terse answer Thursday — 7 short answers to 7 short questions

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

1. How to get managers to share what’s happening in their departments 

I have recently been hired to increase communication within the company. I have thought about getting managers to write a few sentences every once and a while about what is going on in their departments and then posting those to our company intranet in a specified column. How do I go about getting a managers buy-in and precious time?

You have to convince them it matters, which can be pretty hard to do as a new employee. You might need someone higher-up to buy into the idea first, and then use their influence to make it happen.

However, are you sure this is the best way to get the outcome you want? These types of things often go unread (which then makes it still harder to get people to participate). A better way to get buy-in might be to involve people in discussing how to tackle the communication issue. Why not talk to managers (and others) directly and get their input? You might get ideas you haven’t thought of, and people will probably be more receptive to whatever you do decide, simply because they were consulted.

2. Old employer owes me back pay but can’t afford to pay it

I left my job at a tiny nonprofit in May 2012. It was a poorly run organization that lost the grant that had been paying 80% of the operating costs for years, and one by one my coworkers were laid off or quit. We all frequently went without paychecks for the last seven months I worked there, with our executive director taking the biggest cuts of all in order to pay the rest of us. The only reason a few of us stayed as long as we did was because we were committed to the mission and the population we served.

When I left, I asked for my back pay (about $10,000), and the ED told me that the organization simply did not have the cash to pay me but he would make sure I got paid as soon as possible. Over the past several months, I have checked in periodically to ask about the pay, and each time I have been told that they simply do not have the money. The last time I was told that they were trying to sell their building and once that was done they would be able to pay me. If I were better off financially, I would probably just let it go as a sort of “donation,” but I’m not really in a position to do that. The ED is a good man and I trust that he would pay me if he could, but I’m afraid that of all the people the organization owes money to, I’m on the bottom of the list since I haven’t threatened legal action (I know that at least one former coworker and a couple of ex-vendors have). I’m not sure what to do, and I would really appreciate any advice you can give me about how to proceed.

Did they pay the former coworker and vendors who threatened legal action? If so, it’s probably your only option to see the money anytime soon (or ever). But if they don’t have the money to pay you and others, even legal action might not change anything.

In general, I’d say that any time you’re working without being paid, you should assume you’ll never see that money — and only do it for whatever length of time you’d be okay with never getting compensated for. Sort of like with loaning money to friends or family — it’s only smart if you can handle the possibility that you’ll never see that money again.

3. Resigning to avoid being fired

Many applications I’ve turned in recently have asked a question like, “Have you ever been terminated or resigned to avoid termination?”

What does this mean? Say a manager tells an employee that he hasn’t met his goals the last two months and will be let go if it happens again this month. Employee realizes there’s no way he’ll meet this month’s goals, so he hands in a resignation letter the next day. Did this employee “resign to avoid termination?”

There’s no formal definition of the phrase, so it’s open to interpretation. The employee in your example could probably get away with saying that was a voluntary resignation, although reasonable people could certainly quibble over that.

The practical version of this question is probably whether the employer in question would say you resigned to avoid being fired, particularly when talking to a reference-checker.

4. Should I take an au pair job to escape a job I hate?

I’m 24 years old and have been in my first job for nearly 16 months. I’m a marketing assistant in a small indepedent company but was originally hired as a trainee manager before my boss decided I wasn’t management material and moved me sideways.

The bottom line is I don’t particularly like my job – a good day is a day I don’t completely hate it and 5pm comes round quite quickly but I’m rarely doing something I actually enjoy. I’m also no good at it as I seem to constantly make mistakes and feel incompetent most of the time (I know for a fact my manager thinks I’m stupid as well). There may well be an opportunity for me to go and live abroad in Italy as an au pair for 6 months if not longer and I’m really tempted to take it as I’ve always wanted to travel / live in another country. On the other hand, they are talking about giving me a few more opportunities at work and people have pointed out that I may dislike my company rather than my actual job, which I admit may be a possibility.

If I’m offered the job in Italy and I decide to take it, I know I won’t look as good next to someone who’s worked solidly since they graduated but I guess my question is how badly am I ruining my future prospects? Particularly if I decide I was on the right career path after all.

I’m not a huge fan of au pair jobs post-college — they generally don’t do much to build your professional resume and can look to prospective employers in the future as if you were putting off joining the adult professional world. You’ll definitely be at a disadvantage when compared to peers who stayed on a professional track. It’s not fatal, but it’ll make your job search harder, something I wouldn’t recommend in a job market like this one.

But it sounds like you’re attracted to au pairing because you see it as your exit strategy from a job you hate. However, that’s not your only exit from this job — a better one is probably to start an active job search and find a job that you can leave for without setting your career back.

5. How do merit raises work?

I wondered if you could explain how merit increases work and how they fit into an annual salary discussion. I haven’t worked for a company that offered merit raises before (we just broached the subject of pay on our own at my previous employer and didn’t get a cost of living raise or anything) so I’m not familiar, but I’ve heard my new employer usually offers them. Is a merit increase usually offered in addition to any other raise you may discuss, or in place of? How much leeway do you normally have in negotiating the amount?

A merit raise is a raise that’s based on performance, rather than an across-the-board cost of living increase that’s the same for everyone in the company. Some companies do annual merit raises, some companies do annual cost-of-living raises, some companies do merit raises in some years and cost-of-living raises in other years, and some do nothing at all until someone proactively makes the case for themselves.

The amount of raises can vary widely. The national average salary increase is lower than most people think — 2.8%. Some companies do more than that for everyone, and some companies do more than that for top performers. It depends on how your company operates.

6. When you don’t have any references

I have been unemployed for 6 years. My last job was while I was still in college. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree 5 years ago and, due to an illness, was unable to seek employment. I eventually had to go on disability. Although I still have this illness, the doctors have found a treatment that helps to keep it under control. My question is, who should I list as a reference? I have not stayed in contact with my former employer or any coworkers (very poor decision on my part). The only former employer who would remember me is from a part-time job I held in 2002 (the employer happens to be a good family friend). Also, I’m afraid I’m being passed over by potential employers because of this huge employment gap. I have been mentioning in my cover letters that I was unable to work due to a medical reason, but that it is well-controlled now. What is your take on this?

You’ll just need to explain — say that because you weren’t working due to a health situation, you don’t have recent references, but you can offer your manager from 2002. (No need to proactively mention it — wait until you’re asked for references.) If you can, I’d also start to do some volunteer work now — both to get something more recent on your resume and to start building up a new pipeline of potential references. Good luck!

7. Managing a low performer who needs to improve in every area

Several months ago, I was promoted to management, with two direct reports. Our group is within a larger division of a few dozen computer programmers. Since that time, I’ve struggled with how to give feedback to one of my reports, Jack.

Jack is a smart, and in some sense, is good at programming; we hired him several years ago right out of a top 10 U.S. News college. However, he’s been “undersupervised” for years, and has developed a very poor reputation among his peers, and has been close to being fired several times. Usually the problem is that his work quality is low in general, but he also can have problems following up and similar.

The main difficulty I have in giving him feedback is that, for the most part, there isn’t any single area he needs to improve. He really needs to improve all over. Also, in our environment, employees are generally expected to be both self-motivated and self-improving, to some degree, and he hasn’t been demonstrating that.

You’ve said that a good manager gives their employee adequate warning to improve before their fired. In this case, I’m sort of at a loss for exactly what warning that should be; I can’t just say “do your job better” and “work harder or we’ll fire you.” Do you have any advice? What is the right thing to do here?

Yeah, you’re going to need to be specific, but don’t shy away from addressing it just because there are multiple issues rather than only one or two. Meet with him and say you have serious concerns about the level of his work. Pick the biggest areas — say, work quality, follow-up, and initiative — and talk about those. If you’re having trouble knowing where to start, describe the bar that you want him to meet — describe what you’d be looking for if you were hiring for the position today. Then give him some examples of how he’s not meeting that bar, and what needs to change so that he is. Give him a limited period of time to demonstrate the significant improvement that you’re looking for, and be honest that his job is in jeopardy if he doesn’t improve.

Since he’s been close to being fired several times before, this probably isn’t the first time he’s hearing about these issues. The difference now is that you need to clearly lay out what needs to change, a timeline for changing it, and the consequences if he doesn’t.

{ 128 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    #6- what about college professors – are there any that you’ve kept in touch with that would be willing to act as reference?

    1. Rana*

      Speaking as a former one, I’d be happy to talk about a person’s performance as a student and what they were like as a person (from what I could see in a class setting), but I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of how to assess their work skills in a corporate environment. So I’d put them behind previous employers as desirable references.

      That said, they’d be better than nothing. I’d recommend contacting them first, though, and explaining to them what you’re trying to do; I’d give a better reference if I was prepared for it, than if it just came out of the blue one day. (I’ve taught literally thousands of students; my ability to remember one of them on the fly, unless they were among the handful who were truly amazing, is not good.)

      1. #6*

        Thanks for the advice! Unfortunately, I don’t think any of my professors would be able to help me out. I attended a fairly large university. I don’t think I would be memorable among the thousands of students they have taught. As it turns out, a friend of mine told me about a temp position available at the company she is currently employed at. Networking really does help!

  2. Elizabeth*

    I’m curious about the possible tax implications of #2, assuming the OP does not in fact ever get paid. Would it be possible for that money actually to be counted as a donation to the nonprofit, and therefore be a tax write-off? I realize that wouldn’t be as much financial benefit to the OP as actually getting paid, and so is probably not what s/he wants… I’m more just curious in an academic way. Anyone out there more knowledgable about tax code than me?

    1. Mike C.*

      You’re running into the issue that federal law requires people to be paid for their work. You or I nor the OP can just relieve someone of their responsibilities under federal law.

      1. De Minimis*

        I know that you can deduct the fair market value of donated services, but you would need a statement from the non-profit.
        I think even then it might be limited to clearly defined professional services, not just general work.

        Not sure if it’s allowable for work to be classfied as a donation after the fact.

  3. JT*

    If OP #4 goes into work vaguely related to kids or education the au pairing might be helpful.

    And if in any job interview she’s asked about it, it could also be described an “opportunity taken to learn about another country and culture.”

    1. Anonymous*

      I would take the opportunity to be an au pair in Italy, if an interview and offer was extended. The possibility of being able to live and work in Europe would be well worth it (IMO because I’d love to do that myself) and the possiblity of learning Italian is always good. Being bilingual is always a plus.

      1. Amanda*

        From what my BF says (fluent in both Spanish and Italian), the two languages are so similar that learning one makes it easy to pick up the other. And knowing Spanish is a HUGE plus for many employers.

        1. Italian here*

          Sorry, but I’m a native Italian and can’t speak a word of Spanish. I can understand some Portuguese and Spanish, but using the languages in a work environment is a whole another story, and it’s completely unrealistic to think that learning Italian will help you put “speaks Spanish” in your resume.

          1. Amanda*

            I stand corrected! Again, I was just going by what my BF said that learning Spanish helped him learn Italian. But then again, he picks up languages with a snap of his fingers (oh I wish I had that talent) so his experience might be unusual.

    2. jmkenrick*

      I’m going to chime in here and argue that going to Italy isn’t necessarily a bad decision, it’s just one that the OP should go into with both eyes open.

      If the OP can handle it financially (can she save enough money while in Italy to be OK if she doesn’t get a job right away when she returns to the US?) and is aware of what it means to be an au-pair (you are literally living with a family and taking care of kids all day, which personally, I would loathe, but some people love) — then the age of 24 is probably the best time to take advantage of that opportunity.

      Personally, I took some time off after my first job and traveled for a few months. It depleted most of my savings and probably hurt my chances of getting a job on my return, but I made an educated choice about the trade-offs and don’t regret that decision.

  4. majigail*

    #2- remember it’s ultimately the nonprofit’s board who is responsible for paying it’s debts and not the ED. If you are holding off any legal action because of loyalty to her, I wouldn’t.
    Also, I doubt that could be considered a donation since volunteer work cannot be written off on taxes, although any expenses (mileage, supplies, etc) could be.

    1. fposte*

      I wonder if it’d be allowable under debts that became unclaimable. (I doubt it, but it’s worth asking an accountant about.)

      1. De Minimis*

        Bad debts can be deducted, but I remember that there is a distinction between “business bad debt” and other bad debt, and the rules and tax treatment of the latter were not so great.

        I checked, yes, nonbusiness debt has a higher threshold as far as when it’s considererd uncollectable, and is subject to more loss limitations [in this case I think you could not write it all off in one year, you’d have to carry some over.]

        1. De Minimis*

          After checking further, it may not work, it sounds like the transaction has to be considered a loan from the very beginning, not after the fact.

          1. fposte*

            Thanks for checking! I figured there’d be something like that. I’m with Employment Lawyer downthread–this needs to be reported and the OP to get his/her pay.

          2. Jamie*

            Is that because she’s an individual and not a business?

            Because you can write off bad debt for services performed/goods shipped if they refuse to pay.

            I wouldn’t let them off the hook, though, if it were me. I would talk to a lawyer to try to recoup as much of my money as possible.

            Non-profit or not it’s absolutely unconscionable to me that people would ever default on payroll. If you can’t pay people you close the doors that day – not after they’ve worked for basically free for 7 months.

            Payroll is a sacred trust – although I admire the dedication of the OP to care enough about the mission to continue as she did. In the for profit world I am not the only one who would cease showing up the second the paychecks stopped.

            1. class factotum*

              I am in the non-profit world and I, too, would walk out the first time I didn’t get paid. It’s my employer who chooses the non-profit status. I am strictly for profit.

              1. Esra*

                Right here with you. The employer is a non-profit, but you aren’t a volunteer. I have a strict rule to not donate money to the non-profit I’m working for.

                1. Small non-profit employee*

                  I agree with the not donating to the nonprofit I work for- I was horrified the first year I worked here when we all got letters in our mailbox asking us to make a end of the year donation back to the employer…my feeling is that my donation is working here at subpar wages with terrible benefits because I like the work. But if I have any money to donate (which is always an if because of 3 years with no raise, no COL increase, no retirement contributions, increases in health premiums, etc.), I choose to donate to another nonprofit. Other people here thought it was completely fine and donated, though.

                  Happy to say that this job will be a former job soon- just put in my notice yesterday! Whoo hoo! (I just got a new, amazing job, thanks to reading this blog for the last year!)

            2. Elizabeth*

              This comes up pretty often in health care regarding disaster recovery. (Think hospitals in Greensburg, KS & Joplin, MO, that were leveled by tornadoes.)

              From a business standpoint, payroll doesn’t seem at first blush to be of high importance to get up & running. Being able to document patient care is more important, right? Right up until your nurses, lab techs, radiology techs, pharmacists, etc, tell you that they need their pay check to be able to buy food for their kids and pay for the motel room they are living in because their house suffered the same fate as the hospital, and the insurance won’t start to pay out for a couple weeks yet.

              Healthcare is full of people who will work themselves into an early grave for their patients, but almost every one of them lives paycheck to paycheck, without any real financial cushion. An employer shorting them on pay would be devastating and would have them walking out the door to find someone who could pay them.

              I love my job, but I don’t work for free. Going back to the discussion yesterday about passion versus a need for a pay check, I have both. My passion is what keeps me pushing forward on the never-ending project list, but it is the need for the pay check that gets me out of bed every morning.

            3. De Minimis*

              Yes, that’s the difference, “business bad debt” would be like a loan to a supplier, or customers that failed to pay. Much easier to write those off. And with those you can write the entire amount off the way you could any other business expense.

              I agree, it just sounds like people were taken advantage of, although at least the person in charge was also working for free.

            4. Malissa*

              If the OP had been say an accountant that performed tax work they could write off the work as a donation. But because the OP was an actual employees of the non-profit, not a contract worker, the rules are different.
              I would advise the employee to watch and see if the non-profit goes into bankruptcy. Then they have a better chance on getting paid something. Or report it to a State agency that can handle the case for them.

                1. Malissa*

                  I stand corrected! I find it odd that the non-profits has to recognize the value of the services but the giver of the services can’t deduct them.
                  See I learned something new today.

                2. Natalie*

                  Aside from the difficulty of assigning a value, it would probably be pretty open to over-deducting. From what I understand, people have tendency to exaggerate the value of their donations (secondhand clothes, for example).

  5. Anonymous*

    #4: I agree that upon return, it will probably be more difficult to get back into the job market. And an au pair job probably won’t help you with practical experience for most jobs.

    However, on a personal level, I highly recommend an international experience, even though you’re no longer in college. You’ll learn a lot, and it will be a very useful life experience. If you’ve always wanted to live in another country, now’s your time…not later in life.

    It might give you the breather you need to rethink your career path, as well. Studying abroad while in college changed my life (for the better) and put me on a completely new life path. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Again, I know it’s different for you as you’ve already started your professional life, but I still think it’s worth doing.

    1. K*

      Agreed. If you’ve always wanted to live abroad, it’s not going to get easier (okay, 95% odds it’s not going to get easier) as you get older. Doing something that won’t help your career but will help you personally seems totally reasonable at 24.

      1. Jamie*

        ITA – if you’re going to do it, do it now. The vast majority of us will just have things like this unfulfilled on our bucket lists.

      2. Kristen*

        I agree. Do it, and do it now! Even if it is not the best for you professionally, I am of the opinion that your personal life is much more important than your professional one, and if this is something you are just aching to do, you are much better off doing it than always wondering “what if.”

        1. Work It*

          Three cheers for “your personal life is much more important than your professional one.”

          I’ve done lots of things that aren’t recommended for long-term career growth, like get an graduate degree for the hell of it, study abroad in England, and teach English in Japan. While I wouldn’t say the experiences were professionally helpful, expect maybe the extra degree, I cherish them and will remember them for the rest of my life.

          There’s much more to life than working 9 – 5 at a cubicle from college till death in the interest of building a career. Plus, doing adventurous things doesn’t resign you to a life of poverty and unemployment. I know I’m ranting, sorry. In short, OP, if you truly want to travel take the job and GO! You never know where that experience will lead.

          1. Fishie*

            The internationa aspect of the experience also makes it easier to explain to future potential employers – “I had an opportunity to live abroad that I couldn’t overlook.” While you are there maybe you could take an few online courses in an area of interest to help boost your marketability when you return.

    2. FormerManager*

      I echo this. For personal reasons I was never able to travel overseas in college. But I would go in to it with a plan. Work out an agreement with your employer so you time away from your au pair duties to learn the culture. Make a concentrated effort to learn the language (beyond “where is the train station?”). And when you return, you might want to volunteer for organizations related to the country and culture. In larger cities you might find clubs for Italian speakers, for example. This could help your resume grow beyond just the au pair job if you showed that you expanded on the experience.

      And definitely continue to network.

      At my last job we hired a number of college graduates who did a stint teaching English overseas for a year (I think due to the economy more are doing this, I could be wrong). We really liked the international experience, especially since we all worked closely with an offshore team overseas.

      1. N.*

        TheyWhile we are on the topic, OP #4 are you from the USA? If you are beware, like Allison mentions there are many bosses that will frown upon this, furthermore the first job I had out of college held it against me that I’d taken an opportunity to spend my last year of studies abroad. Some people just have a problem with others taking the non – traditional path, expect it. While many people envy me, a good number have told me they don’t know how I could have made such a foolish choice. I spent too much money on a plane ticket and essentially why do that when you can just stay and miss what turned out to be a once in a lifetime experience for me. The responsible thing would have been not to go, graduate, and start a job where I would have been maybe allowed a weeklong vacation after 2 years but unable to do anything because starting pay is bukiss. “Well that is what everyone else does you know.”

        The only mistake I made, was presuming that my experience abroad would be viewed in a favorable light by everyone. Best part is I was selected for the aforementioned position largely for my ability to speak foreign languages… but when I met my boss I was told: “we don’t do that here.” She even wrote me up for giving directions to a Belgian family in French-Glish, and very kindly explained to me that if they were in the U.S. they needed to speak English (obviously fluency was a necessity for a two week trip). When I told her I didn’t see the harm in conveying specific directions in a potentially hazardous area in a way I could be positive I was understood, pointed out we had translations in 8 languages and *I* for one would appreciate someone helping me navigate in a foreign land, I was told that was why she did not personally travel abroad. When I asked why the job description said knowledge of foreign languages was helpful if we were prohibited from speaking anything but English, she said if it were up to her that would have been taken out.

        Ah the joys of being assigned a supervisor who never would have hired you!

        So I will take it at face value what you said:

        “There may well be an opportunity for me to go and live abroad in Italy as an au pair for 6 months if not longer and I’m really tempted to take it as I’ve always wanted to travel / live in another country.”

        I disagree that it sounds like you are going abroad as an excuse to leave your crappy job, it sounds more like you are leaving your crappy job so you will have this opportunity. If that is what you want to do, do it. Don’t be passive about it, and make no apologies. Just beware that there a hiring mangers like Alison out there who aren’t “a huge fan of au pair jobs post-college… and can look to prospective employers in the future as if you were putting off joining the adult professional world” no matter how you spin it. (My question is do you really want some one who wasn’t ready to join the “adult professional world” sitting in the cubicle you paid for, or would you rather have them settled and happy that they made the correct choice to be there?)

        Especially in the US (in some other countries it is expected that young people will travel after college and those who don’t are looked at in askance.)

        If you go gather as much experience as possible, I don’t know if you have ever been an au pair but make sure you treat it like the job that it is, and not a vacation. Having that attitude will help when you return, so develop it now.

        Best of luck.

        PS. (And this is a genuine question), can you ever trust a boss who has made it clear you were not their choice, and thinks you are stupid? Just wondering if I was really fooling myself that I could, or if I was right from the start that I shouldn’t…

    3. Diane*

      If you want to have that experience overseas, then I say go for it. You don’t want to live with regret, and as others have said, it won’t become easier for you to just get up and go as you get older.
      Sure, it might not be the best career move, but you never know what opportunities might arise for you overseas. You might meet someone through networking or open doors in ways you can’t now. Stay active and connected to your contacts back home while making new ones.

      Basically, if you want it, just do it. You have to make yourself happy first and foremost. Best of luck!

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I do think that if the OP wants to pick personal development via international travel over her career, it’s a perfectly fine choice to make … but I would strongly encourage her to do so with the full knowledge that she’ll be making her job search a lot harder when she returns. Some people are okay with that trade-off, but others aren’t, so it’s important that she really understand the implications of the choice. (And it will make it harder — lots of hiring managers, me included, do think “delaying entering the real world, with not much useful experience gained” when we see post-college au pairing, and will always pick the person who got professional experience during that time instead, all else being roughly equal.) Again, she might be 100% okay with that trade-off — but she needs to understand that she’ll be making it.

      If she were driven by a deep desire to move out of the country, my answer might be different. But it sounds like she’s considering short-circuiting her career because of one bad boss. And yes, it’s easier to recover from at 24 — but not as easy as it used to be, given how many grads still can’t find work two years after graduation.

      1. Eryn*

        I also thinks it’s important for the OP to look and see how long exactly she will be able to stay in Italy. She says “6 months (maybe longer)” but when you’re working in a foreign country where you will need a visa there is usually a very strict time-limit that someone has permission to stay and work. This tells me the OP hasn’t really looked that deeply into this opportunity and that she may not even be aware of the time restraints.

        In addition, working abroad is all well and good (I’ve done it myself) but au pairing is NOT professional work and I don’t really see it leading to any sort of connections or skills that will allow her to get a permanent job overseas or otherwise. I would suggest looking into internships in your field(s) of interest in another country. Usually there are organizations that can provide visas for this sort of work. Look into BUNAC.

      2. N.*

        Thank you for clarifying your position Alison, I am (unfortunately) accustomed to folks who would have a problem with spending time abroad for the sake of having a problem with it; I also unfortunately know too many that will find a problem with someone to find a problem.

        Granted, I have many *fun* issues for a manager to focus on on any given day, I could never understand why my overseas experience was considered a liability, and how so many people whose lives my choice never really impacted have found it so threatening.

        For the record, I agree whole-heartedly that one should not run abroad to escape a bad boss. There are much simpler ways to solve this problem short of moving abroad. There is far too much upheaval involved in moving and the inevitable lifestyle change, that I hope it would be done for the sake of personal enrichment. Anything else would hardly justify career derailment for such a brief (in the span of a lifetime) time. My issue is with those who expect others to sacrifice substantial opportunities for personal enrichment for the sake of work, without giving any weight to the non – work option.

        Obviously my biases are reflected in my statements. I have watched family members in my parents’ generation work themselves to the bone for their companies for decades; most of them have to be forced to take their week long vacations, and fret the whole time that the boss must be secretly counting it against them. They have problems that I did not choose a similar path (still no house or babies of my own) and I am used to not fitting in with them, but I think it is sad that employers in my past held it against me, especially since it was in the course of my academic goals.

        You are right to advise OP#4 to weigh the consequences, I hope after doing so, she makes a positive choice regardless of what it is.

      3. Lena*

        On the other hand, it could be an indirect plus if she ever wants to work abroad in her career. I have had a couple of expat jobs and I know that demonstrating successful overseas work experience was a huge plus in getting my current job. The experience was in a different field. Employers are wary of hiring people who’ve never spent time living/working abroad…international searches and relocations are expensive, and in my experience people are trying to avoid the employee who shows up, freaks out, and leaves after a year (or less).

        1. Lena*

          *employers for expat/overseas jobs are wary of hiring people w/o international experience, I mean. Not employers in general!

    5. KayDay*

      I completely agree. But I think the OP should be cautioned to only do this if the OP really wants to go abroad and be an au pair; not solely because the OP doesn’t like his/her current job.

      1. Jess*

        I second the planning! I would encourage OP not only to plan for her return to the job market, but also for the Au Pair job itself. Not knowing, OP, I don’t know his or her experience with childcare, but Au Pair-ing can be HARD. First, it’s usually full-time, live-in childcare- much different than babysitting occasionally. If you don’t already know the family, it’s important to think about that dynamic when considering the position. Also, make sure you negotiate ahead of time your hours, time off, behavior expectations, etc- all of those can make or break a live-in position.

        I would also throw out there that while I would never take back having studied abroad in college, it was also one of the hardest times in my life (as it is for many people). Between culture shock and being out of easy contact with my family and friends (granted, I was somewhere more remote than Italy) it was really hard. And here, you’ll also be starting a new job, in a place with a language you (may) not be entirely comfortable in.

        So, do it if you want to go abroad, but make sure you have a plan!

        1. Maire*

          I find it really interesting that travelling abroad after graduating is frowned on in the USA. In the UK, it’s positively encouraged. Also, the poster who said they were discriminated against because they spent their final year in college abroad? That blows my mind. What possible disadvantage could spending a year abroad in university, when you wouldn’t have been working in a career job anyway, be to your first job?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            the poster who said they were discriminated against because they spent their final year in college abroad

            That’s not at all a typical reaction — that’s just a lone crazy interviewer.

            1. N.*

              Haha! Being my first job after college, it took me awhile to figure that out that it was unusual. It did not help that I had family who was largely ambivalent about my choice, so I came to think it was the general view of the world at home. Kinda messed with my people reading compass for awhile…

              This all took place shortly after the Iraqi invasion; now, as then looking back, I am sure I just happened to be grouped with some folks with extreme Pro -American views. My boss was not too extreme other than the strictly English thing, but almost everyone else that I worked with at the site was, and for them it was a definite liability. Unfortunately I have come across it since then, though it doesn’t come up nearly as often, and it is rarely malicious anymore.

              I used to have lots of fun dealing with background checkers trying to verify the “unusual” information contained in my files; it certainly held up the government’s hiring process on more than one occasion.

          2. fposte*

            As Alison says, that’s just one totally whackadoodle manager. It’s quite common for US university students to spend a semester or year abroad, so that person has just severely restricted their hiring pool for no good reason.

  6. Resigned/Fired*

    # 3: Saying “yes” could have the application flagged and the applicant denied consideration immediately. I am the OP for #4 in https://www.askamanager.org/2013/01/wee-answer-wednesday-7-short-answers-to-7-short-questions-20.html. I asked my question, in part, because of the following situations:

    I applied for a position via an application that contained a similar question, to which I answered affirmatively: For 3 months, I worked as an independent contractor for a large company, and my contract was not renewed. (This was pretty common, and I actually lasted longer than about half the initial cohort.) My application was immediately denied. Thankfully, an HR representative contacted me and gave me the chance to explain. I also provided contact information for the company, so that he could ask about the situation and to show that the contract ended amicably. In this case, the hold to my application was removed (though I didn’t get the job — it was a reach).

    Another application asked whether the applicant had been fired, let go, etc. or *accused* of doing something wrong at work. Again, I answered truthfully, because I was *accused* of violating a policy. It was a false accusation, and I could show the proper documentation and such if needed. I was immediately denied consideration via a form reply.

    1. AP*

      That’s so annoying! Unfortunately I think the lesson here is that, for an automated online system, if there’s any sort of gray area to your response, you need to answer the way the system wants you to or you won’t get a chance to explain yourself at all.

  7. Jamie*

    I may dislike my company rather than my actual job, which I admit may be a possibility.

    I would hate any job where I felt like my manager thought I was stupid, so I’d examine how you really feel about the industry itself.

    I have no real advice here – normally I’d knee jerk about not leaving the field, but if you want to stay in marketing that is one of the fields where broad exposure to other cultures through travel could conceivably be a plus (the creative process and all) so I don’t know.

    Don’t let a bad boss or experience sour you on an industry, though. It’s easy to lump everything together – but a bad boss can make a job a nightmare even if everything else is rainbows, kittens, and cupcakes.

    1. BW*


      I love what I do for work, but when I’ve had bad managers or a dysfunctional work environment, I was really miserable. The management at my last job was so awful, it made me rethink my career, and I was reluctant to stay in the same role. As it turned out, I ended up getting a job in the same role with another company. I was mostly okay with that because the new employer had a reputation for being a great place to work, and was where many people in my role wanted to be. Now I have a good manager, and despite a lot of drama around a recent acquisition, I love my job again and have been reminded that I’ve really found my niche.

  8. Jamie*

    Also, in our environment, employees are generally expected to be both self-motivated and self-improving, to some degree, and he hasn’t been demonstrating that.

    #7 – Granted I haven’t read any studies on this, but I’ve always assumed whether someone was internally driven was one of those hard wired characteristics…the kind you need to hire for as they aren’t easily taught.

    A good employee is the one usually hurt by “undersupervision” because a decent employee will have kept up with his/her job properly and the under supervision would mean they were being underutilized by the company and no career input, feedback, guidance, from their manager.

    I would follow Alison’s advice. Just set the bar to an acceptable level to the standard, coach those who aren’t meeting it and eventually move them out if there isn’t progress and goals aren’t being met.

    1. Scott M*

      I’m rereading a book right now called “It’s Okay To Manager your Boss” by Bruce Tulgan, which has some really good ideas about how to deal with being undermanaged.

    2. Lulu*

      A good employee is the one usually hurt by “undersupervision” because a decent employee will have kept up with his/her job properly and the under supervision would mean they were being underutilized by the company and no career input, feedback, guidance, from their manager.
      Thanks to you (and others) for continuing to point this out. I’ve tended to assume that my previous “undersupervision”, while welcome vs. micromanagement, meant that my manager didn’t value me or my position at all and just wished I’d go away. Which has made it tough for me to make a case for myself moving forward in my job hunt – “my previous boss thought I was useless and didn’t want anything to do with me”. It’s good for me to hear there could be another interpretation here – “my previous boss thought I was so competent and useful that they trusted me to be independent”!

      1. Rana*

        Another problem with undersupervision is when your boss encourages you to think have more autonomy than you do, and getting your chain yanked when you accidentally overstep as a result.

        I mean, if this is a project that has a high likelihood of being handed off to someone else, don’t keep encouraging me to view it as my own special responsibility, you know? Because it will hurt more to have it taken away after that, than if I’d been told to expect it, and I will feel resentful if I get chided for not being a proper team player, when I didn’t know I was even on a team.

  9. Jamie*

    How much leeway do you normally have in negotiating the amount?

    #5 – This really depends on the employer. IME if you report to middle management there may be some leeway because sometimes they are given a range or a pool for everyone to divide as they see fit.

    In my case – I report to the owner of the company and there are no games or tests of negotiation going on…the number is what it is.

    In the SMBs for which I’ve worked there were no across the board cola raises – increases are individual and performance based.

    I’ve had them be anywhere between 8% and 25% (for merit only) and 43% when including a promotion. Typically a standard merit raise IME is about 10-12%. For those that do them annually some go by anniversary date and some annually at the beginning of the fiscal year (or other time marker). Many companies tie these to performance reviews (which has it’s downside) because in some ways the review is an explanation for your number.

    I would encourage you to know what your value is on the market – to the best of your ability – so you can evaluate your raise in comparison. For those drastically underpaid coming in merit raises may never close the gap – or they might – but if you’re above market it can help to remember not to get your nose out of joint if you get a lower percentage than you’d like.

    Remember that it’s more important to vet your salary against the market as a whole as opposed to others in your company – because if you ever need to make a change the market will determine what you’ll make elsewhere …not Jane in Accounts.

    1. BW*

      10-12%? Holy carp! In my professional career every place I’ve worked at did merit raises, and they were never ever even close to 10-12%, not even for a promotion except in very rare cases. The standard in my industry seems to be around 3-5%, 4-5% being the case very rarely, and only ever at one employer for the highest performers during good economic years. In the vicinity of 3% is more what I’m used to seeing, same for other people I know who work in other industries – 3-4% is considered a great merit raise. Some years, where a company isn’t doing as well, there may be no merit or COLA raises at all or the % may drop to something 2% for top performers. We’re all apparently working in the wrong industries. :D

      1. Jamie*

        It may be because I absolutely suck at negotiating coming in the door and so I tend to start under market – so with me there may be an element of that at play … trying to rectify that and push me to market level.

        I have never seen them for anyone, though, under 6% unless it was part of a union negotiation for COLA.

        1. BW*

          I would totally poop my pants if I saw a raise of 6% outside of a promotion.

          Back when the economy was booming, the best way to pull in the big increases was to job hop every year or 2. That is what kept me below market for a long time, staying at the same place for 9 years while my peers jumped around getting big increases at each new offer. That doesn’t work so well now. Some people found themselves laid off and having to really lower their expectations for what they would be offered for a job.

          1. -X-*

            Yeah, in my work (nonprofit) merit increases are small – a few percent. But sometimes a junior person really steps up, so they get a promotion – higher level title and larger increase, but same work.

          2. Lulu*

            Ugh, yeah, I was psyched if I made it to 3%, at large public companies, and really that was just COL in my mind. Now that I’ve been laid off and out of work for awhile, I’ve found that I may have to accept 1/2 my previous salary just to get back in the working world and man, is THAT a tough pill to swallow :( I don’t think I want to hear about people getting 6-12% raises

    2. Judy*

      Wow. I’ve worked as an engineer at 3 F100 companies, you’d know all their names. They generally get a merit “raise pool” for the department managers to spread around and the largest I’ve ever heard of was 5% in a great year. Individual raises would vary, I’ve had as low as 1.5% in a 1.8% raise pool year, and as much as 6% in a 4.5% raise pool year. Promotions are usually in the 10% range, but I’ve had seriously bad timing (last promotion in 2009 = 7%).

  10. Jamie*

    I have thought about getting managers to write a few sentences every once and a while about what is going on in their departments and then posting those to our company intranet in a specified column.

    Please don’t do this. No one reads those things, and as a new employee this will totally come off as some ineffective fly by night thing they can ignore until you drop it.

    I don’t know what your position is – but I hope you were brought in to do more than manage communication inside the company – because unless this is something needed in large companies that seems to be something people could bridle against.

    I’m just trying to picture how people in my world would react to someone brought in to help us communicate with each other and that wouldn’t go well in our insular little environment.

    I would work to make sure people knew the value I was adding which will help you gain credibility, and until then as Alison mentioned – get buy in from people who already have credibility and have them help you push you agenda.

    If your goal is to facilitate better communication you want to show them how it will make their jobs easier – not add a layer of busy work.

    1. JT*

      It’s true that many people are not willing to improve internal communications, and many people would bristle at it.

      But it’s very important, especially in large organizations. That’s one reason for so much interest in internal media. And sometime it won’t help the communicator directly, but the organization as a whole. So the trick is how to do it so it is easy for people to share and not a burden, or create incentives for sharing more. Not easy.

    2. Scott M*

      I agree. Communication is about supplying relevant information to the correct people. Anything else is noise. So it would be better to spend the time figuring out exactly who needs to communicate with each other, then put in place a process or tool that makes that direct communication easier.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      I had the thought on this one that they would go, “I don’t have time to do that; screw it.” And nothing would happen. You want to make it EASIER for them to communicate, not more of a pain in the butt.

    4. Vicki*

      Everyone says (in surveys) that they want more company information. In the same surveys, they say they don’t have time to read email and newsletters are ignored. Similarly, everyone wants ore training but won’t take the time to _go to_ training because they’re “busy”.

      I was stuck on a “department newsletter” project for a while. Good news it didn’t have to be paper. Bad news: it had to be perfect, and formatted, and have a lot of images, but it also had to be readable on exec’s Blackberries.

      Did I mention it had to be “perfect”? The VP insisted on vetting each issue. Issue #1 took 6 months. Issue #2 never “shipped”.

      WHen asked what they wanted, engineering managers said “what about a blog?” When questioned ore closely, it turned out they meant “a bog that magically gets written by someone else with no time or effort from us and we don’t have to read.”

      In summary, OP #1: Jamie’s first response is important: do not do this.

  11. Anonymous*

    #3 – I had an employee who was put on a performance plan and she didn’t make the improvements needed in order for us to keep her. When it was clear that it wasn’t going to work out, HR offered her the option of resigning, rather than being fired, and she chose that option.

    What that meant is that when potential employers called, the company would confirm that she resigned, which obviously would put her in a better light to future employers than if she had to say she was fired. So that’s the benefit to the employee and my assumption is that the benefit to us as the employer was that there’s a lot less risk in someone resigning than in having to fire someone (even though there was a well-documented process followed re: her performance issues). I think this is a somewhat common option.

    Who doesn’t benefit from that is future employers, who won’t know that she has performance issues since they will be told she resigned voluntarily. And it sounds like the applications you’re seeing are trying to uncover those instances.

    1. Jamie*

      Yes – resigning in lieu of resignation is often code for “you quit before we fire you. You don’t get UI and we tell people you resigned when they call for references.”

      Telling people they quit in lieu of resignation goes back on that understanding. And you’re 100% right in that it’s the future employer that loses in this instance.

    2. fposte*

      Yes, I’m reading the question as meaning “Has anybody ever decided to fire you?” They don’t care about arrangements at meetings that mean you officially resigned–they want to know if the company told you you have to leave.

    3. Scott M*

      I cannot imagine why anyone would answer this question truthfully, especially if the former company would confirm that the employee resigned. Perhaps the application question is to ferret out those with common sense? Is that too harsh?

  12. Anonymous*

    In my division (made up of 11 sub-units), we have a weekly e-mail that goes out to everyone with highlights from each unit about their achievements that week. We also have a division-wide meeting every other month where we discuss things that impact the department and our division, as well as highlight specific achievements from specific workers or units. There is also a management staff meeting once a month where everyone has to present information on their unit, as well as discuss other important matters. Maybe getting the managers used to talking about it in a meeting might help them if you want to solicit sound bites from them in the future?

    1. Scott M*

      Do the employees pay attention to those things? I know most people around here ignore such emails and find similar meetings boring and unproductive.

  13. Employment lawyer*

    regarding #2:

    The employee should definitely see a lawyer. Generally speaking, wages are given “special” status in terms of debts. They are automatically bumped ahead of most other debts, so you can probably get paid…. but only if you take the appropriate action.

    Failure to pay wages is actually a CRIMINAL offense, which is to say that they can get put in jail (though it almost never happens.) Nonetheless, knowing it’s criminal is helpful for some employees to get a backbone: it’s so important that we’ll put employers in jail for it, so don’t be embarrassed to get to the front of the line.

  14. Anonymous*

    #4: If you do decide to aupair, be really picky about the agency/family you go with. I nanny full-time, and have a lot of friends who are international aupairs. Quite a few of them are stuck with some pretty horrid children – some (not all, but some) families choose to go with an aupair because they can’t find/keep a domestic nanny. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a foreign country with a job you hate, because quitting and finding another may not be an option with your visa.

    1. Jane*

      Completely agree. Had a friend au pair after grad school in Europe and she did not get along with the parents or the children and they hardly gave her any time off to see anything outside their neighborhood. To make matters worse, she was doing this illegally and was pretty much stuck there at their mercy. Pretty stupid decision on her part to take that opportunity in the first place, and now she is unemployed and living with her parents back in the states as she has no professional experience on her resume despite having a bachelors and masters degree…

  15. PPK*

    #2 — I don’t know that I would count on or wait for the building sale. If the company has debt owed to several places (more than coworkers), you may be even lower on the rung to get repaid. There may several liens from other company and/or the bank to get paid. I’m not saying to give up on getting paid, just that money from a building sale may well be sucked up by other debts. I hope you find a way to get your money!

    1. Natalie*

      Actually, back wages are prioritized above other debts, often even above back taxes. The OP will be in a better position if s/he files a wage claim.

      1. Sam*

        The bankruptcy courts may prioritize back wages above other kinds of debt, but there’s no guarantee that an unethical company will do the same if they are not going through bankruptcy. Even in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, unpaid employees have less priority than secured creditors.

        I’d advise the OP to look into state laws. My own state has relatively lax laws on this issue with little enforcement power, but other states may vary.

  16. Janet*

    Regarding #1 – I would see about scheduling a meeting or do a few calls – think of them like beat calls. A lot of the times, directors are so up to their eyes in their own projects that they either have been working on something so long, it no longer seems interesting or they just assume everyone already knows about it. Or they think it’s the most important thing ever and it’s really not. By talking to the people one-on-one you’ll get a better idea of what is important and they’ll feel more comfortable with you. If there are a lot of directors you can just schedule an initial meeting with them and do follow ups via e-mail.

    1. majigail*

      Also- I hate it when people interview me through email or ask me to write something up. If I’m doing that, I might as well write the article for them too!

  17. Anonymous*

    #4. Not exactly the same, but a friend of mine hated her job, quit before being fired and moved to teach english abroad for the past 2 years. now this person has confided that perhaps it was the wrong decision because what are they going to do when they return and is not so happy abroad since they still havent full adjusted and is very lonely since they still really dont full speak the language. now they have a gap in resume and nothing real to show for it since “can kinda speak another language” doesnt really count

    1. Amanda*

      If she actually has been teaching English, she doesn’t have a gap in her resume. I teach ESL on a volunteer basis, and it baffles me when people say that teaching English is “doing nothing.” It’s hard work, just like any teaching job is.

      Her experience could lead into working with immigrants, working in international/intercultural programs at a university or teaching ESL at a non-profit.

      Just some ideas.

      1. Anonymous*

        I’ll let her know these possibilities. Thank you for that, really. I’m not sure what he does, just going off our conversations. Maybe the loneliness is clouding her outlook.

    2. FormerManager*

      At my last job we actually hired a fair number of people who taught English abroad. I personally think this is becoming an option some recent graduates are considering due to the job market. I mentioned above that we worked with an offshore team and communicated with them regularly; showing that you’ve been overseas and worked in another culture was a plus because it showed the candidate could be flexible with regard to cultural norms.

      For example, when I initially worked with the offshore team (I had no international experience except a few weeklong trips outside the U.S.), I provided feedback, negative and positive, directly. Unfortunately, the culture of the team I was working with tended to think any sort of negative feedback was a personal attack on the individual. Fortunately, someone with experience working with that culture explained the communication norms for that culture when it came to negative feedback.

      So I wouldn’t discount the soft skills one picks up from any sort of overseas experience.

    3. K*

      I think there’s two issues here. One is the professional one, but that’s different than feeling lonely and not adjusting. That is a risk of going abroad, certainly, but the challenge of adjusting to a place where you don’t fully speak the language and don’t have any ties is also part of what makes it so rewarding and personally enriching. The fact that it can go badly is a reason to have the means to leave (and to give yourself permission to do so) if necessary, but not a reason not to try.

  18. MT*

    RE: #5 – Thanks for the advice….guess I need to research the market a bit to see how my current pay fits in within the industry averages. I have a feeling, though, that the average for my title varies very widely in my industry.

    1. Jamie*

      Sometimes titles are pretty worthless when researching salary if the scope can be wildly different. That’s the case for me.

      When I was asked to research market for my position I didn’t go to the salary calculators since I my job is a pretty custom crafted amalgam of stuff and they would be useless for me. (And also depressing because if I believed what they list as the average for my position I’d want to drive into a pole. And then do it again.)

      I did a search of the big job boards (I really like Indeed – they seem to list more salary info for some reason) for jobs which were similar in duties and level of responsibility in my local area. I’m in Chicago and since I wanted a sample of 25 jobs I couldn’t find them here so I branched out to other large metro areas in the Midwest. Detroit, Milwaukee, etc. as the salary ranges were similar. It would have skewed the data if I used data from NY or LA for example – or small towns.

      I compiled a detailed breakdown of the jobs used in the sampling with a summary sheet and average to get what I felt was a reasonable market rate for my position.

      It’s a lot easier if your position is more standardized.

      I did use a couple of articles on salary from tech sources, for background information when I presented – but that wasn’t part of my aggregate.

      1. Jamie*

        ETA I couldn’t find them ALL here – I got the majority from my local area within 30 miles of my house. I supplemented with the last 5 or so. I would really try to stay local if you can because that gives you a much better feel for what’s reasonably out there for you, which can be interesting.

  19. Anon*

    I wish people would not tolerate shady business behavior as exhibited in #2. Yeah, they said they stuck it out for the “mission,” but now this poor person’s “mission” is to chase after $10,000 in back wages they may never see. I understand “the cause” and all that, but they weren’t volunteering. It was their job and career. It put food on their table and paid their bills. I find it horrid a company, nonprofit or not, would allow employees to work for months without paying them, and not just let them go and claim unemployment. At least they would have gotten a check and would have been looking for PAID work instead of working for free. I’m sorry, but this letter just burns me up. I don’t think nonprofits should get a pass on crappy business practices and abusing their staff. Sorry. No dice here.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Actually, the OP could have been claiming unemployment that whole time she wasn’t getting paid.

      But I agree with you — if an organization can’t pay someone, it needs to lay that person off.

  20. Yossi Mandel*

    #1: I’m an internal communications manager. The best way to get that kind of news and info is to schedule an interview with each manager. Think of yourself as a reporter. The first few times will be less about getting info and more about building a relationship. They need to come to trust you that you will be using this information for good purposes only and not corporate politics. Once you’ve built that relationship, you may be able to informally stop by as well to talk to them.

    If you are doing this full scale, you may want a communication audit. You can either teach yourself how to do this or bring in a company. You would want to find out what the precise communication needs of your company are. Are there workflow communication issues? Morale issues? Political battles? Inter-departmental conflicts? No messages from the top? No one to hear what employees want? Get business ideas from around the company?

    Good luck. It seems that you have a free hand to develop communication, so it’s in your hands to build what your company needs.

    1. Lulu*

      Agreed on figuring out what the goals/issues are. I’ve worked in places where communication was both a universally agreed upon problem and a universally avoided task, and the heavy handed “well, we just make more emails!” thing never worked, or was necessarily an appropriate “solution”. In my experience, people feel they are too busy to do all of this pesky communication, or don’t understand why anyone needs to know what they’re up to; the irony being, if general communication worked better, the workflow would be better, they might not be so busy fixing and reiterating things…

      So yes, 1) be clear on the actual goals and current obstacles, 2) make the answers as non-intrusive as possible. People don’t react well to what they perceive as (or is) just more work, especially if they don’t see the point of it (ie. assuming no one reads anything). Maybe it’s a process that needs to be improved rather than blocks of info generally shared?

      Another thing that can be helpful, depending on the size of the company/groups, is something like a monthly lunch presentation meeting. We did this on a departmental level, so not a MASSIVE endeavor, but something similar could be done for larger groups. Our department would invite a representative from a different group to come and present either on a pressing issue, new process, new product… something key for them that would be helpful for us to be aware of. People showed up for free food, but also because they realized the value of the information, and it encouraged more of a collaborative experience between departments in some cases.

      (This was always a pet issue of mine, maybe I should look into “internal communications”!)

  21. danr*

    #7 Having been in the position of the employee, going from a very unstructured job to a very structured one, I needed some very specific goals and actions for improvement. If there are specific items to work on, spell them out. Don’t be vague or assume that Jack will understand what you mean. He won’t. Also, write stuff down, or in the meeting, make sure your staff member takes notes, then repeats his interpretation of what was said. And make very clear that his job is on the line.

  22. Bryce*


    I’d respectfully disagree that the au pair opportunity is not a good idea – with several caveats:

    * Doing something like this when you’re 24 doesn’t look nearly as bad as it does when you’re, say, 42. In fact, it can even make you stand out and make for some interesting conversations. Your 20s are a time to take risks like these…provided that you’ve weighed the advantages and disadvantages of all your options carefully.

    * While you’re working as an au pair, take opportunities to at least keep up with the goings on in your field and your professional network. Read trade publications and web sites, keep in touch with your network, and possibly attend a conference if there’s one near you.

    * It’s possible that this opportunity could open an interesting career path for you. For example, you may meet an influential or well-connected person who could point you to a better job than you might get on the open market.

    * Be ready to cut your losses if things don’t work out, and have a Plan B, even a Plan C, in mind.


    One thing that sucks about being a manager is dealing with problem employees. One thing that sucks even more is when you didn’t hire those employees, but inherited them. And despite your best efforts, it’s not easy getting them to improve, particularly when it comes to things like intelligence and drive.

    In a case like this, it may make sense to consider “counseling out” these employees.

    IMPORTANT! Check with your boss and HR department first and follow all mandated procedures and policies first and foremost.

    That conversation would sound something like this:

    “As you know, it’s been a struggle. I’m willing to work with you to come up with a development plan to see if we can make things work better, but my gut says that this isn’t the right position for you. You have some real skills and abilities in X, Y, and Z; but not so much in U, V, and W, which are critical to success. That said, I think you’d be a much better fit with another position, such as Q. Would you like me to create a development plan, or would you like me to help you find a better-fitting position?”

    Your thoughts?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      #7 — I’m a huge fan of the coaching out process you suggest, when your gut tells you that the person isn’t going to be able to make the changes you need. Just a kind, honest conversation giving them the option of choosing a planned transition instead of going down a likely-doomed performance improvement path.

  23. Lisa*

    #3 – Sometimes you resign, ie quit cause you know that you may not have a job in a few months and it has nothing to do with cause – ie -layoffs are looming. Resigning because you know of financial issues that could make you take a pay cut, your paychecks are late / bouncing, just not paid for a period at all, your entire company starts forcing furlough days / unscrewing every other light bulb (i know of a company in Maine that does this), resigning because there is talk of killing your dept, resigning cause the boss’s son needs a job and he was hired to “help” you but clearly you are being pushed out to make room for the Mr. Clearly Not Qualified…

    People quit for reasons like this all the time, the question is meant for people who resigned to avoid being fired for cause. Write – yes, but not due to cause. or whatever.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No, don’t answer “yes” at all in a situation like that! What you’re describing is resigning because you see a layoff coming or for other reasons — not because you’re about to be fired. Fired = for cause. In these situations, people should write “no.”

      1. Lisa*

        but isn’t that lying? I guess my ‘yes’ was more for paper apps not online ones that remove you from consideration.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          No — the question means “have you ever been about to be fired but resigned to avoid it?” It’s designed because if they simply ask “have you ever been fired,” they won’t hear about the people who were being fired but were allowed to resign instead.

          The situations you described have nothing to do with being fired (which means let go because of performance/cause).

          1. businesslady*

            what about when people are “asked to resign” due to misconduct/performance issues/what-have-you. what do you think they should say?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              The prospective employer in that case would want them to say “yes” — that’s what the question is designed to ferret out. But from the employee’s standpoint, answering “yes” will hurt them and it’s very unlikely that the employer could ever find out the truth.

  24. Scott M*

    #7 – I think that this employee is just a bad fit for the job. I also think that previous management hasn’t done a very good job. The combination has been disastrous with this employee.
    The OP mentioned that he has been “under supervised”, which I read as ‘ignored and left to his own devices’.
    Additionally, the OP’s workplace is one where employees are expected to “self-motivated and self-improving”, which I read as “management doesn’t do their job and lets employees sink or swim”. I think the biggest clue as to the failure of management is that the employee has “been close to being fired several times”. Seriously, you should only be close to being fired once. The second time means it isn’t working and you would do the employee a favor (And I’ve been that employee.. years ago!). Clearly previous management was not up to snuff.
    Having said that, Allison’s advice is spot-on. The OP needs to pick a few areas from him to improve, and set specific goals. REALLY specific. Goals where there will be no question about whether or not they are achieved. This will do 2 things.
    1. It will tell the employee exactly what is expected of him.
    2. It will give the OP an unambiguous justification for keeping or terminating the employee.
    Good Luck!

  25. Amanda*

    As someone who loves travel, other cultures and all things international, my gut-level reaction to OP 4 was “GOOOOO for it!!!” But after reading some of the responses, I do think there are things to consider here and I think OP should ask herself these questions before committing.
    1. Does your ultimate career goals align at all with what you are considering doing? Do you have interest in teaching, working with children, international development/relations work, working at museums or tourist sites? If you don’t really know what you want to do, would you consider a career in any of those areas?
    2. Are you OK going into a situation with few protections or structure? Will you be able to skype with the family ahead of time to get a sense of them? Can you hammer out all the details them (time off, living quarters, etc) then? Do they speak decent English (learning a new language is a big draw of working internationally but it can be scary when you can’t even communicate basics with those around you).
    3. Would you be willing to consider working internationally in a program that has more “clout?” Obviously, I have to give a plug for Peace Corps here, although the application process is long and you really don’t have control over where you go. Another option if you want to work in Europe is reputable language schools (some are much better to work for than others and can even add to your resume) although you will probably have to go outside the EU (Ukraine, Albania, Turkey) in order to get a job.
    4. And the most important consideration…do you really want to do this or are you just running away from a bad situation? I am a huge fan of working and traveling overseas but I realize that if someone doesn’t feel passionately about it, it can end up being a very lonely and isolating experience. But if you are fascinated by Italy and you are willing to deviate from your career path (and maybe even get on a different path altogether) then go for it!

  26. OP #2*

    Thanks for all of the advice! I’m going to talk to a lawyer about this and contact the other ex-employees to see if anyone has had any luck. I don’t think I would have been eligible for unemployment because I had a part-time job that kept me afloat, and also we generally received at least one paycheck a month, it was just usually for much less than we were owed. The experience and connections I gained there helped me get my current job which is far better in every way, so even if I never see a dime I think I can make peace with it.

  27. Elizabeth West*

    The whole back wages / bankruptcy thing is making me skittish. I had an interview today with a company that very honesty disclosed that they are in Chapter 11 because of an issue I won’t repeat, but that they are paying bills, etc. The opening is available because an employee is being promoted. But both interviewers indicated that they do not know what can/will happen.

    I am really on the fence about this. I need a job, and I liked them (especially for being honest), and it’s basically the same exact job I just got out of, so I can do it in my sleep. But after going through two layoffs and a company closure in my career, I’m not really eager to take a job at a company that’s in bankruptcy, especially in this economy.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Lots of companies go through Chapter 11 and are just fine, so you’d probably need more info (and the fact that they proactively disclosed it to you and that they’re still hiring are both potentially good signs), but the bigger question is probably, what are your other options? I know you’ve mentioned here recently that you’re afraid of your unemployment running out soon, and that you’ve been out of work for a while. If the job is remotely a good fit, I’d seriously think about taking it to get income coming in and recent employment on your resume again. Being selective is great when you’re in a situation that allows it, but there’s definitely a point where you need to take what’s offered unless there are very big reasons for not taking it, and it’s sounded recently like you might be at or approaching that point (although ignore this if I’ve misinterpreted that).

      Obviously staying somewhere that isn’t paying you, like in the OP’s letter, is a totally different thing.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        No, you haven’t misinterpreted it. *sigh* But I really, really, really see this as a red flag.

        I did not find this out before I applied, which was an oversight on my part, but I did Google them, and it didn’t show up until I added “Chapter 11 bankruptcy” to the results just now. Stupid Google. >:( A news story regarding this said as recently as December that “jobs are in jeopardy,” and mentioned federal indictments, fines, etc. I’m thinking AW HELL NAH.

        If I have to, I may take it and keep looking. She said they are pretty flexible about scheduling, so I might be able to still go to interviews. That just seems dishonest to me, though.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Meant to add, assuming it’s not so low-paid as to be ridiculous. Not sure about that; they didn’t say, but in the phone screen she asked what my salary requirements were and I said something reasonable as a minimum, and she scheduled me for an interview anyway.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It definitely does potentially suck, but I think it’s a matter of weighing it against the alternatives. If it pays more than you’re currently getting through unemployment, I’d take it. Unemployment will run out, the length of time unemployed on your resume will increase, etc. Those things trump it not being ideal. And again, I am all for being selective and turning down jobs where you see red flags, but only when you’re in a position to do that (plenty of options, etc.). It’s really a luxury that not everyone has at every point in their career.

          I do think it’s legit to take it and continue to look in a situation where there’s clear uncertainty as to the job’s stability.

  28. Cassie*

    #7: Assuming you are willing to take the time and effort to essentially re-train him from scratch (if you really want to keep him on for whatever reason ), you really do have to be specific. For example: secretary constantly sends out poorly written emails and makes mistakes with dates/times/mtg locations/etc. Print out some of the emails, use a highlighter to indicate what is wrong with the email, and go over it with the employee. Make the employee send drafts to you for approval before sending out. Once that has been improved, move on to the next deficiency.

    I’m not sure how effective it is, though – some people are just not motivated at all to do even the bare minimum and since it doesn’t appear to be any consequences (he’s been “almost fired” a few times already), why should he care? This is why I think it’s important to hire with certain personality traits in mind – like secretaries should be (IMHO) detailed-oriented. Fund-raising and marketing folks should be outgoing and engaging (I know I definitely don’t have the personality traits to be in that field!). And so on…

    You really do need to “light a fire” under the employee’s seat – either improve or you’ll be fired. But do be clear on “how” to improve. It’s getting me thinking of a coworker who frequently turns in paperwork packets with stuff missing. When I review them, I’ll call her up and ask for the missing documents but she continues to submit incomplete paperwork. The HR manager also mentioned this issue to me the other day. I’m thinking we should take out the checklist, highlight everything she’s missing, give her back her incomplete packet and make her fix it. And only when she has the complete packet, then we’ll accept it. We shouldn’t continue to fix her paperwork packets for her, or let her turn it in piecemeal because clearly she’s not getting it.

  29. Lily*

    #7 You will find out fairly soon whether he is willing to even TRY to improve his work performance, if you follow Alison’s advice. If he can’t improve simply when you tell him that he needs to improve AND he can’t suggest ways to improve his performace AND he is not willing to show/describe what he does, so that you can make suggestions AND he is not willing to take your suggestions, then he cannot help himself and is unwilling to let you help him, so you need to decide if you can live with his current performance.

    I tend to ask for help when I flounder, but there seem to be a lot of people out there who want to conceal any and all mistakes at all costs. Their philosophy seems to be “Never say sorry.” and “Never admit a mistake.” I do work with a lot of free-lancers and it just occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t even be trying to do the above with them. Is that because they only spend a portion of their work week on my stuff?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You don’t invest in freelancers the way you do with employees; it’s a different relationship. If a freelancer isn’t working to the level you need, you clearly tell them once, and then if it doesn’t change, you generally just find a different freelancer. You don’t go through the whole process of developing or trying to improve a freelancer’s performance.

      1. Lily*

        If that is what a freelancer expects and perhaps even wants, then they should only be hired as employees when they will be doing the exact same things as employees that they did as freelancers. Someone who is not used to having someone else tell them what they have to improve shouldn’t be hired for a position where they have to learn something new.

        I’m going to have to let go of the idea that freelancers who do a great job should be promoted to an employee position. They may deserve to be rewarded, but they might not be at all suitable. Just like promoting the best performer to manager.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say that no freelancer will do well as an employee — plenty of freelancers do just fine as employees. You want to make individual judgments about that, not blanket ones.

          But while they’re freelancers, I wouldn’t treat them the same way you’d treat an employee in regard to this kind of stuff.

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