my coworkers keep venting to me about things I can’t help with, not hearing back from a client, and more

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

1. My coworkers keep venting to me about things I can’t help with

I work at a large university. Professors here wield a lot of influence in academic and administrative decisions. Although I don’t always agree, I accept this is the way things get approved and done. I have two coworkers (who report to professors) in student services roles who must get permission for much of their work from professors. I hear about this frustration because they will come to my office to tell me what their latest roadblock or hold-up is. I am sympathetic and truly wish that processes were easier for all of us.

However, I am seeing a pattern where their venting to me is becoming more frequent, and despite my response that I have no authority to help them out (I am a middle manager), they are asking if I can somehow streamline the approvals process for their work. Again, I am sympathetic to their situation but there is no way my modest position can overrule tenured academics. I am also uncomfortable that these venting sessions are getting kind of emotional (on their end) and I worry about their mental health and well being. How can I support them but at the same time look after my own priorities and my own work?

First, tell them clearly and explicitly that you don’t have the authority to change the approval process for their work, and that this is the way things work there, and that while it’s not ideal, you don’t believe it’s something that will change.

From there, you can say, “I’m concerned by how frustrated this is making you. Knowing that it’s not likely to change, what makes sense for you in the situation?” You can even add, “Can you stay and be reasonably happy, knowing that this is part of the package?” You asked about supporting their mental health and well-being, and that’s the most direct way to do it — by helping them cut to the chase: This is the situation, it’s not going to change, and are they okay living with it or not?

If continues after that, you can also say, “I’m so sorry, but I’ve got to finish up X. I’m sympathetic, but I’m on deadline.” Or you might point out that over time, venting has a way of making problems feel even worse, and you might suggest taking a break from it and see how that goes. (And if she resists, you could be direct and say, “I think it’s starting to make me grumpier, and I’m generally pretty content here.”)

2. I submitted freelance work and haven’t heard back from the client

I’m performing some freelance editing work for a few clients. I submitted my completed work to one client about two and a half weeks ago. They said they were looking forward to reviewing the work I completed. I still haven’t heard anything from them, including about payment. I didn’t sign a contract or fill out any forms for them. I already followed up earlier this week to check in about the work I did for them, and I asked about how they pay their freelancers–kind of a nudge to figure out where they’re at. No response, though. I don’t want to be too pushy, but I also want to get paid. What should I do?

Send an invoice. There’s no need to wait for them to get back to you about payment procedures; it’s normal to just go ahead and submit an invoice, and that’s what you should do. I’d email it to your contact there, along with a note that says something like, “Hey Jane, hope everything worked out well with the work I submitted a few weeks ago. I’m attaching my invoice here. Thank you!”

Also, in the future, sign a contract! It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should lay out your payment terms (and ideally either include late payment fees or an early payment discount, to provide some incentive for paying you on time.)

3. Would it be weird to share this blog with a struggling employee?

I have an employee that I am about to put on an improvement plan. I would like to send her a link to your blog. Is that weird? We’ve already had the difficult conversation and will be putting together a formal plan, but I want to include this site as a resource since I’ve found it so helpful.

I’m probably biased, but I think you can offer up resources — whether it’s this blog or others — without it being weird. I’d frame it as, “Hey, it occurred to me that you might find this blog interesting and useful. In addition to covering all kinds of workplace craziness, there’s often good information there about ___ that I have found to be personally helpful to me, and which I think could be a useful resource to you too.” Fill in that blank with whatever you think will be most useful to her — navigating workplace politics, establishing good work habits, or whatever.

(I think the key here is to use language that doesn’t signal, “You’re a mess, maybe this blog will help,” but rather to share it in a way similar to how you might with someone who was doing perfectly fine at work. Handle it like you would any resource that you wanted to share with someone who you thought might find it useful.)

4. I just realized that I’ve been getting slightly underpaid for 18 months

I work in retail, at a specialty big-box store (you’d recognize the name). My position is full-time and paid hourly. While I’m not technically in a leadership position, I have expanded my duties and responsibilities to the point where I’m often referred to as the “acting manager” when my boss isn’t available. After I received a stellar performance review from my department manager, he told me I’m being given the biggest raise corporate policy allows.

The problem: I’ve been getting paid at an hourly rate $0.50 less than was promised when I accepted the job. I didn’t realize there was a problem until now because it’s such a small discrepancy that any one paycheck would only be off by less than $40, but it accrues over time to be a significant underpayment over the past 18 months since I started in this position. But I also don’t have any written record of what I was told I’d be earning, just a clear memory of two particular conversations with the store manager when he hired me. I realize now I should have confirmed with HR or meticulously verified my first paycheck was calculated correctly. What should I do?

Ugh, there might not be much that you can do now since it’s gone on for so long and you don’t have any record of what it was originally supposed to be. Ideally, as soon as you noticed it, you would have brought it to your manager or your payroll department’s attention to get it fixed. You can still try — but the chances it will be changed are lower, unless it’s going to be clear to them that it is indeed an error (which is possible — it’s just hard to know from what’s here).

I’d say this: “I feel foolish about this, but I recently took a look at my pay stubs and realized that my wages since I started have been getting paid at a lower rate than the rate we set originally. I’ve been getting paid $X rather than $Y. Is there any way to fix this retroactively?”

5. How can I repay my friend for his professional help?

I am in the process of transitioning careers and going to school for my Master degree. A friend of mine works for a well known technology company in the area and I have been in communication with him as a mentor during the transition to get advice. I have expressed that I would love to work for the company because of what they do with volunteer work, celebration of employee milestones, and the caliber of individuals employed.

My friend has put me in touch with a department director to help me gain experience in the technology field and aid the career transition. I have met my friend for lunch a couple of times to discuss my future and he has bought lunch even though I told him I would buy the second time so we can be even. After I have contacted the director of the department, I sent my friend an email asking how I can repay him for all he has done for me, and he replied that I did not need to repay him. Would it be against any professional conduct to send a letter of thanks even though there has not been a formal interview for a position? I think this would be more of a thank you note than a follow-up note because he is not the individual that is hiring, but does have influence on if I would be qualified for a potential position opening.

A letter of thanks would be okay, but it feels sort of duplicative because you already sent an email asking how you can thank him … which means the thank-you is already out there. But why not just tell him you’d like to take him out to lunch or drinks or something? You don’t even need to explicitly connect it to his help; you can just issue the invitation.

For what it’s worth, if you ask someone how you can repay them, few people are going to say “buy me dinner” or “I’d like that watch you’re wearing.” Most people will tell you there’s no need. That’s why if you want to give back to someone, you’re often better off coming up with a specific thoughtful idea and then either doing it or asking them if you can do it. But an open-ended “how can I thank you?” often won’t produce much.

{ 75 comments… read them below }

  1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

    #2, yes…they are waiting on your invoice. Often the person you deal with directly isn’t the person who tracks who has and hasn’t been paid. And that accounts payable person may not have any way to know that money is owed unless a bill comes. If you are worried that it is pushy to send a bill for your services, it’s not. Just normal.

    1. Squirrel!*

      I would even add that if you are going to be self-employed, or do contracted work, you sometimes have to be pushy (to get clients to pay you, to get them to sign off on a draft of something so you can meet a deadline, etc.). You don’t have to be rude my any means, but you have to have a firm backbone and be willing to stand up for yourself. This is good advice for pretty much any worker in general, but it’s especially important with contractor/freelance work.

    2. Poster of #2*

      I should clarify–I DID submit an invoice when I submitted the work. I finally heard back from them, but I’m wondering: Should I set terms in the invoice that it must be paid within 30 days?

      1. Artemesia*

        The time to set terms is in the contract. There should be boilerplate that indicates that fees will accrue after 30 days. Unfortunately one of the lesser joys of freelancing is that getting stiffed is very common; never do this without a contract and realize that people who haven’t paid in several weeks may well not be intending to do so. This is especially true if you don’t have an ongoing relationship and they don’t see that they will need you again.

        Since you sent an invoice and it has been ignored (or they are very slow payers) now is the time to send a second invoice. On this one ‘Second Invoice’ at the top and you could put payment due within 30 days on the bottom. Next time, have a contract and agree on time frame for payment.

        1. AVP*

          And if you don’t hear back from them by Monday, call! Particularly if you had a good rapport with anyone there. Wanting to get paid for work you already sent in isn’t the same as trying to get a job, where calling is seen as intrusive and rude.

          And yes, many freelancers will tell you that “bill collector” is as much a part of their job as anything else.

          1. Chinook*

            “And if you don’t hear back from them by Monday, call! Particularly if you had a good rapport with anyone there.”

            Again, I agree – you have to call so that it becomes something cares about rather than just another piece of paper. Sometimes invoices go missing or are waiting on someone’s desk for a signature (I affectionately call my boss’ desk the “black hole” of paperwork but she is getting better). Sometimes someone thinks it has been paid when it hasn’t. Sometimes it is stuck to another document (dang you paperclips!) and missed completely. (I work for a rather large company and I have seen all three happen to the same invoice and also had an invoice for my work get delayed even though I was the one who coded it and sent it to A/P)

            Remember – no one cares as much about you getting paid as you do. Call and ask them about the status of your invoice and ask for a timeline for payment. Be ready to offer to resend them the invoice. And follow up if they don’t meet their timeline.

          2. Natalie*

            When you call, see if you can talk to someone in AP. Sometimes there are set-up processes or other issues that can delay a first payment, and your business contact probably isn’t intimately familiar with them.

      2. Chinook*

        “Should I set terms in the invoice that it must be paid within 30 days?”

        Absolutely. You can put it on the bottom and even add a late fee (like a credit card company or utility does), especiallay if you don’t have a contract or purchase order with them that lays out the terms of payment.

      3. Joline*

        I would suggest that although giving an invoice with the work is great it doesn’t necessarily hurt to just also mail it to the office (perhaps marked “duplicate”. Often the person opening the mail is the all-purpose admin person who also does bookkeeping/AP (in a small business) or they’re an admin who will forward to the AP person which ensures that the person who actually pays the bills gets their eyes on it. It puts it on their radar to follow-up.

        When I used to do AP I can’t tell you how many times I got phone calls from professionals asking where their payment was only to find out that they’d attached it to the back of a report or just handed it to the person who commissioned them for the work…who then either didn’t notice or promptly forgot and never passed it on for payment. No ill will – just a lack of recognition that turning in the invoice is what gets someone paid.

        1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

          Yes! this totally happens in our office, even though we send invoice instructions that state the invoice must be sent to x by x date in the month.

    3. Chinook*

      “And that accounts payable person may not have any way to know that money is owed unless a bill comes. ”

      I will go even farther and say that, without an invoice, A/P can’t pay you. Heck, my place of employment is even starting to refuse to pay hand written invoices (which we are fighting tooth and nail because some of our vendors are literally mom & pop operations who do their books by hand and don’t have emial addresses. They have very professional, pre-printed invoices, though, that they fill in by hand).

      In my world, if there is no invoice, you won’t get paid.

      1. Natalie*

        Yup. In rare circumstances we can push through a “non-invoice” invoice (security deposits are a common one) but generally we need an invoice to pay you.

  2. Dan*


    Sending a general link to AAM would be weird, unless you expect your employee to spend all day on the clock reading AAM.

    I’m serious about that — “go here for general tips” isn’t going to help your employee, because s/he isn’t going to know exactly what she should be working on, unless you clearly outline it in the PIP. And if you “tell” her to do it, there’s an expectation that it’s work related and therefore a paid task.

    I’d find her some of the most valuable articles and point her there specifically. An hour or two of reading won’t kill the company bank account nor her productivity.

    There’s like 7 years worth of posts on this blog, they need pointers on where to start.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting she do it as part of a PIP. But I don’t see any reason that she can’t informally say to her, separate from the PIP, “Hey, here are some resources I’ve found helpful.” It’s the sort of thing you could say that a colleague anytime, and that doesn’t change just because the person is struggling. (And I’m talking broadly here about anything she’s found valuable, not just AAM specifically.)

        1. anon o*

          I did something like that once – no PIP, I had done a 6 month review with someone and I remembered some articles here that addressed some of the areas for her to work on that we’d discussed, so I found them and sent her the links.

        2. Dan*

          I guess my phrasing is ambiguous, but what I was referring to was that a “go here for general tips” won’t help the employee. The employee must be told in the PIP specific things to work on. I don’t think I implied that the PIP should contain URL’s to specific articles, if I did, sorry.

          My point is just that a general reference to AAM won’t help — AAM is a fire hose, and if you’re struggling, you either 1) Know and don’t care, or 2) Don’t quite understand what your boss wants that you’re not delivering. For the later, the fire hose is too much.

          A separate email with links to a few relevant articles would be helpful.

    1. UKAnon*

      Personally, I would just see #3 from today and become as paranoid as anything if my boss sent me a general link to AAM while this post was still on the front page…

      1. Gina*

        Exactly, nw that the question has been answered, I think that could only make the employee feel so bad they’ll probably just give up and move on. I assume the OP wants them to improve and stay or they wouldn’t have bothered to ask for advice.

        1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

          I don’t see this at all. The conversation has been had; the employee knows exactly where they stand, and they are working on the PIP already. That letter gives them no additional information other than “my boss wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to direct me to this blog, so she asked.” There’s absolutely nothing in the letter that is derogatory or negative or anything other than straightforward about things that have already happened. So I can’t see it doing any damage.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I think that if mention, in person and in casual conversation separate from a discussion about the PIP, this could go very well for OP.
      The key is to present the blog as something OP does. “I read AAM in my spare time and I have found so much solid advice there that I can’t stop reading. I tune in almost every day now.” The enthusiasm is important, OP is sharing a positive resource with her employee. Personally, if my boss told me about a site that she regularly used, I would be FLATTERED. The message is “Here is something I enjoy and I find useful. I see enough value in you to show you what I am doing to help myself, so if you chose you can do this, too.”

      For me what would clinch the deal is an in person conversation and being able to see the boss’ enthusiasm about sharing the resource. Bonus points for not mentioning the PIP in the same conversation. It would give me a momentary reprieve from being overwhelmed by the PIP. (I have never had a PIP, so this would be incredibly daunting for me.)

      What I like about the in person conversation is that it opens doors for discussion later. Perhaps in a few weeks the employee will come back to the boss and start a conversation based on something she read on AAM. “Boss, I saw a discussion about X on AAM and I was wondering what your thoughts were.”

      FWIW, OP, I think you are a good boss, you’re showing your employee where to find advice that could change her career and maybe her life.

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

        I have sent plenty of my employees here and to plenty of other websites (I manage managers) in the way Allison suggested “I’ve found this helpful….” It’s normal to share resources when you are in a coaching space. like dan suggested, I send a few specific links, and hope they’ll get hooked on the blog. I find that visual learners particularly appreciate written resources (in addition to discussion) when they are puzzling something out.

    3. Artemesia*

      I would not recommend this site as part of a PIP especially since you are discussing the PIP in this site and this sort of thing is a common topic. I mean — the person is going to find ‘Should I refer someone on a PIP to this site.’ Seems awkward.

  3. Dan*


    I think the best course of action is to see if there’s any records from your onboarding regarding pay. The big box places typically like paperwork, and probably have set pay grades anyway. Start that route.

    But without documentation, there’s no way “he said/she said” is going to fly at the big box.

    1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

      This. Someone filled out new hire paperwork for you. Though I can totally see the manager inputting the info directly into a computer program and keying in the salary wrong (or perhaps they have a default salary that must be changed, and the manager didn’t think to change it), thus that there might not be paperwork with the correct number. But it’s definitely worth asking!

  4. Anonsie*


    I’m part of the support staff to a bunch of academics, and all of us do this from time to time. Sometimes the things you have to do or are held responsible for are so crazy, I think we all feel a need to occasionally show it to other people and go “This is weird, right? It’s not just that I’m insane?”

    I think sometimes this field can be so crazymaking (academic medicine for me, which is like a double whammy) that I feel like there’s a little more accepted wiggle room for complaining.

    1. fposte*

      I think ambient kvetching (also an academic here) is different from a pattern of notable focused complaint, though, especially when it includes requests that the OP change something she doesn’t have the power to change. I think the complainers may not really be facing the fact that the OP can’t change this and are complaining as a distress signal–and while I get the distress, that’s not actually helping it. I had a particular colleague prone to this and it wasn’t good for anybody.

      1. Anonsie*

        Without knowing what they’re saying or how much time is distracted by complaining, it’s kind of hard to know which it is. I wondered if the LW is a “fixer” who is put off when an issue is brought to them that they can’t solve, even if that was not the intent of the other person at all.

        Alternately, is it possible that these other folks just see the LW as a resource for creative solutions or something like that? So they’re not actually asking them to tell the professors what to do, but rather seeing if she has information they don’t have that could help. This is a big deal where I work, at least, there are a couple of people who don’t have authority over the faculty but who do know a lot about what they have going on and about institutional processes, and every time anyone has a big issue they’ll go see one of those folks to see if they can drum up any good ideas.

        1. fposte*

          Those are good thoughts–maybe the OP can sharpen up her response to the complainers to identify more specifically things that could happen?

  5. Gina*

    I really think the next time someone asks if they can do something for me, usually in the context of “if you ever need anything…” I’m going to ask for their watch. Because that made me laugh so hard.

  6. BRR*

    #5 In addition to the advice mentioned I feel a donation to charity in someone’s honor if you know what they support.

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      To me, that feels ….overly personal?…. in this professional mentoring context. lunch, drinks, handwritten notes, an item for their desk….all seen more appropriate.

      1. LBK*

        Agreed, and frankly I think charitable donations are kind of a crappy gift in general unless someone has asked you to do that instead of giving them a present.

      2. Squirrel!*

        Definitely too personal, I agree. Not to mention, what if they want you to donate to an organization that you are morally opposed to (e.g. pro/anti-choice, pro/anti-gay marriage, pro/anti-gun control, and so on)? You risk making yourself look like a jerk if you offer that and then renege because you don’t like what group they chose. It has the potential to create hard feelings on the part of that person.

        1. some1*

          Absolutely. Charities and causes can be extremely tricky, even when the mission is something you think the person would get behind. For instance, I know breast cancer survivors who have an issue with the way Susan G. Komen is run, and animal lovers who prefer to support no-kill shelters instead of the humane society.

          1. Judy*

            But that is why you would need to know what they support, right?

            I think it can be a difference between “My mentor spends weekends working at X pet rescue organization” and “My mentor likes animals”.

      3. BRR*

        I can see that. I’m glad I can get others’ views. I’ve only done it once in a business setting following when they served as a great reference but it was for a very close mentor where I knew exactly what they liked.

      4. Vicki*

        If someone asks a second time, I generally say “I like chocolate”.

        At a previous job, our Ops team had a great relationship with some of the engineers. The Ops guys pulled rabbits out of hats and the engineers responded with pounder bags of M&Ms.

    2. Kimberlee, Esq.*

      I think this could work really well for something related to your field, or related to your general professions. So, if I wanted to get a mentor something like that, I work in non-profits, so I might donate to a DC area nonprofit that provides mentoring, networking happy hours, trainings, or other resources to young non-profit professionals. I’m sure tech fields have all kinds of charities; perhaps an organization that teaches women to code, or one that buys laptops for schoolkids. It’s still a bit tricky, but I could see it being a really thoughtful (and not too personal) gift.

      1. AB Normal*

        In my opinion, charity donations in someone else’s honor should only happen after you confirm with the person she’s fine with it.

        See, I support a few charities, and would hate for someone to donate to them in my name. For me, if you want to donate to a charity, you donate using your own name. You could even mention to me in a thank-you note that you donated (in your own name) to a charity you know I support as a sign of appreciation, but somehow it feels wrong for me to see a donation in my name submitted by someone else, and I’d not be well impressed. If you ask and the subject is OK with this, fine. My answer would be “thank you, I appreciate the gesture, but please donate under your own name”. The charity gets the same amount of money, and it’s attributed to the right source.

        1. Judy*

          Any donation I’ve done in someone’s name, it will show up as “In Honor of Wakeen by Judy”. It’s hard to buy things for my dad, so we generally give to Habitat in his honor. That is also what we do for my parents’ anniversaries. I also know that if the recipient is a donor too, they tend to get notified. (During my mom’s cancer diagnosis, she would receive notices from the ACS when people donated in her name, so she could thank them.) I’ve also pretty much always gotten a thank you from the family when I’ve donated to AHA or ACS or MDA as requested in an obituary.

  7. Not So NewReader*

    Venting Employees. (grrr.) My problem is that I have a tendency to want to “fix” things. When I can’t fix things, my frustration takes on a life of its own. This can eventually appear as if I have lost empathy for the complainer. Maybe it would be helpful for OP to tell herself things such as “This problem is too big for me alone to fix.”
    It could be that the actual problem is that these two people are just tying OP up too long and interfering with her own work.
    Either way, Alison’s advice is perfect not only for work life but for life in general. I had some success with insisting that people look for solutions or pointing out that “We are not going to be able to fix this”.
    I have had to say, “It is what you see. It will probably not change. As long as you remain employed here these hurdles will be part of the job.” Some people are super creative and they actually find ways lower the hurdles. Conversely, some people just quit the job.
    For myself, I am not a dumping ground. If I have to listen to daily complaints, I will not make it. It will wear me down. And it gets to feeling like I am some type of enabler by listening to endless complaints. Some jobs have recurring hurdles that I am willing to work with and some jobs I am not willing to work with those hurdles. Each person has to figure out on their own which hurdles are deal breakers for them.

    As an aside: I wonder about bosses that have to give approval every step of the way. Don’t they find that exhausting? Or do the dots never connect inside their heads?

    1. soitgoes*

      Sometimes I say (to my friends, coworkers, and kvetching mother), “Do you want help solving the problem or do you just need someone who’s here for you to listen?” It’s a gentle way of letting people know that they’re inadvertently burdening you with their private problems.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, that’s a helpful differentiation, too. Though I think with a job the “do you just need to be listened to?” option closes fast when it’s a repeated complaint, because it does start to become a problem rather than a solution.

    2. Waiting Patiently*

      I get this. I’m a solution person. I hate things that I can’t fix. I get there are some problems that can’t be resolved and “that’s just how its done” and you have to work around them and move on and not complain. But my theory is eventually working around clogged processes leads to more trouble down the road. And one thing I hate more than problems without solutions is crazed reactive types. So when ish hits the fan and everyone is running around like chickens with their heads cut off because a plug has been pulled then I back off—chances are I’m working on something else anyways. I know I definitely would survive in some office environments.

  8. ClaireS*

    Re 1: I mentioned it on a post a while ago but what my one friend does is super helpful at shutting down venting. A simple “so what are you going to do about it?”

    In your case, it may help establish a pattern that you’re not the person to go to with venting that you’re not prepared to solve.

    1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

      I love this, because it introduces a level of agency to the complainer. You have a problem with the way things are, you have options to take action on that belief. You might not be successful, but sometimes people are just too willing to throw up their hands. In this case, it introduces a really helpful dichotomy: You can either fix the problem, or decide you can’t fix it, but either way, it’s on you.

    2. Anonsie*

      Oh man, I would really discourage people from doing this unless the person you’re talking to is also chronically ineffective already. Nothing is more infuriating than when you have a problem and you’re working hard to resolve it, and you mention how aggravating it is to someone else and they throw this one at you like you’re incompetent for being miffed.

      1. ClaireS*

        I can see that perspective. In this situation though with chronic complainers you want to curtail, I think it would be effective. Maybe soften it a bit but it gets a strong point across.

        In my situation with my friend, my answer is often “I don’t want to do anything. I just want to vent.” And that’s ok because we have that sort of relationship.

      2. fposte*

        Mentioning to somebody else once is one thing; this sounds like the workplace equivalent of somebody who’s been talking about leaving her husband for years. At that point, taking care of her needs isn’t the priority in the conversation, but even if it were, what she’s getting isn’t what she needs anyway.

      3. Elsajeni*

        Yeah, the wording “So what are you going to do about it?” is awfully confrontational. I think you can use the same basic strategy, though, with softened wording — “Wow, that sucks. What do you think you’re going to do about it?” or “Any ideas about what to do about it?” or something like that — along with the often-recommended “Are you looking for suggestions, or do you just want to vent?”

        However, I also don’t think this approach is likely to be useful for OP#1’s specific situation, because she already knows that there is no solution to this problem. Her coworkers are going to have to wait for the professors to approve their stuff, and brainstorming alternate solutions isn’t going to change that; asking them what they’re doing to solve the problem is only going to annoy them.

  9. AdAgencyChick*

    #5: You pay it forward.

    I’ve provided significant help to a few of my former direct reports in helping them find their next jobs (and also figure out what they wanted out of their next jobs), but I would feel awkward asking for anything back from them. Even though I helped them move up, they’re still making considerably less than I am, so I wouldn’t want them to buy me a gift or take me out to dinner. What I want is to see them do well, because they’re good people, and someday become mentors themselves. It is true that someday one of them might be able to refer me for a job — but that’s a very big maybe, and I wouldn’t spend so much time on them if that were my only purpose.

    I do it because I also had a great former boss who has always been a mentor and friend. I can never pay him back for what he did for my career, but I can follow his example. As one of my former direct reports said, “Some debts can never be repaid, only passed on.” I think your friend would be delighted if that’s what you end up doing.

    1. C Average*

      I came here to say this.

      I’m working for my dream company in part because a friend of a friend gave me some very helpful advice and feedback during the application process, and put in a good word for me. He took more than an hour of his workday to talk to a complete stranger on the phone about an application for an entry-level job, and then he sent an email in support of my application to the hiring manager. When I asked how I could thank him, he said, “Pay it forward.”

      I’ve been here almost eight years, and I’ve helped six people get hired here. Every year on my hire anniversary date I send him a thank-you email and update him on my tally. And the people I’ve helped get hired I encourage to be accessible and helpful to job-seekers, too.

      It’s a big, bad, scary world out there when you haven’t got a job. Those of us who have been helped to get where we are need to identify talented people who’d fit well in our workplaces and help them get a foot in the door, even if we’re not hiring managers ourselves.

    2. Poster of #5*

      After reading the comments regarding the post, I think paying it forward would be the best thing to do, but will remain open to other suggestions. It is hard to find something to purchase for someone that has helped you when they do make more money than you do and I do not want to buy something they already have.

  10. TubbyTheHut*

    #3 I’ve told people looking for jobs and my manager about this blog. Nothing weird about passing it on to a coworker.

    1. Ani*

      This is just one of my favorite sites, and i have nothing to do with HR or management. Almost everybody can relate to workplace issues.

    2. Felicia*

      I tell everyone about this blog, especially when they ask for career advice . Well generally I give them an answer, and say that my answer is based of what I learned on ask a manager, which is an awesome blog they can check out. I’m starting to be known in my circle for having great career advice and i’m like, i just say what I read on ask a manager!

  11. Tinkerer*

    #5 – This may sound a little cookie cutter but when I had to call on a friend of a friend for some last-minute legal real estate advice I sent a nice Harry and David gift box. He was delighted. They (and similar companies) offer all sorts of goodies, and it’s not too personal. I don’t have any affiliation with them, it just worked for me.

  12. MG*

    #1, I also work in a large university, and is there any chance that talking to the professors or a department chair might help solve any of these roadblocks? That is, could any of the general processes be improved to take some of the burden off both the profs and the staff (for example, if some categories of routine requests could be processed without that approval, and the professors would only need to be part of the process if XYZ circumstances were present?) I know that sometimes change is not possible due to regulations or just department culture, but it may be worth thinking about whether some tweaks can be made to help; it may be that the profs are frustrated with parts of the system also, or it may be that they don’t fully realize the impact that the current procedures have for the staff members. (Barring that, the staff may just have to get used to the fact that this is sometimes the way it is in academe!)

    1. LAI*

      #1 Agreed, I work in a very similar academic setting and I just wanted to point out that even though faculty have a lot of the decision-making power, that doesn’t mean that administrative staff are helpless to make changes or improve efficiency. Sometimes just bringing up the problem and pointing out the consequences will lead faculty to realize that they are more involved than they need to be. Sometimes you will find out that they actually don’t even want to be involved and would happily step back. Or you might find that the roadblock is some other issue entirely that the staff are not aware of (i.e. important requests are coming to them during finals week when they’re busy trying to get their grades submitted on time).

      From the letter, I can’t tell how valid the employees’ complaints are. If it’s just that they don’t like the process or it’s not convenient for them, then I agree that Alison’s answer makes sense. But in my experience at universities, it is often true that processes are unnecessarily inefficient and that there are real consequences for that (i.e. students don’t graduate on time because their paperwork isn’t be processed in a timely manner). I’ve often found that everyone wishes the process were better, but just no one has taken the steps or figured out a way to improve it that keeps everyone satisfied. If I brought up those issues to my supervisor and was told to just deal with it, I’d be frustrated. So to the OP, I’d make sure which situation it is. And it is something that really should be addressed, then there is someone with the ability to address it and maybe the OP can help by redirecting the complainers to the person who has authority.

      1. Adam*

        I was always under the impression that most tenured faculty hate having to be involved in the administrative nitty-gritty, and would much rather use their time to write their books or do their research or whatever else it is they do. You’d think most of them would welcome the chance to take their attention off routine tasks the staff are perfectly capable of handling themselves.

    2. Original Poster for Question #1*

      Thank you for the comments and feedback re: venting colleagues. In this scenario, I’m taking the approach that the approvals structures (i.e. professors approving everything) is not going to change. There may be a window to negotiate a bit with the faculty members, which I always support and try to follow through with. But really, what’s left is to really find a way to help my colleagues see that the only thing they can take agency of is how they react to this situation. And, ultimately each person has to come to a decision on how much they can bear in a job that is consistently frustrating to them. I appreciate the intent of the “So what are you going to do about it” approach, and agree with the intention behind it, but I also think it has to be framed in a way that supports action and positive change.

      1. Big10Professor (was AdjunctForNow)*

        I’m new at my job, and administrative people asks me for approval on lots of things that I know nothing about yet, and they’ve been doing for years. Sometimes I take a few days to respond because I am swamped, and I would love to let them proceed without me on certain things.

        I think academia can be weird about power structures, but I also wonder if the complaining coworkers have tried approaching professors and asking if there’s a way to make something run more smoothly.

      2. WorkingFromCafeInCA*

        I struggled with a lot of this in my past job (university administration at a traditional engineering school = many professors with a lot of intellect, power, too many administrative burdens despite not wanting any, and often an unfortunate lack of appreciation for all us administrators that make the machine run smoothly). I remember a colleague and I would help each other when venting, mostly by diffusing the frustration with humor. We’d bring the other person a small piece of office candy, listen for a small cup of coffee, and always end with joking about it. Sometimes all you need is an ear and a smile to regain your sanity.

        That said, OP, understanding that the approval process isn’t going to change, are there other aspects of the process that can be tweaked? For example, if the venters complain profs are too slow to approve things, is there an admin process that can help them get things done faster? (in my experience, sometimes it meant we admins took on more work to prepare/setup/organize files, but it meant a faster turnaround time which was our ultimate goal). Or we also changed paperwork deadlines taking into consideration prof’s busy times of year– something we did after discussing what would make it easier for them). Or if the venters disagree with the profs’ decisions, sometimes a quick chat with the professors about their rationale can help clear things up about the process. Maybe there is information they have that admins don’t, or vice-versa- in which case, can admins make that info available in time for profs to make a better decision?

        Our office met with a group of professors once a semester, and we used that time to propose solutions to any bottlenecks in the process. This helped because they knew we were 1) aware of things that could be improved and 2) actively creating solutions while 3) asking for their feedback. We got to learn about the rationale behind their decisions and requests, and we got to make our case to them. Only my boss and I attended those meetings, but everyone else on our team would anxiously await our arrival to find out the profs’ responses.

        Aw, now I miss my university!

      3. Cassie*

        My coworker has the same problem as the OP – except that she is HR so it’s kind of built in to her job description (although not entirely – listening to people kvetch is not her sole job responsibility). She also has a tendency to want to “fix” everything. And then it becomes my problem when she turns to kvetch to me about these kvetchers (I have to shut her down from time to time because it’s exhausting).

        It’s not clear if the coworkers have tried to talk with the professors on finding what works best for the specific professor. Some professors don’t like dealing with emails while others love it (plus if they are not on campus much, it’s easier to handle stuff electronically) – if you have a new person in charge of student services every few years, you’ll have to find out how this new person likes to handle things. You may find that the professor will gladly delegate authority to a staff member but maybe didn’t know if it is allowed.

        From my own experience – my boss has to approve a lot of stuff and he has a tendency not to even look at what he’s signing. If you email him a long ol’ email with attachments, he’s never going to respond. Instead, I do a first pass, looking over the documents and seeing that everything is in order. Then when he has a free moment, I’ll go to him with a stack of documents to sign and have him sign each one – and I’ll tell him verbally what he’s signing: “This is Prof. Duncan’s proposal, this is an invitation letter for Pebbles Flinstone to visit next month, this is Bam Bam Rubble’s request to change committees, this is a revision of Senor Chang’s proposal that you signed last week” etc.

  13. Joey*

    #3. I’m not sure Id use blogs as a professional development tool for underperforming employees. No offense to Alison, but there are so many differing opinions and the advice doesn’t always work for your personal situation.

    That said, I think it perfectly fine to use blogs as a professional development tool if you’re already a good performer and just want to see different perspectives and ideas. I just think sending someone to a blog who’s struggling to meet expectations is going to struggle with understanding how to apply the advice without someone there to walk them through it.

    1. FX-ensis*

      This is true.

      However, I find Alison relays points in ways people can relate to/understand, and shows understanding/empathy when needed. I find many career advice sites are very cold, even in cases of workplace abuse, some site owners would just dismiss it. With this site, Alison presents things in a practical/matter of fact sense. I guess though that how we deal with things is subjective, and we naturally resonant with different points of advice.

      (and no…..this is genuine praise, not

  14. Sunny*

    My former supervisor recommended this blog to me…hey! Now I am offended. :)

    Seriously, she just said “You might like to read this blog. This lady always has great advice.”

  15. OOF*

    Funny timing – just this week I sent this blog to an employee as we’d just had a discussion about some opportunities for her to grow skills. It was a positive conversation, not a punitive one. This blog addresses some of those skill areas regularly and skillfully, so I shared that I read the blog and then shared a link to a specific post related to our conversation.

    It’s like so many other things – having the open, direct communication first allowed me to share this site in a way that shouldn’t be confusing (I don’t *think* she’s wondering “what’s the meaning of this?!?”), and therefore allows her to get the most of it.

  16. FX-ensis*

    1 – As humans, we all need a “shoulder”. It’s normal and mentally healthy…..

    Provided you don’t get bogged down by it, then fine. They may not expect you to care, it’s just a matter of a release for them…

    3 – If people offline can benefit from Alison’s advice, so be it. :D

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