updates: the employee with too many ideas, the boss who wanted people to camp in tents, and more

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

1. Applying for a full-time job and asking to work part-time

I knew going back to this letter would be humbling, and it was. I remember feeling so strongly at the time, first about how stressful and difficult a situation I was in (as if this job posting was being done AT me) and then about how frustrated and upset I was with the advice and the comments that didn’t “get me”. Reading it all again… yikes.

I didn’t get the job. I don’t even quite remember how it went. I think I applied and got invited to interview, asked ahead of time if doing the role part-time would be possible and it wasn’t, so the process stopped there. In the end, it was a non-event and I was really worked up over nothing, both the perceived opportunity and imagined obstacles. I was just (unconsciously) inventing drama for my outside world that matched the drama I was feeling inside. Because the headspace I was in when I wrote in and when I was responding to your advice and the commentariat’s input was part of a deeper problem that I struggled with for years after.

I was asking for help, but I was scared of needing help. I thought I should already know what I was doing, have a master plan, and be completely on top of everything, and I was talking myself up out of a place of insecurity and fear and interpreting any advice or questions as a criticism and challenge to my worth as a human being (whoo boy). I remember feeling actual terror reading the comments the first time, that people were out to get me and tear me down and expose me. Reading through them now, all I can see is the kindness and people genuinely trying to understand my convoluted explanations and help me out! Apologies and thank you to everyone, and in particular to you, Alison. The gratitude I should have been offering you all then I can offer now.

After five years and some therapy and a lot of self-work, healing, and growth later, I’m doing okay. I have a much better understanding of my field and of professional norms in general and how to interact with other human beings like a human being, something that I’d forgotten after too many years of grad school in a very-not-good environment (including my first job, which had basically been an extension of grad school). I ended up consulting full-time, after experimenting with some salaried positions and finding that my mental and physical health were better served by the flexibility of consulting work. I’m weathering COVID-19 so far. I’ve built up a really strong professional network, settled into my work and find a lot of joy in it, and I get to do a lot of service work, including supporting new professionals who are trying to figure this all out the way I was. I learned a lot the hard way, so I want to make sure other people can learn from my mistakes (and then go make their own new ones instead!). Your blog is one of the resources I always recommend.

2. My team member is full of ideas and can’t prioritize (#3 at the link)

A boring/happy update for you.

Looking at the dates, I wrote to you when my indecisive team member was out on a month-long vacation and I was feeling a little nervous about him coming back. Things have improved a ton since then, I think for a few different reasons:

* He came back to the office way happier after spending a month off work and totally disconnected. Who would’ve thunk!
* We started doing periodic forced ranking to decide what work to take on.
* Over time, he got to see how well the forced ranking worked and that made it easier for him to let go.
* We now share him with another team. While it’s not always easy from a time management perspective, it means his ideas have twice as many potential destinations!

In your response you pointed out that I was being extremely hasty to jump to the “or else.” That was true, and I appreciated the wake up call to not be a paranoid jerk. It was nice to be reminded that I had more options than I was seeing at the moment.

3. Our boss told us to camp in tents when we travel for business

You gave me great advice – which, fortunately, I have not yet had to use since we didn’t have travel over the winter and now with corona virus, we won’t be traveling for the near term. My predicament generated many comments and I really appreciated the validation.

4. Can I call an employer back with additional questions about why I was rejected?

I really appreciated your take and those of the commenters on this letter. Based on some of the discussion I came to the conclusion that I was likely a “diversity’ interview and not really a serious candidate (though they did end up hiring another woman for the job!).

I interviewed again with this same organization recently, in a job I was extremely excited about, had a real interview that lasted a normal amount of time, and seemed to go really well. The interviewers told me they were excited that I had applied, and explicitly told me that they were impressed with how I answered certain questions during the interview. I left feeling awesome; it was the exact sort of interview that I’ve gotten offers out of in the past, and I got a great vibe from the people in the room. Definitely nothing like my first 10-minute “screener” with them a few years prior, which I now see for the red flag it was (note that this is a large organization and a totally different hiring team than I dealt with previously).

But there is no happy ending here – in the interview they told me I could expect a call in two to three weeks, and specifically promised it would be a personal phone call from the HR guy in the room, and that I’d have an opportunity to discuss any feedback if I wasn’t successful. They actually used the words “Don’t worry – we won’t leave you hanging.” However, five weeks went by and then on the Friday that all the local COVID restrictions started going into place, at 4:00pm I received what looked like an auto-generated email essentially reading “dear: candidate, you were not successful in: job, please do not reply to this email”.

I made one attempt to get in touch to find out if the job itself was cancelled/postponed, or if they did hire someone else (it’s a job that wouldn’t make a lot of sense to onboard someone into until a lot of restrictions are lifted), but did not hear back. I think it’s time to give up on my dream of working for this organization, but so frustrating to not know what happened yet again, especially when they specifically told me they wouldn’t do this.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Oh it’s a doozy. Well worth clicking over to the original post!

      1. The Original K.*

        Oh man, I reread the original camping post and had a nice long laugh. I was of the “hell naw I wouldn’t do this” school of thought and I stand firmly by it.

    2. LifeBeforeCorona*

      Yep, it was camping as in a tent with a sleeping bag, Coleman stove, trail mix, bear spray (maybe). My camping was always a canoe and portage trek to the site with more experienced campers. Maybe a state site is less onerous. But it’s still camping for work.

      1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

        I don’t even go camping for fun. If my job told me that was a requirement for a business trip, I’d tell them where they could stick their tent.

        1. kittymommy*

          Same. You *may* get me in an RV. With electric, plumbing and tv. And that’s if I’m a good mood. Nobody will want to be around me if I’m actually camping!

        2. BeesKneeReplacement*

          I *do* go camping for fun and think this sounds horrible and miserable. The whole point of camping for me is to get away from it all. Unplug, relax, and enjoy nature. I can’t imagine doing that on a business trip of any kind. It sounds completely miserable.

      2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        I’ve been camping at state campgrounds, it’s usually a little plot for a tent with a firepit and car parking space, a short walk from a communal bathroom with showers.

    3. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

      Read the original post. There was some wild stuff from the OP’s boss, as well as from at least one commenter trying to defend it.

      1. Governmint Condition*

        Yes, that i remember that thread being particularly in tents. I mean intense. No, wait, I do mean in tents.

    4. Quill*

      God I remember when we spent days talking about the feasibility of using national parks as work travel destinations. Or about traveling for work as a category. :)

    5. Third or Nothing!*

      OH YES. Except the boss had her own camper van, so she would be sleeping in comfort while everyone else was on the ground.

    6. On a pale mouse*

      I don’t remember thinking this when the original letter was posted, but I’m thinking it today: hi, boss, are you going to buy everyone a tent, sleeping bag, cot, camp stove, etc etc.? Because apart from all the other reasons this idea was ridiculous, I don’t have that stuff and I’m sure many of that place’s employees didn’t either. Was that boss so oblivious that they assumed everyone did own these things? And I’m guessing this boss probably wouldn’t have provided them. This boss would probably consider camping equipment like your suitcase – something you’re normally expected to provide yourself even if you never needed one until you had business travel.

      Anyway, I would push back so hard on this. I’m with Christine Lavin: why deprive yourself of the creature comforts it’s taken man so long to invent?

  1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    #4 – under normal circumstances, a system generated rejected would make me angry if I had interviewed (although it’s better than being ghosted which has happened to me on more than one occasion), but with this pandemic a lot of companies have had to scramble to get their employees up and able to work from home, and reaching out to you personally just wasn’t a priority. Yes it sucks, but try not to take it personally and push yourself to move on. You have to look at a job rejection like a break up. Even if they provide you with the why, it will very rarely be a satisfactory answer.

    1. A*

      Yeah – it’s a bummer, but highly likely they were scrambling in the face of the upcoming shut downs.

    2. TimeCat*

      LW4 seems to read everything really negatively. She’s convinced she was a diversity interview (even though they hired a woman?) From an awkward interview and saying they wanted “more” field experience (it’s possible the person hired did have more and that was attractive to them). And tons of organizations are scrambling during coronavirus. We had to cancel onboarding a group of people and it was just awful but we were stuck.

      I’m not saying be Pollyanna, but try not to go for the worst possible explanation for everything.

      1. MissGirl*

        Yes, especially at the end of the letter when she gave up on all hope of working for this company. I’m all for mentally moving on but don’t give up on this company entirely. I would think she’s in a good position to reapply when things shake out and they post that job again.

      2. Katrinka*

        As she said, it was a very short interview. It may have been because they had to interview x number of women OR it could have been that they realized very quickly that she wasn’t a good fit for the position. The only recommendation I would have, if she hadn’t reached out already, would be to email the HR person to ask what’s up. She’s more likely to get an answer via email, but it’s a moot point at this time.

        1. Amy Sly*

          Or it could have been a sham interview because they needed a certain number of outside candidates.

      3. OP4*

        Reading back through the original post’s comments again, probably the diversity quota idea is a bit too narrow, but thou shalt interview the top four candidates in person and at least two shall be women, seems to fit what I’ve heard about this employer from friends who have been hired there recently. In any case, I’m ultimately glad I didn’t get it because the opportunities I had after that weird interview ended up being a lot better suited to me.

        Regarding the negativity though, admittedly I have had some pretty dark days lately and can see the melodrama in my update (especially at the end, yikes, #facepalm). I didn’t mention that after I got the described rejection from this job, I also lost my existing job the following week, and I am having a rough go of being unemployed and feeling useless. I recognize we’re all having a rough go of it, but it stung a bit extra after losing that opportunity and thinking “well at least I still have a job” to also losing it a few days later. Deep down, I do know none of it is personal – some days I just have to dig deeper than others to recognize it.

        1. HMM*

          I’m sorry you’re dealing with so much stress – it is so tough out there right now and the hardships seem to be piling up all around us. I’m wishing for you light at the end of this tunnel very soon.

        2. MissGirl*

          I am so sorry you’re facing that. Rejection hurts even when, objectively, it has nothing to do with you. Being out of work is one of the most stressful things a person can go through. It messes with you in an way that little else does. I hope these dark days don’t last.

          Don’t be ashamed to reach out to your network for help in any way you need it. My industry has been hit hard and I’ve had a few people reach out to me, and I’m glad to help in any way I can. It feels like we’re all on the precipice right now.

        3. Hare under the moon with silver spoon*

          OP – you’re dealing with so much at the moment, please be super super kind to yourself.

          Also when the time’s right, Im sure you’ll feel differently about these interview experiences. From where I’m sitting all I see it grit, determination and courage to put yourself out there for something you want and keep going – and I say this as someone that easily falls at the first hurdle and wont try again – so really thank you for sharing this.

      4. I'm just here for the cats*

        I was also thinking for the 1st job interview that they may already have had a candidate in mind, possibly an internal candidate, but they have a policy where they have to interview x amount of people outside of the organization. They just picked a few possible contenders to see what was available and stuck with who they chose. Oray e she was the last one to be j tervirwd after a long process and they were just done and knew who they wanted

        As for the most recent job, if it was t for COVID I would say that it is a red flag. But with everything going on its just crazy and things could have been mismanaged. Or they thought some communication would be better than none. I would suggest that she send a very polite email to the HR person or someone she spoke with saying that she understands the situation but would like to know when the job is available again.

  2. Human*

    OP1, thank you for updating and sharing. A lot of what you said really resonated with my journey. I feel as if I have been running for thirty years trying not to get caught and exposed. Therapy has helped so much.

  3. Jedi Squirrel*

    I always remember what Jim Gaffigan said when his wife tried to talk him into going camping because it was a tradition in her family:

    “It was a tradition in everyone’s family until we invented the house.”

    1. Forrest Rhodes*

      Lengthy out-loud laughter (enough to annoy the keyboard cat into relocating) at this.
      A personal digression; feel free to ignore: My family have been campers for three generations—ever since the days of heavy canvas tents. Beside favorite high-mountain fishing creeks, next to the ocean, in the desert foothills, we hit the entire range of possibilities.
      After my brothers and I had graduated high school, my mom drew a line. She informed all of us, firmly, that she was done with sleeping bags, Coleman cookstoves, etc., and that her new definition of “roughing it” was “motel with no pool or room service.” And even that modified level of roughing it was only conditionally acceptable.
      She left us on Mother’s Day 2013, and damn, I miss her every day.

      1. Rachel in NYC*

        My sister loves camping- as does my dad, actually. My BIL apparently is not that interested. I guess for some military guys deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan is camping enough.

        (Personally, if there isn’t A/C I’m out. That was the part of girl scouts that I wasn’t into.)

        1. Elizabeth West*

          I like it, but not for work. Not with my coworkers or my boss. I mean, I get dirty, and there is no way I’m bathing in a creek in front of them. Camping is for personal fun with friends or a significant other.

        2. old curmudgeon*

          Agreed that for some former active-duty veterans, camping is the last thing in the world they ever want to do. My late father was an infantryman during WWII who slept in foxholes and dugouts across France and Austria, and he flat-out refused to ever sleep on the ground for the rest of his life. Not that I blame him; he had certainly put in his quota for sleeping in the mud.

        3. NightOwl*

          Rachel in NYC, I’m with you. I’ve been camping a few times, recently with a group of friends and for the majority of us, a weekend is good enough. Good food, but not fans of the communal shower situation. I much prefer visiting my parents in their camper with cable and A/C. The only roughing it there is a small indoor shower. I like the creature comforts :)

    2. Quill*

      *Snickers* I enjoy it but under specific conditions and definitely not with coworkers. Never with coworkers.

  4. pamplemousse*

    “I was just (unconsciously) inventing drama for my outside world that matched the drama I was feeling inside.”

    There is some good food for thought for me here, as someone who tends to catastrophize about fairly mundane work issues.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      LW1, I thought that line encapsulated something a lot of us have experienced at some point. We look back, and why it was impossible to tell someone, “Hey, I need X to change” or otherwise take what looks like simple action in hindsight is a mystery–in our heads it had become impossible.

      A fiction book I was rereading recently described a similar feeling of putting one’s head down and finally running right at the wall that had loomed over the character’s last few years… and the wall promptly tumbled, like toy bricks.

  5. BRR*

    #4 I feel so negative for saying this but even with that type of message I still wouldn’t expect a response for them (regardless of a global pandemic). Partially to not get my hopes up and partially because employers are just so bad with ghosting candidates.

    1. That'll happen*

      Agreed. I also would do my best not to take it personally. Chances are, it’s not about you.

  6. Arbynka*

    Sleeping in tents on business trip – any other fans of British Panel Shows ?
    8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown ? In the middle of one episode Joe Wilkinson shows up – with ripped clothes and scratches – together with drunken bear.

    You make me camp on business trip, that’s how I am going to show up for the meeting/presentation/conference. Ripped clothes, make up scratches and I am totally paying someone to wear a full body costume and play drunken bear.

    Honestly, the mental image kept me amused for past fifteen minutes. Because, I mean, holy cinnamon pumpkin.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      Thank you, I’d never heard of that one but it sounds like I’d enjoy it. (I hella heart QI and Would I Lie To You.)

  7. limoncello day*

    #2 – I hadn’t heard of forced ranking, so I googled it and saw a lot of pros/cons. OP2, do you mind sharing what works for you guys, using forced ranking? Curious to hear from others on their perspective as well!

    1. Update 2*

      Math doesn’t care about your feelings! :D That’s really what it comes down to for us. A couple of us will rank all the ideas on 2, maybe 3 different criteria. The “force” comes in because out of say 10, each item only gets one number rank. So you can’t have 3 number 1s. When you add up everyone’s ratings for each item, it’s very clear what is and is not important and easier to proceed from there.

    2. random reader*

      When I hear the term ‘forced ranking” I thought of people performance ranking. I took a quick look at the Google results for forced ranking and they generally talked about people ranking as well. I dislike the idea of forced ranking applied to people however, OP isn’t talking about people ranking.
      Forced ranking when applied to work tasks or idea implementation is a way of doing work prioritization. There’s only so many working hours in a day/week/month and the lowest priority items need to be dropped if there’s not enough time for everything. If this is an exercise everyone does independently, it’ll be interesting to know the reasoning behind numbers that are very different from the pack.

  8. Tomato Frog*

    Can anyone explain what “forced ranking” means in update number 2? I googled it and got stuff about a performance appraisal method, but it doesn’t seem like that’s what’s meant here.

    1. Willis*

      I was thinking it was something similar to ranked choice voting. Like to decide what projects to take on the team members rank all the options and then choose the ones that collectively ranked highest. So all the “priorities” generated by OP’s indecisive team member get decided on by some group rather than him just trying to push them all forward.

    2. PollyQ*

      In my last job, we called it “stack ranking.” This was an IT department, and what it meant was that instead of rating bug fixes and enhancements as “important”, “very important”, “nice to have” or whatever scale, we actually had to make a ranked list in order of what was more important. This list, and (pretty much) only this list, was used to drive what changes were done next. Getting from “but they’re all important!” to this list is a PITA, especially when it needs to be done by a group of people with different priorities, but it really does clarify how a group, or person, should allot their time.

        1. Tomato Frog*

          Ah! Thank you PollyQ and Update 2 both! This seems like an approach that will come in handy for me.

  9. KoiFeeder*

    WRT to the camping update, did we ever get an update on the LW who’s company wanted them to sell their car? (am I allowed to ask that here? it was linked in the camping original post.)

  10. Elizabeth West*

    #2 — It’s amazing how much a real break, one that’s long enough to truly disconnect and reset, can help. I still think longingly of my 2014 UK trip. Not only was it awesome, but it was long enough that in the middle of it, I actually forgot my workplace even existed. I was chatting with someone in a park in Wales, and she asked me what sort of work I did, and I was like,”Oh yeah, I have a job…” When I got back, it was as if I had suddenly been transformed into an energetic puppy, lol.

    If more employers understood this, we’d have a much happier workforce.

    1. allathian*

      I’m in Europe so I’m used to long vacations. I’m salaried but we track working hours. We don’t get overtime pay, but we have a working hours bank to take more PTO than our already long vacations provide. A year ago, I was swamped with work and put in enough hours to take out two extra weeks of vacation, so last year I had the ultimate luxury of six weeks of paid vacation in a row. (I work for the government and summer is slow anyway.) It was heaven and allowed me to recuperate from nearly burning out that spring. I wish more people would get to experience this.

  11. KWu*

    #1 – this was a really nice update, it sounds like you’ve made great strides and are a lot more settled now. Nice work!

  12. Working Hypothesis*

    LW#1, so glad to know things are in a better headspace for you now. I remember when I read the original comment section thinking, “Wow, this writer is… way more invested in making all of us believe they’re not wrong than I could really imagine ever being.” It’s fascinating to learn a little more of what was behind that, and I really admire you for both getting your head together so that you’re in a better mental/emotional position now and got coming back and rereading your own comments with different eyes now. That must have been hard, and I applaud your self-honesty and your courage. It’s good to hear things are going well for you.

  13. Marthooh*

    Thanks, OP #3! Rereading that “camping for business” post – and the comments! – brightened my day.

  14. Inspector Spacetime*

    Re: tents
    My grandfather was an Episcopal bishop and was (in)famous for objecting to the church using its money on frivolous things like hotel rooms and food. At his funeral, one of his fellow bishops told a story about some conference at a fairly nice resort where Grandpa pitched a tent on the front lawn because he thought the hotel was too expensive.

  15. Heffalump*

    TBH I’d be pretty annoyed if I were OP4. I’m philosophical about employers not calling back, although I don’t much like it. But not calling back when you explicitly say you will is another matter, COVID or no COVID.

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