should I give my colleague feedback on her employee, written reference questionnaires, and more

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

1. Should I give my colleague feedback on her employee’s manner?

My role is quite specialized, and my education and work experience make me uniquely qualified within our organization for the work that I do. We are a very egalitarian organization, and I do my best to make myself available for special requests from anyone. Last week, I received a request from a coworker to join her and her subordinate on a conference call to address questions the subordinate has about a new system that we’ve put in place. The coworker’s subordinate is a bright young woman who’s one year out of college; by all accounts, she’s doing a great job, and her curiosity does her credit. Her boss – my colleague – helpfully forwarded a list of questions that they would like me to address, some of which are rather presumptuous demands for justifications about the new system that’s been implemented (e.g. if there are cheaper and/or “better” alternatives, when neither the young woman nor her boss make purchasing or financial decisions for our organization – this is just to satisfy their curiosity).

I want both the coworker and her employee to continue to feel comfortable reaching out to ask questions, but in this case I feel that my coworker should have vetted the questions before forwarding them to me and given her employee guidance about what questions are appropriate (and/or how to couch them). My plan is to address their questions during the call, and then follow up later with my colleague. I don’t feel it’s my place to instruct my colleague’s employee about what is and is not appropriate. Do you think I should take this up with my colleague, or should I let it pass without feedback, and hope that the young woman in question doesn’t go on to rub someone else the wrong way?

I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it unless it starts to become a pattern. That said, there’s nothing wrong with saying something on the call like, “I wasn’t sure about the context for some of Jane’s questions, like the ones about costs of alternatives. Can you tell me more about why you’re exploring that, so I can make sure I’m giving you the most helpful information?” And then, if it does turn out it’s just curiosity, you could certainly point out that balancing the pros and cons of different systems is a more complicated process than you could do justice to in your current conversation (and perhaps also that your X Department did carefully vet that question and considered factors like __ and __, not just cost, before this system was decided on). That said, it’s hard to do this without coming across as defensive or overly turf-protective, and in general you want to err on the side of being more open, not less open.

But ultimately I’d leave the larger issue — the “stop being presumptuous or you will annoy people” issue — to her manager, until/unless you start seeing multiple recurrences.

2. Being asked to fill out a reference questionnaire instead of giving a reference over the phone

An intern who worked for us last year recently asked me to be a reference for her. She just did okay at our company….I think that ultimately the internship wasn’t a good fit for her, but since she had some good skills and qualities and I could see her doing well somewhere else, I agreed to be a reference for her.

She recently interviewed at a company that she really wants to get into, and I think she would do well in the position. Her potential future supervisor sent me an email asking me to fill out a reference questionnaire. I’ve never had to do this before and was expecting to have a phone call. This might not bother me this much usually, but I just got back from my industry’s biggest trade show of the year and will be buried for the next two weeks, and then will be out of town again after that. I’d like to ask to do a phone call instead, especially as some of the questions I think would be better handled over the phone (like the ones about would you hire the candidate again; do you think I should hire the candidate, etc). I don’t want to hurt her chances of getting hired, though. Is this a normal hiring practice?

It’s not uncommon, but you’re right that it often takes up references’ time unnecessarily and puts them in an awkward position when they don’t want certain feedback in writing. Moreover, it’s a huge missed opportunity for the employer doing the reference-checking, because you get a ton of information from people’s tone over the phone — how enthusiastic they are, where they hesitate, etc.

You can certainly reply that you’d prefer to talk over the phone, but you do run the risk of harming her chances if they won’t entertain that option, unfortunately. You could minimize that chance, though, if you framed it as something like, “I’m excited to be a reference for Jane, but my workload right now means that a phone call will be much easier for me. If you call me at ___, I’d be glad to tell you about Jane’s strengths.” That way, you’re still saying something positive even if they don’t ultimately call you. (Note: If this intern actually did great work for you, I’d push you to just fill out the questionnaire — both because I believe that doing that kind of thing is part of the deal when someone gives you great work, and there would be fewer issues around not wanting to put sensitive feedback in writing.)

3. My coworker is pushing me to be friends with her friend, and I’m not interested

I’m the sort of person who likes to keep my work life and my personal life separate, for various reasons. However, someone I work with who is sort of in a position above me (I work as the front desk receptionist for a small medical practice and they are one of the practitioners, so not directly above) today met their friend for lunch. After lunch, they both came in and the practitioner introduced us, saying that they were really excited for us to meet and was confident we would be good friends.

The practitioner then proceeded to exchange our numbers for us (giving their friend mine and vice versa) without really asking permission. The practitioner’s friend grew up in the town I just recently moved to and I think this is why they are trying to force this friendship on us – they think I need friends in the area. However, I am not comfortable with this association. The friend is considerably older than me, and due to their association with my coworker I wouldn’t feel I could truly relax in any situation. How should I navigate this? I will ultimately want to turn down this friend’s offers to hang out. Is there a tactful way to do so?

For now, I think you can do nothing; the friend may not even reach out to you (and may be similarly rolling her eyes about your coworker’s match-making). But if she does contact you, you can always plead scheduling issues — as in, “It was great to meet you. My schedule is really busy these days so it’s hard for me to get together, but it’s great to know about another person from FormerCity in the area!”

4. Interacting with a company on social media when you’re applying for a job with them

I have been interviewing with a company for over five months now and I have still not received a firm “yes” or “no” from the hiring manager. The time that the interview process has taken doesn’t shock me because the company is not necessarily hiring for the position that they’re looking at me for. The problem I am asking about is social media etiquette between myself and this company.

I am an avid social media user and so is the company and my interviewers. I am consistently getting followed by members of the company on various social media channels and I haven’t met a majority of these people during the interview process. Do you have any idea what this might mean? How much should I interact on social media with the folks who are looking to hire me? (I’m currently employed elsewhere.)

I wouldn’t read much into them following you, and I don’t think you need to interact with them on social media at all. If there’s a natural opening to do so and you want to, then sure — but I wouldn’t go looking for opportunities to do that as a particular strategy.

5. Listing amounts of time at each job on your resume

Someone recommended including timetables in parenthesis for each job on my resume like LinkedIn does, to help hiring folks quickly see how long you’ve been at each job. For example:

Chief of Staff
December 2013 to Present (7 months)

Communications Director
January 2012 to December 2013 (2 years)

Good or bad idea?

Nothing wrong with doing that, but it’s not really necessary — employers are used to quickly making those calculations themselves on the 99% of resumes that don’t do this — and it will clutter your resume a little. I wouldn’t do it on mine or recommend a friend do it, but if you’re dying to do it, it’s not like you’re going to get rejected for it.

{ 178 comments… read them below }

  1. Esra*

    #5, I’d find this a bit patronizing, honestly.

    #3, I can’t think of anything you could do about it, but I think it’s so not cool that this person is giving out your personal number without asking.

    1. Purple Dragon*

      #3 – I second Esra’s comment ! I’d be most displeased. I think I’ve mentioned on here before that I’m being treated for PTSD due to being stalked – so this would push all my buttons, but I do understand that’s probably just me.

      Is the friend a good networking contact ? Maybe not for hanging out socially but for work or other contacts ? If she grew up in the town you just moved to it might be nice to have a contact who could give you some inside info, like if you wanted to join a club, or maybe even look for a job there. It might be worth a coffee or two ?

      1. Jessa*

        This, I have serious issues about people sharing my personal information without permission. Heck, I had just sent a friend a picture through my private account on my phone and he shared it around whilst knowing better (it’s an account on my personal website, ONLY for my phone and only about 5 people know what it is.) I instantly changed the email. And explained to him that he knew better than to push around my personal info. Yes I’m paranoid, but I’ve had issues with people who know no boundaries in personal relationships. I have a public email that I can use and ignore people I don’t want to talk to (they’re all shuffled into a “do not read me,” folder in case I some day need to read them.)

        I really do not like people who think that any information they’re given is free to pass along to anyone without asking first.

        1. OP #3*

          Yeah, like Alison said, I think there was a bit of mutual eye-rolling on the friend’s part as well, but I didn’t appreciate how they just assumed we’d want to trade contact information… then proceeded to do it for us when neither of us really stepped forward to initiate it. Luckily, I don’t feel that the friend would do anything malicious with the information.

          I’m most worried about how to answer the practitioner when they inevitably ask if we’ve gotten together yet.

          1. Jazzy Red*

            You can say that your schedules haven’t meshed yet, but that you look forward to seeing her when you can.

            Keep it as neutral and non-informative as possible. It’s a lot like not really wanting to date a person that someone else thinks it “just perfect for you!!” and keeps pushing you two to get together.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      #3–seconded. A coworker of mine once gave my number to a guy she barely knew whom I had never even SEEN, because she was trying to play matchmaker. So some dude calls me out of the blue and says “M gave me your number.” I told him I was sorry, but that I had not given her permission to do so and was not interested, thank you, have a nice day. Then I went back to work the next day and let M know that she was not under any circumstances to do that again. If she had someone she wanted me to meet, we could arrange something outside of work but please do NOT give out my personal info. At first she got defensive, but then she realized it probably wasn’t a very good idea and apologized. It didn’t happen again, and to my knowledge, she didn’t do it to anyone else.

      One of the most infuriating sentences in the English language is, “But I was just trying to help!”

      1. Clerica D. McClerkykins*

        Shel Silverstein said it best: Some kind of help’s the kind of help that helping’s all about / And some kind of help’s the kind of help you’d rather do without.

        Somehow I seem to get a lot more of the latter than the former.

        1. OP #3*

          Anything that can be explained succinctly by Shel Silverstein is good advice in my book.

  2. kas*

    #2. How long is this questionnaire? If I was swamped I’d much rather fill out a questionnaire instead of receiving a call at an inconvenient time.

    1. GrumpyBoss*

      Agree. I recently was called on for a reference that was being performed by a third party. My contact had prepped me and I was expecting the call but what I wasn’t expecting was the third party to have no information on the background of the candidate, nor the job she had applied for. It resulted in me being asked for a great deal of context for a list of questions that should have taken the hiring manager 5 minutes. Instead, I spent 45 minutes with them. Thankfully she got the job, because I would have been pressed for time to do that too many more times.

      I’d take the questionnaire any day.

    2. Jen*

      I’ve filled those out a few times. They aren’t great because they are very much one size fits all. But also, they take like 10 minutes to fill out. If this is how the office does references (through an outside questionnaire company) a phone call won’t work. The “busy” excuse gets on my nerves a bit. It’s 10 minutes and you can do it wherever you have internet access so you can even do it at home.

      1. ArtsNerd*

        Eh, different people expend energy on different modes of communication. I tend to find the phone draining, and usually prefer writing – but if I have to be diplomatic and careful about what I say, writing the phrases just-so to strike the right tone, and convey truthful but positive information (perhaps, depending on the situation, hinting at concerns between the lines)…. ugh, that takes a lot of energy I’d rather not expend when I’m busy! And a phone call would get all of that info from me, still diplomatically, but MUCH more quickly.

        1. ArtsNerd*

          That said I haven’t seen one of these before so if it’s just checking boxes – then yeah, the LW might be over-agonizing her responses?

          1. Jazzy Red*

            My friend recently had to fill out a reference questionaire and took half an hour. It went on and on and on, and much like an online job application, died before she could hit enter. So she had to do it all again while trying to not time out. Big pain in the butt, and I can understand a busy person not wanting to spend that much time on it.

            If a reference taker is too damm busy to talk on the phone to a reference, why can’t you understand a reference be too busy to fill out a questionaire? It happens.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            The OP emailed me the questionnaire. It’s some boxes, but also a bunch of open-ended questions. To do it really well would take a minimum of 20 minutes, but I think the bigger thing is that she doesn’t want to put the less flattering stuff in writing.

        2. Vicki*

          Hmm.. I’m not at all certain that a phone call would get that info from me. :-)

          The only time a call would get more from me is if it’s something I don’t want to commit to writing. Example: I was contacted once by a recruiter trying to fill (my previous) job at the company I had recently left. I set up a phone call to explain to him why I left and why I thought the company was highly dysfunctional.

    3. MJ*

      You might consider ignoring the questionnaire (if possible, cite a company policy that discourages anyone outside of HR from answering certain types of questions) and writing up your own reference giving the information you think is most relevant and helpful. We have sent out questionnaires on occasion, and we did not think less of a candidate when their reference sent a letter instead of filling out what we sent.

    4. Meg*

      The idea of the questionnaire makes me wary… Many large corps (like my former employer) have a blanket policy to forbid employees from giving references at all – the only thing they’ll allow is HR to comment on employment dates. Of course, current employees do want to help their former coworkers, so they’ll still agree to be a reference anyway – but having to put anything in writing would make me want to back out of giving a reference in case my employer found out.

    5. Anx*

      The ones I’ve had to request are really long. I hate having to ask my references to fill them out. The worst part is they expire, so I have to ask every 6 months for one company.

  3. Anon*

    I really dislike the “because I said so” vibe from #1. If openness is a quality you value, don’t consider the questions “presumptuous” and just answer them. For some employees, the more they know about why things are the way they are, the better they are able to see ways they can usefully contribute. From your examples, I fail to see in what way the questions asked were “inappropriate” except that you feel your judgment shouldn’t be questioned. It sounds as though she’s eager to be of as much use to the company as she possibly can. Shooting her down because you read her questions as “demands for justification” might eliminate a potentially useful source of input and cause her to feel that her enthusiasm is undesirable.

    1. A Dispatcher*

      I guess I’d want to know what exactly the questions are before making a judgment on this. There is a world of difference between asking if there are better alternatives (well, if there were, wouldn’t they have been chosen) vs asking why a certain system was chosen and what benefits does it have as compared to other systems. She may be familiar with system A and knows it’s cheaper than system B and is therefore wondering why B was chosen without understanding that A doesn’t have all the capabilities that the company needs or B has a better reputation for not crashing, etc etc.

      If she’s just asking in general about the system chosen and if there was something better I can see why OP may be bristled by it a bit as that does seem a bit like she’s calling the decision-maker’s judgment into question, however I think it’s best to treat it as curiosity vs malice until proven otherwise.

      1. LW #1*

        Hi, I’m the person who wrote the first letter. I don’t want to expose too many specifics about the questions I was emailed just to preserve my privacy, but I ran them by my partner (in case I was overreacting after working all weekend), who also thought the first four or five questions on the list were fine, but that #6-10 were pretty out of whack. We’ve been going through a lot of changes this year, and the system in question represents a big shift. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the dissatisfaction that is evident behind the questions is shared by my coworker (in which case having her employee voice them is a little cowardly). By the way, I’m not the one who made the final decision about this system, I’m just the one who knows the ins and outs best and has supervised its implementation.

        I appreciate Allison’s feedback and I’m going to follow her advice: address their questions, as I’d planned, and not say anything more about it. I don’t think either of them are coming from a bad place.

        1. LizNYC*

          If that’s the truth, that Coworker is using Newbie Worker to voice concerns, then please don’t take it out on the Newbie! Newbie is just regurgitating what she’s been told about the new system and was probably told this line of questioning was acceptable! When I look back at what I did as a fresh-out-of-college worker bee, I shudder at some of the questions I asked those above me because they were the wrong questions to ask, the wrong phrasing (that was unintentionally offensive), or furthered the internal political agenda of my boss.

        2. Anonsie*

          Do you think it’s possible that there’s grumbling within their team and they want to be able to contextualize it for them to smooth it out? Or even if it is coming from them– since they’re asking you for information they are at the very least assuming there’s a reason for the bits that might be inconvenient for them and want to know what those are. That’s fair.

          Either way, I don’t know. I don’t get the sense from those questions that they’re overstepping a boundary, and I can think of a lot of reasons why they would need to know that you could put under the umbrella of “curiosity.” If this is the worst you get from these changes, consider yourself lucky.

        3. Sadsack*

          Could it be the way the questions were written, as opposed to how they might be asked verbally? Maybe the wording the new person chose was poor and conveyed a meaning that she did not really intend. This is a common problem with emails.

    2. Purple Dragon*

      I had a different read on #1 but that may be because of situations I’ve dealt with (IT Implementations). If the questioner has no authority in that area it would raise serious red flags at my company.

      My answer if someone did ask this would be “The company went through due dilligence and decided that this software/approach best fits the business requirements”. I’d also mention it to your manager in case there’s something else going on.

      1. GrumpyBoss*

        I once worked for a company where the ongoing joke was, “everyone here is an expert on everything except for the job that they were hired to do”. You try to be transparent and inclusive, but eventually it becomes counterproductive. Lots of armchair quarterbacks will steer your project into death by committee. Sometimes you need to tow the “this is how it’s going to be” line.

        1. PEBCAK*

          Yup. Plus the straight-up waste of time. If the OP’s company did their due diligence, I’m sure there’s a pro/con document around somewhere…the junior colleague can read through it.

        2. Bend & Snap*

          So true. I’m in marketing and I swear EVERYONE thinks they can do marketing better than the people who were actually hired to do it. It’s the same everywhere I’ve ever worked.

          1. Koko*

            People think marketing is whatever feels right in their gut…not a scientific discipline with decades of data-driven research into best practices.

            Unfortunately, some marketers think that’s what marketing is, too.

    3. Jen RO*

      I very much disagree. These decisions are not made in a vacuum – people met and discussed and decided and bought the system. An employee who started asking questions about it would seem (at best) very naive. It’s bought and implemented, what on earth do they think they can influence now, especially as a junior employee?

      I would not talk to her manager about this, but I would keep an eye out for similar behavior, in case it turns out to be more than one moment of naivety.

      1. Chinook*

        “These decisions are not made in a vacuum – people met and discussed and decided and bought the system. ”

        I had to deal with this with a colleague (I mentioned it in a Friday post) and it really did strike me as either naive or that she was assuming that I willy-nilly made blanket decisions. Umm…no. A lot of thought and rationale went into developing our program and procedures and while there may have been a better way for it to be done from your department’s perspective, the reality is that this program had to suit many, many different departments (and with an eye for how this may evolve in the future) which means compromises were made after all the pros and cons were weighed.

        Ironically, I may agree with what the colleague said and understand why she is asking the question, but asking me to defend a decision above my pay grade, rather than just explain, puts me in an awkward spot that may have as the only acceptable answer “because that is the way it is.”

    4. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      Mmmm, I don’t know. I don’t mind answering questions about “why” from anyone and in fact I go out of my way to explain “whys” when we’re implementing new things to increase buy in but the whole formal list of question things would likely rankle me also.

      If the questions were framed as “please educate me, I would love to understand the process that goes into making a decision like this”, I’d eat it up with a spoon. If they were framed as “justify your decision to me”, I’d be in a “bite me” mindset. :p

      *Generally*, it is good to inform, inform, inform when you are asking the people you work with to make changes or adapt to new things.

      What I would probably do in this situation is treat the junior employee if she had requested to be educated on process, no matter the actual tone of the questions, and see what happens next.

      (The set up the OP describes is foreign to me. I think of us as an egalitarian organization also but I guess we are a lot more top/down than I thought. A curious junior person would ask questions when we’re standing by the coffee machine, not in such an oddly formal, to me, way as described.)

      1. GigglyPuff*

        Maybe since I’m newer to the work force, but I definitely agree it read to me, more along the lines of “please educate me”, instead of “I might know better than the people who made these decisions”. It even says the person is curious, my guess they are just trying to get a sense of how things work.

        It took me months to figure out who decides what, who purchases what, etc…

        It could also be that the person’s manager wanted them to come up with questions for this meeting, but the person had no interaction with this system, (and I know personally, it isn’t until I start using the system, that I come up with specific questions), and couldn’t think up enough questions that they thought looked numerous enough or good enough for the manager, they through in a couple extra.

        And also because she is new to the field, she may just want to understand the overall mechanism of how a new system is chosen. One of the great things about my job (and the worst), is I’m grant funded, so I’m strictly limited to what work I can actually produce, but this is the exact environment I want a permanent position in, so I’m taking this chance to ask questions, ask to sit in on procedures, making changes to databases, etc, and my boss and co-worker are great about letting me.

        So if you can, approach it more of a, “let me help her have a better understanding of how these things work, interact as a whole, that makes this field work”.

        (Unless of course, there’s a clear attitude problem during the conference call, then never mind) :)

      2. LBK*

        If the questions were framed as “please educate me, I would love to understand the process that goes into making a decision like this”, I’d eat it up with a spoon. If they were framed as “justify your decision to me”, I’d be in a “bite me” mindset. :p

        Agreed completely with this. One of those questions is saying “I’m interested to learn and expand my knowledge and I think your insight on the process would help me do that” and the other is saying “I’m skeptical of your judgment and have a hunch that I know better than you.” I would definitely take offense to someone basically saying “Did you actually do your job, or did you just wing it?”

      3. fposte*

        And it involves a conference call, and it includes that employee’s manager. That’s all way out of my experience.

        Also, for me I’m less startled by the notion that the junior staffer is entitled to the explanation than the one that she’s entitled to the OP’s time to make the explanations. No matter how sharing the organization, the OP should be entitled to assess her own time priorities and say that she can only briefly address some of the aspects or even the whole thing. Transparency and openness are great, but if you stop to explain processes one on one with the whole organization, you won’t have time to execute any processes.

        1. Colette*

          Yes, I think it’s odd to make time to meet with someone who doesn’t need to know this stuff. If there is a business need for the junior employee to understand the process/decision, that’s normal – but if it’s just curiosity, her time would be better spent doing her job. In my experience, people who want to understand everything often end up producing nothing (because they don’t want to act until they understand everything, and that’s often not possible).

          1. Angora*

            It could be a need to put all the pieces together in the proper sequence in order to perform better. Some individuals do better if they understand the overall process and their role on the treadmill to completion.

            If the newbie does not require the entire info for their job; or future responsibilities …. than limit the scope of the questions. You can state that you have only so much time and feel that I can only answer these questions in that time frame. No one has time to explain their reasoning to other individuals in the organization.

            1. Colette*

              It could be a need to put all the pieces together in the proper sequence in order to perform better. Some individuals do better if they understand the overall process and their role on the treadmill to completion.

              I’ve worked with those people. They got laid off in the first wave of layoffs, because understanding the whole process/project is not reasonable if it’s complex.

              Learning to focus on what’s important and leave what’s not is an important skill – and sometimes people shifting from simple systems (in a small business or school environment) to a large system need guidance about what is appropriate and what is not.

      4. Anon*

        Yes, this. I’m someone who loves to understand the ins and outs of all areas of the business and the processes involved in decision-making. The more I understand about where management’s heads are at, the better I can tailor my contribution to what the organization needs and identify areas and opportunities to go above and beyond. I’d be insulted if someone was information hoarding and wanted to take me down a peg and have my manager put me back in my place. There’s no telling what kind of genius people may possess outside the workplace or which circles they run in, whatever their position may be. As a human being with outside interests and influences, it’s possible they could be on top of subjects the decision-makers don’t want or have the time to follow, or have a unique approach or solution to a problem or need. It also sounds like the junior employee is expressing an interest in whatever it is OP does that is so specialized and unique and might see herself pursuing a similar path. OP has the opportunity to be a mentor, if s/he chooses.

        I also agree that this process is very formal. If I were the junior employee, I would have come directly to OP myself and asked to have lunch so I could pick his/her brain. Hopefully in such a case s/he’d feel flattered and not so annoyed, and my genuine curiosity would be apparent.

      5. LW #1*

        Hi Wakeen,

        My organization is geographically diffuse, so there’s no opportunity for chats around the coffee machine. Thus the conference call request.

        I absolutely share your attitude about questions – the more people understand about what we’re doing and why, the better. Buy-in is crucial. Unfortunately the questions were unambiguously worded as “justify these decisions to me,” and yes I did indeed bristle.

        I’m doing the call this afternoon and will answer the first few questions head on, and then see if I can get at what’s behind the questions by asking if there have been user-end problems with the new system that I’ve been unaware of, or that need to be further emphasized because they’re a bigger deal than I currently realize.

      6. Jamie*

        I agree with WT, in that I’m always happy to explain the whys and I generally am pretty happy someone is interested enough to ask – that said, it has to be within reason.

        No, I’m not going to schedule a meeting with the new AP clerk because they want to know the details of what went into the decision to choose the ERP we did. If they don’t have a background in DBA how much time do I put into teaching them the basics so they can understand why X was an important factor.

        The questions need to be reasonable and not phrased rudely or with the expectation that I owe them either the explanation or my time.

      7. Anonsie*

        My org puts a lot of emphasize on answering those whys, too, because making changes that affect people and then saying “we did our due diligence so trust us” is not well received by most people. It doesn’t kill you to highlight what some parts of the due diligence was so people understand what you’re doing.

    5. Amy B.*

      I sort of got this vibe also. As Wakeen’s Teapots said below, without seeing the questions, its hard to know if these were “explain yourself to me” or “I’m very interested in how you came to your decisions; please teach me” kind of inquiries. I would too treat them as if the employee wanted to learn more about the process. Never pass up an opportunity to teach.

    6. Ed*

      This is a huge pet peeve of mine. Every time we implement a major IT change (usually security-related) there are always a handful of low-level managers who want to make sure they let us know how wasteful they think it is and for us to provide a full explanation. If the email was about how they simply don’t understand what problem the change solved, I would have no issue providing a brief answer. But the tone is never merely inquisitive but usually aggressive and occasionally outright nasty. Do they think we made big changes and spent millions of dollars on a whim? We are well aware it will have a major impact on some users and that was presented to the decision makers. I’m always tempted to give them the direct number for the CEO so they can personally let him know how dumb they think his idea is but instead I have a canned generic email I send them which shuts them up 95% of the time.

    7. Vicki*

      I also want to know why OP #1 assumes that the “presumptuous demands” are coming from the “subordinate”. She does say… “Her boss – my colleague – helpfully forwarded a list of questions that they would like me to address,”

      That looks (to me) like they may have created the list together.

      Stop calling your colleague “presumptuous” just because you are “uniquely qualified” … and try not to let that attitude show in the meeting.

  4. Joline*

    I think something funny’s happening in your answer for #3:

    “But if she does contact you, you can always ,scheduling issues — as in…”

  5. Just curious*

    #2 – I’m genuinely curious about this (just saying that up-front in case this sounds critical, it really isn’t), but would anyone actually say “I’m excited about being a reference”?

    I’m not from the US, so its probably cultural, but if anyone I know said that, it would probably be taken as sarcastic. I mean, giving a reference is fine, you might even be pleased to do so, but unless its really out of the ordinary, nothing more.

    I’d say I’m “happy to provide a reference”, or even “looking forward to speaking to you”, would be more the pitch I’d expect.

    Often suggested responses on this site have similar language, where the language used is WAY more enthusiastic than seems realistic to me. Does anyone actually do this in practice?

    1. Scot*

      I think it’s a US thing, really. US posters here tend to use this sort of language a lot in their replies, and it always feels weird and OTT to me but I think it’s just cultural. It does make me take a step back sometimes and wonder if they are being sarcastic, though.

      1. GrumpyBoss*

        Welcome to 21st century America. That’s the way most of our business communications are, because god forbid we offend someone or do not show the right amount of enthusiasm.

        Drives me insane.

      2. fposte*

        It’s funny–I’m USAn, and I dearly love giving references (brilliant grad students are fun to talk about), and I couldn’t imagine saying that I’m “excited” to give a reference.

        1. KarenT*

          I’m Canadian, not American, but saying I’m excited to give a reference is definitely something I’d say (and mean). If I spend two or three years supervising/mentoring an employee, I’m genuinely happy to see them move on to bigger and better things, either internally or at another company. The upward trajectory at my company is a little limited right now (downsizing, so there aren’t as many opportunities to move up as there used to be though there are still some) and I love being a reference for those great employees that I can’t promote.

      3. RA*

        I’m from the US and I find it OTT too. I’m seeing a lot of this overly emotional language, like “I would love” and “I’m excited”. I tend to be more direct and not add so much emotional fluff, especially since I don’t actually feel the emotion in question most of the time. Like, I’m glad to be a reference, I’m glad to help, but I would not feel sincere saying I was excited about it.

        1. Scot*

          The ones I see identifying themselves clearly as US based generally do, as an overall tendency.

    2. Betsy*

      This is a US thing. While it’s hard to look critically at my own culture from inside, I have read a number of sources which talk about a sort of American insincerity, where our cultural language is structured around being warm and friendly. “It’s so nice to meet you!” “How are you?/Good! You?” There’s also a real compliment culture here.

      Because we use this kind of positive upbeat language as a kind of neutral resting point, we need to ramp it up a notch when we’re actually happy. “I’m happy to provide a reference” could mean anything from “This is pulling teeth, but I’ll grit my way through it,” to “I view this as part of my job, so I’ll do it when needed,” to “I’m happy to provide a reference.” To make it clear that we actually mean “happy,” we have to use words like, “thrilled,” “excited,” “delighted.”

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        Very true. Telling a customer that I’d be happy to help to them carries (almost) a connotation of doing them a favor. We reach for words like “delighted” or “would love to” or we are “excited” to work on their projects.

        “Looking forward to being able to work with you” < also works whereas "We'd be happy to work with you" << doesn't.

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          p.s. It does work as good distancing language, though. If we have a potential customer who is asking for more than we are willing to give, we’d turn the wording this way: “We’re happy to help you in whatever ways we can, but we’re not able to continue to [fill in the blank] [insert other nice language]”

          Which, is basically, we just fired the customer. Happily. ;)

          OMG we are all Southerners! Bless our hearts.

          1. Betsy*

            Yeah, I was thinking about the entire interview process. “It was a pleasure to meet with you for yesterday’s interview. On reflection, I believe this position is not a good fit for me, so I am withdrawing my candidacy. Best of luck in your search!” => “OMG you are a micromanaging tyrant. Your people are all clearly terrified, and one blatantly warned me, ‘Don’t come here! You’ll find yourself trapped with useless skills and never be able to find another job. Flee! Flee!'”

          2. fposte*

            Though take a USAn to some Arab countries or Southern Europe and the amount of socializing you have to get through before you can do business will make us crazy :-).

            1. Kelly L.*

              One memorable experience of mine, I had to book a service on behalf of my employer via a vendor who was just a few hours south in the same (Midwestern) state. He. just. kept. talking. Just general small talk. I tried once to steer it back to the booking, and he steered it right back to the small talk, firmly. There was a definite sense of “Yes, lady, we’ll get to that, but around here, we finish the small talk first.” I just let him take the lead after that.

                1. Kelly L.*

                  Oh, it irritated me too! But we needed the service and it needed to be in the town it was in, and they were pretty much the only game in town. After about the third time I talked to him, I had gotten used to needing to yammer on for a few minutes before actually mentioning what I’d called about.

                2. fposte*

                  I bet it’s like the cultural differences in personal space, and some sociologist somewhere has identified the social-time business conventions in various cultures. While I don’t want to spend ages talking about family and friends, I also don’t want a call out of the blue that doesn’t have a gear-changing moment of “Hi, how have you been, and how are things?” This amount of social time seems obviously correct to me :-).

                3. Chinook*

                  “That would’ve irritated this Canadian to no end.” I want to say you are from southern Ontario? This Albertan went through much culture shock in Ottawa when business conversations rarely included the weather, sports or gardening. I knew I had adapted, though, when i trained my replacement (from nova Scotia) who had a shocked look on her face after a call with a supplier. I asked if she felt uncomfortable after such a brief call and she nodded. I then explained to her that small talk was not part of business culture there.

                  Once, I was having issues with my cell phone as I drove from Ontario back to Alberta. Ontario help lines were brief and to the point. The minute I made the call in Saskatchewan (because the issue still wasn’t fixed), the conversation included questinos about what I was seeing on the road (I was a passenger) and how the weather was. I swear I could feel myself relax as we then solved the issue.

                4. Esra*

                  Haha yes, I’m from southern Ontario. Basically the most small talk is:

                  “Hello, how are you, I’m calling about X.”

                  “Hi, good thanks, now about X.”

                5. Mallory*

                  While I don’t want to spend ages talking about family and friends, I also don’t want a call out of the blue that doesn’t have a gear-changing moment of “Hi, how have you been, and how are things?”

                  Our recently-former dean’s assistant (who stormed out one Friday afternoon in a fit of anger and never came back) used to do this all the time. Several of us couldn’t get used to answering the phone and having her jump right in to the middle of a sentence blurting out what she wanted from us, so we started rewinding the conversation by responding, “Why hello, Crazypants, how are you?”

                  I don’t like a whole long, drawn-out spiel of small talk, but I do like a greeting and just enough preamble to be able to figure out what the heck the person wants.

        2. Just Curious*

          Thanks for all your responses :-). I’m a Kiwi, we are all terribly self effacing down here and would only admit to being excited in the most extreme situations, which makes me think we must seem quite a lot less enthusiastic than we actually are. I’ll definitely bear this in mind when corresponding with Americans so I don’t sound like I don’t care. (We also don’t ‘reach out’ to people unless we are passing them something but that’s another post altogether…).


          1. Scot*

            I’m in the UK, and I feel the same. I run into this a fair bit when communicating with my US-based friends online. I have to mentally recalibrate myself every time.

            1. Julie*

              This is so interesting! I’m a U.S. American (is there a better term for that?), but I’m not enthusiastic on the outside even when I’m feeling it on the inside. So I think I need to go overboard in order for people to know that I really do feel the way I say I do (“happy” to provide a reference, or “looking forward” to seeing you, for example). I’m tempted to go back to just saying what I mean to say, but I would feel bad if people misinterpreted my manner and thought I didn’t care as much as I do. I’m going to have to think about this some more.

          2. A Dispatcher*

            In the same vein, I got to be good friends with a German exchange student while she was studying here and I remember one particular thing that struck her was how often and flippantly we used the word love.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I would totally say I was excited to give a reference if it was for an employee who I liked and wanted to see do well, and I would mean it. I love giving references for those people.

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        Ditto. Gave a reference just last week and because I was so proud of what the candidate had done, I was definitely excited. Also excited because it meant candidate could escape this place. But he is good for the position too. I said I was excited and meant it.

        1. Just curious*

          I love your name. I’m going to start saying that, it already annoyes the heck out of my kids when I say totes, totes ma goats will really set them off :-)

  6. FiveNine*

    No. 1 opens with saying he/she is a highly specialized role, clearly indicates a willingness to keep the door open to those who are curious, and that neither the young woman nor her boss make purchasing or financial decisions for the organization. I think it’s also important to give the OP the benefit of the doubt here. It’s entirely possible the question is utterly inappropriate given that a highly specialized person has agreed to spend time on a conference call discussing issues of interest to an employee one year out of college. OP isn’t suggesting making an issue of it with the young woman but with her boss, which might well be appropriate. (I’m tempted to recommend ask during the meeting whether the young woman’s boss had considered a better candidate or one who would have cost the organization less in salary, and why the boss didn’t go with the other options. Hey, it’s an open organization; apparently that means there’s nothing inappropriate.)

    1. LW #1*

      “OP isn’t suggesting making an issue of it with the young woman but with her boss, which might well be appropriate.”

      Yes, in this context I wouldn’t want to embarrass the junior coworker by suggesting that some of her questions were out of line. She has a close, positive working relationship with her manager, and that’s where the constructive feedback should come from. Not me.

  7. Betsy*

    #1, Without knowing everything about the situation, I don’t know if this is a possibility, but I was in a similar situation once. I felt fairly disrespected, like this person was coming in and demanding justification for my decisions, but it turned out that he was assigned to evaluate options for a totally different system, and was trying to get a feel for how the organization made its purchasing decisions.

    I like Alison’s suggested phrasing for that reason: it assumes there is a reason why the questions are being asked. If there is, you learn what it is and can structure your answers better. If there isn’t, you send a gentle reminder that there should be reasons for questions, not just questions for the sake of questions.

    If it were me, I would probably respond to the email before the call with a version of that question, because it “gentles” the question a little by framing it as info you need for meeting prep.

    I would use language like, “Hi, Bob. I’ll go over my answers to these on the call next week. I’m not sure of the context for questions 2-4, however. I want to be sure I’m providing useful information, so could you ask Jane to summarize her specific interest? Explaining the entire selection process would need a longer meeting than we’ve budgeted.”

    1. Sarahnova*

      I really like this phrasing. I also think it’s important to find out why the employee is asking – I think it quite possible it’s just badly-phrased or -communicated curiosity, in which case the employee could benefit from a gentle “just for future reference, it’s good to explain why you are asking questions like this, because it can make it seem like you’re questioning people’s judgement”.

    2. LW #1*

      That’s a terrific idea, thank you, Betsy!

      I’m really glad I’ve run this by others and have received such helpful feedback!

      1. John*

        But if this co-worker continues to press these issues, I think you would be well advised to keep her focus on the issues at hand. “At this juncture — now that the company has made a decision to purchase this system after a rigorous due diligence process and we’re up and running — what we’re being asked to focus on is X, Y and Z…”

        In other words, what’s done is done and there is no point in wasting our time replicating a due-diligence process that was long-ago completed.

  8. Betsy*

    #5: I’ve never been a hiring manager, but I’ve participated significantly in hiring decisions, and there are some resumes I’ve read where I would have appreciated that labeling. However, those are all resumes where the number of positions was a red flag and I was trying to calculate months on everything. If the amount of math required to determine the basic length of all of your positions is onerous, your problem is probably more the number of positions that the way you’re writing out the times.

    1. OP #5*

      OP #5 here:

      Fair point…I’m in an industry where frequent job changing is common, or at least not uncommon, among young professionals trying to advance in their careers. I’m in government, and new jobs are the only way to get pay raises, due to salary freezes (so no COLA, no bonuses, no year end raises…ever). I’m trying to highlight that I’ve been at some of my jobs longer than it might appear to someone giving my resume a 5 second glance. Ex. a job from Jan. 2012-Dec. 2013 might look like one year if you’re not paying attention, and I was trying to stress I’ve been there two full years. Not sure whether I’ll go the LinkedIn route of adding timelines, but good to know it’s not a horrific idea!

      Thanks, AAM, for featuring my question! You rock!

      1. Sharm*

        I can understand that, but I just don’t think anyone would mistake Jan 2012 – Dec 2013 as one year. Even if someone misread it the first time, they’d figure it out when constructing your whole timeline.

        I thought you were going to say something like, Jan 2012 – May 2012, and put down 6 months (assuming something like Jan 1 – May 31).

        I think you’re fine without the month calculation, FWIW.

  9. Serin*

    See, I responded to Letter #1 with, “Wow, you think highly of yourself, don’t you?” If that organization were actually egalitarian, there would be none of this business about whether a junior person has used the right tone in asking a question, nor this unspoken “How dare you!” vibrating through the letter.

    1. LBK*

      I don’t think being an egalitarian organization excuses being tactless. I’d be equally annoyed if a question like that came from a peer or even a manager. It’s basically questioning your ability to do your job, which is really rude.

        1. fposte*

          I don’t know if “tactless” is the word I’d use, but receiving a list of assigned questions would certainly take me aback.

        2. NavyLT*

          But I think it is tactless for a newer, less experienced person to say, “Did you think of this? What about this? Did you consider this?” Yes, yes, and yes. It comes off as the new person walking in and questioning the experience and expertise of everyone else, while having very little experience and/or expertise him/herself. Asking why we chose A over B, or how we arrived at answer C, is fine, and those are generally good questions for junior people to ask.

          1. Colette*

            The day one of my teammates started, I was walking him through one of our tools. He immediately said “OK, we need a better tool that does X, Y, and Z”.

            It was not a good first impression. What he’d said was not news – I knew the tool wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t have budget to buy a different one – and it gave me the impression that he didn’t think I knew my job.

            (Now we get along well, BTW, but it took a while.)

          2. Mike C.*

            I work in Quality, so I do this every day, even for folks who have been doing their job for 30 years or more. The questions aren’t intended to imply that someone knows what they’re doing, they’re asked to either educate or to ensure that nothing important was forgotten in the rush to get things done.

            1. LBK*

              Again, this is coming from a completely different perspective…obviously if a Quality employee is asking me questions, I understand why. It’s implicit in your role. I really think your view is skewed by your position and your background here.

              1. Mike C.*

                Quality (or if you’d prefer process improvement) applies to every line of work. Could you explain how my view is “skewed”?

                Again, why is it that being asked to show your work is some terrible offense? There’s a point where you shouldn’t be a jerk about it, but the number of people who are upset at the idea of someone asking them a question is simply baffling to me.

                1. LBK*

                  Also, I’m not saying that Quality doesn’t exist in every line of work…I’m saying that your specific job is asking people questions about how they do things, so obviously you don’t view it as inappropriate or invasive. Your job role specifically entails asking those kinds of questions. It’s ALWAYS your place to ask because that’s why you exist. If you weren’t in Quality, it would be completely different for you to be asking random departments questions about how they do things to make sure they’re being done right.

        3. Colette*

          Not if you have a need to know (e.g. you are looking at implementing a similar system) – but if you don’t have a need to know, then it’s not reasonable to expect other people to spend their time satisfying your curiosity.

          1. Mike C.*

            There’s certainly a call for time/place/effort in how questions are answered. What I don’t agree with is the idea that a question is a direct challenge to one’s competency.

            1. NavyLT*

              I’m pretty sure no one is saying don’t ask questions. What I’m saying, and what I think a few others are saying, is that the way you ask the questions matters. You can ask in a way that makes people want to answer, or in a way that makes you sound naive and entitled. It’s particularly important as a new/junior person to learn the difference.

        4. LBK*

          Again, there’s a difference between “Could you walk me through the process you use to arrive at this decision? How do you weigh cost vs. features when there’s a range of products available?” and “Did you know there’s a cheaper product out there? Why didn’t you use that one?”

          One is seeking understanding of a process, the other is questioning the OP’s judgment, which is pretty rude especially coming from someone who’s not involved in the process at all.

          1. LBK*

            And if this question were coming from a manager, I’d still expect it to be phrased in a less confrontational manner. More like “I know we were looking at options X, Y and Z, can you give me a quick run down of why we ended up going with Y?”

  10. NavyLT*

    I see why Junior Employee’s questions rub OP #1 the wrong way. There’s nothing wrong with asking process questions, but newer, more junior people need to be careful that they’re not coming off as trying to educate or interrogate someone who’s more experienced (“Did you know that there might be cheaper options? Did you consider them?”) when they almost certainly don’t have all the facts. “I’m curious about the decision-making process” gets the same information, with the added bonus of making Junior look willing to learn.

  11. Mike C.*

    Re: #1

    Coming from a science background, pretty much everything I say is subject to questions and requests to show my process and related data. It’s a great way to ensure that mistakes are found or previously unknown information is taken into account.

    Relax OP, there’s nothing wrong, offensive or rude with someone, no matter how junior, asking you how you arrived at your answer.

    1. LBK*

      That sounds really specific to the science field, though. I don’t think that same level of process explanation is expected or required in other fields. I would find it pretty annoying if my boss questioned me on every step of my process – I would assume that meant he was taking issue with some aspect of it.

      1. Mike C.*

        It’s specific to any field where decisions have significant consequences. This isn’t just a “science” thing, it’s simply where I first saw it.

        1. LBK*

          But I think there are many fields where it’s not appropriate for people who aren’t involved in the process to involve themselves, even with the best of intentions. I have coworkers whose jobs involve QCing my work and keeping me on track – my manager, for example. You don’t need to take it upon yourself to inject yourself into that process.

    2. LW #1*

      Good point, Mike. The field I’m in is not science. And the people who ask to see your data, or who probe your results or how you arrived at them probably have some knowledge of the techniques you deployed, what the literature currently says about the topic, etc. Not the case here. Which doesn’t invalidate the junior coworker’s curiosity, but it does make some of her questions a little weird – to answer them fully would take far longer than one call, as others have mentioned. And she’d actually need to take a few grad courses in this specialized field to grasp some of the nuances that informed the decision.

      I’m looking forward to the conversation, now that I have some good ideas about how to steer it into less contentious (sounding) waters.

      1. Anonsie*

        “the people who ask to see your data, or who probe your results or how you arrived at them probably have some knowledge of the techniques you deployed, what the literature currently says about the topic, etc”

        You’ve be surprised at how often this is not the case in the sciences. Very surprised… Hahahaha.

        For this concern though– that it’s too much information and beyond her education, you know, you don’t have to give her the minutes to every discussion that’s been had about it. We overhauled some hospital processes here using a 30-something person strong group of people who are all experts in some part or another of operations, and we reported the whole process (not including training) in something like 20 minutes.

    3. Esra*

      There can be though? I’m a big believer that no matter how junior you are, if you see something that doesn’t seem right you should bring it up just in case. But it’s also possible to do this rudely, or for the wrong reason.

      A couple jobs ago I worked closely with a lot of junior designers, most of them were really great. One of them was 100% convinced she could do our manager’s job 100% better than he could, and questioned everything very publicly, trying to make him look bad. She kept trying to ‘catch’ him with questions and her tone was off-putting. She felt entitled to every detail about every project.

      1. Mike C.*

        Yeah, I think that’s legitimate. I’d rather someone end up looking like an ass (or end up looking like an ass myself) than miss something important.

      2. Chinook*

        “There can be though? I’m a big believer that no matter how junior you are, if you see something that doesn’t seem right you should bring it up just in case. But it’s also possible to do this rudely, or for the wrong reason. ”

        This is so important – you need to acknowledge that the other person may know more than you and that your assumption, as the questioner, may be wrong. I am in a position where I know nothing of the technical realities of what my colleagues are doing but I am within my right (and even believe it is my moral responsibility) to raise a red flag and ask a question if something doesn’t seem right. the reality is that I see the issue from the “man on the street” perspective and may see something that is not an issue from a technical perspective but the optics make it look bad. When I raise the flag, I have to trust the people around me when they say they have factored it in to their decision (and I do otherwise I wouldn’t work here because of the possible impact we could have if we messed up). I understand nothing of the science of flow rate or scouring rate or defect life span, so questioning their math would make no sense. For me, it has to end with just raising the question and ensuring that it has been heard.

    4. Colette*

      Would you feel the same way if the person who cleans the office demanded that you explain how you arrived at your conclusion?

      What about a new grad who you were interviewing?

  12. Not So NewReader*

    #1. I am not clear on how many of these types of questions were asked. To me 2 or 3 in a group of 20 is just curiosity. Ten out of twenty is blatant questioning.
    It seems to me that some of the questions should have been redirected to the decision making group, themselves.
    The question that you mention here seems more like it’s about options than actual pricing. That could be handled by saying “Currently, options on the market are X, Y and Z. I feel that Y was a good choice because it is in the middle of being too old or too new.” Or maybe the question was about “I have seen companies just pick the cheapest thing they can find. This company didn’t. I admire that. But why did they chose this?” Like Alison said- what is the thought behind the question?

    To be honest, there have been many people that I have done business with that I freely ask them “Why do you think A is better than B?” It’s a sincere question based on the fact that I feel the person has something to say that is worth listening to. I don’t want them feeling defensive, I want to get an insight from their knowledge and expertise.

    One rule of thumb I have held, for my own experiences, is the tougher the questions are the more people think of me. People do not bring tough/awkward questions to a person that cannot handle it. I have tried to remember this while I banged my head against the wall/keyboard/other handy item.

    Just as an aside: I grew up in an environment where questions were forbidden. Perhaps my bias is showing? I am a firm believer in answering people’s questions. If they are candid- I match their candor. If they are shy/polite/careful then I dial back, too and frame my answer with more care.
    I think that Alison is an excellent role model showing how to answer a range of questions from basic, to tough questions right through questions that are …uh… off base entirely. Watch for times where she tells the person that they need to rethink their question/attitude/approach and you will get cues on what how you may want to handle questions coming at you.

    In short questions are a compliment. It means you are trustworthy and knowledgeable.

    1. SherryD*

      I agree! I’ve always loved bosses that will answer questions outside of the scope of an employee’s role. The employee is showing they’re interested in the company.

      That being said, in the wrong tone, it could come off as frustration with the management.

  13. A Jane*

    #1 – During my first internship, I was always wondering about the different systems and processes and why they were using something so outdated. I wasn’t the biggest question asker, but I should have taken the opportunity to figure out why companies do things a certain way.

    I do think that the manager should have probably stepped in and probably caveated some of the cost questions. But it could be that the manager just simply doesn’t know and needs that clarity.

    1. LW #1*

      “I do think that the manager should have probably stepped in and probably caveated some of the cost questions. But it could be that the manager just simply doesn’t know and needs that clarity.”

      Yes, that’s what I’d thought, and to some extent still do. Thank you! But I agree with Allison’s feedback, that it’s best to let this slide unless it becomes a pattern. It’s not so egregious that it must be nipped in the bud immediately.

  14. anon-2*

    #4. One of the facets of social media – good or bad, for better or for worse, is that nearly everything you do online is traceable.

    If you apply for ANY job — you will likely be vetted by any company you’re a candidate at.

    So if you go on Facebook or Twitter and remark how you downed 12 shooter shots on Saturday, or passed out at the party on Friday and had to be carried home, etc. — they know. They also know your likes, your political beliefs, and even your sense of humor.

    They DO look there. Be careful.

  15. C Average*

    I can see both sides of Question #1 uncomfortably clearly.

    I was a spoiled, precocious child whose every question was welcomed as a sign of healthy intellectual curiosity and entertained with more respect than it generally deserved. I was forever hearing “that’s a great question!” from my parents, teachers, and other adults.

    I asked Great Questions all the way through school and then began asking Great Questions in the workplace, where I was confident my curiosity would be satisfied with the same eagerness and delight my parents and teachers had shown.

    And . . . yeah, no. Looking back on my first years in a corporate environment, I’m pretty sure I was regarded as an intelligent yet naive and very, very, very annoying busybody with an arrogant streak. This went on for a while until a colleague (someone with actual deliverables, instead of just questions) clued me in to the fact that I was asking questions I didn’t have the standing or the knowledge to be posing.

    Aaaand now I am a person with actual deliverables and I get to deal with a few intelligent but naive busybodies who like to ask Great Questions, too. I try to answer when I can and do so in a respectful way, but I also think it’s sometimes a kindness to them to clue them in to the way they’re coming across, as someone once did for me.

    1. Annie O*

      Yeah, I can totally see this happening with new employees. Especially if the company has a disconnect between their promoted culture and their true culture. I’ve know some companies that brag about their open, transparent, egalitarian culture, when the reality is more of a shut up and keep your head down dictatorship.

    2. Jen RO*

      If you’re still reading, can you share how exactly that coworker approached you? I have a junior employee that is very smart and eager, but sometimes goes overboard… and I’m not in a true authority position over him. (I will be de-facto team lead in a couple of months, but right now I am simply a senior team member and I think this should be addressed sooner rather than later.)

      1. C Average*

        It was a bit of a smackdown (and I think it had to be–I was that dense about hierarchies, appropriate/not appropriate, etc.).

        We were on a twice-a-week conference call (Monday and Friday), and I’d had several above-my-pay-grade questions on the Friday call. On Monday, she said something like this toward the end of the call: “C, can you stay on the line for a moment after the call . . . [pause] . . . is it just C and me? . . . Good. C, I wanted to talk to you about the way you approached our decision about the Friday deployment on our call last week. Some of the questions you raised were not appropriate for this call and were frankly disrespectful to our development team. I’ve managed this team for long enough that I know them to be conscientious people who do the best work they can and look at all the options and all the potential consequences before they make a decision. I don’t appreciate having my team’s decisions called into question, particularly by someone who isn’t a developer and doesn’t understand the nuances of site development. The decision we made is part of a bigger workflow, and your team isn’t privy to that workflow because there’s no need for you to be. In the future, please stick to your area of expertise on this call so we can get through our agenda efficiently and so that my team isn’t put in the position of defending their work.”

        My response was something like, ” . . . oh. Ohhhh. OK. Thanks for saying something.”

        As soon as she recognized that she’d made her point, she softened the blow with something like this: “I have huge respect for the work your team does. And I admire your passion for your work and your desire to learn. Just make sure you’re choosing the right setting and the right tone and that you’re keeping it professional.”

        [We still occasionally cross paths and work well together. Years later, I thanked her for being honest with me. She shrugged like it was nothing, but it saved me from making a lot of subsequent gaffes. I think in this case it worked because I admired the holy heck out of her and her work, and would have accepted pretty much any constructive criticism from her as valid.]

        1. Mallory*

          I wish more people (who have the standing to do so) would be direct and frank like this when they see a colleague doing something that isn’t serving them well. Also kudos to C-Average for taking it in — so many people do not receive very well (either from being too defensive or too full of certitude, I don’t know).

          I would love to hear other scripts where people have successfully reached another person and affected their behavior. I love tales of frankness and receptiveness!

            1. fposte*

              Affected. They affected the employee by effecting a change. It might have been a change in the employee’s affect as well as effect :-).

                1. Emsz*

                  I once read a good acronym thingy for remembering that: RAVEN

                  R – Remember
                  A – Affect
                  V – Verb
                  E – Effect
                  N – Noun

            2. C Average*

              I’ve heard that the reason “impact” caught on as a verb is because it helps the writer avoid the whole affect/effect conundrum. Can’t vouch for this being true, but it seems plausible.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            It was difficult for me to get through my skull, people who take the time to do a “smack down” like this are actually saying “You are worth the effort it takes to explain this to you.” They see something of value and they are trying to preserve and grow it.

            More of that covert message stuff.

            The only thing I might add to an explanation of this nature is “Your turn will come. You will see a newbie who has a lot of potential and does a lot of things right. Except for X. And you will decide to help Newbie the way others helped you… for no apparent reason and without deriving a personal benefit. Just because….”

  16. LW #1*

    Haha, thanks for sharing that! I agree with you that part of good professional development is to help bright young colleagues orient themselves to the differences between college seminars and their work environment. The trick is in figuring out how to do that without looking like I’m pulling rank or being condescending or quelling. And in this case I really don’t feel it would be my place to instruct this young coworker – I’d been thinking I should say something to her manager. But I think that this time I’ll just steer the conversation into smoother waters, and trust that everything will go smoothly after that.

  17. MJ*

    #1 People who are entering into the work force for the first time don’t necessarily understand how work works. They come in fresh from college and full of idealism, they have ideas to offer, but they have not yet figured out the work culture thing. You can choose to be offended, or you can choose to answer their questions with grace, and in the process begin to teach them about work culture, teach them about how decisions are made in your organization, and teach them that you are deserving of their trust. This kind of conversation takes time, certainly, and sometimes you may be too busy and have to beg off, but if you can afford the time, this kind of conversation can go a long way toward growing a new employee.

    Much has been written about the young work force and the so-called “sense of entitlement” – how dare a young person come in and expect to be entitled to an explanation of how I make decisions? Whatever their motivations and understanding about work culture (and I generalize here from my own experience), young people ARE coming into workplaces and asking questions that I never would have dared to ask when I was their age/level of experience. They want to know things now – they are not interested in waiting years for the day they are finally high enough up the hierarchy to be consulted. Those of us who have been in the workforce a long time have a tendency to want to defend existing culture, they one we had to slowly elevate ourselves through, but perhaps we need to be open to shifting culture to one that pulls new employees into conversations where decisions are being made, that teaches them how we make decisions so that they are capable of doing this earlier in their careers. If we do this thoughtfully, we might create much more powerful companies by using our full workforce at nearer its potential.

    1. fposte*

      “You can choose to be offended, or you can choose to answer their questions with grace.” But those aren’t the only two options–you can decline answering with grace, you can explain that the time considerations only permit you to answer a few, you can redirect, you can, if true, explain that these aren’t the kind of questions from junior staff that you can prioritize, etc. This binary suggests that anything other than answering in full is unprofessional, and it’s very much not.

      1. MJ*

        Even a short response is graceful. A statement like, “There were too many factors that went into this decision to share – is there something in particular you were wondering about?” has grace. Finding them someone else who can answer their questions has grace. 5-10 minutes of your time has grace. I have found, by and large, that the person I take a little time with will go the extra mile for me and our organization. They contribute rather than undermine. The dividends from this sort of conversation can be huge if you approach it with the right attitude.

        1. fposte*

          And I continue to reject your assumption that saying “No” has no grace.

          I’m in academia. I do a ton of advising, informing, answering questions out of intellectual curiosity above and beyond the call. I also say no sometimes. The two are not only compatible but necessary companions.

          1. MJ*

            If I could edit my comment I would, because certainly there are occasions for a respectful No. I am afraid my point may have been lost through that error. That point is that there is much to be gained from these sorts of conversations (helping to bring a new person into the fold, letting them see how you think and what you value, teaching them that it’s okay to question with good intent) and there is much to be lost by assuming ill intent and by shutting down questions simply because someone is junior or not directly involved in what you do. For me, the “gracious” approach is to assume good intent (unless proven otherwise) and to answer questions if I can.

            1. LBK*

              helping to bring a new person into the fold, letting them see how you think and what you value, teaching them that it’s okay to question with good intent

              This is all nice, and it’s great for when you have time to do it, but it’s all for the benefit of the person asking the questions. There’s not much for the person being asked to get out of it, so it’s going to rank very low on priorities.

              1. MJ*

                Actually, I think it’s for the benefit of the company. Much has been written in business literature over the last decade about employee engagement. Over 300 books in the last 4 years address the topic. There are blogs dedicated to just that aspect of management. There are companies coming up with elaborate reward schemes in order to keep their people engaged.

                The simplest way to engage people, though, is to talk to them. When they have questions, you give them a few minutes of your time (whateer you can spare), you answer however feels appropriate to you in the context, you share a bit of your thinking with them which helps them in their alignment with company thinking – in return their interest in the company grows, they become more engaged with the bigger picture, their institutional knowledge grows (which they will share with others), and they will likely stay with the company longer.

    2. Jamie*

      teach them that you are deserving of their trust.

      Huh? I will teach people the whys of how I do things if it’s relevant to the situation as I believe the more people have a global understanding of what goes into a decision the better – but teaching them that I’m deserving of their trust? No.

      That sounds like I need to justify myself, the job I’m doing, and how I run my department to anyone who asks. I absolutely do not feel the need to do that.

      I’ll help people learn a lot of things, but to trust me isn’t one of them.

      1. MJ*

        As a leader you need people to trust you. They need to know that when they come to you with questions, even questions you think are a bit out of their scope, that they and their questions will be treated with respect (which doesn’t mean you are spending hours justifying everything you do to someone with insatiable curiosity).

        If people ask questions and get rebuffed, they stop asking questions. Instead, they will just complain to each other when they don’t understand things, and complaints can be viral in nature. If people can trust that coming to you with a question means they will get an open response, they will grow as contributors in your organization. It’s up to you how much time you spend on that response – it doesn’t have to gobble up huge amounts of your time, but as a leader you should budget a little time for things like this.

        When an employee comes to me with a question about why we are doing something, I try to remind myself that others (employees, management, as well as customers) might have that same question. By answering it, I am spreading understanding of why we do the things we do. I do not feel challenged, nor do I feel a need to defend or justify. I just explain, and I listen if the questioner has other ideas.

        1. fposte*

          But treating your employees with respect isn’t the same thing as giving them everything they want. You can say “No” to requests respectfully.

      2. Chinook*

        “Huh? I will teach people the whys of how I do things if it’s relevant to the situation as I believe the more people have a global understanding of what goes into a decision the better – but teaching them that I’m deserving of their trust? No.”

        I agree. I am not asking a colleague to trust me personally (which I admit needs to be earned). When I am in a given position, they need to automatically trust whomever is in that position to be capable of making the decisions required of that position. You need to trust that the company hired the right person for that job.

        Think of it this way – you have to trust that the other guys on the road aren’t going to drive into you. That doesn’t mean you trust them individually but you have to have faith that they wouldn’t be on the road if they didn’t know how to drive. If you didn’t have this trust, you would never be able to leave the confines of your own home.

        Now, if you don’t trust the company’s hiring decisions, that is another ball of wax.

    3. A Teacher*

      I’m coming at it from a teaching perspective and I wouldn’t say that most of my high school students or even college students where I adjunct have a “sense of entitlement,” sure some do, but a vast majority are just curious about the process. Education has been reframed to enforce this. Look at Common Core and its move to application based learning where you are supposed to be able to ask and answer higher based questions. Gone are the days when you can say the sky is blue, now you have to take an approach to a statement with a question in many cases. Students are taught to probe everything, even the definites and the for sures. No longer can I just explain what things like the Affordable Care Act are and what the possible reprucussions might be. I have to delve into “If/then,” “judging,” forecasting, “evaluating,” and “speculating” the whys. Education is big on higher level thinking using either Bloom’s Taxonomy or Costa’s Higher Levels of thinking. The same thing applies for what should be standard process questions. This does and will carry over into the work place. Being inquisitive may be annoying, but it is what education is teaching our work force to be and that will also mean a shift for some in the traditional work place when it comes to their way of thinking.

      1. MJ*

        +1000 As it carries over into the workplace, people who are running the workplace have to decide if they are willing to adjust work culture to accommodate this curiosity (gradually, over time). I think organizations that do will benefit from greater and earlier contribution from their staffs as well as less staff turnover.

        1. Colette*

          Here’s the thing – the workplace doesn’t exist for people to learn things unrelated to their job. It exists for people to do their jobs.

          If asking questions/providing answers gets in the way of that, it won’t (and shouldn’t) happen.

          1. Betsy*

            I would disagree that the workplace exists for people to do their jobs. I would say instead that the workplace exists as a place for employees to do the work necessary to keep the company going.

            I spend a lot of time at work doing things that aren’t my job or in my job description: helping coworkers figure out how to book travel, working with people to figure out why their keyboard isn’t responding before they resort to calling the help desk, attending and running brown bag lunches to increase department awareness of technologies and projects out there, mentoring junior employees, being mentored by senior employees, gaining broader domain expertise in some industries my company is looking to enter…

            None of these are directly related to my job. But they help make the company as a whole more productive. I think most good companies would agree that it’s in their best interests to have employees who are more aware of their corporate priorities and SOPs. People don’t get there magically, they get there by asking questions and listening to the answers.

            Obviously, if it’s taken to an extreme, the company won’t be able to get anything done at all, but I dislike this idea that if something isn’t directly related to your current job description, there’s no value in you learning about it, whether it’s coming from the employee herself or her coworkers and superiors.

            1. Colette*

              Yeah, I’m not suggesting everyone stick to a written job description – but they should stick to things they would be reasonably expected to be responsible for, and only pick up extra things if their core responsibilities are done/under control and no one else is doing them. In other words, if it’s not your job and it is someone else’s job, there’s no need for you to spend your time on it.

          2. Anonsie*

            It’s not as cut and dry as “you need to know x and this is y so it’s useless.” I sometimes spend a lot of time learning about process that affect people I work with or potentially my clients so that if there’s an issue, even if it’s not my job to help or handle it, I can point people to where they need to go and let them know what to expect. That’s good customer service for our clients and it’s good support service for my superiors.

            It’s important to know how your company works. Ever been on the phone with a company and had five people act bewildered and transfer you around before you hit the person who even know what you were talking about?

            1. Colette*

              My point isn’t that Y is useless – it’s that it’s something you don’t need to know. If you need to know it, that’s the time to learn it. If you try to learn Y in advance, you’re spending your time and other people’s time to learn it, and you may never use it because actually you need to know Z.

              If it’s something you do need to know, then it’s fine (and encouraged) to learn it, but if it’s someone else’s area, you’re doing everyone a disservice if you believe that dabbling in it will make you as competent in it as someone who does it every day.

              I work in customer service, and if I’m not the right person to help a customer, the absolute best thing I can do for that customer is to get them to the right person.

              1. Anonsie*

                But if you don’t actually know who the right person is, or if you think you do and hand that person has to hand them off again, you’re not doing the job you should be doing. Where I am you need to know *a lot* to even know what department contains the right person, let alone who that person is and how to reach them. It’s not like that everywhere, but that’s why blanketing “there’s no way you need to know anything outside your direct work” isn’t a good standard.

                I guarantee you I give exponentially better service knowing a little about the other departments’ referral pathways and getting folks to the right first contact than someone who doesn’t bother because the number of transfers they go through isn’t a big deal to them… And the other departments appreciate people talking to the right contact the first time.

                1. Colette*

                  Right, but if you’re looking into it for a customer issue, then that’s within the scope of your job and that’s fine (assuming you ask appropriately).

                  That’s not the same thing as scheduling meetings with other departments so they can explain to you what they do, even though your job is to get the issues to them and not fix them yourself.

                2. REsponding to colette*

                  However, if by scheduling a meeting with another department to learn more about what they do so the client experience is improved… it’s entirely reasonable. It will highly depend on the organization, and goals but many areas are vastly improved by cultivating a wider understanding of the whole.

                3. Colette*

                  But at that point you’re asking questions because there is a business need to do so.

                  My issue is with asking questions because you want to know everything, which is intrusive, wastes time, and will harm your reputation.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        My age is showing: How do students know when they are done asking questions and they have their answer?
        And what if something is urgent and needs to be resolved quickly?

        Not being snarky. I have a dear friend whose questions prevent her from making the most basic of decisions for YEARS. And I am the first person (almost) to defend people who ask questions. I saw some of this when I went back to college a while ago, a steady stream of questions.

        I am not familiar with this concept and it’s showing, am sure.
        But I have worked in several places where there was a no fly zone for questions. There had to be because the work place was so frantically busy, stopping to ask a question would sink the whole effort. You could ask questions before or after the busy spell hit, but not during.

    4. Colette*

      Here’s the thing – just because you want to know something doesn’t mean other people are required to spend their time helping you understand, and it also doesn’t mean you’re entitled to spend time trying to figure it out.

      If you need to know for your job, that’s different, but if you don’t, your time would be better spent focusing on your job. If you’re new to the workforce, there’s lots for you to learn.

      1. A Teacher*

        I don’t necessarily disagree with you. I’ve realized as a teacher of millennial and Gen Y (younger than myself) it is so easy to lump them as “entitled” and in many cases this is not true. Every generation gets lumped with something and for some reason my generation (I guess I’m the beginning of Gen Y) If you’ve been taught for 17 years (Kindergarten through Bachelor’s degree) that you are supposed to find out the “how” and “why” all the time that is something that will cause a change in work place dynamic over time. I see people like my sister as a charge nurse at a hospital, so lower management, being more receptive to the “hows” and “whys.” I see my supervisors in other jobs not related to teaching or education taking on the understanding that no longer can you just give an answer, you don’t have to justify why something is done but rather explain why the heck the process is followed so that people can align their thoughts and their own individual processes to make the whole organization work better.

        The very paradigm that is the business world does have shifts that are made. I think that as education has shifted the business world may as well, albeit much slower. Those that are asking the questions at some point will be the ones running the world and being the managers so the shift may come with them, just my opinion.

        1. Colette*

          Absolutely, education is about explaining why (or encouraging someone to find out why), and that can be an adjustment when moving into a job. However, the solution is to explain where the limits are (i.e. “I’m happy to explain how this area works, but it’s not reasonable or expected that you understand every aspect of the process”) so that they understand the norm (instead of not telling them and having them laid off or fired for being annoying and not getting their work done).

      2. Mike C.*

        No one is saying that one’s regular work should be dropped to answer a bunch of random questions.

        The argument instead is “don’t immediately assume when someone questions you that they think you’re an idiot who doesn’t know what they’re doing”.

        1. LBK*

          It’s not just the act of being questioned that makes me think that, it’s who’s asking and how they’re asking it. A random person who’s not involved in the process asking me really targeted questions about certain choices I made is going to raise eyebrows.

        2. Jamie*

          I don’t see anyone assuming someone is an idiot when they ask questions.

          But there is a wide gulf between assuming someone is an idiot who isn’t entitled to an answer and answering whatever is asked in the interest of transparency and earning trust.

          I am a big fan of transparency and practice it whenever possible – but that doesn’t mean I’d justify my decisions to a new hire where it’s not relevant to their job without understanding from whence the question stems.

          I.e. if someone asked me about how I make decision about who gets new computers I am happy to tell them I have a schedule by which various categories of machines are replaced, and the builds I issue people are based on the work they need to do on them.

          To me that’s transparency – there is a formula by which I do things and everyone knows it’s not favoritism or be nice to IT to get better gear.

          That’s a question that can be answered briefly and frankly it’s something that’s reasonable to ask. Now, if a new junior employee put questions on a meeting agenda to ask about my vetting process for purchases or how I allocate my budget – if they had no work related reason to want to know this yes, I would need a legitimate explanation for why this was a valid question before I spent time on that.

          It comes down to relevance. I mean if someone in purchasing was curious as to the thought process that went into the control plans for inspecting purchased goods I’d be thrilled – the more you know the better equipped you’ll be to offer feedback and OFI.

          If someone from an unrelated department wanted to know the same, who had no auditing or other responsibilities in that area, I would look askance at that and want to know why they were asking.

          1. Ruffingit*

            THIS. There are some questions that are simply not the business of the person asking and answering them would take a lot more time than it is worth because there’s no business reason to do so. It’s not about being a biatch who withholds info, it’s about giving people the info they need and/or are entitled to. That’s a fair use of time. Giving someone info they don’t need for any reason other than curiosity may be done depending on time, but it’s not something that should be expected from the asker.

    5. soitgoes*

      I think a lot of new/young employees get their first “real” jobs and are confused when the skills they spent so much time honing in college end up not being needed. “Why are they still using such-and-such program? Everyone knows that version 7.0 is the most useful!” A lot of job coaching focuses on learning the latest programs or skills as a way of demonstrating value. I’ve had to hear a lot of recent grads attempt to push their bosses into upgrading their systems or whatever. Eventually you learn to keep your head down and not be invested in whether or not your company can nickel-and-dime its way into getting its money’s worth out of its setup, but sometimes I feel like the bosses and managers are answering the wrong questions with their responses. At some point they need to say, “I know you think our methods are old-fashioned and that they’re costing us time and money, but this is how we like to do things.” The kids also need to be told at some point that no one updates their Microsoft Office suites as quickly as university libraries do. I got a decent office job and had to re-learn an older version of the software.

  18. Anx*

    As an applicant, my biggest irritation over those reference questionnaires is how they expect you to have all 5 references ready to submit them within 24 or 48 hours, when they took 2 months to get back to you on an application.

    I really resented being put in a place where I had to pressure my references to fill them out right away when they were doing me a favor.

    And one company required some to be non-supervisors but didn’t specify that when I submitted the contact info, wasting 12 hours while I had to confirm new references.

  19. LW #1*

    Hi all, circling back to update you now that I’ve finished the call. The problem was mostly in the wording of the emailed questions. I started the call asking the junior coworker for some context about what was motivating her questions, and learned a bit about her experiences using the new system. We focused on those questions and never went into the cost issue – the tone of the conversation was always respectful and helpful. No follow up necessary. A happy outcome!
    Thanks to all of you, and particularly Allison, for your helpful feedback. I’ve got some good ideas now to bear in mind when responding to tricky situations like this.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Very cool. And good for you for drawing out the real questions! Well done.

  20. Vicki*

    #2 – reference questionnaire

    I’m really confused. If you’re busy,why isn’t a written questionnaire easier? You can do it on your own time. You don’t have to do it all at once. Then you send it back.

    Telephone calls take time, planning, and far more energy.

    1. soitgoes*

      It almost sounded like the OP was testing her “reason” for declining to be a reference at all.

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