updates: the self-deprecating employee, the car-borrowing boss, and more

It’s the last week of “where are you now?” time at Ask a Manager, where I run updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are five updates from past letter-writers.

1. My employee constantly apologizes and calls herself stupid

I’m happy to say things are going much better with the employee I wrote in about. I raised the issue of her apologizing and negative self-talk at her performance review, as Alison suggested. It did not go all that well — she agreed to work on those issues, but also raised a lot of new complaints about how she felt we didn’t value her (which was really just the negative self-talk in new clothing), and at first nothing really changed. But things eventually got better. We allowed her to move, shift her schedule, and start working from home. My grandboss talked with her about this performance issue. And over the next year, she eventually got a promotion and a raise and is now recognized throughout the company as an exemplary employee. Written down, this seems like a lot of capitulation to someone who was being a big pain, but her work was really excellent and her value to the team and company overall was obvious and quantifiable. She’d been very unhappy living in the city where our offices are located, and the combination of the move to a place where she had a bigger support network and my grandboss’s real talk made a big difference. The promotion/raise happened once she was already on a positive trajectory, and accelerated it.

I can’t claim credit for her turnaround, though. The contrast between how she reacted to my pep talk/wake-up call and the one from my grandboss, who is known for her directness and high standards, was a big lesson for me in how I could improve my own management style. I no longer manage her (I was promoted earlier this year and now work with a different team), but I’ve worked since then to be more direct with employees, to address problems earlier, and not to let worries about being “nice” (having pleasant interactions) override being kind (giving people the feedback they need to succeed).

2. My boss keeps trying to use my company car

So, basically the situation didn’t get much better. I’m really glad for your advice to be wary of extending the contract – I was on the fence since it paid fairly well, but when I considered the personal ramifications of working in that environment, I decided it wasn’t worth it, both for my professional development and my sanity.

I think the one thing I’ve realized since leaving is that boundaries are there for a reason! I was feeling very confused by the situation, and since I’ve worked for quite a few small companies without HR practices or really any formal structure, I’m used to navigating boundary issues by my gut rather than a formal process. (The longer I’ve been in the workforce, though, the more I appreciate HR. It can be hard to feel supported / self-sufficient without formal structure!) That being said, this situation appears after some time away as particularly toxic. I did a bit of research after leaving and realized that I had more rights than I realized in the situation, and had I been more educated on hiring practices (I am just a few years out of college) and felt like I had any sort of support system, I might have spoken up more forcefully to defend myself. Note to self: GET A CONTRACT. They never signed anything or offered a contract to me, which was a big red flag but also something that’s fairly common in my field, so I didn’t pick up on it immediately.

So, basically I just stuck it through to the end of my contract and then GTFO. I was nervous at first about a reference (I sometimes still am concerned about that) and I have been considering ways to describe this work experience in the event that someone does want to call them. I simply don’t trust my supervisors to be kind in their words, even though I’m ultimately proud of the work I did.

Right before ending my contract, I did encounter a final issue which really topped things off. I had a new contract lined up after my role at the toxic company ended, so I was planning to fly out of state immediately after and begin my role there. The toxic team wanted me to come back to help supervise a big event I had been helping plan (which was scheduled for later in the summer, and for which I had been clear about my not being entirely available for). Due to my pre-existing obligation at this other company I would be out of state at the time of the event, so I asked for the toxic team to pay for me to come out (I thought this was a reasonable request, especially because I would be taking time off of my current job to help them out).They clearly didn’t see it that way and tried to get me to ask my CURRENT employer to pay for my flight out to the toxic work event. And then when I said that wouldn’t work, they tried to get me to pay for it. And when I said I couldn’t afford it, they started asking me about my finances. At which point I flatly said I would not request my employer to pay, and I would not foot the bill myself. So…. it ended, but not on terms I’m particularly pleased with. I didn’t get to go to the event I helped produce, which was a bummer, and it made me feel disrespected and undervalued.

Phew! So, it ended, but that’s pretty much the only resolution I could achieve.

I would love to hear readers’ thoughts on what I could have done better in this situation (I need to not have this happen again!) and any suggestions on how to handle questions about references from this toxic company. Thanks as ever for your insightful and VERY entertaining site.

3. Job applicant keeps asking for another chance (#2 at the link)

This particular candidate has continued to reach out, including reaching out to my manager! Luckily, she let the candidate know that all sourcing goes through me. Even after receiving that message from her, the candidate sent me another message on Linkedin asking about different positions at my company. I used your wording again and let them know firmly that the match wasn’t right and it wasn’t a good fit. I then got a barrage of messages that questioned why they weren’t a fit and why they weren’t being considered. I disconnected with them and fingers crossed this is the last we hear of it but I’m not hopeful.

4. Talking to my boss about a potential move for my partner’s job (#5 at the link)

My situation ended up being less complicated than I expected, though certainly no less stressful. It also opened my eyes to some things about my company. I don’t want to give too many identifying details, but everything worked out (though it wasn’t discussed until several months into 2019) and I am now working remotely from my new city. My boss was really great about it, too, and very encouraging, especially when the final decision had us moving to a city that’s a rather short drive away (not short enough to commute, just short enough to come in periodically, which I have done since our move).

One of my biggest fears was ending up in a city with minimal to no job prospects for me, and wouldn’t you know, things took a turn at the last minute* and we’re in a big metro area with a lot of options I can explore. Keeping my job means I can now take my time and find a position that’s truly right for me, not just “better than nothing,” and for that, I’m grateful. You see, with this move, I realized that I’m being kept around only because I’m reasonably competent at my job (which is, of course, a good thing) but I’m probably not going to be given more responsibility or any opportunities to advance my career. This has nothing to do with working remotely– my coworkers at the home office feel the same way. There are also some inherent culture issues at my company that were kind of tolerable when I spent time in the office but are frustrating now that I have more of an “outside” perspective. I realize that sounds backwards, but I think being able to control my own environment and manage my own space has given me more confidence, not to mention the fact that my stress levels are back to normal and I can look at things through a more relaxed lens. So I started a job search. I even hired a career coach and am doing a lot of soul-searching. So ultimately, not an exciting update, just that things sometimes do work out– and some companies are becoming more open to remote employees.

*I just want to add here that the academic job market SUCKS. It just does. Maybe this is field-dependent, but man, I never want to do that again, though I know he’ll want to look again in a few years. My partner ended up with five middling-to-ok offers on the table but didn’t finalize his current position until right before his defense. (This sounds great, but there is such a thing as too many choices.) We moved five weeks after that. I didn’t realize just how stressed I was until we were all unpacked and I was finally able to sleep past 5am. And I was only the trailing partner! Thankfully it worked out well for both of us. But my sympathies are with everyone who goes through this, because it is far from easy!

5. Is my boss too embarrassed to tell me the promotion she promised me no longer exists? (#4 at the link)

Good news first — I passed the promotion interview, which, it turns out, in my company means I automatically got bumped up to a higher salary band, and my boss (Fergusina) was then obliged to rethink the team structure so I’d have duties befitting my new grade.

But the fact that Fergusina hadn’t even thought to do that was an early red flag about some serious management failings in the team that I’d been a bit more insulated from before. And it turned out that literally nobody on management knew how to plan or strategise AT ALL, leaving the lower managers (me, my returning colleague Jane and other manager Wakeem) stuck between micromanaging directors and overworked frontline staff on projects that made no sense.

After losing Wakeem (who’d had his own issues with Fergusina but had been too professional to mention them), 2018 broke both of us; Jane ended up on long-term sick leave and I finally started looking elsewhere. I’m now working in a great new organisation; Jane is interviewing and I hope she gets out soon, as the team there is disintegrating under the pressure and confusion.

Update to the update:

I’ve just heard that Jane has also managed to find a new job, so in just under a year, Fergusina has managed to lose all three of her direct reports (as well as a number of staff lower down in the team). Thanks so much to you and the commenters who’ve helped me spot what good (and bad!) management looks like, and when an organisation really is not working well! 

{ 85 comments… read them below }

  1. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

    On #2 “They clearly didn’t see it that way and tried to get me to ask my CURRENT employer to pay for my flight out to the toxic work event. ”


    1. BadWolf*

      I know — and then the follow up on OPs finances “Could you cancel Netflix and make lunch at home so you can save up and fly out and save us?”

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          “And no more avocado toast! You’re basically stealing from us when you buy yourself food and beverages instead of working for us for free!”

          1. Mongrel*

            “And no more guac! You’re basically stealing from us when you buy yourself food and beverages instead of working for us for free!”

            Fixed that for you :)

      1. Kes*

        I mean, this is why ‘I can’t afford it’ generally doesn’t work as a reply when being pushed to pay for things yourself that work should be paying for – the people who are pushing will just start questioning your personal finances and how you can make it work, when the real problem is that you shouldn’t be paying for it at all if it’s a work expense and you’re better off just setting that boundary

        1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

          It’s why I always say “no is a complete sentence”. This doesn’t mean to literally just say no (something like “I’m not going to do that” works in most situations), but decline without an explanation, because when talking to a boundary crosser, a “reason” or “explanation” will invite more invasive questions/inappropriate solutions.

        2. small pig*

          I don’t know that I would suggest it ‘generally doesn’t work’, it works for all but the most dysfunctional & toxic workplaces as general case advice.

    2. Antilles*

      Honestly, the part that really surprised me is the whole idea that an ex-employee would come back out to supervise/run their event in the first place. You are asking me to take time off my current job, to come volunteer for a company I don’t work for and run an event that is no longer my responsibility? Really? Really? You’re joking, right?
      The flight part is absurd, but my answer would be a firm no even if it was held on my street so I literally just had to walk out the front door.

      1. Jadelyn*

        Seriously. Unless they’re paying me – at consultant rates, natch – I’m not going back to a former employer and working for them months later. As long as I documented what I had planned, the responsibility falls to whomever they hired to replace me. This place sounds like they have absolutely no concept of boundaries on any topic.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*


        I actually did have a former employee come back to help with a semi annual event a few years ago. “Just in case” I couldn’t figure it out [I had to laugh, I could easily figure it out, there was a simple to-do list ffs]. But they actually did suggest it themselves, it didn’t even come from the toxic boss O.O

        But the person was local and so it was just wasting their personal time to be around for questions that never came up.

        I’ve went back to former employers to help out on assorted things but every single time I’m paid as a consultant. I’ve never even had one hint about it being a favor or some weird nonsense, it’s straight up “Can you help with X? Travel time included, it’s worth the costs to have your expertise here, a temp won’t do!”

        1. wizzer*

          We’ve had former employees come back for a gala we put on – unpaid but they get a meal and hang out/network while working in moderately interesting ways. No pressure on them to come – I write to them nicely and ask and few have said yes.

          Two of them were ex-staff who had been laid off but had generally good experiences with us.

          Both also pop into the office about once a year to say hello when they are in the area.

          But these roles are just a few hours over dinner. If we wanted someone to work longer or supervise an event, we’d offer to pay if they were willing to do it.

      3. Nancy Pelosi*

        Yes! This! The request was absurd to begin with. I can see the former employer asking for help with the event, but only with the understanding that this is a special request that requires a special increased rate + all expenses paid for OP2.

        When I left my last job, I told them in no uncertain terms I would not be coming back for any projects unless it was an emergency, and we left on great terms! If they had asked me this AND told me to adjust MY finances to accommodate THEIR event, I would have laughed heartily.

  2. JobHunter*

    LW #4: the academic job market _is_ awful. Your partner is lucky to have that many offers before gradiation. I only had one. Good luck in your new adventures!

    1. Violet Fox*

      It really really is terrible. There are a lot of very qualified people for a small number of positions, and at least in the US, a lot of institutions are hiring less and less tenure track professors. On top of all of the moving for post-doc to post-doc position, they pay pretty much “you’re still a student” money rather than “you’re actually an adult that might want things like security, a home, a family” money.

      1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        The school my husband did his postdoc at, considered postdocs “unmatriculated graduate students.” So they could get one perk of being enrolled students- the ability to defer payment on their federal student loans- at the expense of being considered neither employees nor students, and thus were not eligible for the student benefits nor the employee benefits. They even had a separate health insurance plan just for postdocs.

        I have never met so many bitter, unhappy people in one place, as I did when I socialized with his colleagues at that school.

    2. Falling Diphthong*

      My daughter and her long-term SO are in graduate school and both planning not to go into academia precisely for this reason–it’s tough enough to find one job.

    3. BeeGee*

      Woof, this is not encouraging to hear from someone whose SO has recently started a PhD program. The only good news is that their program has a pretty good demand outside of academia, so hopefully they will have more choices as they near the end of their program. Oh, and their current program is in another city and state, and I am trying to get my own career on track after a bumpy few years at crappy small firms.

      It is good to know that OP had everything work out for them, though! At least it sometimes works out!

    4. Sara without an H*

      Five “middling-to-ok offers” is actually fantastic by today’s standards. The market is ferociously tight, even in the STEM fields. (DON’T start me on the humanities fields…!)

      Best of luck, LW#4, and hope things go better in 2020.

      1. Sparrow*

        Seriously, fantastic. I don’t know anyone who got five offers out of grad school. I only know a couple of people who even got that many on-campus interviews their first year on the market (though most of my academic friends are in the humanities, to be fair). The academic job market is seriously the worst, and after watching my grad school roommate go through it, I decided that I wasn’t going to finish my PhD and would find another career route – it simply wasn’t worth it.

  3. t*

    Since #2 asked for feedback: I don’t see anything you could have done differently. You held firm in what you were and were not willing to do. The company was not willing to agree to those terms. The fact they they threw out some crazy options (your current employer to pay for their business expense? WTF?) doesn’t change the fact that you did the right thing. Dysfunctional places are dysfunctional – nothing you do will change that.

    Congrats on getting to a better situation!

    1. Jadelyn*

      The only suggestion I might have is be firmer, sooner. Reasons are for reasonable people, and a company that has such awful behavior around boundaries and tries to negotiate things like that is not reasonable. A simple, firm “I’m sorry, that won’t be possible” and if they push further, reiterate “I won’t be able to accommodate your request. You’ll need to find an alternative solution.” rather than allowing openings for them to discuss your finances(!) and try to nag you into paying for their business expenses.

      1. Kes*

        Agreed, they aren’t being reasonable, it’s none of their business whether OP can afford it or not, and even if they could afford it they shouldn’t be paying anyway since it’s a cost incurred in doing business for the company – if they want OP there, they should pay for OP to be there, and it would be better just to hold that line.
        (and honestly, OP, you’re probably better off for having been turned down rather than continuing to be involved with their dysfunction)

      2. Artemesia*

        ‘I can’t imagine someone asking a former employee to foot business expenses for the company. Of course not.’

        And if you were still working there. ‘oh of course I can’t pay business expenses from my personal budget.’

    2. Aquawoman*

      The one thing I see that LW could have done differently is to have simply stated their needs and leave out explanations: X amount of pay and travel expenses. It wasn’t really about whether LW could afford to pay for the flight, it’s that they had no earthly reason to incur costs for that purpuse. Sometimes offering explanations just gives the other person a thing to argue about, especially the boundary-challenged. All of this said, I have to stipulate to a WTAF about them expecting someone else to pay to help them run their business.

      1. Colette*

        I agree – but I also think the OP should have looked at the end of the job as the end of the job. In other words, the event is after my last day, so I won’t be attending. It sounds like she was disappointed that she didn’t get to attend, but that’s what happens when you quit (and it’s what should happen when you quit.

        Having that mindset would have helped her go into the discussion about attending with a different attitude that might have been helpful.

  4. WellRed*

    OP 2, you mention wanting advice for how to better handle the situation. I don’t know if you mean the situation where they wanted you to pay to fly back for the event or not, but if yes: don’t give people, especially unreasonable people, a reason to argue or try to convince you. When they said they wouldn’t pay, that was the point to end the conversation and accept not going (and honestly, I think it’s weird they even wanted you there. You’ve moved on). Saying things like “I can’t afford it” only invites the craziness and the nosiness. Not blaming you, however. I would have been so stunned at the suggestion my new company pay, I’m not sure what I would have stammered out. Congrats on getting out!

    1. RabbitRabbit*

      This. Don’t give them anything to push back on. Tell them it’s not happening. Or if you’d have been willing to go out if they paid for your travel and a consulting fee, tell them that. No excuses gives them fewer argument points.

    2. Cookie Captain*

      If there was any hope of salvaging the relationship for reference purposes, it might have made sense to sugarcoat the refusal–“It’s just not an option for me to pay out of pocket or ask my current employer to cover any expenses, but I’ll be crossing my fingers for you, and I’d love to hear how it goes!”

      But it doesn’t sound like any amount of being normal-human-nice is going to make a difference with those folks.

      As for diplomatically explaining why they might give a good reference, you could try saying something like “I received excellent feedback while I was there, but unfortunately I think my inability to continue working for them after my contract was completed colored their feelings about me when I moved on, so I can’t be totally confident that they would give me a glowing recommendation.”

      1. Nancy Pelosi*

        I don’t agree with sugarcoating, or any giving, reasons for not attending the event (the employer lost the privilege to know with how they treated OP2 from the original letter), but I do love your second suggestion for responding to any references the employer gives. Really great language.

  5. Leela*

    #3 – former recruiter here, this is unfortunately something I encountered all the time! And you made the right call in just backing away; it’s not your job to coach people you’re not moving forward with on how to get you to move forward with them (that coaching won’t matter unless you plan on coaching them throughout their entire employment or at least until they learn how to be a good fit without coaching). I hired for a unicorn position: truly entry-level at a decent-sized tech company in a large tech city, and *everyone* wanted in.

    I’ve had bizarre racist rants guessing (incorrectly) at the racial make-up of our teams and I’d have hired them if they were x race, deluges of e-mails, linkedin and facebook requests probing into when they could apply again and am i SURE I don’t want to move forward, being CC’ed on hopeful e-mails sent to anyone in our company they could find, and angry demeaning responses that I just lost out on great talent and why am I so stupid that I don’t recognize it by candidates we weren’t moving forward with trying to coerce me into noticing them or moving forward with them when they just simply weren’t in the top 40% of candidates even. Be grateful for the red flag and confirmation that you were correct to reject them in the first place (which I’m sure you knew without my calling it out), it’s a bittersweet commiseration that other recruiters/HMs experience this as well!

    1. Phony Genius*

      If this is as common as you are making it sound, it’s scary on multiple levels. Is there such a phrase as “professional stalking” to describe the situation when an applicant won’t take no for an answer?

      Where are they learning to act this way during the hiring process? If they’re coming directly out of college and behaving this way, I’d be sending angry letters to these schools’ placement offices. Especially if many are from the same school.

      Some of the behavior you described is information that other potential employers should have about these applicants before they consider if they want to bring them in for an interview. Almost like a Glassdoor-type of thing for employers to learn about applicants. (I know, there would be legal hurdles that make this impractical if not impossible.)

      1. Leela*

        It wasn’t like 50% or anything that high but frequently enough that I could expect at least one with each role posted, but especially bad for the role I mention above as people were really gunning to get in there. It was early recession and a lot of people were being forced to change careers and may have thought that something with computers at an entry level would be a good way to go (we’d get a lot of resumes from say a VP of a bank or something equally unrelated with no mention of any computer/IT/coding skills, nor anything in the cover letter to indicate that they were trying to switch so it’s hard to say). But I will say that the demographic seemed to be all over the board, and I found that I got it a lot more with frustrated older candidates than really green ones although we did see those too. They were usually more persistent than aggressive.

        We definitely had internal notes about applicants; a lot of times it truly was that a candidate was great but there was just someone much stronger, but we’d definitely consider them any time a new role opened up which was frequently because we were growing a lot in the recession (also why people wanted in). You’d get barred from consideration if you were someone who did this. We had someone guess at a bunch of e-mails (like look up our company, see that someone named “Firstname Lastname” worked there, then try “firstnamelastname@company.com” or “flastname@company.com” and every other permutation, all in the same “to” field, as people desperately tried to get a hold of anyone at all to try and get noticed, IN ADDITION to mass messaging them on linkedin and trying to facebook friend them or me. Stalking would be the world!

      2. Antilles*

        Where are they learning to act this way during the hiring process?
        There’s a lot of really bad advice out there about ‘effort’ and ‘showing interest’ and ‘gumption’ and etc. Variety of reasons behind it:
        1.) Candidates don’t want to believe it’s as simple as “sometimes you aren’t the best” and figure there has to be something that’s missing. There’s no way you simply decided someone else was better; you must not have listened to what I said, so let me explain again.
        2.) Similarly, candidates like to believe there’s some magic secret rather than mundanely sweating through the process. And people trying to sell their services as career advisers play on this. “5 secret tricks to get hired” is a lot more sexy and sales-enhancing than “how to eventually get hired by sending out 15 resumes every single day and going on endless interviews”. (See also: Fitness/weight-loss advice)
        3.) On the other side of the coin, a stunningly high percentage of people providing hiring advice have never actually hired someone before. Especially true for collegiate career counselors, since even if they have hired people to their own office, academia is such a different beast that the advice is often worse than useless.
        4.) Also, there’s somehow a tiny fraction of the time that such strategies actually do work and such successes tend to be far more noticeable than the failures. Your friend telling the story of getting hired by emailing the entire executive board and showing up with a boombox outside the company’s window has an obvious winning ending; you don’t see the 499 other companies that quietly blacklisted him forever for his antics.

        1. Leela*

          Totally agree, dropped in to add on to number 1 – Candidates often seem to think that if we like them we hire them, and if we don’t we hate them and would never want to hire them and nothing in between. It’s almost always more like “there were loads and loads of qualified applicants, we took whoever was on the top” but from what they see on their end, they come back thinking if they can just catch my attention or get me to hear them out we’ll change our minds. This also has an implication, whether the candidate meant it or not, that I’ve just missed something or not really sussed out the fit well which is annoying and not true because I have much more oversight on the candidate pool than they do. Unfortunately some times are just really, really bad times to be job seekers (like during a recession), sometimes roles are incredibly easy to fill and it’s more about pruning candidates than scrounging them up, or any other number of reasons but a candidate who wasn’t chosen to move forward will not see those reasons and draw their own conclusions. You especially see this if you don’t move forward with someone, then later make the offer to them or offer to continue the process and you get a response like “Hmm. No I have a job now I think I’ll stick with people who believed me in the FIRST place, thanks. It’s a shame you couldn’t see what I was worth when you had me” thinking they’re devastating me or making a point like I’ve lost the prize of the century or something, when in reality I’m going “good lord thank you for the giant red flag, let me move on to the other 10-20 people we could offer this job to then”.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          I think this is even worse in rural areas because too much goes through the grapevine/gossip chain. “Oh they only hire people who are friends with Jane.” Or “They only hire people who come from certain families.” People are more apt to receive informal feedback that is flat out wrong, or exaggerated.

          I went right up to the very final stage for one job. The board prez was so gracious that she was exemplary in how she conveyed to me I did not get the job. I was awed by her.

          Fast forward. Years later I learn the place is a nest of bees. Certain families dictate everything that happens and so on. It’s a mess.

          Younger me would have been confused by the conflicting inputs here.
          Older me realizes that some folks, such as the board prez, maybe fully aware of all the pitfalls and maybe trying to pull the organization up out of these pitfalls. Hence her professionalism and her kind comments to me were indeed sincere. And at the same time she was dealing with a lot of dysfunction.

          Rumors go around. People tend to believe rumors very quickly. The trick is to balance out the rumors with what could be actually happening. Recently, I heard a story of a person who was working for a chain store that goes through several states. The punchline was this person was fired because they asked for a lunch break one day after not having a lunch break the last three times they worked. The story might be true. OTH, the story might not be true. People who lack resources for reliable inputs end up having these types of inputs to work with and they make decisions based on these inputs. This is why people like Alison are so darn valuable to us as a society.

          1. Leela*

            i’ve never hired in rural areas and I’ve never had to deal with that but based on what I have dealt with I can totally see that happening, it must add a new layer of awful. Especially because as you mention it actually might be true in some cases

    2. irene adler*

      Long- time job hunter here (going on 5 years now). Have fielded dozens of rejections and a heck of a lot of ghosting.

      It can be frustrating to get the “not a good fit” rejection response. Especially when it occurs with nearly every rejection after interviewing (especially with companies where I’ve interviewed 4 times for the position before receiving the inevitable rejection email). The “not a good fit” feels like HR is taking the easy way out. That hurts.

      When someone has taken the time to explain that I don’t have enough computer experience or lack microbiological experience, then I can take steps to correct this. I have enrolled in two courses for EXCEL this Spring and will take Microbiology classes in the Fall. The result is that I will be a better candidate for employment positions down the line. I am grateful for the feedback.

      But, what class, skill, experience, or interview answer can I undertake to improve on when the reason for the rejection is “not a good fit”? Is there a “workplace fit 101” course I can take to correct for this? Elocution lessons? Give me something I can improve on. Please!

      This doesn’t excuse boorish behavior on any candidate’s part who hassles recruiters regarding the rejection. But I can certainly understand the frustration behind rejected candidate’s actions.

      1. Leela*

        These responses are definitely frustrating; recruiters and hiring managers receive them when we job hunt as well and we know it’s not what someone wants to hear but having been on my side of it, it really is the best thing we can say.

        Anything specific and we open ourselves up to an outpour of incorrect assessments (but I feel I DO have the level of skill you need in X! and so on) from multiple candidates, also it takes loads of time to give personalized, “here’s what to work on” e-mails that a lot of HR just simply doesn’t have. If there’s a high workload, if you’re growing, if you get a ton of responses to job postings, you might be going a mile a minute every minute for weeks trying to stay on top of everything and we really have to prioritize getting the candidates we ARE moving forward with contacted over making sure we send out rejections, which can be dozens to a hundred per role depending on how big/desirable the company you’re hiring for is. Also coaching job candidates you can’t move forward with is rarely a goal of any company nor something an HR’s manager might be happy to find out the HR staff is spending their time doing if they have metrics and goals they have to hit as well. Unfortunately it’s just not viable to give more than “not a good fit” for a lot of companies, but I fully support those who are able to do it and choose to! I also think that HR does owe more feedback to candidates that they’ve done a phone interview or in person interview with. If we’re not even going that far, another issue is that the feedback I’d give might be totally useless to you for any other company you’re interviewing with so a few things are good across the board (a bit of coding and Excel goes far at almost any company so those are always good skills to have, I’m glad you’re taking the classes!)

        The best thing I’d say outside of getting feedback for improvement is something I believe I’ve seen come up here before, either from Alison or in the comments here: look at a really wide variety of job postings for the roles you’re targeting and see what’s coming up frequently, but better if you can actually talk to anyone who does that role somewhere! Of course I’ve run into trouble here too. For example, what does “good at Excel mean?” Nothing, but it’s on a lot of job descriptions. That job description should say “is familiar with pivot tables, VLOOKUP, or X, Y, Z etc”. And companies should be clear enough in what they’re hiring for that you shouldn’t be wondering, you should be going in knowing you’re short on X and you could probably figure out that that was a risk in the first place, not feel totally blindsided because as far as you could tell, you did align really well with what was listed.

        I’m sure none of that is really helpful during a job search but I’d try as much as possible to not look at it as who took the time to give detailed feedback and who didn’t; it’s much more likely who has the time and who doesn’t, and please don’t look at it as taking the easy way out! It’s almost certainly based on time/priorities and not on them just not being willing to put in effort.

        The ghosting is a whole different thing though; I can’t justify that one with anything. I hope that your job search turns around for the better and soon, it’s almost always terrible to job hunt.

        1. Leela*

          One more thing! A lot of times you’re getting a response from HR, but filled with information that was given to them and decided by the Hiring Manager. Hiring Managers are very busy, they generally hate the interview process because it takes a lot of time that they really don’t have and work can grind to a halt when they’re not available because the Hiring Managers are usually the top decision makers for a given team. It can be like an exponential form of teeth-pulling to even get a yes or no out of these people (when I worked at Huge Online Teapot Retailer you definitely use all the time, it took over 3 months for me to get a yes or no from a Hiring Manager, despite daily prodding on my part with a furious candidate constantly messaging me for an update I couldn’t give). The HR person sending your rejection might not have any idea why you’ve been rejected at all.

          1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            That’s a good point. Everywhere I have worked, the rejection came from HR, but the decision was made by the hiring manager/panel. We never told HR why, just who was a no and who was a yes.

      2. Observer*

        But, what class, skill, experience, or interview answer can I undertake to improve on when the reason for the rejection is “not a good fit”? Is there a “workplace fit 101” course I can take to correct for this? Elocution lessons? Give me something I can improve on. Please!

        What if there is not something you can improve on? What if the employer has had to deal with people like this candidate who won’t take no for an answer?

        If I have something actionable AND I have reason to believe that the person will respond reasonably, then it’s nice to share. But if I’m not confident? No. I’m not going to subject myself or others in my organization to someone who is going to make us nuts trying to prove that we are wrong.

        1. Leela*

          Also in all honestly (moreso with people you’ve talked to on the phone or had an in-person with) sometimes the reason is that you just came off really, really bad as a person. There’s no way I can wrap that that isn’t going to be far worse than “wasn’t a good fit” which is both true and communicates that we’re not moving forward with you. If you came off rude, aggressive, sexist, cocky or hard to work with, we’re definitely not telling you that because that’s all stuff you need to work on on your own, and we are DEFINITELY not telling you that so you can act differently with a different set of people and trick them into hiring you anyway

          1. Librarian of SHIELD*

            One candidate I gave the “not a good fit” answer to was a person who said several times over the course of the interview that he would not be willing to work evenings and weekends, in an industry where we’re open to the public 7 days a week, and later into the evening on weekdays. He was very, very adamant about this, and insisted that it wouldn’t be a problem for us. I knew there was no purpose in relitigating that argument in the rejection, so “not a good fit” it was.

            1. Leela*

              Definitely this. You tell them they’re not a good fit with specific feedback and they just throw it in your face telling that you it won’t be a problem when you KNOW it will because you can see all of the cards. Even if I’d ever worked somewhere where I had the bandwidth to focus on detailed feedback, AND I got it from the hiring managers, it would still be my very least favorite part of my life not just because sending rejections to people sucks but because you constantly end up in pointless fights you have to dislodge from and are then blamed for not talking to them anymore.

      3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        When I have done hiring if someone was “not a good fit” it was because something they said during the interview showed that they would be a bad fit for the team or that specific workplace. It is generally something that would be very difficult to change or something that might make them a great fit for a different team or different workplace, but is not good for that job.

        For example in one job, someone answered our question, “What type of management style brings out your best work?” with something indicating they liked a hands-on management approach, they would have been desperately unhappy working there because it had a very hands-off management system. That was a “bad fit” and there wasn’t anything for the person to improve on because preferring a specific management style is more personality/comfort zone than skill. In another instance at another job, there was a candidate that somehow rubbed all five of us on the interview panel the wrong way. It wasn’t anything overt and I can’t explain why I reacted to him the way I did, but after the interview the entire panel said they couldn’t work with him. He was a “bad fir” for that team, but I couldn’t even tell you what he could have done to be a “good fit”. Shoot, I know there are places and teams that I would be a terrible fit for and I’d rather have them reject me than hire me on skills and then we make each other miserable!

        1. Leela*

          Your example about management style is perfect; that can get someone rejected just as easily as not hitting X software benchmark or what have you, but I guarantee you that when times are tough for job seekers saying “we feel you would have been unhappy with our hands off management system based on your interview answers” you open yourself up to “But!! I could be happy in that style too?? Why aren’t you giving me a CHANCE?!?!” type of responses.

          I wonder, did you all ever try starting with “this is our management style; how have you worked under that style in the past?” I feel like a lot of candidates will answer either hands off or hands on based on what they think they’re supposed to say, or their definition of hands off/hands on won’t align with yours but unless both sides very clearly lay out what they mean there can be false impressions of the other side’s work style, I know that’s something we had to bring up with HM’s constantly in meetings but might not have been an issue where you were!

          But hard agree, I would much rather be rejected if I wouldn’t be a good fit (which I couldn’t know as a job seeker) than be hired on skills and feel like I want to leave or freak out that they might be trying to replace me because the fit is obviously not good!

          1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            Because we had the question about preferred management style and wanted people to answer it honestly, we never said explicitly what our style was. However, it would generally be implied in the description of the job. The hiring manager would say something like, “This is a brand new position in a relatively new area of concentration, so very much something that a person can build from the ground up. The person in this position is going to have to be very independent since I am $Entirely different specialty and can only help with broad stroke, program-level issues and the rest of the team are on their own projects, although $PanelMember1 and $PanelMember2’s programs can be used as models”.

            I would interpret it a “bad fit” answer as “You’d hate it here, trust me on this” and figure I’d dodged a bullet. However, I can imagine if you keep hearing it again and again and again and again for years like Irene has, you’d begin to think that you didn’t fit anywhere.

      4. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        One thing I find hugely frustrating are the labyrinthine applicant tracking systems, because I can’t even tell if anyone has read my resume, or if some AI filtered me out before a human ever saw it.

        1. Leela*

          We don’t like labryinthine applicant tracking systems either, unfortunately they were usually chosen because someone higher up felt that the price was better than other systems and that the problems didn’t matter all that much (and frankly I think there’s a lot of “it’s just HR anyway” mentality that a lot of business have where they won’t properly invest in HR or HR tools and then lose everyone good) and not because we like the fact that it makes you upload a resume and cover letter and then type those things individually or any other stupid thing ATS will often do.

      5. Jadelyn*

        Frustration, sure. I get that. But can you also understand the other side? There could be dozens of applicants for any given position. Of those, maybe you interview half a dozen. The time required to compose a carefully neutral yet specific enough to be “actionable” rejection letter for 5 out of those 6 (or all 6, if none of them were what you were looking for and you’re continuing on to repost and get more candidates) is not insignificant.

        And that’s for each position they have open. Some hiring managers have several positions open at any given time. That’s an awful lot of personalized rejections that you’re asking someone to be responsible for writing.

        Besides, honestly, there’s literally no way to do candidate rejections that is universally perfect. There have been people who’ve written to Alison upset at getting generic form letters, and others upset at receiving what they felt were overly personal or poorly worded rejections. Some people get offended because you didn’t call them and tell them personally; others would hate a phone call because they’d have to respond on the spot and they’re not good at that. There’s no winning when you’re having to be the bearer of bad news to near-total strangers who are in the middle of a frustratingly slow (to them) process.

        1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          Excellent point. Also, hiring managers are also the managers of the team/project/department with the vacancy and have an actual job to do that isn’t interviewing or selecting candidates. For example, last time I was a hiring manager, I had my own job and some of the duties of the position(s) we were trying to fill, in addition to trying to fit in interviews. We generally interviewed 5-7 people for each job, some of which took 2-3 rounds of interviews to find candidates. Even if I had been the one to communicate with the rejected candidates (HR managed that bit), there is no way I could have written 4+ personalized rejections on top of my other duties. It was hard enough blocking out 5-7 hours for interviews. Looking for a job, especially when unemployed, is the 100% focus of the candidate, but for the hiring manager it might not even be 1% of their duties or things they need to focus on.

          Not to mention that sometimes the tie breaker was, “Came highly recommended by someone I trust and respect”, “I have worked with this person in some capacity before and liked what I saw”, or “Fluent Spanish speaker which is not a requirement for the job and isn’t needed, but is always helpful in the area that we operate in”, so what could I write as advice?

          1. Leela*

            “Looking for a job, especially when unemployed, is the 100% focus of the candidate, but for the hiring manager it might not even be 1% of their duties or things they need to focus on.” Hit the nail on the head. Even for HR who might be spending much more time on hiring than the HM, it could still be a relatively small focus of our duties depending on what other initiatives are going on. And if it is a big focus, it’s because we need people in NOW and are probably in hyperdrive trying to get those roles filled

            1. Librarian of SHIELD*

              That’s true too. For companies large enough to have a dedicated HR group, they’re likely hiring for multiple positions at the same time. My employer operates out of 15+ locations, and there are frequently openings at more than half of them at the same time. So even if HR spends 70% of their time on hiring (I’ve never worked HR, so I have no idea if that number is high or low), you’d still have to divide that by, like, 12 open positions.

              1. Jadelyn*

                70% is a bit high in my experience, unless you’re talking about a dedicated recruiter. My org just last year took the plunge and added a new position for a dedicated recruiter, and I was able to stop doing recruiting and focus my time elsewhere, but prior to that, even as one of the two primary HR folks working recruiting for our org, it was probably only about 40-50% of my time because I had so many other projects and areas to work on. We run an average of 20-30 open positions across 20 locations, so even if I’m spending an even 20 hours per week on recruiting, that’s at most an hour a week per opening. In which time I need to not only write and send rejections, but put up/refresh postings, read and screen resumes, and conduct phone screenings. There’s a lot needs done, and not much time to do it in, so as helpful to the candidates as personalized rejections might be, I hate to be blunt but ain’t nobody got time for that.

                1. Leela*

                  ^yep this, exactly. People who haven’t done recruiting have no idea how much time it takes just to get to a candidate, from going “hey we should look into hiring someone for X” to “I now have a candidate in mind I’d like to reach out to”. Hell, just aligning the schedules of everyone interviewing enough to have a hope at one interview that’s 1-3 hours instead of breaking it up into multiple different days can take all the time I have to give to hiring for a given role that week

  6. Heidi*

    I’m experiencing some whiplash from LW1’s employee going from, “I’m so stupid and I’m sorry you have to work with me.” to “You all don’t value me enough.” This sounds exhausting. I’m glad that this isn’t your problem anymore, and congratulations on the promotion!

    1. Sara without an H*

      Yes, I’d really like to have been a fly on the wall when OP#1’s grandboss talked the Self-Deprecator. (If that’s not a word, it should be.) But I’m glad she and the OP are both in better places now.

      I had an old mentor who warned me always to focus on behavior, not on feelings. About half of my management mistakes have come from ignoring that rule.

  7. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    LW2, for references from this wackadoodle employer, I might just say something like, “There was some confusion [not the best word – any better suggestions?] after the end of my contract (i.e. when I owed them nothing) when they wanted me to have $Employer at Time pay for me to fly back to assist with $Event. I told them that wasn’t possible and they seemed a bit put out. Hopefully that won’t color their reference for me.” This might work to signal that their reference might need to be salted accordingly.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes. And the rest of the wording is good because it signals they liked you enough to want you to keep working for them post-contract, and that any bad reference now probably really is because of what happened.

  8. LegallyBrunette*

    LW #3 sounds like the employer’s side of the story of the letter from the applicant who was angry about a former tire store employee being hired instead of her.

  9. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    #1 – but I’ve worked since then to be more direct with employees, to address problems earlier, and not to let worries about being “nice” (having pleasant interactions) override being kind (giving people the feedback they need to succeed).
    Louder for the people in the back!

    #2 – the only advice I can give about how the situation with the toxic company was handled is that saying no, without and explanation, is 100% okay. Saying you couldn’t afford paying your way to the event was unnecessary. They were 100% in the wrong and it’s ok to just say “I’m not going to do that”, because whether you could afford it on your own is irrelevant.

  10. Rainbow Roses*

    #2 I can sort of see them trying to get away with asking the OP paying for her own travel. But asking the current employer to pay the OP to work for somebody else?! What the…….?!

  11. Marthooh*

    OP#2: If you’re asking for advice about how to handle unreasonable requests like “Come back and help us and make your current employer pay for it”, then — don’t be afraid to repeat yourself, without explanation. “No, I won’t be able to do that … no, I can’t do that … no, that won’t work … no, I won’t be able to do that …” et cetera ad nauseum.

    If you’re asking about how to avoid a job like that in future: Get a contract! Get it in writing! Get it before you start working for them!

  12. Fikly*

    #2. First, old job is being riduclous.

    Second, as to what you could have done differently, when they asked you to pay for the flights, just say no. When you told them you couldn’t afford them, you imply that if you could afford it, you would do it, and also, that this is a reasonable request for them to make, which it 100% is not.

    Sometimes simple is best. If you want me to come in person, as I now live out of state, you will need to pay for my travel expenses as well as my work on site, as is standard business practice.

    And I’m unclear from your update, but would you have done this work for free if you had still lived locally? Don’t do that! One, it’s illegal, and two, never work for free!

    1. Leela*

      “Second, as to what you could have done differently, when they asked you to pay for the flights, just say no. When you told them you couldn’t afford them, you imply that if you could afford it, you would do it, and also, that this is a reasonable request for them to make, which it 100% is not.”

      I had to train myself out of this for both work and personal life – giving what I thought was a no that was nicer to hear but then having it bite me later when circumstances have changed and they figure that the original barrier I’d placed no longer applies.

  13. animaniactoo*

    LW2 – There’s a great suggestion about the reference upthread, but for how not to have this happen again in general… I would say one key is to be cautious about what you share upfront, and what you accept as matter of fact. For instance: When the owner of the car told your boss that she could take the car “anytime”, that’s the point at which you go back and say “Hi – I just wanted to clarify – my understanding was that I would have a car for my use. My boss has now been told that she can use the car that I was told to use, which means that sometimes the car is not available for me to use. I need either for boss to be given a different car, or to be allowed to get a rental car myself to prevent this situation from recurring.”

    Ultimately, you might have been stuck with boss sharing the car – but don’t settle for that until you’ve made the case that you were supposed to be provided with a car, not a share of a car, and try to get exclusive use of the car.

  14. mark132*

    @LW2, you really did very well. The only suggestion I have to offer is to remember the acronym JADE, it stands for Justify, Argue, Defend, Explain. With normal people you can offer reasons why you can’t do something, but with unreasonable people, every reason you give can be met with reasons on how you can accede to their demands. So when someone is being unreasonable, you have to just put up a “no wall”. Basically refuse to explain your no and refuse to explain why and end the conversation as amicably as possible.

  15. LadyByTheLake*

    For OP#2 and anyone else being asked to do something truly ridiculous, I’ve come up with two responses. One is to say yes, but . . . and then you put whatever conditions are on that. “Yes, but I will need to be paid $350/hr for my time, including travel time and an 8hr a day minimum payment, worked or not and all expenses, including airfare, rental car, a per diem for meals and a single room at a business class hotel paid in advance.” It isn’t a discussion — the answer is yes — here are the terms. OR if the answer is no, then “No, I’m not comfortable with that.” And if they pry, go all Bartleby — “I’d prefer not to.” It’s amazing how much I’ve tied myself up in knots about what excuse to give and the fact is that less is more — “I’m not comfortable with that” is all that needs to be said.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      To this my husband would have added, “portal-to-portal” as in “X per hour, portal-to-portal” and then expenses paid, blah, blah, blah.
      One company I know of called someone in. They announced their rate was $800 per hour portal-to-portal. The were on the opposite coast and in Canada when the company agreed to pay them. I bet that bill was amazing.

  16. Saffron Sam*

    Just wanted to say I can’t read and initially read the headline as “cat-borrowing boss” and now I’m disappointed.

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