updates: my coworkers trash people in another language, the sick volunteer, 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 five updates from past letter-writers.

1. My coworkers are trashing people in another language — and don’t know I can understand them

I’m pleased to say that we do have a resolution to this one. A few days after you published my letter, my colleagues had spent the morning being spectacularly grumpy and rude in Urdu while we were all on a conference call, being generally disparaging about our remote team members again. I had decided I was going to speak to them after lunch. However, towards the end of the call, chat went slightly off-topic, and my remote colleague ‘Kevin’, who is based in Australia, started to tell a slightly rambling story about a time he’d been in a shop and the workers in there were making fun of his haircut in Vietnamese and then when he left the shop he said goodbye to them in their own language. Lots of us laughed heartily at this story, and then Kevin said ‘it was totally cringe and hilarious. Just like it would be hilarious if anyone could understand what ‘Sanjay’ and ‘Bobby’ are chatting about, wouldn’t it…?’ The pregnant pause made me rather suspicious that that Kevin had told the story on purpose! I chatted to him later and it turns out he’s a regular reader of Ask a Manager too (hi, Kevin!!) and had put two and two together when he saw the letter and worked out it was someone in our UK team who understood Urdu.

So although we didn’t call them out directly, neither of my rude colleagues said a word to me for the rest of the day, and for a while afterwards both looked very awkward at the realization that someone might understand them! While I’m sure they still call me and my workmates fat, lazy and stupid in Urdu, they certainly no longer do it in earshot.

2. I’m too sick to do a volunteer job — but they’re insisting I attend anyway

I posted in a few groups to try to get coverage but basically as I’d predicted no-one was available for the whole weekend at such short notice! In the end I persuaded the organiser that I actually couldn’t attend because I was too sick and got some response about ‘we don’t want you dying out there!’ (Which tbh came across as a bit sarcastic but text is difficult). It was a pretty short lived illness and I felt weak the day I was meant to go but well enough to go the day after. It turned out that another person had dropped out at the last minute because a relative had died, so I don’t know if that contributed to the organiser being unreasonable.

Everyone else there was lovely, the other people from the organisation at the the actual event were like ‘dude, go home if you need to!’ but it was actually ok. I’m still glad I didn’t go the first day and I’ve basically decided not to sign up again because the stress the day I was ill wasn’t worth it.

I sent a bit of a snotty email afterwards saying it had put me off volunteering but didn’t really get anything back beyond ‘we’re sorry you felt like this but you did sign up knowing the terms’… the boss of the whole organisation (it’s a large-ish organisation but not that many staff) was cc-ed but he didn’t chip in either. It has definitely dented my view of the organisation because they love to think they are friendly and ‘family’ like but that didn’t really come across in this case in my opinion! Your advice was useful in confirming that I wasn’t the unreasonable one, so thank you for that.

3. How can I explain why I’m leaving my new job after only three months?

Shortly after I wrote you, I found out that I was going to need to take a somewhat significant medical leave before the end of the year. I decided to stick it out at the not-so-great job until after my medical issue was resolved. In the meantime, I studied for and passed a certification exam that is meaningful in my field, volunteered for the board of a local organization, and took a course at a local community college. I was still unhappy at work, but had enough going on outside of work to keep me optimistic about the future.

However, a few months later, an employer I interviewed with previously reached out to me to let me know the person they’d selected for the job had not worked out, and asked if I’d still be interested in the job. She even mentioned they were looking for someone with basic knowledge in the subject I’d studied at the community college. I replied that I was interested, but not particularly looking to switch jobs due to my medical issue. She quickly replied, “We don’t discriminate and can accommodate any medical leave you need. Please apply!” To make a long story short, I interviewed and accepted the position. I worked for a few months, took my medical leave, and just returned to work a few weeks ago. The new position is a great fit, and I’m very happy.

I’m not sure what to put on my resume about my short stay at the job I originally wrote about. I was able to complete a few projects that I was proud of, and I connected with several people who would speak highly of my work. On the other hand… I was only there seven months. At any rate, I’m hoping I won’t have to worry about it for a few years. Thank you again for your advice!

4. My boss felt “personally disrespected” that I booked vacation dates without checking with her first (#2 at the link)

I wanted to give an update – things remained mostly normal with my manager though there were the occasional strange comments about my one other coworker. I began to notice her getting frozen out and not given the same level of access I was to my manager which made me uncomfortable and didn’t sit right as I’m a cis white woman and my coworker is of the same age/stage but black.

Ultimately I was approached with a full time position in my area of expertise with a much more established and professional organization. I gave my two weeks today and am feeling great! I didn’t realize how much I was walking on eggshells always trying to figure out what would or wouldn’t prompt some strange reaction from my manager.

5. My amazing new job has a catch: my father

Thanks to your advice, I talked to my manager about my estranged father but, thanks to some of the comments, I waited until a natural moment to do so to help undercut any potential feeling of “drama.”

He was understanding and said it shouldn’t come up, but that he’d make sure I didn’t have to work with my father. He did ask some follow-up questions about the nature of the estrangement, I think mostly to come across as “personable,” then shared some stories about life/family that were, I think, mostly to make me not feel abnormal for not having a relationship with my father.

All-in-all, it was by nature tremendously uncomfortable, but ultimately I felt like I was heard and that I will be spared from dealing with my father. I also feel much less stressed having taken care of this.

Thanks so much to you and your thoughtful commenters for the advice and commiseration.

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. PettyKat*

    To OP #1. It would have been FANTASTIC if you responded to Kevin in Urdu saying, “Yeah, you’re right, Kevin. It WOULD be hilarious if anyone here understood.”

    So glad to hear that things worked themselves out as best as possible.

    1. Iris Eyes*

      It would have been more dramatic in the moment but by making them paranoid about who it might be they probably curbed their behavior to a greater degree.

      1. Alexander Graham Yell*

        Exactly, then they would have just avoided speaking it around OP. Now they’ll avoid it in public completely (I hope I hope I hope).

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I also agree not outing who it is who can understand the Urdu insulters probably does give a greater curb to the behavior than these two knowing who they have to watch their behavior around. This way they have to assume everybody is the person who can understand them – or that more than one person is able to understand Urdu.

      3. JSPA*

        Yes, it was genius as played. They can’t know if it was Kevin himself or someone else or purely a well-guessed hypothetical. They literally can’t take it out on whomever tattled, or let down their guard before any third party. WIN!

    2. Incantanto*

      I’m still surprised nobody made a comment about people talking in urdu earlier. No matter what is being said, using a non-common language in meetings/on a conference call is highly rude, unless required if you’re looking for a word/explanation, but even then should be kept to an absolute minimum.

  2. Jennifer*

    #1 That’s awesome. I’ve noticed in a lot of updates problems seem to magically disappear after a letter is published. I think a lot of people are reading this column and are either recognizing themselves or their coworkers.

  3. EPLawyer*

    #1, Karma and Alison are awesome. In combination — deadly.

    #2 don;t you love an organization that believes it owns VOLUNTEERS? Can you imagine being a paid employee of the organization? That place isn’t so special that everyone is dying to be unpaid labor for them.

    #3 Glad you found a new home. Also, if you were only there 7 months, not sure you even need to put it on your resume. Especially if you have other more relevant work for the job you are applying to.

    #4 It was never going to be not akward to have the conversation. There’s just no easy way to say “I can’t work with my Dad, we are estranged.” But you made it through. Even more importantly, your boss understood. That’s the take away from this.

    1. Antilles*

      I’m still surprised that #2 got so upset about volunteers bailing. Like, have you never used volunteers before?
      Having a couple volunteers cancel last minute is much more common than having every single one show up, no matter how clear you make it about “you’re important to this, we rely on you, etc, etc”.

      1. Jackalope*

        All I can say is that this is a good way to lose volunteers. I’ve been on both sides (volunteer and organization depending on them) and have seen that it can be frustrating in the moment if you lose critical help at the last minute but so much more damaging long-term if you are hard on people who have emergencies.

        1. Pebbles*


          I used to volunteer for Saturday youth retreats at my former church and when I went to college 2 hours away I still volunteered for the occasional retreat and just planned on going home that weekend. Well one Friday night there was a ton of freezing rain and I didn’t feel safe taking the bus home so I stayed at college. Called the church that night after hours and left a voicemail and then called the next morning before the retreat to be sure that someone got the message. WELL, the retreat leader was not happy and tried to make me feel guilty for putting my safety first. I never volunteered again for her.

        2. Bunny Girl*

          Yep. Organizations don’t realize that volunteers talk to each other and it can have a huge impact on people coming back or recruiting more volunteers. I was doing an unpaid internship during the summer and we had a shift where one of the employees was so ill that she went to the hospital and her doctor said she couldn’t come back to work for a week. Not a big deal, we had other interns scheduled to do the work and we were way overstaffed that week than we were the next month. But both organizers totally shamed her for getting sick, tried to pressure her to come back, and sent out a pretty sarcastic email to the rest of us about getting sick. That place gets a lot of its volunteers from previous interns. Once it got around how this girl was treated, pretty much everyone decided not to come back as volunteers.

      2. SierraSkiing*

        LOL, we just averted this situation at a nonprofit I’m a long-term volunteer for! On the planning team, we were recently discussing how we should handle scheduling first-time volunteers, since they have a high rate of no-showing. One of my co-volunteers suggested, “Why don’t we just have them sign a contract to pay us if they don’t come?” There was a lengthy pause. Then someone asked, “Sidney, would YOU sign up to volunteer at an organization that treated you like that?” Sidney: “… Oh. Never mind.”

        1. Antilles*

          How did you end up resolving it, if you don’t mind me asking?
          The best we’ve ever done is to simply estimate that we count first-time volunteers as a partial person – typically around 75% of a volunteer (based on previous experience). So if we need 3 first-timers, we ask for 4 to sign up; if we need 7 to 8 people, we try to get 10 to sign up. It’s not perfect and definitely still can fail, but it’s the best we’ve ever been able to figure out.

          1. SierraSkiing*

            That’s pretty much our solution. We also decided when making volunteer schedules to make sure that any shift with new people also has a good number of returning volunteers. That way, if the newbie flakes, we’ll still have decent coverage for each shift. (It’s not a problem if we have 3 people per shift when we wanted 4; it was a HUGE problem when we had 1 person show up for a four-person shift.)

          2. JSPA*

            1. Have a call list of people who can’t volunteer regularly, but are willing to show up for a partial shift on short notice if the stars happen to align.

            2. have a mechanism for recording who’s been called recently, what they’ve said as far as calling again, and not always starting at the top with Aaron Abaa (who gets called 8 times a month) while Zyla Zuzzo hasn’t been called in 6 months.

            Plenty of people can’t predict their schedules and availability a week in advance, but could slide in an hour into a 4 hour shift, if called 15 minutes into the shift.

          3. zora*

            any healthy volunteer program just accounts for attrition. You sign up more than you absolutely need, so that if 33% of the people no show, you will still have the absolute lowest number of people you need.

            I’ve always done everything by rule of thirds. 1/3 of volunteers will no show, 1/3 of RSVPs will not attend, 1/3 of donation pledges will not arrive. A well-run program will not get worse attrition than that, at least not regularly.

            On the other hand, if your attrition rates ARE more than 1/3 regularly, there is likely something else wrong with your program and you need to dive deeper. How is engagement? Are the shifts too long, tasks too difficult? Do you have a missing stair? etc.

            1. zora*

              Oh, you can also mitigate no shows with a more robust recruitment plan.

              The best organizations I’ve worked with did more substantive first meetings/sign ups for volunteers. If the only barrier to entry is putting name and email on a webpage and then expecting those people to show up, your no show rates are going to be super high. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means the most interested people are the ones showing up.

              My personal opinion is that any interested volunteer should get a phone call or face to face meeting with a staffer/leader first, to talk about their interests, the organization, and the tasks available for volunteers. Then both sides are more invested in the relationship, and the assignment can be better suited to the volunteer. If you have someone show up not knowing anything about the job until they show up for a shift, you are likely going to some people who bow out, which is fair, because you only want volunteers who are going to enjoy and excel at the task!

      3. datamuse*

        At one point when I was managing volunteers at a service point for an event I had one of them walk off the work assignment while I was explaining to everyone what their responsibilities would be. Not great, but I think the org in question had a lot of experience with volunteers no-showing–or, as in this case, just deciding they weren’t going to do it after they got there–because if anything my position was overstaffed.

        (Most of the volunteers I had when I worked that gig were lovely, with an especial shoutout to the high schoolers who were always great.)

  4. Jules the 3rd*

    OP 2 & 5, congratulations on some good boundary setting!
    OP 3 & 4, congratulations on getting out of bad situations and into good ones!
    OP1, congratulations on a new site meme. Hi Kevin!

  5. Detective Amy Santiago*

    OP #5 – I am so happy that your boss respected your concerns. Good luck with your new job!

  6. Goliath Corp.*

    #3 made me so happy. I’m so glad that there are employers out there who are so open about accommodating medical issues. (My experience has not been so positive.)

    1. CM*

      Me too! #1 was hilarious but #3 was my favorite. I love tales of employers acknowledging that their employees are human beings who can be capable and dedicated while still having medical issues, families, and lives!

      Also, OP#3, the longer you stay at your current job, the less your previous short stay will matter. So I wouldn’t spend any time now worrying about what you will say about it in your next job search.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        Yeah, if you have one job of less than a year sandwiched between longer periods of employment, it’s not a big deal. What you want to avoid is a string of short term jobs (unless you’re in an industry where that’s the norm).

        OP3, I’m so glad for you!

  7. Observer*

    #4 – How did your boss react to you giving notice?

    I’m glad you’re getting out of there. Your boss is NOT someone I would want to work for if I had the choice.

    It might be worth mentioning something to HR about what you observed, especially if you have an exit interview.

    Do you think you could offer to be a reference your soon to be former coworker if she wants to get out? Having the reference might be useful to her. And the offer would validate what she’s almost certainly thinking.

    1. VacayLady*

      She was pretty okay actually though I was expecting an entire tirade. There had been some new hiring so my leaving wasn’t going to leave everyone else in the lurch as much as it may have before. I am still in contact with my former co-worker and am a reference as she looks for new jobs which is nice. There was no exit interview though if there was I might be hesitant to mention it knowing that HR was rather informal and the person who performed that role was reasonably close to my manager. Overall I do think the organization as a whole has some issues with structual racism both in the way I saw my co-worker be treated but also more blatent things (think very senior person dropping the n-word in a public forum – something I did go on the record to say was incredibly not okay and for which I got a generic brush off reply back about. To the best of my knowledge there were no public repercussions!! :))

      1. JSPA*

        Um. Well. Yuck. Regardless of the thinking behind it.

        Yeah, that takes way down any ambiguity in, “is this directly racism or stylistic incompatibility with racial overtones or stylistic incompatibility, other.” Glad you’re out of there, hope coworker gets a smooth exit and clean launch elsewhere as well. Not a lecture on gratefulness. (Not going to take a short sell on that, though.)

  8. Blueberry*

    Kevin is our hero of the day!

    Well and bravely done, #3 and #5!

    #2, you are definitely not the person with the problem. I wish I couldn’t believe they were acting like this — they couldn’t do better to drive volunteers away if they tried.

    #4, I’m glad you’re out and I’m really hoping hard for the safety of your coworker. Thank you for noticing.

  9. Soupmonger*

    #4: I’m glad you’re out. Did you do or say anything about noticing your co-worker was being frozen out before you left? I’m hoping you managed something…?

    Not saying you had an obligation, but you obviously noticed enough was wrong with the situation to comment on it in your update.

  10. Red*

    #5 – I think it’s sweet the manager shared some personal stories – it’s not the same, but it shows a real effort to connect which can be hard at work/with hard things. Good luck OP!

  11. triplehiccup*

    #3 – even after you drop that job off your resume, you can continue to draw on the positive parts of your experience in interviews. At least that much can be salvaged in the long run!

  12. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    Ha! I speak English, German, and have a basic understanding of Urdu (thanks, best friend growing up who always had me over). But, I am Casper-the-ghost white.

    I can’t speak more than stuff like yes/no/please/thank you, the names of various foods, and swear words (my friend’s dad THINKS he is very handy and would swear in Urdu while trying to improve or fix things, lol), but I understand enough to get the general idea of conversations I hear.

    Honestly, I would have sworn at Sanjay to make him think twice!

    1. Miranda Priestly's Assistant*

      This happens with Spanish a lot in the U.S. There are quite a few non-native Spanish speakers, but a lot of Spanish-speakers seem to forget this.

      1. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

        That’s a bit odd, given how many of us studied Spanish in high school. Not that people can count on being understood in Spanish, but they might be, and shouldn’t count on not being. (On the other hand, my Hispanic neighbors occasionally seemed surprised when I voluntarily dusted off my high school Spanish to do things like buy snacks from street vendors.)

  13. CRM*

    OP #3, I would leave the 7 month stay on your resume. I have an 8 month stay on my resume right now, and it hasn’t been an issue! I decided to keep it because I managed to accomplish a couple of things in my short time there that strengthened my resume. I also had a trustworthy coworker (who wasn’t a peer) that I could use as a reference.

    1. blaise zamboni*

      Agreed. I think it’s in your favor that you clearly moved onto something else—you just had another opportunity you couldn’t pass up! Presumably you’ll stay at this place for a while so I don’t think it will reflect badly on you when the time comes to move on again. You could safely leave the short place off your resume but if you feel like your experience there is relevant, I don’t think it’ll hurt you to keep it on.

  14. Maria Lopez*

    I was hoping you were going to say that Kevin was actually Pakistani with a Westernized work name and hit them with a long soliloquy on workplace norms in Urdu, but this was just as good.

Comments are closed.