updates: the alcoholic coworker, the bad morale, 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 three updates from past letter-writers.

1. I think my coworker is an alcoholic (first update here)

At this point, the update is pretty far removed from the original question, but it’s good news at a time when we can all use that.

We were able to transition to working remotely with relative ease and as it happens, our product is useful for remote workers so most of our clients have been able to stay operating as well. Some of the smaller clients haven’t been able to pay their bills, but we’re continuing to provide service because keeping them up and running is better for all of us in the long term.

The new department head hired to run Cyril’s department took a voluntary layoff since the needed business changes to stay operational meant putting most of his projects on hold, and he’s financially well off enough that he doesn’t really need the work. Cyril was emphatic that he DID NOT want to be a department head again, senior leadership agreed. The operational manager is acting as interim department head and a senior member of the team with established organizational and leadership skills has taken over the day to day management duties. The new manager and other senior members of the team said that they wanted me more involved in their work, which was a great vote of confidence for me. I talk with the new manager daily and still meet with the acting department head weekly.

The company also laid off a couple of people in a different department who were well on their way to being fired for cause – nothing excessive like Sterling, but definitely actionable. I have mixed feelings about this, but it really wasn’t fair to the rest of us to keep them on and “laid off due to COVID” will be better for their benefits applications and future job searches than “fired for absenteeism/poor performance.”

My team is adapting well to working from home. Better than I am, actually. I know I haven’t said much about them in previous letters, but that’s because there isn’t much to say there – they’re great and I’m really lucky to such solid people reporting to me. Given the recent changes, my department is so crucial to business operations that we’re actually looking to hire a new person relatively soon. And since we’re all remote for the foreseeable future, I can cast a wider net in terms of who I can hire than I would have before.

Sterling and I have lost touch. I wish him well.

2. How can I combat bad morale as a non-manager? (#5 at the link)

I stopped complaining with my coworkers. At first, this led to feeling isolated, because I quickly realised that we only talked to each other to complain! With some coworkers, I did eventually manage to build relationships based on talking about outside-work activities, but others were too resistant (or didn’t have any outside-work activities they were willing to talk about).

While it did help a little, I realised that the issues we were complaining about were still bad enough to make me miserable so I applied for a slightly downwards move to a different team. Looking back, I could easily have applied for a more senior position, but my confidence was shattered by the bad manager. It worked out well because I was lucky enough to have two of the best managers I’ve ever had while on my new team. Even though the high-level issues were still there, my managers sheltered our team from the worst of it. Of course, people still complained, but there wasn’t such overwhelming negativity as my previous team. My managers recognised me as an outstanding contributor, and really helped me recover my confidence.

I think the worst complainers on my original team were the ones who felt unappreciated. Out of a team of twelve, there were three or four of us who did the bulk of the work and had the highest level of knowledge. However, it was the ones who went to the same church as the manager who got all the recognition. After I moved out of that team, it seemed to spark the others and they left, either going to different teams (where they thrived) or to different companies. At that point, the team pretty much collapsed – deadlines were missed, high-impact mistakes were made – and the manager was ‘re-organised’ out of the company and the original team absorbed into another one.

3. Did I commit a cardinal job-searching sin?

My update is not particularly exciting, but it’s good news and we could all use some of that these days. I did not end up getting the job I wrote to you about. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though, because the company in question was Theranos. YIKES.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I got another job and a year later I was accepted to medical school. I’m graduating a few weeks and will start residency this summer. So it all worked out in the end! Thank you so much for your advice, and thanks to the commentariat for weighing in as well.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. Blarg*

    #3: This is maybe the best “worked out for the best” I’ve ever seen. Think how much you saved in attorney’s fees… Congrats on your upcoming graduation!

    1. Bee*

      Seriously!! I now suspect the counselor was not actually off-base, she was psychic but couldn’t let on.

      1. Teelo*

        Omg, you dodged Theranos! You have a great story to tell now at least. Double yikes! Loved the documentary “The Inventor” about Theranos, anyone in biotech startups (or any highly valued startup) REALLY needs to watch it!

        1. JustaTech*

          Ooh, that documentary! I work in a field that does a lot of blood testing and I got so mad at both the business BS and the fake science that I jumped out of my seat to shout at the screen more than once.

        2. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs*

          The book “Bad Blood” was also fascinating – I’m not super STEM-literate but I found it so gripping, I could not put it down. It’s written by a journalist who reported on Theranos at the time, and he explains all the science and tech very well.

    2. MissGirl*

      Is it sad I’m a little disappointed they didn’t get the job? Think of the letters that could’ve been.

      Dear Alison, Dateline just called to interview me about my company. They agreed to disguise my voice and face. Do you think it’ll hurt my chances at a promotion?

      1. Retail not Retail*

        Dear Alison,

        Federal investigators have sealed our building and our last checks bounced. Is my job in danger?

  2. OrigCassandra*

    OP3: WHOA TWIST. I was not expecting that one! Congratulations on your graduation… and on escaping the dumpster fire that was Theranos.

    1. Alexander Graham Yell*

      RIGHT? I am struggling to pick my jaw up from the floor right now.

    1. Marny*

      That book was amazing! The only downside to LW3 is she probably would have had great stories for years!

      1. Brave Little Roaster (fka Paige Turner)*

        I had the same thought! Congrats on your graduation!

    2. Amber Rose*

      Update 3 may be the biggest bullet I’ve ever seen dodged on AAM. That is some kind of plot twist!

  3. Taylor Made*

    #3: Talk about blessings in disguise! I just finished reading Bad Blood (highly recommend, it’s very interesting), and WOW did you avoid trouble. Also, congratulations on graduating medical school, and best wishes for residency!

    1. AnonAnon*

      Great book. Just finished it earlier this year. There is a documentary on Theranos I think on HBO? Also showed up on my Hulu.

      I am in a similar field and every page blew my mind.

    2. Artemesia*

      I am thinking Theranos on the resume would not have enhanced the application to medical school. Yowza.

    3. Phil*

      She is the daughter of one of my grade school classmates-private school, we all keep in touch. To say we were all gob smacked is an understatement.

  4. Can't Believe it was Theranos*

    #3 – Congratulations on graduating! I only heard about the dumpster fire that is/was Theranos earlier this year, and have now read the book about it and seen the HBO doc. You need to thank that lady for giving you terrible advice. As others have said, bullet dodged! I literally laughed out loud when I read that it was Theranos.

  5. Box of Kittens*

    OMG…I read Bad Blood a few months ago; so glad you dodged that bullet!!

  6. Just no*

    I love a good old-fashioned update with a Theranos twist at the end! Talk about dodging a bullet, LW#3! Thanks for writing in.

  7. Daniel*


    I literally jumped in my chair when I read the end of the first paragraph. HOLY CRAP.

    Also, it’s awesome that you’re joining the ranks of folks so essential.

    1. starsaphire*

      Right?!! I actually said “Ack!” out loud. To the great consternation of my furry co-workers.

  8. EPLawyer*

    #2 — this is why companies need to avoid even the APPEARANCE of favoritism. The manager sucked because he favored people he hung out with outside of work (in this case church ) over others. It cost him a job and you a lot of confidence. Which I am glad you got back. Managers should be friendly, not friends as Alison says.

    #3 — WHOOOOAAAAA. Congratulations and please stay safe.

  9. IL JimP*

    Loving the updates

    wrt #3 – how would one submit a cover letter for a job posting on LindedIn? There doesn’t seem to be an option to attach one

  10. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    2020 just re-ran their story on that cluster-ef con artistry! Thank you, universe for saving you when you didn’t even know you needed it!

  11. Jedi Squirrel*

    #1: I think it was gracious of your company to let those two coworkers go due to COVID, rather than performance. I do hope they figure things out. And I still hope Sterling gets some help.

  12. Lucien Nova*

    Theranos! Holy fish, LW 3, you really did dodge a bullet there. Congratulations on getting away from that bat guano!

  13. bluephone*

    LW3, OH MY GOD. You totally dodged a bullet! Seriously, you could be in jail or dead right now if you’d wound up at Theranos, that scam of a company was horrible and it’s only a matter of time before their CEO hoodwinks more people with her next snake oil pitch :-(

  14. Jobbyjob*

    Sooo I totally had a phone screen with Theranos when I was finishing up my PhD in 2014. I had heard bad things from someone who graduated from my lab and went to work there. And on the phone they were all about wanting to make sure I didn’t have any crazy ideas like wanting “work life balance”. I literally noped out of there right in the initial screening call and told them I wasn’t interested in speaking with the hiring manager. Got hired by a great multinational pharma company soon after and never looked back.

    1. 30 Years in the Biz*

      Congratulations on avoiding a terrible situation! I was approached at a social event by a friend of a friend who worked in a high position at Theranos. She wanted me to interview with Elizabeth. I had already heard from 2-3 people that Theranos had an odd corporate culture and they worked people to death. I found out later that Elizabeth interviewed every potential new employee; I see this as a trust test. Would this person trust everything Elizabeth was saying and doing? If yes, you’re hired. One of my current colleagues worked there. He was in one of the movies in the audience at an all-hands meeting. He never said he worked there until he was asked if that was him (he has very unique glasses).

  15. CM*

    I can relate to #3! I totally screwed up my interview with a company that was walking distance from my house, and regretted losing my chance at working there. I ended up getting a job that paid $20K more despite the long commute, and the first company laid off a bunch of people and was sold to a private equity firm a year or two later. Sometimes it all works out.

    1. lazy intellectual*

      I still remember right before I landed my first full-time job out of grad school, I went through a brutal job searching process with tons of interviews, etc. I finally landed an interview with a company that seemed very promising. The phone screen was terrible. The woman interviewing was super rude and curt. She didn’t actually ask me any meaningful interview questions or try to get to know about my professional background. However, she badgered me for 2 pieces of intrusive information – what my current salary was and the name of my then manager. I thought the questions were weird and answered in some roundabout way. She kept asking over and over again. I stubbornly refused to answer it. She then curtly said ‘Bye’ and ended the interview.

      I remember being very disappointed at that time. For some reason, I decided to look them up on Glassdoor last month out of curiosity. They had over 50 reviews but an average rating of 1.5. The reviews told me I had DEFINITELY dodged a bullet. (The company was a start up at the time I interviewed and didn’t have a Glassdoor profile yet.)

    2. M. Albertine*

      Yes. I interviewed with Arthur Anderson when I was completing my Master’s of Accountancy in 2000/2001. I bombed it, and ended up with a regional firm that was a much better fit for me. I was thankful for my poor interview, as all my classmates that joined AA were victims of first in, first out.

  16. Jam Today*

    THERANOS! For your sake I’m glad you weren’t hitched to that boat anchor, but selfishly I love hearing stories about what a disaster that whole thing was.

    1. Heidi*

      True. I cannot look away when it comes to this story. The layers peel away like a giant onion of fraud.

  17. LGC*

    …I was not expecting the twist in update 3. (Glad you don’t have any bad blood over it, although I’m guessing at the time you didn’t want to drop out of the applicant pool that quickly.)

  18. Ash*

    THERANOS!?!?!?! This is the first time my jaw has literally dropped while reading AAM, which is saying quite a lot.

  19. lazy intellectual*

    These are some very satisfying updates. #2 is what we all WISH would happen to crappy managers, and #3 OMG.

  20. NeonFireworks*

    I know the feeling in #3 SO MUCH. I got an interview a little over a decade ago with a group in a company I was so excited about I could hardly stand it. They told me to wait to hear about a second interview. Instead I received a form rejection letter, and unfortunately I reacted really badly and wrote them an indignant angry email. I ended up realizing I’d been wrong and apologizing, but I really set fire to that bridge. I found another job, and in the meantime one of the central members of their group went SERIOUSLY off the deep end very publicly (I can’t specify because I’m in a slightly sensitive field, but you probably heard about it). A veritable meltdown, expressed in the form of loud, horrible, hateful rhetoric online which last I checked was still going on. My earlier behavior was unprofessional, rude, and entitled – the one time I absolutely torpedoed my own chances with a company. It also ensured that I never had to deal with a much worse crater in the middle of the organization.

  21. babblemouth*

    OK, LW3 definitely got lucky in the end. But it makes me wonder, if someone had been an employee at a company like this that went down in a fire of ethics violations and law breaking, but were actually not involved in the bad ethics – how would you list this on your CV? There were a lot of innocent bystanders at Theranos, how can they move forward in the job seeking world?

    1. Justin*

      There was the guy whose grandfather was on the board. I hope he does well.

      You’d have to spin it as a learning experience in your cover letter, I think.

      1. Sharpie*

        If it’s the guy I’m thinking of (I can’t remember his name), he’s set up a company or organisation to promote ethics in business, along one of the scientists who also helped blow the whistle on the whole mess – I watched a couple of pretty good YouTube documentaries about the whole thing.

        LW3, well done on dodging that nuke!

    2. One of the Spreadsheet Horde*

      A few years ago, my boss had an applicant for a role that had worked at both Enron and MCI in their accounting departments. My boss recognized that the applicant was too low level at the time to be directly involved in any of the shenanigans. The applicant said initially it was a rough road but by that point, it became a really excellent talking point.

    3. JustaTech*

      When you’re in the industry other people in the industry understand that there’s a difference between the problems at the top and all the mid-to-low-level folks who are just doing a job.

      I used to worry about this when my company go bought by the Evil Canadians (not actually Canadians, but had the company headquartered there for legal/financial reasons). They were *hated* in the industry, in the public (the NYT would go out of their way to take swipes at them), but it was also understood that you, little science peon, were not responsible for Big Unethical Decisions, and we were actually headhunted regularly because folks at other companies knew we wanted out.

      It’s like when I worked for a notorious professor; people were far, far more likely to be pitying than tar me with his brush. But that’s because I was very lowly in that group. If you’re high up in the leadership at a place like Theranos, yeah, that’s going to be held against you.

    4. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs*

      I’d list the job my resume as normal, but probably briefly address the situation in my cover letter, just to acknowledge the elephant in the room. In an interview, you could talk about what you learned, how it shaped your career path, etc – spin it to be a positive reflection on you, your skills, and what you would bring to the new employer.

  22. Justin*

    #3, wow.

    I bet you Holmes would be out there promising COVID test results if she hadn’t been found out. She’d probably say she had a vaccine.

  23. Persephone Underground*

    LW#2- Wow, favoritism for others who went to the same *church*? Something tells me they didn’t pay much attention to the actual teachings (or go to a particularly “love all God’s children as long as they’re not those awful non-members” church). Way to represent your church! Sheesh.

    1. OP #2*

      To be fair, I don’t think it was a conscious thing. It was just that he was friendlier with those people, because he saw them more often.

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