short answer Saturday: 7 short answers to 7 short questions

It’s short answer Saturday — seven short answers to seven short questions. Here we go…

1. Reaching out to the person in the job you want to apply for

I applied to a job I found on an online job board. Later, while searching my college career website, I found that there is a contact listed for that company. After some googling, I’ve found that the listed contact holds the job now listed as available! Would it be wrong to reach out to this person and ask more about the position? I’m not sure whether she’s leaving on her own accord or not. Also, what can I say in the email so it doesn’t sound like I’m swooping in on her old/present job?

Sure, you can do that. If the company is openly advertising the position, she presumably knows she’s leaving, so you’re not going to look like a vulture. (I can’t tell from your email if she’s a fellow alumnus or not. If she is, she’ll probably be willing to talk; if she’s not, it’s more of a crapshoot.)

2. Agonizing over cover letters

I’ve written enough cover letters that it should be easy by now, but each one is a slog. It still feels awkward and exhausting to try and come up with customized arguments for each opening about why I’m awesome (and I AM awesome, but no good at talking about it). I understand what makes a good cover letter, and the ones I write end up pretty good, but the place where I’m really supposed to shine–where I get into the nitty gritty about why my skills and accomplishments are a great match for this specific position in this specific organization–ends up mediocre because my perfectionist tendencies make me hate writing that part.

I feel ok about interviews; the face-to-face interaction gives me some immediate feedback on what lines of discussion are compelling to the hiring manager (and your prep guide is AMAZING.) But I’m disproportionately stressed out about cover letters, which leads me to procrastinate working on my application materials. And by getting my materials in late, I might be missing out on opportunities, either because the hiring manager looks positively on early applicants, or just finds an early applicant they like.

If you’re procrastinating to the point that you’re sending your application in late, then give yourself a time limit for each application — for example, that you have to send it in no more than an hour after you start writing it or something. Agonizing is not good for the process.

As for the content itself, pretend you’re telling a friend why you’d be awesome at the job, and then translate that into letter form.

Read an update to this letter here.

3. When interview answers might violate client confidentiality

I’ve worked in the social services field in various capacities for ~5 years. All of these jobs require client confidentiality, but interviews in this field tend to ask behavioral questions (“tell me about a time when you…”). I can’t answer them without telling stories about past clients. I never give names or other identifying information, but I still feel like the interviewer won’t like the fact that I’m not maintaining confidentiality. I’m also wondering how to describe achievements on my resume or in a cover letter. I’m currently a behavioral health caseworker. Unless I talk about my awesome time management or organizational skills, most of my achievements have been in the form of things I’ve helped clients achieve. I feel like if I mention things like reductions in the number of suicide attempts or drug use, or the number or people who I’ve helped find stable housing it feels like I’m not only running into the confidentiality thing again but I’m taking credit for my clients’ achievements when they have been the ones doing the hard work. How should I approach this?

Keeping in mind that I’m not in social work and you might be better off asking someone you trust who is, my assumption is that you should simply leave out identifying details. The fact that you worked with a situation involving, say, drug use isn’t inherently confidential — the identify of the person involved is, and that’s what you leave out. And you can also explicitly say that you’re purposely leaving out some details in order to protect client confidentiality.

4. What happened to this interview?

I had two exceptionally good interviews and was advised I would move forward for a third interview. The hiring manager called me on July 3 and said that the interview will take place on July 5, but she was still waiting to confirm the time. She asked me if it would be ok to contact me on the holiday to confirm the July 5 interview. I said yes. I never heard anything on the 4th, called the hiring manager on the 5th and sent an email. Today is Friday, July 6, the day the offer was supposed to be extended. I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but what the hell happened here? My call and email were never returned. Why?

It’s likely that they just fell behind schedule, which is really common in hiring, and didn’t bother to update you, which is also really common. If that’s the case, you should hear from them next week, and if you don’t, you can follow up mid-week. Alternately, it’s possible that they are about to go entirely AWOL, which is also incredibly common in hiring, but you don’t yet have reason to assume that’s what’s happening.

5. Learning a new job

I just completed my second week of training at my new job–a position I secured thanks in part to your advice on cover letters, thank you notes, and interview tips. I am thrilled to be a part of this company, and I want to jump right into my new role. The thing is, the learning curve for this particular position is overwhelming. All of the employees I’ve met have been very straightforward about the fact that it takes a long time (minimum of three months) to learn how to do this job correctly. Luckily, they have also explained that they are there to support and encourage me through this process. I hear what they are saying, but my perfectionist nature is making it really difficult for me to absorb their advice. I’m starting to feel paralyzed by my own self-criticism. I want to show my coworkers and boss that I’m valuable and contributing to the company, but I’m not sure how to do this when I’m still in the learning stage. Any tips on how to push past my own criticisms? Or how to demonstrate value when I still don’t know how to do my actual job?

Believe what they’re telling you. They don’t sound like liars. Dismissing the advice they’re giving you will be more damaging to you than any perfectly-normal-and-to-be-expected mistakes you make while learning.

6. Reapplying with a company after being rejected

A couple of months ago, I applied for a position with a large company, had a phone interview, and then was not chosen to go further in the application process. I do understand how that can happen, and I did appreciate being let know that this had occurred. This organization is quite large, and I was required to name three locations where I’d be willing to work. I see that my second choice location still has the same job posted. Would it be an exercise in futility to apply again?

You have nothing to lose, so why not try? (I get a version of this question all the time, and the answer is always the same: What do you think you have to lose?)

7. My employee is trying to take my job

I hire smartly, that is to say, I hire well. I hire people who are bright, self-starters who don’t sit still for the status quo (that’s intentional on my part) and, all of them but one are breaking records in raising money for my company. My most aggressive and experienced says she wants my job. Well, that’s fine with me, once I’m ready to leave, but she wants it now, and its obvious by her actions that she is positioning herself to do so directly with the team and indirectly behind the scenes with my boss.

I’ll admit that she is better than I am in certain areas of selling, etc. But, I’m not really wanting to go, but I feel trapped in the death spiral of inevitability. Suggestions?

Your best bet, uncomfortable as it may be, is probably to talk to your boss. Say that you’re uncomfortable with what you’re observing, and that you’d like to make sure that you’re both aligned about your success in the role and your employee’s path at the company. You also need to ensure that you have your boss’s backing for your next step, which is to talk to the employee and explain that while she does good work, neither you nor your boss (who, again, must be on board with this) are going to tolerate her undermining you with your team. If she’s not totally out of control, you might also explore other ways of giving her more responsibility and helping her move up (without just handing over your own position to her). But throughout this, keep in mind that if she truly is better at your job than you, your boss might reasonably conclude she deserves the position — so now is the time to step up your own performance and make sure that conclusion isn’t likely.

{ 106 comments… read them below }

  1. Tamara*

    #1 – Is it possible that the company is expanding and simply adding another position of the same title? There may be other information that indicates that’s not the case. It could be that the person will be a co-worker to the listed position, though, rather than replaced by it. She’ll still be just as good a resource to talk to if that’s the case (possibly better). But, unless there’s something to indicate that she’s not sticking around, it might be good to avoid the assumption.

    #5 – Don’t worry! If they’ve all told you it’s a long process, expect it to be. Most of the positions where I work take at least 3 months to be functional, and probably a year to be fully up to speed. The best thing to do is to follow Alison’s advice and listen to your coworkers and boss. Also, talk to them. If what they’re telling you isn’t answering your questions or alleviating your concerns, then ask them outright. They’ve likely been through the same situation and can either give you tips or confirm that you’re on the right track.

    1. #5 original poster*

      Thanks! I have to take the pressure off of myself and realize that it’s not possible to be great right away. This is my first venture into the corporate world, and I had no idea how common a long learning curve is! I appreciate you sharing the timeline of learning in your own field because that matches very closely with what I have been told. I am definitely commited to listening and asking questions… My main battle will be staying confident in my own abilities and value even after I make some of those inevitable mistakes.

      1. Kimberlee*

        Yeah, there’s no reason to worry about a 3 month learning curve. I’ve been on the job a year and almost a half now, and I’m still learning new things. I wouldn’t have referred to myself as functional at even a basic level before 3 months, and it took a year to really get things humming. Which is exactly what they told me when I took the job, and I thought there was no way it would take that long… even though office work seems simpler than other kinds of work, it’s actually pretty complicated!

      2. TheAssistant*

        The best advice I received at my new job was “Be kind to yourself.” When you’re a perfectionist coming into a new situation, you can create a lot of undue stress on yourself by attempting to excel right away. I’ve found the more stressed you are in a new situation, the worse you actually perform. Just take a minute to learn!

      3. Natalie*

        Honestly, be grateful that they are all in agreement on their being a learning curve. I am currently struggling with a co-worker who seems to believe that a new employee will be fully trained and mistake-free in about a week.

      4. B*

        Also try to remember that learning new things is one of the best parts about having a new job. It took me about a year to get fully up to speed in my job, but after that, I really did not learn any new concrete skills, besides personal development stuff I pursued on my own, and I struggled with boredom in my role. Although being new is a little scary, it’s can also be mentally stimulating in rewarding kind of way. Try to look at it as a positive thing!

    2. Alisha*

      Tamara, I so agree with you on #5 especially. I think we need to make it official that it takes new employees at least a couple months to get the hang of a new job, and a year to master it. The trend of expecting people to jump right in with no training is absurd. Even if you have done 95% of the work required at previous jobs, there’s still a whole set of new SOPs and working styles to master.

  2. Charles*

    2 – Agonizing over cover letters – “As for the content itself, pretend you’re telling a friend why you’d be awesome at the job, and then translate that into letter form.” Excellent!

    1. V*

      Such great advice! I do this all the time. It’s so easy to get sucked into all of that annoying job application lingo and start referring to yourself as a “motivated self-starter with excellent communication skills who works well in groups.” When I’m having a block I just start to write exactly what I would say if I were sitting with a friend gushing about why I would be so great at Job X, and go from there.

    2. simple simon*

      I think I just wrote the best cover letter of my life with that sentence playing over and over again in my head. THANK YOU!!!!

  3. Anonymous*

    2 – confidentiality. These interviews are the worst. (This is a pretty rough post, by the way).

    With respect, I’m not entirely sure if the question has been answered properly. This could be because I’m not sure if it is entirely a confidentiality concern.

    But every interview I have in this area makes me go funny. Although they ask behavioural questions, I can’t mention that person in my life who threw their own funeral and tried to kill themselves afterwards, or all the other people, with their own stories, and their own problems.

    When I mention stuff like this in an interview, it feels like I’m making gains (increasing the prospects of a job) from someone’s shit life. And this is someone who is close to my heart. If I let myself think long enough about it, I would give up most things if it meant they didn’t have that life. I mean this. I wouldn’t get raped and I wouldn’t be a meth addict – but all that other stuff can go.

    This is not what we got in to the social services for. It is not just about speaking about them in general terms so they can’t be identified. It grinds on the soul.

    I don’t have the answers to this. (I have an MA which has a strong crossover to social work professions and life experience to the hills – although I love my job this is probably the main reason I ended up in policy, morality grinds). I suspect this is what the profession means by self care. But self care seems to be understood in the context of the job itself, rather than trying to get the job. Although I don’t have the answers, I think it’s good to be honest and open about the challenges we face. To me it’s a moral question that grinds.

    1. fposte*

      Would you feel better if you acknowledged that up front? “I have a hard time talking about my client’s achievements as if they were something I did, because they did the real hard work, but I’ve had plenty whose improvements I’ve rejoiced in.”

      But do you really think that your involvement has had nothing to do with your clients’ successful efforts? I’m guessing you don’t give yourself quite such a pass for those who aren’t doing well, and that you wouldn’t say horrible things to a client on the assumption that what you do doesn’t matter anyway. I think it’s excellent to respect and understand that your clients are their own agents, but I think if you really believe you had nothing to do with their improvements, then this is going to be a tough field for you to find satisfaction in. And that sounds like it might be an underlying problem that you’re struggling with here.

      A couple of other things: being able to tell the story of your clients, or of people who would have benefited from some kind of intervention, is one of the most effective ways to acquire the resources that they need. Also, if you were there and involved with these people, you’re talking not just about them but about you, and just because you shared an experience doesn’t mean it’s not yours.

      1. LL*

        *Would you feel better if you acknowledged that up front? “I have a hard time talking about my client’s achievements as if they were something I did, because they did the real hard work, but I’ve had plenty whose improvements I’ve rejoiced in.”*

        I love reading your comments! You always have insightful and helpful suggestions.

      2. Diane*

        Yes! Have a bigger ego. Your education, insights, empathy, and decision-making all support your clients so they can do the hard work. So find a way to acknowledge the clients’ work while showing your potential employers what YOU can do to help other clients get to the same place.

  4. Anonymous*

    #3 – I work in social services and have hired case managers and social workers. Generally the hiring managers in this field expect that you will retain your client’s confidentiality, and its a red flag for me if someone isn’t doing that. The questions are aimed towards learning more about you and your responses in challenging situations, not so much needing to know about your client’s specific situation.

    1. Marie*

      Exactly, I used to hire nurses and social workers. It was very usefull to ask those behavioral questions. I did not expect candidates to violate confidentiality, and frankly if they did I would not have hired them.

  5. #3*

    Thanks for posting my question and thank you for your feedback, Anonymous and Anonymous. The person who posted at 10:10 touched on what I’m worried about. I sometimes feel like I can’t answer interview questions without raising possible red flags. I try to be generic about client information and emphasize what I’ve done.

    1. Colleen*

      Confidentiality requires you to omit or change identifying details, but not to avoid telling the story completely. Your interviewer is more concerned with how you handled a client situation, not all of the details about the client themselves. So give a quick, vague summary of the situation (one sentence is probably fine) and focus instead on the steps you took to assist the client. These behavioral questions are really important, so don’t sell yourself short by avoiding them. Practice in advance so you feel comfortable talking about some of your more memorable cases in a way that you deem appropriate.

      In most nonprofits, the interviewers also have front-line experience as social workers. They’ll understand the gist of a situation without needing extensive detail about the client, and they’ll understand that you need to maintain confidentiality. (In fact, an applicant not maintaining confidentiality should be a huge red flag to them.)

      They also understand that yes, clients do a lot of hard work to better their situations and deserve credit for their own efforts. However, they want a clear demonstration of how you’ve assisted clients in these journeys–so don’t be afraid to take a bit of credit. Don’t sell yourself short. In an interview you can always explain your outlook on client/worker relationships and how much respect you have for your clients’ strength and hard work. A good manager will be impressed by your respect for your clients but also your confidence in your role as a social worker.

    2. ChristineH*

      I’m a social worker by training (but haven’t practiced in awhile), and Colleen stated beautifully what I was going to say. If you’re licensed, I would double-check your state Regulations just to be sure you’re not going to get yourself into a pickle. I think you’re fine, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure.

      I also wanted to add a trick I’ve learned about in formulating behavioral questions. It’s the PAR approach (Problem-Action-Result); I’ve seen it written a few ways, but basically, you describe the problem, the steps you took (action), and what came out of your efforts (Result), even if it’s still an ongoing situation.

  6. mh_76*

    #3 — In general, it should be OK if you leave out any identifying details and refer to “a patient/client who…his/her…she or he…”, but you might want to confirm with the organization in your state/area that licenses social workers (like the bar association for lawyers or state medical board for doctors) to confirm.

  7. mh_76*

    #5 — Relax and don’t worry. If your colleagues are as supportive and constructive they seem to be, you’ll be fine. I would worry if you were to make a mistake and they didn’t help you figure out how to resolve it – everyone makes mistakes and good colleagues will work together to find a resolution.

    I’ve been in plenty of situations where I was seeking help (either question or mistake) and was told (paraphrasing, here) to get lost. One “colleague” (I use that term loosely in referring to it) even whined “I’m on the phooonne” (and drew out each word in a way that I can’t figure out how to transcribe) – yep, it was on the phoone with its mommy, a mommy who (supposedly) lived across the street!

    When I’m training people, I tend to use the “deep end” method: prep them a bit (this is how deep the water is, this is what you need to do); if there’s time, I jump in and they talk me through what I need to do; push them in and talk them through what they need to do (I’m available to toss out a flotation device or even jump in and save them). It sounds harsh but it’s how I learn best and one of my volunteers called me “the best teacher I’ve ever had” so it does work for some people.

    Do take as many notes as possible, even if there are already manuals/SOPs available, even if the notes are in the margins of printed materials.

    In wanting to do the job well and showing that you want to learn, you are already demonstrating value.

    1. #5 original poster*

      I have had similar experiences when asking for help… Probably why I am so sensitive in the first place! The last line you wrote is still running through my head… And I am going to make sure to remind myself of it many times next week! Thank you!

      1. mh_76*

        Also don’t be afraid to ask why – for me, knowing the “why” and knowing where each thing fits into the big picture gives whatever I’m learning relevance and I learn it better than if I don’t know either.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      “…yep, it was on the phoone with its mommy, a mommy who (supposedly) lived across the street!”

      It hangs up the phone, or else it gets the hose again. Yes it does!

      1. mh_76*

        Oh, how I wish that had been the case and that I had been wielding the hose!

        It was also extremely rude to the vendors and when I called it out, it went whining and simpering to the inept Stupidvisor* claiming that I “yelled at” it (some would say “her” but I find “it” more satisfying). At that job, there was another one that was also rude – I went to update the Controller (manager’s boss) about a procedural mistake that I had found and rude one #2 was in there sucking up (I only needed a minute and they weren’t talking work stuff or else I would have come back) and rude one #2 started screaming at me as if I had personally attacked it when I was really pointing out that I had found a procedural mistake and confirmed the bank that there was in fact a mistake in the way we were doing a transaction. I also figured out a better way to reconcile a type of expense report, fixed up a saved-as version of the spreadsheet, showed it to the temps who were there and (I think) to the Stupidvisor and interim Manager #2, and neither mean girl liked that even though it meant that something that used to take 3 hours now took 30 minutes and every report didn’t have to be double-checked with the person who approved them, only a few when there was actually a mistake.

        The Manager who hired me into that job had left about 2 months before, the first interim manager left after 2 weeks, and the 2nd interim manager was als insecure but not inept. They believed both of the rude ones (even though I never “yelled at” them…in fact, they were the ones who yelled at me multiple times) and I was out…what a relief…though odd thing is that teh Controller who made that decision witnessed rude girl #2’s outburst!!!! And I won when the company challenged my UI claim a month after I filed & had been collecting.

        * That Supervisor really was stupid, hence the hybrid word.
        ** I’ve found that the worst bullying in workplace and life is female-to-female. Maybe that’s just my individual experience…the people who’ve treated me the worst have been other women.

        1. mh_76*

          [there are a lot of wonderful women with whom I would love to work/be friends, for whom I would love to work, who I would love to be able to hire someday, but the vast majority of the people who’ve treated me badly in workplace & life have happened to also be other women].

        2. Alisha*

          Maybe I’m an odd duck, because my worst experiences have been with guys, usually older guys. Of course, my field is so male-dominated we have stereotypes and well-known jokes about it. And, as a former tomboy with some stereotypically male speech habits and mannerisms, who feels out of place among some women my age due to different values and priorities, I’ve learned that some women regard me as something of a different species. : ) None have been mean fortunately, but I’ve been shut out of social gatherings and ladies’ group lunches at a couple jobs where we had lots of women clustered in one area, e.g. marketing or sales.

          But most of my female peers agree that, given the choice, they’d much rather work with men and have men for bosses. And, men and women both overwhelmingly prefer male bosses according to most surveys. This worries me because my job search has gone poorly, and while I’m hoping that the way women are perceived in the workplace isn’t a factor, I have to wonder sometimes. (There are several reasons it’s not going well though, most of which are beyond my control, a few of which I can improve upon.)

  8. Andrew*

    #2–Sorry to be a grump, but if you write mediocre cover letters which you send in late, you are not awesome. Nor are you amazing. You’re slightly below average.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, she’s not awesome at writing cover letters because she doesn’t like talking about herself. That’s a different thing than not being awesome in general.

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, this just sounds to me like writer’s block. So try some anti-block tips: write a crappy paragraph, not worrying about whether it’s good or not, and then fix it later (it’s easier to fix than originate); say *out loud* what you want to say and then write down what you said; close all web browsers and/or install a savage blocking utility. The time-limit approach is good, and you can also use that for each part of the letter: “Today I will spend 15 minutes to write two paragraphs describing what my work history makes me bring to this position.” When you’re blocked, you’re often resistant to the vague enormity of a whole assignment and can work better on very specifically aimed parts of it–and identify those specifics before you sit down so that you maximize the “I know what I’m doing” feeling while you’re looking at the screen.

        1. Anon.*

          Not the OP here but this all really good and useful advice for me. Thank you for spelling it out like this fposte. All fwiw, I pretty much enjoy and appreciate all your posts!

            1. Shane*

              I am going to try this. I also have far too much experience with writers block. I have found that sometimes I can get around it by writing out everything I know about what I want to say in point form first then arrange them to make them flow and try to add more points in between the ones that don’t. When I have completed this I usually find that with a bit of grammar, editing and opening/closing statements the points actually form fairly nice paragraphs.

              It doesn’t always help but I find it better than staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page until I get frustrated.

    2. Steve G*

      Could be:-). But as I get older I understand this type of personality much better. I can do super complicated things no one else wants or is capable to do. But mail a letter? My blood pressure goes up, I feel like I am wasting time writing my return address on the envelop, I dread walking to the drop box, and it may sit on my desk for a day or three. It’s like certain people get blocks where doing seemingly simple things seem like huge tasks.

    3. Emily*

      #2 – I could have written this question! Writing is one of my best abilities and one that gives me a lot of confidence, but that’s actually become a roadblock because I’m so anxious about living up to my talent in a cover letter. Like Steve, the anxiety gives me writer’s block that extends all the way to the simplest logistics of mailing a letter (or sending an email). My best writer’s block strategies are writing as though I’m just thinking aloud (or as though I’m speaking to a friend), or as if I’m someone else writing or talking about me. If all else fails, I’ll also try the old index card trick—writing one phrase per card and arranging them. Labor intensive, but it can break through that wall.

      1. #2 OP*

        Oh, playing the role of someone else could be a very helpful way of framing it. Thanks!

    4. #2 OP*

      By “late” I meant near the position closing date, as opposed to right when it’s posted. And it’s a writer’s block issue as fposte pointed out (with such helpful advice. Thanks! And Alison!)

      Luckily, I’m not applying for professional cover letter-writing gigs. Lots of skill sets in the workplace, being poor at any particular one of them doesn’t mean you suck at the rest.

      1. #2 OP*

        And, as EngineerGirl mentioned out below, I was raised in such a way that strongly encouraged I keep quiet about my skills and achievements. It’s an incredibly hard habit to break out of.

  9. mh_76*

    #6 — Fire her. It’s one thing for an employee to want the boss’s job but for her to deliberately try to undermine the boss (you) and try to push you out of your job is unacceptable. It might be one thing if your own performance were weak but it doesn’t sound like that is the case. Let her go, give the best remaining person a raise to her salary (if possible…even better to “cascade” the raises through the team – current 3rd best person to current 2nd best’s salary, etc), and hire a new newbie at what is currently the lowest salary of your team.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is certainly a possibility, but I’d want to know more about what she’s doing to position herself for his job and how undermining it is. If she’s outright trash-talking the boss, then yes, fire her. If it’s more about just building herself up, I’d go with the original advice.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I should have also mentioned in the original advice: If the OP has assembled and presided over a team where “all of them but one are breaking records in raising money for my company,” he should be in a pretty solid position. The skills required to manage a team (him) are different than the skills required to perform in that team (the employee), and that’s something he can emphasize to the boss if it becomes needed.

    2. Steve G*

      I want to know what the employee’s attitude is. Particularly, do they want the boss’ job because they would be good at it and they know it, and they view the current boss and burnt out, or do they just want it for the prestige, power, and salary?

      1. mh_76*

        I “heard” the latter in the original post, that “they just want it for the prestige, power, and salary”, in which case the employee has an attitude problem vs. a gripe with the boss’s performance/burnout (which I didn’t “hear” in the original post).

        1. Just Me*

          Yes I agree that the employee flat out wants the OP’s job. Period. This type of employee is not good for a company. It shows a lack of morals and ethics.

          It is one thing to show and do your best and apply WHEN a position comes available. Or have the company approach an employee if they decide to want to promote them. It is another thing to very obviously try get the bosses job.

          I think it sets a bad precedence for employees to be able to just think all they have to run the the big boss everytime they believe there is an issue and then get their way. And I think the OP and the boss have to agree on that and what action to take. If the employee is talking to co-workers and going out of her boundries to undermind the boss that itself should be at least a verbal warning.

          IF the OP’s boss see that the OP needs to improve on ” x ” task that itself should be its own issue and not being looked at as a reason the employee should be promoted and the boss fired.

          This is not about the job itself or tasks. This is about an employee that apparently thinks she should be running the show and is just doing what she wants to get it. Not a good candidate to be an employee let alone to be a boss.

          1. Jamie*

            “Yes I agree that the employee flat out wants the OP’s job. Period. This type of employee is not good for a company. It shows a lack of morals and ethics.”

            IMO ambition, even graceless naked ambition, isn’t immoral. There is nothing unethical about wanting a higher position for which you feel qualified. As long as there are no shenanigans like sabotage or lying about another’s performance all’s fair in love, war, and work.

            Again, just my opinion, but business is a cut sport.

          2. Eva*

            Just Me, Jack Welch would agree with you. Here is a quote from his book Winning:

            “There’s another behavior that will also force your boss to use political capital [when promoting you] because it really alienates people. It’s wearing your career goals on your sleeve.

            With most people, ambition is a positive thing – it’s fire in the belly, it’s energy and optimism. It’s pushing yourself and the organization forward so that everyone wins.

            Career lust looks different. It shows itself in tearing down the people around you, insulting or disparaging them in order to make your own candle burn brighter, as the old saying goes. … It’s seeing the company’s org chart as a chessboard, and making an open display of watching the pieces move.

            If you’ve got this problem … there won’t be enough political capital in the world to save you. It’s very hard to champion someone over the clamor of objecting coworkers.”

            It would be interesting to pick the brains of OP #7’s team to hear what they think of the person who wants to become Caliph instead of the Caliph.*

            (* What’s a better-known idiom meaning the same thing? It’s explained here:

            1. khilde*

              This is excellent – I love the distinction between ambition and career lust. Thanks for sharing it.

        1. Ariancita*

          Perhaps for the OP it’s less the motivation and more about the technique. I agree with Jamie above that ambition is a good thing. But how it’s actualized is something else, maybe?

          1. Just Me*

            Amibition isn’t the issue. Stepping on other people to get there is the issue. So yes you are right, how it is actualized is the question.

            Mike, a company can’t remain efficient and organized if they do nothing but demote, fire and promote people everytime person “A ” does an better job at task “1” than person ” B “. So then when person “C” comes along and does an better job do you just change the players again?
            There is more to it than that.

            Maybe train the first person more? Maybe reoganize the dept structure a little so the person that does well at that task has more responsibilty.

            Just because the employee can do the task better doesn’t make them a manager. 2 seperate jobs and ideas of thought and skill sets.

            Someone that speaks out about wanting to take someones job let alone a bosses job is someone I would not trust as a co-worker let alone a boss.
            So what would be next? The bosses boss job ?

            1. Mike C.*

              So everyone should be happy where they are? Are you kidding me?

              What specific ethics issues did the OP mention that have you and others here up in arms?

              1. Anonymous*

                None were mentioned specifically. I’d like to know what “directly with the team and indirectly behind the scenes with my boss” means.

                Everyone shouldn’t be happy where they are, but it isn’t smart to run your business with everyone looking over their shoulder wondering who wants their job and can get it if they can prove they’re better at it than the original emplyee is. You should be happy where you are for a period of time that will vary by industry. You took x job; don’t come in and think you should have y job right away because you’re a hotshot. Great employees build their resumes in a reasonable manner, not by stepping on everyone else to get to the top. I’m not talking about ethics at all here–I’m talking having a good sense about when it’s appropriate to rise. Someone who thought she should rise quickly recently left our workplace. It was discovered that she only did the things that would make her look good. The parts of her job she found boring or beneath her hadn’t been done. All she wanted to do was ‘rock star’ work. There could sometimes be a real rock star out there who deserves a more rapid rise, but that’s rare.

              2. Alisha*

                As someone who has tended to be promoted quickly within companies, I would say that as long as you are doing your job well, adding value to the company, and not engaging in sabotage, back-stabbing, or other negative and morale-destroying behavior to get ahead, it’s okay to be ambitious. And it’s certainly okay to get promoted quickly if that’s in line with how your company does things. (I’m not speaking to the OP’s question since I don’t have enough information.)

                At some companies, like the 10,000-plus person corp. I worked for briefly, the promotion track is slow and gradual. People adjusted their behavior accordingly, and those who tried to push past their managers for advancement before they were ready were taken to task. But I’ve otherwise worked at smaller companies where promotions happen whenever the employee is ready to be challenged by a new role – and that timetable varies widely, depending on each employee’s specific capabilities.

                1. Alisha*

                  Should add: At my big corp., there were some shoddy workers who shot up the ladder through political maneuvering and who drew ire from others, while some of the talented guys on my team stagnated because they couldn’t jump to the next level before they were allowed to. Being that I had a finite end date there, I wasn’t trying for any promotions, but I’d never worked for a mega-corp. before, so it was a fascinating learning experience!

    3. Shane*

      The problem is that companies find it very hard to fire good sales people even if they shirk other duties, take advantage of coworkers, take advantage of clients, scoop sales, or just generally are a cancer in the workplace.

  10. Ariancita*


    I work under both HIC (human subjects committee) and HIPAA confidentiality rules which are incredibly strict. Here’s basically what you need to do to safe guard you are not inadvertently exposing your clients’ identities: do not reveal identifying characteristics. Things like name, location, and family are obvious. But additionally, if you want to be very safe, don’t reveal anything that a person who might know the person could deduce their identity from description. In fact, you can even change details to protect your clients (and let your interviewer know you are changing potentially identifying details) such as occupation, location, and number of children, etc.

    1. fposte*

      It sounds like the OP might not be in the US, though, and if so there’ll be a different set of relevant regulations.

      1. Ariancita*

        Sure, but if you go with the strictest possible interpretation, then you’ll be safest. Also HIC are in every country and the regulations are all pretty much the same and they are considered (along with HIPAA in the U.S.) pretty much the strictest rules for confidentiality.

  11. Sarah G*

    #3 – I’ve worked in social services/case management for over 8 years, including some supervisory roles and hiring. You are over-thinking this! I understand where you’re coming from, b/c confidentiality is essential in this work,but you say, “I never give names or other identifying information, but I still feel like the interviewer won’t like the fact that I’m not maintaining confidentiality.” You ARE maintaining confidentiality. As long as there is no indication as to the identity of the person, you can give plenty of detail about the scenario, resolution, etc. Just don’t be more specific than needed. For example, “One of my clients had been homeless on and off for years, and was struggling with severe mental illness. He was about to be kicked out of the shelter due to behavioral issues. I arranged a meeting with the shelter director and client to help mediate and we coordinated a plan so that the client could stay. Over the coming weeks, I supported the client in his housing search and helped connect him to benefits and mental health treatment,” etc, etc.

    As for taking credit for your clients’ achievements, again, I get what you’re saying. But the whole point of you wanting to do this work is that you know that you’re able to help people! So take credit for the part you play in your clients’ success, while still acknowledging and recognizing their self-efficacy. If you can’t convince yourself that you’re a factor in your clients’ successes, you’re not going to be able to convince an interviewer of your effectiveness. You can ay something in the interview about how important it is to you to celebrate your clients’ successes and to affirm them for hard work. You can say you see your role as providing support and resources for your clients to find and reach their own potential, and then to give them credit and recognition for their own successes, etc.
    In my current position, I work exclusively with people who are chronically homeless and severely mentally ill. I know that my work changes people’s lives, and that’s what makes it so rewarding, but I never hesitate to recognize them for all their hard work too. Have you ever had training in Motivational Interviewing? It’s an amazing approach to care that gives clients the space to initiate and take control of their own changes.

    1. Sarah G*

      p.s. Practice your answers aloud, again and again, until your are comfortable saying them!

    2. Ariancita*

      Excellent advice. In the example you gave, the important information to show how effective one is at their job but there is absolutely no identifying information.

      1. Sarah G*

        Thanks for the feedback, hope it helps the OP! I didn’t mention that before working in social services, I was working in the medical field at the time that HIPAA was first enacted. I understand confidentiality through and through, but it’s really not hard to tell a general story without any identifying factors.

        1. Ariancita*

          Exactly. You sort of get used to dealing with how to tell a detailed and compelling story without revealing identifying information when you’ve had explicit training on confidentiality. (You have to be able to do that when publishing.) I loved that you gave a practical example! I think it really helps to illustrate the concept!

    3. #3*

      Thanks for your thoughtful response! I do actually work in the United States so HIPPAA is what I’m dealing with. I guess I get nervous because the attitude from a few different places where I’ve worked seems to be NEVER TELL ANYONE ANYTHING UNLESS THERE IS A SIGNED RELEASE, don’t do work on your home computer because it isn’t secure, don’t leave client information in your car even if it’s locked, etc. I recently had to go through several levels of management to get permission to comply with a hotline investigation.
      I guess I’m not used to telling stories with enough information to make sense but not too much information yet. I will take your suggestion to practice phrasing things.
      I have a lot of training in Motivational Interviewing and I’m a fan of it. I was actually wondering about taking credit for client achievements in situations like my resume, where I’m supposed to be listing achievements instead of job duties. Do you have any ideas about phrasing in this situation?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        The same sort of thing Sarah suggested will work on your resume too. Seriously, leave out names and you will be fine; you are over-thinking this (and others are making you unnecessarily paranoid about this).

        Social service organizations regularly publicize success stories and accomplishments, just without names. That’s how you should approach it too.

      2. Ariancita*

        Look at Sarah’s concrete example. Notice how you can’t tell location, ethnicity/race, age, name, names of places, etc? Even if you knew the person in the example very well, you wouldn’t be able to deduce from their identity from that story. That person could be your brother and you wouldn’t know. Yet, the point of the story is very clear. (If you’re feeling super paranoid, you can always change the details anyway, like changing “he” to “she,” etc.) Good luck! :)

      3. Ariancita*

        Also, it’s true you can’t have identifying data on your personal computer via HIPAA unless your computer has been encrypted (which I do not suggest unless you have no choice as it seriously renders your computer practically useless), but you can certainly have blind data on our personal computer.

        It’s all about identification, not about the data itself.

      4. #3*

        I understand the confidentiality issue and I appreciate everyone’s feedback. I guess I had a second question that I didn’t phrase explicitly enough. For example, I have three clients on my current caseload who used to be hospitalized about once per month for suicide attempts, self-injury, overdosing, etc. Since I have been working with them for the past year or so, they have each only been hospitalized once for psychiatric reasons. I think it’s appropriate to consider it an accomplishment for me, but I obviously value the hard work each client has done and the help they’ve gotten from other sources (for example, all three have started attending church and they’ve had medication changes). If I talk about what I did to help them, it feels like I’m listing job duties. It feels natural to give clients credit (like what Sarah suggested) if I’m discussing it in person but I’m confused about the appropriate wording in a resume, where I have to be more concise.

        1. Ariancita*

          Would words like “facilitate” be better for you? Someone once posted a great link to a list of words that can be used on resumes to talk about achievements and such. I’ll see if I can find it….

        2. Sarah G*

          You’re welcome, and glad you have training in MI! It’s great stuff. :)
          Most of the stuff you say about how to deal with client information is accurate (need a signed release, don’t do client work on a personal computer), but that’s for when there IS identifying information. In the real world, when I do homeless street outreach, sometimes I have sensitive stuff in my backpack or my car. It’s not ideal, but unavoidable. But if you work primarily out of your office, it shouldn’t be an issue.
          As for how to tell stories without the identifying info, you just did exactly that, in talking about the reductions in your clients’ hospitalization (nice work, btw!).
          As for your resume, you probably don’t need to get overly specific, that’s more for the interview or perhaps cover letter. It’s hard to say without knowing more specifics. But what comes to mind is, “Successfully worked with clients on treatment plans to reduce the frequency of psychiatric hospitalizations, including three current clients whose hospitalizations went from monthly to only 1x in the past year.”

        3. class factotum*

          I’m not in the industry, but I get the impression that these successes would not have happened without your involvement. So yes, you get to take credit.

        4. khilde*

          For example, I have three clients on my current caseload who used to be hospitalized about once per month for suicide attempts, self-injury, overdosing, etc. Since I have been working with them for the past year or so, they have each only been hospitalized once for psychiatric reasons.

          Couldn’t you just say exactly something like this in your interview?!? Think about it – you just gave all of us a brief overview of the situation without revealing identifying information. I am not trying to be snide; I’m more excited by the fact that you seem to have done here in the comments exactly what you could do in the interview. See how easy that was? :) One more thought (I don’t want this to come across as callous–it’s just an observation from someone totally not connected to this industry at all). But isn’t details like this the nature of what you do? I mean…..these details (suicide attempt, homelessness, mental illness) could be applicable to any one of the clients that you serve. So by sticking with those basic facts, I can’t imagine the interviewer would figure out identity unless you lived in an extremely tiny town.

    4. Alisha*

      Totally love the practice out-loud advice. If you have someone who can help you prep beforehand with a mock-interview, even better. My husband is awesome for this – we have a big book of likely interview questions for my field (or, you can base your questions off Alison’s blog entries and/or e-books!), and he goes through a bunch with me, while also offering feedback on my answers.

  12. EngineerGirl*

    #2 – I struggled with this too, mainly because I had “don’t boast” pounded into me as a child. So here is an easier way to do it:
    a) Think about how you can help the company achieve its goals. That puts the focus off of you and on to them. It is also exactly what the company wants to hear.
    b) Think about things in the past that you are really proud of achieving. Do they align with what the company wants? List them (but make sure they are quantitative).

    #5 – This is quite normal, actually. So try this:
    a) Focus on mastering the small in the aggregate of the large. Gain expertise in a sub-category while still learning every thing else in a general way. That will give you a feeling of accomplishment as you work off sub-category by sub-category.
    b) If this is a tough job, think about documenting what you’ve learned via wiki pages or writing down processes/overviews. Try to focus on the next person coming along in this position. I’ve found that writing things down in a “how to” document forces me to truly master all parts of a task. It also provides valuable documentation for the company. Again, this will give you a feeling of accomplishment.

    #7 – I would suggest that you may not be as good in hiring as you think you are if an employee has these kind of ethics issues. A good employee should be making you look good so you will be promoted and they can have your job when you leave. If she is positioning herself with the team as you say then she is undermining you. Go talk to the boss, and list specific things she is doing. Then talk to her to tell her to stop. Then fire her before she destroys your reputation and work. Believe me, if she has ethics issues here, she has them other places too.

  13. EngineerGirl*

    #7 Again. I’ve been thinking. Are you sure that this employee is really your best and brightest? If they are undermining you, it is possible that they are doing other unethical things such as:
    * Lying about their accounts to look good
    * Taking credit of the work of others
    * Over prominsing to customers to gain accounts

    I would do a little audit just to make sure. Maybe they got ahead honestly. Maybe not.

    1. -------*

      good thought. This just made me link #7 to a sales rep in my office. He does these things. He is really an avg. sales rep who regulary doesn’t meet quotas in my company’s more important line of business, but keeps just about making it up in other areas. He’ll count a sale in 2 separate months to make it look like he has all of this money that can be counted as account recievables..that stuff is normal…but –

      1/2 of his accounts are smoke in mirrors. Low selling accounts, but there is alot of dramatic reports of sales potential, and alot of recommendations on what other people should do to service his accounts. But he doesn’t actually do much. And the potentials never happen. Mostly lives off of residual commissions from jobs that came through referalls. And when I talk to his customers, they barely remember/know him!

      1. Anonymous*

        Wow, you just reminded me of a sales rep I knew back in the 90’s who seemed really amazing. It turned out that he’d figured out that he could simply write false orders because our tracking system never connected canceled orders with the original sales. So he’d get thousands of dollars in commissions each month, and when his customers received the goods they hadn’t ordered, they would simply call up and cancel. No one was the wiser until we had to run an audit of our sales for other reasons, and we discovered the problem with our software. It was pretty shocking to everyone, bc he’d been such a “star” in our organization!

  14. Just Me*

    Smart idea. I didn’t think about that. If she is underminding the OP and trying to get co-workers on her side ( or whatever is happening ) how does the OP know the work itself is honest?

  15. Emily*

    #5 Demonstrate your value as a patient learner, a willing teammate, and a good communicator. Your coworkers and boss will appreciate that you’re committed to doing your best, but that you can ride the learning curve and handle any mistakes you might make with grace. Maybe you can alleviate some of the pressure you’re putting on yourself to “jump right in” by shifting your goals a little bit. For right now, look at the training process as your job—jump right into that. You’ll set yourself up to succeed in the role for which you were hired and be able to jump right in there when the time comes.

  16. Ariancita*

    I’m really interested in hearing everyone’s take on #7. I think it’s easy to find someone like this in most workplaces, especially in the corporate world. I’m seeing this happening in the small world of academic medicine too and it’s interesting to watch the strategic positioning that goes on (often times tied to grant money as well). I find it appalling and am interested to see how others think about it and deal with it.

  17. Jamie*

    ” My most aggressive and experienced says she wants my job. Well, that’s fine with me, once I’m ready to leave, but she wants it now, and its obvious by her actions that she is positioning herself to do so directly with the team and indirectly behind the scenes with my boss.”

    Did she say this to you, or did you hear her say it?

    What exactly is she doing with the team and boss to advance this? It’s hard to know if a line has been crossed between acceptable ambition and shady tactics without specifics.

    Talented and ambitious people tend to want to move up or out – if your boss is happy with you where you are then I would assume if a different upward path isn’t offered to her I would assume she would be weighing other options.

  18. V*

    #6 – It’s my understanding that most large organizations may have HR do an initial screening of applications and do some initial interviewing, but typically hiring decisions are made by the actual hiring department. With that said, unless you did poorly enough in an interview to really stick out in the HR person’s mind, I really wouldn’t worry. Considering how many qualified applicants there are (And so many hiring managers wish they didn’t have to choose just one person!), the fact that the company has previously expressed interest in you could even help you. I’ve been rejected for one job at a local university and have an interview coming up for a different job at the same university. Go for it! :)

  19. Anon*

    #7-One thing about this type of ambition is that if it works once, she’ll try it again. So it might be a good idea for the OP put the thought to OP’s boss that the ambitious employee will be gunning for boss’s job next.

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah, I can imagine how that conversation will go.

      “Yeah Boss, this new gal does great work and is really motivated by getting compensated well. Did you hear that she she wants to move up in this company? Can you believe the nerve on this person! Next thing you’ll know in a few years after gaining some new skills and experience she’ll want to move up *again*! The NERVE!”

      Yes, please have that conversation with your boss, I really want to hear how well that goes for you.

      1. Anon*

        Mike, let me put this in another context for you: what if you rent a 2 bedroom apartment in the same building I rent a 1 bedroom and I want yours because its bigger even though you want to keep renting it. Is it OK if I’m a better renter because I kiss the owner’s butt or make baked goods for the neighbors, even if you pay your rent on time, aren’t loud, and aren’t doing anything that should cause others to want you out? I convince the neighbors you’re a crappy neighbor? Who knows what else I’m doing. All’s fair right? Its one thing if you are planning on vacating it, but its another to try undermining you to take it. I think when people are talking about ethics, that’s what they are talking about. And frankly, I think that suggesting to the guy with the three bedroom that they might be next isn’t really as crazy as you think. No one wants to be living around that person and no one wants to work with them either. People “get” that how you treat others is indicative of who you are and what you are like to be around. There’s a difference between being motivated and being aggressive in a bad sort of way. Its great to aspire to having that bigger apartment or bigger job…when they open up, when they can be created, or in other companies…its another to try to step on and force people out to make openings when and where you want them. And yes, its one thing if its also a matter of getting rid of a truly bad neighbor or bad worker/manager in the deal…but that doesn’t sound like the issue here.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, I don’t think anyone is saying that ambition is a bad thing. It’s the idea of trying to undermine someone in order to get their job that’s the problem.

        1. Mike C.*

          The only “undermining” that the OP mentioned was that the employee in question wanted to progress into a different position. It’s much easier to progress into a job that actually exists than to make one up, and that usually means someone else is holding the position at the time.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            We don’t actually know what the employee is or isn’t doing; it would be helpful if the OP would weigh back in with more details. But just like we’re not blindly pro-manager here, it doesn’t make sense to be blindly pro-employee either. It’s possible, Mike, that this employee is actually undermining the manager. Surely you have to admit that’s possible. Not every employee behaves well, just like every manager doesn’t.

          2. Student*

            I think the bigger problem is her strategy. It’s great that she’s ambitious, but it’s problematic that she wants her boss’s job because it is strategically a poor choice for advancement. That’s where the other posters get their discomfort from. Boss isn’t planning to leave voluntarily within her time frame, which means that the boss / employee dynamic is now adversarial AND collaborative at the same time. That most likely means both people will miss out in some regard.

            Perhaps the employee simply doesn’t know that Boss is happy right where he is, and this is all a misunderstanding. Didn’t seem like Boss had really figured out exactly what was going on – maybe she’s assumed everyone wants to get a promotion ASAP, or thinks Boss is closer to retirement than he actually is (or she might well intent to push him out of the organization), or simply lacks imagination.

            At any rate, what Boss should do is try to steer her ambitions to his advantage. Pick someone you’d actually like to see replaced, or someone near retirement, or a new area of business that’s likely to expand soon. Try to help place her there instead. Similar positions at competing/complementary organizations are another option (help her network with these people if possible). Give her a target other than your own job to aim for and the support to move up. Explain that you aren’t budging any time soon. If that doesn’t redirect her career ambitions, then you have a problem and you should rid yourself of her.

      3. EngineerGirl*

        I have to chime in. Mike, ambition and drive are not wrong. It isn’t the What but the How that is wrong.

        If she wants to work her tail off and outperform everyone in the group then go-get-em! But undermining someone that they are supposed to be supporting? That is a problem.

        If you can’t see the difference, then I’m worried for you.

        1. Alisha*

          Whoops, I’m having a vexing bout of insomnia and missed the complete context. What I meant was, I agree that undermining a boss (or your team, which I’ve dealt with) is bad, but I also agree with Mike that showing ambition and talent in the absence of malice is not a wrongdoing.

          On re-read, I still can’t get a complete picture of the OP’s situation relative to her actions, so I can’t make a judgment call with confidence.

          1. Mike C.*


            Show me an ounce of malice or wrong-doing and I’ll jump to the other side, but until then a whole lot of folks here are filling in blanks with information they don’t have yet.

        2. Mike C.*

          I can see the difference, it’s just that the undermining that everyone is complaining about hasn’t happened yet. It’s been assumed. That’s what I’ve been trying to point out, and even after directly asking for an example of this no one is pointing it out.

  20. anna*

    #5 a huge part of my job is finding and training excellent people to a job that takes 3+ months to learn. The easiest people to train are those who know their limits and are able to balance ‘jumping in’ with knowing when to ask for help. The WORST people to train are those who have a hard time admiting they don’t know the answer/know the policy and barrel ahead. Be patient with yourself, you were hired because they already know you can do an awesome job AFTER YOU LEARN IT. Cheers and goood luck!

    1. Alisha*

      Really agree with you. My weakness, as a new grad, was asking for help; not that I barreled ahead, but I’d try to solve a problem on my own before asking my boss if possible. It stemmed from a case of impostor syndrome, where I feared being “found out” as an incompetent fool.

      After I shed that negative trait, I cultivated an open-door policy when managing others, stressing that questions are welcome, and I love teammates who ask them before something turns into a problem.

  21. Anonymous*

    it is like i wrote question #2, i usually miss deadlines because i cannot for the life of me, write a decent cover letter. i spend weeks just working on one. i end up feeling overwhelmed and disillusioned. i think my main problem is translating my skills and qualifications to their needs because of my lack of experience (i am a recent college grad, without any substantial internship experience). i have worked but i feel that since my previous jobs dont relate at all i cannot translate skills to the job openings needs. thanks for all the advice on here, i am definitely learning a lot.

    1. Anonymous*

      Dear recent grad: I wish you the very best of luck at getting started in life. Do try taking both a writing course and doing Toastmasters. Both will seem very old school to you, I am sure. However, you will find them of great value. Just give them both a try.

    2. Rana*

      Would it help to imagine yourself getting the job, and then describing what you’d be doing? I’m sympathetic to your situation because I’m a career-changer, and it’s tricky figuring out how to “translate” my experiences and skills into the context of a different job. But when I ask myself, “Okay, so this job requires me to be informed about the products this company sells. How would I go about being informed? How have I learned new information before? What skills do I bring to the table?” it gets a bit easier.

      I won’t deny that figuring out what you’d be doing and what questions to ask yourself can be tricky, but maybe try starting with the job description and working your way through each requirement, thinking about how you (and not some generic candidate) would address each responsibility?

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