weekend open thread – July 24-25, 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:  Malibu Rising, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Four siblings with a rock star father grapple with fame, family, and the legacy of their parents. And there’s a really big party.

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

it’s your Friday good news

It’s your Friday good news!

1. I’ve been a long-time reader of your site, and an infrequent commenter because I’m spending my time reading your advice and what the commentariat have to say about it — I’m still fairly young and I’m autistic, so I’m aware that I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to sussing out work norms. To add to that, I fell into several opportunities that were less than ideal due to outside of work pressures — from graduating college mid-recession to family emergencies that have seen me moving into or out of five different states in the last six years. When I started reading your blog, referred by someone I knew from college, who I believe worked with you (!), I was caught off guard by how many other people don’t just know what to do or say in work situations, and how many other people struggle with applying/cover letters/resumes etc… especially if they are one or more standard deviations away from perfect privilege.

This latest family emergency saw me moving to a small town in a conservative state to live with my in-laws, where my wife and I are read as queer almost instantaneously and the job options are… not great. I found a job doing retail and while it was — just barely — paying the bills, it was both physically and mentally demanding to the point of being burnt out within months. Simultaneously, I’ve been working part-time on a passion project for a former (and now, again, current) boss of mine, so with her encouragement and your advice, I spent two days of my covid-mandated quarantine ripping apart my old resume and base cover letter and re-doing them to target the types of jobs I really want. I also did a ton of research about what types of experience I would need in order to set an actual career trajectory — I knew what parts of each job I had held I liked the most, but wasn’t sure how to translate that into a steadily progressing “career,” until I really dove into reading job descriptions, rejections, and the LinkedIn profiles for people selected for positions I wanted.

I also got better at interviewing, and did tons of practice with my core family unit. The upshot of all of this work is that I sent out a new round of resumes with highly tailored cover letters that let my personality and sense of humor shine while still specifically laying out the skills and experience I bring to the table, and I’m happy to report that I was offered and accepted a job doing the sort of work I had identified as necessary experience for an eventual career goal. I now work from home, have a set schedule, make double what I was making in retail, and end my day with energy to invest in my relationships. Plus, I’ve only been here six weeks and they’re already giving me minor projects that directly relate to what my eventual career goal is!

I know this letter is long, because I wanted you (and the commentariat, should you choose to publish this some Friday!) to know the context and how incredibly grateful I am not just to have this job but also to feel confident and safe navigating a workplace for the first time, literally, in my life.

2. It’s finally my turn to write in with my own good news! I’ve been a loyal daily reader of the site for years. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find a new job several times over the past five years, but I finally landed a position I am so happy about. During those years, I struggled to figure out what I wanted and it showed in scattershot job searches that fizzled out after an interview or two. This time, however, I knew what I wanted, I knew what I didn’t want and I had a very targeted search. I applied to one job a week, and allowed myself to be very picky and only apply for jobs that sounded like what I wanted, at companies I felt like I could be excited about. I tailored all of my application materials using your guides. It only took me eight weeks to find a job. I applied for a total of 13 jobs.

I landed interviews with two companies. For both, I interviewed them back. I wanted to be sure I was getting a company with a healthy culture and in one interview it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to be happy there, even though the work sounded interesting. The other company was SO impressive. I interviewed twice and had an offer within a month of applying. Interviews happened within seven days of the first contact and I had the offer letter two full days ahead of when they said they expected offers to go out. Since I was interviewing for a project management role, the level of organization they displayed was reassuring and encouraging.

I’ve been here a little over one week and I am already SO much happier than I thought I could be. I had been at my previous employer for eight years and really liked the culture, so I wanted to find a company with similar values around culture and I absolutely found that. In my interviews, I asked questions about culture and made my own values clear. It’s even better than I thought it would be! I am so supported and there are very clear and reasonable expectations around ramp-up. I’m pretty much completely switching fields, from PMing in sales for llama grooming to PMing elephant care technology and I feel so great about the change.

3. Finally, I can be one of the success stories! I have written to you in the past about a bad boss (and your advice was just to get out) and I had been desperately trying to for years. This past year was rough to many people and I certainly did not want to complain about my job when others did not have a job or the security that I did. But I could feel myself disengaging and just not caring anymore, which was just dreadful because all along I knew that I cannot be good at something that I don’t care about.

The pandemic opened many more opportunities for remote work that were not ever an option before and allowed me to look in an adjacent industry that simply does not exist locally. But even with that, it took several months of relentlessly monitoring new job postings, applying and interviewing for me to finally get an offer. At that point, I could not read the Friday Good News posts anymore because, while wishing well to everyone, they’d make me feel even more disillusioned about my own continued unsuccessful quest. But it was all worth the wait and the agony: I am ecstatic about the new company, it’s mission and working with my new boss-to-be and the team. And on top of that, the pay and benefits package is incredible!

4. The Context: Before this happened, I had just gotten to the highest salary I’ve ever had. That was also my pay when I lost my job in 2014 because of health issues that I was not managing well which led to absenteeism and poor performance. That alone felt like a win to me after a period that involved slowly climbing back up from 1) unemployment to 2) minimum wage to 3) just-below-living-wage to 4) “Hey I can actually pay all my bills and maybe save a little for emergencies” to 5) “Hey I can actually feel comfortable financially!”

The Raise: In 2019 (!) I started talking with management about a raise and title change to reflect the fact that I was contributing at a much higher level than my position was intended for. Everyone agreed I was underpaid compared to my work but I work for a large, bureaucracy-laden company so that process started slowly. And then the Fire Nation attacked COVID hit. My industry was up-and-down but the uncertainty delayed my promotion, seeing as we were laying people off around when out-of-period pay adjustments were happening. As 2020 winded down I started the ball rolling again and, at long last, I got word about my raise!

A 20% raise, with 10% effective immediately and 10% effective Jan 1, 2022. It was split because 20% was too high for a single year raise per my N+4 manager who had to approve this because bureaucracy. I will also be getting a title change and will become eligible for the annual bonus to be paid in Q4.

I know there are some negatives in here related to the slow process and the raise being split up but with my history it has been a long way back and this just feels like a major milestone and win for me, beyond just the financial impact.

Update – I got the official title change and the bonus eligibility that goes with it! And my new manager is pushing for that 10% Jan 1 2022 raise to be effective earlier than that!

5. I’ve been an avid reader of AAM. Especially during the pandemic — once I realized that I wasn’t in love with my job, and also realized that life was too short to stick around if I couldn’t make major changes.

In Fall 2020, my mentor announced she was retiring — the organization she works for offered everyone a huge retirement incentive, and she and many others took them up on their offer. My mentor strongly encouraged me to apply to be her replacement. She officially retired in December. The job posting finally appeared this spring. I interviewed in June 2021 and received an offer just before the Independence Day holiday weekend.

The offer was roughly equivalent, salary wise, to what I am making at my current job. Their step assignment (related to education and years of experience) was X — two steps lower than I am placed on my current employer’s salary scale. So I decided I had nothing to lose and it was time to use the negotiation tactics I had been studying on the Ask a Manager site.

“Hello!” I said, “Thanks very much. I am so excited about the possibility of joining this team. Do you have any wiggle room on step assignment? At my current [similar] employer, I was brought in at a step [X+2] 3 years ago. They gave me credit for [specific relevant experiences gained during graduate school]”. I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

And then I waited. The waiting was excruciating, but at the same time I was excited. If the answer was a resounding “no,” they would have just said that outright, wouldn’t they?

The following day right at 4pm, I received a follow up email from my HR contact. “Hello [Name]: We have reassessed the offer and have agreed to consider your [graduate school] experience. Therefore, the new salary would be: $XX,XXX annually, Step [X+4] level. We look forward to welcoming you to [organization].”

Alison, there was more than $10k difference between the two offers, and it is a 15% raise for me. My first successful job offer negotiation! I accepted immediately, and I will start my new position in August.

open thread – July 23-24, 2021

It’s the Friday open thread! The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on anything work-related that you want to talk about (that includes school). If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to talk to other readers.

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please do not repost it here, as it may be in my queue to answer.

my boss never praises my work, my awful ex-manager lists me as a protege, and more

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

1. My boss focuses on the negative, even when I do good work

I have been in my role for about one year. I think I am performing well, but my manager is a lot more forthcoming about her negative feedback than her positive. It has worn me down. I decided to say something and explicitly requested more positive feedback. I felt heard, and at the next staff meeting she made a point to commend my work on an upcoming event.

However, the event took place over the weekend and at our next one-on-one the following week, she again focused on the few small logistical things that could’ve gone better rather than all of the main elements that went well, and she made the negative feel like the focal point of the conversation. I was trying to share that I would do a full debrief to capture that info too, but wanted to celebrate what a success it had been and felt denied that opportunity.

I plan to include this feedback for her in the debrief — to create a bit of space for this reflection and to have at least a brief moment of unqualified celebration — and to request in the future that when we review those documents, that review can be the time for the full conversation. But I am again demoralized and considering seeking opportunities elsewhere because I am not confident this will improve. I put a lot of work into this event, it is a big part of my job, and her response felt a little bit like a nail in the coffin. I pride myself on identifying things that could go better on my own, and I wish she had trusted me in that process. Should I bring it up again? I am lost and disappointed.

I’ve coached managers with this problem, and it takes real work to change their habits. (Often it turns out that giving positive feedback feels silly, insincere, or even patronizing to them and/or they believe people don’t really need it.) As their employee, you’re not well-positioned to have the sorts of conversations that it usually takes to spark real change. Sometimes it happens — especially if they start hearing it from multiple people, or from their own manager — but it’s tough to change this kind of boss on your own.

That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a terrible manager — some people can be perfectly happy working for someone who rarely comments on what they’ve done well — although it might mean that she’s not a great manager for you.

It’s good that you spoke up, but I’m skeptical that there’s a lot to gain from continuing to speak up. It could be worth trying once more — pointing out that what happened with the post-event meeting was an example of the issue you’d been talking about earlier — and maybe that’ll help it click for her. If nothing else, her reaction to that conversation (both in the moment and afterwards) will give you more data on how much change you can really expect. But if I had to guess, I’d tell you to prepare for very little change and decide if you can live reasonably comfortably with things as they are.

Caveat: this assumes you’re doing well overall! It’s possible that she’s focusing on the negative because she has serious concerns about your work. If you haven’t had a recent performance review or other conversation about how things are going big-picture, it could be worth asking her how she thinks you’re doing overall. And if she says things are going well overall, you can point out that you weren’t sure about that because her feedback doesn’t reflect it.

Related: I need to give my employee more positive feedback

2. My awful ex-manager lists me as a protege on his personal website

A few years ago, I did an internship at a large tech company. My intern manager at this company was awful — he allowed another intern to bully, harass, and threaten me multiple times with no repercussions. After the internship, I went no-contact with both my manager and the intern (I blocked the other intern on all platforms).

I found out today that the manager has me listed on his personal website as one of his proteges and includes the prestigious law school I was recently admitted to next to my name, implying that he was somehow associated with my success. I did not tell him that I would be attending this law school, and I have no idea how he found out as I do not have a LinkedIn. I’m a little weirded out that he appears to be keeping tabs on me through some unknown means. Am I out-of-line for feeling like this is a distasteful thing for him to be doing? In an ideal world, he would remove me from his website, but it doesn’t seem worth the trouble of emailing and asking him to remove me.

No, you’re not out of line! It’s weird that he’s claiming you a protege when that clearly wasn’t the relationship you had with him. (And even if it was, listing “proteges” on one’s website is pretty odd, unless there’s something really specific about the relationship that would justify it. You don’t just list everyone who ever interned for you.) It’s also weird that he’s been doing that without your permission or knowledge. And it’s weird that he apparently feels invested enough in your success to mention you on his website, but not invested enough to try to maintain a relationship with you, or to protect you from bullying and threats while you worked for him.

3. Is it normal to get a lot of terrible applications when you’re hiring?

I am a new-ish supervisor, and am on a panel to do my first hire. We posted the job a couple of days ago. The job is semi-specialized administrative work in a local government job, working with committees and elected officials. The job description clearly says cover letter and resume (submitted as one document, preferably, but we don’t hold that against them).

Since posting, I’ve received about a dozen applications. Of those time, one, maybe two, clearly identify that they’ve read the application before applying. The others appear to be following a job search plan that is along the lines of “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” – ranging from generic cover letters that don’t mention either the name of the employer, or the job itself (IF there’s a cover letter) to resumes that show nothing in the form of meeting requirements (for example, there are two who have extensive experience in car sales, another with a lot of security experience, and more).

I talked to one of our HR managers and she says this is pretty common and is a huge time (and therefore money) suck.

Is this really a common job hunt strategy (throw spaghetti at the wall), is it fallout from unemployment and a bit of desperation on the part of job-seekers, or are people just getting bad advice, and not figuring out what advice works for them?

I’m also wondering if the design of the job description is problematic – it consists of several rather large blocks of text and too many words (passive voice in a lot of cases). This is normal across my region for local government, but I’m thinking some redesign that cuts down on words and improves use of white space would help.

It’s super, super common — to the point of being a baked-in part of the process when you hire and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Loads of people take a quantity-over-quality approach when they’re applying for jobs, apply for anything they feel remotely qualified for (and often other things too), do zero customization of their materials, pay no attention to instructions, and generally submit astonishingly terrible applications. If you advertise on huge job sites like Indeed, you’ll get even more applications like that, whereas if you focus more on niche sites (like Idealist for nonprofit jobs or the Society of Midwestern Llama Groomers for llama grooming jobs) you’ll get less of it — but nothing you do will stop it altogether. It’s just part of the deal when you advertise a job. (That said, I’d argue it’s not a huge time suck because it’s easy to skim and quickly screen out those applications.)

It’s a good idea to improve your job descriptions if you think they’re poorly written / will make people’s eyes glaze over, but you should do that because it’ll help you attract more good candidates (12 applicants is surprisingly low!), not because it will stop this other group.

This is also why it’s so easy for candidates to stand out when they submit a really good resume and cover letter! So much of their competition is putting in no effort.

4. I negotiated a job offer and then they sent me an offer for a lower number

I received a verbal job offer on my voicemail twice. After speaking with them about a possible salary increase, I was told they will try and work something out and email me a better offer. The new offer was then emailed and was actually $500 less than the initial offer. The email was worded as if that was supposed to be a pay increase, but it obviously isn’t. I’m extremely confused about the situation. What should I do?

Assume it’s a mistake and approach it that way! Call your contact and say something like, “I wanted to check with you about the salary in the offer letter you emailed. We’d talked about whether you’d be able to increase the salary, but the number in the offer letter is actually lower than the initial offer. I wasn’t sure if that was a mistake.”

5. Verb tense on your resume

In resumes, when you are talking about your current position, do you use the past or present tense?

Should it be:
Established…
Collaborated…
Wrote…

Or:
Establish…
Collaborate…
Write…

I had a couple people critique my resume and got different opinions. What’s the standard, if there is one?

If you’re talking about past jobs, use past tense since those things are in the past (“established,” “collaborated”).

If you’re talking about your current job, use present tense (“establish,” “collaborate”) unless you’re talking about a specific achievement or project that isn’t ongoing and makes more sense to put in past tense (“increased web traffic by 200%,” “won regional customer service award,” etc.).

Make sure you don’t use the third-person version of verbs (“establishes,” “collaborates”) — that will sound like a job description rather than a resume.

But none of these are hard and fast rules that you’d be rejected for breaking! Some people do it differently, which is why you’re getting a bunch of opinions. I think this produces the strongest resume though.

my boss says I’m an “unapproachable” manager

A reader writes:

I’m a fairly new manager, in this role for a little less than a year. A few months ago, I got some feedback from my boss that I’m being perceived as “unapproachable.”

I’ve been hearing this my whole life, since middle school, although different words have been used (“stuck up,” “quiet,” “aloof”). I’m a neurotypical introvert who opens up quickly with people when I feel comfortable. I have depression and anxiety but am (mostly) high-functioning, so my illnesses aren’t usually perceptible to others and don’t affect my work performance. I struggle to maintain friendships and make new friends, partly because my depression means I have to make a conscious effort to care about and reach out to others.

At work, I’m professional and focused and don’t participate in gossip or long conversations that aren’t work-related. I am very good at my job, aside from this, and consistently receive glowing performance evaluations and raises. Even before this feedback, I was making a conscious, daily effort to initiate small talk with all of my direct reports and peers, but it peters out quickly with people I’m not comfortable with and leads to feelings of shame and self-loathing.

I’m concerned that being perceived as unapproachable hinders my ability to manage effectively, and I’m struggling with how to address this issue. Given how long I’ve been hearing feedback like this about myself, I’m not sure it’s possible to change, and as a result am second-guessing whether management is even the right role for me.

Do you or your readers have any suggestion for how to become more approachable? Should I even be a manager?

I think you can connect with people and build rapport without relying on small talk!

The key is to show interest and care when you’re having work conversations. These are conversations you’re already having, and they’re probably on topics that interest you at least to some degree, so they don’t require you initiating something entirely new and going wildly outside of your comfort zone.

Look at the difference between these two conversations.

Less approachable
Manager: What’s the status of the boysenberry report?
Employee: I’m still waiting on edits from Legal, but once I have those I’ll be nearly done.
Manager: Okay. Make sure you get them by Friday. What about the dragon fruit analysis?
Employee: Coming along great, and I got some really good input from people at yesterday’s meeting.
Manager: Okay, that’s it then.

More approachable
Manager: Hey, thanks for making time to talk on short notice! I just have a couple of quick questions about where we’re at with things. How’s the boysenberry report coming along?
Employee: I’m still waiting on edits from Legal, but once I have those I’ll be nearly done.
Manager: Wow, they’re really stretching this out, huh? Are you feeling okay about the timeline, or is there anything I can do to nudge them along?
Employee: Yeah, they’re taking their time! I think it’s okay though, I planned for a delay there.
Manager: That was smart to do! If you ever do need me to nudge, let me know.
Employee: I will, thanks!
Manager: How are you coming with the dragon fruit analysis?
Employee: Pretty good, I think. I got some really good input from people at yesterday’s meeting.
Manager: I noticed that! I loved Craig’s point about the pulp. By the way, you did a great job at explaining why we’d decided not to focus on papayas.
Employee: Oh, thanks!
Manager: Well, I’m excited to see it when you’re done. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help with it. Anything else we should talk about meanwhile?

These are obviously overly simplified conversations (I clearly won’t ever be able to write fiction), but the idea is that you can take a warm, actively interested approach in how people’s work is going. If even some of my conversations with a manager were like the second example, I’d have a hard time finding that person unapproachable.

Also, positive feedback! People generally feel a lot less unapproachable when they’re saying nice things about your work — so make sure you’re giving plentiful positive feedback. You don’t want to BS people, of course, and you shouldn’t be insincere, but if someone is doing a generally good job, there should be a ton of things you can legitimately give positive feedback on — even little things like “great turn of phrase in this paragraph!” or “smart pivot in that meeting.”

Also, empathy! If someone is dealing with something hard or frustrating (an external contact who’s cranky or difficult to reach, an impossible travel schedule, or so forth), just acknowledging that can go a long way — even just “I’m impressed at how patient you’ve been with him” or “tough schedule this month — anything I can do?”

Other stuff: Make sure you’re open to hearing people’s ideas. Be open to conversational tangents — if you’re talking about X and they bring up Y, be curious and see where it goes. (There are limits to this, of course, like if you have a long agenda to get through or are pressed for time.) Ask how you can help. Ask for input (“I’m grappling with X and wondered what your thoughts are”). Recognize people’s strengths (“you’re so great at X — how would you approach it?”)

In so many ways, approachability as a manager is about being kind and open. It doesn’t have to be talking about your weekend or making sparkling small talk. Just show genuine interest in and appreciation for people’s work. (And for what it’s worth, there are a lot of people out there who would appreciate a manager who doesn’t put a big emphasis on small talk, but does clearly care/is supportive about the stuff that counts.)

If you find that doing that is a struggle too, that’s when I’d get more concerned about whether the job is a comfortable fit for where you are right now. But it sounds like so far you’ve been framing rapport as being about how social you are, and it doesn’t need to be!

Ask a Manager in the media

Here’s some coverage of Ask a Manager in the media recently:

I talked to the New York Times about crying at work.

I talked to PBS about how what people want from work has shifted in the past year.

I talked to Vox about pressure to have been productive during the pandemic.

I talked to Poynter about advice columns.

I talked to Mic about advice columns too.

should I leave my job if I don’t have to work for money?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I work a job I’m overall “meh” about. There are lots of good things: it’s a prestigious company with fantastic pay and benefits, I’m now doing really well (just promoted), and, on some days, I like or even really like it. That said, it’s definitely not something I’m passionate about, and I also feel frustrated because despite doing well, I’m still behind my peers in terms of advancement (I was on the losing end of some corporate politics a few years ago).

The thing is, my husband has an INCREDIBLY lucrative job, to the point that now neither one of us ever has to work again if we choose not to. He’s going to keep working because he absolutely loves his job, and he’s always encouraging me to quit my job and pursue whatever I’m passionate about.

Looking ahead, I don’t see myself in a corporate role. I have some one-off creative projects I’d want to pursue but no obvious path to making those projects into a meaningful or successful career. I’m really hesitant to quit my job because even though I don’t love it, at least I can spend my days doing something that can sometimes be meaningful and provides some degree of intellectual challenge. I’m worried that if I quit my job, I’ll pursue these fun projects that will go nowhere, and I’ll regret having not spent those years at my current job where I can at least point to some level of accomplishment. I know I can always come back to my current role (or an equivalent role at another company), but I already feel behind my peers and taking a few years off will only exacerbate that.

Additionally, I recently hired someone (who starts in a few months), and she told me when she accepted the offer that one of the main reasons she chose the role was because she was eager to work with me. So I’d feel guilty leaving, on top of everything else.

At the same time, it feels silly to stay in a role I’m not wild about when I don’t have to and pass up the chance to pursue an alternate career that could be really cool (even if the odds are very much against me). Any advice on what I should do?

Readers, what’s your advice?

my boss objects to a joke I made a year ago, employers who freak out when you turn down a job, and more

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

1. My manager says my joke a year ago was unprofessional

At the start of last year, I moved teams into a new-ish role that I was excited about. The manager of my new team (Ella) was someone I’d worked with for a long time and we had a rapport and professional friendship, but I’d never worked directly for her. When Ella became aware I was moving to her team, she asked, “Is there anything I should know about managing you before you move teams?” with a lighthearted, joking tone (we were eating lunch in the breakroom so it wasn’t any kind of official meeting).

I made a joke in response, something like: “Nothing huge — oh, but I hate taking direction, I do not respond well to feedback, and I won’t read any emails longer than 100 words.” Basically, I was trying to think of the world’s most difficult-to-manage employee (none of this was true of me!). Ella laughed in response and said something like, “Oh no! I’ve got my work cut out for me!” We were both joking and I never thought about it again.

Cut to this month: in my last supervision meeting with Ella, she said she thinks I’m ready to start applying for leadership positions, and she’d like to make a plan for anything we feel I could work on before applying for manager jobs. Great! We get to working on it, and she tells me one of the areas for improvement would be my “professionalism in the office.” I was shocked. I think I’m fairly appropriate in my role and office. I asked for examples and Ella referred to the joke I made back in 2020, about how I would be “impossible to manage.” She was clear she understood it as a self-deprecating joke, but that she’s had some time to think about it and believes it to be both “unprofessional and not in your best interest.” She could provide no other examples of me being unprofessional. I’ve never had this feedback before and always get good performance reviews.

I’m so confused. I don’t even know how she expects me to address this developmental goal. I have another meeting coming up in which I’d like to quash this issue entirely, but I don’t know where to start. So basically — was it really such a huge deal that I made a joke like that, and what do I do next?

Whaaaat. Your joke was fine. I wouldn’t use it on everyone, but you already had good rapport with her and presumably you were clearly kidding. It’s bizarre that she’s bringing it up now, over a year later … and the fact that she had no other examples of your “unprofessionalism” makes me think that (a) she was stretching to try to find improvement areas for you and this is just complete BS, or (b) she’s humorless in general or humorless/defensive about authority (you’d probably already know if this is true), or (c) she’s had a general feeling that you could be more polished or professional (which could be legit, who knows) but it’s kind of amorphous and when she couldn’t come up with any concrete examples, she just grasped at this.

In your next meeting, you could say something like, “In our last meeting, you mentioned I should work on my professionalism in the office and referenced the joke I made last year. I was really concerned to hear it and I’ve been reflecting on it a ton. I’d had no idea that this was a concern, and I’m hoping there are other examples you can share. If it’s something I need to work on, I of course want to — but I don’t have a good sense of what you’re picking up on or specifics of what you’d hope to see me do differently.” The idea here is to come in non-defensively, but still put the burden back on her of explaining more clearly what she means.

2. Is it normal for employers to react strongly when you turn down a job?

I have a question about what to expect *after* you’ve turned down a position. This past fall and winter, I got my first taste of the academic job market. I interviewed at lots of places where the work would be interesting but would not be tenure-track and would involve a lot of people/team management, and I ultimately ended up taking a postdoc at a prestigious institution that logistically worked better and would set me up for more tenure-track positions in a few years time (plus, I really liked the projects I’d be working on). When I turned down other offers, I wrote an email thanking them for their time, letting them know that they sounded like a great place doing interesting work, but that I was taking a postdoc that I thought better aligned with my long-term career goals.

For the most part, people responded to this well, and I went into more specifics about the other position if asked, but I got a few responses that surprised me. One position repeatedly told me how the department was extremely disappointed to hear I would not be continuing with them. Another asked if I could set up time to chat about my decision process so that they might improve the interview experience, and then proceeded to use that time to try and convince me to ditch the position I had already accepted. Was that a reaction I should’ve been prepared for when I agreed to the chat? I was blindsided, but being new to interviewing I’m not entirely sure what is common or acceptable in the process. My partner told me this is just what happens when you’re a desirable candidate but it still seems beyond the pale.

I have learned not to apply norms from the rest of the work world to academia, but with that caveat in place: No, this is not normal! It wouldn’t be odd to hear, “We’re so disappointed to hear that! Can we ask what made you decide to turn down our offer?” It wouldn’t even be strange if they asked for a call where they tried to address some of your concerns in the hopes they might change your mind. It’s not something you should expect will happen, but you do see it occasionally for a very strong candidate.

But telling you repeatedly how disappointed they are isn’t typical (I’d argue it’s a red flag, in fact, as it’s pretty disrespectful of your personal agency), and using false pretenses to lure you on the phone so they could lobby you isn’t typical. But the fact that you had multiple employers doing this certainly has me wondering whether you are a god-like candidate … or whether academia’s rather distinct set of norms has struck again. Readers in the field?

Related: I turned down a job, and now people are devastated

3. I’ve moved three hours from my office but not resigned

I’ve been the right hand to the CEO of my organization for the past five years. I have great respect for my boss, leadership, and coworkers, we work well together, and I’ve transformed the role into a more robust position. We’ve been working from home since March 2020 and won’t be officially called back into the office until at least 2022. If we want, we’ll be able to work from the office before this time. About six months into the pandemic, my family decided to move about three hours away to our cabin in another state. I let my boss know at the time, as I wanted to be transparent and honest with him. He was fine with this, but we discussed that it might not work longer term once we go back to a larger office presence. This did come to be and so we are actively hiring my replacement and I’m on the hiring committee. I would be handing off my job but we haven’t discussed how that transition would work or if I will have another role. To be clear, I haven’t resigned from my position and would like to stay.

I have tried discussing this to understand how he see this developing and whether I would have a position once my role is back-filled. He hasn’t wanted to talk about it, which I’m assuming means there will not be a position for me. I fell like I’m a bit in limbo for the future and want to start making plans if I don’t have a role, but I also don’t see why I would resign. If I don’t resign, would they have to fire me? I feel like I’m missing something.

If your boss told you that being three hours away won’t work long-term and they’re now hiring your replacement and he’s avoided your questions about whether there will be another role for you … the safest thing is to assume there is no other role for you. That said, you’ve got to ask him directly. Please insist on discussing it! Say something like, “We haven’t had a clear conversation about what filling my position means for me. I need to know whether I’ll still have a role here or whether I need to be looking for another job.”

If they don’t intend to employ you in some other capacity, they wouldn’t necessarily need to fire you — it would likely be more like “let’s plan on your last day being October 10th” or similar. That’s closer to a layoff than a firing; you’re not being let go for cause, but there’s no longer a position for you. Or they might see it as a resignation; you moved knowing it could mean no longer being able to do the job.

But you’ve got to insist on having the conversation. If the reality is that they’re planning to take you off their payroll in a couple of months, you need to be planning for that now.

Since you’d prefer to stay, do you have ideas about a new role you could take on and do remotely? If you can create a proposal with specifics, you might have a shot at it — and if they reject that idea, it’s likely to at least help move the other conversation along.

4. How to include pronouns on your resume

I’m happily employed in a health and human services field, but I’m starting a job search as I am about to graduate with my master’s degree. I currently work for a nonprofit, but the nature of my job means I’m also looking at a lot of government jobs along with nonprofit orgs. Since I’ve been working at my current job, I’ve come out as nonbinary and started using they/them pronouns. Everyone I work with has been supportive and I haven’t had any issues. Because of the nature of my professional niche, I’m likely to be asked my pronouns if contacted for an interview at any independent organization within my niche — but I have much less confidence in that happening if I decide to branch out a bit, nor do I think it’s yet the norm outside of this and other similar niches.

Is there a good way to indicate my pronouns on my resume? My given name reads as unambiguously “feminine,” and while I’m thinking of changing it some day I’m not there yet. I’d really like to indicate proactively to potential employers how I prefer to be addressed, but I have no idea how to do so in a professional manner.

Yes! You can put your pronouns right after or under your name on your resume, and can include them in your signature on your cover letter too. When candidates include pronouns in application materials, that’s nearly always where you see it.

You may end up screening out employers who are hostile to nonbinary folks, but that’s generally a good thing as long as you’re in a position to do it.

Related: how to get better at using a coworker’s nonbinary pronouns

5. How to explain why I moved to a new state

My fiancé is starting to apply to graduate school. A lot of them happen to be out of state, which is exciting. My problem is I would obviously need to find a new job and I’m unsure how to answer “what made you move to X?” I’m afraid if I say I moved because my fiancé is in school, all they’re going to hear is, “Well, she’ll move again after he’s done with school.” Is there a good way to answer this?

You don’t need to explain he’s in school! You can just say, “My fiancé is here, so I’m moving here to join him.”

But you could also say, “My fiancé is in grad school here, and we’re interested in settling in the area.” If you frame it that way, interviewers are less likely to worry you’ll leave when he’s done with school.

my coworkers keep asking me when I’m due — and I’m not pregnant

A reader writes:

I work for a state agency. I love my job. Everyone who works in the office is friendly and lovely to work with. Starting about a year ago, right before a lot of us got sent to work from home due to Covid, I was asked by a male coworker in the hallway, “When are you due?”

I smiled. I said, “Oh, I’m not pregnant.” He was mortified and apologized.

We went home for a while and then we were all called back into the office. Shortly after we all returned, three different coworkers in three weeks asked me the same question (all women this time). I always handled it the same way — explained with a smile that I was not pregnant. They were always confused, embarrassed, apologetic. I said it was okay because I knew they weren’t trying to hurt my feelings.

But it was really not okay. I would always cry later, when I was alone. I started to dread coming into the office at all, and especially moments when I had to leave my desk and run into other people. I spent a lot of time in the mornings agonizing over what I could wear to work that would fit our dress code and also make me look the least pregnant.

I went to my manager. He was very nice and understanding. He got the HR person to talk to me. She was also very nice and understanding. I said that what I really wanted was for HR to issue some type of blanket reminder to all employees that they should not comment on their coworkers’ bodies. She agreed to this but I also got the impression that she was hoping that the problem would just go away. She kept saying she couldn’t believe that that many people would think it was okay to ask me that in the first place.

That was about a month ago. There has been no statement from HR. And today it happened again. I was riding the elevator with a different coworker, she asked me when I was due, I explained I wasn’t pregnant, and she said, “I’m sorry. Bless your heart.” We laughed.

HR told me I should come to them if it happened again, but after the last meeting I don’t really want to end up crying and embarrassed in her office while she tries to convince me that I don’t look pregnant. Obviously I do, or this wouldn’t keep happening.

What can I do at this point? My sister has suggested I just start punching the next person who asks but somehow I think I might lose my job, and I love my job.

Agggh, why do people do this? Surely by this point there should be some awareness in the culture that you don’t comment on people’s bodies, and you definitely don’t assume someone is pregnant when they haven’t told you they are. (But we can’t have that because women’s bodies, and especially pregnant bodies, are assumed to be up for public scrutiny and comment.)

But my rant doesn’t help you.

I do think you can go back to HR. If they hadn’t already told you they were going to issue a reminder not to comment on people’s bodies, I probably wouldn’t have suggested going to them at all because realistically, this probably isn’t something HR can put a stop to. It’s a problem in our broader culture. But they did tell you they’d address it, and it’s crappy that they never followed through. If they gave it more thought and decided it wasn’t the right move, they owed you some follow-up to explain that. It’s not okay to tell you they’d do it, not do it, and not acknowledge that to you.

So you could go back to them to hold them accountable to their word, if nothing else.

But because this our culture has made this such a deeply ingrained thing in people, I’d also think about whether you want to change the way you respond in the moment if it happens again. You don’t need to smile at people and respond in a way that prioritizes their comfort over your own. You can look horrified/annoyed/pissed. You can say, “Why would you ask that?” You can say “I’m not pregnant” with a coldness in your voice that means they won’t get warm again for a week. You can say “I’m not pregnant” flatly and without emotion and let them come to the horribleness of their remark on their own. You can say, “Please don’t ever ask someone that when you don’t know that they’re actually pregnant.” You can respond however you’d like — just please prioritize your own comfort above theirs. (And I realize that your previous responses already might be prioritizing your own comfort — handling it that way might be what’s easiest for you, and that’s fine too. I just don’t want you to feel like you have to smile and be nice so that the person doesn’t feel awkward. This is a situation where you’re entitled to just cater to yourself.)

I wish there were more you could do! I’m sorry this is making you think about your body so much at work, a place where you should be able to just be your brain. It sucks and it’s not right.

my boss hasn’t talked to me in months

A reader writes:

Since I returned from vacation a few months ago, my manager hasn’t spoken to me. We are in different offices and she would usually drop by most days to catch up before, so it feels very strange to have a whole month go by without anything from her. I know that her schedule has been very full, but she still makes time to talk with the rest of my team and those outside it. The contrast with how she relates to me is startling. Nothing happened to cause this that I can identify. I’ve gone over things in my head and can’t see anything that I may have done.

I have been trying to convince myself that if I had done something wrong she would have told me directly, but I’m finding this lack of communication very troubling and stressful. I don’t know whether I am reading too much into a busy schedule/manager stress (I’m the most experienced worker in the team so maybe I don’t need the same oversight as others) or if this is something I should be concerned about. My anxiety is making the thought of speaking to her about it a scary prospect; I’m worried about seeming needy or attention seeking.

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Is declining a reference call a red flag?
  • I received an anonymous complaint about politics
  • Canceling an interview after hearing terrible things about the interviewer
  • Should I expect a response to a thank-you note?