeling done wrong by the program for other reasons and this was the last straw? What was behind the reaction? If it it was really nothing more than “this is unfair and I was disappointed and thus I will make sure no one ever forgets it,” then you’d want to (a) acknowledge that it was unfair and shouldn’t have happened the way it did, (b) apologize and explain what would be done to ensure it didn’t happen again in the future, and (c) talk about what it looks like to handle disappointment professionally and why it matters … because when Fergus is working post-graduation, he definitely can’t do this in a job if he doesn’t get to go on a business trip he was originally told he’d go on. But (a) and (b) are important — you shouldn’t skip those and just do (c).

If he still continued with his campaign after that, look at how disruptive it really was. Because he’s a student and acting in a student role, I’d give him more leeway than I’d give an employee. You should have the “you can’t do this at a job in the future without probably getting fired” talk because he needs to know that. And if his behavior was truly disruptive, you’d need to have a “figure out if you can move forward reasonably happily or not, because you can’t keep disrupting the team’s work with this” conversation and then hold him to that… but in general I’d try to give students a lot of room on speech, and base any further actions on whether it was impeding his and other people’s abilities to do their jobs or not.

I manage the CEO’s horrible nephew, quitting a job I love over money, and more

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

1. I manage the CEO’s nephew and he’s horrible

I’m a first-time manager dealing with a difficult employee, “Felix.” Felix has been at my company for five years now. He also happens to be the CEO’s nephew.

His performance was never good, but it’s gotten steadily worse in the time I’ve been here. His work frequently has mistakes and he is unreachable for large stretches of the day. What’s worse is that he and I do not have a good relationship (we were peers before I was promoted) and he pushes back on any feedback I give him. At one point, he yelled in my face when I pointed out a repeated problem with his work, saying that he “didn’t respect” my feedback.

I’ve documented these issues extensively. My boss, “Rachel” (Felix’s former direct manager), had similar issues managing him. I’ve talked to her repeatedly about putting him on a PIP or even terminating him outright. She says that Felix is unhappy and actively job-searching and that she will work with him directly to set an end date. I’ve also talked to HR after he put in a complaint about me, but they’ve largely been useless.

Things came to a head at the end of last year, during Felix’s performance review. I gave him poor marks on attitude, work quality, and communication (all of which he gave himself top marks for in his self-review), and he once again yelled at me and told me that my review was unfair and said that the whole team thought I was a jerk. With Rachel on the call. Who again told me that he was probably going to leave soon on his own.

What should I do now? Should I keep pushing to fire him? Should I just deal with it? Look for a new job? I like my job, even though my company is dysfunctional in a lot of ways. I also care about the rest of my team, and don’t want to leave them in the lurch. I’ve been trying to make it work, but I’m at the end of my rope.

You should indeed keep pushing to fire him, pointing out that his behavior over time will destroy any accountability on your team (since other people will see what he’s getting away with — the yelling alone is unacceptable) and also noting that it’s not reasonable to ask you to manage someone who believes he can be a jerk to you with impunity.

But also, it sounds like Rachel might not feel Felix can be outright fired since he’s the CEO’s nephew. The may or may not be correct; sometimes people think that about nepotism hires, when in fact the CEO would be fine with the nephew being fired if they knew what was going on. But either way, it’s time for a conversation with Rachel about what really can and can’t be done. If you absolutely cannot fire Felix or put him a PIP, she needs to come out and tell you that. And if that’s the case, the two of you need to decide how to manage around that situation to minimize the impact on you and the rest of your staff. Is she willing to follow through on this “end date” conversation? If so, by when? If not, what does she propose since she’s tying your hands? Or — can you explore the option of letting him go despite his ties to the CEO? Is she just assuming that’s a no-go or does she know for sure? If it’s off the table, can you just stop giving him work?

Basically, it’s time to push this out of the realm of “Rachel will talk to him,” point out that that hasn’t worked, press for a different solution, and talk honestly about what is and isn’t possible. Then you can decide from there if you’re willing to live with that or not. (But if you did leave over it, that wouldn’t be leaving your team in the lurch! People leave jobs. Your team might even appreciate you taking a stand.)

2. Would it be silly to quit a job I love where I’m underpaid?

Nearly a year ago now, I started a job that I had interviewed for right before the pandemic hit. I love my coworkers, my supervisor, and even upper-level management. I get to work from home, and I successfully finished a big project that I was told would be impossible to complete for someone with so little experience in the field. As happy as I am—and this is the first time I’ve loved everything about my job—I’ve been thinking of looking for another, higher paying job since I realize now that I’m being severely underpaid. Seeing all of my friends get out there in the field for the first time and getting paid more than I ever have while I have years of experience is making me feel as if I’ve shortchanged myself. Am I being ungrateful in wanting to risk getting another job just because I’m unhappy with the pay or should I stick it out?

Grateful shouldn’t come into it! Your employer isn’t doing you a favor that you need to be grateful for you; you are selling them your labor for money, and you have every right to look around and see what your options are.

Look around and see what else is out there, and compare it to your job now. You might determine that higher-paying jobs don’t offer things that are important to you that you’re getting from this one … or you might conclude there are better options out there for you. I wouldn’t decide only based on money if you’re otherwise happy, but look at the whole picture. You’re allowed to take whatever option you judge is best for you!

3. How to respond to vague expressions of interest in our program when I need something more concrete

I work at a fairly low level in my office, but as a side role I’m chair of a committee related to, let’s say, teapots. We’re in the process of partnering with a big, exciting national teapot group right now with ambitious plans, and I’m really enjoying taking on this work that’s far outside my usual humdrum work.

Because of my position as chair of the committee in my office, I’ve started receiving emails from representatives of some of our teacup suppliers who are understandably interested in this. I’m happy to field these, and if I think a supplier could benefit the Big Teapot Org in a specific way I’m open to expanding the partnership. The problem is that some of these requests are pretty vague or will mention fluffy things around “awareness raising,” which frankly Big Org already has well covered.

I usually respond favorably and ask what the person feels their contribution to Big Org’s plans could be, since its plans are pretty well published and I need something to actually take forward. But more than one has responded asking me to tell them what *I* think they could do or saying, “Once we connect I’m sure we’ll have loads of ideas.” I’m not sure how to appropriately respond in a way that gets across the point that I need them to make some of the effort, without coming across rude, and I do want to strengthen our relationship with these suppliers where possible, as they do good work in the limited scope we need.

Can you suggest scripts that can help me more directly get the point across? I don’t have time for endless meetings without something concrete to discuss, since I do still have my normal role to fulfill!

How about: “Because we’ve had a tremendous volume of interest in this program, we’re asking anyone interested in participating to send a specific proposal before we talk with people directly. It doesn’t need to be formally presented — even a short email is fine as long as we have something concrete in writing. (In part that’s governed by my need to triage my schedule right now.)”

Also, are you getting enough interest that it would make sense to do an open conference call or two, where anyone who wants can call in at a time you choose and hear more about the plans, ask questions, etc.? Sometimes when you’re getting a lot of these kinds of queries, it can make sense to funnel them all into something like that — something that gives them an opportunity to talk to you while preventing you from having to schedule 27 separate phone calls.

4. Sending thank-you’s for answers to hiring-related questions

Should I send thank-you emails when someone answers a question for me during a hiring process? I’ve been casually applying for internships (competing with ~60 applicants) and positions for new graduates (competing with ~2000-3000 applicants), and have had to ask questions about the application processes. These are normally brief questions like “Will the application timeline be affected by this deadline extension?” or “The application requires my GPA but my degree is from a foreign university and has no equivalent, how would you like me to proceed?”

Should I be replying to their answers with a thank-you email or is it excessive? When I was working full-time, I found thank-you emails polite but a little annoying/unnecessary. I know you’ve answered this in terms of when you work with someone, but as a potential employee I’m worried about how it reflects on me if I do or don’t.

If someone answers a question for you, sending a quick thank-you is polite … and if it required any research or a more elaborate answer from them, you absolutely should thank them.

That said, this is one of those things job seekers worry about but people involved in hiring rarely think about, definitely not to the point that it would affect your candidacy, because they’re dealing with large numbers of candidates. (Plus, the person answering those questions often isn’t involved in actual hiring decisions anyway.)

5. Asking to work from home with terrible road rash

I unfortunately had an alcohol-related fall on a flight of stairs, which resulted in essentially road rash covering 50% of the right side of my body. I was luckily to only have relatively minor injuries all things considered, but the right side of my face and right leg were covered in road rash to the point that I couldn’t cover everything with bandaids or gauze.

I explained this injury at work after assuring everyone I was fine and talked to my boss about being able to wear shorter-than-professional shorts and dresses temporarily, because it was unbelievably painful to wear pants with my leg injuries.

Luckily I work in a very casual office so this wasn’t a problem, but I do wonder if this was the right choice. I didn’t ask to work from home because I could walk and commute as normal, but my injuries were definitely uncovered (partially at doctor’s orders to help them heal) for a week or so.

Do you think I should’ve offered to work from home if my injuries were making people uncomfortable? Or would that have looked like I was milking my injuries? Unfortunately I’m pretty clumsy and accident-prone so I wouldn’t be surprised if I run into the same issues in the future.

Unless you work in a severely dysfunctional office or have a reputation for trying to shirk work, asking to work from home shouldn’t look like you were milking your injuries! It’s true that really bloody/gorey injuries that can’t be covered can be distracting/unsettling, but it also sounds like you might have been more physically comfortable at home too. (And I don’t know how short these shorts and dresses were, but if you weren’t comfortable wearing them at work, that would have been reason to prefer to be at home that week!)

here’s an example of a cover letter that will make you a stronger candidate

I frequently get asked for examples of good cover letters, and a reader recently sent me a good one that I want to share.

I’m always telling people “don’t just use your cover letter to summarize your resume — add something new.” This is a good example of what that can look like — the letter talks about what the writer brings to her work in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent from a resume.

The caveats I’ve learned to give when sharing these:

  • The writer has allowed me to share this here as a favor to me and to readers. Please remember she’s a real person when you’re commenting.
  • This writer’s voice is her voice. It will not be your voice, and that’s part of the point.
  • There is no single cover letter in the world that all hiring managers will love or that would be the right fit for every employer and every industry. But I receive letters every week from people telling me that moving in this sort of direction worked for them.
  • Do not steal this letter or even parts of it. It works because it’s so customized to the writer. It’s intended for inspiration only — to show what the advice here can look like in practice. Stealing it will doom you to terrible job search luck.

Here’s the letter (which led to an interview, which led to an offer), with identifying details changed for anonymity.

•   •   •   •   •

I am pleased to submit my application for the Product Manager role at the Galactica. I have over eight years of experience working in educational technology, and for the past three years, I’ve been working for Caprica, a nonprofit organization making open source educational software for the Cylon fleet. While I enjoy my work at Caprica, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted me to re-evaluate a lot of things, including how I can use my skills and privilege to make the world a better place. The Galactica’s mission to make higher education accessible and affordable to everyone is particularly exciting to me, as I was a first-generation college student who struggled with various social and financial barriers to completing my undergraduate education.

I started my ed tech career in IT support, and later moved into instructional design. I joined Caprica in hopes of becoming an engineer, though within six months of being hired to do user support, I started to take on product management responsibilities, and in another six months I was managing all of customer success and product for the organization. I have since advocated for a reorganization that lets me focus entirely on product management, and I know that’s where I want to take my career.

I believe my biggest strength as a product manager is my ability to build trust with and among my colleagues. The engineers know that I respect their limits as humans and won’t ask them to do something impossible, and our sales team and leadership know I’ll do everything I can to deliver the right things in a timely fashion. Building this trust takes time, but I find being transparent about my processes speeds this up. I work with an engineer who doesn’t want to be involved in every business planning meeting, but he does like to know how his work is achieving business goals— so I make sure to include that information when writing up specs and user stories. Similarly, one of my colleagues on the sales team doesn’t mind waiting a bit longer for a feature if he has a compelling story to tell his customers about our standards-based and accessibility-minded approach to building it, so I help him come up with talking points.

Leading development of an LTI-compliant application after spending years directly supporting faculty has taught me the ins and outs of various Learning Management Systems, including common pain points for students, instructors, and instructional designers alike. I was intrigued to see that you’ve built your own LMS and that your product hire will be working to improve it— I would love to know more about the decision to build an LMS from scratch rather than using one of the major market players.

I hope you’ll consider me for this Product Manager role at the Galactica. If you’d like to discuss my qualifications further, I would be happy to speak via phone or email.

people who haven’t been working from home feel invisible

As employers start to set timelines for bringing workers back to the office, they’re setting off waves of anxiety in some of their employees … which in turn is setting off some frustration and impatience among people who have been working on-site all along.

Many of these workers resent that people upset about returning didn’t display the same concern for the safety of those who have been there all along. And they wonder why they’ve been left out of so much of the national narrative about what this year has been like for workers. They haven’t been stuck at home baking bread or cooped up with family members; they’re out risking their lives working with the public and/or in close quarters with colleagues every day, and they feel invisible in much of the conversation about pandemic life.

I’m to blame for contributing to that invisibility here! And I’m trying to counter that now, including with a column at Slate today highlighting some of their voices. You can read it here.

my coworker asks me to google things for her and treats me like her assistant

A reader writes:

I work for a niche department within a very large company. This company has one specific focus but my department isn’t directly related to the main output of the company. Think IT at a pharmaceutical company or public relations at a large law firm.

I started with this company about a year ago after being in a similar role at two other companies for over 10 years. In many ways, I am very happy in this role. I generally like the culture and my close colleagues and find most of the work interesting. However, Jane — who is one of the “attorneys” or “scientists” (if we’re using the examples above) — has somehow singled me out as her personal assistant. (For what it’s worth, my job is not centered around administrative support, she and I both have roughly the same amount of education and professional experience, and she has an actual dedicated PA.)

At least once a day, but sometimes way more frequently, she’ll email me asking for things that are well outside my role. A few examples:

– Can you rename this PDF for me?
– This is my NYTimes password, can you save it in your files and remind me of it if I ever can’t log in?
– Several questions a week that are “can you find some simple fact or document” that is easily found on the first page of Google.

From what I’ve heard from my coworkers, apparently the person who was in my specific role before me was a bit of a doormat and Jane used them in the same way. For a long time, I just did it because most of the things were so quick it was easier to do it than not, but it’s getting to the point where it’s increasing in frequency and taking away from my regular job (both in time and frustration).

I’ve tried a few things: first, doing what was asked but adding a note at the end that it wasn’t really part of my responsibilities, as well as pointing out how it could be done easily and efficiently, which was ignored. I’ve tried waiting a full day to respond to “train” her that I’m not always at her beck and call for that kind of thing, which led to her adding in specific deadlines in each email. I also brought it up with my direct supervisor. He was sympathetic, but said that any change in Jane’s behavior would have to come from Jane’s supervisor, not from him (which I think is because he doesn’t have the authority to really address it within our structure.)

Do you have any advice to redirect this behavior or convince Jane that it takes less time to google something or save a password in Chrome than it does to constantly email me?

Does Jane … think you and her PA are the same person? Is this the opposite of a Joaquin/Wakeen situation, where instead of thinking one person is two people, she thinks two people are one person? Otherwise it makes no sense that she has a PA but is asking you to save her passwords and rename PDFs (!) for her.

Alternately, has Jane’s PA somehow convinced her that you are in fact the assistant, so that the PA can spend her days mini-golfing and such?

It’s just utterly bizarre to send one’s minor admin tasks to someone in a totally different department, especially when that person’s job has nothing to do with admin work and especially when one already has an assistant. If it’s really just that your predecessor was a pushover and would do this stuff for her, it’s still bizarre that Jane assumed that would continue once that person left.

Part of the problem, of course, is that you did do these things for her for a long time! That undoubtedly reinforced it for her. Ideally, the first time she sent you an inappropriate task, you would have responded, “I don’t think this was meant for me — did you intend this for Kate?” (I’ve named the PA Kate.)

That said, having a random coworker ask you to google something for them is so weird that I can understand the impulse to just do it if the alternative is having to explain that they are fundamentally unfamiliar with how jobs work.

But step number one in making this stop is to stop doing it. One way would be to reply to the next request with, “Hi Jane, I’m happy to help you with anything marketing-related you need, but I don’t provide general admin assistance. You should direct this kind of thing to Kate or another admin.”

It’s going to be a little weird not to acknowledge you’ve been doing it all along, but every script I come up with to mention that (“I should have raised this earlier,” etc.) introduces a risk that she will argue with you … or worse, argue with someone above you that since you acknowledge you’ve been doing it all along, it should just become part of your formal responsibilities. Normally I would recommend addressing it with her more broadly — “this is has been happening for a while and I shouldn’t have been assisting you at all” — but I’m not convinced that’s the way to go in this specific case. Just start flatly sending her requests back to her with a note that you’re not doing it.

And it’s really important to stick to that. The stuff you’ve tried in the past — like waiting to respond but then doing the task, or doing the task but including a note that it’s not part of your job — just taught her that you’ll do this work, even if you protest.

To be clear, it’s incredibly weird that she has seen you say this stuff isn’t your job and continued to send it anyway. (Maybe she thinks you’re just really difficult and being obstreperous about not wanting to do your job?!) If she genuinely thinks this is your job, she should have responded to say that.

But for whatever reason, neither hints nor direct conversation have worked. You’ve got to just stop doing the stuff.

Now, your boss. Even if he’s decided he doesn’t have the standing or seniority to address this with Jane or her boss, it’s still reasonable to expect that he’ll have your back on this and support you once you set boundaries with Jane. I’m assuming that if Jane complains, he’s not going to give in and tell you to keep acting as her admin? He will, presumably, not agree to drastically redefine your role so you’re working as her assistant? (I am presuming these things because the only way it should be otherwise is if he is a wimp of astounding proportions.) If you have any doubt of that, though, it might be wise to (a) feel out his likely reaction ahead of time, and (b) loop in HR to see if they’ll have your back if your manager won’t. But even managers who won’t proactively address problems will usually be willing to push back on something as absurd as “I am coopting your marketing manager and she is now my personal secretary.”

But really, just stop doing this stuff. You don’t need to wait for her to be convinced this isn’t your job before you stop (especially since apparently that may never happen); you just need to stop complying.

my boss had a long-term affair with my husband, allergies on video calls, and more

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

1. My boss had a long-term affair with my husband

I recently found out that my spouse has been having a 2.5-year affair with his coworker, who happens to also be my manager. She has been doing this kind of thing for years and even after this came out, she is still doing this kind of behavior with other men, including her staff, most of whom are married with kids, me included. But her employees are not the only ones, this also includes resort guests. We work at a luxury hotel.

Can I anonymously email HR and inform them of what she is doing? I know it will not result in termination or even a final write-up. But what I am looking for is that they have a conversation with her. She is and has been destroying families for years. My thought is that if HR has this conversation, it will rattle her to stop or an investigation will begin since it does include fraternizing with guests, which is a huge no-no.

Anonymous notes usually aren’t taken seriously, but would you be open to talking to HR yourself? The issue isn’t so much that your boss has affairs; the issue is that she is having affairs with her staff, which is a huge legal liability for the company (as well as horribly unethical). The fact that she had an affair with her employee’s husband leaves her absolutely unable to manage you and calls her judgement (and her ability to remain in a managerial position) into deep question.

2. How can I fix my company’s dysfunctional culture?

I’m writing to you because I really don’t like my job, but I need a way to cope. It took some time for me to realize I want to switch fields (I’m burnt out and not enjoying technical work anymore), and I’m working on finding a job that will make me happier. But this is taking a while, and a pandemic that is unpredictable is not a good time to be unemployed.

I want to find a way to make this job less draining and upsetting while I’m here. Morale is low here, we’re overworked, understaffed, and have had several people leave in the last two months. Leadership and management have not been good at raising morale or having empathy even before we had to switch to remote work, and we don’t have a culture of good communication or collaboration. Think people feeling “attacked” by design reviews or deliberately misrepresenting problems and schedule delays because they “like to avoid conflict.”

I’m not in management, but I’m leading a significant project, and have about 7-8 years of work experience. I should be able to do something, but it feels impossible to change culture by myself. I’ve spoken to my manager, his boss, and another manager about our issues, and every time they have agreed with my assessment of the problems, then figuratively thrown up their hands and said, “I don’t know how to fix this, what would you do?” I don’t know either! I’ve not been given any leadership training, and I certainly don’t know how to fix a dysfunctional culture by myself. But I need to try, for my own sake, and for my colleagues’. My one idea (which was shot down because “people won’t engage”) was to have an open, honest discussion about how people are doing and what support they need. I would really appreciate any advice or strategies you have! I don’t want to spend every weekend dreading Monday morning.

I will say it bluntly: you cannot fix this. The reason it feels impossible to change the culture by yourself is because it is. Fundamental changes to a dysfunctional culture need to come from the top and senior leadership needs to be deeply bought in and committed or it won’t happen. Even then, it’s difficult work that often doesn’t stick.

That said, you could think about a few concrete changes that would improve your quality of life while you’re there and ask for those. They shouldn’t be anything fundamental about the culture because that won’t work and will likely be an exercise in additional frustration (for example, if they had agreed to hold that discussion about what support people need, it could have actually made things worse if nothing changed afterwards — because that kind of thing increases people’s cynicism about the company). But if it would improve your life to have the company pay for you to get training in X or back-burner a project you don’t have time for right now or buy everyone bagels on Friday, ask for it. That’s not going to fix the big problems, but it might make things more bearable while you work on leaving.

3. If I apply for a job where my reference works, do I need to be sure I’d accept it?

One of my former managers, “Phil,” has been a great reference over the years. We don’t have a personal relationship, but we keep in touch by talking about our industry. Last January he gave me a glowing reference that helped me land a great (on paper) new role. Unfortunately, it has not been a good fit. I have nothing bad to say about the company … my duties are just not what I expected. I am not desperate to leave, but I have been casually looking for other opportunities.

I applied for a higher paying role at the company where Phil works now. I interviewed and they are requesting references. I want to use Phil as a reference, but my sister says I shouldn’t unless I am 100% sure I would accept the job. She thinks it would burn that bridge if I asked for his help again so soon, and then didn’t accept a job at his own company. Is that true? Do I have to accept a job offer if my reference works for the company?

No! I don’t think your sister is necessarily saying you should always accept a job offer if your reference works for the company (you definitely don’t need to) but rather it sounds like she’s concerned about you asking for his help twice so close together and then not accepting an offer there. But either way, you wouldn’t need to accept an offer. It would make no sense if you did; that would mean you’d be obligated to accept even if you turned out not to want the job or the salary they offered was too low.

It is true, though, that when you apply somewhere your reference works, you should be particularly considerate about how you navigate things. Assume they might be spending capital to help you and proceed accordingly — meaning, for example, that you shouldn’t apply if you’re not really that interested or stay in the process if at some point you determine you wouldn’t accept the job, and you definitely shouldn’t use them just to get a counteroffer from your current employer (you shouldn’t do that with any company, but definitely not in this situation) or tell them off if they reject you, etc. Otherwise you risk losing good will with the person you’re hoping will continue to be a reference for you in the future. But none of that means you can’t turn down an offer. Do it courteously and explain to Phil why it ultimately wasn’t right for you, and it should be fine.

4. Allergies on video calls

I recently started a new job that’s totally remote and I met the rest of my team this week. However, during this call, my allergies went absolutely haywire and I found myself sneezing and coughing and having to blow my nose during the call. I muted myself the whole time unless asked a question (so no one could hear me honking into a Kleenex), but how else should allergy symptoms be handled in a video conference besides muting yourself and trying to sneeze subtly? Was there anything else I should have done?

That’s about it! It’s also fine to acknowledge it — “I apologize, my allergies are going haywire” — but this isn’t a big deal! You were almost certainly not the only one on that call who’s struggled with allergies or similar symptoms. To the extent that anyone took note of it, it would have just been in sympathy!

5. How to turn down invitations to interview

I’m in the final term of my undergrad and have thankfully secured a job! I applied to a lot of jobs (like almost 200), most admittedly through one-click apply on LinkedIn and Indeed, which I soon discovered go nowhere.

I am still receiving invites to interview. What is the best phrasing to reject them with? It is almost always by email. I’m especially worried as I will be working at a consultancy that will potentially lead me to working with the companies I’m now rejecting! I know I’m overthinking it, but I can’t help myself.

“I recently accepted a job so I need to withdraw my application, but best of luck filling the position.” That’s it! That happens all the time, and it’s nothing to worry about!

weekend free-for-all – May 8-9, 2021

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand.

Here are the rules for the weekend posts.

Book recommendation of the week: All Girls, by Emily Layden. Told in the voices of many different students at an all-girls boarding school that seems to be covering up an assault, it’s a story about what it’s like to be a teenage girl trying to figure out yourself, friendships, authority, and the world in general.

* I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.

it’s your Friday good news

It’s your Friday good news, with more accounts of success even in this weird time.

1. I’m going to be graduating from college soon, so I started looking for work about a month ago. I was really worried about finding anything during the pandemic, and even if I did, I kind of assumed that it would be a minimum wage gig. However, I read some of your articles that talked about how women tend to underestimate themselves while job searching and only apply for jobs that they’re 100% qualified for (I’m definitely guilty), so I went “what the heck” and applied for a few administrative jobs that I only had about 70-80% of the qualifications for.

A few weeks later, I’m pleased to report that I got not one, but two job offers this week! They’re both for part-time positions, so I was able to accept them both. The hourly rates are pretty decent for both jobs, so between them I think I’ll actually bring in a decent amount of money! Plus, they’re both at organizations that matter to me: one of them will have me providing admin support for my province’s vaccine rollout program, and the other one will have me working for my current university.

Honestly, this takes so much stress off my shoulders. I’m planning on moving out soon, and now I can look at places with the confidence that I can make rent without slowly whittling down my savings (and maybe even add to my savings each month). Thanks for all the advice you’ve given on this blog, Alison! Your encouragement gave me the nudge I needed to apply for these jobs.

2. Almost immediately after COVID hit last spring I was diagnosed with stage III cervical cancer (this is positive I promise…). Weirdly this was probably the best time for me to get sick. My workplace had moved everyone to work from home, so the anxiety I would have inevitably had about being out for appointments so much was non-existent. My employer was very compassionate and offered me flexibility to a point where I barely had to use (in my case unpaid) FMLA. This was especially helpful when schools closed and suddenly, I had a kindergartener home. It has been a year and I am in remission. I was also offered the option to give up my office and become fully remote which I accepted! (And elementary has safely reopened – hallelujah).

I realize I was very privileged/fortunate to have a job (type) that facilitated this. I am happy to have had a silver lining in my case through an otherwise devastating pandemic.

3. This last 18 months, even before COVID, have been rough. I’m in a frequently cyclical industry, which tanked globally right before COVID made things even worse. The CEO with whom I was close retired and then once new management was installed, my boss of 18 years was “asked to retire”. Since I was not well known to new management, I was nearly “retired” along with him, despite my unique skill set. Since we’d been together so long, I was seen as “his” so new management figured I was no longer valuable to the organization with him gone, even though I was the first person to hold this job at my company, built a five-person department from scratch, and am objectively very good at my job.

Fortunately, the SVP for the division to which I provide primary support stepped up and said they’d fire me over his dead body, as I was critical to his organization. Another VP I support in a different function chimed in as well and I was retained, though new management wasn’t convinced and the sword of Damocles remained hanging over my head. I decided right then that I needed to get out. So after nearly 20 years in the same company, I began a job search.

Thanks to helpful hints and tips from your site about resumes and cover letters, I passed through to the third round of interviews with a very large multi-national company. While kind of interesting, the company is top heavy and the job didn’t fill me with excitement. Still, I figured it was better than hanging around until the new management got their way and I was shown the door.

Then the best thing happened! The division I support, complete with the awesome SVP, was spun off and sold, and the new owners made me an incredible offer, which I accepted. I even retained my seniority and 5 weeks vacation. The new owners are a very small company with significant amounts of venture capital cash behind them, and have almost no infrastructure, so there is a ton of room for me to move into a senior leadership role. So essentially I kept the same job working for the same wonderful team in a field I know like the back of my hand, but with a new boss and a new owner, with better compensation and a fantastic working environment. Coworkers I had only known casually in the past emailed me when the announcement was made to tell me how glad they were that I was joining the new organization. What a drastic change from the old toxic work culture. It was absolutely the best case scenario that I could have imagined.

I started the new job last month and my whole life has undergone a radical transformation of positivity and joy! It feels like the weight of the world is off my shoulders. My new boss is absolutely amazing, treating me as a peer rather than a minion. I am not micromanaged but am trusted to do the job they hired me to do. The nightly bottle of wine has turned into a cup of decaf tea, there’s no more stress eating, and I have already lost 10 pounds! I smile, I laugh, and best of all, I have been SINGING IN MY CAR for the first time in nearly three years. The former employer is making everyone return to the office by mid-month, while the new boss told me I am welcome to continue to WFH or come into the office as I choose — he has no complaints with my productivity. At first I elected to just go to the office as needed but found that I have missed the camaraderie, so I have decided to work a hybrid schedule.

I guess I want to say to anyone else dealing with a toxic situation to never put work above your own mental or physical well-being. I know not everyone has the luxury to leave as they choose, but always keep an eye open for an exit strategy and be prepared to jump on it when it comes. For those who feel that they have been somewhere too long to leave, you have to tell yourself that these days, loyalty is a one-way street. Your employer would ditch you in a heartbeat if it benefits them to do so, and your only loyalty should be to yourself. I nearly let my loyalty to my former boss cost me everything — I should have moved on years ago.

Alison, it was your site content that helped me get in the door and to the third round of interviews, giving me options in the event I was not retained. I also used a version of your script to politely withdraw from the other interview process. I’m beyond grateful for how things turned out, and so very appreciative of the resources on your website.

4. After getting laid off from a soulless corporate job in early 2020, I decided to try changing it up at a smaller company where I could have more of an impact. The role seemed like exactly what I wanted: I’d get to scale up a department from 5 to 30 in a year, setting the direction and hiring out the team. There was a lot of funding, promising signs of growth, and some very talented colleagues.

Then the other shoe dropped. Before I was hired, a C-level founder had been running the department, but he was supposed to step back from the day to day after I started. Instead, he went full-court abuse to stay in control. More than one person — independently of each other — told me that he reminded them of the cult leader from The Vow. I was hesitant to get back on the job market again so soon, but obviously this was completely unsustainable.

Once I started looking again, I followed your excellent cover letter advice and forced myself to crank out five a day to practice my technique. Three of my top five jobs(!) eventually responded, I lost out in the final round with my top pick, and my second pick sent me an offer! I negotiated slightly on the compensation to maintain my previous salary, started a few weeks ago, and it’s been a night and day difference working at a company where I actually feel needed and appreciated.

5. I wrote to you a few years ago about some issues I was having at my last organization. Since then, just a few months before the COVID shut down, I accepted a new “reach” position at a new nonprofit. While it hasn’t been easy, they’ve tried to make our transition to WFH as easy as possible and they have tried to be flexible with all members of the team.

We’re still working from home (probably through the summer at least), which I’m thankful for, but even more thankful that my manager surprised me* with a promotion this week! The promotion is really a recognition of the ways I’ve naturally expanded my role and comes with two direct reports and a 20% raise! I really appreciate all the advice you give for navigating office situations (especially when things are tenser than ever with everyone working remotely) and I ALWAYS refer you to my friends and coworkers for resume and interview advice.

*I say “surprised me” but it has been on my radar that this is something he had wanted for me. We’ve been talking about it happening but with COVID cuts, I really thought he was being overly optimistic that it was going to happen soon.

6. I have Friday Good News to share! Your blog has been incredibly helpful to navigate professionalism while working in a student job in university. I just got an internship in a field I want to work in after I get my degree, and they even talked about collaborating for a master’s thesis! I could combine two topics that I’m passionate about, and I’m really happy about it. I often felt like I’m a bit late in life because I spent my early twenties battling PTSD, and now I’m just finishing my degree in my late twenties. But regularly reading your advice helped me understand that I actually have a lot of work experience to offer, and I feel optimistic to starting my career next year. Thank you so much!