is it okay to write someone’s cover letter for them, a mysterious fragrance, and more

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

1. Is it okay for me to write other people’s cover letters for them?

I do a fair bit of writing and editing for my job, and sometimes friends or family members will ask me for help with their own writing projects — especially cover letters. I am curious about what degree of help is ethical and appropriate for me to provide. For example: I am currently helping a friend who is an engineer with her application for a role does not seem to involve writing at all. She is a great engineer, but not a great cover letter writer, and so the final product is starting to resemble a ghostwriting project I might do at work — she gave me great content to include and I worked to capture her voice, but I feel like I have done most of the work in creating the letter.

Will it reflect badly on her if she gets the job, and doesn’t write this way in emails, memos, and other written communications that are part of a non-writing job? Or do hiring managers understand that candidates may get a lot of help on their cover letters, especially if they are weak writers? And if the former is true, how can a candidate who is good at their profession but bad at writing increase their chances of getting an interview? I kind of feel like I’m helping her cheat, but then I think about what a common practice ghostwriting is for people and organizations with sterling reputations, so I am waffling on this question!

I’m sure some people will disagree with me, but if I found out a candidate had someone else write their cover letter, I wouldn’t think too well of them.

I get that it’s tough for people who aren’t great writers, when they’re in a system that relies on a decent cover letter to get in the door. But if she’s applying for positions that don’t require great writing, then her cover letter doesn’t need to show great writing either. For a non-writing-based job, she just needs to show that she communicates reasonably competently in writing, not that she’s Hemingway.

And yes, if she’s going to need to write emails, memos, etc. on the job, the hiring manager may indeed assume her cover letter reflects the level of skill she’ll bring to doing that. To be clear, a savvy hiring manager would give her a writing exercise to test that as part of the hiring process if that’s something they’re going to put a lot of weight on (because they’d know that there’s no way to know how much help she might have had with the letter) — but meanwhile, she’s still presenting work as her own that isn’t her own, and that’s misleading.

It’s one thing to help someone edit a cover letter that they wrote themselves, or to give feedback and guidance on what the letter should contain. But you shouldn’t be writing it for them.

2. A mysterious fragrance in cubeville

There is someone on my floor who is using some sort of scented product several times through the day (maybe a lotion or air freshener). I’m sensitive to smells in general, but this particular one I can taste in the back of my throat as soon as it’s released, and it has triggered headaches and nausea.

Problem is, I can’t pinpoint who or what is the source. I’ve mentioned it to everyone on my team, and they don’t know where it’s coming from either. Some have also noticed it, but no one else is affected to the extent I am, thankfully. I’m pretty sure they aren’t the source, since I’ve noticed it at times when they’ve all been away from their desks. That leaves another (completely unrelated) department which is also located on our floor. We all have cubes, and there’s nowhere open/away from the smell for me to move my desk to. I’ve taken to just getting up and going away from my desk for a while, and waiting for it to dissipate. I’ve tried chewing gum, but it doesn’t mask the taste.

I feel like I need to let my manager know what’s going on. I have no clue who the source is, let alone the names of most of the people in that department, so I haven’t addressed it with anyone directly. Short of sniffing virtual strangers as they go about their work, I don’t think I’ll be able to locate the offender. I know my manager has noticed the times I’m away from my desk, although it hasn’t impacted my productivity, so I’d like to make sure she knows the reason. I’d also really like it if the smell went away. What should I say?

This isn’t just “I don’t enjoy this scent.” It’s “this scent is giving me headaches and nausea.” You absolutely can go to your manager and say, “I wanted to let you know someone on our floor is using a scented product several times a day that I seem to be sensitive to; it’s been giving me headaches and nausea. I haven’t been able to figure out where it’s coming from, but I’m pretty sure it’s not our team since I’ve noticed it when they’ve been away from their desks. I’ve taken to working away from my desk when it happens, waiting for it to dissipate. At a minimum, I wanted to let you know that so you don’t wonder where I am. But also, I’d love it if we could figure out where it’s coming from and hopefully ask for a change so that I’m not having this daily physical reaction.”

3. My boss laid me off but wants me to work four hours a week without immediate pay

I was laid off last week and I already filed unemployment (I’m in Rhode Island). Today my boss/owner of the company told me that it was due to “lack of work” and we have a return-to-work date of eight weeks from now. However, since there are only three employees working for this company and she laid all of us off, she put herself in a situation in which there is no one to operate her business. Of course her business needs to function, so she asked us if we can continue working four hours a week without pay. We would receive compensation for our services upon our return-to-work date, eight weeks from now.

Can I tell her no, I don’t want to work at all while I am collecting unemployment? Does she have the right to make me work those hours? And to wait to receive pay? If she does force me to work those hours, does that mean I need to report it to unemployment? I believe that my situation is case of a boss taking advantage of loyal, hardworking employees, but I don’t want to lose my job over four hours.

She can require you to work those hours in order to have a job later, but she can’t require you to wait to be paid. In fact, Rhode Island requires that you be paid on your regularly scheduled paydays, and within nine days of the end of the pay period.

So one possibility is for you to say, “I can do the four hours a week if we’re able to stick to our regular paydays during this period, but state law says that we would need to be paid within nine days of the end of the pay period. If that’s not feasible to do, we’d need to hold off any work until can be paid, so that we don’t run afoul of the law.” You could add, “Since I’m collecting unemployment, I think they’ll be scrutinizing how this works, so I need to be really careful about doing this legally.”

Also, you should be actively job searching in the interim. She may intend to bring you back in eight weeks, but there’s no guarantee that will definitely happen (and even if it does, this is a pretty big danger sign about the long-term stability of your job there).

4. How can I back out of an interview with a staffing agency?

I recently applied for an office management position at a local staffing firm — at one, not through one, at a posting that I found on their website and LinkedIn page. It became clear in the initial phone interview that they were looking to shop me out as a candidate to some of their clients. I quickly clarified their intentions, and let them know that while this changes the tone of the interview for me, I was willing to discuss the job opportunity they had in mind. But truthfully, I’m not interested in using a staffing agency to find work, and I’m feeling rather naive and a little tricked! Needless to say, they could not produce a job description for me to review; instead they asked to set up an in-person meeting, which I agreed to, because I was so surprised in the moment that I didn’t know what else to say.

This company has a good reputation in my city, and I don’t want to burn bridges. How do I back out of this professionally?

There’s a very good chance that the position you applied for doesn’t actually exist. Staffing firms are notorious for advertising fake positions in order to get candidates who they can then shop to other employers.

You can back out by saying something like, “Thanks so much for talking with me the other day. After thinking over our conversation, I’m going to withdraw my application from consideration, and thus need to cancel our interview on Friday, but wish you the best of luck in your search.” If they question you, it’s fine to say, “I had the impression from the ad I responded to that I was applying for an in-house position. I understand now that that’s not the case, and I prefer to apply to employers directly.”

5. Should I conduct exit interviews?

​My assistant is leaving at the end of the month. I’ve always heard you should lead an exit interview with anyone who quits. Is an exit interview still the norm if the employee was part-time? He was at our organization 20 hours a week for one year. If I should lead an exit interview, can you please let me know what types of questions should be included?

It’s really up to you. Some employers do them, and some don’t. There’s no point in doing them unless you’re genuinely interested in the information you’ll receive and open to acting on it in some way; don’t do it just to go through the motions because that will create cynicism in your other employees. And of course, exit interviews shouldn’t take the place of checking in with people regularly while they’re still employees (and if you’re only going to do one or the other, do that!), but sometimes you get more candor from people when they’re leaving.

Rather than doing it yourself, it can make sense to have your own boss or HR do it, since people might not feel as comfortable sharing feedback directly with you (especially if the feedback is about you).

Good questions to ask: What could we do to make this job work even better? What should your manager do differently? How comfortable were you approaching your manager with a concern? What do you wish you knew when you first started working here? What do you wish you could tell the next person in this role? What could we have done to convince you to stay?

{ 512 comments… read them below }

  1. Marina*

    The person complaining about the scent had better have a allergist’s diagnosis before going to HR and trying to police co-worker’s hand lotion or whatever. The person wearing the scent isn’t an “offender.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You don’t need a formal diagnosis to say “this scent is giving me headaches and nausea.”

      It’s not about policing someone’s scented products. It’s about saying, “Hey, I’m sorry about this and I’m sure you didn’t realize this, but that scent is causing me physical distress. Would you mind switching to something else?” Most people would appreciate knowing about this and would be open to considering other options.

      1. No Mas Pantalones*

        My next-door office neighbour has an auto-timer spray thing. Sometimes she uses this scent that I call “tropical vomit” because that’s literally what it makes me do. She knows it makes me vomit. People on the team know it makes me vomit. Others have complained as well. She laughs about it. Related: she is a horrible person. If I were more like her, I’d leave a heaping pile of dog poo in her drawer.

        1. Snickerdoodle*

          That needs to go to HR for sure. The city of Detroit lost a $100,000 lawsuit over a thing like that. There was a similar case in Ohio, but I think the court ruled in that case that it didn’t qualify as a disability.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          And she stands out because that’s an unusual response. Most people will not react that way (as you’ll see from the many accounts below). But in your case, you could (and should) escalate that.

          1. No Mas Pantalones*

            I work for a Capital C. He knows and hasn’t addressed it. Unfortunately, I’m in a very non-confrontational company. She’s also offended just about every other person in this multi-national company (including all the other Capital Cs) and no action has been taken. I just close my door and blow a fan towards it to keep the offending stench as far away as possible.

            I adore my job otherwise. I accept that she sucks and karma will kick her ass. I may not be around to see it, but I know it will eventually happen. She’s not a stinky hill I want to die on when I love everything else about my job.

            1. No Mas Pantalones*

              Also, I often wish I could round up the lot of people here and build the most awesome company ever. :-)

            2. neverjaunty*

              If your company is so non confrontational, then surely they’ll do just as much nothing about it when you barf in her office?

              1. Specialk9*

                Yeah it seems like a license to print money. If they know she literally makes you vomit and laughs about it while continuing, would they really do anything if you put sardines in a crevice of her desk, chair, or filing cabinet? Just saying…

                1. TardyTardis*

                  And then there’s the case of the lobster that somehow found its way into the bottom cane of some Venetian blinds. Took a *long* time for someone to find it.

          2. Corky's Wife Bonnie*

            Exactly, I am one of those people that would react that way, it is a hard allergy to have. Others would think it’s a nice scent.

            1. The Dread Pirate Buttercup*

              Yes. I don’t know if I’m allergic, but the room/ fabric spray that begins with “F” makes my lungs close up, so that I get out of breath just _sitting_ and according to my phone’s fitness app, my pulse oxygen plummets alarmingly. I’m aware that it’s super-weird and special-snowflake of me, but it was really problematic at my last job, which involved a lot of talking.

            2. Michaela Westen*

              I wouldn’t. As I’ve gotten more into using naturally scented products, I’ve gotten a distaste for chemical scents. Some make me sick, some don’t, but I don’t like them. :p

          3. Charliesmom*

            Yes agreed. I was using a scented hand lotion in the office and someone said to me, “your hand lotion smells really pretty, but it seems to bother my allergies. I’m sorry to ask but could you please switch to a non-scented lotion in the office?” I stopped using the offended hand lotion immediately. I was glad they told me and that they were nice about it.

            1. Windchime*

              Yes, I experienced something similar. A guy in my office said, “Wow, I can always tell when you’re putting on your lotion.” Which I translated in my head to, “Your lotion smells strong”. So I changed to unscented and we all lived happily ever after.

        3. Bea*

          So you make sure to puke in her office garbage can, right? Run right in and “oh excuse me, blaaaaarf. Ah much better *kick the can over on the way out*”

      2. Allison*

        I know I would! I looooove my Bath and Body works products, the hand creams are awesome, but if I knew the one I’ve been using was making someone sick, I’d feel awful, stop immediately, and find an unscented hand cream to use at work.

        1. AdminX2*

          Exactly, I’m a sensitive to smells type myself so if I know anyone around me is pregnant I immediately stop using them and only very rarely in the hot months as well. It’s just good peopling!

      3. Nerfmobile*

        Agreed. I don’t have any known allergies but one perfume, Clinique “Happy” gives me headaches and leaves me feeling ill. If someone was using that in a way that I could smell it, I would have to leave the area too.

    2. Joan*

      No need for an allergist’s diagnosis. Most likely the person with the scented product is currently unaware that it is causing their coworker headaches, and awareness + a polite request will be enough to change the situation. I once had trouble breathing around a coworker’s perfume… I was pretty nervous saying anything, but we worked side-by-side in each other’s cubes often enough that I couldn’t work around it for long, and once she knew it was an issue for me, she was quite willing to stop wearing it.

      1. Specialk9*

        My allergist didn’t give me a formal diagnosis of some scents triggering nausea, itchy eyes, and migraines. He gave me a lot of other tests, by skin test. He just kinda believed me on the scent thing… which I would expect a co-worker to do too!

        In fact, I did have to have that conversation, with a co-worker with a desk near me, and I posted a very nice reminder at my door. I knew when she had arrived, hours before, without even seeing her door, based on her sillage (scent trail). I think she reduced but didn’t eliminate or switch perfumes (some don’t trigger illness, but most do, especially over time). I eventually moved to another floor, which resolved it for me. She was really nice too, so I was surprised that she wasn’t more willing to help me out.

        1. Susan Sto Helit*

          Some people honestly don’t get it. My mother LOVES her perfume, wears gallons of it, particularly when she’s going out for the evening.

          She knows, objectively, that perfume gives me migraines. She’s seen me react. But as someone who rarely suffers headaches herself and doesn’t get migraines (and tends to react in all situations when someone is indisposed as if they’re deliberately doing it to be difficult) she just doesn’t seem to understand how serious it is, and the level of pain it puts me in. I think in her head she writes it off as just a minor inconvenience and decides I’m making a fuss over nothing, so she keeps on wearing her perfume. I’ve even tried buying her eau de toilette specifically because I know I don’t react to it, but it makes no difference. And I’m her daughter. So it doesn’t surprise me hugely that someone’s colleague might ignore it.

          1. Orange Lilly*

            Both my mother and MIL are like this. MIL used her detergent on my clothes when we stayed with her. After we bought specific detergent I could use, she still used her own. I didn’t know this and put on my underwear. I ended up with welts and pain covering every centimeter between my belly button and knees. We showed her.

            Even after that and my husband yelling at her, she still denied that it was her detergent that caused it.

            1. Specialk9*

              That must make you feel so unsafe with them. If they can actually see the damage and still double down, how can you trust them with anything?

          2. hayling*

            Yeah, I have migraines, and apparently some people just don’t get it. My own mother said that her sister and brother had migraines when they were younger, and she thought they were overreacting. She has developed scent sensitivities as an adult, and passed those on to me, and I have migraines, so fortunately she is sympathetic now.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I’m really confused. Why do you think OP needs a diagnosis before mentioning to HR that someone’s scented products are causing work-impairing nausea and headaches?

      1. JamieS*

        I got the impression Marina was saying OP had no “right” to complain without a diagnosis (righteous indignation) not that she thinks HR actually requires it. I might just be misreading the tone though.

      2. fposte*

        I’m presuming it’s based on the notion that only a sanctioned medical condition allows you to ask people to change what they’re doing? Which doesn’t make any sense, because you always get to ask people if they can turn down the radio or skip the microwaving fish. You don’t have to fall under the ADA to ask somebody to dial back an intrusive action in a shared space.

      3. Decima Dewey*

        And how can OP get an allergist’s report when OP doesn’t know what the scent is and where it’s coming from?

        Also, why couldn’t I get a comment box for the comment at the top of the thread?

        1. A username for this site*

          Also, an allergist can’t possibly test for every possible scent:

          “OK, we’re going to do allergy tests. Today, we’re going to do aisle 1 at Sephora, then we’ll move through all of the aisles week by week. Then we’ll go to Bath and Body works and work our way through their product lines, then Victoria’s Secret Body, The Body Shop, and Yankee Candle. Next, we’ll move on to major brands like Glade, Airwick, and Febreeze, and then the generic drugstore/dollar store brands of those products. Finally, we’ll move onto home repair products: cleaning solvents, mechanical oils, epoxies, rubber products, varnishes, vinyls, and paints. Once we’re done with that, we’ll move onto office supplies and art products: spray paint, glue, and markers. Please plan on making a weekly appointment, every week, for the next 15 years.”

          1. Specialk9*

            Thank you. Yes. Even with a built-in sensitivity detector, I can’t even isolate the problem scents. (Well, that and the US allows companies to mask what they put in under the “fragrance” umbrella.)

    4. Thursday Next*

      I don’t think that’s necessary. I’d stop using a product that was making a coworker this ill, without any documentation. I don’t think people make up reactions like this.

      1. LQ*

        The only thing I wouldn’t stop using was something medically required. This did happen and I did move the time on that medication around because I was able to. I thought it was only making me nauseous, but nope, others too, soon as I knew I switched it up so I’d be the only one I was making sick. (It was slightly worse for me that way which is why I hadn’t started that way.) Most people don’t want to make other people they know sick.

    5. HR Jedi*

      HR isn’t going to become the “sniff police” but getting medical documentation of an allergy isn’t a bad idea. This would help the LW build an ADA case for accommodation such as being relocated to another floor.

      By the way, I would suggest looking for plants and not sprays. My experience has been that plants at people’s desks are often the scent offenders.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        I had a situation much like the OPs – I was sitting in my office after lunch one day when my allergies suddenly went crazy – sneezing, running eyes, itchy nose, to the point that I needed to go home for the day. A quick poll of my office mates revealed that one guy had gone to the gym after lunch and had applied a new cologne after showering. He happily agreed to not wear it to work in the future.

        If the OP were asking for all scents to be banned from the office, a diagnosis would be a good idea. But going through the whole allergy testing routine when a simple “can you not spray Axe body spray in the cubicle farm” would solve the problem seems excessive.

        1. Kat*

          I also had a similar experience. One of my co-workers perfumes caused my sinuses to swell slightly. I simply asked her not to wear it to work, problem solved. The only reason this OP is involving her manager/HR is that she can’t pinpoint the person with whom she needs to have the discussion with. I would hope anyone else I encounter similar issues with would be happy to make a small change to prevent my physical reaction to them and NOT demand proof or accuse me of ‘policing’ them. Especially when it is such a small change (they don’t even have to change their routine, just the scent)

          1. BRR*

            While there are unreasonable people, there are a lot of people who would have no problem stopping the use of a certain product when faced with this situation. At the very least it’s a good first step to just ask someone to stop.

        2. Susan Sto Helit*

          I’m scent sensitive (generally I get headaches, sometimes breathing difficulties), and I got a new boss who was in the habit of reapplying aftershave after his smoke break to hide the cigarette smell.

          We found out I was allergic to it his first day at his new desk, when he came to use the printer near me shortly after a smoke break and I didn’t just get a headache, but the exposed skin around my neckline started reacting to it as well – really unusual for me.

          I talked to my manager, we identified the source, and he spoke to him for me. The aftershave hasn’t been back. Now he uses breath mints instead, and I’m not sat at my desk freaking out every time my boss is in the office.

          1. Arya Snark*

            I once sat in a cube next to someone who smoked and would come back to her desk and apply perfume after each smoke break. I had the same kind of reaction and finally talked to our mutual manager, who thanked me because she had similar issues but hadn’t said anything because she could mostly avoid it in her closed door office.

            The co-worker didn’t stop entirely but did stop spraying it at her desk. It helped for the most part.

          1. AKchic*

            Agreed. Axe is one of those products that you use as a punishment.

            It is banned in my house (I have teenage boys). It should be classified as a form of chemical warfare in the proper circumstances.

            1. Specialk9*

              Lol yeah, poor young people fall for the adverts, but Axe is *vile*. Though granted, it’s better than teen hormone stench, so…

            2. Plague of frogs*

              I saw a guy buying Axe body spray and I thought about flinging myself erotically at him like the girls in the commercials. I was wearing dirty sweatpants and a t-shirt, and I’m not exactly a super-model at the best of times. I managed to restrain myself, but maybe I should have done it. Would have made him rethink his decision.

      2. Karma*

        It may not even be an allergy though. There are many medical conditions that can make a sufferer extremely sensitive to smells.

        1. Quoth the Raven*

          That’s what I was thinking. It could be a sensitivity rather than an allergy (they’re not the same, although some people do use them interchangeably), which doesn’t mean the former is any less disrupting than the latter.

          1. Opting for the Sidelines*

            +1 Strong odors can trigger migraines. To migraine sufferers, this is well known. (Google it.)

            1. Opting for the Sidelines*

              Oops, should have read down thread as others have pointed this out!

          2. Michaela Westen*

            The medical establishment originally used “allergy” to mean *only* an IgE reaction, and “sensitivity” to mean all other reactions. They are still biased about treating only IgE reactions (see my post below).
            The word allergy was originally defined as an immune system reaction to a benign substance. IgE was not known at the time (1906, IIRC). With time and pushing the allergy establishment has become somewhat more open to using the word properly and avoiding confusing terms like “non-allergic”.

            1. Specialk9*

              Thank you for this! I’m like, dude who cares if it’s technically an allergy? I get migraine, itchy eyes, and nausea. From my perspective, allergy describes it. But good to know the details.

              1. Michaela Westen*

                In my experience and research of allergies, itchy eyes has always been an indication of allergy.

      3. Temperance*

        Just last week, someone in my office decided to plug in one of those gross scent warmers in our bathroom. I gave it 3 days, and then asked our Facilities Manager if I could toss it because it was a migraine trigger. I didn’t have to invoke the ADA or show a note from my doctor (which he would have provided).

        1. fposte*

          I was reading recently about somebody plugging in one of those on an airplane. Holy crap.

          1. Orange Lilly*

            Even if people aren’t allergic, it’s rude to broadcast a scent around so everyone else has to smell it.

            I envision an office where everyone plugs in their own fragrance dispensers and there’s a cacophony of discordant scent.

            1. Rainy*

              I work in that office. We hired some younger people who had no handle on professional norms and had some REAL PROBLEMS with them using these little scent vaporizers. It was just annoying until the day they were both using some new fragrance and sent me and a couple of other coworkers home. I had itchy watery eyes, my face swelled up, and I got a migraine. It was AWESOME.

        2. many bells down*

          They switched the “deodorizer” in the staff bathrooms at the museum a few months back and it was overpoweringly nauseating to me. My boss hadn’t even noticed a difference. I think she mentioned it to facilities, though, because when I was there last the bathrooms didn’t reek of rotting flowers anymore.

        3. Lala*

          My boss has literally tossed them in the trash when they’ve shown up in our office bathrooms (our cleaning crew would randomly put them in there) because they’ve given people migraines. It took a couple of years, but they finally stopped randomly appearing.

      4. Michaela Westen*

        As mentioned above, it’s probably not possible to test for that specific product/scent. OP might get a note from her doctor about the symptoms.

    6. Les G*

      The OP didn’t call anyone an “offender;” she said “source.” Hard to think of a more neutral way to get her point across, unless you’re looking to be offended.

      1. Cordoba*

        The OP definitely did. Paragraph 3, sentence 3:

        “Short of sniffing virtual strangers as they go about their work, I don’t think I’ll be able to locate the offender. “

      2. JamieLynn*

        She did say “I don’t think I’ll be able to locate the offender” later in the letter but I really don’t see it as a big deal either way. She clearly doesn’t believe the other person is actually doing anything wrong, she’d just like to be able to work without being made ill and unfortunately, there are really only a limited number of ways to do that.

    7. Cordoba*

      Getting a formal diagnosis is unnecessary, but I do agree that LW should not refer to a colleague who is just using lotion or similar as an “offender” until there’s some evidence of ill-will or unreasonableness.

      1. Adele*

        Could a scent be carrying through the air con system from elsewhere and wafting through a vent in the roof above OP or nearby?

        1. Les G*

          Come on, folks. It was clearly intended as a joke (unless you think OP is seriously considering going cubicle to cubicle sniffing coworkers). This indignation isn’t really warranted.

        2. Gyratory Circus*

          Or else it could be one of those automatic air freshener dispensers that sends out a puff every so often.

          I get migraines from scents and have been in a similar situation, though I could pinpoint which department the person wearing the triggering perfume was in since they were only in the office on certain days. After having no luck narrowing it down to a specific person (and dealing with a lot of “are you saying my perfume smells BAD?!?! offendedness) I had to have my manager go to the other department’s manager, and it was still never resolved. The solution ended up being that I had blanket permission to just up and leave and go work from home whenever they were in the office and I could start to feel a migraine coming on.

          1. MI Dawn*

            OMG those things. I HATE them. My kids love them, but they unplug them when I’m around because the scents make me sick.

            I’m also scents sensitive (I had a coworker who had a love affair with Lysol and would spray it all over her desk daily, and more often if she had a cold or someone with a cold came over to talk to her) and I finally had to ask her NOT to spray it on the days I was in the office because I’d get the same reaction as OP – headaches, nausea and tasting it. I can detect scents on my clothing for hours just from hugging someone with a strong cologne and actually had to ask one boyfriend to stop wearing his cologne when we were going out.

            1. Specialk9*

              I have delayed-onset scent allergies. I have had so many beloved perfumes that are soooo wonderful… until one day, a few weeks in, I realize that I’m still smelling them vividly hours after applying them (usually the brain filters out smells that are routine, like smells on one’s own body). Smelling my own perfume us always my signal that the headaches, nausea, and itching eyes are about to start if I don’t lay off immediately.

              I finally found a perfume I adore (Alabaster by Banana Republic) but I’m really reluctant to wear it in case it bothers other people. I know how bad scent allergies make me feel.

              Does anyone else get delayed-onset allergies? Any ideas what that’s about?

          2. Persimmons*

            My work has the automated dispensers in the bathrooms, above the mirror and aimed at the door, and they basically spray directly into your face if you have bad timing. I didn’t mind getting a snootful when it was a refreshing blood orange scent, but they changed the cartridge to an old-fashioned heavy rose scent and now it’s like there’s a nursing home inside my nose.

            1. Rainy*

              Speaking of blood orange, anything that aerosolizes orange oil makes my lungs seize up, including people peeling oranges in offices at the other end of the hall. :/

          3. General Ginger*

            One of my coworkers has a sensitivity to specific cleaning products, and I have a similar sensitivity to certain perfumes and air sprays — for both of us, they’re migraine triggers. We asked to switch to different cleaning products and air fresheners in the office, suggested some alternatives that weren’t bothersome, and that was it. Nobody has an issue with it, and if somehow triggery scents still make it in (vent system picks up something from a nearby office, a visitor brings something, etc), we are allowed to WFH.

          4. Lala*

            As I mentioned upthread, my boss has literally yanked those things out and thrown them away b/c of the migraine-inducing properties of some of those scents.

            My boss isn’t normally a confrontational person, but those auto air fresheners bring out their inner Hulk-SMASH.

        3. HVAC Engineer here*

          Yes, having odors picked up by the AC system definitely happens but the HVAC system is usually picking up stuff you don’t want to smell – like bathroom exhaust, cooking odors, trucks idling – or here in rural america: cows. Never anything remotely nice or floral.

    8. Thankful for AAM*

      Well, strictly speaking, the person wearing the scent or the plant or any other source of the scent is the offender as in is the cause of the problem.
      Offended definition: “a person or thing that offends, does something wrong, or causes problems.”

    9. I love my scent*

      Thank you. I use a Chanel scent my late grandmother used, and I love it. I’m attached to it. I hate not being able to wear it. I usually don’t these days though.

      1. Bea*

        Bless your heart. A scent’s sentimental value means more to you than someone else’s health.

          1. neverjaunty*

            Could you give some serious thought to removing offending comments more? I know moderation is about as fun as a dentist visit, but it seems like we have a rash of this stuff lately and it’s frustrating to see it clog up the thread.

            1. OhBehave*

              I agree with neverjaunty. There were a few comments yesterday by one commenter that took me aback.

      2. Arya Snark*

        I’m very scent sensitive but for some reason (maybe it’s the expense?) No. 5 does not cause a reaction in me. I actually love the scent, which is very rare for me. I used to work with someone who would wear it on occasion and I could always tell when she did.

        1. Quinlan*

          It is a classic and beautiful perfume and I also love the scent. I love that a tiny spray can last for ages.

      3. Specialk9*

        Those of us with accent allergies are so thankful with your decision to hold off like that. It’s a real kindness of you to choose to think of others over something that you really love. I get it! And appreciate that you do that.

    10. Observer*

      In addition to what everyone else has said, who says she has allergy? Something can trigger headaches and nausea without it being an allergy.

      Also, how is she supposed to have an allergists diagnosis without knowing what the scent is? Or is this a way to make it impossible to actually do something about the problem?

      1. straws*

        This. Even if it IS an allergy, what is OP supposed to say to an allergist? “I think I’m allergic to a smell, but I can’t give you any more details than that.”?

    11. Jen*

      When I was a kid, I developed an allergy to whatever they were using to clean the desks at school. My forearms would be covered in hives and then start swelling (being a kid and loving school, I would, after a while try to hide my symptoms from the teacher, but she started making me show her my arms on a regular basis). We did go to a doctor and allergist and they never were actually able to pinpoint what it was that made me sick. The reaction was undeniably real, but it couldn’t be attributed to something specific. It took ages to get the school to switch cleaners and I missed a lot of school (they were afraid I would go into anaphylaxis after the arm swelling) despite trying so many different medications and lotions and so on. Once they did, though, the hives and swelling were gone.

      Point is, real reactions are not always diagnosable.

      1. Orange Lilly*

        My allergist/immunologist repeatedly tells me and other clients that not all observable adverse reactions qualify as allergies. The term allergy has a specific medical definition. That does not mean the reactions aren’t real, observable, and sometimes fatal.

        We need to move off of the issue of whether or not this is a diagnosable condition that would be covered by the ADA. It doesn’t matter unless the OP is asking for all scent to be banned.

        Even then, my doctor would write a strongly worded letter to an employer in a situation like this. Because even if it doesn’t rise to that level, once you have a physical reaction, you ignore it at your peril…

        1. fposte*

          I think there are two discussions happening in the same space on this issue. One is whether the reaction is medically confirmed and diagnosable; the other is whether the OP can ask the other person to dial back the cause. And the thing is, the second isn’t at all dependent on the first. Whether the OP has ER visits out the wazoo and allergy tests papered over her walls or if she just hates, hates tuberose beyond all reason, it’s still okay for her to ask her co-worker to cool it.

    12. 2 Years until Retirement*

      I am not allergic, but certain scents give me an instant migraine. I have asked a student to stop wearing a certain antiperspirant, I have asked colleagues to be scent free. No one has objected.
      In my opinion if the person refuses a polite request they become the offender.

      1. What's with today, today?*

        I would probably push back on the antiperspirant. I sweat heavily (and smellily) enough that I keep deodorant in my purse and have to reapply sevearl times a day (I’m also in Texas). I’ve only found one that works for me. I’ve been using it for years, and when I’ve had to use something else, it’s just bad. I know I am probably an exception there and not the rule, but changing my choice of deodorant would likely be a hard no.

        1. Susan Sto Helit*

          If it’s a roll-on, or a cream or similar, in my experience it wouldn’t be a major problem anyway – people rarely get close enough to your armpits to be troubled by anything being applied directly to them.

          It’s spray antiperspirants that are the devil’s work – not only do they spread the smell/chemicals around, both where they’ve been applied and then everywhere someone goes for the period immediately afterwards, but people seem to think absolutely nothing about pulling them out in public spaces (particularly public transport) to apply. I’ve even had someone start spraying whilst standing directly behind me in a shop in the queue for the tills before. It’s so wildly inconsiderate as it forces me to leave the area immediately (and some places, like on a bus, you don’t even have the option to just leave). I’d rather just smell someone’s BO, frankly.

          1. Not A Morning Person*

            Oh my goodness! Every time I think people can’t be more obtuse, someone here shares something that opens up my mind! I can’t believe people apply deodorant or antiperspirant in public. Wow.

            1. Julia*

              I’ve had people spray perfume on the train (an express where the windows don’t open) and people who painted their nails on the same train.

            2. Chocolate lover*

              Not to mention perfume/cologne, and even nail polish. I was trapped on a train with someone applying nail polish and almost threw up. I didn’t have the nerve to say anything and just got off as quickly as possible.

            3. Susan Sto Helit*

              I’m shocked you’ve never come across it!

              Some people (mostly guys) will sort of insert the can under their shirt and make an effort to actually spray pits. But sometimes it’s directly over the clothes as well, with no attempt at actually preventing perspiration – just covering it over with a stronger scent.

              It happens in gyms and other exercise spaces as well, which is more understandable, but still problematic if you have issues with aerosols. It’s not like there are a whole lot of other spaces to get changed in once someone has ‘contaminated’ the air in the changing rooms.

            4. Venus*

              It’s a no-no in the workplace but new people who come through do this and have to be reminded not to spray. I also cannot believe people would apply this stuff in public or at work but happens so much. I’m lucky not to be overly sensitive but I still find the scent unpleasant (as the sprays are usually a cheap and nasty scent). If people are having terrible sweating issues what really helps is an over-the-counter roll-on that the person applies after a shower at night and washes off in the morning. You can apply a tiny amount of deodorant or antiperspirant in the morning and there is no sweating at all. This was fantastic for summer and wearing grey tops – no sweat marks even in humidity. A few weeks is all you need for this roll-on and then it seems something adapts in your body to reduce sweating under the arms forever after this.

        2. Specialk9*

          “changing my choice of deodorant would likely be a hard no.”

          So… Causing physical harm to someone else would not matter to you? Really?


          1. Observer*

            It’s not about not caring about harm to others. What’s With Today would effectively have to go without antiperspirant altogether, and that, depending on the person, can be a real issue as well.

        3. Plague of frogs*

          I bet if you ever met someone who had the sensitivity (highly unlikely) you would work out some kind of compromise. You would be sweaty and stinky for a couple of days, then they would wear a mask for a couple of days….or you would never see each other and only communicate via text….or something.

    13. I'm A Little Teapot*

      So, in order to be diagnosed with an allergy, you need to:
      1. Go to an allergist
      2. Get tested for an allergy to a specific substance
      3. Actually have an allergic reaction.

      All of these are problematic. 1 because not everyone has access to an allergist. 2 because if you don’t know what it is, you can’t specifically test for it. And 3 because just because you’re having a strong, negative reaction to something doesn’t mean that you’re actually allergic to it. “Allergic” has a very specific definition – you have to have an immune system response. But it is actually quite common to have a reaction that will LOOK like an allergy, but doesn’t involve the immune system.

      Marina, I react to a ton of stuff that doesn’t show up on an allergy test. Doesn’t mean I’m not miserable.

      1. Doctor What*

        You can be sensitive to smells, but not actually be allergic to them. I have a very strong reaction to the smell of bleach, and I didn’t understand why other people weren’t having the same reaction. I looked it up, and it’s a thing, it’s called Hyperosmia. It might be something the OP would want to look in to?

        I am wondering if the offending scent isn’t coming from a person, but maybe one of those automatic scent dispensers?

        Good luck, OP!

      2. Orange Lilly*

        You can also have fatal reactions to things that aren’t technically allergies. How do I know this? I have such a condition and that’s the official word from my doctor. He’s an expert in allergies and immunological responses.

        He points out that what we don’t know about the body’s response to airborne particulates (particularly fragrances) is far greater than what we do know. So anyone who says “you have to have a diagnosis” doesn’t know what they are talking about. (Unless you are talking specifically about ADA protection).

      3. Decima Dewey*

        Another practical objection: on my insurance plan, that would mean getting a referral to an allergist, and a $30 coplay (it’s $15 for my primary care physician).

    14. memyselfandi*

      It is not surprising that we all smell things differently. Has anyone heard of the asparagus smell gene? Google it. I have the same reaction as the writer to a component of many products including perfumes and hair treatments. I think it may be argan oil but I haven’t been able to pinpoint it. I taste it in my mouth and eventually I get a headache. I am not allergic to other products generally. I don’t think people who use these products are being mean and I am not trying to police anyone’s use of products, but we have to live in the same space. We accommodate each other in a lot of other areas, and scents are just one more thing. Scented products are far more common than they used to be. It is not surprising that people have different reactions.

      1. HarvestKaleSlaw*

        This was fascinating! I’ve always wondered what’s wrong with me that I don’t know what people are talking about when they go on about “asparagus pee.” I could never smell any difference. Turns out I’m a genetic mutant.

        My mother has the genetic variation that makes cilantro taste like soap to her. This would break my heart. I think cilantro tastes like heaven.

        1. memyselfandi*

          So happy I was able to inform! I incline to a soapy taste for cilantro, myself. I don’t hate it, but it is not my favorite.

        2. Specialk9*

          I used to taste cilantro and bergamot (Earl Grey tea) as soapy. Like literally if I were to swish with soap.

          Now I don’t taste soap, and adore cilantro and bergamot.

          It shouldn’t be possible for that to have changed with time. It did though! I’m a special snowflake.

    15. Amber T*

      As someone who suffers from migraines over various scents, your reaction is startling and disappointing. I’ve asked people not to spray things because it triggers migraines (and coworkers have seen me both push through work days with a migraine and go home sick). Their reactions have always been “Oh! Sorry, won’t spray it again.” End of scene. Because… it’s common decency? I mean, I’d be happy to provide a coworker a note from my neurologist about the triggers of my migraines as I puke on their shoes from pain, but I think that would say more about my coworker than me.

      1. Gyratory Circus*

        You have nicer co-workers than I do. Mine act like I’m trying to personally control every aspect of their life by asking them to be scent free.

        1. Amber T*

          Some of my coworkers have –
          – seen me sitting in bathroom holding my head in my hands trying to gather the strength to get back to my desk
          – seen me sitting in a dark conference room with just the natural light working, trying to make a deadline before I could go home
          – seen me use my “magic powers” (oh hey a migraine is coming) to be able to tell when a storm is coming, even when it doesn’t seem like it
          – seen me get frustrated after going through a half a dozen tests my neurologist sent me on
          – helped make a pros/cons list for getting a daith piercing in an office setting where non-earlobe piercings would be side-eyed (everyone’s, including HR’s, response was, if you think it’ll help you – get it! Which meant a lot)
          – cheered alongside me when I finally got medication that helped most of the time – weather and my cycle usually doesn’t give me migraines anymore, but scents can.

          Having their support means a lot. If someone suffers from migraines (or allergies, or other silent illnesses), please believe them and do what you can to help them, especially if it’s as simple as not wearing perfume/aftershave or spraying air freshener.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            Have you ever looked into the possibility of allergies causing your migraines? I got headaches from storms until I figured out I’m allergic to yeast.
            You don’t necessarily have to have a lot of tests. You could try keeping a food and symptom diary – maybe add places in case of airborne allergies – and look for patterns.
            Good luck! I hate to see anyone suffer like that.

            1. Rainy*

              I’m allergic to Fabaceae (beans) and brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, radishes etc) and they give me migraines. Horrible. I figured it out by keeping a food and migraine log.

            2. Amber T*

              Yep, shockingly food is not a trigger of a migraine for me. Right now, my migraines are *mostly* under control. Three main causes are weather (April/May and September/October are/were known as migraine season because of all the storms), my time of the month, and random scents. Birth control takes care of my time of the month, and topiramate now takes care of most weather related ones. Scents I just can’t control. If I smell something I know is gonna trigger it, I run away as fast as I can (perfume sections of Macy’s are avoided, period). I also don’t know why one scent triggers me and another doesn’t… I have smelly stuff from Pier One and Yankee Candle at home that I love (but boy do I hate going into those stores), yet my mom’s Glade plug-in will set me off (she thankfully tossed all of them after I couldn’t stay in her house longer than five minutes).

              1. Michaela Westen*

                It sounds like you’re allergic or reactive to an ingredient that’s in some scents but not others. You could probably find out what the ingredients are either on the label or online, and match them to your symptoms.
                My colleagues were just talking about how sick-making those plug-ins are! Someone joked they would put them in all the outlets, and we all said we wouldn’t come to work.
                I thought the pressure drop with storms was triggering my headaches until I stopped eating yeast and got better at controlling my home environment to keep airborne allergens out. It could be storms exacerbate an allergy or reactivity that triggers them.

        2. Positive Reframer*

          Do you ask them to be scent free? I could see someone thinking that means that they have to change every product that they use, they see sent free products being advertised from laundry soap on up and might think you are trying to control a pretty wide swath of their life. Specifically asking that they start with no perfume/cologne/body spray or whatever is generally the most problematic category might help.

          Another thought. I have know people with significant social anxiety who if they were not wearing scent would be stressed the entire day. Then of course we are getting into the competing health concern territory. But the same anxiety has been a barrier to discussing the anxiety, so instead they might react poorly. The scent fixation part of the anxious thoughts does seem to be culturally impacted so you might look at that as well.

          Not saying that your coworkers might not just be meany-pants but normal would be to be accommodating.

          1. fposte*

            Yeah, if you’re asking for *totally* scent free, that really is a big and expensive challenge for people, and, as you note, it might make their own problems worse. I think it’s okay to ask co-workers to change stuff that affects you, but I think the best results occur when it’s easily doable.

          2. Gyratory Circus*

            Not specifically, no. I mean even just “can you please not wear that perfume/use a Glade plug in in a shared space” gets their hackles raised. I’m not talking about laundry detergent or deodorant or things I can’t smell from a few feet away. But if I can smell you coming down the hallway before I even see you…..

      2. Christmas Carol*

        I’m a migraine sufferer too, and I’ve always used “I’ll end up puking on your shoes” as a description of possible consquences. Must be a common phrase of members of our exclusive clu./

    16. Zennish*

      I really have to disagree. Anyone working in an open office environment should be considerate (and sparing) when using scented products at work. Everyone is trapped together in a closed environment for eight hours plus each day, and respecting that includes not subjecting everyone to one’s personal fragrance preferences.

      It’s common workplace etiquette, and has been actually been policy in some offices I’ve worked in (no scented aftershaves, perfumes, air fresheners, etc.)

      1. Orange Lilly*

        A lot of offices where I live have a policy of minimal personal scent. If you can smell it 3 feet away or after the person leaves, it’s too much.

        They ban anyone from bringing in personal scented candles, potpourri, air fresheners, or bathroom fragrance sprays. On the latter note, they do provide sprays in the bathroom. Really expensive ones that allegedly have minimal negative reactions.

        If they don’t provide it, it should not be used in the office. If there’s a reason a spray is needed (e.g., a musty smell), one is to go to HR and ask for the issue to be addressed.

        I think there’s a key difference between something you spray/use on your body and something you spray into communal air. The latter should never happen. The former depends upon if anyone is having a reaction. If not, go for it. But if someone informs you that your perfume makes them ill and you don’t adjust, you are inconsiderate at best.

      2. Not A Morning Person*

        Yes, and most medical offices I’ve been to over the past few years now request that people not wear fragrances or fragrant products when they plan to visit the office. I’ve seen it more and more and not just in offices that service people with allergies or other issues that affect their breathing.

    17. CaribouInIgloo*

      Why so confrontational though? Isn’t it common courtesy to avoid inconveniencing other people, especially when pointed out?

      1. Orange Lilly*

        There seems to be a real resurgence* of people who have the POV that they get to do anything they want because its their right [insert other justification as appropriate] and other’s pain is not their problem. It’s individualism on steroids.

        Courtesy – common or not – seems to be something far to many people equate to weakness.

        If someone tells you that something completely optional you are doing is causing them physical pain or physical harm and you persist, that makes you a jerk (IMHO). Now, if the activity isn’t optional, that’s another matter.

        If you can’t use anything else because of your own physical condition, economic condition, etc., that’s a reasonable justification for continuing.

        I personally cannot fathom continuing to use a perfume/detergent/etc. if someone came to me and sincerely stated that it caused them pain or harm. Perfume is always optional. Other scented products not so much. But, personally, I would avoid anything that caused someone else discomfort.

        *Not so sure it’s a resurgence or if the internet now gives selfish or self-centered people a voice they didn’t have in polite society.

        1. Julia*

          Not sure it’s a resurgence. I remember being on a school trip almost 15 years ago and asking the girls I had to room with if they could turn off their music at 1am. Answer: “It’s a free country, I can do whatever I want!”

          1. Specialk9*

            Which we are finding is *also* the “why are you all so MEAN to me?!” crowd when the shoe is on the other foot.

    18. RoadsLady*

      Maybe not an offender in the mean and nasty way (hopefully they’re not putting out scents with the intention of bothering someone). But scents can bother. I work in education, and back in college and training we were warned wearing scents was likely not a good idea just because of the sheer amount of people we worked in close contact with.

      I was still young and a devotee of Bath and Body Works at the time, but I had no desire to send someone to the hospital because of my Country Apple lotion. So I stopped wearing scents.

      Funny thing is, 15 years later, while I happen to love essential oils for diffusing around my home and cleaning and such (yeah, I’m that lady) and I’ll admire someone’s perfume or cologne when I’m out and about, I have lost a lot of personal love for scents on me.

      1. Not A Morning Person*

        True, an offense is not always intentional. It’s the impact, not the intent.

    19. JustaTech*

      Just last week my on-site HR person sent out an email that there were a lot of strong scents in [specific cube area] and to please be mindful of others sensitivities to smells by not wearing strong perfumes and colognes in the workplace.

      That was literally it. No one was named, no one was shamed, it was just a simple request to be thoughtful. And I have noticed less strongly-scented lotion in the area, so clearly people have taken it seriously.

    20. Michaela Westen*

      “The person complaining about the scent had better have a allergist’s diagnosis ”
      Wow, have you pushed my button! Let me tell you about my lifelong struggle with alleriges and the failures of the medical establishment.
      I was sick all the time till I was 29. I went to allergists and got shots. As an adult I diagnosed my own food allergies because they had *not*.
      I learned from a support group there are different types of allergies. The *only* one the allergy establishment addresses is IgE allergy. There are several other types because any component of the immune system can react to a benign substance. Recently they’ve been sometimes addressing IgG allergies. They ignore all others and recommend *against* addressing them.
      My 5 known food allergies appear to be non-IgE by the symptoms. They have *never* been willing to diagnose them. So glad I don’t work for you, Marina! Would you require me to have an official diagnosis to abstain from office food?
      Bad reactions to scents might not be from immune system reaction. Maybe it’s neurological or some other system. Would you really not take the word of a competent adult that s/he consistently gets sick from a particular scent or product? Are you really that disrespectful?
      So glad my doctors respect me more than that!

      1. Ruby*

        The movie ‘Safe’ starring Julianne Moore will resonate with people who suffer scent allergies to the extreme.

      2. Specialk9*

        As an aside, you might find that an Integrative Medicine doctor might be able to help. They tend to be open to the scientifically supported but medically disdained stuff. They’re the only ones who were about to help me.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          Thanks! :) I’ll keep it in mind. I recently left a primary who wanted me to spend my life in the offices of specialists, so I need a break.

    21. Camille Chaustre McNally*

      That might be hard- how is the allergist going to test all possible compounds involved in creating that scent? That’s not how allergy testing works. She might be able to go to an allergist with a sample of the lotion…

  2. Kittymommy*

    Oh my gosh, cover letters. In full honesty, cover letters send me into panic. I am horrible at them (though not a bad writer at least for work things) I just get so anxious at the very thought of cover letters. If I could pay someone to write it for me, I would. I actually feel a little nauseous now just typing this out!!

    1. wem*

      I hear ya. When I start to type one up, I end up just blanking out on what to say. I wish I knew how to get past that to write a decent cover letter.

          1. Just Employed Here*

            You’re not supposed to lie anyway. You’re supposed to actually be great at a job you’re applying for, or at least believe you could be.

            Otherwise you’re just setting yourself up to fail at either the interview or (worse) the job.

          2. Lily Rowan*

            And if the lying you mean is the result of impostor syndrome or similar, maybe pretend your friend is writing the email about why you’d be great at the job!

      1. CTT*

        Do you have a “form” cover letter that you can start with as a base? I did that when I graduated and was sending out a ton; I had a few depending on the type of job, with the “here are my skills” section already written for whatever type of organization. It was more a convenience thing for me, but when I did also find it helpful to not be starting at a terrifying blank page whenever I had to start a new one.

    2. Gingerblue*

      I’m awful at them, and they make me so stressed! I’m normally a pretty decent writer, but cover letters make me miserable.

      1. JustaTech*

        I get pretty stressed out by cover letter, but then I read a thing (not here) that suggested you approach a cover letter like a standard essay; introduction, piece of evidence 1 why you’d be great at the job, evidence 2, evidence 3, conclusion.

        For me, I find talking about how awesome I am to be super uncomfortable, so using a logic and evidence-based approach makes me more comfortable and lets the writing flow better.

    3. misspiggy*

      Yes, this is why I help with cover letters – some otherwise very competent people can’t face the idea of putting down positive things about themselves, and freeze up.

      Several times I’ve interviewed people to help them calm down and articulate what their strengths are. I’ve given them my notes and they’ve put them into their letters.

      If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right!

      1. CdnAcct*

        That sounds like a great method, I wonder if I could make it work in my job search by taking notes when I talk to friends about opportunities. I’m going to give it a try!

    4. MuseumChick*

      This exactly, they fill me with so much anxiety I completely panic. I am not a particularly strong writer (I have dyslexia as well) but it gets so much worse with cover letters.

      I understand why we use cover letters but it is so dishearting everytime I apply to a job where I have a strong feeling I could be an excellent employee and know from the very start that my cover letter won’t be the strongest in the pack.

      1. bluephone*

        I wish we could get to a world where it’s socially acceptable to have a cover letter like this:

        Dear Hiring Manager,
        [BLAH BLAH BLAH about being considered for specific job]
        I’m not a murderer, I’m not a total a-hole, and I’ll never land your company on the 6 ‘o clock news or front page of [major metropolitan newspaper] for shady dealings. For the right salary, I will bury my moral compass past the Earth’s core*. Please consider hiring me.
        [YOUR NAME]

        *because deep down, that is all employers really want–malleable yes-men and yes-women

        1. LQ*

          I mean…doesn’t the never land the company on the 6 oclock news and the burying of the moral compass past the earth’s core (which…would be then less buried) sort of entirely contradict. If you really did bury the moral compass then you would be doing things that would land the company in the news.

          I don’t think good employers want that. Some? Sure. Which is why I’d never want to write that kind of letter because I want to, when at all possible, have those employers select someone else. I spent 2 hours yesterday arguing with my boss. I won a little, he won a little, the org won a lot because I think we got to a much better solution. At the end of the day he’s my boss so he gets to make the final decision, but I’m going to disagree along the way and he’s going to talk about that for a week so that people know that disagreeing is encouraged when done productively, for the right reasons and toward the right ends.

          1. AthenaC*

            “If you really did bury the moral compass then you would be doing things that would land the company in the news.”

            Not if you’re discreet about it!

        2. MuseumChick*

          Lol, I just wish that there was an acknowledgement that writing well does not always equals intelligence. Someone I knew had very sever dyslexia, when they were a kid, before she was diagnosed, her teachers told her parents that she was likely mentally retarded.

          That bias carries forward into the working world even in positions where strong writing is not required. It is assumed that if your cover letter isn’t well written you must either be lazy, not that bright, or not care much at all about the position. While that can be the case it is not always the case.

          Again, I understand, in theory, why we use cover letters. But I do hope for a day where we find some way to make the system more even for those with conditions that effect their ability to write.

          1. Luna*

            It’s not about intelligence or bias; writing is a skill just like anything else. Nearly every job these days requires at least some writing (even if it’s just emails), so it makes sense for employers to have a way to evaluate a candidate’s writing ability. Jobs that do require lots of writing usually ask for additional writing samples. Being able to write a non-terrible cover letter is required for nearly all jobs, even those that are not writing intensive, because it is literally the lowest bar to have to pass.

            1. MuseumChick*

              So those with conditions like dyslexia shall forever be relegated to minimum wage jobs?

              1. Shortbread*

                …no but you can def get help from someone with clarity/editing. That’s different than having someone write the whole thing. You can also attempt to network with people and get your resume to the right faces. Your friends’ introductions are your cover letter. That is how I got the job I have now!

              2. Not a Mere Device*

                No, but they should reasonably be limited to jobs that don’t require them to do a lot of unassisted reading–a dyslexic might be an excellent novelist, but they’re not going to be a good proofreader.

            2. Nanani*

              “This person is bad at this specific skill, they must also be bad at (insert thing here)” is exactly what a bias is.

              1. Luna*

                “This person wrote a terrible cover letter, they are not a very good writer.” That is the conclusion people get from bad cover letters, how is that a bias? No one is saying “this person wrote a bad cover letter so must also be bad at math.”

                1. Specialk9*

                  Wait, wasn’t that *exactly* what this letter was about? An applicant who wanted lotsa help writing a cover letter for a job that involves no writing.

                2. Luna*

                  @Specialk9: The LW says the job that her friend is applying to does not *seem* to involve much writing. But she doesn’t really know, and the friend probably doesn’t yet either, at least not until she goes to the interview and gets a better idea about what the job entails. The job posting alone does not always give the full picture.

                3. Luna*

                  Meant to add that it still doesn’t mean that bad writing=bad at other skills. It is still bad writing=bad writing. But a hiring manager can decide they don’t care about that and interview the candidate anyway, or they might decide they do care because the person in the job will need to have good writing skills. That is up to the hiring manager to decide based on the needs for that job, but they can’t make an accurate decision if candidates give them misleading information about their skill in that area.

                4. Katelyn*

                  (out of nesting) But most times, particularly in specific fields, you know if the kind of writing that would be inductive to writing a good cover letter is required. Let’s not pretend that writing chart notes in a doctors office is the same as writing a cover letter. Or technical documentation for a computer program.

                  There are certainly jobs where writing reports and other presentations/memos can be judged at least a little from the cover letter, but that’s probably not even the majority of the types of writing needed in a business context.

          2. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

            You know, now that I think about it – the person that I worked with who was the absolute worst-at-their-job-coworker I’ve ever had was also a beautiful writer. She could edit like no one’s business and could craft emails that were sophisticated and flowed amazingly, which (I think) tricked everyone into thinking that she actually understood what she was talking about. But she didn’t. At all…

    5. Jen*

      I personally like short and sweet cover letters. Tell me what in your background makes you good for the job. Don’t write me an essay.

    6. RainbowGrunge*

      I’ve written so many cover letters for friends and acquaintances, never once thinking I was doing anything wrong…until now. I really enjoy writing cover letters; I enjoy writing anything, really. I always figured as long as I was capturing the spirit and motivation of the person I was helping, it was still “them” writing it and that I was just making prettier.

      I do see Alison’s point though. It reminds me of a time back in college, I tried helping a friend write a paper. It was a music appreciation course, and we had to attend a performance and write about it. This friend and I attended the same opera, so I knew he did that part of the assignment. We talked about the opera afterwards. He told me some things he though about it and how it related to some concepts we learned in class. English was not his first, nor his second, language. He hated writing and asked if I could write his paper for him, using notes he gave me. I won’t lie, there was also a $25 payment involved. I agreed, convincing myself that he did the assignment, I was just doing the stuff that didn’t really matter for the class. He got caught. I got caught. It wasn’t a great situation. I got let off the hook, but he had to drop the class (or actually he had the choice to either write a paper on another topic or drop the class and he chose the latter). Maybe I just had/have a fuzzy moral compass when it comes to writing things for people. I may stick to light editing from now on.

      1. Mad Baggins*

        I actually wonder about this. There are so many services (both electronic and human) that offer to draft a resume for you, so what’s so wrong with doing the same for a cover letter? Especially for people who are not strong writers, or dyslexic, or non-native speakers and their job doesn’t require them to be Ray Bradbury? In your situation, where someone throws words and ideas at you and you put them into neat English for pay–isn’t this what people used to pay typists and secretaries to do? I’m thinking of that Twitter thread of noting the hardworking wives of researchers/writers who typed up and edited the work, yet we still credit the husbands for their ideas. And if someone has limited language ability, you can’t just say “write it as if you were telling a friend” when they might not have the words to express it naturally, and there may be different conventions they don’t know about.

        I agree with Alison that this is a kind of assessment, but I think we give a pass for this in other situations, so I’m not sure why we should be this strict in all cases.

    7. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

      I’m totally with you. I’m a decent writer (well, in terms of straightforward/more technical writing rather than creative or stylistic writing) and my job does include some writing (drafting and revising official memos or policy & procedure type docs), but I’m absolutely horrendous at cover letters. Its not so much that I struggle with the writing skills, it’s more that I’m just REALLY bad at even the the most innocuous of self-promotion. Give me a focused (work related) writing assignment or test and I’m fine, but cover letters are always awkward/stilted messes.

      Which is why I typically use external recruiters when job hunting. I’d much rather take the time to meet with the recruiter and then NOT have to write cover letters for the jobs that they put me forward for rather than stress over multiple cover letters. I’m not sure if my experience is typical (external recruiters not requiring cover letters) though.

    8. Chaordic One*

      I, too, have written cover letters for friends. I tried to imagine that I was the person for whom I was writing the letter and I always tried to make the letter simple and direct. Mostly, the people for whom I was writing were applying for lower level jobs in things like retail and food service where they wouldn’t be required to do any writing.

  3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP#1, I end up editing/reviewing a lot of cover letters for friends. I think it’s important to distinguish between whether you’re editing or rewriting.

    When I edit, I generally preserve the core content of the person’s letter, but I may do something like pare down surplusage or make sentences more direct. But if they’re missing something crucial and content based—like an example or a topic sentence—I give them copious comments with prompting questions to help the recipient figure out where to go with their letter. I may consider things like flow and structure, but if it changes the content, I cede that responsibility to the primary author. And then I give overall comments that help contextualize the comment bubbles in the responding email.

    When I rewrite—which I have done once for a close family member’s non-job-related application—I know I have permission to overhaul the content and structure, and that doing so doesn’t mislead the recipient of the application.

    My general policy is that I don’t rewrite, even when given really really terribly written cover letters. And it’s my policy because, now that I’ve been on the hiring end, I realized that the cover letter says a lot about the applicant, and it matters. And if it’s coming from someone who isn’t the applicant, then I’m not learning the full range of critical information I can glean when I know they’re the author (warts and all).

    So I would take a step back and try to figure out which role you prefer to play. It sounds like you’d prefer to be an editor. And it’s also worth considering if this is a role you want to keep playing for your friend. She’s going to have to learn to write an effective cover letter, but she won’t develop that skill if you’re her ghostwriter.

    1. Amy Farrah Fowler*

      I like your policy. I recently helped my sister with a cover letter and hope I wasn’t too heavy handed, but she is very bad at bragging about herself. I had to remind her of things she’s told me about her work and accomplishments. We sat down together and talked through including examples of how she is a rock star in her current role. I think the process will help her write better cover letters in the future too.

    2. Woodswoman*

      Well said. As a professional writer, I frequently help people with cover letters. My approach is the same as yours. I see myself as an editor and writing coach, helping to bring out the writer’s own voice with guiding questions. I point out things that would be good to expand, suggest changes about what might not be the strongest points, edit for transitions and flow, etc.

      For strong writers, I may give it a look once. For people who have difficulty writing, I review multiple drafts. But but no way should I be writing the cover letter myself, which would cross a professional line.

    3. straws*

      This is perfect. My husband is awful at this, but the most I’ll do for him is correct spelling/grammar and making wording suggestions when something is awkward. His industry doesn’t require writing skills, but I’ve brought up many times that if they think he has strong writing skills and then find out that he doesn’t, they may question other skills that he does have.

      1. blackcat*

        My husband is also awful, but what I do is read and say “You need a paragraph saying X.” You do not need “I would be an excellent fit for this position.” “Too long.” “Cut Y.”

        And then he goes and rewrites. I’d heavy editing, but he’s still the author of the content.

        I used to teach, and this is consistent with what I would do for first drafts of students’ papers.

    4. Ali G*

      I would also encourage the OP to think about the long game. This is just one job application. What happens if the friend doesn’t get the job? Is the OP going to rewrite all cover letters for future applications?
      The work you do teaches someone to do this themselves, while the OP is setting themselves up to be the default ghostwriter for as long as it takes for her friend to get a job.

    5. Kathy*

      Yessss, well said! I do a lot of editing and reviewing of cover letters, and it sounds like I do exactly what you’re describing. Not gonna lie, definitely felt relieved by this comment, because as I was reading the letter I was like… wait, I don’t do that. Do I do that? Shit.

    1. Disney reject*

      Or not. Your employer still has zero intention of paying you. “Bust your ass for free to build MY asset.” What a douchebag!

      1. Specialk9*

        That’s exactly what “and I’m Minnie Mouse” means. Because they’re not Minnie Mouse, and the boss who accidentally laid off her entire company and then wanted them to work for free is NOT going to pay OP.

    2. EPLawyer*

      Your employed has no intention of paying you and is not real competent at running a business. She laid everyone off, THEN realized that she needs employees to run the business. She knows there is no money to pay them during this time, but tried to get you all to work for free instead.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        She laid everyone off, THEN realized that she needs employees to run the business.

        This. My spouse went through a period of being periodically furloughed and the state laws were (justifiably!) strict about how companies can’t ask people to work during that time. No, not just a few hours. No, not as a voluntary thing. If she doesn’t intend to pay you for your time NOW, that’s a humongous red flag that there will not be this money to pay you for your current work in two months’ time.

        1. LarsTheRealGirl*

          Of course her business needs to function

          That’s what stuck out to me. No, her business does not NEED to function. If her business can’t pay its employees, she shouldn’t be in business.

          Red flags all around.

          1. Specialk9*

            “Oops, I accidentally laid off my whole company! Oopsie daisy! Tee hee! So how do I fix this? Hmm. (thinks hard) Ooh I know! I’ll ask the people I just fired to work for free! But I’ll TELL them they’re NOT working for free. Oooh this is a good plan. (rubs hands maniacally)”

            This is a genius business owner here. I’m so glad they’ll be out of business soon. So well deserved.

      2. Decima Dewey*

        Yeah. When you lay people off due to lack of work, you don’t to ask them to work for you until their restart date. Let alone work for you with no clear indication of when you’ll pay them.

    3. Traffic_Spiral*

      Yup. This employer is 100% not a shady bitch – unrelated, I am now the queen of Spain.

        1. Decima Dewey*

          Life is a glorious cycle of song

          A medley of extemporanea

          And love is a game that can never go wrong

          And I am Marie of Romania–Dorothy Parker

    4. Autumnheart*

      And even if the employer were totally on the up-and-up and had the best of intentions, the biggest red flag for a company is when they can’t meet payroll. That is a surefire indicator that they are circling the drain. Don’t do any more work for this person (unless you really need the resume fodder) and start looking for another job.

  4. JamieS*

    Can having someone else write your cover letter really be considered misrepresenting your work if your work isn’t writing? To me, that’s no different than giving someone else the relevant info and having them write your resume. That’s not a misrepresention of work, unless of course it contains lies, but rather finding a more effective way to market yourself.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it’s generally understood that your cover letter is going to be a sample of your written communication skills; that’s part of the point (in a way that it’s not with a resume, which is truly just an accounting of your qualifications and experience).

      1. Mike C.*

        Haven’t you, from time to time, offered professional cover letter writing services?

        I’m just a little surprised to see that folks are suddenly going “oh, this is a window to the soul of a candidate”, given how common these sorts of services are and how, as JamieS points out, this is nothing more then a marketing document.

            1. Engineer Girl*

              A resume is just data.

              A cover letter gives insight into the actual person behind the data.

              1. JamieS*

                If resumes were just data then there wouldn’t be such a focus on how to write one because it would be standardized regurgitation.

                As it is there are lots of ways your resume can differ from others with similar data. You can write a resume that just lists jobs and duties (basically copy/paste the job ad for your position), write one that focuses on accomplishments (can be good reflection of writing skills), include non job-related info (not that I’m recommending that), etc. IMO how someone approaches their resume can say just as much about them as a cover letter.

                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  I’m confused about your argument.

                  Resumes and cover letters are both useful in hiring, they communicate different information, and they serve different purposes. I’m going to analogize to a research article that presents empirical data.

                  A resume is a synopsis of data. The format informs whether or not that data is presented effectively, but it can be done by a skilled scrivener. It’s analogous to my decision to create data tables that synthesize and present my analysis as opposed to printing excerpts of my raw dataset. I can farm out data presentation and formatting to an RA.

                  A cover letter, however, is not a synopsis of data, and it requires greater “voice” in its style and content. It’s the equivalent of all the writing that surrounds my data tables. It’s the entire context, research design, analysis, and explanation of my results. I cannot farm it out to an RA without attribution, or it would be plagiarism.

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  The strength of the data you include will determine how strong your resume is. But it’s still data that you’re relaying to the employer; the variable you’re talking about is how good you are at presenting that data. A cover letter is a very different thing.

                3. missc*

                  I’m never entirely clear on the differences between the US resume and the CV that is standard in the UK, but generally in the UK your CV will be a list of your contact information, education, and job history. Mine has a short statement at the top summing up my experience, and short explanations of my responsibilities for each job I’ve had, most recent first and working backwards. I can pretty much send the same CV out for every job I apply to.

                  The difference with a cover letter is that you tailor it to the specific job you’re applying to, referencing the requirements listed in the job advert/job description. You give a brief summary of how you’ve progressed in your career (and how this makes you qualified for the job) and then demonstrate how you have the relevant skills to make you a good candidate for the position. Cover letters are (or should be) different for each job application, because you’re making sure the employer knows exactly why you’d be a great fit for the role, rather than just listing your career progression and education history.

        1. Les G*

          It’s not a marketing document. It’s a piece of persuasive writing. Folks (by which you really just mean Alison, I guess?) aren’t suddenly discovering its importance; it’s long been a cornerstone of Alison’s advice that cover letters are a unique chance to show employers who you are.

      2. JamieS*

        Cover letters, or letters in general, aren’t really a good reflection of how someone will communicate daily via things like memos,emails, etc. because letters are generally understood to be something people take extra time on, ask feedback on, etc. so there’s a heavy amount of editing that wouldn’t exist in day to day communication.

        If this were a writing-oriented job I can concede your argument but since it’s not the standard for written communication skills should really be along the lines of “I can understand what this person is saying in this email they sent” not “this person’s an exceptional writer.” It’s possible a cover letter may catch if someone is truly such a horrific writer people literally can’t understand what they wrote. However I don’t find it likely because people often have others look over it and/or use tools like spell check and Grammarly which would catch that.

        1. Kiwi*

          Don’t bet on it. The last round of letters I got had some that were well polished and some that were just awful. One ended with “Thank you for reading this lol”. Not even with a period or his name after that lol.

          1. Jen S. 2.0*


            I have wondered a few times when “lol” — and its uglier cousin, “haha lol” — became punctuation marks.

          2. Mookie*

            Asterisk RP without the asterisk. This makes me uncomfortable, and like they might use “Notices bulge OwO what’s this?” in their business correspondence. Please do not narrate the act of writing a cover letter, guys.

          3. LurkieLoo*

            I had an applicant send a cover letter that just said “Jennifer Plow – 636-555-3226” in large, bold font . . . landscape.

            I feel like that was a good indicator that she would not be a fit for a marketing position. I’m super glad someone didn’t write her cover letter for her. ;)

            My spouse paid someone to assemble a resume and the writer insisted on including a cover letter. I read it and said, “You can not send this out. Anyone who talks to you for 5 seconds will know you did not write this.” “I know, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”

        2. Washi*

          I guess in my experience, the weight someone puts on a cover letter corresponds roughly to 1. how much writing is involved in the position and 2. how competitive the position is

          I think we’re in agreement that #1 is a good reason not to have people ghostwrite your cover letters. And for #2, if the job is competitive and requires just the average amount of writing (emails, memos, etc) I would be pretty frustrated, as the hiring manager, to learn that this awesome cover letter that I thought was an indication of additional skills and value-added was actually not produced by the candidate and that the runner-up actually had a better combination of writing and technical skills.

          To me, having someone write your cover letter for you (not just edit) is like cheating on a test. You can argue that it doesn’t hurt anyone and the system relying on the test is unfair etc, but that doesn’t change the fact that cheating does not reflect well on your integrity.

        3. neverjaunty*

          Not really understanding your first paragraph. That’s like saying interviews are silly and useless for getting to know people because they take extra time preparing.

          If someone can’t communicate well in a cover letter, that, by your logic here, suggests that EVEN THOUGH they had lots of time to draft, review, etc, they still did a poor job – and thus you know something about their communications skills.

          I’m genuinely puzzled as to why you feel so strongly to the contrary.

          1. JamieS*

            Alison said cover letters are, at least in part, a reflection of someone’s written communication skills. My response was that a cover letter isn’t really a good reflection of how well someone will communicate day to day because in day to day communication people don’t spend as much time “perfecting” what’s written.

      3. tired*

        But not all jobs involve written formal writing with a lot of unwritten rules.

        I don’t see much difference between a chef who is really good at writing, vs a chef who is able to see he isn’t so good at writing, but is able to identify that as a weakness and take steps to mitigate that?

        1. Luna*

          But taking steps to mitigate that would be taking a writing class, practicing more on your own, or getting feedback from others to help the writer practice. Not just having someone else to do it for you.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      A cover letter seems like a more fundamental misrepresentation than having someone format or draft your resume, in large part because it’s more creative, and is a more personal representation of yourself and your personality than a resume. Nearly all jobs will require communication skills, even if a person’s work isn’t described as “writing.”

      1. JamieS*

        Yes most jobs require being able to be understood when you write something. That’s not the same as needing to be a strong letter writer which would vary.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          The issue is that a cover letter communicates more than whether you write an effective or strong letter. A cover letter doesn’t accomplish the same thing as a resume or other letters, and it’s not a “marketing document.”

          For some employers, a cover letter won’t matter. But for a substantial segment of people who hire, the cover letter matters and the author matters. And that’s really the core of OP’s letter—whether or not someone engaged in hiring would find it dishonest or problematic to use a cover letter written by a third party.

          When I hire, I can tell the difference between a cover letter written by the applicant and a cover letter written by a service. I can tell if someone understands the purpose of the letter, or if they think it’s a useless, throwaway task. I can tell if their letter is personalized and introspective, or if it’s boilerplate. I overlook grammar and other (minor) mistakes for letters that are written by the applicant when the content is strong and effective. A beautifully written recitation of a person’s resume, or any other “marketing”-style document (which I’ve received), has been generally less effective for me and for many of my colleagues.

          1. fposte*

            Yes. For me having somebody else write your cover letter is like sending somebody else in to your interview.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              You’ve been responding to some fairly thoughtful responses with one line restatements of your position/opinion without any explanation. It comes off as pretty combative. Is that intentional?

      2. Hannah*

        I do think there are different standards and genres of writing, though, and people can be good enough writers at their jobs and terrible writers of cover letters. I’m a high school English teacher and have definitely helped math and science teacher friends with cover letters. They’re wonderful teachers and thinkers and write well enough in the ways they need to as teachers (they write clear handouts and exams and comments on student work), but they frankly aren’t very good at writing in the style of a cover letter. I have zero guilt about helping them get their candidacies noticed.

      3. RoadsLady*

        So my husband works in the security industry. Those that do the grunt work are essentially people with a pulse. Sometimes my husband will decry the complete lack of writing competency they have (because I guess they need to have more than a pulse at the end of the day).

        I don’t know if they ask for cover letters when hiring. I’ve suggested it several times. A cover letter would not only let them talk about how they have a pulse, but that they can string sentences together.

        1. SophieK*

          I was also in the security industry. Yes, many sites just require a warm body–the industry exists because of insurance policies and there is only so much clients are willing to pay. And yes, some guards fit the stereotypes.

          But I also had retired cops, veterans of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam wars, National Guard and reservists, young men getting Criminal Justice degrees, and decent men just trying to make a living. I also had the most wonderful young man with Down’s Syndrome who was able to get skateboarding teenagers to finally leave a site for good–a task many other guards had failed at.

          It’s a tough job. They have to deal with the same types of people cops do, but without the protection that cops have. They are operating under civilian law like you or I. Part of my job was knowing what they could and could not do in case patrol or Head of Security was not available. It gets a bit sticky!

          The main problem with the company was not the guards but the fact that the owner, VP, and Head of Security didn’t value us as employees. Good people wouldn’t stay. The company has once again changed its name and is still gathering terrible reviews on Glassdoor.

          Please relay to your husband that writing skills have nothing whatsoever to do with people skills. I saw it in both Security and Sales. If he’s trying to assemble a team of English Majors he’s going in the wrong direction!

    3. Engineer Girl*

      I would say absolutely yes. It’s a common fallacy that engineering (our example in #1) doesn’t require good writing skills. The reality is that engineers must often write white papers, tech memos, user docs etc. The ability to take ideas and put them on paper is critical for success. This becomes more important as you move up the chain.
      A cover letter falls into the same category. The sender must discern what skills they want to represent in the letter, and how they would be good for the job. This is the same skill set needed for an engineering proposal, though on a smaller scale.
      I’d be really upset if I found out my new hire had farmed out something like that.

      1. JamieS*

        Creative writing, like with a cover letter, isn’t the same as technical writing though.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          A cover letter is not creative writing! (Or if it is, there is a real problem.) A cover letter illustrates your written communication skills in a business context, not a creative one.

          1. Woodswoman*

            Alison is spot on. While the style of a cover letter may vary based on the joy you’re applying for–for instance, when I applied for a writing job my cover letter was longer than it would be for something else–it should still demonstrate your ability to be a good communicator in a professional setting.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I’m wondering how JamieS is using the term “creative writing”? I’m feeling stumped on whether we’re talking across purposes or just lack a shared vocabulary.

              1. AnotherAlison*

                The folks would be sad to hear you say that. : )

                I’m not a literature person, but I would say that creative writing refers to style and technique that is meant for entertainment, and no specific writing convention must be adhered to. The subject can be fiction or nonfiction, but it’s going to be different from journalism, technical, or business writing, because the intent with those is not to entertain, and there are conventions to follow.

                I may be using my creativity when I write a business proposal in that I am trying to provide information about my company in a unique and interesting way, but it isn’t creative writing. I’m still following accepted proposal conventions. I can’t write it in long-form prose and play with timelines or weave in personal stories.

          3. JamieS*

            Every cover letter you’ve ever posted on this site would be what I consider creative, as opposed to technical, writing.

            1. Opting for the Sidelines*

              Then we may have to agree to disagree. As an engineer, to me, cover letters are just another example of technical writing.

              1. JamieS*

                Taking two candidates with similar careers, one with a great cover letter and a other with a so-so letter, what sets the great cover letter apart?

                1. Jen*

                  That depends on the situation. There are a lot of bad types o cover letters.

                  If your cover letter is formulaic and untailored to the job, it makes me question whether you actually want the job or are just resume bombing.

                  If your cover letter is riddled with errors, I question your attention to detail and writing ability.

                  I have read cover letters that have inappropriate examples, like the guy who ranted about his divorce for three paragraphs. That one displayed both aggression and a lack of awareness of what was appropriate. Nope.

                  Every cover letter is different. But generally what I look for is competent writing, an explanation of why you applied for this job, and why you think you would be a good fit. It really can be that simple.

                2. AnotherAlison*

                  To me, the great cover letter connects the dots of your career history to why you are an excellent candidate for this position. A so-so letter regurgitates the information in the posting and the candidate’s resume and tells me a few things the candidate likes about our company, which were obviously plucked off our website.

                  I would love to find a candidate who has the perfect match experience, but the ones who are already doing the job for my open position rarely apply. The ones with tangential experience need to explain why this job & why at this point in their career.

                3. CM*

                  I like AnotherAlison’s answer and was thinking along the same lines. Most people’s resumes raise questions about the person’s fit or interest for the particular job that they’re applying for — like, “They’ve been in C-level positions, why are they now applying for a lower-level position?” or “Why is this humanities major applying for a technical job?” I think a good cover letter answers those questions and explains how the person’s experience and interests fit in with this position. The cover letter and the resume together tell a story.

            2. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

              For the record – I think I separate out writing the same way that JamieS does and do classify (in my head) cover letters as more “creative” writing rather than “technical” writing.

              When I refer to “technical” writing I think of operating procedures, research papers, formal memos that document specific occurrences and written company policies. Items where the sole purpose is to convey information clearly, concisely and accurately and the writer just needs to be able to do so technically/grammatically correctly. I would also group most business email communications within that.

              When I refer to more “creative” (or maybe stylistic or persuasive is a better descriptor) I think of items where the style, flow and narrative is equally as important as the the info conveyed. The purpose of a cover letter isn’t *solely* to convey info – it’s to paint an overall picture of the candidate (otherwise I could just send out a bullet point list of items I’d like the hiring manager know). A cover letter needs to grab the hiring manager attention and engage the reader – and to me, that requires additional stylistic skill and finesse (that might or might not be relevant to the job at hand). I’d group marketing documents, external business proposals, grant writing (maybe) in this group – along with other more traditionally thought of “creative” writing like editorial content or fiction writing.

              My main point is – whatever terminology you use to describe them – I think that cover letters are a different beast than a lot of typical or basic business writing.

          4. Zennish*

            I once passed over interviewing a candidate largely because of a rambling two-page cover letter about caring for a favorite toy when they were a child, and how they would care for the job just as much. It’s definitely not a creative writing exercise.

          5. RoadsLady*

            I suppose I can see why some might put it under the title of “creative writing”, but in my mind the cover letter is more about polished, coherent writing–which perhaps might be better associated in the general mind with creative writing, but certainly needed in the rest of the writing world.

            By “creative” people might be focusing on the personal style and voice you probably want to put into a cover letter. Hence the confusion.

        2. Engineer Girl*

          Creative writing is stories. Fiction, non-fiction, short stories, etc.

          There’s also busisness writing and technical writing. Both are necessary for engineering.

          They have very different voices and use different sentence structures.

          1. JamieS*

            This is a copy/paste but it succinctly defines what I consider creative writing creative writing is any writing that isn’t normal professional, journalistic, academic, or technical forms of literature. Even though it’s used as part of a job search I’d argue cover letters, like most letters, fall under creative writing because you have more leeway to express yourself.

            1. Observer*

              In that case even technical jobs need “creative writing”. Although it’s worth noting that most people would not share your definition, as you’ve included business and factual writing in there as well.

              And, I can’t think of any higher level job where that kind of skill is not important.

              1. Jen*

                Heck, that list could include a wide variety of things. I have to communicate both with members of the public and experienced professionals in my field. You can bet I write very different emails to a member of the public. Not a professional style email at all.

              2. JamieS*

                It’s literally the first few results on Google. That doesn’t scream fringe definition to me.

                1. Jen*

                  You used the Wikipedia definition but left off the second half of the sentence, which is rather crucial.

                  “Creative writing is any writing that goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, or technical forms of literature, typically identified by an emphasis on narrative craft, character development, and the use of literary tropes or with various traditions of poetry and poetics. “

            2. MCMonkeyBean*

              Cover letters ARE part of normal professional writing. I would call it “business writing,” not in small part because I literally took a class in school called “business writing” that spent a significant amount of time on cover letters. I also minored in creative writing. They are definitely different things and different skill sets.

      2. Nye*

        I’m an academic scientist and I absolutely agree with this. Writing and effective communication in general is a huge part of the job, and I look to cover letters to see how effectively applicants can present themselves. If you can’t present yourself well, briefly, and persuasively in a cover letter, how are you going to persuade an agency to give you a grant, or a journal to publish your paper?

        Ditto for applicants to grad school – there’s a certain level of writing ability that you should have coming in, otherwise it will be really hard for you to ‘catch up’ while doing everything else grad school entails. Plus, especially with grad school, your cover letter often reflects your maturity. Some letters are all about what Grad Program Can Do For Me, and / or are just a recitation of experiences blown totally out of proportion. That’s…not great. Good ones demonstrate clear interest in a specific field, good prep for that field, and an interest in contributing to the broader scientific community.

        Ghostwriting destroys that window into a candidate’s communication skills and motivation. I flag letters that I suspect weren’t written by the candidates, since I’m not sure if they can be trusted. Getting help with a letter is fine (and usually a good idea!), but having it written or rewritten wholesale makes it pretty useless, even in technical fields.

      3. Jen*

        My spouse is an engineer. He writes an extensive number of articles, grant proposals and similar. Writing is crucial to a lot of jobs.

      4. Nesprin*

        Yep. I laugh every time a prospective scientist/engineer states they went into the field to avoid writing and speaking to other people. Technical communication can be even more difficult than regular communication with higher stakes.

        1. Jen*

          I feel the same way about lawyers who say they don’t like math. Especially in my field where we have to track our hours and make sure we’re keeping a steady pace to meet our required goals. I actually just wrote a program for other attorneys to use to do the math for them, because that simple kind of math was over their heads.

    4. Kelly*

      I 100% agree with you. I don’t think it’s a poor reflection on a candidate or that it should make an employer question their ability to write emails / reports. I think this letter it has its place in the recruitment process- hooking an employer using the skills of a great ‘marketing’ writer (to adopt your categorisation of the letter). Actual competence in the job is then demonstrated through the resume / interview / tests. So I reckon writing someone’s covering letter is perfectly fine!

  5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP#3, unfortunately your boss doesn’t seem effective at timelines or planning, but even worse, she sounds fundamentally dishonest. First, she made the mistake of laying everyone off at the same time—kind of a dumb move if you know you have to still be operational. Now she wants you to “volunteer” your time back (which is so very. very. illegal.) and commit fraud on the promise that she’ll pay you back in eight weeks? And you’re supposed to take it on faith?

    Run. Get your best broken in trainers, and run like the freaking wind. At best, this woman is incompetent, and at worst, she’s actively dishonest, lacks any semblance of integrity, and has no sense of reciprocal loyalty. As Alison noted, begin job searching. You don’t want to work for her regardless of which scenario she fits.

    1. AcademiaNut*

      I would say being job searching and keep job searching even if you go back eight weeks from now. Because when you’ve got a business owner who can’t make the logical connection that laying off all her employees leaves her with no one to do the work, and is unfamiliar with basic laws about paying people, you’ve got someone who is bad at running a business. If you don’t get a new job in the next eight weeks, go back for the salary if you need it, and give your two weeks notice when you get a new job. I also wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope that she’s going to have money to re-hire all three of you in eight weeks, however.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Nor that, even if she can rehire you all again in the eight weeks, that she won’t furlough you again the next time she has a revenue shortfall.

        Yeah, I’d be job hunting like mad.

        1. Specialk9*

          I know this situation isn’t remotely funny to OP right now, but this will be an epic story years from now. It’s so ludicrous.

      2. Antilles*

        I also wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope that she’s going to have money to re-hire all three of you in eight weeks, however.
        Yeah, I just don’t see how this works out from a financial or workload standpoint.
        She’s currently asking for three employees to work 4 hours a week each (12 hours per week total) whereas she promises to bring back three full time employees (120 hours per week). What in the world is going to change in eight weeks that she can realistically expect the workload to increase by a factor of 10?
        Remember, eight weeks isn’t actually a lot of time in most industries. A few industries operate on very clear start/stop cycles (e.g., manufacturing) where it’s reasonable to expect massive layoff/rehiring cycles on short time frames, but OP would almost certainly know if that was industry standard.

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          Good point.

          Why would it not shock me if the “four hours” of unpaid labor turns out to be a lot more than that, too?

          1. Amber T*

            Yeah, figure out how to fit 8 hours of work into 4 hours a day! So… just stay a little late, or come in a little earlier. It stretches to 5 hours, then 6, then 7… all of a sudden, you’re back up to 8. Nope!

    2. sacados*

      Yeah it definitely speaks to incredibly poor planning. (Honestly — it didn’t occur to her to keep one staffer on part-time during the slow period, at the very least?)
      I had a similar shady situation at my first full-time job, which was at a small local events magazine. I was there for a little over two years, but it became clear that the management was not great. The owner fancied himself an “entrepreneur” and was famous for using the magazine (which existed long before he came around) to subsidize his other ventures, since it was the only part of the business that actually made any profit. The problem was that while the magazine was relatively successful, it was still a free paper with profits dependent entirely on ad sales. So when the recession hit it no longer made enough money to keep the rest afloat.
      My salary (which — entry level magazine editorial, so it was pretty low to begin with) was cut twice in the last 6 months I was at that company.
      The second time it was a 20% cut and we were told we had two options — 1) work 20% fewer days, i.e. a 4 day work week (although surprise surprise the amount of actual work we had to complete during that time would not change) or 2) keep working a standard 5 day week and the 20% pay cut would be treated as a “loan” we were making to the company (???!!) which would (theoretically) be paid back at some future date when they were making money again. (This was not in the US so I’m not sure about the specific legalities of whatever it was they thought they were doing there)
      I was young, it was my first job, and I knew there was no way I could do my job in only 4 days so I just stuck it out. (This is the same company that, every time the editorial staff complained about needing more staff, the boss would just dismissively tell us to “just find some more interns.”)
      Fortunately I was already looking around and within a few months of that happening I was able to find another job. I learned from my former coworkers that in the first several months after I left, the company was actually telling employees they might not be able to pay people’s salaries on time!
      Needless to say it was a bit of a sh*tshow.

      1. Cambridge Comma*

        I would guess that it occurred to her to keep someone on, but that she can’t scrape together even one salary.

    3. Cambridge Comma*

      The boss may 100% believe that the employees will be paid, but judging by her actions so far, there is a big chance that even with good intentions, the money may not be there. OP, this business is failing. Don’t go back. It might not be next month that it goes under and you lose your final paycheque, but there is a high chance of this happening.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Yeah, this is one of many points in life where the sincerity of someone’s belief should not trump whether or not that belief is backed up by facts. It’s scary when people with power over you are relying on their wishful thinking to make all the nasty facts go away, and you should focus on getting out from under them.

    4. Mookie*

      I have trouble thinking this was a “mistake,” on her part, though it’s possible she is, as you say, a very subpar planner. In any case, the proposal is blackmail: “work for free and I’ll give you the thing I took away (not on a whim, but according to strategy).” And with no acknowledgement of the pickle and ethical quagmire she’s put everyone, including herself in, you can guarantee she’ll do it again if this ends up working out well for her.

      1. Disney reject*

        This one! Total power move on her part OP. She sees you as a serf and herself as your master.

      2. Lance*

        ‘You can guarantee she’ll do it again if this ends up working out well for her’

        That’s where I’m at here. Take this deal now, and you effectively teach her that she can get away with this sort of nonsense, and keep her business running on the bare minimum cost and effort on her part. I don’t like any single part of this, least of all the blatant illegality of wanting to pay you so far in the future. Take your unemployment, aggressively job search, and leave that place, since there’s no guarantee it’ll even be around for long.

    5. Liane*

      And if these wise words aren’t enough, here is an immediate, practical argument:
      It is very likely (in US) that your unemployment requires you to report any earnings the week you did the work, not the week you get paid–and your unemployment for that week will be docked that much, so a smaller or no UI check for that week. When you are waiting just a standard 1-2 weeks for the pay, it’s anything from an annoyance to a serious problem. Waiting 8 weeks, even if it was legal and you actually got the money* you may have budget problems.
      As I write, I am thinking you need to check with an expert –employment lawyer or your state UI or Wage & Hour agency. Because refusing work or a callback is generally a disqualification for UI benefits.

      *Like most of the commenters, I doubt you will see that money.

      1. Natalie*

        . Because refusing work or a callback is generally a disqualification for UI benefits.

        I’m having a hard time imagining the state that considers 4 hours a week *for free* to count as a callback or a genuine offer of work.

        1. Luna*

          I don’t know about Rhode Island, but in some states you have to report weekly any job offers or work done & money earned that week. If I am eligible for, say, $300 per week from the unemployment office, but was able to get a short temp assignment where I earned $100 from temping for the week, I have to report that. The unemployment office will then only pay me $200 for the week, as I cannot go over my approved limit of $300 a week (so $200 from UI plus the $100 from temping).

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            That’s true (reporting job offers), but an offer to “volunteer” your time is not a job offer or work done for money earned that week within the definitions of most UI programs.

            1. Luna*

              But they aren’t really volunteering because the boss claims that they will be paid for their work, just not until later. But when reporting unemployment (at least IME, this might not be the case everywhere) you have to report every week what you EARNED that week- even if my temp job’s payroll is set up to pay me every 2 weeks, I have to report my weekly earnings to unemployment because the unemployment office paid me weekly.

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                But if someone is promising payment 8 weeks after you “work,” that’s not going to comply with state laws about timely payment. Generally, people have to be paid weekly, biweekly, or monthly. But in this situation, there’s not a payment on any regular pay period, and there’s no actual promise to pay.

                What the boss is “offering” is fully illegal, which means there’s no real promise to pay, no regular pay period, and no income earned within the definitions of a UI program. That means that OP hasn’t earned anything that can be reported. But if OP does receive payment at the end of 8 weeks, you’re right that it’s going to raise problems with OP’s UI, because then it’s going to look like OP tried to defraud the provider.

      2. neverjaunty*

        And it wouldn’t shock me if she reports the OP as “working” so she doesn’t have to deal with paying unemployment for eight weeks. (Not that this would necessarily work, but it’s the sort of thing shady employees pull.)

        1. Natalie*

          Even if it was the most pathetic lie constructed, in some states it would definitely delay things for the LW, which is a big problem when you have bills to pay. And stressful. :/

      3. Observer*

        Except that this is actually NOT an offer of employment. “I’ll pay you in eight weeks” doesn’t count.

        They key here is how good if a liar the boss is. If OP has any documentation of the terms of this “offer”, they are home free.

    6. marymack*

      OP#3: You may be able to work those 4 hours, get paid by your employer every week, and STILL collect unemployment. I’m from Rhode Island, too, and was in a semi-similar situation. There’s this weird sweet spot where if you only make a super small amount in a week, you can get that paycheck + it won’t impact your weekly benefit payment. This is directly from the RI unemployment website:

      Can I Work and Collect? If you are working less than full-time hours and your gross wages (before taxes) are less than your weekly benefit rate (excluding dependency allowances), you may be entitled to partial benefits.

      Example; Weekly benefit rate is $200. You earned $100. The “difference” between the two is $100. The Department will pay you the “difference” plus 20% of your Benefit Rate (BR). Difference = $100.+ 20% of BR payment is $140.

  6. TN INFP*

    If I received a great cover letter and found out later it was written by someone else, I honestly don’t think I would care – as long as the information contained in the letter was truthful. I want the letter to make someone stand out and tell me something about them that’s not on their resume, and if someone would be a great fit for the position but wasn’t great at conveying why they would be great using written words (writing isn’t part of the job that I manage at all), I would almost admire them getting someone to write it for them. To me that would show initiative and that they were passionate about the job they’re applying for (assuming it wasn’t a cookie cutter letter that could be used for several different job postings).

    1. Kuododi*

      I have edited for DH on a regular basis.
      Neither he or I would dream of including erroneous, or even remotely misleading information in a cover letter or any other professional document. We both put too much value in our professional reputations as well as the caliber of information generated in the reports we produce.

      It just happens that I have an undergraduate degree in languages. DH struggles with a mild case of dyslexia. When he sits and concentrates it does not appear to be a problem for brief documents such as a 1-2 page grant report. He has difficulty when he has to write lengthy research papers or presentations among other things. So, I do my part and clean up the grammar and spelling issues. I do not believe that I have ever significantly altered the content of his writing under the umbrella of “editing.”. Hope that helps. Best regards.

    2. Thlayli*

      Genuine question here – why do you ask for / expect cover letters if the job has so little to do with writing? If you expect a cover letter (other than just “please see attached my resume”), but you are willing to accept one written by someone else, then you are giving an advantage to people who can write well, and to people who have friends who can write well, and to people who are well off enough to pay someone to write on their behalf. If writing isn’t in any way a requirement of the job, why get a cover letter at all / why include it in your assessment?

      1. Mulher na Selva*

        Cover letters tell a story about what is in the resume, and writers can use the cover letter to highlight the most important aspects of that document in ways that resumes don’t actually allow. Cover letters in my field give a sense of whether the applicant actually understands the scope of the position and how they fit into the context of the job.

        There’s been a lot of pushback against cover letters in some of these comments, but one thing people need to realize is that all writing is not the same, and part of demonstrating your value as a potential employee is demonstrating flexibility with genres or an ability to attempt other genres. Resumes and cover letters are different genres that complement each other, and so sometimes, to address your concern, a strong resume can balance out a weak cover letter. But understanding the purpose of a cover letter well can help writers who are not good at these things by giving them concrete things to focus on.

        And, really, we all have to do some BS we’d rather not to get and keep jobs, so this is one flavor of that.

        1. Mulher na Selva*

          I will say, I am also sympathetic to the argument that these things are a barrier. It happens to be the norm in my field (academia), but I am also aware of how exclusionary these things can be. My field is undergoing some discussion about our own exclusionary practices, and while we haven’t gotten down to the level of the cover letter yet, it could definitely be part of a larger complex of practices that need change or alternative choices.

          1. Thlayli*

            See here’s the thing – in academia (and in my own professional field), written communication is a big part of the job. So a cover letter makes sense, and having someone write your cover letter could be considered “cheating”. But for a job that requires little or no written communication – I don’t get it. There are lots of retail / manual / services trades jobs that require little to no written communication. I work with a number of excellent tradesmen who can barely write a coherent paragraph and reading emails from them is a struggle sometimes – but they are great at their job in the round (I also work with a number of tradesmen who write very well – the point is this isn’t a skill that is necessary for their job).

            My initial query was to TN INFP who said that she would actually be ok with someone submitting a cover letter written by someone else, in which case my query remains – if it’s so unimportant for the job, why ask for it in the first place?

      2. Washi*

        Also, if someone is transitioning to a new field, or just new to the workforce in general, a cover letter is a chance to explain how they are qualified for the job and why it’s a good fit for them, because that won’t be super obvious from their resume.

    3. neverjaunty*

      I’m guessing that either you don’t actually hire people, or you’ve never had the dubious pleasure of working with someone who presented another person’s writing as their own to get a job. “I really want this job and am good at shortcuts to get it” is not admirable and doesn’t reflect wel in job performance. It’s a gumption argument.

      1. Logan*

        At an interview 15 years ago I was asked to sit down at a computer (with spell-check and many other options disabled) and write for 30 minutes about anything vaguely technical. More recently, I was asked to write up a briefing note in an hour, although in that case it was done at home so I could have cheated with ‘outside’ help. In the first case, there wasn’t much of a way to ‘cheat’.

        If writing is so critical to a workplace then I think it’s important to test applicants on this task. It can take time, but avert disasters in the long-term.

    4. Luna*

      True initiative would be finding a writing class to improve one’s skills, or taking the time to practice on one’s own to improve. Having someone else do the work for you while keeping your skills sub-par is not initiative at all.

  7. HR Jedi*

    #4, RUN! I’m sorry for the crude analogy, but bad staffing firms Will treat you like a pimp treats a hooker. If you are already concerned, walk away.

    NOTE: There are many great staffing firms that care about their reputation and are wonderful to the talent they source but it’s obvious that you didn’t find one of them.

    1. ZuZus Petals*

      As a former agency recruiter, agreed :) Also, people bail on agency interviews all.the.time. If I had 10 interviews scheduled for a week, I was lucky if 6 people showed up. They aren’t going to take it personally, and just send them a quick note beforehand to let them know you won’t be making it. If you want to go back to the agency at a later date, as long as you are generally polite and professional, they will welcome you back with no issue.

  8. Knitting Cat Lady*

    When I was last job searching my mum helped me with my cover letters. She’s a professional writer.

    She checked for spelling and grammar and pointed out sections that were clunky or unclear to me.

    And let me tell you, the phrasing in German cover letters can be very strange!

    1. Chaordic One*

      I have noticed this in cover letters from people for whom English is their second language. The letters often seem to be overly formal and a bit clunky, but they generally were not an obstacle to getting an interview.

  9. Get Back To Work!!!*

    OP#2: I hope for your sake that you work in a building without multiple floors. If you do the scent can be coming from another floor and traveling through the vents. Good Luck!!

  10. Maddie*

    I’d find out about my state’s unemployment laws before I worked even one hour a week. You don’t want to commit fraud. I’d also start looking for another job because this one is not stable and tell this boss no.

    1. g*

      Yeah I was surprised this wasn’t brought up, surely accepting a job even for 4hrs/wk would end your eligibility for unemployment. Alison suggests seeking other employment as a fallback, but that’s a condition of collecting unemployment anyway.

      1. Natalie*

        In most, I think all, states you are allowed to earn a small amount of money while collecting unemployment, you just have to report it so your benefit can be reduced for that week.

      2. Catalin*

        Agreed, and I’ll add KEEP DOCUMENTATION of your former boss’ offer to ‘volun-work’ for free-ish. If push comes to shove with unemployment benefits and they ask about offers/job seeking (and somehow this/the furlough idea comes to light), you want to be able to show the office the email where your boss ‘offers’ you ‘work’.
        Not an expert, but relevant employment offers surely have to be actual, pays-legally work.

      3. ThatGirl*

        In most states, you can work part time/earn up to a certain dollar amount before it cuts into your benefits; after that they start reducing it dollar-for-dollar. You do have to report the income, of course. You can also intermittently get unemployment (so, on one week, off another). YMMV but this is definitely true in Illinois, where I’ve collected unemployment twice and worked intermittently during both periods.

      4. JB*

        At least in my state, you may earn up to 1/3 of your weekly unemployment benefits. At that point, any amount worked over that will be correspondingly deducted from your unemployment pay. So, say your weekly unemployment payment is $300. You may earn up to $100 per week before it affects your unemployment. If you earn $150 one week, your unemployment pay will be reduced by $50.

    2. Debbie Downer*

      OTOH, I would worry a bit about your employer reporting you to your state’s unemployment department. In most states they require you to apply for a given number of jobs every week as a condition of being eligible to receive an unemployment payment. If someone makes an you an offer of employment and you turn it down, if that potential employer reports you to the unemployment department you could lose you unemployment benefits. No matter how inappropriate the job offered was.

      This doesn’t happen often, but it is not unheard of.

  11. Cordoba*

    The current approach to cover letters unfairly discriminates against otherwise good candidates who are not native speakers of the language in which they are applying, as well as native speakers who did not have the resources or exposure to learn typical written middle-class “business language”.

    I’ve worked with many great smart people who grew up in other countries and/or were the first person in their family to go to college and apply for a professional job. They’d be an asset to an employer but could’t write a polished cover letter if their life depended on it.

    As such, I have no problem helping people make an end-run around this barrier by turning their list of bullet points into a complete cover letter that is formatted and written in the way that HR and hiring managers expect to see.

    In practical terms maybe someday an employer would object when an engineer candidate shows up speaking halting but intelligible English (because it’s his 3rd language) but his cover letter reads like it was written by be. It hasn’t been a problem so far.

    In moral terms I definitely don’t feel I’m doing anything wrong here.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      And you don’t think this will be exposed in the phone interview?

      BTW, I also worked with smart people that grew up in other countries. Several were refugees from war torn nations. They had excellent written skills and their English was pretty good too. It’s patronizing to expect people to perform poorly because they didn’t grow up in middle class areas.

      1. Cordoba*

        No, I expect it will be immediately obvious within the first 10 seconds of a phone interview. I just haven’t heard any cases where it was an issue.

        Of course I’m not saying that it is impossible for people raised outside of typical middle-class America to have an excellent command of written English; but it seems reasonable to expect that having essentially half employment screening depend entirely upon a person’s written business English ability will (overall, and allowing for the existence of thousands of exceptions) penalize non-native speakers and those who lack exposure to typical business English to a non-trivial degree.

        IF somebody is by their own evaluation in that situation and IF they are concerned about it enough to ask for help I am happy to provide that help.

        1. Femme D'Afrique*

          Cordoba, I’m confused by this argument, frankly, and I agree with Engineer Girl. I’m a fluent but non-native English speaker who has worked in the US. Requiring fluency in “typical business English” isn’t penalizing anyone, any more than it would be “penalizing” me for not speaking fluent business French in France. Maybe there’s something I’m missing in your argument?

          1. Cordoba*

            Let me try with a specific example.

            I currently work with an engineer who is very effective at their job and well-regarded by all of their colleagues despite the fact that their written and spoken English is frankly quite bad. English is their first language, they have only been in an English-speaking country for a couple years, and from what I’ve seen their family rarely speaks it in the home.

            They can communicate and understand ideas effectively but things like tenses, word choice, and sentence structure are all entirely non-standard. This is not a performance issue in their current job.

            If they wrote a cover letter without assistance it would truly read like something that a young elementary school student would write, or like something that had been poorly machine-translated. I think it’s reasonable to expect that in most cases this would count against them in the eyes of the audience.

            When this engineer has to write a formal document such as a test report I will often go over it and clean up the language to what the audience for the document is expecting to see. It’s easy for me to do, and seems to be appreciated both by the engineer and the people reading it.

            If asked, I would do the same for their cover letter.

            Is this wrong?

            1. Femme D'Afrique*

              I wouldn’t say it’s wrong per se, more like unsustainable since it appears (to me, at least, based on what you’ve written) that his written “work product” is dependent on your edits and support. If either of you were to leave your current employer then what?

              Admittedly, I’m not an engineer or in any STEM-related field and I can see how technical stuff can still be conveyed using less than perfect spoken/written language, but something about this situation seems untenable in the long run. Does that make sense?

              1. Rosemary7391*

                Actually, this happens a lot in academic circles. I’m a native English speaker and do quite a lot of proof reading/editing/what’s that word again type stuff. Even though my colleagues frankly have excellent language skills, it still helps. They’ll find someone else to ask when I move on. It’s not like there is a huge shortage of native English speakers. I just see it as a feature of working in an environment with lots of international people.

                1. Femme D'Afrique*

                  It seems like we’re speaking about different things though. In your example, you say that your colleagues have excellent language skills, so you’re acting like a fresh set of eyes proof reading a peer’s work. Cordoba, however, says she’s completely reworking something that “would truly read like something that a young elementary school student would write, or like something that had been poorly machine-translated.” There’s a world of difference there, IMO.

                2. Washi*

                  I think if the company knows that this person needs to have all documents checked over and heavily edited, and has decided that the tradeoff is worth it for their fantastic technical skills, that’s fine. And I think an edit on cover letters is ok – helping to rephrase a few awkward sentences and pointing out a couple tense errors. I often do this for my international friends and colleagues when the general content is solid but there are a few distracting errors.

                  But if it’s a long-running systematic cover up of a deficit in a key skill, I agree that’s maybe not sustainable, and it won’t look good if discovered. I can’t really tell from the description which this is though.

            2. Cover Up*

              Is this part of your job? Does his manager know his work is being edited by someone else before submission? Do they understand the degree to which his work product is not his own?

              If it’s not work you are allocated, and/or his manager does not fully know what input you are having, then yes, it’s wrong. If I was his manager and I found this out later on, I’d be very unhappy with both of you.

              If it’s known and recognised then it’s not a good comparison with the cover letter situation, where the expectation is that the candidate write it themselves.

              1. Cordoba*

                No, it’s not technically part of my job. In my experience colleagues frequently help each other with things that are outside of their specific job description

                If management doesn’t realize there’s *something* up when a person who speaks and writes like Borat turns in an end of project document that is in pretty decent professional English then they’re really not paying attention. I expect they’re just happy to get something they can read through and comprehend without extra effort.

                If my manager was “very unhappy” with me helping a colleague out for 60 minutes every 6 months then I’d probably start looking for a better job.

                1. Washi*

                  “If management doesn’t realize there’s *something* up when a person who speaks and writes like Borat turns in an end of project document that is in pretty decent professional English then they’re really not paying attention.”

                  I would not find that super surprising. My written French is much better than my spoken French, since in writing I can look up the vocabulary I want and apply grammar rules consistently, whereas when speaking I’m doing everything on the fly.

            3. AnotherAlison*

              I’m an engineering project manager, and I have worked with many native and non-native English speakers with varying degrees of proficiency in writing and speaking. In my first job, I would estimate that about half of my department of 40 people was not from the US. We probably had 10 different nationalities in one group. In that job, written and verbal communication skills could be very basic. Your job was to take a package of engineering information from your lead, run a program, enter resulting design data into a database, and provide the package back to your lead. The lead took care of vendor communication and communication with the rest of the project team.

              18 years later, I work in the same industry, and my role includes more communication than engineering. It isn’t only technical writing, either. We absolutely require proficiency in formal business writing. I am avoiding writing a proposal executive summary as I type this. Most of us develop the skills we need on the job, but you need some basic grammar skills as a foundation.

              I’m not saying poor communication skills can’t be worked around, or those folks can’t be great engineers, but in my industry, I think your opportunities would be fairly limited, especially today as more of the routine design work becomes automated. It’s a disservice to tell engineers that they are engineers, so their writing skills don’t matter.

              1. Cucumberzucchini*

                I agree, communicating requirements and reviewing work can be very challenging with engineers/developers that have poor communications skills, not matter the reason.

              2. Lora*


                I have many colleagues whose careers have been limited by their language skills. Both English as a second / third / eighth language issues AND “I went into engineering because I’m good at math and I hate English” issues.

                I can make a computer run numbers for me. Heck, I have an app that will do a lot of pipe flow calculations, although after many years in this industry I use personal rules of thumb (“we used X for Project Y and it worked fine”) rather than doing all the math from scratch. I have templates and things set up that will automatically calculate a lot of things if I just enter in some parameters.

                Now a great deal of my job is communicating with vendors, clients and investors, and I do a lot of proposal and white paper writing.

            4. g*

              Frankly I’m surprised an engineer wouldn’t need good language skills. Precise language is very important because it’s a precise job. If I say “can we move column B5 so the web plate aligns with underside of the beam adjacent to grid 4?” they need to understand what I mean and be able to respond. Same with any kind of engineer, there’s no room for ambiguity.

              1. Cordoba*

                Sure, technically. A few times a year.

                Just like there are occasions where I’d ask them “Hey, I can’t figure this analysis out, can you have a look and see if it makes sense to you?” and they would happily do that part of my job duties for me.

                Maybe I’m an outlier, I thought most working relationships functioned this way.

                Apparently the appropriate response would be for them to tell me “No, that’s not part of my job duties. And if we don’t clear it with management first it’s technically fraud!”

                1. neverjaunty*

                  “I can’t do X that I’m supposed to be able to do, so how about you do it for me and management doesn’t need to know about it” is not the same as asking colleagues for feedback on a task, no, and I don’t think that’s how most working relationships are.

                  I guess I’m also a little confused because if it’s NDB and that’s how people work, why the distancing (about it being only a few times a month) and concern that management shouldn’t know or care? That’s not generally an issue when colleagues are giving each other feedback.

                  Look, this isn’t about anyone being a Terrible Person. It’s that he has pretty much no incentive to develop essential job skills on his own, and he’s going to be in a bind if he or you move on, or if there’s another situation where you can no longer rescue him. “I quietly covered for my co-worker’s inability to do a thing” is not a resume-booster for you.

                2. JustaTech*

                  I’m going to generally agree with you, Cordoba. I’ve worked with plenty of people who aren’t great writers (or think they’re terrible) and will ask me to review or edit a report.

                  Maybe the difference is that my entire group (and really all of the scientific departments) expect that any given report will have been read, reviewed and edited (sometimes heavily) by several people before it is finalized?

                  I also used to help a coworker at another job with her presentations (this is how presentations should be organized, don’t put too much text on the slide) that was 50% she was new to presenting and 50% she thought her English was terrible and she was too old to learn new things (her words). So it was some editing, some teaching, some coaching and a little bit of “put on your big girl pants and deal!”

                3. MakesThings*

                  I’m with you on this. No idea why people are dissecting every word you wrote and jumping on you like that.
                  Helping people is okay on occasion.

                4. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

                  Add me to the list of “with you” on this. I’ve always helped colleagues with their weak points and they have helped me with mine. Our work environment is incredibly collaborative and there is never any such thing as an individual achievement. Any report, document, etc. has passed through all the subject matter experts at least once and if one of them had clunky writing/poor English skills (not uncommon in my field) the rest of the team would happily correct because they would be catching our mistakes in their field of expertise

            5. Engineer Girl*

              Yes. On government contracts it would be considered fraud and the company penalized. Each task has a charge number. If you are doing one task and charging to another it is fraud.

              And as a manager I’d be furious if I found out someone was doing the work of another. How would I correctly do a performance review? How do I help my report correct their weakness if I don’t know about it?

              What you are doing is grounds for a PIP or firing.

              1. Cordoba*

                Well, that sounds like another great reason not to work for the government.

                You misunderstand. This collaboration isn’t a secret that we’re slyly keeping under wraps from management. Everybody I work with openly works together and helps each other out on things, all the time, in the middle of the office. Of course we do this, because you get better results that way. Sometimes managers even *participate* in this shameful collaboration between colleagues.

                Tell you what, tomorrow I’ll directly inform my boss that I’ve been helping my pal with the language in their reports; and will report back here if I’m reprimanded or fired. I expect the response will be *blank stare* followed by “so what?”

                1. Someone else*

                  What you described doing for your colleague goes way beyond what my employer would ever consider collaborating and helping each other. We are expected to collaborate and help each other. That’s not the same thing and doing extensive rewrites on a document purportedly written by someone else. It wouldn’t necessarily get the helper in trouble where I work, but they would probably be told to stop doing it because it’s masking someone else’s lack of performance. Or, in rare cases if they reallllllllly loved the other work product of the help-ee, they might just change responsibilities so if it came to light that person truly could not write their own reports, it might officially become someone else’s responsibility instead.

                2. Engineer Girl*

                  You are not collaborating. You are doing the work of another because they are missing a skill set.

                  Management needs to know so they can address it. Hopefully they will find an ESL writing class.

                  Or they may reassign some of his duties to you. Which keeps you from the hands on engineering and keeps him from learning a skill he’ll need in the future.

                3. Cordoba*

                  As promised, I ran this whole setup by my boss. They had no complaints, seemed to think it was weird that I even brought it up, and said it was nice of me to help a co-worker out.

                  This may have all been a feint; perhaps next week I’ll be canned for “work product” fraud and malfeasance of “job duties”. I’ll update if this happens.

            6. Engineer Girl*

              The correct solution would be for the engineer to take some classes to get rid of their skill deficiency. That would be the same as taking technical classes to keep up with the times.
              Your engineer friend will eventually get on a lay off list if they don’t progress. Either that, or they’ll be trapped in lower paying jobs because they can’t communicate in higher level jobs. Neither of those choices are good.
              You are enabling them when you should be helping them and encouraging them to get the skills they need to succeed.

              1. Lora*

                Mmmm, depends on the firm. Parsons is like that, up or out. Used to be anyway, I don’t know if they still are. More likely they will be stuck in the lower paying roles, that’s what I’ve seen happen most of the time.

            7. biobottt*

              So his job does require clear written communication. And he can’t perform that aspect of his job. I think it is at least short-sighted of him to lean on you for this instead of taking steps to improve his written and verbal English. If he wants to work in an industry that communicates via English, this seems like a no-brainer.

            8. Cordoba*

              I also help friends pick out the clothes that they will wear to an interview. Sometimes, when they ask me to, I just look in their closet or meet them at the store and *tell* them what to wear.

              This could, I suppose, mislead their interview as to their actual level of competence as regards professional appearance and selecting appropriate clothes for an occasion. Both of these are undeniably requirements for most jobs.

              Is this a fraudulent thing to do? If not, how is it substantially different from writing much of their cover letter for them?

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Because there’s an assumption that the letter was written by the person who signed it with their name at the bottom. Maybe that’s just convention, but it IS the convention.

              2. Courageous cat*

                Because what a person wears is significantly less important (and significantly easier to teach, if not!) than their ability to communicate clearly and professionally via email.

          2. anonagain*

            Femme D’Afrique,
            I agree that there are non-native speakers and native speakers with little formal education who write very well. My go-to proofreaders are non-native English speakers who have published more books than some native speakers have read since they left school.

            But a cover letter can be a barrier for those who aren’t skilled in formal business writing, if the job does not require formal business writing. Evaluating people on skills or attributes that are not relevant to the job you are hiring for can be a problem.

            For example, the internal recruiter at one of the organizations I worked for wanted to discard an application because there were a few grammatical errors in the letter and the resume was sent in word not pdf, suggesting lack of tech savvy. The application was for a manual labor job and the applicant had a ton of experience relevant to the actual job. I managed to make the case that grammar/format aside, the application was still perfectly clear and it should be forwarded to the head of that crew to decide.

            I think that kind of thing is a problem. It’s not unfairly penalizing people to require them to write typical business English in an application for a job that requires writing typical business English. But plenty of jobs don’t actually require that kind of writing. I think that’s where things can become unfair.

            1. Femme D'Afrique*

              Well sure, if the job does not require formal business writing, but that’s not the situation Cordoba was describing. I definitely agree that a manual labor job shouldn’t require a stiffly worded, formal cover letter, but Cordoba’s example was an engineer whose work she cleans up after the fact.

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              A good hiring manager isn’t going to assess you on the writing in your cover letter if the job requires no writing (and indeed, it’s common for jobs with little writing in them to not emphasize cover letters). But most jobs do required some degree of written communication, and so it’s relevant for those. But like I said in my response, if the job doesn’t require superb writing, a good hiring manager won’t penalize you for not having it.

            3. Engineer Girl*

              All but the very lowest levels of engineering require good business writing skills. And engineering is the job described in the letter.

              The most important take away is tha business writing can be learned by most. And it should be learned by engineers because it will become more important the longer you are in the job.

        2. Gaia*

          Okay Córdoba, that’s a pretty offensive thing you just wrote.

          I was raised far outside middle class America. How far outside? We were recipients of every welfare benefit my entire childhood. We were homeless several times. I attended 17 elementary schools because we had to keep moving.

          I can write a great cover letter. My best friend who was raised very comfortably middle class could not write one if her life depended on it. Socioeconomic class does not correlate 1:1 with the ability to write a quality business language letter.

          1. Cordoba*

            I just re-read what I wrote, I can’t find where I indicated that there was an ironclad correlation between where and how somebody was raised and their ability to write a cover letter.

            I do think it’s reasonable to expect that (in general, allowing for the existence of thousands of individual exceptions) a person’s ability to write a cover letter in typical business English is going to be determined in part by their prior exposure to this type of communication, and the expectation that “all job applicants will write their own cover letter with minimal help because it serves as a demonstration of their writing ability” tends to put people without this exposure at a disadvantage.

          2. BuffaLove*

            Yeah, I was the first in my family to go to college and was raised in a very blue collar household, but I still wrote great cover letters for my first round of job searching post-college. My boyfriend grew up in an upper middle class family and really struggles with cover letters.

            I agree that there are some areas where it helps to have learned a certain polish from observing your parents, but I’m not sold that writing skills are one of them. IMO, you learn writing skills from reading a lot as a kid and being interested/engaged in school.

            Anyway, I think this is all beside the point. If your job requires writing, even if it’s just emails and informal memos, then you need to be able to write clearly. Using the cover letter as a means to assess your writing skills might put people with poor writing skills at a disadvantage, because they wouldn’t be a good fit for the position. They need to either improve their skills or look for a job where writing isn’t required.

        3. medium of ballpoint*

          In which case, you may have wasted the interviewer’s time. My industry requires excellent communication skills and if I got a cover letter than indicated a person was fluent in English and discovered on the phone that that wasn’t the case, I’d be upset and definitely wouldn’t hire them. It would seem like this person purposefully misrepresented themselves, indicating they’re not trustworthy, and took an interview slot away from a candidate who could have actually met the job requirements. Sometimes discriminating against people who can’t do X or Y is part of an effective filter for new hires and trying to create an end run around that wonks up the whole process.

      2. Gribwa*

        As someone who speaks English as a second language and who knows many other people non native speakers – some very smart people are not good with languages and will never learn to write well in English but they’re really good at what they do.

      3. Delphine*

        There are also smart people who grow up in other countries who aren’t perfectly proficient in written English, which, I believe, is Cordoba’s point. Your comment implies that there’s some connection between good performance and the ability to write well in a second or third language, and that implication is what’s problematic.

        1. Luna*

          No one is saying that people can’t get help with editing a cover letter for things like grammar. But that’s not the same thing as having someone else write the whole letter for you. And if your job involves needing to be able to write coherently in English than yeah, not being able to do that is a knock on overall job performance. It’s a key skill that’s missing.

        2. Engineer Girl*

          No. My point is that engineering requires clear written communication. It is a critical skill set, not an optional one. It’s becoming even more important as product teams are distributed across the globe. Your coworker is no longer in the next cubicle. So you better learn how to communicate through the written word. Even Skype meetings need meeting notes.
          Someone lacking written proficiency doesn’t have the skill set to succeed in today’s environment. They are at a distinct disadvantage until they get that skill set.

    2. Quoth the Raven*

      I’ve worked with many great smart people who grew up in other countries

      I live in Mexico. I wouldn’t know how to write an effective cover letter (I could probably produce one if pressed) because I’ve never been asked to submit one, and I honestly don’t think I know someone who has — I am a lot more likely to be asked to submit letters of recommendation from other people, which tend to be very cookie cutter.

      From what I gather, most of the information that would be included in a cover letter is part of the CV you submit when you apply for a job, albeit with less detail, anyway.

      1. Mulher na Selva*

        Actually, your recommendation letter writing experience could be really handy. Think about how you pitch the person’s skills and the context in which you became aware of them, and imagine writing the same thing for yourself to get you started.

    3. MuseumChick*

      They are also a barrier for people with conditions such as dyslexia. I’ve met so many smart, creative, hardworking people with such conditions who struggle to find jobs for this very reason.

      1. g*

        This seems like either hiring managers stupidly selecting for writing skills not needed by the actual job, or maybe they’re being fair and so the candidate’s dyslexia does actually disqualify them for a position that requires good writing skills.

        1. MuseumChick*

          People equate reading and writing well with intelligence. So even if a position doesn’t require strong writing skills there is still a often unacknowledged bias against people with conditions like dyslexia.

    4. Myrin*

      That’s certainly true! However, does that mean we need to do away with them?

      I’m looking at this from a purely practical standpoint. A couple of weeks ago, some major, nation-wide companies in my country announced that going forward, they won’t expect cover letters by people applying for an apprenticeship with them anymore.

      I’m personally a fan of cover letters but I can see their reasoning:
      1. Usually, you start an apprenticeship right after school, so the vast majority of the people applying there are going to be 16 to 19 years old and, quite honestly, won’t have much to say in a cover letter anyway beyond the fact that they think the job sounds interesting and then some generic things about how they are hardworking and polite. This actually seemed pretty perceptive on part of the employers to me – they were clearly speaking from experience.
      2. They want to bring in anyone who applies for a personal conversation anyway. You hardly need anything more than a “hey, I exist, I’m interested!” for that and I can see why in this case, writing cover letters on one side and weeding through them on the other side would be a waste of time.

      But for situations other than that, I’m not really seeing how successful hiring on a large scale would work without cover letters.
      A CV can only tell you so much, mostly pure facts and data, when a hiring manager probably wants to know more than that. CVs can be misleading or unclear, and cover letters help bringing clarity.
      For example, I currently work part-time in the town I went to school at. I’m sure that if my boss only saw my CV, she’d wonder why the heck a trained literary scholar and medievalist working on her doctorate, who went to arguably the most renowned university of my country where she taught courses and worked as a departmental assisstant, would want to stock shelves in a small town drugstore twice a week. She might easily dismiss me with just that information, but I made sure to make my motivation very clear in my cover letter, and it worked just like I inteded it to, as I later found out.

      For me, a cover letter is not so much about its structure and polish, but its content (which btw also fits in with what I know from my rural and working class environment – from what I can tell, for more manual or what you guys would call “unskilled” labour, people hiring are more interested in someone’s reasoning for applying and practical skills they bring to the job, which is something that gets explained in a cover letter; whether that cover letter is actually good before my highly-and-extensively-trained eyes usually doesn’t really matter to these employers, who are generally and quite honestly not very good writers themselves). You have to decide who to bring in for an interview somehow and I’m honestly not seeing a better way to do that at the moment than some kind of writing addressing the hiring manager and the job.

      1. Anon Anon*

        I find cover letters critical. More and more I’m getting functional resumes full of buzzwords (which for me are close to useless), and so a good cover letter can salvage an application. And then it tells me a lot how much the person cares about the job. A buzzword laden non personalized cover letter tells me that the applicant doesn’t care enough about the job I’m advertising.

        1. Washi*

          Yeah, sometimes I’ve seen resumes that are kind of a mess, but the cover letter indicates a genuine interest and potential fit for the job, and that has gotten the person an interview. I get that there is inevitable bias in who can write a good cover letter, but I think judging just based on resumes alone would also lead to bias, since there is so much bad advice and terrible templates out there. For some people, putting together a decent resume is harder than writing 3 paragraphs about why they want a job.

  12. Macedon*

    #1. If you’re concerned you have a tendency to overstep from reviewing a letter to taking the wheel with editing, maybe just provide feedback by way of notes: “tighten this graph”, “add some particulars on where you illustrated skill X”, “you’re repeating yourself here”, “this part seems a little unrelated to the job, are you sure it adds to your letter?” Work off their drafts and give them instructions to change their letters, but don’t enact any of said changes in writing for them. I think help with grammar should be acceptable as an outright edit, unless the mistakes are so frequent that a polished version of the letter would severely misrepresent the employer about the candidate’s written language skills.

    I’ve been vocal about finding cover letters particularly useless as recruitment tools before, but I’m part of the minority here — the ongoing assumption in the work world is still that candidates will write their own cover letters.

    #3. Please get the assurances Alison suggests and in writing. Sorry to say that the approach your ex-employer is taking does not seem particularly trustworthy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they unfortunately don’t follow up with your wages once the work has been done.

    #5. Exit interviews are a favour the departing employee is making you as a chance to gather relatively candid* data to improve your organisation’s work environment and labour draw. I’d say absolutely jump at the chance to conduct them, time allowing. i’d say focus on the following categories to get their opinions on: the content and challenges of the role, manager responsiveness and feedback, workplace atmosphere and community, compensation and any other suggestions for improvement.

    * assume partial honesty: in a toxic workplace, most people fear full disclosure will erase their chance of getting a good reference, and they’ll gloss over their real reasons.

    1. sunflower*

      Thanks for the tips of exit interviews! The one about challenges of the role is a great idea.

  13. Glomarization, Esq.*

    I love my perfume, but I <3 a workplace with a blanket scent-free policy more.

    Also it seems to me that it's becoming common lately for offices to pre-emptively put scent-free policies in place. The concept may be on HR's radar already for LW#2.

    1. Traffic_Spiral*

      Yeah. Perfumes and scented body lotions are fun, but, like music, once everyone starts bringing their own, your office is a misery. Offices are strictly for soap, antiperspirant, and a reasonably unscented moisturizer.

      1. Rosemary7391*

        Hair conditioner/shampoo? If I’m not wearing perfume, that’s what I can smell!

        Some things are straightforward – it’s easy to not wear perfume, but I don’t see how I can avoid all smelly things. All the soaps and shampoos at my usual store are scented for instance. It would help if it was more clearly defined – like, avoid things with these sorts of chemicals or what have you.

        1. fposte*

          Yes, I agree. Truly “scent-free” is a considerable burden; best not to require that if what you really mean is “can’t smell you from the next cubicle” or “no aldehydes.”

          1. Rosemary7391*

            “can’t smell you from the next cubicle” should apply to everything!

            I wonder how much ventilation and air conditioning helps or hinders? More and more places are like sealed boxes, no windows to open and so on. So if something smells you’re stuck with it.

            1. fposte*

              I was thinking just this! It’s really frequent that friction between people is a result of problems with the space (see also: airplanes); while it may still be annoying if your cubemate douses herself in Curious, better ventilation will mitigate a lot of offense.

              1. Rosemary7391*

                Yep. Flats are another example of this – perfectly reasonable behaviour becomes anti social when folks are stacked atop one another.

                Suppose this is another reason to bring it to the attention of management – it might be possible to tweak the air conditioner to get better airflow, or have a desk fan that means most of your air comes from the non scented direction.

            2. JustaTech*

              At least in my building the ventilation just confuses. Scents will come from nowhere with no obvious source. Like, about 2pm the labs will smell like toast. No one on that floor has made toast in hours. No one on any other floor has made toast. The bakery up the street isn’t baking anything. And yet, half of a floor will smell of toast. Or diesel exhaust (that’s probably from the freeway). Or BBQ.

        2. Traffic_Spiral*

          Shampoo and conditioner tend to be relatively scent-free once your hair is dry – unless someone has specifically identified your shampoo as something reaching up their sinuses to strangle their brain, I wouldn’t be too concerned.

          Generally a “wash yourself and your clothes and don’t intentionally add any scents” policy is enough.

          1. Rosemary7391*

            Fair enough! Yeah, your last line seems reasonable.

            I guess I notice my hair more because it’s attached to me. Also it’s very long, so on days when I’ve washed it it sort of acts like a diffuser for the scent I guess? Even a few days after washing it smells like conditioner.

            1. Courageous cat*

              I mean, the majority of people don’t have scent allergies, so probably. That’s why she said “tend to be” though.

    2. Old Cynic*

      One scent people forget about is fabric softener. I don’t get migraines but do get nausea from them. When someone walks ahead of me in a hallway, I can generally identify the brand they use. I don’t let many people get too close to me, cutting “personal space” reasons. Good luck telling people how they can wash their clothes though.

      1. Positive Reframer*

        Yes that is really unfortunate. Its one thing to ask people to stop using something that costs them money and is an extra step its another to ask them to spend money and add an extra step. Is there an association for people with scent allergies/sensitivities? Maybe overlapping with migraine sufferers? Is it possible that they are or could push back on laundry soap manufactures? The new scent beads products that seem to be popping up all over the place are surely only making matters worse.

        I’ll certainly add scent sensitivity to my justification for using vinegar as fabric softener.

      2. Gyratory Circus*

        I loathe the invention of those super-extended fragrancey fabric softeners that can last over a month.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          The chemicals used to make those cause all kinds of problems! There should be a law, which will be the only thing that stops them.

      3. Windchime*

        If I’m outside in my yard, I can tell if my neighbors are doing laundry because I can smell their strongly-scented dryer sheets. If I can smell it from 30 feet away, it’s too strong.

    3. Astrid*

      Yes, we periodically receive this message from HR: “We ask that you go lightly in the use of after shave, perfume, cologne, body spray and hand cream when coming to work and while in the office. Please do not use air fresheners. These fragrances trigger asthmatic attacks and migraine headaches in some of our staff.” I think it’s a great reminder that other people can be negatively affected by your personal grooming choices.

    4. Michaela Westen*

      Many scented products contain harmful chemicals that make people sick. This is a good reason for a scent-free policy!
      Products with natural scents are better but can still affect people who are allergic to them.

  14. LGC*

    So, LW3, I have a totally irrelevant and stupid (and rhetorical) question: if she needs employees to run her business even during slow periods, why did she lay all of you off? Like, did she just say you’re all laid off and then go, “whoopsie, I actually need twelve hours a week?”

    1. Rebecca*

      I suspect she can’t meet, or doesn’t want to meet payroll. Solution – lay off the employees, let the state’s unemployment pool take care of “paying” them, then ask them to come back to work for free for 4 hours a week for 8 weeks to keep things going until she can close up shop for good. There is zero chance they’ll be paid for any work done during the 8 weeks at the end of that time if she can’t even manage to pay them for 4 hours per week on an ongoing basis.

      I really hope we can get an update from the OP on this one. I’m betting the business folds.

      1. LGC*

        Basically, yeah (which is why I said it was a rhetorical question). At best, the owner of the business is REALLY TERRIBLE at planning, and I’m not expecting the best here.

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Exactly this. It isn’t so much about there not being work as it is there not being money.

        Don’t do it, OP #3. You will never see that money.

  15. Arctic*

    #1) I disagree with Alison on this. A cover letter is usually pretty formal and most people at least get it edited by someone else, while emails/memos are much less formal. I’m actually surprised anyone would expect a cover letter to be a good example of on-the-job writing.

    Whether OP should help their friend is up to their personal ethical standards. As a manager, I wouldn’t care unless the person I hired turned out to be borderline illiterate. If they can do the job (and didn’t lie about their experience), I don’t see the issue.

    1. Cordoba*

      I agree, if a potential employer wants a writing sample they should ask for one.

      Using my cover letter as a proxy writing sample is equivalent to using the clothes I wear to the interview as an indicator for how I’m going to dress every day.

      In either case a reasonable employer would have to know that they’re getting something that has had way more thought and effort put into it than what they can expect to see on a routine basis.

      1. MuseumChick*

        This is a really good way of putting it. If the position requires a certain level of writing, ask for a writing sample.

        1. Lily Rowan*

          My has historically required a lot of writing, but I would be hard-pressed to provide a work document that I was the sole author of, and they definitely all have gotten extensive editing from a bunch of people. This is why I actually consider the cover letter a better writing sample than past work. In my field, at least.

        2. fposte*

          Chickens and eggs :-). We’ve started to ask for writing samples because cover letters aren’t reflecting people’s writing as well as they used to. If people start getting their writing samples edited and written for them, I guess we’ll move to specific writing tests that will take the applicant more time.

    2. Windchime*

      Maybe it’s different for jobs like university professor or medical doctor, but as a simple BI Developer, I’ve never written a “formal” cover letter. I should dig up my old one that landed me my current job. There was nothing formal about it; I talked about how I loved the organization and how I would be so thrilled to be associated with them, how my skills would benefit them, etc. And it was pretty short; just a couple of paragraphs, if I recall.

    3. Important Moi*

      I disagree with Alison as well. Somewhere on this page is a story of a beautiful cover letter writer who can’t do the job. For technical jobs, I don’t think cover letters should weigh much….

    4. LurkieLoo*

      I would agree with this as long as it’s an honest representation. If I get a Tigger cover letter and then interview Eeyore . . . not good if I need a Tigger. (Although, personally, I think they’d both make terrible employees.)

  16. MakesThings*

    I honestly do not understand why some staffing agencies do this dishonest bait and switch. There are enough people looking for work that it’s better to just be straight-forward. How could it possibly work in anyone’s favor to trick people into contacting the agency, trick people into applying for a fake job, and deliver disgruntled workers who feel like they’ve been conned to the client?

    1. Bea*

      They often don’t have enough people who are qualified in their pool so they do need to fish them out. I’ve had a lot of failed attempts to get staffing needs handled by staffing agencies and temp agencies.

      They trick customers too in the end. They send insanely unqualified candidates every single time.

      1. Detective Right-All-The-Time*

        What market are you in? I have a great agency if you’re looking for a recommendation.

      2. MakesThings*

        I’ve had the opposite experience as a job seeker. There seemed to be too many applicants and not enough jobs, so much so, that the staffing agencies told me to check in on regular days, and that I would only get a job if I continually pestered them.
        Which makes me wonder why on earth anyone needs to play this weird fishing game to lure in job seekers.

  17. Delta Delta*

    #2 – The first thing that popped to mind for me was that the scent might be some cleaning product, or could be phrased that way. Perhaps that could be one way to bring the matter to HR/management/whomever? I know there are certain cleaning products – scented cleaning wipes being one – that make me gag. Just a thought.

    1. MLB*

      Honestly I don’t think it matters what the scent is, she should definitely talk to her boss about it. I have chronic migraines and smells are a trigger. It doesn’t matter whether I like a scent or not, certain ones will automatically trigger a migraine. The headaches and nausea are what she needs to focus on when speaking to her boss.

  18. NYCWeasel*

    OP#3: Back in my struggling artist days, many small studios would lay off their entire staff and then try to talk them into returning for free labor while the staff was collecting unemployment. IME, these “arrangements” NEVER resulted in anything good for the staff.

    1. A company that can’t afford to pay you up front for work is digging a hole with their finances that is going to be very difficult to fill. As Alison says, you can’t count on their long-term financial health if they are already trying to float your paychecks now. Also, there are 3 employees in this case. What if the company can only hire one back—if it’s you, now you have to do the work of 3 people at the same wage, and if it’s not you, you’ve lost valuable job hunting time.
    2. The hours they are asking for may seem extremely minimal, but the mental load required to manage them will be disproportionately high, and will take away from your other job hunting efforts.
    3. You get saddled with a terrible choice. If you declare these minimal hours to unemployment, you have to jump through a bunch of extra hoops and potentially you lose some benefits (though in this case it’s probably a negligible amount), all while getting no $$ up front. If you plan on not declaring the hours, it’s hard to press legally for payment without exposing yourself, and even if you are happy with the arrangement, you could be exposed if another worker is disgruntled or slips up. And if you do declare them and want to get paid…see #1.
    4. These extra hours add nothing to your resume to help you get a more secure job. You could spend those 4 hours volunteering, crafting a tighter resume, learning new skills, creating your own content, etc. Any of those will do more for you long-term than just doing a little more of what you’ve already been doing for a while.

    Based on what I’ve seen, there’s just very little benefit to agreeing to work for free (or a delayed payday) when a company starts hitting major financial issues. In your case, I’d tell the owner that you appreciate the offer, and that you certainly want to come back if finances allow, but that you need to keep your schedule free for FT temporary gigs to make ends meet. If they are unreasonable about that, it’s a pretty clear sign that they are only thinking about themselves, and combining that attitude with financial instability…well I personally would RUN!

    1. Positive Reframer*

      Agreed, you have a lot to loose and very little to gain by working for them under illegal circumstances.

  19. Xarcady*

    #3. Check your state’s unemployment regulations carefully. My state encourages people to work — temp or part-time— while on unemployment. The hours you work must be reported to the state, along with the pay rate.

    If you earn more money than 30% of you weekly unemployment benefit, they start to reduce the amount of your benefit that week. (It’s all good—this just stretches out the length of time you can get benefits.)

    You’d have to report those hours and the pay rate—even though you won’t see the money for months.

    So if your boss ends up wanting you to work more hours, you could get less money—and I’m guessing you need that money.

    You’d be better off looking for temp work, rather than accepting this pretty shady deal. And then you have the perfect excuse for your boss—you are so busy temping to earn enough money to get by, you simply don’t have time to do volunteer work for your old company. And maybe one of the temp jobs could turn into a new job for you!

    1. Positive Reframer*

      Yep if you are going to work part time you may as well work somewhere where you will actually get paid for it.

      But still they can’t ask you to volunteer to do work you normally get paid for and they can’t delay paying you for work you do. So either she takes you back part time and pays or she doesn’t.

  20. BananaRama*

    LW2: We had a person giving off a scent during the workday, once it was so bad several of us ended up with headaches. Management found out that this person was vaping at their desk. Any type of smoking or e-smoking (in the building) is strongly against our policy; this person was asked to leave very quickly.

    1. AvonLady Barksdale*

      That’s pretty interesting– I was curious about what this scent could possibly be, but something that appears and then dissipates sounds to me like it’s either hand lotion or, as you point out, an e-cig. That would make a lot of sense. I had a co-worker in another office who vaped, and when he visited our office he used to sit across from my desk and vape (open plan), and the scent of the stuff drove me nuts. Kind of sickly sweet. It made me cough, but I’m not particularly sensitive so my reaction wasn’t severe and I only had to deal with it for a day or two at a time.

      1. MLB*

        I had a co-worker in the cube next to me who would spray herself with her perfume at her desk and it would instantly trigger a migraine. I asked her to spray it in the bathroom – she denied that she was doing it at her desk but I know she was lying. I could hear the spray and instantly smell it.

        1. AvonLady Barksdale*

          You know, I think it just never occurred to me that someone would spray perfume at his or her DESK, but yes, you’re absolutely right. People, man.

          1. Artemesia*

            I was on an airplane once when upon landing the woman in the row ahead took out a perfume spray. The stranger next to me said ‘oh no, please don’t. . .’ but it was too late and the jackass sprayed the stuff which of course drifted to all surrounding seats. The person next to me had a serious asthma attack on the spot; I thought she was going to die but she managed to get sort of past it with her inhaler but had to be helped off the plane. It was astounding to me that someone would use a spray in a confined space like that, but she did it without thought.

            1. Windchime*

              People who aren’t affected by sprayed fragrances often just don’t understand how bothersome they can be to those of us who have asthma. Sometimes, it doesn’t bother me at all but when it’s Asthma Time, I can’t even go to a department store because of the gauntlet of salesclerks trying to spray me with perfume. Just being in the area where people have been sprayed makes me feel like I’ve been kicked in the chest. It’s a horrible, scary feeling.

              1. Rosemary7391*

                To be fair, I don’t even like walking through a perfume department and I have no allergies, sensitivities or any hint of breathing difficulties. Even if I like most of the individual scents, it’s just too much!

    2. What's with today, today?*

      Interesting. We have a member of our Chamber of Commerce Ambassador’s group that vapes where ever we are. I’ve gotten used to it, but it was odd the first time he busted that thing out in a meeting.

    3. Persimmons*

      One of my cube neighbors uses a very heavily scented hand sanitizer. It seems that if it isn’t marketed as a perfume, people think the odor it emits doesn’t “count”.

      1. Snickerdoodle*

        My cube neighbor uses baby powder (or at least something that smells like it). I don’t like it, but I can live with it. I’m now very self-conscious about the vanilla bean hand sanitizer and eucalyptus spearmint lotion in my purse, so I swapped them for unscented varieties and leave the scented ones at home. The scents emitted from those products don’t linger the way perfumes do, but they absolutely still count, and I don’t want to be the cause of someone’s migraine.

        1. Can't Sit Still*

          Oh, thank you! Eucalyptus is a major asthma trigger for me, and I can’t tell you how many people have told me “but eucalyptus is good for you!” while I’m wheezing and fumbling for my rescue inhaler.

        2. Specialk9*

          It’s funny because baby powder is hugely carcinogenic, due to the little particles that float into the lungs. But nobody thinks of that.

    4. Annie Moose*

      Ahhh, that would be awful. We have a couple vapers in my office, but they all do it outside! Doing it inside would be terrible; it can be VERY strongly-scented. (it’s usually weird scents like Nutella or whatever bizarre thing my coworker has today, so I don’t always mind the smell when I walk by outside–but I would very much mind it if I had to smell it all day at my desk)

      1. Gaia*

        Oh man. I had a whole “conversation” with a coworker who insisted his vape had no scent.

        Uh yea. I can smell your nasty fake banana fumes the moment you start it up. I’m so glad my office bans vaping inside now.

        1. LCL*

          Banana!? Real bananas smell bad enough. I’m glad you were able to stay rational with him and keep your job.

          1. Snickerdoodle*

            Bananas only smell good when they’re fresh. I refuse to throw away the peels under my desk; instead I walk down the hall to the breakroom to discard them.

            We had a major fruit fly infestation at my old job because one of the bosses was fairly unhygienic, including food trash, so I ended up posting photos of minions and bananas over the trash can with a sign telling everyone they had to wrap their banana peels in an empty trash bag before throwing them away. It worked because we made sure to complain loudly about the fruit flies when she was within earshot.

            1. JustaTech*

              I really, really appreciate my coworkers who walk their banana peels to the kitchen compost rather than using their desk trash cans.

              There are some smells that are just very penetrating and banana is one of them.

    5. JustaTech*

      Years ago I was cleaning out a former coworker’s desk (don’t remember if he left or was laid off) and found a new, still-sealed battery for an e-cig in his drawer. This was about the time when there were all the stories in the news about exploding e-cigs, so we asked facilities to dispose of it safely. (It was probably fine, and for all I know they sold it, those things are pricey.)

  21. Bree*

    It’s more and more common for offices to be scent-free, so this shouldn’t be an unusual request. Your office might not want to go all the way there – it can actually be hard to find some products (like deodorant or sunscreen) genuinely unscented, and you don’t want everyone to have to buy new stuff unless completely necessary. But a general policy against very strongly scented products, especially ones you spray in the air(!), applied inside the office is reasonable, I think. Might be that other people are bothered, too.

    1. Snickerdoodle*

      Yes. Frequently, nobody says anything because they don’t want to seem rude, but they will all chime in as soon as somebody else pipes up. It’s very unlikely that nobody else is annoyed by strongly scented products.

      1. Specialk9*

        Exactly. We often just suffer quietly.

        I’m very affected by scents, but even with a specific person doused in a perfume that killed me, I spent months trying to just deal with it rather than tell her, because it felt rude. (I did eventually channel Alison, and it was fine.)

        1. Specialk9*

          The conversation was fine. The perfume kept on (maybe slightly reduced?) and I had to change floors.

  22. Nye*

    I’m an academic scientist and I absolutely agree with this. Writing and effective communication in general is a huge part of the job, and I look to cover letters to see how effectively applicants can present themselves. If you can’t present yourself well, briefly, and persuasively in a cover letter, how are you going to persuade an agency to give you a grant, or a journal to publish your paper?

    Ditto for applicants to grad school – there’s a certain level of writing ability that you should have coming in, otherwise it will be really hard for you to ‘catch up’ while doing everything else grad school entails. Plus, especially with grad school, your cover letter often reflects your maturity. Some letters are all about what Grad Program Can Do For Me, and / or are just a recitation of experiences blown totally out of proportion. That’s…not great. Good ones demonstrate clear interest in a specific field, good prep for that field, and an interest in contributing to the broader scientific community.

    Ghostwriting destroys that window into a candidate’s communication skills and motivation. I flag letters that I suspect weren’t written by the candidates, since I’m not sure if they can be trusted. Getting help with a letter is fine (and usually a good idea!), but having it written or rewritten wholesale makes it pretty useless, even in technical fields.

    1. Nye*

      Sorry, not sure why this posted twice! Was intended to be a response to Engineer Girl, above.

  23. CoffeeLover*

    I’ve done the aforementioned extensive rewriting of coverletters for several members of my close family. And I will continue to do so when they need my help. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it because no hiring manager decides to hire someone purely based on their cover letter. For most jobs, I personally think the quality of the cover letter has very little correlation to how well you actually perform.

    Hiring managers do use cover letters to decide to call someone in for an interview… and in that regard I’m basically doing them a favour by presenting a competent candidate. Every one of the people I’ve helped is great at their particular field, but they’re not great at writing self-promotional pieces in a friendly but professional tone.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t know that that’s a great argument though. No hiring manager would decide to hire you based solely on one item in a portfolio either, but it wouldn’t be okay to present someone else’s work as yours in one.

      The assumption is that people write their own cover letters (even though someone else may proof or edit).

      1. Cordoba*

        I regard a cover letter as effectively a piece of marketing literature. I’m not sure where the expectation comes from that the job candidate wrote it themselves.

        If I get a piece of marketing literature from a politician or a nonprofit I don’t assume that the politician or nonprofit director actually sat down and wrote that letter. I expect that (at most) they gave some bullet points or a general concept to a hired expert or a talented volunteer to then be turned into the final letter. This strikes me as neither inappropriate nor surprising.

        I also don’t expect that the CEO wrote the “Come work at Teapots Inc” promotional bit on their flyers or website. Again, that was almost certainly written by somebody else and then the CEOs name and picture were put on it.

        I think there’s a disconnect in the comments between people who expect a cover letter to be a demonstration of a candidate’s communication ability and people who expect that it’s part of a sales pitch. I don’t know that either of these views is inherently right, but can see the potential for confusion when they interact.

        1. CoffeeLover*

          This is a really great point! Clearly explains the split in opinion!

          I’m obviously in the “sales pitch” crew.

        2. neverjaunty*

          But the sales pitch in a cover letter is “here is a sample of my ability to communicate why I’m a good candidate for this job”.

        3. Clare*

          A cover letter is not marketing literature. You seriously have no idea where the expectation comes from that the candidate writes it himself??? That is just a bizarre argument to make.

          1. Cordoba*

            Yes, I seriously do not understand where this idea comes from. It is not one that I have ever heard mentioned in a professional context, I’ve never seen it in the instructions for a job application, and I don’t see how it is inherently a more reasonable idea than expecting that somebody’s spouse/friend/whatever had a big hand in their cover letter.

            A cover letter is marketing literature, it is part of how an applicant is marketing themselves as the best candidate for a given job.

            Job hunting is a fairly high-stakes thing, with potentially thousands of dollars up for grabs if it goes well. It seems more “bizzare” to me to not expect that people will take full advantage of the resources they have to put the best possible foot forward.

            1. Clare*

              Well, you are now hearing it on a professional advice website. If a job application tells you to upload your cover letter and resume, that obviously means YOUR cover letter- not your mom’s, not your significant other’s, not your friend’s letter. It might not be specifically stated to not have someone else write the whole letter for you, but that’s because that concept is UNDERSTOOD. This is Plagiarism 101- you do not pass other people’s work off as your own. Full stop.

              1. Cordoba*

                So when a CEO or a senator signs their name to a letter that was actually written by a lawyer or a marketing consultant or a whole team of people, is that CEO or senator committing plagarism? Full stop.

                1. Cordoba*

                  I contend that the comments here indicate that a “common understanding” does not exist around this topic. There certainly seem to be a variety of opinions from both the applicant and hiring manager sides of it.

        4. Engineer Girl*

          Your cover letter is NOT your marketing document. Your resume is the marketing document.
          Your cover letter is a very personal insight into you, your thoughts, your insights on doing the job.
          The two items compliment each other. One is advertising (resume) one is the personal touch (cover letter). Notice I used the word personal. That means it comes from you.

          This is different than something written by a politician or CEO. Everyone knows politicians and CEOs have a whole slew of speech writers, PR people, communication managers. This is radically different than a single individual applying to a job.

          You are creating a false equivalency by comparing the two. It is a strawman and a logical fallacy.

      2. CoffeeLover*

        I think the purpose of a coverletter is to communicate a “true” image of the candidate… more specifically it can demonstrate why you want the job, what makes you a good fit (beyond what’s in your resume), what you think is important, what makes you unique, etc. You can communicate all that honestly without actually being the one that wrote the cover letter… By giving someone the essence of the content you want and having them draft the letter. Being a better writer in general, I’m better at showing a person’s “true” self which fulfills the purpose of the coverletter (IMO anyway).

        For most jobs, I don’t think the cover letter’s purpose is to be a writing sample. If writing is important to the job, the hiring manager should ask for a writing sample. There’s no ambiguity there. A writing sample shows how *you* write. It’s clear that any writing sample you provide should have minimal editing from someone else. Providing a writing sample written by someone else is dishonest, providing a coverletter written by someone else isn’t the same thing in my opinion.

    2. MCMonkeyBean*

      FWIW I did actually once get a job based purely on the strength of the writing in my cover letter, though it was an unpaid internship. I applied at a finance website for an analyst internship that I was really not qualified for but they liked my writing so much they made up an internship for me under one of the writers.

  24. Jam Today*

    “Of course her business needs to function, so she asked us if we can continue working four hours a week without pay.”

    Some people have fat f-ing nerve. That’s all I have to say about that.

    1. Jen*

      Agreed. Run away from this person. Do not make yourself their unpaid labor based on the dangled suggestion of a job. A place that acts like this is not likely to have a long term future anyway. Use that time to find a job that actually pays.

    2. Snickerdoodle*

      Agreed. Use your time off to find a job that doesn’t have shady ideas about paying you.

    3. Massmatt*


      An employer that can’t or won’t pay you is not an employer. Treat her request the same way you would treat an acquaintance (not friend) asking for a favor. Would you work 4 hours a week for an acquaintance?

  25. Snickerdoodle*

    OP #2: I also am allergic to somebody’s perfume. I know it’s a woman on our floor because sometimes I smell it in the women’s restroom and occasionally in the breakroom, but beyond that, I’m unable to tell who it is. I couldn’t confront the source directly without knowing who it was, so in the end I submitted a complaint explaining the situation and that it rendered me unable to breathe. We promptly received a mass email from the division director saying that people needed to cut back on the perfume due to people’s allergies, and the problem immediately stopped. I love my bosses.

    1. Windchime*

      Years ago, I worked in an office where someone was extremely allergic to flowers. This person worked on another floor, but our employer forbade anyone in the building (only three floors high) from having flowers of any kind. Some people complained about it, but being flower-free is easier than seeing a coworker being loaded into an ambulance.

  26. Alton*

    #2: Is it possible that the scent is coming from some sort of cleaning product or air freshener that the custodial staff uses? That might be less likely, but it’s a potential cause to consider when looking for a pattern/source.

    #4: Ugh, that happened to me a few times with temp agencies when I was job hunting. One had me go through this battery of annoying and difficult tests (in the sense of the format being difficult, not the questions. For example, I had to answer questions about Word where you had to click on spots on a virtual Word display in the correct order to indicate how you would perform a task, and if you accidentally clicked the wrong area, you failed). And then when I interviewed with them, they didn’t even have any positions. Another time, I emailed my cover letter and resume a recruiter with a temp agency who’d posted an ad and all he did in response was add me on LinkedIn. He just wanted to build up his network.

    1. periwinkle*

      This sounds like a weekend open thread exercise: write a cover letter in the style of an author or from the POV of a character.

      Just imagine the glory that would have been Mr. Collins’ cover letter when applying to Lady Catherine for the open position at Hunsford Parsonage.

  27. Jen*

    I have had the experience of reading an absolutely terrificncover letter and then reading a totally incoherent response to our writing request. It was really sad and I realized he must have had significant help in the cover letter. Especially for a writing heavy job like mine, we test writing ability multiple ways.

  28. Cat Herder*

    OP #2, the source of the scent may not even be on your floor or anywhere near you — it could be coming thru the ventilation.

  29. Observer*

    #3 Did you get this “offer” / demand in email? Because you very much want this on record. You also don’t want to go back to her even at the 8 week return to work date. If this is on record she may try to fight you on unemployment. But if you have it on record that she tried to stiff you (because it’s not just AAM that knows that what she demanding is illegal) they are not going to expect you to take the job. You are supposed to take a job WHERE YOU GET PAID, not “volunteer” work.

  30. Bea*

    She can’t even afford to pay you for 4hrs of work a week, what kind if sham business is she running here?

    If she does pay you in 8 weeks, her payroll reports are going to be neat…I guess she’s doing it because otherwise she’d have payroll to report for 3rd QTR and that will blow her cover on the insurance fraud scheme.

    You need to not play her games and let the employment department know about this request.

    1. Skeet Shooter*

      And I’d give the Board of Labor (or whatever its called in your state) a call about this. Sounds pretty shady to me.

    2. Don't Block the Door*

      Never mind the payroll reports . . . I’d be worried whether or not the employer was actually making the required fed and state tax withholding PAYMENTS on behalf of the employees. OP, you might want to make sure that has been done for the year to date or you might be in for a surprise when you file your taxes at year end.

      1. Observer*

        Good point!

        OP please make sure that all of your earning have been properly reported AND that your taxes (which she withheld and is legally required to remit to the appropriate authorities) have been properly paid. Because if not, and you don’t report it YOU are going to be left holding the bag, and the IRS doesn’t mess around. You do NOT want to be in their cross-hairs.

  31. Madame X*

    About a year or 2 ago, a commentator on this website admitted that she writes ALL of her husband’s job application. I was really put off by that, because he is clearly misrepresenting himself (especially if the jobs he was applying for required him to be a decent writer). All of other commentators really pushed back on her assertion that it was fair and even suggested that she pull back on writing the applications and focus more on editing them.

  32. I need a script about smells too*

    I’m an assistant principal in a middle school and part of my job is meeting with parents. How do I ask a parent (who may not be happy to see me to begin with) to please not show up drenched in cologne/perfume? I have had numerous allergic reactions…and one woman even sprayed something on herself on purpose after I asked her not to….causing me to have to use an epipen. This woman actually FILMED this event as a joke. It was supposedly put on Snapchat, but I don’t use that so I don’t know for sure.

    (It’s kind of a rough school, but I love the kids)

    1. Det. Charles Boyle*

      Wow, that’s terrible! Couldn’t that woman be charged with assault? I’m sorry that happened.

    2. fposte*

      I think that the no-fragrance request can be included in the communication about parent meetings, but it’s not going to preclude lapses and assholes.

      1. Artemesia*

        The principal needs a really iron fisted AA who will not admit anyone who shows up with perfume. But now that the word is out, expect lots of mean parents to pull this when their kid is in trouble. Bother us and we will bother you.

  33. Quickbeam*

    Not that this thread needs my example but here goes: we had a co-worker who used one of those hyper perfumed fabric softeners. And used a lot of it. She was only occasionally in the office but you could smell a vapor trail wherever she went. When she came in the door people could be heard saying “Amanda’s here!” before they ever saw her.

    It was giving many people headaches and allergy symptoms. I was elected to talk to her 1:1 (gee thanks) because I am a nurse. I let her know I could smell her coming because of the high level of fragrance. She was really offended and began to talk about cultural norms. At this point I rolled it over to our mgt staff who met with her and brought in HR.

    She stopped using the product when she visited our office. She never really forgave me but at least no one is passing out.

  34. Allergic to Essential Oils*

    I have a coworker who uses one of those oil diffusers in our office. It makes me nauesous and gives me crazy headaches, and everyone else (we’re only 6 people) hate the smell and also complain about it. The first day it came out, I asked her not to use it, but she said she needs it because it “helps with her depression.” My manager moved me as far as he could from her and the obnoxious, sickening smell, but that stank drifts across our tiny office and I’m still throwing up in the bathroom. I guess because she claims it’s “medically necessary” her need trumps mine and everyone else’s desire to not to have to smell this disgusting oil.

    (Which, she also tries to get us to buy because it’s her side hustle, too…complete with her assertion that it has cured her of everything from depression from the flu!)

    1. fposte*

      The MLM shit is something the manager should be shutting down–has he been informed about that? It’s double-dipping for her to work her second job in the time and space of the first.

    2. Snickerdoodle*

      Can she work from home? One person’s accommodation can’t infringe on another’s. Also, that “side hustle” thing reeks (tee hee, by the way) of a false claim for her needing the accommodation.

      1. Specialk9*

        Yeah, an ADA condition has to be reasonable and not an undue burden. This is unreasonable and IS an undue burden.

    3. Positive Reframer*

      Ugh that’s horrible! There are a ton of methods for consuming essential oils that don’t require one of those fill the whole room type of diffusers. I’m betting that her using something like a piece of jewelry or something that has a face mask or something might help you.

      Could you get your dentist to verify any damage to your teeth and thereby get your official health claim and need for accommodation? I mean its not like vomiting is harmless, and its one thing if its unavoidable and another if it could be but some is preventing you from avoiding it. I guess you could also look into a mask of some sort. Surely they have one that could tie into the phone system.

      1. Positive Reframer*

        I vote for you expensing something like this I bet there is a scent sensitive forum out there somewhere that has recommendations for a gas mask type thing with all the modern convenience of phone system integration.

        I would go to a LOT of length personally to avoid vomiting.

    4. LCL*

      Does your manager know the stuff is making you guys physically ill? I might start informing him every time I got sick. Scent issues can be tough to deal with, because two people can be exposed to the same thing and one will get sick and one won’t have any reaction. If the person without any reaction is the one in charge you are in a tough spot.

      I tried using a small diffuser in my office. This was before the MLM popularity of recent years. A person in the next office over started coughing. He was a constant cougher and sniffler; it did take me a few times to notice the correlation with my diffuser (HE never did) but once I noticed I stopped using it.

    5. Not A Morning Person*

      No, they may be competing, but you have an absolute right to go to your manager and your HR to request help. And if it comes down to accommodation, they may ask for some kind of assessment. Maybe she does have some kind of note from her physician, but absent that, they should work with both of you, not just defer to her.

    6. biobottt*

      Ugh. She should get a personal diffuser/amphora that she can wear as a necklace and sniff as needed. That seems like a reasonable accommodation!

    7. tangerineRose*

      Can you throw up in her wastebasket instead of the bathroom when this affects you? Mostly sarcasm, but seeing that once might change her mind.

  35. Struggle with cover letters too*

    OP 1: If you approach this as teaching your friend to write the letter, rather than ghostwriting, you can help her and avoid ethical issues.

    I’ve been struggling to write a cover letter but am making progress. My solution is to use an industry-specific template and follow procedures/advice from AAM like „show, don’t tell”. First paragraph is intro, second addresses how my past work fits their mission, third shows how I meet most important requirements for the role using specific examples of what I’ve done in the past, etc.

    Maybe it would be easier to for your engineer friend if she made lists first, then turned it into prose. For example, make a list of five things that the job requires, a list of what that make her a solid/outstanding hire for those things then a list of one to two actual examples that would illustrate these qualities. Write it into sentence form, and then eliminate empty adjectives like „unique”, etc. She doesn’t need to use everything on the list in the letter.

    You can help her by giving feedback on whether the sentences follow good practice (AAM’s dos and don’ts) and if she fails to address an important aspect of the job listing.

  36. Sick Civil Servant*

    You’d hope your coworkers would willingly stop using scented products, but no. The big boss lady insisted on wearing perfume that triggered a migraine, sending me running to the bathroom to puke. And that was such the scent trail! No matter how nice I was, people still wore scented products. My manager complained that my “list of offending products increases daily” and wondered how I could go to a kids’ music concert if I was so sensitive. (Heads up to all those childless managers: people don’t get scented up to go see “The Wiggles.” Unless they had a chance of meeting Anthony!) I puked in my office a few times and when I was puking in the bathroom on an almost daily basis, my colleagues asked me if they could approach my manager to have me work at home all the time (he was on a different floor). They told their managers (at the same level as my idiot manager) that my “constant vomiting” in the common bathroom “made them very uncomfortable” especially for a woman who was pregnant & was considered at high risk. Finally, I was able to work at home all the time. Eventually though, my body couldn’t take it & I was forced to take medical retirement in my early 40s.

  37. Needanewusername*

    I applied for a job at a staffing agency, and they had me bring 3 copies of my resume and references. When I met with the woman at the agency, she had me fill out a paper job application (haven’t done that since I applied for jobs in high school) and wanted me to do a typing/data entry test.

    From what I gathered, the job didn’t actually exist, and she wanted to know if I’d be okay with temp to hire rather than direct hire, and I politely declined.

  38. CBE*

    #3: You’ve been laid off. This person is NOT your boss. You absolutely can – and SHOULD – tell her no. Walk away and find another job, because this former boss of yours just proved the company isn’t stable, she’s not ethical, and she takes advantage of people.
    You won’t “lose a job over four hours” if you refuse, because you have ALREADY lost this job. Move on.

  39. Massmatt*

    #3 At BEST this employer is terrible at running the business, and is unlikely to be able to pay you for the work she’s asking, and likely to have to let you off again in future. At worst she is planning on stealing hours of work from you. Run don’t walk!

    I want to address a point you raised about loyalty. It sounds as though you are (or at least, being asked to be) loyal to this job or company without their being at all loyal to you. Even if this job is helping to cure cancer, it is still a job, you need to be paid, and on a consistent basis. Many letters to AAM have shown a terrible boss asks their employees to endure absurd or terrible things (delays in payment, working extra hours, working for free) and tried playing the ‘But where’s your LOYALTY?!” card. Don’t let them do this to you!

  40. Rusty Shackelford*

    Given how many online tools apparently make it difficult or nonintuitive to submit a cover letter (at least, that’s what I gather from posts here), I’m not surprised that a lot of people don’t consider it a sample of their work. If so many employers don’t even seem to want it, it’s not difficult to make the assumption that it doesn’t matter all that much.

    1. Tangerina*

      Agreed. The last three places I’ve worked at, I’ve had Talent Acquisition directly tell me they don’t read cover letters and don’t pass them on to managers. This has skewed my view of them to believe they are unnecessary, but I know I need to turn that thinking around. Sure, maybe they’re unnecessary, say, 75% of the time, but I simply don’t know which employers are the other 25%.

  41. There is a Life Outside the Library*

    The library I used to work had a heavily perfumed archivist- documents started to smell like her. Her terrible perfume was funking up historical documents! I wonder if anyone ever mentioned this to her.

  42. Genny*

    My approach to questions like LW1’s is to consider if I would feel comfortable if the full scope of whatever it is I’m conflicted about came out. In this case, if my cover letter was ghost written, would I feel comfortable proudly owning that to the hiring manager? Probably not. I think I’d feel guilty or sneaky, like it was information I needed to hide. That to me indicates that the activity in question (essentially writing the cover letter) crosses the line. Would I proudly own someone editing my cover letter? Yes, I’d be fine pointing out my friend suggested highlighting this skill or correcting general grammar mistakes. It’s a common enough thing, that I don’t think a hiring manager would be shocked to hear someone proofread your cover letter.

  43. Marlene*

    #3 I’ll only add that you do need to report any work you perform to the unemployment office and they will deduct it from your benefits. If you don’t report it, they will find out anyway and you’ll owe penalties.

  44. Long time listener, first time caller*

    I worked with a guy who used very strong smelling lotion repeatedly throughout the day to cover up his farts. He thought he was being slick but it just meant the office smelled like citrus farts all the time.

  45. Plague of frogs*

    OP#3: “Can I tell her no, I don’t want to work at all while I am collecting unemployment? ”

    You can tell her whatever you want. You don’t work for her. And if you wait around for her to hire you, you will most likely be violating the terms of your unemployment. Get on with your life. Your former boss doesn’t know how to run a company and she is trying to exploit you.

  46. Lucille2*

    #2 – I feel your pain. No suggestions, just sympathy. I personally would love to see a post on open-office environment etiquette. I’ve spent my entire career in an open office, and little things that would normally go unnoticed in a different environment cause straight up passive-aggressive wars. Food smells, nail-clipping, nervous energy habits (like tapping the desk), speaker phone calls, loud-talkers, noxious perfume, just to name a few. Where is the line between, figure out how to co-exist in peace and this is a legit office distraction?

  47. OhBehave*

    LW2 – There’s nothing like nausea at work! Can you use an air purifier? It may help diffuse some of the scent. In the meantime, when you smell it can you walk around to narrow down the location?

  48. The Other Katie*

    As to the Mysterious Smell, check and see if someone’s plugged in a time-release air freshener in the vicinity. That could explain the frequent burst of scent without apparent human intervention.

  49. Ms. Mad Scientist*

    No advice needed, but I wanted to thank Alison as the advice from this blog helped me through a difficult situation.

    I needed a nanny for my toddler for the summer. The first person I hired seemed great, enthusiastic, positive references…and then she quit by text after the first day.
    The next person I hired, seemed great, had relevant experience…but she came on the first day and wanted to renegotiate their pay, which I couldn’t do (seriously, who does that?!)

    We have yet another person in this week, and that’s working out so far.

    It was stressful and annoying, and I felt angry about the situation, but from reading AAM I knew it was important to remain professional in communicating with them. I also made it a point to list the job requirements and expectations up front. So thank you, Alison, for helping with that.

    Two more things that were lifesavers: my employer offers a limited amount of partially subsidized backup care, and my boss gave me a lot of flexibility with hours, including WFH one day (most of my job has to be done on site, so that’s not a regular thing).

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