updates: coworker criticizes how I talk to men, the cold feet, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are four updates from past letter-writers.

1. My coworker keeps criticizing the way I talk to male colleagues

I wrote to you last year about my weirdly-sexist manager trying to police my actions with other people in the office.

I wanted to let you know that I appreciate your advice! It was reassuring to hear everyone in the comments who also felt that Brenda was over-stepping in a really weird and gross way. Women supporting women, 2019 and forever!

As far as updates, I have a few. Firstly, me. I hate to admit that I mostly tried to avoid further conflict with the whole thing. Brenda was the one who hired me, and was the senior person in the office, so I couldn’t bring myself to call her out. I talked to Chris about it, and we ended up changing our behavior – instead of walking over to his cubicle a few times a day, we chatted via IM and text almost exclusively. We figured if she couldn’t see it, she couldn’t object to it. I didn’t stop being friendly to students who came into the office, be they male, female, married, single, or otherwise affiliated, because that was also part of the job.

At the start of the semester that I wrote you, Brenda had talked to me about increasing my pay rate. Given the nature of work-study, this meant that I would hit my earnings cap more quickly, and therefore would be working less hours. I was naive enough to be excited at the prospect of a raise, and did not consider that this was a way to have me spend less time in the office. When we were getting everything prepared for the summer semesters, I mentioned to Brenda that I would be taking summer classes, hoping to get a work schedule set up. She took that opportunity to fire me. I decided against further work-study, as this was my second position within the university that ended rather badly.

Secondly, Chris. He and I stayed in touch! We would occasionally grab lunch or dinner together, never meeting up at the office unless Brenda was decidedly not there. For what it’s worth, he told me that the girl they hired to replace me was terrible at the job, and that he had resorted to wearing headphones constantly to get some relief from Brenda’s ongoing strangeness. He finished up his degree and as quickly as he could, moved on to a really great job in his chosen field, so I’m happy for him!

Thirdly, Brenda. As I alluded to in my original letter, she had a reputation for being very difficult to work with. She’s “retiring” this year, though with scuttlebutt being what it is in academic circles, she’s definitely being pushed out, and the ongoing behavior that led to that is it’s own fascinating saga.

And just for posterity, it turned out that the banished grad student WAS flirting with me, as he hit on me rather plainly when we ran into each other outside of the office. Still none of Brenda’s business, though.

2. I manage someone who’s upset that his employees don’t give him praise and validation

The advice from the community was really helpful. If nothing else, the whole situation made me realise that MY personal passion is for managing people, unlike his. I’ll take wins where I can find them :)

As many people suggested, I sat him down and had a frank discussion about the reality of middle management and flagged that his expectations are unrealistic. This revealed a few things:
-he was burnt out and was experiencing some mental health issues. He disclosed this without me directly asking (a commenter flagged this possibility so was on my radar, thanks!).
-he was missing being an individual contributor. So he was expressing a level of jealousy that the team get to be hands on.

He’s still in the role, he’s made similar comments once more since, and it ended up being an early warning sign that he needed a break (we work in a particularly high risk area for burnout).
Things are ok, I keep closer eye on his team, but by all accounts they appear to be happy and productive. I suspect his next career move will not be in management.

3. I just started my new job and I miss my old one — did I make a mistake?

While new job jitters are a very real thing and often subside on their own, in this situation my gut instinct was spot on. The role I wrote in about was indeed not right for me – very quickly (within the first two weeks) I realized I needed somewhere with a different office environment, a mission with which I could personally connect, and a culture of camaraderie among coworkers. I started (another) job hunt and within a few months, landed at a nonprofit that’s been a great fit for me. I’ve been here almost six months now! Through this experience, I learned a lot about trusting my gut, accepting that not everything works out the way we think it will, and planning an exit strategy when the time comes. Thank you, Ask A Manager, for your thoughtful response; and readers, to all of you for helping me realize I wasn’t alone in this period of discernment!

4. Will this job be impossible to succeed at? (#5 at the link)

Thank you again for posting my letter and for the lovely advice, and as I am starting a new, unrelated to the post, job next week, I wanted to give you an update. They never contacted me back for a follow-up interview. I reached out 10 business days later to follow up in a brief email and still nothing. This wouldn’t be that odd considering yes this is my first job out of college, well known nonprofit, competitive, yadayadayada, BUT it should be noted that they reached out to me two days after I submitted my resume for supplementary materials such as writing samples, transcripts, and referrals and then booked my interview 24 hours after receiving them. While I may be new to the job market, revising web entries from college-level reading to 5th-grade level is something I did for a full year and had a degree from a competitive program in. So it was a bit odd (rude) to completely ghost with not even a “we found someone else to fill the position” email. Oh well, I found a job with a brand new, tiny foundation and they’re paying me two thirds more than the contract would have in one year vs 18 months so alls well that ends well!

{ 33 comments… read them below }

    1. Quake Johnson*

      #1 isn’t that “happy” to me. Brenda’s awful behaviour ruined the atmosphere of the office, and eventually OP was fired. Sure, things seem to have worked out in the end, but it all was worse than it should have been.

  1. MissGirl*

    I’m glad OP 3’s gut is trustworthy. My gut hates change and is risk adverse so I never know when to listen to it or not. I have to go through a cost/benefit analysis whenever I make a big change since my subconscious is screaming in the background in abject pain.

    1. BethDH*

      Me too. Wish I had a way to deal with that, because I have a hard time shutting that down even enough to do the analysis! It’s funny how I’m not anxious about challenges or stressful situations in general (I’m fine with job interviews, for example), just change and the perceived risks associated with leaving something that is at least okay for something unknown.

    2. Filosofickle*

      For real. The number of times I have to have the “is this a legit red flag or is that just fear talking?” conversation with myself is staggering.

    3. gut*

      I have the opposite problem. My gut seems to think all change is good. I get too happy about a new opportunity to properly vet the opportunity.

      I’ve been in the situation of OP 3 where it was clear literally on my first day that the job would not be a good fit – the physical office environment was totally different from what I’d been shown at my interview. But I wouldn’t consider that a gut feeling because it was the physical office environment. Actually, my boss and coworkers were pretty good, but I still had to make a quick exit (I tried to stick it out for a few months – too long).

  2. Shhhh*

    I can’t remember if I commented on no. 1 when it was originally published (I’ve changed names on here several times) but I had a very similar situation at my last job. I worked in a student facing role where most of the students I interacted with around my age because it was for a graduate school and I’m in my late 20s. I tried to be friendly and warm with all students and one of my coworkers interpreted it as flirting any time I was friendly to a male student (or staff member, or professor for that matter).

    Luckily, while she was senior to me, she wasn’t my manager, so I was able to just have a quick conversation with my manager about whether he thought I was being inappropriate and when he confirmed I wasn’t/he didn’t, I just brushed it off.

    The irony is that she frequently described men we worked with (students and otherwise) as attractive when she wasn’t sure of their names.

    Anyway. I’m not there anymore, but both the original letter and the update reignited my generally feeling of ugh around all of that.

    1. Ama*

      As someone who worked in university admin for almost a decade, this is unfortunately a really common story. A lot of long-time admins get away with a ton of questionable at best behavior particularly towards student employees, partly because their bosses are often academics (and not particularly interested in people management so long as the work they need is getting done) and partly because student workers don’t stay very long anyway so it is hard to catch concerning turnover patterns. And like the OP’s story it generally keeps happening until the admin in question does something so egregious, or to someone with enough authority, that it finally gets addressed.

      Like you, I’m also very glad to be out of that environment.

      1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        Without going into details, I worked university admin for about seven years, latterly with an office manager who made all this look mild. And you’re spot on about the reasons why they get away with that behavior.

        I like to say I left academia for a bureaucracy that was actually functional.

      2. HoHumDrum*

        I notice this is sadly a common story with younger workers in general- that sometimes older coworkers have this perception that anyone under 30 is a walking mess of hormones and bad judgement, just constantly looking to hook up.

        I’ve worked so many places where my behavior towards men was constantly policed or judged as being flirtatious, and I’ve also had the experience of working places where coworkers essentially “shipped” me with whatever single male coworker was closest to me in age. Like constantly making suggestive comments about us and encouraging us to get together, or insisting on interpreting any interaction as cute/romantic. It really felt like being living fanfiction to them. My roommate has had the same experience at her workplace- again she’s the youngest by a lot. Particularly frustrating as she actually did hook up with the coworker and he treated her poorly, but they keep it professional at work so no one knows. She complains all the time about how aggravating it is to have colleagues make a big deal about how nice the guy is and how cute they’d be together and to even try to encourage them to work on projects together when all she wants to do is scream, “Been there, done that, he’s an a** so leave me alone!”

        1. high school teacher*

          Yep. I’m in my late-20s and started working full-time in my career 4 months out of college when I was 22. I feel like a lot of my coworkers assumed I’d be a mess and screw up when I first started, but then realized that I was a good worker and professional. I really don’t like that so many people think millennials are all terrible workers who don’t know how to behave in an office environment. There are many of us who do great at work!

      3. Kelly*

        That’s really common in academia where the advanced degrees a person has and experience in their area of expertise is more important. I work for a public university and the higher ups, including HR, are becoming aware that we have a serious morale problem due to supervisors who aren’t that great at the supervising people parts of their jobs. It’s led to higher rates of turnover in permanent staff positions, including one particular position that is on its 5th search committee in 6 years. It was easier to attribute the turnover to people leaving for other institutions due to compensation issues and budget cuts, but with a new Democratic governor, increased funding towards higher ed, and a plan in place to address the compensation issues, it’s harder to use those as reasons for turnover.

        It was very telling that the latest search committee for the position what some of us have termed our equivalent of defense against the dark arts professor from the Harry Potter series is not being chaired by the eventual hire/s’ supervisor. Instead it’s being chaired by someone outside of the division. Another job posting for a position that just finished the in person interview phrase made it a requirement that the person applying had proven supervisory experience.

        My boss is likely to retire within the next 18 months and one particular person I work with really wants her job. She had never had supervisory duties before this position and it’s been a very rough on the job learning process for her. She’s in charge of hiring grad students as evening/weekend supervisors and not one of the people she has hired has come back to work a second year for her. Prior to her being in charge of them, my boss was and most of the ones the boss hired worked for us multiple years during their graduate programs until they graduated. My colleague also almost had one person who worked for her file a discrimination claim because she refused to believe that the person’s ADA accommodation was real. No amount of reading books on how to be a better boss is going to work with her. The same goes for my male colleague who is in charge of student staff. He’s been in his job for over a decade and isn’t going to become more interested in being a better supervisor and having some expectations of professional conduct for our students. He’s set in his ways and will become whiny and passive aggressive if called out.

        It’s a good sign for the future if HR is making it mandatory that supervisory experience is required for all positions that have staff, both permanent and student, reporting to them. It’s better for morale and potentially decreases turnover.

  3. Janet, Sower of Chaos*

    I’m snort-laughing about the banished grad student, although personally I feel grad students hitting on undergrads is kind of weird. OP1, I hope you graduate soon and find a great job with no Brendas!

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I will say only that in a prior job we had to tell one non-traditional student that he needed to call in advance and schedule his visits going forward, but only because he was upper 30’s and openly ogling the 19 yo at the front desk and making her uncomfortable. But this conversation was held at the younger persons request, and he wasn’t banned from the office completely. Once he realized that scheduling meant he didn’t get ogling time, he magically was able to not need as much assistance from our office.

      (The advisor that he was coming to see would be waiting right at the office front desk for him starting before his scheduled time and would collect him as soon as he walked in. Also, I don’t think non-traditional students are bad, I am just attempting to make clear that this particular student was older than the normal undergraduate student, all other behaviors can come from any age person. The age gap just made the front desk more uncomfortable than she would have been if the ages were closer.)

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Oh agreed – this guy fell apparently in the “old enough to know better, but still too young to care” category.

    2. Quill*

      In the first letter OP mentioned she was 24, which is the same age as a lot of first or second year grad students, so this doesn’t really strike me as odd since they met outside of a situation where the grad student was TAing or teaching.

      I’m usually more wary of the 21 year old undergrad senior who buys their 18 or 19 year old girlfriend booze, the gap between college senior and grad student is much, much smaller than between college senior and “underclassman undergrad who is living away from home for the first or second year ever and isn’t old enough to legally drink or get a hotel room in some states.”

      1. Janet, Sower of Chaos*

        Sure, although the grad student in question was in his late twenties, which to me suggests a potentially-significant adulthood gap, for lack of a better term. I’m also certainly taking into account my own undergrad experience being hit on my grad students, which was all kinda weird. (“Kinda weird” is meant as a pretty mild criticism, in case it came off too strongly.)

        1. Close Bracket*

          Eh, late-20s/mid-20s age gap with the man being older is typical for heterosexual relationships. Of course, this guy was married, so there’s that problem.

  4. Accidentally stuck!*

    #3 — Does the OP or anyone else have any advice for how to react once you’re pretty sure the job isn’t right for you? I’ve definitely been in this situation but couldn’t figure out a graceful way to exit and ended up staying much longer than I wanted to! Did you start a new job search right away and then talk to your manager once you had an offer, or did you start having discussions earlier about how the role probably wasn’t actually a good fit? What did you tell curious friends in your life? Did you just leave the short-term job off your resume after finding a new job and switching?

    1. Nep*

      Not me, but my spouse was recently in a situation where the job was clearly not correct. He took several steps to try make it work in the job, then started job hunting. He did not mention it to anyone at work until he had a new position. (He’s still on good terms with many of the people there.) He explains it to our friends as having made a miscalculation in taking the new position. He was there for over six months, so I think he will put it on his resume going forward.

      1. gut*

        This happened to me as well. I stayed at the “bad” position just over 6 months as well, despite knowing on the first day that it would not work out (I’d been grossly misled at my interview because they literally showed me a different office space; the actual office space was cramped, dark, and uncomfortable and I’d never have accepted if I’d seen it). I wish I’d left earlier so I could just leave it off my resume.

    2. Marny*

      I’m currently in that situation and I’m doing my job searching while staying at this wrong job simply because of the health insurance and the need to collect my salary in the meantime. I’ve been at the current job for about 6 weeks. I’m not including the job on my resume since I feel like it would lead to questions that would distract from my qualifications. If I hit the 6-month mark and I’m still looking, I’ll probably put it on my resume at that point. If I find something else, I’ll just have to tell my boss that it turned out this position just wasn’t what I thought it would be and isn’t the right fit– it’ll likely be a really hard conversation, but I don’t seen any other option since I can’t just leave now but also can’t grit my teeth forever. I’ve been open with my friends about it– they get why the job is wrong for me and are keeping their ears open for job openings for me.

    3. Grace*

      To add to this, how do people take time off to do phone and in-person interviews when they’re brand new at a job and likely won’t have any accrued PTO? I can imagine faking 1 sick day but interviewing usually involves at least 1 phone screen and 2 in-persons, and this multiplies when you’re interviewing with several companies, which is very common!

      1. Pretzelgirl*

        Some places get PTO right off the bat. Most places, I have worked I got some PTO right away. Although I know its not the case everywhere.

        Personally I would try and see if you can schedule a phone interview at lunch. Sit in your car, or drive somewhere. If its allowed by your employer flex your time for the interview. Come in at 7 and leave at 3 for a later afternoon interview. Or come in at 10 and stay til 7 or 8 for an early morning interview.

    4. Mrs. C*

      I was in a situation once where I realized after three months that I was completely miserable in my new job. I was unhappy enough & in a financial position where I could choose to quit without anything else lined up. My boss was genuinely upset that I didn’t feel the position was a match, and asked what the problems were & if I’d give him a chance to change the things that bothered me. I agreed to give him that chance, and I un-quit.

      Within about two weeks, it became clear that despite my boss’s best intentions, the necessary changes weren’t going to happen. I realized, however, that if I could tolerate the last two weeks, then I could tolerate another two weeks, and so on until I had another job lined up (this was very much inspired by the Kimmy Schmidt episode about cranking the wheel for 10 seconds). It took another 4.5 months of searching to get another job. When I quit (for a second and last time), I was able to point to the prior conversation I’d had with my boss and to gently explain that the changes I needed to see didn’t happen.

    5. Jean*

      At my last job (before the one I’m at now, which I love) I had this experience. Started and within the first 3 months or so it became clear it wasn’t the right fit for me. I started my search again pretty much right away, and in that search I was much more picky about the opportunities that did arise.It took me a year of looking to find the job I have now, and it was worth it.

      You don’t have to say anything to your current employer or coworkers about looking for a new job. It’s none of their concern until you actually find one and give notice at your current job. If you think your boss would be amenable to any requests you might have to make changes/improvements in your current position, then go for it, but I wouldn’t frame it as “do this or I’m leaving.” I wouldn’t say anything about leaving until it’s a done deal.

      Best of luck to you!

  5. Quill*

    Brenda sounds like the kind of supervisor who would have driven me batty. Good on you for not having to deal with her!

    Actually, good on everyone for these resolutions & updates. :)

  6. Close Bracket*

    -he was missing being an individual contributor. So he was expressing a level of jealousy that the team get to be hands on.

    He’s still in the role, he’s made similar comments once more since, and it ended up being an early warning sign that he needed a break (we work in a particularly high risk area for burnout).
    Things are ok, I keep closer eye on his team, but by all accounts they appear to be happy and productive. I suspect his next career move will not be in management.

    Are you keeping an eye on your direct report, too? This update sounds really passive regarding managing him. Are you just waiting for him to make his next move or are you actively giving him breaks and giving him individual contributor duties?

    1. Eskymojo*

      Yes definitely. Most of the commenters on the original post were concerned about the health of his team, hence the detail. We’ve got a really supportive workplace in terms of mental health. He’s been connected with our EAP and he’s started work on a passion project where he will get to do most of the project work. He’s definitely more engaged, and thrives off managing a complex workload.
      I’ve learnt to listen and I know now which language and behaviour suggests he needs to take a break or pump the breaks on activity. He’s also better at recognising this in himself.

  7. Observer*

    #1 – We need to hear the saga of Brenda’s behavior! If your story is anything to go by, it should be popcorn worthy.

  8. Dysfunctional Deb*

    LW3, your situation and update remind me of all the times an opportunity that looked good on paper (but not in my gut) turned out to be a bad experience.

    Trust your gut!

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