my employee trash-talks herself, I hurt my employee’s feelings, and more

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

1. My employee constantly apologizes and calls herself stupid

A few months back, you answered a letter from someone concerned about a coworker’s imposter syndrome and constant, defeatist self-talk. I’m in a similar situation — I’d type out the details but it’s almost word-for-word what that person said— except I’m the boss, not the coworker.

This is very distressing to deal with, particularly since her work is stellar. It’s clear that she is a very, very anxious person and that’s distorting her view of reality. But it’s frustrating and upsetting as a manager. Every interaction, even routine ones, are about her feelings: Instead of “Should I deal with Ticket X or Ticket Y first?” it’s “I’m so sorry to bother you, I know this is a stupid question, sorry, but should I deal with Ticket X or Ticket Y?” Ignoring it hasn’t worked (“Ticket X, thanks!”); reassuring hasn’t worked (“You’re not bothering me and it’s not a stupid question; ticket X”) and even raising it in her (otherwise excellent) performance review hasn’t worked. She just ends up apologizing for the fact that she’s apologizing.

Other managers, who don’t work with her as closely as I do, sort of laugh this off as a quirk of personality. But it’s making me dread working with her. Seeing her name in my inbox and imagining the cascade of self-hatred that’s going to preface a perfectly reasonable request gives me a knot in my stomach. Is there anything I can do to make this better?

Maybe, maybe not. How direct have you been about it? You raised it in her performance review, but was it framed as “this is a work problem and you need to change it”? Or was it more like “please don’t feel you need to apologize so frequently”? My hunch is that it was closer to the latter, because that’s what people tend to do, and so it’s time for the former. Frame it not as concern for her feelings (“it’s not a stupid question”), but as a work-related issue that’s making it difficult to work with her. That might feel harsh — but it’s the truth, she deserves to know that, and softer approaches haven’t worked. You’ll actually be doing her a favor if you’re honest about it because this has to be impacting how she’s perceived in your office.

So: “It’s difficult to work with you when you constantly apologize for routine work questions, and I’d like you to work on stopping that.” And then give a few examples to help her envision what she should be doing instead: “For example, when you bring me a question about prioritizing, please just say, ‘Should I do X or Y first?’ Don’t tell me it’s a stupid question.” And assume you’ll need to do some ongoing coaching too, since this is ingrained behavior that won’t change overnight. So when she criticizes herself next time, say, “This is what we were talking about. Do you want to say that a different way?” (And yes, she might reflexively apologize in response; cut her some slack there while she works on it.)

If you’re very direct and frame this as a work-related thing she needs to change and it still doesn’t change, then you can conclude you’ve done all you can. But until you try this, I wouldn’t assume it’s a lost cause.

Read an update to this letter here.

2. I think I hurt my assistant’s feelings

My assistant has been working with me for almost a year and things have been great. We hit a bit of a snag this week, and I could use some advice.

She LOVES birthdays. She’s very into horoscopes/astrology, and when it was her birthday she took the day off. I got her a card and a manicure gift card, since obviously she cares a lot about her birthday and if it’s important to her, I want to recognize that.

I, on the other hand, don’t particularly care about birthdays. I really dislike being the center of attention. I work in an extremely conservative and male-dominated field and office. It simply isn’t common in our office to celebrate birthdays in any way. My assistant somehow found out it was my birthday. When I was in a meeting, she decorated my office — streamers, balloons, the whole nine yards. I was surprised and, frankly, not particularly enthusiastic about it. I don’t think I did a very good job pretending to be excited. I said thank you, but when we were chatting I said I wasn’t really into celebrating my birthday. I left the decorations up, although she took down some of them on her own.

I think I hurt her feelings. I didn’t mean to, but she’s been super quiet every since. She’s normally very bubbly and happy and she just hasn’t been. It was a very sweet idea and a lovely gesture from her, just not right for me or for my office. I asked if everything was okay and she said yes, but I don’t think it is. What do I do?

Yeah, it sounds like she didn’t read the office — or you — well. But now she feels dejected or unappreciated, and maybe even embarrassed.

I’m a fan of addressing stuff head-on, so I’d just ask her about it: “You seem pretty down lately — is everything okay?” And depending on her answer, you could follow it up with, “I might be totally off-base with this, but I wonder if I didn’t convey how much I appreciate you thinking of me on my birthday. While I’m not one for a lot of attention on my birthday, you had no way of knowing that before now! And it was really thoughtful of you to go out of your way for me. You’re a great assistant, and I’d never want you to feel like I wasn’t recognizing you and your work, and how thoughtful you are.”

Depending on how that conversation goes, it might even be useful to talk a little about the gender dynamics in play in your culture — something like “I’ve found that in male-dominated environments like this one, women are judged pretty harshly for doing anything that could be seen as frivolous, so I’m careful to avoid it” might give her some context. (That said, you shouldn’t imply that’s the only reason, since you wouldn’t have been into it regardless — and you don’t want to sound like you’re saying all women would be enthused about this if only it were allowed.)

Also, if she’s someone who would be delighted with, say, flowers from you or another small token of appreciation, this might be a good time to do that. (Not as a thank-you for the birthday stuff — you don’t want to reinforce that — but as a tangible mark of appreciation for her in general.) Not everyone wants that stuff, but if she’s someone who likes it, it might be well timed.

3. Interviewers are surprised that I haven’t included all my jobs on my resume

I’m currently job searching within the realms of education and nonprofits, after stepping back to the corporate sector for a few years to fund my masters degree. Because I want to highlight the relevant parts of my experience, I’m currently using three different versions of my resume — one that highlights my teaching experience, one that highlights community building and event planning, and one that includes absolutely everything, for those positions that seem to want superwoman to appear.

I’m running into the same thing over and over — in interviews, employers seem shocked that I’ve only included relevant experience, even though it clearly says that on my resume. It seems that they feel I’m being dishonest by leaving part of my work history out, when what I’m actually doing is trying to market myself effectively. I always fill out work history requests with every role, and I am always honest about how little my current position has to do with the roles I’m applying for now.

Am I crazy? I thought it was fairly common to treat resumes this way, but the amount of surprise I’m getting makes me think I may be wrong. I feel the need to defend myself against perceived dishonesty.

It’s really, really normal to do what you’re doing. It’s common advice! That said, if you’re encountering frequent push-back, your field or region may be an aberration here, and so it makes sense to either use the full version of your resume or use one with a Relevant Experience section (with bulleted accomplishments and details for each job) plus a more limited Other Experience section (with just a bulleted list of employers, job titles, and dates for the work not included in the previous section, but without the additional details).

4. Job searching with a potential illness and surgery

I’ve just moved back to the metro area where I grew up hoping to settle here for years to come. Because of the move, I’m on the job hunt, currently doing remote freelance work I’d like to leave behind. Unfortunately, I’ve also had two episodes of a new health issue in the past few months. Both flare-ups left me in the hospital for a few days. While the many doctors I’ve seen haven’t all agreed about what is happening, it seems likely that I will need surgery in a few months. That procedure would probably require a 2-4 week recovery time.

There’s also the slight possibility that the cause of these issues is something like cancer. More likely, it’s a chronic illness I’ll need to navigate. In any of these scenarios, it’s impossible for me to know yet how my health will affect my work life. The diagnostic test my doctors need to make a plan of care won’t happen until September, when I’m finally healed from this latest ordeal. (I’m fine to do desk work until the surgery, barring another crazy flare-up, which I hope is unlikely.)

However, I’m in the running for a desk job I’m very excited about. The organization is amazing and the position is such a good fit for me. I applied for this job the same day I ended up in the ER for a second time. When they approached me to schedule an interview, I didn’t mention anything about my recent health fiascos. It didn’t occur to me that I should. But now I’m recognizing that if they hire me to start in mid-August, I might work for them only a month before I’d need to bow out for weeks of surgery recovery. Of course there’s also still the possibility that this will be a manageable health issue that won’t affect work much or at all. I won’t know until September.

A friend told me I should be upfront about this during the interview process. I agree that I feel uneasy about not telling them. But I can’t imagine how much or how to share private health information when it’s so up in the air. What should I say? At what point in the process? I also can’t really imagine anyone wanting to hire me if I’ve got a medical mystery happening. I’m torn between thinking I should bow out of the job search altogether until I know more and thinking I need to keep living my life as hopefully as possible. Maybe being up-front is a good middle ground?

Don’t mention it during the interview process, but yes, once you have an offer, explain you may need to have surgery later this year and, if so, would need 2-4 weeks to recover, and ask if that’s something they’d be able to accommodate. You don’t need to disclose any details beyond that or that some of this is up in the air. You’re just sharing what’s most likely, and the pieces that would be relevant to them as things currently stand. There’s a decent chance that they’ll work with you on this — and if they don’t, it’s better to learn that now than later on.

If you currently had a full-time job (rather than freelance work), I’d tell you to think about whether it made sense to give up FMLA eligibility right now (since it doesn’t kick in until you’ve worked somewhere for a year) … but since you don’t, that’s not something you have to factor in.

5. Should I withdraw from this hiring process?

In April, I applied for a role at a mid-size tech company in my small town. Towards mid-May, I had a phone interview with the in-house recruiter, and a week later, I had a phone interview with the manager. Then, I was scheduled for an in-person interview with the same manager and the visual design manager. After a week or so, I was scheduled for an 8-hour (across morning coffee, lunch, and an end-of-the-day chat) interview divided into 30-minute segments with 20+ people—people who by their own admission I would not work with on a day-to-day basis (which I only mention because it seems like interview overkill). I was told it was down to four candidates (though there are two openings), and I’d hear back by the end of the week.

The week came and went. Eventually, I heard from the manager and recruiter that things were at a hold-up for HR reasons with paperwork, and they’d have an answer before July 4. On the 5th, I was again emailed by the recruiter, who told me that not everyone was available (due to vacations and what-not) to make the decision. They apologized for the lengthy hiring process, told me I was still in the running, but it would be, at the latest, another two weeks before a decision was finalized.

The two-week deadline was up on July 19. I emailed the recruiter but haven’t heard anything. At this point, I’m beyond frustrated. Part of me wants to remove my name from consideration, but my town has very few opportunities (and I don’t want to cut my nose off to spite my face). I can’t help but wonder, if this is the hiring process, what will the job be like (were I to get it)? Honestly, more than anything, I don’t understand why this is acceptable behavior, even by corporation standards. At what point do I give up? Or has the point come and gone?

Two phone interviews and two in-person interviews isn’t excessive in and of itself … but that eight-hour interview sounds like overkill, especially given the way they structured it. (Not necessarily though — it depends on the job. If it’s a high-stakes role, it’s possible that was reasonable.)

But the timeline here isn’t egregious. Hiring often takes far longer than anyone expects it to, including on the employer side, and timelines frequently get pushed back like this, and even far worse than this. Don’t withdraw from the process just because it’s taking longer; this is normal and not a horrible danger sign. But since you’re feeling antsy, decide in your mind that you didn’t get it and mentally move on, so that you’re not stressing about why you haven’t heard anything and when you will and what’s going on. At some point, if they get in touch, great. But there’s no reason for you to keep stressing about it or to preemptively withdraw.

{ 518 comments… read them below }

  1. The Pie Maker*

    OP1 – aw man, I am also a huge self-doubter and often preface by questions with “sorry to bother you” and “I know it’s a stupid question”. It’s largely my anxiety talking, but I never thought it would also cause anxiety in the people I work with. Thanks for the letter, dude, it’s quite a wake-up call, I’ll try to reign it in.

    1. Mavis Cruet*

      It’s really uncomfortable for other people and makes them feel they have to manage your feelings.

      1. Indie*

        One of the best pieces of advice I received on shyness was: “consider the other person’s comfort level and do your best to put THEM at ease”. Might not work for everyone but that focus made me stop thinking/worrying about myself entirely.

        1. epi*

          This can be incredibly helpful.

          Several years ago I had a role where this was pretty non-negotiable– it was research informed consents so not making the other person uncomfortable was an ethical and customer service necessity. I did not like doing them but they really helped me go from someone who had been fired from more than one student job because I was too shy to get things done, to someone who is pretty assertive and normal.

          Speaking as someone with depression and anxiety, work helped me a lot to practice resilience and getting through the day without coping mechanisms that were weird to other people. It was helpful to me to have boundaries and non-negotiable expectations that were challenging, but doable. The OP is clearly someone who will try to do this kindly, so I think they should be reassured that getting what they want is unlikely to hurt their employee and may actually help her.

      2. (Different) Rebecca, PhD*

        This. Confidence is really helpful to interpersonal/business interactions, and faking it goes a long way, too.

        1. Indie*

          I wish someone had told me to ‘fake confidence’ rather than ‘be confident’. The first can be done, the latter can’t be magiked up.

          1. (Different) Rebecca, PhD*

            Often my response to things like “wow, you handled that really well!” is no, I didn’t, and now I need a quiet corner to go have a breakdown for a few minutes.

            1. Dragoning*

              Oh, same. My coworkers tell me I did something well, and I’m immediately like “wow I must’ve really screwed up if they’re trying to reassure me”

                1. ket*

                  I am reading it as follows: if the coworker says you handled it well, you should take it at face value as a comment regarding how you outwardly handled it.

                  It’s understandable to know that internally you are flustered & need some time for a breakdown in a corner; that’s fine. I think Maddie’s saying it’s is a poor assumption (about a coworker who compliments you) that that coworker is lying and thinks you actually did a bad job.

                2. (Different) Rebecca, PhD*

                  And the coworker could then say “Oh, but it really seemed like you did!” and I could reply “Thank you, I appreciate that.” The fact remains that what is perceived is not always the truth, and that I’m the best judge of my own internal state. I would find a coworker’s assumption that I’m saying they’re lying, rather than accurately self-reporting, to be a rather odd over-sensitivity on their part.

              1. (Different) Rebecca, PhD*

                Because I cannot see how confessing, in a very lightly self-deprecating manner, that I’ve been faking my confidence in a difficult situation demeans my co-worker.

                1. Alianora*

                  Ok, but if I say that to someone, I mean that the actions they took to handle the situation were just right. I’m honestly not thinking about their mental state. Demeaning is not the word I’d use but that response would certainly make me feel like you didn’t like me and that I shouldn’t compliment you in the future because you would take offense to it. It doesn’t come across as lightly self-deprecating the way youve written it.

                2. (Different) Rebecca, PhD*

                  @Alianora, that may be because a) tone doesn’t come across that well in typing, and b) you don’t know me.

          2. Trout 'Waver*

            Confidence is based on how other people feel about you. Fake confidence = real confidence.

          3. Michaela Westen*

            I’ve had good results by programming my subconscious.
            You find a positive way to say what you need to tell yourself. For example, instead of saying “I’m not a stupid person” you say “I am a smart person” (or confident, or competent, or whatever you need to say). It’s important that the statement be positive, not denying a negative.
            You tell yourself this morning and evening and any other time you feel the need. It’s amazing how well it works! Put up a note to remind you, if necessary.
            The way it was explained in the book I read was, the subconscious is like a computer. Whatever you tell it is what it will do.

            1. GlitsyGus*

              I’ve also had some luck with changing how I talk to myself about bad things too. So, for example rather than “I’m so dumb, I shouldn’t have missed that!” it’ll be “Huh, that was a pretty careless error, my attention probably wasn’t fully on this.” The first is a bash to my character, the second is a momentary lapse or misjudgement, and an actual diagnosis and action I can take to correct it. I’m not dumb, I wasn’t paying attention at a point when I should have been. Well, that is far easier to fix, and also will actually prevent the issue from happening again. Calling myself dumb won’t fix anything.

              I can’t say I always succeed in doing this, but even just trying to remember to do it has helped a lot.

        1. Lucy*

          “Practice a bit more empathy.” This comment is unhelpful. Especially in the context of the original letter. “My reactions are out of my own control therefore everyone else around me needs to be more empathetic.”

          1. Bones*

            Being treated like a child who automatically expects everyone else to handle their feelings is *also* unhelpful, though, and doesn’t aide in an already stressful situation. Practice some empathy, yes, and just say “Don’t feel like you need to apologize.” Gets the job done easily without condescension, IMO.

            1. Totally Minnie*

              But she’s already said “don’t feel like you need to apologize” and her employee is still doing it and it’s causing stress in the office. No one’s saying the boss should be mean and harsh, but these kinds of behaviors can hold people back from progressing in their careers and it would be kind of OP1 to tell her that. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a person is tell them an uncomfortable truth.

              1. Bones*

                I understand that. In this case I’m a fan of the broken record approach. In my experience it works (key phrase obviously being ‘in my experience’).

      3. Office Princess*

        Agreed. There is someone I work with who always prefaces her question with some variation of “sorry to bother you” and/or “I know you’re busy”. While, yes, I am busy, part of that is providing support to other members of the team and it always makes me wonder if I’m giving off some sort of vibe that I’m unapproachable or something. Since it’s just her, the rational part of me says I’m probably fine, but it still makes me paranoid.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Sometimes I will say, “That is why they pay me the big bucks, to be bothered. What’s up?” I say it with a smile on my face and an ease in my voice that indicates, “Hey, no big deal, I will help you.” If it looks like the person did not catch the humor in the first sentence, I will say the second sentence out loud.

    2. Anononon*

      A big part of my job is people bringing me documents to review and sign. There’s this one woman who ALWAYS apologizes to some degree when she brings me stuff. It’s pretty frustrating because…that’s part of the job.

    3. WS*

      A brief “sorry to bother you” immediately proceeding to the question/request is fine in itself. When the asker is waiting for an actual reply to the apology or starts to put themselves down, it does indeed cause anxiety in the listener.

      1. Just Employed Here*

        I think another wording might make a big difference: “Is now a good time?” or “Are you busy?” work just as well but lack the unnecessary apology.

        1. Say What, Now?*

          This is a great exchange! If you’re worried about taking time that you feel you shouldn’t (but work is cooperative so really you should be able to have some of your coworkers’ time) just put the ball in their court to prioritize.

        2. College Career Counselor*

          I’m kind of partial to “Are you free, Captain Peacock?” Some of the anxiety may come from the fear that she’s interrupting. It might also help to schedule a time for questions at 11am and 3pm (or whatever) so that interruptions are minimized. That may or may not be feasible, depending on the nature of your business, however.

          1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

            ::looks around:: “I’m free”

            Great reference and agreed this is so much better than the ‘sorry to bother you’ .

          2. JSPA*

            Get a bright red cube you can put on your desk for times you don’t want her (or anyone) to disturb you. Explain to her that, unless the cube is on your desk, it’s a GREAT time for her to come by with a question. Then lock the cube in your bottom drawer.

        3. Bea*

          Yes! I’ve stopped apologizing so much and just make sure I’m acknowledging their time is important and I’m not interrupting/demanding immediate attention. “Do you have a moment?” and “Is now a good time?” “I’m just dropping this off for when you get the time to sign/read/review.”

          I frequently acknowledge when people say things like “sorry it took so long” with “you’ve got a lot of projects, waiting isn’t a problem.” because of course reviewing my document is going to need to be stuffed into a full work load.

          It’s part of teamwork really is finding the balance in all this banter and exchanges.

        4. LQ*

          I would always try to ask if they had however long I thought the item would take. 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 90 seconds…whatever. Anything over 5 minutes I tried to push to a meeting or be really honest that I wasn’t sure. It helped me not stress as much about how much time I was taking. (Side note, my boss timed me because he was sure I wasn’t going to be that accurate, and I was pretty on the nose unless he went off on a side tangent.) That said I also learned to not do this with people you don’t talk with often, they will spend all the time talking about your excessively specific time request rather than the item and now it’s a 15 minute thing when it should have been 2 minutes.

          Now I just need to stop appearing anxious and worried.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I do a variation of this: “Is now an ok time?” And then folks can tell you when a good time is, or they can handle it, then.

        5. Clare*

          That could come across better, although in a way it puts even more of the burden on the other person because they have to respond to the question. I like to give a quick “sorry to bother you” in cases when I am not, in fact, that sorry to bother them because the issue is really important and time sensitive, and I’m going to plow ahead and tell them now anyway, but want to be polite while doing it.

          1. Mallory Janis Ian*

            Yeah, if I’m interrupting, it’s because I have to interrupt; otherwise I’d just wait. So I just do a brief, “Sorry to interrupt, but [here’s a brief overview of an urgent matter].” I’m polite, but if the situation dictates that I plow ahead, then I do.

        6. Dust Bunny*


          My department is made up entirely of anxious introverts who don’t want to bother anyone, but we don’t run into apology fatigue because all of this is just part of the job. “Is now a good time?” or “do you have a minute?” acknowledge that you’re interrupting them without groveling and asking them to manage your anxiety.

        7. bonkerballs*

          Eh, to me those phrases indicate something different. If I say “Is now a good time?” I’m willing for you to say no and I need to come back later. If I say “Sorry to bother you” it’s because I need to interrupt you whether it’s a good time or not.

          1. Just Employed Here*

            Well, usually I do have some flexibility in when I need to “bother” (ie. get input from) my bosses. That’s why it is framed as an explicit question. As in “now”, “in 5 min”, or “half an hour” or so.

            If it is a really urgent matter, which literally can’t wait 5 minutes, I’d say that up front: “Hi, Boss, we have this really urgent problem”. Still no apology (it’s still me doing my job and them doing theirs), but a bit of a heads up before I launch into The Problem.

            But how often do things come up that really can’t wait until my boss finishes their sentence in an email or gets a cup of coffee from the kitchen? Not often in my case.

        8. Anon for this*

          +100 I am a recovering habitual apologizer and this has been huge for me. I have to call my supervisor whenever I need her more immediately than I could get her with an email, and switching from “Sorry to bother you” to “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” has made a world of difference in our interactions.

        9. Tara R.*

          That’s a different situation though. If I say “Hey, so sorry to bother you, but…”, what I mean is “I KNOW this is a bad time and you are busy but this is urgent enough that I am, in fact, obliged to interrupt you.”

        10. Autumnheart*

          Or “[Please] Let me know when you have a minute, I have a request for XYZ that I’d like to go over with you.” Then they can either say “I’m free now, c’mon over” or “Give me 10 minutes” or “I’m in a meeting but will swing by when it’s finished”.

      2. Thlayli*

        Yeah it’s common in lots of parts of English – speaking world to say “sorry” interchangeably with “excuse me”, so the word sorry itself is not the problem. It’s the whole “this is a stupid question / I’m bothering you / I should already know this” drama that goes along with it that’s the problem. If you really don’t want to bother people, just ask the question and leave so they can get back to work!

        1. Kb*

          Yeah, it’s pretty common some places (e.g., northern Midwest) to say sorry as a social nicety more than an actual apology, and if that were the case here, the OP pushing back may be out of place. But it seems clear from the letter that the employee does feel the need to minimize themself and I think the advice for dealing with that is spot-on.

          1. Dust Bunny*

            How you say it mattters, though. If you focus and extrapolate on the “sorry” part, it’s tiresome. If you say it quickly and then move on to whatever it is that brought on the interruption, it’s not a big deal.

            Ironically, we do this when we think we’re sorry for interrupting somebody and taking their time, and then we make it worse by over-apologizing and taking up EVEN MORE time. It’s actually more courteous to get on with the question and then get out of their hair.

          2. OP #1*

            Yes, if it wasn’t clear — this isn’t just “sorry” or “hope I’m not bothering you” as social lubrication (something that, as a Midwesterner, I am very practiced in myself!); this is a level of constant self-deprecation and negativity such that several coworkers have mentioned it to me and remarked that they haven’t ever seen anything like it. It’s sort of the difference between using “sorry” as punctuation (arguably a bad habit but overlookable) to changing the whole conversation to be about how sorry you are.

            1. Anonymeece*

              I was curious about the same. I like Alison’s direct approach, but I’ve found that it also tends to work better if you say, “Do this, not this”, rather than just “Not this”. Maybe you can give her some key phrases that she can use to replace, like the, “Got a minute?” or “Is this a good time?” (once!), and see if that helps if she still struggles with it.

        2. Logan*

          Agreed, “Sorry” tends to be typical in some cultures, and complaining about the word would seem out of place. Yet there is a big difference between saying the word and moving on quickly, or spending minutes apologizing (and making the other person feel as though they have to spend time managing emotions). If I happen to need something quickly, in person, then I knock on their door with a “Sorry, but do you have a few minutes for X?” in order to acknowledge the interruption, but I would like to think that it’s not a burden.

      3. Annoyed*

        Yes. A quick “sorry to interupt, but I need XYZ…” is just a little social nicety.

    4. Rat Racer*

      I have two separate but related thought on this:

      1. This is a great coaching opportunity. My (former) boss urged me to sound more assertive and confident in both my public speaking and inter-personal dialogue. Knowing that my tendency to hedge in my speech was actually holding back my career gave me a constructive reason to change my speech habits.

      2. This was all well and good until our new VP came in; she will shut your ass down in a meeting if she doesn’t like what you’re saying, or doesn’t think your questions are relevant. It makes us all feel vulnerable and exposed, and I find myself back in the old saddle of “I’m sorry for using the oxygen in this room to ask what I know will undoubtedly be an incredibly stupid question but….”

      My point being that leadership can have a role in helping employees feel empowered (and safe?) to use assertive language.

      1. Amber Rose*

        1) People immediately started taking me more seriously when I became (visibly if not internally) more relaxed and confident when speaking, which was a nice positive feedback loop in that I became actually more relaxed and confident over time as a result. Fake it ’til you make it.

        2) No kidding. My boss is usually pretty great, but every so often she goes on a ragey rampage, and it’s left us all pretty sensitive to her moods. Even when she’s in a good mood I feel like I’m walking on a minefield on the way to her office, and I know I revert to my previous timid form when I need to talk to her. I still haven’t found a good coping method for talking to intense, angry people.

      2. Annoyed*

        I had a professir like that in grad school. He had a way of making everyone feel that they were intruding on his oh do valuable time.

        After one such incident I brought it to his attention, in front of the group, mentioning that without us, the grad cohort, his time had zero value.*

        *1) Grades were in. 2) I already had candidacy. 3) No risk to me at that point. 4) I’m not as stupid as he thought I was.

  2. Anon for this*

    LW 1: this is a common symptom among survivors of domestic abuse. Not necessarily what happened here but be aware that this could be a survival tactic for someone who’s endured trauma: a very documented, logical, and expected survival tactic.

    People who survive trauma usually have to go on and deal with after effects like other people thinking they’re just being weird, or like they must not be sure of how they come off and they’d flip it like a switch if they only knew, but the fact is they’re having to put in a ton of effort just to get to the level of functioning that you’re seeing, and it’s incredibly devastating to be told that they haven’t fixed themselves enough for another’s liking, especially in a work situation where the stakes are high.

    Again, not necessarily what happened here but I really hope you’ll take that into account when you approach her about this.

    1. Also Anon*

      I see many commentors bring up actions or habits that might be coping mechanisms for abuse or trauma. What would it look like to “take that into account when you approach her about this”, specifically? How would it differ from dealing with someone with low self-esteem, severe anxiety, or imposter syndrome?

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammo*

        Not to swoop Anon, but in this context, I think it could mean a few things (some of which would overlap with scenarios like mental health/anxiety, low self esteem, etc.):

        – Be mindful of potential trauma and triggers;
        – Deliver feedback as constructive coaching in a warm/supportive tone as opposed to using a tone that could be perceived as annoyed or reprimanding;
        – Consider gently referring the employee to EAP;
        – Build up/reinforce the employee’s feelings of competence by noting her value and connecting her behavior to her ability to provide even higher value performance (without becoming patronizing or too cheerleader-y).

        1. Engineer Girl*

          This. Come in as a friend who wants that person to succeed. Let them know that **because** you value them and respect them you want to help get rid of the things holding them back.

          1. Artemesia*

            I think that is true for any person exhibiting this kind of behavior whom you are coaching; clearly whatever the cause, there is a lot of self doubt and perhaps self hatred and misery. The abuse is not the boss’s business and certainly not to speculate on; the coaching isn’t different if the person just has miserable self esteem and bad verbal habits.

            1. Also Anon*

              This is what triggered my question. I really appreciate the concrete advice PCBH and Engineer Girl gave, but even PCBH acknowledged a lot of it would be the same. Does speculating on the cause of the self-hatred, or acknowledging that there might be a traumatic past there give some kind of extra insight? (Genuine question as I have never experienced abuse and I’m afraid speculating would lead me to think of the employee as a victim, or fragile/delicate, and it would come across as patronizing or insulting, especially if that’s not even the case)

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Right, that’s a large part of the reason for the “no armchair diagnosing” rule here (this isn’t quite that, but it’s similar). It doesn’t actually change what the person should do in most cases. We should always be kind and empathetic and realize there’s probably a story behind the person’s behavior, but it usually doesn’t change the advice and it can stigmatize people with condition X/history X.

                1. Amber Rose*

                  The lovely Captain Awkward recently posted a very well written, lengthy post about this specific issue, maybe it would be worthwhile putting a link up to it somewhere and kind of reinforcing that particular rule. Wild mass speculating seems to be a growing issue in the comments recently.

              2. SignalLost*

                Well, it also assumes a similar behaviour arc for everyone with a similar experience. There’s no possible way you would know from my exterior behaviour that I was in an abusive relationship; you would just think “anxious misanthropic extrovert with a loooooooot of confidence”, which is a very accurate description. Or more accurately, “anxious, confident ambivert”. So I don’t think this speculation is very helpful in general, though it could be good to know that Bob has Aspergers and cannot help his social behaviour as quickly as Carol could, who is neurotypical and a boor. I think being empathetic in all cases is good, and I worry that speculating on root causes creates different classes of approach – sort of “this person gets a pass because X” when really, we all need passes about something.

            2. Myrin*

              Yeah, this is where I fall.

              I’ve actually recently identified why I’m so adamantly against speculating scenarios for X behaviour (and by that I mean “seriously speculating”; my brain goes a mile a minute normally and I’ll have come up with five different reasons for any random kind of behaviour in the span of half a minute, but that’s so automatic it’s almost half-hearted; it’s also fun for me to make up wildly bizarre reasons for wildly bizarre behaviour, which is not to be taken seriously; neither of these situations is what I’m mean when I say “seriously speculating”):

              Whenever I’ve encountered serious speculation like this – both online and IRL – it basically always changed how people reacted to the speculated-about behaviour, and not in small ways but in huge ones. Like, I don’t mean simple things like “adopt a gentler tone”, but huge stuff like “well, now I can’t possibly bring up any kind of criticism at all ever”, which is especially annoying when it later turned out that the speculation was completely off-base.

              In this particular case: I know so many people who’d read a comment starting with “this is a common symptom among survivors of domestic abuse” and come away from it thinking that omg, the employee absolutely must be abused and I need to walk on eggshells and mustn’t even appear to trigger her in any way. It’s helpful for someone who can compartmentalise and think like we suggest here – “keep in mind that X might be happening but proceed with Y straightforward action anyway” – but there are so many people I know who don’t work like that.

        2. LQ*

          I will say, falling into this category, I always appreciate it being clearly professional. I’m a professional, you’re a professional, we are not friends, we are not emotionally bound to one another. Keeping it that way lets me manage things way better. The worst and biggest thing to make me crack is trying to be my friend or being overly emotional, even when it is “positive” emotions because that part haunts me still. The “bad” stuff was easier to put in a bucket and say this is bad and this is an example of this person behaving badly. But the “good” stuff the “sweet” stuff where it was oh helpful and light? That was part of the problem too because it was all gross ugly manipulation. So just being professional lets me cope better. This isn’t personal, it’s work. It’s separate. And that’s good.

          All this to warn slightly that being warm and supportive might not be universally good.

        3. Michaela Westen*

          Reassure her she won’t be punished for asking questions. Probably have to repeat several times.

    2. Anon for this*

      I’ve experienced both rape and domestic violence and I would like to point out that not everyone who suffers these things is so traumatised by them that we have “symptoms” like this. Not all of us survivors are happy with the “you have to walk on eggshells around rape / abuse victims” narrative. It’s really fucking patronising.

      It might not be specifically against the rules to speculate that someone has been abused, but speculation that they have been so badly abused that they are unable to function in normal society is speculation that they are mentally ill, which is against the rules.

      I also find it really offensive when people imply that every woman who acts like a crazy person “might have been abused.” You think you’re helping abuse survivors but actually you’re contributing to the stigma.

      OP you should treat this woman gently and kindly because she is a human being, not because she might have ptsd. And please don’t start tailoring your treatment of her based on an imagined history of abuse invented by internet strangers.

      1. Clare*

        I agree, this theory seems like quite an unnecessary stretch. And this employee is not even acting like a “crazy person” at all, it’s just mildly annoying and unself-confident language. For all we know she’s just young and new to the working world and still trying to navigate that. I’m one of those people who use “sorry” a lot as an interjection or way to say excuse me- if someone told me I needed therapy because of that or started making up theories of abuse I would be pretty upset with them.

      2. Temperance*

        THANK YOU. I’m a child abuse survivor and I’m not weird or “broken” or whatever offensive thing people assume.

        1. Delphine*

          It’s not less offensive to suggest that a person who does display specific symptoms to trauma is weird/broken. There’s a reason the first comment said “could be” and “not necessarily”. No one is assuming anything about all trauma survivors.

          1. Temperance*

            Suggesting that someone is overly sensitive because they must have had trauma is actually a way to stigmatize victims, though. If it’s the first thing people come out with, it’s because they’re perpetuating negative generalizations about people with an abuse history.

      3. ket*

        Co-signed. I don’t want to be held back from developing in my career because someone thinks I can’t handle a conversation about changing a speech pattern.

      4. SignalLost*

        Agreeeeeeeeed. I don’t want someone speculating on the details of my abuse situation if I’m not meeting a professional norm. It’s on me to take the feedback and figure out how to go forward. Could be therapy, could be something I can do myself by being mindful, could be something I ask for help with (point at me if you see me doing X again), could be something I find a new job over. Don’t speculate on how broken I must be.

      5. ANonnyNonny*

        I’ve commented (with a different name because I see someone else is using the same one as I was) based on my own experience as someone who has been emotionally abused, not on generalizations. I didn’t say “everyone has these symptoms after surviving such situations,” nor did I say “OP’s employee has this.” I said “I used to act like this and this is why and this is what helped me and maybe it will help here.” I don’t think anyone who’s commenting anything can pretend they aren’t pulling from their own experience.
        And I’d hardly say that OP’s employee is “unable to function in normal society” or “mentally ill.” I don’t think anyone said that, though I don’t have time to read 400-500 comments so maybe I just missed it.

      6. PlainJane*

        “OP you should treat this woman gently and kindly because she is a human being, not because she might have ptsd.” I love this. We are all humans, we all have histories that may lead us to behave in certain ways, we all carry burdens–in other words, we all deserve kindness and respect. If we proceed under that assumption, there is little need to speculate about why someone does a particular thing.

    3. anon today and tomorrow*

      I don’t think it’s heloful to armchair diagnose or speculate on something that is not evidenced at all in the letter. You could claim so many types of workplace behavior are due to the worst case scenario, but you can’t walk around speculating that everyone is in a bad situation and act accordingly. That won’t help anyone.

      1. CM*

        I think it’s less an armchair diagnosis and more another perspective. I know that sometimes when I’m dealing with someone and I think, “this person is so off-putting or annoying,” it helps to be reminded that maybe they behave like that for a perfectly understandable reason and it’s not just a character flaw.

        1. anon today and tomorrow*

          Perhaps, but I think it makes the situation worse to just assume the worst, and a lot of people will assume the worst and give that person leeway because of it. The AAM hivemind always jumps to the worst possible scenario, and the employee possibly having anxiety or feeling insecure is just as understandable a reason.

          I just think it does no one any favors to speculate without any firm evidence. It may, in fact, end up doing more harm than good.

          1. Tuxedo Cat*

            I’m dealing with this kind of speculation in one project. It doesn’t help because it’s been used as a way to enable someone who is doing some things that impede success and allow the powers that be to avoid a difficult decision (firing this person).

            It’s always good to be kind and understanding, but if something is a problem, it’s still a problem that needs to be solved.

          2. Delphine*

            I don’t think anyone is suggesting you give a person leeway–just that if you consider this perspective it may help you understand how to approach this better.

          3. Temperance*

            I have noticed this. There are some people who will do backflips to find a reasonable excuse for terible behavior.

        2. Anonycat*

          Pretending that every speeding driver who gets on my nerves is heading for the hospital, while silly, has actually done a lot to curb my road rage over the last few years.

          1. PlainJane*

            Good analogy. For me the larger principle is to remember that I don’t know a person’s story, so I shouldn’t assume anything beyond the objective, observable facts. In your example, we know the person is speeding, and speeding is unsafe behavior. If I spiral into a bunch of assumptions–that person is selfish/careless/stupid/drunk, I get angry, which accomplishes nothing (and probably makes my own driving worse). Your approach is more positive. Similarly, the OP has observable behavior to address. The person could have a very good reason for that behavior or not, but the best approach is still the positive one: address it kindly, but address it.

        3. Dust Bunny*

          Having a legitimate reason to behave a certain way, though, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be addressed. My grandmother used to say, “It may not be your fault but it’s still your problem”. Employee can have a dozen reasons to do this but they don’t negate that it’s stressing out her coworkers and making her look unprofessional. Also, her coping mechanisms end at her coworkers’ noses–if it gets to the point that it’s causing other people anxiety, it’s not really working any more.

        4. SignalLost*

          But … they DO behave that way for a perfectly understandable reason. They’re sick. They’re a jerk. They’re a person with a health condition. They’re a person with a specific religious, social, cultural, financial, educational, familial background. They don’t like you. They DO like you. They’re regularly abused by someone. They’re thinking about a new hobby, looking for a new job, what to make for dinner that night. They’re SO OVER widget quality and will scream if anyone brings it up again.

          There’s always a reason. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a character flaw, honestly; I think there’s always a reason, whether I like the reason or result or not.

        5. JSPA*

          Goes under the heading, “there are reasons for everything,” though, doesn’t it? Everybody is on every continuum. Most people don’t set out to be jerks (and if they do, that is, in itself, a condition–and not one that’s easy to control).

          If someone wants to share info about the basis of their quirks, they certainly may (and it may help people come up with simple accommodations that really improve the overall situation).

          Regardless of whether or not they do so, though, the default really has to be:

          Specify the results needed (level of productivity, level of reliability, level of positive, collegial personal interactions, response to feedback, use of professional language, minimizing of personal gossip, tidying shared spaces, etc); along with a generally positive message about appreciating the person, and their effort, and their work. And that then must be coupled with a willingness to accept that all people come with their own set of genetic, developmental, cultural, and relationship baggage that will render some of those tasks harder–and some of them easier–than “average.”

        6. soon 2be former fed*

          But the behavior is still off-putting and annoying, and perhaps the person could manage it if they were made aware of it. Excuse making helps no one and useless speculation about the origin of their behavior is just that, speculation.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I think the underlying intent of the comment was to emphasize empathy and kindness by providing an analogy. But as Alison and others have noted, we should all do this, regardless of the employee’s background, because it is a constructive and “good human” way to behave.

        Which is all to say that we should not armchair diagnose, but perhaps we can reframe how we’re approaching situations by remembering to strike a balance between accountability, empathy and compassion.

      3. Michaela Westen*

        I think it can be helpful to understand why a person is behaving the way they are because it informs how to deal with them.
        I feel sure this employee has a background similar to mine, and I have insights from my experience that could help. I’m not saying the problem shouldn’t be addressed. I’m saying maybe my experience can help.

        1. soon 2be former fed*

          Sometime a person just needs to stop the behavior, period. This isn’t so egregious, but sometimes bad behavior is truly harmful and all the reasons for it don’t matter.

    4. Thursday Next*

      I am uncomfortable with the idea of suggesting that the LW take the possibility of abuse into account. It’s a kind of armchair diagnosing that I’m wary of. We haven’t been given information to suggest it’s in play; the LW isn’t responsible if it is; and most importantly, I don’t think it changes the way LW should approach her employee.

      The suggestions above about approaching the employee with kindness, emphasizing what she’s doing well, and talking about the problematic behavior as holding her back d m her potential—I think this is how a boss should approach anyone demonstrating anxiety.

      Letting the employee know about EAP resources is also something the LW can do with reference to the anxiety.

      1. Lara*

        I’m glad you suggested this, Thursday Next. It is possible that this is a sign of abuse…but it’s also quite possible that it’s not. I have a tendency to do a lot of this (“I know it’s a stupid question,” especially) even before I had problems with anxiety because that’s just how I was socialized. That doesn’t excuse it–seeing these comments have been an eye-opener–but I too am wary of armchair diagnoses.

        (Also, for all that I call a question “stupid,” I’ve never viewed that as trash talking myself or implying that I think I’m stupid, so I’m surprised it comes across that way based on the comments! Something to work on, I guess!)

        1. anon today and tomorrow*

          I use the “stupid question” when it’s something I know I learnt at some point, but it’s just beyond my reach at the moment. Or something which feels like it should be common sense. I don’t view it as putting myself down, but more of a “hey, having a brain fart, can you tell me the answer?” For me, it’s more of a colloquialism, I guess?

          1. SignalLost*

            I figured out recently that I use stupid question to mean “someone at some point really did think about this issue, right, because it’s about to blow up?” or in your sense of “I know I know this, I’ve just forgotten.” I never use it to mean “I am an idiot and you are de facto better than me.”

        2. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

          I agree on the stupid question not being trash talking, at least not in my mind. I was also really surprised that it would be viewed that way. I hear people say that a LOT (myself included) so I have to wonder if it’s more of a common turn of phrase in some places.

          1. ket*

            In some parts of academia, it’s the phrase that precedes the question that demolishes your latest paper :P

    5. Observer*

      and it’s incredibly devastating to be told that they haven’t fixed themselves enough for another’s liking,

      That’s not really a fair assessment of what’s happening, though. This is not about what the OP (or others) “like” or what their taste is. This kind of behavior puts a real burden on people.

      I get it, the person is not being intentionally selfish and doesn’t mean to put the burden on others. But it’s still a genuine problem that goes beyond what people “like”.

      It also doesn’t really change the answer. Whatever the reason for this behavior, being kind, compassionate and respectful when addressing the issue is the appropriate way to respond.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This is why I have found conversations about workplace norms to be very helpful. Once set up, I can go back in on it as a part of an on-going conversation. And this is such a huge topic as some workplace norms are common to many places and some workplace norms are company specific.
        One of the things that can be pointed out here to the employee is that we don’t need to apologize for asking people to do the job they are supposed to be doing. Instead we can offer “pleases and thank yous” and if we are really good, we give them an honest assessment of time frame. “I need this yesterday morning.” Or, “I need this three Fridays from now, would you like me to send you a reminder email in two weeks?” This is what courtesy in the workplace looks like.
        I think it would be helpful to offer her substitute ideas on what to say. OP, you can also encourage her to watch others and how they ask for things. Explain that this is a skill she will use for the rest of her life so she is not wasting her time in looking at this.

    6. Bea*

      Honestly the self abuse and trauma from anxiety, self loathing and depression as well are enough to approach anyone with compassion and desire to help them ease their suffering. So even if it’s just a high strung individual, coaching should always be approached as “I want to help you succeed and feel safe/valued here.”

      You shouldn’t need to view a person as “possibly a survivor of abuse or trauma” to know to be kind, thoughtful and compassionate.

      Most people act the way they do for a reason. Asking them to change is hard for anyone. Approach it head on in a constructive way.

    7. Jennifer*

      I thought similarly, though I think she’s more likely to have had an abusive boss who screamed at her for the slightest of things in the past if she apologizes for doing her job and existing.

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        This. Or one who more quietly attempted to dissect all her faults, criticized everything she did, had impossible, self-contradicting expectations, and convinced her of her worthlessness.

      2. Bones*

        Having been in this kind of environment, that’s where my mind immediately went. Bad bosses leave deep scars. Bad bosses suck.

      3. soon 2be former fed*

        Captain Awkward masterfully addressed why people seeking advice should not result is long discussions about the people causing them trouble. It is derailing.

    8. asleep or maybe dead*

      Yup. This is a very useful tactic to manage volatile aggressors. The thing about coping mechanisms is that while they’re developed to deal with a certain situation, they don’t simplpy disappear once the subject is removed from that context.
      They can easily become dysfunctional habits even when the subject, even when the subject is aware of them.

      Not saying this is what happened here, but it could shed light on one of the multiple reasons why people have this kind of tics.
      I once had this manager and the talk-myself-down-to-build-his-ego-up thing really did wonders to manage his temper, and sometimes I slip into past habits.

    9. Frankie*

      There are so many causes for this type of insecure behavior…it seems like a pretty big leap to go to DV based on what’s here, in a way that distracts from OP just addressing it head-on the way Allison has suggested.

    10. Turquoisecow*

      Um, it’s entirely possible that the employee is a victim of abuse. However, I don’t think OP1 should treat her differently than anyone else in this situation. Here’s why:

      1. The employee is an adult who needs to navigate the working world on her own. Being gentle with her now won’t help her in the future with bosses who aren’t as gentle. Part of a manager’s job is to guide their employees to succeed by mentoring them and maybe even preparing them for another job or a step up. This won’t help the employee in either her professional or personal life.

      2. As someone else mentioned, not all abuse victims act this way. And sometimes people are not very self confident (especially women, I think!) without having experienced abuse. Assuming either is prying into the employee’s personal life and becoming a “life coach” or therapist more than a boss. Too much blurring of boundaries there, I think.

      3. Honestly, you should treat all employees with kindness and respect when telling them about performance issues! Fergus keeps coming in late? Angelina makes a lot of errors? Jane says sorry a lot? All of them should get respectful sit downs in which you calmly explain to them how their behavior is hurting themselves and the business, and how you can help them succeed. If they slip up afterward, you kindly remind them. If they keep messing up, or just flat out fail to improve, you consider other options.

      Maybe Fergus is the victim of abuse by his parents, or Angelina has an abusive husband, or maybe Fergus was out late drinking and Angelina is just not suited for the job. It doesn’t matter, they should still be respectfully talked to.

      1. JSPA*

        Love this. Getting out of people’s heads / maintaining solid boundaries is often one of the very kindest things you can do.

    11. OP #1*

      I’ve thought of this as well and I think it’s certainly a possibility, given a couple of other remarks she’s made. I also suspect that there is some prior toxic workplace behavior from previous bosses in the mix. But (not to sound totally heartless) I’m trying to focus less on the cause and more on how it’s presenting itself. I have huge empathy for whatever it is that’s causing this; it can’t be comfortable to live in her head. But as her manager, I can’t address the underlying issues (and I have encouraged her to try our EAP if that’s something she thinks might help), and I’ve tried for months to reassure her with absolutely no result. I’m trying to focus more on compassionate ways to shift this behavior because it’s starting to really hold her back at the office. (When I wrote this letter it was just something that bothered me; since then, other members of our team who need to interact with her have started going around her to me because they’re so discomfited by how she reacts, so it’s certainly elevated itself as a management issue.)

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        OP, you sound thoughtful and empathetic and kind. She’s lucky to have someone who wants to get her to shift for professional and personal reasons. I’m sorry this is so challenging, and it sounds like you’ll need to emphasize to be even more direct and blunt with her (at some point, you may need to tell her she’s forcing others to manage her emotions, and it’s not right). It sounds like it’s getting to a point where it could imperil her job, and I hope she’s able to hear you when you explain the seriousness of her situation.

      2. Chaordic One*

        I think you’ve nailed the problem being toxic workplace behavior from previous bosses. It’s something that is difficult to correct.

    12. Free Now (and forever)*

      This. At LastJob (now retired), I ran a food pantry in a counseling agency. One client spent half of her visit apologizing. Efforts to correct this resulted in more apologizing. This went on for nearly 10 years. I used to joke with her therapist, that I’d given her material for another three months of therapy. No surprise—she was a domestic abuse survivor.

  3. Mad Baggins*

    #1: I really like giving her the option to try asking again in the moment. She probably doesn’t even realize the words just tumble out, and forcing her to pause and retry sounds very helpful to me. This is how I see the conversation evolving:
    (Day 1)
    Her: I’m so sorry to bother you, I know this is a stupid question and I should know the answer to it, but do you happen to know where we keep the paper clips?
    You: This is what we were talking about. Do you want to say that a different way?
    Her: Oh, sorry. I mean, um, I’m sorry for apologizing…[mental gymnastics]…I forget, um, where the paper clips are, so…could you please tell me?
    (Day 5)
    Her: Hey, s… Do you know where the paper clips are? I… um… Never mind.
    (Day 15)
    Her: …Do you know where the paper clips are?

    Hopefully this will help her realize how frequently it’s happening and the effect it has on others. It might help retrain her thought patterns at work, or she might decide she wants to get help for it. But at least she’ll learn to fake-it-till-she-makes it. (And hopefully learn where the paper clips are…)

      1. Also not Shonda*

        X1000. Humiliating and condescending. Just leave it at “You’re apologizing again. This is what we talked about.” Hearing “would you like to try that again?” from another adult? I don’t think you have to be super anxious for that to severely rub you the wrong way.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          Yes, I like this. It’s good to call it out in the moment. But trying to coach her through it seems patronizing.

      2. Mad Baggins*

        I suppose, Alison’s advice is never one-size-fits-all. Personally, I’d probably be embarrassed that my boss thought I was apologizing too much, and my boss reminding me “This is what we talked about” would tell me I was screwing up again…but at least if I got the chance to redo it immediately, I wouldn’t apologize for apologizing, then slink back to my desk and ruminate all day.

        1. Les G*

          It’s the “want to try this again?” That would put things over the top for most folks. That’s not how you talk to another adult, ever.

          1. Sam.*

            I think that statement’s a bit extreme. As with many things, tone would be critical. I can think of a number of scenarios in my work world where, “Do you want to try that again?” would be perfectly reasonable as you don’t take a patronizing tone.

            1. Anononon*

              I think a nice tone would be worse. It makes me think of the letter where the coworker required that people use “please”. It’s how we talk to children. “Now, Billy, what’s the correct way to ask?”

              1. RainbowGrunge*

                Agreed. I think it’s the statement that’s most patronizing, not the tone. A “nice” tone, just makes an already terrible remark even worse.

                I am an over-apologizer and an easy-crier. I would much rather hear “Don’t apologize. This is what I was talking about,” than I would hear something like “Remember, RainbowGrunge, no apologizing! Now let’s try that again-“

            2. tusky*

              To me it’s the “want” verb that makes it so patronizing–like, clearly you want me to do something, so just be direct and say so. Even saying “can you try that again?” would be infinitely better.

            3. batman*

              I think this is really patronizing and I’d only say it to another adult if I was explicitly trying to be patronizing because they were being, say, sexist or bigoted in some way.

          2. Lara*

            Exactly. I’m grateful to my mother for doing this to me when I was younger to train out the “ums” and “uhs” but she was my mother and I was a preteen. Heck, if she did that to me now as an adult I would be pretty insulted. For my boss to do that would be mortifying.

      3. Ciara Amberlie*

        I have to agree. I think Alison’s phrase “This is what we were talking about. Do you want to say that a different way?” is incredibly patronising.

      4. Les G*

        Yeah, if you’re not my foreign language teacher, my therapist, or my parent (and I’m a toddler) I’ll thank you not to speak to me like you are.

        1. TootsNYC*

          However, the OP would be her job coach, no?

          I can see that an immediate rephrasing might be the tool that helps her form the scripts. (I still remember the daycare workers’ policy of PROVIDING the words when they would tell the little kids, “Use your words, Johnny. Say ‘I’m playing with the toy.'” It was so valuable to the kids to be given the script.)

          So yes, that does prove the infantilizing that you are all reacting to. That’s a real risk and a big one.

          However, I can see a scenario in which the boss says, “I am willing to help you retrain yourself–I’ll point it out in the moment, and if you’d like to rephrase, as practice, I’ll wait patiently while you do.”

      5. hbc*

        I feel like the humiliation for an anxious person (or anyone who preemptively dumps on themselves so they beat others to it) comes in being told that they’re doing something wrong. And if the person doesn’t correct it after the low-key warnings and performance review, unless they come up with a reminder method they prefer, any humiliation is on them.

        For another example, I’d be humiliated for someone to tell me that I need to use my indoor voice as if I’m a five year old. But if I’ve been told five times this week that I need to keep the volume down, I haven’t given a lot of evidence that grown-up level correction works on me.

      6. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

        As an anxious person, I’d probably stop asking questions altogether. Because my anxious brain is only going to hear, “you are doing this wrong – leave me alone”. I’m not sure there is a gentle enough approach that wouldn’t make it sound like that to me.

    1. Bagpuss*

      I agree that the ‘do you want to say that a different way’ comes over as really patrnising and inappropriate.

      I’d go with “Hey, you’re apologising again. It’s fine to just say “do you know where the paperclips are?” or “which ticket do you want me to prioritise”, then move on and give her the answer.

      That way, you are reminding her of your conversation and of the type of wording which is appropriate, but not embarrassing her by expecting her to then repeat the question.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Agree with this.

        The “do you want to try that again” verbiage makes me really uncomfortable.

        1. Guitar Lady*

          How about saying, “This is what we were talking about. Now what was your question?” You almost pretend you didn’t hear the question because you were addressing the behavior and then the person gets a natural opportunity to say it again without the minimizing. Of course if they don’t again at that point, you will be stuck!

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I really like this approach and phrasing. It takes out the patronizing/condescension of “do you want to rephrase?” or “do you want to try that, again?” (I understand the comments about tone, but for me, even the kindest tone would not strip the condescension out for me.)

          2. OP #1*

            I like this a lot, especially because I’m not sure I can pull off “can you try that again?” without being patronizing.

          3. TootsNYC*

            I agree–I like this.

            I’d been going to suggest just saying, “This is what we were talking about,” and then just waiting, but the anxious person may just fill the gap with more apologize. The “Now, what was your question?” steers them to the goal.

            I suppose if they still do the apologizing, you could then rephrase for them, modeling the right question: “So you need me to steer you on some priorities? Please do X first.”

            I think you can also ask, when you’re having your conversation, “Is there anything I can do that will help you? I’m willing to remind you if you start off with the apologies, and to give you space to start over and rephrase.”

            And I think a boss can say, “Here’s a phrase you can use, because it’s short.” I think we all want some sort of transition phrase, so maybe providing her with one (as mentioned above) will help bridge over the anxiety.

          4. Mad Baggins*

            I like this too. This gets at the heart of what I liked, which is the opportunity to immediately correct a mistake.

    2. Dragoning*

      “Do you want to say that a different way?” sounds like something a parent would say to a five year old throwing a tantrum. No thank you.

      1. RainbowGrunge*

        I’ve not seen the movie in years, but my first thought was it seems like some James Spader would say to Maggie Gyllenhaal in the movie Secretary.

        I need to get my mind out of the gutter.

    3. BuffaLove*

      Nooo, please don’t do this. A broken record approach would be so much less patronizing. “Please don’t apologize.” “It’s fine, please don’t apologize.” “Don’t feel like you have to apologize.” If it continues to be an issue, maybe consider bringing it up in a constructive way in a performance review as something that she should do as professional development and let her make the change on her own.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It sounds from the letter like the OP has done all that and it hasn’t worked — hence my advice to explain that it’s actually a problem for other people, not just her.

    4. JSPA*

      a more adult version:

      “take two”
      “take it from the top”
      “May I have the short version?”
      “Again, just the question, please?”

      All of these are a reasonable ask when someone’s beating around the bush or being prolix for ANY reason, so it’s hard to claim they’re patronizing or infantilizing.

      1. Mad Baggins*

        It’s interesting that you see those as substantially different than “Want to try again?” because personally I’d put them in the same list. I’m not sure I see how your suggestions are less patronizing if you’re still saying basically, “Say that a different way.”

  4. PNW Jenn*

    LW5: while applying for my current job, I was convinced by Friday of the last week that I hadn’t gotten it. So I left work early, grabbed my dog, and took her to a DIY dog wash place to get my mind off of yet another rejection (I’d been searching on and off for 5 years).

    When I finished washing my dog, there was a voice-mail from the hiring manager. He was offering me the job! I hugged the shop attendant and yelled “I JUST GOT A NEW JOB!”

    Being prepared *not* to have gotten it and getting my mind off what I thought was the inevitable “if I could have hired 2 people I would have picked you both, but…” conversation.

    Keep yourself busy. Be prepared to ask for feedback on why you didn’t get it. Get ready to keep searching.

    But know that you just might get it. Good luck and keep us updated!

    1. WalkedInYourShoes*

      Since I have been interviewing since Mar., I have taken the advice from AAM and other posters, once I have applied. I just move on. I keep a spreadsheet of companies that I am interested in pursuing a role. It makes me feel good on the type of companies that reached out and which ones were successful. I have to keep in mind this quote: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” – Thomas A. Edison

      So, don’t worry! You are almost there!

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Back in the 70s there was a poster of a pelican swallowing a frog. The frog’s head was stuck in the pelican’s mouth so the frog could not see what was going on. The frog stuck his “hands” out and wrapped them around the pelican’s throat and was successfully choking the pelican.

        The viewer could see the frog was winning but the frog had no idea.
        The caption underneath was “never, ever give up”.

        I still think of that poster. At that time I thought it was cheesy because it was over played.

    2. Michaela Westen*

      Also, move forward with applying for other jobs. Maybe you’ll find something even better!

  5. Redhead*

    OP4, you should look into how FMLA and the ADA will work for you where you are. California, for example, has some variations to FMLA that might help you if you had another job in the state in the last year. I also have a chronic illness, and it’s very important to understand your rights – most of them don’t kick in until you notify your employer, but you don’t want to tell them until after you have an offer, etc.

    Good luck!

    1. Liane*

      The OP is currently freelancing, so FMLA doesn’t apply. (Not sure about ADA, since it applies to many situations besides taking medical leave from a job.) Alison addressed this at the end of her reply.

      1. OP 4*

        Yep, I’ve been freelancing entirely for just under a year. But even if FMLA doesn’t apply, you’re totally right about needing to understand my rights for the future, Redhead. Any suggestions on resources for that? Thanks!

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I think Redhead was trying to flag that some states have extended ADA/FMLA protections beyond the federal parameters, so OP should visit their state’s department of labor (or equivalent) to learn more about their coverage.

        1. Redhead*

          Yup – my non-lawyer understanding is that if you have more than a certain number of hours in the last year at any employer that qualifies for FMLA in CA, the FMLA provision follows you to your new employer. Federal FMLA requires you to have more than a certain number of hours over the course of a long time so both parties have some skin in the game, but it makes it very difficult for people to change jobs. My read of the OP is that they’ve been free-lancing since moving, so if they had moved recently within CA, it might still apply.

          Also, companies can make FMLA leave unpaid. My company switched from paid to unpaid or use vacation pay at the beginning of the year, so that sucks. When you look at the salary, you’ll want to keep that in mind. If you’re going to be missing 2 days a month, you need to factor that in to your budget.

          Depending on your condition, you might have the choice of full time leave, part time (for example, work 3 days a week), or intermittent (you just take time off when you’re incapable of working). If you go with intermittent, you’ll have to have your doctor sign a form saying you’ll be out a max of X days per month for illness and Y for office visits. If you go over X or Y, it screws up the whole thing, so aim high. You can’t use the leave for anything else, and you only use it for days (or hours) that you’re actually out.

          OP4, I found the best resource was my state’s website. It’s dry and difficult to navigate, but you know it’s accurate. I’ve heard good things about but their explanation of how migraines work is completely out of date, so I’m not so enthusiastic. Also, this website.

    2. Specialk9*

      OP4, I too have a chronic illness. I do have a desk job. I can’t imagine having a chronic illness without benefits and steady employment.

      My view is: we didn’t make the rules for this forked-up lack-of-health-care system, and we certainly don’t benefit from it, but we do have to play by the rules. So take that job if they offer it, without guilt, because that’s how this system works. You need to not die because of a lack of medical care. That’s your priority – don’t blow it over guilt.

      1. OP 4*

        Yeah, I’d been hoping for the stability being an employee brings even before these health issues cropped up. Now it seems like a necessity. Thanks for the empowering comment!

  6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP#1, is go beyond Alison’s script and have a CTJ talk with your report about the impact on her professional reputation. I apologize too often, and although it was slightly embarrassing, I am so grateful for the college TA who pulled me aside to tell me I didn’t have to apologize for existing. I still apologize too often, but I’m not as self-deprecating, and I do it way less often.

    Now that I have reports and interns, I’ve had to talk to two (both women) to let them know they’re undermining themselves. I don’t do this in front of other people—I take folks aside in a non-scary/intimidating setting. First, I reaffirmed and identified where they excelled (really smart, highly organized, creative thinkers, good at anticipating and solving problems, always offering high value-added suggestions, great team members who worked well in groups, etc.). Second, I would repeat what I’d heard them say, and then I would pause to let it sink in. Third, I would explain how their language undermined their question/contribution, and why that made them less effective. I literally had to tell one intern she didn’t have to apologize for existing and that as her supervisor, we had a reciprocal relationship where she should have expectations of me.

    After the CTJ talk, I gently reinforce the “you don’t have to apologize for existing” line when it would come up in one-on-one settings. If the issue doesn’t decrease in severity or frequency over the next month or so, then I think it’s ok to be a bit more blunt, like:
    – You’re doing that thing when you apologize for things that are no one’s fault
    – Remember when we agreed to streamline questions by choosing not to editorialize whether the question is “stupid”?
    – I’m happy to help you. Supporting you is not a burden; it’s my job.

    I’m sorry—this is definitely a frustrating problem.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      I agree with this, and frame it as “this is keeping you back”.
      For whatever reason, your report feels inadequate and doesn’t expect respect. You really need to explain “normal behavior” in the workplace. It’s especially needed if your report is young and doesn’t have any examples of how things work in a healthy respectful place. You may want to signal that her paradigm is the one that isn’t normal. She may not know anything else.
      I really appreciated it when my manager gave me the same sort of talk, and gave me “permission” to speak up and toot my horn. It was quite freeing and changed my career.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yes! I meant it as “come to Jesus,” which I mean in an entirely non-religious/proselytizing way. (I just don’t have a better phrase for “direct, this is a big deal, things have to change” talk.

    2. Blue*

      I like a lot of this! And while I do think it’s a good idea to make clear how it can negatively impact a career, I think I’d frame it differently from Alison’s suggested script. If OP starts by saying, “It’s difficult to work with you…,” there’s a good chance this employee with high anxiety will only hear those words and not any of the contextual stuff that follows.

        1. Ralph Wiggum*

          Oops. It’s actually called “growing edge”. It’s been a while since I last re-watched.

    3. Curious Cat*

      Love this approach! I was a chronic apologizer (still sort-of am, but working on it), and I didn’t fully grasp that I shouldn’t be apologizing for everything when an old professor explained to me the history and gender-norming behind women in US society feeling like they constantly need to apologize (not just in work settings but every aspect of life, too).

      Ever since it’s one of my resolutions each year to say sorry less, and I’ve been more conscious of it. (Heck, even Mattel has started using Barbie in online YouTube videos to teach young girls about the sorry reflex, the video’s pretty incredible for what it is).

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Is it just a problem for women in the US? I always thought of it as a worldwide problem.

    4. smoke tree*

      I like this approach. The only thing I would add is that it’s helpful to be fairly specific and concrete about the kind of language and behaviours you’re talking about. I once had a supervisor tell me that I should try to be more confident, which wasn’t particularly helpful without any other context.

    5. Michaela Westen*

      “Supporting you is not a burden; it’s my job.”
      This would have made a big difference to me!

  7. neverjaunty*

    LW #5, agree you shouldn’t withdraw, but only because they may not make an offer and save you the trouble. Because wow, this place sounds like a disorganized nightmare.

    1. Artemesia*

      Nah it sounds like most places trying to hire for complicated positions in the summer.

      1. Glowcat*

        The 8-hours interview is strange, but the timeline can happen. I applied for my current position in mid-July, interviewed in September and started working in December. There were the summer vacation, the HR person got ill, the bureaucracy was awful, “it’s better for payroll if you start the 1st of the month”… in the end the international relocation was the quickest thing! But I’m perfectly happy now, though I would have preferred my mom not to stress me so much about nagging them ;)

      2. neverjaunty*

        Most places insist on interviews with 20+ people and all day sessions for jobs they took applications for back in April?

        1. Madeleine Matilda*

          That was what happened when I was hired for my current job. Applied in September, interviewed all day in October including a session with the entire department of 25 people, hired in early November.

          1. JustaTech*

            I did this at CurrentJob as well; applied November, all-day interview December, didn’t actually start until the end of February (I did take a week off between jobs.)

        2. Anonymeece*

          I can say in academia, that’s not abnormal, at least not where I am. It’s dysfunctional, sure, but it’s a good job. If possible, I would look into Glassdoor and ask around, in case an offer does come through, but this really doesn’t sound excessive. I had a report who gave me a month’s notice and we still didn’t manage to get anyone hired until 6 months later because of how slowly the wheels of the ivory tower turn.

        3. Kimberlee, Ranavain*

          Twenty people is a lot, yeah, and I would never have anyone do an all-day interview (unless it were like the head of an organization, though I’m given to understand that it’s very normal in academia). But I can understand why some places do it. Especially in a tech company, it could be that it’s just a small company and OP is coming in at a high enough level that they wanted everyone in the company to meet them and have input. I’m a big believer in the idea that hiring is everyone’s job, and am always an advocate of candidates meeting people across the company, even in areas they won’t personally interact with a ton. You can certainly go overboard on it, but it’s a good way to train people up.

          Again, at a tech company, they might have people with high-up titles who aren’t *actually* all that experienced, and part of building them up to have a chance to keep that kind of position as the company scales is making sure you’re aligned on hiring practices, and building up their experience levels. It might not make for an ideal candidate experience, but tbh I’d almost always rather work for a company that has a distributed, democratized hiring practice like this over one where you meet your direct manager for an hour and no one else.

      3. Trout 'Waver*

        Not in my experience. Also, although it is common, not getting back to job candidates when you say you will is incredibly rude. Especially so after 4 interviews.

        “No updates yet, we’re still working on getting everyone together” is a perfectly fine update.

      4. Anona*

        It sounds super normal for a university setting. Many people are on vacation, and it can take time to get hiring committees together (both for interviewing and to discuss the candidates), even with the best of intentions. Not sure if that’s the context for this position, but in my university this would be very normal (including the 8 hour interview with other departments).

      5. Autumnheart*

        We have a LOT of people who take the week of July 4, and the week before or after, as their summer vacation time. As a candidate I can certainly understand “Where the heck is everyone and why are they taking so long?” but as an employee in a large corporation, that sounds uncomfortably typical of that time of year as far as vacations go.

        But if the candidates were originally approached in April and now it’s mid-July…come on. It shouldn’t take an entire fiscal quarter to hire someone.

    2. CM*

      I think a lot of places have weird and inefficient hiring practices that don’t necessarily reflect what it’s like to work there.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Sure, but the hiring process is the candidate’s end of the interview – that is how they get insight into how the company operates. And right now what they have shown the LW is that they’re slow, disorganized, and erratic in communicating.

        Sure, sometimes hiring is the only dysfunctional part of a business – just like sometimes a date who gets really angry if his steak is undercooked just has that one single pet peeve and is otherwise a cool person. But it’s a red flag.

    3. LadyByTheLake*

      Coming from the corporate world, this sounds perfectly ordinary (except for the 20 people interview in one day — usually that many people is spread out over several visits). Remember, while getting hired is your highest priority, hiring someone is not their highest priority. The hiring process is something that the people in the company try to get to when they can find a break in dealing with their regular job. Remember, they are so super busy that they’ve decided to hire someone — finding the time to actually hire someone when you’re already swamped can be a real challenge.

    4. irene adler*

      Having EVERYONE interview the final candidates might be a way to cull out a possible ‘bad’ hire.
      Granted there are smarter ways to do this.
      My thought is that such practices are done by companies who haven’t taken the time to bone up on good hiring practices. Maybe they figure that someone hiding some ugly trait will no doubt reveal something during the many interviews that would otherwise not be picked up by a “normal” interview process of just HR & hiring manager.
      I think companies are overly fearful of bringing on a ‘bad’ hire as it can be difficult to fire someone-legal issues and all.

    5. Seriously?*

      It also doesn’t really achieve anything. Why withdraw when staying in takes no additional work? If they get an offer they can then decide whether or not they want to work there. It they don’t get an offer then the outcome is the same as withdrawing.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Exactly. This may well solve itself without any bridge-burning. If the company eventually bestirs itself to make an offer, OP can decline then.

    6. SleepingAverageAppearance*

      It once took me 4 months to get hired…for a new position at the company I was already working at! I think this was in part because I got married during the application process and changed my last name, and for some strange reason they thought I dropped off the face of the earth, but nope – same person, new last name. So there might be some overall organizational issues, but it also might just be tied to the hiring process.

      OP, I know it’s super frustrating, but try to stay positive. I also would keep looking for other opportunities, just in case. I think the phrase is “cautious optimism”…? Good luck in your search!

    7. CM*

      I agree that it sounds disorganized. It’s not so much that the process is taking a long time as that they keep making declarative statements about what’s going to happen and then it doesn’t happen. When they say “We’ll definitely have an answer in two weeks” and then that just rolls by without any more information from them, it makes me think the person who told you it would be two weeks actually had no idea how long it would take or who needed to be involved or when they would be back. And it suggests to me that, when you try to work on projects with them, it’s going to be the same way.

  8. Thlayli*

    Re letter 1: Alison, I know the rules about not armchair diagnosing – but do they apply here? The LW herself said that the employee is “a very anxious person” and it seems obvious that it’s an extreme level of anxiety. In this specific case would it be ok for people to comment on ways the LW could deal with it / reactions LW could expect if the anxiety rises to the level of an actual mentail illness?

    1. Engineer Girl*

      It could also be that the person survived someone with a mental illness and is used to duck and cover.
      Best treat it as Alison stated and see where it goes.

    2. JamieS*

      I think it does. Saying someone is an anxious person isn’t the same as diagnosing them with a mental health disorder. Also I don’t think an OP can give us “permission” in their letter to presume someone else has a mental illness. Although, TBH, I think that no diagnosis rule is pretty frequently broken so I expect at least a couple comments in that vain.

      1. Thlayli*

        It gets broken all the time, but I don’t want to break it without asking first.

        The reason I think it might be ok is because of the other rule about assuming letter writers understand the situation more than commenters and to take their word for it. So if LW says she’s anxious we should assume she is anxious.

        But you’re right saying someone is anxious is not the same as saying they have anxiety. So probably best to just assume the employee does not have anxiety (or ptsd from being abused or whatever else could cause it)

        1. JamieS*

          AFAIK that rule only really means to give an OP the benefit of the doubt as opposed to thinking OP is exaggerating or lying and is meant more as a deterrent from derailment due to speculation. It doesn’t mean we can’t recognize when an OP most likely doesn’t have complete information.

      2. AcademiaNut*

        Exactly – I can describe someone as anxious, or quick tempered, or irrational, or disorganized, or prone to making errors, or easily distracted. That’s my observation of how their behaviour appears and is useful when describing a problem, or figuring out how to approach solving it. It’s very different than speculating that they have a particular mental illness.

        Captain Awkward actually has a very extensive post this week explaining the “no diagnoses by internet” rule, and why trying to do so is a bad idea, that’s worth a read.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            I can’t read Captain Awkward at work because the security certificate is not trusted. :/

    3. hbc*

      Captain Awkward had a really good post recently about why diagnosing isn’t a good idea. I can’t do it justice, but a couple of summary points:

      1) It’s bad because it derails the conversation from the actual problem, which is the behavior on display. Its origin is irrelevant.
      2) Too many people conclude that a medical condition means they have to accept the other person’s behavior. But outside of a few specific professions/employment choices, I shouldn’t have to deal with being hugged at work, hearing homicide or suicide threats, or seeing tantrums.
      3) It hurts people with conditions or disabilities to repeatedly hear “Bad behavior? Must be X condition.”

      1. Sally*

        +1000 this. I always find when commenters here armchair diagnose it derails from trying to give advice to solve the problem – which is the behavior on display.

    4. Falling Diphthong*

      I think diagnosing a third party, rather than an OP, is always pretty pointless. My two tests are diagnose only the OP, and only from your close personal experience. So “You sound just like me 5 years ago, before I got the ADD diagnosis” can be helpful. Or “You should see your OB, because an inability to perform tasks you used to be able to handle sounds like post-partum depression.” While third party diagnoses based on a couple of paragraphs, or suggesting conditions you sorta remember reading about once, isn’t ever going to help.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Though those things can be done without diagnosing the OP, too. “I had similar symptoms and it turned out to be X – might be worth discussing with your doctor” is really different than “sounds like you have X”.

    5. Seriously?*

      I think there is a difference between saying “employee has X and therefore…” and saying “It is possible that X is at play here and if it is you should be prepared to deal with the possibility of Y happening.” The second isn’t really diagnosing the person but pointing out a potential outcome that can be handled better if the OP is prepared for it.

    6. OP #1*

      OP #1 here! I was using “anxious” in the colloquial sense and would prefer that commenters not speculate about a formal diagnosis. If she has one, I’m not aware of it, but even if she did, I’m not sure it would change much about the situation? I’m trying really hard to remain aware that I am her boss, not her therapist or her psychiatrist, and that managing her anxiety (whether it is a clinical condition, a tic, a coping mechanism, or something else) is up to her. If she came to me with a specific request that I stop doing something something that triggers her or accommodations I could make, I would gladly do so. But at the end of the day she needs to be able to communicate with me and other coworkers in a professional manner. (Similarly, I have ADHD and really struggle with following through on details. But it’s not unreasonable for my boss to expect me that I do it, even though it’s hard!)

    7. smoke tree*

      I think “anxious” in this case is describing the employee’s behaviour, and I think it makes most sense to address the issue in terms of behaviour as well. Even if she has a diagnosed anxiety disorder, that doesn’t change much for the LW, since she can’t address the underlying issues anyway, and it doesn’t make the self-deprecating language any less harmful for the employee’s career.

    8. Not So NewReader*

      I think that knowing the person is very anxious is enough to help guide OP in her interactions with the employee. People get anxious/nervous because they feel they are lacking information/skills/ability/etc. So look around, OP, maybe there are a few pointers you can give her to help her feel less worried in her work. Does she know which decisions are hers ALONE to make and which decisions need to involve other people? Notice the word need. It’s not a want, there is a purpose or need for looping in others.
      Does she have everything she needs to do her job? Does she have her stuff organized so she can find it? (This is more relevant if she is newer to the job and trying to sort someone else’s system for doing things.) Does she feel she has adequate training or is there training available that she has not gone to yet because “there is no time”.
      Usually when people are anxious it’s for more than one reason, they have too many uncertainties. Check to see if the basics are in place for her. People are amazing with their willingness to limp along with shoddy tools, lack of training and so on. Some people will never speak up and say they missed X training or Y equipment.

  9. Thlayli*

    LW3: I have had good reactions to using the second option Alison suggested – a detailed “relevant experience” section followed by a much less detailed “other experience” section which just listed jobs, dates and employers with the odd bullet point where a particular skill was relevant. I called the first section “teaching experience” or “engineering experience” or whatever depending on the job.

    It’s really just to make clear how long you spent doing the actual relevant work and give an idea of what you were doing the rest of the time

    1. Woodswoman*

      Same here, including the identical headings. Listing the other work I’ve done besides what’s relevant to the job has avoided interviewers filling in unexplained gaps with their own worries. It avoids their questioning my honesty or my ability to have a consistent work history.

    2. careergal*

      I’m a career counselor and recommend this method to students and alumni all the time. I use it myself as well.

    3. KMB213*

      I have used this method, as well. For better or worse, a large gap in employment does raise questions in a hiring manager’s mind – hopefully, if you’re a strong candidate, they’ll interview you anyway and ask you face-to-face (or over the phone) about the gap, but I swear I’ve gotten more interviews (this could be a placebo affect) since adding the “other experience” section to my resume. (I’d always briefly addressed it in the cover letter, but I think having just place of employment, date, title, on the actual does make a difference.)

  10. Princess Consuela Banana Hammo*

    OP#3, you’re it being dishonest—the interviewers are being strange or suspicious (I know some folks who think you’re hiding something if you leave off non-relevant experience, and I think those folks are masochists because who wants to read a resume with that much in it?).

    But I wouldn’t worry about including all jobs on your resume or worrying about whether using a tailored resume makes you dishonest (it does not).

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammo*

      Gahhh, autocorrect!! The first line should read, “OP#3, you’re not being dishonest. . . .”

    2. JamieS*

      Yeah OP isn’t being dishonest but it sounds like it’s happening pretty regularly which makes it seem like there’s more to it than just a quirky interviewer. Some possibilities that came to mind pretty quickly are: listing everything is the norm in that specific industry in that area, OP only has a few past employers so they expect all to be on her resume, the relevant experience is from jobs pretty far back and they’re expressing surprise no job from the last 15 years was listed (yes that is hyperbolic).

        1. Antilles*

          That was my thought too. Especially since OP says that she’s been in the corporate world for “the past few years”. It would definitely raise some red flags if your resume had a lot of gaps due to intentionally leaving things off.
          I’m also wondering about the fact OP said that the current position isn’t relevant – I don’t know if that means that OP has been leaving off her *current* job on some of the resumes, but that would likely raise a few eyebrows about what’s going on.

        2. Someone else*

          Yeah that was my thought. If the tailoring leaves a bunch of gaps, then the questioning may be less “why would you tailor this to only relevant stuff”and more “why is this gap here? oh you were doing X, well why doesn’t it just say that?” It’s unclear from the letter how the conversation is going when it’s questioned, but if the question is about the gap, not about not including everything, it makes a lot more sense why it’s coming up repeatedly.

      1. SAM*

        Based on her description, I think there’s a good chance that she and potential employers see “relevant” differently. I’ve worked in non-profits/social sector for nearly 15 years and I wouldn’t expect applicants to leave off corporate sector, teaching, or community building experience for most jobs… those skills could be highly relevant, even though the sector is different. I’d recommend she add an “Other experience” section like Alison suggested, and list at least job titles and dates so that employers can everything she brings to the table.

        1. Washi*

          Yeah, I’ve seen this sometimes from the other end when hiring for entry level nonprofit jobs, where applicants will put on the 1 week service trip they did in college but leave off the 2 years they worked in retail, when there are actually so many skills that transfer!

          I don’t know what kind of jobs OP had or currently has, but it might be worth thinking about whether that corporate job is as irrelevant as she thinks, and it might be worth putting on the more recent stuff.

        2. Ama*

          Since OP says she’s currently applying to education jobs as well, I wonder if she’s running into hiring managers who are more accustomed to the academic CV style of listing every single thing, and are having a hard time letting go of that convention.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        Yeah, one complaint can be a quirky hirer, but multiple people with the same complaint suggests it’s the resume. To me “highlight” suggested that the most relevant parts got longer and less relevant shorter, but it sounds like maybe the latter disappear altogether?

        It’s one thing to leave off a 3 month retail stint, but if 2/3 of your experience over the last 15 years isn’t included, that seems weird. Both in terms of answering the obvious question about what you’ve been doing, and that it suggests you truly think nothing from that job could possibly translate.

    3. Glomarization, Esq.*

      LOL at the length of my resume if I were to include every single job I’ve had since age 16.

      1. Persimmons*

        IKR? I’d love to see a cover letter pulling everything together. “My summers shoveling horse doo fully prepared me for the field of IT, I’m very experienced with $hit hitting the fan…”

    4. Julianne (also a teacher)*

      Agreed. I sit on hiring committees in my department, and I’m really only interested in seeing experience not relevant to teaching on a resume if (a) it’s connected to a specific skill that the candidate needs to teach in that role (ex. a French teacher who worked professionally in a French-speaking environment, even if they weren’t an educator), or (b) if they’re new to teaching but not coming directly out of a teacher prep program.

    5. Antilles*

      the interviewers are being strange or suspicious (I know some folks who think you’re hiding something if you leave off non-relevant experience)
      Eh. These sorts of strange/suspicious interviewers definitely exist, but they’re a clear minority. If one or two interviewers called out OP, then yeah, you just write them off as “some interviewers are quirky/dumb/etc”…but since OP says it’s happening ‘over and over’, I’m inclined to think that OP really should take the advice to heart and figure out a way to include the other jobs, because there’s clearly something real going on here.

  11. Thlayli*

    Re LW4: I know FMLA doesn’t kick in until a year, but wouldn’t it still be illegal for an employer to rescind a job offer based on a health condition, or to fire someone for taking time off for surgery recovery? If so, would it make sense for the LW to frame the question as “I may need accommodations under ADA for a health condition”?

    Also, OP4: be aware that even if the September test indicates surgery is required, it’s possible you may not need it right away or may not be able to have it right away. For example with some types of cancer they lik to try to reduce the size of the tumour with chemo before operating to remove it.

    I hope you get the best result possible in the circumstances.

    1. WellRed*

      I don’t know that there’s a bright line there. It may be illegal to withdraw a job offer because of a health problem, but it’s not illegal to withdraw it because the candidate isn’t available to start within a certain timeframe.

      1. Thlayli*

        But she is currently available to start before she even finds out if she will need the leave or not.

        I don’t think she has any ethical obligation to disclose, since she doesn’t even know yet if this accommodation will be needed. The only reason to disclose would be if she thought she might be fired for taking medical leave. Hence I’m asking if it would even be legal to fire her or withdraw a job offer for that.

      2. Someone else*

        Yeah. I think right now it’s too early to say, and thus there is no need to say anything, but if it were the last week of August right now, and OP already knew/had scheduled surgery for October 1 and would be out all of October…depending on a lot of details and the exact local laws, there’s probably a scenario where it is legal to say “regardless of why, we need someone who will be here almost every business day in October” and the offer goes away. On a human level I get that would feel icky, and plus you never know what will happen and they could hire someone who knew nothing of health issues and were then suddenly needing to be gone all of October, but if it’s already known, the timing of it could be problematic and not discrimination and not necessarily indicative of a horrible terrible very bad workplace. But given all the unknowns right now, I completely agree with Alison’s advice.

    2. Bea*

      There are states with their own FLMA as well to be aware of.

      ADA doesn’t cover you for long periods out of work. ADA is for assisting you to do the job but not “can’t do my job for 6 weeks because surgery.” also you can’t choose your reasonable accommodations necessarily. Reasonable to you isn’t necessarily going to work for the employer.

      Most decent employers you want to invest in will work with a surgery recovery. Any one who doesn’t is a hellhole.

      1. OP 4*

        Bea, good point re: hellhole employers. :) Maybe this is a blessing in disguise — if I use Alison’s advice and they aren’t willing to work with me, I guess I’ve learned valuable info about them too.

      2. Thlayli*

        Fair point I don’t know the law well enough. I would think “6 weeks off unpaid with plenty of notice after a life saving operation” would be considered fairly reasonable for most places. Hopefully

  12. nnn*

    A script that might work for #1 is “This is a situation where you should ask.”

    For example, “You don’t need to apologize for asking, because you always should ask if you aren’t sure which ticket to do next. Clarifying priorities is perfectly professional and a routine part of our work, whereas doing the wrong thing because you weren’t certain about priorities and didn’t ask is a waste of time and resources.”

    You could reinforce this by saying “Thanks for double-checking!” when she asks you a question she should be asking you. (Even if she front-loads it with apologies).

    Also, is she new? It might go away by itself as she gathers a critical mass of empirical evidence that people aren’t going to jump down her throat for routine questions. (Thinking back to my own transition from a job where the manager would scold us for going to her for things that required her approval to a job where you got lauded as professional and helpful for asking your manager to fix problems as soon as you notice them.)

    1. OP #1*

      She’s been with our company a little over a year, and I think one reason this issue has persisted so long is that I wrote it off as a new employee behavior that would go away on its own for the first six months or so.

  13. NotAnotherManager!*

    Ugh, birthdays. I feel you LW #2, they are not my thing, and people act like it’s bizarre that I don’t want to be sung to and have a fuss made over me. (My spouse, a decade in, forgot which actual day was my birthday – I thought it was hilarious, but others were horrified. He actually argued with his mom when she told him my birthday was the day before, not later in the week.). Big birthday celebrators tend to have good intentions, no thought as to where the object of the attention wants it. Give me a small, fancy cake (at him, with my family) from the local patisserie and a nice dinner out, and I’m a happy girl. I always try to focus on the good intentions and be gracious, but having my office decorated would bug me a lot.

    1. Sam.*

      I’m not a fan of birthday celebrations, either, and likely would’ve responded like OP. But I am a bit concerned about this part of Alison’s script: “I’ve found that in male-dominated environments like this one, women are judged pretty harshly for doing anything that could be seen as frivolous, so I’m careful to avoid it.” If the assistant is already feeling rebuked about the birthday thing, I think this is going to make it waaaay worse. Not only is it, “You shouldn’t have done this for my birthday,” but also, “This thing you care a lot about is trivial and meaningless.”

      I think it’d be preferable to stick with something closer to, “Decorating my office was very thoughtful, and I genuinely appreciate the gesture. I just don’t love being the center of attention for personal stuff like this, and since our office culture doesn’t really embrace celebrating birthdays in this way, I prefer to mark the occasion with something small.”

      1. BeenThere*

        I think you’re right, Sam.. Don’t make it about the gender. While women are often judged unfairly, that isn’t really the reason OP doesn’t like it anyway. We just don’t like balloons festooning our office and a fuss made of our birthdays! That’s the real reason.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Yep. I agree because the assistant could read it as OP likes decorations but TPTB won’t let her have them. This is one of those times where I think stating personal preference is necessary. At the end OP could add, “Assuming you go on to work at other places it’s best to wait on things like this and copy what you see others doing. So if you don’t see decorations and fuss going on for other people’s special occasions then that might be a clue that the company culture does not include festivities.”

          Here the assistant has been given a piece of advice that will be useful for the rest of her life and she can apply it in different ways. For example, she can see that no one wears tee shirts, so she can deduce that she probably shouldn’t either.

      2. Myrin*

        I like steering the script away from the gender-related language into the direction of an office culture-related one! I’ve only ever worked in female-dominated environments and birthdays weren’t a big thing in any of them (although I hear that, compared to the US, we do birthdays at work differently in my country anyway), so I’d really avoid mentioning this angle here at all since OP’s own personal feelings on it are a completely valid reason on their own. (And the gender angle might come up more organically regarding other stuff in the future, anyway.)

        1. Sam.*

          Yeah, I think the gender issue is one worth discussing at some point as women in a male-dominated field (I’m a woman in a field that’s predominantly female but heavily male at the leadership level, so I get this), but if OP’s goal is to smooth things over and assuage any hurt feelings, then this isn’t the time for that conversation.

    2. Aveline*

      Someone I love dearly died on my birthday. It’s a difficult day for me. In spite of telling people I don’t celebrate it, a lot of people try and make a big production of it. Which leads to trauma and pain for me. Then either I disclose or I push back on the person because they are being a jerk. No’s, even soft no’s on something generally culturally accepted need to be respected.

      If assistant is young or youngish, I’d tell her to assume birthdays aren’t generally celebrated like (I.e., streamers) this in offices like yours and that it might come off as unprofessional or juvenile instead of merely enthusiastic.

      Frankly, when I read this, I thought it was more appropriate for a dorm room than a professional office. Of course, I have friends who work in labs where this would be mild. It’s all context.

      Still, an action this OTP should not be undertaken without knowing the recipient will welcome it with joy.

      I’d also add to the script a few suggestions of what assistant can do next year that will make her feel useful but not embarrass LW2. For example, “I really like cake, so buy me a cake.” Or, “I’m into tea, so some type of tea you like would be awesome for us to share.”

      I’d also add that she should let assistant know she shouldn’t spend personal funds on stuff like this. Generally, conservative offices frown on things flowing upwards.

      1. foolofgrace*

        My father was buried on my 13th birthday. Yep, let’s just skip the birthday brouhaha, please. I know there’s no way people could know that about me, but why go to such great lengths when you don’t know how people feel about their birthdays?

      2. Persimmons*

        Same (what a horrible thing to have in common). I do not want to talk about my grandmother dying on my sweet sixteen, let’s move on. And the “you need to reclaim the day” people are the WORST.

      3. EditorInChief*

        OP doesn’t need to apologize to her pouty assistant. This is a lesson to the assistant that she needs to grow up, learn how to read her environment, what the office culture is, and that she can’t make assumptions about how people feel about celebrating birthdays, holidays, etc. or being center of attention just because she likes them. You never know what people’s struggles are, and for some people holidays come with the baggage of intensely personal issues.

        I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, and I would have been horrified and angry if I found my office decorated like a 6 year old’s birthday party with streamers and balloons. It’s unprofessional and infantizing. I’m an executive in my 40s, not a child.

        At my company the work culture does not celebrate birthdays in an over the top way–maybe a department will have cake and a card at most, so something like this would be 100% out of place. I would be angry that my assistant wasted money and work time on this nonsense.

        1. AnonAtAllTimes*

          I’m in your camp, not one to note my birthday with what I consider childish decorating. But I would have simply taken down the “decor” and had a quiet talk with the assistant, telling her that I understand she meant well but that I didn’t celebrate my birthday that way. A lot of making that come across as kind and non-attacking is being kind and considerate when you deliver the message, and that has to come from truly caring about the person you’re talking to. If you care about them, people tend to pick up on that.

          People are all different. Nobody got hurt in this instance…but it’s not something I would want to see happening again. Reasonable people understand differences and make adjustments. Barring evidence to the contrary I would start by assuming my assistant could adjust to my style and not respond to my birthday in that fashion again, because she would understand it would not bring me any pleasure but would, instead, make me uncomfortable.

          1. EditorInChief*

            Yes AnonAtAllTimes I agree with your approach. I would not apologize to my assistant but would immediately take down the decorations and sit her down and quietly talk to her about why I did that, and how when she goes on to different jobs that she needs to pay attention to the culture. But there is no need to apologize to her for not liking something that I didn’t ask her to do in the first place.

      4. Logan*

        I had a rough work event near the time of my birthday, and a year later was feeling stressed about the memories of it. The event wasn’t particularly worrisome, however it was unusually stressful, and I just wanted to be left alone for a week. My boss decided to organise a birthday lunch for my team, told me about it the morning of, and I reacted by nearly being in tears. Poor guy, as he loved to celebrate birthdays and it really hadn’t occurred to him that he should ask first, although any time he planned anything remotely similar after that event he was always good about asking first!

        The lesson that I have learned is to check in with someone first to see how they feel about such things. “I love celebrating my birthday, do you?” “I can’t imagine anything more fun at work than seeing my space decorated for my birthday, can you?”

    3. Suzy Q*

      Yeah, I don’t think what the assistant did was sweet or thoughtful at all; it was childish. I was horrified just reading it. Streamers and balloons? NO.

      1. Corky's Wife Bonnie*

        There are some offices that do this all the time, and it’s a cultural norm the admin may have experienced before this place. My office only does that when it’s a “big” birthday (40, 50, etc.), but I’ve worked at other places where it’s done for everyone for every birthday, CEO included. So, I don’t think we need to call the admin childish. It sounds like it came from a good intention.

        1. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

          One of my old office’s had everyone assigned to “do” a birthday. You brought a treat and decorated the cube with a theme (e.g. the person who wanted to become an entomologist got bugs, person who was a fan of X show got X show).

      2. Hutsy*

        Childish? This is harsh. The assistant was sweet. Most people love attention like this but they would never say it out right. So it is thoughtful to surprise them.

        1. Trout 'Waver*

          Hell no.

          I don’t want that kind of attention. Don’t ever surprise people with streamers and balloons in a professional setting. Some office cultures do it for everyone, in which case it wouldn’t be a surprise. But if the office norm is not to do it, don’t surprise them with it.

          Also, I don’t think most people love that sort of attention, but I could be wrong. Enough don’t.

        2. spock*

          Idk about most, but agreed thay many people would like this. I’ve had work friends cover my desk with streamers and balloons on my birthday and I was touched and felt appreciated.

        3. Falling Diphthong*

          I’m with Trout Waver at pushing back on most people loving attention like this. Most people might like a card signed by everyone, or some simple carbohydrates (when I worked in house, a work friend bringing in a cake everyone could eat would be pretty normal)–once streamers and decorating the office or cube are involved it’s over into squee-like territory that will vary by office. If it’s never been done in your office for any other birthdays, that’s a clue that it might not go over. Not unless you really have an excellent read on the person whose cube is about to bust that trend.

          1. Marthooh*

            Well, we’re all different. I prefer complex carbohydrates, by which I mean a five-layer chocolate torte with buttercream squiggles on top.

        4. Perse's Mom*

          Even if you could somehow prove that particular claim, it’s still something *enough* people do NOT like that you don’t make that assumption. It’s like saying most people like harmless little pranks! Or hugs from strangers! Or elevator conversations! What you and a handful of people you know claim to like doesn’t extend to the rest of the universe.

        5. Janie*

          I would be so embarrassed if my assistant did this to me. And upset. And frankly I wonder if the assistant would have done this for a male boss. I do wonder if gender is at play here.

          Bottom line is this is a good lesson for the assistant (to not assume) and if she is feeling bad now, thats ok. She will move on and grow from this experience. Its not the letter writers job to manage her feelings.

        6. Michaela Westen*

          Don’t assume everyone wants attention. There are many who are very uncomfortable with it.
          Don’t assume everyone likes what you like. Especially if they’re telling you they don’t! It’s their responsibility to communicate what they want. Respect what they say even if you think they’re wrong.

        7. NotAnotherManager!*

          Most people? Nah – most people I know are happy to celebrate with friends and family but would not be pleased to have their workspace decorated like a kids’ birthday party. For some, it’s the unwanted attention; for others, the professional perception; for yet more, it’s that they don’t like people in their space, particularly if they work with confidential materials.

          I would say most people would be okay with a signed group card or might love a cake in the breakroom, but the particular type of celebration OP wrote in about isn’t going to be a “most people” kind of appeal.

          I think, too, this highlights what irritates me the most about birthdays in general – for people that are really into birthdays, they assume that everyone else is (or should be) and just won’t admit it out loud. These are the same people who have told my husband repeatedly that my insistence that gifts aren’t necessary is some sort of trap or test rather than an actual articulation of my true feelings. It’s projecting what the birthday zealot wants for themselves onto me rather than respecting my actual (articulated!) wishes.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            I feel the same about both birthdays and gifts. Birthdays should be celebrated or not however the birthday person wants!
            I’ve always felt gifts should only be something I would really like, given because the giver wants to give.
            I wish there were no occasions that demand a gift because it causes giving out of obligation instead of really wanting to give, and often presents I can’t use because the giver doesn’t know me well enough to know what I might like. It also perpetuates the consumer economy that’s bringing this country down.
            If I was married I would ask my husband to give me gifts only when he feels like it, only things he thinks I will like. No obligations!

      3. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

        This is harsh. There are a lot of offices that go big for birthday decorations. It’s not childish. It’s not your thing, got it… But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or horrifying.

        1. Perse's Mom*

          This goes both ways, though. You don’t find it horrifying. Suzy does. I would also. I would be entirely embarrassed, and I would spend my *workday* taking down all the decorations rather than sit among them, assistant’s feelings be damned.

          If you don’t KNOW without a shadow of a doubt that the person in question will be thrilled AND that this is A Thing That Is Done in this office environment, you don’t do it.

          1. Smithy*

            I think the difference with balloons/streamers for birthdays – while not for everyone – isn’t exactly the same as something like pranks.

            Yes, some people have traumatic events tied to their birthdays, some don’t celebrate due to religion, and others just for preference – but to acknowledge birthdays is common enough in a number of different offices that taking a more gentle approach makes sense.

            My team is very big on “harmless” pranks – things like covering someone’s desk in sweetener packets or wrapping equipment with tinfoil. While I don’t think it’s super weird in office culture – it’s definitely niche. And reading enough AAM, a behavior to take on in an office with a lot of caution.

            I just have a hard time applying that level of warning and caution to birthdays. Not to say the OP needs to say she was wrong to react that way, but approaching this with some sensitivity seems fair.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              I think of it as the squee line. If it’s a big dramatic public gesture–the sort of thing that might evoke a “SQUEE!!!!” from a delighted honoree–then you need to read the office culture (has anyone squeed in the year I’ve been here?) and recipient (has Buttercup squeed in the year I’ve known her?) before you do something over this line.

              Handing someone a card, or letting them know that per office tradition their birthday was an excuse to order the fancier bagel selection, allows for a faint smile, nod, and “Thanks” before returning to work. That can conveyed “I don’t like birthdays but am summoning up some semblance of good cheer” or “I am pleased at this effort but not an effusive person, especially at work.” A gesture that requires effusive thanks and a pretense of being surprised and delighted and thrilled when the recipient isn’t needs to be more carefully calibrated, to honoree and venue. (See various “surprise at work” questions, where loved ones and their managers are less than enthused about the SO’s plan to swoop in and carry the birthday person away from their boring meetings and deadlines and required coverage for a fun outing instead.)

    4. Clisby Williams*

      It would bug me, too. I don’t even think it’s a “lovely gesture” – I think it’s a presumptuous, tone-deaf gesture, although if the assistant is very young I could give her the benefit of the doubt that she’s just clueless. If she feels bad about it now, all the better – maybe she’ll think twice or three times before pulling a stunt like that again.

        1. Trout 'Waver*

          I don’t think so. In a conservative, male-dominated culture, gaudy birthday displays can come off as unprofessional.

          1. Lora*

            Yup. None of my male colleagues do birthday celebrations. None. At most, they might mention it over happy hour and we’ll pay for their beer or something. I personally hate my birthday because of reasons and either ignore it completely or, if on a weekend, hide under the blankets with a bottle of tequila, weeping for my lost youth.

            (Kidding, I ignore it then too. This year for my birthday, I put all my tax paperwork in a folder and got caught up on my client billing.)

            Because people DO get all “but I meant well!” about these things, I’d probably stick to some phrasing like, “we’re really low key about personal celebrations here – don’t really do birthdays,” maybe describe what the norms are (baby showers? circulate a get-well card for someone having surgery? whatever it is you do) and leave it at that. Just be matter of fact the same way you’d say, “in this office the sticky notes are in the third cabinet, not the second” or “we use headphones rather than the radio, that way you can listen to Despacito as many times per day as you like”.

          2. leslie knope*

            yeah, but presumably the assistant’s goals wasn’t “make my boss look unprofessional”! obviously she should’ve read the room and not done it, but calling it a “stunt” like she set off a Dungbomb or something is a little much.

            i really, really think people on here need to be better about calibrating their personal distaste for social interaction when responding in situations like this. it just derails and comes off as unkind if we want to start castigating well-meaning people for something as innocuous as a birthday celebration.

            it’s also super weird to me that acknowledging birthdays would be seen as unprofessional. the streamers and balloons, sure, but even acknowledging birthdays? people are people, not robots, if they want to acknowledge a birthday that’s not inherently unprofessional.

            1. Trout 'Waver*

              Quite literally, the definition of stunt is “something unusual done to attract attention.”

              Also, while intent does matter, the outcome of one’s actions matters more.

              Furthermore, acknowledging birthdays is perfectly professional if done in a way that is consistent with the culture. There are ways you can do so in a conservative male-dominated culture without putting up a public display.

              1. Saradactyl*

                But by many definitions putting up decorations for a birthday is not unusual at all – it’s a very common social norm. She also got her assistant a gift too; I can see where assistant probably thought “okay so she remembered mine, why don’t I remember hers and do something nice for her?”

                “She’ll think twice before pulling a stunt like this again” is a weird and vaguely threatening way to put the situation, like what you’d say to someone who like, wore a racist Halloween costume, or texted while driving and almost got into a wreck, or something way more concerning than…decorating her boss’s office with birthday decorations.

              2. Michaela Westen*

                Yes, to attract attention. People who insist on celebrating the birthdays of others are doing it because *they* want to.

            2. Hutsy*

              Yeah, it’s one thing to say that the assistant shouldn’t do it from now on. But it looks like people on here almost find it offensive which is ridiculous.

            3. Mad Baggins*

              Personally, in the culture where I work (not US), it would be weird to acknowledge someone’s birthday. We got a bunch of cards for employees from US HQ and laughed at how American the practice was.

              That said, I think people here are really overreacting. Part of it is self-selection (only people really horrified by the practice are motivated to comment), but interpreting an overblown but kindhearted gesture, which you have never before expressed distaste for, as boundary-violating? Dog forbid someone buy you lunch or praise you in front of your colleagues, lest they be interpreted as offensive.

      1. Hutsy*

        Wow, you people… Seriously? The assistant was trying to be nice. Maybe you are not into it but celebrating birthdays is a way for many people to feel special on one day of the year. Most people love birthdays. Personally, I would love a surprise like this.

        1. Foreign Octopus*

          I’ve found that people use the excuse as “I was just being nice” as a way to trample over the boundaries I’ve set so that they can insert their own expectations onto things.

          The assistant made an error in judgement, nothing too dramatic and I can totally get why she’s feeling embarrassed now, and I think Alison’s script is a good one to use. Although, I do think time will help rub away some of what she’s feeling now.

          Also, it’s always, always best to err on the side of caution at work. I would be mortified if someone did this at my place of work compared to being just embarrassed and self-conscious if it was done in my flat.

          1. Hutsy*

            It’s a bit much to interpret a birthday surprise as violating boundaries. Intent matters. There are serious problems out there and that’s just not one of them.

            1. Lora*

              Yes, you personally would love this, understood. Other people are allowed to feel different feelings about it and that’s okay because everyone likes different things. The existence of worse things in the world does not solve OP’s problem though, which is that her employee misunderstood the office culture and now it’s all awkward.

              The problem statement is, “Employee is suddenly all awkward and withdrawn, how do I make it no longer awkward?”

              The awkwardness MAY be related to the office culture misunderstanding (seems likely) or it may not (maybe Employee got dumped by her SO, maybe Employee’s dog died, who knows) but the solution is still to talk to Employee about it, not assume that the problem isn’t really a problem.

              1. Hutsy*

                Again, it’s one thing if you don’t like it, it’s fine. But calling it childish or even violating boundaries (!) is too much. It’s just not your thing for whatever reason, but that’s about it.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              But why does one person’s intent become more important than another person’s intent.
              If my intent is to have a quiet day, then why would my coworker’s intent to give me a big flashy event be more important?
              I am talking about intent here. Two people intend different things, whose is the priority?

              I will say, OP, I let my crew know months ahead of my birthday that I don’t do birthdays. I said, “I’m not going to explain that either.”
              It’s really good when we can forewarn people. What I got was perfect. A couple people quietly whispered to me, “Happy birthday, have a good evening” as they left work. What a great gift they gave me, they respected my wishes.
              OP, can’t fix the past but you can say something like, “Going forward, a good gift for me is to just let my birthday go by quietly. That is a gift I would appreciate.”

              @Hutsy. Yep, there are serious problems out there. We don’t solve for world peace here, we just solve for office peace. Not everyone enjoys their birthdays. It’s good to check that out before deciding to surprise someone.

              1. Hutsy*

                This is actually a non issue, not just a problem less serious than world hunger.
                I agree that it’s a good idea to respect people’s wishes about celebrating or non celebrating. But calling a birthday celebration childish is beyond harsh.

                And yes, intent matters. It’s not right to judge people harshly when all they were doing was try to put a smile on your face. It’s OK if you’re not into it but all the harsh language about the assistant is unnecessary. She didn’t do anything offensive, yes, she wasn’t successful in making the OP happy but she wasn’t being childish and she wasn’t violating boundaries.

      2. anon today and tomorrow*

        I would hate something like this, but I think people are being harsh on the admin, regardless of her age. It didn’t go over well, but it’s no reason for people to accuse the admin of being presumptuous or childish.

        1. Anona*

          Yeah, it just sounds like a mismatch of culture. Once her supervisor talks about it with her, it should resolve things.

          1. starsaphire*

            Agreed; cultural differences.

            After decades of work in dozens of places where birthdays (and secretaries’ days and and and) are unobserved, I have finally landed at a place where tinfoiling your desk while you’re on vacation or filling your cube with balloons on your birthday is totally normal.

            I’ve never been so happy in a workplace. :)

          2. Falling Diphthong*

            While I agree on office culture difference, the assistant has been in this streamer-free office for almost a year. If she’d been there a month and pulled out the surprise decor for her boss I’d be more understanding of not having picked up on the new office’s norms around this.

            It’s not a major crime, but it was both tone-deaf to the office norms and not a welcome surprise to the person she surprised. It’s reasonable for her to feel awkward. Awkwardness is not a hideous punishment, it’s a natural outcome of violating social norms. Her manager is right to want to reassure her if that leaks on a long time, but sometimes we guess wrong and it’s awkward and we learn that that thing we thought everyone liked isn’t universal after all. Awkwardness is a teaching tool–like most other negative emotions, it’s not fun to feel that way so in future we try to avoid the behavior that caused it.

        2. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

          Agreed, I’m ambivalent to office celebrations for my milestones. But see no reason to insult the admin. There is nothing in the letter to indicate that the LW told the admin that she shouldn’t do anything. I think this falls under the live and learn category.

          The Admin has learned that the boss doesn’t like big gesture celebrations and the LW has learned to give an indication of office norms to their new admins.

    5. I'm A Little Teapot*

      I also don’t really care about my birthday. I’m fine with little stuff, but if you made such a huge deal about it I’d say thanks, but please tone it way down in the future. My problem is I’ve known some people who make birthdays a HUGE deal, and seem unable to not do it for other people, regardless of what those other people feel. At that point, my response shifts drastically and becomes one of “seriously, how hard is it to respect ME and MY wishes around something that doesn’t involve you at all. You’ve now been seriously out of line after I clearly communicated my wishes, you owe me an apology, and either cut it out forever or I never want to see you again.” Which seems over the top, until you consider that someone else is forcing their priorities onto everyone around them – which is really rude and inappropriate. These people tend to have problems with acceptable behavior overall, so I probably don’t want to be around them anyway.

  14. Banana moon*

    LW 5 – I have to say I disagree with Alison, four interviews does seem excessive to me, even outside of this 8hr fiasco.

    1. WS*

      Two phone interviews and an in-person interview sounds pretty normal, plus a follow-up interview in the next round…just not the 8 hour epic!

      1. Essess*

        I’m in IT and the 8-hour epic doesn’t sound far fetched. I’d been through several all-day interviews before (different companies) when I was job searching. And I’ve been on the other side where I was allotted a scheduled portion of an all-day interview to go talk to a candidate. Frequently this occurs if the company has multiple similar openings and they want to be able to make offers to multiple people instead of making a person who doesn’t get the first position come in and do all the same interviews over again just so another manager gets a chance to meet them (and repeat for another position/manager). At my company, after the all-day interview the managers who had open positions would get together and discuss the candidates that they liked the best for the positions and negotiate who would make offers to which candidates based on strengths and how well the candidate go along with the people from that portion of the interview.

      2. Plague of frogs*

        I’m in high tech, and an all-day interview is totally normal for any role (Alison was wrong about this). I had them when I was still in college. They have to see what you know, and it takes a while. They give you a problem, it takes 30 or 40 minutes to work through it, they give you another problem, etc.

        Add to that, people are often too nervous at the beginning to answer questions well, so the first hour might be wasted. I bombed an easy question at the beginning of the interview, and instead of showing me the door they kept interviewing me, and then asked me the same question 6 hours in. I was fine by then, and they said, “We knew you knew that.”

        Additionally, they’re often flying candidates in, so they really need to get it done all at once if possible.

    2. Time to get that arranged marriage my parents want*

      I guess it depends on the role, as Alison said. Maybe LW applied for a high up position?

    3. LadyByTheLake*

      Sounds perfectly ordinary to me. Even all day interviews are perfectly ordinary, although trying to pack 20 people into one day IS unusual.

      1. Judy (since 2010)*

        We usually do a half day+ interview. About an hour or so with each group: with hiring manager, with peer group, with department managing group, with HR, with a facilities tour and product demo. Lunch if it fits their schedule.

    4. Kat in VA*

      Apply online, HR phone screen, online personality assessment, Zoom interview with hiring manager, second personality assessment (proctored), then almost four interview with seven different people.

      This is for an Executive Assistant position, by the way, not anything Director- or C Suite-ish.

      Very, very different from the days where you mailed in your resume, got a phone call to come in and interview, and were offered the job on the spot at the conclusion of the interview if they liked you! :P

  15. Jess*

    LW#3: I think this must be a regional/country thing. I would find it really weird to see something with employment gaps, BUT it’s also the norm here to get “CVs” rather than “resumes”, and CVs really are meant to capture the whole course of an employment career. If someone applied to us who was used to sending in selective resumes, it probably would raise some eyebrows. The idea of having an “Other experience” section, while not usual for me, would fill in the gaps and make sense.

    1. Seriously?*

      The difference in a CV and resume is critical here. If they ask for a CV and you leave off some work experience, that will look bad since CVs typically include everything.

    2. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      You’re probably right. I think the fact that the letter writer is applying for jobs in education and nonprofits strongly indicates that employers are expecting a CV and not a resume. In my experience CVs seem to be much more expected in education than they are in corporate (in the US), even if they don’t specifically call out that they are looking for a “CV” in the job posting.

    3. The Ginger Ginger*

      Okay this is a safe place to ask this question I think. What does “CV” stand for?

  16. Foreign Octopus*

    LW2 this would bug me as well. I hate celebrating my birthday to the extent that if someone wishes me happy birthday, my skin goes tight. I don’t know why I don’t like hem, I just don’t. However, I have been friends with people like your assistant (who sounds great) and trying to get them to understand that I don’t want to make a song and dance of my birthday was agony.

    When I was at uni, my house,ages organized me a surprise birthday party – it was an excuse for a piss up, you know what students are like – and I found out by accident. I spent the night in the 24 hour library working on my assignments and reading instead of going home, so I feel you on this.

    1. MicroManagered*

      it was an excuse for a piss up

      I soooo wish I could get away with saying “piss up” in the US…. *sigh*

  17. Lady Sybil and her pet swamp dragon*

    OP1, if the extensive apologising is that ingrained, your employee may have the hardest time switching it off entirely. What if you offered her an intermediate (and possibly temporary) strategy to handle this? I suspect if she cut all the elaborating on the themes of “I’m stupid”, “this is a stupid question” etc. and just kept it to a quick “sorry”, everyone could live with that.

  18. alice*

    OP1: “Do you want to say that a different way?” is going to come across as incredibly condescending. At least, that’s how I’d take it. There’s probably a better way to say this. “This is what we were talking about – try to say it again without all the apologising”, for example.

    1. Maddie*

      Agree Alice. Do you want to say that in a different way is liking talking to a third grader. Extremely condescending.

  19. A.N. O'Nyme*

    Sorta related to #3: I was surprised to learn a resume and a CV are not the same. Over here everyone just asks for your CV (although an american friend of mine applying for a job with a Belgian company in Canada was equally surprised at being asked for a CV). I’m gonna guess this is a regional/industry thing in your case.

    1. Thlayli*

      I can’t quite figure out the differences. I always thought American “resume” was equivalent to a British Isles “CV”. But apparently there are subtle differences. It’s complicated by the fact that in America they also have a document called a “CV” for academia which is like a really long CV listing everything an academic has done including all their publications – nothing like what a British Isles resident would recognise as a normal CV.

      There was a thread a while back on one of the open threads on the differences in hiring in US / elsewhere. Another big difference is the thank you notes – they would be considered really weird and a bit shady over here.

    2. alice*

      My understanding is that a CV in Europe is the same thing as a resume in the US. They wouldn’t want anything longer than a page here (I’m American but live in Ireland). A CV in the US is the entirety of all your skills and work experience, correct? I remember my mother having one that was 8 pages long. Although I’ve never heard of any job asking for one that wasn’t academic. I’m not sure what you’d call that type of CV in Europe.

      1. Thlayli*

        A 1-page cv would be normal early in your career, but I would expect a 2-page once you have a couple of jobs under your belt.

        1. alice*

          Thanks for the tip! I have about five years of work experience. Is it time to expand to two pages and go into a little more detail?

          1. Rosie*

            American in the UK here: the rule of thumb re CV length I was taught when I worked in recruitment was a page for every decade

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        CVs in the US are generally used in academic/professional fields that involve publishing. I’ve seen 50+ page CVs for doctors involved in research because they’ve written a lot of articles for scientific journals.

          1. Detective Amy Santiago*

            Yeah, they include publishing credits and presentations at conferences and probably some other stuff that I’m not remembering.

            1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

              Yeah…poster presentations as well as speaking presentations, fellowships, committees and memberships to professional organizations — especially if they are on the board or received any awards…these days I’ve even seen them include things like Youtube videos and blog posts on the topic of their research or academic field — not personal.

      3. Maddie*

        CV is the term in the professional world, such as educators, physician, attorney, etc. One who has to be credentialed in some way. It’s not exactly the same as a resume and is a common US term.

  20. Harper the Other One*

    OP1: I would focus on the “stupid question” part, not the “sorry” part. In my area it’s not uncommon for people to say “sorry” before asking a question; it’s basically shorthand for “sorry to interrupt what you’re doing.” So I don’t think that in and of itself is a problem.

    But the “this is a stupid question” part definitely is! So if you tackle that wording specifically, reminding her that her questions aren’t stupid and that she’s a capable employee that you trust, you may have more success – because she won’t feel like she has to change everything about how she talks to you, all at once.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I had a group who used the expression “stupid question”. I have no idea how many times I said, “The only stupid question there is, is the one that doesn’t get asked. How else do we learn and do things if we do not ask questions?” They eventually stopped using the word “stupid” in front of the word “question”.

  21. missc*

    OP1 – I appreciate that you know your own employee and the wider context, but your description made me smile because that’s just how we normally do things in Britain :) I can’t imagine interrupting someone at work to ask a question without saying ‘Sorry to bother you, but would you mind…’ or ‘Sorry…can I just ask a quick question…?’ I’m new to my job and I’m always starting off questions with something like ‘OK, stupid question, but can someone tell me where the stationery is again?’ or ‘I’ve got another stupid question! Sorry! Can you remind me who I need to speak to about X?’ It’s not because I’m anxious or because I’m actually berating myself for not knowing something – the ‘Sorry to bother you’ line is just usual politeness and a way of introducing the fact that you’re going to take up a bit of someone’s time, while the ‘I’ve got a stupid question! Sorry!’ is typical (for me and most people I know) self-effacing lightheartedness, because I know I should really know the answer by now.

    I suppose it all comes down to tone – if someone was constantly saying ‘I’m so sorry, I’m stupid, I’m an absolute idiot but I can’t remember how to do X, I know I’ve been shown, I’m sorry, I should do better, I apologise’ or something equally over-the-top, then you’d probably speak to them, but starting a question with ‘Sorry to bother you…’ or similar is 100% part of normal office interaction here.

    1. OP #1*

      Yeah, it’s definitely more over-the-top than just a “sorry” here or there. I’m a midwesterner (very similar speech patterns and tics) and I definitely say “sorry” a lot, in a “sorry, have to push back our meeting 5 minutes,” “sorry I didn’t answer this question earlier, just seeing it now” sense. This is much more serious — rerouting the conversation into total self-deprecation and saying things like “I’ll probably be fired soon”* when she gets feedback like “hey, can you start the filename for TPS reports with the client name rather than your name, thanks”

      *her work is excellent and she does not lack for positive feedback on it

  22. Indie*

    In education it can be vital that they have a chronological account for safeguarding issues. Gaps in employment or schooling are one of the standard ways schools look for issues/concerns with predatory behaviour/jail time. Most schools want to know where you’ve been since the age of 16 with all gaps explained. They do usually produce a standard form for that; however my agency just asked for a CV, assuming that I knew the convention.

    1. Julianne (also a teacher)*

      This isn’t generally the case in schools in the U.S. – at least, not in the areas of the U.S. where I’ve worked as a teacher. I sit on hiring committees in my department, and TBH we’re not all that interested in candidates’ non-teaching experience unless it has some relevance to the position (like a performing arts teacher candidate’s own history performing their art, or a world language teacher who worked professionally in a location where that language is spoken). We have background checks to cover any legal issues that would prevent candidates from safely working around children, and in three years of participating in the hiring process, we’ve never had someone apply for a position at our school who wouldn’t be eligible for employment based on their legal history.

      1. Indie*

        No I think it is very much a UK thing. The way it was explained to me was that after the Soham murders (by a school caretaker/janitor) a lot of schools made this change based on the resulting inquiry. UK Schools now are expected to do more than just the DBS background check because
        the Soham caretaker didn’t have any convictions which would have shown up on the check. He had been suspected/investigated more than once though, at which point he tended to move on. My understanding of this isn’t perfect; I just know that Local Educational Authorities want an exhaustive chronology these days.

        1. Julianne (also a teacher)*

          Yikes. My state (Massachusetts) has moved to a more robust background check since I started teaching here, but I don’t know that it was in response to any specific incident or incidents. Everyone had to get fingerprinted in the past three years and the rollout wasn’t handled super well (not enough centers or operating hours to meet demand), but there haven’t been any additional demands placed at the school level to investigate candidates’ backgrounds. Not sure about the district level (which I think would be equivalent to the Local Educational Authority).

          1. Indie*

            Huntley had a number of underage consensual ‘girlfriends’ in his past; no conviction due to victims’ wishes. He was also accused of raping adult women , but not enough evidence (aside from victims word, infuriatingly) to convict there either. Possibly there are differences in US law where these issues would be more likely to result in conviction? Or maybe the background check includes accusations?

        2. Thlayli*

          They’ve brought in really strict rules now on child welfare in my country. I had to get police vetted just to attend a martial arts class that was mixed adults and children (not to teach – just to be in the same class as kids with a teacher present at all times).

          1. Indie*

            That’s because you will be developing relationships, albeit casual ones, with the children concerned. It’s sad, but there are plenty of sick people who would be drawn to that like flies; when you bar predators from being teachers and coaches they move on to other means of accessing children.

          2. Rusty Shackelford*

            I had to get a background check to go on a week-long field trip with my kid. I wasn’t a chaperone, and there were no circumstances where I’d be alone with my own kid, let alone anyone else’s kid, but every adult had a have a background check. Which isn’t a bad thing, unless you’re the guy who was busted for public urination when he was 18 and is now a registered sex offender.

            1. Temperance*

              Just FYI, this is fairly OT but I feel the need to correct this misconception. The vast majority of states do not consider public urination to be a felony that would require someone to register. HOWEVER, many sex offenders lie and claim that’s what they did (“got drunk and peed on a school”) because it’s much less awful than admitting that you actually raped or harmed someone.

            2. Indie*

              Does that show up on safeguarding checks?! In the UK it’s a bylaw misdemenour unless you’re intentionally exposing yourself. I’m not a huge fan of convicted=bad, not convicted = good without context, decisions anyway. If for no reason than it’s massively common for sexual offences/domestic violence/harassment reports to remain unofficial.

              Also, it’s not about being *alone* with a child, its about being *known to a child*. Anyone your child meets on this field trip will, in the future, be ‘Bud’ instead of ‘stranger’ if they are sought out. Plus Bud will know his/her name, likes and dislikes. It’s generally terrible practice for any professional, even one with impeccable checks, to be alone and out of sight with a child anyway.

              1. Temperance*

                Contrary to popular belief, it does not. We do not have an epidemic of teenage boys peeing in public and getting collared for it. It’s a lie that rapists tell because they don’t want to admit what they’ve done.

      2. Persimmons*

        Agreed, I would certainly hope the piles of clearances would take care of that. Teachers in my state have to have a state criminal background check, federal criminal background check (FBI), DHS child abuse history clearance, and fingerprinting.

  23. This Daydreamer*

    OP1, I’ve had anxiety most of my life, I can really see myself in your employee’s position.

    In your position, what I would do is tell her “If you have a question, or do anything that I feel is inappropriate or unprofessional, I will tell you. If I can promise that, can you stop apologizing, calling yourself stupid, or otherwise undermining yourself? I have faith that you can do your job; I would never have hired you otherwise. You have continued to prove to me that you can do the work and that you have good judgement, but I need you to show the kind of confidence it takes to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing. You may have to fake that confidence, we all have to at times, but I need you to stop second guessing yourself so much.”

    1. BeenThere*

      I finally realized that by being critical of myself I was potentially giving people ammunition to use against me. (That’s how MY anxiety works!)

      1. CA's Ex*

        My college boyfriend pointed out that when I called myself stupid, I was really insulting him by implying that he would be in a relationship with a stupid woman. It did get me to stop referring to myself in that way.

        1. Cordoba*

          When I was growing up if I said I was stupid my parents would say “Nobody is allowed to call my kid stupid; that includes you.”

        2. Alex the Alchemist*

          When my partner self-deprecates, I usually say, “Hey, how dare you talk about my favorite person that way!”

      2. Spider*

        After a lifetime of self-deprecation, I got a big wakeup call when I found myself working with someone who actually (~gasp~) took me at my word when I put myself down, instead of recognizing it as, well, self-deprecation. I was really shocked and hurt that he would treat me like an insecure know-nothing, until I realized he had just met me and didn’t yet have any evidence that I was actually really good at my job.

        So you bet I knocked that off right away! How dare he insult my intelligence?! Only I’m allowed to do that…hey, wait…

  24. BeenThere*

    Just here to say…. I do not like to be the center of attention either and do everything in my power to be off from work on my birthday. Fortunately in our office it is rare to recognize birthdays. If I came in and my office was decorated, I’m not sure what the heck I would do!!!

    1. Foreign Octopus*

      In the last office I worked, you got a paid day off for your birthday. If it fell on the weekend, you could choose to take either Monday or Friday off for it.

      I’ve always thought that was a good way to do things.

  25. Beth Jacobs*

    I wonder if maybe leaving out the irrelevant jobs is causing gaps in OP’ resume? I don’t include the irrelevant jobs I held as a student, but since those were at the beginning of my worklife, it’s not that obvious.

  26. Nox*

    #1 (caps lock for extreme emphasis)
    DO NOT ADVISE THIS PERSON THAT WORKING WITH THEM IS DIFFICULT OR UNCOMFORTABLE. THIS IS AWFUL AND WILL MAKE A SITUATION WORSE. Mindfulness to anxiety or to traits of abuse survivors is very important as a manager. We are everywhere and we manifest differently.

    Build the employee up, what they need is confidence to be developed. Maybe they come from aggressive environments where they were yelled at for every little thing – I think its important to address and assure a person that the culture is different and that there are no such things as stupid questions.

    1. Sally*

      Yes, but OP has already established that she tried those things, and the behavior is making her dread working with her! The employee has to know how her behaviors are impacting her career no matter where it comes from.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Yes, and at work–other places too–it’s okay to focus on someone’s behavior and its impact on those around them.

    2. TL -*

      It probably will make the employee feel bad but honestly the employee is feeling bad anyways. It’s not the OP’s job to manage her feelings, even if the employee has really strong feelings. This is a serious issue that’s affecting their ability to work together – that is the message that needs to be communicated.

      I think the OP is okay to use that wording. She’s being clear and honest and giving her employee a defined way to improve. That is a kind thing to do, even if it isn’t “nice.”

      1. pleaset*

        “It’s not the OP’s job to manage her feelings, even if the employee has really strong feelings. This is a serious issue that’s affecting their ability to work together – that is the message that needs to be communicated.”

        This. It’s very important to tell the truth and not avoid speaking the truth about this kind of behavior hurting performance in the workplace because people with anxiety are everywhere.

        “no such things as stupid questions”
        Oh come on. In a workplace, where time is not an unlimited resource, a good employee should be able to use judgement and not waste other people’s time with questions for which they can, and have been urged/supported to, make decisions themselves.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          “No such thing as stupid questions.”

          Let us never forget the intern who sent everyone in the office a video of the office’s electronic stapler in action.

        2. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

          “no such things as stupid questions”

          Yes… yes there are.

          ::Nods sagely::

        3. Michaela Westen*

          When I was in school every teacher had been taught to say that. Their subsequent actions made clear they didn’t mean it.
          Example 1: He said, “no such thing as a stupid question” Someone asked a question and he said “I was wrong, that’s a stupid question.”
          Example 2: I went up to her and asked a question, and she looked at me like she wanted to kill me.

    3. CM*

      I think it can be a good wake-up call for people to understand how their behavior impacts others. Especially in this situation — the employee is trying to use apologies as a sort of social lubricant, and needs to be told that her apologies are having the opposite effect. The boss can say this kindly: “I know you don’t intend it this way, but I feel uncomfortable when you keep apologizing, as if I can’t give you direction on your work without making you feel bad. I want you to work on that by communicating without apologies or self-deprecation.”

    4. Time to get that arranged marriage my parents want*

      I agree. As someone who deals with the same problem, if my supervisor said the line that Alison gave, I would think, “wow, I can’t even say sorry correctly.”

      I’m sorry, but there’s no quick fix, no sudden wake up call, that can fix this. LW needs to be patient. Keep ensuring her that you know that she can do her job correctly, and she’ll eventually catch on.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I think it’s perfectly reasonable to provide constructive criticism to an employee that includes “you undermine yourself by constantly apologizing”.

        1. Time to get that arranged marriage my parents want*

          I agree! But I think the language Alison suggested is really unhelpful. “You’re hard to work with” type arguments and “do you want to try that again?” are not going to help anyone.

          1. Mimmy*

            Agreed. I’m not a manager (and don’t plan to be), but I’ve read that it’s better to focus on the behavior rather than the person.

      2. MLB*

        I think the LW has been plenty patient. It’s not her job to walk on eggshells because she may cause her more issues or anxiety. It’s the worker’s job to find ways to cope with and treat her anxiety (or whatever is the issue) in the workplace.

        1. Time to get that arranged marriage my parents want*

          The worker’s anxiety isn’t affecting her actual work.

          “Seeing her name in my inbox and imagining the cascade of self-hatred that’s going to preface a perfectly reasonable request gives me a knot in my stomach.”

          This has everything to do with LW’s comfort. You say LW can’t walk around on eggshells because of the worker’s feelings, and yet everyone wants the worker to change their behavior for LW’s feelings.

          1. Falling Diphthong*

            If people dread interacting with you, that’s a problem. Even if the work, once extracted, is good. Other people in the office have commented on her behavior, too, but at this point most of her questions go to her manager and so the manager is most affected by it.

            Whatever the soft skill fail–someone who seems irritated at every normal work interruption, someone who needs hand-holding and reassurance as a prerequisite for every normal work interruption, someone who cannot be asked about the Simpson file without first elaborating every detail of their weekend bike ride–if it’s causing people to avoid working with you, it makes sense for your manager to address it.

          2. Anona*

            If her work is working with other people, then it is. It means she’s more difficult to work with/they may delay working with her.

          3. Perse's Mom*

            The OP has commented elsewhere that *other* employees are now going around Apologia because the behavior makes them uncomfortable, too. This isn’t just about OP.

      3. Natalie*

        Oof, strongly disagree. Excessive reassurance seeking isn’t actually helped at all by providing reassurance. Providing reassurance can actually make the behavior worse.

        If the employee needs mental health support of some kind, they need to go out and seek it.

      4. Maddie*

        It’s not up to boss to constantly reassure employee. It’s a disruption to the workday. It fosters constant negativity. Adults have to control their anxiety at work and if they can’t, seek professional help to do so.

    5. I am who I am*

      Your’e not telling them that they are inherently hard to work with, you are telling them that specific behaviors they exhibit make it hard to work with them. And you are explaining why, kindly and with context/explanation, so they can improve and succeed.

      I’ve told an employee, who I suspect struggles with anxiety, that they were undercutting themselves with a similar verbal tic. That it was distracting and made them sound less competent than I knew they were. Because the employee knew I cared about them as a person, and that I was telling them this because I wanted them to be successful, they were able to hear the feedback and act on it. They told me a few months later, that, while it was really hard to hear in the moment, they were grateful I’d told them so they could fix it.

    6. LQ*

      We do manifest differently. Which is why I have a very deep concern about you screaming about not telling someone about something that is holding them back professionally, or may at some point hold them back. It is absolutely reasonable for a boss to tell their employee that this verbal tic or pattern may be holding them back.

    7. Les G*

      You’re yelling at the OP for something she has shown approximately zero indications of doing.

    8. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*


      I 100% disagree with this statement. If a person is difficult or uncomfortable to work with it is the managers job to advise them of this and to help them change the behavior.

      1. ANonnyNonny*

        I think she can say what needs to be said without using the words “difficult” or “uncomfortable.”

        “Can we make it a standing rule going forward that you try not to apologize for asking questions? If it’s a bad time, I’ll let you know – otherwise you can assume I have time to talk.”
        “Please don’t apologize for asking questions – this is part of my job/what I’m paid for.”

        There are a few middle ground options between “you don’t have to apologize” and “you’re difficult to work with.”

    9. katherine*

      This is very good advice I’m kind of depressed — as someone who lives in America and needs to be employed to survive — that people are disagreeing with so strongly. As someone who apologizes a lot, if I say something like “sorry to bother you” it is because I can sense that I am indeed bothering them (or, in the LW’s words, making them dread talking to me), and I would prefer not to do things that upset people, but have no choice but to do so, because I need to for my job. So if someone tells me that yes, I am in fact bothering them, then the likely result is that I will apologize more, not less, because I don’t just sense that I’m bothering them — I know that I am bothering them, because the just told me. It’s cause and effect.

      It also makes it the employee’s job to manage the LW’s feelings — I’m really not sure why that only works one way here.

    10. Lindsay J*

      But it’s not the manager’s responsibility to deal with how someone’s mental illnesses or past traumas manifest. Nor is it necessarily her job to develop the employee’s confidence or self esteem.

      Those are what therapists and friends and other support team members are for.

      And really, no matter why or how the mechanism developed, at this point and in this context it is maladaptive and something the employee should be working on to stop. Coping with mental illnesses and traumas is hard. Changing any habit is hard. Changing habits that were developed to stop you from being screamed at or berated is doubly so. That doesn’t mean we should shrug our shoulders and be like “this is who I am now. Everyone else will just have to deal.” Part of moving on from stuff like this is identifying and defeating these thoughts and behaviors.

      I spent the first several months with my new boyfriend being terrified that the smallest thing was going to set him off, because that’s how my ex was. 5 minutes late to dinner? Spill my drink? Get a call from my best friend? Pick out a bad movie to watch? Restaurant has a 10 minute wait? All things that would have made my ex blow up. However, when I saw my new boyfriend would not blow up about any of those things, I realized that I needed to learn to manage my initial reaction, because reacting to him the same way I reacted to my ex did not make sense, and it was unfair to him to expect him to manage my reactions and emotions about something that was not about him.

      It sounds like the OP has done enough to signify that she is a safe person. She has not screamed at this employee or otherwise abused her. She has reassured her. She has answered the questions kindly and without judgment. She has indicated that this apologizing and grovelling is not necessary. At this point it’s on the employee.

      The manager is there to facilitate work getting done in an efficient and appropriate way. That generally does include being kind to their employees, and in a situation like this perhaps a referral to an IEP would be in order.

      But the manager has a duty to all of their employees, and if one person is making other people uncomfortable, it is much kinder to everyone (including the person who is causing others to be uncomfortable) to let that person know that, rather than letting the behavior persist.

      Having to hear someone berate themselves all the time could even be triggering or at least cause a great deal of mental discomfort for other employees with anxiety or who were previously abused. (I know hearing someone put them self down makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons, not all of which I can put my fingers on. It also makes me feel like I have to do something to stop them or reassure them or otherwise make them not feel that way, which is not something I should feel the need to dedicate my mental capacity to at work.)

  27. Persimmons*

    #3 this was a no-win situation when I was job searching during grad school. Putting it on the resume made people accuse me of being deceptive (why would you include a degree that wasn’t finished?) and leaving it off did the same thing (why are you hiding such a huge time commitment?). You can’t win.

    1. Anononon*

      I don’t get this. It’s very common to include current schooling with an indication as to when your degree is expected. I never had an issue with that in law school.

      1. WellRed*

        If they dropped out of the program without finishing and with no plans to finish, though

        1. Cordoba*

          In that case you list a few of the relevant courses you took, but not that they were pursuant to a degree.

          For example: “I was very interested in learning more about [subject] so when I had time I signed up for these 500-level courses related to it.”

          This is a very valid thing to do. I am currently taking university courses on programming robots although I have no intentions of getting a degree at the end of them. I just wanted to learn more about programming robots.

    2. Thlayli*

      You just have to make it clear on the resume that you are still working on it! Eg “(expected graduation date 2019)” or similar.

  28. MicroManagered*

    OP2: I am definitely in the “No Big Deal” camp when it comes to my own birthday/work, so I’m biased, but… Your description of your assistant’s behavior sounds pretty pouty to me, and I would be inclined to just let it go and not validate it by initiating a conversation about it. I’d continue to be warm and pleasant to her like I’m sure you always are. But the last thing I want to do is discuss someone else’s kaleidoscope of feelings about my birthday, that I didn’t care that much about in the first place.

    1. Maddie*

      And flowers to me is just rewarding this pouty behavior. Maybe six months from now, generally, but not anywhere in this time frame. Pouty, sullen behavior at work because things didn’t go your way is bad behavior.

    2. ANonnyNonny*

      I read less “pouty” and more “this is her first real mistake in the office and she’s lost some confidence.” It’s possible with time and continuing to do a good job that it will come back. It doesn’t say OP is surly or refusing work or anything like that, just that she isn’t bubbly, which is something that can happen after a mistake is made.

  29. Delta Delta*

    #1 – Here’s a slightly different thought. It may be that prefacing every question with the apologetic lead-in is a habit the co-worker developed somewhere along the way. It may be so ingrained in her everyday interactions with people that she just does it. Not going to try to figure out the reasons – it’s apparent it’s just something she does.

    I’m a lawyer and I try lots of cases. I went to a trial seminar once where I got a great tip. I had a habit of saying “ok” when a witness would answer a question. (You’re not supposed to do this) I learned to be aware of that habit and to become conscious of it. I learned to replace saying ok aloud by doing an unrelated, slight movement (I press my left thumb and forefinger together very slightly). That helped me shift my verbal habit to something else. This was suggested to me as a part of some coaching that turned out to be effective. Possibly a similar suggestion to the co-worker could be helpful as a part of some overall coaching. A way to help the co-worker become conscious, then a way to help disrupt the habit.

    1. Maya Elena*

      Great point. It’s like kids who intersperse every three words with “like”, or worse, the “F” word, but it’s so ingrained they don’t realize it.

  30. I Herd the Cats*

    Re OP#2 — eh, I feel like any further action on your part is putting a lot of effort into managing the assistant’s feelings. You were nice; you didn’t yell at her, you just made it clear you weren’t all that thrilled. It’s on the assistant (who clearly misread the office, and you) to learn from her mistake and get on with it. If I did something similar to my boss, the CEO, he would think it was completely bizarre and embarrassing, and would probably respond less graciously than you did, and he’s a lovely guy.

    1. CM*

      I agree — you didn’t make a big deal out of it, and the assistant needs to get over it, she’s just taking a little time to feel better. Continue to act normal and she’ll move past this. Getting her flowers or having a conversation about feelings at this point seems unnecessary, since you already said thank you and also explained that you weren’t into birthdays.

    2. Anonymeece*

      Agreed. It sounds like she’s embarrassed by her mistake, and if that’s the case, it’s better to just act normal rather than dredge it up again. I’d be mortified if I made a mistake, tried to keep my head low to get over it, and then had my boss bring it up again.

      Maybe just saying, “Good job on X”, to show that you still appreciate her work? It’s low-key and may help her regain her confidence after her mis-step.

  31. LGC*

    So, I’m kind of inclined to suggest LW2 leave gender out of this entirely. Gender dynamics matter, of course, but I think it confuses the main message that she just doesn’t like making a big deal about her birthday.

    1. Bea*


      I’m in a male dominated industry. They love their birthdays, we do full company acknowledgment. I only recently started being okay with mine.

    2. McWhadden*

      Yes, especially because I don’t think this is a gender thing. When I first came to my department I was the only woman. But a couple of the guys were nuts about birthdays. And went to HR to find out mine to celebrate it.

      I am also an indifferent to birthdays type. Some people like birthdays and some people don’t. I don’t think this runs along strict gender lines. And I do get that women are more likely to put in the “emotional work” of putting together a celebration although that is not always true. But, even when that is the case, it doesn’t mean men don’t want a celebration.

      1. anon today and tomorrow*

        They went to HR to find out your birthday???? I would have some serious issues with HR if they actually told people my birthday.

    3. Maddie*

      Yes. I’d completely leave out gender and state it’s not the office culture. The gender thing could well have blow back on the OP if Assistant told anyone she said it.

    4. smoke tree*

      I might not mention gender dynamics in this situation, but I do think it would be a good idea to mention that it’s out of sync with the office culture.

    5. CM*

      I agree. Partly because saying, “This is an office full of dudes so you need to fit in with them” opens up a really icky set of issues about whether women should try to be more like men to “fit in” in male-dominated fields or those fields should expand their definition of what fits in.

  32. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    Apologizing person, are you me? A combination of really strict parenting, Midwestern background, and anxiety means that if I were a See-and-Say: “what does the human say?” “Sorry!”

  33. blink14*

    OP#4: I was in a similar position when I took my current job. I had been seriously injured about 9 months before, and it was becoming clear that I most likely would need to have surgery in 3-4 months, and assumed I would need to be out 4-6 weeks.

    I said nothing during my interview, but once I received the job offer, I mentioned it right away. Fortunately, the director of my department was more than willing to hire me with the surgery likely pending, and we worked it out. One huge thing in my favor is that sick time here is per year, not accrued (vacation time is), so I was able to take advantage of the very generous sick time offered to new employees.

    In my case, I disclosed right away what the injury was (it was also somewhat obvious), but I don’t think you need to disclose what you are dealing with, just leave it as a medical issue. Good luck!

      1. blink14*

        You’re welcome! Hope the job works out for the best and your medical situation turns out to be the least serious option.

  34. Bea*

    In my experience, we don’t tailer resumes. It creates gaps that then need to be explained, we prefer to just see “oh they taught in Thailand for a couple of years.” despite it not being relevant.

    Granted you wouldn’t then need to put side hustles or such on there that weren’t relevant. And the five page resume we got awhile ago should have been trimmed down to relevance. So this one can be so person and company specific. I see why the pushback but know why splitting up relevant data can be a good choice as well.

      1. Foreign Octopus*

        The royal we, of course.

        And I agree, no need to tailor the resume but definitely cut it down. 7 pages is way too long.

    1. ANonnyNonny*

      I think the confusion is treating a resume like a work history document when that isn’t what it’s for. Resumes that highlight the candidate’s skills are likely going to have “gaps” because it’s rare that every bit of a person’s work experience would be relevant to the job they want. If you want work history, ask for it.

  35. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    OP#5: What’s amazing to me is that the employers do sometimes take their sweet time (sometimes months) and may throw a crazy interviewing process at candidates, but then once the offer is made, that same employer wants an immediate answer and wants you to start asap. LOL.

    1. Nita*

      I was about to say the same thing! I once interviewed for a new job, and everything moved reasonably fast up to the interview. That went well enough that at first I was making plans to leave my old job – wrapping up projects, figuring out who to delegate to, trying not to take on new work. Only, I heard nothing from these guys for more than a month, despite reaching out to check in, and I figured they’d hired someone. I started taking new projects again, had a ton of work, and suddenly they call me back and want me to start in two weeks, tops. Which wasn’t really possible unless I wanted to finish a long career at a very good company by dumping a giant mess on my coworkers.

      I never found out what happened, but I’m guessing they did hire someone and wouldn’t tell me I’m out of the running because they wanted to keep me on the back burner. And then the person they hired didn’t work out so they went back to trying to get me.

  36. JN*

    #5: I had that happen to me a year or so ago (in academia). I applied for an opening in late January at a university and for another spot at the same place in late February. About a week later, I got an email offer for a phone interview for job opening #2, which took place a week or two later (mid-March). The phone interview process was planned to take 1.5 weeks, so I was told to expect an update 3 weeks after my phone interview date as to whether or not I’d be moving forward to the in-person interview phase. When I hadn’t heard anything a month after my phone interview, I emailed for an update. I got a response that I was being recommended to move forward, but needed to wait for the official word to come by the end of the week–it took 4 week (mid-May) to get that official word and the interview date options (mid-June or mid-July), and another week to hear back that I would get the date I requested. There was also a lack of rapidity in getting info on the travel arrangement/reimbursement process. At the interview, I was told that, as I was the final candidate to interview, the committee recommendation would be sent to the department head in a few days and the chosen one notified with an offer in about a week, and with a target start date of about 4 weeks after the offer (at the start of the semester), though that was somewhat negotiable. A week past that deadline, I did email the department head for an update….and didn’t year anything for a month (I was continuing to apply, and expected to get a “thanks, but no thanks” answer. At that point (5 weeks post-interview), I emailed the committee head asking for info…and found out the department head stepped down right after my interview and may not have seen my update request (and apparently no one else did either). I did at least get the word then that I wasn’t being considered for that position. About a year later, both the department head position and the one I interviewed for are still vacant. Sounds like I may have dodged a budget bullet, and ultimately didn’t think I was a good fit for the position anyway (a bit too much of a professional jump for me right then. Maybe down the road, but not then.

  37. MLB*

    #5 – Completely agree with Alison…2 weeks is not a long time to wait. It’s summer, people are on vacation, and there was a holiday in the mix. I interviewed for a job once at the end of the year, and they didn’t offer the job to me until a month later.

  38. Hutsy*

    #2 I don’t know what’s with all the birthday hate on here but I will say it – I love my birthday and I love getting attention for it. If I was the OP, I would be moved to tears that someone thought of acknowledging my special day and put in a lot of effort into it. Bonus for it being a surprise. OP, tell her that there are many people who would appreciate a gesture like that because it’s true.

    1. Baby Fishmouth*

      But the problem is that there’s a lot of workplaces where it’s a completely inappropriate gesture to do what OP’s assistant did. It doesn’t actually matter if somebody would enjoy the gesture or not – in OP’s workplace, it’s just Not Done, and the assistant needs to learn how to gage that.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        And the assistant had been there almost a year. That is, long enough for most of the people in the office to have birthdays, and for her to observe office norms about celebrating them.

      2. nonymous*

        For LW#2 I’d probably encourage the admin to join whatever bday committee exists (if there is one at the workplace) or steer her enthusiasm to other employee-recognition tasks. As others in the comment thread point out, many people do enjoy being the center of attention in this way. It might be reasonable to have an opt-in monthly celebration for birthdays or she could take the lead for retirement send-offs.

    2. anon today and tomorrow*

      It’s not really helpful to tell the OP that you’d love something they hated. They didn’t like it, and that’s okay. Just as you would love a similar gift, and that’s also okay. OP wasn’t wrong for not liking it and telling her employee so. Whether or not you’d like it really has no bearing on the OP and how she handles the situation.

      1. Hutsy*

        I was mostly countering the point of all the birthday haters in this thread, reading the comments you would think that hating birthdays in a universal thing. It’s actually not and it’s less common than liking birthdays.

        1. anon today and tomorrow*

          I don’t really think that’s something we can say accurately. There’s no way to know whether liking birthdays is more common than hating them.

        2. Maddie*

          Because some of us do not want streamers and balloons birthday celebrations at work, does not mean we are birthday haters. That’s a bit much.

          1. anon today and tomorrow*

            Yeah, exactly. I don’t care for people celebrating my birthday and I’d hate for someone to throw a big surprise party for me, but it doesn’t mean I hate my birthday. It just means I want to take a day off and pamper myself alone. It’s not always an either/or situation.

        3. Indie*

          It’s not necessary to classify a preference as common/normal. If the whole rest of the world likes (food you dislike) their liking it wont help you stop disliking it. People are allowed to be different! We dont have to follow ‘Acting normal and exhibiting no individual traits’ scripts. Please remember that OP celebrated assistant’s birthday with assistant’s (unusual for the office) individual preferences in mind. Now THAT is thoughtful.

    3. Nita*

      If OP was into celebrating her birthday at work, she’d probably have mentioned at least once that her birthday is coming up, she’s excited, yay yay… she never said a word to the assistant, who “somehow” found out without OP’s knowledge. And loving your birthday definitely doesn’t equal being over the moon that you’re spending it at work! The assistant, of all people, should have realized that, since she took the day off to celebrate hers. Surprise parties are nice, but should be saved for people one knows are going to enjoy the surprise. Never mind that this seems to have been doubly awkward for OP because of the office culture.

    4. Maddie*

      If I were OP I’d be very irritated if I worked in a conservative office where this is not done. Assistant meant well but it’s a service to her to gently tell her it was not appropriate. Birthdays should only be recognized at the office if the birthday person wants them to be, aside from a casual “happy birthday “.

    5. pleaset*


      Being reminded we’re that much closer to death.

      A celebration of the accomplishment of cheating the reaper for yet another year. That to put a more positive spin on it, simply existing.



    6. EditorInChief*

      It’s not a matter of liking or hating birthdays. It’s a matter of professionalism and office culture. In OP’s office birthdays weren’t celebrated. The assistant was there almost a year, long enough to be able to navigate office culture.

  39. Orfeo*

    #1 – There’s a lot of great advice above about coaching/correcting the employee, which is the main issue, but it might also be helpful to consider coaching yourself a bit. You’re stuck in a cycle where the employee acts in a way that makes you think she is anxious or hates herself, and that makes you anxious and worried about how you can help her be happier or more confident, and that makes you reluctant to interact with her at all. Addressing the first part is important, but you can also find ways to take the pressure off yourself: you know she does this, you know that you provide appropriate feedback and support (as you should for all employees, not just the visibly anxious ones), you DON’T need to assign yourself primary responsibility for making her feel happier and more secure.
    You’re her boss, which does mean you have some responsibility as the person who controls a great deal of her working life, but you’re not her confidant or her therapist (and she hasn’t asked you to be, even if it feels that she has by being visibly distressed or unhappy).

    1. OP #1*

      Thank you, this is really helpful. It’s been a couple of months since I sent this letter and I’ve really tried to focus on that. I can’t necessarily change her behavior but I CAN change how I react to it, and actually trying to perceive it as background noise (rather than just treating it as such) has made a big difference.

  40. Bones*

    One thing I’ve always found frustrating re: dealing with anxiety at work (and obviously I may be overly sensitive to it, so take this with a grain of salt) is that there are some coworkers who will treat you like a burden, will make it known to you that you’re a burden, and justify any way they may speak/interact with you because they perceive you as a burden. Does anyone else with anxiety experience this at work?

    1. Bones*

      Last comment-on-my-own-comment but also keep in mind that someone with anxiety is still capable of being a reasonable adult, and will appreciate being treated as such.

    2. Maddie*

      Everyone suffers anxiety to an extent. If one is constantly projecting that onto coworkers it’s exhausting and inappropriate and it will affect the relationship negatively.

    3. LQ*

      Yes. I have a coworker like this. Luckily he’s on the periphery of my work (though today in the middle of it). The Johns of the world will always exist. You have to find a way to go …is it him or me? I know that my John is definitely him, I’ve checked in with other coworkers “I’m having a hard time getting x from John, do you have any better ideas?” “No, you just have to keep bugging him over and over and over.” (Talking to his boss gets me a day of cooperation and a month of worse you’re a burden behavior so I just become annoying to him, whatever.) But watching how he behaves in meetings (that man has never ever showed up with so much as a pen, and it’s not because he has an immaculate memory), how he talks to others (often ignoring everyone in the meeting until someone says his name and has to repeat the question), and how his work gets accomplished (rarely). At some point you have to go, it’s not me, it’s him.

      You have to identify your Johns so they don’t throw your anxiety out of wack or make you think something is true when it isn’t. Johns will act like everyone’s a burden, that everything you ask them to do is one. I use the I’m not that special anyway part of my anxiety to cancel out. If John treats everyone like this of course he treats me like this, I’m not that special. (And then avoid dealing with him by taking an AAM break before diving back in.)

  41. PinkNinjaTurtle*

    #1 – I had a colleague who would do this every time she interacted with me. I was the administrative assistant in a busy department, but it was literally my job to receive and execute requests for other people. I finally had to stop her and say, “I can do that for you, but only if you stop apologizing for doing your job. You didn’t do anything that requires an apology.” After repeating it several times over the course of a few months, she began to catch herself before saying it to me. Then she later thanked me saying she felt people began treating her differently (in a good way) as a result!

  42. Michaela Westen*

    OP1, as a person who grew up in an abusive environment, I think your employee also has a background of abuse. She has been in an environment where she was abused for asking reasonable questions, and apparently this excessive apologizing placated her abuser. This would also explain the excessive anxiety.
    You will be doing her a life-changing favor if you can get across to her that it’s ok to ask questions and she will not be punished for asking. Maybe look for ways to reassure her and build her confidence and self-respect. Let her know she deserves respect and not abuse.
    She could probably benefit from a good therapist, if there’s an opportunity to encourage that.
    Good luck! I really feel for her. <3

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s one possibility, but we should not speculate that it definitely is what’s going on, for all the reasons discussed in the rest of this thread. Thank you!

      1. Michaela Westen*

        Thanks Alison! It’s so similar to my experience and the way I felt that I feel sure. I understand it’s only speculation, and maybe my experience can help regardless of the specific cause of her behavior.
        Apologizing didn’t placate the grown-ups I was with. I stopped trying to ask questions altogether and as a young adult got in trouble for not asking questions when I should have. I know the feeling so well!

        1. Michaela Westen*

          Hmm, now I come to think of it, maybe this is why I have PTS when I feel unsupported. Better write this down for my therapist! :)

      2. Michaela Westen*

        Going forward I’ll offer suggestions without speculating on the cause. Thanks!

  43. Maddie*

    I don’t think I’d go the profuse apology and flowers route for the Assistant who took it upon herself to make an issue of someone else’s birthday who did not ask for it. That’s really out of line in an where she sees this is not happening. I would jump straight to the good advice that this is not the office culture, it make OP uncomfortable and that it’s a small glitch that is over and reaffirm she is appreciated. Flowers are fine, a few weeks later. They feel overly apologetic now.

  44. Angela Ziegler*

    #3 – Big question, are you actually putting something on your resume such as ‘relevant experience shown only’, or something else in writing that says you’re only listing some of your experience? I think that’s what’s catching people off guard. People change what they include on a resume all the time based on what’s relevant for the job they’re applying for, but it sounds like (for some reason) some interviewers aren’t aware of this or they assume most people don’t leave anything off. (Which is silly, because like Alison said most people don’t list their entire work history for every job.)

    By actually writing that out (or even hinting at it on the resume itself) it might just call their attention to something other people tend to leave unsaid. As long as you’re not writing ‘All experience listed’ and only including some jobs, there’s nothing false or dishonest about it.

  45. Frankie*

    LW3, is it about your field? At least in higher ed (not sure which ed sector you’re looking in) people submit CVs even for non-faculty, non-academic positions. Pages and pages. I think this happens in some non-profits that hire a lot of folks out of academia, too. I don’t think it helps applicants, since usually it feels like they’re not tailoring to the position, but it IS the norm that I’ve encountered after participating in a few search committees.

    But I think it’s also made trickier once you have grad school under your belt, when you’re trying to shop yourself in a non-academic environment. I second the earlier suggestion of sections of “relevant” and “other.” When you’re spanning fields, in my experience, people are trying to suss out who exactly you are as a worker, and why you’re moving from one field to another. So I think they’re more likely to see something not as relevant as an omission that provides important info about you. I don’t think this line of thinking makes as much sense from a logical perspective but I think that’s sometimes how people think.

  46. Alianne*

    When I got out of retail a few years back, I had deeply, *deeply* internalized the habit of apologizing for everything, since employees at my store were expected to know all the rules, regulations, and plans for the day through psychic powers and/or osmosis, and I was routinely berated for asking how to do something or what was top priority that day. It took my new boss some time to convey to me that A) no question is stupid, B) I am not bothering her by asking for clarification, and C) I was not going to get dropped like a hot potato for any tiny errors. It’s a pernicious mindset, and hard to get out of. I think LW1’s employee needs consistent reinforcement, and maybe a brief discussion along the lines of “Have I ever made you feel like you asked a stupid question? Do you have underlying concerns that cause you to approach things this way?”

  47. RLJ*

    I’m honestly surprised how many of you are bashing on the assistant in OP2 for making a nice gesture. Did they act out of ignorance and incorrectly project their assumptions of the LW? Sure, but it was just a misunderstanding and the gesture was completely benevolent. The LW now has a chance to re-establish their professional expectations and personal preferences on the asst, in what can be a great teaching moment. I have my own reasons for not enjoying my birthday, it is overall just a stressful time and I can’t enjoy it even if I want to, but on the other hand if I can do a kindness for someone on their birthday whether it’s something like a big present and cake or something small like buying them a coffee or I’m happy to do it. I like making people feel good regardless of how minuscule the gesture would be, even if that’s no gesture at all. If the LW can suggest this to their asst, that kindness comes in different quantities, that would be important to take away fro, this embarrassing situation.

  48. katherine*

    To LW1, it is EXCEEDINGLY likely that this is the reason your employee is apologizing: “Seeing her name in my inbox and imagining the cascade of self-hatred that’s going to preface a perfectly reasonable request gives me a knot in my stomach.” People pick up on these things. And for a lot of people with anxiety, this is their exact worst fear. If I knew that talking to someone caused this level of dread, then I’d apologize for interacting with them too, because I don’t like upsetting other people.

    It also seems like a bit of a strong reaction. They’re apologizing to you, not kicking your dog or having a screaming match. I personally am not bothered by people apologizing to me — the very thought is confusing — and from what the LW mentioned, the employee’s other managers aren’t either. In other words, for all the talk about “managing people’s feelings,” it seems very likely that the person having to manage feelings is the employee, who is attempting to manage this somewhat heightened feeling of distress by apologizing.

    1. Natalie*

      Why is it exceedingly likely that the the dread is not caused by the excessive apologizing? That’d be a pretty clear and logical cause and effect. If you ctrl+f for OP #1 you’ll find that this is not just a couple of extra “sorry’s”:

      This is much more serious — rerouting the conversation into total self-deprecation and saying things like “I’ll probably be fired soon”* when she gets feedback like “hey, can you start the filename for TPS reports with the client name rather than your name, thanks”

      1. katherine*

        Well, yeah, if I were afraid of being fired then knowing that my boss dreaded me would exacerbate that anxiety tremendously. It’s not an irrational fear, given that the boss is upset with them. Nor is it something irrational to be afraid of, given how people need incomes to not die.

        1. saddesklunch*

          Sure, but the boss gives her lots of positive feedback on her work and has reassured her multiple times that she is not about to be fired. I’m a pretty anxious person, so I get where the employee is coming from, but it’s also not at all unreasonable for OP1 to dread having to deal with someone else’s shame spiral, especially when she has spent months reassuring this person to no effect.

  49. Jennifer Thneed*

    OP 3: One thing I’ve done is include all my jobs in order, but not include any details about the irrelevant jobs.

  50. OP #1*

    A small update to my letter: Since I sent it, several other employees from elsewhere in the company who need to work with my direct report have raised this issue with me as something that 1) concerns them deeply about her well-being and 2) makes it hard to work with her. Some of them subsequently have started going to me with suggestions and requests they would ordinarily take to her.

    This has actually been very helpful for a couple of reasons — it made me feel like I wasn’t overreacting (a couple of people specifically said “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” and it’s VERY unusual for other teams to go to managers with interpersonal problems because people generally get along pretty well and there’s a strong ethos against getting others in trouble) and it made clear that this is not a personality problem but a behavior that’s making it difficult for her to collaborate with others, which is part of her job. I thanked them for telling me, said it was an issue we’d discussed in the past and that she was working on but it would probably take some time, and suggested a couple of strategies they could use if they wanted to (while making it clear it’s not their probem to solve).

    I’m going to largely take the approach suggested by Allison and a couple of other commenters but am thinking of specific coaching I can give her, because I know it’s hard to shift your ingrained reactions — so “instead of talking about how horrible you are when the client services team asks you to change your filenaming protocol [a real thing that happened], say “ok, thanks!” and ask a follow-up question if you need to without apology.”

    1. OP #1*

      should have specified that I don’t subscribe to the “in trouble” concept — if someone’s having a big problem with someone who works for me, I need to know about it, and this isn’t high school and I’m not the principal — but that generally employees don’t want to call something to a manager’s attention unless it’s really bad.

    2. Bones*

      “I hired you for this job because I believe you can do it, and do it well. I understand the impetus but you don’t need to apologize.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        The problem is that the OP has tried that — approaches centering on “I believe in you” and “you don’t need to apologize” and “you don’t need to feel bad for X” haven’t worked. So she needs to move to “I need this from you” and “this is affecting your work” because those things are also true and the original approach hasn’t been effective.

        1. Bones*

          I’ve had pretty good luck with the broken record method, but you’re right that it takes time.

          1. bonkerballs*

            Not only does it take time, it’s not something a boss should have to do. I’m not going to redirect an employee over and over and over again on the same issue. A few times as coaching in the beginning, sure. But once we’re getting into four or five times of telling you the same thing and seeing no change, that’s a serious performance issue.

          2. Courageous cat*

            Agreed with bonkerballs (lol) – broken record method should never need to be used by a manager. They have better tools at hand.

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I feel for you, OP. This sounds like someone I worked with once (though perhaps not quite as severe), and it took a lot of effort to get her to accept what everyone was telling her, which was that this behavior WAS a problem and it WAS affecting her work. By the time I left that company, she had made strides but still had work to do. I think you’re handling all of this pretty well.

  51. Kalen*

    LW#1, I think it will definitely help to phrase it in a way where she has a behavior she can perform to be “correct” instead of being “correct” hinging on not doing a behavior. It’s basically the same difference, but if you feel like you did something awesome you feel better than if you feel like you didn’t do something bad, so it may stick better.
    So pretty much Allison’s suggestion, but maybe more you-centric, so she feels like she’s doing things correctly for your sake instead of hers, because that’s also likely to be more motivating for her. Like “It’s easier on me and takes less of my time if you can phrase things so I can just get straight to your question,” and name not apologizing as one way to do that. So then again, basically the exact same behavior, but instead of centering it around saying you want her to remember to not apologize it’s that you want her to remember to phrase things more efficiently. So then not apologizing becomes about creating value instead of about not being a bad person. I also like the idea of giving her positive reinforcement both for asking the question and also making sure to do so when she does things without apologizing! If that happens.

  52. TheWonderGinger*

    For anyone who relates to LW 1, I read something recently about turning your “I’m Sorry’s” into “Thank Yous”. Basically, instead of saying “I’m sorry I’m so late!” phrase it as “Thank you for waiting for a few moments”.

    There’s a lot of good reads about this if you do a google for “turn im sorry into thank you

  53. Get Back To Work!!!*

    OP #2: You stated in your post that “I really dislike being the center of attention” but do you feel the same way in regards to adulation for a job well done? You also stated that ” It simply isn’t common in our office to celebrate birthdays in any way.” which leaves me to believe that it does happen just not all of the time.

    1. Indie*

      Do you really feel that someone should analyse change the way they prefer to celebrate their own birthday?!

      1. Get Back To Work!!!*

        Isn’t the poster already doing that by broaching the subject of her birthday and how to handle the situation with her assistant?

        1. Indie*

          No. Communicating a preference ‘I don’t like x’ is not the same thing as changing your preferences and spending your birthday differently than you’d want to. For who, the internet? People get to decide how they spend their own birthday. Yikes. Dont ask them to justify it to you.

          1. Get Back To Work!!!*

            Indie, please verify where in my original post that I asked the OP to justify anything.

            1. Indie*

              Because instead of accepting her stated dislike you ask her to question it and you disbelieve what she says about her office culture. She should not have to convince us that she really does just truly dislike it, or that her office culture is truly what she states.

              1. Get Back To Work!!!*

                I was just stating as I clearly stated in my first post on this subject that the way she stated ” It simply isn’t common in our office to celebrate birthdays in any way.” That says to me that birthdays are celebrated just not all of the time.

  54. Anonymous for this*

    I’m struggling with something similar to LW4. So far I’ve been keeping quiet about it because it is no one’s business, but I do worry that after I start a job, it will look bad when I need to take time off for some medical tests and a couple of days off for a colonoscopy.

    (When I did it before, I was able to schedule it for Monday and then went back to work on Tuesday and in retrospect I wish I was able to take Tuesday off, too. I suppose I could go back to work the next day, but I was sort of uncomfortable and run down and not my usual self.)

    1. OP 4*

      I’m wishing all the best for you as you navigate this hard pairing of health issues + job search!

    2. Thlayli*

      A couple of days is no big deal. When you are at the offer stage it’s totally normal to say “I have already booked things on dates x and y which can’t be changed”. That won’t raise an eyebrow. OPs case is a little different because such a large amount of time off is unusual.

  55. Ellena*

    The employee from the first letter most probably had some traumatizing experience with a former boss who made her feel asking questions, any questions, is wrong and unwelcome. I have been in this situation and after that it took me a lot of time to stop questioning every question in my head before asking it. I still try to avoid most questions to my boss if I can, even though he is tons of times more supportive than the first one.

  56. Tidal*

    OP 1 – I would actually suggest that, as much as possible, you ask the employee what she would suggest or recommend when she comes to you with a situation. It will help in building her confidence (both in figuring out what to do and in realizing she often recommends the same thing you would). And i think less of a performance issue more of a “please don’t apologize so much – I know it’s probably an ingrained habit but it is much more meaningful if you reserve if for those situations where you’ve made a serious error or otherwise. When you say it for minor things it loses its meaning a bit and I’m sure you don’t mean to do that”.

  57. gsa*

    Good Night!

    Recent text from a client:

    “My apologies for worrying again . I will wait to meet on Friday and trust that [your company] will make things right at that time. See you then. Thank you”

    He typically apologizes, before, during, and after any communication.m

    At this point I’ve given up on saying, no need to apologize.

    At the end of the day, I work for him. It’s still uber annoying.

  58. Lemon curd*

    Letter #1 sounds like it could be my sister. We grew up in an extremely abusive environment, and she suffers from very low self-esteem. She constantly apologizes for everything and feels bad about asking for anything. She perceives herself as failing even when others think she’s stellar at something. Given where she’s come from, it’s amazing that she’s employed and doing as well as she is, even with continued struggles.

    That said, please be compassionate with this person. It’s likely she’s come from something similar. If so, a rebuke can crush her. It’s definitely worth addressing, as it is annoying for others, but please try to frame it in a way that’s understanding and offers her grace, rather than leaving her feeling even worse about herself because she’s done one more thing wrong. I can’t say I can offer great specific advice, but keeping this in mind and having compassion goes a long way.

  59. Spirit Broken in 1984*

    OP#2–Uggh! The non-apology apology? Yes, you hurt your assistant’s feelings. No, I don’t think getting into a discussion about it will help, and NO, I don’t think a lecture on gender dynamics in the workplace is a good idea. It would just embarrass her more and would only serve to reinforce the idea that you question her judgement (which you do). Don’t address it unless she does something really inappropriate. Just move on and give her the benefit of the doubt that she is capable of learning the drab, dull organizational culture in which she is working. Don’t worry, you’ll break her spirit before long.

  60. LostKitten*

    I know how it is for the self criticism thing. I have the same problem because I grew up in an abusive household and was continuously bullied by classmates till my sophomore year at college. I had to quit a few jobs because of bosses and coworkers acting exactly the same toward me. Even verbal abuse and sexual harassment. Thankfully the last few bad work places laid me off before I had a chance to become too emotionally attached to them! *le sigh*

    She probably has chronic anxiety and/or depression or was raised/influenced to think that way by peers and other outside influences. The best thing to do is be supportive and assure her in a positive manner. Trust me. I wish someone was like that toward me when I was nervous about something instead of throwing me under a buss or being supremely negative. Abused and anxious people aren’t used to being praised in any way. They’re also used to being told they’re not good enough to do anything or work/think/live independently. Building confidence in others takes time, patience, and love. :)

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