ask the readers: helping young coworkers learn professionalism when their manager doesn’t know it herself

Here’s another question that I’m calling on readers to help answer, because I am off to yet another orthopedist appointment to find out why my foot still isn’t fully healed, nearly 10 months after breaking it. A reader writes:

I work for an awesome nonprofit that does a lot of good work, including a program that helps folks from some very disadvantaged communities. One department hired three people who are from these communities as neighborhood liaisons (NLs) to help with the work on the ground and build relationships with community leaders. The NLs they hired are young and new to the professional setting, and one comes from an immediate family where no one has ever held a job before, so it’s a really exciting opportunity.

The challenge is that their supervisor, who is one of those “I need everyone to love me and be my best friend and need me desperately” type people, is very wealthy and sets horrible boundaries. I made it a point to reach out and befriend the NLs (our office can come across a little cold and intimidating, everyone is very busy). Once they opened up to me, I started hearing all these stories about how she regularly gives them money for food, takes them shopping for clothes, alcohol, even furniture! She is social with them, goes out to nightclubs with them (she’s in her 50s), and all kinds of crazy stuff.

The crazed manager is also good at covering her tracks with her boss, and she’s best friends with the CEO and is totally untouchable. She’s a LOT of drama. The MLs are smart and have terrific potential, but they are acting less and less professionally … and I suspect it’s because they get away with anything. It’s heartbreaking, because these young adults — who all say they really want to learn to be successful in the workplace — are not learning how a manager/employee relationship is supposed to function at all. I try to be a role model and mentor when I can, but I don’t see them often, and we’re in totally separate departments. So my questions:

1) Besides your blog archives, is there a good resource out there for basic instructions on how office life works? Sort of a “here’s what to expect, professionalism 101” kind of thing?

2) Any tips on how to explain to the needy “I need you to be my best friend all the time” manager that she’s hurting these young adults instead of helping them?

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 114 comments… read them below }

  1. Just a Reader*

    This is awful, but it’s not your problem. I wouldn’t touch this with a 10-foot pole unless it begins to affect your organization’s reputation.

    The best the LW can do is urge the NLs to elevate the behavior, but that could still be sticky and doesn’t sound likely anyway.

    1. Robert*

      I disagree. This is actively undermining the organization’s mission. This isn’t just a case of a weird boss – this is a case of a weird boss who is preventing people from getting what they need out of the organization (an introduction to normal work life) for her own personal satisfaction. She is hurting these young women – creating a dependency, a sugar-momma relationship.

      This may not be as extreme an abuse as the Penn State thing, but it is exactly the same class of abuse. She is taking desperate, vulnerable young people and exploiting them for her emotional satisfaction by plying them with gifts. It’s quite possible that there are darker abuses that the NLs haven’t talked about – I wouldn’t jump to physical abuse, but I could see her exploiting them for personal favors like free housecleaning that they won’t feel able to refuse.

      Pretend for a moment that a man was doing this and then tell me with a straight face that you’d thing it was OK. Tell me you’d think it wasn’t a danger to the organization’s reputation waiting to happen. Even if she is 100% on the up-and-up, has never done anything improper with these young people, the appearance is terrible. If any of the NLs are young men (or even if they are women), she could very well be exploiting them sexually too, and that’s the first thing I’d expect with such outrageous gift-giving behavior.

      The NLs brought it up because they know it’s weird and something is wrong.

      1. some1*

        I agree with you that this is improper, though I think you are reading a lot of things into this that we have no evidence of. I was going by the fact that the mgr is besties with the CEO. Maybe you have been fortunate enough never to work in a toxic environment, but if this place is one, the OP could very well get punished for going to the CEO with this. Especially since the OP said nothing about this affecting work, she will look like a tattle-tale regardless.

        At most I would encourage the OP to keep an open dialogue with the NLs so they can feel comfortable coming to her if they want to end the friendship with the mgr.

      2. Just a Reader*

        This is all a bit extreme. There’s no evidence of any of this in the original post so it’s a big leap from inappropriate relationship to abuse. For all we know, the NLs enjoy this relationship because they have no fear of firing and get free stuff.

        As for “the appearance is terrible,” this is why I said “unless it begins to affect your organization’s reputation.”

  2. Jamie*

    “Besides your blog archives, is there a good resource out there for basic instructions on how office life works? Sort of a “here’s what to expect, professionalism 101″ kind of thing?”

    I think AAM blog archives are a crash course in Professionalism 101. I’m not being snarky – I think this is an excellent resource and I would direct them here. One of the main reasons is that it’s not written in management-speak so people unfamiliar to the working world can get an education on these matters without having to swallow a buzzword dictionary from B-school.

    1. Catherine*

      I agree that this is site a great source, but I’d hesitate to send them here simply because of this post. I’m guessing they wouldn’t have trouble figuring out that it’s about them … and if it gets back to the manager … ugh, I don’t want to think about how awkward that would be for the OP!

  3. Sophie*

    She’s buying them alcohol???? This woman is insane. I think I would try to get her fired. Probably not the best advice, but I’m an angry little person and I want her to get her come uppence.

    I would document EVERYTHING and perhaps see if you can bring some things to the CEO that would look like favoritism, or work not getting done, or things that affect the organization as a whole. I don’t see much hope for influencing the NLs’ behavior if you are not their direct supervisor. You said Crazy Lady is untouchable…there might be a chance to breach that if you can demonstrate that she is bad for business. However you run the risk of looking like a busy-body interfering with CEO’s bestie.

    So sorry, OP. Wish I could change things for you. Best of luck to you!

    1. Candice*

      Why? I don’t see how this situation directly affects the OP. Yes, it’s sad that these people aren’t receiving the guidance they were promised, but it’s not the OP’s battle to fight. I think getting involved would cause more problems than help.

      1. JohnQPublic*

        If the NLs are underage then Crazy Lady is subjecting herself, the company, and the possibly the poster to legal action. The poster has knowledge of a crime being committed (distribution of a controlled substance?), which in many places is illegal to not report. I’d be concerned at least, but I’m not sure what action to take either.
        I’d at the very least talk to HR and ask what if anything I should do.

        1. Jamie*

          I didnt see any indication of th NL’s being underage.

          I would agree that it’s a much more serious issue if that’s the case, but I can t imagine that the OP would have left out that important detail.

  4. Yuu*

    I think that its great that you want to help the NLs and mentor them. I agree that it is not your role to provide feedback on their boss or the way she operates, unless you are specifically asked (and even then, tread lightly), or if it is somehow impacting your work.

    I think if you truly want to help them grow their professionalism, turn your relationship into less of a friendship and more of a mentor ship. I know its tempting to want to find out how dysfunctional their boss is, but honestly, encouraging them to gossip with you about that isn’t particularly professional either. (And I really do understand! I have been in the position of gossiping and criticizing a co-worker, and then had to work under her later – and learned the hard way how that stuff can really end up getting you later!)

    Instead, tell them you see a lot of potential in them, and if they have any questions on how the business world acts or on growing their careers, etc, that you’d be happy to answer them.

  5. Jamie*

    “Once they opened up to me, I started hearing all these stories about how she regularly gives them money for food, takes them shopping for clothes, alcohol, even furniture! She is social with them, goes out to nightclubs with them (she’s in her 50s), and all kinds of crazy stuff.”

    Boundaries are clearly being crossed with the clubbing and alcohol.

    Even the other stuff isn’t part of a manager/report relationship. However, I can see in these unusual circumstances why she would have the impulse to help with food, clothing, and furniture.

    I can imagine that if one didn’t have proper food, clothes, or a bed to sleep in that it would be hard to focus on learning the nuances of a job. Isn’t that in Maslow’s hierarchy theory – if the basic needs aren’t met you don’t focus on higher level goals?

    I’m not in agreement with how she’s going about it – because you are absolutely right that it blurs the lines and it’s damaging to confuse them when it comes to learning how professional relationships work…but maybe there can be some other way to help them meet the basic needs.

    For food she could institute a gift card to a local grocery store program for the NLs, for clothing and furniture maybe a cooperative agreement (or gift cards) to local thrift shops. Even if she wanted to fund it personally, they wouldn’t know that and it would be available to all based on empiric qualifiers.

    But that she’s buying them booze and hitting the clubs with them? I’m not sure her motives would be served by my suggestions above because there is something she’s getting out of this for herself.

    1. Liz T*

      My impression is that at least some of these NLs are themselves wealthy, as one of them comes from a family that doesn’t work. Are some of their families friends with the CEO, too? I could be way off here, but that’s how I read it.

      1. Katie*

        I think you may have misread it. She said the organization works with “very disadvantaged communities” and that the NLs were hired from these communities. I highly doubt they are wealthy. The family probably doesn’t work because they have barriers to employment (little to no education, lack of transportation, childcare, etc.), not because they are wealthy.

  6. Jubilance*

    I agree with trying to serve as a mentor for them – having an example of professionalism & a resource to go to when they have questions will be very helpful. Also, maybe you can set up some “professional development” events & include them in them?

  7. ChristineH*

    Ooh this woman definitely has no boundaries. I can understand perhaps offering suggested resources so that the NLs can be learn to be self-sufficient (as best as possible), but her behavior definitely crosses the line. I’m in the social work field, and this screams ethics violation if she is a licensed social worker. Especially buying them ALCOHOL!!??

    I would say that, unless it directly affects your work, I wouldn’t touch this one. If you trust your own supervisor, maybe bring it up with him/her, especially if you are worried about the organization’s reputation (which I feel can have an effect on one’s career). Otherwise, continue to guide them as you’ve been doing…I think that’s about all you can do at this point.

    Alison – Good luck with the orthopedist…so sorry to hear the foot isn’t fully healed :(

    1. Susan*

      I don’t understand at all how you can say this looks like an ethics violation and then turn around and say don’t do anything about it.

      If this manager was a man, we would all be thinking that he was taking advantage of very vulnerable young women. The supervisor is a woman – women commit these same kind of crimes too. This woman is taking advantage of vulnerable people that the organization is supposed to help. Yes, it’s less likely that she’s exploiting them for sex favors, but she is certainly exploiting them for something. She is abusing her position as a supervisor in an extreme way and needs to be stopped – we shouldn’t be giving her a pass because of her gender. I doubt the young people would’ve mentioned it to the OP if they were happy with the arrangement.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        “I doubt the young people would’ve mentioned it to the OP if they were happy with the arrangement.”

        I’m not so sure. Re-reading the OP, to me it sounded more like once the NLs got to know her, they told her about the stuff going on. Obviously, I can’t speak for the NLs or anyone else from a disadvantaged neighborhood. What I do know from my inlaws who have received govt assistance is that the culture promoting getting something for nothing is prevalent in disadvantaged neighborhoods. My husband’s nieces talk about their life dream – to find a sugar daddy.

        My impression is that the NLs are trying to move past that lifestyle, not look for sugar daddies, but it may not seem unusual to NLs that the manager is giving them stuff for free. They aren’t familiar with a normal work environment, but they might be familiar with receiving charity donations. I remember this time when I worked on a Habitat for Humanity project and we brought some extra t-shirts and caps to the disadvantage neighborhood we were working in. People swarmed the box of stuff and it was gone in minutes, and it wasn’t even nice stuff.

      2. incognito*

        Maybe I’m naive, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the manager was only doing this for emotional fulfillment – perhaps she just needs to feel important or young again or whatever.

  8. Tater B.*

    This is a doozie. I think most of us have worked in settings that were less than professional or boundaries were absolutely crossed. One that comes to mind for me was my first job after college. EVERYONE (supervisors, managers and all) got together on Friday nights to get drunk–and some smoked weed as well. Considering we worked for a treatment facility (as in drugs and alcohol), I found it entirely inappropriate.

    Perhaps you could share anecdotal evidence of WHY that behavior won’t serve you well in the workplace. For me, I saw this firsthand when the higher-ups decided to do their jobs and enforce disciplinary procedures. The workers were “shocked” because they were all so buddy-buddy on Friday nights. This led to a lot of unnecessary situations, including fistfights!

  9. fposte*

    How young are they? Are they legal to drink? Because if they’re not, that’s where I’d definitely feel obliged to take action and tell the CEO.

    P.S. to Alison–what is up with that foot? Have you been kicking people? I hope you get some hopeful news on this.

    1. KellyK*

      Definitely. Once the line is crossed between inappropriate and illegal, you need to say something. It also becomes a point where it is your place to speak up because it can definitely affect the reputation of your organization.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Apparently the break I had was the worst possible break you can have to your foot (a lisfranc fracture) and you never get full functionality back (and it’s probably good that they didn’t tell me that last year when it first happened), but I still should be better than I am.

      My new orthopedist is being a lot more aggressive than my original one, so I’m hopeful. Although he did just give me an excruciating shot of cortisone right where the break was, and I now feel like there is icy poison coursing through my foot.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I’m sorry to hear your foot hasn’t healed as well as it should have. And I totally understand on the cortisone shot. I had my very first shot a few weeks ago – in the heel! I don’t know what was worse: the icy cold spray the doctor used to “numb” the injection site; the injection itself; or the pain I felt later that night, which was so much worse that the actual foot problem.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I should have known something was up when he asked before the shot if I wanted a nurse to hold my hand.

          I am counting the minutes until I can pick up my Vicodin prescription!

      2. ChristineH*

        Yeeeeouch!!! Never had a cortisone shot, but everyone I know who’s had one says they’re very painful. Feel better!

        1. Anonymous*

          For the uninitiated among us: can someone explain these shots? I’m rather squeamish and would rather not Google it right after lunch.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I might need to do a whole new foot post! It’s been a long time.

            But in my case, it’s a shot to break up scar tissue, and it may or may not work. But for some reason the shot itself and the day or two afterwards is excruciating. Just popped a Vicodin.

            1. Your Mileage May Vary*

              It’s because cortisone forms crystals for a few days after it’s injected and – as you can imagine – sharp, pokey things floating around a site that’s already sore is not fun. Then the crystals break up and start helping out the scar tissues/inflammation/pain. In some people, the crystallization process can be incredibly painful.

              Not a doctor but I’ve had a lot of cortisone in my day. Recovering from a nerve block today, as we speak (er, type). So if I have to be flat on my back today and if you have to have your foot up, Alison, let’s have a juicy post to comment on :)

  10. Jamie*

    “The NLs they hired are young and new to the professional setting, and one comes from an immediate family where no one has ever held a job before, so it’s a really exciting opportunity.”

    This stands out to me. I wonder how much of an edge having professional parents gives you, and how much that’s taken for granted.

    Not that there is anything that can’t be learned…but I wonder how much value there is in growing up with the snippets of conversation about work that you really don’t understand and just growing up in the atmosphere where there are certain professional expectations.

    I remember going to work with my dad when I was about 7 and thinking it was so silly that people treated him so weird. He worked at a very large company and for a brief time my sister worked there in another department as the admin. The other admins would whisper “suit” when any of the “big dogs” were around and everyone would look super busy. She told me how nervous she was the first time this happened, then she turned around and it was no suit – it was daddy there to take her to lunch.

    Not that it prepares you for any particular career in a meaningful way – it doesn’t…but this made me wonder how much of an advantage this is.

    Does anyone know of a reputable study on the professional success of children based on parent’s achievement and occupation?

    1. AnotherAlison*

      My impression wasn’t that the NL’s parents never had ANY job, not only professional jobs.

      My dad is a truck driver and my mom has an accounting job, but same job for 25 yrs/no 4-yr degree. I have other professionals in my family (aunts, uncles, grandparents), so I wasn’t completely uninformed, but good grief, YES, it’s a HUGE advantage for kids growing up with professional parents.

      DH’s family ranges from welfare class to working class, and my SIL (waitress) thinks her daughter with an LPN is a huge deal — like professional IT people might think if their kid got a job at Google. SIL can teach her kids how to navigate govt assistance, but that’s about all. Forget how to apply to school, jobs, for loans, how to buy a car, etc. We really have no concept what it’s like on that side of things. . .

      1. Bowman*

        I totally agree that growing up with adults in the professional world – but in regards of knowing what’s right, but also what’s not right.

        Having someone buy you stuff is great. Having someone buy you stuff that you can’t really afford on your own, is really great. But it’s not always appropriate to have someone buy you something – and to know what a boss buying is/isn’t important isn’t necessarily obvious. There are times when it’s appropriate (a holiday gift, a meal, etc.) – and there are times when it’s not.

      2. Natalie*

        I’ve noticed this with people who come from families where nearly everyone has a service industry job.

        Speaking extremely generally (I’m certain their are exceptions), my experience with the service industry is that they don’t treat their employees like responsible, autonomous adults and don’t typically hold high expectations. Everything is more rigid (what time you take breaks, what you wear, etc) and it requires less discernment to correctly follow the rules.

        That is obviously not to say that service industry workers are somehow in- or less capable of discernment, but if that’s your primary experience that’s probably how you’ll come to expect all jobs to function. If you don’t use a muscle, it atrophies, and so forth.

        In an earlier time, factories were similarly rigid and inflexible – in fact, this was the whole reason the assembly line was successful. Anyone could be plugged into the system with minimal education or training. My partner’s family are all Flint autoworkers, and their understanding of “how to do a job” is very different from his or mine, as most of our experience is academic or professional.

    2. Ivy*

      I think this can play a BIG role. In my family (all professionals) going to university was not an option. Growing up, I never once considered not going to university (in fact, my family generally follows the doctor, lawyer, engineer rule). The expectations are set higher. I know some families are ecstatic that their child was the first in the family to get a high school diploma (to me and my family it was like meh). There’s nothing wrong with that, but it just shows you how your upbringing can affect you’re perspective.

      I also think it can be a lot harder for someone to come from a working class family into the professional world because there are different standards of behavior. When I entered the work force, I noticed a few coworkers mention a person was “rough around the edges.” What makes someone “rough around the edges”? I honestly think it has a lot to do with their environment growing up. Growing up in a professional family, I intuitively know how to behave and what is appropriate to say. I think the “rough around the edges” label is something they may have to live with for a long time, and it will hold them back. They might not even be able to overcome it, and it may be their children who do.

      ** I’m not saying everyone who is from a working class family is like this. Just that people from professional families have an advantage.

      1. Tater B.*


        My mother was a college professor and my dad worked for the government. So, there were some things I just knew when I entered the working world. Even now, I don’t mind sharing those “common sense” things with friends who may not have had my background. For some people, they really DON’T know or understand.

          1. Jamie*

            I think this post is a perfect example of one of them.

            If I had come home and shown my parents the new sweater or furniture my boss bought me they would have driven the point home immediately how creepy and unprofessional that is.

            Going clubbing with a boss twice my age? Yeah, pretty sure my father would have helicoptered right over there to quit for me if I hadn’t done it myself.

            Not to mention being incredulous with me if I didn’t see the red flags for myself.

            That is kind of where the chasm is, I think. Certainly no one ever mentioned growing up to not accept sweaters or bottles of vodka from my boss…but I’d have known it was wrong.

            1. some1*

              I see your point, Jamie. I grew up in a white collar family and went to parochial schools, and a lot of my social circle are friends from my school days, and they came from white collar families as well. That being said, knowing something is shady (like accepting expensive gifts from a boss) is different than acting accordingly. I know plenty of people who have means would let someone by them expensive things. Some people are just greedy, and I don’t think we can assume the NLs don’t know this could be seen as unethical or inappropriate.

      2. AnotherAlison*

        Your comment about high school is so true. When DH finished high school, everyone was ecstatic. He barely passed. I graduated first in my class, and my family was still like, “Oh, that’s nice.”

        My son’s high school has a program for kids from those types of backgrounds. It’s for “average” kids who have the academic capability to go to college and aren’t in any trouble, but without the program probably wouldn’t go to college. They just don’t know about the steps to take to get the right classes & admissions exams, and their families might not even know about financial aid. My SIL doesn’t have a checking account. Do you think she’s going to be all over the FAFSA?

        1. Anonymous*

          I honestly don’t understand how people get by without a checking account. Even if they were poor, unemployed, and on government assistance, would it not be useful to have an account to deposit their money? I know banks have fees, but there are some accounts that are essentially free with a reasonably low balance, and in any case, the fees are much less than what the “check cashing” places would charge.

          1. Lexy*

            Banks will often not allow people with bad credit to open a checking account. I’m assuming that is the reason many poor families do not have checking accounts.

            1. Anonymous*

              Oh wow. I didn’t realize that you needed good credit, but I suppose that makes sense when people can write checks against their accounts.

              1. Lexy*

                I don’t think it necessarily needs to be GOOD, but there is a lower level below which they will reject.

          2. Lexy*

            Also, I am ashamed to admit that I dated a REAL LOSER in my early 20s who owed A LOT of back taxes. His bank accounts were liened, so he cashed his (under the table) paychecks at the 7-11.

            *sigh* *shame*

            1. Anonymous*

              I can’t even imagine owing so much in TAXES of all things when you’re a broke twenty-something!

          3. Natalie*

            Others have mentioned some of the issues, but I’ll add on a couple more:

            Banks have historically avoided putting branches in poor and/or minority neighborhoods. The Community Reinvestment Act of the 90s attempted to remedy that, but I could easily imagine families ending up with a tradition of not using banks.

            There is also a somewhat necessary short-term thinking that comes along with being poor. Bank fees, for example, are assessed every month whether or not you’re using the account and are completely inflexible. When you’re poor, you’re margins are lower and it’s really dangerous to commit to extra expenses. Next month, you might have your hours cut back or suddenly need new shoes because your only paid has finally died. You will be better off if you have the flexibility of not paying the fee (by asking to be paid in cash, for example, or having a friend cash your paycheck on her account).

        2. moss*

          my son is in such a program and so far it’s working out really well. He’s the first one to go to college on his dad’s side and although I have a Master’s I think that this program will help him not follow in his dad’s (drug dealing) footsteps.

          it’s helping him ease into college and he has to take college readiness classes, etc. If things go right he will graduate high school with an associate’s degree. I am so happy I found this program.

    3. Jo*

      I was the first in my family to get a degree and a white collar job. I will second the theory that it’s an advantage for those with professional parents. I would be seen as “rough around the edges” and there were a lot of things early in my career that I didn’t know about working in an office and I had no one in my private life to guide me. It’s a really intimidating environment to go into when all you know is food service & manual labour.

    4. some1*

      Actually, I have seen the opposite, but it has more to do with the salary than her parents’ actual occupations. I used to work with a woman in her mid to late 20’s, and her parents were both executives. Because her parents were supporting her financially, she was extremely casual about her job. She told me personally that she didn’t care if she lost her job.

  11. Heather*

    I’m going to pick on something that is not really relevant to the problem but what difference does it make how old the boss is? Would it be not as bad if she was their boss and she was in her thirties?

    1. Jamie*

      I think that makes the clubbing thing even weirder. And being in her 50’s she’s definitely old enough to know better and she can’t excuse it by being a young novice herself.

      OP states that the NLs are young – you don’t see a whole lot inter generational clubbing.

      1. Susan*

        Sure you do. At strip clubs and at clubs where drugs are sold. Not at places where you try to socialize, though.

        That might be exploitation angle, actually – she could be using them to supply her with drugs.

        1. Anonymous*

          I know the boss is being weird, but let’s not jump the gun and speculate that she’s secretly a drug addict…

        2. Hilary*

          Sorry, but this theory seems a bit extreme to me…I think it’s much more likely she’s an older lady who still wants to be seen as “fun” and “cool” and is trying to buy her way into friendships with younger people.

          1. Job Seeker*

            I agree with you. I am a middle-age lady that does have friendships with people of all ages. I do realize however, someone my 24 year old sons age and I would not be clubbing together. I do not club anyway. There is a lot to be said for trying too hard. Personally, I feel sorry for this supervisor. You can not buy acceptance or friendship.
            P.S. I really hope you get some relief for your foot Alison.

  12. Ivy*

    It’s pretty hard to teach someone professionalism (especially when you’re not their boss and have little direct involvement with them). I think it’s good to remember that these young adults aren’t the only ones of their kind. There are plenty of new people in the work force running around without a sliver of professionalism. They will make mistakes and hopefully learn from them.

    While the NL’s supervisor might not be the best boss to have in their first foray into the working world, she also won’t spell the end of their careers. So, OP, don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Be a good role model, maybe offer to mentor a few of them, but at the end of the day it’s not your responsibility to make these young people’s careers. Trust me, they’re not the only young adults that are struggling with professionalism.

    I agree with sending them to AAM though. The main problem is that the NLs genuinely do not understand that their behavior is inappropriate in the work place. Coming here, seeing the questions that are asked, the answer that are given, and people’s responses will give them a little perspective. Maybe a “oh.. it’s not appropriate to i.e., make sexual innuendos in the office.” (I think that came from a commentor’s story a little while ago).

  13. lindsay*

    Depending on where you’re located, you could try connecting them to a Young Nonprofit Professionals Network ( They’re good resources for professional development, especially within the nonprofit sector. Additionally, it could be a good opportunity for the new hires to network with people at the same stage of their career as them, and to see that their manager’s behavior is totally a-typical. Some YNPN chapters plan events and activities around diversity (age, ethnicity, gender, any kind) and that could be a good opportunity for them to see peers in similar situations.

    What about college career centers? If not a direct contact to one, perhaps there are resources available on a website that address professionalism 101.

    1. Natalie*

      Lots of fields that have historically been white and/or male have a National Association of [Race/Gender] [Profession] groups that may have local meetups or mentoring programs. That might be a good resource for the NLs.

  14. Sparky629*

    I think the crazed manager is the catalyst for a wonderful opportunity for your organization to teach professionalism to the NLs.
    There could be weekly/monthly professional development seminars on professional dress, meal etiquette, appropriate behavior, etc.

    That way, you aren’t singling out 1 person for inappropriate behavior but giving the NLs the tools to be professional throughout their careers.
    It might also go a long way in making your organization/staff approachable by the NLs.

    1. some1*

      If I had been forced to attend a seminar on “meal etiquette” at any job I would have felt like 4-yr-old.

      1. Sparky629*

        I think if you have been in the work force for awhile, meal etiquette for business professionals would be treating you like a child.
        But for someone, who may have come from an environment where proper meal behavior (elbows off the table, which fork to use, not reaching over someone else’s plate) may not have been encouraged/known then this seminar would go a long way to prepare them for professional life.

        1. some1*

          I know you mean this helpfully, but it’s kind of condescending to assume people don’t know basic table manners. Every example you listed were my mom’s table rules as soon as I stopped sitting in a high chair; I wouldn’t qualify any of them as being specific to a business setting.

          1. some2*

            I come from a professional family, but was taught very casual dinner practices. This would help me and I would not be insulted by it if framed the right way.

        2. The Snarky B*

          I know I’m super late to the party here, but I also have to take issue with this comment. I’m sure it was somewhat automatic, but the word “proper,” as used here, is pretty inappropriate. It reinforces a hierarchy that is totally unnecessary. The manners that you’re describing are “standard” or the “norm” or “general business practice,” but we use them because everyone else does and someone decided that they are right, not because they are inherently better than any other habits.

      2. Josh S*

        Yeah, I agree with you. But that’s because I was raised in a home where we sat at the table to eat (most of the time, anyway).

        There are a great many families who don’t even eat at the same time, let alone at a kitchen table. There’s one high school near me that serves poor kids from a highly minority neighborhood. They have a great internship program–through all 4 years of high school–that gives the kids an introduction into the professional world.

        But before they set foot on the job site, they get a crash course in everything from personal hygiene to office etiquette. Most of them come from immigrant and/or blue collar families, and while they are within sight of the Sears Tower, many of them have never stepped foot on an elevator and don’t have a clue.

        For some groups, you really *do* have to go back to the basics. And there’s nothing condescending or patronizing about it–it’s just meeting people where they’re at.

        So to your point, if you or I were forced to attend such a seminar, it would be rather outrageous and belittling. But for many people, it’s a blessing.

        1. some1*

          I agree that not everyone comes from a childhood that taught table manners. But to assume that someone didn’t because there background is blue collar or immigrant or whatever and they need instruction on how to eat in front of people is condescending.

          It’s one thing to offer an optional seminar on table manners; it’s another to assume someone needs it so you make it mandatory if someone grew up in a certain zip code.

          1. Sparky629*

            I agree that not everyone comes from a childhood that taught table manners. But to assume that someone didn’t because there background is blue collar or immigrant or whatever and they need instruction on how to eat in front of people is condescending.

            But in this particular case, the OP knows exactly where these kids come from and has a general idea of their home life so this would be totally appropriate.

            I’m not saying that we need to force everyone in the age range of 18-25 whose parents made below a certain income to have meal etiquette at their new job. That would be condescending and patronizing.

            Also, why do you assume that the seminar has to be mandatory?

            I just stated that a way to turn this around to benefit the NLs would be to offer a professional development seminars to young adults who may not have any idea about the business world.

          2. LK*

            I agree with some1. I teach career development in an alternative high school where the students, from the description given in the letter, have backgrounds that closely match the NLs’. 95% of my students have better lunchtime manners and are more respectful to authority figures than most of their regular-school peers.

            It’s presumptuous & unhelpful to generalize that certain professional behaviors, like meal etiquette & office dress, are automatically lacking in certain socio-economic groups.

          3. Just a Reader*

            I think it should be mandatory for all entry-level people. There are rules for business meals, like not ordering sloppy food and not ordering crazy expensive items, going light on the alcohol, etc. that many entry-level people aren’t aware of regardless of their background.

            1. Jamie*

              I agree. And I know a few people who don’t know that you use the silverware from the outside in. It can boost confidence to take the guesswork out of the little stuff.

            2. Natalie*

              And if the OP offers “business-specific” meal etiquette, it’s easy to also provide other meal etiquette if it turns out it’s lacking, and completely ignore it if not lacking.

              1. Just a Reader*

                Exactly. In my management career, I’ve been horrified by more than one new hire by an utter lack of dinner etiquette–including dress appropriate for the restaurant.

        2. fposte*

          I’m with some1 on this being a fairly democratic issue–I’ve talked to colleagues about the possibility of teaching grad students a variety of traditional etiquette rules under the banner of “professional etiquette.” I think it’s been a while since family dinners have been the norm for anybody in the U.S.

          I also think it’s less judgmental if you approach it as a language to be learned, as opposed to intimating that this is the way you should have been doing things all along, you ruffian. Just about everybody is familiar with the notion of situational behavior, and this is just equipping people with guidance for behavior in these situations.

      3. Jamie*

        I don’t know – we just had a post about ordering alcoholic beverages in a job interview. The kind of meal etiquette surrounding work and work events (including not stinking up the place if you eat at your desk) can be really beneficial.

    2. Stephanie*

      I agree with Sparky629, even though some of you are pooh-poohing the idea. PLENTY of internships include things like this as a “bonus” for the interns. Also, my undergraduate institution actually have a manners person come in every semester and host a fake business dinner, where she taught appropriate conversation, different eating styles, what to wear, etc. It was popular and came with pretty good food, which helped.

      I have volunteered with first-generation college applicants, and it is always startling to me how little they know about “professional” life past high school. But they ask good questions, and it would be great for the LW and others in the organization to simply provide the NLs with an opportunity to ask real mentors.

  15. mozandeffect*

    Oh dear. This sounds like one of my old bosses. One of the weirdest things she did was taking us team leaders out for “coffee outings” during business hours, which I found very uncomfortable. She eventually got heat from the higher-ups when it was found out that she wasn’t effective at managing and was forced out. (The weird coffee outings or anything else social was never addressed.) Good managers get to know their employees but also know their boundaries with them.

    Talking to the manager herself probably won’t help, because she likely doesn’t think any of what she is doing is wrong. I’m guessing she works on these work “friendships” because of lack of self-esteem or other personal issues.

    I like the idea others have mentioned of mentoring them, in another way if possible. If they have been coming to you to complain about their manager, then you’ve got a captive audience who will listen, if they’re eager to become “professional”, if given the chance to do so.

    You will not get anywhere with the CEO if she’ s best friends with the horrible manger, even with your best intentions. Once a subordinate is in manager’s back pocket, practically nothing you say or do will be viewed remotely constructive if you are viewed as badmouthing either of them.

    1. some1*

      I can’t speak to THIS manager’s motives for what she is doing, but there was a supervisor I used to work with who crossed MANY professional boundaries including attempting to befriend all the 20-something women in the office (she was in her late 40’s). My co-worker pointed out that in my old mgr’s case, a good part of the reason is she actually wanted to BE 20, and hanging around all younger people made her feel younger (apparently).

    2. ES*

      I don’t find “coffee outings” by themselves to be odd. I have been on a number of teams where this has been the norm. Granted, I don’t know the frequency (ours were monthly), who was paying (we usually paid for ourselves, but on occasion the boss treated us if it was around a holiday or we’d just accomplished something big), the workplace culture, etc. But for us it was a nice way to bond as a team, especially since many of our jobs were a bit isolated.

      I can see how it would be weird if it was every day or if the boss was using a company credit card to pay for it.

      1. mozandeffect*

        I probably should have clarified the coffee outings. One of my coworkers was getting married and took over the conversation, so I was forced to hear about all of the planning details. While I appreciate that maybe my boss wanted to be empathetic and hear this particular employee out on the big milestone in her life (or maybe she was being nosy / wanted to live vicariously through this bride), I’m not really sure why she thought all of us should be subjected to it.

        Also, call me weird, but I don’t drink coffee and I was made fun of repeatedly when I ordered hot chocolate or juice. So I didn’t find these coffee breaks pleasurable, let alone productive or team building.

        1. ES*

          Yeah, sounds dysfunctional! We were good about letting everyone have a chance to talk, and no one cared what we drank (or if we bought anything at all – I had one coworker who rarely bought something, another who only got bottled juice, and I always stuck to iced tea).

        2. some1*

          I agree, it’s not the activity itself, it’s the feeling of forced socialization with your co-workers to participate in something outside of work that the boss chose.

  16. Kristi*

    I’m disappointed so many are saying its not the OP’s problem and steer clear. Did Penn St teach us nothing? Granted I’m sure this situation is not identical to that but I do see a similar risk involved. LIABILITY.

    While most of the manager’s behavior may be in more of a gray area of not recommended, the moment alcohol was mentioned the situation changed. That would be my lead when bringing this up to the Board of Directors, HR, CEO and the risk the manager has placed the non-profit it. Any accident/behavior/incident that happens as a result of these NL (or manager) drinking opens the non-profit up to a huge risk. Once I explained my concern about the alcohol and liability, I could then mention the other inappropriate behavior. Perhaps inquire if this well-established non-profit has a current employee policy manual and what does it say about this kind of behavior? If the CEO is aware of all of this and still did nothing, that’s additional liability risk right there. Again, I think we can come back to how that worked out for Penn St. Again I’m not saying the situation is identical but the LIABILITY for this non-profit is. And I think the OP could use that as an appropriate reason for bringing this up, rather than steering clear, and helping bring the NL back on track of professional behavior.

    The OP has to do (or not do) what she feels is appropriate, and I’m glad the NL have her watching out for them. (Perhaps I can recommend starting up a book club with a focus on recent grads/ new to the workforce?!)

    1. Susan*

      Here here!

      Although I would’ve been worried the moment substantial amounts of money entered into the equation. Furniture, clothes, and alcohol aren’t cheap. Given their low-level position,. they could be getting nearly as much as their yearly salary in gift money from this woman – which means that she is paying them for something. That something may be hard to pin down. It may, ultimately, even be harmless (buying friendship) though I am skeptical about that. Whatever it is, it will make the organization look bad if it comes to light. It will also make other workers in similar jobs expect the same treatment, which will corrode the work environment.

    2. fposte*

      I don’t know. I’m a little concerned that we’ve gone from the OP’s post to treating people who are probably adults as if they were children. Adult people go out drinking and clubbing with adult co-workers sometimes. That’s generally not considered a liability issue.

      As I said, if they are underage, this needs to get shut down immediately; I think it’s likelier that they’re of age, however, in which case I see the issue as being right where the OP put it–one of professionalism.

      1. Jamie*

        Exactly – I really think if they were underage the OP would have mentioned it since that moves this into the criminal realm.

    3. Kimmie Sue*

      I completely agree. I’m not saying that its at Penn State level, but with the inclusion of alcohol….I see huge risk. The OP needs to say something, perhaps to the CEO and another Board Member together?

  17. some1*

    I fail to see any kind connection with Penn State. The coaches at Penn State saw illegal actions with their own eyes and did nothing, when it’s my understanding that coaches have the legal responsibility to report this. The OP has heard about ethics violations that aren’t against the law (unless the NLs aren’t of drinking age, and if they are, waaaay less serious a crime than child rape). She hasn’t seen the mgr purchase anything for them personally. What if she goes to the CEO to report this and the NLs deny everything?

  18. Sarah*

    I wouldn’t assume that the gifts are necessary payment for something or a form of exploitation or a means to get a drug connection. Let’s say you work at a non-profit that serves a particular group and you have dedicated your career to serving these people. Suddenly, these people go from clients to co-workers, and now the member of the group you serve are your colleagues (think immigrants, single mothers, people with disabilities, etc.). Any philanthropic notions that led you to a career in this field may also lead you to wanting to help these specific individuals that you’ve come to know. It doesn’t justify the extent of her behavior but it’s worth thinking about whether she is simply trying to help them but doing so in extravagant ways. I

  19. Josh S*

    Only one person seems to mention this option, and only in passing, and I think it’s the way to go (or at least to start).

    Talk directly to the Crazy Manager. Let her know that her actions are being seen as unprofessional, that they are reflecting poorly on the organization, and that she may be doing a disservice to the NLs in the process by hurting their understanding of what professional conduct is. You could say something like, “Sue, I just heard from one of the NLs that you’ve been buying food and furniture, and going to clubs with them. Is that true? I know you like to be friendly, and you’ve clearly established some great relationships with them. But it may not be helping them understand professional norms, and in the context of being their boss, it’s pretty inappropriate. If there’s a concern with that, or if they need something to function in the job, let’s talk about how the organization can supply it, rather than putting all the burden on you, OK?”

    This doesn’t come across as particularly accusatory, let’s Crazy Manager know that people are noticing (she might think she’s covered it up), and says pretty plainly that her actions are inappropriate, while giving her an ‘out’ at the same time.

    Her response will dictate the next steps, which could be anything from telling the CEO to doing nothing and letting things be (despite the damage to the organization).

    1. Just a Reader*

      I just don’t think this is appropriate given that the LW has nothing to do with the NLs or the crazy manager, and it doesn’t sound like she and the manager are peers (LW is junior). It’s very much a MYOB situation. I can’t imagine a junior-level person approaching a manager for this type of talk, especially when there’s no direct working relationship.

      1. Jamie*

        I was just typing the same thing. If they are peers, that’s one thing – but it’s not a conversation I would have (or the tone) with someone who was above me on the org chart.

        1. Josh S*

          Oh, I read it as though they were peers, just in different departments. I agree with you–if it’s someone higher on the org chart it’s a non-starter.

  20. Yup*

    Personally, I think the best thing you could do for them is continue to demonstrate professional behavior, and reach out them as a potential resource. Since you do know them a bit, it wouldn’t be so odd to offer, ‘Would you be interested in learning more about XYZ area of the organization?’ Then you can feel free to invite them to sit in on meetings you lead etc. And you can be deliberate about showing the thought process behind the actions, like “So now I’m going to start preparing my notes, so I’ll be ready for this status meeting with my boss, which I schedule once a month.” Depending on how open they are to your positive influence, you could eventually offer to help with self-evaluation and career planning stuff. Such as, “I noticed you did a great job with that report. Be sure you mention the client feedback to your boss! I just read a great article about this at Good Website…” I get where you’re coming from with wanting to warn them about their boss, but they might grow more productively by observing the differences for themselves.

  21. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Here are my thoughts on this, although be warned that I’m totally addled by Vicodin right now.

    I suspect the manager isn’t engaging in really nefarious behavior with the NLs (drug dealing, sexual inappropriateness, or the other stuff that’s been mentioned). My hunch is that she’s just completely unconcerned about professional boundaries. The buying is misplaced altruism, and the clubbing, drinking, etc. is — I would bet — lack of friends in her personal life. It has those hallmarks to me.

    In any case, I wonder if the OP can suggest that his office do some training in professionalism for all staff new to the workforce. It sounds like it would be appropriate for the work they do, and he wouldn’t need to address the problem manager about it — it could be a suggestion to whoever you’d normally make that suggestion to.

    I also really love the suggestions to mentor the NLs himself, especially Yup’s suggestions above about explaining how and why he’s doing certain things in the course of his job and office life.

  22. LovelyLibrarian*

    I read an article once (forgive me, I cannot find it now despite googling like crazy) about an educator teaching kids the S.L.A.N.T. techniques for active listening in class. There is some variety in the acronym, but basically S.L.A.N.T. is “Sit up. Lean forward. Ask questions. Nod. Talk to teachers.” It’s nothing to do with the *content* of the lecture, for example, but more about the behaviors an active learner engages in.

    The teacher found that students who had grown up in a home with parents with higher education already came “equipped” with these techniques – probably just picked up subconsciously from being in that environment. Other students didn’t know how to be active listeners and fidgeted, didn’t look at the board or the speaker, and had other non “active” learning behaviors.

    I thought it was an interesting discussion about the “meta” aspects of education and growing up – that children from certain environments picked up skills at home that helped them throughout their educational career. The teacher’s point was that, once recognized, these skills could be objectively taught to *all* students to bring everyone to the same skill level together.

    Here’s a brief link on S.L.A.N.T. If I can find the original article I’ll post it!

    1. LovelyLibrarian*

      In case it isn’t obvious: the connection between S.L.A.N.T. and this question is that there are certain social skills (and professionalism is certainly a social skill of a kind) that can be taught. I think it’s highly valuable to take young or new professionals aside – regardless of their background – and teach them concrete skills that will help them throughout their career.

  23. David Lowe*

    One potential reference for the first question can be the Career Tools Podcast from Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne of Manager Tools. The podcasts are free and very informative. I have cut-and-paste the description from the website for everyone’s convenience.

    Career Tools gives you the tools you need to accelerate your career, whether a manager or not. Career Tools follows Manager Tools’ lead in giving practical, actionable guidance which you can implement today. Career Tools won the best Business Podcast at the 2010 Podcast Awards. You can find all the Career Tools podcasts here:

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