a coworker sent a snarky email about me, people who hover over your computer, and more

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

1. A coworker accidentally sent me a snarky email about me that I wasn’t intended to see

How should I respond when a coworker intends to forward to a third party an email that was originally from me, where she has added snarky comments about my original note, but instead of “forward” hits “reply”? Her email was along the lines of “Can you believe Jane said this? {eyeroll}” (I had explained why we had fixed problem A but hadn’t yet taken the time to fix related problem B, which admittedly is bigger.)

I would like to be gracious, but do I even say “you didn’t mean to send this to me, did you?” or do I just ignore it and keep her unaware that I saw what she did not intend me to read.

We generally have a good working relationship, although we work in separate locations and rarely talk face to face. Our managers are in completely different silos, and I’m not going to go to her manager and say, “Look what your employee did!”

I think you have two options for a gracious response. One would be to simply ignore it. The other, which is likely more satisfying, would be respond with something like, “Lucinda, I don’t think you intended this for me! I know it’s frustrating that B is still unfixed; if it would helpful to talk about it further, I’d be glad to.” Or even just, “I don’t think you intended this for me.” Both of those are more generous responses than she deserves, but that’s the point: It pretty much guarantees that she’ll be mortified and ashamed, while you look magnanimous.

2. Did I err in the way I turned down this job?

A couple of months ago, I turned down a position that would have been the perfect fit for me and a great career move, in my opinion. They were really excited for me to accept, and they were aggressive with their counteroffers. I turned it down because I found out that I was pregnant the very night that I was trying to decide if I should stay at my current spot or go to this new company. Yeah, what a night! (My husband and I have dealt with infertility for years, so this was a happy surprise.) I didn’t think it would be fair to them or a good idea in general for me to start a new challenging job while pregnant and then have to go on maternity leave 7 months into the job.

I told the hiring manager flat out that I found out I was pregnant. I was hesitant to be that honest, but at the same time, I would really like to keep the door open for when I’m ready to get back to work after my pregnancy. So, my question is….did I do the right thing by being so open with them? Should I have just turned the offer down and left it at that? I almost think they didn’t believe me that I found out I was pregnant the night I was trying to decide or that they may have thought it was awkward that I was telling them this personal information. What would you have thought?

I actually think you left the door more open this way than if you’d turned it down with no explanation! You gave them a perfectly understandable response, and one that’s considerate of them to boot. I wouldn’t worry about it at all. (And congratulations!)

3. How can I get my coworker to stop hovering over my computer?

My coworker hovers over my computer to see what I am doing. She blatantly watches me type or reads my screen/emails. It’s annoying. I usually pause or start doing something else and then she finally leaves. I do like her and we do get along. What’s the best approach to stop her hovering?

Tell her directly that you don’t like it. For instance: “Hey, Jane, it makes me nervous when you’re standing over my screen like that. Do you need something?” And if it continues after that: “Hey, stop hovering!”

4. After missing an employer’s call, can I reapply there in the future?

I’m wondering if I can reapply at this organization. On Monday afternoon, I received a message from the manager at this organization about scheduling an interview for Wednesday afternoon. I missed the call and only got the message around 5 pm Monday evening. I called back after I got the message and there was no answer. I called again Tuesday morning and there was no answer, but I left a message letting them know I was still interested in interviewing there.

I haven’t heard back from the manager yet, but I’m not really expecting her to call back. In the future, can I reapply at this organization? I feel like a really big idiot for a) missing the initial call and b) not being able to reach the manager. If I can reapply, do I need to address this in the cover letter somewhere?

You feel like an idiot for not being available at the precise moment an employer happened to call and for calling back a few hours later? You haven’t done anything remotely wrong here. You have a life outside of job searching, and you’re not expected to sit by your phone 24/7 in case an employer happens to call. You called back within a few hours, which is more than reasonable. You’ve done everything right here.

If it ends up not working out, though, that’s just bad timing, and you can absolutely reapply in the future.

5. When your references are out of the country

I recently reached the final round of application for a job I really want. All that’s left to do is a reference check. I was asked for three professional references with emails and phone numbers. However, as a recent graduate of regional studies, two of my references are professors who are out of the country and unreachable by phone for another two weeks. All references have been notified and are eager and willing to do so over email while traveling.

Should I expect the hiring manager to simply write them emails upon hearing their out-of-office outgoing voice messages? Will this work against me? Should I write an additional follow-up email notifying HR of this unfortunate timing? I know that they want to hire sooner rather than later so I’m not sure waiting two weeks until the semester starts is an option.

Yes, you should contact HR and explain the situation. Otherwise you risk them assuming that your references just aren’t returning their calls, which can be mistaken for “no one wants to vouch for this candidate.” Send them an email, explain the situation and that the references have assured you they’d be glad to respond by email, and offer to provide additional references if they need you to.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Jen RO*

    #3 – Aaaah, the hoverers… I’m not proud of it, but I ended up telling a coworker to go ahead and sneak up on me if he has a death wish. I tried the (too) subtle way of telling the hoverers that we *can* talk even if we are not looking at the same screen… but that didn’t work. (The worst ofenders sit opposite from me, a couple of feet away.) I’m trying to put together a better script for offender #2…

    1. Simonthegrey*

      My best friend is a hoverer. Actually, so is my husband. When they come up behind me at my computer, I pause, look up at them, and ask if they need me to scroll up so they can read more. it usually shames them into walking away.


      1. JM in England*

        I’ve said to such people in the past ” If I wanted something that sits on my shoulder, I’d buy a parrot!” :-)

        1. tina*

          Love this, and will adapt it slightly If I ever have a hovering problem, as I actually do have a parrot. Actually, my husband does, but it will make the point ;)

    2. Rebecca*

      Ctrl+Alt+Delete Lock Computer, turn around, “Yes?”

      We had one of those, but she’s retired now. She’d not so subtly walk around and peek at what people were doing in our old office layout (cube farm). So annoying. One of the ladies wanted to pop up a picture of a naked man to shock her, but thought better of it due to the whole NSFW thing, so if we knew she was on the prowl, we’d find either really weird things or plain text news sites and put them up when she walked by. She also listened to conversations, and passed along gossip like it was her mission in life. So glad she retired.

      1. Sharon*

        Windowkey+L is faster. :-) I just learned that one (discussing a new security policy to lock our computers when we walk away).

        It doesn’t bother me at all when people look over my shoulder to read the screen if we are legitimately working together on something. Or even if a manager wants to watch me fix something, no problem at all for me. However, reading people’s screens just because you’re nosy is extremely rude. I have a coworker who has been trying to be BFF (but I think she’s tedious, so am trying to keep it to a professional work relationship) come over to my cube once a few weeks ago, put both palms on the front edge of my desk and lean over to read my screen. Fortunately, she got the hint when I asked her if she made it a habit to read people’s screens.

        1. Satia*

          This is the advice I would give. As soon as someone comes into your space, simply lock the computer. If the intruder suggests that you have something to hide you can simply blink innocently and say, “I am trying to be polite and give you my undivided attention.”

          If their purpose is to hover and read, then they will just go away. If they had anther reason for coming to you, then your undivided attention will make it that much easier for you to address their concerns and then they will go away. If they have something they need to see on your computer, you can easily unlock it, minimize everything (or show desktop) and pull up what they want to see.

          In the end, locking the screen is a quick and effective way to make the hovering person go away.

        2. Jen RO*

          It annoys me even if we are working together, if the co-worker was not invited *by me* to look at my screen. Some of them seem to think that we can’t both read the same email on two separate screens!

    3. Briefly anon because this is really identifiable if you know me*

      Some years ago, there was a comic strip about how as a hoverer approaches, the computer-user’s typing gets worse and worse. I had a co-worker who would hover and point out my typos, and I finally taped that up near my desk. It actually got better after that! :D

      1. Jen RO*

        Please link that if you find it! My co-worker starts typing worse and worse if I’m at her desk (I’m never there uninvited, and we laugh about it).

          1. Briefly anon because this is really identifiable if you know me*

            Mine was Rhymes with Orange, but I’m sure the idea is universal. ;)

    4. Not So NewReader*

      I have never been bothered by hoovers. I don’t know why, I think that it would be more in my nature to be bothered by them. But sometimes it is fun to time how long they will stand there and say nothing. I am amused by this. It’s amazing how long they will stand there in silence. If it is awkward for them, they have the power to fix that.

      My suggestion is as they walk away say, “That was 3 minutes, 29 seconds. Stop by again sometime when you can stay longer.”

    5. Vicki*

      A mirror is good too.

      I had a manager who would walk in quietly and hover silently until I noticed he was there.
      That was the first time I attached a mirror to the corner of my screen.

      1. No Hovering*

        I had one once who would sneak up behind us and start to give sort of a weak shoulder-rub. Or something. You’d be sitting there working and then BOOM! There he was, rubbing your shoulders and looking at your screen. The first time he did it to me, I jumped about a foot in the air and squeaked, and he never did it again. Unfortunately for my co-worker, she was caught so off-guard by the bizarreness that she just sat there, which seemed to encourage him to do it more. I think she moved her computer screen so she was facing the door a little more and could see him coming; I don’t know, because I had actually managed to move to a different floor by that time, and avoided going into their office any more than I had to. :-)

        I had another co-worker who was far-sighted and could hover from a longer distance than you’d think was possible. I had no idea he was doing it until he commented on something on my screen from practically across the room. We were good friends, and I never had anything up there I minded him seeing, but it was disconcerting to know that he could read my email at 40 paces.

        1. TK*

          Shoulder rubs??!! Uninvited physical contact from co-workers is always disturbing. I just really don’t understand people sometimes…

          1. Jamie*

            I’m usually firmly in the anti-physical contact ever camp, but I’ve worked with a handful of people who could pull off the shoulder rub and it was cool…very friendly and not intrusive.

            But maybe that’s because I’m kind of like a cat who doesn’t like people, but really likes getting scratched behind the ears, so if you do it just right I’ll forgive you for existing and daring to touch me without written consent of myself and major league baseball.

            I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a hoverer – but I’ve never worked in a space where it wouldn’t be awkward to do that. You can hover over me now if you like, but I’ll see you coming as you have to transverse my office so by the time you get around my desk I can either welcome you or defend myself.

            Tangentially related to hoverers are the people who stand too close when invited to look at my screen. If I can feel your breath move my hair take a giant step backwards. And if you put your hand on the back of my chair making it move the world will stop – and so will my typing/training – until you remove it.

            Chair-touching-leaner-in-ers are the worst!

            And this isn’t hovering related but tossing it in because I can laugh about it now…standard sized desk and I’m underneath/in the cubby where your legs go hooking up a new computer and the guy gets on the floor and slides in next to me to see if he can help. I startle easy and the sound my head made against the metal of the desk was something….who gets under a desk with someone they just work with? We weren’t hiding from the cops, in love, nor was he administering CPR to me – the only three reasons I can see justifying anyone being that deep inside my personal space.

            My response was immediate – I didn’t run it through my polite filter. I told him to get off of me and that I’ve been further away from people I was kissing at the time.

            He should have just waited till I was done and given me a friendly little shoulder rub.

    6. Anonymous*

      The hoverer in question acts like she’s helping me when I never asked for/or needed help. She scoots her chair over and crowds me and gets involved in what I am doing. I do believe she thinks she is in charge and thinks she is helping but to me it’s annoying and insulting.

  2. Levois*

    Question 4 has been an issue for me at times. I’ve had the misfortune of missing phone calls and sometimes drag my feet on calling back. I recognize that’s on me.

    Yes we do have lives outside of work or job hunting but at the same time it’s terrible that timing can mean the difference between getting the job or not getting the job. If it’s a job you really want one could always apply again and hopefully they will call again!

    1. Nina*

      That’s happened to me as well, but that’s because I have a sucky cell phone. It will ring once and before I get to it, the call’s already been sent to voicemail! Ugh.

    2. Vicki*

      Repeat to yourself:
      If missing a phone call means missing out on the job, the people move too quickly and didn’t really want to talk to _you_ at all. You were just the next on their list.

      You don’t want to work anywhere that is so time-driven that a few hours makes a decision change.

  3. Amber*

    #1 I really think you shouldn’t ignore it and send the longer response that Alison suggested “Lucinda, I don’t think you intended this for me! I know it’s frustrating that B is still unfixed; if it would helpful to talk about it further, I’d be glad to.”

    This at least will help to accomplish something while if you ignore it then she doesn’t learn from her mistake. Replying will call her out in a professional way, which hopefully will keep her from ever doing that to anyone. Its a step in the right direction to fixing your working relationship (and your working relationship is not that good if she’s insulting you in emails to other people).

    1. GrumpyBoss*

      I’ve been #1 before. It actually made me LOL because it was so petty. But I was a little more passive aggressive with the way I handled it. I just replied with, “nice”. Her shame was my revenge. She eventually came to me and explained why she was frustrated and we worked through it. But it was satisfying to me because I prefer directness. You have a concern? Tell me and we’ll work through it. I hate the idea that someone has a problem with me, hasn’t come to me with it, but has no qualms about complaining to someone else.

      1. Taz*

        Yeah, this sounds like the way I would handle it. I can’t help but think she wanted the OP to see it in the first place.

    2. Purr purr purr*

      Yeah I liked that response too for the same reasons you’ve mentioned. Also, if she made a comment like that then she’s probably done it before with others. It’s so unprofessional and a bit of a high school attitude. And yes, you’re so spot on about the working relationship not being good with an insult like that!

    3. krisl*

      I agree with using “Lucinda, I don’t think you intended this for me! I know it’s frustrating that B is still unfixed; if it would helpful to talk about it further, I’d be glad to.”

  4. jesicka309*

    #5 – This was the exact situation I had when applying for my now-job. My reference had been available when I first applied, but by the time I had a phone screen and interview, they had gone on holidays.

    What I actually did was a quick scramble to find another reference (a former supervisor I’d left off my list because I only needed two and he had worked with me the shortest time). He was very happy to be my emergency reference given the circumstances.

    I then told HR that while the reference I’d originally supplied had gone on holidays, she was happy to take a call if they wanted to still contact her. If not, I’d arranged another reference that was still in the country.
    They thanked me for notifying them, and actually said they were impressed I’d contacted them instead of finding out when they tried to call her work phone. You’d actually be doing yourself a service by letting them know your references are out of the country. :)

  5. nep*

    #4 – An employer could be calling back a number of promising candidates and it just happened that things advanced with another in the meanwhile. As Alison said, you did things right here.
    I missed the initial call from a manager and then was unable to reach her in several attempts. Didn’t hear back for a few weeks and thought for sure she’d gone with someone else she’d been able to reach in the meantime. She called me back some time later, asked me in for an interview, and hired me.

  6. sG*

    To commenter #1, this happened to me too with someone I thought I had a good rapport with at work. My boss asked me to send out an email about my planned departure (two months notice) and a coworker replied all (when she clearly meant to forward) with some rude remarks. I replied to all to let her know that I received her email and that I didn’t think it was intended for me. She was embarrassed and a few years later tried to friend me (numerous times) on LinkedIn and Facebook (which I declined) – these moments made me feel a little bit better after all the drama!

  7. Rebecca*

    #1 – I have a sneaking suspicion that this isn’t the first time “Lucinda” has done this. It’s probably the first time she got caught.

    I wouldn’t ignore this. Lucinda could be undermining the OP’s work in more ways than she knows. Lucinda had no business reason to send an email to another party with the sole purpose of putting the original writer in a bad light, and trying to make herself look good at the same time. The OP absolutely should tell Lucinda that she received the message, and remind her that in the future if she has questions about the OP’s work, Lucinda should come to the OP with questions and not send snarky messages to other people. And if it doesn’t stop, OP’s manager and Lucinda’s manager need to make it stop.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I agree. OP, using the longer version is the route to go in my mind. What I like about it is that you end up coming across like that no nonsense person who is focused on getting the job done. That is where you want to land here. Did you ever notice how some people just don’t have to deal with snark? I think that is because in part they address things the moment they see the problem. They give a sincere and serious response to the comment. Some how the recipient ends up less willing to repeat that mistake.

  8. Ash (the other one!)*

    Totally had the same thing happen to me as in OP1… there were tensions over who was leading a project between offices (it was my project but the other office was a little frustrated at that but we were all working together). I had forwarded over something to one of the people there that was relevant to what they were working on and got a reply of “Ash is being helpful.” So my response was, “umm, thanks? don’t think you meant to send this to me” at which point the person called me to be very apologetic and to tell me she was just trying to show her supervisor that I wasn’t trying to be antagonistic, blah blah. So I totally agree with your advice, AAM, just respond with “don’t think you meant to send this to me” and let things go from there.

    1. krisl*

      I try to remind myself to never send an e-mail that would be really bad if it got to the wrong person. Even if I sent it to the right person, sometimes a not so good statement can linger in the threads of an e-mail, and someone can end up reading something that wasn’t meant to still be there.

      Also, I keep remembering the time I sent a not-up-to-my-normal-standards formatted quick copy of some information to a co-worker, who promptly forwarded it as-is to a customer. It wasn’t terrible, but for customers, I like to fix the formatting and wording a bit (just to make it look nicer).

      1. SherryD*

        I totally agree. I think of my work email as company property, and I try to avoid writing emails that don’t reflect my *professional* point-of-view. If I absolutely must vent about clients or coworkers, I’ll use the phone or in person.

      2. Kelly L.*

        I’ve become super-wary about email after having my recipients forward casual internal emails as-is to outside people, or email someone I was frustrated with while leaving my frustrated message lurking down below in a chain. Eeeek.

        1. Parfait*

          Yeah that bit me once before. I forwarded a customer email to a colleague with a bit of a frustrated comment at the top, and he replied to the customer with our email thread intact. Yep, customer was pissed.

          Sigh. Best not to put that stuff in email in the first place.

  9. hayling*

    I think it’s time for Alison to do a post about “Things you’re *not* expected to do as a job-seeker.” I think that “be next to your phone 24/7 so you don’t ever miss a call from a potential employer” would be at the top. Of course you want to check your voicemail and make a timely call back, but missing a call for something like scheduling an interview is totally understandable.

    Now, missing the call for a pre-scheduled phone screen, that’s a little different.

    1. Artemesia*

      But while it is ‘not your fault’ if you miss the call and they move on, it is to your detriment– so maybe people searching who might get a call at any time ought to have a cell phone on them at all times so that yes they can field any call that comes in. It is kind of like getting run over in a crosswalk. It doesn’t matter if you had the right of way if you are dead. So look both ways anyway and in the case of a job — be available 24/7 while you are job searching or risk missing a chance.

      1. some1*

        I don’t entirely agree. Ideally you should be as flexible as possible within reason. When I’m job hunting, I answer the phone for unknown numbers when I’m in a position to talk to them. If I’m at work or somewhere loud, I let the call go to vm and return it as soon as I can excuse myself to a more appropriate location.

      2. Persephone Mulberry*

        Even setting aside the entire population of job searchers who already have jobs and can’t take personal calls at the drop of a hat, I can think of myriad opportunities to miss calls. Like when you’re already on another call. At the movies. Mouthful of dinner. In the bathroom. Sleeping in. Poor signal. etc, etc, etc.

        I think, as someone mentioned above, if they can’t give me a 24 hour window to get back to them, they probably didn’t want to talk to me THAT badly to begin with.

      3. Observer*

        This advice is so unrealistic, that it’s nothing but a recipe for frustration. I have a cell phone, but I’m not picking up the call of I’m in a work meeting – or in another interview. Nor am I picking up if I’m in the bathroom (yech!). These aren’t the only possibilities, but these are the most obvious. Then there are situations where you CAN’T pick up the call because you have no reception. It’s not even a matter of the right phone / service, in some cases. There are places where there just isn’t ANY reception. Most of the NYC subway system is that way.

        The reality is that there is no way to avoid the possibility of missed calls. So you do the best you can and move on.

  10. Adam*

    #4. When it comes to job hunting, I NEVER answer the phone at first blush. If I’ve applied for a number of jobs I want to glean as much info from their voice mail as I can so I can:

    a.) Remember which job I actually applied for. I save every application I send along with the job description for this purpose.
    b.) Take a little time to familiarize myself with the job posting and the company itself so it looks like I actually know what I’m doing when I call back.

    So long as you respond to a call within 24 hours (i.e. by the end of the next business day) I think you’re well within professional etiquette norms for most people. Sometimes timing might screw with you, but that’s more haphazard circumstance and not anything you did wrong.

    1. Levois*

      Yeah 24 hrs at least is more than appropriate, but what if things happen where you can’t make it that soon. I’m sure you’ll have to find a way to cover yourself when that happens. Hopefully the hiring manager won’t blow you out of the water for it.

    2. Alien vs Predator*

      Yes, exactly. I screen all of my calls from unknown numbers anyway, but it does have this added advantage for all of the reasons you listed. If a prospective employer can’t understand that I am a busy professional with a life then I’m really not interested in talking to them anyway.

    3. Ethyl*

      Yes, definitely. I’ve recounted before how I accidentally answered a phone call from a place I had applied to while my partner and I were driving to my birthday long weekend in NYC (I wasn’t driving!), and I definitely had no clue who the company was or what the job was at that particular moment. I did not exactly come across super well, needless to say!

  11. Pennalynn Lott*

    #1 – I had a *manager* do this to me. . . *several* times. He was a peer who had just been promoted, and he kept sending IMs to me instead of my prior manager along the lines of, “Did you ever just want to punch Pennalynn in the gut?” I was a high performer in sales, and he had a limited skill set in dealing with anyone above or below the line of “meets expectations”. I ended up buying him a tiny pair of boxing gloves and a desk-size version of the Bobo the Clown inflatable punching bag as a joke.

    1. Ethyl*

      O.O You and I clearly have different senses of humor, because if that were me, it would be escalated to HR in about zero seconds flat.

  12. OtherAnon*

    #3: I probably didn’t handle it the best way, but I can commiserate, because I also had a hoverer and it drove me NUTS. He sat next to me in an open plan office we collaborated on a lot of things, so I needed to speak to him throughout the day. But every time I spoke to him, after we were finished talking he would continue to stare at my screen for at least 30 seconds, even if it was just a conversational comment and I had not shown him anything on the computer. I tried saying “Is there anything else you needed to see?” or just doing really boring stuff so he would lose interest more quickly, and none of it worked. I couldn’t politely rush him back to his own space since he was already there and I just wanted him to avert his eyeballs. Eventually I just minimized the number of times I spoke to him per day as much as possible. I completely stopped making chatty remarks and kept a list of things that I needed to mention to or show him and would address them all a few times a day. It was less efficient than telling him things as they came up and he always thought I was sick or in a bad mood since I suddenly became quiet, but it greatly reduced the time he spent staring at my screen.

    1. Andi*

      I’ve stopped taking about projects or work stuff too. So now the office is pretty quiet. When I finish something or have free time, then I push away from the computer and speak to her on a personal level. Like I said, we get along and she is nice. I don’t want an uncomfortable situation. Sometimes I just have to “let her help” when I’d rather work alone. Most of the time it is a one man job but she insists.

  13. Andi*

    All good responses to my hoverer situation. Thanks for the ideas. Some are hilarious and I may try them if I can pull it off humorously. She is a nice person and we get along. It seems she thinks she is in charge and helping, like a teacher walking the class helping students. Not needed and annoying. Thanks!

  14. OOF*

    OP #2, and all others who are or could be expecting – please know that some employers are so eager to invest in a good colleague that we won’t let a pregnancy get in the way. I just hired someone who found out during the interview process that she was pregnant.

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