my boss says I shouldn’t expect people to tell me when they’re too busy to talk

A reader writes:

I recently received my six-month probationary performance review from my supervisor. I am a new attorney, but spent three years before law school and most of my legal internships working in office settings. While I anticipated some of the concerns about my performance, I felt blindsided by much of the feedback, especially the review of my interpersonal skills.

In one paragraph, it said: “She comes into my or colleagues’ offices without inquiring about that person’s availability. These interactions can progress to an extended social conversation that disrupts the work of her colleague. While she is always invited to come see me in person or reach out to colleagues, she should make sure that the person has time to meet with her or that she is not interrupting deadlines.”

Whenever possible, I check our shared calendars, but because I am located in a small annex office down the hall, I sometimes stop by when in the main office because I am already nearby. I always knock before entering another person’s office, even when the door is open, and wait until I receive confirmation that the individual is available. Whenever someone replies that they are busy or have a deadline, I immediately reply that I will come back at a better time and leave the office.

When I asked my supervisor why he or other colleagues would not tell me they are not available, he replied that it is the responsibility of the person initiating the conversation to determine whether the other person is available and that I shouldn’t expect people to tell me that they might be busy. He also suggested that I read the body language of my colleagues to determine whether they have time to talk.

As a result of my performance review, I am now on an additional 90-day probation period, and HR prepared a series of goals for me to follow, including “demonstrate respect for others in the workplace, which could be evidenced by checking about others’ availability when having an unscheduled meeting or interrupting their work.”

I am still struggling to understand why this issue belongs in my review in the first place. I’ve never worked in an office (including the U.S. Department of Justice) that discouraged stopping by a colleague’s office to ask a question. When I discussed this with trustworthy colleagues or friends in similar positions, everyone expressed their surprise at why this issue came up at all or why my supervisor feels that I behaved inappropriately.

Is this expectation that my supervisor communicated to me normal? I just don’t understand how I am expected to read body language, but a colleague does not have to say anything when they are too busy to discuss work? I want to succeed in this organization, but I just feel very lost as to how to interact with anyone now.

It’s pretty odd feedback — not the “you’re interrupting people too much” part, because sometimes that’s a thing that’s really true, but the “don’t expect people to tell you they’re busy” part.

I think there are three possibilities here:

1. This is about your manager, not you. What else do you know about him? Does he generally seem like a reasonable person with good judgment? If the answer to that is no, that makes it more likely that this is just a weirdness of his. Also, does he seem to like you? What’s your sense of how he thinks you’re doing overall? If he has a list of concerns about your work, it’s possible that this is connected to that — that he wants you more focused on work or something like that. And what do you know about how he navigates interrupting others and chit-chatting during the work day? Is he very rigid/closed-off in that regard? If so, he might just have odd expectations about how this stuff should work.

2. It’s possible that what he’s described to you is the culture of this particular office. Have you observed enough about the culture to have a good feel for what others do when they need something from someone else? Do they spontaneously drop by people’s offices, or seem to mainly use email to communicate, or schedule meetings in advance? If this office has particular conventions when it comes to interruptions, you’d need to sync up with those in order to fit in there.

3. It’s possible that you’re truly interrupting people more than you realize and/or you’re overstaying your welcome with social conversations after the work topic is over. If that’s the case, yes, people should tell you directly … but as we know from letters here, loads of people aren’t comfortable saying “well, I have to get back to work now” or otherwise cutting a conversation short. It’s possible that you haven’t been reading people’s cues about this and that your manager has heard feedback about it.

If none of these three jump out at you at being particularly likely, I’d proceed as if it’s #2. Assume for now that your office culture is one where you schedule interruptions, even if that’s less convenient, and that it’s one where people may not be into as much chit-chat as you’ve been used to previously. It might be that you simply don’t like a culture that operates that way, but I’d proceed that way for a while and see how it goes. (Conveniently, that’s what your boss is telling you to do anyway.)

Also, is there anyone at work who’s more senior and who you click with especially well? If you can find a mentor in your office, they could be a sounding board on some of this too (and would be well-positioned to tell you “yeah, that’s just our office culture” or “no, Fergus is being weird about this” or “yeah, you’re lingering in people’s offices more than you realize”).

Also, this wasn’t quite the point of your letter, but that 90-day probation extension with specific goals is something to take seriously (not that you aren’t). They’re saying “we want to preserve our ability to let you go quickly and without much process in case this doesn’t work out.” So make sure that you’re proactively checking with your manager about how things are going over the next three months (are you addressing his concerns, are there things he wants you doing differently, etc.)  … as well as doing some thinking on your own about how well you and this office are meshing. That might seem like a big leap from a single point in a performance evaluation — and maybe it is — but given everything you’ve said here, I want to be sure that you don’t get so hung up on figuring out how to fit them that you forget to think about how well they fit you.

{ 283 comments… read them below }

  1. Bruce*

    Having worked in the past as an attorney in what I believe is a typical law office environment, I think the most likely scenario is #3, not #2. I believe you really need to focus on the part about social conversations as what seems to most annoy the other attorneys. As you are well aware, attorneys are measured and rewarded in large part by billable hours. Discussion about work matters won’t necessarily negatively impact that, but extended social conversations during the workday, especially if these attorneys are associates rather than partners, are a big problem. It also creates the impression that perhaps you are not fully occupied and perhaps a net negative for the firm. Not a problem at DOJ, but a big problem in private practice.

    1. Anon in NOVA*

      I second this, only based on “These interactions can progress to an extended social conversation that disrupts the work of her colleague” from the performance review. Sounds like a combination of #2 and #3 to me, meaning the level of social conversation is not necessarily outside the wider professional norm, but is outside of the norm for that office.

    2. Harriet M. Welsch*

      Fellow attorney here. I have worked for two firms in the past 8 years – one large corporate firm in a big city, the other a much smaller firm in a small city – and what Bruce describes has been spot-on for both experiences. I agree that #3 is the most likely scenario. Our days are ruled by the billable hour, and it is critically important to be cognizant of that fact when interacting with other attorneys. A couple 15-minute conversations off the clock can mean not meeting your hours goal/requirement for the day, or being late to pick up your kid from daycare, etc. It can be a tough balance to build relationships while respecting billable demands.

      1. Wheezy Weasel*

        I had a similar experience working as a billable consultant. Even though my calendar only had 6 hours blocked off, the other hours are prep for my billable work tomorrow/next week. Answering exper-level questions from the product support team were not billable..neither were training questions from new consultants, and so on. Was it important to the company that I answer my colleagues questions…sure! Did it negatively affect my metrics and employment prospects? Yup! I resorted to working remotely and keeping my instant messenger turned to Busy all day. I still got 50+ messages in busy status, mostly for me to ignore, which then led to a followup email, which I could either ignore again or answer briefly outside of my billable time…Saturdays, mostly. And looking back (in embarrassment) I did actually reach out to my manager and ask that he speak to those people interrupting my billable hours and ask them to scale it back. At the time I didn’t realize that this was a symptom of the overall disfunction of that workplace.

        This was before I got wise to the AAM community, now I have a whole bunch more coping skills that would have let me be more polite to my fellow team members even if the company culture did not change.

    3. Anonymoosetracks*

      Agree that this is the most likely.

      OP, I begin every conversation with “is this a good time” or “do you have five minutes for a quick question” (and then limit the conversation to those five minutes!) or something like that. When you say that you’re waiting to receive confirmation that the individual is available, are you doing that? Or are you just sort of waiting for them to acknowledge you without outright asking about their availability?

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        Yes, this. Starting with “I have a quick question about X, is this a good time or should I come back later” is how you should be starting these conversations. And if it’s *not* a quick question, you definitely need to schedule those conversations. You can still stop by someone’s office for that, but tell them you want to talk about X and want to know when a good time for that would be (though it’s probably better to do that over email or IM).

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          And I add the “should I come back later” part because for some people, they hate to say “no, it’s not a good time.” By adding that language, you are giving them permission to say that. Permission isn’t really the right word–I mean that you are telling them that you won’t think it’s rude for them to tell you that now is not a good time, that you are prepared for that to be their response. In your situation, you want to make it as easy as possible for people to say no to you. Plus, as an added bonus, when you check in with your boss, if there have been any more complaints, you can say “I asked them if I should come back later and they said no.”

          But definitely also work on winding up your conversations faster, too.

          1. Anon in NOVA*

            This is spot on I hope OP takes this advice. Clearly no one there has been comfortable with saying “i really can’t keep talking right now, I have to get back to work”. Leaving an opening like JB suggested gives them an out. It’s easier to say “yes” to coming back at a different time than “no” to talking right now, if that makes sense.

          2. Anonymoosetracks*

            Agreed- this is the language I use most often: explicitly offering “should I come back later” as an option.

            I mean, there’s some give and take here- I will ask this way, e.g., if I come in and someone is typing up an email or working on a filing or whatever. If I walk into their office when they are online shopping on ThinkGeek, I am probably not going to be quite as conscientious. But maybe that also plays into what OP’s manager is getting at about reading the situation better?

          3. Anonymoose*

            This is excellent advice even outside of law offices. And ‘permission’ is a great word choice, you’re giving them permission to gracefully bow out of the conversation so they’re not stuck being polite when they don’t have the time. It’s a courtesy. :)

          4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Yes! Sometimes I bullet-point my key points on a post-it to stay focused. I think by talking, which no one has time for, so keeping it succinct and direct is crucial.

        2. Future Analyst*

          Seconding the email or IM thing– we use IM to ask questions that would take 2 mins or less to answer, and email for longer items. Our office is pretty casual, but even here, if we think a discussion would take 5 mins or longer, we schedule a meeting for it rather than dropping in on people.

        3. Sheepla*

          Attorney here who works in a law firm and every single time I walk into a fellow attorney’s office, this is similar to what I say. Critical, critical, critical in any legal environment in my opinion.

      2. J*

        Yes. I’m a phone-user and head-in-office person. Knowing that not everyone is the same, and that I don’t know the constraints on their time, the conversation always starts with “do you have to answer a question/go over this idea?”

        As the interrupter, it is incumbent on you to make sure you aren’t stepping on anyone’s toes.

        1. J*

          Argh. There was a “some period of time” phrase off-set by brackets in the middle of the question. Must have lost it in formatting.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            If you use those pointy brackets (angle brackets?) instead of parentheses, it will think you’re trying to use HTML and if what you put there isn’t actually HTML, it will be lost.

            1. Evan Þ*

              Myself, I generally use [square brackets]. Though if you specifically need <angle brackets >, I think you can get them with &lt; and &gt; … let’s see how this comment comes out…

      3. ZVA*

        This is what I do, too… I’ll say something like “Do you have time for a question?” or, if they seem busy, “Is this a good time to talk, or should I come back later?” Usually they’ll be fine to talk, but I always feel better for having asked.

        Oddly enough, it was an ex of mine that “taught” me to do this—he used to get mad at me for calling him and launching right into whatever I had to say without asking if it was a good time. He was kind of a dick but he did get me into the habit of always, always asking, which has proven very useful in my professional life.

      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Agreed with all that has been said, including Anonymoosetracks’ suggested scripts + JB’s amendments.

        Although it’s common in most civilized work places to inquire into how someone’s doing, I’ve found this is a hard no when you’re talking to someone who’s tracking their time in billable hours. It’s not just the tracking format—all litigators track their time, and many non-litigators do, as well, depending on their practice area—it’s specifically the requirement that attorneys meet specific goals/targets regarding the number of hours they bill each year.

        Many big-/medium-law private attorneys are already required to log more hours than is realistic, and as a result, non-billable time is super planned out, even if it isn’t logged in someone’s calendar. Additionally, if someone’s on deadline for a filing, etc., they’re likely not going to be able to talk to you that day, and maybe even not the next. I am a chatty and chill West Coast person, and I struggled to adjust because law norms often felt cold and heartless (and very NYC/New Englandy). All you can do is recalibrate your expectations and always ask if someone has time for a question (and then limit conversation to that question and that amount of time). Once you pick up the asking/timing norm, you’ll find people are warmer to you and more willing to take your questions or make time for you because they know that “5 minutes” really does mean 5 minutes and not 10 or 15. You’ll basically earn back the benefit of the doubt.

        In my experience, this culture is unique to workplaces that operate on billables and billable targets (e.g., consulting). It doesn’t show up as pervasively in places like the DOJ, or even in big nonprofits like the ACLU/NRDC, because those organizations are tracking time for the purposes of fee recovery or reporting, not for the purpose of meeting specific billing targets. They’re still super hardworking, but they have more control over how they structure their work time.

        This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, OP; all it means is that there’s a specific professional norm you need to pick up fairly quickly. If you can turn this around—which I think you can—you’ll be amazed at how differently people perceive and treat you. One of the best things about being a new attorney is that folks are more willing to extend goodwill if they see a new atty quickly and professionally accept feedback and make corrections accordingly. Good luck!

        1. Rater Z*

          One other thought — you might be keeping it short but you may have just followed someone else thru who also wasn’t far behind someone else and the person in the office has lost a lot more time than any of you realize.

      5. Honeybee*

        I agree with all this and use it in my own workplace when I stop in people’s offices – I like to talk to people face-to-face, but I realize not everyone does, so I always ask if people have time and make appointments for things I think will take longer than 5-10 minutes.

        With that said, though…if people pop by my office, and I’m in the middle of something and they’re starting to take longer than 5-10 minutes, I just say “Hey, I’m really busy trying to finish up X. Can you come back at 2/can we schedule some time to talk about it/can I finish this up and come find you later?” Pretty much everyone in my office does that because our offices have glass doors and windows and you have to develop that skill to work in a completely visible fish bowl successfully. I understand that she’s interrupting people and the onus is on her to find out if she’s available, but people really also could be up front about their needs as well.

        But we also are in a different kind of office culture, where the culture is absolutely to go grab people in person for impromptu stuff all day long unless you’re able to politely push back.

    4. anonderella*

      I second this, though I have no experience working as/with attorneys. It is also entirely possible that OP managed to do this to the wrong person/people just once or twice too many times, and that’s where those comments came from.
      Regardless, if you modify your behavior to page/email/message before stopping by, you might see how often you truly are stopping by for those ‘quick questions’; maybe it is more than you realize, especially if you’re tagging a ‘quick question’ onto the same trip as going by the bathroom, or running to the kitchen for a refill. It may seem quick and small to you, but jarring and disruptive to someone seriously focused on something – that they may or may not have on their calendar, importantly.

      You may consider making a list of the questions throughout the day/part of a day you have for a/each person, email that off with a deadline for when you need the answers, and then seeing what you can get done without those answers, and after a while/closer to the deadline checking back while reinforcing that deadline you gave earlier. And of course being as polite as possible when someone isn’t working with your deadlines.

      It may be that the people who don’t have as much time to socialize will appreciate this approach, and warm up to you in time.
      I have been in a support role for about a year – entering the workforce after completing BA degree last summer – and though my job 100% rests on getting answers from people so I can make action happen, it doesn’t behoove anyone for me to perform as if my deadlines matter more because they are more visible to me. Though I’m not saying that’s what you’re doing, it has worked tremendously to alter my behavior enough to read each associate and find what speed/level of engagement works for them. I am pretty introverted as well, so putting it into concrete goals and levels of expectation really works for me, so that I can count successes as well as not-successes, and move forward on that information.

      That may all be super obvious, but that’s what I’ve gained in my first year of an office job!

    5. Government Worker*

      Yes, this. My spouse started her career in BigLaw and went to the DOJ and had kind of the opposite culture shock, where she had to loosen up about things like office chit-chat in order to not be perceived as unfriendly.

      1. Escaped from BigLaw*

        I did the same thing, and have had a very similar experience. There’s just so pressure at the firm to bill, bill, bill that there’s very little time for that kind of social chitchat. I’d suggest OP should try to ask questions via email (especially for non-urgent questions) and schedule appointments to ask questions that might require a longer conversation. It sounds dumb, but you have to manage upward a lot at a firm in general.

        I did want to note to OP that, in my personal experience, office culture at DOJ is VERY different from BigLaw office culture, and may not be a great guide.

        1. Government Worker*

          Yes. Remember that many of the lawyers at the DOJ came from BigLaw, and they have chosen to take a 50% pay cut (more at higher levels) to work in a government office culture instead of a BigLaw one.

    6. Simplytea*

      I agree and disagree–when I worked at a law firm the practices were a little bit different. Partners felt that they didn’t have to provide feedback directly, and provided it through HR instead. This could just be an unfortunate method of providing feedback that has cultivated at your firm. Take the feedback seriously and you should be fine!

      1. Government Worker*

        +1. The reporting structure at a lot of law firms would provide Alison fodder for decades. At my spouse’s old firm, like a lot of others, there was a designated attorney senior to her who gave her performance reviews and also served as a kind of mentor, but she never worked directly with that person. The various partners and more senior associates on the different cases she was assigned to were all asked for written input for her performance reviews, but unless there was an immediate major issue they wouldn’t give this kind of management feedback directly.

        1. Triangle Pose*

          I disagree, this structure actually makes a lot of sense in a law firm. As a junior attorney, you are going to do work for a lot of senior partners, but noe single one of them is going to be your “manager.” Law firm work is not set up that way. So there should be one person who is senior to you who collects all the feedback from the partners you work with and puts it together and gives it to you. It’s not someone you do work for because that’s the whole point – they are a neutral collector of feedback and present it to you. They are also there as a mentor when you need advice on how to work with different partners because that mentor has probably done work for those same partners.

          1. Government Worker*

            I agree it makes some sense for performance reviews, given everything else. The problems come in when you don’t have enough work to do and have to get yourself added to more cases, or when you have several cases that all blow up at the same moment and your options are to hope one of the partners on your case has mercy on you or to work yourself to the bone.

            Virtually all of the worst moments of my spouse’s time in BigLaw were around things where in a normal corporate environment you could go talk to your manager about your work load and priorities. But in law you’re expected to just handle it yourself most of the time with the different partners involved, almost like a freelancer would in negotiating with a bunch of clients.

            1. Triangle Pose*

              Our firm had 2 dedicated assigning partners who you could go to and ask for more work or to be you advocate when you have too much work and only so many waking hours. I agree it’s not perfect, but even in non-law firm corporate environments you are going to run into times when you are just jammed because of your high workload and you manager can’t help.

            2. Elysian*

              When I complain about work, it is about this. It is so confusing for my spouse that there’s not a person I can go to to discuss my workload. It’s always a constant negotiation between Partner A who wants this and Partner B who wants that… While I think Partner A’s thing is a higher priority that needs to get done first, Partner B takes offense that I’m not prioritizing his work and gets frustrated at me… Story of my life.

              1. Triangle Pose*

                You should bring this up to your associates committee and ask if there can be a dedicated partner (ours are always the 2 newest partners) who can be assigning partners. This way you can go to someone to talk to Partner A and Partner B on your behalf. Also every 2 weeks all the associates had to turn in a sheet with all the matters they are working on with something that says “I can take more work” “I cannot take any more work” “I am going to be on vacation don’t assign me any new work”.

                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  I agree with Triangle Pose. I’m in public interest, but we had the same issue with respect to multiple managers failing to coordinate and then assigning conflicting high priority work all at once. We finally requested that someone’s job be triage—just so at least one person “outside the chain” had a holistic picture of what was going on—and it made a significant (positive) difference.

          2. FiveWheels*

            It depends on the law firm. BigLaw isn’t really a thing in my jurisdiction, but in MediumLaw the standard practice I’ve experienced is partners as heads of department and the associates working for them. Associates billable hours are credited to the supervising partner.

            When an associate does work for a partner other than their department head it causes a lot of hassle in assigning bills, partner dividends etc.

    7. INFJ*

      But still… if this is a serious enough issue to warrant extending the probationary period, it shouldn’t have come up 6 MONTHS into the position…

      1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

        I think this may be a law firm thing based on the comments (IANAL, so no clue).

        But I agree. I have had to have similar conversations with some of my staff, we have an open floor plan and it’s so easy to turn to the person next you when a question pops into your head. My preference is to have the conversation as soon as it happens, because a simple complaint like this can turn to BEC in a very short time period, and I don’t want one of my employees getting the reputation as the interrupter.

      2. Teclatrans*

        Gah. This is sorta off-topic, but when I worked as a legal secretary in another lifetime, apparently one of my attorneys had been complaining about numerous things for months, but the office managger never relates any of it to me until the day I got reassigned. I am guessing he felt so frustrated and disrespected by my refusal to change my behavior. Gah. Tell people when it comes up, folks!

  2. Cat*

    This is a lawyer/law firm thing, I think. I’ve heard colleagues complain about junior people and staff doing the same thing numerous times. I think it’s because lawyers (a) aren’t usually officially managing you, so are more reticent to tell you things specifically; but (b) at the same time are unambiguously senior to you, so expect you to read their mind. But this is a pretty harmless manifestation of it, so just ask people if they’re busy.

    1. ExceptionToTheRule*

      IANAL, but I have this problem with one of my employees as well. He stops by to ask a legitimate work question and then he just won’t leave. He doesn’t seem to pick up on social cues or body language so I eventually have to tell him to go away so I can finish what I’m working on and that gets tedious.

      1. Honeybee*

        There’s someone in my office who does this as well. He’ll come by your office solely to have a 30 minute chat about some social life/personal thing. He does not pick up on social cues or body language. I have to directly tell him that I am doing X and I cannot talk to him.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I think it’s a billable hour thing. Although versions of the coworker who holds you hostage behind your own desk with chitchat exists everywhere, that intrusion on time is more severely handled in places with billable targets, like law and consulting (and I’m sure ibanking, etc.). I think the delay in informing OP is a law firm thing, though.

  3. Important Moi*

    This is not a criticism, but just my thoughts based on me and my experiences. I am an introvert with a small social circle. “Small talk and people dropping by to chat” are not my strong points. Maybe OP is really chatty and co-workers thought body language and pauses in conversation were enough to convey the message? Could OP email parties and get documentation that its is OK for OP to come by instead of going to their offices? Are you chatting about non-work related things?

    Also, I am sorry OP got blind-sided. It’s not a good feeling. They are giving you an opportunity to fix this.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Yeah, I work with someone who if I allow him 30 seconds of my time, he’ll talk me ear off for 20 minutes. It drives me crazy. And he does not pick up on the cues that I’m doing other things, until I finally have to say “Fergus, I need to focus on work right now.”

      1. FiveWheels*

        I know some people like that, but I find it very difficult to banish them by saying I need to work. Nine times out of ten I COULD keep talking if I wanted to, and in fact I might specifically want to share a joke with a different colleague. The truthful thing to say would be “I don’t want to talk to YOU any more” which is flat out rude.

        So the options are…
        -Extreme rudeness
        -Grin and bear it
        -Say I need to work, and don’t get to have a chat with someone I enjoy chatting to

        Sigh, the perils of being a seemingly extroverted entertainer, while actually being a socially confused introvert.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I find that being really kind while saying you have to work can help ameliorate your options. If it’s someone I want to chat with (but need to work), I usually smile ruefully, note that I have to return to work, and ask if we can catch up at a later time. Nine times out of ten, we’ll get to wrap the convo later in the day, and no one leaves feeling ignored.

        2. Chomps*

          @FiveWheels I understand your perspective, but really, it’s none of your coworker’s business who you are talking to so I think the white lie of “I need to get back to work” and sharing a joke with someone can both happen. Maybe just not immediately next to each other. :-)

      2. Whats In A Name*

        I feel your pain. I have a co-worker like this. But I have to start saying “I need to focus on this project” or “I have a conference call” about 10 minutes before it’s detrimental that I get out of convo because he doesn’t even get direct dismissal.

        So now I keep my door closed almost always, which is a bummer in itself because I’ve lost other social interaction.

      3. Chaordic One*

        I’ve had this problem in the past. I usually cut people off after about five minutes or so, and I really tried to be polite about it, but even so, I acquired a reputation for being “brusk” and “unfriendly.”

  4. BRR*

    I think your best course of action for the situation is to scale back on your impromptu, in-person interactions. I would also start asking people if they have a minute when you drop by. Just because somebody is open according to their calendar doesn’t mean that time is necessarily up for grabs. Saying this all as someone who took a long time to grasp office norms.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      Yeah. All an open calendar means is that I’m not in a meeting. It doesn’t mean I don’t have 300 things to catch up on that I couldn’t do while in meetings!

  5. Sharon*

    I got stuck on the requirement to determine if the other person is busy without asking “hey, you got a minute?”.

    If I was in this situation, I think my solution (or at least something I’d try) would be to always email first asking if I could set up a few minutes on that person’s calendar. That’s beaurocratic and seems silly if I happen to already be walking by and just have a quick question. But it sounds like they’re extra sensitive to drop-ins, so I would avoid them as much as possible.

    1. fposte*

      What the report suggests is that that question *isn’t* being asked. The OP says it is, but nonetheless, somebody is feeling like she’s settling in for a convo when it hasn’t been identified as an appropriate time. People really don’t like being put into a position where they have to say no, so you definitely want a triage method that’s not just waiting for pushback.

      I like your email suggestion, but then I would because we run on emails around here. I’d also say it might be worth asking more specifically–not “Hey, can I talk to you?” but “Hey, would you have three minutes for me on the Henderson file or would later today be better?”

      1. animaniactoo*

        I don’t think the question is being asked at all – it sounds like OP is knocking on their door and waiting to be acknowledged and then just launching into the question.

        Some people respond to the knock with “I can’t talk right now, I have 14 things I’m in the middle of” and OP goes off and comes back later.

        But I’m guessing that others respond with “Yeah?” and then expect OP to see them not looking up to talk or answering the question but looking back at their work as being busy and should go away now (or as quickly as possible after a 1 minute question).

        1. fposte*

          I took “wait until I receive confirmation that the individual is available” as asking, but you’re right it could just be the knock.

          1. Elizabeth*

            Same, which is why I’m so very confused by all this. A knock on the door isn’t an inquiry as to availability. I feel like even if OP is breaking whatever social norms might exist at this company on some level, at some point if you feel like you’re getting interrupted but you’re not saying anything when explicitly asked if you’ve got time to chat, you’ve got to share some of the fault here. OP isn’t a mind reader.

            1. fposte*

              She doesn’t have to be a mind-reader–she’s just been told explicitly to do it differently since it’s clear it’s a pattern. It’s okay to do something wrong and then be told later to change it.

              1. Elizabeth*

                Sure. My point wasn’t about the feedback she has now received telling her that this is a problem, just that had her colleagues been less opaque in the first place it may not have escalated to this point. She’s the one getting in trouble for it, but they’re certainly not helping. Prior to this, how was she supposed to know if everyone was saying “Yes, I’m available” when they weren’t? I’d be mortified if this showed up on my performance evaluation and I didn’t even know it was a problem because no one was honest with me to begin with.

                1. Observer*

                  Because she hasn’t ASKED. The feedback says so quite explicitly. “can I come in?” and “Do you have a minute?” don’t really count, especially since these questions apparently go on for quite a bit longer.

                2. fposte*

                  In addition to what Observer says, the interrupter is always going to bear most of the responsibility for an in interruption–even if you ask, the problem is that you’ve already interrupted people, so they’re thinking “might as well answer it now, I guess.” The problem is a cumulative one, and the appropriate feedback is a more global “You’re interrupting too much.” And that’s the collective feedback she’s just gotten.

                3. Elizabeth*

                  As I said above, I’m talking about prior to receiving the feedback. It’s been made clear to her that she needs to ask in a different way (she hasn’t asked in their preferred way, not that she hasn’t asked at all); several others have pointed out that this is a workplace culture thing very common on law offices, and that’s perfectly fine since you definitely need to learn the norms of your industry if you want to do well. But if her colleagues are feeling interrupted before her performance review, and we’re taking OP at her word that she waits for them to confirm they’re available before launching into conversation, then it seems useful for said colleagues to say “I only have five minutes” or “No, but can we chat at XYZ time and date instead?” rather than giving her a window for talking and then complaining to her boss.

                  If the questions go on for a bit longer and turn into personal stuff, that’s certainly an issue, though one I think is parallel to rather than part and parcel of the unannounced drop-bys.

                4. fposte*

                  @Elizabeth–I think this is one of those parsing the culture things that individuals do need to take action to consider on their own, though.

                5. Elizabeth*

                  @ fposte Absolutely! And as many people have said, OP isn’t without blame here nor am I trying to suggest that. I just feel like if you see a colleague Not Getting It, sometimes it wouldn’t kill you to help them out a bit. I have dreams of a kinder, gentler workplace! :D

                6. Oh no, not again*

                  Thank you, Elizabeth. I wish people would have used their words beforehand instead of coming out of nowhere with a serious evaluation. Baffling. Taking OP at their word, there was no reason to escalate that suddenly.

                7. lokilaufeysanon*

                  I agree with this. I think it would be best for her to ask if they have a minute, but they should be able to tell her they can’t talk because of work if the conversation starts veering off of work/goes on for too long. It’s really not that hard.

              2. kb*

                I agree that just being told shouldn’t be an issue, but waiting 6 months while the problem persists then escalating to a probation-period-extending response isn’t ideal either when the behavior could have been much more easily nipped in the bud. Other commenters mention that this may be due to the power structure of a law firm, which I could see, but I have to think there’s a better way to help new employees transition into the workplace than letting them make uncorrected errors for 6 months.

                1. FiveWheels*

                  Agreed that it should have been dealt with sooner, but that’s sometimes difficult in a law firm chain of command.

                  If someone is junior to you but not answerable to you, it can be difficult to ask them to correct/change behaviour. After all, you have zero authority over that person.

                  Likewise it can be hard to bring seemingly petty things to a partner.

                  And on top of that, if office culture doesn’t lend itself to impromptu chats, the first while it might not be noticed… Then eventually you realise huh, this person is chatting a lot when they speak to me… Huh, it’s being going on a month and they don’t work for me so how do I even ask them to stop…

                  Then it’s review time, and Boss asks for opinions, and the answer is “NewAttorney would be great if they’d just stop social calls!”

                  It’s an imperfect system, but I don’t really feel like anyone is in trouble. An issue has been identified and the OP can work on it. It’s only s problem if they don’t get in line with office norms.

                2. kb*

                  FiveWheels, I can completely see how that would happen in a chain of command like a law firm’s. I thinking aloud (a-type?) that there must be some sort of solution and was hoping someone would jump in with an example of how their firm handles it well. Maybe a mentor system for the first 6 months or year? So that way if you do have a complaint about someone, you can relay it to the mentor to bring up. That way nobody’s caught in unwanted chats for six months until the first review.

      2. Hooptie*

        If this were me, I would also be questioning the content and timing of what I’m asking. Too many times, I’ve seen people interrupted only to say to the interrupter “You should know this” or blowing up after the interrupter leaves. I’ve also seen people that crave attention or who are overly social make others crazy with interruptions. I just think a PIP is a bit harsh for only asking necessary questions…there has to be more to it than that.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I think the issue is probably that OP is doing more than asking a necessary question (e.g., observing social niceties like asking how someone is doing).

    2. lawsuited*

      I’m a lawyer, and really your question should be “do you have a minute to discuss X?”, because while Y may be important enough for me to interrupt what I’m doing right now, X may not be. It’s much easier for me to politely say “Not right now, but I’ll be in the office early tomorrow morning if you want to chat about it then” before the conversation starts then having to interrupt you once you’ve launched into 8 minutes of background on X.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Yes, I was thinking this as well. If my co-worker says “do you have a minute” I never know how to answer. Because if it’s a minute to talk about our joint project that I’m working on, and the information she is going to give me or ask me is going to affect how one of us procedes from here, then yes, I’ll take the time. But if it’s a minute to talk about weekend plans or whether we should order from place X or place Y for the luncheon 3 weeks from now, and the conversation will go on for 10 minutes, then no, I don’t really have time right now, but I don’t want to look like a grump.

        I get that OP is lonely at her end of the office, and that it makes sense to her to stop in to other’s offices on her way to and from the main area, but it doesn’t sound like her co-workers appreciate that, and she probably needs to work on doing less popping by and more pre-arranged meetings or emailing.

        It’s also possible that OP is getting sucked in by other Chatty Cathy’s in her office, and *that* person is the one who tends to turn the conversation from work to social chatter, but OP is the one that looks bad because she is the one who stopped by in the first place. Unfortunately, I could absolutely see someone who is not getting enough work done per day/hour blaming OP for the chatting, even if OP isn’t the problem.

        Or a case where grumpy powers-that-be think that multiple people need to socialize less and work more, and multiple people at OP’s level are getting this talk when in fact they *aren’t* actually socializing more than necessary, just more than the grump would like.

        1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

          If my co-worker says “do you have a minute” I never know how to answer.

          I *hate* “do you have a minute” or “can I swing by your office?” But if you ask “do you have a few minutes to talk about X,” it lets me assess if I have time AND brain power to deal with it at the moment. We have had conversations where people pop in with something where it needs to be a meeting, or where Sally and Jimmy should be brought in, so then it feels like the time was just wasted.

          1. Bossy Magoo*

            I also hate “are you busy?” My answer to that is “yes, I’m always busy. what can I do for you?”

            Sometime, depending on my relationship with the person asking, I answer with, “well, THAT’S a loaded question!”

        2. Jane*

          “If my co-worker says “do you have a minute” I never know how to answer.”

          Agreed. I hold a security/safety-enforcement role, which means I am required & prepared to drop everything and focus on a safety issue no matter what else I am working on. I always ‘have a minute’ for this. It also means I may ‘have a minute’ for a high priority subject and not for general chatter, but I can’t be sure when to interupt the chatter if I’m expectant that you may have something sensitive to report (maybe you need to get comfortable and build up to reporting harassment or whatever). But I also have many other widely variable priorities and deadlines going on at the same time, and they may not correspond to your priorities and deadlines either, and you probably don’t know what they are because they’re confidential.

          I agree with the boss in this letter: it *is* the responsibility of the interrupter to be clear about what they need to talk about, when, how urgently, and to make it clear when they’re transitioning to other subjects, to check in again before doing so, and to interrupt themselves when they realize they’re just socializing.

          My office knock conversation openers are along the lines of “When will you be free for approx X-min to discuss Y topic, of Z-level urgency & W deadline?”

      2. Em too*

        Yes – and be clear about whether it is “do you have a minute” or “do you have 15 mins”. Someone might be fine with 2 mins for an urgent matter but not 15 mins for something that can wait.

        1. Beezus*

          Yep, I try to be realistic about the time, and clear about the subject. I never ask for one minute, usually 5, 10, or 15. If it’s longer than 15, I schedule a meeting if at all possible.

      3. AnonAnalyst*

        Yeah, this is what I was thinking. I’m not a lawyer, but this has been the convention ins most of the offices I’ve worked in. Besides letting the interruptee (is that a thing?) decide if your question is higher priority than what they are currently working on, it also helps them determine whether this is really a 5 minute conversation or something that will require more time. If it’s really a 5 minute question they might just want to deal with it now, but if it’s something that they know will require more of an in depth discussion, it might be better to schedule it so they can make adequate time for it.

        If you don’t give them any warning about what you want to ask them about, they might not know it’s a 30 minute conversation or something low priority until you’ve already launched into it, and then they might feel like they can’t backtrack and tell you they actually don’t have time right now. I wonder if that’s part of what’s happening here (although OP’s colleagues also bear part of the responsibility for not speaking up and telling her they need to discuss it later).

      4. Aurion*

        This is why I respond to “do you have a minute?” with “what’s up?” or “what’s going on?” before I say yes. Would be nice if the asker offers it at the beginning, but at least the clarification lets me cut them off if I’m in the middle of something.

  6. nk*

    I’m wondering if the fact that you’re located in an annex office and stop by to talk to people as long as you’re in the main office is part of the issue. As much as it’s probably a pain to walk back and forth, I’d probably stop the habit of popping in on people just because you’re there and only stop by people’s offices when you have a direct need to.

    Based on what the couple attorneys have said above and my own experience in corporate offices, it sounds like there is a very different culture between the two. In many corporate settings it would be considered very normal to pop in and say hi when you’re near someone’s office even with no direct business need, and to avoid that could even be considered anti-social to the detriment of your career. But I’m sensing the opposite is true with attorneys who log billable hours.

    1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

      I would add that, if you know you are going to be in the main office and you know you need to check in with someone, send them a quick note before you leave for the main office to ask if they will have some time to meet with you, so to limit your trips.

      Also – and I know face to face can be better, but this is an example where email and/or (scheduled?) phone calls may be better. At my old job the program area which I primarily served was in an office about 3 miles away and it was rare I got out to see them face to face, or vice-versa, so we used a lot of email/phone. It wasn’t as good as face to face, but we got into a good rhythm despite that challenge.

    2. NonProfit Nancy*

      I have indeed had this issue with folks who work offsite. When they come to the main office (mine) they want to maximize their time there by “catching up” with folks, since the travel time already took them off their regular schedule – but alas, that doesn’t always work for the folks for whom today is business as usual and no derivation from their typical schedule. I feel guilty because I understand folks are visiting and I may not have the chance to talk to them face-to-face as often … but I have stuff to get done, so … bye!

      1. Another HRPro*

        I agree. In the corporate environment, visiting offsite folks love to pop in and chat. It can really throw your whole day/week off.

      2. miss_chevious*

        Ironically, my team (who works at a different location from the main team) has been pushed to schedule these “catching up” meetings when we’re in town, which I hate. It’s always an imposition on the other person’s schedule, we don’t work directly with the in-town team on projects, and it’s not like I don’t have work I need to do to even though I’m remote for the day. But Office Culture, so I do it.

    3. GrandBargain*

      I agree that a part of the problem is being located in an annex office… even one just down the hall. Inside the corporate office, it’s likely that social interactions happen throughout the day as part of the normal ebb and flow. I’ve sometimes seen that once or twice during the day all the office doors open and everyone comes out and starts talking and laughing. People just relaxing and letting off a little tension. The atmosphere blossoms for just a minute (desert flower) and the whole office is alive. Then just as quickly (maybe after only 5 or 10 minutes) everyone is back to work, the doors are closed and things quiet down.

      In the annex, you miss all that. And, since your rhythms aren’t tied to the corporate office, you stop by when they are all in work mode.

      For actual work questions, there is plenty of good advice that other commenters are offering. But, if it’s the social interaction you miss, if you want to be more a part of the firm and forge better relationships, I would stop by more often, not less. Walk over just for a minute or two and take a quick look around. If everyone is busy with their heads down, go back to your office. But, if there is talk and laughter and commotion, hang out for a bit and see if you can get engaged in that conversation. Another idea might be to have a friend in the corporate office give you a quick call or IM when she notices things getting social.

      1. GrandBargain*

        That… and I wonder if your supervisor isn’t just socially inept or tone deaf. Does she recognize the importance you put on connecting?

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I’m going to gently push back, because while I think your advice is helpful for non-law contexts, GrandBargain, it could be really dangerous for a young lawyer.

        OP, do not walk around the main area trying to determine the vibe because you miss social interaction. It’s not considered appropriate in big/medium law firms and can lead others to think that you’re slacking off. If there’s already a PIP saying you’re interrupting people too often or for too long, wandering around periodically will reinforce the idea that you either don’t have enough work or don’t understand how to allocate your time.

        1. GrandBargain*

          Yeah, I did wonder about that and you make a very good point. If OP is always poking her head in or looking not busy, it might not look good. So, I absolutely understand what you mean. Maybe it’s more a matter of firm culture. If the firm is going to stash associates in remote office locations and not make an effort to involve them in regular office interactions, it may come down to a choice on whether to live with that for a time.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I think you’re right, GB, and especially in light of OP’s update that she’s working at a nonprofit. The organization may not have figured out a way to make folks in the annex feel connected to the main office. Hopefully there are organized social times (lunch, 3pm coffee) when OP can wander over and get her people-time fix. (I don’t say that in a marginalizing way—I get super depressed if I don’t at least see other humans during the day.)

  7. RO*

    I think it is a cultural thing. At my last employer this came back as feedback, even though before I talk to folks I always ask “do you have x minutes to talk about abc.” When I asked why no one ever told me they were busy, I was told they were too polite to do so…yet they went to my boss to complain. Sometimes you cannot win.

    1. Confused Teapot Maker*

      Yeah, I get a lot of unsolicited phone calls as part of my job and am usually the other side of this.

      Them: Hey. You got two minutes to talk?
      Me: (Realising this isn’t urgent and probably shouldn’t have picked up) Sorry, not really.
      Them: (sounding put out) Oh. Can I schedule some time in to talk today?
      Me: Sorry, but I’m likely to be busy for the rest of today so I can’t really say when would be good for me, but you could always try calling back later.
      Them: (off in a huff) Oh, bye then.

      ….It’s like “Oh I see. You don’t honestly care about whether or not I have time and now just think I’m rude for telling you the truth you didn’t want. Ok. That’s cool.”

      You can’t win.

      1. Honeybee*

        Well, to be fair, “I’m probably going to be busy but you can try haphazardly to get help from me” isn’t very helpful, and would irritate me too. It’s probably not your fault, of course. But if I need something from you and I can’t get 2 minutes of time from you now, there’s a difference between “Sorry, no, but try again around 4 pm” or even “Sorry, not this week, unless it’s urgent can we schedule some time next Monday?” and “Sorry, no, and I’ll be too busy for you indefinitely.”

  8. Katie the Fed*

    It sounds like you’re overstaying your welcome in these conversations. The fact that this got though HR makes me think it’s a sufficiently big deal that whatever you’re doing is way outside the scope of the office norms.

    I would make sure your interruptions are strictly focused on business matters – let the other person move it to a more social direction if they want. And I would start each discussion with “do you have a few minutes to discuss XXX or is there a better time?” And then keep it to just a few minutes.

    I wonder if you’re also just not as busy as these other people. You’re new, so that might be why, but seems like your busyness level is somewhat out-of-whack with others. That might be where you want to focus.

    1. Government Worker*

      “I wonder if you’re also just not as busy as these other people. You’re new, so that might be why, but seems like your busyness level is somewhat out-of-whack with others. That might be where you want to focus.”

      This is a good point, especially since OP mentions other issues in the performance review. I wonder if OP’s desire to chat is greater than the office norm, but the irritated reaction of her colleagues is compounded by not having quite as much work to do and not meeting other performance goals. If she’s perceived as not really getting a lot of work done, then the extra chatting adds to an overall impression of bad work ethic/bad culture fit/incompetence that could be causing extra resentment in her colleagues.

      “OP came into my office to ask about the X case, but then she wanted to talk about Game of Thrones for 15 minutes! If she’d spent all this time she spends goofing off on the research for the Teapots brief instead, maybe I wouldn’t have been here until 10 last night doing it myself because what she gave me wasn’t going to cut it.”

  9. Lora*

    Here’s what I do which seems to work, where everyone is super busy with a million things to do: I preface literally EVERY in real life discussion with, “I need to ask you about X, do you have a minute/couple of minutes?” And then let them tell me if they need more than a minute or are busy or whatever. Often, VERY OFTEN, the answer is, “I’m in the middle of something, how about tomorrow/next week/next geological age?”

    Even work-related discussions, there’s often a longer explanation that can’t be conveyed in a water cooler conversation. Ideally yes, people would just say, “I’m kinda in the middle of Massive Complicated Project, can we talk later?” but…eh…people are weird.

    [Insert complaint about open offices making people feel free to mess up my concentration with trivial crap here]

    1. Katie the Fed*

      “[Insert complaint about open offices making people feel free to mess up my concentration with trivial crap here]”


    2. Manic Pixie HR Girl*


      My personal favorite is when you are exempt and planning on staying late to finish something, and someone who is not exempt strikes up a convo at 4:55pm and won’t take social cues to just leave already. Hey – the sooner you stop talking, the sooner I can finish working and go home! Grrrr …

        1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

          I had a few of those too, though in fairness those generally WERE work related. If I was already planning to burn some post-5pm oil, I’d take the call. However if it was a day I had decided I was Leaving On Time*, and there was no emergency that my boss required of me, I would not take phone calls after 4:50pm. I used 4:50-5pm to close down my computer, pack up my workstation, get a list ready for the next day, etc.

          *I would purposefully make plans I couldn’t be late for – like signing up for a class at the gym – to force my hand on this. I made sure to do this at least a couple times a week, and it did wonders for my sanity and did not negatively affect my performance. If your schedule allows, I highly recommend setting aside one day a week to stay late (or come in early, whatever you prefer!) to organize and get things done that require concentration and few distractions, and additionally at least a couple days a week of inflexible plans after work to force you out the door (but still low stakes in case you really DO get stuck on an emergency).

    3. Coco*

      That’s exactly what I did when I got my first office job: “Do you have a minute?” “Are you busy right now?” “Is it a good time for me to ask you about x?” Strangely, I quickly got the message from people’s facial expressions and tone that they found it weird for me to preface so many conversations that way. My boss and a couple seniorish coworkers would look at me oddly and say “Yes…” with a tone that implied ‘Obviously I can talk, just tell me what you want’ (even though they would NEVER be that direct). So I think gauging the culture is the thing to do. My office is fairly laid back.

  10. Bossy Magoo*

    When I read the letter, I automatically jump to scenario #3, because I experience that here too. There is a co-worker of mine whose office is a little out of the way so when she’s “in the neighborhood” she stops by to catch up and it does turn into a time suck. I do things like start typing on my computer, or use wrapping-it-up phrases to drop the hint but sometimes I just can’t shake her. She’s really a kind person and I understand she feels isolated where her office is located, so I shy away from being direct, even know I realize I’m not doing her any favors. The general buzz around the office is to avoid getting stuck in a conversation with her, so everyone feels it. Maybe the LW just needs to keep things brief and to-the-point?

    1. anonderella*

      I think it would be kind to be direct with her – not in a huge conversation way, but in small ways when it comes up that she’s staying there too long (“Don’t have time to chat – grab coffee/lunch later?” and variants). Actually, offering to have lunch with her may help things out – conversely, it could make her want to stop by more often, but if you build up a rapport with her after one or two lunches, it could soften the blow.
      Anyway, I just think it would be kind so that Chatty Cathy can make her own decision about whether to stay with the company, try to move to one with a more sociable culture that fits her, or so that she could ask about changing her desk to a more passed-by location. She may be unhappy there, and this could be good for everyone.

      FWIW, I could totally understand how your coworker feels – I am a receptionist, and though I talk to people all day every day, it’s mostly clients, not coworkers, and it’s mostly “_, this is _, how may I help you;” or “Oh wow, well I know how that goes!” and “Ok then, have a great day!”…. over and over and over, all day. Not genuine conversation that makes me feel connected to my team, who I am supposed to know individually and support their work.
      But your second-to-last line really hit me, because of my experience; you really don’t know the disservice you may be doing by joining your company on this us-versus-her thing. **not that she isn’t being too chatty, just that you’re in a better position than her to deal with it, as you are in on what everybody else at the company thinks, and she doesn’t seem to be. my two cents.**

    2. Not A Morning Person*

      There is nothing wrong with being direct AND it’s kind to be direct in a situation like this. People can be told that now is not a good time to talk and it still come across as kind. In fact, it feels like meanness when someone later discovers that everyone thinks they talk too much or takes up too much time with small talk but no one has ever said anything as simple as “Well that was fun but I need to get back to work” or “Now isn’t a good time; let’s catch up later”, to give them the chance to move on from the conversation. Please say something. If this person finds out later that people were too “nice” to say something as easy as now is not a good time, then that is a violation of trust. I’d have to wonder what else they aren’t saying to me.
      In the OP’s situation, it sounds like the people who are being interrupted may not be letting her know that now is not a good time and that is now coming out as a performance problem. Honesty and coaching the rest on how to let someone know now is not a good time would have been a reasonable thing, but that is apparently not how this office is managing that issue. Or maybe those folks are also getting coached…like Alis0n recommends, when someone is doing something that is bothering you, speak directly to them about the situation, don’t go complaining to others or your manager until you’ve tried to address it yourself, respectfully.

    3. Jane D'oh!*

      I’ve worked with several people like this over multiple jobs. One guy at an old job was PIP-ed and nitpicked into retirement because everyone had to run away from his non-stop jabbering. I’m assuming he is now the guy who talks the ear off the bank teller/grocery cashier/postman.

  11. animaniactoo*

    “She comes into my or colleagues’ offices without inquiring about that person’s availability. These interactions can progress to an extended social conversation that disrupts the work of her colleague. While she is always invited to come see me in person or reach out to colleagues, she should make sure that the person has time to meet with her or that she is not interrupting deadlines.”

    My reading of this is that if you have a 1 minute question, fine, no problem. If you have a question that’s going to take longer than a minute to answer, you need to ask “Hey, do you have a few minutes?” (or 5 or 10 minutes, or however long your estimate of the time is going to be).

    On the needing to read body language – that sounds to me like people who don’t feel comfortable being direct are using some generally known social conventions to indicate that they’re busy and you’re not “taking the hint”. The problem with these social conventions is that some people tend to be oblivious to them, and there’s now a greater mix of asker-vs-guesser cultures intermixing as people move around a lot more. The known social conventions aren’t being taught as such a standard thing in many places, so people either tend to pick them up as a “the way things are done” without realizing it or they never learn and then are confused when they haven’t been given the verbal feedback they’d expect.

    So – body language – is the person briefly looking up at you and then looking back down to what they’re doing? Are they looking up at you, but glancing back down at their paperwork in a way that could be interpreted as “I need to do this”? Looking up at you, head tilted to the side as if they expect to look back down shortly? Those are signs of “I’m busy”.

    Do they look like they’re particularly relaxed? Leaning back in their chair? Leaning forward, but shoulders dropped? Looking directly at you with no head tilt? Those are generally signs of “I’m available to talk”.

    Note that if the conversation has gone on longer than *they* might be expecting, they can shift from the latter towards the former, and those are signs that you should be looking for to say “Okay, I don’t want to keep you, thanks/I’ll talk to you later/I gotta get back to my desk/etc.”

    1. Mabel*

      And, if people are not ending the conversation because they are being “polite,” they may pretend to be interested, even with their body language so the other person doesn’t “feel bad/like you don’t want to talk to them.” I used to do this (and still sometimes have situations in which I have to work really hard to avoid doing this), so of course the other person wouldn’t know I needed to get back to work, even by my body language. I don’t think the OP’s manager said she couldn’t ask people if they have time to talk, so I’d try that instead of trying to read body language. Or just default to assuming no one has time to talk unless you’ve scheduled a meeting with them. That seems like it would eliminate the possibility of interrupting people without realizing it.

      1. animaniactoo*

        I’m sorry, but I disagree with this. If you’re not giving them the correct information, you can’t expect them to assume busyness for *everybody* in order to avoid you having to give the correct information even by body language. Because many others won’t do the same kind of thing you’re doing and really *are* available to chat and want to continue the conversation if that’s the body language they’re giving off, that would then make it their responsibility to say “No, don’t go! I want to talk!” which would be really odd. I mean – if assuming busyness vs accepting what is being transmitted, then by the same standard, OP could ask and expect not to trust the answer, that the person might be giving the wrong answer out of “politeness”. It has to be a two-way street in which one side is both asking and looking out for it, and the other side is actively committed to giving the right info.

        I did miss mentioning verbal cues like repeated “hmmm, that’s interesting.” or similarly one-liner notes that aren’t really contributing to the conversation so much as making a verbal acknowledgment that the other person is speaking. But if they’re not adding on substantially to what you’re saying, that is another cue that they’re busy or not really interested in the conversation.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I agree with animaniactoo, and I’ll say that I have rarely seen lawyers fake receptive body language when they actually want to escape a conversation (and when they do, it’s not in the context OP is describing). While we should give OP the benefit of the doubt, we shouldn’t project additional information into her letter that just isn’t there.

    2. Jane*

      But also… maybe people are continuing to look up expectantly because they expect that you have a reason to continue talking to them? I am loathe to interrupt sometimes because it’s not always clear that the ‘one minute question’ has been answered and now my colleague’s just chilling. If you come to me with a quick question but then dive into the follow-ups, I feel obligated to stick it out because of the urgency of the ask for that initial question– it’s not up to me to assess when your concern is addressed. It’s on the questioner to have the maturity to self-assess, stop getting sidetracked, say thank you, and ask to save the longer discussion for a better time if needed.

    3. Marty*

      One other important queue to watch for: where are their feet and body facing? If it’s toward the door, their desk, or another person, then they probably don’t want to talk to you. When people start to turn away, it’s time for the conversation to end.

      One really nice thing about this kind of cue, since people don’t usually notice they are doing it, they usually won’t fake it. Even when they are trying to fake interest, most people’s orientation will tell the truth.

  12. Friendly Poster*

    I’ve been an attorney for a long time. In every office that I have worked at, the original poster’s conduct would have been a problem. That isn’t to say every question needs to result in a scheduled meeting; in fact, that would be almost as irritating. Instead, it is as simple as asking, “Do you have a few minutes for a question?” before launching into a conversation.

    1. Lora*

      I’ve been seeing this a lot – I am in a completely and utterly different field, but I am sort of disappointed at the notion that an experienced lawyer might not have the wherewithal to interrupt someone to say, “I’m sorry, now is really not a great time, how about (other time)?”

      I mean, not my lawyer specifically, because even as his client he has cut me off to say, “yeah, that is not my job, that is your therapist’s job, you pay me to protect your assets,” which is something I love him for, but in general. I sort of want lawyers to have a great more spinal fortitude than I personally do, given that people ask them for help sorting out a bunch of horrible bullshit we can’t handle on our own. I don’t want the Evil Opponent to get away with murder because my lawyer was too polite, you know?

      1. Triangle Pose*

        This really isn’t a lack of wherewithal or spinal fortitute. You also want lawyers to be able to read body language and social cues.

        “Whenever someone replies that they are busy or have a deadline, I immediately reply that I will come back at a better time and leave the office.”

        It looks like the lawyers OP works with already try to tell her that they have a deadline or are busy but OP continually stops by their offices unexpectedly and tries to engage in social conversations.

        1. Hope*

          Even just stopping by is going to cause an interruption. I don’t work in an attorney’s office, but every time someone comes to my desk to talk, it’s an interruption and takes me out of the flow of what I’m doing. Which, if I’m not careful, can cause me to leave something out or make a mistake; since I know that, I often end up going back through whatever steps I’d already done before continuing, which makes any interruption a time suck.

          Of course, it’s worth being interrupted when it’s a work-related interruption that’s on a deadline or needs talking through, but *not* when it’s something that could’ve been dealt with as a quick email (which I check roughly on the hour, so it’s not going to be that long before I get back to someone) or just a coworker wanting to chat/kill time. If I were an attorney dealing with billable hours, etc., I can imagine getting pissed off pretty quickly by someone like the OP.

          Try not stopping by offices at all when you’re in the main office (unless you’ve scheduled time w/ someone) and just use email. It will probably take some time since people are already going to be wary of the OP being a time suck, but after awhile, I bet people will react a lot better once they know the OP is only going to interrupt them for something urgent.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Agreed—I don’t think this is about people lacking a backbone; it’s about OP understanding the social norms in that office.

          There’s a cultural norm that lawyers will help one another with work-related questions, but they won’t help if (1) you waste their time with non-work matters, or (2) you ask questions that you could easily find the answer to if you exercised even a small level of go-get’er-ness. It sounds cut-throat, but it’s the same reason your attorney tells you he’s not your therapist—he’s trying to conserve the amount of time that he bills you for his services. Anything that undermines a lawyer’s ability to provide the service they’re trying to provide to their client and their bosses is going to engender frustration. If you do that more than 1x/day, that frustration transforms into low-level annoyance/rage.

          Additionally, no one wants to be harsh with a new attorney, but if I told a coworker that I could not field their question b/c I was busy, and I didn’t offer an alternate time to talk, that means I don’t really want to answer your question (or it’s not a high priority for me). It’s important for OP to learn the difference between “I’m busy but come back later” and “I’m busy; please don’t come back.”

      2. Manders*

        A lot of lawyers are actually fairly socially awkward. Many fields of law reward people who can sit alone and get their work done instead of charming clients or juries.

        Plus, even socially adept people aren’t always at their best when their train of thought as been interrupted.

  13. SRB*

    Speaking as someone who (in a non-law setting) is currently annoyed at someone else who keeps “dropping in” when I’m busy…
    Make sure the things you’re stopping by for are actually important to do in-person and not some other way. It’s entirely possible this is just a this-place-specific culture thing. For short questions, do people in your office typically e-mail or IM? Would e-mail or IM suffice? For longer discussions, could you sent an email like “Hey Sansa, can we set up a meeting time to discuss the Chocolate Teapots case?” so that you’re sure they have time. And whenever I walk around to talk to people, I always start with “Do you have a minute?” (only if it really will take a minute). If you want to be really safe, you can e-mail/IM “do you have a minute for me to stop by” so you can show your boss that you’re trying.
    Oh, and not that you’re doing this, but don’t stop by Sansa’s desk to ask if Arya is here today. Especially if Sansa hasn’t worked with Arya in like 4 seasons and doesn’t have any reason to keep track of Arya’s whereabouts, and when you can easily check Arya’s status on your IM client. Phew. Just needed to get that out of my system. (:

    1. Hope*

      OMG, I feel you on that last paragraph so much. I am not Arya’s keeper. Or Sansa’s. Or anyone’s. Never mind if my desk is near theirs.

  14. Not Karen*

    don’t get so hung up on figuring out how to fit them that you forget to think about how well they fit you


        1. Teclatrans*

          Yes, I was going to say this lasted into my 30s. I like to think that if I ever were single again (married; no plans in that direction), I would be able to put into action all the dating insights gleaned from Captain Awkward, AAM, Dear Sugar, etc.

  15. MsMaryMary*

    It could also be that your office prefers email, IM, or phone calls over in person meetings for questions. Especially in a high pace, billable hour environment, I could see how email or IM would be a better option (assuming your coworkers are responsive).

  16. Rusty Shackelford*

    Also, is there anyone at work who’s more senior and who you click with especially well? If you can find a mentor in your office, they could be a sounding board on some of this too (and would be well-positioned to tell you “yeah, that’s just our office culture” or “no, Fergus is being weird about this” or “yeah, you’re lingering in people’s offices more than you realize”).

    But the thing is, even if Fergus is being weird about this, Fergus is the boss. And you’re on an extended probation. So if you want to keep this job (even if it’s just keeping it while you look for one that’s a better fit), you’re going to have to make Fergus happy.

    Personally, I suspect either #3 is true, or Fergus is being weird. The fact that you were blindsided by other parts of your feedback indicates that either you aren’t accurately evaluating your own behavior, or Fergus is way out of whack. Either way, at this point, the safest action might be to eliminate drop-in visits at all. Can you email your questions instead? Or email people and ask them to give you a call when they have 10 minutes to discuss X?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Right, I didn’t mean that if it’s just Fergus’s weirdness, the OP could ignore it. But it sounds like she’s genuinely confused about the reasons for the guidance, and so knowing “oh, this is just his own weird thing” could help settle some of that confusion and help her understand the situation. She’d still need to do it though.

  17. Jesmlet*

    If your question isn’t urgent and could be answered over email, you should really be allowing them the freedom to figure out when to answer your question in their own time. Even popping in just for a minute when you’re in the area would get annoying after a while, especially if those quick questions turn into chit chat of any length.

  18. lionelrichiesclayhead*

    As others have said, the part about the extended social conversation is the part that really jumped out at me. Certainly at a law firm with billable hours this presents even more of a problem, but even in a regular office this can be very distracting.

    I’ll admit that I’m one of those people who have a difficult time shutting down unwanted conversation (I’m working on it) and am very easily distracted so people popping in can be really tough for me to get back on track, especially when the conversation drifts to non-work related topics that I inevitably allow to go on for much too long.

    It also sounds like this office may not support the drop by/in person type of communication. Explore other options like email or IM or ask the individual how they prefer to be approached for questions. I would also evaluate if you are asking one-off questions too frequently and, assuming they are not super time sensitive, could instead wait until you have a few questions saved up that you could field all at once. I know that I personally would rather take 20 minutes to answer three questions all at once than having the person pop in three separate occasions.

  19. lazuli*

    A lot of times I will “make a minute” for staff who have questions about work (because it’s part of my job to make sure they can do their jobs!), but I don’t really “have a minute” to chat about my weekend. I wouldn’t assume that positive answers to generic “Are you busy?” questions give you carte blanche to talk about anything at all.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Yes, this. This drives me nuts especially when I’m having lunch at my desk. This is MY time, not my employer’s. Let me eat in peace.

  20. Jessie*

    Yeah, it’s #3.

    OP, I am a lawyer and have worked in private practice and in government. Here is the thing – the office culture you are used to at the DOJ is absolutely not at all the office culture at your private practice law firm.

    In private practice, it is all about the billable hour. So the normal office chit-chat that happens in government law offices and in many non-law offices does not happen the same way or to the same extent.

    Dial back your in-person interruptions. Use email to ask questions. Email is your friend here. When you want an in-person conversation, and you see an open door, knock, ask explicitly if the person has 5 minutes to talk about [work topic here], and wait for them to answer. If it’s yes, talk for those 5 minutes about work and then wrap it up. Don’t segue into social stuff.

    1. H.C.*

      Ditto and want to add that don’t assume that available on the shared calendar =/= available in-person. It just means they are not on a scheduled meeting/phone call, and they may be counting on that time to do other work.

      1. Triangle Pose*

        Exactly. The part about a shared calendar didn’t make sense to me at all. At a law firm, calendars are for calls and meeting, the open times are the times I actually have time to draft documents and do all the work that was talked about in the calls and meetings. It does not mean I have time for impromptu social conversations. My guess is the annex office makes OP think it’s ok to pop by unexpectedly when it’s really not.

      2. miss_chevious*

        I agree. I personally schedule my work time to avoid false open slots on my calendar, but a lot of people don’t. If OP’s office is the type of place that doesn’t, she should schedule meetings when she needs an extended chat — that way the person will either accept or reject and she knows that the time is hers or that she needs to find other time.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I do the same, but only because I was in an office with non-lawyers who didn’t understand that “available on the calendar” does not actually mean I’m available.

    2. the_scientist*

      This sort of managing up is also helpful outside of billable hours environments. I work in a meeting-heavy (arguably too meeting-heavy) company. If I need to talk face-to-face with a senior manager or a director about something, I can’t just stick my head into their office. It has to be a scheduled phone call or email to set up a meeting later. People here do keep their calendars up-to-date, but as others have said….they are using that time to work on things they can’t do during meetings! If I am lucky enough to catch someone in their office, I always start with “do you have time to talk about X”. Some of my projects are high-visibility ones; my manager will clear her schedule to talk right away. Others aren’t as important, and she’ll tell me to set up a meeting later, which is fine too. But being clear about what exactly you want to talk about is a good habit to get into– same for emails; is it an “action required” or an “FYI” email?

    3. miss_chevious*

      Yeah, I agree with this. Keep your conversations (a) to a minimum via the use of email and appointment scheduling and (b) about work. Let the person you approach open up the personal topics instead of being the one to do so — including such “niceties” as “how was your weekend/holiday?”

  21. Jessesgirl72*

    Since the complaint specifically said the OP is stretching the conversations to “extended social conversations that interrupts their work” I think it’s there in black and white that the problem is primarily #3. Especially since she hints that she’s somewhat isolated by being in the office annex. When she’s in the main building, I think she’s hunting for socialization. But her colleagues are trying to work!

    So OP, do exactly what your PIP says you have to do, and it seems reasonable to me. If you were interrupting me to ask a quick question, and then started talking about your weekend, I’d complain to your supervisor too. If a question can be answered by email, please use email, so the person answering can do so at his/her convenience. And if you do pop in, please keep it to work related topics, unless you’re in a break room, and do as your supervisor says and ASK if it’s a good time, regardless of whether you believe you should have to!

    1. k*

      I think the annex is a big part of this. Not only could she be looking to make up for the lack of socialization/interaction, but being isolated from the rest of the staff can make it much harder to judge the office culture. You can’t tell what other people normally do if you can’t see them.

    2. NonProfit Nancy*

      I’d also suggest to the OP that they look to find social outlets for themselves during the workday. They’re not “wrong” to want this, and in fact I have a friend who is a natural extrovert who finds it extremely difficult to be isolated all day at work. She finds outlets for herself that do not disturb her coworkers (in her case I believe it’s mostly a lunch-break gchat with a friend who is similarly situated, and texting with her boyfriend – but she knows the office culture around texting at work, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that for others). She also looks for likeminded coworkers who would rather schedule calls than emails [eg not me not me not me]. For OP it may be a walk at lunch every day as part of self care. It’s good to know this about yourself and to find productive ways to channel it – not just kick yourself for “bothering” coworkers and trying to suppress a legitimate need.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yes, exactly. And because it’s a firm, there are probably “organized fun” events taking place, too (like folks going out for dinner or happy hour together and then returning to work). Not all of those events may be accessible to OP, but take advantage of them because it’s sadly one of the best/only times when you can get to know your coworkers without the pressure of the clock.

  22. Allison*

    No one’s expecting you to develop psychic powers here, but there are ways to tell if it’s appropriate time to talk to someone. Do they look like they’re intensely focused on something? Probably busy. If not, ask a question to determine if they can speak with you:

    – is now a good time to talk?

    – are you busy?

    – could I ask you a quick question?

    It also doesn’t hurt to send someone an e-mail or instant message, if your office has that function, before going over to someone’s desk. That way people feel more comfortable letting you know they can’t talk right now, and you won’t feel like you wasted time walking over there.

    It is, in some ways, on you to make sure someone has time to talk, and/or give someone the chance to deflect or defer the conversation, before launching into said conversation.

    For chatting, if you’re going over to ask if they watched last night’s football game or episode of How to Get Away With Murder, pay attention to how they’re interacting. There is generally a noticeable difference between someone who’s actively engaged in a conversation and someone who’s giving short, cursory answers to be polite.

  23. MsCHX*

    IM was my first thought if it’s a thing in your office. And asking first “do you have a moment” if it really is what you expect to be a QUICK question. If you need a discussion, even if it’s of the 5-15 minute variety (vs a full meeting), shoot over a message to ask specifically, “Do you have 10-15 minutes to discuss X?”.

    And stop dropping by people’s offices to *chat. Period. Seems like it’s not the norm of your office.
    *chat as in general, non-work related discussions…or quick work-related questions followed by non-work related discussions. Ask what you need to ask and then leave.

  24. HAAPy*

    Is there some other part of culture that you may be missing? I have a background in working in law firms that had a lunch room. One firm had a managing partner that had lunch at least once a week in the lunch room, so the attorneys showed up, bantered about many things, kibbutzed on crossword puzzles, and no one was expected to eat at their desk. THAT was the social conversation. This is old enough that email was the new, go-to communication, but there is something to be said about partners modeling healthier social outlets during work-time. Support staff was part of the milieu, too.

  25. BBBizAnalyst*

    Can OP just email her quick questions? I guess I would be annoyed if someone kept stopping by my office to ask me something i can answer via email, especially if it isn’t urgent.

    1. fposte*

      I’m totally with you. Once you’ve interrupted me to ask if you can interrupt me, I’m already interrupted. Email waits until I choose the time.

  26. Lara*

    As someone who has a lot of talkative people in my office, I can kind of speak to why a colleague has a hard time telling you, “hey I don’t have time for this right now”. For some of the people I work with, it can take them a little while to get to the point, so I don’t actually know how long their question is going to take. For example, they’ll come in to my office and start with “so, I was just on the phone with a client, and they said [blah, blah, blah] so I said [blah, blah, blah]” and then a couple of minutes later come to their actual question. And sometimes their actual question is pretty simple and quick, “so can you meet with them?” and sometimes it’s not, “so can you please explain this process to me so I can explain it to them?”. By the time we’ve gotten to the actual question, it sometimes feels like we’re too far into the discussion and the quickest way out is just to answer it (and also it feels a little rude to not have said something earlier). Meanwhile, if they come over and say” hey, I want to ask you about X process, do you have a minute?” it’s a lot easier for me to know how long the conversation will take and say yes or no. OP, I’m not sure if this is what’s going on with you, but you might want to try starting off with “hey, I have a question about X, do you have a couple of minutes?” and seeing if that make it better.

    1. lionelrichiesclayhead*

      Yes! The storytime leadup can often take so much longer to get through than the actual question. It’s often easier to put things into context like you said and save the background story for after the person has indicated that they have time to go into it or determine if the buildup is even necessary. Often it’s not.

      1. C Average*

        Yes! They’re yammering away and you’re thinking, “OMG, are you ever going to land this plane?”

    2. Triangle Pose*

      Yep, this is spot on. Especially in a law firm where lawyers are billing hours by 6 minute increments, interrupting a lawyer’s work by knocking on the door and stopping by with a question with all this lead up talk (and then staying even longer to have social conversations) is not appreciated and generally not efficient.

  27. Linda*

    Surprised no one has bought up the passive aggressive-bully coworker who stops by with an “alternative agenda” question or better yet – statement. I’m on FMLA, due to this. Even after many trips to inform my boss. Goodluck finding a balance.

    1. Chaordic One*

      Perhaps the people who complained about the OP’s behavior to HR can sort of be considered to be “passive-agressive” because they didn’t say anything to her directly. Then she was blind-sided from HR by this complaint in her review.

  28. Mimmy*

    The feedback is harsh but it’s worth thinking about. I’m not there to see exactly how you’re approaching your colleagues, but it is possible that you’re taking up more of their time than you’d intended. It’s easy to get caught up in conversations when your original intent was to ask a question or raise a work issue – I think it happens in just about every workplace. Your boss needs to realize that. Yes, it is something to work on, but–again–I think the feedback is coming across overly-harsh.

  29. a big fish in a little pond*

    As I read this post I kept wondering if this feedback is actually less about the colleagues and more about the boss’s preferences – ? The feedback is clearly important to the boss and this is an easy out for the boss to use the quote from the colleague to address the issue. While the solutions are the same, if this is the case it certainly adds another layer to the problem.

  30. KT*

    I am fairly sure the OP works at my fairly office, where going into someone’s open-doored office to ask a question was reserved for life-altering fires. If you DID go into someone’s office, no one would tell you they were busy, because the assumption was that you were about to tell them someone died. If your information was anything less than that dire, you were quickly hated.

    At some offices, that’s just the culture–particularly if it’s the type of work that is writing or coding heavy where people need to be in the zone. Even a very brief, work-related interruption can be enough to throw them off the path.

    It sounds like this is that kind of place, in which case, in-person questions should be minimized. Stick to emails, or schedule meetings to ask several questions at once.

  31. EA*

    So I think law firms (especially corporate ones) are weird. It wasn’t acceptable for me to chat with another paralegal for 10 minutes once a week about non-work things. Basically typical how was your weekend small talk. They said I was ‘stealing time’.

    I mostly think it is strange that this went to PIP level. I assume other things were on the PIP?

    1. Sarah My Starbucks Name*

      Maybe there are no specific issues with this attorney’s work, but her work just isn’t good enough to outweigh her poor social fit/the fact that the other attorneys don’t like her.

  32. Observer*

    One thing that jumped out at me (in addition to what some of the other commenters have mentioned) is that you are putting people in a difficult situation. When you pop in to ask a question, and then segue into social chitchat (ie personal stuff), it feels very rude to tell someone that you are too busy to talk. So, either you need to really dial back the social stuff, or really pay attention to what people are doing. Not being a mind reader, read some fairly clear signals. Or, better yet, do both.

    Lots of luck.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      Zomg I have a coworker who does this to me. “Do you have a minute?” Me, distracted: “Uh, sure, what’s up.” Her: personal blah blah. Now it’s awkward because she knows I technically did have time to help her with a work thing, but I don’t have [interest, cough] in listening to her smalltalk, so it feels doubly rude to cut her off and send her on her merry way. I usually try not to engage too much, smile a little woodenly, and hope she gets bored and leaves. But the above comments have made me realize it might be kinder to tell her, “I thought you had a work question. I’m sorry, I have a lot to get done right now so this isn’t a good time to talk.”

  33. Mimmy*

    Alison – In reference to your last paragraph, about the probation extension: Is it a red flag when an employer extends the probationary period? At one job, my original probationary period was 90 days, but was extended once, maybe twice, turning into a 6-month probationary period. I was then laid off about 3-4 months after that. The reason they gave me for the extension was to give me a chance to get more comfortable with my position (I was experiencing serious self-confidence issues and anxiety).

    But back to the OP – Yes, definitely take that extension seriously!

    I want to be sure that you don’t get so hung up on figuring out how to fit them that you forget to think about how well they fit you.

    This is the mistake I made in the aforementioned job, which I still regret to this day – don’t let that happen to you.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The only point in extending a probationary period is to extend the company’s ability to fire you without using their regular process. (To be clear, no law requires any of that, but sometimes a company’s internal policies do.) “Giving you a chance to get more comfortable with the position” sounds like a mealy-mouthed way of saying “we’re not convinced this is going to work out.”

  34. NW Mossy*

    While this isn’t exactly the OP’s question, it sounds like the boss is saying “This isn’t a place where people socialize, so if that’s what you’re after, you’ll need to seek it elsewhere.” Whether that’s normal or fair isn’t as important as the fact that it’s how it is at this particular organization.

    Here’s one thing to try that may shed some light on both whether you’re course-correcting in the right way and also if this is an environment you want to be in long-term:

    * Talk to your boss and say, “I’m going to try something new for the next two weeks to improve upon the feedback you gave me. At our next meeting after that two weeks, I’d like to check in with you to see if people are reporting an improvement in how I’m interacting.”

    * Over that two weeks, limit interactions that you initiate to emails, meeting invites, and conversations of less than 3 minutes. Set a timer on your phone to buzz in your hand/pocket to alert you when the time is up.

    * Have the aforementioned check-in with your boss and hear what he says. If he reports improvement, it lends credence to the idea that it’s the over-stay/interruption that’s at issue.

    * Have a check-in meeting with yourself about how those two weeks went. Was it OK? Pleasant? Miserable? This self-assessment is essential to showing you if this is behavior you even want to sustain over time.

    1. MsCHX*

      “I’m going to try something new for the next two weeks to improve upon the feedback you gave me. At our next meeting after that two weeks, I’d like to check in with you to see if people are reporting an improvement in how I’m interacting.”

      I really like this. Don’t wait until the PIP is done to get feedback.

      Also the “alarm’ to signal time to go. And the self-check in because it could be that this place isn’t a good fit for you.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        Yes, I like this. It shows the OP’s boss that she’s taking the comments seriously, trying to do something different, but not assuming that something different will solve everything.

      2. NonProfit Nancy*

        Yes, to be honest, I’m a little concerned for OP because in my office, it’s difficult to overcome a “personality”-type complaint even if you DO correct the behavior. People tend to think of you as being a certain way, and even one small instance reinforces that even after months of good behavior. It’s not at all fair, but people just don’t tend to notice what you *aren’t* doing. Don’t be discouraged OP, but I’d agree that this is something to take seriously AND to give your boss visible proof you are working hard at correcting this.

    2. KR*

      I like this a lot. Even for 3 minute conversations ask people beforehand. So say you’re going to the main office to drop off paperwork and you know you have a question for 3 different people, that morning a couple hours before you go ask if you can stop by and ask them a 3-5 minute question while you’re there dropping off paperwork.

    3. miss_chevious*

      As someone who used to be BigLaw, I don’t think conveying this to boss is a great idea. I think the actions are a great idea, but most firm lawyers I know (including me when I was one) are not interested in your process, just your results. This kind of notice would be regarded as oversharing and mealy-mouthed, at least at the firms I worked at (although not at the corporations I’ve worked at, where it would be regarded as proactive). I’d take the steps recommended and go back to my boss in three or four weeks and ask if they’ve noticed/heard about an improvement.

        1. Chaordic One*

          Came here to say this. I think in that environment, the attitude is more likely to be “just get it done.”

          Oh, let’s hope so.

      1. NW Mossy*

        I wasn’t envisioning any specifics, just the two sentences I have in quotes. I was concerned that if the OP sprung a request for feedback on the boss without any preamble, the boss would be unprepared to give it and it wouldn’t be helpful. Also, it’s a way to test the water to find out if the OP is permitted to solicit feedback – if the boss reacts badly to an expressed intent to seek feedback, that in itself is very helpful information about cultural expectations.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          NW Mossy, your suggestion is bang-on for non-law-firm-contexts.

          For this specific context, and in light of what OP shared, I agree with miss_chevious, et al., that OP’s boss will not even want to hear the two sentences you provided. He’s going to want information on the results, and he doesn’t really care how OP gets them. I think you’re suggesting flagging that OP is making an intentional change so that the boss will also make note of the timing to keep track of what’s gong on in that two-week period instead of letting prior events bleed into the experiment zone, but a senior associate or partner won’t have time and won’t want/care to keep track of OP’s process changes.

          1. NW Mossy*

            I stand corrected on all counts, and retract Step 1 and Step 3 of my advice, OP. Instead, replace those with a focus on not speaking unless spoken to and using “yes” and “no” as complete sentences wherever possible. I’m not sure that would satisfy, but it should at least keep the problem from worsening.

      2. Jessie*

        +100. Especially because at a law firm, you don’t have a manager, per se. You have a senior partner who has collected feedback from various people who work with you and who is charged with telling you – but he/she is not your manager in the regular corporate sense. So that person won’t want to hear about your day, your process, your ideas. Just do it.

  35. Sarah My Starbucks Name*

    It’s normal to be blindsided by criticism when you are working in a law firm. At least in large law firms, attorneys will *not* tell you directly when there’s an ongoing problem with your performance or behavior – until they’re literally about to fire you.

    Most attorneys are pretty good about redlining individual assignments that you work on for them. But even with work product, you’ll sometimes hear praise to your face only to find out later that they didn’t like your work at all, and told other attorneys about it – but not you.

    It’s also normal for certain office behaviors and demeanor issues to matter way more in a law firm than in another office setting. A partner told me once that there was an associate in our firm who had some issues with dress code (think khakis and polos on non-Fridays). The partner told me that this issue went on for a while and was a subject of some talk behind the associate’s back. Basically, it was a “he should have known” thing much like with you and the “body language.” Finally one day the firm found an opportunity to let the associate go – a client was in the office and he was wearing chinos and sneakers. I was dumbfounded by this story – why would the partner be proud of how poorly they handled such a minor and fixable issue? A single, simple conversation early on with the associate would have sufficed. Attorneys go to huge lengths to avoid direct communication with each other! And seemingly minor issues can stain your reputation in an outsized way.

    So yeah. In my experience, you are more likely to get information about your performance or comportment via subtle messages and unofficial office chatter, and via surprise critique in performance reviews, than in any direct or timely manner from your superiors. You have to decide if that’s the kind of environment you’re willing to work in.

    1. Manders*

      Oh wow, this explains something I’ve been wondering about for a while. I work in a field (marketing) where constant feedback is expected and encouraged, but I’m in an industry (law) where getting feedback from the top is like pulling teeth. I still feel like I’m learning where the line is between being a pest and being diligent about getting approval before I spend a whole lot of time and money on a project.

    2. FiveWheels*

      It more amazes me that he was in a polo and chinos any day! My experience of law is in very conservative firms, but in any given year each attorney will be dressed for court every day except maybe two or three. Even attorneys who don’t attend court.

      And I could picture a lot of partners thinking if this guy needs to be told, he’s not worth telling. Polos in front of a client is, in SOME firms, almost as bad as not wearing a shirt at all.

      1. Decimus*

        This is definitely a know-your-field as well as know-your-area thing. In a NYC white shoe firm that does corporate law? A suit every day is probably expected, at least if you are a new attorney. A general practice law firm in rural Georgia? The attorneys are probably wearing polo shirts to meet with clients and a suit might be strictly for court.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          So I’m a rural attorney, and we wear suits when we meet with clients. The only time we don’t is when we meet them on-site or when a client comes from a social context in which a suit is seen as threatening/intimidating.

          But I also agree that this is a know your field/office situation. For most city-based law firms, the baseline is a suit, so it would be jarring if someone was wearing anything less than a court-appropriate outfit (e.g., tailored dress + suit jacket, proper shoes). And in that context I can understand why bosses would think “you should know better, and if you don’t, it reflects that you have poor judgment re: social norms.” But if you’re in chinos/khakis and a polo wearing a NorthFace fleece with toe shoes on at an environmental nonprofit, you’ll fit right in (and you probably have a suit/shoes nearby if you need to make a quick change).

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I generally agree that most law organizations are not good about delivering non-work-product-related feedback (although I don’t find it surprising that someone would be let go for wearing chinos too often).

      But this is also why it’s important for junior attorneys to proactively seek feedback while being mindful of others’ time. I found most senior attorneys would give you feedback if you didn’t spring it on them, but rather, asked for 10 minutes to run something by them or to request input on your performance. But you have to be careful when doing this; if you’re constantly asking for approval/validation, it also rubs folks badly.

      For all things soft skills, find a mentor. Honestly, that’s one of the only ways to get folks to make time to give you feedback (and they can also often give feedback on hard skills and strategies for improvement and skill acquisition, as well).

    4. Confused Teapot Maker*


      I haven’t worked as a lawyer but was a junior consultant in a similar field for a long time and the inability for people just to tell you straight up when they weren’t happy always struck me as strange.

      I learnt this the hard way when I got blindsided by some feedback in a six month review. I used to have a manager who would give me a task to do, I’d ask when she needed it by, she’d say shrug and say something along the lines of ‘Whenever. It’s not urgent.’ or ‘End of the week is fine’. So I’m plough on with some of the more urgent work I had. Four hours later and, lo and behold, this manager would be chasing me to ask my progress on the project and why I hadn’t done it and so on.

      I thought I naively must have misunderstood her deadlines so kept pushing for them, but got the same nonchalant response. So I, even more naively, assumed everything must be fine. After all, I was asking for deadlines and wasn’t missing them so where was the problem?

      Well, it turned out there was a problem when it came to my six month review when my line manager told me I need to sort out my time management skills pronto because there were complaints about me not prioritising my workload correctly and I needed to be constantly chased for things.

      Being human (and in my early twenties) I sulked for a while over the unjustness of it all. But eventually I figured if I couldn’t get the manager to be more straight with me on what she actually wanted, I could change my work pattern to see if I could coax it out of her a bit more.

      So, knowing I would be chased long before a deadline, I started emailing her every half day or so to say, “Hey, I’m about 25% through Project X and haven’t started Project Y because of Project Z. Just wanted to check in to say that – all good?”. At which point, she would email me back to say “Yeah, all good.” or “No, actually, I need more of a rush on Project Y. Can you speak to the manager on Project Z to see if it can be delegated elsewhere?” or something similar.

      Turns out, all she wanted was for me to check in more regularly. No problems ever arose again with this manager.

      But, even though I’m long out of the company, I still, to this day, can’t get over the fact that she fumed in silence for 6 months waiting for me to guess that the actual problem was that I wasn’t checking in often enough and then complaining about it to a higher up rather than just saying, “Hey. I know my deadlines are quite long but would you mind just dropping me a quick email at the end of each day or so to say how things are going?” which would have meant both of us were happier and more productive.

      /long rant

  36. Lily Rowan*

    One of my favorite things about this site is how often people show up in the comments with specific experience that’s directly relevant to the question! In this case, I think the OP would be well-served to pay particular attention to the folks who are speaking directly to the difference between DOJ and private firms!

    Good luck, OP. (And maybe the answer is that this is not the right office culture for you!)

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      Isn’t it amazing how people come out with such specific experience! I remember thinking that about the speechwriter question last week – several actual practicing speechwriters commented. I think this shows the site has a pretty wide reach. I guess people also feel compelled to chime in when their specific little corner of the world is referenced.

  37. VroomVroom*

    This is actually a pet peeve of mine. Not just in person, but on the phone. If you call me, or stop by my office, unscheduled, your first question should be something like “do you have a minute” “is this a bad time” or something. My mom used to get on me about that as a kid when I’d call her at work and launch into whatever I wanted to talk about… and now I get why!
    Just the other day a colleague called me at 11:57 and I had a 12 pm call. I answered and she launches into what she needs – and I had to RUDELY (I felt) interrupt her and say – Is this going to be quick? I have a call at 12 so if this is a quick answer I can help otherwise I need to call you back after 1 pm. It wasn’t quick. So I called her back. But it pissed me off a bit that she called me out of the blue and expected me to drop everything for what she needed.
    Just give people the opportunity to tell you that they’re busy – otherwise they’ll feel rude cutting you off.

    *SIDE NOTE* I also hate hate hate hate when people call me to sell something and do this. It’s not like I’m sitting around twiddling my thumbs during the day. Ask me if this is a good time! Give me an opportunity to say no, politely!

    1. VroomVroom*

      Because it’s a pet peeve of mine, whenever I call anyone (or stop by their office) I start like this:
      1. Callee: Hello this is Callee
      2. Me: Hi, Callee, am I catching you at a bad time?
      3. Callee: Actually I only have 10 minutes and then I have to hop off.
      4. Me: Great, I’ll be quick….

      If In person obviously they don’t answer first, I start with #2 and the wording is slightly different but approach the same.

    2. Marisol*

      The mindset you are describing is frankly baffling to me. For the 11:57 call, you could have either let it go to voicemail, or immediately said as soon as you answered, “I only have three minutes because I have to dial into a call at noon.” Neither option is rude. Worst case scenario, if the person starts talking without checking to see how much time you have, then you politely interrupt by saying, “sorry to interrupt you…” and then explain that you have to jump off in three minutes. People sometimes have to interrupt each other in conversation, and it can be handled politely.

      1. VroomVroom*

        I answered because it was the office caller ID showing up, and it could have been my boss (in which case, worth being late to my 12 pm call).
        She just launched into her issue, without any regard to my time or whether I was available. That’s what bugs me. Normally I would have let it go to voicemail if she’d called from her cell phone and I’d known it was her, not potentially my Boss or even my Boss’s Boss. I frequently get calls from them and if so it’s often worth being a few minutes late to a call.

      2. VroomVroom*

        And I get that people sometimes interrupt each other in conversation, but sometimes you can’t get a word in edgewise, or you feel rude – some people are more aggressive than others or more comfortable interrupting. I am generally not one of those people – I’ll do it, but I always feel really rude for doing it. I’d rather someone give me the opportunity up front to say “I only have 5 minutes” or “No I’m actually in the middle of something” (latter is if they come by the office only, if I’m in the middle of something I don’t usually answer the phone – depending on who the Caller ID says it is).

        1. Marisol*

          I understand the squeamishness but I think it’s something anyone can get used to with enough practice. Maybe offering to schedule something in the future will alleviate your stress while addressing the other person’s needs: “I can’t talk now, but can we circle back later this afternoon?”

  38. WhichSister*

    I wish I knew it was possible to write some one up for this… although in my former work place it would never have been done. Our HR assistant was known to pop into the office and talk about random personal things , sometimes in a baby voice (she was in her 60s). On occasion it was work related, but not related to any projects or activities we worked together on.

    You might also go back and ask what metrics they plan to use to evaluate this goal! It might help you see what they see.

  39. Erin*

    Wow, this is tough, I would have been blindsided too. But from what I’m reading from Alison and commenters it sounds like it’s entirely possible this is A Thing and your boss is not just nuts.

    What’s really red-flaggy to me is that you’re expected to read body language/read minds from these people. Apparently, you can’t trust them to just say what they mean. Have you said, “Do you have a minute?” when you stop by? Because if you have, and they’re not saying “No, it’s a bad time,” or “No I’m sorry, I’m swamped” then how the heck are you supposed to know?

    I’d almost be tempted to refrain from stopping by these offices altogether. I’d shoot them an email instead. If you really need to speak to them one on one ask when emailing if there would be a good time for you to stop by or jump on a phone call.

    Obviously, the office culture is a big, big factor here. I’d literally ask colleagues you trust what they do in this situation. You don’t necessarily have to go into your review and etc. “When you need X from Fergus or Y from Elaine, do you typically stop by their office, or send them an email about it? I usually stop by when I’m in the main building anyway, but I’m starting to get the sense I’m bothering them or taking up too much of their time. How do you usually handle it?”

    1. Artemesia*

      You HAVE to be able to read body language before launching into a social conversation when people are in jobs where they are accounting for their time. It is pretty obvious when someone is enthusiastic about chatting and when they are paused to return to their work. This is not ‘mind reading’, it is a basic interpersonal skill and one that can be honed when one knows to focus on it.

      1. MillersSpring*

        Agreed. People do give visual cues when they are done talking with you: rigid posture, turning their gaze to their monitor, turning their torso away from you, looking away such as out the window or at papers on their desk, sighing, pursed lips, rolling their eyes, drumming fingers impatiently, standing up, even walking you to their door.

        This is a basic interpersonal skill not mind reading.

      2. Erin*

        Fair enough, but you can’t be expected to read minds. I’m pretty quiet and passive, and even I would have no problem saying to someone in a work environment, “I’m sorry to cut you off, but I’m really swamped at the moment” or what have you. I think it’s more about actual words than the body language, honestly. If they don’t communicate, others won’t know.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Reading body language is not reading minds. It’s a pretty foundational aspect of social behavior.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        +1000. Over 90% of communication is non-verbal. If you are awkwardly standing in someone’s doorway while they’re working, waiting for them to stop and talk to you, you are misreading the situation. If they stop and speak to you, and you go off-topic, and they only give short non-answers or turn back to their desk and break eye-contact, you need to understand that that means “I’m done.” There are plenty of very specific, observable body language cues a person may use to signal that they’re not here for this, and it’s a reasonable expectation that, absent a significant barrier to acquiring the ability to read body language, an adult in the workplace will learn these cues.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      “What’s really red-flaggy to me is that you’re expected to read body language/read minds from these people.”

      I think that’s a reasonable expectation in all jobs.

      1. Erin*

        I guess I’m confused as to what the body language could be if they’re sitting at their desks. Not looking up from the screen? Physically turning away? I suppose I could see that and concede that kind of body language can and should be read.

        More importantly, it’s just so silly to me that you can’t just tell someone you’re busy. When you’re at work. Working. It’s not a rude thing to say.

        1. Marisol*

          I agree 100%. There are a million polite ways to tell someone you can’t talk. It is great to be able to read social cues, but taking responsibility for managing one’s own time and politely setting a boundary is an even more essential skill, in the office and in life. The expectation for a colleague to be so adept at reading cues that they never inconvenience others sounds like an external locus of control to me.

          1. Marisol*

            Actually, on re-reading Artemesia’s post I see I missed that she was talking specifically about social conversations. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a coworker to be sensitive to cues when talking about things that are not work-related. I think I confused what she was saying with that the OP’s boss said: “it is the responsibility of the person initiating the conversation to determine whether the other person is available and that I shouldn’t expect people to tell me that they might be busy”

            What the boss proposes seems kinda crazy to me.

        2. Momonga*

          “I guess I’m confused as to what the body language could be if they’re sitting at their desks.”

          The examples you gave are spot-on (not looking up, turning away)… in addition – holding up a pointer finger (sort the gesture for “hold on a sec), if they have headphones on or are otherwise visibly very focused (eyes locked on monitor, leaning forward, etc.)

        3. VroomVroom*

          I think it really depends on the context. As I said above, I’ll interrupt someone and do it – but I always feel really cringey and rude when I do. Possibly because I’m significantly younger/more junior than most of my colleagues? I’m also only one of the few women?
          There was one guy in the office who we were told was on the spectrum and therefore had some stipulations, and he NEVER got body language and cues, and you generally had to be aggressively rude that you didn’t have time to talk to him. But, he never found it rude. But I always still FELT rude, ya know?

        4. Jane*

          It’s not just ‘reading body language and minds’ but having enough understanding of your work norms to know that in some professional environments, you are expected to focus on your work and not segue into social chitchat, regardless of how receptive someone seems. They may be receptive because they expect that you are bringing a legitimate, priority work question to them. You need to evaluate whether it’s important before bringing it up, because obviously they cant read *your* mind and know it’s not important before your start talking.

    3. NonProfit Nancy*

      It’s also knowledge of office culture, to me. Is anyone else doing this? How does everyone else handle questions – is it by email? It’s true that OP might not be in a position to observe this (which sucks, and their manager should have taken that into account) but it’s weird to me that people don’t think the burden should be on OP to realize s/he’s interrupting people. To me it’s obviously something the interrupter needs to correct.

  40. Triangle Pose*

    “Whenever possible, I check our shared calendars, but because I am located in a small annex office down the hall, I sometimes stop by when in the main office because I am already nearby. I always knock before entering another person’s office, even when the door is open, and wait until I receive confirmation that the individual is available. Whenever someone replies that they are busy or have a deadline, I immediately reply that I will come back at a better time and leave the office.”

    OP, this makes me think it is a combination of #2, #3 and not understanding the huge difference between the culture of a law firm and the Department of Justice. Attorneys are already having to tell you that they are busy or have a deadline and you are still stopping by unexpectedly, trying to have social conversations after closing out the work question, and stopping by just because you happen to walk by from the office annex.

    Shared calendars are not indicative of open time to stop by with questions – calendars are there to keep track of meetings and calls, the rest of the time is for actually doing the work – drafting the documents or doing the research discussed on those calls and meetings.

    The DOJ should not be your baseline here. Law firms operate very differently. The lawyers you are working with are billing their time, likely down to 6 minute increments. Interruptions for questions for projects you are working on because you’re on a deadline and can’t move forward without getting an answer might be okay, but otherwise you should be emailing questions and making sure you get all the info you need before you start. Interruptions for other situations that then run even longer because you launch into social conversations is generally frowned upon and inefficient.

    Law firms have a very specific culture and can make for a hard adjustment, even for professionals who have excelled in other corporate or office environments. Extended probation is tough but hopefully this thread and Alison’s answers are helpful to you. Good luck!

  41. Clear the ball*

    Considering that every lawyer in the comments is saying the same thing, it seems like OP has a clear answer. Don’t stop by, and if you do ask “do you have X amount of time to talk about Client Y,” then leave.

    One again glad I didn’t become a lawyer.

  42. Artemesia*

    We can’t know the situation because it is not our office and the OP may be behaving reasonably BUT I have worked in several office situations where there were known pests who would talk people’s ears off and suck up time unless almost forceably removed. One had to be rude to get Sally to shut up and let you get on with your work. Marcia would stop by anyone’s desk and natter on endlessly etc etc. The OP needs to think about how much time she spends in social chat and definitely needs to always ask if ‘this is a good time for a quick question’ and be wary of settling into long social chats that she initiates. Lots of people don’t like to confront or ‘be rude’ and thus tolerate time wasters.

    I suspect that it is at least an issue of the OP not reading social cues for it to have escalated to a big part of the performance review. This is such a common issue in offices that it seems plausible that it is in fact her problem.

    1. ExceptionToTheRule*

      There used to be a guy I was peers with & the ONLY way to get rid of him was a visit to the restroom. Every other attempt to brush him off was like being on the receiving end of a Minnesota Goodbye.

      1. De Minimis*

        Had someone like that at a former job, whenever he was spotted there was a mass rush to the restrooms.

        I think it was a similar situation where he was placed on a PIP not long after starting. This was in an environment very much like BigLaw.

        Everywhere I’ve worked, e-mail is really the preferred way to communicate. I have one coworker who doesn’t do this and it makes my life difficult [for one thing, e-mail is great because it’s much easier to document the information a person is giving you and make sure you have it right.]

        1. MWKate*

          Yeah my boss initiated -and continued- a conversation with me post entering the stall once. It was not a good time.

  43. nonymous*

    perhaps a short while before coming in from the annex you can email/im the people you need to touch base with something along the lines of “Do you have time to address XXX issue today? I’d like to drop by for Y minutes after OtherMeeting wraps up. Let me know if we should schedule for another time.” This gives the other person a heads-up re: subject/duration, communicates why you’re not being incredibly specific with the time and gives them a chance to find something better. Also, I’d try to plan for these visits to happen after a regular staff meeting (or just block off a regular time of day that you fit these visits in). It may be a good way to organize your time – do some rounds to get clarification/direction, do the work that these convos generate, repeat until it’s time to go home.

    This way the people you work with get used to the idea that OP will stop by N times/week for a <5 min at ~10A if there is a current project and it will be scheduled otherwise. You can even set expectations when starting with a new colleague by saying "I'm usually at your end of the office around 10A after RegularMeeting, flag me down if we need to touch base briefly or feel free schedule something by [describe your preferred method]".


  44. animaniactoo*

    Several people are calling out that private firms are different from the DoJ, but I think it’s worth noting that OP says that the offices they’ve worked *include* the DoJ. I would take that to mean that DoJ is not their baseline, merely an additional kind of place they’ve worked where their behavior was not an issue.

    1. JB (not in Houston)*

      That’s a good point, but I think people are saying that because before law school, the OP was not working in a law job as a lawyer. Working at the DOJ is her point of reference for how attorneys behave in an office setting. Regardless of what kind of office she worked at before going to law school, she can’t think that because the DoJ is a legal environment, it’s a good way to learn about law firm culture. I think that’s why people are focusing on her mentioning the DoJ.

      1. Triangle Pose*

        Agreed. Also OP called out DOJ as a way to show she understands office norms so people are just looking to helpful and explain that law firms have a very different culture and that difference could explain why OP was so blindsided by the feedback.

  45. DCEsq.*

    Attorney here. You might consider whether a Big Law job or a county/state/federal job fits you best. Big Law jobs in places that have billable hours are often very difficult places to work, both in terms of office culture and the more obvious work-life-balance. I’m not sure how well you enjoyed working at the DOJ, but if you did enjoy that experience, it could be a sign that a non-billable environment, especially one working for a public agency, might fit you best. The pay will be less, of course, but there’s a reason many attorneys choose to work in those environments and make less money. Also, as Alison said, take the situation seriously. It sounds like they are getting ready to let you go, and unless they see remarkable improvement all around (in everything listed in your evaluation), they will likely fire you. Now would be a good time to DISCRETELY and QUIETLY start checking out other job opportunities.

    1. FiveWheels*

      Agreed. There are a lot if stories on this site regarding workplaces where it seems impossible for people to get fired.

      As a rule, law firms are not those places.

  46. Interviewer*

    I work in a law firm. PIPs for associates are as rare as unicorns. Typically the route I’ve seen is a private discussion from a supervising partner or practice group leader, documented after the fact with HR. Prior to your annual evaluation, if there’s no improvement, they’ll talk privately again, giving you a few months to job hunt while still employed. There’s an end date in mind, and the associate quietly exits stage right. For someone hired from DOJ, likely they were excited about your connections and possibly specific work experience, but the culture fit has frustrated them to the point that they need to spell out the issues, with documentation. This is their exit strategy. You need to be Very. Concerned.

    Compared to your environment at the DOJ, where you built relationships across offices and agencies and learned how to socialize with your team, it may seem like working in a silo. And honestly, I don’t think you have time to find an older mentor who will give the straight answer. You have 90 days to fix your socialization & work habits, and if you don’t have an immediate turnaround, that means you’re looking for a new job. Do you want to look for a new job?

    If not, great – it’s easy enough to fix specifically what they included in your PIP. If you have questions, email the person and move to the next project. If your answer cannot wait, note in the email that it’s urgent. Do not walk down to an office & stick your head in. For now, just remind yourself that the only people who can stick their heads in offices to interrupt are at the top of the ladder, and you’re not anywhere close to that. If it’s a face to face discussion, you need to request calendar time in advance, in writing. Be formal, prompt, responsive and courteous at all times. Keep it professional and work-related, even if you are invited to lunch.

    And if you can’t work like this, consider starting a confidential job search. Good luck.

    1. Triangle Pose*

      +1. All of my friends who have been let go from Biglaw and law firms followed this exact timeline. Some longer than others but it all goes down like this – we don’t have anything like PIP. The generous ones will give you X months to wrap up and job search while still paying you then X months after that if you haven’t found something to leave your firm profile/bio up on the website and your phone line and email open but not pay you (you don’t have to come in) so you can hold yourself out as “an associate at X firm” to help you find you next job.

      1. V*

        +1. I am a lawyer and have worked in large (100+ attorney) firms for the past 10 years (though not big law). In the firms where I have worked and where my friends have worked, the process for letting someone go goes down how Interviewer and Triangle Pose describe. Formal PIPs are unheard of.

        For the next three months, don’t stop by anyone’s office unannounced. If you need info from someone, make a list of your questions, try multiple ways to get the info you need without going to the person, and if that fails, Email/IM the questions unless they truly require a back and forth discussion. Be brutal in your assessment of whether back and forth is necessary. In the email, ask the questions up front, and then in a second paragraph explain what you have done to try to get the answer so that the person doesn’t waste time trying the same things.

        If your questions do require back and forth, you are probably working on a file with this person such that you have lots of questions, not just one. In that case, request a meeting in advance and bring all of your questions at once. It is much easier to have an in-depth conversation about a case once a week than several short unscheduled meetings. Anticipate upcoming issues and questions so that you won’t need another meeting for at least several days.

        Be extremely respectful of people’s time. For the next three months, don’t initiate conversations about personal things. If some one asks you, engage but be cognizant of how much time you are taking and make it your goal to end the conversation – don’t wait for the other person to end the conversation.

        This may feel extreme and overly rigid, but you have been told you are falling outside of office norms on the chatty side. Making it your goal to swing to the other end of the spectrum will show that you took the feedback seriously and, more important, have the ability to act on the feedback.

        Don’t explain to your supervising attorney that you are doing this; just do it.

        You can do this, it just may feel strange for a while.

  47. Penguin*

    One thing that hasn’t really been mentioned yet is that this is Op’s first position out of law school. her previous law office experience was as an intern, and interns are expected to ask a lot of questions, and need guidance.
    I agree it is #3, and emailing/ IMing more will remove a lot of the issue, but I also wonder if OP is insecure, or simply expected to not need to ask so many questions.

          1. Norman*

            Prior office experience just isn’t relevant. The only experience relevant to being an associate in a law firm, especially a big law firm, is being an associate in a law firm.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I think KR’s point is that, if OP’s behavior matches what her supervisor said, then it would be a problem in all office settings. It just probably wouldn’t have gone directly to PIP-levels in a non-law-firm setting.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      If OP engaged in this kind of behavior during a summer internship (i.e., as a summer associate), it easily could have resulted in her not receiving an offer… which makes me think that she may not have spent her summers with larger law firms, and perhaps did not pick up on a lot of these law-firm-specific professional norms. (Although I will say that even at non-billable organizations/offices, being an overly chatty coworker can also be a problem.)

  48. MWKate*

    I tend to agree with a lot of others that think this is likely some form of #3. Have you ever been told, or felt that you had issues reading social cues before?

    Unfortunately, I think this is something difficult to train someone on as a lot of it can be instinctual. However, it may be a good idea to have a list of words, or actions you can look for rather than just trying to rely on instinct. e.g. “Sounds good, let me know if you have any other questions.” would indicate to me that the conversation should be ending, or is a way I indicate to others that we are wrapping it up.

    Also, as others have suggested – asking a question when you stop by the office to determine if they do have time and how much would be helpful. Just because someone doesn’t have something on their calendar doesn’t mean they aren’t working on something. Asking, “do you have time for a quick questions?” or “Hey, I was hoping I could go over X project with you,” can give the person an idea of the amount of time you might need and react accordingly.

    It can be awkward to tell someone to go away – and that might be what they are trying to say without actually saying it. If this is what is happening – I can understand why it would be an issue of frustration with your coworkers.

    It may very well not be this issue – but when reading the letter, it was my first thought. Especially since they specifically mentioned reading body language, and these meetings kind of evolving into social discussions. Just because someone is willing to set time aside for a work conversation doesn’t mean they have time to talk about their weekend or an upcoming vacation.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Reading social cues can absolutely be learned. I don’t think it’s actually difficult to learn so much as it’s difficult to muster the mental discipline to pay attention to the cues that are there. Particularly with things like the OP is describing, where it’s a matter of knowing when to stop talking — the people I know who have difficulty in this area tend to be the ones who are more focused on the things they are saying than the people they are talking to.

  49. OG Poster*

    OP here. I’m still going through all the comments, but I do want to clarify that I do not work at a private law firm. I work for a civil rights non-profit mostly funding by government grants. Our clients never see a bill, and any time tracking on litigation is done for the possibility of recovery of attorney’/ fees. All employees are either hourly or salaried; we do not have billable hours. Most attorneys work 40 hours a week.

    1. Important Moi*

      Hello OG! :)

      Thanks for checking in. Most posters seem to agree you are on thin ice. Being social, rightly or wrongly, is not appreciated by your employer. You’ve been given lots of good suggestions. I hope they help.

    2. JB (not in Houston)*

      If the attorneys came from firms, they may still be of that mindset.

      Or they may be experiencing something similar to what it was like at a government agency I worked at–we had a 40 hour work week technically, but we didn’t have only 40 hours worth of work. We worked at the agency because we didn’t want to work crazy law firm hours, but that meant we had to focus on our work and limit socializing if we wanted anything close to a 40 hour week (and even then, it didn’t happen most of the time). We resented having our time wasted on anything that would make us have to work more than the 40+ we were already in the office–especially since we had pressure from the top to get our work done as quickly as possible. Your coworkers may be feeling something similar.

      Plus, frankly, if you’re working on something complicated, it takes you a while to get back into it if you’re interrupted. That’s true of everyone, not just lawyers.

      1. De Minimis*

        I don’t work in law, but when I worked for the federal gov’t in some ways the time crunch was worse in some ways because we were limited to 40 hours a week to do everything.

    3. Observer*

      It doesn’t make a difference what the official reason for the time tracking is. It’s happening and it needs to be ACCURATE. If you are reporting to a government funder that you worked x hours on project x, you had better have worked x hours, not x hours – 6 x 15 minutes. Same if you are going after recovery of fees, only more so.

      And the deadlines are real and hard, so if you are throwing people off their stride or taking up time on social chit chat, it’s going to be a big deal.

      1. Gaara*

        It doesn’t even matter if you’re tracking time. If you have deadlines and are keeping busy, you need to get stuff done. And time spent chit-chatting is time that could be spent not at work.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      OP, it actually worries me more that you’re getting this feedback from a civil rights nonprofit. It’s possible that your organization is “Through the Looking Glass” in its perception of what’s happening. But if I take your supervisor’s feedback as you described it, then I’m concerned that you’re interrupting way more frequently and for longer than you realize. That’s a problem regardless of whether an organization bills clients or is fighting for social justice.

      The truth is that interrupting people in the way you’ve described is a problem, period. The tension around that problem can be more clearly understood in billable-hour-organizations, but that doesn’t mean that the advice provided only applies to big law. As others have noted, often nonprofit and government attorneys must do more work in less time, or they must meet certain goals with respect to promises made to funders. Regardless of the source of that time pressure, I think all the advice that’s been provided still applies, and I encourage you to adopt and implement it.

    5. unpopular atty*

      I’m a civil rights defense attorney in a very busy state-level litigation bureau. In our culture, even being seen talking in other attorneys’ offices is suspect. Chatter is only appropriate when going to lunch with coworkers or traveling to and from depositions and trials.

      When I started, we had two attorneys who spent too much time chatting. I was pulled aside by my bureau chief and instructed not to copy them, and told that if they bothered me the office would deal with it. One was later forced to resign when her caseload became unmanageable, with the clear implication that she should’ve spent more time doing actual work. The other still works there, and is a subject of constant ridicule behind his back.

      With that said, I don’t tend to kick people out of my office unless they’re actively disrupting my ability to work. However, I think it’s hurt my chances for promotion that I’ve allowed people to talk to me about their questions and issues, and I’ve tried to be less accessible as of late to protect my reputation. Also, I spend about 4-5 hours a day writing and proofing, as I’m the person who will get hauled in and yelled at by the judge if my filings are inaccurate, so my calendar really doesn’t reveal much at all about how I’m spending my time when I’m not in court or depositions. I can’t focus on proofing a complicated brief and field interruptions at the same time.

  50. CM*

    As a former biglaw attorney, my advice to the OP (which echoes many of the comments above):
    1. Work really, really hard to address this problem. Once a firm has put you on this kind of plan, it is quite likely that they will ask you to leave.
    2. Lawyers at big law firms are extremely conscious of their time, as measured by their billable rate. More senior people’s time literally is more valuable than yours, and this results in a strong hierarchy. Before you talk to somebody, think about how much money their time is costing, and use that number to judge whether it is important enough to talk to them.
    3. Only make small talk and have personal conversations when you see people in common areas, like at the water cooler or before a department meeting. As a general rule, do not initiate personal conversations with people more senior than you.
    4. Before you stop by someone’s office or otherwise ask for their time, prepare a list of issues that you need to address with them. For each issue, consider how urgent it is and make sure that you have exhausted all reasonable actions that you can do on your own before talking to them.
    5. When you have an in-person work conversation with someone, start with a one-sentence summary of what you need from them, how urgent it is, and what the consequences are if you don’t have this conversation right now. For example: “I need your input on the Section 4403 issue in the Smith litigation before I can move forward with finishing the motion.” Then give a brief summary of the relevant details, and finish up by reiterating what you need: “Before finishing the motion, I want to make sure you agree with this approach.”

    I would recommend reading The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law by Mark Herrmann, which describes all of these things that you’re magically expected to know when you work at a big law firm. Good luck!

    1. CM*

      Oops, just saw the OP’s comment saying this is not a biglaw setting. My comments still apply if a lot of the lawyers you work with came from this setting. If not, I think #4 and #5 are good practice anywhere.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I think all your comments still apply in the public interest context, CM.

  51. LizM*

    A lot of what I was going to say has been covered by other commenters – specifically that this is a law thing. Even though you’re not in a private firm, if there is a possibility of recovering attorneys’ fees, it’s important to accurately track time, and failing to do so can cost a non-profit a lot of money if a judge starts second guessing what’s submitted because it seems like it could be inflated.

    I also think it’s worth some self reflection of whether you’re really picking up on cues that people want the conversation to be over. Last week, I had a coworker chit chatting, I looked at the clock and realized I had 10 min until my next meeting and needed to wrap up what I was doing before that. I literally said out loud, “I have a meeting in 10 minutes, and need to get ready for it.” The coworker said, “oh, what’s the meeting about?” and went on to describe an annoying meeting he’d had earlier that day. People don’t like to seem rude – don’t put them in a position where they have to say no to you – by asking when a good time is, they’re able to answer in the affirmative.

  52. Callalilly*

    I think some apologies could go a long way here – you could go to those you most commonly speak to (at a good time of course) and apologize if you wasted their time with interruptions in the past (this can give you brownie points with HR when probation comes up).

    It could even help by telling them ‘I am working on reducing interrupting during bad times and if I do bother you, please just let me know to come back at a better time.’ This could open communication for those fearing they will be rude but are bothered enough to go to HR/boss. Or even better – ask how you can tell when it a good time and when is a bad time – for instance, if I am available to talk I will lift my hands away from my keyboard/papers when spoken to.

    Even though you don’t work with billable hours, there is likely time constraints you are interfering with. Bob may only have 2 hours left to finish the file before he’ll get in trouble with his boss and you stopping in for a 10 minute conversation could divert his focus enough to cause problems. Even if he was 110% fine having a chat with you, you’ll be the one he blames when his boss is on his back. Then his boss thinks if it weren’t for you stopping by that the deadline would’ve been achieved. So you can’t even take someone at their word when they say they are free.

    This means that every interaction will be risky during your probation – essentially only bother people in person for TIME SENSITIVE issues. If it can wait then send an email, if it is just to chat then wait for them to be clearly free before even speaking.

    1. CM*

      I wouldn’t apologize or explain. Just change.
      As noted above, law firm culture is very much about efficiency and action. And unless OP is in an unusually touchy-feely law office, apologies are a sign of weakness unless you did something seriously wrong.

  53. E*

    No direct advice, but it may be worth asking the folks over at Corporette for their take – there are a lot of lawyers who comment there and they may be able to offer more law firm-specific guidance than what we can give here.

  54. DCompliance*

    I agree that the OP is probably interrupting people more than he or she thinks. However, this issue should have been addresses sooner the six month review. After the third time, the OP should have been brought in for a conversation. Since this could really be affecting production, this is not the type of thing that should be put off.

    1. NW Mossy*

      Based on the feedback from law firm folks here, it sounds like if you’re in that environment, you should assume that you won’t receive coaching and will only get feedback on persistently negative issues, so you’re on your own to recognize your own failures and improve them before it goes critical. However, firms structured like this might do well to explicitly say this during their onboarding process so that it’s not a surprise.

      1. DCompliance*

        If the OP is truly distracting others and this is not just about feedback for the OP, I am surprised it was not mentioned sooner. Not for OP, but the other people being distracted. If it is so severe that it warrants an additional probation period, I would expect a conversation before this.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          This kind of problem is one of the social norms most lawyers expect a person to know, even if they’re new to practice. I’m not defending the idea that you shouldn’t give someone a head’s up and opportunity to correct, but this is one of the basic skills that some managers would find surprising that a junior attorney hasn’t already picked up.

  55. Gaara*

    As a lawyer at a law firm, I really think this is the key: “These interactions can progress to an extended social conversation that disrupts the work of her colleague.”

    That is, even if you say, “hey, do you have a minute?” or even “hey do you have a few minutes to talk about this contract issue?” that doesn’t necessarily resolve this. It’s easy to say “I have a brief going out in an hour, so no, I don’t have any time right now.” But it’s harder, after you’ve agreed to talk, to cut things off by saying you don’t have time to talk, or don’t have time to talk socially, because you don’t want to be rude.

    I’d wager my anticipated fantasy football earnings this year that that’s the key, and what’s really driving the complaining person’s irritation or concerns. People are busy, and they have billable hours pressures that don’t exist at DOJ.

    I think the LW needs to follow others’ lead on social chatting. Or better yet, schedule time for it: coffee, lunch, happy hour, or even breakfast. But don’t make quick work conversations into longer social ones, at least until you know the people better.

    1. Confused Teapot Maker*


      I suspect LW is misinterpreting the “Yes” to “Do you have five minutes?” as “Sure, I’m not that busy, let’s take a break to catch up for a few” rather than the “Not really, but it sounds like if I don’t/do answer this it will more my work more/less difficult later on down the line” I suspect it probably is.

  56. Jules*

    I find this interesting. I’ve worked 10+ years with the norm of scheduling everything, phone calls, meetings, my questions that takes more than 5 minutes. On the other hand, my last boss complaint was that I never ‘drop in to chat’. I guess different leaders expect different things. Different company has different culture.

  57. Steve*

    When I first read this question and answer, I thought it was crazy feedback. After thinking about it, I usually will ask people, especially more senior if they have a moment to chat if need to talk to them for more than 30 seconds. It also irks me when people come up to chat when I have no time to do so, otherwise, I am happy to chat.

    So, I’m thinking maybe it’s a bigger problem then you might realize.

  58. Cat steals keyboard*

    I think it sucks that you were blindsided by feedback – it should’ve been mentioned sooner.

    That said, even just knocking can disrupt someone’s concentration. So I do wonder if it’s 3.

  59. Marisol*

    OP I have no idea if the feedback you got was warranted or not, but one thing you might consider doing is to keep social conversations restricted to common areas, like the kitchen. If people are hanging out brewing coffee or microwaving, then they have a couple of minutes to kill and in my opinion it is quite awkward if no one talks, whereas someone making polite conversation can break the tension. So if you’re a good talker, you can use those little snippets of time to get to know people in the office. And it’s easy to read people’s cues in that context because they will literally be stepping toward the door as they end the conversation, so be ready to disengage gracefully. On the other hand, I almost never stop by anyone’s office exclusively to socialize. That only happens with people I am close to, and even then, I can tell when my friend is swamped with work and in that case, I scram out of there (although sometimes she says, “let’s talk later, I have to finish this” which is totally a reasonable thing to say). Since you’ve gotten negative feedback about this (justified or not) maybe you could follow the rule that if you’re in an individual office or cube, you never initiate anything social, ever, and keep any purely social chat in the common areas.

  60. Norman*

    In my experience as a lawyer, there are two likely problems:

    1. Certain people tend to produce longer conversations, both about work and tend to cause conversations to drift to non-work. Busy lawyers tend to have a low tolerance for this generally, and it definitely affects how that person is viewed in other regards.

    2. As a result of #1, if this person is one of those folks, people may in general want to regulate how she initiates meetings with them. So, while many people may be free to come in and start a conversation, people may want her to call in advance so they can regulate when they talk to her without the awkwardness of turning away somebody at the door.

    3. It is not a surprise that the DOJ would NOT be like this, since they don’t have billable hours requirements.

    4. This sort of person generally struggles to succeed at law firms because law firm partners really don’t like people who negatively affect their efficiency. It’s pretty unfair in this context, because the partner could easily cut off the conversations, but such is the world in which we live.

  61. Czhorat*

    In any office, it’s important to know bit only the culture but how you fit into it. You really don’t want to be known as the human time-sink who will kill a chunk of time with idle chatter.

    Watch others in the office. Are there lots of water-cooler type chats, or are you an outlier? The latter seems likely, and is never really a good thing. As others pointed out, it also makes it look add is you aren’t working very hard and don’t have anything important – or profitable – to do. Again, not good.

  62. GreenYogurt*

    I work in a law firm. A good way to approach someone in their office is to knock and say, “Hi Jen. Do you have five minutes to talk about the Gibralter case?” Always estimate how long you think a talk will take and ask for that amount of time.

    Also, keep in mind that just because someone isn’t in a meeting it doesn’t mean they’re free to talk. Hell, I’m busy most of each day and I only have one half hour meeting per week.

    Here is the body language you’re looking for that will clue you in: someone glances at the time, their phone or their computer while talking to you. When you see that, wrap it up in 30 seconds or less and get the hell out.

    1. Czhorat*

      I like the suggestion that casual chat be restricted to the kitchen/breakroom/water cooler.

      I suspect that part of the disconnect comes from the fact that it’s hard to tell a co-worker to “go away” without it coming across as harsh.

      I agree whole-heartedly about meetings and the outlook calendar being a poor tool for this. Most of my time at work is spent working. That needn’t be part of the public schedule.

  63. GreatLakesGal*

    OP, I think the take-aways from your review are twofold:

    1. Stop doing the thing. Immediately. Do not stop by for in-person questions. The issue is not ” how can I do the thing differently,” or, ” is this feedback wacky.” You need to stop doing it. Even your emails need to be brief and infrequent.

    2. If any other part of your review focused on issues related to your productivity or the quality of your work, I would start a discreet job search, as recommended by several knowledgeable Law Folk above.

    If I put are being told your work is below expectations AND you are perceived as annoying, at 6 months in, in this office, it sounds like a course-correction may not be sufficient. But it may be enough for a good recommendation.

    I’m sorry, OP. I’m on an unexpected thin-ice period in my own job (after 5 years!) and I know it’s hard.

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