my employee told me “I prefer not to” when I tried to give him a new project

A reader writes:

I am a senior manager in an industry highly affected by the pandemic (performing arts). Because we are affiliated with a parent organization, we have not suffered the same budget cuts as many of our peer institutions, and have been lucky to retain all of our benefits-eligible staff throughout at their pre-pandemic compensation. Of course, many people are under-employed or have been asked to pivot in new directions temporarily. We’ve been up-front that we can’t adjust compensation at the moment — but again, all of our peer institutions have gone through multiple rounds of layoffs, salary cuts, and/or furloughs, and no one is being underpaid for the field. Nor have any of the pivots been dramatic — no one is managing additional employees or budgets or anything.

Most people have been amazing and willing to learn new skills (figuring out how to adapt for a virtual environment). Some people (including me) have complicated caregiving situations at the moment, and we have been flexible and accommodating given the pandemic.

Today I got a response that really baffled me. I sent a cool opportunity to collaborate with a partner agency to a direct report of mine who I know is currently under-employed. (He’s non-exempt and has been clocking in for a shorter average week than he’s budgeted for. I’ve asked and this is not due to a change in his home schedule, but rather just due to not having as many projects as usual.) It would be working with people at his level doing something slightly beyond the scope of what he usually does for us, but in line with his existing skills and talents. It should not take more time than he has available, and of course would all be on the clock and paid. He replied “thank you for thinking of me, I would prefer not to.”

I don’t know what to do with this. “I would prefer not to” seems like … an incredibly inappropriate response? I would never have dared! The only thing I could think of is if one of the people at the other agency is someone he can’t work with, but even so he could have disclosed that.

Questions that are swirling for me:
– Is there some generational difference? Does he think he’s setting an appropriate boundary? (I’m GenX, he’s a Millennial.)
– Is it unfair for me to think that our employees should be grateful to still be employed and therefore jumping at the chance to do literally anything? I am not trying to be exploitative, but is this something where I’m wildly out of step with the norms?
– I think this reflects badly on him! Is that fair?

I think it’s possibly symptomatic of a larger disconnect, as I feel so fiercely loyal right now, given the disruption to our industry.

I wrote back and asked these questions:

1. Is he still being paid for full time work even though he’s working less than that?
2. How far outside his usual role is the project you suggested?
3. Is it anything that a lot of people find unpleasant/uncomfortable — like public speaking, sales, etc.?

The response:

1. He’s a part-time employee, budgeted for 25 hours a week. He’s currently working closer to 17 on average. In the first 6 months, we paid part-timers up to their schedule, though we are now just paying for time worked (but have encouraged things like professional development workshops and networking on the clock for those who are coming up short on hours). I am not aware of any other gigs or responsibilities on his plate.

2. It’s basically the same role, just on a different project. His regular job is running two programs, one of which is on hiatus entirely and the other of which has pivoted to virtual. I can’t imagine this project would require anything that he hasn’t done with the other programs.

3. Nope! No sales, no public speaking, nothing that raised a red flag for me at all — unless there’s something about the partner organization or a person there that I don’t know anything about, but I would hope he would have brought that up to me. And it would of course all still be virtual.

Okay, well, Bartleby the Scrivener is alive and well and working for you! This is very exciting.

I agree that a flat “I would prefer not to” when asked to take on a new project that you clearly have room for in your schedule is not usually a thing that’s done. It’s is fine to say “I would prefer not to because of X — is it something someone else could do?” or so forth. What’s weird here is the complete lack of anything else in his response.

Is this guy, by chance, very literal? Is he someone who’s normally not super forthcoming with context or details without prompting? If so, I’d just figure this is in keeping with what you already know about how he communicates. Odd, but not necessarily alarming.

Or, could your wording have given the impression that you weren’t saying “here’s a project I’d like to assign you” but rather “is this something you’d be interested in and excited about?” If it was the latter, maybe he just took at at face value and gave you a literal answer. (His wording would still be a little … sparse, but not everyone speaks Office really well.)

In any case, regardless of the explanation, the next step is the same — go back to him and talk some more: “I was hoping you’d be up for taking on the X project because of (reasons). Can you tell me a little more about why you’d prefer not to?”

Who knows what you’ll hear. Maybe he’s happy with his decreased hours and doesn’t want to add to them. Maybe he’s stressed AF right now and having to learn something new in the middle of it is more than he can take. Maybe he feels like his role has already expanded more than he’s comfortable with and he’s trying to set a boundary (unskillfully, but still). Maybe his family has an intense blood feud with the family of the person he’d be collaborating with. Or maybe he just misunderstood and thought you were gauging his interest level. Who knows — but ask. From there you’ll have a better idea of where to go next.

And it’s still your prerogative to just assign him the work if you need to, although you shouldn’t do that without finding out where he’s coming from.

To answer your questions:

– Is it a generational difference? I don’t know, it could be! I’m Gen X like you and a flat, context-less “I’d prefer not to” seems bizarre to me too. I think a lot of generational stereotypes are BS, but it’s true that there’s a trend toward younger employees advocating for themselves more … which is a good thing when it’s done well (the problem here is that it wasn’t). There’s also more discussion in the culture about setting reasonable boundaries with employers, although I don’t know that it’s really happening more in practice.

– Is it unfair for you to think your employees should be grateful to still be employed and thus happy to do literally anything? Well … yes and no. Being grateful for employment in an industry that’s facing massive cuts is one thing, but being grateful to a specific employer is a different thing — your organization isn’t keeping people employed out of altruism, but because it’s presumably good for your business. It does sound like you’re going out of your way to treat people well and you deserve kudos for that, but don’t fall in the trap of expecting employees to be grateful to the organization itself. That’s a recipe for all kinds of messed up dynamics where people feel pressure not to act in their own interests. And “happy to do literally anything” — I think that was probably hyperbole, but in general during circumstances like these most employees will be glad to be able to contribute productively as long as the work is reasonably within the scope of what they signed on to do. Some will be glad for opportunites outside that scope as well, but not always — and that’s not unreasonable.

If this is the same role your employee has been doing all along, just on a different project — and still virtual and within the hours he’s agreed to work — it sounds pretty reasonable to think he’d take it on.

– Is it fair for his response to reflect badly on him? Too early to say! Talk to him and learn more before you conclude anything.

– Is it symptomatic of a larger disconnect because you feel fiercely loyal right now, given the disruption to your industry? It could be! In situations like this, some people will respond like you have — with increased loyalty and a determination to work hard, given all that’s going on around you. Other people won’t — sometimes because they aren’t that committed to the industry to begin with, sometimes because they have other things in their lives they’re focusing on — and that’s okay. Both responses are legitimate; they’re just reflective of people coming from different places.

But talk to him and see what’s going on.

{ 637 comments… read them below }

    1. Jenny*

      It’s weird because people don’t really say “I prefer not to” as much today. It’s almost a direct reference. My brain immediately jumped there too.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        Really? I use it, and I didn’t realize I was an outlier. (To be clear, I would not use it the way it was done here.)

          1. Jenny*

            Ah, I feel like every single American Lit class I have ever taken has involved Bartleby (I have an English minor). It popped up in law school too.

              1. Warm Weighty Wrists*

                I once knew a dog named Bartleby, and his entire vibe was preferring not to. I adored him. He tolerated me.

                1. Pennyworth*

                  I met a dog at the park who should have been named Bartleby: he sat and stared into the distance while other dogs approached and departed, put off by his definite ”I prefer not to know you” vibe.

                2. Quoth the Raven*

                  I have an Australian Cattle Dog. Her entire vibe is that, too, though I’m fairly sure she adores me back.

          2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            I use it too and I’ve never heard of Bartleby until today. (I’m an Old Millennial, FWIW.)

            Room for me in the chorus? I’m too old to be a millennial, though.

            1. GreenDoor*

              I”m a Gen-Xer and I use that phrasing, only because I was taught that saying “I don’t want to!” or “I don’t like that!” sounds bratty. Using “I prefer” implies it’s my preference…but I”m open to suggestions.

              For this OP, I’d do as Alison suggests and get more information. But if this was more of an assignment that you definitely need this particular person to do, maybe you didn’t make it clear enough that it’s not optional. (You phrased it as “an opportunity to partner with,” which implies that it can be passed by if one is not interested.

        1. Jenny*

          I did leave out the crucial “would”. I feel like we speak more in present tense rather than conditional tense.

          1. Foxy Hedgehog*

            Agreed. “I prefer not to” is one thing. “I would prefer not to” is a clear literary reference.

            1. Formerly Ella Vader*

              I’m Canadian, have never heard of Bartleby the Scrivener, and would use “would” in a context like this:

              If you offered me the opportunity to take on another project, I would prefer not to. However, if you then elaborated and said that it was important to the future of the business and nobody else could do it, of course I would be willing. Or if you told me the invoice on my current project was about to run out.

              To me, the “would” has to be there when it’s a hypothetical conversation (the first part of the sentence is the subjunctive, I think). When it’s an actual situation, then “I can change the big water jug by myself when necessary, but I prefer not to” .

              I also wonder if the grammar question is a clue to the employee interpreting this differently than the manager. “How would you feel about taking on another project?” “I would prefer not to” – to me, that also invites the manager to give more information and sell it better, as well as providing a clue that the manager could ask why not, and adjust the explanation as needed.

              Besides all the other possible reasons suggested by Allison and commenters, what if the employee wants other part-timers to have a chance at this work?

              1. AutolycusinExile*

                I completely agree – I’m American, a young millennial, and have not heard the Bartleby reference before. I would absolutely use ‘would’ in this context and not think twice about it (it’s a hypothetical, just like this sentence was!) and also agree that the ‘would’ opens the door for further conversation. Honestly, I can’t think of a single time I’ve heard someone say “I prefer not to” in real life without the “would”! Maybe it’s a regional thing, but this reference is not nearly as common as many people seem to be assuming it is.

                If not for OP’s confusion, I’d have assumed that the employee has a good/honest relationship with OP, took them at their word that they were asking his initial opinion about taking on the work, and is waiting to hear more about the project and/or how much OP would like him to do it. I would not interpret this phrasing as a refusal without more conversational context to point me in that direction. Obviously OP knows the most about how the initial conversation went, so I bow to their interpretation, but his response is absolutely one I would give if I thought there was any wiggle room about taking on the project and wasn’t particularly interested in doing so. I would still do the project without complaint if my manager told me they needed me to.

        2. Dwight Schrute*

          Same! I’ve definitely said it, maybe not at work or in a similar context at work, and I’ve never heard of Bartleby until today!

        3. char*

          Same. To me, “I would prefer not to” is just an unremarkable sentence that I might use on occasion. I had no idea it could be taken as a reference to anything.

      2. alienor*

        I’m a former English major and definitely thought of Bartleby, and I agree “I prefer not to” sounds a little formal and archaic. I would say “I’d rather not.” (Although I wouldn’t say it to a direct request from my boss!)

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, I think the lack of a “would” in that sentence is really off-putting. If the report had said “I would prefer not to” maybe the OP would have recognized that they needed to discuss it further. I wouldn’t say “I’d rather not” to a direct request from my manager, either. It rarely comes up, though, we have a good relationship and she’s very open about when a request is something that just has to be done no matter what else is on my plate, and when it’s one that she’d like to see done but understands if I don’t have the time to do it just then. It’s not as if a request from my boss automatically means that I have to drop everything else… Clear communication is the key here.

      3. Working Hypothesis*

        I kind of wondered whether he’d read Bartleby and wanted to try out his technique and see what actually happened when one used it in a business setting. :) I know I always kind of wondered, myself. Maybe he thinks a time when the entire office is a bit overstaffed and under-employed is a good time to try it out.

      4. Elle by the sea*

        To me, “I prefer not to” is a completely normal statement (not in this context, though – it warrants some explanation) and I do use it occasionally. I would not have made this connection, but the fact that Alison did is amazing and amusing.

        I’m an old millennial, but I feel so gen-x.

      1. Julia*

        This was Alison’s first thought too; it’s in her response. I’m mildly surprised to see people bringing it up in the comments as though she didn’t say it right there in the post.

      2. Anonymity*

        It’s risky. Does he also prefer not to get his steady paycheck in this uncertain time of Covid? I think not.

        1. Rach*

          I mean, he’s only working 17 hours a week in the arts, I assume he has other forms of financial support.

          1. Self Employed*

            Maybe he likes the other job/side hustle better or it pays more? Maybe it’s helpful to have time to devote to it during core business hours and taking on the new project would interfere with that arrangement?

    2. JSPA*

      Came here to say, “Bartleby lives!”

      I had a housemate who did this. Very intentionally Bartleby, and would make a “champions / for the win” gesture, when correctly identified. Didn’t stop doing it at that point, though.

      1. Clorinda*

        I wonder if it was some weird deadpan literary joke, actually. Does this guy have that kind of sense of humor?

        1. JSPA*

          Presumably not a joke someone would make if they wanted the job, though. So whether or not it’s a reference, an allusion, a borrowed phrase being somewhat mis-applied, the underlying problem still exists.

          Frankly, if the situation is, OP made the job sound optional when it was in fact an assignment (“I was thinking X would be a good fit” as opposed to, “I need you to do X”) OP can and should say,

          “Though I phrased it politely, you doing X was a job assignment. Not a suggestion. However, if there’s a concrete, specific reason you’re pushing back strongly on X–or on any other job duty–I’m willing to listen. So, what’s up?”

    3. Elsewhere*

      Which was first published in 1853. MILLENNIAL, not so much. The short story by Herman Melville is a favorite of college English professors who can’t stomach yet another semester of Moby Dick.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        I always wondered if Ishmael just lucked into hearing the sermon on Jonah and the whale, or if the preacher used that one every Sunday. Either way, it is actually a pretty crappy sermon, theologically. It entirely misses the point.

        1. meyer lemon*

          Given (if I am remembering correctly) the intense nautical theming of the church, I’m guessing the preacher had a very constrained set list.

      2. E*

        Oh, is this why everybody here seems to have heard of it – it gets taught in America a lot? I’m extremely well-read because I don’t do much else with my life, yet I’ve never once heard of this. Must be one of those things like peanut butter sandwiches that one misses out on through not being American. Sounds fun! I might see if I can find it.

        I haven’t read Moby-Dick, but because I’ve read “Leviathan, or the Whale” by Philip Hoare I could easily pretend I had at a pretentious dinner-party.

          1. SunriseRuby*

            It’s been years since I read “Bartleby the Scrivener”, and as I remember it, it has its moments of hilarity, but the ending (a bit of a spoiler here) is rather sad.

        1. Anonymous literature major*

          Same here! I majored in English lit in uni and consider myself fairly well-read but I’m not American so while I recognise the name I really am not familiar with the text or the character. I was surprised so many people were! Guess I have another book to read.

          I have read Moby Dick and I really enjoyed it.

        2. meyer lemon*

          I am not American but do live on an island, so I’m contractually obligated to read only the Melville stories that have to do with the sea. That being said, I am familiar with Bartleby, mostly because of the Bone comics.

        3. Mr. Shark*

          What? You’ve missed out on peanut butter sandwiches? What a bummer! (unless you have peanut allergies, of course).

          As for Bartleby the Scrivener, I don’t know if it’s a staple in the U.S. From what I remember, it was taught in our higher English lit classes, so maybe the kids not in Honors English would not have read it.

          1. Richard Hershberger*

            I think this is about right. I wouldn’t expect to find it in standard English high school classes. In honors it fills the Melville niche without asking the kids to read Moby Dick, which would be both unrealistic and unwise. If more than a short story is thought necessary, Billy Budd holds the middle position.

            1. Littorally*

              It also depends on the class and the teacher. I was in AP US Lit in high school and we did not read any Melville.

              1. Insert Clever Name Here*

                Yeah, I’m American and never read Melville in either my honors high school classes or any of my college lit classes.

              2. AutolycusinExile*

                Yep, can confirm. I was in higher-level English and literature courses throughout both high school and college and never read any Melville either. Moby Dick was actually intentionally taught in the non-honors English class in my middle school, so to see other people associating Melville with advanced-level classes caught me off guard! Goes to show that it’s all in how it’s taught, and not in the book itself, a lot of the time.

                1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

                  I read Moby Dick in a non-honors high school English class myself. Junior year, as I recall. But that was back in the 1960s (God, I’m old!) so who knows if that would happen now.

              3. briscow*

                my high school ap english teacher had us read moby dick for 9 weeks — a full one-quarter of the school year!

        4. Richard Hershberger*

          Moby Dick really is all it’s cracked up to be. It is neither short nor light reading, but it comes through, for those willing to put in the effort.

          1. Working Hypothesis*

            Our high school English teacher gave us Moby Dick — as well as a list of the chapters in it we didn’t have to bother reading if we didn’t want to. I actually read them just because I’m a curious type, but I kinda understand why they didn’t think there was necessary a great deal of literary value in a chapter consisting entirely of the taxonomy of whales.

        5. GemmaBeth*

          I’m American (elder millennial) have read pretty much all the “classics” that American schools typically require, plus whatever my librarian uncle gave me, and had never heard of it before today.

        6. amcb13*

          My dad used to tell it to my sister and me as a bedtime story. Imagine my shock in 9th grade English when my teacher handed out copies and I discovered my dad’s weird yarn was written by Melville!

      3. Archaeopteryx*

        Bartleby is referenced in pop culture a fair amount, though, as well. So people can know the reference even if they have an actually read the story (which is great BTW!) For example, they reference it in Archer.

    4. Archaeopteryx*

      Yes, I wouldn’t disregard the scrivening angle, and I mean that in all seriousness. That wouldn’t explain why he doesn’t want to do the project, but it would explain the phrasing of his response: as a former performing arts person myself, I can confirm that many of us/them tend to have a higher than usual tendency toward using literary and pop-culture quotes as our actual responses to things. My guess is that he took this an optional and is declining, and is using that exact very specific phrasing because he’s getting a mild kick out of quoting Bartleby the Scrivener.

      1. Anne of Green Gables*

        I’m a lit nerd and would be excited to get to use this line. But I would either A) not actually do it, as it wouldn’t really be appropriate in a work context or B) do it, wait a beat, then say something else to my supervisor. I wouldn’t leave it there. So if it is a “joke” or just grabbing a chance to use the line, to me it reads like a joke taken to far.

      2. pope suburban*

        Am still in performing arts, can confirm that my first thought was that this was deliberate on his part. The jokes we make around here are very, very different from the humor anywhere else I’ve worked, and this would 100% be something that I’d hear in my current workplace.

    5. Heffalump*

      That was my first thought, but I see I’ve been beaten to it! Some years ago I saw a woman at my local supermarket carrying an “I would prefer not to” tote.

    6. SwitchingGenres*

      I have an “I would prefer not to” mug from Melville House that I used everyday at my last job!

      1. Rebecca1*

        Is the mug dishwasher-safe? Microwaveable? I need to know before I request it for a Valentine’s Day gift.

    7. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

      Even if he’s not referencing Bartleby the Scrivener directly, the phrase has seen a resurgence with the extremely online millennial set thanks to the meme of Slavoj Zizek wearing a t-shirt that says “I WOULD PREFER NOT TO,” in reference to Bartleby. My guess is that if Melville isn’t his reference point, Zizek is.

      1. pancakes*

        The shirt is almost certainly from Melville House, like the mug SwitchingGenres mentioned earlier. They sell both on their site. They have published at least a couple of Zizek’s books and hosted events featuring him. (Not a millennial, fwiw, but I’ve been to other readings they’ve hosted in Brooklyn).

        1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

          Yep, that’s the one. It’s a popular reaction meme, so even people who aren’t familiar with Melville or Zizek might spout it off.

    8. BetsCounts*

      When the blog was a little smaller and Allison would send out requests for ‘managing characters in fiction’ I would *always* ask for a Bartleby response! And now I have one!!

    1. OrigCassandra*

      After going through what some literary critics and even psychologists have noted looks like a serious and untreated case of major depression.

      Not diagnosing the OP’s report, just reiterating Alison’s suggestion that a lot of people are pretty out of gas right now (however that happens to manifest itself in individual people) because pandemic. Even seems within the realm of possibility that the literary reference was deliberate, or at least conscious.

      1. Boof*

        It’s a fictional story but, I don’t think there was any treatment for depression back then, either. ECT wasn’t introduced to the 1930s (sounds brutal I know though I’ve had at least one person swear by it; they get gradually more catatonic over a few years, get a round of ECT, and are better for a long while)

    2. Richard Hershberger*

      I assumed as soon as I read the headline that it was an intentional reference to Bartleby the Scrivener. Then it turned out this was in an arts organization. Even coming from a different art form, the intentional reference is nearly a sure thing. Were I the manager, I would totally come back with Bartleby’s unhappy end.

      But seriously, I wonder if this guy isn’t being cute. He might have a real reason, even a good reason, not to take on the work, but didn’t want to spoil the quotation with elaboration. I would give him one cycle to expand on his answer. If he turns out to be a Melville fan, with a real reason not to take on the project, then give him a high five for the reference and move on.

    3. Crowley*

      …. spoiler warning?! I’ve literally never heard of this before today and from the comments I’m not the only one! :)

  1. Excel Jedi*

    Not generational. I’m a millennial and I would *never* reply like that, particularly via email. If anything, we’re more verbose about our opinions, I think.

    1. Arctic*

      I don’t want to make you feel old, and I am an Old Millennial, but more and more often when people are talking about young people at work they mean Gen Z not Millennial. Gen Z is in their early 20s at the upper level. Just at right out of college age.

      1. Little Fox*

        Thank you Arctic! I’ve been saying this for a while – often when it comes up in conversation now a days it’s Gen Z not Millennials! I personally consider myself Oregon Trail Generation :)

        1. londonedit*

          I still think it’s the ‘Is it a generational thing (he’s a Millennial)’ that’s giving people that knee-jerk reaction – it reads like another ‘Is this just kids these days????’ thing.

          1. Forrest*

            Yes, it reads oddly to me because millennials have been in the work place for between 3-22 years. Unless you’re in a *very* ageing industry, you’ve had plenty of time to get used to their quirks!

          2. Tuesday*

            I didn’t read it that way, for what it’s worth. My take is just that she was saying, are we having communication issues because we’re different ages/ belong to different generations? She was taken aback by his response and wrote in for a reality check. She didn’t assume she was right, and he was wrong, which is good. I get why people get uncomfortable with talk about generational differences because it often involves criticism, but I don’t think that’s what the letter writer was doing.

        2. JSPA*

          Sure, but that still leaves us wondering if OP meant “millenial” in the formal sense*, or was using it as shorthand for “young” or “post-millenial” or who-knows-what.

          Generation X: Born 1965-1980
          Millennials: Born 1981-1996
          Generation Z: Born 1997-2012

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            She said he’s a Millennial, so I’m asking that we assume he is in fact a Millennial, based on the site rules about taking LWs at their word (because otherwise the comment section devolves into an unhelpful mess).

            1. Bartleby's Manager*

              Thanks! I did, in fact, mean it literally. We also have gen Z employees. He is a Milennial. I’m not trying to be reductive or to get into too much generation-splaining.

    2. Justme, The OG*

      I’m not particularly keen on long emails but I would also never ever respond as that employee did. Also a Millennial.

    3. Anti anti-tattoo Carol*

      Yeah. Older millennial here. Seconded that refusing outright is not a generational thing, it’s just a weird thing; we’re more likely to give a narrative reply with reasoning as to why we might not be able to take things on.

      I admit I had a knee-jerk reaction at the question of if it is a millennial thing (we’re older than people think! Millennial young folks! We’re far from lazy or out of touch with norms!), especially because generational lines aren’t particularly useful (Adam Conover goes over it and it’s GREAT). BUT. I would agree with the assessment that we prefer to create and uphold boundaries. They are among my favorite things.

      RE: being grateful to just have a job? That’s tough to parse through. You shouldn’t be grateful to your employer for doing the bare minimum (employing you and treating you well) because it sets the standards too low. You *should* acknowledge that there are people who are unemployed and struggling, and that there are employers who are *not even* doing the bare minimum. Expecting your job to treat you well and pay you equitably is separate from acknowledging your privilege in a horrific time and understanding that not everyone has access to the things you do.

      1. londonedit*

        Yes, my year of birth is often lumped in with ‘Millennials’ and I’m 40 this year. Millennials are out there with careers spanning nearly 20 years at this point, we’re not the ‘kids these days’ people like to moan about.

        1. Media Monkey*

          i’m 46 with a fairly senior job and a 12 year old kid. and i’m only a couple of years out of some “millennial” definitions (although i would consider myself Gen X). pretty far from “kids these days”

      2. Smithy*

        As another ancient Millennial – I actually think a slight generational divide may reasonably be at play. While it’s certainly not “all Millennials”, I do think that Millennials are far less likely to be grateful to their employer for their job – as opposed to being grateful for circumstances.

        A lot of us professionally came of age where the nature of our education, chosen professions, and the previous recession hit my peers very differently. Some people had their early careers wildly upended, and others seemed to be on a path more aligned with job trajectories of the Boomer generation. And because they’re people I know – it’s not (always) because John is a disaster and Jane is brilliant.

        While I don’t think the response was the most professional – I do see this interaction having a generational hue to it. Even if the direct report happens to be 39. I also have a number of friends working in/around the performing arts, all in their late 30’s/early 40’s, and the massive decimation of the industry I’ve found to hit some people really hard emotionally. One person has seen 75% of her colleagues let go while her salary was slashed, and even though should could easily work in another industry (she works in accounting), her survivors guilt on top of COVID generalized anxiety is a huge mental block.

        This staffer may not have family/childcare COVID burdens, but I’d still cut him personal slack for one less than professional email. Not to mention, it may be this partner is a notorious time suck and would put him well over 25 hours a week or other rather mundane reasons people don’t want to partner with other teams/programs.

        1. Lacey*

          Yeah, I think the gratefulness is definitely a difference between pre-millennials and millennials on down.

          But, the “I’d prefer not to” is just odd. I think millennials are much more likely to draw-up 10 different drafts of an email going for just the right tone and wording to explain themselves, than to just tersely decline. Obviously that’s a huge generalization, but it’s more typical in my experience.

    4. Karo*

      Yep! I’d certainly say that to a friend who asked me to do something disagreeable, and I’d certainly tell a boss that I don’t want to do something and *why* if appropriate, but I wouldn’t just say “I would prefer not to.” (And, in case you couldn’t tell from such a long sentence when all I really needed to say was “yep!” I also overexplain frequently.)

    5. CC*

      I will say that, as a Young Millennial, I think there’s a divide between us and Elder Millennials here –especially when you get to the two or three years of folks who are right up against the divide with Gen Z. Gen Z DEFINITELY tends to state things bluntly digitally and I’ve seen it filter out into younger millennials, too, even in the workplace (although I still tend towards verbosity, but that might just be the law school in me)

      1. Lacey*

        As an Elder Millennial, totally agree that there’s a divide. Not sure I’ve seen the bluntness part, but I also don’t work with anyone much younger than I am.

      2. BookLady*

        I’ve seen a lot of millennials sharing things online like “No is a complete sentence” and “You don’t have to explain your boundaries to anyone.”

        Personally, that rubs me (a millennial) the wrong way because I think it can often be the kinder thing to do to give an explanation so you aren’t leaving someone out to dry or making them question your motivations. Especially in a workplace scenario or a place where you want to maintain a good relationship.

        But I do think there are a lot of people in this generation who have no problem with just a flat “no” in response to a request.

        1. Insert Clever Name Here*

          A big part of the “no is a complete sentence” and “you don’t have to explain your boundaries” comes from the fact that saying “no because X” or “I have a boundary about that because X” can frequently lead to the other person arguing with you about X and why that’s not really a good reason to say no, and Suzy also has X but said yes, etc., etc. An explanation is the kinder way when you know that the person you’re talking to is reasonable and isn’t going to argue with you, but even Miss Manners agrees that saying “no, I will not be able to attend” is a perfectly polite response.

          (You are obviously welcome to continue disliking the sentiment, I’m not trying to argue you out of it but just give some context that you may or may not have had previously. I am also a millennial,)

        2. Emma*

          “No is a complete sentence” is an anti-sexual assault slogan – it’s about recognising that people don’t need to have a “good enough reason” to not want to engage in sexual activity.

          Obviously, it doesn’t apply to the vast majority of work situations, but it’s not normally intended to.

    6. irritable vowel*

      If anything, I think the generational stereotypes are the opposite from how the OP is considering them – GenXers are slackers, while Millennials are hustlers.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Can’t speak to the state of your vowel, but the reply irritated this Gen X non-slacker.
        This entire line of zodiac style stereotyping by birth date is just that — stereotyping. Useless.

      2. A*

        As a Millennial…. I have never heard the stereotype of my generation being hustlers. Quite the opposite actually.

        I wish that was the stereotype I run up against!

    7. not owen wilson*

      I’m gen z (or a cusp, I guess — I was born in 1998 and started my first job out of college last year). Also chiming in to say that this is weird even if the LW might have fudged the age brackets. I really don’t think this is a generational thing. I try to be good with boundaries, especially as a young woman working in a research lab, but I wouldn’t dream of sending an email like this without context or an explanation. I do have a friend that thinks she’s being firm in her emails and texts, but actually just kinda comes off as a jerk unless you know her in person. She’s an outlier though. Most of the people I know are pretty solid at email etiquette, which makes sense when you consider we’ve all grown up online.

    8. PolarVortex*

      Also, many of us earlier millennials were young (or youngish) workforce when the recession hit. We’ve lived through enough job uncertainty that I think we’ve been pretty good at being grateful and willing to be flexible for being employed this go-around.

      Or maybe that’s just me.

    9. FormerTVGirl*

      Yep — Old Millennial here. If anything, I (and most every other Millennial I know!) have trouble keeping our email word counts down.

    10. Librarian of SHIELD*

      If anything, I think we millennials are a generation of guilt-ridden workaholics. We’ve been told our whole lives that we can accomplish anything if we work hard enough, so we’re used to working a lot. I can’t think of any of my friends or relatives who would turn down a potential work assignment without trying to give some sort of explanation of why it wouldn’t work out.

    11. A*

      Agreed. I’m a strong self advocate and have no problem requesting clarification on the business need / justification for the request / the thought process of me being the best fit. But it would never occur to me to just say ‘nah, I’d rather not’.

      ….but then again, I have an older colleague that recently joined my employer and will literally say ‘no, thanks’ to assignments and I had no idea that was even an option (albeit not a recommended one) so I might just be out of the loop on this new wave-of-no.

    12. ele4phant*

      I mean, I am a millennial, and I would (and have!) pushed back on things, but you know, with an explanation of why.

      Also as an older millennial that manages younger millennials and older Gen Zers, I *do* sometimes make a purposeful effort to kick work to people that I think will find interesting and do not mind at all if they’re like “Actually I’m not interested in this/don’t have time for this”, I’m happy to move it.

      Sometimes, sometimes not. Sometimes I just need bodies to do the work. But, I try to make it clear when I’m actively needing to them to take the work because someone needs to do the work, and when it’s an opportunity I think they might want but can say no too.

      I feel my role as a manager is two-way, yeah, its to get the work done for the benefit of the company, but it’s also to help people develop their skills and career trajectory.

      I can totally see how maybe your report though this that lens, that you as his manager was kicking him an opportunity, not a request.

  2. ThatGirl*

    I’m an Old Milennial, but nobody I have worked with in my age group has ever responded like that to a new project! I think this guy is just … odd. And I’d be very curious *why* he’d prefer not to. I could MAYBE see pushing back on a project that was wildly out of my wheelhouse, or if I was overloaded with work already, but never with that flat of a response.

    1. ChemistryChick*

      I’m also an Old Millennial and I would never respond like that.

      Reminds me of the time a coworker responded to a supervisor’s request with “I’m not really passionate about that.”

        1. Mal*

          A response like this is in line with the kind of toxic environment that expects employees to be grateful.

          1. Jean*

            It was a joke, but IMO it’s perfectly in line with someone responding to a work assignment with “I’m not really passionate about that.” No one cares if you’re passionate about doing your job, that’s your own business.

    2. londonedit*

      I’m a Very Old Millennial/one of those in-between people and I agree, I’d never respond to a request from my boss like this.

      The only thing I can think is that maybe he genuinely didn’t realise it was a request – I can totally see someone saying ‘Thank you for thinking of me, but I’d prefer not to’ if the OP had indeed framed it as more of a ‘Hey, here’s an additional project that you might fancy, let me know’ than a ‘This project has come in and I need you to work on it’. When I email a freelancer to ask if they have time/space to work on a project for me, they will respond with ‘Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m afraid I can’t take this on at the moment’. And that’s fine, but I’m not their boss. The ‘I prefer not to’ is odd, but more in line with a response of that sort than what you’d expect from a direct request to complete a task. So I’m wondering if he really did think it was an optional, ‘Hey, just thought I’d see if you fancied this’ thing.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        I think this is probably more likely to be the case in OP’s situation. We read a lot of letters here from bosses who think they’ve been clear in their wording to their subordinates, but it turns out they weren’t as clear as they thought they were. I’m guessing Bartleby here just misunderstood that his boss was giving an assignment and not just making an offer.

        1. Jean Pargetter Hardcastle*

          As I was reading this letter, I thought the same thing – as a reader, it seemed to me that the boss asked if Bartelby was interested and Bartelby wasn’t. I didn’t get the sense that Bartelby was given a direct assignment, possibly because of the language “cool opportunity.” Granted, at my job it’s fairly common to pass up on an opportunity if no staff are interested in taking it on, so maybe I’m coming from a different perspective.

          1. Phoebe*

            Yeah, that definitely reads as an opportunity that I can turn down to me, not a work assignment. You even used the words “cool opportunity”. If you want to assign him the work, fine, but you need to be clear about it.

          2. AutolycusinExile*

            I had the same initial reaction – if it was presented at all similarly to him the way it was here (especially the ‘cool opportunity’ then it would have read to me like OP was being generous and forwarding a career opportunity to me that she thought I might be interested in, rather than assigning me work. Same way my mom still forwards me interesting job listings – she isn’t expecting me to apply, she just thought of me and wanted to let me know in case I was interested.

            Of course, OP knows most about how that conversation went down, so I defer to them and their interpretation of events, but if there’s a chance it might have come off that way it’s certainly worth revisiting things with him and clarifying that you’re looking to formally assign him a new project. And I mentioned this above, but if you have a friendly-ish relationship I could certainly envision him being more honest than is otherwise expected in a workplace environment, even if he understood that it was a formal presentation of work. It wouldn’t necessarily indicate a feeling of conflict on his end in that situation either. Either way, I think it’s worth a quick follow-up with him. Hey, I hear you saying you’re not excited about this project, I would like to assign it to you because [you have the knowledge base/experience/time/connections] so I was hoping you could tell me more about why you’re reluctant to take this on – and see how he responds. If it was a joke/literary reference that will become apparent, and if not then you have more information to make the best decision for the organization, whether that’s addressing an attitude problem, keeping him at fewer hours indefinitely per his needs, or introducing additional support somewhere that you didn’t realize was needed.

            1. Tiny Soprano*

              I agree with this wording angle. I’d also like to add something that may well be unnecessarily pernickety, but struck me as someone also in the arts.

              It’s the word ‘opportunity’. It makes my shoulders instinctively go up around my ears with all the connotations of underpayment, exploitation, and… *shudders*… exposure. Sure it’s not a rational reaction, but even good employers in the arts are frequently prey to the mindset that we should be very grateful to have a job with them because of the competitive nature of the arts. I’m not trying to defend Bartleby’s response – it’s definitely odd too – but if he’s worked in the arts for any length of time he’s likely also had bad run-ins with ‘cool opportunities’ and may have had an instinctive reaction to shut it down.

              1. Self Employed*

                Yeah, I can see that–I have my own business but people still send me “opportunities” to enter logo contests, poster contests, etc. because they know I do graphic design. Look, if I don’t have the bandwidth to redesign my own outdated logo, why would I do one on spec for a potential client who isn’t going to pay me for the time or engage in an interactive design process?

    3. Elenna*

      I’m a… young millenial? old Gen-Z? Born 1996, anyways, and I can’t imagine ever responding to a boss’s request like that. Even if I thought it was an “are you interested in this” rather than “I’m assigning this to you”, and even if I wasn’t interested in it for some reason, I’d still give some sort of explanation!

    4. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Right! I mean, I might if my boss asked me if I wanted to (do something onerous that is part of my job) via Teams, the same way that when my mother used to ask me if I would do the dishes, I’d throw a “Nope, never” over my shoulder as I headed for the kitchen, but not via email and not without, you know, continuing the conversation from there.

    5. CRM*

      I’m a younger Milennial (although I’m still almost a decade out of college at this point), and I’m in the same boat. In fact, my biggest problem is being able to say “no” to assignments I don’t have the time for. I could use a little bit of the OP’s employee’s energy…

      All of the Milennials I know are very driven and thrive on being productive, so I don’t get where OP is coming from that we are okay with just turning down work opportunities without reason during a pandemic.

      1. 2QS*

        Yeah, I’ve been working my butt off since…definitely high school, since that was about getting into college, and definitely before then, since doing well at school was the recommended way to go. Even before then. I had to compete for a place in my own kindergarten class, which I got. I’ve never had an extended stretch without working hard. Older generations told me the key to opening doors was to go to the intense big-name college, and I went to the intense big-name college and had a wonderful time, to be sure, but it was never going to be the cheap option and then I graduated in 2009, lol.

  3. AliV*

    I don’t understand. It seems like the OP framed it to the employee as a “cool opportunity” and not a task she was assigning to him. In that context his response seems fine to me.

    1. ThatGirl*

      When work/your boss asks you to do something, even if it were framed as an opportunity, I wouldn’t see it as terribly optional? And he gave no further context on why.

      1. Jenny*

        Being voluntold by your boss is definitely a thing.

        You definitely can’t just turn down a task like that for your employer with no explanation. Not if you want to stay employed.

        1. twocents*

          Especially in an industry facing pressure and job loss… Someone who is putting in only 17 hours a week for one project will look very easy to absorb if that becomes necessary.

          I’m wondering how young he is. I’m constantly surprised at how many people don’t know how to protect their job, but it’s easier to be oblivious if you’re still living at home or whatever.

          1. The Vulture*

            I have the experience of my boss coming up to me to ask, “Hey, I’m on my way out, but this is a project, would you be a. very excited b. pretty exciting or c. not excited about working on it?” And I was like, okay, I’m a little caught off guard, didn’t realize we were actively working on this, and I think this project has a lot of downsides he’s not considering other than how glamorous it seems, so I go. “I think that is pretty exciting, but I would love to get more information about it, I’m not sure what that would look like!”

            And he was all (I assume. In his head) “hurgleburgle ungrateful millenials, try to give them very exciting projects and they have the audacity to not even be very excited, only pretty excited, blah, I’ll give it someone else and punish them with my silence and judgment”.

            So I’m wary. But I don’t think that happened here, but I do think it’s possible he has some reservations he doesn’t think he can share/won’t go over well, or the way the question was phrased led him to believe he could decline, and did so in a fit of whimsy with a Bartleby reference (I mean, I was given three options, so it truly seemed like I could pick any of those options, but now I know there was only one option. Live and learn.), or he has another job/something else going on where this isn’t his priority anymore and he really doesn’t want to do it. Who knows! It probably made sense to him to do it this way, even if we can’t understand it.

        2. Bostonian*

          Yup. I had a boss once who felt too aggressive if he flat out told people to do things, so his demands were always phrased as a request. “Would you like to take the trash out?” (Obviously, no, I would not “like” to, but I will because you’re the boss!) I take things very literally, but even then, I would never say no because I recognized that was not an option.

          1. Liz*

            That was my mom growing up, and even NOW that I’m 50-ish. Drove me crazy then, just ASK me to do whatever it is you want, not if i WANT to. Becase really, what 13 year old wants to empty the dishwasher, clean the bathroom, or scoop the giant dog’s poop from the yard?

            Now I just joke with her and say “i don’t WANT to, but I WILL do it for you”

            1. Not So NewReader*

              Sigh, doing it is not enough. We have to LIKE doing it or WANT to do it.

              I had a boss who thought the stronger statement was, “I want to do X.” He felt that saying, “I will do X” was a weaker statement.

              To that I said, which statement is stronger:
              I want to win a million dollars!
              I will win a million dollars!

              I don’t know why some employers are so fixated on people “wanting” to do something. The employer is looking for employees hearts/souls/minds?

              OP, if you asked him if WANTED to do X and he said he would prefer not to the next step is to either ask him why or ask him if he will do it anyway.

              This to me is a pretty straightforward conversation and I am kind of worried that we have to drag in generational differences. I am a boomer. Do I want to clean up that mouse nest? Absolutely not. But I will do it anyway.

              I remember one “mouse nest” where a cohort had made a massive mistake. The boss asked me if I wanted to clean it up. NO. I didn’t. This was the tenth time I had cleaned up a mistake of cohort’s and I was sick of it. Current Mistake was picky-picky work and it would take me and a crew of five people several days to clean it up. No. I did not want to do it. But I did it anyway and I worked to the absolute best of my ability.

              OP, one of the many lessons I had to learn was not to ask people if they want to do a specific thing, especially if their NO answer is going to reflect badly on them. And it sounds like his no reflects badly – at least in your mind. Don’t set people to fail where you ask a question and the only acceptable answer is YES. If you sincerely mean the work is optional then indicate that it is optional. If it’s not optional then don’t make it sound like it is.

          2. Lindsay*

            “Do you wanna…” My husband asks me to do chores this way and it drives me batty. I always phrase my requests to him as “Will you please…”. I’ve started just saying “No, I don’t want to.”

            1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              When asked “Why don’t you…” I nearly always answer “The same reason you don’t.”

            2. Emma*

              I used to know someone whose husband used to ask her to make him a snack by asking “is there a bacon sandwich?”

              She eventually took to responding “probably, somewhere” and then divorced him.

          3. EH*

            My Mom does that too! We had at least one spat about it when I was a teenager. I said it wasn’t fair to phrase an instruction (“come help with the laundry”) as a question (“would you like to help me with the laundry?”). She said it was the polite way to do it. Parents, man.

            1. Clumsy Ninja*

              I feel you. I try to either ask my Kids “Would you please do x?” or “Would you rather do x or y?” Making it clear that they’re doing one of the two, but they get to pick which one.

            2. MsClaw*

              ha! When she was little my daughter had a friend over and I said in passing ‘could you guys clean your plates off the table?’ From back in my study, I heard her friend say they didn’t *have* to do it, since I *asked* them. My daughter said ‘That wasn’t a question. Hand me your plate.’

              So yeah, I was raised with a similar type of phrasing, though I think less vague than ‘would you like to’. ‘Could you please’ means ‘kindly do this’.

              I think importantly, we don’t know how the OP phrased the info. If OP said ‘would you be interested in this task? Let me know if you’d be interested in working with Peter’ then his response is brusque but not super weird. If OP instead said, ‘here’s this exciting new task, could you reach out to Peter for details’ then I would definitely interpret that as having been assigned the work and if for some reason I didn’t want to take that on, I would give way more detail on why.

        3. KHB*

          Bosses asking their employees what kind of projects they’d be most excited to work on is also definitely a thing. When there’s a bit of flexibility with regard to who does what, a good boss makes an effort to see that the allocation of tasks aligns well with people’s skills and interests.

          If that’s the case in OP’s work place (or even in the employee’s past workplaces), it sounds like this could be just a genuine miscommunication of whether this “cool opportunity” was mandatory or optional.

          1. Lilli*

            My longest lasting job was at a place with hundreds of employees and a gazillion of different tasks. Our managers would think really hard about who might be a good fit for a task and they didn’t shy away from just asigning things if they didn’t want a ‘no’ so if they did ask it was a honest question.

            Maybe the employee in this situation is content with the money he makes on his 17-hour job (because he has a side job or some savings or whatever) and feels guilty taking away an opportunity from someone else who might need the money. If you frame it as a great opportunity and if there are other people doing a similar job at your organization your employees might assume that someone else (who is truly excited about the task) would gladly take this on, so they don’t feel like they need to say yes.

            1. Rach*

              Yeah, I’m definitely allowed to turn down projects to a certain extent. This is a part time job and from OP’s description, it sounded optional.

      2. Lionel*

        But if the task involves working with another organization, is it within the scope of what she can ask? Like is she basically saying, “Here’s another part-time job you might be interested in taking on”? Or is this within the scope of his regular job with OP?

        1. GothicBee*

          This is what I’m wondering. Because if this involves reaching out to someone else to be part of a different project, then I could understand the employee interpreting that as something that’s not required, especially with the “cool opportunity” phrasing. At my workplace we have committees that handle different projects, and I’ve turned down being asked to join those before. Granted, if it was being presented to me by my boss, I’d probably accept unless I had a good reason (and I’d talk it over with boss rather than just saying I’d prefer not to).

        2. Spero*

          This is where my mind went as well. If he’s working part time for them it makes sense he probably also does part time things outside of his role with them. If it wasn’t similar enough to his past work with her org that it immediately chimed to him that she was ‘assigning a task’, he may have assumed she was saying something like ‘hey I know you’re into LOTR, are you interested in this hobbit convention?’

      3. Malarkey01*

        I think this is REALLY dependent on the situation, communication style, and individual business. We send out opportunities to work on teams all the time where I am that are truly optional. A team might be looking for help and if individuals have time in their schedule, we’re happy for them to cross-participate and send out usually a short ‘Hey the Llama Groomers are rolling out a new customer portal and are looking for anyone on the Llama Training Team that might have insight into the scheduling applications; time commitment is about 3 hours a week for the next 4 weeks. Would you be interested?” That’s totally different than me saying “Hey Bob I need you to work with the Llama Groomers on this new project, see email below for details”.

        1. Weekend Please*

          Yep! I can definitely see this being a miscommunication. He may be under the impression that the OP is sending him this “opportunity” to help him get paid for the full 25 hours. He is happy with the status quo and said so. I agree it seems terse but I have been known to come across that way in email unintentionally. I would give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

          1. Jess*

            Exactly. He’s currently only getting paid for the hours worked. Maybe he has found something else he wants to do with the extra time– he’s got a second job, or a volunteer position, or just enjoying having more free time for family or for himself. Sounds like it was framed as an opportunity to work more hours for more pay, and he is saying no thanks. Maybe he is thinking someone else on the team would want this opportunity more than him. If this was a task that was supposed to fit into time he’s already being paid for, the answer would be different.

            1. Self Employed*

              Good point. Maybe Joe knows people who need the hours more than he does because his second job or whatever is doing well or he lives at home, and they don’t have those resources.

      4. JSPA*

        Entirely depends on the phrasing and tone, in the context of their past phrasing and tone. If you’re assigning a new job duty, you don’t have to talk it up; just assign it. Or at least, first clearly assign it, then talk it up.

        1. Guacamole Bob*

          Yes, entirely dependent on context, phrasing, and tone. “Opportunity” from my manager would read as optional to me, given the kinds of work we do and our past discussions around my work plan.

          1. Weekend Please*

            Yes. When my boss sends me an opportunity, it truly is optional. I have turned them down in the past and it has always been fine.

      5. Oryx*

        I think this depends on your job/company. I have absolutely been presented with true “here’s a cool thing” or “we thought of you for this” opportunities that were absolutely optional and I have declined on some of them.

      6. Akcipitrokulo*

        Oh, I’ve had lots of things offered that were totally optional. Usually as a career development thing. Take course. Sit in on meeting. Take on this stretch task. Go help colleague who does something that interests me.

        Now I usually jump at it! But these are optional things.

      7. Andy*

        I mean, if boss tells me that it is my task, then I object only if I have very strong reason. But if boss frames it as cool opportunity which I can take, why would I pretend I want the said cool opportunity if I don’t want?

        I dont find that response baffling, the only odd thing is that the boss either did not clarified that it is actually assignment if it actually is one.

    2. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

      I had the same read. If the question came across as “Hey this looks cool, would you be interested.” I don’t think “I’d prefer not to” comes across as wildly inappropriate. Certainly the employee would be better served to seek out clarification and also offer some context, but it it wasn’t clear this an assignment than rather than a more casual inquiry about interest I would definitely go back to the employee for a clarifying conversation and do it by phone rather than email.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Yeah – I think that’s a possible read that can be dissed out by pushing back on a why behind the answer. It could be that the employee has stresses going on that the boss is unaware of and he gets curt to the point of rude when stressed – but that is something to sort out in a phone conversation.

      2. yala*

        Yeah, that does come off a little confusing to me. His wording certainly does imply that that was his impression (“Thank you for thinking of me” is something I would say if someone passed along an extra opportunity to me, whether or not I took it, because I always appreciate being thought of in that way.)

        Tho honestly, my first thought was “I wonder if he’s had trouble with the agency/people he’d be collaborating with.” Because what looks like a Fun Opportunity could actually just be a massive headache or worse, if it involves working with people you know you don’t work well with (or worse, have some actual bad history with).

    3. Foxy Hedgehog*

      That was my first thought too. An opportunity and an assignment are two very very different things. You are allowed to turn down opportunities, you are generally not allowed (in the work context) to decline an assignment.

      1. Bostonian*

        Interesting distinction. I agree, but even if I were declining an “opportunity,” I would probably provide a reason, or maybe ask my boss her reasoning for considering me. The undertone is still “my boss thinks this will be good for my career,” so I would feel an obligation to take it if I could.

        1. Foxy Hedgehog*

          Yep, I agree with that. I have the problem of being a little too glib in my written replies at work, so I do sympathize with Bartleby the Millennial somewhat.

        2. Jenny*

          I also think especially on gig work where you’re trying to get more hours, it’s fine to turn something down but you need to be clearer, e.g., “Thanks for thinking of me. Unfortunately this project involves more llama grooming and I’d really like to focus on llama training so I don’t think I am a good fit. Thank you, though!”

    4. Joan Rivers*

      If you asked this guy to lunch and he gave you this cryptic, brief answer, how would you feel?

      You probably wouldn’t feel he was being polite. However she framed it, however you framed lunch.

      1. jaybh*

        “Hey, some of us are going to X for lunch, want to come?”
        “Thank you for thinking of me, but I would prefer not to.”

        I don’t see any reason to read this as impolite. Strangely worded, perhaps, but still polite.

      2. biobotb*

        How is a social invitation equivalent to a potential work-related opportunity? And how was he being rude? He just wasn’t being forthcoming about his reasons?

      3. MCMonkeybean*

        What’s cryptic about it though? It’s basically the same as “no thanks” and if I asked someone to lunch and they said “no thanks” then I would feel like we just had a completely normal interaction and then I’d go eat some lunch.

      4. Mal*

        And no, I wouldn’t find it impolite if I invited you to lunch and you said no thank you. That’s peak polite.
        What you’re asking for is apology.

        1. Vince*

          IF someone said no thank you then sure that wouldn’t be impolite – but “I’d prefer not to” does not include the word no. Just like no might be a complete sentence but it would be a rude one to give your boss and also wasn’t the actual sentence.

    5. Beth*

      This is my thinking as well. OP, you may need to consider your own communication style in this. If you’re trying to assign work to someone, just tell them you’re assigning it to them! Don’t ask if they might be interested in an exciting new project unless you’re genuinely okay with the answer being “Nope, I wouldn’t be excited about that.” As you’re finding out here, that just makes it awkward when you turn around and say, “Well, sorry to hear that, but I’m assigning it to you anyways.”

      1. AliV*

        Exactly! It doesn’t sit right with me that OP’s response is basically “what’s up with this ungrateful ahole” and not “oh dear I didn’t make it clear I’m telling and not asking” or “oh wow what’s going on w employee, are they doing okay?”

            1. Bartleby's Manager*

              Agreed! It’s always helpful to be reflective.

              If “accepting the opportunity” were a condition of continued employment I would have made that clear. It’s genuinely optional, but disappointing that he turned it down as now I have to rearrange other people’s workflow.

              The part I am struggling with is my reaction. His turning it down does not influence his continued (under)employment. But it does influence how I feel about his commitment at this moment – and in particular how he phrased his response is making me feel extra frustrated at him. Hearing from Alison and all of you is helping me reflect on how much of that is fair, and how far I can/should push for more information (v. my initial instinct to just move on from him entirely, and not consider him for future projects).

              1. meyer lemon*

                That makes sense to me. I feel like it would be worth checking in with him about whether he prefers the number of hours he’s currently working and would like to formally reduce them (if that’s a possibility), rather than making that assumption from the outside. If he would like to take on more work, that seems like it would open up the opportunity to ask why he didn’t want to work on this project, for future reference.

              2. Weekend Please*

                I think that the problem may have been in presenting it as a “cool opportunity” to him. He may not understand that you need someone to do this and would like it to be him. Phrasing it more as “Here is a project we need done and it looks like you have the time to take it on. Would you be willing to do it?” may work better if he is very literal.

              3. Not So NewReader*

                A couple things here.
                He’s probably frustrated with you. How would he know that he would lose points in your books by turning down this extra work? You presented it as optional. All he’s learned here is that optional is code for “must do it”.

                The next thing I question is your fondness of this project. Ever get a new car/sweater/other thing and when you asked some of your loved ones what they thought of it their reactions were flat?
                Deflating isn’t it? Here you are all excited about New Thing and your loved ones yawn.
                Going one step further, ever give a present and have someone give it right back to you?

                So here you have this cool thing for Employee to do and he hands it right back, “I’m good here thanks.” If the task had been less cool, would your reaction be different or less elevated? Is there a possibiity that you have an encumbered attachment to this task/project??

                1. Observer*

                  How would he know that he would lose points in your books by turning down this extra work? You presented it as optional. All he’s learned here is that optional is code for “must do it”.

                  Anyone with experience should know that even when an opportunity is genuinely options you really should present a reason for saying no. And it actually IS optional – the OP is not going to fire him or even discipline him over it.

                  I do think that the OP’s reaction is a bit strong, but I also think that it’s legitimate for them to wonder about his attitude. But they SHOULD talk to him about it.

              4. LabTechNoMore*

                For what it’s worth, I’m getting the sense you’re framing it simultaneously as a truly voluntary opportunity, and a mandatory new project. If you needed your report to do this, it’s important to have communicated as much. And if their declining the project affects your view of their commitment to the job, then either their expectations are off, or yours are. Either way, seconding Alison’s suggestion that more communication needs to happen (e.g. suss out why they couldn’t take the work, since it sounds like this may be a problem).

                Also regarding communication, I’m noticing a lot of optimistic framing in how you communicate, and while a positive attitude during these times is an asset, optimistic managers can sometimes come across confusingly. For example, in how you mentioned that there were no pay cuts (yay!), only to later mention that your hourly employees are now working fewer hours (meaning they’re being paid less now than previously, so … effectively pay cuts).

                If they were working 17 hours for several months now, it’s possible your employee got accustomed to the 17 hour week (whether that means having taken on a second job to pick up the financial deficit, or adapting his pandemic-lifestyle to a part time job). If a lot of time has passed since starting at 17 hours/wk, they may have become acclimated to this new work schedule. Consequently, this extra project would be analogous to asking a fulltime employee to start working overtime for a new project. Even for really cool work, it’s still extra work.

                (Also, you seem like an attentive and thoughtful manager, so I hope I don’t come across too harshly in second-guessing your actions or communication style — it might just be the employee is working through pandemic-burn out and isn’t particularly responsive to an otherwise perfectly reasonable request!)

              5. ian*

                I mean, it doesn’t really sound like it was _that_ optional, if him turning it down makes you think less of him. I’d reconsider how you suggest these opportunities in the future, if your assumption is that a good employee would always say yes – you might need to be more clear with your expectations.

                1. Self Employed*

                  I don’t even see why it was presented as optional if he’s the only one whose workload won’t need to be rearranged to take it on. That wouldn’t have crossed my mind if someone offered me a “cool opportunity” at what is probably one of my two part time jobs.

              6. EventPlannerGal*

                I think that clarity is something that you could work on here. You’re still kind of talking about this as a cool optional opportunity while also saying that it’s disappointing and inconvenient that he isn’t doing it. That doesn’t really sound optional, that sounds like a task that you mentally assigned to him expecting that he would do it. It may help if you are clearer (both in your own mind and when assigning work) about whether something is opt-in, aka genuinely a cool optional opportunity, or opt-out, aka you expect him to do it unless there is a clear reason why not, even if he won’t actually be fired for it.

                Also, simply replying “can I ask why?” or similar isn’t excessively pushing for information! It’s fine! That’s a very normal thing for a manager to ask and I would be interested to know why you felt it is pushing. Being able to ask simple questions like that is an important part of clear communication.

              7. Librarian of SHIELD*

                I think your response here makes it really clear that you and Bartleby need to have a conversation. His response here is influencing the way you think about him and how likely you are to offer him more opportunities in the future, but I think you should give him one more opportunity to give you some background information on why he responded the way he did. Is there an answer he can give you that would make you rethink your current feelings about him? It may be worth finding out.

              8. Amy*

                I think you might need to reconsider what you mean by ‘optional’ here. If my boss told me an opportunity they were offering me was optional, I would assume it was truly not a big deal to turn it down. (For example, an offer to do some extra training in a new area would be fine to turn down if I wasn’t interested in developing my career in that direction; me saying “Thanks for thinking of me, but I’ll pass for now” would have no effect on whether they might offer me future trainings or projects in other areas.)

                If him turning it down is a big enough deal that it’s disruptive to others’ workflow and is causing you to consider not assigning him other projects, then it doesn’t actually sound like an optional opportunity to me. Even if it’s not going to get him fired, that’s not a neutral offer; there are consequences to declining it, both for the employer and for him. It’s okay (good, even) to present that kind of thing as “I’m planning to assign this to you. Do you have any concerns about that?” instead of presenting it as an optional thing.

              9. River*

                If it is genuinely optional, you are being very unreasonable and unfair to him. He did absolutely nothing wrong, but you are judging him by some unspoken standard he has no way of knowing exist.

                Your reaction is a sign that something is wrong on your end, not his.

              10. Working Hypothesis*

                I think you are conflating two separate things somewhat, LW. There’s “do I have the right to ask for his reasons,” and there’s “do I have valid reasons to think less of him as an employee for responding the way he did?” They’re not the same thing at all.

                From my own POV, you have the right to ask, and *should* ask, for more information about his reasons for declining. That’s not because he was wrong to decline, or even wrong to do so without giving a reason… it’s because if he’s willing to share his reasons it could help you in managing his future work more effectively, and that’s good grounds for inquiring. If he flatly refuses to answer, I think he’s entitled to do so, but I bet he won’t. Most people, if they’re asked politely and it’s made clear that you’re not challenging their original refusal to do the thing, will tell you at least some of what their objections are.

                But I really don’t think you should be thinking less of him for what he said. You didn’t make at all clear that you wanted/expected him to take on this project (at least it sure doesn’t sound like you did based on what you tell us about your own language). If you sound for all the world as if you’re offering somebody an opportunity instead of requesting that they do a task that you intend to be included in their job for the moment, you can’t expect them not to respond as if it’s simply an offer… and offers, unlike directives from one’s manager, can always be declined for any reason or none.

                I also was kind of appalled to see you talking about how you think he should be “grateful to have a job.” That’s the worst kind of paternalistic management style, the type which exploits workers and demands that they grovel in gratitude for the exploitation. The phrase has a long history of being part of a pattern of abusive management. Please don’t use it! Even if you somehow didn’t mean it that way at all, it has been misused so often that it has a very bad flavor by now.

                An employment situation is a bargain made between two partners. It *should* be between equals, both of whom benefit from it and both of whom have equal power to decide on how it goes. In practice, this isn’t usually how it happens because managers and business owners have more power than workers and can dictate terms… but that’s all the more reason why workers should frankly be resentful, not grateful. The only reason “gratitude” was ever demanded was that exploitative managers with too much power began making unreasonable demands like “it’s not enough to do the work because you feel you are benefiting sufficiently from it to be worth your while; you have to be grateful to me too!”

                You don’t have to follow their lead. Treat it like a relationship of equals, where you get as much from their employment as they do, and so nobody has reason to be grateful to anyone.

              11. Luke G*

                Regarding your last note, that your instinct is not only to move on but also to not consider him for future projects: that’s why you absolutely should (gently) dig a little deeper with the employee. His reasons have been speculated to death in the comment section, and how you handle this going forward is going to really depend on what they are. If you find out why he’s not interested this time, and if he’d be interested in something similar at another time, that’s going to do a lot for how you manage him. And if it turns out he doesn’t want to take on new projects? Well, if you’re satisfied with what you’re getting from him now, remember that it’s OK for people to have a job, be happy with the job as-is, and not want to expand or develop or get promoted.

              12. Andy*

                I am literal person too and his response was not baffling to me at all. What as baffling to me was why his response was big deal.

                I think that if he is literal, then it is perfectly fine to ask him for reasons or clarify that you actually want him to do it. It is completely ok to tell him that you are surprised over no and all that. You are boss after all, you can assign that task.

                He expressed preference, you don’t have to follow his preferences exactly. But the whole issue seems more of misunderstanding of each others intentions or different communication style then something super deep far reaching. He is probably not suitable for positions where subtle reading of politics is required.

                General thoughts: I know that some workplaces are very indirect in how people talk where it is insult to express what you think. In my experience it leads to passive aggressivity in which people scheme to get tasks and not get tasks they don’t want or where people make up excuses so that everything sounds better.

              13. Small Team Manager*

                As a manager, it’s worth considering that you’re not at the end of your RPG dialogue tree with Bartleby here. Sometimes I’ll ask a team member if they’d be interested/excited about doing a project, and I’ll get an honest “no, not really” response, which is great information for me. However, once I’ve taken a look at everyone’s availability/interest, I’ll sometimes still need to approach someone and say that I need them on the project.

                With Bartleby, there’s a real possibility that he can’t work the full 25 hours that was originally planned and he’s actually only available for 17 because of personal reasons, but you still need to have that conversation instead of assuming.

        1. Weekend Please*

          But her initial reaction to something that felt rude and off putting was to consider whether she is being fair. We have to give her credit for that.

    6. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Yeah, I don’t get this at all. It really sounds as if OP presented it as an option and I’m not sure why “I prefer not to” isn’t a valid response.

      Dear Bart: We just had this cool project come in and I thought you might enjoy working on it. Let me know what you think.

      Dear OP: Thanks for thinking of me, but I prefer not to.

      1. Arctic*

        It isn’t a valid response because LW wasn’t really asking. She was assigning. But it’s likely he didn’t get that and that is understandable.

        1. Beth*

          Even if LW’s intention was to assign, if they phrased it as a genuine-seeming question, I don’t think they can get too upset about someone answering it as a question. When you think about it, the office-world expectation that people treat every question from their boss as “I expect you to read through the lines and understand that I’m actually assigning this to you and ‘yes’ is the only correct answer” is weird.

          1. JSPA*

            This. People softening down the edges of authority doesn’t make them more charming or more chill, it makes them less comprehensible. You can give all the smiles and support and kind words and encouragement and “I value your input” in a SEPARATE SENTENCE (or even a separate conversation) from the sentence where you assign someone their duties.

            1. Luke G*

              How many times have we seen various AAM advice that is some version of “you don’t need to over-explain your reasons for XYZ?” You don’t tell your boss “I need to go get a colonoscopy,” you just request the time off- or at most, say something like “I have a medical thing, but it’s nothing to worry about!” You don’t tell your boss “My spouse and I are separated so I need to be more available to my children right now,” you just say “I’ve got some family stuff and really need to be out the door right on time.”

              A lot of commenters have pointed out that a) this might have been misunderstood as an optional offer rather than a soft-touch job assignment, and b) the employee might have reasons it’s truly not feasible for him to take it on. I think there’s a very strong chance that he’s using the strategy above- politely decline while showing gratitude for the opportunity, full stop, no need to get into the mental health/physical health/caregiving/side gig/whatever that you need to do instead.

              1. WhoKnows*

                I’m with you on this, maybe I’m wildly out of touch as an Older Millennial, I don’t know, but, assuming OP used the same phrasing – “cool opportunity” – with the employee as she did with Alison, I’m not seeing the huge problem here. I’m not saying the employee did the best job communicating back to the OP, but there’s clearly some kind of disconnect here and a little clarification on both ends would go a long way.

                1. Jean Pargetter Hardcastle*

                  I’m also with you and Luke G. If my boss presented me with an opportunity and I wasn’t interested, I would probably just say that I appreciated the offer but wanted to pass this one up. I know my boss just wants a yes or a no, and if it wasn’t optional, I’d be told it wasn’t optional. And I feel the same way as the boss — I generally don’t want a lot of explanation if someone isn’t interested in taking something on. If I do want more explanation (because it’s useful for getting them the right opportunities for their desired track), I’ll ask. I don’t at all understand why Bartelby’s response is a problem. Maybe it’s a difference in workplace cultures?

              2. Lance*

                True, but even in your examples, those are giving some sort of reasoning, even if it’s vague (and it doesn’t need to be anything more than that). In this case, there’s no reasoning being given; just effectively a flat ‘no’. That’s the biggest issue here, and it’d be fair for the OP to, as Alison suggested, go back and ask a simple ‘why’, even if it’s not detailed.

              3. Self Employed*

                I don’t think the intent is to have LW ask Joe why he can’t take on more hours at his job and Joe has to admit that his Etsy shop has taken off so he needs the time to fill orders. It’s to see if Joe CAN find the hours if LW lets him know that the rest of the staff’s schedules are already full so it makes sense to assign him the project.

            2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              This. People softening down the edges of authority doesn’t make them more charming or more chill, it makes them less comprehensible.

              Yep. “Please” and “thank you” are all the softening that’s needed.

                1. JSPA*

                  No copyright–so far as I’m aware (despite having a “sticky brain”) the wording is original as of me typing it this morning–so please do.

        2. Detective Amy Santiago*

          I think the crux of this relies on knowing exactly what OP said.

          Also, I’d like to know if other people have been asked to voluntarily pick up new skills/projects or have been assigned. Because if I saw my colleagues being given the option to do something, I would assume I had the same.

          1. EventPlannerGal*

            Right, but they then also said that it was disappointing that he refused, it meant other people’s work had to be rearranged to cover it and their first instinct was to stop considering him for any more projects. I don’t think their self-assessment that it’s truly completely optional is consistent with that.

            1. Working Hypothesis*

              By definition, if it’s going to result in negative consequences of any kind if the employee refuses, it is not strictly optional. It may be sorta-optional, but it’s not entirely optional. How often has Alison said that work social events aren’t actually optional if your boss will stop thinking you’re a team player if you don’t attend? And that’s (as far as we know) all in the boss’s *thoughts*; it doesn’t even include any real world consequences. How much more non-optional is it when it really DOES result in negative consequences for the employee?

      2. Bubbeleh*

        I’m Gen X and this is exactly how I read it.

        It’s for a different organization!

        If I’m happy with decreased hours right now (hey, maybe I have some kids at home, maybe I have my own projects, maybe I have other caregiving duties) and someone emailed me saying “This other related organization has this cool thing you could do! Interested?”

        I would totally say “Oh, thanks for thinking of me! But no thanks!”

        1. Shan*

          She said it involved collaborating with partner agency, not working for them. I read it as he would still be working for her, just doing something that also involves this other agency. That seems perfectly normal to me – I work for company A, we regularly collaborate with company B, projects come up that require people from both A and B to work together.

          1. Bartleby's Manager*

            Correct, this is not for a different organization, it is in partnership with one. He would be clocking in for us, the program would have our name and logo all over it.

    7. Simonthegreywarden*

      I could totally see Mr. TheGreyWarden giving this response. He’s actually a couple years younger than I am (I’m Xennial, he’s solidly Millenial) but that’s not why; he’s got suspected autism and diagnosed ADHD, but he also can’t ‘read the room’ to save his life. I could see him taking this 100% at face value as something he has the option to turn down EVEN IF he knows the manager actually wants him to do it.

      Note, I don’t think everyone with ADHD/autism is like this, just that HE is.

    8. Homophone Hattie*

      I agree. Maybe the actual wording was a bit blunt, but (especially given that the employee is part-time and the number of hours worked seems to be changeable in different circumstances) it seems like a reasonable response. More hours offered, they don’t work for the employee, no thank you.

    9. Guacamole Bob*

      Yes, this.

      The employee’s response is a little too curt, I think, but at least in my current job it’d be fine to just decline work that’s presented as optional or a “cool opportunity”. It’s not unusual for my manager to ask me if I’m interested in project X and for me to say “given what else I have going on right now, I’d rather you find someone else to take that on unless there’s a specific need for it to be assigned to me” or “This outside opportunity looks like kind of a useless time suck to me so I’ll pass unless there’s a political reason for us to participate” or what have you.

      I have a pretty solid relationship with my manager, though, and I’m senior enough and high performing enough to have credibility built up and for us to be able to talk things through. Most of our discussions on my work plan are actual discussions and not a one-way flow of assignments, in fact. But I wouldn’t just say “I’d prefer not to” without caveats or explanations unless the original ask included a “this is totally optional” kind of disclaimer on it.

      1. Bartleby's Manager*

        I would have been fine with any of the responses above. No red flags in those. There’s enough information there for me to understand and not press.

    10. Amaranth*

      I feel like we’re missing some info here on the employee’s end. Maybe the employee found another part time job to make rent, took on caring for a family member, etc. In that case, he should have said something like ‘when my hours reduced I took on other commitments so I’m not interested in increased hours at this time’ but if its personal or involves gig work maybe he didn’t know what to say on the spot.

      Its great that OP is enthusiastic about the company keeping ‘benefits eligible’ people on, but does that apply to a person who is part time and non-exempt and only gets 2/3 their budgeted hours? They might have a different level of dedication. Its terrific that the company paid out top hours at the start, but that doesn’t change the employee’s situation for the second six months.

    11. Cat Tree*

      I wonder how long OP has been his manager and what their communication style is like.

      I got a new boss about 5 months ago. Overall he’s a good manager but his communication style is different than the previous one. A few times he asked me if I had availability to do a certain task when I genuinely didn’t and told him so. It turned out those weren’t requests and I ended up doing them anyway. Of course I didn’t just say no; I explained the other things I had to get done and he was understanding. Ideally he would have found me some help for those other things, but he directly said to deprioritize them knowing the timelines would get pushed. At least he was clear about that. (Although those things are now becoming urgent, but sometimes work is hard I guess).

      Anyway, there have also been times when he asked me about something truly optional, and those requests were worded very differently. So now I know how to tell the difference. But it took a while to get used to.

      1. Bartleby's Manager*

        He’s worked for me for 5 years. I know him pretty well. I don’t know a lot about his personal life, but over the past few years he has filled me in on appropriate details about his family as necessary, and I’ve always been aware when he has other gigs.
        He is a part-time employee of a performing arts organziation, which almost by definition means he has an active artistic practice that involves gig work for the rest of his time. Because of the nature of what we do, he has thus far always kept me aware of what else is on his plate, what the time commitments are, and what accomodations/flexibilty he might need. I have never refused a reasonable request for flexibility from him or any other direct report.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          Given how long you’ve worked together and how much you seem to know about his usual working standards and habits, would you say this kind of response is out of character for him? Is that part of why you were so taken aback? If so, that’s all the more reason to talk to him, because it could be an indicator that something else is going on in his life right now that’s causing him a lot of stress.

    12. meyer lemon*

      That would make more sense if his schedule was already full (although I think it would still be overly brusque) but when you’ve got little work to do and your boss suggests taking on a project that is very similar to your normal work, it does seem odd to just flat-out turn it down unless you have a compelling reason. He’s essentially saying, “No thanks, I’d rather do nothing.” Maybe he does have a compelling reason, but I can see why the OP is perplexed.

    13. sssssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

      I was once offered a “cool” opportunity and he offered it like a “Would you like to…” and I replied in the negative, detailing why. (And it wasn’t cool at all, but dumping more work on me from a department that I had zero experience in.)

      It went over like a lead balloon and my “no” threatened my job security behind the scenes.

      Had he from the start said, “We need you to do this.” I would have done it. Not happily but I would have sucked it up, whined to my BFF coworker, and done it.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Gee. You were supposed to mind read. Would you like to means do it dammit.

        I don’t care what I do during my work day. It all needs to be done and it fills the day. But don’t make me guess what the boss wants. I don’t have bandwidth for games.

        1. Self Employed*

          Me neither.

          I am so tired of all the excuses people give about why other people don’t want to be direct, and why it’s All My Fault for not being able to translate indirect hints to actual directions. If someone can’t bring themselves to say “I need you to do X work thing in Y timeframe” because it sounds too confrontational or whatever, maybe they should reconsider being a manager or find a way to get over that mental block. In the workplace, why should there need to be an illusion that people are just doing the things that need doing without any direction?

          This isn’t like telling your partner that you want to get engaged and they need to get you a ring of X carats or larger, instead of waiting for them to propose. This is business. I don’t see what’s wrong with giving instructions clearly. (And couples should really discuss marriage before a proposal anyhow, even if the actual question and ring are a surprise.)

    14. Joielle*

      Yeah, I think it’s a odd employment situation that necessitates very direct and clear communication about assignments and responsibilities, and it seems like the OP could have been clearer. Was it an assignment, or a “cool opportunity?” If the employee can unilaterally decide to decrease his hours, then the employee probably thinks he can unilaterally decline to increase them again. If that’s not the case, fine, but if I were the OP I’d be thinking “whoops, I should have been clearer,” not “what an ungrateful millennial.”

    15. Sparrow*

      Yeah, how it was presented seems like a massive question to me and I was surprised that wasn’t in the follow ups Alison sent to OP. We’ve seen plenty of miscommunications on here where a boss thinks they’ve instructed an employee to do something, but they softened the language to the extent that the employee didn’t realize it wasn’t optional.

      I also wonder if format could’ve played a role, since it sounds like this was email rather than a conversation. I had a boss who would phrase directions as suggestions, but his verbal tone and expression would make clear when it wasn’t actually a suggestion. I would’ve found it hard to read through the lines if I was just seeing his words without additional context. Also, how much professional experience does the employee have? Being that blunt could’ve been a blunder made out of ignorance.

    16. Starbuck*

      Same here. The “cool opportunity” were the words that stood out to me the most in OP’s letter and made me wonder how clearly they really framed this. “Here’s a new project, I need to you work on it, are you available?” is different than “check out this cool opportunity!” which is the sort of thing I’d assume was sent to many people, so I could opt out since if it’s so cool, there must be other people who’d want to do it instead.

    17. Mockingdragon*

      I’m in the same boat…depending on how it was phrased/presented, I can totally see myself obliviously answering with a “no, thanks” (which is basically what this was) because I tend to be very literal with requests. I don’t think it’s an age thing (I’m 31, so Millennial) as much as a neurodiversity thing (not even in the context of outright disorders, but just in the context of peoples’ brains work differently)

    18. ele4phant*

      Agreed. I would’ve read it that way too. He should have explained a little more why he was saying no, but I’m a manager and I make two kinds of requests:

      “A new opportunity came up that I think you’d be interested in, so I’m giving you the first right of refusal.” I am not bothered at all if I get a no thank you to that kind of request.


      “A new job came in. Your skills are a good fit for this and you appear to have capacity, so I would like you to take it.” This one I really don’t expect a no, unless you really have a compelling reason and I expect you to spell it out.

      Maybe it is a generational gap, but if a Gen Xer is managing younger people, it’s incumbent on you to be aware of that perceptional difference, and be aware that your slightly younger peers might actively be encouraging that (hello!) sort of self-advocacy.

      Might you have been unclear in your expectations of how much discretion he had on this task?

  4. Bookworm*

    I think Alison’s take on this is on the money. One thing that I didn’t really see in the letter was about how much the pandemic may be affecting him mentally/emotionally. This is not to excuse this necessarily but people are handling this differently–not everyone wants to take on my work right now and the reduced hours may be better suited to him.

    I will agree (millennial) that the response is a little odd, unless he thought this was an “optional” project and not something he was being assigned to do.

    In any case, it’s best to go back and get more details out of him. Good luck!

    1. Kiki*

      Yeah, my mind went immediately to pandemic burnout/depression. A lot of people aren’t doing well and I think it manifests this way at work.

      1. Sanders*

        Exactly. As someone struggling with pandemic-related burnout and mild depression, I identify with the “I prefer not to” guy. Pretty much everything that I used to enjoy at work, I’d just prefer not to do these days. If I were to say yes, I’d be doing it without one shred of enthusiasm or innovative thinking.

        1. Joielle*

          Same. I would *prefer* not to do most things these days. Just tell me if something is truly optional or if it’s mandatory. You can’t present someone with an optional task and then get mad they’re not enthusiastic enough about it (which you have judged from one weirdly-worded email). A lot of people aren’t feeling particularly enthusiastic about anything right now!

          1. Self Employed*

            Especially during the pandemic, LW has no way to know if Joe is just slogging through the same pandemic/political miasma as the rest of us or if they just got bad news about someone they care about. If this is uncharacteristic for Joe, I don’t know why LW didn’t respond with “I’m surprised to hear that–is everything OK?” instead of going to Alison. She’s not going to know if Joe’s mom is in the hospital with COVID or his cousin was trapped in a Capitol office during the insurrection. That doesn’t mean Joe needs to disclose personal information, but there’s certainly room to be vague and say that he can do his regular tasks but taking on a new project is just too much right now.

    2. MillennialMom*

      This. OP made specific note that his report didn’t didn’t additional family obligations at this time but the enthusiasm for the organization and bragging that they were able to retain their staff makes it seek like OP might have a warped view of how pandemic has affected people. I am a millennial and while I have a family most of my friends my age don’t yet or aren’t planning to but I know pandemic has affected them mentally even without parental responsibilities and OP should acknowledge that.

      I am also the type to over explain my reasoning but if it was presented in a certain way, I can understand the employee thinking it was an offer rather than a request and probably has a lot going on mentally and emotionally right now.

      1. Bostonian*

        This is a really good point. I do not have children or significant family obligations (though the cats can be incredibly needy and annoying), but I’m still having days where my energy and motivation are zapped, and unless something is 100% mission critical, I’m probably working at 75%.

        1. Liz*

          Same here. No kids or SO living with me, and no pets. I’ve accepted the fact that some days I am VERY VERY productive while working, and others, I can only manage what absolutely needs to get done. I can totally related to the energy and motivation not being where they should be. For no reason, excpet for the fact I’m home ALL day, working, by myself.

      2. Sparrow*

        Right, I don’t have any day to day family obligations to stress about, but I live alone. I’ve been alone for almost a year at this point. I could probably make a list of every single (masked) conversation I’ve had with a real live human being since March because there have been so few of them. That takes a toll in other ways.

    3. Butterfly Counter*

      This is what I was going to say. 11 months of work from home, not seeing family, political strife, and pandemic worries has me *breaking.* (I’ve reached out and gotten help.)

      I’m an X’er and when my chair reached out and asked me to take on another committee this semester, I word vomited all over the email I wrote back, explaining how hard everything suddenly seems for me, that I would certainly fail another responsibility, and that just reading the email about more remote work made me weep and want to go back to bed.

      Then, before sending, I deleted the whole email and said “No thank you.” It just seemed like a situation to give less information than more, you know? If I started trying to justify myself, the whole thing would just come crashing out and it’s not really my boss’s business and I’m not yet at a stage I can diplomatically explain myself.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        And I think this can be any generation. I went into work the other day and my voice mail was just GONE. No where to be found.
        This sounds like a simple thing. It was HOURS. When I am trying to get vm back I am not doing other things. My boss, who is probably 10 plus years younger than me, really gets that I am struggling because I many more issues like the vm issue that I am trying to get fixed. She sees all the balls in the air and she will grab some of the more difficult things and say, “I am taking that XYZ. Don’t even bother with it any more. I will do it.”
        I love my boss.

        I am kind of mystified as to why people have to explain to each other that they are struggling now. Struggling seems to be the new norm. I am also baffled at the idea that only one generation is struggling and the rest of us are fine. It’s fairly safe to assume that everyone we meet has something that they are wrestling with.

        1. Self Employed*

          Agreed. I live alone, don’t have family to worry about, but I had to take a break from my business development coach for a couple of weeks because it sucked up all my energy to deal with my own IT issues (sole practitioner and not trained in IT). I am not finishing my SBA certifications if I’m on text chat trying to get my business email to work or my internet connection keeps dropping and logging me out of everything.

    4. Smithy*

      This is my first thought – particularly for those in the performing arts.

      If you’re in the US, your industry – which was always difficult to make a career in – has almost entirely gone up in smoke. It’s a profession most people selected not for the big bucks, but due to a lot of more creative, personal reasons and connection to art. And while virtual programming has emerged, there are a lot of voices and opinions that it doesn’t count, isn’t the same, isn’t rewarding, etc.

      It may be that another virtual performing arts program genuinely sounds terrible. And this worker has entered a personal funk or depression that isn’t enabling them to separate their feelings about virtual performing arts with the reality of a job task they should just get on with.

      1. Kotow*

        This is so true. My husband and I are involved in the arts (as church musicians) and we’re the only ones of our arts friends who, with the exception of a few weeks back last Spring, have been able to continue with our regular gigs in person. Our friends who hate church work are trying desperately to see if they can come up with any gigs for Easter because it’s one of the only opportunities they’ll have to be in person. Virtual performances are painful. They’re painful to sit through and painful to arrange; it has nothing to do with the quality of the performer. The medium itself isn’t effective. It’s been hard on artists who were (and are continuing to be) forced into this ineffective method of performing because this isn’t what they enjoy and this isn’t why they became artists. It doesn’t mean it’s the “right” response, but there’s been a huge mental health toll on the industry.

        1. CRM*

          This is an excellent point! I could absolutely see why OP wouldn’t want to be involved with something like that.

        2. yala*

          I’m reminded of how Sir Ian McKellen reportedly broke down and cried while filming The Hobbit, because unlike LotR, he was primarily acting to tennis balls, which got very hard on him, especially being a stage actor, and given the sheer exhaustion of the prep work for any given scene.

          I’m also thinking…I’m a visual artist. I’ve lost count of how many times folks have assumed that means I can do X. For a good long while, at my non-art job, I was always tapped to make the posters. I am NOT a graphic designer, I HATE lettering with a passion, and I hate doing poor work, which I invariably did because, again…not really good at doing that thing (I mean. They were fine. No one was expecting Michelangelo. But to me uneven letters and less-than-what-I-usually-do freehanded art just…really looked embarassing). Making posters was excruciating for me, but I could never think of a way to turn down the Fun Opportunity, because, well, they didn’t take that long.

          It’s not uncommon for folks to assume that because an artist does something adjacent to Project X, that they not only can do Project X, but would also *enjoy* it, when in reality, it’s just far enough in and out of their wheelhouse to be nothing but frustration.

      2. EventPlannerGal*

        Absolutely. It’s interesting that OP notes her fierce loyalty and instinct that he should be grateful just to still have a job – the pandemic has definitely brought out that sense of loyalty for many in the arts and related industries like mine, but equally by this point many people just feel burnt out and don’t see a way through. And OP says elsewhere that he’s holding down multiple jobs plus his own artistic practice – the guy must be exhausted.

        A lot of people are just cutting their losses and looking for more stable work in other industries; it’s hard to maintain that passion knowing that your industry is going to be one of the very last to recover. One former manager of mine, who I would have pegged as a live events lifer, is now doing higher ed admin because trying to stay in the industry was just too much. I’m still technically doing events but all I really work on now is admin; when I do get to work on a virtual conference or whatever, it’s terrible. So I would say that even for people who are still employed in the arts, that doesn’t mean they’re still feeling that passion and willingness to do anything for the job. Who knows, maybe he’s about to quit and do admin too.

    5. Smithy*

      This is what I was thinking as well. It’s one less professional email during a pandemic – worth following up and giving this guy the benefit of the doubt.

      I also know that in the performing arts, there are a lot of different opinions on virtual programming. I know someone currently making a living doing virtual theater and absolutely hates it. So it may be that this direct report got more caught up in his personal response to another virtual program than was professional as opposed to “this is what I need to do at work.”

      1. Bartleby's Manager*

        I know a lot of people making their living on vitual theater right now. We all hate it. None of this is fun. It’s excruciating.

        1. Smithy*

          Truly – I think that makes a lot of difference in where perhaps some more general malaise/flatness came from. In my job, there are COVID pain points, but by and large 80-90% of my professional life is unchanged. My friends in the performing arts – even those who are grantmakers – it’s just clearly a lot harder. And I think the grind just hits folks at different times.

    6. Formerly in the arts*

      I agree completely (elder millennial). I was in a similar position to this one – I got forwarded a super cool opportunity that I just could not handle. My job used to have a comfortable 2-3 weeks to market events. The organization was able to shift to virtual events, but that lead time disappeared and I was doing a lot of last-minute work. I was able to work from home, but I don’t think my boss ever really got comfortable with that as he’d still try to do things in-person. I was also the details person and usually the implementation person. Said opportunity didn’t seem worthwhile to my org as it had a lot of upkeep for little benefit, and there were some potential privacy issues re: third party access to customer information.

      I didn’t just say “I would prefer not to” (I agree that this is an odd response), but tried to explain my own state of constant overwhelm and burnout. He wasn’t understanding when I said that I didn’t have the capacity to figure out the details for this specific opportunity (while I’d been keeping up with such for others). He also dismissed my concerns with repeated “I wouldn’t worry about that” – guess who typically got stuck fixing last-minute issues? I was laid off due to financial issues shortly thereafter, which I know was inevitable, but I’m still bitter that my boss couldn’t seem to see past the time factor himself.

      I think part of the issue is how haphazard management can be in a small nonprofit – many people worked their way up in this particular org, with no budget for soft skills or leadership training.

  5. Dust Bunny*

    Also, the OP says she’s “not aware” that he’s doing anything else, but he might be and just hasn’t told her. He might have a side gig or be taking care of younger/older/less capable relatives or some other thing that he doesn’t feel he should have to disclose.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      If this isn’t an intern living at home, then he likely has a side gig. There isn’t much you can do with 17 hours of pay. Even at an expected 25 hour work week, I’d expect the employee would have another job, is going to school, or has major commitments.

    2. Khatul Madame*

      Yes, after learning that the employee was part-time to begin with and is currently at less than 1/2… he probably has a second job.
      Especially in the arts, where most people make a living by having a mix of part-time, temporary, hourly etc. gigs.

      However, the response was odd and I can relate to the LW’s reaction.

    3. Tex*


      He might think he is passing so someone else who needs the money can jump on the project.

      Also, if he is hourly and only charging for hours actually worked, I don’t see this as a major problem unless OP was specifically grooming him for other positions / cross training / had nobody else who could take over.

      1. lost academic*

        Of course it is a problem! If I have someone I’ve budgeted for 25 hours a week and they are working 17, that’s 8 hours of work a week that need to get done, hence the budget, that no one is doing. I’m very unlikely to be able to or allowed to hire someone to just cover those 8 hours a week, plus that’s wildly inefficient. Even if you’re hourly, you still have expectations – it’s not like he’s a contractor. There really is a loss here that can’t be purely recouped in the hourly cost savings alone.

        1. BubbleTea*

          But the point is that the work isn’t there – he was previously running two programmes and one of them has been suspended while the other had gone virtual, and might well be less work (some things are more work online, but others are pared back by necessity and therefore simpler). I have a friend who has been kept on in her job at a travel agency, and has spent the last nine months tidying the office and reorganising the post it notes. There’s no work to do right now.

        2. A*

          This seems like a generalized comment unrelated to OP’s situation? OP stated there isn’t enough work to fill the 25 hours. There is zero mention of an excess of work not being covered?

        3. Working Hypothesis*

          No, the point is that there’s only 17 hours of work in his area to be done. He’s not doing more because they haven’t had more for him, and they can only find more by going outside his usual department. They’ve been keeping him paid for 25 anyway because they don’t want to cut people’s income if they can possibly juggle the money not to… but it’s not the employee’s fault that he has only been doing 17 hours of work a week. LW already said that the work just isn’t there to do.

    4. Beth*

      He’s got to be doing something else, 17 hours a week on nonprofit pay doesn’t go far at all. It’s possible that the organization has him listed as up to 25 hours, but due to other responsibilities (a second job, family caregiving, etc) actually working that many hours would be a real stretch for him.

      I will say, personally, if I were working multiple jobs and one of them was routinely scheduling me for about a third less time each week than they had originally promised and paying me accordingly, that job wouldn’t be at the top of my priority list either. I’d be prioritizing the job(s) that had reliable work and reliable pay for me.

      1. Yorick*

        He’s billing fewer hours because some things have been cancelled during the pandemic. He was told he could find stuff (training, etc.) to do to fill those hours, and he didn’t, and now he’s turning down work that would fill those hours. We can’t say that the problem is OP scheduling him for less time (I’d say it doesn’t sound like that at all).

        1. Beth*

          I’m not saying it isn’t understandable for there to be fewer hours right now than usual! It is–there’s less work to go around, that’s not OP’s ‘fault’. But from the employee’s perspective, it’s not a question of fault, right? If there’s not enough work to go around here, and there is somewhere else, you’re going to throw your eggs in the basket that has enough work to go around. That’s just common sense. (And being told it’s okay to do busy work to boost hours is nice in a “we’ll continue to pay you” way, for sure, but it doesn’t exactly scream stability, you know?)

          All I’m saying is, you can’t necessarily expect someone working part-time on flexible hours to be treating your optional projects as their priority. Commitment and enthusiasm are nice and all, but they’re something to expect from people who you can offer real stability to, not people who probably need a second job.

    5. ghostlight*

      He also might be job searching/waiting on an offer, and doesn’t want to take on more responsibilities before leaving and can’t disclose this info because he could get shoved out!

      1. Bartleby's Manager*

        in a normal industry, sure, but unless he’s leaving performing arts — there’s literally nothing available.

        1. Working Hypothesis*

          Maybe he is leaving performing arts. You don’t know. This is why you need to talk to him.

          But please don’t ever again introduce something as “a strictly optional cool opportunity” if you’re going to think badly of them for turning it down, let alone penalize them by bringing them fewer opportunities in future. Your phrasing sounded *exactly* as if you were promising there would be no penalty of any kind, even in your good opinion, for turning that opportunity down. It’s just unfair to say it like that and then turn against him for doing what you just said it was okay to do.

          If you want him to take the assignment, but it’s not absolutely mandatory, you can say, “I need somebody to do X, would you be willing to handle it for me? I would really appreciate it.”

        2. a sound engineer*

          Is it so far-fetched that he would be leaving the performing arts? I left the music industry because of the pandemic, as have many other people. Some planning to return, some not

    6. JSPA*

      Yep, some sort of side gig is more likely than not.

      Unless there’s anything in his part-time contract that forbids it (and frankly, under these circumstances, maybe even if there is?) OP may find out, if they push, that they lose an employee.

      Maybe the 20 hours he was working at his other gig recently went up to 35 hours with a chance of benefits (or he’s currently shipping his Klingon Recipes book on GoFundMe, or he just made a million and then lost most of it on “stonks”…or he’s doing cam work, or whatever else.) Stuff he reasonably figures work not only shouldn’t know about, but that they don’t want to know about.

    7. Bartleby's Manager*

      I said this upthread, but yes – he almost always has had other jobs. He has this as the stable job providing health insurance to smooth out the vagaries of being an artist / gig worker. This is true of most of our part time employees. I have always previously been very aware of his external projects — we have a long standing and open back and forth about them.
      While of course things may have changed, he has explicitly told me that he does not have caretaking responsibilities.
      This does not, of course, mean he isn’t affected by the pandemic. I know everyone is.

      1. Sal*

        I would be hard pressed not to send back a link to Bartleby with a note like “I too have been catching up on Melville’s short fiction during the pandemic.”

        I don’t think it’s a good idea, but my curiosity about whether he was legit making a literary reference would weigh heavily on me.

        Please update us! I don’t think it’s unreasonable to just directly ask him why not!

  6. yokozbornak*

    Maybe the employee felt like he was being asked instead of being told. He needs to be told that he has to take on this responsibility.

    1. Bagpuss*

      This was my first thought. Is this someone who normally takes things very literally?

      I think OP needs to firstly decide whether there are other employees who could do this project equally well, and if so, perhaps assign it them them, and maybe aim to have a conversation with this person and specifically ask him whether this is anything either related to this project, or to non-work commitments which means that he is uncomfortable with this particular task or alternatively, if he is not available to take on work up to his normal hours at present.

      However, it might also be useful to him if you can maybe also have a conversation and explain that, although things like this may be framed as a polite request, it is more of an instruction, and ask whether he needs that to be made clearer moving forward, or alternatively suggest that he clarify if he isn’t sure whether something is an instruction or suggestion. (And perhaps suggest to him that even where it is only a suggestion, if he is able to explain why he’s saying no it will help people to work with him in future, as otherwise he risks coming across as unhelpful or uninterested and may miss out on opportunities he would want.

      (I think the commenters suggesting that he may well have other work commitments and/or caring responsibilities as well may well be right!)

  7. Sasha "Potato Girl" Blause*

    As an elder millennial, I think his response is bizarre. I mean, I truly loathe employment, but pretending otherwise is a survival skill. Besides, I was taught that you never say no to a boss unless it’s illegal, and even then you have to refuse delicately. Saying no just because you don’t want to? Buddy, life is 95% a bunch of b.s. you don’t want to do, suck it up like the rest of us.

    1. Cthulhu’s Librarian*

      You were horribly mistaught, so please get the idea that you can’t say no to a boss out of your head. Setting healthy and reasonable boundaries with your boss is appropriate (ie, don’t deliver graveside missives for them, work on your honeymoon, donate kidneys to their family, or tolerate them showing up at your cancer treatment), and will require saying no at various points.

      That doesn’t mean the LW’s report said it well or appropriately.

    2. Dr. Rebecca*

      “I was taught that you never say no to a boss unless it’s illegal, and even then you have to refuse delicately.”

      This is…really unhealthy praxis.

    3. Homophone Hattie*

      I am also an elder millennial and I think his response is pretty normal for a part-time worker. Negotiating hours worked and turning down extra work offered because it doesn’t fit your needs or schedule is perfectly reasonable to me. If they aren’t going to pay someone enough to live or if they are going to cut peoples hours (I know this is an exceptional time so I’m not blaming them for cutting the hours) they have to just understand that people will have to find other ways of making a living (or take on other domestic responsibilities so their partner can work more hours, whatever) and may not be able to suddenly take on more hours.

      I do think the actual wording of his response was a little blunt, perhaps.

    4. HugsAreNotTolerated*

      Never say no to a boss unless it’s illegal?!?! That’s….reinforcing unhealthy hierarchy at best and exploitative at worst.

    5. JSPA*

      I would not want to hire, nor to work with someone who wouldn’t push back, no matter how bad the idea nor how major the pain, unless and until the issue was one of legality.

      While it’s their business how emotionally unhealthy and open to exploitation this makes them… it’s also bad for the business.

      As a result, people who feel this way tend to get stuck in bad work situations that reinforce their view that “employment,” as a whole, sucks. If you want work not to suck, you have to shift the line of what you’ll do without pushback.

      And if you have to dance around saying “no” to something actually illegal–your specific workplace and your specific boss are toxic. ”

      “No, we can’t do that, because it’s against the law” and “I think I get where you’re coming from, but that’s totally illegal, so, No” is the sort of feedback a normal boss wants, if they’re at risk of doing something illegal. “So sorry, it looks like it’s not possible” is maddeningly vague and a waste of the time I takes to then unpack what makes it “not possible.”

    6. doreen*

      There have been plenty of times when I was “asked” or “voluntold” to do something that I really didn’t want to do – and it is not at all uncommon for me to effectively say ” I prefer not to”. But I only effectively say it – what I literally say is something like I’m swamped by my current workload or maybe I’ll offer to do some other task(s) that I dislike less*. Actually saying the words “I prefer not to” without anything further sounds bizarre to me

      * I once offered to take on number of tasks that would normally be divided between myself and two coworkers if I could be left out of the rotation for attending a monthly meeting I hated)

    7. Ace in the Hole*

      I think “never say no to a boss unless it’s illegal” is too far in the other direction, though. I’ve certainly said no to bosses for plenty of things before. For example:

      – something extremely impractical and/or impossible
      – something unnecessarily dangerous even if it’s not TECHNICALLY an OSHA violation
      – Things that are demeaning, dehumanizing, or cruel (people do not get to scream at me for a minor mistake even if it’s legal)
      – Things that will have significant impacts to your health or wellbeing
      – Things you find morally reprehensible or that will damage your professional reputation
      – Things you don’t want to do, and are willing to take the possible consequences of saying no

      I’ve said no to bosses for things in all of the above categories. It hasn’t held me back in my career one whit – in fact, my ability to set firm but reasonable boundaries and stand up to people in power without losing my cool is one of the things that’s advanced my career… it’s a valuable and uncommon skill.

      There’s things you find mildly tedious/unpleasant, and then there’s things you find unbearable. Workers should not be expected to just shut up and take abusive, unhealthy, morally compromising, damaging, or risky stuff in order to make a living.

    8. Sasha "Potato Girl" Blause*

      Wow, everyone’s taking “never say no” extremely literally. Obviously if something is impossible you can’t say yes. Saying no to an assignment because you don’t want to is insubordination, plain and simple.

      1. Autistic AF*

        It’s hard not to take “never say no” literally when the only options you present are illegal/impossible and “don’t want to”.

        1. Self Employed*


          Yeah, people accuse us of having black and white thinking and then the next thing out of their mouths is something like this.

      2. A*

        If it was “plain and simple” there wouldn’t be an ongoing discussion here. Based on the wide variety of comments, I’m gonna go ahead and say there are different takes on this. And it’s a bit bold to say your approach is the only non-insubordinate approach.

      3. Working Hypothesis*

        Insubordination is really okay if you do it tactfully and you know where your own limits are.

        Your boss isn’t your owner. You work for them because you’ve decided it’s worth it to you to do these particular tasks for this particular amount of money. If the boss asks you to do something that isn’t within the range of tasks you find worth it to you to do for that price, you’re always free to say no. You may get fired for it and that’s all right too — it just means that the two of you can no longer agree on what arrangement of tasks for money you both want anymore. But the idea that you somehow owe you boss submissiveness is… kind of appalling.

    9. Not So NewReader*

      Younger me used to believe stuff like this. It got me no where but burned out and feeling used up.

  8. Bumblebee*

    Based on my experience with very young staff (like straight-out-of-masters-program, went to their masters program straight out of college, so they’re about 24) this is totally someone trying to set a boundary and feeling like it’s their right to do so. It may or may not be entirely up to them, but that age group is, to me, one that has really bought into work-life balance and if something sounds like it might be optional, and they don’t want to do it, they are totally going to try to set that boundary.

    1. Anononon*

      I just want to point out that 24 year olds are Gen Z, and not millennials. I agree with Alison and you that there is a generational trend towards more self-advocacy and work-life balances, but if this guy is actually a millennial, he’s more likely in his 30s, not 20s.

      1. A*

        Thank you for clarifying this. I’m a middle of the road Millennial (early 30s), and it seems like no matter how old I get – everyone in their 20s still gets referred to as a Millennial. There’s a big difference – especially in regards to analog upbringings.

        1. inspector parker*

          Yeah, I am an older Millennial. My hair is about 30% grey, my face looks like a crumpled paper bag first thing in the morning, I will shortly have a teenaged child, and I have to look up current slang. I’m…not one of the youth.

    2. Sasha "Potato Girl" Blause*

      That is so incredibly weird to me. I graduated right into the middle of the last recession, and everything I was taught by instructors and the culture at large was completely opposite this. Has the economy improved so much that just having a pulse gives new grads a high enough market value to afford that sort of behavior? Where is the hustle, the pushing yourself, the eagerness, the hunger, the striving to be the very best? How do these kids expect to have any security in life if they can’t be bothered to earn it?

      1. Bratmon*

        > hustle, the pushing yourself, the eagerness, the hunger, the striving to be the very best

        If you’re in the class of 2020, those are all things you do outside your main job to get ahead.

        Your main job is going to fire you when it’s financially convenient for them no matter what you do, so if you have real drive, it’s better to spend it somewhere it might actually help you (ie. not in a fulltime job)

      2. Stuckinacrazyjob*

        Uh….I’m a millineial and am super confused about this. Wouldn’t they just burn themselves out without raises or promotions while the job lays them off at the first stock dip?

        1. Nicholas C Kiddle*

          Yeah this is my thinking too. Since the 08 recession, maybe even earlier, it looks like job security is not a thing for many people. Which is all the more reason to stand up for yourself and protect aspects of your life outside work.

      3. JF*

        See, I also graduated into the last recession, and learned that you can’t give enough to a company because no matter what, you won’t get properly compensated and you’ll likely get laid off regardless. Now, I definitely didn’t learn to respond like this person did – I’d be terrified. But the expectation that someone’s going to prioritize a 25 hour a week part time job… I mean I get that it would grate.

        1. pretzelgirl*

          I agree with you JF. I graduated college in 08. My first job I made $24k a year! Jumped to another job, made more than got laid off. Took another job and made $14 an hour in accounting. It was awful.

          1. pope suburban*

            Me three. Had some truly awful years after I lost my nice paid internship right out of college (Graduated December 07, lost the job December 08), and worked myself to the bone in an attempt to secure any kind of stability. What I ended up learning is that you can destroy yourself to get glowing reviews from an employer who’s not even paying you enough, and they’ll still cut you if it’ll save them the right kind of pennies. Given that, well, I might as well set boundaries so I’m not annihilating my health to the point where I can’t enjoy anything. As someone currently underemployed in the arts, I relate to prioritizing other things over work, especially in the face of overwhelming burnout that’s not looking likely to get any better soon. I did the whole “take on extra work” and while my agency was thrilled to accept that and thrilled with the product, here I am still underemployed, so. I’m happy to wait here until I get a really good offer, but I’m going to be gone because I simply can’t stake the rest of my life on this particular position.

      4. Torvil and Dean*

        “How do these kids expect to have any security in life if they can’t be bothered to earn it?”

        Yikes! So if you’re not overworking yourself you’re not deserving of security? That’s such a dangerous way of thinking! First of all, having a job is a two way street – it’s wonderful to get paid, but companies are also getting something out of having employees do work for them. It’s a transactional relationship, and it’s kind of weird to have this expectation that employees should be pouring their heart and soul into their jobs. Secondly, even though I’m sure this wasn’t your intention, this attitude is very ableist. Being unable to work, for whatever reason, doesn’t mean that someone is unworthy of having security in life.

        1. Sasha "Potato Girl" Blause*

          I’m in tech. Employers don’t want someone who’s in it for the money. I’ve seen coworkers get fired for lack of passion. You can say it’s toxic — and I’d wholeheartedly agree — but we have to live in the world as it actually is, not as we wish it to be.

          As for the ableism thing, maybe? I have ADHD, so severe that before meds I crashed every car I’d ever owned and couldn’t even follow the plot of a movie. I was 22 and in my junior year before I got diagnosed. So, yes, the internalized ableism is strong in this one. But it’s also a cold hard fact that no one will take care of me just because I exist.

          1. Angelica*

            I’m so sorry life has been so crappy to you, and left you with such warped thinking. You deserved better.

          2. River*

            You must be American! Please know there are many places in this world where you’d be taken care of “just because you exist”. Because you are a human being and you have worth, regardless of your employment status.

            This whole attitude makes me so sad for you.

            1. BubbleTea*

              America is far from the only place where people are valued for their economic productivity, I don’t think this is a fair statement. Lots of Americans don’t share this view either, unless today’s comments section is unusually international. To be clear, I agree that everyone has inherent worth and you should not have to prostrate yourself at the foot of your employer to justify your existence, but it isn’t an exclusively American idea that you should.

            2. Random Autistic Person*

              I know you mean well, but these kinds of “you poor Americans, I pity you so much!” comments are really not helpful to Americans.

            3. Analyst Editor*

              I’m sure the paradise you’re from had no illness, poverty, violence, homelessness, or injustice.

              As it is, my country has problems, which are well-publicized and at times exaggerated, but also some advantages, certain freedoms not the least among them.

          3. Scarlet2*

            “Employers don’t want someone who’s in it for the money.”

            Then they don’t understand how the job market or the economy works.

          4. ian*

            I’m also in tech, and I have plenty of co-workers who are just in it for the money. Plenty of companies out there are happy to hire qualified people who will get their assigned work done – and any “passion” is expected to be come from the company creating it. It’s a two-way street – if a company can’t make you care about working about for them, then that’s on them.

            1. a sound engineer*

              Yeah, I’d say about 90% of my fellow electrical engineering cohort were in it just for the money.

          5. Ace in the Hole*

            I must point out that tech companies are infamous for toxic work culture, and those things are not just an inherent part of every job.

            In my career (garbage), no one is expected to be passionate about their job. We’re all here for the paycheck, we know it, the boss knows it, and there’s no point pretending it’s not true. The expectation is that you will do your job competently, safely, and diligently during your agreed-upon work hours, that you will treat coworkers and the public with courtesy and respect. That’s it. Many industries are the same way… for example almost every job in manufacturing, public service, trades, maintenance/custodial services, etc. Going the extra mile may be necessary for promotion, but it’s not a requirement for continued employment.

            Your insistence that we have to live in the world as it is carries an insidious, self-perpetuating message. The logic goes: the world is a harsh place that punishes people for speaking up. Therefore people must learn not to speak up. Therefore a person who has not learned to stop speaking up is a bad employee, and should be punished…. which, of course, is the reason the world is a harsh place. You’re (I assume unintentionally) arguing in favor of creating and/or enforcing toxic cultural norms.

            It would be better to ask yourself why people SHOULD have to earn the right to say no, why they SHOULD have to earn the right to security, why they SHOULD have to “hustle” all the time at the expense of their own well-being in order to have a stable career. It seems like right now you’re assuming they should because you did… but two wrongs don’t make a right.

          6. Not So NewReader*

            I have talked about the use the term passion before. My job is not a relationship, I am not going to have “passion” over a job, period.
            Will I work like I am three people, heck yeah. But they can’t buy me lock, stock and barrel. They definitely don’t get my soul.

            I have many, many stories of people who followed this belief and ended up irreparably broken. I had a prof in school. He was a big wig in a global company. The company sent him all over, doing all kinds of work. It boiled down to he went into an area and was instructed to fire people or to break down branch offices. So he did. He did everything the company told him to do.
            At some point they ran out of offices to break down and people to fire. He had plenty of surviving people who disliked him because he was the guy with the ax. And so he was fired also. Right before retiring.
            The guy was gutted. He knew he had been played. He was set up to be the scapegoat and it worked. He figured it out too late.

            Your unchecked loyalty to the company is probably not reciprocated by the company.

            1. Random Autistic Person*

              Your unchecked loyalty to the company is probably not reciprocated by the company.

              If she works in tech, I can almost guarantee it’s not.

          7. 1.0*

            I’m also in tech, I’m also a millennial, I do not recognize this attitude at all. I like my job and I like what I do, but my coworkers and I are all honest about it — if we were rich we wouldn’t be doing this!

          8. allathian*

            Every job I’ve ever had has been just for the money. It’s a business transaction, plain and simple. I wouldn’t work if I didn’t need to do so to live. Yet given that I do need to work to live, I show up and do my job to the best of my ability. Some days I can do more than others, but that’s life.

            I’m lucky in that I work for the government and can’t be laid off. Sure, I can be fired, but only for cause and not without warning unless I do something truly egregious that involves breaking the law or for behaving really badly otherwise, like harassing a coworker. I can only be laid off if they decide to eliminate my job function completely, i.e. they can’t fire me today and start hiring someone else to do the same job tomorrow. Sure, there are measures my employer could take if my performance deteriorated significantly and I might end up getting fired in the end, but that’s never the first step and there’s plenty of warning. Even with all these job security measures in place, I’m only trading my best effort for money, I’m not selling my soul to my employer. They don’t get to dictate my feelings, for a start. Sure, I’m a seasoned professional by now and can keep my feelings to myself when necessary, but I’ve never felt the need to fake enthusiasm for something I’m not keen on. Sure, I’ll do it if I must, and it’s the result that matters, not how I feel about doing it.

            My employer is also very good about realizing that some assignments get my best efforts but that I can’t always perform at that level and it’s perfectly fine to sometimes just put in a B or even a C for effort for non-critical tasks.

          9. Random Autistic Person*

            I used to work in tech, and what you are saying sounds dangerously close to my mindset immediately before I had a nervous breakdown from lack of work/life balance.

      5. JSPA*

        “hustle, the pushing yourself, the eagerness, the hunger, the striving to be the very best”

        “doormat who never says “no” to a bad idea or ill-fitting project.

        “I suffered hardest and most silently” is not a line you can put on your resumé.

        Knowing when to say, “yes, I thrive under this, pile it on” and when to say, “that project is a bad fit for me, and might be a better fit for person X,” like knowing when to stay and when to move on, are flip sides of the same coin.

        Sure, if it’s a job that everyone hates, and it’s sometimes your turn to do it, you don’t breach the social contract by being the one person who doesn’t take out the garbage.

        But in general, there are no abstract Job Karma Points from the universe for suffering in silence at work. That’s just not a thing, except inside the head of the people who believe it to be so.

      6. WhoKnows*

        It sounds like we graduated college around the same time, and yes, we had to hustle to get jobs during a time when people were getting rid of jobs – just like now. But having that kind of drive is unsustainable in the kibg run. Who can keep up the motivation that long? There’s got to be a middle ground between “Anything you say!” and “No, I’d prefer not to.” Work-life balance is important.

      7. Mill Miker*

        They watched the generations ahead of them “earn it”, not get it, and then be too burned out to provide it for themselves.

        On the off chance “security in life” is possible, they expect to get it by caring for their mind, body, and community.

      8. not owen wilson*

        Hi! I’m a 2020 college grad, meaning I graduated into the current recession! I don’t know where you get the idea that the economy has improved so much that we have a high enough market value to afford behavior like this. I’m employed full time and I’m one of only three people in my major of 15 to have that. It wasn’t hard work — it was luck. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you’re just very stuck in the “kids these days” mindset, and I encourage you to get out of this us vs. them mindset. What I have noticed in myself and other people my age, who have experienced two “once in a lifetime” recessions before even entering the workforce, is that we’re very disillusioned with capitalism and the live to work mindset that is so pervasive in the US. Obviously I’m going to work hard, and I want to have a career, but I and many other people my age just don’t have the mindset that work is the ultimate purpose in life. We’re bitter! I really love my job and I want to succeed, but I’m also going to set reasonable boundaries. Step back and reconsider all the lies capitalism has fed you, and maybe you’ll be happier.

        1. Sasha "Potato Girl" Blause*

          Where are you getting that I buy into capitalism? I know very well that I’ve been exploited, but I also know that my ability to survive comes from those who exploit me. Who do you think started Occupy Wall Street? That was my generation. But guess what, that didn’t work. Police created the conditions to arrest protestors (like blocking the toilets and then arresting people for urinating into bottles), organizers just disappeared off the face of the earth, and nothing changed. Our economic system is also our system of government, I may disagree but I can’t change it. Martyring myself through anticapitalist self-sabotage won’t fix this country.

          1. Raea*

            But you’re also advocating for the opposite extreme – martyring yourself for a job or employer. You may not view it that way, but this is a generational difference and is that way for good reason. I totally get it, life is hard and I have also felt jaded by my experiences – but that motivates me even more to encourage others to proceed with caution when it comes to sacrificing for employment. I want others to have a better experience than I did, not to share the misery.

            And I am also talking about how things are, not just the ideal. I see this attitude shift in my line of work every single day, and it is a good shift.

            1. not owen wilson*

              Thank you Raea, you said it better than I could.

              And Sasha, working for a living is not equal to throwing yourself on your employer’s blade. You can be dedicated to your job without making it your entire personality and purpose in life. And you can advocate for better working conditions for everyone while continuing to survive within the system :)

            2. Fushi*

              Fwiw, I honestly don’t think the ideals you espouse are in themselves a generational difference, at least between Millennials and Gen-Z! On a more general level, sure: “older” generations who had experienced job security are more likely to feel workplace loyalty, and young Millennials/Gen-Z are more likely to have opted out of the company martyrdom from the start than older Millennials/X-ers, who may have tried that working style early on before realizing it’s not productive. But I’m a Millennial (who was *at* Occupy Wall street) and I totally agree with you, and so do a lot of my peers! So yeah, just thought I’d throw some inter-generational solidarity in here. :)

        2. A*

          “What I have noticed in myself and other people my age, who have experienced two “once in a lifetime” recessions before even entering the workforce, is that we’re very disillusioned with capitalism and the live to work mindset that is so pervasive in the US.”

          Sums it up perfectly! And even more so for those that entered into the job market during the last recession and were faced with building, and re-building, careers during both. I will always strive to be a top performer, but I learned very early on that sacrificing myself for any job or employer will only guarantee to benefit them in the long run.

          This is 100% a ‘kids these days’ mentality. The fact that the word ‘kids’ is even being used to describe adult professionals is bonkers.

          1. a sound engineer*

            “The fact that the word ‘kids’ is even being used to describe adult professionals is bonkers.”

            Thank you, from someone with an 8-year career who is usually one of the ‘kids these days’ being scoffed at.

            1. Self Employed*

              I’m GenX and have my own business. I still get “kids these days” remarks if I say people should not have to risk bringing home COVID working with the public to keep a roof over their head.

      9. Tinker*

        Q: How do these kids expect to have any security in life if they can’t be bothered to earn it?
        A: Bold of you to assume they expect to have any security in life.

        1. Scarlet2*

          I’d say it’s also pretty naive to think you’ll “earn” security by pouring your heart and soul into a job. Countless people have been laid off even after working countless hours, accepting pay cuts, etc.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Stereotyping or sweeping generalities very seldom lead to productive problem solving.

          EVERY generation has had that segment of the group who condemn the next generation. You’d think people would learn and stop condemning their younger generation– but I guess not.

          1. allathian*

            This has been going on for a long, long time, since the time of Homer and Aristotle, at least. I bet that even before the first writing systems were developed, people were complaining about the younger generation by the campfire.

      10. Amy*

        Uh, as a millenial who graduated undergrad on the tail end of the last recession, I’m unfamiliar with work being the place where I express “the hustle, the pushing yourself, the eagerness, the hunger, the striving to be the very best” in my life! Any company I’ve worked for would gladly have let me do that if I wanted to, but they wouldn’t have given me more security or much material benefit for it. Meeting expectations was plenty to be kept on, and serious raises/promotions were rare even for those who went way above and beyond; you have to job hunt to get a serious raise, more often than not.

        Work is a thing I do for income. If I can find a job that’s got a collegial culture, where I don’t hate the work, and which pays me enough to live comfortably on, great, that’s definitely preferred. My eagerness and hunger are in my personal life and my hobbies and my relationships. But work isn’t security–work will lay me off the second the economy drops and my salary becomes inconvenient. Security for me is in having a life to fall back on outside work, and having flexible enough skills to know I’ll be able to pick up and job hunt again when I next need to.

        1. pope suburban*

          Exactly. Burning ourselves out doesn’t work or pay off, so might as well hold to work/life boundaries. Staying resilient and investing in things that renew you outside of work isn’t going to hold you back or anything, but it just might make life worth living.

      11. Joielle*

        It’s funny – my experience has been the complete opposite of this. If you’re so committed to hustling and striving that you will say yes to anything and take on any responsibility without complaint, then people learn they can take advantage of you. If you want to earn security, you have to command respect. You don’t do that by being a doormat.

      12. A*

        and don’t these kids know that you walked twenty miles uphill in the snow everyday to get to school?

        Come on now. No need to infantilize. It’s a well established pattern that older generations tend to view the younger generations as unambitious / lazy etc. etc. Do you really want to align yourself with that stereotype hey-kids-get-off-my-lawn style?

        And for the record, I would never just say ‘I’d rather not’ to a request from my boss. But I also call BS on the whole ‘striving to do your very best’ bit. I have always done that, and now ten years into my career I can honestly say that some of the happiest people I know are those that don’t always try and go above and beyond in their career. Many people define ‘be the very best’ as being happy and relatively financially secure – which does not always translate to ‘be the best in my career’.

        1. Self Employed*

          One of the great things about being my own boss is that if a client is being a jerk, wants me to violate copyright, wants me to work for exposure, etc. I can always say no.

        2. allathian*

          Yes, this. Sure, I could probably earn more by working for the private sector. There are a lot of great companies out there, it’s just that I find the idea of helping to make someone else rich through my efforts morally objectionable. So I try to do my best to serve the taxpayers who in the end pay my salary.

    3. Amaranth*

      I think they also could have been caught completely off guard if hours had been limited and there was no indication more work would ever be available. After a long period of not even 20 hours a week, I can imagine getting caught in your head when someone says ‘so, how about more work’. Not that he should have actually said that response out loud, but I bet it was the first thing in his head. If OP then said ‘well, okay’ then he wasn’t really encouraged to say more.

  9. Amanda*

    It did read to me at first like “hey here’s a cool thing you could do if you want!” and not like “hey i have a project I need you to work on.” LW needs to go back to employee and say “It may have sounded like I was asking, but I was telling.” Or something to that effect.

  10. Arctic*

    “Or, could your wording have given the impression that you weren’t saying “here’s a project I’d like to assign you” but rather “is this something you’d be interested in and excited about?” If it was the latter, maybe he just took at at face value and gave you a literal answer. (His wording would still be a little … sparse, but not everyone speaks Office really well.)”

    This seems the most likely to me. LW seems to have framed it as a cool opportunity. And the dude thought it was optional or almost like a present rather than an assignment.

    Still not how I would respond, of course. But maybe not something to ding him for forever either. I think it was most likely a genuine miscommunication.

    Plus, communicating on email is difficult. I have trouble with my own tone on email to superiors.

    1. JSPA*

      Even, “I’d like to assign you” is ambiguous. It can be received as, “this is one of several solutions, and it’s one that I’d like.”

      I am assigning you X.
      I need to assign you X, starting Tuesday.
      X is now one of your job duties, projected to take an additional 5 hours per week.

      In presenting to us, OP is emphasizing how good X will be for the employee, on the basis of how the employee should want more hours, and how excited OP was by the fit.

      We of course can’t know how OP presented it to the employee, but if OP communicated to the employee along those same lines–instead of clearly emphasizing that These. Are. Your. New. Duties. first–then employee could well be confused.

      1. Self Employed*

        Also, LW could say they checked everyone else’s availability after Joe turned it down–and it’s going to be a problem to assign it to anyone else.

  11. General Organa*

    I think whether you should hold the response against him depends on the wording of the ask, but since he is now only being paid for hours worked, I wonder also whether this person might have picked up another part-time job and is happy with his reduced hours at LW’s organization?

    1. Rarely do I post*

      That was my thought too; his hours were reduced by a third so he may have found something else to fill the time (and maybe that has now become his primary gig?).

    2. BusyBee*

      My thought as well. If he has additional hours elsewhere, and this project seems cool but also time consuming, I can see why he would respond that way. Especially if it seemed like the type of project that, if he passes on it, someone else in the org would be happy to take. If I was on reduced hours and taking an additional, potentially optional, project would mess with my other job, I would try and get out of it as well. He definitely could have softened it a little, but if he maybe doesn’t want to mention the other job, I can see being less forthcoming.

  12. My cat is the employee of the month*

    I think there is a lot of context missing here, and the manager needs to talk to the employee, not an advice column. For example, have projects Bartleby has expressed interest in gone to different employees? Has he started a second part time job as a scrivener? We don’t know, and apparently the manager doesn’t know either.

    And managers really, really need to stop thinking that everyone should just be happy to have a job right now. That may be true for some employees, but not all, and it’s bad to make that assumption.

    1. Theory of Eeveelution*

      Both of the things you point out here rubbed me the wrong way, too. This is BASIC communication that LW isn’t doing with their employee. Why didn’t they just ask him why he responded that way???

    2. Putting the "pro" in "procrastinate"*

      That was my reaction too. Some of the comments above are making a distinction between presenting the project as a cool opportunity that is optional versus a project that is being assigned. But for me, if one of my reports replied this way — regardless of how I framed it — the very first thing I would do is say, “Can you tell me a little about why?” I obviously think the project is a good fit or I wouldn’t have brought it to this particular person — so I would want to know what in my assessment was off base. And I can’t think of a reason why I wouldn’t just ask.

      1. Quinalla*

        It sounds like the OP was so taken aback by the response so much she wasn’t sure on the next step and needed advice and also wasn’t sure if she was overreacting. I agree, the thing to do here is just to ask – and I’d recommend setting up a phone call if possible at minimum as this isn’t a conversation for email/IM, best in person, but phone will do right now.

        Good luck OP, it could be a million different things, but you should ask and yes the response is overly curt and I would have been feeling some of the same things as you with that response. And you don’t need to dig crazy deep here, just “I’m really busy in my personal life right now and can’t put the time to this.” “I picked up additional responsibilities at job 2 since this job has been so low on hours.” etc. is all that is needed.

  13. E*

    >Maybe his family has an intense blood feud with the family of the person he’d be collaborating with.

    Can this blood feud be ended by a marriage between them? This is the performing arts, after all.

    1. Librarian of SHIELD*

      I grew up doing community theatre and in my experience, the odds of this guy having a blood feud with another local performer is not at all unlikely. :)

  14. Theory of Eeveelution*

    I really think the entirety of the response to LW here should have been, “Did you ask him why?”

    I mean, I question why LW’s thought process wasn’t to simply ask the employee why he responded that way, and instead write in to an internet advice column about it instead. LW seems confused about his response, and a lot (if not all) of that confusion could have been alleviated by just… asking him why?

    This makes me wonder if the LW fails to communicate appropriately in other ways that led the employee to respond this way. Others are suggesting LW framed this as an “opportunity” rather than a required task, and maybe this is part of that.

    1. twocents*

      That’s a little uncharitable. You could ask nearly every LW “why don’t you just talk to (whoever) instead of writing Alison?” Knowing when something is and isn’t appropriate to follow up on vs take in stride is its own skill.

      1. ThatGirl*

        It is, and the LW also wanted to know if her feelings were valid, or if there was something they hadn’t considered. It can be worth getting a second opinion before charging in accusing someone of being ungrateful!

      2. Julia*

        That’s a good point. I do think though that because the LW in this case is the guy’s manager, she should be expected to be a little more forthright in her dealings with her reports than should the average LW. It’s understandable that you might not know how to ask your senior colleague to turn down her music, but being comfortable sorting out misunderstandings among your staff is a basic management prereq.

      3. EventPlannerGal*

        I think the part that I’m taken aback by is that the letter doesn’t even bring up the idea of asking him why. The OP isn’t saying “oh now I’ve left it too long and I don’t know how to phrase it, what do I do” or something, they’re saying “this is what he said, am I right/wrong to feel this way about it”. I would totally understand being flummoxed in the moment and not knowing what to say, but that really does seem strange to me.

      4. Self Employed*

        The details LW has provided since the original letter make it more clear that LW should’ve just asked Joe why he’s being uncharacteristically terse and turning down work.

    2. JSPA*

      Partial agree. OP is doing too much of Employee’s mental work (and possibly not enough of OP’s own communication work–though that part’s speculative).

      The employee’s job is to have his own reactions, about whether it’s a good fit, and whether the extra hours are welcome–and to communicate that. It’s not (or not primarily) OP’s job to game out those reactions for him, and tell him how he should feel about it.

      On the other hand, it’s not like the employee was doing that job himself.

      OP might find it helpful to pull way back on trying to figure out how the employee should feel about the task, or focusing on feelings in general. Once OP makes it clear that the task is the task, it’s time to step back and let it be the employee’s job to figure out their own reactions to it. If OP has always been open to feedback and effective in offering support, OP doesn’t need to delve into any of the “feels and reasons.”

    3. Allonge*

      Honestly, I hope my immediate response would have been to ask why. But if not, I see myself just questioning the whole thing, and how to proceed – it’s a pretty bizarre response, all told.

      Yes, managers should be communicating clearly at all times but 1 they are human 2 I at least never took an assignment from my boss as optional – there are of course times when I push back or discuss the timings etc, but the aspect of ‘that was not a question, how can you think this was a question’ would throw me.

  15. California Ltd.*

    I hope OP has the next communication by phone or web conference. I suspect something got lost in the email.

    I can appreciate the “taking it literally” aspect as that’s something I occasionally do – though not as much now that I’m older. I still remember when my 4th grade teacher allowed me to pick teams and said, “You may pick a boy.” Well, given the option, I picked my friend Kirsten who I knew would be awesome at kickball. But apparently “may” meant, “pick a boy next.”

  16. 30Something*

    I suspect that only being paid for hours worked is at the heart of the issue.
    My husband and I are millennials, and he used to work a contract job paid by the hour a number of years ago. He did not get any benefits etc. He just showed up to work and got paid accordingly. I admit, we were both a little (naively) flummoxed when his boss pulled him aside and asked if everything was alright, since he was taking the occasional day off each month. We figured it was fine because he wasn’t stealing time. After all, he was only being paid for the time he put in. However, what we failed to see (due to lack of working experience) was that the company was counting on him being present 40 hours a week. We also felt a bit cheated by the company because they kept stringing him along as a temp worker without any benefits, so my husband was not particularly motivated to give more of his time to the job than was necessary. But, we did learn to see the company’s point of view that had never occurred to us before.
    I suspect this employee has a similar attitude to the situation – “I am only being paid for the time I put in, so what does it matter?” The OP will have to explain why it matters.

    1. KitKat*

      Totally agree! But I have to admit I’m at a loss as to how it DOES matter, except to the company who wants full time effort from the employee without giving them the full time benefits of insurance and PTO. I’d be interested to see how a company would explain that to the employee. It’s a business, you get what you pay for.

      1. 30Something*

        Agreed re: you get what you pay for. I also agree with your post below. I can at least now see the other side of the argument from my husband’s experience, but I’m still kinda team Do What You’re Paid To Do (nothing less, nothing more). Maybe I am just a lazy millennial? I’ve been struggling to give the 110% effort companies are looking for since I entered the work force in 2013…

        1. Dan*

          There’s a few different ways to interpret “going the extra mile”, which I will do “at work”, within the confines of a 40-hour week. But I do not go the extra mile in terms of picking up more work outside the time I’m required to work.

          That’s kind of wordy, but I’m essentially a government contractor who is required to account for my time. We’re also assigned to projects accordingly. The upshot is, if my boss says, “You need to take on this extra project”, then we have to go into the accounting system and change work assignments. And if I’m assigned too much work, the accounting system flags it for management. So me taking on more work means dropping existing work. That type of thing makes it a bit harder to just dump more work on my lap and “ask” me to take it on.

      2. Dan*

        Not only that, but I’m betting that there’s a darn good chance that this person’s husband was misclassified, which would violate the FLSA. Granted, I might be reading too much into this, but one of the key tenets of being an independent contractor is that the employer cannot dictate when and where you work. An employer saying, “You’re an IC but you have to be at the work site 9-5, M-F” isn’t acting consistent with FLSA requirements.

    2. learnedthehardway*

      I could understand this if the employee is under the impression that he’s not going to be paid for more hours, but you’d think that he’d understand that additional hours over and above the 17 he’s working per week would be on a paid basis. (For that matter, your husband should have billing 40 hours per week, if the company expected him to be working – or at least at work – during those hours, and as long as he was showing up for them.)

      1. 30Something*

        Not to derail into my personal story, but my husband was putting in ~44 hrs per week (most weeks), which was the amount of time you could work before overtime kicked in. He also was 3X more productive and efficient than the last three people who held his position before him, and he cleaned up the huge disorganized mess those people left behind before they ghosted. He was a “temp” for 2.5 years, so he really didn’t think an occasional day each month was a big deal, especially since he was on top of everything and knew what could wait until the next day.

        As for the OP’s employee, I imagine he knows he will get paid for extra hours but just would rather forgo the money. But that’s just my guess.

        1. JSPA*

          IANAL, but he has not gotten money from one of the many “miscategorized temp” lawsuits, this might well be something he could still look into.

  17. HugsAreNotTolerated*

    There is 100% a generational aspect to this because I (a 31 year-old millennial) am balking more at the OP’s response than her employee’s response. Is it weird that he didn’t follow up his “I prefer not to” with an explanation? Yeah, totally. But that’s also just men in general if you ask me, you tend not to get a lot of details if you don’t ask for them. His response isn’t that out of line, especially if it sounded like OP was presenting this opportunity to him to gauge his interest rather than presenting it as his next project fait acompli. TBH it sounds like this guy just wasn’t interested in the project but was trying to find a polite way to tell you that but kinda just had an OfficeSpeak fail.
    But OP’s thoughts that he should be grateful just to be employed? That’s…swerving pretty hard into the stereotypical Boomer attitude of “Millennials are so entitled. When I was their age I was happy to have a job at all”. It’s wonderful that OP is so fiercely loyal to their org and has such passion for their work, but it’s unreasonable to expect the same of all of your employees. For many millennials work, is just that. Work. It’s not something we’re super passionate about or enjoy doing, but it (hopefully) pays the bills and allows us to do other things with our life that make us happy.

    1. triceratops*

      ^I agree with you. OP’s attitude about her company has made it difficult for me to sympathize with her.

    2. It is a big deal.*

      Yeah, I’m sorta with you. Although I found the idea of being “fiercely loyal” more alarming than anything. I suppose that’s because it’s in a field like arts where people feel more personally invested, but even there, the fact that people are personally invested can result in a lot of underpayment at the bottom while the folks at the top get rich.

    3. justanobody*

      Hey, I’m the Last of the Baby Boomers and I agree with this attitude completely. Lots of people don’t Live to Work and I’m one of them. This is just a job for me. I don’t dislike my job, but I’m not passionate about it. I think we do young people a huge disservice by telling them ‘do what you love!’. Most people can’t get paid a living wage with benefits to do ‘what they love’.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, but to be fair, I don’t think young people are told this to the extent that they were before the financial crisis of 2008. We’re seeing pushback to this attitude among younger employees. Sure, lots of more experienced employees feel the same way, but I think it’s more prevalent among younger people. (Solid Gen X here.)

    4. Random Autistic Person*

      I think the distinction Alison draws is also relevant–I’m grateful to have any job at all right now, given the circumstances, but I’m not grateful to my employer specifically for not laying me off. My employment is a business relationship from which my employer and I both benefit. They’re paying me to do stuff that helps them make money, not out of the sheer goodness of their hearts.

      1. Bartleby's Manager*

        Yes, that is the thing I am processing most from her response!

        And it’s why I wrote — trying to gauge how off-base my reaction may or may not be.

        (nonprofit performing arts: none of us are getting rich)

      2. Littorally*


        Am I grateful to have a job that hasn’t been significantly impacted by the pandemic? Yes. Am I specifically grateful to my employer to continue employing me? No, my gratitude is more… hm, general? Than that. I’m grateful to be in my job the same way I’m grateful we caught my cat’s medical problems at an early stage. It isn’t like the vet did me a favor; I brought the cat in and she was correctly diagnosed. My employer hired me to do a job that has continued to have steady, profitable work in the past year.

    5. SlightlyStressed*

      100% agreed and well said.

      I also find OfficeSpeak to be a bit generational – it feels more aligned with GenX and older than Millennial and younger. I’m a young Millennial (borderline Gen Z) and I hear a lot of “why can’t they just say what they mean?” about my/my friends’ older bosses.

    6. Scarlet2*

      Yeah, I’m Gen X and the part about him “having to be grateful that he has a job” put my shoulders around my ears. Let’s not pretend employers hire employees as a favour. You hire me because you need my labour, nobody has to act “grateful” about it.
      And I’ll add that I’m generally very productive but at the moment I’ve reached my (emotional/physical) limit and I’m not taking on as much work as I used to because I just don’t have the bandwidth. I really don’t think I’m an exception.

    7. Amaranth*

      I’m a bit stuck on the first line lauding the company for keeping the ‘benefits eligible’ fully employed. Which, yes, that’s great, but seems unlikely to apply to the employee in question. I’m happy for OP she feels valued, but her report might not get the same trickle down effect.

    8. Not So NewReader*

      Where are these Boomers with the gratitude issues? This to me sounds like something from the Greatest Generation. And I can actually see why, Great Depression, WWII, they had lots of stuff going on that was not good.

      Personal experience wise, I am not seeing Boomers lecturing about being grateful for any old job. I see the opposite, I see a lot of rebellion against certain norms that are not healthy.

  18. Anon for this*

    I realize you probably mentioned the intense blood feud as a joke, but one of my coworker’s family is apparently actually IN an intense blood feud with someone the people my department interacts with very, very rarely. They didn’t know this person worked here when they applied, and I don’t think our manager has realized they’re intentionally being unavailable whenever someone needs to reach out to this person yet, but it makes for an interesting dynamic.

      1. CatCat*

        Came here to say this.

        I’ve also been really into Icelandic sagas lately and so my mind goes really interesting places imagining a family feud like in the sagas, but in a modern workplace.

      2. Anon for this*

        Sadly there’s nothing to elaborate, it came out the first time I told coworker in question that he needed to reach out to this person to get an issue fixed and got a flat “we are not on speaking terms” and went “??????”

        Team lead and I both expressed puzzlement, this is eventually going to come out in a public, explosive way, but I’ve privately decided that either the other, serious, ongoing issues in our department will be fixed within a year (the fact that it’s been so long and they still haven’t been fixed is one of the issues), or I am going to move elsewhere, and it likely won’t explode until after I leave since I’m the person picking up those tasks at the moment, so it really does not affect me much.

    1. HugsAreNotTolerated*

      It sounds like this doesn’t really have an impact on your work or ability to get your work done and so I hope you’re enjoying the show!

  19. pcake*

    I can’t see why the OP didn’t simply courteously ask why the employee prefers not to. I can think of several pretty good reasons just off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are many. For example:

    Perhaps the employee has a second part-time job
    Perhaps there’s something in their lives that’s taking up all their bandwidth (eviction, ill relative, etc)
    Perhaps they’ve had bad prior experiences with the partner agency
    Perhaps there’s someone (an ex, a prior bad boss) working at the partner agency
    Perhaps there are conflicts of belief regarding the partner agency
    Perhaps there’s something about the assignment itself.

    The only way to find out is to ask the employee.

    1. Elmyra Duff*

      Don’t forget that we’re coming up of one year of living in a global pandemic hellscape. We’re all stressed and grieving to a certain extent, some more than others.

  20. Sara without an H*

    OP, I really think this is a case where you need to use your words. Your letter makes it sound as though you just let the remark drop without any follow-up. Had Bartleby said that to me, my first response would be, “Oh? Can you tell me why?” He may have had a good reason, who knows? But without more conversation, you’ll never know that.

    I also think you need to get clear in your own mind how important this project is to your organization and whether Bartleby is the best person to do it. I can’t tell whether you presented this as an actual work assignment or an optional opportunity that Bartleby thought he could turn down. But if the project needs to get done, and if Bartleby is the person best qualified to do it, then you need to make that clear to him.

    1. Snark no more!*

      My reply would have been, “Oh, I’m so sorry. It appears I’ve given you the impression that you have a choice. This is your new assignment.”

      But I’m sometimes salty at work….

      1. Sara without an H*

        Salt is essential to healthy life…Seriously, I thought the OP seemed strangely tentative about assigning work to a direct report. I wonder if the organization has a culture of Toxic Niceness?

      2. Mal*

        I hope you wouldn’t genuinely do that, but also you wouldn’t need to go there if you ask the question properly in the first place.

      3. A*

        That’s not salty – it’s clarifying! If I was the employee in your example, I would 100% prefer that straight forward response to finding out down the line my boss thought it was a major misstep / thought I said no to an assignment without ever clarifying or having a discussion about it. I would expect it to be resolved in oh… ten minutes?

      4. Not So NewReader*

        … or like I did, I learned to state the task in a manner such that the employee knew there was not a lot of choice going on.

        I am the first one to understand the need to soften a message. My solution there was to tell the employee that I would go over the nuts and bolts of the task and they could ask any questions at any time. I never had too much problem.

  21. KitKat*

    Wow, sometimes my take on these is so different I felled like an insane person! I’m an old Millennial/young Gen Xer, and I actually think this employee’s response was completely understandable. He’s being paid for hours worked. He doesn’t want to work more hours. There could be 1000 reasons for that, and none of them really matter. If the organization doesn’t want to pay anyone to do the work he is doing in the hours it takes to do it, then they should let him go. End of story. The only thing that would change my mind a bout this would be if the employee is receiving a certain amount of benefits that are paid by the employer at 25 hours/week. Then he does have an obligation to meet those 25 hours.
    Many managers seem to miss the fact that many employees are not necessarily sitting at home, chewing their fingernails, waiting for their employer to call them with more work. Some people work because they need money to live. Just because the Op thinks it’s a “cool” opportunity doesn’t mean that everybody else does. Maybe this guy has sick relatives, or kids to watch, or is struggling with mental illness, or working more hours at another job, ad infinitum.

    1. high school teacher*

      Yeah, same here. Actually I am now a little worried that maybe I am not a good employee because I have definitely said no to my boss about extra work. The comments expressing shock that an employee would say this to their boss are stressing me out, haha.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        This is one of those things that’s super variable among roles, workplaces, and managers. I say no to my manager all the time, and it’s fine (and even expected! He’s told me he’ll keep giving me work until I tell him I’m too busy for more and that it’s on my to tell him when I’m at that point!).

        So if it’s been working for you in the context of your specific situation, don’t stress.

          1. Self Employed*

            During the pandemic, I’m even finding polite reasons to say no to existing clients. (Because “no, I am not leaving my apartment to go to the workshop for an order this small when 1 in 10 people in my county have COVID–did you not see the new shelter in place order?” needs to be softened a bit.)

            1. Self Employed*

              This was for a really small order that I would’ve held for the next workshop trip to do other jobs in the Before Times, too. I had enough backstock to cover half her order and I suspect she isn’t going to sell through it.

      2. Allonge*

        Please don’t be stressed! The question on how to decline assignments comes up fairly regularly in this very site and Alison never ever just said ‘don’t do it!’.

        I said no. Much more often, I said not now. I said would that make sense more for this other department to do that? What I never, ever said was no, full stop, no explanation. It’s because you want your boss to know the basics of why, so if e.g. it’a about a family feud, she does not assign you the to next project with the Capulets, over and over and over.

    2. Paris Geller*

      Yeah, I don’t feel like this is a terrible response. Curt and maybe not the most polite, sure. I think there’s just a communication breakdown–he’s happy with his reduced hours because he’s doing something else, he truly thought this was an optional opportunity (I know some people are saying there’s no such thing at their organization, which is fine, but every organization I’ve been in has indeed had these kind of optional projects, and I would think they would be somewhat common in the arts) and not an assignment. . . I don’t think there’s anything going on here along generational lines or something, just a breakdown in communication along the way.

    3. Allonge*

      I can see that but in this case, why not tell the boss about it? Seriously, would that likely result in further cutting of hours etc? I am asking because if I have a hard limit for something in a job, I would try to get my boss to understand that – if you keep refusing assignments one by one, I think that yields a much worse result. If I say I only want 17 hours of work here, that is clearer and a long term solution. Clear communication works both ways.

      1. Bartleby's Manager*

        This is an optional project. If he had given even one more sentence of explanation — even something impersonal and anodyne – I would have moved on. People are absolutely allowed to pass on projects. If it weren’t optional, I would have been very clear that it was an assignment.

        As it is, I had an intese reaction to his response. I know to go back to him — that’s almost not the point — I’m learning a lot from Alison and from everyone’s comments.

        1. Anon Lawyer*

          So . . . it is optional, he doesn’t have to do it, you don’t care if he does it, and you’re mad at him for not explaining? Honestly, this seems like it’s about you.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            She’s not mad, she was surprised at the flatness of the response and it raised questions for her about whether she has some fundamental disconnects with him/others, and that’s what she wrote in to get insight on.

            1. Anon Lawyer*

              I mean, I get it – sometimes email comes off weird and flat. But . . . she asked him about an optional thing and he said he’d rather not do it. When I read the letter, I assumed it wasn’t truly optional, but it sounds like it is, so I do think having intense feelings about it is a personal issue.

          2. Self Employed*

            I forget who posted that they wrote a long response email in a similar situation, then decided it was way too personal and deleted it to say something similarly brief.

            If LW says this is uncharacteristic of Joe, perhaps something big and messy is going on and rather than blurting out personal stuff, he went too terse and used a literary reference that may have been a bit too flip for LW’s taste.

        2. Detective Amy Santiago*

          It kind of sounds like you expect him to perform gratitude for his continued employment and are annoyed that he didn’t. The project was truly optional, he said he’d prefer not to do it, and that really should be the end of it.

        3. MCMonkeybean*

          Wait, then this is honestly baffling to me. You presented him with a completely optional project and he very politely said he wasn’t interested… and you had an intense reaction to that? And found it completely inappropriate? Why? Why do you care why he turned it down if it was optional?

          1. A*

            While I am also confused and in agreeance with you, I wouldn’t say the employees response was “very polite”. Not saying there is anything necessarily wrong with it, but I wouldn’t hold it on a pedestal…

            1. Paris Geller*

              This is such an interesting letter because I feel like it’s really illuminating the different ways we all communicate, and how so often there isn’t one right way. I wouldn’t call his response polite, but I wouldn’t consider it rude, either.

        4. Amaranth*

          If the culture is such that these projects are well established as optional then he really gave you all the response that was needed. I’m not sure why you’re set on him stating some kind of justification if you’d have accepted any generic reason. I mean, he was even polite and thanked you for offering him the opportunity. You seem to think he should be grateful for the opportunity so maybe that’s what is creating your dissatisfaction with his response.

        5. Beth*

          I think it’s worth questioning the assumption that you need an explanation. I get the instinct–that’s a normal part of interpersonal communication! When someone says ‘no’ to a request, in almost any context, we pretty standardly expect that there’s going to be a follow up “I can’t because [reason]” or “that won’t work for me, what about [alternative]?” or “not right now but maybe later” or something.

          But just because it’s a norm doesn’t mean it’s a huge deal for someone to skip it. Some reasons are hard to talk about. Some people aren’t great at recognizing/following communication norms. All of us have occasional bad days where we’re just not on our game and little niceties get dropped. It’s fine to ask him for a follow-up, but having an intense reaction to his wording or considering it a reflection of his overall commitment seems like making a mountain out of a molehill to me.

        6. Mal*

          Why does an explanation make the difference between whether or not you begin to dislike him?
          Are you sure that would’ve solved it for you?
          If his answer had been “I am simply not interested.” Would that be good enough, or would you demand a ‘better’ explanation?

          In both your comments and the post, I’m getting the impression that you do, on some level, believe that he should be grateful to you/your organisation and don’t fully believe assignments can be optional. Especially since in another comment you mentioned that him turning it down disrupts other plans you were making. That means you never considered he could say no.
          Which happens. Sometimes we tell ourselves things or say things but don’t truly internalise it, and that looks like what’s happening here.

          I think your best next move would be work with those feelings before anything further with your employee. In my opinion there’s nothing further he needs to do here anyway.

        7. Not So NewReader*

          I think it would be worthwhile to find out why your response is so intense.

          You seem like a very nice person here in the comments.
          You are worried that he is not grateful for his job?
          So if he had x amount of gratitude (assuming we can measure gratitude) this would make the situation better?
          I don’t see how. He may be very grateful for his job and still not be willing to take on an OPTIONAL task.

          Maybe you teeter on work-acholic tendencies and this seems foreign to you?
          Or maybe you just need to see more work out of him. You could say something like “It’s fine to turn down an occasional optional assignments, but at some point you are expected to pick out one of these assignments and commit to following through.”
          I use to say, “Volunteer or be drafted! You may like the next assignment even less than you like this one! I don’t have an endless variety of tasks to pass around.” For the most part, I was able to offer choices, “I need 2 volunteers for task A and 1 volunteer for task B.” So this was not as harsh as it sounds here.

          Honestly, OP, I think that your talk of lack of gratitude and generational differences is not serving you well. I think those subjects are putting up walls and you need things that build paths instead.
          Employees will disappoint us from time to time. It happens. It’s up to bosses to find the words to describe that disappointment and to figure out how to instruct/guide the employee so they have the opportunity to make the situation right.
          If you need him to be working 25 hours a week for XYZ reasons then just tell him that. And say that you want to look at things together and figure out how to make that happen.

          I think that it would also be good to try to figure out why you could not ask him why he was refusing in the moment he said no. Perhaps you are not used to hearing NO. (No is an answer. At least he did not say yes and fail to do the task.) Or perhaps you are trying too hard to salvage his job and he is putting in no effort to salvage his job. (Does he understand that he is falling off the radar here with his low hours? I have had to accept the fact that I could not “save” everyone. And I had to accept the fact that it is surprising who accepts help and who does NOT accept help.)
          So clearly, these are shots in the dark because I am not there and I do not see all that is running in the background. It’s just some ideas to get the thoughts rolling.

        8. Alice*

          If you want an explanation — why not ask?
          Certainly I hope you ask for the explanation you want before you move on and stop considering him for other projects, as you’ve mentioned.

    4. MCMonkeybean*

      Yeah, I think in the given context that he’s currently not even working his usual full times hours it is a bit odd to me… but the wording is so tame and leaves so much room for the boss to come back and say something like “I’m sorry to hear that but we really need someone to take this on and it’s going to have to be you” that I think “incredibly inappropriate” is a pretty extreme overreaction.

      Especially if he honestly believed that OP was gauging his interest rather than making a request/actually assigning it to him. If we have work that needs to be done and my plate isn’t full I wouldn’t tell my boss I don’t want more work… but there have been a few times where a boss reaches out to me and is like “hey, we’re looking for someone to take on X and I thought that might be a good opportunity for you, let me know if you’re interested.” Sometimes I say yes and sometimes I say I’m not particularly interested in that area. If OP sent this to them with the “this is a cool opportunity” wording rather than “I want you to do this” then I think it seems completely reasonable for them to politely decline.

  22. memyselfandi*

    “I would prefer not to” is the phrase I would use if I understood that it was something my boss wanted me to do but I had an objection to doing it that was more personal than professional. My first thought was that he had some history with the organization or a person at the organization that was negative but not really related to work.

    1. JSPA*

      “An ex there” or “a bad experience associated with” certainly came to mind for me as well.

      In which case,

      “any reason for that?”

      may peter out at,

      “nothing I’d care to say” or “it’s personal” or “there’s history” or “reasons of my own” may be all OP will get.

    2. Data Bear*

      Ding ding ding ding ding!

      “I would prefer not to” with no further explanation whatsoever reads to me as “I have very strong reasons for not wanting to do this, but talking about it is going to make somebody unhappy.”

      It’s probably the case that Bartleby will explain if asked, but OP should be prepared for the possibility that it’s uncomfortable information.

    3. Beth*

      I’ve used “I would prefer not to” for work tasks in the “I really don’t want to do this, it’ll be very inconvenient and disruptive for me, but it’s not worth the capital to outright refuse if my manager wants to push the issue” bucket. A soft no, I guess.

      1. MCMonkeybean*

        Yes, to me that phrase is indicates that if it’s a truly optional opportunity then they aren’t interested but if it is not optional then they would take it on. It is a phrase I’ve used in similar situations.

    4. Loredena Frisealach*

      That, or with everything else right now he doesn’t have the mental/emotional bandwidth to start something new. I suggest the OP ask if the lack of interest is specific to this project, or a more general inability to take on something new, or even just a case of new work with people/orgs I’ve worked with before are OK but I can’t deal with starting clean with an org I have no current connections with (assuming that’s the case of course!)

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I have used that phrase, “I would prefer not to”. The rest of the sentence is, “but I will do it if you need me to and I will try my best.”

      I am really not getting why this is a big deal. In any conversation BOTH parties are responsible for keeping the conversation going, this is what adults do. So OP could have said, “Why?” in reply to this statement.
      I know that there have been many times where I did not have the presence of mind to ask a particular question. This meant that I had to reopen the conversation to ask my question. “Employee, the other day when I asked you about doing X, you said you’d prefer not to and I got to wondering why. Is there something about the project?”
      OP, you are sounding like you feel powerless here, but you are not powerless, you do have options.

  23. Data Nerd*

    The job I’m doing now/will be permanently promoted to (eventually . . .) was previously occupied by a Bartleby who was a late Baby Boomer. We’re government, and so there wasn’t a lot the boss could do with “I would prefer not to,” so Bartleby got away with: not running the one meeting he’s required to do (I did that, for three years before he left); not managing employees (specific legal requirement of the job); not learning software necessary for the job (all software applications run by the department whiz kids instead); not sending an annual information letter (going out now for the first time in five years) and probably other things I’m not even aware of. I am absolutely in favor of union protection for civil servants, but Bartleby and his peer Miss Hannigan are the worst of us.

  24. Astrid*

    I really hope the OP can update us on this one! It feels like we -really- need more information because there is so little to go on, there are too many conclusions to jump to.

    I would also like to add, that as sarcasm is how I hug, I might make the reference as a joke…and then paragraph down explain why I’ll take it anyway, or why it wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t just deadpan a response.

    35 yo Millennial FWIW

  25. Dan*

    There’s two things going on here, which very much do matter:

    1. The employee’s part-time situation vastly changes how the manager should respond. It would be one thing if the employee was full time and milking the clock, it’s another when you’re paid for hours worked. Full stop. It’s really no different than a retail manager asking someone to pick up an extra shift as opposed to, I donno, restocking Aisle 6 when they’re done with break. Aisle 6 restock? “I’d prefer not to” would be abrasive to most people. But picking up an extra shift? “I’d prefer not to” isn’t out of the norm, and I don’t think retail employees should be expected to justify why they don’t want to work more than scheduled/agreed to.

    2. OP has a communication problem too. If this was the only exchange on the issue, I echo the above poster who says that the manager needs to talk to their employee, not an advice columnist. If someone said “I prefer not to” to me, the *first* words out of my mouth would be something along the lines of, “Could you please explain a little bit more?” Quite frankly, the manager *not* going this route is making this way more of an issue than the employee ever intended.

    1. Dr. Rebecca*

      For your first point, I completely agree. I do not at all support people who respond to a “nope, I don’t want to work more than scheduled” with gasping and pearl clutching. You asked, you got an answer, and just because that answer isn’t what you wanted doesn’t make the other person a bad employee.

    2. Akcipitrokulo*

      This. And could easily be cleared up.

      “Could you please explain a little bit more?”
      “I do appreciate you thought of me, but it’s not something I want to pusue just now/ I was more thinking of taking career in X direction.”
      “Ah. No. I need you to do this.”

    3. Just Another Zebra*

      It could just be my current work situation, but the thing that stood out to me was this line “It should not take more time than he has available”. IMO, managers often underestimate how long a task should take. Recently our manager asked everyone to compose a complete list of our responsibilities, how often we do them, and how long they take to complete. I answered honestly, and apparently have been cramming an extra 4-5 hours worth of work into my week.

      OP is in essence saying “this task should take no more than 8 hours/ week”, but they’re employee may have looked at it, realized the true scope of work, and declined because it’s really more of a 10-12 hour assignment. Conversely it could be a 1 hour/ week task that just isn’t worth taking on.

    4. BonnieVoyage*

      “Quite frankly, the manager *not* going this route is making this way more of an issue than the employee ever intended.”

      I agree. It may not have been an ideal response but the failure to just ASK is what has turned this into a whole thing – all the stuff about the OP’s opinion of him and gratefulness and future projects etc is dependent on why he responded this way. Is it because he has other commitments? He doesn’t like the work? Personal conflict? He’s quitting the arts? Pandemic burnout? Ungrateful millenial? Just not interested? Did he phrase it like that because he was just having a bad day? Making a Bartleby joke? Cat walked on the keyboard and hit send before he finished typing? We can’t tell you and Alison can’t tell you, OP – literally the only person who can tell you what’s up is him, and you haven’t asked.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Thank you.
        OP, you are the leader in this situation. It’s up to you to guide the conversation to a meaningful conclusion.

        One little question got reeeeally big and it got big really fast. I have to ask what else is going on here.

        As it stands here the employee should have mind read that the project wasn’t truly optional because the boss’ opinion of the employee was going to tank if the employee said no.
        Additionally, the employee should have mind read that he needed to expand on why he was saying no instead of making the boss ask.

        Maybe this is not the real you, OP. But this is the type of boss that I avoid, avoid, avoid.

        I can say that I might have said no and been reluctant to say THAT: my water main broke, my brakes failed, I broke a tooth and the dog has lump in his leg. (Yes, real life stories there.) If I take on one more thing ATM I will start crying. Additionally, I might be extra reluctant to say it to you, OP, because I’d be afraid that you would say I should be grateful to even have a job. And in that single sentence you told me that my broken water main, failed brakes, broken tooth and lumpy dog were totally irrelevant to you and therefore should be irrelevant to me also. So no. I would not want to share this information.

  26. Elmyra Duff*

    Elder millennials here! This is something I would do in the employee’s situation. Truly. My hours have already been cut, and I’m working on several side projects. I’m a huge proponent of boundaries and saying no to work I don’t want to do, especially during this past year when my mental energy has been much lower than the amount of time I have to spend on work. My boss is very much a Boomer-minded Gen-Xer with a, “If I tell you to jump, your only question should be ‘how high?'” mentality and I can’t stand it, so I’m definitely a little bias (and salty) in this situation.

      1. pope suburban*

        Yes. This is the attitude of my agency’s administration and it is grating. They want to act as if they are doing a favor by continuing to employ us, even though we are doing work that actually needs to be done! Benefits-eligible staff are not treated this way, but us Bartlebys? We’re expected to give and give and give and accept less, and this on top of being exempt from any rewards/recognition as a policy (I do not attend the holiday party anymore, because I do not want to watch people who accrue many types of leave get a free day off while I get bupkis, and in fact have to dip into my one pool of leave to make up the time I spend there- which I also have to use for district holidays, sick time, and vacation if possible). Administration is always happy to come to us with their hands out, then cut us out of the rewards for our work. I’m starting to put boundaries in place like this too, because the truth is that many things are specifically not in my pay grade, and the people who are paid to do them can bloody well start. I’m just out of gas after the last year, and I’m starting to believe that I deserve better. This isn’t a favor, this isn’t some benevolent lord/peasant situation, this is an agreement that I will do this kind of work for them, for this many hours, and I intend to hold to it.

      2. a sound engineer*

        Yeah. That attitude is why my industry is in a race to the bottom, wage-wise. (tail-end Millenial here)

  27. NinaBee*

    Could he have a side job/gig in his spare time? In that case he’d be happy not to take on extra hours in this job, even if he had extra part-time hours. That was my first thought. Could also explain why he’d not be so forthcoming to his employer.

  28. Tye*

    I don’t usually have a wildly different take than Alison, but I see a couple of red (maybe yellow) flags in the OP’s framing of this.

    – Is this generational? What if: we just stopped asking this forever? If it *is* generational, and we can say for sure that millennials in general are poor office communicators and Gen X people in general are good office communicators, does that change what’s going on here?
    – Shouldn’t the employee be grateful to have any crumb he’s thrown? Burn this with fire.
    – Does this reflect badly on the employee? Only if you think everyone should be grateful to (what? capitalism?) and afraid to set boundaries at work on optional side projects (which is what it sounds like this was presented as).

    Could the employee have said more? Maybe! Might the employee have not wanted to get into a back-and-forth about how they spend their time and what they should be grateful for with a boss who is demonstrably invested in seeing their actions in bad faith? I suspect so.

    1. Ejane*

      I agree with this. There are plenty of people who adjust to working part-time and don’t want to take on extra work if they don’t have to, regardless of the working context. I have many friends who are in that position.

    2. Lasciel*

      Wow, thank you! Yes, definitely agree with all your points! Also, based on what the OP mentioned, the employee is:

      —Under employed doing work below his experience.

      —Part time and allotted for 25 hours but only working 17

      —Most likely no benefits due to working part time.(Assumption)

      —Working in a non profit in the arts so likely paid at, if not minimum wage. (Assumption)

      Honestly, I personally wouldn’t respond that way to a boss but would definitely not feel all that grateful for a job like that.

      1. Self Employed*

        Joe could very well have a side gig in something that pays better. Heck, I know people whose craft business sold things that turned out super popular during the pandemic (craft kits, home decor, stuff to keep kids busy, etc.) have done really well and been really busy. Maybe he’s doing well at food delivery and his clientele tip so well he’s doing better per hour than the job.

        1. Lasciel*

          Well, not really. This is the exact quote:

          “we have not suffered the same budget cuts as many of our peer institutions, and have been lucky to retain all of our benefits-eligible staff throughout at their pre-pandemic compensation.”

          “He’s non-exempt and has been clocking in for a shorter average week than he’s budgeted for. ”

          The LW never explicitly says the employee has benefits and depending on the country (I’m in the US) You’re not eligible for medical benefits depending on the state and since the employee only works 17 hours (based on what the LW mentioned) Most likely no benefits of that nature unless the non-profit is generous enough to give all employees full benefits regardless of how many hours they work.

  29. OneBean TwoBean*

    So, I’ve basically been Bartleby in this situation. I had a really timid manager who would ask me, “Do you want to do X?” and I would answer honestly, sometimes yes, sometimes no. It took me months to realize that she was trying to say “I want you to do X” and not just inquiring about my interest level.

      1. Dan*

        Thirding this. I really wish people in authority positions would be more clear about their expectations. If my managers ask me “Do you want to do X”, they will definitely get an answer to the literal question. If my managers say, “I’d like you to take on this project. Can we discuss it?” Well sure.

        My boss once asked if I could staff Person X on my project. I kind of knew what the boss was asking (and sometimes it really is just an ask) so I just said, “If you’re asking, the answer is no. If you’re telling, the answer is ‘consider it done.'”

        It does matter, though, because at that job all projects have budgets, and managers can’t override them for kicks and grins. So I can make room in the budget if the boss tells me I have to, but when it is truly up to me, I have other things I have to balance… like actually getting quality work done on time by people competent enough to do it.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          “If you’re asking, the answer is no. If you’re telling, the answer is ‘consider it done.’”

          This sentence is just so perfect.

      2. BubbleTea*

        Twelve years of childcare has taught me this well. You don’t ask a toddler if they would like to put on their shoes before you go to the park, you tell them it’s time for shoes!

      3. Filosofickle*

        That’s a peeve for me. My first job was as a lifeguard and I had a supervisor who would say “Filosofickle, would you like to take out the garbage?” Garbage = 50 lb drum of gross park trash boiling in 100 degree sun. I usually said something like “No I don’t want to, but I’ll do it”. I was eventually reprimanded for it. I’d never be that snarky today and not just because it would get me in trouble — now I know and believe that being pleasant is part of being a good employee. But I still wish people wouldn’t give commands as questions!

        1. Dan*

          I’m just going to say it… unless you used a snotty tone, your boss was an ass. “Do you want to” *does* allow for “no” to be an answer. “Filosofickle, will you please take out the garbage?” is not only clear, but also polite.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Right on. Filosofickle, yours is a classic example of a boss who is afraid to give direction. Rather than deal with the fact that he has no spine, he lectures you on being snarky? Blame shifting, he’s afraid to give direction so it is up to you to guess what he actually means. He’s never going to find a spine that way.

            1. Self Employed*

              I’ve had multiple people lecture me on how haaaard it is for bosses to give direct orders and it’s less stressful or something to hint or ask instead of telling. I don’t understand why, in a business environment, it’s desirable to pretend that employees are just doing things spontaneously out of their gratitude or gumption or whatever instead of because the things need to get done and the boss decided they’re the one to do it and the time is now.

          2. allathian*

            Seems to me that some people think “do you want to” and “will you please” are synonymous. The first is asking for trouble. I’m fundamentally a lazy person, and if I’m asked if I want to do something extra at work, my answer’s going to be negative most of the time. To be fair, I’ve advanced as far as I can in my current job and won’t be promoted any further unless I’m willing to go into management, which I’m not, so most of the advice about going above and beyond if you’re looking for a promotion is irrelevant to me.

            But I’ll happily comply with a polite request, unless I’m so busy that I can’t fit it into my schedule. But even then, I’ll discuss it with my boss and so far, we’ve always been able to sort things out somehow.

    1. KeepIt*

      To expand on this, being passive/timid about assigning something and then getting angry when someone doesn’t immediately pick up on your subcontext is going to set everyone up for failure. Being direct is a kindness

      1. Akcipitrokulo*

        Especially if there is a chance they took it as an offer to do something interesting, not an instruction to do something necessary.

      2. No Winning Move*

        Agreed! This is something I’ve learned managing a few different personalities.
        “Check this out; this is a cool opportunity” = optional.
        “Hey, I’d like you to follow up on this, it’s a good opportunity for the company” = assignment.

      3. Dan*


        I had a really young manager a few years ago, and I was in a meeting with some people who reported to her and some who didn’t. She wanted something done, and the first people she asked “Do you want to do this” said no. She got to me with the same question, and I didn’t do it either. The thing is, I could she was getting frustrated with each successive no. I wasn’t trying to add to the frustration, but I really didn’t want to do what was being proposed.

        When I said no, she got *super* frustrated. I asked her afterward why she reacted that way with me when she didn’t to the others. Her response, “you report to me and they don’t.” To which I said, “In that case, it’s ok to actually tell people to do something every once in awhile.”

        1. KeepIt*

          My mom always hammered home this lesson about raising kids too! Don’t ask if they want to clean their room now, tell them to go clean their room. Asking “do you want….” leaves open the possibility of the answer being no!

          1. Nicholas C Kiddle*

            Or if you’re determined to ask “do you want…” I often say “do you want [thing they said they’d like]? You can have it when [chore they’re dragging their feet on] is done.” Not sure that would translate so well into a work context though, unless it was “do you want to still have a job?”

      4. Bartleby's Manager*

        This not the situation, but I understand why you think it might be!

        I am not angry that he didn’t pick up on subtext. I am genuinely bewildered by his response, and wanted to gauge whether I was out of line (and am reflecting on that).

        1. WR*

          Why are you bewildered by someone declining optional work?
          It’s nice that you find it exciting, perhaps they do not.
          And why do you expect such loyalty from someone working 17 hours a week?

          The fact that the person declined without any more details, well yes , it isn’t your business why they don’t want to.

          I found this question very upsetting, honestly. The amount of loyalty demanded & the fact that you think maybe to hold it against someone for declining optional work?

          1. Insert Clever Name Here*

            The sense I get from reading Bartleby’s Manager’s other comments is she is bewildered because the flatness with which the work was turned down is out of character for this particular employee. In other comments, Bartleby’s Manager has said she always was aware in the past when this employee had gigs or other conflicts, so presumably there have been times in the past when the employee has said “no, I’ve got a gig/conflict.”

  30. Adverb*

    So I wonder if there is a conflict with the partner organization that hasn’t been considered. Could there be an ex-employer, ex-partner or some other interpersonal conflict?
    I’m surprised that people got so wrapped up in the wording that they didn’t think much about the why and the what of the message.
    My $.02

  31. learnedthehardway*

    Another vote for talking to the employee directly to find out what their concern is.

    Also, it would be a good idea for the manager to point out that they would be able to increase the employee’s hours (and pay for them) for the project – it could be that the employee is assuming their hours are written in stone, and that they are being taken advantage of.

  32. Some slacker*

    It sounds like he’s happier with the reduced hours and doesn’t wish to go back to 25/wk. Sure many people have learned new skills and really blossomed professionally during the pandemic but others have reshifted their life priorities.

    If you need him 25 hours a week then tell him that point blank otherwise you’ll continue to get pushback. That’s my take on it anyhow.

  33. BRR*

    I don’t think we have enough context to make a clear call on this (do we ever?) but I’m getting a sense LW that to some degree you’re taking this personally. If you have a need for 25 hours worth of work from him and him only giving 17 hours is creating a business problem, then address it as purely a performance issue. If it’s just about the professionalism of the response, coach him on professional communication. Is there a way he could have turned it down and you be ok with it? Would he have had to disclose a lot of personal information for an acceptable way to say no?

    But if it’s primarily coming down to gratefulness, there are times when it’s acceptable for an employee to push back (I would say that’s a big theme of this site). Could he have done it better? Yes. But if this is you personally thinking he should be grateful and be willing to do anything, that’s a tougher sell to me. Is this a project someone else who would appreciate the hours is capable of doing?

  34. Akcipitrokulo*

    I’m guessing employee took it as “hey, this is cool and you might enjoy the opportunity! Interested?” and you meant “please do this”.

    Clearing up that it was an instruction, not an optional perk, might fix it all.

  35. Dr. Rebecca*

    I’m technically a part timer, and apart from about 8.75 hours per week, I set my own schedule (so 7 classes x 1 hour and 15 minutes, but other duties outside of teaching), and I don’t get sick days. I’m meant to be working only 20 hours a week, but in reality work considerably more than that, and on a firm contract (I’m paid a certain amount for teaching/grading/etc, and if how/when I do so is up to me, so I could, technically, refuse to do more than 20 hours).

    I say all this to provide context: I would definitely tell my boss, if I had an opportunity framed in such a way that it appeared optional, that I would prefer not to take on more work right now. Now, Bartleby is hourly, so that’s different, but it’s coming from the same place I would bet–a place of protecting those hours not being worked and devoting them to whatever else is going on in his life.

    I also wrote an email to a friend and colleague after he sent me a job posting from his home department that looked tailor-made for me, apart from the location, basically saying exactly that–thank you for thinking of me, I do not want to live in [state], so I will not be applying.

    Boundaries are good and healthy; if a job responsibility is not optional, do not frame it as a question.

    1. Akcipitrokulo*

      > Boundaries are good and healthy; if a job responsibility is not optional, do not frame it as a question.


      Or at least, clarify there and then “Sorry, could have been clearer – this is something I need you to do”.

  36. Minnesota*

    It seems like the letter writer’s position with and relationship to the organization is fundamentally different from the employee’s in question. LW presumably is full time with benefits (and understandably incredibly grateful for that); EE is part time hourly, presumably without benefits. Maybe EE has another better-paying side gig. Maybe EE doesn’t want or need the additional hours. I agree with others that LW should just ask and EE should answer.

    1. Bartleby's Manager*

      This is his better-paying gig with benefits. Because he is scheduled/budgeted for 25 hours per week, we offer him full benefits. He would not be eligible if only scheduled/budgeted for 17. Whether it will become a problem in the future that he’s actually clocking in for under 20, on average, is something we actually don’t yet know from HR.
      His other gigs are as an artist in our field.

      1. Shan*

        I wish this context had been included in your letter! I’ve seen several comments operating on the assumption it’s just a part time job with no benefits, and it doesn’t matter how many hours he works.

      2. allathian*

        If it ever does become a problem, you’ll definitely need to be explicit with Bartleby about it. If he really needs those benefits, I expect he’ll be able to make the 25 hour requirement work for him. For now he’s been able to get the benefits of working 25 hours by working 17 hours, with the sole exception of pay. If this is going to change, you’d do him a kindness by telling him. Who knows, you might even get him to take on the project you suggested to fill his hours.

        But please don’t expect him to be passionate about it! If he’s doing gigs as a performer when he can, surely that’s what he’s passionate about?

  37. RosyGlasses*

    Yeah this reminds me of a past employee who would respond to work-related requests to assist cross-departmental employees with a client question or take on a project that was well within their purview as a senior employee with “no thank you”. With no other context – and it came across extremely brash and disconcerting – especially when it was said to a superior.

    1. Mal*

      No thank you is perfectly polite. I’m not sure why that would come across brash or disconcerting.

      It sounds like your organisation was asking when they ought to be telling and that’s not your employee’s fault.

      1. RosyGlasses*

        If I ask a SME to assist another department employee in working with a client on a matter that is within their expertise and they say “no thank you” without some sort of explanation as to why they are not willing to do that – it is not appropriate and is indeed brash.

        1. allathian*

          In that case, don’t ask. If you have the authority to assign work, do just that. Don’t make your employees second-guess what you want. Especially if they have enough work as it is, making something sound optional when it really isn’t is just, to put it bluntly, bad management.

  38. SheLooksFamiliar*

    I’m a Baby Boomer, but I don’t like naming generations. Even so:

    ‘Is it unfair for me to think that our employees should be grateful to still be employed and therefore jumping at the chance to do literally anything?’

    Yes, it is unfair.

    ‘I am not trying to be exploitative, but is this something where I’m wildly out of step with the norms?’
    Yes, you are out of step and you are, too, exploitative.

    ‘I think this reflects badly on him! Is that fair?’
    No. It is not fair.

    Your employee should have explained himself better, and your job as his manager is to help him do so. But judging him the way you seem to isn’t a good trait in a manager.

  39. Essess*

    I was also a little confused by your original post because you say you forwarded an ‘opportunity’ to him. If I had received an email worded that way from my manager, I would assume you were giving me an optional item to pick up *if it interested me* as an informational item. It wouldn’t occur to me that you were expecting me to pick it up and that you were considering it closer to an assignment instead of an ‘fyi’. So I would look at it, and it if didn’t excite me, I would likely also respond with the same wording that your employee used.

    If you changed up the wording to tell your employee that you need him to pick up some extra assignments to help fill his assigned time, and then sent this to him then it would sound more like assigned work rather than an information option.

    1. Bartleby's Manager*

      This is helpful. It is genuinely optional for him, but someone will have to do it. It seems unreasonable to me for him to pass without explanation, but passing is not in and of itself necssarily a problem.

      1. Scarlet2*

        Then I really don’t understand why you’re puzzled. It’s optional, he doesn’t want to do it (for whatever reason) so there’s nothing wrong here. The fact that you’ll have to ask someone else to do it is not his problem.

        1. WR*

          Agreed , I don’t get it either, unless they need to actually work 25 hours a week, in which case it isn’t optional.

        2. OhNoYouDidn't*

          I think it comes down to social standards. I have no problem saying no to an employer for voluntary opportunities. Heck, I’ve even said, “That’s not going to happen,” to a directive that was not possible to pull off in the timeframe required. But even in turning down an voluntary opportunity, I would still offer some explanation for my reasoning, just out of courtesy. But this would be ESPECIALLY true knowing that I’m under the required hours for maintaining benefits.

      2. Just Another Zebra*

        It’s optional for him, but not for your organization – do I have that right?

        If so, you might be better sending an email to your pool of employees who can do The Thing and just asking “Would anyone like to take this on? If not, I’ll be assigning it based on XYZ criteria.” That could be time available, skill set, perceived interest, etc. But don’t penalize your staff for not jumping at the opportunity! It really is OK to say no (or else just not say yes).

        1. Mal*

          I think this is the best answer. It solves OP’s problem of the work needing to be done but keeps it as transparent and relatively optional as possible.

      3. ele4phant*

        I…I don’t know that I agree with this.

        This seems passively punitive and unfair to me.

        You have an opportunity you need someone to work on, but you have options. You sent it first to the person you thought might be most interested. He is not, and told you so. You can place the work elsewhere, it’s not a big deal.

        Why do you feel the need to get more of an explanation out of him? To me it reads like you expect a fierce sense of loyalty out of people or certain level of personal investment of people, that matches your own.

        That is easy to slide into a toxic “You should be grateful we’d deign to employ you.”

        If he’s doing what you need him to do, and to a good quality, that’s enough. If you needed him to do this, or do more in general, you needed to tell him that.

    2. Self Employed*


      And I think LW is overthinking the terseness of his response, given that this is the pandemic and everyone is really out of sorts after 11 months of this (and an insurrection last month).

  40. Miss Muffet*

    I would think it’s fairly clear, to someone who presumably (as a Genxer) been in the working world for a good chunk of time, that when your manager asks you to do something, they aren’t usually really asking. So you could prefer not to, and you can say that, but you don’t get to just end the conversation there and act like that should be the end of it. If you are feeling that way, that’s the time to ask some questions (why did you think of me for this project? how long would we expect it to take? is there a plan for if it ends up taking more time than expected?) and perhaps asking for some time to think it over a bit. But not just “no thanks, i’d rather not”. This isn’t volunteer work. It’s your job.

    1. Elmyra Duff*

      Though it may seem that way sometimes, work isn’t servitude. I don’t owe my company anything outside of my job description. And I certainly don’t need to play games where I need to read between the lines because my manager isn’t a good communicator.

    2. Homophone Hattie*

      It really depends on the industry, the company, and on the way it’s phrased. In my industry if a manager presented something to me in the way the OP described I would absolutely take it as optional. And I’ve been in the working world for decades.

    3. MCMonkeybean*

      That is just not universally accurate. At my job, my managers are clear about when something is optional and when it’s not. There are times my boss asks if I have time to take on something extra and sometimes the answer is yes and other times it’s no, or often it’s “I could try to do that but then I’ll have to give up something else so let’s work together to sort out what the priorities are.”

      In this particular instance the OP has clarified that it was an optional assignment and they were allowed to say no.

    4. Mal*

      In many cases, it is volunteer work and absolutely optional. Following that, the employee can also end the conversation there. Expecting presumptions to be the same everywhere is how you create communication issues.

      Instead of expecting your employee to read your mind, just be clear in the first place.

  41. Akcipitrokulo*

    BTW… nearly 50 and at a senior level in career…

    Yes, I can see myself saying “I’d prefer not to” if my boss offered me the opportunity to do something which sounded cool/fun but wasn’t something I wanted to do.

    I’d never say it if boss wanted me to do something – but if I thought it was an offer based on their understanding of my career development aims, “would you like to have a go at running the training class next week?” if I didn’t want to move in that direction – yeah, it’s not an unusual phrase to me.

    Does depend on boss of course.

    1. Akcipitrokulo*

      I also might use it if I *could* but eould rather not…

      – can you stay late?
      – I’d prefer not to…

      which has implied “… but I will if needed.”

      1. Just Another Zebra*

        This is how I took it, too. “I would prefer not to… but I will if it becomes necessary.”

  42. shiningcat*

    I’m in a very similar job situation to OP’s employee. I work very part time for an arts org. In Normal Times (TM) I spent the majority of my time performing. I agree that the response from the employee appeared strange, but it’s a response I (older millenial) might actually give my boss if they offered me a project that appeared optional. In fact, this actually did happen to me this year! I took on the project in this case, but I could see a situation in which I might turn it down because of various reasons, and I probably wouldn’t have explained those reasons (especially if some of them were personal/sensitive) if it wasn’t made clear that the work was required.

    I will say, though, that the attitude of “you should be GRATEFUL for every opportunity you get and you should be FIERCELY LOYAL” made me twist inside. This is a completely unfair expectation, and if you work in the performing arts, you should know that it is not just about the loss of income, but the loss of a sense of self. I don’t know if your employee is an artist himself, but a lot of part-time admins in the arts sector are artists as well. While I’m grateful for the admin work I have that helps me pay my bills and get by during this awful time, the loss that I have experienced, the complete lack of purpose that has come with having my entire performing career pulled out from under me in one day, watching cancellations appear in my email inbox one after another after another, has been absolutely devastating. The performing arts is a unique sector, in that those who perform are workers — i.e. we perform to earn a living and should be treated as workers — but simultaneously, our work is bound up with who we are as people. I have never experienced anything like the loss of this sense of self, and what’s worst of all is not knowing when, how, or if we will ever get back to normal, if we can ever go back to making a living this way again.

    So yes, I am grateful for the money, but it would be unfair for someone expect me to enthusiastically accept every monetary opportunity just because it is there, because it’s not just about the money. I can totally see a situation in which the employee in this case is trying to make his life work in some way — perhaps pursuing other ways of making art that are possible right now, perhaps teaching, perhaps simply needing to escape this lonely horror by taking a bit of a mental break, perhaps dealing with a sick family member, perhaps simply just not having the energy to take something else on. And sometimes, that’s just too much to explain.

    I think the best response is to kindly follow up to see what’s behind the response, or to clarify that the project is not optional if it is in fact not. But remove the expectation of loyalty and gratefulness. That’s just not fair.

    1. Dr. Flying Carpet / Mr. Fraying Doormat*

      Please accept this note of solidarity and support from an internet stranger whose feelings of self-worth and purpose in life are woven together with profession into one inextricable carpet of identity. Having those career threads pulled makes it feel like the whole fabric is unraveling, and the frustration and sadness and anxiety are real. Hang in there: I believe our warp and weft will see us through.

    2. AnotherLibrarian*

      Well said. It took me a long time (and a lot of therapy) to untangle my self identity from my profession and I wasn’t in the Arts (though I have worked in that field.) I can’t imagine having to go through that process suddenly and non-voluntarily. I think this is helpful insight for anyone working in or with Arts folks right now.

    3. RosyGlasses*

      You bring up some great points – and I think in any management role its important to evaluate and understand why a knee-jerk reaction/feeling is “why don’t they feel grateful and loyal”? Sometimes we have our own entangled emotions around our work/work identities and it’s important to remember that not everyone feels that same way.

  43. Ejane*

    As someone who works with a bunch of people in their early 20s, this actually sounds pretty consistent with some of the stuff our employees would do. They also don’t speak office very well, and my background is in high-level white collar work, while my current company is located in a very blue-collar area, so there’s a definite disconnect there, but “I would prefer not to” absolutely sounds like something one of our employees would say in a clumsy attempt to be polite, because of the fuzzy line between formal and polite.

  44. Amtelope*

    OP, an “opportunity” sounds optional to me. If you meant “I need you to take on this work,” I’m not sure that’s what you communicated. If your employee heard “if you want more work, we have some available with our partner agency,” it’s not unreasonable for him to say “no, thanks, I’m fine with the hours I’ve got.”

  45. Anon Lawyer*

    My brother (Millennial FWIW) and SIL (Gen X) work in various part-time performing arts positions and might well have responded like this. Their logic would be: I’m getting paid for how much work, I’m fine with how much I work and how much I get paid right now, and it’s nobody’s issue with mine if I don’t want to take on an additional project for more money. Ok, I assume they would have added more words and been clearer, but they certainly wouldn’t feel obligated to take on an additional project when they get paid by the hour.

    It’s a lot more problematic in a full-time or salaried job.

    1. lost academic*

      I think it’s also important to define the role. Part time isn’t necessarily a contract position and I don’t personally view part time workers as staff who would typically get to pick and choose their work on a whim. I might only be paying you for 20, 25, 30 hours vs the 40+ someone else is paid for, but besides that and the scheduling I shoukd have the same kinds of expectations for you in an average role. If you’re going to randomly refuse assignments, then I probably don’t need to have you around because I can’t consistently count on you.

      1. Anon Lawyer*

        Well, sure. But that doesn’t seem to be the dynamic of at least the jobs my brother and SIL have had in the performing arts so it wouldn’t shock me if this guy wasn’t expecting it either. Especially since he’s only getting paid for hours he works – it’s not like he’s getting paid for 20 hours a week and expected to make sure he has enough work to fill that time. If work is down for everyone he might very well assume someone else would be happy to pick that project up.

  46. Mystic*

    I’m a millennial and I have had my boss do something similar. “Hey, I think this opportunity is cool, would you be willing to do it?”….I answered honestly, “I’d rather not.” She came and said “It’s a good opportunity, you’re doing it.”
    I’m thinking he took it literally, like I did. His answer didn’t sound like a no to me, just actually answering the question. “I’d prefer not to..” The sentence could end with “But I’ll do it if told.”

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, but even then asking for clarity from a manager might work.
      “I’d prefer not to, but if you’re telling me to do it rather than offering an opportunity, I need to postpone some other stuff you asked me to do last week.”

      1. Mystic*

        Luckily, in my case, it was something that wasn’t going to hurt me if I did decline, nor was it going to take away from any of my actual work. It was just something I really didn’t want to do. They compromised, having someone help me with it, because it was public speaking…
        They didn’t ask me back after I accidentally hit someone with a ball during the presentation/speech.

  47. Kiko*

    I did this at my first job out of university. The job, as it was originally described to me, was 100% WFH. This was perfect for me because I was just learning how to drive and had *horrible* anxiety surrounding it (I grew up in a part of the country where public transportation was the norm). On the second day of the job, I was asked to drive 50 miles to another town to start working on a project. In a frantic rush, I told my supervisor “I’d rather not.” He was not happy with me, to say the least. Thankfully, my supervisor was insightful enough to ask me what was up and I came clean about my driving anxieties. We worked something out and, eventually, I mustered enough courage to handle driving long distances on my own when the company occasionally needed it.

    Long story short: Just talk to him and see what’s up. There could be so many reasons why he’s declining a project, and talking more in-depth will help you understand why. We can speculate all we want, but this seems like an easy fix.

  48. boop the first*

    Heh, sometimes I wonder what it must be like to be one of these employees, to sit down with breakfast, click on something to read, only to discover multiple emails, a page-long examination and 225+ abstract guesses from strangers about a question that they know the definite answer to and would probably share if anyone thought to ask.

  49. lost academic*

    This could also be a workplace culture adjustment issue – it could be that this is the kind of thing that is typical at this job/workplace, but it could also be that it’s out of place and correcting someone to the cultural norm is always a little awkward. I’m assuming OP is proceeding with discussing this with the staffer rather than sitting on his or her hands while we all weigh in, too :)

    In my particular field, we bill hours and have weekly goals. People who are not your direct line managers have work for you all the time. It’s always acceptable to refuse if you simply don’t have the time (usually with a suggestion of who to go to next) but there is much more discussion if you are refusing work for other reasons but don’t have enough to meet goal otherwise. For instance I refused a role a couple years ago that would have added an additional 150 miles of driving to my day shortly after returning from maternity leave that was not feasible from a personal standpoint, but might have been at another time. I recently refused a travel based project for similar reasons, but have a solution this time for how to support the project remotely. But I know from discussion at this firm what the expectations are for refusing work and how I need to do so because I’ve had multiple discussions about it, in general and specific. And I know it’s not going to be the same at other places.

  50. Domino*

    I’ve been in the situation of being given work that I just wasn’t interested in. I had time to do it, it was within the scope of my abilities, but I just… wasn’t interested. So I’d respond like, “OK, I guess. If you want me to. Sure.” Which was just me reacting honestly to being given some not particularly interesting work to do. Then at my performance review, my manager gave me feedback about how I should work on “seeming more enthusiastic” and working on my “body language” when being assigned things.

    Despite being given this feedback, I find it impossible to put into practice in face to face conversations: I’m not that good of a liar. In an email, though, sure, I can make it sound like I’m at least willing to do it.

    1. allathian*

      Your manager sucks. Sure, I’ll do what’s asked of me to the best of my ability even if I hate a particular task I can’t get out of doing, but don’t tell me how I should react to that. This obviously assuming that I don’t react negatively to every task that I’m given.

  51. you're so good at that stuff, i'd just screw it up*

    As a millennial who was once asked “are you available and interested in going to this training?” and, upon responding “yes” because I didn’t know any other answer would be acceptable, got blacklisted for attending said training and leaving the company shortly thereafter (though I had no offer at the time of the original question or the training), maybe the OP is concerned that taking on the project comes with strings that they don’t want (needing to work more hours, needing to stay with the company until it’s completed, etc.)

  52. hbc*

    OP, maybe I missed it, but I don’t see confirmation of whether you *needed* him to do this work. Are you miffed because it was meant to be an assignment and employees don’t get to decline assignments, or was it supposed to be a nice thing and you’re stunned that he isn’t accepting the favor? Or is it “inappropriate” because you think there’s a dance here where you both pretend that he’s got a choice but he really doesn’t?

    If it’s an assignment, go back and tell him it’s an assignment and he needs to have a good excuse for not doing it. If it was optional, then leave it be and don’t judge him for not going above the minimum amount of flair.

  53. anonforthis*

    My two cents: I’m a Millennial and would never say those words to my manager, even if I thought them. But I’m also kind of a doormat.

    1. anonforthis*

      BUT, I am side eyeing the LW for judging the response. You imply the opportunity is optional. If it’s optional, you don’t get to judge someone for turning it down regardless of how many hours he is working.

  54. LaFramboise*

    Thank you Allison, for the Bartley reference. I have been waiting since high school (lo these many years) to hear someone, anyone, use this phrase.

  55. Theatre Person*

    I work in the theatre industry and have some thoughts for the OP. Specifically about this line: “Is it unfair for me to think that our employees should be grateful to still be employed and therefore jumping at the chance to do literally anything?” I am an aging millennial and have been working in arts non-profit/theatre/performing arts spaces for 20 years. I also teach younger artists.

    Right now this industry is going through a major reckoning re: race/gender inequity, the “We See You” movement (, labor issues galore, etc. I think this context is important. Many artists, particularly younger artists, are dealing with a huge level of ambivalence and distrust toward various, mostly white-led arts institutions. So, for any leader/manager in this industry, I think it’s important to be aware that not everyone feels “grateful” for the employment opportunities on offer. It’s a tough industry, even in the best of times. And it’s complicated. Just talk with your employee, and I think you should approach that conversation in an open way – without judgement. You need more info. And their reasoning might not be connected to these above issues, but you won’t know until you have that conversation.

    (Sorry if anyone else already addressed this in the comments, I haven’t read through them all.)

    1. Another Theater Person*

      Agree strongly with everything you said.
      I work administratively in theater (have so for 15+ years). And the mental struggle of the past year has been rough. Do I feel lucky that I am working? absolutely. (particularly after being furloughed for months and then called back). But it’s more than that. I’m also anxious. I have survivors guilt, with so many close friends and colleagues out of work. I try really hard to see any sort of light at the end of the tunnel and until recently (the vaccine) didn’t see it at all. I love this industry, and this year has made me -and so many others that also love it- tired and sad. I just want to do/see a real live play, dang it! and not through a screen!
      As I’m sure you know OP, morale and mental state for performing arts workers is low- even for those lucky enough to still be working. And also sometimes the work seems to be just wheels spinning until we get out of this. Like- it’s frustrating how many times in the last year I’ve had to totally reverse/cancel a project I’ve worked on because things changed. (at first we were still planning things for June… then it was fall… then winter… now it seems like it’s NEXT fall.) We keep our heads up but it sucks putting work into something and having it just be erased. So, perhaps your employee is coming from that perspective. Maybe they just can’t handle one more project right now that may get cancelled. I know I feel that way.

  56. anone*

    The “is it a generational thing??” and the attitude about “gratefulness” are so offputting. If you frame something as optional, then be prepared for someone to respond, “no, thank you”. The pandemic is so overwhelming, I’m sure there are people who are grateful to have stable employment with fewer hours than usual even if it means being paid less. As a self-employed person, I have specifically cut back my own hours/# of projects I’m taking because I need to keep things manageable emotionally and physically (I don’t have family obligations but I do have depression, chronic illness, and a lot of other crap I have to cope with). I am “grateful” to have the ability and flexibility to do that. Stop making so many assumptions about your employee’s situation and that they’ll see and experience the world the same way that you do and judging them when they don’t. If you have a work assignment for someone, give it to them. If you want to know how your employees are faring in an extremely difficult time and what their needs are, ask them.

  57. Heffalump*

    There’s a passage in A Confederacy of Dunces where Lana (an abusive employer if there ever was one) tells Jones, an employee, that he should be grateful to have a job. The response is, “Ever [sic] night I’m fallin [sic] on my knee.” (The book is set in New Orleans, and Jones is an uneducated Black man who speaks dialect.)

    Ever since reading this, I’ve thought (but not said) , “Ever night I’m fallin on my knee” when an employer has said or implied that I should be grateful to have a job.

    1. T. Boone Pickens*

      Man I loved that book. I try to give it a re-read every couple years. Ignatius Reilly is an all-time literary character.

  58. Green Tea for Me*

    So my gut feeling, based on absolutely nothing but a hunch, is that he may be job searching and is thinking about what would happen if he accepted the new project and then put in his two weeks notice next month.

    LW says they would normally expect this employee to give them a reason on their own, but ‘I’m thinking of leaving the company’ isn’t a reason anyone would willingly offer up.

    Again, I have no evidence to support this, but it may be something worth considering.

  59. Random Autistic Person*

    Not necessarily saying this is what LW did, but I had a huge problem in a previous job with a manager who would repeatedly offer me “opportunities” she thought I’d be thrilled to accept, then find she was wrong and have to awkwardly explain that it wasn’t really a choice. It honestly made me more bitter about doing those things than I would have been if she’d just told me to do them in the first place. Managers, I’m begging you–if “no” is not an acceptable answer, don’t phrase your request as a question.

  60. Delta Delta*

    I’m a GenXer and I had a terrible manager who would assign tasks to me like this (and they were always tasks she didn’t want or where she had some ongoing problem or feud with someone involved): “Do you wanna *insert task here*?” This was her “gentle” way of assigning a task. Finally one day she said, ‘do you wanna _____” and I said “no. I don’t want to do that.” And she had nowhere to go with it.

    Without more information about the exchange, I wonder how the manager brought the task/project to him. If it was phrased as “do you want to?” and he answered honestly, then that’s one thing. If the manager said, “you need to do x” and he answered with “I prefer not to” it seems like the manager needs more information.

    Also, what’s up with the generational stuff? Millennials are nearly 40. Stop it.

  61. Cats and Bats Rule*

    OP, I’m chiming in with everyone who says you really need to ask him what’s up. My gut reaction is that there is some personal reason for his refusal that he doesn’t feel like he can go into because he thinks it is too personal or messy, or there is something about this places business or mission that he is strongly opposed to. Please update us if you can.

    1. Nicholas C Kiddle*

      This was my guess too. Either there’s someone at the other organisation that he has really messy personal history with or there’s something going on in his life right now that makes it harder to focus on work, and either way he feels like it would be inappropriate to go into the details because they’re so personal.

  62. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    I’ve responded as such, but only when the “cool new project” was a looming disaster. Never without actually pointing that out.

    If he’s part time/hourly, it could well be that the project doesn’t look like it’ll be worth his time to him, his hourly rate included.

  63. PlainJane*

    I don’t know. To me, this sounds like OP said, “Hey, here’s a great opportunity!” and the employee responded with, “Thanks, but no” (essentially). When when OP meant was, “This is your new assignment,” the response to which likely would not have been great excitement, but probably wouldn’t have been the same as it would be to a suggestion or an “opportunity.” I don’t think it’s generational. I’m GenX with little patience for “I’m so special, give me a trophy” Millennialism, but in this case, I tend to hear it more the way the employee seems to have. (That said, I DETEST “read my mind” management, and hate it when managers then say, “Oh, no, how could you possibly have not realized that this is an assignment!?” So…)

    1. Elmyra Duff*

      Just a friendly reminder from your local neighborhood Millennial: We never asked for trophies. Also, we’re like 40 years old now.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Can confirm, parent of two younger millennials, neither one ever wanted trophies. Weren’t those for the parents, so they could brag to one another how high-achieving their kids are?

        1. A*

          Yup! And the false assumption that everyone needed one in order to be inclusive / so the kiddos won’t be upset. I can’t recall a single time when I was growing up (I’m a middle of the road Millennial) where kids were sad about not getting a trophy or ribbon or something. I do however have multiple memories of parents flipping out about it – including two (!) separate occasions at our local bowling alley where the cops were called because Mother A was threatening Mother B because only the winner got a trophy or some nonsense like that.

          1. EchoGirl*

            Also, in all of the instances I personally can think of that might be categorized like this, there usually was some kind of reason. For example, everyone in my brother’s soccer league got trophies at the end of the season — well, those were 6- to 10-year-olds who showed up for an entire season of practices and games, I think rewarding them for making a commitment and following through is a GOOD thing at that age. I sometimes worry that the pushback against participation awards (especially when “participation award” means “award for anything but winning” which is what often ends up happening) can seem like it’s drifting into a territory of saying that the only thing that matters is being the best or the winner and that if you’re not that, nothing you do is worthy of recognition, and, well, I don’t think that’s a lesson we want to be teaching kids either.

      2. anonforthis*

        Also not all millennials got participation trophies? I didn’t get these (just because they weren’t a thing where I was) and am confounded by this frequent reference.

        Also, if the participation trophies were for anyone, it was probably for the parents who couldn’t handle THEIR feelings about their children not always being special and first place or whatever.

      3. PlainJane*

        Also, I was mostly taking the mickey out of me–establishing my cred as a grumpy gen-X-er who is more likely to shout “get off my lawn” than side with the other side of the generational divide, before saying that no, in this case, the younger staff member is more in the right.

    2. disconnect*

      This, exactly. “How would you like to [task]” is a different question than “Here’s a new project for you, have a look and we’ll talk about it in a few days so you can get started”.

    3. Tinker*

      Look, I’m real sorry I was bad at soccer when I was 5. Can I send a check to the Townsville Youth Soccer Association for the value of one (1) six-inch chromed plastic soccer player with attached plaque suggesting that soccer happened in my vicinity plus 35 years of interest and call it good, or do I need to also make some sort of public announcement that being hit in the stomach by a soccer ball and falling over and crying does not constitute adequate performance at the game of soccer? Because I am fully willing to do these things.

  64. Tiger*

    This is really interesting to me, and I thought “oh he doesn’t understand your managing style” until you mentioned in a comment that you worked together for 5 years! Where I work, we have things (conferences, some projects) that are 100% voluntary, but might be brought up by our bosses as “this might help you grow in your career, what do you think? Do you want to?” And some things that are “hey, do this project for me/the company.” I was at first thinking this was a case of 1, confused as 2, maybe a switch in manager or misinterpretation on the tone. But if you’ve worked together this long, it seems odd to think it is voluntary… My guess is it was still a misunderstanding, and I’d advise you to go back and say something like “hey, I think we got our wires crossed. I need you to head the new llama grooming project. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. Here’s what you need to know….”

  65. Observer*

    I want to say two things about the generational question.

    Firstly, I do not think it’s a useful question, because he answer doesn’t really change anything.

    Secondly, I don’t think it is generational. I’m thinking of my kids and the younger coworkers I have. I can’t imagine any of them responding in this way. It’s not just that he doesn’t want to do the project but that he “prefers” not to do it and he didn’t bother to give you any context of reason. Advocating for yourself and drawing boundaries? Yes. Telling your boss “don’t wanna” with nothing else? No. And most people in that age group know this. And, yes, a bald “I prefer not to” is only marginally better than “don’t wanna”.

    I agree with Alison overall – Talk to him and take what you already know about him into consideration. But don’t expect “fierce loyalty”. It’s just not realistic.

    1. Lowering the Boomer*

      Hah! Hard agree about the generational difference being a potential red herring. I have a solid boomer friend for whom yes or no are preferred complete sentences; the former for answering the phone, the latter for answering emails or questions similar to OP’s. She’s crisp but effective.

  66. 33yo Millennial*

    If the project really is optional, then “Thank you, but I’d prefer not to” isn’t a weird response. I read that as polite, if a little stilted.

    If the project is actually an assignment, then it is a super weird response. I would need to know more about how OP asked/told the employee about the project.

  67. Elle by the sea*

    I laughed out loud at the Bartleby the Scrivener reference.

    Can it be the case that he is happy with the reduced work hours and OK with the lower salary because it gives him a better work-life balance? I know many people – especially ones with better earning spouses and children to take care of – who are much happier this way during the pandemic crisis.

  68. disconnect*

    OP, have you never seen Archer? Nobody else? 371 comments and not one mention? You want to talk dysfunctional management, there’s a show for you.

  69. OyHiOh*

    Relevant: Employee needs to communicate more info/ask some follow up questions but, since he won’t do that, the LW needs to initiate the follow up.

    Personal example – there are any number of “exciting opportunities” my boss forwards to me, that I could, in a pinch decline with a “I prefer not to.” He’s not quite the enthusiastic “exciting opportunities” type, but close. But here’s the thing: We’re a grant funded, quasi government organization and part of our funding is explicitly earmarked for the purposes of staff participating in events and training related to what we do. So I could plausibly turn down some or all of the opportunities that come my way, but over time, that would not be a good look for my role in the org. It happens that I’ve discovered I really enjoy the work my org does, so in the interest of rationing my hours and energy, whenever I get an exciting training/participation opportunity, I go back to my boss and ask how relevant this particular opportunity is to either what I do this minute, or the way he sees my role developing over the next year. Sometimes, it’s something that he sent out to all staff, that’s not really necessary for me. The ones he says are relevant and/or necessary to the development of my role, I go ahead and do.

  70. AnotherLibrarian*

    I think one other thing to consider (and forgive me if this has already been addressed) is that you are also asking Bartleby (as I shall call your worker) to take on more hours. In your mind, as the manager, the idea of more hours is a good thing. It means more money. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing in Bartleby’s mind. Before offering someone more hours, it’s important to make sure you know if they want more hours. I have two staff to work for me part time. One is always interested in more hours. The other never wants more hours. I think both framing and further communication here are critical. I do find this response abrupt, but I also worked in the deep South for many years where I learned that suggestions are often not really suggestions. One thing you have to get clear in your head OP, is what you would do if Bartleby genuinely doesn’t want more hours and how to address that issue.

  71. Some Lady*

    OP – I think your response is totally understandable, but needs to be put on hold till you have more information. We’re in the midst of massive instability and upheaval, and both digging in with fierce loyalty and imposing tighter boundaries are totally understandable responses. Plus, now more than ever, it’s possible that some extraordinary extra circumstances are going on in this person’s life. As Allison says, find out what the employee thought you were asking and what’s behind their reticence, and go from there!

  72. New Senior Mgr*

    Ha! Would love to use that phrase almost every single day. I’ve had to push back on leadership adding every new training and pilot under the sun these past few months. It’s too much for my team who are working almost nonstop for 8 hours straight minus two 10 min breaks and half hour lunch.

    Best suggestion for OP: Look at him through the lens you used prior to the pandemic, ask what’s going on with him, and go from there.

    I am loyal to my company but I’m close to 6 figures in, little stress, and a lot of capital. Some of my newer team, part time employees, are hourly and a few dollars above $15 min wage. I don’t expect, and would give side eye to anyone expecting, them to do a jig for the company. Sometimes they just need a check. Period. Point blank.

    Sounds like he’s found a way to adjust to the limited hours and don’t want or need the extra headache that may come along with new gig.

  73. Sprinty McJira*

    Am either a young Millenial or older Gen Z and agree the response is weird but not rude. I would typically respond to such a question with “Don’t have the bandwidth atm, prioritizing [xyz]. Happy to support if you’re okay with a +2wk slip on [xyz] though.”

  74. Heffalump, Indeed*

    I (young GenX) had a very similar experience with someone I supervise (Millennial) who was full time with benefits at our nonprofit and had been “accomplishing” a lot less than 40 hours/week of work. I was getting pressure to have them show more results for their time, along with specific suggestions of projects they could do that fit well within the scope of their job. It was a hard balancing act to respect that 2020 was a terrible year and a lot to take on mentally, and everyone knowing that staffer was having a particularly hard time functioning on any level, and yet we were paying for a full time person and getting less than a half-time result. On multiple occasions the staffer responded to requests or even direct assignments with, “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” or “I’d prefer not to do that.” and they just wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t decide what to do next and had no power to allow that or to require action.
    We went through remediation, PIP, and ongoing pressure from all directions until the staffer finally decided they just couldn’t function in that role. I feel for them, and I hope they can work on their personal needs and succeed – but I’m also a bit relieved to have a chance at a higher functioning person in that role.

    1. anone*

      That’s actually a very different scenario from this one. You were paying someone for work they weren’t doing, which is clearly a big issue. In this LW’s scenario, they asked someone to do additional work for additional pay and got turned down. It also sounds like you were communicating quite directly (a PIP is obvious!), whereas this LW seems to have presented something as an optional opportunity when it was actually intended to be a non-negotiable work assignment. That completely changes the context of, “I would prefer not to”.

    2. Mal*

      This is nearly opposite. You had a full-time employee, OP’s employee is part-time hourly. OP’s employee declined optional work or at least phrased as such, your employee refused assigned duties.

  75. Tinker*

    One thing that strikes me here: “I would prefer not to”, while it’s certainly leaning in the direction of a ‘no’ and the addition of “thank you for thinking of me” (which is a part of formulas for declining an invitation) makes it read more strongly that way, it’s not actually a ‘no’. Literally, it is a statement that it’s not to this person’s preference. I don’t mean to rest on technicalities here, but that’s both a valid response and one that is sometimes relevant to voice — that if you’re asking what is preferable, this thing is not.

    Corollary to that is that if it’s inconvenient for the person not to do the thing, it’s perfectly valid to say that and ask them if they can do the thing anyway — either in the “oh, well, I wasn’t really asking” sense, which is making a choice about how to present oneself but isn’t necessarily beyond the pale, or in the course of a legitimate dialogue about how to prioritize the thing.

  76. RulingWalnut*

    Just adding that I’m 29 and I’ve absolutely said “I would prefer not to” to my bosses multiple times. Admittedly I work in tech which is more lax but if you have a decent relationship with your boss you should be able to talk to them as a human to a human not as a servant to a master.

  77. LizM*

    Something I learned as a parent, but applies in the workforce too, is don’t word something as a yes/no question if “no” is not an acceptable answer.

    Sometimes my boss will send me something and ask if I’m interested. I’m usually not as terse as OP’s employee, but I have responded that I’d rather not be assigned something, but if he needs me to do, I can.

    “Are you interested?” is a very different statement than, “Here is a new project I need you to work on, let’s talk about how this fits in with your existing workload.” Not everyone is going to be excited about every aspect of their job, which is fine, as long as they’re doing the work you need them to do.

    1. LizM*

      FWIW, I’m on the older end of millennials (born in 1984), and I’m not shocked by his response. That said, I think I saw in one of Alison’s comments that OP is a woman and her report is a man. I think the disconnect may be more gender related than age. Since becoming a supervisor, I’ve had to train myself to not couch work assignments as requests for favors, and be more direct. I don’t know if that’s what’s happening here, but if it was worded as a great opportunity for the employee (which is possible, based on the tone of OP’s letter), without making it clear that the organization actually needs the work done, and OP needs her report to do it, it’s possible he thought it was a development opportunity for him, and that it’d be okay to pass.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, especially in these pandemic times. Many people simply don’t have the spoons to do anything that isn’t strictly mandatory at work. Even if continuous development is a popular trend, reasonable employers will realize that for many employees, just doing what’s absolutely critical is all that they can do at the moment.

  78. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    It should not take more time than he has available, and of course would all be on the clock and paid.

    In the first 6 months, we paid part-timers up to their schedule, though we are now just paying for time worked

    So I assume what’s happened is he used to (in pre-pandemic times) have a steady 25 hours a week of work, and then it understandably dropped off and was paid for the full 25 hours for 6 months but then this came to an end and so now he is actually working and being paid for 17 hours a week.

    I think your trouble here is in assuming that the “time he has available” i.e. the difference between the 17 hours a week and the 25 hours he had previously… you aren’t paying him for it but you have ‘dibs’ over it anyway.. you seem to be assuming the other opportunity could be done in the ‘missing’ 8 hrs a week, and that he’s just kicking around at home looking for something to fill those now empty hours, and of course ought to jump at this opportunity… but in reality even a 25 hour a week job isn’t enough to pay the bills so no doubt he has to seek out income elsewhere… and in some sense if you are paying for hours worked rather than a contract of 25 hours I don’t know what else you expected..! He has probably picked up more hours elsewhere by now, hopefully in a place where they have their feet on the ground :-)

    Is it genuinely an opportunity in that it will give him anything new, any avenues for growth, new experiences? Or just more of the same stuff?

    I think if I were in his position I’d be making the most I could of things I could put on my resume… so probably your only hope here is to appeal to his sense of “something to put on the resume” and see somehow that he sees it through. But I wouldn’t blame him for not falling for it.

    1. LizM*

      This is a good point. Or it may be that he likes working 8 less hours a week and realizes that’s enough pay to get by. It may be worth discussing whether you have an expectation that he’ll be available for 25 hrs. per week when there is 25 hours of work to do, or whether it’s okay for him to only work 20 hours a week.

      My home life is going sideways right now with virtual schooling, and I would gladly take a pay cut if my workload also decreased proportionally.

  79. deepseamysteries*

    I’ve said “I would prefer not to” to my boss verbatim, and this letter was similar enough to their reaction to it that were it not for the industry details I’d be wondering if my boss had written in (and then wondering if they’d absorbed any of Allison’s advice, since they’re an awful manager). A couple potentially relevant details:

    – I’m 32, female and autistic. I do not speak Office very well. I am learning, though I hate it, and it isn’t even my second instinct when confronted with someone speaking Office to me. I’ll get there eventually, but it’s probably not ever going to be something I innately do. I’ve been told before I come across quite short in emails, though that’s not my intention–I just figure if you want an answer, you want an answer asap.

    – When presented with something optional, I definitely tend to respond with my genuine preference, which is what this person seems to have done. At this point I generally explain myself, but have learned that any explanation is an invitation for someone (my boss) to talk to me out of my preference and keep that in mind when I do. If I genuinely don’t want to do something or can’t, I’ll respond as this person did, with a flat “prefer not to” and no explanation.

    – If a task is presented as non-optional and I don’t want to do it, I’d respond with “I’d really prefer not to do that for x, y z reason–is there a way to we can change the task/reassign the task/etc.” Sometimes the answer is no, but when I manage I always, always would rather know if one of my direct reports didn’t want to do something, if for no other reason than that sometimes signals they aren’t a fit for the position. I extend to my managers the same courtesy. This does sometimes put me at odds with managers who are of the “you ought to be grateful for your job” variety, but as that’s a hugely off-putting attitude IMO, it means I’m better off knowing that and moving on ASAP.

    You’ve said in other replies that your employee is an artist. Is it possible they don’t have any particular ambitions with this job, and would rather tasks like this go to someone who does? I’ve passed on tasks before when they’ve been something better suited for someone who actually cares about moving up in the company: I don’t, and see my job as a job and nothing more. I know some of my coworkers do have ambitions and ideas for the company’s future, and I’d rather them take on those tasks that would help them get there.

  80. 40 Years in the Nonprofit Trenches*

    Working in non-profit all my life, including a long stint in the arts, I would have read it as a joke and my response would have run along the lines of “LOL — but seriously, we both know you have the time and talent to do this and frankly I think it’s a pretty cool project, so why are you going all Bartleby on me? Let’s talk.”

  81. Obligatory Scrivener Joke Name*

    Honestly for that terse of an answer I do wonder if Alison’s point about the employee not getting along with someone at the partner company. I once had a direct report answer like this about working with a third party consultant; when pressed, she revealed that a member of the consulting team had physically assaulted her while drunk at a convention, never apologized, then sent her several abusive messages via Facebook, and she didn’t want to work with her in any capacity (understandably)! Also, since the employee is only being paid for clocked hours now (if I read that correctly) he might’ve sought other work to help with bills/etc.

  82. :/*

    as a no-longer-employed-in-the-performing-arts young millennial, this sounds like a completely reasonable response. op says they sent a cool opportunity his way, and if that’s how they phrased it, then I would have taken it as ‘hey do you want this optional extra responsibility, in a time when you’re underemployed but also horribly overstressed?’ personally I would have seen ‘cool opportunity’ as a genuinely optional thing, and I also wouldn’t feel that it would be my obligation to explain my reasoning, nor would I consider that an appropriate expectation on my employer’s part. I would read it as ‘hey here’s another part-time job you could pick up,’ not ‘hey this is going on your task list.’ No offense to OP, but I would love to know the exact wording because ‘a cool opportunity’ extremely does not equal ‘a job I’m assigning you,’ and in fact ‘here’s a cool opportunity, since I know you’re underemployed’ feels like a huge overstep.

    also ‘the only thing i can think is that there’s some conflict’ yeah, you know how small this industry is, the odds that he has an ex or ex-friend there, or that given the rampant abusive work culture in the performing arts he’s heard of/previously experienced a horrific work environment? Pretty high! and definitely not something I personally would consider appropriate or necessary to tell my employer! frankly (in this fully hypothetical situation) I would consider it most professional to say ‘for reasons I do not wish to disclose, I would prefer not to,’ then second-most professional to say ‘I would prefer not to,’ and actively unprofessional to say ‘I would prefer not to because I hate working for them/my ex is their lighting designer/my current partner runs their marketing department.’

  83. Theater Pro*

    I’m commenting because this Millennial employee could very well be me or one of my coworkers.

    I work in a mid-sized professional theater and watched about a quarter of my coworkers get laid off, another quarter leave for more stable work, and the remaining become shells of their former selves. Like OP’s staff, I have been asked and have stoically taken on different roles in my company because 1) they need me and 2) I needed them for the paycheck. I learned how to work in a restaurant, how to do technical back-end website work, plus continue my own role in a smaller capacity. And let me tell you something- it’s ALL miserable. Dealing with the increasingly terrible public, having to manage up and down and figure things out on my own, the part that made me enjoy work (the whole theater thing)- gone, reckoning with the ongoing PANDEMIC, it’s downright miserable. And all my former coworkers who I considered closer friends are not even there to commiserate with. Can’t even go to a bar to blow off steam! So the response “I prefer not too” might be from an employee who needs a break from trying something new, an employee who is not having a a great time working for a theater not doing theater, and probably an employee that needs checking in on.

    I know we are supposed to be thankful to even have jobs, but we are dealing with the same pandemic you are. It’s not sunshine and wonderfulness just because we’re getting cut a paycheck.

  84. M*

    Ugh the idea that employees should be grateful to their employer for employing them is so gross and explotative. If i’m working for a company it’s because my skillset makes them money, not because they’re doing me a favor.

  85. Aisling*

    As Alison had said, the best way to go forward is to ask him why he is refusing the work.

    With the pandemic, it may not necessarily be a workload issue. Perhaps he is struggling with mental health issues at the moment or he needs the time off for personal reasons that he does not feel comfortable to discuss. Of course, he could simply be someone who doesn’t pull his weight.

    I am someone who struggles with setting boundaries, but I always have a valid reason about why I cannot take on more work. Usually it’s related to workload or if something is outside my scope of knowledge and not easy to be trained for. However, this does not seem to be the case here.

    If he reports to a different manager or multiple managers, it is possible that he has recently been assigned something urgent by someone else, which means that he would not have time to complete your project.

    It’s best to have an informal chat with him to find out his reasons before you make a decision.

  86. The Other Dawn*

    It seems like the project was truly optional based on OP’s comments. “I prefer not to” would be fine IF the person went further to say, “and this is WHY I prefer not to.” OP should have asked follow-up questions. It probably would have prevented some of her frustration. I know I’d be frustrated if I asked someone about taking on a project and all they said was, “I prefer not to.” OK, but why?

  87. RagingADHD*

    So you have an extremely part time employee that you offered more hours to, and he politely declined.

    That’s…normal, actually.

    Surely you don’t think that someone who works for you 17 hours a week owes you an accounting of the rest of his time? Or owes you anything other than 17 hours of honest work.

    Why would you think less of him? Just because he’s done certain types of projects in the past, doesn’t mean that’s what he wants to keep doing.

    It kind of sounds like you’re saying, “My underemployed worker isn’t desperate enough to take any project I may hand out! How dare he not be clamoring for more work!”

  88. ele4phant*

    Hmm, as an older millennial that manages younger millennials/gen Zers, I often do make it a habit, when possible, to direct work to people I think they will find interesting. Sometimes people just have to get work done and I need to assign it, but I definitely try to find opportunities to pair work with interests. And I also don’t mind if people advocate when something isn’t necessarily their bag (and, I do the same myself on occasion). Sometimes the answers has to be “Sorry, I need someone to work on this and I need it to be you”. I also try my best to be clear from the outset when something isn’t an opportunity I think they’d be interested in but could decline, and rather a direct request I need them to do regardless of their personal interest.

    So, my reaction is that this isn’t a galling offense. He needs to learn to give the why – “I’d prefer not to work on this because I’m X, if that’s okay with you.”

    But that’s more a minor conversation about communicating than a major concern. And likewise, you should evaluate yourself how your request might have been perceived – did you seem to give the impression that this was something he had the discretion to take?

  89. Jessi*

    Maybe this is a generational thing, because I’m an older millennial and while I would have softened that phrasing it absolutely seems reasonable to me.

    There are a ton of reasons I can think of why he would have turned down this project. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and lots of people are struggling with mental health even if they’re not open about it with their bosses. He could have other side work going on that he needs time for, or he could be using this time to think about a switch to another field.

    In my mind, there’s a distinct difference between saying “no thank you” to a request to work on a project within the scope of his job vs something external. If he had responded that way to a suggestion for a project within his current role/company, that would be completely inappropriate. But I don’t think he should have to provide a reason for turning down an outside opportunity when that reason could very well be “I’m struggling with depression or a hard personal situation or am considering a change in career” — all things that, when admitted, could put his current job in jeopardy.

    1. Alice*

      And he didn’t even say “no thank you”!
      “I’d prefer not to” definitely leaves the door open for OP to say, “OK, but for our department you are the best choice, so let’s talk about how you can fit it in to your schedule.”
      OP, is it possible that part of your reaction might subconsciously be that it’s awkward to say, “When I asked if you wanted to do X, I actually mean that you need to do X”?

  90. In my shell*

    Alison wrote, “Being grateful for employment in an industry that’s facing massive cuts is one thing, but being grateful to a specific employer is a different thing… but don’t fall in the trap of expecting employees to be grateful to the organization itself.” and “– Is it symptomatic of a larger disconnect because you feel fiercely loyal right now, given the disruption to your industry?”

    OHMYGOD. There it is! My heavy, nagging frustration that I haven’t been able to articulate or explain for let’s see… 11 months. I’ve wanted to just burst out with “what is wrong with you people?? do you know how lucky we are that we’re all still employed with no layoffs, eliminations, or benefit cuts?? do you understand how hard I am working to make that happen?”

    I’ve read this post three times and the whole AAM reply here is like being slapped in the face and brought out of my frustrated fog. Hard to not say eef it.

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