offer never materialized

A reader writes:

I have worked for the last five years as a non-traditional, part-time student assistant at a campus job while working on my “four year” undergraduate degree. The very unofficial title I’ve earned over the years is “media guy”; I transfer nearly century old films and audio items to digital, more accessible mediums for students and researchers. I don’t actually have a degree in these areas, but many archives utilize people with life experience in these areas, rather than only degreed archivists with no or little real world experience with these items.

Between my second and fourth years there, both our director and our office manager repeatedly suggested that I would be a great addition to their staff after graduation, to the point where our director even threw out hypothetical salary figures on several occasions. With graduation growing close, I asked our director about the specific details of this position. He got very nervous, and said that he wasn’t sure how soon or even if he could create a position. He then asked me how many weeks it would take for me to TRAIN SOMEONE ELSE to do all of the things that it took me years to teach myself while in this position. Later that day, when an employee confronted our director about this situation, his response was that he “never PROMISED me a job there.”

Despite these events, and against my better judgment, I stayed on the job to complete some ongoing projects that I didn’t want to leave unfinished. My part-time contract has been extended until December, yet they are starting to outsource projects that had previously been discussed with me. They are also interviewing student assistants with more media-based backgrounds. They haven’t found anyone (yet) with the diverse knowledge and experience that I have with these different tasks and items, but they seem to be trying.

The strange thing is that if this was a retail position, I would have had no problem telling my boss that he was a liar and then just moved on to another job. But I fear that I won’t find another position somewhere that allows me access to such interesting and historical items. Does it sound like I should even try to secure a position there? Any thoughts?

It sounds like your director is not a very good manager (or handler of sticky conversations), but I’m not sure he’s a liar.

It sounds like your director realized that he can’t create a new staff position for you, even though he had hoped to be able to. Since he seemed very happy with your work, this is presumably due to there being no money in his budget for it, or someone above him nixing the idea. In and of itself, that’s not his fault — it’s true that he never made you a promise, and it’s not unusual to talk with good student workers about the possibility of further employment without knowing for sure that it will pan out. (As a general rule, don’t rely on any job prospect until an actual offer is made.)

However, he is handling it badly. When he realized that there wasn’t going to be a new position, he should have told you forthrightly, saying something like: “You’ve been a tremendous asset to us and I wish we were able to create a position for you. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make that happen, so I know we’re going to lose you when you graduate. Since graduation is getting close, let’s talk soon about the transition and figure out what the training process should be for the next student. Meanwhile, I hope I can help you in your job search.”

He skipped delivering the hard part of this news, and as a result, he’s generated bad feelings and destroyed your loyalty. Had he been straightforward with you, you likely would have been disappointed but understood, and presumably would have happily helped train the next student before graduating. I recommend that you still approach it that way, since if it’s handled amicably, your director and other coworkers may be fruitful sources of job leads, contacts, and recommendations.