my boss asked me, “if you were fired, who would you tell first?”

A reader writes:

I am a junior employee at a fast-paced agency. I have worked here for 8 months with minimal training and zero performance reviews. I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants, but my peers have told me that they think I’m doing well. My boss took me out to steak dinner on my birthday, let me train with her at the gym, and even takes me to get my nails done. And yet, their lack of investment in my professional development makes me afraid I’m headed towards the pink slip.

Last week, I was sitting next to my boss when a message popped up on her screen from her peer. It revealed they think I’m a “risk” to the important project I’ve been assigned, because I will “jump when the client says jump.” My boss was stumbling over her words when she realized I had seen the message, and arranged a meeting for the three of us to discuss the issue later that day. No one explicitly mentioned the private message I’d seen. I asked for clarification on the mistakes I’ve made, owned my previous mistakes, and asked how I should avoid these mistakes moving forward.

Right after the meeting, I was stunned and shaken. I had no idea they thought I was a risk. I wondered, what else are they not telling me? After a few moments, my boss breaks the silence and says “if you were fired, who would you tell first?” I answered, trying my best to hide my fear, and asked why. She had some longwinded personal story about how someone had been given several signs they were going to be fired, but missed the cues. I was horrified. I wasn’t sure if it was just a badly-timed story or a passive-aggressive hint.

How do I shake my fear of being fired?

What the hell? “”If you were fired, who would you tell first?” should probably go on the list of questions that a manager should never ask her team, right next to “can I borrow 100 bucks from you?” and “will you sleep with me?” There’s no way for a manager to ask that question and not have it worry people; warranted or not, it raises the specter of being fired, and it’s unkind.

And then add to that that it was on the heels of a meeting about performance concerns (!), and it gets even worse.

I suppose it’s possible that it was just a terribly timed coincidence, but it’s entirely reasonable that you’re feeling shaken up and wondering if there’s some hint here that you’re supposed to be picking up on.

I would address it head-on with your boss. If you’ve misinterpreted, she’ll welcome the chance to set things straight … and if there’s cause for concern, it’ll be useful to bring that to the surface. I’d say something like this: “I have to admit, it made me deeply worried about my job when you asked me who I’d tell first if I were fired, coming on the heels of a meeting about mistakes I’ve made. You also mentioned someone who missed the signs that they were going to be fired. Can I ask you candidly — do you have concerns that I might not be the right fit for the job?”

If she insists that there’s no cause for concern, you might also say: “I just want you to know, if at any point I’m in danger of being fired, I’d be so grateful to be told clearly that my job was in jeopardy and told what specific improvements I needed to make. I was thinking about the person in your story who didn’t pick up on the signals before getting fired, and I hope you’ll feel comfortable telling me directly if things are ever on that path.”

Also, either separately or as part of this conversation, ask how things are going in general. That’s not something that you should have to guess at; it’s totally okay to say, “Can we talk about how things are going in general? I think I have a good sense of where I should be focusing on improving, but I have a less strong sense of how you feel about things overall.”

{ 249 comments… read them below }

  1. TootsNYC*

    What a sucky boss! To be cultivating personal contacts like that, but allow this “risk” factor to develop unremarked?

  2. badger_doc*

    And stop working out with her and letting her take you to get your nails done! That really stuck out to me as strange… Steak dinner, maybe not so much, but the other things cross over a line and into an area I personally wouldn’t want to be in with my boss. Sorry you are going through that–that is not normal behavior for a manager at all…

    1. Marian the Librarian*

      Agreed–this is really odd, not the norm at all. Some of my coworkers (who are on the same level) socialize with each other outside of work, but our department head doesn’t. The closest we get to socialization with our department head is the occasional celebrations we’ll have as a department… So, pretty much, a “work function” outside of work. I would feel EXTREMELY awkward hanging out one-on-one with my boss outside of work, even though I like her as a person.

      And, honestly, if she is treating OP as a “friend” (???) it’s even more gross that she wouldn’t just come out and say that OP is going to be/might be fired.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Or, come right out and say, “You don’t stand up to the clients enough; here’s where you should draw the line.”

        (our OP is a “risk” because she “will jump when the client says jump”? Isn’t that almost the default setting? It’s relatively unusual that clients don’t get what they want pretty promptly, especially from a junior person.)

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Right?! I’m still baffled about that part. And why wouldn’t buddy/pal boss bring it up over dinner or something? The whole thing is so odd. I mean no feedback til this? Wonder what the interview was like.

        2. OfficePrincess*

          Yeah really. My site has one client. You can bet we’re all going to do basically whatever they want since if we lose the contract, we will be screwed.

        3. AnonInSC*

          Agreed. As you manager, shouldn’t she be setting the guidelines with the client? Why is this coming down on you?

        4. TheLazyB (UK)*

          I wondered if by the jump thing they meant ‘jump to work for the client’. Because otherwise…. WTH??

        5. AVP*

          Especially after less than a year on the job! If that’s not the agency’s expectation, they definitely need to clarify that.

          TheLazyB’s explanation is the only one that makes sense to me, but that’s still an odd thing to say.

        6. NYC Redhead*

          I thought it was strange, too, but maybe they are in a postion like auditing, where jumpting to the client’s whim might be seen as a negative.

        7. Three Thousand*

          The boss might be concerned that the employee is too willing to tolerate unreasonable demands or poor treatment from clients, which is a legitimate concern. If she were a good boss, she would actually discuss that with her instead of doing her Michael Scott impression.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Right on, the boss should explain to OP how much wiggle room is allowed and what is definitely a no-no. I say this one is on the boss.

      2. tilly*

        All the admin managers in the University faculty I work in ALL have a BFF within their team- I seem to be the only one who thinks it’s unprofessional!

      3. De Minimis*

        My guess is it may be auditing. You’re supposed to maintain skepticism about the client’s records/operations and if you’re okay with everything the client says/does without questioning it or examining further that could be a problem. And “risk” is a term thrown around a lot in auditing.

        1. frequentflyer*

          That’s my guess too. In that line you can’t blindly let the client lead you by the nose, as there’s a risk that a material issue is missed out if you’re too trusting. It’s also pretty common in audit/consulting for the manager to treat her staff as friends and not manage properly… in this line, people get promoted to manager within 5 years, so the age gap is really small.

    2. Ethyl*

      Yeah me too. These kinds of inappropriate boundaries may be making it hard for the supervisor to give the feedback that is necessary, and above all else, this just isn’t how things are usually done. You can have excellent, mentoring relationships with your supervisors that nevertheless remain professional. One of my old bosses came to my wedding even, but we never worked out together or anything.

    3. some1*

      Yeah, the thing about getting all close with the boss is that it’s GREAT! . . . until it isn’t.

      (And just to be clear, I blame the manager here, because it’s hard not to say “No” when your boss asks if you’d like to have a friend date, especially as a jr employee.)

    4. No Longer a Job-Hunt Newbie*

      True! In my position, I am able to do this for each of my staff as a perk twice a year, in lieu of our bi-weekly check-in meetings in my office. Would I do this outside of scheduled business hours/meeting hours? Nope! That crosses a line that managers should not do with their staff.

      1. No Longer a Job-Hunt Newbie*

        I’ll also add I would never choose the gym or a nail salon as the location…moreso a local restaurant to do a meal together while having our meeting, or something at the local coffee shop instead.

    5. Caroline*

      I had a boss that I worked with for several years and we did these types of things together. Often, it was her treat, as a show of appreciation after finishing a huge project or something. However, we were a two person team (no other coworkers involved, so no playing favorites) and she was always very straight with me about my performance, good or bad. I think you can have a friendship or socialize with your boss, but only if you both are able to keep personal separate from professional. This does not sound like that kind of boss.

      1. manybellsdown*

        Yes, I had a boss that would often treat me to things (male, so he didn’t come get his nails done but might give me a gift card to a nail salon), but I was his only employee and he never hesitated to make his expectations clear. Well, except about one tiny thing – apparently he didn’t like the way I’d been pronouncing his last name for 3 years!

    6. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, OP, please stop hanging out with the boss. I did this at my first job. I got fired from my first job. In short, my boss was so busy being my friend that she forgot to be my boss. I paid a premium for that. My take-away was that hanging out with the boss is just. not. worth. all the drama that seems to come with the friendship.

    7. Lurker*

      When I was the assistant to the director of a major fundraiser at ex-job, she would take me out for a manicure the day of the event. It was her way of making sure we both took a break from the chaos, and as a bonus, our nails looked great for the event that evening!

  3. Allison*

    “She had some longwinded personal story about how someone had been given several signs they were going to be fired, but missed the cues. I was horrified. I wasn’t sure if it was just a badly-timed story or a passive-aggressive hint.”

    I hate passive-aggressive bull spit like this, and I hate people who lay it down and expect people to pick it up. If you need to communicate something like “I think we’re going to need to fire you” or “you’re on thin ice, and need to turn things around quickly,” say it! Part of a manager’s job is to communicate performance issues with their employees and work with them to remedy the situation before it gets this far. If someone isn’t capable of having these conversations, they either need management training ASAP or they need shouldn’t even be a manager in the first place.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      Passive aggressive is such a pet peeve of mine that part of the letter made me bang on my desk!

      OP, what you’re going through is a great lesson on the importance of professional boundaries. Your boss doesn’t have them but now that you see how this is all playing out, you’re more likely to be aware if a similar situation arises and decline.

    2. Artemesia*

      I can literally not imagine this conversation being anything but the prequel to being fired. What else would a story in this context about someone ‘who didn’t pick up the clues’ be? I as the OP would assume I was going to be laid off or fired and would sure be hustling to find something else.

      Terrible manager. But handwriting on the wall.

      I say this as someone who dismissed the clues that the business was failing — it had been there forever, organizations like this never close, we’ll overcome the problems — meanwhile those at the top were negotiating their own future positions and buy outs in a merger that trashed those who did the work. Denial can make life easier but also more dangerous. You’d need to be in denial not to assume these events were very bad and dangerous news and act accordingly. First to talk clearly with the boss and second to have your search engines going.

      1. Kyrielle*

        Yep. I’d rev the search engines up and keep them that way, honestly – I’m not sure I’d trust this boss to be frank with me about the level of concern even if asked. So bad news would give you something to act on (but maybe an unrealistic sense of how well you can turn it around), and good news will give you some reassurance (that might be false).

        1. AnonAnalyst*

          Yes, I think I would have trouble trusting a manager who had said this to me, even if she tried to explain it away as an unrelated anecdote and reassured me that my performance is fine when asked. I can’t imagine that moving our working relationship in a positive direction.

          I personally would take this as writing on the wall and would start seriously searching for something else.

      2. Sarahnova*

        Agreed. It’s some passive-aggressive bull, but all put together, to me it sends an unambiguous “you’re going to be fired” message, as well as an unambiguous “I suck at being direct, addressing concerns, and managing” message.

      3. Stranger than fiction*

        Yep! My BF went through this a few years ago, only he knew the company was trying to sell or be acquired. But one day, another peer/manager said something like “so have you thought about life after abc company?” He then knew it was imminent and began updating his resume etc and sure enough a few months later was asked to resign.

    3. KT*

      This is so passive aggressive it makes my skin crawl. I’m sorry OP, but I think this was your boss’ pathetic way of giving you a warning.

      This quite honestly sounds like a very dysfunctional team. Take their feedback to heart of course, but i’d also consider looking elsewhere.

      1. Allison*

        If my boss was this passive-aggressive, I’d probably start looking just because I wouldn’t want to work for someone who communicates that way! Whether my job’s in jeopardy, I can’t stand passive aggressive people and I don’t think I’d be able to deal with someone who can never communicate clearly for 40+ hours a week. I need to work for someone I can trust to tell me when I’m not doing well and when I may be on thin ice, not someone who tries to be my bff and then speak in riddles when things aren’t going well.

        1. Charlotte Collins*

          I agree. This story set off a bunch of red flags for me based on a manager I once had. Get out while you still can.

          1. W.*

            Agreed! So sorry OP this is a terrible manager, and environment, and it seems unlikely even if you do ask for clarification that they’re actually give it to you – just because they probably think it’s easier to drop vague ‘clues’ and then dismiss you as you weren’t meeting standards you weren’t told about… Been there done that. Get out as quick as you can!

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Yep, the P-A behavior stands alone as just cause for leaving. It is not up to me to fix the boss’ communication habits, nor is it up to me to fix whatever went wrong in his childhood that causes all that passive-aggressive behavior.

          OP, don’t worry about their plans for you, just work on your own plan for you.

        3. JGray*

          Passive aggressiveness aside I also had that thought that perhaps the manager is blaming the junior employee for mistakes that are occurring that perhaps are actually the managers fault. Perhaps a report wasn’t done in the format the client likes because LW had no idea that this one client likes their reports in haiku- this is something the manager should have told her. If the LW is getting no training & figuring things out on her own than she is perhaps not doing things according to industry or the organizational norms because she doesn’t know them. If the boss had provided training and effective communication than the LW would have all the tools to do her job.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Definitely start looking! And the boss is so dysfunctional she’ll probably be all shocked and hurt when she does quit! “But I bought you steak!”

    4. OfficePrincess*

      I will grant that tough performance conversations suck, but it ultimately makes the conversation easier if you have to part ways. I’ve only had to fire one person, but after several conversations that went from “this can’t keep happening” to “if this keeps happening your job is in danger” to “if this happens again you will lose your job”, the actual conversation where she was fired was very quick and smooth – she nodded and left. It might not always go that well, but not blindsiding them gives a better chance for it to go better (and bringing up the issue creates a chance for it to actually improve).

      1. W.*

        Exactly – that’s good management – and much fairer treatment of staff, also gives the person the opportunity to both work at improving and looking for another job.

    5. John*

      No, Allison, this manager’s role vis a vis her staff is to adopt them as friends when she needs a pal and/or wants to assuage her guilt over not actually managing them.

      When the day comes when she is “forced” to let them go, she will know she did everything you could to help them — I mean, steak and nail jobs…what more for an eager staffer ask for?

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Sadly, there are managers out there that can only find new friends at their workplace. The desperation for friendship is hard to watch.

  4. BRR*

    As Alison suggested I would ask directly. If she gives an indirect answer ask for clarification. I think your manager sucks though. A steak dinner on your birthday, getting your nails done together, and going to the gym together is all a little weird when you combine them. Your boss’ story about somebody who missed the signs might be her way of “being direct” but when it comes to your job performance, you need to be as direct as possible. How is she with tough issues? Is there anybody you can confide in (be very choosy) about other people who have been let go or how your manager has handled tough things?

    This is bull shit though because either your job is on the line and she’s tiptoeing around it, she thinks she is being direct with you, or she is completely oblivious to the stress this would cause if you’re safe in your job. Just in case you might want to start sending out some resumes.

    1. No Longer a Job-Hunt Newbie*

      I don’t understand how she could do this. As a manager, she needs to know that her position comes with acknowledging performance issues, and working with the staff member to rectify the problematic behavior. With that territory comes the obligation to have tough conversations. It’s awful when people in a position of power over others do this, and are not direct enough to give the person a chance to fix it.

  5. LBK*

    I’d be job hunting. That way your ass is covered if you do lose your job and if not, maybe you’ll find a job with a manager that’s not so cagey about something as critical as whether you’re in danger of being fired. To come out of that meeting still not really feeling like you have an idea where you stand would be extremely troubling to me. Unless the follow up conversation Alison suggests returns direct, concrete feedback, I’d say get out now rather than spending your entire career there in purgatory.

    Also agreed with badger_doc re: cutting back on the personal time with your manager because it results in this exact situation – your manager has probably started to like you as a person and feel close to you, and that’s why she’s afraid to give you directly negative feedback because she doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. You need a manager who can be objective and if she can’t do that while also taking you to lunch or to the salon, she can’t do the latter anymore.

    1. LBK*

      Also, beware of perks creating the illusion that this is a good job that you’d be hesitant to run from – it might suck to lose your dinner date or your gym buddy but it will suck even more to be unemployed.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      I don’t get the impression she likes her as a person at all, I think she’s just a really bad manager who thinks she’s supposed to act like a ‘cool friend’

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I’ve seen someone act like this before, and she didn’t like her employee as a friend at all, really. She had one direct report, and she would alternately play “cool friend”, “frenemy”, and “boundary-crossing boss”. Honestly, I think she was just sadistic and enjoyed abusing her power to keep someone else off-kilter and working to figure her out all the time. All her interactions with other people had a sort of mean-girls quality, as well, but nobody else was her direct report, so we were able to brush it off.

  6. Prismatic Professional*

    I can’t even, what? This was amazingly unprofessional and you have every right to clear it up promptly.

  7. Katie the Fed*

    Your boss is off her rocker. She’s not doing what a manager is supposed to be doing, and she’s doing all kinds of things she shouldn’t – taking you out to dinner, taking you to the gym, taking you to get your nails done. You’re her employee, not her pet.

    You’re absolutely fine to just straight up ask what’s going on. It sounds like she’s not giving you important feedback about your job – probably because she’s blurred the line between management and friends. She owes you that feedback.

    I’d ask her. But I’d also start looking. You should work for someone who knows how to manage.

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah, being in this situation would scare the crap out of me. The manager is clearly nuts and the lack of boundaries is really over the top.

    2. Golden Yeti*

      “You’re her employee, not her pet.”

      This was my thought, as well. It’s almost like the boss is trying to butter up the employee–but why? Is the boss trying to be doting or is she preparing the employee for termination? The signals here are super mixed, which makes it weirder. (And if this blows over, I would suggest stopping the outings beyond work, just for your own peace of mind.)

      I agree with Katie the Fed on the second part, as well. Bring it up; your boss owes you that much–especially since you saw the evidence that someone is concerned. But also be prepared for the worst; freshen up your resume and start looking.

    3. Dynamic Beige*

      Yeah… a gift certificate for a steak house? Fine. A gift certificate for a salon? OK. Come with me to the gym? WTF?!? It sounds like this manager was auditioning a friend rather than trying to develop an employee and ick, ick ICK. I’m having flashbacks to OldJob now.

  8. Kvaren*

    “if you were fired, who would you tell first?”
    “All your gym friends.”

    “if you were fired, who would you tell first?”
    “Your manicurist.”

    “if you were fired, who would you tell first?”

    “if you were fired, who would you tell first?”
    “Alison Green.”

  9. Jerzy*

    OP, I don’t think I can add much to Alison’s advice. It sounds like you have a manager that wants to be your friend at the expense of your professional interests. Don’t let that happen. Be direct, and ask her what you need to do to bring your performance up. Maybe just straight up ASK for a PIP. Make a plan to improve and prove to your company that you’re an asset and not a risk.

    It’s great to feel like you’re friends with your boss, but it can also get in the way. I was very tight with an old director of mine. We had a ton in common, and I was even pregnant at the same time as his wife, both for the first time. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive work environment. But he also kept things from me about projects I was involved in. He said it was to protect me from the bureaucratic BS, and I had to tell him that I didn’t need protecting. I was a professional and I should be aware of things happening around my projects. He had started viewing me like a big brother might treat his little sister, and that was not a good place for me to be, professionally speaking. I addressed the problem directly, more than once, and if I had stayed in that office, I’m sure it would continue to be something that needed addressing.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      “It sounds like you have a manager that wants to be your friend at the expense of your professional interests.”

      That’s exactly what I was coming here to say. Sounds to me like now that the boss is buddy-buddy with the OP, she’s finding it difficult to be direct and hopes the OP will take the hint. And why is it up to the employee, in general, to pick up on cues and signs that she’s going to be fired? She shouldn’t have to be a detective if the manager is direct and transparent.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Except a real friend would level with you about something like this not keep secrets

        1. Jerzy*

          I probably used the wrong word. It’s not about being a real friend, rather, it’s all about being liked. This manager wants OP to like her, at all costs to OP’s career and professional growth. Manager who would rather be liked than actually manage people don’t belong in those rolls. Go get a job giving ice cream to kids. Everyone will like you then!

          (Except Michelle Obama, probably.)

          1. John*

            I totally agree with your read on things.

            And while one can be friendly with their manager, don’t go scouting for real friends. A manager is expected to maintain the kind of objectivity that a close friendship interferes with.

      2. V.V.*

        “She shouldn’t have to be a detective if the manager is direct and transparent.”

        Yup. Both of you are on the money. However I have a sneaking suspicion that that she won’t be fired at all.

        After testing the waters with the Bullpucky question: “Who would you tell first if you were fired?” my money is on this manager chickening out and “asking” the OP to resign – all the while staring at the floor and explaining how it will be better for everyone this way!

        If this happens to you, stick to your guns OP. In addition to her response, Alison has some good advice here (you have probably read lot of it); also I would recommend reading Evil HR Lady’s handy list of things to do if you are asked to resign. It struck a nerve with me because once in the not so distant past I was quite naïve and would have just signed the papers in shame.

        No matter what OP don’t go down without a fight.

    1. some1*

      Maybe it’s the the overthinker in me, but I’m annoyed at how out of context the question is. The boss asking, “If you were about to be fired, would you want to know?” would still be super-crappy (because duh) but at least it’d be more obvious what she was actually getting at.

    2. Beezus*

      I heard a hiring manager in my company advocating for the use of “If you were an animal, what animal would you be, and why?” as his favorite interview question last week. He went on to defend it as a useful question that gave him a lot of information about how candidates think.

      He then went on to say that he looks for candidates with broad fingernails, because he’s noticed a correlation between that and people with good analytical thinking skills. I could not bring myself to continue the conversation at that point, I had to turn back to my desk.

      1. Laurel Gray*

        “I would be a cat. They are clean, quiet, clever, loyal to a fault. I’d also be able to lick myself and pounce – qualities that can equally serve me in my personal life as well as professional.”

        1. alter_ego*

          I’d be a dik dik. Mostly because they’re adorable, and I really want an excuse to say the word dik in an interview situation.

            1. Dynamic Beige*

              So I, like, took this test on Facebook, you know and it said that I was a dragon. But then I took this other one the next day and, like, that one said I was a dolphin. I am just sooooooo confused about which one is right, OK?

          1. Daffodil*

            Dammit, posted accidentally before I could correct the spelling…

            I am possibly more cynical about cats than you are. Still love the conniving little fuzz butts though.

            1. Adonday Veeah*

              You silly fool. There is nothing duplicitous about cats. They are the most straightforward creatures on the planet. “I like you only to the extent that you service my needs. Scratch my ear. No, not there *bite* — THERE. OK, done now *swat*. Go away till dinner time.” How more honest can you get?

      2. Artemesia*

        At last my terrible fingernails which cannot be manicured into anything attractive are a plus. Who knew crappy fingernails wider than they are long could be a professional asset.

        1. I'm a Little Teapot*

          Solidarity in fugly nails. Yay, it means I’m good at analytical thinking, according to some crackpot…

          Except that I can’t reliably do sixth grade math problems correctly. So maybe not.

      3. KSM*

        “…broad fingernails, because he’s noticed a correlation between that and people with good analytical thinking skills.”

        Broad? Broad fingernails, seriously? Leave a logical fallacies printout out at work, lord.

        (Also, it is a test which would tend to favour men, due to the fact that men’s hands tend to be 1-1.5 cm broader on average…)

        1. Beezus*

          Yeah, the gender impact of that test didn’t escape me, either, but pointing that out to him wouldn’t benefit me, and I really wanted to drop the conversation at that point.

        2. Dynamic Beige*

          There are some diseases that are related to fingernail growth, heart disease, liver disease, lack of oxygen or vitamins. My mother was a nurse as her first career and I remember her seeing someone’s fingers on TV and saying, that guy has got some kind of heart condition because of the shape of his fingernails (I asked her what she meant, so she explained).

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Cuticles can telegraph a heart condition.
            The lack of moons at the bottom of the nails is thyroid.
            Ridges mean something else, the list goes on and on.

            1. Julia*

              Thank you for this! I only have moons on my thumbs, and Google says I fit other thyroid symptoms as well. Will have that checked asap!

      4. CollegeAdmin*

        Am I the only person who just looked at their fingernails to see how “broad” they were?

        1. Charlotte Collins*

          Am I the only person who hopes the boss doesn’t start getting into phrenology and feeling candidates’ skulls?

      5. College Career Counselor*

        You should TOTALLY tell him about this great new management skill called phrenology. Or, failing that, make sure that employees’ four humors are all in balance.

        (sarcastic eye-roll)

        1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

          Then he’ll be asking for stool samples the see the colors of bile within and determine which humour is predominant.

      6. BRR*

        So do you work in an office where everybody has wildly different skill levels but broad finger nails?

      7. The Expendable Redshirt*

        I say “I already am an animal. My species is Homo Sapiens from the genus Homo, family Hominidae, suborder Haplorhini, class Mammalia, phylum Cordata of the kingdom Animalia. “

    3. saro*

      The funny thing is that my brother is the only person I know who would have an answer and ready to discuss it at length. But then, he’s a farmer.

  10. YouHaveBeenWarned*

    Based on the criticism that started this whole thing (that you “jump when the client says jump”) I think it’s possible that the “risk” you pose to these managers is making them look bad in front of a client for whom they do not want to provide that level of service (possibly because it would interfere with their tight schedules of manicures, workouts, and steak dinners). They had no intention of you seeing their message revealing the real reason they are unhappy, and so are trying to frighten you now. If this is the case, the goal of your manager’s passive aggressive story would be to make you so afraid of being fired that you never question any of the other weird things going on here.

    1. Anamou*

      +1. I thought about this perspective too, and these managers clearly have boundary problems in general, and in this situation they’ve made OP pay the price for their managerial mistakes. This situation screams Fraught With Peril to me, if not for the all boundary issues alone.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      Yeah and why wouldn’t that have been part of her training? “Client x tends to be demanding but we stand up to him”

      1. Adonday Veeah*

        Per OP, “8 months of minimal training” included location of coffee, restrooms and nail salon. No mention of client.

      2. Djuna*

        +1 If OP is expected to push back, that should have been something that was stressed in training, or at the very least the first time they did work that was considered out of scope:
        Here is what we do, here is what we don’t do, and here’s how we like to communicate our limits.
        So simple, but seemingly beyond that manager – which is sad because if OP does try to push back on these clients there’s not likely to be much guidance or back-up there.

  11. Spooky*

    I really wish we could get rid of the idea that “dropping hints” that a person is about to be fired is enough. The person deserves to be told clearly, and given a set time frame and goals to achieve to hopefully save their job. I don’t know why beating around the bush about something so serious is ever considered okay.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      I find that “dropping hints” even in one’s personal life doesn’t help either. Constantly offering the stick of gum to the friend who always has bad breath will not result in them going to the dentist to have their mouth checked out. Keeping wedding magazines and jewelry catalogs all over the house isn’t going to necessarily facilitate a proposal. So I don’t know what hinting at firing does for a manager – are you hoping the employee resigns and releases the company from paying unemployment? Or rather that their work quality immediately improves to exceeds expectations releasing you from having to have a meeting and discuss performance or a PIP?

      1. some1*

        This is (probably part of) why I think Alison coaches manages to tell employees in danger of termination in plain language. You can’t underestimate one’s ability to live in denial and not see the forest for the trees.

        I’m sure we can all think of examples of other people in our lives who could not or would not see the ax coming down (a coworker who kept coming in late, a friend who’s partner was showing classic cheating signs, etc)

        1. Allison*

          Or people who did sense the ax was coming but, when they raised their concerns, were told to calm down and stop being so paranoid.

        2. John*

          Even if only for the manager’s emotional well-being. You’d be amazed how many people I’ve seen who have been blown away by being fired…then I learn that they were told on X, Y and Z dates that their performance was unacceptable and they had to improve or be fired.

          So I look at it as a service to the employee and the self. You did all you could to save them.

      2. Allison*

        Agreed, I don’t like passive-aggression in any situation. I get that it can be tough to come out and tell your friend they stink, or tell your roommate they need to pull their weight with the housework and throw out their moldy leftovers, but being passive aggressive about stuff like that never improves a situation. I don’t even like when people give me that half-concerned half-judging face, like they have a problem with me or think I’m making bad choices but can neither drop it and mind their P’s and Q’s, nor can they come out and tell me what it is about me that bothers them. I can’t really describe that face, or that accompanying, sing-songy “I’m not saying aaanyyything, it’s yoooour life, do whateeeever yooou waaaant” bullcrap.

      3. Kyrielle*

        Yep. The *only* excuse I can see for dropping hints is if, should they fail, you would rather live with the current state of things than raise the issue – and it still bugs me then.

        I don’t tell my husband “gosh, the dishes are sure piling up”. I say “I’m really busy with the laundry and vacuuming, is there any chance you could unload and reload the dishwasher for me, please?” (And sometimes, his answer is to ask if he can take over the vacuuming…hey look! An open dialogue! They’re so amazingly useful, I hope OP’s boss meets one some day.)

        1. Artemesia*

          When we moved in together 44 years ago my husband and I sat down and worked out who would do what. Those early explicit agreements worked great and established norms of equal effort that allowed us to adjust as circumstances changed. Now as retirees we don’t even have to discuss it, each of us just does stuff. But never has he ‘unloaded the dishwasher for me’ because they are his dishes too — unless it was my day to do dishes and I needed him to do it anyway. Highly recommend it.

          1. Camellia*

            +1000. This is like “can you please watch the kids for me”. They’re his kids too; you don’t babysit your own kids.

            1. OfficePrincess*

              It’s both of our laundry, but if I start a load and ask him to switch it to the dryer “for me” or vice versa, it’s because one of us started the task and is asking the other to take over and so we are acknowledging that though we have agreed to do it by starting, we would like assistance.

            2. AnonInSC*

              I have corrected people who have asked if my husband was babysitting our son. “No – he’s Jr’s father, he’s being a parent.” I’ve had to say this more to women than men, which makes me weep when they act all confused.

          2. Kyrielle*

            We divided up the chores, too. Dishes were one of mine. Hence, asking him if he will do it “for me” – just like he asks me if I’ll do things “for him” sometimes. :)

    2. BRR*

      At my last job they told me they couldn’t have made it any clearer I was about to be fired. Except for the entire I never knew my job was even close to being in jeopardy as I was only receiving told to fix tiny things and was receiving praise from senior executives.

    3. AVP*

      Also, it sends a terrible message to the rest of your staff, if they see what’s going on.

      I had a boss once who told me he didn’t fire people just gave them the silent treatment until they figured out that they weren’t wanted and quit. Every time he went a day without speaking to me (for normal reasons, like having other work to do or being out sick) I would get really nervous that he was trying to get rid of me.

      1. Lindsay J*

        It’s kind of gratifying to know that I’m not the only person in the world whose boss has given them the silent treatment.

  12. AW*

    I wondered, what else are they not telling me?

    This is my worst workplace fear. I hate that feeling. It should never be a surprise that you’re doing something wrong at work.

    1. AnonPi*

      Is it me or does this seem pretty prevalent in a lot of work places?
      I’m a direct kind of person, I’d just as soon people tell me than either be surprised when something is said or find out secondhand…

      1. Laurel Gray*

        Yes. And when managers do this they create the work grapevines. It is always interesting to hear something about another colleague and they end up being the last to know.

    2. AnonAnalyst*

      Yes! I’ve had a nagging fear in every job I’ve ever held that one day I’m going to be called in and fired for performance issues no one has ever told me about. I don’t know why this follows me to every job as it’s never actually happened, but I can’t shake it.

      On the less ominous side, I have left jobs (well, A job) when no one told me I was doing something that was keeping me from getting any more advanced assignments and moving up in the organization. I only found out when I had a frank conversation toward the end of my time there with someone on the leadership team that there were concerns about my fit for the more senior role that no one had ever articulated to me, despite my mentioning to my managers multiple times that I was interested in moving to that role and taking on more advanced work and asking for suggestions to get there. I guess somehow I was just supposed to figure it out? The kicker was that the area of concern was actually something I had been strong in at previous jobs, but the workflow and roles established in that organization gave me little opportunity to use it there and thus demonstrate that I could actually do it.

      Seriously, be direct and tell people when you have concerns that might ultimately affect their jobs.

        1. AnonAnalyst*

          I think if (when?) it does actually happen to me I’ll never be able to shake it. For now, I can convince myself most of the time that of course someone would tell me if something was going wrong…

          I’m sorry that happened to you!

  13. Brett*

    I still cannot get past that someone who will “jump when the client says jump” is a risk to a project.

    1. Koko*

      It is if the client has bad judgment and then later blames you for blindly doing what they asked instead of telling them why it was a bad idea. I expect the vendors I work with to provide human intelligence to their role and advise me on the best approach to take. That’s why I email an account rep instead of submitting out an online order form – so that we can have a dialog and they can lend their expertise.

      We actually just had a situation at my company a few months ago where a key person was out on vacation. The vendor asked unexpectedly for some materials to be sent over, and the coworker filling in for her sent the wrong materials because she wasn’t familiar enough with the work and hadn’t been told what to do if this type of request came up. It should have been obvious to the vendor that the materials were incorrect – anyone who works with these types of files on a regular basis would have been able to spot at first glance that they were riddled with errors, in the incorrect format, etc. But the vendor just proceeded to use the materials they were given instead of replying back to point out the discrepancy between what they expected and what they received and ask if the bad materials were indeed what we wanted. Even though the mistake originated on our end, we pay this vendor good money not just to middleman files but to provide feedback and guidance based on their industry expertise and experience.

      1. SystemsLady*

        This. The customer is not always right, more commomly in the respect that they might suggest doing something that doesn’t meet their actual needs than “the customer’s an awful person!”, in my experience.

        A good employee in this type of role will critically analyze what the client tells them to do. Sometimes that will mean doing what they said, and sometimes that will mean pushing back with an improved idea, and sometimes that will mean a firm no.

        I had a client (one of the more informed ones I work with) who was worried that I’d “jump when she says jump”, to use letter terms, for a little bit, but she figured out this wasn’t the case after a couple of assignments. I’m simply the type who stays quiet if I agree and speaks up if I don’t. Once she was used to that and clear I was processing what she asked of me, we were golden.

        Which is why it’s unfortunate the manager in this letter doesn’t seem to want to put in any effort toward helping the OP or having a frank conversation. That’s really the way to address concerns like this, and the OP seems like they can handle that conversation.

        1. LetterWriter*

          Hi there, I wrote the original letter. I really appreciate your perspective and I think this is probably exactly where my boss is coming from. It’s really tough to have an honest conversation about performance when they aren’t comfortable being critical. I’ve had a followup conversation with my boss, but she didn’t give me a sense that anything was amiss with my performance. I’m completely confused and do not trust the fuzzy feedback.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            You need to say that. Even if it means you have to start a conversation about it.

            Then, if the passive-aggressive remarks come out again, you are in a good spot. You an draw on this conversation and say, “Remember, I told you that I like my job and I want to know when I should beef something up or change what I am doing. We talked about that. It’s important not to let things fester, address them in the moment and give me a fair shot at correcting the situation.”

            If nothing else by having these difficult conversations you will be 100% certain that you stood up for yourself.

      2. AnonAnalyst*

        This happens sometimes in my line of work as well. Client has weird and unreasonable demands for a project, we try to counsel them to incorporate those things in a different way to accomplish their goals, client is adamant about doing it their way, we finally relent, end product is negatively affected. At best, the end product is watered down and is less impactful that it might be otherwise; at worst, it doesn’t accomplish any of the client’s goals (fortunately, the worst case has only happened once). The challenge in my company with this is that you often can’t tell what the impact of the client’s requests will be without having more experience in our business, so we wouldn’t criticize a junior person or new hire for “jumping when the client says ‘jump'” but we probably would use that as a coaching opportunity.

      3. John*

        Sometimes the client is seeking more (and a higher service level) than what they negotiated to pay for. In that case, this employee could be setting a bad precedent, as well as giving this client more of her time than warranted.

        But those are only guesses.

        1. caryatid*

          this was my guess too – i work in creative services and jumping when a client says jump can result in out of scope work, budget overages, scheduling conflicts, etc.

          not to mention, some of the more prestigious agencies really pride themselves on creative vision and do not want their work compromised/turned into design-by-committee.

    2. Kyrielle*

      Maybe they know something about this client that OP doesn’t, such as the client has a history of being unreasonable or sneaking in major change requests by finding an accomodating soul and asking them, and gets things for free that should have been billed.

      But maybe not. It could be either – the client could be a known risk, or the management could be unreasonable. (And if the client is a known risk, OP should simply be told that, with info on how they expect it to be managed!)

      1. TootsNYC*

        And of course, if that’s the case, they should be looping her in and coaching her on how to maintain boundaries!!

    3. Sarahnova*

      I could see it as a criticism in a more experienced individual, where a provider should be guiding and advising a client, and knowing when to push back. However, for an early-career individual like the OP, it’s a compliment IMO. I could see one problem with this being that the OP is saying “yes” to unrealistic/unworkable client requests without looping in the boss… but this boss seems so off-beam that I’m reluctant to give her the benefit of the doubt.

    4. BRR*

      Adding to the list of good reasons above is tempering expectations with timing. Did you do something for the client right away and now they expect everything at the drop of a hat? Or are you doing what the client says instead of what your manager says (for good reasons or maybe just a power trip)?

      But I also think there are a lot of times when it’s a good trait.

      1. BRR*

        Also since they’re relatively new to the organization the OP might be too inexperienced to make judgement calls. Which is a simple management fix, I’m so irritated at this manager.

      2. Meg Murry*

        Yes, this is what I was coming to say. I had a customer/client who I spend years getting used to a reasonable pace and expectations. Want a sample of A? Promise it in a week, usually delivey in 3-4 business days. Want a reert on B? Typically that will take 2 weeks, sometimes we can do it faster, and you have to pick which you want us to prioritize- A first or B first. Then one of my co-workers got assigned to the project and she started making promises of 1 and 2 day turn arrounds. Which is technically possible, if you drop everything else you are working on, and are willing to pull every favor you have or annoy the crap out of everyone along the chain that needs to assist you – not something I’m willing to do every day for every request – I save that for when it’s really an emergency and I’m saving my or my customer’s butt. My boss and I had to do a lot of backpedaling to explain that the stars aligned just right in order for coworker to do this, and it was possible to fulfill these requests so quickly only because she was freshly assigned to the project and didn’t have any other tasks yet.

        SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunies and Threat) is a big thing in my field, as is other types of risk management, so I can see myself putting “need to watch new person to make she she doesn’t make promises we can’t keep or accidentally spill confidential info when crafty sales guy starts making small talk” on my list mentally. I would probably put it in more general, neutral terms on an official analysis like “risk: inexperienced staff; strategy: pair new staff with experienced, have experienced staff have pre or post meetings with newer staff to go over confidential info and explain next steps”

        So I don’t think saying she’s a “risk” in and of itself is a bad thing – but I think the question about who would you tell if you were fired is weird and a yellow flag if not red.

        1. MaryMary*

          That’s a good point. For a while at OldJob, we used a Risk Tracker where we documented any risks to the project and the mitigation strategy (if any). It wouldn’t be unusual to document “inexperienced resource leading project A” or “scope creep if client expectations are not closely managed.” The point was to be aware of the risk and manage it, not to fire the person who presented the risk.

    5. Artemesia*

      I was assuming it meant she would do more than the client was paying for and not hold the line on the contract. Otherwise it is a confusing notion.

      1. De Minimis*

        I mentioned it up above, but this may be auditing. Going along with whatever the client wants/says would indeed be a major problem, though the fault would be on the people managing the project.

    6. Steve G*

      Maybe when it comes to financial related decisions? You know you can offer xyz sale or discount or increase in the revenue share or whatever without your bosses approval… you give it away as soon as the customers complains about something, without trying to get anything return. Or you do it in an apologetic way instead of saying “and this is why our company is great.” Or you do it so quick that the customer thinks “gee if it was that easy, why didn’t they give me a better price earlier?”, and you end up looking worse for helping them out.

  14. BB_NYC*

    I have a colleague who, as a manager, goes hot and cold on his directs. His response to someone not doing well is “They should know that they’re not doing well. They should know what they’re supposed to be doing; that’s why I hired them.” I can absolutely see him doing what the boss above did. He will be friendly with his staff and complete ignore his professional obligation to be a manager to the staff member so that things like this come out of left field. However, his inability to manage includes his inability to fire someone, so the threats happen, but are never followed through. Overall a not good, sometimes toxic environment.

    1. Allison*

      “They should know”

      People who say this stuff really get under my skin. “He should know why I’m mad!” “He should know what I want!” “My employees should just know when to come in!” “My kids should know what chores they should be helping with!” “I should have to tell them . . .” Well here’s the thing, yes people generally have a sense of right and wrong, but within that, we’re not mind readers. Now, if I date someone long term then yes, I should remember things like his favorite burger place and which side of the bed he prefers. If I’ve been working for someone for a long time, I should (in theory) know what they expect of me. But I can only learn these things from people if they, at some point, actually tell me these things! Some people may be intuitive, but humans can’t actually read minds, so stop expecting them to!

    2. BRR*

      Your colleague sounds horrible. My smart ass response to him would be “I told payroll to give me a raise because I should know you were going to give me a raise.”

    3. BRR*

      Also this is not really the same as the LW but I hate managers who are really sporadic with being hot and cold. I definitely understand some variance but I’ve had some where there is no rhyme or reason to the mood they are in and I have to dip my toe in the water.

    4. College Career Counselor*

      My favorite specific example of this kind of mind-reading expectation/workplace gaslighting is this, “Hey, boss–do you want to do A or B?” Boss: “I don’t know, you’re the expert on this, that’s why we hired you.” “I think A works best.” Boss: “NO.”

      1. LeighTX*

        Oooohhhh, my last boss did this. Me: “Do you want to buy X or Y?” Boss:”Use your best judgment.” I buy Y and then he sends a company-wide email holding me up as an example of wasting company funds.

    5. I'm a Little Teapot*

      Bosses who expect mind-readers are horrible.

      Actually, people in general who expect other people to be mind-readers are pretty obnoxious, but bosses like that are especially bad.

    6. Not So NewReader*

      “You should know…” is sort of a trigger phrase for me. I have learned to associate it with lazy people who can’t/won’t teach or lead or whatever it is they are supposed to be doing. Usually, when I hear that phrase I know to watch the person for other red flags, more will be coming up shortly.

    7. Sarahnova*

      I hope he never asks for feedback or guidance from HIS boss. After all, he should KNOW!

      In all seriousness, I never fail to be surprised at how differently two people, even two people who know each other well, can experience the same thing. I hate people who expect mindreading.

  15. KT*

    This is just insane. Your boss is weak.

    I would start job searching. Brush up your resume, gather your references, and approach it as if the writing is on the wall….because it is, your boss just won’t get out of the way for you to see it.

  16. J.B.*

    OP, start looking for a job and start documenting. If you are fired it might be a good bargaining tool with HR for severance. Also read up on Alison’s articles about what to do if you will be fired.

    This is not your fault at all, this is atrocious management! But you need to do what you can to secure your own position.

    1. J.B.*

      And I should clarify that I mean document the nail salons and the workouts coupled with the lack of feedback. Those are so off base that HR might be surprised to learn of them.

      1. BRR*

        That’s a good point. Being able to present this in a factual sort of way. Although I’m not sure how. Somebody smarter than me translate “Jane never alerted me that my position was in jeopardy. I think her friendship with me got in the way of addressing any performance issues.”

        1. Kyrielle*

          I don’t think I’d even say that. I’d let them pick it up. Wide eyes. “I thought I must be doing really well, since Jane gave me so many additional perks – the birthday dinner, getting my nails done – she seemed really happy with me. I thought she was pleased with my work.”

          1. BRR*

            That sounds good to me. I’m kind of blinded by rage at this post the longer I read the comments though. I’ve been fired before with no warning and I’m being fired now after probation and a PIP and this manager is incredibly shitty. Even if the OP’s job is not in jeopardy you still don’t ask a question like this and not explain (and really not ask at all because it’s a weird question).

            1. Kyrielle*

              I’m sorry. :( I hope you land somewhere better.

              And the post is pretty rage-inducing even with no personal connection to the situation. That’s terrible, terrible management. :(

      2. LBK*

        I don’t know if documenting really makes a difference – HR is either going to believe you or not, and whether you wrote down your own account of it happening doesn’t change that. There’s almost definitely nothing illegal going on, either, so HR isn’t likely to be too concerned. If they were moved to give you a non-standard severance it would be out of sympathy, not as a means of placating a potential risk.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, this isn’t an area where I’d document; there’s nothing to “prove” and it will look weird to have kept a log of social events with your manager. I’d put the energy into getting feedback now.

          1. BRR*

            If you were this manager’s manager, would you want to know both the outside of work experiences as well as the indirectness about job performance?

                1. LBK*

                  You didn’t know? Messages to higher ups are best delivered by carving them into a log and then floating it down a river. Especially if your higher ups are beavers.

        2. some1*

          Yeah, if the LW were to resign, this might be something to bring up in an exit interview if she is so inclined, but even then HR might not care.

  17. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Two things:

    1) Your boss is not your friend.  Your boss will never be your friend.  Don’t do friend things with her.  The steak dinner is okay as long as it’s done during work hours.  (I blame all the consultants and motivational speakers that have mislead workplaces everywhere into thinking that we’re all in this together, all opinions matter, and everyone is equal.)

    2) It sounds like they have an issue with you, but they have no idea what that issue is.  On its surface, I’d want someone who is attentive to client needs, but without greater context, this complaint is meaningless.  Beware the feedback that doesn’t give you concrete, substantive, action steps to take.  Think about Gordon Ramsey.  Every command that comes out of his mouth is clear and doable.  If your boss can’t tell you that without resorting to vague insinuations and passive-aggressive anecdotes (and it sounds like she can’t because she’s a terrible manager) then look for work elsewhere.  


    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Seriously, I’d rather be screamed at because at least then I know where I stand and what I need to do

      1. OfficePrincess*

        And really, GR only screams at people who know better. He’s a total softie on MasterChef Kids.

        1. Sarahnova*

          I actually think he’s not a bad management role model, especially when you see him more unscripted on the UK version of Kitchen Nightmares. He’s a big old softy for young talent and people who are genuinely trying.

  18. I'm Not Phyllis*

    Um, what? First – poor management in all kinds of ways. Crossing boundaries, not being direct, passive aggressive. But, I also agree with another commenter – unfortunately I can’t imagine that conversation not being about you. However, it is not only extremely unfair not to discuss performance issues with you directly in a meeting (and NOT in a meeting with someone else!) and give you a chance to correct them, but also because it sounds like they provided you with not training as a junior staff person. Not cool.

    Second, start looking for something else. Even if you’re not about to be fired, you don’t want to work here. Not when you always have to be worried about “what else they’re not telling you” and about them not being direct with you. That’s not a professional environment.

  19. Ann O'Nemity*

    I’d be tempted to answer the “if you were fired, who would you tell first?” question with “if I were at risk of being fired, would you warn me first?”

    1. BRR*

      Hindsight being 20/20, there are so many great responses like your’s or “if I were fired, who would you (to the manager) tell first?” or “hmm I can’t think of an answer, thankfully I haven’t received any warnings that my job is in jeopardy.”

      1. OfficePrincess*

        “I’d tell you of course. Obviously it would have to be coming from someone else since you’re so happy with me all the time and have never expressed an issue with my work.”

    2. Not me*

      Oh, that one’s great.

      I feel like this is the exact kind of thing where I would have no comeback until I got home from work that day. I’d just be shocked. Because who does that?!

  20. AnonPi*

    Alison thanks for that last tidbit:
    “Can we talk about how things are going in general? I think I have a good sense of where I should be focusing on improving, but I have a less strong sense of how you feel about things overall.”
    I like how this is phrased and will have to keep it in mind next time I want to have this kind of conversation. I find I often struggle with how to phrase things, especially if its a potentially nerve-wracking situation like trying to get feedback from your supervisor.

  21. Beezus*

    Yeesh. Of course you’re taking too much direction from your client! They’re the only ones giving you any!

  22. Ann Furthermore*

    Your boss wants a girlfriend to do things with, not an employee. You’re supposed to be compensated for doing a job, not for being a paid companion.

    Start looking immediately.

  23. The IT Manager*

    “What the hell?” is right.

    Alison has good suggestions, but also start planning your escape route – run, run like the wind because that really sounds like a bizarrely veiled attempt to warn you without warning you. Or it is just ridiculously terrible thing designed to terrify you. But your boss sounds terrible and boundary crossing and you should make every attempt to get away. Steak dinner on your birthday is odd but only once a year. The gym buddy and manicures thing is just so far beyond the professional boundary I can’t even fathom.

  24. AW*

    “can I borrow 100 bucks from you?”

    This is off topic but I’ve seen both a People’s Court and Judge Judy episode where someone was trying to get back money they loaned to their boss. How and why is this a thing?

    1. NickelandDime*

      This came up here on this blog, a person wrote in because they loaned money to their manager and it was a big mess. It’s so unfair, because there’s a power dynamic and I’m pretty sure on some level the person being asked for the cash feels, “They’re my boss, and they could fire me. I probably need to ‘lend’ them this money.” And I KNOW the manager asking is taking advantage of the power dynamic: “Yeah, I can get leech money off my subordinate because they’re scared I’ll fire them or give them a bad review or won’t give them a raise, etc.”

      It’s the same thing to me, and not off topic, of requiring employees to be your lift partner at the gym or help you pick out coordinating manicure/pedicure colors. Let’s say the subordinate secretly hates their boss – are they going to say no?

  25. CaliCali*

    How does the boss treat the other junior staffers? Because I think what she’s actually doing is testing loyalty. She’s thinking “if this person gets fired, will she badmouth me to her peers?” I’ve dealt with one of those manipulative boss-who-wants-to-be-friends too, and most of her “friends” ended up leaving or getting let go because she couldn’t control them in the way she wanted to. It’s weird mind-games under the guise of being informal. I’d get out ASAP.

    1. TheBeetsMotel*


      She sounds like a Buddy Boss. Buddy bosses are almost always bad news because they can’t separate personal feeling from the professional environment.

    2. T3k*

      Sounds like a past RA I had, who also happened to be the senior RA. She wanted to be everyone’s buddy more than uphold the rules (like keeping people in the lobby quiet at 2am as it was right outside 6 dorm rooms and some of us had early morning classes). In short, I had to go to the one above her (the RD) to have issues resolved.

    3. LetterWriter*

      Hi, I wrote the original post. I’m the only junior staffers in my position. We do have other juniors in our company, but they are in other divisions. I feel like I’m being compared against people who have 5+ years of experience and it’s extremely tough.

  26. JoJo*

    I remember a column a few months back that discussed the difference between ‘Ask culture’ and ‘guess culture’.

    This boss seems to be a member of guess culture when she needs to be a member of ask culture.

    What really got me is the number of people who defended ‘guess culture’ and even called people who want clear, direct feedback ‘immature’.

    1. ArtsNerd*

      Yeah, guess culture is not appropriate for workplace management. I think there’s unnecessary moralizing on ask vs. guess (I’ve actually lost a longtime friend over that) and I’ve had to work hard to get to a direct, “ask” way of interacting with my colleagues. But it’s important that your work interactions be clear and explicit, for oh so many reasons.

  27. Dasha*

    This sounds all sorts of weird. Have the conversation Alison suggested with your boss and maybe that will clear some things up but please, please start looking for other work. This just doesn’t sound good.

  28. TheBeetsMotel*

    Good gosh, that’s a hamfisted way to go about things. Someone in a management position ought to know better than to ask unnerving hypotheticals like that. Her conduct appears unprofessional, to say the least. While I would always discourage jumping the gun too early, I get the feeling this might not be a company you want to stay with in the long term – not if communication about performance and expectations is so bad. Everyone deserves a working environment where they are treated with integrity; not left to guess whether they might be on the chopping block.

    1. Dasha*

      “Everyone deserves a working environment where they are treated with integrity; not left to guess whether they might be on the chopping block.”

      Yes, please!

      1. JM in England*


        I’ve encountered some managers who have the misguided belief that applying the latter half of this statement somehow keeps employees on their toes…………….

  29. Bend & Snap*

    Junior employees don’t call the shots as far as what the client does or doesn’t get–managers does. So this is the manager’s problem to solve, and she’s not doing her job.

    OP I think it’s time to move on.

  30. Amanda2*

    I don’t understand why she would even want to know who you would tell first? How is that relevant to her? I’m confused.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! In addition to this being a terrible thing for all the other reasons, why is this the question she chose to use as a hint, if it fact that’s what she’s doing?

      1. College Career Counselor*

        Is the boss possibly hinting that SHE (the boss) is going to be fired and is sounding out whether the “relationship” with the OP is (I don’t know) reciprocal enough for the boss to admit it? Probably just a case of bad boss boundaries and passive aggressive/indirect speech.

        1. Cath in Canada*

          Oh, that’s an interesting thought. Maybe it *is* the boss who’s worried about her own position. Either way, she sucks, but this interpretation would change my opinion of the workplace as a whole.

        2. ArtsNerd*

          Just reading the headline, that was my first thought. Even if this is the case, the OP doesn’t seem to have her own employees to tell, and presumably her boss would already know, so it’s not like the manager could actually get useful information on that.

          But the rest of the letter makes me think it is indeed the OP who needs to watch out.

      2. Ama*

        Given the manager’s apparent concerns about OP’s relationship with the client, I’m wondering if they suspect the client won’t be happy to find out OP was fired and the manager was (incredibly awkwardly) trying to find out if she’d run to the client before they could make up another story for her departure.

    2. BRR*

      I didn’t even think about this. I’m so irritated the more this is discussed. I’m overwhelmed with how bad this manager is.

      1. BRR*

        While I know nothing is probably happening that’s illegal, my bad ass alter ego would be tempted to respond with “my lawyer” just to catch the manager off guard.

    3. some1*

      Lack of social awareness slash self-absorption.

      Obviously the punch line to Boss’s Story is that not only did she have to fire a MORON who didn’t even see it coming, the moron’s friends/family/coworkers were informed in the wrong order, but of course the LW was so freaked out by the premise of the question she missed how it all tied together.

    4. Ultraviolet*

      I thought she might have been hoping to find out which co-worker the OP would tell first, and then somehow involve that co-worker in the question of firing the OP. Like start cross-training that person on OP’s job, or have that person mentor OP as part of a PIP, or have that person close OP’s computer access during the meeting in which OP is fired.

      Or invite that co-worker to a manicure and get their thoughts on whether OP should be fired.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Oh, in that case the people I would tell first if I got fired are,” The Queen of England, The Pope, Mr. Obama and….”

  31. some1*

    Here’s another thing I thought of: even without the horrible question that led to the Boss’s story, it’s very rare that you would even need to give the specifics of firing anyone to another employee.

  32. NickelandDime*

    Everyone gave great advice here in the comments, as did Alison. Many managers do the “gift and perk thing” in lieu of management. I had a manager that gave me Christmas decor, Sephora gift cards, embroidered aprons with my name on it (!) and a host of other crap I didn’t need or want – other than truly managing me and growing me as a professional. They do this to make up where they lack. It’s easy to fall for this when you’re young and inexperienced. It is not normal or professional.

  33. J-nonymous*

    The only thing I would add to Alison’s advice is to be upfront about halting the outside-work excursions with your boss*. I don’t advocating just ‘ghosting’ because even though you’re right to set boundaries, the impression it will likely leave is that you’re upset about getting negative feedback and don’t want to socialize with that person. I’d recommend saying something like, “I am really committed to getting feedback on my performance from you, and I’m worried that our trips to the manicurist and the gym are blurring the lines for us both. I’ve really enjoyed the outings, but it’s very important to me to be successful in this role, and I want to make it as easy as possible for there to be open communication from you to me on how I’m doing.”

    This may be an even more awkward conversation than the one about firing, but it’s important to re-establish the appropriate boundaries and I’m not sure your manager is going to do that.

    * Assuming your boss confirms that you are not about to be fired.

  34. Jillyan*

    Sometimes…manager’s really suck. This is a person’s livelihood- if you hired them, and you can see they are committed to working their hardest, you need to give them the chance to improve. SMH

  35. Buttonhole*

    OP sorry to be harsh, I really want to be positive, but I’d get my resume up to scratch. This doesn’t sound very good, and no it is not your fault. Even if you don’t get fired, you deserve better than this.

  36. Kristine*

    “If you were fired, who would you tell first?”
    I really wouldn’t say this unless I had another job lined up and was leaving, but:
    “My attorney.” :P
    What an abysmal manager.

  37. Eyhung47*

    I agree with the other comments here regarding the manager’s inappropriate conduct and that the OP needs to stop socializing with her manager. While I think Alison’s advice to directly ask the manager is correct in light of all of the mixed signals the OP has been getting — the problem is, given how inappropriate/unprofessional the OP’s manager has been, it would be difficult to place any trust in anything the manager tells the OP. How can anyone trust the manager’s (lack of) judgment regarding the OP’s job performance, work security, etc. Someone who’s been a bad manager is sadly likely going to continue being a bad manager.

  38. Jessica (tc)*

    This really makes me wonder if the manager asked the peer to send her that message right at that time, just so the OP could “catch a clue” from it. Ridiculously passive-aggressive for the story right after that meeting even if that particular message wasn’t intentionally sent at that moment. Any manager who expects employees to figure out their future from random people dropping hints around them is a terrible manager. Just tell your employees what they need to know!

  39. LetterWriter*

    Hi everyone, thanks so much for the comments on my post. I’m feeling much less anxious now, even though many of you have confirmed my worst fears: I’m better off looking elsewhere. At least I know I’m not totally overreacting…

    Here’s an update:

    The next day, I asked to speak with my manager privately to address my performance. She confirmed that I have been managing the project “exactly the same way she would”. She told me that the peer who said I was a “risk” to the project treats her the same way (kinda doubt it). She was totally downplaying his criticism.

    I told her I felt overwhelmed with other clients this week (I’ve been working long hours) and I would love for her to help on this one particular project. Basically she’s doing all the work and I’m just writing to clients exactly what she tells me to. I don’t feel like I’m really adding any value here.

    On a side note, they have given me the most challenging clients. As a result I struggle with work/life balance and I wonder if this is yet another sign they’re hoping I’ll eventually just quit out of frustration/exhaustion.

    I was scared to ask her about the “who would you tell” question, because I don’t have a job lined up. But I’m trying to keep my head up… maybe I really should look for another job.

    1. BRR*

      I’m sorry you’re going through this stressful time. It really sounds like you should be looking for a new job either in case you’re current job is in jeopardy or just to find somewhere where you’ll be happier.

      If you end up being fired I would let your boss know you would have appreciate her being more direct with difficult conversations.

      I hope you send Alison an update.

    2. TheBeetsMotel*

      This could go either way… it’s possible she’s trying to exhaust you into quitting, but it’s also possible she’s trying to see how far you can be pushed with regards to working hours because the demand will be greater and greater the more senior you become. I’m not a fan of this strategy – “work people to death and weed out those who dare to have a life outside work” – but unfortunately, it seems commonplace in some situations. (Personally, I feel a manager worth their salt should actually MANAGE people’s time effectively so that no one feels that they can’t go home at the end of the day).

      On the other hand, some people consider a bad work/life balance to mean “I had to stay 10 minutes late the other day”. (Not saying this is true of you, OP). It’s possible she’s making sure you’re not a clockwatcher before investing you with more responsibility.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Well, if she fired you tomorrow, you still would not have a job lined up. I am thinking that is actually a moot point, but I understand the emotion behind it. I hope I can encourage you to feel that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It could be that you use it as an opportunity to say something like, “I prefer direct statements such as ‘You need to improve x, y and z’ as opposed to indirect statements such as ‘who would I tell first that I got fired’. That latter statement, leaves me clueless as to what you mean.”

    4. NickelandDime*

      You provided an update and people are still as confused by her statements here as they were in the first letter. I don’t think she provided you with any real clarification.

      Polish up your resume and start looking for another job. You deserve better.

  40. Not So NewReader*

    I have to say this:

    “If you suddenly developed management skills, who would you tell first?”

    “If you decided to get therapy for your passive-aggressive thinking, who would you tell first?”

    “If you realized there was a difference between employees and besties, who would you tell first?’

    The format works for many situations.

  41. AE*

    I know I wouldn’t think on my feet but I’d like to think I’d say “The first person I’d tell is an employment lawyer”

  42. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    If I were asked that question – I’d reply to the boss “golly that IS a weird question. I dunno. Who would YOU tell first if you were fired?” When people try to mess with your head, and you don’t have an answer, mess back. It baffles them.

    In other words, turn the tables. As Vito Corleone told Sonny, “Never let anyone know what you’re thinking.”

    In reality – I’d call customers and clients who I know need help in my area of expertise and let them know I am a “free agent” and available to help them.

  43. Ruffingit*

    This is ridiculous on so many levels, but it all points to the same thing – your manager sucks. Getting nails done together and what not is totally inappropriate and her response to this situation is also inappropriate. You need to look for a new job. I think the damage is done here and cannot be repaired.

  44. JustTeaForMeThanks*

    This sort of happened to me. It was my first real job. My manager didn’t like me and regularly attacked me personally during one on one meetings. Nothing had to do with my work or how I did it. I tried to ask questions in order to get specific information in order to make improvements, but it was just impossible to get her to tell me how I could improve. This was very frustrating for me – not being able to solve it. Eventually I got a rather negative performance review. When discussing it with my boss, she told me she thought it wasn’t negative at all. I had a couple of months to improve ( on what I still don’t know). Then I was let go (not fired, I had a contract and they had zero grounds for firing me – employees are very protected where I’m from) before my time for improving was up (my boss just blurted it out in a one on one meeting). My advise: do ask for clarification as Allison says, however, do keep in mind that your boss may not be truthful. All in all: do start looking for another job. Btw, your boss sucks. Look out for yourself! Best of luck!

  45. RP*

    So of course you immediately shot back, “If this company were being sued for harassment and discrimination, who would you speak to first? A good lawyer or the media?”

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