interviewer asked how I prepared for the interview, boss wants me to be “emotional and raw,” and more

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

1. Interviewer asked me how I prepared for the interview

I had my first job interview in close to a decade the other day. It was an initial phone call.

The interviewer asked me a few questions that initially caught me off guard. One was, “So how did you prepare for today’s interview?” Then this followed: “Can you tell me what it is our company does?” To be clear, I’d researched the company thoroughly, including speaking to someone I know who works there (who did not have great things to say about how management treats the staff; this was backed up by several reviews on Indeed and Glassdoor). But the way the interviewer asked the questions, it’s like he was looking for a “gotcha” moment.

My resume shows that my professional experience goes back almost 10 years. I thought the conversation would be more along the lines of reviewing my qualifications and how they might align with the requirements for the position. Instead, I felt like I was being treated like I was a kid in grade school being given a pop quiz by the teacher. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been in an interview in a while, but am I wrong to be a little put off by this line of questioning?

You’re not wrong. Those questions come across like gotchas — an attempt by your interviewer to somehow catch you out (the second one less so, except in a context where it’s coming on the heels of the first). It might come across differently in an interview for an internship or entry-level job, as a way to probe into the person’s approach to organization and preparation, but not for someone with a 10-year track record of working to look at. (And I’m skeptical that he’d have responded well if you asked how he prepared for the conversation.)

For what it’s worth, he didn’t necessarily come up with those questions himself; they periodically appear on lists of suggested questions for interviewers to ask. But he or someone else at the company chose to ask those instead of using the time in other ways. You’re entitled to find it off-putting.

2. My boss wants me to share my “emotional and raw” reasons for working in my job

I have a manager who is new to me and my team but not new to the company or management in general. We have had a strained relationship but are slowly building a rapport.

In our most recent 1:1, he asked me to describe my emotional and raw personal reasons for working in my current role at my current company. I am a woman in tech, and I have worked my entire career to not appear emotional or tie my emotions to any portion of my work, in part for professionalism and in part to avoid the “emotional woman can’t handle the work” stereotypes. How do I push back on my manager and tell him I am not comfortable tying my emotions to my work? When I told him I prefer to be rational in my workplace and keep emotions at the door he told me I was “leaving all the fun out of it” and implied the only way for us to move forward was if I bared my soul to him. I am not comfortable with this! Please help!

This is weird for so many reasons, not least because most people don’t have “emotional and raw” reasons for choosing their jobs. And I’m not sure I’d want to hear anyone’s emotional and raw reasons if they did!

You could try to educate your boss about why his request is inappropriate (perhaps including “your request is a real land mine for women in this field, in ways you might not realize”) but the path of least resistance might be to just make up some BS that will satisfy him. Give him a very serious speech about your dedication to (subject matter of your job) and how seriously you take the opportunity to ___, stare at him meaningfully, and call it a day.

You shouldn’t have to do that. But if the relationship is already strained, sometimes the better part of valor is to take the easy way out and conserve your energy for other things.

3. Does remote work harm junior employees?

I’ve noticed that a lot of the questions and answers on your site are generally supportive of remote work. I work for an engineering company that has a hybrid approach. Most people can work from home two days a week, and we have a few fully remote employees. There seems to be interest from some employees, both junior and senior, in working from home more than two days a week or full-time.

My concern is that over time, the junior staff’s learning and growth will be impacted by not spending as much face to face time with the senior staff. This is the kind of thing that may not be noticable in short term metrics, but becomes impactful over time. The type of work we do is somewhat complex and requires a lot of on the job training, learning through experience, and learning through mentoring. So much of this happens in ad-hoc conversations around the building, chatting after meetings have officially ended, and overhearing other conversations that are happening around you. We use Zoom for meetings when people are not in the office and encourage people to have their cameras on to help facilitate connection and conversation between staff. However, I notice that this does not seem to happen as much on remote work days, and happened significantly less during Covid shutdowns when everyone was fully remote. Everyone is fully comfortable in Zoom meetings by now, but I don’t know if one can force the human connection that happens in person to happen over Zoom.

I am concerned about the long-term impacts of this on our business, but I haven’t seen much of that in the conversations on remote work. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this — do you think remote work hurts the growth of junior employees (and the company) when they are not getting as much face time with the senior staff and their peers?

Yes. In my opinion, it’s the biggest drawback to the shift to more remote work and one we haven’t figured out how to solve. For early-career people, a huge amount of learning happens simply from being around more senior people as they do their jobs — hearing how someone talks to a client, or puzzles through a problem, or interviews a source. And that’s before we even get into the ad hoc conversations you describe that happen naturally in an office but require more formal planning to make happen remotely.

The benefits of remote work can be so enormous that in some cases they might outweigh that concern — but it’s a very real issue that I haven’t seen anyone come up with a good solution to (aside from hybrid schedules where everyone comes in on the same days).

4. Should I take a job offer at the start of my search if it’s not what I want to do?

I just learned I will be laid off two months from now, and immediately sprang into a job search. I’m well advanced into my career, serving as a department director for the past 18 months and having worked in the same industry my entire career.

Within 24 hours, I one of the jobs I applied to called me in for an interview, but here’s the catch: it’s a position well below my abilities and salary. It’s nearly identical to a position I held more than 10 years ago, and I have no doubt I could do it easily and well, but it’s not where I see myself now.

So how to proceed? Do I take this lower job while continuing my search, knowing full well that I already have a foot out the door? Or do I hold out for a more suitable position, which will likely take longer to find? I’m debt free, have a healthy emergency savings, and two more months of employment, so there’s no immediate desperation. Just the same, I don’t want to put myself in a precarious situation just because I refused a job I felt was beneath me.

There’s no guaranteed-to-be-right answer to this. There’s inherently some risk built in no matter what you do.

But if you’re getting invited to interview within 24 hours of beginning your search, it’s very likely that you’re going to get invited to other interviews too, and some of them will probably be for jobs you’re more interested in.

If you had less of a financial cushion, you might not have the luxury of turning down a job you didn’t want. But in your situation, I think it’s worth gambling that there more interviews will come. It is a gamble, but given that you’re only a day into your search, I don’t think it’s a huge one.

You also do have the option of taking the job and continuing to search. It’s not a great thing to do to the employer, but sometimes financial realities don’t give you much choice in that regard.

5. A temp bringing bagels

I’m wondering if you can give me some perspective on something I did while I was in a temporary position at my current job. (I’ve since been hired on permanently in that role, and have been here for a year and a half.)

While I was a temp, I came into a bit of unexpected money, and since I liked everyone I was working with and had recently come from a job with a heavy emphasis on potlucks and sharing food, I decided to use my windfall to treat everyone to bagels and cream cheese. So I went around the office, stated what I was doing, and asked everyone what flavors they wanted. (There are only 10 people in the office at maximum on any given day, so this wasn’t a huge stretch.)

I got mostly surprised (but pleased) reactions and assurances that I could get whatever flavors for the most part, and plenty of people thanked me at the time and enjoyed a bagel. But thinking back on it now, and given that I’ve never done anything like this again, I’m starting to wonder if it read more like a “please hire me!” campaign ad. The position was temp to hire, so while I feel like my intentions were pure, could this have backfired on me if I had misread what I could and couldn’t get away with as a temp worker? On the off chance that I end up in that position again, I want to get an outside perspective on what that looked like. (I’m not a supervisor, for the record, just a regular, front-of-office drone, in case that changes anything.)

I think you’re fine and I doubt it looked like a “please hire me!” campaign.

In some offices it might have felt like a mildly surprising act from a temp. This analogy isn’t quite right, but sort of like if an intern had done it — there might be a feeling of “save your money and don’t spend it on treats for us.” (The analogy isn’t exactly right because temps are different from interns, and you might have been far better paid, but that’s as close as I can get.) However, the longer you had been temping there, the less that would be the case, and the kindness of the act (and the joy of having bagels) would have outweighed that anyway. And in most offices it wouldn’t seem strange or register at all.

Also, this kind of thing tends to get interpreted through the lens of what people already know about you. If you were doing a lot of other stuff that read as a “hire me” campaign, then this might have felt like part of that. But assuming you weren’t, and you just had warm relationships with people, it would have been seen through that lens.

why does my coworker hate me?

A reader writes:

I am a brand new graduate who started at a consulting firm last January. I’ve been there for about a year, and I have positive relationships with my coworkers. I am fairly quiet at work because I’m new, I am still learning from my colleagues and assessing the work environment. My coworkers have made it clear that they appreciate my work — I was voted Employee of the Quarter and given a raise within a year of working there!

However, I can’t get a read on a peer that I work directly with on my team. My peer is the same title as me and about the same age as me, and from the day that I started, she’s been cold and passive aggressive to me while being friendly to everyone else. At first, this didn’t bother me because I figured that this would change over time as she got to know me. A year later, nothing has changed, and I find her behavior to border on unprofessional. If I make a mistake at work (no matter how minor), she’s quick to point it out in a way that makes me feel bad. If I don’t do something the exact way that she would do it (but not necessarily wrong — just different), she criticizes me. In meetings, she shuts down my ideas. Her tone in her emails and messages to me are rude. If I try to make small talk with her, she gives me one-word answers. A few months ago, she sent me a job posting online under the guise that “maybe I have friends that want to apply,” but she has no affiliation with the company that was advertising the position, so I know that it was an attempt to get me to leave.

I am stumped as to why she dislikes me so much. At first, I wondered if it was because she saw me as a poor performer, but I asked her for feedback once and she told me that I am good at my job. Despite this, her behavior towards me is unfriendly. I don’t feel comfortable calling her behavior out because it’s covert, and I am afraid to tell my boss because she LOVES her.

Why would she dislike me for seemingly no reason? Is there a way to address this without rocking the boat? Additionally, how can I prevent her attitude from bothering me? It hurts because she is the only other person in my office who is around my age, and her behavior towards me has undermined my confidence/morale. Even though she’s unfriendly, I have a lot respect for her work and want to learn more from her. Help!

There are so many possibilities for what might be going on: Your voice or your appearance or your general vibe could remind her of someone she hates. She might have wanted the job you got, or some of the projects you’ve been assigned. She could be threatened by your background and qualifications, or even just the way your manager has talked about you. It could be because you’re the same age — if she was used to being the “smart young person” around the office, she could resent having you take some of that spotlight away from her. (If I had to bet, my money’s on this one.) You might have a personality trait that she can’t stand (we all annoy someone). She might have been affronted by some innocuous remark you made early on. There’s no knowing — but there are a ton of possibilities that could have very little to do with you.

Since she’s not just being a little standoffish but is being rude, I’m pretty confident that whatever is going on, it’s more about her than about you.

As for what you should do about it … well, one option is to do nothing. Try as much as you can not to dwell on her behavior, focus on doing a good job, and focus on the positive feedback you’re getting from other sources. When she sends you rudely worded messages, internally roll your eyes and be glad you’re not going through life saddled with whatever issue is making her behave this way.

I know that’s more easily said than done, and there are other options if you want to try them.

Would you be up for talking to her about what you’re seeing? There’s no guarantee that it’ll help, and it risks making things worse. But if you want to, after the next time she’s particularly rude, you could talk to her privately and say, “I want us to have a good working relationship, and I’m wondering if I’ve done something to upset you? If there’s something I did that stepped on your toes or bothered you in some way, I’d be grateful to know so I can handle it differently.”

Who knows, maybe she’ll tell you what’s going on. But it’s pretty likely she’ll tell you no, there’s nothing. She might act confused or surprised, as if it’s all in your head and she has no idea why you could possibly think that. But that won’t necessarily mean the conversation failed — it’s possible that by flagging that she’s coming across as if she has a problem with you, she’ll rein herself in. She might not realize how much she’s showing it, or might not have expected you’d call her out on it and might regulate herself more after you do.

Some people would recommend the “kill her with kindness” approach, and that’s an option too. You mentioned that you respect her work so I’m curious what would happen if you gave her some genuine, specific praise of her work a few times. Obviously you don’t want to feel like you’re sucking up to someone who’s been unkind to you, but if there are times when you genuinely admire her work (and it sounds like there are), it would be interesting to see if sharing that with her pays any dividends. If she feels threatened by you, it might thaw the chill a little. Or not! But there’s never anything wrong with giving sincere, non-condescending praise to a colleague and, if nothing else, seeing how she responds will give you more data.

Ultimately, though, I think we all have to make our peace with the fact that some people won’t like us. It’s a problem that she’s showing that to you, but it sounds like she sticks close enough to the line that there’s nothing actionable about it besides trying the tactics above … so if you try those and they don’t work, then I think you’ve got to go back to trying to shrug it off and figuring it’s something about her, not you. But if her actions ever do become more of an issue — if she’s openly hostile to you or not giving you the info you need to do your job — at that point it would make sense to talk to your manager about it.

how to answer “why are you interested in this position?”

Sit down for any job interview and one of the first questions you’re likely to be asked is, “Why are you interested in this position?”

For a lot of interviewers, this is a softball question: a way to ease into the interview without hitting you with high-pressure questions the minute you sit down. And to some extent, it is a softball question – but that doesn’t mean you should wing it. Sometimes candidates respond in a way that triggers concerns for their interviewer, like that you’re not actually that interested or that you’ve completely misunderstood what the job is. So while the question might sound straightforward, it has the potential to derail you if you don’t think through your answer ahead of time.

At New York Magazine today, I talked about how to answer it well. You can read it here.

how should I respond when employees complain about financial stress?

A reader writes:

I am the director of a nonprofit with a small team: I have five direct reports. I was a coworker to all of these individuals for years before being promoted and becoming their boss, and as a result I have — and continue to have — very close relationships with them. Since taking on a supervisory role I have worked hard to re-establish personal versus professional boundaries and think I have been largely successful. Of course, we are still a close-knit team and regularly discuss aspects of our personal lives like our families, our pets, our health, etc.

Occasionally, the topic of finances will come up in one-on-one conversation. One of my reports will say something like, “I was barely able to make rent this month” or “my car is broken and I can’t afford to fix it.” I typically respond with something generic like, “Yikes, that sounds stressful” and move on.

Recently, one of my employees was a bit short with me. She later apologized, saying, “I’m sorry, I have been really struggling financially. My rent just went up and my husband lost his job.” I told her that I was sorry to hear that she is under a lot of stress and left it at that. But all of these conversations seem to subtly imply that I (as a representative of the organization) am responsible for these problems, as the employer and determiner of salaries.

I feel my staff is paid fairly for our industry and location, and we give annual cost-of-living increases. It sometimes feels cruel to dismiss what I perceive as a cry for help from my staff, whom I care about, when they are being vulnerable with me, but I also understand that their financial situation is not my problem. Should I be handling these uncomfortable comments — and their subtext — differently, or is it okay to simply empathize?

I wrote back and said, “If multiple people on your staff are saying these things, I would be worried that they’re not in fact being paid enough to live on. How thoroughly have you looked into verifying that they really are (and currently too, given the pace of inflation recently)?”

I’m fortunate that our industry (let’s just say “museums” as a broad category) has a professional organization that puts out annual salary benchmarking data, including both gross and cost of living-adjusted figures, which can be further refined by operational budget, population served, etc. This is not the only metric we use to determine salary, but it helps us to have a guideline, and all of our staff are paid at or above the 50th percentile when compared to similar organizations. We give annual cost-of-living increases (8% last year and 7% the year prior).

We are a small nonprofit which has struggled financially, and we simply aren’t able to pay at the very top of the range for our staff (myself included). Still, we try hard to offer competitive pay and benefits. At one point I tried a more professional response to one of these comments, saying, “If you’d like to sit down for a formal salary review, I’d be happy to do so.” This seemed to embarrass the person and they backpedaled, saying they were just venting. But a few months later that same person was making those same comments.

Maybe I’m reading too much into these conversations? I only really have this issue with two of my staff, but for those two it does seem to be a recurring stressor. I want to let them know that I empathize, but that we are still a business and I’m not in a position to pay them more just because they may want (or even need) more.

Interesting. I was sure it was going turn out your pay data was out-of-date or you really hadn’t kept up with inflation.

For what it’s worth, being paid at or above the 50th percentile for your industry still might not be a living wage, especially when that industry is nonprofit. (Although your cost-of-living increases are higher than what most employers have done in the last few years, so kudos for that.)

Ultimately, though, if this is how you need to structure salaries — and it sounds like it is — all you can do is be transparent with people about that and trust that they’ll make the decisions they need to make for themselves.

To that end, if you haven’t already, it’s generally a good thing to be open about how the organization sets salaries and handles raises (how often they happen, what makes someone eligible or not eligible for one, how much they tend to be), including the benchmarking data you’ve used. This is something you should do with your staff as a whole, not just to the two people who have mentioned struggling.

Also, you mentioned that you offered to sit down for a formal salary review with one of these employees. If you’re not already initiating those yourself on a regular basis for everyone (ideally annually, and separate from cost-of-living increases), that’s something you should start doing; don’t leave it in your employees’ court to ask. You don’t want people feel like the onus is solely on them to make sure they’re being paid fairly, and a lot of people will never ask for a raise even when they clearly should. You might already be doing this! But I’m flagging it in case you’re not.

But beyond that, when someone mentions being stressed about finances, I wouldn’t assume it’s intended as a barb toward you or the organization. Employees having financial stress can simply be a reality of life — and even if you think their salaries should preclude that, you never know what financial burdens a person might have. So you could respond with, for example, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time” or “That sounds really stressful. I know the pay in our field can be tough.” (Only say that last part if it’s true, of course.)

how do I reply to my coworker’s apology without saying her constant mistakes are OK, coworker calls me “mama,” and more

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

1. My coworker keeps causing more work for me, then apologizing — and I don’t want to tell her it’s OK

I’m in a weird situation right now. My coworker, who I’ll call Jane, made a big mistake over the weekend. Big enough that I was called and my boss had to cover for the mistake. In this instance, she didn’t do something I had specifically asked her to do during her working hours on a Friday. The Monday after this happened, it became a Big Deal, and we were both questioned separately on what happened.

This isn’t the first time Jane has made an error and other errors she has made have resulted in incorrect pay that I need to go and clean up after. I am getting tired of having to constantly clean up her mistakes. She apologizes and I’ve always said it’s fine, but at this point, it’s no longer fine. She’s been in the job for almost six months and keeps making the same mistakes.

How can I kindly accept her apology without blanketing over the fact that she continues to make these errors?

You don’t have to say it’s fine if it’s not fine. You shouldn’t be mean about it, of course, but when she apologizes, you could say, “I appreciate that, but is there something we can change to avoid it happening again?” or “I want to make sure we’re putting systems in place that will head this kind of thing off before it happens — is that something you could talk to (manager) about?”

It also sounds like things are at the point where you should talk to your boss about it, if you haven’t already, to point out the impact it’s having on your own work (as well as your weekend, in this case).

2. Coworker calls me “mama”

In a former position, a coworker used to call me “mama.” I am not a mom and she was older than me, but it was seen as a cultural thing, so no one else seemed to care. As I move forward in my career, I would like to nip such things in the bud without coming across as insensitive or aggressive. What’s will be the best approach to being firm enough to prevent this reoccurrence without being seen as too harsh?

“Oh, please just call me Jane — thanks!”

And then if it continues, be more direct: “I don’t like being called ‘mama.’ Just Jane, please!” Or, depending on your style, “I’m no one’s mama — just Jane, please” or “”Mama’ throws me way off — just Jane, please.”

There are indeed cultures where “mama” is a term of respect, but it’s okay to say you want to be called by your name.

3. Can I negotiate more time before I start my new job so I can help my old job replace me?

I’ve essentially been offered a job as long as my references check out (and I can’t imagine they won’t). I’d like to have a longer than standard two-weeks notice period so that my current employer can have enough time to find someone and have me somewhat train them. They’ve, unfortunately, put themselves in the position of having me do everything, and I’m not sure what they’ll do once I leave.

Is there a way to negotiate a longer notice period with the new employer? I’m not sure what to say to them to have this happen.

Please don’t do this! It would be one thing if you wanted to ask for an extra week to see through one crucial project, but you’re talking about asking for multiple extra weeks, even months. Giving your employer time to advertise the job, interview people, hire a replacement, and wait for that person start and then for you to spend time training them — you’re talking about at least a month, and in many jobs two months or more. That’s a major request of your new employer, and it’s something that people just don’t really do in this situation.

It would be different if you needed the time for other reasons — like if you had a vacation or surgery scheduled or just wanted a week or two off in between jobs. But you’d be proposing a major inconvenience to your new employer just to benefit your old employer.

The situation you and your current job are in is a really common one: Very often when someone resigns, it leaves a major gap for the old employer and the person leaving worries about what will happen. And yet … the business handles it. They figure it out and life goes on. It’s not your problem to solve for them, and definitely not at the expense of your new job. (Also, when people are in your situation, they tend to feel like their situation is an exception — that they’re unusually indispensable, that their leaving will cause an unusual amount of chaos and disaster, that their employer is particularly helpless — and it’s almost never the case. So many people feel that way, and rarely does the business collapse after they’re gone.)

Leave your projects thoroughly documented and that’s all you’re obligated to do. If you’re really feeling generous, you could offer to be available for a training call or two with the new person once they’re hired (for pay), but frankly I wouldn’t recommend that in most situations; it’s better to make a clean break and focus on your new job.

4. How much admin work should you do before your first day of a new job?

I just accepted a job offer from a new organization for the first time in seven years and am trying to figure out how much things have changed. While I’m very excited about the job and it’s not a deal breaker for me, they’ve sent a lot of stuff to completed that I’ve always done on my first day at my previous companies. I had to create an account through ADP, fill out all my tax forms, emergency contact info, and paycheck info, read and acknowledge the employee handbook, submit photos of my IDs, and they still want a high resolution photo for my security badge, all due on the last business day before I start.

Everywhere else I’ve worked had me do all that on the first day on their own systems, but it’s also a lot easier to complete this from a mobile app these days (though I’m not thrilled about uploading my passport photo, etc). Do I just need to go with the flow, or am I right to be kinda annoyed they’re requesting all this before I’m on the clock?

This does seem to be happening more often these days; employers seem not to see it as work that should wait for your first day, but more akin to something like signing an offer letter, even though it takes a lot more time.

The path of least resistance is to just go with it if it’s not a major hassle for you. But if it is, you could say, “My schedule before I start is really packed, so I don’t think I’ll be able to get to most of this until my first day. Can you tell me which tasks are essential for me do before then?” That gives them an opportunity to tell you, for example, that you should at least do the ID photos so you’re not prevented from navigating the building on your first day, or whatever the case might be.

5. How do I tell my new job I have a brain tumor?

I recently left a terrible job and started a new one that has been fantastic to me and very good in general. However, I’ve spent the last year having MRI’s and neurologist visits and found out a week after starting that I have a brain tumor.

I’m worried that sharing this with my new employers will cause me difficulty at work, but at the moment, it’s not having any effects on my work and I do want to be honest with them about it. I’m just a little reluctant to do so, because at my previous not great job, any mention of anything that required me to take time off (I had Covid and a bad mental health time) was not received well, and nor were the medical issues of the other staff. I’m sure the job I have now won’t be like that, but as a new employee, how do I bring up the topic that I have a brain tumor?

I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. You don’t need to — and probably shouldn’t — bring it up since it doesn’t sound like you want to request any accommodations right now.

As a general rule, it’s safest to only disclose a health condition at work when you need to ask for a specific accommodation connected with it, and that’s especially true at a new job. (That doesn’t mean you need to go out of your way to keep it a secret, but it sounds like you’re feeling that you need to share this with them and you don’t.) If there comes a time when there’s something specific you need to ask for, you can tackle that then — and even then, you don’t necessarily need to disclose specifics if you don’t want to — but for now you’re not under any obligation to share your health situation. (This post talks about this in the context of mental health issues, but a lot of the same principles apply.)

a behind-the-scenes look at how Ask a Manager runs

Recently I answered a question about the behind-the-scenes running of Ask a Manager, and readers said they’d be interested in an opportunity to ask more. So last week I asked people to post questions they were interested in, and here are a bunch of answers.

Note that I couldn’t get to all the questions (there were over 300 comments there), nor do I think you would have the patience to read all the answers if I did, but I’ve tackled 35 of them. Also, some questions were asked by multiple people with slight variations, so in some cases I’ve combined multiple questions into a single one.

1. How do you decide which questions get posted on the blog? I imagine you have a lot of submissions to go through! What factors decide the ones that get answered publicly?

It’s a mix of what I find interesting, what I think other people will find interesting, whether I feel I have something useful to say, and what the mix of questions has been recently.

Sometimes, too, it’s just what I feel like answering when I sit down to write. If I’m really busy that day, I might go for something short or easy. Or if I read a letter and immediately start writing the answer in my head, I try to commit that answer to paper (well, screen) right away because writing is easier when you don’t ignore that impulse. So what speaks to me when I sit down to write plays a role. I’m writing a lot each week, and letting myself choose letters that way makes the volume more sustainable.

2. How many questions come in a day?

About 50 letters per weekday (much fewer on weekends – probably because people aren’t thinking about work as much then). That number has fluctuated a bit over the years; at one point pre-Covid it was as high as 75 a day, but it’s stayed around 50 per day for a while.

3. How much time usually goes by between when someone submits a question and when you publish a response?

It varies wildly. Sometimes it’s really fast (within a few days) and sometimes it takes weeks or months.

My backlog is large and I don’t answer in the order things are received. Sometimes I’ll mark a question as one I definitely want to answer, but I don’t get to it for a while (meaning weeks or even months). If you look at the math – 50+ questions per day is 250+ a week, and I answer about 30 a week here – there’s no way to publish quick responses for the majority of them.

4. How often do you respond to letter-writers when it doesn’t end up on the site?

A lot! If I can send someone a quick private response, I’ll try to do that (even if it’s just a link to a previous post that might help). I used to try to do that for every letter but that got overwhelming pretty quickly. I still try to do it when I can, but the overall volume means that more questions don’t get answered than do.

5. How do you handle time-sensitive letters, like the ones where someone has to have a conversation with their employee within the next few days (or sooner) of submitting the letter? Do you ever send an answer privately back to a writer so that they can use the advice right away, and then you can publish your answer a few days later?

Yes! Sometimes I send a quick private answer right away and then write a longer one for publication when I have more time. Or if I already have that week’s content written, I might send the person a response privately and then publish it at some later time.

But there’s also no realistic way to do time-sensitive answers to everything that would need them. In many cases, I will write an answer at whatever point I get to it, figuring that even if I’ve missed the writer’s deadline, hopefully it will be useful or interesting to other people.

Key to all this is that the purpose of an advice column isn’t primarily to provide individual people with answers (if it were, advice columnists would just answer everyone privately). The audience is much broader than that, and I think every advice columnist picks letters and their timing based on what makes sense for the column and the columnist, not by a strict hierarchy of letter-writer need. (I’ve accepted that if I did it differently, I’d burn out and then be answering no one, and I’d guess it’s the same for other people doing this work.)

6. What makes you decide NOT to answer a letter?

A big reason is if I don’t have a useful answer! Sometimes I think it can be interesting to write an answer that says “you know, I’m not sure and here’s why” … but sometimes that wouldn’t be particularly helpful or interesting to read.

Another is when someone writes in on behalf of someone else (like a friend or a partner) and it doesn’t seem like they have all the details. Or when I’ve done similar topics recently. Or if something is very esoteric, to the point that it’s unlikely to be useful or interesting to anyone else (in that case, I might try to send a short answer privately if I can). Some things are incredibly esoteric but still likely to interest other people … but not all of them fall in that category.

7. Is there a letter topic that used to seem very common but is less so now? Conversely, topics that feel prevalent now but were almost never asked in the early days (disregarding clear time-bound issues like Covid concerns before 2020, etc.)?

Interestingly, I used to get a ton of questions about how to follow up on a job application or interview, and I get far fewer of them now. I’m not sure why that changed!

I definitely get more letters about outrageous/weird situations now than in the early years. I think that’s just a function of the site having a larger audience.

8. Do you have the questions and answered prepared and automatically set to post at certain times of the day? How far ahead do you write the responses? Meaning, are the responses for this week and next week all ready to post, or do you write a day or two ahead?

Yes. Everything is written ahead of time and set to auto-post on a daily schedule. The schedule is midnight, 11 am, 12:30 pm, and 2 pm ET Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, it’s midnight, 11 am, and 12 pm ET.

I usually write anywhere from a few days to a week ahead. The midnight short-answer posts usually get written only a day or two ahead, and other things usually have a little more lead time. (And then for updates month in December, I set everything up in November and then it just auto-posts all month long.)

9. Do you choose the pseudonyms used in the letters, or do people write their own? I always enjoy when there’s a theme to the names used (like TV characters), and I’m curious if that comes from you or from the letter writers themselves.

Usually any names in a letter come from the letter-writer. However, sometimes people don’t use any names at all and I’ll add names if I think it makes the letter easier to follow.

10. How do you decide when to email someone back for more clarification, vs. answering the question “as-is”? How often does this happen? Do letter writers generally respond when you do? 

I don’t do it often. When I do, it’s usually because it’s a really interesting letter that I’d like to answer but after reading it I have a question that feels central to the answer. Or I’ve started writing a response and then realized, “Wait, there’s a key thing I need to understand before I can continue.” I think people nearly always respond when I write back for clarification – it’s at least 99% of the time if not 100%.

11. How much editing do you do to original questions? Is it just spelling and grammar, or do you also edit for anonymity if the submission has personal info?

I edit for spelling, grammar, clarity, and sometimes length.

I will sometimes take out details that seem identifying, especially if they’re not essential to the question (like the name of the city where the person works or a very specific job title or field that won’t affect the answer).

12. Do you come across any questions that you don’t feel qualified to answer? What do you do with those questions?

Yes, definitely. If I can, I’ll suggest somewhere else they could try instead (often that’s a lawyer). But otherwise that’s part of the group of questions that don’t get answered.

13. It seems like some people send their letters to multiple advice columnists and so we’ll see it appear here and in Dear Prudence and AITA, etc. Does it bother you when people do that?

Nah. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get a response at all when you write to an advice column, so I can see why people might submit to multiple places in the hopes of getting an answer.

14. What is your approach to inquiries which seem too ludicrous to be true? Do you assume that all questions are legitimate?

I assume all advice columnists get trolled sometimes, and I’m sure I’m no exception to that. If I think something is absolutely, unquestionably false, I won’t print it, but otherwise I’m not terribly concerned as long as the answer might be useful or interesting to others. As another columnist – Carolyn Hax, maybe? – has said, “Every letter is hypothetical to everyone reading except the one person who sent it in.”

And I do think some of the stranger letters are still good opportunities to provide useful advice that can translate to less bizarre situations. For example, the letter about the employee who was putting magical curses on other employees – you’ll hopefully never be in that situation, but you might need to deal with an employee who is being threatening toward their colleagues in more mundane ways, and that column at its core is about how to deal with that. I like that approach in general – I think it’s useful to be able to say, “Okay, this is weird, but what’s really the crux of the problem, and how do we talk about that?”

15. Have you ever changed your mind about your advice when the letter writer added more detail in the comments?

Definitely! It can be really hard to know to know what details to include when you write to an advice column. You might pick a detail that perfectly encapsulates the situation to you but which sends everyone reading it off on a wild goose chase. Or you might not think to mention something that ends up being really important. It’s really common to be so caught up in the situation that you figure X is shorthand for Y that everyone will understand, and you don’t realize that it’s the wrong detail to capture that until it’s too late. So yes, sometimes when writers offer more info in the comment section, it can really change things — that’s just an inherent limitation of the format.

16. Are there “best practices” you recommend for asking questions? I’m sure you have to balance what’s entertaining with what’s helpful and what’s broadly applicable to other readers. Should we be really specific to our own situation or try to be vaguer so the Q&A could be more relevant to others?

Be more specific than vague. So often the details of a situation will be crucial in figuring out what next steps makes the most sense, and questions that are overly broad can be hard to answer for that reason. I can always edit out detail if it seems excessive.

17. Has there been an overall shift in the subject matter of the questions? I sense that it started out more about how to get jobs and now seems to be more advice on dealing with different situations within jobs.

I think I still receive around the same number of questions on job-searching as I always have, but I answer fewer of them, just because I’ve answered the job-searching stuff so often (although new variations are always interesting) and the other stuff is often more compelling to me.

18. Do you keep any kind of demographic data or are there any patterns you notice in your letter-writers?

Google Analytics gives me a bunch on readers, although I don’t know how accurate it is. For example, it says that last year, 75% of site visitors were in the US, 8% were in the UK, 7% were in Canada, 3% were in Australia, and the remainder from other countries (with the next highest portion being from New Zealand, then Germany, then Ireland, then the Netherlands). It also says 77% were female and 23% were male (not terribly surprising since advice columns in general tend to skew female). And it thinks 36% were age 35-44, 32% were age 25-34, 12% were 45-54, 11% were 18-24, 6% were 55-64, and 3% were 65 or older.

19. I thought I saw a graph posted here a few years ago showing the increase in visitors to the site, almost from its year of creation. Could we see some visualized statistics again about visits to the site?

Here’s a chart of year-by-year traffic.

20. Have you ever had letters where you’ve wanted to contact the person’s company or a news site for them?

Yes! I did contact the media about this letter, with the writer’s permission, and it did lead to some news coverage. I’ve also connected a handful of other writers with reporters so they could talk to them directly (after reporters contacted me wanting to write about those people’s situations; I then check with the letter-writers to see if they want to be connected), especially in 2020 (when a lot of reporters were interested in companies’ bad behavior during Covid).

21. Why do you bundle small questions together into the daily five-questions posts? I’ve always found these hard to follow: The comments get jumbled, and it’s hard to remember who was OP2 vs. OP3 and so on. By posting each answer separately, you’d have more ad impressions and more updates throughout the day to attract readers. Plus, it would be easier to link back to specific questions, and to remove a single question when needed.

I don’t know if my decision on this is the right one, but my reasoning is that those posts contain a lot of questions that aren’t meaty enough for a standalone post, but work well when combined with a few others. Also, making them each into their own separate posts would mean eight posts a day, which feels like a lot to push at readers. I agree it’s not always ideal for the comment section, but commenters are only a small fraction of total readership so they’re not the only thing I need to consider. All that said … I could be wrong! It’s just what feels logical to me.

22. How do the “you may also like” links at the bottom of posts get chosen? I’ve been wondering this forever. I assume there’s some kind of algorithm, but what is it matching on? Are you tagging keywords behind the scenes to make it easier?

It’s done through a WordPress plugin that generates the posts listed there by matching on title and content. However, I can manually override its selections and put in my own, which I sometimes do.

23. When letter-writers send you updates, how do you match it to their original letter? Do you match email addresses?

I match email addresses. Occasionally someone is writing from a different email address and then I try to match names. Sometimes I haven’t been able to, like with really common names, and then I write back to the person and ask if they can link me to their letter … and then once I know the specific letter, I check to make sure the names are the same in both emails. (So far it hasn’t happened that they’re not, but if it did, as an authenticity check I’d ask if they could tell me the email address they had written from originally.)

24. Have you ever considered switching from ads on the site to a Patreon- or donation-based revenue stream?

From a financial perspective, it doesn’t make sense because the ads bring in more revenue than the other options would.

25. Occasionally, you collaborate with other columnists. How does that process go? In addition – is this a live interview or an email exchange? Seems like it would be a lot of work to transcribe a conversation.

With the exception of the podcast, it’s always been in writing. For example, when Jennifer at Captain Awkward and I have answered questions together, we’ve usually done it in a shared Google doc where we can both add our answers and “talk” that way. Or when Harris at Dr. NerdLove quoted me last week, he sent me an email, we had some back and forth, and he pulled the quote he used from that.

26. Is this truly a one-woman operation, or do you have assistants? If so, what do they do? Do you have help for tech support, ads, marketing, etc.?

The bulk of it is a one-woman operation.

I have an excellent part-time tech person who keeps things running behind the scenes. That’s a bigger job than people probably realize; as the site has grown, its technical needs have become a lot more complex and things that were easy to manage when traffic was lower are more complicated at current traffic levels, with more pressure on the server and databases that keep things running. I also work with a company that manages the ads. That’s it!

27. If money were no object, what tasks would you most like to outsource to someone else?

Comment moderation. It doesn’t make financial sense to hire someone to do it, but I’d love not to have to do it myself. Also, possibly SEO, which I know very little about and spend no time on. The site has done fine without it, but if money were no object I’d hire someone to do it and would be curious to see what kind of results they got. It would also be nice to pay someone to do the projects I’m never going to get to – things like creating a site FAQ or pulling together more “best of” compilations like this one.

28. Are there any plans for an update to the comment system to improve the user experience — for example, adding features like being notified if someone replies to a comment one has made?

That’s a good example of the sort of thing I mentioned above that that were easier when the site got less traffic; we used to have exactly that feature and then it broke under the weight of the traffic once it grew. Trying to fix it broke other things.

Every so often I do look around to see if there’s a better commenting system available, and every time I am surprised by how limited the options are unless you’re willing to (a) pour major money into it or (b) compromise people’s anonymity. Right now the one we’ve got is the best of the options, given the various constraints in play. I definitely wish it had more flexibility though.

29. I’m sure there’s a lot of work that goes into running the site that we don’t see, beyond writing answers and posting them. Can you talk about some of the other work you have to do behind the scenes?

• Reading and responding to emails
• Keeping emails organized and categorized so they’re not in chaos later when I’m pulling things out to answer
• Tech stuff – everything from figuring out why the site is suddenly running slower than normal, to talking to my tech person about something that has stopped working or an improvement I’m hoping we could implement, to dealing with an issue with my web hosting company, to solving an issue with the email newsletter, to investigating and responding to tech problems that readers report, to dealing with major outages (some weeks nothing falls in this category and other weeks it can take up an enormous amount of time)
• Working with my ad network (reporting bad ads, tweaking ad configuration, etc.)
• Lots of little tweaks to the site – adding links to updates from the original letters, keeping the archives page updated, fixing broken links, etc.
• Sending people links to my response when their letters have been answered
• Comment moderation
• Managing the AAM Facebook and Twitter pages
• Working with sponsors on sponsored posts
• Doing occasional interviews with journalists who are writing on various work topics
• Sending takedown notices for (rampant) copyright violations

But writing answers is the most time-consuming work.

30. What work are you doing in addition to AAM now?

I do management consulting, mostly for nonprofit managers. For many years I did that work through The Management Center, helping to teach managers how to lead teams – everything from how to hire well, delegate work effectively, give useful feedback and develop people’s skills, address problems, build cultures that support high performance, and much more. One of my favorite things I did there was to create and run a management hotline, where managers could call and get advice on challenges they were dealing with, and I’ve made that a big part of what I do with my own clients now – real-time “let’s work through this very specific problem you’re grappling with.” I also write regular columns on workplace issues for Slate and New York Magazine.

31. How do you keep up with changing professional norms, both in hiring and more generally?

The consulting work I do keeps me pretty steeped in it. It also doesn’t hurt to read hundreds of letters a week from managers and employees about what’s going on in their workplaces! But that’s always a question that’s on my mind, especially because I’ve been trying to decrease the amount of client work I do. And definitely if my advice here stops resonating with people, that’ll be a sign the site has run its course.

32. Did you ever have any nervousness when you first started off, like “am I the right person to be giving this type of advice?” To be clear, I think the blog is amazing and your advice is spot on, it’s just that any time in my career I’ve considered taking a leap, especially to something a little different like trying to get into consulting, I’ve worried that I’m not “enough” of an expert or that other people won’t think I am, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever faced those kinds of thoughts and how you worked through it?

I absolutely had doubts! I’m not a perfect manager or a perfect employee. I’ve made a ton of mistakes! I think that often helps in advice-giving though; mistakes are how you figure stuff out. And sometimes recalling what my own thought process was that led me to a mistake makes it easier to spot when someone else is heading for the same land mine, and to try to steer them away from it.

But yes, it’s weird to hang out your shingle and announce that you’ll give people advice because, as you say, who is anyone to decide they can do that? It’s one reason I try as much as possible to explain why I’m advising what I’m advising – I want people to be able to see what my thought process is so they can decide if they agree with it or not.

Something that has been key to me feeling good about continuing with the site has been the people writing back in and saying, “Hey, I took your advice and it worked and things are better now.” If that stopped, I would rethink things. So with your own leaps, you might think about what signs you can look for that will help you know it’s working or not working.

Also, in case this helps you decide to leap, I think it’s so normal to feel the kind of trepidation you describe (and I worry a lot more about people who don’t feel any).

33. I would love to know how you organize and manage your inbox. Are you in inbox-zero person? Do you have staff to help you read and flag questions? Do you sort questions into potential categories or types? Flag others for long answer vs short answer? Multiple folders to organize ones you’re answering vs ones you are not? I am a huge nerd for organization and knowledge management, would love to hear how you approach, filter, and respond to the deluge of questions you no doubt receive.

I use an entirely different email program for AAM mail than for my regular email, so it stays in its own separate area. Everything I think I might want to answer stays in my in-box and gets a tag of some sort – different ones for short-answer posts, standalone posts, “ask the readers” posts, high-priority letters that I want to answer in the next batch, and so forth. That way it’s easy for me to see what’s available to choose from when I’m writing. I put updates into their own folder so they’re all in one place when I want to do an updates post.

I do that all myself, because the process of sorting through everything that comes in feels so valuable. Not only do I want to use my own judgment to decide what I’ll answer, but it’s so useful to see trends in questions, even ones I don’t answer. I think if I let someone else filter the mail for me, I’d have much less of a view into what’s happening out there and what’s on people’s minds.

34. What has changed in the time you’ve been doing this? I know the answers have felt more pro-labor over time … and I know that my own feelings have followed that same progression. Is that just the reaction to the way the world is or were there things that specifically triggered that change?

A decade and a half of reading my mail, for one thing – you can’t read years worth of letters from people being screwed over by their employers and not have that affect your thinking. (Or if you can, you should not be in this line of work.) That accelerated during the pandemic, when some companies’ choices made the cataclysmic effects of capitalism on workers really stark.

Also … personal growth. When I started the site, I was writing from the perspective of someone who the system had more or less worked for, and I believed more than I should have that what worked for me would work for others. Now I’m much more aware of all the people who it doesn’t work for, and all the reasons why, and I hope that’s reflected in what I write here (and I hope I will always be a work in progress too).

35. Can you please please give us a profile complete with photos on each of your cats please?

Yes, let’s get to the important questions!

Olive

Almost 10 years old, the grande dame of the house. She is very beautiful and requires that you treat her like a queen. She will hiss at you for absolutely nothing and then rub against your hand a few seconds later. She loves my husband.


Eve

Almost 7. May not be a cat; seems more like some strange little creature you might find in a forest or visiting from another planet. Very scampy, full of energy, lives life by rules no one but she understands. Has monkey-like climbing abilities, is a skilled parkour enthusiast, and likes to chase and be chased. Believes deeply that might makes right.


Sophie

5 years old. Very smart, loves affection, prefers to be cuddled up against someone at all times. (Unfortunately her body is a small furnace.) Likes to stare way too intensely at people and animals she doesn’t know. Will politely tap you when your attention is required. Extremely chonky. Was a teenage mother to Wallace and kept the two of them alive on the streets until a kind person rescued them. Bonded to Hank.


Wallace

Almost 5. An affectionate goofball, but also a distinguished gentleman. Loves to fetch. Fell into the bathtub last week and had his dignity injured. The friendliest of the crew to human visitors, and functions as the welcome wagon for any new cats and helps them feel at ease. Sophie nursed him until he was almost full-grown, a la Robin Arryn.


Laurie

Believed to be 5-ish. Shy with humans but loves other cats. However much love you’re picturing, it’s more. Spent months meticulously plotting to become Eve’s friend; pulled it off and is now the only cat permitted to curl up with her. Took me months to gain his trust and whenever I thought I finally had, he would randomly act like he’d never seen me before. Now loves to flop over and kick with joy. Named after the neighbor boy from Little Women. Bonded to Wallace.


Hank

Believed to be 5-ish. Deeply sensitive and full of love. My husband, who is his soul mate, says, “His eyes reflect depths of emotion beyond human ken, and has a plaintive meow that approaches supersonic. Has Jon Snow level brooding if he feels affronted (exactly what affronts him is still being studied and collated). At all times desires either affection or a heavy blanket to doze under (has a cozy snore). Loves a warm hand on his belly.” Bonded to Sophie.

(Olive, Eve, Laurie, and Hank were foster fails. Sophie and Wallace are from a rescue group.)

a very good update: how to tell a former employee he can’t visit us weekly

Remember the letter-writer asking how to tell a former employee he couldn’t visit their office weekly (#3 at the link)? The update is one of my favorites ever (and I probably should have saved it for Valentine’s Day but you are getting it now because I love it too much to wait):

I have an update to a question you posted a few months ago about our retired worker, Frank, who kept dropping by weekly for hours long chats. A very big THANK YOU to the commenters who suggested volunteer work. I don’t know why that hadn’t occurred to me since my aunt founded and ran a nonprofit near and dear to me (shout out to diaper banks, which are a huge unmet need in many communities where diapers aren’t covered by food assistance programs or food banks).

The next week when Frank came in, I saw two people run in the other direction and decided to address it. I invited Frank to lunch and unprompted he shared that he was really at loose ends and didn’t know how to spend his time. I brought up volunteering and he said he didn’t know how to find a place to volunteer, how do you even apply, and who would want his help (EVERYONE! everyone wants people who have unlimited daytime ability). I gave him my aunt’s number then and there and sent her a text to expect his call.

He called the next day and by the following week was a full-time fixture there. At Thanksgiving, I asked my aunt how Frank was doing and she gushed about his hard work pitching in wherever, his positivity, the ideas he was bringing to the table. She loved Frank.

New Year’s rolls around and we have another family get-together and who walks in but Frank! He and my aunt are in a relationship! They are looking at moving in together!!! They are both ehhh on marriage but “we’ll see”! The office has a break from Frank but now I might be getting more of him. I don’t know if AAM has been responsible for a love match before, but I’m crediting this one to you and the commenters for this kismet!

❤️    ❤️    ❤️

my boss’s horrible kids are trying to destroy us because he disinherited them

A reader writes:

I work for a small towing and salvage company as the manager and dispatcher in a very rural area. My duties range from high-stress emergency tow dispatching to legal notice writing and basic administrative duties, as well as selling auto parts and salvage, inventory, writing store policies and negotiating contracts with motor clubs, payroll, and many other things. I am currently the only person handling these duties while the owner is in a semi retirement. I feel I do a great job and I get a lot of praise from the owner and customers.

I should mention that I love my work and for the most part am extremely happy with my job. I like everyone I work with. The job is fast-paced, fun, and different every day. I make very good money.

The issue I am having is that the owner, Ben, has a very toxic family that interferes with my work and the work of my colleagues. He and two of his adult children live on the property, and both of his kids have ongoing substance abuse and alcohol problems. Because of these problems, Ben does not want them involved in the business at all and has taken them out of his will.

They have been going to the work areas and picking irrational fights with my crew, spreading rumors about them, and being all around abusive and cruel. They have gone so far as to call social services on my crew, falsely accusing them of child abuse, screaming at them when they drive by, and attempting physical fights with the lead mechanic. This is all due to what I believe is jealousy and bitterness that they will not inherit the multimillion dollar company. The local police and even the school district know that they constantly make false claims and all of their accusations were proven to be false.

Ben is close to 80 years old and has been in the business over 50 years. He is a veteran and all around decent man who treats us all well outside of this issue. He is the type of man who wants to “die in his boots” and seems to be of sound mind, making solid business decisions, and is in relatively good health.

While I have talked with him about this on numerous occasions, he seems incapable of stopping the problem. I am instructed not to engage with the arguments, ignore them, and continue working because they are “just crazy” and “there’s nothing he can do” because he can’t throw his kids out on the streets. All of us (employees) care about and are loyal to Ben and none want to just quit, we want a solution. We have all worked for him for 10 or more years.

After the most recent attempt from the “kids” berating the crew, I instructed the full crew (six men) to come up to the office and stop all work until we talk to Ben, basically going on strike until he stopped the situation. I didn’t know what else to do.

Ben said he had threatened his kids with legal action, eviction, and criminal charges if they did not stop the harassment, and everyone accepted his apologies and promises and went back to work. I tried to advocate for the crew after they left the office and told Ben that he would lose his whole crew if he didn’t get this under control and that none of us deserved to work in that environment. He agreed and promised to find a way to fix it.

Everything calmed for a few weeks, and then I discovered that Ben’s daughter had been telling people that Ben and I had been having an affair for years and MY daughters had even heard about this at school.

Although he is my friend, and I am loyal to him as my boss, the thought of that turns my stomach! I am half his age! Not to mention the horrible effect it could have on my professional reputation in this small town and the fact I am happily married with children. I already deal with sexism in this traditionally male driven industry every day, and this degrades all of my hard work and abilities.

I know that I need to leave this situation, but I feel extremely sad for Ben and the rest of the people I work with. I am sad to leave a job I am good at and love, and also worry because there isn’t a lot of work in this field available in my area. I worry about my income, and I worry if I quit I won’t be able to file for unemployment. What should I do? Is there anything I can do that won’t hurt the owner but will also protect me while I am searching for something else?

It would take months to train someone to replace me, and at this point Ben does not know how to operate any of the programs or software that we use to dispatch and communicate with the state. He doesn’t know any of what’s in any of our contracts with the police or motorclubs. I feel like if I leave with the standard two weeks of notice, it would be a very low blow. Do I tell him I plan on leaving and put up with this a few more months while I train someone to replace me? Would it even be fair to expose someone new to this situation? And the petty side of me tells me not to quit as that means that his ungrateful and cruel children win and the rest of us lose.

I wrote back and asked, “Aside from the affair rumor, has the berating and harassing stopped since your last conversation with your boss about it?

For now it has, but I expect it will start again as soon they are bored. It has happened repeatedly over the years and they calm down for a while and then go from colleague to colleague trying to make their lives miserable. The rumors get worse each time.

I’m so sorry you, your coworkers, and Ben are all dealing with this. It sounds awful for everyone.

Would it be worth having one final conversation with Ben where you say that you are about to leave over this and so if he was serious about pursuing legal action against his kids, now is the time to do it if he wants you to be able to stay?

Or is it clear he’s not really going to follow through with that? Or, even if he does follow through with it, are you done with the situation and ready to leave regardless? (That would be more than reasonable! And even if Ben does pursue legal action against his kids, it’s not clear that it would stop them from harassing you and your coworkers. It might even make it worse.)

In theory you could talk with a lawyer yourself — some of what Ben’s kids are doing should be fightable on defamation grounds. But defamation lawsuits can be long and expensive, and by the time you’re suing your boss’s family for defamation, it’s probably time to go anyway. It’s possible that a lawyer might be able to stop some of this with some frightening cease-and-desists so you wouldn’t need to go all the way to a lawsuit … but this is all such a mess that I think your instinct to just get out is the better one. Still, though, a conversation with a lawyer about options could be worth having.

In any case, back to quitting. One option is to see if Ben would be open to laying you off. If he does that, you’d be eligible for unemployment. Or, is there an amount of money that would make it worth it to you to stay a few months longer to train someone to replace you? If so, you could propose that.

You’re right that the business will need to be up-front about the situation with whoever is hired … and Ben probably needs to be prepared to pay a premium to get someone willing to put up with that. (Also, any chance one of the employees already on staff, who knows what the kids are like, would want your job and be able to do it? That might be the easiest path if anyone’s qualified and willing to do it.)

However … you don’t need to solve these issues before you go. You can just quit with the standard two weeks notice if you just want to be done. I know you’re worried about the position that will put Ben in, but he has had plenty of warnings that you and others are deeply upset about his kids’ behavior and its impact on your lives, and he’s chosen not to take action to fix that. To be fair, I’m sure he’s in a very difficult situation because he loves his kids! But he’s got to be aware that their behavior means his employees may flee. And two weeks notice truly is standard, even in situations where it will leave the business in a bind.

But if you’re not at the “need to quit today” point, your best next step may be a conversation with Ben where you lay out where you’re at and some of the options you’re considering. See what he might be able to offer once he understands you’re ready to leave. And by that I don’t mean “let him convince you to stay” — but rather that because you’re open to a few different ways of proceeding, talking with him frankly might help you decide exactly what to do next.

I can’t afford to buy breakfast for my team, should you always ask about a gap on someone’s resume, and more

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

1. I can’t afford to buy breakfast for my team every month

At my job, we have weekly meetings where my whole team gets together in the morning. At these meetings, one to three people present what they’ve been working on for the past month. We are an academic research lab in a university, and 15 members of the team attend these meetings. At these meetings, my boss requires that one person presenting bring breakfast of some kind for the whole team. This means most people bring breakfast about once every one to two months.

This has been irking me for a few reasons. I am the lowest paid member of our team (think sub-poverty level for our area) because I am still a student and I am expected to pay for breakfast for all the higher members of our team once a month (my boss makes, literally, 10 times what I make). Additionally, not everyone on our team performs a research role (i.e., support staff/admin staff) so some people are never required to bring breakfast (since they never present), despite also eating it every week. And finally, I rarely eat because I’m still Covid-conscious in small rooms and prefer to keep my mask on, so it’s not like I’m saving money on getting myself breakfast during these meetings (oftentimes I don’t even end up getting to eat any of what I brought).

I know it’s something my boss is really married to, and he has done this for many years if not decades. Financially, I can make it happen since it’s not terribly often, but with rising food prices and inflation, my budget gets tighter and tighter every month. Should I just grit and bear it to keep the peace? I know many people in our group look forward to eating during this meeting every week.

No, you should speak up. And really, they should have been exempting you all along. While I don’t love this kind of system for anyone, you’re a student! You should never have been asked to buy breakfast, not even once.

Say this: “As a student, I’m not in a position to buy breakfast for the team — I really can’t afford it. So I need to exempt myself from the rotation. If that means I should opt out of eating, I will.”

Don’t get into how some people are never required to bring breakfast; that’s not really the point. The point is that you can’t afford to do it, so you won’t be. Period. And notice that with this language, you’re not asking for the favor of being let off the hook; you are telling them you cannot afford it and thus cannot do it.

You could say this privately to your boss, although on some teams, it would be more effective if said in front of the whole team (you could raise it as a sort of housekeeping measure at the end of one of these meetings). Which will work better depends on your boss and your team.

But whenever you say it, say it forthrightly! Don’t be shy about it, or embarrassed. You’re a student, for F’s sake. They’ve all been there and they should all get it.

2. Should you always ask about a gap on someone’s resume?

Should you always ask about a gap on someone’s resume?

Not all gaps, no. People have gaps on their resumes for all sorts of unremarkable reasons — took some time out of the workforce after having a baby, dealing with a health issue, taking a few months off in between jobs, travel, and on and on. The existence of a gap on someone’s resume shouldn’t be a big deal in and of itself.

Ask about a gap if you’re genuinely trying to figure out someone’s career trajectory and there’s a glaring hole that’s genuinely getting in the way of that. Generally that should mean that gaps of only a few months won’t be relevant and gaps from years ago shouldn’t matter at all. (And gaps from during the pandemic shouldn’t surprise anyone.) Personally, I only ask if the gap is a current one (“what have you been doing since leaving X?” — and that’s not a gotcha, it’s genuine interest in knowing because there could be info that’s relevant professionally — like a job they left off not realizing it would be relevant or, for some positions, whether they’d done anything to keep their skills up-to-date during that time if the gap is a long one) or if there’s a pattern of multiple gaps (and then I want to understand what keeps driving them to leave jobs with nothing else lined up — not because that’s an inherently bad thing, but because it can be a bad thing depending on the reasons — like if they’re constantly getting fired, always walking off in a fit of rage, etc.).

3. Invitations to a retirement party that’s much bigger than anyone else’s

Our CEO’s admin assistant asked me to design retirement party invitations for one beloved coworker, who is liked by many any our organization and has been a big part of being involved in many company activities, as well as philanthropic work in her 30 years at the company.

Our company normally only hosts cake/punch in a large conference room, no matter how many years a person has worked here. However, this particular employee is having a big dinner party planned by the company at an off-site event venue with drink tickets, etc.

The admin asked me to somehow word the invitation so that it doesn’t insult others who don’t get this kind of retirement send off. How would you word an invitation in this circumstance?

That’s an impossible task, because of course others are going to notice the difference and be hurt or demoralized. It’s likely to be a major messaging issue, and asking you to come up with the messaging yourself without any direction is ridiculous.

You could try going back to the assistant and saying, “I’m struggling with how to word this in a way that doesn’t raise questions about why Jane’s event is so much more elaborate than other retirement parties have been. Can you explain to me what the messaging is supposed to be so I have something to work with?” My guess is the assistant may not know either and it probably wasn’t her call, but since she’s the one asking you to do it, you’ve got to point out that you can’t do it without more information.

4. My coworker refuses to reply-all when she needs to

I have a coworker who works at an off-site location who I need to email frequently with questions. I often include her team lead and our manager in the emails so they are in the loop and can also see her replies with information I’m trying to find out.

The problem is, she is terrible at the reply-all function and always ends up only replying to me. At times this is fine, but many times there are instances where she is having problems or issues I can’t help her with, and instead of replying-all so her team lead also reads it, the message only ends up with me.

I know the usual problem is more commonly with too many people hitting reply-all when it’s not necessary, but this is a reoccurring instance where I really need her to reply-all. I’ve even pointed it out to her for the more serious issues, letting her know that she should be looping in her managers to draw attention to specific problems. Is there another way to deal with this? I find it constantly frustrating and not sure if there’s anything I can do.

Ask her one time very clearly and explain why (“can you please reply-all when I’ve cc’d Jane and/or Cecil since they need to see the answer too?”). If she continues not to, you can try one more reminder … but after that, you probably need to accept that for whatever reason she’s not doing it and you can’t make her. In that case, you can just forward her replies to Jane and Cecil with “FYI” or “You were left off the cc, but looks like Ophelia needs help with this” or so forth.

Some people will just never manage their email the way you want them to. It’s reasonable to ask once or twice, but after that you’ve just got to work around it. (There are exceptions to this, of course, like if you happen to be their boss or if they’re causing havoc with customers by not doing it.)

5. Do I have to reveal my arrest on job applications if my record was expunged?

I was arrested years ago. Later the case was dismissed and all records of it were expunged.

When applying for jobs, sometimes they ask if you’ve ever been arrested. I answer yes because I have. However, I’ve been told that since my record was expunged and if you look it up there’s no evidence of it, I should say no. But I feel like that’s lying. I don’t mind telling anyone the story because they would be able to see that I didn’t do anything wrong. But I worry about people just seeing “arrested” and having a negative opinion about me. What are your thoughts?

You can answer “no” to that question. That’s what expungement is — legally speaking, it never happened and you’re permitted to say no. You might feel better about it if you reword the question in your head to, “Do you have any legal record of arrests?”

Caveat 1: Certain government jobs or jobs working with vulnerable populations (like children) may still require you to disclose expunged records for relevant charges, so make sure to closely read what you’re answering. (You could also check with the lawyer who handled your expungement to be sure.)

Caveat 2: Order a copy of your own criminal history to make sure your record was actually expunged correctly. I recently had an old arrest from a political protest sealed (it was a bad arrest; I was there to bail out other activists but they arrested all of us, and having it on my record annoyed me on principle) and when I double checked my report months later to be sure, it was still there, despite the judge’s order to seal it. It’s fixed now, but if I hadn’t checked I wouldn’t have known they’d messed it up. My lawyer told me the same thing happened to another one of his clients, who didn’t find out until a prospective employer ran his background check — and his offer was pulled over it. So definitely check.

weekend open thread – February 4-5, 2023

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: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. An older woman who has always put her controlling family’s needs before her own decides to move out and become a witch.

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