should my unpaid internship have been paid, offering to give up a bonus, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Should my unpaid internship have been paid?

This summer, I was looking for a remote internship because all of the in person summer internship programs I applied to were cancelled due to Covid. To preserve anonymity, let’s say I’m someone who designs postcards for tourist shops and would like to do this after I graduate. I applied to a company that had some really interesting postcard designs on their website, thinking I’d be able to learn from their professional inhouse artists. However, when I got invited to their various communication channels, I realized quickly that all of their artists were unpaid interns like me. In fact, I didn’t speak to any paid staff other than the CEO. I worked for a couple weeks making postcard art to their specifications. They were very effusive and kind about my work and that of the other interns and it seemed they intended to sell our designs through their company. It seems that this is what they do every summer for their new designs. For some reason, doing this work as one intern in a company seemed a lot less shady than having a whole stable of interns creating 100% of the work your company puts out.

Now, the internship is over. Am I right in thinking that I probably should have been paid for providing this work? Is there something I should do after the fact to stop them from doing this to other postcard artists? Somewhere I can report them to maybe (both they and I are in the U.S.)? Somewhat of a wrinkle is that I do think this internship was a positive experience for me, in that I created postcard designs I would never have otherwise done, and became a lot more comfortable with the postcard design software (not through instruction from the CEO but just out of using it more). However, I’m aware that I’m very lucky that I could afford to do this work for free and I think that they’re taking advantage of artists. What should I do?

Yes, this was illegal. It sounds like their whole business model is illegal! In the U.S., unpaid internships at for-profit businesses are illegal unless they’re primarily for the benefit of the intern, not the company, and include a heavy training component, similar to what you’d get in school. (You can read the full regulations here.) It would have been shady even if you were the only intern they were exploiting like this, but the fact that they’re using a whole stable of unpaid interns to produce their company’s entire product is … well, it’s a scam. It’s really unethical. Even though you enjoyed the experience, that doesn’t change the fact that they were flagrantly breaking the law to profit off of your labor and talent.

The place to report this is your state department of labor. You’d also probably be able to pursue back wages for the work if you want to (it will destroy the reference, obviously, but you’re legally entitled to be paid for that work). You don’t need a lawyer to report this, but a lawyer could advise you on a wider range of options and ensure you get the money that’s due to you.

2. Should I offer to give up my bonus this year?

I work for a very generous boss/company. The Covid situation has hurt business but they have continued to pay generous quarterly bonuses through it with no decrease. I want to email them to thank them for the continued bonuses through this tough time. I would be happy to forego our annual large holiday bonus this year, as I’m well aware it may not be feasible, or at least not be as large as it usually is. Is it smart/kind to tell them that, or would it be best not to even discuss it?

Mentioning it would definitely make the conversation easier for them at year end if there won’t be bonuses, but I also don’t want to mention it if it’s really not a good idea. The email would include something along the lines of “I wanted to thank you for continuing to pay bonuses through the Covid disaster. I’m sure it has not helped business. I am thankful to have been able to work through it, and truly appreciate the extra from you. I would be happy to forego a holiday bonus this year if need be under the circumstances.” The context of this is the holiday bonus caused a bit of conflict a few years ago when they were decreased and I expressed my discontent with it, as it was one of our hardest working years and just not the ideal year to do it. My boss was not happy with my response to it, so I’m hesitant to mention it at all.

Don’t do it. It’s a thoughtful impulse, but it’s unnecessary and could end up being something you regret. Given the state of the world, right now isn’t the time to be turning down money; right now is the time to be stockpiling money if you can.

If your company needs to cut your bonus, they’ll tell you. They don’t need you to make it easier or more comfortable; it’s a business decision, and they can handle it.

3. Should my friend have asked me to interview if she didn’t intend to hire me?

I’m a lawyer at a firm and have been looking for in-house opportunities for several years. A friend and former colleague with whom I worked very closely for many years recently encouraged me to apply for a position for which she was the hiring manager. I applied and had a decent phone interview a month later with the recruiter.

I then had a Zoom interview with my friend and her colleague three weeks later. My friend had given me a detailed run-down of the position over the phone, and I prepped based on that. During the interview, I was asked three questions for which I had no idea I should be prepared. One I answered well, the second okay, and the third about a current event, not at all (acknowledging that I knew about the event, but wanted to be transparent that I was not overly familiar and wasn’t going to BS an answer). I was told to expect to hear about next steps within a week.

My friend is somewhat of a stickler for rules, so I reached out to the recruiter instead of her for an update a week and a half later. Nothing. Again a week after that, and nothing. I messaged my friend the hiring manager, saying I assumed they had gone in a different direction, but that I had heard nothing from the recruiter. She replied that she was at a play date with her kid and would tell the recruiter to get in touch with me. No confirmation that I was not selected, and still no word from the recruiter a week later.

Am I wrong in thinking that 1) that a friend and former colleague with whom I worked extremely closely for nearly a decade should not have suggested I apply unless she intended to hire me based on her intimate knowledge of my experience, personality, and abilities; and 2) she should have at least told me I didn’t get the job?

No, you definitely shouldn’t assume she wouldn’t have suggested you apply if she didn’t already intend to hire you! She still needs to assess you against other candidates, and it’s possible that her colleague in the interview had input on the hiring decision to (even if your friend is the final decision maker). That would be true in any hiring process, but especially with someone who you say is a stickler for rules; I’d assume she intended this as a real interview, not a rubber stamp on a decision she’d already made. Or it’s possible that something came up in the interview did make her decide you weren’t the right match for this position (even if she thinks well of your work generally, which it sounds like she does).

But yes, if they’ve decided not to hire you, she should have told you. It’s possible, though, that they haven’t made that decision yet. Hiring always takes longer than people think it will, and she could be waiting to interview a final candidate or things are just dragging on for any number of reasons. Or, who knows, her firm may have a rule about doing rejections until the selected candidate accepts the offer — which is smart to do if any of those candidates could be the second choice.

I’d give it another few weeks and then let your friend know you haven’t heard from the recruiter despite attempting to reach her several times, and ask if there’s an update she can give you.

4. I can’t understand my coworker’s bad writing

At my company, we all work remotely, which is actually our business model and not just because of COVID. We’re also very small — fewer than 10 employees. I’ve been training anew employee remotely for a few months. We do calls, send emails, and chat to communicate as she has questions about her work.

My problem is that her emails, and some of her instant messages, are long and convoluted — run-on sentences, little to no punctuation, etc. I have to read her messages several times to understand what she’s saying, and even then I’m not sure sometimes. Usually, my go-to is to jump on a call where we can talk it out, but this isn’t possible every time. (Also, the only writing I’ve ever seen from her are the emails she sends to me, but I’ve never seen any evidence that she can do better.)

Her writing doesn’t need to be perfect — it’s all internal stuff, never outward facing — but it’s wasting my time. What can I do to fix this? I’m training her but I’m not her manager.

Say this to her: “Can you spend a minute or two proofreading your emails and IMs before you send them? I’m not always able to fully understand your messages, especially if there are run-on sentences or no punctuation, and I think reviewing them may help. Thank you!” This would be legitimate to raise with her regardless, but the fact that you’re training her gives you extra standing to say it.

If that doesn’t change it, give her manager a heads-up. She’s probably seen it for herself, but she needs to hear that it’s impeding this employee’s ability to communicate with other people. (And when you do that, it’ll be helpful to say that you’ve already spoken to her about it directly.)

5. Does my resume have to list my most recent jobs first?

I recently left a full-time job I held for eight years to enter into a full-time graduate program. Since then, I’ve had a series of part-time jobs to supplement my income.

I kind of want my resume to highlight the fact that I was employed full-time for eight years, but of course the part-time jobs are and were more recent. In this situation, do I still list the most recent jobs first?

Yeah, it’ll look weird to list them out of chronological order unless you’re grouping them by subject area and can do something like this:

Llama grooming experience

* Llama groomer, Llamas Unite, May 2011 – August 2019

Other experience

* Part-time job 1, dates
* Part-time job 2, dates
* Part-time job 3, dates

However, if you’re not applying for jobs in llama grooming (in this example), this won’t serve you well — it’ll look like you’re really interested in llama grooming but for some reason applying in a totally different industry and not bothering to adjust your resume to make sense for a new context. So if the eight years was in a different field than the ones you’re targeting now, chronological is going to serve you better.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t need to list each part-time job unless they strengthen your candidacy; maybe not all of them need to be on there (especially since you’re in grad school and so there will be fewer questions about what you’ve been doing with your time). And if you remove a couple of them, it could put more focus on the longer-term job.

But also, don’t get too sidetracked by wanting to emphasize the eight years at one job. Anyone who’s concerned about length of time at a job will easily see it on there, and it’s not such a huge selling point that it’s super important to put it right up front.

{ 249 comments… read them below }

  1. Courtney*

    oh LW1, your tale put my shoulders around my ears. I am sorry you went through that, it sounds so messy all around.

    1. BigTenProfessor*

      Removed — please don’t speculate on company names here since most letter writers want to be anonymous.

    2. TardyTardis*

      Yes, I know at least one magazine where the authors are never paid–people keep urging me to subscribe to it (they get paid, the contributors do not) and I refuse to subsidize that kind of exploitation.

  2. JR*

    For #5, since they’ll be applying coming out of school, would you recommend putting the education section first, assuming the degree is more relevant to target jobs than the prior role?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! Normally I would lead with work history and put education toward the end, but when you have a brand new degree or are still in school (especially for a degree related to the jobs you’re applying for), it makes sense to put that up top. It also gives context for your situation overall.

    2. lazy intellectual*

      I considered the day I switched the order of ‘Education’ and ‘Work History’ on my resume (in other words, when I stopped being a ‘recent grad’) a milestone.

          1. DocVonMitte*

            I’m 30 and I’ve already done this haha I’m at a director level at my job and grad dates mean I don’t get callbacks for interviews at that level despite my experience and qualifications.

  3. Anon for this*

    LW#1, you may wish to share your experience with an employment attorney who represents employees. You and your fellow interns may be entitled to damages in addition to lost wages. Also, the attorney may be able to reach out to your fellow 2020 interns and then present a claim to the company for the group rather than just you. Obviously, my comment overly simplifies the investigation and claim process an attorney will need to complete – the point is that your situation really calls out for legal advice. This employer is making a business model of taking advantage of people. Even if you elect not to participate in making any claim, you’d be doing a good thing to help put a stop to this practice and possibly help get back pay (and maybe damages) for fellow interns.

    1. Np*

      And another thing — I’m a copyright lawyer (in Europe though). Obviously the below is not legal advice.

      Under copyright law, I’m not sure they have the right to publish your designs. There’s an argument that since they haven’t paid you, you haven’t assigned your copyright to them and consequently you still own the copyright. Maybe you could investigate this with an IP lawyer in your state/country?

      1. Hornswoggler*

        I was thinking this, too. And that you’d possibly be entitled to royalties on the sales.

      2. mreasy*

        I work in a copyright-adjacent field and was wondering the same thing. Since you aren’t being paid, the assumption that any IP generated during your working hours belongs to your employer goes out the window, unless you signed something waiving your rights (and even in that case, that may not stand up to scrutiny).

        1. Wintermute*

          It would have to be argued, obviously, but if I were in court what I’d argue is that they can’t have a contract to assign the copyrights because there was no consideration– the law prohibits one-sided contracts (you do something for me, get nothing in return).

      3. Mel_05*

        Good point! If you were employed and paid by them the work automatically belongs to them, but you weren’t.

      4. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

        Doesn’t it depends on whether OP signed a contract? The few NDAs I’ve signed state clearly that my work belongs to my employer and I won’t divulge whatever they consider sensible information (client name and a basic overview of my duties are ok, client infrastructure and implementation aren’t).

        1. Np*

          So the way it would work in the jurisdictions I know (and I repeat that this isn’t legal advice) is that even if you do sign a contract, there needs to be “consideration” to make it valid. Normally consideration should take the form of payment. Now, there’s an argument I suppose that the LW got some other benefit, but the courts I’m familiar with would be very very wary of finding that someone had assigned copyright away without getting some sort of payment (however low) in return.

          1. General von Klinkerhoffen*


            It can be peppercorn (ours usually state $1 or £1) but there has to be a financial or financial-equivalent consideration. Stock would count, but “experience” wouldn’t.

            1. Legal Beagle*

              I would also question whether the contract would be enforceable, since in addition to lack of consideration, the employment situation itself was unlawful.

        2. PenicilliumIHardlyKnowEm*

          In the US, employment contracts are very unusual and definitely not for an unpaid summer internship. NDAs here wouldn’t cover work-for-hire, as that is a generally applicable principle. They might reiterate it, but that alone wouldn’t make it enforceable.

        3. TootsNYC*

          You might not be allowed to give away your intellectual property for zero consideration.

          The law often protects people by making it illegal to take advantage of them. (an employer can’t coerce or bribe you into giving up your health for salary–that’s why it’s illegal in NYC to allow smoking in a restaurant or bar, even if that does mean the owner doesn’t make as much money).
          Yes, even if you sign a contract.

          Now, if the OP received some payment, even $1, and signed a contract that indicated this was a transfer of copyright, that might let the guy off the hook.

      5. Hillabear*

        I am not a lawyer but literally just finished my class in (US) copyright law and this is correct. Depending on whether you signed paperwork assigning them your copyrights when you were hired on, you own the designs you produced. Even if you did sign paperwork assigning copyrights, if the internship is found to have been illegal, the contract may not be valid after all. I would definitely talk to an attorney if you can.

      6. LunaLena*

        This was my first thought too, having dealt with copyright issues in graphic design for many years now. The promotional products companies I worked for in the past were extremely careful about contracting with artists and licensing their work, to make sure everything was legal and aboveboard.

        I actually wonder if the company OP1 worked for deliberately hires “interns” fresh out of school so they can prey on their ignorance of how copyrights and the licensing works. Taking advantage of young people because they haven’t learned the ropes yet is hardly a new phenomenon, but I am slightly amazed that this company has gotten away with it for so long.

    2. BlueWolf*

      A friend of mine had an “internship”, but basically they were paid a monthly stipend and (mis)classified as an independent contractor. The company did this with all their interns. Someone who had worked there previously reported it to the state and there was an investigation. The company had to pay back taxes since the interns should’ve been classified as employees and they also had to pay a fine. My friend was able to file an amended tax return and got a refund for the extra taxes paid as an independent contractor.

    3. TootsNYC*

      The place to report this is your state department of labor.

      This is why we pay taxes.

      State agencies work for you, especially the Department of Labor, and they will often do a huge part of the grunt work. You’ll need to provide information and documentation, but they may actually do the really serious work.

      1. TootsNYC*

        note the comment above mine–the friend benefitted from the agency’s actions without even having to be the one to file. These agencies have definite power.

  4. Diahann Carroll*

    OP #2

    I second Alison’s “Don’t do it.” My company announced to us back in March that due to COVID-19, they were going to cut all of our quarterly bonuses by 10% beginning with our second quarter bonuses going through to the fourth quarter bonus in February. Okay, I was fine with that since 10% really isn’t that much.

    Well, what they actually meant was, they would be reducing our bonus allocation by 10%, not the actual bonus amount itself. Basically, 85% of my total compensation is allocated towards my base salary ($70k) with the remaining 15% towards my quarterly bonus. So with the 10% reduction in the bonus allocation, I went down to a 5% allocation, which meant that my bonus was actually reduced for the second quarter by 67%, leaving me with a paltry 33% gross.

    Fortunately, I negotiated my starting salary up high enough that I’m financially set. My job doesn’t appear to be in danger, but this reduction in my bonus set me back a lot in my savings plan. I used my bonuses last year to pay down debt, and this year, I was going to finally start an emergency savings fund so I would have about 8 months of income banked and have enough money saved to move at the end of my lease next year. Well, I will not hit that target at all by the end of the year – I’ll be lucky to have a little over 6 months saved. My moving costs may have to wait until next year (if I’m still employed). My company claims that if things remain steady for us, our fourth quarter bonuses will be paid in full and we’ll get the money that was withheld from our second and third quarter bonuses.

    I am not holding my breath for that. Keep your money, save it, and pray the rest of your bonuses won’t be taken away. It sucks (some of my colleagues didn’t get a bonus at all because their allocation was already only 10%).

    1. Saberise*

      Not only that but I don’t think I would even make a big deal out of them paying me a bonus at all. They already showed that they are willing to cut the holiday bonus so why even put that on the table. From what I can tell when someone is getting hired the bonus is pushed as part of the package. The package one looks at when deciding if they want to take the job. I don’t know but to me thanking them for paying the bonus despite the times would come across like in a sense it would be understandable if they didn’t pay it and some people may really need the bonus. Just seems like it could end up with them deciding that maybe they could just not pay them. Also if you volunteered to not take the holiday bonus assuming you have co-workers that also get the bonus you either make them look bad for not volunteering or put them in the position of just not getting it either.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        Yup. I don’t thank anyone for giving me my paycheck, so I couldn’t imagine thanking them for paying out my bonus, the money the company promised me as part of my cash compensation.

        1. Oh No She Di'int*

          Question: would your response change if you worked at a company that did not routinely pay bonuses? Bonuses are more common in some industries than others. I’ve spent my entire career in an industry in which bonuses are rarely if ever paid. One year at one company, a small (very small) bonus was paid after a particularly good year (and as far as I’m aware, never again after that). I’ve always wondered if that was the kind of thing that merited a thank you of any kind.

          1. Damn it, Hardison!*

            I think it would be fine to say thank you for an unexpected bonus that isn’t part of your compensation package. I’ve worked for organizations which only give bonus to specific individuals for exceptional success, and currency for one where it is part of my compensation package. The first merited a thank you, the latter is something I earn by doing my job well.

          2. Diahann Carroll*

            Yeah, I would definitely say thank you in that case. But I wouldn’t do anything over the top. I would just send a brief email to whoever dispersed it.

        2. Workingforaliving*

          OP 2 here – these are not part of an agreed upon comp package. They are from my direct boss, not the company. It’s not something that’s spelled out in a contract so I felt a thank you was warranted in my situation.

    2. Choggy*

      This is kind of like the letter writer yesterday to volunteered to take two PTO days though she was never asked to do so. The company has a different perspective and has to take all its employees into count when making decisions around important benefits like PTO and bonuses. Don’t rock the boat for yourself (and potentially other employees)!

        1. Clisby*


          Don’t worry, your employee will set that precedent if it’s in the business’s best interests.

        2. schnauzerfan*

          Yes. This is so important. Once upon a time our local public library had a head librarian who was from a wealthy family, a single “old maid” with no expenses that family money wasn’t more than adequate to cover. She turned down pay raises and frequently turned her salary back to the library… holding down salaries for all of her employees. After all the assistant librarian couldn’t make more than the head, the children’s librarian couldn’t be paid more than the assistant, the support staff couldn’t be paid more than the professional staff… Really caused a problem for everyone. When she was made to understand the problem, after many years of no raises, and a compensation survey by the board and the city, she agreed to accept a 28% pay increase, started donating her salary to the library foundation and removed the bottle neck for her staff. Bless her. She was a wonderful person but her “good deed” had a chilling effect on pay for a long time.

          1. Oaktree*

            Oh my god, that’s so awful. I’m a librarian, though in the corporate sector, and I know from salary surveys in our field that public librarians’ pay tends to be the lowest out of all the types of libraries in which librarians work. (Academic is the highest, with law and accounting firms and other types of special libraries in the middle.) What a short-sighted thing to do.

  5. Maureen*

    How should I deal with a situation similar to letter #4 if the person sending emails and texts that I can’t understand is my boss? Obviously it would be out of line to ask her to proofread her messages to me, but I often genuinely can’t understand them and then end up having to follow up in order to figure out what she’s actually saying, which is time-consuming for both of us.

    1. Pennyworth*

      If you are not following up in writing I would start doing that: reply to the incomprehensible messages with specific questions relating to each ambiguous element. It might make her a bit more aware.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        Also, number them: “I some questions about your email. Please clarify the following points:” 1…., 2…., 3…., etc. Otherwise the boss will answer whatever is easiest, and let the others slide.

        1. Clisby*

          You can always try this, but some people have the maddening habit of answering question #1 and ignoring the rest. This was not just at my place of employment – my son’s high school guidance counselor did the same thing. It didn’t seem like it was ever the case that the person didn’t know all the answers – they just reflexively answered the first question and hit Send. So I’d have to ask 2 or 3 more times to get all my questions answered.

          1. Turquoisecow*

            Oh man, yes. I used to have a coworker to whom I’d send a series of several questions, none of which (or maybe one of which) was a yes or no.

            He’d reply back: “Yes.” And then some effusive thanks at the end.

            Um…what about the other questions?

            It was easier just to talk to him in person at that point.

          2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            I often have problems with clients not answering my questions in time for me to meet my deadline. Even if their deadline is not that important to them, it often is to me, in that I’ll have other stuff lined up for afterwards, so I need to have tied up all loose ends before embarking on those new projects.

            My strategy is to put immediately below each question “If I don’t get an answer by (ideal buffer deadline giving me time to wrap up the project), I shall assume that the answer is yes.” Obviously I make sure to phrase the questions so that the most likely answer to each is indeed positive.
            That way, I’m covered and can wrap the project up. Strangely enough, I have found that I’m more likely to get an answer when I do this. Sometimes it’s because one of the answers is actually a resounding NO, so the client answers quickly to make sure of not getting a file that doesn’t make sense for them. It may sometimes take several emails to get comprehensive answers for everything, but I’ve factored that into my buffer deadline.

      2. Green great dragon*

        Agree, but accept you might just have to keep doing it and all you can do is try to minimise how long it takes (and maybe consider whether you want to ask for clarification (assuming it’ll be by email) or whether it’s quicker to ask for a 2 min chat to clarify).

    2. Sarah*

      Yes! I’ve been thinking about sending in a question on a similar topic. I work for a large state agency. Since we are doing more communication by email these days, I’ve been realizing that a lot of emails coming from heads of other departments (and even commissioners) are very difficult to understand. The was they are written often leads me to believe they are being written on a phone without proof reading. It’s very awkward to have to admit to people much higher up the chain that you don’t understand them, and having to play twenty questions with them makes tasks take so much more time.

    3. Lemon Zinger*

      I had a boss like this. I would just respond to her emails with follow-up questions, which led to her communicating with me more in person (which was actually helpful since we could have good conversations). But her writing didn’t improve and eventually someone went over her and talked to her boss! Then things improved. I didn’t have the inclination to do that myself, but I wish I had.

    4. Alice's Rabbit*

      It depends on your boss’s personality, but I have had some success with certain bosses by just being honest. I just told them that their emails were too stream-of-consciousness, and didn’t make much sense, so could they please double check that before sending? Thanks!

  6. Not Australian*

    LW2, if you’re still feeling charitably inclined when bonus time rolls around again you can donate the whole lot to a fund that takes your fancy if you wish – although personally I would echo Alison’s note of caution as the future is looking pretty uncertain for us all. Let the company make whatever decision is right for them, though, and don’t try to pre-empt it.

    1. Agent Diane*

      +1 for this suggestion.

      Also, you have no idea about your colleagues’ situations. They may need the bonuses more than you. If your company drops it, saying “this was suggested/supported by staff”, how will some of your colleagues feel or react?

      You work for a good employer who is making sure staff are generously compensated. That’s a great thing!

      1. LifeBeforeCorona*

        That’s a good idea. We did not get our bonuses this past Spring and I would be disgruntled if someone made the suggestion that we forgo them rather than letting management decide whether or not to pay out. It reminds me of an older letter where someone challenged everyone donate their bonuses to the less fortunate, not realizing that a few people really needed the money.

      2. Scarlet2*

        Exactly. LW might not need the money, but if the company were to follow their suggestion of not paying a bonus, they probably wouldn’t pay it to anyone else either. If I didn’t get my bonus because a colleague “kindly suggested” that the company forgo bonuses this year, I would be LIVID, whether I actually need that bonus or not. If LW doesn’t want the money, they can donate it to people who need it more.

        And like other commenters noted, a bonus is not a gift or a favour, so I think even thanking the company is already one step too far. Do your job well and you’ll be holding your end of the bargain.

      3. Jennifer*

        Really good point. I definitely am trying to save as much as I can. And it’s very likely many more people will be facing layoffs before this is all over. If you’re in a good spot financially today, you may be kicking yourself for giving up that bonus a year from now if you’re laid off, still job hunting, and having to dig into your savings to pay your monthly bills. If you are fortunate enough to still be employed, that may not always be the case.

        I think the OP is being too much of a “company man.”

    2. Richard Hershberger*

      LW4: No help to you, but… “Hire an English major!” People nowadays are really weird about college majors. My dream college for my twelve-year-old is St. Johns, which follows a “great books” course of study, with lots of reading and writing. (Whether or not this is her dream college remains to be seen, of course.) You won’t come out of the experience knowing how to code, but you will know how to read and write. The weird thing is that I have had people respond that someone with this degree would be unhireable, while in the next breath lamenting the poor reading and writing skills of many college graduates (especially the ones who went to college to learn to code) and proclaiming that these are the skills employers look for.

      1. MK*

        Writing intelligible is a basic skill that should be taugh in elementary school, not something you should need to have a university degree for.

          1. Richard Hershberger*

            Yes, it was called “grammar school” because it taught grammar, but it was Latin grammar. Formal teaching of English grammar came much later. Then it was dropped in the mid-20th century because once they actually did the research, it turns out that knowing formal grammar and being able to diagram sentences doesn’t help much with actually writing well. Yes, this is counter-intuitive, but it seems to be true nonetheless.

            1. Clisby*

              Not sure what you mean by mid-20th century. My 7th grade English class was almost entirely grammar-focused (this would have been in 1966-66.)

                1. Richard Hershberger*

                  Your school was old fashioned. Not, at that time, ridiculously so, but it was behind the trend. The trend was controversial, so it is to be expected that it wouldn’t be universally embraced all at once.

              1. Doc in a Box*

                My 7th grade English teacher taught us diagramming as well! 1997-1998. But it was just one short unit; most of the time was spent doing Freytag’s pyramid of story structure.

            2. Amy Sly*

              Would this be one of those pedagogy studies that came from studying one classroom and hasn’t been replicated? So much of what we “know” about social science and education in particular is derived from such “research.”

              Grammar is as necessary to writing as addition is to mathematics and hand tools are to carpentry.

              1. Richard Hershberger*

                I honestly don’t know the details. It was before my time. But the conclusion is not controversial within the linguistics community.

                As for grammar being necessary to writing, this is true if you are talking about the grammar we learn as kids. If you mean formal learning of grammatical analysis of the language, this clearly is untrue, since writing predates this analysis.

                1. Green great dragon*

                  I’m part of the generation that didn’t get grammar lessons. I still know how to write grammatically, I just can’t explain to anyone why something is incorrect beyond ‘it just is’.

                2. Richard Hershberger*

                  That’s because we mean several different things by “grammar.” There is the grammar that kids soak in from their environment. That is pretty much what we mean by a “first language.” We know this grammar, seemingly instinctively. Then there are “grammars” which are attempts to formally analyze and describe the first kind of grammar. Finally there is “grammar” in the sense of a hodgepodge of rules we are taught. These are at best a stripped down version of the second sense of “grammar,” and often simply bogus fake rules like not splitting infinitives.

                3. mgguy*

                  I learned grammar in elementary school and into middle school, and even did a bit of diagramming.

                  To be honest, though, I felt that I learned FAR more about grammar by reading a lot than anything specifically taught as such in the classroom. Reading a lot let me see in practice how coherent, logical, and nice-sounding sentences were constructed than in just learning rules of what is correct and what is not. There are still grammar rules that I notice and to which I pay attention, like dangling prepositions.

                  As a side note, about half my co-workers are either ESL speakers or, more often, folks for whom English is sort of a “native” language for official reasons in their country, but not what they spoke at home. The latter case is often true of immigrants from India and the surrounding countries. Aside from knowing “The Queen’s English”, many of the folks I know from this part of the world can construct a sentence(in speech or writing) that is perfectly grammatically correct but the phrasing is often awkward to American ears. With that said, though, it’s not a problem since the idea is still clearly and unambiguously conveyed even if the specific phrasing does give you a pause.

        1. LBugging*

          Lol, it should be “intelligibly”, but that really makes your point. Nowadays, business writing at even very high levels is full of grammar and syntax errors and unless the writing is egregious, it wont hold you back. And really good writing won’t get you much further than basic. Most importantly, thorough writing is discouraged; brevity is valued highly. That’s my challenge! :P

          1. Amy Sly*

            As I noted in a homeschool group recently, “strong writing skills are important part of success in the business world not because they are expected but because they are so rare.”

        2. Rusty Shackelford*

          Yes, it should. Which is why I want to smack every teacher who ever said “No, spelling doesn’t count, this isn’t an English class.”

          1. Anonymous at a University*

            I’ve had college students who were actually shocked when it turned out that grammar and spelling counted in a class other than English- like, students who were stunned that art class involved writing essays and not just, “Look at the pretty pictures.”

            And some people carry their disdain incredibly far. Another of my students failed a professional exam required for entrance to graduate school that I would have thought he was a shoo-in for, and explained to me that he just didn’t read any passages that didn’t seem to be about the field he wanted to specialize in in the future. “Why would I waste my time like that?” Then, of course, he couldn’t answer the questions about the passages when he tried to do them. The idea that anything in education that doesn’t map 1:1 to someone’s intended career field is “a waste of time” costs so many people so much money and time.

            1. Richard Hershberger*

              This is college (or grad school) as high end vo-tech training. A lot of people get upset when I call it that, which is telling. They want the status of a classical liberal education, without the bother of actually being classically liberally educated.

              I tell my daughter that if, when she goes to college, she knows for sure what job she wants, and if that job requires a degree that is actually vo-tech training, then by all means that is the degree she should get. But if she wants to keep her options open, learn to read and write.

              1. Clisby*

                Yes, my first degree was in journalism, where, if nothing else, we had to learn to write quickly, concisely, and competently.

                When I changed careers 12 years 14 years later (to computer science) I was amazed at how helpful my journalism background was.

              2. MK*

                Everyone should learn to read and write correctly, but a) you don’t need a literature degree for that and b) it’s highly unlikely that it will mean career opportunities in itself. Telling someone to get an English degree to keep their options open is not good advice, unless in the context of “Get any non-expensive degree to be able to tick the box and pick up a variety of other skills that will make you employable”.

                1. Richard Hershberger*

                  An English degree certainly is not the only way to learn to read and write. But you will come out of it better at reading and writing than you were when you went in. Picking up other skills? Just about any set of skills will be easier to pick up if you have good literacy skills. Those vo-tech degrees? They are good for what they teach you. If you want to be a teapot designer, and this requires a degree in teapot design, then that is the degree to get. But if you realize afterwards that you don’t want to design teapots, or the teapot industry implodes, then where are you?

                2. Lizzo*

                  …but an English degree is a degree that is, by nature, focused on reading and writing well. So assuming you actually focus on studying, you will come out of that degree program with reading and writing skills, and probably critical thinking skills too!

                  The exception to this is if the entire university’s curriculum places an emphasis on these skills, regardless of your area of study. This is true for some liberal arts schools.

                3. bleh*

                  Actually, no. A literature degree teaches you to read difficult meta text, subtext and bias in business documents, advertisements, television shows, etc. The skills help you understand how people are attempting to persuade or influence you with words or images. It also teaches to you read other humans better, which comes in handy in (or prior to) mask melees on airline flights.

                  It also teaches how best to approach various audiences and rhetorical situations, from comments on a blog to interviews.

              3. mgguy*

                My undergrad education was at what I think I can fairly say was a true, classic liberal arts college. Even though I graduated with a STEM degree, a bit under half my hours were in my field of study. The school required a minimum of 120 hours to graduate, and majors were capped at I think 56 hours of required classes(and I think minors at either 17 or 19). I took ~12 hours beyond what my major required, although some were co-requisite with my minor(another STEM field), but also ended up with about 135 hours total.

                We were required to take classes in writing, literature, religion, philosophy, art, music, economics, language, and several others to satisfy our gen ed requirements. Non science majors needed at least one math class and a class in two separate fields of science. For writing and language, there weren’t a certain number of classes required, but rather in both pass a class at a certain level(you could skip lower level ones by testing out or high school credit)-i.e. you were required to pass a sophomore level language class, whether you tested directly into it(you couldn’t completely bypass taking it) or moved through the full sequence to get there. To add to that, although not required, both Latin and Greek(New Testament Greek) were language options. For reference, I graduated 10 years ago, and the requirements there are still the same.

                I say all of that to make the point that I’m extremely appreciative of getting that kind of education. Even though I’m certainly not an expert in all of those fields, it gave me a well-rounded education that lets me intelligently converse with other people about many of those fields.

            2. Filosofickle*

              Yes. In my MBA program, some students were mad that our Marketing instructor would grade down for spelling/grammar. They felt it was entirely out of bounds for this class and that good writing wasn’t important as a business skill. I was with the instructor.

          2. Amy Sly*


            Wait, that doesn’t properly convey my feeling.

            [Insert the Amen from Handel’s Messiah here.]

      2. notacompetition*

        eh, I know a lot of English majors who can’t write. And universities don’t teach much about brevity, which is very important in the workplace. Writing papers doesn’t always translate to being able to communicate well with others in the workplace.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          I have an English degree, but one of the most useful classes I ever took was a class in the business college about professional/business writing.

          1. Forty Years In the Hole*

            Same here: BA – Eng, with a community college topper in Business Writing. Both have stood me in good stead, professionally.

        2. TomorrowTheWorld*

          I am a total fan of Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” (a fan of Orwell’s essays in general, really). It’s an excellent look at how people who should know how to write well, don’t.

      3. RozGrunwald*

        I grew up in NM, where St. John’s College has a campus (in Santa Fe). One of my high school classmates chose to go there for his education. He is employed only because he taught himself coding in his spare time and was able to get a job doing that. He went through tremendous struggles trying to get a job after he graduated because the bottom line is that “knowing how to read and write” is great and very admirable and all that, but people who are hiring journalists want to see a journalism degree. People who are hiring tech writers want to see some experience or training in tech writing. Etc. Reading and writing is a fundamental skill but real talk, it’s kind of a baseline requirement and there are not too many paying jobs out there where all you do is read, write, and philosophize. Those are usually ancillary activities to someone’s real job where they perform other activities that create some kind of revenue for the company they’re working for. There is very little translation between what St. John’s teaches and what most employers in the real world who have real jobs paying real wages will pay someone to do. I really cannot emphasize enough, my friend paid a lot of money for his degree and found it to be basically worthless when he went to go get a job, and it was unbelievably disheartening and frustrating for him He would have been better off going to the coding bootcamp our community college offers. I know other people will likely pop up and say “I know someone who graduated from St. John’s and they’re a CEO now” and that’s great. But I will report that New Mexico has many St. John’s graduates with expensive degrees who must work in low-paid menial jobs until they get enough work experience, and/or can retrain themselves with job skills, to go get a better job. I’ve interviewed enough of them as an HR professional to speak on that.

        1. pancakes*

          The idea that people should be educated only to the extent they can use it to generate revenue for their employers is really dark and disheartening to me. I don’t want to live in a world like that.

          1. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy*

            When I am paying for my education, it better be something I can use to create revenue for me. If I want to improve my mind, I can do that for free. Or the price of a few books.

      4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Richard please let your child follow their own dreams!
        Kahlil Gibran says it much better than me:

        And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
        And he said:
        Your children are not your children.
        They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
        They come through you but not from you,
        And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

        You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
        For they have their own thoughts.
        You may house their bodies but not their souls,
        For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
        You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
        For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
        You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
        The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
        Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness

      5. Mama Bear*

        There are many subject matter experts who are terrible at conveying that knowledge to other human beings. A good Communications or English major can bridge the gap between how the code works and what that out put means. Someone may write grammatically accurate sentences without being able to convey the right meaning to the right audience via the right method.

    3. Doc in a Box*

      Totally agree. If you are in a situation where the bonus is not make-or-break for you, please consider giving to a sustainable organization.

      On a business level, either your company is hurting less than you think, or they are giving out bonuses they can’t afford; if it’s the latter, you should probably be stockpiling that money to tide you over for the inevitable layoffs.

    4. Oliver Rathbone*

      +1 to this. The decision to bonus or not to bonus is the company’s. If you want, donate the money to a good cause.

  7. Green great dragon*

    #4, if you’re training her it’d be a kindness to coach her on writing or suggest her manager finds her some training. But in the moment a quick message back ‘sorry didn’t understand your para 2’ will save you time and make her aware of the problem, and by pushing her to rephase unclear bits should help her improve more broadly.

    1. LifeBeforeCorona*

      I must be very old and/or tired because based on the title I thought the LW was talking about her co-worker’s cursive handwriting.

      1. SarahKay*

        It’s not just you! From the heading on the question I was thinking exactly the same thing, and the first sentence made me even more puzzled – I was wondering how on earth OP#4 would even be seeing the new employee’s handwriting if they’re both working remotely.

        1. AcademiaNut*

          Scanned copies of log books….

          I’ve actually had to decipher the hand writing of people I’ve never met during my work.

          1. The Rural Juror*

            I worked for a courthouse for a summer while I was in college. I was helping digitize a lot of old records. Books and books and books of marriage licenses from the turn of the century up until the 90s when they started using computers. It was difficult trying to decipher handwriting! Some of the clerks over time were very thoughtful about legibly writing the names, and other were pretty hapdash!

            1. Clisby*

              Even when they had good handwriting, can be hard on the eyes to read digitally. I once wrote on paper on Samuel Morse’s career as a portrait painter, which required reading digitized letters at the Library of Congress site. I thought I was going to go blind before it was over.

            2. LifeBeforeCorona*

              For a history class we had to write a paper on a historical figure. I enjoyed going through old papers and ledgers at the local archives but my eyes were burning after a few hours. Fun fact, you could be sent to an asylum for almost any reason e.g. being “stubborn”.

          2. willow for now*

            Oh, the field logbooks! Is that a 5 or an ess? a nine or a four? an I or a one? a four or a P? gah!

      2. RecentAAMfan*

        Yup. And also tried to imagine how said handwriting made itself visible on the computer!

      3. Jack Russell Terrier*

        I’m a historian so adept at reading handwriting in archives. A while back, I was reviewing Elliot Richardson’s papers at the Library of Congress. It took forever to get a grip on his writing – worst I’ve seen over decades of handwriting.

    2. Richard Hershberger*

      Honest question: What does job training to write intelligibly look like? I know what an academic course of study for this looks like. It lasts for years, and is best started when the student is young. But for an adult in the workplace?

      1. Lady Heather*

        I think a course on email etiquette would be helpful for a lot of people.

        I write emails like this:

        Reason for emailing (why this person, why now, etc) – skip if self-evident
        All relevant background information and detail
        Question, expectation or instruction – as specific as possible.
        (If there is a deadline by which you need their response, include by Reason, by Question, or both.)

        “Hi boss, I’m emailing you because I am falling behind on x and don’t think I will be able to catch up in time to make the deadline. This is because of y. As you know, meeting the deadline for x is important because of z. I’d like your input on how to proceed. I’ve considered a, b and c as options. Regards, Lady Heather.”
        (Don’t nitpick my wording, please – I don’t actually write in English.)

        This has gotten me consistent feedback of “Your email style is a little bit formal but OH IT’S SO CLEAR and I never need to ask for clarification and I love it” and one instance of “maybe we should have you teach a workshop on email to the entire company”.

        Teaching actual grammar-spelling-interpunction may be more difficult, but how to use language to write an email isn’t hard. It just requires a little bit of thought, a little bit of diligence, and a little bit of consideration.

        But a lot of people write emails more like “Hi boss, I don’t think I’ll make the deadline. Regards.”
        Which is just plain rude, because – barring instances where the boss already knows the context and that you may not be able to make it – you know they’ll have to write back with “What deadline, what project, why not” and there’s no good reason for not including that information upfront.

        1. General von Klinkerhoffen*


          The difference between a clear email and an unclear one can save vast amounts of time and effort.

          I have a c-suite client who will respond to “do you want A or B?” with “yes, go ahead” and it’s both infuriating and inefficient. He doesn’t save himself any time by sending such short messages – and since I charge by the hour he isn’t saving money either!

          1. KaciHall*

            So if people are using Gmail (or GSuite) there are options given for quick replies and it drives me crazy, because SO frequently people will click on ‘Yes, proceed’ but my email was asking them to pay a fee or clarify a number. People think WE put the reply options on their email, so they don’t actually pay attention to what there, just click on the easiest reply.

          2. mgguy*

            That sort of response(although not necessarily my specific situation) has infuriated and frustrated me plenty of times as well.

            One not too long ago-

            I was emailing someone I didn’t know but was referred to them as a contact for a question.

            My email was something like this: “Hello name, this is MGGuy in the llama department. I was referred to you by Jane in purchasing as the contact person to coordinate delivery of item x that that will be arriving from y vendor on or around z date. I am looking for information on how I need to arrange transport of this item from your warehouse to (building). As we need item x by (date) in our department, I am trying to get as much detail as possible and also see what needs to be done to fit this timeline. If you are not the correct contact person for this, would you please let me know who I should contact if you do know. Thank you for your time”

            The response was “Yep-read this” followed by a link to a page that had nothing to do with what I’d asked.

          3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            I used to have a boss who would answer “A or B?” with “yes”. I eventually realised that he read the way he listened, only for as long as it took him to come up with an answer and get rid of you. So the positive answer was in response to the question “Should I do A?” because he never listened or read any further than that.

        2. Anonymous At a University*

          Yep, that last example happens a lot with students and it drives me nuts. Right now, since it’s the beginning of the semester, they’re sending e-mails that say something like, “Hi, I’m in your class and I have a question,” and that’s it. And it’s like…which class? (There are several with different assignments). Which question? Can’t you just tell me in the e-mail? I always have to send one back to clarify.

        3. Environmental Compliance*

          The last paragraph is what I’m attempting to train out of the engineering department where I work right now. No, I won’t put my signature of approval on this project that you described only as “changes to some equipment”. Literally, that is all that gets written.

          What changes?
          What equipment?
          What is the purpose of those changes?
          What is the timeline?
          Since this didn’t get filled out either, are you changing any chemicals onsite?
          Will this project involve demolition/construction, which could generate debris I need to get rid of?

          So far they haven’t figured out that by doing the work up front (and following the form they fill out…), they’d get these approvals a heck of a lot quicker, and irritate the HSE department significantly less.

        4. willow for now*

          I work on a number of different projects for a number of different PMs, and a couple of the PMs have a habit of just diving into questions, and I have NO CLUE what project we are talking about. A nice intro would help.

      2. Lyudie*

        There are plenty of courses on business writing that would be helpful, LinkedIn Learning has a few I am sure. It doesn’t need to be a whole big program.

        1. Jzilbeck*

          I work with some extremely booksmart people who can barely string a coherent sentence together. Fortunately, business writing is a training offered several times a year and I tell all our young engineers to take it. Direct, clear communication is one of my leadership mottos and it drives me nuts when I have to waste a lot of time deciphering someone’s message.

          I also used to work with a guy who had to take a technical writing course in college where they had to get a proposal granted with the request being literally only one sentence long. The whole objective was to say as much as possible while writing as little as possible — in other words, remove ALL fluff and be thorough but direct with your messaging. The guy’s grant proposal was approved.

          1. Lyudie*

            Ha! As a former tech writer and editor I love that last part…I was always pleased with myself when I was able to remove a number of words (or sentences) to simplify and clarify something I was editing. IIRC my personal best was paring 12 sentences down to five.

            1. Windchime*

              It can take me a while to compose emails where I write more than a sentence or two reply. I usually:
              –Create the first draft
              –Organize questions or comments into bullet-points as I think it makes it easier for people to recognize them as separate questions.
              –Go through the entire email and edit to cut the fluff or fix spelling/grammar issues
              –Read through again to make sure my message is clear and concise. Nobody wants to read through a solid wall of text which has an unclear purpose.

              I have pretty good luck with this; people tend to reply to each question “inline” beneath each bullet point instead of answering all questions with a single “Yes, sounds good”.

              1. Lyudie*

                Yup! I learned fairly early in my career as a writer to do this with subject matter experts or I’d only get half my questions answered.

            2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              I used to have two post-its on my screen: one said “cut the crap” and the other said “if in doubt leave it out”. I’m pretty well known for being concise in my writing. A perspicacious boss once told me “What I’ve realised and like about you is that every word counts”.

          2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            The last few years working in an engineering firm that was the whole of my dad’s job – teaching engineers – some trained at foreign schools (multinational firm based in Europe) how to concisely and clearly explain to non-engineers why something had to be done.

      3. LQ*

        I was talking with someone about this really recently. The org I work for did a training on business writing last summer and a bunch of the folks who took it thought it was excellent, and they did write more clearly for some time after. I didn’t find it useful at all.
        The training talked about how to structure ideas, about outlining, considering your audience, using bullets when appropriate, considering what medium is most effective for your message, and other similar things.

        For folks who know these things and chose to follow or ignore them they seem so self-evident as to be absurd to talk about, but just talking about those things can make a big difference.

      4. Amy Sly*

        From what the LW is describing, this isn’t about clear business writing so much as basic grammar. No point in teaching this person how to truss a roof when they can’t hammer a nail.

        One of my law school adjuncts mentioned that when one of their new lawyers made a grammar mistake in an outbound communication, they were given a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and told the next mistake to a customer or the court would cost them their job. That consequence is probably not feasible in a job where employees are not being paid $120K/yr for their written product, but referring this person to the book is a good place to start.

        1. ee cummings*

          “One of my law school adjuncts mentioned that when one of their new lawyers made a grammar mistake in an outbound communication, they were given a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and told the next mistake to a customer or the court would cost them their job.”

          This is rich.

          And before you start hopping on one leg about “we don’t correct grammar in posts here,” there obviously is an implicit exception when those posts are themselves about poor grammar.

          1. Amy Sly*

            So long as referring to an unknown person as “he” is considered inappropriate because it erases women and “he/she,” “s/he,” and “he or she” are considered inappropriate because they erase nonbinary folks, I must revert to the plural for the unknown.

            Such locutions are not my preference either, but I’d prefer not to get an earful about how my writing may be grammatically correct but not politically so.

            1. Richard Hershberger*

              Also, the singular “they” goes back centuries. A serious analysis is complicated, because we really are talking about three distinct phenomena. But in one version, it was used frequently in the King James Bible. The assertion that any use of the singular “they” is ungrammatical demands extensive support that is rarely even attempted.

              1. Amy Sly*

                The use of the singular “they” in the KJV may be a relic of the Hebrew sources. In Hebrew, God takes a plural pronoun but uses singular verbs (“We shall make man in our own image”); it’s somewhat similar to the royal plural, except that in Hebrew the exact equivalent of “We are not amused” would be “We am not amused.” (“To be” being one of the few English verbs that has different conjugations for different persons.)

                Language is fun.

          2. Richard Hershberger*

            Well, the problem is that Strunk & White is a terrible resource. Its advice is often bad, and even when it is good in principle it frequently is useless in practice. “Omit needless words.” OK. Now tell me which words are needless, and which needful.

          3. Observer*

            You are wrong. Using the plural construct when talking about someone whose gender is unknown is actually grammatically correct. APA, Merriam Webster, and OED are among the sources that note that this usage is actually not new.

      5. Green great dragon*

        The plain English campaign (plainenglish [dot] co [dot] uk) has some good stuff. But it’ll likely depend on the person what they’re specifically doing or not doing (forgetting context? triple negatives? way too wordy? typos that change meaning? stream of consciousness instead of background then issue then request?).

  8. Andy*

    L4 You could start to give her concrete feed back, tell her that she has run-on sentences and should shorten them. That she does not uses punctuation which makes it harder to read. That sort of concrete actionable feedback. Good writing is learnable and beginner can get better by following set of rules. Providing those rules and feedback exactly the same way as you would with any other task could be part of training.

    Just saying that she should read it after herself wont help, because she *knows* what she meant and therefore the mail is clear to her.

    Also, I recommend following book: “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams “.

    1. Perfectly Particular*

      That sounds so condescending! Since all involved are adults with an education, IMO it makes more sense to name the problem, and let the new employee work on the solution. Asking clarifying questions, or simply stating “I don’t understand what you mean here” on a regular basis should be enough to prompt her to work on formulating clearer messages.

      1. Mel_05*

        It does sound condescending. But. I do think it would be clearer to day, “Hey, a lot of times I can’t understand what’s being said in your emails. Can you read them over before you send them, so I don’t always have to ask?”

        Otherwise, I find people tend to assume *you’re* the dummy for having to ask so many questions!

      2. Green great dragon*

        Maybe the specific feedback Andy suggests isn’t quite right, but the principle of giving concrete feedback shouldn’t be condescending. There’s clearly something that needs improvement and LW should be able to suggest what’s needed as with any other training matter.

        I also got the impression it wasn’t something that reading over would necessarily fix.

        1. Green great dragon*

          I’m writing as someone who spends a lot of time correcting others’ bad grammar and sentence structure (for docs that are going to be published, not where it doesn’t matter) but has a terrible tendency to send quick emails that are perfectly structured and spelt but not nearly as clear as I thought they were. I would not find it at all condescending to be given suggestions for improvement.

            1. Green great dragon*

              Is that just a UK thing? Slept, and spelt, and maybe leapt, though that last is a bit out of fashion these days.

              1. Partly Cloudy*

                Well, I learned something today. I try to be funny and end up getting schooled in U.S. vs. non-U.S. spellings of various words. And ironically, I’ve lived in Britain and the U.S. :)

      3. Ana Gram*

        Honestly, I don’t find this condescending. I train new coworkers and I have had to explain to people older than I am (and I’m almost 40) how to write an email, step by step, among other things. I just do it in a cheerful and no nonsense way. I think they assume no one knows how to write an email and I have to give everyone this training? Who knows. No one seems offended, though.

        1. Windchime*

          I don’t find it condescending, either. I would much rather receive direct feedback than have to interpret hints and comments that are intended to make me realize something.

      4. Anonymous At a University*

        It sounds like the LW is already asking clarifying questions and stating that they don’t understand on a regular basis, though, and it’s not working. How many times do they have to keep on using an unworkable tactic to spare the feelings of someone who probably does need that more concrete help?

      5. Observer*

        Well, obviously this person’s education seems to lack something. Or they don’t realize that these things actually apply at work.

      6. Andy*

        Maybe it is condescending, but I got that book recommended by professional writer who I am forever thankful.

        When I want programmers to learn about databases, I tell them specifics and recommend materials.

        When they want people to learn about any aspect of job, they teach it. People who write badly write badly because they did not figured it alone. Helping them to start should be non-brainer obvious action.

      7. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        You might feel like you’re being condescended to if someone speaks to you like that. In OP’s case, it’s somebody she’s training, so she is in a position of authority over her trainee, and the trainee is there to learn, so they should be able to take it.

  9. chersy*

    For LW4 – one thing I’ve taught the new people in our team who have a hard time expressing well in writing is to break down their points into bullet points so that they can make their points quickly.

    Or when I need items from them, I usually break it down also into questions line by line so that they can organize their thoughts better, and model their future messages in the same manner.

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        It’s also a great way to increase the probability of the recipient answering all your questions instead of just the first one!

    1. Mockingjay*

      I work with “Fred,” who is notorious for his run-on paragraphs. He writes just like he talks: no pauses (punctuation), stream of consciousness, repeats himself, mixes metaphors in attempt to explain a topic.

      It’s annoying and has caused multiple problems because we don’t understand what he’s trying to convey. The worst part is, he’s a nice guy who’s really enthusiastic about his job and wants the project to succeed. Unfortunately we work in tech and need clear, consise information, so he’s a source of great frustration.

      I’ve found that asking him one focused question at a time works best. If you ask him for general status, you’ll get an essay or lecture. So now I just send a string of emails or quick calls to get what I need, one topic at a time.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        I’ve known guys like this. Making a series of small questions, each in its own email, is the key. Ideally the questions are formatted for a yes/no answer. If that isn’t possible, at least they should be answerable in a very brief sentence or two.

    2. Khatul Madame*

      It also helps to have a literal “bottom line” in the email: what you want the addressee to do, the question you want them to answer, or a bulleted list of questions or actions. Sometimes I use bold type to make the punchline more visible.
      If the situation allows, don’t take action on a muddled-up email until they let you know exactly what they need from you (maybe not with a boss).
      “cant print the invoices bc printer blinking” – um, thanks for sharing?

      1. Forty Years In the Hole*

        Many in our dept (Fed level – not in US) have adopted the “bottom line up front” (BLUF) technique. One point of contact – the subject matter expert/coord – receives, analyzes and distills the overarching task/requirements from the Dept level, into quick-read bites and sends to the relevant senior-level/Directors:
        Subject: overview of requirements (Ex: Update Annual Llama Grooming Report)
        What: the (t)ask
        (Ex: Review last yrs report and update relevant/measurable activity using the provided template)
        Who: key stakeholders involved (the Dept-level requester [for context] and those being (t)asked to complete the requirements)
        When: due date to Coord, to permit timely analysis and collation of input to meet dept’s deadline
        Why: short explanation as to the requirements/rationale
        Resources: applicable list/link/attachments/templates to provide supporting info
        Coord: receives the input/acts as go-between with the requesting agency/stick-handles issues

        Understanding that Directors, managers & staff are already slammed, this keeps the communication clear, concise, factual – no flowers, balloons, pretty-pleases (that comes later when I’ve had to chase said Directors for remits…). Also straightforward yet detailed enough for those who do not use Eng as their 1st language.

    3. Quill*

      I work with several people who are communicating in their second language and the trick is usually to make lists and include all the pertinent information because people are calling different parts of a project different things. (So the Beverage Scuba project is referred to as “pepsi rebreather valve A, also known as CarbonEx valve.”)

  10. Bob*

    LW1: Pursue this like a rabid dog.
    Do not let them steamroll you, and don’t let the government bureaucracy dissuade you.
    And do consult a lawyer, many offer a free initial consultation. However their fees could be problematic, if they work on contingency you may lose 30% or more of your back wages, yet paying by the hour could add up quickly. See if there is a system in your area to provide legal representation to those in need (if this is your situation).

  11. Forrest*

    It’s alarming how many people see bonuses or pay increases as a favour their employer is doing for them. It’s part of business! The employer is making a business decision weighing up what they can afford versus how much they want to retain you. By all means say thank you where there’s a personal relationship, but it’s not a *favour*!

    1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      Yes, so much this.

      My company has a policy of only giving bonuses to people in sales roles (because they bring in money for the company). At one point, my office (wholly owned subsidiary) was also eligible for bonuses because we make thing that are then sold to make money for the company. When our parent company made the decision to stop giving my office bonuses, local management negotiated that everyone would get a raise equivalent to what that year’s bonus would have been.

      In all cases (bonus or raise), the company has given us money in exchange for us (directly or indirectly) making money for them. It’s a business transaction, not a gift!

    2. Brooks Brothers Stan*

      Exactly. You are selling your labor (which encompasses everything that goes into its creation, *including* your education and experiences that differentiate yourself), and you should value yourself according to market conditions.

      Employers are the ones that are bidding for your services, and they will do what is necessary to give you the smallest amount possible in order to retain your services. It is in your best interests to do what is necessary to demand the largest amount possible when you sell them.

    3. Marthooh*

      Right. And if they legit can’t afford to pay the bonus, they’ll decrease it, as they did in the past.

  12. samecoin*

    LW # 4. have you considered that the person you are speaking to may have a learning/writing disorder? I have WED, and ADHD inattentive type. I proofread everything 4-5 times before sending it out but invariably there is a small typo. My brain literally cannot catch certain extra word or spelling mistakes. I also add capital letters in weird spots etc. I understand this is frustrating to you, please have a little empathy

    1. Anonymous At a University*

      This doesn’t sound like small typos or weird capitalization, though. It sounds like sentences that aren’t distinguished from other sentences and where the LW can’t understand the literal point of the e-mail. It doesn’t matter how much empathy the LW has or what kind of ADHD, if any, the trainee has if no one can understand her writing. “I have empathy” doesn’t clarify an unreadable e-mail.

    2. Trek*

      If she didn’t have empathy she wouldn’t have hesitated to tell the coworker to fix her emails. Instead she reached out to Allison to see if she should address it at all.

    3. Me*

      This isn’t a typo here and there- this is poor writing all around. Regardless of reason, the employee needs to be able to communicate with her coworkers. She is unable to be understood and that needs to be addressed. I see nothing to suggest the OP is being unreasonable or lacking empathy.

    4. Sylvia*

      LW does have empathy, which is why they are writing in to ask how to handle it. A small typo or a random capital letter here and there doesn’t hinder one’s ability to read an email. This is something much worse, and it does need to be corrected. Clearly LW is not expecting this person to write a spotless formal email every time. They just need to be able to understand what is being conveyed.

    5. Amy Sly*

      Neuroatypicalness is not an excuse for not being able to do the job. If the person LW2 is dealing with cannot communicate clearly enough for her colleagues to do the job, she needs to fix it or find a different job.

      Isn’t the commentariat here always pointing out that soft skills are job skills? Well, communication skills are job skills too. The person who can’t communicate their meaning through the written word in a job where that is necessary is just as unsuited as the person who pisses off everyone they work with.

    6. Chinook*

      My empathy goes to anyone with a learning disability that gas trouble writing clearly, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t understand what is being written. My experience with ESL students and junior high essays means I can read between the lines of a lotnof grammatical confusion, but if I have tomask for clarity a lot, then it is on the other person to figure out a better way to get the information across.

      Now, I also have a background and personality that means ESL coworkers have come to me and given me permission to correct their grammer/punctuation to help them improve, but I have only offered to help when I can see that the miscommunication is consistent. At that point, I ask if they want me to suggest alternatives when I ask for clarification or should I just leave it. If they accept, I then reply to the errors with phrases like “do you mean. X or Y?”.

      This is trickym though, because it requires the other person to a) care about clarity and b) be willing to accept help. If not done with a light touch with no condescension, it can easily sour a work relationship.

    7. Bee*

      This sounds like someone who just puts their stream-of-consciousness directly on the page with no filter or structure, not someone who let a few typos slip through because of ADHD.

    8. Observer*

      The OP is not complaining about the occasional typo or weird capitalization. They are complaining that the communications are a royal mess. They are often “ are long and convoluted — run-on sentences, little to no punctuation, etc.” So much so that they generally have to “read her messages several times to understand what she’s saying,“. This is not minor stuff – it’s inability to do the job.

      The OP is in fact explicitly NOT complaining about minor stuff. They say “Her writing doesn’t need to be perfect — it’s all internal stuff, never outward facing — but it’s wasting my time.

      It’s not the OP who is lacking empathy here.

    9. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      While this is a possibility, it’s not OP’s job to diagnose or treat any condition her trainee may have. She is obviously being empathetic because she hasn’t responded with “wtf does that even mean? write clearly if you want me to answer you” and is asking what to do.
      And whether or not the trainee has some kind of disorder, they need to learn to express themselves well enough for people to quickly understand and act upon their messages.
      If OP goes about asking for the trainee to improve their writing skills nicely, the trainee may well feel that they can share such information so they can work around the disorder and continue to function efficiently.
      And run-on sentences without punctuation, as described by OP, are not at all the same as occasional typos and capital letters in weird places.

  13. Trout 'Waver*

    “Or, who knows, her firm may have a rule about doing rejections until the selected candidate accepts the offer — which is smart to do if any of those candidates could be the second choice.”

    Hard disagree. Tell the candidates where they stand when you make the decision, so they can use that information as they will. Intentionally withholding that information for weeks to months while you’re courting another candidate is a jerk move. I understand why companies do it, but the second-place candidate will find out that they were the second-place candidate if they get hired. So you might as well front with them.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      This is true. And a lot of people realize that’s likely what’s happening anyway (the courting of a top pick while they wait for any response), so you might as well just rip the bandaid off.

      1. irene adler*

        Yes. At least reach out to the candidates to let them know a decision hasn’t been made yet.

        Non-communication feels a lot like ghosting – which is a bad look for any employer. Candidates won’t be able to tell the difference.

        1. Bruna*

          And especially with this being a friend – how hard is it to respond “we’re not there yet?”

    2. Bruna*

      OP on #3 here. I was a top-three candidate for another position with this company (not a law firm, by the way) a while back. I reached out to that hiring manager a week after her estimated date for a decision, and she immediately told me they had made an offer to another candidate.

    3. Brooks Brothers Stan*

      I was job searching in the last year and was astounded by how much easier (and less emotionally haggard I felt) it is when companies are up front about where you stand in the recruitment process. Being told, “we like you, but: [other factors currently ongoing]” made my job search much easier than being ghosted after an interview for weeks to only get a rejection in my inbox.

      My current position the hiring manager (now my supervisor) was incredibly up front about the timeline and process, and it was the smoothest transition I’ve made into a position.

    4. Former B4 Manager*

      I don’t know I fully agree here. Yes if you have a drawn out process of “weeks to months” this would be an issue, but if the timeline is shorter it might not be an issue.

      Last year when I hired a direct report for a newly created position, we did all of the in person interviews during a week, and had two candidates that were fairly close. We made a offer to the top one at the end of that week of interviews, but after roughly a week of back and forth we couldn’t come to an agreement on salary (he was switching industries and his benefits were significantly better than the norm for our industry, so he wanted to go well above our posted range for salary).

      We did not clue in the other candidate to this (just told everyone we were still working through the hiring process), and made her an offer the following Friday. She is great and I don’t think she was aware that she wasn’t the first choice, as the only ones who knew about the first choice were me, my boss, and HR.

      Again, this may only work if you actually are on top of things and can stick to a reasonable timeline, but I wouldn’t dismiss this approach out of hand.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        “She is great and I don’t think she was aware that she wasn’t the first choice, as the only ones who knew about the first choice were me, my boss, and HR.”

        And the first candidate, his family, and anyone he told.

        Also, in my experience, HR is the most gossipy group in the company. But that’s just my experience.

        I mean, I wouldn’t rub the person you hired’s face in it, but to assume that she doesn’t know and will never know is a stretch.

    5. Random Commenter*

      I haven’t run into any situations where there were weeks to months between when an offer was made and when it was accepted.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        My weeks to months comment refers to the time between when a hiring decision is made and an offer is accepted. Bureaucracy can add a significant amount of time between the hiring decision and when an offer is extended.

  14. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    #2 – don’t be a martyr. A business will make financial decisions based on what’s best for THEM. If they can afford to give you a bonus, take it. There’s no need to sacrifice your pay voluntarily.

  15. The Tin Man*

    OP1 – Flames…flames on the side of my face

    That is all I have to say in addition to Alison’s advice.

    1. The Tin Man*

      Also that that CEO should go to jail. I hope it’s not a situation where they can just close up shop and not face any personal liability for brazenly breaking the law with no personal repercussions. They committed theft from these intern-employees and should be treated as such.

  16. Philly Redhead*

    OP#1 – please pursue this. I’m a fellow creative, and the idea that creatives should be paid for their work still seems to be foreign to most people (see the Twitter account @forexposure_txt).

      1. LunaLena*

        I’m a graphic designer, and I’ve been planning to make a design that says something like “Exposure is what kills artists when they aren’t paid for their work.”

        Also want to add for LW1 – I totally understand benefiting from the “internship” to get to learn the software (that’s how I learned to use Adobe products, after all; I’m largely self-taught), but there are better ways to do it than to work for others for free. One thing I used to do was go to freelance job boards, find listings that sound interesting, and then create designs based on their specifications. I would then use the ones I liked in my portfolio. If you are, in fact, a designer, I’d also recommend looking into sites like RedBubble or Design By Humans – they are sites where you can create your own artwork and sell it on various products like t-shirts, mugs, or bags. They take care of production, delivery, and customer service, so all you have to do is create the designs. I’ve been doing this as a side gig for years now, and all of my employers have seen it as a plus (I explain it in interviews as “it gives me a creative outlet, lets me experiment with Adobe software, and keeps me in tune with current trends in design”).

  17. Actual Vampire*

    OP 1 – You said this was a “positive experience” for you. Usually, at least part of the positive experience of an internship is learning what the working conditions are like in your field. You just learned that some companies in your field don’t pay any of their designers. Do you want a paid job in design after you graduate? You need to report them.

  18. Lawyer*

    LW1: Not paying you for your work could also mean that the company doesn’t own the intellectual property of the designs they’re selling, you do.

    Even if they have interns sign a work for hire agreement / copyright assignment as part of their internship agreement, without pay (contracts require “consideration” to be valid, meaning each party needs to get something for their trouble) they are likely invalid.

    If they make a lot of money off your designs, a lawyer can help you gently remind them that you could probably sue for the earnings.

  19. Anonymous at a University*

    OP 4, keep in mind that someday this person will have to write outward-facing e-mails, even if not in this job, or she’ll be in another situation where her writing is the first introduction someone gets to her and forms their first impression on. You’re helping her by giving her this kind of feedback, because many people aren’t good readers of their own writing and honestly do believe that what they’ve written is correct and clear because they can understand it themselves. Research has shown that people only catch about 20% of their own mistakes, and it’s not just mistakes here; it sounds like it’s burying the point and getting it lost in unreadable sentences. It’s far more helpful to clarify this for her and ask her about rewriting, perhaps with bullet points as someone else suggested, than to leave it alone as a matter of “empathy” and have her send this kind of writing to other people.

    1. gracie*

      Easier said than done though. Like you say, these people think they’re already writing correctly and they’ve said what they’ve needed to say – how could it be improved? I work at a law enforcement agency and had an employee who immigrated Eastern Europe; English is her second language. Her emails were full of run-on sentences, spelling, and other grammatical errors. Combined with having to using specialized terminology for our work, it was a total gong show and I feared having her be the “face” of our department. I spoke to her about improving her writing and she responded by saying her English is excellent and that she actually proofreads her husband’s research papers, and THEN claimed I was discriminating against her because she’s an immigrant. Well, short of being the target of a harassment case, I let it go. She had to deal with a mountain of questions and feedback from others, yet still couldn’t see why people were confused by her correspondence. She eventually left the department a few months later.

      1. Anonymous at a University*

        If you truly can’t do anything about it, and it sounds like you couldn’t in your situation, that’s one thing. But the LW was wondering whether to say something at all. It doesn’t sound like they have yet in the realm of, “Your writing in general is hard to understand,” rather than, “I have questions about this one particular e-mail.” I think it’s worth saying something and not hesitating because, “Well, what if it makes her feel bad?” If they haven’t made the offer of concrete feedback yet, they don’t know how she’s going to react.

        Part of my career is helping people with grammar, spelling, and style, and I have had people who simply wouldn’t take the advice and insisted on, say, sending out their resume with the name of their university misspelled because “No one pays attention to that kind of thing,” but at least I knew I had offered.

        1. emmaline*

          I am also at a university, and the other day I received a resume from a graduate of our institution – with the institution’s name incorrect. (Think “college” instead of “institute” type of error.) That was the end of that person’s candidacy.

          (Truly, I see so many very sloppy resumes. Please, please, get a proofreader.)

          1. Anonymous at a University*

            I once worked with someone who had a terrible, unprofessional e-mail address on her resume that combined sex and religion: this wasn’t exactly it, but think “godshotb*tch” and you wouldn’t be far off.

            I told her to change it and use her university e-mail. She gave me a scornful glance and said, “You want me to use an e-mail with LESS personality?”

            Yeah. I always wondered how many calls back she got.

  20. Phony Genius*

    On #1, if the writer were working for a company in another state, should they contact the Department of Labor for their own state, or the state where the company is located?

    1. RozGrunwald*

      State where the company is located. The state where the intern lives wouldn’t have any jurisdiction over the company if it’s not located in that state; the most they would do is contact the DOL or Attorney General in the state where the company is located (and they probably wouldn’t bother, TBH).

      I agree with other advice that LW1 may want to talk to an employment lawyer who does class action lawsuits. Conde Nast had to pay about $6m a few years ago to settle a class action lawsuit brought by unpaid interns who were performing duties equivalent to employees. The DOL tightened restrictions around unpaid internships considerably a few years ago – partly as a response to some of the class action suits that had arisen from interns who worked as employees but were not compensated – and offering unpaid internships is now a pretty risky game. IME most companies aren’t prepared, and don’t have the bandwidth, to run an intern program the way it should be run to stay clear of the pitfalls. As an HR consultant I advised clients to pay interns minimum wage and track their time as they would any other employees; if they couldn’t afford to do that, then they definitely would not be able to cover the lawyer’s fees when they got sued.

      1. TootsNYC*

        offering unpaid internships is now a pretty risky game.

        Indeed, Condé Nast doesn’t have internships anymore.
        I think Hearst had a similar lawsuit a few years before them, and that ended their internship program, at least for a while.

  21. employment lawyah*

    1. Should my unpaid internship have been paid?

    You may as well contact a lawyer. If the company isn’t judgment-proof (some are) then they will happily represent you, as federal (and most state) wage acts allow them to get attorney fees over and above your judgment.

    At the least, they can reach out to the local wage folks, or the federal DOL (if the company is subject to federal law, which almost all companies are.)

    Google “NELA yourstate” or “yourstate employment lawyer association” as a start.
    2. Should I offer to give up my bonus this year?

    3. Should my friend have asked me to interview if she didn’t intend to hire me?
    How could she possibly know without an interview? I have a lot of lawyer friends and I know some of them very well, but there’s plenty I don’t know about the specifics of their practice and I would find that out in an interview.

    It’s possible she just gave you a sympathy interview but it’s also quite possible she actually wanted to know more.


    OP #4 – Email productivity rules recommend emails should be no longer than 3-4 sentences for general purpose emails – company wide emails/memos would be different. A lot of times people will use email in place of phone when they should be using the phone, so when you have a “rule” that is easily actionable, it might help.

    The bottle neck here could be if the question is a show stopper. I am assuming the question can wait a little bit and you will get on a call as soon as you can.

  23. Lily Rowan*

    For #5 — when I was in grad school, I had a bunch of consulting gigs, internships, and a part-time job, all connected to my field. I put them all into one “job” on my resume, and said basically that — short-term and part-time roles while a full-time student. If the jobs are unconnected to your field, I’m with Alison that you can just skip them on your resume.

    I’d give different advice to an undergraduate without much work history — as a hiring manager, I’d always rather see that a person worked part-time at a grocery store for five years than no formal work experience at all.

  24. Caitlin*

    LW4, I think the site/app/extension grammarly is designed for this purpose. Since you are not her manager, perhaps you could frame it as something you will both try for a certain amount of time (2 weeks?) to see if it improves communication back and forth. You probably don’t need it yourself, but framing it as A) a professional development opportunity and B) a skill you can work on together instead of a direct criticism of her writing style is probably the kinder path to take.

  25. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    For # 4: I work with students on clear writing basically for a living, and what has always worked are examples from their own writing. Take a sentence of hers that makes no sense, fix it, then show it to her. This does not have to be condescending — I always presented it positively as “you have the right idea; let’s work on making it as clear as possible.” It has to be collaborative, while giving her options. I’ll often say “use a different word here, such as blah or blah or blah, depending on your meaning”, which makes her think about what she actually means and choose the best word for it herself. (This fosters independent thinking, while showing her that you trust her to do it herself.) As long as you anchor your constructive criticism with “yes, that’s a good point/question/idea” and train her in “and this is the most direct way to say it” like any other business skill, her ability should improve pretty quickly, without any bad feeling.

    1. Chinook*

      I have also tried to include phrases like, “I don’t want you to lose your voice/, but have you though about saying it this way?” Or “I am feeling cknfused, did you mean to say X or Y?”.

  26. Student*

    OP #1 – this reminds me of an experience a friend had right out of college.

    Friend had gotten a degree in, essentially, video game design.

    Professor in his program had a video game company as a side business.

    Professor recruits students and former students to work at his video game business.

    Professor tells these inexperienced young folks that there isn’t money until the game is completely developed and sold. So, he will pay them via a “points” system for work they do to develop video games for him.

    Making graphics, developing the code, story-boarding the plot, fixing bugs, etc. all have a points value associated with them. They each gain points for doing bits of work (and, of course, Professor gets points each week for being in charge). When the game is sold off, then the contributors will be paid out according to their score. In the meantime, they develop something for Professor for free to “build their portfolio” and “get experience” and so on. My friend loves scoring points and competing for points with others! He thinks this is the greatest thing and hopes more jobs will have points for him to chase after!

    When my friend told me about this points system, I had to sit him down and spell out that this was an illegal, scam version of paying people in stock options. Tried to explain the whole concept of labor laws requiring that employees be paid, or independent contractors have very clear contracts. Explained the basics of how stock options work and how it was different from the “points system” that Professor had devised – had to point out several flaws and vulnerabilities in the points system (“So how many points have been given out total? What share of the profits do you expect based on that?” “I don’t know – only Professor knows that…!”). There are tax liabilities if Professor should miraculously pay any of his victim/students one day. There were obvious legal IP questions about who owned any of the code/art/story concepts.

    This is all to say, OP, that you are not alone in getting scammed out of money early in your career. It happens in lots of fields, to a lot of people, in a lot of different forms. Labor laws in the US are poorly enforced, to the great detriment of average working Americans. So read more AAM, learn the labor laws, and don’t settle for jobs that pay you less than what your work is worth! Lawyer up to sue/report the scammers whenever you get a good clean shot, because they deserve it and it’s The American Way (TM).

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      OMFG and it’s a professor doing it, so there’s an extra layer of filth involved. Academia has a ton of ethics clauses, this person needs to be taken down.

  27. voluptuousfire*

    LW#4–See if your employee would be willing to add Grammarly as a web browser extension. I added it at the suggestion of a colleague that I had asked about resources to help improve my writing. It has helped quite a bit!

  28. Observer*

    #3- I don’t understand what you are expecting. An invitation to interview is not a job offer. And why would you expect a company to make you an offer without interviewing you, and without looking at other candidates? Do you only want to be given a shot at a job after a company looks at all its other options and decides that none of them are good enough? Or do you expect them to assume that you are the best fit without a serious look at their options?

    Your friend asked you to submit your application because she thought that you had a good chance of being the right choice. If you don’t ever want to be offered an opportunity unless it’s an absolute sure thing, you’re not going to be offered a lot of opportunities.

    1. Bruna*

      Thanks for the reply, and I appreciate your perspective. I never said I expected to be handed the job without an interview, though.

      1. Observer*

        Based on this 1) that a friend and former colleague with whom I worked extremely closely for nearly a decade should not have suggested I apply unless she intended to hire me based on her intimate knowledge of my experience, personality, and abilities;“, though you seem to believe that the interview was little more than a formality and the job would be offered to you unless you really blew the interview.

        So, either I’m misunderstanding what you wrote, or you were expecting them to cut the process short.

        1. sss*

          I read the letter to mean that the OP understood herself to be a serious candidate, though not necessarily the only candidate. She was asked specifically to apply for a professional job at a place where she had previously expressed interest in working. I would also expect in that circumstance that while there were likely other excellent candidates and I wasn’t guaranteed the job, I would be seriously considered and treated as a professional throughout the process.

          For a professional level job I would also expect more transparency throughout the process. At the very least a response saying this is taking longer than we expected but we hope to get back to you soon.

      2. biobotb*

        Well, you did say that you think she shouldn’t have interviewed you without intending to hire you. If the interview was an indication that she intended to hire you, that would make the interview request itself tantamount to a job offer, possibly contingent on going through the motions of an interview. I think the message people are trying to give you is that her interview request was an expression of interest, not a promise of anything.

  29. The New Normal*

    OP #2 – Another perspective for you: you may not need the bonus, but there are others in your company who do. If you deny the bonus, the company may expect others to do so as well, or worse, decide the bonuses aren’t necessary and remove them from compensation packages. Right now my job is secure, but my salary pays for the mortgage and I get benefits for my son and I. My husband’s salary covers all the rest of our living expenses including food and gas and his own health insurance. He makes almost 3x as much as I do. But his job is not stable and we are preparing for a potential layoff. If I was your coworker, that bonus would make a huge difference in my family. It could be the difference in us being able to make it while my husband job hunts.

  30. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    It’s cheeky to discuss a bonus being somehow optional on the part of the employee, it’s a business decision that can only burn you and other employees in the end.

    Believe me, we had push back on bonuses before when they had to be reduced, it’s one of those things a boss has to deal with. Yeah it can grate on you nerves a bit but in reality, it’s nothing someone should be grinding an axe on.

    Continue to advocate for yourself but don’t flip it to be a determent, you have a lot more to lose than the company in the long run.

    In reality, as bosses, we give bonuses because they’re negotiable in most aspects. It’s easier to cut a bonus than reduce wages, since the idea of a bonus is “extra if we can afford it”.

  31. Data Bear*

    Late to the party, but LW #4, I disagree with Alison on one point: I don’t think you should phrase this as a request. Don’t say “could you please;” say “you need to.” There’s no need to soften it because you’re not asking her for a favor; you’re training her to do her job, and one of the things she needs to be able to do in order to do the job well is to communicate clearly. Say it kindly, of course, but don’t pussyfoot around the issue. Just be matter-of-fact. It’s one of the job duties and you’re explaining to her how to do it. No big deal, just another thing to train on.

    1. Observer*

      Yes, but especially when dealing with people you don’t have authority over, giving orders even kindly shouldn’t be the first step unless there is a backstory that makes it necessary. It’s still clear enough to be a reasonable starting point.

      1. Data Bear*

        The key thing here in my mind is that LW #4 is training the new employee, so there is an element of authority in the relationship. If they were just colleagues, I’d agree completely with Alison’s phrasing. But as the new employee’s trainer, I think LW #4 has standing to make it a directive, not a request, and that doing so would be beneficial for the trainee and everyone she intereacts with.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I echo Observer on this one!

      I am the sort of person who just straight out says “I don’t understand what you’re asking, resend this with punctuation.”

      But I am a senior person, with only two people above me in the chain and I’ll say it to them too if I needed to, I have a lot of capital.

      But if it’s a basic coworker, who may know others or have more capital, I’m not going to start giving out that kind of instruction without knowing it can cause blowback.

      It’s easier to be overly nice about it than to step on the wrong person’s foot six levels up that you didn’t know you were stepping on because this coworker has connections.

  32. Just Jess*

    LW#1: Please don’t overlook the option of first going to your former employer with a letter that outlines the issues that the comments have highlighted here. Something like “Perhaps you weren’t aware, but 1) unpaid internships are illegal unless XYZ, 2) copyright law covers ABC, 3) etc… Because of this, I am seeking compensation of $X/hour for Y hours worked (or other clear and reasonable compensation request).” Don’t let them drag their feet on getting back to you. Be ready to pursue other options since they did mishandle this and you are owed compensation. Finding a lawyer can be intimidating and that isn’t your only option.

    PS – I did exactly this and was retroactively compensated for an “unpaid” internship at a mid-sized organization.

    1. Wintermute*

      I can see a benefit to this, the problem with going right to the mattresses, and the state, is that if they have very few assets (and this place probably has almost none, the ‘owner’ is well-paid a salary from the books and they don’t have any capital assets except fairly useless IP) then when faced with a labor investigation and a big bill they might just pack it in, declare bankruptcy and unless the state goes after them criminally then the corporate veil protects the owner’s personal assets.

      They may negotiate and you may get something, as opposed to trying to get blood from a stone when they just pack it up and declare 600 bucks in assets to split among all the defrauded interns

  33. Willis*

    For #3, it sounds to me like your friend’s actions were pretty reasonable and that you were expecting more of an inside track than she intended to give or that would be warranted in many cases. It’s great that she spent time explaining the job to you, but I think it’s a bit odd to expect she was going to give you all the interview topics. If I’m trying to decide between a few candidates, it really doesn’t help my decision to have one given all the questions beforehand and the second and third answering them off the cuff.

    If you are selected for the position, it might be worth thinking about how your relationship with her would need to change, because it sounds like now you are expecting a little favoritism because of your friendship. But in her role as your manager (or prospective manager), she’s right to reframe that into a more professional relationship, even if it seems like it’s making her a stickler for the rules.

    FWIW, I do agree that the recruiter should give you some update if it’s been awhile since the interview, but I don’t think that lack of communication is your friend’s fault or particularly atypical of interview processes in general.

  34. Betsy S*

    #4 – for workday emails, something I’ve been working on myself is “put the request first”
    I think my English usage is good, but I have the bad habit of putting the explanation or context before the ask. Good for a short story, very bad for a work email. Busy managers often skim emails and form their own ideas, and for senior people they want to see a solution presented with a problem. And it’s up to me to send an email that is easy for the manager to find later.

    It’s quite reasonable to work with someone to help them write effective work emails. Short, sweet, request up front, clear subject. (I bet AAM has articles on this but I am not finding them)

    So I’m learning to say something like :
    Subject: Please approve Plan Y for Customer X
    TL;dr: customer X had problem with ABC; Propose Plan Y to fix

    Background: (dates, ticket, details)
    Plan details: (steps)

    1. Kiki*

      Yes, this is great! I often have a tendency to explain before the ask (I think because I grew up in an environment where people tended to doubt me, so I need to “prove” a need before the ask). I really like this explanation of the preferable email format.

      1. Betsy S*

        yeah and from the manager’s point of view, I am sure that knowing the point makes it easier to decide how they want to read it. My boss is probably thinking ‘ do I have to spend 10 minutes reading this to figure out whether I need to read this?”

    2. Agent Diane*

      I adopted this a few years ago and it works wonders.
      For senior people who like making snap decisions all they need is in the opening sentence or two.
      For senior people who need the background, they happily scroll down and read it.

  35. Say What*

    Haven’t had time to read comments, so this could have been addressed.
    Better response to a colleague who writes indecipherably is to take one of their emails and both show them what you had trouble understanding, as well as correct a sentence or two into simple bullet points.

  36. Spencer Hastings*

    The question about the bad writer made me realize something about writing in the workplace, and those “corporate buzzwords” that people get so annoyed by.

    I’ve worked with some fairly bad writers in the past. Fortunately, this has never been my problem because I’m not a manager or editor (many of these bad writers have, in fact, outranked me), but sometimes I’ll receive an email along the lines of “You are correct Spencer the teapot has not yet been painted. You need to flag this in the system there is a checkbox on the upper right-hand side of the screen.”

    I recently noticed that when I read emails from people who write like that, those “buzzwords” stand out more, and seem more grating, than in better-written emails. I’m not sure why. Part of it might be register — a formal/official phrase like “at this time” or “going forward” clashes with the relative informality of the prose style. Or it could be that being a better writer makes you more likely to look like you know what you’re talking about, just a priori. So, if a good writer uses the phrase “touch base” or “reach out”, the reader interprets it in the context of “She is in control of what she says and how she says it, and she’s using a commonly-used phrase as shorthand because people know what it means.” But in the hands of a bad writer, it just makes them look like they’re parroting “corporate speak” in a cargo-cultish way. Those are my armchair theories, anyway.

  37. Malty*

    RE OP 4, my colleague is the worlds rambliest rambler and often asks me to proofread her emails. She recently told me she puts in commas ‘wherever she would take a breath’. It explained a lot

    1. 1234*

      I had a habit of rambling that I’ve learned to reign in. I start with “imagine the reader is a higher up who doesn’t have a lot of time to read emails (even if the reader is my peer). What words can I remove and still make my point?”

  38. Phoenix from the ashes*

    LW1: if I understand Alison correctly, the report to the labor dept could be done without destroying your reference, and if so that would be a really great thing that you can do to stop future interns being exploited, with no cost to yourself.

    If you also decided to investigate making a wage claim it would be worth checking with your lawyer whether the wording of a reference could be agreed as part of this action.

  39. Firecat*

    #2 Yeah there was a huge push to donate your stimulus if you still had a job amongst my circle of friends. I kept mine and put it in savings. For a while I felt guilty about it, as between the covid bill relief, student loan stops, and stimulus I was able to save 4 months of living expenses for the first time in my life.

    I worked at a hospital and felt immune to the layoffs and cuts, but then a few months after all the other businesses suffered hospitals were hit hard. They laid a ton of people off, furloughed many of us, and slashed our benefits to the bone.

    I had to dip into that savings to keep the house current. I’m now down to 3 months savings and I have zero guilt about keeping my money for a rainy day.

  40. Workingforaliving*

    OP #2 here. Before the question was published and seeing the answers, I did send a thank you email, but decided to leave out the foregoing a bonus part. To clarify after reading some of the comments, my bonuses are not part of a compensation package from the company that were in any way agreed upon. They are from my direct bosses. They come from their compensation/pockets, not the company’s revenue (commission based industry). As I said, they are very generous and they don’t have to give them, so I am genuinely thankful and appreciative of continuing to receive them. I think sending the short thank you email was the right thing to do in this case, and I did get a nice reply from one of them, who proceeded to tell me that although it’s been a tough year, we’ve recovered nicely since Spring and the initial ramifications of COVID, and that they have no intention of cutting our bonuses (this is of course if nothing else changes).

  41. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    OP2: one thing is for sure, companies are only generous when they can be. If your firm finds itself in a less favourable position at any time in the future, you can rest assured that bonuses will be lopped, and workers will be made redundant, and nobody on the Board will have any qualms about it whatsoever.

  42. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    OP2 If you forego your bonus, what will happen to that money? it’ll be paid out as dividend to the shareholders, who are probably ten times as rich as you already.

  43. Kristina*

    For LW4, one thing that might help is to immediately reply with “I don’t understand what you’re saying, please rephrase this more clearly.” This is the gold standard for reviewing code (I’m a programmer): it’s not on the reviewer to understand the code, it’s on the coder to write it clearly. It’s not on you to decipher what she might have meant and it doesn’t serve anyone for you to waste time on it.

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