Sunday night question queue

It’s the Sunday night question queue — seven short answers to seven short questions. Today, you’re don’t want to work under a new boss, your coworker won’t stop sneezing, you’ve been told you have a loud personality, and more. Here we go…

1. Talking about ideal work environment in an interview

I had an interview yesterday for a marketing position. I met with the hiring manager and then the communications director for the program. Both asked a variation on the question “what is your work style and/or ideal work environment?” which is a question I wasn’t at all prepared for or sure how to answer. Obviously there is no “right” answer, but could you provide some insight into what interviewers are looking for with this type of question?

They’re really looking for the truth. Maybe you like working in relative solitude, or prefer a lot of interaction with colleagues. Maybe you once worked in a very structured, hierarchical workplace and know that you want to avoid that in the future. Maybe you’d go crazy in a formal culture, or with an overly hands-off boss, or in a large company where it’s harder to have input. There are all kinds of possibilities — but the idea is to talk about what would and wouldn’t be a fit for you, so that you don’t end up somewhere that makes you miserable.

2. Explaining relationship-related moves

In June 2011, I left a great job (my first professional job after college) to move to another town with my boyfriend and continue our long-term serious relationship. At the time, it seemed like a great decision, of course! Hindsight is 20/20. Even though the economy in our new town was really tough, I found another job several months later (lower level position, same industry) Almost exactly a year after we moved, we broke up. Because of the fact that my current company was in the red and possibly going under by the end of the year, and that the economy in this town was terrible, I decided to move again and am now in a different larger city close to family.

I want to stay in my current city and my next job (if it’s a good fit) for the long term future, which I feel is a great selling point in an interview, but am worried that my past mistakes will have the interviewers thinking I am immature or flighty. Or just like changing jobs every year. Which I don’t. Since the reason I left my first job had nothing to do with my position or the company, does it sound better to say the truth (I left to continue a relationship which now no longer exists)? I’m not sure what the best way to frame my response is that doesn’t get too personal, doesn’t ramble, and leaves me with room to add that I am ready to focus on my career. If I just say I left for personal reasons, what do I say if they press me for more explanation?

I’d stick with saying that you moved for personal reasons but returned to be closer to your family, and that you plan to stay here long-term. No reasonable interviewer will push you to explain what those personal reasons were, but if someone does, it’s fine to either say “My boyfriend and I moved there together” (no need to update them on the status of the relationship, which is irrelevant) or “It was family-related” (if you consider your significant other family, which many people do).

3. Facilitator said I have a loud personality

I had 2 days in an internship bootcamp. The facilitator commented on me as a loud personality. What does that mean? Is it harmful or good?

It usually means that you’re loud, very outgoing, and/or talk a lot. Most people don’t consider it a compliment, but it depends on the context.

By the way, when someone says something like this and you’re not sure how to take it, it’s totally legitimate to ask, “What do you mean by that?”

4. Sneezing coworker

There is an employee (same pay grade and responsibility) who sits across from me and who has an extremely loud, piercing, and frequent sneeze. I know I’m not the only one who thinks it’s disrupting; my other coworkers exchange glances every time he sneezes. Is there a delicate way to encourage him to address his allergies (he admits as such) without embarrassing any of the parties? I’d be willing to give him MY OTC medication, except I don’t think that’s appropriate in the workplace. I know it’s a minor issue, but it’s the small things that can be annoying.

Well, since he’s mentioned having allergies, you could certainly offer him some of your medication if you wanted to (nothing inherently inappropriate about that, no more than offering an Advil to a coworker with a headache), or tell him that you’ve found it effective. But beyond that, there aren’t really many options … although I agree that random loud, piercing sneezes would be distracting.

5. My questions in a phone interview sucked

I just semi-bombed a phone interview and I’m wondering if I can salvage it. I had applied for an administrative role at a company that I would really love to work for. The recruiter called and she wanted to see if I was a fit for a much higher level position. Being that my background is straight-up administrative, this threw me for a loop and a half. Basically, none of the questions I had prepared applied to this other role and I had to break out some really generic ones. I think I did a decent job of conveying that I’m really interested in the role, but other than that…I sucked. At the end of he call, she mentioned she was doing a number of other calls and she set me up with a tentative interview time. Can I fix this or should I just hope they decide to interview me in person and that’s my do-over?

I’m always surprised when people have trouble coming up with questions to ask about a job, and I think it’s because they often think that their questions are primarily supposed to impress the interviewer. But to the contrary, you should ask questions because you presumably have questions that you’d like answered … and those are ones to ask. In this case, the fact that you were taken off guard by the position could have led to even more questions than usual, since you hadn’t had a chance to learn much about the position yet and presumably had plenty that you’d like to know about it.

I wouldn’t worry about trying to “fix” it now (and I wouldn’t assume there’s even anything that needs fixing), but if you do talk again, just ask about what you’re sincerely wondering about when you imagine doing the job.

6. Wary about reporting to new boss

I’ve had a very successful 16-year career at my company and been steadily promoted through the ranks over the years, and am now a department director. Over the last couple of years, we’ve had some management changes at the top level (unrelated to me) and, as a result, I ended up reporting directly to the CEO for two years. I loved it and he was wonderful. But he retired, and we got a new CEO. We get along fine, but now he has decided to bring back the long-vacant VP position over me and two other departments. The person has been hired and starts next week.

I like the person who was chosen, but I’m struggling with my emotions now — I feel that I won’t be promoted to VP now, at least for years; I’m going to lose the autonomy I have worked so hard for over the years; and am probably going to be moving from a nice window office to a small, interior space to be nearer to new boss. I know that last one sounds trivial, but it’s a physical symbol of being, in effect, demoted. I feel a bit humiliated. How can I deal with my new boss fairly and be a good employee to him in this environment? Do you think I should just find another job and leave?

Go into it with an open mind and see how it goes. Whether or not it’s humiliating is really up to you and the attitude you decide to have about it. If you decide it’s insulting and humiliating, it will be, and your work and your relationship with your new boss will probably suffer. If you decide that it’s not humiliating and that while you enjoyed temporarily reporting the CEO, things change and you’re someone who can roll with that, then you’ll probably be fine. I’d aim for the latter and give it some time before you think about leaving.

7. Telling an employer you’re willing to negotiate salary

I had a second interview for a position I really want yesterday. I had done my research on salary and came up with what I felt was a reasonable range. When the interviewer asked me about salary, I mentioned the range but now I’m afraid I may have asked for too high. In my thank you letter, should I mention that I am willing to negotiate on salary or no?

No. You’ll undercut yourself for any future negotiations and also make yourself look less confident in your worth than you looked yesterday. Besides, they assume that you’re probably willing to negotiate on salary, unless you’re in wildly different ballparks (in which case saying you’re willing to negotiate won’t solve that anyway).

{ 65 comments… read them below }

        1. fposte*

          It’s hard to tell without more information, but wouldn’t you be finding out normally by close to that time anyway?

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, we don’t have enough information here to have any idea of whether you’re being considered. I wouldn’t ask in your follow-up; presumably they’ll let you know once they’ve made decisions.

  1. Anon*

    Re #6 – I hadn’t realized how petty I am until reading that, because I was reading the letter saying “Oh, well, that’s annoying but it doesn’t sound so bad – they’re taking away the window office???? Dealbreaker!”

    Personally, I might make a bid to keep it; if the new boss can’t articulate a reason why a senior employee needs to be sitting directly next to her or doesn’t understand why one’s workspace is important, that’d probably be when I’d start looking.

    1. class factotum*

      I’m petty, too. I had a window office in the HQ building until my boss let another department take our office space. My eight co-workers and I had to move to cubicles in a windowless, converted warehouse 13 miles away where we were warned not to walk to our cars alone after dark and where armed carjackings were common in the neighborhood.

      It was very demoralizing not to have an office any more and even more demoralizing to realize we had either a powerless or a spineless boss who wouldn’t stand up for his people.

      I got a new job a few months ago after six years of unemployment. My new job required more qualifications than my old job, but I am also in a cubicle now. I am trying to remind myself that there are people who are in danger of losing their homes and I am lucky to have a job at all, but I really, really hate being in a cubicle.

      My new job also does not come with a phone with caller ID. Some people do get caller ID, but not people at my level. I guess I just haven’t earned it.

      Yes, I am super petty.

      1. ChristineH*

        Wow, now I don’t feel so bad about my 4+ years of unemployment!

        I too can understand feeling demoralized…glad to see you keeping it in stride though, that’s not easy.

      2. Josh S*

        Moved to a work place where armed carjackings in/near the parking lot are common, and you’re upset about it?

        That’s not being petty. That’s concern for your life.

        The cubicle thing could go either way. I’ve been a cubicle monkey many times (though sometimes with a good view), and it doesn’t really bug me, so long as the fluorescent lighting isn’t entirely overpowering. But then again, I’ve never had a corner office, so YMMV.

    2. KellyK*

      I don’t think being demoralized by losing a window office is petty at all. Offices are a status symbol, and having a window can be a huge positive. (I recently got moved to an office with a window, and I can’t even express how much I enjoy little things like natural light and not being surprised by the weather when I walk out of the building.)

      Getting moved to an office that’s less nice than your current one is definitely demoralizing, particularly if there’s not a logistics-based reason for the move. For example, I wasn’t thrilled when I had to move from my previous office (with a window) to a glorified closet with no window, which also heated up like a toaster if you closed the door. But, we’d just hired a ton of new people, and they had to go somewhere, so it didn’t feel like a personal slight. (The fact that my preference for a smaller office rather than a roommate was considered helped a lot.)

  2. BGirl81*

    I’m the chick who thought I irrevocably fumbled the phone interview and I’m happy to report that I have an interview (firmly) scheduled! Alison, thank you so much for the excellent advice. I have been totally guilty of trying to impress with questions and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Who knew that asking questions based on information I actually wanted was such a great idea?! ;)

    1. Patti*

      I was actually coming here to comment on that question. I’m glad you got the interview!

      I was just going to point out that a lot of the things people obsess over in the “post game review” are things that don’t even occur to the interviewer. For me, I always feel a certain amount of awkwardness when I’m interviewing someone over the phone (background noise, lack of physical cues, etc). So the lack of good questions coming from the candidate wouldn’t concern me.

      Good luck!!

      1. Meg*

        I think our problem with asking questions during interviews is that we think we sound petty or asking irrelevant questions. I must say though, some of the best questions to ask I found on here – how to measure a successful first year is my favorite. My last round of interviews with Dream Company (at which I’m pretty much hired, according to the hiring manager and the two others I interviewed with – only two candidates got to the in-person interview, and the other candidate didn’t impress), they covered just about I had questions about (in part because I asked questions during our “conversation”), and still felt awkward about not having more questions at the end when they asked.

    2. BGirl81*

      @Patti – Thank you very much for the good wishes! I totally agree that phone interviews can be SO awkward – I used to have a very noisy neighbor living above me and, in the midst of a phone interview, she started blaring Beyonce. Luckily, the interviewer had a sense of humor about it. Either that or she was a bigger Beyonce fan than my neighbor haha!

      @Meg – Congrats on the great interview! I’ve had it happen too that the interviewer did such a great job of outlining everything, they used up all of my questions. I handled it by telling them that was the case and they’ve taken it as a compliment as far as I can tell! I wouldn’t worry about it at all. Congrats again! :)

  3. Zee*

    For #6: Did this OP try for the VP position and not get it? With all due respect to this OP, but that’s the only way I can see how a person like him/herself can react as feeling humiliated. I’m not saying they should be, but it sounds like they want to be a VP at some point. Did the OP take a try at this time?

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I can kind of see where this could be disconcerting for OP6. Perhaps the loss of the window office in combination with loss of autonomy is what makes the whole deal so stressful.

      I would wait and see about the autonomy issue. OP, you have been with the company longer that New VP. So you have gathered good insight as to how the company works, how the new CEO thinks etc. Plus you have historical knowledge. Because of these things you might find that most of your autonomy remains intact with new boss and the only wrinkle is the windowless office.
      Technically speaking your job title has not changed. Hang on to that thought as you process your next steps.

      If it really eats at you, you could always ask the CEO what you can do so that you could become a stronger consideration for VP. (A subtle way of opening that convo.)

      1. helen*

        The company I used to work at merged with another, and inserted an intermediate level of management between me and my former boss. Made things much more difficult, and within 6 months, I had found another job and left.

      2. twentymilehike*

        I would wait and see about the autonomy issue. OP, you have been with the company longer that New VP. So you have gathered good insight as to how the company works, how the new CEO thinks etc. Plus you have historical knowledge.

        Yes, I was thinking that the OP could be a valueable resource for the new VP and possibly form a great working relationship with this person by being good support. If the OP isn’t ready for the VP postion yet, then this relationship may end up being very benefical. Of course ther are many factors involved ….

  4. The IT Manager*

    #6, I think you just need to readjust your POV. There’s nothing in your letter that reads to me like you’re being demoted. You were a department director and you still are. You need to try to contain your feelings of humiliation (and I know that easy for me to say and hard for you to do) and not let it affect your work and relationship with your new supervisor.

    I don’t have all the info, but it seems to me that without a VP, you had it in your head that you were the equivalent of a VP or acting VP, but if that was never made official then there’s no demotion. Humiliation would usually stem from public embarrassment, but I see nothing in your letter for you to be embarrassed about. I can’t see how anyone in your office would either since you’re still doing the exact same job with the exact same title as before.

  5. Lindsay H.*

    Ugh! I can relate to #4. A cubicle neighbor has one of the most disgusting coughs I’ve ever heard, and it happens frequently. She is a heavy smoker so it sound like she’s coughing up 50 years (she’s a bit older) worth of Pall Malls.

    I think the most frustrating element is knowing there’s nothing I can do about it except cringe. I can’t conflict manage her into not coughing up a lung every day.

    1. Anonymous*

      I can’t conflict manage her into not coughing up a lung every day.

      That’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for the laugh. I used to work with a ‘sniffer.’ In the mornings, about every 30 seconds or so, he would sniff. It was annoying because it was so regular, and I’d actually get on edge when he was a few seconds ‘late.’

      1. Ellie H.*

        There are few things that irritate me more than sniffing. I was sitting next to a sniffer on the subway tonight and practically had to cover my mouth to keep from saying “Stop sniffing!” out loud.

        The funny thing is that sneezing, coughing etc. really doesn’t bother me (I know, this is a perversely arbitrary distinction). Someone in my office has allergies and always sneezes a lot when she comes back from lunch, and is clearly embarrassed about it. I wish I could somehow emphasize how much it *doesn’t* irritate me without making a bigger deal about it.

        1. helen*

          Oh God, the sniffing. It is only the threat of losing my job that keeps me from offering to take my paperknife and cure the sniffer’s sinus issues with extreme prejudice.

          1. Patti*

            “With extreme prejudice”.

            This made my morning! Probably because there is a “pen clicker” right outside my office door who is risking the same fate!

            1. ChristineH*

              LOL I love all of your evil minds!! There’s a woman I volunteer with who, when snacking, spends an unusual amount of time fishing around the bag, which causes that crinkling that I despise so much. It takes every ounce of my effort to not snatch that bag out of her hands, or at least say, “Just PICK one and get it over with!!!”

        2. Joe Schmoe*

          I have to say popping gum is irritating to me. I was in line at the Post Office the other day and the lady behind me kept popping her gum. It wasn’t loud, it was muffled because she was doing it with her mouth closed. It was strange, but I wanted to go all Madea on her (if anyone watches the Madea movies it was where she got on to the girl for popping the gum in the back seat). Anyway, I turned around and looked at her twice while in line and it continued….while I clenched my fists and prayed for the line to move faster.

        1. Emily*

          If I had been the sniffler I would have been very grateful for this. If I have a runny nose and no napkin/tissue for four hours, I’m not happy either!

    2. Zee*

      Every once in a while, a coworker will start the clearing of the throat. And it’s not just once and everything’s fine. When she starts, it has to be once every minute or two. It’s loud, it’s constant, and the only time she stops is when she goes home. Very annoying. I want to tell her to drink some water.

    3. Anonymous*

      UGH I have one that has allergies and always sounds as though his nose has been stuffed up for years on end. The random sneezes are loud and jarring. And the nose blowing is just disgusting. It sounds as though he’s blowing out a year’s worth of…well, you know. So gross. I really wish he would blow his nose in the bathroom and go into an empty office and shut the door.

    4. Elizabeth West*

      I had a coworker who would have sneezing fits, where he sneezed three or four times in succession. The funny part was, he is this tall dude with a deep voice, but they were high-pitched and “Chooo!”-ey, like kitty sneezes!

      Considering it was an office full of men, he got crap for it all the time. But it was good-natured; we knew he couldn’t help it.

      1. Anonymous*

        This is me (metaphorically, I’m not Elizabeth’s co-worker). I also sneeze 3/4 times in a row, although I tend to liken it to a dog’s squeaky toy. It’s irritating, but mostly people laugh. And, at risk of venturing into TMI territory, the sneezes are so small, I don’t need tissues….

  6. Anonymous*

    How often do companies promote from within for upper level management positions like Pres. VP, CEO? I see a lot of places don’t and won’t even consider it, but you never hear of a company promoting form within for those positions (well except for a family company). I also see a lot of time these positions aren’t even posted at all, or at the same places that other positions are.

    1. Jamie*

      The places I’ve worked all try to promote from within first for those positions.

      You’d be surprised, though, how often people don’t want them. I’ve known more than a few people who were approached and declined to be considered because they were happy where they were.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s pretty common to promote from within for those positions, at least at companies large enough to have suitable candidates already on board. (For some high profile examples, just look at Tim Cook at Apple or Marissa Mayer when she was at Google.)

      But they also recruit outside for those positions. You generally won’t see those jobs on Monster or whatever; they tend to advertised in outlets targeted to senior level jobs — CEO Update, etc.

  7. JT*

    Do people here ever where earplugs in the office?

    When my organization switched from private offices to open-plan, I got a big bag of earplugs and use them sometimes when I need to concentrate. That might not help with #4 if he/she needs to hear other people talking, but sometimes they’re very useful.

    1. The IT Manager*

      I bought ear plugs recently. I work with a virtual team, but one of my team members is in a cubical near me and I get an echo when I can hear her in person and on the teleconference. Also a cubical neighbor of mine has a very loud voice ( with a Jersey accent I’d guess) and I usually put in ear plugs when she’s talking especially when she’s talking and I’m on the phone.

      1. Vicki*

        When I was in a cubicle, I wore soft earplugs with noise-isolating headphones overtop, pretty much all the time. (I’d take the headphones off when the headache started and put them back on after it subsided).

        Unemployment == no noisy coworkers.

    2. Esra*

      My noise-blocking headphones broke last Thursday and I am full of heartbreak. I should keep some earplugs in my desk, because it’s only an hour into the day and I’m already thinking about throwing a brick at my gross-noise-making coworker.

  8. ChristineH*

    #4 – I’m terrible when it comes to those little annoying distractions in the workplace. However, I find when it comes to sneezing, you just get used to it. At a previous job, I was in a workspace with 4 other women, and not a day went by where I didn’t hear a couple of sneezes each day.

    That said, the way you describe your coworker’s sneeze sounds like my husband’s sneeze when he lets it all out. But he can reign it in when around others. So if it gets really distracting, maybe just have a lighthearted talk with him, and suggest he try to suppress it if he can….it is doable. I also like Alison’s suggestion of recommending allergy medicines or offering yours. If he’s concerned about drowsiness, there are good ones on the market that do not cause drowsiness.

    1. Anonymous*

      I have allergies, and I chain-sneeze, as in I usually sneeze more than once, and can sneeze up to 10 times. However I can muffle them or cut them off, which isn’t comfortable, but better in a office environment (and then I also don’t get the multiple bless you’s and ‘are you OK’ questions which is annoying in it’s own way).

      1. Flynn*

        I’ve got an extremely loud, violent, unstoppable sneeze AND allergies AND a general sensitivity to chemicals and things. So whenever I walk into the closed environment at work (one of those stupid designs with no opening windows), I start sneezing.

        And sneezing.

        And sneezing.

        I’m pretty sure they can hear me on the ground floor. But I’ve long given up trying to be embarrassed, because there’s literally nothing I can do. The best part? I work in a library, in the quiet study areas :D

      2. Andrew*

        I don’t sneeze often, but when I do, I chain-sneeze (this sounds like rejected ad copy).

        My usual is 8 or 9, but my record is 13. People look at me with alarm and I have to explain that no, I’m not terminally ill.

      3. Vicki*

        I had a friend in HS who sneezed i the presence of garlic or onions. High-pitched, chain sneezing.

        Once, some “mean kids” thought it would be funny to put garlic on her desk before class. (Not funny).

        I know what your co-worker sounds like. He probably wishes it would stop just as much as you do. I wish you well in resolving the problem. But if you can’t – ear plugs!

  9. Cody C*

    I once came back from lunch to find a bottle of Beano in my cubicle – guess I wasn’t as subtle as I thought, I found it absolutely hilarious. What I am trying to say is share your meds and make it more pleasant for everyone.

  10. Anon*

    #6-I feel you on this one. Got a new big boss, who I like and he “made” my boss hire an AVP position to between her and the directors (me). We were told that we’d be involved in the hiring process. At least get a 2nd level interview. None of the directors were encourage to apply even though all of us were more than qualified for the position. Even when asked outright if we should.

    Our involvement in the process, turned out to be a 5 minutes warning to develop 3 to 5 questions and then calling the top two. We developed some great AVP level questions especially compared to the crap used in the first level interview. We finished and called our boss and relayed our thoughts. Then were told, basically, that’s nice we’ve going with the other guy (not the person we suggested). He was already picked.

    It’s been a not so pleasant adjustment period to a new boss and a male boss.

      1. Anon*

        Only that none of the director’s have ever had a male boss and it’s something new and different to get used to. Not trying to say it was a bad thing. All of my female bosses have been very similar in approach.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think you will find that while there’s lots of variation among managers, those variations are not linked to whether they’re male or female.

  11. Sharon*

    Regarding the sneezer, a plain ordinary sneeze doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is when the person adds “voice” to it. Instead of “choo” it becomes more of a sudden shout. I HATE that. It always seems to be men who do this, too. Is it really impossible to not let the sneeze go through your vocal cords?

    1. Mike C.*

      Are you being serious here? Do you somehow have the ability to control the tonality of your sneezes?

  12. MaryTerry*

    I have sneezing fits at least once a day, and if someone can explain how to sneeze quieter or stop them altogether, I’ll try it. Sometimes someone’s cologne/perfume sets me off too, so I suspect it’s allergy-related.

    1. Rana*

      I can sometimes muffle the sounds of my sneezes by sneezing into my elbow, but that’s it. It rather sucks because my allergies are year-round and most medicines don’t work for me. Another good thing about working from home…

  13. Vicki*

    FYI for those thinking about putting on the headphones – most headphones are marketed as “noise canceling”. This is not the same as “noise isolating” (which is in foam ear plugs, some headphones, and some ear buds).

    Noise _canceling_ earphone work well for environments with fans, A/C or refrigerator noise, machine hum, airplane engines. But they only cancel steady even sounds. They won’t reduce conversational distraction and may or may not work to block a noisy sneeze.

    Noise _isolating_ headphones, earbuds, or ear plugs dampen all sound, including voices and (more likely) the sneezing, coughing, sniffing, humming, tapping, whistling, grunting, mmHmming, etc co-workers. Sadly, NI headphones tend to be large and bulky so if you’re like me and headphones give you a headache after 30 min or so, just keep that in mind.

  14. Vicki*

    # 3 “What do you mean by that?”

    I can see where this particular phrasing could come off as defensive.
    Maybe something like “Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Could you tell me more?”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s all in the tone. If you say it in a tone that’s curious and open, it’s going to be completely fine. (Which is the case with pushing back about most things.)

  15. AIT*

    Re: 4. Sneezing coworker

    I would rather have a sneezy coworker with allergies than someone who coughs all day or talks about their personal issues on the phone all day (both whom I have had to deal with).

  16. OP #2*

    Thanks for answering my question! I had my interview today and ended up saying “I had the opportunity to move to _____ but it ended up not being the right fit for me so I have relocated to this area for the long term to be near my family”

    Also I used a variation of the “magic question” and she seemed very impressed by it. So fingers crossed I hear back soon! (I say variation because this is a new position within the company, so I asked hypothetically what would be the difference between a good job and a great job in this position?)

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