updates: the terrible employee, the secret traveling, and more

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

1. A good employee who’s really a terrible employee

As mentioned in my previous update, I ended up resigning from my position and going elsewhere after the whole Leah debacle. I decided that management was definitely not for me and moved to the education sector, where I’m still employed. At the time the Leah stuff was occurring, she was actually in a department that I had little experience in, and I had been thrown into when her previous manager had quit. I did end up getting promoted to manager, but not in my own department; rather they moved me permanently to Leah’s. That was a huge contributing factor in my decision to leave. At the time I left, Leah was still there, still doing the same old same old. In the time that’s passed though, the entirety of both departments folded when the business was sold and her job was moved to a different city. Last I heard, she was working in the company daycare.

To answer some questions I saw a lot in the comments – we worked with donated goods, listing them online to an EBay like site. Leah would hoard boxes of donations in order to find the most valuable ones. That way her sales numbers would be the highest. I was also trying to observe two different departments in two different physical places, which made keeping an eye on her behavior difficult at times.

Looking back now with some interim years, I can make some observations. At the time I was a college student with no managerial experience suddenly responsible for two departments filled with people at least twice my age who didn’t really see me as an authority. Also the comments comparing this to relationship red flags seem apt now – I was dealing with the aftermath of two different relationships, both with narcissists, and was well trained in ignoring alarming activity and covering for people. I was naive and like to think I would have better judgement now.

I appreciate so much the comments from both posts – at the time they helped me work my way through disciplinary procedures, even if they turned out to be moot in the end. I’ve also decided that management is definitely not for me and am much happier NOT running a department anymore.

2. When is it OK to go over someone’s head?

I reached out to the person who was holding out on us, week after week after week. I finally got ahold of them, I think by leaving a series of increasingly urgent phone calls. (As I recall, this happened right before your column printed.)

The guy who was holding out on me was very hostile toward us and basically told us (in writing) that they weren’t paying us what we were due was because we were in breach of contract etc. etc. Then this person scheduled a Zoom call (where, of course, we weren’t on the record anymore), and —

Turns out, the reason this organization hadn’t paid us the money we were due … was because they were flat broke. They eventually scared up the money, and sent us a series of checks; we deposited the last one just the other day.

I remember that after the advice column went to press, some people in the comments asked whether I was at fault for not escalating this to my boss earlier. I remember flushing hot with anger and trying to defend myself in the comments — I was cleaning up after my boss, whose mismanagement style is legendary, and who was (at the time) snowing me under with a broad array of extremely urgent tasks and offering me no support while I floundered.

Well, joke’s on your commenters and perhaps also me: the board of directors gently but firmly showed the old guy the door a few months ago. I’m the boss now. Still floundering, still cleaning up after years of chronic mismanagement — both in my organization, and among our collaborators.

My hope is that I can clean up this Augean stables, sit tight for a year or so for stability’s sake, and then jump ship for somewhere that actually pays decently. I legit don’t know if I’m worth more than I’m making, but I know I won’t ever get it if I can’t dig myself out of this mess.

3. My coworker is secretly traveling (#2 at the link)

We don’t have HR unfortunately, so there was no way to escalate this without making a big thing out of it. They continued to travel, but because they often “worked from home” the Friday of travel, I just point blank would ask them if they traveled. Hours later they would answer yes, and I would respond, “Oh, I guess I won’t be seeing you in the office for a bit, let me know if you need anything!” And they would then work from home for the two weeks.

Then there was an incident where they were contacted as having been exposed to someone who tested positive with Covid at a *party* with *emergency workers*. They were contacted Tuesday night after the weekend party, worked from home Wednesday and Thursday, and didn’t let us know until Thursday afternoon. I was pissed. I could have opted not to come in to reduce my risk. I mentioned it to my boss, who did nothing. The coworker eventually tested negative twice, thank goodness for all involved.

Now, they work from home all the time because I guess they realized it was best to just set up there if they were going to travel so much and get caught every time (they made it so obvious!). It’s ironic, because this is the person who always complained that they should be the only person allowed in the office without switching off with other people, back when only one person was allowed in the office. I am thrilled. I have no problem and totally understand if traveling is that important to them. All I wanted was for them to follow the rules that were laid out for us without lying.

4. My boss is pressuring me to get pregnant

I have a good update from a letter from a few years ago.

Basically, Fergus got worse and worse over time. After using some of the language you advised, he mostly stopped with me, though! I avoided him as much as I could, and kept my head down, but I wasn’t his only target. After an unknown number of HR complaints, Fergus was let go at the beginning of this year.

The person they promoted to take his position has been doing a FANTASTIC job, especially once COVID-19 hit. He made sure we had what we needed to work from home, sent us home as soon as it was feasible (the company IT dept worked overtime to get all the necessary infrastructure set up on almost no notice), and otherwise made work/life balance as flexible as possible.

I was considering leaving, and applying to other positions, when this change happened. Ever since, I’ve gone back to enjoying my job, I feel appreciated, and I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Daffy Duck*

    LW 2: If you can make a dent in the mess that was left behind that will be awesome – but don’t sell yourself on having to clean up every little thing and have a perfectly running business before jumping ship. You can able to talk about navigating difficult business relationships, taking on new tasks, and being promoted. You are already showing growth.

    1. Forrest*

      Yes, I was also a bit co ferner by the idea they have to finish cleaning up before they can look for something else. If that’s something you want to achieve and you’re up for the challenge, great! But it felt like more of a negative, “nobody’s have me until I have…” and that sounds like a head weasel rather than a true thing.

      1. Shut up brain weasels*

        I’ve named my brain weasels.

        Hannah is the one that’s just straight up mean. She hates me and thinks I’m stupid.

        Monique has a perfect blonde ponytail, she likes to go jogging before work every morning and does 90 minutes of yoga every night. She never eats a bag of peanut butter m&ms in one sitting and drinks kale smoothies. And never leaves the blender to sit overnight.

        Barbara is a mean old lady who lets other people’s nonsense ruin her day. She takes things too personally.

        1. Filosofickle*

          Gerhardt is the sneering, hyper critical creative director who says my work is never good enough.
          Cosmo is the beautiful mean girl who says I’m “all wrong” as a woman — unfeminine, unattractive and unlikeable.

          I also have two sneaky saboteurs who don’t say mean things but keep me from growing:
          Melancholia, my emo teen who tells me not to bother trying, it’s too hard, stay hidden where it’s safe. She’s my dominant voice once I learned to turn down the mean ones.
          Petula, the tantrum-thrower who rebels against anyone telling me what to do, including me.

            1. Filosofickle*

              Yay! I got to these via Playing Big, by Tara Mohr. (It’s a book and a program.) She has a guided visualization to help you see “inner critics” as characters so that you can distance yourself from them and call them out or turn them down. I have little drawings of them, too. It’s fun.

              1. Code Monkey the SQL*

                That’s really clever! More than once I’ve found that articulating the shape of my own mental critic has helped make it shut up – never thought about naming it!

              2. TardyTardis*

                I hire my inner Clifton Webb when I’m editing (super snooty actor who played people who are Like That). And the Mythbusters when I’m doing first draft, because it’s fun to blow things up.

            2. Quill*

              I named mine pain and panic after the disney hercules characters, but also because that’s what they do.

    2. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Also, knowing when something is truly beyond repair and not continuing to pour resources in it (think trying to install an application on a computer that’s been run over by a tank) is a really valuable job skill.

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        Did you work with one of my former coworkers from years ago? He literally spent weeks trying to install recent high-end graphics software on a 10-year-old computer that had been damaged by a lightning surge. At the same time he was insulting my technical skills… which apparently was a form of negging, because he then asked me out. (He was later vocally surprised to learn I was a 21-year-old college intern, not the 14-year-old high school intern he said he’d thought I was. Yes, this 40-ish man had asked me out thinking I was about 14…)

        1. TardyTardis*

          That reminds me of the time our beloved IT staff tried to install Office 365 on a Windows XP computer. Lost everything on the hard drive, including personal photos of a few people who had passed on. Not That I’m Bitter, she says gritting her teeth.

    3. Mockingjay*

      LW2, make a list of all the “fires” and prioritize. Tackle the top 2 or 3. For the rest, can you let these go or delegate to others? Talk to your board as well. “As you know, Cecil’s departure left quite a few things unreconciled. Here’s my take on the most pressing items and my plan to move forward on them. Do you concur with these? Is there something else I should focus on? Can I bring in the other team to help?” The Board of Directors is there to – well, direct you. Let them help you!

      Prioritization has saved my sanity at many a job. No one person can do it all.

  2. SomehowIManage*

    #2, +1000 for Augean Stables reference. Cleaning up this place can be an excellent story to tell in interviews. I know this from personal experience. Multiple times, I have been in jobs that no one else wanted, and dealing with tough situations helped me build my brand. Good luck!

  3. LGC*


    Well, joke’s on your commenters and perhaps also me: the board of directors gently but firmly showed the old guy the door a few months ago. I’m the boss now. Still floundering, still cleaning up after years of chronic mismanagement — both in my organization, and among our collaborators.

    I appreciate that you’re able to laugh at this, because I certainly did! Mostly because I’ve also thought that my bosses were idiots and I could do their jobs better.

    (Spoiler alert: I discovered that I, too, was an Idiot Boss. I suspect that my current team says that I’m a chaotic idiot and they’d have everything under control behind my back, and they are half right about that.)

    That said, it sounds like your former boss was definitely…not ideal, to put it mildly. I’m wishing you the best of luck in getting everything sorted out.

  4. Julia*

    With this fabulously frequent update schedule ON TOP of new original content I’ve become spoiled and absolutely addicted to Ask a Manager! Thank you Alison!

  5. Cat Tree*

    The person in letter 3 who is traveling during the plague, partying, and trying to hide it makes me so frustrated. Hospitals in my area are hovering right at capacity. That means if I have a non-Covid emergency, I might have to get rerouted to a different hospital and delay my treatment. I hope that all the people who are still partying and traveling for leisure really enjoyed it, because it would be even more tragic if they endangered my life for something that wasn’t even fun. /rant

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Yeah, OP says “I have no problem and totally understand if traveling is that important to them.” But even if the coworker is working from home, by traveling they are increasing the exposure risk of everyone they encounter on these trips, of the people at the grocery store when they go shopping, of the people who work/go to school with their spouse/kids (if there are any), etc etc.

      This isn’t a situation where people can decide “I’m willing to take the risk because it’s worth it to me.” It’s like why we don’t let people decide if they’re willing to take the risk of driving drunk. I’m glad OP’s coworker is at least not exposing the office, but they’re still being selfish and dangerous.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Ex virologist here who is still getting angry at people who believe it’s ok to travel and have parties as long as they don’t go into work afterwards. Masks and social distance do not take the risk of infection down to 0%. Nothing does. That person you stood in line with at the shop could still catch the infection from you even if you’re unsymptomatic and standing back.

        Our hospitals are struggling, our health care workers are burning out.

      2. OP 3*

        Yeah, I meant from a professional standpoint, as I was in that mindset giving the update, that I was fine with it– as in, I don’t need to escalate things anymore. From a personal standpoint, I’m furious too with travelers as my husband is high risk. I’ve stopped talking to family and friends who are traveling and who are COVID deniers. Cut out of my life. But the only way I can survive at this job is to separate the two worlds– personal and professional. At work, for me, it’s about following the rules that have been set out to protect co workers. Outside of work, it’s about only allowing space in my life for those who act like decent human beings. Sorry for giving the wrong impression.

        1. The Rural Juror*

          There’s only so much all of us can do. Yes, we should be angry at people who make things worse for all the essential workers trying to combat the pandemic. But there’s only so much anger we can take on before we tip the scales and it starts to be detrimental to our own mental health. Does that mean we should ignore the worries of the world? No, but none of us can carry all that worry by ourselves.

          It’s unfortunate that while you’re working and trying to do your best, you should also end up having to stress about your coworker and their recklessness. I can understand that you feel like it was better for yourself if you let it go (so to speak), and not escalate it. I’m not religious, but I can appreciate the Serenity Prayer: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

        2. Keymaster of Gozer*

          I can relate to that. I’ve cut a lot of people out of my life this year because they believed their rights to not wear a mask trump my desire to not die of a deadly virus. Or that we high risk people are ‘acceptable loss’.

          It’s important to protect your mental health this year as much as your physical and you sound like you’ve got an excellent handle on it.

      3. Gazebo Slayer*

        I love your drunk driving analogy and am stealing it. I’ve been saying “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” a lot.

  6. Madame X*

    “After an unknown number of HR complaints, Fergus was let go at the beginning of this year”
    What a satisfying end. That sentence made me cackle.

  7. Workerbee*

    LW #2, I reread your original post and this update several times, and pardon my reading comprehension failure if so, but—I don’t see that you should feel that any of it was or is your responsibility. I know your org MADE it your responsibility as the new boss, but beyond that title and formal document, you are just stuck with what sounds like an untenable and unfixable situation. Please don’t wait until you are further burnt out or toxic-fixed by that atmosphere to get out.

    You’ve been trying to fix things since forever. Lay out all those examples and make great STAR stories out of them, list all the skills you’ve hired and acquired.

    You’ve always been worth it.

    1. Edwina*

      Sounds perfect for her, though, the toddlers NEED someone who micromanages them and takes care of everything.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Even my childfree self knows that kids do need to work some things out on their own in order to grow. I’m imagining this lady ordering them to go to the bog at only set times etc…

  8. The answer is (probably) 42*

    Regarding #1: My name is Leah and I know it’s a random fake name in this letter but man, I’d rather not be associated with that Leah! >_>

  9. Van Wilder*

    LW #3 – I am so impressed with your creative solution of “I guess I won’t see you…”! And it worked! Annoying that this person thinks the rules don’t apply to them and even worse that your job won’t do anything about it, but good on you for finding a workaround!

    1. OP 3*

      Thanks! This site always has great suggestions of what to say that make your point but are completely innocent and good-natured, I credit AAM with inspiring me to find a chipper way to tell this person that I didn’t want them in the office if they were traveling :)

  10. JelloStapler*

    LW #1- it also sounds like once you had gotten that far, management refused to finish it off… so Leah now knows she can get away with it. it is frustrating being put in a manager’s position without resources help or support. Been there.

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