how do incompetent people get work?

A reader writes:

I’m long-term unemployed and have been looking for work for years, on and off, as I had support and I found job seeking just so depressing. One of the worst things I have found when I have been applying for jobs, and when just doing general shopping as a consumer, is I see people who are employed and I know I could do a much better job than they are doing.

Why is it that seeming “incompetent people” can get jobs, and me who is trying my hardest and putting my best foot forward, cannot seem to? I have been in places, as an applicant and a consumer, where I have actually helped the person serving me as they seemed to be having trouble with something I knew how to do.

I am most interested in what you have to say from a manager’s perspective.

It’s a very good question.

A lot of people who do hiring just aren’t that good at it. Sometimes that’s because it’s not a major portion of their job and so they never get a lot of experience at at it, and don’t realize they need to really work to build their skill at it. Sometimes that’s because they were trained/mentored by someone who wasn’t very good at hiring, and so the modeling they’ve seen is all wrong. Sometimes that’s because they’ve naive or arrogant enough to think they can just wing it or go with their gut. And often people who are making hiring decisions ended up with hiring power because they’re good at something totally unrelated (for example, someone is great at programming so they get promoted to manage and hire programmers — which is a totally different skill set).

Plus, some people who aren’t especially competent still interview very well, especially if they have an interviewer who doesn’t know how to dig beneath the surface and really look at substance.

Other times, when you see incompetent people holding jobs that you could do better, there might be a reason that business wasn’t able to hire stronger people — they don’t pay competitively or they’re terribly managed or so forth.

And of course, other times you’re not seeing the full picture: someone is generally good at their job but you’re seeing them on an off day, or someone is great at pieces of their job that you’re not seeing and those pieces significantly outweigh the piece that you do see, or the person is brand new and still getting trained, or they’re filling in for someone who’s out and don’t normally do this, and so on.

I think ultimately you’ve got to figure out what’s going on with your own job search and this won’t bother you so much. I’m guessing that the long-term unemployment isn’t helping — it’s harder to find a job when you’ve been out of the workforce for a while. Without more information, it’s hard to guess at what else might be going on, but the usual suspects are resume, cover letter, and interviewing skills — all of which people often think are fine even when they could be substantially improved. (Frustratingly, people often get told by others that their resume and cover letter are fine, when those people aren’t really skilled enough to make an accurate assessment. So that’s worth looking at.) But it also sounds like you might be targeting retail jobs (since you mentioned seeing jobs you could do better when you’re shopping), and when you’re applying for those, overall presentation, energy, and enthusiasm really matter, so that’s an area to reflect on too. I know this is probably nothing you haven’t heard before, though, and I’m sorry you’re having a frustrating time of it.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 426 comments… read them below }

  1. Amber Rose*

    Networking jobs are also pretty huge. I’ve worked for several companies now where they prefer to hire friends or family members of existing staff, whether that person is really right for the job or not.

    It’s unfortunate but sometimes it really is about who you know.

    1. The Original K.*

      I saw Michelle Obama speak on her book tour and one of the things she said that has really stuck with me was “I’ve sat at tables of high-powered mediocrity.” In those circles of extreme power, it’s definitely about who you know, and she said she realized when she got a seat at the table that “the table” itself was kind of a hustle. A lot of these folks weren’t smarter than anybody else; they were just richer and well-connected and because of that, no one had really questioned them.

      1. Jennifer*

        Yes! That was a great speech. “Remember, they aren’t any smarter than you.” The college cheating scandal really drove that home. Some people just have doors open to them that the rest of us have to kick down. If you’re someone like Michelle O who came from a working-class background and had to actually put in the work to get there, I think you’ll learn it’s just a lot of spoiled people who had many opportunities handed to them.

      2. Snark*

        And not only are they not necessarily smarter than anyone else, in a lot of cases they’re aggressively less competent than others, self-destructive, ethically compromised, and have no concept of risk, which explains a lot of decisions you see coming out of a lot of institutions that love to portray themselves as meritocracies. Wealth, privelege, and connection make a LOT of excuses for manifest unfitness.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          OMG, yes. In fact, I have long known that often the people who get the wealthiest and most powerful are the least ethical people out there. They are most likely to scam, bully, and exploit their way to the top – there are a lot of opportunities ethical people will miss that crooked ones will gladly seize. They’re also the ones most likely to value and crave wealth and power in the first place.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          Wealth is not a virtue. The sooner we get that through people’s heads, the better off we’ll be.

      3. That Work from Home Life*

        My ex and now close friend is an extremely hard-working guy who had to fight to get every advantage and has a prestigious position at a well-known finance company. He’s the only African American at his level. When we were younger and he was just moving up the ladder he often said that so many of his colleagues with extremely fancy degrees were not impressively intelligent or better at their jobs than other people–they were just well connected. That was it. This info didn’t come as total shock or anything, but it was especially frustrating when the incompetence bled into his own responsibilities.

      4. Michaela Westen*

        This taps into something I’ve always noticed.
        I can’t remember a time when I haven’t seen authority making stupid decisions and missing/ignoring obvious (and sometimes dangerous) problems. When I realized I would have to think for myself and speak up to protect myself from their incompetence, it helped a lot.

        1. Oh no, not another Jennifer*

          Yes! “Speak up to protect [yourself] from their incompetence.” Wow. This is great advice.
          This is the kind of advice I wish I hadn’t had to learn the hard way.

        2. Gazebo Slayer*

          One of the biggest problems I’ve seen with authority is the desire to cover up problems and pretend they don’t exist. But covering up a problem doesn’t make it go away – it only insults the intelligence of the people who see you trying to hide it.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            And what do they think will happen when they refuse to address the problem and try to hide it? Some leadership. :p

            1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

              As we have seen over and over, very often they succeed at covering up or pushing away the problem until it is no longer relevant for them — they have acquired the power and influence that means it no longer matters, they are retired, or dead.

              1. Michaela Westen*

                And it’s not like anyone or anything else matters to them – only how it affects themselves, even if it has dire consequences for others. :(

          2. JSPA*

            some of it’s actually extends to the level of not even perceiving a problem if it’s not something they’ve been introduced to. A perceptual version of not knowing what they don’t know. We train a lot of “ideas people” who have no concept why bad condensation from the industrial chiller on the second floor could become a real problem for the unprotected servers on the first floor (underneath and 15 feet to the left, along several sloping pipes and beams).

      5. Emily S.*

        Glad you mentioned Mrs. Obama, and her perspective. Her book, Becoming, was just SO good, IMHO.
        I recommended it to a lot of female friends.

        1. 30 Years in the Biz*

          I really liked it. A friend lent it to me (she had to buy it from the library after her puppy chewed off the cover!).I wasn’t expecting a story so down-to-earth and interesting. Highly recommend.

      6. Bryce with a Y*

        What’s more, in many of those circles of extreme power, a significant percentage of those in said circles have narcissistic personality disorders and antisocial personality disorders. People with these disorders are glib and superficially charming, and can just about sweet talk the green off of grass.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      The first time I realized this, I was floored. I knew that the world wasn’t fair. But when you see the true extent of how networks and wealth enable truly mediocre-to-incompetent folks to advance over better-qualified (or more “meritorious”) folks with fewer networks, it can make your stomach sink. Then those same folks get the benefit of the doubt as they’re advanced up the chain, despite their failure to perform.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Not only that, but then I started to realize that hard work matters a whole lot less than social skills, even though hard work is all I’m good at and social anxiety means I’ll never be all that good at networking. Oh, I’ve learned to make small talk and wander around a group without falling apart, but I’ll never be an outgoing charmer.

        I wish competence meant more.

        1. 2 Cents*

          Me too. It’s because we value hard work and competence but the PTB don’t. Probably because they don’t have those skills #DebbieDowner

        2. Eplawyer*

          At least you learned to do it. I have afriend who thought hard work was all it took. She once left an office lunch WITH THE PARTNERS to go back to work. She was dumbfounded when we were all appalled.

          1. WellRed*

            Sounds like a version of the person who showed up at her boss’s father’s funeral to get paperwork signed. Read the room, people!

            1. Indigo a la mode*

              Aw, I don’t think going back to work at the expense of chumming with the partners is anywhere near as egregious as crashing a funeral for a work matter.

        3. Guacamole Bob*

          I think there’s a difference between social skills and the kind of charm that you seem to be talking about. I understand feeling demoralized about how hard work doesn’t seem to matter, but I have a colleague who does great technical work but has burned bridges and damaged relationships across the agency due to his abrasiveness, and it’s not good for anyone.

          Getting a job just because you’re likable with no hard skills to back it up is bad. Being able to work with other people is usually pretty critical, though, and in some jobs it’s a big part of the role (managing other people, developing client relationships, etc.). I don’t think it’s as simple as hard work and competence vs. social skills.

        4. Lucette Kensack*

          Well, social skills are a form of competence. The ability to build and maintain relationships, understand the challenges that others’ are experiencing and how to work together to overcome those challenges, shift the mood of a room or the culture of an organization — all that stuff matters, at least as much as the concrete ability to write good code or structure an effective meeting agenda.

          1. Aurion*

            Amen. Social skills are not mutually exclusive with competence. When social skills are used to mask incompetence, that’s a problem, but let’s not pretend social skills aren’t an important part of being a working professional.

          2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            Amen. I feel like social/interpersonal skills are something that often get neglected in discussions of either competence or intelligence. The truth is, they’re very important for getting a whole lot of things accomplished. And that’s not a bug — it’s a feature of living life as part of a society.

            1. Indigo a la mode*

              Absolutely! It’s also a good way to make yourself indispensable, even if your job is one of those that’s often on the chopping block during lean times (I’m a copywriter).

          3. Mr. Shark*

            Yes, we can’t confuse good social skills with the skill to B.S. people. Social skills help things get done, because you can approach someone and work together with them. If you go and yell at someone or just demand something from them, things may get delayed or put to the bottom of the pile, or get done poorly. Knowing how to ask for information and request help may be just as important as working hard, because most jobs require more than just nose-to-the-grindstone working hard in order to get projects completed.

          4. Wendy Darling*

            I worked briefly with a guy who was a temp, had been temping at IT jobs for years, and insisted that the reason he couldn’t get a permanent job despite his genuinely impressive skillset was that he didn’t have a college degree.

            That… was not the problem. The company had no problem hiring people with no degree. In particular they had no problem converting highly skilled but degree-less temps to permanent employees and did convert a guy he worked with who also didn’t have a degree. No, this guy’s problem was that he was rude and abrasive and had an authority problem. He mouthed off to everyone, from his peers on up to the senior VP of the division. If his manager told him to do something and he thought it was the wrong call or shouldn’t be his job or thought doing it would be boring, he just didn’t do it. He didn’t know when to stop horsing around, including when people told him to his face that he was interfering with their work and he needed to stop.

            It was a bummer because he was really, really good at the technical parts of his job, and by some miracle he respected me so we actually got on well. But his contract didn’t get renewed because he was a TERRIBLE employee in every way except technical skill.

            On the other side of that coin there was a guy on my team at that same job who was a total incompetent but was REALLY good at talking like he knew what he was doing, so he managed to snow everyone for like 4 months before anyone realized the emperor had no clothes. He never actually produced anything, he was just very good at making productive-seeming noises and acting like he knew everything.

            1. Fortitude Jones*

              This sounds so much like one of my former bosses except for the contract part (she had been with the company for 13 years and a manager for 7). She told one of my coworkers the reason she couldn’t seem to get out of middle management and into the C-suite because she only had a high school diploma, but she was a giant asshole. Had she been easy to work with, she would have been promoted because she was damn good at the technical aspect of our job – she was just a terrible manager.

            2. Pomona Sprout*

              Was that guy’s name Wally*, by any chance?

              (*I’ve been binge rwading Dilbert lately, because I just picked up a big Dilbert collection at my local used book store, and your description of this coworker really reminds me of Wally, especially the part sboout making productive-seeming noises while not actually producingl!)

              1. Pomona Sprout*

                I’m talking about the guy in the last paragraph of your post, in case it isn’t obvious. I was so taken with his resemblance to Wally that I forgot all about the other stuff in the post! ;-D

        5. J.E.*

          Also disheartening is sometimes if you are a hard worker your reward is…more work. The higher ups come to see you as the reliable work horse to get things done and may not promote you because they like your work and work ethic so much they don’t want to lose you.

        6. LQ*

          Something I’ve tried really hard to think about is what places is that not as likely to be true. Where will competence at the tasks win out over competence at social. My first job I was really lucky. It was a tiny nonprofit and competence meant a lot. After that I found a government area where while competence isn’t everything (longevity matters a lot more than I’d like) competence is rewarded up to a senior enough level that I’ll be comfortable here until that changes. (Now if we get a new director in who expects more social than task work I may have to go elsewhere, but so long as the current person is in charge I’m likely going to stay because while other people’s stuff is sometimes rewarded, I know my skills will be too.)

          I think the thing to do is look at will your skills be rewarded, rather than what skills of other people are. At least that makes me intensely frustrated.

        7. Sun Tzu*

          Absolutely this. Incompetent people get (often well-paid) work because of their connections and their capacity to climb the social ladder, even at the expense of others.
          Unfortunately, often it isn’t *what* you know, but *who* you know.

          1. Doctor Schmoctor*

            Also, what you PRETEND to know.
            I’ve worked with people who were very loud, and they talk a lot, and when asked a question they say will say some random thing. Meanwhile, when I’m asked something, I take a second to think before giving an answer. Apparently that means I’m not confident. Blurting out the first thing that pops into your brain, even if it has nothing to do with the question, is just awesome, and it means you’re super confident and awesome.

        8. Cactus*

          Yeah, interviews used to be basically impossible for me because of this. My anxiety took over and I was not remotely presenting the best side of myself. And then…I started drinking, just a little bit, before interviews. Not enough to impair my judgment, but enough to take the edge off. And the relaxation that provided helped, immensely. But it’s ridiculous that to even stand a chance against people with more charming personalities, I basically was required to do what anyone else would be warned to NEVER do.

      2. Kat*

        One way to feel better about this phenomenon is to actively put in a lot work to create your own network, based on merit (or whatever else you value). Keep in touch with coworkers and friends from school. If there’s a job opening you know about, ask them, and pass on their resumes to your recruiter/manager with a personal recommendation. Carry each other up and forward. As a few of you move higher up the ladder, they can give a hand up and provide opportunities for others. I’ve seen this work incredibly well at certain college clubs, friend groups, and departments of coworkers. Take the power back. There’s nothing stopping you.

      3. LunaLena*

        It’s not just the wealthy either! I knew someone who worked at WalMart and was appalled at the blatant nepotism. It didn’t matter who was reliable or picked up extra shifts or came in on time or never snuck out for “breaks” – the best shifts always went to the manager’s personal friends who just happened to work in that department.

    3. NW Mossy*

      And the flip side of this is that people who hire in small businesses often face a lot of pressure from their friends and family to hire from within the circle, even when they’re well aware of the person’s checkered history. We’ve seen innumerable letters here where someone hired a friend or family member with disastrous results, as well as letters seeking help in how to say no to when pressured to do so.

      Ideally, everyone would have the skills to hire well and the fortitude to not hire the obviously unfit regardless of any personal connection, but alas…

      1. Emily S.*

        This is such a good point. We AAM readers have seen this so many times, and it nearly always seems to end badly for the letter-writers. Or even spectacularly badly.

    4. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      My ex-boss, my ex-boss, my ex-boss. Sometimes it works out OK (new boss is one of her hires who got promoted), sometimes it stinks (ex-boss supported a candidate who everyone knew and was so awful at least two people went to new boss about it.) Candidate was not hired, thank heavens, but it shocked my socks off that the person was allowed to darken our door.

  2. The Original K.*

    Nepotism plays in here sometimes too, I think. I’ve seen and heard people say straight up that they were hired for roles in which they had no experience because they were a friend or family member of someone in charge. (I’m recalling a letter here by someone who was hired as a technical writer with no experience; she was the boss’s kid.)

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Absolutely—don’t underestimate charm.

        Every incompetent (yet employed) person I’ve met fell into two categories. They were either (1) charming, enthusiastic, or otherwise likeable; or (2) the only passably qualified candidate in a very small pool in a market where their skill set (or labor, generally) was hard to find.

        For #1, the folks hiring them focused more on liking that person’s personality than their job-related skills (both soft and technical), oftentimes because the candidate reflected qualities or character traits that the hiring folks saw in themselves or aspired to attain. Of course, once they got hired and sucked, it was hard to get rid of them because those same hiring folks were also bad managers. Every insane story I can think of involved someone who was initially charming but turned out to be a dumpster fire of demonic hellspawn.

        1. NicoleK*

          OMG. This post applies to two of the most incompetent coworkers I’ve ever had and my current boss. They both were charming, outgoing, positive, and very enthusiastic individuals. It went a long way to hide their incompetencies. And my current boss tends to hire people that she likes personally.

        2. Manders*

          Yes! Most of the incompetent people I’ve worked with were very charming. They also had high opinions of themselves, so it was difficult to judge their actual level of competence from what they claimed they’d done at previous jobs. They looked impressive in interviews and on paper.

        3. Emily S.*

          Yes, agreed. Sometimes people who are downright toxic will put on very elaborate facades and seem normal, nice, even charming… but then turn out to be not only incompetent, but poisonous as employees and/or co-workers (in terms of culture/etc.).

          I once worked as a barista at a huge coffee shop chain, and had a manager who was very cruel to me. This was a company that supposedly treated all workers (“partners”) with respect. I only lasted about 6 months in that job. Luckily I found something better right after that; it was right after I graduated college at the beginning of the recession of ’08-’09.

        4. Kathlynn (Canada)*

          Or they’ve worked with managers who won’t fire people after their probation period. At least half my coworker are incompetent or have done seriously wrong things (like assaulting customers or yelling at coworkers repeatedly). I’m only mediocre for one shift and get stuff my other coworker who works that shift rarely gets done because she’s “just too busy” (taking a smoke break every hour at least, and constantly having long chats with customers). Some of it is stuff that could get the business shut down by regulation agencies for not getting done. Other tasks are done dailybby her shift. Plus horrible treatment of some customers. (and they wonder why business has gotten slower over the past few years)

    1. lawschoolmorelikeblawschool*

      Connections get a lot of inept people jobs where I’ve worked – usually family, old politics, etc. Benefits a certain class, ethnicity and gender in my experience!

    2. blackcat*

      Yes, this is how I got a job at a fancy pantsy college prep school straight out of undergrad (I was licensed as a part of my bachelors degree) when all of my colleagues had 5-10 years of experience and/or a PhD when they were hired.

      I went to a fancy pantsy undergrad institution and my uncle was old pals with the headmaster. That’s it. I could have been terrible! I wasn’t, but they had no way of knowing!

    3. CMart*

      I have a very nice friend who is really just not that sharp. He’s an incredibly hard worker which is testament to his character, but he’s borderline incompetent in anything that isn’t rote, routine work.

      He’s now a mid-level manager at his father’s insurance firm (we’re in our early 30’s). I don’t begrudge him the position, but I think he’s really lucky his dad runs a successful business because I suspect he would have really struggled to get/keep a well-paying job otherwise.

    4. Michaela Westen*

      Many years ago I knew a tall, dark (curly hair) handsome man who was hired as a waiter in fine dining with no experience – because of his looks. Meanwhile I was an experienced waitress and never had a shot at such a job. So there’s that too.

      1. Not looking to waitress*

        I was at a fine dining restaurant in a popular downtown area in my current city, at the bar area. I was alone, so I was nice, polite, friendly, and chatted up other patrons sitting at the bar. The manager, who happened to be assisting the bartender that evening basically asked me “What do you do during the day?” as in “Where do you work?” I told him that I worked in Suburb Near Downtown until 5PM and asked him why he was asking me this question. I didn’t mention anything about work prior to this conversation.

        He then goes “Well, I’m looking for a new server…” I was not interested in working there and I have no serving experience whatsoever. Granted, we all start from somewhere but I really hope this is not how this guy hires people!

        In his defense, his staff were all lovely, competent, charming people so maybe there’s a method to his madness.

  3. JokeyJules*

    An alternative reason people get hired and you encounter them doing jobs they’re not good at:
    They got hired for an entirely different job. I have good admin skills (legitimately good, glowing reviews, quantifiably good, etc), and got hired for an admin job. But my boss started dumping all kinds of other tasks completely unrelated on me (high-level technical work, tasks completely unrelated to my position, etc).
    I was terrible at most of that job, because most of it wasn’t admin work I was hired for an am good at.

    1. Fortitude Jones*

      Yup. When I worked at Evil Law Firm, one of my coworkers who was on a PIP and was struggling with our very basic job had been moved over to our department from our title department. He was apparently really good at running title searches and all that entailed, but providing client updates and keeping detailed notes in our internal systems? Nope – he was bad. But our firm started outsourcing a lot of our title work, so he really had no choice but to move over to our team – it was that, or be laid off. He ended up being laid off from our team a couple years later anyway.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        OMG, one of the worst (but most common) BigLaw stories I’ve heard was this:

        My friend, a mid-career associate and woman of color from a working class and immigrant background, was paired with a first-year associate who was a cis-het white man from a privileged family. They were supposed to work together to prep deposition questions and materials, and he completely failed to do any of his part of the work. So she ended up busting her butt to finish everything. The partners were all aware of what he’d done, despite the fact that she didn’t throw him under the bus.

        Originally, my friend had been told she’d be flying out to participate in the deposition, which was going to take place in her home state. She was super excited to get to see her parents. After the assignment debacle, the partner on the team told her that despite the white guy’s incompetence and failure to do his work, he’d decided to take him, instead, because it would be a “learning opportunity” for him (note, this was her first time getting to participate in the depo). The partner explained that because this guy was failing to deliver, they wanted to give him plum opportunities to rekindle his interest in his job. If she had pulled even half of what he did, she would have been on a PIP.

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          That’s infuriatingly common, especially in the legal field. At my firm, low performing minorities like my colleague mentioned above were written up and/or fired/demoted while low performing white people were actually promoted (my manager was one of them – they eventually fired her when it came out that she was lying about the department’s workload to get out of having to do overtime on the weekends).

        2. Rage against the... all of it*

          I didn’t know I could feel such rage so early in the morning.

          I’d have played dumb “so you’re saying that if I’d like to get the most out of the opportunity to work and learn here, I should do less work?” [Or would just being male and white be sufficient?]

        3. miss_chevious*

          Something similar happened to me at the law firm I worked at when I was a midlevel associate supervising a junior associate. He was assigned to do a bunch of research and write a memo on a rule of civil procedure for a client and did the whole thing on the wrong rule. He turned it in and, when I pointed out it was wrong (the rules dealt with two totally different fact patterns), he tried to justify it to me like he’d meant to do it as some sort of strategy. When we went to the partner with the work product to explain why it was late, I got the pleasure of doing the junior associate’s work all over for him because I “could knock it out quickly” and the junior associate go praise for “thinking outside the box” even though his work product was useless.

          Needless to say, I saw the writing on the wall and left soon after that (not solely for that reason). That junior associate is now a partner at that firm and my company will never use them as outside counsel.

          1. Fortitude Jones*

            Lord, they made him partner?!

            I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I am. Wow.

            1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

              There is no hope. There is no hope for any of us. It’s not that the playing field isn’t level, it’s that it’s a crazy quilt. :) At least I don’t feel so paranoid now, wondering why I didn’t get certain jobs I applied for but the bubblebrain of the century did.

    2. Antilles*

      Also, such additional tasks typically come with approximately zero training. If you’re desperate / short-staffed / crunched enough that you need the admin to cover for technical tasks, you’re clearly not going to have the time to slowly train them over time and provide a full detailed explanation of the task.

    3. Dana B.S.*

      Yes, exactly. If talking about a retail setting – usually all employees are trained on and expected to assist on the registers and in the fitting room. However, they may have been hired to manage the back room or do something non-customer facing. In that moment that you see them, they are helping out in the unfamiliar area.

      1. Xarcady*

        Good point. If someone sells shoes, they can be really, really good at selling shoes, knowing their inventory, tactfully getting someone to try their correct size instead of their vanity size, etc., but stick them in children’s clothing for an afternoon because someone called out and there’s a good chance the customers will know more than the salesperson.

    4. Fiddlesticks*

      Yep. I was hired primarily to do code writing. After six months or so, I was asked to start making complicated municipal maps in ArcMap GIS with zero – ZERO – experience with any form of GIS and also ZERO training. “Oh, you’ll just pick it up as you go. We can buy you a training book off Amazon.” The department had no budget for an actual GIS person and no budget for training either.

      I have never progressed beyond mediocrity in this area, and I have strenuously noted my reasons for this in every review, even though I seek out all forms of free online training, pick the brains of my coworkers who have any related experience, and have dutifully devoured the manual. I am, however, VERY good at what I was actually hired to do, and I came with a master’s degree and thirty years’ relevant experience. But I would hate people to look at my maps as the one and only example of my job and think “THIS is what she gets paid $$$$ to do?!”

      1. Actual GIS Person*

        Actual GIS person here. Story of my life. Actual GIS pros tend to have graduate degrees and years of training. You should feel good that you got to mediocrity, but that doesn’t stop non-GIS people from thinking that it’s just another pile of software someone can learn. Or web designers thinking that because they can use some Leaflet and javascript, that makes them a GIS professional too.


      2. Sandman*

        That’s insane. I took an intro ArcGIS class this fall and don’t know how anyone could start from zero with it. It’s so cool what it can do, but incredibly complex.

      3. Geillis D*

        GIS sounds a lot like bookkeeping. I see clients dump bookkeeping duties on their reluctant spouses, or spouses enthusiastically pitching in just to they can avoid paying an external bookkeeper. Clients offload bookkeeping on their well-meaning parents who may or may not be up to date on current GST and payroll remittance rates. Some of them have helpful friends who may or may not have time to complete the books by the deadlines. I feel the worst for the poor admin assistants who get saddled with bookkeeping despite having zero interest or training. Once client had a so-called CFO who was not able to correctly classify transactions that are accounting 101 material. And then we have the books themselves, some with the most bang-head-against-wall, wave-your-arms-to-heaven-and-cry kind of creative bookkeeping.

        We are professionals – who charge accordingly – but our books are, well, awesome. Trouble is, even if a client brings in terrible books and we fix them, the end product is the same from the client’s perspective so why would they pay us when they can DIY?

      4. SierraSkiing*

        Oof, that’s rough! I think of myself as pretty good with programming and computers, and ArcGIS is also a uniquely weird program. The error codes tend to be useless, and the program has all sorts of weird foibles. I sometimes have to use ArcGIS, and I always start by explaining to my bosses that this will take me a lot longer than my usual work.

      5. Ellie*

        Oh wow, I am a software developer who had to pick up ArcGIS with no training and very little support as well. We (I and one other developer) fumbled around for about a year and got something passable together, but it wasn’t great and it certainly wasn’t right. Then the other developer left the company and they finally hired someone with the right credentials. Then they substantially increased his salary after the first few months when they realised how much they needed him. He was extremely fond of the phrase, ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’. You are the one-eyed man.

      6. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

        I tried to teach myself to use qGIS for my PhD, and there are so many concepts and terms that you need to know in order to make any sense of the options (what are all the different coordinate systems? what do all these cartographic terms mean? where do I even get maps to start with?). It took me a very long time to be able to produce some fairly basic maps simply because I had to do all the work to understand the basic principles.

    5. Parenthetically*

      Oof, yes, this is so true and important, and a good way to sort of mentally extend grace to people you meet who suck at their jobs. Another factor is people who are desperate for work who take jobs they eventually suck at just because that’s what was offered. I’ve fit into both categories at times in my career.

    6. Clawfoot*

      YES. I was once hired as a technical writer. I wound up doing EVENT PLANNING. Calling around to venues, arranging car service, looking at wine lists, dealing with videographers, etc. When I pointed out to my boss that this wasn’t exactly what I’d signed up for and it wasn’t what my interest or skills were, she told me, “But you’re using the same skills — the only things you need are organization and attention to detail.”

      So according to her, technical writing and event planning are basically the same.

      Worst boss ever.

    7. Patty Mayonnaise*

      Yes, and falling into this category are people who were great at lower-level work and got promoted to management… and have no management skills. This is the explanation for Michael Scott on The Office (which I love because it’s so plausible!).

    8. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      Yes yes yes. We’ve been through some restructuring (read: revolving door of new top brass who are youngish guys who want to make their mark fast with their “initiatives.” The ones I met are like refugees from used-car sales.) and the admin function is drifting more toward sales support and even telemarketing. People are unhappy and totally swamped. I’m amazed we haven’t lost a bunch of staff, but many of the affected people are hanging in till retirement.

    9. Bagpuss*

      You also get he situation where someone ishired o a job and are competent, but the job changes and they are unable to change with it.
      We had aformer employee who had been very good at one specifc part of his job, which involved dealing with a fairly complex set of government regualtions and all the forms they generated. Over tim, the rules were simplified and betttesoftward became available which mean that the task could be done much faster and became a much smaller part of the overaall job.
      The difficulty was that he was nothing like as good at the other elements of the job – so initially there was a situation where maybe 80% of his job was something he was very good at, and 20% was stuff where he was mediocre.
      This changed to a situation where 80% if the job was the other stuff, and where he was still spending hours and hours on the other stuff, even though it no longer took that long, because he didn’t want to use the tools available to do it.
      In his case, it was all made worse by the fact that he actively resisted all attempts to coach or support him to improve, which is one of the reasons why he became an ex-employee.

  4. Zaphod Beeblebrox*

    Interviews find the people who are good at doing interviews.

    A probationary period can often be helpful.

      1. Rage against the... all of it*

        Ahh yes, some people have confidence in lieu of competence. My manager gets by purely based on believing he is the best at everything so strongly that people without a strong BS detector believe him.

    1. People like shiny things*

      Agreed! I’ve had candidates that were excellent at interviewing, and then at the job it was like the evil twin showed up. And due to various reasons, it took months to let them go and rehire.
      (and I love your name!)

    2. Ra94*

      This is why I really like the way my future employer hired. Two week interview/paid assessed placement (common in UK law practices), and once you made it to the assessed placement, you were assessed purely based on feedback from your managers and coworkers. You were assessed based on the actual job skills.

    3. TechWorker*

      Whilst I get probationary periods are useful for the employer I can’t really see how they are remotely beneficial for the employee – in that if you were offered a job with a probation period and one without wouldn’t you nearly always choose the one without? (In countries with at will employment and short notice periods, isn’t the probation period just to lower the bar for firing someone? Sounds like a stressful position to be in as an employee)

      1. Hlada*

        In my country in the center of Europe, there is a 3 month long probationary period.
        However, there is also 2 month notice if ending employment contract, even if the company fires you.

  5. Zip Silver*

    Remember, half of everybody is dumber than average. Society (and employers) accommodates everybody, mostly.

    1. Snark*

      That’s not really how averages work, and it’s kind of a misanthropic way to look at society, in my opinion.

      1. ellex42*

        Zip Silver is paraphrasing a quote from comedian George Carlin, who could certainly have been called misanthropic or cynical.

      2. Zip Silver*

        I would think, with a handle like Snark, you’d be on board the misanthropy train :)

        1. Snark*

          I am, somewhat, but my experience is that the distribution isn’t normal.

          Yeah, I’m also a stats dork.

          1. Wendie*

            My son is getting his PhD in stats and he’s told me it is a nice bell curve. Can you link a survey? I know he’d find it fascinating!

            1. Snark*

              So, you can get a nice bell curve out of tested IQ scores, more or less. But IQ tests are designed to result in a bell curve, and they test a very specific and limited set of cognitive operations, and they are often implicitly biased in a way that favors priveleged, educated, relatively wealthy people. So you can produce a normal distribution of tested intelligence scores, but.

              And ultimately, my observed experience is that intelligence correlates well but not strongly with competence.

              1. Wendie*

                I actually meant why non-IQ measures! We had some issues in our church with a Mensa member man who harassed members of our parish so we did learn about IQ issues.

              2. Rage against the... all of it*

                Yes, also, competence in a specific job isn’t necessarily about a person’s overall intelligence, but rather how good they are at that thing. I have a friend that is incredibly book smart and a mechanic. I’ve met some of his mechanic friends and some are or aren’t book smart… but all are REALLY good at what they do. Their team is often the company example for what they do, but some of them aren’t people that would be considered “smart” outside of mechanics.

              3. Birch*

                As a psychologist, thank you so much for pointing this out! When working with stats you really need to know what the metric was meant to measure and when the metric was fit to a distribution, not the other way around.

                I want to point out that there are also a lot of biases probably at play for OP (in addition to the well-known fact that people who display incompetence at work tend to get by). We attach more salience to negative information, we attribute our own failings to luck and others’ to their fault, and good old-fashioned viewing our own problems as crises and others’ as learning opportunities (related to the inability to take your own advice). It’s one of the difficult existential things we all have to come to terms with, realizing that our lives are a delicate balance between things we can and can’t control, and that sometimes hard work doesn’t result in success.

        2. miss anthrope*

          If I were to ever do roller derby my name would be Miss Anthrope. So I am on-board that train.

      3. remizidae*

        Intelligence is distributed normally, so yes, in this case it is true that half of people are dumber than average.

        1. Snark*

          It’s actually not, so it’s not, and most measures of intelligence are so biased as to be functionally useless when estimating intelligence populationwide anyway.

          1. Emily K*

            I would go so far as to argue that it’s questionable whether the concept of “intelligence” can even be reduced to a single metric. More commonly, people have strengths and weaknesses across a variety of skills and competencies, so it’s not that somebody “dumber than average” is getting put into a job they’re too dumb for because hey, that’s what the bell curve requires if we don’t want a 50% unemployment rate – it’s more likely than someone who is weak in one area is strong in another area, and they’ve found a job that places to their own niche strengths.

            A classic example would be contrasting a designer and a programmer. If you tried to make them do each other’s jobs, even at an entry level and with some basic training, the programmer is quite likely to create ugly graphics and the designer to write code that threw a bunch of errors when they attempted to compile it. Is either of them dumber than the other because they can’t do the other’s job?

            1. JediSquirrel*

              @Snark: That line from Carlin has always bugged me. That’s not this works. That’s not how any of this works.

              @Emily K: I agree 100% with you. If you have the world’s smartest fish, but you judge him by how well he can climb a tree, it’s not going to be an accurate depiction of his abilities. (Oft attributed to Einstein, and an important management principle.)

            2. Snark*

              Oh, I wouldn’t even question it – intelligence cannot be reduced to a single metric. and IQ tests are so limited they cannot capture what we even coloquially understand as “intelligence.”

              1. SierraSkiing*

                Yep. Most research shows that IQ is good for exactly one thing – spotting serious intellectual handicaps. It’s next to useless for distinguishing average and high intelligence. If you exclude the people with the lowest IQ scores from a regression with IQ and… pretty much anything, the effect of IQ becomes near zero.

            3. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

              As someone who always tested as “gifted” on those things, I would also argue that whatever we’re testing with “intelligence tests” is a poor predictor of success in most work environments. There are certainly some parts of my job that are easier because I’m “smart”, but there are also parts that are harder and parts where it seems to be pretty much irrelevant. (And I deliberately went into a field where it was likely to be an asset, so someone trying to do something less intensely intellectually-focused would have less of an advantage or disadvantage based on such a thing.)

              I may be “smart” and good at both math and reading/writing, but put me doing main desk reception and you will get to see some massive under-performance and if my job were somehow reassigned to be that I’d end up on a PIP in short order. (In 6th grade, I was also once late to my accelerated math class because I became completely tied into my gym pants with the wrong kind of knot and couldn’t get them back off again. None of the students in remedial math seemed to be having this particular problem, but I was still really struggling with a lot of knot-tying skills as late as middle school.)

              1. Elitist Semicolon*

                Are you me? In 5th grade I wore my pants backwards for almost the entire day despite wondering why the pockets felt weird. The only reason I didn’t go the full school day is that the health teacher pulled me aside. So much for my school’s accelerated/extended program!

          2. remizidae*

            The consensus among people who study this is that it is a normal distribution. It sounds like you’re willing to reject 100% of the intelligence studies that have been done, but…I’m not convinced.

            1. Snark*

              There’s a difference between understanding how intelligence evaluation works and doesn’t work, and accepting them with appropriate caveats, and accepting them uncritically as a genuine picture of how “intelligent” the population uis.

              You will not find someone who studies this professionally who disagrees with me, I’ll tell you that much.

        2. Shell*

          Well, no. Because if you think that half the people are dumber than average, then that implies that the other half must be smarter than average. But that would leave no one actually having average intelligence, which cannot be.

          One might compare it to height. If the average American woman stands 5′ 4″, it doesn’t mean that half of women are taller and half are shorter. There are millions of women who stand 5’4″ and are therefore neither tall nor short. In the same way, there are many people of average intelligence.

          1. Another worker bee*

            I mean technically, the number of people who are EXACTLY 5’4” is probably 0. We just can’t measure more precisely than ~1/16 inch and don’t care to measure more precisely than ~1/2 inch, so a lot of people who are CLOSE to 5’4” are labeled 5’4”. If intelligence was a bell curve, you could say the same thing. There are many who too close to the median to functionally differentiate.

            1. remizidae*

              You are correct. “Average intelligence” means around the average. So while it’s true that few people have EXACTLY the mean, many people are around the mean.

          2. Yorick*

            In fact, if intelligence were normally distributed, approx. 2/3 of people would be within 1 standard deviation of the mean (so, about average).

  6. Jennifer*

    I’ve wondered this many times. I have friends that I love dearly but have spotty work histories and never seem to have trouble finding great jobs. With everything in life, they always seem to land on their feet. I hate job hunting with a passion and they tend to be better risk takers than me. Maybe that’s part of it? I don’t know.

    I also think attractiveness could play a role. Not in a sexist way, just in general, pretty people tend to do better in life.

    I also have applied at retail jobs in the past to make extra $$$ and never even got a call back. That was demoralizing. I’m in a better place now, but man, it stings when you aren’t even good enough to get an interview at the grocery store. I think things will get better for you soon, OP, if you take the adivce. Best wishes.

    1. Myrin*

      Your first paragraph is exactly what astounds me time and again when I read about these “and she set out to the vast unknown with only a backpack and one hundred dollards to her name” kinds of people. How do they live? How do they eat? How do they manage to ever get any money at all? And yet, from the outside at least, it never seems easy but they definitely always find a place to stay at and someone to hire them and I’m just over here in my bedroom in my hometown all “Welp, I could never do that”. I’m with you that an ability and willingness to take risks probably plays a non-insignificant part in this.

      1. Jennifer*

        I honestly wish I was more like that sometimes. I dream about doing a lot of things but it takes time to build up the bravery to actually do it.

      2. londonedit*

        I have a friend like this. Looking at her life from the outside, she just seems to breeze on through and things ‘happen’ for her without any apparent effort on her behalf. She’s constantly changing jobs, deciding to pick up and move to a new city – it seems as though every time she says ‘I’m bored, I’m going to do something different’, ‘something different’ just falls into her lap. I think she definitely is more likely to take risks than I am – I’d never just walk out of a job, or decide to move 100 miles away for the hell of it, or go travelling for six months with nothing lined up for my return. But also, I think she’s just much more single-minded – if she wants something, she goes after it, and she often doesn’t have much regard for anyone else in the process. Never mind if she’s living with friends when she decides to up sticks and go travelling, or if the man she likes is technically someone her friend has been on a few dates with, or if she’s only just bought a house in City A when a job catches her eye in City B. She just goes for it anyway.

        1. New Job So Much Better*

          Reminds of the episode of Two And A Half Men where Charlie never had to worry about getting work, something always just came along.

        2. your favorite person*

          My assumption with folks like that is that they have some safety net I can’t see/don’t have. It’s a very specific privilege to move forward in that manner without having to worry about what’s on the other side. When you are from a low income background, those risks just aren’t something you can consider.

          1. Emily K*

            They also have to maintain fairly lightweight lifestyles – I mean that in the sense of not having a lot of burdens weighing you down. Even something as relatively minor as having pets can be an obstacle to the idea that if something goes wrong and you lose your job you’ll just give up your apartment to save on rent and go traveling and find odd jobs along the way (something I have watched friends with lightweight lifestyles do)… let alone having children, or an ailing family member, or a low-income sibling who relies on you for childcare they couldn’t otherwise afford, etc.

            There’s also the physical weight of everything you own and need to have a place to put. You can feel more comfortable yard-sale-ing all your furniture if most of what you own is flat-pack/Ikea budget stuff and/or you’re not worried about the future replacement cost if you ever need furniture again. Or if you have parents nearby with a big basement who say, sure, you can store all your stuff here for free as long as you need. But if you have a house full of expensive furniture you’ve invested in one piece at a time over the years with an eye towards stuff that would last, you’re less likely to want to take a 50% loss on selling them used so that you can give up your house or apartment to travel and not have to pay for a storage unit. The converse of that is in order to maintain a state of readiness to change life gears at the drop of a hat, you’ll probably have to make a choice not to invest in expensive furniture, a choice not to sign long-term leases, etc. Unless you’re very wealthy, buying into anything long-term is at odds with a lightweight lifestyle.

          2. Pescadero*

            Eh… the one person i know like this very definitely doesn’t have any safety net. Just before she left for India and Nepal a few years back she was homeless.

            1. JSPA*

              Yep, there must be considerable ascertainment bias. The ones who end up dead or in prison for vagrancy or in prison for the sort of “job” they ended up desperate enough to take, drop off our radar.

            2. Gazebo Slayer*

              I think both extremes tend to encourage risk-taking: on the one hand, having a strong safety net… or on the other hand, having very little left to lose.

              It’s the “okay but precarious” people who most have to play it safe.

          3. nonymous*

            I think there’s a ratio of safety net to expectations that makes this sort of stuff possible.

            Like my mom will happily put me up in her basement on an air mattress in commuting distance of a HCOL area if I fall on hard times. She might even get a cheap mattress at costco if I needed to hide out for more than a month. And that might be enough for someone embarking as a photographic journalist.

            Meanwhile one acquaintance I know has parents that make all their major purchase and pay for childcare. So it’s a totally legitimate choice for her to resign from a staff University position to teach yoga part time, because both options give her the upper middle class life experiences.

            1. Lx in Canada*

              I think it definitely depends on circumstance. If I, say, got hit by a bus or had a huge mental breakdown and had to take an extended leave of absence from work, my parents would have me stay at home (three hours away), and we’d figure out what to do about the cat issue (my parents have a cat who hates other cats, and I also have a cat). They’d probably help me move all my stuff back home or pay to keep my apartment rent so I wouldn’t have to move it for my eventual return to work. But if I just decided I wanted to up and go travelling around the world for 6 months, they would not do that. They’d let me store some furniture and my car at their place most likely, but I’d have to figure out a long-term solution for my cat and other pets. Luckily for me, I don’t ever plan to go travelling around the world (sounds horrifying to me to not have it all planned out, haha), but yeah.

      3. Emily K*

        Yep – research has shown that people who take the most risks tend to be people for whom the consequences of failure are not so bad. Entrepreneurs don’t have a greater tolerance for risk than non-entrepreneurs from a psychological standpoint – instead, they have a higher bar for what constitutes risk, so the same risk scenario is relatively less risky for them than for others. Ex: If you borrow $10,000 to start a business and it goes under, you’re out $10,000+ either way with nothing to show for it – that $10,000 is the absolute risk. But if you had a safety net of savings to fall back on, or family you could move in with to save money, etc. then risking $10,000 on a business venture has a totally different risk profile than it does to risk $10,000 when you have no savings, no family, and children who depend on you. The relative risk of losing $10,000 is much greater for the person without a safety net – that doesn’t mean they’re less willing to take risks than the person who does have a safety net, it means the person with a safety net would have to risk a lot more in an absolute sense to approximate the level of risk the person without a safety faces in a relative sense.

      4. Alphabet Pony*

        Have any of you considered that some of these people just aren’t shouting about their struggles – it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have any.

        Never compare someone else’s outside to your inside, basically.

        1. Jennifer*

          That is possible, of course, especially with people I’m just observing from afar, but I know my friends pretty well. I’m not saying their lives are without struggle, they definitely have their fair share, they just don’t seem to struggle in this one area.

        2. Myrin*

          Of course I have, that’s why I wrote “from the outside at least, it never seems easy but they” manage anyway. Also, whether they find somewhere to stay or someplace to work is a pretty easily observable fact (and I was only talking about that, not about whether they did so without any struggles at all or not), but I was also speaking mostly about people I know well enough to judge their situation accordingly.

          1. Alphabet Pony*

            You said you’re always astounded, so that didn’t really come across, sorry.

            I always assume it’s harder than these people make it look.

            1. Myrin*

              Maybe I worded that confusingly, then – what I meant by that is a sense of “wow, I can’t believe they actually managed to do that!” or “I’d never be brave enough to try that!” or “how did they meet the exact right person in this circumstance?”.

      5. annakarina1*

        Madonna pretty much rode that whole myth of “came to New York City penniless and became a star” story, but conveniently left out that, before her move, she had set up friend connections in New York City from Ann Arbor, with places to stay and dance jobs and the like, and that it’s way less glamorous to say you had a plan when moving somewhere than saying you became a star out of total nothing.

      6. Booksalot*

        My husband is like this. He sees money as something you just pluck out of the air–not that he’s a spendthrift, but he just sees opportunities all around him all the time and he’s an endless fountain of ideas.

        How he does this seems effortless to the random observer. But to me, seeing behind the scenes? It’s absolutely exhausting. He never, ever stops networking (in person, not with social media). He takes the time to chat up strangers in the produce section, where he found a guy who knows a guy that can help us with a real estate law issue. He will drive by a complete stranger’s yard party, make polite small talk while he’s at the stop sign, and end up invited for a couple of beers and spend four hours conversing with people he’s never met before. That’s how he met a guy who asked him to do some consulting projects.

        To you, my husband is a social butterfly who has a bottomless well of contacts. To me, he can’t even be on time for dinner with my parents because he got sidetracked chatting with the GD mailman for an hour. It’s infuriating, until it’s useful.

      7. Zennish*

        I once heard a local millionaire, when asked how he managed to go from being a roadside vendor to owning a huge shopping center, say “I was too naive to realize all the things that could go wrong, so I just went ahead and did it”. I think there is something to that… we just don’t hear about all the people who set out with their backpack and a hundred dollars, then immediately walk off a cliff.

        1. extraordinarily anon for this*

          My partner, who is also an extremely, extremely successful entrepreneur, says basically the same thing. He just… did what he wanted to do without thinking too hard about the potential repercussions. And it worked out.

      8. Avasarala*

        Recently some friends sold their possessions and embarked on a round-the-world journey for a year. “I’ll work from home, anywhere there is Wi-Fi!” they said. Wow, I could never do that, I thought. My job doesn’t allow me to work from home, and I couldn’t sustain myself for a year traveling without a substantial job. Plus, where would I live afterwards? I was jealous for sure but assumed they’d figured that stuff out somehow.

        Turns out, they came back and realized that the WFH plan was not as lucrative as they thought. They were running out of money. They didn’t have a home to move into. They had visa issues. Now they had no savings.

        They’re doing OK now I think, but it taught me that we have very different risk/reward calculations!

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It’s easy to get jobs when you have low expectations as well.

      My family are wanderers. My aunt is in her 70’s and still drifts between jobs because she can. It’s an industry that revolves around filling shifts and she is known to show up. So they will let her come and go as she pleases for the most part, just as long as she’s being up front with them and of course not ghosting about.

      When she was younger, she would quit one job and find another one right away because of her personality. Her and her brother both did this. Her brother would drift from cashier job to cashier job, always working into a store manager position and then on to the next. Then he did the same in the security industry.

      It’s natural charisma at work. They can earn someone’s trust pretty fast and come to the table with their ability to do things, just their wandering feet, those would get them at some point.

      My brother has a bit of this in him but he has higher expectations on his overall output. So as he got older, he finds himself staying put a lot easier. He is in the food industry and could cook anywhere but he requires things to do be done well and with integrity. He doesn’t do corporate structure or greasy canned gravy kind of places due to the fact it burns him so much in his “I care” centers.

      Retail is hard and notorious for shunning “overqualified” candidates. It’s frustrating. But at the same time, it’s hard AF work and is often downplayed into “I could do that on the side”, when the reality is it’s not usually that easy. When you only need it for what they can do for you [the extra money], they know that they’re going to get the towel thrown in on them as soon as they push back at you covering a shift on a Saturday that you would rather take off to go to a wedding or what have you.

      1. Jennifer*

        I understand retail means working weekends and wouldn’t have called out unless I was truly ill or had an emergency, but I do take your point about their not wanting to hire overqualified candidates.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I totally dig it because you know your work ethic and what you signed up for! Sadly it’s not the way it usually shakes out though for PT work =(

          I’ve been turned down for PT work before because of similar reasons, not even just retail. Then they want to complain that finding a person for the job is sooooooooooooo hard. SMH.

      2. Mel (Cow Whisperer)*

        I recently began working at a DIY home improvement center. I was massively overqualified for the position I was applying for so I made sure to emphasize my previous retail experience of 8 years as a bagger, cashier and department clerk in a single store in the application. When I interviewed, I told the interviewer point-blank that I knew I was an unusual candidate – but I had family obligations that meant working early mornings, evenings, weekends and holidays was very attractive to me and that I had enjoyed my time in retail previously because I liked helping people find the product that filled their needs and that my experience in home improvement meant this job appealed to because……

        I was hired at the end of the interview – and at orientation the HR person introduced me to an informal club of female associates who have medically complicated kids/parents/dependents who work at this same store for the same reason.

        Getting into retail is a combo of luck and skills. You can’t control the luck aspect – but you can highlight your skills.

    3. MOAS*

      When I started out, I was looking for jobs at grocery stores or bakeries and felt so discouraged, internalized it all “I’m not even good enough for a bakerY?!”. I wrote in to Alison and she helped me understand it better.

      7 years on, I’m in a role where I am hiring people, and I get why overqualified candidates are not the best candidates. When we interviewed the candidates, we all got the sense that they really just wanted to do this to fill up their time while they look for something better/weren’t enthusiastic. We spent a LOT of time and energy on creating a training program and resources for the new hire class, so we wanted candidates who best seemed like theyy’d stick around for at least half a year.

    4. Al*

      I have a friend who has been spontaneously offered jobs on multiple occasions. We would be shopping for clothes, and people would walk up and ask her to work in their store. She gave a presentation for a literature class, and an attendee offered her the head of marketing position for his company. It used to drive me nuts, because she’s legitimately an intelligent, competent, highly educated hard-worker … but the people approaching her generally had no way of knowing those things. They just liked the way she looked and the energy with which she carried herself.

  7. ZSD*

    I remember how frustrated I was when I failed to secure a summer job in college, and then I had to help a bank teller fill out the forms to order foreign currency for my trip to Germany. (“And how much do you want to pay for the Euros?” Um, I don’t get to choose.)
    I’d applied to be a teller (at a different bank) and wasn’t hired. Grr.

    1. Moray*

      I was asked to help orient a contractor who was hired to help with our budgeting review. He had once worked for our organization, left on great terms for an executive position at another company, and everyone was thrilled to have him back for a while. Hourly, he was making quite a bit more money than I did.

      And he asked me, the first or second day, without any embarrassment: “to get percentages, do you divide the big number by the little number or the little number by the big number?”

      1. animaniactoo*

        FWIW, I am way above average in math skills and ability to understand concepts and percentages were my one roadblock. I could see myself asking this question. But I can run rings around the average person for stuff using algebra or geometry to solve. I also suck at simple math. It turns out this is not entirely uncommon. There’s something about being able to do the complex math that leaves you shortsighted or absentminded enough to make 4+3 = 5.

        From your general sense, I’m assuming that this guy didn’t just have a stumbling block but rather a whole host of problems, but I just wanted to put it out there…

        1. blackcat*

          If I ever have to square three, it somehow comes out to 6, occasionally 8. I guess because 3^2, 2^3 and 3*2 look similar? IDK. There is a 3 and a 2! somehow they never make 9 in my mind.
          I have a PhD in a quantitative field. My mother realized I was gifted in math when I was three years old, and would randomly ask about numbers and then spout something back to her (“How many wheels does a car have?” “Four” “Then there are eight wheels in the driveway right now.” [there were two cars]).
          I was probably better at arithmetic when I was a young child than I am now. What has always been consistent is my ability to recognize mathematical patterns and draw conclusions based on those.
          Math skills are odd.

        2. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

          Are you me? For some reason percentages always confuse me. I have no idea why. And I can never do quick math in my head. I have to write it down. When I took the GREs I wrote out the times table on a piece of scrap paper so that I wouldn’t have to keep stopping to work out what 6*4 is. Yet I was able to get As in all the advanced math classes in high school and did statistics in BA & MA levels, and I recently took an assessment that said I was “highly numerate”. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      2. Alphabet Pony*

        And? You do know both of these work, right? A% of B is B% of A. So it’s not that embarrassing a question.

        Percentages aside though, I did just want to point out that success as a contractor isn’t really about simple maths skills you can learn or brush up on. It involves a lot of other stuff like stakeholder management, negotiation and relationship building.

        1. League.*

          I think what Moray meant was, if you’re calculating (say) what percentage 45 is of 60, do you divide 45 by 60 to get 75 percent (which is correct) or do you divide 60 by 45 to get 133 1/3% (which is not correct).

        2. Lucy*

          Yes, 36% of 28 = 28% of 36, but I feel the question was more like:

          What is 36 as a percentage of 28?

          and he can’t tell whether to calculate 36/28 or 28/36. A person adept at arithmetic has methods both ways round, but someone who asks the question in that way is unlikely to be adept at arithmetic.

        3. Michaela Westen*

          You have to understand the concept to get percentages right. Do you want the percent of the smaller number relating to the larger number, or the percent of the larger number relating to the smaller? Those are two different calculations.
          Sounds like Moray’s contractor didn’t have the concept.

      3. katelyn*

        Working as admin in a financial institution I learned that a billion dollars in the US is different than a billion dollars in the UK when one executive stopped me in the corridor to ask “a billion here is nine zeros ya?”. I thought he was an idiot until I talked to my boss about it (US – 9 zeros, UK 12 zeros).

        Sometimes math things are harder than they sound, or just an area that the person is not used to working in so they need a refresher. I bet they didn’t hire him for his math skills.

        1. Lucy*

          When I was at school, a UK billion was 1,000,000,000,000. Nowadays it’s identical to a US billion.

          I think there are far more real world uses for the concept “thousand million” nowadays. I envy India its use of the word “lakh” because it’s often useful and far neater than “hundred thousand”

          1. Dankar*

            Agreed, but man, the lakh took me a while to get used to. Sometimes I still have to write out the zeroes anyway…

    2. Paralegal Part Deux*

      My aunt worked at a bank in the 80s, and she said a customer came in asking about Swiss francs and one teller said, “Aren’t those the ones with the cheese in them? You can get that at the grocery store.”

    3. Michaela Westen*

      I looked into being a teller and learned the pay was surprisingly low. Like, it would be hard to support one person on it. You were probably better off.

    4. ScarletNumber*

      This reminds me of the time I needed change for a $100 bill and the teller asked me how many singles I wanted.

      1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

        This doesn’t seem that strange to me. I’m assuming the question was along the lines of whether you want your $30 in change to be a 20+10 or do you want 20+5+1+1+1+1+1, or 20+5+ 3 dollars and 2 dollars in quarters. I worked as a cashier ages ago and people would ask for all kinds of specific breakdowns so that they could get quarters for laundry, dollar bills for tips, or larger bills so they would have less stuff in their wallets. If I went to the bank to get change because I wanted smaller bills for some specific purpose, I would probably ask that I not get 5×20.

  8. Spooooon!!*

    I have seen the “But they interviewed so well!” thing happen a few times at my old job. People were hired who were not only incompetent, they could have done serious harm to our clients and the organization. They ended up quitting or were fired. My supervisors who hired them are very educated and intelligent people, and I always wondered how they hired such idiots. Some people are just really good at putting on a good front in the interview, and then their true colors show up later.

    1. Jamie*

      I have seen this as well.

      People who were absolutely charming and interviewed wonderfully, so much that tptb hired them without bringing anyone else into the interviews (who would have had more pointed questions about the job) and without checking references. And these were for fairly high level jobs.

      But I have never worked at a place that was good at hiring, even when they were good at many other things managerially. Everything I know about hiring I learned at AAM, the stuff I picked up OTJ was terrible.

    2. Rainy*

      We hired for a role a while back that works more closely with my role than most others in our office, and I sat in on the final round of interviews because my manager wanted my feedback on the candidates.

      The clear “rock star” of that search was a charismatic, accomplished person with a lot of experience and a lot of impressive credentials who was looking to make a lateral move because she’d done a little moonlighting in something related to our field and thought it was fun. It was all going so well until she was asked “What is one thing you can imagine being true about this job that would make you stay, and one thing you can imagine being true about this job that would make you leave?” The one thing that would have made her stay was something that this role doesn’t do a lot of, and the one thing that would have made her leave was roughly 80% of the job, and I thought “welp, this is NOT the right place for her” and told my manager so.

      Turned out no one else had even noticed that. We missed disaster by the skin of our teeth, because right after we hired for that role, divisional leadership took away hiring authority from our department, and if we’d hired her and she’d left, we probably wouldn’t have gotten permission to fill the role (we’re currently something like 6 people down because of this). This person interviewed SO WELL and she was clearly SO GOOD at what she did, but…she would have been awful in the role we were hiring for, because not only was it not what she did, almost all of her time would have been spent doing things she had already told us she hated.

    3. your favorite person*

      We had someone in our department like that. She had a pretty good resume, talked the talk, etc. but when it came down to it, she was just bad at completing tasks, prioritizing, and then laid the blame on EVERYONE else. We often spoke of how/why she was even hired.
      I saw it in action at a board meeting. She was floundering at the job, but once she was in the room with the board, you wouldn’t know it. She had a [unearned] confidence that fooled people. If I hadn’t witnessed her bad work in person, I can totally see how she came off polished and smart in an interview. She was just really good in ‘pressure’ situations like that and bad at everything else.

      1. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials*

        My gosh, she works for us now :-) Almost this exact thing, except in our case, the person in question is also a complete snake in the grass, nothing she says can be trusted. She gets by on being cute and twee and leadership loves her, but she has screwed over the staff to the point where we have almost 100% turnover. And management can’t figure out what the problem is. They think it’s all about compensation. Ugh. No one will hear a word against her. It’s frustrating.

        1. Rainy*

          I would almost think you were talking about a coworker of mine except for the turnover part. I wish there weren’t so many of this kind of person out there.

      2. tangerineRose*

        There was a guy who worked where I used to work who put on a great front, but he didn’t really know much, and he would bluff or something. At any rate, he didn’t know what he was doing, but he acted like he did, so he ended up misleading people. Very, very frustrating to deal with. Also, he either didn’t listen, or he didn’t remember much.

    4. TurquoiseCow*

      One of my most incompetent coworkers apparently interviewed amazingly well. She came in and interviewed for what was essentially just a data entry job with very little independent thought required (as evidenced by people who were insistent on just doing what was on the form, even though the form was obviously wrong) and the woman in charge of that department thought she was SO smart that she would be bored, so passed her over to my boss at the time. My department was a lot of data entry as well, but required a lot more brain power. Boss was also blown away and hired her at once. Apparently CW had also worked as a department head in her previous job.

      In practice, she was terrible and this became pretty quickly obvious. The part that I think must have made her amazing in the interview was that she questioned things and tried to understand the big picture. In practice this meant that she questioned every. little. task. and was constantly pushing back on established policies that were decided like five levels above her. She spent more time thinking about the work than doing it and as a result was slower than everyone else in the department. Of course she wasn’t fired, even though several bosses and their bosses admitted to me that she wasn’t that good, but she was at last let go in a mass layoff for budget reasons.

      My husband had a similar employee, who interviewed fine and seems to talk a good game, but it quickly became obvious that while he was great at talking about the issues of the workplace, he wasn’t so great at doing anything about them. Somewhat similar to my former coworker, he’d spent more time pushing back on issues and talking about concerns than actually getting things done. He doesn’t report to my husband anymore, but he’s still at the company, and his incompetence is pretty well-known.

      Husband’s company isn’t good at firing people, so that also might be a part of why OP is seeing a lot of incompetent people. They get a job and rather than being fired for their incompetence, they become like something of a missing stair.

    5. Introverted Not Shy*

      Sometime they have false references, or references that wanted to get rid of them.

    6. Anonymous Today*

      We’re in the middle of this situation right now, but I was one of the people on the hiring team, and we really, really put the candidates through their paces, including having them talk to multiple types of stakeholders that they would be working with and thoroughly checking his references. One candidate blew everyone away in both his phone interview and in-person interview, and we offered him the job. After hearing some concerns from that team recently, I went back and reviewed my interview notes, and the guy either outright lied or lacks metacognition about his own practices so badly that he completely misrepresented his work style and management style. He’s micromanaging out the wazoo, cutting best practices out of two programs, and refusing to acknowledge the documented expertise of his staff. I can’t fathom what happened with his references (I was not the reference checker, but the person who IS takes it very seriously and asks probing questions). We’re at a loss and watching him destroy two programs while we try desperately to flag and document what’s going on.

      1. Lora*

        Oh, I see you hired my ex-boss!

        Kidding, I’m sure there’s more than one of him. Ex-boss apparently was delightful in interviews, clever, knew how to present himself well, and lied through his teeth about the circumstances of his departure from his previous job. The grandboss checked references, but….he did that thing where “it’s not fair to call people who are not actually on the person’s reference list, that’s mean and sneaky” and didn’t use the employee networks that would have readily shown he was fired for having the world’s worst personality and 95% of the people who worked with him wished that he would die in a fire.

        The department had 100% annual turnover the year and a half they took to get around to firing him. Two contracting firms refused to work with the department as long as he was employed there – locally well known engineering firms had people walk in, work a day or a week, then walk out. He blatantly lied to a government auditor and they got whacked with a big fine and a lot of remedial actions to take in a super short time – just short of a warning letter that they’d be shut down, but it was a close thing.

        It’s NOT mean and it’s NOT sneaky to work your network and ask if someone you know happened to work with a candidate and ask what they thought of the person. It will absolutely help you dodge bullets. And Nobel Laureates do not have technical skills so amazing that you should overlook their horrible personalities.

        1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

          “It’s not mean and sneaky”

          OK, so if you apply for a job with me, you’ll be happy if I call this Ex Boss Who Burned It All Down to ask what he thinks of you, and let his opinion determine your future?

          That’s why it’s mean and sneaky.

          1. Dankar*

            If one person in the network has a bad opinion, you should take it with a grain of salt. But if “95% of the people who worked with him wished that he would die in a fire,” I think it’s fair to take that assessment as a warning.

            Hiring is collecting information and making a decision based on the limited context you’ve been presented with. It is not mean and sneaky to broaden that context if you’re connected enough to do so.

          2. Lora*

            That’s fair game, honestly – if you know my Ex Boss from Dimmest Heck, and you value his opinion and you think he’s a swell guy who would never lead you wrong? Chances are I don’t want to work with you, and bullet dodged on my end as well. There are definitely people out there who said, “yeah, she’s probably not a good fit for that role,” and it may well have been based on a bunch of nothing and I’ll never know. Sometimes people just don’t like you. And yeah, that definitely makes it harder for people in small towns or regions where unemployment in a particular field is very high – it’s one of the many reasons I moved away from the small town where I grew up. Fortunately I have many more references from reasonable people who think I’m fantastic. You don’t have to base it on just one person’s opinion, that can be an odd personality clash or something, but when there’s a pattern, it’s fair to be concerned about the pattern.

      2. Lance*

        Oh good lord. Is it not possible to get rid of him, effective immediately? Sure, his position will then be vacant, and it’ll be more work for people to keep it running… but at least then it’s just keeping it running, not actively burning everything to the ground in a rampant display of incompetence.

        I’d rather have nobody in a role and watch things occasionally fall through the cracks, than somebody in a role who’s actively damaging what they’re supposed to be managing.

      3. planetmort*

        My first ever hire (I no longer am a hiring manager, but I was for several years) was a triple whammy of “interviews well but is actually terrible” and “lies about and inflates her actual experience” and “former department is untruthful in order to unload her” (this was an internal hire). Once we had signed the paperwork to transfer her to my group, her former manager decided to be truthful about her complete lack of competence, but by then I was stuck with her. Working with her was sheer hell – she was one of those people who when she was out our productivity went up, noticeably, since we didn’t have to constantly be managing her and redoing her work. She was eventually let go from our workplace all together, but it took awhile. Last I heard she had landed herself a pretty sweet position at a similar company. I feel so, so, sorry for them.

        So yeah: terribly incompetent folks can sometimes interview very, very, well. She was so bad I even went and read her grad school thesis, since I was convinced she had somehow made up that she graduated from a reputable university. She apparently actually did, but I will never know how. I can only imagine someone wrote it for her.

    7. Zombeyonce*

      I worked in the back office of a department store for a long time, right behind the customer service desk where people make returns. One woman was in there almost every week complaining about something or other, just berating the staff and being an all-around hellbeast.

      When our Customer Service Manager left, our General Manager hired the hellbeast. She was very deferential in the interview with him (which I’m pretty sure got her the job) but to everyone else made it clear she thought she could do the job better than the previous manager. GM said he hired her because “our worst customer knows how to give the best customer service”. It turns out that no, she didn’t give great customer service because she was difficult to please, she gave horrible customer service for the exact same reasons she was our worst customer: she was demanding, unreasonable, quite rude, never went outside the letter of the policy because “rules are meant to be followed” blindly even when they don’t make sense in a situation, and mostly because she was convinced she was always right.

      She terrorized both the customers, her staff, and anyone around her for years until she finally retired. The GM eventually couldn’t stand her either but wouldn’t fire people for anything that wouldn’t earn them a jail sentence. We had a party when she left.

      1. Lance*

        I… sort of see where he’s coming from, I guess? But that’s not ‘worst customer’ he’s after; that’s not ‘customer who complains the most/loudest’, but ‘customer who occasionally brings up reasonable issues, in a reasonable manner’. I’ve very much found that the loudest voices have generally little of use to say, while the quieter, more occasional voices (who’ve probably, you know… actually thought things through) have things that can be really worth listening to. This could be especially true in retail environments like that, where many of the loudest are merely hoping to cow people into giving them what they want.

    8. MOAS*

      Oh god…. so we had a really awful person working for us. Really nasty to clients, frequently fought with me and my boss (so I know he wasn’t a sexist jerk just a regular jerk). We literally had to spell it out: “being nice is part of the job!” but he didn’t get it. I figured maybe he knew his stuff? Then tax season rolled around and we found out he was awful at that too.

      I asked my boss did yall not see how smug and arrogant he was during the interview? they said they were meh about him but HR said that his references were glowing. However, later on, she had told me that his references said he didn’t work well with others. why she told me one thing and them another thing, I will never know. I just know that thanks to HR we had to deal with this guy for 8 months too long.

    9. Blue Horizon*

      It is surprising how far “interviewing well” can take you, even in skills based interviews. I’ve run into a few that are very adept at working these. If they don’t know the answer then they will run through a number of possibilities while reading your reactions. Sometimes they can get to the answer that way. If they can’t then they’ll wait until you give them a hint, echo it back to you enthusiastically (to make it look like it was on the tip of their tongue and your hint brought it back) and then repeat the process to try and elaborate it into a full answer. It’s very easy to end up with the impression that they answered the question correctly when what they’d actually done was work the interview dynamic to get you to provide the answer, then asserted ownership of it. It took a few interviews before I noticed this and started training myself to spot it. In the meantime I sometimes ended up with the opposite impression from my (more experienced) fellow interviewer.

    10. Anonymous for this 2*

      I have one colleague who had a great interview personality and looked great on paper before she was hired. Like others have noted, she’s one of those who is great about talking and formulating ideas for what needs to be done, but not so great at implementing and following through those ideas.

      She’s also very conscious and aware of the pecking order where we work, so she’s all sweetness and charm to those whom she sees as useful and usually outrank her, but an absolutely horrible bully to those she sees as beneath her. She’s made comments how some work is “beneath her”, but said work is absolutely essential to our job, including actual contact with the public. One particular task that she saw as beneath her I countered back by saying that in my experience that if it isn’t done right the first time, there’s a good chance that it’s going to have to be redone later.

  9. Snark*

    I’m reminded of a coworker of mine who retired earlier this spring. Kindly, not a bad person, but a combination of not terribly competent, extremely neurotic, and anxious to the point of borderline shutdown a lot of the time. And he’d retired as a GS-12, step 10 or 11 or so, fairly highly-paid civil servant. Part of it is how difficult it is to fire anyone from federal jobs, but the retirement was basically an ultimatum from our boss, so he kind of was. He did just enough that he at least kept the wheels on the bus, he wasn’t a terrible person, and he showed up punctually. I guess that was enough.

    1. Snark*

      And, to expand now that I’ve read Boochie’s comment below, he was also elderly, tired, had low morale, and some obvious mental health issues that I’m sure made it difficult for him to perform on the level of a bunch of 35 year olds who’d just been hired in from the private sector, and that was undoubtedly difficult and further demoralizing for him.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        I work for a government agency (not federal) and I think one thing that happens is that someone was pretty good at the job they were hired for… in 1986. And then the job duties slowly evolve, and the technology changes over several times, and the strategic direction of the agency shifts around a bunch. And some people keep up with all that and stay great employees, but some don’t. They stop being invested after the third manager switch in two years, or their personal life got complicated and it was nice to have a job where they could show up but not put in a ton of energy, or they were hired because they were great at aspects of the job that have been since been replaced by technology and they aren’t as good at the job as it is now.

        And it’s often easier to hire internally, so some of these people end up getting promoted because they’re the best of a limited pool and already familiar with the work and the processes and everything.

        1. Snark*

          “someone was pretty good at the job they were hired for… in 1986”

          This is perfect, and very true. Governments are also, as you noted, real bad about promoting based on seniority rather than finding the right person for the job. When you’ve got someone who’d do a middlin’-to-meh job right there, and you can finish the paper in a week, that’s tempting over having to advertise and interview and blah blah blah and wait 6 months.

        2. TurquoiseCow*

          Oh, definitely. My last job (and my current job actually) used the same computer programs for ages, and then when they switched programs (trying to modernize!) a lot of people did and some still do suffer with the concept that this program does things in a different way than the old one. There was a lot of pushback when my current company decided to switch away from a program built off an Access ’97 database, because people had been working with it the entire time and were comfortable with it, and while the new system also isn’t perfect, you do have to change and learn the new ways of working and doing business if you want keep your job.

          1. I'm A Little Teapot*

            There was a governmental entity that changed their general ledger system. Old system was DOS based, mainframe, etc – no mouse, green type on black background, etc. New system was windows based, accessed via the web. Leading up to the switchover and for a while over, they had massive amounts of turnover as people who’d been doing the bookkeeping for years, if not decades, decided they just didn’t want to deal and retired. I overheard a conversation that was basically “I’d have to learn to use that mouse thing, and I hate that.”

            1. TurquoiseCow*

              I’m rather shocked no one has quit over our upgrade, but these are also people who’ve had the same job forever but aren’t old enough to retire – they probably don’t have the slightest clue how to job hunt.

              We did have the two people who built the old system announce their retirement now that it’s (mostly) moved over, but they were older people who might have retired anyway.

            2. Sun Tzu*

              Disheartening, especially if you consider computer mice have been around for almost 40 years now…

        3. Booksalot*

          I work with engineers, and I see this so much. Sorry you can’t use a drafting table anymore, Frank. Quit moaning about how you used to be able to buy a house for twenty grand, and figure out why your SolidWorks extrusions always crash.

        4. LQ*

          This is exactly what we have a lot of here. Someone who went from a very clerical /receptionist job when she started (that I have no doubt she was great at) to now what should be a role that is a devops manager. She is still behaving exactly the same way she did in the early 80s. Worse, she wants the technology to be the same too. At least she’s nice enough, the other person in a similar role is all of that but real, real angry about it all the time.
          (Retire, just retire, please!)

        5. Liza*

          We have a guy like this. He’s been in the industry for 30 years and he is great at all the face to face people business. But the work we do now contains much more IT and target meeting and administrative tasks, and he can’t use a computer. He’s only part time, he’s in his seventies, and he’s a lovely guy. So they just let him cover those bits of the job that he’s good at so other folks have more time to get on with the bits he can’t do.

          I have mixed feelings about this, but I can also understand his dilemma. It’s not his fault the job transformed around him overnight.

          I think job responsibilities are getting broader and less specific. Aspects that would once have been the job of an office administrator or low level manager are now being passed on to other employees in an attempt to keep staffing cheap and lean. So a person who was once perfectly competent because their job was a, b and c is now regarded as a mediocre or sub standard employee because they’re now expected to do x, y and z as well, and they never learned how and are struggling to do so.

      2. Introverted Not Shy*

        I am an old fed, not tired, and perform better than many who are much younger than me. The problem with Federal service, especially now with the war on unions and fed employees in general, is that the climate does not reward exemplary performance. Awards are given to the pets of angers, as are plum assignments. Details are also given to those who play the game. Fed service rewards conformity, not competence. After a while folks say fluck it and do enough to “meet expectations” but really don’t care anymore. Because nobody cares about them.

    2. TurquoiseCow*

      My most incompetent coworker also seemed to suffer from anxiety. In the beginning, it seemed like a lot of her questioning and constant re-going over everything she’d already done (thus making her slower than everyone else) was due to a lack of confidence, and that as she got comfortable, she’d speed up. She maybe got a little faster, but she still triple-checked everything she did. I think she double-checked the math the computer did sometimes. I don’t know if it really was a confidence issue, but that was how it came across.

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        I once had a job where the company president’s wife, who had occasional duties at the company, insisted on double-checking the computer’s math…

    3. CM*

      In my state gov days, I was called in to help out with a project that was a complete disaster. The point person at the agency denied the existence of the very well-documented and serious problem, and then spent an entire meeting focused on the phrase “24x7x365” in a document because if you multiply those together, it exceeds the number of hours in a year. At first I tried to focus him on the substance, but finally I just agreed to change it to “24x7x52” and accepted that I needed to find another way to get actual work done. My guess is that this was a combination of “was good at his job when he was hired 20 years ago” and bureaucracy allowing him to keep getting promoted with zero accountability.

  10. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    I gotta say, this sounds an awful lot like the employment version of “why do women only date a**holes”?

    OP, something to remind yourself of is that you’re inherently a very biased observer here. Yes, some of the people you interact with may be genuinely incompetent — but for nearly everyone you interact with, you’re not in any kind of position to know how they actually are in their job, and looking at a single interaction genuinely tells you very little about how they perform day-in, day-out, across a long span of time. It also doesn’t tell you what qualities they were originally hired for, or what they’re contending with on the back end.

    Asking yourself why they get to have jobs and you don’t is ultimately going to be a fruitless, frustrating exercise. It doesn’t help you either to progress toward your own employment or to generally be a pleasant person to be around. I’d encourage you not to indulge in these sort of frustrating, resentment-breeding mental exercises.

    1. Snark*

      This is an awesome, and very helpful, reframing. And to add, there’s nobody quite as tiring to work with as the smug asshole who thinks they’re surrounded by the incompetent. If you really are more competent, it’s an easy trap to fall into.

      1. Anon for this one*

        I was definitely that person for a while after a bad onboarding experience had me thinking “OMG, I’m surrounded by idiots” and I didn’t do a good job of hiding it!

    2. Moray*

      I didn’t read this letter as that kind of sour resentment at all. It’s a very legitimate question–how do less competent people get hired/not fired when more competent people don’t? If there was a specific trick to it (but yeah, sadly, there isn’t) I sure as hell would want to know.

      1. Snark*

        My read is that it’s very easy for this kind of thinking to curdle, and that’s a pitfall to swing over, preferably yodeling, on a vine.

      2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Taking a quick look at someone, or having a single superficial retail interaction with them, is a very narrow basis on which to decide that they’re obviously completely incompetent at their job, and the fact that the OP is apparently repeatedly encountering this situation — to me, that’s what trips the flags for an overall resentful attitude. While it’s certainly possible that the OP is actually surrounded by idiots when they do their shopping, I think it’s more likely that they’re projecting their frustration at continued unemployment onto people who don’t deserve to be categorized in that way.

        1. Guacamole Bob*

          I am sometimes frustrated by a retail or other customer service employee who seems to move like molasses. But I think my “I could do that in half the time” sense in those moments is just wrong, because in order to succeed at that kind of job you have to learn to pace yourself so that you can make it through a long shift. The pace that I bag my own groceries is probably not sustainable nonstop for 8 hours a day.

          1. Disgruntled Pelican*

            I have worked in retail in the past and had the slowest coworker ever. She was just a slow paced person in general and geniunely thought she was moving as fast as possible. She struggled with the very simple register even after working there for four years so transactions would take twice as long, talked customers ears off with stories and even after being shown a faster/better way, would continue working her own infuriatingly slow way.
            If you were a customer who just wanted to get in and get out with minimal polite chit chat and just complete your shopping as quickly as possibly, you would have hated getting her to serve you. But older customers LOVED her. They loved having lengthy chats with her and didn’t mind moving slowly through the process. As our customer base was largely older customers, we were happy to keep her on and kept our frustrations to ourselves.

        2. Natalie*

          Right, that’s the classic “meet one asshole vs constantly meeting assholes” joke. I’ve observed that in people close to me and as you and Alison noted, it’s almost always frustration at some bigger situation, inappropriately aimed at people at large. It really is poisonous, and IME it’s also hard to un-poison yourself once it’s happened.

      3. Alphabet Pony*

        Yes, it’s a legit question, but I think it’s worth acknowledging that you can be wrong about how competent someone is when observing them as an outsider.

      4. Introverted Not Shy*

        But it’s not a useful question. A better question is what should I do to get hired?

    3. Fortitude Jones*

      Yeah, I agree with your second paragraph. I’ve worked with people who I initially thought were incompetent as hell, but then after speaking with them and seeing more of how they worked, I realized a lot of these people were just burned out. I worked in law and insurance claims where the work is hard, fast paced, and requires lots of long hours at times – it takes a special kind of person to never make a mistake or be 100% cheerful/helpful every day. I imagine OP’s running across burned out employees in these stores she’s visiting as well. Some of them work crazy hours for little pay and then have to deal with the public’s nasty attitudes to boot. It’s easy to get flustered in that kind of situation.

      1. Jamie*

        I think this whenever I go to the DMV.

        I assume they are perfectly pleasant people who are just trying to survive a nightmare bureaucracy and often very nasty public.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          All I had to do was see some unhinged jerkwad speak to a cashier/clerk and know why so many just turned off their outward facing emotions after awhile. Which is why government agencies especially have to just keep grinding away as they’re berated by people in line and people in general life love to pile rocks on their back of unrealistic demands.

          Dealing with the general population is murder on the soul.

        2. Parenthetically*

          The guy who takes the license photos at our local DMV is one of the most delightful humans ever to work behind a cheap laminate counter, and every time I’ve had to go in there I’ve wondered how he perseveres with his cheery patter despite how soul-sucking parts of his job must be. He’s… let’s just say the only chipper person in the building at any given time.

          1. Jamie*

            My mom had what we called a happiness default. Normal stuff just didn’t bother her and she was genuinely happy and more so the more people with whom she interacted. (Were she still alive I’d want a DNA test.) There are people like that out there – I envy them as much as I will never understand them.

            1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

              I’ve worked with a few people like this! Even in some really bad jobs that you’d think would murder their souls. I like the description of “happy by default”. It’s so true. They’re rare, it must be extra recessive gene stuff!

            2. Michaela Westen*

              “happy and more so the more people with whom she interacted.”
              I also love interaction. It makes me genuinely happy. Unless the person is abusive.

            3. WellRed*

              I work with one if these. I strive to be more positive about things I can’t change (but still use my political capital where I think it can make a diff.)

        3. Adlib*

          Last time I went, the lady helping me was so relieved that I had the right paperwork, and I’m sure she’s been yelled at over that by people when the list is right there on the website.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      This is such an excellent framing of what’s happening and how to deal with it (despite the frustration). It’s so easy to focus on how other folks are deficient, despite our limited view of the big picture or even of a specific person’s competence. And it’s easy to waste time and energy wallowing, there, which is truly not helpful for being employable or maintaining healthy relationships with your support network.

      The Countess saves us from our misanthropic grumbling, once again! :)

    5. Alphabet Pony*

      Thank you – I was surprised not to see this mentioned in Alison’s answer. I have had jobs that looked easy from the outside to people who didn’t know what they involved and/or who were imagining doing them at leisure, not in a hurry under pressure.

      And to take customer service as an example, sometimes what you think matters is not what is used to measure success in the job.

      Good luck in your job hunt OP. Try not to let this line of thinking consume you.

    6. Vin Packer*

      I think the first sentence is a little unfair. A really important difference here is that nobody is entitled to a date, ever. You can argue that nobody is “entitled” to a job either…but not having a job means not having your basic physical needs met, which changes things.

      Your point that it’s not that useful to dwell on holds, and the bit about, while you know that there are definitely incompetent people in the world with jobs, you don’t necessarily know if the *specific* person in front of you is incompetent or not, is a great way for LW to get in a more useful mindset.

      But if we are going to have a system where a person must be worthy in order to earn the ability to support themselves, I don’t think it’s an example of toxic entitlement to feel a little desperate knowing that there are incompetent people with jobs when you can’t get one to save your life (maybe literally, in extreme cases).

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Oh, on the larger picture I do agree with you that the dating/employment analogy isn’t perfect, for exactly the reasons you mention. However, I do stand by my statement that when you’re looking at other people having something that you don’t have but desperately want, it’s very easy and very tempting to dismiss them quickly for any little perceived imperfection, whether you’re dismissing your current crush’s significant other as an a**hole or the cashier who is getting a paycheck (while you aren’t) as incompetent. It’s about bias, not entitlement.

      2. Gazebo Slayer*


        Thank you. You just nailed the reason I am really deeply uncomfortable with the job/dating analogy.

    7. Autistic Farm Girl*

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who got that “nice guy” feeling from this letter.

      And totally agree, the person you have in front of you could be having a bad day, they could be brand new and not fully trained yet, they could have so many issues that you have no idea about and you’re making a judgement about their entire work by seeing them for maybe 10 minutes.
      I have moments where I s*ck at my job, big time, moments where I can’t be bothered, moments where I comment/read on Ask A Manager instead of doing actual work, etc. Does that mean that I am a horrible useless worker across the board? No, it just means that right at this second in time I’m quite useless.

    8. DJ*

      I was hoping someone would make this point. Everyone thinks they’re competent and yet I’ve found that most of us probably have situations or scenarios in which we would look completely incompetent.

      Not to mention if this is retail like it sounds like, I’ve found a lot of people are biased to immediately assume retail worker = incompetent and interpret everything through that lens. And you forget that there may be extenuating circumstances (like if they’re required to do something a certain way). Not that the OP would be purposely doing that, but it can be easy to fall into that mindset because it’s so socially accepted.

    9. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Thank you, you framed it exactly how my mind was grasping for reading it.

      It can really seep out of your brain and into your demeanor as well.

      It also reminds me of the guys who would quit to try to open their own construction businesses. They’d then slink back in to have to buy materials from the boss they hate because nobody will do business with them as a dude off the street who has a pickup and a utility belt. They gave up quickly. They didn’t see the build-phase the boss had had to go through himself just the end result of “oh this looks so easy to do, what do you mean it doesn’t drop out of the sky setup for you?”

      You have to chew on your ego and attitude, be humble and work for it in the end. A lot of those ” inept” people know that much at least!

    10. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I also think the OP might be discounting certain aspects of the job — like soft skills — while over-emphasizing other, maybe less important technical skills of a job. A lot of employers hire someone with soft skills over those with technical skills because people skills aren’t something they want to train in. No one wants to be the one saying, “Smile, look guests in the eye, say please and thank you, manage your expression to look like you are interested in the customer’s long-winded story, laugh at the customer’s jokes, learn the art of moving the line along without rushing anyone out the door…”

    11. Sleepytime Tea*


      Something was irking me and I wasn’t quite able to put my finger on it. This is it. Frankly, the attitude is a little… entitled. Seeing someone make a single mistake or not be perfect at something one time does not mean they are incompetent or unqualified. Especially in retail! There are lots of things you only do once a blue moon, or it’s a crazy day because you’re dealing with demanding customers all day and so you’re a bit off, or you know, you’re human.

      Feeling it’s unfair that someone else has a job when you don’t is… well as you said fruitless and frustrating. But other people having jobs doesn’t mean they took something of yours from you, and doesn’t mean they aren’t deserving of their job.

    12. You can call me flower, if you want to*

      +1000 this a very good response.

      OP, I think it’s worth considering if this process has left you bitter and if that bitterness is showing through more than you realize. Your situation does sound really really rough, and I’m sorry you’re struggling to secure work, but it’s important to take a look and make sure you’re not showing any signs of bitterness or desperation or anything similar since it will make hiring managers pause. Just a thought. I hope you find work soon!

    13. CM*

      I remember thinking this way before I had much work experience — “oh, I could do that better!”
      For me it was not so much about entitlement as just not understanding how complicated workplaces can be, and how they can wear you down over time, or encourage you to prioritize things other than what I was seeing. Regardless of the reason, I agree it’s ultimately a fruitless question.

    14. Pommette!*

      Thank you – very true and very well said.

      Having spent a long time struggling with thoughts similar to the OP’s while un- and under-employed, I’ll add a couple of things:

      First: the mindset the OP describes is a really, really easy one to get into. You spend all day reading and responding to very detailed descriptions of “ideal” workers. You apply, and apply, and apply… and feel rejected and dejected as non-responses accumulate (even though you know that you’re one of many applicants, and that the rejection isn’t personal and shouldn’t be taken as such). And then you go out and see people who fail to meet the specific standards you’ve become hyper-attentive to, and, often, hyper-critical of yourself for not meeting or not being able to demonstrate that you meet. In dark times, it’s easy to have “how is it that you have a job, while I can’t get one” moments. I’ve had many. Those thoughts come naturally – at least to some of us, and I envy and admire people who aren’t disposed that way.

      So getting away from that mindset may require a lot of work. It did for me! I normally tend to assume the best about people; but this time, I had to actively make myself think through possibilities that would normally seem obvious (“that person was brusque because s/he was having a bad day”; “that person made a huge mistake because s/he is absurdly overworked”; “that person may write e-emails so a-grammatical that they are hard to make sense of, but s/he really knows what s/he’s talking about!”). I actually had to build silly little scenarios in my head, and think through them every time I found myself getting annoyed and angry.

      But, and this is the second point: it feels so much better not to be burdened with that attitude. If made me bitter and robbed me of my ability to enjoy what would otherwise have been small, pleasant human interactions, right as I was going through the kind of isolating and painful period when those interactions matter most.

      Anyways: good luck, OP. I hope that you feel better and find good work soon!

    15. Avasarala*

      This is exactly what I thought as well and was surprised Alison didn’t address it.
      I think it’s pretty arrogant to assume that you’re automatically more competent than someone, and you’re going to come across very bitter if your attitude is “I’m so much better than everyone and I can’t even get an interview, meanwhile these nincompoops are getting hired, it must be the companies that suck!”

  11. That Girl From Quinn's House*

    One thing I observed at places I worked, is that a lot of managers actually wanted mediocre employees. Why? High-performing employees are “demanding.” They are knowledgeable about rules and regulations and will push back when given inadequate resources or directions that are illegal. Lots of bosses and organizations want someone who will do as they’re told and not make waves when they’re directed to Fire Fergus because he’s too old or bring a barf bucket to work when they have food poisoning or to modify an employee’s timecard so they’re not getting paid for hours worked. It’s just much easier to go along to get along, cutting corners and saving money, because chances are you won’t ever get caught or called out on it, so why bother keeping those “troublemakers” around.

    1. NomdePlumage*

      Not to mention, higher performing employees or people who are “going places” won’t stick around (like someone who is graduating college soon and applying as a cashier), and then someone new will need to be trained. If a manager thinks you’ll seek better opportunities in less than a year, you won’t get the job. They don’t have time to retrain for high turnover.

      1. Public Sector Manager*

        Many moons ago as a college student I worked two retail jobs. The first store I worked at, HR wouldn’t pass my application on to hiring managers because they felt that they had too many short term people on staff. But my friend worked in another department, let the hiring manager know I applied, and the hiring manager requested my materials from HR. For the second job, they didn’t care–having someone good for 4 months was better than having someone bad for 4 months.

        If the OP has a career outside of where the OP is applying, there are going to be a lot of HR staff who won’t hire under the theory that “OP won’t be here very long because they’ll leave as soon as another career position opens up.”

    2. TurquoiseCow*

      One of my old jobs had difficulty striking a balance between “smart enough to do this job” and “willing to do it without questioning everything and constantly pushing back because it needs to get done.” It was essentially data entry, but it was data entry that required a certain amount of knowledge to do it right, rather than mindless entry.

      Too mindless, and you have mistakes made that make people really mad. Too smart and you have lots of questions and pushback and less actual work getting done. I had to make a conscious effort to not push back on things that bothered me in favor of getting the work done. The thing that saved me (a smart person) was that while I pushed back, I was also fast, so I got the work done and THEN pushed back, as opposed to people who constantly pushed back and didn’t get a lot of work done.

    3. Alternative Person*

      This is a good point. My boss at my main job keeps me on (and lets me flex my hours) because I’m competent and qualified, but he can’t/doesn’t want to hire additional skilled people.

      I can see the way I get left out of certain projects or have my opinion skimmed over because it would mean actually having standards/having to put effort into training/changing things.

    4. DCGirl*

      When I worked at a bank in college (eons ago), I was told that they deliberately hired less experienced people without a lot of college education because they wanted people for whom balancing their drawers at the end of the day would feel like an accomplishment.

      1. Polymer Phil*

        In my field, companies are hiring people with 4-year degrees in chemistry for technician-level jobs that were formerly done by people with high school diplomas. What happens is that the person with a chemistry degree is bored to tears, ends up making careless mistakes out of boredom, and quits after a few months. The person without a degree finds the job interesting and challenging, stays for years, and becomes a valuable employee.

        I had an idiot buzzword jockey grandboss who made us hire people with degrees for routine QC jobs, and this was exactly what happened.

      2. kayakwriter*

        Along those same lines, I had a relative by marriage who was an industrial psychologist for a major tire manufacturer. This was in the 1970s when a lot of repetitive line work had not yet been automated. His job was to administer IQ tests to prospective assembly line workers. They did not want workers above a certain threshold (he would never tell me exactly where that line was). Because people who were too bright got bored out of their gourds and either quit or became problem employees.

  12. Celeste*

    Getting the job is very different from keeping the job. The incompetent ones may not be employed for very long.

    1. NicoleK*

      I wish. My incompetent coworker has been in her role for 6 years. And she’s not going anywhere. And I’m just expected to carry her weight as long as I’m her coworker.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        But when you leave and if they can’t find someone to fill your role at your competency and ability to cover for her, then what?

        I’ve seen people seemingly skate by, until I left and someone else had to deal with it. Then suddenly the axe fell. So it could be that you’re the lifeline, which isn’t fair at all and gross but yeah, if you leave [which you should, this is a situation that’s bad for your health!], it’s not your problem any more and chips may fall differently for her.

        1. NicoleK*

          Our conflict avoidant boss has been protecting and propping her up for 6 years. So nothing will happen to incompetent coworker. My replacement (I feel sorry for the poor soul) will carry her weight the way I’ve done.

    2. Blossom*

      Or alternatively, the incompetent people aren’t dealt with, and instead stick around for years grousing and idling and being a general spanner in the works, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be got rid of. Weak management, basically.

    3. Zombeyonce*

      I worked at a place when I was younger that was full of terrible employees. The manager wouldn’t fire anyone unless they did something highly illegal, so there were lots of terrible workers with horrible habits doing things just shy of prison-time-worthy that were there forever. If you couldn’t show video evidence of Fergus’ incessant sexual harassment or that Jane was an hour late to most of her shifts but got Benjamina to clock in for her (making you stay late to cover), it must not have happened. You telling him you actually witnessed something firsthand was “just hearsay” to the manager.

  13. Guacamole Bob*

    Another thing that happens is that hiring managers sometimes want people who can get up to speed quickly and who they think will stick around. That can mean skipping the applicants who are smarter or more ambitious and will go further in the end.

    So maybe a retail manager has a choice between someone who has worked at a different store for three years and is probably a B+ employee in most ways versus someone who is really bright and motivated but who has been unemployed for a while and clearly just need an income and who will leave when something better comes along. Often it will make sense to go with the person with more experience but less potential.

    1. Ama*

      I came here to comment, something along this line. The stores I worked at tended to hire people who weren’t looking for a career, just something to give them a little extra spending money — especially if they preferred a part-time schedule, because part-time employees didn’t get benefits.

  14. Myrin*

    I can’t figure out if this is a dig at the OP or just a general observation? (If the latter, absolutely! It’s always good to have someone read over what you’ve written in a professional capacity to find out if your words really do come across as intended.)

    1. AnonToday*

      Personally, I think it’s a dig at the OP- and it is both unkind and unhelpful. Most of us (myself, professional writer included) don’t proof my emails as carefully as I proof my application materials.

  15. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    It’s easy to become jaded after awhile of not getting the outcome that you want but in the end, your attitude deteriorating to the point of “why do these people have jobs, they’re dumb AF and I’m much better.” is a huge issue that has to be worked on.

    You’re probably presenting in interviews with this chip on the shoulder and exhaustion. I understand because it’s been a long ride for you and have seen it happen to countless friends during the recessions [who all had plenty of nice degrees and other selling points but didn’t get picked up for even retail jobs].

    There are a lot of reasons why people get jobs. Those people who ‘stink’ at their jobs [the portion you see as a consumer] show up and do at least good enough work that the company can keep pushing forward. Whereas finding someone who shows up is half the battle in some of the lowest rung jobs.

    Also if you’re presenting in an interview that you’re desperate for any job but you’re a higher skilled individual over all, that’s damaging your ability to get a job as well. They know you’re going to skip right out as soon as the better job comes along. Those who may struggle in the job at least try, even if they fail sometimes and they’re not regularly looking for a better opportunity or they just simply can’t given the constraints of having that job in the first place along with other obligations.

    It’s hard to hire. We can ask as many questions as we want, keep digging and try to figure things out but in reality, especially for a customer service kind of job, they don’t take weeks of searching and candidate filtering. It’s a job that needs to be done every day with steady daily tasks to keep the day to day afloat. So yeah, you just pick the person who sells themselves the best, they’re confident and personable in that thin flimsy interview stage. Then yeah, they may just stink or maybe they don’t, you just are looking at them through such a tired lens that you’ve got.

    1. Emma*

      Right – and if you’re intervening to ‘help’ people do their jobs at places you’re interviewing (I’m not sure from the letter if this is the case or not) – then that’s going to come off as pushy and overbearing, and will make potential employers fear that you would be an employee who wouldn’t understand when it is and isn’t appropriate to intervene in a peer’s work.

      1. qvaken*

        It has made me so angry in the past when a customer, client or coworker decided they were smarter than I was and that they could do my job better than I could. Especially when they tried to step in and “do it for me”. (Unless they’re a trainer or it was otherwise their job to step in.)

        If a customer did that to me and then handed in an application form for a job, I would tell my manager what happened to discourage them from hiring that person. It doesn’t demonstrate the best teamwork skills.

  16. Just saying.*

    “Even when shopping as a consumer” you see people who you’re better/smarter/more competent than? How can you tell?

    Maybe it’s less a concern of skills and more one of atittude.

    1. Jennifer*

      Would it be that difficult to figure out? Maybe they are rude, make frequent, avoidable errors, can’t answer simple questions, etc.

      1. Autistic Farm Girl*

        And maybe they are new, had bad news at home, haven’t slept in 3 days because their kids are running riots, etc, maybe they’re just humans?! You can’t tell if they make frequent avoidable errors by talking to them for 10 minutes in a shop.

        1. Jennifer*

          Maybe they are a regular? I have a grocery store I go to a few times a week and I have preferences as to which line I go through.

          1. Myrin*

            Yeah, I agree with the overall point that you can’t really judge someone’s overall job performance and competence from a brief, one-time interaction with them, but if you interact with them regularly, there comes a point where you can judge whether they seemed to be going through a lull for a month or whether they’ve been deeply unpleasant and rude every week for two years.

            1. Lucy*

              At a grocery store near me there is an employee who at first glance seems desperately incompetent, vague, distracted, etc albeit in a cheerful and charming way.

              Over time you realise she’s always precisely where she needs to be, she knows all the short codes and overrides, she knows her stock and restocking schedule back to front, and so on.

          2. Just saying.*

            And unless the letter writer is applying for those shop jobs, which it sounds like they aren’t, then seeing an “incompetent” person at the shop is moot.

            They got the job because they have the skill level it requires.

        2. Pescadero*

          incompetent: not having or showing the necessary skills to do something successfully.

          Reasons for incompetence don’t make it not incompetence – they just may excuse the incompetence.

        1. Jennifer*

          Whoa, everyone, can we take the yelling down a notch, good lord. Of course, anything is possible. Maybe they are having a bad day, maybe they are incompetent, we can’t really know. I worked in call centers and in retail for many years and know firsthand how hard it is. I also know there are people who are just rude, no matter what job they are doing.

          The comment I was responding to seemed to imply that there was no way of seeing someone’s job performance in a retail environment and I was just offering suggestions on how they might be interpreting someone as a poor performer.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            They’re not yelling…they’re responding with reasonable counter points to yours. That’s how comments work.

          2. Just saying.*

            “The comment I was responding to seemed to imply that there was no way of seeing someone’s job performance in a retail environment”

            There really isn’t, as a customer. You don’t know what they are like other than the 10 minutes you interact with them, even if you ARE a regular. If they’re still there, they’re clearly doing okay at their job and it’s kind of obnoxious for LW to call out “incompetent retail workers” as a reason they can’t find work.

            1. Jennifer*

              “If they’re still there, they’re clearly doing okay at their job” That’s not necessarily true. We get letters here all the time from people who don’t understand why an incompetent coworker or manager hasn’t been fired. That’s the point of this entire letter.

              Depending on the area, there may be difficulty filling these roles. That’s been a problem near where I live recently. There are a lot of openings but no one wants to do the job. The teens that used to do these jobs in generations past aren’t really interested anymore.

            2. WellRed*

              If cashiers are standing around talking about work issues while customers are waiting to check out? Yeah, I’m gonna think they ain’t so great. 5 year part time retailer here.

    2. Anonymous today*

      I think back to an experience I had a few years ago. A popular chain store has a location near where I live. I am a semi-regular; I go in 5-6 times a year, so I see a lot of the same people over and over.

      A few years ago, I dealt with someone I’d never met. She couldn’t figure out how to ring up my purchase and needed a supervisor to step in to finish it (and no, I didn’t get anything particularly complex or unique. She just literally couldn’t figure out how to ring up my sale). She apologized, explaining that she was new—fine, I wasn’t upset. But I did start making small talk. “So, how long have you worked here?”
      “Oh, about four months.”

      Clearly, I’m not the only one who felt she was in the wrong job. I’ve never seen her again. And yeah, it did bug me, because I’d applied to work in that store and been rejected without an interview. I don’t know that I can fully judge her competence, abilities, etc. (I mean, maybe she was an expert on the product, but just lousy at checking people out?) but trust me, I get where LW would, in the moment, feel that s/he had more to offer than an employee s/he’d encountered.

      1. Jennifer*

        You explained it much better than me :) I have worked retail and understand burn out and inexperience. I also knew people who were just plain rude and/or incompetent. There is a difference.

        1. Just saying.*

          And again, unless LW is trying to get THOSE jobs, the workers’ incompetence, perceived or otherwise, is moot.

          Incompetent people working in stores does not translate to competent person getting an office job in a more specific industry.

          1. Jennifer*

            I didn’t say anything about office jobs. I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

          1. WellRed*

            Had a co-worker just…flake one time on register. Got all flustered and needed help. It happens and I jumped in. Was less sympathetic when she called out sick after being denied a Saturday off. I had also wanted it off to travel to family ( Easter wknd). I had FAR more seniority and good will built up, but showed up for my shift b/c I couldn’t have it iff either.

  17. NicoleK*

    How do incompetent people get jobs? A combination of luck, charm, personality, nepotism, timing, connections, incompetent hiring managers, great interview skills, and great at selling themselves.

  18. iglwif*

    I gotta say, I hear stories about some folks at my partner’s work and I ask myself this same question aaaallll the time. Like, how many times is that one person going to have to epically screw up before she finally gets let go, or at least put on a PIP? Why does that other person who is clearly not even interested in trying to become competent even have this job to begin with?

    For these specific people, it seems like the answers are 1) the management structure is such that the people who observe the behaviour every day are not the people who have decision-making power about personnel, 2) Person A has been there a very long time, so would have to get lots of severance, and/or 3) Person B is the offspring of somebody important.

    It’s frustrating but, because my partner has worked there a long time and isn’t worried about his job, also sometimes hilarious. It would be much more frustrating and much less hilarious if he were looking for a job.

    1. Fortitude Jones*

      I was once friendly with a woman in another division at major insurance company who was apparently the worst. Like, she would get upset by a call with an insured, hang up, and then announce to her team that she was too stressed to deal with anything else and would leave for the day without permission (and this was mid-day most days). They eventually put her on double probation, which I didn’t even know was a thing, and you know she never was fired for this? No, they only got rid of her when she “allegedly” brought a gun to work (I was not friendly with her at this point by the way).

      I couldn’t believe they had kept her lazy ass around as long as they did, but I was told by someone who worked with her that upper management was hesitant to let her go because her resume was passed on to them from my former manager, who was the director of a training program there – they didn’t want to offend ex-boss. Well, ex-boss allegedly told them the day they were planning to let her go that they didn’t need to wait that long to fire her – she didn’t care. She only forwarded the woman’s resume along at the time because she had previous claims experience and this division needed additional staff ASAP. So yes, sometimes incompetent people don’t get fired due to perceived cronyism as well.

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        She ended up getting fired not for gross incompetence and just blowing off her job… but for allegedly bringing a gun to work?!

        Whoa, that escalated quickly.

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          LOL, that was my reaction when I heard. The gross incompetence part should have been the deal breaker IMO.

    2. The Original K.*

      There are two people in particular at my friend’s job where I’m like, I just do not understand how they still work there. They’ve both been reported to HR multiple times over a period of literally years, for what I would consider pretty egregious things, and they’re still there and I just don’t get it. They’re both in fairly high-profile jobs at their organization, too. It’s to the point where their individual antics (they don’t work together) are causing turnover, and yet they’re both still there.

    3. Manders*

      This is a great point. Sometimes an incompetent person skates by for a long time because no one sees the problem, or the right people aren’t seeing the problem, or the problem can simmer for a long time before causing a crisis.

      An example from my partner’s work: The high school Chinese teacher was doing a terrible job, but no one noticed how much her students were struggling because no one else at the school taught Chinese and the students weren’t taking any standardized language tests. The problem was only dealt with when the bad teacher took a sabbatical, and her substitute brought the issue up to the administration.

  19. fposte*

    Also, many incompetent people aren’t always incompetent. They started out competent and got overwhelmed or burned out, or they’re going through a bad patch for illness, family reasons, whatever.

    1. ceiswyn*

      Yes, that’s happened to me. The last place I worked, I had a stellar first few years; but then the workload just kept growing, and I had a year with a heavy study schedule alongside my full-time work as well, and then I had a bereavement, and it burned me out. And shortly after that, my excellent manager left and I was transferred to someone who didn’t really understand what I did. By the time I started to recover, my new manager had formed fixed ideas about the nature of my role and my approach to it and I just kept metaphorically hitting the walls of that box when I tried to return to the sort of things I’d been doing when I was well. I just gave up and went through the motions until I was able to move on.

      1. fposte*

        Yes. I think it’s easy to treat incompetence as somehow malign, when often it’s just about being buried by job and life stuff.

  20. Bunny Girl*

    I’ve wondered this a lot myself. I work for a huge company and I know that statistically everyone can’t be a star employee, but holy crap I can’t believe how many horrible hires are made here. The interview/hiring process is really long and involved, but they don’t have a hiring manager, it’s just done by a panel of employees that obviously have no idea what they’re doing because there’s no real training for it. It’s also really, really hard to get fired here, and no one is ever held accountable so you’re just stuck with terrible employees and it sort of blows my mind.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      In this case, it may also be an issue with how people are terminated as well.

      Some places it seems like once you’re in, you’re there for life, unless maybe you set the place on fire, maybe.

      It’s fine to hire incompetent people sometimes, it happens. It’s about then removing them!

      1. Bunny Girl*

        Yes it’s a combination of both. Untrained people are hiring people and then our HR refuses to get rid of anyone. We’ve had people throw objects at other people and they were still allowed to remain. But also overall, there’s just no accountability. No one forces incompetent staff to do their jobs or get with the program. It’s just kind of accepted as “a thing.” As in “Oh yeah Alice hasn’t answered a single email in three decades. That’s just how she is! Hehe!” or “Oh yeah Mary refuses to learn new technology and pushes all her work onto other people. But she brings such joy to the department!”

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Yeeeeeeeeah if you work somewhere that allows people to throw things [or spit on them like I’ve seen mentioned here AND ITS STILL STUCK IN MY HEAD!] that’s the problem, not the hiring process. It’s a Company Stinks At Basic Business *sobs*

      2. SezU*

        And they just keep moving the incompetents around. We got one recently. Ugh. I told my boss straight up that I am not holding this person’s hand. They are at a high enough (GS) level that they should be able to do their job without me carrying them.

  21. Oxford Comma*

    Some people fantastic at interviewing.

    I had one man who interviewed like a dream. His references were glowing. He was a horrible employee. Another woman interviewed and said all the right things. Again, glowing references. Something about her was off, but my colleagues were like “how can we not hire her?” Turns out I was right on that one because two months later it was “how could you have hired her?”

  22. L*

    The frustrating part about working with someone who is incompetent at their job is knowing that the person who hired them is their friend or relative (or has some kind of relationship with them) and is hiding or defending them in their incompetence. We have one who should have been fired for falsifying time sheets (as should the supervisor who approved them) but that didn’t happen. She kept getting another chance to improve, despite all the evidence the president had that she was stealing time and not doing her job. Then she became pregnant…so she couldn’t be fired…she might sue. She’s due back at the end of the month and we don’t expect anything to change. She will still be protected by her supervisor and the president who is afraid of lawsuits. No wonder morale around here is in the dumpster!

  23. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I’ve worked in government and politics for 20 years, and here’s what I’ve learned about the overwhelming majority of incompetent bosses I’ve had over the years.

    Their position is less about their abilities and more about a lot of external factors that happen to line up perfectly to benefit them.

    For example, I worked for a political appointee who is the most clueless individual you could ever meet. Broke the law all the time. But his boss (the elected official who appointed him) was embroiled in an ongoing scandal so that guy was far more interested in covering his own butt than whatever his appointees were up to. My boss made twice my salary, and he couldn’t even name the acronym for the agency he headed and he used out of date terminology (think “mental patient”) all the time.

    Another egregiously incompetent boss was able to charm the board she reported to. That charm combined with her ability to get big donors were what kept her in her position. Board members didn’t give a fig about the hell that was working with her day to day.

    Most government bosses aren’t appointed for what they can do but rather what they can persuade TPTB on what they SAY they can do. These are people that can manipulate numbers, create slick PowerPoints, and regurgitate all the right buzzwords to convince whoever is in charge of their effectiveness without much regard to whether that’s actually true.

    I know it sucks, but AAM is right. That resentment is something you have to get over or at least channel it into hilarious stories you tell at cocktail parties. That’s what I do.

  24. mark132*

    I think a lot of your assessment of these ‘incompetent’ workers could be lack of experience on your part. Lots of jobs look easier from the outside. But when actually attempting the job, they prove more challenging that you expect. I mean I can make a sandwich, how hard can that be right. Well watching my daughter rip out sandwiches at the shop rapidly and accurately would indicate to me, a lot harder than you might think. And this includes only what I directly see. She also has to be able to open and close the store, which involves dozens of tasks you don’t see.

    That said, there definitely are incompetent people out there.

    1. londonedit*

      Agree. I am not incompetent – I know, because my boss tells me so and the vast majority of the things I work on go smoothly – that I’m fundamentally good at my job. I might not be a ‘rock star’ and things aren’t always perfect, but I am fundamentally good at my job. Does that mean the authors I deal with don’t get frustrated with me? Of course not. From their perspective, their book is the most important thing in the world, and here I am, Mean Editor Woman, asking them to change things or sending them a cover design that they hate or telling them that I need them to do something by Wednesday and no they can’t have a sixth extension to the deadline. How dare I not make their book my top priority and how dare I not understand how much work they’ve already put into it? They lose sight of the fact that I have 20 different books to work on, all at different stages, and that I’m under pressure from my boss, and I’m also under pressure from the production department, and meanwhile my boss is under pressure from her boss, and we’re all under pressure to make sure books publish on time and without costing us a ton of money.

      1. mark132*

        I hope your job is better than you make it sound in just this short post. I’m honestly feeling a little stressed just reading your post.

        1. londonedit*

          Oh, it is! Don’t worry. I was playing up the stressful bits just to illustrate that people on the other side of the fence don’t get to see everything that I’m doing. They’re focused on the book they’ve written, and they expect that level of focus from me, when that’s never going to happen because from my point of view their book is just one of the ones I’m currently trundling on through the editorial process. It can be stressful because we do have fixed deadlines – publication dates that we have to meet – but generally it’s a case of project management and keeping everything ticking along as it’s meant to.

    2. Hanna*

      This exactly. I’m getting unpleasant flashbacks to snarling customers telling me “A monkey could do your job better than you” when I worked at a grocery store.

      No, they could not, and neither could you, because you have no idea what you’re talking about. (“You” being the customer in this instance, not the OP.)

    3. Kiki*

      Yes– there are definitely some blissfully incompetent souls working, but a lot of customer-facing roles have much more to them to than the customer sees, so customers don’t always realize the full story. For example, was your server forgetful or were they dealing with some sort of catastrophe in the kitchen?

      Additionally, staying at peak performance after 5+ hours of interacting with clients is really difficult! I was on the math team in high school, so I was verifiably good at math, but even I would have difficulty calculating change at the end of a long shift. I think a lot of people don’t realize or forget how overworked/underpaid/exhausted a lot of client-facing workers are. Most people struggle to be “on” for eight hours (or more) straight– being able to do so is a skill and talent that should be well-compensated and it is a shame that it isn’t!

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        Yeah. I was a supermarket cashier in high school. If something irregular happened and I had to calculate the change in my head, I used to struggle with it. Customers would get very sneer-y, “well, in MY day, you had to know basic arithmetic to be a cashier, or even be promoted to 3rd grade, but I guess NOWADAYS you kids just rely on the computer for everything.” I was taking AP Calculus at the time, and I now have a master’s degree in electrical engineering. I will put my math skills up against anyone’s. But after attending high school all day and scanning groceries all afternoon and evening, I was tired.

        1. WellRed*

          Once I’ve already rung it in, don’t interrupt me with some weird extra change configuration. I’m on autopilot!

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This is totally completely utterly true.

      Everyone tells my mom they want her job. They think it great because she’s tucked into a corner doing her thing all day long [yay not much interaction with humans!]. Only it’s not at all.

      She’s trained hundreds of people who thought they could do it over the years and maybe one in ten can hack it. It’s tiresome and tedious at first, you have to have a pace, you have to be wonderfully organized, you have to understand which order to do things in or you get backed up, etc.

      One of her coworkers changed facilities awhile back and was another high performer. She came in and just wowed everyone at the new facility, they had never seen someone so dialed in to the job before. Not even the person who’s been doing it for the last 15 years or however many years they’ve been handling it. She’s just that much of a rockstar and makes things look so easy.

      People have also thought my job was easy too until they tried to do it, heh heh.

  25. ceiswyn*

    I was involved in hiring incompetent people on two occasions. One was a failure of the hiring process, the other was a failure of management.

    On the first occasion, the candidate interviewed well and knew the right things to say. I requested work samples, and the next day, based on the poor quality of those samples, I told my boss not to hire. My boss told me I was being ‘too picky’ about the writing quality (we were hiring this person as a writer!), that the candidates’s references were good, and that he’d already decided to go ahead and hire. Three months later, my boss came to me to express his concerns that the hire was doing poor work in a number of respects. I somehow managed not to say I TOLD YOU SO.

    On the second occasion, the candidate interviewed well, but was inexperienced and overconfident and needed mentoring and managing. I was struggling at the time, and my boss had far less understanding of the writing role than he thought and also less ability to handle complex technical concepts than his own role really required, with the result that while he issued a lot of guidance much of it was irrelevant, poor, repetitive or contradictory. I don’t know whether the candidate was capable of developing the expertise that we needed, but I do know that we didn’t provide them with the environment they would have needed to do so.

  26. Kelly L.*

    I think you’re probably seeing a lot of people who are new. Retail jobs have a lot of turnover–the pay is low and the organizations often dysfunctional, so people get fed up, and they also hire a lot of seasonal workers (who they’re going to lay off in a few months) and students (who are going to leave eventually because they finish high school/college and move away). So you have a lot of people leaving just as they become experienced, and a lot of new people coming in to replace them.

    Are you trying to apply and compete for those jobs specifically, or does it just annoy you that they have jobs at all? The advice might be different, depending.

    1. fposte*

      That’s a really good point too–I was thinking of people who burn out, but there are also people who are still getting up to speed.

    2. iglwif*

      That’s a really good point, yeah.

      A lot of people act like retail and food-service jobs are easy and require no skills, and … nope. People need training (even those with experience; every place has different rules and procedures, every register works a bit differently, every store has different product lines, every fast-food place has a different menu…), pay is low and schedules uncertain which means a ton of turnover, there’s a ton of seasonal change in products / menu items that staff have to keep up with, and you have to move fast, get things right, AND be cheerful and welcoming. It’s freaking exhausting.

    3. Gazebo Slayer*

      Yeah, at one of my jobs I keep meeting people in a particular category of position who obviously have no idea what they’re doing. But then, a lot of them tell me it’s their first day….

  27. Phony Genius*

    It’s self-causing. If the person doing the hiring, and therefore must recognize competence, is themselves incompetent, they will hire other incompetent people, continuing the cycle. The Dunning-Kruger effect also comes into play here, in which people are unable to recognize their own incompetence. Furthermore, the Peter principle may also be happening, in which “people rise to their level of incompetence.” That is, you can keep getting promoted through jobs they are competent at, but then reach one that they are not. (For further info on these concepts, search online. Otherwise, my comment would become way too long.)

    Also, it is not impossible for some people to regress from competence to incompetence. This can be for various reasons such as burnout or medical issues.

    1. JediSquirrel*

      Glad you mentioned the Peter Principle. I read that book in high school and it has informed my understanding of incompetence in the workplace ever since.

  28. Tragic The Gathering*

    Unfortunately this is one of those things where you can never really know the answer and more frustratingly, the answer doesn’t actually matter at all. How or why someone else has a job doesn’t change the fact that you, currently, do not.

    It’s so hard to keep the focus inward when you want something that everyone else seems to have, whether that be a job, promotion, big ticket item, etc. It causes us to frame a lot of thoughts and questions from the perspective of fairness and what we feel we “deserve” over someone else, when in fact it’s just not fair sometimes and it’s not meant to be.

    Best of luck in your job search and I hope you get something soon – but please remember that your job search is your own. Stay positive!

  29. Free Meerkats*

    I look back and thank the Gods, Old and New, that my first manager in my field was the worst interviewer. Seriously, I was so clueless about this job when I interviewed. Truth is, it was an almost entirely new field, so almost everyone was. But the interview was so bad.
    Yet here I am, 37 years later; doing essentially the same job, and very good at it. Thank you Joy!

  30. Cartographical*

    There’s a joke in the field I’m in now that you have to be two of three things to get work:
    * on time
    * easy to work with
    * brilliant (or competent, depending on who’s telling the joke)

    Brilliance/competence is equal to the other two — no matter how good you are, the other parts are necessary to work with others. (The good news is that the other two are things anyone can improve.)

    I know this feeling, though, and that’s where the intangibles come in: connections & nepotism, bad decisions by the hiring manager, dysfunctional workplace, right place/right time. It sucks to feel this way; I’ve had more than one experience of being rejected for a project and then hearing “I wish we’d gone with you!/Are you still available?” (I can’t eat that & usually not bc, see previous about eating).

    I don’t interview well — I can get everything right but I have ASD and while people even find me likeable I don’t trigger that “hire them” switch. I get it, it’s a chronic issue for me everywhere. I don’t know how to project whatever it is that makes people believe I’m the solution to their problems. I do know it’s not me: once I do work for someone, they’re always happy to have me back. It used to be disastrously bad but I’ve improved some.

    I would work on networking, if I were you, just for the practice connecting with people. If you have time to volunteer, that can be a great way of building connections and establishing a pattern (for reference) of having all three of those qualities I listed in the joke. If people in your line of work crop up in recreational areas like local sports or theater, focus there. And never underestimate the power of reaching people through kids — working with kids (coaching, big brother/sister) is a great way to get out of your own head and meet other adults in a setting where they’re open to seeing _you_ and all your best qualities.

    And, practice interviewing — record it if you can so you can watch yourself. Would you hire the person you see? I had to learn to fake some social connection behaviours that feel really fraudulent to me, they don’t come naturally, but they do get me in the door and then I can let my ability speak for itself. Working exclusively from home/raising kids for years left me short on the “adult interaction” skills until I made the extra effort.

  31. Jerk Store*

    Speaking from my own experience when I was a cashier in a busy gas station/convenience store as a teenager:

    I have resting b– face and I wasn’t great at being super smiley and welcoming, especially when customers gave me a hard time. But it was a job seeker’s market and I was willing to work any shift, I didn’t call sick, I didn’t disappear for an hour when my friends showed up to the store, and I didn’t steal. To my boss, the latter balanced out my lack of perkiness.

    Speaking from my experience in office environments:

    Some roles where client and business partner relationships are key have a lot of turnover. Management doesn’t want to upset these partners if they like the person in that role, so they might be willing to overlook some mediocrity in other areas.

    Some people may have weaknesses, but they have been at the org forever and are relied upon for their institutional knowledge. I had a coworker who was lacking in soft skills, but ask him about a contract from 3 mergers ago before anyone at the company was there, and he was your guy.

    1. AnotherLibrarian*

      This. I think it is impossible to know why someone has kept their job. Yes, sometimes it is bad management, but other times, it is something else. I had a coworker who was awful with the public. She didn’t like the public and she was very very rules oriented, so she did not bend any regulation ever under any circumstances for anyone. However, that wasn’t her job.

      My job was to work with the public. Her job was hyper-technical and she was remarkably good at it. Award winningly good at it, in fact. On the rare occasions when she had to interact with the public, it was always because someone else was sick and she was covering. She did it, but she knew she was bad at it and she hated it.

  32. Jennifer*

    I also have friends who were so desperate to leave their toxic workplaces they accepted jobs they shouldn’t have when they knew deep down they weren’t really qualified. They both ended up getting fired after a couple of months. I think that could be a combination of incompetent interviewers who did a poor job of figuring out if they were the best candidates for the job and desperation.

    That made me even more nervous about leaving my job.

  33. animaniactoo*

    There are a lot of good answers throughout here – but I would also like to highlight one more: Incompetent people are often not afraid to lie to get the job. For too many of them, it’s just a shortcut to get the job and it’s justifiable in their mind because they need the paycheck. And I won’t lie – early on I did lie myself about how much experience I had (mostly reframing jobs I actually held as being more significant than the part-time occasional work that they were). But I never lied about the actual skills that I had. Incompetent people are more likely to lie about the actual skills they have and think they can figure it out and it won’t be a problem.

    Such as the graphic designer who was recently hired at my company, who turned out not to know Photoshop and barely knew Illustrator.

    1. Jerk Store*

      And sometimes it’s hard to judge if your skills are good enough for what the role requires if you use a program every day for basic things.

    2. Fortitude Jones*

      This is such a bad gamble, I’m always surprised by the number of people who openly admit to doing such a thing. You will eventually get caught in the lie, and you will eventually get fired, even if it’s years later. That’s too much of a risk for my taste.

    3. Lynn Whitehat*

      All those job p0stings in tech that want 10 years of experience in something that has only existed for 5–what to do?

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        Ugh, an employer that illogical and unreasonable deserves to be lied to. And deserves whatever crappy candidates they get.

      2. Jennifer Thneed*

        Those come right out of some HR algorithm about levels of seniority (or salary) equalling years of experience. This is actually a LOT less common than it used to be, 20 years ago.

        Ideally you’re not dealing with an automated system, but just getting your resume in front of someone who can apply human judgement. Put your actual years on the actual jobs, and in your cover letter say something about “senior-level experience” and “I have been using this software since it was first released in 2014”.

  34. Jennifer*

    Oh and another thing – unreliable references. I know a girl that was fired from a law firm where I worked years ago. She was a nice person and we kept in touch for a while but she wasn’t a very good employee. AT ALL. However, when she got fired I guess the bosses were afraid of her suing, not sure why, so they told her if she agreed to resign, they would give her a good reference. I think a lot of people have the attitude that they don’t really care if they screw over the next employer, as long as she’s no longer their problem.

    1. Jamie*

      This is definitely a thing that happens. I’ve seen it where some have refused to allow any references at all besides verifying employment dates, title, salary and others where everyone got a glowing reference even when fired for incompetence or other cause.

      It’s terrible but cursory reference checks can miss the truth.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      We had a story here about a person who lied to get rid of a problem employee even!!!! Where the letter writer knew the reference as well…yet they lied to them to get them to hire the incompetent employee and “save” them from said employee.

  35. Kiki*

    I’ve been passed over for jobs because the hiring managers have said they didn’t think I’d be happy there or thought I’d probably get a better job offer and move on quickly. It was annoying at the time because I needed a job– any job because I have bills– but ultimately they were right. I would have kept job hunting and peaced out once I found a better job. Having high turnover of qualified people can be just as disruptive as hiring duds who will probably work there for several years because hiring and training take time.

  36. Jk*

    Aw op, I was you last year. I was employed but in a bad situation and I just couldn’t get my foot in the door anywhere else. I knew it wasn’t me. Most companies didn’t know what they wanted and some hired a person who would quit within 2 months… I saw that happen a lot.

    One thing that really helped over those 2+ years was to stop being so hard on myself. While I believe it’s important to critique your performance, a lot of the time there is nothing you could of said or done to get a job. Liking someone is subjective and if I spent all my life worrying about how to mould myself for each and every hiring manager I’d be dead by now!

    Sometimes doors are opened for other people because of who they know, their looks, their gender, their age, or one thing they said in the interview.

    I was ready to give up and return to my home country with my American husband when an opportunity finally arose. The hiring manager was from out of town and didn’t know anyone herself. Victory! The unfortunate thing is that we both now have to clean up a department that was driven by who you know… with people there for decades who have refused to grow and learn. So many things not done, tech not fully use, money wasted. All we can do is spot it and fix it, and that’s triggering a whole new chain of events and helping me become a more diplomatic person!

    1. Rosie The Rager*

      Jk, congrats on your new position!

      I really enjoyed reading your story of perseverance and how you realized there are so many factors beyond your control to consider in the hiring process. This is the healthy outlook I’ve adopted in my ongoing search for a full-time position.

      Also, I want to thank you for not pouncing on the LW for being frustrated and disenchanted with the job search. It can be an exhausting and demoralizing situation, especially if it goes on for an extended period of time.

  37. MoneyBeets*

    The first time I was ever invited to be part of a hiring panel was quite an eye-opener. There were three candidates. One had an impressive resume and was the most polished in terms of his carriage and appearance. The other two were no less professional – they’d dressed appropriately, were perfectly friendly, and had plenty on their resumes that could potentially align them well for the job opening. But the Very Polished candidate was remarkably off-putting; when asked why he’d left his previous job, he said something along the lines of, “I had a very public disagreement with [elected official in the county for which he worked]… you can Google it, it was in the news.” And at one point he made an offhanded comment about a previous co-worker who had some sort of disability, and his demeanor was a bit mocking/dismissive. He also seemed to be unclear on what this role is, and expected to have a higher-ranking role than this job actually would have been. This isn’t uncommon where I work, but it’s important that we ensure candidates know what the job really is, versus what they might be picturing.

    It was clear (to me) that the guy was not only a jerk, but a jerk who would quickly realize he was Far Too Good for This Job and then make our lives hell. But when the two other panelists and I sat down with our manager, it turned out both our manager and one of the panelists were very impressed by the jerk. He was so polished! Look at all this experience! I had to say, guys, no — remember when he mocked his co-worker? (Who does that, let alone in an interview?) Remember how we’re supposed to Google him to find out about whatever blowup got him into the news? And the guy clearly expects to be more of a star than this job will ever permit him to be, which means he’ll be frustrated and cranky (and probably toxic) in no time.

    To my co-workers’ credit, they sat and thought about it for a minute and then agreed. But still!

    1. SezU*

      I sat on a panel last year where some of the applicants were internal candidates and the other panelists were giving the hard sell to pick one of them so “they don’t get mad.” I reminded them that their last 3 selections had not panned out so how about let’s look at more than “who we know.” I think we picked a winner! (So far so good anyway)

    2. Sun Tzu*

      Props on you, @MoneyBeets, for spotting the jerk.
      Unfortunately this happens rarely, as the skills to pass a job interview with flying colors are different than those required for doing the actual job, and most people in a hiring panel would give more value to the former.
      One of my acquaintances was an ultra-confident person. He was also ultra-ignorant, since he was so convinced to know everything that he never checked before speaking.
      People who are really good at their job always double-check facts and doubt of their knowledge.

  38. Kitty*

    Sometimes management see it as too much effort to get rid of underperformers. Some people might be good to start with get lazy, or fail to adapt to new systems, etc, but it seems easier in the short term to work around them than replace them. Government jobs are especially difficult to fire people from.

    1. miss_chevious*

      THIS. We see all the time how people who should be managed out are not managed out (or outright fired) because their managers don’t have the authority or don’t have the time to find someone new or are just plain afraid to do their jobs. Part of the reason incompetent people stay on is because their management is also incompetent.

  39. Lissa*

    I’m not at all discounting the things mentioned, but another thing I wonder is how much perception plays a role – Alison touched on this with maybe not seeing the full picture. For instance in jobs I have worked, with friends and definitely online, many many people see themselves as the hard worker who’s unappreciated, while many of the people around them are incompetent and get a ton of undeserved opportunities. All the way in my first fast food job I noticed this and once said something like “you can’t ALL be the ‘only person who does any work around here'”. I sometimes wonder how much of it is people perceiving all the hard work they personally do, but only seeing the results of what others do – their own mistakes are put into context whereas others are just screwups, etc.
    All that isn’t to say that nepotism isn’t an issue, of course it is. But I also think we’re really primed to see ourselves as “more” deserving, maybe because we’re comparing our own insides to everyone else’s outsides. “You were late because you’re a slacker. I was late because of Legitimate Reasons.”

    1. Shan*

      Yes, I think this is a bit like driving – not that there aren’t some truly crappy drivers out there, but it seems like everyone thinks they’re excellent and everyone else on the road must have bribed their examiner to even pass. In reality, most of us are probably pretty average.

      1. Lissa*

        Heehee, yes where I live that’s what happens every time it snows. “I just hate *city* drivers, nobody knows what to do in the snow and everything grinds to a halt! I however an amazing snow driver who survived Icepocalypse 2000: Revenge of Elsa and all these other people should be more like me!”

    2. Manders*

      This is a great point! Most of the incompetent people I’ve worked with truly did believe they were just having an off month, or they could learn on the job, or their mistakes weren’t really a problem. Several of them had a hard time with feedback–they would get very defensive, and their explanations sounded plausible in the moment, but they never seemed to be able to resolve the problems that were causing poor performance.

  40. Mazzy*

    The most incompetent person I’ve worked with was great with general knowledge, and over time as learned that he knows about stuff, but doesn’t really know the stuff well enough to work with it. For example, we had a conversation about the fed cutting interest last week, and he basically only knew that the discussion was going on. In his head, he was an expert on the topic just because he knew it was going on, but he didn’t know any of the impacts of the interest rate changing. That’s how it goes with more work related topics with him. In the interview he seemed so seasoned, but over time we realized it was all surface or repeating points he’d read about.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, I’ve worked with a person like that, where that kind of conversation was the main action they’d take; they couldn’t really see through the shallow fog of vague information to the actionable parts.

  41. Anon for This*

    The incompetent admin that I’ve been complaining about for the past two years left last week. I’ve been thinking about how she was hired in the first place. I participated in her hiring, so I have some knowledge and insights. Here are my reflections:

    1) We didn’t have a strong pool overall OR the person reviewing applications didn’t do an effective job of identifying the best candidates. None of the three people we interviewed in person was strong. Had I been running the process, I would have re-opened the application and started over.

    2 ) We strongly prioritized cultural competency in hiring this role, to the detriment of other skills and competencies. This is related to #1; the other two finalists were too weak in this area to be selected, so the person we hired ended up as the only person we could imagine hiring.

    3) The person we hired had a very polished presentation, both in her appearance and her application materials. She gave a (mis)impression of competence and skill.

    1. Manders*

      All great points. I think hiring admins can be particularly challenging because the skills you really need aren’t always quantifiable or easy to test for. And the job market is pretty competitive in some areas, so your options may be limited to begin with.

      1. Nessun*

        Absolutely agree – the only hirings I’ve been involved with were for admins, and it is terribly difficult to appropriately judge the skill set required. We have tests we issue to all applicants for hard skills, and I find them incredibly problematic, but we have no soft skills review other than the questions we ask, and the answers can vary so widely based on an applicant’s previous admin roles! The 6 month probation period is miles more useful than the interview, and I know the interview process is important but Oh how I loathe it.

  42. Rainy days*

    In my experience, a lot of people who appear incompetent are actually incompetently managed and could become decent employees if guided to do so. Some people have a strong internal compass and do their best to perform well even if not managed closely, but others are a bit more like high school students who test out if a certain behavior will be tolerated, see that it is, and adopt it to make things easier for themselves. If they were held to a higher standard they would make more of an effort.

    1. JediSquirrel*

      I found this in teaching, as well. Other teachers would complain about a particular student, and I had no idea who they were talking about. (This is one of the reasons I started eating lunch at my desk.) When I realized that they were talking about one of my students, I was always a bit shocked. But then I realized that I managed that student differently that they. It made all the difference.

      1. Jesse*

        Absolutely. See my rant below about academia. This is *especially* painful in academia. Some have zero drive to teach people differently than what they’ve pigeonholed “teaching” to be.

    2. NicoleK*

      This my be true for employees who struggle in 1-2 areas. But if an employee struggles in 4-5 areas, I’m not sure they could be guided to do so.

  43. Philosophia*

    I spent years wondering the same thing, until I happened to receive an account that (under advanced capitalism) made sense. An attorney heading a small nonprofit at which I was working in the 1980s explained that large law firms find “rainmakers”—those who are superb at bringing in clients for the firm—so valuable as to cosset them even if they’re of no other earthly use.

    1. Lissa*

      I feel like people like that aren’t really incompetent though – they’re bringing in clients and making lots of money, even if they’re incompetent at other aspects. Some of the people described here seem to not have anything quite like that going on.

  44. Amanda2*

    I work in a field in which there’s a fair amount of incompetence. My type of position has little supervision and our boss (director of a department) typically knows little about our work and honestly isn’t much connected to how well we are performing. The only real
    way incompetence is exposed is through a serious mistake or through complaints being made to the boss from others. I’ve worked in a few agencies such as the one I’m in now and my boss has always been similarly uninvolved and typically uninformed as to our work.

    I work with someone currently who is incompetent at their job…but everyone loves her. She has A+ social skills, has lots of friends, knows the right time to “disappear” and pretend she was too busy to take on a task (and will always apologize profusely later, “I’m so sorry, I’ve been swamped!”) rather than put in the necessary work, and so on. Her technical skills are bad. Very bad. But she’s intelligent, funny, the type of person that people confide in and look to for gossip, and she’s well liked in general. Not many people even see the incompetence and those that do tend to buy into her excuses because of their friendship with her. She’s also personal friends with the boss so the boss isn’t looking at her performance. She’s in the inner circle and her incompetence is overlooked. I get frustrated by her dropping the ball (we are in the same position) but acknowledge there’s nothing I can do but either suck it up or look for another job.

    My previous job had a similar boss that had little to no oversight of our performance. I worked with 2 incompetent people there. 1 was hired because she had a PhD and spoke very well academically. But she had terrible applied skills and was horrible at the job. She didn’t have good social skills and made few friends. People complained about her and she was let go after about 3-4 years (after I had already left). The other incompetent one is more similar to the incompetent lady I currently work with. She had terrible technical skills and was constantly covering up that she didn’t know what she was doing and asking others to do parts of her job for her. However, he had great social skills and made friends with enough people above her that they excused her bad performance, if they even noticed at all. Again, she was part of the inner circle of higher ups and influential people and she was protected because of it. She’s still in the position and was actually promoted after I left.

    1. NicoleK*

      Do we have the same coworker? My incompetent coworker gets a pass because she’s likable, charming, extroverted, good at self promotion, and is skilled at getting people to help her do her job.

  45. agnes*

    OP, I appreciate your question, but my interest is in helping YOU if you are interested in securing employment. It is worth the money to go see a career counselor–let them know you specifically want help with resume cover letter and interviewing skills. Often it is the interviewing skills that make the difference.

    If you can’t afford to do that, then please please find someone who will give you honest feedback. This is not the time to find someone who wants to help you feel better about yourself. You need someone who will tell you if your energy is too low, or if your answer to a question was poor.

    Also, I recommend you do some volunteering so that you have some references that are current and can speak to your current work habits.

    What are you saying if someone asks you why you have been out of the workforce for so long? Consider “I was fortunate enough to be able to focus on my family during the period they needed me. Now I am ready to return to the work force and use my (fill in the blank) skills in a professional work environment. ”

    I would consider answering that question in your cover letter. You know that the hiring manager is probably curious about it, so address it up front and control the narrative.

  46. Another worker bee*

    I just came here to commiserate with OP. I’ve been there – long term un(der)employed and see incompetents everywhere you go. It’s not a particularly productive way of thinking, but I understand it completely. (It still happens to me, although it bugs me less since I’m not scrambling to stay alive anymore)
    This is not a long term solution, but one thing that I found that was helpful when trying to get jobs that were below my skill level was to aim for part time jobs (i.e. with night and weekend hours) and logic with them about their turnover rate…”I’m an adult with ties to the community, even if I get a better job, I’ll have debt to pay down, down payment to save for, etc. and I will keep this as a second job and end up staying for much longer than average”

  47. Goya de la Mancha*

    If you’re looking the outside in, it can be hard to discern what is actual incompetence vs any other numerous valid excuses (brain fart, new employee, employee filling in for another, task that only happens once per year, etc.). But if they’re co-workers, I usually assume someone has pictures or knows where the body is buried.

  48. Richard Hershberger*

    No one seems to have yet mentioned the Peter Principle. Incompetence is not always an all-pervasive quality of a person. Many people are competent at their job, and based on this demonstrated competence are promoted into a position beyond their competence. It is harder to demote someone than it was to promote them, so there they remain.

  49. Jesse*


    I work in an academic environment, and the answer is simple: because they add prestige to a department. People are hired for their degrees (oooooh, our team has 3 PhDs, 2 MAs, and only 3 BEds). High performance in front-line academic positions does not correlate with those letters.

    Let’s just say, there’s a joke about “people getting degree after degree because they don’t want to face the reality of learning useful job skills”. Is it true? I think, to a certain extent, that spending too much time focused in a narrow field of study can limit your ability to develop other necessarily job skills.

  50. Toasterpastry*

    I have a very different interpretation of this letter than Allison did. I think the problem is that the lw lacks motivation and perspective. I was long-term unemployed when I moved to a new city, and felt like she did: everywhere I looked I saw incompetence, people who couldn’t do their jobs as well as I was certain I could, but I, somehow, just couldn’t get a job. And like her, I had outside support, and as a result, I was not nearly as serious about finding a job as I should have been. Then, circumstances changed, I was no longer being supported and, facing actual homelessness, I had a job within 2 months. I’ll pause here to say that I have been diagnosed by more than one doctor as having major depressive disorder, and an anxiety disorder, so I understand how “depressing” hunting for jobs can be. The job that I found payed poorly, and worked me into the ground, and exacerbated my depression. But it was better than being homeless. In her position, there is no shame in working at Taco Bell. I feel like Allison has misread the letter, and is seeing her experience as a consumer as the jobs she’s applying for. She needs to buckle down and take any job possible, even if she feels that it’s beneath her. Right now, she is draining the resources of her family and friends, and that’s not sustainable for most people. The letter reads to me that she’s not trying as hard as she needs to be, because she has no urgency and, as a result, she’s not yet considering how bad things can become. That, based on my own experience, can be an enormous hindrance to a job search.

    1. Kitty Harington*

      I dunno. I’m not the LW but am in a similar situation and have been on plenty of interviews where the people I was interacting with had emails littered with misspellings, couldn’t answer basic questions about the job, or gave answers that were juvenile and unprofessional (ex: Q: What are the challenges of this position? A:It makes me tired). I don’t believe everyone is incompetent but I think people hire for different reasons and sometimes they aren’t great ones.

    2. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      There is no shame in working at Taco Bell. But working at Taco Bell can make it harder to get future jobs outside of fast food or food service, because “You’ve been in an unrelated field for a few years, that isn’t a professional work environment, you don’t have experience in this role, it’s not a full-time position.” So there’s a valid reason to be leery about taking a job to pay the bills, because it can lower your earning potential over time by trapping you into a low-paying sector.

    3. Close Bracket*

      Possibly? I was long term unemployed, had my own support, and I applied to 160 jobs, had maybe a handful of phone interviews, 2 onsite interviews, and 1 offer. I didn’t have urgency, but I tried pretty darn hard and had a lot of trouble. Anything at all could be happening with LW.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I can see what you mean and in some ways can agree with it.

      However you can’t assume the OP isn’t applying to places like Taco Bell. The hard pill to swallow is that you still have to get the people at Taco Bell to hire you, which some store managers won’t do it if you have say no fast food experience or aren’t really good at selling yourself.

      So maybe the problem is that the person isn’t faking it hard enough to get through that first hoop but that first hoop still exists. I’ve seen people struggle to get retail jobs, nothing is below them but they still kept getting shot down by manager after manager who just didn’t want to hire them [usually due to their advance degrees, and this is why I have to now tell people to just leave that off there, we learned it the hard, personal way.]

      However it could be that due to their cushion/support that means they really don’t just put 100% into selling themselves for that Taco Bell job, that could absolutely be it.

      There’s also a problem with the fact that not everyone can work at a fast food place. If you can’t keep up with the pace, that’s the second thing that will get you fired. The first one of course is being unreliable. So step one, always show up, step two, keep up.

    5. Another worker bee*

      Yeah, when I was unemployed during the great recession (graduated college right as the bottom fell out), the advice I got was pretty much opposite of this. I had unsympathetic middle class parents, student loans bearing down on me, no partner, and no income, so I hustled and did what it took (as many as 5 part time jobs, most of which were tangentially related to my degree at best) to not be homeless and not starve. It took getting into a PhD program YEARS later to get out of that scramble because even when the economy improved, employers would have preferred to see me doing unpaid internships, unpaid research, volunteering, or other crap that doesn’t actually work when you don’t have financial support.
      And trying to stay alive in those environments – working low-skill jobs with no benefits – that sucks the life out of you. I couldn’t attend evening meetups to network when 4-8pm were my most profitable hours (could tutor for $25+/hr vs whatever BS service job I was working at the time), definitely couldn’t afford professional clothing for an interview or resume services, etc.
      I’m not saying don’t work – it does provide a sense of pride and purpose – but I would have gotten out of long term underemployment a LOT faster if someone would have supported me while I did the correct things for job searching.

  51. Amethystmoon*

    I wondered this about my previous coworker until one day when I volunteered at an off-site location. People from the company were there, including the boss’s wife. She told me about a family member who came from same country as co-worker and had a sob story. I think my boss must have assumed coworker also had a sob story. However, from everything he told me randomly in chat (he kept using our office’s IM program even when I asked him to stop), he came from a privileged background. He just wanted more flexibility in career choices.

  52. CC*

    There’s a book called “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” which talks about the gender dynamics of this. Basically we as a society value confidence over actual skills. Add that to the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the most incompetent people are at times the most confident.

    Anyway OP, I think it’s best to just chalk this up to “life isn’t fair” and not focus on it so much. Certainly if you’re in a position to help fix this problem, please do, but at the moment try not to compare yourself to others–you don’t have all the information anyway.

    1. Gazebo Slayer*

      YES. Mistaking confidence for competence is such a common and pernicious mistake that if I am ever part of a hiring process I will consider lack of confidence, as well as modesty and humility in general, to be a plus. And you are so right that it is gendered.

      1. Darren*

        You have to be careful with that. I nearly didn’t get hired at my current role because the general opinion amongst my interviewers was that I was too confident. This was in spite of acing every one of the technical tests they gave me (of which they gave me more than anyone else they hired). I was confident because I’d been working in the industry for awhile, and what they needed me to do was exactly the same things I’d be excelling at doing for years by that point.

        In the end I was hired because one of the team leads literally stepped up to bat and basically said this is ridiculous he passed every single technical test we’ve got, I’ll take him if none of you want him. I’ve gotten consistently good ratings, promotions, as well as more and more complicated and harder projects. They company would have missed out if they hadn’t hired me.

        Confidence doesn’t means someone can’t do the role (although it doesn’t mean they can either). You need to pay attention to the details, dig, and test for the skills you need when interviewing. People with a lack of confidence are just as capable of not being able to do the task.

  53. SusanIvanova*

    When we hired Coworker Coffeecup, who had put all his skill points in Bluff and therefore impressed a lot of people in the interviews, the one person with a gut feeling that we shouldn’t hire him was the hiring manager. But she was still new at managing in general so she ignored her feelings. All her misgivings turned out to be correct.

    1. 99 lead balloons*

      This reminds me of a story my first boss used to tell about his old business. There was a woman who worked for him that had such sharp instincts that she basically was the go/no-go on hiring decisions and would sit in on all the interviews. He realized she was nearly always right, so if he ever wanted to hire someone, but she said no, he wouldn’t. Not to say that relying on one particular person’s gut feelings is necessarily a great hiring practice, but it is uncanny what someone’s intuition can pick up on in these kinds of situations.

    2. Gazebo Slayer*

      As the commenter with a username referencing a famous D&D anecdote, I appreciate “put all his skill points in Bluff.”

  54. KX*

    I think… I think that it doesn’t matter for many jobs if the people who do them are incompetent. They do a lot of work, some of it wrong, and there is someone in place–formally or informally–to fix the mistakes. There is a problem in the moment that can be overcome easily enough in the long term. Business is flexible, there aren’t that many severe problems that can completely derail a process, and… you need someone to get the work started even if they don’t do it well.

    It’s like a rough draft.

  55. CastIrony*

    I can sympathize; I couldn’t even move *up* at my current employer to do something I had done for *years* at a full-time capacity. I was *not happy* at first when I found out that my grandboss’s sister got hired instead. She’s nice, though, and I’m over it, even if she isn’t perfect.

    Good luck to OP on their job search!

  56. Triplestep*

    LW, have you ever considered working in the talent acquisition sphere?

    While employed in a job I wanted to leave, I searched for a job for nearly a year. During that time I had a better than average response rate to my applications. (I had been a good writer to start, but my application materials got even better after I became a reader here.) Having that much interest and that many interviews exposed me to numerous in-house recruiters who frankly were not very good at their jobs. They were disorganized, poor communicators, terrible at follow-thru on things they promised, and on a couple of occasions, rude. Eventually I thought “I, too, would like a job in which I could be terrible and still get to keep that job.”

    I also noted that some of them were doing in-house recruiting as contractors, and I thought “Maybe I *could* have this job – on the side. It cannot be that hard if all these people are bad at it!” I felt I could do better. Additionally, I knew it was something people did straight out of school with zero work experience.

    Of course I know that not all recruiters are terrible. I personally know three who are really caring, conscientious, bright people and seem to be good at their jobs. I reached out to one of them for advice; he suggested that if I wanted to get into the field, I should try to find consulting work for a firm which places people in my own industry. I then contacted the owner of a staffing firm I knew (he had courted me for a job many years before and we’d kept in touch) and he was happy to have me join on a consulting basis.

    And guess what? I was right! It’s NOT that hard to be a recruiter! The recruiting life is pretty sweet – there is no reason for all the bad recruiter behavior I’d been exposed to (ball-dropping, ghosting, poorly written or incomplete correspondence, sending e-mails meant for someone else, rescheduling calls over an over again – not with the hiring manager ; with themselves). If this is something you want to dip your toe into, I would suggest you see if you can find a staffing firm that recruits for your industry. Also, it is something you can pretty easily try out as a contractor by finding someone hiring on that basis who is willing to train you.

    Good luck!

  57. Torrance*

    I wonder that the OP’s endgame is. They’ve set up this whole dichotomy of Incompetent Employee vs Hardworking Jobseeker which is understandable, if not particularly healthy. But it’s a harsh way to look at the world. ‘Incompetent’ people are people too, with bills to pay and basic human needs to be met.

    If there’s anyone to be angry at, which I don’t think there is, it makes no sense that her harsh words are aimed at the people who are being hired and not the people who are both hiring those incompetent employees and not hiring her. A manager with incompetent employees may be a bad manager and a manager who won’t hire a hardworking jobseeker may be as well. Wouldn’t it be better to rail against the incompetency of those in charge of workplace hiring than to point fingers at the people with the least amount of power?

  58. Former Hotel Worker*

    In my experience, specifically in relation to customer service roles, could be any one of a few things:

    1) The company is one of the MANY that likes to keep the staffing and the wage bill low. They only pay minimum wage and hire people who have fewer options. Those who are more skilled/experienced either move on or are forced out so they don’t have to give raises, and those who remain are stretched too thin to do a decent job as well as being inexperienced in the role.

    2) That person actually has a ton of duties you don’t know about and maybe you’re seeing them on the portion of the job they’re not so strong at, but they make up for it in other areas. They might not be the fastest on the tills but maybe they’re superb at soft skills or clean-up, or other back room work that you as a customer do not get to see.

    3) The job is actually harder than you think it is and you’re doing them a disservice. A lot of people think they could wait tables, work fast food, do retail, etc – and take great delight in informing workers of this when we make an error – but the fact is, those jobs are hard. I lasted 3 weeks in waitressing. Never again.

    4) Inappropriate screening methods. Two of my former employers have now switched to computerised personality and scenario testing in order to even get your CV submitted. And the desired answers are ridiculous and bear no resemblance as to whether you can do the job. I was a star employee in one organisation but I could not get past the test if I were to reapply.

    5) In extreme cases, nepotism, blagging it, or outright lies.

  59. JSPA*

    In retail, keeping a customer there longer isn’t a significant negative (or not a negative at all) unless they’re so irked at the delay that they leave. Stall them near the checkout and they pick up a bar of chocolate or a hair scrunchie.

    In retail, being unfailingly pleasant with your co-workers, and not making them feel inadequate, and being flexible about your hours, and unflappable, and quick to do a bit of extra tidying or stocking, and completely trustworthy, and forgiving, are all more important than being in the top 60%, skill-wise.

    Retail sometimes recruits from pools of “special” workers who come through a program (re-employment after one or another life-event; employment of the hard-to-employ) that gain the employer outside help with the pay, or the right to claim part of the cost as a donation to the organization, or general social cachet for being part of the program, or the well-earned right to pat themselves on the back for doing the right thing.

  60. Staxman*

    Over the years I’ve had my share of “I know life isn’t fair, but come ON!” moments. Some years ago I read that blacks who acknowledge the existence of racism are less frustrated than blacks who really expect a color-blind meritocracy. I’m Caucasian, but this hit me between the eyes. I realized that I’d been expecting an apolitical meritocracy.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      Nodding ruefully. For me it was a therapist who asked the Armor-Piercing Question “why do you expect the world to be fair all the time?”

  61. Perpal*

    I’m curious if the people OP found lacking in their roles had jobs OP was trying to get?
    There are plenty of rolls I’d probably be a superstar at, but am not really interested in pursuing because of pay/dull and repetitive work/ etc

  62. tiredofthebs*

    As someone who has been on both ends of the hiring process, I would also say that discrimination plays a huge role in this as well. The truth is that white people (and particularly white men) with lesser skills and passion for the job would be hired because they are deemed “a better fit” for the culture of the organization. This is especially true for organizations that are already white dominated and male dominated. At my university, all of us grad students of color knew that “fit” was code for we’re more comfortable with someone who looks like us, and I have seen applicants put on the waiting list in order to make room for a white applicant, since “the diversity grant would eventually take them off the waiting list anyway”. In the words of a faculty describing the hiring process for tenure track faculty, there is always going to be a woman and a person of color on the list of final candidates, and 9 out of 10 times the hiring committee will give the job to a white man because they are deemed a better fit for the institution.
    So yeah, it’s not just about how well people interview or how bad hiring managers are, discrimination is strongly at play here as well.

  63. Doctor Schmoctor*

    Many reasons. Some people are just better at interviews. I worked with someone whose motto was “fake it till you make it”, and it worked for him. He was hired with zero experience, but because he was insanely confident, the boss immediately involved him in every project, every meeting, every decision. Stuff that I have been begging to be involved in for a long time.
    It also helps if you have something in common with the interviewer/boss. Same religion, enjoy the same things, etc.
    And of course many interviewers just don’t know what they’re doing. They hear a loud voice and think “ooh, this guy sounds like a go-getter.” They see someone taking a second to think about an answer, and they think “ooh, this guy is not confident.”
    And then there is the sad reality of just plain old discrimination. Based on whatever. Race, gender, age, height, etc.

  64. PretzelGirl*

    My husband worked for many years at a major insurance company. He started in the call center and worked his way up to other positions. Later I applied to work in the call center, which had surprisingly good pay and benefits. Over the years the company lowered and lowered their standards for hiring. When my husband started, most people had a BA/BS or many years of experience in customer service and sales. They had one of those horrible aptitude tests. I couldn’t pass it for the life of me. Even with an employee recommendation (at the time it didn’t matter that he was my husband), a college degree and several years of experience. My husband started managing and he said it was a nightmare dealing with under qualified, and people with no drive. From constant call offs and people not sure how to handle the job. Sometimes its not YOU, its the company.

  65. Staxman*

    Not to tar all their employees with the same brush, but I’ve seen a fair number of incompetent–and outright rude–employees at Starbucks and Fedex Kinko’s.

  66. Paperdill*

    Sometimes the employer’s measure of what they want their employee doing doesn’t match up with the out face of what employee is actually doing.
    I am a nurse in a very niche field involving a lot of talking skills as opposed to clinical-y-type skills. Our yearly reviews involve knowing a variety of policies, procedures, educational blah-blahs and basically the employee, themselves, writing about how they meet this that and the other goal. Our assessors rarely, if ever, see us interacting with a client. I have seen some of my colleagues embarrass my entire profession, speak horribly to clients, give ridiculous information out, fob people off, ignore direct instructions and I know for a fact some clients will deliberately avoid certain employees and sometimes leave the entire service due to their interactions with certain employees. But, when these colleagues have their reviews they know all the buzzwords, and have met all their “goals”, provide “evidence” of their following policies (not in a fraudulent way, just in a “picked a good example” way) and continue to be upheld as senior staff because they have been their for 20 years.

  67. Rust1783*

    I went through a really difficult period where I was in the running for three executive director positions in my small industry, and in each case the board hired someone with far less experience/education than me, at least on paper. Now, three years later, two of the organizations are in bad shape and making very questionable strategic decisions to fix problems that were not discernible (and dare I say didn’t exist) a few years ago.

    On one level I do not blame a hiring manager for hiring someone else, even when I feel like I was a perfect fit, even when the person they do hire does not seem like a great candidate and then does not, in fact, succeed. But one conclusion I came to is that boards are just a different sort of animal. Very often, there is no one person with real authority, and you are literally being hired by a committee, sometimes a large committee. This is related to Alison’s point about some people being bad hiring managers, but here it’s a group of people – who may or may not have ever been hiring managers in the first place, depending on their careers (and on any big board, some of the members will just be well-intentioned wealthy layabouts.)

    A third org I used to work for also hired a new executive director shortly after I left my job there. This was another job I felt uniquely qualified for, but I had moved away so I didn’t apply. The woman the board hired proved to be DISASTROUSLY incompetent and the formerly high-functioning organization has literally made a 180 and is now regularly subject to articles in the local news chronicling all the problems they are suddenly facing. Here is a situation where I am 100% confident the problem was the incompetent person they hired. The board finally fired her just a couple weeks ago, which was also covered in the local paper. The whole thing was personally humiliating for her and made a well-known organization look totally foolish.

  68. ElleKay*

    There’s also timeline. I have 1-2 summer interns & 1-4 summer techs that we hire every year & they *have* to be on board by May so as of late-march/early-april I have a pool of candidates that I will hire from. MANY YEARS we make not-great hires but that’s bc we have. To. Hire. Someone.

    That’s not super helpful for you, I realize, but it might help to realize that some things do come down to timing

  69. nnn*

    Former incompetent fast food worker here.

    The aspects of the job that I was incompetent at were aspects that the employer thought were self-explanatory and didn’t require any training or guidance, such as emotional labour and excellent customer service.

    I completely lack any intrinsic emotional labour skills and my teenage self’s limited exposure to customer service left me with the impression that excellent customer service consisted of nothing more than not accusing the customer of stealing.

    But my employer believed these things were intrinsic and therefore didn’t require any training, and that they were unskilled and therefore anyone can just go and do them.

    Unfortunately, I have no insight as to how you could get hired in place of incompetent teenage me. Most employers didn’t hire me, so I don’t actually know how to get hired.

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