I was hired as a change agent but my manager doesn’t support me, disclosing grad school plans, and more

It’s five short answers to five short questions. Here we go…

1. I was hired as a change agent, but now my manager is backtracking

I was recently hired as a change agent designed to bring a new skill set into a well-established department. My manager identified several areas for performance improvements during the interview process. I’ve made an effort to learn about those areas and be delicate when making suggestions or asking questions.

However, it seems that my manager has changed her mind because the team doesn’t want to change anything or learn anything new. She’s no longer open to these things that were said to be necessary. Most of the team has been here for 20 or 30 years and usually rejects my expertise. The response is always “We’ve always done it this way.” This responsibility is half of my new job and I’m not sure how to proceed without any buy-in.

Being a new person charged with making change is close to impossible to do if you don’t have the full and visible backing of your management. Your manager has to have your back here — has to be willing to show your team that she’s on board with the changes you’re trying to make and to back that up with action if you encounter chronic resistance. Sure, there are things you can do around the edges — shrinking the change into smaller chunks, showing your coworkers how it will benefit them, getting one person on board and then showing others’ their success, etc. — but ultimately you need your manager behind you.

Since she’s backtracked, you need to find out why. Does she just fold in the face of opposition? (If so, this is a terrible sign for your prospects at this work.) Or does she have concerns about the approach you’ve been using. (If so, you want to hear more about those and see if you can use her insights to modify the way you’re doing this.) But I’d be very, very wary about what you’re seeing from her.

2. Do I have to disclose to interviewers that I’m thinking about grad school?

I’m in the process of applying to master’s programs that will take two years to complete. The program that I would most like to attend is located in my current city, and there’s a possibility that I could go to school and work full-time if I am admitted. I’ve also considered deferring if I can land a job in my field and get more experience before going to grad school. Obviously nothing’s nailed down yet. What are the ethical considerations for this situation? If the interviewer asks me where I see myself in a couple years, it feels dishonest to not mention grad school. However, I feel that if I disclose that I might leave the job after 7 months or so, I’d rightfully be out of the running. But, like I said, it’s not a guarantee that I will leave after such a short period. What do you recommend?

If you were absolutely sure that you would be attending grad school in seven months, I agree with you that it would be unethical not to mention it. However, you don’t have solid plans at this point — you’re considering options, and it sounds like if you landed in a job that gave you useful experience, you’d stay in it for at least a couple of years. In light of that, this is similar to how you wouldn’t need to disclose to an interviewer that you and your partner would love to move to Alaska in a couple of years. You might, you might not, and it will depend heavily on how a number of factors go, including the job you’re interviewing for. So no, as long as you’re not sure what you plan to do, you’re not obligated to disclose it.

That said, I’d listen to what they say about the type of tenure they want the person they hire to have. If you hear that people don’t start making an impact in the position until the second year, for instance, you’d want to factor that into your decisions (which would mean not taking that job unless you were willing to go into it planning on staying a while).

3. Are small gifts appropriate for my staff?

Seriously not trying to beat a dead horse, but I was promoted just a few months ago over people I have worked with for a few years. They are a great team of 4 people and I wanted to ask about gift giving etiquette. I want to do small gifts, such as $10 gift cards. Is this appropriate for the amount of time I have been supervising them? Or is it so small that it looks insulting? Money is somewhat tight this year for our family and I think it would be a stretch to do any more than this. Office culture in the past has been around double to triple this dollar amount coming from our boss.

Nope, that’s totally appropriate. Most people aren’t looking for expensive gifts from their managers, and something small is absolutely fine. (So is doing something like bringing in food for the group and telling everyone how much you appreciated their work this year.) When people want large gifts, they usually want them in the form of a bonus from the company (not from you personally), and that’s only if the company culture (or history, or explicit statements) has led them to expect/hope for one.

4. Simultaneously using someone as a reference while interviewing with them for a job

I have an interview with the first company this week. If I advance to the next stage, they’re likely to ask for my references. They will presumably ask for a reference from the place where I’ve most recently interned, where I’ve had the most significant experience, and which is the most recognizable organization on my resume. However, I’ve also applied to a position at that second company, the one where I interned (haven’t heard back yet but I’m hopeful).

Should I hear back from the second company, the person who would be my interviewer and direct supervisor is the same person who was my supervisor during my internship — the person who would be the reference I’m offering to the first company. Is this more of an issue than I’m making it out to be? If I do move on with the first company, should I supply the name of my reference from the second company as if I haven’t applied there as well? Or should I insist on providing a substitute reference? If it’s the latter, how exactly should I explain that to the interviewer?

Your old internship manager, the one who you’re applying for a job with now, knows that you’re applying for other jobs too. (And in fact hopes that you are — no one wants to think they’re the prospect a candidate is pinning all their hopes on.) It’s completely fine to simultaneously interview with her and use her as a reference for another job.

5. When dealing with a search firm, should I resubmit a cover letter to explain my deal-breakers?

I have been in the job market for about 6 months. Thankfully, I have a decent job while I am actively searching for a new career. After a few interviews with a couple different employers, and rejection letters/emails, I took the advice of a trusted friend and some advice on your blog about using a professional search firm. I found three in my area and after careful consideration (and somewhat of analysis paralysis of wondering if I should use a search firm), I polished my resume and submitted to all three firms, along with filling out their own questionaires on their webpages, etc.

I submitted it, and the next day realized I didn’t submit a cover letter to any of them. The reason I didn’t is because they didn’t ask for it. I somewhat thought the questionaire about goals, salary range, type of jobs, etc. I thought was their version of finding the key information they wanted.

I do have a couple deal-breakers in my job search in terms of no-relocation, no interest in one type of industry in our town and won’t leave unless my salary expectations are met. Should that have been included in a letter to a search firm? I was under the impression that I would be either meeting with them in person to discuss goals or have a phone call at some point in the near future. I thought a cover letter explaining what types of jobs I was looking for, salary range, along with my skill set seemed to not make sense for a search firm. I have never used a search firm and am unsure about how a few things work. Did I mess this up by not including a cover letter? Should I resubmit?

Nah, this is fine. Deal-breakers don’t usually belong in a cover letter, whether you’re dealing with search firms or employers. You can cover that information with them if they contact you.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    #3 is a relief to hear now that I spent the weekend baking cookies for my team.

    And just to be clear, I (female) have established my authority very well already. The reaction will not be “She’s bringing us cookies? This is what she offers us when all we want is a clear decision on Project X?” but rather “She can bake? How does she find the time after spending most of last week saving the [Blank] account and fixing the [Major] disaster? She really is a miracle worker.”

    That distinction is very, very important. If I had any qualms about my authority with my employees or status with my peers, it would definitely be gift cards.

    1. AB Normal

      “She can bake? How does she find the time after spending most of last week saving the [Blank] account and fixing the [Major] disaster? She really is a miracle worker.”

      That was precisely the type of comment I heard when one of my managers once brought to the office decorated Eastern eggs with homemade candy inside. People talked about it for months. She was an extremely competent and accomplished manager, and the gesture only added to her stature with her team.

      But I agree, for a poor performer, this would probably just make their reputation worse.

      1. Anonymous

        Whoa how did she get the candy inside?? I made eastern eggs years ago and we just poked a little hole in the bottom to drain the insides. She’s skilled!

  2. Not So NewReader

    OP 1’s situation reminds me of a lame duck government official situation. Circumstances prevent her from moving forward on anything. I can see where this is a tense moment for OP, because the heart of the matter is “Does this company really want a change agent?”
    I hope this boss did not hire her to do something the boss herself could not do.
    Unfortunately, OP, I think the question to your boss is “What CAN I do here? How do I help you and everyone now?”

    I had a situation where someone told me “You are not my boss. I don’t have to do what you say.” Technically speaking, I was not their immediate boss. However, my position was such that, yeah, the employee did have to do what I asked. I went to my department head and repeated the remark. I never heard that remark again. The grapevine told me lots of grumbling was going on but nothing was said directly to me. This was an individual that would have done his utmost to rattle my cage if my department head had not jumped in immediately. None of us were surprised when he quit suddenly.

    1. Ruffingit

      I’m torn. On the one hand, I’d say go to the manager and ask what can be done now since the manager no longer supports the OP doing what the OP describes as half of her job. On the other hand, I’d say keep quiet, do the other half that you can do and aggressively job hunt until you can leave for a place where management is actually supportive of you doing the thing(s) they hired you for. I’d probably go to the manager to ask because that is the right thing to do, but the “eff you” part of me wants to say “Collect a full paycheck for doing half the work they hired you for until you can find a better situation.” But then, I’m feeling a little bitter this morning so it could be that ;)

  3. Another Day

    #3. The only thing I wondered about was the last sentence which makes it sound like previous manager gave gift cards that were 2 or 3 times bigger than you can afford this year. In that situation, I would do something different– a lunch or breakfast or treats for the group to share or a gift — so it’s not directly comparable with what the previous manager did — maybe it’s just the folks I’ve worked with, but in our group there would definitely be some ( negative) reaction to a smaller directly comparable gift from the new manager. …sad but true.

    1. Anonymous

      I agree with this. I’d also let people know ahead of time so they don’t bring in lunch or whatever on that day. But a nice meal or treats of some kind you could find comparable in cost to the certificates and then you don’t have that difference in gift amount since it is a different thing.

    2. PEBCAK

      I think it’s wise to stay away from things that have an obvious dollar value anyway, even if there isn’t a comparison to the last manager. I don’t like the idea of indicating to employees that their contribution is worth $10. I know that’s not *really* what it says, but a non-monetary gift seems less open to criticism.

    3. Miz Swizz

      I’m in a similar situation and bought each of my 3 employees a box of chocolate. I was thinking about getting them giftcards but I only know for sure of one person’s preference for restaurants near here so I scrapped that idea.

    4. OP 3

      So my staff’s old boss is still in our office. My job is a new middle management position, and I report to her. (I hope that’s not terribly confusing.) I actually spoke to her this morning about the situation. And she told me not to feel obligated to gift. She is still doing the same as she has in the past (whew). I might do cookies and skip the gift cards all together and instead write some meaningful notes in Christmas cards. My all time favorite present was a note from a boss when I really needed the pick-me-up. It was 3 years ago I think, but I still have it and read it when I’m down about my job.

      1. Ruffingit

        The personalized note is wayyyyyyy underrated! Frankly, it means more to me sometimes to receive something that tells me how I made a difference to someone’s life or what a good job I am doing than it does to get another $10 gift card or whatever. Not that gift cards are bad, just saying the personalized note is a really nice touch!

  4. Anonicorn

    #2 – Pay attention to any comments or clues during interviews about current employees being in school, because some employers encourage it and are flexible with scheduling, and they might even offer reimbursement benefits.

    1. Judy

      I’d just say to think strongly why you want your masters and how you plan on paying for it. Many companies do offer reimbursements and I can’t think of many fields where trying to get a job with a masters and no experience is better than 4 years of full time experience while getting a masters part time (and possibly no debt).

      1. Frances

        Unfortunately, the days of paying your own way for grad school by going part time and working are gone – I am working and in school and I have to take out loans. Tuition creep has not just been in college!

        1. Judy

          I wasn’t talking about paying her own way, I was talking about reimbursements. Looking online, the highly competitive (and highly priced) university I received my masters from has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. I know my company, who used to pay for any kind of graduate school apparently even not related to your current job, is now requiring significant scrutiny before committing to spending $50,000 on a degree for an employee. But there are still people being approved. And they still are doing the program where they alternate sending employees to school for a semester then rotate to work assignments, including international ones, paying engineer salaries while they are in school.

          I just know that in my field of engineering, if you don’t want to teach, you’re not going to get much traction with a masters and no experience.

  5. HR lady

    #5 – Just wanted to mention my experience with search firms – of course I don’t know if this varies depending on the type of job and your location. I often submit my resume to a search firm and never hear back from them.

    The way I think of it, especially since as an HR professional I’ve been on the other side of the recruiter “table,” is that each time they are doing a “permanent search” (i.e., not trying to fill a temporary position), they are looking for the right person for that specific position, not just volumes of people. So they like to have large databases of candidates from whom they can find the 2-3 (possibly) right people for each position. That means they might not call you (or me) for months or even years until the “right” position opens up that matches my skills, experience, industry, etc. And that can be very specific depending on your experience – much more specific than just whether you match the number of years of experience in the job ad.

    Not sure if all that makes sense, but the point is you might not hear back from them for a long time (if ever), and that’s not personal about you.

  6. periwinkle

    #1: Change is difficult in any workplace but a situation like yours is particularly tough – you’re the newcomer (and outsider) coming in to tell the employees that what they’ve been doing for years is wrong. How dare you! (that’s what they’re thinking) They’ll dig in their heels, and it sounds like the manager is taking the easy way out by letting them dig in. Change is hard.

    1. Read up on change management theory. If you have time, I recommend reading “Diffusion of Innovations” by Everett Rogers – it’s a classic in the field. Rogers was a communications researcher who was interested in how people in a community adopt (or resist) new ideas. This isn’t a “here’s how to solve all your problems!” book written by a consultant, but as you read it you’ll start to gain insights and get ideas about how to approach change in your department.

    2. Read up on change management models. Many of the ones I’ve seen are geared towards those who are (or have the support of) top bananas in the organization, but you’re looking for ones usable at the department level. I like Dormant’s Chocolate Model; Dormant is a past president of the International Society for Performance Improvement, a professional org that focuses on workforce (rather than process) improvement.

    3. Always keep in mind this question when you’re diagnosing performance issues and strategizing change: “What’s in it for me?” Your manager needs to know (or be reminded) how she will personally benefit from her department’s improvement. The employees need to see how change will benefit them directly – this gives them a stake in the process and a reason to work with you instead of against you.

    1. HR lady

      #1 – I also suggest “Who Moved My Cheese?” and “Our Iceberg Is Melting,” if you’d like to read about change management in quick and digestable fables.

      You are in a hard position, as a new person trying to bring about change. I recommend continuing to have open conversations with your boss to figure out what’s going on. I wouldn’t write him/her off without trying to figure things out.

      In fact, since you are new, I’d also recommend you spend more time finding out how things do work (the things they’ve been “doing that way for years”) before recommending too many changes. It will help you make better recommendations, and it will give you more credibility. Change is hard for lots of people (including, perhaps, your boss).

    2. Zahra

      I don’t know if this is a good strategy, but…

      It seems to me that there’s always a thing or two that people would like to change about their processes. Ask them to tell you the changes they’d like to have, without thinking about the consequences or implications, just a brainstorming the ideas. Or, shadowing them and asking them why this procedure that looks overly complicated is done that way.

      You know, the old chestnut about the wife who cut the tip of the ham because her mom did it that way. And her mom did that way because her own mom did it that way. And when you asked grandma, it was because the ham wouldn’t fit in whatever vessel she used.

    3. anon

      Yeah, this situation doesn’t surprise me at all. Most people who’ve worked for the same company for 20 plus years believe they have seen it all and they just aren’t interested in changing anything at all. Plus, they probably think YOU should be the ones learning from THEM, since they have way more seniority than you do.

      I worked at a company where my boss kept telling me how they wanted to change things and improve things. Yeah, the truth was they wanted the exact opposite. They wanted to keep everything exactly the same while paying lip service to “innovation.”

      Another thing to consider is how old this company is. Newer companies have to change. They care about being cutting edge. Older companies care more about maintaining the status quo. If you are working for an older company, they may actually not really be interested in change at all, even though they may pretend like they do. It can be hard to know because they may not own up to this fact.

  7. Joey

    Sorry this is a bit off topic, but I just hate the term “change agent.” It implies that as many things as possible will be changed. Nothing about changing things for the better or not changing things that don’t need to be changed. I just picture someone coming in and changing for the sake of change. Which is usually changing things to the way he is used to which is really no change at all for the “change agent.”

    1. Not So NewReader

      A change agent could also be someone in a little booth with lots and lots of coins….ha!
      The nomenclature in business sometimes gets me. But it also bothers me when people’s jobs are poorly thought out- poorly planned. The boss should have been able to anticipate resistance and had a plan in place to help OP.
      Joey, your post here got me to thinking that if these people do not like the boss then it would be fairly predictable that this would add to OPs problems. It is more acceptable to hate the boss’ right hand person than to directly hate the boss. OP, try to find out what the overall relationship of the group is with the boss. Some how I don’t think everything was peachy before you got there. My clue is that employees feel free to say they have been doing something a certain way for x years and see no need to change. I find it tough to believe they never once said that to the boss. Strong bosses squelch that remark the first time they hear it because they know if they don’t then they will just keep hearing that remark over and over. (Some bosses can squelch it in a nice but firm way.) These employees know they can say this and get away with it.

  8. Joey

    #1. If the manager has changed her mind that means she thinks the changes are not worth the negatives. So the only options are to:

    1. Convince her that change is necessary.
    2. Accept that its not.
    3. Move on if you disagree.

    Otherwise, why would you proceed with implementing a change that your manager thinks isn’t worth it?

  9. Sara M

    #3, consider writing a personalized note with each gift card. Handwritten if your writing is at all decent. About 5 sentences thanking them for something specific they did during the year, or a particular quality they possess that’s wonderful, and tell them how pleased you are to be working with them in the coming year too. (Of course, only say things that are true.) This should be pretty easy for 4 people. The note plus $10 gift card will be better than a non-personalized $30 gift card.

  10. Katie the Fed

    #3 – as a new boss last year I gave each team member a small gift and a note that told them how much I appreciated them being part of the team, with a mention of something specific that they contribute. They loved it :)

  11. Kerry

    When people want large gifts, they usually want them in the form of a bonus from the company (not from you personally), and that’s only if the company culture (or history, or explicit statements) has led them to expect/hope for one.

    I broadly agree but I’m pretty sure a bonus at any time – whether expected/hoped for or not – would be very much appreciated!

    1. Jamie

      Yes, this. I’ve never gotten angry about an unexpected bonus.

      I don’t need any lead time in order to take money people want to give me – I’m super accommodating that way.

    2. Juni

      I had a workplace offer to allow us to take a bonus in December or in January, our choice. Nice for tax planning! I was super close to the next highest bracket, so I took it in January and adjusted my deductions. (It helps to work for people who do taxes!)

  12. Anonymous

    #2: Do not assume you know how grad school / work will interact until you actually get there. Continue looking for a job as if grad school were not an issue until you get a grad school acceptance letter. After you actually get into a grad school, then you’ll have to change your approach. At that point, assume that you’ll have to give up or significantly change your job once school starts.

    Some grad schools do not allow grad students to have jobs. In my grad school, holding a job was a fire-able offense that would get you kicked out of the program. Some grad schools encourage or expect you to hold outside jobs. Some grad schools provide you with an assigned job (more common in STEM than elsewhere – this was the case with my grad school). Many grad schools do this on a case-by-case system, based on the whims of your adviser.

  13. MrsG

    #1 is a problem I had once. The manager said she wanted all the paper files to be scanned. She specifically told me to clear out one file cabinet (throw out the outdated manuals, scan old reports, shred old employee files). This was stuff from 30 years back, and I didn’t have much else to do, so I got the whole cabinet cleared out pretty quickly. When I told her, she said “I didn’t think you’d do it that fast,” and started panicking, even though I showed her everything I did and consulted with her on a lot of things.

    This is the same manager that I talked about in the comments once before. She dumped everything off her desk into the floor and told me to clean it up while she was on vacation, as well as her bookshelves and window sills. She pointed out specific things that I could throw away, and then got upset with me when it was done when she got back and pulled all the things she told me to throw out back out of the trash.

    I spent 5 months there, lol.

  14. Anonymous

    For #3 – I don’t pretend to speak for anyone besides myself, but I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with monetary gifts that come from my manager’s personal funds rather than from the company. It’s certainly less awkward than the reverse situations, and something that can be waved off as basically celebratory like bringing food into the office or paying for a meal is fine. (I figure most of those are covered by our mutual employer but I don’t feel obliged to ask for confirmation of that.) But a gift card just feels weird – I want my manager to help me do my job productively, not to give me handouts out of their presumably higher salary. Accepting a cash gift feels like an inappropriate blurring of the distinction between the business relationship and the personal.

    But maybe I’m biased because the last time I ran into something like this, it was from a manager who clearly meant well but wasn’t competent to address any of our actual business problems.

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